The Year We Learned to Fly: Teaching Ideas for the Highly-Anticipated Companion to The Day You Begin
Written by Jacquline Woodson and Illustrated by Rafael López
Nancy Paulsen Books, 2022
How can children lift themselves up when they are stuck inside on a dreary day or squabbling with their siblings about whose turn it is to feed the dog? Jacqueline Woodson and Rafael Lopez’s latest picturebook has an answer–learn to fly. Written with Woodson’s signature lyrical language, The Year We Learned to Fly is a moving story about a brother and sister who learn to follow their grandmother’s advice in moments of challenge to “Use those beautiful and brilliant minds of yours. Lift your arms, close your eyes, take a deep breath, and believe in a thing.” In a story told across four seasons, we witness the siblings encounter a range of childhood predicaments: rainy spring days suffused with boredom; hot summer days filled with bickering; the darker days in autumn giving rise to loneliness; and a sudden move in winter causing newfound isolation. Across the seasons, their grandmother is there to offer them her comforting refrain. Each time, the siblings heed her advice and escape their troubles by taking flight. With trust in the truth-seeking capabilities of children, Woodson includes a four-page sequence where the grandmother explains how she learned to fly from enslaved ancestors who came before them: “They were aunts and uncles and cousins who were brought here on huge ships, their wrists and ankles cuffed in iron, but…nobody can ever cuff your beautiful and brilliant mind.” As explained in the Author’s Note, The Year We Learned to Fly is a loving tribute to Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales. Bright, vibrant artwork by Rafael López complements the emotional landscape the children experience and the limitlessness of their imaginations. A brilliant companion to their earlier picturebook, The Day You Begin, Woodson’s and Lopez’s latest collaboration will remind children that they have the courage and capacity to “fly” past their most difficult times.
Teaching Ideas: Invitations for Your Classrooms
Note to our Readers: These ideas are not meant to be prescriptive. Choose one. Choose more. It’s up to you. Some ideas are bigger and will take a number of days to complete. Some are shorter. You can also choose to complete one part of a teaching idea, but not the whole thing. It’s up to you!
Duet Model: The Day You Begin. Pair a read aloud of The Year We Learned to Fly with Woodson’s and López’s earlier picturebook, The Day You Begin. Invite students to make connections across the stories such as noticing that the sister is a character in both stories. What do we learn about her in each book? How does one story complement the other? Then, invite students to notice how the books were written. What about Woodson’s writing style seems to be the same? What’s different in each book? How do the events in The Year We Learned to Fly help us make sense of events in The Day You Begin? Finally, have students consider the messages Woodson suggests for our own lives. In what ways are the messages similar or overlapping? How are they distinct in each book? Then, invite students to imagine a third book by Woodson and López–create the story as a class through shared or interactive writing.
Black American Folktale Study: The People Could Fly. Read Woodson’s author’s note from the back of the book aloud to students where she explains the influence of Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales on this book and on her philosophy towards life. Then, read aloud the eponymous folktale in The People Could Fly to support student connections across the two texts. In what ways does Woodson draw directly from Hamilton’s retelling of that folktale? Similarly, how does Lopez’s artwork draw from the illustrations of Leo and Diane Dillon in Hamilton’s text? Continue reading other folktales in Hamilton’s collection supporting students to grow a deeper understanding of the genre, particularly tales of freedom. Invite students to notice and name the storytelling techniques that Hamilton uses including dialect to bring the stories to life.
Duet Model: Tar Beach. Pair a reading of The Year We Learned to Fly with Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach. Invite students to notice similarities across the two stories, particularly how both authors weave fictional characters and the history of Black Americans into stories about flight and freedom. In Tar Beach, Cassie Louise Lightfoot has a dream to go wherever she wants. How are her frustrations similar to and different from the siblings in The Year We Learned to Fly? In what ways are both books tributes to The People Could Fly (see Teaching Invitation above)? Create a three-column T-chart and use interactive or shared writing for students to make text comparisons by noting similarities and differences across the three texts.
Craft Techniques: Repetition and Alliteration for Effect. Woodson is a masterful storyteller who uses a variety of craft techniques to tell a compelling story. Support students to notice and name the ways Woodson uses both repetition and alliteration. Repetition can be found through sentence frames like “That was the ____, we learned to ____” as well as through the grandmother’s refrain. Alliteration is found in the use of word pairings like beautiful/brilliant and fought/frowned. In what ways do these techniques create a predictability that is comforting to us as readers? Invite students to incorporate repetition and alliteration when writing their own narratives, both fiction and nonfiction, all year long.
Ancestor Narratives. Woven into the story are references to how the children’s grandmother “learned to fly from the people who came before”. Gather other books about intergenerational relationships such as Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez Neal, Islandborn by Junot Díaz, Delicious Family Memories by Michael Genhart, and Where are You From? by Yamile Saied Méndez. Invite students to think about the things they have learned to do from the people who came before them. Invite students to create stories that explain the things they’ve learned as a tribute to the people in their lives who have taught them new skills, given them hope, and supported them to dream big. Consider having students give their writing as gifts to the people in their life they pay tribute to.
Mindfulness Connections. The grandmother in The Year We Learned to Fly, is a master of mindfulness. She supports her grandchildren to draw on their inner strength in moments of frustration and sadness by tapping into their bodies and recentering themselves. By inviting them to “lift their arms, close their eyes, and take a deep breath”, she is supporting them to apply a strategy to change their mindset anytime they need it. Invite students to get up out of their seats and become the characters in the story for a moment by following grandmother’s wise words. (Note: This requires trauma-informed teaching. Remind children it is completely optional to close their eyes. Some children experience retraumatization when required to close their eyes.) Remind students as needed that they have the power and courage to apply this strategy to be present in the moment, to let go of difficult things, or to change their mindset. Gather other books for continued connections to mindfulness through picturebooks such as Now by Antoinette Portis, Here and Now by Julia Denos, The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld, Before Morning by Joyce Sidman, A Stone Sat Still by Bredan Wenzel, and Waiting by Kevin Henkes.
Emotional Agility. By shifting from one emotion to another (thanks to the help of their grandmother), the children in The Year We Learned to Fly are modeling emotional agility. Discuss with students the ways in which emotions are neither bad nor good. Psychologist Susan David explains that emotions are signposts giving us information to help us navigate life. Use The Year We Learned to Fly as an opportunity to support students to grow their emotional vocabulary and to learn about emotional agility as a framework for navigating difficult everyday moments.
The Gift of Boredom. The pandemic has given children long stretches of stuck-inside kind of days. While these have been difficult and challenging days for many children, they may have also experienced the gift that can come from boredom as the children did in The Year We Learned to Fly. Have a class conversation about how it is okay to be bored and that those are the times when our greatest creativity is often unleashed. Create a class list of the things we can do when we get bored to help ourselves get unstuck from feelings of frustration or annoyance such as playing a new game, stopping to wonder about new things, watching the world outside from a window, telling or composing stories, daydreaming, and helping others.
Jacqueline Woodson Author Study. Jacqueline Woodson is the recipient of countless prestigious awards including the MacArthur Genius Award, National Book Award, Hans Christian Anderson Award, Newbery Honor Award, Coretta Scott King Award, and many more. Read about these awards on Woodson’s website and invite students to learn more about the awards criteria through additional research. Gather other picturebooks by Woodson in a text set that explores the themes and lyrical language that Woodson uses across her books particularly in The Day You Begin; Each Kindness; This is the Rope: A Story of the Great Migration; The Other Side; Coming on Home Soon; and Visiting Day.
Rafael López Illustrator Study. Learn more about Rafael López, his Mexican heritage, how he spent his time as a boy, his books, and his murals by visiting his website. Gather books that he illustrated for students to explore including Maybe Something Beautiful written by F. Isabel Campoy and Theresa Howell; Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln Margarita Engle; Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music written by Margarita Engle; and Just Ask! Be Different, Be Brave, Be You written by Sonia Sotomayor. Invite students to notice his use of colors to convey feelings in both the picturebooks he has illustrated and in his murals. Using López’s artwork as inspiration, create a class mural that conveys the same sort of joy López creates as a catalyst to bring people together in your school community.
Grades 3 and Up
Juxtaposing Pain and Beauty. In her interview about The Year We Learned to Fly with CBS News, Jacqueline Woodson discusses the decision to include references to enslaved ancestors in the story. She explains the ways that artwork by Rafael López provides a juxtaposition to the pain of enslavement. Invite students to consider how authors and illustrators can work together to write about difficult and painful truths, particularly in history, against bright, luminous illustrations to give us a sense of hope without diminishing the pain of the past. Engage in a class conversation about how they could apply this juxtaposition in their own writing and artwork. Consider having students work in writing and illustrating partnerships to apply this juxtaposition as part of your social studies curriculum as a way for students to respond to the historical events they are learning about.
Understanding Enslavement and the Freedom Movement. Use The Year We Learned to Fly and Hamilton’s The People Could Fly as a catalyst for further learning about the history of enslavement in America and the Black Freedom Movement. Extend students’ understanding of this time period in American history by reading books like Never Caught: The Story of Ona Judge and Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans (see these Classroom Bookshelf entries for further ideas about investigating local history of enslaved and free 18th and 19th century African Americans as well as ideas about oral histories and your community).
Jacqueline Woodson’s Site
Rafael López’s Site
CBS Interview with Jacqueline Woodson
Campoy, I. (2016). Maybe something beautiful. Boston, MA: HMH.
Doerrfeld, C. (2018). The rabbit listened. New York, NY: Dial Books for Young Readers.
Denos, J. (2019) .Here and now. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.
Dunbar, E. (2019). Never caught: The story of Ona Judge. New York, NY: Aladdin Books.
Engle, M. (2019). Dancing hands: How teresa carreño played the piano for President Lincoln. New York, NY: Atheneum Books.
Engle, M. (2015). Drum dream girl: How one girl’s courage changed music. Boston, MA: HMH.
Henkes, K. (2015). Waiting. New York, NY: Greenwillow Books.
Nelson, K. (2011). Heart and soul: The story of America and African Americans. New York, NY: Balzer and Bray.
Portis, A. (2017). Now. New York, NY: Roaring Brook Press.
Ringgold, F. (1996). Tar beach. Decorah, IA: Dragonfly Books.
Sidman, J. (2016). Before morning. Boston, MA: HMH.
Sotomayor, S. (2019). Just ask! Be different, be brave, be you. New York, NY: Philomel Books.
Woodson, J. (2018). The day you begin. New York, NY: Nancy Paulsen Books.
Woodson, J. (2012). Each kindness. New York, NY: Nancy Paulsen Books.
Woodson, J. (2017). This is the rope: A story from the Great Migration. New York, NY: Nancy Paulsen Books.
Woodson, J. (2001). The other side. New York, NY: Nancy Paulsen Books.
Woodson, J. (2004). Coming on home soon. New York, NY: Nancy Paulsen Books.
Woodson, J. (2015). Visiting day. New York, NY: Nancy Paulsen Books.
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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