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Sherrill Joseph on Student, Teacher, Author: Lessons Learned and Applied

Sherrill Joseph is the author of the Botanic Hill Detective Mysteries for middle-grade students (ages 9-12). You can find out more about her on her website, or by clicking here, see her last post here, and buy her books here.

What I Learned as a Student

“Miss ‘C,’ you tell the best stories from your travel slides!” said starry-eyed eight-year-old me to my pretty second grade teacher. Every Friday afternoon, the dazzling Miss ‘C’ would regale my classmates and me with tales of ancient Egypt as we gazed at her on-screen in the shadow of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Or tales from the dense jungles of Yucatan. Or while snorkeling in the blue waters of O’ahu. What a great way to teach story elements to her students—from one’s own experiences in the real world. That’s when I knew I wanted to become an inspirational teacher who could love and mesmerize kids. (Miss ‘C’ and I are still friends and get together for lunch!)

By the third grade, I was skipping weekly to my neighborhood public library for valuable finds, looking forward to growing up so I could read “thicker” books. That’s when I knew I was a reader with the world of ideas at my disposal.

Then in fourth grade, I discovered Nancy Drew mysteries! Ahh, Nancy. She and I became BFFs. Wanting to control the danger Nancy encountered, I started writing my own short mysteries starring the incomparable girl sleuth with accompanying shoebox dioramas of particularly important scenes. That’s when I knew I was a writer and wanted to pen my own children’s mystery books someday.

As I progressed through the grades, I ate up my literacy lessons. I devoured new vocabulary, made lists of unknown words from the many books I read, then grabbed the dictionary to fuel my word power. I prided myself on getting 100% on Friday spelling tests. Unlike some people, I loved grammar and diagramming sentences. I was fortunate to have skilled language arts (elementary) and English (secondary) teachers all the way into college. That’s when I knew I was a grammar nerd, the necessity of applying parts of speech and conventions to writing, and that I needed more literature to explore.

Off to the university I trotted to pursue those goals and where I earned a bachelor’s degree in English with a 4.0 GPA. I relished eighteen literature courses for the major, read at least two “thick” books weekly, wrote countless papers, and participated in discussions comparing and contrasting writers’ styles and ideas, and times past and present. Next, I received my teaching credential so I could make a living surrounded by kids and books. That’s when I knew I wasn’t finished with my lifelong love of literature or learning.

What I Learned as a Teacher

Given my background, it’s no wonder that I specialized in teaching literacy. In the early 2000s, I was fortunate to receive high-quality professional development in the latest literacy pedagogy and excitedly applied those best practices in my classroom to meet each student’s individual needs. Two of my favorites were Harvey/Goudvis’s and Keene/Zimmermann’s Seven Core Reading Comprehension Strategies to help my students “do what good readers do” to improve text comprehension, and to understand what and how authors write to assist in “making meaning” in texts; and, Ruth Culham’s “6 + 1 Traits of Writing” to teach my students how to find, energize, organize, write, and polish their ideas.

To promote diversity, I provided classroom books for my students aligned with Rudine Sims Bishop’s ideas around “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors.” That’s when I knew I wanted to capitalize on all the skills I had learned and taught once I could turn to writing my own children’s books.

During my thirty-five-year career in San Diego’s public schools, I taught kids in every grade from kindergarten to twelfth. I was lucky to spend my last ten years teaching my favorites, fourth and fifth graders. That’s when I knew I wanted to write for middle graders—ages nine through twelve.

What I Apply as an Author

“Ms. J,” said one of my students during a classroom Book Club. “You could write a better book than this.” (Well, bless her heart, but the book we were reading wasn’t very good!)

Perhaps due to my lessons reading and writing alongside my students while I modeled what good readers, writers, spellers, vocabulary builders, grammarians, and respectful citizens do, that bright student knew I was destined to write kids’ books. And thanks to her, I resolved to revive my childhood dream. At the end of that 2012-13 school year, I retired from teaching and opened my laptop. That’s when I created the Botanic Hill Detectives Mysteries series.

From kids, I learned that they love arresting book covers, tables of contents and chapter titles to help them find their place, intelligent characters, challenging plots, maps, recipes, many genres (not just fantasy), fun for escaping, facts for grounding, vocabulary context clues, and history brought to life. I try to provide many of those elements in each book.

From teaching, in addition to employing the skills mentioned above, I strive to show in all my mysteries that kids deserve respect. Children can become comfortable world citizens, regardless of their socioeconomic levels, neighborhoods, or ethnicities. Kids are smart, have valuable thoughts and experiences that need harnessing, and possess amazing insights that often escape adults; hence, my polite, respectful, diverse sleuths were born, modeled after my former students.

That’s when I knew that children’s authors are in a unique position to teach kids valuable life skills and often do. Experience is the best teacher!  

Sherrill Joseph

Sherrill Joseph is the award-winning author of the Botanic Hill Detectives series for middle graders. You can find out more about her on her website,, or follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Linked In, Pinterest, or Instagram.

This Post Has 14 Comments

  1. Anne Louise Bannon
    Anne Louise Bannon

    What great experiences. I love how you point out that each of your different life roles informed what you write now. And we can all do that, even if we aren’t teachers.

    1. Sherrill Joseph
      Sherrill Joseph

      Thanks, Anne! Yes, I agree that each of us writers could likely trace the path through our lives that lead us to where we are now. I get asked about this path often, especially when people find out that I used to be a classroom teacher.

  2. GP Gottlieb
    GP Gottlieb

    Lovely to see your trajectory from student to teacher to author!

  3. Valerie Biel
    Valerie Biel

    I love the “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors.” As a writer of children’s lit, I’d often heard of the mirrors/windows in the we-need-diverse-books movement, but I hadn’t heard the sliding glass doors part. It’s such a clear, succinct way to describe what diverse books can do for their readership. Cool!

    1. Sherrill Joseph
      Sherrill Joseph

      Agree, Val. I think we children’s writers could do a great service to kids and society by being cognizant of the sliding glass doors as we’re planning our story elements. Thanks!

  4. joyribar

    Sherrill, how lucky for middle grade readers and their parents that you became “that teacher” and transferred all your best practices to authoring high quality mysteries! I remember using the 6 plus 1 Traits as a guide for our school district’s English LA curriculum. That book was our go-to for crafting writing rubrics. Best wishes on your new Jacaranda Street mystery.

    1. Sherrill Joseph
      Sherrill Joseph

      Thanks, Joy! So glad to hear that you used the 6 + 1 traits in your district, too. Obviously, I still use it to craft my books, and I highly recommend it to all writers.

  5. Avatar

    You’re having a wonderful adventure, and you deserve every minute of it!

    1. Sherrill Joseph
      Sherrill Joseph

      Aww, shucks, Saralyn! Seriously, thanks for your kind words. Writing is a wonderful adventure. I’ll bet it is for you as well.

  6. Avatar
    Margaret Mizushima

    Wonderful Post, Sherrill. I love your books and can definitely see you apply all that learning experience in your writing. Thanks for sharing your resources!

  7. Tracey S. Phillips
    Tracey S. Phillips

    Your students were so lucky to have you as a teacher and role model! I feel lucky to have you as a friend.

    1. Sherrill Joseph
      Sherrill Joseph

      Thank you so much, Tracey. And I feel the same way about you!

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