The idea came to me last fall as I sat in a high school auditorium in Brooklyn, New York listening to award-winning author Marc Aronson address a group of school librarians on the Common Core and its emphasis on nonfiction—not the “safely bland” texts that so many teachers seem to favor for their brevity or simplicity, but well-crafted “literary” nonfiction that engages and offers a point of view. He explained that as information specialists it was our job to provide teachers with the resources they would need to support this new curriculum.
I started thinking about my nonfiction collection and all of the authors that embody the qualities Aronson had described. How could I sell these more complex, nonfiction picture books to the teachers and students I served? Traditionally, elementary author studies invoked names such as Eric Carle, Leo Lionni, or Patricia Polacco. Why not broaden the practice to include nonfiction writers with a significant body of work? Since most teachers at my school tend to assign animal research reports to introduce nonfiction, I chose Steve Jenkins for my first nonfiction author study—a writer whose books can be found in most classrooms and libraries.
Not unlike Leo Lionni, Jenkins grew up with a menagerie at home—lizards, mice, insects—“My father was a scientist and encouraged my interest in the natural world.” Jenkins also loved to draw and paint; his signature cut-and-torn paper collages make his books easily identifiable to young readers. The author collects handmade papers from around the world, and even makes his own. He has written and/or illustrated dozens of award-winning books, many with his wife, Robin Page.
While the average Lexile level of his books falls in the mid-800s—around a 4th grade level—the copious illustrations and clear, straightforward text make them accessible to students in the 2nd and 3rd grades as well. In addition, many titles offer “…two levels of text, one that can be managed by a beginning reader and a second that can be read by a more proficient reader, or aloud, by an adult if a younger child is interested in finding out more.” Teaching vocabulary and assigning and modeling clearly defined tasks render the texts even more accessible. Visit Jenkins’s website for biographical information, a gallery of his work, and an excellent slideshow titled “Making Books.”
Prehistoric Actual Size (Houghton Mifflin, 2005) presents young readers with striking images of 18 creatures. Single- and double-page spreads, including two dramatic gatefolds, portray all or part of the animal, depending on its true size. Images include one or two sentences about the creature along with information about when it lived and its length in standard and metric measure. One or two paragraphs with a small picture of the complete animal appear at the back.
Introduce the book by passing around a variety of small plastic dinosaurs for students to examine and identify. Explain that these toys do not represent the relative or actual size of these prehistoric creatures. Ask students how we know the size of animals that no longer exist (vocabulary: archaeologist, fossil, skeleton). Read the book, ask “What did you notice? Turn and talk to your neighbor about something that surprised you…Why do you think the illustrator sometimes shows only part of the animal?”
As a follow-up activity, groups of students can choose one animal from the book to research. With a roll of brown kraft paper, they might like to sketch and color the entire animal or an impressive part …actual size. They can label their drawings with the creature’s name and measure and add a short description of when and where it lived, what it ate, and any other facts they would like to include.
Though dinosaurs are gone forever, Almost Gone: The World’s Rarest Animals (HarperCollins, 2006) introduces the concept of endangered species. Single- or double-page spreads offer a textured collage of the animal accompanied by its name, where it lives, and the number left—from as few as one (the Abington Island tortoise) to nearly 500 (Bactrian camel). A large-print paragraph describes the species and what threatens its survival. An introduction explains the consequences of extinction: “Every living thing is connected to many other living things, often in ways we don’t understand or even suspect. And once an animal or plant is gone, it can never come back. All the living things that interact with it will never be the same….”
Before reading the book, have students name one animal that is extinct. Introduce vocabulary such as “endangered” and “rare.” Ask the class why they think a species becomes endangered. Present a short slideshow of photographs of some of the animals mentioned in the book such as the California condor, Yangtze River dolphin, or Miami blue butterfly. Explain that these species are headed toward extinction like the dinosaurs. As you read, ask students to record at least one cause of endangerment in their notebooks or on a post-it; create a list of these causes including items such as overhunting, loss of habitat, pollution, etc. Query students about how we can protect animals and why it is important to do so.
Living Color (Houghton Mifflin, 2007) explores the vibrant hues of the animal kingdom. The introduction explains that, “If an animal is very colorful, it is likely that its brilliant skin, scales, or feathers somehow help it stay alive.” Each color is allotted one or two full spreads with five to seven monochromatic images of creatures with a paragraph about each. As there are two levels of text here, teachers can read the simpler, more provocative text to prompt discussion. “Blue says …Don’t touch! Look at me! Don’t eat me…I’m here to help. I’m a mystery. Now you see me, now you don’t.”
Children can guess what each message means. Back matter thumbnail illustrations of each animal accompany information about size, habitat, diet, and more. Introduce the book by asking students their favorite color. Challenge them to think of an animal that is that color. After sharing the simple text, divide the class into seven groups: red, blue, green, yellow, orange, purple, and pink). Each group is responsible for reading and reporting on the different ways their color helps animals survive. Watch the video “Steve Jenkins on creating Living Color” on TeachingBooks.net. In their color groups, have each student choose an animal and create a collage illustration in the way that Jenkins does. Include a caption with the creature’s name and what purpose its color serves. Your bulletin board will be a rainbow of the natural world.
In I See a Kookaburra!: Discovering Animal Habitats Around the World (Houghton Mifflin, 2005) Jenkins and co-author Robin Page introduce children to six habitats. They explain that living things “…thrive in all these habitats because, over many generations, animals adapt. They change their size, shape, and habits to fit different conditions.”
Each environment considered opens with an “I Spy” spread featuring eight partially hidden animals. “In the desert I see…” Students can first locate the living things on the page and describe what they see using adjectives and prepositions: “I see an orange-and black-striped creature hiding behind some rocks and cactus on the right.” Have children guess what the animal might be. Then turn the page to view each one featured with its name and a descriptive phrase such as “…a stinging anemone hitching a ride.”
More details about each creature are available at the back of the book. Divide students into six groups and assign each a different habitat. Have them create a group mural with each student responsible for drawing or creating a paper collage representation of one animal from the designated locale. They can write a brief riddle to help viewers identify each species: “Though I am only two or three inches long, my big red eyes scare off predators. I like to hop from tree to tree. Can you find me?”
Another husband-wife collaboration, sisters & brothers (Houghton Mifflin, 2008), examines animal siblings. Once again there are two levels of text: a header or footer offers a word or phrase that characterizes the relationship such as “quadruplets,” “sibling rivalry,” or “stepsisters and stepbrothers.”
Bold images of the young animals pop against the white background of the pages. The short cryptic captions in large print such as “Exactly alike,” “Girls rule!,” “I’m having my family for dinner…,” or “Friends for life” are great conversation starters. Before reading the book aloud ask youngsters, “How many brothers or sisters or cousins do you live with? How do you get along? Turn and talk to your neighbor about something you enjoy doing together and something you fight about.” Introduce the word “sibling” and explain that animals have brothers and sisters too—sometimes just one and sometimes thousands! After reading the book, have students work with a partner or in a group to either write or improvise a skit about animal siblings that captures and reveals their special relationship. Beforehand, distribute the longer explanation that also appears on each spread. They can make masks or puppets to enhance their skits.
Jenkins says, “I believe we should teach science as a process…not just a collection of facts. It’s a tool that allows children to test their own theories and to trust their own conclusions.” This is just what the Common Core dictates; children need to learn to think for themselves and process new ideas, not simply to summarize them. The books and activities mentioned above do just that.
Many of the ELA reading, writing, speaking and listening standards for K-5 informational texts are incorporated into the lessons described. The titles and activities suggested above reference the following Common Core State Standards:
RI.2.1 Ask and answer such questions as who, what, where, when, why, and how to demonstrate understanding of key details in a text.
RI.2.6 Identify the main purpose of a text, including what the author wants to answer, explain, or describe.
W. 2.2 Write informative/explanatory texts in which they introduce a topic, use facts and definitions to develop points, and provide a concluding statement or section.
W. 2.7 Participate in shared research and writing projects.
SL. 2.2 Recount or describe key ideas or details from a text read aloud.
RI. 3.5 Use text features and search tools (e.g., keywords, sidebars, hyperlinks) to locate information relevant to a given topic efficiently.
RI. 3.7 Use information gained from illustrations…and the words in a text to demonstrate understanding of the text.
W. 3.1 Write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting appoint of view with reasons.
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