Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Looking at Craft: CCSS in Action
            I want to share with you my experience teaching a CCSS inspired lesson to my graduate students at Queens College. 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.

            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 Atlantic, 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 Ireland 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.


  1. The tension that Burleigh builds throughout the text is masterful. A great pairing would be NIGHT FLIGHT with ONE GIANT LEAP, written and illustrated by the same team. While we all know that the first moon landing was a success, each and every time I read the book aloud, I feel that I reliving that first trip; such is the dramatic tension established within the narrative.

  2. Thanks for the suggestion. I'm going to bring ONE GIANT LEAP to class too.

  3. I love NIGHT FLIGHT, and I think it's a great choice for demonstrating CC ideas. When I read it, it also raises other questions for me, which I think can also enhance the CCSS-focused discussions. One of the best things about the book is how it puts the reader right there with Amelia, even inside her head. But how does it do this? How do we know what really happened or what she was really thinking and feeling? Is this book demonstrating the artful relaying of facts, or an informed imagination? Where is the line between the two? There might be primary sources that gave the author the necessary proof, but unfortunately the publisher chose not to provide a bibliography or any explanation, so we are left to wonder. I think understanding, or at least discussing, where the line gets drawn between fiction and nonfiction, and why an author might make the choices involved in either direction, is an important part of the goals of the CCSS.

  4. You raise a really important point. How can an author put us inside the head of his subject, revealing her thoughts to us? I am assuming that Robert Burleigh relied on Amelia Earhart's books and articles, but there is a problem with that. Amelia was known to stretch the truth. And, as you mentioned, the author hasn't told us the sources for this information. Even so, this situation is useful for discussing how historical accounts are created and the criteria we need for evaluating them. it could also prompt further research about Amelia Earhart.