Saturday, October 3, 2015

A History Book for Elementary School Readers with All the Necessary Pieces: The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch

            The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch is an inspiring, well-written, and well-illustrated biography of the accomplishments of an African-American man who was a slave until his teenage years, but later became a Justice of the Peace, a member of the Mississippi House of Representatives, and ultimately a member of the United States House of Representatives. This is a clearly told story of big, bold accomplishment, and it is accompanied by illustrations that give young readers a sense of historical context. Readers not only “see” what it looked like during the Civil War and the Reconstruction period, they get a look at the emotions people felt.  This would be enough for me to recommend this book.

            However there is more. The back matter is excellent. It consists of the following elements that are all worthy of careful attention. Anyone teaching CCSS standard of Craft and Structure will find these items useful and informative:
·      Historical Note: The author explains what happened during the “Reconstruction” period that followed the Civil War.
·      Timeline: Taking a “life-and-times” approach, events in John Roy Lynch’s life appear in black, while state and national events appear in red.  This is an easily understandable format.
·      Author’s Note: Among other things, the author invites us to think about the significance of John Roy’s life: “His is a personal tale so unlikely that it calls on us to linger, to ask questions, to seek to understand the context, and to delve into the details of the overlooked time in which he lived. “ I can’t think of a better invitation to delve into history.
·      Illustrator’s Note: Not only does the illustrator admit that before illustrating this book he “wasn’t very knowledgeable about Reconstruction,” he also describes his necessary research and his artistic choices.
·      Suggestions for Further Reading: A list of recommended books is a fine starting place for learning more about Reconstruction.
·      Map Showing Reconstruction States and Important Places in John Roy Lynch’s Life. A very clear graphic that is useful for discussion of how maps present information.
Books like this one provide content and help readers understanding the process of learning about the past. This is essential for understanding history.


Monday, September 14, 2015

Exciting Discoveries Reveal the Nature of Science

             The recent discovery of a new species in the human family—Homo naledi—identified by anthropologist Lee Berger and his team of researchers in South Africa reveals how science works. That is, our understandings are tentative and, therefore, subject to change. You can read a New York Times article about this groundbreaking discovery at This find not only helps us understand how we evolved as humans, it also illustrates what Dr. Berger means when he said, “There is no substitute for exploration.”

            We have an exciting opportunity to connect this new discovery to previous work by Dr. Berger. In the book The Skull in the Rock, published in 2012, authors Lee Berger and Marc Aronson describe how a different fossil discovery in South Africa changed our understanding of evolution. In this case, Matthew Berger, the scientist’s son found a fossil of a bone from a species previously unknown to scientists. That species, Australopithecus sediba, provided a new window on the past. You can read the Classroom Bookshelf’s review of Skull in the Rock as well as their numerous ideas for teaching and suggestions of useful resources at

            When used together—the new information about Homo naledi and the older information about Australopithecus sediba--clearly show the nature of science in action. This material illustrates these big ideas:
·      Science is tentative, yet reliable. While generally reliable and durable, scientific knowledge is subject to change over time. It can be expanded or discarded.
·      Science is the product of observation and inference. Scientists gather evidence by making observations in the natural world. They make inferences based on a combination of observation and prior knowledge.
·      Scientists use creative and imaginative methods. There is no single, lock-step method for doing science.

            We teachers have a grand opportunity here for developing scientific literacy. First, there is material readily available about both discoveries on the Internet. Constructing text-sets incorporating nonfiction books, journal articles, newspapers articles, and videos will be easy. Second, the immediacy of this find makes it exciting. And, third, we get to show the true nature of science. It's a gift.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Family Histories

            Remembered family stories are small treasures. They remind us of events that—while not of broad historical significance to the world at large—are important to us individually as part of our own histories. 
            Out of the Woods: A True Story of an Unforgettable Event by Rebecca Bond is an outstanding example of a family story to share with elementary school students. This book relates an episode in the life of Antonio Willie Giroux, the author’s grandfather, who lived in Ontario, Canada, in a hotel run by his mother. He loved the hotel, the people who worked there, the residents who came to hunt or fish, and those who worked in the forest that surrounded the hotel. Antonio wanted to get closer to the forest animals, but mostly he just managed to observe the evidence that they were there—their sounds, tracks, and nests.
            In 1914, when Antonio was almost five, a terrible fire broke out in the forest, causing the people living in the hotel to head for the nearby lake to escape the danger. Men, women, and children standing in the lake with water up to their knees were soon joined by the forest animals such as foxes, bobcats, and bears. Amazingly, Antonio got to see the forest animals up close. At the author tells us, Antonio “never forgot how he had watched that distance between animals and people disappear in the summer of 1914.” It was truly a memorable experience.
            This book is a fine choice for a read aloud and subsequent discussion of family histories. Afterwards, try some of these Common Core/Common Sense ideas for students and teachers: 
  •  Write and illustrate a family story you want to remember and share with others.     
  •  Notice the artwork in this book—the detailed drawings that capture the setting of rural Ontario, the hotel, the people who lived there, the surrounding forest, and the animals. Illustrations and words work seamlessly together. 
  • Examine the captivating language that appeals to the senses. Gather several examples. Here is one: “When Antonio was almost five, the summer was so dry the green carpets of moss yellowed, the silky grass crisped, and the pine needles on the trees turned brittle.” 
  • Read the author's note and examine the accompanying photograph. Ask students if they have a family photograph they can use to help them tell or write about a family story. 
            If you are looking for a terrific read aloud or a great way to jumpstart the writing of family stories, this is the book for you. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Celebrating the Voting Rights Act of 1965

            While I am not a strong advocate of the “holiday” or “anniversary” curriculum, I must admit that the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has resulted in a fine crop of books—old and new—for teaching and learning. You can see an excellent list on the School Library Journal website at

            I want to focus on one particular book, Lillian’s Right to Vote by Jonah Winter and Shane W. Evans. This book is based on the life of Lillian Allen, an African American woman who at the age of 100 was able to vote for the first African American president.

            This book can be used to introduce Common Core standards:
·      Key Ideas and Details: What did the Voting Rights Act of 1965 guarantee? How did it come about?
·      Craft and Structure: In his author’s note, Jonah Winter states that Lillian’s uphill climb in order to vote is a metaphor for the uphill climb faced by African Americans pursuing their right to vote. In what ways has it been an uphill climb? What obstacles did Lillian Allen face? How do the words and illustrations work together to show this?
·      Integration of Information: Listen to an NPR interview with Lillian Allen at What new information did you learn?

            There are also important civic issues to discuss. First, as the author mentions, current attempts to implement photo ID requirements have had the effect of denying people their right to vote. There is still work to be done to protect this right. How can this be done? Second, the Voting Rights Act has been a long time coming. What were the steps along the way?

            I am happy to see a well-written and well-illustrated book that introduces this compelling information to young readers and celebrates people like Lillian Allen who pursue their rights as Americans. 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

What If Mind-Gripping Books Were the Center of Curriculum?

            I just finished reading M. T. Anderson’s Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad. This is truly a mind-gripping book for YAs and adults. Sure, I knew some of the details before I started reading—the German invasion of Russia, the unspeakable acts of Stalin and Hitler, the impact of history on everyday life, and the enormous power of music. Yet there was still so much that I didn’t know about—the life of Dmitri Shostakovich during the siege of Leningrad, the efforts to copy the symphony on microfilm in order to send it to the U.S., the terrible human suffering and loss of life, and the persistence of the human spirit in even the worst of times.

            I found this complex book totally engaging.  I found myself thinking about it during the day and stealing time from my schedule to read just a bit more. I talked about to everyone who crossed my path.  That’s because there is so much in this book to think about: questions of freedom and control, the power of art and music to change our lives, the moral decisions we make about war and peace, the quality of our personal relationships, the nature of heroes and villains, and more.

            Some of the events described were so painful that I had to stop reading and do something else for a while. Other times, I simply had to read on to see what would happen next. Not only did I learn a great deal about Shostakovich and his family, I learned about the incredibly difficult circumstances in which he lived. In addition, there was the author’s presence in the book, reminding me that this history was difficult to construct. Not only was a massive amount of research necessary, but also it was hard to tell if certain sources were even credible. To learn more about this book, see Betsy Bird’s informative interview with M. T. Anderson at

            Reading this book prompted me to think about this important question: What if complex, mind-gripping books drove our curriculum, at least part of the time? What if pacing calendars mandating the topics teachers must cover during specific months were replaced every so often with time given over to mind-gripping books? What if we focused some attention on reader response—how books make us feel? The passion for reading just might return. And, surprisingly enough, those Common Core and subject matter standards would still be embedded in the experience of reading a responding. We could, in effect, bring back “feelings” while still teaching “facts.” We could have both.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Paul Fleischman has been making some very interesting use of digital media to extend and expand the ideas in his book Eyes Wide Open. Most recently, he created this Youtube video using the current drought in California as a larger lesson in how we relate to the environment: Youtube. As you'll see, he can use the most current headlines, fights, debates, issues while also, well, opening our eyes to large issues.

I see real potential in this -- in a book, using a headline involves permissions (thus time, perhaps cost, the chance of being refused on political or some such grounds) -- but in a video you take information ripped, as it were, from the headlines and turn it directly into ideas, questions, lessons that can be used, even as that news is current. 

A book spells out and explores ideas. But then, as life relates to those ideas, an author can create little video lessons linked to the book. I like this idea a lot. 

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Transforming Transportation: Past/Present Parallels

            I am so glad to see a new book by Martin W. Sandler. He is a well-established writer of history books for intermediate and middle school readers and with good reason: His books are clearly written, with an abundance of historical photographs, and lots of background information. His new book, Iron Rails, Iron Men, and the Race to Link the Nation: The Story of the Transcontinental Railroad upholds these standards.

            As Sandler tells us, this is a story of visionary thinkers and hard workers, but also of greedy, corrupt men and violence. Above all, it is a story of transformation, since the Transcontinental Railroad changed our country in many ways, some good and others not so good. There have been other accounts of building the Transcontinental Railroad. There is Rhoda Blumberg’s Full Steam Ahead: The Race to Build a Transcontinental Railroad and Milton Meltzer’s Hear that Train Whistle Blow! How the Railroad Changed the World, but these excellent books are both out of print. They are, however, well worth seeking out.

            As I was reading Iron Rails I kept thinking about the connections I could make to today’s transportation situation. We in New York are facing our own challenges with outdated and faulty rail lines and tunnels and frustrated commuters in the Northeast Corridor. Our own LaGuardia Airport is scheduled to be torn down and rebuilt because it is so out of date. The New York Times has been running articles about this that make for interesting reading, especially while reading Iron Rails.

            So, while this is a fine book to use to discuss Common Core standards such as key ideas and details or integrating photographs and written text or the many nonfiction craft features included in the book, it is also the opportunity to look for ways in which this story resonates with our lives today. Past/present parallels are worth knowing and thinking about. They help us discover the significance of the past.