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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Are the Dinosaurs Dead, Dad? and Other Prehistoric Picture Books

In Are the Dinosaurs Dead, Dad? young Dave's uneventful trip to the museum takes an unlikely and entertaining twist. From the book's inside flap:

Dad takes Dave to the museum to see the dinosaurs. Dad is sure he knows all there is to know about these amazing creatures. But soon Dave gets the feeling that Dad has one hugely important fact very, very wrong.

Because, you see, as Dad and Davey pass each dino, the dino seems to come to life!

This is one of those terrific books that relies upon dramatic irony via the illustrations, because Julie Middleton's text doesn't let on to what's happening. Young readers, however, can certainly see for themselves that toes, tails, and terrible jaws are moving! During a read-aloud, a "knowing" adult will wisely avoid  being in on the joke, as children love to scream and point out the "secrets" that adults (because of their advanced age and failing eyesight) apparently don't notice for themselves.

Artist Russell Ayto's whimsical images are half the fun, showing us giant-headed monsters balanced on impossibly tiny legs. The creatures' equally understated, overstated, and improbably body part dimensions are fun to discuss as well. The format is large, with plenty of open space on each spreads that lends credibility to the size of the space and the dinosaurs themselves.

Below you'll find some terrific companion books with activity extensions that could work equally well with Are the Dinosaurs Dead, Dad? In addition to being mistaken about dinos, some adults are also mistaken in thinking you can ever have enough dinosaur books!

Cretaceous Companions
For the younger set, Harry and the Dinosaurs Go to School by Ian Whybrow is a wonderful combination of a dino book and a first-day-of-school-jitters book. Harry's toy dinos help him makes new friends, and even assist another shy boy in acclimating to his new surroundings. Adrian Reynolds' bright and sunny illustrations are perfect for sharing and discussing during read-alouds. Check out other titles in this series including Harry and the Dinosaurs Say, "Raahh!" and Harry and the Bucketful of Dinosaurs.

  • Students can bring in one of their own "prized possessions" and discuss what makes it special. 
  • Students might want to create their own simple paper plate dinosaurs, which can be displayed with a colorful bucket on the bulletin board. 
  • Students could imagine that they have a real, live dinosaur for a pet. How would that work? How would you feed him? Where would he sleep?
  • Looking for a fun and easy cooking project? Check out these fossil cookies.
Marvelous, Monstrous Models
The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins by Barbara Kerley with illustrations by Brian Selznick ("many of which are based on the original sketches of Mr. Hawkins"). Working with scientist Richard Owens, Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins wanted to create such perfect models of dinosaurs that anyone who gazed at his creations would see into the past. By using just the bits and pieces of fossils, bones, and teeth that had been found by early palaeontologists, Waterhouse filled in "gaps" by thinking of existing animals which the dinosaurs might have resembled. This book chronicles his triumphal premiere in the Crystal Palace at Sydenham Park (when tens of thousands of spectators, including the Queen, gaped in wonder at his creatures), as well as his tragedy in Central Park (when vandals under the vindictive order of Boss Tweed destroyed his dinosaurs destined for the Americans). Although we now realize that many of Waterhouse's guesses were somewhat inaccurate, no one can dispute his ability to light the imaginations of the thousands who viewed his works.

For more explorations into what we've learned about dinosaurs since the earliest days of their discovery, check out Boy, Were We Wrong About Dinosaurs by Kathleen Kudlinksi and S.D.Schindler.A terrific book for helping students understand that science never rests!

  • Students can use clay to design their own dinosaurs. They don't need to sculpt one specific, real-life dino; instead, they should simply use their imaginations to create an original prehistoric monster. Since scientist continue to discover new dinosaurs all the time, who's to say what the next dino discovery might look like?
  • Students might also enjoy building their own prehistoric pasta pets. Show students pictures of assembled dino skeletons in museums. Explain that while these models take many years to collect, piece together, and display, today students will create their own models using pasta as bones. Given a wide variety of different pasta shapes, students can assemble their own dinos by gluing their selected noodles to black construction paper. Once partially dry, the pasta will need a second coat to affix it well to the paper. 
  • For a look at how those dinosaurs get to the museum, check out the book (coincidentally called) How the Dinosaur Got to the Museum by Jessie Hartland. This book explains how dinosaur bones go from the earth to you, the museum visitor, via fourteen other people, who are named and collected in a House-that-Jack-Built type progression.
Bold and Beautiful
A wonderful abecedarium can be discovered in An Alphabet of Dinosaurs by Peter Dodson, with paintings by Wayne D. Barlowe. Familiar favorites mix with newcomer neighbors on full spreads that features two text sections (one for emerging readers and another for fluent readers) and a full color illustration. The vivid and uniquely imagined colors and patterns of these dinos is what caught my eye when I first viewed this book. In the books' introduction we read: "The paintings in this book show the dinosaurs as we now think of them. Gone is the image of slow-moving giants. Gone is the picture of tail-dragging lizards. Instead, we see vibrant, active dinosaurs living in a world filled with brightly colored animals and plants.

  • Taking a cue from this book, students can create their own unique dino patterns on simple coloring sheets. They can either color with vivid colors (danger! stay back!, bold colors (look at me!), muted colors (I need to hide), or patterns which create camouflage (to avoid being seen by prey or predator).
  • Older students can be given a simple white dino silhouette (shape) and a variety of a magazine from which to choose pictures. After choosing a large picture which can serve as a background, students will color in their dino shape to camouflage into the background.
Dino for a Day
In Jim Murphy's Dinosaur for a Day, older readers can explore a typical day in the life of a Hypsilophodon, a 90 pound herd animal that depended upon its wits and its companions for survival. Additional information from the author precedes and follows this din's "biography," providing for a complete profile of one specific creature. Mark Alan Weatherby's gorgeous paintings put us at dinosaur's-eye view with our surroundings, a perspective rarely seen in other dino books.

  • Have each student choose a dinosaur, and write about "a day in the life of..." Students may need to do some research on which dinosaurs lived in which period, and many students may discover that their dinos and their friends' dinos might have shared the same habitats!
  • Instead of a dinosaur, have students choose any other animal (or use an animal they've already researched). Require that students illustrate their "daily routine" with view that would be seen from their critter's perspective.
  • Create dino fossils in the classroom.
Modern Monsters
What if dinosaurs were alive today? How would our daily lives be different? In If Dinosaurs Were Alive Today, author Dougal Dixon answers that question with frightening predictions of predatory sea creatures that hunt sperm whales, and tyrannosaurs that terrorize longhorns. The photo-realistic illustrations are amazing as they juxtapose the prehistoric past with the present.
Can you picture yourself flying in a jet across peaceful skies, and suddenly seeing a Quetzalcoatlus, a pterosaur with the wingspan exceeding a small airplane? Can you imagine seeing your trashcan tipped over at the curb, not by a raccoon or even a coyote, but a scavenging carnivorous dino called Coelophysis? Students will love the retouched photos, so disturbingly realistic that one might begin to wonder, "What are the chances of the dinosaurs coming back?"

  • Challenge students to draw dinosaurs in modern day settings. How would their traits and habits affect their interactions with people?
  • Challenge students to put dinos to work. If they existed today, how could their size and strength be helpful to humans?
Wordless Wonders
Two clever books that tell neat dino tales are Time Flies by Eric Rohmann and Chalk by Bill Thomson.

  • The wordless format of both books offers the perfect opportunity for students to tell their own stories. Students can "write" similar books as a group, and tell their own stories.
  • Students might also be challenged to write the tales they "see" using poetry rather than prose.
How Do Dinosaurs...
From Jane Yolen and Mark Teague come the fantastic series of How Do Dinosaurs... books including How Do Dinosaurs Get Well Soon? and How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night? Kids will love all the dinos that Mark Teague includes, and they'll also appreciate the funny and fun-to-recite rhymes of Jane Yolen.

  • Brainstorm a How to... problem with the class and write a similar story as a group, or challenge pairs or teams to come up with their own ideas (focusing on social skills seems to work well here).

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Secret to Descriptive Writing

Either I’ve encountered a conspiracy to confound teachers of writing, or I’ve discovered an “obvious secret” of descriptive writing. To paraphrase a classic School House Rock Video, it appears that verbs are, indeed, “what’s happening.”

I heard about the power of compelling verbs first from Ralph Fletcher in a visit to the Garden State. He explained that well-intentioned teachers encourage their students to use numerous adjectives to create interesting prose, which leads to detail-sodden writing which drags under its own weight. Simply unnecessary. In Ralph’s own words, “Nouns make the pictures, verbs make the pictures move.” (See my enthusiastic endorsement of a recent book by this author at the bottom of this post).

Flash forward to the New York State Reading Association (NYSRA) Annual Conference held in Saratoga Springs, New York (one of the best conferences I’ve ever attended). During the Author’s Progressive Dinner I had the pleasure of sitting with Steven Swinburne, creator of several wonderful nonfiction picture books including Lots and Lots of Zebra Stripes: Patterns in Nature and Turtle Tide: The Ways Of Sea Turtles. As he spoke with his guests about the creative process, he mentioned the importance of verb selection.

When I asked why he had mentioned verbs rather than any other part of speech, he quickly replied, “The correct verbs are essential. Verbs are the motor which drives the sentence.” Now I’m thinking that I’m on to something.

The following day I enjoyed a conversation with Steven Krasner, author of Play Ball Like the Hall Of Famers: The Inside Scoop From 19 Baseball Greats and Play Ball Like the Pros: Tips for Kids from 20 Big League Stars. Through his Nudging the Imagination workshop, Steve explained, he creates stories with students on-the-spot in order to model the writing process. “A huge key,” he explained, “is helping them to find the verbs to really move the story.” Opening one of his picture books, he pointed out he crafted the precise, vivid verbs of the final draft during the revision process, replacing common verbs which served only as place holders in the early stages.

If three very different writers can agree on the importance of verb choice, then I think there are some lessons to be learned by teachers of young writers:
  • Encourage students to examine verb choice in novels, poems, picture books, and informational texts. I choose existing mentor texts and  rewrite excerpts using “common verbs” (or, as Krasner would call them, place holders). Students are then challenged to replace these with more precise or colorful verbs.

  • Direct your students to consider verb choice in their own writing, and work to find action words that are more exact. As a start, outlaw there is, there are, there were, there was phrases. A better alternative always exists. As do exceptions. Remember the first line of Holes?

  • Teach children how to use a print thesaurus or online reference source (such as the Merriam Webster dictionary or Wordnik) for assistance in locating more exact expressions.
Recommended Reading

If you're looking for a resource to take your students' writing to the next level, check out Ralph Fletcher's Pyrotechnics on the Page: Playful Craft that Sparks Writing. Ralph explains the book's title by saying:

I am defining pyrotechnics as deliberate playfulness with language used by writers to create a particular kind of effect as well as the specific tools used to create that that effect.

The term includes (but isn't limited to) puns, invented words, allusions, idioms, metaphors, similes, hyperbole, onomatopoeia, and alliteration. (A good deal of the text discusses sentence structure, which is key to complex and elaborated writing as defined by the Common Core standards).

While at first these devices might seem like window dressing, realize this: your best readers can recognize these devices (even if not by name) and understand them in texts, which leads to improved comprehension. Therefore, giving students practice with literary devices in writing will not only make them better writers, but better readers as well.

Among a ton of other issues in this book, Fletcher discusses the need for writing teachers and student writers to switch from the what (subject/meaning) to the how (language), and he follows up with many ways to make this important distinction. And to prove his point, the author provides this lovely extended metaphor:

The purpose of a dinner party isn't merely to sate your guests' hunger - they could easily go to the local greasy spoon for that - but rather to take them on a gastronomic journey. Certainly you want the food to taste good, but it's much more than that You plan, prepare, and cook the food so that it has the proper texture, crunch, visual and flavorful variety. The spices should be in harmonious balance with each other. Writers know the same thing. If you want to make your writing memorable to readers, you must give them an aesthetic experience.

In another section called Shimmering Sentences by Other Writers, he talks about how's he fascinated by writers who violate common ideas about usage, and get away with it. Not just get away with it, but produce stronger writing as a result! See Breaking All the Rules of Writing at my How to Teach a Novel site which discusses how author Andrew Clements does exactly that.

If you still think that the books' about "play" and not about "practice," consider what not just Ralph Fletcher, but other experts, had to say:

...Language play carries the huge cognitive benefit of helping children become more efficient language users. Many educators have pointed this out, including Vygotsky, who famously described a child's language as "a head taller" during play. Jerome Bruner said that "language is most daring and most advanced when it is used in a playful setting."

And for those who prefer practice over theory, Fletcher includes a number of hands-on, ready-to-use-tomorrow resources here, including a Q and A section, craft lessons divided by grade level (K-5+), and a number of appendices which supply the teacher with loads of language exemplars, as well as recommended mentor texts.

I can't recommend this book too highly! Preview it in its entirety online at Stenhouse Publishers and see if you don't agree! But buy it on Amazon, save the shipping, and support this site!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Celebrate Something! Creating Culminating Activities for Reading Units

Most of us meticulously plan how we'll begin and carry out our novel studies and units, but the culminating events are often an afterthought. Should our novel study simply end with a test? Is that any way to honor this glorious novel which we held so closely to our hearts these past four, five, six weeks?
I would recommend that we plan a culminating activity to close our units. In its simplest form, the culminating activity might be:
  • a film version of the book (even a bad adaptation!),
  • a theatrical version of the book, 
  • a magic or variety show,
  • a reader’s theater production of scenes from the book,
  • individual or group art, writing, or cooking projects,
  • presentations of writing and other projects based upon the novel, 
  • a call to action or service, or 
  • a theme-based party.
The culminating activity could also involve a combination of these. Many years ago, we arranged to see a private showing of the The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (before it was even opened to the public), as that movie was premiering just as we completed the novel. Talk about great timing! 

But as we viewed "sneak peeks" on the Internet, I saw that my students were mesmerized by the costumes and armor of the four main characters. We therefore launched into an art/research/tech project creating family shields complete with heraldic symbols which reflected each student’s personal traits and
preferences as well as those of their families. The bulletin board display of these shields later appeared on the website of Walden Media, a co-producer of the movie. Kids were pretty psyched to see that their creations had a world-wide audience.
If you choose to throw a theme based party, I suggest you focus on the five senses. Below are two plans illustrating culminating events which my class has celebrated in the past (back in the good old days of third and fourth grade).

Novel: Because of Winn Dixie
Theme: Identity
Party Overview: This is a gathering of new friends, based upon the party which Opal and Gloria throw at the end of the novel. In the novel, the gathering takes place in Gloria’s overgrown backyard, and the food and drinks are an interesting orchestration of many hands.
Look: Since the book’s party was held at night, all lights in the classroom were off. Each desk contained a brown bag filled partway with sand, containing one battery operated candle. These were in place of the
luminaria which Opal created for her party. Some white Christmas lights were also hung. Several students printed out or collected dog pictures which they posted around the room, just as Sweetie Pie Thomas had at the party; after all, "every party needs a theme."
Sound: Taped recordings of crickets played throughout the party. Later, a thunder soundtrack was added to create the approaching rainstorm. The music teacher played guitar and led us in a few songs, just as Otis did at the party. We also played some bluegrass and country music when we weren't singing ourselves.
Taste: “Dump Punch,” pickles, and egg salad sandwiches were on the menu, just as they were at Opal’s party. Since the students made the sandwiches themselves, they were much more willing to try them!
Smell: A spring scented air freshener was placed on the vents. It made the whole room smell like a Southern garden (at least, how we imagined it might smell). The air freshener had never been used before
in the class, and was never used again, which made that smell unique.
Feel: In keeping with the “new friends” theme of the party, we brought in another class to share the theme. The closeness of that many people in that setting we created made the party truly memorable.

Genre: Tall Tales 
(especially as influenced by American Tall Tales by Mary Pope Osborne, Cut From the Same Cloth: American Women  of Myth, Legend, and Tall Tale by Robert D. San Souci, and Big Men, Big Country by Paul Robert Walker)
Theme: Larger Than Life
Party Overview: An old fashioned, lumber-jack type breakfast.
Look: The students ate at one long table, which was set up in a glassed-in foyer on a snowy day in January. Red and white checked table cloths and old-fashioned lanterns set the scene. Also, students were dressed as their favorite tall tale characters, or as tall tale characters of their own creation from a unit writing assignment. Book boxes (book shaped dioramas containing summaries and a three-dimensional scene) were hung nearby.
Sound: In the background was a recording of traditional American folk songs played on fiddles and banjos. Later, students read aloud their original tall tales.
Taste: Students enjoyed a Paul Bunyan sized meal of pancakes and bacon, washed down with hot chocolate. Twenty students (and some parent helpers) ate over 80 pancakes and 80 pieces of bacon!
Smell: The food was cooked there, in that room, from pancake batter that students made from scratch. The smell of pancakes and sizzling bacon mingled with pine shavings which were sprinkled on the ground to give it that “woodsy” smell.
Feel: The blustery cold day visible through the windows, contrasted with the warm food inside, made for a close, comfortable gathering.

Does every novel or unit lend itself to this type of activity? Absolutely not. When we read a Holocaust themed novel, for example, a party is NOT appropriate. Instead, we might write an argumentative piece on why the Holocaust should be studies in middle schools (some schools think it shouldn't). 

Can we even launch these types of parties anymore, with all the food and festivities they entail? Perhaps not. But I think we owe our students a bit more closure than simply saying, "Please pass your books to the front of the class." As Cesare Pavese once said, "We do not remember days, we remember moments." 

Let's give our students one moment to remember.

What do you do to bring closure to your studies? Please leave a comment below!

Friday, February 15, 2013

Fightin' Words: Using Picture Books to Teach Argumentative Writing

So what's the difference between persuasive writing and argumentative writing? 

In persuasive writing, students passionately defend their point of view, relying upon opinion, personal experience, anecdotes, data, and examples. Argumentative writing, however, seeks to offer a more balanced approach, as it acknowledges points from the opposing view.

This approach may sound counterproductive; after all, won't writers weaken their arguments by providing the reader with counterclaims? Surprisingly, no. By naming objections and then refuting them effectively, writers actually strengthen the position of their arguments. Persuasion, on the other hand, is weak by comparison: it ignores, in a cowardly way, any viewpoint that is contrary and threatening to its own. It's blatantly one-sided and subjective.

So where can our young readers witness the power of argumentative writing? In picture books, of course!

In George Bellows: Painter with a Punch, author Robert Burleigh chronicles the career of a fascinating  and prolific artist who is celebrated for his gruff and gritty observations of the vitality and vigor of early twentieth century New York City. Burleigh provides the reader with "just enough" details of Bellows the man to make him real and rounded, and "just enough" context of the art scene of the time to build color and context. The majority of the text rightfully focuses on the images (profusely provided in beautiful color) and on Bellows' artistic legacy. 

As a teacher of reading and writing, I am struck by Burleigh's use of argumentative text structures which can serve as wonderful exemplars for young writers. Consider this passage from early in the text:

One man - seated at ringside - observes the events somewhat differently. He watches closely both the fury of the fighters and the fans' reactions. But who wins the bout doesn't matter to him. He has his own goal: to wrestle a picture from the chaotic scene, to capture the wild energy of this moment!

Is this strange? An artist here, in a smelly, grungy saloon?

Shouldn't an artist be searching for beautiful things to paint? Golden sunsets? Quiet, tree-lined rivers? Or perhaps a wealthy gentleman, or a celebrity dressed in her finest clothes? Many people would say just that.

But not George Bellows.

In that example, a series of questions defines the opposing viewpoint. We know that George will need a pretty darn good reason for choosing subjects so contrary to those of traditional artists!

In another selection, the opposing argument is presented more traditionally as a juxtaposition of one perspective to another:

George's paintings gain attention. He is among a group of artists who focus on the less romantic parts of the city, like bars, train stations, movie theaters, and alleyways...Reviewers attack the group, calling them "apostles of ugliness" because they dare to paint the seamier side of life...But a few reviewers find complimentary things to say about George's art. They especially praise his ability to convey strong feelings in his work.

One critic, although won over by Bellow's radical approach, still qualifies his admiration for the artist in a compliment that acknowledges the two opposing viewpoints of the time:

"It's in bad taste," one says, "but it's life - and that is the main thing."

As you can see, the examples of argumentation are there. They're subtly written, however, so as not to crowd out the narrative. That is exactly what makes them effective, and so worthy of our students' admiration and study and replication. 

In the excerpt below, note that the first two sentences juxtapose opposing viewpoints, with the word yet being the giveaway. The second pair of sentences follows the classic "some people say ______, but _______" format, with though serving in place of but:

"I don't know anything about boxing," he likes to say. Yet the paintings he makes based on these fights will become his best known works. Some critics note that the figures in the paintings are awkwardly drawn or that the ringside spectators have odd, caricatured faces. What concerns George most, though, is creating a "you-are-there" feeling.

Can students incorporate this same argumentative style into their writing? Absolutely. The key, in my opinion, is starting with some great exemplars. The next step is getting students to see that argumentative writing often relies upon a fairly standard set of sentence structures. This "sentence grammar" is more common in writing than you think!

Consider these templates:

  • At first you might think _____, but _____.
  • While it's true that _____, you need to remember that _____.
  • It's possible that _______, but __________.
  • Some people believe that _____; however, _____.
Here are those same templates, reworked with spelling words:

  • At first you might think that vivacious children are wonderful, but after three hours you would find them to be very exhausting.
  • While it's true that vitamins are part of a healthy diet, you need to remember that they can't take the place of nutritious foods.
  • It's possible that coffee increases vitality, but it's still no substitute for a good night's rest.
  • Some people believe that bees are attracted to sugar; however, bees are equally attracted to vivid colors.

Somewhat better than what students typically produce, right? But with the models, it's possible.

And again, those same templates as part of an expository paragraph about common misconceptions of the Holocaust, based upon a reading of An Introduction to the Holocaust for the Young Reader:

At first you might think that World War II caused the Holocaust since the two events are mentioned together so often; after some study, however, you would find that persecution of Jews in Germany began six years earlier. And while it's true that six million Jews were exterminated by the Nazis, you need to remember five million others who were considered undesirable were killed as well. It's possible to believe now that people should have stepped in to save the Jews, but you'd be surprised how few countries seemed to care at the time. You might think the United States was the exception, that we cared enough to step in; however, of the thirty-two countries that attended the Evian Conference, only one chose to accept Jewish refugees, and it wasn't the United States.

A perfect paragraph? No. But one that shows a balanced consideration of ideas; one that acknowledges common misconceptions, and then dispels them, one at a time.

  • Share George Bellows: Painter with a Punch with students, reading through from beginning to end for the sheer enjoyment of the narrative and images. Show students additional Bellows' paintings in over-sized library books or online. I prefer using images online, as I can often resize them on-screen to match their approximate real-life sizes.
  • Reread selections from the text in order to discuss the use of opposing viewpoints. Why does the author include them here? In what way is this text argumentative? How does mentioning the opposite viewpoint strengthen each point that author Robert Burleigh makes? 
  • Once students have discussed some text selections, work with them to identify the "skeleton" or "template" of each argumentative structure. Then, supply students with new content to be rephrased in argumentative format using the author's exemplars. One example from above reads, "Some critics note that the figures in the paintings are awkwardly drawn or that the ringside spectators have odd, caricatured faces. What concerns George most, though, is creating a "you-are-there" feeling."  This excerpt relies upon the "Some people..." format, with the counter-punch statement using "though" to express opposition (however could have been used as effectively as though).
  • Discuss the book's title with students. Some students will notice that the subtitle is alliterative, in that words share the same beginning sounds. If your students have recently read biographies, challenge them to write fictitious subtitles that rely upon either alliteration, rhyme, or word play. (Other students will notice that the top rope of the ring serves to underline the book's main title).
  • Show students other nonfiction books which utilize a title and subtitle, and discuss this feature's purpose. Authors and editors may do write titles in this manner for many different reasons: to separate their book from others on the same topic, to add a creative twist while still keeping the main topic "out in front," or to provide prospective readers with the book's focus (for example, Abraham Lincoln: A Pioneer Boyhood is aimed at a different audience than Abraham Lincoln: Making of a President). 
  • Require that students use sentence stems (aka templates, models, patterns) such as those above to contrast simple ideas. Start with simple single sentences, move to paired sentences, and finally to paragraphs. My own students have used them for lesson summaries, spelling sentences, responses to current events, summary paragraphs (such as the Holocaust piece above), and comparison/contrast writings about character motives.
  • Check out this fantastic break-down of argumentative writing from Smekens Education Solutions, Inc. In addition to some teaching tips, you'll find a ready-to-go activity that challenges students to identify what makes a revised piece of writing argumentative. They've also produced a clever student friendly/teacher friendly interpretation of the ELA Writing Standard (6.1) for Text Types and Purposes.

Recommended Reading

If you're looking for a single, go-to title for working with argumentative text models like those above, check out They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. This book explains in clear words, dozens of templates, and numerous real-world examples the powerful concepts which guide argumentative writing.

Here you'll find templates for openings, closings, discussion, disagreement, etc. You'll also have at your fingertips many professionally written articles, essays, and speeches which show these same templates at work (check out the explanation of argumentative writing in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail shown in the book preview on Amazon). 

This work, aimed at both instructors and high school- and college-aged students, is must reading.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Valentines for Vermin: Love Poems for the Unloved

Looking for a fun writing activity that integrates well with Valentine's Day? Then look no further than Vulture Verses: Love Poems for the Unloved.

This book is a funny and fact-filled collection of "friendship notes" written to some of the most unlovable creatures one could imagine. Through her poems and accompanying facts, author Diane Lang helps us see that even bats, turkey vultures, spiders, skunks, and mosquitoes (to name but a few of the animal dignitaries) deserve some love.

The friendship note to the fly, for example, reads:

Oh fly, though no one seeks to ask,
Recycling is your secret task.
You eat the things that die or spoil
And make them part of growing soil.
So, though I shoo you from my plate, 
You're someone I appreciate!

Below that we read:

Flies are specialists at eating things that are dead and decaying, getting them ready to become part of new, healthy soil.

Lovely paintings by Lauren Gallegos illustrate each animal at its most industrious, making even the most scream-worthy of the lot seem noble, or, at the very least, tolerable.
  • The book closes with a request: "So many cards to write! So many animal friends! I may need some help. Do you know someone who is misunderstood? Will you help me write friendship notes, too?" Such a fantastic suggestion! Working in pairs or teams, students can research basic facts about other unloved animals that "scuttle, slither, buzz, and sting." Why are these creature seen as so horrible? What makes them worthy of our admiration? See if your students can write similar poems to change the loathsome to the lovable. Picture books such as Melissa Stewart's marvelous Animal Grossapedia will provide ample information and inspiration for even the most reluctant writers.
  • As an additional challenge, ask students to write the above poems in the first person, as if they are the animal. They must defend themselves to humans, and justify the "bad rap" which they've been given. Students could be further challenged to write these poems without naming themselves (the animal could be identified at poem's end or in the title alone). Students can then read the poems aloud, and classmates can guess the identity of the nefarious narrator.
  • What role do these animals play in other stories, whether fables, myths, or folktales? With what traits have they been branded? Have students create original fables using one of the creatures from Vulture Verses: Love Poems for the Unloved, or from their research project above. See my earlier post Animal Attractions for more ideas and suggested titles for fables.
  • Diane Lang uses fantastic vocabulary in both her poems and follow-up facts. Discuss some of these words and challenge students to define them, using context clues alone. Why did the author choose these and not their simpler synonyms? If students completed any of the above activities, ask them to revisit their writing to substitute words that are more exacting and creative for those which are overused or ordinary.
Do you have a favorite reading or writing activity to celebrate Valentine's Day? If so, please leave a comment below!

And if you haven't entered yet, be sure to get in on the raffle for one of three animal picture books happening on this blog (scroll to the bottom of that page).

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Tales to Tell: Exploring Author's Voice Through Picture Books

When we read a truly wonderful picture book, one whose words resonate as much as the pictures themselves, we should take the opportunity to stand back and ask ourselves, "How did the author do that?" And more importantly, How can we get our students to find their own strong voices in writing?

If we recall the opening lines of some favorite middle-grade novels, we discover that the author's voice begins to take form in just the first few words. 

Consider Avi's Newbery winning The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, a fantastic sea yarn in which the protagonist finds herself at the center of a mutiny:

“Not every thirteen-year-old girl is accused of murder, brought to trial, and found guilty.  But I was such a girl, and my story is worth relating even if it did happen years ago.”

Or consider the ominous first lines of Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White:

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
“Out to the hoghouse,” replied her mother. “Some pigs were born last night.”

As both novels progress, we immerse ourselves in the narrator's point of view, falling in step with the rhythm of words, the tone, and the exacting word choice.

But neither picture books nor our students' own writing has the luxury of 200+ pages to build voice. It needs to happen much sooner.Here are three picture book exemplars to get us started.

Mentor Text: Jangles: A BIG Fish Story

David Shannon's recent picture book Jangles: A BIG Fish Story harkens back to the day of the traditional Tall Tale. Tall Tales, characterized mainly by their penchant for hyperbole (that is, their tendency to exaggerate to the point of lying!) developed a boastful and boisterous voice over time, due to the fact that many of the original Tall Tales were spread orally. Each subsequent teller would add his or her own embellishments (as well as quaint colloquialisms), resulting in crowd-sourced versions of the tales that were rich in both authentic voice and vocabulary.

Jangles: A BIG Fish Story would serve as an excellent introduction to this literary genre. Author and illustrator David Shannon writes in a style that harkens to the boasts of the Tall Tale tradition:

When I was a kid, Jangles was the biggest fish that anyone had ever seen - or heard! That's right, you could hear Jangles. He'd broken so many fishing lines that his huge, crooked jaw was covered with shiny metal lures and rusty old fishhooks of all shapes and sized. They clinked and clattered as he swam. That's why he was called Jangles.

Jangles was so big, he ate eagles from the trees that hung over the lake, and full-grown beavers that strayed too far from home.

Compare that with the beginning of Jerry Spinelli's Maniac Magee (another Newbery Medal book):
“They say (he) was born in a dump. They say his stomach was a cereal box and his heart was a sofa spring. They say he kept an eight-inch cockroach on a leash and that rats stood guard over him while he slept…They say.”

And to be sure, you'll find the "They say..." phrase in Shannon's book as well, since, while the facts of any Tall Tale might not be verified empirically, they must undoubtedly be true, since so many people agree on them.
The story itself is an engaging narrative, with an ending that requires a bit of inferring on the reader's part. The story also begs the question, "What would you have done in his place?" Close rereadings can reveal simile, alliteration, personification, and many other wonderful literary devices masterfully woven into the tale.

And the illustrations! Fans of David Shannon know from earlier books such as A Bad Case of the Stripes and How Georgie Radbourn Saved Baseball that his pictures are lush and vivid and sculpturesque. Whenever I'm explaining to my students that their own illustrations should be saturated with color, Shannon's books are among the exemplars I share.

  • To begin a Tall Tale unit, let children read a number of traditional retellings of Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, John Henry, and Slue-Foot Sue. Have them generate the critical attributes of this genre, explaining as well how it differs from (and yet takes cues from) legends, folktales, and myths. Find some online resources at 42explore.
  • After reading Jangles: A BIG Fish Story, challenge students to write a Tall Tale about an animal of their choosing. You might consider supplying a simple story map based upon the mentor text which can guide students in their writing.
  • Ask students to generate a list of some of their most memorable experiences (circus, baseball game, birth of a sibling, family reunion, recital, getting lost at the mall, etc.). Share the interview with the David Shannon at the Scholastic site. Discuss how personal experiences can often serve as the basis for writing fiction, and then have students choose one of their events to turn into a fictional account.
Mentor Text: Touch the Sky: Alice Coachman, Olympic High Jumper
Another recent picture book which features a strong voice is Touch the Sky: Alice Coachman, Olympic High Jumper. Author Ann Malaspina tells the true-life tale of a young girl who dreams of being the first African-American woman to win gold at the Olympics. Her medals won while competing as part of Tuskegee Institute's famous Golden Tigerettes only increase her determination to reach that goal.
Tall Tale boasting would be inappropriate for this genre, of course, because as Dizzy Dean (and others) would say, "It ain't bragging if you can do it." Instead, the prose here is more lyrical, and almost poetic:

Alice Coachman raced
down the dirt road,
bare feet flying,
long legs spinning, 
braids flapping
in the wind...


She sailed over

a tree branch
and kept on running.

Students will come to appreciate the power of repetition, parallel structure, and flow in such lines as:

Fields shut.
Tracks shut. 
Doors shut
to girls like Alice.
No place to practice.
No crossbar to raise.

Alice and her friends got busy.

Knotting rags.
Tying rags to sticks.
Planting sticks 
in the red Georgia clay.

Then her friends stood back 

and let Alice jump.

Illustrations by Eric Velasquez (trust me, you know this guy; we all have chapter books in our classrooms bearing his work) fill each page, providing not only energy and emotion, but historical context as well.

  • Check out the Teacher's Guide at Albert Whitman and Company for discussion questions, cross-curricular extensions, and ready-to-use assessments.
  • In connection with biography readings for either Back History Month or Women's History Month, encourage students to rewrite key events from a famous person's life using the lyrical style of (fellow New Jerseyan) Ann Malaspina. Existing lines from chapter books can be reformatted into parallel structures (where possible), although I'd prefer for students to adapt those events or anecdotes they find most compelling.
  • If you enjoy Malaspina's writing, which Kirkus Reviews called "spare and elegant free verse," then definitely check out Heart on Fire: Susan B. Anthony Votes for President, another spot-on writing exemplar for young authors, with superb illustrations by Steve James. Susan B. Anthony's law-defying act of voting is little known to students, but rivals the illegal actions of such "criminals" as Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks,  and Martin Luther King, Jr. See the classroom guide for this book which was named to the Top Ten of the Amelia Bloomer Project.
Mentor Text: Prairie Chicken Little
In the tradition of this age old tale, Prairie Chicken Little by Jackie Mims Hopkins chronicles the over-reaction of one prairie chicken who thinks the sky is falling, or more accurately, a stampede is coming!
Listen to this text's unique voice as the story begins:

Out on the grasslands where bison roam, Mary McBlicken the prairie chicken was scritch-scratching for her breakfast, when all of a sudden she heard a rumbling and a grumbling and a tumbling.

"Oh, no!" she exclaimed. "A stampede's a comin'! I need to hightail it back to the ranch to tell Cowboy Stan and Red Dog Dan. They'll know what to do."

So away Mary ran, lickety-splickety, as fast as her little prairie chicken legs could carry her.

The onomatopoeia, the rhymes, and the word choice (such as "hightail it") combine to create a voice that matches both the book's setting and its levity. The book's fun is well supported by Henry Cole's splendid pictures. You might recall seeing his handiwork in Three Hens and a Peacock, mentioned here in a previous post.

  • In the event that your students are studying other ecosystems such as as rain forests or polar regions, you could adapt this idea, challenging students to create a crisis or calamity, as well as appropriate creatures who would help spread the word. It's a pretty cool way to synthesize students' collection of random facts from a unit into a creative response. Can't you just see a penguin or a toucan as the main character?
  • Fractured Fairy Tales are an all time favorite for kids to read, and they're fun to write as well. A recent post at the Peachtree Publishing blog provides some great titles to get you started.
  • Have students research any of the animals from Prairie Chicken Little. Some of the real-life critters who populate this book sport some pretty amazing features. A good place to start? The Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society.
Do you have a favorite picture book to teach author's voice? If so, share it below!

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