Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Place for Wonder - Chatting with the Authors

Today I'm thrilled to be hosting Georgia Heard and Jennifer McDonough, the authors of A Place of Wonder: Reading and Writing Nonfiction in the Primary Grades.

In their book, Georgia and Jennifer discuss how to create a “landscape of wonder,” a primary classroom where curiosity, creativity, and exploration are encouraged, and where intelligent, inquiring, lifelong learners are developed. They provide teachers with practical ways to create a classroom environment where students’ questions and observations are part of daily work.

I've been sharing excerpts of the book with my students for a few weeks now, and they've been intrigued and excited about the ideas presented. Since these are preservice teachers, they also have a lot of questions, many of them about process. They asked, "How do you do this in the classroom?" I decided to let the experts answer. Here are Georgia and Jennifer talking about the nitty gritty issues related to reading and writing nonfiction in the elementary classroom.

Q1: The Benjamin School seems like an extraordinary place for learning. How do you imagine these ideas working in a public school?
The majority of my work has been in public schools, so working in an independent school was new to me. In my experience, kids are kids – they are the same everywhere –with different life experiences -- but one of the major differences between public independent schools is class size. Most public schools I’ve worked in have as many as thirty plus kids in one class, which no doubt can be daunting -- even for the most experienced teacher.

The wonder centers and the heart wonder writing work pretty much the same with a larger class – the challenge is in the research wonder writing – specifically, managing thirty kids as each one pursues a different topic. We touch on this in the book, but the best piece of advice we can give is to be sure you are prepared. Spend some time making sure you have resources on their topics: gather books from the school and public libraries; print out pages from specific web sites; and post-it -note pages in magazines. If you can find a volunteer – a parent or a colleague -- to assist you during the research station days – it will help you confer with most of the children. Even with twenty kids, it can seem chaotic at times so just remember that independent exploration and thinking is messy – but trust that what you’re inviting your students to do will make a profound difference in their learning and thinking.
Q2: Given the emphasis on testing, which you described in the introduction, how can teachers help others (team members, administration) see the value in this type of instruction?
As we write in our book, we were surprised at the discordance between what most tests measure and what many state standards recommend. Many state standards recognize the importance of setting up classroom environments that encourage discovery and curiosity. Copy the standards we cite on pps. 4 and 5, and at the front of every chapter, in A Place of Wonder: Reading and Writing Nonfiction in the Primary Grades, and show them to team members and administrators. Even if they can’t see the value in this type of instruction, if they look at what state standards recommend, they might be able to understand it within the larger educational context.

Teachers with little time, because of testing, can still create places of wonder in their classrooms. Teachers can set up wonder centers as an activity in the morning when kids first arrive, or as after-school activities. You can write a question on a chart, and invite students to write their thoughts and answers throughout the day as a kind of shared writing. A Place of Wonder: Reading and Writing Nonfiction in the Primary Grades, we name numerous centers and activities that teachers can put in place without giving up curriculum time. But the bigger question is how can teachers find their voices, and make a stand as to what we value in the curriculum for young students.
Q3: The strategies shared all took place in early elementary classrooms. Can you imagine this approach in the upper elementary grades (4 and 5), and if so, would it look the same or different?
Encouraging wonder and curiosity in the classroom is not just for the primary grades. If you think about the genres of writing – poetry, fiction, nonfiction, essays, newspaper articles, etc. – the authors of those genres speak about getting their ideas from observation and wonder. A unit of study on personal essays could have a wonder component. We might start with asking students if they have a question or a wonder -- that has been persistent and important in some way to them–that they could explore in a personal essay. Students could also keep wonder boxes – or wonder notebooks – of questions and ideas they want to pursue in independent projects. Teachers could write a question – pertaining to the curriculum, or not, -- on an easel, and kids could write down their theories and ideas during the day. And of course, their research writing could be fueled by their wonders.
Q4: You do have a wonderful book list in the Resources section that offers some great suggestions for classroom libraries. However, for a teacher just beginning, do you have recommendations on areas of wonder or topics that should be “first purchases” in building a library?
Many of the books we cite in the first two chapters are available in school or public libraries. We suggest purchasing The Wise Old Woman and Her Secret by Eve Merriam to read aloud when you’re introducing setting up a wonder world, and the wondering centers. And Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox is a great example of answering a heart wonder question. Most of the “first purchases” we would recommend would be in the nonfiction information book category. The kids love the Kingfisher and DK publishing series. The Kingfisher: I Wonder Why series books are filled with kid-like questions such as I Wonder Why Zippers Have Teeth: And Other Questions About Inventions. The illustrations, in both the Kingfisher and the DK series, are engaging and the text is fairly easy to read. These books are also great for examining non-fiction text features as they contain: table of contents; indexes; captions; fun facts and diagrams. These books are always in book baggies because the kids love to read them.
Q5: Is it possible to involve kids in the planning of the nonfiction collection?
When you’re ordering nonfiction books for your classroom library read the book selections out loud to your students to spark interest in nonfiction books, and to give students choice. When Jen’s students get the Scholastic Book Club order form, she gathers the class and tells them that they will be building their classroom library together, and asks what books they would like to see in their library.
Q6: You mentioned that kids got excited about the nonfiction titles through the organization activity. Does the excitement for these books ever fade? If so, how do you keep them interested in nonfiction, especially when so much emphasis is placed on fiction?
In our experience, kids love to browse nonfiction books especially if they have engaging photographs and interesting text features in them. Many kids prefer nonfiction books to fiction. One way to keep kids engaged is to have nonfiction read alouds. You can read a variety of nonfiction texts out loud -- narrative nonfiction, informational nonfiction, even parts of books and magazines – and as you’re reading you can point out interesting features and facts. There are so many well-written nonfiction texts that will keep kids’ attention, and make them eager to explore more.
Q7: Your chart on nonfiction book features was very helpful. I’ve noticed, however, that a lot of the nonfiction picture books today don’t have a Table of Contents. Many don’t have page numbers. How do you help kids negotiate and/or understand these differences?
You’re right; many nonfiction books don’t have all the features, such as a Table of Contents and page numbers, which we describe on the chart. When we give mini-lessons on nonfiction book features, our goal is to give kids all the possible features that a nonfiction book might have, and why authors would include features such as page numbers or a Table of Contents. We want young authors to be able to make informed decisions as to what kinds of features they would like to include in their nonfiction books, and to understand the reasons why.
Q8: Can you tell us a bit about how your ideas for this collaboration came about?
When my son was younger, he inspired me by how curious he was -- especially about the natural world. During every outing, he learned something new and he asked so many questions about how the world works. I’ve written and spoken about this especially with poetry but with all writing really – how poems, novels –- come from curiosity, close observation and the freedom to explore. I believe that young children are natural poets because they have a poetic way of looking at the world.

When my son attended school for the first time, I was surprised by how that poetic way of looking at the world, the appetite for learning and curiosity, was almost viewed as a negative and a distraction. The structure and curriculum of school seemed to want him to do the opposite – to rein his unbounded enthusiasm in. So, I began to investigate early childhood and primary grade classrooms and environments, and realized that particularly with No Child Left Behind – many primary classrooms were not places of exploration and curiosity because teachers were under so much pressure to plan their curricula around state tests. I was so grateful to meet Jen, who was my son’s teacher, who felt the same way as I did, and we teamed up to explore creating a wonder-filled world for primary children. So, it was a personal decision to pursue the idea -- not just for my son -- but for all young children.
Q9: Ultimately, what do you hope teachers will take away from this book?
We hope to develop habits in children that will last a lifetime and help develop intelligent, alive human beings, who value the beauty of the planet, are fascinated and interested in the world, and ask questions and live a life connected to other people and the global community.
Thanks to Georgia and Jennifer for taking the time to answer these questions. If you have some of your own, you may just win the chance to have them answered live and in (virtual) person! As a special treat, the blog tour is wrapping up with a live webcast on Oct. 26th at 8 p.m. EST. This is an amazing opportunity for you to join a small group discussion with Georgia and Jennifer. Participants in this live session will be chosen specifically from the folks who comment at stops on the blog tour. That means if you comment on this post or at A Year of Reading or Carol’s Corner, you can win seat in the session.

If you would like to participate in the webcast, please be sure to indicate that in the comments. (Don't worry! No special software or equipment needed – just a phone and your computer!) I will select five folks at random on Friday and will send your info along to the folks at Stenhouse.

This is a fabulous book with lots practical ideas for use in the classroom. I hope you find it as inspiring as I have.

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