A nonfiction book author’s view of school visits and the Common Core

In June 2013 I finished a three-year stint as an artist-in-resident in a Boston public school.  And, I got as much as I gave. I learned so much from being with kids in the classroom on a regular basis and becoming part of a school’s community.  I also gained a better understanding of what teachers want from an author, including “value added” and complementing the current unit rather than extra work and a loss of valuable teaching time.  With Common Core looming, we talked a lot about implementing the Core and nonfiction’s increased role in the classroom, let alone, fun approaches to what so many teachers dreaded—the research project.

Another thing this residency taught me?  It’s a weird thought, but my work life IS the Common Core State Standards.  Between researching and writing my books, speaking in schools and at conferences, I fulfill them all!  Nonfiction authors are a walking advertisement of Common Core; so when you have a professional researcher/fact-checker/writer/presenter at your school, we model and validate everything you are teaching.

Check this out.  Look at what I touch on during school visits and you’ll see a walking, talking version of CCSS ELA Standards 1-10:

1.  I talk to kids about how my books begin by tracking down key topic facts and details, which lead me through a cycle of making inferences and confirming them with more research. Sharing my actual book topics and process makes this real for students and can demystify and inspire their research.

2.  Where do ideas come from?  I talk about how a book springs from a simple (key) idea and evolves as I delve into all sorts of primary and secondary sources from interviews to reputable online sites.

3.  Nonfiction isn’t just facts.  It’s stories about real life and that translates into the relationships between individuals, events, and ideas whether you’re writing about the guy who invented monster trucks or the causes behind the Revolutionary War.  How do you make those connections clear whether you’re reading, writing, speaking or listening?  I’ve had that problem before and have a few tips to share.

4.  Using words is fun, whether it’s spinning them into lyric prose to describe a big idea, using the right verbs to scare you silly, or opening the door to special domain and academic words so students can launch into space travel or climb the trees of the Amazon jungle.  Having first graders shout the word adaptation fifteen times so they remember to bring it up at the dinner table or challenging 6th graders to google what astronauts coyly call Mr. Thirsty shows students just how fun this kind of research can be.

5. How do you organize your product so you get its idea across in words or speech or graphics? It can be hard, but we authors have trade secrets that start with clearly defining that idea and knowing what we want to say about it.  Then come the rest of the tricks to make the message shine through.

6. What better way is there to learn how an author’s point-of-view and purpose help create a book than by having her talk about how perspective, language, and layout shape her work?

7.  I’m a wordsmith, but let’s face it, sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. Writers need to know when a graphic, illustration, or diagram should carry some of the informational weight. Two of my writing workshops start by giving kids both written and visual information from which we create dynamic prose.

8. In my presentations, I consciously make reason or umbrella statements, followed by stories, facts and/or visuals to back them up.  I do it to model formulating points or arguments and sometimes even point out that was exactly what I did.

9. During my visits, I always ask students to come up with different types of sources for research. And as they do, I talk about comparing all those interviews, texts and sites as part of our job.  I also end my books with part of the bibliography I use, then add more kid-friendly sources so they can do the same.

10. Okay, I can’t be a one-woman text complexity band, but my books can contribute to one.  I’m glad when they do.