Looking at Craft: CCSS in Action
I want to share with you my experience teaching a CCSS inspired lesson to my graduate students at
Fortunately for me, I get to teach a class called “History through Children’s
Literature,” and each week we discus books through two lenses—history and
literature—and how to share these books with children. Queens College
Our recent focus was on Night Flight, a picture book written by Robert Burleigh and illustrated by Wendell Minor. This book describes Amelia Earhart’s 1932 solo flight across the
a trip she took exactly five years after Charles Lindberg’s famous flight. To
begin our discussion, I asked the students what they thought about the book, a
poetic text accompanied by emotionally charged, vibrant paintings.
Here’s what happened. Every single student talked about the paintings—how intriguing they are because they provide so many different perspectives on Amelia, how well-researched they are, and how “you don’t even have to read the book because the pictures tell it all. You know the story without reading the words.” And while all the students were shaking their heads in agreement and I was weighing how to proceed, one person—and it only takes one—remarked that the language was very rich.
I took that comment as an invitation to discuss the language—the craft of language as suggested by CCSS. The standards remind us to distinguish between information provided by the illustrations and information provided by the text.They also remind us to examine meaning of domain-specific words and phrases. Night Flight contains a great deal of figurative language—alliteration, similie, metaphor, personification, and repetition. This language is used for a purpose. It helps the reader experience the emotion of the flight—the ups and downs Earhart experienced.
I shared with my students how the language of the book began by conveying a feeling of calm, then changed to a feeling of tension, and ended with a feeling of calm restored. In effect, readers experienced calm→tension→calm. To demonstrate this, we divided a large sheet of paper into three columns and reread the book, writing down the words and phrases that conveyed these feelings. Here are a few examples (all quotes) of what we found:
Calm (pp. 1-7) Tense (pp. 8-20) Calm (pp. 21-27)
The plane swoops like a swallow…
The waves are curls of cream-colored froth.
…wisps of shimmering clouds
The blackness erupts.
Fists of rain pummel the cockpit windshield.
Lightening scribbles its zigzag warning…
The countryside spreads out like a green fan beneath her.
…unbelievable stillness inside her
A great peace wells up.
Amelia, we see, begins the flight confidently and even has time to enjoy the scene from her window. Yet, it turned into a tough flight. The weather was bad. Her altimeter broke. The wings of the plane iced up. The plane was leaking gas. Yet she successfully landed in
and emerged with a smile. The language of the text, combined with the
illustrations helps us experience this.
I am telling you all of this for a reason. The CCSS, in calling for a rigorous approach to literacy, reminds us to take an in-depth look at nonfiction books. In calling for us to pay attention to the craft of nonfiction, we are reminded by CCSS to think about the language choices authors make. At first my students paid no attention the words as a source of meaning, opting instead to focus entirely on the very appealing and meaningful illustrations. Yet after our discussion and analysis of the words, one student remarked that she had never really thought about looking at the language and another said she would like to try this with her students. In my opinion, that’s the value of CCSS. It opens up avenues of investigation that we might not think about.