Friday, December 6, 2019

No More All About Books!

Since 2019 marks the 10th Anniversary of this blog, on Fridays this year, I’m updating some past posts that sparked conversation or that I think still have a lot to offer people teaching or writing nonfiction. Today’s post originally appeared on May 18, 2018.

For many years, all-about books have been the go-to informational writing project in elementary classrooms across the U.S. But I think it’s time to re-consider that assignment. Before I explain why, here’s a little bit of background.
In December 2017, I introduced the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction, a system for classifying the wide and wonderful world of nonfiction books for children. It received such a great response that Nerdy Book Club co-founder Colby Sharp (@colbysharp) invited me to create this video for his blog and SLJ invited me to write this article for their May 2018 issue. I’m currently writing a book about it with literacy educator Marlene Correia. It’s due out in Fall 2020.

For today’s discussion, I’m going to focus on two categories—Traditional Nonfiction and Expository Literature. Traditional nonfiction provides a general introduction to a broad topic. These survey (all about) books, which are often published in large series, feature clear, concise, straightforward language and usually have a description text structure.

Traditional nonfiction books can be a great place to start the research process because they provide an overview of a topic, but they aren’t the best mentor texts for producing engaging, finely-crafted informational writing. For that, expository literature, which emphasizes depth rather than breadth of coverage, is a better choice.

This has nothing to do with how talented the writers are and everything to do with the inherent differences of writing about a broad topic versus a focused one. Simply put, broad topics limit a nonfiction writer’s ability to craft rich, engaging text.

When writers take an in-depth look at a specific idea or concept, they can be more playful and innovative. They can select a format and text structure that reflects their unique approach to the content. They can experiment with voice and language devices. Because writers of traditional nonfiction must cover a huge amount of information in a limited number of words, they don’t have the same kind of opportunities to delight as well as inform.
When we ask children to write all about books, we’re giving them a handicap right off the bat. Students will be most successful when they choose a topic they’re passionate about and zoom in on a specific question or unique perspective that allows them to use the nonfiction craft moves they’ve learned to the best of their ability. Let’s give our young writers a chance to shine.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

The Dangers of “Personal Knowledge”

When I do school visits, I often ask students where they get reliable information when they’re writing nonfiction. What kinds of sources do they use?

Of course, they mention books and using the Internet cautiously. Some mention encyclopedic databases, such as PebbleGo.

With a little bit of prodding, they’ll often realize that firsthand observations can be a good source if they’re writing about a local animal, and interviews with experts can enrich a nonfiction report or project about just about any topic.

But at some schools, students include “personal knowledge” on their list. And that worries me. A lot.

Personal knowledge is NOT a reliable resource. All of us carry misinformation and misconceptions with us. And some of the things we learned in the past may no longer be considered true. Our collective understanding of the world is changing all the time. Simply put, we don’t know what we don’t know.

That’s why nonfiction writers need to question everything.

We need to “read around” our topics, gathering a wide range of background information.  We’ll probably never use some of it, but it’s critical to have a broad base of general knowledge before diving into specifics. If we don’t, mistakes can happen.

And after the piece is written, we need to double check everything. And I mean everything. Because we can’t rely on what we think we know. We have to be sure.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Writing Expository Nonfiction that Sings, Part 10

Since the beginning of the school year, each Monday, 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.

For the first few weeks, I focused on the pre-writing process. Then, I turned my attention to text characteristics and discussed text format, text scaffolding, and text density, text structure, and voice. You can scroll down to read those posts.

Today, I’m sharing some ideas about the power of rich language and it’s close connection to last week’s topic—voice.

Authors carefully select each and every word to craft text bursting with rich, powerful language that engages their young audience. In some cases, figurative language infuses prose with combinations of sounds and syllables that result in a lyrical voice. Consider this passage from We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorell:
When cool breezes blow and leaves fall,
we say otsaliheliga . . .
. . . as shell shakers dance all night around the fire,
burnt cedar’s scent drifts upward during the
Great New Moon Ceremony.

Notice how the author employs alliteration, sensory details, and imagery to transport young readers to the Cherokee Nation’s autumn Great New Moon Ceremony and show them how special it is.

In on the other hand, combining language devices like puns, rhyme, alliteration, and surprising phrasing can make writing more humorous and playful, resulting in a more lively voice. Consider these amusing headings from Poison: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions, and Murderous Medicines by Sarah Albee:

Toxic Plots, Poison Pots, and Shipboard Shots

I Came, I Saw, I Poisoned

Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow

You Say Potato, I Say Be Careful

Albee includes this kind of language to help middle-grade readers see just how amazing and exciting and interesting history actually is.”

Albee notes that while her early drafts often include some lively writing, enriching her prose with “humor and energy is something I usually do at a late stage of revision. I carefully examine each sentence and think: How can I make this funnier, or more vivid, for my reader?”

The best way for students to get a feel for the flow of rich, engaging expository language is to analyze finely-crafted books. Invite students to choose one of the following titles and type out a few pages.
Frog Song by Brenda Z. Guiberson
Giant Squid by Candace Fleming

If You Find a Rock by Peggy Christian

If You Hopped Like a Frog by David M. Schwartz

Planting the Wild Garden by Kathryn O. Galbraith

Squirrels Leap, Squirrels Sleep
by April Pulley Sayre
After organizing the class into small groups based on the books they selected, encourage the teams to identify key language features and highlight them with different colors. Students may color the text in the computer file, or they can print out the text and mark it up with colored pencils or highlighting markers. The following color code works well for the titles listed above: red = vivid verbs
blue = similes, metaphors, and other comparisons
green = alliteration
purple = repetition
orange = onomatopoeia
After students complete this task, invite them to highlight these same language features in one of their rough drafts. Can they find spots where replacing a verb or adding a comparison or language device could strengthen their writing?