How children's literature can provide powerful teaching tools.
With the implementation of the Common Core State Standards,¹ we have entered an age of renewed focus on high quality children's and young adult literature as powerful teaching tools. As passionate advocates for children and children's books, we have long believed that literature-based classrooms allow for shared meaning-making, deep exploration of topics and ideas, differentiated instruction based on students' interests and reading abilities, and the examination of multiple perspectives. In 2010, we began a blog, The Classroom Bookshelf, to help spread the word about children’s books with excellent teaching potential. Each week, we feature a book or a pair of books, and provide a review, teaching invitations, and print and digital resources for further exploration. Our teaching invitations vary in focus and content areas. In this article, we provide snapshots of three models for using children’s and young adult literature in the K-8 classroom: reading for content information, reading as a writer, and reading with a critical literacy lens.
Children’s and young adult literature is a powerful tool for delivering required content, and providing access to theories, concepts, themes, and facts in social studies, science, and the arts in developmentally appropriate ways. Often, schools turn to textbooks and purchased curriculum for teaching in social studies and science, and teachers lament how difficult the students find them. Using trade books in addition to or instead of textbooks allows teachers to differentiate instruction based on topics, perspective and point-of-view, length of text, and text complexity. This affords students access to content in more easily digestible formats with strong visual representations and multiple opportunities to interact with the content as they read across texts.In addition, well-written trade book nonfiction often provides similes and metaphors that convey conceptual understandings in ways that children and teenagers can more readily understand. Poetry and historical fiction can also provide readers with access to important content information. Four entries from The Classroom Bookshelf that provide rich opportunities for an exploration of content are:Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans, written and illustrated by Kadir Nelson, tells the story of America through the lens of African American history. The author says, “Before working on Heart and Soul, I had known that African Americans had a deep connection to America, but it wasn’t until I became engrossed in my research that I could fully appreciate how." More about the book and teaching invitations and further explorations of American history...Meadowland: A Wetlands Survival Story, written and illustrated by Tom Yazerski. This beautifully illustrated book offers readers the opportunity to witness the transformation of the Meadowlands of New Jersey from life-giving natural resource, to vile embarrassment, to the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes, and invites readers to explore their own local wetlands. More about this book and teaching invitations and further explorations of ecosystems...The Mighty Miss Malone,written by Christopher Paul Curtis. Prompted by fans discouraged by a lack of female protagonists in his work, Curtis created Deza Malone, an irrepressible twelve-year-old surviving the Great Depression with savvy, strength, and wit. Readers of Bud, Not Buddy, Curtis’s Newbery Award-winning historical novel, will recognize Deza as “the girl who kissed Buddy.” More about this book and teaching invitations and further explorations about The Great Depression...Swirl by Swirl, written by Joyce Sidman and illustrated by Beth Krommes. Sidman takes us on a far reaching journey, noting the prevalence of the shape of the spiral in the natural world around our globe and out across the galaxies. In a meticulously paced free verse poem, the reader explores the utility and elegance of the spiral shape, as it grows, moves, defends, explores, serves, and beautifies. More about this book and teaching invitations and further explorations about the spiral...
Well-written children’s books can also serve as models, or mentor texts, for student writers. Just as artists-in-training copy the masterpieces on museum walls to develop their own techniques, developing writers can learn from close study of the author’s craft. Teachers guide students to examine the many choices that an author makes and to look closely at what the author is doing with language to convey a message and to generate a response from readers. Five books from our blog that are examples of mentor texts for writing are:Emily’s Fortune, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, a tall tale set in the Wild West, is an excellent model for character development. Eight-year-old Emily Wiggins suddenly finds herself orphaned and en route via stagecoach to her Aunt Hilda’s with a fellow orphan rascal named Jackson. Together, the two devise a plan to keep Emily safe from grasping tiger-tattooed Uncle Victor, who seeks to claim Emily as his own after learning that Emily stands to inherit a large fortune. More about this book and teaching invitations and further explorations...Planting the Wild Garden, by Kathryn Gilbraith, a nonfiction picture book in which students can examine the organizational structures of nonfiction texts. Beginning with the familiar concept of gardeners planting seeds in rows, the book extends children’s understanding of how plants grow in wild areas, featuring different means of seed dispersal. By comparing this with other picture books that address the same topic, students can examine the organizational choices made by authors of survey texts. More about this book and teaching invitations and further explorations...All the Water in the World, by George Ella Lyon, provides an opportunity for students to study poetic form, specifically the form of concrete poetry, and an opportunity to look at how nonfiction content can be conveyed in a poem. This picture book poem presents the sequences and relationships of the water cycle, emphasizing the vital role that water plays for animals, plants, and humans. More about this book and teaching invitations and further explorations...Rah, Rah, Radishes, by April Pulley Sayre, allows students to consider the word level choices made by an author, by examining the use of alliteration and rhyme in the text. This lively picture book is a rowdy and glorious tribute to vegetables of all colors, shapes, and varieties. More about this book and teaching invitations and further explorations...After studying the techniques of accomplished authors, student writers should be given the opportunity to put their learning to practice. The Common Core State Standards require students to write for a wide array of purposes and to varying audiences. We know that children’s literature will provide vital resources to teachers as they guide students to meet this goal.
Children’s and young adult literature provide both a mirror of what a reader knows about life, as well as a window into ways of life that are unfamiliar and new. Many readers will find that the same book can serve both purposes, and therefore find the plot, characters, setting, and issues within it both familiar and unexplored. With this in mind, we believe that one of the most powerful uses of literature in the classroom is through the lens of critical literacy, which investigates how a text positions readers through matters of perspective, privilege, and power. Guiding students to understand that authors and illustrators make decisions about what to depict in their books, what to leave out, and how to represent information not only strengthens their abilities as readers, but also their understanding of the world around them and their capacity to work for social justice. As no single book can wholly represent multiple perspectives, we encourage both teachers and students to use a critical literacy approach, as it enables teachers and students to address a variety of Common Core Standards in engaging ways. Five entries from our blog that exemplify how using children’s and young adult literature can support critical literacy skills are:Wonderstruck, written and illustrated by Brian Selznick, can be used to explore how various representations and viewpoints are included and excluded in a book, as both of its protagonists are deaf. More about this book and the critical literacy activities it can support...Mirror, by Jeannie Baker, is a wordless picture book that illustrates the similarities and differences in an Australian and a Moroccan boy’s daily lives. Playing on the concept of windows and mirrors described above, Mirror can be used to consider whether textual descriptions and illustrations are accurately nuanced or supportive of stereotypes. More about this book and the critical literacy activities it can support...I Want My Hat Back, by Jon Klassen, is a 2012 Geisel Honor picture book for beginning readers in which a bear has lost its hat and interrogates fellow forest animals as to its whereabouts. Though it may be obvious to the bear what happened to his hat, this book can also help students learn about reconstructing stories to give voice to silenced or missing perspectives, thereby giving a more complete understanding of surrounding issues and events. More about this book and the critical literacy activities it can support... Breaking Stalin's Nose, by Eugene Yelchin, won the 2012 Newbery Honor Medal for its poignant portrayal of a child's coming of age during Stalin's reign. This book is a powerful critical literacy tool for its direct exploration of propaganda and political rhetoric; yet, it also offers readers an opportunity to investigate how various topics that seem commonplace, such as orphanages and prisons, have been portrayed throughout history and literature--and why. More about this book and the critical literacy activities it can support...Inside Out & Back Again, by Thanhha Lai, is a 2012 Newbery Honor book about a Vietnamese refugee girl’s adjustment to life in America after the fall of Saigon. Dealing with a variety of social justice issues, this book can support students in activities that aim to help their communities and even the world become more equitable and just. More about this book and the critical literacy activities it can support...
We hope these different approaches to using children’s literature in your classroom have piqued your interest and offered you some concrete suggestions as you transition to teaching with the new Common Core State Standards.1The Common Core Standards for English Language-Arts and Content Literacy place clear emphasis on the role that literature should play in student learning, stating that, “[t]hrough reading a diverse array of classic and contemporary literature as well as challenging informational texts in a range of subjects, students are expected to build knowledge, gain insights, explore possibilities, and broaden their perspective” (Common Core Initiative, 2010)
Erika Thulin Dawes
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