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If a picture is indeed worth a thousand words, then a good picture book is practically priceless! Here you'll find frequently updated picture book resources, with teaching suggestions and activities you can use in your classroom tomorrow.
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1. Yet Another Game to Play in Class Tomorrow!

If you're looking for a game that students will beg to play every week, this is it. I've used it in classrooms and academic enrichment programs at summer camp with fantastic results. Add this to Bug and The Mysterious Box of Mystery, and you have three solid sure-fire games for your ELA toolbox.

Big Words is an activity which promotes an increase in phonetic awareness, spelling accuracy, and vocabulary development. The game I describe below was inspired by authors Patricia M. Cunningham and Dorothy P. Hall in their book Making Big Words. The copy I purchased over ten years ago encouraged me to turn their ideas into a class-wide game which has been a huge hit ever since.

The first objective of the game is to create as many words as possible from a given set of letters. To play, each student is given an envelope containing a strip of letters in alphabetical order, vowels listed first and then consonants. The student cuts these apart so that the individual letters can be easily manipulated on the desktop. Moving the letters about, students attempt to form as many words as possible. Beginners may only be able to form two-, three-, and four-letter words, but with time and practice will be able to use knowledge of word parts and blends to form much longer words.

The second objective is to spell a single word (the Big Word!) with all the letters. In my class, that Big Word very often relates to an upcoming trip, project, or special event, and thus serves double-duty to build excitement and enthusiasm.

As Big Words is used on a regular basis, the teacher can discuss strategies for increasing word counts. Some of these strategies include rhyming, changing single letters at the beginning or ending of each word, using blends, homophones, etc. Many additional words can also be generated through the use of -s to create plurals, and -e to create long vowel sounds. Some students will discover that reading their words backwards prompts additional ideas. Additionally, the teacher can discuss word parts which can help students to understand what they read (such as how the suffix -tion usually changes a verb to a noun, as in the word relaxation).

While the book emphasizes individual practice, we prefer to play Big Words as a class game. I've outlined our procedures below. You can also access these directions as a printable Google Doc.

  1. Have students cut apart the letters, and then begin forming as many words as possible using those letters. Remind them to not share ideas with partners, and to not call out words as they work (especially the Big Word). 
  2. After about fifteen minutes, have students draw a line under their last word, and then number their list. They cannot add to or change their lists, but new words that they hear from classmates should be added once the game starts.
  3. Divide the class into two teams. Direct students to use their pencil to “star” their four best words which they would like to share. These should be words which the other team might not have discovered.
  4. Determine how the score will be kept (on a chalkboard, interactive whiteboard, etc.). The teacher should also have a way to publicly write words as they're shared so that students can copy them more easily.  Here are links to a PowerPoint scoreboard or an online scoreboard.
  5. Hand a stuffed animal or other object to the first student from each team. This tangible item will help the students, and you, to know whose turn it is to share. Tell students that only the player holding the stuffed animal may speak. Other players who talk out of turn will cost their team one penalty point. These penalty points should be awarded to the opposing team, not subtracted from a score. This will greatly reduce unnecessary noise. 
  6. Play takes place as follows: The first student shares a word, nice and loud. He or she spells it out. If any player on the opposing team has that word, they raise their hand quietly and the teacher checks to see that it is the same word. (It doesn't matter if any student on the speaker's team has the word or not). Every player who has it should check it off, and every player who does not have it should write it into their notebook. 
  7. If no player on the opposing team has the word, then the team scores 3 points. If anyone on the opposing team has the word, then only 1 point is scored. 
  8. If a player shares a word which has already been given aloud, their team is penalized 2 points! This helps everyone to pay better attention to the game. 
  9. Ironically, the Big Word counts for as many points as any other word. Feel free to change that if you prefer, but I discovered that if I make it worth more points, students waste an extraordinary amount of time trying to form the Big Word alone, while ignoring the creation of any smaller words. 
  10. Play until a predetermined time, and then if the Big Word hasn't been formed yet, provide students with the first two or three letters to see who can create it.
Enjoy the game! I know your students will.

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2. Another Game You Can Play in Class Tomorrow!

I received some nice emails about the Bug game our class designed, so I wanted to share what we played this past Friday. I call it The Mysterious Box of Mystery.

Worst name ever.

I know, but my students loved it. Well, the game, not so much the name. Surprising, since they all lost! But they see the potential for winning, so they're psyched about playing it again.

The game is simple. Find a box, tissue-box size or somewhat larger, in which you can hide an object. Ask students to number a page one through eight, and then prompt them to ask questions about the hidden object that can be answered yes or no. Each time you provide a yes/no answer, students write a new guess, or rewrite the one they've previously recorded if they feel it's correct.

Simple, right? Perhaps you've probably played something like this before. But to increase the "mystery" of it, I created a rhyming script that I read for each of my three classes, and I never deviated from the script. One student mentioned that it made Mystery Box "really scary," and another students mentioned that it built the suspense.

Cool. But the script was truthfully designed to achieve the first objective of the game: to build better listening skills. By sticking to the script, the game proceeded without interruption, and students were incredibly attentive throughout.

When students failed to name the object in each of the classes, I revealed the objects to them: a spork for Period 1, a candle for Period 5, a clothespin for Period 7. Each time when I asked, "Was it possible for you to actually guess this with just eight questions?" students reluctantly admitted yes.

"Possible, but not probable..." mused one student.

"Not with the dumb questions we asked," responded another unhappily. "We needed to ask better questions."

"We did waste a couple of guesses," added another.

And there it is, the second and more important objective of the game: to learn to ask better questions. For example, one student asked, "Is the thing in this room?" and the answer, of course, was yes. But what she meant was, "Is this thing observable to our eyes anywhere in the classroom right now?" That question would have cut down many possibilities and likely caused all students to change their guessing strategies.

So while students were disappointed, none complained that the game was unfair or impossible. Instead, many began discussing strategies for the next time the game was played. I did promise students that I would never use an object that was rare, unique, or unknown to them; they did fear, after all, that I would make the objects harder to guess as they became better guessers.

Beginning to finish, the game took ten minutes. The script was especially helpful in keeping me, the facilitator, from veering off course. In the future, when students are allowed to facilitate the game using their own objects, the script will likewise keep the class focused.

Give it a go, and let me know how it works out for you.

If you're looking to get more games into your reading and writing classroom, I highly recommend Peggy Kaye's Games for Reading and Games for Writing. I've used both books extensively in one-to-one instruction, but many of the games can be played with little planning in the ELA classroom. These games are also a huge help if you're seeking activities that a substitute can implement that will be highly engaging for your students.

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3. A Game Your Students Can Play Tomorrow

Games are the most elevated form of investigation.  ~ Albert Einstein

I just finished reading Cathy N. Davidson's wonderful Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work and Learn. I'll need to reread it, to be honest, because too often my mind began drifting to my own classroom as I read. I began asking myself if I was doing all that I could to engage students, and the answer was a sad and resounding no. My classes are severely lacking in game play.

According to Davidson, "Games have long been used to train concentration, to improve strategy, to learn human nature, and to understand how to think interactively and situationally." In the classroom, games capture and focus attention, increase motivation, and allow for complete, overt engagement.

My most often downloaded resource, in fact, is a Theme Game I created on Google Slides. At least one of my readers a day downloads this activity, which means that other teachers are seeing the value of game play in the classroom.

I readily admitted to my students that I created Bug, and it would have some, well, "bugs" that needed to be worked out. But students were eager to help in this regard, and our finished game is best described through the Google Slides presentation below.

What We Learned Together

1) We decided that certain modifications were allowed (simple switch, blend mend, one letter better) since they were sophisticated and advanced the game, while others were not allowed (adding a simple s to create a plural, adding both a vowel and a consonant together, reconstructing a word that has already been spelled). Students likewise dismissed the possibility of allowing prefixes and suffixes, deciding that those modifications didn't truly change the words enough.

2) We learned that four to five minutes was a suitable time for each round of play. Once each round finished, players could challenge their current partner if the match ended in a tie, or winners could challenge other winners and losers could challenge other losers, or, simply, anyone else could challenge any other classmate. Students didn't care whom they played; students simply wanted to play! My period one class of only eight students played using a traditional bracket to decide a final winner, but other classes were content to engage in free range play.

3) Students did begin to employ strategies. One clever student used "shrug" as her first word each time, instantly earning a power up and leaving her partner with a difficult word to manage. When her second partner countered with "shrub," this student needed to quickly adapt and used her earned power down to create "scrum." Scrum? Yes, this game encourages vocabulary development as well.

4) By game's end we concluded that, catchy name aside, every new game couldn't begin with "bug." Too many students were trying to play the same words each round, and too many rounds fell into the same predictable list of words. We decided that each new game should start with a different three letter word.

5) We played our games with large (12 x 18) paper and colored markers, but for a future game we're likely to play with standard sized paper and colored pencils. Students liked the visual separation that two colors provided, but the size format probably won't be needed in the future.

We would love to hear your recommendations, variations, and success stories!

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4. A Game Your Students Can Play Tomorrow

Games are the most elevated form of investigation.  ~ Albert Einstein

I just finished reading Cathy N. Davidson's wonderful Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work and Learn. I'll need to reread it, to be honest, because too often my mind began drifting to my own classroom as I read. I began asking myself if I was doing all that I could to engage students, and the answer was a sad and resounding no. My classes are severely lacking in game play.

According to Davidson, "Games have long been used to train concentration, to improve strategy, to learn human nature, and to understand how to think interactively and situationally." In the classroom, games capture and focus attention, increase motivation, and allow for complete, overt engagement.

My most often downloaded resource, in fact, is a Theme Game I created on Google Slides. At least one of my readers a day downloads this activity, which means that other teachers are seeing the value of game play in the classroom.

I readily admitted to my students that I created Bug, and it would have some, well, "bugs" that needed to be worked out. But students were eager to help in this regard, and our finished game is best described through the Google Slides presentation below.

What We Learned Together

1) We decided that certain modifications were allowed (simple switch, blend mend, one letter better) since they were sophisticated and advanced the game, while others were not allowed (adding a simple s to create a plural, adding both a vowel and a consonant together, reconstructing a word that has already been spelled). Students likewise dismissed the possibility of allowing prefixes and suffixes, deciding that those modifications didn't truly change the words enough.

2) We learned that four to five minutes was a suitable time for each round of play. Once each round finished, players could challenge their current partner if the match ended in a tie, or winners could challenge other winners and losers could challenge other losers, or, simply, anyone else could challenge any other classmate. Students didn't care whom they played; students simply wanted to play! My period one class of only eight students played using a traditional bracket to decide a final winner, but other classes were content to engage in free range play.

3) Students did begin to employ strategies. One clever student used "shrug" as her first word each time, instantly earning a power up and leaving her partner with a difficult word to manage. When her second partner countered with "shrub," this student needed to quickly adapt and used her earned power down to create "scrum." Scrum? Yes, this game encourages vocabulary development as well.

4) By game's end we concluded that, catchy name aside, every new game couldn't begin with "bug." Too many students were trying to play the same words each round, and too many rounds fell into the same predictable list of words. We decided that each new game should start with a different three letter word.

5) We played our games with large (12 x 18) paper and colored markers, but for a future game we're likely to play with standard sized paper and colored pencils. Students liked the visual separation that two colors provided, but the size format probably won't be needed in the future.

We would love to hear your recommendations, variations, and success stories!

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5. Mentor Text Display Cards

I love using mentor texts in the classroom, and students find them incredibly useful as exemplars for their own writing. But how many times have I asked, "Do you remember when we saw examples of this technique in one of our mentor texts?" only to be met with blank stares. Or worse, a student will say, "I remember in one of our picture books the author did this thing where she said something in a way that was cool and can you help me find that book?"

So this year, in an effort to maximize our investment in mentor texts, I began to create Mentor Text Display Cards. For each exemplar text we study, whether it be a picture book, poem, article, or excerpt from a novel, I've posted a simple letter-size display card listing the book title, author, illustrator, genre, theme, notable text features, and a text excerpt (see example below). On a bookshelf adjacent to this display, I've shelved all of the mentor texts we've already read, as well as those I intend to use.

With just seven cards posted, already I've seen several benefits:
  • During free reading time, students will return to these texts since they're familiar and meaningful.
  • Students struggling to recall text features or literary devices will look to these cards for help.
  • Students now make discoveries of their own in their independent texts, and some have even suggested picture books and excerpts for future sharing. This, in itself, is remarkably revealing, because some students are pointing out features and literary devices that haven't been formally introduced through our other texts.
  • The collection of cards serves as clear evidence of our classroom goal to create a common culture of literacy. 
While I created the first few cards, I see no reason why future cards can't be made by students themselves. The blank prototype card I've provided is easy to duplicate and edit. After reviewing the cards I've shared, you may also decide that what I've chosen to illustrate on my cards doesn't quite serve your purposes, so I welcome you to customize them as you see fit.

Looking to the future, I see some other uses for these cards:
  • Printed out, these cards can be inserted in the books they reference. That way, even if you choose not to use a book in a given year, a student can still benefit from the information the card provides.
  • Individual cards can be saved as pdf files, and these can be digitally stored for student access. My own teacher website has an index that would work well with this concept.
  • I chose to post my cards chronologically, since students will remember a book that was read "a long time ago" (two weeks ago!) and find it easier to reference in the cards are posted by occurrence. But I can also see posting cards closer to those shelves that they might reference. So my New York's Bravest card might be posted adjacent to the Tall Tale section of my class library, and my George Bellows: Painter with a Punch card might be located near the biography section.
  • As students read their own picture books (see the biography book reports here, for example), they can create their own display cards to illustrate the "take-aways" of their individual texts.
Via Google slides I've provided you several cards to get started (all the books on these cards have been featured on this blog), including a blank prototype for editing online, as well as a blank that can be printed out if you prefer students to create a card using paper and pencil. I'd love to hear your ideas for these cards, as well as ways you plan to customize them for your own classroom.

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6. Heroes of History, Part II

In an earlier post I shared how students used biography picture books to practice summarizing, recognizing opposing viewpoints, and citing textual evidence. Using the four-step process modeled there, students cut to the chase to tell what was "most needed to know" about their famous man or woman from history. So what's next?

Below I've shared some of the biography extensions and report options which students have completed over the years in my classroom. I'm sure you'll find a new one to try out!

Time Machine

As students read their biography, they take the usual notes, either on a prepared outline or free hand. When writing the report, however, the students pretend that they're able to travel back in time to interview this famous person. The most important details are then summarized in a question-answer format which reads in a more interesting way than a standard report. The paragraph students generated in the four-step summary process (above) serves nicely as the interview's introduction.

I've provided a sample of the interview format, but I highly encourage you to have students brainstorm their own interview questions as well. The brainstorming and sequencing process is an excellent introduction to the research process where students will need to formulate inquiries for themselves. Students will also discover that the unique experiences of any given person will in large part dictate the type of questions which should be asked. When reading Who Says Women Can't be Doctors? by Tanya Lee Stone, for example, one of my students was amazed to discover that Elizabeth Blackwell was turned down by twenty-eight different schools in her pursuit of attending medical school. "I think I would have quit trying after the first ten schools said no," the student remarked, and I wondered what Elizabeth Blackwell herself would have said to her in return.

Some years we presented these in a talk show format, with partners playing the role of interviewer, and other years students chose to dress as the person they were portraying. 


24 Ready to Go Genre Book Reports is a wonderful teacher resource full of ideas for responding to books, and one project from this resource which students have enjoyed is creating a journal.

When I first began teaching, I assigned students a similar journal format, requiring at least three entries that reflected events from the person's childhood or teen years, university or training years, and years of notable achievement. Additional entries could be written at students' discretion.

With the popularity of scrapbooking, students began asking if they could include artifacts in their journals. Projects soon included replica photos, sketches, tickets, maps, currency, and so on. The journal covers likewise became more creative, with students creating covers that resembled television sets, suitcases, trading cards, shipping crates, cars, space shuttles, hats, jerseys, and wanted posters. 

A wonderful set of biography books which rely upon a similar concepts of "snapshots" from a person's life is the 10 Day series by David Colbert, which so far includes books on Anne Frank, Abraham LincolnThomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, and Martin Luther King, Jr. If all students in your classroom read the same biography or autobiography, they could likewise focus on the ten most pivotal days of that person's life, with students possibly pairing up and writing a first-person account of one of these days.

As mentioned above, the paragraph students generate in the four-step summary process can serve as an introduction to the diary, as the entries themselves may not provide ample information for some readers to understand the importance of the subject's achievements.

Made in Quotes Cover
Lessons Learned

One of my students' favorite parts of the Time Machine assignment (above) is when they, in the guise of their famous person, are asked to give advice to future generations. Putting themselves "into the shoes" of this famous person and distilling the experiences of a lifetime into a bit of sage advice is a difficult yet rewarding task.

In Lessons Learned, students generate eight to ten tips that their hero might pass on to future generations. The advice can be published as beautiful quotes, using a quote making site such as Quozio, Quotes Cover, ReciteThis, or ProQuoter.

Here, the four-step biography summary is used as an introduction piece that acquaints the reader with the giver of wise counsel. The quotes themselves can be printed, or embedded into a Google Slides or similar sharing platform.


Since most students best understand a biography in strict chronological order, creating a timeline would be a good way for them to explain and illustrate important life events.

For creating an online timeline, I highly recommend Hstry.co, which I discussed at length in a previous post. Check out that post to see how easy it is to get started with Hstry.

Telescoping Story

Telescopic Text allows writers a chance to share a story just one bit at a time, while revealing small and large thoughts alike in a measured manner. You can best understand this site by checking out the site creator's example. To see how a text is entered and edited, and to see a pretty impressive Telescopic Text created by a seven year-old, check out the video below.

Students could use this site to create a slowly expanding narrative of their hero's life. What's great about the site is that it encourages elaboration, a tough topic to teach students who are often trying to write as little as possible.

Caveat: Students should register for their own accounts and learn the difference between saving and publishing (saving allows for future edits; publishing does not).

Newspaper Clipping

A newspaper clipping describing an important event from a person's life is a terrific way to get students to focus upon what really merits attention. The Fodey Newspaper Generator provides a very short format clipping (about 1000 total characters), which is just enough to provide facts without the clutter of details. The clipping to the right, for example, was created in response to A Nation's Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis, written by Matt De La Peña and illustrated by Kadir Nelson. While the picture book chronicles Louis' rise as a fighter, the newspaper clipping captures just a highlight of that life.

This newspaper generator (which I found at the Learning Never Stops blog) allows for more space and also an image, but fills in the rest of the front page with two nonsense articles. Students would need to screen shot and crop out the other articles if they didn't want them to show.

In addition to a stand-alone activity, the newspaper clipping could also be used as an artifact in the Journal assignment above (some students have also used the movie clapboard generator at the Fodey site for their journal project). 

He Said, She Said 

I previously discussed Google Story Builder in another blog, and I'm still a fan. It's a very neat way to show differing points of view. Take a second to check out my review.  

Here's a short Google Docs Story I created after reading Mary Walker Wears the Pants: The True Story of the Doctor, Reformer, and Civil War Hero, written by Cheryl Harness and illustrated by Carlo Molinari. Note that activist Mary Walker disagrees with what a fabricated nemesis named "Nathan Properbody" has to say.  

Students can create both sides of such a fictional dialogue, or two students can take on opposing roles and write from each viewpoint. The process will need some trial and error, and the resulting pieces can't be long, but it's a very different type of writing requiring some critical and creative thinking.

Looking for more tech tools to assess student learning? Be sure to check out this collection of over thirty of the best free sites I've found to assess students at all stages of learning process.

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7. How to Create Interactive Timelines

If you're looking for an awesome online report option for biographies or nonfiction texts, you'll love Hstry.co. Hstry is a site where students can create cool looking, interactive timelines with text, images, videos, and embedded quizzes. 

These are really good looking timelines! If you don't believe me, check out this sample on World War I, or this one about the History of Immigration in theUnited States. And your students can create timelines that look just as good.

In my case, however, I didn't want a timeline. My sixth graders had just read nonfiction books of choice, with topics as varied as fashion, venomous animals, and accidental inventions. I needed a venue that would permit them to show off their topic's most interesting facts. So in my case, my students used the site to create linear collages rather than timelines. The video below (which I created and hosted for free at Screencast-O-Matic) walks you through one of those projects.

I spent a good deal of time modeling the process of creating a Hstry timeline in class (and you'll need to do the same), but some students were still somewhat fuzzy on all the steps even after I finished. Plus, three students were absent the day I modeled the how-to. So I created the following video which walks students through the process. Note: do not make a video when all you have for audio production is a dollar store microphone. The project sheet to which the video refers is here if you care to see it.

One downside to this site is that (at present) students cannot publicly share their projects. So in my class we did mini field trips. Students logged in and set up their projects on their screens. I then randomly distributed our class name cards, and students went and visited the Hstry project belonging to the classmate whose name appeared on the card. While visiting, my students provided feedback via a form I created. After two visits, all students were allowed to return to their projects, read the feedback form, and then make corrections as needed. Following these revisions, we conducted two more staged visits, and then students were permitted to visit as they chose or return to their own laptop to improve their work.

Sample Applications for the Classroom:

  • Create a timeline of historical events.
  • Create a biographical timeline.
  • Embed multiple videos, each with its own quiz.
  • Do what my students did, and use it as a linear collage for a nonfiction book.
  • Create your own timeline (as a teacher) to provide students with needed historical context they need before a new unit. 
Notes and Caveats:

  • Again, student timelines are not publicly visibly (yet), and may never be, so plan accordingly.
  • Check-off sheets like the one I created are key to help students manage the content they're adding.
  • Looking for other creative, tech-oriented ways to create book reports? Check out these 23 iPad Alternatives to the Book Report.
  • No, I did not really read the book about chickens, but I did spend summers running a farm at camp, so I know my way around a chicken coop.

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8. Heroes of History

Read below for Marceau's amazing story!
One popular conversation in education centers around "What is worth knowing?" To that conversation I'd like to add the question, "Who is worth knowing?"

When I ask students to name someone famous and the first reply I hear is "Kim Kardashian," I die just a little bit inside. Students don't seem to have an understanding of, or appreciation for, the lives of great men and women who changed the course of history. 

But biography picture books can help to remedy that.

Wiser Words Were Never Spoken

My high school daughter recently took her SAT and was describing the writing prompt she was given. She paraphrased the quote and named the speaker (which I won't reveal here), and then described for me the way in which she had crafted her response. 

I finally asked, "And did you include why that quote was so important, considering the person who said it?" 

Her reply: "Well, I had heard of him, but I didn't really know who he was." 

Opportunity lost.

Regardless of what some might have us believe (the PARCC assessment comes to mind), historical context does, in fact, matter when examining any piece of text, and history is the product of those who made it.

Students therefore need knowledge of heroes of history.

Getting Started

Before showing students even a single biography, I gave them some practice summarizing current events articles from Tween Tribune using the tried and true 5Ws and 1H. This required a significant shift in students' responses; after all, I had been encouraging them for months to elaborate, and now they were being asked to summarize an entire article in a single sentence. 

The Tween Tribune article "It's Even Too Cold for Polar Bears!", for example, was summed up as follows:

Due to her specialized diet designed to eliminate a thick layer of insulating fat, Lincoln Park Zoo's resident polar bear Anana had to be moved indoors last Monday during Chicago's record-low temperatures.

Note that in addition to the basic facts, the sentence also provides students with a model for writing a cause/effect relationship.

After some independent practice with longer articles (requiring even greater ability to discern important facts), we were ready to move on to trade books. 

You may want to follow along on the assignment guidesheet which you're welcome to download in pdf (or Word) and be sure to grab the blank sheet as well (also available as a Word doc). You'll notice that the instructional steps below differ somewhat from those given to students for their own work.

Just the Facts
For my mentor text, I selected Robert Burleigh's George Bellows: Painter with a Punch!, in part because while George Bellows' art might be familiar to students, the man as an artist was not. I also planned to return to this text in a later lesson on using opposing viewpoints to construct argumentative writing.

In their notebooks, students jotted down a list of the 5Ws and 1H (Who, What, Where, When, Why, How) and were asked to listen for those facts as I read the book aloud. I read the majority of the book, stopping to monitor understanding and also to ask if any of our facts had been discovered.

By story's end we had 
Who: George Bellows
What: painted pictures that weren't beautiful
Where: New York City
When: early 1900s
Why: to show emotions and power
How: showing scenes of everyday city life

Cobbled together after some discussion and experimentation, these facts became a fact-fixing sentence that sounded like this:

In the early 1900s, George Bellows and other artists in New York City’s Trashcan School began painting pictures that showed the ugly, gritty, common scenes of the city in order to capture the emotion and power of everyday life.

Prove It!

Students knew that this was coming. What textual evidence backed up what we just stated? We found several sentences which might work, and finally settled on just a snippet of one quote, which we placed into a sentence that included both the author and book:

According to author Robert Burleigh in the book George Bellows: Painter with a Punch, Bellows thought scenes of everyday life were beautiful and was “determined to find them.”

So What?

But then I asked, "So what? Why did that matter?" And here's where students begin to see the light. Those people from history who changed the way others think, believe, or act tend to be those worth remembering. In the case of George Bellows, he and other students of Robert Henri went against the traditional belief that the artist's role was to paint what was beautiful. 

This led us to construct an opposing viewpoint statement to precede the summary sentence we had already drafted:
For centuries, most people believed that artists should focus upon what is beautiful and romantic, but one artist named George Bellows thought differently.


This, naturally, led to the question of legacy. "What lasting impact did this person's life and work have upon us? Why should they be remembered today?"

I had to provide a bit of background here, discussing with students that at this time in history, many schools of art were wrestling with the role of the artist and the artist's responsibility to represent "real life." Eventually we came up with this closing sentence:

Artists of the Ashcan School helped others to explore "bold new worlds" while at the same time recording, in full color, what New York City looked like one hundred years ago.

Pieced together, the finished summary read as follows:

For centuries, most people believed that artists should focus upon what is beautiful and romantic, but one artist named George Bellows thought differently. In the early 1900s, George Bellows and other artists in New York City’s Trashcan School began painting pictures that showed the ugly, gritty, common scenes of the city in order to capture the emotion and power of everyday life. According to author Robert Burleigh in the book George Bellows: Painter with a Punch, Bellows thought scenes of everyday life were beautiful and was “determined to find them.” Artists of the Ashcan School helped others to explore "bold new worlds" while at the same time recording, in full color, what New York City looked like one hundred years ago.

An impressive summary once completed. But, could students could do it on their own?

Training Wheels

Armed with this model, students jotted down the sentence order in their notebooks as a quick reference:

I. Opposing Viewpoint 
II. 5Ws and 1H
III. Textual Evidence
IV. Legacy

Each student was then assigned a picture book biography from numerous examples chosen by the teacher. Some teachers might be surprised that students aren't allowed at this point to choose their own books, but I feel it's important that students approach the exercise with no preconceived notions about the person they're studying.

Students read the books for homework and completed the four step process outlined on the guidesheet. The following day they shared their first attempt with a classmate and made revisions based on that peer's feedback. I then had students switch books with any other student in the class apart from the one who had heard their summary. This guaranteed that by day three, two students would have read each book and could get together to compare paragraphs. This sharing led to much more productive revisions, as both students had intimate knowledge of the text and could offer more specific feedback on not only form, but also content.

I was surprised by students' success with the process. While some, as expected, followed the Bellows model precisely, simply swapping out details as needed, others departed from the model. A couple of students tried switching sentence orders when writing summaries of their second books, while others tried different grammatical structures while maintaining the sentence order we had established.

One student, not thrilled when handed Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime, was amazed to learn that this entertainer played a major role in the French Resistance, and led many Jewish children to safety. His paragraph, which he knew fell far short of paying homage to this unsung hero, reads:

Many people might think that miming is a fairly recent type of drama, but it is actually an ancient form of art that, because of sound movies, might have been forgotten; however, a talented young Frenchman named Marcel Marceau revived its popularity. After serving bravely in the Resistance against the Nazis during World War II, Marceau followed his dream of becoming an actor capable of moving the audience to laughter or tears, all without saying a word. According to author Gloria Spielman in Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime, "By the time he died in 2007, Marcel had revived the ancient and almost forgotten art of silence." Because of Marceau's work, many performers who followed in his footsteps realize that it isn't what you say, but how your facial expressions and body gestures convey it.

Most surprising to many students was how much they enjoyed reading about people they had never even heard of (many students had already made plans for the next book they wanted to read). The skepticism I witnessed on the first day when distributing books was replaced with enthusiasm by day two of the assignment. And since then, students have been asking to do the assignment again, and many have naturally been begging to read biographies of their own choosing.

So What's Next?

While this lesson can certainly stand alone as an exercise in summarizing, I can see these simple summary paragraphs serving as introductions to other types of responses to biography, current events, and history.

In my next post I'll share some possible extension activities, as well as some of the more popular titles which students enjoyed.

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9. We've Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children's March

"I want to go to jail," (third grader) Audrey told her mother.
Since Mr. and Mrs. Hendricks thought that was a good idea, they helped her get ready.

Cynthia Levinson's stunning and moving We've Got a Job chronicles the days leading up to the 1963 Birmingham Children's March. Read on to discover more about this historic event (and how you can win a copy of this book for your very own classroom).

In We've Got a Job, readers learn how young protestors, some just grammar school students, took to the streets in May of 1963 with the intention of filling the jails so that the segregationist policies of the South's most notoriously divided and violent city could no longer be carried out. For years Birmingham had seen vicious attacks on blacks, including countless fires and bombings, so many that the city was bitterly nicknamed "Bombingham" by its black residents. 

Too often, however, those of us who view history as an ordered series of dates in a textbook see the events of Birmingham as a given, as a struggle which was destined to take place. Little do most of us know how close the Birmingham protests came to utterly failing.

While many adults participated in sit-ins, marches, and public prayer meetings, it soon became apparent that retributions by whites, mostly through job loss, threatened to snuff the small flames of freedom before they ever caught. But encouraged by Martin Luther King, Fred Shuttlesworth, James Bevel, and others, children accepted the challenge and risked their own freedom and safety to do what had to be done. Facing the threats of dogs, high pressure fire hoses, and crowd brutality, children took a stand for those freedoms for which they can no longer wait.

Told through the eyes and voices of those who participated, this book brings a sense of intimacy and urgency which is often lacking in textbook accounts. Cynthia Levinson mixes personal narratives, historical background, contemporary anecdotes, and headlines of the time to create a well-rounded, highly readable account of extraordinary heroism by ordinary folk.

The Chain of Hate

Martin Luther King wrote:

"To retaliate with hate and bitterness would do nothing but intensify hate in the world... Someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can be done only by projecting the ethics of love to the center of our lives."

And perhaps this defined the greatest challenge for the marchers: meeting hatred with love, violence with nonviolence, ignorance with understanding, intolerance with patience. What Levinson helps the reader to see is that the two sides weren't clearly cut; many whites sympathized with and supported the black cause, and many blacks disagreed with the nonviolent measures of the leaders of the protest movement.

One excerpt from Chapter Eight: May 2. D-Day describes the excitement of the children as they're carted off to jail in buses after they've filled all the police paddy wagons:

The kids were exhilarated; the policemen were exhausted. An officer asked a marcher, "When is this going to end?" 

She responded, "Do we have our freedom yet?"

I wish you could have your freedom just to stop this," he admitted.

Later, at mass meeting in Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, King reassured hundreds of worried parents by saying:

Your daughters and sons are in jail... Don't worry about them. They are suffering for what they believe, and they are suffering to make this nation a better nation."

The book concludes with an Author's Note, a map of the city, and a timeline of the events described in the book. These documents, as well as the book's final chapter, will help teachers answer the many questions that students might have about the Birmingham Children's March, and its outcomes on history.

Extensions and Recommended Resources:
  • One key to strong informational writing is the ability to blend exposition and narrative in a way that provides readers with information, while at the same time encouraging the reader to read on. Cynthia Levinson makes this happen through wonderful transitional phrases, the inclusion of headings, and a well-researched collection of quotes from the very people who lived the events. Many excerpts from this text could provide wonderful models for students to use in their own writing.
  • A study of Martin Luther King, Jr. would benefit greatly from this book, as it helps readers to see him as a very embattled, very conflicted, and very human figure. In the rear view mirror of history, we tend to see only the accomplishments and greatness of our heroes, and rarely their struggles. Students will be interested to learn that King faced disappointment, criticism, and failure; much of his greatness was his refusal to be defined or consumed by those same failings.
  • Peachtree Publishers has created a wonderful companion site featuring a synopsis, resources, and additional information about the players mentioned in the book. Also, be sure to check out the Official Blog Tour for this book. Every blogger has their own take, and lots more resources as well.
  • The Greensboro Sit-Ins are mentioned as an inspiration for the nonviolent restaurant sit-ins which took place in Birmingham. I've collected some wonderful picture book recommendations as well as several resource sites in a post titled Sit Down and Be Counted: Exploring the Civil Rights Movement with Picture Books.
  • If you're looking for a teacher reference, or a book appropriate for readers in grades 6 and up, I can recommend none more highly than A Dream of Freedom: The Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1968. Well organized by year and event, with plenty of period photographs, this is the book that will help you answer all of your students questions (and your own!) about this tumultuous and important time in our nation's history Author Diane McWhorter provides fact in a beautiful tapestry that reads like a story, full of real-life human beings whose individual stories form the larger transformation that we call The Civil Rights Movement.

    If you've read this far, then I welcome you to enter this win a copy of We've Got a Job, courtesy of Peachtree Publishers! Simple email me at keithschoch at gmail dot come (standard email format) with We've Got a Job in the subject line. That's it! The contest is open to US residents only, and ends Friday, May 10, at 11:59 PM EST. It's a fantastic addition to any middle or high school classroom!

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10. Betsy's Day at the Game: A Review and Giveaway

Peanuts, Cracker Jack, cotton candy, and hot dogs! Those are my fondest memories of the ball park, and they certainly top my daughters' lists as well. But one equally hallowed tradition of baseball had been fading from the American scene, so I'm glad to see a picture book that's bringing it back.

Betsy's Day at the Game, written by Greg Bancroft and illustrated by Katherine Blackmore, describes a young girl's visit to the ballpark with her grandfather. The book captures all there is to love about baseball, and that's because author Greg Bancroft seems to be a baseball fan first and foremost. His words and Katherine Blackmore's images capture the sights, sounds, smells, and (my favorite part) tastes of the ballpark. Via their narrative, we spend a day vicarioulsy at the park. Simple enough, right?

As the story progresses and the game begins, however, we realize that much more is taking place. Betsy and Grandpa are teaching us, step by step and in plain English, how to keep score. For the those who are as clueless as me, keeping score in baseball goes way beyond tallying runs!

Codes and symbols are entered onto a scorecard, effectively chronicling every offensive and defensive play of the game. From what friends have told me, baseball fans can read a score book and see the entire game played out in their heads in the same way that musicians can read sheet music and actually "hear the song."

So while I started out as a true scoring novice, by book's end I had a pretty good idea of the whole process. And trust me, if I can figure it out, anyone can! Betsy's Day at the Game would definitely score a home run with any young baseball fan. Using the handy scorecards supplied in the back of the book, fans could easily follow along with and score their favorite team at the park or on TV.

You can enter to win a free copy of this book for your fave fan or yourself by simply emailing me at keithschoch at gmail dot com (standard email format) with PLAY BALL! in the subject line. Contest closes at 11:59 PM EST Friday, April 19, 2013.

Want more chances to win? Visit the blog at Scarletta Press to discover more sites featuring book reviews and giveaways.

Some Recommended Baseball Resources:
  • Aspiring writers will want to check out Greg Bancroft's 10 Things I Didn't Know Until I Published My First Book. If you're planning on breaking into the book biz, you should read this article! 
  • See more of Katherine Blackmore's illustrations at her site.
  • Check out a tutorial on scoring if you want more examples, plus the formulas to figure out all the stats you would ever need. The actual scorecard isn't as nice as the one in the back of Betsy's Day at the Game, however.
  • The Baseball for Kids site features lots of extras for young fans of baseball.
  • Taking your child to the park for the first time? Definitely have a Plan B! We know how attention spans can dwindle as kids become hot, tired, cranky, over-sugared, and all of the above. TeachMama has a fabulous set of suggestions for surviving your outing using Kid-Friendly Learning During Baseball Games. 
  • Check out some earlier posts on this site including Going Extra Innings with Baseball Picture Books (books and lots of sites for kids about baseball), A League of Their Own: Women in Baseball, and Girls Got Game (incredible female athletes). Let Them Play, discussed in an earlier post on Black History, is another baseball story from history that kids find incredibly intriguing.
  • With 42, the Jackie Robinson movie, releasing in theaters this weekend, younger readers might interested in learning more about this courageous hero in baseball history. For readers in grades 2-5, I highly recommend Jackie Robinson: American Hero, written by the star's own daughter, Sharon Robinson. This transitional book features not only the perfect blend of images and text, but also the perfect blend of backstory and biography. Sharon Robinson provides young readers with just enough historical context to understand and appreciate what made Jackie Robinson's accomplishments incredible not only for his time, but for all of time. If you're a teacher hoping to engage your reluctant readers with chapter books, this one is a winner!


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11. Purposes for Poetry: Ten Ways to Use Poetry in Your Instruction

Often when I mention poetry during a workshop, at least one teacher laments, "I would love to do more poetry with students, but there's so much else to teach in my curriculum!" What I try to encourage (and I'm often helped big time by the workshop participants) is for this teacher to consider using poetry within her curriculum, as an integral part of her language, reading, and writing lessons, rather than as an add-on. In other words, I ask her to find a purpose for poetry.

Now, before you poetry purists flame me and cry out, "Poetry is in itself worth reading!" let me explain that I agree with you. I fondly recall organizing poetry picnics in third grade, where we would spread sheets and blankets on the field adjacent to the school playground and share favorite poems as we munched on morning snacks. So yes, I believe in poetry for its own sake.

But at the same time, I'm a realist. Many of us find it increasingly difficult to allocate the time to read poetry for its own sake; we would, in fact, like to discuss it beyond the month of April without needing an excuse or (shudder) a learning objective.

So increasingly it seems that while teachers can name lots of good reasons for using poetry with children at an early age, they still wonder how they can continue to integrate poetry in later grade levels. I offer a few suggestions below. And even if you can't get through my ten reasons, do take the time to explore the recommended sites and resources appearing at the close of this post. I could in no way do justice to all the fantastic poetry books that are available, so I encourage you to share your favorite title in the comments section below.

1. Activate Prior Knowledge

Students are most receptive to new learning when they can connect it to what they already know. Poetry provides a quick and fun way to do this.

Recommended Texts:
  • The Year Comes Round: Haiku Through the Seasons by Sid Farrar and illustrated by Ilse Plume presents students with vignettes of each season in the signature haiku 5-7-5 syllable, three line form, focusing upon nature with a surprising perspective. Each month is represented by its own poem, and students can write their own after determining what makes a poem a haiku. Students can also unearth the literary devices employed by Farrar such as personification, metaphor, alliteration, and simile. A sample from the book:
Lawns call a truce with
mowers and slip beneath their
white blankets to sleep.
  • Guyku: A Year of Haiku for Boys by Bob Raczka and illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds stays true
    to the form and function of haiku, with each poem offering a funny twist in the final line. Apart from pure enjoyment, this book shows students (especially some of your hard to motivate boys) that poetry can be simple and straight forward and even fun. in "why I wrote Guyku," Raczka says, "When I was a boy, I didn't even know what a haiku was. But I did spend a lot of time outside with my friends. Nature was our playground, and we made the most of it - catching bugs, climbing trees, skipping stones, throwing snowballs. Now...I realize that haiku is a wonderful form of poetry for guys like us. Why? Because a haiku is an observation of nature, and nature is a place where guys love to be." A sample from the book:
If this puddle could
talk, I think it would tell me
to splash my sister.
    2. Establish Theme

    Teaching with a theme and its accompanying guiding questions isn't new to most of us, and the majority of teachers maintain a ready repertoire of methods to establish themes for classroom novels or other literature units (see some ideas and a huge list of Universal Themes in my How to Teach a Novel Handout). The perfect poem, however, can lead to a wonderful writing reflection or discussion that allows students to construct the theme and essential questions for themselves.

    Recommended Sites and Texts for Theme:
    • The Children's Poetry Archive groups poems by themes, and my class always enjoys reflecting upon poems about death since, after all, every novel we read seems to be about death! Many poems on this site are read aloud by their authors, and my students especially love hearing The Carrion Crow read aloud.
    • A common theme in upper elementary and middle school novels is Change. Encourage an in-depth study of Change using Paul Janeczko's examination of Nothing Gold Can Stay in his new Heinemann title Reading Poetry in the Middle Grades. This highly recommended book features 20 thought-provoking poems from contemporary writers, with extensive lesson plans which help students to better understand each poem, and to apply it to other texts and their own experiences.
    • Students can compose and publish their own poems using the Theme Poems interactive from ReadWriteThink.
    3. Explore Language

    If you're anything like me, you struggle to teach students grammar in way that is motivational or memorable. How many of us can recall learning our parts of speech and verb forms in deadly dull exercise books? While drill and example books might have a place in instruction, I'd recommend some verse to liven up the process of language learning.

    Recommended Texts and Sites:
    • If you're seeking to help students learn parts of speech, check out the Language Adventures series
      from Gibbs Smith. These highly engaging and hilarious books focus on discrete parts of speech through the incorporation of rhyme and humor, and later editions contain learning activities, definitions, and reproducibles related to the book's topics. Answer keys and additional activities can be accessed at author Rick Walton's website. There Rick offers some wonderful language learning activities (your lesson plan for next week might just be waiting for you there), as well as an amazing assortment of ideas for using his picture books (over fifty in print!).
    • At The Poem Farm, Amy Ludwig VanDerwater shares wonderful original poems and teaching ideas. One of my favorites is Getting Dressed, a wonderful poem featuring personification. In addition to the many poems she shares on the site, you can have her work for your very own in her newly published collection of poems titled The Forest Has a Song. In addition to the resources at Amy Ludwig VanDerwater's site, you can also download a Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Poetry Activity Kit, featuring ideas for "Getting Dressed" as well as several other poems from HMH titles.
    • Alphabest: The Zany, Zanier, Zaniest Book about Comparatives and Superlatives probably isn't a poetry book, since each page contains just three words (such as Fuzzy, Fuzzier, Fuzziest) but it reads like poetry, and helps kids understand how adjectives can be changed to compare two or more things. Author Helaine Becker sets the scene in a busy amusement park, and illustrator Dave Whamond delivers the goods with his spirited and wacky illustrations. Students can likewise choose a single adjective, and create images to illustrate its comparative and superlative forms. 
      From Alphabest: The Zany, Zanier, Zaniest Book
    • Looking for poems with onomatopoeia? Check out Noisy Poems for a Busy Day by Robert Heidbreder and Lori Joy Smith. Short and fun, and easily replicated by students. Collect all your students' poems and create your own Busy Day anthology!
    • Finally, check out this Figurative Language lesson on personification and alliteration from TeachersFirst.
    4. Focus on Facts

    Creating poetry is a wonderful way for students to share information they learned through class or independent study. What's fantastic about poetry is that it can bring life to otherwise dry and lifeless facts!

    I can recall assigning fourth grade students to create poems for mathematical operations, and as a class creating couplets describing the most important names, places, events, and dates for the American Revolution. Students are incredibly receptive to these challenges! So after checking out some of the examples below, be sure to devise your own lessons to have students write informational poems in class as well.

    Recommended Texts:
    • In Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors, Hena Khan introduces young readers to the world of Islam by describing its colors and traditions in simple rhymes.
      Each poem serves as a definition, and the terms introduced are explained in greater detail in the book's end. Mehrdokht Amini's gorgeous bright and intricate illustrations make this book itself a treasure, perfect for reading with groups or sharing on a parent's lap. A sample from the book:

      Gold is the dome of the mosque, 
      big and grand.
      Beside it two towering
      minarets stand. 
    • Animology: Animal Analogies, written by Marianne Berkes and illustrated by Cathy Morrison, introduces students to word relationships (also known as analogies) through the simplest of rhymes. Bold, full spread pictures show realistic depictions of the animals in their natural settings. Like all Sylvan Dell books, this one includes the "For Creative Minds" follow-up activities in the back of book, which can also be accessed at the publisher's site, along with an e-book preview, a video trailer, a 48 page teaching guide, and other resources.
    • Hey Diddle Diddle: A Food Chain Tale is another Sylvan Dell title featuring a wealth of support materials for classroom instruction (see the menu bar to the right on this page). In catchy rhyme, author Pam Kapchinske describes the the animals and complex relationships which make up a food web, the circle of life, and more specifically the ecosystem on a pond and forest habitat. Sherry Rogers' images capture each animal playing its part in this ongoing natural cycle.
    5. Set a Scene

    Before launching a science, social studies, or math unit, I often used poetry to set the scene. The poems I chose from myriad books would spark discussion, curiosity, and prior knowledge, ultimately building excitement and anticipation for the new unit. If only all textbooks were nearly as engaging!

    Recommended Texts:
    • Water Sings Blue, written by Kate Coombs and illustrated by Meilo So, provides the denizens of the deep with their own voices, priming student curiosity about life in the ocean. One of my favorites is the poem "Old Driftwood," wherein this artifact is described as a "gnarled sailor"..."telling of mermaids/ and whales thi-i-i-s big/ to all the attentive/ astonished twigs." Another sample from the book:

      Sea Urchin
      The sea urchin fell in  love with a fork.
      With a tremble of purple spines,
      she told her mother, "He's tall, not a ball,
      but just look at his wonderful tines!
      • Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night is a perfect poetry/informational text companion to Poppy or any other novel that takes place in the forest.
        Each of Joyce Sidman's wonderful poems about the nocturnal world of the woods is accompanied by a fact-filled sidebar, exploring the creatures described in the poems and in Rick Allen's beautiful relief print illustrations. The title poem in part reads: 
        "Perched missile, almost invisible, you preen silent feathers, swivel your sleek satellite dish of a head." This small excerpt gives you an idea of the book's sophisticated verse! The author cleverly formatted the poem "Dark Emperor" in the shape of an owl, and if your students are interested in creating concrete poetry like this, you might find that shape templates are a good way to get started. And if you're not familiar with Avi's novel Poppy, be sure to check it out! Boys find it easy to root for this strong female character because "she is, after all, a mouse."
      6. Inspire Writing

      If you're seeking ways to get students writing, poetry is an effective vehicle to transport them to success. Take the opportunity to preview Poetry Mentor Texts online at the Stenhouse site; you'll be amazed at the simple steps to sophisticated writing using the lesson ideas presented there. In addition to Poetry Mentor Texts inspiring students to write their own verse, this book will also provide you with ideas for using poetry as a creative response format for other disciplines as well:

      Poetry shouldn't be just a part of the language arts curriculum. It offers another way to communicate and demonstrate our understanding of a concept in content areas. It is a method for deepening comprehension and developing a level of empathy and knowledge that can be applied to real-world situations. Poetry can be used to informally assess science and math. It can help students link content areas.

      Additional Recommended Texts and Sites:
      • Students can extend or rewrite or revisit favorite or famous poems. In Casey Back at Bat, sports writer Dan Gutman revisits the classic American poem (the picture book version illustrated by Max Payne is one of my favorites). Choose similar narrative poems, and challenge students to extend them, revise them, or "answer them" with poems of their own.
      • In an earlier post, I discussed writing "Valentines for Vermin" using Vulture Verses: Love Poems for the Unloved as a mentor text. The book closes with a request: "So many cards to write! So many animal friends! I may need some help. Do you know someone who is misunderstood? Will you help me write friendship notes, too?" Such a fantastic suggestion! Working in pairs or teams, students can research basic facts about other unloved animals that "scuttle, slither, buzz, and sting." A really fun and stress free way to get students writing creatively, with results which they'll be eager to share with others.
      • If you're seeking inspirations for students to write poetry in a number of forms,
        you'll be amazed and delighted to read Fly with Poetry: An ABC of Poetry or Leap Into Poetry: More ABCs of Poetry.
        First, it's amazing that author/illustrator Avis Harley has found enough poem forms to write and illustrate not just one but two ABC collections, and second, she's done it by focusing solely on the topic of insects! So she not only presents and explains the poetry forms in detail, but these mentor texts teach students wonderful facts about dozens of creatures that crawl, climb, and fly as well. Extensions using other animal species are possible, although I can see these form poems being applied to almost any subject area.
      • Students love the idea of fractured fairy tales, so a book like Monster Goose by Judy Sierra is certain to be hit. The author's creepy and comedic new versions of classic childhood rhymes will inspire your students to want to create the same.
        After sharing a few poems such as Humpty Dumpty (below), provide students with a collection of unrevised rhymes, and see where their imaginations can take them. See, too, if their accompanying illustrations can be as entertaining as those of Jack E. Davis, illustrator extraordinaire of Bedhead fame. Davis not only captures a key moment of each poem, but also cleverly establishes and then breaks the borders of each illustration, creating an off-the-page effect.

      • Humpty Dumpty
        Humpty Dumpty swam in the sea
        Humpty's sunscreen was SPF-3.
        Because he was so lightly oiled,
        Dear Humpty ended up hard-boiled. 

      7. See New Perspectives

      One of poetry's transcendent powers is its ability to refocus, if not totally transform, our point of view. It's far too simple for students (and teachers!) to lose themselves in their egocentric viewpoints, and fail to consider issues from another perspective. Poetry open students' eyes to new ways of seeing.

      Recommended Texts:
      • Make Magic! Do Good! by Dallas Clayton is a quirky and crazy collection of verses that collectively encourage readers to see the best in themselves, in others, and in every situation.
        From Make Magic! Do Good!
        So much of modern day communication relies upon snark and sarcasm, it's refreshing to find poems that are open and honest and encouraging, while at the same time remaining zany and random, which kids also appreciate. I also think that the way the book cover turns into a poster is a pretty cool twist!
      • Perspective, or point of view, plays a huge role in history and its interpretation. Although not entirely accurate in historic detail, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere remains a classic of American Literature. Check out this previous post where I discuss several picture versions of the text, and the unique perspective supplied by each. 
      • In Daniel Kirk's Dogs Rule! and his later Cat Power!, the author/illustrator profiles some of the furriest and funniest heroes of each species. See my Words and Images in Perfect Harmony post for more details, as well as teaching suggestions.
      • The National Geographic's Book of Animal Poetry is wonderful in that it often features multiple poems for a single animal.
        The zebra and the pig, for instance, are both celebrated by four different poets. Examining the poems, students can discuss what facts and features each poet chose to discuss. In what ways are their poems alike? Different? Older students can even attempt to identify the poem form used by each writer. After reading some of the examples in this book from both classic and contemporary writers, students can then try their own hand at describing animals both foreign and familiar. Such poems are an excellent addition to those animal reports and presentations which many teachers already include in their curriculum.
      8. Ignite Curiosity

      Much has been said in educational texts about inquiry learning. From my own experiences, however, I find that students are naturally inquisitive, and there's not much more we need to do but focus their natural curiosity. Poetry can do this!

      Recommended Texts:
      • A Strange Place to Call Home, written by Marilyn Singer and illustrated by Caldecott Medalist Ed Young, is an intriguing exploration into diverse and unique habitats of the world.
        In the preface, the author explains: "
        Extreme environments such as deserts, glaciers, salt lakes, and pools of oil may not seem appealing, yet in these places, there is often less competition and more safety from predators. So over time, a variety of animals have adapted to these challenging conditions. This collection of poems celebrates some of these great adapters and the risky places where they live." End notes give further explanation of each animal and its adaptations to its specialized niche, along with notes about the poetry forms employed for each piece. Below is a sample poem, written in sonnet form:
      mountain goats 

      Atop a rocky peak, the air is pure, 

          but the wind blows fierce and the climb is steep. 
      Each step must be confident and so sure, 
          there's little need to look before you leap. 
      The ice, the snow, the winter's biting cold 
          require a cozy, insulated coat. 
      What animal lives here, hardy and bold? 
          Behold this king of cliffs, the mountain goat! 
      Feasting in springtime on grass that is lush, 
          avoiding in summer the sun's blazing rays. 
      Browsing in autumn on stubborn dry brush, 
          learning to deal with the year's hardest days. 
      Living where enemies cannot intrude, 
          it succeeds indeed at this altitude.
      • World Rat Day by...wait for it...J. Patrick Lewis is a fun collection of unusual but authentic holidays, celebrated here in verse. Where else could you learn about Cow Appreciation Day, Limerick Day, or Chocolate-Covered Anything Day? Students will enjoy researching these and other wacky holidays, and even inventing their own to commemorate people, places, and events that are important to them. (See a video trailer here at the Candlewick Press site).

      9. Provide Pleasure

      Okay, so you may think I cheated on this one. After all, I'm supposed to be giving you purposes for using poetry. But if we can't convince our students that one of reading's purest functions is pleasure, then I don't think we've really done our job.

      So many poems and books of poems exist to fill this classification that I won't even begin to list them all here. So if you have a favorite poem or book you read with students for pleasure, please share it in the comments section below!

      Recommended Texts:
      • A Dog is a Dog by Stephen Shaskan is an incredibly simple, yet funny and clever book about a dog who may not be a dog at all, but perhaps instead a cat...or is it a squid?...or a moose?
        This crazy dog sheds one disguise after another, and who knows what he'll be next? It's short, fun, and you'd better be prepared to read it more than once, although its simplicity, meter, and rhyme make it easily accessible to independent beginning readers. Also be sure to check out the cool stuff on the author's site.
      • Do you have older students who are obsessed with zombies? The Zombie Haiku site offers a unique twist on this traditional poetry form, with submissions from famous contemporary authors, as well as poetry "fakes" by greats of the past.

      10. Capture Character

      Most of us have assigned biography reports, only later to be disappointed when some students fail to capture the greatness of the men and women they studied. What's awesome about biographical poems is that they encapsulate the essence of what makes a person's life memorable and meaningful.

      Recommended Texts:
      • When Thunder Comes: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders by Children's Poet Laureate J. Patrick Lewis features a satisfying mix of heroes and heroines from the world-wide struggle for human rights.
        Familiar names such as Jackie Robinson,  Harvey Milk, and Mohandas Gandhi share the pages with new discoveries such as Sylvia Mendez (Mexican-American-Purto Rican civil rights leader), Muhammad Yunus (Bangladeshi banker), and Dennis Banks (Cofounder of the American Indian Movement and Anishinabe political activist). Several artists collaborate to illustrate the poems, which can also lead to a discussion of what each artist chose to represent the whole of a person's life in a single image. For more teaching ideas integrating these poems with informational writing, see the related post at Two Writing Teachers blog.
      • Another collection of biographical poems, also be J. Patrick Lewis, is Freedom Like Sunlight: Praisesongs for Black Americans. These poems are notable in that they capture the content of each person's character, rather then the rote facts of his or her life. John Thompson's realistically rendered illustrations help to make this title a standout.
      • Use the The Explorers' Graveyard lesson plan for sharing facts and findings when reading biographies. Again, the aim here is to get to what's worth knowing about this famous person.If you're looking for a funnier take of epitaphs, I recommend Once Upon a Tomb: Gravely Humorous Verses by J. Patrick Lewis (yes, him again!), and illustrated by Simon Bartram. The hilarious and revealing tombstone tidings capture in the most clever way the humor of many professions. Take this one, for instance, written for a Book Editor:

        Miss Spellings
        Exclamation points
        Were myriad!!!
        She live on the margin.
        And died. 
      Recommended Online Tools for Writing Poetry:
      • My top pick is Instant Poetry Forms, which allows students to enter prompted words and verses in order to form (you guessed it!) instant poetry. Some of the forms are purely creative and student-centered, while others allow students to enter researched information (such as data on an early explorer) to create nonfiction verse. An excellent way to encourage your poetry-phobic students (usually the boys!). Each prompt generator includes an example of a finished poem in that style, so students can get a good idea of how the finished poem might sound.
      • Rhyme Brain isn't just another rhyming site; instead, it has three functions: rhyme creator, alliteration creator, and portmanteau creator. The results for the latter two tools are pretty impressive, and lend themselves to some real playfulness with language.
      • Poetry Splatter is a decent site for reluctant or struggling writers. Students are offered limited words to complete template poems. The results are fairly closed ended, but this might be a good place to start for those students who struggle to generate poems wholly on their own.
      • At the PBS NewsHour Extra Poetry site, students can write poems based on current events using the poetry forms and examples found there.
      • At WriteRhymes, it's as easy as "As you write, hold the alt key and click on a word to find a rhyme for it..." That's it. You can Copy, Save, or Print from the site.

      Additional Recommended Resources for Poetry Month:
      • Stenhouse Publishing has compiled a wonderful collection of poetry lesson plans and teaching ideas from about a dozen of their best-selling professional resources.
        Check out the Poetry Sampler, available as a pdf download directly from the publisher.
      • ReadWriteThink is a go-to resource if you're seeking poetry lesson plans complete with interactive or printable components. From the search page, you can narrow down the 285 results by grade level, resource type, or popularity.
      • If needed, here's an extensive glossary of poetry terms. I wish each term was accompanied by an example, but a good place to start regardless. If you can't find a term there, then you can likely find it in this Glossary of Poetic Terms.
      • Bruce Lansky books and teaching ideas at Poetry Teachers. Sixteen poetry categories, fun ways to get students writing, and poetry theater (poems to download in read-aloud theater versions).
      • The Children's Poetry Archive is a wonderful collection of poems selected just for children, and read by their creators.
      • For older students (middle school and up), The Virtualit Interactive Poetry Tutorial features three study poems, as well as extensive online aids including Elements of Poetry (understanding language), Cultural Contexts (social, political, and economic currents) and Critical Approaches (literary criticism).
      • Tweenverse is a fun collection of poems by Richard Thomas. No activities included here, but you'll several of these to be perfect as mentor texts for helping students write verse to reflect on their own experiences. See Summer Camp Souvenirs or Brother Trouble for a quick idea of what you'll find there.
      • The Poets.org Educator Site provides teaching tips, popular poems to share, curriculum units and lesson plans, and suggestions for Poetry Month.
      • Poetry for Tough Guys features poems written by Steven Micciche, mostly aimed at guys. Don't worry; it's still kid appropriate! Perhaps a good stop for reluctant boys to gain entry into verse.

      13 Comments on Purposes for Poetry: Ten Ways to Use Poetry in Your Instruction, last added: 4/8/2013
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      12. Failure IS an Option; A Really Funny One

      Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made by Pearls Before Swine strip creator Stephan Pastis is a hilarious new title guaranteed to win big with fans of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Dear Dumb Diary.

      I read it with much amusement and delight, but thought that perhaps my own immaturity and snarkiness prevented me from qualifying as an unbiased judge of its greatness. I therefore turned to an expert on books of this type: my third grade daughter Mackenzie.

      I decided Mackenzie could serve as an impartial judge due to the following qualifications:
      1. Timmy Failure is aimed at her demographic, 
      2. She's a voracious reader of this genre,
      3. She regularly discusses and swaps books with her third grade posse, and 
      4. She stole the advance review copy the day it arrived at our house before I even had the chance to open the cover.
      I also felt I owed it to her after she scoured the shelves of our public library looking for Number Two in the series. I believe Mackenzie suffered intense emotional damage upon learning that the follow-up wouldn't be available for quite some time. Nonetheless, she graciously agreed to be interviewed.

      Me:  So what's Timmy Failure all about?

      Kenzie:  It's about this boy who's really bad in school that decides to open up a detective agency. The problem is, he really bad at being a detective and he misses lots of obvious clues. And he owns a fifteen hundred pound polar bear named Total.

      Me:  Is the polar bear real, or stuffed?

      Kenzie:  It's real! (She shrugs her shoulders and lifts her hands up, palms to the ceiling  as if to say. "Duh!").

      Me:  You're sure it's real?

      Kenzie:  What does it matter?

      Me:  Good point. So apart from this polar bear, does Timmy have any friends?

      Kenzie:  He has one friend name Rollo, but Timmy thinks he's not that smart, which is crazy, because Rollo studies all the time and gets really good grades, and Timmy doesn't.

      Me:  Any other friends?

      Kenzie:  Well, he has an archenemy (speaking with increased enthusiasm now) and her name is Corinna Corinna, and what's funny is that at first he won't name her or even let you see her face. She has her own detective agency and Timmy thinks she's reeeeeally annoying.

      Me:  Any favorite parts?

      Kenzie:  I like when he tries to solve cases, because he always ignores really obvious clues. This one time a boy hires him to find out who ate all his candy. On Timmy's way out, he peeks in the room and sees the boy's brother, his face all covered with chocolate, sitting on his bed surrounded by candy wrappers. You think he's solved the crime, but all Timmy does is write in his notebook, "Gabe's brother is a slob."

      Me:  Any other favorite parts?

      Kenzie:  Well, I think it's really funny that the librarian is really, really tough, and he has "Dewey" on a tattoo...

      Me:  You mean like, the Dewey decimal system?

      Kenzie:  Yeah. You don't really expect a librarian to look like that.

      Me:  (picking up the book) I noticed some pretty hard words in here. Did you understand them all?

      Kenzie: Yeah. If you read the book, you can tell what the words mean.

      Me:  Really? All of them?

      Kenzie:  Well, most of them. But you don't have to understand every word to get the story. Plus, I think that sometimes even Timmy doesn't know what the words mean. He names his detective agency Total Failure, Inc. because the polar bear's name is Total, but he doesn't even get why that's a really bad name for a company.

      Me:  So who would enjoy this book?

      Kenzie:  Anyone who likes funny stories. Every day I show funny parts to my friend, so she wants to borrow it next. And then her friend wants to borrow it... yeah. You might not get it back.

      Me:  So is Timmy a failure?

      Kenzie: Yes. Actually, no. He's not a failure. He's just clueless. Are we done yet?

      # # #

      There you have it: the insightful and thought provoking reflections of a third grader.

      One point on which we both agree is the vocabulary. Stephan Pastis intersperses fantastic vocabulary throughout the book, purposefully heavier at times to indicate moments on importance. Check out how in the following short excerpt he combines specific vocabulary, repetition, sentence variety, and even sentence fragments, in a wonderful way.

      But that greatness did not prepare me for what I would see at the Weber residence.

      For today it is the scene of total devastation. All marred by the remnants of someone inhumane. Someone determined. Someone whose weapon of choice comes in packs of six, twelve, and twenty. If you are squeamish, look away.

      Toilet paper. It is everywhere.

      And this isn't one isolated and out-of-the-ordinary passage; this is how he writes the entire book. For that reason, I would definitely recommend this book for middle schoolers, and certainly reluctant and struggling readers. I could even see myself using several portions as mentor texts to teach sentence and paragraph structure, understatement, satire, and word choice.

      So pick up a copy of Timmy Failure for yourself, or visit the official Timmy Failure site for fun extras such as wallpapers, interviews, and videos.

      6 Comments on Failure IS an Option; A Really Funny One, last added: 4/8/2013
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      13. Teaching That Makes Sense: An Uncommonly Good Resource

      Years ago I first posted on Teaching That Makes Sense, founded by Steve Peha, is an impressive web site full of well-organized, original resources on reading and writing.

      They're all in pdf format and they're all free. And since the time that I first posted, Steve has added a ton of more stuff, again all free! He's added some fantastic new Common Core stuff (and love it or hate it, we've gotta face it) and according to the site's splash page, it's about to get bigger and better!

      Is this guy insane? It would be easy to understand his generosity if the stuff was mediocre. But Steve has put together hundreds of pages of strategies, structures, checklists, and posters for teachers that are high quality, practical, and immediately usable.

      Getting started in Reader's or Writer's Workshop? Looking for authentic student writing samples or mentor texts? Seeking sound ideas for writing across the curriculum? Need a writing lesson to use tomorrow? Want some posters for Writing Traits? It's all there. And if that's not enough, Steve and his crew are continually adding articles on the teaching profession that are truly worth a read.

      And it's incredibly useful stuff, because the ideas are concrete (yet not closed-ended) and simple (yet not dumbed down).

      So visit the site. Read the articles. Download the pdfs. Before Steve comes to his senses.

      0 Comments on Teaching That Makes Sense: An Uncommonly Good Resource as of 3/12/2013 7:30:00 AM
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      14. Prairie Chicken Little: The Sky is Falling! Again!

      Win this book! See below to enter.
      In a funny and frenetic remake of the traditional tale, Prairie Chicken Little by Jackie Mims Hopkins chronicles the over-reaction of one prairie chicken who thinks the sky is falling, or more accurately, a stampede is coming!

      Listen to this text's unique voice as the story begins:

      Out on the grasslands where bison roam, Mary McBlicken the prairie chicken was scritch-scratching for her breakfast, when all of a sudden she heard a rumbling and a grumbling and a tumbling.

      "Oh, no!" she exclaimed. "A stampede's a comin'! I need to hightail it back to the ranch to tell Cowboy Stan and Red Dog Dan. They'll know what to do."

      So away Mary ran, lickety-splickety, as fast as her little prairie chicken legs could carry her.

      The onomatopoeia, the rhymes, and the word choice (such as "hightail it") combine to create a voice that matches both the book's setting and its levity. 

      The book's fun is well supported by Henry Cole's splendid pictures. You might recall seeing his handiwork in Three Hens and a Peacock, mentioned here in a previous post. To me, Henry Coles' work is Audubon meets Looney Tunes. His animals are faithfully rendered in the physical sense, but with a personality and pluck that embodies them with all-too-human emotions. I particularly love that he gets us up close and personal with each animal, making the images seem larger than the book itself.

      • In the event that your students are studying other ecosystems such as as rain forests or polar regions, you could adapt this idea, challenging students to create a crisis or calamity, as well as appropriate creatures who would help spread the word. It's a pretty cool way to synthesize students' collection of random facts from a unit into a creative response. Can't you just see a penguin or a toucan as the main character? The book Loony Little: An Environmental Tale by Dianna Hutts Aston does just that for the Arctic region.
      • Fractured Fairy Tales are an all time favorite for kids to read, and they're fun to write as well. A recent post at the Peachtree Publishing blog provides some great titles to get you started.
      • Contrast Prairie Chicken Little with other books of this genre such as Chicken Little by Rebecca and Ed Emberly, Chachalaca Chiquita by Melanie Chrismer, Earthquack by Margie Palatini, and The Rumor: A Jataka Tale by Jan Thornhill.  
      • Try some other fun animal activities! Lots to choose from in my previous Animal Attraction post.
      • Have students research any of the animals from Prairie Chicken Little. Some of the real-life critters who populate this book sport some pretty amazing features. A good place to start? The Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society.
      You can win your very own copy of Prairie Chicken Little direct from Peachtree Publishers!
      Simply email me at keithschoch at gmail dot com (standard format) with Chicken Little in the subject line, and you're all set! Contest ends on Friday, March 15 at 11:59pm EST. You can even double your chances to win by visiting other blogs on the Prairie Chicken blog tour.

      Don't forget to enter to win a copy of Are the Dinosaurs Dead, Dad? as well. Contest ends 3/08/13.

      1 Comments on Prairie Chicken Little: The Sky is Falling! Again!, last added: 3/6/2013
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      15. Holocaust Picture Books: An Annotated List

      After many requests, I've finished compiling an annotated list of Holocaust books. I resisted the urge to categorize them by grade level, as I feel they can be used effectively in both upper elementary and middle grades.

      First, however, I wanted to make special mention of one of the newer Holocaust picture books available. Irena's Jars of Secrets by Marcia Vaughan, illustrated by Ron Mazellan, is a wonderful and important addition to the canon of children's literature on the Holocaust (see the full list below), and certainly one worth adding to your own library.

      In Irena's Jars of Secrets, Irena Sendler learns compassion at an early age from her father, a Catholic physician who treated Jewish patients at a time when most Christian doctors would not.When her father contracts typhus treating these same patients, he tells Irena on his death bed to "help someone who is drowning, even if you cannot swim."

      Irena takes this advice to heart, and begins administering to the Jews imprisoned within the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto by occupying Nazi forces. Beginning in 1940 and continuing for the next two years, Irena smuggles in food, clothing, and medicine. She realizes, however, that this isn't enough. As the Nazis begin transporting the Ghetto inhabitants to concentration camps, Irena joins a secret organization called Zegota, and makes plans to smuggle Jewish children to safety.

      But what parent will give up their child? Only after Irena swears to provide new identities and preserve the real names of their children do the Jewish parents reluctantly release them to her. The book chronicles the close calls of the smuggling operation, as well as the capture and near execution of Irena.

      After the war's end, Irena unearths her buried jars which contain the real identities of the children that were saved. Most of the children's parents have been killed in the camps, but the lists allow the Jewish National Committee to locate living relatives for many of the children. An afterword provides additional information about Irena Sendler, who never considered herself a hero. Instead, she said this in a letter to the Polish Senate in 2007:

      Every child saved with my help and the help of all the wonderful secret messengers, who today are no longer living, is the justification of my existence on this earth, and not a title to glory.

      Rich, wonderful paintings by Ron Mazellan (who also illustrated the Holocaust title The Harmonica) help to capture both the tragic and triumphant moments of this book. His subjects and scenes are dramatically lit, and in his own words "moody and mysterious," putting the absolute perfect finishing touches on this title.

      • Why are names so important? Ask students to interview their parents and find out how their names came to be. 
      • Pair Irena's Jars of Secrets with Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto. What information do both books share? What information is provided by one book but not the other? Why might we want to consult multiple sources when conducting research?
      • Check out Discussing Historical Fiction and the Definition of Courage with Marcia Vaughan and Ron Mazellan at Lee and Low's website. Both creators discuss how this topic relates to their own experiences, and the processes they underwent to bring this story to life.
      • At this same site you'll also find some wonderful discussion questions in Lee and Low's collection of Teacher's Guides
      • For this particular picture book, as well as any that mentions the Warsaw Ghetto, I'd recommend Children in the Ghetto, an interactive site which describes itself as
        "...A website about children, written for children. It portrays life during the Holocaust from the viewpoint of children who lived in the ghetto, while attempting to make the complex experience of life in the ghetto as accessible as possible to today’s children.

        Along with the description of the hardships of ghetto life, it also presents the courage, steadfastness and creativity involved in the children’s lives. One of the most important messages to be learned is that despite the hardships, there were those who struggled to maintain humanitarian and philanthropic values, care for one another, and continue a cultural and spiritual life."
        By examining artifacts, writings, and first hand interviews, students gain an understanding of the "anything-to-survive" mentality which the ghetto created and demanded of its inhabitants. Students can either explore freely, taking advantage of the interactive elements, or additionally respond in writing using the printable handouts. I chose to download the handouts, available in Word format, and tweaked them according to my students' strengths and needs..

        Once they've completed this exercise, students will have a mental bank of sites, sounds, stories, and symbols from which to draw upon, greatly increasing their understanding of this period in history.
      Annotated List of Holocaust Picture Books

      Embedded below you'll find an annotated list of Holocaust Picture Books.Using the provided controls, you can share, download, print, or enlarge this pdf. I hope you'll find this useful when searching out the best books for your own studies. Feel free to leave a comment to let me know which books I missed!


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      16. Five Ways to Share Picture Books More Effectively

      In my workshops, teachers often express the desire to use picture books in their classroom, but wonder how to do it most effectively. The answer to that question depends entirely upon what we want to accomplish.

      Below I've provided a few thoughts on this topic, as well as some recommendations.

      1) Teacher to Class Sharing

      This strategy is probably as old as reading itself, and most closely mimics the read-together experiences shared by many children at home with family. The close proximity, the intimacy of this approach, explains why reading picture books online or on a tablet feels so much less satisfying. I would recommend this approach the majority of the time, no matter what the age group. When I read a picture book to my sixth graders, I still ask them to "come join me on the rug."

      Before you choose this method, however, you might want to define your purpose. Why this picture book, and why now? Below are some thoughts which might help you clarify or find a purpose for sharing a picture book aloud.

      • Picture books activate not only prior knowledge, but also attitudes, beliefs, and misconceptions. Picture books create a bridge between the student’s prior knowledge and newly introduced learning. In a Social Studies lesson, for example, you might read aloud the picture book The Honest to Goodness Truth (see summary and lesson suggestions). After reading, you say, “I thought we all agreed yesterday in our discussion about elections that ‘Honesty is the best policy.’ Yet this book seems to say almost the exact opposite! So who’s right? Is there a time when honesty isn't the best policy?”

      • Pictures books construct schema. A teacher wishing to introduce a fantasy genre might share a picture book which exemplifies six traits of that genre. Upon completion of the reading, the teacher asks her students to list the traits they noticed. How best to confirm or disqualify these traits? Have the students read additional fairy tales in small groups or stations (see below). Discovering the critical attributes of any genre could be done in this same way (see ideas on exploring Fables)

      • Picture books create common ground. Before reading a novel set in the Depression, you might read aloud or show images from several picture books which deal with that topic. One might be illustrated with photographs and eyewitness reports, one with period art works sponsored by the WPA, and one with illustrations and a narrative by a contemporary author. In just a few minutes time, students would construct a shared set of images, feelings, and understandings on a single topic. Recently, my own students were challenged to address the topic "Is Winning Everything?" in an argumentative essay. In addition to a number of videos and discussions, our principal visited as a guest reader and shared :Let Them Play by Margot Theis Raven and Chris Ellison (see summary). When finished, he asked, "What would these boys have to say about winning? Was that all they wanted?" (See the video prompts at my How to Teach a Novel blog).
      • Picture books can make abstract concepts (such as life skills) concrete. As teachers we are often expected to teach “fuzzy” character concepts such as cooperation, responsibility, and integrity. Where are those lessons in our textbooks? Here is where picture books can play a large role. Through picture books, universal themes such as patience, empathy, teamwork, cooperation, forgiveness, fairness, and responsibility are captured in just sixteen or twenty-four pages, creating a memorable model for children who still think and generalize in very concrete terms. An idea such as integrity becomes very real to students through a shared reading and discussion of a book such as Demi's The Empty Pot.
      2) Paired Readings

      This type of reading usually occurs with a specific outcome in mind. In lower grades, paired readings allow readers to practice fluency and clarity. It also demands that readers are “attentive” at least 50% of the time. However, many students suffer in comprehension when required to read aloud. They are so concerned with the demands of meeting the needs of an audience that they “check out” from comprehending. It’s not uncommon for a student to read aloud an entire paragraph or page, and then have no clue what was read. 

      Possible solutions? You might provide students with assigned portions and require that they silently read their selections first, seek help with unknown words, and then read aloud only after they've previewed the text in this way. You might also create “checkpoints” for discussion, which require reading pairs to stop and discuss what they've read, and only continue if they've understood the text.
      3) Group Readings or Station Readings

      In this format, students are grouped in threes or fours, and rotate to various stations. At each station is a single title (perhaps multiple copies of that title), and students read together with a set purpose. One purpose, for example, might be to establish common knowledge about a topic through its presentation in a number of diverse picture books. Students might read from a number of baseball picture books, for example, and then report back to the group on the author's purpose in each. Then, the teacher might read a newer title from that same topic, such as Matt Tavares' Becoming Babe Ruth, and ask students to discuss how this author's purpose may compare and contrast with those of other authors they had experienced. (See the cover image at the top of the post, and see an inside image here).

      In order to ensure attentiveness to specific ideas from books within a theme, teachers might provide handouts with questions for each title. An essential question might be repeatedly asked of each and every book in the stations to gauge awareness of the "big idea," with a more title-specific question included to assess reading comprehension of each text. I've done this in the past with Holocaust Picture Books such as Irena's Jars of Secrets with great success; key to the success of this experience, however, is having many diverse titles and plenty of copies, since some picture books are much longer than others. Students might also read a number of picture books containing the same print content (The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere) with different visual interpretationsby the various illustrators.

      4) Independent Reading

      Students read independently for a number of reasons, pleasure being the foremost. But as students mature, they should also read picture books as models for their own writing. This makes perfect sense, as picture books are typically the length of student stories in the upper elementary and middle grades, and the length of writing tasks expected on standardized tests. Sixth grade students such as my own might be seeking creative ways to include opposing viewpoints in their argumentative writing. A book like George Bellows: Painter with a Punch does that masterfully. 

      Students may also read picture books as sources of reference. A student seeking background on the Sioux tribe, for example, might express reluctance to wade through a difficult nonfiction text, encyclopedia entry, or web site meant for more mature readers. This same student, however, could access similar information through three or four picture books whose illustrations would aid in deciphering and extending difficult terms and concepts. Now armed with a general understanding of the topic, he might now be more willing to check out that difficult nonfiction text, encyclopedia entry, or web site which seemed so onerous earlier. When my students were researching predators for their HOWL Museum essays, many chose to use trade books versus the Internet to gather facts and supporting details to prove that their creature was a predator worthy of the Hunters of the Wild Lands Museum (see Peerless Predators at my Animal Attraction post).

      5. Independent Choice Reading

      This one I can't emphasize enough. Having a library full of enticing titles, attractively displayed, is one of the best methods for getting students to read. And I'm not asking you to break the bank and spend all of your personal money on books! When I started out as a teacher a million years ago, I tried to build my classroom library as quickly as possible through garage sales, thrift shops, and Scholastic Book Club bonus points. But additionally, I would visit my public library and sign out twenty-five to fifty different picture books each week. These rotating titles offered my students plenty of variety and in turn encouraged them to visit the public library as well (our small private school didn't have a library). I continued to do this even when I began teaching at a public school, and in 25 years of teaching, only two books ever went missing. A small price to pay for encouraging the love of reading!

      How do you share picture books in your classroom? We'd love to hear from you in the Comments section below.

      2 Comments on Five Ways to Share Picture Books More Effectively, last added: 3/4/2013
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      17. The Secret to Descriptive Writing

      Either I’ve encountered a conspiracy to confound teachers of writing, or I’ve discovered an “obvious secret” of descriptive writing. To paraphrase a classic School House Rock Video, it appears that verbs are, indeed, “what’s happening.”

      I heard about the power of compelling verbs first from Ralph Fletcher in a visit to the Garden State. He explained that well-intentioned teachers encourage their students to use numerous adjectives to create interesting prose, which leads to detail-sodden writing which drags under its own weight. Simply unnecessary. In Ralph’s own words, “Nouns make the pictures, verbs make the pictures move.” (See my enthusiastic endorsement of a recent book by this author at the bottom of this post).

      Flash forward to the New York State Reading Association (NYSRA) Annual Conference held in Saratoga Springs, New York (one of the best conferences I’ve ever attended). During the Author’s Progressive Dinner I had the pleasure of sitting with Steven Swinburne, creator of several wonderful nonfiction picture books including Lots and Lots of Zebra Stripes: Patterns in Nature and Turtle Tide: The Ways Of Sea Turtles. As he spoke with his guests about the creative process, he mentioned the importance of verb selection.

      When I asked why he had mentioned verbs rather than any other part of speech, he quickly replied, “The correct verbs are essential. Verbs are the motor which drives the sentence.” Now I’m thinking that I’m on to something.

      The following day I enjoyed a conversation with Steven Krasner, author of Play Ball Like the Hall Of Famers: The Inside Scoop From 19 Baseball Greats and Play Ball Like the Pros: Tips for Kids from 20 Big League Stars. Through his Nudging the Imagination workshop, Steve explained, he creates stories with students on-the-spot in order to model the writing process. “A huge key,” he explained, “is helping them to find the verbs to really move the story.” Opening one of his picture books, he pointed out he crafted the precise, vivid verbs of the final draft during the revision process, replacing common verbs which served only as place holders in the early stages.

      If three very different writers can agree on the importance of verb choice, then I think there are some lessons to be learned by teachers of young writers:
      • Encourage students to examine verb choice in novels, poems, picture books, and informational texts. I choose existing mentor texts and  rewrite excerpts using “common verbs” (or, as Krasner would call them, place holders). Students are then challenged to replace these with more precise or colorful verbs.

      • Direct your students to consider verb choice in their own writing, and work to find action words that are more exact. As a start, outlaw there is, there are, there were, there was phrases. A better alternative always exists. As do exceptions. Remember the first line of Holes?

      • Teach children how to use a print thesaurus or online reference source (such as the Merriam Webster dictionary or Wordnik) for assistance in locating more exact expressions.
      Recommended Reading

      If you're looking for a resource to take your students' writing to the next level, check out Ralph Fletcher's Pyrotechnics on the Page: Playful Craft that Sparks Writing. Ralph explains the book's title by saying:

      I am defining pyrotechnics as deliberate playfulness with language used by writers to create a particular kind of effect as well as the specific tools used to create that that effect.

      The term includes (but isn't limited to) puns, invented words, allusions, idioms, metaphors, similes, hyperbole, onomatopoeia, and alliteration. (A good deal of the text discusses sentence structure, which is key to complex and elaborated writing as defined by the Common Core standards).

      While at first these devices might seem like window dressing, realize this: your best readers can recognize these devices (even if not by name) and understand them in texts, which leads to improved comprehension. Therefore, giving students practice with literary devices in writing will not only make them better writers, but better readers as well.

      Among a ton of other issues in this book, Fletcher discusses the need for writing teachers and student writers to switch from the what (subject/meaning) to the how (language), and he follows up with many ways to make this important distinction. And to prove his point, the author provides this lovely extended metaphor:

      The purpose of a dinner party isn't merely to sate your guests' hunger - they could easily go to the local greasy spoon for that - but rather to take them on a gastronomic journey. Certainly you want the food to taste good, but it's much more than that You plan, prepare, and cook the food so that it has the proper texture, crunch, visual and flavorful variety. The spices should be in harmonious balance with each other. Writers know the same thing. If you want to make your writing memorable to readers, you must give them an aesthetic experience.

      In another section called Shimmering Sentences by Other Writers, he talks about how's he fascinated by writers who violate common ideas about usage, and get away with it. Not just get away with it, but produce stronger writing as a result! See Breaking All the Rules of Writing at my How to Teach a Novel site which discusses how author Andrew Clements does exactly that.

      If you still think that the books' about "play" and not about "practice," consider what not just Ralph Fletcher, but other experts, had to say:

      ...Language play carries the huge cognitive benefit of helping children become more efficient language users. Many educators have pointed this out, including Vygotsky, who famously described a child's language as "a head taller" during play. Jerome Bruner said that "language is most daring and most advanced when it is used in a playful setting."

      And for those who prefer practice over theory, Fletcher includes a number of hands-on, ready-to-use-tomorrow resources here, including a Q and A section, craft lessons divided by grade level (K-5+), and a number of appendices which supply the teacher with loads of language exemplars, as well as recommended mentor texts.

      I can't recommend this book too highly! Preview it in its entirety online at Stenhouse Publishers and see if you don't agree! But buy it on Amazon, save the shipping, and support this site!

        1 Comments on The Secret to Descriptive Writing, last added: 2/26/2013
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        18. Are the Dinosaurs Dead, Dad? and Other Prehistoric Picture Books

        In Are the Dinosaurs Dead, Dad? young Dave's uneventful trip to the museum takes an unlikely and entertaining twist. From the book's inside flap:

        Dad takes Dave to the museum to see the dinosaurs. Dad is sure he knows all there is to know about these amazing creatures. But soon Dave gets the feeling that Dad has one hugely important fact very, very wrong.

        Because, you see, as Dad and Davey pass each dino, the dino seems to come to life!

        This is one of those terrific books that relies upon dramatic irony via the illustrations, because Julie Middleton's text doesn't let on to what's happening. Young readers, however, can certainly see for themselves that toes, tails, and terrible jaws are moving! During a read-aloud, a "knowing" adult will wisely avoid  being in on the joke, as children love to scream and point out the "secrets" that adults (because of their advanced age and failing eyesight) apparently don't notice for themselves.

        Artist Russell Ayto's whimsical images are half the fun, showing us giant-headed monsters balanced on impossibly tiny legs. The creatures' equally understated, overstated, and improbably body part dimensions are fun to discuss as well. The format is large, with plenty of open space on each spreads that lends credibility to the size of the space and the dinosaurs themselves.

        And this fantastic book can be yours! Peachtree Publishers is offering a giveaway copy of Are the Dinosaurs Dead, Dad? to one lucky winner. 

        Simply email me at keithschoch at gmail dot com (using standard email format) with the phrase Dinosaurs Live! and you're entered! That's it. No need to jump through any more hoops! Following the blog (to the left) would be appreciated (and you would be in some really good company), but is by no means necessary. 

        Contest is open to US only, and ends Friday, March 1st, 11:59 PM EST.

        Below you'll find some terrific companion books with activity extensions that could work equally well with Are the Dinosaurs Dead, Dad? In addition to being mistaken about dinos, some adults are also mistaken in thinking you can ever have enough dinosaur books!

        Cretaceous Companions
        For the younger set, Harry and the Dinosaurs Go to School by Ian Whybrow is a wonderful combination of a dino book and a first-day-of-school-jitters book. Harry's toy dinos help him makes new friends, and even assist another shy boy in acclimating to his new surroundings. Adrian Reynolds' bright and sunny illustrations are perfect for sharing and discussing during read-alouds. Check out other titles in this series including Harry and the Dinosaurs Say, "Raahh!" and Harry and the Bucketful of Dinosaurs.

        • Students can bring in one of their own "prized possessions" and discuss what makes it special. 
        • Students might want to create their own simple paper plate dinosaurs, which can be displayed with a colorful bucket on the bulletin board. 
        • Students could imagine that they have a real, live dinosaur for a pet. How would that work? How would you feed him? Where would he sleep?
        • Looking for a fun and easy cooking project? Check out these fossil cookies.

        Marvelous, Monstrous Models
        The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins by Barbara Kerley with illustrations by Brian Selznick ("many of which are based on the original sketches of Mr. Hawkins"). Working with scientist Richard Owens, Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins wanted to create such perfect models of dinosaurs that anyone who gazed at his creations would see into the past. By using just the bits and pieces of fossils, bones, and teeth that had been found by early palaeontologists, Waterhouse filled in "gaps" by thinking of existing animals which the dinosaurs might have resembled. This book chronicles his triumphal premiere in the Crystal Palace at Sydenham Park (when tens of thousands of spectators, including the Queen, gaped in wonder at his creatures), as well as his tragedy in Central Park (when vandals under the vindictive order of Boss Tweed destroyed his dinosaurs destined for the Americans). Although we now realize that many of Waterhouse's guesses were somewhat inaccurate, no one can dispute his ability to light the imaginations of the thousands who viewed his works.

        For more explorations into what we've learned about dinosaurs since the earliest days of their discovery, check out Boy, Were We Wrong About Dinosaurs by Kathleen Kudlinksi and S.D.Schindler.A terrific book for helping students understand that science never rests!

        • Students can use clay to design their own dinosaurs. They don't need to sculpt one specific, real-life dino; instead, they should simply use their imaginations to create an original prehistoric monster. Since scientist continue to discover new dinosaurs all the time, who's to say what the next dino discovery might look like?
        • Students might also enjoy building their own prehistoric pasta pets. Show students pictures of assembled dino skeletons in museums. Explain that while these models take many years to collect, piece together, and display, today students will create their own models using pasta as bones. Given a wide variety of different pasta shapes, students can assemble their own dinos by gluing their selected noodles to black construction paper. Once partially dry, the pasta will need a second coat to affix it well to the paper. 
        • For a look at how those dinosaurs get to the museum, check out the book (coincidentally called) How the Dinosaur Got to the Museum by Jessie Hartland. This book explains how dinosaur bones go from the earth to you, the museum visitor, via fourteen other people, who are named and collected in a House-that-Jack-Built type progression.
        Bold and Beautiful
        A wonderful abecedarium can be discovered in An Alphabet of Dinosaurs by Peter Dodson, with paintings by Wayne D. Barlowe. Familiar favorites mix with newcomer neighbors on full spreads that features two text sections (one for emerging readers and another for fluent readers) and a full color illustration. The vivid and uniquely imagined colors and patterns of these dinos is what caught my eye when I first viewed this book. In the books' introduction we read: "The paintings in this book show the dinosaurs as we now think of them. Gone is the image of slow-moving giants. Gone is the picture of tail-dragging lizards. Instead, we see vibrant, active dinosaurs living in a world filled with brightly colored animals and plants.

        • Taking a cue from this book, students can create their own unique dino patterns on simple coloring sheets. They can either color with vivid colors (danger! stay back!, bold colors (look at me!), muted colors (I need to hide), or patterns which create camouflage (to avoid being seen by prey or predator).
        • Older students can be given a simple white dino silhouette (shape) and a variety of a magazine from which to choose pictures. After choosing a large picture which can serve as a background, students will color in their dino shape to camouflage into the background.
        Dino for a Day
        In Jim Murphy's Dinosaur for a Day, older readers can explore a typical day in the life of a Hypsilophodon, a 90 pound herd animal that depended upon its wits and its companions for survival. Additional information from the author precedes and follows this din's "biography," providing for a complete profile of one specific creature. Mark Alan Weatherby's gorgeous paintings put us at dinosaur's-eye view with our surroundings, a perspective rarely seen in other dino books.

        • Have each student choose a dinosaur, and write about "a day in the life of..." Students may need to do some research on which dinosaurs lived in which period, and many students may discover that their dinos and their friends' dinos might have shared the same habitats!
        • Instead of a dinosaur, have students choose any other animal (or use an animal they've already researched). Require that students illustrate their "daily routine" with view that would be seen from their critter's perspective.
        • Create dino fossils in the classroom.
        Modern Monsters
        What if dinosaurs were alive today? How would our daily lives be different? In If Dinosaurs Were Alive Today, author Dougal Dixon answers that question with frightening predictions of predatory sea creatures that hunt sperm whales, and tyrannosaurs that terrorize longhorns. The photo-realistic illustrations are amazing as they juxtapose the prehistoric past with the present.
        Can you picture yourself flying in a jet across peaceful skies, and suddenly seeing a Quetzalcoatlus, a pterosaur with the wingspan exceeding a small airplane? Can you imagine seeing your trashcan tipped over at the curb, not by a raccoon or even a coyote, but a scavenging carnivorous dino called Coelophysis? Students will love the retouched photos, so disturbingly realistic that one might begin to wonder, "What are the chances of the dinosaurs coming back?"

        • Challenge students to draw dinosaurs in modern day settings. How would their traits and habits affect their interactions with people?
        • Challenge students to put dinos to work. If they existed today, how could their size and strength be helpful to humans?
        Wordless Wonders
        Two clever books that tell neat dino tales are Time Flies by Eric Rohmann and Chalk by Bill Thomson.

        • The wordless format of both books offers the perfect opportunity for students to tell their own stories. Students can "write" similar books as a group, and tell their own stories.
        • Students might also be challenged to write the tales they "see" using poetry rather than prose.
        How Do Dinosaurs...
        From Jane Yolen and Mark Teague come the fantastic series of How Do Dinosaurs... books including How Do Dinosaurs Get Well Soon? and How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night? Kids will love all the dinos that Mark Teague includes, and they'll also appreciate the funny and fun-to-recite rhymes of Jane Yolen.

        • Brainstorm a How to... problem with the class and write a similar story as a group, or challenge pairs or teams to come up with their own ideas (focusing on social skills seems to work well here).

        Don't forget to enter to win!

        1 Comments on Are the Dinosaurs Dead, Dad? and Other Prehistoric Picture Books, last added: 2/22/2013
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        19. Make Language an Adventure: Learning Grammar with Picture Books

        Or, How I Learned to Love Grammar 

        I am a former grammar hater, certainly as a student, but even as a beginning teacher. I simply didn't see the need to learn about past imperfect participial possessives (I know there's no such thing) and I dreaded the fat grammar book from which we dutifully copied every sentence, underlining or circling the grammar du jour. Why in Math could we do odd or even numbered problems, but never in grammar?

        As I continued to teach, however, I more and more saw a need for grammar instruction. The fact is, teachers and students require a common lexicon when discussing the components of reading and writing.

        Questions such as these require that students possess a solid foundation in grammar:
        • What part of speech does the author rely upon to describe how his characters speak?
        • How would you describe Maria when we first meet her? What adjectives describe her by the story's end?
        • If your writing uses the same nouns over and over, which synonyms could you substitute for those words in order to create greater sentence variety?  
        • "The eggs were eaten by the snake" is written in the passive voice; how could we revise this sentence to create active voice?
        • This paragraph tells the reader that Sam completes all the chores her grandfather assigns, but what do the adverbs tell us about how she completed them?
        In their own conversations with peers, students who understand grammatical terms are more likely to suggest and implement recommendations stated in a common language. The comment, "You need to move your participial phrase closer to the noun it describes," is certainly a greater help than, "This sentence sounds weird."

        So for some time I tried teaching grammar solely in context of reading and writing, with no discrete lessons or practice at all. I would occasionally pull a Ruth Heller book off the shelf and share that as well, but this approach was hit and miss at best.

        In later years I would attempt to drag students though a formal "diet" of grammar, beginning with nouns, moving on to verbs, then adjectives, and so on, but I noticed a real disconnect. Employing so

        4 Comments on Make Language an Adventure: Learning Grammar with Picture Books, last added: 4/5/2011
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        20. How to Encourage Reading through Author Studies

        If you've ever considered tackling an author study but wondered Is it worth the time? Is it worth the energy?or What can my students really get out of it? then I encourage you to check out a recent post at my How to Teach a Novel site titled Born to Write: What Students Can Learn through Author Study.

        In addition to providing answers to all the questions above, I've also provided dozens of links to author study resources, as well as a chance to win Charis Cotter's Born to Write: The Remarkable Lives of Six Famous Authors.

        Easy to enter, easy to win! Good luck.

        0 Comments on How to Encourage Reading through Author Studies as of 1/1/1900
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        21. Animal Attraction: Exploring Animals with Picture Books

        Children love animals, so it's not surprising that the canon of children's literature is populated with iconic rabbits, bears, elephant, and mice. So how can we continue to take advantage of this connection with animals as students enter their upper elementary and middle school years?

        Below I've listen ten ideas for making the most of students' animal attractions. Feel free to leave a comment to share how you've used animal books in your own classroom.

        1. Fantastic Fables
        Project Type: Creative Writing
        Suggested Grades: 2 and up

        The Ancient Greeks understood the power of storytelling for instructing youth. Traditional ancient fables typically feature animals acting with human traits (anthropomorphism) and conclude with a moral, whether explicitly stated or not. 

        A popular version of this genre is Aesop's Fables by Charles Santore, a reinterpretation of twenty-four of the illustrator's favorites, told and illustrated in a classic manner. My favorite illustration depicts "The Hare and the Tortoise" in a trifold page, featuring the entire cast of animals posed against a rolling landscape forested with crumbling Greek pillars, witnessing the triumph of the Tortoise. In choosing the tales and creatures to include, Santore explained:

        "Each animal - the wolf, the clever fox, the silly crow - represents and symbolizes some particular aspect of the human condition. Whatever the situation, the animal's reaction is always predictable. This is true of all the creatures that populate the fables, and they never disappoint us. They are never more or less. That is the great lesson and the essence of the fable."

        One modern take on this topic is Arnold Lobel's original Fables, told in plain English with the morals plainly stated. A lesser known but entertaining new look at fables can be found in Yo, Aesop! Get a Load of These Fables by Paul Rosenthal and illustrated by Marc Rosenthal. Each of these thoroughly modern fables in presented in a tongue-in-cheek way, followed by a critique and commentary by Aesop himself.

        Classroom Extensions:
        • After reading several fables, ask students to describe which human traits are typically assigned to which animals. Why these animals? What is it about their physical traits or behaviors that makes them deserving of these attributes? Challenge students to assign human traits to some animals not traditionally seen in fables.Then ask, "If you were depicted as an animal in a fable, which animal would you be? Why?"
        •  Provide each student with a moral. Using one of your own, model how a story might be created to illustrate its lesson. Challenge each student to choose a cast of animal characters and write an original fable (they could even include themselves from the activity above). Need some moral ideas? Check out American English Proverbs for some thought-provoking lines. 
        • Select an illustration from one of the books described above. Challenge students to write the fable it illustrates. Another terrific source for traditional fables is Jerry Pinkney's Aesop's Fables.
        • Squids Will Be Squids is Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith's collection of fantastically original fables. Check out the related teaching ideas at Scholastic.
        2. Peerless Predators
        Project Type: Argumentative Essay/Research
        Suggested Grades: 4 and up

        Animal research projects are so common as to be cliche. So much of what we call "research" amounts to simple regurgitation of facts that are, in isolation, somewhat meaningless. So how can we revamp this assignment to make it more meaningful for students and their audience alike? I suggest an assignment called The HOWL Museum.

        To practice argumentative writing skills, students are told that the HOWL (Hunters of the Wild Lands) Museum is seeking nominations for predators to be included in their exhibits. In order for a predator to be selected, students need to prove that their nominee is a well-equipped and skilled hunter. Students are then assigned predators for research, and they begin to organize initial ideas on a Google Drawing doc template (notes could also taken using Read Write Think's Persuasive Map). In my case, students draft their work directly into online digital portfolios hosted at wikispaces. See an essay example here; most were later revised for printing in conjunction with an image.

        While students used several Internet sources for research on this project, many students used trade books as well. One favorite was Predators by John Seidensticker and Susan Lumpkin (one of the INsiders series published by Simon and Schuster), as it featured not only profiles of some of the world's top hunters, but also sections on the weapons and instincts that make these killers the pinnacles of their food pyramids. The text reads like any excellent nonfiction text, with plenty of illustrations, captions, text boxes, and cut-away diagrams.

        Top 10 Worst Killer Animals You Wouldn't Want to Meet by Fiona Macdonald and David Antram boldly counts down the top killers from around the world, providing curious readers answers to questions such as, "How do jellyfish feed?" and "How do you avoid a shark attack?" Kids find this book fascinating since it profiles not only the predators, abut also those malevolent creatures that carry infection and kill by disease.

        But perhaps the hottest commodity was Predator Showdown: 30 Unbelievably Awesome Predator vs. Predator Faceoffs by Lee Martin. Students loved the grudge-matches depicted on the pages, along with the vital stats of each contender. Rather than reveal the winners immediately, the author lists the winner on the book's final page, along with a short explanation of why one animal would overcome the other. I think students enjoyed the format because its competitive nature mirrored the fierce loyalty they began to feel for their own nominee to The HOWL Museum. Unfortunately, it seems that book is out of print, so if you can't find it at your library I'd alternatively suggest Nature's Deadliest Predators by Shelly Silberling. While it is limited to sharks, bears, tigers, and alligators and crocodiles, this text demonstrates the interactions between these predators and the humans who increasingly compete with them for limited habitable space.

        Classroom Extensions:
        • Assign each student a predator, and direct them to learn about that animal's physical traits and behaviors. Below is a list of predators to get you started.
        • Use a simple checklist to allow students to peer review first drafts. One of our checklists can be accessed below.
        • Publish the essays and post them with an announcement about the HOWL Museum. To create the illusion of a grand opening, I used the image editing site Photo505 to create some "publicity shots." To this day, some students think the museum is real! See the photos below, and feel to use them as well.
        • If you're not crazy about the notion of predators, consider research projects on animals that live in productive harmony through symbiosis, a "close, prolonged association between two or more different organisms of different species that may, but does not necessarily, benefit each member" (wordnik.com).

        3. Crazy Critters
        Project Type: Creative Writing/Art
        Suggested Grades: 2 and up 

        Kids love the idea of mixing and matching animal parts! Explore some picture books that celebrate these crazy mixed up animals, and then let your students loose to give it a try themselves. 

        In Scranimals, written by Jack Prelutsky and illustrated by Peter Sis, animals are not only combined with other animals, but with fruits, vegetables and flowers as well! Thus we get spinachickens, broccolions, and bananacondas. Fun poems accompany each full spread illustration. In Animals that Ought to Be: Poems about Imaginary Pets, Richard Michelson and Leonard Baskin exercise equal creative liberties in morphing creatures that are both creepy and utilitarian, such as the Nightmare Scarer which feeds upon bad dreams. In a third book of poems, author Keith DuQuette offers up some hilarious homemade hybrids in Cock-a-Doodle-Moo: A Mixed Up Menagerie.

        Classroom Extensions:
        • Explore the concept of portmanteau words with your students. Unlike compound words that simply combine two smaller words, or contractions which drop letters, portmanteau words combine words and lose letters to form new words entirely. Thus smoke and fog create smog, and breakfast and lunch create brunch. Scranimals is a terrific choice for introducing this concept.
        • Have students cut apart magazine images of animals to create collage critters. Students can then write descriptions of these animals, including the unique abilities they're granted given their hybrid qualities.
        • Explore the online possibilities for creating crazy animal combinations using a site like Switch Zoo or Build Your Wild Self.

        4. Beasts of Burden
        Project Type: Creative Writing/Research
        Suggested Grades: 3 and up 

        In addition to language and the wheel, perhaps nothing defines human evolution more than the ability to domesticate animals. In fact, according to Keltie Thomas, there are some Animals that Changed the World:

        From furry felines to hard-working horses, animals have had a tremendous impact on world history. For example, rats, through the diseases they carry, have probably killed more people than any war or natural disaster, goats may have been the first to discover coffee and, thanks to camels, people were able to survive for long periods in the desert and open up trade routes between Europe and Asia.

        In this amazing book, the author describes how 20+ animals have had a profound impact on human history for good (dogs, camels, horses) and bad (rats, mosquitoes). A fascinating nonfiction read for the students 10 and up, this full-color text features photos, diagrams, maps, and timelines, paired with easy-to-understand text. Overall the information is organized by topic (Animals at Work, Secret Agents of Disease, etc.) and also by individual animal. See some sample pages from publisher Annick Press.

        If you're interested in getting "up close and personal" with some amazing animals who have found their ways into our human history, check out Tales of Famous Animals by Peter and Connie Roop, illustrated by Zachary Pullen. These true tales tell how amazing animals, from the time of Alexander the Great to the present, have played critical roles in the lives of humans they've encountered. Find familiar names like Koko the Gorilla and Smokey Bear, and not-so-familiar names such as Quest and Old Abe. While some critics may argue that animals serving humans are in bondage, this book clearly illustrates that affectionate and respectful relationships between humans and animals are mutually beneficial. Highly recommended as a read aloud!

        In addition to working with humans, younger readers may also be interested to learn how animals work together. In Do Animals Work Together?, author Faith Hickman Brynie describes the many ways that animals communicate among their colonies, packs, and herds. What's neat about this book is that each spread features a picture page and a text page, with the text page containing new reader sentences at the top, providing basic information, and a fluent reader section at the bottom, providing more details. One text section isn't dependent upon the other, and both can be read without sounding redundant. Enslow Publishing provides an educator 's guide for this book, as well as all books in the I Like Reading About Animals series. (Win this book! See bottom of the post).

        Classroom Extensions:
        • Assign each student an animal that has played a significant role, for good or bad, in human history. After they've researched their animal, allow students to present to the class in a creative way. For example, what would each animal have to say about its life's work in a retirement speech? Would it be proud of its accomplishments?
        • Using Animals that Changed the World and other resources, students can practice writing simple expository essays describing how animals assist people. While children can likely generate three ways that dogs are useful to people, including a resource text reinforces the the importance of backing arguments with facts and quotes.
        • Pair individual accounts of animal labor from Animals that Changed the World with related fiction texts (for example, real-life sled dogs paired with Stone Fox) or related nonfiction texts (camels and their role in the Silk Route).

        5. Creature Comparisons
        Project: Poetry/Figurative Language
        Suggested Grades: 3 and up

        Curious as a cricket, happy as a lark, slow as a snail. See where this is going? Students enjoy creating simple similes, and their vast store of animal knowledge makes these comparisons easy.

        A wonderful mentor text for this activity might be Shakespeare's Zoo (Volume 1) by Laudea Martin. It was "a very old (c. 1896) and well-loved boxed set of the complete works of William Shakespeare, which once belonged to Laudea's great grandmother... that sparked her interest in the richness of Shakespeare's written words." The author soon discovered that in many of Shakespeare's works, both famous and obscure, the Bard employed animal imagery to paint perfect pictures of human passions and pratfalls. 

        From the book description:
        Shakespeare's brilliance shines through, not just in his most famous lines, but in every line. The tiniest snippet of his work contains fantastic wordplay and depth of imagery. This book takes some of his less-known bits about various animals and pairs them with Laudea Martin's unique illustrations assembled from textured layers.

        And, like all Shakespeare, each page will become easier to understand the more you read it. The brilliant words of Shakespeare are meant to be heard, not seen, so read the words aloud and listen to the rhythm. Read them again and again, and let your imagination fill in the details of the scene.

        Each illustration was digitally constructed using layers of textured color. Some textures will be immediately recognizable, such as wood grain or leaves; others may be more difficult to discern, but all come together to create whimsical representations of just a few of the animals mentioned by Shakespeare.

        Simple nonfiction picture books can provide students with countless ideas for writing about their own traits. In About Hummingbirds, for example, author Cathryn Sill discusses in plain language how hummingbirds are brightly colored and fast (we knew that!) while at the same time stealthy and even quarrelsome! Illustrator John Sill's images back up the text with vivid details, showing the reader in fine detail what could never be seen in real life by the naked eye. 

        For students seeking more details, the creators included a plate-by-plate addendum providing more data about each image, including information on habitats, physical dimensions, and behaviors, with rich words such as iridescent, preening, and vigorously. See other books in the award-winning About... series, or Win this book! See bottom of the post for more information.
        Classroom Extensions:
        • Students can create biographical poems by first selecting adjectives that they feel describe them (pretty, busy, fast, etc.) and then selecting animals that match those adjectives. Students can pair the adjectives and animals in simile form, such as, "I snore like a lion when I'm really, really tired," and "I'm busy as a beaver every day when I get home."
        • Creating a flip book is a fantastic way to show off and illustrate the comparisons described above, and the sizes of the books can vary from tiny to huge.
        • Collect a pile of animal poem books and let students browse them and share their favorites. Then offer trade books or simply pictures of an assortment of animals, and ask students to write simile poem inspired by a favorite critter. 

        6. Pack Behavior
        Project: Analytic Essay/Novel Extension
        Suggested Grades: 5 and up
        We all know that wolves and dogs are pack animals, but did you realize that humans are as well? If you don't believe me, ask Cesar Millan, who in Be the Pack Leader has this to say:

        The power of the pack idea doesn't just apply to dogs. It applies to another species of pack animals whose destinies have been intertwined with those of dogs for tens of thousands of years.That would be our very own species, Homo sapiens.

        I've had a good deal of success with partnering books on wolf pack behavior with books that deal with similar "pack" behavior in humans. Holes, The Outsiders, Wringer, and Lord of the Flies are just a few of the books that demonstrate the irresistible hold a dominant alpha can have over a pack, leading subordinates to follow blindly, even when consequences might prove disastrous. The boys of Group D in Holes, for example, certainly adhere to a ranking system, and protagonist Stanley Yelnats quickly learns that small concessions on his part can improve his own position in that ranking. 

        And of course, I'd recommend a quick study in pack behavior before reading any novel dealing with dog packs, such Island of the Blue Dolphins, Julie of the Wolves, and Call of the Wild, to name just a few.

        For picture books I would recommend Scruffy: A Wolf Finds His Place in the Pack by Jim Brandenburg,  Wolves by Sandra Markle, and Face to Face with Wolves, also by Jim Brandenburg.

        Classroom Extensions:
        • Choose a fact-rich picture book such as Scruffy: A Wolf Finds His Way in the Pack. Once students have read and discussed the text, have them write a simple essay explaining how pack behavior is critical to survival.
        • Later, assign students the challenge of drawing comparisons between the group behavior observed in your novels and the previously studied pack behavior.

        7. Feathered Friends
        Project: Poetry/Research
        Suggested Grades: 5 and up 

        Screenshot of a LinoIt discussion of Dunbar's The Sparrow (see below)
        In his classic poem The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe describes the unsettling midnight visit of a raven to the windowsill of a melancholy and mournful narrator. When that narrator asks repeatedly if the raven will provide solace and comfort, the raven simply answers, "Nevermore." Similarly, poet Paul Laurence Dunbar is visited by a sparrow who, unlike Poe's raven, seems to offer reprieve from the author's toil and dullness. The sparrow's attempts to distract the poet are rebuffed.

        If you suspect a theme is developing, you would be correct. Poets in particular seem to enjoy expounding upon serendipitous meetings with birds, taking some delight in reading their stoic expressions and wondering about their mysterious lives (see Emily Dickinson's A Bird Came Down the Walk, Paul Laurence Dunbar's The Sparrow, and Edwin Morgan's A Gull).

        Classroom Extensions:
        • Share some of these poems with students, particularly Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven." This poem's fantastic vocabulary, figurative language, and creepy author's tone can be explored interactively The Interactive Raven and Knowing Poe: Annotated Poe  
        • Compare and contrast Poe's poem with others about chance meetings with birds. This post discusses using a cool collaborative site called LinoIt to create online discussions, complete with stickies, images, and videos.
        • Assign each student a bird, asking them to explore its history and mythology, as well as its physical characteristics and habits. Armed with this information, challenge students to write a poem about a meeting with this bird, basing it upon some of the exemplars above.
        • Check out the haunting poem Carrion Crow by John Heath-Stubbs (definitely share the audio!), which describes a literal bird's eye view of history. After discussing the text and researching the battle to which it refers, ask students to write a similar poem as observed from a bird's point of view.
        • If you feel that this activity is for the birds, consider allowing students to write poetry about their own choice of animal after conducting some basic research. Eric Carle's Animals Animals features animal poems by some of the literary greats (think Kipling, Carroll, Sanburg, Rossetti) accompanied by his signature cut-paper illustrations. These poems might also serve you if you choose to tackle any of the Creative Comparisons activities listed above.
        8. Who's to Choose When It Comes to Zoos?
        Project: Argumentative Essay/Research
        Suggested Grades: 6 and up

        Should zoos exist? The SCAN post titled Simple Questions Lead to Complex Learning is a good jumping off place for getting started with this topic (as well as many others).

        For ages 8 and up, the dilemma of animal captivity is thoughtfully explored in Katherine Applegate's The One and Only Ivan, the 2013 Newbery Winner. From the Author's Biography: Katherine was inspired to write The One and Only Ivan after reading about the true story of a captive gorilla known as Ivan, the "Shopping Mall Gorilla." The real Ivan lived alone in a tiny cage for twenty-seven years at a shopping mall before being moved to Zoo Atlanta after a public outcry. I highly recommended this text as a read-aloud, or as a class novel for grades 4 and up. Check out the official book trailer below.

        Classroom Extensions:
        • Let students explore a number of zoo and circus themed picture books. What messages about zoos and their purposes seem to be conveyed in those texts? Have more recent titles on these topics attempted to redefine the roles of these institutions?
        • Assign students to prepare both pro and con arguments for zoos, and then divide the class arbitrarily to debate the issue.
        • Upon the debate's conclusion, invite students to write an argumentative essay for the position they would like to take, being certain in their writing to address the claims of the opposing viewpoint.

        9. Animal Allies
        Project: Art/Research
        Suggested Grades: 5 and up

        Animal Tribe introduces students to the mythologies and wisdom of animals as celebrated by various indigenous peoples from around the globe. Explore that site to see what's offered, and consider ways that these studies could be incorporated into your existing curriculum.

        A logical connection to this project is research in how animals are being threatened by their struggles to share this planet with humans. Books such as Once a Wolf: How Wildlife Biologists Fought to Bring Back the Gray Wolf by Stephen R. Swinburne and Dorje's Stripes by Anshumandi Ruddra can get this discussion started.

        In the latter book, a beautiful Royal Bengal Tiger arrives one day, broken and tired, at a small Buddhist Monastery in Tibet. He begins to lost his stripes as his fellow tigers are poached from the surrounding countryside. Hope for the future shines, however, when one day a single stripe, and a beautiful female tiger, return. ((Win this book! See bottom of the post).

        Classroom Extensions:
        • Visit Animal Tribe and see how that site's activities can be adapted to your lesson plans.
        • Rather than traditional animal research projects, assign each student an animal that is threatened or endangered. In addition to describing the causes of their animal's predicament, they should offer possible solutions that serve all parties involved.
        • In connection with a text such as Once a Wolf, appoint students to play various roles including ranchers, conservationists, tourists, etc. Plan a debate with each interest group required to provide support for their point of view.

        10. Home Sweet Home
        Project: Creative Writing
        Suggested Grades: 2 and up

        Almost every child at one time or another has dreamed of owning an exotic pet. Many books have explored the possibilities and pitfalls of this fantasy. Perhaps the most well-known of this genre is The Salamander Room by Anne Mazer. In this simple yet beautiful story, a child patiently counters his mother's every protest against his plan to adopt a salamander and transform his bedroom into a forest refuge. The question-answer format of storytelling is a familiar one, but the facts we learn about salamanders and the illustrations by Steve Johnson are alone worth the price of admission.

        Not Inside This House! written by Kevin Lewis and illustrated by David Ercolini, addresses this same topic in a much more humorous way.

        A curious boy named Livingstone, who finds ordinary toys and diversions a bore, loves to explore. To his mother's horror, however, he enjoys bringing the results of those explorations home. From the book:

        His wary mom?
        She did implore...

        "Livingstone Columbus Magellan Crouse,
        I'll have no bugs inside this house!
        I'll say it once. Won't say it twice.
        To speak again will not suffice."

        As you can see, Kevin Lewis' text is replete with wonderful words, and David Ercolini's vivid illustrations beg closer inspection. See more here at the artist's site.

        Classroom Extensions:
        • Play devil's advocate using The Salamander Room. Is it right for Brian to keep this wild creature in his home? If the salamander's comfort demands so many changes to Brian's room, then is this the best place for it?
        • In Not Inside This House, the pets Livingstone chooses to bring home become increasingly large and troublesome. When his mother finally relents and agrees that he can have the one bug he started with, we have to wonder, Is this what he had planned all along? Have students choose an extraordinary animal they'd like to adopt, and then create both sensible and outlandish reasons they'd give for why this animal should be permitted.
        I hope this list gives you a few ideas to try out in your classroom, as well as a few new titles to add to your library! Please comment below and share with your fellow readers how you use animals books in your classroom. 

        Also, be sure to enter the raffle below to win one of three books: About Hummingbirds, Dorje's Stripes, and Do Animals Work Together. The raffle ends on 2/21/13, at which time winners will be notified. Good luck to all who enter!

        a Rafflecopter giveaway

        15 Comments on Animal Attraction: Exploring Animals with Picture Books, last added: 2/22/2013
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        22. Tales to Tell: Exploring Author's Voice Through Picture Books

        When we read a truly wonderful picture book, one whose words resonate as much as the pictures themselves, we should take the opportunity to stand back and ask ourselves, "How did the author do that?" And more importantly, How can we get our students to find their own strong voices in writing?

        If we recall the opening lines of some favorite middle-grade novels, we discover that the author's voice begins to take form in just the first few words. 

        Consider Avi's Newbery winning The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, a fantastic sea yarn in which the protagonist finds herself at the center of a mutiny:

        “Not every thirteen-year-old girl is accused of murder, brought to trial, and found guilty.  But I was such a girl, and my story is worth relating even if it did happen years ago.”

        Or consider the ominous first lines of Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White:

        “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
        “Out to the hoghouse,” replied her mother. “Some pigs were born last night.”

        As both novels progress, we immerse ourselves in the narrator's point of view, falling in step with the rhythm of words, the tone, and the exacting word choice.

        But neither picture books nor our students' own writing has the luxury of 200+ pages to build voice. It needs to happen much sooner.Here are three picture book exemplars to get us started.

        Mentor Text: Jangles: A BIG Fish Story

        David Shannon's recent picture book Jangles: A BIG Fish Story harkens back to the day of the traditional Tall Tale. Tall Tales, characterized mainly by their penchant for hyperbole (that is, their tendency to exaggerate to the point of lying!) developed a boastful and boisterous voice over time, due to the fact that many of the original Tall Tales were spread orally. Each subsequent teller would add his or her own embellishments (as well as quaint colloquialisms), resulting in crowd-sourced versions of the tales that were rich in both authentic voice and vocabulary.

        Jangles: A BIG Fish Story would serve as an excellent introduction to this literary genre. Author and illustrator David Shannon writes in a style that harkens to the boasts of the Tall Tale tradition:

        When I was a kid, Jangles was the biggest fish that anyone had ever seen - or heard! That's right, you could hear Jangles. He'd broken so many fishing lines that his huge, crooked jaw was covered with shiny metal lures and rusty old fishhooks of all shapes and sized. They clinked and clattered as he swam. That's why he was called Jangles.

        Jangles was so big, he ate eagles from the trees that hung over the lake, and full-grown beavers that strayed too far from home.

        Compare that with the beginning of Jerry Spinelli's Maniac Magee (another Newbery Medal book):
        “They say (he) was born in a dump. They say his stomach was a cereal box and his heart was a sofa spring. They say he kept an eight-inch cockroach on a leash and that rats stood guard over him while he slept…They say.”

        And to be sure, you'll find the "They say..." phrase in Shannon's book as well, since, while the facts of any Tall Tale might not be verified empirically, they must undoubtedly be true, since so many people agree on them.
        The story itself is an engaging narrative, with an ending that requires a bit of inferring on the reader's part. The story also begs the question, "What would you have done in his place?" Close rereadings can reveal simile, alliteration, personification, and many other wonderful literary devices masterfully woven into the tale.

        And the illustrations! Fans of David Shannon know from earlier books such as A Bad Case of the Stripes and How Georgie Radbourn Saved Baseball that his pictures are lush and vivid and sculpturesque. Whenever I'm explaining to my students that their own illustrations should be saturated with color, Shannon's books are among the exemplars I share.

        • To begin a Tall Tale unit, let children read a number of traditional retellings of Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, John Henry, and Slue-Foot Sue. Have them generate the critical attributes of this genre, explaining as well how it differs from (and yet takes cues from) legends, folktales, and myths. Find some online resources at 42explore.
        • After reading Jangles: A BIG Fish Story, challenge students to write a Tall Tale about an animal of their choosing. You might consider supplying a simple story map based upon the mentor text which can guide students in their writing.
        • Ask students to generate a list of some of their most memorable experiences (circus, baseball game, birth of a sibling, family reunion, recital, getting lost at the mall, etc.). Share the interview with the David Shannon at the Scholastic site. Discuss how personal experiences can often serve as the basis for writing fiction, and then have students choose one of their events to turn into a fictional account.
        Mentor Text: Touch the Sky: Alice Coachman, Olympic High Jumper

        Another recent picture book which features a strong voice is Touch the Sky: Alice Coachman, Olympic High Jumper. Author Ann Malaspina tells the true-life tale of a young girl who dreams of being the first African-American woman to win gold at the Olympics. Her medals won while competing as part of Tuskegee Institute's famous Golden Tigerettes only increase her determination to reach that goal.
        Tall Tale boasting would be inappropriate for this genre, of course, because as Dizzy Dean (and others) would say, "It ain't bragging if you can do it." Instead, the prose here is more lyrical, and almost poetic:

        Alice Coachman raced
        down the dirt road,
        bare feet flying,
        long legs spinning, 
        braids flapping
        in the wind...


        She sailed over
        a tree branch
        and kept on running.

        Students will come to appreciate the power of repetition, parallel structure, and flow in such lines as:

        Fields shut.
        Tracks shut. 
        Doors shut
        to girls like Alice.
        No place to practice.
        No crossbar to raise.

        Alice and her friends got busy.
        Knotting rags.
        Tying rags to sticks.
        Planting sticks 
        in the red Georgia clay.

        Then her friends stood back 
        and let Alice jump.

        Illustrations by Eric Velasquez (trust me, you know this guy; we all have chapter books in our classrooms bearing his work) fill each page, providing not only energy and emotion, but historical context as well.

        • Check out the Teacher's Guide at Albert Whitman and Company for discussion questions, cross-curricular extensions, and ready-to-use assessments.
        • In connection with biography readings for either Back History Month or Women's History Month, encourage students to rewrite key events from a famous person's life using the lyrical style of (fellow New Jerseyan) Ann Malaspina. Existing lines from chapter books can be reformatted into parallel structures (where possible), although I'd prefer for students to adapt those events or anecdotes they find most compelling.
        • If you enjoy Malaspina's writing, which Kirkus Reviews called "spare and elegant free verse," then definitely check out Heart on Fire: Susan B. Anthony Votes for President, another spot-on writing exemplar for young authors, with superb illustrations by Steve James. Susan B. Anthony's law-defying act of voting is little known to students, but rivals the illegal actions of such "criminals" as Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks,  and Martin Luther King, Jr. See the classroom guide for this book which was named to the Top Ten of the Amelia Bloomer Project.
        Mentor Text: Prairie Chicken Little
        In the tradition of this age old tale, Prairie Chicken Little by Jackie Mims Hopkins chronicles the over-reaction of one prairie chicken who thinks the sky is falling, or more accurately, a stampede is coming!
        Listen to this text's unique voice as the story begins:

        Out on the grasslands where bison roam, Mary McBlicken the prairie chicken was scritch-scratching for her breakfast, when all of a sudden she heard a rumbling and a grumbling and a tumbling.

        "Oh, no!" she exclaimed. "A stampede's a comin'! I need to hightail it back to the ranch to tell Cowboy Stan and Red Dog Dan. They'll know what to do."

        So away Mary ran, lickety-splickety, as fast as her little prairie chicken legs could carry her.

        The onomatopoeia, the rhymes, and the word choice (such as "hightail it") combine to create a voice that matches both the book's setting and its levity. The book's fun is well supported by Henry Cole's splendid pictures. You might recall seeing his handiwork in Three Hens and a Peacock, mentioned here in a previous post.

        • In the event that your students are studying other ecosystems such as as rain forests or polar regions, you could adapt this idea, challenging students to create a crisis or calamity, as well as appropriate creatures who would help spread the word. It's a pretty cool way to synthesize students' collection of random facts from a unit into a creative response. Can't you just see a penguin or a toucan as the main character?
        • Fractured Fairy Tales are an all time favorite for kids to read, and they're fun to write as well. A recent post at the Peachtree Publishing blog provides some great titles to get you started.
        • Have students research any of the animals from Prairie Chicken Little. Some of the real-life critters who populate this book sport some pretty amazing features. A good place to start? The Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society.
        Do you have a favorite picture book to teach author's voice? If so, share it below!

        And if you haven't entered yet, be sure to get in on the raffle for one of three animal picture books happening on this blog (scroll to the bottom of that page).

        0 Comments on Tales to Tell: Exploring Author's Voice Through Picture Books as of 2/9/2013 3:18:00 PM
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        23. Valentines for Vermin: Love Poems for the Unloved

        Looking for a fun writing activity that integrates well with Valentine's Day? Then look no further than Vulture Verses: Love Poems for the Unloved.

        This book is a funny and fact-filled collection of "friendship notes" written to some of the most unlovable creatures one could imagine. Through her poems and accompanying facts, author Diane Lang helps us see that even bats, turkey vultures, spiders, skunks, and mosquitoes (to name but a few of the animal dignitaries) deserve some love.

        The friendship note to the fly, for example, reads:

        Oh fly, though no one seeks to ask,
        Recycling is your secret task.
        You eat the things that die or spoil
        And make them part of growing soil.
        So, though I shoo you from my plate, 
        You're someone I appreciate!

        Below that we read:

        Flies are specialists at eating things that are dead and decaying, getting them ready to become part of new, healthy soil.

        Lovely paintings by Lauren Gallegos illustrate each animal at its most industrious, making even the most scream-worthy of the lot seem noble, or, at the very least, tolerable.
        • The book closes with a request: "So many cards to write! So many animal friends! I may need some help. Do you know someone who is misunderstood? Will you help me write friendship notes, too?" Such a fantastic suggestion! Working in pairs or teams, students can research basic facts about other unloved animals that "scuttle, slither, buzz, and sting." Why are these creature seen as so horrible? What makes them worthy of our admiration? See if your students can write similar poems to change the loathsome to the lovable. Picture books such as Melissa Stewart's marvelous Animal Grossapedia will provide ample information and inspiration for even the most reluctant writers.
        • As an additional challenge, ask students to write the above poems in the first person, as if they are the animal. They must defend themselves to humans, and justify the "bad rap" which they've been given. Students could be further challenged to write these poems without naming themselves (the animal could be identified at poem's end or in the title alone). Students can then read the poems aloud, and classmates can guess the identity of the nefarious narrator.
        • What role do these animals play in other stories, whether fables, myths, or folktales? With what traits have they been branded? Have students create original fables using one of the creatures from Vulture Verses: Love Poems for the Unloved, or from their research project above. See my earlier post Animal Attractions for more ideas and suggested titles for fables.
        • Diane Lang uses fantastic vocabulary in both her poems and follow-up facts. Discuss some of these words and challenge students to define them, using context clues alone. Why did the author choose these and not their simpler synonyms? If students completed any of the above activities, ask them to revisit their writing to substitute words that are more exacting and creative for those which are overused or ordinary.
        Do you have a favorite reading or writing activity to celebrate Valentine's Day? If so, please leave a comment below!

        And if you haven't entered yet, be sure to get in on the raffle for one of three animal picture books happening on this blog (scroll to the bottom of that page).

        7 Comments on Valentines for Vermin: Love Poems for the Unloved, last added: 2/19/2013
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        24. Fightin' Words: Using Picture Books to Teach Argumentative Writing

        So what's the difference between persuasive writing and argumentative writing? 

        In persuasive writing, students passionately defend their point of view, relying upon opinion, personal experience, anecdotes, data, and examples. Argumentative writing, however, seeks to offer a more balanced approach, as it acknowledges points from the opposing view.

        This approach may sound counterproductive; after all, won't writers weaken their arguments by providing the reader with counterclaims? Surprisingly, no. By naming objections and then refuting them effectively, writers actually strengthen the position of their arguments. Persuasion, on the other hand, is weak by comparison: it ignores, in a cowardly way, any viewpoint that is contrary and threatening to its own. It's blatantly one-sided and subjective.

        So where can our young readers witness the power of argumentative writing? In picture books, of course!

        In George Bellows: Painter with a Punch, author Robert Burleigh chronicles the career of a fascinating  and prolific artist who is celebrated for his gruff and gritty observations of the vitality and vigor of early twentieth century New York City. Burleigh provides the reader with "just enough" details of Bellows the man to make him real and rounded, and "just enough" context of the art scene of the time to build color and context. The majority of the text rightfully focuses on the images (profusely provided in beautiful color) and on Bellows' artistic legacy. 

        As a teacher of reading and writing, I am struck by Burleigh's use of argumentative text structures which can serve as wonderful exemplars for young writers. Consider this passage from early in the text:

        One man - seated at ringside - observes the events somewhat differently. He watches closely both the fury of the fighters and the fans' reactions. But who wins the bout doesn't matter to him. He has his own goal: to wrestle a picture from the chaotic scene, to capture the wild energy of this moment!

        Is this strange? An artist here, in a smelly, grungy saloon?

        Shouldn't an artist be searching for beautiful things to paint? Golden sunsets? Quiet, tree-lined rivers? Or perhaps a wealthy gentleman, or a celebrity dressed in her finest clothes? Many people would say just that.

        But not George Bellows.

        In that example, a series of questions defines the opposing viewpoint. We know that George will need a pretty darn good reason for choosing subjects so contrary to those of traditional artists!

        In another selection, the opposing argument is presented more traditionally as a juxtaposition of one perspective to another:

        George's paintings gain attention. He is among a group of artists who focus on the less romantic parts of the city, like bars, train stations, movie theaters, and alleyways...Reviewers attack the group, calling them "apostles of ugliness" because they dare to paint the seamier side of life...But a few reviewers find complimentary things to say about George's art. They especially praise his ability to convey strong feelings in his work.

        One critic, although won over by Bellow's radical approach, still qualifies his admiration for the artist in a compliment that acknowledges the two opposing viewpoints of the time:

        "It's in bad taste," one says, "but it's life - and that is the main thing."

        As you can see, the examples of argumentation are there. They're subtly written, however, so as not to crowd out the narrative. That is exactly what makes them effective, and so worthy of our students' admiration and study and replication. 

        In the excerpt below, note that the first two sentences juxtapose opposing viewpoints, with the word yet being the giveaway. The second pair of sentences follows the classic "some people say ______, but _______" format, with though serving in place of but:

        "I don't know anything about boxing," he likes to say. Yet the paintings he makes based on these fights will become his best known works. Some critics note that the figures in the paintings are awkwardly drawn or that the ringside spectators have odd, caricatured faces. What concerns George most, though, is creating a "you-are-there" feeling.

        Can students incorporate this same argumentative style into their writing? Absolutely. The key, in my opinion, is starting with some great exemplars. The next step is getting students to see that argumentative writing often relies upon a fairly standard set of sentence structures. This "sentence grammar" is more common in writing than you think!

        Consider these templates:
        • At first you might think _____, but _____.
        • While it's true that _____, you need to remember that _____.
        • It's possible that _______, but __________.
        • Some people believe that _____; however, _____.
        Here are those same templates, reworked with spelling words:

        • At first you might think that vivacious children are wonderful, but after three hours you would find them to be very exhausting.
        • While it's true that vitamins are part of a healthy diet, you need to remember that they can't take the place of nutritious foods.
        • It's possible that coffee increases vitality, but it's still no substitute for a good night's rest.
        • Some people believe that bees are attracted to sugar; however, bees are equally attracted to vivid colors.

        Somewhat better than what students typically produce, right? But with the models, it's possible.

        And again, those same templates as part of an expository paragraph about common misconceptions of the Holocaust, based upon a reading of An Introduction to the Holocaust for the Young Reader:

        At first you might think that World War II caused the Holocaust since the two events are mentioned together so often; after some study, however, you would find that persecution of Jews in Germany began six years earlier. And while it's true that six million Jews were exterminated by the Nazis, you need to remember five million others who were considered undesirable were killed as well. It's possible to believe now that people should have stepped in to save the Jews, but you'd be surprised how few countries seemed to care at the time. You might think the United States was the exception, that we cared enough to step in; however, of the thirty-two countries that attended the Evian Conference, only one chose to accept Jewish refugees, and it wasn't the United States.

        A perfect paragraph? No. But one that shows a balanced consideration of ideas; one that acknowledges common misconceptions, and then dispels them, one at a time.

        • Share George Bellows: Painter with a Punch with students, reading through from beginning to end for the sheer enjoyment of the narrative and images. Show students additional Bellows' paintings in over-sized library books or online. I prefer using images online, as I can often resize them on-screen to match their approximate real-life sizes.
        • Reread selections from the text in order to discuss the use of opposing viewpoints. Why does the author include them here? In what way is this text argumentative? How does mentioning the opposite viewpoint strengthen each point that author Robert Burleigh makes? 
        • Once students have discussed some text selections, work with them to identify the "skeleton" or "template" of each argumentative structure. Then, supply students with new content to be rephrased in argumentative format using the author's exemplars. One example from above reads, "Some critics note that the figures in the paintings are awkwardly drawn or that the ringside spectators have odd, caricatured faces. What concerns George most, though, is creating a "you-are-there" feeling."  This excerpt relies upon the "Some people..." format, with the counter-punch statement using "though" to express opposition (however could have been used as effectively as though).
        • Discuss the book's title with students. Some students will notice that the subtitle is alliterative, in that words share the same beginning sounds. If your students have recently read biographies, challenge them to write fictitious subtitles that rely upon either alliteration, rhyme, or word play. (Other students will notice that the top rope of the ring serves to underline the book's main title).
        • Show students other nonfiction books which utilize a title and subtitle, and discuss this feature's purpose. Authors and editors may do write titles in this manner for many different reasons: to separate their book from others on the same topic, to add a creative twist while still keeping the main topic "out in front," or to provide prospective readers with the book's focus (for example, Abraham Lincoln: A Pioneer Boyhood is aimed at a different audience than Abraham Lincoln: Making of a President). 
        • Require that students use sentence stems (aka templates, models, patterns) such as those above to contrast simple ideas. Start with simple single sentences, move to paired sentences, and finally to paragraphs. My own students have used them for lesson summaries, spelling sentences, responses to current events, summary paragraphs (such as the Holocaust piece above), and comparison/contrast writings about character motives.
        • Check out this fantastic break-down of argumentative writing from Smekens Education Solutions, Inc. In addition to some teaching tips, you'll find a ready-to-go activity that challenges students to identify what makes a revised piece of writing argumentative. They've also produced a clever student friendly/teacher friendly interpretation of the ELA Writing Standard (6.1) for Text Types and Purposes.

        Recommended Reading

        If you're looking for a single, go-to title for working with argumentative text models like those above, check out They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. This book explains in clear words, dozens of templates, and numerous real-world examples the powerful concepts which guide argumentative writing.

        Here you'll find templates for openings, closings, discussion, disagreement, etc. You'll also have at your fingertips many professionally written articles, essays, and speeches which show these same templates at work (check out the explanation of argumentative writing in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail shown in the book preview on Amazon). 

        This work, aimed at both instructors and high school- and college-aged students, is must reading.

        2 Comments on Fightin' Words: Using Picture Books to Teach Argumentative Writing, last added: 2/19/2013
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        25. Celebrate Something! Creating Culminating Activities for Reading Units

        Kid Lit Blog HopI'm pleased this week to be part of Kid Lit Blog Hop #10, a well-attended online party of some of the most dedicated and talented children's literature bloggers around. So in the spirit of parties, I've provided some ideas below for how to bring some celebration into the classroom. 

        Most of us meticulously plan how we'll begin and carry out our novel studies and units, but the culminating events are often an afterthought. Should our novel study simply end with a test? Is that any way to honor this glorious novel which we held so closely to ours heart these past four, five, six weeks?
        I would recommend that we plan a culminating activity to close our units. In its simplest form, the culminating activity might be:
        • a film version of the book (even a bad adaptation!),
        • a theatrical version of the book, 
        • a magic or variety show,
        • a reader’s theater production of scenes from the book,
        • individual or group art, writing, or cooking projects,
        • presentations of writing and other projects based upon the novel, 
        • a call to action or service, or 
        • a theme-based party.
        The culminating activity could also involve a combination of these. Many years ago, we arranged to see a private showing of the The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (before it was even opened to the public), as that movie was premiering just as we completed the novel. Talk about great timing! 

        But as we viewed "sneak peeks" on the Internet, I saw that my students were mesmerized by the costumes and armor of the four main characters. We therefore launched into an art/research/tech project creating family shields complete with heraldic symbols which reflected each student’s personal traits and
        preferences as well as those of their families. The bulletin board display of these shields later appeared on the website of Walden Media, a co-producer of the movie. Kids were pretty psyched to see that their creations had a world-wide audience.
        If you choose to throw a theme based party, I suggest you focus on the five senses. Below are two plans illustrating culminating events which my class has celebrated in the past (back in the good old days of third and fourth grade).

        Novel: Because of Winn Dixie
        Theme: Identity
        Party Overview: This is a gathering of new friends, based upon the party which Opal and Gloria throw at the end of the novel. In the novel, the gathering takes place in Gloria’s overgrown backyard, and the food and drinks are an interesting orchestration of many hands.
        Look: Since the book’s party was held at night, all lights in the classroom were off. Each desk contained a brown bag filled partway with sand, containing one battery operated candle. These were in place of the
        luminaria which Opal created for her party. Some white Christmas lights were also hung. Several students printed out or collected dog pictures which they posted around the room, just as Sweetie Pie Thomas had at the party; after all, "every party needs a theme."
        Sound: Taped recordings of crickets played throughout the party. Later, a thunder soundtrack was added to create the approaching rainstorm. The music teacher played guitar and led us in a few songs, just as Otis did at the party. We also played some bluegrass and country music when we weren't singing ourselves.
        Taste: “Dump Punch,” pickles, and egg salad sandwiches were on the menu, just as they were at Opal’s party. Since the students made the sandwiches themselves, they were much more willing to try them!
        Smell: A spring scented air freshener was placed on the vents. It made the whole room smell like a Southern garden (at least, how we imagined it might smell). The air freshener had never been used before
        in the class, and was never used again, which made that smell unique.
        Feel: In keeping with the “new friends” theme of the party, we brought in another class to share the theme. The closeness of that many people in that setting we created made the party truly memorable.

        Genre: Tall Tales 
        (especially as influenced by American Tall Tales by Mary Pope Osborne, Cut From the Same Cloth: American Women  of Myth, Legend, and Tall Tale by Robert D. San Souci, and Big Men, Big Country by Paul Robert Walker)
        Theme: Larger Than Life
        Party Overview: An old fashioned, lumber-jack type breakfast.
        Look: The students ate at one long table, which was set up in a glassed-in foyer on a snowy day in January. Red and white checked table cloths and old-fashioned lanterns set the scene. Also, students were dressed as their favorite tall tale characters, or as tall tale characters of their own creation from a unit writing assignment. Book boxes (book shaped dioramas containing summaries and a three-dimensional scene) were hung nearby.
        Sound: In the background was a recording of traditional American folk songs played on fiddles and banjos. Later, students read aloud their original tall tales.
        Taste: Students enjoyed a Paul Bunyan sized meal of pancakes and bacon, washed down with hot chocolate. Twenty students (and some parent helpers) ate over 80 pancakes and 80 pieces of bacon!
        Smell: The food was cooked there, in that room, from pancake batter that students made from scratch. The smell of pancakes and sizzling bacon mingled with pine shavings which were sprinkled on the ground to give it that “woodsy” smell.
        Feel: The blustery cold day visible through the windows, contrasted with the warm food inside, made for a close, comfortable gathering.

        Does every novel or unit lend itself to this type of activity? Absolutely not. When we read a Holocaust tyhemed novel, for example, a party is NOT appropriate. Instead, we might write an argumentative piece on why the Holocaust should be studies in middle schools (some schools think it shouldn't). 

        Can we even launch these types of parties anymore, with all the food and festivities they entail? Perhaps not. But I think we owe our students a bit more closure than simply saying, "Please pass your books to the front of the class." As Cesare Pavese once said, "We do not remember days, we remember moments." 

        Let's give our students one moment to remember.

        What do you do to bring closure to your studies? Please leave a comment below!

        7 Comments on Celebrate Something! Creating Culminating Activities for Reading Units, last added: 3/5/2013
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