September 2, 2014

Collaborative Writing (Part 2):  A Rich Slice of Life

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Once again, we offer you a piece from Fran Haley, a literacy coach in Wake County, North Carolina. Last week, we shared Part I of her guest series on teaching writing. This week, she takes us even deeper into the heart of writing.

“When you write a memoir, you aren’t writing about your entire ten or eleven years of living. What do you want your reader to think or feel? Decide on that first. Then pick a moment when you learned something about someone, about yourself, or about life. Your job as a writer is to bring the readers into that memory so that they live it with you, like it’s happening right now.”

– Fran Haley, to fifth grade students


I was initially invited to fifth grade by my extraordinary colleagues, who thought I might help inspire students to write meaningful memoirs. In the end, however, it was the students who inspired us.

The collaborative writing of my memoir developed out of the need to model, think aloud, and share the writing process simultaneously with students, but they weren’t just witnesses or passive participants. They became a team of editors, critics, and sojourners who walked back in time with me to live pieces of my childhood.

As mentioned in Collaborative Writing, Part 1, I started out giving students a choice of my memories: Do you want to help me write about The Mysterious Noise or The Time I Was Death? This later morphed into a choice of feelings: Do you want to help me write something suspenseful, something that will make you laugh, or cry?

If the students wanted to laugh, we wrote “The Time I Was Death,” concerning a last-minute costume for a party I didn’t know I was supposed to attend when I was in fifth grade.

One class said, “Make us cry.” We wrote“The Kitten’s Song.”

When you are collaboratively writing your own memory, you have to fill students in on just enough for them to have an idea where you’re going:

Okay, ladies and gentlemen, you’ve chosen to help create a story which will make you cry. The topic is a sick kitten. A good writer anticipates questions of readers and works answers into the narrative. What kinds of questions do you think a reader would have in this case?

The students generated this list: Why was the kitten sick? How did you feel about it being sick? How did you know it was sick?Where did the kitten come from? When did this event take place? How old was the kitten? What did you do to try to cure it?What did the kitten look like? How long was it sick? Did it die? Could you play with the kitten? What was its name? How big was the kitten? Was it a boy or a girl?

Thus the framework for the narrative was created; my goal was to answer all of these questions as we wrote the memoir together.

As words went on the pages under the document camera, the tiny gray-and-white striped kitten was born. Within a day she was pushed away by bigger, stronger siblings who got all their mother’s milk. When I picked her up, she was about the weight of an egg in my hand. I was horrified to discover a raw, red sore where her tail should have been. I was afraid the mother cat had bitten it off, but my mother explained that this condition is spina bifida.

          What is spina bifida, Mrs. Haley?

          Hmmm. Readers may not know what the term is either. How can we help them know the meaning of spina bifida?

          Maybe your mother can explain it to you so everyone can know. Also, you need to go back and tell us the name of                the kitten. You forgot.

          I’m saving the name for a reason. We are building up to it.

The hook comes in letting the narrative unfold without giving too much away too soon. Here’s how the kitten’s name was revealed in the draft:

Mom handed the dropper of milk to me and I put it up to the kitten’s mouth. She didn’t take it.

“Mom, I can’t do it!” By now my hand was shaking.

“Give her to me,” said Mom.

My mom could fix anything, I knew. Once she had rewired our oven all by herself. She made beautiful clothes for us and other people to wear. As I placed that tiny gray and white kitten in my mother’s capable hand, I was sure she would make the kitten well. I remembered a song then, from a movie I watched on TV with Mom. The song was “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music. Part of the lyrics are: “Small and white, clean and bright, you look happy to me … blossom of snow may you bloom and grow, bloom and grow forever.”

One student waved her hand wildly: Oh, Mrs. Haley, I know that song!

The rest of the class didn’t know the movie or the song, so we paused as the girl sang it for us in a pure, sweet soprano. There was a reverent hush in the room as we got back to the writing:

In that moment, the kitten’s name was Edelweiss. As my mom tried to put milk into the kitten’s mouth, I sang the song over and over in my mind.

The milk just ran down the sides of the kitten’s cheeks. When I looked at my mom’s face, her mouth was set in a straight line. Tears were rolling down her face like the milk on the kitten’s cheeks.

After a few minutes, Mom said, “She’s already gone.”

“NO!” I wailed. “Keep trying!”

Sniffling was audible throughout the room. I could hardly see the page or the document camera; long-ago tears welled up afresh. We pressed on to finish the memoir, wiping our eyes. One student, sighing, summed it up at the end: Mrs. Haley, that was so terrible and wonderful.

As the students worked on their own memoirs, they focused on what they wanted their readers to feel. The depth of emotion they incorporated was astounding. We tasted the anger of one girl whose family had moved many times; we felt the loss of friends she’d had to leave behind. We experienced another girl’s anxiety giving way to joy on the birth of her baby brother.

Rich, rich slices of life, shared and savored.


-Fran Haley

August 2014

Collaborative Writing (Part 1): A Co-Labor of Love

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For the last couple of years, we have connected with Fran Haley, a K-12 ELA educator and literacy coach at a Title I school in North Carolina, via Twitter and some in-person conversations at PD we have facilitated in Wake County. She has a wise soul and her insightful perspective prompts us to think more deeply and act more intentionally. As a child, Fran imagined herself as characters in the books she read. Then she discovered the power of writing. She continues to study the craft of writing and to stretch herself with various genres, experimenting with voice and perspective. Nothing delights her more than seeing students get excited about writing. We are honored to share some of her enthusiasm with you through this guest post, the first in a two-part series.


“Every moment is a teachable moment as well as a writable one.” –Fran Haley


When it comes to teaching writing, teachers know the three Ms: minilessons, mentor texts, and modeling. A fourth M, however, is a little more problematic: motivation. Despite the teacher’s careful selection of high-interest, quality texts and the deeply important think-aloud, there’s that student who just does not want to write.

So much for Common Core Writing Anchor Standard 5: “Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting …” because, darn it, that student doesn’t want to write at all, let alone develop or strengthen any writing. Forget the rest of it. We pull everything out of our toolbox and none of it sparks that student.

But CCR Writing Anchor Standard 5 doesn’t end with developing and strengthening; the final phrase is “or trying a new approach.” This “new approach” surely means students rewrite pieces from different perspectives or take different stances, but might it subtly hint at an opportunity for those of us who teach writing? Different things work for different teachers; the dynamic of each classroom, the ebb and flow between teacher and students, is never the same twice. For me, as a teacher and literacy coach, collaborative writing was the “new approach,” which reached even the hardest-to-reach student with that fourth M and brought student writing to life.

Perhaps it was mostly because I love writing; I tell that to students up front. Passion, we all know, tends to be contagious. Perhaps it was because the fifth-graders took my carefully selected mentor texts into small groups for a few minutes, where they read to each other and discussed what they noticed about the form and the author’s approach, as I listened in. Perhaps it was because I let the class vote on the topic of the paper from several topics I hoped might work. Most of all, I believe that the collaborative writing of my memoir—my own memory, my own thinking, shaped by their input—was the hook which pulled every last one of them. The students became part of the process; the process became synergistic.

Collaborative writing closely resembles shared writing, except that students take on more of an advisory role; the goal isn’t to complete a model piece quickly but to have students contributing during the whole messy process of good writing. Once the topic was agreed upon, I started writing under a document camera. The students helped create an appropriate beginning. They began to ask critical questions, from characterizing my family members in the memoir to whether or not “that comma” was appropriately placed, and why. The students asked me to define some of my word choices; once or twice they even recommended better ones. We even debated artistic or stylistic choices.

The students saw things I didn’t (Are we not always a bit myopic with our own work?) and made spontaneous suggestions which improved the narrative. They watched, nodding approval, when a sudden inspiration sent me back to the previous paragraph to insert a thought (I was, after all thinking aloud). The students actually caught “holes”–gaps in the logical flow–that I had to go back and fill!

Together we completed our first draft, and when the final period was placed, the students applauded. All of them. The memory was mine, but we all owned the work.

Afterward, when it was time for “you do,” the students generated numerous ideas for their own memoirs, and that student who hadn’t ever wanted to write was the most excited. His memoir about telling the truth after an unwise choice ended up being one of the most moving.

Yes, there was still planning, revising, editing, and rewriting to do, on our collaborative draft and on their individual ones, with much, much conferring, but the difference was that all the students wanted their work to be powerful, to impact their readers.

And they did.


Understanding the Essence of a Close Read

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Last year, as the Common Core state standards were implemented in full-force by schools across the country, “close reading” of “complex text” became the focus of many educators.  In fact, as teachers aimed to amp up their instruction to align with the standards, they labored over text selection wondering if their choices were worthy of “a close read.” In many cases, complex text was supplanted by hard text and presented to students by enthusiastic but uncertain teachers saying things, such as:

  • “Let’s do a close read of this text.”
  • “We’re going to closely read this text.”
  •  “Let’s be sure to read closely and carefully.”

In fact, by the middle of October of last year, close reading was so emphasized in the schools Kim’s sons attended that it became the subject of sarcastic dinnertime humor. Her younger son would ask her older son, “So Matthew, did you read (imagine a ten year old child using air quotes here) ‘closely and carefully’ today?”  For Matthew and Nathan, close reading was akin to a story map or a diorama—one of those things that teachers ask you to do in school.

As we ready for the new school year, it is important to remember that making meaning is the essence of reading. If children are leaving our classrooms with the idea that close reading–or in other words, mining text for its deepest meaning–is simply something that teachers ask you to do in school, then we must work hard to reclaim meaning making as inherently valuable to reading. Perhaps this year, it might serve us better to reserve “close read” and variant terms to use in professional planning conversations with colleagues. We should exchange ideas about the different ways we are able to help children reach new understandings or achieve insight into a text, or, in other words, read closely. Perhaps we needn’t remind students that they are reading closely but rather, that they are doing the important work of reading: understanding.

A Writing Mini Lesson for Starting the School Year

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Between us, we have six sons and they all LOVE Legos. In the process of organizing for back-to-school–something of a “fall-cleaning” ritual–Jan asked her six-year-old, Victor, to sort through his gigantic box of random Legos and remove anything extraneous. The box had become something of a dumping ground for any small object.

After some protest from Victor, Jan agreed to help him rifle through the thousand, some-odd Legos to identify lost treasures. Item-by-item they pulled out random objects, such as the dice for a particular game, the pretend credit card that goes with the toy cash register, and the lid to the jar for catching fireflies. Such items were returned to their rightful homes, and trash (which represented a large percent of the foreign matter among the Legos) was thrown away. There still remained, however, an assortment of objects that weren’t trash, but were homeless. That is, they were small treasures that didn’t really belong anywhere else.

So, Jan recycled an unused school box and designated it a repository for “small things worth keeping.” As Jan and Victor sorted through the Legos, they gathered these homeless treasures and said, “This is a small thing worth keeping.” They collected a crazy assortment of random, dearness–a plastic lizard, a wooden nickel, a plastic ring, a Rainbow Loom bracelet, even a baby tooth (Obviously the procedures for securing childhood memorabilia becomes more lax with a fourth child!).


This process of searching through Legos is analogous to a writer’s notebook, with the morass of Legos representing the tidal wave of life experiences that move across our days. In our writer’s notebooks we collect those special items that stick out, but that would otherwise be lost because they don’t usually fit anywhere else. We gather each noticing and say, “That’s a small thing worth keeping.”

Try this:

When you introduce writer’s notebooks this fall, take a large handful of Legos ( or some other small object) and add one or two small, special items. Drop the whole handful onto a document camera–special items included–and ask students what they notice.



Talk to them about how easy it is to lose special moments in the midst of daily business, such as the lovely, blue stone hidden among the Legos in the image above.


Then have them label their writing notebooks “Small Things Worth Keeping.” Throughout the school days, notice aloud special moments worth capturing and say, “That’s a small thing worth keeping.” With you as a model, students will begin to collect the moments of their lives, too.

Launch your school year giving students a metaphor and the language to preserve the small things worth keeping in their lives. And then, give them time to write.

Not using writing notebooks, yet? Check out Aimee Buckner’s wonderful books about using writing notebooks.

Bike Helmet Ideas

Kim on her bicycle
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Kim on her bicycle


On Father’s Day morning, Kim decided to go for a bicycle ride.  As a cycling enthusiast, this decision was not out of the ordinary for her.  She tries to fit in a fifteen mile ride most days of the week and, when she has more time, she likes to ride even longer. On Father’s Day, however, Kim only rode for a mile because, as she rounded a corner very near her home, she hit a pile of sand and fell. When she fell, her head hit the cement curb and she was found lying unconscious in the road by a good samaritan who called 911. Kim’s only memory of this accident is waking up to find herself being lifted into the back of an ambulance.

Fortunately, Kim’s injuries were minimal.  She had a few scrapes and bruises and was extremely tired and weepy for about 48 hours after her fall. Now, a week and a half since the accident, we happily report that Kim’s only reminders of this accident are the faded yellow bruises on her face and a couple of light pink scars on her right hand.

In the days following the accident, Jan asked Kim if she thought she might blog about her fall and Kim’s answer was a definitive: Yes, if I can find a way to relate it to teaching. So, as you might guess, Kim has been trying to figure out how this experience relates to the classroom and has concluded that the best connection is the fact that when she fell, she was wearing a bike helmet.

You see, Kim hasn’t always been real safety conscious.  She grew up in an era when people didn’t wear seatbelts much less bicycle helmets and, having survived childhood, she was convinced that such precautions simply weren’t necessary. However, these days, New York state law requires children under the age of 14 to wear helmets when riding a bike, so when Kim’s children became old enough to peddle, she exchanged her bravado for common sense and began wearing a helmet as a role model for her children. After watching her sons take a couple of spills of their own, Kim started to wear a helmet when they weren’t even looking.  And thank goodness!  We don’t even like to think about how the tale of her Father’s Day bike accident might be different had her perspective about wearing a helmet not changed over time.

In our careers as teachers, we encounter lots of “bike helmet” ideas–you know what we’re talking about–those approaches, protocols, and practices that, while reasonable and relatively simple, we can easily imagine a life without them, which makes us a bit reluctant to embrace them. However, like Kim, we lean in and give it a go and when we do, we are pleasantly surprised by what we discover. What seemed like a moderately good idea evolves into a great idea–whether it was a certain lesson plan format, giving children time to turn-and-talk before answering, or adopting guided reading–that we cannot imagine living without and in some cases becomes so important that we feel infinitely grateful.  Our question for you is this: which approaches, protocols, and/or practices  have been your “bike helmet ideas” and how has leaning in to them influenced your teaching?

The River of Change

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On the third Wednesday in May, Jan’s six-year-old son, Victor, graduated from his third year in the Yellow Class at the local Montessori school–the equivalent of graduating kindergarten. At the mid-morning graduation ceremony, when the teacher called his name, he jumped over a long piece of blue fabric which was stretched across the ground in front of the line of graduates. The teacher explained that the fabric represented the “river of change” and that each graduate jumped over it to symbolize the child’s transition into elementary school and the way he or she was embracing the changes ahead.

Victor jumping over the river of change.

Later the same day, Jan was at the local botanical gardens with her twin eighteen-year-old boys, who would graduate from the public high school that Friday. She was trying to get a good photograph of them together (something she has been working on since they were wrestling toddlers). Seeing the stream running through the middle of the gardens, Jan told the older boys about Victor’s graduation ceremony and they all decided that the stream was the “river of change.” The remainder of the time in the garden was filled with quips, such as “Don’t drop the camera into the river of change” and “Christopher is going to fall into the river of change” and “Mom’s afraid of the river of change.”

The mood was playful in both settings, but the metaphor lingered long after the ceremony and the photo shoot. Amid graduation festivities, Jan spent the week thinking about change and how it is like a river.

It is constant.

It rises and subsides.

Resisting it will wear you out.

It is unavoidable if you want to get anywhere.

Standing at it’s banks can feel scary, but arriving at the other side can be joyful or, at least, satisfying.

That week, Jan’s fifth-grade, home-schooled son, Natie, “graduated” elementary school. The week was filled with passages. While each of Jan’s four sons crossed the river of change in that one week late in May, Jan couldn’t help but wonder if the broadest, scariest river crossing was her own.

Sons grow up. Mothers move over and let go. The river of change swells and rolls, and we arrive on the other side, even if we get a little wet.

Engagement: A Tale of Two Learners

Science Packet
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Jan’s eleven year old son, Natie, plays the violin. Since school is already out in Georgia, in an effort to help Natie broaden his vision of the ways music can enrich his life, Jan signed him up for a summer music camp. Camp Amped serves campers ages 11-18, clustering musicians into bands. Every day for two weeks, campers basically have band practice from 9:00-5:00. They set goals, receive tutorials from professional musicians, visit a music studio, etc. All the work, which doesn’t feel like work, is relevant, hands-on, and adapted to exactly what Natie needs.

Matthew, Kim’s thirteen-year-old son, loves science. He works extensively with Legos, thinks a lot about design, and has always demonstrated an interest in how things work.  He subscribes to Vsauce and ASAP Science on YouTube and regularly watches many of the videos they post. In science class this year, Matthew has listened to long, daily lectures about physics, astronomy, geology, and ecology, and filled out numerous worksheet packets that look like this:

Science Packet

Natie comes home from camp every day positively bursting with excitement. On the afternoon of the first day, Jan asked him what he was going to do the next day at camp. He said, “More awesome stuff.” He is more excited about this camp than he has ever been about Christmas or his birthday, and this is every day for two weeks. Consequently, Natie is more and more excited about music, practices without being asked, and is beginning to really think of himself as a musician. The days at camp are hard work; there is little “play,” but Natie has more and more enthusiasm and energy for his violin.

In contrast, now that standardized testing is over, and there is more flexibility with instructional time, Matthew spent three days last week watching The Lion King. In response to Kim’s protests, the teacher explained that they were studying ecology and watching the movie through that lens. Matthew’s homework (below) is a worksheet of words that he learned in second grade. In fact, almost all of the work in Matthew’s science class, which feels boring and laborious to Matthew, is in the form of lectures and worksheets; experiments are rare. Science class, which could easily be fun and engaging, is not. Consequently, Matthew dreads science class. He has less and less enthusiasm and energy for science.

Lion King HW

Learning can and should be inspiring and fun, and it should give kids energy. How we teach matters, all the way up until the last day of school.

No News is Good News

Golden Dome in Jerusalem
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In February, Kim went on a twelve day trip to Israel. Over the course of those twelve days, she took two, ten hour plane rides and stayed in three different elevations which meant that packing was tricky.  However, she didn’t perseverate.  She brought long sleeves and short sleeves and pants and shorts, which covered the climate change.  As far as reading material went, that was relatively simple, too. She loaded her iPad mini with professional and pleasure reading.  Whether she felt like reading People magazine, Jodi Piccoult, Dick Allington, or Anne Lamott, it was there.



 While the ways in which devices, such as Kindles and Nooks and iPads, have revolutionized and streamlined our reading lives feels like fodder for a future blog, the important point of this story is that in preparing for this trip, Kim didn’t have to prioritize her reading life.  Whatever she wanted to read, she had with her, which meant that breakfast in Israel could start exactly the same way it did in New York—with a complete reading of the daily news from her hometown newspaper.

At breakfast on the first day, Kim took out her iPad only to discover a somewhat spotty internet connection forcing her to forego her daily ritual.  Though it didn’t feel quite right to Kim to start the day without knowing what was going on in the world, she went with it.  On the second day, same spotty connection.  Third attempt, foiled again.  While suffering a hint of daily news withdrawal, Kim decided it just wasn’t worth it to keep trying so she decided to experiment with reading other things alongside her morning glass of orange juice.  After this twelve day experiment, she made an important discovery. She was feeling happier.

Now, reaching a conclusion like this at a time when days are  spent swimming in the Dead Sea, excavating the basement trash of 2000 year old dwellings, and meandering the cobbled streets of Jerusalem may strike you as a bit hasty.  Who wouldn’t feel happier with such aesthetic and intellectual stimulation? So, Kim decided to continue the experiment after she arrived home.  Instead of beginning her day with the newspaper, she decided to read something else.  Several days of not reading the paper turned into several weeks, and it’s now been three months since Kim started her day with her local newspaper.  Why? Because she confirmed what she felt in Israel; she’s happier without it.

Had Kim never gone to Israel, she probably would still be reading the local newspaper today. However, circumstance forced her into a situation that made her try something new.  As a result, she stumbled upon the disturbing discovery that her reading selections were impacting her well-being and began to make changes. Instead of reading the local newspaper, she started her morning with books like Shawn Achor’s The Happiness Advantage and Arianna Huffington’s Thrive, which not only make her feel happier because of their positive content, but also addressed an important gap she was feeling in her reading life.  She often lamented that she just didn’t have enough time to read the things that really interested her and this small shift helped her reclaim some personal reading time.

Surprisingly, she has not noticed the absence of her local news. Stories that she needs to hear seem to find her through word of mouth or Facebook. She can selectively read from sources that are less sensational.

We are interested in how much of your reading life is filled with news and how the news media’s focus on bad news influences your thinking. Please, share your thinking about how you balance your civic responsibility with efforts to practice mindfulness around what you expose yourself to. And are there implications for students?


Celebrating Active Thinking

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At this point, we believe most educators would say that they are familiar with the Common Core State Standards.  There have been ample opportunities to read and unpack the standards and, as educators have increased their familiarity with the goals and expectations laid out by the Common Core, efforts to align have begun. For many, this has meant the adoption of new curriculum materials, which come complete with three-inch thick teacher manuals and complicated lesson plans designed to help teachers conceptualize this new era of teaching and learning.

Many dedicated teachers have slogged their way through these materials, which has led to mixed feelings about the Common Core.  On the upside, many teachers have reported that they have seen their students evaluate, analyze, and articulate their thinking about text in ways they never thought possible for the grade they teach.  On the downside, they worry that some of the texts suggested by pre-packaged curriculum writers seem dense and inaccessible.  What are they to do, they wonder, to achieve the wonderful depth of thinking that they get with some of the lessons in these materials while at the same time instilling a love of reading?

To answer this question, we urge you to think about how your experiences with Common Core aligned instruction inform your understanding of the larger goals of the Common Core Standards. For example, in the days preceding the standards, prior to reading difficult text, we would introduce and define difficult vocabulary and give some background knowledge to support student understanding.  The standards prompted us to think more about guiding children to find text-based evidence for the ideas they were formulating about the text, so we adjusted the way we approached text with students. Happily, we discovered that students often required far less assistance than we thought. This made us realize that perhaps making “logical inferences” and “citing evidence” are not the ends in themselves, but rather, deep thinking and processes for reading critically are the more important goals of the Common Core.

David Sousa says, “The brain that does the work is the brain that does the learning.” Human beings appreciate cognitively challenging and engaging work. Whether they are reading texts from pre-packaged materials or from self-selected texts, if you guide students in ways that challenge them to think deeply, our bet is that not only will your instruction be Common Core aligned, but you will also have classrooms filled with happy readers.

Our Top Ten NARRATIVE Nonfiction Books for Teaching . . . EVERYTHING!

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We are just back from the International Reading Association Conference in New Orleans and feeling energized and ready to continue our top picks for teaching EVERYTHING series. So far, we’ve shared ten fiction titles and eleven NON-NARRATIVE nonfiction titles and today we are sharing ten narrative nonfiction titles that support just about everything we do in the classroom. As always, if there are other titles that you love, be sure to share!

1. Fifty Cents and a Dream  by Jabari Asim


This biography about Booker T. Washington is written in poetic prose.  The language is rich and beautiful and the word choices challenge readers to think carefully about what the author wishes to communicate about Booker T. Washington and humanity. We love to set this book alongside other titles about Booker T. Washington such as More Than Anything Else by Marie Bradby to help readers think about the similarities and differences in the way that  different authors portray information about the  same subject.

2. Jackson and Bud’s Bumpy Ride by Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff

Jackson and Bud's bumpy ride

We love books that tell stories about obscure or little known pieces of history.  Jackson and Bud’s Bumpy Ride takes readers back to 1903, shortly after the invention of the automobile, and chronicles Dr. Horatio Jackson’s first cross-country trip in a car.  Organized in a narrative timeline, each of the dates in this story chronicle an important stop along the journey that is mapped out on the inside cover.  Readers can flip between pages as they follow Jackson and Bud’s path across America.  In addition to whimsical illustrations, this book also includes authentic photographs that encourage readers to read closely, make inferences, and synthesize information to formulate new ideas.

3. Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell


This simple and sweet tale tells the story of a young, curious Jane Goodall who hid in henhouses and climbed trees to observe the animals she saw in her backyard.  We use this book to help students understand how Jane Goodall’s life’s work is connected to the things about which she was most passionate as a child.  We love helping children closely and carefully read Me…Jane through the lens of passion to help them better understand how one can take actions today that help us to imagine and pursue the futures we dream about.

4. Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet

Balloons over Broadway

There are many reasons to love this award winning book. It is well-written and lovingly illustrated, with attention to period detail that is informed by meticulous research. Our great fondness for Balloons Over Broadwayhowever, grows largely from its story of lifelong persistence. Tony Sarg discovered his love for puppets when he was a child and he spent his life teaching himself the art of creating and manipulating puppets. Of course, this book lends itself to any lessons on narrative structure, vocabulary, word choice, or character. We like it best, however, for its illustration of mindset, innovation, and tenacity. It shows children that they can immediately begin searching for and working towards their passions.

5. 50 American Heroes Every Kid Should Know by Dennis Donenberg & Lorraine Roscoe

50 American Heroes

Just as the title indicates, this book spotlights famous Americans.  Featuring women like Clara Barton and Rosa Parks and men like Bill Cosby and Roberto Clemente, we love that this book offers children from all walks of life, race, and ethnicity someone to look up to. In addition, the voice in this book is palpable making it a wonderful resource for showing students how to write with voice themselves. In fact, the authors of this book did such a great job of writing about each of the people they selected to feature, no matter whether you are teaching students about voice, sentence fluency, good beginnings, good endings, or word choice, you can turn to any page and find an excellent mentor text.

6. Miracle Mud by David A. Kelley

Miracle Mud - Top 10 Narrative Non-Fiction Titles

Like Jackson and Bud’s Bumpy Ride, Miracle Mud focuses on an obscure piece of history–how Lena Blackburne solved the problem of baseballs that were too soft and soggy to throw, hit, and catch. We love that this story demonstrates for students something that we feel is particularly important to their reading growth and development–agency.  Not only does Lena Blackburne work to solve a problem that is affecting baseball players everywhere, it also shows how he works to deal with the disappointment of not achieving his dream of becoming a professional baseball player. In addition to helping define agency, this book is also wonderfully well-written and when read through the lens of writer’s craft, offers rich conversation and ideas to young writers.

7. Vulture View by Steve Jenkins

Vulture View

Written by one of our favorite authors, Steve Jenkins, Vulture View reveals facts and details about vultures through poetry. Rich with words like “soar” and “preen” this book offers a multitude of vocabulary building opportunities.  In addition, it offers readers opportunities to explore literary devices like onomatopoeia and study how things like repetition add interest and rhythm to writing.


8. 14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy and Wilson Kimeli Naiyomah

Carmen Agra Deedy wrote this book in collaboration with Wilson Kimeli Naiyomah. In this story, native son of a tribal community returns from a trip to America to summarize the events of 9-11. With its powerful message of kindness, this true story invites deep text-to-world connections. Thomas Gonzalez’s expansive and stunning illustrations capture the African setting and communicate the power of community. 14 Cows for America offers a deep perspective on what it means to give.

9. Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad by Ellen Levine

After his family was sold, Henry “Box” Brown risked everything to be free. In a grueling journey nailed inside a wooden crate, Henry mails himself to freedom. This true story offers authentic tension and joyous resolution, lending itself to discussions about narrative text structure. In addition, it presents obvious opportunities to discuss the value of freedom. Henry’s palpable loss and his hard earned joy are brilliantly communicated through Kadir Nelson’s illustrations. This true story is almost unbelievable, which makes it very compelling for children.

10. Daredevil: The Daring Life of Betty Skelton by Meghan McCarthy

Children’s biographies represent far more men than women, so we appreciate Meghan McCarthy’s tribute to Betty Skelton, the “First Lady of Firsts.” Betty June Skelton broke many records in auto racing and aviation in the 1930s, a time when women were fighting their way into sports predominantly played by men. We love Meghan McCarthy’s storytelling and this book is great for looking at the way Meghan shows us the “character” of Betty Skelton. At the end of the books, the author notes also offer young writers insight into the research that goes into telling a true story. Young readers/writers really enjoy McCarthy’s cartoon-like illustrations.

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