Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Glad to be back here with the team. I am blogging about our starting this up again in my SLJ blog. One thing that I am seeing -- and would love to hear about from all of you -- is the many, many different CCres. That is, the implementation, who is doing the work (school and/or public librarians; teachers; literacy coaches; admins; parents), the nature of the challenge, the assessments, vary from state to state. So while the standards are the same and many aspects of the CC are the same, the experience on the ground varies widely. While I hear about states bowing out, resistance, parents opting out of tests, I am seeing a lot "can do," "give me suggestions," "how can I help" spirit.

So might be nice to build a kind of state by state grid -- what is going on in each state. What information sources are librarians using -- their own? Ideas from other states? Which? That way we can start to see who can help whom, and how. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

Extras: Do They Add? or Are They Bad?

Recently I was copied on an email sent from a well-known nonfiction author to other nonfiction writers.  The author was wondering about how to deal with an editor who was suggesting the addition of lots of "extras" to the book she was writing. These extras could be videos linked to an e-book, sidebars or "fun facts," photographs and illustrations, graphs, charts, tables, and more.

Now those of us who teach may already be aware of the research that says that "extras" that distract readers attention from the main idea of a text do affect comprehension...and not in a good way. Kids may begin to believe that the interesting facts offered are, in fact, the main idea. After all, look how interesting they are! They must be important.

Here's what I think. When all the nonfiction features are working together in a supportive way, then that constitutes excellent nonfiction. Check out Locomotive, the best example I know of how nonfiction features support each other. That is, the main idea, structure, style, integration of visual information, and disciplinary thinking are mutually supportive. An excellent text doesn't need extraneous extras to amuse and excite readers. It's already engaging enough. 

Don't get me wrong. I am not against extras. I am only against extras that distract readers and don't help them build understanding of the main idea of a book.  And, I am finding it very encouraging that writers and teachers are coming to the same conclusion. That's probably because good writers don't need distracting extras because they write so well that their writing both informs and holds our interest.

So, I am thinking that when we look as "extras," we ought to ask: Does that feature support the main idea of the book or does it distract from its message? Such a simple question just might yield surprising answers. 


Thursday, November 21, 2013

A Picture-Book Biographer Sets the Record Straight

I thoroughly enjoyed the AASL meetings last week in Hartford.  I went to several author panels.  It’s always fun to put a face and voice to an author’s name, and to hear their thoughts about the craft.  Among the highlights was a panel on picture book biography, skillfully moderated by Mary Ann.  I was dazzled by how much effort goes into a top-notch picture book biography, as shown in an anecdote that Matt Tavares related about his research.  He was working on Hank Aaron’s Dream, and had decided to feature a well-known story about Ted Williams and Aaron.  Here’s how Tavares tells it on his website (

He was a 20-year-old minor leaguer, traveling with the big-league Braves during spring training in 1954, playing the last few innings of each game. Then on March 13, the Braves' starting left-fielder, Bobby Thomson, broke his ankle during a spring training game. The very next day, on March 14, the Braves played the Boston Red Sox in Sarasota, and Henry Aaron was the new starting left-fielder for the Braves. He hit a home run that day, and the sound of his bat hitting the ball was so spectacular that the great Red Sox superstar Ted Williams came running out from the clubhouse to see who had hit that ball.

It’s a terrific story, verified in Aaron’s autobiography and an article by Williams.  But when Tavares wanted the illustration to include the line-up for the game, he tracked it down in digital newspaper archives.  That’s when the whole story started to unravel: the date was wrong and Ted Williams was in a hospital in Boston during that game.  Tavares’s detective work, as he calls it, changed how he told the story in the book, of course. 

What a tribute to the attention to detail in today’s best nonfiction.  And to cap it off, Tavares explains his research process and includes images of the newspapers on his website, so teachers and librarians can share it with students.  

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Need for School Librarians

Four out of the five of us were in Connecticut this week for the annual conference of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) in Hartford. I imagine we all might be posting our ruminations over the next few days. An article posted on Thursday on School Library Journal's website captures the dilemma the city of Hartford and other communities in Connecticut face: a dearth of certified school librarians to provide students with access to books and teachers with the support they need for books and digital texts that can be used in units of study. I heard my own version of this dilemma from a former student teaching in Connecticut.

Just as I was beginning the session that I was moderating, I happened to notice a woman sit down on the end of one of the aisles, a librarian with whom I worked for years in suburban New York City. As a teacher educator speaking to a room full of librarians, it was particularly rewarding to have in that room two librarians from two different public schools in different states in which I've taught. I know I couldn't, and can't, do the work that I do without collaborating with librarians. As districts across the nation try to make the switch to the Common Core Standards, I hope more can look not at the latest "something" that they can buy, but rather, at how they can build capacity within schools by creating and fostering a climate of collaboration between administrators, teachers, literacy coaches, and school librarians.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Exemplary Texts for Thinking About Craft and Structure

A recent article by Karla Moller in the Fall 2013 issue of  Journal of Children's Literature entitled "Considering the CCSS Nonfictional Literature Exemplars as Cultural Artifacts: What Do They Represent?" emphasized the need to carefully examine the "exemplary texts" listed in Appendix B. It got me wondering about this famous list. What makes these books exemplary? What are they exemplary of? How do they support learning in content areas and in language and literacy? How do they match curriculum in science, math, and social studies? How do they support learning in these areas?

With these questions in mind, I headed back to Appendix B. I learned--once again--that these books are exemplars of the level of complexity and quality required at different grade bands.

But what if, in addition to having students work so hard to show us they "get" the content, they also focused on the creative part of shaping information? This involves various elements working together--(1) the main idea, (2) the organizational structure, (3) the style of writing, (4) the integration of visual information, and (5) the use of disciplinary thinking. This is the crucial part students often don't get: There is a creative side to writing nonfiction that is influenced by the author's decisions and disciplinary constraints. Even my graduate students are surprised by the flexibility of formats and options open to writers, so I am pretty sure younger students are too. Understanding the process of writing nonfiction is just as important as understanding the content presented.

So I would like to suggest some titles that can be used as exemplars of the craft of shaping information:

  • Locomotive by Brian Floca can be read as an example of how poetic language and detailed and sometimes humorous illustration work together to promote understanding.
  • Amelia Lost by Candace Fleming can be read to see that there are alternatives to writing biographies in chronological order.
  • The Boy on the Wooden Box by Leon Leyson can be read to see how memoir can be written using flashbacks and flashforwards. Once again, an author makes flexible use of chronology to enhance the telling of true story. In this case, the author's open, honest, sincere tone invite us into this compelling story.
  • Migrant Mother: How a Photograph Defined the Great Depression by Don Nardo can be read to see how a whole book can be designed to provide context for understanding a single iconic photograph.
  • Night Flight by Robert Burleigh and illustrated by Wendell Minor can be read to see how rich, poetic text accompanied by dramatic paintings evoke an event in history.
  • What Do You Do With a Tail Like This? by Steve Jenkins and Robin Paige can be read to see how a guessing game with questions and answers can interest readers in thinking about science--in this case, the form and function of animal parts. Jenkins' characteristic cut-paper illustrations support this experience.

The point is this: Even though CCSS has a standard devoted to craft and structure, there is more to it than understanding a collection of separate techniques. The techniques work together in a supportive manner. That's what exemplary text means to me. And, that is why I think this integration of content and craft needs to be further examined.

Friday, October 25, 2013


A colleague just shared this posting from The Washington Post Answer Sheet blog. Over one hundred authors and illustrators of children's and young adult literature, in cooperation with  Fair Test, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing wrote a letter to President Obama urging him to reconsider the role that standardized tests currently play in public education. I couldn't agree more.

As someone who believes that the Common Core Standards are a flexible continuum for K-12 literacy and content literacy learning, I get discouraged when they are considered synonymous with standardized testing. But for many teachers, particularly those in Race to the Top states, they are synonymous. Teachers are drowning in top down mandates, and have neither the time nor the "permission" to respond to actual student needs and interests. It is possible to be student-centered, creative, and standards-based. But growing readers and writers, and crafting curriculum, instruction, and assessment that is meaningful to children takes time, attention, and a sense of agency that too many teachers no longer have.

There is a clear disconnect between policy makers and educators. There is a clear disconnect between what children need from school and what schools provide for them.  There is a clear disconnect about the urgency of the problem, the number of children who are growing completely disengaged with school because it fails to meet their needs as people, as citizens. Clearly, Congress sees no urgency, as it has failed to act on reauthorizing No Child Left Behind, more appropriately known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, since it was first up for re-authorization in 2007.

Short of Congressional changes to the law, what can be done? For starters, the Administration can reconsider the role of standardized tests and the emphasis on competition instead of collaboration that runs through the Race to the Top program that it created and continues to promote. Moreover, school leaders, state administrators, and policy makers could provide tools that model authentic assessments, performance-based assessments, and the integration of engaging and age appropriate texts in K-12 classrooms, rather that pouring so much time and money into what PARCC and the Smarter Balanced Assessment consortia are doing.

Parents and engaged citizens can also add their voices of protest. Here is a complete text of the letter, courtesy of the Fair Test website. 

October 22, 2013

President Barack Obama
The White House
Washington, DC 20500

Dear President Obama,

We the undersigned children’s book authors and illustrators write to express our concern for our readers, their parents and teachers. We are alarmed at the negative impact of excessive school testing mandates, including your Administration’s own initiatives, on children’s love of reading and literature. Recent policy changes by your Administration have not lowered the stakes. On the contrary, requirements to evaluate teachers based on student test scores impose more standardized exams and crowd out exploration.

 We call on you to support authentic performance assessments, not simply computerized versions of multiple-choice exams. We also urge you to reverse the narrowing of curriculum that has resulted from a fixation on high-stakes testing.

Our public school students spend far too much time preparing for reading tests and too little time curling up with books that fire their imaginations. As Michael Morpurgo, author of the Tony Award Winner War Horse, put it, “It's not about testing and reading schemes, but about loving stories and passing on that passion to our children.”

Teachers, parents and students agree with British author Philip Pullman who said, “We are creating a generation that hates reading and feels nothing but hostility for literature.” Students spend time on test practice instead of perusing books. Too many schools devote their library budgets to test-prep materials, depriving students of access to real literature. Without this access, children also lack exposure to our country’s rich cultural range.

This year has seen a growing national wave of protest against testing overuse and abuse. As the authors and illustrators of books for children, we feel a special responsibility to advocate for change. We offer our full support for a national campaign to change the way we assess learning so that schools nurture creativity, exploration, and a love of literature from the first day of school through high school graduation.

Alma Flor Ada
Alma Alexander
Jane Ancona
Maya Angelou
Jonathan Auxier
Kim Baker
Molly Bang
Tracy Barrett
Chris Barton
Ari Berk
Judy Blume
Alfred B. (Fred) Bortz
Lynea Bowdish
Sandra Boynton
Shellie Braeuner
Ethriam Brammer
Louann Mattes Brown
Anne Broyles
Michael Buckley
Janet Buell
Dori Hillestad Butler
Charito Calvachi-Mateyko
Valerie Scho Carey
Rene Colato Lainez
Henry Cole
Ann Cook
Karen Coombs
Robert Cortez
Cynthia Cotten
Bruce Coville
Ann Crews
Donald Crews
Nina Crews
Rebecca Kai Dotlich
Laura Dower
Kathryn Erskine
Jules Feiffer
Jody Feldman
Mary Ann Fraser
Sharlee Glenn
Barbara Renaud Gonzalez
Laurie Gray
Trine M. Grillo
Claudia Harrington
Sue Heavenrich
Linda Oatman High
Anna Grossnickle Hines
Lee Bennett Hopkins
Phillip Hoose
Diane M. Hower
Michelle Houts
Mike Jung
Kathy Walden Kaplan
Amal Karzai
Jane Kelley
Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff
Amy Goldman Koss
JoAnn Vergona Krapp
Nina Laden
Sarah Darer Littman
José Antonio López
Mariellen López
Jenny MacKay
Marianne Malone
Ann S. Manheimer
Sally Mavor
Diane Mayr
Marissa Moss
Yesenia Navarrete Hunter
Sally Nemeth
Kim Norman
Geraldo Olivo
Alexis O’Neill
Anne Marie Pace
Amado Peña
Irene Peña
Lynn Plourde
Ellen Prager, PhD
David Rice
Armando Rendon
Joan Rocklin
Judith Robbins Rose
Sergio Ruzzier
Barb Rosenstock
Liz Garton Scanlon
Lisa Schroeder
Sara Shacter
Wendi Silvano
Janni Lee Simner
Sheri Sinykin
Jordan Sonnenblick
Ruth Spiro
Heidi E.Y. Stemple
Whitney Stewart
Shawn K. Stout
Steve Swinburne
Carmen Tafolla
Kim Tomsic
Duncan Tonatiuh
Patricia Thomas
Kristin O'Donnell Tubb
Deborah Underwood
Corina Vacco
Audrey Vernick
Debbie Vilardi
Judy Viorst
K. M. Walton
Wendy Wax
April Halprin Wayland
Carol Weis
Rosemary Wells
Lois Wickstrom
Suzanne Morgan Williams
Kay Winters
Ashley Wolff
Lisa Yee
Karen Romano Young
Jane Yolen
Roxyanne Young
Paul O. Zelinsky
Jennifer Ziegler

CC: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

For further information, contact:
Monty Neill, Ed.D.
Executive Director
Box 300204
Jamaica Plain, MA 02130

Monday, October 14, 2013

Wow! It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again

Remember thematic studies? Classroom inquiries? Author studies? I’m talking about years ago during the Whole Language movement. Well…the good news is that thematic study is back, but now it has new very different supporters, which leads me to believe it is a very useful idea indeed. I almost can’t get over it. Thematic study is something progressive and conservative educators agree on. It’s a beautiful thing.

Which leads me to my very pragmatic question: What are we studying? None of the really fine new standards documents—with the exception of the Next Generation Science Standards— are dealing with content. They are dealing with process. The new social studies document, for example, The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards: Guidance for Enhancing the Rigor of the K-12 Civics, Economics, Geography, and History (NCSS, 2013) has an inquiry arc, but what is being inquired about? Maybe I am still a concrete thinker, but I am concerned about how all the pieces fit together. And don’t get me wrong; I think this spanking new document lifts the level of conversation immensely. Still, I want to see how it works in real life.

So I am proposing a stopgap measure today—some nonfiction books that I think could jumpstart some inquiries right away.

1.     MALCOLM LITTLE: THE BOY WHO GREW UP TO BECOME MALCOLM X by Ilyasha Shabazz (Simon & Schuster, 2013) and MALCOLM X: A FIRE BURNING BRIGHTLY by Walter Dean Myers (HarperCollins, 2000). These are two picture books.

First of all, I am not sure that Malcolm X is a good choice for biography study in the primary grades, since his transformation as a thinker is quite significant and this is not dealt with in the first book at all. In spite of this, these two biographies are so vastly different that they should generate plenty of questions for inquiry. The first book, written by Malcolm X’s daughter is—as you might expect—a loving tribute to a father. Yet it leaves out a great deal about his life because (among other things) it concentrates on his childhood. The second book reveals much more about the controversial aspects of his life, and that too should generate questions. What is important to know about Malcolm X? Why?

2.     PLANTING THE TREES OF KENYA by Claire Nivola (Farrar, 2009), WANGARI’S TREES OF PEACE by Jeanette Winter (Harcourt, 2008), and SEEDS OF CHANGE by Jen Cullerton Johnson (Lee & Low, 2010) (All titles are picture books.)

These are only some of the books about the Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai, who did so much to plant trees in Kenya and alert the world to environmental issues However, they tell her story quite differently. How? What do these various accounts reveal? What do they leave out? What should people know about Wangari Mathai? Why?

3.     THE BOY ON THE WOODEN BOX by Leon Leyson (Simon & Schuster, 2013).

This moving memoir by the youngest survivor on Schindler’s List suggests that Oskar Schindler was a hero because he did, to quote Joseph Campbell,  “the best of things in the worst of times.” Should we consider him a hero? What is a hero? Can a person the author describes as “an influential Nazi” also be a hero?

            Of course, we want children to raise issues for inquiry, but we can also suggest questions and model the process. Right now the challenge is designing coherent, stimulating, manageable curriculum that puts the standards to work in our classrooms. The good news is that literature—fiction and nonfiction—will play a big role.