Friday, December 6, 2019

No More All About Books!

Since 2019 marks the 10th Anniversary of this blog, on Fridays this year, I’m updating some past posts that sparked conversation or that I think still have a lot to offer people teaching or writing nonfiction. Today’s post originally appeared on May 18, 2018.

For many years, all-about books have been the go-to informational writing project in elementary classrooms across the U.S. But I think it’s time to re-consider that assignment. Before I explain why, here’s a little bit of background.
In December 2017, I introduced the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction, a system for classifying the wide and wonderful world of nonfiction books for children. It received such a great response that Nerdy Book Club co-founder Colby Sharp (@colbysharp) invited me to create this video for his blog and SLJ invited me to write this article for their May 2018 issue. I’m currently writing a book about it with literacy educator Marlene Correia. It’s due out in Fall 2020.

For today’s discussion, I’m going to focus on two categories—Traditional Nonfiction and Expository Literature. Traditional nonfiction provides a general introduction to a broad topic. These survey (all about) books, which are often published in large series, feature clear, concise, straightforward language and usually have a description text structure.

Traditional nonfiction books can be a great place to start the research process because they provide an overview of a topic, but they aren’t the best mentor texts for producing engaging, finely-crafted informational writing. For that, expository literature, which emphasizes depth rather than breadth of coverage, is a better choice.

This has nothing to do with how talented the writers are and everything to do with the inherent differences of writing about a broad topic versus a focused one. Simply put, broad topics limit a nonfiction writer’s ability to craft rich, engaging text.

When writers take an in-depth look at a specific idea or concept, they can be more playful and innovative. They can select a format and text structure that reflects their unique approach to the content. They can experiment with voice and language devices. Because writers of traditional nonfiction must cover a huge amount of information in a limited number of words, they don’t have the same kind of opportunities to delight as well as inform.
When we ask children to write all about books, we’re giving them a handicap right off the bat. Students will be most successful when they choose a topic they’re passionate about and zoom in on a specific question or unique perspective that allows them to use the nonfiction craft moves they’ve learned to the best of their ability. Let’s give our young writers a chance to shine.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

The Dangers of “Personal Knowledge”

When I do school visits, I often ask students where they get reliable information when they’re writing nonfiction. What kinds of sources do they use?

Of course, they mention books and using the Internet cautiously. Some mention encyclopedic databases, such as PebbleGo.

With a little bit of prodding, they’ll often realize that firsthand observations can be a good source if they’re writing about a local animal, and interviews with experts can enrich a nonfiction report or project about just about any topic.

But at some schools, students include “personal knowledge” on their list. And that worries me. A lot.

Personal knowledge is NOT a reliable resource. All of us carry misinformation and misconceptions with us. And some of the things we learned in the past may no longer be considered true. Our collective understanding of the world is changing all the time. Simply put, we don’t know what we don’t know.

That’s why nonfiction writers need to question everything.

We need to “read around” our topics, gathering a wide range of background information.  We’ll probably never use some of it, but it’s critical to have a broad base of general knowledge before diving into specifics. If we don’t, mistakes can happen.

And after the piece is written, we need to double check everything. And I mean everything. Because we can’t rely on what we think we know. We have to be sure.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Writing Expository Nonfiction that Sings, Part 10

Since the beginning of the school year, each Monday, I’ve been posting  about the importance of understanding the key elements of finely-crafted expository nonfiction and helping students identify those features as they read and include them as they write.

For the first few weeks, I focused on the pre-writing process. Then, I turned my attention to text characteristics and discussed text format, text scaffolding, and text density, text structure, and voice. You can scroll down to read those posts.

Today, I’m sharing some ideas about the power of rich language and it’s close connection to last week’s topic—voice.

Authors carefully select each and every word to craft text bursting with rich, powerful language that engages their young audience. In some cases, figurative language infuses prose with combinations of sounds and syllables that result in a lyrical voice. Consider this passage from We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorell:
When cool breezes blow and leaves fall,
we say otsaliheliga . . .
. . . as shell shakers dance all night around the fire,
burnt cedar’s scent drifts upward during the
Great New Moon Ceremony.

Notice how the author employs alliteration, sensory details, and imagery to transport young readers to the Cherokee Nation’s autumn Great New Moon Ceremony and show them how special it is.

In on the other hand, combining language devices like puns, rhyme, alliteration, and surprising phrasing can make writing more humorous and playful, resulting in a more lively voice. Consider these amusing headings from Poison: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions, and Murderous Medicines by Sarah Albee:

Toxic Plots, Poison Pots, and Shipboard Shots

I Came, I Saw, I Poisoned

Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow

You Say Potato, I Say Be Careful

Albee includes this kind of language to help middle-grade readers see just how amazing and exciting and interesting history actually is.”

Albee notes that while her early drafts often include some lively writing, enriching her prose with “humor and energy is something I usually do at a late stage of revision. I carefully examine each sentence and think: How can I make this funnier, or more vivid, for my reader?”

The best way for students to get a feel for the flow of rich, engaging expository language is to analyze finely-crafted books. Invite students to choose one of the following titles and type out a few pages.
Frog Song by Brenda Z. Guiberson
Giant Squid by Candace Fleming

If You Find a Rock by Peggy Christian

If You Hopped Like a Frog by David M. Schwartz

Planting the Wild Garden by Kathryn O. Galbraith

Squirrels Leap, Squirrels Sleep
by April Pulley Sayre
After organizing the class into small groups based on the books they selected, encourage the teams to identify key language features and highlight them with different colors. Students may color the text in the computer file, or they can print out the text and mark it up with colored pencils or highlighting markers. The following color code works well for the titles listed above: red = vivid verbs
blue = similes, metaphors, and other comparisons
green = alliteration
purple = repetition
orange = onomatopoeia
After students complete this task, invite them to highlight these same language features in one of their rough drafts. Can they find spots where replacing a verb or adding a comparison or language device could strengthen their writing?

Monday, November 25, 2019

My Heart Is So Full!

NCTE is always a wonderful conference, but this year was extra special. Editors Carol Hinz and Shaina Olmanson of Lerner along with editor Melissa Manlove of Chronicle organized an informal Nonfiction Salon on Saturday morning. And look who showed up . . . 

But that's not all. Thanks to Jen Swanson's prodding, this photo was taken at the end of the event, but quite a few additional people--authors, editors, teachers, librarians--had to leave a little bit early because they were presenting or had a scheduled book signing.

There was also a bunch dedicated Nerdy Book Club educators who decided to bow out of the photo and act as photographers, (Luckily, author Louise Borden snapped a quick photo of them.) We depend on their support every single day, and they never let us down. 

As nonfiction authors, we sometimes feel like the underdogs of the children's literature community. But this event gave us a chance to come together and discuss some issues we've all been thinking about--how nonfiction is growing and changing, the importance of expository nonfiction as well as narrative nonfiction, ways to classify nonfiction, the importance of distinguishing between informational fiction and nonfiction, the lack of diversity in nonfiction, and how we can all continue to support one another as a community and spread our love of true books.

It was an epic event, and I admit that there was a moment when I felt so overwhelmed with joy that I shed a few tears. We are in the midst of a golden age of nonfiction, and it's exciting to see a new crop of books that pushes the limits each year. Hooray for nonfiction!

Saturday, November 23, 2019

NCTE Handout: 12 Ways Expository Nonfiction Can Inspire Reading, Writing, and Inquiry

Description: You may not love expository nonfiction, but many of your students do. It motivates fact-loving kids to read, and it can help ALL students develop informational writing skills. In this session, six highly-regarded educators share creative ideas for using finely-crafted expository nonfiction children’s books in the classroom.

Here is a list of the books we discussed:

Handimals: Animals in Art and Nature by Silvia Lopez and Guido Daniele

Actual Size by Steve Jenkins

If Elephants Disappeared by Lily Williams

Beware of the Crocodile
by Martin Jenkins

A Colony of Bees
by Lucia Raatma

The Forest in the Trees
by Connie McLennan

North America
by Sarah Albee and Willian Exley

Wait, Rest, Pause: Dormancy in Nature by Marcie Flinchum Atkins

Alyson Beecher is an educator and school administrator. She works with Glendale Unified School District in the Early Education and Extended Learning Programs. She has worked as a Special Education Inclusion Teacher, Special Education Administrator, Elementary Principal, and District Curriculum Specialist. She loves reading and getting books into the hands of children and hosts the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge on her blog, Kid Lit Frenzy. She serves on the American Library Association's Schneider Family Book Award Committee. Twitter: @alysonbeecher

Shanetia P. Clark is an associate professor of literacy at Salisbury University. She teaches courses in children’s literature, creative arts, and literacy methods. She is the co-editor of an upcoming series about African-American authors of young adult literature.  Dr. Clark has served on book award committees and boards that celebrate literature for young people. Twitter: @uvagradu8

Terrell Young is professor of children's literature at Brigham Young University. He has published numerous articles and has co-authored or co-edited several books including Deepening Students' Mathematical Understanding with Children's Literature. Terry currently serves as the president of the United States Board on Books for Young People. He has served on numerous book award selection committees, including the Newbery Medal.

Ruth McKoy Lowery is professor of children’s literature and interim chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning at the Ohio State University. Her research focuses on immigrant and multicultural literature, the adaptation of immigrant students in schools, and preparing teachers for a diverse student population. Recent co-edited publications include Immigrant Experiences (2019) and Exploring Nonfiction Literacies (2018). Her motto “Just read” encapsulates her love of reading and belief in sharing great books with readers of all ages.

Mary Ann Cappiello is a professor at Lesley University.  Along with Erika Dawes, she is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets, Teaching to Complexity, and a forthcoming book with Stenhouse Publishers. She blogs at "The Classroom Bookshelf," a School Library Journal blog and served on NCTE's Orbis Pictus Committee from 2015-2018. Twitter: @MA_Cappiello

Erika Thulin Dawes is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University, where she strives to equip teachers with a passion for children's literature and a wealth of creative strategies for using books in the classroom. Having worked as a classroom teacher, a reading specialist, and a literacy supervisor, she knows that great teachers and great librarians inspire lifelong readers. Erika is co-author of Teaching with Text Sets and Teaching to Complexity: A Framework for Evaluating Literary and Content-Area Texts. Twitter: @erikadawes

Monday, November 18, 2019

Writing Expository Nonfiction that Sings, Part 9

Since the beginning of the school year, each Monday, I’ve been posting  about the importance of understanding the key elements of finely-crafted expository nonfiction and helping students identify those features as they read and include them as they write. 

For the first few weeks, I focused on the pre-writing process. Then, I turned my attention to text characteristics and discussed text format, text scaffolding, text density, and text structure. You can scroll down to read those posts. 

Today, I’m going to take a fresh look at voice. Like text structure, it’s a topic I’ve discussed many times before on this blog.

First things first. What is nonfiction voice? I used to define it as “the personality of the writing” or “how the writing makes the reader feel,” but then Newbery Medalist Linda Sue Park helped me to see voice—in both fiction and nonfiction—in a whole new way. 

Here’s Linda Sue’s astonishingly clear, simple definition:

voice = word choice + rhythm

She breaks down “rhythm” in an equally clear and simple way:

rhythm = punctuation + sentence length

Why do I love this definition so much? Because it has the built-in benefit of showing writers how they can control voice. After all, it’s easy enough to play around with word choice, punctuation, and sentence length.

When I first posted about Linda Sue’s definition last March, I focused on writing samples with a lyrical voice, so today, I wanted to provide a broader range of examples.

In Itch! Everything You Didn’t Want to Know About What Makes You Scratch, author Anita Sanchez carefully crafted text in which all three of these elements are working in harmony to create a humorous, conversational voice that perfectly reflects her topic and approach.
By choosing fun word combinations like “freak out” and “unwanted company” and including the alliterative phrases “head for a habitat” as well as the exclamation point at the end of the first sentence, Sanchez crafts text that delights as well as informs. Even though all four sentences are about the same length, the author has varied the sentence structure to make the passage fast paced.

Now consider the opening lines of Giant Squid by Candace Fleming, which has a more intriguing, mysterious voice:

This text may occupy twelve lines, but it is a single sentence. By breaking it up, the author carefully controls both the rhythm and the pacing. The alliteration, sensory details, and repetition create a mood of magic and mystery that hooks readers and makes them want to turn the page and keep on reading.
As I was writing Seashells: More than a Home, I wanted readers to experience a sense of awe as they discovered all amazing ways sea creatures use their shells, so my goal was to craft a soft, wondrous voice. 

Since “seashells” has built in alliteration, I included other “s” words whenever possible. The phrase “Spiraled or spiky, round or ridged” has two examples of alliteration as well as opposition and repetition of a technique, which makes the text pleasing to the human ear. The simile “like treasures from a secret world beneath the waves” adds to this piece’s sense of wonder. To slow the reader down and make the writing seem soothing and comforting, many of the sentences are long and have multiple phrases set off by commas.

By understanding the components of voice, young nonfiction writers can craft engaging text that reflects their thoughts and feelings about a topic.

Friday, November 15, 2019

AASL Handout: 5 Kinds of Nonfiction

Many school librarians have worked hard to add award-winning narrative nonfiction to their collections, but studies show that 42 percent of elementary students prefer expository nonfiction. This session breaks down the five categories of nonfiction children’s books (four of which have an expository writing style), offers tips for updating book collections, and provides strategies for integrating a variety of nonfiction texts into reading and writing lessons.

I’ve written about the 5 kinds of nonfiction on my blog:

I’ve discussed the 5 kinds of nonfiction in this video created for Colby Sharp’s vlog:

Narrative vs. Expository Sample Texts

Red-Eyed Tree Frog by Joy Cowley and Nic Bishop (Scholastic, 1999)

Frog or Toad? How Do You Know? by Melissa Stewart (Enslow, 2011)

Citations for Articles about Student Preference for Expository Nonfiction
Caswell, Linda J. and Nell K. Duke. “Non-Narrative as a Catalyst for Literacy Development.” Language Arts, 1998, p. 108-117.

Doiron, Ray. “Boy Books, Girl Books: Should We Re-Organize Our School Library Collections?” Teacher Librarian. 2003, p. 14-16.

Hynes, Myrna. “‘I Read for Facts’: Reading Nonfiction in a Fictional World.” Language Arts, 2000, p. 485-495.

Mohr, Kathleen A. J. “Children’s Choices for Recreational Reading: A Three-Part Investigation of Selection Preferences, Rationales, and Processes.” Journal of Literacy Research. 2006, p. 81–104.

Repanskey, Lisa L., Jeanne Schumm, and Jacqueline Johnson. “First and Fourth Grade Boys’ and Girls’ Preferences for and Perceptions about Narrative and Expository Text.” Reading Psychology, 2017. p. 1–40.

Characteristics of the 5 Categories and Activity for Students

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

It’s Time for the Sibert Smackdown!

The Sibert Smackdown is an activity intended to build enthusiasm for the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal, which is given each year as part of the American Library Association’s annual Youth Media Awards. It focuses on picture books because they are more manageable to read in a school setting.

Here’s how it works. Students in grades 3-8 read the nonfiction picture books on your class’s Mock Sibert list. You can use the list I’ve compiled below or you can create your own list. My list includes titles that have strong kid appeal, will promote good discussions, and can be used as mentor texts in writing workshop. They reinforce the research techniques and craft moves included in most State ELA standards.  

The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Sarah Jacoby 

Little Libraries, Big Heroes by Miranda Paul, illustrated by John Parra

Paper Son: The Inspiring Story of Tyrus Wong, Immigrant and Artist by Julie Leung, illustrated by Chris Sasaki 
A Place to Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech that Inspired a Nation by Barry Wittenstein, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney

Two Brothers, Four Hands by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, illustrated by Hadley Hooper 

Wait, Rest, Pause: Dormancy in Nature by Marcie Flinchum Atkins

Will some of these books be named on Monday, January 27, 2020, when the Sibert Medal committee announces its winner and honor titles at the ALA Youth Media Awards ceremony? Who knows, but I do have a pretty good track record. 

You may also want to consider titles on the Mock Sibert list created by Alyson Beecher.  Anderson’s Bookshop creates a Mock Sibert list that includes picture books as well as middle grade titles. The last time I looked, they hadn't posted this year's list yet, but keep checking the link.

After reading your Mock Sibert titles, students choose their two favorites and use this worksheet, which you can download from my website, to evaluate and compare the books before they vote. The worksheet features a kid-friendly version of the critera used by the real Sibert committee.

I also suggest using the guidelines developed by former Sibert judge Melody Allen. They are available here, here, and here.

I’d also recommend reading this post, which describes how some educators have modified or enhanced the Sibert Smackdown! in the past. It's so important to create learning experiences that are perfect for your particular students. 

I’d love to hear how your students are progressing, and so would other participating teachers and librarians. Please use the Twitter hashtag #SibertSmackdown to share what you are doing.

Happy Reading!