In this One Thing You Might Try . . . blog post, teacher Kerry Elson tells the story of what happened when she began to rethink the traditional author study she did with her kindergarteners and instead designed a new author-illustrator study around Donald Crews.
Like a lot of kindergarten teachers, I do an author study with my students each year. My first year teaching kindergarten, we studied Todd Parr, the author and illustrator of colorful picture books such as The Peace Book and The Family Book.
Studying Todd Parr in kindergarten was a tradition at my school. I teach kindergarten and first grade in a loop at Central Park East 2, a public elementary and middle school in East Harlem, New York. To continue the tradition, I invited students to read Parr’s books; they also wrote books in Parr’s style, creating their own versions of The Peace Book and Do’s and Don’ts.
The next time I taught kindergarten, however, I realized I needed to change my approach to the author study. I strive to create a curriculum that celebrates students’ multifaceted identities and includes reading books that reflect their cultural backgrounds and experiences. In studying a white author like Todd Parr, I was overemphasizing white, Eurocentric culture rather than the background and experiences of my students, many of whom identify as Black, Latinx, Arab-American, or Asian-American.
So instead of studying Parr, my students and I learned about Donald Crews, a Black author-illustrator whose books students loved and who happened to live in New York, like them. Studying an author of color like Crews was one way to adjust the curriculum so that it better reflected students’ identities. Teaching students about an author who looked like some of them would, I hoped, help them feel that they could be author-illustrators too. For the few white students in my class, studying a Black author would be a valuable way to broaden their knowledge of author-illustrators as well.
Broadening the Author Study
If you Google “kindergarten author study,” you’ll see Parr’s name, along with author-illustrators like Tomie dePaola, Kevin Henkes, Lois Ehlert, Jan Brett, Mo Willems, Eric Carle, and Leo Lionni. All of these artists, though beloved by many, are white. Their books can, of course, still be in classroom libraries, but it’s important for teachers to broaden the range of author-illustrators they highlight for students. Children of all racial identities need to learn about author-illustrators of color and read stories that reflect a variety of experiences.
To find author-illustrators, teachers might consult with children’s librarians. They can also review book lists from We Need Diverse Books or browse books that have received the Coretta Scott King Award, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, The Pura Belpré Award, or other awards. During these kinds of searches, I learned about more authors and author-illustrators to feature in my classroom, including Yuyi Morales, Angela Dominguez, Kadir Nelson, Christian Robinson, Grace Lin, Janet S. Wong, and Monica Brown.
I decided to study Donald Crews with my kindergarteners not only because of his racial identity, but also because he had made many books that children enjoy and that have a consistent style for children to emulate. Many of his books are about vehicles, illustrations fill each page, and the text has noise words like “putt putt.” I hoped children might add some of his techniques to their repertoire. Also, many of my students like vehicles; I thought they might enjoy writing books about them.
Getting to Know Donald Crews
To learn more about Donald Crews, my students and I read a variety of his books over two weeks. I was fortunate that my school had a collection of his books already. I read his books at story time, and during reading workshop students read his books on their own. I asked students to consider these questions as they read: What was the book about? What did they notice about the words? What did they notice about the pictures? At share time after reading workshop, I recorded their ideas on a chart to reference later, when children would try writing their own Crews-style book.
In addition to studying Crews’ work, my students and I learned about his life. I made a book about Crews by printing photos of him and his family that I found via a Google search. Then I read the book at story time. I thought it was important for children to see that Crews was a multifaceted person who had a family, like them. I hoped this knowledge could help them relate to him. During a visit to the school library, our librarian also showed children a documentary about Crews that I found online. In the video, Donald Crews shows parts of his workshop where he writes and does illustrations.
After we studied Crews’ work, I invited students to write their own “Donald Crews-style” book. First, we made our own Crews-style book as a class. We made it about a car and brainstormed a few places for the car to go, as well as some noises that the car would make. I wrote children’s ideas on chart paper stapled together like a book.
Then children wrote their own Crews-style book. I gave them five-page booklets that resembled the way Donald Crews’ books are laid out, with no drawing boxes, so illustrations could fill the page, and a few lines for words in the top right corner, because that’s where words sometimes are placed in his books. Children smiled as they made books about helicopters, motorcycles, and bicycles with balloons attached to the handlebars. One child wrote, “The motorcycle is at the 92nd St. Y. Fire is coming out of the motors.” Another wrote, “The helicopter landed on the platform – rererere,” trying to convey the sound of its whirring blades. Children were enthusiastic about writing like Donald Crews for weeks. I’m excited to keep teaching children about him and other author-illustrators who can inspire children to tell their stories.
About the author
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