Making Inferences with “The World on the Turtle’s Back”

Like most teachers, now that the summer has begun, I have already started thinking about next school year.  In my American Literature class, we begin the year with the study of Native American oral literature.  More specifically, we read an Iroquois creation myth entitled “The World on the Turtle’s Back”.

My students are usually interested in this story due to some of the crazy plot elements (including a husband pushing his pregnant wife through a hole in the sky, a baby being born out of his mother’s armpit, and an epic duel between two twins).  But what I love about teaching this text is the conversations we have about the art of storytelling.

I begin most of my lessons with a warm up that asks my students to “engage” with some aspect of what we will be working on, as consistent with the first step in the 5E model of lesson planning (learn more here).  For this lesson, I accomplish this task by showing a video.  The main goal is to show students a video of someone telling a story that allows them to make inferences about the storyteller.  I have always used “The Scared is Scared”,  the imaginative story of a six year old girl about a bear named Asa (also coincidentally the name of the girl) and a mouse named Toby, with live actors acting it out.

The video is a little long (I don’t typically show the entire thing), but it is very engaging, and my students usually love it!  It’s definitely a great way to start the first lesson of the year.  After watching the video, I ask students to write in their Writer’s Notebooks about what Asa’s story tells us about her.  Next we discuss their answers as a class.  Some typical responses include:

  • she is creative, because she develops an imaginative fictional story.
  • she is detail-oriented, because she is very specific in describing her characters (how many siblings they have, where they live, how big they are, etc.), and
  • she is an animal lover, because they are the main characters in her story.

Throughout the discussion, I encourage students to think deeper than “she is a girl” or “she is young,” and to really delve into what the story reveals about her personality and what kind of person she is.  I also make sure students can explain their inferences and support them with evidence from the story.

This discussion serves as a foundation to introduce and define “inferences”, as making inferences about Iroquois culture is the main objective throughout our reading of “The World on the Turtle’s Back.”  Specifically, I ask students to make inferences about the environment, social values, and rituals of the Iroquois based on this creation myth.

I really enjoy reading the text through this lens, because rather than focusing on lower-level thinking skills like summarizing plot or identifying elements of creation stories, it asks students to read the text as a puzzle, searching for clues about history from its words.  My hope is that students will begin to see that storytelling is an extension of the storyteller filled with traces of their beliefs, experiences, and culture.

You can download my complete lesson plan here and find out more about my Storytelling Project where students craft their own stories and make inferences about their classmates to follow this lesson here.  Let me know if you have any questions!

world-on-the-turtle's-back-lesson-plan

I’d love to hear about your experiences teaching Native American oral literature and/or inferencing.  Have you ever read “The World on the Turtle’s Back” or taught inferencing?  What skills did you teach?  What resources did you use?

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