Monday, November 24, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!


Happy Thanksgiving from Mary Ann, Erika, Grace, and Katie at The Classroom Bookshelf. We will be back next week, squeezing in a few more favorites from 2014 before the year ends.  We are grateful for the work we do, and the opportunity to share it with you and your students.  

If you are looking for a read aloud in the last couple of days before the holiday, you might find our entry on Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet of interest. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Teaching to Complexity: A Framework to Evaluate Literary and Content-Area Texts

Teaching to Complexity: A Framework to Evaluate Literary and Content-Area Texts

Written by Mary Ann Cappiello and Erika Thulin Dawes
Published by Shell Education, 2014
ISBN: 9781425814601

This week, we celebrate the publication of Erika and Mary Ann’s new book, Teaching to Complexity: A Framework to Evaluate Literary and Content-Area Texts.

As we write in our introduction: “The texts we ask students to read matter. They influence their knowledge of the world, their recognition of multiple perspectives, their ability to develop empathy, their understanding of how inquiry operates, and their perception of how people use literacies to express their understanding of the world around them, whether through a historic speech, a picture book, podcast, or poem. Our goal in writing this book is to support you as you select the texts that will make a difference in your students’ learning today, next month, and in years to come.”

As you know, each week on “The Classroom Bookshelf,” we, along with Grace and Katie, offer examples of expertly written children’s and young adult books that offer a wide range of teaching and learning opportunities. We try to model, week after week, the ways in which well-written books can serve a number of roles in language arts and content area classrooms and meet a variety of instructional purposes.

But how do we identify these books? How do we consider the strengths and weaknesses of books as we contemplate books for this blog? How does our thinking about instructional purposes and possibilities shape how we read books we’re considering for classroom use? How does our understanding of readers influence our choices and the instructional activities we suggest for the same book at different grade spans?

If you’re a fan of our earlier book, Teaching with Text Sets, you can consider Teaching to Complexity its “back story.” In it, we articulate the processes that we use to select texts for classroom use, and situate those processes within the current landscape of the Common Core’s emphasis on text complexity. We provide a pathway for both new and experienced teachers to follow, one that reflects our beliefs about the importance and centrality of beautifully written books for children and young adults, not just in their personal reading lives, but as a central component of curriculum in language arts, science, social studies, and the arts.

As such, the book is a primer for selecting texts for classroom use. We seek to give you a deeper understanding of how texts operate, the nuances of genres, and why having “good” books in the classroom matters. We link an evaluation of the quality of a book with its role in the classroom, and discuss the many, many different purposes for using books across the content areas, and how that shapes your approach to selecting a text. We then bring in a conversation about readers, matching the quality and utility of the book with a consideration of text complexity.

Ultimately, we share an understanding of text complexity as something malleable, not fixed, dependent upon not just the range of readers in the room, but the context in which a text is being used, and how the other texts within the text set are positioned. Depending upon how any single text is being used within a text set, it may be more or less complex for readers. In Teaching with Text Sets, we discuss how some texts in a text set are scaffolds, some are immersion experiences, and some extensions. These roles within the text set and the curriculum are pivotal points for considering the ways in which text complexity can be considered.

If you’re in the Boston area, please join us at Lesley University to celebrate the book launch on Wednesday, November 19th at 5 pm. To register for this free event, and get a free copy of Teaching to Complexity, follow this link:

If you’re going to NCTE in Washington, please join us at our panel with School Library Journal’s Daryl Grabarek. We’ll be talking about the processes for selecting texts and apps for use in text sets. You’ll find our session details here: .

Grace will also be presenting at NCTE, and you can find her session details here:

You can order the book at:

Shell Education:


Monday, November 10, 2014

Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes

Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes
Written by Nicola Davies, Illustrated by Emily Sutton
Published by Candlewick Press, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-7636-7315-4

Grades 3-5

Book Review
Where do you begin the conversation with young people about the tiny microbes in and around us everyday, some of which keep us healthy, some of which make us sick? You start with Tiny Creatures, a beautiful nonfiction picture book written by zoologist and children’s author Nicola Davies, and illustrated by Emily Sutton. Rather than attempting to be a survey book telling readers a little bit about all there is to know about microbes, it is instead an ideal example of the concept book. It focuses on the basic essentials of the concept “microbe” and includes information about size and scale, their ability to quickly reproduce, and as Davies says, the fact that “[t]hey are the invisible transformers of our world—the tiniest lives doing some of the biggest jobs.” This book doesn’t provide a full range of vocabulary; it does not discuss the difference in language between germs, bacteria, and microbes, for example. However, through concrete comparisons of size and scale, matched beautifully by Sutton’s gorgeous illustrations, your students will walk away with new awareness of what microbes are, and of how many millions of them could be growing inside of them, for better or worse!

Teaching Ideas and Invitations

Sense of Scale. How do your students develop a sense of size and scale of animals relative to one another? After reading Tiny Creatures together, read aloud Steve Jenkins’ Actual Size. How do Nicola Davies, Emily Sutton, and Steve Jenkins use both words and pictures to develop a sense of size and scale? For example, examine the illustration of the ant antenna and whale as a means of showing scale rather than accuracy of size, or the use of a drop of water or teaspoon of soil to convey numbers. How do comparisons and contrasts help your students to better understand size and scale in relation to one another? Have students research an animal, and decide what feature of the animal they would like to illustrate. Have students use something else (another animal, an everyday household object, sports equipment) to help others understand the size and scale.

Healthy Microbes. Many students may be surprised to learn that there are things that are alive that are not animals or plants! Students may be even more surprised to learn that there are important microbes living inside of them. Have your students explore what some of these microbes do to keep the ecosystems inside their body healthy! Have students illustrate particular microbes from particular parts of the body, and write a few sentences describing what they do. Using pictures of microbes, have students convey a sense of accurate color and scale. Recognizing that they will be drawing them much larger than they are, have students do the math to determine the level of magnification their drawings are taking on. Use resources listed below to assist you in your explorations.

Vocabulary of Microbes. After reading Tiny Creatures together as a read aloud, list your students' questions about all things microbes. After all, microbes can be many things. What are germs? Bacteria? Viruses? Use some of the digital and print resources below to begin to develop a working vocabulary of these types of microbes. Students can work together in pairs or small groups to write and illustrate a class book to share their research.

Microbe Reproduction. How fast can microbes split to reproduce? The example of e-coli is quite startling! Find information about how fast other microbes split, and have students read about those different microbes in small groups. Have each group pictorially represent the germs splitting the way in which Davies and Sutton do in this Tiny Creatures.  

Pathologist Visit. Have a pathologist visit from a local hospital, or do a Skype visit with one if you life in a rural area without close access to someone. What made him or her choose to become a pathologist? What is it like to study microscopic pictures? Have him/her share slides if possible, and ask students to identify what they see, practicing their “close viewing” and descriptive language skills.

Microbes at Work in Compost. Davies mentions compost and yogurt as two concrete examples of microbes at work. Does your school have a composting program? If not, perhaps you and your class can write a persuasive letter to the head of your food service requesting that such a program be initiated in the school cafeteria. This might serve as a catalyst for planning a school garden in the spring! If interested, see our entry on It’s Our Garden and Planting the Wild Garden.

Microbes at Work in Yogurt. Ask your students how yogurt is made. What do they think happens? Next, bring in a yogurt maker and have the students experience the difference between milk and yogurt. What happens when the milk is heated up and microbes from older yogurt are added? Have students describe the taste and texture of milk in their science journals, and then describe the taste and texture of yogurt. Next, have them review and write down the process of making yogurt. Finally, have them pose questions about what might be happening to the milk that turns it into yogurt, and have them make predictions about what they think microbes are doing, based on what they learned. You can then fill them in on what does happen. 

Author Study. Nicola Davies has a Ph.D. in zoology, but writes for children and young adults about scientific issues. After reading Tiny Creatures, place students in small groups reading a nonfiction book of their choice authored by Davies. It may be possible to get copies of the books you need for small groups through interlibrary loan. Ask your school or local librarian if this is possible!  What do students see as similarities and differences within her body of work? Have students identify her writing style and how she addresses concepts in her work. Next, have them research a scientific topic of their own choosing, and emulate some aspect of Davies’ writing style that they have identified. 

Further Explorations

Digital Resources

Nicola Davies’ Official Website

Emily Sutton’s Official Website

Microbe World

Microbe Magazine

BBC for Kids – “Bitesize” Videos on Microbes

Kids Discover Issue on Mircrobes
NOTE: Check databases available via your school and local library for articles from this issue that you can have students read on laptops or tablets or using your LCD projector/Smart Board.

Microbe Magic

Live Science: Microbiome Surprising Facts


Corcoran, M. (2011). The quest to digest. Ill. by  J. Czekaj. Watertown, MA:

Gardy, J. (2014). It’s catching: The infectious world of germs and microbes. Toronto, CA:

Jenkins, S. (2004). Actual size. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Leet, K. (2012). Food intruders: Invisible creatures lurking in your food. [Tiny Creepy
Creatures series]. North Mankato, MN: Capstone Publishing. 

----(2012). Yard monsters: Invisible creatures lurking in your backyard. [Tiny Creepy
Creatures series]. North Mankato, MN: Capstone Publishing. 

Simon, S. (2005). Guts: Our digestive system. New York: Harper Collins.

Swanson, J. (2012). Body bugs: Invisible creatures lurking inside you. [Tiny Creepy       
Creatures series]. North Mankato, MN: Capstone Publishing. 

-----(2012) Uninvited guests: Invisible creatures lurking in your home. [Tiny Creepy
Creatures series]. North Mankato, MN: Capstone Publishing. 

Weakland, M. (2011). Gut bugs, dustmites, and other microorganisms you can’t live     without. North Mankato, MN: Capstone Publishing.  

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus

The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus
Written by Jen Bryant; Illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2014
ISBN # 978-0-8028-5383-1

Grades K and up

Book Review
What’s a better word or phrase for “outstanding”? How about The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus, the latest picturebook biography by the award-winning team of Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet. This time, they introduce young readers to Peter Mark Roget, the meek and introverted linguaphile who is best known for publishing and popularizing one of our most valuable reference tools: the thesaurus. The biography begins at a critical period in Roget’s youth—the death of his father—which sets his family on a series of successive moves and ultimately leads young Roget to find solace and stability in listmaking. From there, Jen Bryant’s pitch-perfect prose chronicles Roget’s childhood passion for books and science to his adult endeavors as a teacher, doctor, and author. Melissa Sweet’s buoyant illustrations and handwritten text of watercolor, collage, and mixed media mirror Roget’s close study of detail and contemplation of words. Additionally, the book’s peritext and back matter, including the author’s and illustrator’s notes, continue to complement the subject of their collaboration and delight readers with witty and exuberant references. Once again, the duo of Bryant and Sweet have produced a book that begs to be on every child’s classroom bookshelf.

Teaching Ideas and Invitations

Grades K and up

Voting on the Right Word. Armed with cameras or tablets, take students on a walk around their school or neighborhood to take photos of various sights. These might include signs, buildings, people, and plants. Print or display one photo at a time for the class, and have them come up with various words to describe qualities of what they see, such as colors, expressions, shapes, or textures. Note that they are not naming what they see, but describing what they see. Have students use a print thesaurus or one of the online versions listed below to list several synonyms for those descriptive words. As a class, discuss the semantic nuances of each synonym, and then have the class vote on the right word to really describe what they see.

Personalized Thesaurus. Ask students to scan some of their previous writing and keep track of the words they see themselves using repeatedly. Have them write these words in the back of their writer’s notebooks, in a Notes file on their tablets or smartphones, or on a sheet of paper to keep in their writing folders. Then, have students use either a print thesaurus or one of the online versions listed below to compile a list of synonyms they can use in place of their own commonly used words. Have them write these synonyms down alongside those commonly used words, so they have a personalized thesaurus on hand whenever they’re writing.

Vocabulary Gradient. Close inspection of the lists included in the illustrations reveal that they are not randomly strung together. Many of those lists present words related to a particular concept that progress on a continuum according to order of degree or intensity of meaning (see, for example, the list of words that describe Roget’s mother’s anxiety about his wanderings alone). Challenge students to create their own word gradient that moves from one concept to another and increases or decreases in intensity or degree along the way. For example, the concept may be temperature, with words that describe cold on one end (e.g., chilly, frosty, wintry, biting, etc.) and words that describe hot (e.g., blistering, scorching, roasting, summery, etc.) on another.  Using a print thesaurus or one of the online versions listed below in Further Explorations, have students compile a list of words to include on their continuum. Words that are placed along the continuum should be synonyms that bridge one end of the continuum with the other. Make sure students are able to provide sound rationales for including certain words and placing them in certain locations along the gradient continuum.

Reading Picturebook Illustrations. The illustrations of picturebooks (as opposed to the two words picture books) convey just as much, if not more, meaning as the text so that the full message or story is not complete without closely studying them. Melissa Sweet is a master at providing layers of rich information in her illustrations to enhance Jen Bryant’s words. Have students closely read the illustrations throughout The Right Word to determine what else is being added to Roget’s story. Then, have students rewrite the text to include the information conveyed through the illustrations in order to emphasize just how much meaning is being communicated through the pictures as well.

Grades 3 and up

The Names Behind the References. Divide students into small groups to inquire about the people whose names are associated with a variety of reference materials. Along with Roget’s Thesaurus, such reference materials might include Webster’s Dictionary, Gray’s Anatomy of the Human Body, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, or Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. After students have researched their figures, have them present their findings to the class. Then, challenge students to create their own reference book using their own names and these reference materials as mentor texts.

Roget the Scientist, Roget the Inventor. Though he is most famous for his thesaurus, Roget spent much of his life as a scientist and inventor. Have students inquire more about Roget’s accomplishments in these fields. After the inquiry, have them present their findings in a multimedia presentation to round out what we know about Roget.

Critical Literacy

A Better Word? While Roget’s Thesaurus is a remarkable reference tool and testimony to the richness of language, it only presents words and phrases that are part of the English language. Discuss with your class whether one language can really express everything someone wants to say. Are there words or phrases in other languages that do a better job of capturing the nuances and connotations of meaning that one wants to convey? Have your students inquire into this matter. If they or their families speak languages other than English, have them examine the translations of words from one language to the other. Do they really convey the exact same meaning? You might also have students carry this inquiry into their foreign language classes. After conducting some research, have students create a multilingual thesaurus to use in class and possibly share in the school or local library .

Further Explorations

Online Resources

Jen Bryan’s website

Melissa Sweet’s website

eBook of Roget’s Thesaurus

Online thesaurus websites

Karpeles Manuscript Library (for photos of Roget’s original manuscript)

Dubosarsky, U. (2009). The word snoop. Ill. by T. Riddle. New York: Dial.

Ferris, J. C. (2012). Noah Webster & his words. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children.

Gorrell, G. K. (2009). Say what?: The weird and mysterious journey of the English language. New York: Tundra Books.

Lloyd, N. (2014). A snicker of magic. New York: Scholastic. See also our blog entry at

Shea, P. D. (2009). Noah Webster: Weaver of words. Ill. by M. Vachula. Hornsdale, PA: Calkins Creek.

Robb, D. (2008). Ox, house, stick: The history of our alphabet. Ill. by A. Smith. Boston: Charlesbridge.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Red Pencil

The Red Pencil

Written by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Illustrated by Shane W. Evans
Published by Little Brown in 2014
ISBN-13: 9780316247801

Grades 4 and up

Book Review

Turning twelve is supposed to be an important and celebratory experience for Amira. And at first, it is: she’s finally old enough to wear a toob, the promise of a hearty wheat harvest surrounds her family, and the gift of a sturdy drawing twig enables her dreams to soar. Among those wishes is the chance to attend Gad Primary School, one of the few schools in Darfur to welcome girls. Amira’s hopes are seemingly shattered when she is displaced by an abrupt and violent Janjaweed attack on her village and thus embarks on a treacherous journey to the refugee camp in Kalma. There, she retreats into silence and swallows her sorrow until a small gift of the titular red pencil reminds her that there is power and possibility in life. With a poignant first-person perspective, Coretta Scott King Award winner Andrea Davis Pinkney weaves a compelling verse novel not just about the complexities of war, but also of the human spirit. Paired with award winning illustrator Shane W. Evans’s emotionally raw, clean-lined drawings, the story of Amira’s plight is poetry amplified. For additional insight into the political and historical context surrounding Amira’s experience, Pinkney provides a riveting author’s note about the Darfur conflict. Share this stunning novel with your students for deeper insight into the tragedies and triumphs children experience in wartime or for an engaging study of the beauty and power of language and verse.

Teaching Ideas and Invitations

A Novel in Verse: The choice to write the novel in verse rather than prose is intentional and, as such, integral to students’ understanding of The Red Pencil. Consider elements of poetry that may need to be explored to support student understanding of the book. In what ways are Pinkney’s line breaks, stanza breaks, use of white space, and word choice part of the story itself. What do students notice about the sounds and structures Pinkney uses to portray Amira’s thoughts, feelings, and life experiences? Have students select their favorite poems/chapters as a mentor text for their own poetry writing. Consider supporting students to develop original characters as Pinkney did and use poetry to convey historically grounded events. Reading additional novels in verse such as Home of the Brave, Caminar, All the Broken Pieces and Aleutian Sparrow will provide additional inspiration and models for students' compositions. 

The Red Pencil: The Sequel. What happens next? Where do Old Anwar and Amira wind up after they flee the Kalma Refugee Camp? Do they actually get out of the camp? What would Amira be doing now, a decade later? Have your students research more about the Sudan and South Sudan over the past ten years, and then write a sequel to The Red Pencil that takes place at any point from 2005-2014.

The Many Meanings of the Moon. Throughout the book, the moon plays an important role in the story, revealing to Amira the passing of time, and revealing to the reader various beliefs about the moon held by the Fur people of Darfur. Pinkney states in her Author’s Note that she learned of these beliefs in her many interviews with Darfurian refugees while conducting research for this book. What are other beliefs about the moon held by people, communities, and cultures around the world and throughout time? Have your students explore some of the books listed below and write poems about these varying understandings and beliefs about the power and meaning of the moon. Consider having your students create Moon Journals to track the moon over the course of a month and to use as their drawings/ jottings as inspiration for further writing. Use Pinkney’s poetry in the novel as a mentor text for student writing.

The Flicker Box. In the novel, Amira is surprised by the “Flicker Box” attached to a large pole in the refugee camp. The reader understands that this is a television, and the “pink people” within speaking English are most likely American or European broadcasters. Can your students imagine a world without a television or other screens? Have students interview senior citizens in your community about their first moments with technology. When was the first time they saw a television? Watched a presidential speech instead of listening to it on the radio? Saw a photograph of the Earth from space? Have students co-author narratives of this experience with the seniors, and perhaps publish the collection to add to your town or city’s library.

Girls and Literacy. The Red Pencil  is a powerful text to support a larger study on girls and literacy. Consider timing your study of the book around the time of the United Nations International Day of the Girl celebrated every year on October 11th. Support students to consider issues of girls and literacy within and beyond the text: Why do you think Dando and Old Anwar both feel that Amira should be allowed to learn to read, but not Amira’s mother? Why would it be more difficult for Amira’s mother to be open to change, even before the family’s life changes with the loss of Dando and their farm? Are women more typically advocates for girls’ literacy around the world? Can such a generalization be made? Have students research more about girls and literacy internationally. Visit LitWorld’s 10,000 Global Girls page and consider having students take action by writing about and standing up for girls using LitWorld’s suggestions or by creating your own.

Learning an Alphabet. Students reading The Red Pencil most likely have many years of reading already behind them, and many years of writing their name. They may not be able to remember when they first started to form letters. What is the feeling of seeing your name written for the first time, as Amira does on p. 228. Invite speakers of other languages who use a different alphabet, such as Arabic or Chinese, come to class and teach students how to write their name in the new alphabet. Have students document what connection they feel to their name in this new form.

Found Art. Throughout the book characters use found objects and turn them into treasures. Draw students’ attention to how Leila turns a bottle into a baby doll. In what ways does this demonstrate ingenuity and creativity? How does the fight with Gamal over the bottle further demonstrate the value of the object? Support students to notice other moments in the text where found objects become something new such as when Amira turns the colored trash bags into flowers. Finding new uses for objects is called “upcycling”. Research with students how people across the world are upcycling to create art towards social change. Consider with students the difference between upcycling as a creative outlet and upcycling as a necessity.

The Power of the Pencil. In The Red Pencil, reading and writing gives Amira a voice. She is able to communicate her ideas and participate in the world in new ways. Pair your students’ reading of The Red Pencil with a viewing of the United Nations speech by Malala Yousafzai following her attack on her school bus ride. Support students to make connections between Amira and Malala’s life circumstances and the ways that reading and writing changes their lives. Consider with students the issues of power and fear that are associated with girls and literacy both in the novel and in various regions of the world. In what ways are Muma’s fears about her daughter’s literacy development surprising to us? How can we come to better understand her position? In what ways is a pencil a powerful weapon for social change?

Global Text Clubs: The Red Pencil, The Breadwinner, and Shabanu. Both The Red Pencil and The Breadwinner trilogy by Deborah Ellis, and Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind by Suzanne Fisher Staples feature girls coming of age. Support students in text clubs to closely read one novel to consider the ways girls are positioned as both powerful and powerless and to gather deeper understanding about another part of the world.  Consider having students share their interpretations of the books with one another through digital storytelling by weaving images they find online, text, and sound to help convey the messages of each story. Explore with students the complexity of how these authors write about other people’s experiences. What responsibility did both Andrea Davis Pinkney, Deborah Ellis and Suzanne Fisher Staples have to research the people who inspired their work? In what ways do they serve a critical role towards furthering girls’ human rights by writing about international conflicts and atrocities?

Gathering Details to Learn More about Darfur and the Sudan. Support students to gather details about Darfur and the Sudan throughout their reading of The Red Pencil. Chart words that may be unfamiliar to students such as toob, genocide, militia, renegades, and Janjaweed supporting students to consider their meanings within and beyond the text. Use the map in the front of the book, as well as online resources, to better understand the geography of Darfur and its impact on the people who live there. For example, consider the origins of the Janjaweed militia in response to scarce water and land resources. Research with students Darfur today and groups such as Human Rights Watch and The International Crisis Group to better understand international efforts to end conflict in this region of the world.

The Power of Artistic Expression. Throughout the novel, Amira uses art as a vehicle to express her dreams, hopes, and sorrows. Invite students to consider the power artistic expression has in their own lives. How do they use various art forms, such as visual arts, music, drama, and dance as an outlet for strong emotions or as a medium for self expression? What is their “Turning-Twelve Twig” or  “Red Pencil”? Consider developing a multi-media performance that offers students a chance to showcase their artistic preferences.

Further Explorations

Digital Resources

Andrea Davis Pinkney's Official Website

The Horn Book: Profile of Andrea Davis Pinkney

Sudan, “Times Topic,” The New York Times

South Sudan, “Times Topic,” The New York Times

NPR, Stories about South Sudan

ACT for Sudan

United Nations Mission in Sudan

Lit World

Women and Literacy, the UN

Red Pencil International


Applegate, K. (2007). Home of the brave. New York: Feiwel and Friends.

Burg, A. E. (2009). All the broken pieces: A novel in verse. New York: Scholastic.

Brown, S. (2014). Caminar. Somerville, MA; Candlewick Press.

Ellis, D. (2000). The breadwinner. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre.

Hesse, K. (2003). Aleutian sparrow. New York: Margaret K. McElderry.

Nagai, M. (2014). Dust of Eden. New York. Albert Whitman.

Park, L.S. (2010). A long walk to water: A novel: Based on a true story. New York: Clarion Books. 

Staples, S.F. (1989). Shabanu: Daughter of the wind. New York: Random House. 

Whitman, S. (2013). The milk of birds. New York: Atheneum.

Winter, J. (2014). Malala, a brave girl from Pakistan / Iqbal, a brave boy from Pakistan. New York: Beach Lane Books.