Wednesday, August 27, 2014

New Kid

With school just about to start, I'm getting requests to visit schools. I like doing that, but I always ask what it is the teachers/librarian hope the students will get out of the visit. What would make for a great event? Recently the answer has had to do with nonfiction research and writing -- exactly the thread that we've been exploring this week. I understand that teachers are fond of structure: thesis statement, 3/5 supporting details, conclusion. I have a different model to suggest -- or at least a different way of framing the challenge to students.

If your family moved, I might say, how would you approach finding your way in the new neighborhood, the new school, the new social environment? I ask this because we historians often quote the novelist L.P. Hartley "the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there." Exploring the past is moving to a strange and different place, whose codes, laws, and behaviors we need to learn. Similarly, math is a language -- perhaps, indeed, we should move math into the language track at schools alongside English, Spanish, Mandarin, etc. So how can students go about exploring a foreign land, a new language?

That gets back to my thought experiment. Off hand, I can picture young people taking one of three strategies as they figure out their lives in a new place. The first option is to lay low and case the joint. That is, some kids will want to look around, see what the new classmates are wearing, what songs they like, what media they use, what sports heroes they follow, what phrases are popular. The second option is to find one good friend -- that kind of student might be looking around, but will seek one close, good friend as a starting place, a home base. A third option is the confident star -- a student who knows s/he is good at something, soccer, basketball, singing, organizing events, might want to jump in and establish their value. The idea is that as a star they will attract other kids to them. I am sure there are other strategies, but these seem plausible.

Now lets apply the new kids on the block plans to nonfiction research. One approach is to case the joint: read up, what have other people already said about this subject? What is known? What are the questions? What is the vocabulary that is used by people who know this subject well. A second option is to find the one friend, that is, the student's own, comfortable, angle of entry. Let us say the student is interested in women's history, or social history, or battles, or economics, or science -- that passion becomes the student's entry, the passageway into research. And then there is the star -- the student who feels confident, who is eager to blaze his/her own trail, to come up with new answers, to solve some ancient puzzle, to prove that s/he can see the issue afresh -- have at it!

Languages and math -- I have to think more about this, but perhaps all of you have ideas. What if we taught kids to "speak and think math" -- with tools like immersion, experiment, conversation. Another analogy for another week.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Unpacking the Process of Writing Nonfiction

 Like my fellow bloggers on this site, I am interested in knowing about how nonfiction is created. I want to understand the process better myself, and I want to share it with my students. That’s why I am pleased to let you know about the blog written Meghan McCarthy, author of many nonfiction picture books for elementary school readers such as Daredevil, Pale Male, Seabiscuit, and Pop! This blog is called Children’s Books: The Good The Bad and The Ugly.

A post written on June 14, 2014 is particularly interesting for anyone who wants to learn about historical thinking and writing history. You can access it at This post is about the author’s quest to find the answer to two questions for a book she is writing about the 1904 Marathon at the St. Louis World’s Fair:
1.     Was Alice Roosevelt—Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter—at the 1904 Marathon?
2.     Did she place a wreath upon Fred Lorz’s head?

McCarthy shares with us the inconsistencies she found in “the facts.” Some articles report Alice Roosevelt was there and did place the wreath. Others report that she was in St. Louis a month earlier and was in Newport, RI on the day of the Marathon. Not only does McCarthy share her conclusion after weighing the evidence, she also provides links to this evidence so we can see it for ourselves.  And she shares other odds and ends of interesting information she found while researching. This is wonderful stuff to share!

Another good thing to share is this quote written by McCarthy from the same post:

I have stumbled upon many inconsistencies in "the facts." I put this in quotes because the more books I work on the more I have come to realize that there is no truth, it is all perspective. 

I know that “facts” are slippery and subject to change, but I am not willing to go this far—at least not yet. I’m still thinking about it. What do you think? Is there no such thing as truth? Is history all perspective? It’s a great question to discuss.

In the meantime, check out Megan McCarthy’s nonfiction picture book The Incredible Life of Balto and be sure to read the back matter entitled “Detective Work,” which explains the contradictory accounts she dealt with in order to write that book. Also, get ready for McCarthy’s Earmuffs for Everyone: How Chester Greenwood Became Known as the Inventor of Earmuffs, which also has a very interesting and detailed author’s note about researching the past and looking for the truth. This book is due out in January. These books are great for introducing young children to important ideas about historical thinking.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Come One Come All

Announcements One Personal, One General

Personal: On September 6 at 2 PM I will be speaking (along with Betsy Bird) at the first New York Public Library Literary Salon of the fall. The subject will be how nonfiction (what a surprise) for younger readers has changed and is changing, and some of the new directions in both materials and how to use them we can look forward to. The talk/discussion will be in the Berger Forum on the 2nd Floor of the great 42nd St. Library.

General: Sue Bartle and I have talked and written about Text Sets here and elsewhere, and, of course, Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching With Text Sets. Student Achievement Partners has announced that their first Text Set workshop will be held in Chicago September 16-17. This two day workshop will train teams of teachers and librarians in how to work together to craft K-5 groupings of materials that both build knowledge and increase in text complexity. Sue will be going and, I hope, reporting back to this blog. As I understand it the group hotel rate lasts only until this Friday. Here is the basic information, from SAP:

How do we become part of the Text Set Project?
1.        Assemble a team (1-2 librarians and 3-5 educators) and register for one of the Conferences listed above through the Council of the Great City Schools.
2.       Inquire about sponsoring an additional regional training in your state or district in the spring of summer of 2015 with Meredith Liben
3.       Look for and use the Text Sets as they start coming on line starting in late October 2014 on or

4.       Use the training materials and the spreadsheet of most commonly taught social studies and science topics K-5 to create your own text set project. Available in late September. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Building Student Identity and Agency as Writers

Any time I have anyone's ear in the children's book publishing industry, I'm always asking for two things: a "Miracle on 34th Street" style marketing vision for the school market (more on that in a couple of weeks) and more information on the backstory of a book, whether it's heavily researched nonfiction or historical fiction, a whimsical poetry collection, or a stirring piece of contemporary realistic fiction. I don't care where the backstory resides (in the back matter, on the author's website, the publisher's) or how it is conveyed (author's note, illustrator's note, sample drafts, video or audio clips). I just want it!  I often have the same questions, regardless of genre, and I've probably written about them on this blog in the past:
  • How did the book come to be? What was the inspiration or the catalyst? 
  • What got left out on the drafting journey? 
  • How did the structure change over time and how did that impact the drafting of the book?
  • What dead ends did the author, editor, and/or illustrator have to navigate? What "turned the ship" around? 
  • If the book was researched, what were the best sources used? The least effective? How did the author come to determine that?
  • What were the big "breakthrough" moments, if any? 
Do the best readers read like writers? I don't know, because we read for so many different purposes. But certainly the best writers do. This is why I really love the "Draft Blog" on The New York Times webpage and the interviews with children's and young adult writers and illustrators archived at

Last Friday's entry on the Draft Blog, "Failure, Writing's Constant Companion," made me think a lot about children's and teen's identities as writers. Much of the article, perhaps, can only be understood by professional writers and those who live with them. But what is at the core of the article is something essential for teachers and administrators to understand as well. Writing is not simple. Writing is not merely a discrete set of steps and tasks. Writing is hard work. Writing is often about following other people's examples but then putting that all together to do something unique on your own. Writing is something that must be done every day. None of this is easy. None of this is simple. None of this is quick. As we read for many different purposes, we write for many different purposes. How do we get young people to understand the "pivots" that we make when adjusting for purpose and audience?

The final paragraph reads: "You develop strategies to deal with it all. You develop a kind of sixth sense, a detective’s intuition about what will fail and what won’t. But above all, no matter how much you fail, you still sit down at your computer every day, and you keep going."

How do we provide real time for writing every day at school? How do students get real practice, from the primary grades through high school, building a writing identity? Because agency only grows out of identity. And you don't identify with something you only do every so often, and you don't identify with something that doesn't matter to you.

When we think about writing authentic texts in the classroom, at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, we have to think about the time it takes to do that.  If we want students to grow as writers, we need to expect them to read and write, and we need to supply them with both excellent and exemplary reading materials AND actual time to write, rewrite, write, rewrite, etc. And by writing, I mean making their own choices about what they are doing, becoming decision-makers.  I worked at one middle school when I was in graduate school that had multi-age (grades 5-8) writing workshops. What if every class at the middle and high school level had lab time associated with it? Just as you do science in science lab, students can do hands-on social studies work in social studies lab:  close up analysis of primary source documents, research, and writing. English Language Arts lab could be a writing lab for multiple genres. The freedom to do writing workshop at the elementary level exists, but in too many districts, we lack the will to make it happen.

If we want to talk about how we change student writing, we have to think about what it takes to really think like a writer, and it all goes back to identity and agency, the time to cultivate both, and the opportunity to discover what it means to fail as a writer in order to grow as a writer. What might it mean at your school?

Sample Resources from Children's Writers and Illustrators
Melissa Stewart's No Monkeys, No Chocolate timeline 
Matt Tavares's sketches from Becoming Babe Ruth as well as his childhood sketches of Wade Boggs
April Pulley Sayre's video on the backstory and origin of The Bumblebee Queen 

Note: In both Tavares's and Sayre's pieces, they show artifacts from their childhood, which are wonderful catalysts for allowing students to see their own lives as meaningful, as important experiences from which to start writing fiction, nonfiction, poetry, etc.

Next week, I am going to walk through a nonfiction author's or illustrator's backstory to explain how it helps me understand the text as a mentor text for writing or the writing process.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Adapted for Children

           I am noticing more and more adaptations of adult books for young readers. Recently, I reviewed a history book about that was “adapted,” (that is, chopped and clipped). Yesterday I received a “young readers edition” of an adult novel that was “rewritten for a middle grade audience.”

            This concerns me for two reasons. First, as we know, a “simpler” text—one with easier vocabulary and shorter sentences—can be harder to understand than a more complex text because the connections between thoughts and ideas have be been removed. Readers are left on their own to make these connections. Second, a simplified text does not provide a model or good writing or the enjoyment of stimulating reading. If we want children to read and write with increasing sophistication, we need to show them what well-crafted writing looks like. That means they need writing that is a cut above, not cut to the bone. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist!)

            I found Roger Sutton’s recent post on this matter reassuring. He wrote about trusting children “to read past difficulties.” I know this has worked for me big time. When I started a doctoral program, I didn’t know the academic vocabulary in language study—especially in syntax and semantics. My graduate advisor gave me this advice: Keep reading those difficult books and articles and eventually they will all make sense. Guess what folks? He was right, and I have the degree to prove it.

            Now, if adult books are going to be adapted for a younger audience, we need to pay attention to this phenomenon because it’s more than just substituting shorter books for longer ones. There’s more going on here. Authors and publishers need to help us out by being forthcoming about these changes. Here are some basic questions I have every time I see the word adapted: Who adapted this book? Was it the author or someone else? Who is the new audience envisioned for the book? What changes were made to the material to make it more appropriate for this new audience? Why?

            Pay It Forward by Catherine Ryan Hyde, a new young readers edition of her adult novel with the same title, provides us with a useful guide and starting point. Before you even begin the main text there is “A Note About the Young Readers Edition by Catherine Ryan Hyde.” Here the author provides us with some sense of historical context. She tells us that the setting of the book is the 1990s, before most readers were born (ok, certainly not me!). The novel is based on a true experience she had—which she details—of being helped by strangers who put their lives in danger and didn’t even wait for a thank-you. From that experience, she developed the idea of helping three people and then asking those three to pay it forward by helping three others. This is now a global movement involving many, many others.

            Pay It Forward closes with “A Note About This Edition” in which the author tells readers that there was a 14-year gap between the original novel and this adaptation. This version is “more appropriate for young readers.” She also tells us that this new version has a more open ending and invites readers to write to her with their thoughts about what happened after the book closes.

            While these notes provide more information about the process of adaptation than found in most books I have seen, I still have lingering questions. What makes this book more appropriate for young readers? Is it changes in wording? Is it sentence structure? Is it the addition of more background information? Was Hyde only referring to the ending? So while I applaud the two author’s notes for their candor, I am still wishing we had even more inside information about the process of adaptation. This would be very useful to teachers and students as they learn about the craft of writing and sharpen their reading skills.


Sunday, August 10, 2014

Integrating CCSS, Nonfiction, and Content

I like to keep things as simple as possible. I think it’s elegant. That’s why when wending my way through the CCSS storms, I like to pull back and think: What’s going on here? What’s the bigger picture?

            One encouraging development is the blending of CCSS and content standards in math, science, and social studies. Simply stated, content standards come to life by working jointly with process standards. You can see this clearly in the Next Generation Science Standards as well as the C3 Framework in social studies. These content standards make explicit connections to the CCSS  standards to integrate when teaching specific content.

            Mary Ann Cappiello and I learned about this integration firsthand during the past school year when we wrote one  unit a month for our column in School Library Journal newsletter Curriculum Connections. We had to juggle three main components in order to come up with a coherent teaching unit: CCSS standards, content standards, and nonfiction literature.

            As we began work each month, we asked ourselves three important questions:
1.     What teaching and learning opportunities does nonfiction literature offer?
2.     What CCSS standards can we incorporate into the activities we offer?
3.     What content (big ideas and concepts) do we want to present?

Creating curriculum involved decision-making, which was both daunting and liberating. We learned a lot about trying to fuse these elements into vibrant opportunities for learning. In fact, we wrote about it in our last column in June entitled “What We Learned: Crafting Standards-Based Lessons,” which you can read here:

I think we need many, many more examples of creating curriculum that integrates CCSS, nonfiction literature, and content standards. That is why I am happy to tell you about a new book called Perfect Pairs by Melissa Stewart and Nancy Chesley that shows how to use picture book pairs to build content knowledge in science in grades K-2. Each lesson incorporates a fiction and nonfiction pair of books, and is correlated with Next Generation Science Standards and CCSS. Right now you can read the entire book for free on the Stenhouse website at
Click on preview online. What a gift for starting the school year. I hope you check out this useful, clearly written, much needed book.