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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Making Books in Real Life

Many teachers, especially at the lower grades, enjoy making books with their students as a follow-up activity to sharing picture books. To this end I highly recommend you visit MakingBooks with Children, Susan Kapuscinski Gaylord's elegant website on creating simple books with children. (And yes, my fellow English teachers, it is, indeed, MakingBooks, without a space between the two words).

In addition to her free activities, she also offers teachers tips on the teaching process, tools, and materials. Her MakingBooks blog offers other terrific ideas, many of them related to the holidays.

Check it out. You'll be surprised how easy it is to create such wonderful books with your students.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

More Free Resources from Children's Publishers

In a previous post I shared about a dozen links to children's publishers who provided extensive resources for teachers (teaching guides, reading group guides, printable activities, and audio and video links).

Susan Stephenson, aka The Book Chook, blogs regularly about books and literacy. Susan replied:

Loved your post! It brought me some new publisher sites, and reminded me of great ones I'd forgotten.

However... I couldn't help but notice, your list did tend to concentrate on the northern hemisphere! Check out these Australian publishers and see what you think. Most are much smaller than their US counterparts, so you won't find bells and whistles like flash games etc, but you will find solid support.
So I perused Susan's suggestions, and sure enough, she's right! Lots of gems here.

Black Dog Books was recommended highly by Susan because their teachers notes are "perfect to add value for both classes and homeschoolers, or just for parents who want to immerse their kids in all sorts of literacy activities." While each title features a splash page with a link to the teaching pdf, you can view all teachers notes on a single page as well. Some really fascinating titles!

New Frontier is another excellent publisher, mostly of picture books and children's titles, some educational. They have great support in their teacher notes, which include discrete learning objectives for each title.

Walker Books Australia has a useful entrance page for teachers, and from there you'll find pdfs of great literacy-based ideas centered around their books. I noticed that this includes novels as well as picture books (for example, a great teaching guide on Octavian Nothing).

As an important aside, I noticed that Walker Books logo, a bear carrying a candle, looked very familiar. Sure enough, there's a Walker USA site, although you'll find their materials for kids and teachers at BloomsburyKids.com. That site features lots of teachers guides as well as reading group guides. Some titles you might know? Daniel Boone's Great Escape, Princess Academy, Prowling the Seas,(which I blogged on recently) and Two Bobbies.

Susan also shared that Ford St. is another excellent publisher that concentrates more on YA. According to Susan, "This is a small independent publisher with top class books, and again there are excellent teacher notes that promote literacy, and give young people points to think about." I'll definitely include that link when I create a similar post for teaching resources for novels at my How to Teach a Novel blog at a future date.

Thanks, Susan, for supporting your fellow Aussies and their fine work in the publishing field. Perhaps this will encourage others to represent their own countries!
When you get the opportunity, be sure to check out Susan's excellent blog at http://thebookchook.blogspot.com/. Book reviews, giveaways, and lots of other "good stuff" for teachers, parents, and lovers of children's books.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Free Teachers' Resources from Children's Book Publishers

I'm not lazy, and I'm not cheap. But I really appreciate it when publishers back up their titles with solid, easily accessible teaching resources. With that in mind, I've listed some publishers which I feel really "knock it out of the park" with their online resources for teachers. Have I forgotten your favorite? Are you a publisher that feels you should be on this list? Email me and let me know. I'd love to give credit where credit is due.

Annick Press is a Canadian Publisher with a wide variety of titles. Although most titles in this list have a lesson plan link below them, be sure to click on each title to access additional resources including teachers guides, printable activities, and related links. Made You Look How Advertising Works and Why You Should Know is one title that I would personally and highly recommend for anyone teaching media literacy (see my post on Dollars and Sense, which features picture books and ideas for teaching about financial literacy).

Big Guy Books is a small press specializing in titles for boys. Their time traveling Time Soldiers books are perfect for those reluctant readers in your class, and the professionally written teaching guides are a definite incentive for further exploring these titles. You can even preview the first title of that series (Rex) via a free ebook.

Candlewick Press is one of those presses that flies under the radar, but you've probably read and loved many of their titles. Their resource page features tons of links, including reading levels, teachers guides, reproducible activity sheets, audio and video links, and more. An easier way to see the quality of resources made available to teachers is to click on a single title, such as the landing page for Kate DiCamillo's The Magician's Elephant. There you'll find a separate discussion guide, teacher's guide, and activity kit, as well as the book's first chapter, an additional excerpt, audio and video links, and a whole lot more. A truly exemplary site from a publisher that supports its teachers.

Charlesbridge features a page of free materials correlated to many of their picture book titles. You can also view by title on their web site; clicking on any title gives you a pretty decent summary of the book, as well as a note from the author, reviews, a sample page spread, and links to related free materials. A pdf of Curriculum Connections provides exactly that, but also some thematic details as well as a convenient look at all the book covers. (Participants from my workshops will recognize Galileo's Leaning Tower Experiment and What's Your Angle, Pythagoras? from among the titles).

Children's Book Press is a small, nonprofit independent publisher specializing in multicultural books. While their titles may not be familiar to you yet, they're worth a look; this single page of resources is a good jumping off point to get started.

Crabtree Publishing has a series of high quality, curriculum aligned teaching guides that provide lesson plan ideas as well as blackline masters. While there, also check out the printable graphic organizers. If you like what you see, you can create an online wish list for parents and friends.

Dawn Publications specializes in science and nature picture books for the younger crowd, although I would still highly recommend their titles for classroom use through the upper elementary grades. Several of their titles would be a great way to prepare students for field trips, and I've also see their applications in summer camp settings. As Nature Director at a summer camp, I put Joseph Cornell's books to use on an almost daily basis. Sharing Nature with Children and Sharing Nature with Children II are classics which belong on every nature lover's bookshelf.

Harpers Collins Children's boasts a huge list of titles with Reading Guides or Teaching Guides. Note that at the top of the page, another tab reads Book Activities; this contains printable activities (mostly for picture books) which may or may not appear in the Teaching Guides for each title. This site allows you to preview most books online before purchasing.

Houghton Mifflin Publishers (which includes Clarion) features a teacher/librarian section, with questions and extensions for many of their titles.

Hyperion Books for Children (now affiliated with Disney) features a variegated collection of picture books and graphic novels as well as novels, and all teacher resources are linked from a single page. You'll find resources there for contemporary favorites such as Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus and John, Paul, George & Ben.

Lee and Low Books (About Everyone, For Everyone) specializes in high quality, multicultural titles. Their teachers' page gives an idea of the resources they provide, and by choosing a category (such as African American, Middle Eastern) you're directed to a list of Active Learner Classroom Guides, "designed to help you, the teacher, deliver useful and practical information to your students." Their titles are highly recommended for teachers and librarians looking to round out the scope and perspectives of their libraries. I've blogged about some of their titles including Heroes and Baseball Saved Us, and George Crum and the Saratoga Chip will be featured in an upcoming post on Invention.

MacMillan (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) allows teachers to search teaching guides by title, author, or grade level. On this resource page you'll also find a calendar of ideas, as well as a guide for preparing for an author's visit. The calendar is pretty neat, as it names monthly observations (mostly secular) and recommended books for those observations.

Orca Book Publishers (out of Canada) is a new name to many, but their books can be seen increasingly in U.S. collections. The U.S. website includes a number of teaching guides, as well as books by themes, and teaching tools and free books.

Penguin Books lists all of its titles in a single page, which is fine with me. I found myself clicking mostly on books I hadn't read yet, which for the publisher is a pretty good reason to format teaching guides in this way (versus hunting for individual titles). Lovers of the Miss Bindergarten books will find a teaching guide here, as will fans of the new Astro Boy movie.

Random House's Teachers at Random site is a well-designed resources for teachers at all levels. In addition to teaching guides for the various titles (see the pdf for one of my all-time favorite tall tales New York's Bravest by Mary Pope Osborne), teachers will also find Classroom Cast, which features videos starring popular children's authors and illustrators discussing their work. For those elementary teachers who teach with themes, you'll find a theme list searchable not only by theme name but also grade range. Lots of other resources here for reading teachers at all levels.

Scholastic is the undisputed champ of children's publishing, its heavyweight belt earned monthly with school book club orders and book fairs. Its site, however, is a bit daunting; there's an awful lot there, and it's not real easy to search. Sometimes even when you know what you want, and you know it's there, you can't find it! So while I would recommend an unguided browse, there are two features you shouldn't miss. The first is the Teacher's Book Wizard, which you can read about in an earlier post. A second feature is the collection of sixty-five Book Videos. These were created to serve as mini-commercials for book fairs, but they're also a pretty cool way to get kids excited about books.

Simon and Schuster's site isn't the prettiest or friendliest around (I think they use too many serious fonts that are too often capitalized for no reason), but don't be scared off. The resources are worth the visit. Books can be searched according by several categories, and many resources are available including group discussion guides, printable activities, and audio and video links. The resource page for Andrew Clements' No Talking will give you a pretty good idea of what's typically available.

Sylvan Dell is a small publisher of science and nature titles, but what they lack in quantity of titles they absolutely make up for in quality. I blogged about the company in general, and then later about a stand-out title called One Wolf Howls. For teachers in the lower grades looking to bring some life and depth into their scinec programs, I can't recommend these books enough. You'll be amazed at the supporting resources provided at their site.

I've blogged about many Sleeping Bear Press books; not only are they impressive as picture books, but they're backed by a well-organized site of resources. I mentioned their huge variety of content area ABC books, and also individual titles such as The Listeners and America's White Table.

Thanks to all of these publishers for going above and beyond the call of duty.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Reading Skills List Using Picture Books

I noticed that many readers to this blog ended up here from Google after searching for "list of reading skills using picture books" or some similar term. Often it's a more defined search, such as "prediction skills using picture books." While I've certainly offered lots of skills-based resources and suggestions over the past year, I was never one to provide such lists. Until now.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, I did a little poking around and found exactly what I was looking for. Nancy Keane (with the help of many others) created a wiki, organizing books by genre, topic, and value, as well as recommended grade level. It's an impressive list, and a great start.

But what many readers seek are "reading skills and strategies," and this was a listing I saw lacking. I therefore started a Focused Reading Skills List at this wiki. Already, with just the few books I've added, I can see that this list is likely to outgrow its single page format, but we'll worry about that when we get there.

So I absolutely encourage you to bookmark and share this page with colleagues. I also ask for your help in making it a truly awesome resource: please sign up for wiki spaces (at the upper right corner of the Focused Reading Skills page) and then help me edit the page by adding your favorite picture books. The whole idea behind wikis is that they're cooperative, growing documents, and this is perhaps one of the best examples of a wiki that would benefit from multiples authors and perspectives.

Email me if you add some titles or skills, or if you have questions about how to go about doing so. Through a community effort, we can create a pretty powerful resource for ourselves and others!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

One Wolf Howls

In a recent picture book workshop at the New Jersey Education Association Annual Convention in Atlantic City, I shared with participants some full page spreads from One Wolf Howls, a gorgeous picture book from Sylvan Dell. The audience had to laugh at itself after responding with "ooos" and "ahhhs" like a classroom of kindergartners. But that's exactly the reaction this book often receives, so I'm pleased today to offer copies of One Wolf Howls to three lucky winners.


For those of us who teach the upper grades, we take for granted that our students should already know a good deal of information. It's our lower grade colleagues, of course, who work tirelessly to impart this wisdom to their pint-sized charges. One Wolf Howls is at first a beautiful nature picture told in rhyme. But upon closer inspection, it teaches students the number that corresponds to each month of the calendar year. For example, February's spread reads

Two wolves play in a February snowfall—
frisky, frosty, fairyland snow.
Two wolves play in a February snowfall
deep in the woods where the harsh winds blow.
And each illustration, in turn, adds another wolf. Cool, huh? And like all Sylvan Dell books, One Wolf Howls is supported on-site by an impressive pdf of teaching activities (this one is 46 pages!), interactive quizzes (which my wife in kindergarten uses on her interactive whiteboard), standards alignment, author and illustrator profiles, and more, including a link to the book trailer:




The connection that illustrator Susan Detwiler makes between her dog and the wolves is an interesting one, worthy of further study in the classroom. In what ways are wolves and dogs alike? How is some common dog behavior explained by wolf pack behavior?

A helpful book for further "insider information" on wolf behavior is Jim Brandenburg's Scruffy: A Wolf Finds His Place in the Pack (available in most libraries). As a photographer for National Geographic magazine, Brandenburg spent a good deal of time with a wolf pack in the cold north and observed the individual roles taken on by wolves in that society. Other nonfiction recommendations: Wolves by Seymour Simon and Wolves by Sandra Markle (mini-lesson topic: create a memorable title!).

These books might lead in turn to a unit on wolves and their typical role in children's literature (such as Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs) compared to their real-life roles in the food chain. In recent years picture books such as The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by A. Wolf and The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig have started to humorously challenge the traditional versions of the timeless tales in which the wolves are villains, and instead cast them as hapless victims who find themselves in "the wrong place at the wrong time." Another I'd suggest is The Wolf's Story: What Really Happened to Little Red Riding Hood.

Students may enjoy splitting into two groups and taking sides in this debate. Students could even take the identities of storybook characters (as well as true-to-life wolves) and argue for and against the wolf's reputation.

Be sure to visit Sylvan Dell for other great nature and science books for young readers.

CONTEST CLOSED

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

You Say You Want a Revolution?


The American Revolution gave birth to a new country, but now, more than 200 years later, so many stories of this incredible time in history are yet untold. Most of us know about Paul Revere, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and perhaps even Molly Pitcher, but what of the smaller, yet equally important roles played by American Patriots?

Enter author/researcher Selene Castrovilla and her two incredible American Revolution picture books: By the Sword and Upon Secrecy.

By the Sword: A Young Man Meets War tells the true tale of Benjamin Tallmadge's first wartime experiences during the battle of Long Island, where Washington's troops were just barely able to escape their ruthless British and Hessian adversaries. Upon Secrecy relates Tallmadge's later involvement with Washington's Culper Spy Ring. It was Tallmadge and a "Loyalist" Quaker spy named Robert Townsend who were able to trick the British into defending New York City against an attack that never came; this ruse, in turn, kept the British from attacking landing French troops who had come to General Washington's much needed aid.

I love both books for a number of reasons. First, they provide just enough information to set the scene for the reader. Each then tells one really good story, within the context of the larger conflict. The language of the stories is well-crafted, full of literary devices, and with an eye for accuracy. We can feel the urgency of the situations. But what's best of all, in my opinion, is that both stories, while complete in themselves, are followed up with a number of historical notes, time lines, and related resources. Therefore when students ask questions about details in the story, the teacher is armed with some answers. Questions such as What happened to him after the war? and If the spy ring was a secret, then how did the author write about it? and Is this story totally true? are easily answered. At the same time, however, the author provides some pointers on where to go next if the reader wants to discover more on each book's topics.

I've always used a number of picture books in my introduction to the American Revolution to help students visualize the clothing, setting, and lifestyle of the period. In this area these books don't disappoint. Illustrators Jeff Crosby and Shelley Ann Jackson (Upon Secrecy) and Bill Farnsworth (By the Sword) visited libraries, historical sites, and costume shops. Period portraits were consulted for illustrations depicting actual people. Paintings for both books were then reviewed for accuracy by scholars specializing in this era.

You might find that some guiding questions and activities from earlier posts about Molly Pitcher and Paul Revere would fit these books as well.

One terrific follow-up site for these books would be a visit to Spy Letters of the American Revolution, a site with a number of activities which allow students to "play Revolutionary spy" by creating invisible inks, secret codes, and mask letters. This site also encourages students to use critical thinking as they examine propaganda used in the early engravings of the war.

Loyalty or Liberty? requires students to role play the part of a slave asked to gather intelligence about both Patriots and Loyalists. But, as a slave, you wonder if either side really deserves your help, since both sides support slavery. With which side will you ultimately share your information?

America's Library presents a short biography on patriot Nathan Hale, hanged as a spy. Can you recall his famous last line? This might lead to a discussion among students of the risks associated with both spies and soldiers. Which was the more dangerous undertaking?

Some students may want to discuss Paul Revere. Was he a spy like Benjamin Tallmadge, or simply a messenger? The Midnight Rider Virtual Museum may answer that question, while providing students with an interactive interpretation of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Jane Yolen Picture Book Giveaways


A fat guy with a beard is here giving away books, but it's not Santa! I had such a terrific response to the Jane Yolen posting yesterday that I thought I'd give away some of her books, kindly provided by Raab Associates.

Three teachers asked about a giveaway for The Seeing Stick, and another emailed to say that she used it on a regular basis, although she had never seen this reprint with its rich new illustrations. So we've got one copy of The Seeing Stick up for grabs.

From Jane Yolen's popular dinosaur series, which includes titles such as How Do Dinosaurs Play With Their Friends?, How Do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food?, and How Do Dinosaurs Get Well Soon?, you can enter to win a copy of How Do Dinosaurs Say I Love You?. Like the others in this series, How Do Dinosaurs Say I Love You? is beautifully illustrated by Mark Teague, perhaps best known for his own LaRue books including Dear Mrs. La Rue: Letters From Obedience School.

The third giveaway is Jane Yolen's Pumpkin Baby, one which I hadn't seen before, but that I'm sure kids in the younger grades will love.

CONTEST CLOSED; sorry!

By the way, a big congrats to the winners of Pamela S. Turner's The Frog Scientist and Prowling the Seas: Exploring the Hidden World of Ocean Predators. Kate from Massachusetts says, "I've been looking forward to seeing some science books on your blog, and can't believe I've won!" Roberta said, "Thanks so much for getting the word out... I have heard too much about how children will all be using the Internet and will no longer need nonfiction books." By the way, be sure to check out Roberta's awesome Growing with Science blog. Lots of terrific teaching ideas there!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Seeing Through New Eyes


The Seeing Stick was originally written by Jane Yolen in 1977, and was a recipient of the Christopher Medal in 1978. The book tells the tale of young princess Hwei Ming, whose name, when translated to English, means “the lightless moon on the last day of the month...becoming luminous.” This is a fitting name, for the princess is blind, and enjoys none of what she is given due to the darkness of her world.

Hwei Ming’s father, the emperor of Peking, announces that if anyone can help his only daughter to see, that person will be rewarded with fortune in jewels. In rhythmic prose begging to be replicated the author writes:
"Monks came, of course, with their prayers and prayer wheels, for they thought in this way to help Hwei Ming to see. Magician-priests came, of course, with their incantations and spells, for they thought in this way to help Hwei
Ming to see. Physicians came, of course, with their potions and pins, for
they thought in this way to help Hwei Ming to see..."
but none can find a cure.

A solitary old man hears the emperor’s request, so he travels a great distance to Peking. “The sun rose hot on his right side, and the sun set cool on his left” provides the reader with the idea that the journey is long and not undertaken lightly.

When the old man finally arrives, clothes tattered and dirty from his travels, he is turned away by the city guards. But through cleverness and creativity the old man is brought before the emperor, and there he is able to show the princess a new way of seeing (no spoiler here!). Hwei Ming then becomes a teacher to other blind children of Peking. Only on the last page does the reader discover that the old man was blind as well.

My first concern as a teacher is to ask, "Does this book's treatment of blindness minimalize or stereotype that condition?"

In researching that question, I came across an excellent article in the Future Reflections, a publication of the National Federation for the Blind. In the The Lack of Insight in Children’s Literature Regarding Blindness by Merry‑Noel Chamberlain, the author takes to task many authors' rather contrived treatments of the topic of blindness. Their books, she argues, fall prey to nine stereotypes. But in speaking of The Seeing Stick, Chamberlain says:
Like Knots on a Counting Rope, this folk tale is successful in avoiding the nine stereotypes about blindness... While there were earlier ‘hints’ that the man was blind, that fact was not truly revealed until the end of the book. Thus, the young readers, who may not know much about blindness, would probably think of this character as simply an ‘individual’ and not a ‘blind person.’ The author showed that a blind individual is quite capable of traveling without a sighted escort, and she did this without suggesting that he had miraculous powers. By the same token, The Seeing Stick did not portray blindness “as total tragedy.” The book did show the grieving of Hwei Ming’s father, but this was later turned around when Hwei Ming learned some alternatives. There might have been a touch of Dr. Jernigan’s themes of “Blindness as a perfect virtue” and “Blindness as purification” in the characterization of the princess. She seemed to be disconnected with the world around her or somewhat shy. Apart from this, however, the book educated its readers about blindness in an accurate and dignified manner.

So the wonderful narrative of Jane Yolen not only stands the test of time, but it stands the test of current theory and practice. But understand what's equally cool about this new edition are the incredible illustrations by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini. Like the original version, the first pictures are monochromatic; color is slowly introduced as the old man enters Peking. But in this new edition, the full color pages, (reminiscent in their flowery detail and complexity of medieval manuscripts and Chinese calligraphy), are printed on glossy paper, with many elements of each illustration raised off the page, so the images can be almost read with the fingers. I've read an incredible number of picture books, but the beauty of these pages was a surprise even for me. I was, quite literally, seeing the story in a new way.

This book would make a wonderful addition to any well-rounded collection of international tales. It should also find its place into any unit or discussion on disabilities, perhaps better called differences (see this lower grade unit on Studying Differences through Literature for some ideas). If you're looking for some other picture books on differences, this list from the ESSL Children's Literature Blog is a good start, as is A Guide to Children's Literature and Disability.

Some 300 books into her career, Jane Yolen continues to be an incredible agent of change for children's literature. Be sure to visit her site to view her other titles, as well as the great collection of resources and interviews collected there.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Nurturing a Sense of Wonder with Nonfiction Books

When I picked up A Place for Wonder: Reading and Writing Nonfiction in the Primary Grades, I really intended to just skim it over. After all, I now teach only sixth grade (this book is aimed at teachers of lower elementary grades) and I teach only reading and language arts (whereas this book, at first glance, seemed to be pretty much about science). Well, I read the introduction, and about two hours later discovered that I had read the whole thing from cover to cover. Not just read it, but thoroughly enjoyed it, and couldn’t wait to pass it on to a teacher of those grade levels so that they could put its ideas into action in their classroom.

First, know this: Georgia Heard and Jennifer McDonough don’t write in the world of the hypotheticals. Every idea they share for helping children make nonfiction discoveries comes from their real-life experiences with kindergartners and first graders. Every lesson plan has been implemented in “real time,” and it shows through the anecdotal stories, the authentic and very funny student dialogues, and their suggestions for practitioners based upon their experiences.

This isn’t another book of themes or centers; this is an easy-to-implement series of lessons which will assist any teacher, in any school environment, in opening the eyes of curiosity. And while some will argue that children are naturally curious, I would point out that schools have a way of stifling that curiosity. Not purposely, not systemically, but simply through neglect. A Place for Wonder shows how to take that natural curiosity and channel it toward authentic and purposeful explorations of nonfiction topics. What particularly impressed me was the plans for children to write their own nonfiction books, complete with table of contents and glossary!

My wife is a kindergarten teacher so she’s already laid claim to my copy. Looks like I’ll be getting another for my daughter’s teacher. It’s that good! I recommend you check it out online at Stenhouse, and get a copy for yourself, for a colleague in the lower grades, or for your own child’s teacher.

And now a small leap. Houghton Mifflin and author Pamela S. Turner have been kind enough to share copies of The Frog Scientist and Prowling the Seas: Exploring the Hidden World of Ocean Predators, two upper elementary level nonfiction science books. Know that these are not picture books, but lavishly illustrated chapter books, filled with photos from the scientific field.

I know a number of colleagues who love to focus their energies on readability levels and "age-appropriate" texts. I find their arguments a waste of time. The practice of limiting children to certain books flies in the face of both research and the way that I personally came to love reading. As Jo Worthy points out in “A Matter of Interest: Literature that Hooks Reluctant Readers and Keeps Them Reading”:

Far more important than readability is interest. When students have strong
interest in what they read, they can frequently transcend their so-called
reading level. Indeed, many educators and researchers consider interest to be a
paramount factor in all learning.
My own breakthrough experience came at age seven when my father handed me a field guide about snakes. He knew from my daily excursions turning over rocks and logs that I had an interest in such creatures. A confident graduate of first grade, I did my best to make sense of the task of reading the detailed descriptions of each snake type; I would have been less likely, by comparison, to struggle as doggedly with a fiction novel. At one point I came across this line: “Due to their coloring, these snakes are often inconspicuous in lower hanging trees branches.” Unable to parse out the meaning, I asked my older brother what “in con spish us” meant. He asked me to spell it. He then asked to see the book. I saw him read the sentences before and after the sentence containing my troublesome word. He returned the book and said, “It means not easily seen. The color helps it to camouflage itself.” And on that day I learned not just the value of context, but also the value of collaboration.

So what’s the point? The point is, younger children can benefit in many ways from nonfiction texts that are above their reading levels. Like me, they can piece together, sort out, and through collaborative efforts. make some sense of what they’re reading, especially if they’re reading with self-determined purposes.

A book like The Frog Scientist, then, which illustrates its points with clear, objective photographs, is perfect for young readers seeking information on a topic of chosen interest. In addition to providing facts about our amphibious friends, Pamela S. Turner captures the scientific attitudes and habits required to conduct meaningful work. Such life and vocational skills are a huge part of the much-touted 21st Century Skills, which makes this book even more important.

The Frog Scientist was recently awarded the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)/Subaru SB&F middle-grade science writing prize. The book trailer below features biologist Tyrone Hayes (aka The Frog Scientist).



Prowling the Seas: Exploring the Hidden World of Ocean Predators is another well researched yet totally accessible book for children which focuses again on not just the creatures, but the scientists who work among them. Like The Frog Scientist, this book features amazing original photographs and accompanying detailed captions. Why are captions important? Watch your average reluctant reader (especially the boys) and they’ll page through books, simply looking at the illustrations. Occasionally, however, they’ll come upon an illustration so compelling that their internal sense of wonder will fire off multiple questions. This curiosity, in turn, drives them to read the captions in order to seek more information. Then their eyes may slide into the text itself, as they wonder what else there is to know about the illustration. Turner’s books do that: they sneak up and pull the reader into another world, and a whole new schema of understanding.


(A quick congratulations to Line of Alabama, and Wendy of Michigan, the winners of the Barefoot Books giveaway A Calendar Of Festivals: Celebrations From Around The World)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Blueberry Girl

I'll be announcing winners for America's White Table tomorrow. In fact, due to the impressive number of requests for that book, I'll also be announcing another giveaway!

In the meantime, enjoy this beautiful trailer for Blueberry Girl, a gorgeous picture book from the usually-kinda-scary but nonetheless extremely talented Newbery Award winner Neil Gaiman.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Remembering Those Who Served


According to the Veterans Day Teacher Resource Guide offered to schools by the United States Department of Veteran Affairs,

In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill proclaiming November 11th as Veterans Day and called upon Americans everywhere to rededicate themselves to the cause of peace. He issued a Presidential Order directing the head of the Veterans Administration, now the Department of Veterans Affairs, to form a Veterans Day National Committee to organize and oversee the national observance of Veterans Day.
This Wednesday, November 11th, we as teachers must remind our students of the selfless service and sacrifice demonstrated by the men and women of America's Armed Forces. For this honored occasion, I recommend three special picture books.

Award winning Heroes, written by Ken Mochizuki and illustrated by Dom Lee, is one of my favorites for initiating discussions around this observance.

Japanese American schoolboy Donnie is tired of playing the bad guy every time he and his friends get together. He'd rather play football, but they're only interested in playing war. And according to the other boys, Donnie should play the enemy because he does, after all, look like "them." Donnie futilely protests that his father and uncle served their country, the United States, but his friends just laugh. When Donnie pleads with his father and uncle for proof, they tell him that "real heroes don't brag." The story's ending is unexpected and noble, and each year when I share this book aloud, the reaction is incredible.

New York Times called Heroes "dignified and effective." Kirkus Reviews stated, "Heroes is also a tribute to the 442nd Regiment Combat Team, an all-Japanese-American regiment, and serves as a reminder of their important contribution."

I strongly recommend that Heroes find a place in every classroom library. Publisher Lee and Low have provided a helpful teacher's guide at their site containing many cross-curricular ideas for use with this book.

A newer book for me, but one that is just as powerful, is America's White Table by Margot Theis Raven, illustrated by Mike Benny.

From the Sleeping Bear Press site:

The White Table is set in many mess halls as a symbol for and remembrance to service members fallen, missing, or held captive in the line of duty. Solitary and solemn, it is the table where no one will ever sit.

As a special gift to her Uncle John, Katie and her sisters are asked to help set the white table for dinner. As their mother explains the significance of each item placed on the table Katie comes to understand and appreciate the depth of sacrifice that her uncle, and each member of the Armed Forces and their families, may be called to give.
The ceremony of the America's White Table is beautifully described in this book; not just what each object is, but what it is meant to represent. The book's narrator then finds even more meaning in this tradition upon learning that her own uncle, "who gave us big bear hugs and spun us with airplane twirls" was a prisoner of war in Vietnam before the nieces were ever born.

Another Sleeping Bear title that should be mentioned is H Is for Honor: A Military Family Alphabet. Written by the son of a soldier, this book explores the many branches of the Armed Forces, speaking of both the privileges and sacrifices of military families everywhere. Many aspects of military life are discussed, in both poem and sidebar explanatory text. Like all Sleeping Bear alphabet books, every page has a beautiful full-page illustration.

For example, the poem on the letter "A" page reads:

"Give me an A for Army, and an A for Air Force, too.
An A for all the Armed Services behind the red, white, and blue.
They stand at attention, tall and proud, all impeccably dressed.
An A for the American Armed Forces, an A for the world's very best."
The sidebar begins:

"The Armed Services of the United States protect our nation, its people, and its ideals. There are five branches that make up the United States military.

The U.S. Army is the main ground force for the United States. It's the largest and oldest branch of the service, founded in 1775...."
In my class, we have written letters to those presently serving in the armed forces. That is, I know, a common activity in many schools. I would also suggest perhaps using a sites such as Instant Poetry Forms to write a poem following the sharing of Veterans Day picture Books. Either the Instant Spine Poem or the Cinquain would provide a simple yet effective format for the poem.

I would also encourage every teacher to download the incredible Veterans Day Teaching Kit mentioned at the beginning of this post. It contains fabulous information and activities, including the Difference Between Veterans Day and Memorial Day:

Many people confuse Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Both holidays were established to recognize and honor the men and women who have worn the uniform of the United States Armed Forces. But Memorial Day, which is observed on the last Monday in May, was originally set aside as a day for remembering and honoring military personnel who died in the service of their country, particularly those who died in battle or as a result of wounds sustained in battle.

While those who died are also remembered on Veterans Day, which is observed on November 11, Veterans Day is intended to thank and honor all those who served honorably in the military - in wartime or peacetime. In fact, Veterans Day is largely intended to thank living Veterans for their service, to acknowledge that their contributions to our national security are appreciated, and to underscore the fact that all those who served - not only those who died - have sacrificed and done their duty.
The site also contains a link to an archive of Veterans Day posters which can be printed out or used in other applications. These well designed, powerful images should be posted prominently in every school.

Book Giveaway: Although you won't have it in time for this year's observance, Sleeping Bear Press has generously offered a copy of America's White Table to three readers of this blog. Just email me with "White Table Drawing" in the subject line, and we'll pick some winners in the next two weeks.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Top Ten Stories Behind Dr. Seuss


I'm a latecomer to this, but a post at Mental Floss details ten stories behind some of Dr. Seuss's most popular tales. A quick, fun read for fans!

Also take some time to poke around the site for other fun stuff with which to waste your time (yet possibly fine tune your mind as well).

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Listeners: Remembering the Past by Celebrating the Present


The Listeners
by Gloria Whelan

Universal Themes:
Conflict Resolution, Courage, Heroism, Identity, Integrity, Problem Solving

On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln declared the freedom of all slaves in any state of the Confederate States of America that did not return to Union control by January 1, 1863. Today we encourage students to celebrate Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation with Gloria Whelan's excellent new picture book The Listeners, published by Sleeping Bear Press.

In addition to their tasks of picking cotton, taking cows to pasture, and caring for the babies, Ella May and her friends are entrusted with the most most important job of all: that of crouching beneath Master's window each evening to collect information that the slaves on the plantation otherwise wouldn't hear. Which slaves are being sent away? Who's the new overseer that Master is hiring? What's that about a new president, and why are Master Thomas's words about him coming out "as mean as rattlesnakes"?

I loved this book, so I took a big chance. This year, after teaching third grade for nine years and fourth grade for thirteen, I moved up to sixth grade Reading and Language Arts. While I've always preached about the benefits of using picture books with the upper grades, I never before had to "put my money where my mouth is." So for my first picture book experience with my new sixth graders (three sections of 65 students total), I chose The Listeners.

In short, the book delivered. Students were turned on to the picture book experience.

The beautiful artwork and language of The Listeners complement each other perfectly (so much so that one student was convinced that the author was also the illustrator, so in tune were the paintings to the words on the page). My students especially enjoyed Whelan's use of metaphor, personification, and similes, such as "we make ourselves small as cotton seeds and quiet as shadows." This book helped my students realize that picture books can truly serve as "mentor texts," providing students with models for their own writing. Students discovered that what an author chooses to leave out becomes just as important as what she chooses to leave in.

Like every Sleeping Bear Press title from the Tales of Young Americans Series, this book is well researched and age-appropriate, while not being dumbed down in either language or content. (Another Young Americans title I previously recommended on this blog was Ann E. Burg's Rebekkah's Journey , a meticulously researched historical fiction picture book which describes President Franklin D. Roosevelt's plan to shelter 1000 Jews in upstate New York).

Teachers and parents will be delighted to know that this title (like other Sleeping Bear titles I've mentioned in previous posts) is accompanied by a free, pdf format teaching guide. The book is recommended for ages 6-10, but many of the activities can be adapted for use with older audiences.

For more information on the author and illustrator, visit the Sleeping Bear site. While there, be sure to also check out Sleeping Bear's mind-boggling variations on the picture book. Something for everyone, at every level!