March 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Constellations | Consider the Source

In my last column, I began exploring nonfiction passages that require and reward rereading—a key focus of the Common Core (CC) English Language Arts (ELA) standards. As I was writing that piece, I was preparing for a two-day Common Core workshop that Sue Bartle and I were offering in Putnam County, NY. The first Common Core assessments were on everyone’s minds, so we wanted to cover what had just transpired, and to look forward to the summer and next year with thoughts on preparing our students and schools for the second year of Common Core implementation.

As anyone who has followed our work in School Library Journal knows, Sue and I are advocates of clustering books (“Wondering How to Put Common Core into Practice? It’s Easier than you Think.SLJ, Nov, 2012). But the focus on rereading short passages suggested a new idea: constellations. A constellation is a linked set of brief passages that librarians can select and offer to teachers as a course pack, or to students as an example of what close reading can yield.

It is one thing to juxtapose related materials such as books, databases, websites, and YouTube videos (as suggested in the above article), but quite another to choose and present excerpts, passages, and chapters that both link together and serve to support the kind of close reading and rereading that Common Core demands. While an experienced—or highly motivated—teacher can pull together such resources, clearly this sort of mining is within a librarian’s expertise. And it is this type of work that will become ever more important in the school environment as more print materials are available in e-formats. So, from a pure show-your-value-to-teachers-and-admins point-of-view, constellations are worth your time. Their real reason for being, though, is students.

Here are some examples of constellations:
For teachers: access a print of Dorothea Lange’s black-and-white photo “Migrant Mother (available free of copyright from the Library of Congress). Find a passage about the image from a series title about the Great Depression; juxtapose that text with the appropriate pages from Martin W. Sandler’s account of the photo in The Dust Bowl Through the Lens (Walker, 2009), Elizabeth Partridge’s Restless Spirit (Viking, 1998), Don Nardo’s Migrant Mother (Compass Point, 2011), and Albert Marrin’s Years of Dust (Dutton, 2009). These resources will provide at significantly different descriptions of how and where Lange took the photo and of the people portrayed in the photo, as well as distinct accounts of how (or whether) the image was retouched, cropped, and framed. This one constellation offers lessons in visual literacy, history, and historiography, and an opportunity for a close reading of texts and an image.

For students and teachers: Write down the first five words of the Gettysburg Address: “Fourscore and seven years ago.” Consider what those words mean, and why Abraham Lincoln chose them. Teachers can reference Gary Wills on YouTube discussing his Lincoln at Gettysburg (S & S, 1992), in which he masterfully analyzes that speech. For Lincoln’s listeners who knew their Bible, the word “fourscore” recalled Psalm 90:10: “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.” (King James Version)

Digging deeper, what does “fourscore” mean? Check your Oxford English Dictionary and you’ll discover that “score” as a 20-year period comes from the same root as to “shear” as a sheep, and to “mark or notch.” At one time, when counting his sheep, herders would score, or notch, a stick after the 20th creature passed by. “Fourscore and seven years ago,” closely read (and reread), offers links to the deep resonances of a famous phrase, a modern interpretation, and a trip into etymology.

To prompt thinking: Try this: open up Jim Murphy’s The Real Benedict Arnold (Clarion, 2007) and Steve Sheinkin’s The Notorious Benedict Arnold (Roaring Brook, 2010) and select passages where the authors each explain bad Ben’s motivations. Or, open up a random book on your shelves—I grabbed Russell Freedman’s Kids at Work (Clarion, 1994) and found this: “Boys began working as doffers when they were seven or younger. It was their job to remove the whirling bobbins when they were filled with thread and replace them with empty ones.” Link to definitions of “doffers,” “whirling,” and “bobbins, as well as books on Iqbal Masih,  or M.T. Anderson’s recent Op-Ed in the The New York Times on the Bangladesh clothing factory fire.

Get the idea? Find a passage or passages, a phrase or an image, and then search for related links that can be excerpted and/or highlighted. As you do so, you’re training young people to discover more in the starting place (thus close reading and rereading) and to follow what can be a endless—and exciting—trail of curiosity and inquiry. Let me know how it goes.


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Marc Aronson About Marc Aronson

Marc Aronson is a Rutgers University lecturer in the School of Communication and Information and the author of many notable nonfiction titles for children and young adults including, The Skull in the Rock, winner of the 2013 Subaru Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His book The Griffin and the Scientist (with Adrienne Mayor) will be published in April 2014. He was the first recipient of the Robert F. Sibert medal from the American Library Association for excellence in nonfiction writing for youth.

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  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    Why does this sound like jackdaws? Because like most good ideas, it’s been around before. However, the problem I have with this is that we lose the larger picture when we read bits and pieces of this and that. Too often I hear, “You don’t have to read the whole book.” But…you do if you want a coherent view of something. Which is to say, I am skeptical about the short text approach to learning if it isn’t balanced by the long-term, in-depth approach.