Symposium at Rockwell Museum explores non-fiction


STOCKBRIDGE -The exploration of non-fiction writing is not limited to research papers and history books.

Over the weekend, the Norman Rockwell Museum presented the educators' symposium, "True Stories: Non-Fiction Children's Books in the Classroom," as a way to bring educators together to exchange ideas with each other, along with renowned illustrators and authors of non-fiction literature and picture books.

Christine Thaxter, a third-grade teacher for the Cobleskill-Richmondville Central public school district in New York state, said the symposium theme is timely and relevant.

"We do a lot of non-fiction reading and writing, and project-based learning based off students' interests," she said.

The day's presentations featured illustrator Wendell Minor ("W is for Washington"), his wife/author Florence Minor ("If You Were a Panda Bear"), illustrator David Macaulay ("The Way We Work"), and picture book historian/author Leonard Marcus ‘The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth").

The symposium also featured Sue Garcia and Rebecca Neet, fourth- and fifth-grade teachers from Undermountain Elementary School in Sheffield, and JoAnne Spies, a local musician, poet and educator.

Garcia and Neet presented a range of Common Core curriculum-ready resources that are available to help educators lay a solid foundation for their students, across grade levels and disciplines.

In the classroom, they use teaching materials and tools like National Geographic mini-books, book-creating iPad apps, author biographies, field studies and film-making software to spark curiousity and facilitate student projects rooted in non-fiction reading.

"It makes things much more interesting for them than saying, ‘open up your social studies book and turn to page two,' " Garcia said.

Garcia gave an example of how she taught from Roland Smith's book, "Sea Otter Rescue: The Aftermath of an Oil Spill." The book illustrates and explores the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and how it affected wildlife and habitats in Alaska's Prince William Sound.

Even though her current students weren't yet born when the incident took place, they've gained context through classroom activities relating to the reading. Garcia's used paint roller trays to fill with water and motor oil to demonstrate what such a spill looks like. She put a piece of fur into the mix and then asked students how to get the oil off of it.

"Suddenly what happened then is real now [for the students], very real," Garcia said.

Neet talked about how her students have used the free Stop Motion Studio app on school iPads to create films based on their non-fiction readings. Technology is now a required component under the state's adopted Common Core curriculum for English language arts instruction.

"I had one [special needs] student who made a stop motion movie on the Boston Tea Party. He was a person who wouldn't talk much, but in the video, he's talking. His parents were amazed," said Neet.

The teachers said the best ways to involve students in non-fiction learning is to give them the latitude to create their own projects based on the subject material, and to have them create a set of self-directed guidelines for participating in classroom dialogues on the subjects at hand.

"[Students] love being in charge of their own learning," said Neet.

Through these practices, teachers have said they've seen results ranging from various styles of student-made books, postcards, films, brochures, newspapers, even clay model re-enactments of famous historic battles.

Garcia and Neet are currently working with students and other community partners on a year-long study of the Appalachian Trail, which will result in an exhibit at the Sheffield Historical Society this spring.

"The kids are giving up recess and doing work at home on their projects," said Neet.

"You know a success when something like that happens," Garcia said.


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