Sunday, August 18, 2013

Using Picture Books in Middle School Writing

The Common Core State Standards ask for more rigorous reading and writing, but does that discount use of picture books in classroom instruction? I say, absolutely not. The simple fact is that mentor texts are often hard to come by. We have a variety of abilities in each class, and writing is often looked at as, well, boring. At our fingertips, we have material that is interesting and colorful, pulling in the disinterested; we have mentor texts that start at a basic level (although you will see that many picture books are not so “basic” after all), providing a place to begin for all students and providing success from the start.

Personal Writing

Any of Patricia Polacco’s books are excellent mentor texts for personal writing, as well as examples of  development of character, conflict, setting, etc.  Before diving into more complex mentor texts, try using one of her picture books as a mentor text. Two that come to mind right away include Mr. Lincoln’s Way and Thank You Mr. Falker. Both books are excellent examples of memoirs as well as a personal story revealing a change in the major character.

First off, both books offer great “Hooks.”

Mr. Lincoln’s Way: “Mr. Lincoln was the coolest principal in the whole world, or so the students thought.” Students can discuss how the first sentence/paragraph “hooks” a reader, then go on a scavenger hunt through other picture books or young adult novels to find other interesting ways authors start their works. As a higher level activity, students might then categorize the hooks they found, sharing out as a whole in the class to create a class chart that lists types of hooks and examples. Students can also use predicting skills to reveal what they think will occur or what the story will be about as a result of the first “hook” or lead line.

Secondly, both books offer some great figurative language/language usage.

Thank You Mr. Falker: “Knowledge is like the bee that made that sweet honey, you have to chase it through the pages of a book!”

As you can see, this simile is pretty deep and not something that an elementary student may readily grasp. But middle school students have the ability to delve into the meaning of this simile and to uncover its meaning. Polacco’s books are loaded with figurative language; students can use them to go on a scavenger hunt and to work with partners to uncover the meaning.

Finally, both books offer thoughts and feelings and use of dialogue.

It can be difficult to teach dialogue, but in picture books that use this element, students find it easier to grasp- how the dialogue is used to move the story along, how the dialogue is formatted and punctuated, etc. All can be investigated through Polacco’s picture books. In addition, when writing a personal piece, thoughts and feelings is a crucial element. Polacco’s Thank You Mr. Falker, is full of thoughts and feelings. The teacher might provide excerpts and have students highlight those thoughts and feelings, revealing how and where they are used, as well as to what extent they are used throughout the story.

Other Picture Books I Love:

Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ear by Verna Aardema

I love to read Pourquoi tales- stories about the origin of an animal’s coloring, size, etc. In the seventh grade, students read Pourquoi tales, starting with the mosquito book, and we developed our own. They were imaginative and fun to read!

Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin by Lloyd Moss

Introduce this book when studying onomatopoeia! It is full of sound words that students can respond to – highlighting them in excerpts, holding up a hand when they hear one, etc. Students can practice their own onomatopoeia in like fashion.

Nothing Ever Happens on 90th Street by Roni Schotter

I love this book at the start of the year. Students always cry about having “nothing to write about.”  As I read, students list each piece of advice that is given to the main character as she searches for something to write about.  For example, “Try to find poetry in your pudding,” Mr. Morley said softly. “There’s always a new way with old words.”  Students can work in partners to decipher what each character meant and how it applies to our writing.

Students also list what the main character thinks as events occur that prompt her to write:  “What if? What might happen next?” Etc.

Abbie Against the Storm by Marcia Vaughan

One of my absolute favorites is a true story of a young girl and a lighthouse, depicting heroism. I love this because it shows that even kids can be heroes. This book is rich in figurative language, strong verbs, dialogue, thoughts and feelings and use of adjectives.  Beyond that, it is a fast-paced story with strong character development, conflict and setting. Students can choose a character trait for Abbie and find quotes that support; students can identify strong verbs or pull out figurative language and decipher the meaning. This book is also a great book to graph on a plot chart; a simple start before moving on to more complex text.  Students might also partake in an exercise involving setting. Why is the setting important to the story? What if the setting were elsewhere? How would it change the story? Students might take the challenge, and create their own story of Abbie in a different setting.

I love picture books in  the middle school! They simply are the most interesting forms of literature that provide excellent mentor texts for writers, can provide examples of various elements of literature through mini-lessons, and instill motivation and success by starting “simple.” You will find, however, that there really is nothing “simple” about picture books; they reach into our imagination and spark our motivation quicker than any black text on white paper.

Note: Picture book images taken from 
Check out Other Picture Book Ideas in the SDAWP #113 Texts Initiative-