Tuesday, September 30, 2014

In Church and Library Basements, Old Illuminates New

We focus so much on the new, new, new: the latest books and curriculum materials. But we forgot the joys that the old can bring. For example, a good church or library book sale allows for the serendipitous find - the book you never knew existed, yet another version of a favorite book. We always say that we shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but I have enjoyed over the years sharing with classes my different copies of Little Women and Pride and Prejudice, virtually all plucked out of dusty cardboard boxes in library and church basements. 

Just look at the these covers, from 1961 to 1985. Consider the following: 
  • What was the publisher thinking?
  • What does the cover "say" about the story ?
  • How might this cover compare to other book covers of the time? 
  • From this collection of covers, what might we infer about the story and how it has been "spun" over time to the public via cover art? 
How many different copies of the same book can you gather at tag sales and books sales this fall? Perhaps it's a book that is considered required reading at your school. How can you use the varying cover art as way to get students curious about the actual book? What can they infer from the various representations of cover art? 

Now, look at what I found recently at a used book sale! A first edition biography of Thomas Jefferson, written by the winner of the first Newbery Medal, Hendrik Willem Van Loon. When reading through pieces of this book, few of the criteria that Myra articulated yesterday comes to mind : word choice, text features, page design, author's note, and illustrations. However, there is much to discuss with young people using this book. 

Myra has written often about the "visible author," about the author as a guide who takes the student reader on a journey through the content of a text, how that content is constructed, and the author makes sense of it. While this book is written in 1943, Van Loon is, in many cases, a "visible author." Now Van Loon is not "visible" the way that Myra talk about authors making themselves visible. Overall, there is a very engaging and conversational tone to the book. This is not stiff, work-for-hire series biography. It's interesting and funny, except when it borders on offensive. He does not comment on the process of doing history, but throughout his writing on Jefferson, he reveals a great deal of his own thinking about social class, religion, immigration, etc. Is this simply a biography of Thomas Jefferson, for young people? No..it is also a window into the author's worldview as an immigrant turned citizen in 1943, in the midst of World War II. While he presents no author's note, there is a "Afterthought," which provides select primary source material from Jefferson's own writing, curated by the author. In addition, the author biography takes up the entire back cover, and is also somewhat intimate and conversational in tone. He reveals a great deal about himself. So how do we harness this out-of-date biography?

If I were still teaching middle school, I would have students divide up the chapters, each group reading a single chapter, but not to acquire a full understanding of the chronology of Jefferson's life. Rather, I would have each group comb through the chapter to locate each and every time they see Van Loon's worldview seeping into the text. How often does it happen? In what contexts? Next, I would have students compare and contrast this writing style (and the related content) with newer works on Jefferson, such as the following three titles. What does this tell them about the art of writing biography? 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Exploring Craft and Structure

A major goal of CCSS is to focus attention on the craft and structure of nonfiction. That means thinking about word choices, nonfiction text features, and how point of view shapes content. Each of these can be readily examined by using Ben Franklin’s Big Splash: The Mostly True Story of His First Invention, written by Barb Rosenstock and illustrated by S. D. Schindler. This narrowly focused book deals with Franklin’s attempts to invent items that could help him swim better—more like a fish. It highlights the beginnings of his lifelong fascination with science and invention.

After reading this book simply for enjoyment, here’s how to focus on craft and structure:

·      Word Choices: Alliteration Everywhere.  From the beginning, the author uses alliteration, or repetition of initial consonant sounds. On the first page, she describes Ben as “the sturdy, saucy, smelly, son of a soap-maker” (underlines and bold characters added). But what grabbed me the most were the words related to swimming—words like sloshed, squirting, spurting, and spouting. Other alliterative words like stared and speculated deal with scientific observing and thinking, while still others like sketched, shaped, and sanded deal with invention. You could have students list the alliterative words in the book, group them according to their shared meaning, and give each group a label. Not surprisingly, this strategy is called List, Group, and Label.

·      Text Features. There are several text features that bring meaning to the book, making the reading more interesting and enjoyable.

o   Different Sizes and Colors of Words. Words that are capitalized and written in red throughout the book highlight the author’s interpretation. For example, she tells us emphatically in red that it was Ben’s practice of swimming “WHICH MADE BEN A STRANGE KID IN COLONIAL BOSTON.” It was his invention of swim fins “WHICH MADE YOUNG BEN EVEN STRANGER THAN BEFORE.” I was delighted to discover that the words Author’s Note, at the end of the book are also colored in red. Does this connect the red in the text with the author’s interpretation? I think it does.

Words that are capitalized and written in blue throughout the book
are examples of alliteration. Sometimes there are red, blue, and black
words on the same page. These pages provide opportunities for discussing how the different colors signal different meanings. Great options, right?

o   Different Page Designs. There are single page illustrations, double-page illustrations, spreads with two or three illustrations per page, and spreads that show Ben’s thinking and imagining things. This variety of illustration and format show the different options available to the author and illustrator for presenting and enhancing meaning.

o   Author’s Note. The author’s note has several interesting features to discuss. First, it begins with a quote by Ben Franklin (in blue) about sharing inventions with others. Second, it includes a letter written by Franklin to a fellow scientist dealing with his swimming invention, but the letter was written more than fifty years after the invention. Third, it includes the author’s interpretation of that letter. There’s more. See what else you and your students can find in this author’s note.

o   Illustrations of Future Inventions. A double-page spread illustrates and labels Franklin’s later inventions, but doesn’t discuss them. This provides a perfect opportunity to begin additional research on Franklin’s many inventions.

Books that are rich examples of craft and structure are not only enjoyable to read. They show us the many ways we can think about and present life stories.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Math, Truth, and Language

I am teaching a class on K-12 nonfiction for my MLIS students and this week we looked at math books. As usual, some students talked about how they always disliked math, especially because it was not "creative." That term had two meanings -- math did not allow the interpretive wiggle room they enjoyed in English and perhaps Social Studies; and, they saw math as rules set in stone -- no horizon of invention and change. In one way math judged them -- they got a quiz, a test, an equation right or wrong -- in another way math had no place for anyone, no invention, inquiry, discovery -- while the internet bubbles daily with new medicine, new science, new biology, even new geo-political challenges. I suggested that look at math in a different way, as a language.

No one studies French, Mandarin, for that matter English Language Arts, in order to conjugate verbs or master reflexive pronouns. You learn all of that so that you can read poetry, order dinner in Paris, study abroad in Beijing. The rules phase, and ongoing study of vocabulary, idioms, subtle use of language, is all a base to allow you to use the language. Well it is the same with math. The math students learn up to High School is the two-thousand-year-old basis of Math Language. When you get to Calculus you reach the 17th Century. All of that training in the terms, uses, syntax of math can/should allow you to see the extremely lively creativity going on in math right now. Now you might say -- what good does it do a 5th grader to know that if s/he makes it to college or grad school as a math major, there are cool bits ahead. No.

Any of us can be introduced to the kinds of questions, thinking, challenges, that engage mathematicians today. I'm enjoying Jordan Ellenberg's How Not to Be Wrong; The Power of Mathematical Thinking, which is quite witty, plain-spoken, and gives hints of some of that current thinking. At any age we can find out, and then communicate to young people, that math is a glorious adventure -- an exploration of what is knowable. For some math appeals when linked to real world issues (several of my students mentioned this). But for others (for me, to be honest) math becomes more exciting the more abstract and almost theological it becomes -- as it probes for what can be known, or shown, to be true.

If I were the god of professional development for elementary school teaches and librarians, I would have everyone devote one session a year to frontiers of math -- math as creative exploration. Not so that every third grade teacher was ready to teach non-Euclidean geometry but so that that same teacher began to experience math not as the double judge -- judging her, and sealed off -- but as creative exploration going on right now, in which all young people are both invited to join the party, and can, indeed must, learn the basis of mathematical thinking. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Who’s Saying What to Whom?

           Are you familiar with “The Trinity of Discourse,” the notion that communication can be understood by considering the distance between three factors—the speaker, the reader/listener, and the message? It’s a very useful idea and generally associated with the scholar James Moffett, who devised a fantastic (my opinion, here) teaching method based on it. Basically, he advocated that if we begin with the most direct and basic communication relationships, we could build a foundation for the more distant and abstract relationships. So far, so good, right?

            But what happens when we are not sure who is communicating with us? That is the problem I am facing when reading some current nonfiction. I simply want to know who is speaking to me. Several weeks ago I mentioned Jon Meacham’s new book about Jefferson. This book is definitely informative, and it has an interesting point of view. Readers can learn a lot of history by reading this book. Yet I was (and still am) concerned that in the process of adapting Meacham’s longer adult book for middle grade students, the text became less interesting stylistically, choppier, and changed. Is this still Meacham talking directly to me, or is this something else?  How are you and I to understand these new “combo-speakers”? In this case, there is an author and an adapter. I would very much like to know about this process of adaptation.

            Fast forward to a new title that is soon going to be released. This book is about Lynda Blackmon Lowery’s experience during the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March and it is a very significant story. The book reads like a memoir and uses the word I to indicate that Lynda Blackmon Lowery is speaking to us. Yet, there are two adaptors. The book states on the title page that it is by Lynda Blackmon but as told to two other co-authors. Now we have a party of three. Again, I am not against this process, but I want to know more about it. I cannot believe that there are no significant differences between writing your own story and having someone write it for you. Help me understand these differences. Since I read an advance reader’s copy, maybe there will be additional information in the final version of the book.

            We have talked a great deal in this blog about how important it is for nonfiction authors to unpack their processes. We teachers need help explaining to young readers how nonfiction is created. So if an author writes a book for adults and it is later adapted for a younger audience by someone else, it would be very helpful to know more about this process. And if two adapters are working on a book, we should know about that process too. And if the adapters are using the pronoun I, let’s hear about why they decided to do this.

            Before getting off my soapbox, let me contrast the works I discussed above with Marc Aronson’s nonfiction titles. In many of his books—for example, The Skull in the Rock, If Stones Could Speak, and The Griffin and the Dinosaur—he carefully situates himself as an observer and learner who is explaining the work of a scientist. When he uses the word I, he is referring to himself. He speaks directly to the reader. We know he is sharing his excitement in learning with us. In fact, young students tell me that when reading Marc’s books they feel like he is their friend. The connection he builds with readers is that strong.

Can we make the role of an adaptor that transparent? Should we?

Friday, September 19, 2014

Are You Enjoying the Roosevelts? There's a Ken Burns App!

If you are enjoying watching The Roosevelts on PBS this week, you may be interested in the new Ken Burns App.  I just read this review from the "Touch and Go" column of School Library Journal.  It's essentially a timeline of American history, populated with short clips from all of his documentaries. It's organized both chronologically and thematically. What a gift to middle and high school social studies, humanities, and ELA teachers who need those "just right" clips for mini-lessons to initiate conversation or to complicate dialogue in class. You can order it on iTunes

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

National Text Set Project Launch - Increase Volume of Reading = Building Knowledge

I am attending the inaugural professional development two-day conference sponsored by the Council of the Great City Schools and Student Achievement Partners (SAP) in the Windy City.   This is a librarian’s opportunity to shine.  Why?  This project is about creating resources that help build knowledge.  You can do all the close reading exercises you want with students but without the opportunity to help build knowledge with students they will not be successful readers. 

Over the past several months, I have participated in several conference calls with SAP discussing what text sets might look like and how to engage educators in this process.  The SAP team has created a two-day training model.

How librarians can shine
Text sets allow you to examine the resources that you currently have and build on these resources.  You don’t immediately need to run out and purchase materials.  What you need to do is take a thoughtful approach to what exactly this text set is meant to achieve.  Teachers need librarians to collaborate when developing the resources that will be used in a text set.  What online databases does your state provide?  What online databases does your school provide?  Are you using these resources?  Do you even know about which resources to use?  Do you know where to fine balanced reviews about resources?  All questions your librarian can answer for you. 

Increase Volume of Reading = Building Knowledge
In this text set approach we want to increase the volume of reading.  Yes, we are looking at reading levels. Yes, we are putting together a grouping of resources with grade bands in mind.  No, we are not using the curriculum to completely drive the topics.  We are thinking about topics that can engage learners.  We are not developing learner objectives.  Well, yes we are.  The learning objective with the CC standards in mind:  Increase Volume of Reading.

Close Reading Overused
I can’t emphasis enough – that this is about volume of reading.  It is not about close reading.  Over the last six months, I have had discussions with a variety of librarians that are finding that close reading is turning students off.  They are becoming tired of reading because of close reading.  A group of 5th Grade students in one local school actually said to their librarian – “Please don’t make use close read anything, can’t you just read to us?”  The librarian’s response was – “Yes, I can!”  Guess what?  They enjoyed listening to a story and remained engaged throughout the reading of a book! Listening skills are important.

Reading Stamina
Got Reading?  Get Stamina!  Improving reading requires our students to build reading stamina.  How do you do this?  Well, by reading more!  Increase Volume of Reading!  Create Text Sets to accomplish this. Increase Reading Stamina!

Tomorrow is day two of our training – stay tuned for more thoughts on this project.

Future training opportunities across the country will be:
November 12-13, 2014 in Seattle, WA
December 8-9, 2014 in Baltimore, MD
February 23-24, 2015 in Clark County, NV
I will post the specific location and registration links for these future trainings when they are available.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Reading Nonfiction Books by Jeanette Winter and Examining Character Traits and Values

            Are you familiar with books by Jeanette Winter? Over time she has written many picture book biographies of individuals who have worked to improve the lives of others.  Many of these biographies feature people working to promote peace and social justice. In fact, she won the 2010 Jane Addams Children’s Book Award—an award given for books that encourage children to think about peace, social justice, world community, and equality—for Nasreen’s Secret School. Winter’s books are excellent material to use to introduce young children (grades 1-4) to thoughtfully crafted picture book biographies—a major CCSS objective. They are, in addition, entryways into discussing character and values—two topics that are essential to civic learning.
Discussing Goals, Actions, and Characters Traits
            The subjects of Jeanette Winter’s biographies work hard to pursue their goals. After reading several of these biographies, have students work with a partner or small group to discuss each person’s goal, what that person did to achieve that goal, and what character traits the person displayed. Here are four books to use to get you started:

Malala, a Brave Girl from Pakistan/ Iqbal, a Brave Boy from Pakistan
Malala resisted the threats from the Taliban in order to pursue her education. 
Iqbal resisted the powerful factory owners who wanted to keep him chained to a loom all day in order to pay off his parents' $12 debt. Both children were shot, and only Malala survived and continues to speak out.

Nasreen’s Secret School
Even though the Taliban in Afghanistan wanted to prevent girls from going to school, Nasreen's grandmother takes her to a secret school. During harsh and dangerous times, she shows the power to resist and defy authority when necessary. 

Biblioburro: A True Story from Colombia
Luis Soriano loves books, but when they begin to fill up his house he knows he must do something. He has an idea. He purchases two donkeys, builds two crates to carry the books, and makes a sign--BIBLIOBURRO. Each week he travels by donkey to a distant village, bringing books to children who have none. Not even a bandit can stop Luis. 

The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq
As war approaches, a brave librarian and her friends save 30,000 books by taking them to their houses. Fortunately, the books are saved although the library is bombed. 
Use the chart below to record the details about the subject of each true story.
          Person                           Goals                             Actions               Character Traits


Nasreen’s Grandmother

Luis Soriano

Alia Muhammad Baker, chief librarian of Basra's Central Library

I read an article recently that made the point that unless otherwise directed, children will read history to understand the message, but not to critique it. That’s where we teachers step in. We can shine a spotlight on the process of thinking about what we read. We also focus on the best way to act when conditions are challenging or even worse—harsh and oppressive.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

English Major and Humanities Education

At the start of each semester my students -- as all grad students -- introduce themselves to the class. In the class on Nonfiction and the Common Core I'm teaching at Rutgers, one theme quickly emerged: because nearly all of the students had been undergraduate English majors they  were well read in classic and contemporary fiction. Depending on their age, whether they were parents, or already working in a library, some also had a working knowledge of novels or fiction picture books for children, tweens, and or teenagers. But that also meant that many of them had not been asked to any close reading of nonfiction. Some had recently read Unbroken, or The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, others soon realized that they read quite a lot of nonfiction articles in various formats (online, magazine, blog, etc.). But it is striking that one can have a fine undergraduate education centered on reading text, and never hone the skills of reading nonfiction.

My own interest has always been in cultural history -- that is, how every aspect of creativity and life ways allow us to understand the worldviews of people in another time and place; and, in turn, how knowing a time and place gives us new insight into the ideas, creations, actions that were crafted in that period. I trace that back to my K-12 education where every year we had a Core subject, such that whatever period or subject we studied in Social Studies was echoed in the novels, plays, poetry from that period that we read in English. In Eighth grade our Core subject was science, so science, social studies, and English overlapped. This just seems logical to me. Why not use the arts of a period to help understand the people, politics, economics, wars, ideas of the time? Why not place the paintings, plays, poems, songs, novels of a time into the context in which they were created?

I think part of the problem we have with nonfiction and the CC is that so many of the well-meaning teachers and librarians who are tasked with implementing the standards come from an English Major background in which fictional text was never linked to time, place, culture, outlook. Thus while everyone knows about pairing fiction and nonfiction, the professionals asked to make those links do not have a strong background in seeing the intersection and interaction of art and history. Indeed, I suspect, too many see art -- fiction for example -- as an opportunity for empathic exploration: identifying with a character and thus simultaneously going on a journey with him/her and seeing oneself in a new light, while nonfiction is seen as cold, distant, a set of unchangeable names, dates, causes, and effects to be memorized. They do not have the experience of nonfiction as active inquiry that is as revealing and exploratory as fiction,

We need a national seminar in humanities education -- linking art, social studies, and science -- to get get both English Majors and Nonfiction fans out of their ghettos and into the playpen where really fun ideas are born. 

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Learning to Shape Questions that Address CCSS Standards

            It’s September and in my social studies course I am dealing with a new bunch of undergrads who are just now beginning their student teaching. They are the ones who will be putting CCSS into practice. To help them do this, during our first meeting I modeled how prepare questions and activities for reading informational text. I selected a book, America’s Champion Swimmer by David Adler. First, we all read the book. Then I showed them how to:

·      Examine nonfiction literature for things like accuracy, writing style, visual features, and organization
·      Align their teaching ideas to Common Core State Standards for reading informational text
·      Align their teaching ideas to the Ten Thematic Strands of Social Studies
            Then, during our second class session I asked them to read a different nonfiction book—Brave Girl by Michelle Markel. They were then to take notes on the nonfiction features, and prepare questions and activities based on CCSS and the Ten Thematic Strands of Social Studies.  Here’s what I found out. Even though college students can evaluate nonfiction books with skill, posing thoughtful discussion questions based on standards comes much harder. Their questions are often long-winded and confusing, and assume that children have vast stores of background information.  I can just imagine the kids responding with a giant “HUH?”

            Here’s just one example of a question a student wrote for primary grade readers:
                        “Based on your knowledge of women’s history, explain how.... “
                        [Really? What knowledge?]

            I am not dealing with a small sample of students. I am teaching 50 students in two different classes. They are college seniors, with considerable academic competence. So what do I conclude? College students need lots of practice preparing curriculum that incorporates CCSS and content standards. In fact, they were grateful to learn that next week we will be practicing this yet again. Really! Waves of relief washed over them. What they don’t seem to realize, though, is that reading informational text is only part of CCSS. There’s much more, but we have to start somewhere.

            Last week Marc talked about our relative lack of knowledge about children reading stats. That is, middle grade kids really like reading stats, but what are we doing to support their interest? I know that when I taught 5th grade, kids couldn’t get enough of those stat books. And yet, why do college students dread taking statistics courses? What happened? Or, what didn’t happen to foster this interest?

            Similarly, my college students want to talk with children about interesting books, but they are not sure how to do this in a way that incorporates standards. It doesn’t come naturally.  And that’s where I detect a huge, yawning gap that needs to be addressed. It’s one thing to make standards; it’s quite another to figure out how to meet them. This is a gap that needs serious consideration.

            In the meantime, my students are practicing how to align CCSS and content standards to create curriculum, and I am hoping to slowly fade out as the authority on how to do this as they become more proficient and take over the job themselves. Let’s see what happens.              

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

What We Don't Know Hurts Us

I have been thinking a lot about one of those gaps in our knowledge that is invisible until it becomes so self-evident you cannot imagine how you missed it. Perhaps I am a bit inclined to look for such gaps because of working with Adrienne Mayor -- the woman who figured out the connection between some mythological creatures and the fossils that were visible to those who first reported seeing those beasts and monsters. That connection makes so much sense -- yet it took her ten years of detective work to prove it. So here is the one I am thinking about: stats.

Everyone who has ever been in an elementary school, a children's collection, or around boys knows that books of records, stats, weird and wacky facts are immensely popular. They are the prototypical "I cannot keep them on the shelves" books. But why? What pleasures do those readers experience? What do that "get" from such books? Is there only one kind of stat fan or are there subgroups of stat-consumers each of which has its own reading interest, style, and appetite? It is easy to guess -- short text, photos, weird subjects; but then there is clearly more -- collecting, comparing, competing, all of those figure in. How does stat collecting compare with, say, doll collecting, or stamp collecting, or shell collecting? Are the pleasures and search styles similar? How does stat collecting and competing figure into gaming -- from Pokemon to whatever is popular now, to apps and video games? Since we have not really mapped the experience of the stat reader who have absolutely no information about the huge, obvious, follow-on question: what next?

What would be the ideal middle grade or YA read for the elementary school student who passionately devours stats? What is arc, the bridge of reading?

See what I mean about obvious -- we've all met the stat readers, but other than knowing they are there, we have not explored their experiences and thought how to capture and expand their passionate reading world.

I want to study exactly this -- and then build an arc of reading From Records to Infinity -- and Beyond. Sound good? 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Unpacking the Back Matter #1

Let's take a closer look at the video that April Pulley Sayre posted in October 2013 about the process of researching and writing The Bumblebee Queen, a wonderful nonfiction picture book that she wrote in back in 2006. The video was created in 2008. 

Two questions guide my thinking as I watch this five-minute video:  

  • What can children learn from watching this video that helps them grow as researchers, as well as readers and writers of nonfiction?  
  • What can teachers learn from watching this video that helps them to use this book in the classroom as a mentor text for research and writing?

Everyday experiences can prompt your research. You don't have to go further than your front yard, or the school garden, or a local park for inspiration. 
If everyday experiences can prompt student research, how can you provide your students with the opportunity to explore the world around them, at home, and at school?  
Your interests matter! Sayre's childhood reading still influences her today, both in her hobbies and passions as well as her work as an author.
What are your students' interests? How can you tease out research projects rooted in their passions, and what they already know something about? 
What you learn from your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and neighbors, is important and useful. 
Sayre was influenced by her husband, her mother, and her grandmother. How can you harness the expertise in your school? The local community? The families of your students? 
Research isn't something you only do by reading, though reading is important. Scientific research also involves a lot of watching, noticing, and observation.
If research isn't something you do only by reading, how do you give students the opportunity to watch, notice, and observe?
Taking notes is important! 
Taking notes is important! How can I model different ways of doing that for my students?
What you write the first time is just a draft. Rewriting is really important. 
Can you show students drafts and revisions of books? Use the resources on author's webpages. Showing the difference just one revised page makes can make a difference in student understanding.  
Other people can help you with your writing, particularly people who know you well, like your classmates. 
How can I make better use of writing groups in my classroom?
An editor is a bit like a teacher, helping you understand the genre you're writing in, and think about your audience. 
How are you like an editor? What can you learn from their style that will help you in your work with young people?  

When you research a topic, it's good to have an expert on the topic read what you have written so that you don't get anything wrong.

What experts can you get to "vet" student research? Are there other teachers in your district, or older students in advanced placement classes that can serve as experts if professionals are unavailable? 
Illustrations are not just "fun." You need to do enough research to make sure the illustrations are correct, based on your research. 
How do you connect research and illustration more fully, so that illustration is fully a part of student text production, not just the "fun" at the end? 
Sometimes, just when you think you are done with your research, new questions pop up! 
How do you sustain inquiry?  

It takes a lot of people to publish a book.  
How can you harness local resources to publish student texts and make them available in the school or local library?