Revising Syllabi and Assignments: Picture Books

It’s the end of the semester, and I’m waiting for final papers to come in so I can do some grading. So, naturally, I’m looking at my syllabi for fall…

I’m teaching two classes in Fall 2019:

  • English 301: British Literature, Origins to Milton
  • English 335: Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature

I’ve taught both these courses before, but I’m making drastic changes to both syllabi. I have a lot of thoughts about even just the name of the 301 course (origins? okay then). But I’ll save that for another post (maybe). Here I want to focus on one aspect of the 335 syllabus: the picture book assignment.

The last time I taught the class, in Fall 2018, I had students write two essays, an annotated bibliography, and a picture book. There was an essay that explored a children’s book award and one book that won the award; an annotated bibliography of children’s books focusing on either a genre or a time period; and a traditional literary final paper.

I thought of the picture book as a “small” assignment, and was astonished when students told me they were spending lots of time on it. I had envisioned it as a fun end-of-semester activity. I emphasized many times that stick-figure drawings were fine – as long as the picture book achieved its purpose of demonstrating that students had grasped some of the concepts we had discussed throughout the semester.

But I had erroneously been counting on students understanding pedagogical strategies.

Sure, I could know in my own mind that I would not grade the quality of art or construction of the book (beyond that there was some art and that the book was held together somehow).

But for students, when I ask for a picture book, the assignment is monumental. Coupled with their final paper, which I assigned to overlap with this “fun” assignment, they were understandably very overwhelmed.

English-335-picture-book-assn

Doing this assignment also made me aware of benefits I hadn’t even thought of. I had done creative assignments before, but they had been obviously smaller. In my early British literature surveys, I ask students to write a short poem or create a composite digital image (among other options) related to one text or theme of the course. But the picture book assignment – which I had designed based on other professors’ assignments I had seen – was actually far more complex and beneficial than I had realized.

I had left the picture book assignment for the end of the semester last fall because I had planned to read picture books with my class throughout the semester. I teach the class once a week, for 2.5 hours each session. I had planned my syllabus chronologically, providing a historical overview of the development of children’s literature. I intended to discuss one Middle Grade book each week, and then read and discuss one picture book each week. The idea was not to require students to buy picture books – we could have “reading circle” where I or a student would read the book aloud and show the pictures.

That didn’t work, for a number of reasons. First of all, doing a chronological study necessarily foregrounds white colonial children’s texts, and I was not happy with the way that turned out. We also had so much to discuss about each Middle Grade book that we didn’t get to the one-a-week picture book. Instead, we did a few focused activities using four or five picture books twice during the semester, and I set aside time in class for students to workshop their picture books at multiple stages.

For Fall 2019, I’m planning to do a unit on picture books at the very start of the semester instead, with students creating their own picture books at the end of that unit. I’ll assign the picture book in place of the first essay, and I will incorporate more direct instructions and limitations, thus allowing students to approach it the same way I intend it (or, more accurately, intending it the same way I know students will approach it).

Below are some samples of the books my Fall 2018 class made (used here with their permission). They show some great skills:

  • rhyming
  • image and text
  • page-turners
  • silliness
  • dealing with common fears
  • …among others

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