Saturday, January 30, 2016

Connecting to Social Studies Curriculum Through Text-Sets: A Sensible Shift


            I have long believed that Common Core discussions need to shift from talk about content-free standards to talk about content-rich curriculum that embeds standards. And now this hoped for shift is beginning to happen. The latest issue of Social Studies Research and Practice, an online free-access journal, contains a very helpful article entitled “Tackling Controversial Topics: Developing Thematic Text Sets for Elementary Social Studies” by Christina M. Tschida and Lisa Brown Buchanan. This article shows how to incorporate both ELA and social studies C3 social studies framework when using text-sets. This is a practical approach to curriculum development.

Click on this link to the entire issue and scroll down to find the article at http://www.socstrpr.org/?page_id=2328.

            The authors provide a 4-step approach that begins with (1) identifying the big idea for inquiry, (2) identifying the multiple perspectives needed to understand this idea or topic, (3) finding the appropriate books and artifacts, and (4) selecting the materials to use in the classroom. After explaining the steps, the authors take us through the process of making a text-set. They provide three examples of text-sets dealing with controversial issues at three different grade levels: K-1: family, grades 2-3: civil rights, and grades 4-5: slavery. Teachers who want to try out this idea could use these text-sets right now. Others could follow this sensible procedure to create text-sets of their own.
            Let’s acknowledge that this is a big job. Finding books, reading and assessing them for curriculum purposes, and then selecting titles and artifacts for classroom use requires focus, determination, and TIME. But this is the job that needs to be done. The results, as I have witnessed again and again, are enormously rewarding. That’s because text-sets provide the necessary “stuff” that’s good to think with.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Learning Science from an Enthusiastic Scientist: Caitlin O’Connell’s Newest Book


            I love learning from nonfiction authors who are knowledgeable and enthusiastic—so enthusiastic that they want to share their knowledge with me. They also care about what they are learning. These authors take the role of “guide on the side” because they show us the excitement and joy of learning something new and why it is important. Even though they are in their books, the focus is less on themselves and more on what they are learning.
            Recently, I read a book by a great guide, Caitlin O’Connell, a well-known scientist and author. You may be familiar with the book she wrote with Donna M. Jackson, The Elephant Scientist, a book that describes O’Connell’s discovery of how elephants communicate. Or, you may know her book A Baby Elephant in the Wild, a book for younger readers. Both books have fascinating photographs of elephants taken by O’Connell and her husband Timothy Rodwell.
            Now we are fortunate to have a new book written by Caitlin O’Connell, with photographs by O’Connell and Rodwell. In Bridge to the Wild we accompany O’Connell as she takes us behind the scenes at Zoo Atlanta where we learn about animals and their caregivers and see fabulous close-up photographs of them. Our guide is both knowledgeable and enthusiastic, and she knows she is writing for a young audience. With chapters with such friendly titles as “Showtime at the Panda House” and “Meerkat Madness,” O’Donnell’s enthusiasm is contagious.
            Her approach is also personal. In the book’s introduction O’Connell shares her childhood experiences of visiting the Bronx Zoo, her memorable encounters with animals, and her hopes of convincing the next generation of the importance of conservation. She writes, ”I wanted to create a bridge to the wild, to inspire guests with enough information to ask more questions to see for themselves just how special wild animals are....”Evidently, this is a woman who cares deeply about animals.
            Here’s a book that is full of information about animals and the people who care for them, told firsthand by a skilled scientist, animal lover, and concerned citizen who has a message for us all. As I said before, she’s a great guide—knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and caring.



Friday, December 25, 2015

Reading for Information: Help from a “Guide on the Side”

            I hope we see a revived interest in the work of Louise Rosenblatt very soon because her work helps us understand reader response. To put it simply, Rosenblatt explained that our responses to literature—and that includes nonfiction—are always somewhere along the continuum of information seeking (she called it the efferent response) and emotional connection  (she called it the aesthetic response or the “lived through experience”). That is, sometimes we are mostly seeking information and sometimes we are mostly seeking an emotional connection, but it is never simply one or the other.  It’s both.
            Melissa Stewart’s thoughtful post on Elizabeth Bird’s Fuse #8 blog got me to thinking about this. According to Melissa, there are some kids who are concrete, analytic thinkers and prefer expository nonfiction. These readers do not crave an emotional connection to a central figure in a book. They simply want to learn more about the world. I agree. But is this because they already care about the subject in some way and so they welcome a book that feeds their interest? Or is it because their interest develops as they learn new information and then crave more? I have seen both these things happening in the classroom.  The more kids know, the more they want to know, and the more they raise questions for further inquiry.
            What does caring about information look like? In addition to books of straight exposition, there are a number of books that highlight a passion for learning by an author who serves as a “guide on the side.” This phrase, which is often used to describe teachers who place themselves on the sidelines of classroom activity while encouraging students to become more active, also describes authors who place themselves on the sidelines of their books with the goal of showing the joy of learning. Chief among these guides is Marc Aronson, who often joins scientists engaged in discovering new information and formulating new ideas. If you read Marc’s If Stones Could Speak, a book about new discoveries at Stonehenge, you can’t miss his frequent invitations to join the excitement of scientific thinking and learning.
            There are other authors, who like Marc, place themselves beside scientists who are in the process of learning and who care deeply about what they are doing. They show readers what caring about information looks like. One such author is Simon Winchester, whose recent book, When Earth Shakes: Earthquakes, Volcanoes, and Tsunamis, describes his own personal interest in geology and 
writing as well as the passion of others. Here is how he describes scientists in Israel trying to understand data about earthquakes along the San Andreas Fault: “They, like scientists all over the world, are gripped by the mysteries of earth’s behavior and want to understand what is happening deep down below, and why and when sudden seismic movements occur as they do.” That’s caring.
            I believe there is a useful role for the guide on the side, the author who holds our hands as we learn about the excitement of learning information. It’s like the teacher who is hoping to inspire a class of students. And like Melissa Stewart, I also believe we need to do more to recognize exemplary expository nonfiction that helps readers both learn and care about the world.

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Rain Wizard: Scientist or Fraud?

           Because I love a good history mystery, I was immediately attracted to Larry Dane Brimner’s latest nonfiction title, The Rain Wizard: The Amazing, Mysterious, True Life of Charles Mallory Hatfield.  Here is the story of a man who claimed he could “coax” rain from the sky, using a secret mix of chemicals.  And . . . he was remarkably successful.  But was he a charlatan and a fraud?  Were all his methods simply a scheme for making money from desperate cities and farming areas suffering from drought? Or, was he—as he claimed—a scientist?
            After narrating this story, the author leaves us to ponder this question: “Did Hatfield hold some secret formula that caused the clouds to weep?” (p. 103).  Brimner tells us that whether Hatfield could indeed produce rain remains a mystery, but what he did produce was hope for people desperate for rain. So, in effect, we can only use available evidence to speculate.  Brimner’s bibliography provides us sources for continuing our search for this evidence.
            In addition to the intriguing mystery element, this book is beautifully formatted, clearly written, and has many, many large black and white, tinted photographs that can be carefully examined. If you are looking for ideas for using these photographs with students, check out the five-minute video from the New York State Archives on teaching with photographs at http://www.archives.nysed.gov/education/video/teaching-with-photographs.
            It was truly a pleasure to read this well-designed, interesting book. I hope that Larry Dane Brimner and Calkins Creek publishers keep these nonfiction books coming.





Saturday, November 14, 2015

Examining Historical Photographs with Your Head and Your Heart


          Reading Dorothea’s Eyes, a picture book biography by Barb Rosenstock, reminded me of how emotional response seems to have dropped out of the conversation about reading. In our urgency to promote reading comprehension and vocabulary development, we seem to have lost sight of why we read in the first place: to learn information and to respond emotionally. Dorothea’s Eyes can help us begin to restore emotional response—our feelings—back into the conversation.  This book offers many openings for discussion:

·      It’s a picture book that introduces children to the work of the outstanding photographer Dorothea Lange, who took to the streets to photograph good people facing hard times. Her photographs of people during the Great Depression of the 1930s and her photographs of Japanese-Americans placed in internment camps during World War II are iconic—they evoke the tensions of the times. They are memorable. What do your students learn from these photographs? How do the photographs make them feel?
·      The book maintains a clear, consistent focus, namely that Dorothea Lange saw the world with her mind and her heart. Her photographs detail a real historical context with caring and compassion. The author of Dorothea’s Eyes states, “Her heart knows all about people the world ignores.” Six of Lange’s well-known photographs are included in the book. These include “Migrant Mother” and “White Angel Bread Line.” It’s not too early to share these compelling photographs with children and discuss when and where they were taken. Discuss feelings these photos evoke.
·      This book can jumpstart conversations about “facts” and “feelings” about the past—something I have long considered essential in learning history.  It’s not enough to know about the past. We also need to care about it.
            If you want to build on this idea of examining historical photographs with children, follow up with Gordon Parks: How the photographer Captured Black and White America by Carol Boston Weatherford.  As the author tells us, his photograph called “American Gothic,” helped viewers see “the contradiction between segregation and freedom.” This happens only when we see with our minds and our hearts. 

           
           

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Key Ideas? Details?: What’s the Difference?


            Recently, an elementary school principal lamented to me that she was surprised by test results showing students across the grades were not doing well distinguishing between key ideas and details. “Can you help us?” she asked.

            Well, I am no magician but I seem to recall that when I was teaching elementary school, kids found summarizing difficult. Ask them to give an oral summary and you got everything they could remember reading.  It was as if the Declaration of Independence in Reading said that “all facts are created equal.” There was no key idea and there were no details. I think that this is the crux of the problem.

            But . . . there are solutions—or at least sensible steps to take to address the problem.  Here are a few:
1.     Discuss what summary means. It means being brief, concise, and direct. It does not mean telling everything you know. I like to discuss the relationship between “the big idea” and the “terrific specific.” That’s because writing a good summary means finding an important idea to focus on and then giving only the most convincing details to support it. I learned this firsthand when I wrote annotations for the annual Notable Social Studies Trade Books list. We only had about 150 words to write about why we were recommending a book. It was a tough lesson and it forged a lasting relationship between me and the delete key on my computer. I learned to pare down my writing.
2.     Limit the number of words allowed for written summaries. And, while you are at it, limit the time allotted for oral summaries too. In this way, students will have to separate the main idea from the details.
3.     Share writing that has clearly stated generalizations that are illustrated by intriguing details. Not only is this writing more understandable, it is also more interesting.  If you are looking for examples, my all time favorite writer when it comes to clarity, coherence, and descriptive detail is Russell Freedman. Check out any of his books and you will see what it means to write clear, coherent, descriptive nonfiction prose with overarching generalizations. Of course, if you want to be up to date, check out Freedman’s latest book, We Will Not Be Silent, which a Kirkus reviewer wrote “stands out for its focus and concision.” If you can’t wait for this new book, try Immigrant Kids, Kids at Work, or Children of the Great Depression. There is a lot more to choose from. Whichever book you choose, be explicit when showing kids the key idea and the supporting details in these books. Then as you read to them, ask the kids to take over this job themselves and tell you the key ideas and supporting details.
4.     Write summaries or explanations giving key ideas and details. Have students practice by working with partners and then report back to the class on their results. We know very well that reading and writing are connected, so we can expect that if students can find key ideas and details in their reading, they will also begin to use them in their writing. 

            The long and the short of this is that by providing good examples of writing and time read it, discuss it, and write like it, students will learn about the relationship between key ideas and details. 

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Letting Jefferson Speak for Himself: A Biography Generously Sprinkled with Quotes

            In the recent picture book Thomas Jefferson Grows a Nation, author Peggy Thomas makes liberal use of short “Jefferson” quotations to focus on his keen interest in planting. The language of the book is rich and varied and the illustrations match the written text, adding humor here and there.

            But...it’s the extensive use of quotations, many of which are set off from the main text, that anchor this book’s focus on farming. Here is a technique we can easily help students try out.

            Here’s how I might explain it to students:
1.     First, you need to read extensively about a selected person. Any subject will do: scientist, mathematician, politician, dancer, actor, teacher, chef, athlete, architect, king, queen, and so on.

2.     Decide on a focus for writing about that person. What is the idea you want to emphasize? Ambition? Kindness? Inventiveness? Sense of Humor? Interests?

3.     Gather some quotes that support that focus. Put them in the order that you want to introduce them. Quotes are readily available on the Internet.

4.     Write your “focused” biography. Include your quotes as you write. Quotes can be part of your writing or they can be separated out and written in larger type or even in another color.

5.     Illustrate your work.

Thomas Jefferson Grows a Nation is an excellent mentor text for incorporating quotations.  This book gives us a clear lesson about the craft of writing.