Author Studies 2.0: Getting to the Heart of What Matters

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Over the last two years I’ve noticed a renewed interest in author and thematic studies, which I think is due to the Common Core Standards, particularly to Reading Literature Standard 9, which asks students to compare and contrast stories that are either by the same author or on a similar theme. I’ve always loved author studies, and over the years I’ve helped teachers plan and implement them on authors such as Patricia Polacco, Gary Soto, and Jacqueline Woodson. But the author studies I’ve been supporting recently have a slightly different flavor and feel than the ones I’ve done in the past, which seems both connected to the Standards and the deeper reasons for reading.

My Rotten Redheaded Older BrotherIn the past, I think we studied an author for two primary purposes: to see the connection between the author’s life and work and to study their craft, which students could then transfer to their own writing. And with these two major purposes in mind, we’d often begin by introducing some biographical information so that students could get a sense of the author’s life. Then we’d read the books paying particular attention to the author’s craft, noting, for instance, how in My Rotten Redheaded Older BrotherPatricia Polacco uses similes in her descriptions—”He had orange hair that was like wire; he was covered in freckles and looked like a weasel with glasses—and often explains things by giving three examples, as she does here:

Now my babushka, my grandmother, knew lots of things. She knew just how to tell a good story. She knew how to make ordinary things magical. And she knew how to make the best chocolate cake in Michigan.

These are certainly wonderful goals to hold on to, especially when it comes to student writing. But as I’ve sat down with teachers preparing to embark on an author study recently, we’ve taken a different tack. Before starting to search for author bios or combing through books for craft, we’ve been reading the books to see if we notice any patterns in characters, situations, imagery and themes. And each time we’ve done this, we’ve hit a motherlode of meaning, seeing more than we ever thought we would.

The WallThis year, for instance, I worked with a group of third grade teachers who were planning a unit on Eve Bunting. We knew Bunting often looked at difficult topics, such as homelessness in Fly Away Home or riots in Smoky Nights. But what we didn’t know until we dug into the books was how many revolved around holding on to memories, whether it was a father taking his young son to the Vietnam War Memorial in The Wall; a young girl coping with the loss of her mother in The Memory String; or the Native American boy in Cheyenne Again trying not to forget his heritage when he’s forced to attend a white man’s school.

An-Angel-for-Solomon-Singer-9780531070826Similarly, last year I worked with a group of fourth grade teachers planning a unit on Cynthia Rylant. As we looked through her books we were struck by how many lonely characters there were who, often through a chance occurence, encountered someone or something that made them feel less alone. There was the city transplant Solomon Singer who found a lifeline in a waiter named Angel; Gabriel, the main character in “Spaghetti” who stumbled on a stray kitten; and the main character in The Old Woman Who Named Things who overcame her fear of attachment when a puppy showed up at her gate. They were all lonely and all saved from loneliness when something unexpected happened.

In each case the question then became how do we support and position students to replicate what we had done so that they could experience what writer Norman Maclean describes as the essence of thinking: “seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.”

Like the second grade teachers in last year’s post, the teachers studying Cynthia Rylant created an author study chart that helped students hold onto the specifics of each book and see patterns across the books. And we gave them lots of time to talk and exchange ideas, which allowed one student to ‘see’ something that none of us teachers had: that Solomon Singer was “solo-man,” a name that seemed particularly apt for a Cynthia Rylant character.

We also invited students to bring what they knew about the Rylant books they had read to the new books they were reading, which led to some magical moments. Making our way through The Old Woman Who Named Things, for instance, I stopped reading after the following page spread and asked the class to think for a moment about what they knew so far about this book and what they knew from other Rylant books we’d read. Then based on that, I asked them to think about where they thought this book might be headed.

OldWomanWho1

OldWomanWho2

Before I had a chance to say, “Now turn and talk,” a boy who was usually quiet gasped, “The puppy is the angel,” referring to the waiter in An Angel for Solomon Singer who acts as a change agent in Solomon’s life. The rest of the class immediately agreed, and expanding on his idea, many also thought that the old woman wasn’t as clever as she thought she was because, even without a name, the dog had already changed her, as could be seen by the fact that she fed him every day. And while they weren’t precisely sure what other changes the dog might herald, they were sure her life would no longer be the same.

Finally, I took another stab at using a Venn Diagram as a thinking tool, not as an artifact of what students already thought. That meant we constructed one as a whole class first, focusing on brainstorming similarities rather than differences. And this time their thinking exploded, precisely as Maclean described, with one idea leading to another in ways that not only engaged students in the work of Reading Standards 2 and 9 (determining the theme from the details of the text and comparing works by the same author), but also gave them a deep understanding of what mattered to Cynthia Rylant.

Venn Diagram for Cynthia Rylant

Of course many of the students still needed help in explaining their thinking in written form, which I’ll save for another post. But what stood out for all of us as teachers was how much more thinking the students could do if we had the time to think and talk first in order to develop a deeper vision of what we were aiming for, which then informed and determined every teaching move we made—from the titles we chose, to the questions we asked, to the decision to save the bio for the end, when the students had already figured what was in the author’s heart.

11 thoughts on “Author Studies 2.0: Getting to the Heart of What Matters

  1. Vicki,
    This is beautiful. The depth and thought that these teachers and students are doing makes my heart sing…and that truly is the heart of the matter!! Thank YOU for posting this as I find myself entrenched in all of the difficult positions teachers are finding themselves in. I found this most uplifting and hopeful! I just wish there were more opportunities for our professionals to engage in this kind of thoughtful teaching!
    I am also wondering if you don’t mind if I refer to you and your blog in the piece I am writing for my blog. I reference you and your blog, with your picture, as a way of how to do things in this climate without scripted programs.
    I will respect your decision either way. Also if you want to preview it then let me know and I will e-mail it to you. Thanks again!
    Tomasen

      • Absolutely no worries, Tomasen! I just hadn’t gotten a chance to get back to your earlier comment. But I’m completely honored to be mentioned on your blog—and in fact had thought about referencing yours on the Ridiculous Rules & Mortifying Myths that keep getting perpetuated in writing in something I’m hoping to have up soon about how much we can gain as teachers by actually doing what we ask kids to do. It’s in effect what I did with the author study work, where I was lucky enough to be given enough time to really delve into thinking and planning with teachers. Not every school, though, is able to do that, some because of budgets and some because of belief systems about what teachers need and do—which means that while I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have some schools that believe that teachers being learners is the highest form of professionalism, I also find myself entrenched in places that want the world from teachers without giving them the time or resources they need to actually do their jobs well. Such is the way of the world right now. But now I’m off to read your post about these crazy times, thrilled that there are voices like yours out there, trying to shed light and raise questions about the place we’re in.

  2. Love this, we have implemented author/genre study in our school for the past three years and have found the students love this time. I love watching them dig depper with great authors. Thanks for sharing!

    • I’ve been thrilled to have the chance to dig into author studies the last few years as well. It’s magical to see children fall in love with an author. And I’m so glad to hear that it’s happening around the country, too.

  3. What an incredibly beautiful reminder of the amazing things we can do in our classes. I know that so many of us in ELA have been frightened into moving away from learning experiences like this. The reality is, though, that learning experiences like this actually lead to improved learning. Your post below talking about the upcoming state exams is a reminder of the fear-based planning we’ve been doing. No more! Good teaching will lead to good learning and our students will all be fine. Additionally, I wanted to share that I shared this post with my colleagues to remind them that they can do this kind of exciting stuff in their classroom. Maybe they can feel more comfortable returning to excitement-based, or passion-based planning instead. Thank you.

    • And ditto on the thank you! Reclaiming our passion and excitement not just for our students but for ourselves is so very, very important. It’s what keeps us alive–though it’s being sorely tested by a system that sees things so narrowly and operates on promoting fear. I do feel, though, that more and more people are beginning to talk back and doing what poet Julia Hartwig describes in this marvelous poem I just discovered called “Demand it Courageously”:

      Make some room for yourself, human animal.
      Even a dog jostles about on his master’s lap to
      improve his position. And when he needs space he
      runs forward, without paying attention to commands
      or calls.
      If you didn’t manage to receive freedom as a gift,
      demand it as courageously as bread and meat.
      Make some room for yourself, human pride and
      dignity.
      The Czech writer Hrabal said:
      I have as much freedom as I take.

  4. I’m such a theme of author studies. Once students have read a number of books by the same authors, it’s interesting for them to read about the author’s life. When students can see the parallel between an author’s life and his or her work, students realise the importance of their own life events.

    • I love the idea you just articulated here–how seeing the connection between an author’s life and work helps students see how they, too, are formed by their own experiences. It’s not only writers who are shaped by their experiences but all of us, which is why it’s so very important to honor our lives and reflect on them. It’s another great reason for not neglecting memoir in these narrative-bashing times!

  5. Pingback: Looking Backwards, Thinking Forward: Some Thoughts at the End of the Year | To Make a Prairie

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