1-on-1 with a Leading Reading Instruction Expert, Laura Robb
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Find out about Robb's new book.
What a thoughtful, provocative approach Laura Robb has taken in writing this book. I admire the careful weaving together of authors' voices and insights, student work samples, citations from great creative nonfiction texts, and the language of her own teaching.
— Katie Wood Ray, author of What We Know by Heart: How to Develop Curriculum for Your Writing Workshop
Nonfiction Writing From the Inside Out is Laura Robb's most recent professional book with Scholastic. This 41-year classroom veteran is the author of the widely read Teaching Reading in Middle School and Teaching Reading in Social Studies, Science, and Math. Robb is Director of Language Arts and Curriculum Coordinator for Powhatan Schools in Boyce, Virginia, where she teachers reading and writing, conducts staff development workshops, and coaches K-8 teachers. She leads professional development workshops throughout the country.
Pat Cummings, Russell Freedman, Kathryn Lasky, Walter Dean Myers, Patricia McKissack — these are just a few of the contemporary nonfiction authors that Laura Robb interviewed for Nonfiction Writing From the Inside Out. In this interview, Laura shows us how reading and analyzing the works of these and other writers can get students excited about reading and writing nonfiction. She also shares what motivated her to write this book and what the concerns are of teachers in today's classrooms.
What motivated you to write a book on nonfiction writing after publishing so many widely-acclaimed reading books?
I've been teaching both reading and writing. But for years my students wrote mostly fiction and poetry. That's what I felt comfortable teaching. Students read mostly fiction and some poetry. Sometimes they read biographies. But only when I assigned that genre. I did have students work on paragraphs — informative, opinion, narrative. But they still preferred fiction. One day I introduced an informative paragraph to my 5th graders. Kenny yawned loudly. "BOORRRING," he muttered. But the words caught my ear. They stung and they hurt. "Why's it boring?" I asked. "It's just more facts, facts, facts. I hate nonfiction." I said nothing more to Kenny that day. But his words replayed in my mind. I couldn't block them out. At night I thought about Kenny's words. He's right, I told myself. It is boring this way. Kenny started me and the class on a journey that's still going strong. We all began reading information picture books. Chapter books. And even essays. The nonfiction books became our teachers — our mentors. And I began reading books by Donald Murray and William Zinsser. Soon, I loved nonfiction even more than fiction. I wanted to bring to teachers what I'd learned — what I'd grown to love. I wanted the authors I grew to admire and enjoy to be part of my book.
You interviewed over 20 leading nonfiction authors for Nonfiction Writing From the Inside Out. What have you learned from professional nonfiction writers that can help teach writing to students?
Here are 8 things writers taught me that I've included in the book:
- Write about what you love — what you really care about. Then you'll easily find your writing voice.
- Read nonfiction just for the fun of it. But read it to learn what great nonfiction writers do.
- Writing takes time. Forget even thinking of a piece a week. Creativity is hard work.
- Let your writing cool. Put it away for a few days. Then start to revise.
- Use strong verbs. Use specific nouns. Avoid lots of adjectives and adverbs.
- Planning helps the writing.
- Do what Stephen Swinburne calls "octopus research." Throw out dozens of arms. Gather in more information than you'll need. Then think about your audience and your purpose. It will help you focus your piece.
- The content drives how long a piece will be. Kids always want to know, "How much should I write." I always quote a colleague — "As long as a piece of string." Say goodbye to school writing such as the five-paragraph essay and book reports.
Most students don't see nonfiction writing as creative and therefore don't get excited about it. Can you explain how nonfiction writing can be creative?
You know, I talk a lot about that in the book. It's as creative as fiction. Great nonfiction is not just a long list of facts. Creative writers take those facts and connect them to our lives — to our world. They use fiction writing techniques, too. Dialogue, similes and metaphors, strong verbs. They show readers. They don't tell readers what to think. There's one major difference though. Nonfiction must be accurate. The nonfiction writer is also a researcher. But you know, as William Zinsser says — truth is much stranger and more fascinating than fiction. In my book I compare what Jean Craighead George writes about an owl's eyesight to an encyclopedia article on the same topic. George's writing takes my breath away. I'm not putting down "just the facts" kinda writing. There's a place for it in medical journals and encyclopedias. But great nonfiction makes as Michael Tunnell points out — "the world delicious."
When you teach kids one type of writing, does it positively affect other types of writing? How?
The more students write, the better at writing they become. It's like playing the piano or basketball or tennis. Practice makes a huge difference. Since fiction and nonfiction have so much in common, I'd say that one enhances the other. But kids also need lessons. Lessons in writing craft — such as active voice and showing with details — and technique — such as flashbacks and foreshadowing. I'm like the sports coach or music teacher. I'm showing them what and how to practice. I want kids to learn about and write fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. We teachers have a responsibility. It's to help our students learn about all kinds of writing — even cartoons and comic strips.
You meet teachers all the time and hear their concerns about testing and assessment. How much prep time should a writing program include?
That's a question I deal with all the time. What I tell teachers to do is to take two days a month. Introduce the prompt on one day and write on the next. Simulate the testing situation. This way kids become test-wise and comfortable. Use the results to set instructional goals. One class might have to work on repairing run-ons. Another group might need to learn about writing terrific leads. But never prompt kids silly. Remember what writers say — they write what they're passionate about. It's no different for kids. Writing is a process — not a prompt. Kids need time. Time to think of ideas, collect details, plan, draft, revise. It's not lock step either. The parts of the process go back and forth.
If there was one piece of advice you could offer writing teachers, what would it be?
Actually, I'd say 3 things.
- Read, read, read to learn more about writing.
- Let students choose topics they're burning to write about. When they care about a topic, their strong writing voices appear.
- Help them through the process and give them time. Remember, if you want your students to write well — writing takes time.