Teachers Write 7.23.18 Mini-Lesson Monday with Sarah Albee

Good morning! Ready for your Monday Morning Warm-Up? Stop by Jo’s blog for that, and then come back here, ready to work on some nonfiction because today’s Teachers Write guest author is Sarah Albee!  Sarah writes nonfiction books for kids in grades K-9, including POISON: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions, and Murderous Medicines and George Washington, First President. Other recent nonfiction titles include Why’d They Wear That?, Bugged: How Insects Changed History, and Poop Happened: A History of the World from the Bottom Up. She loves visiting schools and presenting to kids of all ages. She joins us today with a mini-lesson about all the choices that go into creating a work of nonfiction.

So much of writing is about making choices. Fiction writers make many choices before setting pen to paper: What is my setting?  When does my story take place? Will the point of view be first person? Close third? Will my narrator be reliable, or not?

Nonfiction writers also make a lot of choices. If you’re writing history, the first decision is—what story from the past will I choose to tell? Which facts will I include, and which ones will I leave out? Where will I begin, in order to hook my reader? And finally—what voice will I use? Objective? Dramatic? Funny?

Informational writing can be a struggle for many student writers. Faced with an overwhelming mound of research notes, young writers sometimes bung every fact they can into their essays or research papers, with little coherency or clarity.

At school visits, I tell kids that professional writers often struggle with similar challenges, particularly making choices.

Here’s how I explain my own decision-making process to kids. I show them this picture:

It’s my 32-page biography of George Washington, alongside Ron Chernow’s 900-page biography on the same person.

I explain that I had to make a lot of choices about which facts about GW to include, and which ones I would have to leave out. I take kids through my research process, which included spending a week at Mount Vernon as a “visiting scholar.” I talk them through some of the decisions I had to make. Often the choices a writer makes reflect who the writer is as a person. For instance, I happen to be fascinated by what people wore. I even wrote a book on the subject.  So I chose to include the fact that George did not wear a wig, although he did put powder in his hair.

I also love dogs, and wrote a book about them. So I wanted to include the fact that George loved dogs.

I also wrote a book about sanitation. While I personally find this detail compelling, could I justify including Mount Vernon’s three-seater outhouse in my 32-page book? (Kids always giggle at this one.)

That one I had to let go.

How about this super-cool Mount Vernon ha-ha? (If you don’t know what these are, read this.  Sadly, had to leave that out, too.

What about the fact that George Washington owned 316 people? The photo below shows the slave quarters at Mount Vernon.

That I felt strongly should be in the book.

Next I discuss how I decided where to begin. I call on volunteers to be my human note cards. I shuffle my kid-note-cards around in the order that I chose to lay out my biography. As I do so, I explain my choices.

I talk about how I thought my choice of an opening story would hook my readers and make them want to know more about George Washington. I explain that while it’s good to know that George was born in 1732, there’s no need to start with the day he was born. Frankly, he was probably not a very interesting baby. Most babies aren’t, except to their parents. If Mr. Chernow had started his 900-page book about George as a droolly baby, his readers might not stick it out for the next 899 pages. Better to choose a moment in your person’s life, something that you think sums him or her up and helps your reader understand the essence of that person—an event, a discovery, a moment of bravery or peril. And make that moment dramatic, with good writing.

Your Assignment: Choose someone to write about. It might be a famous person, a little-known person from history whose story you want to tell, or yourself. Write down 8-10 facts about this person’s life. Birth, family background, all that basic stuff, sure. But include at least a few pivotal moments in the person’s life—triumphs, disappointments, adversities that shaped him or her (or you).

And now, write the first two or three sentences of this biography—but make some choices before you start writing. Where will you start your story? Which facts from your list really sum the person up and give your reader a sense of who they are? What voice will you use? How will you hook your reader? Share a bit of what you wrote in the comments if you’d like!

Extra Credit Assignment:

If you’re really feeling inspired: write this person’s entire biography in 200 words or less. They should be full sentences, not bullet points. You’ll discover that you’re going to have to make a lot of decisions about what to leave in, and what to leave out. (Like, adverbs.) Your writing will be spare, but you may be surprised to find, it’s clear, too. You have zero room for obfuscation.

I told my history-teacher husband he should do this exercise with his high schoolers. Make them write their research papers in 200 words or less, before they write them in 5 or 10 pages. Maybe next year.

Choose Your Stories

Whether you’re Ron Chernow or me, a fiction writer or a nonfiction writer, a picture book writer or a poet, all writers have to make choices. And now, go forth and write, Teacher-Writer friends! There are so many stories to tell.

**Special Teachers Write Giveaway**

Let me know your thoughts in the comments. I’ll respond, and will draw a random winner to receive a copy of my latest book, DOG DAYS OF HISTORY, by Friday.

49 Replies on “Teachers Write 7.23.18 Mini-Lesson Monday with Sarah Albee

  1. This was a really interesting post!

    The suggestion to write a paper in brief form FIRST is a great idea. Teachers often harp on writing longer papers, so students “pad” their work rather than adding substance. In a graduate course for teachers (K-12), I required students to write some papers in “no more than” X pages (length depended on the topic). Even good writers found this challenging, but the papers were much less flowery and more clear and concise.

    1. Ha! Yes even older student writers can benefit from this exercise for sure. I showed today’s post to my husband and his response was “Huh. Maybe I SHOUD try this out this year.”

  2. Dear Sarah,
    What an incredible lesson. I can’t wait to share it with my students in my library this year. I love the human note card idea. I feel the more we can show our students about the writing process the less scary it is for them and I think it helps them to see that there are a lot of different ways to write too.
    Thanks again.

  3. Great post for writers, teachers and students alike!! Nice to see glimpses of both the writing process and Mt Vernon. Thanks Sarah and Kate!!!

  4. Dear Sarah,
    You visited my class by Skype on World Read Loud Day and my student, Dawson, carried the book Bugged around with him for weeks. Every day he told us more and more about bugs. He even wrote a fiction, humorous story about a dung beetle. (He used a lot of puns!)
    This exercise is helpful to me because I am currently writing a biography in poems about the first African American woman to get a medical degree in Louisiana. I’ve written this as the opening poem. I’d love to know what you think.

    Birth, November 21, 1868

    When the hot summer air
    was cooling into fall,
    a simple cooper and his wife
    welcomed a new girl
    into this new world.
    Courage cried out with a new voice,
    a voice of determination
    wrapped in a swaddling blanket.

    1. Love this about Dawson!
      And your opening is lovely. Lots of great sensory details, and I love the alliteration of line six. My only (minor) suggestion is to consider swapping in a different adjective for “simple” as it can have varied interpretations.

  5. Dear Sarah,

    Thanks so much for this lesson. I feel like you’ve written it just for me. Another writer friend and I are writing non-fiction and I find myself saying, “I can’t find the edges of my research….I’m still in the middle.” So, the idea of making choices about what attracts ME as the writer is excellent advice.

    Dear Teachers Write Campers,

    If you ever have a chance to bring Sarah to your school, do it. I’ve had quite a few authors come to my middle school. We always sell the author’s books during the visit. Sarah’s visit was so spectacular that we sold far more non-fiction books of hers than other authors. Seriously, she makes non-fiction so darn accessible that kids literally eat it up. One day, during a library lesson I was tempted to tell one of the students to put their book away and LISTEN to the lesson….but seriously, a kid absorbed in Poison….while in the library. I just didn’t have the heart. I’ll tutor this kid later if need be.

    OK, my writing bit for today…(disclaimers—I’m writing non-fiction in verse. the person of this poem below is a little known but crucially important character in US history. Bonus points for you if you figure out who. I’ve cloaked the identity slightly in this. Dialog is in italics in my copy–which doesn’t come across here).

    I’m Called a Gnome

    behind my back.
    Politicians say I’m brilliant.
    The candidate’s wife
    knows I am his strategy—
    and more.

    At first all she saw
    was my cigar.
    She hated the smell.
    Then, polio hit him hard.
    We almost lost him.

    She read the papers
    aloud every page
    every day.
    I brought the gossip.
    Mama wanted to pack
    him off to a bedroom.

    Mrs. candidate said no.
    I backed her up.
    We fed and turned him
    we massaged his limbs.

    We attacked that disease

    I taught her to use her voice
    low and strong for emphasis.
    He listened.

    I brought him scuttlebutt
    stories of who counted him out
    and who thought Mama would
    make him an invalid.

    Hour by hour, we rebuilt
    his ambition.
    He used a chair on wheels.
    Leg braces were ordered.
    I asked one day,
    Where do you get your fight?

    Why Louis you taught me
    Never admit you’re licked.

    (c) Linda Mitchell

    1. Oh, Linda, thanks so much for the lovely endorsement! And I LOVE your opening!!! I had an inkling about your subject but cheated and conferred with my husband for confirmation. Great topic!

    2. Linda, I really enjoyed the challenge of reading your opening. You are really making verse work here!

  6. Sarah, I love the idea of having students condense their writing into 200 words. It would create tremendous focus. I’m going to try this with their Wax Museum essays this year. Thanks for all the insight in your post above.

  7. Hey Sarah, Thanks for sharing such a well-planned thoughtful lesson. It will certainly resonate with students. Your visuals with the human note-card shuffling and two books side-by-side are ones writers will easily remember. Love to get your books into my student’s hands and an author visit would be grand. Thanks.

  8. Sarah,
    I loved learning about the ha has. I’m going to tell my school’s librarian to visit your site. Here’s the opening to a short biography of John Laurens, who I learned about from the Hamilton show and Chernow’s biography of Hamilton.

    It’s August 27, 1782, ten months after the British surrender at Yorktown effectively ended the Revolutionary War. Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens, war hero and one of George Washington’s most trusted young aides, will surely become one of the new country’s founding fathers. However, he still has unfinished business. British troops continue to forage in the backcountry of Laurens’s home state of South Carolina. Laurens leads a detachment of troops determined to put an end to this. As his troops approach the Combahee River in the area to the south of Charleston, his commander advises him to pause and set up a defensive position. John Laurens has always preferred action. Riding at the front of his troops, he charges toward the river. Loyalists, however, have warned the British of his advancing troops. Rising from their hiding place in the grasses, the British troops ambush Laurens and his men. Laurens is struck by several musket balls. He dies on the battlefield that day. He is 28 years old.

    1. Hi Peter–Thanks for passing my name along. I am an empty nester this year (sad but woot! also great!) and am planning lots of author visits around the country.
      And John Laurens is a fantastic choice of story to tell. Love your opening. One mini suggestion: consider adding a few sensory details to your battle scene (it’s late August in South Carolina–so likely to be steamy-hot. And muskets produce a lot of smoke and an acrid smell). Can’t wait to see how your story takes shape!

  9. Hi Sarah, what a genius idea for a school visit w/human notecards. Bet the kids loved it. And the visual of your book vs. Chernnow’s – that explains it! I’m writing a PB bio right now and was so excited that you popped up as a guest author today. I do have my salient points laid out and feel I am thinking in spreads, so those 200 words won’t be hard to get. I love orgs, too, and would’ve to win this book. Wiley Corgi agrees. Sharing this post w/teacher/librarian friends. TY.

  10. Good morning, Sarah!

    Every summer, I am inspired by your Teachers Write posts. I always learn something new about writing non-fiction.:) Today, I included the introduction of a story that I am working on about the first African American professional baseball player (in the era before the MLB). Fleet Walker was an incredible athlete (and baseball player) that played like no other ballplayer in his time. I found it fascinating that he played catcher without a glove. Can you imagine catching a fastball bare-handed? Ouch! I began the story with what he is most famous for – his play on the ball field.

    Crouching low behind the plate,
    from the crowd are words of hate,
    the first negro ball player,
    leading the Syracuse Stars.

    Catching every fast ball without a mitt,
    giving every pitcher a nasty fit,
    he is Moses Fleetwood Walker,
    Erie Canal’s greatest baller.

    3000 pack into Star Park,
    no lights, but they play until dark,
    Salt City fans sitting in trees,
    waiting for his big bat to sing.

    Even in 1888,
    Walker was stealing home plate.

    THANK YOU for the inspiration and the mini-lesson!

    1. Hi Andy–so nice to see you back again. What a great subject for a biography. And yes–this is a fantastic place to open your story, and to hook your reader. Writing in rhyme is super-duper challenging–you are a braver soul than I to take on the challenge, but this is
      a terrific start and I can’t wait to see how your story unfolds!

  11. Dear Sarah, Thank you so much for this lesson. I can see ways to incorporate the human notecards with my ninth grade writers to use for narrowing research focus. I will use your assignment in my teacher’s notebook to share with students during our narrative unit.

  12. This was a tough one for me! I didn’t know how to include just a few interesting details to pull in the reader but to include important ones, too. I tried to hook the reader, but I’m afraid my paragraph is just too boring. I read a bit about Charles Darwin but didn’t know which details to include. I feel like I would have had to spend the whole day on this to read many facts and then select the “right” ones to tell a concise but interesting story about him. I was trying to make Darwin seem interesting by telling about things that aren’t only about his theory of evolution. So here’s what I wrote.

    Charles Darwin is famous for his theory of evolution by natural selection from the Galapagos Islands, but he explored other areas, too. Aboard the HMS Beagle, he made stops to the Andes Mountains and the Brazilian jungles. He noticed the geology on islands, backed up by his formative years in Edinburgh University and Christ’s College in England in the early 1800s. Certainly having a mentor teach him about the relationships between different invertebrates, geology, and botany helped him in all his travels and his theories.

    Now that I typed it out, it seems so discombobulated I almost don’t want to share it!

    1. Hey Kelly–Oh, right. The one thing I forgot to mention in my post is…THIS IS REALLY HARD TO DO. Sometimes I experiment with a dozen different opening scenarios before I find one I like. What you’ve got is a great start. Now think about framing some of these facts with a dramatic opening–maybe a cool story about Darwin–an anecdote that shows some aspect of his personality. I love the one where, as a young man, he found and captured two interesting beetle specimens on a tree, and then a third, and not wanting the third one to get away, he put it…into his own mouth. And I vaguely recollect that beetle #3 was some form of blister beetle…..
      Or do some research about the Galapagos, and the animals he observed there. Or think about your voice–maybe you could open with a more conversational voice by directly addressing your reader “If someone stopped you on the street and asked you to define Darwin’s theory of natural selection, what would you say?” or some such…
      Yes, this exercise COULD be done fairly quickly, but if you’re working hard on a serious project, and have done some substantive research about it, it will take some time to work out an interesting hook/opening that you feel good about.

  13. Hi Sarah,

    Thanks for this lesson. I’m going to file this one away for use later with my students, hopefully. I love the idea of writing a much shorter paper as an assignment, and I’m sure the kids will be on board too, until they realize that it’s actually NOT less work, hehehe. I also love the shuffling of the life facts using kids & cards. And thank you for the giveaway.

  14. Great lesson, Sarah! I really like that you pointed out that so many of your choices as a write connect back to your own interests. I think this will really help my 5th graders make choices about what to include (and what to research in the first place). I also have to say that your books are a hit in my classroom. Looking forward to connecting with you again!

    1. Thank you so much, Cara! And yes–if you can make a reasonable case that a choice you make that relates to you as a person is valid to include, it makes the writing all the richer.

  15. This was an interesting way to think about a biography. I initially wrote it in 3rd person then changed it to 1st person. The quotations marks indicate actual quotes from Amelia Earhart. This is an exert of what I wrote.

    The 1937 round-the-world flight was to be the most precious jewel in my aviation crown, not because it had never been done before, but to push myself beyond the limits set for women. “Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.” The first 22,000 miles of the flight was all fair winds and blue skies. To this day, I still don’t know what went wrong.

    The plane coordinates told me I was approaching the Howland Island, a tiny island in the Pacific, but it wasn’t there. I banked left, then right, but all I could see was the blue, blue water as far as the eye could see. At 07:42 local time,I flew toward the Howland Island in the Pacific, with my navigator Fred Noonan, I frantically sent a distress call to the Coast Guard cutter Itasca, stationed at Howland Island. “We must be on you, but cannot see you — but gas is running low. Have been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet,”

    At 08:43. I tried again to reach someone with my compass headings, “We are on the line 157 337. We will repeat this message. We will repeat this on 6210 kilocycles. Wait.” No one ever responded. I am not sure how, but we were lost, never to be seen again.

    As my plane disappears, I have a thought…I know I have been called an aviation pioneer but my goal was to take the lead and inspire women to be more than what society called for them to be. I hope those who hear of my story will persevere and know that “Some of us have great runways already built for us. If you have one, take off! But if you don’t have one, realize it is your responsibility to grab a shovel and build one for yourself and for those who will follow after you.” AE

    1. Hey Stacey–this is lovely writing, and you’ve chosen such an exciting/haunting story to tell (Amelia’s disappearance). The challenge for those of us who write nonfiction is that we want to capture the drama and adventure of a true-life story, but without fabricating dialogue or first-person descriptions. So–I caution you to be careful using the first-person voice unless you are 100% sure it’s an authentic quote. That said, here’s a way that your approach could totally work: have you thought about a graphic novel? Your excerpt feels like it could work really well in this genre!

      1. Hmmmmm…I hadn’t thought about that. I had never thought of writing non-fiction until this assignment. Amelia Earhart has always fascinated me. The idea of a graphic novel is somewhat intriguing! Thanks for the feedback. Much appreciated.

  16. Trying this was difficult but worth it . I wrote about Jimmy
    Carter only having 200 words helped me realize I just wanted to talk about what he did after he left the White House
    You may know Jimmy Carter as the 39th president of the United States, but do you know what he’s been up to since he left the White House ?

    1. That is a fascinating topic! There’s a book called Citizen-in-Chief: The Second Lives of the American Presidents that I read awhile back and really enjoyed. I think that we often give our students information about Presidents before and during their Presidencies, but may not always explore that time after the White House. I would love something like this for my classroom library!

    2. Hey Cari–
      Blargh I just realized the second part of your post was your opener. And it’s a good one! Obviously I wanted to engage with your writing immediately–that’s the power of direct address. Keep going with this one!

  17. Wow, Sarah! This is a difficult assignment! I’m going to try again tomorrow when I have some more time. It is interesting— when you have so much info, how to decide what to leave in and take out!

    1. Well–thanks for giving it the ol’ college try, Jennifer! You’re right that it can be super-duper hard to nail your opening. But trust me–if there’s something you’ve been working on for awhile and you need a fresh take—this exercise is worth the effort. 😀

  18. I am finally getting back into Teachers Write mode after several days at ILA and this assignment is exactly what I needed for a nonfiction project that I’m juggling with a couple of other projects. I’m not quite ready to share what I wrote, but I actually made progress on this project about a female Civil War spy. This project has been kind of hiding on Google Drive and at one point I worried that this project would just become another unfinished idea. Thank you for getting me on track with this project!

  19. One of the my favorite parts of sharing a great picture book biography read aloud with students is the post conversation and sharing when authors have shared the details about their writing process. Thanks for sharing so much of that kind of detail in today’s post!

  20. Hi Sarah,

    The first person who popped into my head to write about is Stephen King. I’ve been an avid King reader since I first picked up The Tommyknockers when I was in Middle School. Since then, I’ve read just about everything he’s written and am now starting to re-read some of the oldies but goodies like Salem’s Lot. I always wondered what inspired him to write such stories and how he did it so well. His memoir On Writing provided a lot of those answers. If I were to write his biography, I would probably start it with the accident that almost ended his life:

    One afternoon in June 1999, King went for a walk as he always did. While walking along the gravel shoulder, a van swerved, striking him so hard and leaving him so badly injured he barely escaped death. After this tragic experience, King thought he would never be able to write again. But he did. Despite personal and physical challenges King faced throughout his life, he always persevered.

    Getting to the 200 word biography is still a WIP, but I think what I’d like to focus on is King’s strength and determination to write despite all the obstacles. King said that he has always wanted to be a writer and that’s what he was born to do. I want that to come through in the biography. Despite the rejections, the personal demons that haunted him, the physical challenges he endured, he always found joy in writing, even as a young child. Nothing stopped him from letting the stories out.

    Thanks for joining Teachers Write today, Sarah, and for giving us this assignment. I’ll be working on my ‘extra credit’ although I think it’s going to take me some time to finish. 🙂

    Jane 🙂

    1. This is a great place to open, Jane, and it sounds like you’ve thought deeply about your subject and have really gotten to the core of what YOU find most compelling about S.K. This is a terrific beginning.

  21. Inspired by a recent trip to Louisville, Kentucky where I learned about my cousin’s connection to Derby winner, Roscoe Goose, I gathered facts and wrote this opening to my story:
    “This is it, Donerail.” Roscoe said as he patted the left-side of his black colt’s mane. “They think if we race here 91 times, we will win just one of those races. How about we win this first one to show them they are right.” Then Roscoe raised his eyes to see the Twin Spires pointing straight to heaven. Today was the 39th running of the Kentucky Derby and Roscoe and Donerail were about to have the race of their lives.

    Thanks for your nonfiction writing tips!

    1. Hi Sally–
      Chiming in late on this, but I love that you open with dialogue. That is a great way to hook your reader. That said–if this is PURE nonfiction, you don’t want to make anything up. Ditto with actions (if you interviewed your cousin and he confirmed that he patted the colt/raised his eyes, etc, then this is totally legit). However, if you decide to keep this opening (and I do think it’s terrific), you can always reframe the book as “based on a true story” or simply call it a story, and have back matter that explains that you retold it as a dramatic tale but here are the facts that really happened.

  22. Hi Sarah,

    Thank you for sharing your nonfiction writing lesson. I plan to share it with my ELA team this school year. I really like the idea of condensing the assignment to 200 words. What a great way for students to learn the importance of word choice!

    Thanks again,