Teaching Difficult Content Using Children’s Literature a presentation by Erin Wooten Objective: Lowcountry Writing Project participants will be able to examine the use of children’s books in the adolescent classroom

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Teaching Difficult Content Using Children’s Literature

A Presentation by Erin Wooten


Objective: Lowcountry Writing Project participants will be able to examine the use of children’s books in the adolescent classroom. We will emphasize the creation of original children’s books, which allow students to demonstrate mastery of new, difficult content by consolidating or simplifying it in order to convey it to others. We will use a specific concept, Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” monomyth, to model this process.

Rationale for using children’s literature

-Teaches new information

-Allows children to explore their world through the eyes of a narrator/speaker who is a child, or has childlike qualities

-Provides moral guidance and the development of a sense of self

-Inspires creativity, fun beyond what other kinds of projects can offer

-Read-alouds reinforce Speaking/Listening, the early childhood reading experience


Step 1: Review new concept or standard in detail. Review plot diagram.

Step 2: Ask students to create a storyboard outline for a story, using the concept as a main idea throughout the storyboard. Include a child-like protagonist.

Step 3: Ask students to transfer the storyboard into a full-length children’s book with illustrations (I use a ten-page maximum).

Step 4: Have students present books to the class, read-aloud style.

  • Variation: If they have access to a local elementary school or a Special Ed class, they can present their read-aloud books to one of these classes.

  • Variation: If your school hosts a carnival, science day, or other event where feeder schools will be present, have students present their books.

Follow-up: Apply to The Odyssey, King Arthur stories, Beowulf, or other literature classics

The Hero's Journey

  1. Ordinary World
    Since the adventure/story is going to take the hero out of his/her (the word hero refers to either gender) normal life into something different, the reader needs to see the ordinary world first, so they can contrast it.

  2. The Call to Adventure
    This is the first sign that something’s about to change.

  3. The Refusal of the Call
    The hero might be reluctant and try to get out of the adventure (this stage isn’t always necessary).

  4. Meeting the Mentor
    The mentor will be exactly that - somebody who helps or advises the hero before he/she goes to the new world, or just as they’ve reached it.

  5. Crossing the First Threshold
    This is the moment when the hero leaves his/her old life and starts on the adventure.

  6. Tests/challenges, allies and enemies
    Obviously since the hero is in a new life/place/situation, he/she is going to encounter plenty of challenges, allies and enemies.

  7. Approach to inmost cave
    The hero comes to the place of his/her greatest danger. It can literally be a cave or a physical place, but it doesn’t have to be.

  8. The Ordeal
    This is the hero’s most dangerous moment. I couldn’t ask for a better example than the awful situation James Bond always finds himself in, fighting for his life.

  9. The Reward
    The hero gains something from the experience, whether it’s a tangible tool which will help with the rest of the adventure, or more understanding.

  10. The Road Back
    The hero is trying to get back to his/her Ordinary World, but there are other challenges here. Maybe the defeated opponents are chasing him/her.

  11. Resurrection
    This can be a second life-or-death moment. It’s a final test for the hero. The hero is often transformed by this experience.

  12. Return with the Elixir
    The Elixir is the metaphor for whatever it was the hero sought. He/she is returning triumphant with it. It doesn’t have to be real - it could be self-esteem, or love, or understanding. (Not saying those things aren’t real! Perhaps a better phrase would be that the elixir doesn’t have to be tangible.

From http://www.fiction-writers-mentor.com/heros-journey.html

Hero’s Journey Diagram

Considerations when Using Children’s Lit

  • To what age group are you directing your story?

  • Content mastery of the student – Risk of including wrong information

  • Honors/Advanced Level students –“Why are we doing this?”

  • Supplies, resources—Well-stocked art closet; binding and laminating materials; computers?

Other ways to use children’s literature in the content areas

  • Write and illustrate a children’s guidebook on the parts and functions of a cell, simple machines, chemical properties, or lab safety.

  • Use an Eric Carle-style artistic rendering and simple language to discuss parts of a circle or the formula for area or volume.

  • Retell a historical narrative or biography in a way that a 5-year-old will be able to understand the significance of the major themes and plot points.

  • The more simplistic, the better.

Annotated Bibliography

“The Hero’s Journey” books and articles

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Novato: New World, 2008. Print.

In his classic book originally published in the 1940’s, Joseph Campbell explains the common threads found in many literary works and myths throughout history, in nearly every culture. Students find his ideas extremely interesting, and enjoy thinking about the parallels between classics like Beowulf and The Odyssey, and more modern works like Superman, Star Wars, with which they are familiar.

Culleton, Tracey. “The Hero’s Journey, AKA The Monomyth.” Fiction Writer’s Mentor. Web. 8 June 2014.

This webpage outlines many of the concepts found in Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in simplistic language that helps students access the stages of the monomyth for the purpose of using them to create their own stories. I would use this handout with students when reviewing the “Hero’s Journey” myth.

Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Studio City: Michael Wiese, 2007. Print.

Vogler’s book provides a practical updated guide for the “Hero’s Journey” myth that appeals to modern-day writers. It maps out the stages of the “Journey” clearly, uses examples from pop culture, and explains the ways in which the myth mirrors and impacts people’s everyday lives.

Pedagogy books and articles

Burke, Jim. The English Teacher’s Companion. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2003. Print.

If teaching English were a religion, this book would probably be the Bible. Interestingly enough, Burke doesn’t spend a lot of time discussing “Creative Writing” as an end in itself. I found this interesting as a Creative Writing teacher, given that the new Common Core standards seem to place a bigger emphasis on narrative writing than Burke’s book does, and even non-elective English classes often incorporate a more creative-writing-based component.

Ho, Laina. “Children’s Literature in Adult Education.” Children's Literature in Education 31.4 (2000): 259-271. Web. 27 May 2014.

This article focuses on English language learners, and discusses ways that children’s books can be used to teach the finer points of English linguistics to non-native speakers. Though Ho’s students are adult Chinese immigrants, she has many of the same considerations as a teacher with low-level adolescent readers who are native English speakers. For instance, lack of exposure to multiple English texts by these students requires the development of social and literary analysis skills from the ground up in both populations. Children’s literature allows for this type of scaffolding.

Jackson, Yvette, et al. “Kids Teaching Kids.” Educational Leadership 68.1 (2010): 60-63. Web. 27 May 2014.

Using the positive examples of middle school students in Newark, New Jersey, Jackson, et al. describe the efficacy of peer teaching in terms of its ability to generate interest and buy-in from other middle schoolers. It also allows students to “be the experts” on new, difficult content.

Sparks, Sarah D. “Benefits Seen for Students Teaching Virtual Peers.” Education Week 30.10 (2010). Web. 27 May 2014.

This article focuses on the role of peer teaching and tutoring as a way to aid the student doing the teaching. One group of researchers tested the benefits of peer tutoring by setting up a virtual program in which students would use a computer program to “teach” a virtual classmate a new idea or skill. The virtual classmate would be assessed on the skills he developed.

Tovani, Chris. I Read It, But I Don’t Get It: Comprehension Strategies for Adolescent Readers. Portland: Stenhouse, 2000. Print.

This book (one of our lit circle books) deals with the challenges of getting students with low comprehension levels to maximize their abilities and use what they already know so that they can improve their reading skills. Tovani emphasizes the importance of modeling, scaffolding, and building background knowledge.

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