So I’m reading all of the texts on the Common Core Appendix B Exemplar Informational Text list. My reading is focused on what makes these texts rigorous for a particular grade band, what makes them hard for students, what do we need to think about when students are reading texts like these with a lot of guidance or independently with some coaching. Vincent van Gogh: Portrait of an Artist (Greenberg & Jordan, 2001) is one of the exemplar texts listed for 6th-8th grade history/social studies. Now – I want to remember that these are simply “exemplar” texts – they are not to being suggested for adoption. But at the same time, reading this text (and the others) has been a good exercise for me in thinking about the kinds of texts our students should be grappling with in school and be able to read independently at some point.
What have the authors done to make Vincent van Gogh (2001) accessible to students?
- The book is clearly a biography and includes the typical structure of a biography. It follows a logical order – the sequence of van Gogh’s life and specific dates are in the title of each chapter.
- The content is cohesive – there are clear themes running through the text.
- There are access features – a map (don’t get too excited, though – see my notes below), a timeline, a glossary of artists and terms.
- The authors lend authority and accuracy to the text with extensive notes at the end of the book. These notes list chapter by chapter which primary sources were tapped to create this narrative of van Gogh’s life. In addition, van Gogh’s letters and other’s letters are quoted throughout the book as just such.
So what makes Vincent van Gogh: Portrait of an Artist (2001) a challenge for students?
- The first page after the contents page is a “map.” The authors assume a lot of the reader’s background knowledge in their choice of this map. It is a map of part of Europe (but Europe is not labeled or identified) – England, Spain, France, Belgium, and Holland. Catch that? Holland. Holland is no longer a country. North and South Holland are provinces of the Netherlands. The map does not have a title or any textual support to identify the larger region and the time period; there is no indication it is a map of a part of Europe and that the map reflects the countries of Europe at some point in the 19th century!
- The page after the map is the start of the “prologue.” The authors begin – “Hunched like a porcupine from the weight of his easel, brushes, tubes of color, and folding stool, Vincent headed out of Arles at dawn—too early for the gang of street boys to chase after him, to call him crazy” (p. 1). (If the reader looks back at the map, he or she will find Arles in southern France.) This first sentence for the whole book is a complex sentence with a LOT of information – the reader needs to visualize the dependent clause that begins the sentence to get the “how”. The middle part has the subject and predicate of the whole sentence (Vincent van Gogh is the subject and “headed out” means he is leaving early in the morning – probably to go paint because of the information shared in the beginning dependent clause). Then the reader must catch on to a problem as he or she reads the last part of the sentence – two dependent clauses that indicate van Gogh is not well regarded by local boys and sometimes even taunted. This sentence alone deserves a close reading because it says so much. This one sentence captivates themes that run through the rest of the book.
- There is a multi-page insert of glossy, colored images of van Gogh’s paintings. BUT the reader is required to seek the images in the insert out as they are mentioned in the text. In other words, the reader has to be savvy enough to realize that the authors are describing one of van Gogh’s pieces of art and it might be helpful to see that piece of art. Then the reader has to turn to the insert and find that piece of art except that not every piece of art referenced or even described in detail is included in the insert.
- The central idea(s) are abstract – this book is about how van Gogh searched for a purpose to his life – that embraced his compassion for all human beings, particularly the common folk, about how he failed many times, about how he persevered in finding his identity/technique as an artist, and how he dealt with physical and mental (although the authors do not call it “mental”) illness. Conceptually, it’s more difficult than “this person wanted to end slavery.”
- At the end of the book, van Gogh commits suicide. As I read the book, I kept thinking “this guy is bipolar or manic depressive” and “he’s depressed, depressed, depressed.” The authors never mention this, though. They state that van Gogh had epilepsy. In truth (based on further research after reading), there are lots of theories about what van Gogh suffered from and if it was epilepsy (which is really one of the theories) – this would not have caused the angry outbursts and depression described in the book. (From what I can tell from my own research – I have been wrong before, though.) Depression (maybe as a result of, but not a side effect of epilepsy) was clearly a problem. I think the authors do the student reader a disservice by not just saying this and putting out there that we are not sure what he had, here are some theories. It makes the whole book easier to understand – without decreasing the rigor.
Suggestions for scaffolding students who are reading books like this (or this book :)) –
- Teach students to examine the structure of the books. If it’s a biography, there’s a good chance there will be a timeline established.
- Spend time examining important quotes cited in books like these – as an opportunity to coach students in thinking inferentially about what’s being said when they read quotes on their own and what was the author’s purpose in including this quote. (In this particular book, there is a quote by van Gogh that begins each chapter.)
- Model for students how to recognize patterns of behavior or events that serve to reveal the authors’ central ideas.
- Arm students with a helpful understanding of Tier Two vocabulary that they can use to name and elaborate on what they are thinking. For example in Vincent van Gogh: Portrait of an Artist (2001), the words could be utilized by students – discipline, passion, humanitarianism (concerned with or seeking to promote human welfare; doctrine that people’s duty is to promote the welfare of others– online def); persistence/perseverance/tenacity, compassion.
- Model for students why and how you might seek out digital sources related to the topic of the biography (the person or the person’s work, etc) before reading. For Vincent van Gogh (2001), familiarity with art, the skill and discipline it requires, and pieces by van Gogh would make many of the ideas in the text easier to understand. (BTW – for kids who are getting no art instruction, this is critical.)
Just a last thought. I don’t know any middle grade students who would pick this book up independently and who would stick with it if they did. I just doesn’t strike me as an engaging read. Nevertheless, students need to read these books. So what to do? I’m thinking about it. At the least, it should be part of an integrated unit of study – on that time period during Europe, on post-Impressionists, on the past and the present in art. Something.
Okay…finished another exemplar text today…Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad (Petry, 1955!!!!!!) and working on Narrative of the LIfe of Frederick Douglass (Douglass, 1845!!!!) If you know me, you know I’ll have a lot to say in a blog about these in the near future.