Monday, October 19, 2009

A PLACE FOR WONDER: Author Interview Today

If you have not picked up a copy of A Place for Wonder: Reading and Writing Nonfiction in the Primary Grades by Georgia Heard and Jen McDonough, you will definitely want to do so after you read today's interview. We are thrilled to be the first stop on a blog tour for the authors of this great new professional book for teachers.

Georgia Heard's work has had a huge impact on my teaching. Her first book for teachers, FOR THE GOOD OF THE EARTH AND SUN gave me a new way to think about poetry writing with my students. In this new book, she teams with classroom teacher Jennifer McDonough to help us think about how to build on children's natural sense of wonder in schools. Together the two authors help us see the importance of making time and space for children's curiosities and celebrations of the world around them. They also show us how to connect those natural wonders in ways that help them grow as readers, writers, and researchers.

Although this is a book written for classroom teachers in grades K-2, I can see it being read and used by teachers at many levels. As a school librarian, this book has helped me think about ways to make research more real in the library---ways to think about space in ways that invite students to own their learning by starting with their wonders.

If you want to preview the book, it is available on Stenhouse's website. I am planning on rereading it and thinking about ways that the brilliance of these two educators can help me transform the library.

Now, onto the interview!

Franki: (for Georgia): We have always known you to write about poetry and writing. What made you decide to take on a different topic for this book?
When my son was younger, he inspired me by how curious he was -- especially about the natural world. During every outing, he learned something new and he asked hundreds of questions about how the world works. I’ve written and spoken about this especially with poetry but with all writing really – how poems, novels –- come from curiosity, close observation and the freedom to explore. I believe that young children are natural poets because they have a poetic way of looking at the world.

Georgia: When my son attended school for the first time, I was surprised by how that poetic way of looking at the world, the appetite for learning and curiosity, was almost viewed as a negative and a distraction. The structure and curriculum of school seemed to want him to do the opposite – to rein his unbounded enthusiasm in. So, I began to investigate early childhood and primary grade classrooms and environments, and realized that particularly with No Child Left Behind – many primary classrooms were not places of exploration and curiosity because teachers were under so much pressure to plan their curriculums around state tests. I was so grateful to meet Jen, who was my son’s teacher, who felt the same way as I did, and we teamed up to explore creating a wonder-filled world for primary children. So, it was a personal decision to pursue the idea -- not just for my son -- but for all young children.

Franki: So much of the book is about valuing the things students wonder about and creating spaces for wonder in our classrooms. Can you share a bit of your thinking on that?

Georgia and Jen: Matthew Fox wrote that many of our schools have become “knowledge factories” rather than “wisdom schools.” I’ve always loved this description because it seems so true. But then we ask ourselves, What would a wisdom school look like? And what kind of wisdom would it teach?
We feel that wisdom is about thinking deeply and paying attention to what’s around us, perceiving things around you with a sense of what really matters, and asking questions about the world around you. Children are naturally curious and come to school wanting to know how the world works. How many schools truly nurture and value that natural sense of wonder? It’s important for children to know that we care enough about what they’re curious about to make a space and time for those questions during the school day. Last week, one of the hermit crabs came out of its shell, and the kids were so excited about this seemingly small event. Jen sent them to the pet observation journal where they wrote down their questions and observations. Because Jen made a place for their wonder, they were able to savor that moment in words.

Franki: What is your advice for teachers who are trying to create places of wonder while still meeting the high-stakes testing environment that is present in today¹s schools?

Georgia and Jen: Teachers with little, or no extra time, can still create places of wonder in their classrooms. Teachers can set up wonder centers as an activity in the morning when kids first arrive, or as after-school activities. You can write a question on a chart, and invite students to write their thoughts and answers throughout the day as a kind of shared writing. In A Place for Wonder: Reading and Writing Nonfiction in the Primary Grades, we name numerous centers and activities that teachers can put in place without giving up curriculum time. But the bigger question is how can teachers find their voices, and make a stand as to what we value in the curriculum for young students.

Franki: You have so many great suggestions for teachers about ways to make room for spaces where children can be curious and creative. If teachers were going to create one space to start, what would you suggest?

Georgia and Jen: The Discovery Table is the most popular of all the centers because kids love the natural world, and this center seems to connect them to the wider world. They love holding the shells, acorns, and robin’s eggs, etc. in their hands, and seeing new details when they look through a magnifying glass. We would also set up a Wondering Center to start –- a chart, a board -- where children write down and explore their questions throughout the day.

Franki: You include several booklists in the book. Can you each tell us about one of your favorite children¹s books from the book and the ways that you¹ve seen children respond to the title?

Georgia: One of my favorite books, and one of children’s favorites as well, is Byrd Baylor’s THE OTHER WAY TO LISTEN because it speaks about walking in the world like a poet – not just labeling trees and rocks with proper names -- but being able to see and understand their beauty. Children love this book because that’s how they perceive the world. Another favorite is THE WISE OLD WOMAN AND HER SECRET by Eve Merriam because it tells the story of how a child’s natural gift of curiosity and wonder are the keys to living a wise and intelligent life. It’s a great read aloud as you introduce the wonder centers.

Jen: THE FIRST SONG EVERY SUNG by Laura Krauss Melmed is a great example for kids of a heart wonder book. It shows that big, thoughtful questions often have different answers depending on who you are asking, and what you, as the author, believe. My kids were so enthralled by the illustrations, and realized quickly that the same question was being asked again and again, and the boy was getting different answers each time he asked different people. When I finished reading, I asked them what they noticed and they were quick to point out that the way the question was being answered was different each time. Right after the read aloud, I gave my mini lesson on writing heart wonders -- exploring a question through your own beliefs instead of looking the answer up in a book. It’s hard to find text that support the idea of writing from heart wonders but this book does it really well!
For Research Wonder work, the
I Wonder Why Series by Kingfisher is an excellent choice for the classroom library. The illustrations are engaging and the text is fairly easy to read. These books are also great for examining non-fiction text features as they contain: table of contents; indexes; captions; fun facts and diagrams. These books are always in book baggies because the kids love to read them!

Franki: What do you see happen with research projects when students know that the things they wonder about are valued? How does classroom research and student learning change?

Georgia and Jen: We noticed that, prior to this wonder work, some of the topics, even ones that were personal, would fizzle out –the kids lost their enthusiasm to continue because they had little ownership over the process. When children’s wonders become part of their research the energy is tangible -- they are persistent and enthusiastic about exploring their questions, and also about becoming experts on their topics. We also discovered that the writing used to be more superficial, “Cats have four legs….” but with this way of exploring non-fiction, it helped push the children’s writing as the kids’ pieces were filled with craft, and voice as they try to emulate favorite non-fiction authors.

Franki: This book is targeted to teachers in grades K-2 but to me, there were so many things that would really support older kids as well. Through your research and writing, what tips do you have for teachers of upper elementary students when it comes to curiosity, creativity, research, and nonfiction writing?

Georgia and Jen: You’re right, encouraging wonder and curiosity in the classroom is not just for the primary grades. If you think about the genres of writing – poetry, fiction, nonfiction, essays, newspaper articles, etc. – authors of those genres speak about getting their ideas from observation and wonder. A unit of study on personal essays could have a wonder component. We might start with asking students if they have a question or a wonder -- that they’ve asked themselves for awhile –that they could explore in a personal essay. Students could also keep wonder boxes – or wonder notebooks – of questions and ideas they want to pursue in independent projects. Teachers could write a question – pertaining to the curriculum, or not, -- on an easel, and kids could write down their theories and ideas during the day. And of course, their research writing could be fueled by their wonders.


  1. Fabulous, thanks for putting this together. Now, I have to use my free shipping flier from Stenhouse to order.

  2. So many ideas to consider for our next plc time! Thanks for hosting such amazing guests.

  3. This was a great interview; I'm looking forward to reading the book. I wonder if it's really true that teachers "with no or little extra time" can facilitate a culture of wonder in their classroms...? I've seen many a poster in a classroom labeled "Our Wonderings" with a lackluster number and quality of questions underneath. (Often a stale relic of September's best intentions...)

    As a literacy coach, I often talk to teachers about how the way we use time really reveals what we understand and believe about how children learn.

    What kinds of teaching might be required to sustain a wondering "curriculum" long enough to grow it from a mere chart or basket of magnifying glasses to a richer, more transformational classroom lens for thinking and learning?

  4. Hello Everyone! Seats are still available for a free, live webcast with Georgia Heard and Jennifer McDonough on Monday, Oct. 26, at 8 p.m. EST. If you are interested in participating, e-mail by Friday, Oct. 23.

  5. I am a huge fan of Georgia and I think her new book is her best. After reading her book I discovered a wonderful new poetry book -The Tree That Time Built: A celebration of nature, science, and imagination. Fits nicely with Georgia's philosophy.

    Nancy From Maine Mornings


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