Friday, June 26, 2015

A Biography That Invites Us to Learn More: The House That Jane Built

            I like nonfiction books with voice. In these books the author talks to readers, urging them to move beyond what is offered in the book and keep learning about the subject. One book that does this is Tanya Lee Stone’s new book, The House That Jane Built, a picture book biography of Jane Addams.

            In this book readers learn how the wealthy Jane Addams founded Hull House in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Chicago as a way to help those in need. Here she reached out to the community, responding to people’s pressing needs. Addams’ work at Hull House—her selfless caring for others—is an excellent message for children and a fine lead-in to a discussion about civic mindedness.

            Yet there is more. In an Authors Note: A Little Bit More, author Tanya Lee Stone writes, “There is much more to know about Jane Addams than could possibly fit in a picture book.” She urges readers to continue to learn about Addams, especially her role as a peace activist, an advocate for women’s suffrage, and a founding member of NAACP and the ACLU.

            This is an important message for readers. First, young readers need to know that one picture book cannot possibly cover all the important information about a dynamic mover and shaker like Jane Addams. There is a lot that was left out. Anyone who really wants to understand the life of Jane Addams needs to look further. Second, the author suggests topics to look into. Why, for example, was Addams called “the most dangerous woman in America,” and why did the FBI keep a file on her? The author’s note also includes several photographs of Addams. It is not hard to locate many more. We can learn a lot more by looking at additional photographs.

            As I said at the beginning of this post, I like a book with voice. The voice in this author’s note is one that encourages children to join the club of people investigating the past. That’s a much-needed voice, indeed.


Thursday, June 18, 2015

Ditto! Ditto! Ditto! for ELA

            Ditto! Ditto! Ditto! for ELA!  That’s what went through my mind recently as I read Jordan Ellenberg’s New York Times op-ed piece entitled "Meet the New Common Core." In that piece he wrote that while many governors are now considering getting rid of the Common Core in math, it’s being replaced by the very same thing.  That’s because the Common Core math is the way math was taught in the first place. According to Ellenberg, a professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin, “The Common Core is the way math was taught before.” You can access this article here

            I am thinking that the same can be said of ELA. When reading nonfiction in the past, what teacher didn’t talk about key ideas and details, craft of writing, or integration of information? We did! I know I did. In fact, when I look at many of the lessons I wrote before Common Core, they already incorporated these “new” standards. I asked my students to compare several biographies of the same person, asked them to study good nonfiction writing and learn from exemplary writers, and helped them learn new vocabulary needed to talk about history, science  or math. I did this because these activities made sense. Was I teaching Common Core before there was a Common Core? I think so. You probably were, too. In fact, it has been said that it is very hard—and maybe next to impossible—to teach without incorporating some of the Common Core standards. I believe this is true.

            I would like to switch the conversation about standards to a conversation about curriculum—the place where content, teachers, and children meet to investigate the world, past and present. That’s where the standards come to life. The seemingly endless list of things that children should be able to do is lifeless until it is embedded into a content-rich inquiry. Here is a link to a unit I did with Mary Ann Cappiello about teaching global citizenship:
We introduced this topic by focusing on the life and work of the Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, environmentalist and founder of the Green Belt Movement. Her life was interesting--something I wanted to know more about. She devoted her energy towards making life better for others. It wasn’t until we aligned the standards, the nonfiction literature about Wangari Maathai, and the activities for children that standards came to life in history, geography, economics, civics and ELA. These standards were brought to life by substance—the content of excellent trade books and activities that allow students to explore them.

I believe we need to focus more on actual classroom learning. That’s where the passion for teaching and learning resides. If you like, we can call it the New, Content-Enriched Common Core.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Feeding Visual Literacy: Close-Up Photographs for Young Children

            Wow! That was my first response to the close-up photographs in Butterflies, Ladybugs, and Bees by Aaron Frisch.  So interesting! These pictures are amazing.

            Enough gushing. These books, part of the Seedlings series published by Creative Education, are perfect for young readers from preschool and beyond to explore the power of photographs to amaze and inform us. Each photo can be closely examined, inviting kids to share what they notice, what they think, and what they wonder. Chart, anyone?
            What I See                        What I Think                                 My Questions

            We can also discuss the relationship between words and photos. For example, on pages 8 and 9 of Butterflies we learn, "Butterflies have six legs and four wings. They have antennae on their heads.” We can check this information against photos of two different butterflies supplied on this two-page spread.

            Close-up photos also “show” texture, while the text appeals to our senses. We are told that butterfly wings are soft. The photo clearly suggests this. Other sentences in the book appeal to our senses of sight and taste. This helps us understand the world of the butterfly.

            At the end of the book, there are clearly labeled photographs of butterflies, showing the different body parts. Most of the labels are not words used in the text (i.e., proboscis, abdomen, forewing, hind wing), but provide further opportunity to learn how to talk about the parts of the butterfly by simply discussing these pictures.

            As other reviewers have pointed out, these books also introduce young readers to nonfiction features. You can find a table of contents, glossary, additional sources to read, websites, and an index. But for me, the shining star of these books is the photography, which invites and rewards careful looking.