By, Kathryn Starke,
Urban literacy expert, children’s book author,
and the founder/CEO of Creative Minds Publications
Teaching with Trade Books
My very first teaching job was teaching second grade in an inner city school system; I was overjoyed and ready to enrich the minds of the seven-year-olds placed in my classroom. I used the district provided texts and materials to develop my engaging lessons for our social studies and science objectives. One day in particular, my students gathered around me in a circle on the carpet, science textbook in their laps, eager to learn about how plants grow. Since it was very early on in the year, I was unaware of the levels of my students. When I asked the students who would like to read, I had one hand go up. After I allowed this volunteer to read a paragraph, I encouraged the children to read the following section with me; I only heard the voice of the volunteer and myself. I immediately changed the lesson to focus on the photographs and leading a discussion about what my students already knew about plants.
It was then that I realized my students could not read, and I was going to need a different plan for teaching content for elementary school students still learning to read. In fact, one of my students only knew two words, his first and last name. After school, I visited the library collecting all of the picture books I could find on plants and set up a table with the books along with pictures and props, including a real plant. Upon entering the room the next day, the students dashed toward the table noticing every single object on the table. I invited them to the carpet to listen to a story I had found entitled Grow Flower Grow. The students laughed so hard when the character fed her plant ice cream and pizza informing me that plants need food, but not the kind of food that people eat.
I used this particular story as a teaching tool, adding the vocabulary the students needed to know like soil, nutrients, and blossom to name a few. The students truly understood how plants grew, the parts of a plant, and the plant life cycle through the use of children’s picture books, trade books, and rich conversation. I continued this model of instruction with our weekly unit of study as well as a two hour language arts block of differentiated reading levels daily. My students were applying their word attack skills to recognize vocabulary terms such as precipitation when we learned about weather and read Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. They learned to read and recognize the word sarcophagus when we studied Ancient Egypt and read Bill and Pete Go down the Nile.
When our geography unit approached, I searched for one quality children’s picture book to teach all seven continents, which did not exist. I decided to tell a story about my friend Amy who lived on five of the seven continents, and we tracked her journey across the landmasses on our world map; the students were fascinated that this was a true story and wanted to learn more about each location. I decided to write Amy’s Travels, which was published in 2005. This multicultural children’s book teaches the culture, diversity, and geography of our world through the eyes of a young girl as she travels to all seven continents. Since I originally wrote this book as a teaching tool, I created lesson plans and a comprehensive book guide specifically for elementary school teachers.
Today, Amy’s Travels has been released in its second edition, has been recommended as a multicultural children’s book by the California Department of Education, and is currently used in schools worldwide. I believe the power of a children’s book provides a full instructional experience for readers of all ages. I invite you to choose some favorite books on your shelf and determine how you can teach a lesson or objective with that one trade book.