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Assessing Writing Well

by Vicki Spandel

Introduction

Assessing writing is one of the most difficult things we do, mostly because it’s so personal—on both sides. It’s hard to determine what’s true or important about a given piece of writing. And it’s extremely difficult to give good writing advice that makes a difference without hurting feelings. With so much at stake, it’s critical to get it right. How on earth do we do that? Following are a few thoughts.

Remember that writing is a gift. Writers write for one main reason—to be read. No matter what assessment approach you take, remember this: Your students are waiting for your response. They’re hoping you’ll find something to like. Something. Anything. Even the struggling writers hope. And if you don’t, what’s their motivation to write more?

In my years of working with teachers, I must have been asked this question a thousand times: How do you get kids to want to write? The answer is simple, and it’s right in front of us—or more accurately, right within us. Be a good audience. Sound too easy? There’s nothing easy about it. To be a good audience you need to be open-minded, perceptive, enthusiastic, engaged, and so eager to read the next piece it’s like you’re standing with outstretched arms to receive it. This is something you cannot fake. If you look on each piece of writing as a gift, you’re already doing the most important thing any writing teacher can do. And if you’re not, almost nothing else you do will help.

Admit that “the truth” is a myth. In a classroom, unfortunately, students are usually writing for a one-person audience. They get one shot to make or break it. Sadly, students don’t always realize that no matter how well-read and experienced a teacher may be, no single response can never be representative of how a broader audience might react. This is why author and teacher Peter Elbow reminds us that the “truth” about any piece of writing is very big, and lies in the combined multiple responses of a whole community of writers.

Any subjective assessment must be taken with, as Mark Twain might have said, a few tons of salt. Let students know that although your assessment of their writing will always be as fair and honest as you can make it, other readers might respond differently.

I am from . . .

Every professional writer out there knows this well. Most have had their work rejected repeatedly before finally getting something published, then proving the critics wrong as the public devours every word. To see some hilarious rejection notes, look up “17 Famous Authors and Their Rejections” published by Mental Floss: http://mentalfloss.com/article/91169/16-famous-authors-and-their-rejections.

This is my favorite from that collection: “You’d have a decent book if you’d get rid of that Gatsby character.”

Like all writers, students need responses from more than one person. Widen the audience when you can. Have students share writing within peer groups. Partner with another class. Find pen pals. Do school-wide drama or poetry readings. And encourage students to write for community outlets, such as a school or town newspaper.

Tell students what you want. Clarity is essential. Whatever your assessment approach—points, scores, grades, comments—explain it in words students can understand. Let them know what you’re looking for, and what changes the game for you. Read aloud from your favorite authors often, daily if possible, and talk about why they move you. Do you like humor? Total honesty? Vivid imagery? Mystery? Striking verbs? Off-beat characters? Realistic dialogue? Poetic language? Unexpected details? Good research? An ending you can’t anticipate? Whatever your preferences, back them up with examples.

I’ve always loved six-trait writing because written criteria make it crystal clear what a reviewer is looking for. Without that clarity, students are guessing what you want. That’s not fair. You don’t need to use the six traits to make your wishes transparent, though; share your own criteria, whatever they may be. And just because you put them in writing, that’s no sign they’re final. You have the option—indeed, the obligation—to revise them as you learn more about what you value. Values evolve for everyone who reads because reading expands and refines our preferences. Reading is how we teach ourselves to write.

Whatever you do, don’t fall into the “I’ll know it when I see it” trap. Everyone feels that way, and this old platitude provides a convenient excuse for not examining our beliefs, never daring to make them visible. Make no mistake: Defining what makes writing work is very hard, and very personal. What moves me may not touch your soul at all. That doesn’t let either one of us off the hook. “What constitutes good writing?” is a question that has no final or “correct” answer, and that’s why we need to keep asking it forever.

Honor the sacred rule of assessment. Finally, we have to remember the number one rule of good assessment—any assessment anywhere: Is it helpful to the person being assessed? If the answer is no (which it often is), we have to find another way. Good writing assessment always, without exception, gives the writer information or strategies she can use the very next time she writes. Perhaps forever. Isn’t that a lot to ask? Not really. That’s actually the minimum we should expect.

8 Things That Make a Difference

Following are eight things I’ve learned through the years about assessing writing well at the classroom level, whether you’re putting scores or grades on papers, writing comments, holding conferences, or all of these things together.

  1. Don’t feel compelled to comment on everything.

It’s overwhelming and exhausting. You don’t want to write that much, and no one wants to read it—least of all the writer. Especially given how unlikely it is that ALL your comments will be positive.

Start by getting grounded. Read the piece once to get it in your head, no pen or pencil in hand—yet. What’s the main message? What’s the mood? What touches you? What feels unfinished? What’s most striking? What’s missing? Ask yourself what the writer needs to keep on doing or might do differently. Then go through the piece again, commenting on those stand-out parts, always focusing first on what’s working well—and then perhaps offering a suggestion for something to try. Coach a writer the way you’d coach a marathon runner at the halfway mark.

  • Focus more on the writer than on the writing.

Whether a given piece of writing winds up as perfect as you can make it is actually of no consequence whatsoever. This is hard for some of us to come to grips with. We’re so eager to show off what good proofreaders we are and how NOTHING escapes our sharp editorial eyes. We respond to writing as if we were preparing a piece for publication. Unless (and this is rare) the writer shares your enthusiasm for that effort, it’s a horrible waste of precious teacher time and energy. So—don’t get roped into being an editor for your students.

Will you see a lot of things you would do differently? Or better? Almost certainly. Should you point them all out? No. If you do, trust me, you will be writing notes to yourself. Instead, ask yourself, What is this writer, this student, this person doing that I want to encourage? What would be the one thing he or she could try that would make the biggest difference down the road?

  • Put conventions in their place.

Too often I’ve seen the stumbling block conventions can create for a teacher/reviewer who simply cannot look beyond them. Details lie flattened under misspelled words. Voice and word choice are lost in the weed patch of faulty punctuation. Fluency is choked by grammatical errors. Don’t let conventional errors distract you.

Respond to the message first. Read the piece aloud as if it were picture perfect and ask yourself what you hear, what you picture, what you learn or feel. Occasionally if possible, ask a friend to read a conventionally challenging piece aloud to you; that way, you won’t even see the conventions, and that makes it easier to concentrate on what the writer is saying and how passionately she is expressing her thoughts.

Grade conventions separately if possible—or make that factor one slice of a bigger writing pie. Is this easy to do? Not at all. But if you try, you can teach yourself to look beyond conventions to the message and voice beneath. Think what that will mean to the student who writes with stunning voice that has never, ever been heard because her spelling and punctuation are all anyone has ever noticed.

A few years ago, I came across this piece written by a student who dreaded summer vacation because it meant she would have to leave her beloved teacher and the school room where she felt safe. She wrote (in penmanship far harder to read than this clear print) “it is theend sumrisomisthir butiwrtuvrfrgit [teacher’s name]” Translation: “It is the end. Summer is almost here. But I won’t ever forget _______ .”

Eventually, you DO need to teach conventions. If you don’t, who will? The thing is, though, correcting is not teaching. It feels like teaching, but in reality it’s the opposite. It turns student thinking off. Number one, you’re being a critic. And what do you do when someone criticizes your efforts? Right. Second, by making corrections, you’re taking responsibility for tracking down all the errors—so who’s learning to edit? It’s a rare student, that once-in-a-lifetime driven student, who learns anything at all from corrected copy. The best way to learn conventions is by being an editor. Here’s one way to make that happen . . .

  • Teach conventions—every day—by making students editors.

Instead of correcting errors, teach conventions by turning students into editors. Where to begin? In the most logical place of all: with the problems they’re currently having. Lift the copy for practice editing right from students’ own work. Sometimes, more than one student is having trouble matching subjects and verbs, knowing when to use who or whom, figuring out how to set up a quotation—or whatever. Perfect. That’s the very issue you want to focus on.

Pluck a representative problem sentence from any student’s piece, and reproduce it on your white board or electronic board for everyone to edit. Here’s a dangling modifier straight from a student’s piece, but it could just as well have come from adult writing—which I love pointing out to students:

  • Driving down the road, icicles were hanging from every rooftop.

Next step: Ask everyone in the class to read the sentence carefully, think about what it literally says and what the writer means to say, then edit it. This takes only a couple minutes. Let them check with a partner to see if their editorial changes match. Ask a few volunteers to share their corrections and write them out so others can compare their own changes. Work with them, but hold off a bit on sharing your version.

After editing: Explore the problem. Conventions are often a matter of logic, though students usually don’t think of them this way. In teaching conventions, though, this is one of the most important messages you can get across: Conventions are NOT arbitrary rules designed to trip up unwary writers. Conventions make reading easier. Period. That’s their job. itse asyt oma kethis poi ntb y n otusing thm

Ask students who, in our sample sentence, is driving down the road? The way the sentence is written, it’s the icicles. That makes no sense—and certainly is not what the writer means. Notice how easy editing becomes once we employ a little logic:

  • Driving down the road, we saw icicles hanging from every rooftop.

At this point, share your editing too—and in most cases, it will match closely what your students have done. Of course, one sentence does not provide a lot of editing practice, so try to find two, three, or more you can use within one editing lesson. By the way, in my experience students love this approach to teaching editing and do not feel at all threatened by having their writing singled out for practice. On the contrary, they feel as if they’re making a contribution to improving everyone’s editing skills, which they are.

  • Be positive, be enthusiastic, and be specific!

Be positive. Start with what’s working. Can’t find anything? Read again. Look deeper. It’s important to get beyond the cliché response: Thank you for sharing. Maybe this student is tackling a new topic for the first time, writing more than ever before, finally using paragraphs, remembering to include a title, experimenting with periods or other punctuation, including at least one detail, however small, daring to try a verb other than is, are, was, were. There’s something. Find it and you give that writer something to build on instead of another reason to hate writing.

Be enthusiastic. I have often heard teachers say, “Oh, I’ve read this a thousand times. There’s nothing new here.” It’s hard to teach for years without coming to that mindset. You have seen them all, read them all, haven’t you? The special friend, the biggest surprise, the day someone will never forget. But remember: This young writer hasn’t written this a thousand times. He isn’t tired of his message. Help him to see what he’s doing well today and maybe he’ll keep at it long enough to write something you’ll truly love. Instead of being the person who’s heard it all before, maybe you can be something much harder to find: the person who listens for a new riff in that old song everybody recognizes.

Be specific. You don’t want generalities from your students. They’re just as disappointed when they get them from you. Comments like “Good job!” feel good for a second or two (especially when accompanied by a high grade), but they don’t provide the writer with any ideas about how to improve or challenge herself. A writer needs to know two things: What, specifically, was so good about that word, sentence, passage, scene, observation, description, bit of dialogue? And second, what moved, shocked, surprised, horrified, delighted, entertained, or stopped you in your tracks?

Think of a comment you’d make to a professional writer whose novel or nonfiction or poetry was hard to put down. You’d want to go beyond, “Great job!” Your students will appreciate writer-to-writer responses, too:

  • You came up with such precise words for how cats move—“slipping through the grass.” I get such a vivid picture from that.
  • Your title is perfect I kept thinking about it the whole time I was reading.
  • This is my favorite detail/image/scene/bit of dialogue in the whole piece.
  • You made me laugh out loud.
  • This conjured up memories for me. You know how to keep readers reading.
  • I can tell what an important event this was for you.
  • Your opening scene really sets the mood.
  • I enjoyed this passage so much I read it several times.
  • I love the way you play with rhythm, shifting from long sentences to short.
  • Your dialogue is truly authentic—I feel as if I know these characters.
  • You tried something interesting, focusing just on smells instead of trying to include every last sensory detail. Very effective.
  • I never knew dinosaurs could be brainy! I love the way you try to teach readers something they might not know.
  • You made me look at this issue a whole new way. Your argument is compelling.
  • Thank you for going beyond words like nice and special to describe your friend.
  • Saving this example for last was brilliant—it’s the strongest one.
  • Your transitions work beautifully—I find myself floating from paragraph to paragraph effortlessly. Reading this is a pleasure.
  • What a surprise this ending was! I loved it.
  • You managed to convey a wealth of detail without ever being repetitive. I can tell this was written by someone who knows the subject inside and out.
  • The way you weave quotations into your text is so smooth it’s as if you’re bringing these experts right into the conversation.
  • What an intriguing topic you chose, the evolution of horses. How did you come up with it?
  • This scene on the river is so vivid I feel as if I’m rafting with you, hanging on for dear life.
  • Your voice is unique—and very strong.
  • Be careful what you say.

I’ve often talked in workshops about a high school teacher who wrote on one of my essays “Your most irritating habit is your relentless misuse of the semicolon. Please revise!” It struck me then as now that he must have thought I had numerous irritating habits since this semicolon thing was the most irritating. And “relentless”? I’m not sure I was relentless about anything at that point in my life, and even now I can only get just so excited about semicolons.

My point, though, has nothing to do with that cantankerous teacher in particular. The point is, comments linger. Don’t write ANYTHING on a student’s paper that you don’t want that person thinking about decades from now. If you have something kind and encouraging to say, of course, go for it. But just so you know, it’s usually the ugly comments that are long-lived. I know this because I have asked teachers in nearly every one of my seminars to recall the most positive and negative comments they ever received on their writing. The majority could not recall a single positive comment. Not one. (“Good job” has no shelf life whatsoever.) But negative? Hands would shoot into the air, with people calling over each other to share dark memories that still brought tears to their eyes ten, twenty, even thirty years after the fact. Here are just a few arrows to the heart, excerpted from Creating Writers, 6th edition—

Keeping it positive . . .
  • I can’t believe what I see here. There is nothing of worth except that the documentation is perfect. It is only the documentation that boosts this paper to a D-.
  • I looking at this paper again, I believe it is even worse than I originally thought.
  • Reading this has depressed me more than I can say.
  • You simply don’t know how to write.
  • This is basically verbal vomit.
  • No one would read this who was not paid to read it.
  • You missed the point completely. F.
  • Do the world a favor. Don’t write.
  • I do not believe you wrote this. This is not your work.

And here’s one I feel right to the core, even though it wasn’t written on my paper:

  • Your writing reminds me of a porcupine—many points leading in meaningless directions.

Comments like these hurt. They make people hate writing and turn to math for consolation. Nothing wrong with math. But we need writers. Who knows? Maybe there’s a Dr. Seuss, J.K. Rowling, Roald Dahl, Maurice Sendak, E.B. White, or C.S. Lewis in your class. You could be the one to discover the “first words” of a future best-selling writer.

“Something to work on.” If we have to tread so carefully, though, can we still make suggestions for improvement? Of course. We just need to teach ourselves how to present advice in a tactful, caring, respectful way. It helps if we think of flaws/faults/problems (use any term you like) as “something to work on.” It also helps if, instead of accusing the writer of deliberately making our lives difficult (“You did this . . .” “Your writing sounds like that . . .”), we focus on the impact it’s having on us as readers:

  • I found myself confused at this point. Can you put this another way to help clarify things for me?
  • As I was reading this, I wondered how it might work if you . . .
  • Here’s something you might want to try . . .
  • I’m wondering how this story would work if you wrote from a different perspective—in another person’s voice, that is. Or you could alternate voices. I can share an example of this in a conference.
  • This ending seemed abrupt to me. I was just zooming along when I came to a sudden stop. I wonder what would happen if you hinted at what’s coming next.
  • I had a sense you felt rushed when writing this. Is that true? Would it help if you had more time?
  • My guess is if you read this aloud you may hear some points where two sentences run together/you repeat yourself/you started multiple sentences the same way/ or . . . Try that and then let’s look at it again together.
  • It always helps me to read my work aloud. If you haven’t done that yet, give it a try and see if there’s anything to add or change.
  • It feels as if you are writing on two topics—which is hard to do! I’ve done it myself so I know. Let’s go through this together and see if you can zero in on one topic or the other.
  • Your voice was so strong in the previous paragraph, but I hear it fading here. Do you agree? Why do you think that might be happening?
  • This sounds a lot like a point you made on page 1. I’m wondering if you need this paragraph as well. What do you think?
  • I’m wondering if this topic is working for you. Would you be more comfortable switching to a new topic?
  • You’re working hard to get this image just right, I can tell. Let’s brainstorm some words that describe angry dogs—sometimes having a word cache to draw from helps.
  • I see you have one source listed here and that’s great! Do you need help finding more?
  • Have you considered doing an interview as part of your research?
  • I notice you don’t have a title yet—and it’s often the last thing I write. Want to brainstorm some possibilities?
  • What if you and I perform this dialogue together? Hearing words spoken aloud can help you decide if your characters are saying just what you want them to say.
  • Semicolons can really be confusing! If it’s OK with you, I’d like to use this sample sentence so we can all work on them in our next editing session.
  • Make students partners in the assessment process.

Hold on. Students as assessors? What does this have to do with good writing assessment? Everything. Having a chance to assess someone else’s writing helps students understand how every single thing a writer does affects the reader. Writers hold the reins. Every detail, image, verb, sentence beginning, lead, ending, transition—and semicolon—has impact on the reader. But you only learn this as that most careful and attentive of readers, the golden eagle of readers: an assessor.

Say to a student “You need more detail here,” and expect your comment to wind up in the mental box marked “Things it would only bore me to think about right now.” But give a student a detail-free paper to assess and watch the lights go on. Once students understand how assessment works, and how much influence they (as writers) actually have over readers, grades and scores no longer feel as accidental and unpredictable as roulette. They feel like honest responses to a writer’s effort.

Plus, there’s a bonus. When students become skilled at spotting strengths or problems in someone else’s writing, they learn to look and listen for the very same things in their own work. Especially if they take time to read what they’ve written aloud. And just like that, you’ve built a foundation for revision. No red pen needed.

For numerous examples you can assess as a class just look up “student writing samples” online. Or check out one of my books, Creating Writers or Creating Young Writers, to see samples I’ve chosen to illustrate particular strengths or problems.

  • Keep writers’ options open.

Just because it’s time to hand it in doesn’t mean a piece is necessarily ready for assessment. Give writers an option. If you feel their writing still needs a lot of work, you might write this: “I think there’s more you can do with this piece before I assess it. If you agree, let’s come up with a new due date.”

Students won’t always take you up on this—but now the choice is theirs.

______________________________________________

Final thoughts . . .

When most people think about assessment, they think testing, grading, or judgment. That’s their tunnel vision talking. Assessment isn’t really about judgment. It is, or should be, a helpful conversation that incorporates honest, useful, immediately applicable feedback designed to strengthen performance. If your blood sugar is high, it isn’t helpful to get a C+ in glucose management. It’s helpful to learn about the hidden appeal of kale and broccoli and the dangers of doughnuts.

Good writing assessment is easier to achieve when we keep reminding ourselves of its purpose: to give students the desire, courage, and strategies they need to handle one of life’s greatest challenges—writing.   

This blog post is lovingly dedicated to the finest teacher I ever had, Margery Stricker Durham. She taught me not only to write with care but to teach with care. She did that with one very simple strategy. Every time we turned in a piece of writing, she wrote back. Not essays, mind you, but genuine notes. More than just a word or two. She noticed small things—opening lines, endings, attention to accurate details, easy to read copy, carefully chosen words, thoughtful observations. Now and then she wrote the words I most longed to hear, better than any grade: “I really enjoyed reading this.” There is no better gift for any writer to receive. Thank you, Margery. There’s no way to repay what you gave me, but then, that’s often the way with teachers.

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How to Be a Good Creature, a review by Vicki Spandel

 

How to Be a Good Creature, A Memoir in Thirteen Animals by Sy Montgomery. 2018. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Genre: Nonfiction memoir—but really, this book transcends genre

Levels: A book for anyone, of any age, who loves nature, animals, and life

How to Be a Good CreatureI have loved many books, but none will ever replace this one in my heart. Now and again, a book speaks to you on such a deep level that you feel an immediate bond with the author, feel changed for having read it, and know you will return to it again and again. How to Be a Good Creature is a book to treasure, one to give to those you love. Initially, in fact, I did buy it as a gift. As an avid reader, though, I couldn’t resist one small peek (You know how it is), and after only a couple pages I couldn’t put it down. I knew right then I’d have to not only keep that copy forever, but buy several more—for this is a book that begs to be shared.

Though the book is classified as a memoir, it’s so much more. It’s a philosophical tour de force, an homage to nature. At its heart it’s the story of how the inimitable Sy Montgomery came to be a genius naturalist and writer. Her compelling, uninhibited, and wildly entertaining interactions with the world’s creatures make us think in new ways about parenthood, friendship, love, loss and grief, and above all, how we treat other beings, human or not. The book runs a modest 177 pages, yet within that small package manages to be all we expect of any great book. Following are just a handful of the things I loved most.

The Voice of Honesty

Memoir is of course driven by memories of people and events that shape a life. Most of the “people” in this book are animals, but they are more vivid and influential than almost any human characters I can recall. The events are close-up personal encounters with—among others—spiders, emus, tree kangaroos, frighteningly intelligent octopuses, big hearted dogs, and an unforgettable pig who turns out to be a virtual shaman.

Sy’s story begins when she’s about three-and already we can see how startlingly different she is from her peers. She’s an only child who has no wish whatsoever to be otherwise. Her earliest memories include imagining herself a pony (later a dog), preferring goldfish to human friends, dressing a stuffed baby caiman in doll’s clothes, surviving an accidental hair-raising (for her parents) encounter with 3,000-pound hippos, and enduring the sad but virtually inevitable death of her pet turtle Ms. Yellow Eyes.

A turning point for Sy comes with the arrival of Molly, a “tough, feisty little” Scottish terrier, who shares Sy’s independent spirit, and is driven by a deep curiosity Sy finds infectious. From Molly, Sy learns that there is “a vivid, green, breathing world out there, bustling with the busy lives of birds and insects, turtles and fish, rabbits and deer.” At age five, foreshadowing the adventurer she will become, Sy is obsessed with exploring that world, and longs to see things through Molly’s all-knowing eyes (and nose). Unfortunately, her parents find this more than a little distressing. While Sy’s mother frantically sews frilly dresses she hopes will turn her young scientist into a princess, Sy blithely and determinedly rejects dolls and petticoats, avoids “wiggly” and pesky human friends who scare the birds and bees away, and explores every crack and crevice of nature into which she can fit her face, feet, or fingers.

Sy puts it this way: “The real world, the world I already loved, was just out of my ordinary human sensory range. For now. But one day, I knew, we’d escape and go there, to the wild places, where Molly would at last share with me her animal powers.”

As Sy matures, the emotional and psychological gap between her and her parents widens into a chasm—and Montgomery writes about this with an openness that is heart wrenching,  stunning, and somehow endearing. “To my parents, I was a different species,” she admits in the chapter on her four-legged companion Christopher Hogwood. They had wanted her to train for the Army, and to marry someone more like themselves. She didn’t oblige—and they didn’t relent. Instead, she married someone as individual as herself, and as different from her parents as anyone might imagine. And seizing every opportunity Nature could provide, she pursued her dream of visiting the “wild places,” making friends with an expansive array of animal species, and learning lessons she would generously share with the world.

The unflinching honesty underlying this book infuses every line with a voice I find irresistible—knowledgeable, heartfelt, compassionate, and profoundly reverent. It’s conversational to be sure, but this is a conversation with someone whose unique insights awaken feelings from the deepest and best parts of us. As Anne Lamott once put it, we’re grateful for some writing the way we’re grateful for the sea. Soul grateful.

Favorite Chapters: “Tess” & “Christopher Hogwood”

Montgomery relates her adventures with such intimacy that it’s all but impossible not to be drawn into her world—and to identify. Like Sy, I loved small turtles as a child, and like her, kept losing them to domestic disasters. Poor Timmy (my first pet turtle) slipped into the heat vent, unseen, and we didn’t recover him for quite some time. When I was in middle school, one of my own best friends was in fact a border collie, so “Chapter 6: Tess” rocked me to the core, nudging memories I hadn’t visited in a while. Anyone who’s ever loved a dog will, I suspect, be swept away by Sy’s stories of Tess, Sally, and Thurber, crazy intelligent dogs who can anticipate human wants even before they’re spoken.

Yet it’s “Chapter 3: Christopher Hogwood”—the story of a little pig who came home in a shoebox and then grew to an astonishing 750 pounds—that keeps calling to me.

The Good Good Pig2In part, I suppose, this is because I already knew Christopher. Though I never had the honor of meeting him personally, I have been a stalwart member of his fan club for years. I carried Sy’s book The Good Good Pig for thousands of miles, reading from it to teachers in writing workshops everywhere—and always giving the copy I’d brought to someone in attendance. I think The Good Good Pig was my favorite of Montgomery’s remarkable books (though Birdology and The Soul of an Octopus competed feverishly for my heart) until this current little gem came out.

Soul of an OctopusHappy as I was to hear more about Christopher, though, here’s what really struck me: In this third chapter, Sy makes clear that she doesn’t just find animals interesting. She doesn’t just observe or study them. Her feelings soar far beyond empathy. To be sure, she rescues animals in need (a lifelong enterprise), and Christopher Hogwood is one beneficiary of her boundless sensitivity. But these animals are more than pets or companions. They are her friends—in every sense of that word, and with all that friendship implies. Somehow, her capacity to understand them, and to get inside their minds and hearts, creates a species-to-species rapport that bypasses all limitations. Love at this level is transformative, both for Sy and for us as readers. Countless humans (you may be one) have bonded with dogs, cats, or horses. But do you know many who’ve experienced true friendship with, say, a tarantula? Or an octopus?

BirdologyThe differences between Sy and Christopher—he’s a quadruped, she’s a biped, he has hooves and she doesn’t—will not “trouble” their relationship, she tells us (the way smaller differences have bungled her relationships with humans). How could they? She recognizes in Christopher a genuine spiritual capacity to love and to teach others about love. He’s a pig, yes, but that’s only physical. He’s also the “great big Buddha master.” In what is surely one of my favorite lines from the book, Sy declares, “ . . . Christopher helped create for me a real family—a family made not from genes, not from blood, but from love.”

 

Fabulous Facts

Don’t you love books that teach you things you didn’t even realize you were dying to know? Sy Montgomery has traveled to places—the jungles of Sundarbans where man-eating tigers dwell, the Outback of Australia, the cloud forests of New Guinea, the Amazon, the savannahs of Africa—most of us will never experience firsthand. Her exhaustive, very personal research enables her to collect unexpected, striking details that imprint themselves forever in our minds.

Chapter 4, “Clarabelle,” showcases the “Queen of the Jungle.” She is not, as you might suspect, a tiger or lion. Clarabelle is a Goliath birdeater, the largest tarantula on earth, and she makes her home in French Guiana, part of northern South America. Think you know about tarantulas? Check this out: “A female can weigh a quarter pound. Her head might grow as big around as an apricot, her leg span stretch long enough to cover your face.” There’s a detail we can feel.    charlottes-web2

I admit my attitude toward spiders is not as open-minded as Sy’s. She rescues spiders from the corners of her home and releases them into the wild. Despite having read Charlotte’s Web countless times, I am not that noble. But I am deeply appreciative for all I learned from this chapter—and this remarkable book as a whole. In a later chapter, for example, we discover that octopuses enjoy taking apart and reassembling Mr. Potato Head. I would imagine that yes, they are considerably faster at it than humans.

Sy Montgomery knows how to feed the information addict in all of us. And I dare say, if you ever get the opportunity to hold a live tarantula on the palm of your hand, she might just leave you with the courage to try it.

A Book You MUST Read Aloud

If you’re a teacher, you’re likely always on the hunt for good read-aloud nonfiction. Look no further. Expect your students to be not just intrigued, but downright enchanted by passages like this one from the chapter on tree kangaroos: “These two animals carried within them the wild heart that beats inside all creatures—the wildness we honor in our breath and our blood, that wildness that keeps us on this spinning planet.” You have to love language to write like that.

I read “Chapter 5: The Christmas Weasel” aloud to my husband, while he was patiently trying to read another book of his own. As I read, I could see him from the corner of my eye, gradually lowering his book and surrendering to Sy Montgomery’s story telling prowess.

It didn’t hurt that we’d recently had a weasel adventure of our own. A very small but intrepid weasel moved under our deck last summer and proceeded to clear the yard and surrounding woods (plus three wood piles) of all mice, squirrels, ground squirrels, chipmunks, and rabbits—in record time. Most were far larger than he was. His speed and appetite were astounding. When he emerged one morning from under the deck, only six feet away, looking me right in the eye, I hoped he wasn’t wondering just how hard it would be to take down someone my size. Sy Montgomery describes her winter weasel, an ermine, as having “a look so bold and fearless that it knocked the breath from my lungs.” That’s the look, all right.

Nonfiction doesn’t have to be dull, methodical, and plodding, as students too often think. In fact, nonfiction can be filled with mind blowing details and harrowing encounters—weasel versus chicken (or weasel versus human), for instance. Real life beats the encyclopedia every time.

Quotable Lines, Mind Snaring Leads, Language to Love

For years, I have quoted Sy Montgomery’s work in my books and workshops. How could I resist? She is among the most gifted nonfiction writers of all time—and has a sense of humor to boot. Her books grace the front shelf of my desk, and as noted earlier, have traveled cross-country with me. One of the most effective ways we teach writing is to share with students what great authors do.

How to Be a Good Creature is literally exploding with quotable lines you might use to teach students about leads and endings, precision in word choice, use of simile or metaphor, and a dozen other hallmarks of the craft. Here’s a favorite quotable moment, from “Chapter 9: Octavia.” Sy tells us that among those species of octopus scientists have studied, most prefer solitude:

“Even mating is a fraught affair,” she explains, “apt to turn into the kind of dinner date when one octopus eats the other.” That’s metaphorical brilliance.

When we teach students to write nonfiction, we don’t always encourage them to write something quotable or memorable. We should, though. Good research inevitably leads to exciting information, the kind great writers use to snag—and hold—our attention.

The Gift of a Great Book

In this season of giving, I am infinitely grateful to Sy Montgomery for giving us such a wonder of a book. Maybe someone on your seasonal gift list loves books, animals, nature, or philosophical musings on life. Or give this book to yourself—especially if you’re a teacher of writing. It offers endless lessons about condensing information, interweaving narrative and nonfiction gracefully, making statistics palatable and memorable, and above all, writing from the heart about things that have touched you deeply.

This truly is a book about being better. About being open, receptive, aware, and in harmony with the Earth and all its creatures—including the most humble—for they are our teachers. What better, more timely message could we possibly hope for?

How to Be a Good Creature

The perfect gift

Teaching Nonfiction Revision

By Vicki Spandel

In the years I’ve worked with teachers, the question that comes up most often is, “How do you teach revision?” As a new school year begins, it seems like a good time to revisit this fundamental question that gets to the very heart of how we teach writing. Good writing teachers recognize that unless we teach revision, we’re only teaching quick drafting. Not the same thing at all. (Quick drafting, by the way, is what most writing assessments call for—but that’s a discussion for another time.)

What Is Revision Anyway?

Teaching revision well requires us to define what it means to revise. As my friend Sneed Collard and I discovered in writing our book Teaching Nonfiction Revision, almost every writer out there has his or her own personal definition of the process. Taken together, these definitions boil down to refining original ideas or seeing things with increasing clarity. Most of us would agree that revision involves reshaping, rewording, and reworking first thoughts. But at the foundation of all this is something even more fundamental: taking control of your writing. Why is this important? Because it’s a whole paradigm shift. Instead of teaching revision as a chore—necessary, mind you, but a chore all the same—we can show students that revision = power. You get to revise. You’re entitled. It’s a privilege granted only to the original writer of a piece. A privilege that goes with owning your writing.

Revising Is Caring

Why do people revise their writing? Simple. They care about their readers and want them to understand and enjoy what they’re reading. Equally important, they care about their message. They want it to be heard and remembered. How do we ensure students will care deeply about what they write?

Choice. Choice. Choice. Beginning with the most important choice of all . . .

Choosing Your Own Topic

The most important choice a writer makes is what to write about. It’s no secret—or at least it shouldn’t be—that students do their best writing when the message comes from the heart. This is nothing more than common sense, isn’t it? Writers are investigators, exploring the world for ideas, for evidence, for details. It simply isn’t as exciting or inspiring to investigate a topic someone hands to you as it is to come up with your own questions to answer. Details explode and voice shines when students decide for themselves what their message will be. But—does choice have an impact on revision? Absolutely!

At one point in my writing career I helped write a textbook on economics. With apologies to any economists who might read this, it was not my favorite topic. I struggled to make concepts clear and to use words like balanced budget, commodity, collateral, devaluation, and diversification correctly. But was I inspired to make that text fun to read? Un-put-downable? Um, no. Clarity and accuracy were my goals; readability was far down the list. Voice? Out of reach when I couldn’t be myself. I like to think that those who read the book were able to make sense of it, but I imagine they found putting it down not only possible, but a big fat relief. Why would they have fun reading what I had no fun writing?

Fast forward five years. My mom—whose health and mental faculties had been in decline for quite some time—finally needed round-the-clock nursing care. We took her to a facility that was about as nice as such facilities get but still felt like jail to me. I helped her pack. She thought we were going to Las Vegas, and carefully chose each item she would wear on this grand venture. As I folded her things, I kept turning away so she wouldn’t see my tears. When we entered the “home,” as such places are euphemistically called, it struck me how Vegas-like it was with bright flashing lights and non-stop noise. I was jolted back to reality when she asked me, “Why on earth did you pick this hotel?” Even as I felt my heart crack, I had to stifle a laugh, and I later wrote about this episode, thinking how many people have lived a similar nightmare and how much I wanted, for them and for myself, to capture the complex truth of it. It took me several weeks to get the insoluble mix of darkness and comic relief right. I was paid well for my brief stint in the world of economics. But it was that bizarre world of nursing homes into which I poured my heart, and the response of teachers to whom I read the piece aloud meant more to me than any fee.

If you’ve ever reworked a garden, patched up an over-hugged stuffed toy or favorite pair of jeans, remodeled a house, brought a neglected pet back to health, or fixed up an old car, then you know what it means to revise what you love. Let’s give our students a chance to do just that. Help them in finding topics that work for them, but let the choice be theirs.

Student-Controlled Conferences

Donald Graves often said that nothing important happens in the conference until the student speaks. I agree. But we have to keep in mind that this is only true when the student is in charge of her writing. If the purpose of the conference is for the “expert” to critique the writing or lay out what needs to happen next, then the student’s voice is about as meaningful as that vacuous voice in a robo call.

A conference offers us an exceptional opportunity to help students feel the power of being in charge. We can start by inviting students to come to the conference with questions of their own that will guide the discussion. We can let them choose whether to read their writing aloud, read just a portion of it, ask us to read while they listen, or skip the read-aloud bit and simply chat about process. In addition, we can acknowledge their ownership by asking such things as—

  • What’s your topic and how did you choose it?
  • How’s the writing going? Are you finding it easy—or a bit of a rocky road? Do you know why?
  • Do you find yourself thinking about the piece even when you’re not writing?
  • What are you hoping people feel or picture when they read this?
  • Have you felt stuck at any point? What do you do when that happens?
  • What are you loving about this piece? Is anything bugging you?
  • Is it turning out the way you thought it would when you started—or are you finding some surprises?
  • Are you revising as you go? Or do you feel like getting a whole draft done before you make any changes?
  • Are you reading your writing aloud to yourself? How do you think it sounds?
  • What’s your next step in working on this piece?

The point of the conference isn’t for me, or any teacher, to identify problems and then come up with solutions. And if we think this way about conferences, we won’t hold many because it’s extremely stressful and exhausting to play the oracle all the time.

A good conference should be a conversation between two writers. It gives students a chance to ask pressing questions, to share how writing process is going for them and where they’re encountering speed bumps, and to clarify what they hope to accomplish. Students who need specific help will ask for it—if we model how to do this.

Modeling the Need for Help

Owning your writing doesn’t mean you can never ask for help. On the contrary. It means you get to decide what sort of help you need. This doesn’t always come naturally to students because they’re so used to thinking of themselves as “the person whose work is being assessed.” This, if you think about it, is a precarious position. Should you really ask for help from someone who’s judging how well you’re doing? Won’t that just reveal that you don’t know what you’re doing?

Well, guess what. No writer does—all the time. But students usually don’t know this.

Many teachers are shy about modeling because they’re afraid their work isn’t good enough. Ironically, this is the very fear that inhibits their students, and it’s a great comfort to students to know that we are sometimes unsure about our writing too. In truth, writing that needs work is the perfect thing to share because it offers a chance to model what students need to see: a writer who is looking for answers and needs help finding them. It gives students a chance to be problem solvers—which is excellent revision practice for them. This kind of modeling is easy to do, and fun for both the teacher-writer and the student coaches.

My suggestion is not to write in front of students when you want to focus on a specific question or problem. It simply takes too long. You won’t have enough time for discussion.

Start with a draft you’ve already written—double spaced so you have room for additions or notes. It doesn’t have to be long or finished. A rough paragraph will do nicely. You need to project it so students can read it as you share it aloud. Ideally, use a piece you haven’t revised much yet, preferably one you haven’t looked at for a few days. That way, you will also see it with new eyes. Before you share it, read it to yourself so you can come up with at least one specific question to ask your students. Here’s a piece from a story I’m writing about cats, and it’s one I would use for this purpose. In this scene, a highly intelligent, crafty cat is leaving home, but senses she is threatened by a circling eagle:

Keeping the big oak between herself and the raptor, she scaled the trunk with ease, emerging on a low branch that barely overhung the fence. Her belly skimming the bark, she crept down the length of the bough, pausing just where the overhead leaves began to thin, her body still camouflaged beneath their canopy.

The question I have for students is this: Is crept the right word here? This is a bigger question than you might think, and can lead to a whole lesson on word choice. I would have students brainstorm some alternatives: e.g., slinked, sidled, sneaked, skulked, slithered, crawled. Then I might ask them to confer with partners or in small groups to choose a favorite or come up with some other possibilities. I’d also share with them some strategies I’d use as a writer in finding the right word for this moment—starting with closing my eyes to picture the cat and almost feel her move. In addition, I’d talk about using an online thesaurus. Or a resource like the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms. My favorite of all time is The Synonym Finder by J. I Rodale, wildly expensive to buy new, but available used for less than ten dollars—far better than a thesaurus. I can also do an online search for “words describing how cats move.” This kind of search is something students don’t always think to do, and it can be very helpful.

It’s important when collecting synonyms to ask students what sort of image comes to mind with various options. For example, what does a slinking cat look like? What does a word like slinking suggest about an animal? How about skulking? This word has connotations of lurking and prowling that might be more appropriate for a cat on the hunt than one being hunted. But students may not know this without a little research. What about a slithering cat? Too snake-like? Can a sneaking cat be heroic—as this particular cat needs to be? As you can see, a simple choice about one word can launch a 15-minute discussion about how language influences imagery, mood, and even meaning. It can be eye-opening to students to discover how one decision affects so many things about writing. More important, as you search together for a word that works, you’re helping students understand how writers think—and revise. You’re making revision visible.

Of course, over time, you’ll want to discuss many things in addition to word choice. The possibilities are infinite, especially if you write yourself and always have a text to share. Here are some sample “need-help” questions I might raise with regard to different passages. As you read these, think of revision lessons you could build around your own writing:

  • I tried condensing this. Did I go far enough, or is it still too wordy?
  • Did you notice how I inserted a question after several statements? Do you like that kind of shift?
  • Did I provide enough detail about the capture of the rattlesnake? Can you picture what happened—like a movie in your head? Or do you still have questions?
  • What does my title make you think the piece will be about? After I read the whole piece to you, I’d like to know if you think the title works.
  • I’ll ask you to please pay particular attention to the ending. I want to know if it’s too abrupt or if it feels about right.
  • I wrote a very short passage describing the nurse tending my mother. After listening, give me some words that show what you think the nurse is like.

Modeling Choice with On-the-Go Writing

Writing on the go—writing in front of students, that is—works wonderfully well if you’re focusing on something short, such as a title or lead. It’s great fun to write several versions, of a lead, let’s say, and ask students to not only choose a favorite but also discuss the very different directions in which alternate leads could take the writer—and reader.

Recently I did a book review for a book I’d expected to love, but didn’t. In fact, I became quite frustrated and even enraged while reading (very rare for me) because the writer constantly allowed himself to get so bogged down in detail that I felt we were wading through a veritable swamp of data, factual muck threatening to drag us under. “Get to the point!” I wanted to shout. Actually, I am pretty sure I did shout this, more than once. I should add that the book received accolades from numerous credible sources, and was highly recommended to me by well-educated friends who are voracious readers and whose judgment I trust. Or did. Just kidding.

I don’t want to mention the title or author, for obvious reasons. But think of all the usual gushy clichés—award-winning, internationally acclaimed, highly revered. You’ll find every one on the front cover. Award winner or not, this book didn’t work for me, and I can only say the editor must have been taking a giant snooze. Probably fell asleep reading the manuscript.

Let’s say I hadn’t written my review yet and wanted students to help me with the lead. I’d write several in front of them—like these:

  • How many details can you process in an hour? If your answer is under 1,000, this isn’t your book.
  • I used to love detail. Then I read this book.
  • Research makes for good writing—as long as you don’t feel compelled to share every last fact you dig up.
  • Danger! Don’t read this book in bed!
  • Did you ever read a book that made you downright angry?

I would ask students to tell me which lead they preferred and why. I might also invite them to write some alternatives of their own, and we’d read a few aloud and discuss them. As a follow-up, I would ask students to write three leads for a piece of their own writing, then share these in a writing group and invite responses from peers. Students learn a great deal about the value of reader response from this simple activity. They also learn that revision isn’t always an after-writing activity. You can give things a trial run as you go. Let’s look at some other ways to do this.

Having Fun with Revision—or “Playing” with the Writing

Revision is a series of choices. The thing is, though, you can’t always make them spontaneously. Sometimes you need to think things over, giving your mind a chance to reflect and process. When I can’t decide on a particular word, for example, I write all the alternatives into my text. Using the previous example with the cat, here’s how my sentence would look:

Her belly skimming the bark, she crept/slipped/stole/slinked/sidled down the length of the bough, pausing just where the overhead leaves began to thin, her body still camouflaged beneath their canopy.

This approach ensures I won’t forget the words I want to consider. Later, when I review my story, I can read each one aloud to see which one calls up the image of the cat that lives in my mind. If the “right” word doesn’t jump out at me, I’ll keep looking, or get out of this sticky wicket by writing the sentence another way. I love sharing strategies like this with young writers because it lets them see revision in action.

Sneed and I both use a tactic I love for revising longer pieces. Thank heaven for computers, which make this simple. It would have been drudgery in days gone by. If you aren’t sure whether you love a section—say a paragraph—or would like to revise it, make a copy of just that paragraph into a new file. Or make a couple copies. That way, you can tinker with revision, changing one or both of your copies, without losing the original (which you might decide to keep). Nifty, eh?

One more idea. You’ve probably heard the expression “Murder your darlings.” I know Stephen King said this, but I’m not sure he was the first. It’s excellent advice, and like a lot of excellent advice, difficult to follow. We all include favorite words, phrases, or passages in our writing that we’re later reluctant to delete or change. A niggling voice in our heads says, “This ought to go, and you know it,” but we just can’t do it. This happens to me all the time—and to every other writer I know. I just draw a line through the text, but leave it in place for the time being:

Her belly skimming the bark, she crept/slipped/stole/slinked/sidled down the length of the bough, pausing just where the overhead leaves began to thin, her body still camouflaged beneath their canopy. Her claws flexed and released in sync with the raptor’s rhythm.

When I come back to this passage, I can read it aloud both ways. I nearly always cave in to the wisdom of that nagging voice in my head, but I don’t like to surrender too quickly.

Saying No to Advice

I like to think my advice on writing is pretty good. So when Sneed and I were working on our book together, and routinely reviewing each other’s work, it was sometimes hard for me when I’d make what I thought was a brilliant suggestion and Sneed would respond, “Thanks, but I think I’ll keep it the way it is.” Say what?

Actually, this is a fine lesson in how give-and-take should go when the writer is in control of his writing. I could come up with a zillion revision possibilities, but ultimately, it had to be up to Sneed to decide how he would express his own thoughts. That’s what ownership is all about.

Your students need to do this, too. They may not feel bold enough, though, unless you model it. And this one’s a little tricky, make no mistake. The key lies in striking a balance: open-minded on the one hand, confident on the other. When you ask for your students’ advice, listen carefully (Sneed always did this, or so he told me), be openly appreciative, but let students know you reserve the right to do any of three things: 1) heed their advice as given, 2) agree in part but come up with a compromise, or 3) keep the status quo. Why is it so important for students to consider advice, reflect, and then make up their own minds? Because if someone else is choreographing all the changes, the writer is not the one doing the revision. She might be the one moving the pencil or hitting the keyboard, but she is not the one doing the thinking. In the end, students only learn to revise by thinking through what works and making their own choices.

Taking Your Time

Revision is reflective, thoughtful, relaxed, unhurried, deep. It simply will not be rushed. I’ve been working on my cat story for just over a year, and I revise it twice a week, sometimes more. I’m just not totally happy with it yet. And not sure when I’ll get there. I’ll know when it’s done.

Yes, when I worked for Willamette Week Newspaper, I had to revise more quickly. I had deadlines. And a demanding editor. I made the most of late nights and early mornings, squeezing in every minute I could to get the details, the flow, and the voice just right. Given a choice, I’d have loved one or two more days on most of my stories.

If we’re serious about teaching writing, we need to provide in-class time for revision. What better opportunity is there? In class, students have access to a dictionary, thesaurus, and with luck, a computer. They have partners or peer groups with whom to share writing. They have you. No, it isn’t perfect. Classrooms can be noisy. And you don’t have the luxury of three-hour writing periods (which is about the amount of time I like to spend each day). But for many students, writing at home during the evening or over the weekend isn’t perfect either. And they won’t have you to remind them what revision can look like.

Provide as much time as you can, and keep deadlines flexible. Encourage students to write several short pieces versus just one or two long pieces during a grading period. That allows for more than one revision per piece—which may sound overwhelming to students, but feels completely natural once it becomes a habit. Suggest ways to make the most of revision-at-home time. At home, students can—

  • Look for a place they feel comfortable (kitchen table, basement, quiet room, even outdoors)
  • Play music if it helps them relax (I never revise without it—I like Celtic, but I think anything that’s not distracting to the writer works)
  • Set a schedule (When I sit down to write, I commit to two or three hours minimum, but urge students to set a goal of 15 or 20 minutes, then gradually add more time)
  • Keep a dictionary, book of synonyms, or other resources handy
  • Read aloud (I read everything I write aloud)
  • Remind themselves that they are in control—all revision choices are theirs

Knowing When to Revise—and When to Quit Revising

Telling someone when to revise is like telling them when to comb their hair. How would I know? It’s your hair! You look in the mirror and you smile and shrug like the Fonz or you reach for the comb—right? You look at your writing, and listen to your writing, and you know. How? Because maybe, like mussed hair (or these days, overly neat hair), it doesn’t please you. Not yet. Something’s off.

This question of when to revise reminds us why writers need to own their writing. No one but you can know when your writing sounds right to your ear. Your students have to make that judgment call too. Will they miss some things we think they should catch? Undoubtedly. That’s not important. It really isn’t. What matters is the writer’s growing capacity to assess her own work. To say, I like the sound of this. I like the voice. I like the points I made and the words I chose to make them. If the writer cannot do this, it makes no difference how adept we are at assessing her work because she cannot work independently. And in writing—and revising—independence is everything.

Knowing when to stop is always hard, no matter how experienced a writer you may be. Proficient writers tend to love revision, and may work a piece to death given the chance. There’s always a little something—a word here, a deletion there, an addition to this scene, one more sensory detail, a bit of tweaking on that chapter lead, a clarification, a joke you just have to make, a comma where a dash used to be. It never stops.

A deadline comes in handy for putting a halt to this kind of nonsense. But barring that, this is my rule of thumb: I leave the piece for three days and then read it aloud. If I can’t find anything important to change (something more than changing gleam to glisten), if I like the sound of it, if I enjoy reading it, if it sounds natural and like me, I call it good. You can come up with your own criteria and so can your students. “Knowing when to stop revising,” by the way, makes for a great classroom discussion.

A Final Word: Revising with Primary Students

A lot of people don’t believe in teaching revision to primary students, but we can be totally comfortable with it if we don’t associate the “need for revision” with criticism. We don’t want our youngest writers to feel they need to revise because they did something wrong—or they’re just not very good writers. We do, however, want them to know that they can revise if they want to. If they feel a need to add or change something to suit themselves. They’re the owners of their writing, and writers have power. Help them think of revision as the writer’s right—like the right to hang a new picture in your own room.

We’d be less afraid of teaching revision to primary students, I think, if we refused to be revision snobs. We’re conditioned to think that revision is by nature big and sweeping, all-encompassing. You have to slash whole paragraphs, add pages of dialogue, create new scenes, jazz up the action, cut that boring final chapter in half. It can look like that, yes, but at primary level, take it easy. Hang up your Samurai sword. For our youngest writers, revision might be adding one descriptive word. Or one sentence. Changing big to huge. Tinkering with a title. If we acknowledge these small but important transformations, students will see revision for what it is: opportunity.

We honor their revision efforts by saying things like this:

  • When you told me the butterfly was blue, I could see it more clearly! Great revision!
  • The word flying is much more vivid than going! You sure know how to revise.
  • I love your new title. Writers don’t always think to do that kind of revision. Good for you.

 

Have a great year of writing and revising. And to learn more revision strategies, check out that great little book Sneed and I had so much fun cobbling together (even if he didn’t take all my advice).

What Are You Reading?

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This is one of those “We could change the world!” ideas.
This little restaurant gives away a book to every person who stops in to eat. The original owner started doing this a long, long time ago. When the business was sold to new owners in 1993, they decided to keep up the tradition.
 
How hard is it for a restaurant to keep a few books hanging around? How hard is it for someone who has a few books hanging around to give them away to the people who visit?
There are roughly 600,000 restaurants in the United States.
 
How might we change our nation if, just about everywhere we went to consume something, we also consumed a book? Margot and I are going to send this restaurant multiple copies of our book, “Be a Better Writer“.
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How hard is this? Not hard. Takes less than a minute for me to tell Amazon where to ship them. Is it expensive for us? In a way, it is. We’re as small as a small publishing company can be and we’re not yet profitable. Printing batches of books isn’t free and when you’re sending batches of them out, there’s shipping, too, plus state tax on each copy as well.
 
But when we send our own books out, we get a good price on both printing and shipping, and giving some sales tax money to our state isn’t such a bad thing to do either.
 
So what’s stopping us as a nation of publishers from sending our books out free to any place that will give them away? Not much, really. And how would this change our nation? Pretty significantly over the stretch of a generation, I think.
 
And publishers don’t have to be the only groups who send out free books. We now have millions of self-published authors as well. And, of course, millions of people with thousands of books gathering dust on their shelves at home.
 
Now I’m thinking, “Well, there’s a Bible in most hotel rooms…”. And there are 120,000 schools in the US. And roughly the same number of public libraries. And restaurants. And tens of thousands of other places.
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Margot and I have given our book away to pharmacies, doctor’s offices, ophthalmologists, dentists, just about anywhere in our town where people find themselves waiting. But why stop with our town? We can give away a few more books here and there. It’s fun when people tell us, “Hey, I think I saw your book over at the pharmacy today!”
 
What would happen if the United States of America became “The Nation of Books”?
 
Notice that I’m using the definitive article there. That’s intentional. We lead the world in so many areas. Why not lead the world in literacy?
 
There is not one single legitimate reason why we can’t do this. And ya know, it’s an ideal project for a First Lady to take charge of. Or a hugely popular media star. Or an unimaginably wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Or a very large non-profit organization. Or… And the list goes on.
 
Once again, there is not a single legitimate reason we can’t reach 100% literacy in our nation. Yes, there’s more to it than giving people books. But I don’t think that’s a bad place to start.
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The reason I think this might make a different kind of difference than so many of the wonderful organizations who give away millions of books to kids each year is that this idea is about giving books to everyone—especially adults.
 
Improving literacy in our country isn’t just about better schooling or better access to texts for young children and their families. It is, first and foremost, about becoming a nation of readers—and, as with so many things in life—adults must lead the way.
 
There is some difference of opinion with regard to whether or not our President reads books. We know that past Presidents have been big readers. What if everywhere the President went—and I mean everywhere—someone gave him a book to read? What if every person who came to meet him, came with a book to give him? What if we took this approach with cabinet members, and politicians at both the federal and state levels.
 
And I don’t mean junking people up with books you know they won’t like or that are meant to send some message. Pick a book for a person that you think they are likely to read. What’s so hard about that?
 
Are you seeing the point of all this? In an instant, it changes the national dialog from “Who do you hate?” to “What are you reading?”
winterhouse logo

The only thing better than having your own best-seller on the market is seeing a dear friend enjoy that success. I went to high school with Ben Guterson. Thirty years later, we reunited at a coffee house in Seattle’s Broadway neighborhood and sat down, ironically, for a lovely pot of tea.

During all of our catching up, Ben told me that he’d recently inked a multi-book deal with a Big 5 publisher for a series of MG novels called “Winterhouse“. The first book in the series is out and it’s wonderful.

ben guterson

Ben Guterson

 

More than that, the book is full great craft. Amazing to me is the how well Ben captures that creepy-odd voice that perhaps we might associate with Roald Dahl or someone similar. Ben is clearly a writer of immense talent. I had a lot of fun reading his book, and I’m 54 years old.

What I loved best about it was the voice. It’s such a wonderful example of well-crafted KidLit. Here’s a paragraph near the start of the book where the main character begins her odd journey after discovering a letter with, of course, some instructions for an odd journey:

 

“The chugging red-and-white bus was half empty after making seven stops on its journey north from the train station. Elizabeth sat in a plump seat with a comfortable head rest, working on a crossword puzzle in a newspaper someone had left on the luggage rack above her. She was good at crossword puzzles. In fact, she was good at all sorts of puzzles—word searches, hangman, acrostics, cryptograms, any puzzle with words. She especially loved anagrams, and had already mentally rearranged the letters on the advertising sign at the front of the bus—“ Fred Daul Transport”—to “Dreadful Torn Parts.”—from Winterhouse by Ben Guterson

Without being derivative in the least, this passage has a wonderful Lemon-y Snickett-y quality to it. Or, as I mentioned above, a bit of Roald Dahl-ish-ness. At least to my ear.

Our “hero” is on a long ride; she has passed the 7th stop and doesn’t seem to be embarking anytime soon. One assumes she’s headed for the end of the line which she has anagrammed into something morbid and sinister: “Dreadful Torn Parts.” Ben puts a lot of interesting wordplay into this book including nifty word chains at the top of each chapter. There’s a book to read and enjoy here, a mystery to followed and solved, and a bunch of neat intellectual “games” to play as we go along.

The length of the trip and our heroine’s way of thinking about the destination tell us she’s not on her normal Monday morning commute. Her journey has the feel of an odyssey, particularly the point in the Hero’s Journey when one enters the Otherworld.

This is just the kind of challenge MG readers enjoy, served up with a lovely lilt to the author’s language and memorable descriptions of the quirky savant-like abilities of his main character.

Look at these simple elements of word choice that normalize a decidedly not normal situation and add a tinge of humor, too:

“chugging red-and-white bus”
“plump seat”
“comfortable head rest”
“newspaper someone had left on the luggage rack above her.”

And then we learn of our heroine’s odd—and oddly harmless—talent for word-gamery:

“She especially loved anagrams, and had already mentally rearranged the letters on the advertising sign at the front of the bus.”

I love the modifier “mentally”. Technically, we might consider it redundant. How else would someone anagram something? But its use adds something here by hinting at the significance of the character’s mentality. We’re certain to discover more of her unusual thinking as time goes by. This, more than anything, may endear her to us as we follow her along the way.

This is the classic voice of KidLit. It’s what makes KidLit the joy that it is, even for us big kids. Roald Dahl is probably the master. But here, we discover a new author in Ben Guterson who has mastered the voice of KidLit, too.

mom and baby

We tell kids all the time in school that description is good and that “showing” is great. But description is only good when it does more than describe and showing is only great when what it shows is a great deal of depth and texture.

When kids slop a bunch of adjectives and adverbs around in an endless attempt to please their teachers or themselves, what they’re trying to clarify for their readers becomes, ironically, murkier.

Great writers know this intuitively. They use description for more than making pictures in their readers’ minds, and they use it, often in tiny bits, for powerful in-the-moment impact.

Barbara Claypole White is one of those great writers.

The Promise Between Us by [White, Barbara Claypole]

The Promise of Great Detail

In her latest Amazon bestseller, “The Promise Between Us”, Barbara uses bits of carefully crafted description to elicit from her readers a flood of inferences that reveal the depths of her main character.

Barbara’s descriptions are vivid and enjoyable for their own sake, but they accomplish more than mere entertainment. With just a few well-chosen phrases, she tells us things that might require thousands of words of exposition.

Let’s take a long walk off a short paragraph and see how she works her magic.

Crouched in the corner of my baby girl’s bedroom, we both shake: the three-legged mutt and the mother with a colony of fire ants multiplying in her brain.

“Crouched in the corner…”

“Crouched” is a terrific verb. “Corner” is a perfect place.

Four words in and we know this character is frightened, anxious, falling apart perhaps, wedging herself against walls to hold herself together.

“…of my baby girl’s bedroom.”

More alliteration, that’s nice for energy. Now we know she’s a new mom. This adds to the weight of her anxiety and opens a question: “Is the fear she’s feeling about herself or her child?

Let’s read on.

“…we both shake:…”

Maybe it’s both of them. Or?

Now, look at those tiny two points of punctuation: a colon. This tells us that the words on the left side that we’ve just read are in some way equivalent to the words we’re about to read on the right.

“…the three-legged mutt and the mother with a colony of fire ants multiplying in her brain.”

“… three-legged mutt….”

A dog who has lost a leg, a stray, a rescue, not a purebred—and no longer “whole”.

“… and the mother with a colony of fire ants multiplying in her brain.”

“…THE three-legged mutt and THE mother…”

Switching to the third person here. Why? We’ll tackle that in a moment.

“… with a colony of fire ants multiplying in her brain.”

Me—an arachnophobe and a just-about-every-other-kind-of-insect-aphobe—I’m a little creeped out by this which is probably exactly how Barbara wants me to feel, whether she knows about my quirky queasiness or not.

It’s a “colony of fire ants”. That’s pretty serious. Not your every day bumble bee buzzing around like a random thought looking for a pretty flower.

These are fire ants. They’re in this woman’s brain. It’s a “colony”, an organized mass of Helter-Skelter-scurrying creatures. And it’s “multiplying”. This is not a static situation. It’s terrifying, it’s intensely painful, and it’s getting worse!

Is it a panic attack? I’d say not. I’d say it’s something more chronic, something that happens often to this woman, if not very often.

What’s the clue for me? The switch to third person.

When we go from “I” to “me”, we distance ourselves from ourselves. This typically indicates that a behavior or situation is something that happens so regularly we can describe it as if we’re the omniscient narrator of our own lives.

I think this woman struggles with some kind of serious mental illness: anxiety or OCD? But probably not PTSD or paranoia. The first two tend to be chronic and seemingly continuous; the last two, while possibly chronic, tend to be episodic.

 

The Known Unknowns

What I’m also pretty sure of is that we can rule out one thing that’s very common in fiction today: she’s not hiding from an intruder.

If she were, the book would be some kind of thriller perhaps. But I don’t think she’s afraid of someone else. I think she’s afraid of herself and what she might do, or fail to do, for her child, if those fire ants continue to multiply.

Do we need a definite diagnosis of her mental state? Nope. We just need to know that this is probably the worst possible feeling a person could hold in her head and still be self-aware enough to momentarily reflect on her situation.

This is another reason why the switch to 3rd person is so important: we know she’s not mentally dissociative; she’s holding it together—herself, her child, her motherhood—even if just barely.

The important thing for me is that I’m getting the feeling, in just one sentence and 29 words, that this is not a thriller, that this may be the story of a personal struggle for a new mother.

 

Let’s Not Forget the Title

Oh! The book is called “The Promise Between Us”.

Is the story about that implicit promise of protection that exists between every mother and child? Just a guess on my part. But not a bad one. And if I’m right, Barbara has also solved the genre question for me.

This isn’t a thriller or anything like it. It’s probably a drama of some kind. A drama about family.

 

From a Few Words Come Many Ideas

A few well-chosen words can do a lot of work—if they’re the right words written in the right order. Using only 29 of them, a talented writer can set up an 80,000-word novel.

This is what we need to tell our students, again and again and again—well, every time they burst into the full-flowered purple prose they often do. The words need to work, of course, but most young writers don’t know how hard they need to work—nor how hard they can be pushed. (I talked to Barbara about this bit and she said it was possibly the toughest few lines she’d ever written: 10, perhaps 20, revisions.)

With practice—and models of good writing broken down as we’ve done here—kids can do it. Even very little kids can do it. But we need big kids, like Barbara, to show them how.

Facing Pacing

facing-pacing

Writing mystified me when I was in school, and many mysteries remained long after I got out. One of them was about something called pacing. I knew it had to do with how fast or slow a piece of writing felt, but that was all I knew.

I didn’t figure pacing out until I had to teach it to kids. I wish I’d learned everything there was to know about writing in high school, through my English degree, or in my 10+ years of professional writing. But I didn’t. When I started teaching in classrooms, I was both surprised by how little I knew and more than a little embarrassed.

We often say that kids are our best teachers. I’ve certainly experienced that. For me, however, the obligation I feel to kids is my best teacher. It’s not a very kind teacher. It’s always telling me I’m failing. And it doesn’t accept late work or give extra credit. But the cruel master of obligation to others (especially to young others) pushes me to understand things I probably wouldn’t push myself to understand. So it is with pacing.

Here’s where I start with kids when I want to talk about pacing. It’s not a definitive treatise by any means. But I’ve found over the years that this is the best place to start because I’m really just talking about details, something the kids hear me talk about almost every day I’m with them.

 

Embracing Pacing

The pace at which a piece of writing moves forward is influenced by several things: (1) the number of words used to describe a set of ideas or actions; (2) the type and amount of details used; and (3) the lengths of sentences. Here, we’ll take a look at #1 and #2. I’ll talk about sentence structure in a forthcoming piece.

In general, the more detail a writer uses in a part, the slower that part seems to move along, especially when those details are descriptive details. When we move from part to part with more actions and fewer descriptive details, the pace quickens and the piece seems to speed up.

 

Read this:

As she awoke, she realized something wasn’t quite right. There was too much light coming from the above-ground display. Too confused to climb down the ladder all the way to the floor, she squinted at the screen on the far wall directly across from the sleeping-shelves stacked 10-high with barely a meter between them. The blinding white of sun-bright snow on the screen illuminated the dirt floor below. When she last closed her eyes, there were many days of darkness left in the season. Now it seemed, all of a sudden, that the light season had appeared. How many days and nights had she slept through?

 

Now read this:

She awoke confused and hurriedly climbed down the ladder. She knew something was wrong and ran to the door. Peering through the tiny window, she saw no one. Turning around, she realized she was alone in the room. How could she have slept past the second-morning bell? Where were the other girls? Why was it so bright in the middle of the dark season? Frantically, she pounded on the door. It moved slightly. It was unlocked. That was strange, she thought. They always kept the door locked whenever children were inside. More anxious now, she threw open the door and ran down the empty hallway.

 

Both passages describe exactly the same character in exactly the same scene. They’re also exactly the same length—to the word. Yet the second passage seems to move more quickly than the first. Why?

In the first passage, most of the words describe the scene itself; fewer things happen; it takes more time to move from one action to the next. In the second passage, almost every sentence describes a thought or action; many things happen rapidly.

This is one way to control pacing. In general, the more important a part is, the more detail you should include about it. This slows readers down, makes them pay closer attention, and extends the suspense.

By mixing more descriptive, slower-paced sections with more action-oriented, faster-paced sections, we ensure our readers have the energy and interest they need to read to the end.

 

Acing Pacing

Controlling the pace in narrative writing is easier than it is non-narrative writing because narrative writing has a timeline—sometimes explicit, sometimes implied, but always there. I have kids think of any action movie they’ve seen. Hollywood writers and directors understand pacing well.

The first two hours of an action movie may cover years of story time. But as the clock ticks down through the final crisis, running time slows way down relative to story time. In Minority Report, for example, where Tom Cruise plays a police detective who uses the prophetic power of a small group of strange people who seem live in a shallow pool of water (Hey, don’t blame me. This is dystopic sci-fi!), he can arrest people before they actually commit crimes.

By the end of the movie, of course, the hunter becomes the hunted. Cruise finds himself with just 15 seconds (there’s actually a clock ticking down in the movie) to do whatever Tom Cruise usually has to do to save himself, some beautiful woman, all of mankind, or the career of the executive producer who sold the studio on an alleged box office blockbuster.

The end of this movie really is fascinating and suspenseful. We watch the clock ticking down from 15 seconds to zero. We know there’s only 15 seconds left. But it takes several minutes for that tiny amount of time to elapse. The pace literally slows down with a bunch of cool slow-mo sequences at key points. We know Cruise is going to save whatever it is he has to save but it doesn’t matter. The long, drawn-out, slowed-down execution is riveting. In particular, the amount of detail the director shows us (like views of the scene from multiple perspectives) is excellent.

 

First-Base-ing Pacing

If you’ve read this far, you probably know two things: I’m about to wrap this up and there’s a lot more to say about pacing. We’re only on first base here. But this is a good place to start because every kid I’ve worked with, no matter how young, has been able to get to first base with pacing.

Sentence structure, word choice, voice, even punctuation can be used to change the pace of a piece of writing. Pacing in non-narrative writing is different than it is in narrative writing. In some cases, pacing may not even be a definable element because a text reads differently to different readers.

So why do I take on something this challenging with K-12 writers? Because they desperately need it. If I don’t give them at least a hint of what pacing is about (if I don’t get them at least to first base), I’m going to receive writing all year long with extreme amounts of detail in some places and no details in others. Kids also won’t understand pacing in what they read. They won’t understand, for example, that they need to slow down their reading rate as authors add additional detail because this is often a tell that the writer has something very important to say.

Small Words

small words

Word choice is hard to teach explicitly within the context of original composition. Even in revision, kids are apt to keep the words they have as long as those words make sense to them.

I’ve had a gut feeling for 25 years that most kids don’t develop that “gut feeling” for varied language that many adult writers develop. To me, this is a feeling that says, “Oh! Can’t use that word there!” or “Ya know, this word would be so much better here.”

Kids don’t naturally do this because the “game” we teach them about writing is really the game of “drafting”. We often say, “Just get your ideas down for now.” But “now” rarely becomes later. When it does, word-level revisions often aren’t nearly as important as idea- and organization-level improvements. These changes have to be made first anyway lest we spend our time working with words only to abandon them when our ideas are out whack or we cut a section to improve organizational flow.

When it comes to word choice, I want kids to get the same feeling I get, the feeling that a word or phrase isn’t quite right or that a more right alternative would make a difference. But I’m completely convinced kids have to experience this explicitly—during original composition—in order to develop the true intuitive sense so many advanced writers have for words that are “just right”.

 

Constrained Writing

To help kids make different word choices, I often use so-called “constrained writing” activities. These are just simple activities with a constraint about how they are to be completed.

A palindrome is a form of constrained writing where a thought must read identically forward and backward: “Ana nab a banana.” So is a pangram where all 26 letters must be used in a sentence: “How vexingly quick daft zebras jump!”

The constrained writing activity I like best for teaching word choice, and for helping writers learn how to say things simply and clearly, is the “single-syllable” piece. That is, only words of a single syllable are permitted.

Here’s a self-referential example from my book, “Be a Better Writer”, that is an explanation, in single-syllable words, explaining why these small words work so well.

 

SMALL WORDS

What if there was a rule that said you had to use small words when you wrote? Could you still say what you had to say?

We tend to think big words are worth more than small ones. But I think this is wrong.

Small words do big things. They are clean, they are clear, they are strong, they are true. They help us write how we feel, say what we mean, be who we are.

 

I’ve taught this to kids as young as 2nd or 3rd grade. No matter what we come up with, it always sounds like poetry, even though I always use it as a means of writing prose.

 

It’s About Choice, Not Words

Most adults think kids who use big words are smart. I think kids who use the best words are smart. I know I’m pushing a huge societal bounder up a hill and having the typical Sysiphean experience of getting kids to do exactly what I think they need to do—and then watching their skills roll all the way back to down to where they were when they move on to the next grade.

So be it. I teach a lot of things that are, paradoxically, highly valued by society, yet hardly valued in school. Many of us do. That’s part of the heartbreak so many of us go through during this highly restrictive time in education.

The writing skill I’m teaching here has nothing whatsoever to do with expanding kids’ vocabulary; I’m actually trying to show how a constrained vocabulary is often more effective. The constraint forces writers to go through word after word as they work to find something of one syllable, or a set of single-syllable words that helps them express a thought.

The hardest part about teaching word choice is getting kids to realize that they are intentionally choosing the words they use. Constrained writing activities force them to recognize this explicitly. After many practice sessions, kids become more flexible writers in their regular work after completing just a few short passages in a constrained style.

In my next article, I’ll share another constrained writing exercise, one that has been used to write entire full-length novels.

Exoplanets, a review by Vicki Spandel

Exoplanets by Seymour Simon. 2018. New York: HarperCollins.
Genre: Nonfiction picture book
Levels: Grades 3 and up (Adults will enjoy and learn much from this book)
Features: Incredible photos and illustrations, glossary, index, guide to further reading, and Author’s Note.

Exoplanets

Overview
Whenever author Seymour Simon comes out with a new book, it’s cause for celebration. I urge you to have a look at Exoplanets, the newest addition to this writer’s impressive collection.  Like Simon’s previous titles (over 300 of them), this book is a gift. It’s highly readable, making even complex and expansive subjects (like galaxies or the universe itself) both understandable and entertaining. In addition, it’s jam packed with ideas curious people love to explore, such as whether we’re alone in the universe.

Not that long ago, landing on the moon was a big deal. Now we are studying—literally identifying and investigating—so-called exoplanets, meaning planets outside our tiny solar system. What could be more exciting? But wait. Did you read that right? Did I say tiny solar system? Well, let’s put it in author Seymour Simon’s own language—and believe me, the guy has a gift for comparisons. If the Milky Way Galaxy were the size of the USA, he tells us, “Our whole solar system would then be the size of a quarter coin placed on the United States. Meanwhile, the sun would be only a microscopic speck of dust on that scale” (6). How small does that make you feel?

Milky Way 5As humans, we’ve likely pondered the possibility of alien life since we first looked up at the stars. Now we might be close to answering the question meaningfully, making this—from a scientific perspective—one of the most exciting times to be alive. Ever.

Tiny can be powerful. For a small book, Exoplanets has a big reach. In just under 40 pages, Seymour Simon investigates a wide range of provocative questions, some answerable and many meant to tease our imaginations:

• What’s a Goldilocks planet?
• How many stars (suns) and exoplanets might exist just within our own Milky Way?
• What’s a galaxy? And how many galaxies might our universe contain?
• How many exoplanets have been confirmed so far?
• How in the world do scientists discover these new planets?
• Are exoplanets like Earth—or like any planets in our solar system?
• What does a planet need to sustain life?
• How do we calculate the odds of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe?
• Would aliens be like us—or very different?
• Should we look forward to aliens stopping by—or brace ourselves?

If you and your students have ever wondered about these same things, don’t miss this book. The ideas are inherently intriguing and presented with the clarity for which Simon is famous.

Animals Nobody LovesI’m a long-time fan of Seymour Simon’s nonfiction, and have carried his books to countless workshops, sharing them with teachers and students alike—who always madly scribble down titles. Special favorites for me include Big Cats, Animals Nobody Loves, Gorillas, Sharks, Whales, The Brain, The Heart, and Our Solar System, but let me just say that you could read all day and into tomorrow, and still have numerous remarkable Seymour Simon books to explore. As a former teacher, Simon knows how to engage students, how to emphasize important details, how to get conversationally technical without drowning us in hard-to-recall statistics, and above all, how to suggest stimulating questions and issues for us to think about.The Heart

In his striking conclusion, Simon admits there is much we humans still do not know, including whether life beyond our solar system, if it exists at all, might take the form of intelligent beings or simple microbes. “So why are we even looking?” he asks. “We’re looking for answers because that’s what humans do. We are curious about our world and our surroundings” (39). That curiosity, he adds, is like an insatiable thirst.

What a brilliant wrap-up.

Curiosity not only feeds our desire to explore space, but also drives our very desire to learn. Let’s nurture the innate curiosity in our children because it’s what makes our teaching not only effective, but literally possible. One good way to keep curiosity alive is by sharing great nonfiction books like this one.

In the Classroom

Sharing the book aloud. You may find this book appropriate for use with a reading group of students who share an avid interest in space and the possibility of intelligent life in the universe. Still, who can say how many of your students will find this topic intriguing, given just a little taste? With this in mind, I recommend reading at least through page 9 aloud to the whole class, then inviting students to finish the book on their own, with follow-up group discussions. As you read through the book yourself, mark those passages you just “have to share.” I’m predicting you’ll find quite a few!

milky way 3Background. How many of your students have wondered about the possibility of life on other planets? Or wondered how many other planets there might be in the universe—or just within our own Milky Way galaxy? For fun, have students write short paragraphs about this, speculating or offering their current beliefs. After sharing selected passages from the book, talk about whether their ideas have changed—or their beliefs have been reinforced. Share your own thoughts, too–with, of course, the caveat that no one knows the answer to this question. Yet.

Because the book is so clearly written, students do not need a great deal of background information to understand it. However, a grasp of certain concepts will certainly enhance their enjoyment of this topic. In particular, it’s helpful if students are familiar with or knowledgeable about—

• The story of Goldilocks, so they can readily grasp how the “Goldilocks” concept applies in other contexts (It’s easy to assume children are acquainted with these fairy tales with which a lot of us grew up, but many are not, so ask!)
• The basics of our solar system, such as the number of planets, and a sense of which ones are closest to the sun (Think about sharing Seymour Simon’s book Our Solar System as a way of setting the stage for Exoplanets.)
• The terms solar system, Milky Way galaxy, and universe—and distinctions among them
• The concept of a light year, the distance light travels in a year, or 5.88 trillion miles (Make sure students have some idea of what a trillion even is—this can be difficult for young readers, or anyone, to picture!)

Our Solar SystemYou might also wish to ask students how many have seen films or read books that explore the idea of alien life. What forms does that fictional life usually take? Do they feel these portrayals are realistic—or mostly a product of writers’ and film makers’ imaginations?

Questions for Writing or Discussion

Question 1: What does it take to make a planet habitable? This is a good question to research, though your students likely have many ideas about this already. Exoplanets offers numerous clues. See the early discussion of “Goldilocks” planets on page 5, the reference to water vapor on page 13, and the discussion of atmosphere, ocean water, and temperature on page 19. See if you can, with your students, come up with their own personal definition of the “habitable zone.” Note the comment on page 20 that “Each star has a different habitable zone.” Why would this be? What’s the habitable zone for our own star, the sun? What if Earth had been a little closer to the sun—or just a bit farther away?

Cosmos2Note: In his famous book Cosmos, astronomer Carl Sagan wrote this:

The Earth is a place. It is by no means the only place. It is not even a typical place. No planet or star or galaxy can be typical, because the Cosmos is mostly empty. The only typical place is within the vast, cold, universal vacuum, the everlasting night of intergalactic space, a place so strange and desolate that, by comparison, planets and stars and galaxies seem achingly rare and lovely. If we were randomly inserted into the Cosmos, the chance that we would find ourselves on or near a planet would be one in a billion trillion trillion (1033, a one followed by 33 zeroes). In everyday life such odds are called compelling. Worlds are precious. (1980, 5)

Those beautiful lines haunt me still. Worlds are indeed precious. But as we now know, precious does not necessarily mean unique. The idea that intelligent life could exist somewhere in that “everlasting night of intergalactic space” is infinitely captivating.

Question 2: How many exoplanets exist? While we cannot come up with a specific number, we can—as Seymour Simon’s book suggests—make an intelligent guess. What’s important here is understanding how scientists make such estimates.

We need to begin with the notion of how many exoplanets might exist in that tiny bit of galactic real estate known to us, the Milky Way. According to Simon, scientists estimate that there could be one Goldilocks planet circling each red dwarf star in the galaxy—and more such planets circling other stars similar to our sun. Based on the numbers of such stars in the galaxy, the Milky Way itself might contain billions of habitable planets (See page 9 for a thorough discussion). Remember, though: The Milky Way is only one galaxy, so we have to ask . . .

How many galaxies are in the universe? See page 32 for an estimate. Then, as the saying goes, prepare to do the math. You should come up with a pretty dazzling number. If there truly are this many Goldilocks planets scattered throughout the universe, what are the odds that life in some form exists out there somewhere, however distant from us?

Billions and Billions

 

Note: For an utterly delightful discussion of how to use and multiply cosmic numbers, see Carl Sagan’s book Billions and Billions, pages 3-12. That title is a joke, by the way. Sagan, by his own account, never uttered the expression “billions and billions.” It was made famous by talk show host Johnny Carson, who loved impersonating Sagan.

 

 

 

 

 

Question 3: Suppose there were intelligent beings on other planets. If we could reach out to them, what would we want them to know about us? Before students write or talk about this, share the story of Frank Drake’s Arecibo Message, a broadcast sent from Puerto Rico in 1974 (See page 31). Discuss the things Drake included in this message.

Then ask students to think about sending a similar message today. What things would you come up with, as a class, to include—and why? What would best represent life on our planet in the Twenty-First Century?

You may also wish to share Simon’s discussion of Breakthrough Listen, a sophisticated search initiated by physicist Stephen Hawking (see page 32). What is innovative about Breakthrough Listen, and how does it change the exploration game for scientists?

Question 4: Is it likely—or even possible—that alien beings have already visited us on Earth? Many people think so, though evidence is anything but conclusive or even, for that matter, convincing to most scientists. But it’s fun to imagine, which may help explain why so many people feel they’ve been visited by aliens. What do your students think? Research this topic and discuss whether the evidence thus far has credibility. What barriers or conditions minimize the odds of beings traveling through space to visit us here on Earth?

Hey–is anybody listening? As Simon tells us in Exoplanets, we are continually sending signals into space through our radio and television broadcasting. More recently, we’ve begun deliberately attempting to contact anyone who might be listening. So far, we’ve heard nothing back. Why? On page 28, Simon offers several possible reasons. Share these reasons with students and ask what they think. Could someone be listening out there? Do they hope so?

Question 5: Are alien beings friendly? Among the many enticing questions Seymour Simon raises in this book, this one is for me the most tantalizing of all. No matter how curious we might be, we have to face the possibility, as explorers have through time, that we could encounter hostile beings who do not wish us well. Should we keep going anyway? Is it worth the risk? What do your students think?

Ask if they imagine that alien life is more likely to be friendly or unfriendly—and why. Suppose we were to encounter a civilization with intelligent beings far older, wiser, and more technologically sophisticated than any beings here on Earth. Would this be a good thing? What influence might such a discovery have on us, and how could our lives change as a result?

Before you go . . .

Take time to read the Author’s Note at the front of the book. This isn’t a quickly dashed off comment. It’s a message from the heart by an author who loves writing and enjoys telling us about his approach and vision.

Want to know more about exoplanets?

They’re a hot topic on the internet these days. Just type “exoplanets” in your search engine and prepare for a barrage of articles and thrilling photos. In addition, Seymour Simon lists several key websites to explore. See page 40.Milky Way 3

About the Author

The New York Times has called Seymour Simon “the dean of the [children’s science] field.” He has written more than 300 books for young readers, 75 of which have been named Outstanding Science Trade Books for Children by the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). In 2012, Simon founded StarWalk Kids Media, a streaming eBook platform that makes outstanding literature from today’s top authors available to schools and libraries.

Simon’s website (www.seymoursimon.com) is a Webby Honoree, and was named one of twelve “2012 Great Websites for Kids,” offering children, families, and educators a wide array of free downloadable resources designed to enrich their reading experience. Throughout his incredible career, Simon has won multiple awards for his work, including the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science/Subaru Lifetime Achievement Award for his lasting contribution to science education. A visionary and committed educator (He taught for twenty-five years before becoming a full-time writer), Simon never loses sight of his primary goal. “I’m more interested in arousing enthusiasm in kids than I am in teaching the facts,” he says. “The facts may change, but that enthusiasm for exploring the world will remain with them for the rest of their lives.”

Visit Simon at http://www.seymoursimon.com where you can read more about his interests, learn about other publications, follow his daily nature walks in upstate New York, and even post on his blog.

Teaching Nonfiction RevisionAre your students writing their own nonfiction? Let us help!

Teaching Nonfiction Revision (by Sneed B. Collard and Vicki Spandel) will guide you and your students seamlessly through the whole revision process. You’ll find out, step by step, how one of our finest professional writers—Sneed Collard—readies his own drafts  for publication. As Sneed shares his trade secrets, I work alongside him, translating Sneed’s professional strategies into classroom writing activities students will love and learn from, suggesting ways to confer during revision, and sharing writing secrets that demystify revision even for writers who struggle. By the end of the book, you’ll feel like an expert at teaching this vital part of writing process. Don’t miss our list of recommended nonfiction books—for both adults and students (And if you’re wondering, of course Seymour Simon made the list, even though, unfortunately, we didn’t have space to include all 300 titles).

Teaching Nonfiction Revision is available at Amazon or at our publisher’s website, http://www.heinemann.com

Woodpeckers: Drilling Holes and Bagging Bugs, written and photographed by Sneed B. Collard III. 2018. Missoula, MT: Bucking Horse Books.
Genre: Nonfiction picture book
Levels: Grades 4 and up, including adults
Features: Gorgeous photos, glossary, index, and delightful “photo bloopers” section you will love!

Overview Woodpeckers cover
Tap, tap, tap, tap. You’ll hear it any day now! The percussion section of the ornithological world, aka woodpeckers, going to town right outside your window, signaling spring. They’re not doing it just to annoy you. They’re actually communicating with one another, and the message could be “Watch out—this is my territory, not yours!” or “Love of my life, here I am!” Who knew? I didn’t. But I get it now, thanks to Sneed B. Collard’s most recent book, Woodpeckers. (Yes, he has another. Does the guy ever sleep?)

Collard is a terrific (and prolific) nonfiction writer, but this newest book has to be one of his best. What makes it so? Two things. Voice and detail. This magical combo works every time, whether for an award-winning author like Collard or a fifth grader hammering out a three-page report. Let’s take a closer look at these sine qua non features, beginning with detail.

ESSENTIAL FEATURE #1: Make it informative!
Readers have all sorts of ways of measuring nonfiction detail. Some tally facts–you know, the sorts of dates, names, or other data that might appear on a quiz. Other readers equate detail with imagery, those telling sensory cues that put us right at the scene. Who doesn’t love that? But for me, the essence of good nonfiction detail lies within this question: “What did I learn?”

When I finish a book like this one, I want to recall three, four—maybe six—things I didn’t know when I picked the book up. Details like these:

• Woodpeckers have a unique anatomy that allows them to bang on trees without getting headaches or brain damage.
• While some woodpeckers seek out soft trees to tap on, others can drill holes in trees nearly as hard as rock.
• Unlike most birds, woodpeckers have toes facing both forward and back that enable them to cling to trees, even upside down, without slipping.
• A woodpecker’s long tongue is attached to a special bone that allows it to extend way, way beyond what would otherwise be possible, ensuring that no crafty ant or beetle escapes its culinary destiny.
• Though drumming woodpeckers are most often seeking food, they also—with impressive speed and skill—excavate their own homes. (If you don’t find this impressive, then you haven’t tried drilling your way into a tree lately.)
• What’s more, were it not for woodpeckers, many other birds (certain kinds of owls and ducks, for instance) wouldn’t have their own homes to nest in.

 

Acorn PS on Pole 0994 copy

Plenty of good storage for acorns on this telephone pole!

I ask you: Did you know these things moments ago? I didn’t know any of them prior to reading Woodpeckers, and was struck by how much I had learned from just a few pages of highly readable text. As we share nonfiction with students (and I hope you do this regularly), we should also ask them to listen for things they learn. The more they value coming face to face with new information, the more appealing young writers will find nonfiction books like this one. They open our world, allowing us to experience things beyond our normal reach. The better the detail—and this book is information-packed—the richer that experience.

 

 

 

 

 

ESSENTIAL FEATURE #2: Put some voice into it!
Is voice really so important in nonfiction? Just ask nonfiction writers like Nicola Davies, Sy Montgomery, Bill Bryson, Craig Childs, Michio Kaku, Bill Nye, Michael Pollan, Katherine Roy, Seymour Simon, Melissa Sweet, Elaine Scott, or Susanna Reich—to name but a handful of people who literally make a living writing with distinctive, unmistakable voice.

Important doesn’t even cover it. Voice is elemental. It’s the soul of writing. The very thing that keeps us reading. Voiceless documents—and the world has plenty of those, so no need to produce more—are nothing but dust collectors.

Woodpeckers, like all of Sneed’s nonfiction work, rings with voice. This is why you’ll want to share it aloud. It’s an excellent model of what nonfiction can be. When you read a book like this one to your students, you’re not just teaching them about woodpeckers. You’re demonstrating firsthand how to engage readers by bringing information to life.

Wait a minute, though. Aren’t reports (of the sort students write in school) supposed to be a little bit . . . well, dull and dry? Don’t they have to be (here comes that dreaded word) objective? Sure. But objective doesn’t mean boring. A dull and plodding, albeit faithful, recounting of facts. If that’s our idea of objectivity, we need to grab our notecards and run as fast as our feet will carry us.

Presenting factual information as though we don’t care anything about it, as though we could recite it in our sleep, is anything but objective. Boredom, which is hard to camouflage, casts a shadow over the writer’s topic. It’s the worst form of bias. If the writer can’t wait to get a report (or any writing) over with, that’s precisely how readers will feel. By contrast, imagine that the writer sees his research as an adventure, an opportunity for discovery. I’m pretty sure that’s how Sneed sees it. Between the lines of his book we can read his underlying message: “You’ve got to hear this! I cannot wait to share this with you.”

Woodpeckers runs about 40 pages, and they fly by. That’s the power of voice.

Where does this VOICE come from? Several things. First, Sneed knows his subject inside and out, so he can write about it with confidence: “A woodpecker’s beak can strike wood at more than fifteen miles an hour. That would give any other bird—or us—brain damage. Not surprisingly, woodpeckers have super-cool adaptations to keep from injuring themselves. Their beaks and skull bones are specifically designed to absorb shock” (6). As the saying goes, you can’t make this stuff up. You need to do your research. Voice is built upon a bedrock of knowledge that lets the writer feel and speak like an expert.

Downy PS in Our Oak 1507 copy

Downy Woodpecker tapping away on an oak tree

 

Second, Sneed uses quotations to bring other voices into the discussions—and also to give the information additional authenticity. We meet woodpecker expert Dick Hutto on page one, and he reappears periodically, like a good friend dropping by for coffee. A friend who always has something quotable to say, like this: “We record their [woodpeckers’] drumming and play it back. Woodpeckers will come attack the loudspeaker if they think it’s another male intruding on their territories” (21). Of all the comments Sneed might have chosen to include right here, he picked one that would make us laugh. I read this and think, “This writer wants me to have a good time reading his book.” I do. That’s exactly how we want to feel reading our students’ work.

 

Professor Dick Hutto

Professor Dick Hutto

Voice also comes, of course, from the combination of word choice, rhythm, and tone that reveals the writer behind the words. In his introduction to the chapter “Woodpecker Families,” Sneed writes, “If you had to choose non-human parents—and I’m sure you’ve been tempted—you could do a lot worse than choosing a woodpecker mom and dad” (24). The voice here is witty, playful, conversational. A writer chatting with his readers, making a joke while simultaneously surprising us with a terrific tidbit of information. Few people watch a woodpecker light on the suet feeder and think, “Well, now. There goes a model parent!” We’ll think it now, though, won’t we?

 

In any nonfiction writing, voice depends enormously on the writer’s enthusiasm for the topic at hand. Collard tells us straight up that he finds woodpeckers fascinating, and he demonstrates this on every page with an energy and involvement that are downright contagious. He spent several years putting this book together, much of it searching for woodpeckers in the wild and attempting to get those elusive just-right photos. That’s a level of commitment we can’t expect from most students, at least prior to graduate school. But that’s not the point, really. The point is this: Students (and all writers) do better work when they’re in love with their topics, as Sneed clearly is here. If we want to see reports and essays we’ll actually enjoy reading, let’s help students discover topics that speak to them. Then maybe, as in Woodpeckers, those hand-picked topics will speak to us too.

In the Classroom

Sharing the book aloud. It’s always tempting to reach for a good story. I do it all the time. But students will want to read what you find exciting. If you never reach for nonfiction, why should they? Show them that reading, like food, is enhanced by variety.

This book is short enough to share in one or two readings—three at most. I wouldn’t share it chapter by chapter because individual sections are so short that you could lose continuity breaking it up this much. Use a document projector if possible so you can enjoy the photographs. They’re outstanding and will add immeasurably to your understanding.

Background. How many of your students have seen woodpeckers firsthand? Can they identify particular species? Either way, ask them to look for familiar woodpeckers as you go through the book together.

If at all possible, consider a field trip to spot (or even photograph) woodpeckers in their native habitats. Woodpeckers are prevalent throughout North America, so chances are good that some live near you. If you’re in the city, you may find woodpeckers in nearby forested areas, parks, or woodlands. If you’re lucky enough to live close to hiking trails, that’s almost a sure bet. Keep in mind that some species take up residence in burned areas following forest fires. (See Sneed Collard’s book Firebirds for more information on this.)Firebirds

Personal Note: We have numerous woodpeckers in the forest behind our house. They tap on the window frame outside my office window every spring—so loudly I can barely concentrate on my writing! Prior to reading this book, I didn’t know they were “talking,” not necessarily pecking the house apart in their ongoing quest for food. (That’s a relief!) In addition, the only species I could name was the Flicker. Now I know we also have Downy Woodpeckers—and that rare species, the White-Headed Woodpecker. That photo was the give-away!

Woodpecker7

That rare White-headed Woodpecker!

 

Write, write, write! If you’re a teacher, you know what a turn on it is to help someone understand something that was, just moments earlier, cloudy and mysterious—or not even on their radar. Why not let students experience that same excitement? Writing their own nonfiction gives students a chance to be our teachers.

Encourage them to choose topics they feel committed to researching. This makes the whole process far more fun for them—and more entertaining for you as you read the results. If possible, go for variety. You don’t really—do you?—want to read thirty, forty, or two hundred reports on climate change, or any other topic. Choice for students means variety for you.

Where will students get their ideas? One surefire source is the nonfiction you read aloud. When students see and hear what great nonfiction writers like Sneed Collard have to say, it inspires them to ask themselves what information they might share with the world. Nonfiction writing has virtually exploded in the last decade—in diversity, quality, presentation, everything. It’s as engaging as the best fiction you can find. It’s current, informative, provocative, and a critical component of a good education. If you’re wondering what to read next (after Woodpeckers), why not have your students nominate some possibilities, then take a vote? This will engage them in exploring the ever-expanding world of nonfiction, and will ensure they have a real stake in what you read together.

Woodpecker2

Creatures like the Pygmy Owl are all too happy to move in when woodpeckers move out.

 

Getting creative with formatting. How creative are your students in formatting their essays, biographies, analyses, or reports? Much of this depends, of course, on whether they have access to technology that supports more than black lines on a white page. Even if they don’t yet have that tech edge, you can make students aware of how design influences our experience as readers.

As you go through Woodpeckers, ask students to notice the layout. It’s striking. Photos are everywhere! How much do your students feel these photos add to the interest and appeal of the text? Discuss ways your students could incorporate illustrations into their own nonfiction: photos, sketches, maps, graphs, cartoons, or other visuals that break up text and give readers information they can’t get from words alone.

Also notice the use of color and shading, and the variations in fonts. Such seemingly small features enhance the visual effectiveness of any document. They’re more than window dressing. Textual variations can very deliberately draw readers’ eyes to important points.

You might also notice that in Woodpeckers some information is boxed apart from the main text. (See pages 12 and 13, for example.) Talk with your students about what this approach does for us as readers. What sort of “break” does such formatting provide? How would a writer decide what information, if any, to set apart in a box?Woodpecker6

Discuss whether “boxing” is an approach your students might borrow for their own writing. You might have them review one of their recent nonfiction drafts to see if they can identify a section of text that could benefit from this special treatment. Have them search for a short segment that is hard to work smoothly into the main flow, yet too important to simply dump on the cutting room floor. Bingo. A good way to save a detail that doesn’t quite fit anywhere else.

How about those subheads? Often students who use subheads (and many, unfortunately, do not!) take them very literally. For example, suppose a student is writing about Emperor Penguins. She may use subheads like these: Appearance, Life Cycle, Habitat, Food Sources, Natural Enemies. There is nothing wrong with this. Such subtitles add clarity and make any discussion easier to follow.

On the other hand, subheads, which Sneed sometimes calls A-heads, offer the writer an opportunity to get a little playful, and perhaps provide readers with deeper clues about upcoming content.

As you go through Woodpeckers with your students, pay attention to Collard’s subheads, sometimes pausing to ask students, “What is this next section probably about?” You’ll notice that some subheads are direct: e.g., “Woodpecker Families.” But much of the time, Sneed is having some fun with us, as if to say, “Are you guys paying attention here?” And we are! Who could ignore headings like “What’s a Woodp-p-p-p-pecker?” or “Hot-Footed Fact”?

This isn’t to say we should transform students into comedians. I didn’t put this book down saying, “Man, I’ve never laughed so h-h-hard!” No—this is a subtle thing. It’s an author looking carefully at his message and asking, “What’s important here? What could I emphasize in this subhead to get and hold readers’ attention?”

Keeping readers reading is what the writing game is all about. Too often students don’t know this because they don’t have to. They have a trapped audience: teachers. Teachers don’t have much choice about whether to read their students’ work. What if they did? That’s the way we need to teach our students to write—as if their readers (like those of the professional writer) could walk away and read something else.

A new way to think about revision. I loved the whole book, but I have to say, “Woodpecker Photo Bloopers” was my favorite part. Maybe because most writers aren’t gutsy enough to share their bloopers—and bloopers of any kind are fun to look at. But also because it gave me enormous appreciation for the effort required to photograph birds. They don’t pose!

 

Woodpecker1

One that didn’t make the cut . . .

 

 

It also struck me that this careful culling of photos was a form of revision. We so often think of revision as “fixing,” but that’s a highly simplistic definition. What prompts us to revise our writing—or anything?

When we built our current house, the one woodpeckers find so irresistible, we revised the blueprints repeatedly. Why? Because at various turns some internal voice would whisper, “This isn’t quite it. This isn’t right yet.” That’s the very voice I hear when I revise my writing. And I suspect it’s close to what Sneed hears in his mind as he reviews potential illustrations, tossing this one, keeping that.

As you look at the photos in this delightful section (which I predict your students will love as much as I did), take time to study each photo carefully. Ask your students why they think each one was rejected. It may help to simultaneously review the photos that were chosen—beginning with that stunner on the cover. What characteristics do these keepers exhibit that are missing from the bloopers?

Then help students make the connection to writing. Just as a photographer like Sneed will choose one photo over another, good writers will choose one word, one phrase, one sentence over another. While all may express the same general idea, just as all the blooper photos show woodpeckers, some convey the message more clearly, more precisely, or in a way the writer prefers. Noticing such differences will give your students a much better appreciation for what revision is about. Making choices.

More Writing Activities Students Will Love

Take your own photos! Almost nothing jump starts writing like photographing your subject(s) first. You don’t have to focus on woodpeckers—though you certainly could. By all means, choose topics that suit your environment. That could mean farmlands, factories, architecture, bodies of water, animals, sports, food—anything! What’s more, students do not all need to photograph the same kinds of things. One might be interested in sculpture, while another wants to study community gardening. The point is to get students into the environment, seeing the world firsthand through their own eyes. You will be amazed at how this electrifies the voice in their writing.

IMG_5884 (2)

Sneed, going for a great shot!

 

If possible, encourage students to take multiple photos. As Sneed has discovered during his many years as a photographer, most photos don’t turn out as well as we hope when we click the button. In addition, multiple photos provide increased opportunity to uncover details we can easily overlook initially. Don’t be surprised if they switch topics mid-stream either. A student photographer may start out focusing on city traffic and wind up capturing wildlife in the park. So need I say? This is one of the best ways you’ll ever find to help students find personal writing topics.

Personalize research. What nonfiction topics are your students writing about right now? Whatever it is, take one class period to think about ways they could go beyond books, articles, and internet to make their research more personal. Make no mistake—these academic research trails are important, and we want students to follow them. But nothing really takes the place of close-up experience through site visits, observations, and interviews with experts. Want to see your students truly jazzed about research? Try asking, “What if YOU were the primary researcher on this topic? What if YOU were the one whose data others would cite?” There’s so much more to research than taking notes. It’s a hundred times more rewarding to make yourself the resident expert on a subject you have identified as important.

Follow up. A book like Woodpeckers invariably raises questions we can answer through personal investigation. Just as an example, since reading the book, I am far more aware of forest terrains. I cannot get this comment from Sneed out of my head: “One problem is that humans don’t like messy-looking landscapes.” No kidding.

 

Guayaquil Woodpecker 2L4A8485 copy (1)

Guayaquil Woodpecker

We may shamelessly litter streets and beaches, but when it comes to our forested areas, we cannot resist the urge to tidy up. Why? Unlike plastic and other trash, organic remnants like leaves, twigs, fallen and scorched trees, or snags actually support life in more ways than most of us realize. We should appreciate these natural gifts, not treat them like refuse. So my personal research question is this: How do we get people (myself included) to wake up? How do we get interfering humans to stop fanatically removing all dead trees and other natural remains from forests that depend on these very things to thrive?

 

 

 

How many follow-up questions can your students come up with after reading Woodpeckers? Here are just a few that occur to me:

• What kinds of woodpeckers live in my part of the world?
• Many people view woodpeckers as pests, though they do much for the environment. Some even kill them. How can we get people to feel more positive toward these birds?
• We know that woodpecker hollows provide homes for other creatures, such as wood ducks and owls. What kinds of birds (or animals) take over woodpecker homes in my area?
• What species of woodpecker, if any, are currently threatened with extinction?
• What talents does it take to photograph woodpeckers? Or any birds? Can I do it?
• If I went birding in my area for a day, how many species of birds would I see? How much does this change with the seasons?
• What skills does it take to be a birder?
• Are feral cats (or other animals) a threat to woodpeckers (and other birds) in my neighborhood? What, if anything, can we do about this?

I’m betting your students will come up with better questions than mine. Be sure to remind them: Their questions are the jumping off point for exhilarating investigative research.


Words from the Author . . . Sneed at home

Sneed Collard graciously agreed to answer a few questions about writing, revision, woodpeckers, and nonfiction. Here’s what he had to say:

Q: This isn’t your first book about birds. Yet woodpeckers in particular seem to fascinate you. What’s so intriguing about these species? And did your interest in woodpeckers make it easier to write about them?

I first noticed woodpeckers growing up in California, where Acorn Woodpeckers drilled thousands of holes into telephone poles to store their acorns! Ever since then, I’ve loved these birds. They’re beautiful, of course, but also relatively easy to recognize, which helped get me started in birding. They also play essential roles in forest habitats. I mean, what’s not to write about?

Q: Many people have an impression of birding as not too physically demanding. You just take binoculars with you when you go for a walk, right? Is this a misconception?

Birding can be like that—but not for most serious birders. When my son, Braden, and I are birding, we usually cover five or six miles each day, some of it across very demanding terrain. Birding also can have its perils. In the four or five years we’ve been seriously birding, we’ve suffered treacherous roads, dehydration, falling trees, and killer bees. Needless to say, these trials have been worth it. Intellectually, birding offers so many great challenges, from learning to identify birds from calls and physical characteristics to observing their ever-fascinating behaviors.

Q: One of the many things that makes this book so intriguing is that you did your own photography. What’s the hardest thing about photographing birds?

Photography depends on great equipment, a ton of experience, and even more patience. Braden and I aren’t willing to sit in a blind for hours to wait for a bird, but if we know about a nest, we’ll go and set up our tripods and wait. Usually, though, we’re opportunistic photographers, hoping to run across great birds and photo conditions when we can, and the only way to do that is get out there a lot! Tomorrow, for instance, we’re driving three hours up to Kalispell, Montana in the hopes we can find a Snowy Owl. Even so, it takes years to recognize good photo conditions and how to use your equipment to maximize your odds of a good crisp photo. Every day after birding, Braden and I come home and delete about 80% of our photos. If we get one or two great photos per day, we’re happy.

Q: In the final section of the book, you share some photos that did not work out—it’s one of my favorite parts of the book, in fact. You mention taking up to a hundred photos for each one that you finally select for publication. How do you know when you find that one special photo? What makes you say, “Ah, this is the one I want”?

If the bird is well-lit, doing something interesting, and the eye is sharp in the photo, it’s usually a keeper. Most often, we get these kinds of photos at a blind, a feeder, or a nest. The great cover shot for Woodpeckers was taken at a nest that I visited several times. The last time I went, I thought it had been abandoned, but I waited for twenty minutes. Then, I saw the pencil-thin beak of a baby woodpecker poke out of the hole. I got so excited! That’s when the real action began, as the parents returned to feed their ravenous teenagers!

Q: A lot of young readers these days love to read stories—novels in particular. How do we, as teachers, lure them into the world of nonfiction?

This is always tough. Some kids naturally prefer nonfiction topics, but many veer toward fiction. One problem is that most teachers still treat nonfiction as an “educational” or “special” category—and they don’t read nonfiction themselves. Instead of picking up a novel to read aloud, I wish more teachers would just grab a good nonfiction book and read that aloud during reading time. One great resource to turn on teachers and kids is something called The Nonfiction Minute. Each day, this website features a short audio clip by a prominent children’s nonfiction author. I encourage teachers to share these with their kids as a wonderful “warm up” to the day. Here’s the link: http://www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute

Q: Many young writers rely heavily in the internet or on other reading to gather information for a nonfiction report or bio piece. Is that enough? Or should they expand their own concept of “research” to include other avenues, such as the field research you do?

The internet has several well-known flaws including the fact that few websites are monitored for accuracy and that many websites are put up by groups or individuals with an agenda. Perhaps the greatest shortcoming of internet research for young people is that it robs them of the joys of true investigation. In teaching writing camps, I’ve found that kids get the most pumped up when they can go out there and observe and discover things for themselves. Even when that’s not possible, it’s great fun to interview experts and explore the print resources of a library. A sure-fire way to get kids excited is to have them go out and photograph something and then write about it.

Q: Suppose young readers want to see some woodpeckers for themselves. Are they likely to find these birds pretty much anywhere in the U.S.? And do you have any special advice for people (of any age) who want to go out birding?

One of the awesome things about birding is that birds can be found everywhere. Woodpeckers live almost anywhere you can find trees and some, such as Downy Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers often visit suet feeders during the winter. Even if you live in the heart of an urban area, you will most likely be able to find a couple of dozen bird species. Just grab a pair of binoculars and a guide book, and you’ll be on your way. Even rock doves (pigeons) display fascinating behavior and brilliant variation. And don’t forget—birds came from dinosaurs. I always remind myself of that when looking at any bird! Best advice for a beginning birder? Just get out there and start looking!

Q: Clearly revision is critical in getting a book like this one ready for publication. Can you briefly highlight some things you did in revising this book?

The revisions that went into Woodpeckers were nothing short of extraordinary, starting with my basic approach to the book. In my first attempt, I decided to take a species-by-species approach since each North American woodpecker has fascinating features. After letting the book sit for a while, however, I decided that this approach was too encyclopedic and decided to adopt a similar light-hearted voice and style to what I used for my book Sneed B. Collard III’s Most Fun Book Ever About Lizards. lizards2Even after roughing out that approach, however, I made dramatic revisions. One was to seek out and add quotes by woodpecker experts. Another was to axe my introduction. At first, I had recounted my experience with Acorn Woodpeckers. That intro was okay, but I decided that it didn’t really add to the book, so out it went! What might be readers’ favorite feature of the book, the “Photo Bloopers” spread, was a last-minute addition. I was lamenting our failure at getting really great Arizona Woodpecker photos and just decided, “Well, what if I just put these imperfect photos in and call attention to the fact that we tried—and failed—at photographing these uncooperative critters?” That turned out to be a terrific revision. Besides the above points, I went through countless rounds of tightening, recasting, replacing verbs, and so forth—all the effort it takes to produces a strong piece of writing.

Q: You’ve written both fiction and nonfiction. Is one more of a challenge? Which one is more fun for you as a writer?

I enjoy writing both fiction and nonfiction, but each has its challenges. For me, finding the right voice in fiction can be a challenge, as well as fully developing the characters. In nonfiction, getting the research right and knowing how to organize a subject takes a lot of effort. The nice thing about writing both is that the skills required for each contribute to the other. Writing fiction helps me develop voice and characters for my nonfiction. My nonfiction helps me come up with meatier plots and settings for my fiction.


More about Sneed Collard
Sneed Collard has written more than eighty books for young people and adults—many of them award winners. His very recent (2017) book Climate Change—Snowshoe Hares, Science, and Survival was a finalist for the Green Earth Book Award and theHopping Ahead2 AAAS/Subaru/Science Books & Films Prize for Excellence in Science Books.
Sneed’s book Firebirds—Valuing Natural Wildfires and Burned Forests (2015), also an award winner, tells more about the relationship between birds and their habitat, showing how some thrive in the burned remains of a forest fire. Firebirds was featured here on Gurus—and is among my personal favorites of Sneed’s books, along with Animal Dads, Creepy Creatures, Pocket Babies, Reign of the Sea Dragons, Sneed B. Collard’s Most Fun Book Ever About Lizards (delightfully humorous), and his autobiography, Snakes, Alligators, and Broken Hearts: Journeys of a Biologist’s SonSnakes, Alligators, and broken hearts

Together with his son Braden, Sneed spent four years researching and photographing woodpeckers in preparation for writing this book. That dedication and attention to detail, together with his sense of humor, make Sneed among America’s favorite nonfiction authors. To learn more about Sneed or to book a conference or classroom visit, go to http://www.sneedbcollardiii.com or http://www.buckinghorsebooks.com


Do you teach your students to revise? Hey . . . let’s talk!

If you could take a whole scripted seminar on revision from Sneed Collard for under $30, would you do it? Guess what? You can—it’s all contained right here in concise, readable forTeaching Nonfiction Revisionm specially designed to make the teaching of revision streamlined and easy. No matter what genre you teach, Teaching Nonfiction Revision will guide you and your students right through the revision process. You’ll have a good time, and get better at teaching revision than you ever dreamed possible. Lessons are posted online so you can print out and distribute just what you need when you need it. Bonus: I’m Sneed’s co-author, making sure he doesn’t wander off-topic to write about birding in Montana.

Teaching Nonfiction Revision is available at Amazon or at our publisher’s website, Heinemann.com


 

 

 

 

 

Endorsement from a writing expert . . .thumbnail_steve-peha-headshot-no-background.jpg

Writer and educational consultant Steve Peha, author of the multi-award-winning Be a Better Writer, recently said this about Teaching Nonfiction Revision:

“It’ll give kids a fabulous foundation in the hardest and most important part of writing there is. And it’ll give you a way to get really good at teaching revision, too.”

To read Steve’s five-star review on GoodReads, visit this site: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2322979630?book_show_action=false&from_review_page=1