May 17, 2013

Yesterday I went to the Davidson Laboratory at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. I
interviewed Dr. Alan Blumburg who did the interview above for the Weather Channel.Here is a brief video of my meeting with Dr. Blumberg:

May 10,2013

Here's a video of some of the people I met on my research trip to Florida.


Good morning, Discovery:

I thought you might like to know a little bit about the research I'm currently doing on hurricanes. After doing my homework, which means reading a lot of books, I need to dig deeper, which means talking to hurricane experts. As you know, I've tried to speak to Ross Hoffman, who wrote the article, "Controlling Hurricanes," for the Scientific American that gave me the idea for this project. He works for that company that has been giving me a hard time and where I sent your ideas about having him talk to me. So far, they haven't come through. But I never put all my eggs in one basket. I contacted another author of a book on hurricanes, Dr. Stephen Leatherman, who works for Florida International University in Miami. He knew several other people I should talk to, and since Miami is the home of the National Hurricane Center, I arranged to make a trip to Miami. Since I don't have a lot of money, I used miles for my airplane ticket, stayed at the home of the Leathermans and planned to get everything done in two days. I packed my interview and travel tools:

In this picture you see my notebook and pens. I staple the cards of the people I talk to into the notebook so I don't lose them. At the top is my own gps, which I used in the rental car to find my way around Miami. Just below the gps is my cell phone for taking pictures. To the right of the cell phone is my new digital recorder, so I can record everything that is said. Taking notes is a distraction, for me. I need to listen very carefully and I only write down notes of spelling of particular things. When I get home, I upload the audio files from the recorder and transcribe them. That means I listen again to what was said and type it into a Word file. On the left is my videocamera. I'm making a short video so you can meet some of the people I talked to. I hope to post it later today or tomorrow.

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Here I am on Biscayne Bay. Miami Beach is across the Bay in the background.
This is the National Hurricane Center. Note all the radar dishes and communication devices on the roof. Inside the center, there is a statement of its mission:

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This is my host, Dr. Stephen Leatherman. He is an environmentalist and is very interested in nature. He has many exotic trees and flowers on his property. He is showing me this very strange flower. I have no idea what its name is. But the fruit on his grounds included an avacado tree, lichee nut trees, mango trees, and one that tasted amazing but I can't remember the name. Stephen complained that the squirrels were eating too much of the fruit before he could harvest it

Hello Discovery:

When I was eight years old I learned a very important lesson that has influenced my entire life but I had to lose something important to learn it. I had made a hand-puppet in school; you know the kind that fits over your fingers like a loose glove. It was a lot of work. First I sculpted the head in Plasticine clay. Then I covered it with gooey strips of newspaper dipped in a flour/water paste. (This is called papier mache.) It took several weeks to dry before I cut it in half to removed the clay and pasted the molded paper halves together to form the head. Then I painted it to look like my father. Since he was bald, I pasted vertical pieces of yarn around the sides of his head leaving the top bare. I made the "dress" of the puppet and attached it to the head. It took several more weeks to finish but everyone oohed and aahed and told me how wonderful it was. I was very proud of it. Then, over the weekend, just after I had finished it, a mouse came and ate off the nose leaving behind a giant hole smack in the middle of the face! (I guess it liked the taste of flour.) My teacher discovered the damage on Monday morning. There was no way to repair it! She worried about how to break the news to me. But she shouldn't have worried. Surprisingly, I was not upset. I realized that my fun with the puppet came from making it. I had been so into it when I was doing it. I knew that I now could always make another puppet if I wanted to and no mouse, or anyone else, for that matter, could take that knowledge away from me. The lesson I learned was that the process of creating is more important for me than the product.

Why am I telling you this now? We are nearing the end of our time working together. Some people worked very hard and finished a project. Others are just getting started on their research. What I have been working with Mrs. Svarda to help you learn is that doing the research to create a piece of nonfiction writing is a process. Sometimes the hardest part is just getting started, so some students may feel that they have failed if they didn't produce a published work. Since all of you have started the process, there is nothing stopping you from continuing it on your own (even if you think you've finished it). there is no time limit--you have your whole lives ahead of you. I promise that any work you continue to do will be useful to you in your future schoolwork. I have started many projects that I didn't finish. I hang onto them and when the opportunity arises, sometimes years later, I can sell them and they become a book or a video or a poster or some other product. If you regard the work you've done so far as part of the process that includes learning about yourself, about your subject, and about the skills you now possess and those you have yet to learn, nothing is wasted. If you can do something on your own, without a school assignment you are a "self-starter." This is a trait that employers in your future are looking for. So if you're sorry that you didn't do more with this assignment, keep going. And if you'd like to do something new, go for it! If you have any questions about this thinking, please feel free to ask.

Hello Discovery:
Yesterday I met with the sixth grade. We discussed the possibilities of writing something that comes out of their research. Here is a summary of my thoughts about writing:

1. Writing can't be taught but it can be learned. The only way to learn it is to do it then to get feedback on what you've done. And then change your writing to reflect the feedback.
2. When you read other peoples' writing, be critical. Look at the first sentence. Does it grab your attention, does it make you want to read the next sentence?
3. You must welcome criticism of your own writing. It's the only way to make it more powerful. Form critique groups and read each other's work and comment on it. How could you say what you want to say and say it better? The act of writing changes you. After you write something you are different from before. You grow as a person and when you write something new, you bring your new person to the task.
4. Think about who you're writing to. What kind of person will be reading your material? Do they know about what you're writing about? If not, you must write so that they'll be interested in getting to know about your topic. I write for the uninitiated. I assume my reader knows nothing about science. So I begin by talking about something they do know about but I try and show the subject in an interesting way, in a way that, perhaps they never thought of. Look at the first sentences of my books. See how I do it.
5. Before my books are published they are read at least 35 times by at least 8 different people. I wrote a post about this. Don't be in a hurry to publish something half-baked. I want you to be proud of what you share with the world, even if it is only a single well-crafted paragraph. I want you to know what it feels like to produce excellent work. Everyone is capable of doing this. It just takes time. Be patient. Anything you develop for this brief time we're working together is NOT wasted. Put it away and then bring it out when you have an assignment later on in your school career.
6. Begin with something specific. General statements like "Some things in the world are very, very big." is boring. A specific statement, even if it is a question, that has a playful mode grabs attention. Here are some of mine:

"Want to smell something rotten? Take a deep breath by a garbage can. If it's rotten, your nose, knows."

"Ouch! Blood! Not a happy sight. A little blood is ot serious. A lot of blood can mean death."

7. General statements can be a powerful summation at the end of a paragraph or at the end of an article. It is the conclusion you want your readers to come to. Here's the last paragraph of a book I wrote. If I had used the last sentence first it would have been boring. But as the last sentence of the book, it is a powerful statement:

"Dig into the forest floor. Grab a handful of the damp, black crumbly stuff under the leaves. Smell it. You are smelling something completely rotten. It smells sweet and rich. Completely rotten stuff makes the soil rich. It fertilized the soil so that new plants can grow in this rich soil. The end of rot becomes a part of new living things that will grow, then die and rot again. Rotting is a part of the cycle of living things."

8. A good way to structure writing is to ask questions that your writing will answer. All reporters know that there are five Ws that a good article answers: Who? What? Where? When? and finally, if it is known, Why? They also add one H--How? There is no particular order to these questions except that the Why is usually last.

9. Remember that every writer has two problems: The first is having something to say. The second is finding a way to say it. Your brain is truly your processor, like a computer. You have to feed it ideas and information--the gozinto phase and then you have to craft it into something someone else might just want to read. The gozouta phase takes a LOT of practice.

10. A writer is a leader. You want to write so that the reader sees something for themselves in what you say. It can be entertaining, instructions on how to do something interesting, an opinion or point of view on something people know about, a new way to think about something familiar. After you write a lot of material, you develop a style of writing the becomes familiar to readers. It is called a writer's "voice." Do you hear me talking to you in my writing? Can you hear my voice? Do you understand that I care about you understanding me? I want to empower you to become powerful speakers and lifelong learners. It guarantees an interesting, exciting and productive life. And it enhances every single career choice on earth.

Good morning Sarah:

I woke up this morning with some ideas for you:
First: Your students each need to come up with a question that their writing will answer. For example: Malinda is interested in llamas. Llamas have a nasty habit of spitting. She might want to write something on why and when llamas spit. So the idea is to google the two disparate terms "llamas" and "spitting" and see what it brings up. Other people may find a connection with two surprising aspects of their subject. You've already addressed why dung beetles dance ( but to get there quickly, google "dung beetles" and "dance")and how we know that. Nico might want to contact the PR department of Orlando Universal and ask a PR person what most people don't know about Orlando Universal. PR departments are there to answer questions about their companies they would LOVE a question like that. Miguel might call his writing "The Deadliest Weapon of Ancient Times." Then he can discuss Greek fire in his own words.
Looking through the journals:

Nzou might google "blobfish" "enzymes" "mating behavior"

Kcwiley might google "origami" and "history" to learn more about how it all started. Also, the book Sadako and the Paper Thousand Cranes might also be of interest. It is a true and powerful story.

So you might suggest that your students look through their dash notes and find two words that don't seem to be connected to each other and their topic and google those words.

Second: Here's a resource for you:
Ken McCrorie has a system for students writing called I-Search. It brings them and their process into the project. I think it is a very valuable way to proceed.

Third: Keep those comments coming.

Good morning Discovery:

I know that you are knee deep into your research. I hope that you are all deeply engaged in the process. This means that you are thinking, and solving problems, and making discoveries including this one: all writers are not equal. Look critically at the writing you're reading . Is the author thinking about you, the reader, or showing off how much he/she knows? Does the author care about the subject being discussed? If so, how can you tell? Do you find the writing difficult or confusing? Whose fault is that? How much responsibility for clarity lies with the author? How much with the reader? You might want to make a list of the best books you've come across in your research and why you liked them.

As you think about the information you're gathering, you'll find yourself getting ideas about it. You may come up with questions that can direct your research. You may find that you've learned something that relates to something you already know. What your brain is looking for is an over-riding theme that will organize the material into something you can write about. When I go through this process, I keep a lot in my head for a long time. But there comes a point where there is so much going on, that I have to sit down and start writing something. I have the beginnings of a theme. In my book This Place Is Cold the theme is in the title. Here is how I organized the book:
1. How cold is it? (In this opening, I also have to establish just where this place is.)
2. Why is it so cold?
3. What are the effects of the cold on the environment?
b. frozen ground or permafrost
c. plants
d. animals--musk ox,bears, polar bears
4. How do living things adapt and survive in the cold?
5. What kind of people live in this cold climate?
6. Why did they come here?
7. What are the benefits of living here despite the hardships?
8. Is global warming affecting this place?
Once you figure out the theme, questions you're going to answer in your writing just sort of fall into place.
Here is the trailer for the the book, which was just released in January:

One of my colleagues, Rosalyn Schanzer, who writes and illustrates her own books, posted on our group blog Interesting Nonfiction for Kids today. She gives some wonderful tips that can help you in your research and writing. Here is the link to her article. "Alert the Media--You Are About to Become a Famous Author and Illustrator".


I have just finished talking with the fourth grade. I am soooo impressed with the research you're doing. Here are my recollections of all the various topics people are uncovering with some questions that their research might look to answer:

Chancellor-The size of the eyes of the great horned owl:
My questions, why are they so larger? Why is it important to the survival of this bird? How is it like a telescope?

Grace-The origin of gymnastics:
How were ancient gymnastics different from modern gymnastics? Who did them? Where they competitive or for entertainment?

Amy-The first cheerleader at the U. of Minnesota:
There's a story here, go get it-this is a great opportunity for an interview!

Sebastian-The Ancient Chinese develop the cross bow:
What are the advantages of this weapon over previously existing weapons? How did they use it as a deterrent to threats?
Another direction is to look into some of the other inventions of the ancient Chinese, paper and gunpowder.

Laurel-The role of the blitzkrieg in German strategy for WWII.
How is this type of warfare an improvement over other forms? How effective was it?

Shakira-Collies are silent quiet dogs.
How do these traits help them in the job of herding sheep? Are there other working dogs that might be of interest?

Claire-What were the after-affects of the sinking of the Titanic on other ships? How did other ships react? What were the consequences for the captain? Passengers? Ships today?

Aiden-Dinosaurs could regenerate limbs:
How do they know that? What modern organisms regenerate limbs? (salamanders) What are the implications of regeneration for modern medicine?

Let me know what other questions you have. If anyone is stuck, let me know that as well.

Great job everyone! I'm going to write a blog post about this.


Happy Valentine's Day! Your love and support look like they'll pay off. I heard from the public relations lady and they're reconsidering letting me talk to their scientists. The top guy is supposed to get back to me next week. How 'bout that! Yay! Team!


Hi Fourth Graders:

Thank you for your suggestions. I will pass them on to the powers-that-be at that company. I'm not sure it will do any good, but we'll give it a try. I'll keep you informed.


This question led to a great discussion with Mrs. Fitch and Cook's fourth grade classes today. Here are a few of the suggestions the students brainstormed:
  • Kaile thinks you should tell the scientists they will be helping children know more about hurricanes.
  • Claire agreed with Kaile and added that as kids learn more about hurricanes because of your book, they might be encouraged to become meteorologists someday and they will replace the meteorologists who are helping you. The new employees would be very knowledgeable because of the information that the scientists passed down to the next generation.
  • Webb said you might actually teach the scientists something in your book that they don't already know!
  • Kaylin suggested that the acknowledgements would provide great publicity for the company and the scientists.‍

Good morning, Discovery:

I have a problem. Perhaps you can help me. Let me explain.

After you start your research, you will notice that there is a lot of repetition of the facts--many books say the same thing although not in the same way. This information is called "settled knowledge." When I do my research, I reach a point where I have to dig a little deeper for material that is NOT in every book. I'm looking for possibilities--stuff I don't know that I don't know. So, at this point I ask myself who might know more? I start looking for experts to interview. That's how I found out about how our nostrils take turns doing most of our breathing and that we can taste hot peppers on our wrists.

Sometimes you can write experts directly and ask them to help you. Other times you have to go to an institution like a museum, or a university, or a company and talk to a person who has the job of dealing with writers--their job is called "public relations." People want publicity and the public relations person decides what writers their experts should talk to. I can't afford to pay people for the interview. The one thing I can offer is a thank you for helping me called an "acknowledgment." If you look at the copyright pages of my books, you'll see I name the people who helped me and I thank them publicly.

As you know, I am currently doing the beginning research for my new book How Could You Harness a Hurricane? I have found a company of scientists (meteorologists) who are doing cutting-edge research on this problem. I would like to go and talk to some of them. Their public relations person said to me: "These scientists are very busy doing their work, which they share with other people through important scientific journals. How can talking with you help them in their work? What do they get out of talking to you? Help me tell them why they should give up their valuable time to a children's book author?" I made it clear to her that I am not looking to share any "trade secrets" --any inventions that have the potential for making money for the company.

Can you give me a list of answers? You can put your list under "comments" on this page. If you help me, I can acknowledge you in this book.


I enjoyed meeting the fifth graders today. I looks like you have a lot of interests. I'm excited to see where they take you. One of my colleagues, author Deb Heiligman wrote a really interesting post a couple of years ago about doing research/ It's called A Modest Proposal (for Doing Research with Kids). I think you might find it very helpful.

Hello Discovery:

I'm hoping I can help you live up to the name of your school! Making discoveries is the most fun in the whole world. In fact, through this project, you will make two kinds of discoveries. One is about something that interests you in this amazing world we live in. The second is about yourself. You will discover special things about how you learn and how your particular brain operates.

I'm interested in a LOT of things. Here's a picture of some of them.


After writing all these books I know how to make my brain do things. I treat it just like the computer it is. When I have to learn something new, I start by reading. I go to the library and take out lots of books, as many as I can carry. When I get them home, I start looking at them. Do I read every book? Absolutely not. Sometimes I find the book boring or too complicated. So I put it down and try something else. Sooner or later I find a book that grabs me. That's where I start. I call this the "guzinta" phase (you have to say the word to understand it.) I make a note only when something I read jumps out at me. Then I make sure I know where to find it again, so I document the source. Mrs. Svarda will show you how to do that. After I read the book that grabs me, I keep searching for other books that interest me. Sometimes only part of a book is interesting. There are no rules here. Just keep searching for books that hold your attention. Books are like people. Just as you have interesting people and boring people, you have to find the voices in books that you like to listen to. Every learner (and I'm one of them) can find material that "speaks" to them. Don't force yourself. Learning is like knitting, just keep at it and little by little you'll reach a magical place where you fall in love with your work and can't stay away from it.

After I read a lot I find myself thinking about what I've read when I'm doing other things. This is the beginning of the "guzouta" phase. You might find yourself asking a question about what you've read that you haven't yet found the answer to, you might find a special angle the particularly interests you. Then you go back to your sources or look for more sources that shed light on your questions.

THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IS TO GIVE YOUR BRAIN PLENTY OF TIME TO THINK. I'm talking days and weeks. So you must start as soon as possible. My best ideas come to me when I wake up in the morning. I hope this jump-starts you on your project. I can promise you an adventure. I can't wait to meet you.