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Curriculum Q & A Blog, Question 40

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    Katie Shenk

Do you have questions about teaching the EL Education K–5 Language Arts Curriculum? We've got answers!

Come back every week for the latest from the Curriculum Q & A Blog.

Question: How do the texts in our curriculum engage students and inspire them to become agents of change? (an interview with author Melissa Stewart)

We have heard time and again from teachers around the country that one of the greatest gifts our curriculum gives them is a collection of rich, compelling, and worthy texts. And, as they learn to teach these texts in new ways, they learn more about what makes a text high-quality, and what makes it worth their time to teach and their students’ time to read, analyze, and draw meaning from. One teacher told us that the texts in the curriculum were a “gift that just keeps giving.”  

We are grateful for the authors of the compelling, well-crafted and beautiful texts we selected for our curriculum, including Melissa Stewart, author of four books used in our K-2 curriculum. Stewart recently participated in an interview with EL Education. Today’s post includes the first portion of our interview, in which Stewart shares what inspires her writing, gives us insight into her choice of text structure, and offers reflection in response to a piece of student work influenced by her bird texts.

We hope you’ll enjoy learning from this inspiring and talented author as much as we did.  Come back next week for Part 2 of her interview, where we’ll also showcase student work from 2nd grade pollinator experts.

Helping our Feathered Friends

First grade students read Stewart’s Feathers, Not Just for Flying in Module 3, Unit 2 as they research how feathers help birds survive. They encounter her work again in Module 4, Unit 3, when they read A Place for Birds as they learn more about the dangers birds face and how people can help them live and grow. Students synthesize their learning from both of these texts as they create their performance tasks—Feathered Friends Savers—for the culmination of Module 4. A Feathered Friend Saver is a high-quality, realistic portrait of a local bird that is formatted to attach to a window. When displayed in a window, the portrait helps to prevent birds from flying into the window. We’ll take a closer look at a sample of student writing from this module a bit later in the post.

A first grade student at Pacific Heritage Academy in Salt Lake City created this beautiful “Feathered Friend Saver” as part of the Module 4 Performance Task.

What inspired you to write the books A Place for Butterflies, A Place for Birds, and A Place for Bats?  

Stewart: After publishing about fifty traditional survey nonfiction books with school and library publishers, I was looking for a new challenge. While writing an article for the Massachusetts Audubon Society, I learned that the Harris’ Checkerspot butterfly was nearly extinct in Massachusetts because its habitat was being altered.

The only remaining Harris’ Checkerspot population lived in a field beneath some high tension power lines. Each spring, the electric company mowed the field, so workers could access the power lines if repairs were needed. Unfortunately, Harris’ Checkerspot eggs and caterpillars were destroyed in the process. Luckily, Mass Audubon convinced the electric company to mow in the fall, when winged adults could fly out of harm’s way. Thanks to this policy change, the Harris’ Checkerspot population is now growing.

I wanted to bring this story of caring and cooperation to kids, but I knew it wasn’t enough for an entire book. So I started looking for other examples of people protecting butterflies and their habitats. Eventually, I collected thirty, which was more than enough to write A Place for Butterflies.

Because the book was popular with readers and won the Green Earth Book Award, my editor asked me to write a similar book about another group of animals. I chose birds. When that book also sold well, the publisher decided to create a whole series. Today, there are six books in all.

Why did you decide to write these books with two layers of text and a cause and effect text structure?

Stewart: During a school visit, I overheard teachers lamenting how difficult it is to teach young children cause and effect, so I decided to create a concept picture book with a cause and effect text structure and an expository writing style. The format would include two layers of text, and I’d use a third-person point of view. This kind of planning is a critical step in my pre-writing process.

Having two layers of text makes a book appealing to a broad range of age levels. Early elementary students can focus on the simpler main text at the top of each spread. Students in grades 3-5 can dig deeper by reading the more complex secondary text too. In the A Place for books, the secondary text has a problem-solution text structure. It explains how scientists and citizens are working together to protect the featured animals and preserve their environments.

One of our students wrote this paragraph after reading your book Feathers: Not Just for Flying. Do you see evidence that this child understands the ideas and information you are most interested in sharing with young readers?

A first grade writer at Pacific Heritage Academy in Salt Lake City uses his knowledge of birds’ feathers to explain why they are amazing in hopes that readers will use the Feathered Friend Saver to care for birds in their community.

Stewart: Wow, do I ever. This is terrific! Feathers: Not Just for Flying is a concept book that focuses on the structure and function of bird feathers. The book’s main idea is that birds use their feathers in all kinds of ways, some of which are pretty surprising.   

Like the A Place for books, Feathers has two layers of text. The main text presents main ideas. It includes similes to add a little bit of fun and to help young readers relate to some of the abstract ideas. The secondary text presents supporting details.

This child’s paragraph reflects the format of the book. S/he begins with a main idea, “Birds are amazing,” and then the next four sentences offer supporting details. The examples s/he chose let me know which pages in the book were most meaningful to the student.

As you can see from the student work above, Stewart’s texts about birds inspired and influenced these young citizen scientists to take action on behalf of their feathered friends. In next week’s post, we’ll show another sample of student work inspired by Stewart’s texts (this time, from 2nd grade!) and share the second part of our interview with her.

Have some great examples of students creating work that contributes to a better world? We’d LOVE to see them.  Please share your student work via email at

For more general information about our curriculum, check out our website or book Your Curriculum Companion: The Essential Guide to Teaching the EL Education K-5 Language Arts Curriculum