Friday, April 3, 2020

Is Write What You Could Teach Good Advice?

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 April 27, 2016.

Sometimes when I visit schools, I discover that teachers are asking young writers to choose nonfiction topics “that you could teach someone about.” For instance, an avid soccer player might write about the rules of soccer. I have just one word for that kind of writing . . . BORING.

Why would a child want to rehash something he or she already knows backward and forward when there’s a wide world of ideas and information out there just waiting to be discovered? 


Think about it this way. I could teach someone how to make a sandwich just the way my husband likes it. I could explain how to wash windows so they don’t streak or how to make “hospital corners” when I change the sheets on a bed. I could describe how to sort trash according to my transfer station’s rules. But why would I want to write about any of these things? I’d be bored, and so would my readers.

I write about science because I’m fascinated by the natural world. When I’m engaged in the world, I’m constantly encountering things that make me ask questions. And to satisfy my curiosity, I want to know more, more, more. Learning more gets me so excited that I’m dying to share my new knowledge with other people. That’s what fuels my writing.


Kids are no different from me. When they focus on ideas and information that they care about, when they conduct research to satisfy their own curiosity, they will craft lively, interesting writing just brimming with passion. And, really, that’s the goal of nonfiction writing—crafting prose that our intended audience wants to read.



Wednesday, April 1, 2020

5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Narrative Nonfiction

Back in 2017, I proposed a five-category system for classifying children’s nonfiction on my blog, and the response was incredible.

Teachers loved it. So did librarians and children’s book authors and editors. People praised the clarity it brought to the range of children’s nonfiction available today. In May 2018, School Library Journal published an article about the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction. Again, the response was incredibly positive. I’ve spoken about the system at a number of conferences, and later this year, 5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and Writing with Children’s Books, co-written by literacy educator Marlene Correia, will hit bookshelves.

Because so many people want information now, I’m discussing each of the categories and providing an updated list of exemplar books. You can scroll down to read earlier posts about about traditional nonfiction and browseable books. Today I’m focusing on narrative nonfiction.

In the mid-1990s, children’s authors began crafting narrative nonfiction—prose that tells a true story or conveys an experience. Narrative nonfiction appeals to fiction lovers because it includes real characters and settings; narrative scenes; and, ideally, a narrative arc with rising tension, a climax, and denouement. The scenes, which give readers an intimate look at the events and people being described, are linked by transitional text that provides necessary background while speeding through parts of the true story that don’t require close inspection.



Narrative nonfiction, which typically features rich, engaging language and a chronological sequence text structure, slowly gained momentum during the 2000s. Today, it’s the writing style of choice for biographies and books that focus on historical events. It may also be used in books about animal life cycles or scientific processes, which have a built-in beginning, middle, and end.

Because narrative nonfiction titles often lack headings and other text features, they aren’t as useful for targeted research as other kinds of nonfiction, but they can help young readers get an overall sense of a particular time and place or a person and their important achievements.

Here are some examples:

Game Changers: The Story of Venus and Serena Williams by Lesa Cline-Ransome

Joan Proctor, Reptile Doctor by Patricia Valdez

Karl’s New Beak by Lela Nargi

Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré by Anika Denise 

Spooked!: How a Radio Broadcast and The War of the Worlds Sparked the 1938 Invasion of America by Gail Jarrow

Something Rotten: A Fresh Look at Roadkill by Heather L. Montgomery

Two Brothers, Four Hands by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan

You’re Invited to a Moth Ball: A Nighttime Insect Celebration by Loree Griffin Burns 

Monday, March 30, 2020

Speaking Up for Science and Social Studies!

At one time, it was routine to integrate ELA lessons and content-area instruction. Then Congressed passed the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, and everything changed.

Suddenly, math and ELA instruction were prioritized, and students started taking standardized tests to track their progress. Because the school day is only so long, increasing the time devoted to math and ELA meant reducing the time for other subjects, most notably science and social studies.

Fast forward a couple of decades, and—big surprise—young adults don’t have the science and social studies knowledge and skills they need to succeed in the workplace or as citizens. 


Some educators have been expressing their concern for years. Recently, one of them—Nell K. Duke, a highly-regarded professor in literacy, language, and culture at the University of Michigan—decided to do something tangible to help raise awareness. She made a YouTube video, which I encourage you to watch.


Like Dr. Duke, I think it’s high time to develop lessons that teach science and ELA simultaneously. Bonus point if you can sneak in some math or social studies too. To find lessons that can get you started, I recommend Perfect Pairs: Using Fiction and Nonfiction Picture Books to Teach Life Science, which aligns with state ELA standards as well as the Next Generation Science Standards.There’s one volume specifically for grades K-2, and a second volume for grades 3-5. You can also find all the children’s books recommended in Perfect Pairs on my pinterest boards. I hope you find these resources useful.



And for even more ideas, hop on over LitLinks, a blog maintained by author Patricia Newman, winner of the Sibert Honor for Sea Otter Heroes: The Predators that Saved an Ecosystem.

Friday, March 27, 2020

How Infographics Can Help Students Avoid Plagiarism


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 October 16, 2017.


My 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 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 communicate two important ideas:
(1) the tyrannosaur family lived on Earth for 100 million years

(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:

To communicate these important ideas, the infographic summarizes information presented on many different pages. In other words, 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. 

Why is this an important realization? Because it can help young writers tremendously. By third grade, children know what plagiarism is. They realize 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 created by a boy after he narrowed his topic. At first, he was going to write about robots. Then he decided to focus on robots inspired by animal body designs, and finally he decided to write about one specific kind of robot--snakebots. This infographic shows that he's already thinking about how he'll organize his information. He plans to discuss the two different kinds of snakebots (big vs. tiny), what they are capable of, and how they are used to solve human problems.

See how powerful infographics 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.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Browsable Nonfiction

Back in 2017, I proposed a five-category system for classifying children’s nonfiction on my blog, and the response was incredible.

Teachers loved it. So did librarians and children’s book authors and editors. People praised the clarity it brought to the range of children’s nonfiction available today. In May 2018, School Library Journal published an article about the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction. Again, the response was incredibly positive. I’ve spoken about the system at a number of conferences, and later this year, 5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and Writing with Children’s Books, co-written by literacy educator Marlene Correia, will hit bookshelves.

Because so many people want information now, I’m discussing each of the categories and providing an updated list of exemplar books. On March 11, I focused on traditional nonfiction. Today, I’ll talk about browseable books. 

Thanks to Dorling Kindersley’s innovative Eyewitness Books series, the 1990s brought remarkable changes to traditional expository nonfiction. These beautifully designed, lavishly illustrated books with short text blocks and extended captions revolutionized children’s nonfiction by giving fact-loving kids a fresh, engaging way to access information. 

Readers can easily dip in and out of browseable books, focusing on the sections that interest them most, or they can read the books cover to cover. Today, National Geographic, Time for Kids, and the Discovery Channel are all publishing fact-tastic books in this category, and kids love them. In many ways, they are the nonfiction analog to graphic novels.

Due to their wide array of text features, browseable books are well suited for the later stages of the research process, when students are seeking specific information and looking for tantalizing tidbits to engage their audience of readers.

Here are some examples:

The Book of Queens by Stephanie Warren Drimmer

Discovery Channel Sharkopedia: The Complete Guide to Everything Shark by Discovery Channel

Eye Spy: Wild Ways Animals See the World by Guillaume Duprat 

Eyewitness Books: Rocks & Minerals by R.F. Symes

Guinness World Records 2019 by Guinness World Records

North America: A Fold-Out Graphic History by Sarah Albee

Trees: A Rooted History by Piotr Socha and Wojciech Grajkowski

Time for Kids Big Book of Why by the Editors of Time for Kids

Monday, March 23, 2020

Exploring Active Nonfiction Through the Ages by Tom Bober

At the end of February, school librarian Tom Bober tagged me on Twitter so I could see the great activity his students were doing to think more deeply about the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction in general and Active Nonfiction in particular. I knew other educators would want to give Tom’s idea a try, so I asked him to write a blog post.

When I received Tom's piece a couple of days ago, I was delighted because not only is it a powerful activity, it’s something that upper elementary students can easily do at home—right now. Thanks, Tom!

I am a fan of Melissa’s 5 Kinds of Nonfiction as a way to help students think about and share the nonfiction they like to read and write. I’m also a believer in using historical documents as jumping-off points. When I was able to combine them in a recent lesson, the learning was powerful.

After reading Gilbert Ford’s book, How the Cookie Crumbled, I became interested in the original chocolate chip cookie recipe by Ruth Wakefield and other cookie recipes from the time. Looking at their structure, the recipes were presented very differently from recipes we work with today. I thought it would be an interesting exploration for my students.

We began with an excerpt from Ford’s book. As I passed around a 1937 cookbook with the original chocolate chip cookie recipe, we brainstormed what ingredients are common in many baking recipes. As students shared their background knowledge, I helped to organize their comments. 

Flour, sugar, and butter were common. Baking soda, baking powder, and yeast were used to help baked items rise. Vanilla, zest, and almond were used for flavors. We labeled “wet” and “dry” ingredients. We listed what we described as “fillers” like chocolate chips or candies.

Then we looked at cookbooks that were on the shelves in our library. I asked the students how all of that information was shared and organized in these recipes. Students pointed out elements that they see in much of the active nonfiction they read:

—Numbered step-by-step directions

—Photos showing what steps look like

—Lists of items needed (in cookbooks, typically supplies and ingredients)

Then I shared several cookie recipes that appeared in newspapers in the early 1900s. I found them by doing a simple search in Chronicling America, a database of more than 16 million digitized and searchable pages of American newspapers dating from 1789 to 1963. My search included the years 1900 to 1920 using the keywords “cookie recipe.” Search results show thumbnails of the newspaper pages with keywords highlighted.

After each student had chosen one recipe, I asked, “How is this recipe structurally different from the ones you might see today?” They pointed back to the list we had created. Most of the historical recipes didn’t have identifiable steps. None had photos. The ingredients were included in the directions, but not listed at the beginning.

Then I gave the students a challenge: Take the recipe from 100 years ago and re-write it to look more like a recipe we would see today—more like active nonfiction. Some worked in pairs or small groups. Others decided to tackle the challenge on their own.

The students quickly realized that there were no supplies listed. They had to determine what those would be through the actions described in the recipe and by using current cookbooks for clues. Other problems were not so easily solved. Some ingredients didn’t have measured amounts. One recipe didn’t provide an oven temperature. 

Noticing those missing bits of information (even if there were no apparent answers) showed me that the students recognized the importance of those details in the current active nonfiction cookbooks they were using as mentor texts. It also revealed their understanding of the structure and organization of that type of nonfiction. It certainly is an experience that we will revisit in the library.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Video Mini-Lessons for Students at Shutdown Schools

Since many schools have been temporarily shut down in an effort to slow the coronavirus’s spread, I wanted to mention some of the educational resources available on my website. 

They include a half-dozen video mini-lessons that look at various aspects of informational writing, including research, text features, text structures, rich language, voice, and revisions.

I also have a variety of other materials, including curriculum guides, readers theaters, read aloud guides, and activity pages. Many of these reading and writing resources can be used even if you don’t have copies of my books.

I wish you all well during this difficult time!