Review by Esther Klein Friedman, Ph.D., Literacy-Learning Mentor Consultant;
Retired Executive Director of Literacy and Academic Intervention, New York City Dept. of Education
Including a unit about farm animals has been a long-standing and very popular early childhood classroom practice — usually part of the content area syllabus in grades K-2. Thus, there are many teacher guides, units of study, and other resources for teaching about farm animals in these early grades. The instructional goals in these units are typically similar: learning the names of the animals, showing some illustrations or photographs, talking about jobs around the farm related to upkeep of farm animals, perhaps showing some jobs that children who live on farms might do as part of their chores. These are not units that delve very deeply or push into areas such as critical thinking, characterization, or student self-questioning. Their goal is simply to provide some basic information, not to promote higher-level reflection. It can often be a very boring unit to study, which is surprising because animals tend to be of great interest to children. So, it is refreshing to see a different sort of farm unit, one that actively promotes content acquisition and critical thinking skills, addresses social-emotional learning, adheres to the standards, offers clear guidance to teachers, and provides fun and engaging activities for children.
Exploring the Lives of Farm Animals: Lessons That Teach Compassion, developed by HEART and Farm Sanctuary, is a teacher manual that will stand above the rest in that it has taken a ubiquitous unit in the early grades and ramped it up to a level that has not been reached before. It is a physically beautiful manual with vivid photography and graphics, an easy-to-use layout, and thought-provoking content. It is a unit meant to get kids thinking, but it does so through interactive activities and a great deal of straightforward information. The lesson layouts are written in a way that will be comfortable for teachers to follow. While the guide promotes a specific perspective, it does so in ways that are transparent and easy to convey. It is unusual in that it uses research-based strategies for reading and writing, emphasizes adherence to specific standards – and calls these out – along with providing a strong focus on development of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). As mentioned, the lessons offer opportunities for children to gain explicit content knowledge, be taught explicitly, and then develop critical thinking skills through strategies such as use of concept and story maps and other graphic organizers, compare-and-contrast, teacher modeling, and teaching students to develop their own thinking and questions. We know that the building of content and background knowledge is a critical component of successful literacy, and these lessons do this in ways that make the information accessible to young children.
Among the understandings explored in the units is one that is critical: Children explore ways that animals are similar to us, but are also shown that we must value the ways in which they are different from us and from each other. Like us, they are each a unique individual. As with all of the lessons, this one is presented in ways children will find fascinating.
Given how great a role SEL plays in schools, especially in the early grades, the SEL component in the manual is invaluable. It covers elements such as decision-making, self-management, social awareness, and relationship skills. It especially focuses on building empathy. This is an area so critical from both an SEL and a literacy perspective. By inviting children to put themselves in the place of farm animals, this guide develops empathy — a crucial skill needed to live in our global society — so this learning goes way beyond the farm. It is also a skill that is needed in literacy to fully understand narrative characters and to engage in literary analysis – especially characterization — in the early grades and through college and beyond. The guide cultivates empathy in a variety of ways that provide opportunities for students to do the thinking, ask the questions, and engage in discourse. There is no preaching of any kind, just teaching.
Because this is an early-grades book, I was particularly looking for the fun factor. I found plenty of it. There is bookmaking, mask-making, a great deal of sensory exploration, learning stations, creating videos, making toys for farm animals, learning about and making some delicious foods, listening to and creating stories, producing class big books, cookbooks, and a great deal more. This manual is filled with color and colorful activities.
For the teacher, there are many resources for duplication, recommended book lists, very clearly laid-out lessons and follow-up activities, and an opportunity to transform a unit that has become typical (and often boring) into an exciting exploration of a significant facet of our lives and culture.
This is a timely resource that will find an important place in the early-grades curriculum.
Esther Klein Friedman, Ph.D., has served New York City students in a variety of educational capacities, including as executive director of literacy and academic intervention services at the New York City Department of Education; superintendent of District 3; local instructional superintendent in Region 10; principal in District 2; long-standing staff development trainer; and teacher. Her doctoral work focused on reading acquisition and remedies for students who struggle in reading. She currently consults with school districts and schools to support literacy instruction, as well as working with numerous advisory boards and advocacy groups, including the ARISE Coalition.