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?

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