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Sunday, February 3, 2013

Animal Attraction: Exploring Animals with Picture Books

Children love animals, so it's not surprising that the canon of children's literature is populated with iconic rabbits, bears, elephant, and mice. So how can we continue to take advantage of this connection with animals as students enter their upper elementary and middle school years?

Below I've listen ten ideas for making the most of students' animal attractions. Feel free to leave a comment to share how you've used animal books in your own classroom.

1. Fantastic Fables
Project Type: Creative Writing
Suggested Grades: 2 and up

The Ancient Greeks understood the power of storytelling for instructing youth. Traditional ancient fables typically feature animals acting with human traits (anthropomorphism) and conclude with a moral, whether explicitly stated or not. 

A popular version of this genre is Aesop's Fables by Charles Santore, a reinterpretation of twenty-four of the illustrator's favorites, told and illustrated in a classic manner. My favorite illustration depicts "The Hare and the Tortoise" in a trifold page, featuring the entire cast of animals posed against a rolling landscape forested with crumbling Greek pillars, witnessing the triumph of the Tortoise. In choosing the tales and creatures to include, Santore explained:

"Each animal - the wolf, the clever fox, the silly crow - represents and symbolizes some particular aspect of the human condition. Whatever the situation, the animal's reaction is always predictable. This is true of all the creatures that populate the fables, and they never disappoint us. They are never more or less. That is the great lesson and the essence of the fable."

One modern take on this topic is Arnold Lobel's original Fables, told in plain English with the morals plainly stated. A lesser known but entertaining new look at fables can be found in Yo, Aesop! Get a Load of These Fables by Paul Rosenthal and illustrated by Marc Rosenthal. Each of these thoroughly modern fables in presented in a tongue-in-cheek way, followed by a critique and commentary by Aesop himself.

Classroom Extensions:
  • After reading several fables, ask students to describe which human traits are typically assigned to which animals. Why these animals? What is it about their physical traits or behaviors that makes them deserving of these attributes? Challenge students to assign human traits to some animals not traditionally seen in fables.Then ask, "If you were depicted as an animal in a fable, which animal would you be? Why?"
  •  Provide each student with a moral. Using one of your own, model how a story might be created to illustrate its lesson. Challenge each student to choose a cast of animal characters and write an original fable (they could even include themselves from the activity above). Need some moral ideas? Check out American English Proverbs for some thought-provoking lines. 
  • Select an illustration from one of the books described above. Challenge students to write the fable it illustrates. Another terrific source for traditional fables is Jerry Pinkney's Aesop's Fables.
  • Squids Will Be Squids is Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith's collection of fantastically original fables. Check out the related teaching ideas at Scholastic.
2. Peerless Predators
Project Type: Argumentative Essay/Research
Suggested Grades: 4 and up

Animal research projects are so common as to be cliche. So much of what we call "research" amounts to simple regurgitation of facts that are, in isolation, somewhat meaningless. So how can we revamp this assignment to make it more meaningful for students and their audience alike? I suggest an assignment called The HOWL Museum.

To practice argumentative writing skills, students are told that the HOWL (Hunters of the Wild Lands) Museum is seeking nominations for predators to be included in their exhibits. In order for a predator to be selected, students need to prove that their nominee is a well-equipped and skilled hunter. Students are then assigned predators for research, and they begin to organize initial ideas on a Google Drawing doc template (notes could also taken using Read Write Think's Persuasive Map). 

While students used several Internet sources for research on this project, many students used trade books as well. One favorite was Predators by John Seidensticker and Susan Lumpkin (one of the INsiders series published by Simon and Schuster), as it featured not only profiles of some of the world's top hunters, but also sections on the weapons and instincts that make these killers the pinnacles of their food pyramids. The text reads like any excellent nonfiction text, with plenty of illustrations, captions, text boxes, and cut-away diagrams.

Top 10 Worst Killer Animals You Wouldn't Want to Meet by Fiona Macdonald and David Antram boldly counts down the top killers from around the world, providing curious readers answers to questions such as, "How do jellyfish feed?" and "How do you avoid a shark attack?" Kids find this book fascinating since it profiles not only the predators, abut also those malevolent creatures that carry infection and kill by disease.

But perhaps the hottest commodity was Predator Showdown: 30 Unbelievably Awesome Predator vs. Predator Faceoffs by Lee Martin. Students loved the grudge-matches depicted on the pages, along with the vital stats of each contender. Rather than reveal the winners immediately, the author lists the winner on the book's final page, along with a short explanation of why one animal would overcome the other. I think students enjoyed the format because its competitive nature mirrored the fierce loyalty they began to feel for their own nominee to The HOWL Museum. Unfortunately, it seems that book is out of print, so if you can't find it at your library I'd alternatively suggest Nature's Deadliest Predators by Shelly Silberling. While it is limited to sharks, bears, tigers, and alligators and crocodiles, this text demonstrates the interactions between these predators and the humans who increasingly compete with them for limited habitable space.

Classroom Extensions:
  • Assign each student a predator, and direct them to learn about that animal's physical traits and behaviors. 

  • Use a simple checklist to allow students to peer review first drafts. One of our checklists can be accessed below. Click on the icon on the lower right corner to see this document full size.

  • Publish the essays and post them with an announcement about the HOWL Museum. To create the illusion of a grand opening, I used the image editing site Photo505 to create some "publicity shots." To this day, some students think the museum is real! See the photos below, and feel to use them as well.
  • If you're not crazy about the notion of predators, consider research projects on animals that live in productive harmony through symbiosis, a "close, prolonged association between two or more different organisms of different species that may, but does not necessarily, benefit each member" (

3. Crazy Critters
Project Type: Creative Writing/Art
Suggested Grades: 2 and up 

Kids love the idea of mixing and matching animal parts! Explore some picture books that celebrate these crazy mixed up animals, and then let your students loose to give it a try themselves. 

In Scranimals, written by Jack Prelutsky and illustrated by Peter Sis, animals are not only combined with other animals, but with fruits, vegetables and flowers as well! Thus we get spinachickens, broccolions, and bananacondas. Fun poems accompany each full spread illustration. In Animals that Ought to Be: Poems about Imaginary Pets, Richard Michelson and Leonard Baskin exercise equal creative liberties in morphing creatures that are both creepy and utilitarian, such as the Nightmare Scarer which feeds upon bad dreams. In a third book of poems, author Keith DuQuette offers up some hilarious homemade hybrids in Cock-a-Doodle-Moo: A Mixed Up Menagerie.

Classroom Extensions:
  • Explore the concept of portmanteau words with your students. Unlike compound words that simply combine two smaller words, or contractions which drop letters, portmanteau words combine words and lose letters to form new words entirely. Thus smoke and fog create smog, and breakfast and lunch create brunch. Scranimals is a terrific choice for introducing this concept.
  • Have students cut apart magazine images of animals to create collage critters. Students can then write descriptions of these animals, including the unique abilities they're granted given their hybrid qualities.
  • Explore the online possibilities for creating crazy animal combinations using a site like Switch Zoo or Build Your Wild Self.

4. Beasts of Burden
Project Type: Creative Writing/Research
Suggested Grades: 3 and up 

In addition to language and the wheel, perhaps nothing defines human evolution more than the ability to domesticate animals. In fact, according to Keltie Thomas, there are some Animals that Changed the World:

From furry felines to hard-working horses, animals have had a tremendous impact on world history. For example, rats, through the diseases they carry, have probably killed more people than any war or natural disaster, goats may have been the first to discover coffee and, thanks to camels, people were able to survive for long periods in the desert and open up trade routes between Europe and Asia.

In this amazing book, the author describes how 20+ animals have had a profound impact on human history for good (dogs, camels, horses) and bad (rats, mosquitoes). A fascinating nonfiction read for the students 10 and up, this full-color text features photos, diagrams, maps, and timelines, paired with easy-to-understand text. Overall the information is organized by topic (Animals at Work, Secret Agents of Disease, etc.) and also by individual animal. See some sample pages from publisher Annick Press.

If you're interested in getting "up close and personal" with some amazing animals who have found their ways into our human history, check out Tales of Famous Animals by Peter and Connie Roop, illustrated by Zachary Pullen. These true tales tell how amazing animals, from the time of Alexander the Great to the present, have played critical roles in the lives of humans they've encountered. Find familiar names like Koko the Gorilla and Smokey Bear, and not-so-familiar names such as Quest and Old Abe. While some critics may argue that animals serving humans are in bondage, this book clearly illustrates that affectionate and respectful relationships between humans and animals are mutually beneficial. Highly recommended as a read aloud!

In addition to working with humans, younger readers may also be interested to learn how animals work together. In Do Animals Work Together?, author Faith Hickman Brynie describes the many ways that animals communicate among their colonies, packs, and herds. What's neat about this book is that each spread features a picture page and a text page, with the text page containing new reader sentences at the top, providing basic information, and a fluent reader section at the bottom, providing more details. One text section isn't dependent upon the other, and both can be read without sounding redundant. Enslow Publishing provides an educator 's guide for this book, as well as all books in the I Like Reading About Animals series. (Win this book! See bottom of the post).

Classroom Extensions:
  • Assign each student an animal that has played a significant role, for good or bad, in human history. After they've researched their animal, allow students to present to the class in a creative way. For example, what would each animal have to say about its life's work in a retirement speech? Would it be proud of its accomplishments?
  • Using Animals that Changed the World and other resources, students can practice writing simple expository essays describing how animals assist people. While children can likely generate three ways that dogs are useful to people, including a resource text reinforces the the importance of backing arguments with facts and quotes.
  • Pair individual accounts of animal labor from Animals that Changed the World with related fiction texts (for example, real-life sled dogs paired with Stone Fox) or related nonfiction texts (camels and their role in the Silk Route).

5. Creature Comparisons
Project: Poetry/Figurative Language
Suggested Grades: 3 and up

Curious as a cricket, happy as a lark, slow as a snail. See where this is going? Students enjoy creating simple similes, and their vast store of animal knowledge makes these comparisons easy.

A wonderful mentor text for this activity might be Shakespeare's Zoo (Volume 1) by Laudea Martin. It was "a very old (c. 1896) and well-loved boxed set of the complete works of William Shakespeare, which once belonged to Laudea's great grandmother... that sparked her interest in the richness of Shakespeare's written words." The author soon discovered that in many of Shakespeare's works, both famous and obscure, the Bard employed animal imagery to paint perfect pictures of human passions and pratfalls. 

From the book description:
Shakespeare's brilliance shines through, not just in his most famous lines, but in every line. The tiniest snippet of his work contains fantastic wordplay and depth of imagery. This book takes some of his less-known bits about various animals and pairs them with Laudea Martin's unique illustrations assembled from textured layers.

And, like all Shakespeare, each page will become easier to understand the more you read it. The brilliant words of Shakespeare are meant to be heard, not seen, so read the words aloud and listen to the rhythm. Read them again and again, and let your imagination fill in the details of the scene.

Each illustration was digitally constructed using layers of textured color. Some textures will be immediately recognizable, such as wood grain or leaves; others may be more difficult to discern, but all come together to create whimsical representations of just a few of the animals mentioned by Shakespeare.

Simple nonfiction picture books can provide students with countless ideas for writing about their own traits. In About Hummingbirds, for example, author Cathryn Sill discusses in plain language how hummingbirds are brightly colored and fast (we knew that!) while at the same time stealthy and even quarrelsome! Illustrator John Sill's images back up the text with vivid details, showing the reader in fine detail what could never be seen in real life by the naked eye. 

For students seeking more details, the creators included a plate-by-plate addendum providing more data about each image, including information on habitats, physical dimensions, and behaviors, with rich words such as iridescent, preening, and vigorously. See other books in the award-winning About... series, or Win this book! See bottom of the post for more information. 

Classroom Extensions:
  • Students can create biographical poems by first selecting adjectives that they feel describe them (pretty, busy, fast, etc.) and then selecting animals that match those adjectives. Students can pair the adjectives and animals in simile form, such as, "I snore like a lion when I'm really, really tired," and "I'm busy as a beaver every day when I get home."
  • Creating a flip book is a fantastic way to show off and illustrate the comparisons described above, and the sizes of the books can vary from tiny to huge.
  • Collect a pile of animal poem books and let students browse them and share their favorites. Then offer trade books or simply pictures of an assortment of animals, and ask students to write simile poem inspired by a favorite critter. 

6. Pack Behavior
Project: Analytic Essay/Novel Extension
Suggested Grades: 5 and up
We all know that wolves and dogs are pack animals, but did you realize that humans are as well? If you don't believe me, ask Cesar Millan, who in Be the Pack Leader has this to say:

The power of the pack idea doesn't just apply to dogs. It applies to another species of pack animals whose destinies have been intertwined with those of dogs for tens of thousands of years.That would be our very own species, Homo sapiens.

I've had a good deal of success with partnering books on wolf pack behavior with books that deal with similar "pack" behavior in humans. Holes, The Outsiders, Wringer, and Lord of the Flies are just a few of the books that demonstrate the irresistible hold a dominant alpha can have over a pack, leading subordinates to follow blindly, even when consequences might prove disastrous. The boys of Group D in Holes, for example, certainly adhere to a ranking system, and protagonist Stanley Yelnats quickly learns that small concessions on his part can improve his own position in that ranking. 

And of course, I'd recommend a quick study in pack behavior before reading any novel dealing with dog packs, such Island of the Blue Dolphins, Julie of the Wolves, and Call of the Wild, to name just a few.

For picture books I would recommend Scruffy: A Wolf Finds His Place in the Pack by Jim Brandenburg,  Wolves by Sandra Markle, and Face to Face with Wolves, also by Jim Brandenburg.

Classroom Extensions:

  • Choose a fact-rich picture book such as Scruffy: A Wolf Finds His Way in the Pack. Once students have read and discussed the text, have them write a simple essay explaining how pack behavior is critical to survival.
  • Later, assign students the challenge of drawing comparisons between the group behavior observed in your novels and the previously studied pack behavior.

7. Feathered Friends
Project: Poetry/Research
Suggested Grades: 5 and up 

Screenshot of a LinoIt discussion of Dunbar's The Sparrow (see below)
In his classic poem The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe describes the unsettling midnight visit of a raven to the windowsill of a melancholy and mournful narrator. When that narrator asks repeatedly if the raven will provide solace and comfort, the raven simply answers, "Nevermore." Similarly, poet Paul Laurence Dunbar is visited by a sparrow who, unlike Poe's raven, seems to offer reprieve from the author's toil and dullness. The sparrow's attempts to distract the poet are rebuffed.

If you suspect a theme is developing, you would be correct. Poets in particular seem to enjoy expounding upon serendipitous meetings with birds, taking some delight in reading their stoic expressions and wondering about their mysterious lives (see Emily Dickinson's A Bird Came Down the Walk, Paul Laurence Dunbar's The Sparrow, and Edwin Morgan's A Gull).

Classroom Extensions:
  • Share some of these poems with students, particularly Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven." This poem's fantastic vocabulary, figurative language, and creepy author's tone can be explored interactively The Interactive Raven and Knowing Poe: Annotated Poe.   
  • Compare and contrast Poe's poem with others about chance meetings with birds. This post discusses using a cool collaborative site called LinoIt to create online discussions, complete with stickies, images, and videos.
  • Assign each student a bird, asking them to explore its history and mythology, as well as its physical characteristics and habits. Armed with this information, challenge students to write a poem about a meeting with this bird, basing it upon some of the exemplars above.
  • Check out the haunting poem Carrion Crow by John Heath-Stubbs (definitely share the audio!), which describes a literal bird's eye view of history. After discussing the text and researching the battle to which it refers, ask students to write a similar poem as observed from a bird's point of view.
  • If you feel that this activity is for the birds, consider allowing students to write poetry about their own choice of animal after conducting some basic research. Eric Carle's Animals Animals features animal poems by some of the literary greats (think Kipling, Carroll, Sanburg, Rossetti) accompanied by his signature cut-paper illustrations. These poems might also serve you if you choose to tackle any of the Creative Comparisons activities listed above.
8. Who's to Choose When It Comes to Zoos?
Project: Argumentative Essay/Research
Suggested Grades: 6 and up

Should zoos exist? The SCAN post titled Simple Questions Lead to Complex Learning is a good jumping off place for getting started with this topic (as well as many others).

For ages 8 and up, the dilemma of animal captivity is thoughtfully explored in Katherine Applegate's The One and Only Ivan, the 2013 Newbery Winner. From the Author's Biography: Katherine was inspired to write The One and Only Ivan after reading about the true story of a captive gorilla known as Ivan, the "Shopping Mall Gorilla." The real Ivan lived alone in a tiny cage for twenty-seven years at a shopping mall before being moved to Zoo Atlanta after a public outcry. I highly recommended this text as a read-aloud, or as a class novel for grades 4 and up. Check out the official book trailer below.

Classroom Extensions:
  • Let students explore a number of zoo and circus themed picture books. What messages about zoos and their purposes seem to be conveyed in those texts? Have more recent titles on these topics attempted to redefine the roles of these institutions?
  • Assign students to prepare both pro and con arguments for zoos, and then divide the class arbitrarily to debate the issue.
  • Upon the debate's conclusion, invite students to write an argumentative essay for the position they would like to take, being certain in their writing to address the claims of the opposing viewpoint.
9. Animal Allies
Project: Art/Research
Suggested Grades: 5 and up

Animal Tribe introduces students to the mythologies and wisdom of animals as celebrated by various indigenous peoples from around the globe. Explore that site to see what's offered, and consider ways that these studies could be incorporated into your existing curriculum.

A logical connection to this project is research in how animals are being threatened by their struggles to share this planet with humans. Books such as Once a Wolf: How Wildlife Biologists Fought to Bring Back the Gray Wolf by Stephen R. Swinburne and Dorje's Stripes by Anshumandi Ruddra can get this discussion started.

In the latter book, a beautiful Royal Bengal Tiger arrives one day, broken and tired, at a small Buddhist Monastery in Tibet. He begins to lost his stripes as his fellow tigers are poached from the surrounding countryside. Hope for the future shines, however, when one day a single stripe, and a beautiful female tiger, return. ((Win this book! See bottom of the post).

Classroom Extensions:
  • Visit Animal Tribe and see how that site's activities can be adapted to your lesson plans.
  • Rather than traditional animal research projects, assign each student an animal that is threatened or endangered. In addition to describing the causes of their animal's predicament, they should offer possible solutions that serve all parties involved.
  • In connection with a text such as Once a Wolf, appoint students to play various roles including ranchers, conservationists, tourists, etc. Plan a debate with each interest group required to provide support for their point of view.

10. Home Sweet Home
Project: Creative Writing
Suggested Grades: 2 and up

Almost every child at one time or another has dreamed of owning an exotic pet. Many books have explored the possibilities and pitfalls of this fantasy. Perhaps the most well-known of this genre is The Salamander Room by Anne Mazer. In this simple yet beautiful story, a child patiently counters his mother's every protest against his plan to adopt a salamander and transform his bedroom into a forest refuge. The question-answer format of storytelling is a familiar one, but the facts we learn about salamanders and the illustrations by Steve Johnson are alone worth the price of admission.

Not Inside This House! written by Kevin Lewis and illustrated by David Ercolini, addresses this same topic in a much more humorous way.

A curious boy named Livingstone, who finds ordinary toys and diversions a bore, loves to explore. To his mother's horror, however, he enjoys bringing the results of those explorations home. From the book:

His wary mom?
She did implore...

"Livingstone Columbus Magellan Crouse,
I'll have no bugs inside this house!
I'll say it once. Won't say it twice.
To speak again will not suffice."

As you can see, Kevin Lewis' text is replete with wonderful words, and David Ercolini's vivid illustrations beg closer inspection. See more here at the artist's site.

Classroom Extensions:
  • Play devil's advocate using The Salamander Room. Is it right for Brian to keep this wild creature in his home? If the salamander's comfort demands so many changes to Brian's room, then is this the best place for it?
  • In Not Inside This House, the pets Livingstone chooses to bring home become increasingly large and troublesome. When his mother finally relents and agrees that he can have the one bug he started with, we have to wonder, Is this what he had planned all along? Have students choose an extraordinary animal they'd like to adopt, and then create both sensible and outlandish reasons they'd give for why this animal should be permitted.
I hope this list gives you a few ideas to try out in your classroom, as well as a few new titles to add to your library! Please comment below and share with your fellow readers how you use animals books in your classroom. 


Anonymous said...

Wow! What a fantastic post. Many new books new to me. Loved this. Lots of great ideas! Love your posts. Thanks for sharing this.

Anonymous said...

So many great new books and ideas to check out! Thank you for this post!

(Many of your book links are broken, though...)

Keith Schoch said...

Thanks for the kind comments! Thanks also for the heads-up about the broken links.

Daogreer Earth Works said...

I don't have a classroom, but it seems that everyone I know is a teacher. I'll be passing along some of these suggestions.

CornellBigRed said...

Thanks for the excellent ideas! I love having my kids write their own fables.

CornellBigRed said...

Thanks for all the great ideas! I love having my 4th graders write their own fables.

Lydia Harpe said...

I've used animal books to talk about cleanliness and different ways animals get clean (rivers, licking, etc).

Lydia Harpe said...

I don't know if my comment was posted, but whether it was or not I just wanted to add that I am a first year teacher so I love getting new books for my classroom library :)

Claralyn Lowman said...

I am retired but the blog stirs my excitement! Makes me want to get involved with children so I can use the wonderfully creative ideas!

Deedee Wills said...

How do I use animal books? We are knee deep in our informational writing unit and we have been looking at the various ways authors provide information. We have looked deeply at Ice Bear by Nicola Davies and how she provided two voices in her book about polar bears. I'm not a "Tweeter"... yet :)

CM Dixon said...

Great post. We wanted to have some stories available for kids to learn updated life skills. We just published our first fable, Scruff Takes Charge. Available on Amazon. The book is something like Good to Great meets Aesop.

Anonymous said...

I have enjoyed all your blog posts for teaching middle schoolers. Picture books have created an imaginative connection for this age group.

Carrie said...

I really enjoyed your examples. I think this blog would be a valued asset to any primary school teacher. Some great suggestions on making reading and learning fun :)

Keith Schoch said...

Thanks, all for the comments! I'm encouraged, and already working on the next ten ways to use animal picture books in the classroom!

Louise Morgan said...

My students loved The One and Only Ivan! Thanks for all of the great suggestions!

Keith Schoch said...

Thanks, Louise. My kids turned me on to it before it won the Newbery, so they were so excited when that happened.