Thursday, October 22, 2009

Nonfiction Writing As a Way To Learn

Greetings from my favorite haunts, the Jamestown Ferry and Jamestown Island in Virginia. Today I followed warblers, listened to woodpeckers, and was buzzed by vultures and bald eagles. I also spent time elbow-deep in 12 Rubbermaid tubs of genealogical material. With all these piles of photos and documents it's no wonder my mind has turned to how nonfiction writing helps us organize.


It's often said that the best way to learn is to teach. I'd add, "Or write a nonfiction book about the subject." Like teaching, writing involves shaping what you know into digestible pieces of information. You also have to open yourself to questions that might arise. This encourages you to fill the gaps in your own knowledge.

Nonfiction writing can offer students this opportunity to shape information and transmit it to others. Several schools I visited asked their fifth grade students to take my upper grade level books—such as the biome books or Secrets of Sound: Studying the Calls of Whales, Elephants, and Birds—and write and illustrate younger versions for first grade or second grade students. The fifth graders read their books to the younger students. They presented the books and explained how they were made.

The younger students, of course, were enthralled by older students as teachers and role models. (Let's go ahead and admit it; a 5th grader is more fascinating to a first grader than most adult teachers.) In order to write their books, the fifth graders had to analyze the structure and qualities of the original books. The older students were so proud of their accomplishment!

We all learn writing first by modeling our work after something we have seen. That's why choosing great books is so important. Yes, any nonfiction text can give your students some information.

But we INKers hope you'll seek out something more: the highest quality nonfiction—the kind of nonfiction that inspires. It should have in-depth research, creative structure, and lively language. Each nonfiction book a student reads quietly and subtly becomes a model for his or her future writing.

That's why we created the INK THINK TANK database. It launched this month. It makes it easier for you to search for quality nonfiction, correlated with national education standards. You can sign up for free and access it at

Well, I'm back to the Rubbermaid tubs of family history. So far, only the natural history makes sense to me. But it could be that some threads of human history will inspire a book. (Although how could I write something as wonderful as Kay Winters' Colonial Voices: Hear Them Speak, illustrated by Larry Day?)


Thank you to the South Carolina students who allowed me to photograph what they did to analyze nonfiction features and model books after Vulture View.

1 comment:

Gretchen Woelfle said...

What clever teachers, to use your books as examples for students to write their own. They couldn't have a better mentor!

And now the world eagerly awaits your interpretation of your genealogical riches.