The add-a-page assignment: more than just a fun activity.
Creating the page was a very enjoyable experience. I have a degree in graphic design, and this gave me a chance to dust a few cobwebs off of my artistic side.... This was the most fun I have had working on a project in a long time.
This assignment was both scary and fun to do. It was scary because I don't consider myself to be very creative. I'm more of a logical and analytical type of person. Having said that, I must also admit that it was fun to see what I could come up with when I was absolutely pushed into doing something creative.
The above comments were written by college students reflecting on the "Add-a-Page Assignment" they had just completed for a course I was teaching. I discovered this assignment when attending a session presented by Suzanne Rose, of Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, at the National Council of Teachers of English annual conference (Rose, 2003). In this session, Rose described the add-a-page activity, in which learners chose a picture book to which they would add a page, imitating both the style and artistic medium of the illustrator and the writing style of the author. As she showed examples completed by both preservice teachers and elementary students, I immediately began to think of a new course I soon would be teaching that would focus on instructional strategies for reading, writing, and research by using informational texts. The next year, when I taught the course for the first time, I modified Rose's assignment to concentrate solely on nonfiction picture books as a prelude to a larger assignment of a multi-genre project (see accompanying instructions).
In her presentation, Rose explained how literature response activities yield cognitive benefits, and how they improve reading and writing, as well as artistic, skills. I observed this result for myself as my preservice students and practicing teachers engaged in the add-a-page assignment and reflected on their work. While the students' completed pages were often artistically compelling, their written reflections were most revealing of what they learned. I required them to describe the step-by-step process they went through when creating their pages; from these descriptions, I found that even the most humble artistic renderings were, for the most part, based on extensive research, planning, and effort. I would never have known this--or many other details of my students' reading, writing, and research strategies--had they not completed the written reflections.
To begin these projects, most students described how they chose their books. A few of them immediately knew of books they wanted to emulate, but the majority admitted that they had few nonfiction picture books in their personal collections. Instead, many began by browsing nonfiction sections of children's bookstores or libraries. One consideration, they admitted, was finding a book that wasn't too intimidating stylistically. Rene wrote: "The book I chose appealed to me because I thought that I might be able to imitate [the author's] style for the text and illustrations." Overall, though, students chose books about topics in which they were keenly interested, and these topics ranged from animals to historical time periods, from favorite places to famous people. Crystal wrote about having no trouble selecting a topic: "I have always loved butterflies, and this assignment allowed me to learn more about them." Students looked for books that would be appealing to children, in addition to suiting their own interests. Rene, who chose a book about inventions (Harper, 2001), commented, "I looked for an invention that would be interesting and that made a direct impact on children's lives." Whether they chose a book based on an illustrator's style or a topic they felt passionate about, almost all of the students wrote about selecting books they "felt a connection to," a strategy we had discussed many times in class.
Once a book was selected, students read their books repeatedly and carefully studied the images in the illustrations in order to become familiar with the style of the book and to decide what information might be missing from the text that they could research further. Cara wrote about re-reading in order to determine the mood, pace, and rhythm of the story, and about the characters' feelings, in the nonfiction book she chose about the Gold Rush. Then, she chose what her page would be about, based on what moved her most: the loneliness experienced by the prospectors who left their families to pursue their "gold fever" (Kay, 1999). Lacy, on the other hand, structured her page around a question sparked by her reading of Sponges Are Skeletons (Esbensen, 1993): "Can you use a sponge for bathing right out of the ocean?"
Next came the research. Of course, all the students wrote about using Internet search engines to find out more about their topics and fill in the gaps they found in their selected nonfiction books. Although virtually all the students in the class were familiar with conducting Internet searches, they had to read critically to find targeted information they wanted to include in their pages, as Dana described in her research on Helen Keller:
I found many sites with photographs of Helen and quotes that are [credited to her]. The quotes that I chose for the page, I feel, reflect her determination to conquer her handicaps and also serve to encourage others to be the best that they can be despite their circumstances. (see Figure 1)
Another student, Monty, brought an important point to my attention when he wrote, "I had to consider the reputability of the source I was using.... I would not want to be responsible, if I were to present this project to students, for misleading young learners." Based on his comments, I modified the assignment to require a minimum of three sources in order for students to confirm the veracity of the information they include in their pages.
After completing their research, some students chose to first craft the text, while others created their illustrations first. In reflecting on their writing processes, many students described collecting far more information than they could communicate in one brief piece of text. They also had to ensure that their written language was "child-friendly," as Lacy reflected. Jessica wrote, "By the time I finished my research, I had enough information to write more than a page. I had to sift through the information for what I felt might be interesting to a child." She also described reading her created text aloud several times and using a thesaurus to produce her final draft. Joy, who also described collecting too much information to include in one page, reflected on her decision-making process in determining what information was most important to highlight in her page about baseball legend Jackie Robinson (Schaefer, 2002):
My book included a time line of many of the milestones of Jackie Robinson's life. I noticed that it mentioned Ire played baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1947-1956, and their Ire was elected to tire National Baseball Hall off Fame in 1962. The book did not mention anything about Iris life between 1956 and 1962. This prompted me to do research to find out what happened in his life during this time period.
She found out that Jackie Robinson did many things in his life, but she decided his most important contribution that she would want to communicate to child readers would be his leadership role in the civil rights movement (see Figure 2).
Based on the books they selected, students also were able to experiment with generating unique features of informational text, like time lines, captioned photographs, and direct quotations with citations. Several students also tried their hand at poetry. Although poetry and nonfiction technically are two separate genres, more informational poetry is being published in picture book format for children, and I allowed students to select informational poetry picture books for their projects. One student, Mary, chose P Is for Pelican: A Louisiana Alphabet (Prieto, 2004), which contained both poetry and prose, and she crafted both types of text. Lori, who chose Myra Cohn Livingston's (1985) book of poetry, Celebrations, asserted:
I was hesitant at first because it was poetry and I don't think of myself as a poet, but I decided to give it a try .... I tried many times to write the poem, with no success, and then one night it just came to me as I wrote it.
Lori chose to write a poem about Mardi Gras, a celebration with which she is very familiar, and she reflected that her anxiety over the project was somewhat relieved because she focused on her own childhood memories of Mardi Gras, a holiday that she loved, to create both her poem and illustrations.
In creating their own illustrations, students had to carefully study the artistic style and medium of the illustrator as well as the design of the book. They re-created such features as two-page spreads, borders, and photographs (often downloaded from the Internet). Nicole, who added a page to Doreen Rappaport's (2004) biography of John Lennon, chose this book because in high school, she was "obsessed" with the Beatles, and because, as she wrote, "I have always tended toward collage and multi-media in my own artwork," as that book's illustrator does. Cara wrote a detailed description of her illustration process:
I studied the images on each page in order to pick up the nuances of the artwork.... I looked to the title page and discovered that the artwork was done in colored pencil on recycled, flecked paper. I found the closest match to the paper at Kinko's and sharpened my colored pencils. I next brainstormed the scene that I felt would best suit the mood of my text.
Many students made similar comments about matching paper and font styles to their chosen books. Amanda even mentioned the math skills she used by writing, "I measured my paper to match the exact size of the book."
Obviously, my students, all preservice and practicing teachers, learned much from this assignment, just as younger students would. In terms of reading, they were required to use a variety of comprehension skills, including making personal connections to books, inferring or identifying gaps in the texts they read in order to pursue lines of research, determining relevant information to include in their pages, analyzing and synthesizing information, and visualizing scenes they might want to create. They engaged in critical reading by considering the perspective from which the author was writing, what information the author chose to include in a text, and what was left out. Through this engagement, they discovered that no writing is ever neutral. They learned to "read" illustrations as well and learned about how text and illustrations work together to create meaning in a picture book. They became more adept at reading like writers; through engaging in the writing process, they learned about voice, word choice, author's style, genre, revision, and editing. They discovered the numerous decisions made by authors, illustrators, and book designers in communicating the particular information they want to share with young readers.
I hope that teachers reading this column will find it easy to adapt the add-a-page assignment for the grade levels they teach. For younger students, I am sure that teachers would need to develop and teach focus lessons on each of the skills and strategies they would most want their students to gain from this project. In addition, teachers should explicitly demonstrate each step of reading, writing, and research involved in the assignment. For older elementary, middle, and even high school students, teachers might adapt this project to focus solely on writing, either through author or genre studies. The assignment is especially suited to connecting literacy and the arts with other content areas, such as science and social studies. These are just a few of the possibilities I have thought of for adapting the add-a-page assignment. I am sure other teachers would come up with many more.
One final benefit of implementing this assignment with students of any age is that they are able to develop and reveal different strengths. I began this column with quotes from students who have very different learning styles and vastly different artistic abilities. Through the add-a-page assignment, and particularly through their written reflections on the assignment, each student's individual talents were fostered and allowed to shine.
Instructions for the Add-a-Page Assignment
There are many purposes of this activity. One is to develop skills of observation and visual literacy by focusing on and imitating a particular illustrator's style. A second is to develop both reading and writing skills by creating a portion of text that fits into an existing text. A third is to develop research skills by conducting research in order to be able to add factual details to an existing text. All of these skills will be necessary for you--and your students--to complete multi-genre projects.
For this assignment, choose a nonfiction picture book with appealing illustrations. Read the text carefully to determine what details are included, and then brainstorm questions about details that the author might have left out. Next, consult at least three additional sources--other nonfiction books, the Internet, reference books--to find at least one reliable fact that can be added to the book you selected. Choose an appropriate spot in the text to insert this new information, and craft the language for the information you will insert to match the language of the picture book author.
Now carefully study the illustrations in the picture book. Using the same artistic style and/or medium as the illustrator, create an illustration to accompany the text you have created. Combine the research-based text and your illustration into a new page that fits seamlessly into your selected picture book.
Turn in a reflection with your completed page that gives the bibliography for the book you selected, an explanation of the research you did to select and create your text, and a description of the process you went through to create your page. You will also need to place the page you created inside the text where it fits. (I will give the book back to you after the project is graded.)
Esbensen, B.J. (1993). Il. by Holly Keller. Sponges are skeletons. New York: HarperCollins.
Harper, C. M. (2001). Il. by the author. Imaginative inventions: The who, what, where, when, and why of roller skates, potato chips, marbles, and pie (and more!). Boston: Little, Brown.
Kay, V. (1999). Il. by S. D. Schindler. Gold fever. New York: Putnam.
Livingston, M. C. (1985). Il. by Leonard Everett Fisher. Celebrations. New York: Holiday House.
Prieto, A. C. (2004). Il. by Laura Knorr. P is for pelican: A Louisiana alphabet. Farmington Hills, MI: Sleeping Bear Press.
Rappaport, D. (2004). Il. by Bryan Collier. John's secret dreams: The life of John Lennon. New York: Hyperion.
Rose, S. (2003, November). Children's books and the arts: Partnering to promote the development of multiple literacies. Paper presented at the meeting of the National Council of Teachers of English, San Francisco.
Schaefer, L. M. (2002). Il. by the author. Jackie Robinson. New York: Capstone Press.
Judith Kieff, Professor, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, University of New Orleans
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|Date:||Jun 22, 2006|
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