Written by Phillip Hoose
with illustration by Debbie Tilley
Hey, Little Ant is a song-based children’s picture book used throughout the world to teach young children alternatives to violent and bullying behavior and to emphasize the worth of all living things. The story of Hey, Little Ant is a negotiation between an ant about to be flattened and a child (the “Kid”) about to flatten it.
The story was written as a song in 1992 by Phillip Hoose and his then nine-year-old daughter Hannah.The Hooses deliberately left the outcome of Hey, Little Ant unresolved, ending the story with the question, “Now what do you think that Kid should do?”
This guide is based on interviews and correspondence with educators, parents, performers, biologists, and school librarians.
After reading Hey, Little Ant, make a list of the values expressed in the story that you wish to emphasize in working with children.They may include:
Read or sing the story to your students.The book’s final page contains musical notation to the song’s simple melody, or you may obtain a recording at www.heylittleant.com.Try reading with expression. Some have presented Hey, Little Ant effectively with puppets for the Ant and the Kid.After they’ve heard the story, let the children read or sing the story themselves. Allow them to choose parts and then switch them; this will help children identify with both characters.Talk as a group about whether it is easier or more fun to be the Ant or the Kid—and why.
Ants are different from us in ways that are often amazing and fascinating.We often don’t like insects, but some cultures have worshipped bugs: The Egyptians prayed to the Scarab beetle.The ancient Greek cult of Artemis worshipped the bee. What can ants do? How strong are they? How long do they live? Can they smell? If so, how? How many body sections do they have? How do they know to go home right before it rains?
Make a list of ant facts. Draw, make, and/or visit an anthill. Bring an ant farm into the classroom so students can carefully observe ant behavior, see how ants organize themselves, and try to understand what they are doing. Keep individual or class journals for a few weeks with writings, opinions, drawings, observations, facts, and questions. After having learned more about ants, revise Hey, Little Ant by writing a new story, keeping the same rhyming format. This time let the ant state its case with abundant facts based on student research.
Extend the discussion to “how are we different from each other?” Have students press their thumbs into an inkpad and make thumbprints on pieces of paper. Compare them. They’re almost alike, but each is unique and special in its detail. Have students draw self-portraits from their thumbprint.
When they hear or read Hey, Little Ant, children often want to know if it’s ever okay to kill something. “What if it’s a bee?” they ask. “What if it’s a mosquito on your arm? Can you slap it?” “What if it’s a hundred ants crawling after something you spilled in your kitchen?” Here are ideal questions not to answer, because they lead to good discussions. At the heart of the book is the idea that all living things have a great deal in common, even though sometimes this may be difficult to recognize.
List the things that ants and children have in common. The story mentions some, but are there others? Does an ant have a heart? A brain? Research for more and make a list. A few resources are listed below.
Explore ways in which we are similar to one another. Again, make a list. Examples: how we look, how we move, what we do, what we want, what we love, what we dislike, and what we fear.
Early in the story the looming Kid declares: “Anyone knows an ant can’t feel. You’re so tiny you don’t look real.” But are things always what they seem? How do we know?
Assign the students to draw a creature that cannot feel. What would it look like? Cultural biologists point out that we invest in protecting animals with which we can identify. We save creatures with big round eyes (pandas) or large heads that seem to smile (dolphins). We respond to creatures that respond to us (monkeys, dogs, cats) or that can soar (eagles) as we aspire to do, or that seem pretty (brightly flowering plants, Monarch butterflies) or graceful. Other creatures are not so lucky—in one survey, respondents were willing to spend fifteen times more money to save a spotted owl than a striped shiner (a fish).
Discuss the children’s drawings. Why can’t their creatures feel anything? What does it take to feel something? How do we know? Show photographs of various animals and plants. Include snakes. What are they feeling? List the responses, then discuss them. Can we know how something or someone feels by how they look? Could we sometimes make universal assumptions about all sorts of living things whose individual experiences vary greatly?
The Kid is able to intimidate the Ant because (s)he is overwhelmingly big. But the Ant is not without power. It states its case clearly and respectfully, without calling the Kid names. It asks the Kid to hear it out; it acknowledges the Kid’s physical strength without sacrificing its own dignity or self-respect. The story raises these questions: How can we be powerful and effective in life without being abusive? How can we stand up to superior physical strength?
Ask the class to speculate as to why the Kid felt like flattening the Ant in the first place. Make a list of hypotheses. Was (s)he angry? Bored? Frustrated? Didn’t like bugs? Then make a list of—and role play—alternative responses. Could the Kid have counted to ten? Walked away? Tried to figure out the real reason for raising a squishing foot? Ask students, “When you feel bad, are you ever mean to a pet? How do you feel afterwards?”
Late in the story, the child’s friends arrive on the scene and listen in to the dialogue.The Kid feels mounting pressure as they yell “Squish it!” The child is deeply conflicted and experiencing a pain that is common to children. By now the Kid knows the Ant, and views it with empathy, so maybe squishing it is wrong. On the other hand, to give in to a bug will look very weak indeed—and there seems so little time to choose.
Role play the scene. Ask your students to imagine that they have just arrived and may have only a few seconds to help their friend, the Kid. What could they possibly say or do to offer support? In many classrooms, children have suggested things like “Tell the Kid that it’s her or his decision. It’s up to you—nobody else.” Or, “You don’t have to listen to them. Make up your own mind.” What else could be said or done? What are the kinds of power at work here? Surely the Kid’s colossal size and superior strength represent power. So does the force of what the other kids are saying, and the clarity of the ant’s appeal. What other kinds of power might be available? Ask children to recount stories—without naming names—in which they were pressured to do something they thought might be wrong. How did they work it out? What could a friend have said or done to help them out of the situation?
If age appropriate, write a persuasive essay, individually or in a group, from the viewpoint of the friends who try to influence the Kid one way or the other. Persuasive essays are a part of many state standards; use this occasion as a persuasive prompt.
As noted,the authors left the story unresolved to permit discussion. So, what to do? Should the ant get squished? Should the ant go free? The most common way of working with this question has been to have children vote. But the vote alone is of limited value. Some children vote “Squish it!” just to attract attention. Others show that they are “good” by sparing the ant.Then, without a follow-up processing activity, the lesson ends. Here are some things to try:
Follow the vote with a group discussion, asking children to explain their views. Try to ask questions without passing judgement. Ask them how they think they would feel after having acted on their decision.
Huge thanks to Susan Hopkins, Dan Simberloff, Kerin Motsinger, Amian Kelemer, Katie Greenman, Karel Kilimnik, David Todt, Barbara Gruener, Mara Sapon-Shevin, and Shoshana Hoose for providing ideas and reviewing drafts of this guide.
Teachers’ guide copyright © 2001 by Phillip Hoose. Illustration copyright © 1998 by Debbie Tilley. All rights reserved. No part of this educational supplement may be reproduced in any form without the written permission of the publisher, except when used for nonprofit means.
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