Owen and Mzee Motivate Reluctant Writers

October 11, 2009 at 9:11 pm Leave a comment

posted by Barbara Silver ’80, literacy consultant and former NYC first grade teacher

The second and third grade teachers at one of the Jewish day schools where I work as a literacy consultant for AUSSIE (Australia & U.S. Services in Education) were comparing notes one day about their students as writers.  All six teachers were interested in finding more creative ways to motivate the students to enjoy writing more and take risks in their writing.

owenmzeeI had recently read about a student teacher’s special project in her Florida school that was intended to involve families.  Since there are alligators in their community, she decided to create a take-home project involving a stuffed alligator and a book about them.  That description reminded me of the stuffed animals that had been donated by Craig Hatkoff, the author of two books about a baby hippo rescued from the 2004 tsunami, and a 130-year-old tortoise.  Mr. Hatkoff visited the school two years ago after receiving letters from the students about his first Owen & Mzee book.  The books, which were also donated by the author, are: Owen & Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship and Owen & Mzee: The Language of Friendship.

With the help of the principal, teachers, and office staff, we collected six backpacks and created a take-home project for each class, which included the stuffed animals, Owen and Mzee, one of the books by Craig Hatkoff, and a writing journal for students to record their experiences during the two-night visit.

A letter was sent home to the parents explaining the project; then the teachers got the ball rolling as they each took the backpack home first and modeled recording in the journal.  Excitement was in the air!  Students eagerly took home their “guests” and the writing flowed!  There were many drawings accompanying the writing and some photos as well.  Families learned of this remarkable story along with the students and were delighted to participate.

Here are some comments direct from the student journals:

“I was so happy when Mrs. D. chose me to be the first one to have and do the project.  I took them with me to After-School and showed them to my friends.  I told everyone that they will sleep with me when it is my bedtime.”

“I love Owen & Mzee.  I had a lot of fun with Owen and Mzee.  We had a big sleepover with popcorn.  I also ate dinner with them. And we are acting out the story together.  And I was the reader.  And my parents also liked them.”

“We read the book.  My mom and I were shocked that Mzee lives for 130 years.  Also I never heard that a hippo and a tortoise could be friends.”

“I liked this book because it teaches me stuff about Owen and Mzee.”

“Stay one more night please!”

owenmzee1“I think the hippo felt sad at first in his new home.  Then I think he felt very happy for his new friend and new home.”

“Owen and Mzee were having so much fun and me and Owen and Mzee were watching a movie.  We were eating and me and Mzee and Owen were making a puppet show with all my toys.  It was the best time ever.  We draw and paint.  The book was amazing too.”

“Thank you for this unforgettable story.”

“My brother read the book with me.”

“Owen asked me, “Are we going to see you again?”  “Maybe”, I said.”

“Tonight I read the book Owen and Mzee to my little sisters.  They said they loved the book Owen and Mzee.  They told me to read it again.”

“If I was lost like Owen I would feel frightened because if I was separated from my family I would feel terrible and upset.”

“One thing is when I was playing with Owen and Mzee my bear Saro was mad that I did not play with her and I said what happened Saro and she said that she was mad because you are not playing with me.  Oh, I am very sorry.  I had to take care of them.  We’ll all play together OK.  So we played and had fun.”

“I think it is good that friends are together and friends should listen to each other…… I think it is a good idea to do this project.  I read the story.  It was sad and fun.”

In addition to all the eating, playing, watching movies and reading together, one student wrote about how Owen and Mzee helped her study for a spelling test.  In her words, “they really helped me a lot.”

This project was successful on so many levels:

  • The goal of motivating writing was achieved.
  • Students practiced reading over and over.
  • Families were thoroughly involved.
  • Everyone learned about a very unusual friendship.

In the words of Caroline Kennedy, whose remarks appear on the back of the first book:  “This heartwarming story shows the power of a single friendship to transform a life, and inspires us all to look at the world around us and reach out to others.”

In the words of the authors, “We hope the incredible story you are about to read inspires you as much as it has us.  It shows how connected we really are with everyone and everything.  It is also a vivid reminder that even when the world seems its bleakest, we should never give up!”

Barbara Silver has been actively involved with Bank Street’s Alumni Association for almost three decades. She was a NYC public school teacher for more than 25 years, and now works with teachers and children in Jewish day schools throughout the city.  For more information about Owen and Mzee, visit their website at www.owenandmzee.com.

Entry filed under: classrooms, coaching, collaboration, curriculum, families, literacy, social-emotional learning, teaching tolerance.

A Few Announcements… Folding Paper, Constructing Meaning, and Following a Child’s Lead

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