133 – St. George and the Dragon

We went to the St. George’s Day celebrations in Leicester City to have some fun and learn a little bit about the very ancient story in which St. George slays a dragon to save a city from its really, really bad breath. Hear the original tale and find out why it still has good ideas to teach children today, even if it is very ancient and unfamiliar in some ways.

Are the parents in the story terrible? Why is St. George so cool? And what does this story have to do with Taylor Swift?

Translation of Chapter 56, “”De Sancto Gerogio” from the Legenda Aura: Vulgo Historia Lombardica Dicta by Jacobus de Voragine

by T.Q. Townsend

George was a Roman soldier originally from Greece, who arrived in a city named Silena, which was in the North African province of Libya. Next to the city there was an enormous lake, and in it lurked a horrible dragon. Anyone who was foolish enough to attack the dragon would just end up running away . . . or being eaten. The dragon’s breath was so foul that whenever it came near the city, anyone who breathed it would be infected and fall down dead.

To keep the dragon from coming to the city and killing everyone, the people would put two sheep outside the walls every day. But pretty soon, the people of Silena started to run out of sheep. So they started putting out just one sheep, and a child. They drew lots to see which sons and daughters would be given to the dragon, but soon enough only one child was left: the only daughter of the king.

At first the king refused to give up his beloved daughter, saying, “Take away all my gold and silver, and half my kingdom, but don’t take my little girl!” Well, then the townsfolk were pretty annoyed, and they shouted back:

“Look, King, why are you offering to give up your gold and silver now, after all of our children are dead? How come you only want to save YOUR daughter? Unless you give your daughter to the dragon like everybody else, we will throw you in your house, lock the door, and set it on fire.”

The princess then began to weep, and the King turned to his daughter, saying, “Alas, my sweet little daughter, what shall I do? What shall I say? I had hoped to see you grow up and get married one day.”

Then he turned to the people and said, “Can I have eight days with my daughter to say goodbye?”

The people said, “Well, all right.”

After eight days had passed the people came back in great anger, saying, “That dragon’s breath is LITERALLY killing us. Why are you letting us die just to protect your daughter?

Then the king saw that he could not save the princess. So he gave her fine royal robes to wear. Then he threw his arms around her and with tears running down his face said, “Alas, my sweetest daughter, I thought that one day I would be able to hug your children and help look after them as they grew up, but now you are going to be devoured by a dragon. Alas for me, my sweet darling. I would have invited great princes to your wedding, given you a palace decorated with pearls and filled with the music of drums and organs. But now you go to be devoured by a dragon.”

The king kissed her one last time and then let her go, saying, “Oh, my daughter, I wish I had died before this day so that I did not have to lose you like this.”

Then the princess fell at her father’s feet and asked him for a blessing. Her father blessed her with many tears, and then the princess bravely made her way to the lake. Just then George happened to be riding by, and when he saw the weeping girl he asked her what was wrong.

The princess only answered, “Noble young man, get on your horse quickly and get out of here, or you will die with me.”

But George answered, “Don’t be afraid, little one, but tell me, what are you doing here with the entire city watching?”

She replied, “I can see that you are a kind young man with a magnificent heart, but you really need to get out of here. Do you wish to die with me?”

But George refused to go, saying, “I won’t leave until you tell me what’s going on.”

The princess told her tale, and when George at last understood the situation he said, “Little one, don’t be afraid, for I will help you in the name of Christ.”

The princess replied, “You are a good soldier, but you should hurry and save yourself. Don’t die with me! I am already going to die, and if you try to save me you’ll just die too!”

And while the princess and the knight were speaking – behold! The horrible stinking dragon raised its head from the lake. The princess began to tremble and said, “Run away, my good lord! Run away fast!”

But George mounted his horse, made the sign of the cross to give himself courage, and boldly attacked the dragon as it charged toward him. He swung his lance mightily and trusted his soul to God. The knight and the dragon collided. George wounded the dragon grievously and threw him to the ground. The dragon was defeated, and now cowered at his feet like a tame dog.

George brought the dragon back to the city, and at first everyone began to head for the hills, saying, “Oh no! We’ll all die!”

But George called them back, saying, “Have no fear, for I was sent to you by the Lord to save you all from the dragon’s punishments. All you have to do is believe in Christ and be baptized, and I’ll kill this dragon.”

The King and all the people thought that sounded fine, so George killed the dragon with his sword and ordered it to be carried away from the city. Twenty thousand men and their families were baptized that day. The king offered an enormous pile of money to blessed George, who instantly refused and said it should be given to the poor. Then George instructed the king to take good care of churches, honor the priests, pay attention during church services, and always look after the poor. Then he kissed the king and left.

The End.

Oh, though in some books telling this tale it says that George killed the dragon before he told everyone to get baptized. Which I have to say seems a bit better to me.

119 – The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe as Historical Fiction

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis is not about World War II, except . . .  it kind of is. This novel was published in 1950, but it is set in 1940. Many of the events and themes in the book would have been instantly recognizable to those who first read it, and it’s useful to point that out to children today, who will not have the same emotions and experiences as children from 1950.

The most obvious connection to the war is that the four main characters are children sent away from London to get them away from The Blitz. But there are a surprising number of other things in this story that reflect wartime experiences, from the food to being part of an underground resistance movement!

102 – Interview with Anne Fine

November’s Leicestershire Children’s Writer is the legendary Anne Fine, author of dozens of books including the Diary of a Killer Cat series, The Chicken Gave it to Me, Bill’s New Frock, Flour Babies, Madame Doubtfire, and her most recent book, Aftershocks.

Anne’s writing skill is matched by her sense of humor and her thoughtfulness, and it was a great pleasure to be able to speak with her. In our conversation, she discusses her latest work, her surprise that Bill’s New Frock remains relevant today, and how she really feels about the cat who inspired her to write Diary of a Killer Cat.

You can learn more about Anne and her work at annefine.co.uk.

92 – Tom Sawyer and Robin Hood

In chapter 8 of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, Tom and Joe Harper re-enact the fight between Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne. They quote directly from a real story which was very popular when Mark Twain was a child: Robin Hood and His Merry Foresters, a book written by Joseph Cundall under the pen name Robert Percy.

In this episode, find out about the scene from Cundall’s book that inspired Twain’s reenactment, and get ideas for how to inspire reluctant readers with books that actually appeal to their tastes.

Activity: Get Inspired Like Tom Sawyer

Before reading chapter 8 of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, read the story of “Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne” in Robin Hood and His Merry Foresters by Robert Percy (the pen name of Joseph Cundall). Have students re-enact the scene, preferably outdoors and with some props. Encourage them to quote or elaborate on Cundall’s tale. Then read Mark Twain’s version of the scene as performed by Tom Sawyer and Joe Harper. Discuss the similarities and differences.

90 – Sense and Sensibility and Teenagers

Sense and Sensibility is the one best suited for teenagers out of all of Jane Austen’s works, and after more than 200 years it still has a lot to say to older teens looking for good advice on how to finish growing up. While of course many things have changed when it comes to the economic independence, dating preferences, and age of marriage for young people, Sense and Sensibility can still give good advice by contrasting the overly romantic approach of Marianne Dashwood to the more pragmatic approach of her older sister Elinor.

Activity: How do You Spot a Bad Partner?

While reading Sense and Sensibility with teenagers, engage in discussions about how Colonel Brandon, Edward Ferrars, and John Willoughby all reveal themselves to be good or bad romantic partners. After reading the novel, have students either write an essay, give a presentation, or engage in a discussion about how young people should balance romantic and pragmatic concerns when looking for someone to date or even marry.

76 – Animal Farm

Animal Farm by George Orwell offers something to virtually every academic discipline. Teenagers will be delighted to engage with it so long as it’s presented in an interesting and appealing way. In this episode, I give some ideas for how this book can be taught in different kinds of academic classes.

Also in this episode, I mentioned this heartwarming story I found about a town in Wałbrzych, Poland that is using handmade dolls representing Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables in order to raise awareness about the need for more foster families. I’d love to find more information about this story, but I don’t speak Polish, so if any listeners can help me understand some of the Polish-language reporting on this sweet story, I sure would be grateful!

Activity: Passive Voice

Teachers usually tell students never to use passive voice, and as a general rule this is good advice. Passive voice is when a sentence puts more focus on the person or object experiencing an action, rather than the person or object doing the action. A sentence written with active voice would be “The animals sang a revolutionary song called Beasts of England.” That same sentence in passive voice was “A revolutionary song called Beasts of England was sung by the animals.” Active voice tends to result in clearer, shorter, more easily understood sentences. Passive voice can sometimes make it unclear who performed an action.

But sometimes, passive voice can be used creatively for the sake of humor or to encourage the reader to figure out certain things independently. George Orwell uses passive voice in Animal Farm to draw attention to times when the pigs behave in a selfish or corrupt manner. These sentences often begin with “it was noticed” or “it was felt.”

Have students track times when passive voice is used in Animal Farm. Ask them to rewrite these sentences in direct voice, so that the styles can be compared. Then discuss how the passively construction sentences are more funny and thought-provoking, which shows that passive voice can sometimes be used, but only for a good reason.

Activity: Who Should Be Allowed to Vote?

In Animal Farm, the pigs steadily convince the other animals to stop making any decisions for themselves because they might sometimes choose poorly. The pigs take all leadership power for themselves, shutting out any non-pigs from the government of Animal Farm.

After reading this portion of the story, encourage students to consider the following questions. Answers may be given as written responses, discussed in small groups, or talked about as a class.

  • Who should be allowed to vote?
  • Should someone be allowed to vote if they can’t understand what the consequences will be?
  • Should children be allowed to vote?
  • What about those with mental disabilities?
  • Should there be things people have to do to gain voting rights, such as passing a civics test or performing some service to the community or nation?
  • Under what circumstances should someone have their voting rights taken away?

Activity: Political Slogans

In Animal Farm, the animals come up with a list of principles for their philosophy of Animalism, using the slogan “four legs good, two legs bad.” The pigs gradually begin breaking the principles until they change this slogan to “four legs good, two legs better.” The sheep are easily persuaded to bleat these slogans in a very pointed metaphor.

Have students research political slogans. Some are fairly honest and straightforward, like “I Like Ike.” Some summarize a political position such as “No Taxation Without Representation” or “No Nukes.” Others are more threatening, such as “Eat the Rich” or those which claim a country should belong only to a certain ethnic group. Each student in a class can research a different political slogan, focusing on the historical setting of the slogan’s creation and the message that it was meant to send. Students could also share their feelings about the slogan’s effectiveness and the implications of the policies the slogan advocates for.

71 – Sue Townsend

Sue Townsend is Leicestershire’s most beloved author. While she primarily wrote for adults, she has been a major influence on other local children’s writers and her first three novels about the angsty, acne-plagued Adrian Mole remain beloved by teens and adults alike after 40 years in print. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4, The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole, and The True Confessions of Adrian Albert Mole provide a spectacular view of the messy life of a teenager growing up in Britain in the 80’s.

The novels about Adrian Mole’s teen years are a good lesson in the history and politics of this period, offering a chance for kids to understand the different points of view on the issue of government assistance and social programs for those farther down the economic ladder. They also provide a great opportunity to spark conversations about how teenagers should deal with the increasingly adult problems they will have in their lives, sometimes sooner than they would wish.

Activity: Who Should Help Adrian?

Adrian Mole is a disadvantaged teenager. His parents have a volatile relationship, and for a while his mother moves away. Both parents have short-term relationships wiht other people, creating an even more unstable home environment for Adrian. Both parents smoke and drink heavily and depend on government handouts to pay the bills and put food on the table.

Issues such as welfare benefits, socialized health care, and who deserves help from society can quickly become abstract or even contentious, but teens can begin exploring these ideas in an age-appropriate way by keeping the focus on Adrian and his life. Students can explore the following questions in a classroom conversation or in an essay.

  • When parents fail to take care of their kids properly, what is the point at which help should be offered by outside groups such as churches, schools, or social workers?
  • Adrian had his first hangover at age 14. What public health information can you find out about the dangers of heavy drinking at such a young age? What do you think is a good way to talk to teenagers about the risks that come from drinking alcohol?
  • Adrian’s father loses his job and becomes too depressed to look for work, instead sleeping late and watching television during the day and depending upon government benefits to pay the bills. Without welfare payments to Mr. Mole, Adrian will not have enough to eat or a home to live in. Do you feel Mr. Mole should continue to receive money from the government?
  • If disadvantaged children do not receive help to ensure that they have homes, food, healthcare, and an education, it is more likely that they will work in lower-paying jobs, have poorer health, and be more likely to engage in criminal behavior. What are ways that disadvantaged children can be helped? How should the costs of such help be paid for? Who should decide what help a child’s family should receive?

68 – The Secret Garden Was Right About Robins

As an American, I had always assumed that the character of the robin in The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett was exaggerated to make it more intelligent and human-like than in real life. But now that I have my own “bit of Earth” in an English garden, I can see just how wrong I was! The Secret Garden is actually incredibly accurate in its description of the behaviors and biology of the British robin, and as you and your kids read this story you can get the most pleasant science lesson you’ve ever had.

Activity: Learn About British Robins

Children can write down what they learn about British robins as they read The Secret Garden. The character of the robin in the book displays behaviors normal to the species, and more information can be found online. Here are some reliable websites to help get you started:

British Trust for Ornithology
Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
Natural History Museum
BBC Wildlife Magazine

Print this worksheet and fill it out as you read The Secret Garden. Use clues from the novel as well as reliable scientific websites to learn more about the biology and behavior of the British robin.