The Answers to Life’s Questions

I love this book… for its artwork, its touching story, and the pondering of life’s great questions it leads its readers to.

The Three Questions written and illustrated by Jon Muth is based on a story by Leo Tolstoy. You can see his original version here.

Whether used for an interactive whole-class read-aloud or as the focus of an inquiry in small-group sessions, the three questions presented and pondered by the main character Nikolai will provide plenty of food for thought and possibly lead to some great debates.

As you and your students discuss the story and the answers Nikolai is looking for, make sure to utilize the illustrations and the insight and power they bring to the text.

Using a chart (see Three Questions worksheets) will further help your students visualize Nikolai’s debate and the truth that the answers to these questions are ever changing as we continue through life. The second page of the worksheets could be used during group discussions. Prep for this activity by copying some of the key illustrations from the text. Then have students identify the pictures that best answer Nikolai’s questions.

For example, a copy of the picture of the pandas below could be cut out and used to answer “Who is the most important?”

But as Leo the wise turtle tells Nikolai, there were other most important people and times and things to do that led Nikolai to be ready and available to help out the pandas when they were in need.

As you change out the pictures during your discussion (or create multiple charts), your students will begin to realize the deeper meanings of the story: Each moment of our life is important and so is each person that we spend time with along the way. Making the most of every opportunity to do good to those by our side is always the right thing to do. The answers to life’s questions come with seizing the day (moment by moment) and acting with others’ best interests in mind.

To help students further connect to these truths, use the first worksheet (see Three Questions worksheets) and have them identify and illustrate the answers to these questions from situations in their own lives.

Do you have a favorite activity you use with this story or another text that illustrates these truths?

Here are some of mine:

Why can’t we all just get along?

While there is no easy answer to that question and the reasons for bullying, school violence, and petty differences are many, I have found a powerful resource to use as a discussion starter with my students.

Nora the Nonapus, written and illustrated by fifth-grade students of Estes Hills Elementary in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, provides some unique insights into feelings: the insecurities and embarrassment that often come from being “different,” how bullying hurts others, and the bravery it takes to stand up and do what is right.

The fact that this story is written and illustrated by elementary students makes it all the more powerful.

Looking for more information and activities about bullying prevention? Visit this site.

What’s in a Name? (part 2)

So many good books on this topic…

The Name Jar, by Yangsook Choi

My Name is Yoon, by Helen Recorvits

Chrysanthemum, by Kevin Henkes

Three Names of Me, by Mary Cummings

Andy That’s My Name, by Tomie dePaola

These could be used in conjunction with the art project I shared in yesterday’s post, be part of an exploratory unit for a small-group session, or be the focus of some great discussion-starting interactive read-alouds.

And for more information and ways to use names as learning moments in the classroom, check these out:

The Name Game, by Donna M. Jackson

Using Name Walls to Teach Reading and Writing: Dozens of Classroom-Tested Ideas for Using This Motivating Tool to Teach Phonological Awareness, Letter Recognition, Decoding, Spelling, and More, by Janiel Wagstaff

Visual Literacy in Action: What’s in a Name?

Our names, like our faces,  can reveal a lot about us. The following is an activity that I loved to do with my class each year as they were getting to know each other.

It is easily adaptable: older students can have fun exploring script and various types of bubble letters while younger students can be supplied with their names already written (and possibly cut).

It is a great discussion starter as students brainstorm and use their creative juices to illustrate themselves in a unique way.

This activity also creates an amazing visual display for those first few weeks in the classroom.

Supplies: sheets of white paper and black construction paper for each student, pencils, various colors of construction paper (scraps work well), scissors, and glue


  • Step 1: Fold white sheet of paper in half (long way).
  • Step 2: Write name along folded edge, making sure that the letters touch the edge of the paper. This can be tricky for people with names that include letters which fall below the line (such as g, j, y). Students may choose to use capital letters or find other creative solutions if this is the case. I encourage my students to play around with lettering (script, bubble letters, etc.) until they find a style that suits them.

  • Step 3: Cut out name and unfold paper to reveal the mirrored design.

  • Step 4: Brainstorm a list of your likes, talents, hobbies, etc. (things that could help someone get to know you better).
  • Step 5: Lay your name cut-out on the black sheet of construction paper and look at it from different angles (right-side up, upside-down, sideways).  Use your creative eye. What do you see? How could you use your name to illustrate one of the items or activities from your brainstorming in step 4?
  • Step 6: Using your name cut-out and construction paper, create a picture of something that will help others get to know you better.
  • Step 7: After playing around with the placement and deciding on your final design, glue your name and other picture components onto the sheet of black construction paper.

Sharing our Similarities and Celebrating our Differences

While it is easy to see how things like hair, eye, and skin color; height; age; and interests can both group us as well as distinguish us from each other, there are other “differences” that often cause people to feel uncomfortable and sometimes lead to alienation. These differences can come in the form of a disability (learning or physical), a difficult or different family background/situation, or any other type of behavior or outlook on life that does not fit into the accepted “norm.”

How can we help our students gain an understanding of these differences so that they do not appear so scary or odd? How can we teach our students to accept each other for who they are? How can we acknowledge both the similarities and the differences present in our classroom and illustrate the value that these bring to our community of learners?

I have often used an adaptation of this “Good Apples” Lesson Plan in my classroom. It presents students with some striking visuals about first impressions, incorrect assumptions we often make about others, and the importance of believing (and seeing) that it is both our similarities as well as our differences that bring value to our community.

The following texts can also be great discussion starters as you explore similarities and differences with your class:

Arthur’s Eyes, by Marc Brown

Crow Boy, by Taro Yashima

Eggbert: The Slightly Cracked Egg, by Tom Ross

I Am Utterly Unique: Celebrating the Strengths of Children with Asperger Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism, by Elaine Marie Larson

Understanding Sam and Asperger Syndrome, by Clarabelle van Niekerk

In Jesse’s Shoes, by Beverly Lewis

Leo the Late Bloomer, by Robert Kraus

The Cow That Went OINK, by Bernard Most

* Blog title taken from M. Scott Peck’s quote: “Share our similarities, celebrate our differences.”

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There’s nothing a little PB&J can’t fix…

One of the books I like to use to help my students focus on the idea of community is The Giant Jam Sandwich by John Vernon Lord. This story cleverly illustrates the fact that it takes the talents and resources of everyone working together to solve the villagers’ problem.

Now we may not need Bap the Baker’s bread recipe, Farmer Seed’s field, fifty cookers, or flying tractors in our classrooms  🙂 , but our learning communities are certainly enhanced when our students are willing to share their talents and resources and work together toward common goals.

Other stories that illustrate the value of friendship and community (no matter how uncommon they may be):

A Mama for Owen, by Marion Dane Bauer and Owen & Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship, by Isabella and Craig Hatkoff

Little Polar Bear Finds a Friend, by Hans de Beer

, by Janell Cannon

To help further illustrate this concept of commUNITY in the classroom, I have also used this “perfect fit” puzzle activity:

I originally got the idea from an old edition of the Mailbox publication. Unfortunately, all I have is the clipping scanned above, but you can find out more about this and other First Day of School Activities from Scholastic here.

What are you doing to build community in your classroom?