Friday, February 27, 2015

A Powerful Pair of Books by Gail Gibbons

Two books by Gail Gibbons are so useful and so interesting that they deserve a special nod. They are the newly released THE FRUITS WE EAT and its companion book, THE VEGETABLES WE EAT. With their clearly written text and abundant illustrations, these books make it easy to help children grapple with these big questions:
·      What’s a fruit? What’s a vegetable?
·      Why should we eat fruits? Vegetables?
·      How are fruits grown? Vegetables?
·      How are fruits harvested? Vegetables?
·      What are the parts of different fruits? Vegetables?

Each book could be read and discussed alone.  But when they are read and discussed together they provide a rich basis for comparisons and contrasts. Now we can talk and write about these questions:
·      How are fruits and vegetables similar? How are they different?
·      What is a fruit vegetable?

In addition, there are nonfiction features to notice in these books:
·      Examine the labeled diagrams, and encourage children to use diagrams when they write.
·      Notice that the text states generalizations using clearly written text, while the illustrations give many specifics that support these generalizations.  Discuss how the author states key ideas clearly and provides detailed illustrations that help readers understand these ideas.This is what CCSS is referring to when they discuss integration of information.

These books are an excellent addition to a unit on plants or as part of an author study of the many books by Gail Gibbons.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Books about Wangari Maathai

Last year Mary Ann Cappiello and I wrote about how to use nonfiction picture books to discuss the career of Nobel Prize winner and political activist Wangari Maathai. We wanted children to see how her life’s work is an outstanding example of a “global citizenship,” a person caring for the rights and well-being of everyone.  You can access this article on the School Library Journal website at
We created a teaching unit that combined Common Core Standards and Social Studies Standards (C3).
A new book about Wangari Maathai written by Franck Prévot and illustrated by Aurélia Fronty makes an excellent addition to this inquiry teaching unit and helps us further integrate language arts and social studies. As a number of reviewers have pointed out, this book emphasizes Maathai’s stance on political issues—women’s rights, democracy, and British colonialism. The book also provides us opportunities to discuss both the content and craft of the book. 

Here are some interesting content topics to discuss:
·      The impact of British colonialism on the land and people of Kenya
·      How Wangari stood up against Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi, who planned real estate projects that would threaten forests and wildlife species
·      Wangari’s outreach to world leaders and local Kenyan farmers
·      Her persistence over time, despite several imprisonments
            Here are some interesting craft topics to discuss:
·      The use of italic font to comment on the information in the book. Here’s how the book begins: “It’s almost as if Wangari Maathai is still alive, since the trees she planted still grow.”
·      The use of color to reinforce ideas. Green is used liberally on pages that emphasize planting trees. Yellow is used on pages that inspire hope. For example, when Wangari takes on a more active political role.
·      Extensive back matter includes photographs of Wangari, a timeline of events in her life, a map of Kenya today, quotations from Wangari, and a bibliography.

Combine this new book with the four others about Wangari Maathai for some interesting discussions, writing, and illustrating:

Books about Wangari Maathai:
Johnson, J. C. (2010). Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to Peace. Ill. by S. L. Sadler. New York: Lee & Low.
Napoli, D. J. (2010). Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya. Ill. By K. Nelson. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Nivola, C. A. (2008). Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Winter, J. (2008). Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa. Orlando: Harcourt.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A National and International Treasure: The BPL Digital Collections

1482 Map from the 4th Edition of Ptolemy's Cosmographia
Readers of this blog, teachers and librarians alike, may be delighted to learn about what has been happening at the Boston Public Library over the past six years. Now you might wonder what the Boston Public Library has to do with you and your students if you live in other parts of the country. Or, you might think, great, another colonial archival available. Yes, there are the transcripts of the Salem Witch Trials, and a map owned by Benjamin Franklin. However, the collection of rare materials, such as documents, maps, photographs, books, Shakespeare folios, etc. is truly international in scope. I learned about this collection from a story in the Boston Globe last week.  

As I understand it, the new database created by the library with funds from the state of Massachusetts will soon be made available to the public, and I will be sure to post about that resource when it becomes available. Until then, items have been made available through other open-source sites as they have been digitized. Photographs are available through a Flickr account. Digitized historic children's books from the Jordan Collection of the Boston Public Library have been housed at the International Children's Digital Library. Other collections have been made available on the Internet Archive. Some, like The Normal B. Leventhal Map Center, is up and running. 

As an FYI, if you don't know of the International Children's Digital Library, it is an amazing resource out of the University of Maryland. Children's books from around in the world are available in digitized format. It's a wonderful resource for your work with English Language Learners who are literate in their home language -- to continue to give them access to books written in their first language, written by members of their culture. 

We want students to engage in authentic nonfiction texts of all kind and genres. There are so many wonderful text sets that can build using children's and young adult nonfiction and these digital resources. I'm giddy with anticipation, and more than slightly overwhelmed by the treasure-trove of teaching resources such a public collection presents. 

Friday, February 6, 2015

Super Bowl Blizzard of Awards - Dateline Chicago - Feb. 2, 2015

Chicago is the windy city and it maintained it reputation during ALA MidWinter this past weekend. While Chicago was under a Blizzard warning, flights cancelled, and Super Bowl celebrations abound. Monday, Feb. 2nd brought us the book award announcements many of us look forward to each year.

The 2015 Robert F. Sibert Medal went to:

The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus, written by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet.  The book is published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.  

Bryant and Sweet have created a very successful team. In 2009,  winning a Caldecott Honor Medal for A River of Words:  The Story of William Carlos Williams  
A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin, written by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet (Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc.) was the 2014 Sibert Honor book.
In November 2013,  Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet participated in a session at the AASL National Conference in Hartford, CT.  Mary Anny Capiello was the moderator of this session that included Doreen Rappaport, Matt Tavaras, and Andrea Davis Pinkney.  The session was titled Biographies through Picture Books: A Focus on the CCSS - "Picture-book biographies draw readers into exploring a slice of history.  Through both words and images, authors can share primary sources with young audiences."  This session was insightful and provided wonderful back stories from all the participating authors who shared their labor of love stories.  Mary Ann was an excellent moderator who studied and prepared questions that helped draw out interesting stories for all participants.  It was one of my favorite sessions I attended at this conference.  I remember Jan and Melissa sharing their experience about working on the Horace Pippin biography.  It is great to see their collaborations continuing with such success.  Congratulation!  

On a personal note living in Western New York - blizzards are something I am familiar with.  A librarian from California asked what you do during a blizzard.  I said you shelter in place.  You don't go out and challenge mother nature but I must admit I did uber to a Sports Bar for the Super Bowl.  
Last year we had two official blizzards and I did shelter in place - at home.  


Thursday, February 5, 2015

A Great Model

Somehow, January 2015 is already over and I'm not quite sure where it went. The month flew by, and between two work weekends, a flu-like virus and forty-plus inches of snow, here I am. But now it's February, my spring semester has begun, each and every day the sun shines a little brighter, and I am back to blogging here at the Uncommon Corps. I want to share a wonderful professional development model with you, a model that can work in systems large and small, for a wide range of professional development experiences. 

Last winter, I was asked by staff in the Office of Library Services in the New York City Department of Education if I would consider being a consultant on a grant that they were submitting to the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Melissa Jacobs Israel spear-headed the project, which was awarded one of the IMLS National Leadership grants.  

The official description of the grant reads as follows: 
The New York City Department of Education will build a digital gateway for students and teachers called “Project ECS@ESC: Encouraging Connections through STEM” at the Environmental Study Center. This will offer rich and engaging experiential environmental science programs for students and teachers at all grade levels. The project will develop a digital depository of educational materials and digital resources that connect instructional content and programs. Educators and students will access the instructional resources beyond the walls of ESC, facilitating STEM-focused inquiry experiences in the classroom and utilizing instructional materials, e-content, and digital resources. It will also create a digital depository using Springshare’s Libguides, an online content management system, to provide e-content focused on STEM topics and themes.
Photo copyright Environmental Study Center, NYC Public Schools
I had no idea that the Environmental Study Center was a part of New York City Public Schools. But it is, complete with live animals, out in Flatbush, Brooklyn. 

I think the design of the project is brilliant (which I can say because I didn't plan any of it - the Office of Library Services and Environmental Study Center team did). Teachers and school librarians from New York City Public Schools volunteer (and get paid) to be on a planning team to curate text sets and develop curriculum units aligned with the offerings of the Environmental Study Center. Teams are comprised of two classroom teachers, one school librarian, and one staff member from the ESC. The teams receive professional development on inquiry-based science instruction, digital resources available via databases that the NYC schools subscribe to, and the process of creating and using multimodal, multigenre text sets. 

I spent a Saturday in early January working with the first two teams, providing professional development on text sets and text selection, drawing from the ideas in my two books Teaching with Text Sets (Cappiello & Dawes, Shell, 2012) and Teaching to Complexity (Cappiello & Dawes, Shell, 2014). The teams were interesting and interested, engaging and engaged. It was a joy to a work with them, all while hearing the squawks and squeaks of the animals from the Center in the background. 

The teams will continue to meet under the guidance of staff from Library Services and the ESC. They will develop text sets and curriculum.  My colleague and co-author Erika and I will review the work and provide feedback. Once the curriculum is finalized, it will become available to all in a public Libguide, along with the curated digital resources, e-books, etc. available to teachers using the curriculum with the NYC school district. Over the summer, the two teams will provide professional development for the teachers who will be using the newly-designed curriculum next school year. Then, the process starts all over again, for a total of three years.

Erika and I are the only outsiders. Otherwise, this grant uses the expertise that is already in the system, and creates a new network of curriculum experts in the teams of teachers and librarians. The process produces locally-created curricula for the school system, utilizes an amazing local resource that gets students out of the confines of the classroom and gives them the opportunity for hands-on science, and creates a cadre of teachers and librarians working across districts within the system who have increased knowledge of curriculum design, inquiry, text selection and text sets, and a sense of agency based on their delivery of professional development to their colleagues. 

Isn't it marvelous? Isn't it a great example of harnessing strengths within a school system and building capacity? It could easily be replicated with other content areas. I'm sure there are other projects out there working with a similar model, and I'd love to hear about them in the comments section. I'll report out more as the project progresses here on this blog and in other venues with Melissa and her team.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Are You Looking for Books About the Role of Children and YAs in History?

            Once again we owe a debt of gratitude to author Phillip Hoose for bringing us another true story about young people’s role in history. First there was his book We Were There, Too!: Young People in U.S. History, a book that provides the missing stories of children’s role throughout American history. What a terrific asset for anyone trying to include more diverse stories into “the grand narrative” of U.S. history. Then there was Claudette Colvin, Twice Toward Justice, the story of the young black teenager who refused to give up her seat on the bus well before the memorable actions of Rosa Parks. And she did more than that, too. Through Colvin’s story we learn that civil rights movement is much larger than we might have once thought. It embraces many, many more stories that are continuing to come to light.

            Now we have Hoose’s latest book, The Churchill Club: Knud Pedersen and the Boys Who Challenged Hitler. In this book, we learn how young Knud Pederson, his brother, and some of his schoolmates resisted the German occupation of Denmark during the early years of World War II by performing dangerous acts of resistance. At a time when the Danish government willingly turned over their country to Nazi occupation, the Churchill Club refused to accept Nazi control. If ever a story raised questions about moral behavior, this is it. Was it right to steal guns belonging to Nazi soldiers? Was it right to destroy cars and buildings used by Nazi occupiers? These kids ended up in jail. They suffered terribly. Yet, their actions sparked a larger resistance effort in Denmark.  If ever a book narrated history focused on the actions of kids, this is it. In fact, Hoose interviewed Knud Pederson when writing this book and many quotes from Pederson are included throughout the book.

            The Common Core State Standards ask us to pay attention to how an author’s point of view or purpose shapes content. Clearly, Hoose’s purpose in writing has influenced his books. Readers can discuss how. In the process, they will learn about the craft and structure of writing. How did Hoose give voice to the members of the Churchill Club? It's an interesting question to pursue.

          The Churchill Club is also ideal for adding to a text-set on World War II, a text-set on children throughout history, or a text-set based on the many books of Phillip Hoose (science and history). Or, it’s good to read just on its own.


Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Testing, Testing, 123

As you all may have seen, Arne Duncan, as Secretary of Education, has affirmed the role and importance of high stakes testing HERE And depending on your state, you may already have been through a round of PARCC or Smarter Balanced testing, or may be preparing for your first leap into the deep waters this spring semester. Speaking as a loud and longtime advocate for the Common Core State Standards, I think we all now need to look deeply and carefully at the assessments. 

The CCSS are, as we all know, about skills, not content. Each state, district, school crafts its own curriculum, while weaving in the age and grade appropriate skills. The goal is to have college and career ready graduates. The assessments, then, must cut across content areas, must not be dependent upon or be measures of words, terms, dates, concepts that students have learned. Rather they are to measure that the student has learned how to learn -- has come to understand (at the level appropriate to his/her grade band) how to read carefully, how to look for evidence, how to compare and contrast sources, how to identify and evaluate point of view. Fine. But in order to be manageable across the nation, the tests -- as one can see on the websites of PARCC and SB -- are significantly machine gradable. That is, while there are constructed responses (short essays) there are also multiple choice questions. Can multiple choice questions truly capture the kind of inquiry, critical thinking, creative engagement with text that CCSS requires?

I am between deeply doubtful and deeply concerned. Or maybe this whole testing thing needs to be viewed differently: maybe looked at in aggregate, as a cross-section of the entire population of a school or district, multiple choice CCSS tests may be valuable. We can see how a given student body is faring and, over time, progressing (or regressing). But as a way to evaluate an individual, boy I'm not convinced.

I am only beginning to explore assessments, and with little prior knowledge. Friends, many of you are educators, I urge everyone to go to the PARCC and SB sites and explore. We should all look, experiment, and then speak out -- not on the ideological questions of whether students should be assessed, or whether the CCSS are a good idea, or the degree to which the evaluations of professionals in the school are tied to student performance on these tests -- on the tests themselves. As engaged educators, how do we assess the assessments, and what improvements can we suggest. 

We have moved from standards to assessments, and we as professionals need to take on this next task.