Beacon Lesson Plan Library

Something From Nothing

Carole Gooden
St. Lucie County Schools


Students listen to the story [Joseph Had A Little Overcoat] to learn about people from another culture and how one item can be used to make other items. Students use scraps of fabric and other knickknacks to create something such as a picture or toy.


The student listens for information and pleasure.

The student listens for specific details and information (including but not limited to logical sequence and flow of events, story elements, concluding events).

The student understands the role of literature in transmitting the beliefs of different cultures.


-Book: Taback, Simms. [Joseph Had A Little Overcoat]. New York: Viking, 1999.
-Scraps of fabric
-An assortment of buttons of different sizes
-Scraps of braid, ribbon, lace
-Construction paper
-Safety scissors
-Yarn and yarn needles
-Polyfil material
-Corresponding puppet/doll for the story (optional)
-A globe or world map (optional)
-Recording of sound track from film or Broadway production of [Fiddler on the Roof] (optional)
-Video recording of the movie [Fiddler on the Roof] (optional)
-Poland Resource Guide, one per student (optional) (See Associated File)
-Computers with Internet access (optional)


1. Obtain a copy of the book [Joseph Had A Little Overcoat] by Simms Taback to read aloud.
2. Obtain a selection of various pieces of fabric, braid, ribbon, lace, yarn, yarn needles, polyfil material, buttons, safety scissors, glue, construction paper, and crayons for each group of 3-4 students.
3. Obtain soundtrack of the musical [Fiddler on the Roof]. (optional)
4. Obtain video recording of the movie [Fiddler on the Roof]. (optional)


1. Introduce the book by looking at the picture on the front cover of the dust jacket. Discuss what has happened to Joseph’s overcoat. The coat has holes near the ragged hemline. What does this indicate about the age of the overcoat?

2. Remove the dust jacket and look at the picture on the front cover of the book. Joseph has a pair of scissors and a piece of fabric in his hands. Discuss what is different about the overcoat now. Where have the holes gone? Where have the patches come from?

3. Look at both pictures of Joseph and ask the children where they think he lives. Have they ever seen anyone dressed like him? What do the animals in the picture suggest about where Joseph lives, city or country?

4. Look at the back cover. Ask the students to identify what is pictured there. Discuss why an assortment of buttons may be important in the story. Why would Joseph need buttons? How could anyone get such an assortment of buttons of different sizes and shapes?

5. Explain to the students that you are going to read the story and that they should pay close attention to the pages as you turn them because there will be clues to what is going to happen next as the pages are turned.

6. Read the story to the class. Have them guess what Joseph will be making next as they look at each cutout that appears on the pages. Joseph’s overcoat changes to a jacket, then a vest, a scarf, a necktie, a handkerchief, and finally it becomes a button as it gets older and more worn.

7. Discuss what Joseph has done. He has recycled his overcoat. Ask the students if they have ever made a smaller item of clothing from a larger one such as a pair of shorts from a pair of jeans.

8. Have students recall the sequence in which Joseph’s overcoat changed from a large item to a smaller and still even smaller one.

9. Talk about recycling. Have the students discuss what are the benefits of this practice. Let them share information about things that they can recycle to make other objects.

10. Review the illustrations in the book and determine the clues that are given which indicate Joseph’s home country and culture. The following are noted: style of clothing worn by the people, newspaper headline “Rabbi From Chelm Visits Kazrilevke,” address in Poland written on the envelopes on the floor, menorah on the table, posters on the walls, dreidel on the floor, name of newspaper “Morning Freiheit,” title of the book on the floor [Jewish Philosopher]. Discuss how each clue relates to some aspect of Jewish culture.

11. Encourage the students to share information about other cultures with which they are familiar.

12. Discuss the author’s note to readers at the end of the story. In it he explains that the book is based on a Yiddish song that he learned as a child. The words and music to the song are also included at the end of the story. Have the students read and/or sing the song to reinforce their understanding of the sequence of events in the story.

13. Create a craft item from a collection of scrap materials as follows:
a. The students work together in groups of 3-4. Each group has a variety of fabric scraps, ribbon, braid, lace, buttons, yarn, yarn needles, polyfil material, safety scissors, glue and construction paper.
b. The students work with the materials provided to create an item that will demonstrate how something can be made from what seems like nothing.

14. Circulate around the room to observe the progress of the students and to offer assistance where necessary.


1. The students work cooperatively in small groups to create craft items from the materials provided, and to demonstrate ways that these items, which normally would be discarded, can be recycled and made into something useful. Craft items may include, but are not limited to: paper dolls, photo frames, pictures, pillows, patchwork blankets for dolls, and placemats. Formatively assess students to see if they are working with others and sharing materials.

2. Formatively assess by listening to the responses the students make as they respond to questions relating to the sequence of the changes in Joseph’s overcoat, the elements of Jewish culture that the book provides, and by observing the students as they work on creating craft items.

Formative assessment criteria includes:
-Listening carefully for specific details and information
-Following directions
-Appreciation of other cultures
-Taking turns
-Working with others
-Sharing materials
-Completing a task


The following activities could be used to apply the information obtained in the story to social studies and language arts lessons.

1. Using a world map or globe, determine the location of Poland. Discuss the location of that country relative to your home state. Use the scale given on the map or globe to determine the distance between Poland and your home state.
2. Discuss which countries or bodies of water form boundaries with Poland in the north, south, east and west.
3. Point out the subtle references to the musical [Fiddler on the Roof] that occur in the illustrations in the book: the newspaper headline “Fiddler On Roof Falls Off Roof,” and the book chapter title “If I Were A Rothschild.” (Optional)
4. Have students listen to a recording of “If I Were A Rich Man” and “Fiddler on the Roof” from the soundtrack of the musical. (Optional)
5. Have students watch selected segments from the video recording of the movie [Fiddler on the Roof] to determine the authenticity of the information in the book. (Optional)
6. Discuss how the additional information provided by the audio and video of the movie influence the way you feel about Joseph? Did seeing and hearing the people in the film, who were obviously very poor, make Joseph seem more real to you? Did the brightly colored illustrations in the book really indicate to you that Joseph was poor?
7. Do you think everyone who lives in Joseph’s town or village is poor? Discuss what information was in the book to make you think the way that you do.
8. Invite someone from Poland who lives in your local area to visit the class and speak about life in Poland. Encourage the visitor to share any special items that they may have from Poland with the students. (Optional)
9. Print and distribute to each student a copy of the Poland Resource Guide located in the associated file.
10. Have each student conduct simple research, using books and/or the Internet (See Weblinks below), to gather information on Poland. The information should include, but is not limited to the following: official name, location, area, boundaries, capital, other cities, population, language, currency, climate, natural resources, main export(s), major industries, flag. Have them record this information on the Poland Resource Guide.
11. Each student then organizes the information on Poland to make a book that includes the following components: Cover, Title, Author, Title Page, Table of Contents. Each topic is written on a separate page. Each topic is given a title and has one or more sentences to explain it.

The following suggested criteria can be used to assess the book made by each student.

-includes information on ten or more topics about Poland
-written in complete sentences
-includes a map of Poland
-includes a drawing or picture of the flag
-includes a table of contents
-includes a title page
-includes a cover with a title
-includes author’s name
-has no spelling errors

-includes information on at least seven topics about Poland
-written in complete sentences
-includes a map of Poland
-includes a table of contents
-includes a title page
-includes a cover with a title
-includes author’s name
-has few spelling errors

See Teacher:
-includes information on six or fewer topics about Poland
-not written in complete sentences
-does not include a map of Poland
-does not include a table of contents
-does not include a title page
-does not include a cover with a title
-does not include author’s name
-has many spelling errors

Web Links

Web supplement for Something From Nothing
Gander Academy’s Maps and Map Skills

Web supplement for Something From Nothing
Gander Academy’s Nation Profiles

Web supplement for Something From Nothing
Gander Academy’s National Flags of the World

Web supplement for Something From Nothing
The On-Line Menorah

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