Spotlight on Avi and The Secret School
An author study is an excellent way to investigate and celebrate the work of a writer. One of the best ways to "meet an author" is through his or her books. As students read the books or listen to them on tape, encourage them to make connections among the author's works and to examine the copyright dates as a way of delineating the path of an author's career. To launch an author study, you might:
- collect and share a selection of the author's work.
- download biographical material from Avi's Web site and those of his publishers. You might also look for the biography Avi by Lois Markham.
- make a list of interesting facts about the author's life on a poster pad.
- assign one of the author's books as independent or group reading, or read one book aloud to the class.
- have students read one or more other books by the author so they can compare themes, settings, characters, plots, genres, and styles.
- assign groups of students to monitor different elements of Avi's work. For example, one group might keep records of his settings including both the place and time period of his stories. Another group might note Avi's use of figures of speech such as similes. ("Behind them, dust twirled out like an unraveling rope." from The Secret School.) These lists are a good way to make comparisons among Avi's many books and also with other authors.
Books by Avi
Here is a selection of titles by Avi that you might want to include in your author study. For students who are more comfortable with an easier level, you might have them read Finding Providence, Prairie School, or Abigail Takes the Wheel. Advanced readers might look at Blue Heron or Nothing but the Truth.
Who Was That Masked Man, Anyway?
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle
Abigail Takes the Wheel
Emily Upham's Revenge
History of Helpless Harry
The Man Who Was Poe
Punch With Judy
The Christmas Rat
Link the Author to the Literature
According to family legend, when Avi was five, he appeared at the dinner table one night screaming, "I can read, I can read!" As a child, his birthdays and holidays were marked by the gift of books, his Friday afternoons by trips to the local library, while his allowance was marked for visits to a bookstore. This pursuit of learning is an important theme in The Secret School.
Avi's family has a mountain cabin in the Elk Valley of Colorado, and it was near there that his interest was caught by one-room schoolhouses. He writes, "As we drive there we see a fair number of buildings that used to be one-room schoolhouses. One of them is still functioning!" After reading about this form of education, Avi wrote The Secret School. He says, "There are many folks today who were educated in one-room schoolhouses. And if they weren't, their grandparents were. This book tries to capture what it was like, and tells the story about a very plucky young heroine."
Plot and Problems
Before introducing The Secret School to students, pose this question: What are some good strategies for solving problems? List students' responses on the chalkboard and work with them to distill the ideas so they apply to most problems. Remind students that the main character(s) in a book usually have a problem to solve and/or a goal to achieve. Suggest that students keep their problem-solving strategies in mind as they read The Secret School.
After students have read The Secret School, ask them to discuss how Ida solves her problem. Ask: Which strategy or strategies does Ida use? How does the poem she recites at the school board meeting relate to her problem solving? Use questions such as these to help students relate the book to the author:
- How do you think Avi feels about education? How does he show that in this book? Is this theme evident in any of his other books? Are there other themes students can find in more than one book?
- How would you describe Ida? Why do you think Avi writes about plucky characters? How is Ida similar to the main characters in other Avi books?
Writing Advice from Avi
Draw students' attention to the strong word pictures that Avi creates about setting in his books. Use as examples his description of the schoolhouse exterior on page 3 and interior on pages 6-7. Then have students try this writing exercise from Avi: "In three sentences or less, describe the room in which you sleep. Make your description so vivid that somebody who has never seen your room will know what it looks like inside." After students have written their descriptions, have them exchange papers with a partner. Ask the partners to draw what the description suggests. Partners can then discuss the accuracy of the drawings in terms of the written descriptions.
Tell students that rewriting and revision are an important part of Avi's working process. He thinks writers should review their work often and try to find ways to help the reader "see, feel, and experience the situations." Encourage students to revise their descriptions to meet Avi's guidelines.
You can use Avi's books to initiate a study of different genres. Tell students that his books can be classified as adventure, mystery, comedy, historical fiction, and fantasy. Discuss the characteristics of these genres and then have students decide on a category for the Avi books you have collected. Point out that some books might fall into more than one genre. For example, Who Was That Masked Man, Anyway? might be considered historical fiction and comedy.
Building the Connections
Help students summarize and review what they have learned about Avi with one of these activities:
- Tell students that Avi has received many awards, including two Newbery Honor Book awards for The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle and Nothing but the Truth. Then have students decide on an award they would give Avi. Students should be able to explain what the award is for and why they would bestow it.
- Have students each choose a book by Avi and create an illustration to represent it. Students might then use their pictures to make a large paper quilt honoring Avi's books.