Sunday, November 23, 2014

How Purpose Shapes Content: Examining Two Books about Matisse

            I recently visited the Museum of Modern Art's (MOMA) exhibition of Henri Matisse’s cut-outs, the brilliant work of his later years. Before going, I remembered reading Jeanette Winter’s gem of a biography for young readers, Henri’s Scissors. And while that book was on sale at MOMA, so too was Samantha Friedman’s book Matisse’s Garden, illustrated by Cristina Amodeo, which I purchased.

            At home, I began to put these two books side-by-side. Together, they clearly show (at least in my mind) how an author’s purpose shapes content—a Common Core emphasis. Samantha Friedman, author of Matisse’s Garden, is Assistant Curator in MOMA’s Department of Drawings and Prints. Her book, which contains 8 reproductions of Matisse’s art and several fabulous, large fold-out illustrations, emphasizes Matisse’s art—the harmony and contrast among the colors. The illustrations, too, are all cut-outs, mirroring Matisse’s artwork. In contrast, Henri’s Scissors by Jeanette Winter, a book that also focuses on Matisse’s cut-outs, covers a longer span of time. This book emphasizes how the process of creating art nourished and sustained Matisse’s spirit throughout his lifetime.

            These differences perhaps reflect Friedman’s work as a museum curator—someone who helps the public understand and appreciate art—and Winter’s work as a biographer—someone who finds meaning within a life story.

            While there are many ways to contrast these two excellent books, a significant question to think about is this: How does the author’s purpose shape the content of the book?


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Mapping NF

The other day one of my graduate students posted about a gap he was noticing -- nonfiction older than short chapter books and younger than YA. I can think of books that fit there, but his observation made me think of a really useful project: mapping NF. That is, the reading options in fiction -- from picture books read by adults, back to easier text to lead into reading, from leveled readers into chapter books, with side paths via Graphic Novels, into genres and onward is very well defined. Of course new authors and style periodically add twists and turns. But any librarian, many parents, literacy coaches, teachers can talk with a young fiction reader, figure out his/her interests and skills, and suggest a clear set of next options -- with branching alternatives. The same is far from true for nonfiction.

For nonfiction we have the familiar and overly familiar bursts of passion -- trucks, dangerous animals, books of records, dinos, Vikings, space, war (though not well served) -- then comes school and assignments, crossed now by narrative nonfiction -- nonfiction that can and does bring the traditional fiction fan into the game.But not notice: islands of very specific interests, then school reports, then something resembling fiction. Needs outside of those of the NF reader sweep through -- reports, research, assignments; "reads like a novel" page turning. Nothing wrong with either -- we need to learn, and it is a treat to be swept along by a book. But neither are necessarily the sequence of reading steps the nonfiction reader would choose to climb.

I think we need to look carefully through ages and stages of reading (of course taking into account the wide range of young readers and their equally broad spectrum on interests), then look at what kinds of nonfiction are available in the library, bookstore, internet. Where are there gaps? What kinds of books are missing? What might a NF reader want -- not in subject necessarily, but in treatment? We need to map the NF reading ladder as carefully as we have surveyed the sequence of fiction choices.

I am thinking of asking of my grad students to start on this next semester -- any thoughts on resources we might use? 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Concepts of Time

My daughter is in 4th grade, and last month, she and her classmates were studying the concept of time: units of time and comparisons and contrasts of how you calculate time. I couldn't resist getting out Just a Second: A Different Way to Look at Time by Steve Jenkins (2011). Sure enough, one Sunday afternoon, my daughter and our neighbor, also a 4th grader, were on all fours in our front yard, trying to pace themselves with the giant tortoise's movement in one minute (15 feet), and comparing that to the stride of a human walking at a "brisk pace," who might cover 300 feet in that same minute. 

The comparison between the human stride and that of the giant tortoise in the book fascinated them, as did the other items placed across the "In One Minute..." two page spread: the moon, a grizzly bear, a skydiver, a person standing on the equator, a common snail, and a three-toed sloth. These understandings of time, movement, and space can't be fully understood just by reading the book. The kids needed to move. Their natural instinct was to play, to embody different animals that move in different ways and cover different lengths of space within the same period of time. 

It reminded me of two and half years ago, when Erika and I were working with a fifth grade teacher while writing Teaching with Text Sets. The 5th grade was exploring the solar system, and we knew that we couldn't teach them about rotation, revolution, and the seasons merely through texts -- print or multimodal. The students needed to move to gain that conceptual understanding, to embody the concept. 

Another book that is wonderful at demonstrating the concept of time, as rooted in the concept of the earth's rotation, is At the Same Moment Around the World written and illustrated by Clotilde Perrin, a fictional picture book introduced by Chronicle Books this year, originally published in France in 2011. The book is gorgeous, and begins and ends at the very same moment: six am in Dakar, Senegal, where a boy and his father count fish caught in nets during the night. At that very same moment, the rest of the book unfolds. We move through each hour on the clock, and see a different child somewhere in the world, going about his/her daily business in cities and rural areas, in deserts and mountain communities. Children can read this book sitting next to a globe, tracing the book's journey across this single moment. A fold-out world map with the children's faces in the margins is included in the back to guide the reader. The book illuminates concept of time and space, reinforces geographical understandings, and celebrates children from different cultures and communities across the globe. 

These are just two books to harness for classroom exploration of the interconnectedness of math and science. Lucky us! For more on using children's books to teach concepts of time, you can check out The Classroom Bookshelf entry on Just a Second, written back in January 2012. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Dads: An Opportunity?

I live in a nice suburban town close enough to New York City that a great many of the parents commute. A few towns away is the aptly named Summit -- a geographically accurate designation, true, but the connotation is such as accurate: wealthy stock brokers -- Tom Wolfe's Masters of the Universe -- live there. We're not a destination for those types, but plenty of people here are closely connected to Wall Street, banking, investing. As a result, when the economy crashed in 2008 the "for sale" signs were visible on every street. Many dads (and surely moms, but I don't speak with them as often) lost their jobs. And while most families either recovered or left, I know a healthy collection of bright, educated, well-read dads who simply have not found their way back into the work force. Not all of them were directly involved in finance, but  they found that being middle aged and accustomed to a decent salary made it hard, no impossible, to find steady work.

I see the stay-at-home dads with their strollers heading down for coffee in the morning, taking girls to one swim meet after another, in the parks and playgrounds, in the library. The point of this post is that last spot: the library. I wonder if we have made enough of the stay-at-home dad? Will the reading he selects and shares with younger kids, the books he seeks out with his middle-grader, be the same as those his wife, or a care-giver, might have selected? There is another subset of such dads here b/c we are also a destination for same sex couples with families. Between the dad home because their family has one dad working and one at home, and the dad who is contributing to his family by minding the kids and running the house while his wife earns the bulk of the money we have -- or we may have -- a new kind of parent closely involved with his child's reading.

Of course given my interests and the focus of this blog, I wonder if such dads will be more comfortable with nonfiction than their wives were? Will they be more ready to bring home books of war, combat, generals and tanks? That's one easy to posit stereotype: shallow but plausible. What if libraries and stores started to program with dad caregiver in mind. Robotics, Lego, Maker projects are all the rage already. Maybe we should revive the fathers and sons reading group I tried a few years ago. What do you think -- are we unusual or are there enough of such dads, and is there enough difference in what they bring to children and reading, to suggest that we should be exploring some new paths? New programs? New displays? How can we re-envision reaching families when more and more of the parents involved with reading are the dads?

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Revisionist History

 Revision isn’t an easy topic—certainly not in elementary school. It’s understandable because when a young child writes something, it takes considerable effort just to shape the letters. That’s why this same child is understandably reluctant to then toss this writing in the trash or rework it at all. In a similar way, we are often reluctant to let go of our ideas, even when they no longer stand up to scrutiny. How many of us secretly still consider Pluto to be a planet?

Yet revision shakes up our ideas and stimulates our thinking. It’s a re-seeing of our thoughts and ideas. Recently I read a Booklist review of an adult book about King George III, A New Kind of King by Janice Hadlow. The reviewer, Brad Hooper, claims that this is a revisionist biography because the author shows how George III was—contrary to what we have been previously led to believe—determined to be a “moral agent for the common good.”

Is this the same George III that I had been led to believe was incredibly stubborn and not just a bit off balance? What a different picture is presented! While I feel a bit betrayed, I want to know more. Reading this review also got me thinking about revisionist history for kids. It does exist and should be shared with them as part of the process of historical thinking. The Thanksgiving story provides us with the perfect opportunity. are two books about Thanksgiving that focus on re-seeing history. The first is Penny Colman’s Thanksgiving: The True Story, which not only compares competing claims about the “first” Thanksgiving, but also takes the reader along on the author’s search for “the truth.” She ends by posing even more questions to investigate and by acknowledging the complexity of this story.

The second book is 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving by Catherine O’Neill Grace and Margaret M. Bruchac. This book shows that the Thanksgiving holiday “evolved” over time and draws on recent scholarship to tell a more inclusive, nuanced story that includes more information about the Wampanoag people. A foreword discusses the process of rethinking the past.

As we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, we have the opportunity to question our understanding of the past. In this way, we keep history alive.  And, as my graduate students tell me, analyzing books like these is “Common Core-ish.” That’s an added bonus.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014


This week I will be at the Shady Hill School in Cambridge -- I hope to meet up with Mary Ann there. They invited me to come meet with 7th and 8th graders who are beginning work on research projects. As it happens just a few weeks ago I was in Kalamazoo, Michigan at a public school where the librarian and teachers had exactly the same request. I've been thinking about how I can be of help.

In one way, there is a mismatch. As a high school teacher in Ann Arbor pointed out, the assignments mandate that the students use at least, say, two sources -- with some stipulations about books, internet, database, etc. But when I research a book I may use hundreds of sources; I read through the secondary literature in some depth to orient myself even as I look for primary sources. What part of that agenda is useful to students just starting out who are required to use a fraction of those resources? But as Marina -- who has been teaching a narrative nonfiction class to college undergraduates -- pointed out, there is a connection. Whether it is her students at William Paterson, the middle or high school students I meet, or both of us when we write individually or together, there are basically two steps.

First we develop a research strategy: what resources are we after, where will we find them, how do they build knowledge? This is where a librarian is the go-to person. Students need to become accustomed to seeking out the librarian to develop a research plan. Then, as you read through your sources, you formulate questions. The plans gives you information. What you know leads to questions. Questions send you back to research, research gives you information, information suggests questions.

That is the formula for research.

Speaking of research -- I urge everyone to read Paul Fleischman's Eyes Wide Open blog, the last post which takes information just released to the world and shows how it illustrates the points in his book is just perfect for us as a adults, and to use with young people: HERE

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.