Category Archives: Teaching k-8 Nonfiction Writing

Orally rehearsing with key words can boost writing

Do your students struggle to compose sentences about nonfiction topics that make sense or sound right? Do they lack structure at the sentence and paragraph level? Here’s a few tricks I’ve been trying with small groups of late-early and transitional stage readers.

As part of a conversation generate key words they will use to orally rehearse and then write. I’ve started including a key word for the introductory sentence and the closing sentence as well. The “conversation” aspect of this is important. I position the students as writers with a clear audience. With late-early stage readers and the book Beetles by Edona Eckart, the students and I generated the words many kinds, glow, wings, colorful, interesting. I started the conversation by saying, “If we were going to write about what we learned, how would we start? Then what would we say?” (I don’t say, “Let’s list five words we will use.”) When a student shares a sentence aloud (after I coach or scaffold as needed), then I say, “What’s a key word from that sentence that we can write down to help us remember what we want to write?”

The photo below is from the lesson with the book Beetles. Each of these words would be used in a sentence to compose a response to the prompt What did you learn about beetles in this book?

With a transitional stage group reading The Future of Flight by Anna Harris (part of McGraw-Hill’s Wonders), the students had done a close reading of the two pages about the myCopters (small flying vehicles). The prompt for writing was “In a letter, convince someone in your family to buy a myCopter instead of a new car.” Our key words – included believe for an introductory sentence and please for a closing sentence. I started the conversation by saying, “If you are going to convince someone to buy a myCopter instead of a car, what do you want to say first?”

Then model for the students how you might use each key word to compose as sentence and draw them into orally rehearsing. So I said to the students, “Listen to me as I use these words to help me practice what I will write. I’m going to use the first word…There are many kinds of beetles. Who can compose a sentence with our second key word?”

As students practice using the key words, gently push them to use correct syntax or sentence structure. You might say, “That was tricky. Did that sound right? Let’s think about how we can make that sound right.” I had a student write “The weedy sea dragon has features that help it survive from predators.” I talked with him about how the sea dragon’s features help it avoid or escape predators and then together we revised his sentence aloud until he had the hang of it.

Ask them to practice with a partner. Students can alternate – composing sentences with every other word.

Encourage them to elaborate further (aloud) if they are ready. One student reading Beetles wanted to add details in the sentence with the key word “colorful” about the different colors of beetles. I told her “Go for it!” The key words are just triggers for remembering what they learned so if they can compose a more complex sentence or add additional sentences – yes! This also encourages students to make the writing their own and not just copy what other students are saying or writing.

With some students, after we rehearse, I ask for a thumbs up when they know what they are going to write for their first sentence. I ask each student to rehearse aloud and then I give them the “go” to start writing. Sometimes they will simply say what the student said before them – that’s okay. The writing becomes more their own the further they get in to it and the more frequently we engage them in doing this kind of guided writing, the risks they will take.

This works best in small groups. The lessons here were done as part of guided writing – which takes place after 1-2 guided reading lessons (20 minutes each) focused on reading and learning from the book.

If I’m working with a whole class, I use this approach to writing during individual conferences. I ask the student to tell me what they are going to write next. If they need me to, I jot down a few key words on a sticky note–from what they said.  Then, if I feel like they need additional kind of support,  I say, “How can we put this in a sentence? Let’s try this aloud.”

Hope this helps.

Sunday

 

Writing with Mentor Texts – App Reviews in Grades 6-8

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Is anybody else sick of the five-paragraph essay? The book Writing with Mentors (Marchetti & O’Dell, 2015) was so refreshing to read as I ponder how to keep students excited about reading and writing analytically. The authors provide insight into how we can engage students in writing for authentic purposes in a variety of non-five-paragraph essay formats that align with the Common Core Standards. The key is using authentic texts – book reviews, restaurant reviews, etc.–as mentor through throughout the entire writing process. While the book is geared towards 9-12 grade, the authors’ approach is very appropriate for middle school students. I was inspired to try out a lesson as a result. (Depending on your students, you might be able to pull this off in even lower grades!)

Okay…heads up. I tried this out with one 7th grade student–my daughter– but having taught middle school and demonstrated lessons in lots of middle school classrooms, I can make the case that there’s room for this series of lessons with entire classes and with students at all ability levels.

My daughter is seriously into technology and has started a YouTube account with the purpose of “reviewing” apps. Sound familiar? So I designed a series of lessons that included critically reading published app reviews and then writing a review. Based on what I learned, here’s a set of lesson procedures—that will take multiple periods and can easily be blown into a longer series of lessons as well.

  1. In preparation for teaching, develop a text set of published app reviews for students analyze. Marchetti & O’Dell encourage teachers to read authentic texts for themselves, determining which texts might be mentors and developing text sets. I hunted for good app reviews and quickly realized that app reviews have common types of details–purpose, explanations of how to use, benefits, analogies, even counterarguments! I chose several to read during the lessons. I’ve attached the App reviews and the links if you’re interested.
  2. Start with what the students know by engaging in a shared writing of what they would include in a review or expect to see in a review. Scan 336
  3. Closely read multiple reviews and annotate for the types of details authors include–together, with a partner, independently. Below is a copy of my daughter’s annotations — these were heavily scaffolded to start and then as she read additional reviews, she started recognizing the types of details we’d already discussed. Scan 338
  4. During the close reading, maintain a list of the types of details that might be included in an app review. This is the trick-we have to provide students with the academic vocabulary they need to explain what an author is doing. If you’ve read my previous blogs, you know I’m a big fan of living, breathing anchor charts. I’d make a list of the types of details we were noticing in the reviews on a big piece of chart paper for all students to reference as I gradually release responsibility. This is the list I made as I read and annotated with my daughter and then as she read independently. Scan 339
  5. Challenge students to “try out” some of the types of details in their own review of an app. (BTW- this assumes the students are familiar with or have chosen at least one app to review which may be another lesson or a homework assignment.) The responsibility for writing an app review may need to gradually released–you might write part of one together and the students finish with a partner and THEN they write their own. Below is the review that my daughter wrote–she is a fairly strong writer so I was able to release responsibility quickly. I required her to use a counterargument (a simple that addresses why users might argue against using this app) and she independently chose to include figurative language. There’s definitely room for growth (in revising, editing, etc.)–which also makes the case for asking students to write multiple reviews over a unit of study.

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Embellish Your Photos With Stunning Graphic Designs And Typography With Font Candy

Easy Tiger Apps is a developer known for creating photo editing based apps, such as Split Pic, Animal Face, and Moments, so it is no revelation that they have released another amazing editing app.

Font Candy is meant for adding graphic designs and typography to your photos in the form of quotes. When you first open the app, you see your photo library, but you can also swipe at the top of the page to get more photo options, such as importing from Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Tumblr, or simply the internet. Once you select a photo, you are able to scale it for Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter, and then decorate it with over 50 fonts.

Some might argue for a different app such as Pic Collage, because you can filter, blur, draw on and add text to your photos. However Font Candy still has many more capabilities. It is compatible with all photo collecting apps that exist on your phone, including less popular ones such as Boomerang and Flipagram while Pic Collage only carries Instagram, Facebook, and web searches. Creators of Font Candy were also able to zero in on one feature, fonts, carrying 84 free fonts, plus more available for purchase. Pic Collage has less than 40 fonts available.

Being a teenager in the twenty first century, pen and paper to me is like an air book mac to an elephant, i.e, of no use whatsoever. I can create art of all types on my phone, whether it is in video form or picture. But with smartphones dominating over the original flip phone, everyone can take a picture and Instagram it. However not everyone has the time and patience to turn their photos into quotable designs. So Font Candy offers an advantage to creative Instagrammers, to spice up photos with an abundance of fonts.

Hope this helps. If you try this out or have experienced similar lessons, please let me know how the lessons go!  AND BTW – this lesson experience opened my eyes to some easy ways to teach introduce counterarguments—more on this soon.

Sunday

 

Behold the Beautiful Dung Beetle – compare to other texts, use as a mentor text for writing

LOVE THIS NEW BOOK!!! So many possibilities for classroom instruction in grades 2-5.behold the beautiful dung beetle

Behold the Beautiful Dung Beetle by Cheryl Bardoe (2014) is so well written and I had no idea how important dung beetles are to our environment…right up there with earthworms!!!

The book starts by drawing the reader in with the gross factor – “Somewhere in the world right now an animal is lightening its load–in your backyard, on a nearby farm, in a forest, on a grassland far away.” The content of the text includes descriptions of the three types of dung beetles – dwellers, rollers, and tunnelers. After introducing each type of beetle, Bardoe introduces a sub-topic–how they store the dung, how they fight over the dung, how they use the dung to lay their eggs and provide nourishment for grubs and so forth. Really interesting, thorough, coherent, clear. The illustrations clearly support the content in the words.

Read aloud this book to students in 2nd-5th grade. I think it has value for all of these grades – in being read aloud maybe more than once and then asking students to have collaborative conversations around specific questions and compose a written response together or independently. What is the main topic/main idea of this text? Why are dung beetles important to our world? (Common Core Reading Informational Text Standard 2) What is the author’s purpose in writing this book? (RI.7) How does this illustration clarify what the author has written? (RI.6) What makes this text enjoyable to read? (RI.10) What are you learning that you didn’t know before? (RI.1)

Put this in your classroom library. Give a book talk, read the first couple of pages. Share some of the illustrations on the document camera (if you have one) and then leave in the classroom library for students to read independently (caution – in 2nd grade – they’d have to be reading above grade level).

Provide opportunities to read and contrast with additional texts. Read aloud this book and then another about earthworms or dung beetles or give both to a small group to read and contrast – in collaborative conversations and in written responses (RI.9).  For example, Earthworms by Claire Llewellyn addresses some of the same sub-topics – how the earthworms use the soil for sustenance, how when the earthworms digest the soil, this contributes to health of the soil and so forth.

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OR you could have the students contrast the info in Behold the Beautiful Dung Beetle with a website on dung beetles–there’s a free, short article at http://kids.nationalgeographic.com/animals/dung-beetle/ that would work.

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As a writing mentor text, I really like the way this book is organized –

  • The initial hook draws the reader in with the gross factor and a common fact.
  • Three categories of beetles are briefly introduced
  • There are subtopics as far as the dimensions of their lives- how the beetles collect their dung, collecting the dung, laying their eggs and so forth. But instead of writing about one type of beetle on all of these sub-topics–the author writes about all three for each sub-topic–comparing and contrasting as she goes. Does that make sense? This is just more savvy than a five paragraph essay (yuck)!!! Below is a brief outline. I think you could use each part as a mentor text or unpack organization with students to they could think about for their own research writing.
    1. hook
    2. short narrative about how quick the dung beetles arrive on a real life piece of dung and explanation of why dung is so important to them
    3. introduction to three types of dung beetles – dweller, tunneler, roller,
    4. competition (as it relates to all three types of beetles)
    5. mating and stashing the eggs
    6. growth of grubs and hatching of young adults (author does not differentiate between three for this last sub-topic)
    7. close – with anecdote about why Ancient Egyptians worshiped the dung beetles
  • Each section is so well written – you could just use one paragraph to think about how to describe or explain a topic in the students’ writing.

Okay…hope this helps.

S

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

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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.

Value of Conversation Before Students Write in Response to Prompt

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Love this short video clip on the Teaching Channel of a 5th grade teacher helping students make meaning of informational text through conversation. The students sit in a circle for a 20 minute discussion; they signal to the teacher with two fingers when they have a thought to add to the previous student’s comment or a thumbs up when they want to introduce a new thought (including questions they have about the text). Stacy Brewer, the teacher, facilitates the conversation, trying to make sure that all students are provided with an opportunity to contribute and trying to help students listen carefully and build or develop understanding through conversation. Prior to this – the students have met in small groups to talk about the text and Stacy coaches the groups! (To figure this out, I watched a video that is an overview of her structure–see below.) During the small group and large group discussion, the “text” is fully present as the students are asked to let the group know what part of the text they are talking about, as the students are asked to return to the text to help another answer a question, etc. In this clip, the text they have been reading is in a “textbook” and it is on the journey of Lewis and Clark. (Evidently, they have read this text and made some notes–this might include shared reading for some, partner reading, or independent reading.)

After discussing notes, questions, etc. Stacy poses a question for Turn and Talk conversation. She’s written this question on a sentence strip (card stock) for all students to view – “How does the author feel about Lewis and Clark?” Then they regroup and discuss the possible answers – referring to the text to support their answers.

Stacy poses another question – “What is the author’s viewpoint of exploration?” and this time she provides a sentence frame written on a strip – “The author thinks exploring is____.” After more discussion, the students are asked to return to their desks and write in response to the two questions.

There is an additional video (5 minutes) from this lesson that shows what happens just after “Text Talk Time” – with Stacy meeting with a small group of  students who need additional support – to engage in more conversation and help them plan for writing. “When we talk about things it gets our brain ready for writing” – Stacy.

Beautiful structure with lots of access points for a group of diverse learners. There is a lot of potential for this to happen with the structure she has created.

Two short, easy, free videos – that provide a lot of content for us to consider in our practice.

First video – Analyzing Texts: “Text Talk Time” https://www.teachingchannel.org/videos/analyzing-text-as-a-group

Second video – Analyzing Texts: Putting Thoughts on Paper https://www.teachingchannel.org/videos/analyzing-text-writing

Video that is an overview of the whole process – from small group student-led “brainstorm” to whole group to small group support lesson – https://www.teachingchannel.org/videos/analyzing-text-lesson.

 

Giving up I-R-E and Coaching Student Conversations

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I’ve given up calling on one student at a time during whole group instruction.

A few weeks ago I was walking down the hallway in an urban school and stopped to ask a fourth grade student for directions. She knew where I needed to go, but she struggled to tell me. “Like…well, it’s down there…like by the bathroom…” The directions were actually—go to the end of the hallway and down the stairs, take a right and stop at the classroom next to the bathroom. She could not communicate this clearly. This was not a special needs child or a child learning English. This was an average kid (in a low income school) getting books from her locker in the hallway.

How do I ask this student to engage in collaborative conversations on academic content? And write clearly to convey critical thinking?

I know this is a huge issue for many of our students and I know you know this.

So what am I doing in my practice (on a regular basis) right now to nurture students’ oral language development?

  1. I’ve given up calling on one student at a time during whole class discussions. This practice, traditionally called I-R-E (initiate-respond-evaluate) has limited value. (Yes! I do occasionally still call on one student…but 99% of the time I don’t!) We tend to call on students who we know will answer correctly or semi-correctly and students can be passive or not actively engaged during this type of instruction.
  2. I ask students to Turn and Talk AND then I lean in to conversations and coach. The coaching piece is huge. Students can turn and talk about nothing or about irrelevant topics; they might just each give an answer and be done. In other words, there can be very little value in this experience if we are not coaching students, prompting them to build meaning – to listen to each other and contribute to each others’ ideas.
  3. I will ask a pair of students I coached during Turn and Talk to share out their thinking with the whole class or a student I coached during a guided writing portion of the whole group lesson to put his or her writing on the document camera and share with the whole class.
  4. AND just recently I’ve been starting guided reading with five minutes of student-led conversation on a relevant academic topic—again with me there to coach and prompt.

The topic of the students’ conversation may be a continuation of what we discussed during whole group instruction and what we’ll be reading about further during small group instruction. It may be related to an essential question and a shared whole class text. (With fourth and fifth graders, this included continuing discussions about texts on the American Revolution, coral bleaching, and so forth – hard topics that students may have little background knowledge on!)  The purpose of the conversation may be to follow-up on a particular strategy or skill that was taught or perhaps as a way to warm-up regarding what we will be reading about (maybe previewing the text together and summarizing before we read) or recall what we discussed in a previous small group lesson.

One of the students volunteers to lead. I push my chair back a few inches to signal that I’m not in charge – but I coach, usually providing stems/language to keep the conversation going. Sometimes I even write prompts that are needed on sticky notes (see images in this blog) so they can be referenced over and over again.

It’s amazing what happens for students when they start to understand how they can self-lead –whether during turn and talk or during small group conversations. Actually, it’s liberating – for both me and them.

Okay…just sharing some thinking.

 

 

New book by Tonya Bolden – Searching for Sarah Rector

searching for sarah rector

New book for late-intermediate and middle grade students – Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America (Bolden, 2014). Let me start by saying that Tonya Bolden has become a “go to” author for me; her research is meticulous, thorough and her writing is appropriate for her audience with rigorous and rich content. I was surprised by this book, though. From reading summaries, I thought I was in for an adventure. Maybe an adventure akin to The Impossible Rescue (Sandler, 2012) or Chasing Lincoln’s Killer (Swanson, 2009). But this book is not a “can’t-put-it-down” adventure. Instead Bolden, uses Sarah Rector’s story as a frame for bringing to life the political and legal experiences of African Americans born and/or living in the Indian Territory and the state of Oklahoma as the culture of community-shared-land shifted to individuals owning land. Sarah Rector, a “Creek freedman” and, therefore, a citizen of an Indian nation, was eligible at birth to be allotted a piece of land. Her parents pursued this and then, through a lease to an oil driller, Sarah became very rich. Except that African American parents were not trusted by the government to be guardians of their children’s estates; generally, a white man had to be assigned. Except that many of these guardians were crooked. Except that…

A central theme in this book is how misunderstandings lead to unfair judgments or distorted views – in many arenas including those of journalists for The Defender in Chicago as well as lawyers for the NAACP in NYC as well as the judgment the author, Bolden, made about what kind of guardian Sarah had been assigned until she dug further into the primary sources available.

This is a case study in the limitations of what we know – in the present and regarding the past. There are actually no primary sources that provide insight into Sarah’s actual thoughts. There are only court documents, other legal documents like land ownership papers, newspaper snippets, a few photographs and so forth. Bolden notes how she aquired a lot of information through a “Dawes Packets” – files of information “tied to an application for a land allotment in Indian Territory, which includes a birth affidavit, census cards, and often testimony” (p. 58). The layout and design of the book integrates a lot of primary sources – including sources like photographs of cabins in the same place and time Bolden used to infer what might have been Sarah’s living conditions. Because Sarah’s personal voice (through journals or interviews) is not present in the primary sources, we only get to know her from a distance; this was an unpleasant surprise for me, but I adjusted.

The power of the author’s work is in Bolden’s perspective – she can only write what she has interpreted from primary sources, many times very dry ones 🙂 If you are working with a savvy group of readers/writers, I’d share this book with them as a mentor for doing their own research. Reading excerpts from this text might be beneficial to all (5-9th grade) students engaging in research, in reading, in writing – including the author’s notes (p. 51) about her research and about the care we have to take when consulting primary sources (that may present distorted pictures of what happened).

Please dump traditional book report requirements and try…

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My daughter is enjoying a new school in a new state, but I was dismayed to see the traditional, worn out book report requirements for her 5th grade class. I want to say first – her teacher is  hosting some amazing learning experiences – they are currently studying the eye, are engaged in research reports on different eye diseases, and today they are dissecting pigs’ eyeballs. That’s why I was surprised to get the “written book report” handout that requires the student to read one book per trimester with the following directions: Book report should be a summary of the plot and should include descriptions of the main character(s). End by telling whether or not you would recommend the book, and why. Yuck. There’s also an oral book report requirement (two per year) and the “speech will include: title, author, genre, brief summary of plot, and why you did or didn’t like it.” Granted there is also a “project” required for two books – and these include writing a play, talk show, newspaper and so forth. The descriptions of these could potentially require students to think more deeply about the text.

I know I’m being critical and rocking the boat. I just can’t help but comment on this. With the Common Core emphasis on synthesis of author’s central ideas and close reading and analysis of texts for multiple purposes, regurgitating plots and telling why you like a book doesn’t cut it.

So, in response, I’d like to share my version of the 21st Century-Common Core Aligned Book Report. And you know me, my focus is on informational texts. So HALF of required book reports (if you are still doing those) should be with informational texts. Below is what my “written book report” requirements would look like. Note: I’ve used the Common Core to determine the content of the book reports. So what I’ve created can be adapted to any grade using the Common Core as a guide.

WRITTEN BOOK REPORT for 5th Grade 

  • Each trimester, two book reports are due. One should be an informational book and one should be a fiction book or biography. Books should be approved by me before you begin reading.
  • Must be 2 pages, hand-written on lined paper, or 2 pages, typed, double spaced, font size 12.
  • Prior to writing the book report, you need to meet with me (during the independent reading period of the day) for a 5 minute conference to discuss the key ideas in the informational book or the plot of the fiction book (or biography). Once we have had this conference and confirmed that you understand what you have read, then you are cleared to write the report.

1st Trimester

  • The informational book report should identify two or more main ideas in the book you read and include how the author supported these ideas with key details. The report should quote accurately from the text to support your points. (Common Core R.I. 1 & 2)
  • The fiction book report should (okay…someone else can figure this out for me :))

2nd Trimester

  • The informational book report should explain the relationship or interactions between two or more individuals, events, ideas or concepts and the inferences you made about the author’s central ideas as a result. (CC R.I. 3)
  • The fiction book report should….

3rd Trimester

  • The informational book report should contrast and analyze key information in the book read with a second source (preferably digital). The report should include notes about the similarities and differences in the author’s point of view. (CC R.I. 6 & 7)
  • The fiction book report should…

MULTI-MEDIA, ORAL BOOK REPORT PRESENTATION

  • Twice during the year, an oral book report (on one of the books you are writing a report on) is due. One for an informational text and one for a fiction text.
  • Presentation will be 3-5 minutes in length and must be accompanied by a visual, digital presentation of content as well. Points will be deducted if the speech is simply a retelling of content in the book; the content of the presentation must be a critical analysis of text(s) read.
  • More information, including a schedule and a rubric, to follow.

NOW I WOULDN’T EXPECT STUDENTS TO DO THIS WITHOUT SCAFFOLDING...we would be engaging in this kind of reading and thinking and writing and presentation creating with books I’m reading aloud, in small group discussions with shorter texts and so forth. THEN this book report could serve as an assessment as well.

I’ll close by saying the old worn out book report requirements are a ubiquitous problem. Last year, my daughter – in a different school with a good, well-intentioned teacher, in a different state – was required to write the same kind of summary-driven reports. We need to get beyond this!

Just my thoughts.

Ann Petry’s Harriet Tubman does not meet current standards for “nonfiction”

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While there might be value in reading this book to get a “feel” for Tubman’s life, it should be considered historical fiction not nonfiction (despite being listed as an exemplar informational text in the CCSS Appendix B). It was written in 1955 and Petry’s purpose was to provide readers with a viewpoint of slavery that was not being represented in textbooks of the time. Her purpose was noble and should be noted. What writers in the field have agreed on since then, though, is that to be accurate when writing “nonfiction,” you cannot make up what was said during an event in a person’s life – without asserting that you are doing just that. You can use quotes from primary sources or from people you’ve interviewed during your research, but you cannot just make up what might have been said (even if it’s based on research) and present these conversations as fact. If you read Russell Freedman’s book Lincoln: A Photobiography – he tells a lot without ever making up what someone said. Petry, on the other hand, from the beginning of Harriet Tubman, writes specifically what was said during a discussion that took place in Harriet’s parents’ cabin the night Harriet was born and continues to do so from there. There is no documentation of what was said -specifically at events like the night Harriet was born. Petry is conjecturing. This is not acceptable in 2013  – despite this book’s continued publication as “nonfiction.”

Petry does end each chapter with factual statements about other events that were occurring during a particular period. At some points late in the book, she includes quotes by Harriet and a few others, BUT the majority of the book is a narrative that includes what was happening, being said, and so forth without reference to specific documentation or quotes from primary sources. It’s clear Petry did some research – although there is no author’s note included in the book. She passed away in the 1990’s and I haven’t found any kind of description of her research on-line so it’s hard to know her research and writing process for this book.

scenes in the life of harriet tubman

I want to contrast her book with others on Tubman. For example, I want to read Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman by Susan Bradford – who knew Harriet and interviewed her extensively for the book (to raise money to support Harriet). I’d also like to read two more authoritative books – Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom by Clinton and Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of a Hero by Kate Clifford Larson. While the first book by Bradford was criticized for accuracy – it is based on the perceptions of Tubman (who did not know how to read and write). This text might serve as a primary source that represents one person’s viewpoint – similar to Frederick Douglass’ autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

If students do read Petry’s book – there’s room for teaching about an author’s interpretation of historical documents and how that influences what is written, what can be written from our study of primary and secondary sources and what cannot be written without some assertion from the author that the text is an “interpretation” or “conjecture” of what might have happened. In addition, Petry’s book could be contrasted with others – a good learning experience for students and a way to help them achieve Common Core standards related to contrasting multiple texts on the same topic.

Nonfiction Author Study – Moving preK-1 Towards Close Reading

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Last year I had the honor of working with two kindergarten teachers who immersed their students in nonfiction author studies. Late in the spring they led a two week author study – week one on Steve Jenkins’ books and week two on Nic Bishop’s books. Monday-Wednesday or Thursday, they read aloud a book and on Fridays, the students could choose their favorite to be read aloud again. The teachers and the students studied the structure of the authors’ texts. For example, Jenkins has three books that follow a question/answer structure  – What Do You Do with a Tail Like This?, What Do You Do When Something Wants to Eat You?, How Many Ways Can You Catch a Fly? And they also created writing-in-response centers for the students during the reading block of the day and used the books for mini-lessons during writing workshop. In week two, they contrasted the illustrations in Jenkins’ books with photos in Bishop’s books. (Just a note – What Do You Do with a Tail Like This? is listed in the Common Core Appendix B as an example of an appropriately rigorous read aloud for k-1 students.)

The teachers created writing center activities based on their discussions with students during the interactive read alouds. Sometimes the writing was identifying a fact from the book and then illustrating this fact. In the image below you can see how one teacher projected the response sheet with the document camera for all students to view when she was giving directions. The students are to choose the “true” fact at the bottom and then illustrate in the box above.

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Sometimes the writing center was focused on using the structure of the authors’ texts. For example, the students wrote questions about animals they chose and then drew an illustration. I had the pleasure of working with the students at this center one day – they loved asking great questions! How does a jaguar run? Why do cats meow? AND they bugged their teachers to create a writing center where they could not only write questions, but (like Jenkins does) write the answers as well.

Bishop’s books like Frogs, Lizards and so forth are more difficult than some of Jenkins’. They are written in a descriptive text structure and there is a lot of content to grapple with cognitively. I wouldn’t shy away from read them aloud to preK-1st grade students, though. Studying Bishop after studying Jenkins just raises the rigor of the learning that happens – which is aligned with the Common Core.  I recommend teachers choose 5-6 pages to read aloud at one time from one of his books and that they allow for quality time spent looking at Bishop’s photos which extend the text in so many ways.

When we’re thinking about moving preK-1 students towards close reading, one of our objectives should be to help students develop an ear for what informational texts sound like – by reading aloud these texts to students – a lot! My recommendation is that when we read aloud an author like Jenkins or Bishop, we should read aloud several of each author’s books so students have a chance to master listening to and understanding these kinds of texts. Experience with the same author multiple times reduces the cognitive load of structure (because the students become familiar with the author’s typical structure and know what to expect) and allows the students to listen for content and glean main ideas. Then when our emergent and early readers begin to read informational text more avidly on their own – they will have these interactive read aloud experiences to draw from as they struggle with increasingly complex texts.

The pay off of immersing students in nonfiction author studies is amazing. Our youngest learners are enthralled with informational books like these. When the kindergarten students were interviewed at the end of the year about what they loved about school, they yelled out these authors names – “Nic Bishop!” and “Steve Jenkins!”

A big thank you to Colleen & Lauren for inspiring your students and sharing your work with us!