Monday, September 23, 2019

Writing Expository Nonfiction that Sings, Part 3

For the last couple of Mondays, I’ve been posting  about the importance of understanding the key elements of finely-crafted expository nonfiction and helping students identify those features as they read and include them as they write.

Last week, I discussed how starting with a question can help students come up with a focused topic, which allows for more engaging and creative writing. You can scroll down to read that post.

Today, I’m focusing on why nonfiction writing tends to be stronger when we make a personal connection to the topic we choose and the approach we take.

As I mentioned last week, Can an Aardvark Bark? was inspired by a question my nephew, Colin, asked me during a family trip to Disney World. In this case, my personal connection to him motivated me to find a concept worth exploring in my mountain of research. Without Colin’s interest, I doubt I would have spent 4 years searching for just the right way to present the information.

As I was writing a section of my upcoming book ICK! Delightfully Disgusting Animal Dinners, Dwellings, and Defenses about the surprising relationship between flesh flies and harlequin frogs, I was thinking of the twisted fairytale I had just helped my niece write for school. Here’s what I came up with:

The Fly and the Toad
Once upon a time, there was a fly and a toad. Think you know how this story ends? Think again.

In this twisted tale, a female flesh fly deposits her newly-hatched larvae on a harlequin toad’s skin. The white, wormy youngsters wriggle and squirm as they burrow into the toad’s body. Then the maggots devour their victim from the inside out.
The end.

Actually, it’s the end for the toad, but not for the larvae. With their bellies full, the maggots turn into pupae. And a few weeks after that, they emerge as adults.

Starting with the same basic facts, I’ve worked with fifth graders who wrote some terrific pieces that were 100 percent their own because they put a piece of themselves into their manuscript.

One boy focused on karma (as in, it’s about time flies got their revenge), because that idea was important to his family and upbringing.

A girl wrote a fun piece entitled Not Your Average Flesh Fly, inspired by her family’s favorite restaurant—Not Your Average Joe’s.

Another girl compared the flies to her cat. She explained that flesh flies are smaller than a toad and her cat is smaller than she is, but in both cases, the smaller animal has adaptations that allow it to “defeat” the larger one.

Pretty clever, right?

This is an activity that can work in any intermediate classroom. When students use a personal connection to frame their facts, they have some skin in the game, and the result is more interesting, more unique writing.