Author Studies: An Effective Strategy for Engaging Pre-Service Teachers in the Study of Children's Literature
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- Kennedy, A. Child Lit Educ (2012) 43: 107. doi:10.1007/s10583-011-9155-y
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This quote could have been heard in just about any elementary classroom. Or perhaps from a middle-schooler who had just discovered a new favorite author thanks to his latest author study assignment. But it wasn’t… it was spoken by a university student in her final year of classes.
I am really excited to share my author study with you today because I think he is a really cool guy and I think you are going to fall in love with him and his books as much as I did.
What is an Author Study?
Author studies have been used for many years by teachers to introduce students to authors. They can be a powerful tool in motivating students to read and enticing students to try reading a genre or author that they might normally not choose. When I was a first grade teacher, I could tell which author the students were studying in library class by which books they would choose to take out or by which shelves were empty in the library. Author studies can encourage critical thinking by asking students to make connections between an author’s life and his books, to analyze texts and illustrations, and look for themes among several different books (Jenkins, 1999).
Author studies can be a whole class activity, group project, or individual assignment. In a whole group author study, a teacher may take the lead in presenting the author to the class. In my first grade classroom, we did many author studies this way. We would read, compare and contrast several books by the same author or illustrator and discuss the author’s style and reoccurring themes. Then we would investigate biographical information and the author’s website which usually provides a plethora of information. Lastly, using one of the author’s books as an example of effective writing, we would produce our own story, either through shared writing or writer’s workshop. We would try to stay as true to the author or author illustrator’s style and form as possible while adding our own sense of creativity.
Students can also investigate authors in a group or as individuals. Author studies can be presented in many forms from posters to written biographies to PowerPoint or any other way students can imagine. Whether an author study is done as a whole class activity, in a small group, or individually, one of the greatest consequences of doing the author studies is that students begin to feel very attached to their author, as demonstrated by the quote at the beginning of this text. This can lead to students wanting to read additional works by their author, which is always a positive, unless of course you are doing a whole group author study and don’t have enough books for every child. Another consequence could be heated classroom discussions in which students passionately defend their author as the best. Can you imagine the discussions? In a fifth grade classroom pitting Jerry Spinnelli against Katherine Paterson? Or first graders rooting for Mo Willems versus Eric Carle?
But What About in a College Classroom?
I first was introduced to the idea of author studies in the college classroom as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. I was lucky enough to have Dr. Lawrence Sipe as my professor in children’s literature. As a child I had been an avid reader, and I had great undergraduate experience in children’s literature so I was already a fan, but it was Dr. Sipe that helped me realize that I wanted to be a professor of children’s literature “when I grew up”.
One of the most effective assignments from him was his author study assignment. He had each member of the class research an author from the list provided and create a one-page (front and back) handout containing, biographical information, a booklist, and notes on style/format, genre, and a critical commentary. Then we were to present the information to the class and provide each member of the class with a copy of the handout so that we would all be able to put together a binder of authors. Brilliant! I knew sitting there listening to my classmates’ excitement over their authors that one day I would do this exact assignment with my own students. And I have.
Right now I teach undergraduate teacher candidates, usually in their final year, in what Kutztown University’s department of Elementary Education terms “the professional semester” in which students take 8-weeks of classes on-campus, and then 8 weeks placed in an elementary school classroom to observe the expert teacher, help with small groups, participate in planning and implementing assigned lesson plans, and gain important classroom experience prior to student teaching. The children’s literature course is one of six courses taught at that time period. The 8-weeks of on-campus course are quite intense, but a worthwhile trade-off when the students get to put recently acquired skills and knowledge to use right away. A big plus to having children’s literature as part of the professional semester block of classes is that students have the books fresh in their minds and are able to share with teachers their newfound excitement for children’s literature and bring them new books from our campus library that the teachers may not have access to through their school library.
I introduce the author study project during the very first class meeting time. They receive a cover sheet which explains the assignment, the rubric I will use to calculate their grade, and list of authors to choose from. Many of the students are unfamiliar with children’s book authors, so I categorize the authors for the students by “novel” authors, “picture book” authors and illustrators, “multi-genre and form” for those authors who write an array of novels, picture books and poetry, informational book writers, and poets. Taking a cue from Dr. Sipe, I ask the students to choose an author that they are not already familiar with. I tell the students that if they aren’t sure who to pick, that I can match them up with someone. This has worked very well. I will ask students to tell me what grade they like to teach, what genre they enjoy reading, and generally what they are interested in and I try to match them up with an author they will enjoy researching and reading. Some students will have no preference whatsoever and I like to choose an author for them to do their author study on; I use this opportunity to evenly distribute within genres and formats or include authors that I think are too important to miss.
I ask them to include a biography of their author and ask the students to include details about events that were important in terms of their inspiration for or development in becoming an author. For a class it is interesting to note similarities in authors’ background stories. Students who choose an author or illustrator of picture books, including informational picture books by such authors as Aliki or Gail Gibbons, are asked to read 7–10 of that author/illustrator’s books; those who read novels read a minimum of three. For authors who write both picture books and novels, as well as for poets, we negotiate how much they should read, depending on which books they find available. Students are asked to include an annotated bibliography for what they’ve read and include a list of other books by the author or illustrator, as complete as space will allow.
Students also need to include sections telling about their author’s style, format, genre, and recurring themes. For some students this is the first time that they have been asked to look at a body of work critically. This makes the critical commentary section the most difficult to write for many of them. I try to move them beyond the idea of just saying that they just like or don’t like to book. Using music as an example, I explain to the students that although they may not like opera or choose to listen to it on their own time, they could appreciate the talent it takes to be an opera singer and can certainly tell the difference between a high quality and a poor opera singer. I use the example of Susan Boyle from Britain’s Got Talent to further explain my point. Even people who are not normally “fans” of her kind of singing could appreciate her amazing talent. And then we discuss how the deeper we delve in this course the more they will become experts in quality children’s literature; as a musical judge can hear problems with pitch and tone that the normal person cannot, they will be able to become familiar with children’s literature and will be able to recognize quality children’s literature.
I show students examples of past author studies only from afar. I don’t let them read them; I only show them so they can get a sense of the ways they can organize their author study on a page. My students have the advantage of being very techno savvy and can design high quality professional looking documents. Some students choose to design a tri-fold pamphlet, others have done newspaper style, and some make it like a print advertisement; I have been continuously impressed as the semesters pass with the quality and professionalism of the documents the students create.
Lastly, students need to make copies of the handout; one for myself and one for every member of the class and present their author to the class in 5 min (or less). This is the most effective part of this project’s design. Students are thrilled to have their own “collection” of authors to reference. So in a class of 29 students, student will get to know 29 authors. The difficulty, however, is the time. Students can get so “into” their author that they have a hard part cutting themselves off. Nonetheless, seeing their joy at discovering an author, and how that joy can be truly infectious, it is truly time well spent.
Positive Experiences with Reading
College students can get as excited as elementary school children about children’s books and children’s book authors. We can get college students excited about reading again. And since research has demonstrated a link between teacher’s personal reading habits and experiences and the quality of their literacy instruction in the classroom, inspiring pre-service teachers to love to read should be a goal for all teacher education programs.
More than 50% of my semester reviews from students mention the author study assignment as a positive aspect of my course; none mentions it as a negative. Even more telling, it is the only assignment that consistently, every semester has had at least one student ask me to do TWO author studies. Some of these students have chosen an author they are unfamiliar with and then their favorite author wasn’t chosen so they feel compelled to do both as an author study; others have done preliminary research on two authors and can’t choose between them, so they just do both. This project has been very successful in introducing pre-service teachers to a wide variety of authors to which they can introduce to their own students. It is an excellent model which my pre-service teachers can incorporate into their own classroom one day.