Literature as the Centerpiece of Curriculum Integration: The Birchbark House

Using Literature to Integrate Curriculum Areas

One of the most challenging areas for new and experienced Montessori teachers is curriculum planning, specifically, how to cover all those lessons from the different areas. The bad news is that if you plan to march through your albums one lesson at a time, it is likely that you will not, in fact, get through all the lessons, and you may furthermore find that your students are uninspired. The good news is that by integrating curriculum areas into a holistic approach to a topic or theme, you can cover multiple areas, thereby reducing your planning time, but more importantly, helping your students make meaningful connections. Central to Cosmic Education is the idea of interconnectedness, with the Great Lessons providing the big picture for each of the main curriculum areas. Montessori was explicit that no area of the curriculum should be left untouched by the others:

To present detached notions is to bring confusion. We need to determine the bonds that exist between them. When the correlation among the details, by now linked to the others, has been established, the details may be found to tie together among themselves. The mind, then, is satisfied and the desire to go on with research is born … Here is an essential principle: to teach details is to bring confusion; to establish the relationship between things is to bring knowledge. (From Childhood to Adolescence, 1948)

We know that the fragmentation of knowledge into categories is an artificial one since no aspect of existence—whether we are referring to culture and society, the biosphere, or molecules and atoms—operates independently. By connecting topics to a range of curriculum areas, we empower students to discover relationships, making learning more meaningful. A highly effective way to implement this is to position a carefully chosen piece of children's literature at the center of a broad area of study; if the literature selection also reflects the culture and history of a marginalized student population, the learning that ensues is all the more relevant and potentially impacting. When this history and culture is missing, and where the question is applicable, it is important for the teacher to ask whose voice is missing from the story, or which perspectives have been silenced. Older students, especially, are developmentally ready to read and think critically about why and how these omissions occur in some pieces of literature.

To wit, children's literature has benefited from a much-needed influx of books that celebrate and promote diversity, inclusion, and ethnic identity development, and while a review of these is beyond the scope of this article, we focus on one, The Birchbark House, by Louise Erdrich, as an example of how juvenile fiction can be used both to integrate curriculum areas and also to support culturally responsive pedagogy in regions with a significant indigenous Anishinaabe population—particularly Wisconsin and Minnesota, but also Michigan, North Dakota, Montana, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Although the story may have particular relevance to students in these states, it includes important historical lessons for indigenous and non-indigenous students alike, in any geographical region. For our purposes, we examine The Birchbark House as a centerpiece of an integrated unit of study, with significant cultural relevance for some groups of students.

The Birchbark House

Story Overview

The protagonist of The Birchbark House is seven-year old Omakayas, a member of the Anishinaabe, “a group of culturally related indigenous peoples [including the Algonquin, Ottawa, Potawatomi, and Ojibwe, also known as Chippewa] present in the Great Lakes region of Canada and the United States” (Anishinaabe). The story takes place on a small island in Lake Superior, in 1847, and follows the day-to-day life of Omakayas and her family through the seasonal changes of one year. Through times of plenty and times of hardship, the reader is immersed in the Ojibwe cultural practices of seasonal food gathering, summer and winter shelter preparation, oral storytelling, and other aspects of family and community life—all “set against the backdrop of encroaching white settlement, missionaries, and the fur trade” (Indian Education for All, 3). This award-winning story, most suitable for Upper Elementary and Middle School students, was written by an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. As such, it is appropriate to discuss the significance of the author identifying as Indigenous. Older students can engage in meaningful discussions around the potential for cultural appropriation and stereotyping when authors of one culture attempt to represent another.

First and foremost, The Birchbark House is a story about the culture of a people, and there is ample material to explore from a strictly literary perspective—character development, setting, plot, conflict, point of view, theme, etc. (A comprehensive text-based inquiry unit can be accessed here.) The suggestions below are offered as options to choose from for extending the story into other areas of the curriculum.

Language Arts

Literature most obviously falls under the purview of language arts and includes much more than reading and discussing a story. Two aspects of The Birchbark House that lend themselves to extended work in language arts are vocabulary and oral storytelling. Ojibwe vocabulary is abundant in the story, skillfully threaded into the narrative. Additionally, the art of oral storytelling is highlighted in several instances as elders pass on family history, share traditions, entertain, or give lessons through parables to younger members of the community. Related student work might include:

  • Word study: create an Ojibwe-English (or other language) dictionary
  • Listening: invite an elder to share a traditional Ojibwe story; invite elders from students' families to share stories; listen to quality readings of Native American stories available online or on audiobook.*
  • Interviews: interview older family members about significant family history and events
  • Speaking: translate the events shared by a family elder into an oral story and share it with classmates
  • Writing: write a creative story extending any event from the book; write a letter to one of the characters about an impactful event from the story; write a letter to the author
  • Research: investigate and report on:

*The audiobook version of The Birchbark House has excellent renditions of the in-text oral stories, each told by a different elder for an express purpose, providing excellent opportunities for discussions on the oral tradition and importance of stories (Indian Education for All, 24).

Geography

The setting of The Birchbark House offers a variety of possibilities for extended studies in geography. Two topics that stand out are the Great Lakes and the Ojibwe migration route. With a few exceptions, most of the Anishinaabe groups today are clustered around the Great Lakes, including parts of Ontario and Saskatchewan. Some 500 years ago, the Anishinaabe began their migration at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, later dividing into three groups where Lake Huron and Lake Michigan are connected by the Straits of Mackinac. Related geography projects could include:

Mapmaking: create a two- or three-dimensional representation of the Great Lakes region and/or the Anishinaabe migration route

Research: read about and report on or make a visual representation of the Great Lakes, and/or related topics such as:

  • their geological formation
  • climate
  • land and water forms: connecting waterways, bays, islands, peninsulas
  • history of the naming of each lake
  • fauna and invasive species
  • the dependence of the Anishinaabe people (past and present) on the resources of the Great Lakes and their environs
  • the impact of colonization on the geography of the Great Lakes region

History

The Birchbark House “exposes students to a culture in the midst of change” (Indian Education for All, 1) as Omakayas and her community must make adjustments to the presence of missionaries, fur traders, and white settlements. The story presents an accurate rendition of actual historical events and their consequences on the lives of Anishinaabe culture. Although Erdrich treats troubling issues within the story with a degree of sensitivity appropriate to her younger audience, older students especially may be interested in further investigating:

Fundamental Needs

In many ways, one could say that The Birchbark House is the story of how a people meet their fundamental needs during the annual cycle of changing seasons. Woven into the story's narrative is detailed information, for example, on: tanning hides; building a birchbark shelter; harvesting and preparing wild rice and maple sugar; sewing and adorning hides for clothing; gathering and storing food for winter; traversing bodies of water; and much more. Students can further explore how Ojibwe and other Native American groups met their needs for:

  • nutrition
  • clothing
  • shelter
  • transportation
  • communication
  • art
  • defense
  • spirituality/religion

Science

Related to the fundamental needs, The Birchbark House is told against the backdrop of phenology, “the study of annual events in nature that are influenced by seasonal changes” (Aldo Leopold Foundation), with these changes determining the patterns of everyday life in the community—building the birchbark house and harvesting wild rice in summer; tanning hides and storing food in autumn; food shortage and illness during winter; and the maple sugar harvest in spring. Phenology is an important area of ecology to which children should be exposed and which can easily be worked into a year-long biology project through close observation of the flora and fauna around any school campus. Additional science extension possibilities include:

Medicine: Edward Jenner and the smallpox vaccine

Biology

  • flora and fauna of the Great Lakes region
  • natural resources in the Great Lakes region
  • the variola virus that causes smallpox

Ecology

  • the impact of human factors (e.g., colonization, development, climate change) on ecological patterns and relationships over time
  • environmental racism/injustice

Mathematics

While Ojibwe numeracy is only minimally addressed in The Birchbark House, students may nevertheless be interested in learning their rules for counting and place value. A number of other elements in the story have peripheral mathematical connections and present opportunities to:

  • calculate the distance of the Ojibwe migration route
  • explore the Ojibwe way of marking the passage of time (e.g., one's age is reckoned in terms of how many winters one has survived)
  • compare the population numbers for different Anishinaabe groups before and after the smallpox epidemic and, specifically, how this shift is connected to invasion and colonization
  • make calculations related to each of the Great Lakes and compare their:
    • surface area
    • water volume
    • elevation
    • average depth
    • maximum depth

Closing thoughts

To reiterate, these ideas are offered as examples of the many ways the threads of the curriculum could be woven into the fabric of an authentic learning experience through the use of literature. Readers familiar with Montessori education might have noticed that many of the suggestions are, in fact, components of the traditional Montessori curriculum (e.g., land and water forms; fundamental needs; research and writing; and United States history). Literature is already part of the curriculum; so is geography, history, science, and mathematics. What matters is not that every lesson from these areas comes straight from your albums, but that lessons become springboards for discovery. Furthermore, stories like The Birchbark House offer lessons that lead to potentially impactful discussions about social justice and opportunities for social action—developmentally appropriate and critical for the second-plane child.

A good story, like the Great Lessons, ideally inspires wonder and raises questions; it can provide the big-picture framework within which students explore relationships and make connections among the details. The Birchbark House is not only a good story, but a story of integration on many levels. Like Spider Grandmother present in many Native American cosmologies, Louise Erdrich creates a web connecting the characters in the story to the elements of their environment, which, after all, is the aim of Montessori's Cosmic Education.

About the Author


Cynthia Brunhold-Conesa

Cynthia Brunold-Conesa, MEd, is an educator of adult learners at two AMS teacher education programs. She has 23 years experience as a lead guide at the Elementary and middle school levels. Cynthia also publishes on a variety of Montessori topics. She is AMS credentialed (Elementary I – II). Contact her at cynthia.conesa@meipn.org .

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