Tag Archive: writing



Do you love nonfiction? Teach it to students? If so, here’s some good news just for you. Today, Heinemann put our new book on their website, and my co-author Sneed B. Collard and I could not be more excited. The book is titled Teaching Nonfiction Revision: A Professional Writer Shares Strategies, Tips, and Lessons. The book makes its official debut August 31, but I wanted to give Gurus followers a short preview. I think the title tells it all, but here are some highlights just in case . . .

The premise is simple. Sneed Collard, author of more than 80 books for young people—many of them nonfiction—gets inside his own head to analyze the strategies that have made him one of the most successful authors for young people ever.

My part? To translate that insight into lessons you can share with your nonfiction writers grades four through eight—and honestly, beyond. Sneed’s perceptive and highly teachable ideas transcend grade level, and can be adapted for older writers right through college.

The book is short—just over 200 pages. Chapters are blissfully short, making it easy to zip through them, choosing the lessons you want to share with students. Oh—if you think nonfiction lessons need to be serious and intense, think again. Sneed and I had a great time putting this book together. He has a wicked sense of humor, and that shines through in every chapter. This guy knows how to make nonfiction fun. We’re not talking typical research papers here.

Sneed and I are grateful to my wonderful colleague (and recent co-author) Jeff Hicks, who will be reviewing the book on this site in August, so watch for that. Meantime, to learn more (and take advantage of some good pre-publication offers), please visit the Heinemann website: http://www.heinemann.com/products/e08777.aspx

And happy, happy Fourth of July.


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A Black Hole Is NOT a Hole by Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano. 2012. Illustrated by Michael Carroll. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.

Genre: Nonfiction picture book.

Levels: Aimed at grade 4 and up, but appropriate and engaging for any grade level, including adults.

Features: Striking and informative illustrations, strong nonfiction voice, exceptionally thorough glossary, expansive timeline from pre-17th Century to the present—and beyond, excellent resource list and bibliography.

 

Overview

“A black hole is nothing to look at. Literally.” That playful description gives you a hint about Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano’s irresistibly charming nonfiction voice. But it doesn’t begin to reveal how much information the author packs into her 61-page account of this outer space phenomenon.

In a book written both to inform and amuse, the author manages to be scientific without being overly technical. Her conversational style—reminiscent of Carl Sagan, Bill Nye the Science guy, and other fine nonfiction authors—makes readers eager to pull up a chair and learn everything possible about black holes.

We discover at the outset that black holes are not what we might think. For one thing, they’re not holes. They’re also not monsters, gobbling up everything in the universe. But yes, they can and do pull things in—things as small as dust or as large as stars—and what goes in never comes out. Not even light can escape. That’s because “a black hole’s pull us the strongest pull in the entire universe,” stronger than any “fleet of giant rocket engines” (5). And though black holes may not plot or strategize, DeCristofano imbues them with an unmistakable element of danger that only adds to their allure.

The book is beautifully organized, divided into eight short chapters, each with its own theme. We begin with a description of black holes, what they are and how they operate, then consider the enormity of their gravitational pull, the way in which a black hole is formed, and the unimaginable blackness itself. The author wraps things up by first treating us to an imaginary tour inside a black hole, suggesting how things might look and feel if somehow we could make the journey—which of course we cannot. It’s too far (an understatement) and the effects would be, let’s say, dire: “The pull from the black hole would force your body into a long, skinny, stringy shape” (51). Just what I wanted for the New Year!, you’re thinking—but actually, this undesirable effect, known as “spaghettification,” doesn’t end well at all. When it comes to travel destinations, black holes do not make the list. In the final chapter, we get a peek at the “strange new universe” conceived by Einstein and others, a place where space can stretch and bend (55), and Newton’s law of gravity is given a new twist.

Every great nonfiction book offers readers something to love, and this one is no exception. First, DeCristofano’s voice never settles into the mundane. Throughout the book, she retains a tone of vibrant curiosity as if she were making discoveries right along with us. Second, thanks to the author’s exhaustive research, this book is filled with intriguing, little known bits of information. For example, what’s the likelihood that we ourselves will be swallowed by a black hole? Don’t let it keep you awake. Turns out we’re quadrillions of miles from the closest one. (To find out how many zeroes are in a quadrillion, check out the brilliant chart on page 6.) In addition, the author is a veritable master of similes and metaphors—which I happen to love because they make complex ideas accessible. In one chapter, she compares black holes to whirlpools. Though they may not be exactly alike, we get the idea. It gives us an image to cling to, and that’s important when discussing something as elusive as a black hole that exists in black space.

Finally, this book is brilliantly illustrated—in a range of styles that blend beautifully and fully complement the text. Illustrations include Michael Carroll’s striking paintings and whimsical cartoons, along with stunning photos from NASA and other sources. Together, these illustrations make us feel as if we are on a space flight, searching for mysterious black holes ourselves.

By the way, will our own sun become a black hole one day? Apparently  . . . that’s impossible. Read the book to find out why.

 

In the Classroom

Sharing the book. A Black Hole Is NOT a Hole is an ideal discussion book for a small group, but you can also read it aloud if you divide it into chapters. Please do read at least selected passages aloud since this book offers such an outstanding illustration of nonfiction voice. In addition, use a document projector if you can; students will find the illustrations fascinating and informative.

 

Background. What do your students know about black holes now? You might have them write a definition of a black hole. This isn’t a quiz! It’s a chance for them to see what they know prior to reading or hearing the book compared to what they learn as they go through it. You might also make a class list of the main questions your students have about black holes. Then compare your class list with the seven questions on the front inside flap of the book jacket. How many questions match? And how many of their questions are answered by reading the book? Note: When you finish the book, have students write a second definition of a black hole, comparing it to what they wrote at first. What ideas or perceptions have changed?

Coming to “terms” with the content. Fully understanding the book requires knowledge of a little scientific terminology. The author is very good at explaining new terms and ideas in context, but you can help students get even more out of the book by introducing a few terms from the glossary either up front or as you encounter them. Doing so also gives you a chance to acquaint students with the benefits of referring to a glossary often as you read. Recommended terms to emphasize: black hole, energy, event horizon, force, galaxy, gravity, light year, matter, quasar, radio galaxy, singularity, star, supernova, white dwarf.

Format and genre. Many students—and adults—equate picture books with stories. Maybe your students do, too. Ask them. Then mention that an increasing number of picture books—particularly those aimed at older students—are nonfiction. This trend has literally exploded over recent decades. (Why do you and your students think that might be?) You might also ask how they define “nonfiction” in their own minds. In fact, nonfiction is a large genre that can include everything from biographies and memoirs to histories, news reports, documentary videos, scientific analyses, nonfiction picture books, and much more. In terms of genre, how would your students describe A Black Hole Is NOT a Hole? After discussing this with them, you might share your own thoughts—along with mine: It’s fact, not fiction. We can also describe it as informational writing, based on scientific research. Read Carolyn Cinami CeDrostofano’s “Author’s Note” (pages 70-71) for details on how she compiled her information.

The message. Nonfiction books should teach readers something important or interesting. Even casual readers will pick up numerous bits of information about black holes, stars, galaxies, and the known and unknown universe. But—is there a larger message here? What central idea (or ideas) does the author hope we take away from reading this book? Hint: To zero in on this, try comparing common myths about black holes to the impressions with which the author leaves us by the end of the book.

The details. One helpful way to think about details is to ask students what information, if any, was new—or surprising. Nonfiction authors—the good ones, anyway—are always full of surprises. We wouldn’t read their books otherwise. You can model this with just the introduction and first chapter. Make a list of things that surprised you. For me, that would include the following (and if you teach science, then probably these weren’t surprises—but you can call them interesting reminders):

  • A black hole is not really a hole
  • It’s trillions of miles from Earth to the closest star
  • Stars look close together in the night sky—but are trillions of miles apart
  • A black hole has the strongest pull in the universe
  • A black hole can pull in stars and asteroids—in fact, nothing whatsoever can resist it

Looking at details in this way—as tidbits of surprising or hard-to-forget information—helps students understand what to include in their own writing. The details that matter, the ones to sift from their own research, are those that will make a reader say, “No kidding? I never knew that!”

Voice. No one without a strong sense of her own voice would dare call Einstein “a radical smarty-pants” (55). DeCristofano pulls it off with nary a blink. She is having a good time thinking and writing about space, and that kind of joy is infectious. If you share the book, or parts of it aloud, you can ask students to point out moments where they hear the author’s voice most clearly. Have them identify strong passages, study them together—using a document projector if you have one—and try to figure out what creates the voice. Is it wording? Humor? Striking details? Something more?

In addition, talk about the role of voice in nonfiction. I happen to think it’s essential in most writing (contracts, medical reports, and the like being exceptions of course). If a writer is excited about a topic, there’s no reason that enthusiasm shouldn’t come through in her writing. In writing that serves an informational purpose, though, what is the role of voice? Talk about this, perhaps by comparing DeCristofano’s book to any nonfiction piece without voice. Encyclopedias and many textbooks provide good examples.

Illustrations. Ask students to notice the different types of illustrations that appear throughout the text. Discuss the various purposes illustrations serve: to amuse us, teach us something, add to the mood or appeal of the book. Was the choice to use a blend of illustrations a good one in this case—for this subject and this author’s approach to her subject? Why? What if the book contained only photographs or only cartoons? What would be lost? Or suppose it had no illustrations at all. What would happen then?

 Drafting an argument. Do your students have any guess about how much money the U.S. spends on space research and exploration? Has the amount gone up or down in recent years? You can check out the facts online at this or another website:

http://curious.astro.cornell.edu/about-us/150-people-in-astronomy/space-exploration-and-astronauts/general-questions/921-how-much-money-is-spent-on-space-exploration-intermediate

Discuss this issue with students. Are we spending about the right amount—especially now that China and India are more active in space exploration, along with the European Space Agency and Russian Federal Space Agency? Should we be more competitive and aggressive in our spending? Or perhaps pull back and commit this money to some other endeavor? Give students a chance to research this topic briefly and discuss it in small groups. Then ask them to craft an argument supporting one of the following:

  • Increase spending on space exploration
  • Decrease spending
  • Maintain current levels of spending

Remind them to include strong reasons to back their position and to cite specific data and sources for that data. By the way, if your students are fortunate enough to know someone with relevant information or experience relevant to this topic, invite that person in for a class interview. The results will enrich your students’ writing immeasurably.

 Further research. Want to see a terrific video about black holes? Look up “nonfiction videos on black holes” online for a wide selection. Many are under two minutes long, allowing you to watch several within the span of a lesson. They may answer additional questions raised by the book. And seeing a black hole in motion—even an animated rendition—is an educational experience!

 

About the Author . . .

Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano is a science education consultant and award winning author. She has been named a Creative Teaching Partner (specialty: Curriculum and Planning) by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and has developed science programs with NASA and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Early on, Carolyn enjoyed writing and imagined herself as a writer. As her interest in science grew, she found creative ways to combine the two.

“For the past fifteen or so years,” she says, “I have been fortunate to work with teachers, museum educators, and educational researchers on fascinating projects. But I have never really stopped writing. I write poetry—but don’t share it often. I try to write stories, too. And I thoroughly enjoy shaping engaging science books that I hope will capture the reader’s imagination on lots of different levels.”

Carolyn works with educators to help integrate writing—notably science writing—into the broader school curriculum. Visit Carolyn at her website: www.carolyndecristofano.com

 

Coming Up on Gurus . . .

Welcome back! We hope you had a glorious winter break, and perhaps enjoyed a little snow—maybe not as much as we’ve had in Oregon. As I write this, we are working on our sixth foot of powder, definitely more than needed for cross country skiing, especially if you are the one breaking trail.

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Jeff continues his work with fifth graders and is also teaching curling now. If I were in Beaverton, I’d say, “Sign me up!” Meanwhile, when I’m not shoveling (which is hardly ever anymore) I continue to work on my new nonfiction book. And no, it’s not a myth. It’s real—and we will announce it soon.img_2895

What do you do when it snows? Besides wishing for a snow blower? Right! You read! I craved a little break from my steady diet of nonfiction and discovered I love the deliciously dark and gritty mysteries by Tana French. I highly recommend her newest, The Trespasser. Fans of the AMC series “The Killing” will quickly recognize how much the prickly tension between two crackerjack detectives—one male and one female—can add to any story. They’re partners, make no mistake, but they keep each other on point at all times.

the-trespasserI like the format of French’s books. She doesn’t bury readers in a barrage of gory details, or set up clichéd plots in which a sadist stalks a helpless victim who’s cringing in a corner. Her characters are realistic, and so are their motives. But this isn’t “Columbo,” and there’s a lot we don’t know when we first witness the crime scene—including who the killer might be. Gradually, French serves up healthy doses of clues, and lets you work on “the solve,” which is never as easy as it first appears.

Detectives Antoinette Conway and Stephen Moran persist in digging for the truth, even when taunted by the rest of the Murder squad to get on with it and move to the next case. We get to dig with them, seeing every piece of evidence and every potential witness as a detective would. The level of detail in French’s writing is absolutely astonishing—and thoroughly fascinating. Add to that, French’s knowledge of police procedures is impressive and the interrogation room interviews are as compelling as any I’ve read by any author—ever.

Her characters are real—and gritty. Detective Moran, like the Stephen Holder character in “The Killing,” is consistently smarter than he lets on, and is the perfect foil for Detective Conway, whose in your face style and colorful vocabulary would stop most sailors in their tracks. She takes no prisoners, and luckily is immune to insults since she receives plenty. Feisty, brilliant, intuitive, and unapologetic, Conway is a match for pretty much anything that stumbles into her path, from overbearing superiors to ingenious killers. I loved her—and am hoping she appears in many future books by Tana French. So much for mysteries . . .

Are you a fan of nonfiction? Then, rejoice. We’ll be doing more nonfiction reviews in future posts. Meanwhile . . . Give every child a voice.

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drowned-city

Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans, written and illustrated by Don Brown. 2015. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Genre: Nonfiction graphic history.

Levels: Aimed at middle school and up, but a riveting resource for interested readers of all ages, including both younger children and adults.

Features: Striking graphic illustrations, easy to read text, expansive resource list and bibliography.

 

Overview

“Eighty percent of the city flooded, in some places under twenty feet of water.” That’s the first line on the dust jacket—and will give you a hint about how much you can learn from this highly readable, impressively researched historical narrative.

The story opens with how Katrina began, as a tiny, “unremarkable” wind in Africa. We follow Katrina across the Atlantic as she grows large enough to be given a name, and then powerful enough to ignite terror. In the first half of the book, we witness the 1.2 million citizens of New Orleans receiving news of the approaching storm, then preparing to evacuate—or unbelievably, to stay. It feels as if we’re right there with them as they wait in apprehension, huddling within structures that will be no match for what’s coming. We see them frantically struggle to protect their children, pry victims from sinking cars, and finally—in shocking numbers—lose their homes, belongings, pets, and loved ones. Battling a world that’s become surreal, more than fourteen hundred people die, some overwhelmed by the storm surge, others racing to escape rising floods, a few trapped in attics without tools to break through their own roofs.

The second half of the book depicts rescue efforts on all levels—from federal down to individual. Brown honestly portrays the poorly coordinated government efforts to provide shelter and help to people who have lost everything. Stranded citizens cling to rooftops and floating debris hoping that someone with a boat will miraculously head their way. For too many, that doesn’t happen. Constantly wet and shut off from all communication, survivors find themselves without food, clean water, blankets, plumbing, electricity, medical help—or means of escape. They watch cars and houses float like toys down “rivers” that used to be familiar streets. In the convention center and superdome, where thousands eventually take shelter, conditions are abysmal: overcrowded and filthy, with no fresh air and often nowhere to sit but the floor.

In the face of all this despair, Brown reminds us, there is light. Hospitals do what they can. Coast Guard men and women hoist people from rooftops. The Red Cross opens over five hundred shelters across twelve states. Texas, Arkansas, and other states take in refugees, once they are able to leave the city. Even as rain thunders down, brave volunteers venture out in their own small boats. Some wade or swim through toxic flood waters, risking lethal infection, to save friends, neighbors—even strangers. They persist in the face of explosions, fires, snakes, and gunshots. Gradually, the storm subsides, and the deadly waters that drowned New Orleans seep away, inch by inch, leaving horrifying mounds of detritus in their wake.

At 91 quick pages—they fly by—the book is a dramatic and intense portrayal of what can happen when we are unprepared for the worst that nature can deal out. And when government agencies and officials fail to respond quickly despite evidence of abject suffering. In stunning contrast, though, the book also shines a welcome light upon the courage of everyday Americans who risk everything to save others. In his direct, unflinching style, Don Brown shows us America at its absolute worst—and best.

Drowned City, which marks the tenth anniversary of Katrina, is a fitting, brilliantly written, visually stunning tribute to the people—residents, rescuers, and some who were both—that fought bravely against insurmountable odds. Though many evacuees never returned to New Orleans, it’s worth remembering that others continue to rebuild, even to this day.

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In the Classroom

Sharing the book. Drowned City is an ideal discussion book for a small reading group—or for the whole class if you have enough copies to share. Despite the length, it’s a quick read, but expect students to spend extra time studying the illustrations. You can also read it aloud with the aid of a document projector. This book MUST be seen, not just heard. If you share it this way, plan to spend several class periods because you do not want to rush. Invite comments as you go.

Background. Do your students have knowledge of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath? How many have heard of Katrina, and know when it struck and where? Do any of them know someone who was affected? This is a highly sensitive question, of course; but if any of your students have personal histories to share, their insights can greatly enrich your discussion.

If you live in Louisiana or a neighboring state, your students have likely heard many accounts relating to Katrina. For students who are not familiar with the facts or circumstances, however, it may be helpful to provide some factual background about hurricanes in general and their deadly power.

A check under “hurricane facts” online will lead you to such informational tidbits as

  • The wind speeds of hurricanes in categories 1 (weakest) through 5 (strongest)
  • The number of hurricanes to hit the U.S. in the last 100 years
  • The states most often struck by hurricanes
  • Dates of the hurricane “season” on the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans
  • Origin of the word “hurricane”
  • How the tradition of naming hurricanes began
  • The forecasting of hurricanes
  • Meaning of related terms, such as “surge” . . .

 

. . . and much more. Such information will give students a deeper appreciation of the book.

Format and genre. The first thing you’re likely to notice about Drowned City is the format. It’s a graphic nonfiction history, a genre greatly appealing to many young readers. Over the past three decades, graphic novels and histories have grown immeasurably in popularity and attained an impressive level of sophistication. Language and art blend to recount events with a power neither could match on its own.

Brown has his own artistic style, simple and raw. The facial expressions, which he brilliantly depicts using only a few brush strokes, indelibly capture Katrina’s impact on people of the Gulf Coast. These are not photographs, but if they were, we’d be saying, “How did he manage to get that shot?” He seems to know precisely what to illustrate—and just what details will intrigue, touch or startle us. Before actually reading the text, leaf through a portion to give students a feel for the overall “look” of the document. What emotional response do the illustrations arouse—even before students hear the author’s words? How would your students describe Brown’s highly individual artistic approach?

Not comic books. Though they share some similarities, graphic novels and histories are not comic books. What is the difference, though? Look at them side by side, and discuss the similarities the two genres share—and any differences you identify.

A footnote: In the publishing industry, books in this genre are typically called “graphic novels,” though the term can be somewhat confusing since novels are fiction and tend to be lengthy. This book is neither. Help students understand that “graphic novel” is a publishers’ term and quite different from “novel” as we usually think of it. The history of the graphic novel, by the way, makes a fine topic for informational research.

 

Color and mood. As you page through the book, notice the colors Brown chooses for his artwork. Ask students to reflect on the ways these colors influence the message and mood of the narrative. How does Brown want us as readers to feel? Also look for occasional hints of bright color. When and where do they appear—and what might they represent?

The big idea—or message. Every good nonfiction book has a big idea. Behind all the facts and anecdotes, there’s a message, something the author wants us to think about. As you share Drowned City, ask your students to think about the underlying message, or messages. There could be more than one. Talk about this as a class—or have students share their own thoughts in writing journals.

Organization. Unlike many books of comparable length, Drowned City is not divided into chapters. Yet it reads almost as if it were. It is easy to transition from one discussion to another. What organizational devices does author Don Brown use to keep us on track? Note that you may need to review the book more than one time to notice how he achieves this smooth topic-to-topic flow.

Following are some elements you may want to share with students once they’ve had a chance to express their own ideas about organizational structure:

 

  • Time: Time is a critical organizational device in this book, and with good reason. The people of New Orleans—and indeed people throughout the world—know the hurricane will strike long before it happens. This allows the author to take us through a period of tense anticipation, followed by the climax of the actual storm, and then an aftermath when many of the city’s most serious problems are just beginning. With respect to dates, the book opens in early August 2005 and rushes headlong toward the moment of crisis on August 29. Though the primary narrative concludes on October 2, when New Orleans is finally dry again, there’s also an epilogue on the final pages, a look back from the perspective of 2012.

 

  • Scene shifts: We move from place to place, and from one perspective to another. For example, we shift from Alabama and Mississippi to New Orleans, from the struggling victims swimming or clinging to rooftops to the rescuers in boats and helicopters, from the streets rapidly becoming rivers to the convention center and superdome, from the frantic chaos of New Orleans to the complacency of the White House. Such shifts give us a sweeping perspective on a complex catastrophe—like watching several films all at one time—and help us understand the multiple and simultaneous ways in which human lives changed when Katrina hit.

 

  • Pacing: With so much to tell, Brown has to keep things moving, and he does. In the half hour or so it takes to read and reflect on this book, he touches on numerous events, leaping quickly from one to another, helping us experience the frenzy the people of New Orleans must have felt. One moment we’re watching neighbors rescue one another from rooftops, and the next we’re standing in unbearable heat outside the convention center, waiting to board an over-crowded bus. By holding himself to a few lines for each scene, Brown covers an impressive amount of territory with a few words.

 

  • Lead and conclusion: I used to tell students that a good lead and conclusion are like bookends, holding details together. They work just that way in Brown’s book. He opens by telling us how inconspicuously a hurricane begins—it’s scarcely more than a small, seemingly innocent puff of wind. This surprises us, and compels us to read on, to find out how a small gust of air becomes a force of death. The conclusion is equally striking. We learn that many people have, remarkably, survived this wretched bout with nature, and it’s a testament to human endurance.

 

 

Voice. This book resounds with voice. It’s powerful, but controlled. There’s enough tension that Brown doesn’t need to embellish anything. He lets the facts speak for themselves. He is present on every page, though, present in the details he shares, the illustrations he creates to enhance them, and the words he chooses to engage us: Hurricane Katrina “crashes” ashore just post-dawn on August 29 and “erases” the town of Buras, Louisiana. Later, when the electricity goes out, night “swallows” New Orleans, and the next day people “melt” at an overcrowded convention center where it’s hard to breathe and the air reeks of human waste. On every page, we remain in touch with human panic, despair, and frustration. Occasionally, the people of New Orleans speak to us, and their words are authentic. As Brown’s source list shows us, he has pulled his quotations directly from books and news accounts of the disaster. They’re real, not invented, and we can feel the difference. In one scene, a mother stranded on a rooftop hugs her child and says simply, “Oh, baby, I don’t think we’re gonna make it” (from Jed Horne, Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City, 2008, 10).

Personal response. Some of us identify with books like this because we have been through a similar situation or know someone who has—or because the author’s writing causes us to empathize with the characters. After reading the book, but before discussing it in depth, give students a chance to express their own feelings in writing. They may also wish to share these responses in small writing groups of three or four students.

Choosing facts wisely. One of the biggest challenges in writing a book like this is deciding what to tell—and what to leave out. Have a look at the bibliography, page 95, and share some of the sources with students. Talk about the kinds of sources Brown relies on, and the breadth of his research. Are students surprised to learn that for a book this length a writer would conduct such extensive research?

Ask them to imagine the notes and facts Brown must have collected as he investigated Katrina. With such an overwhelming amount of information at hand, how does an author decide which facts to share—and which to simply abandon?

Here are two things to consider in addressing this question:

First, ask students what they learn from the book. What information is new to them? Were there surprises? Are there facts or anecdotes they will not readily forget?

Second, go through the book slowly, looking for the most striking details, those that stand out or go beyond what we might hear in nightly news accounts. For example, check out page 41, which shows people in their own boats dodging swarms of cockroaches or “knots” of poisonous snakes. What other details make a similarly striking impression?

In discussing factual highlights that capture your students’ attention, talk about the criteria that nonfiction writers—including your students—should use in selecting details to share with readers. List some of those criteria and have students refer to them as they research and write nonfiction pieces of their own.

Drafting an argument. Look again at the information Brown shares on pages 8 and 9. We learn that the people of New Orleans had a 24-hour warning to evacuate before the city was hit with a storm surge “twenty-five feet above normal.” Yet many chose to remain. By the time the mayor issued a mandatory evacuation, it was too late (10). Though some people had no means to escape—having neither a car nor money for any sort of transportation—many made a deliberate choice to stay. Was this right? What would your students do? Have them write about this, creating an argument based on the following—or a related topic of their own:

 

  • Are people in a danger zone obliged to evacuate if they can? Or should that decision be completely their own? Why?

 

One of the primary issues surrounding Hurricane Katrina is the role that government, local or federal, should play in protecting citizens from disaster—or rescuing them later. After sharing Brown’s book, talk about some of the things that went wrong with the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Could the government have done more? After discussing this, have students formulate an argument based on this or a related topic:

 

  • What role should the government play in protecting citizens from natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina? And what, if anything, is a citizen’s own responsibility?

 

Further research. For additional information about Hurricane Katrina or the rebuilding effort, students can check online under New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Katrina reconstruction, and Army Corps of Engineers. Don Brown’s bibliography lists many useful sources. Your school, city, or county library can also suggest books or articles to help writers further their research. Numerous films are available as well, and you may wish to view one as a class (see “Films on Hurricane Katrina” for ideas). You may also want to consider interviewing someone with relevant knowledge or experience . . .

Conducting an interview. One good way to learn more about any topic is by interviewing someone with special knowledge. Sometimes a writer is lucky enough to arrange a personal interview—but if that is not possible, an interview via phone or email (or Skype) is the next best thing. Here are a few people your students might want to consult—and likely you can think of others:

 

  • A current or former resident of New Orleans with firsthand knowledge of Katrina
  • A relative or friend of such a person—or anyone knows the history of Katrina well
  • A local meteorologist with insights about current technology used in forecasting hurricanes
  • Someone with a background in conducting or managing rescue efforts—for example, a member of the Coast Guard, a firefighter, or an emergency medical specialist
  • An engineer who can discuss what towns or cities do these days to make themselves more flood-resistant
  • Anyone who has been part of an evacuation effort
  • A mayor or other official who can respond to questions about the role government plays in preventing or handling disasters
  • A journalist or writer who has researched or written about disasters such as Katrina

To learn more about setting up an interview, check on line under “How to Set Up a Phone Interview” or “How to Set Up an Email Interview.” Ahead of time, lay out the kinds of questions you’d like to ask. Give students a chance to practice their interviewing skills, with you playing the role of the “interviewee.” Remember to ask for permission to record the interview or to take photographs, should you want to do that.

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About Author Don Brown . . .

Don Brown is the award-winning author and illustrator of more than two dozen picture book biographies and other history books for children. Throughout his career, Brown has introduced young readers to such well known figures as Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, and Dolly Madison.

His books have also explored important events, including the Battle of Lexington & Concord, the sinking of the Titanic, and the duel of Alexander Hamilton & Aaron Burr. One of his most recent publications, America Is Under Attack, offers readers a sensitive look at the tragic events of September 11th.

Don’s books have received numerous starred reviews and awards, including a Horn Book Honor and the William Allen White Award. One of the author’s histories, The Great American Dustbowl, has been nominated for the Texas Blue Bonnet Award. Drowned City was published in August 2015 on the tenth anniversary of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. It is a Robert F. Sibert Honor Book, and recently won the 2016 NCTE Orbis Pictus Award, which recognizes excellence in nonfiction writing for children. Don Brown also makes presentations to students around the country. You can follow his work on www.booksbybrown.com

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Coming Up on Gurus . . .

Thank you for returning! We hope you had a wonderful summer, and squeezed in time for family, travel, pets, reading, hiking, or whatever creates the joy in your life. Speaking of pure, unadulterated joy . . . congratulations to the Chicago Cubs. Even if you’re not a fan—heck, even if you don’t like baseball all that much—you have to feel good about a team that finally, finally puts an end to a 108-year drought. And by the way, congratulations to Cleveland as well. The Chicago victory would not have been nearly so sweet had the Indians not played their hearts out and made all those score crushing homers and gravity defying catches. What a Series. In other news . . .

Jeff continues his work with fifth graders, and will soon, I am sure, have stories to share on his experiences.

In the meantime, I am searching out the very best in nonfiction books as background for a new book I’m writing—to be announced soon! Drowned City was to my mind one of the best nonfiction books for young readers that I’d come across in a while. I hope you like it as much as I did.

A quick, personal note . . . I saw a lovely middle school student interviewed on the morning news. She was writing a letter to her older self to be opened about ten years from now. It was a moving and thoughtful letter, filled with the kind of humor and wisdom that made me wish she lived right next door and would stop by and visit while I’m out gardening. The advice she gave to herself ran along these lines . . . Don’t be swayed by others. Trust yourself, your own mind, your own heart. I liked that. Behind her on the classroom wall was a six-trait poster. No implied connection whatsoever. Just a good moment.

Remember, for the BEST workshops or innovative classroom demo lessons combining traits, workshop, process and literature, please phone Jeff Hicks at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

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We’re BACK!

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That’s right! Our summer hiatus is coming to an end, and Gurus kicks off the 2014/2015 school year with a brand new post THURSDAY, August 21. We’ll suggest 6 POWERFUL THINGS YOU CAN DO ON DAY 1 of your writing class. Please check us out!

Meantime, our sincere thanks to all the loyal fans who continued visiting us over the summer, catching up on earlier posts they missed. Thanks also to the many people who joined our following and signed up to get notices each time we published. We appreciate each and every one of you!

We hope you had a good summer break, and we look forward to seeing you tomorrow.
Sincerely,
Jeff & Vicki

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Still Writing2

Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro. 2013. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press. 227 pages.

Genre: Memoir, commentary on writing

Ages: This book is written for adults, but includes numerous passages that can be shared with writers of about age 10 and up.

Summary

Shapiro’s book is a down to earth tour of real world writing process. This is not the neatly packaged, plastic version publishers want to sell you so you’ll be ready for the latest test. Here we get authenticity and insight from someone who writes for a living, who writes all the time, who lives to write—and loves it. Oh—and who is very, very good at it. The language is rich and vibrant, the sentences clear and elegant. It’s a refreshingly honest, eminently quotable book, an inside look at how writing really works.

Still Writing is written neither for nor to the classroom writing teacher, which in some respects renders it even more of a treasure because it doesn’t rehash messages we’ve heard before. It’s fresh, written from a new perspective. This book is one hundred percent free of educational jargon. It contains no reconstituted mini-lessons or tips for managing conferences with limited time. Instead, within each chapter you’ll find gems of wisdom about writing, wisdom you can share with students to help them understand that things they have felt—fear, rejection, lack of inspiration, the irresistible impulse to procrastinate (yet again)—are experienced by writers everywhere. And though these things have to be confronted, they’re far from fatal. In fact, they’re normal. But that doesn’t mean you get to ignore them.

Don’t get the idea that this is a maudlin portrait of just how rough a writer’s life can be. Anything but. On the contrary, Shapiro makes the life of a writer sound energizing, satisfying, and filled with surprises—though anything but easy (or, usually, lucrative). She doesn’t sugarcoat the need for hard work and plenty of it. And she offers substantive advice for allowing nothing to get in the way. Get up to make a phone call, do the dishes, check your email, or look out the window, and poof, those thoughts that were just about to reveal themselves in your mind may well take off forever. Shapiro helps us understand that writing takes discipline, courage, perseverance, focus, and sheer will. Above all, it requires curiosity, love of reading, and a knack for noticing the world around us. For those willing to commit, though, writing holds rewards nothing else can offer.

The book has no table of contents. This is a shame, first because the chapter titles are whimsically charming, and second because there are numerous chapters to which I’ll want to return—and a good TOC always makes a book a bit easier to navigate. Most chapters run only a page or two, making it possible to read the whole book in stolen moments here and there, or re-read a whole chapter to begin your own writing day. Here’s a random sample of chapters that are favorites for me: Scars, Inner Censor, A Room of One’s Own, Reading, The Blank Page, Habit, Audience of One, What You Know?, Bad Days, Building the Boat (four short paragraphs etched in my memory), Courage, Structure, Dumb, Character, Next, and the concluding chapter, Still Writing. I could list more, but already someone is saying, “Why doesn’t she just list them all?” I could—easily (the book has no slow parts)—but I’m trying to keep it to those chapters I already plan to return to this week.

Advice on writing is deftly blended with Shapiro’s own personal stories of growing up in a traditional Jewish home as the only child of hovering, Orthodox parents, then losing her father and surviving a complex relationship with her mother. There is no running from who we are, she tells us. This is what it truly means to “write what we know”—to write from our innermost selves and draw from all the wisdom our unique experience has given us. And though we may not always be successful, we will learn to “fail better” (Introduction, p. 4).

The book sits on my desk where it’s easy to reach, and is already well marked with highlighter and pen. It has a few Post-It™ notes poking out the top as well. It already looks well used and loved, and that surely is the sign of a good book. Though I’ve read and re-read extensively, I’d rather buy someone a new copy than lend them mine. How often have you felt like that?

Like a good poem, Shapiro’s book is deceptively tiny. It looks (and feels) small, and you can read it in one night. Yet each time you return to it, it reveals something new, something you didn’t even notice the first time. This book encompasses (and inspires) so many thoughts and connections that in the end, the only sensible thing to say is, “You need to read this for yourself.” To give you a flavor of the book, though, here are a handful of moments that stand out for me, many of which you might share with young writers.

Memorable Moments

  1. The list of don’ts. Writers are full of excuses—they’re busy, tired, not feeling up to par. Or it’s too hot, cold, drafty, noisy, quiet, yada, yada. In the chapter called Riding the Wave, Shapiro lists a number of things NOT to do when you sit down to write: “Don’t answer the phone. Don’t look at e-mail. Don’t go on the Internet for any reason, including checking the spelling of some obscure word, or for what you might think of as research but is really a fancy form of procrastination” (p. 10). Sound familiar? Of course. All writers procrastinate; for some, it’s an art form. You might share this chapter or some portion of it with your students, and brainstorm two lists: things writers do to procrastinate, and things we can do to get ourselves moving again.
  2. Dispelling your inner critic. Most writers know the voice of that inner critic who is never really pleased with anything we do. Maybe it’s your mother’s voice, or some long-ago teacher—or your editor. In the chapter titled Inner Censor, Shapiro reveals some of the things her critic likes to lay on her: “This is stupid,” “What a waste of time,” “What a dumb idea,” and other equally disparaging comments (p. 13). Discussion of the inner critic is a good one to have with students because few things are more inhibiting than having your work dismissed as fast as you can put it on the page. Shapiro refers to her critic as a “toxic little troll” (p. 14), one she can put in her place only by continually reinforcing belief in her ability to enter “that sacred space from which the work springs” (p. 15). What sorts of things do your students’ critics whisper in their ears? Make a list. It’s surprising how shedding a little light on these nasty criticisms can weaken their power.
  3. Building one corner of the puzzle. How many times have you heard students say, “I don’t know how to begin”? Try this. Instead of writing one day, pass out jigsaw puzzles and have students work on them in groups—just for a few minutes. They don’t need to finish. Then talk about strategy. What did they do first? Chances are, many started with the corner pieces. In the chapter called Corner, Dani Shapiro suggests that this logical and simple way of solving puzzles has something important in common with writing. As writers, we need to start small, too. The idea is to get one “corner” on the page in recognizable form—then build on it: “One word. One image. One detail. Go ahead. Then see what happens next” (p. 17).
  4. The magic of books. Do you read as you write? Before you write? For many writers, this is like saying, “Do you breathe as you write?” Most of our inspiration (save what we get from experience) comes from books. On my own shelf right now I have One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson, The MOST of Nora Ephron, and The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. None of these is a book about writing, but every one of them teaches me more about writing than I can get from almost any handbook or textbook out there. Just to offer one tiny example, Bill Bryson is a master of transitions. This probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when people think of Bryson (How about humor? Research?), but the way he links ideas together is worth more than a passing look. Writers must read. It’s essential. And think how much is gained by discussions of literature as writing, by looking at the craft of the writer, in addition to theme and content. Shapiro puts it this way: “When I meet someone who wants to be a writer, and yet doesn’t read much, I wonder how that works. What would provide you with nourishment, with inspiration?” (p. 33). Ask your students which writers inspire them. Which ones provide them nourishment? And specifically, what do they learn as writers from their literary mentors?
  5. Writing to someone. Mem Fox (author of one of my favorite books, Radical Reflections) has long talked about “The Watcher,” that mysterious someone we picture in our minds as we write. I’ve long embraced this idea, and my list of “watchers” rotates to include colleagues like Jeff Hicks and Sally Shore or Darle Fearl, along with my daughter Nikki and my grandson Jack. Rotating is fine, but if we try to write to too many people at once, Shapiro advises, “It can start to feel like a crowded subway during rush hour, no one meeting each other’s eyes, just waiting for the doors to open” (p. 54). She suggests following the advice of Kurt Vonnegut and writing “for an audience of one” (54). Discuss this with students, and give them time to reflect on who their particular “audience of one” might be. It doesn’t always need to be the same person. Fiction and informational writing are very different, and may demand different audiences. The point is to choose someone appreciative. Writing to an audience truly is transformational because it makes the writing personal, almost like a letter. This doesn’t mean for a moment that you cannot write with a formal style. It does, however, make it much harder to be phony or affected, to generalize, to wander off the topic, to use words you don’t know, or to write in a sloppy manner and call it good enough. After all, someone you care about is on the receiving end.
  6. Breaking the rules. Every good writing teacher I’ve ever known (and it’s a big group) has talked about “breaking the rules.” But most add a caveat—“Be sure you know the rules first!” Well . . . yes. Sure. But that caveat makes rule breaking sound like a plot: Learn the rules so you can plan to break them. That’s not how it works at all. Breaking the rules for the sake of breaking them is no different from following them for the sake of following them. The rule isn’t the point. The point is to be true to yourself and your vision. In What You Know?, Shapiro offers this advice: “You can do absolutely anything—tell, not show, make excellent use of an adverb—as long as you can pull it off. Get out there on the high wire, unafraid to fall” (p. 71). We have to tread lightly here, though. We don’t want to tell our students to get busy breaking rules and see how that works. A better way of helping them appreciate both the rules and the deviations is to have them look in their favorite literature for examples of when and how our best writers break from tradition. Can they find examples of abandoned punctuation? Missing capitals? Repetition? Fragments? One-sentence or one-word paragraphs? Why do these instances of rule breaking sometimes work so well? And why wouldn’t they work all the time? (Check out the chapter Breaking the Rules, 151ff., for more wisdom on this topic.)
  7. Sharing our writing. Some students cannot wait to share their writing aloud—with a partner, in a small group, with the whole class. Whatever. They live for the spotlight. But for many, it’s downright terrifying—as indeed it is for countless adult writers, including experienced, published professionals. Sweaty palms, shaking hands, cracking voices, and rapid heartbeats are all part of the misery of taking writing public if it’s not your thing. One of the problems in the classroom is that for the most part, you don’t get to pick your audience. It’s hard to work around this, granted, but maybe we should at least think about it. In her chapter Trust, Shapiro talks about the importance of choosing wisely when we decide to share our writing with someone. Writers are highly vulnerable, she cautions. Damage can be done. We don’t want listeners who are indifferent, rude, hostile, or inattentive (p. 98). She offers this advice: “Ask yourself: Why this person? Will she treat my manuscript with respect? Read it with close attention?” Perhaps we can’t allow students total freedom of choice about their audience, but we can encourage students (and ourselves) to be the most sensitive listeners possible—to offer comments that show we are paying attention and that we care about the writer. Talk with your students about this: What kinds of comments are genuinely helpful to them? What can we do, as listeners, to foster trust in the writers who share their very important work with us?
  8. Structure. Dani Shapiro is no fan of outlines. This in itself is enough to make her my hero. Outlines, she explains, create an “illusion” of control (p. 114). Precisely. Non-writers (some of whom are sneaky enough to become consultants or assessors of writing) are forever wanting the rest of us to plan our writing in advance, then follow our outlines from first to final sentence as if those outlines now controlled us, rather than the reverse. Who on earth came up with this idea? The most magical part of writing lies in not knowing what will happen. Everything from character to plot to need for further research reveals itself not in advance, but during the act of writing. And so it is with structure. Here is one of my favorite quotations from the book: “Structure may emerge in the middle, may even announce itself once we’re in over our heads, in the thick of it, having relinquished control. Then, then, the architecture begins to whisper to us” (p. 115).
  9. Taking care of yourself. I think this may be the only book on writing I have read (other than perhaps Anne Lamott’s legendary Bird by Bird) in which the author makes a point of telling writers to be good to themselves—to seek out kind critics, eat right, get enough sleep, be patient with themselves and with the writing as it evolves, find a good and comfortable place in which to compose, and engage in something Shapiro calls “quiet contemplation,” a lovely expression. “Quiet contemplation,” she tells us, “will lead you to riches, so keep good literature on your bedside table and read for a few minutes before you go to sleep instead of, say, passing out during episode five of season three of Mad Men” (p. 208).  I think this is some of the most excellent advice on writing I’ve ever come across. I would not, of course, have been able to follow it while watching the final season of Breaking Bad, but still . . .
  10. Still Writing. This, the title of the book, is also the title of the final chapter. And if I had to pick just one chapter as my favorite, much as I love the others, this would have to be it. The message is so important: that writing, the need to write and the desire to write, is internal and forever. Like most writers, Shapiro is often asked whether she is still writing. Though she admits that she usually nods politely and changes the subject, page 227 contains the response she would like to give. It is passionate—and beautiful. It begins, “Yes, yes, I am. I will write until the day I die, or until I am robbed of my capacity to reason.” Better than anything I have ever read, this page captures how it feels to be a writer. And lucky me—since this book will be on my desk for as long as I have a desk, I can read it every day. Anne Lamott once said (Bird by Bird, p. 15), “My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean.” I’m grateful for Shapiro’s book in just this way, especially given its encouraging, soul satisfying philosophy: Success sometimes feels out of reach, but “failing better”? Now there’s a standard we can meet.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Happy Thanksgiving to all our friends and fans. We are thankful for you, and we thank you for stopping by. I hope you’ll find time to read Dani Shapiro’s magnificent little book, and that you’ll find many ways to share its inspiration with your students. If you have other writers in your life, this book would make an extraordinary gift.

Coming up after the Thanksgiving break, we’ll look at things you can do in your classroom to prepare for the Common Core writing assessments.

Please don’t forget, if your school or district is planning to sponsor professional development in writing for the coming school year, we’d love to design a seminar or series of classroom demo’s to meet your needs at the classroom, building, or district level. We can incorporate any combination of the following: Common Core Standards for writing, the 6 traits, effective approaches for writing in multiple genres, and the best in literature for young people (including strengthening the reading-writing connection). Contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.