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Picture Book Activities for Middle School Students

by Christopher Cascio, studioD

Traditionally, picture books are marketed for children ages 3 to 7. However, more and more, teachers of middle school -- and even high school -- students are finding uses for picture books in their classrooms. Picture books can distill serious and complex issues into concise stories that don't take long to read, and studying them can help middle school students learn story structure as they practice their creativity and oral reading skills.

Narrative Elements Study

Because picture books need to be succinct, the narrative components of the story must also be simple and direct. Have students work in pairs, and give each pair a picture book. After each student within each pair reads the book, focusing on both the text and the pictures, have him write a short description of as many narrative elements as he can identify, such as character, plot, setting, conflict, theme and tone. Subtler elements, such as foreshadowing and comic reversals, could also be mentioned. Afterward, have the students in each pair compare their notes. Maybe one student noticed elements of foreshadowing in the pictures that the other did not. Perhaps they disagree on the nature of the conflict or the theme. This activity helps improve their observation skills while getting them into conversations about narrative elements, which can reinforce the concepts already learned in class.

Hybridized Storytelling

Picture books represent a mixed method of storytelling that relies on both written language and visual imagery to tell a story. Generally, the images in a picture book don't simply reiterate the words on the pages. Instead, they complement them, adding parts of the story that have been left out of the text. Have students work in pairs and give each pair a picture book. One student in each pair should only read the text and the other should only focus on the images. After each has finished with their aspect of the story, have each student recount the events of the story in their own words, recalling as many details as possible. Have them discuss how the two versions differ and how they complement each other to form a complete story when used together.

Picture Books: Student Autobiographies

Because the picture book format tends to be formulaic and concise, you can use this format as a starting point for teaching middle school students how to write an autobiography. A picture book is usually about 500 words long, and must use language accessible for children in the 3 to 7 year-old range. These constraints can serve as aides to your students: they don't have to worry about being verbose or dazzling you with fancy writing. Instead, they can focus on clearly telling the story of one specific event in their lives. Using drawings to assist in the storytelling lets them include visual details that might be difficult for them to express with words alone. For example, they might be able to express a complex emotion, such as anxiety, through the drawing of a face better than they could with language.

Picture Books as Supplemental Texts

Picture book biographies can be used to teach about historical figures in a way that is brief, yet engaging and informative. Split the class into groups and give each group a picture book biography about a different historical figure they are studying. For example, if you are teaching a social studies lesson about the founding fathers, you can give one group a biography of Benjamin Franklin and another group a biography of Thomas Jefferson. Have each group read their book, and afterward hold a class discussion in which the groups talk about what they learned from their books. You can even have them trade books and see if the next readers notice anything different.

About the Author

Christopher Cascio is a memoirist and holds a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and literature from Southampton Arts at Stony Brook Southampton, and a Bachelor of Arts in English with an emphasis in the rhetoric of fiction from Pennsylvania State University. His literary work has appeared in "The Southampton Review," "Feathertale," "Kalliope" and "The Rose and Thorn Journal."

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