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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Nurturing a Sense of Wonder with Nonfiction Books

When I picked up A Place for Wonder: Reading and Writing Nonfiction in the Primary Grades, I really intended to just skim it over. After all, I now teach only sixth grade (this book is aimed at teachers of lower elementary grades) and I teach only reading and language arts (whereas this book, at first glance, seemed to be pretty much about science). Well, I read the introduction, and about two hours later discovered that I had read the whole thing from cover to cover. Not just read it, but thoroughly enjoyed it, and couldn’t wait to pass it on to a teacher of those grade levels so that they could put its ideas into action in their classroom.

First, know this: Georgia Heard and Jennifer McDonough don’t write in the world of the hypotheticals. Every idea they share for helping children make nonfiction discoveries comes from their real-life experiences with kindergartners and first graders. Every lesson plan has been implemented in “real time,” and it shows through the anecdotal stories, the authentic and very funny student dialogues, and their suggestions for practitioners based upon their experiences.

This isn’t another book of themes or centers; this is an easy-to-implement series of lessons which will assist any teacher, in any school environment, in opening the eyes of curiosity. And while some will argue that children are naturally curious, I would point out that schools have a way of stifling that curiosity. Not purposely, not systemically, but simply through neglect. A Place for Wonder shows how to take that natural curiosity and channel it toward authentic and purposeful explorations of nonfiction topics. What particularly impressed me was the plans for children to write their own nonfiction books, complete with table of contents and glossary!

My wife is a kindergarten teacher so she’s already laid claim to my copy. Looks like I’ll be getting another for my daughter’s teacher. It’s that good! I recommend you check it out online at Stenhouse, and get a copy for yourself, for a colleague in the lower grades, or for your own child’s teacher.

And now a small leap. Houghton Mifflin and author Pamela S. Turner have been kind enough to share copies of The Frog Scientist and Prowling the Seas: Exploring the Hidden World of Ocean Predators, two upper elementary level nonfiction science books. Know that these are not picture books, but lavishly illustrated chapter books, filled with photos from the scientific field.

I know a number of colleagues who love to focus their energies on readability levels and "age-appropriate" texts. I find their arguments a waste of time. The practice of limiting children to certain books flies in the face of both research and the way that I personally came to love reading. As Jo Worthy points out in “A Matter of Interest: Literature that Hooks Reluctant Readers and Keeps Them Reading”:

Far more important than readability is interest. When students have strong
interest in what they read, they can frequently transcend their so-called
reading level. Indeed, many educators and researchers consider interest to be a
paramount factor in all learning.
My own breakthrough experience came at age seven when my father handed me a field guide about snakes. He knew from my daily excursions turning over rocks and logs that I had an interest in such creatures. A confident graduate of first grade, I did my best to make sense of the task of reading the detailed descriptions of each snake type; I would have been less likely, by comparison, to struggle as doggedly with a fiction novel. At one point I came across this line: “Due to their coloring, these snakes are often inconspicuous in lower hanging trees branches.” Unable to parse out the meaning, I asked my older brother what “in con spish us” meant. He asked me to spell it. He then asked to see the book. I saw him read the sentences before and after the sentence containing my troublesome word. He returned the book and said, “It means not easily seen. The color helps it to camouflage itself.” And on that day I learned not just the value of context, but also the value of collaboration.

So what’s the point? The point is, younger children can benefit in many ways from nonfiction texts that are above their reading levels. Like me, they can piece together, sort out, and through collaborative efforts. make some sense of what they’re reading, especially if they’re reading with self-determined purposes.

A book like The Frog Scientist, then, which illustrates its points with clear, objective photographs, is perfect for young readers seeking information on a topic of chosen interest. In addition to providing facts about our amphibious friends, Pamela S. Turner captures the scientific attitudes and habits required to conduct meaningful work. Such life and vocational skills are a huge part of the much-touted 21st Century Skills, which makes this book even more important.

The Frog Scientist was recently awarded the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)/Subaru SB&F middle-grade science writing prize. The book trailer below features biologist Tyrone Hayes (aka The Frog Scientist).

Prowling the Seas: Exploring the Hidden World of Ocean Predators is another well researched yet totally accessible book for children which focuses again on not just the creatures, but the scientists who work among them. Like The Frog Scientist, this book features amazing original photographs and accompanying detailed captions. Why are captions important? Watch your average reluctant reader (especially the boys) and they’ll page through books, simply looking at the illustrations. Occasionally, however, they’ll come upon an illustration so compelling that their internal sense of wonder will fire off multiple questions. This curiosity, in turn, drives them to read the captions in order to seek more information. Then their eyes may slide into the text itself, as they wonder what else there is to know about the illustration. Turner’s books do that: they sneak up and pull the reader into another world, and a whole new schema of understanding.

(A quick congratulations to Line of Alabama, and Wendy of Michigan, the winners of the Barefoot Books giveaway A Calendar Of Festivals: Celebrations From Around The World)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Blueberry Girl

I'll be announcing winners for America's White Table tomorrow. In fact, due to the impressive number of requests for that book, I'll also be announcing another giveaway!

In the meantime, enjoy this beautiful trailer for Blueberry Girl, a gorgeous picture book from the usually-kinda-scary but nonetheless extremely talented Newbery Award winner Neil Gaiman.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Remembering Those Who Served

According to the Veterans Day Teacher Resource Guide offered to schools by the United States Department of Veteran Affairs,

In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill proclaiming November 11th as Veterans Day and called upon Americans everywhere to rededicate themselves to the cause of peace. He issued a Presidential Order directing the head of the Veterans Administration, now the Department of Veterans Affairs, to form a Veterans Day National Committee to organize and oversee the national observance of Veterans Day.
This Wednesday, November 11th, we as teachers must remind our students of the selfless service and sacrifice demonstrated by the men and women of America's Armed Forces. For this honored occasion, I recommend three special picture books.

Award winning Heroes, written by Ken Mochizuki and illustrated by Dom Lee, is one of my favorites for initiating discussions around this observance.

Japanese American schoolboy Donnie is tired of playing the bad guy every time he and his friends get together. He'd rather play football, but they're only interested in playing war. And according to the other boys, Donnie should play the enemy because he does, after all, look like "them." Donnie futilely protests that his father and uncle served their country, the United States, but his friends just laugh. When Donnie pleads with his father and uncle for proof, they tell him that "real heroes don't brag." The story's ending is unexpected and noble, and each year when I share this book aloud, the reaction is incredible.

New York Times called Heroes "dignified and effective." Kirkus Reviews stated, "Heroes is also a tribute to the 442nd Regiment Combat Team, an all-Japanese-American regiment, and serves as a reminder of their important contribution."

I strongly recommend that Heroes find a place in every classroom library. Publisher Lee and Low have provided a helpful teacher's guide at their site containing many cross-curricular ideas for use with this book.

A newer book for me, but one that is just as powerful, is America's White Table by Margot Theis Raven, illustrated by Mike Benny.

From the Sleeping Bear Press site:

The White Table is set in many mess halls as a symbol for and remembrance to service members fallen, missing, or held captive in the line of duty. Solitary and solemn, it is the table where no one will ever sit.

As a special gift to her Uncle John, Katie and her sisters are asked to help set the white table for dinner. As their mother explains the significance of each item placed on the table Katie comes to understand and appreciate the depth of sacrifice that her uncle, and each member of the Armed Forces and their families, may be called to give.
The ceremony of the America's White Table is beautifully described in this book; not just what each object is, but what it is meant to represent. The book's narrator then finds even more meaning in this tradition upon learning that her own uncle, "who gave us big bear hugs and spun us with airplane twirls" was a prisoner of war in Vietnam before the nieces were ever born.

Another Sleeping Bear title that should be mentioned is H Is for Honor: A Military Family Alphabet. Written by the son of a soldier, this book explores the many branches of the Armed Forces, speaking of both the privileges and sacrifices of military families everywhere. Many aspects of military life are discussed, in both poem and sidebar explanatory text. Like all Sleeping Bear alphabet books, every page has a beautiful full-page illustration.

For example, the poem on the letter "A" page reads:

"Give me an A for Army, and an A for Air Force, too.
An A for all the Armed Services behind the red, white, and blue.
They stand at attention, tall and proud, all impeccably dressed.
An A for the American Armed Forces, an A for the world's very best."
The sidebar begins:

"The Armed Services of the United States protect our nation, its people, and its ideals. There are five branches that make up the United States military.

The U.S. Army is the main ground force for the United States. It's the largest and oldest branch of the service, founded in 1775...."
In my class, we have written letters to those presently serving in the armed forces. That is, I know, a common activity in many schools. I would also suggest perhaps using a sites such as Instant Poetry Forms to write a poem following the sharing of Veterans Day picture Books. Either the Instant Spine Poem or the Cinquain would provide a simple yet effective format for the poem.

I would also encourage every teacher to download the incredible Veterans Day Teaching Kit mentioned at the beginning of this post. It contains fabulous information and activities, including the Difference Between Veterans Day and Memorial Day:

Many people confuse Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Both holidays were established to recognize and honor the men and women who have worn the uniform of the United States Armed Forces. But Memorial Day, which is observed on the last Monday in May, was originally set aside as a day for remembering and honoring military personnel who died in the service of their country, particularly those who died in battle or as a result of wounds sustained in battle.

While those who died are also remembered on Veterans Day, which is observed on November 11, Veterans Day is intended to thank and honor all those who served honorably in the military - in wartime or peacetime. In fact, Veterans Day is largely intended to thank living Veterans for their service, to acknowledge that their contributions to our national security are appreciated, and to underscore the fact that all those who served - not only those who died - have sacrificed and done their duty.
The site also contains a link to an archive of Veterans Day posters which can be printed out or used in other applications. These well designed, powerful images should be posted prominently in every school.

Book Giveaway: Although you won't have it in time for this year's observance, Sleeping Bear Press has generously offered a copy of America's White Table to three readers of this blog. Just email me with "White Table Drawing" in the subject line, and we'll pick some winners in the next two weeks.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Top Ten Stories Behind Dr. Seuss

I'm a latecomer to this, but a post at Mental Floss details ten stories behind some of Dr. Seuss's most popular tales. A quick, fun read for fans!

Also take some time to poke around the site for other fun stuff with which to waste your time (yet possibly fine tune your mind as well).