Friday, July 3, 2020

Why Picture Books Belong in Middle School Science & Social Studies Classes

Fellow teachers, please raise your hand if you have ever personally learned something from an article or picture book that you've read with your students?

I imagine by now most hands are raised high and maybe a few shouts of "Oh yeah!" are echoing in the air. That's because picture books do an AMAZING job of taking a complex topic and breaking it down into understandable bits...and they use gorgeous illustrations to complement that information!

It reminds me of the quote attributed to Albert Einstein: "If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself." Wow! Isn't that exactly the purpose of nonfiction picture books in a nutshell?

With that thought in mind, I'd like to elaborate on the reasons why picture books can and should be used in a middle school (or even high school) setting. Today we'll just focus on social studies and science classes and how children's books can help with the comprehension of the technical type of information taught in those subject areas.

Informational picture books can be helpful learning tools in secondary education because...

1. Just the most important facts are presented. 
Rather than face tiny print and challenging textbook vocabulary, older readers can be introduced to new topics with informational children's books. Learners are able to grasp the general gist of the facts and build a solid foundation of understanding for further instruction.

I remember having to write a paper on the Electoral College during my senior year in high school, and I felt completely overwhelmed by the topic. It made no sense to me. (Truth be told, it still doesn't make sense to me for a whole lot of other reasons...but I digress.) At the time, I worked at our local public library in the children's department. My boss noticed that I looked stressed and asked what was wrong. I explained my dilemma to her, and she suggested I read a new children's book we had on the Electoral College.

Seriously? I thought. 

But I didn't want to hurt her feelings, so I took it home with me. And by nine o'clock that evening, I decided the woman was a genius! 

Obviously, I couldn't use the book as a resource for my paper, but it helped me understand the topic enough that I could logically outline my research and organize my thoughts for said paper.

From that point on, I have always made it a practice to read children's books on new topics and work my way up the ranks of difficulty from there.

2. The information is presented in a user-friendly format.
In children's books, there isn't page upon page of tiny text for readers to wade through. Publishers break up the writing with helpful pictures, captions, and other text features.  Illustrations and photographs tend to be larger than what is featured in traditional textbooks.

The information is still factual, but it is not intimidating for most readers. If there are struggling readers in class, they don't have to feel stigmatized because everyone is looking at the easy-to-read format. My advanced readers in middle school also appreciate the opportunity to look at picture books. If we can appreciate children's books as adults, why do we think teenagers won't?

3. They pique interest in assigned topics.
Because they are designed to entertain while educating readers, children's books can open the doors to a whole variety of interesting topics. While the "Who Is.." or "Who Was..." titles aren't considered picture books, they spark curiosity about many different historical figures. I try to order multiple copies of this series from Scholastic each year, and when we discuss someone in social studies or science, I leave the applicable titles on the chalk rail of our white board.

Total aside...can it be called a "chalk rail" if it is indeed a marker board? Marker rail just doesn't sound right...

Anyway, if I have easy-to-read materials available in easy-to-grab areas of the room, I always have kids reading about our current topics. This is a great option for early finishers!

I also have had other adults visit our classroom and ask to borrow a book that has piqued their interest! Once the snowball begins rolling, it is incredible how readers want to read everything available on a subject. And after all, isn't that our whole goal as educators, to want students to become lifelong, self-motivated learners? Well then, I say, "Mission accomplished!"

If you aren't already using children's books in your secondary classroom, I encourage you to take the leap. Even if it's for one lesson or one unit, please give it a try. You'll be glad you did..and so will your students!

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