Disaster, They Wrote!
A Writer-in-Residence Program with Carole G. Vogel
Most middle graders are fascinated by natural disasters, especially ones that have occurred on their own home turf. Carole G. Vogel’s Writer-in-Residence program, Disaster, They Wrote!, harnesses this natural curiosity with a down-to-earth approach for researching and writing about natural events. Carole shares the techniques she uses to create her own books about disasters and shows the students how to write the story of their community’s brush with adversity.
In Massachusetts there is no shortage of natural disasters to write about. The “No Name Storm” that pummeled the East Coast in December 1992, and the colossal blizzards of 1978 and 1993 are the biggest storms of recent memory. However, the New England Hurricane of 1938 was even more destructive, especially to river and coastal communities, and the Great Blizzard of 1888 was the most powerful blizzard on record in the Northeast.
While local libraries and historical societies contain a treasure trove of printed information about these disasters, the key to getting the most from Disaster, They Wrote! is to involve the townspeople. Town residents who experienced a natural disaster can provide photographs and be interviewed by the students. Town employees, such as police officers, fire fighters, and public works employees, can describe how they have coped with disaster in the community. Cooperation from local organizations such as the public library, local historical society, local newspaper, local cable station, and senior center, can turn this program into a community-building event.
Ideally, the program is spaced over a 2-week period. During that time Carole visits a school five to seven times. During each visit she meets with three or four separate groups of students for a period of up to one hour each. She is also available during her visits to consult with teachers.
Preparation and Planning
Two months prior to the start date, Carole helps the teachers to decide which natural disasters will be explored. She supplies the school with detailed lesson plans and advance planning tips. The teachers review the program and discuss with Carole any modifications that are required. With Carole’s input, teachers also determine the following issues relating to research strategies:
- How much hands-on research can be done in the school library and the role the school librarian will take in this project.
- How information will be obtained from the local public library.
- How research will be conducted at the local historical society.
- How the Internet can be used to expedite research.
Three weeks before the program start date, specific faculty members and parents take on the following roles:
- Media contact: A staff member to write a letter on official school stationery to the editor of the local newspaper, explaining the project and making an appeal for help from the community.
- Photograph collector: The art teacher or a parent volunteer to take responsibility for collecting photographs of the disaster from town residents, and making sure that the photos are copied on a high quality copier. This person can help the students create a display using the copies.
- Community Liaison:An adult who arranges for eyewitnesses of the disaster to come to the school to be interviewed by the students.
- Public Library Liaison: A parent or teacher to contact the reference librarian and the children’s librarian at the public library to ascertain the availability of reference materials and work out the logistics of the students using these materials.
- Historical Society Liaison: Someone to contact the local historical society to determine the availability of reference materials and the logistics of the students using these materials.
- Municipal Liaison:Somebody to contact the local police and fire departments, and the department of public works to arrange for speakers to discuss how their departments deal with natural disasters.
- Outside Exhibit Liaisons (optional but highly recommended): The art teacher or a parent volunteer to contact the public library or local businesses about displaying some of the photos, art work, and reports after the project is over.
Goals and Objectives
The primary goal of Disaster, They Wrote! is for students to use the strategies of a nonfiction writer to research and write a report about how a past natural disaster impacted their own community.
The students will:
- Experience firsthand how history is recorded.
- Collect information from newspapers, magazines, books, microfilms, and the Internet.
- Distinguish between fact and opinion.
- Interview townspeople to collect eyewitness testimony,
- Interview town employees to determine how the municipality responds to a crisis.
- Organize and write a nonfiction account of a disaster using the writing strategies of a nonfiction writer.
- Prepare a display showing how a natural disaster impacted the town.
The lesson plans meet the requirements of many of the learning standards stated in the Composition Strand and the Media Strand of the English Language Arts section of the Massachusetts Curriculum Framework, and they connect directly with the Science and Technology, Arts, and Social Studies disciplines in the curriculum framework.
The activities for each day of the residency and teacher involvement
Day 1: Process: Preparation for Writing
“What Do Kids and Nonfiction Writers Have in Common?” In a fifty-minute presentation, Carole explores the common ground that nonfiction writers share with students. Using an interactive approach, she demonstrates how her stories evolve from idea to printed word utilizing the same strategies students apply in report writing.
- Teachers assign students a disaster to write about and give them a copy of the author’s writing guidelines, “How to Write a Nonfiction Report.”
- Teachers finalize arrangements for the students to access resource materials not in the school library.
Day 2: Process: Preparation for Writing
“Clues to Evaluating Sources.” Carole Vogel shares with the students her strategies for evaluating information in print sources and on the Internet. She will explore in depth the question, “Is the information you find on the Internet always accurate?”
- Teachers give students opportunities to do library research. Emphasis is on using a variety of media, both print and electronic, including books, magazines, newspapers, microfilms, video, and the Internet.
Day 3: Process: Preparation for Writing
“Narrowing the topic and note taking.” Carole emphasizes the importance of writing down questions to be answered in the report and using these questions to organize their research. She then gives students tips on skimming and scanning reference materials to collect the facts that answer the questions. The value of using index cards to record and organize information is explained, as well as the perils of plagiarism.
- Teachers will reinforce the concepts of note taking and summarizing information.
Day 4: Process: Preparation for Writing
“Conducting an Interview.” Carole discusses the importance of interviews when collecting information. She stresses the value of generating questions before an interview, taking notes during an interview, and asking follow-up questions. Students are given a chance to interview each other before they interview eyewitnesses for their disaster reports.
- Teachers provide students with the opportunity to interview town employees and eyewitnesses to the town’s disaster.
Day 5: Process: Preparation for Writing, and Drafting
“Outlining.” Carole shows students how to make an outline and organize their report into a beginning, middle, and end.
- Students are given the assignment of writing the first draft of their reports.
Day 6: Processes: Revising and Editing
”Action verbs, the key to vivid language.” Carole explores the power of vivid verbs with the students. She begins with the reading of a selection from The Great Yellowstone Fire by Vogel and Goldner. The students identify the verbs used to add action to the story. Students apply the lesson by selecting one photo of a dramatic disaster scene and one photo with people to use together in story.
- Students will serve as peer editors for each other and critique each other’s first draft of the report. The students will then revise their reports based on the critiques.
- The teachers will edit the students’ work and the students will revise their reports based on the critique.
- Optional lesson on connotations. The students will identify the positive or negative feelings associated with a specific word.
Day 7: Process: Publishing
“Written reports.” Students will produce a final copy of their work by writing it out by hand or using a computer to produce a printed copy. Depending on the preference of the teachers (and students), students may also submit their work as an oral presentation, on videotape, or on audiotape.
- The teachers will evaluate the final reports.
Integration of the arts with other subjects.
(Carole provides guidelines for linking the program with the arts and other academic disciplines.)
- Art Project. Students can graphically represent the disaster they have been researching in murals, drawings, or other art projects.
- Photographic Display.Students can help set up a photographic display of the photos contributed by town residents showing the impact of the disaster on their community,
- Disasters and Art. This activity explores the work of nature photographers and painters, as well as the role of photojournalists, in recording images of natural disasters.
Social studies connections:
- Map Making.Based on the information they have gathered during their research, students can make a map of their town showing the impact of the natural disaster.
- Map Reading and Directions.Students locate on a map the places where famous natural disasters have occurred. They then determine the best route between their hometown and the disaster site.
Science, technology, and math connections:
- The Science of Disasters. The meteorological and geological causes of disasters are explored.
- Weather.Teachers can invite a meteorologist to visit and discuss “disaster weather.”
- Web page.If the school or town has a web site, the teacher can contact the web master about having the students place their findings on a web page.
- Disaster Safety: Students can explore strategies for keeping safe in areas prone to hurricanes, blizzards, fire, floods, or earthquakes.
- Advice Column:Students can pretend they are an advice columnist and write answers to such questions as: What should I do if there is a hurricane warning? What should I do if a blizzard is coming?
Before the final draft is written, students will pair up and review each other’s manuscripts. Together they will answer the following questions:
- Can the beginning be more exciting?
- Did you have trouble following any of the parts?
- Are the facts arranged in a way that makes sense?
- Are there places where more details are needed?
- Are there unnecessary details or repeated facts that can be cut?
- Which short, choppy sentences can be combined to make more interesting ones?
- Which long, complicated sentences should be split apart?
- Where can you substitute vivid words for dull ones?
- Is the spelling correct?
- Is the punctuation correct?
- Does the ending tie the facts together in an interesting way?
Based on their findings, students will prepare the final draft. If the students’ final reports clearly and accurately communicate the scope of the disaster in an interesting fashion, then the teachers will know that the goals and objectives of the program were met.