Posted in Book Spotlights

Book Spotlight: How to Be an Elephant

The hardest part of writing is sitting down to write.

Years ago, I watched a masterful literacy coach* tell my second grade students that ideas are like bubbles. They sat transfixed as she blew a stream of bubbles into the air and explained that our ideas could float away, just like those bubbles.   She then presented them with sticky notes and made them promise to write their ideas down so they wouldn’t float away.

For me lately, the hardest part of writing has sitting down to write.  Ideas have popped into my head over the past ten months, but I’ve let them all float away, just like those bubbles. No more! This month, this year, I’m committing to grabbing onto my ideas and holding on tight.

Getting Inspired: Elephants and Caldecotts

Last year I was introduced to the absolutely enthralling Elephants: A Book for Children by Steve Bloom (photographs) and David Henry Wilson.   It captivated students and teachers alike with its stunning photographs and truly informative and surprising text.  I’ve always liked elephants, but after reading this book, a number of us in our school community bordered on obsessed.

caldecott medalFast forward to December 2017 when I stumbled across Katherine Roy’s  How to Be an Elephant in a list of Caldecott Medal contenders.  Elephants and Caldecotts?  Two of my favorite things! I ordered a copy and was rewarded with one of the best nonfiction titles I’ve read in long time.  I was finally inspired enough to grab onto some ideas and write them down for you!

Book Spotlight

If you’ve read my blog in the past year, you’ll know that in my book spotlights, I share a title and recommend some ways you might use the book.  I believe text selection is a critical element to good instruction.  My goal is helping you find the right book, right when you need it, for exactly the right skill or topic you need.

So onto the book!How to be an elephant

How to Be an Elephant: Growing Up in the African Wild begins with the birth of new baby elephant.  We follow as she learns…how to be an elephant!  As she learns to walk, to use her sense of smell, to use the various functions of her versatile nose, and as she develops her vocabulary of sounds, we learn about each of those topics as well.  Roy takes us through this elephant’s life, mixing the story of the baby elephant with expository spreads.

What really makes this book special are the illustrations.  It’s definitely my pick for Caldecott!  Roy juxtaposes beautifully broad-stroked illustrations of the baby elephant and her family with precisely detailed pictures, diagrams, close-ups, and cross-sections that teach about each aspect of the elephant’s life and body.  The two illustration styles work perfectly together to help students navigate the two text styles: narrative nonfiction and expository text.

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My favorite spread from the book combines the creative depiction of the trunk’s functions on the left with the beautiful illustration of elephants using their trunks on the right.

How can you use this book with students? While there are many options, several jumped out at me.  Here we go:

Main Ideas and Text Structure

  • The text follows a chronological/life cycle text structure. We begin with the birth of the female baby elephant and end with the birth of her son.  I might use this book to both notice text structure and to analyze how text structure reveals the main ideas of a text.
  • The headings of each section reveal the main topic of the section and should help students determine the main ideas of those sections.  Students could then practice finding the main idea of the entire text by looking across the main ideas of each section.
  • For students ready for a challenge: Why did the author choose to use a narrative nonfiction style alongside expository sections?  What does this accomplish?

Text Features

  • Each expository section is accompanied by a beautifully drawn text feature–often a diagram, close-up, or cross-section.  Students could work to discuss how these features contribute to or clarify the accompanying text.
  • Roy’s headings are often plays on words, but also often reveal more about the main idea of the section.  Students could explore how the headings help them determine the main idea of the section.Screen Shot 2018-01-25 at 8.57.43 PM


  • Students will have lots of elephant-specific vocabulary that they’ll need to use context to define.  I, for one, learned that elephants’ trunk whiskers are called “vibrissae.”
  • Tier 2 vocabulary words are scattered plentifully across Roy’s descriptive text and will provide opportunities for teachers to work with students on adopting new vocabulary that will help them speak well about the topic.  Think: grasping, amplification, nourishment, radiate, and vibrations.

Let’s Love on Some Nonfiction

If you don’t read How to Be an Elephant for any of those reasons, you should just read it for the love of reading.  I don’t think kids ever get enough just-for-fun read alouds of nonfiction texts.  (I also discovered another of Roy’s books, Neighborhood Sharkswhich I can highly recommend for this purpose!)  Also, get that other elephants book I mentioned.  You won’t regret it.


To elephant obsessions and catching our idea bubbles before they float away,

Emily @pickofthelit


*My coach was Kate Franz.  She’s brilliant.  You should follow her.


Posted in Book Spotlights

Book Spotlight: A Bike Like Sergio’s

I don’t know a teacher who doesn’t love Maribeth Boelts’s classroom classic, Those Shoes (Candlewick, 2007).  I’ve never had a group of students that didn’t cringe in deepest sympathy and embarrassment when Jeremy has to wear the “Mr. Alfrey shoes.” I’ve never seen a group of teachers and students who can’t talk on and on about why Jeremey really gives those cool shoes to Antonio.  It’s the best kind of book–one teachers and students are equally excited to be reading.

Boelts hits the same notes of pleasing teachers and students with A Bike Like Sergio’s (Candlewick, 2016). Students and teachers alike will connect with Ruben, who is desperate for a bike like the one his friend Sergio has. One day Ruben picks up a what he thinks is a dollar dropped by a lady in a store. It turns out to be a one hundred dollar bill. He’s rich!  With various twists and turns, Ruben loses the money, finds it again, and ultimately figures out the right thing to do.

This relatable book is sure to hook kids (there were audible gasps in second grade when Ruben realized the dollar was really a hundred dollars).  It’s also a versatile title for teaching reading comprehension skills.  Just as I did with my spotlight on The Quickest Kid in Clarksville, I will break down possible uses for this text across Jennifer Serravallo’s categories:

  • Plot and Setting
  • Characterfullsizerender-11
  • Vocabulary and Figurative Language
  • Themes and Ideas

I stickied up the text at moments that seemed to lend themselves to teaching in a particular area and compiled my list. New for this post, I also put together a menu of Text-Dependent Questions to use with this book.

Plot and Setting

  • There is more than one problem in this story and students will have to sift through the smaller problems (not having a bike, losing the money) to to realize the big issue is Ruben’s internal struggle over the money he finds.
  • Students will have to follow some small shifts in time, but all places would be familiar enough to most students to not present a challenge.


  • Character background is revealed through dialogue. A conversation between Ruben and Sergio implies that Sergio’s family has money but Ruben’s does not.  Understanding this is crucial to understanding the story.FullSizeRender 26
  • Across the text, students will need to infer Ruben’s thoughts and motivation.  Once he has the dollar he doesn’t tell his parents.  He pretends to be asleep when Dad gets home. Why?
  • The lady who drops the money and Ruben’s parents don’t play enormous roles in the story, but as secondary characters they do influence Ruben’s feelings and ultimately his actions.
  • Ruben feels complex and conflicting emotions upon taking the money and upon giving it back.  If you are working on going beyond “happy” and “sad”, this book presents a perfect gateway to “guilt”and “uneasiness.”FullSizeRender 29.jpg

Vocabulary and Figurative Language

  • I just love this page. “She walks her fingers through the cash in her wallet. Then she crosses things off.”

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  • Similes:
    • “I squeeze my eyes shut and stay still as stone.”
    • “And like a hot blast, I remember how it was for me when that money was hers -then mine-was gone.”
    • “…the words bust loose like they’ve been waiting.”
  • When Ruben loses the money: “Leaves and money look the same. Rain and tears feel the same.”

Themes and Ideas

  • This is a great book for taking students from surface level lessons to more meaningful lessons.  Some students may initially say the lesson of this text is that you shouldn’t steal, but when they dig in, they’ll realize this book is really about doing the right thing, even when it’s hard.
  • As is often the case, an older, wiser character states the lesson explicitly, as a “pearl of wisdom” if you will.

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Do yourself a favor and read this one.  Read it just to enjoy it, then read it to grow stronger readers.

Posted in Skill Spotlights

Skill Spotlight: Vocabulary in Informational Text

Sound familiar?  Students give an example or a description when you ask what a words mean.  Yeah, a chrysalis is a chrysalis that the butterfly wraps up in!  You know they have the right idea, but they can’t quite get it out.

Defining new vocabulary is something that can be difficult for elementary students. Often, instead of a definition we get a description or an example, as seen above. Much like my skill spotlight on retelling, this is a skill that seems easier than it actually is.

The way informational texts deal with vocabulary varies widely.  When students struggle with this skill, choosing the right texts becomes very important. Today we’ll take a look into tiers of vocabulary and choosing texts to support students

Tiers of Vocabulary

The Common Core State Standards Appendix A discusses the three tiers of vocabulary.  All three tiers are vital to reading comprehension, but “learning tier 2 and tier 3 words typically requires more deliberate effort…” (Appendix A).screen-shot-2016-10-11-at-4-01-57-pm-1

The standards call for special attention to Tier 2 words.  These are words that are used across content and topics and are generally not defined in context, making them both more usable in daily life, and harder to figure out.  (That’s a post for another day!)

Beginning in second grade though, the standards also call for students to be able to determine the meaning of Tier 3, or domain-specific, vocabulary words.

How do I pick books for tier three vocabulary practice?

If you’re starting to pick up a theme for this blog, you know that I’m going to say text selection matters.  Just handing students any old nonfiction text when they are struggling with defining tier three words isn’t nearly deliberate enough on our part.

How tier three words appear in the text makes a huge difference in the level of effort required to determine their meanings.


Here are some common scenarios in which tier three vocabulary appears, listed from easier scenarios to harder.

Definition appears in a text box on the same page that the word is found in context:The definition is stated explicitly, so students don’t have to infer what a word means from context.  For most students, this makes this a fairly easy scenario in which to define a new word.  (Keep in mind, though, that for students who tend to skip over text features, this would be a more difficult scenario).

In this example from the National Geographic Kids book Planets by Elizabeth Carney, many domain-specific words are defined in text boxes nearby.

Embedded definition in context with picture support:  While students still don’t have to infer a definition, typically these definitions are contained in clauses within a complex sentence.  Navigating this sentence structure can create more of a challenge, however, pictures that give a visual of the new word can compensate for this.

In this example from Nic Bishop’s Butterflies and Moths, the sentence contains a definition (“a long feeding tube”) and the picture also shows a clear picture of the proboscis.

Embedded definition without picture support: Just like in the example above, students don’t have to infer a definition, but they do have to navigate trickier sentence structure, except this time, without picture support.

In Dolphin Talk Whistles, Clicks, and Clapping Jaws by Wendy Pfeffer, the definition is embedded in the sentence, but the pictures isn’t much help.

Definition can be inferred from context and picture support:  This scenario is slightly harder.  The sentence doesn’t define the word directly, but contains information that would help the reader infer a definition.  The picture also contains helpful information that would support students in their attempt to define the word.

In looking at this example from the prolific Bobbie Kalman’s Tadpoles to Frogs, students could infer that gills are  a body part on a tadpole that help it breathe under water.

Definition can be inferred from context (no picture support):

Nic Bishop writes about butterflies again in an easier reader for Scholastic called simply Butterflies.  While the text level is easier than Butterflies and Moths, in this example readers have to rely on context alone to define molt.

Use of a glossary is necessary*:  In a big ol’ pile of nonfiction ranging from first to fifth grade levels, I couldn’t find an example of a tier three word that could ONLY be defined using the glossary.  I did find, though, that some tier two words fit this scenario.  This is tough because readers have to realize a word is new to them, check for clues on the page where the word is located, then check for a glossary.


In these examples, from the Pebble Plus book Ants and Their Nests by Linda Tagliaferro, the context and picture don’t support defining the tier two word “chambers” but the glossary contains a definition.

What are your best tips for helping students with new vocabulary in nonfiction text? Leave them in the comments!

Posted in Book Spotlights

Book Spotlight: The Quickest Kid in Clarksville

I cannot believe that it is October and that I haven’t posted in a month! September seemed to fly by and took summer with it. Now that my television is teeming with political ads, I find myself wishing for the simple pleasures of August’s summer Olympics.  Luckily, I have the perfect book to get my fix.

In the first of what I hope will be a regular feature, I plan to shine the spotlight on an individual book, highlighting different skills and standards to which the book lends itself particularly well.

Since this is the first post of its kind, I thought I’d start by telling you how I go about deciding what I might be able to use a book for.  I bucket my thoughts into four categories, taken from Jennifer Serravallo’s Independent Reading Assessment and The Reading Strategies Bookplot and setting, character, vocabulary and figurative language, and themes and ideas.  I give each category a different color sticky and I get going.   I read the book four times through, each time through the lens of a different category and with a different color sticky in hand.fullsizerender-11

In the end, I have loads of ideas for how I might use the text, and the book ends up looking something like this:fullsizerender-13

So, onto the book spotlight!  The Quickest Kid in Clarksville was written by Pat Zietlow Miller and illustrated by Frank Morrison.    Alta is a girl growing up in Clarksville, Tennessee, which just happens to be the hometown of Olympic runner (and gold medalist), Wilma Rudolph.  It’s 1960 and Clarksville is throwing a parade in celebration of Wilma’s gold medals.  Alta knows she’s the quickest kid in town, just like Wilma, that is until Charmaine comes into the picture.   She’s got fancy shoes and fast feet.   Eventually, on the day of the parade, Alta, Charmaine, and their friends run the relay race of their lives to get a banner to the parade on time.

So, how could you use this book?

When I finished stickying up the book, I noticed just how many pink stickies I had (vocabulary and figurative language).
The book is just crying out to be used with standard RL.2.4: Describe how words and phrases (e.g., regular beats, alliteration, rhymes, repeated lines) supply rhythm and meaning in a story, poem, or song.

fullsizerender-12The author repeats the name “Wil-ma Ru-dolph. Wil-ma Ru-dolph,” every time the characters are running, giving their feet a beat.  She also repeatedly uses two word fragments across different pages to create a mood and a sense of rhythm  (“Arms moving.  Legs grooving,” and “Bodies lunge.  Feet tangle,” and “Feet dragging.  Head hanging.”)   This isn’t the easiest standard to match texts to and this book was positively made for it.

How else could you use this book?

Plot and Setting

  • Setting affects the plot: It matters that this story takes place in Clarksville in 1960.
  • Multiple problems: Alta has the conflict with Charmaine about who is the fastest runner, she has the problem of not having new shoes and much money, and finally the problem of getting the banner to the race on time.   Each of these ends up affecting what the character learns in the end.
  • Passage of time: Midway through the story the line, “When parade day dawns…” tells the reader that it is now the next day.
  • Identify the narrator: This story is told in the first person from Alta’s perspective.  (This also makes it a great mentor for personal narrative!)
  • Unassigned dialogue: At various points, readers need to use what is happening in the story to figure out who is speaking.


  • Infer character’s feeling: Much of what Alta is feeling must be inferred through what she says, thinks, or does, or through her facial expressions in the rich illustrations.  There are opportunities for students to go beyond “happy” or “sad” to more rich feeling words.
  • Character comparisons: Alta and Charmaine have more in common than they have differences.  They don’t see their similarities, but skillful readers will.
  • Feeling change: Alta’s feelings change about Charmaine and about herself throughout the story.  Readers will have to identify when those feelings change, how they changed, and why they changed.

Vocabulary and Figurative Language

  • Repetition and rhythm: As described above, this book is perfect for analyzing how and why authors use repetition of words, phrases, or even sentence structure.
  • Simile: There are fantastic similes in this book!  (“I puff up like a spitting cat,”  “I leap after her like a scalded frog,” and so many more).
  • Other figurative language: When describing her old sneakers, Alta laments that they have “laces that never thought to glimmer.”

Theme and Ideas

  • Lesson revealed through an “Aha Moment”: Alta realizes that shiny shoes don’t matter as long as she has her feet.  Readers will have to work to think about what this really means
  • Character change reveals lesson: Alta changes her attitude towards Charmaine and in doing so gets the banner to the parade on time–also learning something about teamwork.
  • Cross-genre work: Using Wilma Unlimited by Kathleen Krull, readers can work to compare the lessons learned from Wilma Rudolph’s real life to the lessons learned from this work of fiction.


I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did!   Happy Reading!