Author Debbie Gonzales is the current Regional Advisor for the Austin, Texas chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). She brings forth an impressive resume jam-packed with experience as a teacher, school administrator, curriculum designer, workshop leader, works as an adjunct professor, and an MFA from Vermont College. You might know Debbie from her oh-so-popular website, her Simple Saturday blog, or the new cooperative blog, Readerkidz. I know Deb as a lovely, supportive, talented friend, so I’m honored to have her join us today.
Thank you, Donna, for inviting me here today. I am truly honored to be here. For real!!
Tell us about your background in teaching?
I began my teaching career as a Montessori teacher. Years and years ago, there was a school in Dallas, where, if I worked as an assistant, my son could attend at half the tuition rate. I thought, “Hey! I can scrub toilets, if need be. I’ll do anything to be able to provide this amazing educational experience for my son.” Little did I know that, at that moment, I had found my life’s calling. Since then I have taught preschoolers, elementary-aged, troubled at-risk high-schoolers, and aspiring educators. I’ve worked with the privileged and the poor as a teacher, school administrator, curriculum coordinator, art director, creative writing workshop leader, technology coordinator, and – hopefully – as a trust-worthy friend.
How do you think your teaching and school administration experience has influenced your own writing?
Oh, my! I cannot read or write anything without considering how my words can be utilized as a part of the classroom experience. Honestly, Donna, this awareness has become a bit of an obsession for me. I know what kids like to read, what they hate to read and why they hate it. I work to make the latter more palatable.
As a teacher, what kind of books did you always long to have available for your students?
This is a really good question. Let me tell you a little story. In my Montessori Upper Elementary classroom, we participated in a weekly lesson known as Novel Study in which I would guide 4th, 5th, and 6th graders through an incremental, six-week deep study of various novels. I made a concerted effort to present a variety of genres – mysteries, historical fiction, fantasy, classics, debuts, and anything else I could get my hands on. My absolute joy was granted when a child would sheepishly confess that they couldn’t stop reading, and that they had read beyond the assigned week’s page limit. Hot dog! That kiddo had caught the Reading Bug, many times for the very first time in their young lives!
Do you think the reading climate in today’s classroom has changed from years past? Do you think it takes a different kind of book to pull kids away from technology?
Regarding the reading climate, today’s market is flooded with great titles enticing a novice reader to lose themselves in the compelling magic of story. With the publishing bar of quality has being raised so high and, with the availability of informative blog-o-spherical guidance such as ReaderKidZ, there are so darned many great books for kids out there to choose from. In addition, there are a number of note-worthy literary initiatives taking place happening all over the nation. However, when you boil all of this hoopla down to the rue, I maintain the essence of a child’s enthusiasm for reading is reflected in the value of literature practiced within the walls of a child’s own home. That’s the short of it, in my mind anyway.
Also, I don’t think that we need to pull kids away from technology. Instead, I think we need to embrace it. Why can’t a kid, after fulfilling conventional reading requirements, create a hyper-linked Q & A game based on the book’s plot points? How about, after demonstrating a solid understanding of the novel’s story arch, crafting a cool book trailer? What about a kid being offered the chance to create a PowerPoint presentation about characterization or setting or theme? What about creating a database of power words documented by page references? Or perhaps have the children re-write their favorite scene as a Reader’s Theatre and film their performance with a Flip Camera! These are examples of the types of activities using technology as a tool that I did in my Montessori classroom, and the end-products were absolutely incredible!
Your early reader series through New Zealand’s Giltedge Publishing is adorable. Please tell us about them.
I so love these books and the publishers who produce them. Each book is centered on a specific spelling pattern and the various letter combinations required in spelling that particular pattern. The publishers insist upon a quality product – an interesting story consisting of sound literary elements and that is relatable to the reader. All of this in less than 200 words!
Six of my stories have been published in the Word Level Reader Series, with two more to follow. Each contains a subtle message to be learned such as being willing to ask for help, turn the other cheek, or overcoming fear. And, as an added bonus, Giltedge has produced an amazing pen with an optic lens that reads the text aloud in any language spoken on the earth. Pretty incredible, isn’t it?
What other types of writing have you done? Anything in the works right now?
Thank you for asking. I have a YA, The Hit, about a fast-pitch softball playing high-school girl whose promising public face rivals her private hell. I do love that story. It’s been stuck in a drawer for quite some time now. Donna, thanks to you, I just might resurrect it. I also have a historical fiction picture book, The Legend in You, about female athletic tribulations over the centuries that I’d love to see the light of day. Then there is my heartfelt historical-fiction middle grade novel, Bear Mountain, set in the Pacific Northwest that focuses on family, honor, and the majesty of Clydesdale horses. Of late, my focus has been on Alien All-Stars, a middle-grade novel about a boy’s struggle to align himself with an honorable friendship while being haunted by alien visitations.
How did you venture into writing teacher guides?
Years ago, when my daughter was in high school, I had the good fortune of working from home as an educational consultant for a group called the Cooperative Education Partnership, which provided accelerated learning opportunities for at-risk youth. My job there was to create coursework and end-of-course assessments that were aligned with statewide academic standards using textbooks, literature, computerized software, and anything else I could get my hands on. It was a huge job! But I loved both the freedom working at home offered and the opportunity to structure courses in a way I thought kids would respond to.
I think the reason why I found success with CEP is that I created lessons from the student’s perspective, guiding them in incremental steps toward a final end product. The instructions had to be clear, the lessons interesting, short, cross-curricular, easy-to-follow, and fun! The woman I worked for was probably the most demanding professional I’ve ever encountered. In short, Dr. P was one tough cookie. I learned so much from her and that grueling yet marvelous two-year experience.
What is the difference between teacher guides, activity guides, book discussion guides, and reading group guides?
Teacher Guides best compliment early readers, chapter books, lower and upper middle grade novels and non-fiction. In designing a Teacher Guide, I like to create sections to promote an incremental, step-by-step study structure. I try to think how to best serve the teacher who is using the book to teach comprehension, inference, application, and introspection. I also use page references in all of the discussion questions and activities. I love to imagine the child leafing through the pages of the author’s great book in search of the answer.
Activity Guides best compliment picture books, although I include plenty of activities in my Teacher Guides. Activity Guides include discussion questions that refer to the book’s illustrations and text. As much as possible, I work to provide art, science, math, language, geography, and writing lessons in my Activity Guides. These are a ton of fun to create!
To me, Book Discussion Guides and Reading Group Guides are one in the same. These are perfect for YA and adult novels. (In fact, I’d love to have the opportunity to create one for an adult novel.) For these guides, I highlight plot points that illuminate theme or demonstrate character, delve into them initially through high-level questioning, and then go for the emotional jugular. I feel that guides such as these allow the reader to discuss things of the heart in a safely removed manner. Their heart isn’t broken, the character’s is. Yet, in considering the angst of a character the teen reader has the opportunity to consider their own.
When an author contracts with you to write the teacher guide, how do you tackle the challenge?
Whether a picture book or an angst-filled YA, each book offers a unique voice, or premise, or intention, and I try to make each guide reflect the author’s purpose, as I interpret it. While I maintain a consistent guide format, I want each guide to be as different as the book I am working with.
Do you access state academic standards to find curriculum tie-ins?
Sure I do. In addition to pulling from my years of practical experience, I continually peruse ton of fantastic websites, programs, books, lectures, YouTube videos, recipes, and just about anything you can imagine in search of interesting activities to modify creatively to compliment the project I’m working on.
Do you think there is a marketing advantage to having available teacher guides, both in terms of interesting a publisher and marketing the book?
Yes, most definitely, I do. A guide shows that the author is serious about the book’s shelf-life longevity. I’m not referring to the book’s store shelf life, but on the shelves of classroom. A well-crafted guide demonstrates how best to incorporate the story as an important part of the classroom curriculum. One author that I worked with prints out her guide, binds it in a folder, and presents it as a thank you gift during her school visits. Librarians often ask for them, too.
However, with regard to interesting a prospective publisher, I think it would be best to hold off on making the guide until a contract is offered, after which I’d hop right on it!
Click here to take a peak at some of the books Debbie has created Teacher Guides for.
Finally, looking back on your writing career, do you have any “if I’d known then, what I know now…” advice for writers?
I think that everyone’s writing journey is unique to them. No experience is wasted. Use what you know with confidence. I once heard Kathi Appelt say to honor every piece of writing. Do your best. Whether crafting an email, a church bulletin, a teacher’s guide, a blog post, or the next best-selling novel challenge yourself by writing as expressively as possible.
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