Tuesday, June 4, 2013


This weekend I got a truly amazing package in the mail. It was jam-packed with 20 stories written by third graders, and they weren’t just any old stories either. Each one was eye-popping, unique, full of surprises, AND 100% TRUE; in short, the type of tales kids can hold onto for the rest of their lives.  So what’s the story behind these stories?

Back in the end of March, I did a live video conference with these budding authors via a Library of Congress grant.  Designed to get kids excited about using primary source material, the grant is linked directly to the CCSS.

As an example of the incredible stories you can uncover by exploring such sources, we had a wonderful time exploring the action-packed journals of Lewis and Clark from one of my books and also figuring out what other primary source material I used to make the pictures as accurate (and as much fun) as possible.

After that, we discussed several cool ways kids can write their own nonfiction stories by using primary sources, and one of my suggestions was for each kid to interview an older member of their family about their own adventures a long time ago.  We talked about methods news reporters use to ask hard questions, not just easy ones. (I said that their families would love to be interviewed this way.)  And I introduced them to my infamous “meat and salt” method of writing non-fiction, in which the meat = the facts (names, dates, places, etc.) and the salt = all the unusual or surprising or funny big and little things that bring a story to life and make you want to read more.

These are some very lucky kids.  They happen to have an outstanding Pennsylvania teacher named Amy Musone, and after our talk, she decided that the family interviews were worth pursuing.  With Skype support from Sue Sheffer, a retired teacher working with Amy and her class via a grant from the Library of Congress, the kids got on a roll and started brainstorming.  They decided which family members they wanted to interview and why, and each student focused on a particular time in that person’s life.

The results knocked everyone’s socks off, including Amy’s. So at the end of May, their school held a big after-school Celebration of Family Stories, replete with refreshments no less.  Family members from all over came to hear the students read their tales, and they laughed, cried and were simply captivated.  

Every story is compelling, to say the least. There are tales about bombing Nagasaki, playing the ancient game of Pac Man, taking knitting classes in Ecuadorian schools, blowing up an abandoned building with a tank, scrubbing floors in Marine barracks with a toothbrush and saluting every time you wanted a drink of water, and what life is like without technology.   It’s impossible to know which story to put first, but here are a few tiny abridged excerpts written by third graders in their own words—mere hints about the whole shebang.  Check 'em out:


“dad was such a dare devil that he went car surfing with his friends. His friend tried to throw him off!, but my dad was good at staying on.  He only fell off a couple of times! ...my dad thinks cliff jumping is the most fun stunt because he loves the rush of falling through the air!”  (the author includes lots more stunts his dad’s mom didn’t know about plus a photo of Christopher Reeve as Superman.)

“My brave, amazing Uncle was in the Army….he and his team had to go through this confidence course….there was a building that was 40’ tall and they had to repel down the building.  The 40’ tall building would sway.  My Uncle said this was the most scariest time for him in the Army….[now] My Uncle is looking forward to becoming a Fire Chief. [He] is a wonderful Uncle because he risks hi life for others and everyday helps somebody that needs help.”


“During the first year of medical school, my mom had to dissect a human body.  It was a smelly task and after they were done for the day, they would be smelly too.  Something that she thought was pretty funny was the comments that people would say and the funny faces they would make when they would smell the anatomy students.”


“When my Great Grandma was a little girl…she felt sad because when a white person threw a rock at a black person, a black person couldn’t throw a rock back…..She went to the March on Washington in 1963. The Civil Rights Leaders talked about how it wasn’t right how African Americans were being treated.  In the South, police had dogs bite African Americans….” 

“There was the time in China when all people no matter you are men, women, or kids, would wear blue shirts and pants. My dad was born during this time in 1978 with no brothers or sisters…..at that time there were not much toys so they would go out and play in the nature.  My dad and his friend would catch tadpoles and watch them grow up…They…would feed their tadpoles leftover rice….He didn’t have any black and white TV until he was 10.  He had his first small single door refrigerator at 12 years old.” 

“Back in the year 1904, the war between Russia and Japan began.  In addition my great great great grandpa was born.  Even though he lived in Russia he didn’t like it very much.  There was a massive war going on.  This meant that once he was old enough, he would be forced to be in the Russian army…It was then that he decided to save enough money to buy a ticket and move to the United States…..” (and his further adventures once he arrived) “I hope that one day I will follow in the footsteps of my great great great grandpa and be as courageous as [he] was (except that I’d like to play football too)."

“My grandma just turned 79 years old. Abuela used to sow tobacco plants on the farm she grew up on….Abuela’s ancestors are a mix of African slaves, Spaniards from Spain and Taino Indians, the first inhabitants of Puerto Rico. Abuela’s education lasted only until the 4th grade because Abuela had to work on the farm... They traveled on horseback…and there was no technology….it was a beautiful place, surrounded by palm trees, mountainsides and the songs of frogs.” And this:  “Back when my grandma was a child all she was allowed to wear were dresses and skirts, no pants or shorts which sounds TERRIBLE to me.”

You gotta love these kids (and their school too), right? Now every one of them is an author, a researcher, an historian, and an open-minded, creative thinker who's learning to use his or her noggin to uncover the facts.  


Gretchen Woelfle said...

Brilliant! I began my children's writing career by transforming family history into short stories. I always tell school kids to interview their families, but I've never been able to follow up to see if they do it. Lucky you!

Susan E. Goodman said...

Fabulous. You must have loved getting that packet.

Unknown said...

Roz was part of an Authors on Call project with Sue Sheffer, a Pennsylvania educator, who wrote iNK Think Tank's Authors on Call into her grant proposal. This Class ACTS program involved our history authors, Roz, Carla McClafferty,Jim Murphy,Andie Warren and our literature consultant, Myra Zarnowski. As Roz acknowledged, one key factor in this success was the collaboration with a brilliant teacher who, in effect, "baked" everything the students got from Roz into student work.
Alex Siy's Class ACTS program is with Susan Anderson, a teacher in Missoula MT. They are creating a class book on space probes. Today Susan wrote on the wiki: "The students of 5A have certainly not stopped learning. Only 4 days of school left - they are just as engaged as if it were the first day of school!" Susan said that the other two teachers who were involved with Alex didn't have a class project and so the kids didn't have the same learning experience.

This tells me that when great nonfiction authors collaborate with great teachers, improbable outcomes are predictable. These outstanding results will be presented at the upcoming Children's Nonfiction Conference on June 14-16 at SUNY New Paltz, at ISTE on June 24, and in July at a New Jersey teachers writing conference.

Steve Sheinkin said...

What a great project! At a recent school event in Vermont, I asked kids to write an opening scene to a story about local hero Ethan Allen, and the results were amazing. I agree with the other comments - this a great way to learn.

Alexandra said...

Thanks, Roz, for your excellent post. As Vicki mentioned in her comment I have been working with a class using my book, Cars on Mars, as a mentor text. Here's the link to our wiki which documents the project


Marfe Ferguson Delano said...

Roz, what a great post. Getting that packet of the kids' stories must have felt almost as good--almost--as getting that very first copy of a new book of your own. I look forward to hearing you speak more about using primary sources when we're on the panel together this November at NCTE in Boston!

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Thanks everybody. It just blew me away to see what a bunch of 8 year old kids can do when given half a chance. Imagine what they'll be able to accomplish by the time they're in high school if the pace keeps up.