Friday, May 15, 2015

Caught in the Spell of Words and Paintings

The partnership of author Robert Burleigh and artist Wendell Minor has once again produced a powerful nonfiction picture book. When reading Trapped!: A Whale’s Rescue, I think it’s best to just enjoy it, letting the words and paintings surprise you, capture your attention, and stir your emotions. I read the book three times for enjoyment before I allowed my “critical reviewer’s lens” to creep in.

So, why did I enjoy it? Here are a few reasons:
·      The Show-Stopping Cover: The front cover shows a whale almost completely submerged under water and a diver—so small by comparison—shining his flashlight on the netting that has trapped this whale. The back cover extends this illustration, showing another diver pulling off some of the netting, while observers in a rescue boat nearby look on. This cover hooked me immediately and raised questions: How did the whale become trapped? Will the divers save it?
·      The Language: From the beginning, the language celebrates this magnificent animal, appealing to my sense of sight and sound. Here’s a sample:
                        The huge humpback whale dips and dives.
                        Her sleek black sides shimmering,
                        she spyhops, lobtails, flashes her flukes.
            Even though I later had to look up both spyhop and lobtail, I was hooked.
·      The Plot Thickens: Danger comes in the shape of nets left by crab fisherman. The whale is trapped and we see the word TRAPPED in large white capital letters. In fact, when the text deals with the life-threatening struggle to free the whale, the print switches from black to icy white. This only added to the tension I felt.
·      Relief and Safety: Rescuers arrive and they manage to cut the netting and free the whale. And, as a perfect ending, the whale nudges divers as if giving them thanks before heading off. What a relief. The book moved in a satisfying progression: from joyful celebration of the whale, to danger, to rescue, and back to joyful celebration. I felt this relief.
·      Back Matter: For fans of extending a story, the back matter provides more information about this true story, more information about rescuing whales, and more sources of information. To read an article about this event in the San Francisco Chronicle, go to

I honestly don’t like the idea of analyzing why I like this book so much. I just do. When a book grabs me so strongly, that’s more than enough for me. I think that in addition to showing children how nonfiction works, we should also take time to celebrate its power to nourish our hearts and minds.  Let’s ask our students which books grab them. 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Book Extras: The Inside Track from Owlkids Books

Look at what Owlkids Books have put together. It's called "The Inside Track," and it is comprised of video and audio clips that tell the "back story" of some of their book. In providing these snapshots, and allowing some of their decision-making to be made visible, they are giving teachers and young people access to the stories behind book construction. We are seeing more and more of these digital resources being housed on author and illustrator websites, and now, on publishers' websites as well. I'm obsessed with the back matter in books. The back matter always gives me a new perspective on a book. Often, it makes me want to reread the book, armed with my new-found knowledge. These web extensions, a new form of front/back matter, in a range of modalities make me very, very happy as both a teacher and as a reader.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Ulysses Who?: Considering the Connections We Make

            I just can’t shake this experience. Recently, my graduate class in children’s literature has been reading Flora & Ulysses, the Newbery award-winning novel by Kate DiCamillo. (Yes, I know this is a nonfiction blog, but hang on, I will get there.)

            At one point in the novel, after a squirrel has taken a harrowing trip through a powerful vacuum cleaner, a young girl named Flora overhears her neighbor ask his wife if she is going to leave the Ulysses (the vacuum cleaner) outside.  Immediately young Flora names the squirrel Ulysses. The author tells us “she knew the right word when she heard it.”

            Why is this the right word? Here we have factual information begging for an inference. Why, indeed did Flora name the squirrel Ulysses? In my mind, the author was referring to the Ulysses of Greek myth. That Ulysses, like our squirrel, had experienced travels fraught with danger and had been transformed by his experiences. Similarly, Ulysses the squirrel was also transformed; he became a thinking squirrel able to type out poetry. This connection gives the events in the story the grandeur it seems to me to be seeking.  

            . . . But not to my students. They, instead, connected the name Ulysses to Ulysses S. Grant. True, he was a hero, a man of decisive action, a fighter, and a president. Yet I was totally surprised by this connection and I asked the class to develop their idea so we could compare it with mine to see which held up better.

            So what does this have to do with Common Core? The connections we make—our intellectual leaps and inferences—are where our most exciting thoughts are happening. The Common Core asks students to make inferences they can defend by supplying evidence. Students are to make inferences within a single text and inferences across multiple texts. This is true for both fiction and nonfiction. This is important intellectual work.

            Making and defending inferences based on evidence is the heart of historical thinking. Similarly, making and defending claims is central to the nature of science (NOS). Perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to say that inferential thinking is the heart of all original thinking.  That is why when we embed the ideas of Common Core into our teaching it is rewarding, but when we race from standard to standard, trying to cover them all, it is not.

            I am always struck by how exciting it is to come up with an original claim, pursue it, and defend it. We don’t have to look very far for examples. In her most recent post on this website, the one just before this one, Mary Ann Cappiello talked about how after rereading works by Elizabeth Partridge she discovered the central role Bob Dylan played in the careers of Woody Guthrie and John Lennon.  Here are her exact words describing this experience: “...I am always surprised at how powerful it is to make my own connections through a series of texts, cultivating curiosity, building knowledge, and pursuing my questions.” I couldn’t agree more.  

            So, which Ulysses was it? What do you think?



Friday, April 17, 2015

Broader Conversations About Kids Reading Nonfiction

I'm not sure where March went, but suddenly we're in the second half of April! Two weeks ago, I had the honor of moderating a panel of children's book authors and illustrators at the JFK Presidential Library and Museum. Each year, the Library and the National Park Service co-sponsor an excellent conference for teachers and librarians. Participants return year after year because they know this one-day conference, organized around a theme, gives them a wonderful "shot in the arm" of inspiration and pratical tools for teaching. An important component of this is the center role that expertly written and illustrated children's and young adult literature of all genres plays.
This year, the conference title was "Sources of Inspiration: History through the Arts and the Lives of Artists," and the panel included author Robert Burleigh, illustrator Bryan Collier, and author Elizabeth Partridge.  One of the interesting things that happened to me in preparation for the panel, as I reread each author's body of work as it pertained to the conference theme, was the new vantage point I had reading across their different works. Now this is something I write about all the time in my advocacy of a text set approach to teaching. But I am alway surprised at how powerful it is to make my own connections through a series of texts, cultivating curiosity, building knowledge, and pursuing my questions.

For example, as I read Elizabeth Partridge's young adult biographies of Woody Guthrie and John Lennon, I was struck by the role that Bob Dylan played in each. If you asked me to think about Guthrie and Lennon before reading those books, I'm not sure I would have placed Dyan in the intersection of the two. But there he is. Perhaps, if I knew more about Dylan, I would have. Now I have all of these questions about Dylan I want answered. I want to get my hands on Gary Golio's When Bob Met Woody (Little, Brown 2011). Otherwise, there isn't too much on Dylan beyond the Who Was? series biography by Jim O'Connor. YA biographers, take note! I take this new perspective on Dylan, and his relationship with both Lennon and Guthrie, into whatever else I learn about him and his role in mid-to-late century 20th centuryAmerican history.

Over the past couple of weeks, there have been many conversations about the negative role of testing in our schools,  the punitive measures associated with those tests, and the ways in which the CCSS standards are linked in the public consciousness to the annual tests required by NCLB (now - - finally - - getting its long overdue review by Congress). This conference experience was another tangible reminder of the many, many ways we can teach to and beyond the standards when we engage students in authentic, engaging inquiry. I remain ever hopeful that we can move away from the rigid emphasis on tests into the more important conversation that needs to be happening: how can foster conditions in which teachers can work collaboratively, plan curriculum, and provide multiple pathways for students to demonstrate their learning?

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Capturing the Chaos: A Page-Turning Account of Finding Typhoid Mary

            What makes Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary by Gail Jarrow so attention grabbing is that it is written like a mystery story. There is a terrifying and puzzling problem—typhoid outbreaks that cannot be stopped or even understood—and dedicated health professionals are trying to figure out what is happening. This book reads like a mystery and uses “mystery words and phrases” such as detective, clue, hunch, and evidence. Yet it is a nonfiction account based on extensive research.

            Readers experience history unfolding as people experienced it. We feel the anxiety, fear, and terror people felt as they confronted the disease. We also feel the courage, determination, and hopefulness with which people confronted it. This makes the book a gripping page-turner, but also an enormously informative one.

            This book can be read and discussed in several different, complementary ways:
1.     It can be read as a mystery by posing these questions:
·      What is the mystery that needs to be solved?
·      What are the possible causes of the problem?
·      What did investigators learn by gathering evidence and interpreting it?
·      What questions still remain?
2.     It can be read with a focus on historical context—the “then-and-now.” What was life like during this outbreak of typhoid in the early 1900s? There are many instances when the author reminds us that conditions were different then. We can look for familiar/unfamiliar contrasts. What was different then? What was the same as now?  
3.     It can be contrasted with Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America. Both accounts cover much of the same information, yet are also unique in many respects. This makes them excellent choices for discovering how nonfiction accounts vary because of the questions authors raise, the information they select to include, and they way they structure and present information. 

Several years ago—2008 to be exact—Mark Aronson, our fellow blogger, wrote about how important it is for history books to present the “terror of the unforeseen” when writing about the past because it reflects what it was like to live with uncertainty and anxiety. These two books do that, making them excellent choices for examining real decision-making, real coping under stress, and real human emotions. That’s what well-written history mysteries offer. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Integrating Information: Conceiving of CCSS as More Than a Bunch of Skills

Recently a student in one of my undergraduate courses made this “aha!” comment:

            Oh, so you mean that by looking more closely at nonfiction features you see
            how to discuss books more deeply?

My heart swelled with joy as I blurted out the words, “Yes!” and “Exactly!”  As a teacher I have learned how important it is to give beginning teachers the language for talking about books—words that move beyond the typical responses of “I liked it,” or “It was boring,” or (much worse in my opinion) “It was cute.”

But there is more at work here. Looking deeply at nonfiction enables us to nurture and grow our own learning. And, it orients us, too. Instead of thinking of teaching and learning as a race to cover a bunch of skills, we put our own understanding and that of our students at the center of our thinking. If this sounds a lot like inquiry learning, so much the better.

I had a recent “aha!” moment myself related to the CCSS standard dealing with integration of information. Basically, CCSS asks us (students and teachers) to use multiple sources of information to enhance our understanding of content. But in our efforts to do this, we often focus more on gathering different kinds of sources to integrate than on the impact of these sources on our understanding. We can change this.

Here’s what I mean. Last weekend I noticed that there was an article about Jane Goodall in The New York Times Magazine.  Even though I was very busy at the time, I still took time out to read it because I am interested in the Goodall’s work.  In one of my courses, students read several children’s biographies of her, noting their similarities and differences. We also watch video interviews of her, videos of authors discussing their books about her, and read some of her books. We care about Jane Goodall and her work.

As I read the New York Times’ article, I noticed that it focused on Goodall’s conservation work. I knew about this work from a children’s biography, but not to the extent I learned about it in the article. This article shifted my thinking about Goodall’s extensive conservation efforts. I began to understand what the article referred to as her “abrupt career shift.” I had, in short, added to my knowledge and I found it satisfying. I was glad I took time to read this article.

If we all keep on learning because we have developed interests, and if we keep on developing the skills to pursue these interests, we will be realizing the goal of education. The important thing to keep in mind is that learning is our goal, while skills help us meet that goal. They are not the main event.

I suggest that as we embed CCSS standards into our teaching, we focus on the shifts and changes in our understanding of the world. Let’s ask students questions like these:
·      As you continue to learn about a topic, how has your thinking changed?
·      What sources changed your thinking? How?
·      What else would you like to know? Why?

By the way, check out Goodall’s recent picture book Chimpanzee Children of Gombe, with wonderful photographs by Michael Neugebauer.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

For Middle School Teachers Everywhere: Being 12

A friend of mine who is a middle school science coordinator and teacher tipped me off to this amazing series from WNYC this month: "Being 12." It's a gold mine for middle school teachers everywhere, who can use these podcasts to convey the beautiful reality of everyday life in a middle school to those who just don't get it. She's also using it as a catalyst for exploration and a mentor text. Students will "read" a wide range of multimodal texts and then create their own podcasts.