Friday, May 27, 2016

A School Visit Milestone

Recently I hit a major milestone—the one-hundredth time I presented the program Bringing Science to Life as part of a school visit. Wow!

This popular presentation serves a multi-grade audience and during the first 8 minutes, second graders perform a fun readers theater that I adapted from one of my books to an audience of K and 1 students.

Over the years, I have changed and updated many of my school visit programs, but this one seems to be evergreen. One reason is that every school brings its own creativity to the way they prepare for and perform the readers theater. In fact, just last week, I saw three very different versions.

At Hanlon School in Westwood, MA, students printed out photos of the animal they were portraying and taped their lines to the back.
At Hawley School in Newtown, CT, students held their scripts in one hand and stuffed animals of the creature they were portraying in the other hand.
And at Middle Gate School in Newtown, CT, the students made masks. Instead of standing in a line at the front of the room, each child walked across the room as they read their lines. I’d never seen staging like that before.
Through the years, I’ve seen everything from animal hats at Hathaway School in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. . .
. . . to animal posters at Pownal School in Pownal, Maine.
I’ve also seen all kinds of creative backdrops, including these fun Under the Snow posters made by students at McGovern School in Medway, MA . . .
. . . and these incredible painted scenes painted by the art teacher at Ellsworth School in Windsor, CT.
I’ve even seen what I like to think of the unplugged version, where students remained seated throughout the performance, at King Open School in Cambridge, MA.
With so much diversity, this program always seems fresh to me. So as long as students continue to love it, I’ll keep offering it.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Behind the Books: When I Became a Writer

One of the questions people frequently ask me is when I became a writer. My answer usually surprises them.

Taking a rest with my dad.
I wrote my first piece of nonfiction when I was around 4 years old. It consisted of one word, five letters. Missy—my childhood nickname.

The truth is that we are all writers from the moment we first put pencil to paper. And that’s something I really want kids to understand when I do school visits.

There are probably some people with an innate talent for writing, just as some people are more athletic than others. But getting to the Olympics is about much more than being born with talent. It’s about years and years of dedicated practice and hard work. So is becoming a published writer.
I published my first book, Life Without Light, when I was 30. Before that, I'd contributed maybe a hundred articles to magazines and newspapers.
I became a professional writer at age 21. (I received a whopping $4.00 for an article that appeared in a Greenwich Village community newspaper.) Before that, I'd written many articles and a column for my college newspaper.

I wrote my first published piece when I was 15. It ran on page 2 of my high school newspaper, “Here’s Hampshire.” And it made me very proud. Just as proud as holding Life Without Light for the first time.

But maybe not as proud as the very first time I wrote my name. Missy. That was a great day.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Book of the Week: How Is My Brain Like a Supercomputer?

Educators often ask me which of my books would work best in their classroom. So this year, I’ve decided to feature a book each week and highlight related teaching materials and strategies.

How Is My Brain Like a Supercomputer? And Other Questions about the Human Body aligns perfectly with NGSS PE 4-LS1-1. It’s also a great mentor text for language arts discussions about the question and answer text structure.

The book’s carefully labeled illustrations and diagrams will help students gain a thorough understanding of key science concepts. PLUS they can serve models for students adding visuals to lab reports or developing explanations of scientific processes.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Exploring Text Structures

Last Friday, I shared some great text feature work that the fourth graders at Kennedy School in Billerica, MA were doing. But the truth is those students have been busy, busy, busy immersing themselves in nonfiction projects.

After reading my book No Monkeys, No Chocolate, the students made book maps to get a stronger sense of the architecture of the main text, which has what I call a cumulative sequence structure (my mentor texts were traditional cumulative tales, such as The House that Jack Built and I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.)

Then each child chose one example from the text and rewrote it with a cause and effect text structure.

Here are some close ups:

Wow, what a terrific idea!

Doesn’t this student work blow you away? I’m so impressed with the fourth grade writers at Kennedy School.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Behind the Books: Revision, Rehearsal, Renovation

Let’s face it. Kids aren’t crazy about the idea of revising their writing.

I created a Revision Timeline documenting the 10-year process of creating No Monkeys, No Chocolate so that teachers would have an engaging tool for showing young writers that professional writers revise. A lot.

For a few years now, I’ve been telling students that revising our writing is really no different than practicing a sport or rehearsing for a musical concert.

Football, soccer, and baseball players practice so they can develop the skills they need to beat rival teams.

Musicians rehearse so that they play a song perfectly when they perform in front of an audience.

Similarly, a rough draft is a way of preparing for what’s really important—writing the final piece, the writing that the world sees.

Sometimes this comparison makes an impact on elementary audiences, and sometimes, well—not so much. And so I’ve been searching for an analogy that really hits homes for kids, and I’ve finally found one—renovation.
Some students have lived through a home remodel. Others have seen dramatic renovations on HGTV or DIY. So when I show them real BEFORE and AFTER photos of a house, and ask which one they’d rather live in, the kids don’t let me down.
And when I compare the BEFORE house to a rough draft, and the AFTER house to a final draft, their eyes really do light up with understanding. It’s a beautiful thing.

But that's not where my analogy ends. I explain that before someone starts remodeling their kitchen, the room might leave a lot to be desired, but it does still function. You can cook a meal in it.

But after you pull out the cabinets and counters and appliances, the room is a bigger mess than when you started. And in fact, it doesn't function at all. You have to cook in a microwave in the living room and wash dishes in the bathroom sink.

The same is true for revising a manuscript. In the middle of the process, the writing might be a big mess. Maybe even worse than the first draft. It takes time and patience to focus on one problem at a time and slowly create something better than the original.

In a home remodel, first the new drywall goes up (structure). Then the new cabinets, countertops, and appliances are installed (writing style, voice, point of view). The walls are painted (word choice), and finally the new window coverings and accessories are added (conventions). If students go step-by-step through the revision process and accept that it isn't always easy, they can end up with the manuscript of their dreams.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Book of the Week: Terrific Tongues Up Close

Educators often ask me which of my books would work best in their classroom. So this year, I’ve decided to feature a book each week and highlight related teaching materials and strategies.

Terrific Tongues Up Close is perfect for visual literacy lessons. In addition to clear, simple text, it features fascinating close-up images that highlight the fascinating features of many different animals’ tongues. It can also be used in science lessons that look at animal adaptations and language arts lessons that focus on texts with a compare and contrast structure.


Friday, May 13, 2016

Text Features: Making Progress

If you read the post I wrote last Friday, you saw the great text feature work K students are doing at Memorial School in Medfield, MA. Feel free to scroll back now and take a quick look. I’ve included one sample here just for fun.

A few days after visiting Memorial School, I headed out to Kennedy School in Billerica, MA. Once again, I was blown away by how much fun the students were having with nonfiction writing.

For one fourth grade project, students read my book Dolphins and used the book’s text features as inspiration for creating their own text features with information about an animal of their choice.
What a great idea!

What I especially like is comparing these meaty, sophisticated fourth-grade student samples to the text features created by the K students.
Look how much children can develop as readers and writers and thinkers in just a few years!

Seeing students working hard and having fun under the guidance of skilled and caring teachers is one of the things I love most about visiting schools.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Behind the Books: Another Kind of Life Story

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I think most (if not all) nonfiction for children can be divided into four broad categories—survey books, specialized nonfiction, concept books, and life stories. For more information about the first three categories, go to the List of Topics in the gray column to the right, scroll down to Nonfiction Categories, and read some of my past posts.

Today I’m rethinking the fourth category—life stories.

In the past, I’ve defined life story as a book about a person’s life. I’ve included “cradle to grave” biographies, partial or episodic biographies that focus on a pivotal event or period in a person’s life, autobiographies/ memoirs, and collective biographies that feature many different people.

But recently, I read an advance copy of a wonderful picture book that made me revise my definition to “an account of a life.” Coyote Moon by Maria Gianferrari (due out July 16, 2016) is as much a life story as any picture book biography I’ve ever read. And it made me realize that books like Hip-pocket Papa and A Mother’s Journey by Sandra Markle, Bat Loves the Night and One Tiny Turtle by Nicola Davies, and The Bumblebee Queen by April Pulley Sayre are too.

Coyote Moon describes the nighttime adventures of a caring mother coyote in search of food for her family. As such, I consider it an episodic life story, similar to Ballet for Martha by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, Brave Girl by Michelle Markel, and When Marian Sang by Pam Munoz Ryan.

It’s amazing to me that even though I’ve been thinking and blogging about nonfiction classification for more than 5 years now, I’m still having new insights. I think it’s because this is such an exciting time for nonfiction. Authors are constantly innovating and enriching the genre. I’m excited to see what they come up with next.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Book of the Week: Wacky Weather and Silly Season Jokes

Educators often ask me which of my books would work best in their classroom. So this year, I’ve decided to feature a book each week and highlight related teaching materials and strategies.

Don’t be fooled by the title. Wacky Weather and Silly Season Jokes is more than just a book of jokes. It also contains basic information about rain, snow, frog, frost, dew, hail, sleet, clouds, thunderstorms, hurricanes, seasons, climate, and , and more.

And that’s not all. The backmatter includes a 6-page section about how to write jokes using a wide range of language devices, including alliteration, homographs and homophones, and rhyme. There’s no better way to get students to engaging in authentic word play.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Writing Informational Texts in K-2

Recently, a lot of early elementary teachers have been asking me for writing ideas for their students. Since a major goal for K-2  is learning to recognize text features, I wanted to share a great project developed by Mrs. Teany (@room12owls), a fabulous K teacher at Memorial School (@MemLibrary) in Medfield, MA.

First, Mrs. Teany’s students read a wide variety of age-appropriate books written by me and published by Enslow/Rosen, National Geographic, and Harper Collins. Then they created their own text features, using the ones in my books as mentor texts.

Here are some samples. I think you’ll agree that the results are fantastic.

A caption and labels highlighting a butterfly’s body parts.

Labels on a gripping drawing of a hurricane.
A “zoom bubble” showing a close-up view of a dragonfly’s head next to a complete body image with very colorful wings.

Comparing a frog and toad, highlighting that frogs have teeth but toads don’t. (top) Fact boxes with information about two frogs, one is poisonous and one isn’t. (bottom)

I’m so happy to see that students are using these books as mentor texts as they learn and have fun. Thanks for your great ideas, Mrs. Teany!

Update: Memorial School's fabulous librarian Randie Groden created this fun video of the whole class's text feature posters. Take a look.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Behind the Books: Starting with a Question

Here’s the question I left off with last week: How do we give students the tools and opportunities they need to become passionate nonfiction writers?

I think the key is to make the process as authentic as possible. And that means looking at the process behind passionately written professional writing.

While every professional writer has his or her own unique process, my guess is that many start the same way I do--with a question.  Something I see or hear or read makes me so curious that I want to know more. And once I know more, I’m so excited that I want to share it with other people.

Here’s an example. One day, I read a magazine article with a fact that blew my mind—a hummingbird’s eyelashes are the smallest feathers in the world. Wow! Who knew birds had eyelashes? And can you believe that they’re made of feathers?

That incredible fact also inspired me ask a broader question: Do birds use their feathers in other unexpected ways? It was such an intriguing question that I knew I had to explore it. And eventually, the information I accumulated during my journey of discovery turned into the book Feathers: Not Just for Flying.

What can educators take away from my process story:

--Self-generated ideas are powerful
--It’s important to be open to ideas all the time. (When I read the “hummingbird eyelashes” tidbit, I was working on another book, but I still paid attention.)

--It’s important to keep track of questions we have or things we wonder about. (I tacked the “hummingbird eyelashes” article to the idea board in my office.)

Recently, I saw a great classroom Wonder Wall, and I thought, “This is like my idea board, only better.”

Imagine having a Wonder Wall bursting with sticky notes in every classroom. When it’s time to do a nonfiction report, students use one of the sticky notes to fuel their own journey of discovery and then write about the most interesting things they learn.

When natural curiosity guides the research and writing process, and when children are encouraged to zero in on what they find most fascinating, their final piece is bound burst with passion and personality. Why not give it a try?

Monday, May 2, 2016

Book of the Week: When Rain Falls

Educators often ask me which of my books would work best in their classroom. So this year, I’ve decided to feature a book each week and highlight related teaching materials and strategies.

It’s spring! Let’s celebrate by talking about When Rain Falls. This book is perfect for science lessons about weather, habitats, and animal adaptations. It directly addresses NGSS PEs 2-LS4-1 and 3-ESS2-1. You can start your lesson with a fun Readers Theater script that I’ve written to accompany the book.

I’ve also created a Teacher’s Guide that makes connections to a wide variety of NGSS and Common Core standards as well as a Where Do Ideas Come From? Video that takes readers to Gates Pond in Hudson, Massachusetts, the place where I had the experience that led me to write When Rain Falls as well as Under the Snow.

Because When Rain Falls features a wondrous, lyrical voice it’s a perfect choice for lessons that focus on why voice is an important element of nonfiction writing. I have paired this book with Animal Grossapedia, which has a strong, sassy voice to create a Voice Choice mini-lesson (scroll down to bottom on page) that students love.