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)!
Teaching is full of wondrous, magical moments be it a shared smile with a student, relishing a favorite book together, or witnessing an act of kindness. But sometimes the magic is so powerful it’s palpable. This past Friday you could feel the magic in my room. Here’s how it happened.
Earlier in the year, I read All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold and Suzanne Kaufman and You Are Home: An Ode to the National Parks by Evan Turk to my students. Besides the fact that these books make my body vibrate with joy, I wanted to share them with my class because they each have a phrase that repeats throughout the text. To reinforce the repetitive phrase in both books, I typed up both texts and students highlighted the repetitive phrases.
I intended to use these texts to show how authors use repetitive phrases to convey their messages. But the term “repetitive phrase,” isn’t catchy. Then, while I was using the Fountas & Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System, I came across the term “bumper sticker sayings.” Now that’s catchy, I thought. “Bumper sticker sayings” is a term my students will remember and incorporate into their writing.
Before I showed my students the YouTube video Kindness Speech By 10-Year-Old Girl, I reminded them of Penfold and Turk’s bumper sticker sayings, “All Are Welcome” and “You Are Home.” Then, I asked them to listen for the girl’s bumper sticker saying. After watching the video, students identified her bumper sticker saying, “Be kind,” and highlighted it ten times in the text.
Next, I shared some of my bumper sticker sayings with students: "We All Matter," "Progress Not Perfection," "Failure Leads to Success," "Every Second Counts" and showed how I could use those sayings to tell stories about my life and belief system. Then, students went off to brainstorm three-to-five of their own bumper sticker sayings and choose one or two of them to write about his or her life.
They only had about fifteen minutes to write, but the room was silent which is usually a good sign during writers’ workshop. Silence means children have the opportunity to be lost in their own thoughts and to record those thoughts on paper without being distracted by their peers. But I didn’t know if magic was happening for sure until we shared out at the end of workshop.
And then magic happened. Three students read their Bumper Sticker writing. Their bumper sticker sayings where: "Stay Confident," "Stay Positive" and "Be Proud of Your Height." As students read, the shaka hand gesture filled the room. But it wasn’t just their hands moving back and forth, their bodies bounced up and down on the rug. One student read, “When people make fun of you for being short, be proud of your height.” Bodies shook with the shaka. He continued. “When you want to be as tall as your best friend, be proud of your height.” More shakas. Magic.
There’s nothing as magical as honesty filling a room. If I would have asked kids to share about a time people made fun of them, I would have been met with bowed heads. If I would have asked the kids to share about a time that they wished they were like their best friends, I would have been met with nervous giggles. Instead, I asked the kids to write about their bumper sticker sayings, and magic happened.
Lucky for me, the magic didn’t stop when writers’ workshop ended. This weekend I started reading Be the Gateway: A Practical Guide to Sharing Your Creative Work and Engaging an Audience by Dan Blank. My mentor and friend, Melissa Stewart, lent me her copy to read. I vlogged about Mellissa’s books in Day 16 and 24 of my Summer Bookaday Challenge, and if you teach or write and haven’t checked out her website, stop reading this post and check it out right now. It’s a treasure trove of resources.
Anyway, Be the Gateway is a stunning book for many reasons. I’ve only read three chapters so far, but he talks about the importance of sharing your creative process and working from a mission statement, or in other words, a bumper sticker saying.
I’d never thought about my writing stemming from my core beliefs, but of course it does. I’d also never thought about using those core beliefs/mission statement/bumper sticker saying to define who I am. Ideas started coursing through my mind. To make sense of them all, I took a walk in the woods. Here’s the start of my new bio: Kate Narita believes life is full of magic, nature nourishes us and children champion change.
Magic. The teaching, writing and creating worlds colliding once again to make me a better writer, teacher and creator. I’m so grateful to live in the magic three each day.
Vlog Transcript Below
Vlog Transcript Below
Slide 3: Melissa Stewart is the one who told me about Birds of a Feather: Bowerbirds and Me. She has also written an excellent book about birds called Feathers Not Just for Flying, and it is illustrated by Sarah Brannen. This is an excellent book as well to facilitate a discussion about adaptations. Stewart explains the different uses of various feathers. She uses similes in her text to explain that some feathers are used for sunscreen while others are used for umbrellas. This comparison to everyday objects makes the text very accessible for readers. Lastly, Sarah Brannen’s illustrations also engage the reader because she made it look as if the book were a child’s scrapbook.
Vlog Transcript Below
Vlog Transcript Below
Slide 3: As I mentioned, A Good Kind of Trouble celebrates team sports, particularly track. The main character, Shay, makes new friends on the team and she finds a role model in her coach. The same is true for Ghost in Jason Reynold’s novel, Ghost. He, too, makes new friends and finds a role model in his coach. The neat thing is if you like Ghost and his friends, you can read three other books in the track series. I highly recommend these books.
Slide 8: Lastly, I want to talk about one other aspect of A Good Kind of Trouble that I really enjoyed. There’s a time in the novel where Shay’s mother goes to school and sticks up for Shay’s actions. Her mother confronts the school principal. This was a very powerful moment for me. When I was in middle school there was a teacher who mistreated me, and when I told my mom, she went into school and stuck up for me. I’ll never forget that. Reading that scene in A Good Kind of Trouble made me feel as if I were twelve again.
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.