Saturday, November 14, 2015

Examining Historical Photographs with Your Head and Your Heart

          Reading Dorothea’s Eyes, a picture book biography by Barb Rosenstock, reminded me of how emotional response seems to have dropped out of the conversation about reading. In our urgency to promote reading comprehension and vocabulary development, we seem to have lost sight of why we read in the first place: to learn information and to respond emotionally. Dorothea’s Eyes can help us begin to restore emotional response—our feelings—back into the conversation.  This book offers many openings for discussion:

·      It’s a picture book that introduces children to the work of the outstanding photographer Dorothea Lange, who took to the streets to photograph good people facing hard times. Her photographs of people during the Great Depression of the 1930s and her photographs of Japanese-Americans placed in internment camps during World War II are iconic—they evoke the tensions of the times. They are memorable. What do your students learn from these photographs? How do the photographs make them feel?
·      The book maintains a clear, consistent focus, namely that Dorothea Lange saw the world with her mind and her heart. Her photographs detail a real historical context with caring and compassion. The author of Dorothea’s Eyes states, “Her heart knows all about people the world ignores.” Six of Lange’s well-known photographs are included in the book. These include “Migrant Mother” and “White Angel Bread Line.” It’s not too early to share these compelling photographs with children and discuss when and where they were taken. Discuss feelings these photos evoke.
·      This book can jumpstart conversations about “facts” and “feelings” about the past—something I have long considered essential in learning history.  It’s not enough to know about the past. We also need to care about it.
            If you want to build on this idea of examining historical photographs with children, follow up with Gordon Parks: How the photographer Captured Black and White America by Carol Boston Weatherford.  As the author tells us, his photograph called “American Gothic,” helped viewers see “the contradiction between segregation and freedom.” This happens only when we see with our minds and our hearts. 


Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Key Ideas? Details?: What’s the Difference?

            Recently, an elementary school principal lamented to me that she was surprised by test results showing students across the grades were not doing well distinguishing between key ideas and details. “Can you help us?” she asked.

            Well, I am no magician but I seem to recall that when I was teaching elementary school, kids found summarizing difficult. Ask them to give an oral summary and you got everything they could remember reading.  It was as if the Declaration of Independence in Reading said that “all facts are created equal.” There was no key idea and there were no details. I think that this is the crux of the problem.

            But . . . there are solutions—or at least sensible steps to take to address the problem.  Here are a few:
1.     Discuss what summary means. It means being brief, concise, and direct. It does not mean telling everything you know. I like to discuss the relationship between “the big idea” and the “terrific specific.” That’s because writing a good summary means finding an important idea to focus on and then giving only the most convincing details to support it. I learned this firsthand when I wrote annotations for the annual Notable Social Studies Trade Books list. We only had about 150 words to write about why we were recommending a book. It was a tough lesson and it forged a lasting relationship between me and the delete key on my computer. I learned to pare down my writing.
2.     Limit the number of words allowed for written summaries. And, while you are at it, limit the time allotted for oral summaries too. In this way, students will have to separate the main idea from the details.
3.     Share writing that has clearly stated generalizations that are illustrated by intriguing details. Not only is this writing more understandable, it is also more interesting.  If you are looking for examples, my all time favorite writer when it comes to clarity, coherence, and descriptive detail is Russell Freedman. Check out any of his books and you will see what it means to write clear, coherent, descriptive nonfiction prose with overarching generalizations. Of course, if you want to be up to date, check out Freedman’s latest book, We Will Not Be Silent, which a Kirkus reviewer wrote “stands out for its focus and concision.” If you can’t wait for this new book, try Immigrant Kids, Kids at Work, or Children of the Great Depression. There is a lot more to choose from. Whichever book you choose, be explicit when showing kids the key idea and the supporting details in these books. Then as you read to them, ask the kids to take over this job themselves and tell you the key ideas and supporting details.
4.     Write summaries or explanations giving key ideas and details. Have students practice by working with partners and then report back to the class on their results. We know very well that reading and writing are connected, so we can expect that if students can find key ideas and details in their reading, they will also begin to use them in their writing. 

            The long and the short of this is that by providing good examples of writing and time read it, discuss it, and write like it, students will learn about the relationship between key ideas and details. 

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Letting Jefferson Speak for Himself: A Biography Generously Sprinkled with Quotes

            In the recent picture book Thomas Jefferson Grows a Nation, author Peggy Thomas makes liberal use of short “Jefferson” quotations to focus on his keen interest in planting. The language of the book is rich and varied and the illustrations match the written text, adding humor here and there.

  ’s the extensive use of quotations, many of which are set off from the main text, that anchor this book’s focus on farming. Here is a technique we can easily help students try out.

            Here’s how I might explain it to students:
1.     First, you need to read extensively about a selected person. Any subject will do: scientist, mathematician, politician, dancer, actor, teacher, chef, athlete, architect, king, queen, and so on.

2.     Decide on a focus for writing about that person. What is the idea you want to emphasize? Ambition? Kindness? Inventiveness? Sense of Humor? Interests?

3.     Gather some quotes that support that focus. Put them in the order that you want to introduce them. Quotes are readily available on the Internet.

4.     Write your “focused” biography. Include your quotes as you write. Quotes can be part of your writing or they can be separated out and written in larger type or even in another color.

5.     Illustrate your work.

Thomas Jefferson Grows a Nation is an excellent mentor text for incorporating quotations.  This book gives us a clear lesson about the craft of writing. 

Saturday, October 3, 2015

A History Book for Elementary School Readers with All the Necessary Pieces: The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch

            The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch is an inspiring, well-written, and well-illustrated biography of the accomplishments of an African-American man who was a slave until his teenage years, but later became a Justice of the Peace, a member of the Mississippi House of Representatives, and ultimately a member of the United States House of Representatives. This is a clearly told story of big, bold accomplishment, and it is accompanied by illustrations that give young readers a sense of historical context. Readers not only “see” what it looked like during the Civil War and the Reconstruction period, they get a look at the emotions people felt.  This would be enough for me to recommend this book.

            However there is more. The back matter is excellent. It consists of the following elements that are all worthy of careful attention. Anyone teaching CCSS standard of Craft and Structure will find these items useful and informative:
·      Historical Note: The author explains what happened during the “Reconstruction” period that followed the Civil War.
·      Timeline: Taking a “life-and-times” approach, events in John Roy Lynch’s life appear in black, while state and national events appear in red.  This is an easily understandable format.
·      Author’s Note: Among other things, the author invites us to think about the significance of John Roy’s life: “His is a personal tale so unlikely that it calls on us to linger, to ask questions, to seek to understand the context, and to delve into the details of the overlooked time in which he lived. “ I can’t think of a better invitation to delve into history.
·      Illustrator’s Note: Not only does the illustrator admit that before illustrating this book he “wasn’t very knowledgeable about Reconstruction,” he also describes his necessary research and his artistic choices.
·      Suggestions for Further Reading: A list of recommended books is a fine starting place for learning more about Reconstruction.
·      Map Showing Reconstruction States and Important Places in John Roy Lynch’s Life. A very clear graphic that is useful for discussion of how maps present information.
Books like this one provide content and help readers understanding the process of learning about the past. This is essential for understanding history.


Monday, September 14, 2015

Exciting Discoveries Reveal the Nature of Science

             The recent discovery of a new species in the human family—Homo naledi—identified by anthropologist Lee Berger and his team of researchers in South Africa reveals how science works. That is, our understandings are tentative and, therefore, subject to change. You can read a New York Times article about this groundbreaking discovery at This find not only helps us understand how we evolved as humans, it also illustrates what Dr. Berger means when he said, “There is no substitute for exploration.”

            We have an exciting opportunity to connect this new discovery to previous work by Dr. Berger. In the book The Skull in the Rock, published in 2012, authors Lee Berger and Marc Aronson describe how a different fossil discovery in South Africa changed our understanding of evolution. In this case, Matthew Berger, the scientist’s son found a fossil of a bone from a species previously unknown to scientists. That species, Australopithecus sediba, provided a new window on the past. You can read the Classroom Bookshelf’s review of Skull in the Rock as well as their numerous ideas for teaching and suggestions of useful resources at

            When used together—the new information about Homo naledi and the older information about Australopithecus sediba--clearly show the nature of science in action. This material illustrates these big ideas:
·      Science is tentative, yet reliable. While generally reliable and durable, scientific knowledge is subject to change over time. It can be expanded or discarded.
·      Science is the product of observation and inference. Scientists gather evidence by making observations in the natural world. They make inferences based on a combination of observation and prior knowledge.
·      Scientists use creative and imaginative methods. There is no single, lock-step method for doing science.

            We teachers have a grand opportunity here for developing scientific literacy. First, there is material readily available about both discoveries on the Internet. Constructing text-sets incorporating nonfiction books, journal articles, newspapers articles, and videos will be easy. Second, the immediacy of this find makes it exciting. And, third, we get to show the true nature of science. It's a gift.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Family Histories

            Remembered family stories are small treasures. They remind us of events that—while not of broad historical significance to the world at large—are important to us individually as part of our own histories. 
            Out of the Woods: A True Story of an Unforgettable Event by Rebecca Bond is an outstanding example of a family story to share with elementary school students. This book relates an episode in the life of Antonio Willie Giroux, the author’s grandfather, who lived in Ontario, Canada, in a hotel run by his mother. He loved the hotel, the people who worked there, the residents who came to hunt or fish, and those who worked in the forest that surrounded the hotel. Antonio wanted to get closer to the forest animals, but mostly he just managed to observe the evidence that they were there—their sounds, tracks, and nests.
            In 1914, when Antonio was almost five, a terrible fire broke out in the forest, causing the people living in the hotel to head for the nearby lake to escape the danger. Men, women, and children standing in the lake with water up to their knees were soon joined by the forest animals such as foxes, bobcats, and bears. Amazingly, Antonio got to see the forest animals up close. At the author tells us, Antonio “never forgot how he had watched that distance between animals and people disappear in the summer of 1914.” It was truly a memorable experience.
            This book is a fine choice for a read aloud and subsequent discussion of family histories. Afterwards, try some of these Common Core/Common Sense ideas for students and teachers: 
  •  Write and illustrate a family story you want to remember and share with others.     
  •  Notice the artwork in this book—the detailed drawings that capture the setting of rural Ontario, the hotel, the people who lived there, the surrounding forest, and the animals. Illustrations and words work seamlessly together. 
  • Examine the captivating language that appeals to the senses. Gather several examples. Here is one: “When Antonio was almost five, the summer was so dry the green carpets of moss yellowed, the silky grass crisped, and the pine needles on the trees turned brittle.” 
  • Read the author's note and examine the accompanying photograph. Ask students if they have a family photograph they can use to help them tell or write about a family story. 
            If you are looking for a terrific read aloud or a great way to jumpstart the writing of family stories, this is the book for you. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Celebrating the Voting Rights Act of 1965

            While I am not a strong advocate of the “holiday” or “anniversary” curriculum, I must admit that the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has resulted in a fine crop of books—old and new—for teaching and learning. You can see an excellent list on the School Library Journal website at

            I want to focus on one particular book, Lillian’s Right to Vote by Jonah Winter and Shane W. Evans. This book is based on the life of Lillian Allen, an African American woman who at the age of 100 was able to vote for the first African American president.

            This book can be used to introduce Common Core standards:
·      Key Ideas and Details: What did the Voting Rights Act of 1965 guarantee? How did it come about?
·      Craft and Structure: In his author’s note, Jonah Winter states that Lillian’s uphill climb in order to vote is a metaphor for the uphill climb faced by African Americans pursuing their right to vote. In what ways has it been an uphill climb? What obstacles did Lillian Allen face? How do the words and illustrations work together to show this?
·      Integration of Information: Listen to an NPR interview with Lillian Allen at What new information did you learn?

            There are also important civic issues to discuss. First, as the author mentions, current attempts to implement photo ID requirements have had the effect of denying people their right to vote. There is still work to be done to protect this right. How can this be done? Second, the Voting Rights Act has been a long time coming. What were the steps along the way?

            I am happy to see a well-written and well-illustrated book that introduces this compelling information to young readers and celebrates people like Lillian Allen who pursue their rights as Americans.