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.

An Epiphany: Blog Posting Topic Schedule

You know when you get those moments of clarity that make you giddy with excitement? I’m currently in the thralls of one of those right here!

I’ve been reflecting lately about my blogging habits that I know are holding me back. Like the fact that my brainstorming process reminds me of chicken feed scattered thin across a yard (I have several dozen Google Documents of ideas I start and then abandon to jump to something else). Or the time I waste second-guessing myself before I hit publish. Or the mental energy I squander with worry that since I’m not currently in a classroom, my ideas are less valuable.

But today, I’ve had a stroke of inspiration that I hope will help me better organize, focus, and refresh my thoughts and time. I’ve decided to try joining those bloggers who create weekly topic schedules for their posts:

Mondays: Inspiring Inquiry

Wednesdays: #TeacherMom

Friday: Learning Through Reflecting

Some background on each topic:

Mondays: Inspiring Inquiry

I feel like I’m constantly stumbling across beautiful and thought-provoking images, articles, or videos that I think would make incredible Provocations or conversation-starters for students (for those not familiar with International Baccalaureate or the PYP–Primary Years Program–a Provocation is a component of an inquiry unit that provokes students’ questions and thinking, hopefully orienting them toward that unit). Sometimes I’ll tweet them and sometimes I’ll bookmark them. But I’m generally left with a nagging, back-of-mind worry that I’ll want to find that one resource again for my future students, only to be thwarted by my hopeless lack of organization.

So I’m setting aside Mondays as “Inspiring Inquiry” as a personal goal to not only better organize provocation-worthy material, but to share with my fellow teachers. In addition to publishing my favorite resource of the week, I’ll also plan on listing open-ended questions you can have students consider.

Wednesdays: #TeacherMom

I’m particularly excited about this one. I’ve often heard the advice for bloggers to “write what you know.” As a teacher writing for an educational blog, I never anticipated this being an issue (after all, despite being on year two of my extended parental leave, I still can’t seem to turn off “teacher mode”).  But the longer I’m away from my classroom, the more difficult it’s becoming to reach back to write about my experiences in the classroom. And if I’m not reflecting about personal teaching experiences, I worry about originality–I don’t want to just recycle other people’s ideas.

What’s more, child-rearing has taken center stage on the “what I know” front while I’m home with our three little ones. And I don’t often turn to this all-encompassing aspect of my life for writing inspiration because it’s not the classroom.  

But I recently realized how very silly this has been. Though my students are much smaller, they still offer rich learning opportunities every day. And not only run-of-the-mill parenthood learning (ie, don’t lay down on your picnic blanket during a crowded library storytime, or the toddler behind you might try to pick your nose), but learning that very much uses and extends my professional development as a teacher. So it’s time for those #TeacherMom stories to come to light. Buckle up!

Friday: Learning Through Reflecting

I’m setting this aside to reflect on lightbulb moments on my previous teaching practices. These “aha” moments usually come as I connect with and learn from my PLN–their tweets, blogs, and photos. They also come through keeping up with educational journals and news. 


I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous about making this kind of commitment. I know there will be days or even weeks where it just doesn’t happen. But since I want to continue to model important learner qualities to my students (current small ones and future bigger ones), I refuse to let fear of failure keep me from taking a chance that might help me grow and improve.

Meanwhile, I’d love to hear from you! Have you ever tried a blogging topic schedule? What worked for you and what did not? What are your thoughts on the topics I’ve chosen? And I’d also love to hear your feedback on these themed posts as they start rolling out next week!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Getting Creatively REAL with Our Students

Fractions. History. Essay-writing. We like to tell ourselves that these are neat, linear, and formulaic. That the perfect boxed curriculum or textbook will give us step-by-step instructions and printables. That we can contain and document the learning in a consistent, objective, and measurable path.

But the truth is that real learning is messy, nonlinear, and oh-so-creative.

I was inspired by this new video by New Age Creators entitled, “An Honest Look into Creativity:”

I was struck by the parallels between what I’ve learned of the learning process and how she describes her creative process.

When I search my memory for the most magical and in-depth learning moments with my students, I find that creativity was usually the common denominator. It doesn’t take long for two specific anecdotes to come to mind:

1. During my third year of teaching, I decided that if I was going to ask my fifth graders to make goals that were truly meaningful and challenging for them, that I should openly lead the way. I shared that I had always told myself that I was not at all artistic. I explained my desire to make more room for art in class and for myself. I told them how I’d always wished I could consider myself creative. And I asked them for their help. For the rest of the year, it was as if they responded to a clarion call. I was amazed not only at their deep interest and support of my personal goal, but at how much more open they seemed to digging deeper and taking risks with their own growth.

2. One day, as my students were working on writing some limericks, I sat down to write my own. During wrap-up, I shared–not just the finished product, but my thought process and inspiration in putting it together. That kind of modeling became more second-nature for me as time wore on, but at the time, it was a risky move in creativity. And again, it seemed to result in opened floodgates of my my students’ enthusiasm and willingness to discuss their personal writing processes.

These and other experiences have taught me that no genuine effort in cultivating a creative learning environment goes to waste. The profound benefits I’ve witnessed include:

  • Strengthen the teacher-student relationship as students sense you are right in the learning trenches with them.
  • Make the process more tangible and open to dialogue.
  • Decrease the hypocrisy of expecting students to do what you would never do yourself.
  • Help students and teachers better understand their own learning processes.
  • Create a sense of authenticity and decrease the perfectionism as students and teachers learn to drop the charade of learning looking a certain way for everyone.

What are reasons you make creativity a priority?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

The Unexpected Outcome of Morning Messages

My introduction came early in my teaching career. A visiting professional development speaker invited us to maintain “small daily doses” when it comes to modeling quality writing, emphasizing consistency over complexity. One of his recommendations was the Morning Message. Working on improving visual imagery? Add an example to your morning message. Having some confusion with certain homonyms? Toss ‘em in. Intrigued by the concept, I portioned off a space on my whiteboard to give it a try.

The results were as he described. I often modeled very specific writing skills in my morning message that we sometimes dissected as a whole class. Other times, I just let students notice them on their own. Soon, they were grasping the idea that writers employ specific tools with great purpose, and that they could identify and use those tools, too. They added techniques to their toolboxes. They openly discussed their strategies. And slowly, they came to see themselves as capable authors, too.

But there were certain other results that were quite unexpected. Wanting to be authentic with my students, I wrote those daily 3-4 sentences about my real-life experiences and feelings–and what much of my life revolved around at that time was my new baby girl, Lizzie. Her first year of life was my first year of teaching, and morning messages became a window for my students into my world with her.

Mostly, I shared moments that made us laugh. Like the time Lizzie tripped and then insisted that the floor pushed her. Or the time she instructed herself to smell a dandelion (and not to eat it) and then did so for 10 minutes. Or the time she combed her hair with a syrupy fork to be like Ariel in The Little Mermaid.

Occasionally, I shared moments of sadness. Like when she woke up from a nap helplessly covered in vomit. Or the morning she told me, “Mommy no bye-bye.”  

Whatever I shared, it was real. And my students came to see me as a real person, experiencing the ups and downs of real life.

Morning Message
Morning Message from November 26, 2012

But that wasn’t the end of the surprises that morning messages brought to our class. Eventually, I realized that it would be fun to capture those little memories for my daughter to enjoy someday. Quietly, at the end of the day as the students cleaned up and did classroom jobs, I’d snap a photo of the morning message and email it to an account I’d created for her.

My students started to notice.

And then they started asking to take the photo for me.

And then they started fiercely safeguarding the message from getting prematurely erased before it could be photographed.

I started to hear them swapping “Lizzie stories.” Former students came in and reminisced about them. Even parents expressed how much their students looked forward to those stories.

In hindsight, I’d say that the morning messages became an instrumental way we built rapport, authenticity, and empathy in our classroom–because being real with our students is one of the most precious gifts we can give them. For you, that may be better achieved in other ways, but if you’d like to give morning messages a try, below are some tips to keep in mind.

Tips for Morning Messages

Keep them brief. For younger grades, maybe even just a sentence. For older ones, just a few. Don’t bog yourself or your students down.

Keep them optional… At first, we tried reading the messages aloud together, but it just felt so awkward for all of us that we decided to skip it. Maybe it would be suitable to read it together with younger students, but for my fifth graders, I didn’t want to burden them with another “to-do.” The only time we read it together was when we were evaluating specific writing techniques as part of our unit.

…but make them engaging. Make it something your students will want to read, even if you don’t require it.

Tie in current writing concepts... Though it was always a small dose of modeled writing, sharing my thought-process with my students on how exactly I decided to craft my sentences was always a powerful teaching opportunity.

…but keep them authentic. Don’t sacrifice authenticity for an overly-contrived teaching moment. Share your true experiences and thoughts. If it doesn’t feel natural and helpful to weave the morning message into your writing instruction, don’t force it for that particular message.

Cursive? I always wrote my morning messages in cursive simply for consistent, but small exposure. As I told them, I didn’t want anything to limit their able to read any text, because cursive does still show up now and then.

What about you? Do you do morning messages? Please share your experiences below!

Featured image: Jack Amick via flickr

3 Reasons We Hate Science Fair–And How to Fix It

The day my school decided to move science fair to sixth grade instead of fifth, we all cheered–students, teachers, and parents alike. Years later, I’m reflecting on the root of our mutual animosity toward the project. And it seems to come down to three problems–and solutions!

Lack of Teacher Modeling

We ask students to dig deep. To ask questions that don’t have an answer yet. In short, to go beyond comparing popcorn brands. But how often do we model how we develop our own original questions? Share our honest, raw wonderings? Demonstrate our process of Googling to refine an idea?

Creativity and innovation are skills, and science fair projects are an advanced exercise of these skills. If we expect our students to suddenly showcase skills we’ve never helped them cultivate (or worse, that we’ve never cultivated ourselves), we are setting them up for failure–or just another diaper absorbency project.

  • SOLUTION → Metacognition: MindShift recently wrote about 5 inquiry tools to help students “learn how to learn.” These metacognitive strategies encourage students to honestly reflect on their own learning processes and emotions when facing challenges (see also “Smart Strategies that Help Students Learn How to Learn”).
  • SOLUTION → Teach questioning: If you want students to ask “measureable questions,” teach them how to do so long before introducing science fair. Strategies like frequent use of Visible Thinking protocols trains students how to develop and refine their questions. (see also Tubric).
Lack of Existing Student-Driven Project-Based Learning

The science fair should not be an isolated experience of students taking ownership over and driving their own learning process. If it is, it’s unlikely that many will rise to the freedom in ways that will fuel their passion and motivation.

  • SOLUTION → Project-Based Learning: Make it your next weekend project to create one new PBL opportunity. Guides like this one found on Edutopia can help you get started.
  • SOLUTION → Student Voice & Choice: Mindfully consider your students’ choice and voice in their day-to-day learning. When we gradually let go of control and allow our students to steer the learning, they will grow in confidence and self-understanding.
Lack of Engaged and Authentic Audience

Even if students do manage to find a passion-driven project, how often does their work ever go beyond a cardboard trifold display in the gymnasium (unless they happen to move on to regionals)? Too often, we only allow our students small sips from locally limited audiences–when we could lead them to the very fountain of global conversation with our fingertips. It’s time to throw open the floodgates and watch what happens when our students swap ideas with peers, scientists, and experts across the world.

  • SOLUTION → Student Blogging: Encourage your students to blog not only the final presentation, but their entire process along the way. Then, teach them how to ask for feedback to fine-tune their ideas.
  • SOLUTION → The Wonderment: This is an especially wonderful platform for younger students to collaborate safely online.  They can upload photos, videos, and text, asking questions and getting inspiration from kids around the world (see other excellent blogging alternatives here).

Let’s break the mold of hating science fair this year. What are some of your strategies to do so?

Featured Image: Andria via Flickr

6 Thoughts on What’s Wrong With Compliance

In “An Open Letter to Pinterest from a Teacher,” I wrote about worrisome pins, including those that circulate around compliance. One commenter responded with her perspective:
Compliance Comment

 

There seems to be differing views on what compliance really entails. When we are concerned about students’ disregard of rules and respect, where do we look for answers? I would assert that turning to compliance is treating the symptom and not the cause. This thoughtful comment has inspired me to further expound on my thoughts. Below are six issues with compliance that come to mind. 

Lack of compliance does not mean lack of rules

Creating rules is always an important strategy for forming positive learning environments. But if we approach the rule-making process from a teacher-centered “here-are-my-rules;-now-follow-them” mindset, we are unnecessarily centering that environment on a top-down compliance system. We can achieve a more positive–and accountable–environment when we share this process, asking students what they need to be able to learn.

Compliance does not equal respect

The very definition of compliance conflicts with building respectful relationships. Synonyms on Thesaurus.com include:

  • don’t make waves
  • fit in
  • satisfy
  • submit
  • give in
  • give up

If our primary interest is to build mutually respectful relationships with our students, plastering our walls with things like “blurt out” charts detracts from that message.

bbbfd9ad4c4b14cba518ffc0c92d3710

Compliance is often counterproductive for cooperation

Principal David Geurin discusses the problems that arise when we value compliance over commitment from our teachers. This principle equally applies to our students. As Geurin says, “[Compliance] may result in some change in behavior, but it may only get the appearance of a change in behavior.” If we instead shift our focus on truly connecting with our students, I believe we would cultivate deeper understanding of and commitment to a shared vision for a positive learning environment.

Compliance diminishes learning

I shared this example in a response to the comment and I’ll share it here, too. During the first few of weeks of kindergarten, my daughter came home chatting and singing all about nothing but following instructions and sitting at the carpet. And that seemed natural, because most teachers focus on classroom procedures and rules during the first part of school. But the unfortunate result was that she was trained from the get-go what school is about–and it wasn’t learning. It was compliance. Not anticipation for the wonderings they’d explore. Not hope that their curiosity and abilities would be cultivated. Not even simple joy for discovering the world around them. Compliance. And when compliance is the tone of a classroom environment, when it is valued above all else, at best, learning is diminished. After all, how can we expect students to branch out, take risks, and explore the possibilities when they are continually waiting to be told where to be, what to say, and how to sit?

Compliance sacrifices creativity for control

Educator Michael Niehoff distinguishes between two “camps:” compliance/control vs. creativity/innovation. He finds that when it comes down to a challenge, we often have a choice to make between the two sides, and that those who stubbornly stick with compliance can miss out on unexpected learning opportunities. If we want our students to think outside the box, we need to actively model that as well by sometimes letting go of our preconceived biases and attitudes toward how school “should” be done.

Compliance can silence student voice

One of the ugliest consequences of compliance is when our students leave their contributions at the door because they know that their voices won’t really be heard anyway. But it’s difficult to spot because teachers, administrators, and a parents alike sometimes confuse it with good discipline. This issue was recently documented by Inquiry Partners when a perceived top-rate classroom was observed and filmed. Most everyone came away with glowing reviews, but as the author states, “what none of them knew…was that what we were actually filming was a prime (and common) example of student disengagement.” They found that 86 of the 90 minutes, the students were sitting and listening. These are clearly students who have been groomed for years for compliance. And it happens in even the best teachers’ classrooms.


 

None of this is to discount the need for individual behavior contracts or similar measures on occasion. But even in those circumstances, we should be careful to ask ourselves if we care more about the students simply complying with the rules, or working to help them take steps toward meaningful change for themselves. What about you? What does compliance mean to you? And what has happened in your classroom when you begin to let go of control?

featured image: Jesse Moore

3 Timeless Lessons From “The Yellow Star” About Cyberbullying

The “Yellow Star” by Carmen Agra Deedy beautifully illustrates the legend of King Christian X standing with his Jewish people by wearing a yellow star during Nazi occupation.

And while the Danish Jews were never actually forced to wear the star, confirmation of the king’s support for his Jewish people have surfaced, including “substantial evidence that the King actually suggested the idea of everyone wearing the yellow star should the Danish Jews be forced to wear it.” (source)

Legend or not, this 20th century story highlights timeless lessons of humanity that we find especially applicable to the 21st century subject of cyberbullying.

  1. Teach Solidarity

“Early in the year 1940…there were only Danes. Tall Danes, stout Danes, cranky Danes, even Great Danes.”

We must actively teach our students that what we have in common outweighs our differences. Cyberbullying offers a shroud of anonymity that can tempt some people to forget that a living, feeling human being is on the other side of that unkind post or dehumanizing poll. We can bring that shroud out of obscurity by directly talking about it. About digital citizenship. About the human experience. And about whether it’s really worth making someone else feel like they don’t belong.

  1. Teach Courage

“If you wished to hide a star,” wondered the king to himself, “where would you place it?” His eyes searched the heavens. “Of course!” he thought. The answer was so simple. “You would hide it among its sisters.”

I recently came across a disturbing article about a poll for the ugliest girl at a high school. And though the young woman who was targeted responded courageously, I was left wondering how each kid involved in that poll could have acted with more courage, too. How can we teach them to take initiative and take a stand, even if it isn’t very popular? I believe it starts with us. We need to model the courage to stand up and say no, even in a society that often turns “cruelty into entertainment and sport.”  

  1. Teach Empathy

“What if the good and strong people of the world stood shoulder to shoulder, crowding the streets and filling the squares, saying,’ You cannot do this injustice to our sisters and brothers, or you must do it to us as well.’ What if?”

Empathy requires us to truly reach other people. It rejects in-group/out-group. It embraces vulnerability and imperfections. It places genuine value on every human being. Cyberbullying creates in-group/out-groups. It exploits people’s vulnerabilities and imperfections. And it tears apart the self-worth of everyone it can. We need teachers who will dare to voice exactly what cyberbullying is all about, “Go[ing] beyond praising the right behaviors — proactively counteract[ing] the forces that stand in their way. This is where standing up, not just standing by, comes in.” (“Empathy: The Most Important Back-to-School Supply”).

King Christian X’s Jewish people may never have been forced to wear the yellow star, but his solidarity, courage, and empathy are likely what prevented that unjust mandate to begin with. What could these three qualities do for your students, your school, and your community?

Image credit: the lost gallery