Curriculum Tie-Ins for When the Whistle Blows

Besides being a mystery-adventure and a “highly engaging, well-written, really good read,” (see my review page!), there is much in When the Whistle Blows for teachers to use in the classroom.  When the Whistle Blows is about an Irish Catholic railroading family living in the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia in the 1940’s.  It touches upon World War II, the Irish Potato Famine, immigration, the role of railroads in American history, the dieselization of the steam engine and the social issues that occurred as a result, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, Appalachian history, West Virginia history and geography, small town America, and Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve).  It also includes a high school championship football game, a secret society and a conflict between a high school school principal and his teachers!

Teachers Discussion Guide 

Penguin has developed a spectacular Discussion Guide for When the Whistle Blows.  The guide is available as a free download on this site.  Please feel free to use it in your classroom , library, or book group.

A When the Whistle Blows-Inspired Writing Exercise:

When the Whistle Blows is set in the very real town of Rowlesburg, which is in Preston County, West Virginia.  My father and mother grew up in Rowlesburg, so in some ways writing When the Whistle Blows was an exercise in exploring my own family history.  I did this by taking stories my father had told me about growing up there and weaving them into a larger work of fiction.  It was VERY fun to write!  As an exercise for your class, ask students to share stories that their fathers, mothers, grandmothers, grandfathers, or other older family members have told them.  Then ask them to take all or part of that story and write it in first person, as if they had done it.  Let them embellish or change it as they wish, and see what they come up with!  For a downloadable version of this writing exercise, click here.

An Interview with the Author:

Click here to learn more about me and why I wrote When the Whistle Blows, and to read a brief discussion of dieselization, as well as an insider’s history of this part of Appalachia and why it is so important to me.  Feel free to print the interview and share with your class.

A Video Interview with the Author:

Try a Recipe Straight Out of History:

In When the Whistle Blows, Jimmy talks about cutting down another football player like “a stalk of buckwheat.”  Buckwheat has been an important crop in Preston County, West Virginia and is the subject of the annual Buckwheat Festival, which is held every September in the city of Kingwood (which is where championship game is played in When the Whistle Blows).  How do you eat buckwheat?  I think the best way is to make buckwheat cakes, which are basically like pancakes with a very distinctive, bitter taste.  Click here for a buckwheat cake recipe that you can make in your classroom.  This particular recipe was served as far back as 1928 on Baltimore & Ohio Railroad dining cars.  But as you’ll see in the 1928 letter below the recipe, all patrons of the B&O did not favor this way of making buckwheat cakes.  In my family we leave out the dark syrup for a more bitter flavor.  Try it and see what you think!

Click Here to Read the History of the Annual Buckwheat Festival, in Preston County, West Virginia.

See a Diesel Engine Roll Through Rowlesburg:
There is a particular sound that a diesel horn makes when it blows in Rowlesburg.  The sound goes rolling down the mountainsides and along the river in an inimitable way.  Click here to watch a diesel as it travels through Rowlesburg, and hear an approximation of the sound with your own ears.

Click Here for More Information on Steam Trains and Diesels and the B&O Railroad.

School Visits

I enjoy visiting schools and tailor my talks to suit the needs of my audience.  I can gear my presentations towards upper elementary, middle school or high school students.  My workshops include:

Why Aspiring Writers Need to Read Aloud  

Reading and writing are intimately connected.  Readers “hear” what they are reading in their heads, even when they are reading silently.  For this reason a good writer must strive to write things that will “sound” right in a reader’s mind.  In this presentation, I show students the importance of reading aloud in order to discover the meaning, intonation, cadence and formality or informality of the written word, and I discuss how an author’s word choice might be affected by these issues.  I also present the concept of “writing aloud” - that is, when an author reads her own writing aloud as she goes along, in order to make sure the readers “hear” what the author really wants them to hear.

Becoming an Author - My Journey Back to Rowlesburg

This talk covers my own journey to becoming a published author and shares how my family history and my father’s storytelling influenced my writing.  (See An Interview with Fran Cannon Slayton for a little preview!)

Finding Your Own Voice, Or Why I Sometimes Write Like a Boy 

What is voice both in literature and in our own lives?  And how do we find our own voices both on paper and out in the everyday world?  In this talk I share why and how I chose to write in first person from a boy’s perspective in When the Whistle Blows, and why that was an effective choice for me.  I also encourage students to find their own voices.   And if you egg me on, I might even sing a little!

Family History Fiction   

True stories can be a great starting point for writing fiction!  Using When the Whistle Blows as an example, I discuss where to find good true stories to work with, and how to turn them into works of fiction. 

A big welcome to all teachers and librarians!  I appreciate you stopping by my website.  On this page you’ll find curriculum tie-ins to When the Whistle Blows as well as information on school visits.  Please feel free to email me if you’d like additional information.

Click here if you are a teacher or librarian who would like to enter a contest to win 30 advance copies of When the Whistle Blows for your school or classroom!

Additional Information

         Author Visits & Funding Issues 
An author visit is a great way to get kids excited about not only reading, but many other subjects as well!  Reading about a character’s adventures within a historical context makes history come alive.  And hearing an author tell the “stories behind the story” helps kids take ownership of the text and sets their imaginations and creativity in full swing.  

Here is a great article about library media specialist and picture book author Toni Buzzeo on how to lay the groundwork to get students, teachers, and administrators excited about an author visit.  Teachers and librarians can help by ensuring that the students read the author’s work before the visit, so they can get the most out of the discussion. 

If cost is an issue for a school visit, schools can save money by splitting the visit with another local school.  Or a school might opt for a full day visit but split travel expenses with another local school or organization.  Local train-related organizations and museums, Irish-American groups, or Catholic churches may be interested in partnering with your school to keep down costs.  For general information on grant writing and opportunities, click here or here.  To subscribe (for a fee) to a school grants newsletter, click here.  If your school does not allocate funds for author visits, some schools sponsor one-time fundraisers or apply for the SCBWI Amber Brown Grant which pays for author visits.


$800.00 per day for up to four sessions per day, plus food, lodging and travel expenses.   I provide a simple contract to ensure clear communication.

Click here to order When the Whistle Blows at your Local Indie Store!  Or Borders!  Or Amazon!