Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Ulysses Who?: Considering the Connections We Make

            I just can’t shake this experience. Recently, my graduate class in children’s literature has been reading Flora & Ulysses, the Newbery award-winning novel by Kate DiCamillo. (Yes, I know this is a nonfiction blog, but hang on, I will get there.)

            At one point in the novel, after a squirrel has taken a harrowing trip through a powerful vacuum cleaner, a young girl named Flora overhears her neighbor ask his wife if she is going to leave the Ulysses (the vacuum cleaner) outside.  Immediately young Flora names the squirrel Ulysses. The author tells us “she knew the right word when she heard it.”

            Why is this the right word? Here we have factual information begging for an inference. Why, indeed did Flora name the squirrel Ulysses? In my mind, the author was referring to the Ulysses of Greek myth. That Ulysses, like our squirrel, had experienced travels fraught with danger and had been transformed by his experiences. Similarly, Ulysses the squirrel was also transformed; he became a thinking squirrel able to type out poetry. This connection gives the events in the story the grandeur it seems to me to be seeking.  

            . . . But not to my students. They, instead, connected the name Ulysses to Ulysses S. Grant. True, he was a hero, a man of decisive action, a fighter, and a president. Yet I was totally surprised by this connection and I asked the class to develop their idea so we could compare it with mine to see which held up better.

            So what does this have to do with Common Core? The connections we make—our intellectual leaps and inferences—are where our most exciting thoughts are happening. The Common Core asks students to make inferences they can defend by supplying evidence. Students are to make inferences within a single text and inferences across multiple texts. This is true for both fiction and nonfiction. This is important intellectual work.

            Making and defending inferences based on evidence is the heart of historical thinking. Similarly, making and defending claims is central to the nature of science (NOS). Perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to say that inferential thinking is the heart of all original thinking.  That is why when we embed the ideas of Common Core into our teaching it is rewarding, but when we race from standard to standard, trying to cover them all, it is not.

            I am always struck by how exciting it is to come up with an original claim, pursue it, and defend it. We don’t have to look very far for examples. In her most recent post on this website, the one just before this one, Mary Ann Cappiello talked about how after rereading works by Elizabeth Partridge she discovered the central role Bob Dylan played in the careers of Woody Guthrie and John Lennon.  Here are her exact words describing this experience: “...I am always surprised at how powerful it is to make my own connections through a series of texts, cultivating curiosity, building knowledge, and pursuing my questions.” I couldn’t agree more.  

            So, which Ulysses was it? What do you think?



Friday, April 17, 2015

Broader Conversations About Kids Reading Nonfiction

I'm not sure where March went, but suddenly we're in the second half of April! Two weeks ago, I had the honor of moderating a panel of children's book authors and illustrators at the JFK Presidential Library and Museum. Each year, the Library and the National Park Service co-sponsor an excellent conference for teachers and librarians. Participants return year after year because they know this one-day conference, organized around a theme, gives them a wonderful "shot in the arm" of inspiration and pratical tools for teaching. An important component of this is the center role that expertly written and illustrated children's and young adult literature of all genres plays.
This year, the conference title was "Sources of Inspiration: History through the Arts and the Lives of Artists," and the panel included author Robert Burleigh, illustrator Bryan Collier, and author Elizabeth Partridge.  One of the interesting things that happened to me in preparation for the panel, as I reread each author's body of work as it pertained to the conference theme, was the new vantage point I had reading across their different works. Now this is something I write about all the time in my advocacy of a text set approach to teaching. But I am alway surprised at how powerful it is to make my own connections through a series of texts, cultivating curiosity, building knowledge, and pursuing my questions.

For example, as I read Elizabeth Partridge's young adult biographies of Woody Guthrie and John Lennon, I was struck by the role that Bob Dylan played in each. If you asked me to think about Guthrie and Lennon before reading those books, I'm not sure I would have placed Dyan in the intersection of the two. But there he is. Perhaps, if I knew more about Dylan, I would have. Now I have all of these questions about Dylan I want answered. I want to get my hands on Gary Golio's When Bob Met Woody (Little, Brown 2011). Otherwise, there isn't too much on Dylan beyond the Who Was? series biography by Jim O'Connor. YA biographers, take note! I take this new perspective on Dylan, and his relationship with both Lennon and Guthrie, into whatever else I learn about him and his role in mid-to-late century 20th centuryAmerican history.

Over the past couple of weeks, there have been many conversations about the negative role of testing in our schools,  the punitive measures associated with those tests, and the ways in which the CCSS standards are linked in the public consciousness to the annual tests required by NCLB (now - - finally - - getting its long overdue review by Congress). This conference experience was another tangible reminder of the many, many ways we can teach to and beyond the standards when we engage students in authentic, engaging inquiry. I remain ever hopeful that we can move away from the rigid emphasis on tests into the more important conversation that needs to be happening: how can foster conditions in which teachers can work collaboratively, plan curriculum, and provide multiple pathways for students to demonstrate their learning?

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Capturing the Chaos: A Page-Turning Account of Finding Typhoid Mary

            What makes Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary by Gail Jarrow so attention grabbing is that it is written like a mystery story. There is a terrifying and puzzling problem—typhoid outbreaks that cannot be stopped or even understood—and dedicated health professionals are trying to figure out what is happening. This book reads like a mystery and uses “mystery words and phrases” such as detective, clue, hunch, and evidence. Yet it is a nonfiction account based on extensive research.

            Readers experience history unfolding as people experienced it. We feel the anxiety, fear, and terror people felt as they confronted the disease. We also feel the courage, determination, and hopefulness with which people confronted it. This makes the book a gripping page-turner, but also an enormously informative one.

            This book can be read and discussed in several different, complementary ways:
1.     It can be read as a mystery by posing these questions:
·      What is the mystery that needs to be solved?
·      What are the possible causes of the problem?
·      What did investigators learn by gathering evidence and interpreting it?
·      What questions still remain?
2.     It can be read with a focus on historical context—the “then-and-now.” What was life like during this outbreak of typhoid in the early 1900s? There are many instances when the author reminds us that conditions were different then. We can look for familiar/unfamiliar contrasts. What was different then? What was the same as now?  
3.     It can be contrasted with Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America. Both accounts cover much of the same information, yet are also unique in many respects. This makes them excellent choices for discovering how nonfiction accounts vary because of the questions authors raise, the information they select to include, and they way they structure and present information. 

Several years ago—2008 to be exact—Mark Aronson, our fellow blogger, wrote about how important it is for history books to present the “terror of the unforeseen” when writing about the past because it reflects what it was like to live with uncertainty and anxiety. These two books do that, making them excellent choices for examining real decision-making, real coping under stress, and real human emotions. That’s what well-written history mysteries offer.