Friday, October 20, 2017

In the Classroom: A Community of Experts

When students have the opportunity to write a report on a topic they choose themselves, you may run into some research dilemmas. What if your library doesn’t have suitable sources? What if the reading level of websites is too advanced?

Professional nonfiction writers often have trouble finding information too. Even a nationwide or worldwide search may yield little information on a specific topic. For example, when I was working on No Monkeys, No Chocolate, I was frustrated that no one had ever written about the animals that interact with cocoa trees.

For my current work-in-progress about prehistoric creatures, I’m finding a lot of conflicting information in the scientific papers I’m reading. Some days I feel so confused because I just can’t tell which sources are the most reliable.

What do I do when I hit snags like these? I ask an expert. And there’s no reason your students can’t do the same thing.

Over the years, I’ve built relationships with scientists in various disciplines. These researchers are always happy to help me track down little-know resources or identify the leading theories among scientists in a particular field.

Your school can create a similar community of experts. Everyone is an expert in something. By surveying parents at the beginning of each school year, you can discover what they’re passionate about and whether they’re willing to answer questions on that topic from a child doing a report. You can also identify community workers who would be willing to assist students. It’s a great way to help students understand how professional writers go about their work.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

5 Reasons to Promote Expository Nonfiction to Your Students

Over the last five weeks, I’ve shared a plethora of evidence that nonfiction in general and expository nonfiction in particular deserves more attention and more love from educators. If you missed those posts, I invite you to scroll down and read them.

Why should we encourage students to read high-quality expository nonfiction books? Because compelling research shows that:

1.    Some students prefer expository nonfiction. They're more excited by ideas and information than by stories.

2.    For some students, expository nonfiction is the gateway to literacy.

3.    When students are curious about a topic, they're motivated readers. They'll often stretch above their reading level.

4.    Students with experience reading and writing expository nonfiction perform better on standardized tests.

5.    Students with experience reading and writing expository nonfiction have greater college and career success.

Next week, I'll share 5 WAYS to promote expository nonfiction to your students and your colleagues.

Monday, October 16, 2017

5 Faves: Expository Nonfiction Recommended by Melanie Roy

Can An Aardvark Bark? by Melissa Stewart (Beach Lane/Simon & Schuster, 2017)
I really enjoyed the unique format of this book. “Can a seal squeal? No, but it can bark. Lots of other animals bark too.”  It’s so interesting to put animals in categories based on the communication noises they employ. My son and I had fun learning about animals new to us such as the margay, oyster toadfish, and Hamadrayas baboons. He also had a great time with the last two interactive pages where he had the opportunity to make all the animal sounds featured in the book. This book is a winner!

Every Last Drop: Bringing Clean Water Home by Michelle Mulder (Orca, 2014)
This is a true “window” book into another’s life experience. We take our water faucets and hot showers for granted. However, this book convinces readers what a valuable resource water truly is. We used this book for a family book club. The activity was to walk up and down the hall with two gallons of water tied to a broom handle across our shoulders. Students experienced just how difficult carrying water can be. When reading this important book you learn how people around the world are coming up with ingenious ways to harness water for themselves and their crops.  

Grand Canyon by Jason Chin (Roaring Brook/Macmillan, 2017)
Aside from being aesthetically pleasing, this book is chock full of text features such as maps charts, and cutaways that reveal something on the following page depicting the Grand Canyon of the past. The background of many pages features Grand Canyon wildlife illustrations.  The back matter includes even more information about the Grand Canyon’s history and formation, plants and wildlife, ecosystems, and rocks and fossils as well as an extensive bibliography. What an incredible way to introduce our fourth grade national parks unit!

Kids Who Are Changing the World by Anne Jankeliowitch (Sourcebooks, 2014)
This is an inspiring compilation of forty young people who are doing their part to help the environment. I like that each cause is broken into five categories: objective, action, how I’ve changed the world, my biggest mistake, and my advice. Our students are very interested in fairness and justice. I envision this book becoming a springboard for their own design thinking and action plan for making the world a better place. As the President of the GoodPlanet Foundation says in the book’s opening: “Kids have an amazing ability to come up with exciting ideas and carry them out with remarkable energy.”

If you’ve ever met Sarah Albee, you know she is smart, funny, and charming. And that is exactly how she comes across in her writing. I appreciate that she writes as if you are an equal and she wants you to be part of the inside scoop. She hooks you right from her author’s note: “Let’s get one thing straight, right off the bat: this is not a how-to book. It’s a history book. It’s about how people have poisoned one another from ancient times to the present.” Most of my students will not read this cover to cover in one sitting, as it’s very dense. However, the format is such that they’ll do a picture walk and digest it in small bites (pun intended).

Melanie Roy is a library teacher for grades 4 and 5 in Barrington, RI. She believes in the power of books to build community and understanding. You can find her at @mrsmelanieroy and She reads a mixture of fiction and nonfiction with her son which you can find with the hashtag #bedtimebookaday.

Friday, October 13, 2017

In the Classroom: Elements of a Nonfiction Booktalk

Not long ago, I saw this list of recommended components for a booktalk:

Main character
Plot bit

And boy, did it frost my britches.

Why? Because the person who created this list assumed the booktalker was talking about a fiction title. What about nonfiction? It’s important to booktalk these titles too because many kids prefer nonfiction.

So here’s my list of suggested components for a nonfiction booktalk:

Text structure
Writing style (expository or narrative)
Voice choice
Content bit

And here are a couple of examples:

The Great Monkey Rescue: Saving the Golden Lion Tamarins by Sandra Markle is a specialized nonfiction title perfectly suited for students in grades 4-7. Sandwiched between a narrative beginning and ending, engaging expository text with a problem-solution structure describes how scientists and Brazilian citizens worked together to save endangered monkeys from extinction. Vibrant photos, a dynamic design, and rich back matter further enhance the book.

Creature Features: 25 Animals Explain Why They Look the Way They Do by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page is an engaging concept picture book written for students in grades K-3, but older students will enjoy it too. Appealing animal portraits, first-person narration with occasional bits of humor, a fun question-and-answer text structure, and interview-style format make this book unique. Young readers will find the cornucopia of facts about how an animal’s facial features help it survive irresistible.

Why not invite your students to create a booktalk for their favorite nonfiction title?

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Wait, that’s Not Broccoli. It’s Chocolate Cake! Part 5

For the last four weeks, I’ve shared evidence that nonfiction in general and expository nonfiction in particular is more popular among elementary students than most of us might think. Simply put, what the children’s literature community calls broccoli, many kids call chocolate cake.

Today I’m sharing two articles that present three case studies of struggling readers for whom expository nonfiction was the gateway to literacy.

Hynes, Myrna. “‘I Read for Facts’: Reading Nonfiction in a Fictional World.” Language Arts, 2000, p. 485-495.

This article highlights how a 7th grade boy (Jeffrey) who initially described himself as a non-reader became actively engaged in reading and writing when his preference for expository nonfiction was validated. This student enjoyed reading for a purpose—to solve problems or learn about things that interested him.

Caswell, Linda J. and Nell K. Duke. “Non-Narrative as a Catalyst for Literacy Development.” Language Arts, 1998, p. 108-117.
This article presents case studies of two struggling reader/writers (Peter and Isaac) who found an entry point to the world of literacy through expository texts. The authors recommend increased use of expository nonfiction in literacy education.

Caswell and Duke’s article contains a sentence that speaks directly to my heart:

“In Peter’s case, there was a clear desire to gather and communicate information about topics of interest—reading was a key to finding information and writing was a way to share it with others.”

One of the most common questions students ask me during school visits is why I write nonfiction instead of fiction, and here’s what I say:

“I know lots of writers who love to create characters and make up worlds. But for me, the real world is so amazing, so interesting that I just want to learn as much as I can about it and share it with other people. That’s why I write nonfiction.”

And every time I say this, maybe 20 percent of the students in the audience, lift an arm, extend their pinky and their thumb, and rock their hand back and forth.

“Me too,” they are saying. “I agree.”

I have validated their experience in the world, and they are validating me right back. It's a powerful moment.

These students are what Mariam Dreher and Sharon Kletzien call “information readers” in their book Teaching Informational Text in K-3 Classrooms. For these children, expository nonfiction truly is chocolate cake.

My hope is that, one day soon, all educators will start serving up books that these students find delicious. I’ll be providing ideas for how to do that next week.

Monday, October 9, 2017

5 Faves: Expository Nonfiction Recommended by Cynthia Alaniz

The Animal Book: A Collection of the Fastest, Fiercest, Toughest, Cleverest, Shyest, and Most Surprising Animals on Earth by Steve Jenkins (Houghton Mifflin, Harcourt, 2013)
This volume is a treasure trove of information! The paragraphs are engaging tidbits of facts, and the accompanying torn and cut-paper illustrations are mesmerizing. I especially love the illustrations in actual size (Siberian tiger face, squid eye). Backmatter provides even more animal facts and a special section on making a book. 

Katherine Roy's picture book about the great white shark is a fascinating mix of expository and narrative nonfiction. It explains how these sharks catch their prey and has vibrant artwork that brings readers right into the water. Page turns are especially effective and the double page spreads are breathtaking! I come back to this one often. I especially appreciate the labeled diagrams!

Feathers: Not Just for Flying by Melissa Stewart, illus. by Sarah S. Brannen (Charlesbridge, 2014)
I love the scrapbook style of this book! Readers find a general statement on the top of the page, and underneath it, a paragraph that provides an example: this format is effective! I love sharing this one with teachers! 

Plants Can't Sit Still by Rebecca E. Hirsch, illus. by Mia Posada (Millbrook, 2016)
Do plants move? This poetic book answers this question with a fun use of verbs highlighted in colorful text! The colorful illustrations fill the pages with energy. Backmatter provides more facts on each flower pictured. 

Droughts by Melissa Stewart, illus. by André Ceolin
This is a very informative picture book about droughts! Ceolin's lively illustrations pair perfectly with the text. Reading this book helps readers understand a concept and will inspire further learning -- something we want nonfiction books to do! I especially appreciated the sidebars and backmatter. 

Cynthia Alaniz is an elementary school librarian in Texas. She is a children's literature enthusiast and blogs at Librarian in Cute Shoes. Follow her on Twitter at @utalaniz.

Friday, October 6, 2017

In the Classroom: How Infographics Can Help Students Avoid Plagiarism

My upcoming book, Pinocchio Rex and Other Tyrannosaurs, is chock full of text features.

One of my favorites is an infographic that began when I drew this very, V
ERY rough sketch and sent it to my editor.

Let’s face the facts. My drawing skills leave a lot to be desired, but this sketch was enough the give the talented folks in the HarperCollins art department an idea of what I had in mind—a grouping of visual elements that work together to show that (1) the tyrannosaur family lived on Earth for 100 million years, and (2) while the group's final members were gigantic, fearsome predators (like T. rex),  the earliest tyrannosaurs were about the same size as us.
Eventually, my sad little sketch became this amazing infographic:
It summarizes some of the book's most important ideas by drawing on information presented on many different pages. The process of conceptualizing it was similar to the process students engage in as they analyze and synthesize their research notes while preparing to write a report.

In this article, I discuss the reason students plagiarize instead of expressing ideas and information in their own words and offer some solutions to this problem.

By third grade, children know that they shouldn’t copy their sources, but they struggle to evaluate the information they've collected and make it their own. We need to offer students a variety of ways to think carefully and critically about their research notes, and infographics is one tool we can offer them.

Here's a terrific infographic that summarizes the information in my book No Monkeys, No Chocolate.

This wasn't a school assignment. The student did it on her own in her free time because she really wanted to understand the process described in the book. Wow! I'm so grateful to the librarian (Hooray for school librarians!) who introduced me to this passionate young reader.

I especially love the bookworm dialog she wrote. It perfectly captures the voice I used in the book. It also shows that she understands the function of these characters--to add humor and reinforce the ideas in the main text. In Common Core lingo, she understand my author intent.

See how powerful inforgraphics can be?

When students take the time to represent the ideas and information they've read as infographics (or other combinations of words and pictures) during their pre-writing process, they'll find their own special way of conveying the information. Instead of being tempted to plagiarize, they'll write a report that's 100 percent their own.