Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Happy Holidays!

A few years ago, my book Under the Snow was featured in the Festival of Trees at the Concord Museum in Concord, MA. To celebrate the holiday season, I’m going to leave you with a photo of that gorgeous tree.

For the next week and a half, I’m looking forward to plenty of fun family festivities. But I’ll be back on January 9. I have  a feeling that 2017 is going to be a fantastic year.

Monday, December 19, 2016

My 6 Favorite STEM Books of 2016

Sorry, folks, I just couldn't narrow it down to five titles. So here are my six favorites in alphabetical order.

Ada Twist Scientist by Andrea Beaty

Animals by the Numbers: A Book of Infographics by Steve Jenkins

Bubonic Panic: When Plague Invaded America by Gail Jarrow

Masters of Disguise: Amazing Animal Tricksters by Rebecca L. Johnson

Pink Is for Blobfish: Discovering the World's Perfectly Pink Animals by Jess Keating   

Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World by Rachel Ignotofsky

Friday, December 16, 2016

A Great School Visit

Recently, I spent a fantastic day with the third graders at Marguerite Small School in West Yarmouth, MA. Why was it so great? Because of the hard work of this woman—school librarian Kim Keith—and her colleagues, especially Shannon Carlson, who took most of the pictures below.

The students read several of my books in advance and did activities to reinforce the information and ideas. Here are a couple of examples:
On the day of my visit, the students were ready for some fun. They got firsthand experience comparing their jumping ability to that of a frog.
They learned that, based on their height, if they could jump like a frog, they’d be able to leap over TWO school buses! And then they discussed how a frog’s locomotion helped it survive in the world.
I wish I had a photo of 70 third graders sticking out their tongues. That was their introduction to the idea that if they had a tongue like a frog, they could use it to wash out their bellybuttons. Pretty handy, right?

Then we transitioned into how a book is made. I showed them a rough draft, and we compared it to the text in the printed book.
I showed them a couple of illustrator Higgins Bond’s rough sketches and we had a great conversation about some of the changes she made and why they were important. After all, in a nonfiction book, everything in the words AND the pictures has to be accurate.
Oh yes, there was one more thing. Mrs. Zabielski’s class helped me with a super secret project. Here’s a sneak peek:
Curious? Too bad. You’ll have to wait a few months to find out more.

Happy Friday!

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Behind the Books: Who’s Your Audience?

For me, writing is a fun adventure. A game to play. A puzzle to solve. A challenge to overcome.

But many students don’t feel the same way. According to them, research is boring. Making a writing plan is a waste of time. And revision is more than frustrating. It’s downright painful.

Why do young writers have a point of view that’s so completely different from mine? While there’s probably no single answer to this question, one thing that's missing for young writers is an authentic audience.

When I begin writing, I know exactly who my audience is. I’m excited to share information with them. And in many cases, they respond with their thoughts and ideas.

For this blog, my audience is you. I know you are reading because I see my Blogger stats. You respond on social media, and sometimes you leave comments or send email.

For my children’s books, the ultimate audience is kids, of course. But most of the time, they depend on gatekeepers to put the books in their hands. So the gatekeepers are my audience too.

I know people are reading my books because I see reviews in journals and online. Eventually, I see sales figures. Kids respond by sending me letters, by asking probing questions at school visits, and sometimes, by dragging their parents to book signings. Gatekeepers respond via social media and by inviting me to their schools and conferences.

These responses are different from the ones I get from my critique group and editors. Sure, they read my work too, but it’s their job to find fault with it. While I appreciate and depend on their feedback, it’s far less rewarding than the reactions I get from my true audience, my authentic audience.

Students often don’t have an authentic audience. Their teacher is like my editor. And if peer critiquing or buddy editing is part of their process, those classmates are like my critique group.

How can we give young writers the kind of experiences professional writers have when they write for and get responses from an authentic audience? Here are a couple of ideas:

1.    Share writing with younger students.  Encourage the younger students to respond with writing of their own or by drawing pictures or making an audio or video recording.

2.    Create a classblog and encourage students in other classes and/or parents to read the posts and leave meaty comments.

If you have other suggestions, please share them in the comments below. I know there are lots of ways we can make this happen for our students.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Quintets for Curious Kids: 5 Great STEM-themed Middle-grade Novels Especially for Girls

The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead 


Friday, December 9, 2016

Sibert Smackdown! 2016/2017

Used with permission
Last year, around this time, I wrote a blog post encouraging schools to participate in The Sibert Smackdown! as a way of building enthusiasm for the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal, which is given each year as part of the ALA Youth Media Awards.
This fun activity was so popular, that I’ve decided to do it again.

Here’s how it works.

First, students in grades 3-5 select two nonfiction picture books from the Mock Sibert list below, which was influenced by the Mock Sibert lists posted by literacy and curriculum coordinator Alyson Beecher on Kid Lit Frenzy, literacy specialist Michele Knott on Mrs. Knott’s Book Nook, and the folks at Anderson’s Bookstore. You should check out all these lists, which include additional information about each book. (The lists created by Alyson and Anderson’s also feature long-form nonfiction titles.)

Ada's Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay by Susan Hood; Illustrated by Sally Wern Comport (Simon & Schuster)

Animals by the Numbers: A Book of Infographics by Steve Jenkins (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Coyote Moon by Maria Gianferrari; Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline (Roaring Brook Press)

Fearless Flyer: Ruth Law and Her Flying Machine by Heather Lang; Illustrated by Raul Colon (Calkins Creek)

Giant Squid by Candace Fleming; Illustrated by Eric Rohmann (Roaring Brook Press)

The Kid from Diamond Street: The Extraordinary Story of Baseball Legend Edith Houghton by Audrey Vernick; Illustrated by Steven Salerno (Clarion Books)

I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy; Illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley (Simon & Schuster) 

Octopus One to Ten by Ellen Jackson; Illustrated by Robin Page (Beach Lane Books)

The Secret Subway by Shana Corey; Illustrated by Red Nose Studios (Schwartz and Wade)

Whoosh!: Lonnie Johnson's Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions by Chris Barton; Illustrated by Don Tate (Charlesbridge)

After reading the two titles they've selected, students evaluate and compare them, recording their thinking on a worksheet like this one, which is a kid-friendly version of the real Sibert criteria (actual criteria are available here):

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.

If time permits, students could do multiple rounds of this activity to select classroom, whole-grade, or multi-grade favorites. The Sibert Award committee will announce its winner and honor titles on Monday, January 23, 2017, at the ALA Youth Media Awards ceremony.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Behind the Books: The Duct Tape Rule

One of the most important steps of my writing process is sharing my rough draft with my critique group. We meet twice a month at a library near my home.

Many students have a similar step in their writing process. Some schools call it peer review. Others call it buddy editing. Some schools don’t really have a specific name for this step. Students just know they’re supposed to swap their paper with a classmate when they’re ready for feedback.

But let’s face it. Getting feedback isn’t always easy. We work long and hard on our drafts. We make them as good as they can possibly be, and sometimes we think they may not need much revision at all. It’s human nature.

And that’s why when we do get feedback—sometimes significant feedback—it can be hard to take. We might feel like we’re being attacked and be tempted to defend our choices. But that would be a mistake because the more we talk, the less we hear.

Let me say that again, this time in the second person, because it’s really important: The more you talk, the less you hear.

And that’s why, when it’s my turn to receive feedback, I pretend that I have a big piece of duct tape over my mouth. That’s right, I implement “The Duct Tape Rule.” It helps me remember that my job is to be open to criticism.

I need to listen carefully to what my critique teammates are saying. If I don’t agree, I keep my doubts to myself. I scrawl down all their ideas as fast as I can.

Later, when I look back at those notes, I can decide how to proceed. I can decide which suggestions feel right to me and which to let go. But if I haven’t listened carefully to the ideas, if I haven’t written them down, they will be lost forever, and they can’t possibly help me improve my writing.

As I’m sitting quietly at my computer, days or weeks after the critique, I’m grateful for those notes. I’m grateful for those ideas because most of the time they do help. A lot. And that’s why an imaginary roll of duct tape will always be in my writer’s toolbox.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Quintets for Curious Kids: 5 Great STEM-themed Middle-grade Novels

Fuzzy Mud by Louis Sachar

The Great Trouble by Deborah Hopkinson

Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo by Greg Leitch Smith

Scat by Carl Hiassen

The Universe of Fair by Leslie Bulion

Friday, December 2, 2016

A New Book

If you’re a fan of Feathers: Not Just for Flying, I have some great news, which I can FINALLY make public. Publisher's Weekly has recently announced a companion title, which will be called Seashells: More than a Home. It will be illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen and published by Charlesbridge in Summer 2018.

Right now, 2018 seems far, far into the future. Still, I’m giddy with anticipation.

Here are a few studies Sarah did last summer, before she even had a contract. Now that’s dedication! 

Aren’t the shells lovely? I can hardly wait to see the art for the book.

Both Sarah and I have been enamored with shells since childhood. I spent my summers beachcombing the sandy shores of Cape Cod, and Sarah enjoyed searching the rocky beaches of Penobscot Bay in Maine.

In some ways, I’ve been researching this book for most of my life. I’ve had the pleasure of spending countless hours exploring seashores all over the world, from Costa Rica to Mexico and the Galรกpagos Islands, from Hawaii, Great Britain, and Kenya to Vancouver Island, Canada.

Here are a couple of photos taken by traveling companions at moments when they were amused by my enthusiasm for shells and all the amazing creatures that call them home.

Haena State Park, Hanalei Bay, Kauai, Hawaii, January 2015

Botanical Beach, Provincial Park, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada, June 2015
As you can see, creating this book was a labor of love.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Christa McAuliffe Technology Conference Handout

Building Research Skills in K-3
Author-educator Melissa Stewart introduces scaffolded visual, information, and digital literacy activities to help K-3 students develop the observational, inquiry, and critical thinking skills required to evaluate print and digital resources for nonfiction reports. Supports Common Core RIT Standards 6 and 7 and Writing Standards 7 and 8.
Recommended Books
Encouraging Observation
Where’s Walrus? by Steve Savage

Duck! Rabbit! by Amy Krause Rosenthal

The Power of Pictures
Wave by Suzy Lee

Fossil by Bill Thomson

The Girl and the Bicycle by Mark Peet

Great blog post with suggestions for wordless picture book read alouds:

Words and Pictures that Work Together
Blackout by John Rocco

One Day, The End by Rebecca Kai Dotlich

Where in the Wild by David M. Schwartz

Pictures that Go Beyond the Words
A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever by Marla Frazee

Redwoods by Jason Chin

Visual Teaching Strategies Method
I use images from picture books I’ve written (A Place for Turtles, Feathers: Not Just for Flying, When Rain Falls, Under the Snow), but you can use illustrations from any illustrated book, fiction or nonfiction.

Ask students:
--What do you think is happening in this picture?
--What do you see that makes you say that? 

After a class discussion, encourage students to think about how they might have drawn the art differently if they were the illustrator. If time permits, invite the children to draw their version of the art.

Extracting Content-Area Information
Sample Question: How do animals depend on the place where they live?
Book Pair: Just Ducks by Nicola Davies & Hip-pocket Papa by Sandra Markle

Sample Wonder Statement: I wonder how a rain forest is different from a desert.
Book Pair: The Great Kapok Tree by Lynne Cherry & Here Is a Southwestern Desert by Madeliene Dunphy

For more samples and book suggestions: Perfect Pairs: Using Fiction & Nonfiction Picture Books to Teach Life Science, K-2 by Melissa Stewart & Nancy Chesley

Books with Designs that Convey an Extra Layer of Information
Move! by Steve Jenkins

Mosquito Bite by Alexandra Siy

The Day-Glo Brothers by Chris Barton

How Design Affects Our Thoughts
Guide students in understanding the importance of designers in creating the visuals we see every day. How can our thoughts and feelings be manipulated with visuals, such as in advertisements and website homepages?
Tricks for Evaluating Websites
Point out the three letter domain names at the end of website addresses. Let them know that these three letters can tell them who created the site and what the creator's main objective is for the site.

Encourage students to ask themselves, "What is the first thing my eye notices when I look at this website?" Help them understand that their answer to this question can help them assess the reliability of a website.

Recommended Blog Posts on this Topic

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Behind the Books: Stepping Up to Research, Step 4

According to new findings from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University, the best nonfiction writing occurs when early-elementary research experiences are scaffolded as follows:

1. Organize and categorize information 
     (a) based on personal experiences
     (b) on a topic they care deeply about

2. Organize, categorize, and compare observations.

3. Conduct guided research.
4. Conduct cold research.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been looking at each of these steps in detail and suggesting activity ideas.

For step 4, students choose a topic they’re passionate about and conduct research with the support of their classroom teacher, literacy coach, and school librarian.  By now, they have the skills they need to find facts in books and online articles. They may also be ready to consider other kinds of sources. Encourage students to think outside the box.

For example, if students are writing about an animal, can they observe it in its natural setting? If the animal lives in your area, they may be able to find it and watch it. They may also be able to locate a webcam that shows the animal going about its daily routine.

If students are writing about a social studies topic, can they visit a local historical society or museum? What can they learn from artifacts? Can they interview people who are knowledgeable about their topic?

The more creatively students think about their research process, the more invested they will become in their topic, and their enthusiasm will definitely shine through in their written report.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Quintets for Curious Kids: 5 Great Books about Rocks

Everybody Needs a Rock by Byrd Baylor

If You Find a Rock by Peggy Christian

A Rock Can Be by Laura Purdie Salas

A Rock Is a Lively by Dianna Hutts Aston

Rocks in His Head by Carol Otis Hurst  

Monday, November 21, 2016

Quintets for Curious Kids: 5 Great Picture Books about Rain Forests

Army Ant Parade by April Pulley Sayre

The Great Kapok Tree by Lynne Cherry

No Monkeys, No Chocolate by Melissa Stewart

Rain, Rain, Rain Forest by Brenda Z. Guiberson

Red-eyed Tree Frog by Joy Cowley

Friday, November 18, 2016

THE Best Book Ever for Kids Who Love to Learn About Animals

The Animal Book by Steve Jenkins

Seriously, this book is in a class all by itself, so run right out and buy it as a holiday gift for all the curious kids in your life.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Behind the Books: Stepping Up to Research, Step 3

According to new findings from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University, the best nonfiction writing occurs when early-elementary research experiences are scaffolded as follows:

1. Organize and categorize information 
     (a) based on personal experiences
     (b) on a topic students care deeply about

2. Organize, categorize, and compare observations.

3. Conduct guided research.

4. Conduct cold research.

For Step 3, students write about a topic the class is studying. This is a great chance to integrate ELA with your science or social studies curriculum.

At the beginning of the unit, draw your class’s attention to a Wonder Wall that you created on a classroom bulletin board. Let the children know that as they study the topic, they will probably have lots of questions. Encourage students to record these questions on sticky notes and add them to the Wonder Wall.
If a question is answered during the remaining part of the unit, jot the answer on another sticky note and place it next to the question. At the end of the unit, invite students to choose one of the unanswered questions or develop a new question. Working with the school librarian and a literacy coach, guide the children in researching their questions independently and sharing their findings with the class.

Next week I’ll take Wednesday off, so I can clean my house and go grocery shopping in preparation of for the Thanksgiving festivities, but I’ll be back on November 30 to look at Step 4.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Quintets for Curious Kids: 5 Great Picture Books for Kids Who Love Math

Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine by Laurie Wallmark

The Boy Who Loved Math by Deborah Heiligman

Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature by Sarah C. Campbell

Just a Second by Steve Jenkins

Seeing Symmetry by Loreen Leedy 

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Behind the Books: Stepping Up to Research, Step 2

According to new findings from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University, the best nonfiction writing occurs when early-elementary research experiences are scaffolded as follows:

1. Organize and categorize information 
     (a) based on personal experiences
     (b) on a topic students care deeply about

2. Organize, categorize, and compare observations.

3. Conduct guided research.
4. Conduct cold research.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be looking at each of these steps in detail and suggesting activity ideas.

For Step 2, take a look at your science curriculum. Students could observe and compare soil samples from home and the school playground. They could observe how a plant changes as it grows.

Here’s an activity I love. Collect a dozen rocks or shells. Divide your class into small groups and give each team one of the objects. Ask the children to use words and pictures to describe their object.

As the groups finish, one member should return their object to a central location. Then have each team rotate to a new table, leaving their description behind.

Invite the groups to read the description in front of them and carefully study the drawing. Then the teams should take turns going to the central location. Their task is to select the object they think the first team used to create its description. Encourage students to repeat this process until all the teams have identified the correct object.