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.


Monday, May 25, 2015

Writing Nonfiction for a Purpose

Outside of school, people don’t sit down to write a paragraph or write “at least two sentences” or write an essay that rehashes what everybody already knows.  Outside of school, people write for a purpose. And that purpose shapes what they say and how they say it.

Except in school. Here the painful reality is that children are asked to write paragraphs, write at least two sentences, and write formula-driven “essays.” How do I know? I see it when I visit schools, and I especially see it in the lesson plans I receive from my undergraduate students, who—in addition to taking a course with me—are also student teaching. 

The problem that I have with all this is that children are being given the wrong information about the nature of writing. Real writing is not a formula-driven exercise. Real writing has a real purpose. This purpose can be to inform, to raise questions, to entertain, to describe, to persuade, to share opinions, and so on. And real writing doesn’t come from a recipe.

CCSS never demanded that children should only write nonfiction essays, arguments, and opinion papers; it simply said that these types of writing should be included in the curriculum. CCSS also never demanded that we should teach formula-driven approaches to writing either. This approach comes from educators frantically trying to get children to write expository text without at the same time nurturing their desire to write for real reasons. And we all know the reasons for this frantic push—testing and its consequences.

Instead, I believe we need to work with children to investigate the reasons we write. One promising approach is to consider the communication triangle.  To keep their writing vibrant, writers consider not only the subject they are writing about, but also how to communicate it to a specific reader or readers. Writers think about what they want to say and how they want to say it. Here’s the communication triangle that shows this relationship:

Thinking about writing as a message designed to communicate to an audience has a range of implications. First, when reading nonfiction, we can consider questions like these:
·      Who is telling me this?
·      What is the writer telling me?
·      Why is the writer telling me this?
·      How does the writer’s purpose influence the selection of words and information? How does this purpose influence the creation and/or selection of illustrations?

A writer’s purpose can be seen throughout a book. Search for clues in the opening paragraph, the dynamics between the illustrations and the writing, the information the writer selected and shared, and the author’s note. In simple terms, ask, Why are you telling me this? How are you telling me this?

I just finished reading Tricky Vic: The Impossibly True Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower, a picture book biography by Greg Pizzoli. This is a very entertaining and informative book about a bad guy, a con man, who gets punished in the end. Here are some clues I found about the author’s purpose:

·      Lead: “In 1890, the man who would one day be known by forty-five different aliases was born to the Miller family” (p. 1). Clearly, the author wants me to know that Tricky Vic is not your regular, upstanding citizen.
·      Dynamics Between Illustrations and Writing: On page 2, the words tell me that Tricky Vic left home to become an artist, but the illustrations show his angry parents calling him “a con artist!” Once again, I see he’s a bad guy, and I think the author wants me to know this. But the author also wants me to see the humor in it, too.
·      Vocabulary: The author explains words about being a con artist. For example, he explains that a “mark” is the planned victim of a scam. A sampling of additional vocabulary includes prohibition, Al “Scarface” Capone, Romanian Money Box, counterfeiting, and Alcatraz. He is giving me the “stuff” I need to talk about con artists.
·      The Information Selected: Throughout the book, the author teaches me information about scams and the words to talk about them. He also follows the career of Tricky Vic, but only in terms of his scams.
·      The Author’s Note: The author confesses to doing a little bit of “creating his own truth,” just the way Tricky Vic did. He also updates us on current con artists flourishing today in Paris and advises us to “stay sharp.”

I was informed and entertained by this book. While I can’t look into the author’s head to read his mind, I think this was his intention. So I want to end with this question: Are we giving children the chance to write so that they, too, can inform and entertain? 

Friday, May 15, 2015

Caught in the Spell of Words and Paintings

The partnership of author Robert Burleigh and artist Wendell Minor has once again produced a powerful nonfiction picture book. When reading Trapped!: A Whale’s Rescue, I think it’s best to just enjoy it, letting the words and paintings surprise you, capture your attention, and stir your emotions. I read the book three times for enjoyment before I allowed my “critical reviewer’s lens” to creep in.

So, why did I enjoy it? Here are a few reasons:
·      The Show-Stopping Cover: The front cover shows a whale almost completely submerged under water and a diver—so small by comparison—shining his flashlight on the netting that has trapped this whale. The back cover extends this illustration, showing another diver pulling off some of the netting, while observers in a rescue boat nearby look on. This cover hooked me immediately and raised questions: How did the whale become trapped? Will the divers save it?
·      The Language: From the beginning, the language celebrates this magnificent animal, appealing to my sense of sight and sound. Here’s a sample:
                        The huge humpback whale dips and dives.
                        Her sleek black sides shimmering,
                        she spyhops, lobtails, flashes her flukes.
            Even though I later had to look up both spyhop and lobtail, I was hooked.
·      The Plot Thickens: Danger comes in the shape of nets left by crab fisherman. The whale is trapped and we see the word TRAPPED in large white capital letters. In fact, when the text deals with the life-threatening struggle to free the whale, the print switches from black to icy white. This only added to the tension I felt.
·      Relief and Safety: Rescuers arrive and they manage to cut the netting and free the whale. And, as a perfect ending, the whale nudges divers as if giving them thanks before heading off. What a relief. The book moved in a satisfying progression: from joyful celebration of the whale, to danger, to rescue, and back to joyful celebration. I felt this relief.
·      Back Matter: For fans of extending a story, the back matter provides more information about this true story, more information about rescuing whales, and more sources of information. To read an article about this event in the San Francisco Chronicle, go to

I honestly don’t like the idea of analyzing why I like this book so much. I just do. When a book grabs me so strongly, that’s more than enough for me. I think that in addition to showing children how nonfiction works, we should also take time to celebrate its power to nourish our hearts and minds.  Let’s ask our students which books grab them. 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Book Extras: The Inside Track from Owlkids Books

Look at what Owlkids Books have put together. It's called "The Inside Track," and it is comprised of video and audio clips that tell the "back story" of some of their book. In providing these snapshots, and allowing some of their decision-making to be made visible, they are giving teachers and young people access to the stories behind book construction. We are seeing more and more of these digital resources being housed on author and illustrator websites, and now, on publishers' websites as well. I'm obsessed with the back matter in books. The back matter always gives me a new perspective on a book. Often, it makes me want to reread the book, armed with my new-found knowledge. These web extensions, a new form of front/back matter, in a range of modalities make me very, very happy as both a teacher and as a reader.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Ulysses Who?: Considering the Connections We Make

            I just can’t shake this experience. Recently, my graduate class in children’s literature has been reading Flora & Ulysses, the Newbery award-winning novel by Kate DiCamillo. (Yes, I know this is a nonfiction blog, but hang on, I will get there.)

            At one point in the novel, after a squirrel has taken a harrowing trip through a powerful vacuum cleaner, a young girl named Flora overhears her neighbor ask his wife if she is going to leave the Ulysses (the vacuum cleaner) outside.  Immediately young Flora names the squirrel Ulysses. The author tells us “she knew the right word when she heard it.”

            Why is this the right word? Here we have factual information begging for an inference. Why, indeed did Flora name the squirrel Ulysses? In my mind, the author was referring to the Ulysses of Greek myth. That Ulysses, like our squirrel, had experienced travels fraught with danger and had been transformed by his experiences. Similarly, Ulysses the squirrel was also transformed; he became a thinking squirrel able to type out poetry. This connection gives the events in the story the grandeur it seems to me to be seeking.  

            . . . But not to my students. They, instead, connected the name Ulysses to Ulysses S. Grant. True, he was a hero, a man of decisive action, a fighter, and a president. Yet I was totally surprised by this connection and I asked the class to develop their idea so we could compare it with mine to see which held up better.

            So what does this have to do with Common Core? The connections we make—our intellectual leaps and inferences—are where our most exciting thoughts are happening. The Common Core asks students to make inferences they can defend by supplying evidence. Students are to make inferences within a single text and inferences across multiple texts. This is true for both fiction and nonfiction. This is important intellectual work.

            Making and defending inferences based on evidence is the heart of historical thinking. Similarly, making and defending claims is central to the nature of science (NOS). Perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to say that inferential thinking is the heart of all original thinking.  That is why when we embed the ideas of Common Core into our teaching it is rewarding, but when we race from standard to standard, trying to cover them all, it is not.

            I am always struck by how exciting it is to come up with an original claim, pursue it, and defend it. We don’t have to look very far for examples. In her most recent post on this website, the one just before this one, Mary Ann Cappiello talked about how after rereading works by Elizabeth Partridge she discovered the central role Bob Dylan played in the careers of Woody Guthrie and John Lennon.  Here are her exact words describing this experience: “...I am always surprised at how powerful it is to make my own connections through a series of texts, cultivating curiosity, building knowledge, and pursuing my questions.” I couldn’t agree more.  

            So, which Ulysses was it? What do you think?