Thursday, June 26, 2014

Get a Grip: We Need to Focus This Conversation about Including Parents

Marc’s latest post reinforces what I have been thinking: We need to focus our conversations about teaching and learning on—guess what?—teaching and learning, not on who’s in the CCSS club and who’s out.

One overlooked segment of the interested population is parents. I was reminded of this by a recent New York Times opinion piece entitled, “But I Want to Do Your Homework” by Judith Newman. Please read this piece at[%22RI%3A9%22%2C%22RI%3A17%22] You won’t be sorry. It’s not only amusing, it also makes an important point: Many parents want to participate in their children’s education, but they don’t know how.

Heaven knows, we educators could use their help, but for this to happen there are problems that need solving. Children both want their parents’ help, but they also fear that their parents don’t know the “right” way to help them. Parents, in turn, are often clueless about so-called newer approaches to learning. It’s no fun to learn that your understanding of math, science, and social studies is hopelessly out-of-date.

I remember when I was teaching seventh grade American history and the parents of one of my students came for a parent-teacher conference. I told them they were both doing very well in my course, but I wasn’t so sure about how their daughter was doing. They—competent professionals with graduate school degrees—were doing my assignments, even after a long, hard day at work. That’s dedication and caring, but it’s misguided. Instead, I suggested that they could have conversations about the content of what their daughter was learning and supplement it further, but not under any circumstances do the assignments for her because they were designed to stimulate their child’s thinking. That was why she was in school, right?

Enough about me. Someone else has already come up with a grand solution to this problem, and that person is Paula Rogovin. Her book, Why Can’t You Behave? The Teacher’s Guide to Creative Classroom Management, K-3, is one of the most sensible, down-to-earth guides for teachers ever written. It is not just for primary grade teachers either. Her chapter 4, “Family Involvement” has the information we need to move forward in this CCSS era. Among the many suggestions she offers is Family Homework. Here’s how she describes it:

This is our main vehicle for keeping families informed about our curriculum, about issues to discuss with their child, about class and school activities, and about ways they can help at home and in the classroom.

This is one promising idea. We need to include parents in their children’s education, not make them feel inadequate or give them the idea that the curriculum is mysteriously inaccessible and out-of-bounds for them.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

I am just back from speaking at the Shenandoah University Children's Literature Conference -- a gathering of some 300 local teachers and librarians that has taken place annually for nearly 30 years. Brian Floca gave a wonderful talk about the creation of Locomotive -- perhaps a hint of what he will say to the world at the Newbery-Caldecott banquet. Chris Soenpiet then gave us a guided tour through his books and how he creates them. I of course had no wonderful paintings and deeply-researched drawings to share -- I got to be the lecture guy speaking about Common Core and NF. The twist being that Virginia is not a CC state. But when I read through the Virginia Standards of Learning they turned out to be -- at least in the areas that I was examining -- simply a more detailed, spelled out, version of the exact same emphasis on evidence, argument, POV, comparing and contrasting different nonfiction sources. I was encouraged.

I think we need to shift some of our attention away from the CC heat -- objections on the Left, objections on the Right; this state changing the name of the standards, that state delaying the assessments, this governor trying to win his national political bones by loudly resisting CC -- to the fact that the mode of selecting, sharing, and reading NF that we discuss here in this blog is now required in essentially every state. The key point is not "common" -- shared terminology -- but "core" -- a basic approach.

There is a key "turning the ship" part of this approach: we are asking educators, parents, administrators, librarians who may themselves have experienced NF as textbooks, and "information" as data to be passively absorbed, to now see NF as active inquiry involving comparing sources, questioning ideas, probing for the research and argument behind any claim -- in math, science, history, as well as poetry, fiction, drama. The kinds of books -- and approach to books we feature here can help. But only when the adult professionals using those materials recognize that NF is now playing an entirely new role: it is not imparting knowledge to be absorbed, it is, rather, introducing students to the rules by which knowledge is created.

The attendees at the conference seemed receptive to these ideas. Marina Budhos, my wife, gave a separate talk on her dual roles as a fiction and nonfiction writer -- and thus the claims and needs of fiction and nonfiction -- which also went well. I hope others will be as willing to ignore the political heat over what we call our standards and focus on how adult professionals need to think in new ways to serve their students. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Nonfiction Book Festivals for Kids

I was at the very, very marvelous Nantucket Book Festival this past weekend, a really well-run and interesting event (in a beautiful place, on a perfect summer weekend). It was heart-warming to see people walking about town, pausing on street corners to talk, carrying their tote bags and piles of books, and crowding into rooms despite the gorgeous weather outside, in order to hear author's speak about their work. 

To be truthful, I go to far more conferences than book festivals. At these conferences, I'm used to seeing people walking around in similar fashion, simultaneously glazed over from information overload and giddy with anticipation. 

So what about having book festivals in school, separate from any fundraising efforts (as in NOT the book fair)?  What if there was a nonfiction book festival that kicked off the school year as a catalyst for creating a culture of conversation about nonfiction with your school community? School librarians are a great starting point for such planning, with a core team of perhaps a teacher from every grade level. Perhaps there is a local author who can come and speak, or a writer for children or young adults who could Skype into the session. If it happened early in the year, teachers could work with students from the previous year (i.e. the ones you know very well) and have the students on panels talking about their writing. You could have different panels for different grade spans, but mix up the students on the panels to still have younger (emerging writers!) and older students (established writers!) mixing and mingling in some way.

It's pie-in-the-sky ideal, but isn't that the kind of culture we want to create in school? Where writing is serious and joyful all at the same time? An avocation? Something worth spending time inside for on a gorgeous summer day, because it's that awesome?

Wednesday, June 18, 2014


This week I'm posting a two-part blog -- and in ways the parts are contradictory, so stay with me, and see what you think.

Part One
Sue Bartle -- who posts here -- forwarded to me a wonderful post which I now want to share with you. The post centered on an interview with Jordan Ellenberg, a math professor who has a new book out titled How Not to Be Wrong.

Read what he says, then think about how you encountered Math, how it is taught anywhere you know, and, if you have read them, about the CC Math standards. The interview with Ellenberg was conducted, I believe, by Annie Murphy Paul:

Why does math fill so many of us with dread? I put that question to Ellenberg when we spoke by phone last week. “We teach math as if it’s about applying a prescribed formula, circlingthe right answer, and going on to the next problem without thinking about what it is we're
doing,” Ellenberg replied. “But that’s so not what math is. Math is a fundamentally creative enterprise, a fundamentally humanistic enterprise. It’s a lens through which we can see the world better.”>
> > Ellenberg sees the results of rote mathematics instruction in his
undergraduates: “It can be hard for my students to get into the mindset of
trying different things. Often, during my office hours, I'll get a student who
says of an assignment, ‘I didn't know where to start.’ I tell them, ‘Of course
you didn't know where to start! You're doing this for the first time, so try a
few things and see what works.’ But this approach is foreign to students who
have been taught that math is a series of formulas. They don't realize that math
is all about trial and error, about experimenting. That's true of advanced math,
but I think we can push that mindset down into the earlier grades as well.”> >
> Ellenberg acknowledges that his approach would require a paradigm shift.
“People are not used to taking a loose and easy approach to math. They get very
tight and tense around math because they have so much fear and anxiety about
it,” he noted. In addition, he said, “People dislike math because they don't
like being told that they're wrong. And it's not incorrect to see math as a
realm where there are right and wrong answers. But the thing is: knowledge in
math does not come about because the teacher says it's so. Math is a realm where
people can demonstrate the rightness of answers to themselves. So if part of
what creates the fear of math is wanting to avoid being wrong, then learning to
like math is about learning to be willing to mess up.”

Part Two

We just learned that our son will have to give up six weeks of his summer to take Algebra 1
and Geometry so he is ready for Algebra 2 on a track to Calculus when he enters 9th grade. He had a terrific summer planned, and we expected howls. He screamed once, negotiated for a
payoff treat, and then was fine with it. Why? On some level it felt like an honor, a step up -- if you want to play in the High School fast track, this is what you need to do. 

There is no getting around the fact that Math is a language that you need to learn. Ellenbergis saying -- once you begin to speak, you have real creativity and freedom. Sasha's school is saying, but you do need to learn the language -- and there may be no way there but the grind of summer school.

Maybe we need a two part approach to Math -- here is how cool it can be; here is what every oone must do to get to that cool place. 

What do you think. 


Sunday, June 15, 2014

Three Science Mysteries: A Great Contribution to the Literature of Inquiry

If you are looking for a cluster of books that deals with scientific inquiry, read on. Author Sandra Markle has provided us with three exceptional scientific mysteries that are so clearly written and well designed that they will make teaching a pleasure.
The three books are: 

·      The Case of the Vanishing Little Brown Bats
·      The Case of the Vanishing Golden Frogs
·      The Case of the Vanishing Honeybees

What makes these books excellent teaching material?
·      They are fascinating mystery stories. Markle takes us along as scientists try to solve these mysteries.
·      The books are beautifully designed so that they are easy to read and interesting to look at. Pictures appear at just the right place in the text to help readers comprehend the words. Captions extend the written text and also support comprehension by providing additional information.
·      The writing style is clear, informative, and friendly.
·      The back matter is just right for a book of this size and provides more avenues for further investigation. Be sure to check out the author’s note in each book.
·      These books present a true picture of the Nature of Science. We get a front row seat at ongoing scientific inquiries.

How should we use these books with children? My suggestion is to read them the way the author intends us to—as scientific mysteries. The subtitle for each book is, in fact, “A Science Mystery.”

I use the following questions when discussing science mysteries with children:
·      What is the mystery the scientists want to solve?
·      How do they gather evidence to try to solve the mystery?
·      What did they learn?
·      Did scientists have any false starts? Did they toss out any assumptions?
·      What else do scientists want to know?

These books are perfect for children in grade 4 and up (maybe even grade 3) for their close up view of science. That’s why I refer to books like these as “the literature of inquiry.”  They are notable for their content and their way of sharing it. In the process of sharing these books, you can easily incorporate CCSS standards—Main Idea and Key Details, Craft and Structure, Integration of Information, and more. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Browsing Historic Photographs

In my last post, I mentioned the gruesome photographs in Red Madness by Gail Jarrow (which, by the way, gets even better as the mystery of pellagra is solved).  Historic photographs, gruesome or not, are one of my favorite elements in nonfiction.  Not every history topic can have them, obviously, but they add so much in terms of information and, often, emotion.

Common Core ELA Standard 7 speaks to the importance of visual information: "Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words."  Historic photographs fit in here with nonfiction but also with fiction.  Readers of historical fiction benefit from photographs of the era, especially if the novel isn't illustrated.  Students who struggle with reading can have problems creating images in their minds of the story's setting including clothing, furniture, transportation, and so on.  Photographs can add a whole layer of understanding and draw the reader deeper into the novel.

Pedagogic purposes aside, historic photographs are just plain fascinating.  And they are so much more accessible than in the past.  My favorite places to spend way too much time browsing are Flickr's Library of Congress photostream at and New York Public Library's Digital Gallery at  The Flickr site has wonderful "albums" on curriculum topics like Abraham Lincoln (22 photos), "Best of Civil War Faces" (61 photos), "Women Striving Forward"--women's suffrage (34 photos) and WPA Posters (27). Besides the curated albums, you can also search by keyword.  A search for "baseball" turned up hundreds of photographs; one for "Newport" produced dozens.  A mouse-over gives brief information, while clicking on the photograph brings up much more as well as a larger image.  You can move with arrows from one larger image to the next, too.

New York Public Library's Digital Gallery strikes me as a little harder to navigate but full of unexpected treasures.  While reading the excellent YA historical novel Son of Fortune by Victoria McKernan (2013), I tried to envision the protagonist's visit to Peru in the 1860s. He has a license to transport in guano (which was a lucrative venture then).  What did the guano mines look like?  Since I had recently come across NYPL's Digital Gallery, I put in the search term "guano" and got back several right-on-target photographs of Peruvian guano mines in 1865; they look like hills of hardened salt.  (Find the photos here and here.) I was also reading a novel about immigrants and found, not surprisingly, that a search on "Ellis Island" produces an abundance of photographs to browse.  The more specific the search, the more specific the outcome.  For example, searching "Susan B. Anthony" results in ten photographs of her plus a few other items.

When thinking about historic photographs, you might want to go back to Myra's November 11, 2012 post about a website with guidance for teachers on analyzing photographs ( and her December 23, 2013, post on paying attention to whether features like photographs support the text or are simply add-ons.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Testing (Again), the Gates Foundation, and Curriculum

Yesterday, the Times posted a story about the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation supporting a two-year moratorium on any "high stakes" decision-making at the state or local level based on the new assessments aligned to the Common Core. This makes a great deal of sense. Of course, I could write about how frustrating it is that teachers, teacher educators, and educational researchers have been saying this for several years now, and the message only has "heft" when someone else says it. But I won't go into that. I'm more fascinated by doing a close reading of the letter itself from the Gates Foundation.

Vicki Phillips, author of the letter, writes that "[a] number of states, including Kentucky, Maryland, Colorado and Louisiana have provided additional time for teachers to create their own lessons and curriculum, get new professional support, and become familiar with the assessments before they’re used as a measure of teacher performance. Each of these states is taking a different approach, but they all are listening to teachers, and they are all taking steps to align their approach with what teachers need to make the standards succeed." This makes sense. And someone is talking about curriculum! She also refers to teachers who "create their own lessons and curriculum." Our mission here at the Uncommon Corps is to talk about all the different ways that nonfiction texts can be used within the context of curriculum. Curriculum matters! It engages young people. It makes them think. Curriculum, not a program or product, is the vehicle within which learning takes place. Ideally, teachers create curriculum, based on state standards as well the goals established by the teacher, school, and/or district team. End goals are determined, with assessments created to articulate what has been learned, and those end goals and assessment shape instruction. It's also a work in progress each and every time, changed by the needs and interests of students, the teachable moments, etc. This is the work of school that matters most to teachers and students. The locally made decisions and locally crafted curriculum. This is where we need to focus our attention and build capacity and empowerment.

So when Vicki Phillips suggests that this waiting period will allow teacher to "begin to use the assessments to inform their practice, and second, teachers can see how their performance looks using these measures and make sure it lines up with other measures of teaching practice," I have hope that others, too -- state leaders, superintendents, principals -- will see that our most important and fundamental next step is not on the standardized tests, but creating rich and interesting curriculum to engage students and teachers alike in the possibilities and challenges of our complex world. 

Onward, fellow champions of nonfiction books for children and young adults. There is good work to be done.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Style Matters

When I read a nonfiction book, I have high expectations. I not only want to learn something, I want the language to be interesting. Appeals to the senses are a plus. So are original comparisons and interesting, varied sentences. The style of writing and the information should be a treat for the mind.

So what happens when a book written by a well-respected author for an adult audience is “adapted” for children? What changes are made? Why? Although these questions merit considerable thought and study, I am in the midst of thinking about this right now as I am reading Thomas Jefferson: President and Philosopher by Jon Meacham. This book is based on his adult book Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power and was adapted by Sarah L. Thomson. His name appears on the cover; hers only appears on the title page in small print.

So here’s the question I want to think about: What does adapted mean? On the positive side, it means that additional information is provided about the historical context so that young readers develop a sense of time and place. This is helpful.

But, what about the writing? Booklist calls Meacham’s writing “rich prose style,” and The New York Times Book Review referred to his writing as “nuanced and persuasive.” Let’s see what happens to this writing when it is adapted. Here are the first two or three sentences from both the adult and children’s book:

                  Adult Book                                                                Children’s Book
“He was the kind of man people noticed. An imposing, prosperous, well-liked farmer known for his feats of strength and his capacity for endurance in the wilderness, Peter Jefferson had amassed large tracts of land and scores of slaves in and around what became Albermarle County, Virginia. “
“Thomas Jefferson’s father, Peter, was the kind of man people noticed. He was an excellent rider and hunter, well-off and well-liked, known for his feats of strength. He owned large plots of land and many slaves.”

The adult book builds interest from the beginning by making the readers wait until the second sentence to find out who we are reading about. Both sentences vary in length. There’s lots of description—“imposing,” “prosperous,” and “well-liked.”

The children’s book identifies the subject of the paragraph from the start. “Imposing” and “prosperous” are dropped. “Well-off” is substituted for “prosperous.” The phrase “amassed large tracts of land and scores of scores of slaves” is changed to “owned large plots of land and many slaves.”

Granted that this is a tiny sample, but I think it reflects what’s going on. That is, the lively prose has become less lively. Even more important, research tells us that simplifying a text does not always make it easier to understand. In fact, by taking out the markers of complex relationships between words and phrases, text becomes harder to understand. This may seem contradictory to our common sense understanding, but it’s true.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Turning the Ship Around

I hope many of you caught this Op-ED in the New York Times last weekend:
The piece discussed both the extreme gender imbalance in computer science – just 0.4% of women entering college expect to major in that area – and several promising initiatives to interest girls in coding – for example via Minecraft. It is perhaps telling that the author, Nitasha Tiku, is the child of Indian – it seems Bengali -- immigrants. When I was in San Francisco earlier this year a librarian who had grown up in Gurjarat – another state in India – commented on the gender imbalance in her homeland. There, it is the men who sit in the front of shops and chat with customers, while the women are trained to understand numbers and keep the books. In other words, our ridiculous imbalance in math and computer science is cultural, learned, taught, reinforced, assumed – but in no sense necessary. Indeed one of the bright spots in Tiku’s piece was mention of BlackGirlsCode –a project whose focus is self-evident.
                I do wonder – and invite your thoughts – on how our world got set up this way. Math and indeed coding should be as neutral as possible – you are not rewarded for having country club parents but for your own interest, skill, creativity, and diligence. Could it be that we so train girls to be social – to be alert to transactions with others (like the Gurjarati men at the front of the shops) that to turn to what may seem abstract and impersonal might be viewed as a betrayal, an abandonment of friends and family?
                I bring this to your attention because I think libraries, parents, teachers have a key role to play – and it is one we do not often discuss. Step one is self-questioning – is your library, classroom, home welcoming for young people who may prefer numbers or coding to words or novels? If you think it is, what have you done to feature coding and computer science? If you have gaming at your library, have you reached out to girls to join in, to take the lead, to take part in the fun?  If you are looking for good Common Core debates, what about: is computer science just for males? Why? Have a debate and let students research the issue and take positions. What about a reverse Big Bang theory skit, in which a set of nerdy brilliant female grade students meet regularly – with one hot guy dropping by.
                We have to recognize the barriers, the obstructions, we may – even unconsciously, inadvertently – put between girls’ potential interests and the opportunity to explore them. Indeed I notice that with all of the discussion this year about the lack of diversity in kids and YA literature, the least attention has been paid to math, science, and I have not seen any mention of computer science. So even as we question ourselves about our bias and blindness, we are still talking about a very limited subset of books – in other words, being blind and biased.
                Step two may take some work from us – I, for example, know nothing about coding. My 9-year old son is beginning to learn a bit a school, but to help him I’d have to study. As more schools treat coding as a language all children should learn, we will have to play catch up, so we can be helpful.

                What is Step three – you tell me. After we clear away our obstructions and learn enough to be useful, what next? How can we bring girls, of ever background, into the language of their time: coding? 

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Text Sets and Summer Reading

Summer reading can be a source of anxiety for parents, teachers, and students. Avid readers who want to read books of choice all summer  get frustrated when school-selected texts are imposed on them. Reluctant readers who can't wait to get out of school so that they can play, make things, and explore the outdoors, or go to day camp each day to swim, learn a new craft, and take field trips, resent having to sit down and read, particularly when it's a school-selected text. Parents want their children reading, and rely on the pressures of required summer reading to make it happen. Or, parents want their children reading, and resent the imposition of required summer reading. Each school district and community has a different set of expectations.

But you know who often gets summer reading "just right?" The librarians. There are many school librarians who allow students to take upwards of 20 books (or more) home for the summer. Others open their doors periodically over the summer to allow students to swap out books. Public librarians take part in the summer reading programs offered by the American Library Association, and find all sorts of ways to bring kids and their families into the library for fun and creative programming. Public libraries across America are the heart of civic and community life. It's no different in summer, simply warmer.

For all of these reasons, I was excited to hear about a summer reading collaboration in the works between the Cambridge, Massachusetts Public Library system and the Cambridge Public Schools. This year, the summer reading program at the public library will focus on STEM topics. To capitalize on this focus, and to encourage students to read in a range of genres, particularly nonfiction, the school librarians developed multimodal, multigenre text sets on different topics for different grade levels. These books are not required reading, but rather suggested readings on topics students will be exposed to in the coming year. This way, if a student reads one text on the topic and finds it interesting, s/he has a range of others to explore. The text sets make it easier for students, once hooked on a topic, to just keep on reading. And because a range of texts have been selected, students can read a survey book of nonfiction to get familiar with a topic, and then an experiment or activity book that will allow him/her to put that knowledge to work. Once school starts back up again, students can put their newly developed science knowledge to work.

The public school librarians have posted the lists on the Cambridge Public Schools website, but the lists will also be available to children and families from the Cambridge Public Library site and at the public library. In essence, these text sets are summer reading pathways, rather than summer reading lists.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Looking at Craft and Structure as a Way of Investigating History Books

If we are ever going to convince students that history is about constructing an interpretation from evidence left behind, then we need to show some different kinds of construction sites.

The Common Core asks us to look closely at how information is presented. The following standard for reading history gets are the heart of this issue:

RH.6-8.5. Describe how a text presents information (e.g., sequentially, comparatively, causally).

A good place to start thinking how a text presents information is a book I just finished reading—Ali: An American Champion by Barry Denenberg. This book, which is due out in September, has a unique construction that the author explains to readers. In an Author’s Note that begins the book, Denenberg tells us the book is designed to give readers a sense of immediacy, so that we feel events unfolding. To do this, he created “various fictional publications” such as articles in newspapers, magazines, and black periodicals; interviews; letters to the editor; and breaking news announcements. The result is a collage of different pieces.

But how do other authors construct Ali’s story. What craft ideas do they use? Here are a few books to check out and compare:

·      Muhammad Ali: Champion of the World by Jonah Winter
·      I Shook Up the World: The Incredible Life of Muhammad Ali by Maryum “Maymay” Ali (Ali’s daughter)
·      Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali by Charles R. Smith and Brian Collier
·      The Greatest: Muhammad Ali by Walter Dean Myers

Many people have said this before, but I think it's an idea worth repeating: Comparing books on the same subject provides us with insight into the nature of nonfiction.