Foundations in Literature for Children
ENG 170: Foundations in Literature for Children serves as an introduction to various genres of children’s texts for pre-readers and young readers, including picture books, chapter books, series books, novels, poetry, folklore, mythologies, information books, and films at the K-8th grade level. This course includes the study of both canonical and noncanonical texts, with particular focus on both classics and contemporary texts for children.
The cumulative emphases of this course include the following goals:
• Cultivate critical thinking and analysis skills through reading and writing about children’s literature
• Examine socio-cultural contexts to analyze children’s literature
• Make critical connections between text and self, text and text, and text and world
• Consider how children’s literature informs and shapes our ideologies about children and childhood
• Evaluate children’s literature based on its literary, pedagogical, and/or aesthetic values
First, I think it’s important to acknowledge that the course description and goals for this class were heavily based on syllabi by fellow graduate assistants, Amy Hicks and Scott Pyrz. ENG 170 is a required course for English Education majors at ISU, so there are certain learning outcomes that instructors of this course are expected to incorporate into their course design. When preparing to teach this course for the first time in fall 2015, I turned to classmates who already had experience teaching the course, in order to get a sense of not only their course descriptions, but also the length of their booklists and the types of assignments included in their courses. These two topics are further explored below.
Peter and Wendy by J.M. Barrie
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
The Watson’s Go to Birmingham, 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson
Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan
El Deafo by Cece Bell
The Arrival by Shaun Tan
Catch That Cat! by Tharini Viswanath
After getting a sense of the usual booklist length from sample syllabi, I then had to decide what books to include on my list. In our assigned learning outcomes, we are required to include the genres of fantasy, realism, and nonfiction, along with others like fairy tales, myths, and poetry. While these latter genres were included in my class via hyperlinked texts, the first three were split amongst my booklist.
When deciding on my booklist, however, I did not primarily base my decisions on the genres, since I knew I’d have at least one of each just by trying to include diverse styles of storytelling. What I was truly aiming for was diverse representations via the characters themselves. As a hispanic woman teaching in a small town in Illinois, I knew I wanted to provide my students with “window” literature, not just “mirror” literature. The large majority of my students, I knew, would be accustomed to seeing characters that look like them and share similar experiences to them. In my mind, then, this course would be an opportunity to show them how people different than themselves are represented in children’s literature. And as most of my students would be future teachers, I thought it important to remind them that their future students might have lived experiences that were quite different than their own, and this difference could have major effects in their classrooms.
Below, I’ve included a basic outline of my thought process when deciding what books to include in my booklist. While my students and I discussed plenty of other topics than the ones listed here, my decision-making for my booklist was in large part driven by specific topics and by my wish to include books that would give students “windows” through which to view how people of other times, races/ethnicities, genders, abilities, and family dynamics experience life in ways similar and different to their own.
Peter and Wendy (classic, for historical learning outcome; fantasy; discussions of gender, race, and class)
The Secret Garden (classic, for historical learning outcome; realism; discussions of gender, race, (dis)ability)
Number the Stars (historical fiction; discussions of gender, race, religion, politics)
The Watson’s Go to Birmingham, 1963 (historical fiction; African American protagonists; discussions of race, politics, gender)
The Great Gilly Hopkins (realism; foster child protagonist; discussions of family dynamics, class, race)
Esperanza Rising (realism; hispanic protagonist; discussions of immigration, gender, ethnicity, class)
El Deafo (graphic novel; memoir; deaf protagonist; discussions of visual literacy, (dis)ability, friendship)
The Arrival (non-traditional picture book; discussions of visual literacy, immigration, politics, family)
Catch That Cat! (international picture book; protagonist uses a wheelchair; discussions of (dis)ability, ethnicity, gender)
Grade Breakdown and Course Assignments:
Reading Quizzes – 10%
Midterm – 10%
Final – 10%
Literary Analysis Activity Group Project – 15%
Picture Book Festival Project – 15%
Literary Analysis Writing Unit – 30%
Participation – 10%
Here are brief explanations for why I included each of the major assignments listed above.
Reading Quizzes – How could I get students to read the class material in a timely manner? Answer: Have them take a reading quiz before discussing each book. The reading quizzes also enabled me to see if students were picking up on important plot, character, and setting details when reading, rather than staying too surface-level or reading too quickly to absorb details for class discussion.
Midterm and Final – These exams were a straightforward way of seeing if students were understanding the class key terms (like ideology, metafiction, foreshadowing, etc.) and were paying attention to the information I provided via PowerPoint lectures (history of the concept of childhood, history of children’s literature, author information, genre information, etc.). The exams were not in essay form, as I wanted to give students who struggle with writing a break from the many major assignments that required a lot of writing.
Literary Analysis Activity Group Project – To get my students more invested in class discussions, I had them break off into groups for one of the major projects. Each group would pick a book from the reading list, and they would have to create and lead a class activity that required their classmates to take part in a literary analysis activity. Students would have to write out an explanation of the activity, a rationale for their activity design, and an after-activity reflection in which they considered how the activity did and/or did not meet their expectations.
Picture Book Festival Project – This final project was largely inspired by one of Amy Hicks’ assignments. Instead of requiring students to present a poster on a non-fiction picture book, however, I required students to find a picture book that portrayed one of our class topics (gender, race, religion, family, (dis)ability, etc.) in a “controversial, unusual, or important way.” Some of my students’ choices: And Tango Makes Three, I am Jazz, Daddy’s Roommate, My Princess Boy, The Giving Tree, Maggie Goes on a Diet, and Rainbow Fish.
Literary Analysis Writing Unit – A multi-part assignment, this unit required students to write multiple literary analysis discussion posts about the books read each week. It also required them to respond to posts written by their peers, in order to deepen the analysis begun in the original post. In requiring multiple (short) analysis posts, rather than one or two longer papers, my intention was to have students think and write deeply (though briefly) about a majority of the class texts, rather than just one or two of the books.
Participation – The other major assignments can basically be broken up into 30% – recall assignments (quizzes and exams), 30% – creative assignments (group project and poster presentation), 30% – writing assignments (literary analysis writing unit). Having provided opportunities for students with different learning styles, the final small portion of the course grade was based on how involved students were in class discussions. Discussions took up the majority of class for the latter 2/3 of the semester (after all the introductory lectures), so giving credit for participation in these discussions was an important factor to consider in overall course grades.
(Revisions for Fall 2017 Version)
I made a few changes to my syllabus for my third semester of teaching ENG 170. Here’s some information on this new version:
The Day of Ahmed’s Secret
Monkey and Me
The Butter Battle Book
I taught the picture book section first this semester, rather than at the end along with El Deafo. I wanted my students to have really short narratives to work with when first practicing their literary analysis. I started with the straightforward story in The Day of Ahmed’s Secret, then juxtaposed it with Monkey and Me, a postmodern picture book that’s designed so masterfully. The Arrival was used to demonstrate the power of visuals to tell a (serious) story, and The Butter Battle Book was used to help make clear the allegorical and political possibilities of children’s texts.
The Secret Garden – same as past semesters
Winnie the Pooh – a new pick for my classic fantasy novel
The Watson’s Go to Birmingham, 1963 – same as past semesters
Survivors: True Stories of Children in the Holocaust – a nonfiction, short story collection that replaced Number the Stars
El Deafo– same as past semesters
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (the book) – the beginning of my adaptations unit, quite similar to the work I did in my first version of ENG 125.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (the movie)
Harry Potter fanworks (fanfic, art, vids)
Exchanging Number the Stars with a nonfiction short story collection about the Holocaust went better than I expected. My students really connected with the stories, and they made great points about the structure/design of the collection. Winnie the Pooh, unsurprisingly, was a class favorite, but they were able to take their enjoyment and grow it into some great class discussions. It seems that book can’t be analyzed without some psychoanalysis, though.
Revised Major Assignments:
Literary Analysis Discussion Posts – While similar to past semesters’ writing units, in this version, students had to complete four posts, though they could complete more if they wanted to replace lower grades on earlier posts. They were no longer required to respond to any of their classmates’ posts, though they could do so for extra credit.
Literary Analysis Paper – Instead of the picture book festival, students were required to write a 6-page paper on one of the required class texts that were not options for the literary analysis posts. Students had to cite at least two academic sources in their papers, and they were required to create an argumentative thesis.