Oh, the places we’ve been!
Dr. Seuss’ book Green Eggs and Ham follows a character named Sam-I-am and his efforts to convince the unnamed protagonist to try an old meal with a new twist. This spring I tasted my metaphorical green eggs and ham: a course on children’s literature offered for the first time by Denison’s Department of English. Unlike Sam-I-am’s elusive subject, however, I was eager to jump in and sample this course as a teaching assistant. It wouldn’t be like Green Eggs and Ham, though, if it weren’t for my own Sam-I-am, Dr. Fred Porcheddu ’86.
There aren’t too many professors who will sacrifice the opportunity to teach in their area of expertise in order to allow a student the chance to develop her own area of expertise. There aren’t many professors who would ask that student for input when creating a syllabus and selecting course texts, who would let her comment on papers, or who would let her teach an occasional class. But Dr. Porcheddu is one—at least, he was for me. The course had been a long time coming, born two years ago out of my independent study on children’s literature with Dr. Porcheddu and a comment I made to him, wishing that Denison had a course on this emerging field. His response? “Then let’s offer one!”
Like those who make green eggs and ham, Dr. Porcheddu and I had to start from scratch and create an entirely new course, deciding our main themes, units, and texts. Even though we spent a year-and-a-half developing it, we were not prepared for how popular the course would be. While in Barney-Davis Hall in the weeks preceding registration, I often heard students say they were hoping to get into this new children’s literature course. Even still, I was astonished by the email I received from Dr. Porcheddu at 9:30 a.m. on the day senior registration cards were processed. Our class had filled up in an hour! With an ever-expanding waiting list, Dr. Porcheddu frequently received emails from students begging him to let them into the course.
We started the semester revisiting students’ favorite childhood books, and memories quickly surfaced. One student insisted on reading Goodnight, Moon every evening before bed as a preschooler. Another favored Anne of Green Gables because her grandmother first shared it with her. Another’s love of cooking may have been influenced by Strega Nona, a children’s book in which pasta floods an entire town. For me, that first fave was Sideways Stories from Wayside School, which had a chapter titled “Allison.” Emotional fondness pervaded the relationships we had with these books—an attachment that, at once, enhanced and, at times, impeded the class’s academic focus.
Throughout the semester, we read a picture treasury and books by Dahl, Sachar, and Seuss. We were visited by popular local illustrator Tim Bowers, and spent a unit on fairy tales, Disney, and adaptation. Rather than solely discussing and reading adaptations, however, our class had a firsthand exercise in adaptation, challenged to make the decisions other adaptors have had to make: What changes? What stays the same? And most importantly, why? For a few days, members of the class shared their retellings of the Grimm Brothers’ The Frog Prince, which ranged from traditional stories with a surprise ending to contemporary allegorical adaptations. Some students created illustrations to accompany their stories, and many read—per Porcheddu’s request—with the classic elementary school style in mind (cross-legged and always asking, “Is everyone sitting comfortably?”). At the request of our students, I started a class blog, “Oh, the Places We’ll Go,” where students continued our conversation outside of the classroom.
Just as Seuss’ protagonist is challenged to taste a new culinary concoction, I went out of my comfort zone, as well, teaching a class of all seniors, my immediate peers. Learning to look at the classroom through the lens of a teacher also gave me some food for thought, as I worked to ensure that I mixed up the class routine, that I could adapt to class conversation when it didn’t go as I anticipated, and that I created an environment where shyer students would feel comfortable enough to participate.
In fact, our entire course mimicked Green Eggs and Ham, as we all sampled the class for the first time, figuring out which ingredients needed to be added to or removed from the course and what we could do to spice it up. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that, should there be future iterations of the course, they, like the dish itself, will be a tasty treat.
Allison Kranek, a native of Akron, Ohio, is a 2011 summa cum laude Denison graduate in English. She was awarded the President’s Medal, the college’s highest student honor, and inducted into Denison’s chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.