When it’s too soon to ask questions about plot and character
On Tuesdays in my independent reading class, I prepare a text-based question for students to answer in a paragraph or two on paper. I ask them to do their reading, keeping in mind the question, and then at the end of the house, they can craft their paragraphs and turn them in for credit for that day’s reading.
But what do you ask when they’re just starting a book? They haven’t turned enough pages to know much about the conflict, the characters, or the plot.
For our first question, I decided to have students analyze their book’s cover. Here’s the question I wrote at the start of class on the whiteboard (and posted on Google Classroom for my students learning at home):
I also grabbed these three books off my shelves to show and discuss as mentor texts: When The Astors Owned New York by Justin Kaplan, Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, and The Catcher in The Rye by J. S. Salinger.
We noticed these details about When The Astors Owned New York:
- a very traditional design
- the use of serif typeface (I explained briefly the difference between serif and sans serif typefaces)
- a center axis for everything on the cover (lines of type, a photo)
- a symmetrical layout that hints at the stately presentation of the story within
Then we looked at Angela’s Ashes and noticed:
- a poignant vintage photo of a barefooted little boy
- a stone building that appears modest and hints at the poverty of the owners
- a charming, wry little smile on the boy that indicates an author’s tone that is downtrodden, yet optimistic, and possibly even humorous
And what does the cover of The Catcher in the Rye imply?
It says, “I don’t care about having a catchy cover. I don’t play the game everyone else does. I do things my own way and I keep things simple, if you wanna know the lousy truth.” Catcher’s cover –while plain and boring — rebels against the norm, hinting at the story inside.
This was a fun way to start our habit of answering text-based questions in my independent reading class this year. After all, it was pointless to ask students about the action of their books four short days into the year.
Analyzing book covers also helps students interpret the visual elements of a text and then draw conclusions* from the choices made by the publisher and design team.
In addition, the activity took only about fifteen minutes of class time. This allowed students plenty of opportunities to delve further into their personal book selections.
*Missouri Learning Standards RL-1Cand RI-1C (Text Features)
Ever analyze book covers? Despite being the first thing students see when they pick up a book, its design is often overlooked.
Another idea I’ve thought of: many students don’t know the difference between Times New Roman and Arial. For teaching MLA formatting, it may be convenient to use the fonts on the book covers to discuss serif and sans serif typefaces , so students know for sure when they’re using Times New Roman.
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