Friday, February 28, 2020

Don’t Write What You Know

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 14, 2009.

I know lots of things. I know how to make my husband a sandwich just the way he likes it. I know how to wash windows so they don’t streak and how to make “hospital corners” when I change the sheets on a bed. I even know how to clean a toilet and sort my trash properly at the transfer station (a.k.a. the dump). 

But I certainly don’t want to write a book about any of these chores. I’d be bored, and so would my readers. 

That’s why it really bugs me when teachers tell kids to write what they know. I write books about science because I love it. I am passionate about the natural world, and I want to share its wonders with children. Look at your favorite book, the best piece of writing you can think of, and I guarantee you’ll see the author’s passion shining through. It’s what fuels great writing.

That’s why I tell kids to write what they care about. This generates descriptions of fire trucks and reports about Barbie dolls and BMX racing. Now I couldn’t care less about any of these topics, but I do care about teaching kids to enjoy writing. And I want them find ways to communicate ideas successfully.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

5 Kinds of Nonfiction Update

If you’re a regular reader of Celebrate Science, you’ve probably read some of my posts about the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction, a system for classifying the wonderful world of nonfiction books for kids.

When students understand the characteristics of the five categories, they can predict the type of information they’re likely to find in a particular book and how that information will be presented. As a result, they can quickly and easily identify the best books for a particular purpose (early stages of research, later stages of research, mentor texts in writing workshop, etc.) as well as the kind of nonfiction books they enjoy reading most.

Here’s what school librarian Traci Kirkland has to say about it:

“The 5 Kinds of Nonfiction classification system brings clarity to the way we think about nonfiction. We’re used to subdividing our fiction section into genres like mysteries and science fiction. But then we just lump all the nonfiction together. Now we can see smart, useful ways to categorize these books too.”

And it turns out plenty of other educators also find the system useful, so I’m excited to announce that Marlene Correia, a professor of literacy education and past president of the Massachusetts Reading Association and I, are writing a book called 5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and Writing with Children’s Books. It will be available later this year from Stenhouse Publishing. Hooray!

Here are newly updated Category Feature Cards for the five categories. For more printable versions, please see this pinterest board:

And here’s an activity for introducing it to your students: 
Organize students into small groups and invite each team to gather a variety of nonfiction books on a single broad topic from the school library. Possibilities include outer space, ancient civilizations, or natural disasters. After the children have sorted the books into at least three categories that make sense to them, compare the criteria each team used. Be sure to let the class know that each group’s set of criteria is valid and well thought out. 

Next, introduce the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction classification system. After sharing several books that fit each category, read aloud sections of books that are about the same topic but represent different book types. One possible text set is:

National Geographic Kids Bird Guide of North America by Jonathan Alderfer (active)

Eyewitness Books: Bird by David Burnie (browseable)

Penguins by Seymour Simon (traditional)

Birds of Every Color by Sneed Collard (expository literature)

—City Hawk: The Story of Pale Male by Megan McCarthy (narrative)

The sample books listed on the Category Feature Cards (above) can guide you in identifying other suitable titles in your own library’s collection.

Ask students to compare how the books present information. Is the focus broad or is a specific concept being discussed? What kind of text features does each book include? What kind of text structure, writing style, and craft moves does the author employ? Does the writing have a distinct voice? What similarities and differences do students notice across the categories? 

Finally, give each team a copy of the Category Feature Cards (above). After students take a few minutes to review the information, send the groups back to the stacks to gather a selection of nonfiction books on a new topic. (Asking students to gather a new set of books rather than re-sort their original pile reinforces the idea that there are many ways to sort books and that there was nothing “wrong” with their initial classification.)

Invite each team to sort the books into the five types—active, browseable, traditional, expository literature, and narrative. Did they find examples of all five kinds? If not, can they explain why? (For example, some topics may not lend themselves to active titles or a narrative approach.)

I'll be sharing more information about the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction next week. Stay tuned.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Upcoming Twitterchats!

Whether you’re a writer or an educator (or both), conferences are a great way to learn about children’s books and what goes into creating them. But if you just don’t have the time or money to attend them, Twitterchats are a terrific alternative. 

That’s why I’m happy to announce two upcoming learning opportunities:

On Wednesday, February 26, from 9:00-11:00 p.m. EST, I’ll be a guest on #pbchat, a Twitterchat focused on picture books and hosted by Justin Colon. 

I’ll be answering questions about how I get book ideas, the challenges of writing STEM-themed books for kids, how to pitch science topics to editors, narrative nonfiction vs. expository nonfiction, how to make a living as a writer, how nonfiction for kids has evolved over time and how I think it may change in the future, and more. Plus there will be prizes!

On Wednesday, March 4, from 9:00-10:00 p.m. EST, I’ll be a guest on #3rdchat, a Twitterchat intended for third grader teachers, but with info that ALL elementary educators will find useful. It’s organized and hosted by Donna Weth.

We’ll be talking about text structures, one of the most challenging aspects of expository/informational writing. Here’s a groovy announcement for the event.

I hope you’ll be able to attend one—or even both—of these informative online conversations.

Friday, February 14, 2020

March Madness Nonfiction

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 March 4, 2016.

Inspired by the annual March Madness basketball tournament, in 2016, literacy coach Shelley Moody worked with instructional coach Valerie Glueck at Williams Elementary School in Oakland, Maine, to develop a month-long, whole-school activity in which students read sixteen nonfiction picture books (some narrative, some expository) and select their favorite. 

During Week 1, half the classes read the 8 books on the right-hand side of the board, and the other half of the school reads the 8 books on the left-hand side of the board. Classrooms discuss the content and structure of the books as well as their favorite features. Then students vote on pairs of books to determine which titles will move on to The Elite Eight.

During Week 2, each class reads the 4 winning books on the opposite side of the board. Then students participate in rich classroom discussions and vote to select The Final Four.

During Week 3, classes spend time reviewing the four finalists and then vote for the March Madness Nonfiction Champion. 

During the final week, students gather for a whole-school assembly. Following a parade of books that includes one child from each classroom, the winning book is announced. And the crowd goes wild!

Here’s what Shelly and Valerie had to say about the experience:

“The goal of this event is to inspire curiosity, to build background knowledge, and to put outstanding nonfiction books in the hands of our students. It’s hard to capture in words the energy and excitement about books that March Madness has created in our school community.”

—Shelley Moody, Literacy Coach

“March Madness is a springboard for discussions of text features and structures, vocabulary, and author’s purpose.”
—Valerie Glueck, Instructional Coach

If you decide to try this activity at your school this year, you could ask older students to fill out a worksheet like the one below developed by Judi Paradis, the teacher-librarian at Plympton School in Waltham, MA.

When students are done, they can share their responses with classmates. Or the worksheets can be posted, so that other students can use the information to help them make book choices.

This fun combination of activities will get kids reading and thinking and sharing.

Note: You can find a more printable version of the Nonfiction Smackdown! worksheet on my pinterest Reading Nonfiction Board:

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Where Should We Shelve Informational Fiction?

Back in October 2016, I wrote this short post because I noticed that a growing number of picture book “biographies” were including invented dialog, imagined scenes, or events presented out of chronological order. Why add these made-up elements? To improve the storytelling.

For the most part, the authors fully realized that these books should be classified as fiction, and they liked the term “informational fiction” because it acknowledged all the research they’d done and that the books were mostly faithful to the facts. But the Library of Congress labelled these books “juvenile literature” (the term they use for nonfiction). And in most cases, publishers and reviewers called the books narrative nonfiction. 

More recently, I began noticing another kind of informational fiction. In an effort to make survey books that provide a broad overview of a subject more entertaining, authors were adding made-up narrators, such as animals or inanimate objects, who were acting like storytellers. Eventually, I discovered that, way back in 1984, researchers had developed the term “pseudo-narratives” to describe these books.

Once again, the Library of Congress calls these books “juvenile literature,” and publishers and reviewers call them nonfiction. But the term “nonfiction” doesn’t just mean a book has some documentable ideas and information, it means nothing—not a single thing—is made up. 

In this era of fake news, we’ve seen again and again that people trust what they see, hear, and read too easily. They don’t check facts. They don’t question the source of statistics. If we want that to change, we need to teach children to identify truthiness. And one of the best ways to do that is by being transparent about the books we offer them. 

Using the term “informational fiction” acknowledges that taking creative liberties with true, verifiable facts can be an effective way to share ideas and information with young readers while simultaneously emphasizing the importance of distinguishing between what’s real and what’s not.

To further reinforce this idea, teachers and librarians should think carefully about where they shelve informational fiction titles in their collections. Placing these books in a separate section will help children recognize that while they’re mostly faithful to the facts, they include some made-up parts. 

Ideally, this knowledge will encourage students to think critically as they read. Perhaps they’ll even skim the backmatter first to find out what’s made up and why the author and/or illustrator made these choices. These are the kinds of skills we hope all 21st-century learners will develop in school and use to evaluate texts throughout their lives.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Make a Nonfiction Writing Process Infographic

Last Friday, I re-ran a previous post about teaching students the steps of the nonfiction writing process. You can scroll down to read it, but in a nutshell, I suggested that if all the classrooms in a school use consistent terminology, it would make remembering the steps—and putting them into practice—SO much easier for kids.

Of course, in real life, writing is messy and recursive, but a set of steps can be really reassuring—for professional writers as well as student writers. Here are my 10 steps.
  1. Choose a Topic
  2. Do Research
  3. Find a Focus
  4. Write a Rough Draft
  5.    Let It Chill Out
  6. Revise à Second draft
  7. Writing partner review
  8. Revise and add visuals à Third draft
  9. Proofread à Final draft
  10. Send to editor 

Most of these steps are appropriate for elementary classrooms, although students give their final draft to a teacher instead of sending it to an editor.

One of the best ways to reinforce this process, is by taking ownership of it. And one of the best ways to do that is by creating an infographic that students can add to their writer’s notebook for quick reference. 

Here’s an activity outline that could make a big difference your students’ writing lives.

After sharing my nonfiction writing process (above) with students, work with your class to identify and describe the steps of their process. How is their process similar to mine? How is it different? Be sure to record your class’s ideas on chart paper.

Divide the class into small groups and invite the teams to work together to create a list of the steps in their writing process. As the groups complete this task, put out crayons, markers, and/or colored pencils, and give each child a plain white piece of paper. 

When students are satisfied with their list of steps, encourage them to use words and pictures to create an infographic that summarizes their nonfiction writing process and solidifies the steps in their minds. Suggest that they spend some time planning and sketching their infographic in pencil before creating a final version with crayons, markers, or colored pencils. 

Here’s my infographic. For a larger, printable version, please see this pinterest board.

When the groups have completed this task, invite team members to share their infographic with the rest of the class. Then encourage students to tape or staple the infographic into their writer’s notebook, so they can easily access it in the future.

Friday, February 7, 2020

What’s in a Name?

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 June 1, 2018.

During school visits, I often ask students to walk me through the steps of their nonfiction writing process. My goal is to learn the terminology they use, so I can literally speak their language during my presentation. For example, do they use “rough draft,” “first draft,” or “sloppy copy."

What I've discovered has surprised me. Many groups have a lot trouble with this task. And I can see that their teachers are just as surprised as I am. Sometimes they even whisper answers to students sitting nearby. Clearly, they're frustrated.

Why is this happening?

Here are two things I've noticed, again and again, as I patiently provide a string of clues to help students list the various steps. 
1. Within the same school, each grade level often uses different terminology. That can certainly lead to confusion.
2.  In some schools, the process itself isn’t consistent from one grade level to the next. For example, students in grades 3 and 5 do peer critiquing (a.k,a. reading buddies, writing partners), but students in grade 4 don’t. That can also lead to confusion.

Researching, writing, and revising nonfiction can be daunting for children. But knowing that it’s a process composed of distinct steps can make it more manageable. By practicing those same steps over and over, students will become more confident writers. 

That’s why I recommend that schoolwide or even district-wide terms be adopted for each step in the process. Here are my suggestions based on my 10-step writing process:
  1. Choose a Topic
  2. Do Research
  3. Find a Focus
  4. Write a Rough Draft
  5. Let It Chill Out
  6. Revise à Second draft
  7. Writing partner review
  8. Revise and add visuals à Third draft
  9. Proofread à Final draft
  10. Send to editor (Give to teacher) 
K-2 students won’t do every step, but once a step (such as writing partner review) is introduced, it shouldn’t be omitted at later grade levels. This kind of continuity will help students take ownership of the process and prepare them to work more independently in middle school

I’ll be talking more about teaching and reinforcing the steps of the nonfiction writing process on Monday.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020


Back in early November, I re-ran this popular post from the past on my blog. And once again, teachers loved it. Revision never fails to gets kids moaning and groaning, so educators are always looking for ways to convince them that it’s a natural part of the writing process.

In the post, I use this image as I compare revising a manuscript to renovating a home. And that inspired Miss Ruffio (@missruffio), a dedicated teacher in Highland Park, NJ, to start looking for other examples of revision in real life.

Here’s the image she tweeted back to me:

It compares two figures from an older version of a Harry Potter Lego set to the revised versions of those same two figures in a newer Harry Potter Lego set.

Yep. That’s a prime example of Revision in Real Life.

Miss Ruffio shared the photos with her students, and challenged them to look for more examples of revision in real life. A few days later, one of her fifth graders brought in this photo:

It compares an original B&W image of Mickey Mouse to the current version of our favorite cartoon mouse. Great job!

What about you? Can you find more examples of Revision in Real Life? Can your students? I’d love to see any examples you find. Please tweet them to me with the hashtag #RevisioninRealLife. Let’s see what we can come up with.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Recommended Books by Text Structure

Back in October, I shared book lists with examples of two underappreciated text structures—list books and Q & A. To start off the new year, at the request of my friend Annette Whipple, I’m providing updated examples of expository nonfiction books with the five major text structures espoused by most state ELA standards—description, sequence, compare and contrast, cause and effect, and problem-solution. I hope you find them useful.

The Frog Book by Steve Jenkins

Many: The Diversity of Life on Earth by Nicola Davies

Bonkers About Beetles by Davey Owen

A Hundred Million Billion Stars by Seth Fishman
Bugged: How Insects Changed History by Sarah Albee

How to Swallow a Pig: Step-by-Step Advice from the Animal Kingdom by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page

Trout Are Made of Trees by April Pulley Sayre

We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorell

Compare & Contrast
Big & Little by Steve Jenkins

Daylight Starlight Wildlife by Wendell Minor

Birds of a Feather: Bowerbirds & Me by Susan L. Roth

Rodent Rascals by Roxie Munro

Cause & Effect
Earth: Feeling the Heat by Brenda Z. Guiberson

If Sharks Disappeared by Lily Williams

If You Hopped Like a Frog by David M. Schwartz

Never Smile at a Monkey: And 17 Other Important Things to Remember by Steve Jenkins

Boy, Were We Wrong About Dinosaurs by Kathleen Kudlinksi

The Great Monkey Rescue: Saving the Golden Lion Tamarins by Sandra Markle

Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France by Mara Rockliff

She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World by Chelsea Clinton

And here is a handy dandy chart of these mentor texts along with basic information about each text structure created by rockstar middle school librarian Melanie Roy (@mrsmelanieroy). A large, printable version is available here on my pinterest boards.

As you read through these book titles, you may have noticed that one author—Steve Jenkins—has a book included in each of the categories. As far as I’m concerned, he’s a master of text structure.

Most of Jenkins’s books are about animals and all the cool ways they survive in the world. The consistency of the art gives the books a unified look that immediately lets you know he’s the creator. And yet every book is distinctive because he’s constantly experimenting with nonfiction craft elements, especially text structure.

Some schools already do author studies of Steve Jenkins, but I think every school should study his titles closely as students learn to identify text structures in the books they read and integrate text structures into their writing.