Poolside PD: Time for a few great reads

by Cindy Downend, Assistant Director, Primary Programs at the Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

cindy-downendThe dog days of summer are upon us here in New England.  That means it’s the perfect time to grab a lounge chair, a cool beverage, and a good professional book to enjoy some poolside PD!  Here are a few suggestions to refresh and renew your passion for teaching just like a good dip in the pool can revive your body and soul.    

HeartHeart! Fully Forming Your Professional Life as a Teacher and Leader by Timothy D. Kanold – I’m reading this book slowly to savor the inspirational message that the writer provides.  The purpose of this book is to serve as a guide to reflect on your journey as an educator.  Kanold introduces the idea of a heartprint which he defines as the distinct impression that we leave on students and colleagues.  He challenges us to think about what we can do to make a positive difference in our school cultures.

joy writeJoy Write by Ralph Fletcher – As the title indicates, this quick read by one of the “greats” will reinvigorate your teaching of writing.  Fletcher leads us through an exploration of a concept he calls “greenbelt writing” which helps students experience the fun of writing and develop a passion for it!  Fletcher discusses how “low stakes” writing can lead to high levels of growth and help students to identify as writers.  This book is skinny, but it will leave you thinking deeply about your current work.  Perfect for an afternoon at the pool or on the patio!

Simple StartsSimple Starts: Making the Move to a Reader-Centered Classroom by Kari Yates – This book looks like a practical guide for creating a classroom environment in which children in grades K – 2 can become highly engaged and motivated readers.  Kari shares the essentials to help teachers: foster the love of reading in children; provide time for reading and discussion; and nurture independence through choice. Kari will be speaking at our annual Literacy For All Conference in Providence, Rhode Island on October 22 – 24th and I want to be sure to read her text before I have an opportunity to learn from her in person!

Powerful Book IntroductionsPowerful Book Introductions: Leading with Meaning for Deeper Thinking by Kath Fay, Suzanne Whaley and Chrisie Moritz – Written by our fabulous Literacy Collaborative colleagues in Fairfax, VA, this new text will be available from Stenhouse Publishers on July 29th.  This book takes a close look at the purposeful planning that goes into preparing meaning-driven guided reading book introductions.  This text promises to help you think about what to address in your book introductions and how to present that information to the readers.

What are you reading this summer? Please share some of the professional texts that you’ll be reading as you relax and rejuvenate on your patio or by the pool.

 

Navigating The Literacy Continuum to Guide Responsive Teaching

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

 

helen-siskTeaching in a responsive manner requires us to think reflectively about literacy growth by noticing and analyzing student talk and written work. We reflect on why students respond in certain ways and know how to help them take on next steps in building a complex and flexible literacy processing system. It takes a skillful teacher to do this effectively.

One tool that can guide our decision-making is The Literacy Continuum: A Tool for Assessment, Planning, and Teaching (Fountas and Pinnell, 2017) It is a valuable resource to support us in observing what students know and understand as readers and writers and it informs our teaching. It is organized around eight literacy learning continua that span grades PreK-8. Not only is it aligned with literacy standards, it includes detailed descriptions of student progress over time.

The Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative at Lesley University is excited to offer an introduction to this continuum during our summer institute for teachers of grades K-6: “Navigating the Literacy Continuum to Guide Responsive Teaching,” This institute is an opportunity to delve into the new, expanded edition of the Literacy Continuum, and learn how to use it as a guide to observe, plan, teach, and reflect on literacy teaching.

The reading focus in this institute includes extending teacher and student talk for effective processing during interactive read aloud and shared reading. Two other components that further address comprehension include guided reading and writing about reading.  All of these literacy elements will be explored.

The writing focus begins by understanding the continuum of word study and how it progresses over the school year and across grade levels. We will study student writing to develop purposeful mini-lessons and the talk surrounding teacher-student conferences to identify strengths and next steps to address in teaching.

Come hear Irene Fountas discuss the Literacy Continuum and its impact on teaching and learning. Work in small groups with literacy trainers and other teachers to refine your practice and expand your knowledge about the teaching of reading and writing.

We hope to see you here at Lesley University for our Summer Literacy Institute, July 10-13, 2017. Register now!

Making the Invisible, Visible: 5 Ways to Illuminate Learning in Our Classrooms

By Paula Bourque, Literacy Coach/Author and Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker

Paula Bourque

  • A student returns to class after pull-out support, looks around, and asks, “What are we doing?”
  • I’ve finished my mini-lesson and call on a student with a raised hand. “I don’t get it.” he says.
  • I conference with a student who holds out her paper and asks, “Is this good?”

These interactions remind me there is often a mismatch between teaching and learning.  Learning is that “in the head” process only perceptible through the work, behavior, or conversations of our students. So I need to keenly observe their words and actions to get inside their heads, see my teaching through their eyes, and better align pedagogy to student need. I need to find ways to make my intentions and expectations more visible and accessible to them. If I have any hope of cultivating self-directed learners they truly need to see the direction we are headed! Here are a few approaches I have found to be helpful.

Give them the box to the puzzle! For some of our students, school is a big puzzle. Routines and structure can be like the box to that puzzle for students; the big picture for how all the pieces fit together. Frameworks that use a workshop model, mentor texts, exemplars, anchor charts, and posted learning targets give a visible structure to the expectations. This predictability can free up working memory from what are we doing to focus more on how are we doing it.

For students who are pulled from our classroom for supports, it is critical that consistent structures are in place as they come and go. They should see assignments, anchor charts, exemplars, and/or learning targets posted so they can join in with minimal difficulty. They should have an idea of what the class was doing while they were away so they can continue to make connections to their learning. If students seem disoriented, confused, or disconnected, we need to find ways to take the mystery out of how school (or at least our classroom) works for them.

You can’t hit a target you can’t see. Unless students clearly understand the intended learning, it is difficult to meet the expectations. Students are shooting blind when the teacher is the only one who knows the exact location of the bulls eye. They may be aiming in the right direction, but their accuracy is severely compromised.  When we create ‘kid-friendly’ learning targets that address ‘bite-sized’ amounts of learning, it removes the blinders and allows for greater self-direction from students.  It makes the intention of the lesson visible and accessible to everyone, not just the teacher.

Try to see our expectations through our students’ eyes.  What would “right” look like? What would comprehension/understanding sound like? How will I know when I’ve “hit” the target? Many teachers use a framework for targets using this stem to increase visibility:  Today I will____, So I can____. I’ll know I have it when____. Students need to see how the activity they are engaged in moves their learning and skills forward. Time is too precious of a commodity in schools for students to engage in activities that do not explicitly advance their learning or understanding.  Making our expectations clear and visible can eliminate wasted time and energy for students trying to figure out what we want from them.

Learning Target                  LT w SC

Post Look-Fors. Anytime we hang student work in the hallways or publish it to an audience, we can’t be sure what others will notice. I encourage teachers to post Look-Fors that direct attention to the learning that happened while completing a piece of work.  If word choice was a focus for a writing project, a Look-For that illuminates this for the audience will give equal time to process as well as product. Ex: “We’d like you to notice our 4th graders worked hard on using more precise and descriptive words in this writing.”  Look-Fors invite others to appreciate the learning and encourages other students to try out those skills and ideas as well.

Student Look Fors          Look Fors

Good demonstration is good communication. Think alouds and demonstrations are nothing new, but I think they are often underutilized in classrooms that feel time-compelled to fit more and more into a busy day, but they are one of the best ways to make the invisible (thinking) more visible (words and actions).  They require us to slow down and accurately recreate the thinking and behaviors that go into successfully completing a task or understanding a concept.

However, I would encourage us to reflect on our demonstrations and consider how closely they mirror the thoughts and behaviors of all the students in our classrooms. Frequently we model or think aloud the right way to do something, yet we have students who don’t grasp what we are doing. Our modeling is outside their zone of proximal development. If we asked ourselves, “How might a struggling student approach this task?” and offer a demonstration with this in mind, we may provide a more accessible model. What are some typical misconceptions we are seeing with students? How can we offer demonstrations to address and support them? What if our think alouds walked students through common confusions?

The best demonstrations offer our students a visible path from where they are to where we want them to be. Modeling expectations without contemplating the starting point of our learners may end up leaving many behind.

Create/document a learning history.  Sometimes it takes visible proof to help students see their learning and foster a growth mindset. Because it happens so incrementally, students often don’t believe they are growing. Keeping samples of student work in portfolios (either digitally or on paper) can be a powerful visual documentation of their learning history.

Students who keep writer’s notebooks are often amazed near the end of the year when they look back at their early work. (“I never even used to paragraph!”) Students who keep reading logs/lists are frequently stunned at how much they read. (“Oh wow, I forgot I read all those Flat Stanleys!”) Keeping samples of math work can demonstrate the increasing complexity and variety of math work students worked on during the year. (“That’s so easy now.”)

Opportunities to reflect on learning over time is a powerful way to develop a growth mindset that can sustain students when they encounter new challenges. Invite them to reflect with stems like: I used to ________ but now I ______.   Some things that used to be hard for me were: _____.  Then encourage students to lean on those revelations to buoy them in the future: “When I have assignments that are hard next year, I’m going to remember_____.”

In the same way, we make physical growth visible with lines drawn on door frames, and we can make their cognitive growth more visible as well. For many of our students, seeing is believing. We need to make the invisible, more visible.

Diving in with Ownership

by Guest Blogger Dr. Gravity Goldberg, Author/Educational Consultant and 2017 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker. You can reach her on Twitter @drgravityg.

We all know what it is like to be put in situations where we are going to “sink or swim” by being pushed into the deep end of the pool. It can be a terrifying and even traumatic experience. We know that most students do not learn by being thrown into the deep end without having had enough scaffolding and teaching first, and that maybe throwing them in is not so kind.

Gravity GoldbergThe Gradual Release of Responsibility model (Pearson & Gallagher, 1983) helps teachers consider an alternative to “sink or swim” by offering a clear framework for helping students take on more and more responsibility over time. You could picture it as students walking down the steps of a ladder into the deep end of the pool. Rather than offer direct instruction and then “assign and hope” for learning, the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model moves from teacher modeling (I Go), to shared experiences (We Go), to independent practice (You Go). In this model, teachers move along this gradient of doing less over time, based on the pace that their particular students need. When we add student choice to our instructional model our end goal is not simply independent practice that is directed by the teacher, but independent application that is directed and chosen by the student because it is relevant (You Choose To Go).

What if rather than pushing our students into the deep end (sink or swim model), or telling students to walk down the ladder into the deep end one rung at a time (gradual release model), we gave students a choice about whether or not and when they wanted to go swimming (ownership model)? This helps student readers develop excitement about feeling ready to take the leap themselves into the water. Once in the pool they choose if they want to tread, do laps, or float.

Picture1

Figure 1: The Gradual Release of Responsibility Instructional Model Re-imagined with student ownership as the goal

In order for students to make choices about their own reading lives teachers must view student ownership as a realistic and valuable goal, and open up spaces in their classrooms for more student-direction.

Believe in Student’s Ability to Make Choices

The psychology research is clear that whatever we expect from students is what they will demonstrate (Achor, 2010). Positive psychologist , Shawn Achor explains, “the expectations we have about our children-whether or not they are even voiced—can make that expectation a reality.” This is called the Pygmalion Effect and means that if we believe student readers can make wise choices about their own reading lives or that they can’t, we will be proven correct.

I know not every student enters our classrooms knowing how to make choices or being confident in their ability to make choices and this gives teachers the opportunity to teach them how to make a choice. If and when students struggle with making choices about which book to read, which strategy to use, what to talk about with their book buddy, then we can take note and be grateful we now know what to teach them. We can view students’ struggle with choice-making as a necessary part of the learning process.

When we look at the steps of the typical Gradual Release of Responsibility Model we see that student’s independent practice is the last phase. But, what about all of our students who only use strategies when they are told to use them? What about all of our students who are afraid to make a wrong choice so they wait for us to make choices for them? If we believe students can learn to make wise choices about their reading then our classrooms will make space for students to be self-directed.

In my book Mindsets and Moves: Strategies That Help Readers Take Charge (2016) I included several lessons that help students learn to make choices for themselves. The lessons fall into three main categories: how to set goals for yourself as a reader, how to make choices based on your goals, and how to reflect on your learning towards that goal. Just because we believe students can make choices does not mean we don’t also spend time mentoring them in the process.

Open Up Spaces for Students to Make Choices

It is not enough to say we believe student readers can make wise choices, we actually have to create space for them to be able to make them. Let’s consider a typical reading lesson. At the beginning of the lesson are you assigning students a strategy to use that day or reminding them of their strategy choices? We often think we are offering students opportunities to make choices, but in reality all of the reading time is directed by the teachers. I suggest we all study our own classrooms and notice just how much space and time there is for students to actually take charge.

The following chart shows a few examples of what our teacher language might sound like when we are assigning and directing and when we are creating space for students to be self-directed.

Screen Shot 2017-05-09 at 5.00.40 PM

The Benefits of Ownership

There are so many benefits of teaching students to make choices and one major one is the level of engagement and ownership students experience. Rather than having to cajole a student into using a strategy or forcing them to read, they begin to self-initiate and truly transfer learning. Students begin to view instruction as adding to their toolbox and they decide which tool to use when. We can help every student shift from reading on their own to owning their reading. I have seen so many students choose to “jump from the high dive” and find joy in their decision and ultimately find joy in reading.

 

References

Achor, S. (2010) The Happiness Advantage. New York, NY: Random House.

Goldberg, G. (2015). Mindsets and moves: Strategies that help readers take charge. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Literacy.

Pearson, P. D. and M. C. Gallagher, “The Instruction of Reading Comprehension,” Contemporary Educational Psychology, 8, 1983, pp. 317-344.

When Independent Reading Isn’t Working

by Guest Blogger Kari Yates, Educator/Author and Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker

I can think of nothing in the school day more authentic, more differentiated, and more essential than the joyful time when students nestle in with self-selected texts for high-volume, high-success reading (Allington, 2009). Whether you call it independent reading, read-to-self (Moser and Boushey, 2014) or reading workshop, engagement is the priority for readers at every age and stage of development. This is the time of day students can grow leaps and bounds, applying what they’ve learned elsewhere to texts they are personally invested in.

Kari YatesYet, sometimes getting and keeping a whole classroom of diverse readers settled in and reading for real can be a challenge. And of course, if they aren’t engaged, this becomes nothing more than lost time.

So, what can you do to maximize every reader’s engagement during independent reading? Below are five suggestions to help you do just that (and without points, prizes, or prodding).

  1. Confer every day as much as you’re able.

When you confer, you pull up alongside a student in order to offer your partnership as a fellow reader. You engage in authentic, in-the-moment assessment, through observation and conversation. You listen with openness and empathy, working to identify interests, successes, and struggles. You celebrate efforts and strategic actions, nudge students forward toward next steps, and help them make plans and set goals to help themselves as readers. Regular conferring gives you a front row view of a child’s reading life; positioning you to make wise decisions for instruction across the literacy framework, including future conferences, flexible small groups, and whole group instruction. Without regular conferring, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever leverage the full power of self-selected independent reading. Conferring is just that powerful.

  1. Consider book choice first.

Engagement during independent reading begins and ends with the books students hold in their hands, as well as those they’ve selected for standby. Whether it’s a fancy basket, a simple plastic storage bag, or a cereal box, having portable personalized collections at their side provides students a direct link to engagement for independent reading. When every reader chooses and regularly curates their own good-ft collection, they will always have a variety of topics, authors, genres, lengths, and levels at their fingertips. When a reader finishes or needs a break from one book there’s no need to go searching; he can simply reach into his box to find something else. So, if you’re worried about engagement you’ll want to start by getting curious about that reader has chosen for this collection. A quick conference to get a peek in the book box and have some conversation with the reader can provide loads of information.  Find out what kind of texts they’re truly excited about and which texts aren’t really working for them, then provide strategic support. Every choice a child makes can provide clues as you work toward helping the student become a more strategic book shopper. Book choice deserves more than a few quick lessons in the fall of the year; it is crucial work that goes on throughout the year. Helping students become savvy book selectors can be a messy business, but is essential if they are to be able to carry on a reading life in the real world. Helping readers develop their capacity to regularly find books worthy of their time and attention – books that they both can and want to read- is a critical skill; one worthy of our time and attention.

  1. Bless many ways to read a book.

If every reader in the class is expected to read every book word-by-word, page-by-page, cover-to-cover engagement is likely to suffer for all readers, but particularly for readers who don’t yet have the skills or stamina for processing long stretches of text. However, when you make room for young readers to have choice not only about what to read, but also about how to read the books they’ve chosen, you open up a world of possibilities for meaning-making and critical thinking. To raise engagement levels of all readers, consider teaching students other ways to read a book such as read the pictures, retell, reread favorite parts, reread the whole book, choose sections of interest, focus on features, alternate time spent reading a more challenging text with time spent reading a more comfortable text, and occasionally decide to abandon a book altogether.

  1. Be sure the classroom library is well-stocked and well-organized.

Healthy independent reading practices develop in the context of a thriving, growing classroom library. The library, like all living things, needs regular attention including grooming, feeding, and occasional weeding. Take a moment and step into your classroom library. Imagine yourself shopping for books there each week. Is the collection inviting, well-stocked and well-organized or has the school year taken its toll? Are the baskets clearly labeled?  Do they contain topics, authors, series, or genres that reflect the interests of every reader in the class?  Without regular attention, classroom libraries can quickly fall into disarray, reducing, rather than increasing the likelihood that students leave the library equipped with good-fit texts.  And when students leave the library texts they are less than excited about, you can be sure engagement will suffer.

  1. Regularly take time for reflection.

How are we doing? What can we celebrate? What might we need to do differently? As a professional you likely use questions like these to you reflect on your practice, keeping the wheels of improvement in motion. But when you can involve your students you can multiply the positive effects of reflection. Taking just a few minutes at the close of independent reading to look back and reflect can serve invaluable in terms of shaping independent reading habits. As you scaffold reflective practices for your students, they learn to identify successes and struggles, learning from both and using what they notice to make intentional plans for the future. When we value reflection enough to take time for it even a few times per week, it impacts not only independent reading, but empowers students with a skill that can be applied to any setting or situation.

Independent reading can and should be a joyful and productive time of day for all readers. With these five suggestions as starting points, more engaged independent reading can be within the reach of every child.

Please join me at Literacy for All for more conversation about conferring with readers, embracing the messiness of choice, and taking your next move toward move toward high levels of engagement in a reader-centered classroom.

Simple Starts: Making the Move to a Reader Centered Classroom, Heinemann, 2015.

Simply Inspired Teaching

@Kari_Yates

Allington, Richard L. 2009. What Really Matters in Response to Intervention: Research-Based Designs. Boston: Pearson.

Boushey and Moser. 2014. The Daily 5 (Second Edition);Fostering Literacy Independence in the Elementary Grades. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

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)

Science Writing for Children Made Simple

steve author pic2_crop

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