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The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich

Teacher Guide by Elizabeth Pedro

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Student Activities for The Birchbark House Include:

The Birchbark House, by Louise Erdrich, describes a year in the life of Omakayas, a Ojibwa girl living on Moningwanaykaning, an island in Lake Superior.

By the end of this lesson your students will create amazing storyboards like the ones below!




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A Quick Synopsis of The Birchbark House (Contains Spoilers)

In the prologue, a crew of men find a baby girl, the only survivor of a smallpox epidemic, on Spirit Island. The main story begins by introducing Omakayas as a seven year old girl living with her family: her mother, Yellow Kettle, her beautiful old sister, Angeline, and Grandma Nokomis. She also has an annoying younger brother, Pinch, a sweet baby brother Neewo, her father, Deydey, and family friend, Old Tallow.

It is summer and Omakayas has responsibilities around the house, including building the birchbark house and scraping and tanning the moose hide for makazins. One afternoon she is able to avoid her daunting chores by picking up a pair of scissors from Old Tallow, an important woman in the community. Old Tallow treats Omakayas differently than the other children and ensures her safety against her vicious dogs. As Omakayas heads down the path towards home, she encounters two bear cubs and a mother bear. The mother bear does not hurt her, and Omakayas believes they have communicated and understand each other somehow.

Omakayas loves Baby Neewo and hopes to be the one to name him; the people on the island who can give names have not dreamed up a name for him yet. Omakayas spends time with Baby Neewo, as her mother and grandmother head into the village to listen for news about Deydey. Omakayas takes him outside, shares her candy with him, and gives him a stick to play with. She believes that this is the best day of Neewo’s life.

In the fall, Deydey sits with his friends Fishtail and LaPautre to discuss how the white people are moving farther and farther west into Ojibwa land. The men disagree about whether they should move; Deydey believes the white men will never be satisfied.

It is time for the family to harvest the wild rice in Kakagon. They return home with a small portion and now need to prepare other foods to eat during winter; the family guts and dries fish, corn, and venison. Nokomis prays and blesses the food before the rough winter. Nokomis shows interest in Omakayas and asks if the plants are talking to her. When Omakayas says no, Nokomis encourages her to learn to listen to them.

Winter, even in the cabin, is very cold. The grownups discuss travel routes west and others come to visit almost every day. One visitor enters the dance lodge and shortly after arriving, dies of smallpox. The next few days everyone watches for signs of the sickness. Six days later, Angeline gets sick. The family is divided up in an effort to contain the disease. However, Yellow Kettle, Neewo, and Deydey become sick too, and Omakayas goes back into the house to help Nokomis take care of the family. Omakayas holds Baby Neewo through the night and continues to hold him as he dies. Her father, also sick, wakes in the middle of the night, ready to wander out into the cold. Omakayas hits her father over the head with a piece of wood hoping this will keep him alive.

All except Neewo recover from the smallpox. Omakayas comes down with a different fever and becomes depressed over the death of her brother. The brutal winter continues as the family consumes all of the food they had stored in the fall. The family is recovering so slowly and Deydey did not have strength to hunt. Grandma Nokomis dreams of a deer and sends Deydey to find it. The next day Deydey finds the great buck and kills it with one shot. The family is finally able to eat a good meal.

Omakayas leaves to collect wood and sees her bear brothers. She warns the bears of danger from humans and asks them to teach her about their medicines. She returns to tell her grandmother who is very pleased and proud of Omakayas. Later Old Tallow brings Nokomis deer bones to share. While the bones are cooking, Tallow sits with Omakayas and tells the story of Omakayas when she was very little. Old Tallow tells her that she rescued Omakayas from a different island and gave her to Yellow Kettle and Deydey. It is apparent that Omakayas is the baby girl from the prologue. Old Tallow believes that the purpose of Omakayas being with her family was to help nurse them when they came down with smallpox.


Essential Questions for The Birchbark House

  1. What is the connection between the Ojibwa and nature?
  2. What is the purpose of the novel’s structure?
  3. How do feelings towards people grow or change?

The Birchbark House Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers

"The Birchbark House" Vocabulary


Copy Assignment



In this activity, students demonstrate their understanding of several vocabulary words using a spider map. After choosing the word(s), students provide the part of speech, definition, an example from the text, and demonstrate their understanding of the word(s) through an illustration in the related storyboard cell.


Example The Birchbark House Vocabulary

  • enigmatic
  • ferocious
  • kinnikinnick
  • nimble
  • namesake
  • hummock
  • awl
  • fragrant
  • swales
  • dappled
  • astonished
  • spared
  • banish
The Birchbark House - Vocabulary

Example

(These instructions are completely customizable. After clicking "Copy Assignment", change the description of the assignment in your Dashboard.)


Student Instructions

Demonstrate your understanding of the vocabulary words in The Birchbark House by creating visualizations.


  1. Choose three vocabulary words from the story and type them in the title boxes.
  2. Find the definition in a print or online dictionary.
  3. Write a sentence that uses the vocabulary word.
  4. Illustrate the meaning of the word in the cell using a combination of scenes, characters, and items.
    • Alternatively, use Photos for Class to show the meaning of the words with the search bar.
  5. Save and submit your storyboard.



Vocabulary Template Blank

Example

(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)





Copy Assignment

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Comparing and Contrasting

In this activity, students will compare and contrast The Birchbark House with another text they have read. In this example, The Birchbark House is being compared with Island of the Blue Dolphins.

  • The first commonality is building a shelter. Omakayas' family were responsible for building their birchbark home and their winter cabin. Karana was responsible for building her shelter out of whale bones, wood, and stones.
  • The second commonality is the fear they experience. In The Birchbark House there is the threat of non-Indian settlers, the Chimookomanug, moving the Ojibwa tribe farther west. In Island of the Blue Dolphins there is the fear of the Russians coming back to harm Karana.
  • A point of contrast between the stories are the main character’s families. Omakayas had a family and friends in the community. Karana was all alone on the island for many years.
The Birchbark House - Compare/Contrast

Example

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Creating a Character Map

In this activity, students should depict the characters of the story, paying close attention to the physical and character traits of both major and minor characters. Students should provide detailed information regarding how the characters interact with the main characters, as well as challenges the characters face.

Characters included in the character map are:

  • Omakayas
  • Nokomis
  • Deydey
  • Yellow Kettle
  • Angeline
  • Little Pinch
  • Neewo
  • Old Tallow
  • Fishtail
  • Ten Snow
The Birchbark House - Character Map

Example

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Textual Evidence


Copy Assignment



In this activity, students will be provided a question or prompt to answer using textual evidence. The prompt here is, “What lessons about life did Omakayas learn?” The four examples provided are:

  • Death and sickness affect people differently.

    "It was difficult for Omakayas to understand all that had happened. Why Neewo was gone, though at night she imagined that she heard his cries."

  • Things are not always what they seem.

    "What other story do you know about me?"

  • Family and tradition are important.

    "Although the family did not return with as much rice as they needed, Omakayas and Two Strike Girl became such good friends that, ever after, they called each other sister."

  • Laughter and happiness helps cure sadness and loss.

    "Ever after that terrible winter, as though he understood from then on how important it was to be funny, Pinch gave laughter to them all."


The Birchbark House - Text Evidence

Example

(These instructions are completely customizable. After clicking "Copy Assignment", change the description of the assignment in your Dashboard.)


Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that answers the prompt using at least three examples from The Birchbark House. Click on "Add Cells" to change the number of examples.


  1. Type the question into the central black box.
  2. Type a response to the question in your own words in the title box.
  3. Think about examples from the text that support your answer.
  4. Type text evidence in the description boxes. Paraphrase or quote directly from the text.
  5. Illustrate each example using scenes, characters, items, etc.


Text Evidence 3 Cell Answer

Example

(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)





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Point of View

In this activity, students will examine the author’s point of view and identify ways this view is unique in understanding elements of the story.

  • The narrator describes the Native Americans and their interactions with whites.
  • The narrator reveals the way of life for those living around 1849.
  • The narrator unveils the connection between humans and nature.
The Birchbark House - Point of View

Example

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The Birchbark House Themes

Themes, symbols, and motifs come alive when you use a Storyboard. In this activity, students will identify a theme of The Birchbark House and support it with evidence from the text.

One theme is "the relationship between humans and nature”:

  • Omakayas calls the bear cubs her brothers and speaks to the mother bear, who leaves her unharmed.
  • Omakayas asks the bears to teach her about their medicines.
  • When Omakayas and her family are near starvation, Nokomis dreams of a dear. She speaks to Deydey about this dream, who then finds the deer, killing it for food.

The Birchbark House - Theme

Example

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