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Author Study, Anytime, Anywhere

While doing a bit of professional reading as a new second grade teacher, I came across something called a craft study. My grade level colleagues and I were so inspired by the notion that we each created an oversized laminated chart to capture the learning we were about to embark on with students. The chart covered half of my front white board and had room for three to four picture book studies that would be carried out through the lens of author’s craft.

One book that I used in that first year, and continue to recommend today, was “In My New Yellow Shirt” by Eileen Spinelli. In the pages of this book, my second grade readers and writers came to better understand the power of purposeful patterns, onomatopoeia, em dash, metaphor and more. Our classroom chart came alive with our observations following each read aloud, and our writing mini lessons invited students into the application of the craft moves employed by Spinelli. The work, driven by inquiry, was ever joyful and fruitful. The writing that took shape in the room was sophisticated and playful and began as a simple act of noticing and naming what authors do or tend to do.

Later, in my middle school teaching years, our unit-long author studies were often kicked off with a class study of writers such as Ian Falconer and Cynthia Rylant. Book clubs followed with a study of an author of choice--these included writers like Gordon Korman, Suzanne Collins, Andrew Clements, Gary Paulson and Kate DiCamillo, to name a few. The craft noticing and naming continued in this work as well. Student thinking and conversation drove the development of ideas surrounding why particular authors used certain symbols, how some authors used inner thought to reveal turmoil, while others still relied on similes to carry deeper meanings and ideas. An eye for author’s craft and intention became commonplace within our classroom as students created notebook entries to collect examples of their findings--regular use of flashback, patterns of character choice, vivid setting description and the list goes on.

Now that many of us find ourselves teaching and connecting from home rather than from within the four walls of our physical classrooms, we want to ensure that the eLearning or home learning is as robust, joyful and playful as possible. How else can we expect students to invest in the work? With this concern in mind, we might consider the role that author study can play in designing powerful home learning.

For our primary readers, there are a host of digital resources from which they can read, such as Rivet, A to Z Reading, Get Epic and Readworks. For some of our readers, they may already have a favorite author and a small collection of his or her books on their shelves at home. Perhaps a family might consider ordering a few new books by an author of their student’s choice. We can invite our youngest readers into an author study by suggesting a few simple steps to follow across a given week of home learning:

  1. Read 4-6 books by an author you enjoy.

  2. Study your books. Look at a few side-by-side and notice, “What’s alike here? What’s different? What’s something interesting the author/illustrator did?”

  3. Talk about it! Find someone to share all that you’re noticing. Ask them what they notice about the books and the writing of the author.

  4. Write. Be an apprentice. Try a bit of writing on your own. Challenge yourself to try something new that you learned from your author.

  5. Share your own writing. Maybe this means you’ll Facetime a friend or your grandma. Maybe you can record it on your classroom Seesaw page. Come up with your own way of sharing!

Original work by Nathan Amador, inspired by author Jerry Pallotta

For our older readers, there are again options as to how they might access texts. Some are subscription based, at a district level, while others are free, such as the Libby app which links to your public library card. Libby allows readers to borrow digital versions of thousands of books and also offers some texts as audio books. In the case of these upper grade readers, let’s think about what might support their thinking through longer works by a given author. If we’re using an online classroom platform, we might provide some examples of how to structure notebook entries by uploading a few samples from our own teaching notebook. These could serve as a guide for students who aren’t sure of how to begin. Our communication to older readers might look something like this:

  1. Select your author and texts. Create a list of “Want to Read” books and post your intention (for your classmates and teacher to see).

  2. Set goals. Create a reading template for yourself. This will help you set reasonable daily reading expectations and allow you to identify a lens through which you plan to read. Wonderings or inquiries make for a great lens. Here are a few to consider: Are you looking at the types of characters the author develops? Is there a symbol that seems to be taking shape? What ideas or representations has the author chosen to include and what has been left out?

  3. Reflect. Throughout daily reading, take the time to stop and capture your thinking. Perhaps there are several places across the text where you stop to jot on a post-it and tag those pages. Perhaps you create an original entry in your notebook (either physical or digital) that supports what you’ve started to notice about the author and the text (see below example).

  4. Talk about it! Reach out to your teacher during digital support/office hours or a trusted classmate. Take the time to share your newest bit of thinking and writing in your notebook. Open a conversation so they might help you think and push yourself some more. Add these new ideas to your thinking and your notebook.

  5. Share. Once you’ve finished at least one book by your author, teach someone else about this author and their craft. Create a vlog, an infographic, or a gallery of notebook work and ask for others’ feedback. Send an email or letter of admiration or thanks to your author through their webpage or publisher. Connect with others in a way that matters to you.

  6. Repeat the steps above as you begin a second book by your selected author. Deepen the work you’ve begun and find more ways to think, connect, share and teach.

Optional notebook tool to gather author noticings across stories

No matter the age of the readers you support, time within an author study is well spent. In our distance learning days, deep and meaningful work can prevail. With our guidance and an openness to possibility, readers have the chance to fall in love with authors new to them or find a deeper appreciation for those familiar. Staying connected, even to the writers on the page, now seems more important than ever.