Thursday, January 22, 2015

Are You Looking for Books About the Role of Children and YAs in History?

            Once again we owe a debt of gratitude to author Phillip Hoose for bringing us another true story about young people’s role in history. First there was his book We Were There, Too!: Young People in U.S. History, a book that provides the missing stories of children’s role throughout American history. What a terrific asset for anyone trying to include more diverse stories into “the grand narrative” of U.S. history. Then there was Claudette Colvin, Twice Toward Justice, the story of the young black teenager who refused to give up her seat on the bus well before the memorable actions of Rosa Parks. And she did more than that, too. Through Colvin’s story we learn that civil rights movement is much larger than we might have once thought. It embraces many, many more stories that are continuing to come to light.

            Now we have Hoose’s latest book, The Churchill Club: Knud Pedersen and the Boys Who Challenged Hitler. In this book, we learn how young Knud Pederson, his brother, and some of his schoolmates resisted the German occupation of Denmark during the early years of World War II by performing dangerous acts of resistance. At a time when the Danish government willingly turned over their country to Nazi occupation, the Churchill Club refused to accept Nazi control. If ever a story raised questions about moral behavior, this is it. Was it right to steal guns belonging to Nazi soldiers? Was it right to destroy cars and buildings used by Nazi occupiers? These kids ended up in jail. They suffered terribly. Yet, their actions sparked a larger resistance effort in Denmark.  If ever a book narrated history focused on the actions of kids, this is it. In fact, Hoose interviewed Knud Pederson when writing this book and many quotes from Pederson are included throughout the book.

            The Common Core State Standards ask us to pay attention to how an author’s point of view or purpose shapes content. Clearly, Hoose’s purpose in writing has influenced his books. Readers can discuss how. In the process, they will learn about the craft and structure of writing. How did Hoose give voice to the members of the Churchill Club? It's an interesting question to pursue.

          The Churchill Club is also ideal for adding to a text-set on World War II, a text-set on children throughout history, or a text-set based on the many books of Phillip Hoose (science and history). Or, it’s good to read just on its own.


Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Testing, Testing, 123

As you all may have seen, Arne Duncan, as Secretary of Education, has affirmed the role and importance of high stakes testing HERE And depending on your state, you may already have been through a round of PARCC or Smarter Balanced testing, or may be preparing for your first leap into the deep waters this spring semester. Speaking as a loud and longtime advocate for the Common Core State Standards, I think we all now need to look deeply and carefully at the assessments. 

The CCSS are, as we all know, about skills, not content. Each state, district, school crafts its own curriculum, while weaving in the age and grade appropriate skills. The goal is to have college and career ready graduates. The assessments, then, must cut across content areas, must not be dependent upon or be measures of words, terms, dates, concepts that students have learned. Rather they are to measure that the student has learned how to learn -- has come to understand (at the level appropriate to his/her grade band) how to read carefully, how to look for evidence, how to compare and contrast sources, how to identify and evaluate point of view. Fine. But in order to be manageable across the nation, the tests -- as one can see on the websites of PARCC and SB -- are significantly machine gradable. That is, while there are constructed responses (short essays) there are also multiple choice questions. Can multiple choice questions truly capture the kind of inquiry, critical thinking, creative engagement with text that CCSS requires?

I am between deeply doubtful and deeply concerned. Or maybe this whole testing thing needs to be viewed differently: maybe looked at in aggregate, as a cross-section of the entire population of a school or district, multiple choice CCSS tests may be valuable. We can see how a given student body is faring and, over time, progressing (or regressing). But as a way to evaluate an individual, boy I'm not convinced.

I am only beginning to explore assessments, and with little prior knowledge. Friends, many of you are educators, I urge everyone to go to the PARCC and SB sites and explore. We should all look, experiment, and then speak out -- not on the ideological questions of whether students should be assessed, or whether the CCSS are a good idea, or the degree to which the evaluations of professionals in the school are tied to student performance on these tests -- on the tests themselves. As engaged educators, how do we assess the assessments, and what improvements can we suggest. 

We have moved from standards to assessments, and we as professionals need to take on this next task. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Talking About the Founding Fathers

            Ever since a fifth grader told me that she could only think of three of our four fathers [forefathers] and asked me to name the fourth, I knew that forefathers or founding fathers is a term that we history teachers cannot take for granted. That is, when children use the term, we cannot assume that we are all sharing the same meaning.

            The Founding Fathers! Those Horse-Ridin’, Fiddle-Playin’, Book-Readin’, Gun-Totin’ Gentlemen Who Started America can help because author Jonah Winter and illustrator Barry Blitt understand this confusion and step right in to address it. Jonah Winter’s writing combines humor with a friendly writing style. Here, for example, is how the book begins: “Americans always talk about ‘The Founding Fathers’ as if they were a group of dads who, after a brief huddle, just hauled off and founded America.” This is a style that welcomes readers.

            Illustrator Barry Blitt’s informative and amusing illustrations are a perfect match. Take, for example, the endpapers that show portraits of “Fourteen of the Most Famous Founding Fathers” divided into two categories: Varsity Squad and Junior Varsity Squad. When read together, the words and the illustrations should clear up this matter of “our forefathers” once and for all.

            But this book does more; it describes the Founding Fathers so that we can think about them as human. Here’s how:

·      It asks us to imagine how the Founding Fathers might think that we misunderstand them. Maybe, just maybe, they would be surprised to think that they were grouped together like a rock band or a baseball team—especially since some of them could barely stand to be in the same room together. They certainly didn’t all agree with each other. In fact, they argued constantly.
·      It provides some provocative statements that are openings for continued conversation. These statements are scattered throughout, but here are two:
o   “In creating a bold, new country, the founding Fathers had also created a lot of problems for future generations to solve.”
o   “This book is a showcase of the most famous Founding Fathers, though it is by no means a complete or perfect list. Our understanding of history is always changing.”

            The middle of this book consists of double-page spreads about each Founding Father. It’s a good introduction to learning about the origins of our country, but what I mostly like about it is that the author and illustrator understand their audience and are reaching out to them in ways they can understand. At the same time, they are raising interesting ideas for them to think about. That’s what good history books do. (Of course, here is also a great opportunity for discussing craft and structure, key details and ideas, and other things CCSS. We can examine not only what this book tells us, but how it does the job.)

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Natural World in Winter: Nonfiction, Poetry, and the Common Core

According to Intellicast, at least half of the country if not more is covered in snow right now. For specific depth of snow coverage, you can look at their website. Are your students outside today? What is your school's policy about outdoor recess? In my town here in New Hampshire, if it is above 18 degrees, the kids are outside playing.

If you are in one of the areas with snow cover, how can you turn your snow into a teachable moment? Get your students outside! No science exploration in the classroom can take place without inquiry and experimentation. But really, no science exploration about the natural world should take place only inside the walls of the classroom.  Get your digital cameras, binoculars, and clipboards, and get your students outside. The following suggestions can be adapted for students in K-8.

You don't need to live in a suburban or rural area either. Is there a park in walking distance of your school? Do you have a trees and grass on the property of your school? Do trees line the streets nearby your school?

I would recommend first taking your students outside and having them list what they see in the natural world. What sticks out above the snow? What do they notice? What looks "different?" When you get back to the classroom, have them share their observations. Next, have students pose questions that they have about winter. What birds, insects, and animals do they normally see in the warmer weather (think squirrels, right?)? Who did they see on their walk? Who did they not see? Where are those creatures now? What do they do in winter?

Next, you might want to explore some of the following books, that illuminate what animals, insects, and birds do during the winter time.

I suggest doing a Duet or paired reading Melissa Stewart's nonfiction picture book Under the Snow and Kate Messner's fictional picture book Over and Under the Snow.  Each book delightfully demonstrates all of the action that takes place in winter above and below the ground. They even discuss some of the very same animals, which makes it ideal for comparison and contrast. You might want to have students watch the video Melissa has on her website about where her ideas come from, which models the kind of scientific inquiry we want to foster in the classroom.

As a follow-up, explore Joyce Sidman's extraordinary new book, illustrated with linoleum block prints by Rick Allen, Winter Bees and Other Poems of the Cold. For a fully-developed exploration of all the possibilities this book presents, check out the Classroom Bookshelf entry on it written by my colleague Erika Thulin Dawes. Winter Bees is written in a format familiar to Sidman devotees. Each two-page spread presents a poem and a nonfiction paragraph that further develops the scientific concepts and information explored in the poem.

Finally, you might want to explore trees in winter. What are the trees on your school's property? How can you tell when there are no leaves? Carol Gerber's simple Winter Trees, illustrated by Leslie Evans, can be your guide. Students can use the short poems and simple illustrations to identify trees by the shapes of their trunks and branches.

Once you have explored these texts, have students pose questions about what they learned. What sparks their curiosity?  Do they have questions about specific animals? Differences prompted by the books? In Winter Bees, Sidman describes the active honeybee hive working together to keep one another and the queen warm. In Over and Under the Snow, we learn that the bumblebee queen is alone in the winter. Write them first on their individual clipboards, then share as a class and post the questions on chart paper.

Next, have students go back outside and look for evidence of what they learned. What do they see that they did not see before?  What differences do they observe with the naked eye? Have them document their observations in writing, by drawing pictures, and by taking photographs. You might want to do this over several days and if possible, at different times during the day. If they can't see differences, that's okay, too. Much of what the books suggest is that animal activity this time of year takes place underground where we can't see!

Finally, have students create something to demonstrate what they have learned about the natural world in winter. You might create a class mural the depicts your school property, street, or a nearby park and what animals and insects are doing "over and under the snow." You might create a class book, adopting Sidman's structure of using a poem and a nonfiction paragraph to share information. Working with your art teacher, you can adopt Allen's linoleum print-making. Work with your school librarian or computer teacher to digitize the book and make it available to the community via the school webpage.

After writing this post, I added the words "and the Common Core" to the title.  I haven't talked about the Common Core Standards. But everything that I suggest you do matches up with the CCSS standards for reading fiction, nonfiction, and writing new texts. The CCSS are not test prep! Taking several days or even a week or two to do this work in language arts or science, or the two combined, is a wonderful way to explore both CCSS standards and Next Generation science standards about animal adaptations and the connection between animals and their habitats. You can be creative and student-centered and meet the standards far more effectively than if you only do curriculum-as-test-prep. So for those who might not find this post without a Common Core reference in the title, I hope this helps.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Rethinking Accuracy

           Accuracy—one of the criteria for both the Orbis Pictus Award and the Sibert Award for nonfiction—is up for reconsideration. I do not say this lightly, but rather a little reluctantly, since I have been looking for evidence of “correctness” of information for many years. Yet, as Marc Aronson stated in his last post, looking for reliable and balanced views is in his words “the wrong approach for our time.” One book cannot suffice for providing use with a single view of either science or social studies topics. And, now I find myself agreeing.

            We need, instead, to show young readers that what we know—while generally reliable—is also subject to change. A look at what scientists refer to as the nature of science (NOS) tells us that scientific knowledge is tentative, yet reliable. That is, it is subject to change. Similarly, a look at the Social Studies C3 Framework tells us that history is about gathering evidence and using it to develop arguments about the past. So if we are to promote disciplinary literacy, we need to let readers know how to think the way historians and scientists do. This has been referred to as teaching them the “rules of the game” and inviting them to take part.

            We can begin to do this in small ways. Here’s an example. I just finished reading Margarita Engle’s book Enchanted Air: Two cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir. This book grabbed me on two levels. First it reminded me of why literature has such a strong hold on me. The language is beautiful and the narrative is gripping. I let go of any critical approach I might have to just simply enjoy the poetic words and images. But, second, I was eager to learn more about what it was like to grow up between two cultures—Cuban and North American. I read with interest about how the author grew to love her Cuban visits with family and the life she lived there, while balancing her Californian life. 

I know that this is not a straight work of nonfiction. In an Author’s note, the author tells us that while she has written a “true” story, “certain events are undoubtedly out of order.” Yet, the trueness of this experience is undeniable. The author’s note ends with her hopes that “normal travel and trade might begin to be restored.” These changes seem to be happening now.

Here is an opportunity to show historical change. One way to begin to learn about these changes is to follow the current news about Cuba. Begin by consulting the Breaking World Cuba News from the New York Times at
Read Enchanted Air to learn about how the author lived between two cultures and then update your understanding of what is happening now by following the news and examining more sources. I think that is a more realistic approach to accuracy.


Sunday, December 21, 2014

If We Encourage POV in NF, How Are We To Know Which Is Right?

The title of this post is a question that often comes when I make presentations about the new place of nonfiction for K-12. I claim that in the past we used to praise nonfiction for being "reliable," and "balanced." We stressed that such books were "good for reports." That is, a student could expect to find trustworthy nonfiction resources in the classroom, school, or public library.She or he could be sure that the authors had carefully considered all points of view and either come to a happy medium in presenting them or gave equal space and weight to each contention. The author, like the book, wsa above the fray. The student could safely set down and pass along a safe view that a teacher would approve. I contend that all of the above is the wrong approach for our time.

Students now have rapid access to a wide variety of resources, POVs, sources. We need to train them to examine and sort out hotly contested questions -- not to meekly repeat a safe digest. But how can we do that especially when the adults -- teachers, librarians, parents -- in many cases will not themselves know how to evaluate the loud voices and vociferous contentions. We don't want school to be a training ground in ideologies adults share without really evaluating or considering. I argue that what any adult can help a student to do is to examine what evidence an author presents, what is the nature and quality of the argument the author makes, and what Point of View is s/he expressing. We can be fair judges of how a contention is crafted, even if we have little or no knowledge of the subject.

This brings me to a recent post from Paul Fleischman on the question of balance and fairness. Here Paul is making a case beyond my appeal for judicial care. He shows that there are cases where there is an appearance of balance which is fact no balance at all. No one would seriously suggest that we tell students the Earth might just be flat, or that humoral medicine might be as effective as science based on viruses and germs. We can all add similar extreme cases. To take one contentious example: when the state of Kansas was considering whether to mandate that Intelligent Design be taught alongside evolution, scientists pointed out that if you wanted to give faith space next to science you needed to give absolutely equal time to all faiths -- since their claims transcend reason. The Wiccans, the Satanists, the fans of psychedelics would have to have as much opportunity to speak to students as mainstream faiths. Balance is not just a view with all possible, or even all firmly asserted, opposition. There is a point where we need to say that no, one view -- Science Does Report Human-Created Climate Change; Evolution; the Holocaust did take place -- is worth the attention of our students. A student may individually, with his/her family, in her congregation and community, believe as s/he likes. But we as educators have an obligation to share the abiding views of the expert and educated community.

Are experts always right? Of course not. Should we train students to question dominant views? Certainly. That is where evidence, argument and POV come in. If students find flaws in what we say, wonderful. But we need not give up and retreat in irrelevance. Students are surrounded with claims -- it is our job to help them sort their way through the clutter -- with forensic techniques and by defending the conclusions of science. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Decision Making in Action: Beetle Busters by Loree Griffin Burns

        This is one fabulous book! I admit that I am partial to books that highlight decision making and problem solving—books that I call the “literature of inquiry.” Beetle Busters by Loree Griffin Burns highlights inquiry by showing how a community in Massachusetts responded to an infestation of Asian longhorned beetles (ALB), nonnative species that attack and destroy trees. It brings us very close to this situation and shows us the difficult decisions made by scientists and concerned citizens.

            There are a number features that make this book so successful as a page-turner and an excellent source of information. Here are some things the author does for us:
·      Raises questions that don’t have simple answers. Both at the beginning and at the end of the book, the author raises these important questions about cutting down some trees in an attempt to save others:

                                    Was cutting those trees the right thing to do?
                                    If cutting trees in one community today would save the trees in
                        your backyard tomorrow, would it be worth it?
                                    Would you feel the same way if you lived in that community and
                        the trees being cut down were the only ones in your entire                                                 neighborhood? (p. 57)

            These questions bring this problem close to all of us. What would we do if we
            had to made a decision about cutting down trees?
·      Provides a variety of graphics to help us understand the problem. There are all sorts of graphics included: maps, graph, photographs, captions, sidebars and page inserts, and photographs showing a sequence of steps or stages. As we endeavor to promote graphical literacy, this book is extraordinarily useful for discussing how a particular kind of graphic  makes information understandable.
·      Shows how and why scientists collect data. Among the many items we learn about is how scientists collect core samples from the inside of the trees, enabling them to study the impact of the infestation. We see the actual scientists and volunteers working in the field.
·      Shares the interpretation of the data. A chapter is dedicated to sharing the interpretation of the data. This shows how scientists move from collecting data to making statements about what this data suggests. It’s a great look at scientific thinking.
·      Leaves us with unanswered questions. Here is just one of several questions that scientists  continue to work on: “If left unchecked in the forest, would the Asian longhorn beetle eventually kill all the members of the wide variety of trees it can inhabit in the wild” (p. 49)? That's an important question to think about.

            When we read books like Beetle Busters with students, we can focus on the features listed above because they help us understand the nature of science. Here are some questions we can discuss: What problems are scientists and citizens facing? What do they do to understand the situation? How do they collect and analyze data? What have they found so far? What else do they want to know? By discussing science as a process—a way of thinking and learning—we move away from concentrating only on facts and towards using these facts to help us think about puzzling situations. That is why quality nonfiction is an essential part of learning.