Hunting For Good Nonfiction Picture Books (10 Ideas) #TeacherMom

In the middle of a long speech about her favorite books, my 6 year old recently said something that surprised me: “But learning books are boring.”

I paused, not quite sure what she meant by “learning books.” Then I asked, “Do you mean nonfiction–books about real people and places and facts?”

“Yeah, I don’t like those ones very much.”

As I thought a bit more, I was transported back to my own elementary school years–I could almost feel the musty dinginess of the nonfiction corner of the library again. I honestly didn’t like nonfiction very much as a kid, either.

So I told her, “You know what, I have a hard time liking learning books sometimes, too. They often don’t really tell a story, do they? And I’ve noticed that a lot of time, the pictures aren’t as fun. But you know what? There are WAY more fun nonfiction books now than when I was a kid. How about we hunt together for the good ones?”

Since then, we’ve been working to shift her opinion of nonfiction.  I try to forego even telling her a book is nonfiction until we finish reading it–then it’s all the more a pleasant surprise when she finds out how much she liked that “learning book.”

This is just one of several strategies to help students become better readers and enjoy the process of making meaning for themselves–which, of course, is what reading is all about.

Since we started this expedition, here are a few of our favorite discoveries. If you have any great “learning books” to share, too, please add them in the comments–my 6 year old and I will thank you!

swan

Laurel Snyder’s biography of dancer Anna Pavlova had us both mesmerized. The beautiful illustrations and vibrant storytelling felt like a dance in and of themselves. My daughter spent days afterward creating her own versions of “Swan.”

in-marys-garden

I love the way Tina Kugler shares Mary Nohl’s love of making art for her own enjoyment. It’s a beautiful and important message for kids everywhere.

 

luna-and-me

My daughter couldn’t wait until the end of the story to find out if this was a real “learning book.” We were both eager to learn more at the end of Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw’s book about Julia Hill’s conservation activism.

 

some-bugs

A simple and charming read by Angela DiTerlizzi to get us thinking about all the different types of bugs and their functions.

over-under-the-snow

Kate Messner’s Over & Under the Snow was really an eye-opener to get my 6 year old considering what happens to animals in the wintertime.

actual-size

Both my daughter and my 2 year old son loved Steve Jenkins’ Actual Size, comparing the images with their own hands.

 

finding-winnie

Lindsay Mattick’s story of this loveable bear is an instant classic. You’ll be surprised to find out whose origin story this is…

 

im-trying-to-love-spiders

Despite Bethany Barton’s best efforts in providing all the facts that show what useful and loveable(?) creatures spiders are, my 6 year old still wasn’t convinced. But she did walk around afterward for a while telling people that she was trying to love spiders.

 

water-is-water

Miranda Paul does a beautiful job introducing the water cycle in a way that will captivate any audience, sparking our imagination for the many forms and uses of water.

 

look-up

Already an avid birder (following after daddy’s footsteps), it wasn’t tough to get my daughter to love this one. But I was impressed at just how engaging and informative Annette LeBlanc Cate’s guide on bird watching was. And best of all, it resulted in my daughter creating her own birding field journal.

Evolution of the Narrative in Picture Books (& Ideas For Your Next Library Visit)

I just finished putting a slew of new picture books on hold at our local public library.

Some were new releases by more contemporary beloved authors, like a new Jon Klassen (Another hat book! “We Found a Hat”), Andrea Beaty (“Ada Twist, Scientist”), and Oliver Jeffers (“A Child of Books”).

Others were by newly discovered authors like Amy Young (“A Unicorn Named Sparkle”) and Dan Yaccarino (“I Am a Story”).

And one was Doreen Cronin’s “Click, Clack, Moo,” which I should really just go ahead and buy already, because my 2 year-old is obsessed with cows.

As my mind sifts through all these authors’ styles, I’m struck by the huge amount of creative narrative voice out there these days. And even more by how dramatically the narrative seems to have evolved over the course of my lifetime.

Classics I enjoyed in my youth, such as Tomie Paola’s “Strega Nona,” Rafe Martin’s “The Rough-Face Girl,” James Marshall’s “Miss Nelson is Missing,” and Ellen Jackson’s “Cinder Edna” (publications ranging from the 70’s to the 90’s), almost always used a more traditional third-person narrative and voice.

A larger flux of first-person reads comes to mind when I think of the 2000’s, like Melinda Long’s “How I Became A Pirate” and Jane O’Connor’s “Fancy Nancy.”

And today it seems like most of the books I check out have incredibly unique narrative techniques and voice–so much so that it’s hard to neatly classify them. There’s Adam Rubin’s playful way of alternating speaking directly to the reader (“Hey, kid! Did you know dragons love tacos?”) and to other characters (“Hey, dragon, how do you feel about spicy taco toppings?”). Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett’s “Battle Bunny” with its dual narration. And of course, B.J. Novak’s “The Book With No Pictures” is truly in a narrative league of its own.

The upside of this shift is obviously our literary enjoyment.

But a potential downside/caution can arise when teachers get stuck in a rut on what a story should look like. Especially if they haven’t familiarized themselves with these modern classics that don’t always comply with the rules. Especially if they push the upside-down V story map so hard that students’ creative voices are quelled when their stories lack a setting (like Mo Willems’ Pigeon books) or when their pictures–not their words–illustrate the problem (like Mac Barnett’s “Sam & Dave Dig a Hole”).

In the end, I think the most important take-away is that it’s easier for us as teachers and parents to embrace the creativity if we stay current on it ourselves. If we stay stuck in the nostalgia of how things looked in our childhood, we may miss incredible opportunities to re-imagine and push the status quo.

new-picture-books

featured image: Kurt

#TeacherMom: Who’s Creating the Literacy Environment?

“Mom? Book?” [My two-year old suddenly chooses a book for me]. “There you go.”

[Walks over to the sofa and pats on a cushion] “Sit. Sit.” [I sit]. “You’re welcome.”

[Settles on the other side of the sofa with his library Lightning McQueen book].

A short time later, he also carefully arranges his stuffed fish with its own book about whales. 

His self-satisfaction is palpable.

Though literacy development has been of particular interest to me as a teacher, this exchange was just the latest in a long string of surprises in my teacher-parent-table-turning saga. One might expect that a teacher would always be anticipating and orchestrating the “next steps” in their own children’s academic growth. But the truth is, it blows my mind on a daily basis to witness the juxtaposition of what I think I know as a professional with my kids’ applications with the realities of daily life.

For instance, I knew that parents modeling reading for pleasure is essential for literacy development.

I knew that providing an abundance of books is important to provide my children with the access they need.

I knew that library books are key in providing that access (I actually counted the books in our house after reading the above-linked article, and I know that if my family depended on our book budget alone, we’d be in trouble).

But I didn’t know how quickly the busyness of life can overtake these practices.

I didn’t know just how much of an impact even our imperfect practices can have on our young children.

And I didn’t know how exceptionally dictatorial assertive my toddler could be when it comes to books.

So even though I should be the all-knowing teacher/mom taking the lead on all things involving academic development, it’s clear that this has already become a shared, symbiotic kind of culture. Truth be told, I think I like it better that way. And I looking forward to that application with future students.

By the way–the book he picked for me? It was was actually one I’d been meaning to read for a couple of weeks, but hadn’t yet gotten to. Thanks to him, I got just the jump-start I needed.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Come back next Wednesday for another “#TeacherMom” post. Read here for the rest of my weekly blogging topic schedule/background.

Why You Should Watch The Little Prince As this School Year Starts

When Netflix announced their film rendition of The Little Prince, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who worried whether it would do justice to the literary masterpiece.

Creative license was certainly taken to help weave the original ideas through a more chronological narrative, but I found it to have a complementary rather than competing effect.

But for reasons beyond simple enjoyment of a beautiful piece of art, I found myself repeatedly thinking what a marvelous watch this would make for anyone involved in education. I’ve listed the reasons I found most significant below.

#1: It reminds us to see the world through students’ eyes.

Amid a tense plot point when the Aviator’s fate hung in the balance, the protagonist’s mother told her, “Remember, tomorrow is a very important day.”

My daughter promptly said, “Not to her. The only important thing to her is that old man.”

It seems ironic that the very standards/hopes/priorities that are supposed to be about our students are the very fog that can prevent us from truly seeing those students: their learning, their hopes, and their priorities.

#2 It reminds us not to take too much stock in one solution, program, or set of standards.

“How can everything that is essential be in one book?”

When we depend entirely on one boxed program to “cover” content, we will absolutely miss out on what is most essential. After all, it’s in the little, messy moments that we find the real thinking and learning (not, as those boxed programs would lead us to believe, in all the “right answers” that students regurgitate).

#3 It reminds us to honor the present

“You’re going to make a wonderful adult.” (Protagonist’s mother)

With all the pressures on “readiness,” we can all use a reminder to see the child in front of us right now.

#4 …While also reminding us to consider what matters most for the future.

“You’re going to make a wonderful adult.” (Aviator)

I found it significant that this same line takes on different meanings in the two contexts. The same is true when we consider our children’s futures in general. Allowing our actions to be driven by fear of failure (theirs and de facto ours) just yields more stress and panic. Acting out of optimism for who our children are now and their worthwhile developing qualities produces more hope and confidence.

featured image: MissMayoi

4 Reasons To Add The Seventh Wish To Your Upper Elementary Shelves

 

Nothing made me want to read Kate Messner’s The Seventh Wish more than when I first heard it had been censored from certain schools. Plus, having witnessed the devastating effects of drug abuse in loved ones myself as a child, I was anxious to see her approach to such a difficult subject for younger readers.

And she exceeded all expectations. Here are four reasons you should add this book to your elementary school libraries and read aloud lists this year:

It’s a realistic fiction with a touch of fantasy your kids will love

One would be justified in worrying about how to address drug addiction in a realistic fiction for kids–how to avoid dwelling on its dark and all-encompassing realities while also avoiding an overly light-hearted tone that minimizes those realities? Messner masterfully achieves this by weaving the subject through other realistic and highly-relatable themes: feeling noticed by parents, helping friends who struggle with school or home, and pursuing dreams in sports. And to cap it off, she gets readers imagining what would happen to these if you found a magical wish-granting fish. She goes on to illustrate the impact on all these when a family member gets caught up with drugs, including a powerful parallel depicting the dangers of believing there’s any silver bullet that can solve our problems.

For the many lonely kids for whom drug addiction in a loved one is already a reality, it gives validation, hope, and courage.

Messner shared one librarian’s reasoning for pulling the book from her shelves:

“It’s not that I don’t think heroin addiction is extremely important. Our community has faced its share of heartbreaking stories in regards to drug abuse but fourth and fifth graders are still so innocent to the sad drug world. Even two years from now when they’re in sixth grade this book will be a wonderful and important read but as a mother of a fourth grader, I would never give him a book about heroin because he doesn’t even know what that is. I just don’t think that at 10 years old he needs to worry about that on top of all of the other things he already worries about… For now, I just need the 10 and 11-year-olds biggest worry to be about friendships, summer camps, and maybe their first pimple or two.”

But the devastating truth is that we can’t control what our 10 and 11 year-olds’ biggest worries are–and it’s unfair to ignore that drug addiction in family members is already the reality for far too many.

In the story, Messner validates those realities young kids face: the loneliness and embarrassment. The deception and theft. The pain of watching your loved one slip away. We cannot know how many of our students face this daily. But the real question is how many could be encouraged by this story’s message to know that they are not alone and that they can find a safe place to talk about how they’re feeling?

Furthermore, in the event that drug abuse has thankfully not yet touched the life of a younger child, this book will help him/her develop both awareness and empathy for their friends that have or will feel its impact.

It helps kids catch a glimpse of what true resilience looks like.

“But there’s no answer for this one. Mom didn’t do anything wrong.

It’s not fair. Life has rules, and if you follow them, things are supposed to work out.

If you place in all your dances, you get to move up to the next level.

If you brush your teeth, you’re not supposed to get cavities.

If you love your kids and take care of them and send them to a good college, they’re not supposed to stick needles in their arms.

But I guess it doesn’t work that way. None of this is working the way it should. Because Abby was stupid enough to try drugs.”

So much of what happens in life is out of our control–a fact kids know better than most. If we try to perpetuate the “fairness” of life in the name of protecting our kids, we only rob them of a developed sense of resilience when that false dichotomy is challenged.  

It breaks away from the stereotypes of drug abuse users in typical D.A.R.E. programs

“We learned about heroin in the D.A.R.E. Program, when Officer Randolph came to talk to all the fifth graders about drugs. We had to watch a movie, and in the heroin part, these raggedy, greasyhaired people were sitting around a smoky room, sticking needles in their arms.”

Charlie keeps returning to the fact that that as a great sister, student, and athlete, Abby had never looked like the people in those videos, which makes the entire situation much more shocking and difficult for her to understand. But Messner’s decision to depict a user from a stable, loving family helps readers gain broader perspective that drug abuse doesn’t just happen to “those people,” but that it is a choice made by individuals everywhere.

I believe that sharing books that provide such a perspective would have a more powerful and long-lasting effect when it comes to drug prevention.

Have you read The Seventh Wish yet? Please share your impressions below!

featured image: John Liu

Current Events, a Controversial Read Aloud, & Changes I Can Make to Better Promote Peace

Nearly five years ago, I selected One Crazy Summer for my fifth graders’ end-of-day read aloud. In it, three young sisters are sent to spend a summer with their mother in Oakland, California in 1968, amidst intense developments in the civil rights movement. While the themes of the book are many, race is a prominent issue, mostly presented through the girls’ involvement with a Black Panthers day camp.

As I taught in a mostly middle-class white suburban area, I viewed the book as a great opportunity to discuss civil rights. Still in the naivety of second-year teaching, I was surprised when one student started to be picked up about 15 minutes early every day–to avoid read aloud time. When I asked about it, my student explained the family’s viewpoint that “Lil Bobby” Hutton (whose death the girls were to protest in a march with their day camp) was “a thug” that provoked the police.

At first I was shocked. Then disappointed. After all, didn’t the parents trust that we were having open-ended and lively discussions with every issue raised? Didn’t they see the benefit of considering multiple opinions? Didn’t they know that I would never try to indoctrinate my students with my personal opinions on sensitive issues?

Over time, those emotions faded into the swirl of the years, but I never quite forgot the incident. But in light of the tragic recent events in Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights, Dallas, and more, this memory has resurfaced, and with it, reflections turning inward. How could I have handled the read aloud differently to help this family feel more comfortable with difficult subjects? How can I better use my role as a teacher to promote peace in the future? 3 ideas have come to mind:

  1. I can avoid assumptions. Everyone has a story, and I can’t even begin to understand the intricacies of every family’s background experience in shaping their current perspectives. But it is unacceptable for me to assume a reason for their sensitivity to or withdrawal from something we do in the classroom.

My job is not to help students to “see the light” in favor of my opinions. Rather, it is to encourage them to ask their own questions and to analyze information as independent and confident learners. Some families may misunderstand even this simple motive if their child appears to start coming home questioning their opinions or family values. Which is why the next two steps are so important.

  1. I can preface potentially controversial topics with reassurances. No matter how much I’ve worked to build mutual trust with parents throughout the year, at no point am I “done” in that endeavor–especially when we are about to ford hazardous waters. No parent is ever going to respond well to what is even perceived as a “teacher knows best” mindset, even more so when the issue might be emotionally charged.

In the future, I will be sure to dedicate a post on our class blog with not just background on the book or activity, but more importantly, with information on differing perspectives and the respect with which we will be treating that diversity.

  1. I can share student conversations. Once we get going, I can continue to promote transparency by documenting and sharing the discourse. A SoundCloud snippet, a YouTube video, photos of visible thinking routines–the options are abundant for giving parents a window to see for themselves the impact of open dialogue.

Of course, some of those discussions might be more spontaneous; if that’s the case, this sharing would be even more essential for parents to gain insight on the quality of the dialogue happening in our classroom. (In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think it would be worthwhile to replace my inspirational quote of the day component with a student dialogue of the day section…).

I know this is just a start to changes I can make. But any step toward promoting greater mutual understanding, trust, and compassion for students and their families to engage in a safe environment is one step closer to a more peaceful future.

I would love to learn from your experiences or recommendations. Please share in the comments below!

Featured image: Lisa Ouellette

Do Summer Reading Program Incentives Work?

I guess this question depends first on what libraries hope to achieve by setting incentives with their summer reading programs.

Is it to get kids to enjoy reading?

Is it to create a community of readers?

Is it to reward kids for their growing love of reading?

Is it to get kids to come to the library who may not otherwise do so during the summer?

And maybe it’s a combination of a few. But amid all the research on the harm that extrinsic rewards and even reading logs themselves can have on students’ intrinsic desire to read, it does make me stop and think.

Don’t get me wrong. I love our community’s summer reading program–the story times, the crafts. My daughter even pretend plays “library,” directing her cousins to call her by the name of her favorite local librarian. But it’s the incentives aspect that I wonder about, both in the library and at school.

Take the third possible question, for instance. Aren’t the kids who are being brought to the library on a regular basis also typically receiving reading immersion at home? (habits like laptime reading as babies, bedtime stories, healthy book collecting, watching parents read, etc.) So it seems to follow that kids who receive summer reading program rewards are being doubly rewarded–mostly for their parents’ initial commitment to cultivate a love of reading. Which further follows that the incentives aren’t actually rewarding growing reading habits, but existing reading habits.

Then there’s the matter of tracking books. Libraries and schools will often put stipulations on books to “qualify” toward the quota–after all, we don’t want to give the same reward to a nine-year-old who read 20 picture books vs. one who read 10 hefty chapter books, do we? (I have certainly bought into this thinking in the past)

But consider this anecdote from Misty Adoniou:

“When my son was nine years old, he put aside the large Harry Potter novel he had been slowly, but enthusiastically, reading each evening and instead began ploughing through lots of fairly uninspiring books that he brought home from school each day.

It turned out the Year 4 teachers had devised a competition at his school – whichever class read the most books would be rewarded with an end of term pizza party.

The aim, I presume, was to motivate the children to read. It is ironic then that the effect was that my son stopped reading for pleasure and instead began reading for the numbers.”

Don’t students get enough of this numbers game without summer reading programs jumping on that bandwagon, too?

I really appreciated how Nancy Bailey put it in a recent article, “Those who control what a student reads, really mean they don’t expect the student will read without being pushed to do so. They actually have low expectations, or no expectations, of the student.”

Of course, every summer reading program is different, and many strive to give as much choice as possible to their readers. But for the sake of protecting and cultivating our readers’ authentic love of learning, we need to be ever-vigilant for incentives that make reading about a carrot and stick instead. 

featured image: Bethany Petrik