Picture Books and Big Kids

This NPR article about Andrea Davis Pinkney’s book, A Poem for Peter, inspired me this morning. The book is about about Ezra Jack Keats, author of the classic The Snowy Day. It looks beautiful. But why did the article grab me so strongly? Certainly part of it is because I just read that book to my child the other day and part is because we finally have snow sticking to the ground. But part of it is also that I’ve been very focused on trying to use story books to build empathy. In my house and with my toddler, we read a lot and regardless of what we read, I try to ask questions. For example, in one of our 9,000 daily readings of whatever Curious George book is closest, we might ask questions like, “Does George look happy or sad or scared? How can you tell? Why do you think he’s sad? What’s a good way to help someone who might be sad that they are lost?”. This is probably intuitive for caregivers of young children.

We can do this with older kids of course but in a classroom, we often can’t regularly sit with individual students to read and question. We work with groups on those social-emotional skills along with new vocabulary, content like historical events, and English Language Arts (ELA) standards like plot and setting and point of view. Not to mention we’re teaching students at different ability levels, dealing with absences, trying to find time and materials, and managing classroom behavior. Oh if only we could spend all day sitting with one child and just talking about books and making connections! But we can’t… Thus it’s the balance of effective practices with engaging activities and respectful management that leads to students interested in learning and demonstrates why teaching is considered both an art and science.

So what was so inspiring about this article? As I read it and excerpts from A Poem for Peter I realized I was making a unit plan for an ELA classroom. Here are my messy thoughts. Perhaps they will inspire something in your classroom:

Read The Snowy Day and have kids identify what makes it special. Why do they think it became a classic? Now read A Poem for Peter. Find evidence from the poem that supports their theories or adds to it. Learn about Keats (build empathy for Keats and his character, Peter). Students find examples of how Pinkney uses language and imagery and illustrations from The Snowy Day in her own book to make powerful connections. It may be useful to have a doc cam focused on A Poem for Peter while you check out every The Snowy Day in your area so each pair or three-some of students can have a copy to look at.

Students look at a good-sized list of other classics (selected by the teacher) and pick one they find special. Students could suggest their own but the initial teacher list would include books that have known powerful backstories with the author or illustrator. The teacher needs to makes sure that student-suggestions will have enough of an appropriate backstory. The HS students could possibly read their stories to small groups at an elementary school; maybe even develop a short and simple craft or learning activity to connect the story to some other content. This might help the older students think more deeply about the lessons that could be learned.

Want to collaborate with a math teacher? Take over the HS/elementary pairing. The HS kids can use the Common Core ELA standards to develop some good discussion questions for during reading but have the math teacher guide students through examining the math practices standards. Then, the HS kids can find ways to connect the practices to the picture book and develop an an elementary activity appropriate to the practice. For example, Peter walks in the snow with his toes in, toes out, shuffling his feet, and dragging a stick making different patterns. One practice is looking for and making use of repeated structure. Surely HS students could think of something connecting to that. This would be a great way to make the HS students more familiary with the habits of mind expected in the math practices.

Now that the HS students are deeply familiar with their chosen book, the students research the author and/or illustrator. What makes them special, how does their background influence how you look at the message (Hello, Common Core Anchor standard for Reading #6)? Now students write their own version of A Poem for Peter for their own author/illustrator. The rubric could include not only points for information about the author but writing in a style that evokes the original book and a section on using a style or content that allows readers of different backgrounds to connect to the author's own background (building empathy in the reader). There are plenty of examples of this in A Poem for Peter.

Are we done? No. Now exchange books and your poem with a classmate. You become NPR, writing an article about your classmate's poem about a a book. Now each students has to have read two picture books, done research on two authors, and written about picture books in two different ways (as a poet and as a reporter.. Hello, Common Core Anchor Standard for Writing 10).

Want to add a service-learning or community component? Go to a library and read or create a display about the author. Do a public reading as a way to raise funds to purchase more copies of the book for a library or for those in need to have more books at home for their kids or for a cause that would be championed by a character in the book or the author/illustrator.

When the unit is done, guide a full class discussion over a very big essential question: What makes a book a classic? Ask students to reflect on how their own understanding of one or more books evolved and consider which of the activities (reading to someone else, developing a related lesson, learning about the author, writing like the author) helped them connect most deeply to the text. You could also ask what other books they consider classics that weren't involved. Or how an author's background might negatively impact their feelings about a book (i.e., I read a Babar book to my toddler the other day and wasn't turned off by Babar's mother being killed or the King dying but by knowing about the time period and the realization that the book probably was some sort of allegory regarding French colonization.. and a quick google search shows me I'm probably not alone.)

Doing this activity with a picture book and high school students vs. a novel and high school students might help make the older kids more interested in looking for evidence in the text (and going back to the text multiple times). You could do this over a shorter span of time than doing it with a novel. You're connecting to their interests and prior knowledge. With younger kids, you might want to pick a book with a very clear structure so the students can more easily write their poem using the same structure. Perhaps skip the news report or simplify it - use a Writing Template or do a presentation. Ask the younger kids to think about the math practices themselves - can they find examples of the standards in the writing or illustrations?

Thanks for sticking with me through this brain dump of lesson planning. As a parent of a toddler, I read many children's books and the NPR article and Pinkney's new book clearly tapped into something that's been brewing for a while. What ideas can you add?

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