This Monday was the second, and final, Skype session with the third grade students. The teachers asked me to focus on revision, since the students would soon be struggling with that often difficult process. It seems to be a universal problem--once they have words on paper, children don't want to change them. They like what they've written and that's that. Whenever I've spoken at schools, teachers request that I bring up the fact that even professional writers who've been at it for years can be helped by revision and editing. For this session, I wanted to be able to come up with a new way of looking at the problem. After all, the word "revision" means to 'see again.' I tried two approaches. First, I talked about how we need to step back and 'see' our work again to make it better, by asking ourselves some questions about what we've written: Does it flow well? Do I explain thing clearly? Do I use the same word(s) over and over again? Have I discussed the topic thoroughly enough?

I showed some slides that illustrated the revision process I went through with my book "Big Cats," including a page from the manuscript after my editor at Walker had read my prose; even after help from my critique group, she'd found a number of things to question or change. I also showed some slides of how Kendahl Jan Jubb, the artist, planned and executed her art.

Then I needed an analogy, something to compare revision with that might help the children see that their writing can always be made better. What with the summer Olympics coming up, I realized that writers are really like athletes. We have our talents, but we need coaches and trainers--teachers and colleagues--who can help us improve what we've done, who can make constructive suggestions on how to do it better. Even the winningest athletes have coaches and trainers! So, I suggested the students think of themselves as 'writing athletes' who welcome suggestions for improvement from their fellow students, teachers, and parents.

My presentation was pretty dense with ideas and suggestions, but the students stayed quiet and payed attention, a relief to me. We had time for a couple of followup up questions. The tech glitches this time were minor; just a bit of slightly broken up sound.

I've enjoyed this whole process with both the fifth and third graders very much, and these experiences have stimulated some new ideas for me which will help me be more effective as a teacher and consultant in the future. Congratulations to all the teachers I've worked with for their planning, cooperation, and enthusiasm throughout this wonderful adventure!


On Tuesday I skyped with the third grade students and enjoyed every moment. They were quiet and attentive as I spoke. I'd been a bit concerned that I might be planning to throw too much advice at them, but they didn't get restless. After I'd finished with my advice--tips on interviewing and organizing their writing--they asked some good questions. One I especially liked was, "Why do you like animals so much?" What a good question! I keep saying how fascinated I am with animals and how much I like them, but why? Luckily it didn't take me long to answer. I commented that one thing that's interesting about animals is that they can do everything for themselves. They don't have stores to shop in or nice houses to live in, but they know how to do all the things they need to do. I also commented that there's such variety among animals and they have so many interesting things about how they live.
I'm delighted to read the teachers' comments about this session, which confirm my feeling that it all went well. Towards the end, we had some tech difficulties, so we put off some questions until our next Skype in early June.


Today I skyped with third grade teachers Stephanie, Danielle, and Marisa. Their energy and enthusiasm this late in the school year amazed me! We're launching on a writing project where each child chooses a subject she/he knows a lot about. The students have already done a research-based writing project, but for this one, we're suggesting they do interviews with friends and/or family to gain perspective about the subject and to broaden their knowledge base. I look forward to next week's Skype with the students, when I'll also give them tips on organizing their subject, editing it, and reminding them of the ever-important mantra, "Show don't tell!" They've been reading my books for the last couple of weeks and will also ask me questions during our session. I know from their teachers' attitudes that these kids are going to be enthusiastic about meeting me and will be open to my suggestions.

4/2/12 Summary of my Bogert School experience with Fifth Graders

The results of my interactions with the teachers and students at Bogert School exceeded my expectations. It encapsulates the power of what the combination of good teachers, eager students, an enthusiastic author, and good nonfiction writing can bring to reading and learning.

Before my one-hour Skype with Jason Parkhurst and Chris Kostenko, the fifth grade teachers, I had a tentative plan to give the students a quick tour of some of my titles, telling them where I’d gone for first-hand research on the subjects. During our Skype, the conversation made it clear that one gift I could give the students was that of curiosity about the world they live in. We discussed how kids today are so hooked into gadgets that they are just passing through the “real” world that surrounds them, not existing within it. If I could pass my own curiosity about the worlds of nature and human experience on to the kids, it would be quite a gift. So I speeded up my slide show, which took us on quite a tour of interesting places, then focused in on “Shaping the Earth,” my geology book that the teachers had chosen to help teach the kids about our restless earth. I also told of my own tomboy childhood spent mostly outdoors and challenged them to be curious about the world around them—where are the ants on the sidewalk going when they disappear through a crack? Why do some trees lose their leaves in winter and others don’t?

I explained to the students that my training was in biology, but my life growing up in California, where I experienced many earthquakes, my visits to the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Park, and my travels to Hawai’i, where I visited active volcanoes, really stimulated my interest in how the earth formed and how it is always changing.

The students loved my personal approach and really responded enthusiastically. They asked good questions and showed how comfortable they were with me by waving to me and mugging at the camera. We all had a great time, and it really sparked enthusiasm on their part for the subject.

After they finished their geology project and created wonderful videos explaining processes like volcanic eruptions and plate tectonics, I knew that they’d never forget what they’d learned about our restless planet. They would remember this information for the rest of their lives. What a sense of satisfaction for me!

My parting event with the students was another half-hour Skype session during which I talked about research tools—tips for interviewing people, surfing the web, and using the library effectively. They asked some more great questions, and then we had to say a reluctant good bye. I also had emailed my notes on research and a handout I’ve prepared on steps for editing a manuscript to the teachers to share with their students.

I find it so encouraging to see how short but focused interaction by video with students can help bring about such enthusiastic reactions. It takes dedicated and talented teachers as partners who can create continuity and pick out the content that will serve their educational goals, but when the project focuses on what those particular teachers want for these particular classes, great changes can occur. I hope to have many more opportunities for such partnerships in the future!

3/10/12 Second Skype session with the students

On March 7, I held my last Skype session with the students and their teachers. Mr. Parkhurst, Mr. Kostenko and I had agreed that some tips on research methods would be a good choice for this time together, as the students were still working on reports, and this kind of information will be valuable to them throughout their school years. I sent my notes by email to the teachers and also a document I've prepared on Step-by-Step editing, which will help the students when they revise their work.

We had a few tech issues, but it all worked out okay. After I gave tips on doing interviews, finding good books in the library, and researching on the web, the students asked some questions. They were very organized and very polite, and their questions were excellent. I feel that we have a real relationship, and I have to confess, I will miss that. I told the teachers to feel free to contact me if they have any further questions. It will be strange not to be a part of Bogert School; I have loved the spirit of cooperation and the excitement of working with these two teachers and their enthusiastic students, and I wish them all well on their reports.

1/25/11 The great videos created by Mr. Parkhurst's class!

I just watched all the videos created by the students and I'm delighted by the result. They all sounded enthusiastic about the subject, and their videos showed understanding of the processes they highlighted. But best of all, they all seem to have had FUN learning and creating their videos. This is our goal, to nourish a love of learning and to help students realize that learning can be fun and exciting.

The creativity of the students especially impressed me. Each group had a different approach, used different sorts of graphics and different music, as well as different clips of images from outside sources. They used their own imaginations to enhance their presentations, to make them interesting--bravo to you all!! And bravo to Mr. Parkhurst for everything he put into helping make this endeavor such a success!

I am so grateful for how rewarding this interaction has been for me so far, and I'm looking forward to the second skype with the students.

12/10/11 More comments after seeing the reactions of Bogert teachers, students, and Dave

I'm thrilled by the responses from Dave, Chris, Jason, and the students whose comments have been posted. We're off to a great start.

I also had a thought about how this format is very different from anything any of us have done before. When I read what Dave said about the audience--there was a hum in the room--and that the kids would comment to a neighbor about a story I had, I realized that the slide show part of my presentation offered a very different experience from a school visit. The students were seeing my slides on the smart board and hearing my disembodied voice over. This added a layer of distance between us that I believe was beneficial, made it more like being in a movie theater where you can quickly whisper or poke your friend with an elbow. In a school visit, the teachers are always shushing the kids, wanting them to be polite to the author, to show respect. With skyping slides, the kids feel more freedom to respond spontaneously. That's just a thought, but an interesting one I think--we may have stumbled upon a valuable educational tool!

My first Skype with the students, December 7, 2011

I had a great time today with the Bogert Fifth graders. Jason and Chris did a great job preparing them, and they were eager listeners. The plan of action that the three of us worked out for our time together is proving to be a good one. Other teacher/author teams may wish to consider a similar way of proceeding--or not! Their goals and/or vision may be completely different. In case we haven't put it elsewhere succinctly, here is what we've been doing:

1) Emails back and forth with ideas on how to proceed
2) Discussion between the teachers on their needs and vision
3) One hour Skype session with teachers and the author feeling out how best to use the time allotted for the students. In our discussion, we pinpointed a major problem with some students, that they seem not to be fully engaged with their lives and with the world around them; they seem to lack curiosity. We also agreed that the students need guidance in how best to find reliable sources when researching a report topic. Since my work derives from my endless curiosity about the world, and since I need to do various kinds of research for my books, we decided to divide the student Skype hour into two half hour sessions, the first to introduce me as an author and to help awaken their curiosity about the world by telling them about my life and my books. That's what we focused on today. The second session will be on research tools, including personal experience (observing animal behavior), time to be arranged.

I spoke about myself as an unusual girl, a tomboy, and how I loved to be out in nature and how that fed my career and how that love of animals and the natural world, and my own personal experiences throughout my life, have fueled my writing. I followed Roz's practice of using lots of slides and keeping each one up for a minimum amount of time; that worked really well in keeping them engaged. The kids asked really good questions; I can't remember the specifics, but the teachers have that information.

The tech worked pretty well, except for a couple of minor glitches. The classroom was quite pixilated on my computer, but I gather my image and my slides showed clearly. I could hear an echo, but I didn't have a headset with mike with me, so I just spoke more slowly, and the kids seemed not to have trouble understanding what I was saying. Moving between Skype and my powerpoint type program worked just fine. Near the end, when we were about to say good bye, we got cut off but easily reconnected.

I want to thank Chris and Jason for everything they did to ensure the success of this session--Skyping with each other as a test, planning the room layout, and checking back and forth with me so we all were on the same page. A tip: the author should have a backup phone number for teachers and vice versa in case there are serious problems with Skype. I also want to thank Vicki, Dave, and Heidi for their efforts in planning and carrying out this pioneer effort. And we're just beginning!!! So much more to come!!

Thoughts on working with teachers, November 20, 2011

The opportunity to brainstorm with teachers via Skype has inspired me to contemplate how we authors can be of the most help to teachers and therefore to their students. Perhaps the answer is, our perspectives on gaining knowledge and communicating it to others. In our work, we need to learn new information, process it, and organize it to share with young readers in a way that excites them about the outer world and that makes it easy for them to understand and absorb knowledge.
My way of learning, processing, and sharing may be different from that of another writer. Mine may resonate with a different segment of our readership than, say, Vicki’s does. That’s the beauty of having different voices.
So, I have been asking myself, what ideas can I give my teachers about how their students engage with new material, what are ways to help them process it, and how can we help them with the organizational process when they write themselves?
My Skype session with Chris and Jason confirmed my concern that the number one challenge is getting students engaged with the information they are expected to master so they will learn willingly. We focused extensively on this problem in our session, and here are some of my thoughts on that subject.
If we want students to learn new material, master research tools, and write about what they’ve learned, nonfiction trade books are a perfect tool. My book, “Shaping the Earth,” for example, is full of possible topics that children might latch onto, and since it is more than 10 years old and is about an ever evolving science, any one of them would require further investigation using research tools. For example, new ideas about how the earth and moon formed keep being proposed by scientists, using new evidence.
During our lifetimes, events occur that provide us with new information on Earth-related topics—just think about the earthquakes and tsunamis of recent years, for example. The fact that the students have experienced these events vicariously through the media might inspire them to want to learn more about such phenomena.
More general changes on our planet that make the headlines can lead to new challenges to deal with—for example, what can we do to mitigate the negative effects of climate change and/or slow the process?
Scientists may propose new ideas that might sound outrageous at first—an example is the recent proposal that the mass die-off of Native people in the Americas after Europeans brought devastating diseases to these continents helped bring about the Little Ice Age suffered by Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. How could population decimation bring about global cooling? Check out this article:


These are just some ideas on how writers and teachers might help children get engaged with learning, using earth science as an example. Any nonfiction topic contains such potential ‘hooks’ for snagging the curiosity of student. And when we are truly interested in something, learning about it usually comes more easily. We are eager for that information—who was Shakespeare really? What brought about the Ice Ages? How does a car engine work? What drove John Wilkes Booth to kill Lincoln? If we can help children find the questions they are passionate about answering, our jobs from then on become much easier.
Above: Brainstorming Skype session between Jason, Chris, and Dorothy

This note was made before we started our work together

I'm looking forward so much to working with you all on this wonderful project! My whole life I've been excited about reading and learning, and I do my best to communicate that excitement through my books. "Gee, I didn't know that" is the response I hope for. Nature and human history are full of 'characters' and events that young people can love learning about, and this project will give us all a chance to awaken the curiosity of children towards the 'real' world. They will learn, and they will love doing it!