February 23, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

SLJ Summit 2012: Nonfiction Authors Address the Common Core

Moderator Mary Ann Cappiello leads the author panel “Nonfiction at the Forefront of the Common Core,” at the School Library Journal Leadership Summit.

Among other mandates, the Common Core State Standards (CC) require students to “gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources” and “assess the credibility and accuracy of each source.”

At the School Library Journal Leadership Summit held October 26-27, four authors of children’s nonfiction—Deborah Hopkinson, Barbara Kerley, Steve Sheinkin, and Sally M. Walker—came together to share their views on what they do, how it relates to these requirements, and how they, as authors, address CC principles while conducting research for their books.

Moderator Mary Ann Cappiello of Lesley University led the author panel, “Nonfiction at the Forefront of the Common Core,” an October 26 discussion about the development of content, the use of primary and secondary sources, the balance of perspective, and writing style as it relates to the standards.

Authors from the Nonfiction panel sign books for attendees.

The authors opened by discussing the content of their books as it relates to current events, from the U.S. election to a dysfunctional Congress to the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons. Sheinkin discussed the relevance that his book Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon (Roaring Brook, 2012), a National Book Award finalist, has for today’s kids regarding the specter of Iran’s developing nuclear weapons. Barbara Kerley noted that her book, Those Rebels, John & Tom (Scholastic, 2012), which focuses on the relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, shows that although Congress has often disagreed, historically, it can still function for the good of the people.

Sheinkin characterized his research as “nerdy detective work,” while Kerley said that her exploration of primary resources made her characters come alive. Who knew that John Adams was a “foodie”, or that Thomas Jefferson was a shopaholic?

Kerley also addressed how she and the book’s illustrator, Edwin Fotheringham, worked to present a balanced perspective—an issue relating to CC’s mandate that students  “assess how point of view… shapes the content and style of a text.” Fotheringham revealed Adams and Jefferson’s differences visually: Jefferson is shown as well dressed, while Adams wears tattered clothes, and the two men are portrayed standing back-to-back to emphasize that they disagreed. Kerley showed how the men differed through straightforward description, such as, “John liked to talk” and “Tom was shy, and dreaded speaking in front of crowds.”

Walker, author of Their Skeletons Speak: Kennewick Man and the Paleoamerican World (Carolrhoda, 2012) explained that her research revealed conflicting archaeological conclusions as to whether a spear wound caused the death of a man, based on 9,000-year-old remains. Newer technology and research indicated that he recovered from the wound, while older research findings differed.

Authors Deborah Hopkinson and Barbara Kerley display their books.

Hopkinson, author of Annie and Helen (Schwartz & Wade, 2012), about Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, used Sullivan’s letters as a primary source of her research. However, it was her choice of verse to tell Sullivan and Keller’s story that participants honed in on in relation to the Common Core. The Craft and Structure specifications of CC ask students to “interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.”  Hopkinson’s reason for choosing verse? “I live in language,” she said.  “Read like a writer and write and a reader.”

After the presentation, summit attendees were encouraged to become more savvy regarding the Common Core. Krista Brakhage, a media specialist at Poudre High School in Fort Collins, CO, tweeted afterward:  “Note to self: Buy more non-fiction historical/scientific picture books for my high school ELA students.”

Walker had a message to relay to student researchers: “Librarians are your new best friends.”

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Rocco Staino About Rocco Staino

Rocco Staino @RoccoA is the retired director of the Keefe Library of the North Salem School District in New York. He is now a contributing editor for School Library Journal and also writes for the Huffington Post.