Set in early 19th century New England, Ox-Cart Man takes us on a farmer’s lyrical journey through the months and seasons of the year. The story is a revised version of a narrative poem published in a 1977 issue of The New Yorker. The author, Donald Hall, went through 19 different drafts before finalizing his original Ox-Cart Man poem. His drafts and edits can be found here.
Hall based the poem on a multi-generational story told to him by his cousin. The revisions to the poem that became the story in the book were done by Hall, so the adaptation is true to the spirit of the original and a lovely continuation of the tale presented in the poem.
If you don’t have access to the book, you can watch a Reading Rainbow video featuring Ox-Cart Man here. (I highly recommend getting your hands on the book if possible!) After reading or viewing the book, read the poem and compare the two.
Now let’s go deeper! Scroll through this list of ideas to discover new lessons to use with the book; and if you’re here for the free printable calendar and planner pages, they’re at the bottom of the post. 🙂
Life in 19th Century Rural America
Farming families in the 1800s were dependent on the food they grew to get them through the year. During good crop years, families were able to reserve meat animals for eggs and dairy. Bad crop years meant they had to rely on their livestock for food. Ox-Cart Man demonstrates how careful the family is to make use of everything. Notice that the farmer takes to the market only what the family doesn’t need.
- Learn more about farm chores in the 19th century here. Don’t miss this informative resource! It goes along perfectly with Ox-Cart Man!
- Watch a video of artwork slides featuring life in 19th century America. The video is set to Turkey in the Straw, an early 19th century American folk song.
- The ox-cart man sells the wool from his sheep. View a pair of 19th century sheep shears.
- Introduce your kids to a small lesson in 19th century economics with this activity from Crayola.
- What did popular music sound like during 19th century America? The Hutchinson Family, a singing group from New England, became popular in the 1840s and remained popular throughout the 19th century. Listen to one of their most popular songs.
- Try a 19th century recipe. To learn more about cooking in 19th century America, check out When Dinner Wasn’t Quick and Easy.
Geography and Math
- The story takes place in 19th century New England and begins in the fall. See what New England would have looked like in the fall during that time period in this short but breathtaking video.
- The ox-cart man makes a 10-day journey to Portsmouth, NH. Look at Portsmouth, NH, on a map. Why do you think this was a good location for a market? (Hint: According to GoPortsmouthNH.com, the seaport city of Portsmouth was once one of the nation’s busiest ports and shipbuilding cities and currently has one of the oldest working ports in the United States.)
- View some of the historical sites in Portsmouth.
- An ox can travel an average of 15 miles per day. If the ox-cart man traveled 15 miles per day and walked for 10 days, make some guesses about where you think he started. Since he sold his ox at the market, do you think his trip home was faster than his trip to Portsmouth?
Narration and Story Extension Activities
- For a fun narration activity, use these free printables from Books and Giggles to create a storytelling basket specifically for Ox-Cart Man.
- Take a trip to your local farmer’s market and see if you can find items that were at the market in Ox-Cart Man. Take a FREE Farmer’s Market Scavenger Hunt sheet with you to see what else you can find.
- Act out the story’s buying and selling activities with items you have at home. For a fun way to expand on this, check out the Farmer’s Market Create-and-Play Activity Book (it’s not free, but it’s a great price)! Even if you don’t want the book, you can download the educator’s guide for the book for FREE!
- If you have the time, Pop Goes the Page has a fabulous craft and pretend-play activity. Create the wagon and some of the ox-cart man’s goods, then set up a store to trade some goods!
Two of my favorite character-quality themes in Ox-Cart Man are the value of hard work and the way the family works together in order to provide items to sell at the market.
- Download a free Work and Responsibility Bible Study from Frugal Fun for Boys and Girls.
- Hard work requires diligence. Print these free resources and study the diligence of Thomas Edison to teach your children about this important character trait.
- Working together requires cooperation. Check out Kids of Integrity (a Focus on the Family web site) for a free extensive lesson on cooperation.
- If you want to use some Bible verses for copywork, these verses about diligence are a great place to start. You also can choose from Bible verses about work or verses about teamwork.
Seasons and Calendars
Seasons are an important component in Ox-Cart Man, and the story offers a great opportunity to discuss the seasons and the calendar.
- Learn more about seasons with this video from Socratica Kids.
- Create four-seasons trees. If you don’t have paint on-hand, you can create your season trees with whatever supplies you have available: crayons, markers, tissue paper/glue, colored pencils, ink for fingerprints, play dough, chalk, etc. You can even use dried beans or natural items found in your yard!
- If you prefer a different bare tree for your activity, check this page for a variety of options. Make your bare tree with handprints or paint your tree trunk if you don’t have access to a printer.
- Listen to Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons while creating the season trees. Created as a musical expression of each season, The Four Seasons is a group of four violin concerti written by Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi. Ask your learners if they can hear how the texture of the music defines each season.
- For more season-themed craft options, check out this fun selection on the Buggy and Buddy blog!
- Make a calendar with this free online interactive activity from Starfall.
- Play The Calendar Game, a free online activity from ABCYa.
- Download and print a free Months of the Year Activity Packet. This packet is great for sequencing! If you need one for teaching the days of the week, you can use this free Days of the Week Activity Packet.
- If you prefer using a video to re-inforce your calendar lessons, The Singing Walrus has a folk-style song featuring the months of the year and a reggae-style song featuring the days of the week.
Ox-Cart Man was the 1980 recipient of the Caldecott Medal for Barbara Cooney’s primitive folk art style illustrations. The drawings were a new style for Cooney compared to her previous works and drew upon her long-standing affinity for vintage Americana.
- Cooney was known for her black-and-white scratchboard illustrations and began her career using that technique. In fact, she was discouraged from creating art with color by an editor who told her she had no color sense! Compare some of her early work with her Ox-Cart Man illustrations. What do you think about what the editor told her?
- Folk art reflects the traditions that come from surrounding culture, hence it varies depending on the location of the artist. It incorporates a range of media, including paper, wood, clay, metal, cloth, and more. Learn more about American folk art.
- Try a folk art project! Since we discussed seasons, these folk art four-seasons landscapes go perfectly with the book. If you want something a little less involved, try a simple folk-art landscape with this three-part video lesson.
- Download and print a free folk art activity guide for kids. It’s made for a museum visit, but there are plenty of activities and interesting bits of info to use it as a stand-alone resource.
- View more examples of American folk art with this video tour of the American Made Art Exhibit at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Do you see similarities in Cooney’s illustrations and any of the artwork featured in the museum?
Ox-Cart Man follows a circular, or cyclical, narrative. Compared to a linear plot, which has the classic structure of a beginning, middle, and end, a circular plot ends in the same place it begins. Other examples of stories with circular plots include If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and Seven Little Rabbits. For comparison, good examples of linear plots include The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Charlotte’s Web.
Circular plots help your learners develop their prediction strategies, and the repetitive nature of the stories allows greater confidence in making predictions.
To discuss the circular narrative used in Ox-Cart Man, use a calendar. Go through the months of the year and discuss what happens when the year ends. (The cycle begins again.) After discussing the calendar, make a calendar for the ox-cart man’s family. For months not mentioned in the story, decide where those events should be recorded on the calendar.
- Create your own circular story. Use these free story cubes for writing prompts. Remember to end your story where it began! If you don’t want to make your own story cubes, Amazon has a huge selection of ready-made story cubes; or you can look at these cubes to spark some ideas for your homemade cubes).
- Discover how to build stories with this series of videos from the Sydney Story Factory.
- The Ox-Cart Man poem is considered a narrative poem. Read other famous narrative poems to see a variety of examples of this type of writing.
- Learn how to write a narrative poem.
Printable Calendar and Planning Page Freebie
Traveling through the year with Ox-Cart Man seemed like the perfect occasion for a new calendar, especially as we approach a new year! I used a folk-art background to carry on the theme of Barbara Cooney’s folk art illustrations in the book. I’d love to share the calendar and planning pages with you, so feel free to download your own copy here. The planning kit includes two options for monthly planner pages (both with a Monday – Sunday format), weekly and daily planner sheets, and an undated calendar (with a Sunday – Saturday format). As always, if you’d like to share, please share from this page link and not the actual file.
Library Book Suggestions
Stories about early America:
Stories with circular plots:
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