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The heart of Heartbeat (if you will) is its thematic complexity. Sharon Creech’s story is the story of a girl with many different things on her mind: her family, especially her mother’s pregnancy and her aging grandfather; her schoolwork, specifically her drawing class and her introduction to footnotes and the thesaurus in English class; her friend, Max; and her own interests, running and drawing. The skill of the story – aside from its poetic method – is the way Creech manages to mix and connect these themes. Max likes running, too; but her grandfather was a runner, also – to take just one example.
For our assembly, we highlighted these themes. To do more with Heartbeat, I’d suggest also finding ways of exploring or expanding on these themes.
1) Max –
2) Drawing -
3) Running – I wouldn’t assume that many elementary school students enjoy running the way Annie (and Max) do. But one ought to be able to seize on Annie’s enthusiasm. Ask children to describe what else they feel similarly enthusiastic about. See if you can get them to write a poem that describes that activity with some choice detail or description. Ideally, one might point out the use of the thump-thump device to provide sound and rhythm to the running poems, and also the repetition of the landscape encountered (the barn and hill and bench and so forth). A child writing a poem about baseball, for example, might include some sounds of the game in their poem. Or a child writing a poem about making cookies can describe some of the things you always do, every time you make cookies.
4) Joey, the alien/pumpkin baby -
5) Grandpa – Sharon Creech never uses the word Alzheimer’s, but she doesn’t need to. Grandparents can age and lose their memory without children needing to put a name on it. I suspect this subject may hit too close to home for some children and it would not be my instinct to be too aggressive in encouraging anyone to explore it. (Which isn’t to say that one shouldn’t explore it if one wants to.) But Grandpa’s fading memory does bring up a broader, happier subject which can be explored: discovering and preserving the stories and memories of one’s grandparents. I would encourage students to go and ask their grandparents for a story. Perhaps yank a picture off a wall, just like Annie does, and ask them to explain what life was like when they were young. In my experience, grandparents love to be asked questions like that – often don’t feel like they get asked often enough. Students can share their stories w/ their class. And they can write poems about them.
6) Synonyms – While I can’t see very many elementary school students having fun exploring the world of footnotes, I would assume that playing with synonyms – and the thesaurus – is made to order for teachers in older grades. I can envision exercises that perhaps pull vocabulary from Heartbeat and ask students to find synonyms for them. There are many word games that demand students unearth synonyms. And of course, poems about synonyms should come easily to children in older grades.