Sunday, August 2, 2015

Transforming Transportation: Past/Present Parallels


            I am so glad to see a new book by Martin W. Sandler. He is a well-established writer of history books for intermediate and middle school readers and with good reason: His books are clearly written, with an abundance of historical photographs, and lots of background information. His new book, Iron Rails, Iron Men, and the Race to Link the Nation: The Story of the Transcontinental Railroad upholds these standards.

            As Sandler tells us, this is a story of visionary thinkers and hard workers, but also of greedy, corrupt men and violence. Above all, it is a story of transformation, since the Transcontinental Railroad changed our country in many ways, some good and others not so good. There have been other accounts of building the Transcontinental Railroad. There is Rhoda Blumberg’s Full Steam Ahead: The Race to Build a Transcontinental Railroad and Milton Meltzer’s Hear that Train Whistle Blow! How the Railroad Changed the World, but these excellent books are both out of print. They are, however, well worth seeking out.

            As I was reading Iron Rails I kept thinking about the connections I could make to today’s transportation situation. We in New York are facing our own challenges with outdated and faulty rail lines and tunnels and frustrated commuters in the Northeast Corridor. Our own LaGuardia Airport is scheduled to be torn down and rebuilt because it is so out of date. The New York Times has been running articles about this that make for interesting reading, especially while reading Iron Rails.

            So, while this is a fine book to use to discuss Common Core standards such as key ideas and details or integrating photographs and written text or the many nonfiction craft features included in the book, it is also the opportunity to look for ways in which this story resonates with our lives today. Past/present parallels are worth knowing and thinking about. They help us discover the significance of the past.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

News From Teaching Books dot Net

I am passing along this email from Nick Glass at Teachingbooks.net -- a site you should know:

I'm excited to share that the TeachingBooks.net Author Name Pronunciation Guide has just reached a milestone -- there are now 2,000 recordings of authors telling the story and correct pronunciation of their names!

A press release is on my blog at http://teachingbooks.net/2000 -- highlighting some of the most played recordings.

Or freely explore http://teachingbooks.net/Hello to pick out one of your favorites to share.

I find it particularly fun that Tomie dePaola is the 2,000th recording added to this collection. How do you pronounce his name? "...paw-la," "...paa-oo-laa," "...pow-la," or something else? Hear Tomie say it at http://teachingbooks.net/Tomie.


This collection of authors and illustrators revealing the origins and pronunciations of their names is completely free and available for anyone to use, anytime. These audio recordings have been listened to almost half-a-million times since I launched it in 2007.


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Reading for Perspective: Who Is Telling Me This? Why?


             I just finished reading two history books for children, narrated not from the author’s perspective, but from the perspective of a person from the past. Clearly, this takes a leap of imagination on the part of the author, since each of these narrators lived at a very different time from the present day. The author must understand this time and make use of historical evidence to build this understanding.
 
            The first book I read is The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth & Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore, a picture book written by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. It tells about the Harlem bookstore owner Lewis Michaux and is narrated by his son, Lewis Michaux, Jr. He is proud of his father and what he accomplished. As an aside, the author is also related to Lewis Michaux and she is up front about this. As you can see, perspective is complicated. 
 
            The second book is Jump Back, Paul written by Sally Derby and illustrated by Sean Qualls. Here we have the author telling the story of Paul Laurence Dunbar, the African American poet and novelist, from the perspective of a grandmother. Whose grandmother? Don’t ask because the author doesn’t tell. However, this grandmother is well informed and also quite opinionated.
            I learned a lot by reading these books. They are clearly written, well researched, and well illustrated.  But they also require readers to think about how perspective influences each of these historical narratives.
 
            Common Core State Standards ask us to consider the author’s point of view. But it is more complicated when the author’s point of view isn’t necessarily the narrator’s point of view. In this case, we need to delve more deeply into the nature of the perspective we are being offered. So here are some questions I like to think about when the author of a historical narrative uses the perspective of someone from the past:
  •    Who is telling me this information? 
  •   What does this narrator want me to know?
  •     If someone else narrated these events, how would the narrative change?
  •    What evidence did the author use to create this narrative?
  •    Is the narrative convincing? Why?
           
As I see it, learning how to read is just like learning how to think. To read history, we need to think historically.


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Reading to Spot Continuity and Change


            Common Core standards take a general approach to reading comprehension. They focus on big ideas and details, point of view, integrating text and illustration, understanding academic vocabulary, and so on. Yes, there is mention of disciplinary literacy, but the specifics of what this means needs to be more deeply understood and taught.

            Nonfiction literature—especially those books we refer to as the literature of inquiry—can help. Using books that show people asking questions and trying to find answers offers us an opening for discussing how to think about learning in science and history.

            One big idea in history is continuity and change. That is, over time some things change, while others remain the same. We see this every time we pore over old family photos. We can also see this in well-written history and biography. For example, in Anita Silvey’s book about Jane Goodall, Untamed: The Wild Life of Jane Goodall. Silvey shows how Goodall has maintained a lifelong passion for animals while transforming her career to emphasize conservation efforts. We can read this book with a focus on these questions:
·      How has the focus of Jane Goodall’s work changed over time?
·      What caused these changes?
·      What has remained the same?

            As you read this book you will find out, for example, that the technology available for studying animals in the wild has changed.  As a result, so have research techniques.  I found reading about a camera trap—a digital camera with a motion sensor that can take pictures day and night—particularly interesting. This has affected how data on animals is collected. At the same time, other things in Goodall’s career—most notably her love of animals and her dedication to their well-being have remained the same.

            As nonfiction literature reveals more about how scientists and historians work by taking us to the sites of their research, we have an opportunity to better understand how new knowledge is created and understood. I think that means making some CCSS standards more focused to incorporate disciplinary literacy and ideas like continuity and change. 

Monday, July 6, 2015

Missing In Action

Dear Readers:

Sorry to have been away so long -- I had to go through a lengthy, thorough, and successful process to be reappointed at Rutgers, and am now working hard to finish up two books, but still this is a home and miss being here. During my absence I also went to San Francisco for ALA Annual, and I have some important good news from there.

I went to ALA because I had concerns about how nonfiction was being evaluated in both youth divisions: ALSC and YALSA. I communicated with both boards before the meeting, and that set the stage for SF. Here were the issues: ALSC, as you all know, is responsible for the Robert F. Sibert medal for informational books. Early on in its life, people who served as judges noticed that it focused only on text, not art. Correctly, they added consideration of art to the criteria. But in doing so they also added language about "originality" of text and art -- similar to language used for the Caldecott. I thought that that was a mistake, since in informational books originality is just as likely to come from the careful use and treatment of archival images and text as it is in newly-created art. I shared this concern with the ALSC board. While I do not yet have the exact results, I understand that they have made an adjustment in the criteria -- I'll post that here once I have it. This was most satisfying -- the sense of all of us working together to get it right.

For YALSA I had almost the opposite concern -- I didn't think they had misleading or inappropriate criteria for their Excellence in YA Nonfiction award, I thought there were not enough criteria at all. My sense is that, wonderfully, the forms and types of YA nonfiction are growing and changing. And so we need to think about what makes for an excellent YA memoir? an excellent YA nonfiction graphic novel? An excellent YA nonfiction book adapted from an adult book? Each of these -- should have criteria of its own. The board agreed that it would be a good idea for YALSA members to think about, learn about, discuss these questions -- and assigned me to work with their Chair to figure out the best venues for that conversation. Once again, most satisfying.

So friends, sorry to be away so long, but I hope you find these developments as encouraging as I do -- nonfiction is spreading its wings. 

Why Do I Have to Know This?


            Anyone who has taught history for any amount of time has undoubtedly bumped up against this question from students: Why do I have to know this? I know I did. American Revolution? Civil War? Great Depression? World War II? Why? Why? Why?

            What students are asking about is the question of significance—a question that historians consider very relevant. Out of all the evidence left behind, what’s important to know? Why? One reason that some evidence is significant is that it helps us think about issues that we are facing today.

            Here’s where nonfiction literature can be of help. When nonfiction authors make some of these connections for young readers, they show them why some evidence from the past is relevant today. This is what Steve Sheinkin has done in his most recent book, Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War. After sharing with readers enough background information for them to understand why Ellsberg thought it was necessary to release secret government documents about American involvement in the Vietnam War and narrating this dramatic story, Sheinkin writes an epilogue raising the bigger questions for readers to think about:
·      Even though governments must keep some information secret, how much secrecy is too much?
·      Is it ever right for citizens to leak information that they think everyone should know?
·      If leaking information is against the law, should someone who does this be tried in court and possibly sent to jail? Is that person, instead, a hero?
            Sheinkin then makes the connection to Edward Snowden—the former CIA employee who leaked classified information from the National Security Agency about global surveillance. This is a story of our times with clear connections to the Ellsberg case. Here is an instance of how the past can illuminate the present and help us think about the future. Here is an example of why history is relevant. In fact, Sheinkin entitles his epilogue “History Repeats.”

            As I look back at the Common Core Standards I recall that they ask us to think about Key Ideas and Details. But if we are to think historically, we need to shape this standard to include historical thinking.  We need to deal with historical significance and with the relevance of the past to the present and future. We can ask this question: Is this information important to know? We can use Sheinkin’s big questions—the ones I bulleted above—and use the specific details of both the Ellsberg and Snowden cases to help us think about these questions.  In that way, we fold in disciplinary thinking into our teaching. It’s a start to answering that persistent question: Why do I have to know this?

           

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.