Thursday, April 17, 2014

Finding the Heart of Nonfiction--Such a Powerful Book!

I have been meaning to write a post about Finding the Heart of Nonfiction by Georgia Heard for a few months, but a couple of issues have gotten in my way. First, I want to really do her work justice as it is one of the most useful books for writing instruction that I have ever read, but second, and more importantly, I have loaned it to several teachers over this time and their feedback has been so positive and so grateful that I have not wanted to ask for its return. One teacher, whose student just won a state contest for her entry on nonfiction, said, "this book changed my teaching life."

Georgia Heard spends the first part of the book really breaking down what a mentor text is and what is involved to use mentor texts meaningfully in the classroom. Regardless of whether we are talking about fiction or nonfiction genres, she writes about what mentor texts are, why to use them, how to choose them, and then how to use them with students. She offers suggestions for mini-lessons, inquiry lessons, and even provides note-taking templates, as well as several examples of student work and evidence of student learning. I was truly hooked by this book on pp 22-23 where there is a Try This exercise, suggesting the use of different lenses to read two different texts about seahorses. One is a wiki.answers entry and one is from Sea Horse: The Shyest Fish in the Sea  by Chris Butterworth. Both of these texts give important information about seahorses, but the latter is full of figurative language, imagery, and precise words. What an incredible lesson for teaching students the value of beautiful words, even--no especially!--in nonfiction!

In the second part of the book, Georgia Heard provides a chapter for each of seven nonfiction craft tools: focus, turning facts into scenes, leads, points of view and voice, precise language, text structures, and endings. Since I have read this book, I have had opportunities to develop some units and to coach teachers and students to use some of the strategies in this chapter and trust me, they are effective!

FOCUS: She uses the analogy of the hearth because it is "a place in a home where family and friends come together to warm and comfort themselves. If we think of focus in writing in the same way--the hearth of a piece of writing around which all the details and words gather--it's a helpful metaphor. " (p. 41) LOVE THIS!

Specific, creative strategies follow to help young writers focus topics with suggestions for mentor texts, teaching ideas, and writing tips. I especially love the idea of helping students to focus their nonfiction writing by developing a poem about it. Because poetry does not explicitly have a place in the Common Core States Standards, I am always looking for ways to weave it into units and what a meaningful strategy!

TURNING FACTS TO SCENES: One of the most memorable parts of this book for me is on pp. 52-53 where there is an excerpt about tarantulas from Jean Craighead George that is packed full of not only knowledge and facts about these spiders, but also of description, narrative techniques, figurative language and precise words. Because Georgia Heard gives exercises for more and less experienced writers, there are choices for teachers to use as examples with students to give them practice in turning facts into Jean Craighead George-like texts. Like poetry, voice does not explicitly live within the words of the CCSS, but descriptive language does!  And this chapter visibly demonstrates the progression of good writing to great writing.

LEADS: I love teaching leads, since this is the quickest way to hook or lose readers, and the tips, ideas for charts, examples and exercises found here are inspiring. We used some of the ideas in our fourth-grade informational writing unit and our students loved having a repertoire of leads. We developed charts that presented the information on p. 61. Now, as students are moving into their research-based essay unit, they are transferring their knowledge about leads!

POINT OF VIEW AND VOICE: This chapter is seven pages long and the pages have plenty of white space, but there are SO MANY ideas and SO MUCH knowledge to present students. Students should understand the differences between first person, second person, third-person objective, and third-person omniscient. There are suggestions of how to present this information and then for how to inspire students to try out different techniques within their own writing. Our students really enjoyed writing letters from the perspectives of different famous people in their information books, a lesson that was inspired from these pages. When we think about the importance of writers understanding audience, these are powerful pages.

PRECISE LANGUAGE: As I stated earlier in this post, voice does not explicitly live within the CCSS, but when writers use sensory words, precise nouns and verbs, figurative language, and domain-specific vocabulary, voice emerges. One of the exercises in this chapter is to guess whether there are more concrete nouns, active verbs, or adjectives in a given passage. If you want an engaging activity to use to help students understand the power of nouns and verbs, as opposed to juicy adjectives, check out p. 81! I also love that Georgia Heard presents lists of words to avoid: things, stuff, beauty, niceness, glory, devotion.

The chapter about precise language is the longest of the seven chapters, and I'm not going into all of the details of it. Suffice it to say that there are several lessons, strategies, exercises, student samples, writing tips, and even games that jump off these pages and would help any level teacher provide engaging instruction about language and the importance of words.

TEXT STRUCTURES: I have thought of text structures as a relative strength in our curriculum, but I still found plenty to learn in this chapter. Again, there is a framework that wants to jump out of the book and on to a chart for student use in the classroom. There are also strong and clear links to the CCSS for both readers and writers, since the Standards emphasize that students study and learn about craft and structure.

ENDINGS: I see a lot of endings that go something like: "That's my book about...I hope you liked it." Do these endings give the sense of closure that the CCSS require? I'm not sure, but they definitely don't give me the sense of closure that I want! Finding the Heart of Nonfiction includes specific strategies for getting students to develop endings that are more satisfying--circular endings, question endings, chronological, quotation, and reflective endings... There are descriptions, strategies, examples, and reproducibles for of all of them.

Without the bibliography and index, Finding the Heart of Nonfiction is 123 pages long. The font is average and there is plenty of white space on many of the pages. However, it changed the way I think about the instruction of any sort of nonfiction writing. I know that my post is longer than usual, but I hope that it has inspires you to find yourself a copy.

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