Posts filed under 'Nonfiction Monday'

Nonfiction Monday: Light up your reading for Hanukkah

Lynne Dorfman, coauthor of Mentor Texts and Nonfiction Mentor Texts, shares some of her Hanukkah memories, along with some great books for the holiday.

When I was growing up in a household where both Hanukkah and Christmas were celebrated, Hanukkah always took a back seat.  It never could live up to the festivities of the Christmas season at my grandparents’ house: the selection of a tree, the decorations, the smell of pine wreaths, baking butter cookies in the shapes of reindeer, Santas, and bells, leaving a plate of treats and a glass of milk for Santa, and the excitement of waking up and running into the living room to see a mountain of presents.  At home, we weren’t allowed to have a tree, and the little menorah sitting on the windowsill in our own living room made a poor substitution for a grand evergreen tree.

Although I was raised in the Jewish faith, I had a healthy dose of Christianity, accompanying my nana and grandparents to church and eventually driving my best friend to early mass every Sunday morning before going to the stables.  I haven’t been a practicing Jew since childhood, but lately I’ve been wondering if I should start to attend synagogue again.  Children’s books gave me the opportunity to reacquaint myself with the Jewish traditions; and truthfully, I’m delighted!  I started with Hanukkah after reading Stephen Krensky’s Hanukkah at Valley Forge.  The story of Hanukkah, retold to General Washington through the character of a Polish soldier, inspired me as it had inspired Washington.  I wanted to learn more.

In writing workshop I am always looking for good examples of anecdotes to enrich informational and persuasive pieces.  It isn’t always easy to teach intermediate and middle school students how to effectively use the anecdote, and it’s such a wonderful way to build content!  This historical anecdote related in Krensky’s book can show students how history and past traditions can be brought to life.  In addition, this historical fiction pieces transitions smoothly between two time periods as the soldier relates the story of the origin of Hanukkah to General Washington. Furthermore, it is a perfect segue into primary source documents as the anecdote can be traced to a Revolutionary War era diary.

The last weekend of September was spent in Newport, Rhode Island. I stood inside the first synagogue in our country, the Touro Synagogue.  On one of its walls was a handwritten letter enclosed in a glass case – a letter written to the people of Rhode Island that praised the inhabitants for their tolerant views and acceptance of all religions.  I saw the hidden room beneath the altar where Rhode Island Jews had helped African-American slaves escape to Canada and freedom.  I thought about Krensky’s book and how important it was for the Jewish soldier in Washington’s army to burn a candle on Hanukkah. I thought about how important it is for children to read and write about heroes, past and present.

In Eve Bunting’s story, One Candle, Grandma relates how she had burned a candle on Hanukkah while imprisoned in a Nazi death camp; and like Krensky’s book, the pages differentiate between two time periods – present day and World War II era. Bunting’s story is a tale of perseverance and strength. It reaffirms the values of tradition and family.  We can all learn from Bunting – how she helps her young readers learn about a difficult period in the world’s history – with a story of the human spirit that is always at its best at the worst of times. After reading about Hanukkah, I realized that the miracle in Bunting’s story was the survival of Great-Aunt Rose and Grandma who long ago, had celebrated another miracle while facing the most difficult of circumstances during the darkest hours of the Holocaust.

Hanukkah, now and forever, will hold a new meaning for me – one that I will treasure – that by keeping traditions alive and celebrating past miracles, there can be hope for the future.  Small and great miracles happen every day.  Here are some other books that you might consider sharing as a read aloud or as a mentor text for writing:

Aloian, Molly. (2009). Hanukkah: Celebrations in My World. NY: Crabtree Publishing.

Bunting, Eve. (2002). One Candle. NY: Joanna Cotler Books.

Heiligman, Deborah. (2006). Celebrate Hanukkah. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society.

Kimmel, Eric (ed.). (1998). A Hanukkah Treasury. NY: Henry Holt & Co.

Kimmel, Eric. (1985). Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins. NY: Holiday House.

Krensky, Stephen. (2006). Hanukkah at Valley Forge. NY: Dutton Children’s Books.

Polacco, Patricia. (1996). The Trees of the Dancing Goats. NY: Simon & Schuster.

Add comment December 7th, 2009

Nonfiction Monday: Reaching for the Moon

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.

Add comment October 26th, 2009

Nonfiction Monday with Georgia Heard and Jennifer McDonough

The following are book recommendations taken from the “Books for Nonfiction Writing from the Heart” book list in A Place for Wonder: Reading and Writing Nonfiction in the Primary Grades, a new book by Georgia Heard and Jen McDonough. Georgia and Jen picked these books not because they are necessarily new, but because these particular ones are timeless and classics and because all are excellent examples of exploring wonders from the heart – a genre of writing that they describe in more detail in their book.

Be sure to check out the first stop on Georgia and Jen’s blog book tour on A Year of Reading blog and then follow them over to Carol’s Corner and Miss Rumphius Effect later this week! You can also participate in a live webcast with Georgia and Jen on Monday, Oct. 26, at 8 p.m. Just send your name and e-mail address to

Byrd Baylor’s The Other Way to Listen is one of my all-time favorites. I have reread this book a hundred times as there is such timeless wisdom in Byrd Baylor’s words. An elderly man teaches a young boy how to listen to the earth like a poet – not just to label trees and rocks, etc. with proper names – but to listen with heart and a deep understanding to the earth’s beauty. In the classroom, we read these lines from the book to introduce the Discovery Table, “…go get to know/one thing/as well/as you can” — as children hold their beloved objects from nature in their hands — they are invited to use their senses to get to know their objects. It’s amazing that this simple story has provided such positive inspiration to kids who are aware, more than ever, of the earth’s beauty, but also of its fragility.

The Wise Old Woman and Her Secret by Eve Merriam is a story about an elderly woman, and the townspeople who demand to know the secret of her wisdom. She tells them they can look for it, and they rummage through her house and search her yard, but leave without any answers. Only a young girl discovers the secret– which is that wisdom comes from taking the time to look closely, and being curious. It’s a great read aloud to introduce wonder centers, and to inspire children to keep wondering and asking questions about the world around them.

Everyone knows the well-known Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox but I’m not sure how many people realize that it’s a great way to introduce exploring writing wonders from the heart. We asked children in Jen McDonough’s first grade if they remember what Wilfred Gordon’s question is, and many of them remembered that it is, “What’s a memory?” We told the children that Wilfred Gordon didn’t go look in a book, or search the internet for the answer; instead, he called on his friends who lived in the old people’s home next door, among others, Mrs. Jordan, Mr. Tippett and Miss Mitchell – who all gave answers from their hearts. We then asked the children in Jen’s class to explore and write one of their heart wonders, and try to answer from their hearts.

The First Song Ever Sung by Laura Krauss Melmed is another great example of a heart wonder book. When a little boy asks, “What was the first song ever sung?” he questions his father, brother, sister — all the people in his family — and each one gives him a different answer — none scientific – but instead, poetic, unique and rooted in their life experiences.

1 comment October 19th, 2009

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