Exploring Poetry, Language, and Adaptation with Superlative Birds
Note: This week’s entry was co-written by Mary Ann and a group of graduate students in her “Language of Poetry” class (EARTS 6203) at Lesley University’s Graduate School of Education: Lauren Barkhouse, Natalie Bruno, Emma Concordia, Danielle Golden, Stephanie Sousa, and Mark Weltner.
Written by Leslie Bulion, Illustrated by Robert Meganck
Published by Peachtree Publishers, 2019
“Which birds can do what birds do, best?/Which put world records to the test?/Which birds are beaks above the rest?/Superlative birds! Come see!” With this first stanza of the book, author Leslie Bulion invites her young readers into a playful, but precise exploration of birds who are the best at something. While illuminating an important adjective, the book also conveys valuable information about a range of birds around the world and the specific adaptations that make them the “most” or “best” at something. Each two-page spread includes a poem, a Science Note written in a smaller font – comprised of several paragraphs of informational text – and a full-page illustration. The superlative is written as a header vertically on the side of the page that contains the text, and bolded in the Science Notes section, offering students multiple ways to identify the superlative that is the subject of the poem and revealed in the illustration. For bird lovers, word lovers, and poetry lovers alike, Bulion’s latest collection is ideal for classroom explorations of language and grammar, poetry, and the world of birds and their many adaptations.
Teaching Ideas and Invitations
Sound Poems. Read the poem “Calling Contest” on page 30 aloud. Looking at the illustrations, identify/describe other living things beside the bird(s). Split students into groups. Each group picks a different environment and uses the outline of the original poem to create its own location sound poems. Options for environment/ecosystems are: a beach (crashing waves, seagull sounds), the playground (laughing children, end of recess whistle), a birthday party (happy birthday song, “Thank you for coming”), gym class (directions, running footsteps), the forest (owl sounds, crickets, cicadas) or any shared location that your students would all know. Support your students in creating words for the sounds that they hear. Older students may want to make a fully immersed soundscape.
Visualizing Poetry. Read aloud one of the poems (such as “Timberdoodle Blues” on page 28) and have students visualize the bird described in the poem. Have students draw the bird they are picturing in their mind. Compare students’ drawings, looking for similarities between them. Using a written copy of the poem, have students pick out the words that helped them decide how to draw the bird. Then reveal the book’s illustration along with real-life photographs of the bird. This can lead into a discussion of imagery and how it is used in poetry to help the reader create pictures in their mind.
Using Movement to Enhance Meaning: Being a Flock. Movement helps students refresh their thinking throughout the day. Embodied learning helps students to better understand concepts they are exploring about through experience. After reading the poem “A Billion Queleas” on page 10, discuss the concept of migration, and what animals flock when they migrate, drawing on the details of the poem. If you have a large open field or playground, take the class outside to become a flock. The rules are simple: one person starts as the leader and everyone does what she does, running, flapping, etc., until she turns. Then the whole group turns and the person at the front becomes the leader. Go back and forth until everyone has had a turn being the leader, making appropriate accommodations for students who have mobility limitations. This activity can also be done in a large indoor room such as the gym, stage, or cafetera without tables.
Real Life Connection. As a class, go out and explore nature, specifically birds, and ask the students to grant superlatives for the birds they observe based on evidence from the text. Ask questions, such as: What do you notice? What behaviors do you see? How do they use their beaks? What are some attributes of the birds you see? How long is their wingspan? What do they sound like? Take photos of the birds and compile a “yearbook” using the evidence and superlative names.
Superlative Tracking. Have your students track how many superlatives they hear throughout the course of a week. Work with the class to determine the best way of tracking their research, and then commit to listening closely throughout the week – on the bus, in the hallways, in the cafeteria, at stores, at home. Have students make individual lists and each morning, have them pool their data. Work with the students to count the number of different words they hear, and the words that they hear the most (another superlative!) and to represent that information mathematically.
Guess the Superlative. Focus on one image in the book and have the students discuss the image as a class. What do you notice? What colors do you see? What is the focus? What is going on in the image? Next, have students write a poem about the image without giving away the specific superlative. For younger grades, you can do this activity creating a whole class poem. For older grades have them create their own poems or work in pairs. Afterwards have the students share their poems with the class and then read the poem in the book that goes with the image. Have students consider whether they guessed the superlative.
Grade 2 and Up
Hot Seat. Each student is assigned one page of the book and/or each student is assigned one bird. Provide students time to learn more about the bird, using resources from the National Audubon Society and Cornell Ornithology Lab websites. When they have learned more, have students take turns in the “hot seat” portraying their bird. The rest of the class will act as interviewers, asking them questions about themselves. The actor uses details from Superlative Birds and the extra research to answer the audience’s questions in character. If you feel that some students need more support, students can work together to generate a commonly-agreed upon list of questions for the hot seat. Students can make a paper plate mask of their bird or develop more detailed costumes of their own making. Encourage students to think about what their bird would talk like, what personality the bird might have, and how it moves its beyond, to stay in character.
Superlatives and Adaptation. What problem does each bird’s superlative solve? Use Superlative Birds as an introduction to a study of animal adaptation and natural selection. Partner with your school librarian to explore other books and web resources on animal adaptations. Students can research an animal and their specific adaptations and write a poem based on their research. You might want to draw ideas from Sandra Markle’s “What if you had..” series.
More Superlatives! Create a class “Superlative” book for another animal group like mammals or reptiles. Each student can research a different animal and decide what superlative it would be awarded for its group, such as tallest mammal or fastest mammal. Using Superlative Birds as a mentor text, students can draft both a poem and an informative paragraph to share what they have learned. Students can also create illustrations to go with their writing and publish them all together in a class book. Illustrations could include one enlarged aspect that highlights their superlative. For example, if the animal has “The Best Eyes,” the illustration should highlight the amazing skill of eyesight that the animal has by cartooning the body part.
Grades 4 and Up
Superlative Text Set. Read Steve Jenkins’s Biggest, Strongest, Fastest and Hottest, Coldest, Highest, Deepest Tallest aloud, to give students a conceptual foundation for superlatives without the label. Be sure to note the different ways (words, pictures, graphics) that he conveys information. Next, have students explore Superlative Birds in small groups. Have them create their own definitions of the word “superlative.” In contrast, have them read Melissa Stewart’s Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs. Host a class discussion about whether it is important to be labeled with a superlative, as an animal or human.
Bird Text Set. Use Superlative Birds within a text set that explores birds and their adaptations, including informational books such as Bird Talk: What Birds are Saying and Why by Lita Judge, Feathers: Not Just for Flying by Melissa Stewart, A Place for Birds by Melissa Stewart, A Nest is Noisy by Diana Hutts Ashton, Look Up! Birdwatching in Your Own Backyard by Annette LeBlanc Cate, as well as books of bird poetry, such as On the Wing by David Elliott, On the Wing: Bird Poems and Paintings by Douglas Florian. Have students research and write original books about birds that combine nonfiction and poetry like Superlative Birds.
Birds on Social Media. Using details from the text, create fake social media (Instagram or Facebook) pages for each of the birds in the book. Make a template for your students (in Google docs or hand drawn) modeled on the actual sites. Students can work independently or in pairs depending on the size of your class. Have them conduct research on their bird, using the resources available at the National Audubon Society and Cornell Ornithology Lab websites. Have them write the basic profile information, illustrate a profile picture, and create posts in keeping with their understanding of the bird’s behavior, and to show what they have learned about that bird.
Birds and the Climate Crisis. These birds may be the “most” at something, but how are they doing when it comes to the climate crisis and changes in their habitats and migration routes? Have students conduct individual research on their favorite bird from the poetry collection, working pairs if that makes more sense. Next, using the resources of the National Audubon Society and Cornell Ornithology Lab websites, as well as others, consider what changes are impacting the bird. Have students put together a Climate Crisis Action Plan infographic for their bird, using Pictochart or another resource.
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About Mary Ann Cappiello
Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets (2013) and Teaching to Complexity (2015) and Text Sets in Action: Pathways Through Content Area Literacy (Stenhouse, 2021). She has been a guest on public radio and a consultant to public television. From 2015-2018, Mary Ann was a member of the National Council of Teachers of English's Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction (K-8) Committee, serving two years as chair.
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