Category: Instructional Tips


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

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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

 

 

 

 

12 Ways to Make the Most of Writing Conferences by Vicki Spandel

Introduction

Conferring one on one with students is among the most effective strategies we have for supporting young writers. Yet learning to conduct a conference well can take a lifetime. Much of what I’ve learned about conferences came from teaching and online coaching. But in addition, I had the special opportunity of working for a time as a writing specialist in Portland Community College’s Drop-In Center. So-called because students who were having difficulty with writing could “drop in” and see me for help. I was conferring all day—sometimes with students who struggled to get that first line on paper.

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When I started this intense writing conference marathon, I honestly didn’t know what I was doing. I felt confident talking about writing, but I hadn’t yet read all the wise things Donald Graves and others had to say about conferring effectively. I pictured myself having to come up with “the answer” for every piece students showed me. Unsure how else to begin, I’d usually have students read their writing aloud while I tried to think of something helpful to say. Coming up with encouraging comments was easy, but there had to be more to conferring than that—didn’t there? We were eating up a lot of precious conference time reading work about which students had no specific questions. What did they want me to listen for? Did they simply want to know if the writing was good—or did they need something more? Then it occurred to me . . .

These students were used to thinking like students, not writers. They saw their job as finishing an assignment. They saw my job as telling them what to do to earn a good grade so they could get it done and have this pesky piece of writing behind them. Expedient, right? Very handily, they’d put all the responsibility for the writing on me. Not good. For this to work, we had to be on equal footing, two writers having a conversation. As I quickly discovered though, most didn’t have the writing vocabulary to discuss things like detail, leads and endings, paragraphing, topic development, and so on. That seemed a good place to start. In addition, I invited them to think of me not so much as a teacher but more as a fellow writer—and reader. Then we worked together on creating a common language that would let us talk meaningfully about their writing. What a difference. It’s ever so much easier to ask for help once you have names for things like mood or dialogue. A conference becomes a whole different experience when students come to it as fellow writers, not people awaiting direction from the “expert.”

Over time, those very patient students taught me many lessons about getting the most out of a writing conference. Here are 12 of them—

Lesson 1: Teach your students writers’ vocabulary. If you teach your students some fundamental writing terminology—detail, lead, conclusion, topic, theme, mood, voice, organization, transition, setting, character, as well as planning, drafting, revising, editing—they will have a much easier time explaining what kind of help they need.

Take it a step further, and give them opportunities to assess others’ writing. When I use the word assess, I am NOT talking about putting scores or grades on pieces of writing. I’m talking about assessing in a much broader sense, simply identifying strengths or problems that call for revision. Use a sample of your own writing when possible. If you don’t have one handy (preferably one that has a few flaws), choose a piece from a newspaper or magazine, or a sample from online (Student samples are abundant and you can find them just by typing Student Writing Samples in your search). Favor short pieces from genres your students are likely to be working on currently. Have students read each piece aloud (they can do this with a partner or in small groups), and comment on what they think is working well and what keeps the piece from being as strong as it could be. Students who get good at responding to writing in this way become far more adept at figuring out what’s working in their own writing—and what could use revision. They don’t have to wait for us to tell them. Such insight takes conferences to a whole new level.Conference 3

Lesson 2: Don’t try to cover everything. A good conference needs to be short and focused. Deal with an issue or two, a decision or two. If you feel pressured to turn a rough draft into a publishable document, one of two things will happen: 1) You’ll overwhelm the writer, who walks away with a dozen “important things to remember,” or 2) You’ll appear rushed. You know how you feel when a sales clerk is in a hurry to get to the next person in line? You don’t want the message of your conference to be, Hey, step it up—I have other people waiting, you know. It should be, You’re at the center of my writing universe right now.

Lesson 3: Listen. Every great writing teacher from Donald Murray to Katie Wood Ray has been emphasizing this for years, but its importance cannot be overstated. Donald Graves said, “Until the child speaks, nothing significant has happened in the writing conference” (Writing: Teachers and Children at Work, 1983).

  • Image result for Donald Graves Writing : Teachers and Children at Work
Why is listening so important? Many reasons. It allows the student’s needs to set the direction for the conference. Listening also shows respect, and in so doing inspires trust. That’s because listening, more than any other thing we can do in a conference, conveys a simple but powerful message: I am deeply interested in what you have to say.

A good conference doesn’t have to begin with a read-aloud. It’s often far more productive to start with a general question like “How’s it going?” This question may prompt the student to talk about the writing—or the process. Either way, it helps you get at what’s most important to the student right then.

Listening takes patience. Students don’t always respond to opening questions—or any questions—immediately. And prolonged silence can make us uncomfortable. What’s he thinking? Why doesn’t he say anything? Don’t let discomfort make you jump in before the student has a chance to speak. Research shows that some students take ten seconds, fifteen seconds, or even longer to formulate answers they feel comfortable giving. Chances are the student is not ignoring you, but simply collecting his thoughts so he can respond in a meaningful way. Wait. In almost every instance, you’ll be so happy you did.

Thoughtful listening sometimes requires hearing what goes unsaid. When you ask how things are going, a student may say “I’m stuck,” without elaborating on how or why. Or a student who’s written a very short piece may shrug, claiming, “I don’t have anything else to say.” Careful listening alerts us to possible roadblocks we may uncover with a follow-up question: e.g., “Do you think the topic could be the problem?” or “What if you had more information? Do you think that would help?” This can also be a good time to share a strategy of your own, writer to writer: “When I’m stuck, sometimes I just need to find a different, more interesting way to approach my topic. What if we brainstormed some questions about your topic to see if anything piques your curiosity?”

Lesson 4: Make students comfortable. We can do this in subtle ways—by sitting down with them instead of standing over them, by looking them in the eye, by responding to their words and expressions the same way we tune in to a good friend sharing a story we’re dying to hear. Donald Graves recommends sitting side by side, rather than across the table from a student. I love this suggestion. It’s a small thing, but notice what happens: Now you can read the student’s work together. Perfect. Sitting at my desk

In his recent book Write What Matters (2015), Tom Romano suggests that writers need personalized space in which to work. I couldn’t agree more. My office is filled with things I love—photos of my son and grandson, art that speaks to me, books, and a running list of music I want to record so I can listen to it while I work.Write What Matters

Where do you conduct your writing conferences? Could that area benefit from a little personalization? The tiniest things work magic—plants, photos, small pieces of art. Such things humanize us. If your situation (and your knees) will allow it, you could do what my friend Rosey Dorsey does, and incorporate soft rugs or beanbag chairs, getting students out from behind those formal desks, and creating an environment that says, “Relax. Just be yourself.” When it comes to getting people to open up, relaxation does wonders.

Lesson 5: Don’t set unrealistic expectations for yourself. If you can confer with every student on every piece of writing, you must be super human. Most of us can’t—and if you set this as a goal for yourself, you’re likely to feel overwhelmed. You may also feel pressured to keep conferences unreasonably short. I do believe you can hold the classic “two-minute conference” while roaming through the room, pausing briefly to talk with students as they work. But it’s both luxurious and productive to have just a little longer for a sit-down chat: say, five to ten minutes. You cannot, obviously, do this with every student on every piece. But you can give a few students your full attention.

How do you choose which students that will be? Answer: You don’t. You let them do it. One of my teacher friends, Judy Mazur (whose students’ work appears in many of my books), has always conducted her conferences during workshop, while her students are busy writing. She holds just four conferences on any given day (they run about ten minutes each, or less), and students must sign up on a board at the front of the room. This approach favors those who most need help right then. It’s also a way of respecting students’ ability to make their own choices. A student who’s deeply involved with her writing on a particular day may see a conference as more interruptive than helpful, and will happily yield her conference time to someone who needs it more.

Lesson 6: Don’t feel like you need to “fix” stuff. I know how tempting it is. You see a section that could go, a good spot to slip in another detail, an awkward sentence that could use just a little tweaking . . . but here’s the thing. You are not the student’s editor. You’re a coach, an advisor—and that’s how you want students to see you, not as the all-knowing wizard of writing. It feels good to shrug off this responsibility, actually. Now we can see ourselves and our students for what we truly are: writers working together to solve problems.006

Not “fixing” doesn’t mean you cannot respond to the writing in a way that gets the writer thinking about revision. Here’s a little trick I learned about giving feedback that’s positive, while still alerting the writer that something is worth another look. Use “I” instead of “You.” In other words, instead of saying “You did this” or “You need to . . .” simply share your response as a reader: “I was hoping you’d say more about this” or “I felt confused when you jumped to this topic” or “I loved this discussion and wanted even more detail” or “I can’t wait for you to tell me more about this character” or “I had a question right here . . .” Students are used to thinking of teachers as critics who assign grades. The notion that we might read their work the way we read, say, an article, a novel, or news story comes as a big surprise to many. But this perception is vital. The concept of “writing to be read” is the whole foundation for revision.

Notice also that if I say something like “I’d love to know more about your character Ruby,” I am not telling the student what to do about this. It’s up to her what she does with this information—if anything. I am simply helping her understand how her writing affects me as a reader.

Lesson 7: Ask students to come to the conference with a question or specific request for help. This keeps the conference focused and productive. But—how do you make this happen?

It’s easier if you do two things. First, ask students to read their writing ahead of time. Don’t assume they will do this. Many students never—and I mean never—go back to read anything they have written. Why would they? It’s finished, isn’t it? We have to tell them, very explicitly, that this isn’t how good writers work. It’s only when you read over what you’ve written that you notice missing details, repetitions, words that don’t quite fit, tangled sentences, ideas that simply don’t connect, and so much more.

Second, model the kinds of questions you hope students will ask in a conference. If they don’t know, many will ask about trivia—how to spell a word, whether to use a comma some place or other. These kinds of questions matter, but they’re for down the road. A writing conference (unless it’s about editing or publishing) is the time to focus on big, structural issues: topic, details, organization, wording, what to add, what to omit, how to begin, how to end.

So how do I model this? First off, I need to be writing something myself. This is critical. Otherwise, my questions will be hypothetical and I’ll have no chance to apply any of the good advice students offer me.

Let’s say I’ve decided to write an essay on wild cats. I feel this topic is too big, though, so I can ask students to confer with me about whittling it down to size. I ask them, Do you think my paper would be stronger if I focused on just one species, such as the man-eating tigers of India or the endangered snow leopards of central Asia? You do? Then, help me choose the one you think readers will find more interesting. 

  • Image result for man eating tigers of india sy montgomery

Down the road, as I continue to work on this piece, I’ll have other questions, and I can model these as well (one or two at a time—no more), always reminding students that these are the kinds of questions they can ask in a conference:

  • Am I giving my readers enough details? Too many?
  • Do you like how this starts? Does it get your attention? What other ways could I begin?
  • Is there any place you find your attention wandering? Tell me why.
  • Is it important to include this bit of information?
  • What do you want to know that I haven’t told you yet?
  • What kind of voice do you hear in my writing? Where is my voice strongest? Where does it fade?
  • Is capture a good word to use here? Or should I say this another way?
  • Does this end too abruptly? Or does it feel about right? Did this ending surprise you?
  • Is there anywhere I’m just repeating myself?
  • Is my main point clear? What do you think the main point is?
  • What’s a good title for this? Could you help me brainstorm some options?

Lesson 8: See writing as a series of decisions. For years we’ve thought (and taught students) that writing is a process involving stages: preplanning, drafting, revision, editing, publishing. Of course, we recognize that these stages overlap, so a writer is often drafting and revising and/or editing at the same time. And continuing to plan right up until the time of publication.

Writers, however, don’t really think this way. They don’t say to themselves, “Well, time for a little drafting—though I may weave in some revision or editing, too.” Not that this isn’t what they’re doing. They are. They’re just envisioning it differently—as a long series of decisions: What shall I write about? Do I have enough information on this topic? How do I begin? Am I teaching readers something new—or telling them stuff they already know? What do I absolutely have to include? What can I leave out? Are these details accurate? Will this be interesting to anyone but me? Is humor appropriate here? Does this dialogue sound like things people would actually say? Can readers follow this? If we teach students to think about writing this way, as a series of decisions, it’s easy for them to identify which decisions they need help with. Conference 8

Lesson 9: Remember that students often don’t know what they’re doing well. Donald Graves once said that we learn to write primarily by building on our strengths. If that’s true, shouldn’t we help students know what those strengths are? Every conference is an opportunity to help students view their writing with insight, not fear. Have you ever dreaded stepping on the scale? Seeing that accusatory number? Then you know exactly how many students feel about looking at their own writing. If you think your writing is nothing more than evidence of failure, you certainly don’t want to share it, read it aloud or even to yourself, or (God forbid) revise it. You just want to be done with it. And when students feel that way, what happens? Exactly.

Writing is an act of courage. If we teach students to recognize what they’re doing well, it gives them confidence to build on what’s already working, and also to try new things. We can brighten their perspective—and encourage revision—with comments like these:

  • I love this title. How did you come up with it?
  • Your opening line pulled me right in.
  • Just listen to the words you used right here—I’ll read this aloud so you can hear how powerful this passage is.
  • The changes you made to this paragraph really clarified things.
  • This is so beautifully organized I felt like you were walking me right through your discussion.
  • I appreciate the way you tied everything to your main point.
  • Here you totally surprised me. I love surprises.
  • Look how you ended this paragraph with a real cliffhanger. That’s the kind of thing that keeps me reading.
  • I didn’t want this piece to end.
  • Your final paragraph really made me think.
  • I learned so much about ____ reading this.
  • Somehow you seemed to come up with just the right details. I never realized how fascinating this topic could be.
  • Your voice just exploded with this line.
  • This conclusion was spot on. It wraps things up without ever repeating things you already said.

Lesson 10: Consider an occasional group conference. Yes, nothing beats having the teacher all to yourself for a few minutes. But now and then it is reassuring for students to discover that others are experiencing the same difficulties they’re facing. If several students struggle with, say, finding a good topic, writing snappy dialogue, putting voice into nonfiction, condensing wordy passages—or anything else—that’s a good time to get them together. Group discussion dynamics are lively and engaging, and hearing from multiple voices often prompts more problem solutions than any two people can come up with.

Lesson 11: Have a good time. Seriously. If you look forward to conferring, your students will feel the same way. Writers can only succeed if someone out there is waiting eagerly to read what they’ve written. The best thing you can hear about your writing isn’t “Good job—A+.”  It’s “Oh, wow. I loved this. I can’t wait to read what you write next.” No grade or score ever devised is as powerful as knowing your work has touched readers. The student who believes he or she is writing something you really want to read will turn the world upside down to make that happen again—and again. James Baldwin once said we write to “change the world.” We have to help students believe they can do precisely that.

Lesson 12: End with a plan. It’s important to feel good about your writing, but equally important to feel in control of your writing process. Students need to leave a conference knowing precisely what they will do next: gather more information, refine the topic, answer an important question, rewrite a sentence or paragraph, condense a passage, create a whole new ending . . . or whatever. If a student leaves your conference knowing just where she wants to take her writing, that conference has been an enormous success.

Want to know more?

For many more ideas about conferring effectively with students, check out our new book: Teaching Nonfiction Revision—co-authored by the one and only Sneed B. Collard and me. It’s filled with tips for working one on one with students. Not to mention that it offers a virtual curriculum for teaching revision. If you’re thinking that conferences are directly connected to revision, you couldn’t be more right. And by the way, the revision strategies detailed in this book are not exclusive to nonfiction—they will help you teach revision well no matter what genre you are focusing on. What are you waiting for? Check out a copy.

Teaching Nonfiction Revision

Write What Matters, a review by Vicki Spandel

 

 

Write What Matters, for Yourself, for Others by Tom Romano. 2017. San Bernardino, CA.
Genre: Teacher resource
Levels: Writers and writing teachers at all levels will find much to love in Romano’s down to earth, highly readable text.
Features: Carefully selected student samples, anecdotes from the author’s vast experience as a writer and teacher, tips on writing and revising well, quotations from other writers you already know and love.

Overview
Want to inspire your students to create the best writing of their lives? This is your book.

Want to produce some great writing of your own? This is your book, too.

Got a half-finished piece of writing tucked away in a drawer somewhere? A piece you don’t think is good enough to publish? This is most definitely your book—and by the time you finish it you’ll be scrambling to dig that piece out and go to work.

Tom Romano packs an impressive stash of wisdom into a slim 132 pages. You can finish the book in an afternoon, but you’ll return to it again and again. It’s a treatise on daring to write fearlessly, combined with tips on writing and revising well, and examples—from professional writers, students, and Romano himself—to show how that’s done. Chapters are short and snappy, highly conversational, and bound together by one simple, yet profound message: Write with courage. Do it.

Throughout the book, Tom quotes other fearless authors I love, including Michael Pollan, Larry McMurtry, Barbara Kingsolver, Anne Lamott, Tim O’Brien, Donald Murray, Kurt Vonnegut, J. Ruth Gendler, and others. As I’m happily tuning in to these familiar voices, I’m also appreciating how Tom consistently, almost relentlessly, links writing to reading. It’s not enough just to read casually, though. As he illustrates so brilliantly in this book, we have to read attentively, looking for words used well, listening for voice, paying attention to beginnings and endings, letting sensory details wash over us and recalling how that felt. As a reader, he tells us, “Take to heart the written voices of authors you love” (92). From page one, this book is a lesson in reading like a writer.

In the end, Write What Matters is about trust. Trust in language, in ourselves as writers, and above all in our students. Romano says it this way: “For my students—and for myself—I want a boldness in using the language that offers itself to us. No hesitancy. No timidity. No procrastination” (6).

Early on, Romano talks about “trusting the gush,” letting our writing energy explode on the page, restraining all censorship or judgment. This can be hard for students. One of his Chinese students (part of a teacher education program in English Language Arts), found it exceedingly difficult to let go and be herself on paper. She’d already had some success with a formulaic approach to writing: introduction, three points, conclusion. And as superficial and unsatisfying as formula is, it’s hard to walk away from what you feel you can control. “She was doubtful, distrusting, and anguished,” Romano tells us. “In the beginning weeks of the semester, though, she participated in good faith. She let the language lead her, and she found she had things to say, things that weren’t in her mind when she began to write. ‘I think it a little bit magic,’ she wrote” (7).

Isn’t that precisely what we want for our young writers? A little bit of magic?

If you’re anything like me, you’ll read Tom’s book with a highlighter in one hand and a pen in the other. That way, you’ll wind up with no end of inspiring passages to share with students. In his own words, Tom seeks to be our “writing friend” (xv). And that friend is telling us to be nervy and unstoppable, to live on the literary edge.

Tom's book

Following are a few of the many features that render this small book so important.

Going inside Write What Matters

The Importance of Voice. A colleague of mine has a name for a decaf skinny latte with sugar-free flavoring. She calls it The Pointless. That’s exactly how I feel about writing without voice. My belief was affirmed a few years ago when a friend gave me a copy of Tom Romano’s book Crafting Authentic Voice (Heinemann, 2004). I devoured it that same night, burning through the pages, crying yes, yes, yes!! In that book, Romano makes a compelling case for the idea that it’s voice more than any other quality that keeps readers reading. Crafting Authentic Voice is filled with countless brilliant strategies for finding your own voice—and helping others do the same.

When I read Write What Matters it was like visiting an old friend. This new book also contains valuable lesson ideas for strengthening voice. Even better though, this time around, Romano cuts right to the chase with one uncompromising rule: Write fearlessly. Ultimately, voice comes from daring to say what we really mean. To state it boldly and unequivocally. To write “what matters.” As Tom himself says, “Don’t let fear or doubt or standards stop the flow of words from you to the page” (8).

The Writing Notebook. Romano talks about hearing the echoes of former teachers and other critics who might not like his choice of topic, the words he chooses, or the way he uses them to build sentences. Sound familiar? One voice in his head grumbles, “What on earth, may I ask, is your thesis?” (10). The notebook spells freedom from all that: “Through the notebook, I broke the surface and sucked air into my lungs” (11). No more over-the-shoulder criticisms and inhibitions. In our writing notebooks, we can be ourselves. All things are possible. Moreover, the notebook provides the practice, practice, practice it takes to write with confidence and skill.

Tom takes his notebook everywhere, he tells us, so he can write at a moment’s notice. Though I admire this idea enormously, I do my daily writing on the computer. You may choose to write in a leather bound journal or on a small spiral bound notepad you can tuck in a pocket. Format isn’t important. It’s doing it every day that counts. Maybe you’re thinking, “I’m not sure I’d know what to say.” In Write What Matters you’ll find many ideas for interesting things to include—quotations, memorable words or phrases, dialogue, potential writing topics, descriptions, sketches, complaints, predictions, observations, and more. The beauty of the notebook is that you can make it what you want. No boundaries, no assignments, no minimum lengths—and no negative comments! Why not start one today?

“Take pictures of your writing place.” (p. 29) Have to say, it never occurred to me to do this, but when I read Chapter V, A Writing Place, I realized how important “place” really is to writing. Do we think of this in school? Not usually. Students often have little time to write, and when they do, they often sit at uncomfortable desks in rigid rows surrounded by distracting noises. Imagine if they could move those desks out of formation, sit in beanbag chairs, venture outdoors—or even gather on a comfortable rug on the floor. Would it make a difference? Well, just ask yourself where you like to sit (or stand) when you write.

I’m lucky. I got to design my writing space. My desk is blue pine—pine that’s been “antiqued” naturally by insects. Its little notches give me something to scan as I’m thinking what to write next. It’s angled to surround me as I sit facing out toward a window that frames two hundred year old Ponderosas. The front is all book shelves, and the back is filled with tiny drawers and cubbyholes that hold pens, post-it notes, and other writing tools. On the wall hangs an “I Am From” essay by my grandson, alongside a framed copy of the timeless advice from Strunk & White: “Omit needless words”—art courtesy of author and illustrator Melissa Sweet. It’s my corner, and I’m at home the minute I sit down.

You might have your students photograph their writing spots, too. They’ll have fun sharing photos and talking about the kinds of places various writers like to work. In addition, it will help them appreciate the importance of choosing a spot where writing feels natural and comfortable, like something we’re meant to do.

Chapter VI, “Risk and All.” Risk is something all writers face. After all, we are sharing ourselves on paper and readers may not like what we say, or the way we say it. Fear of rejection makes many students write with caution and cautious writing rarely works. It never works when we are writing about things close to the heart—the things that matter. We don’t always have to write about “topics from the heart of darkness,” as Tom puts it, but edgy writing can take us from good to “memorable” (31-32).

One of the hardest thing I’ve ever done was to move my mother to a nursing facility so she could receive the 24/7 care she needed. She had dementia, and believed she was packing for a trip. My heart cracked as she carefully pointed out the things she wanted in her suitcase. When it wouldn’t hold anything more, we took off. She didn’t notice that we only drove three miles.

Though the facility itself was as bright and airy as that sort of place can be, it was decidedly medical with all the sights, sounds, and smells that implies. As I wheeled her inside, my mother—whose state of mind had freed her from all inhibitions—asked, “Why the hell did you choose this hotel?”

Writing about this experience was enormously therapeutic, but also risky, yes. My mother was a naturally funny, outrageously blunt person. As I wrote, the dark humor she inspired kept creeping in, and that made me a little uneasy. I could imagine readers/listeners saying, “What’s wrong with you? How can you laugh in the midst of this nightmare?” I had to trust my instinct that humor thrives in the bleakest of worlds. Without humor, I couldn’t honor this woman who, while losing her mind, kept the rest of us afloat with her quirky, comical observations.

I knew all the risk had been worth it when I read Tom’s unflinching advice: “Whatever you choose to write about—and I, for one, hope you write about it all—don’t hold back. Dive into your experience and perceptions with openness, honesty, and commitment” (32). This is some of the best advice on writing I’ve ever read. Here, I think to myself, is a teacher who is not just willing but wanting to read everything his students put out there. Saying, like Al Pacino in the movie Heat, “Gimme all ya got!” What writer can resist an audience like that? If you’ve ever wondered how to motivate students, there’s your answer.

The Beauty of Dialogue. Ever leaf through a book just to see if there might be, oh please, some dialogue in your future? Why do we do that as readers? Because dialogue provides a respite from the drone of uninterrupted narrative—even when that narrative is good. Dialogue, unless badly written, shimmers with voice. It also defines character. Folk wisdom says we’re what we eat, but literary wisdom says we’re also what we say. “Without dialogue,” Romano reminds us, “there would be no plays, no novels, no creative nonfiction, no films” (44). All the forms of communication we treasure most.

Writing dialogue takes a good ear. You need to read it aloud—more than once. You need to embrace incomplete sentences and broken, run-together, even mispronounced words. That’s how we talk. Romano suggests that the writing notebook provides an ideal place to practice. And he’s not opposed to eavesdropping on conversations! “Record exact words,” he says. Don’t just sum up what was said. That way, you can “revel in nuances, fragments, assumptions” (45).

As Romano reminds us, one of the best ways to learn to write dialogue is to read books written by those who are masters. Larry McMurtry, Sandra Cisneros, Mark Twain and E. Annie Proulx come immediately to mind. No doubt you have favorites of your own.

Among the most brilliant writers of dialogue in children’s or YA literature I would list Roald Dahl, E. B. White, William Steig, Laurie Halse Anderson, Gary Paulsen, Steve Sheinkin—and Esmé Raji Codell.

In her delightful book Sing a Song of Tuna Fish: A Memoir of my Fifth-Grade Year (2004), Codell tells of an incident involving her headstrong mother and the rude driver of a shiny red Jaguar—who happens to park directly beside a fire hydrant. Since the police aren’t giving this law breaker a ticket, Esmé’s mother ropes her fifth grade daughter into handing out justice. Notice how well Codell captures the rhythm of human speech, using strategies Tom Romano highlights in the book to create the “give and take” (44) of authentic conversation:

“What a joke! I’m laughing! HA! What does he care? As long as he gets a space.” I interrupted Mom to pull at her sleeve and point. A police car was coming down the street. It passed the car without slowing. “See? See?” sneered my mom. “He doesn’t even get a ticket. Nothing to stop him from doing what he wants. Nothing to show him we don’t like it.” My mother shook her head. “And I don’t like it.”
She went into the apartment and came back out again.
With a carton of eggs.
“Ma!”
“What? He’s a schmuck. The man’s a schmuck.”
“But Maaaa! Gee. You really gonna do it?”
“No,” she said. She opened the carton and handed me an egg.
“Ma! That’s not fair!”
“I’m your mother and you’ll do what I tell you,” she said plainly. “Now, hit the windshield.” (10)

As you read this or other passages aloud, talk with your students about things good writers do to make dialogue work. Then share these additional dialogue writing tips from Tom Romano:

  • Use said (most of the time) in favor of fancier words such as admonished, cried, announced, declared. (Check out Lonesome Dove—a book with some of the best dialogue ever written—and you will see that author Larry McMurtry uses said almost exclusively.)
  • Avoid adverbs—“Drop the gun,” said Dick forcefully. Let the content carry it: “Drop the gun,” said Dick.
  • Keep it brief. Tom reminds us that real people chat. They don’t deliver speeches to each other.

Sensory Details. “Develop the habit of writing toward the senses,” Romano suggests. “Don’t worry about overdoing it. You can always cut back” (54).

I’m a big fan of sensory detail because it’s strategy number one for transporting readers right into a scene. Students do overdo it, though. While describing the carnival, they deluge us with the jingling music of the carousel, piercing screams of the roller coaster riders, stomach jolting sensations of being catapulted through space, pungent smells of the buttery popcorn and foamy beer, garlicky taste of the hot dogs and syrupy sweetness of the cotton candy. This isn’t sensory detail—it’s sensory assault. But despite all that, I suspect Romano is right. Collect first. You can toss the excess later. Subtlety comes with time, with learning to sift through memories and celebrate the one or two senses that stand out.

In The Winter Room, author Gary Paulsen talks about how much readers bring to books. Such things as smells are not really in the books, he tells us, but in ourselves. If books could have smells, though . . .

This book would have the smell of new potatoes sliced and frying in light pepper on a woodstove burning dry pine, the damp smell of leather mittens steaming on the back of the stovetop, and the acrid smell of the slop bucket by the door when the lid is lifted and the potato peelings are dumped in—but it can’t . . . . Books can’t have smells. (The Winter Room, 1989, 1-2).

Paulsen focuses exclusively on one type of sensory detail, but notice the rich experience our imaginations create. Amidst the rich aromas, we still see the woodstove and mittens and bucket, hear the crackle of burning wood and the sizzle of potatoes sputtering in the grease. Our tongues are already feeling and tasting that light pepper.

At the end of this chapter, Romano suggests choosing an activity—“cooking, playing, loving, working, sporting”—and writing down all the sensory details we can recall. “Write directly into the experience” he says, censoring nothing until you see what memory yields. This all-inclusive approach is highly strategic because if you censor too early, you might overlook the leather mittens or the burning pine. Even tiny details, if well-chosen and vividly portrayed, can evoke a whole range of sensory responses in readers. Consider Romano’s closing lines: “You hear the blare of the noon siren and raise your head. Your mouth starts watering for a toasted cheese sandwich” (55). No need to ask what you’re smelling and tasting as the siren wails. Sensory detail thrives on the power of association.

Chapter XV, Break the Rules in Style. I love this chapter. Who wouldn’t? Here the master teacher is encouraging us to be “ornery, rebellious, defiant” (63). Sounds like fun. Do we need to know the rules before we start this party? Absolutely. But once we do, we can write in lists, construct labyrinthine sentences (the perfect term for a long sentence that keeps its act together and never leaves you floundering), splash fragments through our prose, play with spelling, and more.

Tom also mentions these irresistible rule violations near and dear to my heart:

  • Starting a sentence with a conjunction, such as And or But
  • Using fragments
  • Writing one-line paragraphs

Why shouldn’t we do these things if they contribute to style or voice? “The land of writing is big,” Romano assures us. “It contains much” (69). Consider how e. e. cummings shrugged off punctuation and capitalization. Think what fun Sandra Cisneros had in The House on Mango Street (check out the chapter “Four Skinny Trees”) playing with fragments and repetition, and blurring the lines between prose and poetry. Who would want to lose all that?

Take Romano’s sage advice: Learn the rules, but once you do, “Don’t be afraid to experiment, to play, to invent your way to writing well” (69). It’s just one more way of being fearless.

Leads—or Ledes. Romano uses the journalistic spelling—ledes—but the concept is the same. Those first words, sentences, or paragraphs. Tom underscores their importance with these words: “If the first page doesn’t compel readers’ attention and pique their interest, than all that follows is for naught” (74).

He supports his argument with several striking examples from literature, along with suggested types of ledes and activities to help students generate strong openings of their own. In particular, he recommends “quickwrites” of multiple ledes to generate a “creative current” in the classroom (78). This approach is wonderfully effective in helping students shake off the misperception that it’s critical to nail a lede, or any part of writing, on the first pass—or even the second. In my experience, students are startled to learn that professional writers routinely write three, four, or even twenty ledes before finding the one that works.

What’s remarkable about Write What Matters is that through energizing activities like the quickwrites, Romano finds a way to instill habits like practice, experimentation, and revision without reducing them to drudgery. He keeps it all do-able, within reach, all the while pushing students to new heights of success. This balancing act is pure instructional genius.

I’ve collected leads (I always return to this spelling because it suggests what an irresistible lead does—lure us into the writing) all my writing and teaching life, so I’ve had a chance to accumulate numerous favorites. Here are a handful—and as you read them, ask yourself which ones would compel you to keep reading:

  • The best time to talk to ghosts is just before the sun comes up. (Laurie Halse Anderson, 2008, Chains)
  • “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast. (E. B. White, 1952, Charlotte’s Web)
  • Christopher Hogwood came home on my lap in a shoebox. (Sy Montgomery, 2006, The Good, Good Pig)
  • If your teacher has to die, August isn’t a bad time of year for it. (Richard Peck, 2004, The Teacher’s Funeral)
  • It was a pleasure to burn. (Ray Bradbury, 1981, Farenheit 451)
  • Meeting Harris would never have happened were it not for liberal quantities of Schlitz and Four Roses. (Gary Paulsen, 1993, Harris and Me)
  • Most stories about the destruction of the planet involve a villain with an evil plot. (Mark Kurlansky, 2011, World Without Fish)
  • They murdered him. (Robert Cormier, 1974, The Chocolate War)

Collect favorites with your students and follow Tom Romano’s excellent advice to make the writing of multiple ledes a habit.

Imitation and Charles Harper Webb, poet extraordinaire. Throughout the book, Romano advocates tinkering with voice, occasionally imitating a writer whose voice speaks to us. This is not to say each person shouldn’t develop a voice that is his or her own. Not at all. It’s simply a way of stretching, exploring, coming at the world from a new direction just to see what happens when you step out of your comfortable shoes.

If you’re not familiar with the poetry of Charles Harper Webb (I confess I was not), you need to look up the incredibly entertaining poem “How to Live” online. It’s just what you would think—advice. But the scope, from deep to whimsical, practical to philosophical, playful to dead serious will delight and surprise you. Read it several times. Then follow Tom’s suggestion and write a “How to Live” poem of your own. You’ll be stunned by the voice that emerges. (At this point, Romano quotes one version by Brittany McNary Thurman, a college senior—and I believe it’s my favorite student sample in this book, which is saying quite a lot. Find it on pages 95-96.)

The lesson here, though, is not simply one of imitation. It’s an echo of Romano’s earlier admonition to sit up and pay attention to the writers we love. Learn from them, he says. “Sit in their classrooms of the page” (96).

Embracing Revision. The final chapters of the book are about revision, a topic Romano approaches from both a philosophical and practical stance. In the chapter titled “Befriending Revision,” he talks about revision as a natural part of life. We are revising constantly, “changing our minds, changing course” (104). Further, revision is not an admission of error or wrong-doing, but “a mark of growth and maturity,” a sign we have raised expectations for ourselves, an indication we are learning to care about readers (104-105).

In the chapter “Dwelling in Your Words,” Romano offers a concise tutorial on things we must attend to when we revise—the essentials: the lede, precise wording, imagery, sentence length and structure, sensory detail, endings (not just of whole pieces, but of paragraphs or even sentences), strong verbs, and “weeding the garden” of clutter (113). He also illustrates the revision process with an evolving piece of writing in which clarity emerges like sunshine.

It takes time to build a garden, perfect a recipe, raise a child. Why then would we think revision would be simple or fast? It too takes patience, effort, awareness, a willingness to step back periodically to regain perspective, and the courage to move in close enough to spot even the tiniest flaws. If we expect perfection too soon, we are likely to discover that “It ain’t bourbon yet” (97). And that’s the title of what has to be my favorite chapter in the book. You have to love a writer who discovers connections where you might not even think to look for them. Who but writer, teacher, and witty philosopher Tom Romano would link the making of bourbon to the writing process? He explains the painstaking steps required to distill this popular American brew, including endless assessments: watching, sniffing, and tasting. As he discovers, a premature sip only yields disappointment. But give that frothy concoction some time and a tender, loving tweak or two, and voila. You have something to take pride in, something worth bottling and sharing.

As if that weren’t enough . . . I’ve only begun to explore the numerous topics and suggestions Tom Romano offers in this entertaining and practical handbook. You’ll also find Tom’s thoughts on—

  • Sketching as prewriting
  • Using metaphor to clarify meaning
  • Ordering information
  • Embracing parallel structure
  • Surprising the reader
  • Nurturing voice over time

And one thing more: grit. In one of the most engaging Acknowledgments sections ever (133-135), Romano tells us that “Writing and publishing Write What Matters was a lot like hiking the trail in Kauai that wasn’t listed on the map: initially slow and messy, walking down an abandoned road overhung with dense foliage” (133). It required researching, reading, writing, revising, more revising, sharing, hoping—and looking for a publisher. Tom didn’t find one. Let me say that I can’t think when anything has surprised me more. I would buy anything Tom Romano wrote because I trust his thinking—and I’m hooked on writing that rings with voice, as his inevitably does. I’m sure many writing teachers out there share my perspective. What matters in this case, however, is that he didn’t give up. Encouraged by colleagues and friends, he decided to “bypass the naysayers and self-publish” (135). Bravo, Tom.

Do likewise. Believe in your message, too. “Trust language. Write what matters. You’ll move through sunlight” (132).

About the Author . . .
Tom Romano earned his Ph.D. at the University of New Hampshire. He taught high school for seventeen years, and currently teaches writing at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Tom claims to have “caught the writing bug in seventh grade,” and has been writing ever since. He is the author of several best-selling, highly acclaimed books on writing, including Crafting Authentic Voice, Clearing the Way: Working with Teenage Writers, Writing: Teaching and Learning, and Blending Genre, Altering Style: Writing Multigenre Papers. In addition, he’s written a memoir titled Zigzag: A Life of Reading and Writing, Teaching and Learning. Tom likes to start his classes by reading a poem, and insists that his college students write in multiple genres, and not focus exclusively on expository essays. Visit Tom online at

http://www.users.miamioh.edu/romanots/Tom_Romano.html

Coming Up on Gurus . . .
First—a reminder! Our new book Teaching Nonfiction Revision (co-authored by Sneed B. Collard III) is now available for purchase both online and through our publisher:


http://www.heinemann.com/products/e08777.aspx (price: $26.50)

This book takes readers inside the thinking of a working professional nonfiction author—Sneed! For anyone who still might not know, Sneed has written more than 75 books for young readers, including Pocket Babies and Other Amazing Marsupials, Animal Dads, Firebirds, Reign of the Sea Dragons, Teeth, Wings, Sneed B. Collard III’s Most Fun Book Ever About Lizards, Hopping Ahead of Climate Change, and his recently published memoir, Snakes, Alligators and Broken Hearts: Journeys of a Biologist’s Son (several of which I’ve reviewed here on sixtraitgurus).

A seasoned, imaginative writer, Sneed knows his stuff and has a lot to say about the craft. In Teaching Nonfiction Revision, he details the tips and strategies that have won him numerous writing awards and made his books best sellers.

I had the fun of translating Sneed’s invaluable messages into classroom lessons teachers can use to help students revise their own nonfiction—with dramatic results. You’ll find engaging activities, strategies, suggestions on what to say in a one-on-one conference, writing secrets to share with students—and more. Many lessons and tips are down-loadable to make teaching easy and convenient. We’re confident you’ll find Teaching Nonfiction Revision a valuable addition to your professional collection.

Many thanks to my colleague and former co-author Jeff Hicks (Write Traits Classroom Kits) for his incredible review—posted recently right here on sixtraitgurus. If Jeff can’t convince you to buy this book, no one can.

Gurus will be in hiatus for a few weeks as I travel to Sydney, Australia. After returning, I’ll have several new books to review.

Until our next post, please remember . . . Give every child a voice.

 

Teaching Nonfiction Revision

Teaching Nonfiction Revision: A Professional Writer Shares Strategies, Tips, and Lessons, by Sneed B. Collard III and Vicki Spandel. 2017. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. 223 pages.

Available for pre-order/order:

http://www.heinemann.com/products/e08777.aspx

Genre: Student and Teacher Resource

Levels: 4th-8th grade (Though that’s the target grade levels, this book’s ideas, concepts, and tips are easily adaptable for K-12 and beyond.)

Features: Table of contents (Big deal, right? Every book like this has one. Wrong! This one reads like a lesson planning guide for your classroom! Much more on this later.), Lessons, strategies, and examples from both student writers and from Sneed’s own nonfiction books, Recurring pop-up sections—In Conference, A Note to the Teacher, A Writing Secret to Share with Students, Something to Try—filled with practice exercises and advice directly from Vicki Spandel, Appendix A: Checklist of Revision Possibilities for Nonfiction Writers, Appendix B: Recommended Nonfiction Books for Students, Appendix C: Recommended Nonfiction Books for Adults, References, and Online resources specific to this book available for download from www.heinemann.com

Introduction

With a name like Sneed B. Collard III, he better be good, right? Absolutely right! A book about nonfiction revision from such a skilled, experienced writer of nonfiction? I’ve been reading and recommending his books for over twenty years. So, sign me up! But wait (and at the risk of sounding like a late night infomercial)—there’s more, so much more. With Teaching Nonfiction Revision, you get all of Sneed’s nonfiction-writer-wisdom, the real inside scoop on his process as a writer, AND the added bonus of writing guru-teacher whisperer Vicki Spandel’s classroom insight popping up at just the right moments, practically answering your questions before you can even ask them. I’ve known Vicki Spandel, and had the pleasure to work with her, for close to thirty years. So, it’s a done deal–double-sign me up!

Just in case, before I launch into a few of the highlights Teaching Nonfiction Revision has to offer, you’re already pumped up and ready to buy, I’ll repeat the pre-order/order information:

http://www.heinemann.com/products/e08777.aspx

(Now I do sound like an infomercial.)

One of my favorite things about this book is that Mr. Collard never tries to sugarcoat the truth about the act of revision: Revision is not always easy or fast. And, as you may already have experienced, revision, for many student writers, is a total mystery. He addresses the struggle students have with revision, using a sample of student writing, in the book’s introduction–when the page numbers are still Roman numerals! “Not knowing what else to do, students plug in extra facts, make sentences longer, fix spelling, change fonts, swap one word for another—or maybe insert an adjective, adverb, or exclamation mark for emphasis.” (xiv) I’m sure that “revision” of this type is something you’ve experienced in your own classroom. I’ve had middle school students take an even more direct route by simply printing two copies of their writing, labeling one “Rough” and the other “Final.” Boom! Done! The purpose behind this book is to remove this cloud of mystery, not with any magic words or spells but with “…nuts-and-bolts teaching strategies design to strengthen students’ nonfiction revision skills.” (xv) There are no promises of instant success, but these strategies offer a “Big” to “Small” path to understanding and application. “Students may not master every strategy on the first try, but they will make huge strides toward understanding the revision process. Given practice, they will write words you will actually look forward to reading.” (xv)

The passion both Sneed and Vicki have for their craft and for sharing it with teachers and students is the energy blowing away any clouds of mystery or misunderstanding about revision. Their voices are distinct and comforting—they write from and about real experiences. And that’s one of my other favorite things about Teaching Nonfiction Revision (there are many). The authors make it clear that a fuller understanding of the process of revision supported by the toolbox full of strategies this book provides, opens the door to happy, even joyful times for student writers and their teachers. Sneed lets readers in on his secret—revision is not only important work, it’s downright fun! Let me now share with you a few of my other favorite parts and features of Sneed and Vicki’s new book.

Table of Contents (Seriously)

I’m retired, so I am no longer an every day teacher with my own students. The classroom still calls to me, so I get my fix by substitute teaching and volunteering–exclusively at my neighborhood elementary and middle school, with teachers I know and with advance notice. Going back to the same classrooms means I get to know the students, even if I’m only in front of them now and then. You might think that I walk in empty handed and simply follow the regular teacher’s plans, but I can’t help myself. I bring in books, student writing samples, and ready-to-go, focused writing activities—just in case. I want the teachers to leave me plans, but I always ask if it’s OK if I slip in an activity involving writing, especially if it would support something currently happening in the classroom. And they always say, “Yes!”

When I first picked up Teaching Nonfiction Revision, my plan was to give it a quick read to get a feel for Sneed and Vicki’s message. My plans changed as soon as I read the Introduction (something I like to do first) then took a look at the Table of Contents. The book is divided into seven parts: I: Setting the Stage, II: Big-Picture Revision, III: Scene Revision, IV: Paragraph Revision, V: Sentence Revision, VI: Word Revision, VII: The Final Wrap. I immediately grabbed a pad, pen and highlighter, and slipped into teacher-mode. Not substitute teacher mode but every-day-teacher mindset! I mentally superimposed a school calendar over the seven parts and the breakdown of topics in each section and began planning. I couldn’t help myself. It was as if the authors had asked me personally about my teaching experiences—what my students might come in believing about writing and revision, what I knew students needed, what questions I would ask, my personal struggles as a writing teacher, where and when I might say, “What about…?” Here’s one example of what got me excited—the subheadings from Part II: Big-Picture Revision:

  1. Isolate Your Main Idea
  2. Research Your Topic—Again!
  3. Add Missing Information
  4. Cut, Cut, Cut!
  5. Check Your Organization
  6. Unleash Your Voice!
  7. End With Something to Say
  8. Give It a Rest

I sadly reminded myself, “Hey! You don’t have a classroom!” so I switched mental gears. As a substitute, I have been in classrooms where, at various times, students needed help with each of these items. I couldn’t wait to mine these sections for their golden strategies to turn into booster-shot lessons to carry with me into any classroom. My temptation was to skip ahead to various sections, but I resisted. It’s something you could easily do, but I recommend a complete front to back read. This way you’ll get a feel for the overall process of revision and an appreciation for the beauty behind organizing the book’s strategies from “big” to “small.” As the authors say, “Whether you are a regular classroom teacher, a literacy specialist, or a writer yourself, this is your book, and we know you’ll figure out the best way to use it.” (xv)

Appendices and References—Take a Look Before You Read

Teaching Nonfiction Revision, as you will see, has three appendices—A, B, and C. Appendix A—“Checklist of Revision Possibilities for Nonfiction Writers”—is a starter list of revision reminders, “…things you might do when revising.” (207) I appreciate that it’s a list, not a formula or set of boxes to be ticked off in order. As you and your students do more nonfiction writing and revising, the authors encourage you to “…add your own ideas to ours.” (207) I do suggest you read the checklist before you dive into the book. Not only will it activate and alert your subconscious to what’s coming, it will give you the opportunity to reflect on your own revision practices, “Hey! I do that, too!” Very comforting!

Appendices B-“Nonfiction Books for Students”—and C—“Nonfiction Books for Adults”—are loaded with book recommendations for you and students of all grade levels. (Books by a certain Sneed B. Collard, III, are included and highly recommended!) Again, by taking a pre-reading look at the titles, you may find some that already know and love. Again, rather comforting!

The “References” section, is included for your additional comfort. Here is proof that Sneed and Vicki have mined not only their own work and experiences, they’ve tapped into the writing of other experts as well.

Online Resources—Just Look for the Icon

Anytime you see the icon in the margin, you will know that there is an online resource available to help you bring a specific lesson or activity into your classroom. All you have to do is follow the directions at the end of the Table of Contents to create an account at Heinemann.com and register your book (once you’ve purchased it). This access will allow you to duplicate or project writing activities for your students. Very handy!

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Trait-Based Writing and Revision

The Six Traits of Writing and trait-based writing instruction is the well from which my career as a writing teacher, presenter, and co-author was drawn. The language of the traits—ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions—in my mind, is the vocabulary of writers. It connects and integrates varied approaches to writing instruction and writing as a process. The language provides a specific feedback loop for readers and writers, students, teachers, and parents to communicate about what they value in writing. And it is the language embedded in the act of revision.

Teaching Nonfiction Revision is not a book focusing on the traits exclusively. But if you’re a teacher who has “grown up,” so to speak, on trait-based writing instruction (Vicki Spandel’s Creating Writers, Creating Young Writers, Write Traits Classroom Kits, Sixtraitgurus) you need to know, even if the traits are not called out, they’re all here (even Conventions) playing lead roles in the “big” to “small” revision strategies. And if you are not an experienced “Trait-er,” have no fear. This book is still for you. No secret handshakes required.

Sneed—Modeling Revision (and Struggling) Through His Own Writing

If by chance you are not familiar with any of Sneed’s body of published works (80 + titles), Teaching Nonfiction Revision will not only introduce you to many of them, it will give you (and your students) a backstage pass to his writing and revision processes. Sneed uses his own writing—actual examples of drafts to model and introduce revision strategies he uses to hone his work. In the “Unleash Your Voice!” section of Part II, Sneed points out that, “…writers have to learn to recognize what kind of voice matches their subject and intent for a passage. Do they want to be funny? Dramatic? Conversational? Precise? Persuasive?” (51) This is such an important element of helping nurture voice in student writers—aligning voice with purpose and audience. He references a particular moment in his book, Hopping Ahead of Climate of Climate Change: Snowshoe Hares, Science, and Survival (2016) where he struggled with this decision. In a passage at the beginning of the book, he describes an owl and hare, hunter vs. the hunted, in the ultimate predator/prey moment. Sneed lets us know what he was thinking, “I had to ask myself, ‘How do I write about this?’” (52) He shows readers two of the many options he considered, including his final choice, each with a very different voice. What was the deciding factor? Purpose! His decision wasn’t based on word count or whatever idea first popped into his head. He needed to stay true to his “subject and intent.” What a great lesson and discussion for student writers!

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Later in the book, when the “big” to “small” revision lens has zoomed in on paragraphs in Part IV, Sneed returns to the owl and hare passage in Hopping Ahead of Climate Change, to share another revision struggle (no sugar coating) he faced. “To wrap up the passage, I wanted a sentence that emphasized how ominous this situation is for the species—but without getting hysterical about it.” (170) He shows readers six of the twenty-plus variations” he tried, before revealing and reflecting on his final choice. (He tried at least twenty different variations of the same wrap-up sentence! 20!) “You’ll notice that to reach my goal, I tried myriad ideas and phrasing…Did I arrive at the best solution? I may never know for sure, but I do know that the struggle of trying brought me closer to what I wanted.” (171) This is a powerful message to students and teachers: Writing and revising is not easy or fast, but delivering your message (“subject and intent”) to readers is important and worthy of your best effort.

Vicki—Pep Talks, Tips, and Ideas for the Classroom

Dovetailing perfectly with Sneed’s strategies, Vicki’s appearances in Teaching Nonfiction Revision come in the form of four rotating pop-ins: Something to Try, A Note to the Teacher, In Conference, and A Writing Secret to Share With Students. Her presence is like an omniscient advice columnist who responds to your letters before you write them.

Dear Vicki—Bam! Here’s that book title you were going to ask for.

Dear Vick—Wham! Sentence fragments, right? Try this the next time you conference with her.

Dear Vi—Kabam! I’ve got your back—the perfect mini-lesson to kick-start your writer’s workshop.

When Sneed is wrangling with finding the appropriate voice (owl and hare example mentioned above), Vicki appears with a Something to Try called “De-Voicing a Passage.” She offers a short passage from Sneed’s book Pocket Babies and other Amazing Marsupials, for students to rewrite, without changing the passage’s meaning but “…bleeding as much voice out of it as possible.” (52) Discussing and listing the changes students made helps them gain a deeper understanding of what contributes to voice. (And asking students to write without voice is flat out fun!) If they know what to remove to suck the life out of a piece of writing, they’ll get better at knowing what to put in to breathe life into their writing.

What Vicki suggests with each aptly named Something to Try, A Note to the Teacher, In Conference, and A Writing Secret to Share With Students, are a combination of small, focused activities and practices that might be introduced as a mini-lesson or become an every-time-I-revise tool in your student writers’ toolboxes, alongside timely suggestions to gently guide you and your student revisers.

Final Comments

Sneed and Vicki open Part VII: “The Final Wrap,” with a reminder to readers, “…we have never intended this book to be a rigid regimen to be pursued with Navy SEAL-like determination…Sure, you may wish to incorporate every one of our strategies into your classroom, but…it’s more likely that you will pick and choose those you find most helpful.” (201-202) That’s my suggestion as well. I’ve only scratched the surface of what this book has to offer. It’s not a long book, but there’s a lot to pick and choose from to help you and your students become more confident writers and revisers. With Sneed and Vicki’s help, the act of revision loses its veil of mystery, and “With your encouragement and guidance, many students will discover the joy of turning their first rough ideas into something readers cannot put down.” (206) Imagine that! And with Sneed and Vicki’s encouragement and guidance you might discover (or rediscover) the joy of Teaching Nonfiction Revision.

As always, you can find Vicki here at www.sixtraitgurus.wordpress.com

For more about Sneed and his books: www.sneedbcollardiii.com

Coming up on Gurus…

I’m not exactly sure what Vicki is working on next. Perhaps something to kick off the new school year? (Yes, in case you haven’t noticed the back-to-school ads—which started in June, a new school year is just around the corner.) Actually, I think reading Teaching Nonfiction Revision, would be an excellent way to rev your teacher-engines. As always, thanks for visiting. And come back soon! Give every child a voice.

 

 

 

Amazon Adventure, a review by Vicki Spandel


Amazon Adventure: How Tiny Fish Are Saving the World’s Largest Rainforest by Sy Montgomery. 2017. Photographs by Keith Ellenbogen. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Genre: Illustrated nonfiction chapter book.
Levels: Grade 4 through adult.
Features: Outstanding illustrations from the wild habitat of the Amazon rainforest, intriguing details backed by impressive firsthand field research, selected bibliography and index. Length: 67 pages, excluding back matter.

 

Overview
To say Sy Montgomery is a master of nonfiction is an understatement. Not only is her writing brilliant—at times poetic—but Sy’s incredible research always yields memorable details I can’t get out of my head. Like these . . .

Did you know that as many as 500 species can be found on a single flower from the Amazon? Or that the Amazon rainforest is known as the “lungs of the world” because it provides a staggering one fifth of the world’s oxygen? Or that a new species is discovered in the Amazon every three days? That’s only a sampling of what you can expect to learn about this exotic place where “life piles upon life” (12).

I’ll admit it. Previous books I’d read about the Amazon wilderness left me with a haunting sense of dread. An environment that’s home to giant anacondas (up to 300 pounds), fearsome piranhas, and the biggest alligators on earth, the black caimans, didn’t sound like anywhere I’d set up camp voluntarily. Now I feel my perceptions shifting. Though Montgomery never discounts the dangers, her book provides a balanced view, mixing the undeniable danger with a true vision of Eden—an elusive and endangered paradise worthy of our reverence and protection.

As we learn from Montgomery’s words and Keith Ellenbogen’s photos, Eden has some unusual inhabitants: pink dolphins, for instance, thought by some natives to have the power of transforming themselves into humans. And then there’s the Goliath birdeater, a tarantula that weighs in at a quarter pound and has a leg span long enough to cover your face—not that you’d want to check that out.

Center stage, however, goes to the tiny, gorgeous fish—tetra, cichlids and others—sought by aquarium enthusiasts throughout the world. They grow in abundance here, and flourish during the rainy season, when water rises so high that students take boats to school. “Then, in the dry season,” Montgomery tells us, “ . . . the water level drops—sometimes more than thirty feet. Nearly ninety percent of the small fish here are stranded, doomed in drying puddles” (5). Ninety percent. Think about that. While it might seem almost sacrilegious to pluck these small natives from Utopia just to satisfy some aquarist’s whim, just the opposite is true. If we don’t buy them, they die. And the local fishers, called piabieros, must find some other way to earn a living. Cattle ranching. Mining. Logging. Activities that call for burning or harvesting precious forests.

Cardinal Tetra

Wait, though. Could creatures so tiny possibly play a role in saving the most expansive rainforest on the planet? Turns out they could, yes. The problem is, exporting fish is not simple. It’s a complex process rife with uncertainty.

Fish are fragile. They must be collected, tended, and then transported with the care we reserve for the most vulnerable life forms. Everything from locating these shy fish in the first place to keeping them healthy in just-right conditions offers extreme challenges. “ . . . if these creatures are to survive in the wild,” Montgomery tells us, “it’s essential that people around the world care about protecting them” (17). Reading her book is an important first step in building that level of concern.

Amazon Adventure is filled with exquisite photos that capture the surreal colors of the Amazon. Some take us to the treetops with squirrel monkeys. Some plunge us right into water that’s thick with vegetation and “so stained with natural tannins it’s as red as burgundy wine” (10). You’ll feel as if you’re snorkeling with the team of aquarists and veterinarians who’ve signed on to this adventure, hearing the cries of parrots and kingfishers overhead, trying to remain “still as sticks” so as not to scare the fish—and hoping not to panic as you wonder what just brushed against your skin.

Don’t be surprised if Montgomery’s book leaves you wanting to visit the Amazon for yourself, or, at the very least, create your own aquarium sanctuary for cardinal tetras. You’ll want to be sure your new pet is from the wild, not farm raised. That way, you could be helping to save the rainforest that literally keeps us breathing.

In the Classroom

1.Sharing the book. Reading the book to yourself first will help you settle on a purpose for sharing: (1) to illustrate fine nonfiction writing that offers both engaging voice and rich content, (2) to inspire students to read the rest of the book on their own, or (3) to encourage further exploration of the book’s primary topics, including the Amazon rainforest, acquisition of aquarium fish, or set-up and maintenance of successful aquariums.

At 67 pages, Amazon Adventure is long to read aloud in its entirety, but I would suggest reading all of Chapter 1 aloud (including “Amazon by the Numbers,” page 9) as an inviting introduction, then sharing selected short passages from remaining chapters. Use a document projector to view the book’s incredible illustrations. (Don’t miss the comical selfie by photographer Keith Ellenbogen, page 20.) Following this introduction, invite interested students to finish the book on their own, or continue your discussion with a small reading group.

2. Background, Part 1: Fish and Aquariums. Ask how many of your students have (or have ever had) an aquarium. Was it fresh or salt water? Who set it up? Share some stories of preparing an aquarium and stocking it with fish. What’s required? If you have an aquarium of your own, share your experiences. Have you ever lost a fish? Have your students? If so, do you know the reason?

Ask how many students have had tetras, the primary species discussed in Amazon Adventure. Do they know what a tetra looks like? There are numerous varieties, and you can find many photos online, in addition to those in the book. Among those students who have had tropical fish, do they know if the fish were farm raised or caught in the wild? Why is it important to know?

Tip: If it’s possible to arrange a field trip to a local aquarium or pet store that features tetras, this will add enormously to students’ understanding and appreciation for this book. As an alternative—and again, if resources permit—consider setting up an aquarium in your classroom. This offers students a chance to participate in creating an environment that resembles that from which the fish came.

3. Background, Part 2: The Amazon. Start with location: Can your students identify the location and directional flow of the Amazon River? Ask them to try picturing it; then share a map of South America that shows the mighty Amazon and its tributaries. Tip: There are numerous maps of the Amazon basin online, and each provides a slightly different perspective, so view a variety of maps to truly appreciate the size, shape, and ecological impact of the region. And don’t miss the artistic rendition by Sarah Green, opposite Amazon Adventure’s Table of Contents.

Size. How large is the Amazon basin—the area through which the river and its many tributaries flow? Why does the immense size of this area matter so much to human life? This is a good time to share “Amazon by the Numbers,” page 9. Compare the Amazon with any river close to your location, considering length, number of tributaries, or any other factors.

Firsthand experience? Have any of your students visited the Amazon or any of its tributaries? Have you? If so, talk about your experiences. Make a list of things you know about the region prior to reading this book and others, then add to your list as you learn more. Look up “Amazon River” online, checking out as many photos or videos as time permits. If you are fortunate enough to know someone who has been to the region, invite them to visit your class to do a short presentation and answer questions.

Further reading . . . Numerous books have been written about the Amazon and various adventures there. Have students assemble a list (looking online or working with your own media center staff) for further reading.

. . . and videos. National Geographic offers numerous videos on the Amazon rainforest and its inhabitants. You might choose to watch one as a class, then recommend others for students to watch on their own.

4. Nonfiction: More diverse than you think! Though it’s filled with illustrations, this is not a picture book in the traditional sense. The pictures are photos, for one thing—as opposed to the cartoons, paintings, or drawings we expect in a picture book. In addition, the book is divided into seven chapters, each running about ten pages. For these reasons, I’ve chosen to call this a nonfiction chapter book. Do your students agree with that definition?

You will also note that the book contains numerous anecdotes and biographical stories. Sometimes, as in Chapter 6, we follow the hands-on research of a scientist like Tim Miller-Morgan, who searches for parasites among captured fish that have grown listless. Chapter 3 gives us a biographical profile of aquarist Scott Dowd, who now creates eco-environments for creatures at the New England Aquarium, and is as much at home in the waters of the Rio Negro as in Boston. Chapter 5 takes us back stage as dancers prepare for the Festival of the Fish. Other stand-alone sections, like the one on tarantulas or that on ants are primarily factual.

Help your students understand that nonfiction writing at its best (as in this book) comprises several forms. To appreciate the stylistic diversity, you might read just a few paragraphs aloud from Chapter 2: Kingdom of the Cardinals, from Chapter 3: Scott’s Story, and from one of the informational inserts—on the pink dolphins (page 38), the tarantulas (page 47), or the ants (page 56). Talk about how this blend of nonfiction styles enriches our reading experience. Why do our minds enjoy writing that takes multiple forms?

Speaking of forms, how many ways does nonfiction come packaged? Make a list with your students, based on your nonfiction reading and research. Your list might include any or all of the following—

Biographies and autobiographies
• Memoirs
• Newspaper articles
• Journal articles
• Reports
• Factual summaries (the kind you might see in a museum or art gallery)
• Nonfiction picture books
• Nonfiction chapter books
• Encyclopedias
• Textbooks
• Brochures of all kinds

5. Main message: First line . . . or later? You can’t really blame Sy Montgomery for embedding the book’s main idea right in the title. I appreciate this title because it sets up an important and intriguing contrast: tiny fish versus the vast rainforest. Bam. Just like that, we’re hooked—got to read the book.

What Montgomery does not do, however—and I also appreciate this—is hammer home her main message in line one. Too often we encourage students to do that very thing. That’s one way of going about things, all right, but it’s not always the most effective, and it can lead to formulaic writing: message, support, support, support, conclusion. Zzzzzzzzzzzz . . .

Instead of conking us on the head with a thesis sentence, Montgomery opens Chapter 1 by giving us fascinating information about the Amazon. She wants us to care about this special part of the earth. Otherwise, her message won’t matter. We don’t come to the main message (title aside) until page 2:

Luckily, beneath the glassy surface of its rivers live dozens of species of tiny, beautiful fish whose powers may be even greater than those of the mysterious pink dolphin or the mighty jaguar. These shy fish . . . just might be able to save the Amazon.

Talk about this with students. Does a writer sometimes make a wise choice by waiting for the just-right moment to make his or her main point clear? Is this something they might try in their own writing?

6. Creating a powerhouse ending. This message about the mission of the tiny but mighty fish is echoed in the book’s ending (page 67), which you may want to read aloud (and contrast with the passage from page 2, quoted above). Notice that while the ending reinforces the book’s primary message, it does not restate it. The language is fresh and original—and the passage contains quite a lot of new information. What do we learn from this page about writing an effective ending?

Have students review an ending from any current piece of their own writing, asking these questions:

Does the ending reinforce or relate to my main message?
• Does it give readers new information instead of just repeating things I said before?
• Does the ending leave readers with something I want them to remember or think about?

7. Striking facts. Good details are always important or surprising—or both. As you share passages from the text, invite students to record in their writing journals any informational tidbits they find new or striking. Here are a few that captured my attention:

The Amazon is 15 miles wide at the mouth
• It has more than 1,000 tributaries
• Over 80 percent of the plants we eat are derived from plants in the Amazon basin
• Roughly 2.7 million acres of Amazon rainforest are destroyed annually
• The cardinal tetra is the most popular aquarium fish in the world
• The black caiman can consume prey as large as a tapir

It’s important for students to understand that not all facts are equally important—or necessarily worth including in their writing. Have students review a piece of their own informational writing, underlining three to five details they have chosen to include. They should ask of each one—

Is this new information, not just something my readers probably know already?
• Does this detail answer a question that a curious person might ask?
• Is this information important to my topic?
• Will readers be excited or surprised to learn this?

The more yeses they can give to these questions, the stronger the detail.

8. Personalizing research. Research can start with reading books or articles—but it shouldn’t end there.

On the back book flap, we learn that author Sy Montgomery has made five other trips to the Amazon—not including the one she made to write this book. That’s dedication. How many of your students have done personal field research to prepare for a piece of writing? If they have never done this, now could be a good time to start.

A trip to the Amazon might be more than most students can take on, but countless research possibilities exist closer to home: visits to museums, aquariums, farms, places of work, theaters, art galleries, sports stadiums, and other places of interest can yield firsthand information that books alone simply cannot provide.

Students who do their own research (in addition to soaking up knowledge from experts) tend to write with more originality and confidence. They know their topics because, like Sy Montgomery, they’ve been there.

9. Voice—and the word choice connection. Voice comes in many flavors—comical, imaginative, awestruck, authoritative, chilling, sarcastic, whimsical, and more. One of the best ways to teach students about voice is by reading aloud, then having them describe what they hear.

If I had to come up with a word to describe Sy Montgomery’s voice in this book, I’d choose assured. She has a no-nonsense way of placing the truth under our noses like a good lawyer slapping down a telling piece of evidence before the jury:

“This huge, ancient rainforest is essential to the planet,” she declares in the first chapter. “Because its trees provide a full fifth of the world’s oxygen, it’s considered ‘the lungs of the world.’ Yet it all could vanish—and soon. Each year, mining, clearcutting, burning, and cattle ranching destroy an area of Amazon forest twice the size of the city of Los Angeles” (1-2).

Where does this kind of voice come from? Read the passage—or any others you like—aloud to students and ask them to describe the voice they hear, then try to put their finger on what they think contributes to that voice. Here are some things I noticed—and your students might too:

• Montgomery is unflinchingly honest, even when the message is bleak (and potential destruction of the Amazon rainforest is pretty troubling news)
• Her statements are direct and strong (she doesn’t say the rainforest is kind of important to many people—she says it’s “essential to the planet”)
• She’s confident—thanks to her hands-on research, reading, and interaction with experts
• Her word choice is impeccable—and let’s get specific about that . . .

Montgomery reminds us that the forest is huge and ancient. Who are we to destroy such a thing? It’s the lungs of the world. If we like breathing, that ought to matter to us. Words like vanish and destroy go beyond powerful. They deliver a slingshot direct hit.

As you share other voice-filled passages aloud, talk about specific words that strike a chord with us as readers. Ask students to identify other factors that contribute to voice. Have them review their own writing to identify a passage where their own conviction comes through loud and clear—and perhaps another where it does not. Can they revise to make the weaker passage more forceful?

10. Organizational genius. The book as a whole is brilliantly organized (It’s so good, in fact, that you probably didn’t even think about it), and you may wish to spend some time talking with students about that. Why? Because organization is one of the biggest challenges young writers face. Many students storm through the stage of gathering information, then look at the results the way they might eye a cluttered closet someone just asked them to straighten up.

Here’s a lesson in organization that demystifies the process and works well with a small group. (This is harder to do with a whole class unless each student has a copy of the book, but you can adapt the lesson to another, shorter piece of writing to which everyone has access.) It takes just four simple steps:

1. Help students see chapters or subsections as organizational blocks. Hold on—isn’t that obvious? You might be surprised how many students have never even thought of this. But once they see it, it makes both reading and writing easier. Have students ever divided their own writing into chapters or sections set off by subheads? If not, have them try this with any piece that runs three pages or more. It’s simpler to organize information when you take it chunk by chunk. It’s like labeling shelves or drawers.

2. Go through Montgomery’s book chapter by chapter, asking, “What’s the main message of this particular part?” For example, Chapter 1 introduces us to the Amazon, using a combination of description and fact to place us right at the scene. In Chapter 2, we go on a treasure hunt for tetras, getting right into that pristine red water, and learning how quiet we must be to let the fish approach. In Chapter 3, we get Scott’s story . . . and so on. When you finish listing the chapters and their purposes, look at this informational “map.” Why is it important for some things to come before others? Why do some pieces fit better at the end?

3. Think about what’s missing. You can be sure Sy Montgomery had more information on the Amazon and on tetras than she included in this book. The problem is, as a writer you can never share everything. It would be like bringing home each and every item from the grocery store. We have to make choices when we shop—and when we write. Montgomery doesn’t tell us what the researchers had for lunch, for example, nor does she recount every conversation. Thinking about what a writer might have omitted teaches students to separate important information from trivia. Writers always need to ask, “Do my readers need to know this? Will they care?”

4. Cut and re-order. Time for students to look at their own writing. Have them go through a current draft to identify the message of each section or chapter (or paragraph). Can anything be cut? Good! Pitching trivia is a first step toward great organization (just like cleaning the closet). Next, have them ask whether putting things in a different order would make it easier for readers to follow the discussion. For example, background information (like Montgomery’s description of the Amazon) should go right up front.

11. Organizational sleight of hand. Sy Montgomery pulled off two organizational tricks in this book that made me tip my writer’s hat. And you may want to point both out to your students.

First of all, she found a way to include information that didn’t fit neatly into one of her chapters. The sections on the seven deadly plagues (page 18), pink dolphins (page 38), tarantulas (page 47), and ants (page 56) would have interrupted her narrative flow about finding, preserving, and shipping tropical fish. Yet, this was not information Montgomery wanted to omit. So, what to do?

Answer: Give these topics their own space apart from the main text. Don’t you love it? This strategy is highly effective because it gives us, as readers, a little break in the ongoing rhythm of the book. Like hearing a new song on the radio. We welcome the change of pace and we devour the horrifying (but irresistible) details: “Wrapping twenty feet of muscular coils around its prey and squeezing it to death, this giant snake [the anaconda]can eat anything it wants, including jaguars—and people” (18).

The second trick is even better. That anaconda you just read about is part of a section called “Meeting the Seven Deadly Plagues of the Amazon—In the Dark.” Why the dark? Because these seven deadly creatures are often under the water, invisible to unsuspecting waders, swimmers, or snorkelers. The “plagues” include the stingray, the giant catfish, the piranha, and other creatures most of us aren’t eager to meet in person. (No wonder our adventurers shudder when something bumps a leg or arm!) But—Montgomery has a surprise in store . . .

Just a few pages later (27-29), we’re treated to “The Seven Deadly Plagues of the Amazon Debunked (Sort Of).” What??!! In this section Montgomery pulls back the curtain to reveal the truth behind each myth. Maybe these critters aren’t quite as deadly as we’ve been led to believe. Take the anaconda. We learn that although these big snakes are capable of eating people, there are no documented cases of this happening. Ever. See? Now you can relax on your next jungle hike.

I love surprises, so have to say, I enjoyed that gotcha moment. Well played.

12. Further research—and argument. Montgomery’s book raises many possibilities for further research on such topics as—
Mining, ranching, and forestry in the Amazon region
• Preservation of the Amazon and other rainforests
• The role of this or any rainforest in preserving life on earth
• Predictions for the future of the Amazon rainforest
• Impact of economic advancement on indigenous people of the Amazon
• History of the Amazon region
• Famous explorers (e.g., Teddy Roosevelt) who have visited the Amazon
• Impact of Amazon species on modern medicine
• Rate at which new species are discovered

Any of these or dozens of related topics make outstanding subjects for further informational writing. In addition, the book touches on many issues that affect our lives. Students might consider any of the following topics as a basis for argument writing—and likely they will think of others on their own:

How important is it to stop or slow down deforestation in the Amazon rainforest?
• Is tourism a boon to the rainforest economy—or a threat to the ecosystem?
• To what degree are we here in the U.S. affected by this rainforest so far away?
• Should people be free to use the resources of the Amazon as they see fit?
• Should tropical fish like the cardinal tetras be farm raised—or taken from the wild?
• Does the simple act of buying a tetra caught in the wild truly influence the future of the world’s biggest rainforest?
• Can the Amazon recover from damage already done?

 

About the Author . . .

Visit Sy Montgomery’s home page, and you’ll discover she has been chased by a silverback gorilla, “deftly undressed by an orangutan in Borneo,” bitten by a vampire bat in Costa Rica, and embraced by a Giant Pacific Octopus. Her daring research throughout the world has led her to write numerous books for young readers as well as adults, including three of my personal favorites: Birdology, The Soul of an Octopus (a 2015 finalist for the National Book Award), and The Good, Good Pig: The Extraordinary Life of Christopher Hogwood. The Good, Good Pig is an international bestseller and a book I’ve given as a gift countless times.
Sy is the winner of the 2009 New England Independent Booksellers Association Nonfiction Award, the 2010 Children’s Book Build Nonfiction Award, the Henry Bergh Award for Nonfiction (from the ASPCA for Humane Education) and numerous other honors. Her work with man-eating tigers, subject of her book Spell of the Tiger, was made into a National Geographic documentary that Sy both scripted and narrated.
A graduate of Syracuse University, Sy Montgomery has also received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Keene State College in 2004 and an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from both Franklin Pierce University and Southern New Hampshire University. She is a frequent speaker at schools, libraries, and universities. The New York Times described Sy as “equal parts poet and scientist.” The Boston Globe called her “part Indiana Jones and part Emily Dickinson.”

To learn more about Sy and her books, please visit symontgomery.com and bluereef.com

 

Coming Up on Gurus . . .
I’m delighted to announce that our new book, Teaching Nonfiction Revision, co-authored with best-selling nonfiction writer Sneed Collard, has gone to press. It’s due for release August 31, and is available for pre-order from Heinemann now:
http://www.heinemann.com/products/e08777.aspx

Sneed and I had enormous fun writing this book. Our goal was to make revision both fun and productive for students in grades 4 through 8–and beyond! It’s adaptable for nonfiction writers of any age. Lessons and strategies are based on Sneed’s extensive experience as a successful writer of nonfiction, complemented by my own work as a teacher, writer, editor, and journalist. As you can likely tell from the cover, it’s light and fun–and we hope you’ll love it!

Sneed on Assignment

My friend, colleague, and frequent co-author Jeff Hicks will review the book in our very next post. Jeff brings his considerable expertise as a teacher and writer to bear–and I cannot wait to hear his thoughts. Thank you, Jeff. Until next time . . . Give every child a voice.