A Can Be… Nonfiction Project for Schools

What did I do this summer? I spent three weeks with K‑5 summer school students in a local school district. It was the most intense visiting author program I’ve ever done. Three weeks, four sites, 1700 students. Whew! It was hard work and incredibly rewarding. I shared this process in my Salas Snippets e‑letter for educators last month (you can subscribe here), but then I decided to share it here on my blog, too. Maybe this would be a nonfiction project you’d like to undertake with your own students in this new school year? Having students use A LEAF CAN BE… and WATER CAN BE… as mentor texts for their own Can Be… books felt amazing. Here’s a video about the whole process–check out the students’ awesome work!

And here’s a short article a local paper did about the program. Maybe you’re interested in creating Can Be… books with your students? If so, here are a few resources:

* the teaching guide, which suggests a Can Be… book and includes a few binding ideas and one template page

* a template page for primary grades  

Sample Can Be… page for primary classes

* a sample page for primary students

*a template page for upper elementary students

* a sample page for upper elementary students

And here are some basic steps, though you can, of course, adjust these to fit your specific group of kids!

1. Students each pick a broad TOPIC to explore. Good choices would be an animal (though if it’s an animal they don’t know well, more research will be involved), a basic nature object (a stick, the sun, a bug), or a manmade but VERY general object like paper, or a box.

2. Then students ASK questions about their object. You can read them some questions to get them started. They should jot down questions or you could keep a running list posted in your room. Here are some examples:

  • What does it do that helps us?
  • What does it do that is not so great?
  • What does it do in the morning? Afternoon? Evening?
  • What does it do in the summer? Fall? Winter? Spring?
  • Where does it go?
  • What does it eat?
3. Then students READ and LOOK to find answers to the questions they choose. Not every kid will answer every question. Not all the questions apply to different objects. You will decide how much to focus on using the library to research their topics or using simple observation.
4. Each student WRITES down the list of answers as he or she finds them. For instance, say a kid chose a kitten. His answer list might look like this:
  1. A kitten sleeps a lot.
  2. A kitten drinks milk.
  3. A kitten purrs.
  4. A kitten wakes me up in the morning.
  5. A kitten cries.

Note: It’s crucial that these sentences have active verbs in them! If students write sentences like, “A giraffe is tall,” it will be a lot harder to turn them into ‑er sentences, the next step. So, avoid passive verbs like is, are, was, have been, did, etc.

5. Show kids how to MAKE ‑ER SENTENCES. This involves:
  • inserting “can be a” after the topic word (kitten)
  • finding the action word, the verb (sleeps)
  • turning the action word into an ‑er word (sleeper)
  • adding other words to give detail if you like (long sleeper? heavy sleeper? snoring sleeper?
  • rearranging the words to make the sentence work (A kitten can be a heavy sleeper.)

Learning how to make the ‑er sentences was a blast for kids. I brought lots of colored sheets of paper with words written on them for examples. Then I used volunteers to come form the sentence. So five kids would stand in front, each holding a piece of paper with a word on it–A, kitten, sleeps, a, lot.


Then I would ask, “OK, what do we need in every sentence for our Can Be… book?” They would holler “can be a!” So I’d get three more volunteers to hold those papers and they’d skooch in after “A kitten.”

Then I’d say, “Where’s our action word?” And once they figured it out, I’d have the “sleeps” volunteer hold up his paper high and spin around a time or two.

Ready to build some ‑er sentences!

“How are we going to change our action word?” When I called on a student who said “add ‑er,” that person became my ‑er volunteer. They’d take the ‑er paper and find the action word and connect the two papers (sometimes the ‑er paper needs to cover the end of the action word–for instance, to cover the silent e at the end of “wake”). Then we’d rearrange the words to make a sentence that follows the can be… format, and some volunteers would be sent back to their seats with a thank you and a cheer if their words didn’t make it into the final sentence. Other words might need to be added.

Ready for volunteers

It was really interactive having the kids moving around, holding their papers, and transforming their sentences. They loved bossing the words around–being in charge of them! By the time we did four or five samples (including taking a sentence or two from a volunteer’s list of simple sentences), everybody was pretty clear on how to do this.

6. Give students any needed details about their sidebar sentences. When time permitted, I discussed with kids the relationship between the main sentence on the page and the sidebar detail. We talked about topic sentences and main ideas, and how all of the sentences on the page should relate back to their ‑er sentences about their topic. I would give them several sentences around a topic and have them tell me which one didn’t belong. We examined the main sentence, such as “A kitten can be a milk drinker,” and I asked them questions about it, like: When does a kitten drink milk? Why does a kitten drink milk? How does a kitten drink milk? We talked about how those questions could help them come up with details for their sidebar boxes.

How long you want their CAN BE… books to be is totally up to you. Maybe it’s a classroom book and everyone does one page. Maybe each student creates her own. For primary grades, you might have to help more with the ‑er sentence forms, though I was surprised at how many kids that young still got it. Other primary teachers decided not to use the actual ‑er form and just focused on naming different roles of common objects. There was a lot of variety in these books, as you can see in the video, so it’s a really adaptable project.

The kids created amazing Can Be… books!

I hope to do this project at more schools, and I’d actually like to put together a project booklet giving these details to teachers anywhere who are interested in doing Can Be… books at their schools. If you end up making Can Be… books with students, I’d love any tips or pictures you’d care to share. Thanks!  

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