“The Surprise,” by Arnold Lobel

This month I’ve been reading Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad All Year with my advanced EFL* students in Israel. You can access a PDF of the text (with a few typos) for free here, though without images. I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of the original with Lobel’s sweet illustrations. PSA: The whole Storybook Treasury is available at time of this writing for under $3. I adore the Frog and Toad books for a number of reasons:

  • They deal with universal philosophical themes that are relavent and critical across cultures and age groups, such as friendship, altruism, fairness, time, reality, will-powerlonelinessbravery, and more.
  • They are collections of short stories that can generally be read within one lesson block.
  • They are told in relatively simple language with some repetition, making them accessible to many early readers and ELLs,** but they do not fall into the trap of being simplistic in order to be comprehensible.

In the story we read today, Arnold Lobel’s “Frog and Toad” - Meme Engine“The Surprise,” good friends Frog and Toad each wake to find their lawns covered in leaves. In a sweet coincidence, they each decide to go over to the other one’s house to rake his leaves for him. They each work very hard to clean up their friend’s lawn, but on their way home, unbeknownst to Toad or Frog, a windstorm comes to town and erases all their work. When Frog and Toad return home, there is no sign of their friend’s hard work, but they each go to bed delighted, thinking of how happy the other will be to find his lawn tidied for him. The story is cute and sweet and can be left at that, but it opens the door to a number of philosophical dilemmas.

Fairness | One of my students was indignant when she observed the two illustrations of each of the friends raking the lawn. It’s not fair, she reckoned, because Toad is shorter, so he has to work harder to get the same task done. However, her peer argued that it was okay because Toad wants to do it. No one forced him to.

  • What does it mean to be fair?
  • Does fair mean equal? Does equal mean the same?
  • Is it unfair for someone to work harder than someone else and get the same result? Why or why not? Does it change if they do not have to finish the task?
  • If you study really hard for a test and get the same score as your friend who already knew the material and didn’t have to study, is this unfair? Why or why not? With older students, this discussion could evolve into a discussion of the ethics of affirmative action or academic accomodations, and what different people need depending on the resources they had access to as children/the circumstances they were born into. 

Hard Work and Altruism | Frog and Toad both work hard to make the other friend happy.

  • If you work hard on something and are proud of it but it gets destroyed, was it all a waste of time? Why or why not?
  • If something takes a lot of effort but you enjoy it, is it still hard work?
  • Is it necessary to work hard to be an ethical or altruistic person? Why or why not?
  • If you do something for someone but they never find out, is it still a good deed? Why or why not?
  • Is there something special about doing someone a favour without being asked first? Why or why not?
  • If you do work hard or sacrifice something for someone else but you get an equal amount of pleasure from it, was it still a selfless act? Why? If not, is there any such thing as a selfless act? Why or why not? (Older students could take this up with Phoebe and Joey after watching this clip from the popular Friends episode!)

Friendship | Another student today was skeptical that frogs and toads are usually friends in real life. How would they come together, she wondered? In order for cross-species friendships to develop, she thought, someone might have to first force them to be together. How would this happen naturally for Frog and Toad? Setting aside the countless cases in which members of different species form fast friendships without (and often in spite of!) human interference, this raised some interesting questions about the nature of friendship.

  • What makes a good friend?
  • Do you have to spend a lot of time with someone before becoming close friends? Why or why not? Is it possible to be good friends with someone you hardly ever see or talk to? Why or why not? (This could branch off into a discussion of social networking and the way many global human communities communicate today vs. what was possible two, five, and ten decades ago and/or the ways non-human animals are able to communicate.)
  • Should you have a lot in common with someone in order to be good friends? Why or why not?
  • Does being a good friend mean you are happy when/because they are happy? Why or why not?
  • Frog and Toad both clean their friend’s lawn first and resolve to tidy their own lawn in the morning. Does being a good friend mean you sometimes put your friend’s happiness/well-being above your own? Why or why not? Can you give examples and counterexamples?
  • Do we have a responsibility to help our friends? Why or why not?

For more discussion questions on “The Surprise,” visit this guide from the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence.

What do you and your students think of Frog and Toad’s surprises? Continue the discussion in the comments below! I’d love to hear your kids’ ideas. 

*EFL = English as a Foreign Language
**ELLs = English Language Learners


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