Category Archives: Book Reviews Grades 3-8

Dear Accelerated Reader, It’s not fair.

Dear Accelerated Reader,

It’s not fair that you assign fewer points to nonfiction than fiction. For example, students who read The Hunger Games (GL 5.3) get a whopping 15 points, but students who read Titanic: Voices from the Disaster by Hopkinson (GL 7.4) receive a measly 7 points. Yes, Titanic is only 289 pages compared to The Hunger Games at 384 pages, BUT Titanic is a multi-layered, cognitively demanding text with intertwined narratives about multiple passengers, the sinking of the ship and the rescue as well as many many non-narrative sidebars including explanations of the engineering of the ship, comparisons to other ships, descriptions of the lifeboats, etc. and, on top of all of that, dozens of primary sources to interpret. It is also written at a higher Lexile level probably due to a lot of domain specific, challening vocabulary. And yet – you award Titanic LESS THAN HALF the points that students get for reading The Hunger Games.


titanicScreen Shot 2016-08-22 at 11.24.11 AMhunger games

More examples? Marching for Freedom: Walk Together, Children, and Don’t You Grow Weary by Partridge (GL 6.6), winner of numerous awards, tells the story of the children who marched for voting rights in the 1960’s in Selma, Alabama. It has 62 pages of text, but it has a large format so each page of text equals about two pages in a typical fiction chapter book format. It’s a complex text in that the reader has to follow multiple narratives and grapple with complex issues like racism, social activism, and perseverance. The reader also has to understand the motives and work of organizations like the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). And yet – you award it only 3 points!

marching for freedom


On the science end of the reading spectrum, check out The Hive Detectives: Chronicle of a Honey Bee Catastrophe (GL 7.5). Only 59 pages but again with a large page format with twice the text on each page of what is in a typical chapter book. The author chronicles, describes, and explains colony collapse disorder. This is not a book for spring chicken readers. It’s difficult and demanding and yet amazingly rewarding as the reader walks away with knowledge critical to understanding an important issue in our world. Again-at a higher Lexile than The Hunger Games. And yet – you award it only 2 points!!!

UGH!!! Do you hear me moaning???

AR, I will give you a small, very small, bit of credit. Picture books geared towards the primary grades typically get .5 AR points regardless of whether the book is fiction or nonfiction. Just a little bit of credit.

Back to my point. I don’t know how you, Accelerated Reader, are assigning points, but I’m begging you to rejudge books like these and GIVE MORE POINTS!!! After all, we do want our students to read more nonfiction, correct? And IF we have to assign points (which I’m not a big fan of anyway), then let’s use this as an incentive to read more nonfiction, too? RIGHT?????

Teachers. AR may continue to fail us. In that case, would you double the points offered for a nonfiction book? Or maybe require so many books read in a particular genre versus assigning points? And if you already do, HOORAY!!! Thank you!!!!

Hope this helps.


Review & teaching ideas for new book Seeds of Freedom


The new trade book Seeds of Freedom (Bass, 2015, Candlewick Press) is a good fit for 4th-6th grade students because it’s complex and has content worthy of close reading and collaborative discussions. Bass, the author, does not just tell a straightforward narrative about what happened in Huntsville, AL; instead her narrative requires the reader to make inferences about what was going on. The way she presents the information requires the reader to think critically about what was going on. Bass uses the metaphor of planting and growing seeds of freedom–tapping into what these seeds need to grow. For example, she writes, “But the seeds of freedom need news to grow, so another plan is hatched.” From there she describes “Blue Jean Sunday” when the African Americans boycotted local businesses and wore denim for Easter in 1962. The way she tells it, though, the reader has to make an inference that this was the “hatched” plan and the reader also has to infer how this was “news” to grow the seeds of freedom. With her audience in mind, the author has provided just enough content for the reader to do this. She continues to build on this idea of “needing news to grow the seeds of freedom” throughout the book.

While the publisher has listed this book for k-3rd grade, I think the ideas are conceptually way too challenging for this age group. If you get a copy of it, you’ll also see right away that there’s a large amount of text on each page (not too much for a read aloud to older students, though) and some of the illustrations are abstract. The illustrations are also mature enough for this older group of students; the book doesn’t have a “primary” feel.

I’d do the following with intermediate (at least 4th) and higher students (through 6th) –
1) Read this book aloud during an integrated unit of study;
2) Read aloud the author’s notes and discuss;
3) Ask the students to read excerpts from this text closely with an essential question in mind for discussion and for writing in response. Examples of questions (some that could be used with multiple excerpts) include –

“How does the description of Blue Jean Sunday serve to support one of the author’s main ideas?”

“Explain how the author uses evidence to support the idea that ‘seeds of freedom need news to grow.'”

“What is the author’s perspective on the movement in Huntsville? What in the text makes you think so?”

“What role did perseverance (patience, compassion, etc.) play in this movement?”

Background knowledge about Jim Crow and segregation would be helpful in understanding this book, but students could also read this book at the beginning of a unit of study as a way to begin an inquiry project into this period. They could generate questions for research as they hear this read aloud a second time or as they read it with a partner. This would be a good opportunity to compare texts on the same topic – even just comparing one page of text from this book with a primary source (news article, photo, memoir, etc.). It would be interesting to research others’ perspectives on what the author calls “the peaceful integration of Huntsville, Alabama.” The metaphor “seeds of change” or “growing seeds of change” could serve as a frame for thinking about/reading about other events in the civil rights movement and how it took time and perseverance for change to occur.

One disappointment (but not a deal breaker) – I thought the metaphor of growing seeds of freedom was powerful and used well in the first half of the book. I like the growing versus planting – it increases the rigor of this text. I felt like the development of the metaphor was weak in the second half of the book, though. For several pages in the first part of the book, the metaphor remained at the seed stage. Then late in the book there is one page where the “tender plant of freedom” is mentioned; at the end of that page, I was confused when the author wrote, “Are the seeds of freedom wilting?” I was thinking it should have been “Are the tender plants of freedom wilting?” There is no other mention of the tender plant and then on the last page, the last sentence, after the schools of Huntsville have been integrated, the author writes, “to taste the sweet fruit homegrown from the seeds of freedom.” It felt like a leap given the heavy emphasis on the seeds earlier in the book. BUT why not have students go back and think about events that revealed the growth of tender plants and how they might have wilted at certain points and then how the fruit was growing and so forth? This could help students move forward in reading other texts on the same topic and using this metaphor.

If you know me, you know I LOVE books on this period of American History. If you want more information on books I’d recommend reading with students, visit my Goodreads bookshelves–I have a general shelf of books on the Civil Rights Movement (1950-1970) and then two additional shelves with “text sets” for 3rd and for 6th-8th grade.

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 9.57.44 AM

Okay…hope this helps.


Book review & text-dependent questions for War Dogs: Churchill and Rufus

War Dogs Churchill and Rufus

War Dogs: Churchill and Rufus (Selbert, 2013) has a lot of potential for teaching in grades 4-5 with students studying World War II.  While this book is listed for grades 2-5, I think it would be hard for 2nd and even 3rd grade students to understand the main ideas. For all readers, the author assumes some background knowledge about WWII–the conflict, the players, and the geography.

For 4th-5th grade students, this would be a good opportunity for partner reading or for a teacher read aloud with a focus on text-dependent questions like, “How does the author develop the idea that Churchill and Rufus are ‘war dogs’?” (CCSS RI 8 & L5). Selbert, the author, positions Churchill as “dog-like” at many points in the book–some more explicitly than others. For example, there’s a page that describes Churchill speaking to Parliament – “Winston, his shoulders set like a tenacious bulldog’s, wades to the front of the hall and begins to speak.” On another page, Churchill’s wife, Clementine, visits him and Rufus in a war bunker where Churchill’s office was during the war; the text states that she holds her husband’s hand and then kisses his cheek and, on the same page, she holds Rufus and “rubs behind his ears until he falls asleep.” Clementine is showing affection for both war dogs in a sense – Churchill and Rufus.

Selbert also includes quotes from Churchill that are critical in understanding the brevity of the war and even the ideas in the text. (FYI-Most of the quotes would be conceptually difficult for 2nd or early 3rd grade students.) The quotes are separate from the running text–see image below–and could be read carefully and discussed further after reading the whole book. A question for students to consider might be, “Why is this particular quote relevant in this part of the book?” (CCSS RI 4 & 5, L5)


Students should have the opportunity to read and reread additional features the author includes at the end of the book–a timeline of WWII, a short essay about Churchill and his beloved pets, and another short essay about Churchill himself. In the intermediate grades, a teacher might read aloud the book and then engage the students in close reading of one of the two essays for the author’s main idea or in response to prompts like, “How would you describe Churchill based on your reading of this essay? Why? What parts of the text made you think so?” or “Churchill was an important figure in WWII. Identify and explain evidence in the text that supports this idea.” (CCSS RI 1 & 2).

A strong book introduction should emphasize the meaning of the title or a short discussion predicting the meaning behind the title. I didn’t pay much attention to the title, assumed I knew what I was going to read about – Churchill’s dog—and then as I read, felt like I wasn’t learning much about Rufus. When I rethought the title – War Dogs (plural), the book made more sense to me. My point is that students shouldn’t assume the book will be mostly about Rufus–actually it’s more about Churchill and his role in WWII. Rufus, a dog, is an access point for more important content.

This book was awarded the International Literacy Association Children’s and Young Adults’ Book Award for primary nonfiction 2014 which is awarded to new authors. I am going to be on this committee this next year – looking forward to it!

“Go to” author for historically-based stories–Barb Rosenstock

I discovered Rosenstock when I read The Noisy Paintbox which is a Caldecott Honor book for 2015. Beautiful with sophisticated language and strong main ideas. I immediately checked out her other biographically-based stories–stories “based on” her interpretation of primary sources. These books could be read aloud to younger students, but the language and ideas are so rich, I would use them in 3rd-5th grade as well as part of units of study in social studies or for ELA units of study on informational “historically based” narratives. She creates vivid pictures of historical figures, inspiring portraits of people defeating the odds or initiating significant change in their world. Her author’s notes are very strong and reveal how she used her interpretation of primary sources to “imagine” these stories. Frequently she includes quotes from the historical figure portrayed; these make for richer discussion about the ideas in the text. Author’s purpose and construction of ideas could easily be explored with these texts. You could also pair reading each text with an informational text on the same period or topic or person.

Below are reviews and instructional suggestions for her books that I’ve also published on Goodreads. (Are we friends on Goodreads?) I have not read her newest title The Streak: How Joe DiMaggio Became America’s Hero yet, but it too has received accolades like Orbis Pictus Recommended Book for 2015.

the streak

The Streak: How Joe DiMaggio Became America’s Hero (2014) – TO BE REVIEWED ON GOODREADS as soon as my library gets a copy! 🙂

noisy pain box

The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art (2014)

This would be a GREAT read aloud as part of a unit of study on abstract art–in grades 2 through 4. During the first read, I didn’t understand the idea of Kadinsky, the artist, hearing the sounds of the colors he was working with or having sounds trigger colors and shapes – but the author’s note cleared this up. It seems that Kadinsky may have had a “harmless genetic condition called synesthesia–“one sense triggers another.” This said – I’d read aloud the book, then read aloud the author’s note and then read aloud the book again (perhaps in a later lesson) thinking about how the author reveals Kadinsky’s synesthesia and why this was important to his work.

There’s so much to discuss as part of rereading sections of this book – the rich vocabulary (“snapping cerulean points,” “crunching crimson squares”) and the main ideas like “What does it mean to be “proper”?” and “And then to resist being proper or conforming?”

The writing is strong and has a good flow, lending itself to reading aloud. It’s listed as appropriate for ages 4-8 (on Amazon); this might be a bit ambitious for the youngest of this group – they may not be able to grapple with main ideas about Kadinsky trying to conform and then breaking out of the mold and they may not understand the idea that certain sounds triggered shapes and colors in Kadinsky’s mind. I’d go for 2nd-4th grade.

ben franklin's big splash

Ben Franklin’s Big Splash: The Mostly True Story of His First Invention (2014)

Great read aloud in the primary and even intermediate grades or a book for partner reading and discussion of main ideas like “How does this book reveal Franklin’s curiosity about the world?” and “How does Franklin’s method for perfecting an invention relate to scientific processes we’ve studied in class?”

Also, Rosenstock’s author’s note reveals how she used a specific primary source–a letter Franklin wrote to a fellow scientist in 1773 and other information available about Franklin-to imagine this story. This could serve as a launch pad for students’ interpretation of primary sources and writing of their own biographically-based narrative about a historical figure.

the camping trip

The Camping Trip That Changed America: Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and our National Parks (2012)

You can read this aloud to younger students, but it also fits nicely into the intermediate grades with curriculum focused on the regions of the U.S., U.S. history, national parks and so forth. Some background knowledge on “national parks” and this time period would be helpful to readers. I might even share primary sources–photos of President Roosevelt and John Muir and Yosemite–before reading this aloud. Main ideas like experiencing nature first hand can change your life and how we can influence others to initiate change are tightly threaded into this book and would make for good discussion. If you can get a set of these, they could be used for a literature circle as well–with text dependent questions like, “Why was this camping trip important?” and “What happened on this trip that made it monumental or of outstanding significance?”

The author’s note is STRONG. There are two quotes – one from Roosevelt and one from Muir– that can serve as conversation points before and after listening to this book read aloud (in 4th grade and up). Rosenstock’s explanation of how she “imagined” this story based on primary sources could serve as framework for thinking about students’ own interpretation of historical records and narrative writing based on these interpretations.

This could be read aloud to 2nd grade students–who have strong background knowledge and with some additional support like sharing the photographs I mentioned earlier.


Fearless: The Story of Racing Legend Louise Smith (2010)

Rosenstock is a “go-to” author for biographical stories about inspiring people. Be sure to read the intro (just before the first page of text) where Rosenstock defines “legacy” and includes a quote from Louise Smith about giving racing her all despite setbacks. Reading the intro and the quote (even projecting the quote) would make for a strong intro to one of the main ideas in this text. In addition, the author’s note at the back of the book about Louise Smith could make for additional conversation–ask students to read with a partner or independently (4th grade and up) and discuss and write in response. There’s also an author’s note “thanks to” about her research which included numerous interviews. This note can launch research writing–which includes not just reading texts, but also interviewing experts and so forth. Rosenstock’s book is “based on” her understanding of primary sources. Students could write historical stories “based on” their interpretation of primary sources.

Lots of potential with this one. Rosenstock has written several other biographical stories “based on” her interpretation of primary sources. Her work is worthy of an author study.

thomas jefferson library

Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library (2013)

For students studying American history –even intermediate grade 4th and 5th grade students–Rosenstock’s story about Jefferson’s fascination with books provides a different, closer-to-home, real person view of Jefferson. There’s a great quote from Jefferson in the author’s notes that reveals his wish to be at home with family and books versus working in politics. This would be worthy of posting and discussing the tensions our “Founding Fathers” felt between the call of a new nation and their personal passions. The same could be said for Ben Franklin and George Washington, I’m sure.

This could also be read to much younger students, too, to get across the ideas that books have evolved, how they were valued in this time period because of their expense and so forth, and that throughout history there have been passionate readers.

Very interesting note by the author at the end — “Thomas Jefferson, Slaveholder” as if we want to glorify Jefferson for his book reading, but we want to keep in mind he was a man of his time and there were clear contradictions between his beliefs and actions.

I think Rosenstock’s work is worthy of an author study. There’s so much potential for rich conversations around author’s craft and important main ideas, critical thinking and writing–in response and as part of writing workshop. Check out her web page. Students will find like her “about me” page which is clearly written with them in mind. She does author visits including Skype visits.

Screen Shot 2015-02-26 at 7.32.54 AM

If you know me, I do not review biographical texts or historically-based stories very often. Usually my focus is on non-narrative informational text or factually based well-written narratives because there is already a strong focus in the field on narratives and fiction. Rosenstock’s body of work inspired me, though. I had to write about these books!

New Book – Water Can Be… for Reading Aloud in 1st-3rd

water can be

Water Can Be… by Salas (Millbrook Press, 2014) has a lot of potential for enjoyment and instruction in the classroom. This book is a “poetic exploration of the many roles of water throughout the year.” When I first read it, I had to let go of making complete sense of the content and just enjoy the rhyme and rhythm, the beautiful illustrations, and the general messages of the author–which is what I would recommend doing with students. Then I reread the book to make sense of the content.

I struggled a little bit with the difference between water being a “picture catcher” (with an illustration of a young girl looking at her reflection in the water) and a “tadpole hatcher” (with an illustration of tadpoles swimming in the water). A child’s reflection IS the water. In the case of tadpole hatcher, the water is not exactly that–but instead is the environment needed for tadpoles to hatch. This is the case with the various “names” for water or “roles of water” that Salas uses in this verse. She also has roles that end with the suffix -er/-or (meaning “a thing that does something”)  and roles like “salmon highway” – which is an object versus a thing that does something. This might be confusing to some students. (An another note–Salas also explicitly addresses states of water in “spring” and “autumn,” but does not explicitly refer to summer and winter–it’s implied though.)

BUT this is what makes the text complex and worthy of rereading to grapple with the content (versus discarding and choosing another). What about stopping as you reread the text a second or third time and saying, “What do you think the author means by that? By ‘salmon highway’? Let’s look carefully at the illustration and think about that.” Be prepared to provide wait time and to model with your own thinking if needed. (Common Core Reading Info Text standard 1.4, 1.7, 2.4, 2.6, 2.7, 3.4, 3.7) With students, refer to the author’s note at the end, where Salas lists each role in the book and describes this role (CC RI.2.8). You might refer to the particular description in this author’s note when you discuss “bruise shrinker” or “eagle flyway” – after looking carefully at the illustration.

She also gets at the idea that water comes in many forms – gas, liquid and solid – without saying that explicitly–“Water is water–it’s fog, frost, and sea. When autumn comes chasing, water can be a…” (no page numbers). This might be an opportunity to apply some of what students have been learning in a unit of study on water. You could reread the book with students –a third time maybe–and ask them to identify the state of water for each role Salas names. (CC RI.1.3 & 2.3)

Salas’ text might also be a mentor text for writing…what are the roles of fire (e.g., house destroyer, forest renewer)? of soil (e.g., nutrient provider, nature protector)? of trees? of earthworms? (CC W.3.10)

Lots of possibilities.

Hope your transition into the new year was peaceful!

New Book – Accessible Intro to Microorganisms for 1st-3rd

tiny creatures

LOVE THIS BOOK. An accessible introduction to microbes for 1st through 3rd grade. Definitely read aloud to students, pausing for space to “oooo” and “aaah.” I’d even be tempted to use it with older students as an introduction to more complex texts on this topic. Davies, the author, talks to you, the reader, in a conversation-like tone, with clear descriptions and explanations and simple analogies. The pace is gentle, providing the reader time to absorb the ideas–in other words the text is not dense with a lot of facts like so many texts on this topic. I learned a tremendous amount–maybe as a result of the the pace, and the layout and design. The illustrations are magnificent, supporting the ideas in the text but also leaving some room for thinking on your own. You could read this aloud and then leave it in the classroom library for rereading.

Next Generation Science Standards – this could be used to as part of units that integrate the 2nd Grade Biological Evolution–Unity and Diversity standards and the 3rd Grade From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes standards.

Common Core Standards

  • First just enjoy the book with students! Read it aloud providing time for students to look closely at the illustrations and just wonder or be in awe of this amazing creature, the microbe.
  • Then–reread and think about the author’s main topic/idea–what is the author trying to tell us that’s important? There are tiny organisms everywhere. Some are bad, but most are good and have important roles in nature. Engage in shared writing of a main idea and then ask students to elaborate with illustrations and additional details. (RI 1.2, 2.2, 3.2)
  • Take time to look closely at one of the amazing illustrations – what does Emily Sutton do in one of these illustrations to contribute to and clarify the text? How do both the text and illustration convey a key idea? (RI 1.6, 1.7, 2.5, 2.7, 3.5) Copy one of the illustrations (once, for school-use only) and ask students to write their thoughts on a sticky note and then post the illustration and the sticky notes for all to view. You might do this for several pages or several books and make a display over time. You could also turn this into a reading response center.
  • Use this book as a mentor for writing – pull excerpts that describe, or excerpts with comparisons, engage in shared writing to “try out” what Davies does, and then coach students to try this in their own writing – on whatever topic they are studying.

This book is a gem. I didn’t want it to end.

New Book for Reading Aloud, Close Reading – Mr. Ferris and His Wheel


Mr. Ferris and His Wheel (K. G. Davis, 2014)

This would make for a great read aloud in 3rd, 4th or 5th grade with opportunities for rereading excerpts of text to think critically about the author’s central ideas and purposes. The main part of the text is written as a narrative with the purpose of “telling the story of” how George Ferris endeavors to bring to life “an idea [for a structure at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair] that would dazzle and move.” In addition, many of the two-page layouts have a non-narrative caption (in bold and a different font) that provides background information pertinent to that point in the narrative. For example, when George’s idea is rejected by the construction chief of the fair, the narrator lets the reader in on George’s expertise on how to use a new metal –steel–and how this would make the moving wheel “strong.” The non-narrative caption for that page serves to build knowledge on this concept – steel, its strengths and George’s area of engineering expertise –

George was a steel expert, and his structure would be made of a steel alloy. Alloys combine a super-strong mix of a hard metal with two or more chemical elements. (no page #s)

This structure – the use of narrative to “tell the story of” and non-narrative to explain is worthy of exploration by students.

Actually, there’s a lot of potential for using this book in the classroom. If your 3rd or 5th grade class is studying motion and stability–Ferris’ engineering and what he must have considered in designing and building the wheel could be discussed.

And with the Common Core ELA Standards, there are opportunities to engage students in conversations (even student-led), close reading and conversation, and writing in response to the text. A few suggestions include –

  • Reading aloud the book (this might take two sessions) and asking students to turn and talk – just to discuss what has happened, to make meaning of what is going on. You might pose prompts along the way like, “What’s going on here that might be a problem?”
  • Using a gradual release to explore the role of captions in supporting the narrative – 1) modeling how one caption supports the text, 2) asking partners to explain how another caption serves to support the text, 3) asking individual students to tackle explaining a third caption and how it serves to support the text with conferring and coaching as needed.
  • Posing questions for critical thinking, conversation, and writing in response like
    • Why do you think the author wrote this book? What was his purpose? What in the text makes you think so?
    • How was George Ferris perseverant? In spite of obstacles, danger, and discouragement?
    • Do you think the author believes that this endeavor –George designing and building the Ferris Wheel–was unprecedented? Why do you think so? What is textual evidence to support your reasoning?


Photo of the Ferris Wheel at Chicago World’s Fair

Okay…hope this helps!




Book Review and Prompts – Call of the Klondike


Call of the Klondike: A True Gold Rush Adventure (Meissner and Richardson, 2013)

I’d recommend this book for a a nonfiction literature circle in grades 5 (savvy readers) through 8 (striving readers). It would also be worthy of doing a book talk and placing in a prominent space in the classroom library –in hopes that a student will pick up for independent reading. The authors have done a fabulous job of tapping and integrating primary sources “to tell the story of” two men’s journey to the farthest reaches of the gold strike in the late 19th century – territory near the rugged Dawson City in rural Canada.

In the summer of 1897, Stanley Pearce and Marshall Bond, two college friends, were in Seattle when gold diggers returned with a plethora of nuggets. They immediately touched base with family about financing a trip up north. Bond kept a diary and both wrote to their parents. These primary sources along with telegrams and news articles (written by Pearce) were preserved by family members and landed in the hands of Kim Richardson, a co-author.

The text is almost equal parts narrative/informational text written by the authors and primary sources--woven together in a seamless narrative along with maps, photographs, and other 19th century sources of print. The appeal of the narrative is in the harrowing moments of Bond and Pearce’s party’s trek across the White Pass Trail (where there was not a clear path and it was already snowing) and the ride down the treacherous Whitehorse rapids–all with a year’s worth of provisions! Then there’s the continuous exposure to severe weather and the many times futile attempts to discover any gold – all with a ton of work and an unexpected ending.

This book would be a great way to immerse students in reading primary sources – sources that are a little more accessible than say the Declaration of Independence – without a ton of support from you, the teacher. This is an important part of the Common Core ELA/History-Social Studies standards like –

Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.
Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.
Analyze the relationship between a primary and secondary source on the same topic.

In addition, it’s just a rigorous text to challenge students to read, and as part of the experience, students can engage in the type of thinking the CCSS ELA Reading Informational Text standards require. Questions I might ask students to contemplate as they read and write responses or as they read and write in preparation for literature circles discussions:

  • What is the role of the primary sources in telling this narrative? Why is this important to consider?
  • How does photograph [insert page #] support your understanding of the text? Include specific details in the photograph and the text as part of your response.
  • What is a central idea in this text? What is evidence from the secondary (text written by the authors) and primary sources  that support this idea?
  • Would you take this trip? Why or why not? Use textual evidence to support your reasons.

These questions could conceivably be asked at multiple points in the text.

Okay. Hope this helps.



Close Reading Lesson with Elijah McCoy’s Steam Engine

Elijah Mccoy

All Aboard! Elijah McCoy’s Steam Engine by Monica Kulling (2013)

Recently I had the pleasure of teaching demonstration lessons in several third grade classes. In one class, the students were immersed in a unit of study with the essential question “How can learning help us grow?” The text for the lesson was All Aboard! Elijah McCoy’s Steam Engine from the Wonders curriculum; this story is also available as a paperback on Amazon.

In this district, Wonders is a source for the teachers, but they are not mandated to follow the teacher’s (essentially scripted) guide; instead they are encouraged to use it consistently as a resource for concepts and strategies to teach and texts to use. While many of the texts  included in this basal system are decent or even pretty good, the Wonders approach to “close reading” is too broad for me. The directions for this text (and others) were to engage in a close reading of the whole story. This is too long a text for close reading when we want students to read and reread a text. Also he essential question that is posed for close reading of this text – “How can problem solving lead to new ideas?” — is actually quite difficult. When you look for the answer to this question in the teacher’s guide, the guide states –

How can problem solving lead to new ideas? Explain that problem solving leads to new ideas and that the solution, or answer, to the problem might be an invention.

The authors of Wonders have not answered the question here.

And yet, Wonders as a source has a lot of potential here – with this text in this unit of study with a focus on “How can learning help us grow?” The third grade teacher and I decided to rewrite the question for close reading and choose a short excerpt from the text for close reading. We thought it would be pretty easy for the students to identify Elijah’s problem – oiling the engine was dangerous and a constant hassle.  Instead we read through this biographical narrative, thinking about where the problem solving happened or was described by the author. We identified two pages (my study notes are below) that revealed how Elijah solved the problem–he developed a metal cup that would serve to oil the train’s engine. Just within two pages of text, there were many difficult ideas–his mind sparked with ideas, he made a model, he applied for a patent. A close reading of this excerpt seemed rigorous and yet appropriate for this whole class lesson.

Scan 136

Before the lesson, the teacher read aloud the whole story to the students (early in the day) and they discussed the text in general. For the lesson, I posted the question “How does Elijah solve his problem?” with the definition of solve in a different color marker. (I didn’t want to take for granted that the students would have a solid understanding of what “solve” means.) The blue printed words “do action” were added during the lesson. This question supports the larger unit question of “How can learning help us grow?” In other words, by answering this question, in a later lesson, the teacher can pose the question, “So how did what Elijah learned help him grow as a person?” The posted question was our purpose for reading and drove our decisions about what words to underline and what annotations to write–I referred to it continuously throughout the lesson. It’s like a lifeline for some readers–providing focus and direction.

close reading question Elijah

The text was projected for all students to view – using the document camera and each student had a copy of these two pages. (That’s a flaw in the Wonders curriculum – students are not asked to annotate the text. This is easy to fix!!!!) During the lesson, I gradually released. We started out thinking about the question as we read, annotating together – I annotated on the text on the document camera and they annotated on their copy of the text. Then I released responsibility–giving them the reins to read and annotate, with the question “How does Elijah solve his problem?” in mind. I moved around and conferred with individuals and small groups. Some students needed a lot of support. Others were ready to fly. At the end I asked the students to write an answer to the question on a sticky note–a manageable amount of writing in just a few minutes. Our assessment of their responses afterwards revealed that every learner–striving and flying–was able to access the text and gained something from this lesson. Some of the students wrote responses with a conceptually easier idea — Elijah made a model; while others grappled with the idea of applying for a patent (which the teacher had discussed during the read aloud).

This teacher also meets with small guided reading groups–which is critical. The whole group lesson lasted about 25 minutes. For students who needed more support, she could easily return to this text in small groups (if it’s an appropriate instructional level). This lesson with the whole group establishes identity as a community of readers–that all of us can make meaning with a grade level text. Not every comprehension lesson should be whole group like this – maybe 25 minutes a day. The students still need guided reading and independent reading and so forth.

Okay…hope this helps.


4th to 6th grade – Maritcha: A Nineteenth-Century American Girl


Book review and recommendations for close reading (excerpts, CCSS-aligned questions, etc.)

Maritcha: A Nineteenth-Century American Girl (Bolden, 2005).

I found this book when I started searching other titles by one of my “go to” authors Tonya Bolden. The book is put together in a way I’d like to explore with 4th-6th grade students. The author’s purpose is to tell the story of Maritcha’s childhood in New York City as a free-black during the mid-1800’s AND to describe the people, places, events that Maritcha “may have” experienced based on other historical artifacts, writings of that period. For example, Bolden knows that Maritcha’s grandmother met Frederick Douglass once – so she describes who he was and his role in the anti-slavery movement. You see where I am going? Maritcha’s childhood is a frame of sorts for learning about that period of time.

Bolden’s main primary source is an autobiography Maritcha wrote the year before she died and then additional sources were dug up and researched further by Bolden. The text is rich with well-chosen primary sources – photographs, illustrations, publications and so forth. Bolden is careful to use “qualifiers” when writing about what Maritcha may have experienced like (put words in bold)-

As for play, make-believe games with dolls, a spinning top, ring toss, and making a clackety-clack dance with a Limber Jack may have ranked high among Maritcha’s delights. (p. 8)

When Bolden knows for sure that something happened – based on her research – she does not use the qualifier language, but instead states it as a matter of fact.

As periods of history are being pushed further down in the grades, I think that books like Maritcha –with a focus on the Civil War and anti-slavery movement and the life of a free black during this period – would be developmentally appropriate and rigorous as a read aloud. Place the book on the document camera so students can view the primary sources as you read aloud. Or book talk it and place it in a text set for independent reading during a particular unit of study.

AND WRITING – a discussion of Bolden’s organization and use of primary sources and so forth could serve as a launch for students researching and writing their own historical narratives – fiction or nonfiction, making arguments about the life of a free black, writing informational pieces on particular aspects of this period. Oh, the possibilities!

Lots and lots of potential.

There are several places you could read aloud or excerpt a paragraph for close reading and discuss the author’s main idea and textual evidence or discuss how an author develops an idea. There are three paragraphs on page 20 that begin with the following:

What enabled Maritcha to endure whatever the weather? True grit. And she had plenty of examples around her.

What follows are a description of her godfather’s grit, another remarkable community member’s grit, and her parents’ grit. One of the author’s ideas here is that these people influenced and shaped Maritcha in many ways (RI 5.3). Students might explain how the author makes the case that Maritcha had several examples of grit in her life (RI 5.8). Students might analyze how first two sentences in this excerpt contribute to the development of the main idea (RI 6.5) and so forth. Some good discussion could happen here.

There’s also a lot you could do with the historical content. I did not know about the draft riots that occurred in New York City early in the Civil War–that put Maritcha’s family in danger. Students could analyze for the author’s point of view (RI 6.6) and analyze how this key event is introduced, illustrated, and elaborated (RI 6.3). The primary sources could be a focal point with a discussion about what can be learned from the source that supports the content (RI 4.7).

Hope this helps.