Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Looking at Craft: CCSS in Action
            I want to share with you my experience teaching a CCSS inspired lesson to my graduate students at Queens College. Fortunately for me, I get to teach a class called “History through Children’s Literature,” and each week we discus books through two lenses—history and literature—and how to share these books with children.

            Our recent focus was on Night Flight, a picture book written by Robert Burleigh and illustrated by Wendell Minor. This book describes Amelia Earhart’s 1932 solo flight across the Atlantic, a trip she took exactly five years after Charles Lindberg’s famous flight. To begin our discussion, I asked the students what they thought about the book, a poetic text accompanied by emotionally charged, vibrant paintings.

            Here’s what happened. Every single student talked about the paintings—how intriguing they are because they provide so many different perspectives on Amelia, how well-researched they are, and how “you don’t even have to read the book because the pictures tell it all. You know the story without reading the words.” And while all the students were shaking their heads in agreement and I was weighing how to proceed, one person—and it only takes one—remarked that the language was very rich.

            I took that comment as an invitation to discuss the language—the craft of language as suggested by CCSS. The standards remind us to distinguish between information provided by the illustrations and information provided by the text.They also remind us to examine meaning of domain-specific words and phrases. Night Flight contains a great deal of figurative language—alliteration, similie, metaphor, personification, and repetition. This language is used for a purpose. It helps the reader experience the emotion of the flight—the ups and downs Earhart experienced.

            I shared with my students how the language of the book began by conveying a feeling of calm, then changed to a feeling of tension, and ended with a feeling of calm restored. In effect, readers experienced calm→tension→calm. To demonstrate this, we divided a large sheet of paper into three columns and reread the book, writing down the words and phrases that conveyed these feelings. Here are a few examples (all quotes) of what we found:

              Calm (pp. 1-7)                          Tense (pp. 8-20)                               Calm (pp. 21-27)
The plane swoops like a swallow…

The waves are curls of cream-colored froth.

…wisps of shimmering clouds

The blackness erupts.

Fists of rain pummel the cockpit windshield.

Lightening scribbles its zigzag warning…
The countryside spreads out like a green fan beneath her.

…unbelievable stillness inside her

A great peace wells up.

            Amelia, we see, begins the flight confidently and even has time to enjoy the scene from her window. Yet, it turned into a tough flight. The weather was bad. Her altimeter broke. The wings of the plane iced up. The plane was leaking gas. Yet she successfully landed in Ireland and emerged with a smile. The language of the text, combined with the illustrations helps us experience this.

            I am telling you all of this for a reason. The CCSS, in calling for a rigorous approach to literacy, reminds us to take an in-depth look at nonfiction books. In calling for us to pay attention to the craft of nonfiction, we are reminded by CCSS to think about the language choices authors make. At first my students paid no attention the words as a source of meaning, opting instead to focus entirely on the very appealing and meaningful illustrations. Yet after our discussion and analysis of the words, one student remarked that she had never really thought about looking at the language and another said she would like to try this with her students. In my opinion, that’s the value of CCSS. It opens up avenues of investigation that we might not think about.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Nonfiction Author Studies

Why not do an author study of a nonfiction author?  This combines an activity with which many teachers and students are familiar with a twist, since typically fiction authors get the spotlight.  One approach is to choose an author to study as a class or to highlight in the school library.  A strong, prolific writer makes a great choice.  No matter the grade level, many nonfiction writers fit the bill: Jim Arnosky, Jean Fritz, Candace Fleming, Seymour Simon, Steve Jenkins, Jim Murphy, Tonya Bolden, Susan Bartoletti, Russell Freedman, Sally Walker, to name just a few. 

With your students, gather the books in the library.  You could read a book aloud to the whole group—or part of a book.  Kathleen Krull’s series including Lives of the Musicians and Lives of Extraordinary Women have short biographical sketches great for reading aloud and analyzing with a group.  You could also have individual students or small groups choose different books to read and respond to.  More ambitiously, students could read two books by the same author and compare them.  Common Core reading standards point to possible approaches to analysis: determining central ideas and themes; tracing how individuals or events are developed; analyzing structure; looking at point of view; and so on. 
Another possible approach is that each student or a small team chooses an author. No matter the configuration, researching the author’s life and work will takes students to a variety of resources including print reference books, biographies and autobiographies, the author’s web page, and online interviews at blogs and other websites.  If you have access to, lots of resources are readily available there in one place.
Responses to the books can be traditional such as print posters, booktalks, and book reports, or they can be geared more to the Common Core interest in technology.  Students can create a book trailer using Animoto (  ), Imovie, or a similar tool to respond to  the book they read or share information about the author.  Students who craft a booktalk to share with the group can present it themselves or create a Voki, a talking avatar ( ) that can turn a short written booktalk into a spoken one.  Glogster ( offers a way to create online posters, adding images, text, links, and even videos.  Similarly, Prezi ( is an online tool similar to power point but less linear that works well for author study presentations.
The possibilities are myriad.  A great tool with lots of ideas and resources for fiction or nonfiction projects is the Author Study Toolkits at Reading Rockets ( 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

iPads, Textbooks, and Nonfiction Literature

While driving in to Lesley University yesterday, I listened to "iPads in the Classroom," the first segment of "On Point" on WBUR, one of Boston's public radio stations. The discussion focused on the ways in which iPads can be used as both a tool to deliver content as well as a vehicle for students to create their own content and demonstrate learning. Shayne Evans, from the University of Chicago Charter School, was spot-on when he reminded listeners at several points in the show that the iPad and all that it provides access to in terms of software and content is still merely a tool. The successful implementation of its use in the classroom still depends on the context and purpose established by  the teacher and district leadership. A recurring refrain from Mr. Evans was "both/and." Students need access to cutting edge technology and all that it provides in addition to traditional vehicles of learning, such as small and large group discussions, in order to become knowledgeable young adults who can think both critically and imaginatively.

What bothered me about the segment was not the increasingly widespread use of iPads. Far from it! I think the iPad continues to provide a wide range of students with access to content in multiple formats and platforms that can be harnessed by teachers. English language learners, students on the autism spectrum, students with language-based disabilities, and readers and writers of all ages can benefit from the wide-array of resources available online via websites, apps, and digital books. Teachers can take advantage of the opportunities provided by multimodal learning, so that students can listen to podcasts, watch videos, and explore primary sources available online from some of the most prestigious museums, libraries, and research institutions in the country and around the world. 

What bothered me was that the discussion seemed to perpetuate the same old dichotomy about classroom materials: textbooks versus digital content. The host, the guests, and the callers focused the discussion on an either/or choice: using expensive, out-of-date textbooks or digital content available on an ipad (which might include digitized versions of those textbooks). For so many in the public arena, the world of nonfiction literature for children and young adults remains invisible as a resource for curriculum. Textbooks can have their role in the classroom, but they aren't books, and they are cumbersome to read, making access to content more difficult.  Quality nonfiction, written with a specific range of readers in mind, can capture big ideas, pose important questions, and model disciplinary thinking in specific ways, as Myra's recent post so clearly discusses. Nonfiction for young people in all of its manifestations (ebook, audio, print) can be the bridge between students and the multitude of digital resources, providing a deeper context for digital primary and secondary sources.

How do we get our "public service announcement" about nonfiction literature, which is the focus of this blog, out to a larger audience to help shape the public discourse about the potential of nonfiction to transform classrooms in the digital age?

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Standards, Dear Reader, Lie Not Within the Book, But Within Ourselves

Recently I received an email from a librarian saying that she dreaded seeing a nonfiction book with a shiny sticker placed on it by a publisher saying "common core compliant." Too late. There are already websites touting common core connections as if the standards resided inside the books.  Check out some recent claims. One publisher claims that its titles are aligned with the standards. How? Another claims that its databases are aligned. Again, how is this done? What does this mean?

I am reminded of an article I once read a long time ago in LANGUAGE ARTS entitled "Who's Building Whose Building?" by Dennis Searle. In that article, the author worried that adults who claimed to be scaffolding students' understanding were actually pursuing their own agenda.  I am not worried about nonfiction books or databases pursuing their own agenda when it comes to CCSS.  What I am worried about is the mistaken idea that CCSS lies inside the books. It does not.

Even a cursory examination of CCSS reveals that the connections to be made, the skills to employ, and critical responses are for the students to do with the guidance of a teacher. Books and related items are the raw materials for students to think about. Of course, we need high quality nonfiction to stimulate our thinking.  The productive experience resulting from meeting CCSS standards comes from rigorous engagement with curriculum in science, math, social studies, and language arts. That's where the standards come to life, and that's where we find education that is "core curriculum compliant."

So, I think this all boils down to placing our focus on the integration of curriculum content, materials, and CCSS. That's the crucial alignment. When planning instruction, let's ask these questions: What content am I exploring with students? What material can make this content come alive because it is informative and stimulating? What standards can be incorporated as we study this material?

Right now I am working with my colleague Susan Turkel to plan a second grade unit dealing with plants. This topic is part of the mandated second grade curriculum. We are spending time researching materials. We make decisions about what to use one day and modify these decisions the next. Once we finally decide on materials, we look for openings and opportunities for reading them, discussing them, and writing about them.  These openings will allow students to learn new information and respond to it.  Students will learn about both the content and process of science. Hands-on activities will stimulate even more questions and ideas.  CCSS comes to life when our minds are engaged. That's the true meaning of being CCSS compliant.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

SLJ Webinar Follow-up for Part I On Common Core – Getting Real: Marc Aronson and Sue Bartle Part One of my wrap-up – watch for Part Two on Monday


In this post I am putting together a few resources such as web sites and books that Marc and I discussed in our webinar today for SLJ.

If you missed the webinar – you can find the archive link at:
just scroll down the page, you will see the description of the webinar and will find an archive link shortly.   

Most popular resource of interest to all during the webinar
Stephen Krashen’s web site
You will find a link to the following -  “Is The Library Important? Multivariate Studies at the National and International Level” (Stephen Krashen, Syying Lee, and Jeff McQuillan)

Great PDF about scientific based studies on poverty, reading scores, and access to books.

One of my favorite comments from the article  -
“The effect of poverty on fourth grade reading is enormous, but access to books can contribute to fourth grade reading, regardless of poverty. The analysis also indicates that those who read better in grade four also read better in grade eight, but access to books can help here as well. This agrees with data showing that “late intervention” in the form of recreational reading is not only possible but can be effective (Krashen and McQuillan, 2007)”  

Great news for school and public libraries!

Under our myth section of the webinar:
Where to find Appendix B -
Scroll down and you will find a PDF titled – “English Language Arts – Appendix B” – The real title of this document is – “English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects:  Appendix B:  Text Exemplars and Sample Performance Tasks”

Don’t forget the creation of the Appendix B was started in 2009 and published in 2010.  Each day the list gets older and older.  A major flaw is that it doesn’t tell us why these specific titles were selected.  It gives an extremely brief description on page 2 of the 183 page PDF of how they were selected.  Remember the word Exemplar means Example. 

Right here on our Uncommon Corp website we invite you to help use make a better Appendix B list - the tab labeled:  Appendix B – “Better B” list is where we invite you to help us create a list.  Make your comments and share your resources but you must tell us the rationale as to why this is an outstanding resource to use in Common Core.  Each month beginning in November we will post the comments in a PDF list format for everyone.
A little motivation – those who contribute and leave your name and email will have an opportunity to win an autographed book each month via a random drawing.  Make sure you give a reasonable rationale – you can’t just say it had a good review and won awards.  You need to tell us how this book speaks, does it have a point of view.  Does it use text structure well?  Does it provide an index?  Does it engage the reader? 

Important – David Coleman’s Quote – Where to find it and what is it?

“There is no greater threat to literary study in this country than false imitations of literature which do not deserve to be read. States in this first year of [CCSS] implementation, we beg you, to turn back mediocre or low-rate materials, rather than buy them stamped “Common Core.” If we must wait, it is better than to misrepresent the Standards with second-rate stuff. Please support states and districts in being brave and holding the line on excellence and giving time for a better generation of materials to take hold.”   ---- David Coleman

Cluster One – Treasure Hunt
Thanks to Ayodele Ojumu, Librarian at PS 204 Lafayette High School in Buffalo, NY for sharing this creative idea.  (I really tried hard to properly pronounce your name – Michael Cambria helped me.)
Create a scorecard and have students find nonfiction books that have a variety of text features to discuss and learn about the book before they even read it!  Deconstruct the books together to learn how books are put together and who is responsible for that book – Yes the author but the author tells you about all the resources they used to write that book.  Children need to know this and read about this.  Does it have an index, a table of contents, a bibliography, page numbers, source notes, photos and illustrations with captions? Etc...

My Cluster Example – Topic Display – What text features make this book standout?  Use shelftalkers to draw attention to each book.

Since Winter is upon us – Display Blizzard by Jim Murphy – note with a shelftalker that this book has a great dedication.  Add Snowflake Bentley by Jaqueline Briggs Martin – note the illustrations and actual pictures of snowflakes with a shelftalker.  Then shift gears and display a book about another kind of blizzard – Blizzard of Glass by Sally Walker – and you could round it out with the Children’s Blizzard of 1888 by David Laskin and note the specific detail to information about weather.  Use the Internet and display a copy of the article from the Washington Post dated 1/14/11 titled – “Freak, deadly storm:  Children’s Blizzard of 1888” by Steve Tracton. 
Have students prepare the shelftalkers about each resource – what was special about this book – what stands out when you read it? 

Watch for Part Two on Monday – where you will learn to find cool shelftalkers and more resources discussed in our SLJ webinar.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Thoughts from a Nonfiction Book Group of Adults

                I just got home from the Chinese restaurant where my nonfiction book group has met every eight weeks or so for the last seven years.  The group has been the same the whole time, four men and three women whose jobs include two professors (one psych and the other public policy), one child psychiatrist, two newspaper editors, an elementary school educator, and  a librarian turned reviewer and public speaker.  Tonight’s book, The Violinist’s Thumb and Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code by Sam Kean, gets the prize for the longest title.  Other than that, it got a pretty typical response.  A few people liked it a lot, most of us kind of liked it, and more than one person thought it needed more editing (it did).  I also thought it needed a glossary, something I’m more prone to suggest, perhaps because I read so many kids’ books.

                Having read more than fifty nonfiction books with the book group, I have a few thoughts that can be extended to kids and nonfiction.
1.       Different people like different nonfiction books.  (Only three books have won unanimous approval:  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower;  and a 1997 birding memoir called Kingbird Highway. You can see what else we’ve read plus some proposed books at )   The lesson to apply to working with kids is to offer them as many choices as possible.  There are so many great nonfiction books that children and teens simply aren’t aware of.  Librarians need to promote nonfiction now more than ever with booktalks, displays, booklists, blogs, QR codes, book trailers, and any other means that alerts students to what’s available.
2.       You can have a great discussion about a book that not everyone likes. Or that no one likes. In fact, some of those discussions are more spirited than when the group members all think a book’s great.   Disagreement leads to good exchanges of opinion.  Sometimes one person shows others what they missed in the book or fills in some missing knowledge that makes the book easier to understand or appreciate.
3.       You can learn something from nonfiction books even when they aren’t outstanding.  While I sometimes read a mediocre novel and feel like I’ve wasted my time, I always take something worthwhile away from a nonfiction book as long as the subject matter's interesting.  For example, our least favorite book over the years was Pets in America, a university press book that was oddly well-reviewed.  Unfortunately, the author was intent on including every fact she ran across in researching the topic, resulting in a catalog of information rather than a shaped narrative.  Still, everyone in the group was fascinated by at least some part of the book, such as the description of a time when squirrels were house pets.  
4.       Choice is a great motivator in reading a book.  This is especially true for readers who think they don’t like nonfiction.  In the book group, we make our choices by members proposing books they’ve read about or heard about but haven’t read yet.  We then look at reviews, talk about it, and agree as a group.  I would be considerably less excited about reading if someone else’s taste always dictated the selection.  For this reason, it’s ideal--as has been mentioned elsewhere in this blog--for teachers to offer some assignments where students get choice in their nonfiction reading.   The students might be restricted to choosing among a group of books gathered by the teacher or a librarian, but that kind of choice is still better than always having readings assigned.
            In case you’re wondering, our next book will be Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary.  It was my suggestion and I can’t wait to read it.

New Resources

If you have not already seen it, last week the International Reading Association (IRA) published a white paper, "Literacy Implementation Guidelines for the ELA Common Core State Standards." The IRA webpage has a Common Core Resources section, as does the National Council of Teachers of English.

Back in September, Julie Corsaro, Past President of the Association for Library Service to Children and former member of Newbery and Caldecott Committees, published interviews with Marc and Mary Ann for her NoveList column.  Reading both interviews, Marc's "Common Core: It's Not Happening Without the Librarian" and Mary Ann's "Common Core: Authentic Reading, Writing, Listening and Speaking, gives you a chance to explore how teachers and librarians can work together. Thanks to Julie for helping us spread the word about the exciting ways that nonfiction can transform curriculum.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

What I Am Learning About the CC From Meeting Teachers and Librarians

I came to the CC ELA standards through text and imagination: I read them, liked them, and could easily envision the kind of K-12 education they were designed to foster. But a standard is not the same as a practice. Being on the road with Sue Bartle visiting schools and meeting both teachers and librarians has been immensely valuable. I am learning about at least some of the challenges they face, but that is also pointing to new solutions.

One major issue on the teacher side, especially for High School instructors is that -- for now -- they are trapped between assessment paradigms. In New York, and I assume many other states, their students still take Regents exams which rely heavily on identify and define facts. Every teaching year is a game of Russian Roulette, because no teacher can possibly "cover" everything that might be on a Regents exam, so s/he has to guess. But any area which was not reviewed in class is likely to be a hole in student knowledge, which will result in poor Regents scores -- bad for the student, bad for the teacher, bad for the school.

And here comes the CC, which emphasizes depth over breadth, explicitly disavows broad "coverage" and stresses historiography (comparing and contrasting approaches to history) as much as history (what happened in the past). Teachers guessing and gasping to run on the Regents treadmill now have a second master insisting that they trot in the opposite direction.

What can they do? On one level this is an administrator's problem -- one we must keep pushing back to the planners, demanding that they reconcile these objectives. But on another the US cavalry, the heroes to the rescue should be the librarians. You have the chance to meet with students, or craft displays, that show how different historians treat different subjects -- or how a subject might look different from a male, female, rich, poor, enslaved, free, older, younger...point of view. Even as the classroom teachers are racing through names and dates, make your library the home of conversation, discussion, debate among books, videos, databases, articles. Your area can be the playpen of the very kinds of historiographical debate the teacher has no time to offer, but every need to present to his/her students.

How? Meet with your teachers, find out what differing approaches to their upcoming unit might be, hunt existing books, adult books, ILL books, and web resources that feature those approaches, and create displays that draw attention to these disagreements.

The teacher is grateful, the librarian has a new centrality, the students are exposed to new ideas. I told you, I like the CC, even when it exposes problems.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Science-Mystery Connection

As we introduce more nonfiction in the classroom, I have great hopes that more science books will be read and discussed across the grades.  But not just any science book will do.  If we truly want to help students understand the nature of science as scientists know it, then the books we select have to reveal authentic contexts for scientific inquiry. That means that at least some of the books students read and discuss should show scientists engaged in problem solving, collaboration, and the development of new scientific knowledge. Readers need to see what scientists do.

One promising way to introduce  science books is through the idea mystery. Perhaps you have noticed that many science books use words like mystery, detectives, clues, and evidence in their titles and in the written text. I think there is a good reason for this. Scientists are like detectives in many ways. They deal with puzzling questions, collect and analyze evidence, and work collaboratively with other scientists. If you have read The Case of the Vanishing Frogs: A Scientific Mystery by Sandra Markle you know what I mean. Right from the beginning, the author shows readers that they are dealing with a true mystery: What is causing the Panamanian golden frogs to die?

In the past, teachers and classroom researchers have reported that even very young readers like mystery stories—that is, realistic fiction mystery stories. They enjoy thinking about puzzling situations, considering the clues, evaluating the evidence, and reaching conclusions. I suggest that we capitalize on this enthusiasm by showing these same readers that nonfiction science books share these enticing features. Like crime detectives, scientists, too,  deal with puzzling situations, gathering and evaluating evidence, and coming to conclusions.

Of course, there are also significant differences between fiction and nonfiction mysteries. The most significant difference is that scientists can never completely solve a mystery. As they answer one question, new questions arise. So the enjoyment readers get when they read science mysteries comes from participating in a continuous process, not one that is wrapped up and solved for good. A second difference is that authors of nonfiction science mysteries are obliged to tell the truth. They can’t make up any “facts” or distracting details in order to make a better story. Aside from that, the parallels between fiction and nonfiction mysteries are strong and, in my opinion, provide a very useful foundation for teaching.

Below are several titles you can use to introduce the science-mystery connection. I have written the “mystery” connection in each title in bold.

Berger, Lee R., & Aronson, Marc. (2012). The Skull in the Rock: How a Scientist, a Boy, and Google Earth Opened a New Window on Human Origins. Washington, DC: National Geographic.
Hague, Bradley. (2012). Alien Deep: Revealing the Mysterious Living World at the Bottom of the Ocean. Washington, DC: National Geographic.

Hodgkins, Fran. (2007). The Whale Scientists: Solving the Mystery of Whale Strandings. Boston, MA: Houghton.

Jurmain, Suzanne. (2009). The Secret of the Yellow Death: A True Story of Medical Sleuthing. Boston, MA: Houghton.

Kirkpatrick, Katherine. (2011). Mysterious Bones: The Story of Kennewick Man. New York, NY: Holiday House.

Thimmesh, Catherine. (2009). Lucy Long Ago: Uncovering the Mystery of Where We Came From. Boston, MA: Houghton.

To discuss these books, consider raising the following “mystery” questions:
   What is the problem that scientists are trying to solve?
   Who is working on the problem? How do they work together?
   What evidence have they collected?
   What have they learned?
   What else would they like to know?

The science-mystery connection captures the role of scientists as active problem solvers. As we teach more content—which is a good thing—we should also keep in mind that science is a human endeavor. It is the result of wondering, pursuing possibilities, and making tentative claims. It’s about dealing with the mysteries that surround us.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Teaching with Text Sets

The adoption of the Common Core State Standards by so many states has generated much discussion on the role of nonfiction in the language arts and content area curriculum. What does it mean to have 50% of elementary school reading be comprised of informational/nonfiction texts? What does that look like? I worry that the discussions do not get past the dichotomy of fiction vs. informational text/ nonfiction to get at the heart of the possibilities that stand before us. What happens when we move past the dichotomy, and start thinking about curriculum that uses multiple genres and text types simultaneously? How can text sets help students of all ages critique information, connect with communities around the world, compare and contrast multiple perspectives, and construct new texts?

I am proud to announce that today is the official publication date for Teaching with Text Sets, a professional book for teachers that I have co-authored with my Lesley University colleague Erika Thulin Dawes. In the book, we demonstrate how to create, organize, and use multigenre, multimodal text sets as a tool for teaching elementary and middle school language arts and content.  If you'd like to see examples of two of our specific text models, head over to The Classroom Bookshelf. You can also learn more about the book at Shell Education or Amazon