If you're looking for creative ways to break down tricky concepts, use children's books in high school English.
I personally never thought much about children's books until I had my own children. I was determined to find great literature even before my kids were reading on their own. And boy did I find some. Children's books are filled with amazing language, both poetry and prose.
Plus, children's books are familiar and not as intimidating as long poem or novel might be. If you throw a word like "juxtaposition" or "synecdoche" at your students, they might freak out. But if you use children's books to teach tough concepts like these, it is not scary, and even fun.
For this post I've asked two friends and fellow teachers to weigh in on how they use children's books in their classroom, and I love what they came up with! I've added one idea as well, so you get 3 fantastic ideas in this post for using children's books in your secondary classroom!
Teach Literary Theory With Children's Books
Lesa, from SmithTeaches9to12, has a 5-year-old at home who loves nothing more than to cuddle up with a pile of books. As a result, Lesa has spent a lot of time reading children’s books. A lot of time! The good thing, aside from early childhood literacy, is that it’s encouraged her to find ways to incorporate these books into high school English.
One of the main ways is using a simple text to tackle a difficult topic, in this case, literary theory. Literary theory is intimidating but children’s books are not. Combining these two together ensures only one of the texts is a challenge. Being able to apply the theory accurately to a simpler text will build students’ knowledge and confidence so they’ll be ready for more complex texts.
Whether it’s feminist theory and Feminist Baby by Loryn Brantz, psychoanalytic theory and In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak, or post-colonial theory and A Coyote Columbus Story by Thomas King, there are tons of options for combining literary theory with kid books.
How To Teach Lit. Theory With Children's Books
1.) First, introduce a literary theory through direct instruction.
2.) Then, read the children’s story.
3.) Next give time to use guiding questions to analyze the story. You might use small groups to act as a support.
4.) To close, use an exit ticket to gauge students’ individual understanding. A simple question like “What’s the one term or the main idea from literary theory X that applies to the children’s story? Briefly explain it.”
For a more in-depth guide to this approach check out this post on ELA Matters about using The Giving Tree and literary theories.
And if you want to jump right into using literary theory in your classroom, check out this bundle of ready-made lessons with introductions to 6 different literary theories. Each theory has detailed teacher notes to deliver the lesson, including using a children’s book as the first text for application and analysis.
Review Poetic Terms With Children's Books
Like Lesa, Jeanmarie from McLaughlin Teaches English was reintroduced to picture books through her own children. It was during one of those cozy bedtime reading sessions that she had an idea to in high school English using picture books.
Authors of picture books are magicians of poetic language. So why not harness that language in to review poetic terms like simile, metaphor, rhyme, onomatopoeia and more? And better still, students can become the experts as they create stations for other students.
Set Up Stations To Review Poetic Language With Children's Books
Jeanmarie first modeled by setting up two or three stations for a few of the more difficult terms. For example, she set up a station for imagery that included a bag with something for all 5 senses. (The bag included a container with cinnamon for smell, a kids’ shaker toy for sound, an emery board for touch, etc.) Once the students played with what was in the bag, they searched a picture book to find evidence of imagery.
Students then worked in groups to create their own stations. They spent time with picture books and developed stations that had to include the definition and then some sort of activity to make the learning “active” for the station participants. Then they had a showcase day. They set up their stations and students moved through them. Students had fun both creating and participating in the stations.
You could do the same thing with characterization or tone or conflict. You could pair this stations activity with any of these Anchor Charts for Literature Terms.
Where did those picture books come from? Some came from the school library and online sources, while others came from Jeanmarie’s home collection, and still others were borrowed from the reading teacher who had spent time in elementary.
For more on using wordless picture books in high school, be sure to check out this post at McLaughlin Teaches English.
Use Children's Books To Teach Voice
Teaching voice was really intimidating to me for many years because I didn't know quite how to explain what it was. I appreciated it when I saw it, I just didn't really know how to teach it.
I had a breakthrough moment one day when I was reading the book Apples To Oregon by Deborah Hopkinson to my 6-year-old son.
The story is told through the perspective of a young girl in the 1800s. Her father is hoping to move a bunch of apple trees from the east coast to the west coast and set up an apple orchard, but the journey is not an easy one.
This story is hilarious, and the narrator's voice is outstanding. On every page your students will be able to find examples of specific words that make this narrator's voice unique and fun.
Children's books provide a super way to show your students what voice is because they will understand the story, so they can focus their energies on considering the specific diction use.
How To Teach Voice Through Children's Books
You can use Apples To Oregon or any children's book that has a strong voice for this lesson.
1.) First, put students in small groups.
2.) Have students read the entire book together.
3.) Then have students discuss specific words that are unique to the narrator's voice. They might list these out on paper or just discuss as they encounter them, depending on your students' need for structure.
4.) Next, have students rewrite the first 3 pages of the book in a totally different voice. Consider having them rewrite the story as though a college professor is giving a historical account of the events or as a grumpy old man relaying they story.
By changing the voice into another person's voice, your students can more fully see how diction and voice are intertwined. You could even have students rewrite the story with no voice, as though it were created by an AI program. This may have the bonus of showing students the drawbacks of AI programs in writing.
If you're looking for more meaningful ways to give your students a chance to practice writing craft, check out my blog post on How To Spice Up Your Personal Narrative Unit.
Children's books provide a way to take difficult literary concepts and make them less intimidating and even fun.
Use picture books to teach lit. theory, poetic devices, and voice in writing to cement concepts you've already taught and watch how much fun your students have while they dive deeper into the concepts!
Using Children's Books To Teach Lit. Theory In High School
Analyzing Children's Books In The Secondary Classroom
How To Spice Up Your Personal Narrative Unit
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