Saturday, February 23, 2013

Autism and an Uncommon Benefit of the Common Core Standards

Alex was a fact collector. He collected many things over the six years I worked with him: marbles, containers, floor plans from model homes, but by sixth grade, his largest collection was a wide variety of facts.

Alex has autism and he’s brilliant. In the sixth grade, he aced all his math tests; in fact, he was one of the top math students in the school. He was also great with computers and could navigate the Internet to discover any bit of information you might want to find. He knew the make and model of every car in the school parking lot and the Blue Book value. More than once he recommended I get rid of my old Toyota and move up to a BMW. (I didn’t.)

But Alex had his struggles with social language and reading comprehension. He could read fluently at a high school level but, if the subject didn’t interest him, the information didn’t stick.

He had failed every comprehension test of his sixth grade year when his teacher asked if I might be able to help him prepare for his next exam.  I had him bring his novel, My Side of the Mountain, to speech the next day. If you know the story, you know the main character, Sam, ran away from home to live in the wilderness where he trained a peregrine falcon.

I asked Alex, “What did you think of Sam’s bird?”

“There isn’t a bird in the book.”

“Yes there is. You know, the peregrine falcon.” 

Alex scowled. “There’s no falcon.”

“How far have you read?” I asked.

“I finished the book yesterday.”

“Alex, take a look at the cover. What do you see?”

“A boy and a bird.” Alex said.

“A book cover usually gives you some idea of what the story will be about. That bird is a peregrine falcon.”

I then suggested we research falcons on the Internet. Alex loved the idea. After we read a few facts about the bird and looked at several pictures, Alex read portions of the story with new interest. Then we expanded our research, read another section of the novel and soon he was hooked. We didn’t have time to reread the entire book before his next exam, but his scores improved substantially after a few sessions.

I think about Alex often, especially with the growing emphasis on nonfiction in the Common Core Standards. I imagine students like Alex will benefit from this shift. Of course, not all students are like Alex. Some seem to need a story to help the facts come alive and lodge in their memory. A blend of the two will likely be good for all students. I remember wishing my high school history teacher would find a good novel about World War I instead of insisting we memorize a list of facts and dates.

I have a new kindergarten student this year who has autism. He’s not interested in books yet, but I imagine that will change. He is just beginning to discover that language is powerful and he has started making requests for objects he wants. Before long, I’m hoping, books will be one of those objects. I’m not sure if he’ll prefer fiction or nonfiction, but I’ll be armed and ready for him with a good supply of both.

It has been several years since I last saw Alex but he is one student I’ll never forget. And from the way things are going with my new kindergarten student, I think I’ll be saying the same thing about him in years to come.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Together We Stand

Monday, February 18th is President’s Day and since our school celebrates with an entire week off I thought, in preparation, this week would be a good time to talk with my students about US presidents. I found an inspiring picture book to help me out, America the Beautiful: Together We Stand. The words of Katharine Lee Bates’ patriotic song are paired with stunning illustrations. How fitting - ten illustrators interpret lines from the song, demonstrating the diversity of this country and the process of “standing together.” The illustrators, in alphabetical order, are: Bryan Collier, Raul Colon, Diane Goode, Mary GrandPre, John Hendrix, Yuyi Morales, Jon J Muth, LeUyen Pham, Sonia Lynn Sadler, and Chris Soentpiet.

America the Beautiful: Together We Stand

This book features quotes from past presidents, one on each two-page spread. Since the speeches weren’t written for early elementary school students, their words create opportunities to introduce new vocabulary. I was also able to probe for sentence and paragraph comprehension. When I came to a quote from Thomas Jefferson, I asked the kids what they thought he meant by, “I believe . . . that every human mind feels pleasure in doing good to another.”

Zayd said, “Be good to other people and don’t do anything bad to other people and don’t teach them bad words. Be kind, be safe, and be responsible.” His last statement was a quote from our school rules. I’m glad he made the connection between those words and Jefferson’s.

Malachi said, “Be kind, be safe, be responsible and don’t ever jump off a house roof.” He expanded a bit on our school rules, but it’s good advice, all the same. And it’s pertinent.

Madison said, “Help other people and be nice. It makes you feel good.” She really understood.

I did some pre-teaching on vocabulary before I introduced Ronald Reagan’s quote. By the time I read the words, “Our most precious resources, our greatest hope for the future, are the minds and hearts of our people, especially our children,” the kids grew quiet. I asked what they thought president Reagan meant and Joden said, “We’re important to our parents.”

I agreed, but told him, he, and the other students, were also important to me and to our country and our world. I reminded them that some day they’d grow up; they might become leaders or teachers or work in ways that make our world a better place. Their eyes sparkled with solemn enthusiasm.


The illustrated children on the cover of America the Beautiful also seem to sparkle with enthusiasm as they stand together, supporting one another in reaching for a star. This special book celebrates America’s values and introduces information about national landmarks and symbols. However, it also celebrates human diversity and unity. My hope is that children everywhere will find loving support, enabling them to reach for the stars.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Supporting Academics Through Kidlit

I was walking by a Kindergarten classroom last week when the teacher, Marcia Douglas, invited me in to see her students’ artwork. The kids were sure I’d want to use some of it on my blog. They were right – their art is gorgeous! Our principal thought so too, and now their work is displayed in the front hallway of our school. Take a look:

Their work was not done in response to a story, but they know I normally post about books so they assumed I’d come up with one to match their artwork. I didn’t. However, we had a nice discussion about what kind of story they might want to create to accompany their work. And that led to another discussion about books they’d like to have in their classroom or at home - books that have not yet been written. 

That reminded me of an email I recently received from another SCBWI member. She was considering a topic for an upcoming event and thought of inviting me to speak as part of a panel, focusing on reading and speech development and how authors might support these skills through their work. I was flattered.  It doesn’t look like I’ll be able to make it but I think the topic is an important one.

I can use almost any story with my students, if it is appealing and captures their interest. For students working on articulation (or pronunciation), I love books with repeated phrases and sounds. Kids automatically chime in when there is repetition in a story and that gives them a lot of practice on their target speech sounds or phrases. For students with language delays, books that introduce new vocabulary and model appropriate grammar are invaluable.

If you look at the Common Core Standards, you’ll see how easily a good story can be an effective tool in school. In the language Arts area, kindergarteners are expected to:
“With prompting and support, identify characters, settings, and major events in a story.” ELA-Literacy. RL.K.3

By first grade, following the same strand, they are expected to:

“Describe characters, settings, and major events in a story, using key details.” ELA-Literacy. RL.1.3

And by Second grade:
“Describe how characters in a story respond to major events and challenges.” ELA-Literacy. RL.2.3
If you are unfamiliar with the standards, ELA means, English Language Arts and RL stands for Reading Literature. K= Kindergarten, 1= First grade, 2= Second grade. For more information on the Common Core Standards take a look here:

To keep this post from becoming too academic, I interviewed a few of my students to find out what kind of stories they’d love to see.

Enrique would like a book about how to catch a dinosaur and another one on how to catch an alligator – nonfiction.

Liam is willing to give you his plot ideas. He’d like someone to write a book about him walking down the road, seeing a baby dolphin and taking it home to put in the bathtub.

Skyler wants a book about Goldilocks and the ten pigs.

Moises wants a nonfiction book about George Washington or Michael Jackson.  He also likes fiction and thinks someone should write a story about food coming to life and then going trick-or-treating. I didn’t think to ask him what sort of treats they might get.

Jose would like to see a Santa Series:

Santa on Halloween
Santa passing out Valentines
Santa on Jose’s Birthday
Santa and the Tooth Fairy helping Jose get braces

Raul wants a story about his foot – nonfiction.

So there you have it from the young kidlit advisers. I started asking teachers, and our school librarian, what authors might consider when writing for students but I’ll save those answers for another post. In the meantime, let me know if you have any stories that can accompany the artwork from Ms. Douglas’ Kindergarten class. I’m sure they’d love to hear from you.