Wednesday, September 30, 2020

From Research to Revision, Ick! Part 3

On Wednesdays this fall, I’m sharing the process of creating my recently-published book Ick! Delightfully Disgusting Animals Dinners, Dwellings, and Defenses step-by-step. (To learn about the whole process in one sitting or to share an age-appropriate version with your students, check out this new resource on my website.)

Last week I discussed gathering information for the book. You can scroll down and read that post. Today, I’ll focus on my next step—making a writing plan.

This step looks different from one book to the next, but the general idea is to figure out as many characteristics of the text as possible. I think about the hook, the writing style, the text structure, the format, and the voice. In most cases, I will have made decisions about some of these elements during the research process, but others may still need careful consideration. It’s better to work them out now—before I start writing.

Because I had so much great information about animals’ disgusting behaviors, I decided to write three 48-page books for middle grade readers—one about disgusting animal dinners, one about disgusting animal dwellings, and one about disgusting animal defenses. All three would have the same design, format, and text characteristics.

To make my plan, I created a quick list of things I already knew about the books I had in mind:

--About accepted knowledge (not a person or process)

--Lots of cool examples

--Gross out factor

Since the books were about accepted knowledge, I knew they would have an expository writing style. 

I also knew the books would have lots of icky examples sandwiched between an introduction and conclusion that explain how the examples are connected, so they should have a list text structure with a one-example-per-spread format. 

For some books, I need to think long and hard about the hook, but in this case, it was built into the concept. The gross-out factor also made it easy to settle on using a lively, playful voice.

With these elements worked out, I had a plan in place.

I’ll talk more about my next step (and how three books turned into one) next week.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Resources for Educators: Readers Theater

More and more, teachers are requesting educational resources that go beyond traditional teachers guides and activity sheets. So while I do still have those kinds of materials on my website, I’m also offering resources that delve deeply into the nonfiction reading and writing process from an author’s point of view. 

Some of these resources focus on books I’ve written and describe various stages of my creative process in detail, while others provide more general information  and highlight books written by a wide variety of nonfiction authors.  

On Mondays this year, I’m going to be sharing some of these resources and providing ideas for how they might be used in the classroom. Today, I’m going to focus on the Readers Theater Scripts.

Readers Theater is a reading activity that employs theatrical techniques without the hassle of props, costumes, or sets. Instead of memorizing lines, students read directly from scripts, using intonation, facial expressions, and gestures to create characters that transport the audience into the story.

This fun, whole-class activity has many benefits. For starters, it builds fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension, and studies show gains carry over to new and unpracticed texts. In addition, Readers Theater promotes cooperative interaction among students, improves listening and speaking skills, and helps even the shyest students develop self-confidence when reading aloud.

Children get excited about Readers Theater because they’re natural performers and love using their imaginations. This activity allows emergent, struggling, and more advanced readers to participate in the same performance with equal success. Perhaps most importantly, it gives repetitive reading a purpose because students want to do well during the performance. 

Using Readers Theater to introduce and reinforce life science concepts can be especially powerful. Here’s why:
—Students are more likely to retain ideas and information when they’re incorporated into a fun activity.
—Students feel a connection to the creatures they portray and may learn to see the world from the animals’ point of view.
—Students gain a deeper understanding of animal behaviors and lifestyles.
—Students discover how living things interact.
—Students become more aware of the roles plants and animals play in their environment.

While many Readers Theater scripts include just ten or twelve parts, the ones I’ve created have twice as many roles, so no child is left out. The parts vary in complexity to accommodate students at a variety of reading levels, and the scripts include a variety of choruses to keep everyone involved and engaged throughout the reading.

Recently, Minnesota teacher Pam Patron Warren suggested another great use for the scripts on my website. She uses them as paired passages with the book they accompany. This approach allows students to see examples of the same information being presented in two different ways.

For example, the books Feathers: Not Just for Flying and Under the Snow have a lyrical voice, while the readers theater scripts are more lively and humorous. Students can compare the two texts and discuss why I wrote them differently.

Because the animals become characters that speak in the scripts, students can also discuss how the shift in point of view turns the writing into informational fiction, while the books themselves are expository nonfiction.

Pam says these paired-passage lessons are “fun and accessible to all the kids in my class.” I encourage you to give this teaching strategy a try.

For more information about Readers Theater, including tips for writing scripts based on books you love, check out this article.

Friday, September 25, 2020

10 Fave #WomeninSTEM Picture Book Biographies

Over the last 10 years, I’ve shared a lot of STEM-themed book lists, but it recently occurred to me that I’ve never written a post that highlights some of my favorite picture book biographies about female scientists. There are SO many to choose from, but here are a few that have really stuck with me.

*A Computer Called Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Helped Put America On the Moon by Suzanne Slade

Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code by Laurie Wallmark

Hedy Lamarr’s Double Life: Hollywood Legend and Brilliant Inventor by Laurie Wallmark

*Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor: The Woman Who Loved Reptiles by Patricia Valdez

Margaret and the Moon: How Margaret Hamilton Saved the First Lunar Landing by Dean Robbins

Nothing Stopped Sophie: The Story of Unshakable Mathematician Sophie Germain by Cheryl Bardoe

Rachel Carson and Her Book that Changed the World by Laurie Lawlor

Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian by Margarita Engle

*Wangari's Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa by Jeanette Winter

What Miss Mitchell Saw by Hayley Barrett

*Feature diverse scientists

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

From Research to Revision, Ick! Part 2

On Wednesdays this fall, I’m sharing the process of creating my recently-published book Ick! Delightfully Disgusting Animals Dinners, Dwellings, and Defenses step-by-step. (To learn about the whole process in one sitting or to share an age-appropriate version with your students, check out this new resource on my website.

Last week I discussed what sparked the idea for the book. You can scroll down and read that post. Today, I’ll focus on how I went about gathering information.

For a narrowly-focused concept book like Ick!, there’s no quick or easy way to do the research. I collected examples in a burgeoning folder over the course of many, many years. 

In my office, I have a large, three-drawer vertical file cabinet full of these folders—each one represents a potential book. Every time I read an article or hear an idea that fits one of my categories, I add it to the designated folder. Over time, the information adds up. 

For Ick!, I combined information from several files, including:
—animals that regurgitate,
—unusual animal homes,
—animals that use pee and poop in surprising ways,
—animals that spit
—cannibal animals 

I also gathered information by reading books, using the internet, observing things in nature (like the jackal and gerenuk), and interviewing scientists and other experts. You can see the range of sources I used for Ick! by looking at the Selected Sources list on pages 107-108.

Let me share one example here: the bombardier beetle—an insect that blasts enemies with a scalding spray that bursts out its butt. I observed the insect in action during a class I took at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, many years ago.

In March 2018, an article in Science News led me to an amazing video of a Japanese common toad vomiting an African bombardier beetle drenched with gooey mucus. For 88 minutes, the tenacious insect fought for its life by blasting the toad’s insides with nasty, sizzling-hot spray. Finally, the toad couldn’t take it anymore and spewed its supper. After a brief rest, the slime-covered beetle slowly crawled away. You better believe this incredible example ended up in the book. Check out pages 94 and 95.

You know you’ve chosen one of the world’s best professions when watching something so weird and wonderful is a legitimate part of your job! Observational research—whether it’s in person, through videos, or via webcams—is one of my favorite parts of being a nonfiction writer. It’s also one of the best ways I know to gather tantalizing tidbits that can transform a piece of science writing from okay to outstanding. 

Eventually, I realized I had enough information for the book, so it was time to move on to the next step in the process—making a plan. I’ll talk more about that next week.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Resources for Educators: Video Mini-lessons

As I mentioned last Monday, more and more, teachers seem to be requesting educational resources that go beyond traditional teachers guides and activity sheets. So while I do still have those kinds of materials on my website, I also offer resources that delve deeply into the nonfiction reading and writing process from an author’s point of view. 

Some of these resources focus on books I’ve written and describe various stages of my creative process in detail, while others provide more general information and highlight books written by a wide variety of nonfiction authors.  

On Mondays this year, I’m going to discuss some of these resources and provide ideas for how they can be used in the classroom. Today, let’s get started with Video Mini-lessons and Interactive Teaching Tools.

My website houses video mini-lessons that focus on such nonfiction topics as text structures, text features, rich language, and voice. There's also a slide show with audio clips the describes the nonfiction writing process and an interactive timeline with videos that highlight various stages of the nonfiction writing process AND downloadable manuscripts that show how the text changed over time. I hope you’ll take a look at these resources and incorporate them into your writing instruction.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep

There are SO many reasons, I love writing nonfiction for children. One of them is my colleagues. I’m so grateful to be part of such a vibrant, supportive community.

Many people warned me that overseeing an anthology featuring fifty award-winning writers with busy schedules was an act of insanity. But despite their many priorities, my colleagues never let me down. Each and every one delivered a smart, thoughtful essay that sheds light on their process. Some were joyful, while others were heart wrenching. But above all, they were honest and insightful. I can’t wait for November, when everyone can read them. You can pre-order the book now at the NCTE website.

Publisher's Description
In Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep, some of today’s most celebrated writers for children share essays that describe a critical part of the informational writing process that is often left out of classroom instruction. To craft engaging nonfiction, professional writers choose topics that fascinate them and explore concepts and themes that reflect their passions, personalities, beliefs, and experiences in the world.

By scrutinizing the information they collect to make their own personal meaning, they create distinctive books that delight as well as inform. A wide range of tips, tools, teaching strategies, and activity ideas help students (1) choose a topic, (2) focus that topic by identifying a core idea, theme, or concept, and (3) analyze their research to find a personal connection. By adding a piece of themselves to their drafts, students will learn to craft rich, unique prose.

Behind the Book
How did this one-of-a-kind anthology come about? Its roots trace back to the 2017 National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Annual Convention in St. Louis, Missouri, when I was fortunate to participate in a panel titled “The Secret of Crafting Engaging Nonfiction” with two of the most talented children’s nonfiction authors of our time—Candace Fleming and Deborah Heiligman.

During our discussion, moderated by educator and children’s nonfiction enthusiast Alyson Beecher, we dove deeply into what fuels our work and why we routinely dedicate years of our lives to a single manuscript. As we compared our thoughts and experiences, we came to realize something critically important—each of our books has a piece of us at its heart. And that personal connection is what drives us to keep working despite the inevitable obstacles and setbacks.


Several other nonfiction authors attended our presentation, and afterward they praised our insights. That conversation helped us all understand our creative process in new and exciting ways. And it eventually led to the essays in this anthology, which are our way of sharing an important—and often unrecognized and underappreciated—aspect of nonfiction writing with educators and students. Enjoy!

100 percent of the proceeds from
Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep will be divided among the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), We Need Diverse Books (WNDB), and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

From Research to Revision, Ick! Part 1

On Wednesdays this fall, I’ll be sharing the process of creating my recently-published book Ick! Delightfully Disgusting Animals Dinners, Dwellings, and Defenses step-by-step. (To learn about the whole process in one sitting or to share an age-appropriate version with your students, check out this new resource on my website.)  

I chose Research to Revision as the title for this series of posts because I’m a lover of alliteration, but, in reality, gathering information isn’t the first step in the nonfiction writing process. So today, I’ll start at the very beginning—the idea, the spark of inspiration.

The story behind Ick! book traces back to a three-week research trip I took to East Africa in 1996. You read that right—we’re talking 24 years ago.

During the safari, I watched with fascination as a mother black-backed jackal upchucked her partially-digested dinner to feed her three feisty pups. When the little ones had eaten their fill, she scarfed down the mushy leftovers.

The next day, while observing a gerenuk standing on its tippy toes as it ate, our guide told us that it’s one of more than 150 mammals (including cows) that regurgitate their food and re-munch their lunch as many as four times. It’s their way of eking every possible nutrient from the tough plants they eat.

Right then and there, I started making a list of animals that vomit their vittles as a survival strategy. Over time, I added more than a dozen insects, birds, and mammals to that list. 

But why stop there? I also made lists of creatures that use poop, pee, spit, snot, and other bodily substances in the most surprising ways.

Where did I find all that information? I’ll take a look at my research process next week.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Welcome to the 2020-2021 School Year

Social media.
Some people love it.
Some people hate it.
And some people have mixed feelings.

Sure, it can be a time suck, but it’s also a powerful tool for sharing ideas. I’ve learned so much from blog posts written by educators, Twitter conversations with teachers and librarians, and discussions within Facebook groups focused on literacy and education. Social media has helped me understand what I can do to serve teachers and librarians better. And I’m learning more all the time.

One topic that I see pop up from time to time is what teachers are looking for in the curriculum guides that accompany children’s books. There seems to be a disconnect between what publishers recommend authors and illustrators include and what teachers say they want. 

It turns out most teachers aren’t particularly interested in a list of questions to help them assess student comprehension or basic activities related to the book’s content. According to Colby Sharp, fifth grade teacher and co-founder of the Nerdy Book Club, authors should “Create materials teachers can’t.”

Franki Sibberson, fifth grader teacher and Past President of the National Council for Teachers of English, says, “Kids need to see how you think through your work.” 

And uber-dedicated third grade teacher Erika Victor says, “I’m always searching for before and after images of a first draft, what revisions look like, and comparing those to the final draft.”

In other words, educators crave resources that offer a window into the minds of professional writers—something that will help students understand how writers go about doing their work. 

What’s our process? How do we make decisions? What are our challenges and frustrations? And why do we find writing so rewarding?

Keeping all these ideas in mind, I revamped the educator section of my website over the summer, and I’ll be blogging about some of the changes on Mondays this year.

On Wednesdays this fall, I’ll provide posts that take an in-depth look at the process of creating my newest book Ick! Delightfully Disgusting Animal Dinners Dwellings and Defenses–from research to revision. (You can find a version that's perfect for sharing with students here.) In the spring, I’ll do the same thing with one of my upcoming titles. As Erika suggested, I’ll be sure to include screen shots of my drafts at various points in the process. 

And on Fridays, I’ll be sharing a variety of useful posts on a variety of information. Later in the year, I'm hoping to try something that requires your participation. It’s called “My Students’ Biggest Nonfiction Writing Roadblock.” Educators submit questions about their students’ writing struggles, and I try to offer solutions. I have a feeling I’ll be asking other nonfiction writers for their suggestions, too. After all, we each have our own ways of solving problems. 

Because I know the beginning of this school year is especially hectic, this is still in the planning stages. But if you have a question now, please send it along.

This is Year 11 for Celebrate Science. I hope you’ll join me for the ride.

Friday, September 11, 2020

International Rock Flipping Day

We all know that today is the anniversary of one of the worst days in U.S. history, but the date also has a more fun side. It’s International Rock Flipping Day—a time to celebrate all those critters that live under rocks, as well as the natural curiosity that inspires us to take a closer look at the world around us.

All you have to do is go outside and look under a rock or two. Then record what you see by drawing, painting, taking photographs or writing about it. (If you live in  a place where there might be poisonous creatures under there, like scorpions or snakes, you might want to use a stick to flip the rocks.) When you’re done, carefully return the rock to its original position.

It’s fun and easy and you just might meet some pretty cool critters.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Welcome Back!

I’m still in summer mode, so it’s hard for me to believe the school year (unusual as it may be) has begun all across America.

I’ve got some great, meaty posts kicking around in my head for Celebrate Science this year, but to get us warmed up, I thought I’d start the same way I have for the last few years. I just love this quotation:

“Reading is like breathing in. . .

. . . Writing is like breathing out.”

Good luck to teachers everywhere. It’s going to be a challenging year.