Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Anchor Texts: What are they? How can my book be one?

As an author, you might be either a) tired of hearing about the Common Core or b) still thinking, "What is it and what should I be doing about it?"

Well, you're not alone.

I'm both a middle school teacher AND a middle grade author.  Nothing haunts me right now like the CCSS.

But as an author--especially if you write picture books, nonfiction, or middle grade fiction--the Common Core can be an opening for you.  First of all, teachers are LOOKING for new resources. And for the first time in years, there are funds to buy them.

One of the buzzwords associated with the Common Core Language Arts standards is the concept of "anchor texts."  An anchor text is a rich piece of literature or an engaging piece of text that a teacher can use as the centerpiece for bringing in other related resources (called text sets), which students then read, analyze or synthesize to create something else:  a piece of writing, a debate speech, a Socratic discussion, a PowerPoint presentation.The number of texts in a set can vary; what's most important is that the texts are related in a meaningful way so that students can build a body of knowledge around a topic.

Let me throw out an example: we just read Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool.  This became our "anchor text" for a post-novel study we did on Depression-era train-hopping, Jungles, and railroad "bulls."  We looked at an informational article, a poem, an image from the Library of Congress, and an interview from a "hobo." Then, students wrote a journal entry that had to incorporate information from all of those sources while telling about an experience as one of these train-hopping hobos.

Anchor texts can be novels. But they can also be poems, short stories, really engaging nonfiction articles and books . . .pretty much anything.  The challenge for teachers is hunting down related sources that can then lead to a writing assignment or project.  It's a daunting, time-consuming task in an already daunting time of challenge and change.

So . . . help teachers out.  If you think you have a book that could be an anchor text, do some research. What themes or subjects relate to your book?  What other resources can you pull in?  Publish those links or suggestions on your website.  Better yet, create a Teacher's Guide with an assignment ready to go.

And if you need help, email us, and we'll check your book out and tell you if it's feasible.  This is what we DO.

For a sample of a Performance Task that involves the book CHAINS (by Laurie Halse Anderson) check out our Sample Guides page. Click on CHAINS and scroll to the end of the our Teacher's Guide where you'll find that Performance Task.  You'll see how we incorporated the novel, as well as some other primary sources to give students the basis to write a persuasive essay.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

A Good Teacher's Guide is Like a Road Map

I love teaching novels. Probably because I love reading novels.  So there is nothing more rewarding than exposing my students to good literature and being a part of the magic that happens when a whole room full of kids exhales after a tense scene or laughs or groans when we end a chapter and I say that's it for the day.

But preparing to teach a novel?  It's a ton of work.

I begged my principal a few months ago to let me teach this amazing book called MOON OVER MANIFEST.  It won the Newbery a year or two ago and quite simply, it's brilliant.  Because I have a great administrator, he dug up a few hundred bucks somehow and I got a class set.

Then, the work began.

First, I had to cull through that puppy and find all the words that kids in sixth grade may or may not know. Then, I had to write good, solid, context clues-type activities for those words, because that's what our standards call for.

Then, I had to decide how to introduce the novel.  And since it takes place in Kansas during the Great Depression, but there are numerous flashbacks and references to 1918 and World War I, my challenge was two-fold.  I found some great images (thank you, Library of Congress), concocted a few short scenarios that forced my kids to think about how they might handle situations similar to what MOON's characters would be facing, and then wrote up some short history blurbs to give some background on the setting.

I was several hours in, but nowhere near done.

The new Common Core standards ask our students to really be text-savvy as they read.  So I had to develop questions that would force my students to analyze characters' motives and dissect plot and explain point of view. I had to find ways to incorporate grammar, as well, by pulling out examples of how the author used intensive pronouns and figurative language and punctuation.

And then, I had to create a final Performance Task that requires my students to synthesize what they've read with information from new texts and sources and write something--in this case a first-person narrative.

It was a long arduous process, but well worth it.

This week, we started our journey through this book.  And by page ten, I had thirty-five noses buried in books in a hushed classroom. When we ended, they cried out in frustration--which was my hope all along. We'll have wonderful, thoughtful discussions throughout the next weeks, and moments where our hearts ache for these characters.

That's what literature does.  And a good Teacher's Guide should be the GPS system that guides everyone through it.

To check out the Teacher's Guide to MOON OVER MANIFEST, see our Sample Guides page.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Teaching Dare to Dream . . . Change the World

A few weeks ago, I hit that time of year in my sixth grade classroom I usually dread.  Poetry.  I've never been a big fan of poetry myself. Teaching poetry to sixth graders usually feels to me like trying to make a trip to the dentist sound fun.  They don't buy it.  So we slog through two weeks of rhyming couplets, dubious metaphors, and allusive symbolism before we all breathe a huge sigh of relief.

This year I wised up.  Wrote a grant that got me a class set of Dare to Dream . . . Change the World books.  This collection of poems edited by Jill Corcoran features writing by some of today's top KidLit writers and poets.  Each spread couples a biography of someone who has made an impact in some way with two poems that relate to that person.

Nicole and I (well, mostly Nicole) had the pleasure of putting together a Teacher's Guide for Jill.  We honed in on as many of the Common Core Standards for grades 6 through 8 as we could and then tried to create engaging activities and diverse writing assignments.

Then, I got to teach it.

And the results were . . . in a word . . . magic.

Never before had I had kids asking me, as they came through the door, who the poems would be about for the day.  Never before had I had my students making observations about mood and tone and meaning that were unsolicited!  Yes, you read that right.  We would read a poem, and they would INTERRUPT me to say, "Mrs. Fry, I think the poet is trying to show us that the narrator is angry at the cows because the cows are free and he isn't.  That's why he's cussing at them. It makes sense now."  Yeah, for real.

And their writing was truly inspiring and inspired.  Kids who had struggled all year to put thoughts on paper were suddenly writing with abandon, and finding voices that had seemingly been buried. 

One of my favorite days was when we did Nicholas Cobb.  Nicole's brilliant lesson starts with kids being introduced to Nicholas Cobb who was a young kid who raised a lot of money for homeless people. We then read the poems on those pages.  Next, we examined a large image of a homeless camp under a bridge, listened to sounds of traffic overhead, got under our desks to simulate being under a bridge, and wrote sensory descriptions of what that would feel like.  Finally, we turned those descriptions into some wonderful poetry.

The two weeks went way too quickly.  I will extend it next year and incorporate ALL of the poems, since they are too rich to skip.  And my students will benefit from the standards-based, but interactive curriculum that goes with it.

If you want to check out that curriculum, click here: Dare to Dream Teacher's Guide.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Creating Your CCSS-Aligned Curriculum Guide

Where do I begin?

Your Common Core State Standards (CCSS) document—get to know the standards for your target age group.  Note that the standards range from basic understanding to deep analysis (purposely reflecting Bloom's Taxonomy).  Pick 5-8 standards that you think you can cover in your curriculum guide - you don't need to touch on ALL the standards as students have the entire year to meet their grade-level CCSS.

Get organized!

Figure out what sections to include in your curriculum guide.  As a teacher, here's what is most useful:

 - a Prior Knowledge section with discussion or writing prompts that students complete BEFORE they begin reading.  A good prompt relates students' prior experiences to themes in the book, and gets them excited and motivated to read.  For Dare to Dream . . . Change the World, a poetry anthology, we have students find examples of poetry in commercials, songs, greeting cards, and nursery rhymes so they realize poetry is all around them! [Check out the curriculum on our Sample Curriculum page!]

 - a Vocabulary section that includes a list, with definitions, of  grade-level vocabulary students will encounter in the novel.  In addition, it is really helpful to have a handout where students decipher new words in context (using phrases from the novel).  Here's an example from a "Context Clue" handout for Losing It that teachers are loving: “You have to drink when you run, Bennett.  No wonder your head hurts! Most headaches are caused by dehydration, you know.” Dehydration might mean . . .

- Chapter Questions that help students process important themes, while hitting key Common Core Standards. A good set of questions spiral from basic understanding to analysis, and vary in what they ask the student to do. For instance, students might draw a response, complete a graphic organizer, or write a mini-dialogue from the perspective of a character.  Here is a sample prompt for Laurie Halse Anderson’s CHAINS: Create simple sketches for Elihu Lockton, Curzon, and Isabel. Add a large speech bubble to each character. Write the words, “The real meaning of liberty is . . .” at the top of each speech bubble. Then, do the following:

·         Finish the opening sentence from the perspective of the character.
·         Support your claim with examples or evidence from the text.
·         Provide a concluding statement that summarizes your position.

- a Pulling It All Together section where students take what they've learned from your book and do something with it.  It can be a writing assignment, a project, a debate etc. Given the push for informational text in the CCSS, this is an ideal place to include some nonfiction reading to supplement your book.  For Losing It, we researched and wrote our own text about bullying and then guided students through a debate about what should be done with bullies in schools.   

 Get Writing!

It takes some time to create a good curriculum guide, but it's well worth it if you want teachers to be able to simply pick up your book and teach it!  Books that are chosen by teachers for their classrooms have longevity, as well, since teachers tend to use them year after year.  

Nicole and Erin, both teachers and curriculum developers, can help!  You can contact us as if you have questions or would like us to create a curriculum guide for your book.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Your Book and the CCSS

The adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) by all but four states presents an unprecedented opportunity for publishers and authors. For the first time, teachers across the nation are teaching the same English standards. 

What are the Common Core State Standards? The CCSS are specific benchmarks, divided by grade level, that students should master by the end of each year in a certain subject. At this point, there are only standards for Language Arts and Math.  The L.A. standards are divided into Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, and Language.  They are pretty specific.  For instance, one of the Reading Standards for 8th grade reads:

                3. Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text. 

How do you align a book to the CCSS?   Provide teachers with a comprehensive curriculum guide that includes context vocabulary, spiraled chapter questions, short but engaging writing prompts, and related informational text.  A good portion of what is in the curriculum guide should reflect the CCSS.   An aligned curriculum guide is more than a few pages (ours are 30 + ) and provides the handouts, activity prompts, and specific lessons that teachers NEED to teach a novel.  For examples, check out the guide for Jill Corcoran’s  Dare to Dream . . . Change the World or Erin Fry’s  Losing It.

Why should publishers and authors provide a curriculum guide to teachers?  School districts, librarians, and teachers will be more apt to buy classroom sets of new books if they have the materials to teach them. Teachers love teaching new novels but they rarely do, because it takes many hours of preparation. If publishers or authors lift this burden from teachers, especially now with the adoption of the CCSS, those books are more likely to make their way into the hands of students and classrooms.

Don’t publishers already create curriculum guides?  Not really. Sometimes a publisher or author provides a page of discussion questions or general suggestions of things to do with students while reading a book. While these can be good starting points for teachers, they aren't usually standards-based, nor are they as valuable as a well-written curriculum guide that truly guides teachers through a book or novel.  

In future posts, we’ll look more closely at what exactly curriculum guide looks like and the steps it takes to create one.  A really good CG, like any solid curriculum, takes time to develop—as well as a working knowledge of the standards, how teachers teach, and how students learn.

Nicole and Erin feel passionately that standards-based curriculum can be teacher-friendly, engage students, AND be pedagogically sound.  Stick with us as we show you what that looks like.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Have No Fear . . . Common Core and Writers

Fiction writers have viewed the adoption of the Common Core standards with skepticism. And maybe with good reason. These new standards require teachers to focus much more time on Informational text. Staff lounges and department meetings across the country are also abuzz right now with what this means for curricula.

In actuality, the document and its standards are well organized, well-written, and a realistic interpretation of what we want kids to know and do at the end of each school year. For us, curriculum writers and teachers, the CCSS are refreshing. The adoption of the CCSS by all but 5 states is merely an outgrowth of a decades long push to incorporate standards-based teaching into schools. There were (and actually still are) 50 distinct state standards for major subject areas.

Now, we have ONE set of standards for math and English for most of the country. Finally, we in the education world can talk the same talk and collaborate on promoting best practices. But what does this mean for the Kid Lit writer? Should we all polish up our research skills and make the leap to nonfiction? Will kids even be reading literature in the classrooms anymore?

This is a wonderful opportunity for writers to create standards-based curriculum for their books that applies to a wide number of classrooms. Before the CCSS, it was kind of a toss-up whether to align to California or New York or maybe Texas or Massachusetts. Now, it's a one-size fits all deal.

In January, we'll take a “tour” of the CCSS through a series of blog posts. We’ll walk you through the main components of the document and point out ways that you can tie them into your novels.

Transition is always hard and always scary. Usually something is gained and lost as well. We won't really know until we have all officially transitioned, which is still a year away. But we don't think it's something we need to fear. We think it's something we need to embrace.