Our reading group has continued to practice strategies to handle unknown vocabulary in text. See the strategy list that we came up with earlier this month here. We spent part of a few reading classes with this great text: Wooly Mammoth by Mick Manning and Brita Granstrom. (A Natural History Museum Selection)

This book reads as an information story book: rhyming text accompanies the large pictures on each two page spread while black and white drawings and information reads in a column down one side of each page. You can read this book as just a storybook, concentrate primarily on the information or focus on both. Students enjoyed the mammoth time line at the end of the book and reviewing what they had learned by quizzing each other on the glossary words.

We then read Kali’s Song by Jeanette Winter.

We started by comparing the covers of Kali’s Song with a Wooly Mammoth. All year we have been talking about the different text features of fiction and non-fiction books. It would be interesting to see what we noticed when looking at Wooly Mammoth because it has both fiction and non-fiction elements (what we like to call an information story book). Students observed that even though both covers had illustrations rather than photographs, the mammoth on the cover of Wooly Mammoth looked more realistic. We talked about fur colour and the shape of the tusks. We also discussed how one mammoth was standing in the snow and another on grass/ground next to a little boy and a dog. “How could they stand so close?” someone wondered.

Before we began reading Kali’s Song, I asked the students, “Even though this is clearly a fiction text, do you think we will be able to link some of our learning from Wooly Mammoth to what we read?” We were ready to look for any text to text connections. Would our sense of the story be enhanced by our newly acquired background knowledge? (schema)

Immediately students were excited to see Kali’s mother painting animals on the cave’s wall. “We learned about how they did that in the other book! In the future some people might discover those paintings to see what animals looked like!” 

We also appreciated that a work of fiction had beautiful elements of story telling and images that a non-fiction book wouldn’t have. When Kali plays the bow string, Winter writes: The stars came close to listen. Such a wonderful image that makes the story more powerful. We liked how Kali’s Song challenged our imaginations and had us think about things differently.

Kali’s music lures the mammoths to him and fascinated, all of the other hunters lay down their weapons. Kali must be a shaman they decide. Winter leaves us wondering – do the hunters not kill any of the mammoths? Or do they eventually resume their hunt? In Wooly Mammoth we had learned that the people’s survival depended on the hunt and that they used all parts of the mammoth (meat, fur, tusks, bone) for things that they needed. Our discussion was intense. Kali had the skill to lure the animals and he seemed to love them. But he loved his people. Wouldn’t his skill help the hunt? What would he do? The students decided that Winter left us thinking on purpose. We would have to come to our own decisions.

Because the mammoths seemed so majestic and wonderful we wanted to think they wouldn’t be hunted but now that our knowledge included information about how people who lived thousands of years ago depended on the hunt, we had some different ideas about the outcome. Students were able to make text to text connections and this furthered their thinking.

Kali’s Song is a beautiful book. Highly recommended.

How do you help students make text to text connections? Recognize that their background knowledge influences their thinking? 

A little taste of Africa

Bill, our BLG reader this week, brought us two very different picture books that allowed us to step into the African savannah for a small part of our day. First he read Help Me written and illustrated (beautifully!) by Paul Geraghty.

Before Bill began the story he read the students an important line from the summary on the back of the book: This extraordinary picture book is based on real, documented animal behaviour. Students were advised to listen carefully with this in mind. Help Me takes place in and around a waterhole in Africa. As a herd of elephants lumbers by in the moonlight, an old thirsty tortoise heads down to the waterhole for a drink. She trips on the steep bank and flips onto her back. When she feels the ground shudder with the movements of the elephants, she hides inside her shell. Yikes! The picture shows our tiny tortoise inside her shell and gigantic elephant feet all around her, one poised to come down right on top of her. “Oh no!” everyone shrieks. The text reads Then a great foot rose up and came down on top of her. . .

Nobody breathes. Bill flips the page and reads  . . . and carefully rolled her over onto her feet “Whoa!” “No way.”  Phew. Relief.

So starts a series of surprising animal interactions. A huge crocodile encloses a little hatchling turtle in its jaws. Amidst the gasps and sighs and covered eyes were mutterings from our new experts on crocodiles (“Are those really crocodiles?” “Check the teeth” “Yep”) The crocodile sets the baby free in the water. “What?” “That’s weird.”

An impala is chased by a pack of wild dogs and stumbles exhausted into the waterhole. The dogs started splashing toward him when a huge hippopotamus steps between them and bellows at the dogs. He comes in closer, jaws over the impala. Why? To help it get warm and strong again.

Someone called out “Why do they all help each other?” Everyone is quiet, thinking.

“Symbiosis!” Miami exclaims knowingly. Heads start to nod as we wonder if what we just experienced in this book is connected to the learning we have been doing as we’ve read Steve Jenkins and Robin Page’s book How to Clean A Hippopotamus. These are the moments we live for as teachers – where you can almost see inside heads and watch the thinking happening!

Next Bill read The Sticky Doll Trap by Jessica Souhami. This is a story based on the West African stories of the trickster hare and a sticky doll. The best known version of this tale is the Uncle Remus Story of Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby told by Joel Chandler Harris. However Harris’ version is based on the stories that came over with the African slaves and it is this African “version” that Souhami honours with her retelling.

This is such a fun story and Souhami’s colours are bright and beautiful. Students were totally engaged from page one. This is the tale of the rascal Hare who is too lazy to help the thirsty animals dig a waterhole to quench their thirst in the midst of a drought. When the animals find the precious water they decide to protect it from thieving animals that did not help dig for it. Every day a different animal will stand guard. Hare hops up with his empty calabash and is told there is no water for him. But utilizing his trickster ways, he manages to fill his calabash and sneak away while the animal, eyes closed, awaits the treat Hare has promised.

What is the Sticky doll trap? The result of the annoyed animals creative thinking – a trap to trick the trickster! The perfect revenge. And how well it works! Yet, in the end that rascal Hare proves himself to be the ultimate trickster! The animals throw him into the spiny thorny bushes as he begs them not to, convinced that they are inflicting the ultimate punishment. Moments later, Hare is taunting them from up on the hill. Off he hopped to continue his tricks!

At the end of the story Ricky clarifies, “Hares can’t be hurt by the thorns?” Bill reiterates that no, the hares are used to the thorns. “Okay,” says Ricky, “So this is kinda nonfiction?”

I love how we are trying to bring meaning to how these stories are created and understanding that facts are interweaved throughout fictional tales. Ah, the wonder of books! Thanks Bill for choosing such great titles this week!

Our student reviewers report:

Jena: I liked the book Help Me because first one of of the animals are in danger by another animal and then a totally different animals comes and saves the animal that was in trouble. It was like they had a symbiotic relationship.

Annie: I like the part in The Sticky Doll Trap where he got stuck when he touched the doll but got away because he was tricky.

Crocodile Safari

We have begun to explore the fact – question – inference continuum using non-fiction books and information storybooks. This process is inspired by Adrienne Gear’s Non-Fiction Reading Power book. When we learn a new fact, what question does it prompt and using our background knowledge (schema), what can we infer? We practiced this today using Jim Arnosky’s Crocodile Safari. This is a detailed account of American crocodiles. Crocodiles were photographed and sketched while Jim Arnosky and his wife Deanna were on their crocodile safari through the Florida Everglades. This book is illustrated with the detailed paintings inspired by the images collected on safari. Stunning!

Today we read about a third of the book learning about the crocodile population in the U.S.A., the differences between crocodiles and alligators (finally, a book that makes this totally clear through text and drawings!), crocodile habits and hunting strategies (a page called Ambushed from Below was quite thrilling!).

Fact/Question/Infer: (some examples)

1. We read that in the late twentieth century there were just 300 crocodiles left in the U.S.A. Now there are approximately 2,000. This led us to question: How were they counted? As we tried to answer this question, more questions arose. What if the same crocodile was counted more than once? Maybe they tagged them. But if they tagged them, how would they get close enough to tag them? We were all fairly worried about those sharp teeth! Perhaps they shot tranquilizer darts at them to put them out long enough to attach a tag. Obviously, some of our background knowledge was helping us think this through. We read on and found out that they were counted when someone flew over their habitat in a helicopter.

2. One page in the book is titled One Famous Croc and it talks about a crocodile famous for migrating hundreds of miles from the Everglades to Sanibel Island. When it was captured and returned to the Everglades, it migrated for a second time to Sanibel Island, where it now lives. Our question was an obvious one: What made it return to Sanibel Island? As we talked this question through, students shared different ideas based on their thinking and background knowledge. Someone knew that birds migrate to warmer places. Why else do birds migrate? Someone shared it was so they could find food more easily. Did this crocodile migrate because of food? Someone pointed out that there was a picture of this crocodile hunting a bird so this seemed logical. Our consensus was that the crocodile migrated to Sanibel Island because it was a great source of water birds (great hunting grounds). A very sensible inference we thought and since we can’t ask this particular crocodile, it’s the answer we are going with! 🙂

Students shared new learning, unanswered questions and some of their own inferences in their writing.

Jenny: I learned today that the difference of a crocodile and an alligator is that the crocodile has teeth sticking out of its mouth when it’s closed and an alligator doesn’t. A crocodile’s mouth is longer and an alligator’s mouth is wider.

Eddy: At night crocodiles hunt. In the day, they like to suntan. They mostly eat fish but they also eat birds and snakes.

Lisa: I have a question about how they communicate with other crocodiles. Maybe they move their tail back and forth in the water.

Jena: Crocodiles eat anything they find. They ambush their prey. They go underwater at night (mostly) to hunt. They rise up to the prey and pull it down and eat it. For example, if you saw a duck and then it just disappears. That’s what just happened to it!

Gary: There are questions I still have. How heavy are crocodiles? How big are alligators? Are alligators stronger than crocodiles?

Selecting Picture books to read

Students in our morning reading group continue selecting books based on their background knowledge (schema) – realizing that they will have a better chance of connecting to a book when they have some shared experiences with the theme/topic of the book.

Students quickly selected three books from a huge selection of picture books. Then they ordered their choices #1, #2, #3 . Why did they choose the book they did as their first choice? After reading, students then shared any text to self or text to text connections.

Some book selections:

Gary chose The story of GROWL by Judy Horacek. Why was this his first choice? “Sometimes I growl when I’m angry. It makes me feel like a monster.”

After reading the book, did he have any connections?

“I used to hop, skip and jump around my garden. Sometimes I growl for fun. My Dad told me to stop growling because it’s loud. But I still was growling! I stopped one day.”

Lisa read Every Cowgirl Needs a Horse by Rebecca Janni. Why was this her first choice? “I know that if a horse wants to say hi, they rub their noses together. I learned that in a chapter book.”

After reading, what were her connections?

It was easy to connect to this book because at home when I’m riding my bike, I reel like I’m riding a horse with the wind blowing in my hair like the girl in the story.”

Jenny chose to read Little Raccoon’s Big Question written by Miriam Schlien and illustrated by Ian Schoenherr. This book is all about a little raccoon wanting reassurance about his mother’s love. Jenny chose to read it because: “When I was little I saw a raccoon.  I know a lot about what raccoons do and they are one of my favourite animals.”

Her connections were about much more than what she knows about raccoons.

“When I was little I was thinking how much my mom loves me most. I was thinking does she love me when I eat, sleep or play with her.”

Josiah picked the book Big Smelly Bear by Britta Teckentrup. Why was this his first choice? “Everytime I go to my Mom’s home town, I always see bears and flies buzzing around.”

After reading, what connections did he have?

“When the big fluffy bear scratched the big smelly bear, I connected to it because I always see bears scratching trees and each other on the way to my Mom’s hometown Port Hardy. It is so fun there because I see my uncles, aunties and the big bears.”

Isn’t it great that there are so many picture books out there to interest everyone?

Fairy tales, Anthony Browne style

Recently I read our class Into the Forest by award winning author/illustrator Anthony Browne.

into the forest

A boy is awakened by a terrible sound and so some upsetting days begin. Dad is missing from the breakfast table, Grandma is sick and he must take a cake to her. “Don’t go into the forest,” his mother warns. But anxious not to miss his father’s return, the boy decides to take a shortcut through the forest and his strange adventures begin. We certainly connected to the anxiety and suspense along the way to Grandmother’s house. The students expressed feeling worried. Someone said that his tummy felt weird. There was a lot of gasping and held breath. Such suspense. As we came across oddly familiar fairy tale characters, students were eager to shout out their connections. “That must be Goldilocks!”, “That’s not that candy one where the witch takes them is it? It is?!” One student described the feeling the book gave her as a “tingling in your brain” because it seemed like we knew the story but we kept worrying about what might happen. Finally, all is well. Our happy ending finds Dad and a recovered Grandma and boy and father return home to Mom.

Watching the students connect, predict and infer, I was reminded about how important it is to develop rich story schema with our students. They need to know their fairy tales, fables, favourite rhymes and be exposed to literature from a variety of genres. When they bring this rich experience to “new to them” books, they are able to interact with the book on a much deeper level as they pick up on nuances, allusions and references to other stories. As parents and teachers, we must read, read read and then read some more!

A few days later, I found another (new to me) Anthony Browne book at the public library – also giving a new twist to a well known fairy tale, Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Me and You does an amazing job of telling simultaneous stories, letting us into the world of Goldilocks while at the same time we revisit the familiar story about the bears.

As we flip through this book, we find two stories. On the left, sepia images of the little girl, out on an errand with Mom and then suddenly, lost.

Her story is wordless, told just through the images. Lost. Afraid. Alone. Finding a cozy home, a snack, a warm bed. Being discovered and racing away. Walking through rain, empty streets and then finally, into the arms of a searching Mom.

On the right, we follow little bear and his Mummy and Daddy as they head out for a walk and then return home to find a stranger in their home. A version of the Goldilocks story that we are very familiar with. Full of comforting colours. Lots of happy yellow, soothing blues, calm greens. I love the last line of the book. Little bear looks out of his window, thinking about the girl. “I wonder what happened to her.” This story definitely blurs the absolutes of fairy tale right and wrong and introduces a lovely element of empathy.

I am a big, big fan of Anthony Browne!

Do you know how the Earth has changed over millions of years?

What do we know about how the Earth has changed over time?  Do we have the background knowledge (schema) to talk about these changes or do we need to do a lot of new learning? Let’s find out!

The question:  How has the Earth changed over millions of years?

The task: take paper and felts and go write down what you know!

So here is what we think we know as of today.

Some definite themes and big discussion about:

“Something came crashing to Earth and killed the dinosaurs!” “Yeah! It was a ball!” “Not a ball! A meteor.” “No, an asteroid!” “Huh?’

earth 1

Some people had a vague idea that the continents were not the same shape as they are today.

Every piece of land are together

The land was connected.

Spelling was not a priority in this exercise!

We definitely knew that some creatures have roamed the Earth that are not here today.


Other interesting discussion: Is there more water now? Or less? What about trees? Animals? When did people get here exactly? Is there more light now?

So we need some more information! We need a great book!

Pebble in My Pocket

My son came home from school talking about a great book (you’ve got to love that as a Mom and a teacher!) that his teacher had read to him (thanks Ms. Conklin!) . This is how I came across The Pebble in my Pocket – A History of our Earth written by Meredith Hooper and illustrated by Chris Coady. This is a long book and took several sittings to complete it  – especially because we had to stop frequently for great questions and discussion. My students loved this book and I loved reading it to them as they were so passionate with their comments and questions. It is pretty serious business when we go back millions and millions of years!

This book takes us on a 480 million year journey.  We follow a piece of rock that formed as a result of a volcano and travelled through time to end up in a little girl’s pocket. On this amazing journey we learn how the earth has changed in many dramatic ways over time.

Great comments and questions I just have to share:

Kevin interrupted a few pages in, after finding out that rocks become smoother as they slide down mountains, travel through rivers, get battered by waves etc.

Wait! I’m going to infer something! If a rock is bumpy it’s not from many years ago because the smooth ones are from long ago.”

We read about how there were no plants or trees at one point and Jeremiah wondered: “Back then, if you were in space, what would the Earth have looked like, what colours would you see?” (Is this not the most brilliant question?)

Miami was worried. “Ms. Gelson, you told us that trees give oxygen so if there were no trees, how could there be oxygen? Nothing could live!”

Kevin jumped in, “Wait Miami I’ve got something for you! There were little green plants and they could have given oxygen!”

Eddy started thinking as we discussed why the dinosaurs might be extinct. Some people thought a meteor hitting the Earth was the reason. “So if a meteor hit, and smoke didn’t let the sun through, the plants would die and the dinosaurs would die because they had nothing to eat and they would be too cold right?”

And the big, big question we had over and over again. “I know there were cave people but just how did those cave people get there?”

When we finished the book, we did a timeline exercise – sorting when different life existed on Earth. (i.e. 155 mya Small running Dinosaur Compsognathus) Then we grabbed felts and paper again and tried to write down new things we learned.

Now we have a better idea of how the Earth has changed.

Students included many things on their lists, including:

  • land was formed by volcanoes
  • fish became land creatures
  • many ice ages occurred
  • flowers grew after plants and trees
  • many creatures are now extinct like mammoths
  • the same land was sometimes frozen

So much to still learn, but we have a richer understanding thanks to this fantastic book!

The Great Apes

Apes. Orangutan, Chimp, Bonobo, Gorilla – these great apes are fascinating. They are so like us!  At this time in the world we need to protect them to ensure they have places free from being hunted and free to live in peace. What did we learn about these great apes today? What are we still wondering? What do we want to research?


Ape is a visually stunning book! A book to pore over again and again marvelling at the details – both visual and written. Vicky White’s close up portraits and lifelike illustrations fascinated us while Martin Jenkins’ text provided so much new information it was difficult to turn a page without endless questions being tossed around the room.

This was the perfect text to practice questioning with non-fiction text in small groups. First we listened to the story and listed key questions on our individual notepads. Some very fascinating facts that sparked a lot of discussion:

  • Chimpanzees poke a hole into a termite mound with a long blade of grass and then lick off the termites! Some people thought they were using the grass kind of like a straw. Other people wondered if they shared. Many people thought it would be pretty gross to have bugs crawling around in your mouth!
  • Orangutans love to eat the smelly durian fruit!
  • Chimps travel in gangs and hunt down monkeys. “Gangs!?” This seemed very dramatic. “Do they just chase the monkeys or do they actually eat them?” one little horrified voice asked.

We then took our questions to share in a group of four. Each student took turns sharing a question and the group helped decide where to include it on our questioning sheet. Was it a question we found the answer to? Was it a question where we thought we could infer using the schema we already have about animals and the world? Or was it a question where we felt that more research was needed?

Which questions made the lists? A sample below . . .

Questions we had but then found out the answer as we read on:

  • How long do gorillas live? At least 40 or 50 years.
  • Where do the apes sleep? In nests on the ground or in trees
  • What do apes eat? Some eat fruit, some eat termites.
  • Are any of these apes extinct? No!
  • How many species of apes are there? Five species in the world – including us!

Questions that we didn’t find the answers to but we can try to infer:

  • What are the predators of apes? We think humans who hunt them and big cats because they run fast and can catch them.
  • When the chimps fight with other chimps, do they die? We think they might if they get really hurt. Maybe they could get an infection from a bite or bad scratch.
  • What kinds of parasites do they have? Maybe fleas because they have fur.

Questions which need more research:

  • Which of the apes is most aggressive?
  • How are Apes related to people?
  • Can a chimp sense its predators?
  • Can apes swim?
  • What are the differences between males and females?

It was fantastic to see students so engaged with their questions and talking together to make inferences and discuss new learning.

Thank you to BLG who sent in this book to another primary class a few weeks ago. This book will be a very popular book in our library!