Tag Archive: teaching nonfiction writing

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.


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!


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.


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!



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





Neighborhood Sharks. 2014. Written and illustrated by Katherine Roy. New York: Roaring Brooks Press. Unpaginated.

Genre: Nonfiction, science, picture book/chapter book

Ages: Aimed at fourth through eighth grades, though adults will also enjoy it

Awards: The Robert F. Sibert Award for most distinguished informational book for children; John Burroughs Riverby Award for Young Readers

Welcome Back, Gurus followers!

We’re opening the new school year by reviewing one of the best nonfiction picture books of 2014—Neighborhood Sharks. We highly recommend this multi-award winner, and think you and your students will applaud Katherine Roy’s unforgettable peek into the daily life of the great white.



Great white sharks are arguably the most feared predators of the ocean. But how much do we really know about them? Not enough. In this visually stunning account, author/illustrator Katherine Roy takes us to the coastal waters off the Farallon Islands, where marine biologists tag, track—and yes, even name—great whites in an effort to learn more about their migrations, hunting behaviors, and life spans. Graphic, realistic paintings depict sharks stalking and killing their preferred prey, pinnipeds. Highly detailed text and diagrams help us understand precisely how the anatomy of the shark makes it such a successful predator—and why its prey so rarely escapes. The book is highly focused, zeroing in on the ongoing spectacle of shark versus seal. While the text doesn’t reveal everything about the great white, it is an eye opening, dramatic depiction of how this giant fish hunts.

Neighborhood Sharks is well-researched and extremely informative about its targeted subject. Scientific text is effectively blended with riveting narrative about shark-seal encounters, and this back and forth makes the book both engaging and instructive. It offers an outstanding example of how essentially informational text can weave in just the right amount of narrative to bring factual information to life. Roy’s lavish paintings put us right at the heart of the blood pumping action.

Note: This book is an excellent example of an emerging genre, picture books aimed at older readers.


In the Classroom

 1. Reading. Read the book more than once to yourself prior to sharing it aloud. You will notice that the text includes a number of biological terms—e.g., carcharodon carcharias, the great white’s scientific name. You may wish to check on pronunciations of these terms before sharing the book or portions of it aloud. Or ask students (assuming they have access to a computer) to look up the pronunciations and share them with the class. A word of caution: The book contains several graphic representations of sharks killing seals. They are paintings, not photographs, but very young readers may still find them disturbing. We recommend using discretion when considering sharing the book with primary students.

2. Background. How many of your students have seen the Farallon Islands—or know where they are? Find them on a map so that students can picture the setting for the book. Have any of your students seen a great white shark—in an aquarium or even in the ocean? How many have seen them in videos? What do your students know currently about great whites? Consider making a two-part list: beliefs about great whites and known facts about great whites. Talk about the difference between what we know and what we believe we know. What are our sources for each kind of “knowledge”?

3. Personal Connection. How many of your students find great whites interesting? Based on their response, did Katherine Roy choose a good subject for her book? How many of your students find great whites terrifying? This is a common response among the American public. Take a few minutes to discuss where this fear comes from. To what extent is it encouraged (or refuted) by books, films, and the news media? Is the fear justified? (Consider having students write a short opinion paragraph on this topic.)

 4. Presenting the Text. The engaging nature of Neighborhood Sharks makes it a standout choice for sharing aloud. And you can enhance students’ listening experience significantly by sharing illustrations on a document projector. You will also find this kind of visual sharing invaluable when referring to the author’s anatomical charts. The book runs about 40 pages, but the spreads are highly varied. Some pages contain only a line or two of text, while others run several hundred words. Since the book is divided into chapters, that’s a simple way to break up the oral reading, sharing up to two or three chapters per session. You will also find that the text is content rich, meaning that almost every line provides new information of some kind. From an instructional standpoint, asking students to absorb all information in one reading may be a challenge.

 5. The Lead—and a Genre Shift. We often think of a lead as the opening line or the first two or three lines of any piece. How long is the lead in Roy’s book? Where does it end? As the writer shifts from the lead to the main text, what changes in genre do you notice? (Note to the teacher: The lead in this book is a short narrative featuring a chase scene in which one shark pursues one seal. The narrative is fast moving, told largely through illustrations. About ten pages in, the writing suddenly shifts to informational as the writer begins to offer details about the Farallon Islands, the elephant seals, and the great whites. It is important for students to recognize this shift in genre because the author is writing for different purposes—first to get us hooked on the topic, and second to provide the background information we need to appreciate the shark’s hunting skills.)

 6. Central Topic/Theme. Many books have been written about sharks and about the great whites in particular. What is the main idea of this book? Is the author trying to tell us a little bit about many aspects of a shark’s life—or a lot about one particular aspect? Is this an effective approach? Why?

 7. Organizational Structure. The organization of any piece of writing is directly linked to the scope of the topic. How did Roy’s decision to narrow her topic influence the organizational structure of the book? (In other words, how different would the organization look if Roy had set out to tell us everything she knew about sharks?) To help students answer this question, use the document projector to skim through the chapter titles one by one, asking as you go, “What main point does the writer make in this particular chapter—and how does it relate to the central theme (sharks as hunters) of the book?” Does the author do a good job of making sure every single chapter contributes something to her main point?

8. Details. As noted earlier, Roy’s book might be described as “information dense,” meaning that as readers, we are continually learning something new. As you go through the book, make a list of details they consider either new or particularly interesting. When you come to the end of the book, ask “How much did we learn?” Is our opportunity to learn new information one of the criteria for good informational writing?

9. Audience. We have identified this book as most appropriate for students in grades four through eight—while acknowledging that older readers may well find it interesting as well. Do your students agree with this assessment? What sorts of readers, in their opinion, would probably enjoy this book most? Are there readers for whom it would be less appropriate? Why?

10. Graphics. In the chapters titled “The Perfect Body,” “Hot Head,” and “Farallon Soup” Roy uses graphics to carry part of the message. Show these on a document projector, and discuss what they add to a reader’s understanding of information presented in the text. When is it particularly important to use graphics? Notice in particular the sketch of a shark in the chapter titled “The Perfect Body.” Roy tells us that the shark’s pectoral fins provide lift like the wings of a jet. What other similarities between sharks and jets do your students notice, and why are they important?

11. Transitions. We often think of transitions as single words or expressions: however, nevertheless, in the meantime, the next day, and so on. Remind students how transitions link ideas or take us from one thought or event to another. Then, take a look at the final lines in the chapters titled “Hot Lunch,” “The Perfect Body,” “Hot Head,” “High-Definition Vision,” and “Endless Teeth.” Do those final lines serve a transitional purpose? In what sense? What is their impact on the reader?

 12. Voice. How would your students describe the voice or tone of this book? Is it sophisticated, academic, formal, chatty, conversational, or–? Make a list of words they would use to describe what they hear. Then, identify specific passages that seem to characterize the voice or tone. What features contribute to the tone of the book? Is it language, sentence length—or something else? Finally, is the tone right for this type of book and subject matter? How do they know?

13. Unanswered Questions, Research, and Informational Writing. Clearly Roy’s book doesn’t tell us everything we might want to know about great whites—though we do learn a lot about their hunting behaviors. Make a list of questions readers still have at the end of this book. Then ask each student to choose one question and do some research that helps answer that question. They can do several things with this research: (1) Make an in-class display of most startling findings; (2) create a wiki about sharks to which all students contribute; (3) share findings orally in small groups and discuss which findings are most surprising or fascinating; (4) use findings as a basis for writing short informational pieces that together could form a book on sharks.

14. The Conclusion. Endings have a sound and feeling all their own. Just as we can tell when a film is about to end, we can sense when a book is drawing to a close. Where do your students think the ending for this book starts? (Note to the teacher: We consider the final three pages to be the ending. Do your students agree?) Good endings do many things—for example, leave us with something to think about, raise new questions, or create a lasting impression. What effect do your students think the ending of this book has on the reader?

15. Argument Writing. This book raises some controversial issues that could form a good basis for a written argument. First, in the chapter titled “Farallon Soup,” author Katherine Roy tells us that sharks are apex predators, who help maintain a healthy ecosystem by ridding the ocean of weaker animals and thereby allowing the healthier ones to pass on their genes to new generations. Yet some people might argue that predators such as the great white can pose significant danger to humans and some marine life. Which side offers the stronger argument? Should sharks ever be hunted—or should they be protected because of the benefits they offer to overall ocean health? Ask students to do some further research on this topic, and present a one- or two-page argument defending the side they feel is stronger. Second, in the final pages of the book, the author raises an important question: Can sharks survive another 200,000 years of human habitation on the earth? What do your students think? While we often think of great whites as threatening, is it really the other way around? Is it humans that threaten the sharks? Again, ask them to do further research and craft an argument supporting their conclusion.

16. The Nature of Research. A good argument depends on research. An assertion that is not backed by evidence is merely an opinion. It may be interesting, but it’s unlikely to convince thoughtful readers. Instead of just turning students loose to hunt down information, though, why not help them make a research plan that will likely result in truly useful information? First, consider whether there is anywhere in your area that you might make a field trip to learn about sharks. Even if a local aquarium doesn’t house sharks, there may be an expert who would talk with your students on site—or perhaps visit your classroom. You never know until you ask. Second, check out the resources listed in the back of Roy’s book. Under “Selected Sources” as well as “Further Reading” you’ll find films, books, and online resources recommended by the author. This list offers a treasure house for unearthing more details. Set some ground rules, too. How many resources are sufficient for a short informational report such as your students plan to write? Two? Three? Discuss this with your students and talk about how a writer knows when he/she has enough information to begin writing.

17. Illustrations. Not all informational books are illustrated like this one. If you are able to share the book through a document projector so that students can see the illustrations clearly, talk about what they add to the book’s overall impact. How different would this book be without them? Some reviewers (and some teachers) feel that illustrations primarily appeal to younger readers and that books aimed at an older audience should include minimal illustrations. Do your students agree with this perspective? Why or why not? You may choose to write opinion pieces about this.


 18. “Shark Up!” Check out those final pages of the book once more (where resources are listed), and you’ll find a short note from Katherine Roy titled “Shark Up!” Share this note aloud with students and talk about how Katherine Roy’s experience helps lend her book credibility. Should we expect this kind of direct, hands-on experience from most informational writers? How important is it when citing a source to know where and how the writer obtained information?


Coming up on Gurus . . .

Coming up next, Vicki takes a look at Lesley Roessing’s groundbreaking book, No More “Us” and “Them”: Classroom Lessons and Activities to Promote Peer Respect. Many books claim to show students how to embrace diversity. This one actually does it. You will not want to miss this review.

Right on the heels of that post, Jeff will be offering his insights regarding a book titled In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom by Kelly Gallagher.

Thank you for returning—and for recommending our site to friends. We gained many new viewers over the summer and we welcome you all! We hope you’ll be a regular visitor here at Gurus throughout the coming year. As always, thanks for stopping by, and please continue to let your friends know about us, too. Remember, for the BEST workshops or classroom demonstration lessons combining traits, writing workshop, process and literature, call us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.