Last week fourth grade students at John Muir Elementary and I talked about the story Frederick by Leo Lionni. (I have written about this story in a previous post.) We began talking about why it’s important to Frederick to collect words and colors, as opposed to foraging for the food the family will need for the winter. What is important to Frederick about poetry?

One student suggested that to Frederick, “poems are like keys to the universe.” “Maybe,” the student reflected, “Frederick thinks that he wouldn’t survive without poems, the same way his family is worried they won’t survive without food.”

Several students wanted to know why Frederick couldn’t gather food as well as work on his poems, and most wanted to say that if Frederick didn’t help collect food he wasn’t entitled to an equal share of the food. Others disagreed.

“Okay,” I said. “Let’s say you were on a desert island with a couple of family members, and you were really worried about having enough food to make it through the winter. All of you went about looking for and storing food, except one of your cousins, who was working on a story that she would be able to tell you when you were holed up for the winter. Would that be okay with you?”

“No,” one student said, “because food makes me happier than a story.”

“I’d say fine,” responded another student. “But she wouldn’t be entitled to any of the food.”

Most students seemed to agree with this.

“What if your cousin was J.K. Rowling, and was writing a new Harry Potter story?” I asked. “Would that make a difference?”

Many of the students contended that then the contribution of writing a story would be more valuable and perhaps as valuable a contribution as collecting food, although, as one student put it, “You wouldn’t know for sure that the story was going to be good, in the way you would know that the food would be.”

We discussed the way in which Frederick’s poetry helps the family when they are cold and hungry. I asked the students whether they read much poetry, and most of them said they never did. I told them that I guessed they all knew a lot of poetry, and asked them to recite some of their favorite song lyrics. There were of course immediate responses from many of the students, reciting lyric after lyric. We then talked about what music meant to them and why they liked it. Was it as important as food?

This led to a robust conversation about what you would choose if you had to give up either music or food (but not water) for a couple of days. The students were quite divided about what they could more easily do without, and we talked about the different ways we are nourished in our lives. Are emotional, aesthetic and intellectual forms of nourishment as important as physical nourishment?

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