“The high school teachers will never buy into that. Don’t even show them those books—they’ll eat you alive.”
A few weeks ago, a suburban school district administrator said this to me (and it has taken me some time to wrap my head around the words) during the morning break of the trait-focused writing training I was doing. On this day, I was working with middle school teachers, and the following day I would be with a group of high school teachers. The administrator had not observed any of the training and had just popped in to see how things were going. The books I had specifically chosen and brought with me to use during these two trainings were spread out on a table near the front of the room. The selection ranged from professional topics, novels and non-fiction specific to various content areas, all the way to several picture books—yes, picture books. I’m sure you would be able to imagine my reasoning for intentionally including picture books knowing full well the make up of my audiences. Well, imagine again, my surprise when this administrator, who had only been in the room for a few seconds, took a rather hasty, cursory scan of my book table and announced, “The high school teachers will never buy into that. Don’t even show them those books—they’ll eat you alive.” As I was thinking about my response—keeping my jaw from hitting the floor and my eyes from rolling out of their sockets—the administrator’s phone rang, ending the awkward moment. I didn’t see this administrator again during my two days of training.
I want you to know that I was not eaten alive by either group of teachers—not even a nibble or a bite. Not surprisingly, both the middle and high school teachers were more than receptive to the books on my table and my suggestions for using them in their own classrooms. They were well beyond “buying in.” The high school teachers even shared a few titles of their own, along with how they had successfully used them with their students, again without anyone being eaten alive.
I wanted to respond to this administrator in the most positive manner I could think of, so I enlisted the help of a few high school teachers I have worked with or met during workshops (including a couple from the workshop I just described). What follows is our “response,” a short list of picture book titles and a brief description (not a lesson plan) of how they were used in real high school classrooms. This list is just a start. Middle and high school teachers have shared with me how they have used picture books to introduce content topics, extend a topic beyond the limits of assigned textbooks, exemplify elements of specific traits—details, leads/conclusions, strong words choices, fluent sentences, correct/creative use of conventions, etc.—model appropriate/creative presentation, and so on. Each of these is a demonstration of how purposefully selected picture books can be used to teach, inspire, and motivate high school writers—all writers.
Note: When using picture books in any classroom, it is important that students be able to see the pictures and text. A document camera is one of the easiest ways to do this, especially because it allows you to zoom in on picture details and individual words/phrases/sentences. Of course, you can do this the old fashioned way by gathering students up close in their desks, chairs, or on the floor. (Once, when I was doing a demonstration lesson in a class of 11th graders, I pulled out the picture book I was going to use and students began pushing chairs and desks out of the way. A student blurted out, “Criss-cross applesauce!” as everyone sat on the floor in front of me. It was a bit crowded, but they were so into the moment, I just ran with it.)
Summary: Author and illustrator Stephen Gammell offers a humorous, fresh view of the old song that nearly every kid knows. This Old MacDonald doesn’t even have any animals, and when he decides to get some, his choices show that he really doesn’t know much about farming. Instead of the more common and useful cow, chicken, or horse, MacDonald gets an elephant, baboon, and a lion.
Use/Topic: Literary Devices—Irony, Dramatic Irony
This book plays on something very familiar to students/readers, Old MacDonald and his farm, but events go contrary to what the readers expect, resulting in a humorous outcome. Readers clearly know more than MacDonald about farming and what the outcome of his choices will be. This book is a fun, simple (without being simplistic) introduction to an important literary device. It provides a touchstone example of a difficult concept and a gateway to understanding irony as it may be used in more advanced literary selections.
Other titles to help with Literary Devices:
Summary: Author and illustrator collaborate to create an artistic, poetic tribute to all aspects of life on the prairie—the beauty and climatic extremes. The author tells readers all the things they don’t know and can’t know about the prairie—the sun, wind, sky, flatness, cold and heat—because they’re not from the prairie. In the process, the author is passionately filling readers with all that he knows because he is from the prairie. By the end of the poem, readers have gained an understanding and appreciation for a place and life very different from their own. Readers have been filled with insider knowledge—words and images.
Use/Topic: Inspire Immitation—Poetry from Personal Knowledge/Experience
This book provides an excellent platform for imitation by student writers. Students can choose to focus on place—If you’re not from Seattle…, If you’ve never been to Lake Chelan…, or personal experience—If you’re not an only child…, If you’re not a hockey player…, If you don’t love to cook…, or use it to demonstrate content knowledge—If you don’t know Atticus Finch…, If you’re not an igneous rock…, If you’re not an amphibian…, and so on. The poetry they create could rhyme, as it does in the book, or not. Their poety could imitate the author’s repeated phrasing, or not. The focus is on filling readers up with insider knowledge, details, and feelings.
Excerpts of Student Poetry Inspired by If You’re Not From the Prairie:
If You’re Not from the Coast of Peru…
By A. D.
If you’re not from the Coast of Peru, you don’t know
The taste of fresh seafood just pulled from the water.
You can’t know the taste. You’ve never tasted fresh shrimp cooked
With lime, garlic, nuts, salt, and pepper that make you drool like a baby.
If you’re not from the Coast, you’ve never tasted the ocean…
If You’re Not a Book Lover…
By H. J.
If you’re not a book lover,
You don’t know about books—boxes of books,
Double stacked shelves of books,
Books piled on the stairs, by the couch,
Teetering on the bedside table.
If you’re not a book lover,
You don’t know that intoxicating smell of a new book,
About pushing your nose right up and into the binding,
Careful not to push too hard…
If You’re Not from the Mantle…
By S. B.
If you’re not from the mantle, you don’t know convection,
You can’t know my magma.
You’ll never feel the searing heat or gases hiss
Or watch the layers fold and break about your head.
If you’re not from the mantle,
You’ll never see the plates slide
Or get fried
Or watch a small part of you escape
Knowing you have shaped the world…
Summary: This wordless picture book is both a compelling page-turner and an amazing work of art, worthy of a slow, lingering “read.” The author/illustrator’s sepia illustrations detail the journey of a man immigrating to a new and strange land. The earthy tones of each image are at times warm and peaceful then suddenly cold and menacing mirroring the successes and struggles of the man as he attempts to build a new life. There is no story told in text, and any language included in the illustrations uses an invented system of letters/symbols, immersing readers in the language/cultural barriers facing new immigrants.
This book was used to help students personalize the topic of immigration and launch a discussion about the total experience of immigrants in a US history class. The book’s images encouraged students to talk about the personal and political reasons behind the decision to leave one’s home country—governmental oppression, religious oppression, seeking personal freedom, education, employment, etc. The Arrival was not used in place of the students’ history texts but to help provide a lead-in and context for the fact/figure/information heavy content students would face in their assigned texts.
Summary: Author Bob Raczka turns “interviewer” to give readers an inside look at Jan Vermeer’s art, personal/professional life, and the times in which he lived. Rather than “interview” the mysterious Mr. Vermeer, the author sits down with seven of the artist’s amazing paintings, imagining tell-all conversations with their long silent subjects. Bob’s questions get the painting’s subjects talking about the artist’s techniques, historical and cultural details, and about Vermeer the man, encouraging them to dish on their creator. Though the conversations are “imagined” by the author, the information behind them is authoritative and well researched. In the end, readers are treated to a detailed look at seven beautiful works of art and a greater understanding of Vermeer the man and artist.
Use/Topic: Creative Biographies/Primary Source Writing
English Class–Sharing this book led to students doing “imagined” interviews with characters from novels/literature studied in class—e.g. Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Grapes of Wrath, Beloved, and The River Why.
History—This book was used as a model for writing creative biographies of historical figures being studied, helping students move away from “encyclopedic, book reporty” products. Students were guided through comprehensive research of their chosen subject, helping them become expert enough to “imagine” informative, interesting interviews. It was also used as a motivating model with a family history project, where students were asked to interview elder family members to turn into first person histories, written in the voice of the interviewee.
Other titles to help with creative biographies/primary source writing:
At its heart, this post is not solely about one administrator’s misguided statement about using picture books in secondary classrooms. It’s about the importance of professional judgment, best practices, purposeful planning, the craft of teaching, and developing relationships with students. If only I’d had the time to say all this before the phone rang, ending the possibility of a real conversation.
Coming up on Gurus . . .
Vicki will review an anthology of essays called Machine Scoring of Student Essays: Truth and Consequences. Here’s a tantalizing tidbit from one essay, Why Less is Not More: What We Lose By Letting A Computer Score Writing Samples, written by William Condon—“… At the very moment when performance assessments are helping promote consistency in writing instruction across classrooms, machine scoring takes us back to a form of assessment that simples does not reach into the classroom.” Shout it from the rooftops!
Remember, if you’re considering professional development in writing during the current school year, we’d love to design a seminar or series of classroom demo’s to meet your needs at the classroom, building, or district level. We can incorporate any combination of the following: Common Core Standards for writing, the 6 traits, effective approaches to dealing with genre, and the best in literature for young people (including emphasis on reading to write). Please contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. Thanks for stopping by. Come back—and bring friends. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.