Reading Comprehension and Critical Thinking
For nearly half a century, children have been watching Mary Poppins. Fewer have read the original book by P.L. Travers. I believe it's a worthy read. While it lacks the singing that I so enjoyed in childhood, it does give a young reader a lot to think about. For starters, it's got challenging vocabulary. Traditional measures of text difficulty put it at about the 6th grade level, though there's a lot in it that will captivate young readers.
Moreover, there's less to offend the modern reader. I've come to expect the original, pre-Disney stories to have more prejudices and sexism than even the Disney versions. I expect Disney to take out some of the depth, but also to take out some of the dated ideas. In the case of Mary Poppins, though, some issues were brought into the movie that did not exist in the book. The movie version is set before women won voting rights, and self-interested Mrs. Banks has been cast as a suffragette.
It's not that children will necessarily come away with a skewed version of history. I hadn't a clue what a suffragette was when I first saw the movie. Mrs. Banks bored me; I was more interested in the children and Mary Poppins herself. Years later, I find myself reading about the movie's questionable portrayal of Edwardian society and thinking, "Mrs. Banks was working for voting rights? I didn't remember that." Still, it's good to learn that that's not in the book at all.
Thinking about tackling this classic? Here are some lesson plan ideas, from supporting reading comprehension to exploring the book's big ideas.
Comprehension Development: Using Text Clues
One of the challenges at the upper elementary level is learning to reference the text when stating opinions. If children need a little practice, they can answer this question after reading the first chapter:
Is the story fantasy? How do you know? Give specific details from the story. (Hint: Are there any details that couldn't happen? Write about them.
Possible answer: Mary Poppins slides up the staircase. People can't slide up in the real world.
Mary Poppins pulls seven nightgowns, an armchair, and a folding bed out of the bag she carried. They wouldn't fit.
Note: If children can't answer this question, it may be that they need more vocabulary support. Travers writes that Mary Poppins slid up the bannister. She also uses, in her descriptions of Mary Poppins' possessions, some words and phrases that won't be familiar to many children.
Mrs. Banks, as portrayed in the original story, is a character worthy of exploration. She likes to be in fashion and on the cutting edge; her shallow values are based on class and looking good to others.
In order to determine her attitudes, the reader needs to do some inferring. Mary Poppins gets the best of Mrs. Banks more than once by suggesting that other people are doing the very thing that she wants Mrs. Banks to do. Modern, up-to-date people don't ask for references, she suggests in the first chapter. Consequently, Mrs. Banks decides she doesn't need references.
In the second chapter, Mrs. Banks is about to offer Mary Poppins every third Sunday as a day off. Mary Poppins suggests that the best people give every other Thursday -- and for more hours than originally suggested. Mrs. Banks may have a couple reasons for giving in. She is worried about Mary not staying. Still, she's left with the uncomfortable feeling that Mary Poppins knows more about the "best" people than she does.
Here are some possible comprehension questions for the first two chapters:
Why does Mrs. Banks change her mind about needing references? What does this tell you about what she values?
If Mary Poppins told Mrs. Banks that the best households give their employees a bonus at Christmas, what do you think Mrs. Banks will do? Support your answer with details from the text?
Advanced Reading Comprehension: Characters' Attitudes vs Author's Attitudes
Here's a challenge for exploration: What's the difference between a character's attitude and beliefs and the author's attitude and beliefs? Let's take a look at the character of Mrs. Banks. We have a sense of what the adults in the Banks family feel about money and social class. But what does the author feel?
Things to consider: Has the author painted Mrs. Banks as a likable character? Not really. This is really brought home in the final scenes of the book. Michael tells his mother that he doesn't want her, he only wants Mary Poppins. Mrs.Banks seems unable to appreciate the seriousness of her children's feelings. At one point, she expresses a bit of shock that Michael wishes someone back who treated his mother so badly -- not him, but his mother who has a party to go to!
Who is it later who remarks that Mary Poppins had treated the children poorly by leaving without notice? It's one of the servants who has been sent up to care for them.
Contrasting Book and Film
The character of Mary Poppins is portrayed differently in the book and film versions.
There are points in the story where the author deliberately forces the reader to make inferences. They are fairly easy inferences provided the reader has understood the words and comprehended the story on a literal level. The pattern: Mary takes the children on fantastical adventures. She denies them later and acts as if they're telling stories -- yet the reader is given clues that they indeed happened.
For example, they celebrate Mary's birthday at the zoo with talking animals. Mary is presented with a gift. When the children reference the adventure the following day, they're told it was a dream. But... Mary has the gift that she was given -- and it's inscribed!
This can be a good place to use the word 'inference' and call attention to it as a strategy.
What do you think Jane Banks will be like when she grows up? Support with evidence from the text.
Notes: Jane may have changed a little. At the end of the story, she decides to tuck her little brother in just like Mary Poppins used to. She appears to be role modeling herself after Mary Poppins.
Pondering Story Structure and Genre
The characters have been conceptualized in different ways. In the original, Mr. Banks is a busy man who spends his time at the bank and is seldom seen, though we learn that he does bring coins home to share with the children. In this version, he is not the person who has a blustering first encounter with Mary Poppins or has doubts about her. In fact, he suggests that hiring her may be well and good.
In the Disney movie, Mr. Banks is not simply a busy and usually distracted businessman who doesn't presumably give a lot of thought to his children. He is a controlling man. But his encounters with Mary force character change.
In the newer Disney play, the children are among the characters who undergo change. They have serious behavioral problems, but Mary Poppins teaches them that they too must learn sympathy. She does this by leaving for a period of time.
In the original book, no one undergoes the radical change seen in film and stage. The children have a series of extraordinary adventures and are distraught when their loved nanny leaves. Some hope is injected into the ending when little Jane finds a note from Mary Poppins that ends "Au Revoir" and a servant suggests those friends words mean that she will be back.
Disney made some big changes. He (indeed back then there was a Walt Disney at the helm!) imposed more of a traditional plot structure. The writers created a build toward a climactic moment. There was fear -- and then, as is often the case in drama, there was character change. In order to make it work, those characters had to be altered.
In this, the first of a series of videos by Disney on Broadway, we learn more about the evolution of Mary Poppins and why Disney made certain artistic decisions.
What would students have done if they were the movie makers? Would they have kept the story as a series of episodes, or would they have given it a dramatic structure? Would they have a character who changed? If so, who?
Before answering how about taking one more take on the Mary Poppins myth. Here is an introduction to the plot and themes of the play version.
Children can work together to map the plot structure of the movie or play and/ or sketch their own imagined movie. They can use chart paper or a graphic organizer.
- Plot Structure: Discussion and Graphic Organizer
This graphic organizer is not designed especially for Mary Poppins, but should work nicely.
More Mary Poppins Lesson Plans
- Exploring Mood and Tone
This lesson uses two different movie trailers (the original and one deliberately cut to be scary) to guide students to explore mood and tone.
- Broadway Mary Poppins Study Guide
How about a newspaper from the house on Cherry Tree Lane with lots of ideas? Lots of ideas for researching society in 1910 (the setting of the movie and play, but not the original book) modernizes to consider social class.
- Lessons from Mary Poppins
This isn't a lesson plan per se -- it's ideas about applying the spirit of the Mary Poppins to other areas of the classroom.
Matthew from Silicon Valley on September 27, 2012:
An amazing article especially since I really love Mary Poppins and all that she stands for. Blessed