Archives For Informational Text

Today marks the 200th birthday of American writer (poet, essayist, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist) Henry David Thoreau. I remember my first encounters with Thoreau were traditional, his essays read in my high school English class. Soon after, my choice of for a quote under my yearbook photo (a serious decision made after much deliberation) was his:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” 

“That’s a rather depressing sentiment,” my Aunt Rita had commented.
“It’s what I believe,” I had replied.

Therefore, I was surprised to discover that although I have taught his essays and discussed his literary impact on American Literature,  I have not yet written on this blog about Henry David Thoreau.  This post will correct my oversight.

In 2013, I created a Livebinder for my seniors who were reading the Bill Bryson book A Walk in the Woods. A Livebinder is a digital file cabinet where anyone can upload or link materials for others to use. The about page explains their purpose:

“We created LiveBinders so that you could do with digital information what you do with the piles of papers on your desk – organize them into nice presentable containers – like 3-ring binders on your shelf. With our online binders you can combine all of your cloud documents, website links and upload your desktop documents – to then easily access, share, and update your binders from anywhere.”

The materials on Livebinders can be accessed on all digital platforms, so that students could access it on their own devices. My Walk in the Woods Livebinder allowed me to place the link Thoreau’s essay “On Walking” explained in its republication in The Atlantic magazine

“In May 1862, the magazine published ‘Walking,’ one of his [Thoreau] most famous essays, which extolled the virtues of immersing oneself in nature and lamented the inevitable encroachment of private ownership upon the wilderness.”

I still remember the opening phrase from the essay, “I wish to speak a word for Nature…”.
A student had grumbled, “There’s a lot more than one word here…”
His was an understatement. This particular Thoreau essay runs about 20 pages; a total of 12,188 words.

I did not require my students to read the entire essay, although I encouraged them to try. Instead I had them peruse the text until they found a passage that seemed interesting. They had to choose a quote, much like I had for my yearbook photo, that they found particularly profound and then write an explanation on why this quote was interesting or meaningful. . I still remember some of their choices, and their reflections on why they chose a particular passage such as:

  • Which is the best man to deal with—he who knows nothing about a subject, and, what is extremely rare, knows that he knows nothing, or he who really knows something about it, but thinks that he knows all?
  • In short, all good things are wild and free. 
  • When we should still be growing children, we are already little men

I learned that Thoreau’s sentiments spoke to their frustrations of growing up, or being talked at by know-it-all adults. Many of my students were vocational agriculture students who wholeheartedly agreed with Thoreau’s attitude towards ditching the classroom and getting outside:

“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.of having to spend time indoors.”

Using Thoreau’s essay “On Walking” was my attempt to complement Bill Bryson’s memoir of his hiking on the Appalachian Trail in A Walk in the Woods. Bryson’s writing was more accessible to the students than Thoreau’s 19th Century prose which is stuffed with allusions of all types. Unlike Thoreau, Bryson makes background instruction unnecessary.

Another accessible text for students was the picture book I placed on the Livebinder, the charming  Henry Hikes to Fitchburg by D.B.Johnson.

Thoreau reimagined as a bear, enjoying Nature!

In this tribute to Transcendentalist philosophy, Johnson cast the naturalist Thoreau as a bear who hikes his way on a route (actually taken by the author), stopping to engage with several of his famous American neighbors (Alcott, Hawthorne, Emerson) also as bears. Henry’s bear companion chooses to work in order to take the train, setting up a story that implies money cannot buy the experience of nature. Students found the message profound, and unanimously agreed that a bear was the perfect choice for Thoreau.

I also placed links to a number of other essays by famous (British) writers on walking:

…and some (American) song lyrics on walking:

I asked students to find their own walking songs to share in class.

There was also an audio essay from the series “Engines of Our Ingenuity” based on an invention (using clay) that Thoreau used to make better pencil out of inferior graphite. Who could have been more inspired to make a better pencil than a writer who used pencils in his writing?

I had hoped that students would be equally inspired to see the connections that Henry David Thoreau had to their lives, to see how he had inspired Bill Bryson and others to take walks in nature. How he promoted Nature as a way for students to gain knowledge about themselves and the world around them…. To encourage others to spend time in the kind of thought that “transcends” or goes beyond what they may see, hear, taste, touch or feel.

My hope was that my students could have Thoreau explain the importance of self-knowledge, “… and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” 

40 years after choosing that yearbook quote, I have not shifted in that belief.

There are different ways to become familiar with our nation’s founding documents: reading, memorizing, studying, reciting are a few. But in our keyboard- swipe-click-centered world, rewriting by hand is not one that immediately comes to mind.

A story feature in the NYTimes The Constitution, By Hand (6/30/17) written by Morgan O’Hara explained her process for copying the United States Constitution out by hand with a few sharpies. She noted that:

Hand copying a document can produce an intimate connection to the text and its meaning. The handwriter may discover things about this document that they never knew, a passage that challenges or moves them. They may even leave with a deeper connection to the founders and the country, or even a sense of encouragement.

Whatever her original intent for deciding to hand copy the lengthy document, her explanation for discovering things about a text echoes the arguments put forth about close reading that were initiated with the Common Core. Close reading requires students to read and reread a text several times; each time for a different purpose.

The first reading is to understand what the text says. The first reading is for comprehension: Who (character); What (events); Where/When (setting); Why (plot or information) questions asked.

It is the second reading, however, that asks a reader to become familiar with how the text operates:

-What does _____ this word mean in this context?
-How is the text organized? (sequence. cause and effect, compare/contrast, description)?
-What ways does the author use punctuation to control the reading of the text?

Asking students to write out by hand the  United States Constitution with the Bill of Rights is akin to having them perform a second close read. In copying the words and the punctuation and imitating the structure (sequence),  they could, like O’Hara, focus on how the text operates. How this particular text operates is exactly what constitutional scholars, lawyers, and judges debate regularly in courts.

How the Text Operates

For example, if you copy out the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights, you will notice that the framers used three commas and two semi-colons in order to to separate clauses:

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Recently, the first semicolon after thereof was at the heart of the case (January 2010) Citizens United . The Supreme Court determined that this semicolon links the free exercise of religion and the free exercise of speech and that the framers did not mean that each clause of the First Amendment should be interpreted separately. The decision gave corporations the same free speech rights as people, and that corporations should have the same free religious exercise rights as people as well.  Handwriting the First Amendment and pausing to consider that semicolon can bring attention as to how the author(s) or Founding Fathers used punctuation to control the reading of the text.

Punctuation in the Declaration of Independence is also recently under scrutiny. Danielle Allen, then a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., caused a stir when she located an extra period on an original copy of the document at the National Archives after the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (see photo clip)

National Archive copy of the Declaration of Independence (with questionable period)

Allen suggested that this period -which could be an ink blot- might be misinterpreted to mean that that the list of self-evident truths ends with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Ink blot or intentional sentence stop, Allen argues that Thomas Jefferson did not intend to separate the phrase using a period, but had intended a continuation with the phrase that follows:

“— That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

In an article that followed in The Atlantic, Have We Been Reading the Declaration of Independence All Wrong?Allen explains,

“The logic of the sentence moves from the value of individual rights to the importance of government as a tool for protecting those rights…You lose that connection when the period gets added.”

Legislators and scholars have argued about the intent of Thomas Jefferson since the release of the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. Students should have the opportunity to add their voices to the impact of different interpretations on their lives as well.

Muscle Memory

Outside of noting the punctuation in primary source documents, there is a fair amount of research that promotes the writing by hand as a great instructional tool in developing muscle memory, which is described on the Logic of English research blog as meaning “the students can write quickly and legibly with little conscious attention.” Writing by hand helps students as a multi-sensory approach to reading and spelling. This understanding contradicts long held beliefs that copying does not improve understanding. There may have been examples of monks who copied Ancient Christian manuscripts who were unable to even read, but in these cases the goal was artistic, not  literacy. Moreover, in the 21st Century, there is an increase in attention being paid to the loss of writing by hand in our tech obsessed culture.

New research shows that a multi-sensory approach that combines the finger movements (kinesthetic) with the sensorimotor part of the brain shows how writing by hand helps us recognize letters. Researcher Anne Mangen (The University of Stavanger-2011) explained the connection between reading and writing and how the sensorimotor system plays a role in the process of visual recognition during reading, saying:

“The process of reading and writing involves a number of senses. When writing by hand, our brain receives feedback from our motor actions, together with the sensation of touching a pencil and paper. These kinds of feedback is significantly different from those we receive when touching and typing on a keyboard.”

Feedback like this may be helpful to students. Of course copying the primary documents such as the United States Constitution or the Declaration of Independence in their entirety would be a lengthy commitment. Copying entire sections or even phrases, however, can give students that same kind of motor action and brain feedback and help them better appreciate a passage for what it says (meaning) and how it says it (text structure).

At the very least, they will experience the same process of duplicating these documents in the authentic way they were created by our Founding Fathers….by hand.

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were released in 2009. They are now seven years old.

I will admit that I was not initially enthusiastic about the English Language Arts literacy standards. (see post)

I felt they were heavy in non-fiction…(no, wait.. heavy in “informational texts”).

The CCSS suggested a typical student should have a reading diet filled with informational texts because of the authentic kinds of reading they would do once they graduated, in the real world. The CCSS recommended that a ratio of 50:50 of fiction and informational texts in elementary school should shift to a 30:70 ratio of fiction to non-fiction by grade 12th. These ratios made me concerned that fiction would disappear.

I should not have worried.

The year 2016 has proven that the genre of fiction, a genre of invented or imagined stories, is thriving in the real world. Sometimes certain fictions are posing as informational text.

The year 2016 has been marked by the rise of fake news, hoaxes, propaganda, and disinformation that has circulated on news and social media platforms, fictions that have been developed intentionally or spread unintentionally.facts-not-fiction

The growth of this kind of fiction may explain the decision of dictionary editors to award the word  post-truth as the 2016 word of the year. According to the Oxford Dictionary, post-truth is is defined as

“an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.”

The decision by the editors of the Oxford Dictionary to chose the word post-truth is a decision that also highlights a phenomena studied by by Troy Campbell and Justin Friesen. Their experiments tested the relationship between facts, bias, and untestable beliefs.

The March 2015 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published their paper titled The Psychological Advantage of Unfalsifiability: The appeal of untestable religious and political ideologies. This research examined the circumspect methods people use to get away from fact(s) that contradict a deeply held belief.

Participants in the Campbell/Freisen’s experiments used facts to support or dispute a position. The experiments revealed that when the facts opposed a deeply held belief, the participants argued that facts did not matter but moral opinion did. But, when the facts were on their side, they more often stated that their opinions were fact-based and much less about morals.

“In other words,”Campbell/Freisen’s noted, “we observed something beyond the denial of particular facts: We observed a denial of the relevance of facts.” They concluded,

“…when people’s beliefs are threatened, they often take flight to a land where facts do not matter.”

One example of a land “where facts do not matter”, was the radio booth for the Diane Rehm Show on National Public Radio (NPR) on November 30th, 2016. Guest Scottie Nell Hughespolitical editor of RightAlerts.com and contributor to CNN appeared midway during the Diane Rehm’s show. Hughes was discussing the effective use of social media in bypassing more traditional media outlets to direct message. At 10:20, she made the claim that looking at facts is  “kind of like looking at ratings or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not true.” Then she stated:

“There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts.”

Her statement was greeted with immediate derision by other journalists on the show. James Fallows of The Atlantic magazine shot back, “First I’ve got to pick my jaw up off the floor here. There are no objective facts? I mean, that is — that is an absolutely outrageous assertion.”

Hughes statement was hardly original; she may have been channeling her inner Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche who had also claimed (1887), “There are no facts, only interpretations.” But Fallows dismissed such philosophies on air, concluding:

“I believe that the job for the media and civil society now is essentially to say there are such things as facts.”

In contrast to Hughes, the use of facts as supporting evidence is essential to the CCSS. The CCSS recognized that 21st Century students would need to deal with an exponential growth in information, a future where rote memorization of facts cannot keep pace with knowledge that is doubling every year. As a result, the CCSS at each grade level outlines the skills students need to identify and to incorporate relevant facts they will use to write argumentative or explanatory responses.

For example, CCSS writing standards require students to:

“Develop the topic with well-chosen, relevant, and sufficient facts, extended definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples appropriate to the audience’s knowledge of the topic.” CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.2.B

In addition, the Common Core promotes the use of text-based evidence , gathered when  students “read closely” (aka: “close reading”):

“The Common Core emphasizes using evidence from texts to present careful analyses, well-defended claims, and clear information. Rather than asking students questions they can answer solely from their prior knowledge and experience, the standards call for students to answer questions that depend on their having read the texts with care.”

Prior knowledge or experience are no substitute for evidence. For the past seven years a common teachers’ refrain has been, “Can you show me where that evidence is in the text?”

All this hunting for text-based evidence may be the best training our students could have received as preparation for this post-truth world where pundits dismiss facts as unnecessary and media platforms promote factual inaccuracies through fake news.

Seven years ago, I could not imagine that I would be pleased about the Common Core, but the push for text-based evidence may be exactly what our students will need if educators are ever going to fulfill all those mission statements in student handbooks that outline how to make students into productive citizens and life-long learners.

There is always talk about preparing students for college and career readiness (CCR), but the recent simultaneous and collaborative news release of the Panama Papers by newspapers around the globe is an example of how preparing students using technology in the classroom can be taught as an authentic application.

The Panama Papers Collaboration panama-papers-820

Under the headline OFFSHORE LINKS OF MORE THAN 140 POLITICIANS AND OFFICIALS EXPOSED, the The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and more than 100 other news organizations around the globe, “revealed the offshore links of some of the world’s most prominent people.”

“In terms of size, the Panama Papers is likely the biggest leak of inside information in history – more than 11.5 million documents – and it is equally likely to be one of the most explosive in the nature of its revelations.”

 The article in the NYTimesWorld|Here’s What We Know About the ‘Panama Papers’ explained the significance of the documents that were part of a cooperative global pact of reporting:

“The papers — millions of leaked confidential documents from the Mossack Fonseca law firm in Panama — identify international politicians, business leaders and celebrities involved in webs of suspicious financial transactions. The revelations have raised questions about secrecy and corruption in the global financial system.”

How did the ICIJ accomplish this simultaneous and collaborative news scoop? They used collaborative writing platforms.

Collaboration is the Key

In an interview with National Public Radio’s (NPR) Ari Shaprio, titled Panama Papers Leak Is The Result Of Unprecedented Media Collaboration the director of ICIJ, Gerard Ryle explained how the 100 media organizations around the world to were able to read and analyze the 11.5 million files from the Panama Papers leak. Ryle explained,

“We would never be able to do this kind of collaboration even five, six years ago. But technology has advanced so much that we can make all of these documents available over the Internet and pipe them right into all the newsrooms so that, I mean, we can have 10 reporters working in one newsroom. We can have 20 in another. We can have five in another. And they can all see the same documents, and we basically host all of the documents on servers and pipe them down over the Internet.”

The ICIJ was able to use digital platforms where documents could be shared in asynchronous collaborations, where news organizations could partner to connect, to share and to respond across time zones.

These same digital platforms are available in many classrooms today, where students can work in class synchronously or asynchronous with classmates as well.

A key difference between journalists’ practices and students, is that students are trained to be more cooperative and collaborative. Ryle describes how unusual the sharing of information is in the journalism profession:

” I had to unlearn everything I had learned as a journalist to do this kind of work. I mean, most of our careers, we basically don’t even tell our editors what we’re working on.”

In contrast, students today who understand the power of collaboration will not have to “unlearn” to be effective journalists.

Common Core Connections

Educators, especially those at the middle and high school grade levels, have been using these digital platforms to meet the key shifts in College and Career Readiness Standards (CCRS) as part of the Common Core:

“These standards require students to gather, comprehend, evaluate, synthesize, and report on information and ideas, to conduct original research in order to answer questions or solve problems, and to analyze and create a high volume and extensive range of print and non-print texts in media forms old and new. The need to conduct research and to produce and consume media is embedded into every aspect of today’s curriculum.”

Screenshot 2016-04-10 08.56.23

Word sift of common words in College and Career Readiness Standards

Within the Frameworks of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) there is also a specific anchor standard for writing for all students:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.6
Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.

Today’s technology allows students to mirror the same approach using same skills-as seen in word sift-(reading, writing, evidence, informational texts, answers ) that the international journalists in the ICIJ did in breaking this important news story. Students who use digital platforms are refining the same skills used by ICIJ -“The World’s Best Cross-Border Investigative Team.”

Multiple Platforms Available

Perhaps the best known platforms used in schools for teacher to student or student to student collaborations are on the sites such as Edmodo, WikispacesWordPress (and its companion Edublogs). A quick search on the Internet, however, will produce a multitude of additional options. For example, posts like 102Free (or Free to Try) Online Collaborative Learning Tools for Teachers (updated 2/2016) list the myriad of choices that educators can use to increase collaborations in the classroom. There are so many that, for example, the behemoth Google Drive is listed at #51:

Once known as Google Docs, Google Drive offers a comprehensive suite of collaborative, online tools: word documents, spreadsheets, presentations, forms or drawing files.

Celebrating Global Collaboration in Education

Moreover, just like the journalists who broke the Panama Papers stories, educators are experimenting with virtual collaborative experiences on a global level. There is a Global Collaboration Day (GCD) (celebrated the 2nd week in September) where the focus is on cooperation and collaboration to enhance global understanding so that students will have practice in both solving problems across borders when they enter the workforce and an appreciation for bringing global ideas to their own local experiences.

The GCD website describes how students can participate in authentic collaborations that are either short-term or long-term using blogs, wikis, or social media tools such as Twitter and Skype.

Next Generation

The next generation of journalists is being groomed in classrooms today, but for now, students and educators are increasing their proficiency with the same methods as the professionals in the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

The final project known as the Panama Papers has met the Common Core State Standards for College and Career Readiness…they might even get an A+.

Screenshot 2016-03-29 10.37.46In a previous post, I discussed how the “Chicken or Egg?” conundrum is a way to view which agency-  National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) or the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) – is responsible for the recommendations for fiction vs. non-fiction in a student’s reading diet.

In 2015, the NAEP the “largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America’s students know and can do in various subject areas” provided a voluntary survey on which teachers could select the literary genre they emphasized in class “to a great extent.” NAEP noted that over the past six years, there has been a steady increase in nonfiction in grade 4 and 8, a phenomena that coincides with the adoption of the CCSS and the revisions to the NAEP reading content. As the primary reason or as a result, the CCSS has promoted expectations that a student’s reading diet reflect a ratio  30% fiction and 70% nonfiction across the content areas by the time he or she graduates from high school.

Creative

The Evolution of Creative Nonfiction

Complicating the question of which came first, the CCSS recommendations or the NAEP, another genre has been evolving and gaining popularity with students at all grade levels, the genre of creative nonfiction. Creative non-fiction or the narrative non-fiction genre features the same techniques that fiction writers, playwrights, and poets use in order to present real people and events as stories while still using factually accurate prose. The goal of the creative non-fiction writer is to make nonfiction stories as exhilarating, arresting, vivid, or dramatic as anything in the fictional story.

In meeting that goal, consider how the Newbery Award winning children’s nonfiction author Russell Freedman (author of Children of the Wild WestLincoln: A PhotobiographyWashington at Valley Forge) has dipped into the fiction trademark, the story, by saying:

“A nonfiction writer is a storyteller who has sworn an oath to tell the truth.”

That desire to imitate a storyteller has been generated by a primitive need to communicate and to remember. The story, as author and consultant Lisa Cron explains in her book Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, allows humans to be human. She writes:

“Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution—more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to. Story is what enabled us to imagine what might happen in the future, and so prepare for it—a feat no other species can lay claim to, opposable thumbs or not. Story is what makes us human, not just metaphorically but literally.”

Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 9.46.08 PMSimilarly, Thomas Newkirk, a faculty member of the University of New Hampshire, has argued that that we are hard-wired for the story format in his brilliant book Minds Made for StoriesHow We Really Read and Write Informational and Persuasive Texts. He writes that, “…as humans, as time-bound mortals, we must tell stories” as though the need to tell stories is instinctive as embedded in all humans as is our DNA. Newkirk explains:

“We rely on stories not merely for entertainment, but for explanation, meaning, self-understanding. We instinctively make connections of cause and effect, and always have. To deny the centrality of narrative is to deny our own nature” (146).

Examples of Creative Nonfiction by Grade Level

Consider the following examples of great openings that use the poetry, humor, or suspense, associated with fiction in different kinds of non-fiction.

The first is the short opening of the picture book Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla by Katherine Applegate:

“In leafy calm, in gentle arms, a gorilla’s life begins.”

The poetic combination of “leafy calm” and “gentle arms” sets a peaceful tone that is soon disrupted when the infant gorilla is kidnapped from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and brought to Tacoma, Washington, to live his real life in a mall.

Or read the opening from the Ludwig Von Beethoven chapter, one of 19 truncated biographies collected for How they Croaked:The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous by Georgia Bragg. Bragg knows her teen audience and keeps the pace moving quickly and informally:

“Beethoven’s dad forced him to practice the piano, like dads have done since the dawn of music. We don’t know what tunes Beethoven practiced, but today, kids are forced to play Fur Elise and Moonlight Sonata, melodies that Beethoven wrote. Practice paid off for Beethoven and he became a musical genius. He played his first gig when he was eight years old. He performed for kings, he did concert tours, and he had a lot of fans. And he had long hair just like a rock star. It turns out Beethoven’s hair helped uncover how he died.”

Yes, this does follow a standard biographical timeline, starting in Beethoven’s youth, and, yes, there is the gratuitous connection to rock stars and “gigs”. This entry-and all of the others in the book- capitalize on a multitude gory details in describing how famous real people in history “croaked.”

The last example is from the  opening of the 2013 multi-media Pulitzer Prize winning article in the NY Times  Snowfall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek by John Branch. This digital form of storytelling is an excellent piece for secondary students. It begins in medias res (middle of action):

“The snow burst through the trees with no warning but a last-second whoosh of sound, a two-story wall of white and Chris Rudolph’s piercing cry: ‘Avalanche! Elyse!’

The very thing the 16 skiers and snowboarders had sought — fresh, soft snow — instantly became the enemy. Somewhere above, a pristine meadow cracked in the shape of a lightning bolt, slicing a slab nearly 200 feet across and 3 feet deep. Gravity did the rest.”

Accompanying the text are snowfall loops of digital GIFs embedded with video, audio interviews, graphics, and other interactive features. I have written before that the text of “Snowfall” marks a new step in storytelling, a mentor text that models how to create a story where all forms of media support an author’s purpose. Real stories are breaking the 3rd wall in storytelling.

Preference for Narrative Nonfiction

In their books, both Lisa Cron and Thomas Newkirck have identified how our brains have preference for reading and writing the narrative. That preference is advancing genre adaptations that may render recommendations for reading diet ratios unnecessary, whether they come from the NAEP, the CCSS, or some other agency.

Because we are human, and because our brains want stories, the evolving genre of creative non-fiction is rapidly becoming another egg in the reader’s basket.

 

What came first…the NAEP Chicken or the CCSS Egg?

Screenshot 2016-03-29 10.37.46First, let’s define terms:

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is the “largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America’s students know and can do in various subject areas.”

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are “a set of goals and expectations for the knowledge and skills students need in English language arts and mathematics at each grade level.”

Back in 1992 and through 2007, the test reading framework for the NAEP centered on three broadly defined genres for assessment content: literary, informational, and document. By 2009, however, the NAEP was revised to offer eight defined genres of assessment content, part of a larger shift to separate reading content into distinct categories.  Of the eight genres in the 2009 reading frameworks, reading content was categorized into more specific forms of nonfiction: literary nonfiction; informational text; exposition; argumentation and persuasive text; and procedural text and documents. There was fiction included on the 2009 test along with selections of poetry, some of which could also be categorized as fiction.

Before 2009, a nonfiction selection might fall into any one of the broadly defined genre categories. After 2009, 5/8 of the NAEP or 63% of the reading frameworks on the NAEP test were in well defined sub-sets of nonfiction.

Now consider, while the NAEP was being revised, in 2009 the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were in development. The CCSS designers for literacy placed an emphasis on complex informational texts (nonfiction) stating:

“Most of the required reading in college and workforce training programs is informational in structure and challenging in content; postsecondary education programs typically provide students with both a higher volume of such reading than is generally required in K-12 schools and comparatively little scaffolding.”

These designers were pushing to expand reading beyond the fiction and literary analysis that traditionally dominated the ELA classes, particularly at the high school level. This was an effort to include reading in other content areas as necessary for the post-secondary experience. As a result, there were standards developed for literacy in grades 6-12 in History/Social Studies, Science, & Technical Subjects

By 2010, 42 states had adopted the Common Core standards  and began revising curriculum to align with  the The Key Shifts of the CCSS and reducing fiction from being 50% of a student’s reading diet in 4th grade to 30% of the reading diet of a graduating senior.

The connection between NAEP and the CCSS was evident, and the recommendations in the literacy standards of the Common Core called attention to this connection:

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 7.51.04 PM

Six Years Later: The Rise of NonFiction

Not surprisingly, six years later, one of the anecdotal findings released from the 2015 NAEP is the increase in nonfiction assigned by teachers in both grades 4 & 8 . This  information came from a voluntary survey where teachers could select the genre they emphasized in class “to a great extent.”

In 2015, fourth grade teachers who had previously created a 25% point gap favoring fiction over nonfiction in 2011, led the reduction of fiction to 15%  in 2013 and to single digit 8% in 2015.

Similarly, in eighth grade, the 34% preference for emphasizing fiction declined to 24% in 2013, and to 16% in 2015.

Screenshot 2016-03-25 17.06.47

The Egg Hatches…and It Looks a Little Different

The truth is, all the emphasis on increasing nonfiction in schools at the expense of fiction has had an positive impact on the genre. An article in the October issue Publisher’s Weekly Moment of Truth: Trends in Nonfiction for Young Readers by Sophie McNeill offered comments from bookstore owners and librarians about the increased interest in factual prose:

Suzanna Hermans of Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck, New York who says,

“Common Core has raised awareness of kids’ nonfiction. We are seeing parents and teachers talking about it differently in home and at school.”

Sharon Grover, head of youth services at Hedberg Public Library in Janesville, Wisconsin, adds:

“Nonfiction has really improved in recent years. Books are more readable, with more pictures and less straight recitation of facts. Kids really appreciate that, since they have become used to reading websites and apps.”

The article also referred to the 21st Century Children’s Nonfiction Conference (2014) which advertised its aim “to display the verve and capabilities of nonfiction, and to show that it can be just as creative as fiction.”

Creative?
Verve?

All this added attention to increasing nonfiction appears having an impact on the genre itself, not only in the in quantity produced but also in the characteristics of nonfiction itself. While the nonfiction genre is generally understood to be based on real events, a statement by the Newbery Award winning children’s nonfiction author Russell Freedman seems to blur those clear lines that the NAEP and Common Core have tried to separate as distinct. Freedman has stated:

“A nonfiction writer is a storyteller who has sworn an oath to tell the truth.”

Note the word storyteller?
Can truth be that objective?

Sounds a little like non-fiction is borrowing a little from the fiction genre playbook.

Eggs and Evolution

Whether it began with the the NAEP Chicken or the CCSS egg, the pressure to emphasize nonfiction is like any other evolutionary force in nature. While the Common Core has fallen out of favor with many states, with at least 12 states introducing legislation to repeal the CCSS standards outright, the nonfiction genre is growing and responding and adapting under the current favorable conditions.

The reduction of fiction in favor of more readable nonfiction in grades 4 & 8, as evidenced by the NAEP survey, continues. The evolution of the nonfiction genre may increase readership as well, especially if engaging texts increase interest in reading in the content areas of history, social studies, science and the technical subject areas.

Today’s educators may break a few more fictional eggs, but the end result could be a better omelet.

The NY Times Sports Sunday Preview  by Joe Ward on 2/7/16 for Super Bowl 50 was part rebus, part infographic and wholly adaptable for a model lesson on annotating text for students in middle or high school. The article charted the growth of the Super Bowl from different elements: tickets, football players, and attendance. Cultural icons from the entertainment industry associated with this sports cultural icon are included. Here is the model for a lesson to increase a student’s background knowledge on a topic (preferably chosen and not assigned).

NYTimes Sports Sunday

Illustration by Sam Manchester; Photographs by: Bill Ray/The LIFE Premium Collection, via Getty Images (Dawson and ladle); Pro Football Hall of Fame, via Associated Press (footballs); Ed Andrieski/Associated Press (water bottle)

 

There is the cryptic title, Size I to Size L, that requires that students understand Roman Numerals.

There is the quarterback Len Dawson of the Kansas City Chiefs smoking a cigarette during half-time in the locker room, a picture that requires understanding what was acceptable before the  the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act, banned the advertising of cigarettes January 2, 1971.

There are the references that can drive student research into the Bell Rocket Air Men, the dog Lassie star of film and TV, and the changes in size of the American football (inflated or deflated arguments, notwithstanding).

The page dedicated to Super Bowl 50 is a model for students to take any informational text and “annotate” by adding pictures, just as the editors added the picture of the 1st Super Bowl ticket ($12.00).

There can be cross-disciplinary links by having students use calculations as charts, just as the editors calculated the price increases in ticket sales and in advertisements, and the increase in player weight.

Students could also embed links within the text (as I have done) to their research as part of the Common Core Writing Standards:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.6
Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.

Finally, teachers can teach a lesson or two on how to correctly cite evidence used in their research, or how to use a citation generator:

Ward, Joe. “Size I to Size L.” New York Times. 7 Feb. 2016. Web. 8 Feb. 2016.

Teachers can use the page as a model for other topics of inquiry.

Need suggestions? Here are some “starters” to try with students:

Students could use different forms of software to create their informational text graphic; the Google suite of software (Docs, Drawing, etc.) is easy to use to create a PDF document. Students can experiment with different fonts to mimic the NYTimes fonts on the model front page. (FYI: NYTimes fonts changed changed to Georgia, as many people find easier to read wide print. They  use Arial as the sans serif font.)

Finally, engaging students in authentic writing prompts like this one from the NYTimes is inquiry based learning that is student-directed and can be linked to John Dewey’s philosophy that education begins with the curiosity of the learner with many of these characteristics:

  • Student voice and choice
  • Strategic thinking
  • Authentic investigations
  • Student responsibility
  • Student as knowledge creator
  • Cross-disciplinary studies
  • Multiple resources
  • Multimodal learning
  • Engaging in a discipline
  • Real purpose and audience
  • Authentic model

A model lesson, ripped (quite literally) from the front page!

Of all the national holidays, Labor Day is the most passive. It floats as the first Monday in September; it lacks a symbol, a song or ritual. Maybe that is not so strange for a holiday that has come to be a collective celebration of rest.

Labor Day is also set aside to recognize the importance of labor or work in our lives.

The importance of work is at the heart of a speech recorded by Retired Lt. General Russel L. Honoré for This I Believe, Inc. This I Believe is an “independent, not-for-profit organization that engages youth and adults from all walks of life in writing, sharing, and discussing brief essays about the core values that guide their daily lives.”

Honoré is best known for coordinating military relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina-affected areas across the Gulf Coast and as the 2nd Infantry Division’s commander while stationed in South Korea. Honoré, also known as “The Ragin’ Cajun”, offered an audio essay that was shared on NPR’s Weekend Edition, March 1, 2009.

Work is a Blessing

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russel_L._Honor%C3%A9

Honoré’s essay was titled To Work is a Blessing and in it he describes how his father influenced him to see labor differently. His own work experience began in his youth when he had to milk 65 cows twice daily:

“I remember complaining to my father and grandfather about having to go milk those cows. My father said, ‘Ya know, boy, to work is a blessing.'”

Honore described how he I looked at those two men, and “had a feeling I had been told something really important, but it took many years before it had sunk in.” As a young man, he joined ROTC to pay for college, and that obligation led to his 37 year career in the Army.

In the essay, he explains a visit to Bangladesh in the 80s and how he watched a woman breaking bricks with a hammer with a baby strapped to her back. When he asked if a machine would be more efficient than this form of human labor, an official explained that a machine would put that lady out of work. Honoré then understood:

“Breaking those bricks meant she’d earn enough money to feed herself and her baby that day. And as bad as that woman’s job was, it was enough to keep a small family alive. It reminded me of my father’s words: to work is a blessing.”

His position in the Army took him to multiple countries, where he grew to recognize that people, regardless of where they lived, who lived without jobs were not free. They become “victims  of crime, the ideology of terrorism, poor health, depression, and social unrest.” Instead, he argued that

“People who have jobs can have a home, send their kids to school, develop a sense of pride, contribute to the good of the community, and even help others. When we can work, we’re free. We’re blessed.”

Honoré’s essay is  (561 words); his audio recording of the speech is 4:02 minutes long. The readability level/Grade Level of the essay is 6.7 according to a Flesch–Kincaid readability calculator. Both the essay and the audio recording are available on the This I Believe website. In the audio recording, Honoré’s thick Louisiana accent personalizes his message, a form of a quick read-aloud while student can follow in the text.

Educators who might want to use this speech with students in grades 6-12 could align their questions to several Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for reading informational texts. Reading informational texts such as this speech help students build a foundation of knowledge in multiple fields. In addition to English Language Arts, this essay can be part of any social studies program from middle school geography to AP Human Geography. The background knowledge the essay provides helps them to be better readers in all content areas.

Below are four anchor standards from the CCSS and questions stems for each strand that could be used with this essay:

RI.9-10.1 Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text of this speech says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

  • What textual evidence supports your analysis of the Honoré’s speech?
  • What inferences can you draw from specific textual evidence?

RI.9-10.2 Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of Honoré’s speech, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.

  • What is the central idea of the speech?
  • How is the central idea developed?
  • What supporting ideas are included in the text?

RI.9-10.3 Analyze how Honoré’s unfolds a series of ideas or events, including the order in which the points are made, how they are introduced and developed, and the connections that are drawn between them.

  • What connections can you make among and between the individuals, ideas, or events in Honoré’s speech?
  • What distinctions can you make between the speech’s individuals, ideas, or events?
  • Analyze how Honoré connects the ideas and events of the text?

RI.9-10. 4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in Honoré’s speech, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone.

  • What does the word/phrase _______ mean in this selection?
  • How does the Honoré’s  use of repetition of ___________ impact the tone of his speech?
  • Identify and analyze which words or phrases specifically impact the meaning or tone?

Labor Day may be a passive holiday, but this day is important to recognize the importance of work in every life, and we should share that message with our students.

Honoré concludes his short speech by saying he has no plans to stop working, restating his belief in his father’s words:

“I believe in the blessing of work.”

 Anne Frank: The Diary of  Young Girl transcends the labels of genre. anne Frank book

Yes, as the title suggests, it is a diary, but it is also a memoir, a narrative, an argument, an expository journal, an informational text, and much more.

Yet, these genres listed are treated as separate and distinct in the reading and writing standards of the Common Core (CCSS). The standards emphasize the differences between the literary and informational genres. The standards also prescribe what percentages much students should read (by grade 12 30% literary texts/ 70% informational texts), what genres of writing they should practice (narrative, informative/explanatory, argumentative) and the percentages students should expect to communicate  in these genres by grade level.

Distribution of Communicative Purposes by Grade supported by the Common Core

Distribution of Communicative Purposes by Grade supported by the Common Core

In the real world, however, the differences between genres is not as clear and distinct as neatly outlined in the standards. The real world of Nazi occupied Holland was the setting that produced the defiant Diary of Anne Frank.

On June 12, 1942,  Anne Frank received a red and white check autograph book as a birthday gift. This small volume was soon filled by Anne as a diary, the first of three separate volumes, as she her family and friends hid in the secret annex.

A diary is a daily record, usually private, especially of the writer’s own experiences, observations, feelings, attitudes.

Anne’s narrative in these diaries provides a sequence of events and experiences during the two years she spent hiding with others behind the bookcase in the attic where her father had been employed.

A narrative is a story or account of events, experiences, or the like, whether true or fictitious.

In June of 1947 Anne’s father Otto Frank published The Diary of Anne Frank, and it has become one of the world’s best-known memoirs of the Holocaust.

A memoir is a written account in which an individual describes  his or her experiences.

In one entry Anne explains she is aware of what was being done with Jews throughout Europe and those who resisted the Nazis. She refers to radio reports from England, official statements, and announcements in the local papers. There are expository style entries throughout the diary that help the reader understand how much she and others knew about the Holocaust:

“Our many Jewish friends and acquaintances are being taken away in droves. The Gestapo is treating them very roughly and transporting them in cattle cars to Westerbork, the big camp in Drenthe to which they’re sending all the Jews….If it’s that bad in Holland, what must it be like in those faraway and uncivilized places where the Germans are sending them? We assume that most of them are being murdered. The English radio says they’re being gassed.” October 9, 1942

“All college students are being asked to sign an official statement to the effect that they ‘sympathize with the Germans and approve of the New Order.” Eighty percent have decided to obey the dictates of their conscience, but the penalty will be severe. Any student refusing to sign will be sent to a German labor camp.”- May 18, 1943

Expository writing’s purpose is to explain, inform, or even describe.

Finally, there are excerpts taken from the diary where Anne makes a persuasive argument for the goodness of people, even in the most awful of circumstances:

“Human greatness does not lie in wealth or power, but in character and goodness. People are just people, and all people have faults and shortcomings, but all of us are born with a basic goodness.  If we were to start by adding to that goodness instead of stifling it, by giving poor people the feeling that they too are human beings, we wouldn’t necessarily have to give money or material things, since not everyone has them to give.” March 26, 1944

A persuasive argument is a writer’s attempt to convince readers of the validity of a particular opinion on a controversial issue.

Anne’s opinion about the goodness of people during the horrors of the Holocaust is a remarkable argument.

The Diary of Anne Frank gave rise to other genres. Anne’s diaries served as the source material for a play produced in 1955 and then as a film in 1959.

The genre of The Diary of Anne Frank, however, should not be the focus, or the reason for its selection into a curriculum or unit of study. Instead, it is the quality of the writing from a young girl that makes the diary a significant contribution to the literature of the 20th Century.Screenshot 2015-06-11 18.50.33

Novelist and former president of the PEN American Center, Francine Prose revisited the diary and was “struck by how beautiful and brilliant it is.” Prose’s research on Anne Frank as a writer culminated with her own retelling, Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife, in which she makes a strong case for the literary quality of Anne’s writing:

“And the more I thought about it, the more I realized how rarely people have really recognized what a conscious, incredible work of literature it is.”

In an interview on the PBS website, Prose was asked, “Do you think there is something about Anne Frank’s voice that continues to resonate with young people today?” Her response,

“I do. Because the diary was written by a kid, it is almost uniquely suited to be read by a kid. Salinger and Mark Twain certainly got certain things right about being a kid; but they weren’t kids when they wrote their books. The diary works on so many different levels.”

When selections from The Diary of Anne Frank were first published in the “Het Parool” on April 3, 1946, the historian Jan Romein also recognized how Anne’s young literary voice rose above the inhumanity that caused in her death at 15 years in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. In his review, he writes:

“… this apparently inconsequential diary by a child… stammered out in a child’s voice, embodies all the hideousness of fascism, more so than all the evidence at Nuremberg put together.”

Romein’s review elevates the “apparently inconsequential diary” as testimony in making a legal case against the Nazi regime. It is that power in Anne’s voice that makes her diary a powerful text to offer students, whether it fits the percentages in a CCSS aligned unit of study for an informational text or not.

Her entry on July 15, 1944, written 20 days before she and her family are betrayed to the Nazis reveals yet another genre:

 “I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.”

For there is poetry in that entry as well.

That letter “O” morphing on your search engine for Mother’s Day?
That spinning Globe for Earth Day?
Those jigging leprechauns for St. Patrick’s Day?
These are all the Google Doodles from 2015 to celebrate holidays.

There are also Google doodle tributes to individuals. Emmy Noether (physicist), Laura Ingalls Wilder (author), and Anna Atkins (botonist), have been featured in doodles this year (2015) as individuals whose work was celebrated as having made an impact in our lives today. Each of the doodles represents the individual artistically using elements that best represent their work.

Some of the Google doodles are interactive. The Google doodle for Martha Graham is a 15 second celebration of dance. The Google doodle for Robert Moog provides a miniature electronic analog Moog Synthesizer (keyboard) that the viewer can play. The tribute to journalist Nellie Bly features a Youtube video scored with an original song (Music: “Nellie” by Karen O).

There are also international tributes not seen here in the United States with Google doodles for surrealist artist Leonora Carrington (Latin America/Australia); the oldest primary grade student at 84 years old, Kimani Maruge (Kenya); and womens’ rights activist, Henrietta Edwards (Canada).

The first Google Doodle celebrating a vacation at the Burning Man Festival

The first Google doodle celebrated a vacation by Google founders Larry and Sergey at the Burning Man Festival

The first Google Doodle (right) was a comical message that the Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin were out of the office attending the Burning Man Festival. The Google Doodle Archive houses the entire collection (1998-present). A scroll through the graphics shows how Google’s primary colored logo is changed in a way that is often surprising or magical. Clicking on the Google doodle takes the reader to a page with information about the event or person, and information about the graphic design and artist for the page.

There are hundreds of doodles, and information on the archive states:

Creating doodles is now the responsibility of a team of talented illlustrators (we call them doodlers) and engineers. For them, creating doodles has become a group effort to enliven the Google homepage and bring smiles to the faces of Google users around the world.

Now, consider that a key shift of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is to build knowledge through content-rich nonfiction. The explanation on the CCSS website is:

Students must be immersed in information about the world around them if they are to develop the strong general knowledge and vocabulary they need to become successful readers and be prepared for college, career, and life. Informational texts play an important part in building students’ content knowledge. Further, it is vital for students to have extensive opportunities to build knowledge through texts so they can learn independently.

Students at all grade levels can independently develop an interpretation of the Google doodle graphic. After studying the logo created by Google illustrators (doodlers), teachers can determine if the link that takes students information on the holiday, the anniversary, or the biography is appropriate for age or grade level reading. Each link contains general information that aligns to the CCSS shift to “build knowledge through content-rich nonfiction.” There is information on these links that might lead students to investigate the person or topic on the doodle even further.

Should a student have an idea for a Google doodle, “The doodle team is always excited to hear ideas from users – they can email proposals@google.com with ideas for the next Google doodle.” There are hundreds of suggestions daily, but the information of the website assures students that, “…rest assured that we’re reading them :)”

Another opportunity for students to submit ideas for a Google doodle (Doodle 4 Google) will be available in September 2015. The details for the 8th annual US competition will be announced then, and examples of student entry winners in 2014 are available for viewing on the website as well.

A quick click on the Google doodle can be an engaging mini-lesson for students in building background knowledge….especially when the information is offered in a logo that is dancing, leaping, morphing, twisting, falling, jumping, running, exploding, singing, growing….