One of the challenges of teaching is finding the right books and materials to address specific instructional goals. Once a teacher has found the perfect book to help his or her students understand a literary element, practice a comprehension strategy, or tie into a thematic unit, it becomes part of his permanent teaching repertoire. However, one problem with these “perfect books” is that they are often not accessible to the struggling readers in the class. This is yet another way that these students might be missing out on instructional opportunities. A solution to this problem is to continue the search even after the perfect book has been found. Find two or three more perfect books, so that all of the students in your class have access to an appropriate text.
A sixth-grade teacher, Peter, looks forward to National Poetry Month all year long. It is in April, right after a couple of weeks of grueling standardized testing. Then Peter and his students spend a glorious month enjoying poetry. He can feel the tension in the classroom dissipate as his students jump headfirst into his great collection of poetry books, Friday poetry read alouds, and wonderful poetry writing activities. In past years, one of the highlights of this unit has been the whole-class reading of the book, Bronx Masquerade. This edgy book really resonates with his urban students.
However, after the latest reading conference with Jamal, Peter had to admit that Bronx Masquerade would be much too difficult for him. Although the book is written at a fifth-grade reading level — a full year below the expected reading level of the class -– Jamal would take one look at the text dense pages (the ones that don’t contain a poem) and throw his hands up in defeat without even trying.
Peter mentioned the problem to Marla, the school’s literacy coach. She suggested that they meet after school to explore some possible solutions. The first thing that Marla showed Peter was his class profile. While Jamal, who was reading at a late second grade level, was sitting there at the bottom of the list, there were a few other students not too far above him — students reading at the third and fourth grade levels. Marla suggested that perhaps Bronx Masquerade might be too difficult for those students, too. Peter bristled at the thought. He had used the book for the past three or four years and it had always worked, or at least he thought it had. Marla thought that maybe Peter should offer other book options, so that these students could read a book that was more within their reach. She handed him a stack of books that she thought might work with the unit.
Peter was disappointed. He had hoped that Marla would give him some suggestions for helping Jamal read Bronx Masquerade, using some kind of reading specialist’s trick that he didn’t know about. The last thing he wanted to do was to hand Jamal a second-grade book — he wouldn’t read it or even be caught dead with it in his possession. A few weeks before, a whole stack of leveled books from Jamal’s reading intervention class had been discovered stuffed into the back of his locker. Besides, Peter didn’t think that there could possibly be another book out there that told a great story, had compelling poetry, and was a reflection of his students’ lives. He took the stack of books that Marla offered him anyway, but he wasn’t optimistic.
Peter was wrong. Not only was there another book that told a great story, had wonderful poems, and characters that his students could relate to – there were two of them! Just as in Bronx Masquerade, the characters in these books were students learning about poetry in school and using poetry to help them cope with issues in their lives. One of the books, Locomotion (Woodson, 2003) was written at a reading level about a year lower than Bronx Masquerade. It wasn’t quite so edgy, but the main character was an urban boy who was in foster care. There were a few families in Peter’s school’s community that took in foster children. This year, two of the students in his class lived with those families. The second book, Love That Dog (Creech, 2001) was a lot easier and not edgy at all. However, Peter still liked the book and thought that some of his students would, too.
He didn’t want to just hand Jamal the easiest book, so he went back to Marla for ideas. She suggested that Peter first give book talks for all three books, then give the students a chance to peruse the books, and finally ask the students to write their names on a slip of paper along with the titles of their first and second choices. That was exactly what Peter did. He realized that several of his students would benefit most from Love That Dog, but he worried that they would be dissuaded from choosing it because of the stigma induced by its easy level. So he used the book talk as an opportunity to give Love That Dog a very hard sell, and he was surprised and gratified to see that a larger-than-expected number of students had bought into his pitch and selected it as their first choice — including, as he had hoped, Jamal. Peter formed groups, and they got to work.
Peter taught the same poetry minilessons for Locomotion and Love That Dog that he had always taught for Bronx Masquerade, including poetic forms, literary devices, literary language, and line breaks. He also taught the same literature and comprehension minilessons such as characterization, visualizing, flashback, prediction, and making connections. The minilessons always sent the students back to their books to find examples. In writing workshop, they imitated the poems, like Jack did in Love That Dog. They also tried out concrete poetry, haiku, occasional poems, and free verse. They collected vivid verbs in their writing notebooks.
Peter met with small groups three times a week, one day for each of the books. Each book group had eight to twelve students in it, and he extended an open invitation to all readers of the book who wished to meet with him. Usually, five or six students would come to the table. The other students read in pairs, in triads, or individually. He had individual conferences twice a week. In these conferences, he kept tabs on everyone’s progress with the books. Sometimes he would recommend that a student attend the next small group session or change reading partners. Some of the students ended up reading all three of the books. It made Peter uncomfortably aware that some of his students from past years had very likely finished Bronx Masquerade weeks before his lessons had ended. Now they had other reading options.
Having students share across books made the lessons even more powerful. The class made the following chart to keep track of the comparisons.
|Bronx Masquerade||Locomotion||Love that Dog|
|Main character||Tyrone and his classmates||Lonnie Collins Motion||Jack|
|Main character’s problem||Overcoming challenges of poverty and adolescence||Parents died and
separated from sister
|Dog killed in auto accident|
|The teacher||Mr. Ward||Mrs. Marcus||Miss Stretchberry|
|Types of poetry learned||free verse
|Poets studied||Langston Hughes
James Weldon Johnson
|William Carlos Williams
Walter Dean Meyers
|How they shared their poems||Open Mike Fridays||Poetry notebooks||Bulletin board|
|How poetry helped||Gave them hope for the future||Gave him a way to express his sadness||Helped him deal with the death of his dog|
The poetry unit was a huge success. Peter’s students were never more engaged and on task during reading. As in past years, they had Open Mike Fridays, just like the characters in Bronx Masquerade, to read aloud favorite and original poems. This year, they also designated one of the classroom’s bulletin boards for posting their original poems, a la Miss Stretchberry in Love That Dog. Peter also invited the students to start poetry notebooks, like Lonnie in Locomotion. The notebooks started out as a place for the students to copy their favorite poems, but for many students it soon evolved into a place for both their imitated and original poetry.
Peter had to expand his poetry book collection to include some of the works of the poets mentioned in the two new books. In past years’ units on Bronx Masquerade, he had not included any of Nikki Grimes’ poetry books in his collection because most of them were in picture book format. After all, it was sixth grade, and he was sure that his students would turn up their noses at them. This year, he took a risk and brought a few of them in. His students loved them! He raided the school and public libraries for all of the Grimes’ picture poetry books. These books were perfect for Jamal and the other struggling readers. There was no stigma in reading them because everyone was reading them. The school librarian told him that there were sequels to Locomotion — Peace, Locomotion (Woodson, 2010) and Love That Dog — Hate That Cat (Creech, 2010). She also gave him a stack of other novels in verse. He gave book talks on those books, too, and added them to the classroom library, where they were immediately checked out.
Poetry provided a real breakthrough for Jamal. Peter insisted on polished performances for Open Mike Fridays, and Jamal would practice reading and rereading poems aloud in order to meet the necessary standards for him to participate. The repeated readings helped to improve Jamal’s fluency. Peter found the lyrics to popular rap songs for Jamal’s poetry notebook. His familiarity with the songs helped to build his sight word vocabulary. Jamal wasn’t nearly as intimidated by poetry, with its short lines and all the white space on the page, as he was by text-dense prose. Jamal’s reading log documented an increase in the number of books read, still mostly humorous poetry books and picture books. Jamal was more enthusiastic in reading conferences instead of monosyllabic and sullen. The conferences went on beyond the timer’s buzz because Jamal wanted to read “just one more” poem to Peter. Providing a book closer to Jamal’s reading level for this unit was not a miracle cure, but it did get Jamal to read more. Peter is hoping that the increase in number of texts that Jamal is now reading will lead to a real cure.
Now Peter could no longer use a single book for whole class instruction in good conscience. His new challenge was to find a variety of books on the same topic to help better meet the collective instructional needs of all of his students.