Nonfiction Wednesday: Ask The Experts Series


Alyson Beecher hosts Kid Lit Frenzy.  Follow the link to Alyson’s blog to read about more nonfiction books you need to read!

I discovered this series of nonfiction books last summer, and ordered a bunch of them for our non fiction genre study…a great move on my part!

Each topic (and there are many covered in this series, from medicine to space and government) is broken into smaller easy to digest segments, with  photographs other visual elements (all those non fiction features we want to teach our kids about!) to augment learning.

World Economy: What's the Future?Planet Under Pressure: Too Many People on Earth?

Aside from presenting information in an engaging way, the series also incorporates a section entitled “the debate” which presents two views on issues raised in each topic.  Our kids need practice (and exposure) in this kind of thinking, i.e. there are differing points of view about everything from economic issues to global warming, and that these points of view should be read about and considered.

The “For More Information” page at the end of the book is also a wonderful resource for kids to extend their learning.

Ask The Experts is a wonderful series – I look forward to purchasing more of these books!



Experimenting with a “Really??” stance in reading nonfiction

Like every other teacher I know, I’ve been waiting for the new nonfiction version of Kylene Beers and Robert Probst’s Notice & Note , which is due to be published sometime this Spring, I think (I hope!).  In the meantime, I’ve been following their Tweets, blogs, and webinars in the hopes of picking up any and all information about new signposts and strategies for nonfiction.  During their October webinar, Kylene and Bob shared some new thinking they had explored about reading nonfiction, and some key questions to pose to our students as we help them navigate the often complicated waters of this genre:

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Last April, Kylene had shared this post about nonfiction work in which she wrote: We want students aware of what they are discovering as they read.  We want them to enjoy that feeling of surprise, amazement, and even skepticism.   We want them to say, “Really?”  Yes! This is exactly the kind of stance I hope my students take when presented with nonfiction options…I would rather that than the unenthusiastic groans I usually hear when I announce that we will be beginning our nonfiction genre study, or begin to pass out our Social Studies textbooks!  I was particularly intrigued by this note taking  template that included in the post:

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With our nonfiction genre study just launched, I can finally begin experimenting with these ideas and trying them out with my sixth graders.  We began by sorting through the questions that drive new thinking in nonfiction, and how to work with the template as we read our Social Studies texts:


I chose to begin with these texts (Joy Hakim’s wonderful series: A History of Us) because, quite frankly, I was just as tired of the guided questions we were using as my kids were.  I wanted to see if this new way would open up a more thoughtful reading of his text, whether my kids would “enjoy that feeling of surprise, amazement, and even skepticism” as they read about the early days of our nation’s history.

Here’s one student’s take away:

 IMG_0176  IMG_0177

And another’s:

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We had wonderful discussions based on these notes, and I was so pleased to see that this format seemed to allow my kids to engage in a much more meaningful way with the text.  Here’s what they shared about the process:

  • “I think I understood the chapter better this way, I could focus on reading not hunting for the right answers.”
  • “I felt I just got better information from the chapter.”
  • “When I took bulleted notes or answered questions, I felt like I was just copying stuff, not thinking about stuff.”
  • “I felt like I extended my thinking – like it was more than trying to find the answers, before it was like in one ear and out the other.”
  • “This kind of makes you look for interesting stuff and then figure out more about it.”
  • “I think we need to practice in class more to get a feel for it – that last column was kinda confusing.”*

*Interestingly, once we began sharing notes from this column, we began to see that this last column was where we were able to do our best “thinking about reading”.  Here is where my kids began to extrapolate and draw conclusions, make connections, ask deeper questions that would drive further learning. “What does this suggest?” became a way to frame what was discovered through our chapter reading, and to extend our thinking.  Through practice and class discussion, we realized that this was, in a way, where our ah-ha moments most often took place.

We will continue to experiment with this template and this new stance in reading nonfiction in the weeks and months ahead.  After all, what could be better than a classroom full of amazed sixth graders reading fabulous nonfiction and going “Really??”

It’s Monday and Here’s What I’m Reading: January 20, 2014

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? From Picture Books to YA! 
is hosted by Jen and Kellee at Teach Mentor Texts


Blogging about our nonfiction unit of study reminded me of how much I have come to rely upon the Scientists in the Field  series of books:

scientists in the field1 scientists in the field2 scientists in the field3

Each of the books in this nonfiction series is centers around a topic that students are immediately interested in, and each is engagingly written and beautifully illustrated with photographs, maps, diagrams, and cutaways.  The information is detailed without getting  too detailed, and each topic is explored with just enough depth to lead to new learning and new lines of inquiry.  The website has links to wonderful resources, and is updated frequently to reflect new titles and new developments.  I love the fact that new titles are added all the time, and that the topics continue to be wide ranging and interesting.  I also appreciate the fact that books in this series vary in length and complexity, so that I can adjust the titles I present to my students based on their reading levels and abilities.  We also use this series as sources of research, independent reading and book clubs.  I can’t imagine a nonfiction unit not anchored in these marvelous books.

The Endless Steppes is Esther Hautzig’s powerful narrative of her childhood years spent in exile in Siberia.

the endless steppe

Esther was born into a prosperous family in Vilnius, Lithuania, then part of Poland.  In 1941, when Vilnius was put under Soviet control, the Hautzig family was arrested on charges of being capitalists, and  were sent to work camps in Siberia.  10 year old Esther was unprepared for the harsh life in this “endless steppe” – barren,  isolated, and prone to extremes of weather.  But, she and her family manage to stay together, no small feat, and survive.  Hautzig’s narrative makes for powerful reading – one sees kindness and bravery, but also cruelty and cowardice.  As a Jewish family, the Hautzigs must endure not just poverty and deprivation, but also the prevailing Antisemitism of the region.  Six years later, at the end of World War II, Esther and her family are to return home, where they discover that their exile had actually saved their lives.  The  57,000 Jewish residents of Vilnius had fallen victim to the Holocaust, and   only 3,000 had managed to survive.  Hautzig later emigrated to the U.S., where she eventually worked in publishing and was encouraged to write about her experiences.

I knew very little about this period of Polish history, and found this to be a fascinating story.  I think my students will be equally fascinated, particularly as Hautzig writes from the perspective of a young girl experiencing traumatic upheavals in her life – every day is a struggle to find adequate food and shelter, but there are also the challenges of a young person’s life: wanting to fit in at school, coping with an inflexible teacher, wanting to attend the school dance.  This is a wonderful addition to our  biography genre of study, although I know that my kiddos will be interested in reading The Endless Steppes the moment I book talk it next week.

Here is a book trailer I discovered to add to my book talk:


Janet Clare left a beautiful comment, for she had met Esther Hautzig and The Endless Steppe made a powerful impression upon her.  I wanted to share Janet’s comments, because it’s this type of personal recollection that deepens the power of literature.  Hautzig’s story is an important one, brutal exile and the resilient courage of those who must endure this, are all too common place today. In reading Hautzig’s story, we can honor her and (perhaps) turn our attention to the refugee crisis in many parts of our own world today. Here’s what Janet had to say:

Her son, David, went to school at Syracuse University so Esther was in our area at times. I felt like I got to know her so well since I read the book aloud so many times. And my students loved it. We all loved Esther and learned from her. It was a long book, but I had the freedom and the time to read it. Even though it is a tough time period to share with younger kids, my 5th graders got a feel for history from Esther’s story. When I finally met her, I felt I knew her and it was a thrill. She lived in Manhattan and the only thing she had from her childhood was her identification card which the cover art is based on. She never took it from the safe in her apartment but did bring a copy to share with us. It was a small group so I got to spend a lot of time talking to her. What she went through and how she survived. I often think whenever I am complaining about some inconvenience about all she went through. She has other books and her daughter wrote some too. A picture book called Latkes and Applesauce is dedicated to Esther and her family. Imagine how thrilled I was to find that about 15 years ago. I wish everyone would read this book. And the declamation contest and her shoes and having to slog through the mud and how the teacher “treated” her. Talk about resilience.

Thank you for bringing Esther to mind to me today. I treasure a couple of copies she signed of The Endless Steppe. I could have gone on and on and on. I know that book so well. The letter she wrote back in her own hand in the early 80s was a treasure. She said that “receiving your beautiful letter made writing the book worth it” and she wrote each child’s name on the greeting of the letter. I can’t recall if they sent individual letters or not, but maybe. I really loved her….. it was the love of her spirit and determination and incredible ability to survive such intolerable and unkind conditions and her willingness to bring us into her life in Siberia. This book is one that had a profound impact on me. 

Nonfiction unit: building stamina and figuring out strategies


Before launching our nonfiction unit three weeks ago, I asked my students what they thought about this genre in general:” it’s boring ” was the most common reaction, but the one that stuck with me was this – “well, it’s just reading boring books and answering boring questions. I don’t get why we have to do it.”   So, before I had even taught a single mini-lesson or introduced a text, I knew that I had one big barrier to cross – my students’ conviction in their belief that nonfiction was boring and of little value. I would have to work hard to change that.

My next goal remained the same as it had been when I blogged about this unit last year : my kids really didn’t know how to read nonfiction, and this unit would have to be a slow and steady progression of mini lessons, modeling, shared partner reading, discussion, written responses, small group instruction, and lots of individual conferring.  I had blocked out eight weeks from start to finish (topic based non fiction book clubs), and I was going to need every moment of this time.

This year, I launched with a book bag full of nonfiction books designed to entice the interests of any sixth grader, to drive home the point that nonfiction encompassed a huge range of interests, and you could zero on on things that you were fascinated with, curious about, or had a passing interest in.  And, unlike fiction, you could often choose a book or magazine and just read the parts you were interested in.  This year, I launched with a book about Navy Seals, which really captured my kids’ attention.  We went chapter by chapter, following the same procedure:

  • preview the chapter
  • box and bullet important information
  • synthesize new information with what was known to jot new understandings
  • note questions that arose which may or may not be answered in the chapters to follow and would need further research

Modelling the thinking was a bit tricky – I had to break down my own, now automatic, reading thinking to show my kids how I stopped, thought about what I’d read, re-read if necessary, marked up the text and then moved on to the next bit of reading. I based my teaching strategies on three books that are front and center of my nonfiction thinking:  Lucy Calkins’ (and other authors) Units of Study, Stephanie Harvey’s Nonfiction Matters, and Kylene Beers’ When Kids Can’t Read: What Teachers Can Do .  This was hard work, and even though it was slow going, it made all that thinking visible for my kids. As one of them put it: “I thought reading and getting this kind of stuff was like magic – you got everything all at once. But now I see that it’s more like putting a puzzle together kinda slowly.” Exactly.  I think it also helped that we had been modelling strategies all year, starting in fiction with “Notice and Note” signposts  , and,  in writing workshop,  through similar work with memoir mentor texts. By now, my kids are used to this sort of  making the inner workings of the reading process visible, and they expect that this is the way we go about our reading and writing lives.  

Our next move was to take what we had learned from our whole class nonfiction reading experience, and use this experience to partner read effectively.  I had experimented with this last year, and it had worked so well that I pretty much followed the same process :

  1. Read a chapter at a time, jotting notes  through the lens of ready: prior knowledge, set: what I’m learning, woah: my new understandings, and ???: questions I now have.
  2. Meeting with their partners to discuss and clarify (here’s where the talk was especially interesting – sometimes, a student had forgotten to read captions or study the maps carefully, and their careless reading became apparent in partner conversation: “woah! I didn’t even see that!” “where’d you read that?!”)
  3. Creating a box and bullet chart to clarify and identify main ideas and  important information:


Finally, we were ready to discuss the “big idea” of our books, the “reverse box and bullets” from Units of Studyand to think about some “burning questions” we might be left with (as we most often are) , upon completing these texts.  So, we gathered to do a bit of thinking about the work we’d done, and gear up for this:



and here’s what that work looked like:


When we return to school on Tuesday, we are ready to begin our nonfiction book clubs – these are topic based groups of readers, with each student in the group reading an aspect of the topic.  Again, I am relying on what I