Provocative Nonfiction about the Birth of Our Nation

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

I used to think that nonfiction was not my thing. But I’m a librarian, so I have to make it my thing in order to best serve my students and staff. Still, I often felt like I was twisting my own arm while reading nonfiction.

But then, as I often tell reluctant readers, after a few missteps with the wrong books at the wrong times, I started to find exciting, narrative nonfiction that was as captivating and readable as my favorite fiction pieces.

I was reading unbelievable stories about mutinies, revolutions, sports stars, and even corpses, and they were true! Not only did I have a great tale to tempt my students with, but every event actually happened.

People are enchanted by dynamic, true stories even more so than by fiction because they engage our child-like curiosity about the many events and topics that have previously eluded us. Yes, we have been in school (or out of school) for years, but we haven’t yet learned it all. I recently finished reading In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives, by Kenneth C. Davis (a 2017 YALSA Excellence in Young Adult Nonfiction finalist) and found myself alight with all that I had learned and wanted to share with others.

The Story

In the Shadow of Liberty tells the true stories of five African-Americans who were enslaved by four of the country’s founding fathers. We learn about Billy Lee, Washington’s right-hand man on and off the battlefield; and Ona Judge, Washington’s house maid who escaped and was fervently hunted by both George and Martha Washington.

We hear about Paul Jennings, who grew up playing with Dolly Madison’s oldest son, though Jennings was already enslaved to the family. And we learn of Isaac Granger, who was enslaved to Thomas Jefferson after Jefferson wrote a law ending slave trading to America.

Finally, we read about Alfred Jackson. Jackson lived his entire life at Andrew Jackson’s “Hermitage,” watching as Andrew ordered enslaved workers to be whipped savagely–but then doled out vast sums to provide defense lawyers for enslaved men on trial for involvement in a slave rebellion.

Kenneth C. Davis writes about the full scope of the labor that these five people were expected to perform. He describes the way that they were treated, and most especially, the roles that they played in the major accomplishments of their owners.

Why It’s Worth Reading

We spend a great deal of time learning about the Founding Fathers and the way that they helped develop the country and institute democracy. But like all famous figures, these men did not work alone.

There were many people, including hundreds of enslaved people, who fought in the wars, managed the meetings, and built famous structures, like the White House. Billy Lee went everywhere with George Washington, fought alongside him, and carried his most precious items and documents. He is one of the most famous enslaved people in U.S. history, yet no one knows when he died or where he is buried. He never even knew his own birthday.

The thing that stands out to me most about this book is a great historical paradox. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Jackson were all deeply involved in battles related to rights and liberties, but each of them failed to consider, at least initially, that enslaving others was a direct contradiction to their fights for freedom.

This book will make you think about American history in a completely new way. It’s a fabulous text to work into a history or sociology class, and I can see it as an engaging title for students who are interested in current civil rights issues. In the Shadow of Liberty could turn anyone into a nonfiction convert.

Book Details:
Title: In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives
Author: Kenneth C. Davis
Reading Level: AR = 8.2
ISBN: 9781627793117
Publisher: Henry Holt & Company
Publication Date: September 20, 2016
Format: Hardcover
Awards/Accolades: 2017 YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults finalist and at least 3 starred reviews

Bethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and was the recipient of the 2015 Michigan School Librarian of the Year Award.  She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group.  She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education.  She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.

Newsela: A Nonfiction Resource

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

newselaAs a workshop-model Language Arts teacher, I am always searching for excellent mentor texts to guide students’ writing and reading. The hardest mentor texts to find are informational texts that are grade-level appropriate, as well as high interest in content.  

But there is a great new resource for Language Arts teachers at all grade levels: newsela.com, an online resource that can be upgraded through subscription. I want to share some information on the resource as well as some ways I used it during an informational reading unit to meet the needs of all my learners.

How the Program Works

Within Newsela, you can search topics, and you can refine that search to include grade levels or a particular Common Core State Standard in reading.

From this search, you’ll get a list of articles that have been redeveloped for kids at an appropriate age level. Each article has five levels. You’ll notice, for example, that 3rd grade and 4th grade titles have a statement of the main idea of the article and a lower word count. Eighth grade texts of the same article, on the other hand, have a more complex arrangement of text, as well as an increase of almost 200 words.

At the max level, which is the text as published in a newspaper, you’ll see more complex arrangements of text, as well as the use of advanced punctuation that is not part of the lower-leveled texts. Texts at the “max” level no longer include section headings, and while the word count remains similar to the 8th grade texts, the language is more abstract.   

When citations are necessary, the author of the revised texts is always listed as “Newsela Staff,” and the article titles are not capitalized, which forces explanations for kids. 

Within each grade-level text, you’ll also get four standardized-test-like questions: two for the CCSS standard you searched for, and two for another standard. All of the questions are labeled for the standards, so there is no guessing on the teacher’s part. These questions also vary slightly by grade level.  

If you have the pro subscription, you can send the quizzes to kids’ devices, and you can gain their answers. Additionally, the pro subscription allows the teacher to assign articles, see who reads the article, and allows the students to annotate texts digitally.

Using Newsela in the Classroom

Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 4.10.35 PMFor the informational reading unit in my classroom, I chose 8th-grade-level texts from Newsela. The students enjoyed the texts, which looked at: the use of fit furniture for increased movement; schools that use gardening programs to improve health awareness; and school elections and democracy. The texts from Newsela allowed me to create a text pack to use with kids. Since we review these texts together, all students used these 8th-grade-level texts.

Newsela next helped me align texts with informational reading standards, by suggesting a complementary standard for each of the texts I chose around our critical issue. The site also offered me multiple-choice reading questions for each article and standard.

As a class, we read the texts, while modeling reading strategies associated with the standard we were working on that day. Later, students practiced these same skills independently, using texts at their independent reading level with a critical issue of their choice. Newsela offered many resources for student reading materials.

As we read and practiced strategies with partners, I also formatively assessed students using the Newsela questions. Following this practice, we reviewed the features of the questions and the answers. We discussed why particular answers were correct, and how a question’s wording informed the type of answer that was desired. This practice was to give students more experience with test question language, not to get right answers.  

In my classroom, this practice became a small competition with little stress for students. I also used these materials to assess my students in a summative way on the reading skills they learned during this unit. I provided personal texts for a student’s reading level, along with 8th grade assessment questions; throughout the course of this unit, I realized that students could be assessed at grade level even if they couldn’t read the 8th-grade-level text. At the same time, providing students with an appropriate reading level text allowed them to be more successful on grade level experiences.

In the past, I’ve struggled to find informational texts that are reading-level appropriate and high interest. Newsela offered me these. I recommend the use of this resource for all ELA teachers.

pic 2Amy Gurney is an 8th grade Language Arts teacher for Bloomfield Hills School District. She was a facilitator for the release of the MAISA units of study. She has studied, researched, and practiced reading and writing workshop through Oakland Schools, The Teacher’s College, and action research projects. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Education at Central Michigan University and a Master’s in Educational Administration at Michigan State University.

Literacy Outside ELA

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project Professional Learning

shutterstock_171031157Recently I had the pleasure to conduct professional learning sessions on literacy with three separate groups of teachers. The teachers spanned every discipline, which is understandable, given the trends in education throughout the country.

Ever since the adoption of college and career-ready academic standards in Michigan, and throughout the country, more emphasis has been placed on nonfiction reading’s important role in all disciplines. All learners benefit when science teachers, social studies teachers, and math teachers take the time to deconstruct their texts, which helps students understand how to read them. This is true for both traditional print resources and online resources.

To this extent, content-area teachers have realized that they must also become teachers of reading. This realization helps students best access course content and achieve greater understanding.

Real Reading at Hamtramck High

In our professional learning sessions, we emphasized the Reading Apprenticeship approach to teaching reading.

The approach was developed by WestEd, an educational research and services agency. As the agency describes it:

Teachers using the Reading Apprenticeship framework regularly model disciplinary-specific literacy skills, help students build high-level comprehension strategies, engage students in building knowledge by making connections to background knowledge they already have, and provide ample guided, collaborative, and individual practice as an integral part of teaching their subject area curriculum.

This approach helps educators appreciate their important role in teaching students to read and comprehend course content, whether in a traditional English class, a physics class, or physical education.

lab

Hamtramck students in a lab

The approach is useful for a school like Hamtramck High School. Hamtramck is a haven for students whose families hail from all over the world. One of two small municipalities located entirely within the city of Detroit, Hamtramck has a sizable number of students from Yemen and Bangladesh.

For these students, educators realize the need to make esoteric academic language comprehensible. During the professional learning sessions, I clearly saw that these teachers not only had a passion for helping their students learn; they also had a willingness to embrace the approaches of the Reading Apprenticeship model.

Metacognitive Conversation’s Benefits

In the sessions, we explored metacognitive conversation and the four dimensions of literacy–social, personal, cognitive, and knowledge-building. And through this, the teachers came to understand their critical influence over students’ attitudes toward reading.

The metacognitive approach–which largely centers on “making thinking visible”–enables educators to demystify their thought processes as they read and engage with a text. As a teacher explains what is going on in his or her head while reading, students are able to understand the thinking, and gain easier access to course content. This demystification of content also clarifies how information is acquired and why it matters.

So, when educators consciously engage in self-talk during a lesson, students benefit. Furthermore, these skills are very transferable. Students realize that they can apply these newly acquired content-area reading strategies in other disciplines.

This can having lasting effects. Teachers who engage in metacognitive strategies truly help their students, creating a future where the power of reading is enshrined as a lifelong value.

rick josephRick Joseph is a National Board Certified Teacher and has taught 5/6 grade at Covington School in the Birmingham Public School district since 2003. Prior, he served as a bilingual educator and trainer for nine years in the Chicago Public Schools. Rick is thrilled to serve as the 2016 Michigan Teacher of the Year. Through Superhero Training Academy, Rick’s students have created a superhero identity to uplift the communities where they learn and live.