Lies My Textbook Told Me


George Washington never told a lie. Columbus discovered America. Newton watched an apple fall out of a tree and figured out gravity.

These are some classic examples of the lies our text books told us. Of course most teachers don’t still teach these “facts”, they use nonfiction, historical fiction, and “updated” textbooks to teach history, social studies, and science. Before I started learning more about children’s lit, I admit I blindly trusted the authors of the books I used. I didn’t really know how to decide which books were more authentic, accurate, or trustworthy than others. I’d use any book if I had heard of the author, thought the publisher seemed reliable from my experience with them (like National Geographic), or even if the cover just caught my eye.

How silly was I.

How do you decide if the information in a book is trustworthy? How do you decide if a book is good enough to teach your kids without having to worry about un-teaching its information later? And how can you get kids to think about what they read?

The first time the falsity in a book truly shocked me was in my nonfiction class last semester. We had just read the book Amos Fortune: Free Man by Elizabeth Yates. Amos Fortune is the 1951 Newbery Award winner and a book I had taught in my classroom. A book I taught as fact.

The story is supposedly the true biography of Amos Fortune, an African-American slave turned free man. The author, Elizabeth Yates, begins the story with the kidnapping of Amos, an African Prince, who is eventually sold in the slave trade. An Amish man purchases him and then sells him to a tanner.  Fortune learns the trade of tanning and eventually buys his freedom. He frees his wife, and they move to New Hampshire where he acts as a beacon of light to his community.

I taught this book a couple of times when I was in New Hampshire, I think many NH teachers do. I taught it as fact. Why wouldn’t I? I found it in the nonfiction section.

Well, after I read this for class my professor asked us if we’d like to have our minds blown away now or later. We decided on now.

“Well” she said, “about 95% of this book is made up.”

She went on to explain that there isn’t any record of Fortune’s life before he moved to Jaffrey, NH. Yates apparently didn’t think she could make his story compelling enough with the information she had, so she just made up the rest of the man’s life.

And when you realize some of the things Yates made up about Amos’s life, like the following conversation between the tanner and his wife, you begin to think about how much politics influenced the book.

“What happened to him?” Ichabod Richardson asked.

“I don’t know,” his wife replied. “Amos looked at himself in that little mirror he brought me and at first his image seemed to delight him. Then it affected him strangely.”

“Perhaps he thought he was white until he saw himself in the mirror (Yates 63).”

Really? Did this woman really think Amos was so stupid that he didn’t know what color he was? Or did Yates have to make Fortune inferior to white people in order to publish a book with an African-American protagonist in 1951? How could I trust this book?

Mortified that I had taught this book as fact, I made it my mission to make sure every educator and librarian in New Hampshire new to shelve this book in the historical fiction section. I swore to never use it in the classroom again.

But then I took a few breaths, settled down, and realized, that I could use this book in the classroom. I could use it in a way that is far better and more beneficial to students than just having them learn some facts about history from a book. In fact, you can apply this lesson to any book.

You have to teach your kids to think. Do you have to give your students reading fluency tests, like DIBELs? The thing I hate about most of these tests are that they focus on reading fluency and not comprehension. If a kid can read 132 words per minute but doesn’t know what he read, he’s not doing very well. In order for kids to understand what they’re reading they have to think about it. Teaching reading comprehension is one of the most difficult things for teachers to do, but hopefully this lesson idea will help.

First, pick a book (any nonfiction or historical fiction book works best). For the sake of this blog, we’ll stick with Amos Fortune.

You should do the lesson by yourself before you do it with your students. As the teacher you should know all the books you teach like the back of your hand. When it comes to nonfiction, you also need to know as much about the subject as possible.

Day One:

Let the kids get acquainted with the book. Give them a few minutes to flip through it.  Then have them write a list of everything they know about the subject . It’s okay if they don’t know anything about it and it’s okay if they write some things down that you know aren’t true.

Next tell them that they aren’t going to just read the book, but they’re going to judge it. They’re going to decide if and why they think the book gives accurate information or not. They’re going to love having the authority to judge something an adult created. Have them make predictions. What do they think about the books accuracy just by looking at it?

Day Two:

A: Show the students a few different books about the same subject. For example if your original book is about the Wright Brothers, then go to your library and grab at least five other books that are also about the Wright Brothers. Have the students spend a few minutes looking at each one and making notes about what they find. What does each book look like, is there an index, a bibliography, time lines, maps,a table of contents, diagrams, pictures, has it won awards, etc.? Have them decide which book (including the original book) they think is most trustworthy. Why do they think this? Leave these books on display for the next few weeks. Encourage the students to use them. If they come across an interesting fact in the book you’re reading ask them to see if the other authors included that information too. (Look at the pictures above… judge them. Which one do you think is most trustworthy? What about the cover made you make this judgement?)

B: If there aren’t any other books on the subject (like Amos Fortune) then try to find other sources of information. Use websites, pamphlets, articles, etc. Have them look over the information and decide what information they trust.

Day Three:

Ask the students to find the copyright date. Explain that world events can influence the production of a book.  Discuss the events that were going on in the world during the books publishing date. Anything from political movements, to natural disasters, to popular trends  can influence how and why a book is published (for example many books about Christopher Columbus were published in 1992 because it was the 500-year anniversary of Columbus sailing the ocean blue and in 2006, a year after Hurricane Katrina, there was an increase in information books about hurricanes).

Day Four:

Begin reading the book. I will eventually write a post about techniques to use during small reading groups. Just make sure your students are paying attention. Never have the students take turns reading a page or a paragraph or anything because the students won’t follow along, they’ll just wait until it’s their turn to read and daydream in the meantime. Have someone begin reading, when you think they’ve read enough call on somebody else. Do this randomly, even in the middle of sentences, this will keep them on guard and motivated to stay focused. Make sure there are consequences for when your students aren’t paying attention.

As the students read have them pay attention to how the author crafted the book. Does the author use quotations or invented dialogue? Is the author using references or do they seem to come up with their information out of thin air? Are there footnotes? Photographs? Illustrations? Diagrams? Author’s note? Make the children constantly question where the author is getting their information. Have them keep notes as they read for the next few days.

After Reading the Book:

Review what you’ve read. Discuss the book’s accuracy. Discuss the comparisons they made with the other books. Then have them decide whether they trusted the author. Would they read another book by them? Have them look at the original list they made of things they knew about the subject. Have them correct it and add to it. They’ll be surprised at how much they’ve learned.

As a final project have the students write a book review (allow them to use their books and notes). If they are able to make a decision about whether they trusted the information book and can defend their opinion then they have successfully learned a new comprehension technique. It’s perfectly ok if they don’t agree with your opinion about the book as long as they can defend themselves. Post their work up in the classroom. As a challenge have them pick another nonfiction book and write a report about why they think the author and information are reliable or not.

This activity should get your students (and maybe even you) thinking about books, especially nonfiction books, in a new way. Nonfiction is a world that adults always seem to tip-toe around. But students love nonfiction. Next time your students have some free reading time notice how many are reading the Guinness Book of World Records, or a book about sharks, skateboarding, ballet, or football. This activity is going to help them think about the books they already love!

Enjoy and happy reading!

(Grade level: k plus. This lesson can be modified for all ages)

Here is a list of nonfiction books I’ve read over the past year that I think are particularly exceptional:

**For anyone who is waiting for my response to the 2011 Caldecott awards, it will be up soon. I wasn’t expecting A Ball for Daisy to win and need some time to think about it! But congrats to all the winners! (Winner: A Ball for Daisy by Chris Raschka. Honors: Blackout by John Rocco, Grandpa Green by Lane Smith, and Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell!)

More than Just a Boring Old Book Club


As if it isn’t obvious, reading is my favorite subject. It was my favorite subject growing up and it’s my favorite subject to teach.  I squeeze and sneak it into every minute of the day. I think that teaching it is so important that when I was teaching full-time (I’m taking some time off while I get my Masters) I lead the coolest  after-school book club ever.

Kids need to feel empowered, they need to feel confident and important, but when it comes to reading, children often feel anxious, self-conscious, and lousy. According to the literacy company, “forty-four percent of American 4th grade students cannot read fluently, even when they read grade-level stories aloud under supportive testing conditions.” 44%! And I can guarantee you, that percentage is higher in low-income areas. I’m sorry, but Americans should be embarrassed  by this number. In our society, it’s inexcusable. I could go on and on about what I think American’s are doing wrong, but I’m not going to. Instead, I’m going to show you how a super awesome book club can help.

Scholastic.com lists seven ways for parents and guardians to build better readers:

1. Read with her for at least 30 minutes a day. This can include books, chore lists, signs, board games, menus, etc.

2. Take turns. When you read with him, read one page, then have him read one, and so on.

3. Ask questions. Build her comprehension skills by asking her who, what, when, where, why questions. Engage in a discussion about what you’re reading.

4. Be patient. Let him try to figure out the word. Give them at least a full minute.

5. Help her when she needs it. Show them how to use the context clues and root words to figure words out. Answer her questions about the meaning of words.

6. Read different-level books. It’s okay if he chooses an “easy” book to read. Reading a familiar favorite is a good confidence booster. Read more advanced books to him to introduce new words and challenging stories.

7. Praise her. Learning to read is frustrating. Encourage her by praising her and pay attention when she wants to read.

The book club I decided to use (which was created by two amazing teachers in New Hampshire) allows children and their parents to carry out each of these goals every week.

My biggest worry about the book club, was that kids wouldn’t be interested. When I was a kid I thought book clubs were for middle-aged ladies who sit around eating crumpets discussing the lusty world of Danielle Steel. Don’t get me wrong, I loved reading, but I don’t think the idea of a book club would have appealed to me. However, I really didn’t have any trouble at all getting kids to join. I went to every classroom, passed out flyers, and talked it up. At first they didn’t seem to really care, but when they heard they were going to get to keep their books, their ears perked up. I actually had to turn kids away. So if you decide to do this, talk it up as best you can. The more excited you are about it, the more excited they will be about it. And don’t worry about the cost of the books, it’s not going to come out of your pocket!

Alright, so the reason this book club is so cool and works at improving reading scores so well is because it’s a companion book club. You can name the club anything you like, but the type of book club is called a “book-companion book club”. Each kid is matched up with a companion. Ideally you’d like the companion to be the child’s parent or guardian, but if they can’t do it then a grandparent, teacher, staff member, police officer, fire fighter, or other prominent member of the community can step in instead. Children are excited to team up with adults, they like being able to show off their reading skills and they enjoy the extra attention. They also love keeping their companion accountable for their reading!

Okay, so it’s just a fact that people learn better when they’re having fun. So we jam pack every second of book club with fun. Here’s how it works:

Book club meets once a month. I find it’s easier for parents if the club meets in the evening, so they have time to get done with work and get their kids fed. We always met at 5pm. Everyone arrives with their companion, their book, and either a snack or an object. Whether or not they bring a snack or an object depends on what team they’re on. Each month we divide the club into two teams. One team is in charge of bringing in a snack that relates to the story (such as when we read The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo one child brought in soup, because soup is the Queen’s favorite dish). The other team is in charge of bringing in an object that relates to the story (they have to make or find the object, they can’t buy it).  When we read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever a little girl brought in a fire-extinguisher since the characters are always starting fires. Encourage the kids to get as creative as they can with this!

One of my super awesome kids. She made hamburgers and french fries (out of rice crispy treats) because the main character from the book of the month, Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson, loves burgers. 

After everyone settles in we say a little greeting, and then immediately begin the book discussion. Because we had so many kids, we usually split the group into two smaller groups, but you don’t have to. Each month a different child leads the discussion. They are responsible for coming up with and facilitating questions (if a child doesn’t feel comfortable doing this, try to get him to do it with his companion, but don’t force anyone who really doesn’t want to do it, this is supposed to be fun!).

After the discussion each child and their companion is given a piece of construction paper. They draw something they particularly enjoyed in the book (make sure they put their names and the title of the book on the back of the page). Sometimes it’s nice to play music that compliments the story. Collect their drawings when they finish. These will be bound into a memory book that each child will get to take home as a present at the last meeting.

When everyone’s done drawing each companion pair gets to share either the object or the food that they brought. They need to say what it is and why they thought it represented the story. This is show and tell time only, I always made everyone wait until the end to eat, otherwise everyone gets too distracted.

When they’re done sharing it is time for the most exciting time of all: the revelation of the next book! Everyone always gets excited for this part, and I make a huge deal of it. Every month I put the new books in a large sparkly silver gift bag. I make everyone give me a drum roll, and then I pull out a copy and hold it up. I read a description of the book (whether it’s the one on the back of the book or a better one I found online) with as much expression as possible. I use different voices if I think it’ll pump everyone up. And then I hand out the books. Each book comes with a bookmark. The bookmark has an image on one side and what the child is responsible for bringing at the next meeting (as well as “Discussion Leader” on the bookmark of the child whose turn it will be the following month) on the other side. When each child has their fresh new book in their hands, we all dig in to the treats.

The last meeting is party time. Order a pizza and watch the movie version of one of the books the club read that year. Have everyone share their favorites and their least favorites, and present each child with their memory book. They love seeing what they’ve accomplished.

Showing off his object (a toy bus for the bus Lonnie has to ride in Locomotion) during memory page time!  

So what about the books? Why do we give them to the kids and how to we pay for it? Well, it’s important to give the kids the books because it starts their personal library. Some of the kids in the school I worked in didn’t own any books at all. They deserve to have them, and if I can make that possible I think I should do it. I plan the books we will read a year ahead of time. My assistant and I wrote to a number of companies in the community explaining what we were doing and why it is important that they own the books. In no time we got donations. The Rotary Club wound up giving us $300, which actually lasted us a couple of years. I look for deals. It would be great if I could buy any books I wanted, but I can’t, so I have to find deals, like the $1 novels featured in each scholastic book order and the discount shelves in book stores. And don’t forget to get a teacher discount card at Barnes and Noble (but try to shop locally if you can).

I know this sounds like a lot of work, and sometimes it is, but I promise it’s worth it. The kids really enjoy it (and not only because they get a free book out of it) and the parents just love it. And if it’s mandatory for you to do something extracurricular anyway, why not suggest this to your principal? It’s way more fun than being on a data committee or something. I guarantee the students’ reading scores will go up, and I guarantee their self-confidence will get a super-duper boost! And don’t think you can only hold a book club in a school setting. If you’re a librarian organize a companion book club in your library. Or if you’re a parent organize a companion group with some of your friends and their children. Remember, it’s okay if some of the books are easy for some of the kids and difficult for others. Kids need exposure to all levels.

Let’s get all our kids reading fluently! Happy book-clubbing!

Caldecott in the Classroom


One thing that gets me through the (usually) dark cold winter months are the award ceremonies. January is a month to view films, check out books, and pick your favorites. Although I love the magic of the red carpet, the Oscars is not the award ceremony that I look forward to most. The award that keeps me biting my nails at the edge of my seat are actually the awards that go out to the most distinguished picture books for children: The Caldecott Medals.

I think most teachers are able to tell you that the Caldecott goes to the “best picture books” but I’m not so confident that they know what makes them the “best”. Well, the truth is, there are an infinite amount of arguments one could make about why they think one book is better or more distinguished than another. In fact, just because a picturebook wins a Caldecott doesn’t actually mean that it’s the best. It merely means that a panel of teachers, authors, publishers, professors, librarians, and other kid lit folks discussed and argued and voted and finally decided upon a book, or books, that they personally believed was the most distinguished books. Another group of people could have looked at the same books and come up with a completely different choice. So, does winning the Caldecott really matter? In retrospective, no it does not. Which is why teachers, parents, and children should not just pick books that have awards stuck to them. There are hundreds of distinguished books sitting on shelves that haven’t won any awards at all. However, the reason I look forward to the Caldecott award is because it’s something that really lends itself to the classroom. One of the most multipurpose projects that can be done in a classroom is a mock Caldecott committee.

A mock Caldecott committee will give students practice in the following areas:
Reading
Art
Design
Making Predictions
Evaluating
Forming Conclusions
Debating
Making Decisions
Math
Leadership
Persuasion Skills
Writing

I’m sure that list could go on and on. Here’s how to do a mock Caldecott in your classroom.

Believe me when I tell you I know first hand what it’s like to have an air tight schedule and being asked to squeeze in another five minutes of something. But I promise that the Caldecott project is not as invasive to your schedule as it may seem. Most of it can be weaved into what you’re already doing.

First things first, you’re going to need the books. The American Library Association, the Horn Book, and some other children’s literature related websites will offer lists of books published in the previous year (however please know that they’re never full lists). If your school library books don’t have them then your public library probably will. Most public libraries allow teachers to keep books longer than regular members, just ask for the teacher card. Get as many of the books as possible (even the books not on the ALAs website!). As this is obviously a long list of books, you might want to check over them before and see if you can narrow them down to a manageable number for what suits the children in your classroom. Once you get the books bring them into your classroom and keep them in a segregated location, then explain to your students what you’re going to be doing over the next few weeks.

For the first week just let the kids get accustomed to the books. Read some aloud to them (morning meeting, after lunch, at the end of the day are all great read aloud times). Let them read them during silent read, at recess, when they’re done with their work. At first just tell them to read them and to look at the pictures and to think about what they see. Let them be free to explore without adding your opinion to any of the books. Remind them to return them to the location when they are done. If you have time to make one, also give them each a check list of the books, and encourage them to try to read all of them.

During the second week have some conversations with your students about art and design. Read them examples of past winners and discuss why the students thought they won. Read and share the book Picture This: How Pictures Work by Molly Bang with your class. Make a class list of what elements they think make a distinguished book i.e. character placement on the page, using color to show mood (like blue for sad), if the picture adds to the text, etc., and post it in the classroom. Afterwards, explain to them that they should apply what they’ve discussed to the books they read the week before. That Friday have each child write down their three favorite books on a piece of paper and collect them. Tally them over the weekend.

The third week is when the fun really happens. Make a list of books according to what the students voted on the previous Friday. These will be the books you will focus on that week. Remove the other books or put them in your library. Keep the ones that were voted for on display. Use Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to debate. Have each child write three reasons why they chose each of the books they voted for so they have something to reference (if you’re teaching a lower elementary class then modify this by making a class list).  Have the students sit in a circle or a “U” and let them debate. Encourage them to defend the ones they chose by articulating their reasons why. Give some input, but mostly be a mediator. Let the kids get a little wild.

On Thursday let the voting begin. Have each child vote for three books: one winner and two honor (the real Caldecott committee can choose as many honors as they want, in fact they don’t have to choose any if they don’t want to!). Here’s where it gets confusing. They pick three books. They put a 3 next to the one they want to win, a 2 next to their second choice, and a 1 next to their third choice. When you tally it up, which ever book has the most points wins the gold, and the others win the silvers. If there’s not a clear winner do a little more debating and another round of voting the following day. At the end of Friday you’ll have your winners!!! It wouldn’t hurt to have a Caldecott party! Cookies with yellow frosting and a special guest read aloud (firefighters, police officers, the principal are all great choices!).

When the real winners are announced compare them to your class’s choices. The Horn Book and ALA are always discussing these choices online. Share their explanations and arguments with your class. You can also have your students participate in the online Horn Book mock Caldecott committee (www.hbook.com). They can debate with other lovers of picturebooks and even people who have sat on real Caldecott and other ALA committees in the blog and then cast their votes. The kids will feel proud to be able to connect with such a prestigious award.

Here is a list of books that are getting some Caldecott buzz this year. Check them out. What do you think of them? When the winners are announced I will be back to discuss them.

Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell

Blackout by John Rocco

Grandpa Green by Lane Smith

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen

Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet

Where’s Walrus? By Stephen Savage

Stuck by Oliver Jeffers

Neville By Norton Juster Illustrated by G. Brian Karas

Naamah and the Ark at Night by Susan Campbell Bartoletti Illustrated by Holly Meade

Blue Chicken by Deborah Freedman

A Ball for Daisy by Chris Raschka

The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse by Eric Carle

Can We Save the Tiger? By Martin Jenkins Illustrated by Vicky White

(The list of picturebooks published in 2011 is obviously a trillion times longer, but at least this will give you a start! Have fun!)

On a final note, please do not believe that this project is only intended for young children. This project is appropriate for Kindergarten through post-graduate level students. You are never too old to examine and evaluate art. You are never ever ever too old for picturebooks! Don’t deprive your children or students of picturebooks, encourage them to include them in what they read.