If we sign on for a railroad job this month, we can deal with lots of good picture books and novels, have some great sing alongs and learn about transportation in the past, present and future. You might start with a bulletin board with a title from one of the songs listed below or simply "Clickety Clack." Make the most compelling train you can for a centerpiece and put timetables, tickets, photographs and other railroad memorabilia all around it. Leave room for the kids to add lines from songs and poems and book titles.
In many communities there are associations for model railroaders. Contact them and ask if they can set up a display in your school or if they will let the kids visit a set up. There are many videos available which celebrate trains. Try contacting an antique railroad company such as the narrow gauge that runs from Silverton, Colorado to Durango. They have a fairly inexpensive video about their line. I'm sure others do to.
Children and adults who are interested in railroads (and there will be many more thanks to your theme) might like the computer game "Railroad Tycoon" available in several versions from Microprose.
When I think of railroads, my first thoughts go to song. Besides the obvious "I've Been Workin' on the Railroad," there's "Freight Train," and "The Rock Island Line." The words and music to these three are all in a wonderful book: Gonna Sing My Head Off! American Folk Songs for Children by Kathleen Krull (her website) and Allen Garns (Knopf, 1992.) Not in this volume but equally singable are "Casey Jones," and "Wabash Cannonball." Golden Oldie's would include "Chattanooga Choo Choo," "If You Miss the Train I'm On," and "I Never Will Marry." I think my first step in a railroad theme emanating from the library would be to enlist the music department in making a tape of these and other railroad songs and music from the folk and classical traditions. I'd play the tape often in the days ahead.
It's an easy step back and forth from song to poetry and David McCord's "Song of the Train," starts clickety clacking in my mind when I think of railroads. It's available in many anthologies, but don't stop there. Send the kids out to gather train poems. I found "The California Zephyr", subtitled "Lines on the Discontinuance of a Crack Passenger Train," by Ernest Kroll in Lillian Morrison's Rhythm Road (Lothrop, 1988 ISBN 0-688-07098-1.) In the same volume you'll find Theodore Roethke's "Night Journey" and "Train Tune" by Louise Bogan. In The Random House Book of Poetry for Children by Jack Prelutsky, there's Diane Siebert's "Train Song", Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Travel", and "From a Railway Carriage" by Robert Louis Stevenson. That last poem can be sung to the tune of "Down in the Valley". Setting poems to well-known music is fun and helps the kids with mood and rhythm as well as giving them many opportunities to read and reflect on the poems they find.
All this leads to books of course, which is where we all knew we'd be going. Donald Crew's Freight Train (Greenwillow, 1978 ISBN 0-688-84165-1) has been around a long time but it remains one of my treasured picture books. Available in big book as well as paperback formats, Freight Train introduces us to color, motion, design and trains all in a moment or two. Younger students can look at it one way and older students can see what Crew's was trying to do and the clever ways in which he did it. In this month's Kids' Books column, I reviewed Crews' newest railroad book, Short Cut (Greenwillow, 1993 ISBN 0-688-06436-1.) Let the kids decide whether or not it's the same train in both books.
Chugging along, we've got Diane Siebert's beautiful book Train Song with illustrations by Mike Wimmer (HarperCollins, 1990 ISBN 0-690-04726-6.) It's a picture book version of the poem by the same title we mentioned earlier. Reading the poem first might let kids describe or complete illustrations of their own before they see what Mike Wimmer did with it.
That's just the beginning of picture books about trains. Lots of kids like the Thomas the Tank Engine series by W. Awdry (Random House.) I like Jim Aylesworth's Country Crossing with illustrations by Ted Rand (Macmillan, 1991 ISBN 0-689-31580-5,) John Burningham's Hey! Get Off Our Train (Crown, 19900 ISBN 0-517-57643-0,) and A Regular Rolling Noah by George Ella Lyon and Stephen Gammell (Macmillan, 1991 ISBN 0-689-71449-1.) Dig out your favorites
A good bridge from picture books to non-fictional material is Paul Goble's Death of the Iron Horse (Macmillan, 1987 ISBN 0-02-737830-6) which gives the Native American side to the westward movement led by the railroads.
That should open up some topics for research on the subject. Instead of working in a vacuum with this theme, try asking the kids what they are studying in science, social studies, art, physical ed, music and language arts. There may well be a way for them to do a research project on trains which will connect the two fields. Music we've already covered: find songs and music which relate to the railroads. To connect art they can find prints and slides showing various artists' treatment of trains and relate those to the illustrations in the picture books. They can create their own visual images of trains in two and three dimensional renditions. Social studies is also easy because our history and geography can be observed at least from the middle of the nineteenth century as to how the times and places affected the railroads and vice versa. Economics comes to the fore when we think about the rise and decline of the railroads in this country and why it is not echoed in other parts of the world. Science is also obvious as we look at trains from a technological point of view. How do and did they work and what of the trains of the future? All of the work with reading and writing about trains brings in the language arts and I leave the phys ed stuff to you. Everyone needs a challenge.
When conducting research on trains you'll want Leonard Everett Fisher's Tracks Across America: The Story of the American Railroad 1825-1900 (Holiday, 1992 ISBN 0-8234-0945-7) which uses primary sources for photographs and quotes, and provides us with the definitive children's book on the railroads, especially that of the nineteenth century. There is information on the role the railroads played in the Civil War, as well as the scandals and accidents involving railroads. Technical information about the engineering and physical science in railroads is also clearly described and diagrammed.
Will you web outward from the trains to other transportation? to the Underground Railroad? to the robber barons of the turn of the century? to the Orient Express?
How about a contest wherein older kids bring in titles of novels in which trains play a part however slight? You could give out special bookmarks to new discoveries to add to your list. I'd start with Josephine Poole's Catch as Catch Can (currently out of print but a wonderful mystery), and weren't the kids in the Narnia series involved in a tragic train trip?
I've got to go. I just found this brochure on the Orient Express and surely such luxury was intended for me.
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