As I read through the exemplar informational texts in Appendix B of the Common Core, I’m struck with how there’s not a consistency in quality – in particular, regarding authority, accuracy and appeal. While there are a lot of good books on the list (more in the primary bands than in the middle grade bands), a lot of the books are dated and don’t reflect what writers and publishers of informational text have learned in the last decade about what should be included in informational texts for k-8 readers. I think the developers of the list may have been trapped by copyright issues and expensive permission fees, but, in the case of informational texts, including these outdated texts is potentially detrimental to the endeavor.
A point to consider – If you pick up a high quality informational text published in the last ten years, there will most likely be a note from the author explaining his or her research for the book. This is important because it gives the content credibility as far as accuracy and authority (something you don’t have time to check for on your own). It also provides a window for student readers into how they can engage in research and writing for themselves. In Frogs by Nic Bishop he explains to the reader how, as a kid, he observed wildlife in a pond in his backyard. Since then he’s traveled the world photographing frogs and has even trained exotic frogs to pose for his photos. In Written in Bone by Sally M. Walker, she starts the book with “a note to the reader,” describing her own experience as an archaeologist and how she continues to ask questions – questions that led her to work with a forensic anthropologist to do the research for this book.
Appendix B books that fail this test (that I’ve read so far) –
- Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad by Ann Petry (1955) – This book is very problematic and really should be considered an historical novel based on the life of Harriet Tubman versus nonfiction. Anytime an author describes what was said by people present at a particular event that was not likely to have been recorded or documented (like the night Harriet Tubman was born), there has to be some doubt. (6th-8th grade)
- A Short Walk Around the Pyramids & Through the World of Art by Philip M. Isaacson (1993; out of print) While the author is an “art critic,” there is no notation about research and how the book was compiled. This book is dated, too; there’s a chapter on photography as art that discussed bending and scratching negatives! I need to blog more about this book because it just assumes too much of the reader to be an “introduction” to the art world. I wouldn’t even use this as an “exemplar” text for teachers to consider when choosing other texts. (6-8th grade)
- The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles (1995). I think this has some authority in that Coles only quotes what people said later about the event, but there are no citations of sources or notes about his research. I have other issues with this book…saving for a later blog. (2nd-3rd grade)
- Garden Helpers (more recent article in National Geographic Young Explorers) Spiders are not “bugs.” Note: Typically, there are not author notes for Young Explorer articles and usually the content is accurate. (K-1 grade band)
Another point to consider. Frankly, many of the books on the Appendix B list (although not all but especially in the 6-8 grade band) do not have the appeal needed to draw 21st century readers in either. There aren’t a lot of students who would pick up Vincent van Gogh: Portrait of an Artist and if they did, many would be lost right away. (I blogged about this book last week.) While there is value in reading “less appealing books, engagement is a key factor in reading achievement. I’ll have more to say about this along the way.
And there is some discussion in our field about the lack of cultural relevance of these books as well. Cathy Short at the University of Arizona alludes to this in a short World of Words article. She addresses fiction and nonfiction.
Tip: an easy way to evaluate informational texts – consider the five A’s – authority, accuracy, appeal, appropriateness for audience, and artistry. These concepts attempt to get at what we’ve learned about the in the field in the last decade or so. My point is – be cautious. The Appendix B texts only “exemplars” and some (although not all) qualify (in my opinion, of course) as “erroneous exemplars” for multiple reasons. (Central idea of the day 🙂 – as educators, we are professionals (not technicians) and sometimes we know better.)
At the blog linked above – Short has included a working list of better exemplars for k-5 including informational texts. Scanning these titles, I immediately recognized current, authoritative and appealing titles. In the end, any list of exemplars should always be considered “under construction” as we read and study current texts and add to/revise the list.
Image courtesy of digitalart/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net