Breathing with Ferdinand

By Isabelle Voor, 2021-2022 Literacy First Tutor

Our role as a Literacy First Tutor goes beyond reading instruction and assessment. I often find myself coaching students through different life skills. On nearly a daily basis this year, I found myself talking a few students through breathing exercises to help them deal with their frustrations. I wanted to make this a positive experience for them, while also connecting it to something to which the students can relate.

The idea came to me when I was reading The Story of Ferdinand with a student. This classic children’s book features a pacifist bull in Madrid who prefers to smell flowers over fighting in bull fights. I like to make reading books with my students as exaggerated as possible, so that they have a good time. I change my voice for different characters and really emphasize the parts with a lot of repetition. When I read The Story of Ferdinand, I usually make really exaggerated sniffing noises when I read “Ferdinand would just sniff sniff sniff smell the flowers.” My students love repetition and started to mimic me whenever we got to that phrase in the book. I realized that I could use this story as a way to connect reading with the breathing exercises I had been walking my students through. 

I found an old Beanie Baby ox that used to belong to my sister in my closet, and thought it looked similar enough to a bull to pass for Ferdinand. I drew a field with a tree and flowers on a poster, and told the kids that I brought a very special friend to school, who couldn’t wait to meet them. And then, I pulled out “Ferdinand.” My students were so excited, one of them even thought Ferdinand himself jumped out of the book to say “hello.” 

I’ve been able to incorporate Ferdinand into our daily lessons; students can earn flowers for his field after each lesson. Whenever I notice my students getting frustrated, I ask them to “smell the flowers with Ferdinand.” It gets them to take a few deep breaths and calm down to prepare for the next part of the lesson. They also love reading the books donated through our BookSpring partnership to Ferdinand, like they have a little audience member in a mini performance. 

I introduced Ferdinand as a way to help the students calm down from their frustration, but I noticed he also helps them feel connected to literature in a way they hadn’t felt before. It didn’t take long for my students to start asking if they could bring more books home or have more time to read with Ferdinand after their lessons.  

Ferdinand himself has become a superhero of sorts with my students. One of them even told me that they think Ferdinand would have defeated Thanos faster than Ironman. I’m not sure how things would have turned out if Ferdinand was in the Avengers, but I know Ferdinand becoming a part of Literacy First has helped my students more than I could have ever anticipated. 

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