Tag Archives: nonfiction

Liberate your students! In the beginning, give them the main idea!!!

Do your students hesitate when you ask, “What is the main or central idea?”  I find that many students have not had enough experience with concepts like extraordinary, perseverant, determined, tenacious, collaborative, compassionate, ambitious to pull these ideas out of an informational text easily. ALSO, many times if they do identify a main idea like, “Mary Fields was courageous,” they have only a superficial understanding of what “courageous” means. If I ask, “What is courageous?” I get a response like, “It means to be brave” — a synonym or “she was courageous when she…”–an anecdote. I don’t get “courageous is when you’re willing to face an obstacle or a difficulty without fear.” Liberate your students. Give them a main idea for the text–with a clearly defined concept like “extraordinary” or “courageous” and then provide time for them to grapple with identifying and explaining supporting details.
With enough experiences like this, they will begin to identify and explain main ideas more easily.

Last week I had the honor of teaching a class of 5th grade students who are studying the American West. We engaged in close reading and writing in response to four paragraphs in an essay on Mary Fields–an extraordinary historical figure described in the book Wild Women of the West by Jonah Winter.


Below is a description of the lesson. I’ve also attached Guidelines for Close Reading Lesson.

  •  In advance, the teacher read aloud the essay about Mary Fields as well as several other essays in Winter’s book. I handed out a copy of the essay to each student and asked them to review by reading silently. I also asked them to number the paragraphs – because we would only be reading closely paragraphs 4-7. I felt like these paragraphs were worthy of rereading and provided enough meat for our discussion and written responses.
  • I introduced the word extraordinary and set a clear purpose for close reading – Why might we consider Mary Fields to be an extraordinary person? I chose the Tier Two vocabulary word extraordinary because I think this is an idea that students will recognize in a lot of texts they read about the American West. See my definition posted for all students to view. After a brief discussion of the word extraordinary, I posed the purpose for close reading and asked the students to write the purpose across the top of their copy of the essay – like I had done on my copy projected by the doc camera.



  • With the purpose in mind and the essay projected, I read aloud paragraph #4 and then thought aloud about details in the first two sentences. I explained why I would NOT underline any details in the first sentence – there were no details that really implied Fields was extraordinary. I thought aloud about how I might underline “haul stones, lumber, and grain and supervise men” and explained why I would choose those details – because these jobs are not normally what a woman in that period would have been doing.


    • Then I began to release control. I asked students to read and think about the details in the next sentence. I asked them to explain to a partner why those details would support the idea that Fields was extraordinary. We continued through paragraph #7.
    • Next I engaged the students in shared writing of a main idea statement, a definition of the term “extraordinary,” a supporting detail, and an explanation of that supporting detail.
      IMPORTANT NOTE: Asking the students to define “extraordinary” or “perseverant” or whatever main idea/central idea/theme term they are exploring helps them focus on and articulate why particular details support the main idea. In future written responses, I would require students to include this!

Scan 273

For the supporting detail and explanation, I elicited responses from the students and then helped individuals craft a sentence that I could write.

  • The students followed by choosing a different detail to write about including explaining how this detail supported the main idea–on a sticky note. Below are some examples. As usual, there were some students who stated a detail and their explanation made sense, BUT there are always others who need further instruction!!! That’s the way it should be if I’m in their zone of proximal development, huh? What I learn from their responses can inform my next lesson–probably with another text on an historical figure and an opportunity to grapple with the term extraordinary.

Scan 277 Scan 278 Scan 279

  • We closed by sharing in small groups. I included asking the students to check their peers’ writing to make sure their reasoning made sense and then to offer feedback as needed.

Hope this helps.




Close Reading 2nd Grade Text – Tricky Details for Students

Scan 130

As we ask transitional level readers to engage in close reading, let’s be aware of tricky details. Below I share my analysis of one informational text that is very similar to other texts we use in our classrooms.

A few weeks ago, I taught several second grade “close reading” lessons with informational texts from the Wonders program. Wonders interpretation of “close reading” is a little too broad for me–the texts they provide are too long and the time they suggest is too quick. Instead of focusing on one question, the teacher’s guide has several questions (focused on a myriad of skills) for students that basically assess understanding versus teaching students how to read to comprehend.

That said – there is an essential question for each unit in the system and each week. That’s a good thing. For the lessons I taught, I focused on reading the text closely with students to answer the essential question. For an informational article entitled “A Look at Families,” I led a whole group lesson (20-25 minutes on the carpet – text projected by document camera, all students had a clipboard, pencil and copy of the text) and we worked on the first four paragraphs. That was it! AND that was enough! Ideally, you might do a second lesson gradually releasing responsibility further or, with students at a transitional reading level, take the text back to guided reading and complete in small groups. There were students reading below grade level – but with the type of scaffolding I offer, they were able to access this text; definitely using instructional level texts with these students during small group time. (Pre-A and emergent readers do not need to work on close reading!)  For more information on the logistics of a lesson like this, see a previous blog entry –  “I can’t live without doing” during close reading lessons.

To the text – the essential question was “How are families the same and different?” Now, really, this is two questions. For some of our students, this would be too much of a cognitive load and I might modify the question at first to “How are families the same?”

Sept 10 2nd grade essential question

The strength of many of the informational (non-narrative) texts in the Wonders system is that there are clear topic sentences. So in this text, the following four sentences stand out and lead into a description of a particular aspect of family life in different cultures –

  • All families need homes.
  • All families share food.
  • All families talk to each other.
  • All families celebrate together.

So if you’re working with students on identifying the main topic of a multi-paragraph text and the focus of specific paragraphs in the text (RI 2.2), this text lends itself to that.

The tricky part comes with the types of details that follow. Check out the following excerpt:

All families need homes. Some families live in large cities. They might live in tall apartment buildings. Many families live in the same building.

Some families live near water. Some families live in houses on stilts. Stilts are tall poles. They keep the homes safe from the water.

Okay. Seriously? A 2nd grader has to do A LOT of work here. How do these details support the topic sentence “All families need homes”? The details are actually more about “Families live in different types of homes.” That said, we can still glean some information about how families are the same and different.

If we think about the essential question, “How are families the same and different?” then we have to infer that if some families live in large cities and some families do not – or they live in small cities. So the child has to make some inferences when he or she thinks through how these details are answering the essential question – while also just making sense of what he or she is learning. (Stilts? Really?) We need to be aware of this kind of detail and coach for this kind of thinking.

I’m not saying cast this text aside. For many, these texts are the primary source of text in the classroom. I also think that students need to grapple with texts that are tricky.

One phrase I would definitely teach students while close reading a text like this is “the author is sharing examples.” After each of the next three topic sentences in the text, the author gives examples of the topic. (Better than after the first.) So after the topic sentence about all families celebrating together, the author gives the example of the Indian holiday Diwali and the U.S. holiday Independence Day. Second grade students can handle the concept of “examples.”

One of the benefits of a unit of study that has essential questions is that students do not have master the content in every article they read. I wouldn’t ask students to completely understand the concept of “stilts” or “Diwali.” Over the course of several lessons, their understanding of content will deepen and their ability to articulate how families are the same and different should increase.

My biggest caution then is to beware of the types of details authors use after the topic sentences. They may not even answer the question or they may require inferring or they may just be tricky to fathom. The solution is not to find another text – but to do your own close reading of that text and be aware of the hurdles students will have to jump to comprehend the text. You’ll notice in the image above – I studied and took notes before teaching. I can’t live without doing this. I’m a stronger reader for it – and after doing this many times, it’s become much easier to think about these texts for and with kids.

Hope this helps.



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.

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!

Librarian discards “old” nonfiction – oh, my!

fire fire

While there are mixed reports, it sounds like the Director of the Urbana Free Library made a unilateral decision to “weed” out adult nonfiction based solely on age – any title older than ten years was removed. I’m stunned. Having just read and appreciated Lincoln, A Photobiography written by Russell Freedman and published in 1987, I feel at a loss for words other than “How could you?!” Thousands of books were weeded out and sent to an online retailer – in less than a week. Award winning books on architecture. Volumes documenting the art of particular countries. International-language dictionaries. While these are books found in the adult section, they are valuable to our students as well. Anybody ever handed a book of art to a kindergarten student? Challenged a kid to learn a little Spanish? Used architecture to explore math with students? You’d be amazed at how enthralled students become with these books – instantly.

There is no doubt that libraries need to weed collections, but the criteria is usually related to physical condition, amount of use, value, whether there is a duplicate, whether the text is available through inter-library loan – as well as age.

I admit I have been mostly a fan of newer nonfiction for children and youth. My recent work, though, has focused on evaluating the nonfiction titles listed in the Common Core Appendix B – many of which are more than ten years old. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the quality. Imagine having Fire, Fire (1984) by Gail Gibbons and Truck (1980) by Donald Crews thrown out because of age? While these books are still in print, my library has the copies that are this old on their shelves. I guess my point in blogging is that many teachers do not have access to enough informational texts – especially with the increase in access required by the Common Core. This year, at the school where I worked, the teachers visited the public library on weekends for books to use in their classrooms – because their school doesn’t have a library. School libraries that do exist are underfunded.

I guess my point is -there are valuable older nonfiction texts out there that we need in our work with students. My goal is to remember, explore, use more of this nonfiction and then also to let the librarians I work with know how much I appreciate and value access to these titles.

Prepare Students for the Joy of Summer Reading

Are you getting that “WE’RE ALMOST DONE” feeling? (Speaking to many of my peers in the northern hemisphere who are almost out of school for the summer 😉 So sorry if you’re not!)

This is a great time to host lots of space and time for students to JUST READ FOR ENJOYMENT, hoping this time spent carries into the summer when the students are reading on their own.


introduce engaging nonfiction,

book talk nonfiction,

create a special display of nonfiction,

match books to individual readers,


This might be during reading workshop when the whole class is reading – OR it might be during guided reading. Now is a good time to cut “teacher-talk” down to a few minutes and be fully present to guide those five or six students at your table as they read continuously for 15-20 minutes.

Would it be radical to even say, “Let go of the sticky notes and reading response journals?” Students will not be writing notes when they read on their own this summer. This might be a good chance to coach and take anecdotal notes – but to also free students of the sometimes cumbersome stopping and jotting. Just provide space for them to immerse themselves in reading. They can be accountable through their conversations with you during reading conferences, right?

Okay…I might be preaching to the choir here…just a few of my thoughts.

IF YOU NEED SOME NEW EXCITING TITLES – look for me on GOODREADS or follow me on TWITTER. Love reviewing books — I don’t share too much about content (what the book is about). I share ideas for how you can book talk before leaving in your library and questions you can pose during an interactive read aloud.

Just a heads up 😉 I posted a version of this entry SIX YEARS AGO and so much of it still resonated with me that I revised a bit and posted again. Hope it was helpful!!!

Lesson – Text-Dependent Predictions, Part II

Anchor charts for lesson with 2nd graders on making informed predictions

Anchor charts for lesson with 2nd graders on making informed predictions

So I had a great time teaching a lesson on making text-dependent with a class of second grade students a few weeks ago. In my last blog entry, I wrote about teaching objectives that surfaced during reading conferences with three of these students. The students revealed to me they were not previewing nonfiction texts strategically and their predictions were not text-dependent. Making predictions based solely on interpretations of pictures or prior knowledge can lead students astray in determining a focus/purpose for reading and in determining what’s important as they read.

I’ve attached the detailed Lesson – Making Informed Predictions  I wrote. This lesson was actually observed by 24 educators who jumped in and taught part of the lesson with small groups of students after observing me model. This was part of a lab date in an actual school building. A Professional Learning Community (PLC) meets for a whole day to reflect on practice, analyze data, and plan for instruction; the PLC consists of teams that include a district-level instructional support leader, a teacher leader (coach at the building level) and 1-3 classroom teachers. In the morning, I share my data analysis with them and the first part of the lesson plan; they plan the second part (with some guidance) and then we go to a class to work with students. In the afternoon the teams engage in their own data analysis and plan for instruction. For this particular PLC – I am modeling for the instructional leaders how they can lead similar lab experiences in the schools they support.

Okay…back to the lesson. Picking the text was an important step. The students had been studying adaptations so an article on how night flowers attract pollinators – through smells, colors, etc. was a great match. Also the article was pretty well written and lent itself to teaching this objective. In general, the National Geographic Explorer Magazine is a go-to source for me – the articles are consistently well-written and the layout, design, photographs are aesthetically appealing to all ages. Oh – another note – I model with two-pages at a time. Guided practice is with two pages. Independent practice is with two-pages. This is enough to start – otherwise, students might become overwhelmed.

In the lesson plan, you’ll notice I introduce the objective, the anchor chart (see image above), and then think aloud for students. I also call on students to come up and be my “think partners.”  Next the students to try being strategic in previewing and predicting with a partner and then independently with nonfiction texts from their independent reading book bags. Gradual release, right? Where did I veer off the lesson a bit or just add some bits to enrich what we were doing? During the first part of the lesson, I found myself trying to engage the students in thinking about the information on the anchor chart – through some shared reading, through some call and respond, through some hand signals (pointing to my head when I say “think”). The students responded positively to this and during their conferences with the educators present, you heard them quickly picking up the language of the anchor chart. Also, something I hadn’t thought about intentionally but found myself saying over and over again – “What do you think the author is going to teach you in this article?” and the students started saying that when they were prompting their partners and in their responses – “I think the author is going to teach me…” Again and again students reveal to me the power of our language.

The lesson ended with me doing the “big prediction” about the article – because of time and cognitive load…we’d work towards the students doing this in partners and on their own in future lessons.

Reflecting on the lesson –

  • I might divide this lesson into one on subheadings and first sentences and then another lesson on photographs and captions.
  • I might go through their independent reading books and put a sticky note on a two-page layout I want them to use specifically.
  • There need to be discussions during future lessons about what we learned from the anchor chart that can help us with previewing other features – like diagrams – to make informed predictions. I don’t think you have to change the chart – you could add to the chart. The chart is just an “anchor” to propel the students forward in being strategic – so as they become proficient – it serves just as a reminder. Also, my goodness – if 2nd graders just preview the subheadings, first sentences, photographs and captions (and forget to think about the other features) to make informed predictions – and they do this well – they will be leaps and bounds ahead when they start reading.
  • Based on my observations, there are students I might ask to stay on the carpet to work with me (more shared think alouds) in a small group while more capable students work in partners.
  • I’d definitely continue this focus with small groups during guided reading as appropriate.
  • During whole group reading workshop, I’d like to do lesson “modeling” and more just coaching for mastery – so another lesson with more time for students to make informed predictions and then read, read, read (with their predictions in mind).

I have to say that the biggest “a ha” for many of the PLC participants during this lesson was how much teachers talk. They struggled in releasing the students and afterwards we talked about how common this is in classrooms. Students rarely get to the independent part of our lessons because we guide and guide and guide without ever releasing! At one point, I actually stopped everyone and told the educators that I should only hear second grade student voices. The educators were allowed to point (to the anchor chart, to the text) and gesture only. Most of the students flew at this point – to the educators’ amazement. A few students appeared to need continued support – but they still revealed beginning to grasp being strategic in previewing and predicting. I think, too, students rely on us to talk and fill in the silence when they hesitate. I wait them out – trying to break this habit- counting slowly in my head – to 20.

Now – these students were in two’s and three’s with two adults to model for them – after they’d worked with me. It’s hard to pull off this kind of teaching in a classroom with one adult, I know. But it’s something to think about – are we being strategic in our teaching – stepping in and stepping back just enough and hosting a space for students to learn to fly on their own?

I’ve diverged a bit here…let me know what you think about the lesson moving students towards text-dependent predictions. It’s written specifically for this article – but is applicable to any similarly, well-written nonfiction article. And where would I head next? With students reading at, let’s say, a late first grade level and above – I’d teach students to use those predictions to set a purpose for reading, to determine what’s important while reading, to summarize and synthesize…with plenty of time for them to read, read, read.

Lesson – Text-Dependent Predictions, Part I

Last week, I had the honor of teaching 2nd grade students how to make informed (i.e., text-dependent) predictions by strategically previewing an informational text. To determine the objective for this lesson, I visited the classroom prior to the lesson and met with three students for individual reading conferences. Using NWEA data and running record data, the teacher chose a student below, at, and above the class average. They each brought an independent reading book bag.

First, I asked each student to find a nonfiction text they had not read yet.

The first student pulled out a fiction book, Late Kate (Barchers, 2011). I quickly reviewed the difference between fiction and nonfiction and she identified a nonfiction book in her bag. Then I asked her how she previewed a text to figure out what she would be learning about while reading, to make a prediction about what the author would be teaching her. She responded by opening the book and starting to read the first page. This was the book Muscles (Dugan, 2010). I took advantage of another teachable moment and guided the student through strategically previewing a two-page spread. (See image below.) Then I asked her, “What do you think you will be learning about in this book?” She responded, “Kids making funny faces.” She was referring to an graphic with three pictures of children making faces and then an illustration of all of the muscles in a person’s face. Her response was based solely on the pictures and her interpretation of the purpose of the pictures. She disregarded the other information we had learned while previewing.

The second student immediately identified a nonfiction book on family reunions, Our Family Reunion (Barchers, 2010). When I asked her how she previewed a text, she flipped through the pages glancing quickly at the pictures. When I asked her to make a prediction about the topic of the text, she said, “I think it’s about kids having fun and they got different things to order.” The student was mainly making personal connections to the pictures to inform her prediction because this was not the topic of the text. So I turned to the first two page spread in the book and together, we previewed the text – just those two pages (see image below). We read the heading, the first sentence and then looked at the picture and caption as well as a chart with tally marks for where the family voted to have the reunion. Then when I asked her to preview the text, she said, “I think it’s about reunions and you have to vote for it and whoever got the most votes you had to go.” When I asked her where the family had decided to have the reunion, she quickly pointed to the chart and said, “The park.” With a little guidance, this student was grasping how to make an informed prediction – that is a prediction that is text dependent versus based on personal experience. She would need more instruction on how to integrate all the information she previewed into a cohesive prediction.


From Our Family Reunion by Suzanne Barchers (2010)

The third student previewed a short biography, Neil Armstrong: Man on the Moon (Hollingsworth, 2010) in a similar way – but looked a tad more carefully at the pages. We had the following conversation,

Sunday –   What do you predict this book will be about?

Student –  A man who first walked on the moon.

Sunday –  What did you see in the text that made you think that?

Student –   I already knew that.

So – again – the student was not making text-dependent predictions.

In just a few minutes with each of these students, I quickly ascertained that they, and probably several other students in their class might benefit from explicit instruction on how to make text-dependent predictions – predictions based on what was actually learned from the text while previewing.

If you think about the Common Core standards for second grade students reading informational text, being able to make an informed prediction will help them with Standards 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, and 9. Making an informed prediction is the beginning of a journey where the student has to sustain attention to the author’s development of information, strategic compilation of facts across a multi-paragraph text. A prediction is more than just “what the topic of a text is” – it’s the topic and the dimensions of that topic a student might be learning about while reading. The dimensions of a topic – where Neil Armstrong grew up, where he went to school, how he worked to learn more, etc. give the topic depth and contribute to an understanding of the theme of the text. If you have an inkling of the topic, then it’s easier to think about the what, who, where, when, why, and how because you know the answers will have something to do with what it takes to plan a family reunion or Neil Armstrong’s working hard to become an astronaut. ETC. BUT the deal is – the students have to use (adequate) information located in the text to make predictions. Relying on personal connections and interpretations of pictures alone, may lead to erroneous predictions.

So next post – the lesson I developed for the second grade class and how they responded.

New Nonfiction for Teens (& Tweens)

I couldn’t put this book down – Marching to the Mountaintop by Ann Bausum (National Geographic, 2012). In the introduction, Bausum describes the grim working conditions of the Memphis sanitation workers who were treated like the garbage they collected. The first chapter starts with the gripping death of two workers who, trying to escape the rainy weather, crawled into the clutches of the garbage truck and were swallowed alive by the compacting unit. Ghastly. No wonder they decided to strike. 1968. This leads into the last days of Dr. Martin Luther King’s life as he endeavored to inspire this group to continue striking peacefully, giving one of the most powerful speeches of his career with the words “I’ve been to the mountaintop…And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!” Less than 24 hours later MLK was assassinated.

This book reveals the power of a group – a community of believers – to come together and change society. I was swept along with them – wanting their lives to change, wanting society to realize its role in crushing or empowering citizens to live decent lives and to be actively engaged in the world around them. More importantly, I started thinking about how Bausum’s themes are relevant today. What can we learn from these courageous people? What should we do in response? This book would read aloud well to students – especially if you could put the book on a document camera to project the photos and other features or this would make a good text for small groups of teens to read and discuss.

The Elephant Scientist by Caitlin O’Connell & Donna M. Jackson with Photographs by Caitlin O’Connell & Timothy Rodwell.

This series is turning upside down what students (as readers) may think scientists do for a living. Scientists are not locked in a lab somewhere with a white coat. Dr. O’Connell is actually in a temporary camp in the Etosha National Park in Namibia, Africa with a team of researchers who are observing and investigating the behavior patterns of elephant – including collecting and analyzing elephant dung. The major focus of their work is confirming O’Connell’s theory that elephants communicate by sending and receiving messages through the ground. They can sense vibrations from miles away – vibrations that indicated the presence of friend or foe.

This is another in the Scientists in the Field series, a series that has won several awards for the quality of the text and illustrations. The photos alone could lead to important conversations if groups of teens (or tweens) read this in a literature (nonfiction) circle. Essential questions for discussion might include simply “Why bother? Why is O’Connell’s team’s work important?” and “What does this inspire?”

Relevant Common Core State Standards

Reading Standards for Informational Text-

  • Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to supporting ideas. (8th grade)
  • Determine two or more central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text…(11th-12th)

Speaking & Listening Standards –

  • Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (6th-8th)
  • Initiate and participate effective in a range of collaborative discussions (9th-12th)

Nonfiction Theme – Working Together

Last night I spent hours watching televised speeches at the Democratic National Convention. After the first couple of speakers, some of the rhetoric and facts started to feel repetitive which was okay because what emerged for me as the evening progressed was a powerful theme. By “COMING TOGETHER” – we can solve problems of the 21st century. One politician, one entrepreneur, one student, one teacher, one anybody cannot do alone what we can do together. The reason this jumped out at me is because this theme or central idea is prevalent in many of the current nonfiction books I’ve been reading lately.

One book that comes immediately to mind is Marc Aronson’s Trapped: How the World Rescued 33 Miners From 2,000 Feet Below the Chilean Desert (2011). Never before had the world faced the problem of 33 miners trapped 2,300 feet underground (think “farther than the length of seven football fields”) beneath 708,000 tons of rock (think “ the weight of 88,500 African male elephants”). Aronson reveals the unprecedented “coming together” of experts from all over the world to solve the myriad of problems this catastrophe posed. Teams worked to not only find the miners (17 days), but to keep them alive and healthy until they could be brought to the surface (another 53 days). “Unbelievable” is what I thought as I read this short narrative (94 pages).  And, yet, this is how the world is succeeding in the 21st century – by coming together, by collaborating, by tapping new technologies and collective human wisdom.

Other books I’d recommend that reveal the power of these ideas include:

  • The Many Faces of George Washington: Remaking a Presidential Icon (McClafferty, 2011)
  • The Hive Detectives (Burns, 2010).

Of course, problem solving in new ways to solve society’s dilemmas is not a 21st century phenomenon. Some of my favorite books trace how novel ways of working together have emerged and succeeded in the past. A couple of favorites include:

  • Marching for Freedom (Partridge, 2009)
  • Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (Hoose, 2009)
  • The Impossible Rescue: The True Story of an Amazing Arctic Adventure (Sandler, October 2012) (Oh, my! I couldn’t put this one down!)

Okay…so I’ve included a lot in this blog entry. I just want to close with one more thought – all of these books are so, so, so worthy of being read aloud to students or being read independently by students and discussed in small, student-led groups. There is so much that might happen for kids, tweens, and teens if we open up these books for them! More on this soon!

For reviews of the books I have listed, visit my virtual bookshelf at Goodreads.com.

Related Common Core State Standards:

Reading Standards for Informational Text

  • Explain the relationships or interactions between two or more individuals, events, ideas, or concepts in a historical, scientific, or technical text based on specific information in the text (5th grade).
  • Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to supporting ideas (8th grade).

Speaking and Listening Standards

  • Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions with diverse partners on grade level topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly (3rd-8th grade).