Friday, September 28, 2012

Friday Fun: Five Gross and Goofy Body Facts

1. When it comes to barfing, frogs are real pros. A frog throws up its whole stomach, scoops out the chewed-up chunks of food, and then swallows its stomach back down.

2. An owl vomits after every meal. All the undigestible parts of its prey—fur, bones, teeth—get packed into a pellet and hurled out of its body.

3. A whale vomits the materials it can’t digest about once a week.

4. When an enemy attacks, a sea cucumber throws up its stomach. That’s enough to scare off most predators.

5. Rats will eat almost anything, so you would expect them to lose their lunch once in a while. But believe it or not, rats can’t vomit.

Looking for more Gross and Goofy Body facts? Check out my book Germ Wars: The Secrets of Fighting Invaders. It’s full of weird, wacky, strange, and surprising information about your body and the bodies of other animals.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Behind the Books: The Nonfiction Family Tree

Here’s my version of the nonfiction family tree. Other authors might disagree. Heck, I might disagree in a year or two. But for now, this tree shows how I think of children’s nonfiction as a whole.
The tree has two main branches, narrative and just the facts, but it leaves room for other fundamentally different kinds that might develop. Some people seem to be using the term “informational” for what I call just the facts. I don’t like “informational” because all nonfiction is chock full of fascinating information.

My just the facts branch has three twigs with room for other possibilities. There may already be some good candidates for that fourth slot. Suggestions?

Everything in red is what I think of as creative nonfiction. Some people seem to think that the terms “creative nonfiction” and “narrative nonfiction” are interchangeable, but not me.

As far as I’m concerned, there is tons of creative experimentation and innovation happening within non-narrative nonfiction. I’ll be writing more about all these ideas over the next few months.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Having Fun with Common Core: More Reading Buddies

While writing my last post, I realized that some teachers who are unfamiliar with Reading Buddies might like some tips for integrating such a program into their school, so here is some advice I collected from teachers all over the country.
  • Younger students should have some ability to read independently. Their buddies should be at least three years older to provide the feeling of a mentoring experience.

  • The program should span several months. Meeting once a week for about 30 minutes works well in most schools.
  • Buddies should have a quiet, comfortable place to read. The reading space should remain consistent so the students have a feeling of familiarity as well as security.
  • Try to pair students according to needs, ability level, and personality. For example, an emerging reader in second grade might be paired with a patient, mature fifth grader.
  • Active children with some attention difficulties would be paired with calmer, more focused students.
  • It is best to let students select their own books, but be sure they have plenty of books at the appropriate level to choose from.
  • Spend some time training older students and modeling how they should interact with their younger buddies. Periodically meet with the older students to discuss any problems they are having with their younger buddies.
  • Have each buddy team keep a log of the books they read together. As the list grows, they will feel a sense of accomplishment.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Friday Fun: Super Silly Science Jokes

Q: Why did the woman walk outside with her purse wide open?
A: She expected some change in the weather.

Q: What’s a meteorologist’s favorite day of the week?
A: Sun-day.

Q: What’s the difference between weather and climate?
A: You can’t weather a tree, but you can climate.

Q: Why did the wind finish the test before anyone else in the class?
A: She thought it was a breeze.

Q: Why does Earth move in circles around the Sun?
A: It doesn’t want to be square.

Looking for more super silly jokes about the weather? Check out Wacky Weather and Silly Season.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Behind the Books: The Creative Core

 Candace Fleming, author of Amelia Lost, and many other great books calls it the “vital idea.”

I’ve heard other nonfiction writers use terms like inciting incident, emotional trigger, creative spark, moment of inception, central mantra. I like to call it the creative core.

What is it?

It’s the heart of a great nonfiction manuscript.

It’s what a specific author brings to a topic, to a manuscript that no one else can.

It’s why a topic chooses an author, not the other way around.

It’s the result of an aha moment, and the source of passionate writing.

It’s what connects a topic, any topic, to a universal theme that everyone can relate to.

And according to nonfiction author Heather Montgomery, it’s what makes the best nonfiction books timeless.

Sound like magic. Well, it kind of is.
A nonfiction book’s creative core is deep inside an author. Maybe it traces back to a powerful childhood memory. It might be the result of a deep-seeded desire, hope, belief, or disappointment. Here are some examples.

Tanya Lee Stone wrote Sandy’s Circus because, as a child, Alexander Calder, was the only artist she immediately understood in a way that her father and sister seemed to understand all artists. Calder was her link to a secret knowledge that made her feel more closely connected to her family.

Deborah Heiligman’s “nonfiction novel” Charles & Emma is so compelling because everything about who she is as a person drove her to write a book “in service to the love story” between Darwin and his wife. It's a book that only she could write.

Next year, I have a book coming out that traces back to the walks my father, brother, and I took through the woods near our home when I was young. The knowledge my brother and I learned on those meandering journeys and the closeness it made us feel to my father had a strong impact on both our lives. In many ways, I’ve been writing No Monkeys, No Chocolate since I was 8 years old.

How can a writer go about identifying the creative core of a work in progress? He or she must think deeply and ask questions that may have an uncomfortable answer: What really prompted the writer to choose his or her topic. Journaling can be an invaluable tool during this process. Writing about the moment of inception can help writers stay connected to it and the emotions it triggers.

Whether fiction or nonfiction, the best writing comes from a place of vulnerability. We write because we have something we need to say.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Having Fun with Common Core: Pretty Colors

Since reading standards is such a drag, I’ve decided to present them in a slightly more palatable way—using pretty colors.

Key Ideas and Details #1
Grade 1
Grade 2
With prompting and support, ask and answer questions about key details in a text.
Ask and answer questions about key details in a text.
Ask and answer such questions to demonstrate understanding of key details in a text.
Grade 3
Grade 4
Grade 5
Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers.
Refer to details and examples in a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.
Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.

Key Ideas and Details #2
Grade 1
Grade 2
With prompting and support, identify the main topic and retell key details of a text.
Identify the main topic and retell key details of a text.
Identify the main topic of a multi-paragraph text as well as the focus of specific paragraphs within the text.
Grade 3
Grade 4
Grade 5
Determine the main idea of a text; recount the key details and explain how they support the main idea.
Determine the main idea of a text and explain how it is supported by key details; summarize the text.
Determine two or more main ideas of a text and explain how they are supported by key details; summarize the text.

There, that looks almost friendly. These are the first two CCSS for ELA in the Reading Informational Text category. Basically they say that after reading a nonfiction book, your kiddos should be able to identify the main topic and key details in of the text.

This certainly isn’t a new idea. In fact it’s pretty basic. What’s the point of reading if you don’t understand or remember the content? But as we know, this isn’t always easy for kids, especially beginning readers.

One great way to help students build their fluency and comprehension is Reading Buddies. You can find a great article about Reading Buddies here, but in a nutshell, the benefits for the younger child include:
—reading practice with real audience
—focus and try harder
—may get more kid-friendly explanations

And the benefits for the older child include:
—build self-esteem
—feel like making an important contribution

Both students:
—gain enthusiasm for reading
—develop cooperative learning behaviors

And the benefits for the school community include:
—friendships and understanding across grade levels
—may reduce bullying

But here’s my special twist on Reading Buddies. Instead of using books at the younger child’s reading level, use books with layered text. The simpler text is perfect for the young child, and the more complex text will challenge the older child. So both are learning. And after reading, they can discuss the art and content of the spread—a practice that will certainly address CCSS for ELA: Reading Informational Text #1 and #2.

My books A Place for Butterflies, A Place for Birds, A Place for Frogs, A Place for Fish, and A Place for Bats are perfect for this kind of Reading Buddies program. And I even have activities for the buddies to do after reading the books. I’ll talk more about them in a future post.

Here are some other books with layered text. They are also perfect for a Reading Buddies program in which both students participate.

Actual Size by Steve Jenkins
Beaks by Sneed B. Collard (illus. by Robin Brickman)
The Bumblebee Queen by April Pulley Sayre (illus Patricia J. Wynne)
A Butterfly is Patient by Diana Hutts Aston (illus. Sylvia Long)
An Egg is Quiet by Diana Hutts Aston (illus. Sylvia Long)
Meet the Howlers by April Pulley Sayre (illus. Woody Miller)
Move! by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page
A Seed is Sleepy by Diana Hutts Aston (illus. Sylvia Long)
What Do You Do with a Tail Like This? by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page
When the Wolves Returned  by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent (photos Dan and Cassie Hartman)
Wings by Sneed B. Collard (illus. by Robin Brickman)

Friday, September 14, 2012

Friday Fun: Five Gross and Goofy Body Facts

1. A polar bear’s huge feet have black pads covered with bumpy skin and long hairs that grow between the toes. These features increase friction, so the hungry hunter doesn’t slip and slide on the ice.

2. When a snail is on the move, it lays down a trail of slippery slime and slides across it with its muscular foot.

3. Aardvarks, badgers, and moles have shovel-shaped feet that help them burrow into the ground.

4. A mountain goat uses the rough pads on the bottoms of its heavy hooves to climb over rocks.

5. Using its huge feet like a parachute, a flying frog can plunge through the rain forest and land with a gentle plop.

Looking for more Gross and Goofy Body facts? Check out my book Give Me a Hand: The Secrets of Hands, Feet, Arms, and Legs. It’s full of weird, wacky, strange, and surprising information about your body and the bodies of other animals.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Having Fun with Common Core: Thank Goodness for Common Core

Yup, that’s right. I’m delighted by the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts. Why? Because it puts the spotlight on nonfiction. Finally.

As educators know, many kids prefer reading nonfiction. But if that’s not enough of a reason to put more emphasis on nonfiction, then here’s one that’s hard to resist. Studies show that students with more experience reading and writing nonfiction perform better on assessment tests.

Now I’m not a fan of assessment tests. In fact, I’m dead set against them. But as long as they exist—and it seems like they aren’t going anywhere soon—we might as well encourage kids to engage in activities that will improve their performance. Plus, I’d like to remind you of my first reason—many kids prefer reading nonfiction.

But let’s face it, standards are stodgy. They’re just no fun to read. They’re chock full of educational jargon and passive verbs. Bleck!

But don’t let that get you down. What I’m going to show you is that implementing the CCSS can be fun. That’s right, FUN! All it takes is some great books and some creative ideas.

That’s what you’ll find in spades on my Monday blog strand this year. So pull out your pencils and get ready to take notes.

Addressing the new standards in your classroom is a lot easier than you think. I promise.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Friday Fun: Super Science Jokes

Q: Why do bacteria like fourth grade math?
A: They love to spend their time dividing.

Q: Why was it hard to weigh ancient fish?
A: They didn’t have scales.

Q: What did Earth say to the Sun 450 million years ago?
A: You’re the light of my life!

Q: What did the prehistoric spider say to the ancient dragonfly?
A: Don’t bug me.

Q: What happened when Compsognathus tripped on a branch?
A: It got a dino sore.

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

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Behind the Books: How I Spent My Summer Vacation

When I was in elementary school, we had to write a “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” essay at the beginning of each school year. And I hated it.
Summer was my secret time away from the hustle and bustle of school year activities. I spent hours wandering in the woods, making clothes for my Barbie dolls, and reading Encyclopedia Brown mysteries on the tiny porch attached to my bedroom.

Summer still a special time for me. I spend July refueling from a school year filled with author visits and conference speaking. I do lots of writing. And I read and read.

For the last few years, I’ve spent the first week of August at the annual SCBWI conference in Los Angles. Then I head for a tiny cottage on a tiny island in the middle of Maine’s Penobscot Bay. My husband’s family has owned it for nearly a century.

It’s an off-the-grid retreat where I marvel at a swampy forest full of frogs and purple mushrooms. Some days I chase butterflies through big, open fields just to see where they’re going. This year my brother-in-law, Peter Fairley, had a fantastic new camera and he snapped this wonderful photo of an American copper butterfly alighting on a purple aster. Lovely, isn’t it?

Each year I discover something new. This year as I headed to the outhouse early on a foggy morning, it suddenly started to rain as I passed under a small grove of silver birches in the midst of all the conifers. Just as I reached the far side of the grove, it stopped raining.

Or did it?

I was dry, but I could still hear the pitter patter of rain beneath the birches. The ground under my feet was dry. But the ground below the birches was soaked.

I was amazed. I was witnessing a very, very localized rainstorm—about 6 square feet. Something about the shape or size or texture of the birch leaves was causing water droplets in the air to condense and fall. But the surrounding conifer needles didn’t affect the foggy air one bit. Cool!

I was so excited that I woke my husband and my nephew and dragged them out to experience my discovery. But it was early, and they were unimpressed.

I guess some people need a cup of coffee or a hearty blueberry pancake breakfast to appreciate the marvels of nature. But not me. I’ll take them whenever and wherever I can find them.