Learning to Listen with Heart: Teaching with New York Times 2018 Notable Picture Book “The Rabbit Listened”
Written and Illustrated by Cori Doerrfeld
Dial Books for Young Readers 2018
Taylor, dressed in blue and white striped pajamas and drawn to appear gender-neutral, is a character we root for from start to finish. When Taylor’s imaginative block tower is suddenly destroyed by several swooping crows, his animal friends all think they know how to help. First comes a chicken who wants to talk, talk, talk about it. Next comes a bear who gets angry and shouts about it. After that comes a procession of animals who all have ideas about what to do about the fallen blocks. “But Taylor didn’t feel like doing anything with anybody.” When hope starts to feel lost for Taylor, a rabbit does what many of us need when something traumatic happens–he simply listens, and when Taylor is ready, the rabbit offers a hug. Written in response to witnessing several of her friends experience difficult times, Doerrfeld has crafted a deeply poignant, unforgettable tale rooted in a childhood scenario that both children and adults can draw meaning from. Loss, grief, empathy, and many other emotions are all explored through animal characters that respond to the event in ways that are well-meaning, but, ultimately, fail to help Taylor recover. That is, until, (as the title reminds us) Rabbit listened. Named as a Notable Children’s Book of 2018 by The New York Times and a Huck Award recommended title, The Rabbit Listened is a must-have for any teacher and classroom community seeking to build a more empathetic world.
Teaching Ideas: Invitations for Your Classrooms
Listening by Asking “How Can I Help Others?” Learning to listen is hard. Learning how to help a friend is hard. Learning to recover in times of trauma is hard. Doerrfeld gently teaches readers ways to learn these complex life necessities through the range of responses each of the animals has to Taylor’s experience. Before reading aloud the book, ask students ways they try to help others when something upsetting happens. Then, after reading the book ask them if they have new ideas for ways they can help others. Rather than explicitly teaching the ways the rabbit listened, try to model simply listening to your students to see what emerges after reading the story. Refer to The Rabbit Listened all year long as a way to encourage students to ask themselves How can I help others? and How did I help others today? You may want to build this as part of your closing routine each day where students have a chance to verbally share with one another ways they helped others that day as a way to build sustained happiness as a classroom community.
Self-Literacy: Recognizing Our Own Listening Tendencies. One great gift of works of literature is that we learn more about ourselves through the reading of stories. The Rabbit Listened does not hit readers over the head with a moral but rather encourages readers to consider what happened and why rabbit’s methods helped whereas the others didn’t. After reading The Rabbit Listened, support students to recognize their own listening tendencies by creating a class chart using shared or interactive writing that documents each animal and their response to Taylor’s situation. Then have students do some self-reflection to consider which animal best represents the way they typically respond when something happens to them or to a friend. Use this as an opportunity for students to set listening goals for themselves through writing and drawing that include how they will grow in their listening and why this is important to them.
Exploring Craft Techniques. While the text itself is spare, Doerrfeld uses several craft techniques to tell Taylor’s story including repetition (“But Taylor didn’t feel like…”), transition words, characters speaking, and the use of punctuation for effect, particularly ellipses. With few words on each page, The Rabbit Listened is an ideal text for supporting students to notice and name these craft techniques and to intentionally incorporate them into their own writing. Once identified, place The Rabbit Listened in an accessible book area with pages marked with sticky notes that let students know where these craft techniques appear so they can refer to them when they need a mentor text for their own writing.
Introduction to Symbolism. While the term symbolism is academically advanced for an audience of young readers, Doerrfeld incorporates symbolism in several ways. The first is the way in which the crows are portrayed on the end papers as white outlines supporting students to think about how the crows on the endpapers are different from the black-outlined crows in the body of the book. Ask students to share their reaction to that illustration choice. Why do they think Doerrfeld drew them in this way on the endpapers? What might she be trying to tell us about “crows” in our own lives? You may even want to research with students what crows represent in different cultures–in some cultures crows represent back luck whereas in others crows are seen as a symbol of magic, mystery, life, and even intelligence. Students may also be able to discuss the ways that the tower of blocks really represents anything that may be disappointing or traumatic in our own lives. Finally, the students may also be able to discuss the ways that the animals represent things that people often do and that Doerrfeld is using animals because in a way they are more relatable for all readers. Understanding the term symbolism is far less important than having discussions that encourage complex thinking about the ways writers and illustrators encourage us to make connections about what objects and characters might represent in our own lives.
Close Reading: Illustrations that Reveal Emotions. Support students to discuss how Doerrfeld uses white space in imaginative ways. What effect does the consistent white background have across the story? How does the white background make it appear as though Taylor is really alone? There are three moments in the story where Doerrfeld uses lavender to indicate a change of emotion or a significant event. Draw students’ attention to that illustration choice. How do these choices help reveal the emotions that Taylor is experiencing. What are other ways Doerrfeld expresses emotion through her illustrations? Then, have students create their own illustrations using graphite, colored pencils, and watercolor or digital techniques (as Doerrfeld does) to portray a scene from their own lives where they really listened or felt that others listened to them. Encourage them to think about white space and color drawing from Doerrfeld’s model.
Using Movement and Drama to Retell. The clear sequential nature of the story make it an ideal text to Incorporate multimodal literacies by having students work in small groups to retell the story through dramatic methods. Have students select the characters they would like to portray showing how each character tries to help Taylor. Encourage students to go back to the text to notice the facial expressions and body language of the characters to help them become the characters. Following group performances, have students share out what they noticed were similarities and differences in their interpretations of the story. Support students to reflect on the ways this experience can enhance their understanding of characters in future stories. Expand the possibilities for dramatic interpretations by having students create short performances of times when they felt listened to in their own lives.
“Message Books” Text Set. In her review of The Rabbit Listened, Elizabeth Byrd writes about “message books” or books where the message of the story gives us some instruction for how to live our lives. Some authors know how to craft a story that allows us to figure out the message rather than explicitly hammering it into readers. Classic children’s book authors like Arnold Lobel of Frog and Toad and Leo Leonni of Frederick and Matthew’s Dream remain some of the most poignant examples of message books. More recent titles include Lost and Found and The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers, Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s collaboration Extra Yarn, Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love, After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again by Dan Santat, Little Fox in the Forest by Stephanie Graegin, and Shelter by Celine Claire. Gathered together in a “message books” text set explore with students their responses to the characters and situations they find themselves in. What are the messages these authors and illustrators offer us for how to live our lives with meaning and purpose?
Listening Text Set. There are many ways to listen to others as we learn from all of the animals in the story. But there are ways to listen to nature, to listen for peace, and to listen for silence. Gather a variety of books that explore different ways we can listen as a way to bring calm and stillness into our lives such as Listen to Our World by Bill Martin Jr. and Michael Sampson, The Sound of Silence by Katrina Goldsaito, I Am Peace: A Book of Mindfulness by Susan Verde, The Other Way to Listen by Byrd Baylor, The Quiet Book by Deborah Underwood, and Tomie dePaola’s Quiet. Create a class display using words and illustrations about ways to listen and invite students to add on to it after each new listening-focused read aloud.
Brightly Interview with Cori Doerrfeld
School Library Journal Review by Elizabeth Byrd
Penguin Books Site
Nerdy Book Club Post
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Baylor, B. (1997). The other way to listen. New York, NY: Aladdin Books.
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dePaola, T. (2018). Quiet. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
Doerrfeld, C. (2018). Good dog. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Doerrfeld, C. (2012). Little bunny foo foo: The real story. New York, NY: Dial Books.
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Graegin, S. (2017). Little fox in the forest. New York, NY: Schwartz & Wade Books.
Jeffers, O. (2010). The heart and the bottle. New York, NY: Philomel Books.
Jeffers, O. (2005). Lost and found. New York, NY: Philomel Books.
Leonni, L. (1991). Matthew’s dream. Decorah, IA: Dragonfly Books.
Leonni, L. (1967). Frederick. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.
Lobel, A. (1972). Frog and toad together. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Lobel, A. (1970). Frog and toad are friends. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Martin, B. & Sampson, M. (2016). Listen to our world. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Santat, D. (2017). After the fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again. New York, NY: Roaring Brook Press.
Verde, S. (2017). I am peace: A book of mindfulness. New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams.
Underwood, D. (2010). The quiet book. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
About Katie Cunningham
Katie is a Professor of Literacy and English Education at Manhattanville College. There she is also the Director of the Advanced Certificate Program in Social and Emotional Learning and Whole Child Education. Her work focuses on children’s literature, joyful literacy methods, and literacy leadership. Katie is the author of Story: Still the Heart of Literacy Learning and co-author of Literacy Leadership in Changing Schools. Her book Start with Joy: Designing Literacy Learning for Student Happiness will be released September 2019. She is passionate about the power of stories to transform lives.
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