Credit: Courtesy of American Memory.
Beatrix Potter's charming animal stories are as popular today as when they were published in the early 1900s, owing largely to Potter's beautiful artwork and the simplicity of her characters and themes. By studying Beatrix Potter's childhood and her artwork, students gain insight into the unusual, solitary world of Victorian childhood and can compare/contrast it with their own world to understand why Potter wrote such simple stories and why she wrote about animals rather than people. Students can also learn the difference between an author and an illustrator and practice some of the same artistic techniques used by Potter to create masterpieces of their own.
After completing the lessons in this unit, students will be able to
World of Peter Rabbit website contains information on Potter's childhood and artwork. You might choose to condense some of this material into a handout for your students, or you can use the Text Resource link to print out a copy of the complete text. Below you will find the lists of links to follow in order to reach each major source of information used in this lesson:
Using a classroom world map or globe, help students locate England. Explain that England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland comprise the country of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Use a Map of the United Kingdom, located on Atlapedia Online, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Internet Public Library to identify the entity of England, pointing out that it is not an individual country.
As a class, brainstorm music, foods, writers, sports, and books that come from the UK, and write them down. Some suggestions are: the Beatles, fish and chips, William Shakespeare, rugby, cricket, Harry Potter books, King Arthur, Alice in Wonderland, Mary Poppins, and Beatrix Potter's books.
Introduce students to basic political, social, and cultural aspects of Victorian England using a timeline of figures and events such as the Victorian Station Timeline on the Victorian Station website, accessed through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource The Victorian Web.
Once you have gone over the timeline as a class, break the students into small groups and give each group a printout of the timeline along with an envelope with all of the timeline descriptions printed on slips of paper. Ask them to organize the slips according to each item's place on the timeline. To save time, the timeline descriptions are included in a printable chart, available in .pdf format.
Next, hand out and go over the Qualities of a Victorian Gentleman and the Qualities of a Lady on the Victorian Station website, accessed through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource The Victorian Web, and discuss these as a class. The students might need your help defining some terms.
When you have read through each list, ask the students to summarize their observations, and display their responses on the board or on a large sheet of paper. A point of interest you might include is the qualities for women were focused more on how they looked than how they were and what they did, while the qualities for men were focused on how men acted and behaved.
Using the following web pages, create a list of information to pass out to students about childhood during the Victorian period. Break the class into small groups or pairs and have them go over the information contained in The Children of Victorian Parents, accessed through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource The Victorian Web, and Victorian Childhood, accessed through the EDSITEment-reviewed website Center for the Liberal Arts.
Have the groups answer the following questions:
After the groups have answered the questions, have each group write a sentence or two summing up the lives of lower- and upper-class children in Victorian times.
Briefly review the aspects of Victorian culture and childhood introduced in Lesson One, and introduce Beatrix Potter as the topic for the next few days' activities.
Using a handout that condenses the information or a printout from the Beatrix Potter Art and Life links on the World of Peter Rabbit website, read as a class about Beatrix Potter's Victorian childhood and ask students to answer the following questions:
After reviewing the background material on the Victorian period and discussing Beatrix Potter's childhood by going over these questions with the class, ask the students to write a personal response comparing Victorian childhood, and specifically Potter's life, to their own. What do they think it would be like to see their parents very rarely? To have animals for best friends?
Next, read about Beatrix Potter's artwork by following the second set of links listed under Preparing to Teach this Lesson. Emphasize that Beatrix Potter is an "illustrator" who learned to draw by observing and sketching her environment and that she most often did pencil sketches and watercolor drawings. Take your students outside or on a field trip to a park and allow them to sketch plants, animals, and insects. Students might use their sketches later as illustrations for their own animal stories, just as Potter sometimes based her stories on drawings she had completed.
**When you return to class, you might want to give students the opportunity to use watercolors to enhance their sketches, as Beatrix Potter did. See the Extending the Lesson section of this lesson plan for ideas about setting up learning centers for this part of the lesson.
**If possible, when reading about Potter's artwork, view some examples of her drawings of plants, animals, and insects. Follow the third set of links listed under Preparing to Teach this Lesson. This exercise will work best if you have a computer and a digital projector, but if your students use laptops they can view the pictures on their own. Your other option is to download and print out several images on a color printer and have them transferred, in color, to overhead transparency sheets.
Read the following stories as a class and fill out the story chart, available in .pdf format, together:
Then, have the students read the following stories on their own or in small groups and ask them to complete the story chart for these stories:
After the students have finished their story charts, discuss common traits of the naughty animal characters as a class and ask the students what they think the moral of each story is.
Finally, ask the students to write about a time when they were naughty but learned a lesson from what they did wrong. Ask them to describe what they did and why they did it, what the consequences were, and what they learned from the experience.
Have students write and illustrate their own naughty animal story! Give students a story-planning chart, provided in .pdf format, so that they can outline the important elements of their stories before beginning to write. You might want to prearrange booklets for each student. Remind students to plan where their illustrations will go in their stories.
**This is an excellent activity to do on a computer or laptop, as students can type their stories and arrange both text and pictures created in Paint or other programs.
5-7 class periods