By Lori Conrad, CCIRA Featured Speaker
Kids are born collectors. From rocks to Legos, stuffed animals to toy trucks, for just about any child, creating collections is as natural as walking, talking, maybe even breathing!
So when it comes to the school work of comparing texts, comparing themes, distinguishing point of view, and all the other myriad of ways standards label setting two or more ‘things’ side-by-side to examine what they have in common and what makes them distinct, why not begin with what kids do best? Why not start with their collections?
My daughter, who just graduated from college a few weeks ago, is a champion collection curator. It started with Beanie Babies, which led to Polly Pockets. Then came her gaggle of soccer socks, followed by her stack of basketball shorts. Today, as I look into her over-filled bedroom, her newest collections include a cluster of beautifully potted succulents and a multitude of vintage t-shirts that would make any clothes maven green with envy. And for each iteration of her collecting history, Emelia could explain in great detail the differences, similarities, unique attributes and specific functions of each piece. Emelia is like every other kid when it comes to the collections that inspire her passion and ownership. She’s convincing in her descriptions, precise in her language choices, and can support any claim she chooses to make about the effectiveness, beauty, or importance of any individual piece.
When I think about supporting readers as they work to compare and contrast various texts or literary elements, beginning with their capacity and interest in collecting seems altogether logical!
Bringing Collections into Our Classrooms
Instead of handing our readers two texts that we’ve selected, say a nonfiction piece about the life cycle of bees and Douglas Florian’s poem “Bee-Coming” (in his collection unBEElievables), how about inviting each student to share his or her favorite collection? Imagine the conversations that might ensue:
“This truck is my favorite! It is faster than all the rest. I’ve timed all of them on a track I built in my bedroom. It beat all the rest by 2 or 3 seconds each time.”
“I love this rock most of all. It’s a piece of obsidian. My uncle brought it back from a trip he took last year. It’s harder than this piece of sandstone because it was made deep underground. It’s related to lava.”
“This is my collection of Pokémon cards. My dad has one, too. We sit at the table and trade. He thinks Pikachu is the best because it’s one of the first characters ever invented. I like Absol because it’s sort of like a unicorn.”
And with these conversations as rehearsal, the writing students might then produce about their collections stands on something authentic, something tangible, and something they know inside and out. It has voice and details. It celebrates the ways comparing and contrasting works in the world beyond school.
From Vintage T’s to Texts
For me, making the leap from t-shirt collections to text collections demands two things: a willingness to try the work myself and a big idea or two to frame an in-depth study. Doing the same work is the easy part. I love curating collections of cousin texts. The bookshelves in my house are organized in a variety of ways. Some shelves are sorted by genre (I’m a sucker for Southern dysfunctional family sagas). Other shelves hold only a specific beloved author (I think Anna Quindlen has her own shelf), and another shelve is filled with books about cooking food, eating food, and building a life around food. Some shelves are even sorted by dust jacket color.
Composing the big ideas kids will remember ten years from now can sometimes feel more daunting. For this study, I’d want kids to hold on to the ideas that:
- Readers see both the things that link texts together AND the things that distinguish texts from each other.
- Sometimes readers find themselves in the pieces they read, while at other times they see the world through the eyes of others.
- Readers are curious people. Among many other things, they are curious about the decisions writers make and how those decisions reveal what’s in the writer’s mind (craft moves, content knowledge, life experience) and heart (passions, emotional connections, causes).
- Writers often choose to share a particular perspective about a topic. They create titles and select images that reveal clues about their stance/perspective. Readers can infer these perspectives and biases from these clues.
- Writers also choose to structure ideas in ways that best convey the important things they aim to teach readers. They might use multiple structures within the same text to do this work. With the aid of these structures, readers can determine what’s most essential in the piece.
With big ideas like these to frame our conversations, kids can begin to curate their own book stacks. Picking texts from classroom libraries and home collections, they can begin to see all the ways informational texts, stories, and poems might sit side-by-side with other pieces.
Layers of Sorting – More than ‘They’re both about bees.’
As kids continue to stretch their thinking and their writing about their book stacks beyond the obvious “they’re all about bees”, it’s important to explore all the ways a collection of texts might be compared. In my favorite monthly magazine, Real Simple, the editors have a recurring feature they call “Road Test.” This month’s is all about sunscreen. In this one-pager, the editors gather together a collection of some sort, from pasta sauce to oatmeal cups, and then name at least a half dozen ways the collection might be compared. So for this month’s sunscreen, the comparisons include best touch-up, best spray, best lip treatment and best sensitive face. The editors include very specific evidence to back up their claims of being best.
When exploring possible ways to sort texts, we might ask readers to consider big layers like author, topic, purpose, or genre. For example, if we gathered a text set written by Jacqueline Woodson, kids might look for specific ways she lets readers know what’s in her heart and in her mind. When she includes sentences like “There will be times when no one understands the way words curl from your mouth, the beautiful language of the country you left behind.” (from The Day You Begin) and “I watched the water ripple as the sun set through the maples and the chance of a kindness with Maya becoming more and more forever gone.” (from Each Kindness), it’s pretty clear what’s in her heart about how to treat others.
If we gathered a nonfiction collection, say about sharks, readers might discover similarities and differences about specific content, but they might also notice:
- the ways titles express author bias – Nicola Davies finds sharks surprising (Surprising Sharks) while Joanna Boutilier finds them misunderstood (Pigs Aren’t Dirty and Bears Aren’t Slow: And Other Truths About Misunderstood Animals)
- the ways illustrations set readers up to feel a certain way – the front cover of Neighborhood Sharks (by Katherine Roy) is positively frightening but the almost smiling shark on the cover of Please be Nice to Sharks (by Matt Weiss) makes it seem like sharks could be our friends
- the ways structure helps establish a cause and effect relationship between sharks and humans – Lily Williams makes it pretty clear in If Sharks Disappeared that our fortunes are tied to each other
- and the ways structure might also help readers see a shark’s competing sides (Lovely Beasts: The Surprising Truth by Kate Gardner and Heidi Smith).
We could also look at texts that seem to share an important message. When a colleague read Red by Michael Hall, Julián is a Mermaid by Jessica Love, Mary Wears What She Wants by Keith Negley, and Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress by Christine Baldacchino and Isabelle Malenfant to his kindergartners, they wrote and wrote and wrote about how writers help readers be true to themselves.
When we decide that comparing texts is more than an activity and more than practicing for a standardized test, learners get to see that the thing they do oh so very well matches up to something others (school boards, newspapers, policy makers) value. Their capacity to curate collections is an asset they can proudly bring into their classrooms!
Lori L. Conrad has over 34 years of experience as a teacher, literacy consultant and classroom coach. She’s worked alongside some pretty amazing children and wonderfully thoughtful colleagues throughout Colorado and the United States. She’s published numerous articles about reading and writing, and is the co-author of Put Thinking to the Test (published by Stenhouse). She’s a proud mom of two grown children and an even prouder wife. Lori can be reached via email email@example.com.