Beyond the Textbook: Using Picture Books in Our History Learning, Part 1

Some picture books make us laugh. Others tug at our heart strings and make us cry. Many support our work in studying the craft of writing. Then, there are some that just truly stop us in our tracks.

Today’s picture book read aloud, The People Shall Continue written by Simon J. Ortiz and illustrated by Sharol Graves, changed my classroom. It changed the way we are approaching our year-long study of American history. It changed our collective thinking.

Next week, we’re going to compare this text and another we read a couple weeks ago, Go Show the World: A Celebration of Indigenous Heroes written by Wab Kinew and illustrated by Joe Morse, with the chapter on Indigenous Nations in the text book purchased by my school district. After today’s read aloud and discussion, my students are eager to dive in, read with a critical eye, and ask the tough questions that many adults just choose not to ask.

In part 2 of this blog series, I’ll report back with student thinking and my own teaching notes after we dive further into this work. In the meantime, I highly recommend checking out both The People Shall Continue and Go Show the World: A Celebration of Indigenous Heroes. If you teach upper elementary, middle school, or high school history or social studies, both of these books are a must.

I learned about both of these books and many more that I plan to share during the year by reading the blog American Indians in Children’s Literature from Debbie Reese and Jean Mendoza. I’m also learning a great deal from their recent book with Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, An Indigenous People’s History of the US for Young People.

The Last 20 Days of Literacy Learning: 16-15 Days to Go, Literacy & Math

Post #5 in the Last 20 Days of Literacy Series… Written after the teaching week on Sunday morning while savoring a cup of coffeewell, three cups of coffee.

All posts in this blog series can be found here.

A few years ago, I was given the best advice about teaching math that I have ever received.

Christina, you will start feeling more comfortable with teaching math as soon as you make the decision to approach it in the same way you teach literacy.

Those words, spoken by my friend and then math coach, Mangla Oza, have stayed with me years later. Mangla’s words have propelled my math thinking and my students’ math learning forward since that day.

Like many of you, as an elementary school teacher, I am responsible for teaching all subjects- not just the subjects that I have most intensely studied as a student myself. If you’ve taken a look at the requirements of elementary school teachers, or if you are one yourself, you know that this is no easy feat. In my multiple subject, self contained, fifth grade classroom, lesson design, implementation, reflection, and redesign is a constant process- the kids are new each year, therefore so are many things I do. No two classes ever receive the exact same experience- nor should they!

So, for the past few years now, I’ve held Mangla’s words close. Those words have actually guided much of what I do across the entire teaching day. I now approach math (and all the other elementary school subjects) with the same thinking that guides my reading and writing decision making.

When thinking of a new lesson, I first think about what my students already know. Then, I consider ways to get them interested. More often than not, the way to get them interested is to tap into their curiosity and invite them into inquiry.

I attempted this on Thursday and Friday when we we started a study of circles. That’s right- Pi Day came late to fifth grade in room A1 at Nixon School this year. Back in March, on March 14th specifically when Pi day is traditionally celebrated in schools, we weren’t in a place in our studies where we could just throw in Pi. It would have been out of place and not exactly meaningful. Now that we are concluding our geometry unit, I thought I’d introduce it. I knew the interest was there, and gauged that my kids were ready to dig into this study based on many different assessments- informal conversations, observation during group and individual work, and student math work samples.

After some informal assessment- asking who was familiar with pi and how to measure the dimensions of a circle and listening to partner talk, we dove into inquiry using this web page on Smithsonian’s site: A World Full of Circles.

As an entire class, we viewed the first two circles on the page as a group. I invited students to ask and jot down questions, describe what they noticed, and to think about these circles using our first draft of a guiding question: Why are circles important?

After doing this with the first two images, I invited students to go through this process on their own or with a partner. So, they busily got to work observing, wondering, noticing, questioning, chatting, and jotting…

After my students’ exploration time, we shared our thinking, questions, wonderings, noticings, and observations as a whole group. My entire goal for this first day was to get students thinking and wondering about circles and why they are important. Well, as a group, we came to realize that important was not exactly the best word. We revised our initial guiding question of why are circles important, and narrowed down our new guiding question to a few contenders:

Why do developers make communities and other places circular?
Why and how are circles so often found in nature?
How can circles be made to look perfectly symmetrical?

What more can we learn about circles to apply our own lives?

The next day in class, we revisited circles. We talked a bit about our ideas from the day before and angled our workshop time to explore circles found in the classroom. So, I invited the fifth graders on an exploration of sorts- I invited them to view the classroom in a way they never had in their first 164 days there. I invited them to view it as a place to explore circles.

After student exploration around the classroom, I then introduced a way for us to think about how mathematicians might start to measure and compare circles. I wrote terminology used when thinking about circles on the whiteboard, modeled how to measure the different aspects of a circle under the document camera, and then invited students to try it on their own with the circles they found in the classroom. So, off they went to explore measuring circles…

Many students in class already had background experience with this vocabulary, as is evidenced in some of their writing from the day before. But, for others, it was brand new.

Having the time to think about this terminology, apply it to the work they did in discovering and exploring circles around the classroom, and then ultimately reflecting on what they learned through discussion and writing (some examples of this are seen below), naturally provided access points for all students. They all came to this work with different understandings about circles, and were all offered a way to explore them that hopefully fit their academic and intellectual needs.

In reflecting on the past two days’ math lessons, I’m realizing that the more I infuse the moves of good literacy instruction into my math lessons, the more engaged my students are with the work. The more engaged they are with the work, the more they will benefit from it.

Some of these moves I borrowed from literacy instruction included invitation into inquiry, reading and viewing images and descriptions, lots of group and partner discussion, writing to question/wonder, writing to think, writing to discover, and writing to reflect.

I used to think infusing literacy into other subjects meant reading aloud a picture book to go along with a lesson. I still think this is a good practice, but I now know that this practice needs to be a bit more intentional…

On Thursday, the first day of this study, I decided to read aloud a picture book that I felt would complement the lesson nicely. If you’re an upper elementary teacher or middle school math teacher, you probably guessed correctly that I read aloud Sir Cumference and the First Round Table. During the first few pages, my fifth graders loved the clever play on words, and even tried to figure out the math diagrams displayed on the pages. Then, the conversation took a different direction altogether…

"Why is it all men at the round table?" 

"The one woman is solving problems and not getting any credit."

"That's not right."

"But, it's fiction!"

"Well, the author could have decided to make things different."

I couldn’t help but smile inside when this conversation arose. It certainly isn’t one I intended, but it was an unintended bonus. My thinking then went into a different place. I thought that maybe this isn’t the best book to share with my students because it perpetuates the misguided idea that men need to be in charge. However, without this book, this conversation wouldn’t have happened on Thursday. It’s just something more to reflect on, and should probably be a whole blog post on its own.

Who knew our math learning could take us in so many different, yet really important directions! I’m really looking forward to continuing this exploration next week.

Magic seems to happen when the moves of literacy instruction are infused into math class. Perhaps there are many math teachers out there who knew this all along. I’m still on my learning journey with this idea, and it’s a wonderful journey to be on!

Now, imagine if instead I just assigned my students a worksheet?

The Last 20 days of Literacy Learning: 20 Days to Go, The Art of Comprehension

*Disclaimer- this blog series will most likely not include poetic, profound writing. Rather, it will consist of on-the-fly quick writes after my teaching day during the last 20 days of school. Reader, you’ve been warned.

Today marked day 160 of the school year. My fifth graders have 20 days left of elementary school. While we have many typical end of year festivities ahead of us- assemblies, kickball games, a pool party, promotion practice, a class party, a middle school tour, and the big promotion ceremony on the last day, we still have quite a bit of literacy learning ahead.

Rather than detail the entire day in each blog post in this series, I plan to share one or two things we did in class to continue the literacy learning through to the very end of the school year. I decided to write about the last 20 days of school for a couple reasons…

First, the last couple weeks of school do not need to be viewed as throw-away, meaningless days which often ends up being the case. These final days will likely be the ones many students remember. How do I want my fifth graders to remember their time together in my classroom?

Also, over the past few years, I have become increasingly interested in why many kids tend to read less and less on their own as they get older. So, I’m trying my best to help my students build a love of reading and writing as they leave elementary school, and hopefully continue that love in their own lives away from school. This has actually been my #1 goal all year.

As you can probably tell, I deem these last 20 days as critical ones- in my opinion, they are actually more critical than the first 20 days of school.

My goal with this blog series is to do a little bit of writing on our literacy learning in class each day, but the reality may end up being that I write about it every few days- you know how crazy the end of the school year can get! However, despite the craziness, the literacy learning will go on. It will matter. It will count.

Thanks for sharing in the literacy love and learning of the last 20 days with me!

20 Days to Go, trying something new…

The Art of Comprehension

Finally, after reading Trevor Bryan’s fantastic book, The Art of Comprehension, I introduced his Access Lenses to my class earlier this week. The Access Lenses support students in thinking more deeply about viewing art, and in turn transferring that framework for thinking over to their reading and writing.

Earlier this week, we viewed and engaged in a wonderful conversation around The Library by Jacob Lawrence. Students discussed how color and body language can give us clues to mood. The conversations were vibrant as students openly shared their differing opinions grounded in the Access Lenses that Trevor offers in his book.

Then, earlier today, during our class read aloud of The Thief of Always, I noticed my students’ conversations shifted a bit. I heard them talk about mood in reference to how the author, Clive Barker, wrote about and described facial expressions and body language. Many of them even asked to look back in the book during independent reading time to think about earlier scenes in the book using the Access Lenses. WOW! They asked to look back in the book- sure, by all means, have at it!

Now that I have finally introduced my students to the Access Lenses and saw how they have a huge impact on understanding and response, I wish I started with this work earlier in the school year.

Next school year, I plan to start right away with The Art of Comprehension!

It turns out, the last 20 days of school is a great time to try something new.

The Last 20 Days of Elementary Literacy Learning Blog Series

So much is emphasized, written, and said about the first 20 days of school. Well, I’m entering my last 20, and the work isn’t even close to being done. This blog series will chronicle the literacy learning of the last 20 days of school in my fifth grade classroom.

The Last 20 Days of Elementary Literacy

How are you making your last 20 days count? Share your work!

10 Reasons We Read Aloud Everyday

Committing to reading aloud every single day is perhaps the best promise I made to my students and even myself this school year. The simple practice of reading aloud a different picture book every single day with my class has changed us in ways that I did not even expect.

Earlier this week, I had the privilege of spending an afternoon with elementary teachers in the Los Gatos School District to share the benefits of read aloud. We spent two hours engaging in a few read alouds, discussing our thinking and ideas, sharing great books with each other, and committing/recommitting to this powerful classroom practice. It was a refreshing and invigorating way to spend the afternoon after our collective teaching days. The next day, we all walked back into our classrooms excited about the reading and discussions to come!

Here are ten of the points we discussed in depth at our session earlier this week…

1- Read aloud sets us up to model a love of reading.

2- Each read aloud provides every student in class a shared experience with every single other student in class.

3- Read Aloud provides a predictable context for laughing, thinking, and learning together.

4- Reading aloud offers the entire classroom community access to books as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors (Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, 1990)

5- Read aloud gives each of our students the opportunity to feel validated and visible when we make the commitment to ensure they are each represented in our book choices.

6- Read aloud together paired with discussion and modeling of strategies provides access to more complex texts and ideas- especially with social studies and science concepts that may be new or unfamiliar.

7- Read aloud is the perfect introduction or way to kick off independent reading for the day. Offering visibility of the decision making process that a reader goes through is a great way to teach a quick lesson before students set off to read on their own. Read aloud and talk makes the often invisible process of reading and meaning making visible. 

8- Read aloud has the potential to give students leadership roles and decision making power in the classroom when teachers invite students to choose and share class read aloud books.

9- Read aloud is an instructional method that appeals to all students of all ages, from pre-kindergarten through college level learners.

10- Read aloud is a joyful and reflective part of our day everyday! Simply put, we need more joy and reflection in all of our classrooms and schools.

Let’s continue the conversation! I’d love to hear your thoughts on read aloud and chat more.

-Christina

View all of our classroom read alouds so far this year here…

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