Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Interview: Shannon Morgan on the Holler Loudly Teacher Guides

Shannon Morgan writes novels and plays for young people, and short stories for all ages. She also writes grant proposals, blog posts, and tweets.

When not updating the world on her devotion to ABBA and key lime pie, she loves to read, run, and travel.

Shannon lives in San Antonio, Texas, with her husband Dave.

Thank you for creating such a tremendous teacher guide for my picture book, Holler Loudly, illustrated by Barry Gott (Dutton, Nov. 11, 2010). What first attracted you to the project?

Your tweet! When you said you needed someone with experience in both study guides and state standards, I thought, "Hey, I have that!" so I replied.

But then I got a peek at the text and illustrations of Holler Loudly and fell in love. I could picture teachers reading it aloud to their students and wanting to tie in the story to classwork.

Plus, at that time, I was the only person I knew who'd landed a job through Twitter, so, you know...I felt pretty cool.

How did you go about framing the guide?

Holler Loudly has a target audience of children in pre-kindergarten through second grade, so I made four guides (pre-K, kindergarten, grade 1, and grade 2)(all PDFs).

Within each guide, I framed sections based on content areas: English Language Arts (ELA), mathematics, science, social studies, art, music, and drama.

Within each section, I wrote two to six activities, with emphasis on ELA, science, and math. On average, the guides have 25 activities each.

At the back of the guides, I listed each activity's related content standards by state or territory. Since Holler Loudly is a picture book, I inserted art clips throughout the guides, and some of the activities focus on the art.

What were the challenges?

The biggest challenges fell under graphic art skills, time management, and hide-and-seek standards.

Graphics skillz: I do not haz them.

My husband Dave has loads of great software at work and can turn a photo of a monkey into a 3-D rendering of the Eiffel Tower. I have my laptop's default picture manager and can turn a color photo of something into a black and white photo of the same something (see author photo above).

But for the Holler Loudly guides, I wanted to isolate several images from Barry's great illustrations. So I cried for help, and Dave took pity on me. He pointed me to GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program), a free software program that provides many of the same tools as, say, PhotoShop. Since I only needed its Select and Eraser tools to clip the art, the learning curve was mild. (Thanks, Dave!)

Time Management: I had four and a half months to complete the guides. I broke it down like this: two weeks to choose exemplar standards to write to; two months to write the activities; one month to design the guides, clip art, and insert text and art; and one month to look up the standards for the activities. I further broke each stage into bits and scheduled on my trusty Google calendar (I may have enjoyed that step too much).

At first, everything went swimmingly. I downloaded standards from four states and got a feel for their content. Then I wrote the activities based on those general standards. Then I used MS Publisher to create the guides and GIMP to clip the art. I placed the text and the art and submitted the draft guides. No problem! Totally on schedule!

Then I started to look up the standards.

Wow: tedious! And there was no way to speed the process without making the standards references really vague. It just took time. I don't think I saw Dave at all in July. And I developed some awesome knots in my shoulders. And my eyeballs bled a little.

But I was too proud to ask for an extension! In the end, I got everything done (and reintroduced myself to Dave and got a massage and bandaged my eyes). In the future, though, I'll allow more time to link the standards!

Hide-and-seek standards: I gathered content standards online, from each state's education department site. The trick was figuring out which standard to use when it wasn't where I expected it to be. For example, a tornado plays a big part in Holler Loudly, so I included a tornado fact page that encourages teachers to discuss severe weather procedures with students. A few states included those procedures among the other weather-related standards under science; most put them under health.

I also was surprised at how few states have early elementary standards for the science of sound--fewer than 20%, I'd say. The really sneaky standards, though, were art/music/drama. In some cases, they were buried in ELA. In others, I had to get creative and link the arts activities to the closest workable standards, e.g.: mathematical pattern standards for pattern-based music activities.

What did you enjoy most about the experience?

One of the great things about Holler Loudly is how many subject areas the story naturally touches.

The vivid language and illustrations made the ELA, reading, and art activities a cinch. The story's sound, weather, and animal elements practically wrote the science by themselves. The story's strong sense of place and community tied in well to social studies. The story even features a barbershop quartet, offering a good link to music.

These connections made it really fun to brainstorm activities. And to imagine a room full of six-year-olds writing their own tall tale--I hope they email you some of their tales, Cynthia!

What background/expertise do you bring to writing teacher guides?

I wrote standardized test questions for Harcourt Assessment (now Pearson) for several years. Each project was based on the education content standards for a given state, so I became familiar with how states organize their standards as well as the kinds of questions valued for testing: those that go beyond knowledge or comprehension and ask students to apply, analyze, synthesize, or evaluate information.

In my current day job at a children's theatre (see below), I gather evaluation data from local teachers, including their thoughts on the theatre's study guides. Though the theatre usually hires a former teacher produce their study guides, I have stepped in to make a few on short notice, e.g., when a slated production changed on short notice.

Is this something that you're interested in doing for other authors, and if so, how can they get in touch with you?

Yes, I'd love to create guides for other authors. I offer guides customized by grade level, subject area, number of activities, and the number of states with standards cited. Price depends on those factors, as well as the inclusion of artwork.

Authors: I encourage you to check out the Holler Loudly guides as examples. If you're interested in something similar, or would like more information, please email me: nomadshan (at) gmail (dot) com.

You're also a children's-YA writer! Could you tell us about your writing?

Right now, I'm working on a middle-grade fantasy called Briar-Bound:

Twelve-year-old Jack Sweet lives in the Meadow, where two things are certain: the great Arbor oak that sustains the village will regenerate every seven days, and a different Tale plays in the northern lights over the surrounding Briar-bound Forest every night.

Then, one late-autumn evening, the aurora and its Tale disappear abruptly. The next morning, the Arbor fails to grow back.


With a harsh winter bearing down, Jack sets out to find the Scrivener, the author of the Tales and the one person who might reverse the enchantment on the Briars that stand between the Meadow and survival.


I'm lucky to be represented by Chris Richman of Upstart Crow Literary.

Other works in progress include YA historicals about an undertaker's daughter who turns to her father's clients for answers about her dead mother, a furry boy sold by his grandmother to a Depression-era traveling carnival where he's billed as the Dog Boy, and a Jewish girl in 18th-century Prague who hides her heritage to get work building the costumes for Mozart's "Don Giovanni" premiere.

What first drew you to books for young readers?

The first novel-length project I wrote happened to have a teen protagonist. He was the right age for the story I wanted to tell, so when I finished it, I found I'd written a YA book. Which was strange to me because my pleasure reading tends toward adult novels: historical fiction like Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring (Dutton, 2000) and Sharon Kay Penman's Here Be Dragons (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1985), character-driven fantasy like George R R Martin's A Game of Thrones (Voyager Books and Bantam Spectra, 1996), or anything by Stephen King.


My reference points for children's/YA literature were 60s-era Roald Dahl and 80s-era Judy Blume. Which are still awesome! But I needed to familiarize myself with the current market.

What I found has hooked me as a reader and writer. Some of my favorites have been Kristin Cashore's Graceling (Harcourt, 2008), Carrie Ryan's The Forest of Hands and Teeth (Random House, 2009), Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games (Scholastic, 2008), and Markus Zusak's The Book Thief (Picador and Knopf, 2005).


Tell us about your blog, daily pie! What is its focus?

Focus. You know, my high school band director gave me an All-State Band pin for graduation because she thought if I'd stuck with one instrument instead of dallying with four, I'd've made the cut.

Well, I still have too many interests to choose just one! But I knew I had to wrangle my blog into something readers could count on for certain information.

So...remember when every diner still made its own pie and offered daily specials? At daily pie, I have set topics for Monday through Friday: writing (techniques, articles, my progress), books (new and not-new), fitness and health (running, hiking, swimming), travel (plans, tips), and food (new finds, and lots of photos of Dave's crazy-good meals).

About once a year, I evaluate the topics and make changes to keep the pie selection fresh.

Why is blogging important to you?

Blogs are great for connecting with other people. I'm an introvert; parties and crowds wear me out! But I still have things to say, and I want to do more than just whisper them into the wind.
Blogging allows me to reach out to folks in a way that suits my personality.

I do try to offer readers value; it's really rewarding to read a comment from someone who has shared an experience or found one of my posts helpful. I recently joined a blog chain of kidlit writers, and it's been a lot of fun to see how our approaches to writing compare and contrast.

So far, as a reader, what are your two favorite children's-YA books of 2010 and why?

Okay, this is going to sound cheeky, but at the intersection of "books released in 2010" and "books I've read," the two I enjoyed most were written by my agency mates Jacqueline West and Shaun David Hutchinson.

Jacqueline's The Books of Elsewhere: The Shadows (Dial, 2010) is a fantasy for middle-grade readers about a girl who discovers that the strange paintings in her new house hold dark secrets about its history. It's great for anyone who's enjoyed the children's works of Neil Gaiman or Roald Dahl and is a wonderful read-aloud.



Shaun's The Deathday Letter (Simon Pulse, 2010) is a YA fantasy about Ollie, who lives in a world where everyone gets a Deathday Letter 24 hours before they die. When Ollie gets his at sixteen, there are a lot of things he wants to accomplish in the few hours he has left.

This one's a great portrait of a teen boy and his friendships, and the funniest book about impending death I've ever read.


What's your favorite children's-YA book of all time and why?


I love Laura Ingalls Wilder's Farmer Boy, illustrated by Garth Williams (Harper & Brothers, 1933). It makes me want to live on a 19th-Century farm in upstate New York and get up before dawn to milk ornery cows and trudge to school through the snow. The descriptions of the meals at Almanzo's house don't hurt, either! I actually blogged a few of the menus. Homemade apple turnovers in his lunch pail? Totally worth the pre-dawn chores and hip-deep snow!


What do you do outside of the world of books?


I'm the Grants Coordinator at The Magik Theatre, a professional children's theatre in San Antonio, Texas. A such, I maintain the relationships Magik has with its existing funders by writing new proposals (usually annual), compiling evaluation data, writing grant evaluation reports, and maintaining the digital and hard-copy grant files.

Outside of work, I run (I have a sub-two-hour goal for San Antonio's Rock'n'Roll Half-Marathon in November), and I love to travel (possible destinations in the next year include Mexico, Czech Republic, and New Zealand).

I'm also on a continual quest for a great slice of pie (hence the running).

Cynsational Notes

If you have an interest in Holler Loudly, picture books, tall tales, or hiring Shannon yourself, don't miss this opportunity to check out the teacher guides she wrote: pre-K, kindergarten, grade 1, and grade 2 (all PDFs). I give her my highest recommendation!

Check out the Holler Loudly book trailer, produced by P.J. "Tricia" Hoover and featuring the voice of Tim Crow.

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