Sunday, August 11, 2013

The WHY and the HOW of Teaching Picture Books for Complex Learning and Critical Thinking

When I worked for Fossil, a multi-brand watch, apparel, and accessories company as a web marketing coordinator in the ecommerce department many years ago, there was one corporate training that really made a lasting impression on me. It was led by a marketing executive who used Dr. Seuss' Oh the Place You'll Go! to engage worker bees like me to be inspired.

Back then, I was straight out of college and reliving scenes from Office Space. The cubicle life was unbearable. Think you hate meetings? Well, have you ever fallen asleep so much in them that you dropped your legal pad several times during a conference call? Yeah, that was me. I despised them! I was an English major, why should I care about sales reports? Why did I care about the fashion industry? It had nothing to do with my passion. Or so I thought.

The marketing executive reminded me with images from childhood memories that passion was everywhere. Who doesn't love Dr. Seuss? What about Dr. Seuss in a corporate meeting? Yes, please! That was my response. I woke up, picked up my legal pad, and listened. His delivery allowed me, a mere worker bee, to find wisdom and inspiration in everything- even in a meeting about selling brand watches. Marketing people are gifted in that way. They have the ability to get people excited about things many may tend to overlook. They would make excellent coaches and teachers if they ever get tired of getting paid a lot of money to do what they do. They should really switch to teaching.

Anyway, I actually listened to the training, had fun, and learned something. Imagine that! It was all in the delivery. The speaker demonstrated that learning can be both lighthearted and profound. Bringing Dr. Seuss to a corporate training did that for me. As I continue my career being an educator and a lifelong learner, I find that people of all ages everywhere are longing for that. They want to learn things that are authentic and real. Gifted and advanced learners are the ones most hungry for it.

Children's picture books promote a safe, relaxed learning environment for everyone, but in gifted and talented learners, the use of these books can foster critical thinking that may lead to solving their own problems like mine: boredom! If I was bored in meetings as an adult, I know the kids are bored in their classrooms listening to blahblahblahblahblah... Why not bring some fun childhood stuff like picture books to their learning environment like the way the Fossil marketing executive did for me?

At a teacher training last week, another skilled educator/trainer caught my attention by using picture books. It was a session called "Adding Rigor by Layering Texts." The purpose of the session was for teachers to learn how to use various texts, such as literary, informational, and even picture books for advanced learners to discover and grasp a concept. There are so many children's books out there that can introduce some really tough issues like the Holocaust or Jim Crow laws to help learners grasp those hard-to-teach concepts. Google a hot topic and add 'children's book' in your search and you'll find plenty of suggestions. I've used my own children's books that I've written to teach some important social development issues that need to be addressed. You'll see pictures and graphic organizers written with my favorite Sharpies and Post It notes, but here's a much clearer outline:

Book Example: Camilla the Chameleon (preorder in our site here.)

STEP 1: Use a bubble map to INTRODUCE AN UNDERLYING THEME in picture books, adding layers and complexity to the text. For example, in Camilla, the theme is about change and personal growth. Ask students what they think it means and share with the whole class.

STEP 2: Activate PRIOR KNOWLEDGE and GATHER RELEVANT/INTERESTING facts. Students list facts that they already know about chameleons and then do a quick web search for more relevant facts. This activity can be done as a whole class or small group presentations.

STEP 3: UNDERSTAND FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE in picture books by reminding them of the underlying theme and connect it with the story. For example, have students connect the metaphor of the chameleon with change and personal growth. Use a graphic organizer like the one pictured to map out a working definition (which can change over time and more discussions) of the theme's meaning, the genre and book description being used to teach the theme, and other notes and observations.

STEP 4: USE SOCRATIC SEMINAR method to discuss the following critical thinking questions:
a. What other organisms go through physical changes?
b. What changes do we (humans) go through - internally and externally?
c.  How do these changes affect our behavior and reactions?
d.  How are we like Camilla the Chameleon?
NOTE: These sample questions aim to drive students to understand that we need to anticipate changes in our lives to learn how to adapt. Adaptability is essential in survival and success.

STEP 5: READ THE BOOK ALOUD. Play the accompanying songs.

STEP 6: READER RESPONSE ACTIVITY: Repeat song, have students sing chorus, etc. Analyze story elements to monitor comprehension. Use whole group or small group activities  to do this and divide tasks for each group member such as Summarizer, Questioner, Clarifier, Predictor, etc. Give time to discuss or just let the story and song "sink in."

STEP 7: CULMINATING ACTIVITY: Assess what students learned by having them create or produce a reflection of what they learned about change and personal growth. Some sample ideas (taken from Fifty Alternatives to the Book Report by Diana Mitchell)
a.Word Collage: Make an artsy word collage to represent the theme of personal growth and change. Be able to explain your art by summarizing what you have learned.
b. Create a homepage: Select a character from the book and design a homepage for him/her, picking out appropriate backgrounds and creating information that would tell a viewer about your character.
c. Forum or text conversations: Imagine that your character has found other people to talk with while in a chatroom forum or in a text conversation. Construct the conversation based on your character.
d. Make music: Figure out how you would rewrite or recreate the songs. Add to the lyrics of the original song.
e. Have students propose their own project.

Have fun! Don't forget to lead them back to this adorable music video!
You Should Be Happy Being You

STEP 1: Use a bubble map to introduce the underlying theme of the picture book
STEP 2: List facts students already know and add facts from what they learned to activate prior knowledge and collect data.

STEP 3: Connect the underlying theme with the facts and data to help understand connotation, metaphor, and other uses of figurative language in literature by using the graphic organizer pictured above. Purple Post It will show the working definition of the theme (it can change over time and further discussions). Pink shows the genre and description of the book. The bottom Post It notes show other ideas, notes, and noticings/observations.
STEP 4: Some sample discussion questions to jumpstart the Socratic Seminar. 

Steps 5-7: Read aloud the book, play the accompanying song with lyrics via Youtube video You Should Be Happy Being You

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