A Place to Start a Family: Poems About Creatures That Build
Written by David L. Harrison and Illustrated by Giles Laroche
Published by Charlesbridge in 2018
Underground, on land, on water, and in the air: animals build shelter for themselves and their offspring. In their latest collaboration author David L. Harrison and illustrator Giles Laroche offer a poetic exploration of the constructions made by dozen different animals. The poems are organized by location into four sections. Each featured animal is afforded a double page spread. Using his signature style of collage and 3D construction, Laroche offers realistic portraits of the animal homes and habitats. Harrison’s poems employ a variety of rhyme schemes and offer lively descriptions of construction methods. Each also explains how the shelters support survival of the species, for example the poem featuring the White-Spotted Pufferfish: “Tiny sculptor / thinks grand / builds a nest / out of sand / forty times / his own size, / trying to/ attract a prize.” The book includes back matter, including expository text that provides further information on each of the animals, additional titles, and a concluding poem about a unique builder – the sun coral. This engaging title has many uses in the classroom as a mentor text for nonfiction poetry and in science units on animal life, adaptation, and parent offspring relationships.
Teaching Ideas: Invitations for your Classroom
More About Animal Builders. During a second reading of A Place to Start a Family, keep a running list on chart paper of the animals and their construction techniques. Use survey texts, online resources, and additional books that explore animal building techniques to learn more about the construction processes of these animals. Expand your study to include additional animals found in the different ecosystems featured in the book. Older students can explore how animal builders have adapted to their environment, maximizing their chances of survival.
Duet Model Reading with Welcome to the Neighborwood. Pair A Place to Start a Family with Shawn Sheehy’s remarkable pop up book Welcome to the Neighborwood. which features different animal constructions in the same habitat. Compare and contrast these different books about animal builders. Both books employ 3D construction methods in their illustrations. Offer students time and materials to illustrate an animal home of their choosing in three dimensions using collage or pop-up techniques. Combine these into a class book or display on a table or bulletin board.
Animal Caretakers. Read A Place to Start a Family with an eye for the information that it provides about how animals care for their young. Create an anchor chart to record students’ observations about similarities and differences in how animals care for their young. Consult with your school or local public librarian to bring in additional texts that focus on animals as caregivers. If possible, invite a local naturalist to visit your classroom to talk about the animals in your area.
Animal Rhymes. Author David Harrison uses a variety of rhyme schemes in the collection of poems he has composed for A Place to Start a Family. Younger students can explore these rhymes by identifying the rhyming pairs (or trios, etc) and older students can map the rhyme schemes. As an extension, invite students to play with rhymes by selecting an animal, listing words that they associate with the animal and then brainstorming words that rhyme with those. The next step is to compose a rhyming poem!
Animal Poems as Mentor Texts. Gather together a text set of animal poems (use the listing in Further Explorations as a starting point and consult with your school or local public librarian to identify additional titles). Browse the titles together to locate several different poems about the same animal. Read across the poems noticing which aspects of the animals appearance, behaviors, characteristics, and habitats are emphasized (read the poems to compare the information that each offers). Next, reread the poems and compare them stylistically. Which poetic form has the author used? How does the language style related to the featured animal? What other stylistic similarities and differences do your students notice? Finally, invite your students to compose original poems about the animal, working individually or in small groups. Share the poems through performance art, inviting your students to add motion to enact the movement described in the poems.
Habitat Study. A Place to Start a Family is organized in sections that feature different locations that animals build their homes: underground, on the land, in the water, and in the air. Select a habitat within walking distance of your school, such as a park, urban garden, pond, field, or woods. Work with a naturalists to study the animal life in this habitat, learning about the animals that live on the land, in the water (pond, wetland, puddle, fountain), and in the air. Divide students into small groups based on these 4 areas of the habitat and have them conduct further research on these animals. Decide how groups will share their finding with each other and what product they might make to demonstrate their learning. They might compose poems like David L. Harrison’s or they could write expository text such as that found in the back matter.
Building Materials and Methods. A Place to Start a Family could also be used as a resource in a unit of study of construction methods. Used in a text set that explores construction materials and methods, this title invites students to compare animal and human architecture. You might begin the comparison with a conversation about function: For what reasons do animals build structures? For what reasons do humans build structures? Expand your exploration with books and online resources, for example, picture book biographies such as Building on Nature: The Life of Antoni Gaudi, The World is Not a Rectangle: A Portrait of Architect Zaha Hadid, and Fallingwater; or the wonderful poetry collection celebrating child and adult builders, Dreaming Up; or the detailed look at house construction in Building Our House.
Makerspace: Building a Shelter. As a culmination to the look at the methods and materials on animal and human builders described in the teaching invitation above, ask students to design and build a prototype for a home / shelter. Gather a collection of recycled materials of different shapes, sizes, and textures. Set up a Makerspace center in your classroom and invite students to construct models of different kinds of shelters. Students may want to mimic one of the animals homes described in A Place to Start a Family or develop an original construction.
Nonfiction Poetry Text Set. Gather a collection of nonfiction poetry books to explore the different artistic techniques and poetic forms used to explore nonfiction content. Discuss how the authors of these poems use language, form, and shape to convey factual information about our world. Use the nonfiction poetry books on our blog as a starting point while you gather a collection, including . After students have had plenty of time to read and discuss the poems in this text set, you could either invite them to compose nonfiction poems of their own (perhaps in connection with a science or social studies unit of study) or invite them to create anthologies, by curating, copying, and illustrating favorite poems across the books into a personal collection.
Nature Observation and Poetry Composition. Author David L. Harrison is inspired to write poems by his observations of nature around him. Read his collection: Now You See Them, Now You Don’t: Poems About Creatures that hide. Encourage your students to get out into nature to observe animals in their natural habitat. Provide students with a field journal and ask them to draw and write what they notice in nature. After several observations, students may have enough material to begin to draft nature poems. Guide students to revise and illustrate their poems to be shared with a wider audience. For additional inspiration, please see our Classroom Bookshelf entry on Nicola Davies’s wonderful collection, Outside Your Window: A First Book of Nature.
Harshman, M. (2017). Fallingwater. Ill. by L. Pham. New York: Roaring Brook Press.
Rodriguez, R. (2009). Building on nature: The life of Antoni Gaudi. Ill. by J. Paschkis. New York: Henry Holt.
Winter, J. (2017). The world is not a rectangle: A portrait of architect Zaha Hadid. New York: Beach Lane Books.
Animal Poetry Books
Florian, D. (2004). Omnibeasts: Animal Poems and Paintings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Gottfried, M. (2010). Our farm: By the animals of Farm Sanctuary: Poems. Ill. by R. Zakanitch. New York: Knopf.
Harrison, D.L. (2016). Now you see them, now you don’t: Poems about creatures that hide. Cambridge, MA: Charlesbridge.
Larios, J.F. (2006). Yellow elephant: A bright bestiary. Ill. by J. Paschkis. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Worth, V. (2007). Animal poems. Ill. by S. Jenkins. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux.
About Erika Thulin Dawes
Erika is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former classroom teacher, reading specialist, and literacy supervisor, she now teaches courses in children’s literature, early literacy, and literacy methods. Erika is the co-author of Learning to Write with Purpose, Teaching with Text Sets, and Teaching to Complexity.
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