Friday, November 1, 2013

Exemplary Texts for Thinking About Craft and Structure

A recent article by Karla Moller in the Fall 2013 issue of  Journal of Children's Literature entitled "Considering the CCSS Nonfictional Literature Exemplars as Cultural Artifacts: What Do They Represent?" emphasized the need to carefully examine the "exemplary texts" listed in Appendix B. It got me wondering about this famous list. What makes these books exemplary? What are they exemplary of? How do they support learning in content areas and in language and literacy? How do they match curriculum in science, math, and social studies? How do they support learning in these areas?

With these questions in mind, I headed back to Appendix B. I learned--once again--that these books are exemplars of the level of complexity and quality required at different grade bands.

But what if, in addition to having students work so hard to show us they "get" the content, they also focused on the creative part of shaping information? This involves various elements working together--(1) the main idea, (2) the organizational structure, (3) the style of writing, (4) the integration of visual information, and (5) the use of disciplinary thinking. This is the crucial part students often don't get: There is a creative side to writing nonfiction that is influenced by the author's decisions and disciplinary constraints. Even my graduate students are surprised by the flexibility of formats and options open to writers, so I am pretty sure younger students are too. Understanding the process of writing nonfiction is just as important as understanding the content presented.

So I would like to suggest some titles that can be used as exemplars of the craft of shaping information:

  • Locomotive by Brian Floca can be read as an example of how poetic language and detailed and sometimes humorous illustration work together to promote understanding.
  • Amelia Lost by Candace Fleming can be read to see that there are alternatives to writing biographies in chronological order.
  • The Boy on the Wooden Box by Leon Leyson can be read to see how memoir can be written using flashbacks and flashforwards. Once again, an author makes flexible use of chronology to enhance the telling of true story. In this case, the author's open, honest, sincere tone invite us into this compelling story.
  • Migrant Mother: How a Photograph Defined the Great Depression by Don Nardo can be read to see how a whole book can be designed to provide context for understanding a single iconic photograph.
  • Night Flight by Robert Burleigh and illustrated by Wendell Minor can be read to see how rich, poetic text accompanied by dramatic paintings evoke an event in history.
  • What Do You Do With a Tail Like This? by Steve Jenkins and Robin Paige can be read to see how a guessing game with questions and answers can interest readers in thinking about science--in this case, the form and function of animal parts. Jenkins' characteristic cut-paper illustrations support this experience.

The point is this: Even though CCSS has a standard devoted to craft and structure, there is more to it than understanding a collection of separate techniques. The techniques work together in a supportive manner. That's what exemplary text means to me. And, that is why I think this integration of content and craft needs to be further examined.

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