Tag Archives: close reading nonfiction

It’s ok to confer about just a word or phrase

Do you have students who blow through texts, getting just the gist, but not really thinking through specific details that might make a difference in their understanding?

Recently when I leaned in to confer with a student, he had just read this sentence:

Surf lifesaving clubs are Australian institutions dotted along the country’s coastline. 

This sentence was on the second page of an NEWSELA article about how drones are being used to spot sharks on beaches in Australia. When I asked him to tell me about what he’d learned in this paragraph, he hesitated and looked at me as though he wasn’t sure. I asked him to reread the first sentence to me and when he did, he still wasn’t sure what he’d learned.

Then I said, “There’s a lot of information in this one sentence. Why don’t we just think about the first part of the sentence that says ‘surf lifesaving clubs.’ What do you think that means?”  

He shrugged.

“Want to think about this with me?”

He nodded.

I proceeded to THINK ALOUD by saying “I’m not sure I know what a ‘surf lifesaving club’ is, but I do know a little bit about clubs. They are usually a group of people that get together–“

“YES!” the student interrupted me. A light had gone on for him!!! Then we thought aloud together about what we know about clubs.

Then I returned to the text. “So if I look at the words ‘surf lifesaving’ then, I know this article is about drones trying to help swimmers, maybe this club in Australia is about…” and the student filled in the rest!

I decided not to get into more–making sense of the rest of the sentence with more (most likely) unfamiliar words and phrases like institution and coastline and dotted along. I also decided not to read further with him to see how our thinking was confirmed in the next few sentences. What we’d done with just a few words was enough–just enough for that student to hold on to, ponder, and think about as he read on.

Before I moved to the next student, though, I reminded this student of what he’d done to problem solve–“You used what you already knew plus clues in the text to help you make sense of what this phrase meant.” I’d ask him to use this language again later during a teaching point with the group when he had the opportunity to explain how he problem-solved.

Just a note – I don’t think this text was too hard for him. He contributed a great deal to the conversation about other (easier) parts of the source and at other points in the lesson. I think he may have just been shutting down – instead of actively problem solving – when he felt like the text was too challenging. He definitely needs more opportunities to think through complex texts like this. During a phase 2 lesson with this text, we engaged in explode to explain–closely reading and thinking through one sentence. This approach seems to help students slow down and think critically about what they are reading & learning.

Hope this helps.



Do our students understand “definition” and “example”?

Yesterday I was giving a demo lesson closely reading a science text when I realized the students did not understand the terms–definition and example. Many nonfiction authors use definitions and examples and other types of details like cause and effect when they describe concepts like forces, magnets, weather and so forth. Readers need to recognize these types of details to understand these concepts.

The 4th grade students and I were engaged in carefully reading an excerpt from Using Force and Motion (National Geographic Reading Expeditions, Phelan, 2003)–an easy introduction to the concepts of force, gravity, friction, etc.



Notice in the excerpt below that the author introduces the topic in the first paragraph. In the second paragraph, towards the end, he introduces the topic of force and defines it – “a force can be a push or it can be a pull.” Then he gives an example of a force – “The paddle gets a big pull from the person’s arms to push the kayak through the water” and a second example – “The kayak also gets a push from the water that is rushing behind it.” In the last paragraph, he offers details about the effect of forces like the wind  – “make all objects move” and “make objects slow down, speed up, change direction, or stop.”


After students read this text, we want them to be able to say, “Oh! The author just defined what a force is when he wrote, ‘A force can be a push or it can be a pull’ and then he gave me an example of that which is when a person kayaks and they pull on the paddle, it pushes the kayak through the water. That’s like when I…”

During the lesson, I started an anchor chart entitled “What types of details does the author use to teach us?” and listed details like definition, example, effect. When I began to ask students to determine whether a new detail (after I’d modeled) was a definition or an example, they couldn’t do it. I realized that the students were not clear about what I meant by “definition” and “example.” I added definitions of the details to the chart, but there was still some confusion.


So I stopped and led a short discussion with an easier concept. We defined “fruit” and listed examples. (When I asked for examples of fruits, one of the students said, “Squishy!” so I knew I was right in his ZPD 😉 This seemed to help as we moved to carefully reading the last paragraph of the excerpt!!!!!


The more I do this, the more I’ve learned not to take for granted what students understand in grades 2-8. Even for words like definition and example, they (even middle school students 😉 may have a superficial understanding.

Below are common types of details used by nonfiction authors use. BTW – I WOULD NOT COPY THIS LIST AND HAND TO STUDENTS. Instead – I’d introduce a few at a time during close reading of excerpts of text.

  • Name of topic
    • Name of subtopic
    • Location
    • Function, purpose, or behavior
    • Duration, or when something takes place
    • Physical attributes (movement or action, color, size, shape, number, texture, composition, etc.)
    • Construction or organization
    • Explanation of how something works (may include causal relationships, sequence of details, and variables)
    • Real-life examples (see additional blog entry on teaching “examples”)
    • Comparisons (including similes and metaphors)
    • Other types of figurative language (alliteration, onomatopoeia, and personification)
    • Quotes from experts (for the purpose of sharing relevant knowledge or just sharing an opinion)
    • Attempts by author to connect with reader

Imagine if our students can understand and identify and explain these types of details while reading to learn.

Hope this helps.




Do students understand what we mean by “key details”?

Is the term “key details” vague for your students? I’m teaching 2nd/3rd grade students this week and trying out an anchor chart that attempts to make the term “key details” more concrete for students.


I think a “key detail” might change depending on what our purpose is for reading. Here are a few of the ideas I have for this anchor chart (which I would add to over time –as we experienced reading for each type of key details)  –

  • a word or phrase that helps us answer a question
  • a word or phrase that gives important information about an event like who, what, when, where, why
  • a word or phrase that gives us a clue about the meaning of an unfamiliar or new word
  • a word or phrase that helps me make sense of what I am reading

This chart might become an anchor for students’ thinking and a living document the teacher can add to or change or revise as students “read for key details” across many lessons.

I’m using this chart (see the image above) this week with second grade guided reading/writing groups who are reading about the USDA. Our text dependent question is “How does the USDA protect us?” I’ve found myself referring to this chart over and over again as a reminder for the kinds of details the students need to look for as they engaged in close reading.

I think it’s helping!!!


Brief, focused opportunities to build background knowledge

Recently I was asked to teach a lesson to second grade students with an informational text on magnets. As I read through the text, I began thinking about how many of the students I’d be working with may not have had many language and hands-on experiences with magnets or magnetism or the concept of force, a push or pull. Many authors of informational articles assume some background knowledge of their readers and research is clear that the more background knowledge a reader has, the more likely they are to comprehend the content in the text. Our colleagues in the field who say we level the playing field by NOT not addressing background knowledge with students and just referring to the text are misguided. A reader cannot help but tap background knowledge – it’s instinctual.

The trick is not to get lost in building background knowledge and never get to the text or to build so much background knowledge, there is no content to grapple with in the text.

Also, it’s essential that whatever background knowledge experiences I provide are specifically targeted at or aligned with supporting understanding of the content in the text. I have to be more strategic that saying, “Have you ever played with magnets?”

Here’s what I did before teaching:

  • I read the article on magnets carefully in advance and thought about the author’s key points. The article was focused on how magnets work – including examples of magnets in the household and an explanation of how the north and south poles of a magnet function (using a toy train with magnets on each end as an example).
  • I found a five minute video that included the same language (academic vocabulary) and concepts the article includedhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eYSG5aeTy-Y. I REJECTED videos that were stupid songs about magnets or that did not include the right content. I prefer 3 minutes or less in a video – but this was fine. I searched and located this video in about ten minutes.
  • I picked up magnets with marked north and south poles at my local teacher store (35 cents a piece). I would end up using these in small group lessons versus for the initial whole group lesson.
  • I planned for a 20-30 minute shared reading lesson with the whole group and then take the text into small group guided reading with groups–if at an appropriate instructional level for the group.

Here’s what I tried and noticed during the whole group lesson – each of these approaches served to build background knowledge or access to the content in the text in some way

  • I introduced the focus question for the lesson – How do magnets affect objects? The question was written on a sentence strip and posted for all students to view. I briefly defined “affect” and “objects.”

2nd grade shared reading lesson 2

  • I showed the video – stating the objective for viewing was to think about how magnets affect objects.
  • I asked the students to turn and talk, briefly, about what they learned from the video (a text)–and reminded them that they should refer to the video versus their personal experience. I met with a few pairs, coached them to use the language of magnets and then asked them to share out when we regrouped.
  • I engaged the students in shared reading of the first three pages of the text – pausing for them to fill in particular words. Many of the words I paused at were domain specific words (they’d heard in the video and that they’d heard me read early in the shared text). I wanted them to hear and feel themselves saying like magnet, north, south, pole, force, push, pull.

I ended the lesson by asking them to work with a partner to answer a text-dependent question – What is a force? Again, I conferred with pairs, coaching heavily and asked students I’d conferred with to share out when we regrouped. After sharing out the answer from the text, we made a list of how we were strategic in finding the answer.

2nd grade shared reading lesson 11_14

2nd grade shared reading lesson 3

What I noticed:

  • OH, THE LIGHT IN THEIR EYES when they saw words in the text that they’d heard in the video!!!! This spurred engagement, a willingness to tackle a complex text!
  • OH, THE ENTHUSIASM IN THEIR VOICES when I would pause during shared reading and they would read content words that they normally would grapple with understanding initially given no opportunity to activate or build background knowledge.
  • OH, HOW THEY JUMPED INTO LOOKING FOR THE ANSWER to the text-dependent question. Was this because I’d already helped them access the content in the text without explicitly teaching the concepts?
  • OH, HOW THEY WANTED TO SHARE when I asked them to turn and talk with a partner. Okay…not everybody, but because of the support I’d provided, the students seem to access the content in the text more easily.

Did everyone walk away fully understanding the force of magnets? No. Did most students walk away having learned a bit about magnets? Yes. And isn’t that our goal when teaching with informational texts – to learn content? Yes.
Ideally this lesson would be part of a content area unit on magnetism or Earth’s forces.

How I’d follow up –

  • Take this text to small group instruction with students — if appropriate. For second grade students who are at a pre-A, emergent, early level of reading this would not be appropriate. For students who are nearly at the transitional stage or in transitional stage of reading – I gave it a try.
  • Use this text again for another 1-2 shared reading lessons (20 minutes) with the whole group. On day two, I’d pull out the magnets I bought and let the students explore the properties of magnets while also using the language of magnets – “The magnet is attracting the X.” and “The ends of the magnets are repelling.” Then I’d offer another text-dependent question for student pairs to answer.

More on how I took this shared reading experience to small group instruction in the next entry.

Please know you are in my thoughts as you help students grapple with complex informational texts!


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.


“Can’t live without doing” during my close reading lessons

Last week I had the honor of visiting multiple schools and giving demonstration lessons in 2nd and 3rd grade classrooms. For each lesson, there were 10-15 teachers observing. Afterwards we debriefed about methodology and evidence of student learning. Some amazing insight was gained – as well as a sense of affirmation for what they are attempting in the classroom already. Kudos to these teachers!!!!

The objective of all the lessons was close reading informational text with an essential question as our focus for determining what was important. Across the lessons, I found myself implementing the same tried and true approaches over and over again as far as instructional methodology. These were whole group lessons. I prefer to do this in small groups, but there is importance in doing this a few times a week with a whole group – developing a sense of community and giving striving readers access to grade level text. The lessons were 20-25 minutes.

1) The text was on the document camera or projected with a Smart board and all students, sitting on the carpet near me, had their own copy of the text on a clip board. They also had a pencil so they could do their own annotations.

Sept 10 2nd grade close reading

2) The essential question for close reading was posted and I referred to it over and over with prompts like, “In this sentence, did we read any details that help us answer this question?” This prompt does not always work like this for every text – sometimes you have to read a larger chunk of text to get at the essential question OR you may just be making sense of the text at the sentence level and later asking how what you learned helps you understand the essential question. I just find that a “driving question” helps the students stay focused and not overwhelmed by how much content there is in a text.

Sept 10 2nd grade essential question

close reading question Elijah

3)  I rarely call on individual students to share. Instead, I ask a question and when there are several hands up in the air, I ask students to turn and talk with a partner or in small groups or to read, annotate, or write independently. Then I am on my knees or sitting on the floor, listening in, assessing, conferring and coaching. I can’t not be with the students – near them, embracing their thinking and nudging them forward. When we regroup, I ask a student I worked with to underline and annotate on the projected text or I ask a group to share how they had a conversation. These are individuals or groups I coached – so I’ve set them up to share their success.

Sept 10 2nd grade conferring

4)  The students ALWAYS write at the end of the lesson – even if it’s just one or two sentences on a sticky note. I want to know what they are learning from close reading and how they would answer our focus question as a result. After I collect their annotated texts and sticky notes, I read them and look for trends in answers. Are they able to answer the question? Are they able to use key details from the text and paraphrase? Are they able to reveal how they extended their thinking through this experience? What the students write can be used to write longer responses later or it can just serve as a formative assessment for me – to help me determine where to go next and who to check in with during the following lesson.

teachers talk about student writing

Okay…so much more to say about last week. LOVED being with the kids and the teachers – in urban schools with day-to-day trials and tribulations. Have to laugh – one day we had a fire drill in the pouring rain!!!

Hope this helps.


Please don’t overdose on “close reading”

I have been asked several times recently, “How often should teachers engage students in close reading?” I don’t have an easy answer on this. I’d like to start by saying that close reading of an excerpt of informational text should be part of a larger integrated unit of study. These units need to be filled with rich, purposeful, intentionally chosen learning experiences for students to pursue enduring understandings. (THIS IS A KEY POINT IN MY BOOK on close reading!!!!) I see “close reading” as an opportunity to reveal an author’s central idea by examining closely how the author develops that idea in a small chunk of text. This can have ripple effects for learning at other points. With these points in mind, how often does close reading happen? At key points during the unit.

Now – I know how we are as educators – we want a specific number of times! If you really need this, I’d say – if you are engaging students in a unit of study- close reading might happen once or twice a week. Or it may happen every day for a few minutes with a primary source photo or a quote or poem – through discussion. My biggest caution here is that it’s an approach to reading and thinking that needs to be used very purposefully – not just all of the time. Otherwise, your students will start to dread reading lessons and may even mutiny! In addition, that’s not close reading’s purpose – to be the sole approach to comprehending texts and getting at the bigger ideas in a unit.

If you need support to back this up in conversations with other teachers and administrators, the International Reading Association has released a paper entitled “Close Reading and Far-Reaching Classroom Discussion: Fostering a Vital Connection.” LOVED THIS!!!!! As I read, I kept writing “YES!” in the margins. The authors, Catherine Snow and Catherine O’Connor, dispel myths like “close reading levels the playing field” and “close reading should not include using any background knowledge” and “close reading should only be done with text dependent questions.” THANK YOU! The authors agree that close reading is “one of many practices that are useful in teaching comprehension and text interpretation.” They close with the following:

We celebrate the move to put text at the center of instruction across the curriculum, to delete talk about the topic that substitutes for reading, and to let students struggle productively with text. But we fear that too much emphasis on close reading will lead to unproductive struggles, will be taken as a prohibition on discussing and questioning texts, and will create an illusion of a level playing field even as the field is being excavated further from under the feet of struggling readers. (Snow & O’Connor, 2013, p. 8)

I highly recommend this paper as a text for educator discussion in Professional Learning Communities, as part of professional development experiences, during department and team meetings!

PARCC’s 3rd grade sample test items – make time to read and this is why…

This is a quick and dirty summary of the newly released PARCC sample test items. If you are in one of the 19 states that will be taking the PARCC tests in 2014-2015, thought this might help you think about what our students will be facing.

Third Grade Sample Items – summary and a few of my thoughts –

  • There are three sample test items; the third is the culminating activity that incorporates the thinking students had to engage in to answer questions in the first two items.

Screen Shot 2013-08-28 at 5.25.35 PM Jacket

  • SAMPLE ITEM 1 – Students are asked a question that requires synthesis. Four events in Eliza’s life are listed in bullet form (these are drawn from the passage students read) and then the following question is posed: “What do these details show about Eliza?” So this isn’t about just recalling facts from a text to answer a question. Instead, as aligns with Common Core, this is about thinking across events and identifying the author’s main idea.
  • SAMPLE ITEM 2 – Students are asked to reread three consecutive paragraphs in one of the passages and answer a question about how the events described in these paragraphs are related to each other. So again – they have to synthesize, contrasting events and thinking about what this reveals. BUT THEN PARCC also includes a follow-up question which asks students to identify the best quote from those three paragraphs that supports the answer to the question they just answered. So this is getting at students’ understanding of textual evidence.
  • SAMPLE ITEM 3 – This is the culminating activity that previous items have built toward. Students are asked to write an article for the school newspaper how Scidmore and Carver faced challenges to change something in America. With the additional prompts of – “In your article, be sure to describe in detail why some solutions they tried worked and others did not” and “Tell how the challenges each one faced were the same and how they were different.”

This is just a brief summary of the items. If you go to the PARCC site with sample items you can read PARCC’s assessment claims (how the sample items meet the standards for assessment), their justification of the answers to the sample items, which standards the questions align with and so forth. There’s also a rubric for scoring the final response, but notice that it’s only for responses to prose or narrative texts.

Just by reading the sample items, I recognized which CCSS Reading Informational standards were being assessed. (Maybe because I live and breathe this stuff.) This is good material to think through when planning. Just the time spent analyzing these docs and writing this blog has helped me start to formulate ideas for materials and instruction.

Oh…one beef. Why do the test questions refer to Scidmore only by her first name – Eliza and to Carver by his last name? Why not Eliza and George? Or Scidmore and Carver?  Hmmmm….is that a sexist thing? Okay…maybe it’s because in the texts (I haven’t read the one about Eliza), the authors refer to Eliza and Carver so PARCC wants to use the names they are referred to throughout the text. Maybe I should let go of this 🙂

Okay…hope this helps.

Read This Book on Titanic Not That One


A Night to Remember (Lord, 1955) is listed as an exemplar text in Appendix B of the Common Core. It’s okay, but not stellar. Instead I would recommend reading Titanic: Voices from the Disaster (Hopkinson, 2012). It is a better exemplar of what 6-8th grade students should be reading. See my blog on Hopkinson’s book for more of my thoughts on this gripping, well-written book.

Titanic voices from disaster

Notes on A Night to Remember (Lord, 1955) –

  • Lord’s purpose is to retell the events of the night the Titanic sank. His writing is straightforward and sometimes feels hurried as he almost lists who did what and when. As a result, it wasn’t until very late in the book that I wanted to keep reading. He also jumps straight into narrating the night of the disaster by telling how a seaman on watch spotted the iceberg. Unlike Hopkinson who builds an understanding of the Titanic and its passengers/crew up front, Lord’s details about the difference between the classes, luxuries of the ship, and how the building of the Titanic was an engineering and design feat are sometimes marginal and don’t run as a coherent thread throughout the book. (He discusses the issue of more first class passengers surviving than those in steerage – but explicitly and late in the book.) Really, because I’d read Hopkinson’s book which does a magnificent job of developing central ideas through the text, I was waiting for similar ideas to surface in Lord’s book and was disappointed. In other words, I pieced together details that revealed a theme – because I knew what to look for, not because Lord helped me through his writing.
  • Lord did extensive research to gather information for this book and details his research in acknowledgments at the end of the book. He admits to the difficulty of accurately recounting what happened with statements like this one about the times of events  – “The times given in this book are the honest estimates of people intimately involved, but they are far from foolproof” (p. 151). For the most part, the book is written in a way that reveals research versus conjecture – so Lord quotes what survivors said versus making up what they might have said and so forth. But he’s not perfect and our students need to keep this in mind. Two examples

1) On page 76, Lord writes “George Q. Clifford of Boston had the rueful satisfaction of remembering that he took out 50,000 dollars’ extra life insurance before the trip.” Clifford did not survive. So how do we know this?

But two paragraphs later he writes – “Little things could return to haunt a person at a time like this. Edith Evans remembered a foretune-teller who once told her to ‘beware of the water (p. 76).'” The word “could” is key here – he is probably using someone’s recollection of a conversation with Edith (who did not survive) and conjecturing, but he qualifies that it is just conjecture with “could.”

2) Throughout the book, Lord sheds negative light on women’s role in the event. At one point, when he is writing about one of the men trying to get the women to step into the life boats, he states, “Andrews had good reason to be exasperated. Women were never more unpredictable.” Throughout the book, women are portrayed as helpless and passive and the men mostly as courageous, solid and firm. Lord wrote this book in 1955 – before the second wave of feminism (which began in the early 60’s). While Lord portrays himself as a writer who is narrating the facts of an event which he has thoroughly researched, his prejudices are still present to some extent. It reminds me of author Jim Murphy’s comment in The Great Fire (1995) about the perceptions of the males who wrote about the great Chicago fire – “Men who wrote about the Great Fire generally portrayed women as passive and helpless, waiting for their husbands, brothers and some other man to save them. This seemed to go doubly for women who were wealthier. But if we look beyond the condescending references, a remarkable picture of strong and very active women emerges…” (p. 91). Lord might be guilty in a similar way. Let’s remember he’s narrating as fact what was really just the perceptions of survivors about what happened (as revealed in transcripts from hearings, in interviews with him, in letters, etc.) and he chose what details to share based on his perceptions of reality as well. (This would make for a very good conversation amongst students!) Late in the book, he comments about how some women rowed the oars of the life boats and one even steered, but his statements are too little, too late (for me).  Just skimming Hopkinson’s book – her language is very different – I need to reread again with this lens in mind – but I’m fairly certain her language choices regarding women’s responses and actions are more neutral. This would make for an interesting close read – contrasting excerpts from the two texts and discussing how women are portrayed through choice of language and details to share.

  • Another reason Hopkinson’s book is better is because current nonfiction authors make use of features in a way that a writer in 1955 would not have. Hopkinson’s book has extensive photos of the Titanic as well as the Titanic’s sister ship which would have had similar features and luxurious accomodations; she also includes pictures of the people, images of documents, maps, etc. Lord has a diagram of the ship with a numbered list of events at the beginning of the book.

Okay…just my thoughts. Not a bad book. I just think there are better, more current choices. Hopkinson’s book wasn’t out when the exemplar texts were chosen and there probably would have been copyright fees the CCSS writers didn’t want to deal with when they chose excerpts so we got A Night to Remember instead.

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

harriet tubman by petry

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.