By Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer
Perhaps you are already chanting, “I think I can, I think I can.” Keep chanting, but be forewarned. This blog is a love letter to a beloved children’s book, and you won’t find a single analogy to perseverance, positivity, mantras, or mindsets. Further, there are no gender-bias debates. Quite the contrary, the evidence puts that to rest (Blair, 2014). Prior to 1930, all trains in the story were simply trains. Since then, the “happy little train” and the “little engine that could” have been written as female (did you know there were two little engines?). Give your analytical mind a break and ponder the power of prose, sharing stories with one another, and reading for the joy of reading.
The Little Engine that Could, retold by Watty Piper and published in 1930, is now in its 86th year. It is fitting that the story was published under a pseudonym because, like Piper (aka Arnold Munk, owner of Platt & Munk Publishers), the title of the book is a pseudonym of sorts for the original tale, which most scholars (and a 1955 legal settlement) agree is The Pony Engine by Mabel C. Bragg. Ironically, Bragg’s work may have been a retelling of a Sunday school pamphlet or a sermon by Rev. Charles W. Wing titled “Story of the Engine that Thought It Could,” which was published in the NY Tribune on April 8, 1908. The debate about the origin of the story continues, including claims of some print copies as early as 1902 and evidence that it originated in Europe (Sedelmain, 2012; Zielinski, 2007).
From Europe at the dawn of the 20th century through the 1955 settlement, every “Little Engine” origin story begins with telling the story or reading it to others. Each time, three consistent ideas always emerge: (1) the little engine accomplished far more than suggested possible by her size and perhaps her age, (2) the illustrations and language evoke strong memories (compare the 1930 original and the 1954 remake), and (3) this is a story meant to be told or read aloud.
About a century before technology caught up to insight, we understood the power in telling stories and reading to others. Now we have visible evidence of that power via a study of preschool children found that listening to stories and books read aloud supports mental imagery and narrative comprehension (Hutton, et. al., 2015). Using MRI, researchers found that the areas of the brain essential to processing text are activated when children listen to stories and when books are read to them.
The Little Engine that Could remains at the essence of education. We care for the health and well-being of children. To get that done, we support each other in all efforts to nurture, teach, encourage, and inspire. We can accomplish anything we set out to do. Dreaming is a powerful start, but accomplishment requires more. Visualizing takes you further, but at some point you have to wake up, open your eyes, and get to work. Accomplishment requires a purpose, a goal, a system to handle temporary setbacks, a pace, a way to monitor progress, and time set aside to validate the achievement. Whether it is Rev. Wing, Mabel C. Bragg, or Watty Piper sharing the message, The Little Engine that Could explains each element required for accomplishment:
Purpose: “The boys and girls on the other side of the mountain will have no toys to play with and no wholesome food to eat, unless you help us.”
Goal: “Up, up, up. Until they reached the top of the mountain.”
System: “Cheer up.” The Passenger [and the Freight] engine is not the only one in the world.”
Pace: “She tugged and pulled and pulled and tugged.”
Progress: “Down in the valley lay the city.”
Validate: “I thought I could. I thought I could.”
From homes to libraries, classrooms, and even the superintendent’s office, The Little Engine That Could reminds us that we teach because boys, girls, young men, and young women, are counting on us to get them over mountains large and small.
Whether it’s helping one of your students master a difficult math concept or remembering to keep your classroom stocked with extra pencils, do you have your own “I think I can” story? Let us know in the comments below!
Still curious? Explore the Renaissance EdWords definition of growth mindset now.
Blair, J. (2014). In ‘Little Engine That Could,’ Some See an Early Feminist Hero. NPR. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2014/07/08/329520062/in-little-engine-that-could-some-see-an-early-feminist-hero
Hutton, J., Horowitz-Kras, T., Mendelson, A., DeWitt, T., & Holland, S. (2015). Home Reading Environment and Brain Activation in Preschool Children Listening to Stories. Pediatrics 136(3) 466-478. Retrieved from http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/pediatrics/early/2015/08/05/peds.2015-0359.full.pdf
Sedelmaier, J. (2012). Watty Piper’s 1930 “The Little Engine That Could.” Printmag. Retrieved from http://www.printmag.com/obsessions/watty-pipers-1930-the-little-engine-that-could/
Sticht, T. & James, J. (1984). Listening and Reading. P.D.Perirson (Ed) Handbook of Reading Research (pp. 293-3 17).
Zielinski, S. (2007). The Little Engine That Could—Identifying Variants. Children’s Picturebook Collecting. Retrieved from http://1stedition.net/blog/2007/04/the-little-engine-that-could-identifying-variants.html
Jan Bryan has more than 20 years of classroom and university teaching experience. Her work at Renaissance focuses on formative assessment, exploring data in a growth mindset, and literacy development.