Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Rethinking Accuracy

           Accuracy—one of the criteria for both the Orbis Pictus Award and the Sibert Award for nonfiction—is up for reconsideration. I do not say this lightly, but rather a little reluctantly, since I have been looking for evidence of “correctness” of information for many years. Yet, as Marc Aronson stated in his last post, looking for reliable and balanced views is in his words “the wrong approach for our time.” One book cannot suffice for providing use with a single view of either science or social studies topics. And, now I find myself agreeing.

            We need, instead, to show young readers that what we know—while generally reliable—is also subject to change. A look at what scientists refer to as the nature of science (NOS) tells us that scientific knowledge is tentative, yet reliable. That is, it is subject to change. Similarly, a look at the Social Studies C3 Framework tells us that history is about gathering evidence and using it to develop arguments about the past. So if we are to promote disciplinary literacy, we need to let readers know how to think the way historians and scientists do. This has been referred to as teaching them the “rules of the game” and inviting them to take part.

            We can begin to do this in small ways. Here’s an example. I just finished reading Margarita Engle’s book Enchanted Air: Two cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir. This book grabbed me on two levels. First it reminded me of why literature has such a strong hold on me. The language is beautiful and the narrative is gripping. I let go of any critical approach I might have to just simply enjoy the poetic words and images. But, second, I was eager to learn more about what it was like to grow up between two cultures—Cuban and North American. I read with interest about how the author grew to love her Cuban visits with family and the life she lived there, while balancing her Californian life. 

I know that this is not a straight work of nonfiction. In an Author’s note, the author tells us that while she has written a “true” story, “certain events are undoubtedly out of order.” Yet, the trueness of this experience is undeniable. The author’s note ends with her hopes that “normal travel and trade might begin to be restored.” These changes seem to be happening now.

Here is an opportunity to show historical change. One way to begin to learn about these changes is to follow the current news about Cuba. Begin by consulting the Breaking World Cuba News from the New York Times at http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/international/countriesandterritories/cuba
Read Enchanted Air to learn about how the author lived between two cultures and then update your understanding of what is happening now by following the news and examining more sources. I think that is a more realistic approach to accuracy.


Sunday, December 21, 2014

If We Encourage POV in NF, How Are We To Know Which Is Right?

The title of this post is a question that often comes when I make presentations about the new place of nonfiction for K-12. I claim that in the past we used to praise nonfiction for being "reliable," and "balanced." We stressed that such books were "good for reports." That is, a student could expect to find trustworthy nonfiction resources in the classroom, school, or public library.She or he could be sure that the authors had carefully considered all points of view and either come to a happy medium in presenting them or gave equal space and weight to each contention. The author, like the book, wsa above the fray. The student could safely set down and pass along a safe view that a teacher would approve. I contend that all of the above is the wrong approach for our time.

Students now have rapid access to a wide variety of resources, POVs, sources. We need to train them to examine and sort out hotly contested questions -- not to meekly repeat a safe digest. But how can we do that especially when the adults -- teachers, librarians, parents -- in many cases will not themselves know how to evaluate the loud voices and vociferous contentions. We don't want school to be a training ground in ideologies adults share without really evaluating or considering. I argue that what any adult can help a student to do is to examine what evidence an author presents, what is the nature and quality of the argument the author makes, and what Point of View is s/he expressing. We can be fair judges of how a contention is crafted, even if we have little or no knowledge of the subject.

This brings me to a recent post from Paul Fleischman on the question of balance and fairness. Here Paul is making a case beyond my appeal for judicial care. He shows that there are cases where there is an appearance of balance which is fact no balance at all. No one would seriously suggest that we tell students the Earth might just be flat, or that humoral medicine might be as effective as science based on viruses and germs. We can all add similar extreme cases. To take one contentious example: when the state of Kansas was considering whether to mandate that Intelligent Design be taught alongside evolution, scientists pointed out that if you wanted to give faith space next to science you needed to give absolutely equal time to all faiths -- since their claims transcend reason. The Wiccans, the Satanists, the fans of psychedelics would have to have as much opportunity to speak to students as mainstream faiths. Balance is not just a view with all possible, or even all firmly asserted, opposition. There is a point where we need to say that no, one view -- Science Does Report Human-Created Climate Change; Evolution; the Holocaust did take place -- is worth the attention of our students. A student may individually, with his/her family, in her congregation and community, believe as s/he likes. But we as educators have an obligation to share the abiding views of the expert and educated community.

Are experts always right? Of course not. Should we train students to question dominant views? Certainly. That is where evidence, argument and POV come in. If students find flaws in what we say, wonderful. But we need not give up and retreat in irrelevance. Students are surrounded with claims -- it is our job to help them sort their way through the clutter -- with forensic techniques and by defending the conclusions of science. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Decision Making in Action: Beetle Busters by Loree Griffin Burns

        This is one fabulous book! I admit that I am partial to books that highlight decision making and problem solving—books that I call the “literature of inquiry.” Beetle Busters by Loree Griffin Burns highlights inquiry by showing how a community in Massachusetts responded to an infestation of Asian longhorned beetles (ALB), nonnative species that attack and destroy trees. It brings us very close to this situation and shows us the difficult decisions made by scientists and concerned citizens.

            There are a number features that make this book so successful as a page-turner and an excellent source of information. Here are some things the author does for us:
·      Raises questions that don’t have simple answers. Both at the beginning and at the end of the book, the author raises these important questions about cutting down some trees in an attempt to save others:

                                    Was cutting those trees the right thing to do?
                                    If cutting trees in one community today would save the trees in
                        your backyard tomorrow, would it be worth it?
                                    Would you feel the same way if you lived in that community and
                        the trees being cut down were the only ones in your entire                                                 neighborhood? (p. 57)

            These questions bring this problem close to all of us. What would we do if we
            had to made a decision about cutting down trees?
·      Provides a variety of graphics to help us understand the problem. There are all sorts of graphics included: maps, graph, photographs, captions, sidebars and page inserts, and photographs showing a sequence of steps or stages. As we endeavor to promote graphical literacy, this book is extraordinarily useful for discussing how a particular kind of graphic  makes information understandable.
·      Shows how and why scientists collect data. Among the many items we learn about is how scientists collect core samples from the inside of the trees, enabling them to study the impact of the infestation. We see the actual scientists and volunteers working in the field.
·      Shares the interpretation of the data. A chapter is dedicated to sharing the interpretation of the data. This shows how scientists move from collecting data to making statements about what this data suggests. It’s a great look at scientific thinking.
·      Leaves us with unanswered questions. Here is just one of several questions that scientists  continue to work on: “If left unchecked in the forest, would the Asian longhorn beetle eventually kill all the members of the wide variety of trees it can inhabit in the wild” (p. 49)? That's an important question to think about.

            When we read books like Beetle Busters with students, we can focus on the features listed above because they help us understand the nature of science. Here are some questions we can discuss: What problems are scientists and citizens facing? What do they do to understand the situation? How do they collect and analyze data? What have they found so far? What else do they want to know? By discussing science as a process—a way of thinking and learning—we move away from concentrating only on facts and towards using these facts to help us think about puzzling situations. That is why quality nonfiction is an essential part of learning.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

International YA

Tonight the New York Public Library is hosting a panel -- and I believe filming it, so anyone reading this blog should have access to it -- that I hope is of interest to all of you. Panel Words Without Borders,WWB has devoted a special free online issue to international writing about and for teenagers. You can find the stories at the url I just posted. At the panel tonight one of the co-editors of the issue will tell us about her experiences in gathering material, finding translators, and crafting the issue. All of that would be fine, but it is only a start. WWB is using the issue, and the panel, as part of a broader educational initiative.

Think of this -- WWB is searching the world for writing about and for teenagers and for skilled translators. Now you can bring into a library, and thus perhaps a classroom, a rich range of new experiences. Some of the pieces in the issue (one Norwegian graphic novel short story about a teenage pregnancy) could appear in any bookstore tomorrow. Some (I'm thinking of a Bangladeshi story) suggest a second kind of opportunity, a sort of double translation. The words are in English, but understanding the context requires learning about another place, another culture, another set of challenges. This could be ideal for a teacher, or for a library teen reading group. But whether we are speaking about material that first appeared in another language and has an easy connection to readers here, or material that serves to open doors and minds, WWB is giving us the most marvelous tool.

As you can suspect, I am hosting the panel tonight. The speakers include Arthur Levine, who has his own highly-regarded imprint at Scholastic, Padma Venkatraman, whose novel A Time to Dance has garnered give starred reviews; Briony Everroad, co-editor of the special issue; and Roxanne Hsu Feldman, a middle school librarian and reviewer who has twice served on the Newbery committee. I hope you can come. If not, please read the special issue, and stay in touch with WWB as they announce the roll out of their educational initiative. Welcome, teenagers, to the entire world. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Citizen Science: Snowy Owl Irruption, Winter 2015?

If you don't live and teach in the northern half of the United States, this post may not have the same utility for you as for those that do. If you do live and teach in these regions, you may or may not be aware of the snowy owl "irruption" that occurred in North America last winter. 

Photo by Mary Ann Cappiello,
taken in Hampton, NH, Dcc. 2013
During the 2013 nesting season, there was an increase in the availability of lemmings in the arctic. This led to an increase in the snowy owl population, since more young got fed and survived. When winter arrived in the arctic, there was not enough food to sustain this larger population, and so many young owls began to fly further and further south, creating the 2013-2014 irruption. In coastal New Hampshire, where I live, people were viewing snowy owls along the coast with regularity. Included here is my own picture of a snowy owl on a picnic table. 

Will another irruption take place in 2014-2015? It's too early to tell, although snowy owls have been spotted in various locations in the northeast and midwest, including here in New Hampshire. What's wonderful is that the owls are not landing only in rural areas or coastal areas. They can be anywhere, so if you live in a city like Boston or New York or Philadelphia, there's still a chance for you to spot them this winter. They tend to like flat, open space that resembles the terrain of the arctic (like Logan, Kennedy, and Philadelphia airports, unfortunately). You won't find them high up in trees or on buildings like eagles and hawks. 

Elementary, middle, and high school teachers alike can take advantage of this great citizen science opportunity. Project Snowstorm is a new organization that shares data about snowy owl behavior in real time. Last winter, ornithologists from different organizations were able to place GPS tracking devices on snowy owls. The Project Snowstorm website allows you to track their travels. It also provides an opportunity for you to upload your own photos of snowy owls and share location information with scientists.

Below are some print and digital resources to help you and your students learn more about these beautiful creatures. Before you go out owl watching, prepare students by having them watch videos and read print and digital texts about the owls. Use your local Audubon society or the Project Snowstorm website to locate where snowy owls have been spotted in your area (this year or last). Then bundle up, and head outdoors with binoculars, clipboards, cell phones, digital cameras, or tablet computers! Bring along some bird apps or bird guides so that you can identify the other birds you are bound to see. Are there parents or grandparents who are birding enthusiasts? Local Audubon volunteers who can come along? 

To document their learning, students may create their own birding journals or research reports, write digital books about the birds of your area or winter birds in particular, or may even write some winter bird poems. If you're interested in critical literacy, you can read about some of the ways that airports have handled snowy birds in the past (some of it shocking) and what sort of stance your students might take from an advocacy perspective. 

The last few weeks before the winter holiday break are always busy, and often filled with interruptions to your regular teaching schedule. Time spent absorbed in the natural world within the context of a purposeful, real-world learning experience may be just the antidote to all of the jitters, fears, exhaustion, expectations, etc. that your students may be feeling at this time of year. 

If you do try this out, or are already studying snowy owls where you live, please let us know in the comments section below! 

Primary Grade
Frost, H. 2006. Snowy Owls. Minneapolis: Capstone Publishing. 
Patrick, R. 2011. Snowy Owls. New York: Gareth Stevens. 

Intermediate Grades
Landeau, E. 2010. Snowy Owls hunters of the snow and ice. Berkley Heights, NJ: Enslow. 
Murray J. 2014. Snowy Owls. Edina, MN: ABDO Publishing. 
Zieger, J. 2014. Snowy Owls. New York: Children's Press. 

Citizen Science 

Burns, L.G. Citizen science: Be a part of scientific discovery from your own backyard. Ill. by E. Harasimowicz. New York: Square Fish. 

Project Snowstorm

Cornell Lab

National Geographic

National Geographic Video

Audubon Society

NPR Story on Snowy Owls 2014

Arctic Snowy Owl Nesting Cam (it will be live again in spring - follow up then!)

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Preparing for the Winter Solstice

It's December, and here in coastal New Hampshire we got about six inches of heavy snow the day before Thanksgiving. For years, I hated the darkening hours of late autumn. But my feelings towards this seasonal change have shifted. Knowing and understanding the science behind the changing daylight hours, and knowing and understanding the many ways that people have responded to the dark in the past is a comfort to me; I feel a connection to the earth's natural rhythms and to the millions of people who have lived on this planet before me. How do you and your students feel about the seasonal darkness? How do you use children's fiction and nonfiction to shape children's understanding of the winter solstice? 

One book that is particularly useful is the fictional picture book Dear Rebecca, Winter is Here, written by Jean Craighead George and illustrated by Loretta Krupinski. The book begins with an author's note detailing the solstices for the northern hemisphere. The narrative takes place in the epistolary fashion, with a grandmother writing a letter to her granddaughter Rebecca. Each two-page spread details a particular activity within the natural world. The book concludes with the promise of the summer solstice, since "[o]n the 22nd of December, little hands of light begin to push back the edges of darkness minute by minute." This book would be a wonderful introduction in early December to the seasonal shift taking place as the natural world prepares for winter. 

Another great introduction to the idea of the solstice and winter in the natural world is Marion
Dane Bauer's fictional picture book The Longest Night, illustrated by Ted Lewin. The end page watercolor illustrations evoke John Schoenherr's illustrations for Jane Yolen's Owl Moon. Over the course of the book, we are taken through the "longest night," the night of the winter solstice. Each animal boasts that it is the one to bring back the sun, but the wind sighs and tells them all, "'Not you." Only the morning chickadee has the power to bring back the sun; "with the song/ of one small bird/ and the sun's answering smile/ the journey toward spring/ begins." The illustrations in the book were vetted by experts from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

For a more scientific and historical examination of the winter solstice and the ushering in of winter, I recommend Wendy Pfeffer's The Shortest Day: Celebrating the Winter Solstice, illustrated by Jess Reisch, one of four nonfiction picture books in a series that details the four seasons. This book was also vetted by experts, in this case in the field of physics, astronomy, and history. The book begins with a description of what happens in late autumn, as the sun rises later and lower in the sky and sets earlier, and then defines the solstice as the point at which the sun "reaches its lowest point on the horizon." The next section of the book grounds readers in a historical understanding of the ways in which the darkening hours have been interpreted by people over time in various parts of the world. The book concludes with additional information and graphics about the earth's tilt, rotation, and revolution around the sun and some wonderful activities that teachers can do tracking the sunrise and sunset leading up to the solstice, measuring shadows on the solstice, and finding the sun's northernmost and southernmost points during different points in the year, and solstice celebrations for humans and birds.

On January 6th, I will follow-up with a post on nonfiction books that are ideal for exploring the natural world in winter with your students. 

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Our Water: A Serious Situation with a Hopeful Side

     Have you ever noticed that nonfiction books on the same topic seem to be released all at once? Recently, several fascinating books about water arrived at my doorstep. Each of these has a different slant on the topic, making them a perfect choice for examining how information is presented as well as offering readers the opportunity to integrate information from multiple sources.

     Your Water Footprint: The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use to Make Everyday Products by Stephen Leahy lives up to its subtitle. It's shocking how much water we use to make the things we take for granted. Leahy presents this information with unforgettable, yet easy to understand, graphics. Did you know, for example, that it takes 634 gallons of water to produce one cheeseburger and 240 gallons of water to produce a smartphone? Everything we touch seems to require water! While this book not only has an informative introduction and conclusion, it's the graphics that stand out for their clarity of presentation and visual impact. This book is a great choice for showing how to read and write information containing graphics.

     Running Dry: The Global Water Crisis by Stuart A. Kallen presents a similar sobering view of our escalating water crisis, but in this book the visual information comes from photographs. For example, readers can see a polluted river in China where e-waste is dumped after stripping electronic devices of their valuable metals, a center-pivot irrigation system that is draining the Ogallala Aquifer beneath the US Great Plains, and a drought stricken area on the border between Kenya and Somalia. These photographs and their corresponding captions are worthy of careful attention. Like Your Water Footprint, this book provides a number of water-saving tips and practical steps people are already taking.

     The Next Wave: The Quest to Harvest the Power of Oceans by Elizabeth Rusch, a volume in the highly acclaimed "Scientists in the Field" Series, in contrast, looks to the power of ocean waves as a means of providing electricity. The author follows the work of several scientists as they develop and test inventions to harness the ocean waves. This is exciting work that is well documented with photographs of the testing--some of which succeed and some of which don't. Still, the author reminds us that "The race to make electricity from waves is not a race with only one winner. Rather, it's a race against time and against our dangerous dependence on fossil fuels"(2014, n.p.).

     Using the references provided in each of these books readers could uncover a large amount of information about water. This research would also demonstrate quite clearly that what an author shares about a topic involves selection and evaluation of material and a focus on the particular questions that are being answered.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thinking About Local and Global, Prairies and Wetlands, This Thanksgiving

Over the summer, I got an email from the University of Minnesota Press, informing me of the publication of Phyllis Root and Betsy Bowen's Plant a Pocket of Prairie. Immediately, I was intrigued. A university press publishing a children's book, not an academic tome? And a nonfiction picture book at that? Are there other university presses that do this? If so, why don't I know about them? (Really, if there are others, please tell me!) 

Often, I am thinking about the ways in which we move young people from the local to the global, the global to the local. A book firmly rooted in a particular place often gives us this opportunity to move back and forth between once place and another. A book written by a publisher very much rooted in one place, such as a university press, presents this opportunity on a whole other level.

Back in 2011, Marc and I presented together at the National Council of Teachers of Social Studies annual conference. Our presentation focused on nonfiction trade books in general and the new landscape of the CCSS (Marc's part) and on using a trade book as a vehicle for exploring the local and the global simultaneously (my part). I pivoted back in forth between Marc's book, Sugar Changed the World, and the intersection of commodities (slaves, sugar, cotton and clothing) in 18th and 19th century Massachusetts in a single house: The Longfellow House-Washington's Headquarters Historic Site in Cambridge, Massachusetts where I teach. I did that because it was my local intersection; the point of the presentation was to have teachers thinking of how they can juxtapose the information in trade books with local history, so that history is never viewed as merely "here" or "there" but at the intersection of everywhere. 

So isn't it interesting to think about A Pocketful of Prairie as a book about the specific prairies of Minnesota, those that have been lost, perhaps forever, and those that remain, as well as a book about the global concepts of ecosystems, interdependence, backyard agriculture, and citizen science?  What does it mean for students in New England to read this book and consider the challenges faced by midwestern states? Sure, they learn about ecosystems in science and about the geographical regions of the United States in social studies. But wouldn't it be interesting to learn about these ecosystems and regions in comparison and contrast to one another? Is the eroding shoreline and disappearance of cod in New England the same problem as the disappearance of the prairie in Minnesota? What is each region's response? What does it mean that the monarch butterfly is disappearing in both places? What can we do to foster healthy ecosystems with an awareness of interdependence wherever we are? 

I am reminded of one of my favorite nonfiction picture books, Meadowlands, by Tom Yezerski. Yes, this is a book about the infamous Meadowlands of New Jersey. But it is also a book about ecosystems everywhere that are impacted by the presence of human beings, and how we work to reduce our impact and allow nature to do its careful balancing act. What's the lesson of this particular wetland for others? Don't we all have nearby wetlands in danger? 

If you and your students are interested in exploring prairies, and ways to restore prairie grasslands large and small, read Plant a Pocketful of Prairie. Native prairies used to cover over 40% of the United States. For many of you, this is your local community. For the rest of us, it's an important part of our history and natural environment. In my yard, in coastal New Hampshire, I have many of the same plants that exist in the prairie. I have coneflowers, milkweed, asters, and goldenrod. I want the monarchs to return to my garden after their two-year hiatus. I know they need some prairie grass along the way if they are ever going to make it as far north as my yard. 

If you're exploring the prairie or ecosystems these other books will also help: 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

How Purpose Shapes Content: Examining Two Books about Matisse

            I recently visited the Museum of Modern Art's (MOMA) exhibition of Henri Matisse’s cut-outs, the brilliant work of his later years. Before going, I remembered reading Jeanette Winter’s gem of a biography for young readers, Henri’s Scissors. And while that book was on sale at MOMA, so too was Samantha Friedman’s book Matisse’s Garden, illustrated by Cristina Amodeo, which I purchased.

            At home, I began to put these two books side-by-side. Together, they clearly show (at least in my mind) how an author’s purpose shapes content—a Common Core emphasis. Samantha Friedman, author of Matisse’s Garden, is Assistant Curator in MOMA’s Department of Drawings and Prints. Her book, which contains 8 reproductions of Matisse’s art and several fabulous, large fold-out illustrations, emphasizes Matisse’s art—the harmony and contrast among the colors. The illustrations, too, are all cut-outs, mirroring Matisse’s artwork. In contrast, Henri’s Scissors by Jeanette Winter, a book that also focuses on Matisse’s cut-outs, covers a longer span of time. This book emphasizes how the process of creating art nourished and sustained Matisse’s spirit throughout his lifetime.

            These differences perhaps reflect Friedman’s work as a museum curator—someone who helps the public understand and appreciate art—and Winter’s work as a biographer—someone who finds meaning within a life story.

            While there are many ways to contrast these two excellent books, a significant question to think about is this: How does the author’s purpose shape the content of the book?


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Mapping NF

The other day one of my graduate students posted about a gap he was noticing -- nonfiction older than short chapter books and younger than YA. I can think of books that fit there, but his observation made me think of a really useful project: mapping NF. That is, the reading options in fiction -- from picture books read by adults, back to easier text to lead into reading, from leveled readers into chapter books, with side paths via Graphic Novels, into genres and onward is very well defined. Of course new authors and style periodically add twists and turns. But any librarian, many parents, literacy coaches, teachers can talk with a young fiction reader, figure out his/her interests and skills, and suggest a clear set of next options -- with branching alternatives. The same is far from true for nonfiction.

For nonfiction we have the familiar and overly familiar bursts of passion -- trucks, dangerous animals, books of records, dinos, Vikings, space, war (though not well served) -- then comes school and assignments, crossed now by narrative nonfiction -- nonfiction that can and does bring the traditional fiction fan into the game.But not notice: islands of very specific interests, then school reports, then something resembling fiction. Needs outside of those of the NF reader sweep through -- reports, research, assignments; "reads like a novel" page turning. Nothing wrong with either -- we need to learn, and it is a treat to be swept along by a book. But neither are necessarily the sequence of reading steps the nonfiction reader would choose to climb.

I think we need to look carefully through ages and stages of reading (of course taking into account the wide range of young readers and their equally broad spectrum on interests), then look at what kinds of nonfiction are available in the library, bookstore, internet. Where are there gaps? What kinds of books are missing? What might a NF reader want -- not in subject necessarily, but in treatment? We need to map the NF reading ladder as carefully as we have surveyed the sequence of fiction choices.

I am thinking of asking of my grad students to start on this next semester -- any thoughts on resources we might use? 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Concepts of Time

My daughter is in 4th grade, and last month, she and her classmates were studying the concept of time: units of time and comparisons and contrasts of how you calculate time. I couldn't resist getting out Just a Second: A Different Way to Look at Time by Steve Jenkins (2011). Sure enough, one Sunday afternoon, my daughter and our neighbor, also a 4th grader, were on all fours in our front yard, trying to pace themselves with the giant tortoise's movement in one minute (15 feet), and comparing that to the stride of a human walking at a "brisk pace," who might cover 300 feet in that same minute. 

The comparison between the human stride and that of the giant tortoise in the book fascinated them, as did the other items placed across the "In One Minute..." two page spread: the moon, a grizzly bear, a skydiver, a person standing on the equator, a common snail, and a three-toed sloth. These understandings of time, movement, and space can't be fully understood just by reading the book. The kids needed to move. Their natural instinct was to play, to embody different animals that move in different ways and cover different lengths of space within the same period of time. 

It reminded me of two and half years ago, when Erika and I were working with a fifth grade teacher while writing Teaching with Text Sets. The 5th grade was exploring the solar system, and we knew that we couldn't teach them about rotation, revolution, and the seasons merely through texts -- print or multimodal. The students needed to move to gain that conceptual understanding, to embody the concept. 

Another book that is wonderful at demonstrating the concept of time, as rooted in the concept of the earth's rotation, is At the Same Moment Around the World written and illustrated by Clotilde Perrin, a fictional picture book introduced by Chronicle Books this year, originally published in France in 2011. The book is gorgeous, and begins and ends at the very same moment: six am in Dakar, Senegal, where a boy and his father count fish caught in nets during the night. At that very same moment, the rest of the book unfolds. We move through each hour on the clock, and see a different child somewhere in the world, going about his/her daily business in cities and rural areas, in deserts and mountain communities. Children can read this book sitting next to a globe, tracing the book's journey across this single moment. A fold-out world map with the children's faces in the margins is included in the back to guide the reader. The book illuminates concept of time and space, reinforces geographical understandings, and celebrates children from different cultures and communities across the globe. 

These are just two books to harness for classroom exploration of the interconnectedness of math and science. Lucky us! For more on using children's books to teach concepts of time, you can check out The Classroom Bookshelf entry on Just a Second, written back in January 2012. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Dads: An Opportunity?

I live in a nice suburban town close enough to New York City that a great many of the parents commute. A few towns away is the aptly named Summit -- a geographically accurate designation, true, but the connotation is such as accurate: wealthy stock brokers -- Tom Wolfe's Masters of the Universe -- live there. We're not a destination for those types, but plenty of people here are closely connected to Wall Street, banking, investing. As a result, when the economy crashed in 2008 the "for sale" signs were visible on every street. Many dads (and surely moms, but I don't speak with them as often) lost their jobs. And while most families either recovered or left, I know a healthy collection of bright, educated, well-read dads who simply have not found their way back into the work force. Not all of them were directly involved in finance, but  they found that being middle aged and accustomed to a decent salary made it hard, no impossible, to find steady work.

I see the stay-at-home dads with their strollers heading down for coffee in the morning, taking girls to one swim meet after another, in the parks and playgrounds, in the library. The point of this post is that last spot: the library. I wonder if we have made enough of the stay-at-home dad? Will the reading he selects and shares with younger kids, the books he seeks out with his middle-grader, be the same as those his wife, or a care-giver, might have selected? There is another subset of such dads here b/c we are also a destination for same sex couples with families. Between the dad home because their family has one dad working and one at home, and the dad who is contributing to his family by minding the kids and running the house while his wife earns the bulk of the money we have -- or we may have -- a new kind of parent closely involved with his child's reading.

Of course given my interests and the focus of this blog, I wonder if such dads will be more comfortable with nonfiction than their wives were? Will they be more ready to bring home books of war, combat, generals and tanks? That's one easy to posit stereotype: shallow but plausible. What if libraries and stores started to program with dad caregiver in mind. Robotics, Lego, Maker projects are all the rage already. Maybe we should revive the fathers and sons reading group I tried a few years ago. What do you think -- are we unusual or are there enough of such dads, and is there enough difference in what they bring to children and reading, to suggest that we should be exploring some new paths? New programs? New displays? How can we re-envision reaching families when more and more of the parents involved with reading are the dads?

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Revisionist History

 Revision isn’t an easy topic—certainly not in elementary school. It’s understandable because when a young child writes something, it takes considerable effort just to shape the letters. That’s why this same child is understandably reluctant to then toss this writing in the trash or rework it at all. In a similar way, we are often reluctant to let go of our ideas, even when they no longer stand up to scrutiny. How many of us secretly still consider Pluto to be a planet?

Yet revision shakes up our ideas and stimulates our thinking. It’s a re-seeing of our thoughts and ideas. Recently I read a Booklist review of an adult book about King George III, A New Kind of King by Janice Hadlow. The reviewer, Brad Hooper, claims that this is a revisionist biography because the author shows how George III was—contrary to what we have been previously led to believe—determined to be a “moral agent for the common good.”

Is this the same George III that I had been led to believe was incredibly stubborn and not just a bit off balance? What a different picture is presented! While I feel a bit betrayed, I want to know more. Reading this review also got me thinking about revisionist history for kids. It does exist and should be shared with them as part of the process of historical thinking. The Thanksgiving story provides us with the perfect opportunity.

So...here are two books about Thanksgiving that focus on re-seeing history. The first is Penny Colman’s Thanksgiving: The True Story, which not only compares competing claims about the “first” Thanksgiving, but also takes the reader along on the author’s search for “the truth.” She ends by posing even more questions to investigate and by acknowledging the complexity of this story.

The second book is 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving by Catherine O’Neill Grace and Margaret M. Bruchac. This book shows that the Thanksgiving holiday “evolved” over time and draws on recent scholarship to tell a more inclusive, nuanced story that includes more information about the Wampanoag people. A foreword discusses the process of rethinking the past.

As we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, we have the opportunity to question our understanding of the past. In this way, we keep history alive.  And, as my graduate students tell me, analyzing books like these is “Common Core-ish.” That’s an added bonus.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014


This week I will be at the Shady Hill School in Cambridge -- I hope to meet up with Mary Ann there. They invited me to come meet with 7th and 8th graders who are beginning work on research projects. As it happens just a few weeks ago I was in Kalamazoo, Michigan at a public school where the librarian and teachers had exactly the same request. I've been thinking about how I can be of help.

In one way, there is a mismatch. As a high school teacher in Ann Arbor pointed out, the assignments mandate that the students use at least, say, two sources -- with some stipulations about books, internet, database, etc. But when I research a book I may use hundreds of sources; I read through the secondary literature in some depth to orient myself even as I look for primary sources. What part of that agenda is useful to students just starting out who are required to use a fraction of those resources? But as Marina -- who has been teaching a narrative nonfiction class to college undergraduates -- pointed out, there is a connection. Whether it is her students at William Paterson, the middle or high school students I meet, or both of us when we write individually or together, there are basically two steps.

First we develop a research strategy: what resources are we after, where will we find them, how do they build knowledge? This is where a librarian is the go-to person. Students need to become accustomed to seeking out the librarian to develop a research plan. Then, as you read through your sources, you formulate questions. The plans gives you information. What you know leads to questions. Questions send you back to research, research gives you information, information suggests questions.

That is the formula for research.

Speaking of research -- I urge everyone to read Paul Fleischman's Eyes Wide Open blog, the last post which takes information just released to the world and shows how it illustrates the points in his book is just perfect for us as a adults, and to use with young people: HERE

Friday, October 31, 2014

Teaching to Complexity

I am excited to announce that tomorrow, November 1st, my latest book, co-authored with Erika Thulin Dawes, will be released: Teaching to Complexity: An Evaluation Framework for Literary and Content Area Texts. For those of you interested in engaging more with nonfiction books for children and young adults, I think (and hope!) you'll find this book a useful starting point. 

We think of Teaching to Complexity as the "back story" to Teaching with Text Sets. The book is a primer for selecting texts for classroom use. We seek to give teachers a deeper "keel" for understanding how texts operate, the nuances of genres, and why having "good" books in the classroom matters. We link an evaluation of the quality of a book with its role in the classroom, and discuss the many, many different purposes for using books across the content areas, and how that shapes your approach to selecting a text. Ultimately, we then bring in a conversation about readers, matching the quality and utility of the book with a consideration of text complexity. We "unpack" what the CCSS says about complexity and then present a process for thinking about how quality, utility, and complexity intersect when selecting books with readers at the forefront. Ultimately, we share an understanding of text complexity as malleable, not fixed, dependent upon not just the range of readers in the room, but the context in which a text is being used, and how the other texts within the text set are positioned.  

Here is the official book blurb:

As an important tool for instruction and text selection, Teaching to Complexity will help teachers learn to evaluate children’s and young adult literature for quality and complexity to support rigorous literacy and content learning. In addition, it explores how instructional purpose shapes not only the kinds of curricular texts used, but also considers their complexity relative to readers. By offering a framework for text selection, this book helps teachers more deeply understand text complexity in the Common Core and other state standards as well as its importance when building and using text sets in the classroom and reading for different purposes.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

And Yet Again: Nonfiction Adapted for Children

Somehow I can’t seem to let go of this topic—books adapted for children. The latest is I Am Malala, the Young Readers’ Edition by Malala Yousafzai and Patricia McCormick. This is an adaptation of the adult book or the same name, co-written by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb. There is no question in my mind that Malala’s story is one of courage and deserves to be shared with children. It’s powerful, inspiring, courageous. But...yet again we have an adaptation of an adult book that is being repackaged for children.

A recent Kirkus review noted that “much is lost in translation from the adult book,” and “most lamentable is [the loss of] the social and political context.” How, I wonder, are readers to understand Malala’s story without understanding the conditions in which she lived? How will readers understand the significance of her decision to oppose the Taliban’s order that girls stay out of school?

Then, in a related article, Vicki Smith—Children’s and Teen Editor at Kirkus—raised a new issue. The reviewer of the Young Readers’ Edition noted that teen writers like Malala lack the artistry of adult writers. In fact, she used the words “goody-two-shoes” and “preachy” to describe Malala’s prose. She noted that teen memoirs lack artfulness, since teens haven’t yet mastered the craft or artistry of adult writers.

So now what? Can’t teens write like teens without feeling ashamed? (Honestly, how can they write like anyone else?) Shouldn’t that be acceptable? Should teens be held to the highest artistic writing standards? I think not.

Here’s my simple solution: Let Malala write her own book for young readers (with perhaps some help from a friendly editor), and let adult authors write their own books too. Then everyone can have a voice and we readers know who is communicating with us.

Monday, October 20, 2014

What I Learned at the CCBC's Grand Opening

Last week I was in Madison, Wisconsin, and thought I might get to visit the Cooperative Childrens Book Center CCBC whose listserv is a very useful place to weigh, consider, debate, discuss books for young people. I'd been there years ago when Eliza Dresang and Kate McClelland held one of the conferences that became their book Radical Change RC, but not recently. By coincidence, I happened to be free the night of their gala re-opening, in a new space. The library of books old and new was impressive -- a teacher, librarian, parent, author, young reader could get deliciously lost in those shelves -- as I did. Indeed I noticed something that I'd really like to think about: a very unusual beat in the history of middle grade-YA NF.

At the very end of the 1960s and into the early 70s there were books by authors such as Milton Meltzer, Robert Goldston RG and Dorothy Sterling DC that were quite Left in politics, in a direct, straight-forward fashion. Books about African-Americans, about outspoken women, about Labor History for middle grade and teenagers were -- I assume -- rare to nonexistent at the time. So authors had a wide open field to write about, say, Langston Hughes, or the Underground Railroad, or Anne Hutchinson, or Emma Goldman, or the fight against Franco. With our 21st century eyes the book packages are dull -- drab covers and mainly text, with a few archival images. But imagine yourself as a teacher, an author, a librarian at the time seeing the clashes on the streets, in the ballot box, in the self-image of the nation, and also seeing that young people had very little access to the history that led to that turmoil and -- yes, radical change -- going on around them.

I sometimes see these books, ignored, unchecked-out, squeezed in to nonfiction shelves. Someday I want to really get to know them, and the shape of that moment -- how long did it last? What subjects did they take on? And how do the books read now? I feel like an archaeologist seeing a trace of a lost culture -- and I want to learn more about it.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Science Times

I leave tomorrow for the Wisconsin Science Festival in Madison. While I am giving a number of talks, I am there as much to meet people as to speak. Jordan Ellenberg, the author of the wonderful How Not to Be Wrong, will be speaking. He is a math prof who writes is a lively, engaging way calling on everything from lottery ticket schemes (that actually worked) to hot streaks in sports to slime mold decision making to political opinion polls and voting outcomes (with a concentration on Bush-Gore) to introduce math. I am desperately hoping to find a way to bring his voice and wisdom to younger readers.

Then I will meet John Hawks, another Wisconsin prof, who is active teacher, blogger, about paleoanthropology, and is working with Lee Berger on the amazing Rising Stars Expedition (sorry that I am not embedding links to all of the above, but a quick Google will do the trick). I am eager to find out what they are finding out. The basic facts are that in three weeks last fall they found, deep in a South African cave, as many fossil fragments of something, probably an early hominin, as have every been found in Southern Africa. No details yet announced on which species, how many, how much remains to be found.

I'll meet Paul Fleischman who is there to give the Charlotte Zolotow lecture -- and to visit the newly opened CCBC.

I don't write all of this to create envy, more to say that it is seems really lively and I have a lot to learn. I do feel that we are at a kind of Sputnik moment where science and math are back. In part due to Common Core, but also to life, to Robotics, to kids -- girls quite as much as boys -- are showing a passion for these subjects. YA fiction, both fantasy and realism, is flourishing. But no longer instead of, or as a cure for, content. The world is fascinating -- and we all need to share this golden moment of exploration with young people 

Monday, October 13, 2014

Swept Up in History’s Whirlwind: Malala and Iqbal

 In the 1999 book Through My Eyes, Ruby Bridges—now an adult—wrote the following:

When I was six years old, the civil rights movement came knocking at my door. It was 1960 and history pushed in and swept me up in a whirlwind. [Italics added]

Now we have another powerful example of children being swept up in history’s whirlwind. This time it is Malala Yousafzai and Iqbal Masih, two children from Pakistan. Their powerful stories are gripping examples of courage and bravery in the face of unjust circumstances. These stories are now available to young children in Jeanette Winter’s new book, Malala, a Brave Girl from Pakistan/Iqbal, a Brave Boy from Pakistan.

This book features two children who spoke out against the unjust treatment they were receiving. They defied those who wanted to deny them their basic rights as children. Both received threats to their lives, and yet they continued to speak out. Both were shot. One died and the other, though seriously wounded lived and continues to speak out against injustice. This book tells the gripping stories of these two children—Malala and Iqbal.

Malala wanted her education. When Taliban fighters insisted that girls should not go to school, she insisted on her right to an education. Again and again, she resisted the Taliban—even as threats turned into deeds and schools were burned and bombed. For speaking out, she was shot, but lived to tell her story to the world. Most recently Malala was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts.

Iqbal wanted to be free, not forced to work each day in a carpet factory, chained to a loom. Yet at the age of four, when his parents took a twelve-dollar loan from the owner of a carpet factory, he was forced to work all day long to repay this money. It wasn’t until he was ten-years-old that he learned that bonded slavery of children was illegal. At that time he began to speak out against bonded labor, despite the threats he received. He spoke in carpet factories in Pakistan and even took his message to America. Because he spoke out, he was shot and killed while riding his bicycle in Pakistan.

This book tells both children’s inspiring stories. Readers see the power of bravery over injustice—how two children stood up to threats and violence to assert their rights. They are stories to remember. But there is more at work here: These stories also remind us that all our lives are shaped by the times in which we live.

When discussing stories like Malala and Iqbal’s, we have the opportunity to discuss the impact of historical context, something we should not lose sight of when discussing informational text. Here are two interesting questions to pursue:
1.     How were Malala and Iqbal swept up in history’s whirlwind?
2.     How have they affected history?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Crossover? Cross-Up? What Is Going On With the Adult-authors Writing NF for Younger Readers?

This morning brings the front page article in the New York Times about adult authors writing nonfiction for younger readers:

This is what Myra recently wrote about, and I find myself having so many mixed reactions to the article, and to the trend it describes. First, I think the headline is both false to the article itself and misleading in describing adult NF edited for younger readers: "To Lure Young Readers, Nonfiction Writers Sanitize and Simplify." Sometimes, yes, and the article gives instances of authors (doubtless with editors at their elbows) deciding which bits of sex, drugs, torture should be in or out. But the article also mentions that kids can take quite a lot, and the thrust of it is not about dumbing down or leaving out, but rather about this lively moment in which the formerly hard barriers between adult and non-adult first in fiction now in nonfiction are blurring.

The headline suggests that the blur is a way of infantilizing readers -- depriving them of moving "up" to real adult works while pandering to a limited view of what young people can handle. Sure that happens. And I hear beating behind this headline and all of the recent articles on whether it is good, bad, or indifferent that so many adults are reading YA fiction, a concern about markets. The adult publishing world is challenged, shrinking -- especially outside of genre areas such as romance and erotic novels -- while YA is booming. Many people: authors of adult fiction and NF, adult literary types fearing the loss of writing they treasure, those who in general fear, resist, or are critical of the influences of markets on taste, art, ideas, are alarmed at decline on one side and a rising wave on the other. Add in those who see young people mesmerized by digital devices and fear a loss of serious reading and thinking, and you get the Times headline.

From my seat as one who writes NF for middle grade and YA that, often enough, I think could be of interest to adults, this moment has both hazards and possibilities. The threat is that adult authors who have market power and media reputations, who have been given large advances so that they can devote years to their books, or can hire squadrons of research assistants, will overshadow us. I do fear that the craft of writing for our readers which we have honed may be easy to ignore as against the fame of an adult author -- perhaps this is what picture book authors felt when everyone from Hollywood stars to TV comedians began publishing picture books. On the other hand I see real potential in this opening up, this recognition, of NF. The key line in the Times piece came from the astute Bev Horowitz -- a wise and experienced editor and publisher at Random House: "Adults are now so used to reading young adult books that there may be some nice crossover."

Cross-over, cross-up, cross-down, what will it be? The good news is that NF is attracting attention, and the field is expanding. Buckle up for a faster, wilder, ride. 

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Most Valuable Phrase

 I am a teaching idea junkie. I admit it. I comb journals and books for new ways to do old, reliable, important things. And when it comes to nonfiction, there is a great deal out there to choose from. My most recent find is “The Most Valuable Phrase,” as explained in an article in this month’s Reading Teacher. The article is entitled “Designating the MVP: Facilitating Classroom Discussion about Texts” and it is written by Carolyn Strom. Check it out. I have provided a citation at the end of this article.

Basically, Strom uses MVP, which students associate with most valuable player, to discuss the Most Valuable Phrase (or sentence) in a text. After reading a nonfiction text, students select a most valuable phrase that does one of these things:
·      M: It shows the main idea of a text
·      V: It gives the reader a vivid mental image
·      P: It’s a phrase worth remembering. That is, it becomes part of a student’s background knowledge. It’s a keeper. In the author’s words, it’s a “phrase that stays” (p. 109).

The criteria for selecting an MVP relate to Common Core Standards. For example, students have to identify a main idea and argue that a phrase supports or explains it. Or, they have to identify vivid language that helps them envision something. Or, they have to argue that a phrase is a significant enough to remember.

There is an important principle at work here: Each new twist or idea we teachers adopt should support our basic goals of teaching and learning—CCSS or subject matter in science, social studies, math or language arts. I think MVP does. Give it a try. 

Strom,C. (2014). Designating the MVP: Faciliating classroom discussion about texts.
            The Reading Teacher, 68(4), 108-112.