Nonfiction Monday: Reaching for the Moon

October 26th, 2009

This week’s Nonfiction Monday selection comes from Lynne Dorfman and Rose Cappelli. Their recent book, Nonfiction Mentor Texts: Teaching Informational Writing Through Children’s Literature, K-8, identifies a wide range of mentor texts  and guides teachers through a variety of projects that demonstrate how teachers can help students become more effective writers of good nonfiction.

July 20,1969. We are with our families on a warm summer evening, huddled in front of the television, watching an incredible event. Not only has man landed on the moon, but we are able to watch it live! We wonder: What does this mean for us, our country, and our world? We wonder: What does Armstrong mean when he says, “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”?

The importance of this event is often lost on today’s youth who may view rocket launches as familiar as cell phone communication. Today’s generation operates in the present and concerns themselves with day- to-day events. It is hard sometimes to help them recapture the wonder and mystery of past accomplishments, however spectacular and inspirational. This is what books can do for us. Books allow us to be time travelers – in this case, space travelers – and help us share in the experiences of past generations.

Robert Burleigh’s One Giant Leap relays the story of the landing of the Eagle on the moon and the return trip to Earth in true Burleigh style. The king of “exploding a moment in time”, Burleigh walks us through the touchdown on the surface of the moon using rich description that spills out like poetry. His use of the present tense places the reader side by side with Armstrong and Aldrin as they take their first steps onto the surface of the moon. Variation in sentence length and use of fragments create a cadence that emphasizes feelings, actions, and thoughts. The words almost beg to be read aloud.

But mostly their eyes are fixed on another place:

Blue, white, light brown and shining below them.

They want that now. More than anything.

A planet of oceans and rivers. Of grass and green hills.

A world of trees and family and friends.

A place called Earth: fragile, beautiful, home.

Burleigh’s book is also a cornucopia for punctuation study and craft. Looking through a writer’s eye, we can examine the author’s use of hyphenated adjectives, onomatopoeia, proper nouns, thoughtshots, listing, and  effective repetition. One Giant Leap is also a source for studying dashes, colons, italics, and ellipses.

After sharing this book with your students, the questions are sure to fly. They will want to know more. Look to the Stars by Buzz Aldrin is filled with information presented in a friendly and interesting format  that will satisfy their curiosity and wonder. Aldrin uses many features of nonfiction, but  the personal connections and anecdotes bring history alive for the reader. Aldrin shares each generation’s fascination with the heavens and flight by creating a timeline with informational text. Using the features of nonfiction, a reader can dip into and out of this picture book. It is an easy book to read and ponder in small chunks.

To extend the reading into writing, you can use the quotations at the bottom of each page and the end pages to inspire student reflection as notebook entries. How do you think your students would respond to the following quotes:

“Anything one man can imagine, other men can make real.” –Jules Verne

After his space walk, Ed White said, “I felt red, white and blue all over.”

“The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.” -Gus Grissom, Apollo 1

Look to the Stars is a study in features of nonfiction that students can imitate for informational writing: timelines, diagrams, labels, text boxes, and headings. This book contains an introduction and an afterward that serves as a summary conclusion, and has great examples of how to write a dedication.

If you are looking to create a text set for this subject area in reading and writing workshop you might also include Richard Hilliard’s Neil, Buzz, and Mike Go to the Moon, and If You Decide to Go to the Moon by Faith McNulty. Meghan McCarthy’s Astronaut Handbook Is appropriate for primary and older students and is written in the second person to establish intimacy with the reader. Armstrong’s Moon Rock by Gerry Bailey and Karen Foster combines a story with informational text in a multigenre approach to create interest.

Since that historic day forty years ago when two Americans walked on the surface of our moon, we have come to understand many of the things we wondered about  then. In Look to the Stars, Aldrin explains the words of his partner Neil Armstrong. He says that the first part of that famous quote is simply a statement of fact, but the last part is a dream for the future. The use of mentor texts to teach the reading and writing of nonfiction is one way to help our students connect with the past and dream of the future.

Entry Filed under: Nonfiction Monday

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