Yesterday my brother and his wife welcomed their sixth child and my parents’ 20th grandchild into the world. I’m the mother of four of those 20 grandchildren, which makes me an aunt to 16 smallish people. I love being an aunt! Compared to parenthood, it’s a trip to Disneyland. As the oldest of five children, I feel it’s my sacred duty to recount to my nieces and nephews all the hairy details of their parents’ early years. I might embellish a bit from time to time, but it’s mostly all true.
I’m still learning how to be a teacher, but I’ve been a parent for almost 18 years now (how time does fly when you’re having fun!). In thinking about families and teaching, it occurs to me that families are a child’s first teachers and home her first school. The instructional methods vary widely; there’s no prior-year CRT or curriculum map for a kindergarten teacher to review. Nevertheless, children learn a great deal from their families, and a smart teacher is mindful of the many ways students’ family backgrounds affect an individual student’s educational outcomes and, in a broader sense, the classroom dynamic.
The summer is fast winding down to a close, and that means it’s time for family reunions. In fact, I’m scheduled to attend one next week. I’m looking forward to watermelon, green grass, delicious salads, sticky children, and clusters of chatty grownups.
Thinking about the reunion reminded me of one of my favorite children’s books! I read this book for the first time about five years ago, when it came in a group of Newbery-award-winning books I had purchased through school book orders. It’s called The Relatives Came, and it was written by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Stephen Gammell.
I don’t think it’s the kind of book I would ever have picked up on my own, but the first time I read it to my children, I knew it meant something special to me. The story, told from the perspective of a first-person omniscient narrator, begins by detailing the narrator’s relatives’ long trip from Virginia to visit. The joy experienced by each member of this extended family as they see and greet and love each other again is plainly evident through the pictures and the words.
I can envision this book used as the anchor text for a first-week-of-school lesson plan for language arts. First, ask students if they have ever attended a family reunion, especially during the previous summer. Invite several students to share their experiences. Next, play this YouTube video for your students–it’s a read-aloud of The Relatives Came. Ask the students how the relatives felt about each other and what words the author used to communicate those feelings.
Next, have the class participate in a graffiti shared-writing experience; you might have different writing spots where students share what family reunions look like, smell like, and feel like. Then assign the students to write about a family reunion they have attended using as many descriptive details and words as they can. Ask them to include a “family picture” that would have been taken at the reunion.
Once the students have completed the assignment, don’t forget to allow a few students to share their stories and artwork with the class, and while they do, emphasize that everyone’s family is different and special because of its unique ways. This lesson is especially effective at the beginning of the school year because some students experience new-school-year jitters, and thinking about their families can bring feelings of comfort and security. Moreover, our students’ families play a dramatic role in shaping their identities, and when we honor their families, we demonstrate that our classrooms are safe places for our students to learn and grow.
More books for celebrating extended families: