Tag Archives: info texts for students grades 4-8

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


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.


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.



Tips for using ‘Reading A to Z’ texts for close reading


Reading A to Z is a common classroom resource for leveled informational texts. There are some good texts in this collection – I would just be cautious, read for quality, and choose with clear objectives or text-dependent questions in mind. Below I describe how a group of teachers and I chose excerpts from Reading A to Z texts for close reading and then I offer some tips.

This week I visited a school where the teachers are accessing Reading A to Z texts to teach comprehension of informational texts. For a lesson I observed, the small group of students read “George Washington Carver” – the level O text. This short text covered a large chunk of Carver’s life and was relatively well written, but…okay…wait…I have more to say about that below.

Let’s start with what happened when the whole text was used. After a first read of the whole text, the students had a very general idea of the author’s main ideas, but they were not at the point of being able to describe the key details related to one idea. There was just a lot to grasp – and conceptually, for 2nd grade students, some of it was very difficult. But that was not a deal breaker!!!

So we planned a second lesson with this text thinking the following would help –

  • clear text-dependent question set as the purpose for reading – What did Carver achieve?
  • clear definition for achievement – “a successful result brought about by hard work”
  • JUST 3 PARAGRAPHS to read and think about carefully during the lesson (pages 9-10).

ALSO A HUGE HELP was that the teacher was leading a larger unit of study with the whole class on historical figures and their achievements. So the students brought relevant background knowledge to the table.

When we went to choose a chunk of this text to answer the question “What did Carver achieve?”, we realized that many of Carver’s achievements were listed or grouped (like what he achieved in his childhood all in one paragraph) and not really described in detail (the “how” of achieving or the impact). There was only one section that really included any kind of depth on the details around a particular achievement – the initial problem, the solution, the potential impact- so we chose that. (See image below.) These three paragraphs focus on one problem and Carver’s solutions – the farmers were becoming poorer and poorer because the soil on their farms was worn out and the crops were shrinking. Carver teachers them how to create free fertilizer and he also sends out information about how to grow and cook crops other than cotton. The other parts of this text move quickly through time or topics and do not provide enough information for the reader to really grasp an idea. Do you know what I mean?


After the guided reading lesson, we were very excited about how the lesson went and decided to plan another lesson for a higher reading group with a Reading A to Z Level S text, “Barack Obama.” We wanted to use the same text-dependent question since it related to the unit of study, but we were disappointed because even though there were several pages, the achievements were “listed” rather than described in detail. The best choice of text was one paragraph that described why Obama decided to become a politician and what happened as a result. There’s a lot of content in this one paragraph, but we thought it was decently


We changed the question to – “Why did Obama decide to become a politician? And what happened as a result?” These two questions and this chunk of text get at his achievements.

So here are my tips for choosing texts from Reading A to Z:

  • Read the whole text. Does the author get at any idea in depth? (Like the Carver selection)? Discard the text if it’s no good–if it just covers a lot of information, but none in-depth, if there’s no explanation of “how” or “why,” if there just seems to be a list of events or facts. But remember for close reading, you only need a small chunk of text — so if there’s a short chunk that’s decent, go for it.
  • Create a text dependent question to help the students focus (preferably related to a science or social studies unit) while reading. Our young readers and striving readers may not be able to read for importance without a clear text-dependent question.
  • Choose a chunk of the text that can be read closely to answer this question. (This might happen in reverse – like it did for us with the Obama text. First we found the best chunk and then we wrote the questions.) BEWARE! The child should not be able to answer the question with one sentence in the text. That’s why we created a two-part question for the Obama text! The question should require the child to grapple with whole chunk of text chosen.
  • Also – if your students are reading in general at let’s say “level S”–choose a lower level informational text from Reading A to Z. The concepts are frequently difficult – as I’ll describe when I post about the lessons we gave.

Okay…more on Reading A to Z and on the lessons we gave with the Carver and Obama texts…soon.

Bootleg by Blumenthal – Recommended read for 7th-8th grade

Bootleg by blumenthal

Blumenthal’s writing is always solid and her research is exquisite. Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition (2011) is no exception. This would be a great read for students who are researching prohibition or this time period and wanting lots of juicy-interesting details. Blumenthal’s purpose is to explain the many, many factors involved in the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment and then in the repeal of this amendment as well. She employs an enumerative/chronological text structure. Some chapters include many anecdotes and others focus on groups or individuals like Carrie Nation who fought for Prohibition (including throwing rocks in saloons and breaking mirrors and windows and all) and Al Capone, who became wealthy selling alcohol to those he ignored Prohibition. So the book is in time order (chronological text structure), but she picks specific aspects, groups, people to highlight in particular chapters (enumerative text structure).

Blumenthal cues the reader to significant shifts in the movements or in this time period. For example, on page 46, she writes, “Though the law passed, it was never officially enforced, and some saw that as a failure. but the Anti-Saloon League saw something much more significant: It had votes.” Students might do a close read of this page and other excerpts as they think through how Blumenthal engages in thematic progression – how she moves the “story of…” forward.


  • People’s beliefs drive their actions (whether for or against some issue);
  • Tenacity and perseverance are required to change policy/legislation;
  • Some solutions can actually cause unexpected problems.


  • Prohibition could be considered a “social experiment” (maybe a “failed” one);
  • During this period, groups who were heavily engaged in social movements became aware of the power of the “vote”;
  • Prohibition was a complex issue – not as easy as “for or against.”

At the end of the book, Blumenthal shares a bit about her research and then lists tons of resources (categorized by sub-topic) that students can consult for more information on a particular aspect. It’s clear that she had to synthesize a massive amount of material to write this book.

Blumenthal’s book is the kind of book students need to read to reach any depth in understanding of historical and other content area topics. My worry – students will not pick this book up for independent reading. I’ve been grappling with how much I love books like this one, but how little interest students have. For this book, I think there would have to be engagement in a intellectually stimulating unit of study for students to pick this up. A nonfiction literature circle might find a lot to talk about with this book as well. I think if they got started reading this book, they wouldn’t want to put it down. 

Please dump traditional book report requirements and try…


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.


  • 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…


  • 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.

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.

Displaying Nonfiction in Your Classroom Library


Here’s a model for displaying nonfiction in your classroom library. Notice how the books are facing forward in baskets – easy to flip through and find a title of interest. Also, if you zoom in, you’ll see the books are categorized and coded – “Transportation NF#5.” The codes are marked on the back of the books so students know which basket they should return the books to when they are done reading. This is a lot of work up front, of course, but a long-term investment.

Thanks to my colleague who opened her classroom door (in 2008!) and shared her classroom library with me. I would love to see how you’ve displayed nonfiction in your classroom library and share your pics on my blog. Please touch base!

Intriguing Notices as Mini-Lessons


I’m always intrigued by the notices posted around us. Many are perfect for mini-lessons focused on close reading of informational text. Check out this one I saw in a restroom in Chico, CA. For a close reading exercise, I would put this on the document camera or Smart board and ask students some of the following questions –

  • What is the author’s main/central idea/point of view/purpose? (Common Core State Standard – Reading Informational Text 2, 6)
  • What can you infer? (If you don’t wash your hands, you are not a decent person!) (CCSS RI 1)
  • What is meant by “common decency”? How does that position an employee who does or does not wash their hands? (CCSS RI 4)
  • Why do you think so? What’s the textual evidence (as well as your background experience) that makes you think so? (CCSS RI 1)

Below are two notices I saw in the airport – loaded with content for teaching. Challenge small groups to engage in close reading and discussion of these signs (using similar questions to those above) and to share out what they noticed or came to understand – independently and collectively.



The tricky part is transferring skills developed with short texts like notices to longer more complex texts. What did we do here as readers that we can do when we read other longer, more complex texts independently? That would be a follow-up lesson (or several) with more opportunities for students to read and discuss texts.

Review of Exemplar Text in Appendix B – Grades 6-8 – Oh, my!


So I’m reading all of the texts on the Common Core Appendix B Exemplar Informational Text list. My reading is focused on what makes these texts rigorous for a particular grade band, what makes them hard for students, what do we need to think about when students are reading texts like these with a lot of guidance or independently with some coaching. Vincent van Gogh: Portrait of an Artist (Greenberg & Jordan, 2001) is one of the exemplar texts listed for 6th-8th grade history/social studies. Now – I want to remember that these are simply “exemplar” texts – they are not to being suggested for adoption. But at the same time, reading this text (and the others) has been a good exercise for me in thinking about the kinds of texts our students should be grappling with in school and be able to read independently at some point.

What have the authors done to make Vincent van Gogh (2001) accessible to students?

  • The book is clearly a biography and includes the typical structure of a biography. It follows a logical order – the sequence of van Gogh’s life and specific dates are in the title of each chapter.
  • The content is cohesive – there are clear themes running through the text.
  • There are access features  – a map (don’t get too excited, though – see my notes below), a timeline, a glossary of artists and terms.
  • The authors lend authority and accuracy to the text with extensive notes at the end of the book. These notes list chapter by chapter which primary sources were tapped to create this narrative of van Gogh’s life. In addition, van Gogh’s letters and other’s letters are quoted throughout the book as just such.

So what makes Vincent van Gogh: Portrait of an Artist (2001) a challenge for students?

  • The first page after the contents page is a “map.” The authors assume a lot of the reader’s background knowledge in their choice of this map. It is a map of part of Europe (but Europe is not labeled or identified) – England, Spain, France, Belgium, and Holland. Catch that? Holland. Holland is no longer a country. North and South Holland are provinces of the Netherlands. The map does not have a title or any textual support to identify the larger region and the time period; there is no indication it is a map of a part of Europe and that the map reflects the countries of Europe at some point in the 19th century!
  • The page after the map is the start of the “prologue.” The authors begin –  “Hunched like a porcupine from the weight of his easel, brushes, tubes of color, and folding stool, Vincent headed out of Arles at dawn—too early for the gang of street boys to chase after him, to call him crazy” (p. 1). (If the reader looks back at the map, he or she will find Arles in southern France.) This first sentence for the whole book is a complex sentence with a LOT of information – the reader needs to visualize the dependent clause that begins the sentence to get the “how”. The middle part has the subject and predicate of the whole sentence  (Vincent van Gogh is the subject and “headed out” means he is leaving early in the morning – probably to go paint because of the information shared in the beginning dependent clause). Then the reader must catch on to a problem as he or she reads the last part of the sentence – two dependent clauses that indicate van Gogh is not well regarded by local boys and sometimes even taunted. This sentence alone deserves a close reading because it says so much. This one sentence captivates themes that run through the rest of the book.
  • There is a multi-page insert of glossy, colored images of van Gogh’s paintings. BUT the reader is required to seek the images in the insert out as they are mentioned in the text. In other words, the reader has to be savvy enough to realize that the authors are describing one of van Gogh’s pieces of art and it might be helpful to see that piece of art. Then the reader has to turn to the insert and find that piece of art except that not every piece of art referenced or even described in detail is included in the insert.
  • The central idea(s) are abstract – this book is about how van Gogh searched for a purpose to his life – that embraced his compassion for all human beings, particularly the common folk, about how he failed many times, about how he persevered in finding his identity/technique as an artist, and how he dealt with physical and mental (although the authors do not call it “mental”) illness. Conceptually, it’s more difficult than “this person wanted to end slavery.”
  • At the end of the book, van Gogh commits suicide. As I read the book, I kept thinking “this guy is bipolar or manic depressive” and “he’s depressed, depressed, depressed.” The authors never mention this, though. They state that van Gogh had epilepsy. In truth (based on further research after reading), there are lots of theories about what van Gogh suffered from and if it was epilepsy (which is really one of the theories) – this would not have caused the angry outbursts and depression described in the book. (From what I can tell from my own research – I have been wrong before, though.) Depression (maybe as a result of, but not a side effect of epilepsy) was clearly a problem. I think the authors do the student reader a disservice by not just saying this and putting out there that we are not sure what he had, here are some theories. It makes the whole book easier to understand – without decreasing the rigor.

Suggestions for scaffolding students who are reading books like this (or this book :)) –

  • Teach students to examine the structure of the books. If it’s a biography, there’s a good chance there will be a timeline established.
  • Spend time examining important quotes cited in books like these – as an opportunity to coach students in thinking inferentially about what’s being said when they read quotes on their own and what was the author’s purpose in including this quote. (In this particular book, there is a quote by van Gogh that begins each chapter.)
  • Model for students how to recognize patterns of behavior or events that serve to reveal the authors’ central ideas.
  • Arm students with a helpful understanding of Tier Two vocabulary that they can use to name and elaborate on what they are thinking. For example in Vincent van Gogh: Portrait of an Artist (2001), the words could be utilized by students – discipline, passion, humanitarianism (concerned with or seeking to promote human welfare; doctrine that people’s duty is to promote the welfare of others– online def); persistence/perseverance/tenacity, compassion.
  • Model for students why and how you might seek out digital sources related to the topic of the biography (the person or the person’s work, etc) before reading.  For Vincent van Gogh (2001), familiarity with art, the skill and discipline it requires, and pieces by van Gogh would make many of the ideas in the text easier to understand. (BTW – for kids who are getting no art instruction, this is critical.)

Just a last thought. I don’t know any middle grade students who would pick this book up independently and who would stick with it if they did. I just doesn’t strike me as an engaging read. Nevertheless, students need to read these books. So what to do? I’m thinking about it. At the least, it should be part of an integrated unit of study – on that time period during Europe, on post-Impressionists, on the past and the present in art. Something.

Okay…finished another exemplar text todayHarriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad (Petry, 1955!!!!!!) and working on Narrative of the LIfe of Frederick Douglass (Douglass, 1845!!!!) If you know me, you know I’ll have a lot to say in a blog about these in the near future.


The Great Fire by Murphy – Good Example of Nonfiction 4th-8th Grade

great fire

The Great Fire (Murphy, 1995), a Newbery Honor Book, is listed in the Common Core Appendix B as an exemplar text for 6th-8th grade reading. Filled with black and white photos and illustrations, this isn’t a book that is immediately appealing like some other titles. If you can get kids to start the book, though, they will be pulled into the gripping narrative Murphy has created describing the devastating fire that raged through Chicago in the fall of 1871. As a result, the students will have experienced a text that is appropriately complex for their age.

As I read this book, I thought about how I might support readers. Conceptually, Murphy tries to get at more than a timeline of events that occurred during this fire. At the end of chapter one, Murphy writes, “What followed was a series of fatal errors that set the fire free and doomed the city to a fiery death.” Errors or flaws and effects are threaded through the rest of the book – this could be a helpful lens for readers, a structure of sorts to guide their thinking. Murphy continues beyond chapter one to identify specific “errors” but gradually actions are implied as errors – requiring the reader to think critically without scaffolding from the author.

Another, more sophisticated theme is the gap between the wealthy and the poor classes of Chicago. Murphy reveals how this fire served as an equalizer. Obviously, fire destroys anything in its path – mansion or shack, but the response of the citizens was revealing. There was chaos and panic everywhere. Murphy specifically points out how some citizens, who had previously denigrated the poor were shocked by the behavior of the citizens, regardless of class – both selfless and self-centered. This might be a good theme for a group of students to discuss with an essential question like, “Why is this important to consider?”

There were several Tier Two vocabulary words that emerged in my mind as I read – these are words that students need to describe the bigger ideas in texts – futility, perseverance, humanitarianism, displacement, compassion, courage, vulnerability. If there’s a small group reading this book, you could explicitly define these words and discuss textual evidence regarding the actions of citizens or the events in the book that reveal these concepts. These words could serve as a lens for writing in response to this text. Transfer of learning could occur as students use these ideas to interpret information in other books they are reading.

Students need to also think critically about how Murphy portrays many of the details as “perception” – of those who wrote letters later or who wrote in their journals after the event or how Murphy reveals he is interpreting historical documents. This creates authority for his text. Students need to keep an eye out for statements like “It can be reasonably assumed that she was surround by a…” (p. 82) and “men who wrote about the Great Fire generally portrayed women as passive and helpless…but if we look beyond the condescending references…” (p. 91). This might also serve as a mini-lesson during a research writing unit; Murphy might be a mentor author for how writers reveal their interpretations of primary sources.

I’d also support students by explicitly pointing out how the photos, illustrations and additional features are helpful to a reader. For example, Murphy includes a map of the four by one mile stretch of downtown Chicago that was destroyed by the fire. At intermittent points in the book, he inserts the same map with a shaded area of where the fire had reached at that point in the book. There are photos of buildings that were taken before and after the fire. Murphy explicitly states, too, that many of the illustrations drawn of people fleeing in panic revealed the drama of this event.

The Lexile measure for this book is listed at 1130; the “stretch” Lexile band for 6th-8th grade is listed as 925L to 1125L. Other well written books that fall into this band (don’t let the band fool you, though) and that would require similar strategic reading include:

  • Trapped: How the World Rescued 33 Miners from 2,000 Feet Below the Chilean Desert by Marc Aronson – 1070L
  • The Impossible Rescue by Martin Sandler – 1270L
  • Courage Has No Color, The True Story of the Triple Nickles: America’s First Black Paratroopers by Tanya Lee Stone – 1090L
  • Secrets of a Civil War Submarine by Sally M. Walker – 1060L
  • The Mighty Mars Rovers by Elizabeth Rusch – 950L

Don’t let a Lexile fool you. For example, I would say that Trapped is a more difficult text conceptually than The Impossible Rescue because of the content related to 21st century engineering.  I chose these books not because of the Lexile, but because they offer developmentally appropriate challenges for 6th-8th grade readers – they have complex, multi-layered themes and cognitively challenging content. If you have sophisticated intermediate grade readers – challenge them with these books as well – by reading aloud or suggesting for independent reading.

If you are going to teach with a particular title like this, I highly recommend that you read these book closely. That said, you don’t have to have read all of these books to confer with independent readers of these titles. If you understand how Murphy has structured The Great Fire and woven in complex themes, you will more easily be able to confer with students reading any of another number of titles. I’d suggest using The Great Fire as an anchor text for reading aloud and mini-lessons and then numerous other similarly complex titles for the bulk of the reading block – that students read independently with you there to coach as needed.

Okay…stay tuned…I’m working my way through more of the exemplar texts from Appendix B and will, no doubt, have more to say.

Field Trips as Nonfiction Texts & Opportunities to Synthesize

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I’ve always found field trips frustrating. The students are very excited, but most of the learning is superficial. But what if we treated field trip locations as nonfiction texts, though?

Last week I visited the Art Institute of Chicago and spent quality time in the special exhibit Impressionism, Fashion & Modernity. (Okay – this isn’t necessarily an exhibit I would take kids on a field trip to – but it’s the example for this blog!) I also checked out the audio thing-a-ma-jig and listened to the additional information provided. As I went through the exhibit (because I had this blog’s idea in mind), I listened-read-observed for the following:

  • the central ideas
  • the structure of the exhibit – and how it helped to convey the central ideas,
  • the types of texts and the texts as a set that work together to convey the central ideas.

The exhibit is focused on how impressionists like Degas, Manet, and Tissot, in Paris during the mid-1800’s, explored and used fashion to express the modern times. The translation is not just literal – but rather conveyed the politics, culture, class system, and so forth of the time.

The rooms of the exhibit are ordered as though passing through a day – there is the room that focuses on morning gowns, another on dresses women wore to receive company, then dresses for fancier evening events and also evening gowns for spending time with family at home. There was also a focus on the undergarments women wore to support fashion!

Not only are there paintings – there are actual dresses from the period. You might be viewing the painting by Manet The Parisienne of a woman in a decadent black dress and then you look over and there is the actual dress (or one much like it). These dresses are texts in themselves. There was also a central idea of how fashion became more accessible to women (and artists) through catalogues and magazines. Throughout the collection, there are “texts” – examples of these sources and there’s a room devoted to the “department store.” What I was impressed with was how the descriptions posted on the walls or nearby, for each item, weren’t just focused on the item – but instead had content that helped connect that piece to the central ideas of the exhibit. (Oh, woe is me – they did not allow any photos or I’d have an example for you.) Quotes by artists and thinkers of the time were painted in large print on the walls of the exhibit – at critical points – quotes you could grapple with as you thought about the central ideas being conveyed.

By thinking about the exhibit in this way – I think I had a deeper richer understanding of the critical role of art and fashion during this period. In this blog, I’m barely touching how much this exhibit conveys and I’m still thinking about it days later. I’ve also begun to contemplate what was missing from the exhibit. For example, there’s no mention of the labor involved in mass production of clothing, the politics of the garment industry, and the poor working conditions of the seamstresses.

Now this thinking might naturally happen for adults – but how do we nurture this in students?

Some thoughts –

  • Let the students wander through an exhibit just for pleasure at first. This is a chance to wear off some of that frenetic excitement over being out of the classroom 🙂
  • Regroup and engage the students in a discussion – What is the message of the exhibitors? What central idea do they want the students to walk away with after experiencing this exhibit?
  • Then ask the students to explore the exhibit again with this central idea written at the top of paper on a clipboard or in a notebook – searching for textual evidence that this  is the central idea. Textual evidence can be the structure of the exhibit, the primary sources, the actual dresses, the short texts posted, as well as the paintings. In a sense, you are asking students to do a close reading of the exhibit.
  • Pull small groups of students to read and reread specific postings or a particular quote displayed and engage in analysis of the author’s thinking.
  • Coach individuals or pairs with prompts like “What are you noticing? How does that support the central idea?” and model for them your own responses on the spot if needed.
  • Using their notes, ask students to sketch and write in response.

This kind of learning experience supports the Common Core. I just reread the Reading Informational Text standards and you could target any of standards 1-9. I especially like that this is an opportunity to “explain the relationship between two or more ideas” (RI.3), “draw on information from multiple sources” (RI.7) and “integrate information from several texts on the same topic” (RI.9)!!!!!

Stay tuned. I’m not done thinking about this. Next I’m blogging on how this might work – based on my visit to the Muir Woods National Monument in California.