Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Input-Based Children's Books!

Input Based Book Projects: a guest post by Caitlin McKinney

Hello everyone! My name is Caitlin McKinney, and I am really excited to be writing as a guest blogger for The Deskless Classroom.

About Me:

I teach 5 different levels of French in a public high school. I am one of six French teachers in my district and currently the only French teacher in my building. I am just wrapping up my ninth year teaching and have been teaching with Acquisition Driven Instruction (ADI) for 5 years. ADI to me refers to a collection of teaching strategies that uses comprehensible target language in an interesting, repetitive manner so that students acquire the language (rather than relying on memorization of vocabulary and grammar rules).

The Challenge: Ending the Year and Testing and Block Schedules

It’s the end of the year. What that means in my district is that we are in the middle of standardized testing season.

Instead of our typical 50 minute class periods, 5 days a week schedule, we are on a block schedule.

For those of you that teach on blocks, wow! It’s a challenge for me and my students. My students are not at all accustomed to listening to French for 105 minutes, so this is always a struggle, especially with my lower levels.

Past Plans for Block/Exams and the End of The Year

In the past I have used this time (or at least part of it) for a class project in which my students write, illustrate, and publish their own children’s books in the target language.

Note from Elicia: this book project thing is *not* a project that is aligned with acquisition driven instruction- that's my personal opinion (and it is my blog!). 

Rethinking, Reflecting

I was recently perusing The Deskless Classroom when I saw Elicia’s post about classroom projects. The whole time I was reading her analysis and critique, I was nodding my head.

  • Was the task above my student’s proficiency level? Yes. 
  • Was the project focusing more on output? Yes. 
  • Did I spend a lot of time doing error corrections? Absolutely.

Even so, I was in desperate need of a class period where I could be hands off, and my students were in desperate need of a quiet creative outlet.

Then it struck me: Why not make an input-based project?

Input-based Children’s Books!

Instead of having my students write a children’s book, I would have them create a wordless picture book for their class and then USE THOSE BOOKS FOR INPUT.

Even my level ones could benefit from all of the great things that come with projects (e.g. an outlet for creativity, an opportunity for student input, and just plain novelty) in the classroom routine - without having to worry about their proficiency levels.  

Plus, I can break up our long class periods by using their wordless picture books for picture talk! 

To create the actual book, I plan to add words to the text as we created the story together using a Write and Discuss format (read more about that here: Write and Discuss). Since this is something we do regularly, it’s easy to incorporate.
Note: If you ever get a chance to see Caitlin present about Write and Discuss at a local or regional conference, you should! -Elicia

Translation: One day, Jimmy is sitting next to his dog and he thinks "I want to go to the park one day."
Here is an example of one page from a level 1 student after I went through the write and discuss / picture talk process. I loved that I could add dialogue for another repetition of first person perspective! 

By the end of class, the book *should* be ready for printing.

And the best part? I don’t have to sit down and edit it, because as we are co-creating the text and I am writing it up, I’m editing in the moment! 

There is no extra step of editing student work!

Oh, the other best part, and the thing that’s most relevant to this blog, is that students are getting input, that they understand, about something that is super interesting and engaging to them: their wordless books and their friend's wordless books. 

Afterwards, I can simply send the fully illustrated, co-created story to the printer and add it to my library the next day.

What do you need?

  • Educator’s Account in Canva- FREE
  • Time  (60 minutes or more) for students to create wordless books
  • Time to conference with students as they are working to create their wordless book
  • Time to picture talk and add text (after they are created)

I decided to upgrade my Canva account to an educator’s account for free. (Click for more information on getting a free Canva educator's account.) This allows both myself and all my students access to all the educator features in Canva, which means that students have a lot of images and graphics to use!

Canva allows teachers to create an assignment and assign it to a class, so I used that function and created a blank assignment using a storybook template.

We use a Learning Management System (LMS) like GoogleClassroom so I posted the link there for students to join the Canva environment.

Guidance for Students

On our first day, students joined my class in Canva. 

After that, I really didn’t give them a whole lot of guidance. I simply said, you need to create a title page with a French title (this was the only language requirement) along with 10-20 illustrated pages that tell a complete story. The story is required to have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Students had about an hour to make their books and submit them. As they turned them in, I was able to conference with them and make suggestions about how to make their stories more clear. I also took this opportunity to preview the stories and make sure they were appropriate and didn’t rely on stereotypes or offensive plots.  Keep reading to learn about how I figured out that I needed *more* and *more specific* guidance for my students. 

Requirements for the Wordless Books

  • Title Page with a title in the Target Language.
  • 10-20 illustrated pages.
  • No words (other than the title) 
  • The story has to have a clear beginning, middle, and end, and tell a complete story.
  • It must be submitted by the end of one block period. 

Creating the Text

The next day in class proceeded as normal. After doing some of what I had already planned, curriculum-wise, I displayed one student’s story on the board. 

We talked about what we saw and how the characters were feeling, and eventually a story emerged.

I wrote the text of the story that we came up with in the target language, making sure that all students were understanding. 

Note: For a great primer on the skills that Caitlin used, take a look at this blog post: How to teach such that they understand, by Martina Bex -Elicia

What was really cool is that several books already had blank speech bubbles in the illustrations. This provided the perfect opportunity for scaffolded partner speaking opportunities and collaboration

Translation: There is a dog who is named Todd. He wants to shoot the ball. Even the simplest designs can be a source of rich input for storytelling. This is an example of one of my students who doesn't love artistic pursuits. He made a minimalist illustrated book, and after a little bit of coaching on how to tell a complete story through illustrations, we were able to write a great story in class. 

I simply had students turn to a shoulder partner and give suggestions for what the characters could be saying in French, and then we chose the best/most interesting/funniest options and I added them to the text.

The results

The process has been going very well. The student buy-in is great and my classes are excited to share their creativity and humor!

The Reflection and Lessons Learned

I am learning some lessons along the way.  First, I need to be more clear in my instructions about avoiding stereotypes. I had a few students who were required to start over but thankfully I had that class time to review them before sharing them on the screen.

This next section is more-or-less a transcript of Caitlin and me (Elicia) talking through these messy topics because a) it made more sense to make it a dialogue, b) it was a really interesting discussion and one that is SUPER relevant to teaching and moving towards equity in our classrooms, and I am so thankful to Caitlin for engaging in this type of deep reflection and making her thinking public. T/W: Discussion of violence, guns, fatphobia, and gun violence. 


Caitlin, can you tell me more about these stereotypes? What did students do that you had to redirect? 


Violence. I realized that I needed to do some self-reflection about how much violence I was comfortable with seeing in my class stories.

Storytelling with high school students can often lead to endings that are violent. For example, all the characters die or solve conflicts with violence.


In middle school too!


I allow a certain degree of this in my class, but what I realized-when I was seeing these fully illustrated texts- is that my comfort level with violence changed slightly when presented with images.

While I might say “he attacked the monster” during storytelling, seeing one character shoot another with a gun in an illustrated text elicited some different emotions for myself.


Oh wow. Yeah. I have to say that for me, as a survivor of a school shooting, that would freak me out. My students all knew that guns were only to be discussed in context in my classroom (and pretty much that never came up) and never included in stories, but I imagine other teachers may not be so…specific! 

Translation: Now the mean bully can no longer bully others.
This was a book illustrated by a level 2 student about a school bully. This is about the level of violence I allow them to include. It is not uncommon for characters to die in their stories, but I carefully consider how much violence is acceptable, and then I communicate those expectations. 


So in the middle of the project, I asked students to avoid using firearms and come up with a weapon that was more school friendly, such as enraged unicorns, poisonous marshmallows, or an army of piranhas. I would probably have even more stringent guidelines about violence if I taught younger children.


I love these examples! In my classroom, I started every year with “the world is a pretty dreadful place sometimes, so in this room, we are going to celebrate puppies, rainbows, unicorns, and glitter. While bad things do happen and are real, when we are telling stories and creating in this classroom, it’s going to be all puppies and rainbows.” 

It seemed to work for my context and students tended to respect that- and would even remind each other by saying “puppies and rainbows” if they felt like a suggestion was too violent.

And..sometimes I would let them end a story with someone eating someone else…as a surprise.

So other than violence, what else did you see that made you step back?

Well, one student made a story with an overweight character who was sad and had to lose weight in order to find a girlfriend who loved him because he was beautiful.

To be honest, the story just didn’t sit right with me, and I had a hard time communicating this to my student. What I ended up saying was that sometimes it is hard to balance humor and honoring the dignity of other people. I felt like his story leveraged a negative image of his character in order to get his readers to laugh, but there were more positive ways to be funny.


Yikes! That’s a tough one. This is a great example of a stereotype that flies under the radar and is still socially acceptable, and it’s rooted in white supremacy and fear of the fat body.


Yes, in the moment it was hard for me to find the right words. In the end he chose not to change his story, and I felt a degree of helplessness, like I didn’t have leverage. So I simply didn’t use his story for my classroom library or as the text for our write and discuss as a class. I certainly didn’t want to give that kind of thinking a stage in my classroom, but I wish I would have handled it more directly.


I really appreciate that you found a way to communicate this without shaming your student for his fatphobia. Talking about this stuff is really hard- especially if it is something that is personal- which it really is for me!

I think I would likely have made a different choice because I feel so strongly about this. And because I feel so strongly about it, I might have damaged my relationship with that kid because of my own emotional reaction, which is really interesting for me to think about. Would my own feelings have gotten in the way of helping that kid see their bias? Should they have? Hmmm…I need to think about that.

Was there anything else?


Yes. I had to give very clear expectations for the co-created story telling in class. Students had MANY opinions and reactions when they saw each other’s stories for the first time. Occasionally the laughter and side conversations took away from the input. For example, when the images were really outrageous or unexpected, there was an explosion of commentary. So much so, that I felt like students were no longer engaged with the language. I was getting frustrated (as many of us are at this time of year!). 

What ended up working was this: I had to give a 5 second countdown for giggling before we could refocus. This solved the issues in most of my classes.


OMG I love this so much. The structured giggles and commentary break! When I taught 5th grade and had to teach health/intro to being a teenager, I had to do the same thing!

Translation: Now they are no longer afraid of Bart. Everyone hugs. Bart finally has a lot of friends. 
Sometimes students DO write a story with a happy ending! 

Back to Caitlin:

My favorite thing about this process was that after each story, we applauded the author and thanked them for their work. Every single one of my students was able to share something no matter their proficiency level, and I had so many great comprehensible texts to add to my classroom library.

During each class period, I had students begging for their story to be the next one. The only downside is that the school year might run out before we can experience everyone's masterpieces! Fortunately, I will have many of these students in class next year, so I can continue this process at the beginning of the next level for a review. For next year, however, I might want to move faster or start earlier if time allows.

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