Monday, September 16, 2019

Writing Expository Nonfiction that Sings, Part 2

Last Monday, I began talking about the importance of understanding the key elements of finely-crafted expository nonfiction and helping students identify them as they read and include them as they write.

The first key characteristic of expository writing that sings is a narrowly-focused topic. Broad topics lead to general writing that lacks passion and excitement, but specific topics allow writers to really dig in and be creative (while still adhering to the facts). One of the easiest and most authentic ways to develop a narrow topic is by starting with a question.

For example, my book Feathers: Not Just for Flying began with one sentence in a magazine article: “Hummingbird eyelashes are the smallest feathers in the world.”

When I read those words, my mind exploded with questions. Birds have eyelashes? And they’re made of feathers? Exactly how small are they, and what do they look like?

All these questions eventually led me to a bigger question: How else do birds use their feathers in unexpected ways? Feathers: Not Just for Flying answers that question by providing sixteen examples.

The seed for Can an Aardvark Bark? was planted during a family trip to Disney World when my nephew was 9 and my nieces were 7 and 5.

One day we decided to take a break from the rides and visit the Animal Kingdom, where we saw two adorable cotton-top tamarin monkeys. The informational plaque on their cage told us the monkeys’ natural habitat and range, what they eat, and the sounds they make. It said they bark.

My nieces and nephew were skeptical. But then, as if on cue, the monkeys started vocalizing. That night my nephew asked a great question: “Do you think there are a lot of different animals that bark?” Researching that question with him eventually led me to write a book about a wide variety of animal sounds.

My upcoming book, Summertime Sleep: Animals that Estivate, began with a trip to the library in 2011. I spotted a 250-page book about hibernation and asked myself, “Is there really that much to say about hibernation?” As I read the book, I came across a single paragraph about an animal behavior I’d never heard of—estivation.

After reading that paragraph, I had SO many questions. I NEEDED to know more about how and why a wide range of animals, from snails and salamanders to fish and hedgehogs, rest all summer long. I can’t wait to share all the cool things I discovered when the book is published.

To help students develop a spirit of inquiry:

—Encourage them to be open to new ideas and information all the time. When I read the “hummingbird eyelashes” tidbit, I was working on another book, but I still paid attention. I was on vacation when we saw the barking monkeys, but I didn’t let that experience slip away.

—Model ways students can keep track of questions they have or things they’re curious about. I am constantly tacking things, like the “hummingbird eyelashes” article, to the idea board in my office.

You could have an idea board or a Wonder Wall in your classroom, or students could keep track of their questions and ideas on the last page of their writer’s notebook. When it’s time to do a nonfiction writing project, students can look through the questions and use one of them to fuel their own journey of discovery.

Even if you give your students an umbrella topic that compliments your curriculum, such as the Revolutionary War, a list of questions is still a valuable tool. Students can use them to brainstorm alone or with a buddy. If they notice a commonality to their questions, they can see if there’s a way to apply that to the umbrella topic.

For example, if a child has lots of weather-related questions, maybe s/he could write about weather during the Revolutionary War. Since it was an exceptionally snowy period in history, that would be a great topic. If a child gets excited about numbers, maybe s/he could create a series of infographics comparing statistics related to different battles or the two different armies.

When natural curiosity guides the research and writing process, and when children are encouraged to zero in on what they find most fascinating, their final piece is bound to burst with passion and personality. Why not give it a try?

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