Before I move full speed ahead into the new year, I want to look back on the blog in 2019 and figure out what interested you and what did not. Many thanks to Andy J. Pizza for urging his Creative Pep Talk listeners to take this step in episode 258-Exploit This Natural Law That Will Make 2020 Your Year. If you’re a creator and you don’t listen to Creative Pep Talk, I highly recommend it.
Interestingly, readers are still viewing the book trailers I posted two years ago. So, this summer in July and August I’ll post book trailers from 2019 and 2020 releases along with some ideas of how to use the book in the elementary classroom. Authors contact me and let me know if you have a book trailer for your new release. If I can envision using your book in an elementary classroom, I’ll feature it.
Please take a moment to fill out this survey. It will take less than a minute, and it will help me better meet your needs in 2020. Also, Jason from Tyngsboro, Massachusetts, please fill out the contact form on my website so you can receive the awesome books authors are sending me to send to you!
Thanks so much for helping me out!
First of all, Happy New Year, everyone! Congrats to Jason, who is a fifth-grade teacher in Tyngsboro, MA, for winning the writer's workshop book basket! Jason, please fill out the contact form on my website and be sure to include your school address so we can send the books.
There is no gift like time. December break provides time to sleep, time to be with loved ones, and for teachers who write, time to create.
This vacation was unexpectedly productive for me. I’m putting that in print because I spend way too much time thinking about goals I didn’t accomplish instead of celebrating goals I do accomplish. More on corraling negative thoughts another time!
Anyway, I finished a draft of a nonfiction manuscript I’ve been working on since early fall. I talked about the seed idea for this manuscript in my October 23rd post Get Angry. In order to be able to write the manuscript, I did a ton of research. Check out the photos below to see some of the sources I read.
Sometimes though, the information one is looking for, is hard to find. In National Geographic’s "Why Carrying Your Own Fork and Spoon Helps Solve the Plastic Crisis," they state the sobering fact that in the U.S. we throw away one million plastic utensils every day. But I’m not only focusing on the problem in my manuscript, I’m focusing on solutions.
One can research solutions forever because humans are constantly coming up with creative ways to solve problems. While researching creative solutions people have devised to cut down on consuming plastic utensils, I came across this article on two middle schools in Minnetonka, Minnesota. Since I’m a teacher and I’m from the blustery Midwest, my interest meter shot sky high.
The two schools wrote a grant to replace plastic cutlery and bowls with stainless steel utensils and reusable bowls. They saved their district $23,000 over a three-year period, prevented 6,712 pounds of trash, reduced greenhouse gases by 77% and decreased water consumption by tens of thousands of gallons. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency awarded the grant.
Wheels whirring, I typed in Massachusetts Pollution Control Agency. That agency doesn’t exist but the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) does exist and guess what? They provide grants to schools that want to replace, “reusable dish-ware… to reduce single use service ware.” The grant is called the Reduce, Reuse, Repair Micro-Grant, and it awards up to $5,000 a year to non-profit organizations looking to make changes that benefit the environment.
I plan to apply for a 2020 micro-grant to replace our school’s plastic cutlery with reusable stainless steel flatware. In 2019, the DEP posted their grant guidelines in March. Hopefully, the DEP will post the 2020 guidelines in March as well which will give my class and me plenty of time to write the grant before the school year ends.
One day at the end of writer’s workshop, of my students who struggles with reading and writing stated, “I never liked writing before, but now I understand it has a purpose.”
Show your students writing has a purpose. Apply for a grant from your state’s department of environmental protection to replace your school’s plastic cutlery. If your state doesn’t have similar grants to those available in Minnesota and Massachusetts, write to your legislators asking them to make micro-grants available for your state.
On December 13th, I published the first five revision tips to try with your students. This week we'll focus on the last five revision tips. Since many people are celebrating holidays right now, many generous authors and illustrators have donated copies of books for you to start your own classroom's writer's workshop basket. Leave a comment before 2019 ends on this post, including the school you work at, to be entered to win these awesome books! Winner will be announced in the January third blogpost. Many thanks to Melissa Stewart, Sarah Brannen, April Jones Prince, Jamilah-Thompkins Bigelow, Kim Norman, Avi, Jessie Oliveros and Jeannine Atkins for their generosity!
Revision Tip Number Six:
Once students know about the magic rule of three, they'll start to notice it in most of the books they read. ReadWriteThink has a lesson plan about the magic rule of three here.
My favorite rule of three happens in Elana K. Arnold's Far From Fair. The main character, Odette, can't believe they're selling their house for a brown rv motorhome which she describes as, "Obnoxiously ugly, emabarassingly ugly, epically ugly." Pairing a different adjective with the word ugly three times makes readers feel Odette's despair. Many eleven-year-olds can relate to being embarassed by their family's home. Even some almost seventeen-year-olds, like mine, are too mortified to bring their friends home because they fear their abodes are too different from everyone elses. I digress. This first page is a powerful way to introduce students to the magic rule of three, and they will clamor for a chance to add this book to their book bag.
Fox by Margaret Wild is one of the Lucy Calkins' mentor texts. It has several magic rules of three, and it's also great for sensory details. Plus, if you use Calkins, hopefully it's a book you already have in hand!
I also already mentioned Avi's Poppy and Ereth. In addition to speaking in alliterative phrases, most of Ereth's phrases are also magic rules of three. Plus, they're hilarious. Reading a dialogue exchange between Poppy and Ereth is a great way to elevate the mood in the classroom.
Revision Tip Number Seven: Start in the Middle of the Action
Okay, I guess Fox is a great book, because you can use it for three of these revision tips. No wonder why Lucy Calkins picked it as a mentor text! If you're like me, you're read student narratives that spend five pages describing the character waking up, and one page of the rest of the action in list format. Fox is a great book to use as a model with students to show them that the action arc needs to start right away. Dog rescues Magpie, who has a charred wing, from a forest fire. But, she doesn't want his help because she'll never be able to fly again. Over time, Magpie and Dog develop a tender friendship that Fox later attempts to destroy.
Another book most upper elementary rooms probably have in hand is A Bridge to Terabithia. I know this is an old book(almost as old as me), but sometimes it's nice to use a book you already have so you can avoid a trip to the library or emptying one's purse for yet another book. It's also a great story. Plus, Katherine Paterson is my childhood hero. One day she was at An Unlikely Story, Jeff Kinney's bookstore, and I froze. One of my writer friends had to take me by the arm to meet her. I finally did, but I couldn't find my voice. I did shake her hand though. Anyway, I love the fact that it starts with a sound that leads to action. You can point the sound out as a way to start with a sound as well as an action hook.
Revision Tip Number Eight: Meaningful Dialogue
Too often student work lacks dialogue, or if it has dialogue, it's not meaningful. The dialogue reads something like this:
"How are you?"
"Good. How are you?"
You get the picture. Hopefully, any published novel has meaningful dialogue, but here are three of my favorites. Richard Peck is one of my favorite novelists. The last book he wrote before he died is The Best Man. He once said, "Nothing important was ever said sitting down," which is why he always wrote his dialogue standing up. Kids love to hear this because it reminds them that writing doesn't have to be done at a desk. It should be done wherever you can most connect to your emotions. You can watch the YouTube video below to hear him read a humorous dialogue exchange between Grandma Dowdel and housebound Aunt Madge, which is from his A Long Way from Chicago series.
Unlike the A Long Way from Chicago series, The Best Man is realistic, not historical, fiction. So, there are more entry points for today's fourth grade readers. The plot also centers around the main character's, Archer, realization that his uncle is gay.
Varian Johnson is another master of dialogue. The Parker Inheritance should be in every elementary school alongside Ellen Raskin's The Westing Game, as well as be incorporated into every Civil Rights unit. Although The Parker Inheritance focuses on race relations, one of the main character's is also dealing with her parents' divorce and the knowledge that her father has a boyfriend.
Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes takes a hard look at modern day racial injustice and implicit bias as well as race relations during the Civil Rights. This book has the most powerful last page I've ever read in my life. It's message is quite clear, it's up to each one of us, everyone who is living, to make the world a better place. Listen to Jewell Parker Rhodes talk about Ghost Boys below.
Revision Tip NumberNine: Vary Sentence Beginings
Challenge students to begin each sentence in a paragraph with a different word. Not only will it keep them busy, it nudges them to make some changes they might not otherwise make. In order to start each sentence with a different word, they may have to flip the sentence's subject and predicate. So, "I ran the brush through my hair," can become "The brush snagged each gnarled-up knot of hair on my head." Or they may have to take a complex sentence and split it into two separate sentences which could help them vary their sentence lengths.
Revision Tip Number Ten: Use Setting to Show Emotion
Remember to leave a comment below before 2019 ends to be entered into a drawing to win your own writer's workshop book basket. Happy Holidays everyone.
Writer's Workshop Book Basket
-Every teacher hears the dreaded, "I'm done. What do I do now?" Keeping a writer's workshop book basket full of books that students can peruse to get ideas for how to make their writing stronger, will help keep you sane, improve your student's writing and just might help your students find more books to add to their book bags for reader's workshop. Of course it helps to introduce each one of these tips in a mini lesson, before adding the books to your basket.
So what should you put in the book basket?
Revision Tip Number One: Alliteration
Alliteration is one form of figurative language that's relatively easy for students to grasp because they can hear and see the alliteration. So, this technique applies to your visual and your auditory learners.
It may not be snowy where you live, but last week twenty-five inches of snow fell here over a forty-eight hour period. Then, this week we were supposed to get a dusting and woke up to half a foot more of the white stuff. So, Ten on the Sled by Kim Norman and illustrated by Liza Woodruff is a fun book to pull out this time of year.
Ten different animals fall off the sled. Instead of using the word "fall" different times, Norman picks a vivid verb that starts with the same name as the animal falling off the sled using phrases like, "Walrus whirled off," and "Seal slipped off." It's easy to make a quick chart using alliterative phrases from this book.
If you're looking for a Friday Fun read, pull out Chicken Cheeks by Michael Ian Black. Similar to Norman's Ten on the Sled, Chicken Cheeks has several different animal characters as well. But instead of highlighting how they fall off a sled, Black highlights their derrieres. Sometimes he uses alliterative phrases to highlight their rear ends such as the title, Chicken Cheeks, "penguin patootie," and "turkey tushie." Read this one right before the bell rings, because you won't be able to rein your students in afterwards.
Finally, don't forget to throw one of Avi's Poppy Books into the basket. Ereth is one of my all-time favorite children's literature characters and he speaks in alliterative phrases that will have kids laughing out loud.
Revision Tip Number Two: Similes
Similes are also a relatively easy figurative language concept to introduce to your students because they compare two unlike objects using the word "like" or "as." Of course some eager students will have to learn that the words "like" or "as" do not always denote similes. But still, it's a concept that students can grasp which helps them become more confident writers and readers.
You'll definitely want to have copies of Melissa Stewart and Sarah Brannen's Feathers: Not Just for Flying and Seashells: More Than a Home in your basket. Melissa Stewart uses similes to compare feathers to every day objects. She writes, "Feathers can shade out sun like an umbrella... or protect sun like sunscreen." In Seashells: More Than a Home, Stewart writes, "Seashells can rise and sink like a submarine." Both of these books can do double duty in your animal science book basket as well because they both explain adaptations that animals have that help them survive in their environments.
I also have a copy of Quick as a Cricket by Audrey and Don Wood. In this book, the narrator compares herself to various animals. It's fun to have students write poems comparing themselves to ten different animals, and then have readers guess who wrote that poem.
Revision Tip Number Three: Metaphors
Metaphors are harder for students to grasp than alliteration and similes. But if you start with a simple, concrete metaphor, the idea that a kitten thinks the moon is a bowl of milk, students will warm up to the concept. So, pull out your copy of Kevin Henkes' Kitten's First Full Moon. Besides, the art is so yummy. It's guaranteed to make your class content.
Then, pull out your copy of Jessie Oliveros' The Remember Balloons and keep your box of tissues nearby. In this exquisite book, colored ballons are memories that the protagonist has to hold for his grandfather who is no longer able to hold onto his own memories.
Finally, head to your Civil Rights basket and grab Lillian's Right to Vote by Jonah Winter. Although this metaphor is hard to grasp because it's more complex than a bowl of milk or memories, Winter does an incredible job of comparing African Americans fight to vote to an uphill climb.
Revision Tip Number Four: Vivid Verbs
I touched on vivid verbs a bit back in the alliteration section when I talked about Ten on the Sled. That's because Kim Norman uses ten different synonyms for fall instead of using the verb fall ten times. Challenge your students not to use the same verb twice and see what happens.
April Jones Prince uses a multitude of verbs instead of using the words "roll" or "turn" over and over again in her book, What Do Wheels Do All Day? This book is less than one hundred words. If you find yourself with five extra minutes, this is a great way to make the best of the time.
Speaking of one hundred, my book 100 Bugs! A Counting Book doesn't use the word "fly" on each spread. Like Ten on the Sled, 100 Bugs! uses a different verb for fly on each page. Check it out!
Revision Tip Number Five: Sensory Details
Any good book worth its salt (I couldn't help myself!) is going to have sensory details, but here are three of my favorites.
Too Many Tamales by Gary Soto and Ed Martinez is chock full of sensory details and is perfect for this time of year.
Mommy's Khimar by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow is a kaleidoscope of colors and a joyous celebration of dressing up.
Finally, Jeannine Atkins' Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science is full of sensory details. Atkins uses poems to introduce scientists Maria Merian, Mary Anning and Maria Mitchell to readers. Since each poem is about a page, this is another book you can use during one of those quick five-minute chunks of time.
That's it for this week. Come on back on December twenty-third, or right before you go back to school, for more tips on how your students can revise their writing and books you can point to so you don't have to answer the question, "What do I do now?"
Happy Creating, Happy Teaching and Happy Holidays!
Some of you will recognize this post. I originally wrote it in May of 2018 for the Epic Eighteen blog. Since then, I've presented this topic at MRA and nErDcampNNE and nErDcampLI. Authors and teachers find it helpful, so I want to share it here. On December 13th and 23rd, I'll post the second half of the presentation which I've never blogged about before. It's geared toward educators. So looking forward to sharing it here with you!
10 drafts ago 100 Bugs! featured five damselfly species and five dragonfly species.
I’ve always loved dragonflies, and I was fascinated when I discovered damselflies were a different species than dragonflies. Why weren’t there any children’s books about the differences between the species? I thought I’d write one. My writing group convinced me more insect variety would make the story pop.
9 drafts ago 100 Bugs! featured cosmos instead of yarrow.
But farrow and yarrow sounds so much better than cosmos and yarrow! My writing group also pointed out that all the other rhymes really worked, but cosmos and farrow just didn’t, even if I really wanted it to. After all, I love fuschia and pale pink cosmos. There had to be a way to work them into this book. But since there aren’t any insects called gizmos, at least not that I know of, I had to weed out the cosmos and plant yarrow. Then, Suzanne Kaufman worked her magic!
8 drafts ago 100 Bugs! featured two dragonfly species, two damselfly species, two butterfly species, two bumblebee species, ladybugs and lightning bugs.
Walkingsticks, leafhoppers, spittlebugs and katydids weren’t in the picture. When Susan Dobinick, the original FSG editor who eventually acquired 100 Bugs!, first contacted me, she told me she wanted me to revise and include ten different insects. She also stipulated that I definitely had to include the bug all the kids liked, then she blanked on the name. Thank goodness “walkingstick” came to her before the end of the conversation because I had no idea what bug she was talking about. All of my favorite bugs were already in the book!
She also said she wanted scientific back matter for the ten different plants and the ten different insects. Finally, she acknowledged that I had a full-time teaching job and a family, but told me she needed the revision within a month’s time. Did I panic? Maybe a tiny bit, but becoming a published writer was a goal I’d been working toward for twelve years. I was willing to go to any length to do what needed to be done. So, I researched a couple of hours before work and a couple of hours after work each day. A month later there were ten different bugs, and back matter for all the insects and flowers.
7 drafts ago 100 Bugs! only featured a boy, not a girl.
But that changed when editor Janine O’Malley brought Suzanne Kaufman on board to illustrate the book. Not only did the boy gain the cutest little sister ever, he also scored a dog all in the same draft! Happy boy!
6 drafts ago 100 Bugs! started with the walkingstick spread.
It’s true. I swear it. I know it’s hard to believe that the super cute opening spread with the brother and sister in bed didn’t exist, but that’s the truth. Originally, the title page had the brother and sister leaving the house. The old title page resembled the current walkingstick spread. But Suzanne had already come up with the gorgeous sunrise and sunset end papers. So, Janine wanted the story to start with the kids waking up.
I reached out to Melissa Stewart, April Prince and Joannie Duris to help me brainstorm the verse. We sent emails back and forth, but nothing seemed quite right. So, I went to bed. When I rose with the sun the next morning, the phrase, “Explorers, explorers rising with the sun,” streamed into my head and a new beginning dawned.
5 drafts ago 100 Bugs! A Counting book ended with the lightning bug spread.
But that was before we started with the explorers in bed. The beginning has to hold the end of the book. So, I wrote the “Hip! Hip! Hooray!” spread so that Suzanne could showcase the explorers back in bed at the end of their day.
4 drafts ago 100 Bugs! didn’t include the brother and sister holding the book 100 Bugs! in their hands.
That was all Suzanne and Janine’s idea. That’s the best part about collaborating on a book with other people. Their ideas and modifications create a much better product than it would have been had they not been involved in the book.
3 drafts ago 100 Bugs! A Counting Book was titled 100 Bugs Out and About.
Yeah, my original title was playful, but it didn’t emphasize the mathematical concepts in the book enough. So, we tried some other titles that were way too mathematical: 100 Bugs! 10 Ways to Count to 10 or 100 Bugs! Counting by tens to 100 or 100 Bugs! 10 groups of 10. Finally, Janine and the marketing department suggested 100 Bugs! A Counting Book—an inviting, but not confusing name.
2 drafts ago 100 Bugs! counted by tens on each spread.
But that didn’t work because there was no way to illustrate all those bugs on each spread. So, I came up with the idea to create a single spread near the end of the book that would feature all 100 bugs! Janine liked the idea and passed it onto Suzanne.
The first draft of that spread didn’t work because it alternated between a line of illustrated bugs and a line of text counting by tens. It was hard to see the number of bugs growing. So, I put the spread up on a SMARTboard at school to see my teaching colleagues’, Kristin Milton, Pam Trefry and Teresa Zuckerman reactions. They looked as confused as I felt.
But, as always, they had a solution—move all the text to the left-hand side, the verso, and move all the insects to the right-hand side, the recto.
It was a great solution but how could I explain it to Janine and Suzanne? I decided to draw up a mock spread. I copied and pasted the counting by tens lines into one document, printed them and glued them down onto the left-hand side of a piece of graph paper. Then, to save time and because I’m not the world’s best artist to say the least, I used exes to represent the bugs in the array on the right-hand side of the book.
Then, I emailed it to Janine who emailed it to Suzanne. Somehow I hadn’t communicated clearly to Janine that the exes were supposed to represent fully drawn bugs. So, when I saw the new spread, it had all the text on the left-hand side and 100 exes on the right… oops!
I laughed out loud and explained what I had meant. The third time worked, and Suzanne created a gorgeous spread.
1 draft ago 100 Bugs! didn’t feature any perched damselflies.
What’s the big deal? Who cares, right? Well remember back in the beginning I told you that I wanted to write a book that distinguished between damselflies and dragonflies? Well, one of the easiest ways to tell them apart is to look at the wings of a perched dragonfly or damselfly. If they’re straight and open, you’re looking at a dragonfly. However, if they’re partially or completely closed, you’re looking at a damselfly. That’s the story of how one damselfly came to perch on the edge of the wishing well.
It’s also the story of how 100 Bugs! A Counting Book transformed from a manuscript in my computer to a book one can hold in her hands.
In my last post, Brutally Honest: Opening Up in the Classroom and on the Page, I talked about tips authors gave for creating characters readers can root for at nErDcampLI. While I thoroughly enjoyed that session, it wasn’t my favorite session of the day. The organizers of nErDcampLI had the fantastic idea to start the day with four nErDtalks. JoEllen McCarthy and Kristen Picone explained that they decided to begin with these inspirational speeches after attending a different nErDcamp. By now you probably have guessed that the nErDtalks were my favorite part of the day.
Author and middle school educator Karuna Riazi started us off with her talk, “Who Do We Welcome Home?” She talked about how she is probably the only person in her generation who has never read Harry Potter even though she knows she’s a Hufflepuff. Even though Harry Potter is a fantastic series, she discussed the fact that many people from diverse backgrounds had to make their own home in Harry Potter because they couldn’t find themselves depicted on J.K. Rowling’s pages.
Ms. Riazi asked the room full of educators and authors who we are making a home for in our books and in our classrooms. As authors, who are we including in our pages? As educators, do we have literature that represents students from various racial, religious, socioeconomic, gender diverse and neurodiverse backgrounds? Are we taking the time to make sure we know how to pronounce students names? Then, she showed a photo of the students she welcomes home every day.
After Ms. Riazi, author and illustrator Lita Judge took the stage. She challenged the educators in the room to provide all sorts of windows for students to enter the world of writing. Ms. Judge shared that she entered the world of writing through her artwork. Are we welcoming all learners in our classroom, or are we only creating homes for students who have strong verbal/linguistic skills?
Next up was the unforgettable, inimitable Charles Smith Jr. I am embarrassed to say I had no idea who he was before last Saturday, but I’ll always remember him now. His performance of his biographical poem filled the room with electric energy.
He pointed out that when he was a child it was hard for him to find people who looked like him in books. Mr. Smith has spent his life creating books that feature African American people so that other African Americans will be able to see themselves portrayed in picture books. Today in my class, we used Brick by Brick to talk about again-and-again moments. Throughout the book, Smith focuses on the hands of the various people who built the original White House.
Emma Otheguy closed the session. She focused on what we are welcoming home instead of who we are welcoming home. Ms. Otheguy pointed out that when we fund one-on-one technology for each student, but we don’t have money for books or to staff libraries that we are sending a strong message that technology counts and books and librarians don’t matter.
By the way, I blogged about Ms. Otheguy's novel, Silver Meadows Summer, on August 1st, 2019.
I find myself thinking about these questions throughout the school day. What could I be doing to make all the various types of learners in my classroom feel more at home? How can I make more space for empathy, compassion and inclusion so that there’s less space for distance, judgement and exclusion?
The answers aren’t being delivered overnight in tidy packages. No, the answers come at various times throughout the day. Sometimes they come at inconvenient times. Change is rarely convenient, but it’s usually necessary.
Kids are brutally honest. They tell it like it is. I rarely worry about what my students are thinking because they tell me straight up. For example, this student told me, “My friend said that you’re really hard to get to know, but that once she got to know you it turned out you were really nice and one of her favorite teachers.”
Brutal honesty is also one of the reasons I appreciate my critique groups as well. Although I’ve never published a novel, many of my critique partners have read various drafts of different novels.
They say the same thing as my student did, my characters are hard to get to know. Distant.
This is a huge problem, and I talked about it a bit at the end of my last post, Get Angry. As I wrote the last post, I realized that the subject of creating emotional resonant characters needed way more than a paragraph.
Now, I’m not going to spend a whole post looking back at my childhood, my mother’s childhood and my grandmother’s childhood talking about why emotional distance is something that the three of us have struggled with; however, I will say that through hard work, letting people in is something that we’ve all improved at throughout our lifetimes.
Obviously, letting people in is an area I still need to do a lot of work in according to my students and my writing peers. But the fact that my grandmother, mother and myself have made improvements in this area fills me with hope because it’s proof that learning lasts a lifetime.
I believe that through writing instruction in my classroom that I can create more windows for students to see who I am. In my Bumper Sticker Books and More post(9/22/19) as well as in my Get Angry post(10/23/19), I’ve shared some of the ways writing has built a stronger emotional connection within my classroom community. I am hopeful that I will be able to transfer that social emotional learning into my personal writing as well.
In class, we’re moving into our fiction unit now, and we’re about to delve into character.
Inked Voices is an online writing community. I’m taking a course through Inked Voices, and we’ve discussed one way to try and get closer to your character is to switch point of view from third person to first person. I’ve tried that several times in different manuscripts. By itself, it hasn’t done the trick. When I think about my classroom, I’d be hesitant to introduce that strategy because it’s a pretty advanced concept. But maybe it’s something I could try at the end of the year.
The mentor in the Inked Voices group, Sterling editor Rachael Stein, suggested having the main character open up to one specific character in the book. This tip really resonated with me. Maybe if I make it a focus for every interaction my main character has with her older sister to reveal a layer of her personality, I can chip away at that emotional distance.
It’s something I’m going to try. Since friends and family have told me I write powerful letters, in my next draft I’m going to try having the older sister be away at camp and have each chapter either begin or end with the main character writing a letter to her sister. We’ll see how it goes…
The universe has a way of not giving up when it wants you to pay attention to something. So yesterday when I attended nErDCampLI and I saw one of the sessions offered was Building Characters Readers Can Root For by Mark Oshiro and Ashley Woodfolk, I was in. It turned out there were other great authors on the panel, too, such as Padma Venkatraman, Barbara Dee and Rebecca Behrens.
Here are some of the tips the authors on the panel suggested:
Number one take away tip: actions matter.
Not all of these ideas are new to me, but the fact of the matter is it’s helpful for me to have everything written down in one place. I can close that window in my brain, and move onto the next task. I’m also hoping one or more of these tips will be help writers no matter what they’re age build characters people can root for.
Let’s keep the writing list going.
Writers, how do you build characters readers can root for?
Let’s start a list for letting students in.
Teachers, how do you open your heart to your students?
On his 247th podcast episode, “The Top 6 Most Important Things My Creative Heroes Taught Me,” the first tip Andy J. Pizza, a.k.a. Andy J. Miller, tells his listeners is to get angry. At first, I thought to myself that tip doesn’t work for me. I’m a positive person that’s why I listen to this podcast. Then, Miller goes on to list several different creative people who find an emotional truth behind their anger and create from that space. I started to chuckle.
Why? Well, it’s simple. I realized that I birthed my current writing project from a place of anger.
My school’s drinking water isn’t safe. So, the administration turned off all of the water fountains and brought in water coolers. Guess what? Kids like to waste time at water coolers just as much as adults do, but children are much more creative than adults. Why stand around and chat at the cooler when you can amuse yourself in one of the following ways:
There’s a reason I mentioned the tower building twice. The fourth and fifth graders preferred this challenge. Since the water cooler is right outside our classroom, every time the cups tumbled down it interrupted our learning. As a teacher you know the situation is bad when the nine-year-old students are getting exasperated. “There they go again,” and head shaking became a common occurrence.
When it came time to write our boot camp persuasive essay, I didn’t have to think twice about our topic. We came up with a thesis quickly: The disposable cups at Center School are bad for the environment, distract from learning, and are a waste of money. But I did have to find out how many cups we’d used and what we’d spent on the cups. In addition, I’d also have to get some facts about plastic in the environment so that we presented accurate information.
I was horrified to find out that in the first twenty-four days of school, we’d ordered 24,400 cups. We have over six hundred students in my school. On average, each person in the building was using more than one cup a day. The cost of the cups, $940. We could have bought a brand new book for all eighty of our fourth graders with that money.
My anger increased as I did the research and found out some startling facts about plastic in our environment.
When we asked this question live at our assembly, everyone raised their hand. We agreed 100% wasn't an accurate representation. This is a more honest representation, but I think it's still inflated. People want others to think they're making ethical choices, even if they're not actually making that choice.
As I was doing the research for our class essay, the biblical verse, “All creatures great and small,” popped into my head. I knew it to be true. Plastic hurts sea creatures big and small is the repetitive phrase I’m using in my current manuscript.
Another point Andy J. Pizza mentions in his podcast is that some people argue that anger is a secondary emotion, that it masks an underlying hurt, disappointment or sadness. Doing the research for this book is excruciating. Then, of course there is the underlying doubt that I face anytime I embark on a manuscript that requires a lot of research. The worry of whether or not all this time will ever amount in a physical book people can hold in their hands. I don’t have the answer to that question.
What I do know is that doing this research has already changed my actions. It’s hard to find a plastic bag in my house now. My youngest son broke down and ordered a reusable lunch bag that looks like an old brown bag because a bag that looked like it was reusable would somehow ruin his nonchalant image. I’ve stopped using straws. How could I not after this video?
Finally, I’ve stopped buying coffee unless I have a travel mug or water bottle with me.
The administration at my school is phenomenal. My assistant principal found out what we were writing about and asked our class to present at our October All School Meeting so that the kids could have a real audience for their work. Since I was working the slideshow, I couldn’t see the audience. But supposedly I wasn’t the only one surprised and horrified by these grim statistics. My principal was so impressed he’s printing out our slideshow, pasting it onto poster board, laminating it and wrapping the information around the water coolers. He mentioned including a picture of me scowling and pointing my finger as well but decided against it. I have a feeling many kids would have been sneaking Sharpies to the water cooler if he would have followed through with this idea.
We called the school to action. Cups are no longer available at the water cooler outside my classroom. Students have to ask their teachers if they want a cup. Each classroom received a sign that says, “Save the Earth,” in bubble letters. For each day that ¾ of the students in each classroom bring a water bottle, the class gets to color in one letter. For fourth and fifth grade classes, they can also color in a letter each day that the teacher gives out five or fewer cups. When all classrooms have colored in their signs, we’re going to have a school wide ocean day. Students can come dressed as their favorite sea creature, wear ocean-themed pajamas, and teachers can choose to do ocean-themed activities for the day.
What are you angry about?
What can you create from that space?
What can you do differently to make the world a better place?
More magic unexpectedly happened in my classroom during writing this week. Of course, all magic is unexpected. If the outcome were expected, it wouldn’t be magical. Instead, the occurrence would be structured and planned.
One day I asked students to write about something that is hard for them. They brainstormed a list and chose one item to write about. At the end of the period, students shared out.
One student wrote about how math was hard for her. She shared that she often didn’t understand it the first time the teacher introduced the concept, she didn’t finish it as quickly as the other students around her, and she often had to ask for help. The shaka sign shook the rug.
Another student wrote that writing was hard for him. He shared that he often didn’t know what to write about, when he did write it was hard to decipher his handwriting, and he had a hard time writing more than a sentence or two. Once again the shaka sign upped the energy level in the room.
The gift he gave me was when he shared that in fourth grade writing wasn’t as hard because he actually understood the point of it. I should have asked him what the point of it was, but recess was looming. I’ll have to follow up on that, not just because it might fill my bucket but because it might give me a window into what I need to replicate in future lessons.
Anyway, it led me to thinking about what is hard for me. As a teacher, it’s hard to give up the structure of a five-paragraph persuasive essay. In the past when I’ve taught my students how to write a persuasive essay, they’ve all walked away with a beautifully structured paper. Since I’m following the lessons from Lucy Calkins’ Boxes and Bullets: Personal and Persuasive Essays, I’ve taken huge steps away from that structure. Perhaps the creators of the program would protest saying the structure is there, and they’re right. But it’s not the central focus. I have no idea what my students’ final products will look like, or if they’ll even have a final product.
Later in the week, students expanded their writing by looking at a list of questions Calkins gives the students. The list included questions such as, “What is the feeling in this piece of writing?” and “What did your writing make you realize?” I presented the mini-lesson and then began conferencing with students.
One student looked back at a piece he had written about flushing his fish down the toilet. He said the feeling in the piece of writing was sadness. I replied that while I understood why he felt sad, that I didn’t feel his sadness in his writing. I asked him what sadness felt like for him and he replied, “My heart pounds, my stomach growls and tears run down my cheeks.” Needless to say when he added that description into his writing, it was much more powerful than it had been before.
The other student looked back at a piece he had written about playing goalie and letting a goal score. He said he realized that he was too hard on himself. I followed up by asking, “In the soccer game?” and he responded in every area of his life. He expanded and said that no one could have stopped that goal. So, why was he expecting himself to do something impossible? Wow! If only I had that realization as a nine-year-old, I can’t imagine how my life would be different as would the life of my family members and students.
As a writer, it’s hard for me to give up structure, too. After all, honing structure has been a very successful exercise for me. Books can’t get more structured than my first book 100 Bugs! A Counting Book. The rhyme is structured, the narrative arc is a ladder structure, and the subject matter, combinations of ten, has an inherent structure. But it’s not just once that structure has saved me. This summer I revised and honed two picture book manuscripts with a certain strategy. You guessed it… by improving the structure.
In one manuscript, Chicks Rule Dogs Drool, the structure was too repetitive. Sarah Albee, a phenomenal writer who has released yet another amazing book North America: A Fold-out Graphic History, suggested I only use repetitive text every other spread. Of course there were other suggestions I followed as well, but that change greatly improved the story.
In another manuscript, A Day at Home for Mickey McCafferty, a different critique group had many ideas about why the story wasn’t working. The version I brought to group had the main character interacting one-on-one with various family members throughout the day. Then in the climax, the whole family celebrated together. People said that they wanted to see the effect of the main character’s actions on each individual family member, not the family as a whole.
Their comments made me think of A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Erin and Phillip Stead. In the first half of the exquisite book, A Sick Day for Amos McGee, Amos helps each animal individually. In the second half, each individual animal helps Amos. It’s a ladder structure. The readers see Amos interacting individually with each animal twice. I went back and used the same structure in A Day at Home for Mickey McCafferty and voila. What a difference.
But as I’m learning in my classroom, structure isn’t always the answer and it’s only part of the picture. A writer I greatly admire, Rajani LaRocca, did me an incredible service and read the entire fourth draft of my middle grade novel manuscript, Origami Treasure. I had hoped she’d read it and say, “Send it out. It’s ready to go.” After all, that’s what my former agent and her assistant had said. Instead, Rajani did me a great favor and told me all the reasons why the novel was far from ready to submit. She had many criticisms, but to sum it up succinctly she said the novel was trying to do too many things.
She’s right. The manuscript is trying to do too many things. One could argue that it means there are structural problems in the novel, but I don’t think that’s the real issue. What I’ve realized is that just like my student who wrote the flushing the fish down the toilet story, I need to hone in on the emotional resonance in my manuscript.
But the terrifying thing is, I don’t know how to do that. As far as I’m aware, honing in on emotional resonance isn’t something I can fix structurally, that would be the same as trying to plan magic. No, I’ll have to let go. I don’t know if the answer will come from my students, or on a run, or in the shower, or during my commute to work, or through another channel. One thing I do know is the answer will come on its own time, not when I plan on it coming.
The hardest teaching task is parenting. The job is 24/7, you never get a vacation and it lasts for life. I’m constantly amazed how everyday it presents me with new challenges—which provide plenty of room for personal growth.
My youngest son is a junior in high school. He has many talents: loves math, can pick up a writing implement and everyone knows what he’s drawn and has a pitch perfect voice… not that he’d ever let anyone in on that secret. However, reading and writing aren’t his go-to activities.
Not even close. Yet somehow he has landed in Advanced Placement English which is like trying to watch a fish swim in a desert. You probably already figured out this is one of the many parenting mistakes I’ve made. In hindsight, I probably should have discouraged him from signing up for the course.
But one of my character defects/strengths (depending on the situation) is that I’m always pushing myself and those around me. One of my former fourth grade students said, “Mom, after Mrs. Narita’s class, I’m ready for college.” Slight exaggeration, but you get the point.
Fast forward to the beginning of October. In addition to the AP English course, he also plays almost every minute of every game for his varsity soccer team, which is really struggling this year. After each game, he’s extremely frustrated and exhausted, yet he usually has to come home and write a literary analysis paper.
If you’re a children’s author reading this blog, maybe you’re envisioning he’s reading The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo or The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas or some other exquisitely crafted piece of young adult literature. Nope. He has to read titles such as Thoreau’s Walden Pond and Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. After reading the material (whatever parts he has read), he has to write an analysis.
Sounds challenging, right? Well, it gets tougher. His teacher definitely has a theme for the course, and it’s not pro technology. Instead, the teacher’s supporting articles from current periodicals claim that technology has destroyed our ability to be alone, and that this inability to be by ourselves has grave consequences.
What’s my son’s favorite activity? You guessed it, anything having to do with his iphone. If you’re a parent, you’re probably feeling pretty good about whatever schooling challenges you’re facing with your child or smiling or feeling a tiny bit of relief.
Last Thursday, rain pelted his soccer team as they once again conceded a tie in the final minutes of the game. Then, he had to come home and write a literary analysis paper explaining why Thoreau ended Walden Pond in spring instead of winter to signify rebirth. Sounds scintillating, right?
Then, it really got exciting. He had to tie in Siddhartha. Finally, I made him revise his paper based on his teacher’s comments from previous papers: no capitals in the middle of the sentence (for real), stay in the same tense, clarify vague words, tighten lengthy sentences.
After an hour, I knew he was done. When we joined my husband who was watching the Packers’ game, I asked my son to recap the themes of the literature he had read so he could participate intelligbly in class. My husband, who has never read anything other than a scientific article from beginning to end yet has a PhD., caught on that my son could have done a more thorough job reading. Ironically, my husband asked, “How are you going to graduate from college?” My exhausted son, who will probably be an engineer someday replied, “I’m not gonna write no papers in college.”
We looked at each other, burst into laughter and proceeded to watch the game. Obviously, nothing else could be accomplished that night. But as I drove to work the next day, I realized every day I ask my students to do at least one task that is as difficult for them to accomplish, as a literary analysis paper is for my youngest son.
For some children, it’s not just one task a day, it’s several. Whether that task is writing a persuasive essay, solving a multistep math problem or inferring character traits is besides the point. The point is every day they’re pushing themselves, stretching themselves, stepping out of their comfort zone to achieve a goal they’ve never obtained before.
And then, I make them do it again.
I’ve never felt such empathy for my students. It’s not that I didn’t know I have high expectations or that I push them to the limit, I knew that. But for the first time, I felt the exhaustion. For some students, coming to school each day is like asking them to run consecutive marathons five days a week. I’d be beside myself after running one marathon in a year, never mind 180!
How exactly will this newfound empathy make me a better teacher? I don’t know. But I do know that every time I embrace empathy, I’m better able to be of service to those around me.
Happy writing, teaching and creating (and parenting)!
The Magic Three: Writing, Teaching and Creating
I'll be posting about writing, creating and teaching, the magic threes, on the threes the 3rd, the 13th, and the 23rd. (Yes, I know my first post was on the 22nd...oops!) Looking forward to sharing with you.