Layers of Meaning
Newberry-winning children's novelist Lois Lowry is adept at presenting universes with rules not quite like our own. In Gossamer,she presents us with a unique world, even though ostensibly it takes place in our own nighttime landscape.
There are painful themes in Gossamer -- adults who hurt children, loss, the need to move on -- but overall it's a gentle, hopeful book. The premise? That our dreams are sent by spirits or imaginative beings that care for us. Nightmares? Ah, well, those come from figures who delved too deeply into human pain and crossed over into the darkness themselves.
Lowry shifts perspective from chapter to chapter. In other chapters, she gives us glimpses of a lonely retired teacher and the foster child temporarily in her care. Sometimes she focuses on the dream bestowers who have been assigned to their house.
The protagonist is Littlest, a dream bestower in training. At least she is Littlest when we meet her. But by the end of the story, she will no longer be. She will be Gossamer because she has a special kind of touch, and under her tutelage will be a New Littlest One.
Gossamer is appropriate for upper elementary and middle school students. Below are lesson plan ideas for those age groups. Early lesson plans focus on supporting comprehension, later ones on extending learning. I have linked to additional resources from around the web. Particularly noteworthy are videos and study guides created by theater companies that have produced the stage version.
Image: Waponi, Flickr Creative Commons
Teaching Reading Comprehension with Gossamer
What age group is Gossamer for? Readability (as measured by word and sentence length) is at the upper elementary level. However, there's plenty in the book that will challenge older readers. The School Library Journal places the grade level at 4-7, Booklist at 5-8.
Gossamer can be a difficult read, even at the literal level. It's not that the vocabulary or sentence structure is especially tough. The difficulty here lies in the overall structure. We shift from one perspective to another without formal introduction to setting and characters. In the early chapters, a child needs to apply her "proficient reader strategies": asking questions, making inferences, monitoring her comprehension.
Gossamer can also be read at a nonliteral level -- mined for thematic and archetypical meaning.
Some teachers like to do the story as a read-aloud in the upper elementary grades. This provides an excellent opportunity to model reading comprehension strategies.
Setting the Stage for Reading Comprehension
Tackling those First Chapters
Lois Lowry places us into a fantasy world without announcing it. There's no description or narration at the beginning to let us know these characters aren't of our realm. The questioning that Littlest does of her elders... It's the sort of thing real children do.
The teacher may want to use the first chapter as a read-aloud and model comprehension monitoring strategies. One thing to note -- or puzzle over -- is the use of descriptors instead of names (Littlest, Fastidious). Another thing is the content of Littlest's questions. It's not inconceivable that a small child would ask whether she was a dog. Still, it's unusual.
We don't want to let children miss that pivotal line, near the end of the first chapter, when Littlest asks whether she and her kind are humans. What real child would ask such a thing? Now the reader has a pretty good idea this is fantasy. But the task still remains to figure out who these folks are! If students are reading on their own, they may want to jot down their questions and theories as they read the first four chapters.
Some of the difficult vocabulary words are especially crucial for understanding the story. (Do children know what "bestowal" is? Are they familiar with the word "inflict"?)
Lesson Plans from Theater Companies
Oregon Children's Theater and First Stage both released study guides to accompany plays put on during the 2008 - 2009 theater season. Although the materials were designed primarily for students who would be viewing the production, some have wider application, either as written or with minor adaptations.
Oregon Children's Theater has a short packet of student-friendly materials in their archives. I particularly like the handout that offers a glimpse of Lowry's creative process in the first stages of book writing. It is drawn from a speech that she gave. Apparently she was just writing, not knowing where her words would take her, when she surprised herself with the line, "The tiny footsteps that crossed her bedroom each night never woke her". And thus she was catapulted into the fantasy realm.
First Stage produced another wonderful resource. Here we the full text of Lowry's speech. We learn a little more about Lowry's process in a separate activity about names. Lowry reported that she had originally given Littlest a real name, but she felt it made her too human and took away from that ethereal character. Although the packet doesn't suggest asking students why they think Lowry named the characters as she did, it could be a good lead-in -- and an opportunity to do a bit of rhetorical analysis.
The First Stage packet also includes a nonfiction reading activity about dream interpretation. There are activities designed to build self worth and socio-emotional intelligence as well as academic skills.
- Oregon Children's Theater Resource Guide Archives
Download lesson plans for grades 5 - 8.
- First Stage Enrichment Guides
Look for Gossamer under 2008 - 2009. What you find is more than just lesson plans -- it also includes resources for parents and teachers on child abuse, foster care, and other issues touched on in the play.
Using Sign Posts
Lowry uses italics to indicate dream sequences. Sophisticated readers will pick up on such "signposts" away and use them to prime their reading of the passage. Some students will need direct instruction on using text elements.
Littlest wants to stay at the first house she was assigned to. She can't. She says she loves. She's told she can't love because she's not human; she's imaginary. Do you believe this? Do her '"people" love? What evidence can you find in the book to support your opinion?
Extending the Story
At the end of Gossamer, there is a New Littlest... and the potential for a new story. Students can review the story's structure while working on their creative writing skills.
Things to Consider:
What are the New Littlest One's personality traits?
What house will Gossamer and New Littlest be assigned to?
What problems will they face?
Will the new littlest ultimately earn a new name?
Crossing Genres: The Making of a Play
This well made video features author Lois Lowry as well as people from Oregon Children's Theater.
Here's another take on Gossamer. Students can compare these two very different visions.
Additional Lesson Plan Resources for Gossamer
- Multnomah County Library
Discussion questions and suggestions for further reading.
- The Nutmeg Award
Download discussion questions submitted by Connecticut libraries.
Dream Bestowal in Poetry
Lois Lowry is not the first or only person to suggest a magical element in the bestowal of dreams. Students can study this thematic element in poetry as well.
- Good Dreams
Poems sometimes add a fantastical element to the dreaming process. It's not hard to do, is it, when dreams are so fantstical.
Another Take on Dream Bestowal: Dream Weaver
The 1976 song Dream Weaver offers another take on dream bestowal.
YouTube is of course blocked in many districts. Teachers may want to look into getting a copy of the song. Students may enjoy looking for parallels in the lyrics.
Would you want to be a bestower of dreams? Why or why not? Including specific examples from the book.