Using the author as a mentor: Helping students learn strong research skills by David Harrison and Mary Jo Fresch

Austin 2018 Dave and Mary Jo


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This week David L. Harrison (children’s poet and author) and Mary Jo Fresch (Professor Emeritus, The Ohio State University) are doing a guest post on this blog. THANKS SO MUCH TO BOTH OF THEM. They will both be at the ILA convention in Austin July 20-23. Be sure to catch them at their sessions in Austin (see below). Below is a picture of them at the 2017 NCTE convention in St. Louis, where they introduced their newest book. Glenda Nugent (my Missouri Reader Co-Editor) and I got to meet them face to face.  Hope you enjoy this week’s guest post and find it as informative as I did.

David and Mary JO with us





Using the author as a mentor: Helping students learn strong research skills

In this Blog, David L. Harrison (children’s poet and author) and Mary Jo Fresch (Professor Emeritus, The Ohio State University), share classroom ready ideas for helping students be successful researchers.

Hello readers! This summer are you dreaming about students who not only love to write, but do so with a good foundation of information about their topics? Wouldn’t it be fulfilling to read well researched and thoughtfully composed writings? We share with you some ideas to help prepare students to be better researchers. Beginning to write without carefully researching a topic often ends up with writing pieces that not only lack accuracy, but also passion.  Regardless of the genre, students need to be ready to write – whether it is a nonfiction piece connected to content studies, poetry that uncovers a particular feeling, a fiction piece in an accurate setting – all forms of writing need thought before pen and paper ever meet.

Through David’s own work as a writer, students can observe and replicate the work of getting ready to write. As a “mentor” of research, David shares with students what he does to prepare to write. And across the genres he writes! By learning authentic research skills, students “connect their academic work directly to the real world in a powerful and meaningful way.”

(Werner-Burke, 2004, p. 44). Research is what we do to get ready to write.

We know current day media presents challenges to teachers. In Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project Online Survey, 99% of middle and high school teachers responding believed that their students are conditioned to find information quickly and easily, but 83% agreed the amount of online information is overwhelming for most students. As Doug Lemov reminds us, “want to become a doctor? An economist? An engineer? You’d better be prepared to read articles, primary documents, research studies, and complex essays . . .In other words, success in scholastic and professional endeavors requires the ability to learn from the literature of a discipline (2017, p. 10).” We must show our students how to be researchers.

The remainder of this blog is an interview with David about his work and how that translates into classroom instruction.  How can he “mentor” your students to be thoughtful and thorough researchers? Keep reading! Mary Jo promises to give you lots of ideas to move from David’s experiences to providing similar student activities.

Mary Jo:

David, you’ve often said we cannot do our best writing when we begin before we’re ready to write.  How does that work for you when you have a new book idea?


Mary Jo, for me almost every new project begins with a question and a list. The question is: What is this book going to be about? What is its purpose? If I can’t answer that question, I won’t know what I’m looking for when I set out to do my research.  The list has four parts. One: What do I already know about my subject? Two: Are there things I think I know but want to double-check to be sure? Three: What do I not know about my subject that I might want to include?  Four: What do I not know I don’t know? Okay, that fourth list sounds impossible. In the beginning it is, but as I get deeper into my subject, unexpected fascinating facts always pop up. That’s why I need that fourth list! Collectively – the questioning, starting the lists – this is presearch. It’s what I do to get ready to help me get ready to write.

Mary Jo:

That sounds like a good place for teachers to start their students on the road to research. First, selecting a topic that they are interested in is key to staying engaged throughout the research and writing process. So, students should select from ideas they have to write about, then make those four columns – What they already know; What they think they know but better double-check; What they want to learn in their research that they can include in their writing; and finally, What they don’t know they don’t know (or what surprises along the way they discovered thanks to the research process).  So, teachers easily have four quick and compelling lessons just in the question posing phase of the research. Once students learn how to ask these questions they can use them forever!


Next comes the most important part of writing, Mary Jo. Tracking down all the information we need before we can write anything worth reading. There is no single way to do this. Of course the Internet is the easy-peasy way to get facts in a hurry. Unfortunately, you can also get wrong information just as fast. As a writer, I fear making mistakes. If I write something that is wrong, I have failed my reader. Fiction springs from nonfiction so a writer must get his information straight before setting out to write that story or poem or essay. We don’t have room here to get into every form of research that writers use, but the point is that the more students “get” the need to get it right, the better their writing will be. You simply can’t write your best if you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Mary Jo:

So, what’s next?  Let’s peek into your study.  You have researched information to fill out all four questions (you might even have added information you know but forgot to include!).  Now what?  How do we use those answers in the best way?


By now I’ve chosen my topic. I’ve decided on the purpose of the project. I’ve made lists of what I know, need to double check, need to learn, and one for surprises. I’ve read books about my subject, checked the Internet, interviewed, observed, and kept good notes about everything I learned. So I’m ready to write at last! Not. I am now the proud owner of a set of notes about many aspects of my subject. Can I tell my reader about all of them? Afraid not. My writing would wander all over the place if it tried.

So now I sit down with all I’ve learned and start arranging notes, looking for an ideal place to begin, things I want to say in the main text, and a strong way to finish. I’ll set aside bits of information that aren’t likely to make the cut. And NOW I’m ready to pick up my pen or sit at the keyboard and write my first word.

Mary Jo:

So, organizing the notes is another key step. As we think about your role as a mentor to students’ research, they need to see that real authors must be organized in keeping and using their notes. Teachers could ask students to take their notes and use highlighters to mark the information they want to include in their writing. They could use one color for the introductory paragraph(s) and another color for the body of the writing. They could also take the notes, cut them apart, and arrange the ones they want to use in the “order of appearance.” They might even discover they could write more than one text from the notes if they have more information than they can use for the first writing. Has that happened to you?  Did you ever say, “Wow, I have a lot of good information here…more than I can put in one book!”?


Absolutely, Mary Jo! When my wife and I went up the Amazon River in Peru, I made eighty pages of notes and took hundreds of pictures. I used my research to write a book of poetry about the Amazon called SOUNDS OF RAIN. Years later I returned to my notes and wrote a middle grade novel called DOWNRIVER.  My extensive notes about a cave discovered in southwest Missouri resulted in a nonfiction book called CAVE DETECTIVES. The same notes produced more than one poem. Lately I’ve thought of returning to those notes to write a collection of poems for a new book. Notes from a book about mountains inspired a book about glaciers. Notes from the book about glaciers inspired a book about the first people to migrate to the North American continent. The more we learn about our subject, the more ways we discover to write about it in different genres and even start new projects!

Mary Jo:

Sharing with students what David does demonstrates the real-life purposes of research, notetaking and organization, and then choosing a way to write (and maybe more than one way!). Our dreams of students who write with accuracy and passion can be a reality when we help them build the skills they need to presearch a topic (Is my topic too big? Should I narrow it? Should I expand it?), pose good questions to research the topic (by using such resources as internet, books, video, interviews), organize the notes to help decide on the focus of the writing, and then, maybe “shelve” some notes for another writing piece or two down the road. There is a wonderful saying (Anonymous!) that sums up how David and I feel about teaching good research skills to students:

The future belongs to the curious. The ones who are not afraid to try it, explore it, poke at it, question it and turn it inside out.

 David and Mary Jo have published a number of articles in the Missouri Reader.

Links in order of appearance: ; ;


3 thoughts on “Using the author as a mentor: Helping students learn strong research skills by David Harrison and Mary Jo Fresch

  1. davidlharrison

    Dr. Sam, I’m delighted to be featured, along with my dear friend and writing partner Mary Jo Fresch, as a guest on your blog. I hope to submit a new article for Missouri Reader in the coming weeks. I have to complete a few projects first. Thanks again, David

    1. doctorsam7

      David, thanks for all you have done for literacy, most especially all you have done for literacy in Missouri. Hope you have great sessions in Austin (know you will since your sessions with Mary Jo in St. Louis were top notch). Looking forward to your articles for Missouri Reader. As I’ve told you before, your blog is both an inspiration and a great way to start each day- I look forward to it every morning. You bring joy to us all with your wit, humor and most importantly your undying love of the written word. All the best- Sam

  2. Pingback: New essay on getting kids ready to write | Children's Author David L. Harrison's Blog

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