Sunday, July 27, 2014

When a Book Hands Us Opportunities for Teaching, Let's Take Them

            Sometimes a book hands us perfect teaching opportunities. Frozen in Time  by Mark Kurlansky is one such book. This book—the biography of the Clarence Birdseye, who is probably best known for developing the process that provides us with frozen foods—could be folded into a unit on biography or an inquiry into the impact of science and technology on society. But, it could also be used as a nonfiction read aloud for middle grade students or a literature circle book for groups of readers or as a mentor text for young writers. And since this book will be released in November as a paperback as well as a hardback and ebook, it is a good choice for schools on a budget.

            Why do I like this book so much? First, it’s really interesting. Mark Kurlansky is a good writer, and I am pleased to say that he adapted the book himself from an adult version he wrote. The style is fluid and doesn’t feel dumbed down. Second, I learned a lot reading it. Here are some of the things I learned about: Labrador (where Birdseye lived for a while), refrigeration, the application of science in real world settings, and the role of salt in freezing and thawing. Third, I found Birdseye to be a fascinating character. As Kurlansky tells us, Clarence Birdseye lived a life of adventure and had a healthy dose of curiosity, which he vigorously pursued. In fact, the author describes him as a nerd of the Industrial Revolution because he followed his own unique path.

            Here are three ideas worth sharing with middle school readers, simply because they are so well presented:
1.     How Kurlansky deals with issue of accuracy. According to the author, the story of how Marjorie Post bought Birdseye’s frozen food company is commonly misunderstood. According to the story, the heiress of Postum Cereal Company sailed into Gloucester (where Birdseye lived) and dined on a goose that had been frozen by Birdseye’s company. She was so impressed with the taste of the goose, she pestered her father to buy the company. While this account appeared in both The New York Times and The Washington Post, it is inaccurate and Kurlansky explains why. This is a fine example of historical thinking in action.
2.     How Kurlansky explains why salt follows the rules of nature, but seems to act inconsistently. Do you want to know why salt is used to melt snow and ice, but also as a refrigerant? The author states, “Though salt acts by natural laws, it can do so many different and seemingly contradictory things that it appears to operate by magic.” His explanation is so lucid that it is a great example of clear scientific writing.
3.     How Kurlansky brings in historical context. Both the prologue (“The Nerds of the Industrial Revolution”) and chapter one (“A Fast Changing World”) situate Birdseye as living during a time of great change. He was born at the height of the Industrial Revolution. The author explains that during Birdseye’s life “the rate of original, life-changing inventions being developed and sold was dazzling.” These two chapters are especially strong in showing readers that a person’s life is influenced by the times in which he or she lived.
I think these are three important opportunities Frozen in Time provides for teachers and students. But there is another idea to consider too. How we introduce a book in the classroom should take advantage of what the book offers. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014


I often think that the great secret of nonfiction is structure. That is, no book, no series of books, no ten-part documentary with accompanying website could possibly say all that there is to say about any nonfiction topic. Thus each time an author sets out to write he or she must select how much to discuss and, most crucially, in which order. This fall I am teaching an graduate class in Nonfiction and the Common Core for future K-12 librarians. I think I will devote an entire week to looking at the Table of Contents in many books. The TOC is the spine, the skeleton, on which every word in the book rests and it is entirely a result of choices -- of artistry.

Think of the author's options: in a book about history, s/he can go in chronological sequence. That has the appeal of following a seemingly natural and utterly familiar flow.Yet chronology is not self-evident: what is the pace of events: by date, by event, by theme? And what if, to set up or explain the next beat the author needs to cut away to a distant time or place? Is that best accomplished with a sidebar? With an earlier foreshadowing chapter? Through before and after contrast within the chapter? Through images and captions and maps? When is the march forward of the calendar too much of a snail's pace as against the larger goals and themes of the book -- which expand out from daily events to panoramic vistas and broad conclusions? And all of these questions come only within a chronological structure. What if the author comes to realize that chronology might be best confined to timelines within the book, while the real driving force of the book is thematic questions, or vivid personalities?

What if, when we shared a nonfiction book with students, we first looked at the TOC and tried a thought experiment: how else could this have been organized? What beats might the story have featured? What would have been gained or lost with a different structure? Then, ask them to take some familiar nonfiction subject -- anything from grand events such as the signing of the Declaration of Independence to some event or result that was in the news that day -- and craft two different TOCs to retell it. And here is the kicker: the TOC needs to be linked to the intended reader.

A TOC splits a subject by space. That is, each chapter is so many pages, with this many headings, subheadings, and images. Multiply chapters by pages and you have the full length of the book (setting aside yet more real estate for front and backmatter such as the TOC itself in front and glossary, notes, bibliography, index, etc. in back). Clearly a TOC for a 48 page elementary age book needs to be different from a TOC for a 256 page study.

Analyze the subject to find the most compelling sequence of subjects. Figure out how to move through that sequence within the limitations of space. That is the secret key to creating -- and understanding -- nonfiction.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Writer's Craft and Goodnight Moon

Well-written children's books, particularly those for the very young, can often provide the most valuable lessons in writer's craft. Did you see Aimee Bender's piece for "The Draft" blog of The New York Times, "What Writers Can Learn from 'Goodnight, Moon'?" It was also on page 9 of the Review section of Sunday's paper. Bender dissects the book spread-by-spread.

Structure is something I enjoy exploring as both a reader and a writer. I'm fascinating by how much hinges on the structure, how a book can become so many other books simply by changing the organizing structure of the text in ways large and small, obvious and subtle. When discussing the book's move from the bedroom to the stars in the sky, "goodnight nobody," Bender writes, "[f]or writers, this is all such a useful reminder. Yes, move around in a structure. But also float out of that structure."  How do we teach young writers to "move around in" and "float out of" structure as they write?

Understanding the structural choices a writer makes is one of the essential pivot points as one moves from reader to writer, whether it's a conscious or unconscious pivot. Young children do it all the time as they unconsciously adopt the structures and motifs of stories they love, often choosing to encode before they decode. They have absorbed structures of writing they have heard and use them in their own work. As children get older, they can adopt those structures in more specific and conscious ways.

Over a decade ago, I was teaching a course in children's literature to high school seniors, students I once taught as 8th or 9th graders. So many of them were able to acquire the meta-cognitive thinking strategies about reading, writing, and literary analysis at a more sophisticated level when first working with (in many cases, deceptively) simple texts. They could then pivot off of those experiences to work with more "age appropriate" texts.

All of us have a lot to learn about writing from Goodnight Moon. I'm teaching my nonfiction class this weekend, and while Goodnight Moon is fiction, I may use Bender's column as another entry point into talking about discussing text structure, particularly those at work in nonfiction picture books. Let me know if you do, too. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Steering the Balanced Literacy Conversation Towards More Productive Topics

Ever since New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña called for more Balanced Literacy in NYC classrooms (see{%221%22%3A%22RI%3A8%22) the responses have been interesting and even reassuring.

Teachers, teacher educators, and even Lucy Calkins herself have proclaimed that whether or not to use Balanced Literacy is not the most pressing issue that should be occupying our time. According to Calkins, “other approaches to English language arts standards, as well as balanced literacy, work when taught well.”

So what are some of the important issues that should be occupying our time? Here are three issues that top my list, all gathered from responses posted on the Opinion Pages of The New York Times:

1.     Providing more content—“stuff” that’s good to think with. According to E.D. Hirsch, “the reading gap between advantaged and disadvantaged is mainly a knowledge and vocabulary gap.” Children need in depth study of interesting topics in science, math, and social studies.
2.     Providing resources for teachers and children. Schools need resources for building curriculum that is interesting and challenging. According to sociologist Pedro Noguera, “Instead of gearing up for another fight over literacy, we should be talking about how to make it possible to provide schools with the resources they need to support language development for all children.”
3.     Selecting appropriate materials. According to teacher Claire Needell, we have been paying more attention to the balanced literacy approach and less attention to the texts we are using. She writes, “…we need to make appropriate text selections widely available for new teachers, families…, and students.”

In the spirit of supporting these three important goals, I want to respond to teacher Claire Needell by suggesting one great website and one new book that she might find helpful. That website is Guys Read (, the site of the first Ambassador to Children’s Literature, Jon Scieszka. I also want to recommend a new title coming out in September, namely the fifth volume in the Guys Read series, True Stories, edited by Jon Scieszka. This anthology contains ten riveting, true stories, each written by a different outstanding nonfiction writer. Any one of these stories could be the basis of an extended inquiry or could simply be read for enjoyment. Check it out. Also, I see no reason why girls will not like this book too.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Nancy Garden leading the way

While Walter Dean Myers will be sorely missed in so many ways, I want to note that Nancy Garden, author of Annie on My Mind (1982) and other novels about gay teens and families, also died last week.  (New York Times obituary)  She was a pioneer who made a huge difference to readers who had never encountered gay girls in fiction before.  In 2000, I helped compile a list for SLJ of the 100 Books That Shaped the Century, and we included Annie on My Mind on it for leading the way.

Books with gay characters are more available now although the offerings are still somewhat sparse. Nonfiction books on gay issues are even harder to find.  The Stonewall Awards from ALA's GLBT Round Table, first given in 1971, include fiction and non-fiction for adults, young adults, and children.  You can find them here: Stonewall Book Awards

More are fiction than nonfiction, but a powerful nonfiction book that won a 2014 Stonewall Honor Award is Branded by the Pink Triangle by Ken Setterington (Second Story Press, 2013; 155 pages.

The author, a well-known librarian and writer (and a friend with whom I served on the Newbery Committee), tackles the hard subject of the Nazi persecution of gays, especially men.  He relates heartbreaking stories and gives grim statistics of incarceration and death.  Berlin had a surprisingly open gay community before the rise of Hitler, making the change all the more shocking.  Gay men were forced to wear pink triangles, the counterpart to Jews wearing yellow stars.  Then after the war, those who survived were not free to tell their stories in a world where homosexuality was typically illegal.  While acknowledging how much things have changed for the better, Setterington also reminds readers that in some countries, homosexuality is still outlawed and gays are openly persecuted.

This is a highly readable, must-have book for middle schools and high schools to introduce students to one more aspect of the Holocaust that we should never forget. 

Appendix D?

Sue Bartle and I have been approached to find expert librarians to help out with a challenging but important task. As you all will know, the CC ELA standards came with various appendices and one was particularly influential: the infamous "B." While Appendix B was meant to be "exemplars" -- examples, models, of the kinds of books that could be useful in supporting the standards in various grade bands -- all too often it was taken as a buying list. This created a whole host of problems: large demands for out of print books when perfectly fine in-print alternatives were easily available (or already on the library shelves); a listed crafted in 2010 that was dated at birth and only more so as time went by; and, a mismatch between the "whiteness" of the authors and subjects and the range of students in schools and people in our nation. Those of you who have come to this blog for some time know that we Uncommon Corps folks have worked to develop a different way of evaluating books -- not by whether they are on a list, but through the rigorous Common Core Lens (Sue can comment here on how you sign in to learn more). But we also know that lists can be of some use, and thus were pleased to learn that the Southern Poverty Law Center through their Teaching Tolerance publication is working on an Appendix D -- B made more Diverse.

The challenge is that books on "D" serve many masters. D is designed to add authors, illustrators, and subjects that broaden and diversify recommended literature for (at first) K-5; but it is not just Multicultural Fave-Raves, it is also designed to match the CC ELA requirements. And so Sue and I -- and perhaps some of you -- have been asked to look at the titles through a grid designed to be a kind of mini-CommonCoreLens -- a one page evaluation tool to examine a book with CC eyes.

I can't be involved in this directly -- as an author and editor I have too much at stake -- but I like the idea of giving librarians, teachers, and parents a starter-kit, a place to begin in looking for CC-aligned diverse literature -- so long as no one takes it as gospel. These are, again, exemplars -- but, we hope, a better bunch.

More as I know more.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Still Open to Interpretation: Questions about César Chávez and the United Farm Workers Movement

There are so many books about César Chávez that it might seem as if we don’t need any more, but we do.  Now we have Larry Dane Brimmer’s Strike: The Farm Worker’s Fight for Their Rights, which can add even more texture to our talk. This book serves as a reminder to us all that historical accounts are always incomplete because of the different questions authors ask and the information they choose to include. Brimmer has asked some new questions—at least new to me—and because of this he provides information that is missing in other titles.

Here are some “what if?” questions Brimmer is raising:
·      What if the Filipino agricultural labor organizers had not staged a strike before Chávez began his work? Would he still be the hero he is today? In other words, the role of Filipino laborers and their leaders needs to be part of our remembered history.

·      If members had been willing to speak up against Chávez when necessary, would the United Farm Workers (UFW) union have remained a strong voice in agricultural labor policy? It seems like members were too often unwilling to oppose him.

As a reader, I am grateful to Larry Brimmer for showing me that César Chávez was—and still is—a controversial figure—someone we can continue to discuss and think about. This well-written, well-illustrated, and thought-provoking book can easily be used by teachers and librarians to discuss CCSS topics like finding the author’s point of view and evidence for this view. The author’s note at the end is perfect for getting this conversation started. This is truly a book to check out because it can help us and our students see that history is a vibrant, living subject. 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Change, Just as We Lose an Agent of Change

Did you all see this study: the article summarizes a National Center for Education Statistics study which says we are at a moment of fundamental change. From now on, the majority of students in our K-12 schools will be Latino, African-American, Asian-American, or Indian. The article framed this as the last year of white majority, but that defines the moment as an ending rather than as a beginning -- a moment of possibility. How ironic, then, that Walter Dean Myers passed away on Tuesday, July 1.

Walter -- I did not know him well, but well enough to call out "Walter" as I'd pass him at a conference (the long line being a sure sign that I was near his booth) and he'd nod, and we'd chat -- was in a way that Moses who saw the promised land. He not only wrote about the African-American world in which he had grown up, his writing changed the world. He established an uncompromising voice of honesty, depth, and fearlessness -- he showed what was possible. I always teach Monster, which I think is his masterwork, to my graduate students in library school. It is, I claim, one of those perfect books everyone must read. It took so many risks -- in form, in theme, in approach -- and got everything right. Walter wrote in the time when he had to counter a silence, an absence of work about the world that meant so much to him. He was a clarion voice.

Now, though, this July, we read that our schools are changing. What do our students need to read? And how is this new majority distributed? I have seen assessments of Brown V Board of Ed that suggest we have re-segregated -- and it is Latinos in the West who are the most isolated:

What is the literature for our changing school? Who will be our new Walter? Our many new Walters? It is the time for curiosity -- we are all together as a society, as a world, we need to be together in our classrooms, our bookshelves our reading. Walter led -- who will follow?


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Monarch Butterflies and Summer Reading

Early last fall, a teacher in southern Maine was looking for a monarch chrysalis for her annual study of the monarch butterfly life cycle and migration. The literacy coach at her school happened to mention to me that they couldn't find any in the school garden. I hadn't seen any in my garden all summer, either. Soon, we were curating stories of the disappearance of the monarch butterfly to share with the third grade students. From there, along with my Lesley colleague Erika Thulin Dawes, we developed a series of text sets on the challenges facing the monarch butterfly.
For any of you participating in the "Fizz Boom Read" science-focused summer reading program this year, teaching summer school or camp, or simply looking for great nonfiction books to share with elementary-aged children, please feel free to make use of this four-part text set, which Erika and I posted on our website: This text set begins with public radio stories in New England; I imagine wherever you are in North America, there's been a local story over the past year about the dwindling monarch population. If you have questions or wind up using these text sets, please let me know! They are ideal for use with 3rd-5th graders.