Have you ever had an author visit your classroom? It' a BIG DEAL, especially if your students are familiar with an author's work. Now is your chance to question Nonfiction Minute authors FREE, through the use of interactive video conferencing, provided by the Center for Learning and Collaboration.
On March 20, CILC.org is having a Spring Fling where you will discover a terrific resource of content providers that visit classrooms. Authors on Call, the iNK Video Conferencing Group is one of them. Of course, members of AOC also write Nonfiction Minutes. So this is a fun and challenging opportunity for your students. If you go to the link above, you will see there are three Tracks for programming. iNK is the Third Track so you can scroll down and find us. We are each scheduled for a 15 minute session to answer questions about our Minute. The link to each author's Minute is also on the site. Think up a good question and then you dial in and we'll be there smiling, ready to answer your questions.
Here's a couple of questions you might want to ask: What is the most satisfying thing about writing nonfiction? What made you decide to write nonfiction rather than fiction? How did you learn what you write about?
If you don't know about CILC and the power of interactive videoconferencing to bring really interesting people, including us authors, into you classroom, you and your students will be happily surprised.
Good writing engages the reader. As William Zinnser said in his classic book, "good writing is clear thinking." Yet most children would never get past the first sentence of a standardized text book unless it was required reading. Some schools know that and tell teachers not to bother with text. The tradition of assigned reading assumes it is a way to impart information to readers. So, as long as the information is there and correct, the student will understand it and the teacher is off the hook because the material has been "covered." Right?
What happens when the same historical information is written by textbook writers, linguists, academics and magazine writers? What does reading comprehension have to do with the quality of the writing? Is this something that can be measured? As a matter of fact, a study was done in 1988 that still holds up well today.
The writing in question was two 400-word excerpts from a high-school history textbook. The experimenters asked three pairs of writers, two linguists, two college English teachers and two former Time-Life magazine writers to rewrite the passages to make them more understandable to the students. Three hundred eleventh-grade students read the original material and the revisions and were tested on how much they recalled. The results? Students who read the linguists’ and English teachers’ versions did not recall much more or less than they had from the original texts. But students who read the magazine writers version recalled 40 percent more than the original! Naturally, the linguists and English teachers wanted another crack at a rewrite but although the second experiment showed a little improvement, the magazine writers were still twice as effective at communicating. In other words, good writing is memorable. And command of the English language doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good writer.
Reading teachers have a measurement, called “lexiles (L)” to evaluate the complexity or the level of difficulty of texts. There is another myth that such leveled reading is easier when it comes to comprehension than good writing. Gerri K. Songer, Education Chair/ Illinois Township High School District 214, measured the lexile level of some sample paragraphs from the recent PARRC assessment test and came to the conclusion that “[for students] to independently read the most complex of these passages, [they] will need to read at 1470L by April of their junior year.” As a comparison, I measured a few of my entries here on my blog and they average about 1000L. She also came to some conclusions about the reading levels stipulated by the Common Core State Standards:
And she sums it up: “CCSS advocates utilizing text for educational purposes that follows no pattern, that is unclear and misleading, that few people can identify with, and that has multiple meanings.” I think we're teaching kids to read bad writing. Yet they use excerpts from iNK authors for the standardized tests!
We created the Nonfiction Minute to show good writing to those who buy in to the standardized material used in classrooms full of diverse individual humans. We include an audio file of the author reading his/her Minute so less fluent readers can access the content, as well as visuals (photos, charts, illustrations, even videos). We welcome any reading researcher who wants to evaluate our effectiveness. (Write me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.) We have all kinds of stats on page views, which doesn't distinguish that each single page view could be a class of twenty-five.
This past week we had 15,751 page views and more than 4,500 new visitors.
Literature has been defined as "the single passionate voice." Its humanity connects us to the writer just as a teacher's humanity connects him/her to students. Humanity is the common denominator of all authentic communication.
A recent study found that developed countries with greater gender equality have a lower percentage of female STEM graduates. With the exception of the life sciences, there is a global under-representation of females in physical and computer sciences and engineering. It’s called the “gender-equality paradox” because “while boys’ and girls’ achievements in STEM subjects were broadly similar in all countries, science was more likely to be boys’ best subject….. Girls tend to be better in reading comprehension and end up seeking non-STEM careers.” They found that the “combination of personal academic strengths in reading, lower interest in science and broader financial security explains why so few women choose a STEM career in highly developed nations.”
So how did I wind up in science when I was a girl? Here’s the story I figured out about what happened: I recall being about 10 years old, listening to a friend of my father’s telling me about “when I was a boy…..” The specifics of his narrative are lost to me now, but I remember thinking while he was talking, “His childhood is not like the childhood I know. He’s not remembering it correctly.” I figured that I was an expert on that subject because I actually was a child at the time. In that moment, I made a covenant with myself that I would never forget what it is like to be a child. (Most good children’s book authors write for the child they were, as do I.) I had independent thoughts, which I kept to myself, including thinking I was smart. And I wondered how I would ever reach a point when people might listen to me when I shared my thoughts. After all, I was only a girl and had internalized the zeitgeist that boys were smarter than girls. Would my ideas ever be of any interest to anyone else?
I discovered science in the seventh grade. I was blown-away by its authority. The big ideas of science were backed by empirical evidence that any doubter could verify for herself by replicating procedures. I struggled to understand it on my own, reading The Universe and Dr. Einstein, by Lincoln Barnett when I was twelve. If I talked about science, I wasn’t sharing my ideas. I was speaking truth. Thus, the authority of science became mine. When I went to college, I was advised not to go into science because they didn’t want to waste that kind of education on a girl who would marry, have kids, and probably never use it. When I transferred to Barnard, a woman’s college, I became a Zoology major because I hadn’t taken the prerequisites for a physical science major. I once thought that if I had to do it over again I would become a physicist. But, be reassured, I have no regrets about my career choice.
If you’ve read this far, it’s obvious that at least you are interested in what I have to say.
The heavens and the sea have been there for all to observe for as long as there have been people. We could only imagine what each was really like because we were stuck on the surfaces of the earth and the sea. But in the last couple of centuries limitations began to be overcome, and now Jennifer Swanson has written a book about exploration under the sea and into space by people who actually GO there.
Swanson’s new Astronaut/Aquanaut: How Space Science and Sea Science Interact is a fascinating compare and contrast discussion of the challenges each environment offers the intrepid explorer so that interested kids can start thinking about preparing to join future expeditions now.
Both environments are hostile, indeed deadly to humans. Both require suits that bring along air, insulation from temperatures outside of human tolerance, and protection from extreme pressure changes. Space, as a vacuum, could cause an unprotected human to explode and the deep sea can crush and force unwanted gases into the blood. Each environment can only be entered with extremely complicated highly-engineered craft, where daily life—eating, sleeping, even going to the bathroom-- requires new skills. The amount of education and training needed to become an astronaut or an aquanaut is formidable.
But the lure of the unknown produces many wannabes. Aquanauts have discovered living things in boiling sulfurous hot-spots and frigid waters at black, sunless depths. It is amazing that any kind of creature can live there and thrive. The photos in the book give you a glimpse of some of these fantastic creatures. Their existence also hints at the possibility of life on some members of our solar system with their environments hostile to us but perhaps not to some other forms of life.
And for those who think developing the technology to go to places where they would never want to live is a waste of money, there is another side. Jennifer Swanson shows how many improvements in modern life from breathing equipment for firefighters to nanotech swimsuits are the outcomes of the science and engineering of space and sea.
One thing I love about this book is that every once and a while, Jennifer Swanson includes a simple activity that illustrates a scientific principle or challenge a reader needs to understand some of the knowledge and skills such exploration requires. This integration of hands-on activities at a point where it connects to exposition is the way I think all science books should be written.
Astronaut/Aquanaut is a challenging book to read. There is a great deal of information packed into each page. Yet it is compelling. I believe that there are plenty of intelligent, ambitious kids out there who dream of exploration and will savor every word of this book.
*Award-winning author of more than 90 nonfiction books for children, mostly in science.