Friday, September 13, 2019

A Community of Experts

Since 2019 marks the 10th Anniversary of this blog, on Fridays this year, I’m updating and re-running some past posts that sparked conversation or that I think still have a lot to offer people teaching or writing nonfiction. Today’s essay, which is perfect for the beginning of the school year, originally appeared on October 20, 2017.

By now, we all know that students write most enthusiastically when they choose their own topic. But this can cause some research dilemmas. What if your library doesn’t have suitable sources on the topics they select? What if the reading level of websites is too advanced?
Professional nonfiction writers often have trouble finding information too. Even a nationwide or worldwide search may yield little information on a specific topic. For example, when I was working on No Monkeys, No Chocolate, I was frustrated that no one had ever written about the animals that interact with cocoa trees.

While writing an upcoming book about prehistoric creatures, I encountered a lot of conflicting information—even in scientific papers. Some days I felt so confused because I couldn’t tell which sources were the most reliable.

What do I do when I hit snags like these? I ask an expert. And there’s no reason your students can’t do the same thing.

Over the years, I’ve built relationships with scientists in various disciplines. These researchers are always happy to help me track down little-known resources or identify the leading theories among scientists in a particular field.

Your school can create a similar community of experts. Everyone is an expert in something. By surveying parents at the beginning of each school year, you can discover what they’re passionate about and whether they’re willing to answer questions on that topic from a child doing a report. You can also identify community workers who would be willing to assist students. It’s a great way to help students understand how professional writers go about their work.


  1. Happy Anniversary, Melissa! Looking forward to re-visiting these posts!!

  2. This is a great idea, of asking or seeking out passionate parents. In the Picture Person Program I was in charge of, a parent was passionate about music, and brought in a 5 person string band/group to play some music accompanying the large visual picture for the month that would hang in the 2nd grade classroom. I can't remember the picture she had, but, it brought a tear to my eye, to know that this parent
    was so interested in helping spread the arts in a community where sports was valued more by the administration.Yay, for passionate parents and the gifts they give!