The Common Core State Standards require that children and young adults read “across” a variety of texts, within the same genre or on the same topic or theme. This reading should engage them in critical thinking, individually, in small-group and whole-class discussions, and through original writing in multiple genres, of varying lengths, for different purposes. Achieving this level of complex thinking in the classroom can feel overwhelming, particularly when students will be reading, writing, listening, speaking, and viewing in this capacity throughout the day.
What is reassuring is that we know that children of all ages can think critically about the world in creative ways, particularly when they are given robust and developmentally appropriate texts as part of a well-crafted, student-centered curriculum. These specific groupings of books or multimodal digital texts are referred to as clusters, or text sets. Situating students within the context of a text cluster allows librarians and teachers to use their collections in new ways. Teachers already have tried-and-true books and can use their library to build outward—moving from highlighting a single text to using a text cluster.
Not only do clusters offer an opportunity to differentiate reading, they create a synergy within the curriculum, allowing students to consider multiple perspectives. When readers see that knowledge is not fixed, that there is no single way to represent an idea, a literary theme, a historical event, or a scientific concept, they see the role of the author in new and exciting ways. When given the opportunity to pen their own works, they can apply what they have learned about a variety of different genres and text types.
Text clusters, or text sets, offer rich opportunities in science, language arts, social studies, and the related arts such as music and art. Here are specific ways to use clusters in your library and classroom, and in your work with grade-level teams.
Clustering Concepts: Ecosystems
Text clusters can be used as a tool to teach science content standards as well as the Common Core State Standards for language arts and content literacy. Let’s say you are working with a third grade teacher who is teaching ecosystems or animal habitats. Most likely, your library has a variety of books on different ecosystems and animal habitats to support student inquiry. But to explore that topic with a tighter focus, and model the thinking across texts, the unit could launch with an exploration of how ecosystems change over time.
First, recommend that the teacher read aloud Joyce Sidman’s Song of the Water Boatman (Houghton Mifflin, 2005), illustrated by Beckie Prange. Moving from spring to winter, the book carries readers through four seasons in the life cycle of a pond. On each spread a poem, a nonfiction paragraph, and a woodcut illustration can be found.
Follow that title with the nonfiction picture storybook The Wolves are Back (Penguin, 2008) by Jean Craighead George, about the restoration of wolves in Yellowstone National Park. Students will understand what happens when one animal is removed from an ecosystem, and how that ecosystem shifts its balance when the animal returns.
Finally, the class could explore Thomas F. Yezerski’s Meadowlands (Farrar, 2011), an illustrated history of the wetlands region in northern New Jersey. In small groups, children can discuss how an entire ecosystem can suffer extensive damage and yet manage to rebuild itself over time. Each of these titles offers a different perspective and models a different text structure (poems and paragraphs; narrative; exposition) that youngsters can reference as they they compose in response to the study.
Clustering Biographies: Powerful Pairs and Triplets
Since biographies of the famous and infamous are abundant and ever increasing, it’s easy to put together “bio-clusters.” Start small with two titles that can be compared, and then build larger collections of books, and primary and secondary sources (photographs, prints, letters, newspaper articles, maps, political cartoons). Here are a couple of book clusters to get started.
Powerful Pairs: Beginning with Biographies
The CCSStandards call for us to begin comparing two texts on the same topic with students as early as kindergarten. Picture books are a good place to start because it’s easy for young readers to spot the differences in illustrated works. Using biographies about the same person is one way to show children that informational texts on the same topic are not the same.
For example, two picture books about Jane Goodall, can be used to highlight different approaches to the same information. That is, not all authors select the identical information to spotlight. Me…Jane (Little, Brown, 2011) written and illustrated by Patrick McDonnell ends with a young Jane Goodall going to sleep and dreaming of her future on the continent of Africa where she studies animals. When readers turn the page, Goodall, wakes up as an adult. The dream has been realized.
In contrast, Jeanette Winter’s The Watcher (Random, 2011), children receive a fuller story of how Goodall saved her money, traveled to Africa, and met the scientist Louis Leakey. It was Leakey who suggested that Goodall study chimpanzees in Tanzania.
Both books also provide unique kinds of visual information. Me…Jane contains actual writing and illustrations by the young Goodall, who as a girl, organized a group called The Alligator Society. The Watcher presents pictures of Goodall’s early life in small, tightly framed images. In contrast, once the woman begins working with chimpanzees, the pictures burst out of their frames and become two-page spreads. Her joy and sense of the freedom are obvious.
Terrific Triplets: A Cluster of Biographies
In books for older readers, bio-clusters raise additional questions about how history is written. The following titles bring readers face to face with contradictory information. In Amelia Lost (Random, 2011) author Candace Fleming casts doubt on Earhart’s claim that she saw her first airplane at the 1908 Iowa State Fair when she was 11 years old. According to Fleming’s research, there were no planes in Iowa at that time. She suggests that the aviatrix fabricated stories to suit an image she wanted to project.
Two other books, Amelia Earhart (Abrams, 2008), by Shelley Tanaka, and Corinne Szabo’s photobiography, Sky Pioneer (National Geographic, 1997), report that Earhart saw a plane at the fair as fact. The authors of these titles relied on Earhart’s own writings. Here is an opportunity to discuss with students that the sources authors consult can matter and that they may present conflicting information.
This cluster presents many additional opportunities to make comparisons. There are differences in text organization, visual information, theme, and more. Using these books, educators can initiate important conversations about craft and structure, the use of evidence to support ideas, and point-of-view.
Professional Sources Can Guide You
There are many ways to use text clusters or text sets in the library and in the classroom. What we have offered is a mere starting point. Professional resources are available to provide additional guidance as you begin working with clusters.
Eds. Note– two of the authors of this article have written relevant texts on the subject.
Myra Zarnowski’s History Makers (Heinemann, 2003) outlines how to compare biographies using such criteria as accuracy, style, illustration, theme, and selection and interpretation of information. A data chart is provided for gathering information and student samples show how it is done. In Making Sense of History (Scholastic, 2006) Zarnowski describes a hands-on approach for learning about multiple perspectives in history books.
For an up-to-date source on planning with clusters of nonfiction material, see Mary Ann Cappiello & Erika Thulin Dawes’s Teaching with Text Sets (Shell Education, 2012). This book describes innovative ways to incorporate nonfiction literature, as well as other genres, in the classroom while achieving CCSS and content standards. It provides both ready-to-use ideas and guidance for developing your own units of study using specific text models.
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