Thinking about didactic (and not) books in classrooms

Higher Higher by Leslie Patricelli

I love the book Higher Higher by Leslie Patricelli for many reasons. The rich colors, full bleed illustrations, and double page spreads invite readers to join in on the adventure of the main character. The repetitive text as she swings (“higher, higher”) provides an opportunity for pre-emergent readers to read along, but also doesn’t limit opportunities for readers of all ages to fill in gaps and add to the story on their own. It presents the possibilities of imagination when doing something as seemingly simple as playing on a swing set.

This weekend I discovered a newer book by the same author, No No Yes Yes.  Even though it is written and illustrated by the same person, it is a very different kind of book.

No No Yes Yes by Leslie Patricelli

In this picture book, a diaper-clad baby is told “no no” to things s/he shouldn’t do and “yes yes” to things s/he should do instead. For example, drawing on the walls is “no no”,  but drawing on paper is “yes yes”. My 18-month-old niece loved the book, as do her parents. It has given them language to help her not hit the dog or dump food on the floor.

While both of these books could be read with an 18-month old or a preschooler, No No Yes Yes is a great example of a didactic book. It is a book that I would use in my children’s literature class to help students to understand that a didactic book has a clear and distinct lesson. This is does not mean that No No Yes Yes is a “bad book” and that Higher Higher is a “good book”. But understanding how didacticism can function in books (for children or adults) is important for teachers to consider when selecting books. This means that if you are looking for a book that is going to foster interesting, open-ended, and authentic discussion focused the book, you wouldn’t want to use a text that is strongly didactic. The discussion will usually fall flat, or move into other responses about the “lesson”.

Students who are more advanced thinkers often prefer more open-ended books because they allow for a wider range of interpretations and thinking. Ultimately, didactic books fill a need, but it’s important to have (and use) a variety of types of books in our classrooms.

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Connections: Extra Yarn and Philosophy of Childhood

My youngest daughter (8 1/2 years old) just asked if she could read me a picture book. She gave me four to select from and I chose this one:

Here is what she had to say about it after she read to me:

I think that there wasn’t any yarn in the box for the Duke because it only worked for people who needed it. The Duke was rude and only wanted it (the yarn) to make him famous and popular. Annabelle was a young girl who wanted to make a change in the world that she lived in. It didn’t say that exactly in the story but that’s what I think because she was the only one who could get the colorful yarn. Annabelle chose to share the yarn to help make the world a better place. The Duke was just being greedy.

I love asking people what they think about books they are reading or have read. I specifically use the term “people” because age doesn’t matter. Whether it’s a preschool child who isn’t yet decoding words, or a Nerdy Book Club friend who reads voraciously, everyone can say something about a story. It makes me think about the phrase I often hear from adults in regards to children reading certain books:

Children won’t understand that. It’s too __________ (insert descriptor like complex, scary, or deep).

This comment makes me crazy. While comments like this may be true for some readers (again regardless of age), it is not true of all readers. When adults make decisions about what a child can or can not engage with before even talking to the child, it worries me. I was reading today about The Philosophy of Childhood. I’m still reading and processing – and will be for a while because it is a big part of my dissertation. But as I was listening to Annie tell me what she thought about Extra Yarn, it made me think back to this quote by Gareth Matthews:

“The models of development that theories of childhood offer to stimulate our research and challenge our attempts at understanding children may have many useful functions. But we must guard against letting those models caricature our children and limit the possibilities we are willing to recognize in our dealings with them as fellow human beings” (Matthews, 1994, p. 29).

If we, as adults and teachers, are too cautious about what we think children are capable or in terms of responding to literature, we are shortchanging them from a world of possible experiences.

Teacher and Reader: Reader and Teacher

Earlier this week, my friend Donalyn Miller wrote a Nerdy Book Club Post titled “Fangirl” about meeting and talking with authors; and the impact that has had on her as a reader. Something that I have always admired about Donalyn and my nerdy friends is the ways that they are committed to helping children develop into readers. And it isn’t some prescribed version of reader where everyone reads the same books and has the same response either. It’s a version of reader unique to each student.

Just like our students are unique readers, so are we, their teachers. I think that sometimes we get so lost in being teachers, that we forget to be readers ourselves. We forget that their is joy and pleasure, pain and sorrow, adventures and homecomings; all found within the pages of a book. But we have to find the books that work for us, that make us feel at home and also push us to see outside of ourselves. Donalyn posed the question,

How would children see reading differently if we taught language arts as an art appreciation class?

How about if we separate the mechanics of reading from the pleasure of reading? This got me thinking about something that Dr. P. David Pearson said at the Boston University Literacy Institute 2 weeks ago.

The language arts: reading, writing, and language are tools. Tools that we use to make sense of situations and subjects. Literature is it’s own body of knowledge, a unique disciplinary area. I don’t lump it with language arts even though it can be used as a tool.

So often, I hear and see elementary teachers only think of literature as a tool. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be used as a tool, but that it shouldn’t be utilized ONLY as a tool. Getting back to Donalyn’s question about teaching arts as art appreciation, I think that another way of thinking about this is to be more explicit about thinking about literature as tools (teacher) and literature as a discipline (reader).

And an appreciation of something has to be more than just choice reading or read alouds (though these are a great place to start). It also has to be (just to name a few things): identifying what genres we like and don’t like, identifying why we have the tastes that we do, discovering how images work in picture books and graphic novels, marveling at how a turn of phrase can give us goosebumps, and how, as Donalyn wrote, knowing the human being that created a story can make us tongue-tied.

The importance of process

I’m working with a writing coach right now, she is amazing. Something that rang eerily true for me while we were working this weekend was the fact that my past experiences with writing – and other types of creating as well – were largely about having a product outwardly validated. A final draft, a Bach Suite, a photograph, a test result.

I’m now working on my dissertation, which needs to be all about process. There will be a product, yes. But the focus of that product, the reason for it’s existence is a for me to communicate my process. Which, as it turns out, I don’t trust and hasn’t actually helped me to move my thinking forward. I’m working on these things but in the meantime, my realization got me thinking about the things that are publicly valued in our society – so SO many of those things are about product.

  • Olympic Medals – or the more timely Final Four Basketball Championship
  • the number of albums sold.
  • Length of time on the best seller list.
  • Test scores.
  • Did I mention test scores?

I worry that with so much rhetoric and pressure on schools (translate: teachers & students) to put out strong test scores, everyone will lose sight of the process of learning. Do we need to know what we are teaching and if students are learning? Yes. Can process be included in testing? Sometimes. But I hope that we don’t lose sight of helping students develop and understand their own processes, including:

  • Process of learning
  • Process of creating
  • Process of teaching
  • Process of engaging

The power of language

While talking with my new children’s literature students last night, I was telling them about some of the goals of our course – specifically about learning and using the language of literary, design and illustrative elements.

I used the analogy of listening to music. Often someone will say that they love X type of music or Y performer. When asked why, the response is commonly, “I don’t know, I just like the way they sound.” Ok – that may be true, but that explanation does not help me (or anyone else) understand what it is that specifically draws that listener to that specific style of music or performer. I was a music major as an undergraduate student. I distinctly remember that the more that I learned about music theory and music history – the better able I was to convey both what I did and did not like in music.

The same can be said of reading and literature. I don’t expect the students in my class to like everything that they read, but I do expect them to read. I do expect them to be able to articulate what it is they notice, respond to, revolt against, or get sucked into while they are reading. I expect them to use language like genre, point of view, and style; hue, medium, and layout. Not in a way that shows they only regurgitates a definition – but in a way that shows they have a deeper understanding of those elements and the ways they can impact a reader.

Many of them come in with negative memories of needing to interpret a story in a particular way or of being judged by an AR (Accelerated Reader) score. They have forgotten how to read for pleasure, or perhaps never learned. While I sincerely hope that at some point during the semester, I will put the “right book” in each of my students hands – I realize that may not happen. But I can give each of them language to help them better convey what they do and don’t enjoy about the books that they read. Language that can help better equip them to ask for specific qualities they find pleasurable.

Next week we start with picture books. I can’t wait.

A new semester…

Today I’ve been thinking about the role that children’s literature plays in elementary classrooms. More specifically, the role that it does play, and the potential role that it could play. This is not to say that it is the same in every classroom – I know that it is not based only on the experiences of my own two children. But I am fascinated with how it is that literature comes to be considered and utilized so differently by so many teachers and school children. In particular, I’m interested in the ways that teachers think about it.

My goal in thinking about all of this is not to come to an answer – I don’t think that one, singular answer exists. But I do want to consider the factors that contribute to teacher thinking about literature. I know that the common core standards are currently a factor – as curriculum can be. But there are other factors as well, such as that teacher’s own experiences with books and literature. And my primary area of interest: how were they prepared to think about the role of children’s literature in their own classrooms?

I realize that these are big questions – with many possible scenarios and contributing factors, some more evident than others. But as I begin teaching a new class of preservice teachers to think about, read, and interact with children’s literature – I can’t help but wonder what they will do in their own future classrooms with the experiences we have together this semester with each other and books.

Because of Winn Dixie & trusting children

I just finished watching the movie adaptation of Because of Winn Dixie with my 8-year-old daughter. I don’t always love adaptions of books, but in terms of carrying out the overall theme and feel of a story – this one is pretty good.

I was stuck when I was watching (and went back to reread parts) is how author Kate DiCamillo respects for children. She didn’t write Opal as a helpless character. Come to think of it, none of her characters are helpless. They may seem that way when we first meet them, but ultimately this is a story about what happens when people come together. Their age doesn’t matter, what matters is that they are humans who care about other humans.

Opal says that everything happened that summer Because of Winn Dixie, because of a dog – but I would argue that it happened because of Opal. Because she didn’t give up on the smiling dog, the lonely librarian, or the neighbor-witch. She also doesn’t give up on her father. Along the way, she has help and reinforcement to realize those things, but ultimately she is the one who brings everyone together at the party.

because-of-winn-dixie-2

What I love so much about this story, is the way that DiCamillo respects the intuition, voice, and power of a child.

It made me consider how I’d like to use this book in future sections of children’s literature courses that I teach as a way to think about how we as adults, particularly teachers, construct what children can and can not do. Next week starts a new semester, and as I always do, we will begin with brainstorm and discussion about what children “are or should be” as well as what children’s literature “is or should be” (Nodelman & Reimer, 2003). This is a crucial discussion to set the stage for asking my undergraduate students to think of themselves as readers. Not as the children they used to be, or the imagined children in an imagined classrooms, but as readers. Many have forgotten what that feels like. I will strive to help them find a book that speaks to them, that they can connect with or engage with – and that like Opal they will begin to learn to trust their intuition and their voice, but as readers.

Nodelman, P. & Reimer, M. (2003) The Pleasures of Children’s Literature. Allyn & Bacon, Boston, MA.