First things first, CONGRATULATIONS to all of the National Book Award Finalists! And huzzah, three out of the five choices were…drum roll, please…nonfiction. A special congratulations goes out to our own INKer Deborah Heiligman for her Charles and Emma!
And now, back to our regular programming.
As Dorothy mentioned yesterday, there is a new component here at INK—namely, our free database that allows teachers and librarians to find our books according to what keywords, topics, or curriculum standards they need. The database also notes the grades for which each book is appropriate. That will be the focus of my post today, as at first blush, some may wonder why certain books are listed as having particularly wide grade ranges. It’s an excellent question that merits discussion and I hope people will weigh in with their opinions.
I must admit that when faced with the task of actually assigning grades to each of my books, it gave me pause. The publishers do that. And of course that’s where I started. But I, like my colleagues, also began to imagine how I put books to use when I'm in a variety of classrooms. How do I present the story differently to different age ranges? And what is the role of the book in the classroom? To be sure, there are books with more limited age-range potential than others due to reading level, mature content, etc… But with nonfiction especially, the opportunities can be vast to use a book as a way to make lasting connections with a great variety of kids. In any of these books there may be words or phrases challenging for little kids and easy for older kids. But it’s not about vocabulary; it’s about a way in—a way to connect their feelings and sensibilities to the topic at hand so that it has particular meaning for them.
The same book may be a perfect tool to use as a jumping-off point for younger kids as well as a gateway into an in-depth discussion for older students. Take Deborah Heiligman’s Charles and Emma, for example, listed as appropriate for grades 5-12 in the INK database. Of course, there is a huge difference in reading and comprehension levels between a 10-year-old and a 17-year-old, but that shouldn’t prevent teachers from being able to use the book to introduce the concept of evolution to 5th graders or launching into a full-on debate about science and religion with high school kids. Likewise, my Almost Astronauts offers a way to highlight the issues of injustice and discrimination in the context of something as kid-friendly as the space program to 5th graders—and just as easily lends itself to high school students gaining insight about the dark side of power play and politics in the 1960s.
There are many books, too, that in younger readers can serve to plant seeds that will later flower. They focus on a topic that we, as educators, hope will become part of their consciousness and further down the road they may be inspired to delve into further. Consider Susanna Reich’s biography, Clara Schumann: Piano Virtuoso. This title is listed for grades 3-12. Susanna says, “I’ve done Clara Schumann school visits for 3rd graders and 8th graders. The eight-year-olds are interested in Clara as a child prodigy and want to play musical games. Fourteen-year-olds like to hear about the love story of Clara and Robert, about Robert’s mental illness, and about Clara’s relationship with Johannes Brahms.” I’m certain these same threads would appeal to the musically minded 12th graders, as well.
Another example of a book one might not expect to go past an often publisher-designated grade level of 4th grade is my picture book about Elizabeth Cady Stanton, which I listed in the database as good for grades 2-8. I have successfully taught Elizabeth Leads the Way to every one of those grades. For the 2nd and 3rd graders, the book whets their appetite. Who was this woman and what did she do that was so important? They understand unfairness on a gut level. They want to take that in and apply it to history, even when that may not be their conscious goal. With 4th and 5th graders, many of them can tell me why voting rights are important, and some have heard of Stanton. This leads to a discussion about suffrage and speaking out for what is right, and even what it meant to be an abolitionist. In 8th grade, it is an introduction to an issue that then takes on a much greater depth in our classroom discussion as they question and examine women’s rights, how long it took to achieve them, and the status of women today.
There are many more examples of books that can be used on multiple grade levels. Take a look at Remember the Ladies, by Cheryl Harness, George vs. George by Rosalyn Schanzer, or Christo and Jeanne-Claude by Jan Greenberg, just for starters. I've only touched on this topic. I'd love to hear what other people think. In what ways could you use one of these books to teach concepts and spark discussions to both elementary and high school students?