Last week, my fourth graders and I shared The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles, written by Michelle Cuevas and illustrated by Erin E. Stead.
"The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles, who lives alone atop a hill, has a job of the utmost importance. It is his task to open any bottles found at sea and make sure that the messages are delivered. He loves his job, though he has always wished that, someday, one of the letters would be addressed to him. One day he opens a party invitation—but there’s no name attached. As he devotes himself to the mystery of the intended recipient, he ends up finding something even more special: the possibility of new friends."
This book is one stunning package. Stead's art and Cuevas' narrative play off each other and build to form one beautiful, evocative, and thoughtful whole. I think this would be a wonderful book to begin the year with and have the students write and send their hopes and dreams off in bottles (though they would stay at the school in some form that would allow them to revisit them in June). I couldn't wait that long though. September is so far away. We would use it now. The fourth graders and I read The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles during our last library class together, which was within a week of them heading off for summer vacation. There was no sign of impatience or day dreaming about what was to come. The students were present, engaged, and touched, something that is an indication of the story's power.
After reading and reflecting on the book, these questions provided additional direction for the project:
What message would you like to send out into the world?
Who do you hope would find it?
How far do you hope your message would travel?
How long would your message be at sea?
What kinds of messages did they write?
We discussed how the message could focus on an accomplishment, an event or a person. If that was too limiting, they could write a time capsule type note or write to someone in the future.
What to do with all the messages?
Prior to the lesson, I had looked into purchasing bottles and having the students send them out into the world. I was dissuaded from this by all my environmentally-minded colleagues who reminded me that 75 new bottles littering the oceans was bad in many respects.
The answer came during a conversation with a kindergarten student the day before the lesson: Geocaching! I am going to leave the messages in Geocaches that I visit and will hide some of my own. I am adding the school address to the notes, in the hopes that someone might write us back. We'll see!
I knew I wanted to share this book with students the moment it arrived in the mail. It is a story asking to be read, shared, and discussed.