Thursday, March 15, 2012


My class has been overtaken by a John Henry craze.

And I wish I could explain it.

It all started about two weeks ago. With, of all things,  a test prep passage.

Now I should probably back up, at this point, and say I am not really big on test prep. In fact I do very little of it. I believe the best test prep is great reading and writing instruction. Every. single. day.

A few weeks back, however, I decided we probably should do a little test prep. Just kind of dip our toes in the genre. And there happened to be some test prep books left in a closet from a ghost of teachers past. So I got them out.

And we read a story about John Henry.

And my kids were fascinated.

They pelted me with questions. Was that story really true? Who was John Henry? Did that story really happen? Was John Henry alive when I was a little girl? Did he really beat a train? Questions and questions and questions…

And to be really honest, I didn't know all that much about John Henry. He's just never been especially high on my list of things I wonder about.

But my kids persisted. And I remembered that I had a book, AIN'T NOTHING BUT A MAN, by Scott Nelson. Nelson is a historian who has spent his life researching, of all things, John Henry. AIN'T NOTHNG BUT A MAN chronicles his search to unravel the mystery of John Henry, using songs, and post cards and old photographs and all kinds of other artifacts. I read the book a couple of years ago, when it was nominated for a CYBILS nonfiction award.  I found it fascinating, but I wasn't sure  elementary kids would follow or appreciate the historical research puzzle.

But my fourth graders definitely did. I brought AINT NOTHING BUT A MAN into school and put it in the rocking chair, intending to show the kids a few photographs, then make the book available to anyone who might be interested.

Well, it seems they were all interested. Adamant in fact. They wanted me to read it aloud. One chapter at a time. And don't miss any of the photographs or captions or sidebars. So I did. And they loved it. They are still loving it, actually. Every single day, that book makes the rounds of the classroom. And interestingly, it's my struggling readers who love this fairly difficult book most of all.

Last Friday night, I was working late, and found Julian Lester and Jerry Pinkney's Caldecott winner, JOHN HENRY in our folktale bucket. And again, I put it on the rocking chair, thinking that perhaps someone would want to read it.

Someone did. Everyone did. Or actually they wanted ME to read it. Aloud. Again. And again. . And so I read that version of JOHN HENRY aloud. And again the kids loved it. And now that one is making the rounds in our classroom. The kids are especially fascinated by an image of a rainbow that appears in many of the pictures. They have decided that the rainbow actually appears in ALL of the pictures. And they have taken a "Where's Waldo?" approach to finding the rainbow in every illustration. I'm not sure that the rainbow actually exists in every picture, or that that's what Lester and Pinkney intended, but hey, if it makes the crew happy…

John Henry has also provoked a number of writing projects. R is writing to Lester and Pinkney, to ask about the rainbow. Today, when we were talking about favorite authors, several students mentioned Jerry Pinkney, although I haven't really shared much of his work with the kids. Other kids have written about John Henry as someone they wanted to meet. Or someone who is a hero. Today J wrote a terrific little acrostic poem that really captured the essence of this character.

And me? I'm just the teacher. Sitting back watching. Fascinated by this crazy John Henry craze…


Tara @ A Teaching Life said...

I have that Lester/ Pinkney version - a classic. How funny that your kids have found this new fascination - and how like fourth graders for that interest to be so enthusiastic and complete!

Linda B said...

Carol, what a really wonderful story. You just never know when this kind of thing happens do you? It's just such an amazing thing & so much learning takes place! You are terrific to just stand back & watch, as you said.

Cindy said...

We're in the middle of a tall tales unit and John Henry was a favorite here. I checked our library system for the nonfiction book you mentioned but we don't have it. Shoot! Sounds great. Good for you - going with the interest flow.

Janiel Wagstaff said...

I love this story...just love it! It's a wonderful thing when something like this happens and, even more wonderful when a great teacher knows how to ride the wave with the kiddos! Would be great to see the student writing samples you mention.
Happy reading, writing, thinking! Yes!
Have a great weekeknd! -Janiel

Katie said...

How funny. Kids grab on to the most interesting things. Good for you for letting their passion spill into your room!