Friday, March 13, 2015

Writing Teachers' Guides with Katy Farber

Katy Farber is a local sixth grade teacher who has written two previous nonfiction books on education, Why Great Teachers Quit - And How We Might Stop the Exodus and Change the World with Service Learning, along with the e-book Eat Nontoxic: A Manual for Busy Parents. Her first novel, The Order of the Trees, comes out from Green Writers Press this May. It tells the story of sixth grader Cedar, found under a cedar tree, whose life is intrinsically tied to the story of the forest and ecosystem health. As a current teacher, and instructor of graduate-level education courses, we were interested in how Katy approached the process of writing a teacher's guide for her new book. It turns out, the guide is a collaboration between Katy and a local high school student. Here's what she had to say:

1. How did your own experience with using teachers' guides in the classroom shape how you wanted to approach writing one?

I have used various guides and resources for books read in the classroom and always appreciate when I can get my hands on a teacher's guide. I particularly like when they are included within the book so teachers (and students) can have them right there in the book and don't need to track down an additional resource. 

All teachers (myself included) want to inspire students to think deeply about their reading, to connect, make inferences, explore their perspectives and look for themes. I am always looking for or crafting questions that help students learn reading strategies, to practice critical thinking, and to think about biases, new perspectives, and diverse narratives about life and humanity. When [Green Writers Press] intern, Lindsey, shared her questions, they had an authentic young adult's voice and curiosity, so I knew they would work well.

2. How did you and Lindsay connect? How are you collaborating?  

My publisher, Dede Cummings of [Brattleboro-based] Green Writers Press put us in touch. . . she took it from there. Lindsey [a High School Junior in Townshend, VT] said she wanted to read The Order of the Trees and work on the reader's guide questions. She took off with it and wrote many thoughtful questions. Honestly, I wasn't sure how to limit the quantity of them because she shared so many great questions. They were thought provoking and engaging. 

We collaborated on some of the environmental issue questions in the guide. The book deals with deforestation and we played with some of the wording around that issue. She was responsive and completely engaged. We connected via email for our collaboration.

3. What have you learned about the student perspective from this collaboration? How would that shape your approach to future similar projects?

It reminded me of what topics strike a chord with young adults. They are astute observers of the world and can critically analyze text. I found her questions interesting and unique and would likely have not thought of them myself-- I'm too attached to the work and it is harder to objectively look overall and write these questions. I would be interested in teaming with another young adult to create a relevant reader's guide that is usable.

4. Do you have any advice you would give to authors who are not themselves educators on writing teacher's guides? 

The advice I would give would be to try and picture an organic, authentic book group conversation about your book. What would they talk about? What would you want to hear fellow readers explore? Let that be your guide. Go for the juicy, deep and personal elements of the book. These will likely be the ones your readers will want to explore and discuss. In addition, with teachers and students in mind, think of overall themes, character development, setting, and descriptive language. These are concepts teachers must show students how to explore through text and questions-- and so questions about these can be helpful for student learning. 

You can find out about the launch of Order of the Trees and places Katy is appearing at her website

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