One author’s technique for bringing Dog Love into the heart of the classroom
By Debra Frasier, Author & Illustrator
Oddly, I came to understand more about first person narration when writing SPIKE, Ugliest Dog in the Universe because SPIKE was NOT first “person”—but was instead—”first dog.” In this story, Spike tells us some Big True Things about beauty being a matter of perspective: “Humans can be very ugly you know with those long swinging arms and no fur except on top”—and shows us that being true to oneself is the strongest voice of all, the one place where love and courage stand a real chance.
After reading SPIKE in a classroom a fourth grader asked me: How did you make SPIKE sound so real? My answer surprised me: The dog helped me. That comment led me to design a workshop called Spike’s Friends: Creating a Character’s Voice that kids can now freely access at debrafrasier.com.
To get started read a first-person dog story as a mentor text. (Use SPIKE or see the dog bibliography on my website.) Invite young writers to visit petfinder.com, the amazing site for animals waiting in shelters. Typing in a zip code will bring up the dogs currently in need of homes in your area. The next step asks students to select a dog they might adopt. (Or use the profiles at my website.) Study the dog’s profile. Next: Answer the questions in the little booklet of prompts. Write and draw answers using available facts from the dog’s profile and your inventions. Make notes on the dog’s physical characteristics and the imagined sound of his or her bark. The dog’s personality will begin to strengthen.
And this is where the magic part happens: young writers fall in love with the pictured dogs and understand immediately that the voice of THIS dog must be unique, quirky, and, most importantly, convincing. Now: the dog goes out for a walk and something happens…What? That’s where the story begins—and by now we know a lot about the character’s personality and can create a more convincing voice.
Try this project with individual students or as a group effort! You’ll find all the parts at debrafrasier.com. Use the slide show to help introduce the entire project to a class. Fold along with the video to make the booklet from two sheets of paper. Print the final draft writing sheets when the stories are ready. Make a paper cutout portrait illustration of your dog. For classroom inspiration, watch DOG DIARIES, the fourth grade film of 24 unique dogs “speaking” about their days. All free.
Why is this project so astonishingly successful with kids? —Because dogs go straight to our hearts. If you are a teacher, parent, or student who cares passionately about animals and their care, this project is the perfect doorway for discussion. The dogs’ stories make it easy to include the subject of our care for animals—and by extension, for all living things.
But maybe it is enough to simply learn to write in the voice of a dog! This exercise in empathy AND writing will have big ripples in the heart and meet the demands of our classroom Common Core Standards at the same time. Let me know how it goes!
Debra Frasier, is the award-winning author of On the Day You Were Born, Miss Alaineus, A Vocabulary Disaster, (that’s “miscellaneous!”), and most recently, SPIKE, Ugliest Dog in the Universe—called “Brilliant!” by Kirkus Reviews and a 2013 Amazon Best Picture Book Selection. She is pictured here with the 129 pairs of blue jeans she collected for the illustration collages in SPIKE. Debra lives in Minneapolis, MN and Penland, NC. Her website, debrafrasier.com, has won the coveted Great Sites For Kids designation from the American Library Association. For an online, live-link version of this project for sharing visit debrafrasier.com.