Friday, April 18, 2008

Nonfiction and Nonfiction Authors in Schools

Nonfiction and Nonfiction Authors in Schools

School visits play an indispensable role in the lives of many professional authors. I began doing school visits when my first book came out fifteen years ago and, honestly, I wouldn’t have a career without the many schools around the country that value bringing in authors every year. When I began doing visits, however, I was one of the few nonfiction authors active on the circuit. Not surprising. Schools viewed nonfiction as an aberration or specialty, to be featured as something different from their usual fiction fare.

For many schools, this is still true today. Especially in the past four or five years, however, I’ve seen a wonderful evolution in attitudes toward nonfiction. Teachers and librarians are beginning to recognize that nonfiction is not a special case of literature—it is the main case. After all, what are kids going to spend most of their lives reading and writing? Nonfiction, of course, whether it is in the form newspapers, company reports, business letters, or email messages. Thanks to the dedicated efforts of a few far-sighted university professors, librarians, and teachers, the message is starting to sink in. With ever-increasing frequency, I am meeting educators who are both passionate and knowledgeable about a huge variety of nonfiction books and authors.

To point out how the role of nonfiction is changing, I’d like to share my current experiences at schools in Buffalo, New York. Four schools got together to bring me in for a week, and I’ve been blown away by the preparation of librarians, teachers, and students. Every single school has “done” its author visit right. What do I mean? Well, many schools raise money to bring in an author and then use her/him for entertainment. Sure, the actual visit goes fine, but that’s the end of it. Smart schools, however, use their author to springboard into extensive learning before and after the visit.

At these Buffalo schools, librarians got my books months ahead of time. The teachers grabbed them up and began developing all kinds of projects around them: poetry, art, music, essays, book-writing. In one of my favorite projects, a teacher went to the local grocery and got it to donate about twenty-five plastic cake boxes. The kids turned each cake box into an aquarium mirroring an ecosystem from my book Our Wet World or other aquatic titles. The kids made little reproductions of fish, jellies, algae, and other organisms and set them up inside. Then, they wrote detailed descriptions of each ecosystem and its organisms.

One of my favorite projects was when kids wrote reviews of my books. A humbling experience—but also extremely clever. These teachers used books to get their kids to think critically and write their own nonfiction. One class even commandeered an empty closet and created a whole deep-sea world complete with bioluminescent organisms! All of these projects proved that I was only a spark for learning—which is exactly what my role should be. The main show was the kids and teachers themselves, and I left each school satisfied that enthusiastic learning about science will continue long after I am gone.
I hope that other teachers and librarians who bring in authors take note. For an author visit to be worthwhile, the entire school needs to be engaged through the entire planning process. I find that author visits which most often fail are those planned by principals or outside groups. In these visits, the teachers and librarians are not invested in the visit and it shows by the dearth of preparation. Whenever I visit a school like this, I think “They should have spent this money on books for the library.” Fortunately, many schools do plan ahead. For those who don’t, I hope my Buffalo experiences might demonstrate how to get more bang for your author buck. Perhaps some other authors on the blog could share some of their favorite “author exercises” they’ve observed in schools?


Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

In a batch of thank you letters I received after one of my school visits, a comment from a girl named Shannon stood out: "My teacher told us you wrote nonfiction and I thought 'Oh, great!' But I was wrong!"

April Pulley Sayre said...

I visit lots of schools, too. I agree that more and more educators are bringing in nonfiction authors. It opens up the door for so much more content exploration. In the case of my books, the young science enthusiasts gain a lot from the visits as well. (A recent school I visited had decorated hallways for each continent, stairwells for biomes, and more.) Administrators are also starting to recognize that nonfiction writing is key to student achievement.
April Pulley Sayre