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Instructional Excellence and Joy: An Author’s Visit

Author visits were once a common school or grade level enrichment in this book-focused community, but they mostly fell by the wayside during the pandemic. Slowly they’re making their way back onto calendars, especially at the elementary level. As one example, third grade students at Seawell Elementary School recently listened to nationally renowned author Stacy McAnulty. There they were, sitting on the floor of the media center, “eyes up front” and remarkably quiet and engaged for a pre-lunch assembly. “These third graders were amazing! I could have spent hours chatting with them. What a thoughtful and kind bunch!!!” McAnulty tweeted later that day.

Stacy McA at Seawell

First, you should know that McAnulty never planned to be a writer. She was a “math and science” person through and through, with a degree in mechanical engineering. “I didn’t take a single English class in college,” she often tells her audiences. But with titles like “Moon! Earth’s Best Friend” and “Brains! Not Just a Zombie Snack,” McAnulty infuses Joy and humor into her nonfiction narratives, even as she provides Instructional Excellence through student-centered, standards-aligned content, both of which are key components of the CHCCS Strategic Plan 2027: Think (and Act) Differently.

The book she shared was “Blood! Not Just a Vampire Drink” – a seamlessly blended mix of hematology (and general life science), folklore, Informational Writing 101 and a consistent stream of silliness. One of the third grade Science standards is to understand human body systems and how they are essential for life. Students listened and watched with their eyes wide. They learned about the four components of blood – plasma, platelets, red blood cells and white blood cells, but they also learned that the blood of humans contains tiny traces of gold. They thumped on their “big bloodmaking bones,” their breast bones and spines.

Stacy McA at Seawell

Seawell Media Specialist, Laura Nolan, said, “Author visits are a wonderful way to inspire creativity in students and excite them about reading and writing. Seeing an author in person creates a human connection for students and has an impact that lasts far beyond the visit. Students also have the opportunity to meet and interact with someone who may look like them, which allows students to feel seen and understand that reading and writing are for all students, not just a select few.” 

McAnulty carefully outlined her writing process and helped students understand how important each step is to producing a compelling, instructive piece of nonfiction writing. “I LOVE research,” she crowed with obvious delight. “How do you think I learn what I need to know?” she asked the students. 

“Google it!” “Read books!” “Talk to experts,” the children answered. McAnulty declared all their answers correct and added, “Field trips can help a lot, too.”

The author showed slides with photos of her working drafts, and many children seemed surprised to see the text stripped of illustrations. “I leave sticky note suggestions to the illustrator but I don’t tell them exactly what to do,” McAnulty said. One student said she was really surprised to learn that authors don’t tell the illustrators what to draw.

Stacy McA at Seawell

“The big part is actually REWRITING,” McAnulty told the students. With the blood book, she wrote eight drafts, and then her editor requested three more drafts – numbers which made many children gasp. “That TWO YEARS is when most of the work is done,” McAnulty said. She acknowledged that some days of writing and revising are much harder than others, but she confided that she depends on her system of “little rewards along the way.”

Her advice for writers? 
     1) First drafts can be fast and messy.
     2) Read lots of other books, both similar and different.
     3) Eat Gummy worms! (A November tweet declared, “The next 1000 words will be brought to you by gummy worms!)

Third grade teacher, Tania Cruse, said, “I liked how she talked about the writing process and displayed it with a visual describing each process in detail.”

Nolan reflected on the power of introducing a writer like McAnulty to young students. “I think having students see a woman, who was formerly a mechanical engineer, make the jump to author and explaining the passion and process is such an important part of the puzzle for students.”