This week marks the 110th anniversary of Theodor Seuss Geisel’s birth, and the 17th annual Read Across America event that celebrates the day.
Though many consider the self-made “doctor”— who, in fact, was a poet, cartoonist, author and illustrator — the “finest talent in the history of children’s books,” his work is not exactly a staple of the high school curriculum.
Below, we suggest some places for the cat in the hat, green eggs and ham, Horton, the Sneetches and Mulberry Street in your secondary English classroom.
“So the writer who breeds more words than he needs is making a chore for the reader who reads.”
Dr. Seuss and Vocabulary
“The Cat in the Hat” has a fascinating history that students may be interested to learn about.
After the success of the 1955 book “Why Johnny Can’t Read” by Dr. Rudolf Flesch, publishers aimed to promote reading by making children’s literature more engaging. As part of this endeavor, William Spaulding, director of the education division at Houghton Mifflin, asked Theodor Geisel to write and illustrate a book for children using only a few hundred simple words. “The Cat in the Hat” was born.
As Louis Menand writes in a 2002 appreciation for The New Yorker:
Spaulding handed Geisel three lists, drawn up by experts. The first was composed of two hundred and twenty words that first graders could be expected to recognize at sight — like “a,” “about,” “and,” “are,” and so on. Geisel selected a hundred and twenty-three. The second list contained two hundred and twenty words that beginning readers might recognize from phonics exercises — sets of words similar in sound, such as “make” and “rake” and “cake.” Geisel chose forty-five. And the third list contained two hundred and twenty words that first graders had probably never seen but should be able to decipher, such as “beat,” “fear,” and “kick.” Geisel used thirty-one. This netted him a hundred and ninety-nine words. It wasn’t enough to make a story from, so he added twenty-one words of his own, including “nothing,” “mess,” and “pink.” “The Cat in the Hat” is 1,702 words long, but it uses only two hundred and twenty different words. And (as the cat says) that is not all. Geisel put the whole thing into rhymed anapestic dimeter. It was a tour de force, and it killed Dick and Jane.
Later, Dr. Seuss circumscribed his vocabulary even further, writing “Green Eggs and Ham” in response to a bet — Bennett Cerf at Random House wagered that he could not write an entertaining children’s book using only 50 simple words. It became the best-selling English language children’s book of all time (beating out all of the Harry Potter books) and has been translated widely as well.
What makes “Cat in the Hat” and “Green Eggs and Ham” such beloved books? Why were they so revolutionary? Have students read these texts alongside one of the “Dick and Jane” books from the time period to appreciate the difference.
Then, enliven your next vocabulary study by challenging students to write and illustrate a story using only the list of words in the lesson. This list might be specific to a novel or could be broader, like words students might study for the SAT. To get the ball rolling, you might give them a couple of simple additions — a, the, is, was — or give them five to 10 “free” words to help them along.
Or, go the other direction and have them edit a paragraph they have written to use only the simplest, most direct, least repetitive words they can to get their points across. They might keep this advice from Dr. Seuss in mind as they write:
It has often been said
there’s so much to be read,
you never can cram
all those words in your head.
So the writer who breeds
more words than he needs
is making a chore
for the reader who reads.
That’s why my belief is
the briefer the brief is,
the greater the sigh
of the reader’s relief is.
“I know it is wet and the sun is not sunny, but we can have lots of good fun that is funny.”
Dr. Seuss and Poetry
Though Dr. Seuss’ biography can be found on the Poetry Foundation’s website, his poetry doesn’t tend to be read alongside that of Shakespeare in secondary classrooms. Use a comparison between the two to spark discussion of the question, “What is poetry?” Then stage a classroom debate or assign an essay asking students to defend Dr. Seuss as a poet, or compare him to another poet you are studying. (Though teachers should preview it first to make sure it is appropriate, students may also enjoy the video Dr. Seuss vs. Shakespeare: Epic Rap Battles of History #12).
Dr. Seuss can also help introduce a poetry study by making its language more accessible. “Green Eggs and Ham,” for example offers an excellent introduction to iambic pentameter. You can also use excepts from many of Dr. Seuss’ books to teach literary devices such as hyperbole and alliteration by reading the children’s texts before discussing the same devices in more complex works of literature.
“A person’s a person, no matter how small.”
The Themes in Dr. Seuss
In addition to pairing Dr. Seuss books with classic texts to illustrate matters of style, try using them to illuminate themes and subjects of higher-level texts. For example, you might use “The Cat in the Hat” and its representations of the id, ego and super ego to introduce those terms before reading “The Lord of the Flies.” Or study “The Lorax” alongside Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden.”
To help students express their ideas about a text, ask them to choose a quotation by Dr. Seuss. Warn your students, however, to stay away from clichéd Dr. Seuss references in their college essays, where, apparently, they are frowned upon.
Students might use this quotation from “Horton Hears a Who,” for example, to examine a character like Liesel from “The Book Thief”: “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”
Or challenge them to apply this quote, from “Solla Sollew,” to a character in a literary text you are discussing in class:
I have heard there are troubles of more than one kind.
Some come from ahead and some come from behind.
But I’ve bought a big bat.
I’m all ready you see.
Now my troubles are going to have troubles with me!
Finally, Here is how one writer wrote an imagined conversation with Dr. Seuss using only quotations from his works.
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
Dr. Seuss and Politics
Ted Cruz famously pulled out “Green Eggs and Ham” as part of his marathon speech against President Obama’s health care law in September, but Dr. Seuss has long been at home on the political stage. (Don’t miss, for instance, Jesse Jackson reading “Green Eggs and Ham” on “Saturday Night Live.”)
Many of his children’s books offer insight into real world political problems like the Cold War (“The Butter Battle Book”), industrialization (“The Lorax”), anti-Semitism (“The Sneetches”) and abuse of power, in reference to Hitler, in “Yertle the Turtle.” You can also explore economic concepts in the worlds of Dr. Seuss, whether you agree that they are accurate or not.
What many people don’t know is that Theodor Geisel was a political cartoonist for many years before finding success as a children’s author. While he endeavored to help the United States war effort during World War II, some of the cartoons he created then prompt cries of racism today. Use this book review and this 6th Floor blog post to investigate the political aspects of his art. How do these articles complicate your feelings about Dr. Seuss?
“You’re never too old, too wacky, too wild, to pick up a book and read to a child.”
Dr. Seuss and the Word of Children’s Literature
Part 1 of the Dr. Seuss’ Rhymes and Reasons documentary
What are your students’ favorite childrens’ books? Why? How did they affect the students as children, and how might they read them differently now? Invite them to answer our Student Opinion question, then have a class discussion, perhaps borrowing questions from this Learning Network lesson plan. Then, have them choose one children’s author — whether Dr. Seuss or another — on whom to do an author study and write a critical essay. Where does the author sit in the pantheon of children’s literature? Whom was he or she inspired by, and whom did the author inspire? How was this person’s work new for its time and place? Why does it still endure?
Here are excerpts from two excellent Seuss essays from The Times that might serve as models. First, Pamela Paul’s “The Children’s Authors Who Broke the Rules” about Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein and Maurice Sendak:
Once upon a more staid time, the purpose of children’s books was to model good behavior. They were meant to edify and to encourage young readers to be what parents wanted them to be, and the children in their pages were well behaved, properly attired and devoid of tears. Children’s literature was not supposed to shine a light on the way children actually were, or delight in the slovenly, self-interested and disobedient side of their natures.
Seuss, Sendak and Silverstein ignored these rules. They brought a shock of subversion to the genre — defying the notion that children’s books shouldn’t be scary, silly or sophisticated. Rather than reprimand the wayward listener, their books encouraged bad (or perhaps just human) behavior. Not surprisingly, Silverstein and Sendak shared the same longtime editor, Ursula Nordstrom of Harper & Row, a woman who once declared it her mission to publish “good books for bad children.”
Next, A.O. Scott’s “Sense and Nonsense,” a lengthy magazine piece about the genius of Dr. Seuss:
The genius of Dr. Seuss’s early books lies in how closely attuned they are to this tension — how they delight in the liberties of the imagination without quite condoning anarchy. The author seems simply to have intuited an essential aspect of the developing psyche: as much as children long to wriggle free of adult control, they depend on grown-up guidance. Who else, after all, will read books to them? Literally, children are led on these voyages by a parent’s voice, and often embark on them from the comfort of a parent’s lap. The success of the trip depends on the strength of the tether that anchors them to the prosaic security of the everyday world.
Part of the thrill of the journey, of course, comes from an intimation of danger, and the Seussian imagination is the breeding ground of nightmares as well as happy daydreams, an overgrown jungle full of wild things and chaotic impulses.
Students might start their investigations into the authors of their choice with Times resources like these reviews or author Times Topics pages. They can then present what they have learned to their classmates and talk about the lasting impression these children’s writers have on our lives as readers.
“You’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, So get on your way!”
Dr. Seuss as an Inspiration for Writing
Dr. Seuss, like many writers for both children and adults, took inspiration from his own life. In his first book, “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” Dr. Seuss imagines a world out of an ordinary place. This book also offers students a lesson in resilience — it took 27 rejections before Dr. Seuss found a publisher. The author also took inspiration for his iconic cat’s hat from his own love of headwear.
Read “Mulberry Street” with your students and ask them to create their own fictional worlds based on places they have experienced themselves. Have them begin by drawing a map of the place as it exists in reality, and then give them free rein to make it new. Follow this advice: “Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!”
Oh the places they’ll go!
This resource may be used to address the academic standards listed below.
Common Core E.L.A. Anchor Standards
1 Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
2 Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
3 Analyze how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.
4 Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
9 Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.
10 Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.
4 Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
9 Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
10 Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences.
Speaking and Listening
1 Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
2 Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
1 Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.
3 Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.
5 Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.
6 Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression.
Teaching ideas based on New York Times content.
More and more people are thinking about the environmental issues and ecological condition of Earth nowadays. Why has this problem become so relevant? What should we do to save our future? In my opinion, people have understood that their irresponsibility causes harm to the natural environment. Our planet suffers from numerous problems, which have been caused by the results of the excessive anthropogenic activity. The entire planet suffers from pollution, global warming, deforestation, extinction of biological species, etc. These problems are extremely relevant and require rapid and intensive solutions. It is possible to defeat these problems if the entire humanity changes its approach towards nature, natural resources and the value of nature for its wellbeing. In simple words, people should go green to save Earth.
Why should we take efforts now in order to save Earth in future? Very few people understand that it is important to change their lifestyle now in order to see the results of these changes in a few decades. Doubtless, you will not grow a big forest in a year. You can plant a small tree but it will grow to its proper height only in ten or fifteen years. To my mind, this activity resembles investment into a small firm. In a few years, the firm develops into a big company, which will provide you with the solid profit. Consequently, it is not right to say that the idea of going green is useless. When you do not see the results of your activity now, it does not mean that you will not see them in ten years.
Furthermore, we must not be selfish. It is important to think about the wellbeing of our children and grandchildren. We are responsible for the natural environment and problems, which will become the burden for our children. I know that many people do not care about the condition of Earth after their death. They say that it is the headache of our future generations. I suppose, it is the main problem. People do not care about future and they do not appreciate what they have. This approach is caused by greediness and consumerism. People want more money and material values in order to satisfy their needs. They are ready to exhaust the world they live in. They cut down forests, kill animals, birds and fish and pollute rivers, lakes, seas and oceans. They care about their profit and nothing more. No wonder, people open new and new plants, factories and power stations, which cause harm to the natural environment but provide them with money. It looks ridiculous when people are ready to destroy forests and pollute rivers in order to gain profit. People do not appreciate fresh air and water, though they cannot survive a minute without them. They are ready to live in the unhealthy, terribly-looking and polluted environment in order to receive more money. Finally, they will have to pay for their treatment at a hospital, because they breathe in polluted air and consume contaminated food and water.
How can we save our planet from the results of our harmful activity? To begin with, we should reduce pollution, because it the cause of numerous problems. We must not litter in the street, parks and forests. We should recycle wastes in order to save our priceless natural recourses. We should use public transport more frequently, because it does not release numerous harmful gases, which cause greenhouse effect and global warming. Next, entrepreneurs should use special filters at plants, factories and power stations in order to reduce the amount of poisonous emissions into the air and water. Then, people should stop cutting down forests, because they are the lungs of Earth. Moreover, every forest is a home for thousands of animals, birds and insects, which improve the balance of ecosystems.
In conclusion, our unwise and extensive activity causes harm to the natural environment. We lose priceless natural resources, fresh air, water, forests, animals, birds, fish, insects, etc. People should change their lifestyle rapidly in order to stop deforestation, global warming, pollution and other problems, which can destroy the life on the planet. We ought to go green in order to save the life of future generations.
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