Friday, February 14, 2020

March Madness Nonfiction

Since the 2019-2020 school year marks the 10th Anniversary of this blog, on Fridays, I’m resurrecting and updating old posts that sparked a lot of conversation or that still have a lot to offer people teaching or writing nonfiction. Today’s essay originally appeared on March 4, 2016.

Inspired by the annual March Madness basketball tournament, in 2016, literacy coach Shelley Moody worked with instructional coach Valerie Glueck at Williams Elementary School in Oakland, Maine, to develop a month-long, whole-school activity in which students read sixteen nonfiction picture books (some narrative, some expository) and select their favorite. 

During Week 1, half the classes read the 8 books on the right-hand side of the board, and the other half of the school reads the 8 books on the left-hand side of the board. Classrooms discuss the content and structure of the books as well as their favorite features. Then students vote on pairs of books to determine which titles will move on to The Elite Eight.

During Week 2, each class reads the 4 winning books on the opposite side of the board. Then students participate in rich classroom discussions and vote to select The Final Four.

During Week 3, classes spend time reviewing the four finalists and then vote for the March Madness Nonfiction Champion. 

During the final week, students gather for a whole-school assembly. Following a parade of books that includes one child from each classroom, the winning book is announced. And the crowd goes wild!

Here’s what Shelly and Valerie had to say about the experience:

“The goal of this event is to inspire curiosity, to build background knowledge, and to put outstanding nonfiction books in the hands of our students. It’s hard to capture in words the energy and excitement about books that March Madness has created in our school community.”

—Shelley Moody, Literacy Coach

“March Madness is a springboard for discussions of text features and structures, vocabulary, and author’s purpose.”
—Valerie Glueck, Instructional Coach

If you decide to try this activity at your school this year, you could ask older students to fill out a worksheet like the one below developed by Judi Paradis, the teacher-librarian at Plympton School in Waltham, MA.

When students are done, they can share their responses with classmates. Or the worksheets can be posted, so that other students can use the information to help them make book choices.

This fun combination of activities will get kids reading and thinking and sharing.

Note: You can find a more printable version of the Nonfiction Smackdown! worksheet on my pinterest Reading Nonfiction Board:

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Where Should We Shelve Informational Fiction?

Back in October 2016, I wrote this short post because I noticed that a growing number of picture book “biographies” were including invented dialog, imagined scenes, or events presented out of chronological order. Why add these made-up elements? To improve the storytelling.

For the most part, the authors fully realized that these books should be classified as fiction, and they liked the term “informational fiction” because it acknowledged all the research they’d done and that the books were mostly faithful to the facts. But the Library of Congress labelled these books “juvenile literature” (the term they use for nonfiction). And in most cases, publishers and reviewers called the books narrative nonfiction. 

More recently, I began noticing another kind of informational fiction. In an effort to make survey books that provide a broad overview of a subject more entertaining, authors were adding made-up narrators, such as animals or inanimate objects, who were acting like storytellers. Eventually, I discovered that, way back in 1984, researchers had developed the term “pseudo-narratives” to describe these books.

Once again, the Library of Congress calls these books “juvenile literature,” and publishers and reviewers call them nonfiction. But the term “nonfiction” doesn’t just mean a book has some documentable ideas and information, it means nothing—not a single thing—is made up. 

In this era of fake news, we’ve seen again and again that people trust what they see, hear, and read too easily. They don’t check facts. They don’t question the source of statistics. If we want that to change, we need to teach children to identify truthiness. And one of the best ways to do that is by being transparent about the books we offer them. 

Using the term “informational fiction” acknowledges that taking creative liberties with true, verifiable facts can be an effective way to share ideas and information with young readers while simultaneously emphasizing the importance of distinguishing between what’s real and what’s not.

To further reinforce this idea, teachers and librarians should think carefully about where they shelve informational fiction titles in their collections. Placing these books in a separate section will help children recognize that while they’re mostly faithful to the facts, they include some made-up parts. 

Ideally, this knowledge will encourage students to think critically as they read. Perhaps they’ll even skim the backmatter first to find out what’s made up and why the author and/or illustrator made these choices. These are the kinds of skills we hope all 21st-century learners will develop in school and use to evaluate texts throughout their lives.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Make a Nonfiction Writing Process Infographic

Last Friday, I re-ran a previous post about teaching students the steps of the nonfiction writing process. You can scroll down to read it, but in a nutshell, I suggested that if all the classrooms in a school use consistent terminology, it would make remembering the steps—and putting them into practice—SO much easier for kids.

Of course, in real life, writing is messy and recursive, but a set of steps can be really reassuring—for professional writers as well as student writers. Here are my 10 steps.
  1. Choose a Topic
  2. Do Research
  3. Find a Focus
  4. Write a Rough Draft
  5.    Let It Chill Out
  6. Revise à Second draft
  7. Writing partner review
  8. Revise and add visuals à Third draft
  9. Proofread à Final draft
  10. Send to editor 

Most of these steps are appropriate for elementary classrooms, although students give their final draft to a teacher instead of sending it to an editor.

One of the best ways to reinforce this process, is by taking ownership of it. And one of the best ways to do that is by creating an infographic that students can add to their writer’s notebook for quick reference. 

Here’s an activity outline that could make a big difference your students’ writing lives.

After sharing my nonfiction writing process (above) with students, work with your class to identify and describe the steps of their process. How is their process similar to mine? How is it different? Be sure to record your class’s ideas on chart paper.

Divide the class into small groups and invite the teams to work together to create a list of the steps in their writing process. As the groups complete this task, put out crayons, markers, and/or colored pencils, and give each child a plain white piece of paper. 

When students are satisfied with their list of steps, encourage them to use words and pictures to create an infographic that summarizes their nonfiction writing process and solidifies the steps in their minds. Suggest that they spend some time planning and sketching their infographic in pencil before creating a final version with crayons, markers, or colored pencils. 

Here’s my infographic. For a larger, printable version, please see this pinterest board.

When the groups have completed this task, invite team members to share their infographic with the rest of the class. Then encourage students to tape or staple the infographic into their writer’s notebook, so they can easily access it in the future.

Friday, February 7, 2020

What’s in a Name?

Since the 2019-2020 school year marks the 10th Anniversary of this blog, on Fridays, I’m resurrecting and updating old posts that sparked a lot of conversation or that still have a lot to offer people teaching or writing nonfiction. Today’s essay originally appeared on June 1, 2018.

During school visits, I often ask students to walk me through the steps of their nonfiction writing process. My goal is to learn the terminology they use, so I can literally speak their language during my presentation. For example, do they use “rough draft,” “first draft,” or “sloppy copy."

What I've discovered has surprised me. Many groups have a lot trouble with this task. And I can see that their teachers are just as surprised as I am. Sometimes they even whisper answers to students sitting nearby. Clearly, they're frustrated.

Why is this happening?

Here are two things I've noticed, again and again, as I patiently provide a string of clues to help students list the various steps. 
1. Within the same school, each grade level often uses different terminology. That can certainly lead to confusion.
2.  In some schools, the process itself isn’t consistent from one grade level to the next. For example, students in grades 3 and 5 do peer critiquing (a.k,a. reading buddies, writing partners), but students in grade 4 don’t. That can also lead to confusion.

Researching, writing, and revising nonfiction can be daunting for children. But knowing that it’s a process composed of distinct steps can make it more manageable. By practicing those same steps over and over, students will become more confident writers. 

That’s why I recommend that schoolwide or even district-wide terms be adopted for each step in the process. Here are my suggestions based on my 10-step writing process:
  1. Choose a Topic
  2. Do Research
  3. Find a Focus
  4. Write a Rough Draft
  5. Let It Chill Out
  6. Revise à Second draft
  7. Writing partner review
  8. Revise and add visuals à Third draft
  9. Proofread à Final draft
  10. Send to editor (Give to teacher) 
K-2 students won’t do every step, but once a step (such as writing partner review) is introduced, it shouldn’t be omitted at later grade levels. This kind of continuity will help students take ownership of the process and prepare them to work more independently in middle school

I’ll be talking more about teaching and reinforcing the steps of the nonfiction writing process on Monday.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020


Back in early November, I re-ran this popular post from the past on my blog. And once again, teachers loved it. Revision never fails to gets kids moaning and groaning, so educators are always looking for ways to convince them that it’s a natural part of the writing process.

In the post, I use this image as I compare revising a manuscript to renovating a home. And that inspired Miss Ruffio (@missruffio), a dedicated teacher in Highland Park, NJ, to start looking for other examples of revision in real life.

Here’s the image she tweeted back to me:

It compares two figures from an older version of a Harry Potter Lego set to the revised versions of those same two figures in a newer Harry Potter Lego set.

Yep. That’s a prime example of Revision in Real Life.

Miss Ruffio shared the photos with her students, and challenged them to look for more examples of revision in real life. A few days later, one of her fifth graders brought in this photo:

It compares an original B&W image of Mickey Mouse to the current version of our favorite cartoon mouse. Great job!

What about you? Can you find more examples of Revision in Real Life? Can your students? I’d love to see any examples you find. Please tweet them to me with the hashtag #RevisioninRealLife. Let’s see what we can come up with.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Recommended Books by Text Structure

Back in October, I shared book lists with examples of two underappreciated text structures—list books and Q & A. To start off the new year, at the request of my friend Annette Whipple, I’m providing updated examples of expository nonfiction books with the five major text structures espoused by most state ELA standards—description, sequence, compare and contrast, cause and effect, and problem-solution. I hope you find them useful.

The Frog Book by Steve Jenkins

Many: The Diversity of Life on Earth by Nicola Davies

Bonkers About Beetles by Davey Owen

A Hundred Million Billion Stars by Seth Fishman
Bugged: How Insects Changed History by Sarah Albee

How to Swallow a Pig: Step-by-Step Advice from the Animal Kingdom by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page

Trout Are Made of Trees by April Pulley Sayre

We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorell

Compare & Contrast
Big & Little by Steve Jenkins

Daylight Starlight Wildlife by Wendell Minor

Birds of a Feather: Bowerbirds & Me by Susan L. Roth

Rodent Rascals by Roxie Munro

Cause & Effect
Earth: Feeling the Heat by Brenda Z. Guiberson

If Sharks Disappeared by Lily Williams

If You Hopped Like a Frog by David M. Schwartz

Never Smile at a Monkey: And 17 Other Important Things to Remember by Steve Jenkins

Boy, Were We Wrong About Dinosaurs by Kathleen Kudlinksi

The Great Monkey Rescue: Saving the Golden Lion Tamarins by Sandra Markle

Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France by Mara Rockliff

She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World by Chelsea Clinton

And here is a handy dandy chart of these mentor texts along with basic information about each text structure created by rockstar middle school librarian Melanie Roy (@mrsmelanieroy). A large, printable version is available here on my pinterest boards.

As you read through these book titles, you may have noticed that one author—Steve Jenkins—has a book included in each of the categories. As far as I’m concerned, he’s a master of text structure.

Most of Jenkins’s books are about animals and all the cool ways they survive in the world. The consistency of the art gives the books a unified look that immediately lets you know he’s the creator. And yet every book is distinctive because he’s constantly experimenting with nonfiction craft elements, especially text structure.

Some schools already do author studies of Steve Jenkins, but I think every school should study his titles closely as students learn to identify text structures in the books they read and integrate text structures into their writing.