Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Rethinking Accuracy

           Accuracy—one of the criteria for both the Orbis Pictus Award and the Sibert Award for nonfiction—is up for reconsideration. I do not say this lightly, but rather a little reluctantly, since I have been looking for evidence of “correctness” of information for many years. Yet, as Marc Aronson stated in his last post, looking for reliable and balanced views is in his words “the wrong approach for our time.” One book cannot suffice for providing use with a single view of either science or social studies topics. And, now I find myself agreeing.

            We need, instead, to show young readers that what we know—while generally reliable—is also subject to change. A look at what scientists refer to as the nature of science (NOS) tells us that scientific knowledge is tentative, yet reliable. That is, it is subject to change. Similarly, a look at the Social Studies C3 Framework tells us that history is about gathering evidence and using it to develop arguments about the past. So if we are to promote disciplinary literacy, we need to let readers know how to think the way historians and scientists do. This has been referred to as teaching them the “rules of the game” and inviting them to take part.

            We can begin to do this in small ways. Here’s an example. I just finished reading Margarita Engle’s book Enchanted Air: Two cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir. This book grabbed me on two levels. First it reminded me of why literature has such a strong hold on me. The language is beautiful and the narrative is gripping. I let go of any critical approach I might have to just simply enjoy the poetic words and images. But, second, I was eager to learn more about what it was like to grow up between two cultures—Cuban and North American. I read with interest about how the author grew to love her Cuban visits with family and the life she lived there, while balancing her Californian life. 

I know that this is not a straight work of nonfiction. In an Author’s note, the author tells us that while she has written a “true” story, “certain events are undoubtedly out of order.” Yet, the trueness of this experience is undeniable. The author’s note ends with her hopes that “normal travel and trade might begin to be restored.” These changes seem to be happening now.

Here is an opportunity to show historical change. One way to begin to learn about these changes is to follow the current news about Cuba. Begin by consulting the Breaking World Cuba News from the New York Times at http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/international/countriesandterritories/cuba
Read Enchanted Air to learn about how the author lived between two cultures and then update your understanding of what is happening now by following the news and examining more sources. I think that is a more realistic approach to accuracy.


Sunday, December 21, 2014

If We Encourage POV in NF, How Are We To Know Which Is Right?

The title of this post is a question that often comes when I make presentations about the new place of nonfiction for K-12. I claim that in the past we used to praise nonfiction for being "reliable," and "balanced." We stressed that such books were "good for reports." That is, a student could expect to find trustworthy nonfiction resources in the classroom, school, or public library.She or he could be sure that the authors had carefully considered all points of view and either come to a happy medium in presenting them or gave equal space and weight to each contention. The author, like the book, wsa above the fray. The student could safely set down and pass along a safe view that a teacher would approve. I contend that all of the above is the wrong approach for our time.

Students now have rapid access to a wide variety of resources, POVs, sources. We need to train them to examine and sort out hotly contested questions -- not to meekly repeat a safe digest. But how can we do that especially when the adults -- teachers, librarians, parents -- in many cases will not themselves know how to evaluate the loud voices and vociferous contentions. We don't want school to be a training ground in ideologies adults share without really evaluating or considering. I argue that what any adult can help a student to do is to examine what evidence an author presents, what is the nature and quality of the argument the author makes, and what Point of View is s/he expressing. We can be fair judges of how a contention is crafted, even if we have little or no knowledge of the subject.

This brings me to a recent post from Paul Fleischman on the question of balance and fairness. Here Paul is making a case beyond my appeal for judicial care. He shows that there are cases where there is an appearance of balance which is fact no balance at all. No one would seriously suggest that we tell students the Earth might just be flat, or that humoral medicine might be as effective as science based on viruses and germs. We can all add similar extreme cases. To take one contentious example: when the state of Kansas was considering whether to mandate that Intelligent Design be taught alongside evolution, scientists pointed out that if you wanted to give faith space next to science you needed to give absolutely equal time to all faiths -- since their claims transcend reason. The Wiccans, the Satanists, the fans of psychedelics would have to have as much opportunity to speak to students as mainstream faiths. Balance is not just a view with all possible, or even all firmly asserted, opposition. There is a point where we need to say that no, one view -- Science Does Report Human-Created Climate Change; Evolution; the Holocaust did take place -- is worth the attention of our students. A student may individually, with his/her family, in her congregation and community, believe as s/he likes. But we as educators have an obligation to share the abiding views of the expert and educated community.

Are experts always right? Of course not. Should we train students to question dominant views? Certainly. That is where evidence, argument and POV come in. If students find flaws in what we say, wonderful. But we need not give up and retreat in irrelevance. Students are surrounded with claims -- it is our job to help them sort their way through the clutter -- with forensic techniques and by defending the conclusions of science. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Decision Making in Action: Beetle Busters by Loree Griffin Burns

        This is one fabulous book! I admit that I am partial to books that highlight decision making and problem solving—books that I call the “literature of inquiry.” Beetle Busters by Loree Griffin Burns highlights inquiry by showing how a community in Massachusetts responded to an infestation of Asian longhorned beetles (ALB), nonnative species that attack and destroy trees. It brings us very close to this situation and shows us the difficult decisions made by scientists and concerned citizens.

            There are a number features that make this book so successful as a page-turner and an excellent source of information. Here are some things the author does for us:
·      Raises questions that don’t have simple answers. Both at the beginning and at the end of the book, the author raises these important questions about cutting down some trees in an attempt to save others:

                                    Was cutting those trees the right thing to do?
                                    If cutting trees in one community today would save the trees in
                        your backyard tomorrow, would it be worth it?
                                    Would you feel the same way if you lived in that community and
                        the trees being cut down were the only ones in your entire                                                 neighborhood? (p. 57)

            These questions bring this problem close to all of us. What would we do if we
            had to made a decision about cutting down trees?
·      Provides a variety of graphics to help us understand the problem. There are all sorts of graphics included: maps, graph, photographs, captions, sidebars and page inserts, and photographs showing a sequence of steps or stages. As we endeavor to promote graphical literacy, this book is extraordinarily useful for discussing how a particular kind of graphic  makes information understandable.
·      Shows how and why scientists collect data. Among the many items we learn about is how scientists collect core samples from the inside of the trees, enabling them to study the impact of the infestation. We see the actual scientists and volunteers working in the field.
·      Shares the interpretation of the data. A chapter is dedicated to sharing the interpretation of the data. This shows how scientists move from collecting data to making statements about what this data suggests. It’s a great look at scientific thinking.
·      Leaves us with unanswered questions. Here is just one of several questions that scientists  continue to work on: “If left unchecked in the forest, would the Asian longhorn beetle eventually kill all the members of the wide variety of trees it can inhabit in the wild” (p. 49)? That's an important question to think about.

            When we read books like Beetle Busters with students, we can focus on the features listed above because they help us understand the nature of science. Here are some questions we can discuss: What problems are scientists and citizens facing? What do they do to understand the situation? How do they collect and analyze data? What have they found so far? What else do they want to know? By discussing science as a process—a way of thinking and learning—we move away from concentrating only on facts and towards using these facts to help us think about puzzling situations. That is why quality nonfiction is an essential part of learning.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

International YA

Tonight the New York Public Library is hosting a panel -- and I believe filming it, so anyone reading this blog should have access to it -- that I hope is of interest to all of you. Panel Words Without Borders,WWB has devoted a special free online issue to international writing about and for teenagers. You can find the stories at the url I just posted. At the panel tonight one of the co-editors of the issue will tell us about her experiences in gathering material, finding translators, and crafting the issue. All of that would be fine, but it is only a start. WWB is using the issue, and the panel, as part of a broader educational initiative.

Think of this -- WWB is searching the world for writing about and for teenagers and for skilled translators. Now you can bring into a library, and thus perhaps a classroom, a rich range of new experiences. Some of the pieces in the issue (one Norwegian graphic novel short story about a teenage pregnancy) could appear in any bookstore tomorrow. Some (I'm thinking of a Bangladeshi story) suggest a second kind of opportunity, a sort of double translation. The words are in English, but understanding the context requires learning about another place, another culture, another set of challenges. This could be ideal for a teacher, or for a library teen reading group. But whether we are speaking about material that first appeared in another language and has an easy connection to readers here, or material that serves to open doors and minds, WWB is giving us the most marvelous tool.

As you can suspect, I am hosting the panel tonight. The speakers include Arthur Levine, who has his own highly-regarded imprint at Scholastic, Padma Venkatraman, whose novel A Time to Dance has garnered give starred reviews; Briony Everroad, co-editor of the special issue; and Roxanne Hsu Feldman, a middle school librarian and reviewer who has twice served on the Newbery committee. I hope you can come. If not, please read the special issue, and stay in touch with WWB as they announce the roll out of their educational initiative. Welcome, teenagers, to the entire world. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Citizen Science: Snowy Owl Irruption, Winter 2015?

If you don't live and teach in the northern half of the United States, this post may not have the same utility for you as for those that do. If you do live and teach in these regions, you may or may not be aware of the snowy owl "irruption" that occurred in North America last winter. 

Photo by Mary Ann Cappiello,
taken in Hampton, NH, Dcc. 2013
During the 2013 nesting season, there was an increase in the availability of lemmings in the arctic. This led to an increase in the snowy owl population, since more young got fed and survived. When winter arrived in the arctic, there was not enough food to sustain this larger population, and so many young owls began to fly further and further south, creating the 2013-2014 irruption. In coastal New Hampshire, where I live, people were viewing snowy owls along the coast with regularity. Included here is my own picture of a snowy owl on a picnic table. 

Will another irruption take place in 2014-2015? It's too early to tell, although snowy owls have been spotted in various locations in the northeast and midwest, including here in New Hampshire. What's wonderful is that the owls are not landing only in rural areas or coastal areas. They can be anywhere, so if you live in a city like Boston or New York or Philadelphia, there's still a chance for you to spot them this winter. They tend to like flat, open space that resembles the terrain of the arctic (like Logan, Kennedy, and Philadelphia airports, unfortunately). You won't find them high up in trees or on buildings like eagles and hawks. 

Elementary, middle, and high school teachers alike can take advantage of this great citizen science opportunity. Project Snowstorm is a new organization that shares data about snowy owl behavior in real time. Last winter, ornithologists from different organizations were able to place GPS tracking devices on snowy owls. The Project Snowstorm website allows you to track their travels. It also provides an opportunity for you to upload your own photos of snowy owls and share location information with scientists.

Below are some print and digital resources to help you and your students learn more about these beautiful creatures. Before you go out owl watching, prepare students by having them watch videos and read print and digital texts about the owls. Use your local Audubon society or the Project Snowstorm website to locate where snowy owls have been spotted in your area (this year or last). Then bundle up, and head outdoors with binoculars, clipboards, cell phones, digital cameras, or tablet computers! Bring along some bird apps or bird guides so that you can identify the other birds you are bound to see. Are there parents or grandparents who are birding enthusiasts? Local Audubon volunteers who can come along? 

To document their learning, students may create their own birding journals or research reports, write digital books about the birds of your area or winter birds in particular, or may even write some winter bird poems. If you're interested in critical literacy, you can read about some of the ways that airports have handled snowy birds in the past (some of it shocking) and what sort of stance your students might take from an advocacy perspective. 

The last few weeks before the winter holiday break are always busy, and often filled with interruptions to your regular teaching schedule. Time spent absorbed in the natural world within the context of a purposeful, real-world learning experience may be just the antidote to all of the jitters, fears, exhaustion, expectations, etc. that your students may be feeling at this time of year. 

If you do try this out, or are already studying snowy owls where you live, please let us know in the comments section below! 

Primary Grade
Frost, H. 2006. Snowy Owls. Minneapolis: Capstone Publishing. 
Patrick, R. 2011. Snowy Owls. New York: Gareth Stevens. 

Intermediate Grades
Landeau, E. 2010. Snowy Owls hunters of the snow and ice. Berkley Heights, NJ: Enslow. 
Murray J. 2014. Snowy Owls. Edina, MN: ABDO Publishing. 
Zieger, J. 2014. Snowy Owls. New York: Children's Press. 

Citizen Science 

Burns, L.G. Citizen science: Be a part of scientific discovery from your own backyard. Ill. by E. Harasimowicz. New York: Square Fish. 

Project Snowstorm

Cornell Lab

National Geographic

National Geographic Video

Audubon Society

NPR Story on Snowy Owls 2014

Arctic Snowy Owl Nesting Cam (it will be live again in spring - follow up then!)

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Preparing for the Winter Solstice

It's December, and here in coastal New Hampshire we got about six inches of heavy snow the day before Thanksgiving. For years, I hated the darkening hours of late autumn. But my feelings towards this seasonal change have shifted. Knowing and understanding the science behind the changing daylight hours, and knowing and understanding the many ways that people have responded to the dark in the past is a comfort to me; I feel a connection to the earth's natural rhythms and to the millions of people who have lived on this planet before me. How do you and your students feel about the seasonal darkness? How do you use children's fiction and nonfiction to shape children's understanding of the winter solstice? 

One book that is particularly useful is the fictional picture book Dear Rebecca, Winter is Here, written by Jean Craighead George and illustrated by Loretta Krupinski. The book begins with an author's note detailing the solstices for the northern hemisphere. The narrative takes place in the epistolary fashion, with a grandmother writing a letter to her granddaughter Rebecca. Each two-page spread details a particular activity within the natural world. The book concludes with the promise of the summer solstice, since "[o]n the 22nd of December, little hands of light begin to push back the edges of darkness minute by minute." This book would be a wonderful introduction in early December to the seasonal shift taking place as the natural world prepares for winter. 

Another great introduction to the idea of the solstice and winter in the natural world is Marion
Dane Bauer's fictional picture book The Longest Night, illustrated by Ted Lewin. The end page watercolor illustrations evoke John Schoenherr's illustrations for Jane Yolen's Owl Moon. Over the course of the book, we are taken through the "longest night," the night of the winter solstice. Each animal boasts that it is the one to bring back the sun, but the wind sighs and tells them all, "'Not you." Only the morning chickadee has the power to bring back the sun; "with the song/ of one small bird/ and the sun's answering smile/ the journey toward spring/ begins." The illustrations in the book were vetted by experts from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

For a more scientific and historical examination of the winter solstice and the ushering in of winter, I recommend Wendy Pfeffer's The Shortest Day: Celebrating the Winter Solstice, illustrated by Jess Reisch, one of four nonfiction picture books in a series that details the four seasons. This book was also vetted by experts, in this case in the field of physics, astronomy, and history. The book begins with a description of what happens in late autumn, as the sun rises later and lower in the sky and sets earlier, and then defines the solstice as the point at which the sun "reaches its lowest point on the horizon." The next section of the book grounds readers in a historical understanding of the ways in which the darkening hours have been interpreted by people over time in various parts of the world. The book concludes with additional information and graphics about the earth's tilt, rotation, and revolution around the sun and some wonderful activities that teachers can do tracking the sunrise and sunset leading up to the solstice, measuring shadows on the solstice, and finding the sun's northernmost and southernmost points during different points in the year, and solstice celebrations for humans and birds.

On January 6th, I will follow-up with a post on nonfiction books that are ideal for exploring the natural world in winter with your students.