Friday, October 31, 2014

Teaching to Complexity

I am excited to announce that tomorrow, November 1st, my latest book, co-authored with Erika Thulin Dawes, will be released: Teaching to Complexity: An Evaluation Framework for Literary and Content Area Texts. For those of you interested in engaging more with nonfiction books for children and young adults, I think (and hope!) you'll find this book a useful starting point. 

We think of Teaching to Complexity as the "back story" to Teaching with Text Sets. The book is a primer for selecting texts for classroom use. We seek to give teachers a deeper "keel" for understanding how texts operate, the nuances of genres, and why having "good" books in the classroom matters. We link an evaluation of the quality of a book with its role in the classroom, and discuss the many, many different purposes for using books across the content areas, and how that shapes your approach to selecting a text. Ultimately, we then bring in a conversation about readers, matching the quality and utility of the book with a consideration of text complexity. We "unpack" what the CCSS says about complexity and then present a process for thinking about how quality, utility, and complexity intersect when selecting books with readers at the forefront. Ultimately, we share an understanding of text complexity as malleable, not fixed, dependent upon not just the range of readers in the room, but the context in which a text is being used, and how the other texts within the text set are positioned.  

Here is the official book blurb:

As an important tool for instruction and text selection, Teaching to Complexity will help teachers learn to evaluate children’s and young adult literature for quality and complexity to support rigorous literacy and content learning. In addition, it explores how instructional purpose shapes not only the kinds of curricular texts used, but also considers their complexity relative to readers. By offering a framework for text selection, this book helps teachers more deeply understand text complexity in the Common Core and other state standards as well as its importance when building and using text sets in the classroom and reading for different purposes.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

And Yet Again: Nonfiction Adapted for Children

Somehow I can’t seem to let go of this topic—books adapted for children. The latest is I Am Malala, the Young Readers’ Edition by Malala Yousafzai and Patricia McCormick. This is an adaptation of the adult book or the same name, co-written by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb. There is no question in my mind that Malala’s story is one of courage and deserves to be shared with children. It’s powerful, inspiring, courageous. But...yet again we have an adaptation of an adult book that is being repackaged for children.

A recent Kirkus review noted that “much is lost in translation from the adult book,” and “most lamentable is [the loss of] the social and political context.” How, I wonder, are readers to understand Malala’s story without understanding the conditions in which she lived? How will readers understand the significance of her decision to oppose the Taliban’s order that girls stay out of school?

Then, in a related article, Vicki Smith—Children’s and Teen Editor at Kirkus—raised a new issue. The reviewer of the Young Readers’ Edition noted that teen writers like Malala lack the artistry of adult writers. In fact, she used the words “goody-two-shoes” and “preachy” to describe Malala’s prose. She noted that teen memoirs lack artfulness, since teens haven’t yet mastered the craft or artistry of adult writers.

So now what? Can’t teens write like teens without feeling ashamed? (Honestly, how can they write like anyone else?) Shouldn’t that be acceptable? Should teens be held to the highest artistic writing standards? I think not.

Here’s my simple solution: Let Malala write her own book for young readers (with perhaps some help from a friendly editor), and let adult authors write their own books too. Then everyone can have a voice and we readers know who is communicating with us.

Monday, October 20, 2014

What I Learned at the CCBC's Grand Opening

Last week I was in Madison, Wisconsin, and thought I might get to visit the Cooperative Childrens Book Center CCBC whose listserv is a very useful place to weigh, consider, debate, discuss books for young people. I'd been there years ago when Eliza Dresang and Kate McClelland held one of the conferences that became their book Radical Change RC, but not recently. By coincidence, I happened to be free the night of their gala re-opening, in a new space. The library of books old and new was impressive -- a teacher, librarian, parent, author, young reader could get deliciously lost in those shelves -- as I did. Indeed I noticed something that I'd really like to think about: a very unusual beat in the history of middle grade-YA NF.

At the very end of the 1960s and into the early 70s there were books by authors such as Milton Meltzer, Robert Goldston RG and Dorothy Sterling DC that were quite Left in politics, in a direct, straight-forward fashion. Books about African-Americans, about outspoken women, about Labor History for middle grade and teenagers were -- I assume -- rare to nonexistent at the time. So authors had a wide open field to write about, say, Langston Hughes, or the Underground Railroad, or Anne Hutchinson, or Emma Goldman, or the fight against Franco. With our 21st century eyes the book packages are dull -- drab covers and mainly text, with a few archival images. But imagine yourself as a teacher, an author, a librarian at the time seeing the clashes on the streets, in the ballot box, in the self-image of the nation, and also seeing that young people had very little access to the history that led to that turmoil and -- yes, radical change -- going on around them.

I sometimes see these books, ignored, unchecked-out, squeezed in to nonfiction shelves. Someday I want to really get to know them, and the shape of that moment -- how long did it last? What subjects did they take on? And how do the books read now? I feel like an archaeologist seeing a trace of a lost culture -- and I want to learn more about it.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Science Times

I leave tomorrow for the Wisconsin Science Festival in Madison. While I am giving a number of talks, I am there as much to meet people as to speak. Jordan Ellenberg, the author of the wonderful How Not to Be Wrong, will be speaking. He is a math prof who writes is a lively, engaging way calling on everything from lottery ticket schemes (that actually worked) to hot streaks in sports to slime mold decision making to political opinion polls and voting outcomes (with a concentration on Bush-Gore) to introduce math. I am desperately hoping to find a way to bring his voice and wisdom to younger readers.

Then I will meet John Hawks, another Wisconsin prof, who is active teacher, blogger, about paleoanthropology, and is working with Lee Berger on the amazing Rising Stars Expedition (sorry that I am not embedding links to all of the above, but a quick Google will do the trick). I am eager to find out what they are finding out. The basic facts are that in three weeks last fall they found, deep in a South African cave, as many fossil fragments of something, probably an early hominin, as have every been found in Southern Africa. No details yet announced on which species, how many, how much remains to be found.

I'll meet Paul Fleischman who is there to give the Charlotte Zolotow lecture -- and to visit the newly opened CCBC.

I don't write all of this to create envy, more to say that it is seems really lively and I have a lot to learn. I do feel that we are at a kind of Sputnik moment where science and math are back. In part due to Common Core, but also to life, to Robotics, to kids -- girls quite as much as boys -- are showing a passion for these subjects. YA fiction, both fantasy and realism, is flourishing. But no longer instead of, or as a cure for, content. The world is fascinating -- and we all need to share this golden moment of exploration with young people 

Monday, October 13, 2014

Swept Up in History’s Whirlwind: Malala and Iqbal

 In the 1999 book Through My Eyes, Ruby Bridges—now an adult—wrote the following:

When I was six years old, the civil rights movement came knocking at my door. It was 1960 and history pushed in and swept me up in a whirlwind. [Italics added]

Now we have another powerful example of children being swept up in history’s whirlwind. This time it is Malala Yousafzai and Iqbal Masih, two children from Pakistan. Their powerful stories are gripping examples of courage and bravery in the face of unjust circumstances. These stories are now available to young children in Jeanette Winter’s new book, Malala, a Brave Girl from Pakistan/Iqbal, a Brave Boy from Pakistan.

This book features two children who spoke out against the unjust treatment they were receiving. They defied those who wanted to deny them their basic rights as children. Both received threats to their lives, and yet they continued to speak out. Both were shot. One died and the other, though seriously wounded lived and continues to speak out against injustice. This book tells the gripping stories of these two children—Malala and Iqbal.

Malala wanted her education. When Taliban fighters insisted that girls should not go to school, she insisted on her right to an education. Again and again, she resisted the Taliban—even as threats turned into deeds and schools were burned and bombed. For speaking out, she was shot, but lived to tell her story to the world. Most recently Malala was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts.

Iqbal wanted to be free, not forced to work each day in a carpet factory, chained to a loom. Yet at the age of four, when his parents took a twelve-dollar loan from the owner of a carpet factory, he was forced to work all day long to repay this money. It wasn’t until he was ten-years-old that he learned that bonded slavery of children was illegal. At that time he began to speak out against bonded labor, despite the threats he received. He spoke in carpet factories in Pakistan and even took his message to America. Because he spoke out, he was shot and killed while riding his bicycle in Pakistan.

This book tells both children’s inspiring stories. Readers see the power of bravery over injustice—how two children stood up to threats and violence to assert their rights. They are stories to remember. But there is more at work here: These stories also remind us that all our lives are shaped by the times in which we live.

When discussing stories like Malala and Iqbal’s, we have the opportunity to discuss the impact of historical context, something we should not lose sight of when discussing informational text. Here are two interesting questions to pursue:
1.     How were Malala and Iqbal swept up in history’s whirlwind?
2.     How have they affected history?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Crossover? Cross-Up? What Is Going On With the Adult-authors Writing NF for Younger Readers?

This morning brings the front page article in the New York Times about adult authors writing nonfiction for younger readers:

This is what Myra recently wrote about, and I find myself having so many mixed reactions to the article, and to the trend it describes. First, I think the headline is both false to the article itself and misleading in describing adult NF edited for younger readers: "To Lure Young Readers, Nonfiction Writers Sanitize and Simplify." Sometimes, yes, and the article gives instances of authors (doubtless with editors at their elbows) deciding which bits of sex, drugs, torture should be in or out. But the article also mentions that kids can take quite a lot, and the thrust of it is not about dumbing down or leaving out, but rather about this lively moment in which the formerly hard barriers between adult and non-adult first in fiction now in nonfiction are blurring.

The headline suggests that the blur is a way of infantilizing readers -- depriving them of moving "up" to real adult works while pandering to a limited view of what young people can handle. Sure that happens. And I hear beating behind this headline and all of the recent articles on whether it is good, bad, or indifferent that so many adults are reading YA fiction, a concern about markets. The adult publishing world is challenged, shrinking -- especially outside of genre areas such as romance and erotic novels -- while YA is booming. Many people: authors of adult fiction and NF, adult literary types fearing the loss of writing they treasure, those who in general fear, resist, or are critical of the influences of markets on taste, art, ideas, are alarmed at decline on one side and a rising wave on the other. Add in those who see young people mesmerized by digital devices and fear a loss of serious reading and thinking, and you get the Times headline.

From my seat as one who writes NF for middle grade and YA that, often enough, I think could be of interest to adults, this moment has both hazards and possibilities. The threat is that adult authors who have market power and media reputations, who have been given large advances so that they can devote years to their books, or can hire squadrons of research assistants, will overshadow us. I do fear that the craft of writing for our readers which we have honed may be easy to ignore as against the fame of an adult author -- perhaps this is what picture book authors felt when everyone from Hollywood stars to TV comedians began publishing picture books. On the other hand I see real potential in this opening up, this recognition, of NF. The key line in the Times piece came from the astute Bev Horowitz -- a wise and experienced editor and publisher at Random House: "Adults are now so used to reading young adult books that there may be some nice crossover."

Cross-over, cross-up, cross-down, what will it be? The good news is that NF is attracting attention, and the field is expanding. Buckle up for a faster, wilder, ride. 

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Most Valuable Phrase

 I am a teaching idea junkie. I admit it. I comb journals and books for new ways to do old, reliable, important things. And when it comes to nonfiction, there is a great deal out there to choose from. My most recent find is “The Most Valuable Phrase,” as explained in an article in this month’s Reading Teacher. The article is entitled “Designating the MVP: Facilitating Classroom Discussion about Texts” and it is written by Carolyn Strom. Check it out. I have provided a citation at the end of this article.

Basically, Strom uses MVP, which students associate with most valuable player, to discuss the Most Valuable Phrase (or sentence) in a text. After reading a nonfiction text, students select a most valuable phrase that does one of these things:
·      M: It shows the main idea of a text
·      V: It gives the reader a vivid mental image
·      P: It’s a phrase worth remembering. That is, it becomes part of a student’s background knowledge. It’s a keeper. In the author’s words, it’s a “phrase that stays” (p. 109).

The criteria for selecting an MVP relate to Common Core Standards. For example, students have to identify a main idea and argue that a phrase supports or explains it. Or, they have to identify vivid language that helps them envision something. Or, they have to argue that a phrase is a significant enough to remember.

There is an important principle at work here: Each new twist or idea we teachers adopt should support our basic goals of teaching and learning—CCSS or subject matter in science, social studies, math or language arts. I think MVP does. Give it a try. 

Strom,C. (2014). Designating the MVP: Faciliating classroom discussion about texts.
            The Reading Teacher, 68(4), 108-112.