In January 2023, NCTE posted a Position Statement on the Role of Nonfiction Literature (K-12), pointing out that nonfiction is “a rich and compelling genre that supports students’ development as critically, visually, and informationally literate 21st century thinkers and creators.” During NCTE’s nonfiction webinars this summer, several notable nonfiction authors expressed a concern that nonfiction works are often compartmentalized into a once-a-year topic report. Challenged to expand and deepen the use of nonfiction in our libraries, I have been incorporating nonfiction in literacy skills projects and exploring ways to encourage students to read and write more nonfiction. Here are some initial projects and future musings to enhance nonfiction reading and writing.
Launch Writing with a STEM Experiment Patricia Newman, author of Plastic Ahoy and Planet Ocean, shared a fascinating STEM demonstration about ocean acidification at a TLA session (April 2023, Austin, Tx.). I adapted this STEM experiment to launch a writing activity with 7th grade creative writing students.
Step One: (See experiment details in “A Tale of Two Acids” by Meg Chadsey) A purple cabbage solution was used as an indicator solution in three containers. Students added lemon juice to one container and noted the dramatic color change as this citric acid reacted with the indicator solution (cabbage solution).
Step Two: Students watched a short clip from this Smithsonian video about the effect of carbon dioxide and ocean acidification on coral reefs. Students were asked how they could add carbon dioxide to one of the solutions to mimic the effect of carbon dioxide on oceans. Students guessed that their own breath could be added to the solution, and a student used a straw to blow into a second container of cabbage solution to see how carbon dioxide would affect a base. A color change again happened.
Step Three: Students were shown two photos of coral reefs, one healthy and one damaged by ocean acidification.
Students read a poem by a first grader at our school. The poem described the beauty of coral reefs, the coral resembling “underwater flowers in an ocean breeze.” Using the second photo of the damaged coral reef, students created a word bank to describe the contrasting appearance of the coral. Some words included “cemetery, white bones creeping out of the ground, and brittle branches.” The word bank inspired individual poetry writing, then collaborative writing to combine their best poetic lines about the damaged coral. Poetic imagery included “a coral city turned cemetery,” “spindley winter trees,” and “what used to be rich in color, rapidly changed to ghostly white and night black.”
Read to Write: Environmental Poetry As a follow-up writing activity, students browsed nonfiction books about a variety of environmental topics of concern, and used database articles and online news stories. After identifying an environmental topic that interested them, students cited the nonfiction source and created a Word Bank from words in the article or book; these were words that resonated with them as important.
Here is an example of one students’ planning template, and following is the poem inspired by an article about the Colorado River water crisis.
River Run Dry Sylvie C.
A coming quarrel of a river run dry The basin on which seven states rely
A craggy, cracked channel soon to be empty Used to be a source of plenty
The futile fight for conservation Is an endless conversation
Aridification of the West: Overuse of water on human’s request
The carver of a canyon grand Now barren bones atop the land
Putting the A in STEM As a final art activity themed to environment and nature, this video by artist and designer Raku Inoue demonstrated creating Insect Art out of garden clippings. Using garden clippings from my home garden, students selected leaves, twigs, berries, and flowers to create their own insects. Students loved designing nature insect sculptures, and the textures, shapes, and colors of the garden clippings inspired distinctive insect “personalities.” Below is a sampling of their insect art.
Encouraging Nonfiction Reading and Writing Each year the library and creative writing teachers co-sponsor a literary magazine, and writing contests have been a popular way to generate writing and art submissions. This year’s writing contest will be themed to the environment (in praise of our natural world and ways to be better stewards of our environment). Creative writing students will be challenged to create a promotional video for the environmental writing contest by using their colorful insect nature art. These insects will be animated in a promotional video using the Puppet Pals app.
The library will be displaying nonfiction titles themed to environmental conservationists and activists, endangered animals, environmental concerns, and national parks. Suggested reading lists for environmental books have been created in Destiny Collections so that teachers and students can browse library titles available in print and through our digital SORA collection. To highlight nonfiction book checkouts, stuffed toy birds will be “nesting” at our circulation desks, and when a student checks out a nonfiction book, they can celebrate their nonfiction book checkout by pressing the stuffed bird for an authentic bird song.
Future Plans Here are possible ideas that will be explored further this coming school year:
Recycle/Upcycle Fashion Show Student-created designs would be paired with informational displays highlighting environmental concerns. Creative writing students have already interviewed Tina Davis, the owner of a Houston vintage clothing store, and the interview generated several creative ideas to possibly pursue. Tina Davis stressed the importance of “buying less and choosing more.”
STEAM Literacy Event Nonfiction library books displayed with related STEAM activities. Students would facilitate STEAM demonstrations as visitors browse the display tables.
Environmental Podcast Our creative writing students may be collaborating with our STEM teacher and her Digital Design class to create podcasts highlighting environmental concerns.
The goal of these STEM and writing activities is to spark students’ curiosity and deepen their awareness of environmental concerns through thoughtful reading of nonfiction writings. Please share the ways you enhance students’ reading of nonfiction and incorporate nonfiction in your literacy skills programming and collaborations with teachers.
I’m always surprised when wonderful librarians who are so erudite and thoughtful speaking on some area of their practice recoil when I suggest they write an article. Lack of confidence (which I don’t understand because they have so much knowledge) or the reason lack of time (which I completely understand) usually predominate as excuses.
But as David McCullough says, “Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.” To sit down and write out what you do or your accumulated knowledge about a given topic or book means organizing your thoughts and making connections for others which compels you to be a stronger librarian and more intentional in your work. As school librarians, it’s important to place ourselves in the shoes of our students. Seeing my article bibliographies when I open Noodletools or discussing how I organize my notes for a paper lets students know that I use the tools I’m asking them to use in their research and writing process (although they are mystified that I do it voluntarily).
Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard
Consider also the benefit to your relationship with teachers and administrators. When we complain that few of our colleagues and division administrators understand what we do, writing an article that demonstrates our pedagogical understanding of some aspect of our job draws the curtain back on what happens in the library and they are suitably dazzled. Getting the school’s name out in the form of your bio at the bottom of an article or in discussing what the school does well places librarians in a position of being seen as a positive advocate for the school, never a bad thing.
The connections I’ve made to other librarians through my writing have been invaluable. I’m a big believer that you get back what you put into the universe and writing is sharing a part of yourself. In everything I have written, someone has reached out to let me know how I helped them or sent an email that inspired an exchange that offered me more knowledge about my topic. Writing offers school librarians a chance to step out of our relative isolation and make contact with our compatriots outside of our school campus, an important aspect when we don’t always have a chance to mingle daily with someone who knows our job.
What to Write About
School librarianship suffers from the fact that the majority of us spend our day putting out fires, ordering materials, navigating databases, and delivering amazing information literacy instruction in our library…and rarely mingle with other librarians. We assume everyone else does these activities like we do, and therefore don’t recognize when we are being innovative. I have never visited a single library (and pre-COVID I made a point of doing best practices visits to three to nine libraries a year) where I didn’t come away with a tip or practice idea that made me look like a goddess when I returned to my school.
Walt Crawford in his book, First Have Something to Say: Writing for the Library Profession, encourages writers to think of themselves as an expert rather than as an authority, a term which has a lot more baggage. An expert has attained some level of mastery (which we all have done) whereas an authority exudes a judgemental gravitas that the majority of school librarians thankfully don’t possess. You are an expert on a host of different topics relating to your work and people would benefit from reading about your perspective. If you’ve ever presented at a conference, write up your presentation into an article or blog post and share it with a wider audience. Publishing means your print article will be more findable in scholarly databases, or your blog article on an established website will be indexed more readily in search engines, so you would reach a wider audience than the 40 people in the ballroom of your conference session by also publishing an account of your work.
Think about what you love about being a librarian. Is it children’s or YA literature? Be a book reviewer or write articles about themes you’re seeing. Information literacy? Tons of magazines, both commercial and organization-specific publications, want to see writing on instruction. Professional development geared towards teachers? Now you’ve branched out from librarian-focused magazines and journals to broader educational organizations like ISTE and ASCD. Copyright and intellectual freedom are hot topics that affect our work and they are frustrating areas where people always need advice. And kudos to you if you have an area of “cross-pollination”; management, technology, engineering, higher education are all areas of expertise you might have from non-school librarian work you’ve done. Making connections between those areas and our work with school libraries could be of enormous help to the profession.
Finding a Venue for Your Writing
Full disclosure, the vast majority of my writing opportunities came directly or indirectly from my volunteer work. My first writing opportunity was for the KQ Blog in 2004 after someone had heard me complain at an ALA conference (probably at the ISS Section table back when we would meet by section and committee at tables in a gigantic, cacophonous ballroom) that you couldn’t apply for National Board Certification without being state-certified. My momentary rant led to an offer to write the “anti” position for a pair of blog posts about whether state certification should be necessary for independent school librarians (Lewis 2004).
If you think that serving on a committee is out of your financial or time grasp, consider that many regional and state organizations (as well as ALA, AASL, and ISTE) now offer virtual committees rather than requiring that you shoulder the expense of travel to distant conferences. Offering to write for your membership organization’s blog or journal is a wonderful way to dip a toe into the writing waters and often gives a less intense introduction to the editing process than if you started with a more national journal or book chapter for an academic press. Remember that writing often comes from connections, but it also fosters connections. Considering that we have jobs dependent on fostering relationships and collaborating, seeing writing as an extension of that role should make this activity feel more natural.
Before you choose a potential publication, you need to decide which audience you’re aiming for. I separate this into “the choir” and “has no idea what we do.” “The choir” refers to the publications and blogs you read right now for your work which are squarely aimed at librarians. You can write assuming certain background knowledge and your content is usually more practice-focused. “The choir” also encompasses the weightier peer-reviewed journals where you might publish action research or ethnographic studies (I’m assuming you aren’t doing long-term statistical analysis as a practicing librarian but if I’m wrong, go, you! And write an article about that balance, please.)
“Has no idea what we do” probably triggers the faces of quite a few people you know; think about what roles they have. Independent School, the magazine of the National Association of Independent Schools, has been – along with their elusive and exclusive conference committee – the Holy Grail of librarians hoping to make our work more visible to the NAIS audience. Several years ago, an independent school librarian actually managed to co-author an article for Independent School that referred to the role of the independent school librarian and – I swear to you – it was the scene in Sorcerer’s Stone when Voldemort is “killed” by the infant Harry Potter, with ecstatic witches were setting off fireworks and shaking the hands of strange muggles because of their happiness. Independent school librarians sent congratulatory texts and “did you see??!!” emails across every known listserv as this glass ceiling shattered. ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) and ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) also have excellent periodicals that administrators frequently read and have even broader audiences. Getting the school librarian role in front of them and emphasizing how we increase student achievement is crucial work that can be accomplished through writing articles about our impact.
So practically, where should you look for writing opportunities? First, I’d hit up your databases or walk into the nearest academic library which usually lets you do a search on-site using their resources. Take a look at what has been written about your topic and consider where there are gaps you could fill or if the information needs updating. Look at the length and tone of articles for individual publications to get a sense of their preferences. The below list links to the “writing for publication” page of each of the following venues where you can find their query and length requirements as well as formatting guidelines. Since many of them have themes for each issue and are looking for features or supporting articles on that theme, it pays to ask if your proposed idea could fit into a future issue if you’re not sure. Carol Smallwood’s anthology, Writing and Publishing: The Librarian’s Handbook is a treasure trove of infinitely readable short articles on a variety of topics related to writing for publication, including how to handle the query process.
On September 14, 2021, AISL hosted an informational webinar on writing for publication featuring Meg Featheringham, AASL’s editor of Knowledge Quest, the KQ Blog, and AASL’s e-newsletter, and Rebecca Morris, co-editor at School Library Connection. These knowledgeable editors had valuable information to offer to librarians considering writing, with great behind-the-scenes considerations they take into account when choosing manuscripts. Definitely check it out, not only for the great information but to see how lovely and not scary editors are.
Here is a list of potential markets for your articles, in absolutely no alphabetical order:
AISL Blog (AISL) (contact one of the committee members at the end of this post)
An Altruistic Approach
I’m assuming some readers might still feel reluctant about writing an article. Since librarians skew to an altruistic personality type, I’m going to take advantage of that tendency and connect writing to helping others. Has there been a librarian whose work meant a lot to you? Writing an article that demonstrates how you apply their work to your practice gets more people aware of them. You might have a wonderful teacher or librarian at your school who you want to help develop professionally and bring attention to their work; writing an article together helps you both. Finally, thinking about what articles would benefit someone new to the profession allows you to create work that helps your colleagues.
Consider also that writing for publication can be a wonderful PD group to offer at your school. The power of faculty members coming together and being a little vulnerable speaking about what they do in the classroom and worries they have about writing can’t be overestimated. Your school librarian role helps you as a facilitator for this type of work, since you can help teachers brainstorm ideas, highlight your databases for searching for potential subject-specific publications they could target, and edit one another’s work (having a second set of eyes compare a manuscript to the publication guidelines is worth its weight in gold). Teachers will not forget your helping them promote themselves and the work they do while you strengthen relationships. You may help someone so well with their APA citation that they have you come in to teach their class the same skill!
Hopefully, you’ve found a few good reasons to consider writing, as well as an inspiration or two that gives you some idea of what you might want to share. Please consider the below list of committee members as your personal pep rally and don’t hesitate to reach out with questions. Librarians who write build community and a powerful practice, so make the library world a better place and share a piece of yourself.
Want more help and advice? Please feel free to reach out to AISL’s Publications Committee members:
Crawford, W. (2003). First Have Something to Say: Writing for the Library Profession. American Library Association.
Lewis, C. L. (2004), January/February). Independent School Library Media Specialists: State Certification Unnecessary. Knowledge Quest on the Web. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org.sapl.sat.lib.tx.us/ala/mgrps/ divs/aasl/aaslpubsandjournals/knowledgequest/kqwebarchives/kqwebarchives.cfm. (Totally not the link anymore – I have no idea if you can even find this outdated initial writing piece.)
Smallwood, C. (2010). Writing and Publishing: The Librarian’s Handbook (ALA guides for the busy librarian). American Library Association.
In an NPR video series on Billy Collins, the poet laureate was asked how young poets could get started writing poetry. Billy Collins responded, “it’s such dull advice, there’s really no key to it, you just have to read, read poetry for 10,000 hours.”
Immersing young writers in models of fine writing was an idea echoed during a 2017 NCTE conference session on literary magazines. This session was a wonderful brain trust for individuals new to sponsoring a school’s literary magazine. In addition to bringing back copies of other schools’ literary magazines, I brought back the advice repeatedly heard: provide student writers with models of good writing and read, read, read.
In an earlier AISL blog, “Inspire Writing with Memorials,” I mentioned that our library and student LitMag editors are sponsoring a writing contest. Our LitMag editors were challenged to make promotional posters that not only advertised the contest, but also featured a poem example reflecting the contest theme of memorials or collections. As our LitMag editors searched for models of well-crafted poems, the library poetry book shelves became a cornucopia of inspirational ideas.
Below are two examples of poetry books that sparked imaginations, along with students’ poem reflections and poster design decisions.
Bravo! by Margarita Engle.
Margarita Engle, named in 2017 as the Young People’s Poet Laureate, celebrates the lives of Hispanic people from all walks of life in this collection of poems.
LitMag editor, Sebastian, chose the poem “Life on Horseback”and explained, “this poem is a memorial to a Mexican-American cowboy named Arnold Rojas (1898-1988). Due to lack of job opportunities for immigrants, he worked as a farmworker. He leaves that job for a more exciting life as a cowboy. This poem emphasizes that you must take pride in your work and if you don’t, you should search for a more meaningful job.”
Design principle for poster: Symmetry.
Silhouetted horse heads face each other on the poster and displayed below are flags of Mexico and the United States of America, indicating the duel heritage of cowboy Arnold Rojas.
Maya Angelou (Poetry for Young People).
This collection of poems by Maya Angelou display her emotional connection with struggles
and triumphs of African Americans, including the struggle from oppression to attaining
lives of dignity.
LitMag Editor, Alex, chose the poem “One More Round” and observed, “this poem shows a man who loves to work and believes his work is much more than slavery: ‘I was born to work but I ain’t no mule.’”
Design Principle for poster: Repetition.
An intricate assembly line shows miniature factory workers heaving, hoisting, and loading large flour bags onto automated belts. These bags of flour are being processed so another man, drawn above the assembly line, can enjoy a bowl of cereal. Alex reflected that his drawing shows “a man that’s just eating a bowl of cereal and is treating it like any other. Look further down on the poster and you can see the work that goes into making this bowl of cereal is worth a whole lot more than it looks.”
This process of selecting poems to model well-crafted writing was a creative stretch for our LitMag editors: an opportunity both for design thinking and personal reflection on how poems communicate to an audience. The finished posters are now displayed throughout the school, inspiring our young writers through reading poems by established poets.
For further exploration of how writers rely on models of good writing, see these books that celebrate famous poets:
Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets
by Kwame Alexander, Chris Colderley, and Margery Wentworth
Kwame and co-authors pay tribute to famous poets by imitating the poetic style or enkindling the emotional connection of these poets.
Boshblobberbosh: Runcible Poems for Edward Lear
by J. Patrick Lewis
Lewis, the 2011 Children’s Poet Laureate, writes poems in the style of Edward Lear to honor Lear’s whimsical language and playful use of the sounds of words.
To read more on how NCTE supports school literary magazines, see REALM Awards (Recognizing Excellence in Art and Literary Magazines).
Memorials promote powerful, personal encounters with moments in history. I recently created my own memorial to commemorate a time in which my newly married parents were separated during World War II.The assemblage of photos and letters documented the years 1942-1945, when my father, JJ, was setting up radio communications in Iceland while my mother, Wanda, worked in an ammunition plant and then, later, stayed at home raising a newborn son (my brother, Joe).
The centerpiece of the memorial was a newspaper clipping that featured a story about my mother’s drawing of my father holding his newborn son. The idea that prompted the drawing was that JJ had never seen or held the newborn. Wanda created the drawing by viewing a photo of her husband in uniform and then adding the baby in his arms. When Wanda sent this drawing in the mail, the army “censors” discovered the drawing; they then shared the drawing and story with the St. Louis newspaper. A photographer at the newspaper created a photo montage; using a photo of my father dressed in his army uniform, the photographer combined it with the baby’s photo.
The collaged photo appeared alongside my mother’s drawing. In the newspaper story, she explained, “You see, he has never seen, much less held his 11-month-old son. So, to fulfill his desires as best I could, I sketched this picture of him holding his own flesh and blood.” Wanda also added “We write each other every day and the mail arrives on an average of once a month, so, at times, I get as many as 30 letters in one day.”
In addition to this newspaper clipping, the memorial contains several letters that JJ wrote, including the letter that tipped off Wanda about his destination in the war. Before JJ left for army training, they discussed that letters would be censored (“Idle Gossip Sinks Ships” was stamped at the bottom of his army stationary). So my father devised a code: when he knew the location of his war assignment, the first word of that letter to my mother would indicate the country by the initial letter of the word. JJ’s letter dated on November 11, 1942 began “Incidentally, as you know all my letters in the future and as of now are subject to censor….” He intended to signal that he would be stationed in Iceland, but my mother in a panic thought the letter “I” stood for Italy and that JJ was headed to the fierce combat.
A final item that I included in the memorial was a harmonica. As the story goes, when my father arrived home to be welcomed by my mother and the 2 ½ year-old son, a son he had never seen in person, my young brother clung nervously to my mother’s dress, fearful of this tall, strange man with the booming voice. My father crouched down and dropped the duffle bag from his shoulder. As he unzipped the bag, he brought out a shiny harmonica, blew across it, and handed this magical, musical object to his son, winning him over.
This memorial was created as an example for a student writing contest that the library is sponsoring this fall, inviting students to create their own memorial or collection of things that have a special significance. Students will then be encouraged to write a short essay or poem about how this collection is meaningful to them or suggests a special moment in history. In creating my own memorial, I rediscovered the importance of the bonds of love in the face of separation, and I realized that creativity can defeat challenging hurdles. Memorials can help us connect to our shared humanity; as author and historian David McCullough often states, “history is about people, history is about being human.”
Is there a particular journal that you really enjoy reading? Your favorite journals are always looking for writers. Why not write an article, on a topic that you are passionate about, for that special publication?
AISL bloggers explore current library topics, entertaining lessons, intriguing displays, research, etc. Bloggers, you might want to turn one of your blog posts into a journal article. We have compiled a list of publications and their writing requirements, plus an article, Writing for Teacher Librarian: A Guide to the Process, which is an excellent resource to read before submitting your work to any journal.
Open your favorite journal link below, and read the submission instructions. For periodicals like Educational Leadership that describe upcoming themes, select one for which you can make a case for your expertise and a unique point of view. Others, like Literacy Today, want you to submit a proposal before you write.
Always read one or more issues before you start the process. When you write for an audience other than school libraries, recognize that the more you can “speak” their language and reflect their goals, the better your communication will be.
Instructions for Submitting Articles
ACCESSPOINTS(ATLIS – Association of Technology Leaders in Independent Schools)
The Publication Group members are available to help you observe, brainstorm, organize, synthesize, and edit your writing. Or, in design thinking terms we can help inspire, ideate, and implement your ideas. We look forward to hearing from you.
Don’t forget to list your AISL membership in your biographical information.
Our next blog post will discuss Editorial Calendars for the different journals.
I’d like to start by thanking my friend and colleague, CD McLean, for stepping in on my behalf last month. I did indeed have some family circumstances that kept me from blogging, but I’m back now and ready to write.
Or am I? Therein lies the problem. I knew my deadline was approaching and I pondered it aloud in the kitchen one night as my husband and I prepared dinner. “Middle school,” I said. “I have no idea what to say!”
“Maybe you should write about writer’s block,” he joked.
I dismissed this initially and decided that was too obvious and gimmicky, but . . . here I am.
Writer’s block is a condition that plagues all of us from time to time: this is especially true for students, except they are even more handicapped by their youthful inexperience and their general feeling of invincibility. How many times have you witnessed a kid furiously scribbling out the last sentences of an essay ten minutes before it’s due because “I work better under pressure!” A little pressure can inspire a good performance, true, but chances are the muse dances more gracefully if her tune is not quite so breathless.
As some of you know, I have a summer job. As well as a library degree, I have degrees in art history and I was a lecturer at various colleges before I became an independent school librarian. Thus, I spend my summers writing reports for a company that authenticates works of art for galleries, insurance companies, auction houses and collectors. So basically this means I write research papers for money, except mine are legit and not those horrible “use this as an example!” ones for $24.95 on Cheaters-R-Us.com. I have a deadline to meet (and the pressure of deciding if someone’s family heirloom is a valuable original or worthless fake). I don’t get a grade but I do receive a reward, so to speak. My process is exactly what you’d expect: do some research, create a bibliography, sketch out an outline based on the evidence, give examples to support my argument, fill in with some prose, wrap it up, proofread, and submit.
So how do I overcome the problem of writer’s block, and what advice would I give to a seventh grader writing a three-pager about volcanoes?
Do the grindstone kind of work while waiting for inspiration. Can’t think of an opening sentence? Put together your bib instead. Can’t decide on a conclusion? Go back and reread some key passages in your research. Can’t figure out what your third example should be? Rewrite your intro. If most of the major pieces are in place well before the deadline, then the writer is afforded the luxury of just waiting for a beautiful first line, or graceful segue, or perfect conclusion. On the other hand, if the writer is too busy finding three volcanoes that all erupted in the last 50 years the day before the paper is due, there’s no room for real inspiration and the result is a mediocre essay at best.
It leaves room for serendipity, too. There have been times when I just couldn’t draw a conclusion or felt like my evidence was inadequate, and simply having the time to accidentally discover something useful while skimming a random book or even watching a TV show is priceless. What if there were a PBS program on Mt. St. Helen’s with new facts that completely blew apart the writer’s conclusion? Three days is plenty of time to rewrite page two and make a spectacular final essay, but jamming in an ill-placed sentence the hour before it’s due is veering into C territory, or worse if the writer ends up contradicting herself.
There’s no magic recipe for convincing middle schoolers to get it done early, but if we shepherd them along carefully, eventually they’re bound to see that a well-paced process allows for discovery, thoughtful examination, rewriting, and happy accidents. To make it real I try to share something of my own process when I give research lessons, and they always focus on the remunerative part of it, to which I say, “Sure, I get paid for it . . . IS YOUR GRADE WORTH LESS THAN MONEY?” No kid in his right mind says yes, so they shake their heads and get to work.