Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Behind the Books: Getting Ready to Research, Part 1

Here are some words I associate with the act of researching:
Treasure hunt
Fascinating facts
Prospecting for rare nuggets of knowledge
Developing unique perspectives
Books, databases, observations, interviews

As you can tell from this list, I enjoy the process. So when Ellen Brandt, the Teacher-Librarian at Westford Middle School in Westford, MA, shared this word cloud based on words her sixth graders associate with the act of researching:
I was surprised and disappointed and confused. Why did these students have such a negative attitude about what I consider a fun adventure?

Are these students alone?

Unfortunately, they aren’t. The more I talked to educators about my concern, the more I realized that Ellen’s students aren’t an exception. They’re the rule.

Why, I wondered, didn’t students enjoy the hunt for rare nuggets of knowledge? As I searched for an answer, I started looking closely at the kinds of research experiences elementary students are having.

At many schools, early elementary students are handed fact sheets. For them “research” consists of picking facts off that sheet and incorporating them into a report. Older elementary students are often given a list of acceptable websites and told to use only them.

Suddenly, the word cloud started to make sense.

Students were bored because they weren’t doing authentic research.

Real research is active and self driven. It requires creative, out-of-the box thinking. That’s what makes it engaging.

But in the same burst of understanding, I recognized the heart of the problem. It’s difficult to create authentic research experiences for early elementary students.

And so, I asked myself a question: Is there a fun way to teach research skills—visual literacy, information literacy, digital literacy, critical thinking—to early elementary students without actually doing research?

I think the answer is “yes!” and beginning after February vacation (which is next week here in Massachusetts), I’m going to share some ideas with you.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Book of the Week: Deadliest Animals

Educators often ask me which of my books would work best in their classroom. So this year, I’ve decided to feature a book each week and highlight related teaching materials and strategies.

After Deadliest Animals was selected for the Columbia University Teachers College writing program called Units of Study (masterminded by Lucy Calkins), I wrote a series of thirteen blog posts describing how I researched, wrote, and revised. So that it’s easier to access them all at once, I created a pinterest board called Creating Nonfiction Step by Step with links to all of them. 


Friday, February 5, 2016

Team Note-taking

During a recent #TCWRP Twitterchat about informational writing, Julie Harmatz (@jarhartz), a fifth grade teacher in San Pedro, CA, made a suggestion that I just love—simultaneous notetaking in a google doc. Now that’s what I call fun and informative!
Do any of you remember Ghostwriter, a popular PBS TV show that aired in the early 1990s? The show featured a group of Brooklyn, NY, tweens who solved neighborhood crimes and mysteries with the help of a magical notebook that wrote out clues, letter by letter, at key moments.

Whenever I’m collaborating with someone in google docs, I think of that old TV show. The person I’m working with could be 3,000 miles away, and yet, her thoughts magically appear on my computer screen, letter by letter, at key moments. It’s just plain fun to work this way—especially if we’re using different colored type. I like the novelty of the technology, but I also like getting a sort of sneak peek into my collaborator’s mind.

I think students would enjoy collaborative notetaking for the same reasons—the technological novelty and the access to the thought process of their partner(s). Pairing an adept notetaker with a student who is struggling to develop this skill could be a powerful experience. And students may learn better from their peer’s model than from adult instruction. Why not give it a try in your classroom?

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Behind the Books: Colorful Revision

Back in November, Dana Murphy (@DanaMurphy68) wrote this post, called “A Close Look,” on the Two Writing Teachers blog. In it, she discussed a tweet I contributed to a Twitterchat a few days earlier.

This is something I do a lot. In fact, it might be the number one way I use mentor texts. Seeing text in manuscript form really helps me understand how the writer went about crafting it.

In her post, Dana used colors to highlight aspects of the writing she especially liked. I use that technique too. I use it when I’m examining another writer’s language, and I use it during my own revision process. It helps me focus on specific elements of a manuscript.

For example, I might highlight all my verbs in blue. Then I look them over and ask: Are they varied enough? Can any of them be stronger?

I might color comparisons green, and ask myself: Can I come up with examples that are even more relevant to my readers’ lives?

I might make all the examples of alliteration purple. Am I overusing it? I admit. I sometimes do.

Here are a couple of examples:
By using colors to focus my attention on specific parts of a text, patterns—both good and bad—become clearer, and I can revise to make the manuscript as strong as it can possibly be.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Book of the Week: No Monkeys, No Chocolate

Educators often ask me which of my books would work best in their classroom. So this year, I’ve decided to feature a book each week and highlight related teaching materials and strategies.

No Monkeys, No Chocolate is one of my favorite books, so I went all out when it came to creating related teaching materials.

The book has its own Teachers Guide, ReadersTheater script, and pinterest board not to mention some fun activity sheets. But the pièce de résistance is this Revision Timeline that features a dozen videos, downloadable rejected manuscripts, sample sketches for the illustrator, and more that explain the 10-year process of creating the book. Yep. 10 years, and 56 revisions. It was a lot of work, but well worth it in the end.



Friday, January 29, 2016

Persuasive Writing Text Set

We all know the value of mentor texts, so when Jenny Lussier, the fabulous library media specialist at Brewster School in Durham, CT, tweeted this:

I took her request seriously.

Back in November 2014, I wrote this post about persuasive books. It describes how surprised I was when an article in Book Links included my book A Place for Bats on a list of persuasive books.

To be sure, anyone who reads A Place for Bats would realize that I have a point of view (we should protect bats and their habitats), but as I saw it, I was merely laying out the facts and letting the reader decide. That wasn’t really persuasive, was it? Hmm, maybe it was, though in a subtle way.

That seems to be the approach many nonfiction children’s books take. Authors have an idea they’re passionate about and want to share, so they provide facts, evidence for readers.

But as Jenny’s tweet points out, that isn’t quite the same as what we expect students to do when they write persuasive texts. And so what she wanted was a nonfiction book that really, truly, actively tried to convince readers to do something, to take action.

The first book that came to mind was Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems. But of course, that’s fiction.
Then I thought of a nonfiction title that fits the bill: The Most Amazing Creature in the Sea by Brenda Z. Guiberson. The author cleverly employs first person narration, allowing each sea creature to highlight its special features in an attempt to persuade readers that it is the most amazing. I think reading these two books together is a great way to prime the pumps, so to speak, of students trying to write persuasive pieces for the first time.

At the same time, I’d also suggest reading the early chapter book The Trouble with Ants by Claudia Mills. One of the book’s subplots involves a fourth grade class assignment to write persuasive essays and share them with the class. The book includes the essays written by the main character and two supporting characters. These make especially good models because they address topics that will really resonate with elementary students.

And when the children seem ready, I would go ahead and share nonfiction books that are persuasive in a more subtle way. Besides A Place for Bats, examples include City Chickens by Christine Heppermann and Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell by Tanya Lee Stone. After all, in addition to learning how to craft debate-ready arguments, students should also have experience recognizing how an author’s point of view influences the way he or she presents information.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Behind the Books: My Biggest Revision Secret Revealed

Back in 2011, I wrote a series of blog posts describing my writing process. I compiled them on pinterest, so it’s easy for educators to access them as a group and share them with students.

One of those posts described a step that I call “Let It Chill Out,” which basically means that I take time away from a manuscript after I complete the first draft. Lately, teachers have been showing a lot of interest in this step, so I’d like to spend a bit more time explaining why I think it’s so important for me—and for young writers.

Really, I’m no different from a younger writer. When I finish a draft, I think to myself: “Phew, am I ever glad to be done! I worked long and hard on this draft, and I think it’s pretty good. In fact, maybe it doesn’t need any revisions at all.”

If the voice in my head is saying: “It’s good enough. It’s good enough,” am I going to notice parts of the manuscript that need work? No way.

But if I take a break. If I spend two days or two weeks or even two months working on something else, I can come back to the first manuscript with fresh eyes and an open mind. In other words, I’m ready to revise. I’m ready to re-envision the writing.

Obviously, students can’t take a 2-month hiatus from every piece of writing they do, but why not let their writing chill over a weekend? And wouldn’t it be great if, near the end of the school year, young writers could revisit a couple of pieces they wrote in September or October.
Not only would they be more open to making improvements, they could also see how much they’ve grown as writers during the school year. I think it’s worth a try.