Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Come One Come All

Announcements One Personal, One General

Personal: On September 6 at 2 PM I will be speaking (along with Betsy Bird) at the first New York Public Library Literary Salon of the fall. The subject will be how nonfiction (what a surprise) for younger readers has changed and is changing, and some of the new directions in both materials and how to use them we can look forward to. The talk/discussion will be in the Berger Forum on the 2nd Floor of the great 42nd St. Library.

General: Sue Bartle and I have talked and written about Text Sets here and elsewhere, and, of course, Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching With Text Sets. Student Achievement Partners has announced that their first Text Set workshop will be held in Chicago September 16-17. This two day workshop will train teams of teachers and librarians in how to work together to craft K-5 groupings of materials that both build knowledge and increase in text complexity. Sue will be going and, I hope, reporting back to this blog. As I understand it the group hotel rate lasts only until this Friday. Here is the basic information, from SAP:

How do we become part of the Text Set Project?
1.        Assemble a team (1-2 librarians and 3-5 educators) and register for one of the Conferences listed above through the Council of the Great City Schools.
2.       Inquire about sponsoring an additional regional training in your state or district in the spring of summer of 2015 with Meredith Liben
3.       Look for and use the Text Sets as they start coming on line starting in late October 2014 on or

4.       Use the training materials and the spreadsheet of most commonly taught social studies and science topics K-5 to create your own text set project. Available in late September. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Building Student Identity and Agency as Writers

Any time I have anyone's ear in the children's book publishing industry, I'm always asking for two things: a "Miracle on 34th Street" style marketing vision for the school market (more on that in a couple of weeks) and more information on the backstory of a book, whether it's heavily researched nonfiction or historical fiction, a whimsical poetry collection, or a stirring piece of contemporary realistic fiction. I don't care where the backstory resides (in the back matter, on the author's website, the publisher's) or how it is conveyed (author's note, illustrator's note, sample drafts, video or audio clips). I just want it!  I often have the same questions, regardless of genre, and I've probably written about them on this blog in the past:
  • How did the book come to be? What was the inspiration or the catalyst? 
  • What got left out on the drafting journey? 
  • How did the structure change over time and how did that impact the drafting of the book?
  • What dead ends did the author, editor, and/or illustrator have to navigate? What "turned the ship" around? 
  • If the book was researched, what were the best sources used? The least effective? How did the author come to determine that?
  • What were the big "breakthrough" moments, if any? 
Do the best readers read like writers? I don't know, because we read for so many different purposes. But certainly the best writers do. This is why I really love the "Draft Blog" on The New York Times webpage and the interviews with children's and young adult writers and illustrators archived at

Last Friday's entry on the Draft Blog, "Failure, Writing's Constant Companion," made me think a lot about children's and teen's identities as writers. Much of the article, perhaps, can only be understood by professional writers and those who live with them. But what is at the core of the article is something essential for teachers and administrators to understand as well. Writing is not simple. Writing is not merely a discrete set of steps and tasks. Writing is hard work. Writing is often about following other people's examples but then putting that all together to do something unique on your own. Writing is something that must be done every day. None of this is easy. None of this is simple. None of this is quick. As we read for many different purposes, we write for many different purposes. How do we get young people to understand the "pivots" that we make when adjusting for purpose and audience?

The final paragraph reads: "You develop strategies to deal with it all. You develop a kind of sixth sense, a detective’s intuition about what will fail and what won’t. But above all, no matter how much you fail, you still sit down at your computer every day, and you keep going."

How do we provide real time for writing every day at school? How do students get real practice, from the primary grades through high school, building a writing identity? Because agency only grows out of identity. And you don't identify with something you only do every so often, and you don't identify with something that doesn't matter to you.

When we think about writing authentic texts in the classroom, at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, we have to think about the time it takes to do that.  If we want students to grow as writers, we need to expect them to read and write, and we need to supply them with both excellent and exemplary reading materials AND actual time to write, rewrite, write, rewrite, etc. And by writing, I mean making their own choices about what they are doing, becoming decision-makers.  I worked at one middle school when I was in graduate school that had multi-age (grades 5-8) writing workshops. What if every class at the middle and high school level had lab time associated with it? Just as you do science in science lab, students can do hands-on social studies work in social studies lab:  close up analysis of primary source documents, research, and writing. English Language Arts lab could be a writing lab for multiple genres. The freedom to do writing workshop at the elementary level exists, but in too many districts, we lack the will to make it happen.

If we want to talk about how we change student writing, we have to think about what it takes to really think like a writer, and it all goes back to identity and agency, the time to cultivate both, and the opportunity to discover what it means to fail as a writer in order to grow as a writer. What might it mean at your school?

Sample Resources from Children's Writers and Illustrators
Melissa Stewart's No Monkeys, No Chocolate timeline 
Matt Tavares's sketches from Becoming Babe Ruth as well as his childhood sketches of Wade Boggs
April Pulley Sayre's video on the backstory and origin of The Bumblebee Queen 

Note: In both Tavares's and Sayre's pieces, they show artifacts from their childhood, which are wonderful catalysts for allowing students to see their own lives as meaningful, as important experiences from which to start writing fiction, nonfiction, poetry, etc.

Next week, I am going to walk through a nonfiction author's or illustrator's backstory to explain how it helps me understand the text as a mentor text for writing or the writing process.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Adapted for Children

           I am noticing more and more adaptations of adult books for young readers. Recently, I reviewed a history book about that was “adapted,” (that is, chopped and clipped). Yesterday I received a “young readers edition” of an adult novel that was “rewritten for a middle grade audience.”

            This concerns me for two reasons. First, as we know, a “simpler” text—one with easier vocabulary and shorter sentences—can be harder to understand than a more complex text because the connections between thoughts and ideas have be been removed. Readers are left on their own to make these connections. Second, a simplified text does not provide a model or good writing or the enjoyment of stimulating reading. If we want children to read and write with increasing sophistication, we need to show them what well-crafted writing looks like. That means they need writing that is a cut above, not cut to the bone. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist!)

            I found Roger Sutton’s recent post on this matter reassuring. He wrote about trusting children “to read past difficulties.” I know this has worked for me big time. When I started a doctoral program, I didn’t know the academic vocabulary in language study—especially in syntax and semantics. My graduate advisor gave me this advice: Keep reading those difficult books and articles and eventually they will all make sense. Guess what folks? He was right, and I have the degree to prove it.

            Now, if adult books are going to be adapted for a younger audience, we need to pay attention to this phenomenon because it’s more than just substituting shorter books for longer ones. There’s more going on here. Authors and publishers need to help us out by being forthcoming about these changes. Here are some basic questions I have every time I see the word adapted: Who adapted this book? Was it the author or someone else? Who is the new audience envisioned for the book? What changes were made to the material to make it more appropriate for this new audience? Why?

            Pay It Forward by Catherine Ryan Hyde, a new young readers edition of her adult novel with the same title, provides us with a useful guide and starting point. Before you even begin the main text there is “A Note About the Young Readers Edition by Catherine Ryan Hyde.” Here the author provides us with some sense of historical context. She tells us that the setting of the book is the 1990s, before most readers were born (ok, certainly not me!). The novel is based on a true experience she had—which she details—of being helped by strangers who put their lives in danger and didn’t even wait for a thank-you. From that experience, she developed the idea of helping three people and then asking those three to pay it forward by helping three others. This is now a global movement involving many, many others.

            Pay It Forward closes with “A Note About This Edition” in which the author tells readers that there was a 14-year gap between the original novel and this adaptation. This version is “more appropriate for young readers.” She also tells us that this new version has a more open ending and invites readers to write to her with their thoughts about what happened after the book closes.

            While these notes provide more information about the process of adaptation than found in most books I have seen, I still have lingering questions. What makes this book more appropriate for young readers? Is it changes in wording? Is it sentence structure? Is it the addition of more background information? Was Hyde only referring to the ending? So while I applaud the two author’s notes for their candor, I am still wishing we had even more inside information about the process of adaptation. This would be very useful to teachers and students as they learn about the craft of writing and sharpen their reading skills.


Sunday, August 10, 2014

Integrating CCSS, Nonfiction, and Content

I like to keep things as simple as possible. I think it’s elegant. That’s why when wending my way through the CCSS storms, I like to pull back and think: What’s going on here? What’s the bigger picture?

            One encouraging development is the blending of CCSS and content standards in math, science, and social studies. Simply stated, content standards come to life by working jointly with process standards. You can see this clearly in the Next Generation Science Standards as well as the C3 Framework in social studies. These content standards make explicit connections to the CCSS  standards to integrate when teaching specific content.

            Mary Ann Cappiello and I learned about this integration firsthand during the past school year when we wrote one  unit a month for our column in School Library Journal newsletter Curriculum Connections. We had to juggle three main components in order to come up with a coherent teaching unit: CCSS standards, content standards, and nonfiction literature.

            As we began work each month, we asked ourselves three important questions:
1.     What teaching and learning opportunities does nonfiction literature offer?
2.     What CCSS standards can we incorporate into the activities we offer?
3.     What content (big ideas and concepts) do we want to present?

Creating curriculum involved decision-making, which was both daunting and liberating. We learned a lot about trying to fuse these elements into vibrant opportunities for learning. In fact, we wrote about it in our last column in June entitled “What We Learned: Crafting Standards-Based Lessons,” which you can read here:

I think we need many, many more examples of creating curriculum that integrates CCSS, nonfiction literature, and content standards. That is why I am happy to tell you about a new book called Perfect Pairs by Melissa Stewart and Nancy Chesley that shows how to use picture book pairs to build content knowledge in science in grades K-2. Each lesson incorporates a fiction and nonfiction pair of books, and is correlated with Next Generation Science Standards and CCSS. Right now you can read the entire book for free on the Stenhouse website at
Click on preview online. What a gift for starting the school year. I hope you check out this useful, clearly written, much needed book.  

Sunday, July 27, 2014

When a Book Hands Us Opportunities for Teaching, Let's Take Them

            Sometimes a book hands us perfect teaching opportunities. Frozen in Time  by Mark Kurlansky is one such book. This book—the biography of the Clarence Birdseye, who is probably best known for developing the process that provides us with frozen foods—could be folded into a unit on biography or an inquiry into the impact of science and technology on society. But, it could also be used as a nonfiction read aloud for middle grade students or a literature circle book for groups of readers or as a mentor text for young writers. And since this book will be released in November as a paperback as well as a hardback and ebook, it is a good choice for schools on a budget.

            Why do I like this book so much? First, it’s really interesting. Mark Kurlansky is a good writer, and I am pleased to say that he adapted the book himself from an adult version he wrote. The style is fluid and doesn’t feel dumbed down. Second, I learned a lot reading it. Here are some of the things I learned about: Labrador (where Birdseye lived for a while), refrigeration, the application of science in real world settings, and the role of salt in freezing and thawing. Third, I found Birdseye to be a fascinating character. As Kurlansky tells us, Clarence Birdseye lived a life of adventure and had a healthy dose of curiosity, which he vigorously pursued. In fact, the author describes him as a nerd of the Industrial Revolution because he followed his own unique path.

            Here are three ideas worth sharing with middle school readers, simply because they are so well presented:
1.     How Kurlansky deals with issue of accuracy. According to the author, the story of how Marjorie Post bought Birdseye’s frozen food company is commonly misunderstood. According to the story, the heiress of Postum Cereal Company sailed into Gloucester (where Birdseye lived) and dined on a goose that had been frozen by Birdseye’s company. She was so impressed with the taste of the goose, she pestered her father to buy the company. While this account appeared in both The New York Times and The Washington Post, it is inaccurate and Kurlansky explains why. This is a fine example of historical thinking in action.
2.     How Kurlansky explains why salt follows the rules of nature, but seems to act inconsistently. Do you want to know why salt is used to melt snow and ice, but also as a refrigerant? The author states, “Though salt acts by natural laws, it can do so many different and seemingly contradictory things that it appears to operate by magic.” His explanation is so lucid that it is a great example of clear scientific writing.
3.     How Kurlansky brings in historical context. Both the prologue (“The Nerds of the Industrial Revolution”) and chapter one (“A Fast Changing World”) situate Birdseye as living during a time of great change. He was born at the height of the Industrial Revolution. The author explains that during Birdseye’s life “the rate of original, life-changing inventions being developed and sold was dazzling.” These two chapters are especially strong in showing readers that a person’s life is influenced by the times in which he or she lived.
I think these are three important opportunities Frozen in Time provides for teachers and students. But there is another idea to consider too. How we introduce a book in the classroom should take advantage of what the book offers. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014


I often think that the great secret of nonfiction is structure. That is, no book, no series of books, no ten-part documentary with accompanying website could possibly say all that there is to say about any nonfiction topic. Thus each time an author sets out to write he or she must select how much to discuss and, most crucially, in which order. This fall I am teaching an graduate class in Nonfiction and the Common Core for future K-12 librarians. I think I will devote an entire week to looking at the Table of Contents in many books. The TOC is the spine, the skeleton, on which every word in the book rests and it is entirely a result of choices -- of artistry.

Think of the author's options: in a book about history, s/he can go in chronological sequence. That has the appeal of following a seemingly natural and utterly familiar flow.Yet chronology is not self-evident: what is the pace of events: by date, by event, by theme? And what if, to set up or explain the next beat the author needs to cut away to a distant time or place? Is that best accomplished with a sidebar? With an earlier foreshadowing chapter? Through before and after contrast within the chapter? Through images and captions and maps? When is the march forward of the calendar too much of a snail's pace as against the larger goals and themes of the book -- which expand out from daily events to panoramic vistas and broad conclusions? And all of these questions come only within a chronological structure. What if the author comes to realize that chronology might be best confined to timelines within the book, while the real driving force of the book is thematic questions, or vivid personalities?

What if, when we shared a nonfiction book with students, we first looked at the TOC and tried a thought experiment: how else could this have been organized? What beats might the story have featured? What would have been gained or lost with a different structure? Then, ask them to take some familiar nonfiction subject -- anything from grand events such as the signing of the Declaration of Independence to some event or result that was in the news that day -- and craft two different TOCs to retell it. And here is the kicker: the TOC needs to be linked to the intended reader.

A TOC splits a subject by space. That is, each chapter is so many pages, with this many headings, subheadings, and images. Multiply chapters by pages and you have the full length of the book (setting aside yet more real estate for front and backmatter such as the TOC itself in front and glossary, notes, bibliography, index, etc. in back). Clearly a TOC for a 48 page elementary age book needs to be different from a TOC for a 256 page study.

Analyze the subject to find the most compelling sequence of subjects. Figure out how to move through that sequence within the limitations of space. That is the secret key to creating -- and understanding -- nonfiction.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Writer's Craft and Goodnight Moon

Well-written children's books, particularly those for the very young, can often provide the most valuable lessons in writer's craft. Did you see Aimee Bender's piece for "The Draft" blog of The New York Times, "What Writers Can Learn from 'Goodnight, Moon'?" It was also on page 9 of the Review section of Sunday's paper. Bender dissects the book spread-by-spread.

Structure is something I enjoy exploring as both a reader and a writer. I'm fascinating by how much hinges on the structure, how a book can become so many other books simply by changing the organizing structure of the text in ways large and small, obvious and subtle. When discussing the book's move from the bedroom to the stars in the sky, "goodnight nobody," Bender writes, "[f]or writers, this is all such a useful reminder. Yes, move around in a structure. But also float out of that structure."  How do we teach young writers to "move around in" and "float out of" structure as they write?

Understanding the structural choices a writer makes is one of the essential pivot points as one moves from reader to writer, whether it's a conscious or unconscious pivot. Young children do it all the time as they unconsciously adopt the structures and motifs of stories they love, often choosing to encode before they decode. They have absorbed structures of writing they have heard and use them in their own work. As children get older, they can adopt those structures in more specific and conscious ways.

Over a decade ago, I was teaching a course in children's literature to high school seniors, students I once taught as 8th or 9th graders. So many of them were able to acquire the meta-cognitive thinking strategies about reading, writing, and literary analysis at a more sophisticated level when first working with (in many cases, deceptively) simple texts. They could then pivot off of those experiences to work with more "age appropriate" texts.

All of us have a lot to learn about writing from Goodnight Moon. I'm teaching my nonfiction class this weekend, and while Goodnight Moon is fiction, I may use Bender's column as another entry point into talking about discussing text structure, particularly those at work in nonfiction picture books. Let me know if you do, too.