After our fourth graders did such amazing work with the picture books, noticing color, size, body language and facial expressions, we got to work transitioning that close reading work to their own independent reading books. This is where the work got a little bit tricky. The books in their independent bins were ALL novels. These students were reading in the PQR range, which places some of them in the NOPQ band and some of them already edging their way into the RST band — different comprehension work to be sure.
The teachers and I borrowed from Beers and Probst, Notice and Note — and created a signpost that we thought would work at these levels: Descriptive Passage. Our thinking was that when an author stops the flow of a story’s action to provide a description, that author has done so with great intention. The description means something. There is something there that the author wants the reader to “see” before moving on.
We started with a Safe from Cynthia Rylant’s Every Living Thing. This poignant short story about a young boy afraid of nuclear war, hiding outside with a herd of cows in Maine provided several opportunities for our students to spot a descriptive passage, STOP and read closely for clues.
We analyzed passages like: “Denny watched the map as they drove north, and at times he felt they were driving straight to the edge of the world, risking a drop into Nothing“. We noticed how Rylant made Denny seem very small in that sentence and made Maine seem very big. Later, Rylant’s “He knew he could easily carry four hundred granola bars in a laundry bag.” showed us the extreme difference in how Denny felt back in Canton, Ohio and how he now felt in great, big Maine.
“That night, the cows were there. It was nearly dark outside, but just enough light was left to walk without a flashlight and to see the shapes of things. Denny saw the five cows standing up against the fence surrounding the barn, and he went to them.” allowed us to analyze the use of dark and light (a form of color) and the mood the author planted there in that passage.
Facial expressions and body language jumped off of the page as well. “The cows’ eyes were all large and shining and very, very peaceful. Denny stared at the eyes and he felt reassured. He felt stronger. He felt safe. Denny moved up against the fence, and the cows wobbled among themselves for a minute, then were still again. He put his hand through the fence and gently touched the muzzle of the cow nearest him. It watched him with soft eyes and did not move away“. What a beautiful description of how the cows began to calm Denny’s fears and provide him with a safe place and sense of stability.
We made a bookmark together — sort of Notice and Note style — to remind ourselves to STOP whenever the author takes the time to provide us with descriptions, to pay attention to the choices the author makes in those descriptions and to what it means for us in understanding the book.