Guest-posting for me today is Dorcas Hand, Library Goddess, aka Director of Libraries, at Annunciation Orthodox School in Houston, Texas. More information about the innovative "History as Story" program she describes is in her article "Adolescent Literacies: Reading, Writing, Thinking," Knowledge Quest (AASL), October, 2006.
I’m so honored to be asked to contribute a piece to this effort. I am fascinated by the literary nonfiction you all write, and can only hope one day to join your number as a writer. Kathleen asked me to write about our experiences together this past January. Kathleen visited the Annunciation Orthodox School in Houston for four intense days of assemblies and master classes focused around the writing of nonfiction.
Six years ago, I began a program for 4th-8th grade students called History as Story. I had several goals: an in-depth research project embedded in the regular curriculum; a writing project based on the research that required the students to take the facts and make them more than an encyclopedia recitation. They need to turn the facts back into a story. And I wanted to move beyond the “talking heads” author assembly programs to allow the students to interact with an author long enough to make the visit more memorable. Master classes by a prominent author assist the students to understand how to write, in this case, how to write a story that uses only the facts. I recently heard Geraldine Brooks, who described how she follows the facts as far as they go, and then fills in the gaps. These students certainly aren’t to her stage of understanding, but the concept helped them accomplish the task.
My first guest author was Susan Bartoletti Campbell, followed by Jane Kurtz, William Durbin, Phil Hoose, Jennifer Armstrong, and this year Kathleen Krull. Inevitably, the authors tell the students some of the same things like “Show, don’t tell,” and use your five senses to take us there. But the students experience the project in sequential years with different authors, different books as models, different topics and somewhat different assignments. When I look back to samples saved from the first year, I see broad improvement in both actual writing, and in understanding of how to use the technique of story to improve understanding of facts.
Fourth graders write travel journals as if they are visiting the country they have been researching. They must use details from the research like weather, famous places, language, money, clothing.
Fifth grade write biographical essays and journal entries as if they were famous explorers from history, ranging from Vasco da Gama to Sally Ride.
Sixth graders study Ancient History, and their topics for this project have been things like “Slavery in the Roman Empire,” or this year Cleopatra and Moses. The opening paragraph works to take a reader to the time and place, including details of life at the time. It is not possible to borrow sentences from an encyclopedia. And it is not possible to write the paragraph without any understanding of the topic.
Seventh graders write Biographies in Context, a 6-month research and writing effort where they work to understand the effect important (but not necessarily famous) from early American history had on their times as well as the effect the times had on them. The opening paragraph is written as a factual story to bring the person to life in some way; the rest of the paper is much more traditional.
Eighth graders research an American artist or athlete of the early 20th century – Ella Fitzgerald, Jesse Owens, Babe Ruth. They write a short piece that aims to bring to life a seminal day or time in the person’s youth, a point of decision or awakening to talent. Again, they must add to the basic biographical information details about life at the time and place where the incident takes place.
Exciting as this is for me, the librarian, it is also exciting for the teachers and the authors. The teachers appreciate that many of the kids achieve a deeper understanding of their topic through this writing process. The authors appreciate the opportunity to work with kids who are trying to do what you authors do professionally.
I choose authors that I think will have some credibility with the kids, meaning some of their books are of wide interest. Kathleen’s short biographies were really great for the teachers to use as they prepared for the visit. The visit included assemblies where Kathleen could introduce herself and her work, describing where and how she writes. Then there are the master classes, where she, 1-2 teachers and I worked with about 35 students at a time to begin their writing. They had completed the research before her arrival, but not begun the writing. It is very exciting to see what they do develop in a single hour.
Yes, the students are well prepared. But this project would not have nearly the life it has without the visiting authors. The variety in their books and in their personalities models for the students that writers are regular people just like them, except for the BIC trick. That would be “Butt In Chair,” Jane Yolen's wonderful acronym I learned from Kathleen. I’ve since seen the video where Jane Yolen explains the concept. Knowing that all of you have as much challenge practicing BIC as I do, I continue to be thankful that you all persist in the practice of BIC, modeling for the students the need for persistence in pursuit of excellent writing of nonfiction or any other form.