Gifts and Inspiration by Laura Murray
“You’re such a Smart Cookie!”
My mother said this to me when I was little, and I loved to watch my student’s faces when I said it to them in the first weeks of Kindergarten. It was fun because most had never heard the expression before, and once they learned what it meant, it usually brought on a shy smile of pride or a little puff in their chest.
But one year, my students took this very saying, added a twist of creativity and humor, and provided me with an incredible gift – the inspiration for a story idea.
At the beginning of the year, our classroom would become a Gingerbread House and we would study “all things Gingerbread.” We compared and contrasted different versions of the Gingerbread Man story and used Gingerbread Man activities for each subject. But at the end of the unit, our freshly baked Gingerbread Man always managed to escape from the classroom. We hung missing posters and searched the halls, discovering crumbs and dropped candies, as we asked school staff where he might be. But after touring the school, he always found his way back to our classroom on his own.
In my 5th year of teaching, a couple of students came to me after our hunt and said, “Mrs. Murray… we know why the Gingerbread Man came back.”
A Kindergartener’s reasoning is always fun to hear, so I couldn’t wait for the answer.
They looked at each other for a second. Then, as if it were a punchline, they said, “Because he’s one SMART COOKIE!”
I laughed out loud – Wow! Such awesome, clever, cookie humor from 5 year olds! And also, as it turned out, the seed of an idea!
Year after year, my students absolutely loved this activity and would come back as 5 and 6th graders asking if the Gingerbread Man had escaped yet. And it was their love of the school Gingerbread Man hunt, along with the funny quip about the GB Man being a “smart cookie,” that turned out to be the inspiration for The Gingerbread Man Loose in the School, my first picture book.
I have a great deal of respect for children and their sense of magic and wonder. Kids are naturally creative, funny, determined, helpful, sensitive, and kind. And once I had the story idea, I created a Gingerbread Man character with these same qualities, so kids might be able to see themselves in him.
When the opportunity to write other Gingerbread Man adventures came up, I turned to the memories and inspiration of my students again.
They LOVED our visit to the fire station to learn about fire safety, fire fighters, and fire vehicles. So that became the GB Man’s next adventure with his class. My student’s favorite part was shooting water from the fire hose, so the GB Man got to do that too (and was in for a bit of a wild ride!)
In the chilly weeks of December, we started a unit about world holiday traditions and cultures. As one of our activities, we used brainstorming to explore ideas about the definition of “giving.”
I started with a question – What is a gift?
At first, my students came up with fun things that could be bought at a store, but then as we continued to talk and ask questions, they began to think of giving and gifts as something that a person could “make, say, or do.”
You could see their eyes light up as they thought of ideas that were “outside the box” ;). Their suggestions flowed faster than I could write them on the board – make glittery cards…make cookies… tell your family you love them… smile at someone… sing a song to make your little brother feel better…be nice to a new student … help fold the laundry… write a thank you note to a police officer… write your mom a poem… hug the vet when she helps your cat feel better… pick up dog poop in the yard (I had to laugh at this one and we all agreed that it’s an “extra special gift” to do something that NO ONE likes to do.) And on and on and on.
My kindergarteners were coming up with acts of kindness as examples of gifts… all on their own, and at the same time redefining their original thoughts about what a “gift” could be – a compliment, a thank you, a smile.
Then I asked, “How do you feel when you do something that makes someone else happy.”
One little guy piped up, “It makes me happy too!” And then they all chimed in.
You could see the connections beginning to form, as they started to realize that doing small things for others was a two way street – making both the receiver and the giver happy.
Even though we started discussing “giving” as a holiday tradition for many cultures, we decided to call this type of gift a “happiness gift,” because “it could also be given all year around.”
So we set aside some time the next day to make their “happiness gifts.” We had fun creating and coming up with ways to surprise someone special with the gifts.
The day before winter break, we were singing holiday songs from varying countries, when one of my students asked what the word “glee” meant. I explained that meant “happy,” but that you didn’t hear it very much anymore.
At dismissal that day, he tapped me on the shoulder and pulled a card from behind his back, saying, “Here’s my happiness gift. It’s for you…I used lots of glitter and worked really hard!” Inside was a handmade coupon for “One Free Hug.” I bent down with a big smile and told him how honored I was, and that I would love that free hug right there.
His mom’s car pulled up then, and as he jumped in, I heard her ask if he had delivered his gift.
And he replied, “Yes! And Mrs. Murray’s face was GLEE-ING!”
And he was right. It was!
I still have his gift. It hangs on the cork board in my office, as a reminder that kids continue to be my inspiration as an author. (Recognize the sweet words in the GB Man’s card description below?)
So, I’d like to say thank you to all the kids out there, and to the educators guiding them – the gifts that you naturally have and the ones that you “make, say, and do” truly do make a big difference in the lives of others. Keep on sharing your gifts with the world – you just never know when you might be someone else’s inspiration!
** Enter the giveaway on Goodreads for a chance to win a signed copy of The Gingerbread Man Loose at Christmas plus some GB Man goodies (a plush GB Man, a poster, & enough tattoos for a class.)
Laura Murray was a teacher before becoming an author and had to deal with many an escaped Gingerbread Man in her time. She is the author of the award-winning rhyming picture book series – The Gingerbread Man Loose in the School, The Gingerbread Man Loose on the Fire Truck, The Gingerbread Man Loose at Christmas, and The Gingerbread Man Loose at the Zoo (Coming 2016). Laura lives with her family in northern Virginia and loves speaking at schools about reading, writing, and creating. Visit her online at http://www.LauraMurrayBooks.com and on Twitter @LauraMurrayBook.
Great post! Thanks for the inspiration!
Your teaching memories are so vivid! WOW! Perhaps I need to start browsing back through teaching photo albums. After having kids, and staying home with them for many years, a lot of those specific kindergarten year quotes have been lost. I miss those magical years! I enjoyed reading your post, Laura, and wish I could have been a little mouse observing in your classroom back then. I love your Gbread man books and relate to the inspiration behind our writing ideas. Thanks!
That is as sweet as one dozen gingerbread men Laura! I look forward to watching little faces this season for their genuine and heartfelt words and expressions of GLEE-ING! And yes, plenty of glitter too.
Reading your post today just makes me happy! Wonderful stories and wonderful books.
It was great reading about how kids inspired your books. The “smart cookie” line from two of your students is hilarious! I loved your first two gingerbread man books and can’t wait to read your new one!
Such wonderful respect for young students. I am truly impressed.