Dinner with Laura Ingalls Wilder

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Photo courtesy of Mrs. Ryan

Yesterday, I blogged about the celebration that my daughter’s teacher organized for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 146th birthday and the biscuits I baked (in truth, that post was mostly an excuse to take pictures of the biscuits!)

As an aspiring literacy scholar, however, I just couldn’t pass up the chance to think about how these kinds of authentic, embodied learning experiences support children’s emergent understanding of literature, and of themselves as readers, thinkers and bricoleurs of understanding in a world that inspires so many questions.

I could wax on theoretically — but I think the necessary points can be made by simply sharing our dinner conversation.

Laura Ingalls Wilder joined us. She sat to my right — in precisely the spot where my 7-year old normally eats. She wore a printed dress and a bonnet. She had a shawl tied around her shoulders. She was surprised to have a fork, spoon and knife with which to eat her supper. Laura Ingalls told us that she didn’t usually have cutlery but instead had to eat with her hands. She also told us that she had only one plate, and that in her house on the Prairie, she had to eat outside, on the ground, because she didn’t have a table.

Laura told us about the great feast at school. Most importantly, she ate three kinds of pie — custard, blueberry and vinegar. The vinegar pie, which nobody else at our dinner table had ever eaten, apparently tasted like, well, vinegar. Other kids thought so too. The blueberry was her favorite. She also ate mashed potatoes, biscuits with maple syrup, and a muffin. She passed on the pickled asparagus but was surprised to find that she liked hulled corn, which is also called hominy. During the feast, there was no electric lighting which made sense, since there was no electric lighting in Laura’s house.

As we discussed what life must have been like for Laura and her family, we heard the story of her dog, Jack, and how he found his family after he had been separated from them — probably because dogs have such a good sense of smell. Laura also told us that Pioneers are girls who move a lot and have to build a new house far away from their grandparents…which makes everyone sad.

Laura Ingalls Wilder came to dinner at our house because a teacher loved a book, and after months of reading that book with her students, created a space in which they could all smell, taste and live, for an afternoon, in the skin of the protagonists. I can’t imagine any better way to make reading, learning, and literature meaningful.

Incidentally, when I asked my daughter whether she might like to read more Laura Ingalls Wilder books at home, she said no. She wants to re-read Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie. “I want to live those stories again, Mom.”

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