|Archive article #0007
Thinking for Ourselves:
|At the annual meeting of the International Reading Association, there is a long-standing tradition of presenting awards related to research (e.g., the Elva Knight Research Grants, Outstanding Dissertation Award). The presentation is followed by a research address, traditionally presented by a professor who studies literacy education. The most recent meeting in Indianapolis, May 2000, saw two significant changes to this tradition.
First, the topic suggested for the address was teacher research. This reflects a noteworthy acknowledgment of teacher research by IRA at a time when what "counts" as research is hotly contested. We value IRA's recognition which underscores the importance of teacher research, not only for the individual teacher, who learns more about his or her own practice by means of it, but for the field of literacy education as a whole.
Second, our presentation in May, 2000, reflected the first time the research awards address had been so visibly a collaborative venture. The authors of the research awards address, and this article, are members of the Teachers Learning Collaborative (TLC). Inviting a group of teachers and university-based teacher educators to present their work underscores IRA's recognition that to solve real problems that exist in the real world in and out of schools, professionals with different expertise who work in different professional contexts must come together for sustained work. It is precisely because we are not all the same that all our voices and perspectives are needed. In this article, based on the IRA Research Awards Address, we describe collaborative teacher research on complex learning in the context of our practice as literacy educators.
The TLC is a Network of three teacher study groups (Literary Circle, Book Club Plus Study Group, and the Literacy Circle Study Group) across southeastern Michigan, supported in part by the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement and in part by the Walgreen Teachers in Residence Program at the University of Michigan. However, the Network primarily is supported by individuals' voluntary commitment of time and energy to something in which we believe. Together, the six authors of this paper represent a larger group of more than thirty Michigan teachers and teacher educators comprising the TLC. Members of our group are actively engaged in teacher research, though in various stages, from defining questions to collecting data, to analyzing and going public with what we have learned.
We come to this question as experienced teachers who have often felt frustrated and isolated in our work. Too often, we have identified struggling readers and worried that our very interventions to support their learning of skills and strategies have, in fact, derailed them from literacy. While they spend most of their time in drill and practice, our more able readers seem to move quickly beyond grade-level expectations and engage in reading, writing, and talk about text in motivating and empowering ways. Thus, without intending to do so, we sometimes find that we have set up classrooms in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. How can we create classroom learning communities in which the skills and strategies we diligently teach are practiced by all of our students in powerful, engaging ways? In TLC we have an opportunity to ask and answer this question in studies in our own classrooms and in conversation with one another. Some members of TLC teach in Title I schools where there are many programs and pressures to raise literacy achievement. Some work in more affluent school districts and have greater autonomy to create individual programs, yet still are accountable for students' learning and their performance on high-stakes achievement tests. In each case, we find that it is easy to lose our way as we try to construct coherent, meaningful literacy experiences for all our students. Figure 1 illustrates an example from one of the school districts of the forces that influence the teaching of literacy in one of our members classroom.
Describing this figure during our IRA Awards Address, Nina Hasty, one of the teacher authors of this paper, said the following:
The circles in this diagram illustrate the various groups with a stake in literacy instruction in my district, and many people have had a voice in thesepublishers, administrators, curriculum specialists, politicians, university professors. Notice that the teacher is at the center of this diagram. I am in the center in terms of my direct work with children and my accountability, but it is hard for me to have a voice about my own practice outside the confines of my room. In a group such as TLC, I use my own voice to learn with other teachers so that I can improve literacy education for youngsters. In inquiring into the factors that shape my practice, I am discovering that the curriculum is not the reading series. It is not is the MEAP test or my district's exit skills for promotion to the next grade. The literacy curriculum is about spoken and written language. The curriculum is an ongoing conversation with and among my students.
This conversation, as Bruner (1986) has taught us, folds back on itself and gets more complex as we learn. As such, it frames what we read, write, say, and hear in the process of learning literacy. In the learning conversation in Miss Hastys classroom, she and her students talk and wonder together about how language works, what written language is used for, how authors use different kinds of text to convey ideas, how to make sense of their lives through reading and writing, and how their lives are "storied."
Why We Need One Another
In their role as teacher educators, two authors of this paper were particularly concerned with the problem of teachers being asked to teach in dialogic ways without having experienced this kind of teaching for themselves, and with a related problem of practice. Teacher education students and practicing teachers rarely have the opportunity to experience sustained exploration of a complex idea, let alone through dialogic practices. One such complex idea that we have found to be particularly challenging is that of cultureespecially as it is manifest in classrooms throughout the United States, and as it affects literacy teaching and learning.
In the beginning of what became TLC, Florio-Ruane adapted the Book Club instructional framework developed by Raphael and her associates to teachers' learning about culture. Book Club had been developed to support youngsters' skill development in the areas of comprehension and interpretation of text, and Florio-Ruane modified it to apply to adults and to develop the cultural theme in a masters level course she then taught. In this initial book club course we read, wrote, and spoke about culture in response to autobiographical literature. In addition, we thought about our own development as literacy learners and as members of a culturally diverse society, as teachers in the course developed vignettes revealing their own autobiographies as literacy learners. Course members remained together, meeting monthly to form the Literary Circle. Our ongoing teaching and research finds that because culture was so hard for us to talk about, sustained reading and conversation engaging multiple texts are needed repeatedly to explore the concept. Thus conversation can be a powerful way to learn about complex concepts in indeterminate domains (Spiro, Coulson, Feltovich, & Anderson, 1988; Spiro, Feltovich, Jacobson, & Coulson, 1992).
There is a family resemblance between teachers' leaning about a complex construct such as culture and the kind of curriculum conversations we want to seeand to supportthrough our students' reading, writing, and talking about text. Children's conceptions of culture, both in their own lives, and as a key part of learning to contribute to a democratic society, are like our ownremarkably, but not surprisingly, impoverished. Learning about democratic valuescurrently listed as one of the primary national goals within national and state social studies standardsrequires not only the expository knowledge that typically is transmitted through textbooks, but also the important experiences that stem from engaging with that process. Thus, a second "node" in the TLC network formed through the creation of the Book Club Plus Study Group, focused on extending what we had learned through the course and Literary Circle to developing meaningful literacy curriculum for diverse learners.
Our Storied Lives Curriculum
On the one hand, we are obligated to make sure all students have decoding skills sufficient to read independently. Thus, it is vital for all students to have sufficient practice using reading materials that are at their instructional level. On the other hand, it is a crucial goal to make sure that students learn to think as readers and writers. Students must therefore also have access to age-appropriate material that challenges their thinking and fosters thoughtful talk and writing about text. We cannot choose between these two obligations; nor must we view them as being in opposition. Good literacy education must involve both.
As things currently stand, low-achieving readers may conceivably go through school never engaging with challenging texts appropriate for their age level, texts that require higher order thinking and interpretation skills such as those laid out in our national agenda. Moreover, these struggling readers do not have the opportunity to talk with peers about such materials and the ideas they contain. Further, in such circumstances the classroom becomes stratified. It is difficult in that setting, if not impossible, for low-achieving readers to join, or for the teacher to create a functioning community of learners. TLC identified this problem at the core of the re-engagement of struggling readers. Over the past three years the teacher researchers in TLC have designed, taught, and evaluated a curricular framework aimed at solving this problem. We call the framework Book Club Plus.
Book Club Plus
In one context, Literacy Block, activities related to the skills and strategies of reading and writing are taught and practiced. They may include writers' workshops, practice activities to foster word-level decoding skills; reading (or listening to) books individually or in peer groups, and so forth. However, one important feature of Literacy Block is guided reading, or teacher-led discussion around specific skills, strategies, and words to be taught. Students learn these within the guided reading groups using texts at their instructional level. These texts are all thematically linked to the unit in which the entire class participates and to the books that are discussed in weekly Book Clubs.
In the other context, Book Club, heterogeneous student-led book clubs are the sites where students apply the strategies they have been taught by discussing compelling, age-appropriate literature. Access to the literature discussed in the Book Clubs can involve a variety of routes: independent reading, buddy reading, listening or viewing centers, and teacher read-alouds. What is crucial is not that every child read every Book Club book independently, but that all children have access to the challenging, age-appropriate text and all students write and speak in response to it. As they respond to the texts and to one another, students learn to link texts to examine complex ideas.
Culture is one of the complex ideas we explored to anchor our yearlong curricular theme, "Our Storied Lives." Students address this theme in three 6-8 week units: Stories of Self, Family Stories, and Stories of Culture. This progression of units allows us to begin with a focus on the self, a concept that fits with curricular materials across grade levels, and it contextualizes the self within the broader areas of family, community, and society.
Each unit within the "Storied Lives" framework draws upon a set of books that allows the particular focus to be fully developed. Focus development occurs through the Book Club book, the guided reading books and/or stories, the teacher's read aloud, shared reading books that are often the basis for mini-lessons during Writers Workshop, and the classroom library which often serves students sustained silent reading. Further, each unit includes a culminating project requiring students to apply and integrate language arts skills and strategies along with the overarching theme. Teachers alternated students Book Club activities (2-3 days per week) with the guided reading and independent unit work of Literacy Block (2-3 days per week).
Table 1 lays out the books we used when teaching the Family Stories unit. We featured work of Patricia Polacco, a prolific Michigan author who bases her writings on her own life, highlighting relationships among family members, cultural heritage, and family stories.
Table 1: Family Stories Texts
In describing this unit we make reference to students' work in the classroom of Marianne George, one of the authors of this paper.
The culminating project that students in Mrs. Georges third grade classroom created involved oral re-tellings of family stories based upon artifacts that they valued. For example, Nathans grandfathers father had come from Ireland. When it came time to share his family story, Nathan brought a pickle barrel he and his father had made and shared the story he had learned by interviewing his grandfather. As Nathan tells it, his great-grandfather had to leave Ireland rather suddenly and in secret, so he stowed away inside a pickle barrel and escaped on a boat. The interactions Nathan had with his father and grandfather brings home the importance of such assignments, while the family story content highlights one of the many histories of how America was built.
The variety of artifacts students brought to this task reflected what they had learned from reading picture books such as William Joyces (1997) The World of William Joyce Scrapbook and hearing autobiographies of Roald Dahl, Gary Paulsen, Jean Craighead George and others. Moreover, they were informed by their continually developing reading, writing, and discussion skills as well as their knowledge of culture and of how lives are presented and re-presented. These family stories are so deeply rooted in the students cultural heritage that it was a natural transition to the third unit in the theme, Stories of Culture.
The students learned what an artifact was and, in so doing, discovered culture in material aspects of everyday life. They saw how these matternot just as festivals or tokens of ethnic identitybut as receptacles of collected and collective meaning, signals of the shared activities and understandings within social groups. Writing and oral language are artifacts of culture by this definition as are such objects as pickle barrels.
In Mrs. Georges third grade, students learned about themselves and each other, and their relationship to other family members and their cultural heritage. In Marcella Kehus eighth grade class, students used different books but a similar thematic focus and instructional framework to explore more complex issues of identity, conformity, and social responsibility.
Mrs. Georges ongoing teacher research examines whether and how this curriculum supports students' learning to make intertextual connectionsacross texts, between the texts and their own lives, and across the contexts of writing, reading, and discussionto understand a complex concept (Hartman, 1991). At least two decades of research document the importance of background knowledge for text understandings, and important sources for such knowledge include other texts students read, as well as the "texts" of their own lived experiences (Anderson, Hiebert, Wilkinson, & Scott, 1984; Sipe, 2000). Mrs. George chose to study intertextual connections for many reasons, with one of the most important being how such connections impact students' response to literature, their text comprehension, and the interpretations they make.
Two examples illustrate the intertextual connections students make and why we teach so that students come to value such connections. In the first example, we highlight how Mrs. Georges students used text-to-text connections as they responded to books within the family stories unit. In the second, a connection from text to life helped one of her second language learners find a way to talk about his own feelings of frustration in dealing with living in a new country.
The first example is taken from an entry Mrs. George made in her teacher researcher log, dated Feb. 12. Following a read aloud, she was eavesdropping on her students as they talked during snack time. In her log, she wrote,
The children's intertextual connections began by noting that the role of the grandparents in each of two stories was quite similar, helping their grandchild overcome a specific fear. They contrasted the two on the basis of gender. Chelsea's contribution was even more sophisticated, making a connection at the level of characters' agency in the story and highlighting that the two generations' roles were reversed in De Paola's story, where a child helps his grandfather overcome a fear. Their comments were spontaneous, rather than orchestrated by the teacher, the connections showed depth, and the fact that they occurred during snack time suggests that the students have internalized what they had been taught about both text interpretation and conversation.
When the unit drew to a close, the teacher led a whole-class discussion in which she asked my students to think about the big ideas or themes that reflected commonalties across their texts. Hands shot up, and one of the first themes to be identified was "facing your fears." We took this as evidence that conversations outside the formal context of Book Club and Literacy Block were as important to students' meaning making as those orchestrated within.
In the second example, the text of Molly's Pilgrim helps a second language learner develop the language to talk about his often-frustrating school experiences. Johann, an ESL student from Germany, joined the classroom in February, speaking little English, though able to read at about a 2nd grade level. Mollys Pilgrim was the Book Club selection as part of the unit "Stories of Culture." Johann was "buddied" with a more proficient reader during the silent reading portion of Book Club. From Mrs. Georges teacher research log, we read:
If, as Gavelek and Raphael (1996) have argued, learning is a complex, iterative process of social engagement, reflection, and transformation, then the Book Club seems to foster learning about self, other, and text. The multiple texts students and teacher can reference include the published books they discuss, the writing they do in response, the oral stories they hear, and the stories they dare to tell one another. These intertextual connections make a fabric within which literature can be understood and the conventions of reading and writing practiced to powerful ends. Thus, in our network's research, we focus on them and hope to understand better the role of curricular frameworks in teaching and teacher thinking, and the effectiveness of a framework like Book Club Plus for re-engaging struggling readers.
Assessment Research in Book Club Plus
The much harder task for us involved assessment in two major facets:
We looked around and learned from others; especially from Au (Au, Carroll, & Scheu, 1995) and Valencia (1999), and their teacher research colleagues in Hawaii and Washington, respectively. We began to think that both ourselves and our students might be able to put our own voices in the center of the assessment conversation. Thus, on one summer weekend a small group of us got together in a cabin in the lush countryside of Garland in northern Michigan to generate the "I Can Statements" displayed in Figure 3.
Figure 3: Garland "I Can" Statements
We used these "I Can" statements to create an assessment system for Book Club Plus guided by our national, state, and district standards, but tailored to the goals and commitments of our curriculum framework. For the first time, the Garland "I Can" statements pushed us to say in our own words what was important to teach, learn, and assess within Book Club Plus.
Perhaps tackling assessment is the strongest example of our efforts to "think for ourselves" as teachers of literacy. The "I Can" statements can be thought of as an artifact constructed within the TLC community of practice. As such, they stand in stark contrast to many of the assessments the teachers were required by their schools, districts, or state to undertake. They were devised in ways cognizant of other yardsticks against which teachers and pupils would be measured, but they were framed in terms that made sense within the TLC teachers' classrooms and Book Club Plus curriculum. To develop these statements, we moved from the formal statements of official documents from national, state, and district standards to language we could use with our students. For example, one standard in our Michigan English Language Arts Framework states that:
Our own wording for that standard highlights specific ways our students could be expected to contribute to a good discussion. Thus, the "I can" for this discussion goal begins with the general statement, "I can contribute to a book club discussion," and then is broken down into much more specific indicators of what the student knows, can do, and, with the teacher, can accumulate evidence for having learned:
These "I Can" statements provided the foundation from which grade-level benchmarks and subsequent rubrics could be developed. These rubrics and benchmarks became the foundation of our assessment system, providing the framework for student self-evaluation, teacher evaluation, and portfolios that together provide evidence of learning. We aimed to make our language clear and simple for our students. Ironically, once we had made these "I Can" statements for each the standards, we found that we had also created language much preferred by our parents, administrators and colleagues. Thus, the "I Can" statements gave us a common language to discuss our work both in going public with our colleagues and as we continue our research on student learning in Book Club Plus.
These criteria, in turn, became the rubric for assessing students' progress, both as self-evaluation and from teacher observations. We did similar activities with students' writing, reading, and content learning. We feel confident that such a broad-sweeping assessment model meets the needs of all stakeholders in communicating about student achievement.
Our overall assessment system, reflected in Figure 4, flows from the "I Can" Statements.
/Insert Figure 4 about here/
It is designed to track student learning in these five areas in a variety of waysfrom the work samples collected in portfolios, to standardized tests of reading and language arts, to running records and teacher observations, to pre- and post-evaluations of student-led book club discussions. We present one summative essay related to our reading theme to illustrate how we are able to assess at various levels and for different audiences or stakeholders. For this piece of writing, we began with a student's self-evaluation that informed both student and teacher as to how this student was performing in relation to his/her own learning goals. For our own teaching purposes, we also kept anecdotal notes to inform our teaching. This piece of writing would also more formally be evaluated using a rubric based on "I Can" statement(s) and our negotiated benchmarks; such a rubric serves to inform multiple audiences, primarily the students and parents, as to how the work matches our criteria of success in the given area. This same rubric could also be translated into a number or letter grade for district report cards, communicating achievement for local school and district accountability. Lastly, in the broadest sense, the work could be evaluated according to state or national standards, such as giving a holistic score to their writing indicating their level of proficiency.
Building on the generative nature of the "I Can" statement for youngsters, we are also beginning to develop "I Can" statements for ourselves. Few studies in education have tried to link changes in teachers' knowledge with changes in pupils' knowledge. This means that we do not know well what makes for optimum teacher education in the service of literacy learning for all students. As we look at our roles as leaders in our profession and participants in the preparation of the next generation of teachers, we hope to devise "I Can" Statements for teacher learning that are powerfully connected to the learning of youngsters. We believe this is important because we are coming to find that the teacher learning needed to teach literacy well is, like literacy learning itself, complex and multifaceted.
Thinking and Speaking for Ourselves
Through conversation in professional study groups, we became convinced that we needed a new, or at least a substantially modified, curriculum. In TLC, we met in book clubs and study groups for experience in conversation-based learning, emphasizing critical thinking, and working within a community of learners to solve a problem. We took from our experiences as readers, writers, and thinkers, insights for our own teaching. That led us to the design, teaching, and assessment of the "Storied Lives" curriculum and studying how our struggling readers both experienced and learned from that curriculum.
We have also begun to "go public" with our ideas through both informal and formal presentations. In doing this, we introduce our ideas to members of a broader professional community who, in turn, further our thinking by their response to our work. The contexts in which teachers work today tend to be isolated from other professionals. They are embedded within a hierarchical system in which the teachers' day-to-day activities are governed by external forces: administrative mandates, parental requests, and, somewhat unique to today's climate, legislative directives. Missing from the lives of teachers is the opportunity to articulate and investigate with others the means for improving our practice and the learning of those with whom we work. Study groups provide an activity setting in which these voices and views can be expressed as part of learning.
From psychological perspectives, teacher study groups are illustrative of the power of a learning community. For the past two decades, many literacy educators have drawn on the work of Ann Brown, Annemarie Palincsar, Barbara Rogoff, Jean Lave and others to detail the ways in which Vygotsky's (1978) theory of learning plays out in discourse practices. Vygotsky's basic tenet is that learning is a social phenomenon. Individuals learn, but that learning begins, and is based in, social activity or the social plane. This social plane is reflected in the public and shared discourse of the teacher study group as ideas are appropriated and transformed.
Sociolinguists such as Swales (1977) and Gee (1992) have helped us to understand the importance of this public discourse. Knowledge of the language practices within a discourse community provides access to that community and defines who the community members are. Language is a key factor in the development of our identitiesas professionals, as educators, as literacy educators, and as teacher researchers. Understanding the importance of the discourse community helps us create opportunities for access and opportunities to harness the power of conversation to move beyond the immediate setting and effect important changes in practice.
In our collaborative research, we found that out of a dialogue among our diverse participants, we constructed knowledge that might otherwise have eluded us if we had conducted either traditional university-based research or innovative school-based practitioner research in isolation. Rather than define practitioner research as alternative to or in opposition to university-based research on teaching, we hope to have argued persuasively for a model of "learning community" (Schwab, 1976), or negotiated knowledge and meaning within a diverse group with common concerns. Thus, while we are not naive about the historical privileging of academic research in which teachers serve as "subjects" or "informants," we are also not sanguine about such work. We underscore teacher research as another powerful, butlike university-driven researchalso limited genre for the study of education.
In organizing our group explicitly to work against the traditional isolation of teacher from teacher, university from classroom, novice from experienced educator, we hope to craft a new professional community with a new discourse for the understanding and improvement of practice. From the content of our teaching, to our authorship of the curriculum, to our commitment to supporting diverse learners, to our reflections on the experience to date, TLC Network participants reflect the power of dialogic models of professional development.
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Childrens Books Cited
Dahl, Roald (1984). Boy: Tales of a childhood. Puffin Books: New York.
George, Jean Craighead (1996). The tarantula in my purse and 172 other wild pets. HarperCollins Children's Books: New York.
Joyce, William (1997). The world of William Joyce scrapbook. NY: HarperCollins Publishers
McKissack, Patricia (1992). "Chicken Coop Monster." From The dark thirty: Southern tales of the supernatural. Illustrated by Brian Pinkney. Scholastic: New York.
Polacco, Patricia (1978). Meteor! Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers. New York.
Polacco, Patricia (1991). Some birthday! Aladdin Paperbacks, Simon & Schuster: New York.
Polacco, Patricia (1992). Chicken Sunday. Philomel Books: New York.
Polacco, Patricia (1992). Picnic at Mudsock Meadow. Putnam & Grosset Group: New York.
Polacco, Patricia (1993). The bee tree. Putnam & Grosset Group: New York.
Polacco, Patricia (1994). Firetalking. Richard C. Owen, Publishers: New York.
Polacco, Patricia (1994). My rotten redheaded older brother. Aladdin Paperbacks, Simon & Schuster: New York.
Polacco, Patricia (1994). Tikvah means hope. Doubleday Books for Young Readers: New York.
Polacco, Patricia (1998). Thank you Mr. Falkner. Philomel Books: New York.
This research was conducted as part of CIERA, the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement, and supported under the Educational Research and Development Centers Program, PR/Award Number R305R70004, as administered by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education. However, the contents of the described report do not necessarily represent the positions or policies of the National Institute on Student Achievement, Curriculum, and Assessment or the National Institute on Early Childhood development, or the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.