Friday, September 19, 2014

Are You Enjoying the Roosevelts? There's a Ken Burns App!

If you are enjoying watching The Roosevelts on PBS this week, you may be interested in the new Ken Burns App.  I just read this review from the "Touch and Go" column of School Library Journal.  It's essentially a timeline of American history, populated with short clips from all of his documentaries. It's organized both chronologically and thematically. What a gift to middle and high school social studies, humanities, and ELA teachers who need those "just right" clips for mini-lessons to initiate conversation or to complicate dialogue in class. You can order it on iTunes

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

National Text Set Project Launch - Increase Volume of Reading = Building Knowledge

I am attending the inaugural professional development two-day conference sponsored by the Council of the Great City Schools and Student Achievement Partners (SAP) in the Windy City.   This is a librarian’s opportunity to shine.  Why?  This project is about creating resources that help build knowledge.  You can do all the close reading exercises you want with students but without the opportunity to help build knowledge with students they will not be successful readers. 

Over the past several months, I have participated in several conference calls with SAP discussing what text sets might look like and how to engage educators in this process.  The SAP team has created a two-day training model.

How librarians can shine
Text sets allow you to examine the resources that you currently have and build on these resources.  You don’t immediately need to run out and purchase materials.  What you need to do is take a thoughtful approach to what exactly this text set is meant to achieve.  Teachers need librarians to collaborate when developing the resources that will be used in a text set.  What online databases does your state provide?  What online databases does your school provide?  Are you using these resources?  Do you even know about which resources to use?  Do you know where to fine balanced reviews about resources?  All questions your librarian can answer for you. 

Increase Volume of Reading = Building Knowledge
In this text set approach we want to increase the volume of reading.  Yes, we are looking at reading levels. Yes, we are putting together a grouping of resources with grade bands in mind.  No, we are not using the curriculum to completely drive the topics.  We are thinking about topics that can engage learners.  We are not developing learner objectives.  Well, yes we are.  The learning objective with the CC standards in mind:  Increase Volume of Reading.

Close Reading Overused
I can’t emphasis enough – that this is about volume of reading.  It is not about close reading.  Over the last six months, I have had discussions with a variety of librarians that are finding that close reading is turning students off.  They are becoming tired of reading because of close reading.  A group of 5th Grade students in one local school actually said to their librarian – “Please don’t make use close read anything, can’t you just read to us?”  The librarian’s response was – “Yes, I can!”  Guess what?  They enjoyed listening to a story and remained engaged throughout the reading of a book! Listening skills are important.

Reading Stamina
Got Reading?  Get Stamina!  Improving reading requires our students to build reading stamina.  How do you do this?  Well, by reading more!  Increase Volume of Reading!  Create Text Sets to accomplish this. Increase Reading Stamina!

Tomorrow is day two of our training – stay tuned for more thoughts on this project.

Future training opportunities across the country will be:
November 12-13, 2014 in Seattle, WA
December 8-9, 2014 in Baltimore, MD
February 23-24, 2015 in Clark County, NV
I will post the specific location and registration links for these future trainings when they are available.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Reading Nonfiction Books by Jeanette Winter and Examining Character Traits and Values

            Are you familiar with books by Jeanette Winter? Over time she has written many picture book biographies of individuals who have worked to improve the lives of others.  Many of these biographies feature people working to promote peace and social justice. In fact, she won the 2010 Jane Addams Children’s Book Award—an award given for books that encourage children to think about peace, social justice, world community, and equality—for Nasreen’s Secret School. Winter’s books are excellent material to use to introduce young children (grades 1-4) to thoughtfully crafted picture book biographies—a major CCSS objective. They are, in addition, entryways into discussing character and values—two topics that are essential to civic learning.
Discussing Goals, Actions, and Characters Traits
            The subjects of Jeanette Winter’s biographies work hard to pursue their goals. After reading several of these biographies, have students work with a partner or small group to discuss each person’s goal, what that person did to achieve that goal, and what character traits the person displayed. Here are four books to use to get you started:

Malala, a Brave Girl from Pakistan/ Iqbal, a Brave Boy from Pakistan
Malala resisted the threats from the Taliban in order to pursue her education. 
Iqbal resisted the powerful factory owners who wanted to keep him chained to a loom all day in order to pay off his parents' $12 debt. Both children were shot, and only Malala survived and continues to speak out.

Nasreen’s Secret School
Even though the Taliban in Afghanistan wanted to prevent girls from going to school, Nasreen's grandmother takes her to a secret school. During harsh and dangerous times, she shows the power to resist and defy authority when necessary. 

Biblioburro: A True Story from Colombia
Luis Soriano loves books, but when they begin to fill up his house he knows he must do something. He has an idea. He purchases two donkeys, builds two crates to carry the books, and makes a sign--BIBLIOBURRO. Each week he travels by donkey to a distant village, bringing books to children who have none. Not even a bandit can stop Luis. 

The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq
As war approaches, a brave librarian and her friends save 30,000 books by taking them to their houses. Fortunately, the books are saved although the library is bombed. 
Use the chart below to record the details about the subject of each true story.
          Person                           Goals                             Actions               Character Traits


Nasreen’s Grandmother

Luis Soriano

Alia Muhammad Baker, chief librarian of Basra's Central Library

I read an article recently that made the point that unless otherwise directed, children will read history to understand the message, but not to critique it. That’s where we teachers step in. We can shine a spotlight on the process of thinking about what we read. We also focus on the best way to act when conditions are challenging or even worse—harsh and oppressive.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

English Major and Humanities Education

At the start of each semester my students -- as all grad students -- introduce themselves to the class. In the class on Nonfiction and the Common Core I'm teaching at Rutgers, one theme quickly emerged: because nearly all of the students had been undergraduate English majors they  were well read in classic and contemporary fiction. Depending on their age, whether they were parents, or already working in a library, some also had a working knowledge of novels or fiction picture books for children, tweens, and or teenagers. But that also meant that many of them had not been asked to any close reading of nonfiction. Some had recently read Unbroken, or The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, others soon realized that they read quite a lot of nonfiction articles in various formats (online, magazine, blog, etc.). But it is striking that one can have a fine undergraduate education centered on reading text, and never hone the skills of reading nonfiction.

My own interest has always been in cultural history -- that is, how every aspect of creativity and life ways allow us to understand the worldviews of people in another time and place; and, in turn, how knowing a time and place gives us new insight into the ideas, creations, actions that were crafted in that period. I trace that back to my K-12 education where every year we had a Core subject, such that whatever period or subject we studied in Social Studies was echoed in the novels, plays, poetry from that period that we read in English. In Eighth grade our Core subject was science, so science, social studies, and English overlapped. This just seems logical to me. Why not use the arts of a period to help understand the people, politics, economics, wars, ideas of the time? Why not place the paintings, plays, poems, songs, novels of a time into the context in which they were created?

I think part of the problem we have with nonfiction and the CC is that so many of the well-meaning teachers and librarians who are tasked with implementing the standards come from an English Major background in which fictional text was never linked to time, place, culture, outlook. Thus while everyone knows about pairing fiction and nonfiction, the professionals asked to make those links do not have a strong background in seeing the intersection and interaction of art and history. Indeed, I suspect, too many see art -- fiction for example -- as an opportunity for empathic exploration: identifying with a character and thus simultaneously going on a journey with him/her and seeing oneself in a new light, while nonfiction is seen as cold, distant, a set of unchangeable names, dates, causes, and effects to be memorized. They do not have the experience of nonfiction as active inquiry that is as revealing and exploratory as fiction,

We need a national seminar in humanities education -- linking art, social studies, and science -- to get get both English Majors and Nonfiction fans out of their ghettos and into the playpen where really fun ideas are born. 

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Learning to Shape Questions that Address CCSS Standards

            It’s September and in my social studies course I am dealing with a new bunch of undergrads who are just now beginning their student teaching. They are the ones who will be putting CCSS into practice. To help them do this, during our first meeting I modeled how prepare questions and activities for reading informational text. I selected a book, America’s Champion Swimmer by David Adler. First, we all read the book. Then I showed them how to:

·      Examine nonfiction literature for things like accuracy, writing style, visual features, and organization
·      Align their teaching ideas to Common Core State Standards for reading informational text
·      Align their teaching ideas to the Ten Thematic Strands of Social Studies
            Then, during our second class session I asked them to read a different nonfiction book—Brave Girl by Michelle Markel. They were then to take notes on the nonfiction features, and prepare questions and activities based on CCSS and the Ten Thematic Strands of Social Studies.  Here’s what I found out. Even though college students can evaluate nonfiction books with skill, posing thoughtful discussion questions based on standards comes much harder. Their questions are often long-winded and confusing, and assume that children have vast stores of background information.  I can just imagine the kids responding with a giant “HUH?”

            Here’s just one example of a question a student wrote for primary grade readers:
                        “Based on your knowledge of women’s history, explain how.... “
                        [Really? What knowledge?]

            I am not dealing with a small sample of students. I am teaching 50 students in two different classes. They are college seniors, with considerable academic competence. So what do I conclude? College students need lots of practice preparing curriculum that incorporates CCSS and content standards. In fact, they were grateful to learn that next week we will be practicing this yet again. Really! Waves of relief washed over them. What they don’t seem to realize, though, is that reading informational text is only part of CCSS. There’s much more, but we have to start somewhere.

            Last week Marc talked about our relative lack of knowledge about children reading stats. That is, middle grade kids really like reading stats, but what are we doing to support their interest? I know that when I taught 5th grade, kids couldn’t get enough of those stat books. And yet, why do college students dread taking statistics courses? What happened? Or, what didn’t happen to foster this interest?

            Similarly, my college students want to talk with children about interesting books, but they are not sure how to do this in a way that incorporates standards. It doesn’t come naturally.  And that’s where I detect a huge, yawning gap that needs to be addressed. It’s one thing to make standards; it’s quite another to figure out how to meet them. This is a gap that needs serious consideration.

            In the meantime, my students are practicing how to align CCSS and content standards to create curriculum, and I am hoping to slowly fade out as the authority on how to do this as they become more proficient and take over the job themselves. Let’s see what happens.              

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

What We Don't Know Hurts Us

I have been thinking a lot about one of those gaps in our knowledge that is invisible until it becomes so self-evident you cannot imagine how you missed it. Perhaps I am a bit inclined to look for such gaps because of working with Adrienne Mayor -- the woman who figured out the connection between some mythological creatures and the fossils that were visible to those who first reported seeing those beasts and monsters. That connection makes so much sense -- yet it took her ten years of detective work to prove it. So here is the one I am thinking about: stats.

Everyone who has ever been in an elementary school, a children's collection, or around boys knows that books of records, stats, weird and wacky facts are immensely popular. They are the prototypical "I cannot keep them on the shelves" books. But why? What pleasures do those readers experience? What do that "get" from such books? Is there only one kind of stat fan or are there subgroups of stat-consumers each of which has its own reading interest, style, and appetite? It is easy to guess -- short text, photos, weird subjects; but then there is clearly more -- collecting, comparing, competing, all of those figure in. How does stat collecting compare with, say, doll collecting, or stamp collecting, or shell collecting? Are the pleasures and search styles similar? How does stat collecting and competing figure into gaming -- from Pokemon to whatever is popular now, to apps and video games? Since we have not really mapped the experience of the stat reader who have absolutely no information about the huge, obvious, follow-on question: what next?

What would be the ideal middle grade or YA read for the elementary school student who passionately devours stats? What is arc, the bridge of reading?

See what I mean about obvious -- we've all met the stat readers, but other than knowing they are there, we have not explored their experiences and thought how to capture and expand their passionate reading world.

I want to study exactly this -- and then build an arc of reading From Records to Infinity -- and Beyond. Sound good? 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Unpacking the Back Matter #1

Let's take a closer look at the video that April Pulley Sayre posted in October 2013 about the process of researching and writing The Bumblebee Queen, a wonderful nonfiction picture book that she wrote in back in 2006. The video was created in 2008. 

Two questions guide my thinking as I watch this five-minute video:  

  • What can children learn from watching this video that helps them grow as researchers, as well as readers and writers of nonfiction?  
  • What can teachers learn from watching this video that helps them to use this book in the classroom as a mentor text for research and writing?

Everyday experiences can prompt your research. You don't have to go further than your front yard, or the school garden, or a local park for inspiration. 
If everyday experiences can prompt student research, how can you provide your students with the opportunity to explore the world around them, at home, and at school?  
Your interests matter! Sayre's childhood reading still influences her today, both in her hobbies and passions as well as her work as an author.
What are your students' interests? How can you tease out research projects rooted in their passions, and what they already know something about? 
What you learn from your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and neighbors, is important and useful. 
Sayre was influenced by her husband, her mother, and her grandmother. How can you harness the expertise in your school? The local community? The families of your students? 
Research isn't something you only do by reading, though reading is important. Scientific research also involves a lot of watching, noticing, and observation.
If research isn't something you do only by reading, how do you give students the opportunity to watch, notice, and observe?
Taking notes is important! 
Taking notes is important! How can I model different ways of doing that for my students?
What you write the first time is just a draft. Rewriting is really important. 
Can you show students drafts and revisions of books? Use the resources on author's webpages. Showing the difference just one revised page makes can make a difference in student understanding.  
Other people can help you with your writing, particularly people who know you well, like your classmates. 
How can I make better use of writing groups in my classroom?
An editor is a bit like a teacher, helping you understand the genre you're writing in, and think about your audience. 
How are you like an editor? What can you learn from their style that will help you in your work with young people?  

When you research a topic, it's good to have an expert on the topic read what you have written so that you don't get anything wrong.

What experts can you get to "vet" student research? Are there other teachers in your district, or older students in advanced placement classes that can serve as experts if professionals are unavailable? 
Illustrations are not just "fun." You need to do enough research to make sure the illustrations are correct, based on your research. 
How do you connect research and illustration more fully, so that illustration is fully a part of student text production, not just the "fun" at the end? 
Sometimes, just when you think you are done with your research, new questions pop up! 
How do you sustain inquiry?  

It takes a lot of people to publish a book.  
How can you harness local resources to publish student texts and make them available in the school or local library?