Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Science Times

I leave tomorrow for the Wisconsin Science Festival in Madison. While I am giving a number of talks, I am there as much to meet people as to speak. Jordan Ellenberg, the author of the wonderful How Not to Be Wrong, will be speaking. He is a math prof who writes is a lively, engaging way calling on everything from lottery ticket schemes (that actually worked) to hot streaks in sports to slime mold decision making to political opinion polls and voting outcomes (with a concentration on Bush-Gore) to introduce math. I am desperately hoping to find a way to bring his voice and wisdom to younger readers.

Then I will meet John Hawks, another Wisconsin prof, who is active teacher, blogger, about paleoanthropology, and is working with Lee Berger on the amazing Rising Stars Expedition (sorry that I am not embedding links to all of the above, but a quick Google will do the trick). I am eager to find out what they are finding out. The basic facts are that in three weeks last fall they found, deep in a South African cave, as many fossil fragments of something, probably an early hominin, as have every been found in Southern Africa. No details yet announced on which species, how many, how much remains to be found.

I'll meet Paul Fleischman who is there to give the Charlotte Zolotow lecture -- and to visit the newly opened CCBC.

I don't write all of this to create envy, more to say that it is seems really lively and I have a lot to learn. I do feel that we are at a kind of Sputnik moment where science and math are back. In part due to Common Core, but also to life, to Robotics, to kids -- girls quite as much as boys -- are showing a passion for these subjects. YA fiction, both fantasy and realism, is flourishing. But no longer instead of, or as a cure for, content. The world is fascinating -- and we all need to share this golden moment of exploration with young people 

Monday, October 13, 2014

Swept Up in History’s Whirlwind: Malala and Iqbal

 In the 1999 book Through My Eyes, Ruby Bridges—now an adult—wrote the following:

When I was six years old, the civil rights movement came knocking at my door. It was 1960 and history pushed in and swept me up in a whirlwind. [Italics added]

Now we have another powerful example of children being swept up in history’s whirlwind. This time it is Malala Yousafzai and Iqbal Masih, two children from Pakistan. Their powerful stories are gripping examples of courage and bravery in the face of unjust circumstances. These stories are now available to young children in Jeanette Winter’s new book, Malala, a Brave Girl from Pakistan/Iqbal, a Brave Boy from Pakistan.

This book features two children who spoke out against the unjust treatment they were receiving. They defied those who wanted to deny them their basic rights as children. Both received threats to their lives, and yet they continued to speak out. Both were shot. One died and the other, though seriously wounded lived and continues to speak out against injustice. This book tells the gripping stories of these two children—Malala and Iqbal.

Malala wanted her education. When Taliban fighters insisted that girls should not go to school, she insisted on her right to an education. Again and again, she resisted the Taliban—even as threats turned into deeds and schools were burned and bombed. For speaking out, she was shot, but lived to tell her story to the world. Most recently Malala was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts.

Iqbal wanted to be free, not forced to work each day in a carpet factory, chained to a loom. Yet at the age of four, when his parents took a twelve-dollar loan from the owner of a carpet factory, he was forced to work all day long to repay this money. It wasn’t until he was ten-years-old that he learned that bonded slavery of children was illegal. At that time he began to speak out against bonded labor, despite the threats he received. He spoke in carpet factories in Pakistan and even took his message to America. Because he spoke out, he was shot and killed while riding his bicycle in Pakistan.

This book tells both children’s inspiring stories. Readers see the power of bravery over injustice—how two children stood up to threats and violence to assert their rights. They are stories to remember. But there is more at work here: These stories also remind us that all our lives are shaped by the times in which we live.

When discussing stories like Malala and Iqbal’s, we have the opportunity to discuss the impact of historical context, something we should not lose sight of when discussing informational text. Here are two interesting questions to pursue:
1.     How were Malala and Iqbal swept up in history’s whirlwind?
2.     How have they affected history?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Crossover? Cross-Up? What Is Going On With the Adult-authors Writing NF for Younger Readers?

This morning brings the front page article in the New York Times about adult authors writing nonfiction for younger readers:

This is what Myra recently wrote about, and I find myself having so many mixed reactions to the article, and to the trend it describes. First, I think the headline is both false to the article itself and misleading in describing adult NF edited for younger readers: "To Lure Young Readers, Nonfiction Writers Sanitize and Simplify." Sometimes, yes, and the article gives instances of authors (doubtless with editors at their elbows) deciding which bits of sex, drugs, torture should be in or out. But the article also mentions that kids can take quite a lot, and the thrust of it is not about dumbing down or leaving out, but rather about this lively moment in which the formerly hard barriers between adult and non-adult first in fiction now in nonfiction are blurring.

The headline suggests that the blur is a way of infantilizing readers -- depriving them of moving "up" to real adult works while pandering to a limited view of what young people can handle. Sure that happens. And I hear beating behind this headline and all of the recent articles on whether it is good, bad, or indifferent that so many adults are reading YA fiction, a concern about markets. The adult publishing world is challenged, shrinking -- especially outside of genre areas such as romance and erotic novels -- while YA is booming. Many people: authors of adult fiction and NF, adult literary types fearing the loss of writing they treasure, those who in general fear, resist, or are critical of the influences of markets on taste, art, ideas, are alarmed at decline on one side and a rising wave on the other. Add in those who see young people mesmerized by digital devices and fear a loss of serious reading and thinking, and you get the Times headline.

From my seat as one who writes NF for middle grade and YA that, often enough, I think could be of interest to adults, this moment has both hazards and possibilities. The threat is that adult authors who have market power and media reputations, who have been given large advances so that they can devote years to their books, or can hire squadrons of research assistants, will overshadow us. I do fear that the craft of writing for our readers which we have honed may be easy to ignore as against the fame of an adult author -- perhaps this is what picture book authors felt when everyone from Hollywood stars to TV comedians began publishing picture books. On the other hand I see real potential in this opening up, this recognition, of NF. The key line in the Times piece came from the astute Bev Horowitz -- a wise and experienced editor and publisher at Random House: "Adults are now so used to reading young adult books that there may be some nice crossover."

Cross-over, cross-up, cross-down, what will it be? The good news is that NF is attracting attention, and the field is expanding. Buckle up for a faster, wilder, ride. 

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Most Valuable Phrase

 I am a teaching idea junkie. I admit it. I comb journals and books for new ways to do old, reliable, important things. And when it comes to nonfiction, there is a great deal out there to choose from. My most recent find is “The Most Valuable Phrase,” as explained in an article in this month’s Reading Teacher. The article is entitled “Designating the MVP: Facilitating Classroom Discussion about Texts” and it is written by Carolyn Strom. Check it out. I have provided a citation at the end of this article.

Basically, Strom uses MVP, which students associate with most valuable player, to discuss the Most Valuable Phrase (or sentence) in a text. After reading a nonfiction text, students select a most valuable phrase that does one of these things:
·      M: It shows the main idea of a text
·      V: It gives the reader a vivid mental image
·      P: It’s a phrase worth remembering. That is, it becomes part of a student’s background knowledge. It’s a keeper. In the author’s words, it’s a “phrase that stays” (p. 109).

The criteria for selecting an MVP relate to Common Core Standards. For example, students have to identify a main idea and argue that a phrase supports or explains it. Or, they have to identify vivid language that helps them envision something. Or, they have to argue that a phrase is a significant enough to remember.

There is an important principle at work here: Each new twist or idea we teachers adopt should support our basic goals of teaching and learning—CCSS or subject matter in science, social studies, math or language arts. I think MVP does. Give it a try. 

Strom,C. (2014). Designating the MVP: Faciliating classroom discussion about texts.
            The Reading Teacher, 68(4), 108-112.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

In Church and Library Basements, Old Illuminates New

We focus so much on the new, new, new: the latest books and curriculum materials. But we forgot the joys that the old can bring. For example, a good church or library book sale allows for the serendipitous find - the book you never knew existed, yet another version of a favorite book. We always say that we shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but I have enjoyed over the years sharing with classes my different copies of Little Women and Pride and Prejudice, virtually all plucked out of dusty cardboard boxes in library and church basements. 

Just look at the these covers, from 1961 to 1985. Consider the following: 
  • What was the publisher thinking?
  • What does the cover "say" about the story ?
  • How might this cover compare to other book covers of the time? 
  • From this collection of covers, what might we infer about the story and how it has been "spun" over time to the public via cover art? 
How many different copies of the same book can you gather at tag sales and books sales this fall? Perhaps it's a book that is considered required reading at your school. How can you use the varying cover art as way to get students curious about the actual book? What can they infer from the various representations of cover art? 

Now, look at what I found recently at a used book sale! A first edition biography of Thomas Jefferson, written by the winner of the first Newbery Medal, Hendrik Willem Van Loon. When reading through pieces of this book, few of the criteria that Myra articulated yesterday comes to mind : word choice, text features, page design, author's note, and illustrations. However, there is much to discuss with young people using this book. 

Myra has written often about the "visible author," about the author as a guide who takes the student reader on a journey through the content of a text, how that content is constructed, and the author makes sense of it. While this book is written in 1943, Van Loon is, in many cases, a "visible author." Now Van Loon is not "visible" the way that Myra talk about authors making themselves visible. Overall, there is a very engaging and conversational tone to the book. This is not stiff, work-for-hire series biography. It's interesting and funny, except when it borders on offensive. He does not comment on the process of doing history, but throughout his writing on Jefferson, he reveals a great deal of his own thinking about social class, religion, immigration, etc. Is this simply a biography of Thomas Jefferson, for young people? is also a window into the author's worldview as an immigrant turned citizen in 1943, in the midst of World War II. While he presents no author's note, there is a "Afterthought," which provides select primary source material from Jefferson's own writing, curated by the author. In addition, the author biography takes up the entire back cover, and is also somewhat intimate and conversational in tone. He reveals a great deal about himself. So how do we harness this out-of-date biography?

If I were still teaching middle school, I would have students divide up the chapters, each group reading a single chapter, but not to acquire a full understanding of the chronology of Jefferson's life. Rather, I would have each group comb through the chapter to locate each and every time they see Van Loon's worldview seeping into the text. How often does it happen? In what contexts? Next, I would have students compare and contrast this writing style (and the related content) with newer works on Jefferson, such as the following three titles. What does this tell them about the art of writing biography? 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Exploring Craft and Structure

A major goal of CCSS is to focus attention on the craft and structure of nonfiction. That means thinking about word choices, nonfiction text features, and how point of view shapes content. Each of these can be readily examined by using Ben Franklin’s Big Splash: The Mostly True Story of His First Invention, written by Barb Rosenstock and illustrated by S. D. Schindler. This narrowly focused book deals with Franklin’s attempts to invent items that could help him swim better—more like a fish. It highlights the beginnings of his lifelong fascination with science and invention.

After reading this book simply for enjoyment, here’s how to focus on craft and structure:

·      Word Choices: Alliteration Everywhere.  From the beginning, the author uses alliteration, or repetition of initial consonant sounds. On the first page, she describes Ben as “the sturdy, saucy, smelly, son of a soap-maker” (underlines and bold characters added). But what grabbed me the most were the words related to swimming—words like sloshed, squirting, spurting, and spouting. Other alliterative words like stared and speculated deal with scientific observing and thinking, while still others like sketched, shaped, and sanded deal with invention. You could have students list the alliterative words in the book, group them according to their shared meaning, and give each group a label. Not surprisingly, this strategy is called List, Group, and Label.

·      Text Features. There are several text features that bring meaning to the book, making the reading more interesting and enjoyable.

o   Different Sizes and Colors of Words. Words that are capitalized and written in red throughout the book highlight the author’s interpretation. For example, she tells us emphatically in red that it was Ben’s practice of swimming “WHICH MADE BEN A STRANGE KID IN COLONIAL BOSTON.” It was his invention of swim fins “WHICH MADE YOUNG BEN EVEN STRANGER THAN BEFORE.” I was delighted to discover that the words Author’s Note, at the end of the book are also colored in red. Does this connect the red in the text with the author’s interpretation? I think it does.

Words that are capitalized and written in blue throughout the book
are examples of alliteration. Sometimes there are red, blue, and black
words on the same page. These pages provide opportunities for discussing how the different colors signal different meanings. Great options, right?

o   Different Page Designs. There are single page illustrations, double-page illustrations, spreads with two or three illustrations per page, and spreads that show Ben’s thinking and imagining things. This variety of illustration and format show the different options available to the author and illustrator for presenting and enhancing meaning.

o   Author’s Note. The author’s note has several interesting features to discuss. First, it begins with a quote by Ben Franklin (in blue) about sharing inventions with others. Second, it includes a letter written by Franklin to a fellow scientist dealing with his swimming invention, but the letter was written more than fifty years after the invention. Third, it includes the author’s interpretation of that letter. There’s more. See what else you and your students can find in this author’s note.

o   Illustrations of Future Inventions. A double-page spread illustrates and labels Franklin’s later inventions, but doesn’t discuss them. This provides a perfect opportunity to begin additional research on Franklin’s many inventions.

Books that are rich examples of craft and structure are not only enjoyable to read. They show us the many ways we can think about and present life stories.