Sometimes, the stretch of time in a fifth grade classroom (or any classroom I would imagine) between the end of Thanksgiving Break and the start of Winter Break can be a bit challenging. Motivation to do work can be low, frustrations can be high. Patience between students and between teachers and students is also running low. Here in Chicago, this stretch of time just so happens to coincide with the start of the worst that winter has to offer. Below zero temperatures make it difficult to get outside and we find ourselves in darkness for much of our days.
All of this added together, PLUS the anticipation of the two-week break can make be tough.
And so we, as teachers, have two options. Well, we probably have a lot more than two options, but these are the two that I go between. We give up. Know that we will get nothing done. Or, we to find work that is incredibly engaging and that students can lose themselves in no matter who they are. We make it impossible for them to fall into the trap that comes around this time of year.
For me, I have found exactly that kind of work in the form of our mock Caldecott unit. Last year was the first year that I participated in the mock Caldecott unit and I was so very happy that I did. I spent a lot of time reading about the amazing work that others had done in their Mock Caldecott units and I was so inspired by it all. And so, with the support of other brilliant educators, I decided to give it a go. You can read about our work last year HERE.
Last year, I was simply BLOWN AWAY by the brilliance of my students around this work. The level of discussions that my students had around the picture books that were contenders for our Mock Caldecott Award was incredible. The way they analyzed the illustrations and discussed each book against the Caldecott criteria was beyond impressive. But what struck me the most where all the voices that I was hearing. Voices that normally remained silent during group work, voices that were often absent from our whole-class discussions about books.
Because the truth is, it is now edging ever closer to the middle of the school year and there are still students who have not found their way into our classroom reading community. I would love to say that every single child in my room has found or re-found a love of reading. I would love to say that every single child in my room feels a strong connection to books and knows who he/she/they is as a reader. I would love to say that when we, as a class, discuss books that every single child is engaged in the conversation and feels equal access into our reading community.
But that is simply not the truth.
Perhaps in other fifth grade classrooms that IS the truth at this point in the year and I will continue to push myself and learn and listen in order to one day be able to create such an environment. But for now, this is where we are. That is the truth of who we are.
And that is where our Mock Caldecott unit makes a real difference. In this unit, we look at the criteria that matches (as closely as possible) the real criteria that the Caldecott committee uses in order to select the winning book each year. We study closely ten (actually, it turned into 11 this year) picture books and their illustrations. The children work in small groups to analyze and score each book, discussing in their groups what they notice, taking notes on the scores they are giving to each book and providing evidence to support those scores. In the end, they rank the books in order of which ones they believe most closely meet the Caldecott criteria. And then we vote on a winner.
Through this work, we talk about the difference between discussion/debate and argument. We talk about how to build on an idea so that, as a group, you can reach new thinking. We learn how to support our claims with evidence from the text. And we talk and talk and talk about books.
It is this talking about books that brings out the voices not always heard in our classroom. Because the entry point into these discussions are the illustrations, there are no barriers into the conversation. It does not matter how fluently one reads, it does not matter how quickly you make your way through the words on the page, it does not matter how deeply you are able to comprehend a complex texts. The illustrations are the center of these discussions and they bring out so many thoughts from so many different perspectives from so many different readers. And for some students, it is the first time that they experience the feeling of passionately discussing a book, of passionately defending a book that you love, the feeling of being a reader.
Too often, too many kids, don’t know what this feels like. They might go through the motions, they might read the number of minutes that they are required to read, they might answer the questions they are assigned and put together the craft projects that they are told to do, but they do not know that feeling of standing in defense of a book you love, of feeing connected to others through the love or hate of a book, of finding your place in a reading community. Mock Caldecott allows us to help so many students to know these feelings. Some for the very first time.
So what does our unit actually involve?
Here is a brief (well as brief as I can actually make anything) run-down of what we did:
This unit took place across four school weeks. While that is technically 20 days, there were certainly several days where we did not get to work on our Caldecott work. There were days lost to the winter sing, to rehearsal for the winter sing, to winter parties and to a bonus day off of school on the Friday before winter break. Here is what we worked on during that time.
Day 1: Introduction of the Caldecott — On our first day, I asked the kids who was familiar with the Caldecott award. Few were. Then when I pulled out some books that had the award sticker on them, many of them mentioned how they always wondered what that meant. I explained how the Caldecott selection process worked and then told them that we would be choosing our own Mock Caldecott award winners. We spent time together looking at this Caldecott Website and discussing the terms and criteria.
After reading through some of the grown-up language, I introduced the kids to the kid-friendly language that we would be using as our criteria. Here is our kid-friendly criteria. I tried to align the criteria we would use as closely to the real criteria as I could. However, I did take a bit of a departure in the areas that seemed to most confuse my students last year. I found far less confusion this year and am happier with the criteria we used.
Day 2: Looking at past winners — Like I did last year, I asked my incredible librarian to help me pull as many past Caldecott winners as we could. I left the library with several HUGE stacks of former award winners and honor winners. On the second day, I simply gave the kids time to look through past winners and take notes on what they noticed about the illustrations. They were able to choose to do this work alone, with a partner or in a group of three. This is the form they used to record their observations.
Day 3, 4, 5 and 6: Introducing OUR mock Caldecott contenders– After looking at some past winners, we then spent time getting to know the books we would be choosing from. Here is the list of books that we worked with.
These books were chosen by my after reading many other people’s opinions and ensuring that I had as much diversity represented as possible in terms of content and authors and illustrators. I wanted to make sure that before my students did any analyzing at all of the illustrations, that they had a chance to simply enjoy the incredible stories that these books told. So I spent time simply reading these books out loud to my students and having short conversations about their initial thoughts on the books.
Day 7: Starting to Think About Our Conversations: After getting to know our contenders, I wanted the kids to start thinking about how they would be talking about these books. Last year, I asked my AMAZING art teacher to let me video tape her talking about the illustrations in some picture books and going through some of the artistic terms that the kids might be using. She agreed and I know have these videos to use as a way to help my students think more like artists and notice things that artists might notice.
The first thing we did was go back to the Caldecott winner from two years ago, Beekle. I read the book to the kids again (they had already heard it, but I wanted them to listen and look closely at the illustrations). After reading the book, I had them turn and talk about what they noticed in the illustrations. There was some nice conversation, but much of it lacked the depth that I knew they would need to do this Caldecott work. After their initial conversations, I had them watch THIS VIDEO of my art teacher talking about Beekle. I then asked them to again turn and talk, but this time to talk about the difference between their observations and Mrs. Hamm’s (our art teacher’s) observations. They all realized they could go a lot deeper with what they noticed. (There are two other videos my amazing art teacher made, but we did not have time this year to watch them. You can find all three videos here.)
Day 8: How We Can Take Notes to Support Our Claims — Now that the kids knew our books, knew the criteria we would be using and knew about the kinds of conversations we would be having, it was time to talk about how they would be taking notes about each book so that they would be able to make better decisions about the books and convince others to vote on the books they wanted to win. To do this, I began by introducing our evaluation form. You can find a copy of it HERE.
I told the kids that we would practice using this form in two ways before they actually began taking notes. On the first day, I told the kids that I would read them a book that was not on our list for the Mock Caldecott, but was a book I knew was on other people’s lists. I would read them the book, we would discuss it and I would then model using the form for them.
We began with the book School’s First Day of School. I read them the book once. Then I flipped through the illustrations a second time. Then I flipped through the illustrations a third time and asked the kids to share what they noticed about the illustrations. After that, I finally turned to our form. I began to talk about the criteria one at a time and showed the kids how I wrote down specific examples and reasons to support the score that I was thinking about. For example, when I talked about an outstanding use of artistic medium, I wrote down that the pictures were so simple, but conveyed so much emotion. I then wrote an EX with a circle around it and shared that this meant I was about to write down a specific example. I then noted that the final picture with the janitor sitting on the roof of the school was an example of how the simple drawings conveyed strong emotion. I did this for each criteria and then went back and circled numbers based on the notes I had taken. We noticed what a long process this was and how important it was to take notes that supported the claim of what number we were circling.
Day 9: Their Turn to Try: After watching my example, it was time for the kids to try it. So I handed out their evaluation packets that simply contained 11 of THESE evaluation sheets. I told them that today I would be reading them another book that was not on our list, but was a contender for the real Caldecott. Today, it was their turn to practice taking notes and scoring the book. I then read them the book The Secret Subway. I read through the book and asked them to just listen to the story. Then, I flipped through the illustrations and asked them to just notice in their own minds. Then, I flipped through again and asked them to talk in small groups about what they noticed. Finally, I asked them to work in those same small groups to discuss each piece of our criteria and work to take notes that would support their thinking. During this time, I made sure to walk around and help students put their thinking into words to write down on their evaluation sheets. Then, I asked them to individually score the book. Finally, we all shared our scores and discussed the notes we took.
I have to tell you that the kids LOVED this book so much that they asked if we could include it in our list for the Mock Caldecott. Of course! So our list of ten, then became a list of 11.
Day 10: The Work Begins: Finally, it was time to get to work. I split both of my classes up into groups of three or four. These would be their analysis groups. They would be in the same groups each day and each day they would be given two books to look through closely, analyze and score. Before the kids got started, I handed out and went through the process that we would be using. Here is the typed up process I handed out to the kids.
After going through the process, I read off the groups and handed out the first books and the kids got to work. From the beginning, it was amazing to hear their discussions. Again, they were all so excited and I already heard a shift in the way they were talking about the illustrations. On that first day, I realized that we needed to do some work talking about the difference between discussing and arguing. And so…
Day 11: Before the kids went off to analyze their second set of books, I share some of my observations from the day before. I shared that while I wanted them to discuss and debate the illustrations and the criteria, I wanted them to try to stay away from arguing. I asked them what they thought the difference was between arguing and debating or discussing. Each class shared some incredible thinking, that I actually think our whole world could benefit from right now. After charting each classes’ responses, I combined their thinking into one chart:
After sharing their ideas, I asked them to think about these differences as they worked in their groups again today. And then they headed off to work. I did notice a change in the way they were talking to each other, but still worried that they were not actually listening to each other and building off of each other’s ideas in a way that would lead the group to new thinking. And so…
Day 12: Before looking at their third set of books, I asked the kids to share with me ways they could build off of an idea in order to promote the kind of discussion and debate that we had talked about the day before. Again, they had incredible thoughts to share. Here are the charts that we created:
Before heading off to work, I asked them to really work on patiently listening (a term I recently learned and promptly stole from the brilliant Matt Kay). I also asked them to work on building on the ideas that were shared instead of just moving on to the next idea. And then they got to work. As I walked around, I made sure to notice and name every time I saw a group building on an idea that was shared. Often, I stopped the whole class and shared these observations. Now that our conversations were improving, I wanted to turn our attention to how we were taking notes and supporting the claims that we were making. And so…
Day 13: Before looking at our fourth set of books, I asked the kids to pull out and look at their note taking sheets. I told them I wanted to make sure that we were taking the kind of notes that would really allow us to support the claims we were making as we circled numbers AND that we were documenting the kind of evidence that would help us convince others later to vote for the books we wanted to win. Right before this unit, we worked together in a science fiction unit where our main task was to look at science fiction writing as a way for writer’s to provide social commentary on the world they were living in when they wrote. We looked at short stories and tried to answer the question, “What is this writer trying to say about the world they are living in?” For each answer we gave, we worked to find evidence to support our claims. We learned that evidence could be a quote or a specific example or a summary of a part of the story. I told the kids that with our Caldecott work, we also needed to use evidence to support our claims, but that our evidence would look a bit different. I asked the kids to share with us all the KINDS of notes that they were taking and the WAYS they were supporting their claims. I wrote down what they shared. Here are the notes I took from each class:
And here is the chart I created from these later:
Before sending the kids off to work, I asked them to pay attention to the kinds of notes they were taking because tomorrow we would be sharing pages of their notes to learn from. And then they headed off to work.
Day 15: Our Final Day of Analysis: Before sending the kids off to work on our final day of analysis, I asked for some volunteers to put their notes up under the document camera and share with us their thinking about what they wrote down. We had several kids volunteer and it led to some incredible discussions. Here is one of my favorite sets of examples shared by one of my fifth grade students:
I reminded the kids that they would need these notes as they worked to defend their top choices and asked them to think about the examples we saw today and how they could work to take the kinds of notes that would help them to convince others to love the books that they most loved.
And then the kids got to work.
Day 16: Now that the kids had analyzed all eleven books, it was time to start ranking them. I asked the kids to get back out their note taking sheets and look through all eleven books. I then had them rank the books from 1-11 in terms of how they felt they met the Caldecott criteria. They recorded their ranked lists on THIS FORM. I asked them to spend at least ten minutes working on this list. After ten minutes, I took one person from each small group and created larger groups. I then had them share their lists and begin to try to convince others of their top choices. These were by far the most heated discussions. They were so incredibly passionate about their top choices. They were defending with such heart and they were also using the notes they had taken to support the claims they were making. It was incredible.
Day 17: Making posters and voting: OUR FINAL DAY!!! Our final day happened to also be the day before winter break. My morning class did not have time to create the posters, but my afternoon class did and really enjoyed the work. Here is the poster assignment I gave the kids. In both classes, I gave each student one final minute to defend their top choice. I told them to try to use as many pieces of evidence as they could in their one minute. Again, it was so powerful to hear the way they all talked about their top choices.
After hearing everyone’s ideas, it was finally time to vote. Here is the ballot that we used. The kids voted for their first, second and third place choices. When I counted up the votes, I gave three points for a first place vote, two points for a second place vote and one point for a third place vote.
It was nearing the end of the day, on the day before winter break, when we finally announced our winners and honor winners. And still, the room was silent in both classrooms as they awaited the results. And here the results were:
First Place — They All Saw a Cat (by a LANDSLIDE)
Second Place — Maybe Something Beautiful
Third Place — The StoryTeller
First Place — AN EXACT TIE: They All Saw a Cat and Ada’s Violin
Second Place — The Secret Subway
Third Place — Maybe Something Beautiful
And with that, we headed off to winter break. The work was incredible. The engagement levels were incredibly high. The discussions that the kids had just warmed my heart. And watching those kids on that last day before winter break passionately defending the books they had come to love. That was something that will stay with me for a very long time.
If anyone actually makes it through this unreasonably long post, I will reward you with some images of my kids hard at work: