Friday, September 27, 2013

Fact and Fiction Fused in Play

My daughter Ella is obsessed with birds. Her favorite birds are tropical, but she is fascinated by all of them. When did this start? Last January, when her second grade class studied the tropical rainforest. Ella really wanted to study the Toco Toucan, but another student did, too, and so Ella formally researched the Capybara (the world’s largest rodent, for those of you who don’t know) instead. But she didn’t let the Capybara stop her from learning about the Toco Toucan. In fact, it spurred her on. Why am I writing about this on a professional blog, you may wonder? Because what I saw unfold in and out of school last year continues to impact her life now, and there is a lesson for all of us in the fusion of reading and writing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in the context of genuine inquiry and exploration in the classroom.

Many primary grade teachers have spent the past ten years focusing almost exclusively on reading, writing, and math skills because of the statewide assessments demanded by No Child Left Behind. But for many students, it’s exploring the world, puzzling over maps, studying animals, and examining artifacts from different cultures and time periods that serve as the catalyst for reading and writing. This is where the new focus on having elementary school children read 50% informational text over the course of their school year is so exciting. Not only will this, hopefully, bring back more science and social studies instruction in the elementary school so that students aren’t starting from scratch when they reach middle school, but it will allow for authentic exploration of nonfiction texts not solely in the context of language arts and genre study, but in the context of learning content, of experiencing the world. Learning about the world and reading a range of nonfiction texts is not boring, it’s liberating. It does not fence off the imagination, it fuels it.

Ella continues to love learning about birds, and has enough exposure to fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, that she knows how to read to learn and write to show what she’s learned. In her spare time, she reads nonfiction books and websites, observes birds at zoos and in the backyard, and watches videos and documentaries on endangered birds. She takes what she has learned about birds and uses the information to write fictional stories with birds as characters, songs, and nonfiction texts that inform the reader. 

But she has also created a new activity: Birdnastics, where birds experience a fusion of gymnastics and dance.  Her collection of stuffed birds has grown, and when she comes home from school, they are often taking classes such as “Seed Splitting and Spitting” or “Camouflage” at her imaginary school. Fact and fiction are fused in play, incorporating the best of what she’s learned within her own imaginary world.

Learning about endangered birds and the endangered rain forest has also fueled Ella’s sense of activism. She wanted to donate money to the Nature Conservancy on her birthday, and she’s policing our purchases of chocolate and coffee to ensure that we are buying Fair Trade.
For Ella, what began in school has spilled out into her personal life. We have been able to witness how her passion and curiosity has fueled her learning. There are many children who do not have access to texts at home, who do not have time and resources to do research as a personal hobby. For those children, they need school to be the catalyst, to be the place where fact and fiction are fused in play, where choosing to write fiction or nonfiction about a topic they are exploring is an avenue for agency and engagement with their learning. They need these wrap-around experiences in science and social studies to reinforce and extend what they are learning about language in language arts. 

I fear that too many schools are thinking about the Common Core Standards as simply a checklist of things they have to do, rather than an opportunity to reorient learning as emancipatory, as a way for students of all ages to use print and digital texts to interact with the world beyond school, and perhaps even try to change it.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Teens in the Civil Rights Movement

The historic Civil Rights Movement is very much in the news these days, with the anniversary of the March on Washington, the Children’s Crusade March in Birmingham, and more.  The next several years will bring other anniversaries of important events to remember and ponder.  Fortunately, books for young people offer a rich array of nonfiction on the Civil Rights Movement.  Since children and teens played a vital role in the movement, focusing on them is an excellent way to narrow the topic.  Middle and high school readers may be more engaged than usual with these history books because the main actors are young people.  For young people today who may feel they make little difference in their world, the accounts of teens who did may be a real inspiration. 

Two excellent books that introduce a lot of young people and the dangers they faced to further civil rights are Cynthia Levinson’s We've Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children's March (Peachtree, 2012) and Elizabeth Partridge’s Marching for Freedom: Walk Together, Children, and Don't You Grow Weary (Viking, 2009).  Students could compare these books for the Common Core, looking at structure, voice, use of photographs, and more.

 Two books that give personal views of the integration in 1957 of Little Rock High are Melba Patillo Beals’ Warriors Don't Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High (Pocket, 1995) and Shelley Tougas’s Little Rock Girl 1957: How a Photograph Changed the Fight for Integration  (Compass Point, 2012).  Both concern girls who were among the nine students to integrate the high school amidst hostility and even violence.  The Beals book is a powerful memoir; the Tougas book is a photo-essay that focuses on a photograph of Elizabeth Eckford, another of the Nine.  They could be used together, with the Beals’ book suitable for stronger readers and the Tougas book for those who need shorter texts and more visual support.

 Two other excellent texts highlight teens who made a significant difference. Claudette Colvin: Twice toward Justice (Melanie Kroupa, 2009) by Phillip Hoose tells of a teenage girl who not only refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery before Rosa Parks but later was one of the plaintiffs when civil rights leaders sued in federal court to end segregation on the buses.  Because Hoose interviewed multiple times, Colvin’s voice conveys her difficult, important story.

 John Stokes was also part of a major civil rights lawsuit, Brown v. Board of Education.  He tells his powerful story, with Lois Wolfe and Herman J. Viola, in Students on Strike: Jim Crow, Civil Rights, Brown, and Me (National Geographic, 2008).  When Stokes was a high school student in Virginia in the 1950s, he attended an all-black school under the “separate equal doctrine.”  But it was far from equal to the white school in resources and facilities.  He and his fellow students wanted to protest to get better conditions but ended up, with some reluctance, joining a lawsuit to integrate the schools. The tough choice brought violent reactions and shocking retaliation from the county government.

These are all moving stories of great courage, of kids who put themselves and their families in danger in seeking a better future, a future with less injustice.  They faced threats, violence, prison cells, police dogs, and more – to make life better future not just for themselves but for those who came after them.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Education Issue

Last night, I read "The Education Issue" of The New York Times Magazine." Two articles made me think about the role of nonfiction books in K-12 classrooms: "Can Emotional Intelligence Be Taught?" and "No Child Left Untableted." The first article discusses the ways in which some schools are intentionally teaching children how to identify emotions and "reframe" their responses to specific situations. The second discusses the rise of the tablet computer in classrooms and how one county in North Carolina purchased over 15,000 of one particular kind of tablet for its middle school students and teachers.

Now, I happen to think that teaching children and young adults how to navigate their emotional terrain and learn how to work together in community makes sense, particularly when they are bombarded with anger in all forms of their daily life -- from the halls of Congress, to the school cafeteria, to Dance Moms. Kids need help making sense of how the world works, how to read facial cues, how to control their emotions and their voices in heated debates, how to move beyond what they think someone meant in order to actually have a dialogue about what they did. If teachers don't help students do that, some will never learn. And to pretend that conflict doesn't exist within a classroom or outside in the halls makes no sense. Everyone suffers. Kids need tools and strategies. But do I think you need to buy an expensive program to do this? No. Certainly, I'm biased, but in my work with middle and high school students over the years, we learned to have those conversations in the context of exploring literature and history, through the voices of the present and the past. Having sustained discussion, creating a classroom context in which students can safely talk about texts but also talk about themselves, their world, their conflicts, matters. Not just in order to develop the speaking and listening skills they need or to cite evidence from the text to demonstrate critical thinking, but because it helps them to develop empathy and understanding of lives beyond their own. Nonfiction books can help students and teachers have those conversations, can bring the world into the classroom and the classroom out into the world. Teachers need to be know about those trade books, have the ability to choose the trade books best able to to meet the needs and interests of their particular community, and have the funds to purchase them. Most schools don't have that money. Or, it is not permitted to spend it on something as "risky" as trade books. 

Guilford County, North Carolina has a lot of money to spend, thanks to Race to the Top. The author of the second article writes, "The tablets, paid for in part by a $30 million grant from the federal Department of Education’s Race to the Top program, were created and sold by a company called Amplify, a New York-based division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, and they struck me as exemplifying several dubious American habits now ascendant: the overvaluing of technology and the undervaluing of people; the displacement of face-to-face interaction by virtual connection; the recasting of citizenship and inner life as a commodified data profile; the tendency to turn to the market to address social problems." As I read the second article, I wondered what kinds of discussions might not take place in Guilford County, North Carolina this year because of the pressure teachers must feel to maximize their use of the tablet computers. 

I do not believe in a false dichotomy between print and digital texts. I think that as educators, we need to use all types of texts and genres with students to explore the world. Students need to be reading and writing multigenre and multimodal texts as well as traditional text types. But when one company is deciding the reading material for thousands of children, and a school district abdicates that responsibility, I am afraid. Why does it seem okay to take those decisions away from the teachers and librarians who know children best? I love tablet computers for their portability of content, for the ways in which students can construct texts. I couldn't teach without the range of digital resources my university's library provides through its databases. But I am the one who decides what my students read. And when I taught middle and high school, I was the one who decided what my students read. Or they decided. 

What kinds of nonfiction trade books won't be in the classrooms of Guilford County this year? Will those middle school students have access to complete chapter-length nonfiction texts that they read cover to cover, selected by a teacher or librarian who knows them and their community? Will those students explore science and social studies through sustained narrative arcs, written by skillful writers who connect the present and the past and themes that resonate, in different ways, throughout time? Or will they merely be drowning in short bits of information?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Adaptations of Adult Nonfiction Books

Back in the 1980s when I became a children's librarian, I had a negative perception of books written for adults that had then been adapted for children.  I can't remember any actual titles but I recall thinking they were probably all hatchet jobs.  I'm happy to say that's no longer the case.  A number of fine adaptations of nonfiction have been published in the past few decades, mostly aimed at middle schoolers.

This morning I compiled a Pinterest Board that I called, in my usual imaginative way, "YA Nonfiction Books Adapted from Adult Nonfiction." (  Right now it has 15 books that I've read and enjoyed, plus a Spanish version of a book I read in English.  In only one case have I read both the adult and the teen version: Mayflower and The Mayflower and the Pilgrims' New World, both by Nathaniel Philbrick and both excellent.

Many of the books made it onto bestseller lists in their adult version, typically ones on historical subjects like James Bradley's Flags of Our Fathers, which kept the same title for young people, and James L. Swanson's Manhunt, published for young people as Chasing Lincoln's Killer.

Most of the books on my Pinterest board were published in the 2000s, but two of my favorites came out in the 1990s.  I often recommend Warriors Don't Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High by Melba Pattillo Beals for teen book clubs or classrooms.  Beals was one of the Little Rock Nine who helped change the world in 1957, and her story never feels old or less moving.

Nor has Michael Collins' story in Flying to the Moon, based in part on his Carrying the Fire, lost its drama.  He describes being the astronaut who piloted the command module while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took the first moon walk.  He was the first person alone on the dark side of the moon.  Like Beals, he's a fine writer with a gripping tale to tell.  

 Two recent adaptations speak to the lives of very different young Hispanic men.  In They Call Me a Hero: A Memoir of My Youth (available in Spanish as well as English), Daniel Hernandez recounts his role in helping save Representative Gabby Giffords's life in 2011.  Of Mexican descent, Hernandez writes about his upbringing and his determination to succeed, discounting his label as a "hero" and focusing on what matters most to him. 

Enrique's Journey: The True Story of a Boy Determined to Reunite with His Mother by Sonia Nazario, based on her adult book and Pulitzer Prize winning L.A. Times articles, is the devastating account of a Honduran teenager who rides on train tops through Guatemala and Mexico trying to reach his mother in the U.S.  Time and time again, he's sent back to Honduras or Guatemala by immigration police.  More than once he's robbed and beaten by gangs.  He finally reunites with his mother, who's struggling as an illegal immigrant, but it's far from the fairy tale ending Enrique had hoped for.

 Many of the adult nonfiction on my Pinterest board presumably sells mostly to men or as gifts for men, and may especially appeal to your male students.  If you do a Read Across the School book in high school, consider using both versions of one of these books, offering stronger readers and adults the more challenging one.  The two versions overlap enough to provide plenty to discuss.  Warriors Don't Cry, They Call Me a Hero, and Enrique's Journey focus on young people and offer a lot that students can relate to.   

Make a display of adapted nonfiction books, add them to summer reading lists, and make sure students and teachers know how good they are. And read a few yourself, if you haven't already, to  see how much adaptations have changed.


Monday, September 9, 2013

Making Historical Thinking Visible: Hats Off to Author Tonya Bolden

If you are searching for a well-designed, highly readable work of nonfiction that makes historical thinking visible for intermediate grade students, here’s the book: Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Girl in America by Tonya Bolden. Granted, it’s not due for release until January, but maybe you can plead with the publisher (Abrams) to send you an advance reader’s copy.

 In the meantime, let me share with you what is so useful about this book in meeting CCSS standards related to Craft and Structure:

·         The author raises questions about her subject, Sarah Rector. Here’s a sample: “What thoughts ricocheted around Sarah’s head? What feelings were in her heart? How aware was she of the brouhaha over her riches?” There are many more questions scattered throughout the book, showing the author actively questioning her material.

·     The author admits that there is material she wished she had. She tells us that she was unable to locate a diary written by Sarah or any documents that would give her voice.

·       When the author can’t find any record of Sarah’s great-grandparents' move from Alabama to Indian Territory in Oklahoma, she shares what she learned from a document written about another black couple’s move to the same place at the same time and what they witnessed. That’s one way for an author to try to figure out what happened, and it’s the best she could do.

·         In the Author’s Note at the end of the book, Tonya Bolden tells us:

o   How she first learned about Sarah Rector
o   How important it is to read primary sources with “discernment”
o   How surprised she was when her expectations about people proved to be mistaken. Her lesson: “Better to rest on research and reason than on scuttlebutt.” Good advice.

While you are waiting for Searching for Sarah Rector, check out Tonya Bolden’s earlier book Maritcha (Abrams, 2005). This book is also about the experiences of a young black girl. And while Tonya Bolden was able to locate a memoir written by Marticha, there are still many missing pieces to this story, too. The author is always up front with readers about what she could and could not find.
Check these books out! Both books show an author at work shaping history and dealing with gaps in information. They provide a great look at process.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

We're Back!

The kids are back at school and so are we! It has been a while since we blogged, but the group is back and ready to blog our way through this school year, sharing our insights and understandings of the many ways that nonfiction books can engage the most avid “fiction” readers, entice reluctant readers, energize curriculum, and nurture and help sustain a sense of community in the classroom and school library.  Our goal is to blog three times a week. The reality is, because of our schedules and other writing demands, some weeks will be more prolific than others.

Last spring, I was on sabbatical from my university, researching and writing my own biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine, queen of France and England in the 12th century.  I’m a teacher educator;  most of the writing that I do professionally focuses on classroom practice. While writing for children has always been a personal goal, out of necessity, I have privileged my writing for teachers. But the reality is, working on a nonfiction book for children has been the greatest lesson in what has to happen in K-12 classroom. My research, on a topic about which I am passionate, reminds me of how essential it is to give students access to their own passions and interests. What better way to continually evolve as a reader, writer, listener, and speaker than by participating in inquiry in which you are invested? How do we, as teachers, librarians, parents, authors, and illustrators, pave the way for authentic inquiry, a continuum that stretches from the first day of school to the last and manifests itself in different ways throughout the school day? 

Photo by M.A. Cappiello
I fell in love with Eleanor of Aquitaine’s effigy back in the late 1980s in an art history class in college. I am not sure why, though as a Religion major, exploring religious texts in their historic and literary context, I was particularly attracted to medieval history. Perhaps it was her face, the slight smile. Perhaps it was the book in her hands, though the one today is not the original.

My daughter was named Ella after Eleanor of Aquitaine and Eleanor Roosevelt. Unlikely Eleanors, certainly. Ella and I had a chance to visit Eleanor’s grave on a windswept February afternoon, to find her vase deep inside the Louvre, the only object from her life, besides her effigy, that remains. I look at these pictures every day, as I make my way through popular biographies and scholarly tracts, examining and re-examining the many ways Eleanor has been represented by medieval clerics, 19th century historians, and 21st century medieval feminists. I’m still reading. I’m still writing. My “deep structure” keeps shifting, as I frame and reframe her life in different contexts, and consider what children can learn about changing interpretations of one life, about the reality of researching medieval women when there is still so much source material that has never been studied. Now that I am back teaching, back writing another book for teachers, she is still, always, on my mind-- when I sleep, as I drive into Cambridge, sit by the ocean, cook supper.
Photo by M.A. Cappiello
Photo by R. Geoffroy-Schwinden

She was on my mind last night, as I drove home from my first class of the semester, “Middle and High School Content Literacy.” I spent the evening with 20+ dynamic and engaged men and women, all in the process of becoming middle and high school math, science, social studies, and English teachers. I talked to them about my own passions, my own interests. I asked them to tell me about theirs. They were surrounded by nonfiction trade books, most of which were brand-new to all of them. Together, we are going to spend the next four months talking about the intersection of ideas and content in texts of all genres and modalities. Together, we are going to explore how each discipline asks and answers certain kinds of questions, uses texts in different ways to both access knowledge and share knowledge. There is so much for them to learn; they have so many questions about adolescent literacy. But because they see the content of our course through the prism of their own disciplines and passions, there is great promise and possibility for what we can accomplish, and what they can go out into schools and empower young people to do.

Welcome back, from all of us, to all of you.