Thursday, November 29, 2012

Aloha - Anniversary, Nonfiction, and Common Core Combo

I have been off the grid for a few weeks.  Celebrating my 25th Wedding Anniversary in our 50th State - Yes – Hawaii! And of course no celebration would be complete without presenting a workshop on the Common Core and Nonfiction.  I really wasn’t sure if I was more excited about being in Hawaii or getting to do a presentation in one of the best locations on this planet.

I presented a workshop for the Hawaii Association of School Librarians (HASL) on a Saturday morning program with over 30 attendees.  Several attendees joined us remotely via the Internet from other islands.  Marc Aronson joined us via Web-ex for part of the workshop.  Our main focus was on Common Core, Nonfiction, and the important role point of view has in the standards as well as reviewing what a “cluster of resources” would look like.  Attendees had time to work in groups and create clusters before the workshop drew to a close.  This HASL Help session just flew by.   I brought several autographed copies of Marc’s latest book The Skull in the Rock to giveaway but the big hit of the morning was Marc and Marina’s book – Sugar Changed the World – I gave away five autographed copies of this book.  Sugar has a rich history in Hawaii.

Several unique resources were uncovered in my research for this workshop.  The workshop was held at the Pearl Ridge Elementary School Library on Oahu and our host librarian was Loretta Nelson.  I want to thank Loretta for helping me pull out great local samples of resources right from the library shelves to use during the workshop. 

I created a cluster of resources on sugar plantations from the library catalog within several moments.
The resource that intrigued me the most was the – Register of the Grove Farm Plantation records and papers of George N. Wilcox, Samuel W. Wilcox, Emma L. Wilcox, Elsie H. Wilcox and Mabel I. Wilcox, Lihue, Kauai, HI : Grove Farm Homestead, 1982.  This 114 page soft cover booklet provides a detailed description of the life that was Grove Farm Plantation – right down to specific household inventory when the estate was settled.   

This cluster started with Sugar Changed the World for the broad perspective and then narrowed down to the local history of Grove Farm Plantation booklet then I added a work of fiction titled – Plantation Child and Other Stories by Eve Begley Kiehm.  We then moved into electronic resources, which included the resources available at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, which currently has an exhibit showing until the Summer of 2013 entitled Tradition and Transition: Stories of Hawai‘i Immigrants.  The museum has a searchable library and archive of artifacts as well for educators to use.

Web resources to include:  Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association – Plantation Archives and one of the best web sites I would recommend is the Hawaii Plantation Village web site which is an outdoor history museum that tells the story of the life on Hawaii’s Sugar Plantations (1850 – 1950) Great resource with PDF at bottom of the web site front page. 

You could add more resources about sugar plantations from around the world or focus in on a specific geographic location.  You could compare and contrast different types of plantations.  What was different about a tobacco plantation or a cotton plantation as compared to a sugar plantation?  Students can research to find evidence and first hand accounts of life on plantations.  There are many variables to include in a cluster of this nature.

I want to thank Patty Louis and Diane Mokuau, Co-Presidents of HASL and Michelle Colte, VP of Programming at HASL for the wonderful welcome and to all the enthusiastic participants on a Saturday morning. Mahalo!  I look forward to a return trip very soon:)

See the November 2012 Issue of School Library Journal for more on clustering in the article that Marc and I just has published. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Learning Network: A Wonderful Source of Nonfiction Teaching Ideas and Materials

Are you interested in getting something for nothing? Read on. In my last post, I featured, an excellent source of teaching ideas and materials that incorporate primary sources. Today's post features another great website with enough high quality free material to make a your heart sing. Both websites will help you incorporate Common Core standards in your teaching.

Today's website is The Learning Network: Teaching and Learning with The New York Times. You can find it at To get an overview of this site, begin by reading "Twelve Ways to Use The Learning Network Blog This School Year" at Here you will find a link to a short video that provides an overview of the entire website, an invitation to sign up for a weekly e-mail newsletter, and a description of twelve features you can use, with links to each one. Are you interested in Common Core-aligned lesson plans? Ideas for teaching vocabulary? A place to get you and your students published?
Poems paired with New York Times articles? Activities to use with the daily newspaper? These things are all a click away. Wow!

In this post I highlight Common Core Practice, a weekly feature found at this site at Although this feature is designed for high school students, many of the ideas can be adapted for younger students. Each week three different writing tasks are provided--narrative, argumentative, and expository--all connected to CC standards. Each task is based on material from The New York Times, which you can freely access. In addition, there is a three-part lesson addressed to students:
1. Your Task: A clearly written, engaging challenge for student writing
2. Before You Do This Task, You Might...: Helpful prewriting activities
3. Extension Activities: Ways to further investigate the topic and the task
Not only are students reading The New York Times, they are applying current information in their writing. This is challenging and meaningful.

There are also a number of CCSS-related activities for younger students. A good place to begin is with "Great Ways to Teach Any Day's Times" at's-times. Here you can access a collection graphic organizers, games and fun, discussion starters, word play activities, and a collection of maps to fill in.

Common Core State Standards provide us with rigorous goals, but it's up to us to design the curriculum for meeting these goals. The good news is that there are sources like The Learning Network that can assist us in this process.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Debate Continues....

Readers of our blog may be interested in the following blog from The New York Times, discussing the debate about the new ratios of literature and nonfiction/informational text demanded by the Common Core State Standards by the time students are in high school: "What Should Children Read?" Sara Mosle, an English teacher, makes an important case about why students need to read more well-written nonfiction: as mentor texts, or models, for their own writing. In the interest of full disclosure, the author mentions one of fellow Uncommon Corps member Marc Aronson's books, Sugar Changed as the World, as an example of engaging literary nonfiction for young people. Perhaps you can share Mosle's piece with your colleagues after the Thanksgiving break, to help further the conversation about selecting age-appropriate, well-written nonfiction texts of all modalities in your school. In and of itself, it is an effective example of how well-written, short engaging nonfiction texts on relevant topics can generate authentic and purposeful dialogue between readers of all ages. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

Literature Circles: Scientists in the Field Series

This summer, in my Exploring Nonfiction in the Elementary and Middle School Classroom course at Lesley University, one of my students, Jenn Carter, suggested using The Scientists in the Field series for a Literature Circle exploration at the middle level. It could be conducted purely in language arts, studying writer's craft in nonfiction or as an integrated unit in language arts and science, exploring the connection between animal habitats and our developing world.  Here are some of Jenn's ideas, shared with her permission.
Part One: Building Background Knowledge
1.     Get into your groups based upon your chosen animal topic.
a.      Elephants
b.     Frogs
c.      Whales
d.     Bees
e.      Polar Bears
f.       Wolves
g.      Gorillas

2.     Visit the PBS Nature website and watch the video program that corresponds with your topic.

a.      An Elephant to Remember
b.     Frogs: The Thin Green Line
c.      The Fellowship of the Whale
d.     Silence of the Bees
e.      Bears of the Last Frontier: Arctic Wanderers
f.       In the Valley of the Wolves
g.      Gorilla King

3.     Use a graphic organizer to take notes on the video.  What do you notice about how the information is presented in the video?  What type of organization is utilized?

4.     Work in your groups to fill out the first two columns of the KWLR chart.
Part Two: Reading, Questioning, and Gathering Information
1.     Choose the Scientists in the Field series book that corresponds with your topic.
a.      The Elephant Scientist
b.     The Frog Scientist
c.      The Whale Scientist
d.     Hive Detectives
e.      The Polar Bear Scientist
f.       Once a Wolf
g.      Gorilla Doctors

2.     As a group, do a picture-walk through the text.   Use the graphic organizer provided to make predictions and gather information about how the text is organized and what information is included.  Use pictures, captions, headings, sidebars, and other text features to help you.

3.     Before reading, preview the During Reading Questions provided.

During Reading Questions:
1.     Who is the scientist?  What is his or her background?
2.     What is the central problem or question the scientist is trying to solve or answer?
3.     How does this problem or question relate to the animals’ contact with humans?
4.     How does the researcher use the scientific method to help them solve the problem or answer the question?
5.     Describe the results of the research.  What new information is uncovered?
6.     How is the book organized?  How does this type of organization help you to understand the topic?

4.     Read the book (independent-read, pair-read, group read-aloud) and use sticky notes to mark the text as you find answers to the During Reading Questions, the questions from your KWLR chart, as well as other information you find interesting.

5.     Discuss with your group what you learned.  As a group, complete your KWLR chart and your During Reading Questions worksheet.

 Part Three: Sharing What You Learned
1.     Work together in your groups to develop a presentation on your book.  Your presentation should cover the following subtopics:
a.      Background information and the scientist and the animal being studied
b.     A description of the research question and the process the scientist uses to find an answer to that question
c.      A description of the research results
d.     A description of how the book is organized
e.      Your opinion of the book.  Was it interesting to you?  Why or why not?
Your presentation should be no more than 20 minutes in length and should include visuals and other strategies to engage your audience. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Great Website for "Reading" Teachers...and That Means All of Us

I am really happy to share with you information about a website that does something critically important and does it well. It applies CCSS Reading Anchor Standards to Primary Source Images (photographs). The website is called Primary Source Nexus and can be accessed at  The site is a joint project of the Teaching with Primary Sources (TPS) program of the Library of Congress and the Barat Education Foundation. All content area teachers should find this useful.

Here are a few things you can find at this site:
Connecting to the Common Core—Analyzing Primary Source Images
There is a table showing how each of the ten CCSS Reading Anchor Standards corresponds to a photo analysis skill at

Connecting to the Common Core—Image Questions & Responses

You can learn how to apply Taffy Raphael's Question-Answer Relationships to photo analysis at
Here you will find an explanation of QAR, a photograph to analyze, and a link to a student handout for applying QAR.

Connecting to the Common Core—Primary Source Triangle

You can learn how to apply Dr. Bertie Kingore's thinking triangle to photographs, an activity for dealing with the visual equivalent CCSS Anchor Standard 2. Go to:
Here you will find an explanation of this activity, a photograph to use for analysis, and a link to a student handout for creating a thinking triangle.

There's a lot more on the homepage of the website. In fact, each activity provides links to other related activities—all of which are related to CCSS. This website is informative and practical. Check it out and consider signing up to receive email notification of new posts.

Sites like this one provide helpful reminders of the CCSS connections we can make while reading, writing, and having conversations about social studies and science topics.

Friday, November 9, 2012

More on Author Studies

In my last blog entry, I discussed the topic of nonfiction author studies.  I’d like to expand on the idea by using the books of one of the best nonfiction writers for young adults, Jim Murphy.  As with studies of fiction authors, a class could focus together on one book; students could break into small groups that each focus on a book; or each student could choose a book, meaning that some books would be studied by more than one student.  Here are ways to approach some of Murphy’s titles:
Read-aloud   Murphy’s 2012 The Giant and How He Humbugged America, which is 112 pages but heavily illustrated, could be read aloud to the whole class. Murphy tells the story of a hoax involving a 10-foot seemingly petrified giant in 1869 upstate New York.  Possible topics for group discussion, drawn from the text, include why people were so gullible; the role of the media; and the lack of expertise at the time.  Be sure to read the author’s note in which Murphy describes how he came to the topic.
 Compare with another book  Have students read and compare Murphy’s The Real Benedict Arnold to Steve Sheinkin’s The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, and Bravery, an exercise which meets Common Core ELA anchor standard 9 to analyze two texts on the same topic in order to build knowledge and compare approaches.
 Visual elements Murphy’s skillful use of visual elements lends itself to analysis, aligned to anchor standard 7 that looks at how different media including illustrations, diagrams, and the like convey information.  In The Great Fire, Murphy uses the same map several times with indications of when and where the fire spread.  Have students consider how effective the maps are compared to descriptions of the same information.  In Inside the Alamo, some of the paintings and other illustrations reproduced in the book were created years after the historic event and glorified it.  Captions highlight inaccuracies in the depictions.  Have students consider how this compares to altering photographs today and the implications for our understanding of history.
 Fiction tie-ins   Pair a well-written novel set in a time and place covered by a Murphy nonfiction book.  Pair A Young Patriot: The American Revolution as Experienced by One Boy in which a young revolutionary soldier spends time at Valley Forge with Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson, in which the protagonist is also at Valley Forge.  Another Anderson’s Fever 1793 is set in the time and place of Murphy’s An American Plague, so they work well together.  Pair Murphy’s new Invincible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never-Ending Search for a Cure with Queen of Hearts by Martha Brooks, in which a teenage girl comes of age in a TB sanitorium in the early 1940s.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Cross-Pollination: New Models for Professional Development

Each Friday for the past two weeks, I have been on the road providing professional development on nonfiction literature. On Friday, October 26th, I was at the School Library Journal 2012 Leadership Summit in Philadelphia, serving as moderator of a panel of nonfiction authors (Steve Sheinkin, Sally Walker, Barbara Kerley, and Deborah Hopkinson) discussing nonfiction and the new Common Core State Standards. As moderator, my role was to frame each of their latest books in the context of their similarities and differences, and the connections teachers can make from those similarities and differences to specific aspects of the CCSS. As a teacher educator, I was speaking with nonfiction authors about how teachers can use their work in the classroom, but for an audience of primarily school librarians, who will be the catalysts for this approach to nonfiction at their own schools. Teachers, authors, and librarians coming together to best serve kids: a great model, and one that here at the Uncommon Corps, we are trying to spread. As participants in the Summit as a whole, Sue Bartle and I got to network with passionate school librarians from across the country; there was a great sense of possibility regarding the role of nonfiction in classrooms.

This past Friday, I spent the day in Mayville, New York, again with Sue Bartle, as well as Marc Aronson, and Lee Berger, the paleoanthropologist in South Africa who discovered the two most complete partial skeletons ever uncovered thus far of our pre-human ancestors. Marc and Lee have coauthored a new book for the intermediate-middle grades with National Geographic, Skull in the Rock, and our workshop was grounded in providing professional development for schools teams (librarians and teachers of all content areas) on nonfiction literature, with an emphasis on disciplinary literacy. Sue Bartle was the orchestra conductor for this workshop, as well as its brainchild. Myra Zarnowksi, our Uncommon Core colleague, was originally part of this planning as well. Lee launched the day with a discussion of australopithecus sediba and the unfolding discoveries teams of scientists are making based on the skeletons at Malapa. From there, Marc walked the audience through the book itself, and how Lee's research and life history helped to shape and frame the structure and format of the book as well as the writing style. After lunch, I presented on the ways in which Skull in the Rock can be used for a variety of roles in the classroom, as well as the more general models from Teaching with Text Sets for scaffolding nonfiction into language arts and the content areas. If you're interested in learning more about what we explored, you can go to the blog we created for the event:

What did these events both have in common? Cross-pollination. It's not enough anymore for language arts teachers to just meet with language arts teachers, or librarians to just meet with librarians. Authors can no longer be on the periphery of professional development for teachers and librarians, the window dressing of an end-of-day book signing. We also need to bring content specialists, including world-famous scientists like Lee, into the fold. Friday's model consisted of a content specialist, and an author, followed-up by a teacher. Our audience was a combination of teachers and librarians, and in the best case scenarios, they were teams of teachers and librarians from the same school. What other models like this are out there? What kinds of interesting professional development have you been doing in your district that also involves this kind of cross-pollination? For new nonfiction books, it seems that publishers and school districts should seize this opportunity to have the specialists featured in the books speak directly to teachers and librarians along with the authors. We can take students to a deeper, richer level when we collaborate together with a common purpose. When we bring content specialists in who are, quite literally, changing our world for us, or allowing us to see the world anew, it serves as a catalyst and creates tremendous energy. On Friday, we were all channeling our inner Indiana Jones. Isn't that what we want for kids, too?