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This is the best book in the world.– A reluctant reader who only reads Magic Tree House books
[It was] perfect and funny. I will cry. I want more.– A student whose attention is difficult to keep
This book was like a movie in my mind!– A kid who generally prefers video games to books
The most amazing fantasy book ever rotten – oops – ritten [written]– A high reader (though not speller) who inhales books
Originally, this post was going to be about my favorite, go-to read-alouds with my class. Read-alouds, plural.
But then this week, I finished my annual unit of The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles with my class. And I have so much to tell you about this one book, that this post is going to wind up being all about it.
I’m going to give you all the reasons there are to love this book, PLUS some of the activities, assignments, and resources I’ve developed or found in order to teach with this book.
In a hurry? Jump to the consolidated list of resources at the bottom.
But even if you’re a parent (not a teacher), you’ll come away knowing the next book you HAVE to read with your child(ren).
Or, if you don’t have kids in your life, you’ll be picking up this book anyway, simply because it is such a GOOD READ.
A Quick Plot Synopsis:
A trio of siblings, Ben, Tom, and Lindy, meets a quirky old man at the zoo one day, and he mentions a creature called a whangdoodle. When the kids challenge him on its existence, he encourages them to look it up in the dictionary. Imagine their surprise when 1) they find it listed and 2) the “haunted” house that Tom dares his (younger) sister Lindy to knock on while trick-or-treating is actually the house of the man they met at the zoo. And, furthermore, that quirky old man is none other than Professor Savant, winner of the Nobel Prize for his work in genetics!
They ask him again about the whangdoodle and he tells them all about this magical, fantastical place called Whangdoodleland, with many kinds of fascinating, odd creatures and marvelous things that would never appear in the real world. He invites them to train with him in order to be able to visit Whangdoodleland and to try to actually meet the last of all the whangdoodles in the world.
They agree, but unfortunately, the prime minister of Whangdoodleland is dead set against humans reaching his beloved king because he fears for his king’s safety, so he does everything he can to stop them.
The tale continues with their quest to reach the last of the really great whangdoodles and all the lessons they learn, hardships they face, and problems they solve in order to do so.
Things to Love about this Book
I wish I could impress upon you all that makes this book so incredible. I’m not sure I have sufficient words, but I am going to do my level best.
First, the vocabulary. Oh, the beautiful, descriptive, alliterative, evocative vocabulary that Julie Andrews Edwards uses!
Here’s just a quick sample:
Not only is the rich word choice fantastic for expanding vocabulary in a meaningful context, – rather than a context-less vocabulary list – but the rich language is an incredible tool for teaching children the strategy (and art) of visualizing what is happening in the book.
Second, the book is a gold mine of themes and thought-provoking topics: the morality and responsibility of work in genetics; listening to “reasonable adults” when kids make poor choices; the concept of faith; how to deal with bullies; not giving up in the face of seeming impossibilities . . . and on and on.
These can spark great, natural conversations about these important topics. I could see a bit of it sounding preachy or a bit contrived (like when the professor is teaching them a lesson), but at the same time, his lessons are part of the plot. The students I’ve had have never said that it sounds like, say, Aesop, for instance.
Third, the sheer delight of the story itself. It’s a great adventure, and is paced so well.
I can’t remember where, but somewhere, when I was looking for resources and ideas for the book, I read that Julie Andrews did her best to write it as if it were a play. She pictured each part as if it were a scene in a drama, and then described it as such. As an actress, after all, she has been accustomed to making stories come alive on the stage and reading stage directions to do so.
I have to say, she succeeded. She brings intense scenes to high crescendos, allows a momentary lull while the characters regroup, and then brings the intensity up again before it gets boring. It truly is fantastic storytelling.
Fourth, it’s excellent for teaching about plot elements and story structure. When I was in school, I struggled to identify the parts of the plot in stories – especially the climax. This one, however, is super-duper clear, yet also complex enough to be interesting. Like I said: fantastic storytelling.
Fifth, it’s an older, somewhat obscure book. Kids usually haven’t read it prior to my class, which makes it more enjoyable when kids share predictions and we have discussions about what’s happening – or going to happen. There isn’t anyone spoiling the fun by saying, “I already know what happens!” Then, even though they haven’t heard of it before, they’re pleasantly surprised at how wonderful and magical this book is that they have to read for class.
Plus, if you have an awesome school librarian like mine, you can request that he/she pull and/or hide the copies that are at-large in the library so that your kids don’t sneakily check them out to try to read ahead.
Finally, it shows kids the wonder and possibility of books and that makes it a special kind of magical. I almost cried today when I read the one-sentence reviews (samples at top) that the kids wrote.
This year, so many of my students struggle with reading because of learning differences, or are new English learners. Yet, even on Zoom, I witnessed their enjoyment, anticipation, worry, and delight over each part of the book.
Teaching online has been exceedingly, excessively, extraordinarily hard this year (not to put too fine a point on it). Yet this book gave us the avenue, just as it always has in-person, to create classroom community and build reading skills all at the same, enjoyable time.
You know the magic is happening when students protest vehemently when you have to stop for the day, when they query in a hopeful voice, “Are we going to read today?” and when they look super sad when we reach the last page of the book.
How I’ve Taught with The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles
This book has been my constant, trusty companion since my first year of teaching, helping me to inspire a love of reading and teach some reading comprehension strategies and skills along the way.
Because of this wonderful book, those things happen in a way that the kids buy into and have very few complaints about. None of those stuffy folders of novel studies filled with boring comprehension questions here!
Years 1 and 2: Building Classroom Community and Using Our Imaginations
In these two years, I didn’t use it for teaching standards, per se. I didn’t even use it during our allotted ELA time. However, I did have them:
Write journal responses to prompts related to the book.
- Prediction prompts: What do you think will happen next?
- Extensions: “Do you agree with the professor’s view of _____?” or “What do you think of this character’s choice?”
Practice using their imaginations: They complained that their weren’t illustrations and wanted to know if they could just watch a movie of it. (The answer is: there is no movie!)
So when the professor is teaching the siblings to see colors, hear noises, notice smells, and to view things from a different perspective, we did that too.
- I took students on a walk around the school and challenged them to count how many different colors they could see.
- We paused and listened to how many sounds were in our classroom, even when we were all being quiet.
By the end of the book, my students were saying things like, “This book helped teach me to use my imagination.”
When I moved to Ecuador, I brought my own copy of The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles because I knew I wanted to share it with my students here, too. It didn’t end up fitting in my plans for Year 3 (which I regret), but…
In Year 4 (and 5 and 6), I decided to make it an entire unit in my ELA curriculum.
I have used this novel in a different way every single year and at a different time of year every year.
Here are some resources and ways that I have used the book that have been effective.
Don’t feel like you have to use them all. I’ve never used all of these things at once.
I hope they inspire you – and perhaps spark some ideas of your own!
Pre-Book: About the Author
Is anyone amazed at how supremely talented Julie Andrews Edwards is? Not only has she performed as a world-class actress and singer in movies like Mary Poppins (the original) and The Sound of Music, but she is also a talented author.
Because she is known outside of the world of books, I like to take a couple of days to help the kids realize who it is that wrote the book they’re about to read. It’s always fun to hear the kids exclaim in surprise when they realize she was a voice actress in a movie they know (Shrek or Despicable Me)
In order to do that, I adapted this article from biography.com. I added some images, and cut out some of the paragraphs and rephrased some tricky phrases.
I use it as a way to practice nonfiction standards and strategies like skimming and scanning, predicting and questioning, and annotating with a nonfiction text.
I modeled the format for the document based on a colleague’s example.
When in-person, I just print it off, and they write in the blanks/margins.
When remote, I simply have the kids select the text and create comments to annotate.
See the section “Questioning, Predicting, and Visualizing” below for more info on annotating.
After reading, annotating, and discussing this text, I often show a clip of her singing (“A Spoonful of Sugar” or “Do Re Mi“), since they usually have a question about her surgery and losing her singing voice.
Building Background Knowledge and Vocabulary
I teach a population where over 90% of my students speak English as a second (or third) language. Therefore, the rich language in this book has to be made more accessible to them. Plus, when you add in cultural differences, their prior knowledge is much different than a North American student who is reading the book.
I have used two different approaches to enlarge their vocabulary and build up their background knowledge:
When we’re in person, we’ll look up the definitions for the words on the list, look at the slides for the chapter we’re ready to read, and then read the chapter.
It does take a good chunk of time for this approach.
Often, we’re looking at vocabulary one day, and then reading a chapter the next day, especially in the beginning. Once we get farther into the book, they don’t need quite as much vocabulary support, so we can go faster.
This year, to save time during online learning, I nixed the vocab lists. Instead, I showed (most of) the slides and did a mixture of these three things for the rest of the words:
- adding critical words to the background slides
- explaining the definitions briefly as I read
- asking students to use context clues to figure out what the word means (bonus: that’s another standard!!)
Note: The first time I began developing a unit, I bought this novel study from The Book Umbrella on TpT to give me some ideas, especially for how to break the book into chunks, how to check their comprehension, and what vocabulary to quiz them on. If you’re wanting ready-made quizzes, this is a good place to go!
To learn the vocabulary words, students filled out packets that asked for a definition, synonym or antonym, illustration and sentence for each word. See the master list below for more details on how I do that in class.
Master list of vocabulary words from The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles – click the image below for a copy.
To differentiate, I often create two lists, with a word or two that overlap: one list with the more essential words to know, and one list with more challenging words.
Having two different lists, while it takes extra time, is really critical in order to both challenge the kids who already have a solid English vocabulary and support the English language learners or lower readers in our classroom.
Sample vocabulary packet – click the image below for a copy
What I love about doing vocabulary this way is that they are practicing dictionary skills, learning about words with multiple meanings, thinking about synonyms and antonyms, and practicing vocabulary words immediately as we read the chapters.
All of that, wrapped in one vocabulary package!
To help students visualize the characters, setting, and action, I compiled a slide deck of all sorts of words and phrases. Most are illustrated with a photo, and a few have videos or GIFs because those are more effective than a picture for helping them understand the meaning.
I’ve found that going over these slides adds a great deal of depth to their comprehension of the story – even for the most native of English speakers!
Click on the image below if you’d like a free copy of this slide deck!
Bonus 1: You’ll notice that I added some periodic comprehension questions (slides with purple background) to help build test skills and check their comprehension of the text simultaneously, as well as some other comprehension activities (like a journal of the Professor’s lessons).
Bonus 2: There are opportunities to teach about poetry (limericks are mentioned) as well as similes and metaphors!
Building Comprehension Skills
Questioning, Predicting, and Annotating
One of the approaches that has revolutionized the way that I teach reading comprehension was teaching students the SQP2RS acronym to use before, during, and after reading.
I’ll be writing a blog series on my entire approach to reading comprehension in the future, but for now, know that I teach students about skimming and scanning the text before reading, making predictions and asking questions before and during reading, and summarizing what they’ve read.
I teach these strategies explicitly as mini-lessons and then we practice them in the context of reading this book. To do that, they each get a sticky note to annotate while they read, or they use their individual whiteboards.
Whether we’re doing remote or in-person learning, I require them to write down at least three annotations per chapter.
We abbreviate like this, and then they write their annotation next to the abbreviation:
- P = prediction
- Q = question
- C = connection
- * = important detail/event
- ! = something surprising
We stop periodically during the chapter, or, at the very least, at the end of the chapter, for students to share their annotations.
Usually, once we’ve done it a couple of times, the kids who don’t seem to have any predictions or questions hear their peers’ thoughts and realize that they do indeed have their own thoughts to write down!
Once their comprehension juices get flowing, we have some very lively discussions – especially if I stop at a cliffhanger spot! (mwa-ha-ha)
For kids who are used to seeing everything handed to them on a silver screen, it can be hard for them to figure out how to create their own movie in their mind using their imaginations. This book is perfect for helping with that.
When a new character is introduced, especially at the beginning, I’ll pause and ask them to draw what they’re picturing (just a quick sketch. Don’t give your perfectionistic kids too much time to agonize over making it perfect).
I also pause at the parts where the author describes a new place in Whangdoodleland, such as when they first arrive, or The Jolly Boat, or the Whangdoodle’s palace – or the Whangdoodle himself!
I find that pausing and asking them if they’re visualizing helps remind them to do that and the brief stop gives them a chance to catch up with the description.
As I mentioned above, this is an excellent story to use to teach about the main parts of the plot. I’ve done this using two different resources.
For in-person, interactive notebooking: I really love this plot diagram resource from Musings from the Middle School on TpT.
The fact that she shows that the rising action has some dips and rises like a roller coaster helps students visualize that there were be some intense and some calm parts as we approach the climax. Also, her definitions of plot elements are clear and have helped me teach them better. Finally, she has a few different diagrams for you to choose from, depending on what works best with your class and teaching style.
For remote teaching: I developed this simple plot diagram on a Google slide deck for students to fill out as we went through the book this year. Click on the image to make a copy for your own use!
We stopped after the exposition and filled that box out, and we stopped again at the end of each part (1, 2, and 3) of the book.
Depending on your group of students, you may want to stop more frequently. You could also decide if you want them to fill it out independently, or talk through it as a class, depending on how much you’ve already taught plot structure so far in your year.
This year, I did a gradual release of responsibility:
- we filled our the exposition and started the rising action box together, talking through what counts as an important-enough-event to include on this one-page plot diagram.
- After Part 2, we talked through it, but they were responsible for writing the events on their own as homework
- When we finished the book, they filled out the remaining boxes on their own.
The great thing about this digital version is that they can make the font size smaller to fit more text into each box – this is especially necessary for the rising action box, since that contains the bulk of the plot.
Fun (and Cross-curricular) Learning Activities
Many of the more “fun” ideas I used were sparked by page 3 of the teacher’s guide from the Julie Andrews Collection website.
Pro tip: Only pick one or two of these to try your first time. I tried to do four of them the first time I taught this as a unit, and it was waaaayyy too much.
Art Connection: Scrappy Caps
While I have tried out variations of several of their ideas, the one I keep coming back to is creating our own scrappy caps.
At the end of the year, there’s usually someone who says that making their scrappy cap was a favorite memory of the year.
Since I can’t bear to do something as a time filler, I mix in some other standards as well. And it still ends up being fun. Win-win 🙂
After reading the descriptions of the scrappy caps that the professor gives the children in Part 2, Ch 1, I tell the students that they’re going to make their own scrappy caps so they can go to Whangdoodleland too. I tell them they can make it however they want, with whatever materials I provide. Some ask if they can bring materials from home. As long as they have permission from their parents, they can.
I keep the materials really simple: whatever is in my classroom already.
- construction paper
- markers/crayons/highlighters/colored pencils
Honestly, I inherited all of the ribbons and stickers from teachers who came before me in my classroom. So I spent $0 on this activity.
As you can see from the pictures above, they get pretty darn creative with just those materials! I have to limit the amount of time spent on this, because otherwise the hats just keep getting more and more intricate.
This year, we even did it on Zoom. The pictures are not nearly as good, but the kids just used whatever materials they had at home and were given permission for.
Some used real hats and added decorations to them. Others used construction paper.
I just grabbed a bandanna and tied it on like a bonnet, with one “magical” embellishment (an earring that I poked through the material).
Writing and Presenting
After they create their scrappy caps, I do one or both of these ELA-related assignments:
They write a paragraph telling the same things the professor tells the kids:
- its appearance
- where the hat “came from”
- the “materials” it’s made out of (is it titanium? gold? leather? some have even made theirs out of vibranium, à la Captain America)
- the magical element of the hat to help them get to Whangdoodleland
I tell them this ahead of time, so they have time to think through these things while they’re making their hat – and, of course, these requirements spur on their creativity.
Presenting their scrappy cap to the class:
After they make the hat and write the paragraph, they do a 30-60 second presentation to the class. I’ve let them read straight off of what they wrote, but do grade them on looking up from what they wrote to practice eye contact, enunciating, projecting, etc.
I also throw in some oral communication standards and grade them as audience members and on asking and answering questions.
Though there will always be people who hate public speaking, I find that there is a lot of engagement, because everyone wants to see everybody’s else’s scrappy cap.
Then, of course, we all put on our scrappy caps when the characters do to go to Whangdoodleland. Depending on the class, we might wear the hats a few days during reading. Eventually the novelty wears off or the hats start to fall apart. At that point, I send them home with the kids and we keep reading the books.
Science connection: Research Cloning
I’ve only done this project once, but it was fabulous.
Since I taught this unit near the end of the year, I decided to center our end-of-year debate unit around the question: Is cloning morally okay?
I found some basic, intro-type articles online, and also asked our librarian for some scholarly/news articles from our high school section of the library, so the two sides had plenty to read and discuss as they researched.
I didn’t have the entire class do the debate. Rather, only those who were interested. The rest practiced their media and presentation standards by creating trailers for the book or creating advertisements to show in the breaks during the debate.
Some created videos and others posters.
I can’t take full credit for these ideas; the teachers before me had done a similar unit, though their topic was whether Coke or Pepsi was better. Still, I had the help of having a basic structure in place to use.
We reserved the chapel, and asked administrators to come and judge the debate. We also invited parents and the 6th graders so we’d have a real audience. (The chapel was used for a concert around that same time, so it had decorations that made it look extra spiffy.) They were allowed to dress up fancy instead of wearing their school polo uniform shirt.
It was so much fun!
Consolidated List of Resources
To make things easier for you, I thought I’d list all the previously mentioned resources in one place.
Resources from me (free!)
- Pre-book adapted biography on Julie Andrews Edwards: in-person version and online version
- Master list of vocabulary words to teach
- Sample vocabulary list packet
- Background knowledge slides
- Editable plot diagram
Resources from others (some free)
- The book: The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles
- original biography Julie Andrews Edwards article from biography.com
- YouTube videos of “A Spoonful of Sugar” and “Do Re Mi“
- Teacher’s Guide from the Julie Andrews Collection
- Novel study from The Book Umbrella on TpT
- Interactive Notebook Plot Elements resource from Musings from the Middle School on TpT
What do you think?
Since this is my first time sharing teaching resources I’ve made with you, I’d love some feedback!
- What is unclear?
- What needs further explanation?
- Do you have a suggestion you have for how I can organize this better?
- Do you need/want a big picture unit plan?
Let me know in the comments!
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