Friday, December 21, 2012

Friday Fun: Super Silly Science Jokes

Q: Why didn’t the teacher ever call on Carcharodontosaurus?
A: She couldn’t figure out how to pronounce his name.

Q: What kind of animal should you never trust?
A: An am-fib-ian.

Q: Why did the reptile lay its eggs on land?
A: Because if it dropped them, they’d break.

Q: Why did Sauroposeidon have a long neck?
A: Because its feet stank.

Q: Why did the Ichthyosaur cross the ocean?
A: To get to the other tide.

Looking for more super silly jokes from long, long ago? Check out Dino-mite Jokes about Prehistoric Life.

In honor of the holiday season, I'll be taking the next two weeks off from blogging. I hope to see you back here in 2013.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Behind the Books: Great Narrative Nonfiction

Here are some of my favorite narrative nonfiction picture books:

Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan (illus. by Brian Floca)
Dig, Wait, Listen: A Desert Toad Tale by April Pulley Sayre (illus Barbara Bash)

The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins by Barbara Kerley (illus Brian Selznick)

Family Pack by Sandra Markle (illus. Alan Marks)

Little Lost Bat by Sandra Markle (illus. Alan Marks)

Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai by Claire A. Nivola
Red-eyed Tree Frog by Joy Cowley (illus. Nic Bishop)

Those Rebels, John & Tom by Barbara Kerley (illus. Edwin Fotheringham)

The Secret World of Walter Anderson by Hester Bass (E.B. Lewis)

Waiting for Ice by Sandra Markle (illus. Alan Marks)

And here are some great narrative nonfiction books for older readers:

Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream by Tanya Lee Stone

Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming

Bomb: The Race to Build--and Steal--the World's Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose

If Stones Could Speak: Unlocking the Secrets of Stonehenge by Marc Aronson

Quest for the Tree Kangaroo by Sy Montgomery (illus. Nic Bishop)
The Snake Scientist by Sy Montgomery (photos Nic Bishop)
We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March by Cynthia Levinson

Monday, December 17, 2012

Having Fun with Common Core: More Readers Theater

Today’s post will be the first of several that describes how to locate and select books that work well for ReadersTheater.

To get started, head for your library’s J591 titles. These books focus on animal behaviors—what various animals do at night, how various animals migrate, what various animals do when it rains, etc. The “various” is important because each of the animals discussed in the book will become a character in your RT script. Books that describe one animal’s lifecycle or daily routine don’t work nearly as well.

Look at books in the J570s section, too. These titles focus on ecosystems. Photo-illustrated overviews of a particular habitat aren’t the best choice for RT, but picture books that describe the roles many different creatures play in their environment work well.

No matter which section you’re in, search for beautifully illustrated creative nonfiction picture books with one or more of the following characteristics:

·         lyrical language
·         repeated phrases
·         sound effects

You’ll find beautiful language and repetition well suited for a RT chorus in Home at Last: A Song of Migration by April Pulley Sayre (Illus. by Alix Berenzy, Holt). This book focuses on the migration behaviors of many different animals, from butterflies and trout to wood frogs and sea turtles.

Take a look at a couple of spreads:

Out at sea, grown-up salmon remember a smell.
It’s the smell of the stream where they were born.

They’ll swim two thousand miles. Hop up waterfalls.
Just to be

…home at last.

The book offers a variety of animal examples presented in lovely, lyrical language. The repeated phrase “home at last” is perfect for a chorus.

Splitter, splat, splash! As a rainstorm “thrums” through the treetops, a tropical forest comes alive in Rain, Rain, Rain Forest by Brenda Z. Guiberson (Illus. by Steve Jenkins, Holt). Guiberson’s masterful use of vibrant language and sensory details along with Jenkins’ signature collage style brings the lush, green realm alive.

Take a look at the first spread:

Keeecheeew! A dangling sloth sneezes slowly.
He has been asleep for sixteen hours but now
stirs awake in the pounding rain.

He is so wet that green algae grow in his fur.
Moths live in the fur and eat the algae. Hundreds
of ticks, fleas, and beetles live there too.

The sloth eats leaves. He chews and digests
VERY slowly.

Now protected from hungry jaguars by the thrum
and splatter of the water, the sloth begins a slow
journey to the forest floor. Moving at just six feet
a minute, he passes a bathing macaw as the rain
trickles to a stop.

Look at all the different potential characters described on just these pages. Of course, kids will enjoy being a sloth. But don’t forget all the creepy crawlies hanging out in the sloth’s fur. Your students will love those roles too. Sound effects scattered throughout the text will add fun and energy to of any script created using this book.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Friday Fun: A Must Read for Animal Lovers

Do you know someone who has a special kind of connection with animals? My niece, Caroline, is one of those people.

Animals just adore her. They trust her completely. Does Caroline have a future in veterinary medicine? Maybe. But that’s a tall order to put on a third grader, so let’s just say that interacting with animals is one of her special talents.

If you have someone like Caroline in your life, then here’s the perfect holiday gift: Animals Welcome: A Life of Reading, Writing, and Rescue by children’s book author Peg Kehret. This wonderful memoir describes the many animals Mrs. Kehret has cared for—pets, strays, foster cats, and even wild creatures—with brief mentions of how some of them played a role in her novels.

Like Caroline, Peg Kehret, clearly has a way with animals, so I can’t wait to share this lovingly written true story with my niece.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Behind the Books: Just the Facts vs. Narrative Nonfiction

So what exactly is narrative nonfiction? It’s a book that tells a true story. It may cast real people as characters. It may use real, documented statements as dialog. There is a clear, identifiable setting.

In most cases, the story is told as a series of scenes that bring the reader up close alternating with expository links that link scenes by provide background information and putting events in context.

One of the best ways to see the difference is to compare Red-eyed Tree Frog by Joy Cowley to my book Frog or Toad: What’s the Difference?:

Here’s a short sample of Red-eyed Tree Frog:

“Evening comes to the rain forest.

The macaw and the toucan will soon go to sleep.

But the red-eyed tree frog has been asleep all day.

It wakes up hungry. What will it eat?”

See, it’s a story. A very short, very simple story. The book ends when the frog has a full belly and night turns back to day.

Here’s a short sample of Frog or Toad: What’s the Difference

“Which of these animals is a frog? Which one is a toad? Do you know?

A frog has wet, slimy skin. It needs to live close to water.

A toad has drier, bumpy skin. The skin keeps water inside the toad’s body. That’s why toads can live farther from water than frogs.

A frog has long, strong back legs. They are perfect for jumping or swimming.

A toad has short back legs. Toads walk or take small hops.”

See, the book presents fact after elucidating fact. No story in sight. By the end of the book, we have a solid understanding of the differences between frogs and toads.
Want some more examples? I’ll provide reading lists next week.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Having Fun with Common Core: Crafting a Readers Theater Script

Sometimes it’s hard to find just the right RT for your class. What’s the solution? Create one of your own. It’s easier than you might think, especially if you get started with a great children’s book.

Here are some suggestions. Many RT scripts have just five to ten parts, but scripts based on nonfiction picture books about animal behaviors or how a variety of animals survive in a particular habitat can easily include a role for every student in the class. If you’re working with a small group, some of the animals mentioned in the book can be omitted, or students can perform multiple roles. If you have a large group, struggling readers can share a role.

In addition to animal character roles, your script should include several narrators. They will introduce the animals and, when necessary, provide transitions between scenes. The best RT scripts also include a few choruses—lines spoken by many or all of the actors. They help students stay focused and foster cooperation and camaraderie.

While narrator speeches are usually best suited for your most accomplished readers, animal roles should vary in difficulty to accommodate children at various levels of emergent literacy. For struggling or reluctant readers, create parts that consist of an animal sound and just a few simple words. For average readers, write lines that are one or two sentences long and occasionally include a challenging word. That’s the perfect way to address CCSS for ELA in the Reading Informational Text #4.

As you create a script, don’t be afraid to modify or rearrange the author’s text to meet your needs. Add animal sounds to make the readings more fun. Cut information that seems too advanced. Focus on animals that live in your area or that you think will resonate most with your student population. Your ultimate goal is to create lively, engaging scripts that your students can’t resist reading over and over.

To see the adaptation process first hand, let’s look at how I adapted my book, When Rain Falls (illus. by Constance R. Bergum; Peachtree, 2008) into a script that is always a huge success during school visits.

Picture Book Text
If you look at the published book, you will see that in creating the script, I ignored the text on pages 3, 4, and 5. It didn’t work for RT.

Pages 6-7
When rain falls in a forest…

… scurrying squirrels suddenly stop. They pull their long, bushy tails over their heads like umbrellas.

Pages 8-9
A hawk puffs out its feathers to keep water out and warmth in.

Chickadees stay warm and dry inside their tree hole homes.

Pages 10-11
A doe and fawn take cover under a leafy tree canopy.

A red fox family nestles in a warm, cozy den.

Readers Theater Script
Notice how I converted the picture book text into roles for a chorus, a narrator who is a more advanced reader or an adult, and six different animal characters. I simplified the text in some places, added fun sound effects, and incorporated a bit of humor. Each narrator speech introduces the animal that is about to speak, so struggling readers as well as audience members can follow the performance more easily.
Chorus 1:      When rain falls in a forest . . .

Narrator:         A scurrying squirrel suddenly stops.

Squirrel:           Tsst! Tsst! Tsst! I pull my tail over my head. It makes a great umbrella.

Narrator:         Higher up, there’s a hawk.

Hawk:             I puff out my feathers to stay warm and dry. Ker-ree, ker-ree.

Narrator:         What does a chickadee do?

Chickadee:    Dee-dee, dee-dee. I hide inside my tree hole home.

Narrator:         A deer takes cover under a leafy tree canopy.

Deer:              All the leaves and branches block the rain.
Narrator:         Foxes nestle together inside a warm, cozy den.

Fox 1:              I could use a nap.

Fox 2:             Me too. [Big yawn.]

Interested in giving it a try? I’ll be back with more specific suggestions in January.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Friday Fun: Super Silly Science Jokes

Q: What did the comet do when the Sun told it to clean up its act?
A: It took a meteor shower.

Q: Why did the cow jump over the Moon?
A: To get to the other side.

Q: Where did Jupiter go on vacation?
A: The galax-sea.

Q: Where do asteroids go to party?
A: Nep-tune. It always has great music.

Q: What do dwarf planets do every morning?
A: They sing, “Heigh-ho! Heigh-ho! It’s off to work we go.”

Looking for more super silly jokes about the space beyond Earth? Check out Out of this World Jokes About the Solar System.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Behind the Books: What Creative Nonfiction Isn’t

Whenever I talk to a group of people about creative nonfiction, it quickly becomes clear that a few people in the audience think that the term refers to a text that takes creative license with the facts. Nope. No way.

All nonfiction—creative or not—has to be 100 percent true. Nothing made up. Everything, every last detail, must be painstakingly researched and documented, from weather to who said what and when they said it.

Here’s an example. I’ve seen a number of reading lists that include the fantastic book

Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messner in the nonfiction category. But it’s not nonfiction. Sure it contains plenty of true facts about animals that live under the snow, but the characters are made up and they can only imagine what creatures might lie below their feet. Most importantly, the constellations of animals shown on the final spread have no resemblance to the real placement of brighter and dimmer stars. They're made up. And that’s fine because the author wrote it as fiction. Messner isn't confused, but some of her readers apparently are.

Lately, I’ve heard people in the kidlit world tossing around the term “pseudo-nonfiction”. Oh boy, is that just asking for trouble or what?

Apparently, the term is used in reference to books like Over and Under the Snow, which have some true facts and a plausible story, but aren’t “pure” nonfiction. Um. Sounds a whole lot like realistic fiction to me. Why the sudden need to invent new, confusing terminology?

Monday, December 3, 2012

Having Fun with Common Core: A Role for Readers Theater

Another great activity for building vocabulary as well as fluency and comprehension is Readers Theater. So it can address CCSS for ELA in the Reading Informational Text #4, #1, and 2.

Additional benefits of RT include:
—Promotes student cooperation.
—Improves listening and speaking skills.
—Helps even the shyest students  develop self-confidence when reading aloud.

Why does Readers Theater work?
—Children are natural performers and love using their imaginations
—RT allows emergent, struggling, and advanced readers to participate in the same activity with equal success.
—It gives repetitive reading a purpose.

Because I’m a science geek, I’m a sucker for RT scripts that teach science. In fact, I’ve written a few of them myself.

Why is RT a good technique for life science instruction?
—Students are more likely to retain science concepts (not to mention new words, which is what CCSS for ELA in the Reading Informational Text #4 focuses on) when they’re incorporated into a fun activity
—Students feel a connection to “their” creature, see the world from that animal’s POV
—Students gain a deeper understanding of animal behaviors and lifestyles
—Students learn how living things interact
—Students become more aware of the roles plants and animals play in their environment.

So if you haven’t given Readers Theater a try, now’s your chance. And because writing scripts is often better than trying to find one that’s already published, I’ll teach you how to over the next few weeks. Stay tuned.

Friday, November 30, 2012


It’s the cover of my brand-spanking-new book, which is at the printer right now. No Monkeys, No Chocolate will hit bookshelves next July. I can’t wait.

Dec. 5 update: Woo-hoo! Just found out No Monkeys, No Chocolate is a Junior Librar Guild selection.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Behind the Books: My New, Improved Nonfiction Family Tree

Back in September, I blogged about my view of the nonfiction family tree. I said other authors might disagree with it, and that I might even want to revise it in a year or two.

Well, a year or two has turned into a month or two. That’s how quickly the wonderful world of nonfiction for kids is changing right now.  And I’m very excited.

Here’s my new version:
What has changed? A lot. For starters, I became aware of an article by Marc Aronson in the July 24, 2012, issue of School Library Journal.It recounts Aronson’s experience on a panel at ALA in which Jonathan Hunt (of the Heavy Medal blog) introduced the term “gateway nonfiction”—nonfiction that forms a bridge between the fact-filled record books and gross-out titles that captivate 7 to 10 year olds and middle-grade narrative nonfiction.

According to Aronson, Hunt, and their fellow panelists, gateway nonfiction is a critical stepping stone for young readers, especially boys, and few such trade books currently exist. I completely agree with this idea. So even though these books are currently few and far between, I’ve added it to my tree in the hope that the category will bud and blossom.

I’ve also added some twigs to the straightforward branch. I thought it was a good idea to highlight some of the features that can make straightforward nonfiction outstanding.

And I’ve added a branch called “Experimental” to contrast with “Straightforward." The more I thought about it, the twigs “Strong voice” and “Innovative structure and design” are really two examples of a new, experimental kind of nonfiction.

So what do you think? I’m planning to take a closer look at the twigs and branches over the next few weeks.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Having Fun with Common Core: Silly or Serious Stories

Okay, so we were talking about CCSS for ELA in the Reading Informational Text #4. It focuses on building vocabulary.

Craft & Structure #4

Grade 3

Grade 4

Grade 5

Determine the meaning of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases in a text relevant to a grade 3 topic or subject area.

Determine the meaning of general academic and domain-specific words or phrases in a text relevant to a grade 4 topic or subject area.

Determine the meaning of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases in a text relevant to a grade 5 topic or subject area.

In my last Monday post, I discussed a great strategy for early elementary students—songs. But let’s face it, by grade 3, not all students are enthusiastic about singing.

So how about this: Challenge them to write a silly or serious story using as many vocabulary words as possible. And here’s the great news: This assignment also meets CCSS for ELA Writing standard #3.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Having Fun with Common Core: Word Wizards

Back in the day, kids across America were tortured with a multi-year vocabulary-building program called Word Wizards. Each Monday we were introduced to a new set of words, and each and every Friday, there was a much dreaded test. As if a weekly spelling test wasn’t enough to give us all anxiety nightmares!

Word Wizards may be a thing of the past, but the need to learn vocabulary certainly hasn’t disappeared. And that’s what CCSS for ELA in the Reading Informational Text #4 is all about.

Craft & Structure #4


Grade 1

Grade 2

With prompting and support, ask and answer questions about unknown words in a text.

Ask and answer questions to help determine or clarify the meaning of words and phrases in a text.

Determine the meaning of words and phrases in a text relevant to a grade 2 topic or subject area.

Grade 3

Grade 4

Grade 5

Determine the meaning of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases in a text relevant to a grade 3 topic or subject area.

Determine the meaning of general academic and domain-specific words or phrases in a text relevant to a grade 4 topic or subject area.

Determine the meaning of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases in a text relevant to a grade 5 topic or subject area.

Believe it or not, there are fun ways for your kiddos to learn vocabulary.

For grades K-2, songs can really do the trick. For example, let’s say your students are struggling with the terms used to describe the various life stages of butterflies and many other insects. This little ditty (which I wrote and give you permission to use any way you like) just might do the trick:

The Butterfly Song
(To The Tune of “London Bridge”)

Butterflies lay their eggs,
Here and there—
On leaves and twigs.
Butterflies lay their eggs,
Then they fly away.

Catterpillars hatch from eggs.
They creep and crawl,
chomp and chew.
Catterpillars grow and grow.
Then they shed their skin.

Wrapped inside a chrysalis.
Pupae change.
They grow wings.
They slip out of that chrysalis
And slowly spread their wings.

Butterflies flit and fly,
They search and seek
For a mate. Butterflies lay more eggs,
Then they fly away.

FYI, there are more fun songs on my website. Just look here.

What about older students? I have some great ideas, but they'll have to wait for my next Monday post. Stay tuned.