If you want your students’ informational writing to comply with the Common Core Standards, you’re probably looking for examples to illustrate appealing detail and effective organization. Here’s a newly released book that meets those criteria admirably–and also spans many grade levels . . .

Lizards by Sneed B. Collard III

2012. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge, 45 pages

Genre: Informational picture book

Ages: Elementary through middle school (all ages for selected passages)

Features: Striking photos, excellent glossary, thorough index

Summary

Is there anything lizards won’t eat? Do any eat humans? Which species holds the title for fastest lizard? How do you tell the eastern glass lizard from a snake? Do lizards fall in love? Can a chameleon survive a 30-foot drop? Can lizards really walk on water–or upside down across ceilings? Can they fly? Do some lizards actually have three eyes? What do you call a group of lizards? Find answers to these and dozens of other fascinating lizardy questions in Sneed Collard’s newest book. Collard begins by introducing us to “Joe Lizard,” the western fence lizard, who is found–well, almost everywhere, since he’s so adaptable. Adaptation is one underlying theme of the book, and we discover that lizards are champs. They can handle most climates, eat just about anything that lives or breathes, and have numerous ways to outwit predators ranging from birds to housecats (and even a few humans). The book covers some of the best-known lizard species, including chameleons, iguanas, Komodo dragons, and gila monsters–as well as information on lizards’ eating habits, strategies for keeping warm, survival tricks, and mating. There are helpful hints for keeping a lizard as a pet–and warnings about not doing so if you’re not truly committed to your scaly pet. (Some get VERY large, live a long while, and grow formidable claws and teeth.) Striking photos, most taken by the author, enhance every chapter and give us a chance to see lizards at closer proximity than some readers may find comfortable in real life. The layout is visually appealing, with plenty of white space and well-placed sidebars that offer additional facts and pictures. In addition, the book is extraordinarily well-organized, divided into eleven short, easy-to-digest chapters. Collard writes in his trademark conversational style, engaging readers with well-researched facts and energy-charged enthusiasm. We feel as if we’re right out in the bush on a lizard trek. The tone is playful in spots and Collard interjects a few exaggerations just to see if we are paying attention, then reminds us, “Just kidding.” Students who are intrigued by lizards will want to read the whole book. But you can also share individual, selected chapters aloud; each can be read in one to five minutes. Don’t forget the document projector for sharing those photos (lizards are more colorful than you might think). You may also want to think about borrowing an aquarium or terrarium, at least for a few days, since some students may want to bring a lizard into the classroom for a closer look.

In the Classroom

1. Background. Ask students what they know about lizards already. Have any of them had a lizard as a pet? Have you? What was the experience like? What sorts of lizards inhabit your part of the world? Have you or your students seen any of them? You may wish to point out how common lizards are throughout the world; there are more than 5,000 species (p. 7).

2. Reading. Read the book prior to sharing it with students so you can prepare a short list of intriguing questions (see the first part of the Summary, above) to pose ahead of time. This will prompt students to listen for the wide range of extraordinary details with which Collard has packed this book. Even if you share only a few selected chapters aloud, you may choose to show most of the photos, especially if you have access to a document projector. Talk about how much information is revealed just through these photos, and what they add to the book as a whole.

3. Detail. As you read, what do you and your students learn about lizards that you did not know before? List a few of the details you find most unusual or interesting. Briefly review the Common Core Standards for informational writing, noting the emphasis on detail. Why are details so important in informational writing? Discuss this. What can students do to make their own informational writing more like what they read in a published book? Is a published book like this one in fact a very successful report?

4. Main idea. The Common Core Standards call for informational writing to have a solid main idea or thesis. Does this book have one? More than one? What are they? Does the author state those main ideas outright? We generally require students to make the main idea of an informational piece obvious to the reader. But is there ever a benefit in having readers infer the main idea(s) as they read?

5. Organization. Next to detail (information itself), organization is the most critical feature of the Common Core Standards for informational writing. So, take time to discuss the organization of Collard’s book. How does the writer begin? How does he end? Notice the Table of Contents on page 5–and the inventive subtitles. To spark an interesting discussion on organization, make copies of this TOC, cut each into strips (minus page numbers, of course). Group students into teams of three or four. Then hand each team a set of strips as a random collection of subtitles that they need to reorder. Note that there is no “right answer” to this activity, which is what makes it so much fun. Students do not need to match Collard’s original order precisely–but they do need to think about an order that makes sense, that introduces a topic to readers and then builds gradually on what the reader knows by adding new information one chapter or section at a time. This activity will help students think both logically and creatively about organizing information within a piece of their own.    

5. Voice. Throughout the book, the author maintains what most reviewers have termed a “conversational” voice. Find several passages you think best exemplify this kind of voice. Have volunteer students read those passages aloud. Then discuss the voice. What words (in addition to conversational) describe it? What are the specific advantages in using this kind of voice with readers? Does the voice make us more or less likely to read another book by this author? See if you can list three or more writing strategies Collard uses to achieve the informational voice for which he is so well known. (Think about the kinds of details he chooses, the way he punctuates the text, the rhythm and flow of sentences, his use of questions, the continual tone of surprise and fascination he projects, and his way of pulling readers into the discussion by helping them relate to the information.)

6. Word choice. Word choice is also essential to meeting the criteria of the Common Core–especially when it comes to using the terminology essential to discussing a specialized topic like lizards. Because of the book’s conversational style, it is easy for us to pick up new vocabulary without even realizing it. So, slow down. Go through a chosen chapter line by line, paying close attention to the language, and asking, “What new words or specialized terms are we learning here?” To get a clear idea of how many such terms are embedded in the text, check out the glossary on page 46.

7. Writing. Invite students to write about lizards, using information from this book or from experience or additional research. Some may wish to write about a specific species, such as the Komodo dragon or chameleon. Some may wish to write poetry–or write from the perspective of the lizard. Many perspectives and genres are possible. If you happen to live in a place where lizards are common, consider illustrating these pieces with photos of your own. Before writing, ask students to think carefully about audience. Are they writing for peers? Adults? Younger students?

8. Further research. Lizards are a favorite topic for many authors. So check out additional books or look up lizards online. Don’t overlook the value of firsthand research, though. Consider a field trip in which you look for lizards in your local environment, bring a lizard into your classroom for a short visit (check warnings on page 40 before doing this), or visit a local pet shop. Some pet shop owners may be willing to bring lizards to you. Talk about what we (as researchers) can learn from seeing a subject firsthand, and how this can influence our writing. Can you tell that Sneed Collard has spent time observing lizards directly? If he had not, how would his book be different?

9. Persuasive writing. Many people purchase lizards as pets when the lizards are very small–then grow tired of them and release them into the wild. Misguided pet owners may even feel they are doing the lizards a favor by releasing them from captivity. Read the chapter titled “Lizards as Pets,” page 40, again. Consider doing further research online about the pros and cons of owning lizards. Then ask students to write persuasive arguments on one of the following topics: (1) Should people own exotic pets? (2) Should exotic pets ever be released into the wild, for any reason?

Note . . .

Sneed B. Collard III, biologist and author, has written more than 60 books for young readers, including Animal Dads, Teeth, Beaks!, Creepy Creatures, The Deep Sea Floor, Reign of the Sea Dragons, and The World Famous Miles City Bucking Horse Sale. His books are available through Charlesbridge as well as his own publishing house, Bucking Horse Books, in Missoula, Montana, where he lives. Visit him at www.sneedbcollardiii.com

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Informational writing is extraordinarily popular these days, so we’ll look next at a book for slightly older readers–Black Gold: The Story of Oil in Our Lives by the multi-award winning writer Albert Marrin. Marrin’s book is informative, timely, and chilling in its implications. If you teach informational writing at middle or early high school levels, this is a book you don’t want to miss. As always, we’ll help you make connections to informational writing and argument, via the Common Core StandardsThank you for visiting. Come often–and bring friends. And please remember, for the BEST professional development related to six-trait writing, process, and writing workshop, contact us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice. 

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