Surprise! A Writer’s BFF

What could possibly be interesting about a sponge? As I researched this ancient animal for Extreme Survivors, I remembered something I learned long ago as a magazine writer:

There’s no such thing as a boring subject. There are only bored writers.

How do you break through boredom in your own writing and in the classroom? One way is to dive deeper and keep asking questions about your subject. This is how I discovered a slew of surprising facts about sea sponges.

I love sharing a few of my research questions with students in nonfiction writing workshops:

What do sea sponges do all day besides sitting around on the bottom of the ocean?

How do sponges defend themselves from predators like hungry sea turtles?

What makes sea sponges unique among all other animals?

It turns out that sea sponges are busy. They pump seawater through their bodies 24/7 to strain out food such as plankton, bacteria, and marine snow.

Sea turtles do nibble sponges for lunch, but sponges churn out more than 8,000 chemicals to protect themselves from germs such as bacteria and viruses. Scientists are studying some of these compounds in hopes of creating better antibiotics and treatments for cancer.

I used my initial question plus a surprising fact to challenge my assumption that sponges were boring!

Here’s how my sponge chapter opens: “Stuck motionless on the ocean floor, sponges might seem boring, but these ancient survivors are the only animals that can do something remarkable….To find out, you’ll need to read Extreme Survivors: Animals That Time Forgot (Tilbury House Publishers).

Which brings me back to surprise. Once I had researched a treasure trove of facts about sea sponges and the nine bizarre creatures in Extreme Survivors, I highlighted the facts that most surprised me. Surprise opened my mind and ignited my writing. I hope the result engages young readers in the fascinating lives of sponges and other astonishing animals.

A fun classroom activity is to invite students to choose their favorite animal in Extreme Survivors or another nonfiction book about animals and make a short list of the facts that most surprise them. Next step: ask students to use one of more of these facts to write an opening paragraph about their animal. Finally, invite students to share their discoveries with each other.

In the classrooms I’ve visited, kids love sharing their surprising discoveries, which engages them in research and synthesizing facts, as well as creative expression.

For more inspiration, check out my Extreme Survivors Reader Guide and Extreme Survivor Activity Sheets by Island Readers & Writers.

Sponge photo by icelight on flickr

Sea turtle photo by

Posted in Blog, Extreme Survivors, Extreme Survivors in the Classroom, nonfiction writing, Reader's Guide, school visits, sea sponge.