Friday, January 14, 2011

Too Cool for School

What a fantastic idea. How'd you like to be sitting in English class--and have the prof assign a thrilller or mystery to read? Now *that's* school.

Not that there's anything wrong with Silas Marner or Mill on the Floss. (I never understood that title. I do, now, but not back then.)


That's exactly what's happend to a group of lucky students in Delaware--who are now reading Karen Dionne's
BOILING POINT. We'll let her tell the tale....

KAREN DIONNE: My new environmental thriller, BOILING POINT, is unapologetic, straight-up genre fiction about an erupting volcano, a missing researcher, and a radical scheme to end global warming. Boiling Point features a megalomanical villain who’s taken it upon himself to permanently reshape the planet, and finishes with a 40-page climax that takes place in the caldera of an erupting volcano.

Pure, unadulterated entertainment fiction, right? And yet, this spring, Boiling Point is also going to be used as the main textbook for a class at the University of Delaware, as my first environmental thriller, Freezing Point, was last fall. Genre fiction as textbook? How did that come about?

Like all genre fiction, my novels are written primarily to entertain. But they also touch on serious issues; in the case of Freezing Point, the world’s fresh water crisis, the deterioration of Antarctic ice shelves due to global warming, and invasive species. Because of that, I’d always wondered if my novel could be used in the classroom – perhaps as auxiliary reading for environmental sciences students to help put a human (albeit a fictional human) face on the problems. I even donated a copy of Freezing Point to the high school I attended, and mentioned I’d be happy to meet with students to talk about my novel and the associated environmental issues. But nothing came of it.

Then a year or so after the book published, I got a note from a fellow Backspace member
Carrie Neeley, saying she’d like to use Freezing Point as the textbook for her English as a second language class at the University of Delaware. Carrie saw exactly how I’d envisioned the novel could work in a classroom, and then some. When she sent me a copy of her lesson plans, I was blown away by how much she drew out of my book – though I’ll admit, when I saw her list of vocabulary words, I laughed out loud. Her poor students! I’d always thought of Freezing Point as a quick, easy read, and it is – if English is your first language.

Here’s Carrie’s overview and a sample:

Freezing Point – Syllabus and Timeline

Week 1 (Chapters 1-9)

Look for unusual verbs – write them down

Look for expressions of imagery – write them down

Look for examples of similes and metaphors – write them down

Find at least 3 more vocabulary words that are new to you and write them down with the definition.

Grammar focus for the week: Find examples from the reading and write the sentences and page numbers.

Journal work: Complete nightly journal assignments. Everything should be in the same marble journal, with chapter headings, to be collected at the end of each week by the teacher. The journal entry should be no less than 6 sentences.

Chapter 1

Grammar Focus: Modal Verbs


- Similes (page 1) and personification (page 17)
- Parts of a boat –diagram with vocabulary
- St. Elmo’s fire (background and song)
- Film clip of Perfect Storm

Questions: When have you felt the need to pray? What would you do in a moment of desperation and panic?

Journal Question: Do our instincts always lead us to the right conclusion? Have you ever regretted not following your instinct?

Chapter 2

“banged up”

- Protesters –history of/during wars, modern day

Journal: Would you sell your dream for money? Are you a risk taker? Would you ask for $2 million and risk losing the offer? Or would you settle?

Chapter 3


- page 28….effects of global warming/read reports/watch Al Gore’s documentary
- Water water everywhere…THE ALBATROSS and Metallica song
- bottling water. What kind do you drink? Is it the decorative bottles that draw you to certain
brands or price?

Homework assignment: Ask 5 people if they drink bottled water and what
kind…what makes them choose one brand over another. Is it silly to pay for water? Create survey
results poster and hang in classroom.

Journal: Who should get the water? The highest bidder or those most in need? Do some
research on third world countries and find out what they have to do to get clean water. Any
diseases from drinking contaminated water?

Chapter 4

Centered on
Mooning over

- California wild fires/news clip –articles for homework
- Ice bergs being towed to Middle East to solve water shortage
- “Zen-like backyards” “A house wasn’t a home without a yard. He needed the green.” Do you
have a zen-like place? What do you need for a house to be a home?

Journal: How do you make your home here more comfortable?


Isn’t that impressive? Carrie tells me her students really enjoyed reading and discussing Freezing Point. I certainly enjoyed my Skype visit with them at the end of the session.

But here’s the fun part: Because teachers are some of the most caring and giving people on the planet, Carrie has agreed to let me make both sets of lesson plans available as a free downloadable pdf on my website – even though as anyone can see, she put a great deal of thought and effort into creating them. Once both sets of lesson plans are ready, I’m going to promote both novels along with the free lesson plans to environmental sciences teachers and home-schooling parents at the high school and college level. I have no idea how this project might ultimately affect book sales, but I’m excited about the possibilities. At the least, marketing my novels along with lesson plans to educators opens up a new avenue of promotion to people who might not otherwise have heard about my books.

I can easily see other fiction authors doing something similar with their novels, so I asked Carrie if she’d be willing to create lesson plans for others for a reasonable fee. Turns out, she loves drawing up lesson plans, and had been thinking along the same lines. So if anyone thinks their novel might be suitable for the classroom, and would like to get in touch with Carrie, she’s happy to discuss! [ neelyagcs at ]

Meanwhile, I’m off to see what sort of educational havoc I can wreak in book number three . . .

HANK: Pretty great. Incredibly innovative. And endlessly fascinating. I wonder how it changes the way we read, to know that there'll be a list of questions afterwards. What do you think?

Karen Dionne is the internationally published author of Freezing Point, a science thriller nominated by RT Book Reviews as Best First Mystery of 2008. A second environmental thriller, Boiling Point, about an erupting volcano, a missing researcher, and a radical scheme to end global warming is just out from Berkley.

Karen is cofounder of the online writers community Backspace, and organizes the Backspace Writers Conferences held in New York City every year. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and the International Thriller Writers, where she currently serves on the board of directors as Vice President, Technology. She is also Managing Editor of the International Thriller Writers' newsletter and webzine, The Big Thrill.


  1. What a terrific idea Dianne, kudos to you both! Isn't it funny to see what a fresh pair of eyes can pull out of a book you wrote and thought you knew so well?

    thanks for visiting today and sharing your story!

  2. That's what I think too, Roberta. So amazing to be someone else reading your own book. That's exactly what we try to do in editing, isn't it? But fascinating to see it laid out like this. Especially to think of ESL students reading...\

    I think Alafair Burke uses THe Wire in her law school classes. Pretty great.

  3. Hi Karen,
    Welcome to Jungle Red. Not that it isn't satisfying to be a successful thriller writer, but it must be INCREDIBLY satisfying to have your work used to teach kids.

    What a terrific contribution.

  4. Fascinating! What a creative way to teach and reach students learning English as a second language.
    As a footnote, I have to admit Silas Marner was one of my favorite novels in high school.
    Donna v.

  5. Thank you all for having me! You're all such awesomely talented writers, it's truly a honor to be here.

    I thought Carrie's innovation was incredibly clever. Why not use current fiction that's easier to read and thus more accessible to a range of students to teach? She tells me when she pitched the idea to the folks at the university who make such decisions, she wasn't sure how it'd go over, but the reaction was universally positive. She was even asked to write about her project in the alumni newsletter.

    She's not limiting her lessons to thrillers - she's also taught Jon Clinch's literary novel, FINN, and A.S. King's young adult, PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ (which just won a MAJOR award - congrats to Amy!). But you're all absolutely right - as a thriller author, it's an incredible kick to know my books are being taught at a university!

  6. My first thought was--do I have any metaphors in my books?

    Congratulations on having your book chosen, Karen. Now you'll have hooked a whole new generation on your books.

  7. My college psychology professor asked all of us to read a psychology book from his approved list and write a book report on it. He had fiction and non-fiction. I read a Jonanthan Kellerman book. I can't remember which one (It's been awhile.), but that was one of my favorite book report assignments.

  8. Just a note here to remind everyone, Sunday starts a new Writer's Challenge. Please stop by Jungle Red to find out the rules and sign up.

    You can follow us on Twitter at #JRWRITEFIRST

  9. Karen, I live about two miles from the University of Delaware. I'll be on the lookout for students carrying your novel.

    Has the instructor made any overtures to you about visiting her class? I am just curious.

  10. Hi, Ramona - how cool. Carrie told me that last fall, my book's cover was on the television screen in the student lounge - fun!

    I live in Detroit, so I visited the class via Skype, but I know Jon Clinch went there in person, which I'm sure was a real kick for the students!

    And Rhys - too funny. I'm SURE there are plenty of metaphors in your books!

  11. OH, there are metaphors. It's just harder when you have to recognize them for a quiz.

    Great story: At the recent American Librarians Associaton convention in San Diego (XOXO I had the great fun of interviewing T Jefferson Parker for an hour. He is fantastic, as you well know, and if you haven't read his books, wow, you are in for a treat.)

    Anyway, a propos of English class, I asked him about he themes in his novels--and whether he started with the theme, or whether it just emerged.

    He insisted he never thought about themes--and that the only way he knew his books actually had them was that Elizabeth George would write to him after reading each of his books and tell him what they were.

    That is hilarous on so many levels...

  12. Hank - too funny! For my first novel, an interviewer once asked me what the rats symbolized. Um, they were just rats . . .

  13. EXACTLY. Sometimes, a rat is just a rat. (But don't say that in English class...)

  14. This is so much fun to read! I absolutely enjoy using these novels to teach ESL. It's been a blast, that's for sure. The students have received the class so well, we're looking at more sections of it soon. Another instructor has also expressed an interest in teaching it, which thrills me beyond words.

    By the way, the comment "Are there any metaphors in my book" really made me laugh. Hank, as far as modal verbs (also a great comment), here's a link for some practice. Ha! Enjoy:) This whole comment thread made my day.

  15. On another note, a group of English teachers from Korea were visiting the University for several months, several of whom chose my class to take. I was teaching VERA DIETZ at the time. During a workshop I taught to them yesterday, one teacher mentioned that he will do his final presentation at the University on my class before they leave. It will be the last Friday in January and I can't wait!

  16. Oh no! The teacher dropped by, and now we have homework! And on the weekend, too!

  17. Seriously, Carrie, this is all VERY cool. Hooray for teachers!

  18. You can turn it in on Tuesday. Monday is a holiday, after all. ;)

  19. OT: Ooh, ooh (hand up, waving wildly), I know what modal verbs are!

    They are things like: 'can' 'shall' 'ought,' and so on. What's fun about Ozark dialect (and some Californians) is that they use double modals: "I might could go." "You should oughta tell her." Sometimes they provide a useful shorthand. It can be easier to say, "I might could" than "I might be able to." More fun, too.

    Back to topic, this is a great post. Thrillers in ESL classes. Why didn't I think of that when I was teaching English in Japan?! Thanks for sharing, Dianne.


  20. Hi, Carrie! (We'll have to get you to guest blog soon, if you;re up for it!)

    OH, Vera Dietz! Standing ovation.

    Here's me using fabulous in sentence.
    Please Ignore Vera Dietz is a fabulous book.

    Still not sure about modal verbs, though--although Edith, I'm very impressed. How do you know this stuff?

  21. (Hank, I have a PhD in Linguistics. It's a little dusty, but lots of random information is still there when I want it. And my protag in Speaking of Murder is a linguist...)


  22. A Protag who is a linguist?! And mystery being my all-time favorite genre? This is something I need to read. I'm heading to Amazon.

  23. Hi Carrie! Check out my blog/website, and this post in particular:

    I am just starting to query the book. Love your class exercises!


  24. (Carrie: I should have made clear that you will not find my book on Amazon, I'm afraid. I'm just finishing what I hope are final revisions and it is not [YET] published. Stay tuned!)

  25. No worries, Edith. I'm "staying tuned."

  26. Great post. I'm just catching up on the reading I missed over the weekend. Thank you for bringing Karen. I teach Developmental English for a college with several campuses and they have been looking for a book for the reading class to replace Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom. Any of them suggested so far, I haven't cared for (too philosophical to grab the students interest). Sorry to say many of these students have never read a book from cover to cover. I sent my dean the link to the blog and Karen's website to check out the book. The environmental theme would be very interesting for the students. I wish my mystery could be used but doesn't have the reach of the environment. (Drats!) Not sure it will go anywhere but you never know. Best of all, I see that you are from Michigan. I am in the process of moving to Jackson from the West side of the state and even happier it is a Michigan author! Go Karen. Also thanks for Jungle Red for showcasing the information!
    W.S. Gager

  27. Wendy, hey, thanks so much! What age students? I bet we can come up with something...I'll offer FACE TIME--my murder mystery which is actually about mother-daughter relationships.

    Anyone else?

  28. The age varies for the students that is why picking books is difficult. It has to be something that students just out of high school can relate to as well as people in their 50s and 60s who are returning to school because they were displaced from the work place. Then the late 20s to 30-year-old students who went right into the workplace and want to get ahead and realize they need education to do that. It is a mixed bag. Hard to find something that will fit. At the end of the class they have to do a presentation on something from the book.