Bringing Back Some Teacher Control to Reading Instruction

Thumbnail- Wiley Blevins

by Guest Blogger Wiley Blevins—Author (A Fresh Look at Phonics) and
2016 Literacy for All Conference speaker

As teachers, we know our students better than anyone else. Yet in some schools, teachers are given curriculum and told to follow it with fidelity—meaning, do exactly what the teacher guide says and never veer. To compound this issue, principals and district personnel visit these teachers, observe their teaching, and criticize or punish them when the lesson hasn’t been followed verbatim.

This happens for a variety of reasons that are important to understand. A district reading coordinator, for example, is responsible for the academic growth of all the students in the school system. She purchases a packaged curriculum with research data to support its efficacy and believes that this program will have a strong, positive impact on student growth. She devotes a great deal of time and money to select, purchase, and train on the use of these new instructional materials and practices. So, it makes sense that the district administrator would want these materials used properly and implemented well. When principals and district-level personnel visit classrooms for observations, some have reading expertise, others do not. So, what do they do? They pick up the lesson and follow along as the teacher teaches. Of course, any deviation from that plan will be noticed. Over time, teachers begin feeling like these observations are increasingly punitive and decide it’s best to just “follow the plan.” In some instances the result is teachers who are going through the motions. It’s fear-based teaching and it’s the most disheartening thing I see in classrooms. So what do you do?

In some school districts I’ve worked with, I’ve recommended using an 80-20 principle of instruction. I didn’t make this up (I wish I had); it was something used by one of my principals back in the 80s and something common to high-tech companies today. Here’s the basics behind the 80-20 principle. Workers devote 80% of their time to the assignments given them by their managers. The other 20% of their time is theirs, time in which they can innovate to create new product ideas and grow and develop. This creates a situation in which the company is getting the work they need from their employees, and the employees are respected and highly engaged because they have time to be creative, use their training, and possibly create breakthrough ideas.

How does this apply to the teaching of reading? What this means is that 80% of the time teachers use the district approved materials and resources (including tools for differentiation). 20% of the time, teachers examine their student needs and use their own creative ideas and best practices to meet those needs. This can occur in many different forms.

In one district, teachers followed the curriculum 4 days a week (80% of the time). The 5th day was called a “Flex” day. The teachers could meet the stated learning objectives in any way they saw fit. Some teachers would “bank” their flex days for a month and have a “Flex Week” in which they would do an author study, book study, or larger project-based learning mini-unit.

In another district, they built in places in the lesson plans each day where teachers had choices. Some were simple places, such as the selection of the daily read aloud. The district’s curriculum only provided a read aloud for one day each week, yet students need to be read to every day. So, the district created a list of books from collections they had purchased, books available in the school library, and other recommended titles that the teachers could choose from related to the unit’s theme. The teachers could also choose any book of their own that they liked. The teachers were given a generic read aloud protocol (routine for selecting a book, identifying vocabulary words to highlight, writing text-based questions, etc.) to use with the books they chose. Teachers loved this freedom and the amount of reading aloud increased in the classrooms. That’s a simple fix.

In other places of the lesson, teachers were asked to think about the formative assessment data they had collected throughout the lesson or week and make decisions about what to do next based on their students’ needs, rather than what the curriculum suggested. For example, on the last day of an instructional cycle in any reading program (generally Day 5), teachers are given a series of review activities, one per main skill taught that week. In classrooms where teachers felt punished for not following the curriculum, they would simple march through these (often simple and boring) activities without regard to whether or not their students needed them. In an 80-20 situation, teachers instead look at which skills their students need reinforcement on (and which students need what), then select from the activities provided, a list of additional more-engaging activities provided by the district, or create their own activities to use. This is so much more fun for teachers and more purposeful for students! If a district observer entered the classroom and picked up the lesson plan, they knew this was a place the teacher was thinking about her students’ needs and innovating using her wealth of experience, resources, and expertise.

Another example of bigger choice involved the use of novel studies. For the last unit of the year (in which the district really wanted to reinforce the skills taught during the year in a longer text than those provided in basal reading anthologies), teachers could choose to do the unit provided in the basal or replace it with a novel study. The specific novel used was selected by the teachers after several were distributed for review and a vote taken. (Teachers must have a say in some of these decisions.) A few master teachers then worked together at the district level to create a lesson guide including some support for vocabulary selection and instruction, text-dependent questions, writing experiences, etc. However, teachers were asked to evaluate their students’ growth on all the major standards for the year and focus on those that students still needed work on. That means teachers could innovate on the plan provided. Additional support readings were provided to supplement the novel. These were often short, informational text pieces so those skills could be addressed, too.

We need to put systems in place like these in which teachers are respected, highly engaged, thinking professionals with the necessary support tools. This involves a system in which district level administrators also know that their efforts (time, money, expertise) are being utilized and publishers are comfortable that their materials are being implemented with enough efficacy to ensure their success. But remember, a textbook or instructional resource is only a tool. And no one tool will be perfect. You want to find and use the best tools possible for your students. But you and only you can take that tool to the next level by adjusting it to your students and their specific needs.


Wiley Blevins is speaking at the Literacy for All conference on:

Monday (10/24) from 10:30 am – 12:00 pm– The Key Characteristics of Strong Phonics Instruction and the 10 Common Causes of Failure (Grades K-2)

Monday (10/24) from 1:30 pm – 3:00 pm, Navigating Nonfiction (Grades 3-6)

Tuesday (10/25) from 1:00 pm – 2:30 pm– The Key Characteristics of Strong Phonics Instruction and the 10 Common Causes of Failure (Grades K-2) (repeated)

Read to them…just because…

by Guest Bloggers JoEllen McCarthy and Erica Pecorale, Literacy for All Conference Speakers

Because

Every

Child’s

Awareness and

Understanding is

Strengthened

Every time they are read to.

Read alouds matter. They create opportunities for a vibrant tapestry of rich classroom discussions. They provide pathways to broader thinking and reflection about the world. The empirical research about the benefits of read aloud is abundant, but there is “heart evidence” too.  Books touch our students’ hearts and minds.

Read alouds open up opportunities for gaining new perspectives or different appreciations in ways that only beautiful literature can.  Teachers read aloud… because…“Strong young minds continue to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who send their books out into the world like ships on the sea. Books give a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.”  (Matilda by Roald Dahl)

In a fast-paced world where events, images and media are constantly sending messages, our students need opportunities to deconstruct their thinking. The choices we make about the texts we share with our students, convey big messages, strengthen relationships, and promote a greater understanding for ourselves, develop compassion for others and appreciate the diversity of our world.

Teachers understand that the precious gift of read aloud is something we must do just because…of all it offers. Stories must be savored. It goes beyond the teaching of literacy. It is about teaching the hearts, minds and hands of all students. Because our time allotted for read aloud needs to provide examples of  rich diverse literature.

Just because.

We need literature that empowers students through responsive teaching that imparts knowledge, skills and attitudes (Gloria Ladson Billings). Literacy and life lessons are about knowing, feeling, and doing work that matters.

Just because.

Because they promote empathy, like in Lend a Hand, John Frank and London Ladd’s book of poetry celebrating acts of kindness.

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Because they encourage creativity and inquiry, like in The Wonder, Faye Hanson, wondering about the world, with joy and love and imagination for what it possible.

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Because they make us think differently, in Yamada’s companion to What Do You Do with an Idea, exploring problems as opportunities.

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Because they spread love, like in J.J. Austrian and Mike Curato’s Worm Loves Worm. Because “Love is art. Love is education. Love is accountability. And it needs repeating. Love is love is love.” – Brendan Kiely

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Because they take us to new places, where we can deepen our understanding about the world.  Like in Susan Verde and Peter Reynold’s Water Princess we thirst for a future where everyone has access to basic human needs.

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Because awareness and mindfulness call us to action. In Kids Who Are Changing the World, by Anne Jankeliowitch, real issues, inspire real children to pursue their passions and solve problems, while helping others.

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Because they change perspectives and priorities.  Like in Yard Sale, by Eve Bunting and Lauren Castillo, where readers discover that the best things in life aren’t things.

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Because they show us how to be human. In If You Plant a Seed by Kadir Nelson, we are reminded that the way we react to new situations can have strong implications. The choice is ours.

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Read aloud to all students…just because…

“Books can often show us who we are and how we, the people of the world, regardless of race, color, or creed, are all connected at the core of humanity. ”    –Marva Allen

 


Join JoEllen McCarthy and Erica Pecorale to explore more books and life lessons for talking, reading, writing, and reflecting on the diverse world we live in at the Literacy for All Conference  Monday, October 24, 2016 from 1:30-3:00. Their session is entitled, Literacy and Life Lessons (Grades 3-6).

BIOS:

#AlwaysLearning, JoEllen McCarthy, is a lead learner and staff developer who spends her days working collaboratively in schools and districts to support best instructional practices, co-teaching, planning, coaching and supporting the curriculum of children.

As the Educator Collaborative’s Book Ambassador, JoEllen spreads a love and enthusiasm for learning and the role books plays in all aspects of education.  

Erica Pecorale is the Director of Teacher Education and an associate professor at Long Island University, Riverhead.  In addition to her work in preparing future teacher candidates for their educational endeavors, she continues to provide professional development support to teachers, administrators, parents and students in K-8 school settings.

Making The Writer’s Craft Visible: Teaching Purposeful Decision-Making In a Writers’ Workshop

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by Helen Sisk and Heather Rodman, Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative Faculty

This summer, improve your knowledge about writing and your expertise in teaching writing as you work with three well-known children’s authors and an amazing writing guru at the 4-day, Lesley Summer Literacy Institute: Making The Writer’s Craft Visible: Teaching Purposeful Decision-Making In a Writers’ Workshop.  Jack Gantos, Nikki Grimes, Steve Jenkins, and Carl Anderson will share their knowledge and experiences as writers and mentors.  They will help you examine texts to identify craft moves, notice how writers support their intended meaning, and make texts lively and interesting for others to read. As you develop your own repertoire of skills, you will learn how to teach your students to understand that writing is a series of decision-making choices that convey the writer’s purpose.

One learns to read by reading… and learns to write by writing and reading.  It is immersion into story and content with the close analysis of the writing craft that helps a writer create meaningful texts.  By engaging in an inquiry process to examine well-crafted texts at this year’s summer institute, you will learn a process to apply to any genre of writing.  Using The Continuum of Literacy Learning, other professional texts, and children’s literature, you will identify not only the craft moves writers use, but also think about how to use those same craft moves in creating well-written texts.

One aspect of fostering strong writing is for teachers to know how to assess their students as writers – what do students understand already, and what do they need to understand better as writers?  Teachers who study how writers develop craft, consider the role genre plays in writing and notice how conventions enhance meaning, can analyze student writing to design effective whole group minilessons, small group guided writing, and individual student conferences.  These three instructional contexts can assure that you meet the needs of a diverse range of student writers.

There is so much to learn as teachers of writing… and there is so much enjoyment to be had in engaging in the writing process as you enhance your skills.  Come participate in this amazing opportunity to learn from some of the best writers!

Hope to see you there!

Information on the Summer Literacy Institute can be found at http://www.lesley.edu/summer-literacy-institute/

Why Is It So Important to Use Mentor Texts in Conferences?

Carl_Anderson

by Guest Blogger Carl Anderson– Author and 2016 Lesley University Summer Institute Featured Speaker

The act of raising children involves surrounding them with mentors throughout their childhoods.  Piano and dance teachers, soccer and baseball coaches, and, yes, teachers in schools are all mentors for children who teach them things that their parents do not have the necessary expertise or time to teach themselves.

When we use the term “mentor text,” we are referring to a text that is an example of good writing from which children can learn about the craft of writing.  By studying a mentor text, a young writer can learn about how to write a lead, how to use punctuation to create cadence and rhythm in sentences, how to structure a text, or any one of hundreds if not thousands of ways that writers choose to craft their writing.

In a real sense, it’s the author of the text who is the mentor for the child.  A sixth grader who is studying Brown Girl Dreaming is learning about how to write from Jacqueline Woodson.  Or a first grader who is studying The Snowy Day is learning how to write from Ezra Jack Keats.  Just like Odysseus’s son Telemachus’ son learned from the Odysseus’s friend Mentor when Odysseus was away during his journeys in the ancient Greek poem The Odyssey, by Homer (I found out about the root of the word “mentor” from Georgia Heard in her book, Finding the Heart of Nonfiction!, students learn from the authors of every genre they study in a writing workshop.

Being familiar with mentor texts helps students with two of the key acts in composing a text.  First, when writers are starting to write a text, or a part of a text, they envision how it will go, a term I originally learned from Katie Wood Ray in her book, Wondrous Words (1999).  Writers often envision the overall structure of a text before they start writing it.  Likewise, when they write a section, a paragraph, a sentence, even the individual words that make up a sentence, they envision how these components of the text will go, too.  The root word of envisionment is, of course, vision.  For a writer to be able to “see” in her mind how a text or part of a text will go, she draws upon her knowledge of the kind of text she’s trying to write.  It’s through studying mentor texts that writers enhance their ability to imagine the many ways their own texts could go.

Revision, the part of the writing process that we usually think of as happening after writing a draft, refers to the act of making changes that improve a draft.  These changes might include adding detail to a draft, reworking a section, deleting a section, putting a section in a different place in the draft, or deciding to substitute one word for another.  Just as with the term envisionment, the root of the word revision is “vision.”  How do writers “see” in their minds how a text could be revised?  One important way is by thinking of the texts that they’ve studied, and comparing their drafts to those texts.  Ideas for how to revise a text come from that same pool of knowledge about texts that ideas for envisioning a text come from.

And once again, by studying mentor texts, writers are better able to imagine ways that a text could be revised.

Although I think it’s important to show students mentor texts when we are teaching the class a mini-lesson or a few students in a small group, I find that conferences are the place where mentor texts have the biggest impact on student learning, for several reasons:

  • In conferences, we can match a child up to a text that is at her level as a writer, and which shows the child exactly what it is I want her to learn to do right now. In a mini-lesson or small group, on the other hand, the mentor texts we show may not be exactly on each child’s level as a writer.
  • In conferences, since the mentor text is right in front of the child, he can closely study the text in a way that is harder when the text is projected onto a screen via a document camera, or onto the smart board via a laptop.
  • Conferences are more intimate than mini-lessons or small groups, and give us the chance to engage a child in a discussion about a text and how she can use what she is seeing in the text in her own writing.
  • In conferences, we are able to gauge whether or not a student understands the craft move that we’re studying in a text in a way that isn’t possible in a mini-lesson.

Finally, while we traditionally think of mentor texts as published texts—picture books, op-eds from a newspaper, short stories from a children’s magazine, etc.–they can also be texts that we have composed ourselves, or texts that have been composed by our own students.

Also, I use different kinds of texts as mentors to help students imagine the kinds of work they can do at other parts of the writing process.  For example, to help students envision what goes into keeping a successful writer’s notebook, I show them my own writer’s notebook.  I also show students my revised drafts–both paper and digital–so they can see the kinds of revision work I’ve done, such as information I’ve added in the margins.  I even show students edited drafts, so they can see the kinds of edits I make, and the symbols I use to indicate the kinds of edits I’m making.

You can hear Carl Anderson speak at our 2016 Summer Literacy Institute July 12-15, 2016. Register online at: https://www.regonline.com/Register/Checkin.aspx?EventID=1810005

 

Nobody Panic: There’s A Teacher On Board

Collen Cruz

by Guest Blogger Colleen Cruz– Author and Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker 

Recently NPR had an interview with a teacher, Sophie Murphy. But it wasn’t about curriculum or classrooms or standards. It was about this teacher’s actions outside of the classroom. A plane was making a short flight in Australia and it needed to land and was running low on fuel but one of the passengers, a 14 year old boy with down syndrome, was feeling sick and didn’t want to return to his seat (preventing the plane from landing). The pilot needed to make sure the boy was in a safe place before he could land, but his family and the flight attendants were unable to convince him to return to his seat.

I have, unfortunately been on more than one flight where the call went out over the intercom, “Is there a doctor on this plane?” but on this flight, the call instead went, “Is there a teacher on board this flight? Is there a special needs teacher on board?”

Sophie Murphy answered that call. As a teacher with twenty years of experience she was uniquely prepared to help this boy, and therefore the flight, to safety. When she was later interviewed by NPR, Sophie said something that encapsulated what I too have believed for years about the teaching profession, “This is what teachers do. This is what they do in their classrooms every day. They problem-solve, and they connect with children on a daily basis. And any one of my colleagues and friends who are teachers would have done exactly the same.”

This is what teachers do every day. We problem solve and we connect with students. When we do that, we are able to help them in ways other people might not have been able to imagine.

I have long argued that teachers are first responders. Fire fighters and emergency room doctors are the first ones to help people when their lives or livelihoods are in danger. They sign up for their jobs knowing that their jobs exist because people need help. Teachers do the same. We sign up for our jobs because we know students need to learn things, and we want to be there to teach them. And we are very well aware that in many cases, our students’ lives and future livelihoods could very well hang in the balance of their education.

Teachers have that same incredible compulsion that all first responders have: we chose a job that means we will not be sitting back and relaxing, but rather actively facing challenges and surprises every day.

And, to me, just like the circulatory and cardiac systems are the systems first responders tend to focus on first, because life cannot be sustained without them, reading and writing are the first focus for many teachers. This makes perfect sense. Literacy is very often the life-sustaining force from which so much learning streams through.

One of the biggest ways we do this is exactly what Sophie Murphy said: through connecting with students. We do this in many different ways. We share our favorite books with students and listen raptly as they tell us about theirs. We share our learning struggles and foibles and commiserate when they stumble. We demonstrate writing technique by sharing stories from our own lives and ooh and aah when students trust us with their stories. We connect with them on a human level and see them both as they are and as they wish to be seen.

And teachers do problem solve on the regular. In just the past week of spending time with educators in their own buildings and classrooms I have witnessed the following:

  • A group of middle school teachers writing mini-grants to get pop culture biographies their students want to read so the students can have stacks of books to read over summer vacation
  • A kindergarten teacher who took her students on a writing picnic and playtime at the local park when the sunshine and spring weather was too tempting to allow for four-walls concentration
  • A fifth grade teacher who hates fantasy books dragging home a bag overflowing with them in order to catch up on the books her students most like to read
  • A third grade team who contacted embassies to set up interview for their students writing informational books about countries when there wasn’t enough available information the students could read independently

I know if you took a break to reflect on one twenty-four hour block from the school year, you would have a list several bullet-points long, of a variety of problems you faced and solved. A small skirmish over the drinking fountain, the missing book order money, a student embarrassed about her writing piece, a parent unsure how to challenge a student who is a sophisticated thinker… and that’s just before you finished you first cup of coffee on a Wednesday.

Teachers do it so regularly that sometimes we forget that not everyone responds to trouble the same way we do. We run to it. We study it. We connect. We use what we know and what our instincts tell us to do.

So it is really no surprise that Sophie Murphy answered that call. Whether it’s in the classroom, a grocery store line, a crowded amusement park or even an airplane, teachers are problem-solvers.


Colleen Cruz is speaking at the Literacy for All Conference October 23-25, 2016 in Providence, RI.

Colleen’s sessions at the conference include:

Monday, October 24, 2016

1:30 pm – 3:00 pm- “Pop Goes the Workshop: Using Pop Culture to Teach Craft, Structure and Meaning in Writing (Grades 3-8)”

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

10:15 am –11:45 am- “Name Your Monster: A Problem-Solving Protocol for Writing Instruction Challenges (Grades 4-8)”

1:00 pm – 2:30 pm- “Name Your Monster: A Problem-Solving Protocol for Writing Instruction Challenges (Grades 4-8)” (repeat session)

A First Timer’s Guide to Registering for Literacy for All

We’re excited to announce we’ve opened registration for the 27th Annual Literacy for All Conference, co-hosted with The University of Maine and the University of Connecticut. This year the conference will be held October 23–25, 2016 in Providence, Rhode Island. While we know many of you are veteran LFA attendees, each year we have more and more new faces joining us in Providence. Welcome to all first-timers!

We have made it even easier to register for the Literacy for All Conference! Simply visit our registration website and enter your email address to begin your registration process. We’ve put together a little guide to our online registration system to help make the process as quick and painless as possible.

An Important Note

We have created an online registration process that seamlessly guides you through the steps of registration. Please do not use your Internet browser’s “back” button if you want to go back and make a change, as it will cause errors and you will not be able to complete your registration. Instead, if you need to change something, complete your registration and then email us at literacy@lesley.edu and we will make the changes for you.

Before You Register

First, you should make a list of all the sessions you want to attend. You can find the full list on our website. Each time block is listed with a letter, i.e.: LCA, LCB, etc. Then, each session within that time block is numbered. So the full session code will read something like LCA-1 or LCC-4. You can only choose one session per time block, so you should have one LCA, one LCB, and so on.

The only variation is in the In-Depth sessions, which occur either in the C or F blocks. In-Depth sessions are three hours long, not the normal 90 minutes, so if you choose an In- Depth session for your C or F, you will not be able to choose a D or G, respectively, as the In -Depth session will run through that time.

If a session doesn’t appear on the drop-down menu that means it is sold out and you will have to choose another session. Sessions do sell out, so we recommend registering as early as possible to ensure you get all your first choices.

Second, know your method of payment. If your district will be paying for you with a purchase order, you don’t need to know the purchase order number to register. If your district will be paying for you with a credit card, you can still register yourself. When you get to the checkout screen, simply choose “Pay with Purchase Order” and then have your district call us with the credit card number, or fax or email us the PO within ten business days of registering.  Please note, if you are paying with a purchase order (PO), we require that you submit a copy of your PO to secure your registration.  If your PO has not been received by the opening of the institute, you will be required to provide a credit card in order to attend the institute.

We recommend that all attendees register themselves. The process begins with an email validation– you’ll receive an email with a secure link, which you’ll need to click on in order to continue your registration. Forwarding these emails can sometimes be tricky, so we recommend you register yourself to avoid confusion.

If someone else has to register for you, we recommend that you choose your sessions ahead of time and give the list to the person registering you. If someone else chooses your sessions and you have to change more than 75% of them after September 7, 2016, it will be considered a paper registration and a $15 charge will be applied to your account for processing.

When entering in your personal information, please note that there are separate spaces to enter your school district and your school name. When entering your district, please don’t use abbreviations like RSD or UFSD– if the district has a separate name (ie: Oxford Hills School District) please use that; alternately, please spell out the words Regional School District. This will help us keep uniformity in printing name badges, and help match up registrants to purchase orders when we receive them. 

Confirmation

When you’re done registering, you will see a screen with a green box confirming that your registration is complete. If you don’t get the green box, you haven’t finished registering yet! Once you get to that screen, be sure to read it thoroughly, as it contains details about which sessions have required readings and materials, a list of conference policies, your own detailed agenda based on the sessions you selected, and other helpful links.

In addition to the confirmation page, a confirmation email will be automatically sent to the email address you provided. If it doesn’t appear within an hour of you registering, check your spam and junk folders, as some email providers mark emails from RegOnline as spam by mistake. In the past, many were not able to receive RegOnline emails, because many schools block emails from RegOnline, so if you have a personal email address, we encourage you to use it, instead of your school email, when registering.  If you don’t receive your confirmation email at all, please email literacy@lesley.edu and we will re-send it to you.

Please help us be environmentally conscious! Do not print out your confirmation message to mail in with your check or PO. Instead, just make sure your full name and district are written on the PO or in the item line of the check. That’s all we need to match up your payment with your record in the system.

Conference Events, Exhibit Fair, and Other Information

The conference registration desk hours are as follows:

Sunday, October 23, 2016: 10:00 am–6:00 pm

Monday, October 24, 2016: 7:00 am–5:00 pm

Tuesday, October 25, 2016: 7:30 am–9:00 am

The conference help desk will be open 7:00 am – 6:00 pm each day.

Literacy for All also includes an exhibit fair with booths showcasing classroom services and products for all grade levels and subjects. Exhibit hours are 4:00-6:00 on Sunday, 10:00–6:00 on Monday, with the Exhibit Fair from 5:00–6:00; and 7:30–2:30 on Tuesday. During the Exhibit Fair on Monday, you can enter to win something from our prize raffle, and get books signed by some of our featured and keynote speakers.

Please visit the conference website for information on hotels, parking, attendance policy and certificates of attendance, and sessions with required readings/handouts/materials.

Have questions? You can contact us anytime at literacy@lesley.edu or by phone at 617.349.8402.

Looking forward to seeing you all in October!

Science Writing for Children Made Simple

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by Guest Blogger Steve Jenkins who is presenting a session at our upcoming 2016 Summer Institute entitled, “Writing About Science for Children: How Content Dictates Structure”

Writing, of course, is not simple. Writing about science is not simple, and writing about science for children is perhaps even less simple. So my title is just a questionable journalistic device to attract readers. But I have managed to come up with a few guidelines that I try to apply to my own non-fiction writing.

Since my own professional background is originally in graphic design and illustration, it feels a bit presumptuous to write about writing for an audience of literacy experts. When I began making books for children, I was inspired in part by my lifelong love of science — especially the science of the natural world. But I mainly wanted to explore the visual possibilities of the picture book. I’m still not completely comfortable with thinking of myself as a writer, though I’m getting there.

This story begins almost 30 years ago. I was reading piles of books to my baby daughter — my wife and I took turns reading to her every night, starting when she was too young to even sit up. Reading and looking at all those children’s books got me thinking that making a book might be fun. I say “making” rather than “writing,” because my first books were really about the illustrations. From the beginning, I was drawn to nonfiction about the natural world, and I quickly realized that words would be necessary if I wanted a book to convey much actual information. Or get published. I did make one wordless picture book, but most of the subjects I wanted to explore required some annotation.

Today, having published more than 30 titles, I find that writing has become my central preoccupation when I’m working on a book. I love the visual part of the process, and I’m always confident that — one way or another — a book’s visual challenges can be solved. Creating the illustrations is my reward for figuring out the structure and voice the subject demands. But the writing doesn’t get any easier. Just the opposite, in fact. In my early books I was blissfully naive about the writing process. I just wrote down what I thought would explain the image on the page. I didn’t rewrite as much. I didn’t spend all day on a sentence.

As I gradually recognized that getting the words right was as important (more?) as perfecting the images, writing became more and more of a focus. I remember being surprised and a little bemused that teachers and librarians I encountered at schools and conferences were reading my books and analyzing the way they were written, often recognizing patterns that had never occurred to me.

This may be more background than is really necessary, but I want to create some context for sharing a few of the informal writing “rules” I’ve developed for myself. These are rules that apply to my own writing — I’m not suggesting that anyone else should follow them (OK, maybe one or two of them):

Don’t underestimate the ability of young children to understand complex relationships and abstract concepts if they are properly explained.

New facts and information should be presented in a context that makes sense to children. Use metaphors or comparisons with familiar things. Even most adults can’t readily grasp large sizes, quantities, or spans of time.

Don’t mix different units of measurement or meaning in the same comparison. This is an unfortunately common practice in writing for adults: “There are only about 5,000 snow leopards left in the wild, and the population of Amur leopards has decreased by 80%.”

Clarify terms that seem simple but have multiple interpretations. This is a common problem with scale-related information: “Animal A is twice as big as Animal B”. What does ‘big’ mean? If it’s based on linear dimension, and if the animals are similarly proportioned, then animal A weighs eight times as much as animal B.

Introduce a few terms and vocabulary words that are probably unfamiliar, but not too many for the reading level of the audience. If possible, use new terms without formal definition in a context that makes their meaning clear. It’s more fun for kids to figure out for themselves what a word means.

Don’t anthropomorphize. Remember that these rules are for me. There are lots of good science books that use the first-person voice of animals, natural forces, even the universe. But these books make it clear from the beginning that there is poetic license involved, and that the reader is being invited to use their imagination to see the world from the perspective of some other entity. I’m more concerned about casual references to how animals “feel,” or what they “want,” in what is presented as an objective examination of their behavior.

If possible, anticipate the questions suggested by the facts being presented and answer them. This can be a never-ending sequence, one answer suggesting another question, so at some point one has to move on, but if we point out that an animal living in the jungle is brightly colored, it’s great to be able to say how color helps the animal (as it must, in some way, or it would have been selected out). Does its color warn off predators, attract a mate, or — counter-intuitively — help it hide? A colorful animal that lives among colorful flowers may be hard to spot.

Try to avoid the standard narrative. For many subjects, a typical story line seems to have developed. Often the same creatures or phenomena are used to illustrate a particular concept. Symbiosis: the clown fish and anemone. Metamorphosis: butterfly, frog. Endangered animals: rhinoceros, panda.

Don’t oversell science as entertaining, or make it goofy or wacky. Science is not primarily about making things smell bad or explode. There is thinking involved, and work. The fun and satisfaction come from understanding new things and seeing new connections.

Don’t confuse the presentation of facts with the explanation of concepts.

Finally, don’t follow lists of rules.


Summer Literacy Institute:

Tuesday, July 12, 2016 through Friday, July 15, 2016

8:00 AM – 4:00 PM

Making the Writer’s Craft Visible: Teaching Purposeful Decision- Making in a Writers’ Workshop (Grades K–8)

Teach your students how to learn to write from Carl Anderson, Steve Jenkins, Nikki Grimes, and Jack Gantos!

Location: Lesley University – University Hall, 1815 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02140