Mike Mulligan

Curriculum Guide

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel Curriculum Guide
Click on a subject to view its corresponding curriculum guide
  • MaryAnn was in danger of becoming ‘obsolete’, or out of date, when electric and diesel steam shovels came along. Ask your mom or dad, grandma or grandpa, what devices they used when they were younger that we no longer use. What technological advances have been most useful to them and which ones did they have difficulty getting used to? Write down what you find out and give it to them as a gift. (2+)

  • MaryAnn dug the great canals, among other things.  See this animated link to find out how it works!


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How a steam shovel works:

  • Composer Stephen Simon used Irish, or Uilleann, bagpipes and a distinctly Irish-sounding melody to create the theme for Mike Mulligan. Look up Ireland on a map or globe. Describe where it is: the continent, surrounding bodies of water, neighboring countries.

  • Research the climate and landscape of Ireland. Why is it called the “Land of 40 Shades of Green” and the “Emerald Isle”?

  • Explore this website for fun things to do with young ones including coloring pages, recipes and facts about Ireland. (PreK+)

Language Arts

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  • A machine is a device designed to reduce the effort to perform a task. What’s a task that you do on a regular basis? Design a machine to help you reduce the effort needed to complete your task. Write about your machine and draw a picture of it.

“I close my eyes and picture
The emerald of the sea 
 From the fishing boats at Dingle
To the shores of Dundee
I miss the river Shannon
and the folks at Skipperdee
The moorlands and the meadows
With their forty shades of green.” 

(From “Forty Shades of Green” by Johnny Cash)


  • Write a poem describing a place that you love - maybe a place you go on vacation, your home, or another special place in your life. Begin with “I close my eyes and picture… ”


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“40 Shades of Green” collage - Ireland has been called the “Land of 40 Shades of Green”. Use mixed media to create a collage of shades of green- fabric, yarn, paper, markers, glitter, paint, tissue paper, beads, etc.

Virginia Lee Burton was unusual as an author/illustrator in that she created all of the illustrations for her books before ever adding words! Create a story of your own completely in pictures and add the words last.

Mike Mulligan “recycled” MaryAnn by putting her to work as the furnace for the new town hall. Recycle materials from around your house to create one of the vehicles mentioned in the story: train, boat, automobile, or plane. Here are some ideas:

A town hall houses the local government offices and personnel in a town or city. Build a town hall out of blocks, clay or popsicle sticks.

Using play sand, playdough or clay, dig your own town hall cellar. Make your corners “neat and square”!


Purchase some of these paper dolls to explore the dress of the Irish people.


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  • All sound is created by vibration. Stretch a rubber band between your fingers and pluck it. Watch it vibrate. Shorten the rubber band. How does the sound change? Lengthen it, make it tauter. What happens to the sound now? 


  • Blow across the opening of an empty soda or water bottle until it makes a sound. The air inside the bottle vibrates and creates a pitch. What happens if you put an inch of water in the bottle? Two inches? Fill it halfway and try again. Explore this website to see how and why this works.


  • Bagpipes are reed instruments that make sound in a way similar to the way an oboe does. The reeds inside the instrument vibrate when air is forced through them and the pitch is changed by covering and uncovering the holes on the chanter to make the vibrating tube longer or shorter.


  • Make a double reed instrument with a drinking straw. Check out this video for instructions.

       Other Irish songs/performers to experience:


  • Stephen Simon uses many different tunes to musically illustrate parts of the story. Listen to the CD track 3 to hear examples explained by the composer himself. Choose one of your favorite picture books and decide what tunes you could use to represent certain parts of the story. Put on a show for your family with one person reading the story while you hum the tunes in the background or play them on an instrument.


  • “Program Music” is the term used for music that tells a story or creates a specific picture or idea using sounds. Other pieces of program music are Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, and Dukas’ The Sorceror’s Apprentice. Get these CDs out of the library and listen to any of these pieces while trying to picture the story in your mind. Illustrate part of the story as you listen. How does the composer use the instruments to represent characters, action or ideas?


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  • MaryAnn dug as much in a day as one hundred men could dig in a week. If she dug 5 tons of dirt in a day, how many pounds would each of the hundred men have dug in a week? What about 8 tons? 9.5 tons?


  • MaryAnn dug the town hall cellar with four corners neat and square. What are those “square” angles called? If all four angles are square, then the opposing sides of the cellar are related in what way? What about the adjacent sides?


  • If the cellar is a square and one wall is 25 feet long, what is the perimeter of the cellar room? How much carpet would they need for the cellar (*hint - find the area*)?


  • If MaryAnn dug a cellar that was 13 feet deep, 30 feet long and 24 feet wide, how many cubic feet of dirt did she dig? What if the cellar was 15 by 40 by 20?



5 tons = 10,000 lbs. Divide by 100 men. Each man dug 100 lbs. of dirt in a week.
8 tons = 16,000 lbs. Divide by 100 men. Each man dug 160 lbs. in a week.
9.5 tons = 19,000 lbs. Divide by 100 men. Each man dug 190 lbs. in a week.

Square angles are called “right” angles. If all four angles are square, the opposing sides are “parallel” and the adjacent sides are “perpendicular” to one another.

If the cellar is a square and each side is 25 feet long, the perimeter of the cellar is 100 ft. (side x 4).
The area (amount of carpet needed) would be 25 ft. x 25 ft., or 625 sq. ft.

If MaryAnn dug a cellar 13 x 30 x 24 (b x h x w), then she dug 9,360 cu. ft.
If the cellar was 15 x 40 x 20, she dug 12,000 cu. ft.

BONUS: Lesson Plans Grades K-1 & 2-3

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LISTENING: Introducing the Sounds of the Symphony Orchestra

NATIONAL STANDARDS FOR MUSIC EDUCATION: the following are addressed in these lesson plans:

  • Listening to, analyzing, and describing music.

  • Understanding relationships between music, the other arts, and disciplines outside the arts.

  • Understanding music in relation to history and culture.

  • Singing, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music.

  • Performing on instruments, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music.

  • Reading and notating music.

  • Moving to music

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel was written in 1939 by Virginia Lee Burton, considered by many to be the creator of the American picture book. The original score by Stephen Simon was premiered at the Kennedy Center in 1993 and recorded for
the first time in 2004. A tale of loyalty, determination, diligence, disappointment, plus a happy ending, offered the composer an opportunity to explore the emotional breadth and complex sounds of the symphony orchestra.

This CD/MP3 can be utilized for K—4. Track One is appropriate for K with “dramatic page-turning” of the book, followed by movement with Track 3. Track 3 is appropriate for Gr. K-4. Track 2 is appropriate for Gr. 3-4 and works well when coordinated with the language arts teachers. Track 4 can be used for Gr. 3-4 and should always be followed by the second listening of the work. Track 7/8 is the sing along track for situations where accompaniment for singing is needed. Track 7 is the introduction of the musicians; Track 8 is the accompaniment only.

Grade Level: K - 1

Lesson: Introducing the Sounds of the Symphony Orchestra

Music has moods, just like people. The students will listen to how the mood of the music changes when the mood of the story changes. Move with music.

Activity One:
Students listen to the musical version of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel as the teacher follows along with the book.

Activity Two:
After listening quietly to the story, students are encouraged to move their bodies with the Mike Mulligan Song on Track 3. Some children pretend to be steam shovels, some dance to the music. Ask what style the song is in. (Jazz)

Grade Level 2 - 3

Lesson One: Learning to Listen

Become a critical and observant listener. Music has moods, just like people. The students will listen to how the mood of the music changes when the mood of the story changes. Instruments of the orchestra imitate sounds in real life (trombones imitate airplanes, percussion anvil imitates sound of the pile-driver, orchestra imitates people talking, scuba tank imitates steam).

Musical terms:
​imitation; musical quotation

Activity One:
Students listen to the musical version of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, no book needed as this is to develop listening skills.

Activity Two:
Discuss where in the story the music is happy and where it is sad. Discuss tempo, fast and slow, and how the composer uses change of tempo to create different moods in the story. Discuss how the music amplifies the story, making the sad parts feel even sadder, for example.

Activity Three:
Invite the entire class to stand up and dance to Track 3, the Mike Mulligan Song, as a change of pace from sitting and listening.

Materials needed:
CD/MP3 player
Virginia Lee Burton’s Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel book
A good imagination, a desire to have fun, and a big smile!

Lesson Two: Language Arts and Performance

Authors write books, illustrators draw pictures, composers compose musical scores: they are all telling a story. (Excellent opportunity to coordinate with the Language Arts teacher’s author—illustrator unit.) The musical story of Mike Mulligan is told with a symphony orchestra on Track One and a jazz trio on Track Three.

Activity One:
Listen to Track 2 and discuss how Virginia Lee Burton wrote the book and what inspired her. Discuss why she was special (she used children as her critics). Discuss where creative ideas come from. (The idea of turning Mike Mulligan into the heating plant comes from a 12 year old boy.)

Activity Two:
Learn the Mike Mulligan Song. Discuss vocabulary. Perform with karaoke track.

Materials needed:
CD player
Virginia Lee Burton’s Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel book
Words to the Mike Mulligan Song copied on the board or copied for handouts or taught by rote.

Lesson Three: Musical Composition

Composers use various musical devices when they compose music. Imitation, quotation and the quodlibet.

Activity One:
Review songs: She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain, What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor, Eerie Canal.

Activity Two:
Listen to Track 4 (About the Music). Discuss where and how the three songs are used in the work. Review what a quodlibet is. Review what instruments imitate various sounds in the work (muted trumpets imitating people laughing, car horns by French honors and trumpets, trombones imitating airplanes, anvil imitating clanking engine parts, scuba tank imitating steam).

Musical terms:
quodlibet (two tunes played together at the same time); musical quotation.

Activity Three:
Re-listen to Mike Mulligan and raise hands whenever they hear one of the compositional techniques used.