Thursday, June 15, 2017

What I am learning about picture books

One of the classes I am enrolled in this summer is a library sciences children's and young adult literature course. In that class, I am reading Children's Literature in Action: A Librarian's Guide by Sylvia M. Vardell (and I just found out yesterday that until recently, she has been teaching the class), in addition to picture books and novels galore. This week's assignment was to read a chapter about picture books and read three picture books (choose from a particular list) for which we had to write reviews.

Even though I am a middle school teacher, I use picture/trade books in my classroom as often as I possibly can. In regard to these books, Vardell writes, "many are...not afraid to tackle challenging topics" (46). This past spring, my seventh and eighth grade AVID classes examined and analyzed controversial/banned children's books for an inquiry lesson. My students and I were able to engage in some difficult conversations involving gender, sexuality, and immigration, for example, all from picture books. I had never done this before and had no idea how young teenagers would react, but it turned out to be pretty remarkable.

As I was reading the chapter, I was checking off all of the picture books I have read, and I was pretty impressed that I have read a significant number, aside from alphabet books. Part of this is due to my participation in the #bookaday on Twitter, created by Donalyn Miller. Through this process, I discovered that many picture books are not really written for young children and that there is a lot that can be learned from these reads. I believe there are stereotypes about all picture books being elementary in nature, but many are rich in vocabulary, complex sentence structures, and information.

There were a few surprises for me within the reading:
  • One topic addressed in the chapter is awards for picture books. I had no idea that the Caldecott award had been around since the 1930s (39). The first book I shared with my students for the above mentioned lesson was Strega Nona, a Caldecott winner from 1976. I thought the award from 1976 was a long time ago - and I was alive at that time. I do not think I have ever really considered that children's books have been around for quite some time now.  
  • Vardell writes, "that no one artistic style is preferred by kids, and that judgment is rather individual" (40). This is simply something I have never thought about, but it struck me as funny. I started imagining a toddler running around the library, looking at books, grimacing, "No, not that one, Mother. The artistry is not to my liking."  
  • Most picture books are 32-pages in length (45). I was so intrigued by this that I tweeted about it and started counting the pages in some of the books I have sitting in my house right now. 32 pages, indeed! 
  • Children's picture books do not have to have a theme or lesson . Having taught middle school English for so long and theme being such a challenging TEK, this made me feel better about sharing picture books with my students for reasons other than an overall "moral of the story". The controversial books I used certainly have messages to convey, but like Vardell says, "Deeper meanings are gleaned subtly, implicitly, through understanding how the world words, how people behave, and how stories reveal those truths" (60). My students worked collaboratively to delve into those deeper meanings without my having to spoon-feed any information.
If you stop by the library or the bookstore, check out some of the children's books. There are treasures galore if you look. 


Some of my favorite picture books:

Monday, June 12, 2017

NCTE Reads: YA Pedagogy Element 1 - Classroom Community

This week for NCTE Reads, we are delving into the development of pedagogy that addresses young adult literature in the classroom. Element 1 focuses on classroom community. 

Many years ago, I learned that it is pointless to discuss rules and procedures on the first day of school. Students are tired and adjusting to being back on a schedule. They are excited to see their friends and what teachers they have but not to learn anything, especially on day one. So I switched gears and started focusing on classroom community from the first day of school. If we are going to be a family for 178 days, we need to be comfortable with one another. I have no issues with building community within the first two days of schools. But how to I extend this community into teaching young adult literature?


Which quality do I try to focus on?

 Quality #1: Belief that the work is important

Buehler discusses that teachers must treat young adult literature in the same capacity as they do classic literature. My classroom library consists of mostly young adult literature and a few pieces from the canon. Although I do not teach young adult literature in my AVID class, the selections for middle school English in my district are mostly young adult titles. Books I have taught in my fourteen years of teaching include:

In regard to classic literature, I did teach Treasure Island one time (and it was one time for a reason), and I taught Tom Sawyer one time. I would rather not discuss how those went over.

I have to say that I think I have treated these works seriously. Except for that one time when I made fun of A Wrinkle in Time profusely for everyone being saved by love (not my favorite story). Ok, I also expressed a few negative thoughts about the end of The Giver. But aside from that, I swear I have treated these books with the utmost respect.

I do read everything I can from my  own classroom library, and I have done my best to make sure I have books that represent all of my students, and some of those titles have to be treated with care (ex. Fat Angie, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the World, Tomboy).  When I have one-on-one conversations with students about the books they choose, I always treat the chosen story as the greatest novel ever written. 


I would have to say that the rest of the qualities are all challenges for me in the AVID classroom, as the class itself is not a literature class. The previous coordinator did tell me that there have been years when the classes examine a shared text, but not in the traditional sense of what we teach in English language arts. They have read We Beat the Streets to share and discuss how they can overcome the odds against them. 

I suppose this text could meet the Quality #4: Collective investment in a shared experience.  I have read the book myself, and it certainly invites discussion and debate. I do not think, however,  that this book represents enough of my students for them all to discover deep meaning. Quality #3: A sense of being known and valued focuses on choice as "an element of YA pedagogy" (84). In order to address both of these qualities, I believe I would have to introduce more titles into my classroom, whether fiction or nonfiction, about teens overcoming odds.

In teaching English, I feel confident I could address all four of these qualities and have probably touched on them all at some point in time. Bringing this pedagogy into the AVID classroom is not impossible, but it will take some work on my part. My overall goal is always to show my students that they have value that is important and recognized, so if I have to work a little bit harder for them, so be it. 

Sunday, June 4, 2017

NCTE Reads: Teaching Reading with YA Literature (chapter 1)

It's summer vacation, so I am sitting around doing absolutely nothing - said no teacher ever. I am tired just thinking about everything I am doing this summer - two graduate classes, two technology certifications, and an NCTE book study, to name a few.

For the book study, we are reading Teaching Reading with YA Literature: Complex Texts, Complex Lives by Jennifer Buehler. Now, I just finished up school yesterday (we had Saturday checkout), and our activities for the book study start today. Why no break? Because I am a teacher. And I strive to be the best possible teacher I can be. I don't need no stinkin' break! And of course, I will be sharing on my blog, as well.




Week 1: MAKE

This week we’re going to create a curated list of YA novels with rationales for why they are complex texts. These lists may prove useful if you choose to use any of these novels in your class and are asked to justify your selection. Please share the title, author, and a few sentences explaining why a YA text of your choosing should be considered complex.

My response: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas - Initially, I was not going to list this book, but I reconsidered. This book addresses topics and themes that are relevant to today’s youth. A young African American male is murdered by a police officer, an event witnessed by the story’s protagonist. The content invites natural discussion and real-world connections.

Week 1: TALK
How do you use YA literature in the classroom, and where does it fit in the larger context of all we’re meant to do in ELA?

My response: 

Due to a change in teaching assignments this past year, my focus on YA lit was put on the backburner. I moved from teaching eighth grade English to seventh and eighth grade AVID. Although AVID still incorporates reading and writing, I spent this year figuring out how to teach the class and bond with students who lost a beloved teacher to another position on another campus, some of whom resented me for coming in and leaving my classes and students behind. 

Personally, I did not discover young adult literature until sometime around 2007 or 2008. I know that most of the Twilight series had been published. I was teaching seventh grade at the time, and my girls were devouring the series. They wanted to talk to me about constantly, so I borrowed the set from a student to be able to reciprocate their discussions. 

I hate Twilight. Despise. Loathe. I found Belle to be a repugnant role model for young girls. To this day, I am quite vocal about my grievances with the series. It did, however, set me on a path of reading young adult literature in search of something worthy to share with my students. 

I abused my library card and read everything I could get my hands on. I recommended reads to my students, many of whom would go to the local library to find a book our school library did not carry. I started building a classroom library, thanks to a state literacy grant. 

I tend to showcase books in a display and talk about what I am reading, encouraging students to use my classroom library. This has been pretty successful, but I have not been able to reach every student in this manner.

During practice state testing situations, I will watch kids and try to determine what they might like to read. When they finish, I will bring them books from my shelves and see if I have hit on anything they might enjoy (I often do, which really surprises me).

Our middle school canon consists of young adult books. I have taught The Outsiders, The Westing Game, The Giver, Homecoming, Redwall, The Watsons Go to Birmingham, and A Wrinkle in Time. In reflection, my book and my mood probably had more to do with my students enjoying any of these books than my lessons did. For example, I dislike A Wrinkle in Time (a little less than I despite Twilight). I openly shared my frustration with my students regarding plot points, which may have been more entertaining for my kids than the story itself. 

For next year, I am considering having my AVID kids participate in independent reading activities with novels. As part of their college-readiness skills, I think they should know how to actively read novels in a particular time frame. I am in the early stages of this thinking and am not quite sure what to have my students do with those readings yet. I am hoping that throughout this book study and its discussions, I can create a meaningful reading environment for my students that carries over into their personal lives.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Critical literacy: Examining controversial and banned children's literature.

I was reading about controversial children's literature in an article or a book (I read so much that I cannot always remember), and being the ever rebellious teacher that I am decided that I needed to bring these books into my classroom. Including something controversial in my lessons is no big deal on my end, as I am always willing to push boundaries. I have used trade books in class previously, and the response was positive, so I decided to engage my students in a critical literacy/inquiry lesson involving the analysis of controversial and/or banned children's trade books.

The Books

The following books were chosen from different lists I found online while researching this topic. Every selection was available at my local public library:

  • Strega Nona by Tomie dePaola (witchcraft)
  • In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak (nudity, phallic representation)
  • The Stupids Have a Ball by Harry Allard and James Marshall (intelligence)
  • White Socks Only by Evelyn Coleman (segregation, violence)
  •  Smoky Night by Eve Bunting (riots, violence, differences)
  • Friends from the Other Side/Amigos de otro lado by Gloria Anzaldua (illegal immigration)
  • The Amazing Bone by William Steig (witchcraft, robbery, violence, kidnapping)
  • and Tango makes three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell (gay couples, gay parenting)
  • I am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings (transgender issues)
  • In Our Mother's House by Patricia Polacco (lesbian couples, lesbian parenting, discrimination)
  • Flabby Cat and Slobby Dog by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross (fat-shaming)
Planning for the lesson

I read each of these books before bringing them into my classroom. After reading, I knew I would have students who were uncomfortable with some of the topics, but I did not want to censor the readings in my classroom. The book topics are all real-life issues, and I felt that my students must learn to critically analyze information regardless of personal beliefs as part of becoming informed citizens. I wanted them to think about why some of these books would be complained about to the point of being banned in addition to how they felt about the topics personally. 

Mentor Text

I began the lesson with my students using Strega Nona as our mentor text. I explained that the story was considered controversial. [Side note: It took me two class periods to realize that my students did not understand the meaning of controversial. This will be addressed first in future presentations of this lesson.]

We listened to a Tomie dePaola audio recording of the story, during which I directed my students to actively listen for and determine what might be controversial about the story. Many thought that priests and nuns in a children's book might offend people. Others thought Big Anthony was being treated like a slave. Only a few were able to determine that there are people in our society who find witchcraft to be offensive.

[Side note: We also discussed what the Caldecott Award is and why a book that wins awards can still be controversial.]


I sorted my classes into diverse groups. I know my students pretty well and am comfortable saying I know what most of them believe about a lot of topics. I created groups that reflected a wide range of thinking in order to create some discussion among the students.

Book Selection
Initially, I planned on assigning specific books to my groups based on what I thought they would be comfortable with. I quickly changed my mind. I wanted the kids to be slightly unsettled and uncomfortable in order to get them thinking about the topic being presented. To randomize the process, I had one member of each group blindly draw a book from a basket. I kept the spine-side down to prevent any peeking.

Critical Literacy Questions

After reading the selected text, each group conducted a critical analysis. I provided my students with a list of questions (see below) I found online and left them to it. I told them I would answer and assist as needed, but I wanted to see what they could come up with on their own.

The biggest issues turned out to be with the power and interest questions. In one-on-one conversations, my students completely understood the questions and were able to present responses. They had never considered these to be power issues, however. This was quite eye opening to many.


Textual Purposes

  • What is this text about? How do we know?

  • Who would be most likely to read this text and why?

  • Why are we reading this text?

  • What does the author of this text want us to know?

Textual Structures and Features

  • What do the images suggest?

  • What do the words suggest?

Power and Interest

  • In whose interest is this text?

  • Who benefits from this text?

  • What knowledge does the reader need to bring to this text in order to understand it?

  • Which positions, voices, and interests are at play in this text?

  • How does the text depict age, gender, cultural groups?

Gaps and Silences

  • What views of the world is the text presenting?

Interrogating the Author

  • What kind of person, and with what interests and values, authored the text?

  • What view of the world and values does the author assume the reader holds? How do we know?

Multiple Meanings

  • What different interpretations of the text are possible? Who would support this text? Who would argue against this text?

Adapted from:


Graffiti Walls

The culminating piece to our analysis was to create graffiti walls. This is a connection response activity from Kathy Short:

This was a little too much freedom for my students. With most creative assignments, I hear, "Do we have to color? Does it have to be neat?" With this assignment, I said, "Be as messy as you want. You do not have to color. It does not have to be neat. You can make a great big mess." I even ripped pieces of butcher paper in odd shapes to help exemplify that the work could be messy. My kids could not handle it. They asked if they could cut the paper. They asked if they could color. They asked for more time. I got some of the neatest and most creative work ever. The silly part of me wanted to tell the kids I was taking off points for not being messy, but I was afraid of scaring my kids for life.


 Student Examples


This is one of my favorite lessons of the year. From an AVID perspective, all elements of WICOR were included - writing, inquiry, collaboration, organization, and reading. From a proud teacher perspective, I heard some amazing conversations taking place in my classroom, and those conversations included understanding, tolerance, and acceptance, regardless of personal beliefs.  There was some disagreement about who should be reading the books and at what age, but my seventh and eighth grade students were incredibly mature in all aspects of the lesson.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Critical literacy: examining stereotypes and deeper meanings of song lyrics

It is important to me to have a culturally relevant classroom in which students learn to critically examine the world around them. A few weeks ago, my students engaged in an critical literacy/inquiry lesson* in which we analyzed song lyrics for stereotypes and underlying messages that we often overlook when singing the lyrics in front of our parents (well, not me).

I started this lesson by sharing the song "Cater to you" by Destiny's Child. We listened to the song first, then discussed the lyrics. For the sake of argument, I took a strong feminist perspective, arguing against everything the ladies sing about, claiming it represented stereotypical view of woman. I feigned strong disgust (maybe I was a bit disgusted) toward lyrics such as my life would be purposeless without you, let me help you take off your shoes, and I'll keep myself up

But my kids are proved just how intelligent they are. They changed the perspective on me, explaining how it was acceptable for a woman to do nice things for her man when she wants to. And I had a few boys tout that this is the way it should be. All in good fun. 

After this, my students were allowed to choose individual songs to analyze for stereotypes. The assignment was to create a poster which included the song title, the artist, sample lyrics that exemplified stereotypes, and a brief explanation of how the song reinforces stereotypes (we quickly learned that country music is a gold mine for this activity).

Now, not every poster was done perfectly, but my students rose to the occasion. I could not be prouder to share their work with you (and they are also proud to have it displayed on this site). Here are a few examples to get you started:

During our passing periods at school, we play music. Last week, our programmer had "I can't feel myself when I'm with you...and I love it..." blasting from our overhead system. I stood in the hallway giggling, and when class started, I asked my students who knew what that song is really about, connecting it back to this lesson. They knew. They are critically conscious young individuals. Do you know?

*This lesson combines two activities from AVID's Culturally Relevant Teaching and consists of very little original thinking on my part.

Friday, March 17, 2017

My exploration of banned and controversial books: The Amazing Bone by William Steig

Although I found it easy to defend In the Night Kitchen from those who see it as a threat to young children, I cannot find good reasons to defend The Amazing Bone by William Steig - and this one has won awards: " a 1976 New York Times Book Review Notable Children's Book of the Year and Outstanding Book of the Year, a 1977 Caldecott Honor Book, and a 1977 Boston Globe - Horn Book Awards Honor Book for Picture Books" (Barnes & Noble website).

This book is filled with a number of things that bothered me:

  1. Peal, the antagonist, finds a bone. I can get past that, but based on the rest of the book, it is a bit disturbing that this young pig shows no concern for a bone she finds in the woods. Where did it come from? Dead body? Maybe I am putting too much focus on this, as last week, a junior high student found a pile of bones from a dead body while walking to school. 
  2. Pearl gets robbed by masked bandits carrying both knives and guns. In on illustration, a gun is actually placed to Pearl's temple. That is disturbing for a young children's book. 
  3. Pearl is kidnapped by a fox who plans to take her home, cook her, and eat her. Again, this is nothing new in stories (Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel), but combined with the other elements of the story, this feels like far too much.

    I honestly do not know what to make of this story as a whole. I am 100% against banning books, but I would be cautious about this one with very young children. I will share this with my middle schoolers are part of a critical literacy lesson, but I cannot see reading it to a young child. Without the pictures, the story is still pretty harsh; with the images, I think it becomes gratuitous.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

My exploration of banned and controversial books: In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak

While I was conducting some online research about children's books that address social issues, I ran across a few lists of banned children's books. That's was an immediate invitation for me to start reading each and every single one of them, and I was surprised to discover that I have already read a few that show up on many lists, including In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak. 

My first reaction: Maurice Sendak has a banned book? The Little Bear author? My now 22-year-old son and I used to read those books and watch the television series on Nickelodeon. Where the Wild Things Are Maurice Sendak? Oh, that one has controversy around it too.

I did not recall anything controversial about In the Night Kitchen, so I ran straight to my public library to check it out (and there are many copies available, not banned). According to many websites, I had missed the nudity of 3-year old Mickey (buttocks and genitals, the sexual innuendo of a free-flowing milk, and the phallic appearance of a large milk bottle. Well if that isn't an advertisement to go back and read it again, I don't know what is! 

So here is an example of Mickey's nudity:

This is a children's book, for goodness sake, and little kids like to be naked. If you have a little one who is not nude or half-nude right now, you have probably forced that child into clothes. I remember my son stripping down in our foyer every day immediately after arriving home from daycare. Every. Day. He also used to take his little naked body and watch himself dance in front of a full length mirror. It was funny. This is funny. Kids get to giggle because there is a naked boy in a book, and parents get to giggle because we recognize the inside joke. And as Americans, we really need to get over this prudish fear of nudity (my most humble opinion).

My guess is that Sendak recognized that kids enjoy being naked and created a character to which they could relate - particularly little boys. I am fighting a never ending battle of getting boys to read in middle school. Maybe if they had all read this book, they would still be reading now. Maybe if I share it with my seventh and eighth grade students, they might pick up another book.

Here are examples of the milk controversies:

Oh, people...if you are seeing something in that picture that is not there, that is completely on you. That's your mind. And that is disturbing! Like Where the Wild Things Are, this is the story of a little boy's adventures via his dreams. Into the kitchen. Where people make cake. And maybe he really likes cake. I know I do. 

If you have an issue with the nudity, do not read the book. That does not mean, however, that you are able to speak for others who wish to encourage creativity and imagination and curiosity and adventure in our children. And that, as always, is my most humble opinion. 

P.S. If you truly want to be rebellious, you can purchase the coloring book version for your kids.