In January, our school was contacted by author Mary Dodson Wade to see if we would be interested in having her speak to our students on March 8 & 9. Her husband is an engineer that presents workshops around the world. She often joins him on his travels, and it just so happened that they would be visiting Sumatra.

At first we were hesitant, as her visit was at an extremely busy time. We would be just finishing progress reports, virtual science fair, student-led Conferences, and all the work prior that would be necessary to prepare for the conferences. But it seemed like an opportunity to good to pass up, so we booked her for presentations to just our middle school students.

Mrs. Wade wrote her first book back in 1984 and she says she has written about one or two books a year since. Many, of her over 50, titles are biographies focusing on important characters in American and Texas history. This was the perfect tie-in, as our students would be writing biographies in the third trimester, though originally planned for later in the trimester.

On March 8th and 9th Mrs. Wade made a one-hour presentation on each day taking the students through her process of biography writing.

Mrs. Wade started out by sharing with the students where she gets her ideas for the biographies she writes. Sometimes a publisher asks her to write a title, other times she see something in the news, or a friend suggests a person.

She then reads as much as she can about the person, trying to get at what his/her personality was like, what motivated them, as much as possible looking for first hand accounts. She shared with the students interesting little details about the people she researches. My favorite anecdote being that she read somewhere that Barbara Bush reflected on raising her children by saying she spent a lot of time at the emergency room.  When Mrs. Wade was writing a biography Of George W. Bush, she sent a letter off to Barbara Bush explaining she was writing a biography and she wondered if George W. Bush was the one going to the hospital so regularly. Mrs. Wade waited and waited for a reply, but none came. She had to send the manuscript off to the publisher. Soon after, she finally got a reply. It was concise and read: If it wasn’t for him, it was because of him. She was able to call the publisher and get that detail into her book.

A key point she tried to impress upon the students was to check sources carefully and thoroughly. She says unless she can find the source, she won’t include it in one of her books. She told us how she wrote a biography of Esteban, a slave belonging to the Spanish explorer Dorantes de Carranza.  She read many accounts about how he traveled with green plates, but she couldn’t find the source. So she didn’t include it in her biography of him.  She submitted her work, and it was published. Then as she was researching something else, she found an letter that was sent back to the king of Spain explaining that the natives in New Mexico had killed Esteban; the confirmation being that the natives had his three green plates. So when the time came for a revision she felt she was able to include it.
She then talked about the actual writing and how she may need to follow guidelines from the publisher such as a certain word count or a glossary. It is important that she includes all the key details that make the person notable, but also ones that help the reader relate to the person.

Finally she submits, but her work is not always done. The publisher will often come back and ask her to make changes. Sometimes she thought she had done what the publisher wanted, based on previous work with them, only to discover they wanted something different. Other times she would rework stories already published for older elementary students as a version for a younger audience. This was another point she tried to impress upon the students: That writers complete many, many drafts of their work, even after they think they are done.

Overall our two days with Mary Dodson Wade were a great way to start off our own biography project. She gave us many things to refer to as the students completed their own research. Most importantly, her discussion gave us an idea for the student’s projects. We changed the audience, which originally would have been their peers, to our K-2 students.

More to come on this project later.