Archives For Units of Study

The Unit 1 pre-assessment question from Teachers College Reading units of Study Grade 4 asks:

How did the [character] change from the beginning to the end of the story and why?                                                                      (Unit 1 -“Papa’s Parrot” by Cynthia Rylant.)

In previous posts, I questioned this kind of assessment that asks about character change in a story.

I have argued in these posts that in texts for the 3rd grade -and even in more sophisticated texts up through Grade 12- there may not be a character change.

In this assessment, the character in Rylant’s story does not change. His character is the same, but once he learns about the parrot, he experiences a change in his feelings towards his father…and the parrot.

The character change question above may have been generated by a misread of the ELA Common Core State Standards. The Reading Literature Standard 6.4 (grade 6) states that students in grade 6 should be able to:

Describe how a particular story’s or drama’s plot unfolds in a series of episodes as well as how the characters respond or change as the plot moves toward a resolution.

It should be noted that the question asked above is not even part of a Grade 4 standard, nor does the question ask how a character responds.

The question also does not directly ask if the opinions or viewpoint of the character have evolved during the story. Readers may see such changes in the character’s sentiment or fortune or direction or purpose. Even in the most predictable book series for grade 4 readers, there could also be a change of mind, or stripes, or tune, or ways.

But a change in character?

Students in 4th grade will have several years to go before they meet the kinds of characters (usually British) who are radically altered by circumstance in the plot. They will have years before they meet Golding’s Jack (Lord of the Flies), Huxley’s John (Brave New World), and Milton’s Lucifer (Paradise Lost). They have more to read before they encounter the long list of Shakespeare’s radical transformations in the characters of Juliet, Macbeth, Richard III, Henry IV, etc.

And even with evidence of change on these heavy hitters, there are literary scholars who could still argue that the character is not so much changed but that character is revealed over the length of the text.

Perhaps the reason for any confusion on the subject of character change in stories comes the lack of understanding of what changes can happen in the character of real human counterparts. There have been numerous studies that try to answer the question, “Do people change?”

A report from Eileen K. Graham, et al. in 2017 (A Coordinated Analysis of Big-Five Trait Change Across 16 Longitudinal Samples) reviewed data on almost 50,000 people in the hopes of answering that question on changes in human personality. This meta-analysis looked for the common ground, between the belief in the 1970s that “personality is unstable for nearly everyone” (Mischel,1969, 1977) and the belief in the 1980-90’s that “personality is stable for nearly everyone”(Costa &McCrae, 1986; Costa & McCrae, 1980).

While sudden dramatic changes in personality are rare, Graham et al. found in the analysis that studies did reveal a change in certain aspects of human personality. These changes in people took time, over a course pf years or decades, not days or weeks.

“We conclude from our study that neuroticism, extraversion, conscientiousness, and openness go down over time, while agreeableness remains relatively stable.”

In other words, the study noted that agreeableness (or a lack of) in humans remains a constant personality trait. In humans, the other changes in personality traits-moodiness, sociability, carefulness, and tolerance- are measured as a loss.

This finding is contrary to what happens to characters in literature. In literature, characters experience some kind of gain, good or bad. Characters make a discovery, an anagnorisis, literally the Greek word for discovery. Anagnorisis is the transition in which a character may gain wisdom, knowledge, or maybe enlightenment.  Even when the cost of experience results in punishment or in tragedy,  the character gains a new understanding.

The character learns something.

So, back to the 4th grade to the question of about character change which has caused so much concern.

Texts that students can (or choose) to read independently at that grade level do not contain any character change. They can point to the popular Dork Diaries, Origami Yoda, Big Nate, Diary of a Wimpy Kid as examples.

While there is no change in character in any of these series, (the characters remain immature, sometimes shallow) these characters do learn important life lessons. These life lessons are intentionally directed at students who are themselves are learning as they move from innocence or ignorance to experience and knowledge.

The more sophisticated stories taught at the fourth-grade level, such as Tuck Everlasting or Hatchet, echo similar messages. In these novels, “You are good as you are” seems counter to the idea of character change, especially when coupled with a cautionary “learn from others” or “learn from your mistakes.”

The difference between “character change” and “what a character learns” can be a direct route to helping a student determine the book’s theme. The story’s theme is always tied to a character’s discovery (the anagnorisis), for example:

  • Frindle (Andrew Clements) that language is flexible.
  • Matilda (Roald Dahl) that adults don’t know everything.
  • Esperanza Rising (Pam Munoz Ryan) that families who stick together can survive.

In each of these stories, it is not the character that changes, but the character’s thinking or feeling. Since the question of character change itself needs to change, the revised question for grade four students is:

“What does the character learn from the beginning to the end of the story, and why is this significant?”

Rephrasing the question to what the character learned can help students discover the message of a story, connecting how an author creates a character’s change of heart or a change of sides to the theme or message of the story.

Change may be good, but not in character questions.

All students should be familiar with our nation’s founding documents, but the 18th-century writing style of these primary sources can be a difficult read for many students. Take for example The Declaration of Independence. While Thomas Jefferson’s masterpiece is only 1337 words, the content specific vocabulary (tyranny, usurpation) can be unfamiliar. One way to prepare students before or during reading is to use a free digital program called Word Sift which was designed to  “help teachers manage the demands of vocabulary and academic language in their text materials.”

The entire text of the Declaration of Independence can be pasted onto a page on WordSift.org in order to quickly identify selected words that are repeated in the text. These words can appear alphabetically or as a word cloud:

A WordSift.org word cloud of the Declaration of Independence (see above) visualizes how frequently Thomas Jefferson repeated words to emphasize or clarify an idea. While he used the word “people” ten times, the Word Sift program contextualized “people” as “person”, which clearly amplifies the focus on individual rights   The next most frequent words highlighted words, “right” (ten times), “law” (nine times) and “power” (eight times), are part of the legal claim for the American colonies to separate from England.  Teachers can prepare students for reading the Declaration of Independence by reviewing the vocabulary in advance and by showing the connection between a message and repeated language.

While word cloud programs are common on the Internet, theWordSift.org program offers a feature to identify and sort different lists of words according to academic discipline (math, science, ELA, and social studies). In addition, the words from any document can be sorted for English learners according to the New General Service List (NGSL). The words on the NGSL are most important high-frequency words of the English language, and knowing the 2800 words on the NGSL list will give more than 90% coverage for learners trying to read general texts of English.

A word sift of the Declaration of Independence identifies 57 words from the 2800 words of the NGSL (ex: injury, declare, purpose, circumstance). These words are highlighted in blue in the illustration below:

 

For all learners, anotherWordSift.org feature is an embedded Visual Thesaurus® with a limited image-search feature. TheWordSift.org site explains that the “most frequent word in the text is displayed under the Visual Thesaurus word web.” For example, a screenshot of the Visual Thesaurus illustration of the word “right” is below (NOTE: visualization of selected word is interactive only on the WordSift.org site):

The Visual Thesaurus can quickly show different meanings of the same word. The program also provides relevant examples from the selected text.

Once the students are introduced to the language of the Declaration, they could review the similarities between Jefferson’s structure and the five-paragraph essay. Most students are already familiar with this structure.

The introduction of the Declaration of Independence is 71 words, a paragraph of only one sentence, which addresses the audience (King George, colonists) and presents his purpose in a thesis of separation:

“… a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”


The second section or Preamble is 272 words. This first body paragraph details Jefferson’s central claim about equal rights:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The third section indicts King George III in a paragraph that lists the (27) complaints against the monarch. This extended list begins:

“The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.”

The fourth section is a one paragraph accusation against the British people who did not respond to petitions for help from their American countrymen:

“Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren.”

The 159-word conclusion, the fifth section, restates the thesis: “…That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States” and details the next steps (answering the “so what?”):

“…and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.”

As students review the organization of the Declaration of Independence, they can also consider the complexity of the sentence construction. There are nine colons, eight semicolons, and 98 commas, roughly one for every 13 words, that force the reader to stop and pause, to consider Jefferson’s lists and supporting details.

Using the program WordSift.org to introduce the vocabulary of any primary source document prepares students for reading and exploring the text independently.  The creators of WordSift.org note:

We would be happy if you think of it playfully – as a toy in a linguistic playground that is available to instantly capture and display the vocabulary structure of texts, and to help create an opportunity to talk and explore the richness and wonders of language!

WordSift.org allows teachers to target instruction so that students understand 18th-century documents like the Declaration of Independence. This 21st-century tool helps students to explore “the richness and wonders of language” of our Founding Fathers in the document that made them citizens of the United States of America.

Continue Reading…

My school district recently purchased a class set of the March Trilogy, the graphic novel memoir that recounts the experiences of Congressman John Lewis (5th District, Georgia) in America’s struggle for civil rights including the marches from Selma to Montgomery. The comic book-style illustrations are engaging and some may mistake the memoir as something for children. Lewis’s experiences in the 1950-60s, however, were marked by violence, so the memoir is recommended for more mature audiences (grades 8-12).

The publisher, Top Shelf Productions, prepares audiences about the violence and language in the memoir by stating:

“…in its accurate depiction of racism in the 1950s and 1960s, March contains several instances of racist language and other potentially offensive epithets. As with any text used in schools that may contain sensitivities, Top Shelf urges you to preview the text carefully and, as needed, to alert parents and guardians in advance as to the type of language as well as the authentic learning objectives that it supports.”

The March Trilogy is the collaboration between Congressman Lewis, his Congressional staffer Andrew Aydin, and the comic book artist, Nate Powell. Their collaboration project began in 2008 after Congressman Lewis described the powerful impact a 1957 comic book titled Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story had on people like himself who were engaged in the Civil Rights Movement. The comic book has been reissued by the original publisher, Fellowship of Reconciliation with a new editorIsrael Escamilla.

Cover of the comic book that inspired John Lewis’s “March”

The 1957 comic book is also available as a PDF by clicking on a link available on the Civil Rights Movement Veterans (CRMV) website. The About page on this site has the following purpose statement in bold:

 This website is created by Veterans of the Southern Freedom Movement (1951-1968). It is where we tell it like it was, the way we lived it, the way we saw it, the way we still see it.

Under this explanation is the blunt statement: “We ain’t neutral.”

The decision to publish the Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story as a comic book in the late 1950s is a bit surprising.  At that time the genre of comic books in America had come under scrutiny. A psychiatrist, Fredric Wertham, made public his criticisms that comic books promoted deviant behavior. That claim in 1954 led to the creation of a Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency along with the Comics Code Authority (CCA). That Authority drafted the self-censorship Comics Code that year, which required all comic books to go through a process of approval.

In 1958, the Friends of Reconciliation published the 16-page comic book as a challenge to CCA restrictions. An artist from the Al Capp Studios, creators of Li’l Abner, donated time to illustrate the book. Benton Resnick, a blacklisted writer, wrote the text. He concluded with a promotion for the “thousands of members throughout the world [who] attempt to practice the things that Jesus taught about overcoming evil with good.” The Friends of Reconciliation’s religious message passed the scrutiny of Senate Subcommittee.

The comic book also received Dr. King’s approval who called it “an excellent piece of work” that did a “marvelous job of grasping the underlying truth and philosophy of the movement.”

Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story was distributed through churches, universities, social justice organizations and labor unions during the Civil Rights Movement. Now in reproduction, the comic book has been widely circulated to support international struggles for civil rights, including Egypt’s Tahrir’s Square.

Teachers can use this primary source comic book as a way to explain how nonviolent protests held throughout the South contributed to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. One of the first frames in the book holds a proclamation:

“In Montgomery, Alabama, 50,000 Negroes found a new way to work for freedom, without violence and without hating.”

Several frames later, there are illustrations showing Rosa Parks’s arrest when she refused to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. These events are narrated by a fictional character named “Jones”. His role is to introduce the reader to the 29-year-old Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr, a preacher from the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Dr. King will become the charismatic leader who planned the bus boycotts in Montgomery.

In the comic book, several frames show how protesters rehearsed for confrontations during protests. King wanted protesters to practice the tenets of non-violence the same way that Mahatma Gandhi had used non-violence in liberating India from the British Empire.

The “Montgomery Method” that Dr. King promotes in the strip is based on religion; God is referenced as the motivating force.  An explanation of the different steps to follow the method of non-violence begins with the statement that God “says you are important. He needs you to change things.”

In the concluding pages, the comic book also has suggestions for activists that were used to guide those who worked for civil rights in the 1950s -1960s. Some of these suggestions are remarkably timely, and they could be used in class discussions:

Be sure you know the facts about the situation. Don’t act on the basis of rumors, or half-truths, find out;

Where you can, talk to the people concerned and try to explain how you feel and why you feel as you do. Don’t argue; just tell them your side and listen to others. Sometimes you may be surprised to find friends among those you thought were enemies.

This comic book Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story can be used to prepare students for the graphic novel memoir by Congressman Lewis, a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement. While he is not directly named in the 1957 comic book, he participated in many of the events and his memoir March provides another point of view to major events.

In Lewis’s recounting, March: Book I is set up as a flashback in which he remembers the brutality of the police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the 1965 Selma-Montgomery March.  The second book, March: Book 2 (2015) highlights the Freedom Bus Rides and Governor George Wallace’s “Segregation Forever” speech.  The final book, March: Book 3 (2016) includes the Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church bombing; the Freedom Summer murders; the 1964 Democratic National Convention; and the Selma to Montgomery marchesMarch: Book 3 received multiple awards including 2016 National Book Award Winner for Young People’s Literature, the 2017 Printz Award Winner, and the 2017 Coretta Scott King Author Award Winner.

In receiving these awards, Lewis restated his purpose that his memoir was directed toward young people, saying:

“It is for all people, but especially young people, to understand the essence of the civil rights movement, to walk through the pages of history to learn about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence, to be inspired to stand up to speak out and to find a way to get in the way when they see something that is not right, not fair, not just.”

He could just as well have been speaking about Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. They may belong to the genre of comic books, but they also are serious records of our history.

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.

My letter to the Social Studies Department Chair at West Haven High School

Dear Mark …and to every other Civics or AP Government Teacher in the USA:

Sorry to interrupt your well-deserved summer vacation.

But I have a resource that I think you should use next year in the Advanced Placement American Government class. You should share this resource with the Issues in Government classes.

This Sunday’s NY Times (7/2/17) magazine has special section devoted to a single spread layout, four pages long, that features an annotated United States Constitution.

 

How could this be used in your classroom?

You will note that on the front of the section is the editors’ statement about the Constitution, that “Schoolchildren are sometimes forced to read it.” You have mentioned several times that students at every level sometimes have difficulty reading a primary source document like the Constitution. They are not alone. The editors of the section also note that scholars “pore over it,” inferring they too are reading the text to better understand this primary source document:

“For most Americans, the United States Constitution remains a distant and archaic text, a relic to be revered but rarely consulted.”

In presenting this annotated document, the editors have given teachers a tool to help students better understand our country’s basic rules. They have implemented a literary strategy known as “chunking the text” which means breaking down a difficult text into more manageable pieces so that students can close read for better comprehension. Chunking helps students identify key words and ideas, develops their ability to paraphrase, and makes it easier for them to organize and synthesize information. Close reading requires students to read and reread a text multiple times for what the text says and how the text works in order to determine how the text has an impact on their lives.

Several sections of this annotated Constitution have commentary from a lawmaker or a scholar or an author or a NYTimes editor. Over 30 individuals offered commentaries printed in the margins including: Representative John Conyers (Michigan), Representative Adam B. Schiff (California), Senator Mike Lee (Utah), Senator Lamar Alexander (Tennessee), Senator Patty Murray (Washington) Janet Napolitanto (former Secretary of Homeland Security), Jamal Green (Columbia Law Professor), Lawrence Tribe (Harvard Law Professor) as well as staff writers Adam Liptak and Emily Bazelon.

Each short commentary, about one or two short paragraphs long, serves as a model for students to follow. Students can be asked to imitate what the contributors have done and chunk the text of the Constitution in order to rewrite text in their own words. By chunking the text, students are better able to identify key words, to analyze ideas, to paraphrase, and to synthesize information.

Each commentary is connected by an arrow imposed on the section being annotated. For several sections Amendment 14 -Civil Rights) there are several commentaries. In total, there are 40 commentaries offering multiple points of view on our founding charter.

For example, Senator John McCain writes about the “common defense”(Article I: Section 8):

“With the powers given to us by our founders, it must be the urgent work of Congress to meet our sacred obligations to give our service members everything they need to defend our nation and our liberty.”

Vanita Gupta, former assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice writes about the 14th Amendment,

“The struggle to realize the promise of this brief but important clause has been at the heart of every movement for civil rights in this country and continues to animate social justice activism of today.”

Their examples serve as models to show students how to analyze and to synthesize the language of the document.

What teachers have with this annotated Constitution are 40 mini-lessons they can share with students sequentially or by order of a trending topic (capital punishment, freedom of the press, etc.)

But that’s not all!

There is a prologue to the inside spread, a two page essay by author  Garry Wills, who has written about James Madison, framer of Constitution. His essay, titled “Child of the Enlightenment,”  discusses the principles derived from the the Age of Reason that guided the “secular miracle” of the Constitutional Convention over the course of a year: convened in 1787 and ratified 13 months later in June 1788.

Wills considers what he calls the “myth” of the checks and balances built into the Constitution, suggesting that:

James Madison was not so much as wanting to encourage “competing interests but to arrive at a ‘disinterested’ view of a common purpose, what Enlightenment philosophers call ‘virtue’ – or public spiritedness.”

Wills argues that such virtue was-and still is -the key component of all government.

Finally, at the the bottom of Wills’ prologue, there is a timeline marking several Constitutional milestones, beginning with its origins in Ancient Greece and ending with today.

Taken as a whole, the special section this Sunday eliminates the need for civics textbooks, which I have often suggested are dated. We both know that students are more motivated when they respond to the issues being discussed today.

This four page spread of newsprint is an entire civics course. ..you just have to get a copy! (or you can borrow mine).

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.

 

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!

“We are not used to live with such bewildering uncertainty,” wrote Jessica Stern in a New York Times editorial How Terror Hardens Us on Sunday (12/6/15) after the San Bernardino, California, shootings.

Stern, an adult, was writing about adults collectively when she used the pronoun”we.”

That same bewildering uncertainty also confronts our children, our students in schools. That bewildering uncertainty is happening at a vulnerable time, just when they are just learning to be citizens in our democracy. That same state of terror, a state of intense fear, has an impact on their state of mind as each terrorist attack, Stern notes, “evokes a powerful sense of dread.”

 Stern, a professor at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies, co-authored ISIS: The State of Terror. She noted in her editorial:

“It [terrorism] is exactly that kind of psychological warfare that It is a form of psychological warfare whose goal is to bolster the morale of its supporters and demoralize and frighten its target audience — the victims and their communities. Terrorists aim to make us feel afraid, and to overreact in fear.”

Students in our classrooms today attend schools where terrorism or home-grown violence is a possibility; the term “lockdown” is part of their vocabulary. At every grade level, they have every reason to believe that they could be a target audience. while motives for violence have differed, many students are aware that high-profile incidents have happened in schools: Columbine (1999) and Sandy Hook (2012).

As educators in all disciplines at every grade level struggle to help students deal with recent events that are identified as terrorism, perhaps the discipline of social studies is the subject where educators can best counter a terrorist’s goal to have our students “afraid and overreact in fear.”

That academic responsibility to help students cope was claimed 14 years ago by the president of the National Council of Social Studies (NCSS) in 2001, months after the attacks on the Pentagon and the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center.

Most frequent words in the speech given by Aiden Davis in 2011 to the National Council of Social Studies after 9/11 (www.wordsift.com)

The most frequent words enlarged from the speech given by Aiden Davis, President of National Council of Social Studies after 9/11/2001 (www.wordsift.com)

 

 

When Adrian Davis delivered his 2001 NCSS Presidential Address to the nation’s social studies teachers, he explained their role as educators included efforts to “to work to reconstruct schools to become laboratories for democratic life” by saying:

“Schools do not exist in a vacuum. They are not isolated from their neighborhoods and communities. Schools and teaching reflect society, and they participate in constructing the future society.”

When Davis gave this address, he was making the case that terrorism had made the discipline of social studies more relevant to future societies than ever before. He anticipated that there would be people who could “overreact in fear”; his address hoped to point out that students would need guidance so that democracy would survive the bewildering uncertainty after 9/11:

 As social studies educators, we need to reinforce the ideals of equality, equity, freedom, and justice against a backlash of antidemocratic sentiments and hostile divisions. As social studies educators, we need to teach our students not only how to understand and tolerate but also how to respect others who are different, how to cooperate with one another, and to work together for the common good.

Davis’s concerns about teaching respect and how to cooperate are even more important today when there is heated rhetoric conflating terrorism with religion. His reason to encourage social studies teachers to reinforce the ideals of equality, equity, freedom, and justice provides a solution to the concerns in Stern raised in her How Terror Hardens Us.

Stern’s editorial concludes, “If we are to prevail in the war on terrorism, we need to remember that the freedoms we aspire to come with great responsibilities.”

On behalf of all social studies educators, Davis accepted those responsibilities. As he concluded, he made clear the commitment he was making for teachers, “We have an opportunity to teach the coming generations to preserve and extend the United States as an experiment in building a democratic community….teaching is where we touch the future.”

The future is always uncertain, but educators, especially social studies educators, can provide students the skills of citizenship to deal with uncertainty so that they will not overreact in fear.

This is POST #400!
This is POST #400!

I just figured out that this is my 400th post. I began writing on 7/3/2011, a little over four years ago. I have discovered that writing for this blog has given me the opportunity to research many topics and to explore what I think about those topics as I write.

In other words, I have increased my own background knowledge through reading and writing on this blog.

So, what could be the best way to celebrate this 400th post?

I can demonstrate how a post can increase a reader’s background knowledge on a topic as simple as the number 400!

There are multiple topics in various disciplines related to the number 400.  Here are several examples of what I learned by basing this post on the  significance of the number 400:

 

HISTORY
If this post were in Athens in 413 BCE, it could represent the The Four Hundred , a group that organized a revolution during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. Their coup was organized after a financial crisis caused by a series of unsuccessful military campaigns, made them seek to establish an oligarchy of the elite. These Four Hundred were the wealthy members of the ruling class, and they believed that the oligarchy would manage foreign, fiscal, and war policies better than the more democratic government in place. (source: Wikipedia)

If this post was part of a  Gregorian calendar year calculator, it would show the changes according to one cycle of exactly 400 years, of which 97 are leap years and 303 are common. (source: Wikipedia)

COMPUTER CODING
If this post was a message from the Internet, it would be part of an HTTP status code for a bad client request. Receiving the message 400 means that the request was malformed. In other words, the data stream sent by the client to the server did not follow the rules. (source: Wikipedia)

The Atari 400 Personal Computer was Atari's entry level computer. www.atari.com

The Atari 400 Personal Computer was Atari’s entry level computer. www.atari.com

ECONOMICS
If this post was in Forbes Magazine, it would be a listing of the 400 wealthiest people in the world. The methodology for gathering this information is from interviews with employees, handlers, rivals, peers and attorneys. Debt is also consider a factor. Other methods explained by Kerry A. Dolan from the Forbes Magazine staff in her article Inside The 2014 Forbes 400: Facts And Figures About America’s Wealthiest:

“We pored over thousands of SEC documents, court records, probate records, federal financial disclosures, and Web and print stories. We took into account all types of assets: stakes in public and private companies, real estate, art, yachts, planes, ranches, vineyards, jewelry, car collections and more.”

SOCIOLOGY
If this post was a socialite calculator for the mid-19th century, it would hold the number 400 as an elite standard based on a remark by from Manhattan’s most famous social arbiter, Ward McAllister. His remark “There are only 400 people in New York that one really knows,” was the basis for social reports chronicled in the New York Sun. According to Collins Dictionary Online,  The notion ‘elite’ is said to be from the selection of high society guests by the socialite Mrs. William B. Astor Jr., whose ballroom could hold 400. (source: Encyclopedia Britannica)

TRANSPORTATION:
If this post was a passenger train, it would have the nickname “The 400″ because of the distance it traveled (400 miles) between Minneapolis/St. Paul and Chicago, Illinois in 400 minutes. (source: Wikipedia)

If this post was a highway, it would be part of the interstate system in Ontario, Canada, or part of the 400-Series Highways. These highways have high design standards,are regulated at 100 kilometres per hour (60 mph) speed limits, with various collision avoidance and traffic management systems. (source: Wikipedia)

 If this post was a boat yard, it would be the historic boat yard #400 in Belfast, Ireland, where the RMS Olympic was constructed, the first of the three Olympic-class ocean liners. The RMS Olympic was the RMS Titanic‘s sister ship. (source: Wikipedia)

SCIENCE
If this post was an explanation of the appearance of celestial objects, it would explain that while the Sun is approximately 400 times the size of the Moon, it is also approximately 400 times further away. Their astronomical size difference is not comparable because of a temporary illusion causing the Sun and Moon to appear as similar size in the Earth’s sky.

If this post was a tree, it would be one of 400 in the ratio of the number of trees per human on Earth today.  A new study  explained in Science Tech Today (Los Angeles Times / NewsEdge) estimates the number of trees at somewhere around 3.04 trillion, or 400 trees for every person. The new study notes that this is a reduction in about half the number of trees that have been on Earth:

“‘The number of trees cut down is almost 3 trillion since the start of human civilization’ said Thomas Crowther, a postdoctoral fellow at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies who led the study. ‘That is an astronomical figure.'”

SPORTS:
If this post was a batting average, it would represent (2 hits out of 5 at-bats) which is a numerically significant annual batting average statistic in Major League Baseball. Batting .400 was last accomplished by Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox in 1941. (source: Wikipedia)

LITERATURE :

"The 400 Blows" is seminal work of the French New Wave (1959) and directorial debut of 27-year old Francois Truffaut

“The 400 Blows” is seminal work of the French New Wave (1959) and directorial debut of 27-year old Francois Truffaut

If this post was a measurement of time between the writings of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament texts, this post would represent the Intertestamental period, or roughly four hundred years.

If this post was part of a Bible as Literature study analysis, then this post would be discussing the verses from Acts in the Revised Standard Version:

“God spoke to this effect, that his posterity would be aliens in a land belonging to others, who would enslave them and ill-treat them four hundred years.‘But I will judge the nation which they serve,’ said God, ‘and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place.’”(Acts 7:6-8 )

If you were looking for this post in the Dewey Decimal system, you would be looking in the 400s-language section. (source: Wikipedia)

MUSIC
If this post was the central idea for a song, it would be for the song 400 Years by Peter Tosh (on the album Catch a Fire, produced by Bob Marley). Tosh was one of the core members of the band The Wailers (1963–1974), after which he established himself as a successful solo artist and a promoter of Rastafari.  Tosh explained that, “My songs are a revolution, not smiling songs.” He was murdered in 1987 during a brutal home invasion.  (source: Wikipedia)

The opening lyrics to this song:

400 years (400 years, 400 years. Wo-o-o-o)
And it’s the same –
The same (wo-o-o-o) philosophy
I’ve said it’s four hundred years;
(400 years, 400 years. Wo-o-o-o, wo-o-o-o)
Look, how long (wo-o-o-o)
And the people they (wo-o-o-o) still can’t see.
Why do they fight against the poor youth of today?
And without these youths, they would be gone –
All gone astray….
So, in celebration of the 400th post, you could listen to the song:

 

All of the above evidence on the significance of the number 400 is proof that every time I sit and write a post, the research that I do for that post has increased my background knowledge.

I hope you learned something new to add to your background knowledge from this 400th post!

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.”