Thursday, May 29, 2014

Medical Mysteries

I’m halfway through reading Gail Jarrow’s new book for middle school and older, Red Madness: How a Medical Mystery Changed What We Eat. 

 I find myself admiring the way the author emphasizes the medical mystery involved in figuring out the cause of  the disease pellagra, which killed many in the U.S. in the first part of the twentieth century.  So far in my reading, she's explored how doctors first responded to the problem and their ideas about what was going on.  Was it from eating moldy corn?  Was it airborne? Was it the lack of some nutrient as with scurvy?  I haven’t reached the answer yet but the focus has shifted to researchers and the increasing importance of public health agencies.  Quick descriptions are included throughout of real people who suffered from the disease, often losing their mental capacities and dying.

As someone who chooses mystery novels if I’m in the mood for escape reading, I’d recommend this to a teen who likes mystery novels for their plot more than for their characters.  Kids who like grim facts and gruesome photographs will also love this book.  Pellagra causes an ugly rash seen in many historical photographs and on the book jacket.  And the story also offers heroes, doctors and scientists some of whom risked their health and even their lives to find the answers and try to end the suffering.

There are so many good nonfiction disease books to pair this with.  Since they are high appeal, a group of them would make a good book display.  Here are a few more:


Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Over in my Consider the Source column I began exploring a question that relates to this blog as well: what is pleasure reading? We use that term all of the time – indeed I stumbled into the question when a recent and well-publicized study claimed that there is a steep decline in “pleasure reading” among teenagers. The CSM study echoes similar terminology that the NEA used several years ago to claim there was a national reading crisis. If we are making claims about changes in “pleasure reading” we must have a series of clear definitions in mind: what is “pleasure” reading, what is not “pleasure” reading – usually defined as reading for “school or work.” I’d love to have an intrepid graduate student research the history of these terms – who came up with them, what they originally were meant to signify, and how they are used today.
                In my SLJ column I suggested that one source might be Louise Rosenblatt’s division between “aesthetic” and “efferent” reading. That is, reading in which you give over to the text as against reading in which you pluck information from the text. The obvious problem with this formulation – or, at least, when “aesthetic” is transformed into “pleasure” and “efferent” becomes “school or work” -- is that you are mixing apples and oranges. “Pleasure” can either mean “pleasing” – enjoyable; or, something closer to “choice.” That is, either a reading experience, or, reading that you are not required to do – that you choose to do. But you may choose to do something not because you expect it to be enjoyable, but because it is useful to you. Does anyone read a diet book for pleasure (outside, perhaps, of recipes)? Does anyone read a manual that tells you how to set up some new equipment for enjoyment? No, the enjoyment comes once the equipment works.
Now let’s reverse the terms: you may be required to read something for school that you find yields pleasure. Indeed the premise of a Liberal Arts education is that the student will be introduced to what Mathew Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said.” That is, the teacher, the school, opens the student’s mind, exposes him or her to marvelous ideas, poems, plays, theories, paintings, compositions, novels that the student would otherwise not know or appreciate. In other words, school vastly expands the potential pleasures of the student – by giving the student the tools to find, understand, make sense of, and be curious about the vast riches of human accomplishment. Indeed, the student may be so inspired that s/he goes on to pursue a profession linked to creating new works. Once in a profession – whether that be as a plumber, a soldier, a pilot, a doctor, a teacher, a scientist, an artist – there is little if any line between reading for pleasure and reading for work – because you have selected a kind of work that matters to you, that is rewarding, in which the act of working is, in itself, a creative satisfaction.
Notice the weave: we talked about reading that may not be pleasurable to do, but that the reader chooses; then reading a reader does not select, but which turns out to bring pleasure.
                Of course there are times where we work just to make a living – not because a job appeals to us. It must be possible to separate out work as punch clock requirement from work as apprenticeship to a rewarding profession, but once we carefully parse work reading we move further and further away from anything resembling school. I suggest that we eliminate the terms “or work” in future surveys. There are teenagers who work, and just about any task – from taking the Red Cross training in order to become a Baby Sitter to working in a restaurant chain to assisting in a lab, hospital, or office – requires some reading. But this work-related reading seems so different from school that it should be a category all its own.
                School: here is where the categories we use fail us. Yes, some part of school is a grind from which we seek relief in diversion, sports, arts, hobbies, friendship, games, reading, etc. But there is a whole middle band at school, which has been growing over the past twenty-years: time set aside for SSR, independent reading, battle of the books, summer reading, state book contests, teen reading groups. All of this reading is specifically designed to straddle “assigned” and “self-selected.” Either our surveys are not catching all of this school-directed pleasure reading, or the net effect of more independent reading at school is to diminish or cannibalize so-called “pleasure reading” outside of school. We have a category problem, a failing initiative, or both.
                One more twist: I am not convinced that using a textbook is reading at all. Or, at least, it is a very purposeful kind of reading totally different from, say, reading a history or math or science book because you are interested in the subject. Maybe we should ask about reading in a textbook assigned at school versus all other forms of reading, including non-textbooks assigned at school. Perhaps that would yield some kind of baseline distinction. Reading required to make a buck, separated from reading designed to help you find and rise in a satisfying career; reading in assigned textbooks, separated from reading in books authors have crafted to explore ideas, develop characters, craft plots.
                Could it be that this whole terminological muddle arises because textbooks have colonized school – so that reading for school really means reading a textbook? But now we have the Common Core, which is shifting us away from textbooks – while the questions asked in surveys have not caught up. I hope our next set of studies will begin by defining our terms. After that we can have the great pleasure of making sense.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Questions that Never End

It's probably obvious that one of the most exciting aspects of reading nonfiction is all the interesting stuff you learn about the world, the amazing work talented, tenacious, and passionate people are doing, were doing, may soon do. You get the picture. But an equally satisfying component of reading nonfiction are all the new questions that I have. What questions eluded the author/researcher? What was s/he never able to pin down? Why does an author decide to write about one perspective rather than another? What is included and excluded? There is so much to learn by moving from a nonfiction book or article into the content that surrounds the book, the sources used to research the book, and the sources that weren't, either because they were not available or not on the research path the author followed. 

We do so much teaching about how the texts operate, that at times, I worry we aren't reading enough nonfiction for the content that it offers. In Teaching with Text Sets, the book I co-authored with Lesley University colleague Erika Dawes, we have an instructional model we call the Tree Ring, in which we ask teachers to have students explore some of the primary and secondary source material that an author or illustrator used to create a text, to immerse students in the content beyond the book, in order to better understand both the book and the larger content. From there, we suggest that teachers and students look at other texts on the topic, to further explore authors' choices, and, again, reinforce content learning. 

I love the idea of harnessing the authentic questions that young people may have about the content of a nonfiction text. When I was writing my entry on teaching with Steve Sheinkin's The Port Chicago 50 for The Classroom Bookshelf this week, I thought about something else. How do we allow students to consider deeply questions they may not be able to find answers to, questions that could lead students and teachers alike to dead ends? So often in school, we limit what students do research on to safe topics, or topics for which the teacher knows there are "enough" resources. There are reasons for this that make sense, particularly when at the high school level you may be dealing with over 100 individual research projects at once. 

But isn't there a value in sending students out on a quixotic quest for answers to questions that matter to them? In real life, we don't always find what we are looking for, but there is something gained in the process. For example, when reading Port Chicago, I couldn't help but think about the over three hundred men who were killed in the munitions explosion. What happened to their families? The Port Chicago fifty, those who survived the blast and refused to go back to work without proper training in handling ammunition, we learn about. But who were those other men? What lives did they lead before they were killed? In one of my teaching ideas for Port Chicago, I wrote the following:  

More Missing Pieces. The Port Chicago 50 focuses on the fifty men who were ultimately put on trial by the U.S. Navy and convicted as mutineers. It was the largest mutiny trial in the history of the navy. However, when the explosion took place on July 17, 1944, 320 servicemen were killed. Who were they? Who were their families? How did the U.S. Navy compensate the families of the dead African American servicemen? This is an extra-challenging research project that may not be completed quickly. But for interested and engaged students who up for the challenge, have them research naval records to get the names of the dead. Using online resources, including, perhaps, an subscription available through your local public library system, try to track down surviving relatives of those servicemen. 

There are so many ways to engage students in research that matters. And sometimes research matters most when it ends in unanswered questions. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Gotta Minute?

     Here’s some good news for all of us who like to share nonfiction with kids. iNK Think Tank has made available a sneak peek of The Nonfiction Minute, a free website that consists of short nonfiction texts, plus illustrations, and audio recordings of the authors reading their own work. The website includes original work by authors as Vicki Cobb, Alexandra Siy, Dorothy Hinshaw Patent, David Schwartz, Andrea Warren, and Cheryl Harness.  Wow! These are nonfiction heavy hitters! That means there are science, math and social studies texts all ready and waiting. This is the beginning of a gold mine of short examples of good writing that we can use for minilessons, introductions to these nonfiction writers and their work, and most importantly—for enjoyment.

     You are probably aware of the excellent work of iNK authors, but are your students? Maybe not. So one use of the website it to introduce children to these writers and how they write.  Students will immediately see that these authors have voice. Their writing sounds like a human being wrote it—a person like them with strong preferences and opinions about the world and with deep interests. Then, too, just by reading these pieces, students will learn something new and interesting. Not bad for a minute or so of your time.

     Right now when you go to the website you will see all the Nonfiction Minutes created so far. In the upper right hand corner there is a tab that says For Teachers. Full disclosure: When you click this tab, you will see my picture and some of my suggestions for using the Nonfiction Minutes. There is also another tab that says Contact. When you click it, it says “Write something! We write back.” I know for sure that there are authors eager to hear from you and they will respond.

     So, check it out. Here’s the website:
And don’t forget. There is much more to come. The plan is to have a new Nonfiction Minute every day once the school year begins. That will be quite a collection of material, and it will be archived according to content. When you are planning for the fall, this might be just the thing to use to introduce more nonfiction in your classroom or library. But for now, take a look at this new resource.