Category Archives: Nonfiction

Is This Going In My Permanent Record?

Lately I’ve been thinking about biographies and why it’s important to select quality children’s biographies, and I had a horrifying thought: What if a children’s biography were written about me? What kinds of details would be included? How about my “loose” housekeeping style, or my inability to get dinner on the table before 7 o’clock? I’m positive I remember sitting down to dinner at 6:39 p.m. one evening in early June!

On the other hand, what if the author only portrayed me as a goody-two-shoes Mormon miracle mother and wannabe schoolteacher who selflessly put her children’s needs above her own all the days of her life? Yuck! That’s not the kind of drivel I’d want written about me either. You see where I’m going with this, right? In a way, a biography is someone’s Permanent Record.

Is there one of these with my name written on it somewhere?

Is there one of these with my name on it somewhere?

I’m reflecting back on a simpler time in my life–the 1980’s–when my loving and well-meaning parents subscribed to a series of pseudo-biographical books called ValueTales. The one I’m looking at right now is entitled “The Value of Compassion: The Story of Florence Nightingale.” Here’s a direct quote for your reading enjoyment: “Florence knew this was not going to be easy, but she welcomed the challenge” (p. 41, for anyone who wants to see it with their own eyes).

I have a few questions for the author of this book. Were you there with Florence during the Crimean War? Did you hear her say, “This isn’t going to be easy, but I welcome the challenge, by gum!” LAMPAre you actually her trusty oil lamp Lucy, who fanned the flames of Florence’s desire to alleviate suffering and save lives? (Note: Lucy is actually a fictitious talking oil lamp, a character invented by the author in an effort to “simplify” difficult concepts for children’s immature minds.)

Fortunately for us, it’s a new century: We now know that children don’t need simplified information. In fact, their minds crave the retelling of complex, genuine experiences. FlorenceLAMPFurthermore, they engage and understand much more readily when the information is presented in a fair, unbiased manner; when the historical figure is presented as a whole person, rather than a caricature of evil or a paragon of virtue; and when the illustrations that accompany the text complement the book’s theme. 

As luck would have it, a Florence Nightingale biography was published for children earlier this year, written and lovingly illustrated by Demi. I’ve perused it online, and I look forward to reading it in person sometime soon. Curiously, the book’s Amazon preview fails to show any images of Florence talking to an oil lamp.


Florence Nightingale, by Demi. 2014: Henry Holt & Co.

Posted by Karen Rapier, an elementary education major at Utah Valley University in Orem, UT

Don’t Let Core Standards Bug You!

I attended elementary school in the early 80s, and I have been wracking my brain trying to remember learning anything about insects during those years. If I did, I sure don’t remember it now.


“Take me to your leader!”

Earlier this week when I started thinking about reading and bugs and books and teaching, only the most basic insect ideas came to mind. My brain was bringing up only boring, factual kinds of things, like insects’ exoskeleton, their head/thorax/abdomen body structure, and the six-leg requirement. But as I thought more deeply, it occurred to me that factual lessons about insects (or about anything else, for that matter!) aren’t going to cut it for today’s elementary and secondary students. They’re growing up in a far more complex environment than the one I grew up in.

When I started kindergarten in 1979, a Japanese telecom company began offering analog cell-phone service. That same year, Usenet, a predecessor of the World Wide Web, was born. The compact disc was invented. The Atari 400, an early computer gaming platform, was made available to consumers. (Side note: I’m old!) Fast-forward to today. We carry portable, handheld computers in our pockets. (These computers also function as phones–a fact my teenagers conveniently forget whenever I need to talk to them.) My kids play video games on a system that wirelessly connects to the Internet and responds to voice commands. Old CDs are reused in children’s crafts. The world has changed dramatically since I was a kid, and it continues to evolve at breakneck speed.

Could we have a moment of silence for this now-useless communication device?

Could we have a moment of silence for this now useless communication device?

Many positive outcomes can be directly traced to the new Common Core Standards. I applaud its implementation because of this: it forced us to start paying closer attention to the educational needs of the students growing up now. Because of these highly demanding standards, we all started thinking and talking and doing something about what it takes to compete, survive, and ideally thrive in a time of historic technological and social change.

When the students of today become the adults of tomorrow, they’ll need critical-thinking skills to solve problems brought about by climate change. They could develop solutions to solve the mysteries of phenomena such as honeybee colony collapse disorder. They might also be forced to come up with creative food sources (mealworms for dinner, anyone?).

Fortunately for teachers and students alike, authors and illustrators continue to write and publish books that spark engagement and pique curiosity. When combined with careful and focused lesson planning, these titles can provide students with quality learning experiences that will stick with them. Some of the best bug books out there include The Beetle Book, written and illustrated by Steve Jenkins, which can be used to get students thinking about the “jobs” beetles do in different ecosystems, not to mention its abilities to inspire close-up observation and a great deal of scrutiny in telling and writing description! Then there’s The Case of the Vanishing Honeybees: A Scientific Mystery by Sandra Markle, or The Hive Detectives: Chronicle of a Honey Bee Catastrophe (from the Scientists in the Field Series) by Loree Griffin Burns and Ellen Harasimowicz, either of which (or both of which) can be paired with other books (or each other), like What Is Pollination? by Bobbie Kalman or What If There Were No Bees?: A Book about the Grassland Ecosystem by Suzanne Slade to introduce a science unit on cause and effect.

The Core Standards definitely require teachers to up their game, but that’s nothing to get antsy about. With the help of quality nonfiction titles like these, it’s hard to go wrong.

Posted by Karen Rapier, an elementary education major at Utah Valley University in Orem, UT


Living Green, Teaching Green

A few weeks ago, my seven-year-old daughter had an unusual request: “Can we grow something I can eat?” (This is a child who loves fruits and vegetables as long as they aren’t touching any other foods.) mother-daughter-kitchenI asked her which foods she thought might be good to grow; her reply included carrots, strawberries, and grapes. Here’s my confession: When I asked her the question about which foods we should try to grow, I was buying time and hoping she’d get distracted and forget all about growing food. I didn’t know what to say!

It seems like such a simple request, but just thinking about it makes me feel overwhelmed. I’ve tried growing vegetables once or twice, and it was a bust every time. Who knows why–maybe I didn’t do it right. Maybe I overwatered or underwatered. Or maybe the planets just weren’t quite aligned and karma decided that gardening and me were not to be. Regardless, I’m pretty sure I missed out on inheriting any of my grandma’s talents for growing a healthy, abundant vegetable garden. I can grow flowers fine, A young girl planting some strawberry plants...but my vegetable gardens of the past have looked nothing like hers. Instead they end up looking sad and bedraggled, and my plants develop these tiny appendages that resemble alien babies more than food.


Not really my grandma’s garden, but hers looked a lot like this!

My daughter’s request got me thinking, though, about the food we eat–where it comes from, how it’s grown and harvested, and whose hands touched it before ours did. It’s obvious she’s curious about how food becomes what it is, and it’s important for children to have experiences that help them learn that food grows in the ground before it ever gets to the grocery-store shelves. Here’s a teacher in Arizona who is doing that by growing food with her students (YouTube clip): Teaching kids where their food comes from

While planting and growing a class garden would certainly engage students (dirt! worms! rocks! yay!), it’s a big project that takes considerable planning, commitment, and time. Teaching Responsibility Through GardeningBut you don’t have to grow a garden with your class to get them thinking about sustainability. How about a unit on trash and recycling? Use the book Where Does the Garbage Go? and end the unit with a field trip to clean up a public park. Here’s another idea–in a science unit on sunlight and energy, students carry out an experiment by growing vegetables using varying amounts of sunlight and water and record the results. Once the students have gathered their data, invite a local farmer to the classroom to evaluate the students’ findings and talk about the complexities of growing food for many.

The wonderful thing about designing lessons around sustainability is that the issues are pragmatic and timely. Students are already aware of the importance of conserving resources, and they’re eager to do their part. What’s more, most sustainability initiatives incorporate elements of science, social studies, math, and literacy, providing an engaging, authentic, and memorable learning experience. For my money, it doesn’t get more green than that.

Posted by Karen Rapier, an elementary education major at Utah Valley University in Orem, UT