Teaching Blog

After my day in Milwaukee I flew back east, where some unexpected snow on the first day of spring (!?) wreaked havoc on a few of my events. Still, I was able to visit two schools in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, which was doubly fun since I’m sort of obsessed with that town. It has an old-fashioned movie theater, quite a few cafes, the great Doylestown Bookshop as well as two used bookstores, ice cream shops galore—basically everything I need for a happy existence.   I visited two Doylestown schools and the kids were particularly enthusiastic and gracious. One of the really cool things about this second book tour is that I’ve been meeting kids who have read The Thickety: A Path Begins and are really excited about the sequel, as opposed to the first tour, which was mostly, “Your book has only been out for three days—who the heck are you?” It’s nice to get good reviews and all, but nothing beats an actual kid telling me he or she finished a book of mine in a single day, or has read it more than once.

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Cold Spring Elementary School

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Linden Elementary School

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Snow cancelled my signing at the Doylestown Bookshop, which was unfortunate but not the end of the world—I figured we would just re-schedule. And then I received a text that evening about a girl who had come all the way from Washington D.C. for the event and had not gotten word it was cancelled. She had even made a special costume for the occasion. NOOOO!!! Luckily, the awesome Krisy of Doylestown Bookshop was able to schedule a time at the store that this enthusiastic reader and I could meet before she had to head back home. (If you wanted a demonstration of the personal care that independent bookstores give their customers…ta-da!) The next morning, I got to meet Grace (yup—that was her name) in person, and she was wearing this incredible one-eyed bird costume with eyes that actually changed colors—which she had made herself! I had the privilege of hanging out with her for a while and chatting, and it was fantastic fun.

And now, for the final Which is Scarier?  Totals, with the winners in bold:

abandoned mall vs. dark forest (3-7)

shark vs. giant squid (4-6)

heights vs. thunderstorms (8-2)

haunted house vs. haunted school (0-10)

(For the record, I agree with all of these!)

I arrived in Milwaukee about 5PM, or maybe 4PM, or possibly 8PM. (I totally don’t understand time zone changes, and I think anyone who says they do is flat-out lying.) My driver gave me a mini-tour of the city, including the historic Pfister Hotel, which is apparently so haunted that visiting athletes refuse to stay there. He told me of a time he received a call from a prestigious client who requested to be picked up at 2:45 AM from the Pfister because he had just seen an old man wearing clothes from the 19th century. As soon as I got to my hotel—which was, unfortunately, ghostless—I had to see if he was just pulling a New Jersey guy’s leg. He wasn’t:

http://espn.go.com/mlb/story/_/id/9315544/justin-upton-more-mlb-players-spooked-milwaukee-haunted-hotel-espn-magazine

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It was still pretty early, so I took a walk and found a mall that featured a fruit stand, a coffee roaster, and a used bookstore. Then I ate a big bowl of pasta. I decided that I liked Milwaukee.

yummy pasta MI

I woke up early the next morning, knowing that I had a crazy day in front of me: three school visits, a library visit, and a reading/signing at Boswell Books. To be honest, the whole day was sort of a blur. Not a bad sort of blur, mind you, more of a it’s-Christmas-morning-and-did-we-really-just-open-all-the-presents-that-fast? sorta blur.  At Pleasant View Elementary, I was floored by the amazing drawing of the Thickety cover waiting for me. I figured maybe it was an art teacher who had done it, but it was actually three students!   My next stop was Wisconsin Hills Middle School, where I had a little extra time to talk to some of the staff before my event. I’ve spoken many times about how cool it is to meet all these kids, but it’s also neat to meet such awesome teachers and librarians. I was, without exception, greeted with warmth and humor and made to feel welcome in their schools. Next, at Craig Montessori School, I spoke to an energetic group that had been extremely well prepped for my arrival—as the book trailer to A Path Begins played, one boy was mouthing the words of the narrator!

Pleasant View pic Pleasant View pic2

After my school visits, we changed gears and visited the beautiful Elm Grove Library. This was such a fun crowd!   Since I was unable to visit their school due to the jam-packed day, two teachers from a private school drove a large group of girls to the event. I was totally amazed by the dedication of these teachers, and the students were unbelievably smart, enthusiastic…and quite hilarious.

And then, at last, was Boswell Book Company, a beautiful independent bookstore that had organized the day’s events.   I could have spent hours browsing there if I hadn’t had to talk to people and stuff. Another fantastic crowd (is everyone in Milwaukee this polite?), and a great way to end the day.

I spent five nights in San Francisco, the longest stay of my tour by far. My wife Yeeshing was able to come and meet me over the weekend, so we had a blast doing touristy things. We explored Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, checked out City Lights (a landmark bookstore), took a ferry ride past the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset, and spent half a day in Japan Town, where I had the best sushi of my life. My media escort Kevin was also kind enough to bring me to Borderlands, a hip fantasy/science fiction/horror bookshop that’s like Disney World for geeky bibliophiles like me. One of the owners of the shop let me come behind the counter and hold some of their rare books, included a signed first edition of Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. Pretty sweet.

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My school visits were coordinated by the marvelous Lara of Kepler’s Books, who also introduced me to the world’s greatest mocha shake and then, on a different day, the world’s greatest chocolate croissant. (If I cannot fit into any of my old clothes when I return to New Jersey—it’s Lara’s fault.)

I was initially supposed to visit Costano Elementary School at 9AM but the time was changed to 10AM due to an unforeseen conflict. It was only when I arrived at the school that I learned the exact reason: students at Costano Elementary had won a competition sponsored by Khan Academy, earning new Chromebook carts for all their classes. This was a REALLY huge deal (and rightfully so). There were balloons, cheerleaders, a television crew—even a DJ! The students had been sitting/dancing in the bleachers all morning, and while I’m not usually prone to any sort of stage fright, I have to admit I was a little nervous to follow such an amazing event. I needn’t have worried, however; the students were amazing! And, best of all, the DJ stuck around so I could make my entrance to the tune of “Thriller.” What can top that?

Costano Elementary School
Which is scarier? (Their choices are in bold, with the totals of all schools in parentheses.)

abandoned mall vs. dark forest (1-2)

shark vs. giant squid (2-1)

heights vs. thunderstorms (2-1)

haunted house vs. haunted school (0-3)

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After a yummy lunch that included the aforementioned mocha shake, we hit our second event of the day, Lawson Middle School. Like all the other California schools I saw, this one was set up as a campus of small, one-story buildings rather than the single structures I’ve grown used to in New Jersey. Hundreds of students sat on the floor of a massive gym, which was pretty cool because it gave me a lot of space to pace back and forth and gesticulate wildly. Even though it was Friday at 2PM, the students could not have been more attentive, and their questions were highly entertaining.

A really strange thing happened at the end of my presentation, though.

When we play the “Which is Scarier?” game I show students a slide with two photographs on it, such as a shark and a squid, and the kids either raise their left or right hand to indicate which of the choices they find more frightening. When I got to the final slide—haunted houses vs. haunted schools—the photo that usually accompanies haunted schools was nowhere to be found. I was totally flummoxed. The students though it was part of the show—“Look! The picture of the haunted school has vanished! Bwah-ha-ha!”—but I finally convinced them that something strange had happened. When I checked my computer at the hotel that night the photograph was back in place, and everything worked fine at the schools on Monday.

I have no explanation. It was just…weird.

Lawson Middle School
Which is scarier? (Their choices are in bold, with the totals of all schools in parentheses.)

abandoned mall vs. dark forest (1-3)

shark vs. giant squid (2-2)

heights vs. thunderstorms (3-1)

haunted house vs. haunted school (0-4)

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On Monday, Kevin picked me up bright and early, and after a stop at Peets for coffee and oatmeal we pulled into Blach Intermediate School. Here I met a smaller group of students in the library, which was a nice change. In addition to eight grade students, this group included two classes who were taking creative writing as an elective. As a result, their questions were far more specific than usual, dealing with everything from revision methods to writing good dialogue to how royalties work. It definitely kept me on my toes!

Blach Intermediate School
Which is scarier? (Their choices are in bold, with the totals of all schools in parentheses.)

abandoned mall vs. dark forest (1-4)

shark vs. giant squid (2-3)

heights vs. thunderstorms (4-1)

haunted house vs. haunted school (0-5)

My last San Francisco stop was North Shoreview Montessori. No gym or library—this time 80 or so kids packed themselves into a large classroom. I loved this intimate setting because it felt no different than teaching a regular lesson at my school back home. For whatever reason—maybe because of the massive amounts of caffeine I had been drinking all day—I talked even faster than usual and sprinkled a lot more jokes into the presentation.   The students and teachers asked a bunch of questions that related to the type of writing they were doing in class, which I thought was really cool. It was such a warm and inviting place; I could have spent all day there!

North Shoreview Montessori
Which is scarier? (Their choices are in bold, with the totals of all schools in parentheses.)

abandoned mall vs. dark forest (2-4)

shark vs. giant squid (2-4)

heights vs. thunderstorms (5-1)

haunted house vs. haunted school (0-6)

An early flight tomorrow will take me to Milwaukee, and then the following day is SUPER BUSY—three schools, a library, and a bookstore, all in a row! I am both very excited and a tiny bit afraid.

Although I have an extreme phobia when it comes to making my flights (I like to be at least two hours early), I’m not at all scared of flying.   Good thing, because the flight to California was as turbulent as a trackless roller coaster. Actually, I guess a trackless roller coaster would mostly just not move at all, so never mind. How about this? My plane ride was as bumpy as a camel with an acne problem.

Wow. I really hope my book similes are better than my blog post similes.
On the plus side, I had the whole entire row to myself, so I stretched out, read a little of the new Dennis Lehane novel, and played my Vita. (Final Fantasy X and Grim Fandango—retro games rule!)

My school stop the next day was at Patrick Henry School. I’m always intrigued by school architecture, and their campus was totally different than anything I’d ever seen. Instead of a single structure it was a series of smaller buildings with a lot of open space between them. My wonderful media escort for the day, Adrienne, told me that this was because in California a lot of teaching was done outside. This totally made sense and blew my mind at the same time. In New Jersey, winters are spent nostalgically remembering “outside” as that place we used to visit when we were all much younger.

Back at Patrick Henry School, a very large group of fifth through eighth graders packed the auditorium, some of them sitting on the floor. They were an enthusiastic audience and it was a ton of fun! I’ve noticed that students are very interested in how I come up with the names for the different creatures in my books, so I figured I’d share that here. With fantasy novels it can be tricky, because there’s a very thin line between “original” (Bilbo) and “silly” (Zoofie’bo). Here’s my technique. I make up a name, usually from a list of five to ten possibilities, and give it a “test drive” for a few chapters. After that, it either feels right, or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, I use the search and replace feature on Word and try something new!

photo 1 photo 2

I also did my “Which is scarier?” game with the students. Apparently children in New Jersey and California have very different fears!

Patrick Henry School, Huntington Beach, CA
Which is scarier? (Their choices are in bold, with the totals of all schools in parentheses.)

abandoned mall vs. dark forest (1-1)

shark vs. giant squid (1-1)

heights vs. thunderstorms (1-1)

haunted house vs. haunted school (0-2, I have a funny feeling this is going to be very one-sided)

After the school visit, Adrienne was kind enough to drop by A Whale of a Tale, a beautiful children’s bookshop run by Alex Uhl. I got to chat with Alex for a little while, which was lovely, and I also purchased A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd and El Deafo by Cece Bell. I have heard such amazing things about these books and I can’t wait to check them out and share them with my children.

photo 5 photo 3

The Huntington Beach Barnes and Nobles was huge! It was a really interesting crowd, including a former student from Ridgewood Avenue School (the place where I teach) who had moved to California, and a man visiting from Australia whose girlfriend is a teacher there and asked him to get some signed books for her classroom!

I was a little worried about making my evening flight since President Obama was in town and traffic was a mess, but Adrienne got me to the airport with plenty of time to spare. I arrived in San Francisco at 1AM, somewhat befuddled and groggy but eager to visit a new school first thing in the morning!

Just like last year, my first official book tour stop was at Ridgewood Avenue School in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, where I teach third grade! Originally I was supposed to do my author visit on Monday, the day before The Whispering Trees was released, but due to a horrifying combination of snow storms and standardized testing the assembly was moved to Friday. All the same to me—I’m there every day anyway!

My class got to sit in the first two rows (that only seemed fair) and the students and teachers were as supportive and enthusiastic as always.   Since this was my second “visit” to RAS I couldn’t do the same presentation as last time, so I talked a little about my writing method and how you can complete an overwhelming task—such as writing a long novel—by breaking it into smaller parts and focusing on one task at a time. But mostly I just made jokes.

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I also re-introduced something I did last year when I went on tour. The idea is that I’m always looking for new ways to frighten children (which is sorta true), and that the students can help me by casting their vote in a “Which is scarier?” debate. We had a lot of fun with it. I’ll do this for each school as I wander from city to city, and tabulate the votes in this blog.

Ridgewood Avenue School, Glen Ridge, NJ
Which is scarier? (Their choices are in bold.)

abandoned mall vs. dark forest

shark vs. giant squid

heights vs. thunderstorm

haunted house vs. haunted school

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I’m sad to leave my students for nearly two weeks, but they are in the very capable hands of the man who was my student teacher earlier in the year, so things could not have worked out better!

On Tuesday night I had my first official bookstore appearance at the Barnes and Noble in East Brunswick, New Jersey. Bookseller extraordinaire Ashley once again did a fantastic job, as did everyone else who works at this remarkable store, which has the friendly vibe of an independent bookstore. There were snacks, raffles, balloons, and bingo—with prizes like cupcakes and gift cards. How cool is that? A lot of my friends came out to support me, as well as a few incredible kids from my son’s middle school, and even a former student of mine who is now a junior in college! All in all, it was an amazing opening to my book tour!

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Next up: Huntington Beach, California!

The following blog post comes from a really cool roundtable panel that I attended at the NCTE Convention this past November. The idea was to sit teachers down with writer/editor combos (in my case, the wonderful Katherine Tegen). Katherine and I discussed the way we go about revising my books, and hopefully the teachers learned something that they could bring back to their students. I also wrote a packet as a takeaway, which deals with my own personal revision strategies, as well as some of the techniques I’ve used with my students. I figured I might as well throw it up on this blog, since I wrote it and all, and I sincerely hope you’ll find something here that you can bring back to your own classroom!

Writing is a very personal act, and there is no “correct” method. The same goes with revision. First thing I’d like to do is walk you through my own particular writing/revision process, along with some thoughts about how this could be applied to a classroom. 

Pre-Writing and the Three Types of Writers

It might seem strange to begin a discussion of revision with pre-writing, but it really does figure into the whole process. It’s important for students to know their “writing identity” because this will determine the type and complexity of revision that will be required. This could also help a teacher differentiate due dates, since some students might need more time to plan while others may need more time to revise.

The first kind of writer is a “planner.” They are outstanding outliners who can see the whole story in their heads beforehand; when they revise, reviewing this outline may help them see story problems/connections that were not addressed in their draft. For this type of writer, the outline becomes a roadmap for what needs to be revised, and most of the major plot developments will remain unchanged. In general, their work will require the least amount of revision, but it might take them the longest to outline.

The second type of writer creates an outline but uses it only as a general guide, allowing the story to change and develop as he/she writes. By the time this type of writer is ready to revise, the outline will be of little use, and indeed the story may have changed a great deal and must be reviewed for inconsistencies. In my experience, this type of writer requires the most time to revise, because the story may have changed drastically during the writing process.

The third type of writer—and I can talk about my own experience here—is a “putterer.” I don’t do an outline at all and mostly “feel” my way through the story. That’s not to say that I don’t do any pre-writing—I have notebooks and notebooks filled with character descriptions, settings, backstories, horrible drawings, maps, and other insane scribblings that I barely ever consult; I make notes because it helps me think.  When I start writing, I have only a very general idea of the plot, and I am quite often surprised by what happens.   (I feel like this helps me to experience my story as a reader as well as a writer.) I wish I could outline successfully, but I’ve tried it before and it simply doesn’t work for me.

However, because I don’t plan ahead, my writing process is a constant act of revision. I can’t wait until the end of the story to make changes, because without the benefit of an outline I could write myself into an impossible corner. Writing, for me, is a series of starts and stops. I might write an entire chapter and then decide I’m heading in the wrong direction, in which case I’ll throw out that chapter and start over again. (For this reason, instead of just plowing through a first draft and not worrying about revision so much, I am always considering my work critically—too many chapters down the wrong path and I’m in trouble.)   When I finish the novel I don’t do a lot of major revisions because I’ve already done that while writing my draft. However, the process of writing the first draft probably takes me the longest of the three types of writers.

(The fourth type of writer is Dean Koontz. He rewrites each page, over and over again, sometimes 25-30 times, until it’s perfect, and then he moves onto the next page. When Mr. Koontz is done with the last page of a novel, he’s 100% finished—no further revision is necessary.   I can’t fathom writing this way, but there’s certainly no arguing with his track record! It works for him, and that’s all that matters.)

First Draft Revision Techniques

The Importance of Time

Taking breaks between drafts is an absolutely integral part of the writing process. Before I revise anything I always take a break from my novel for at least a week or two. If I revise right away it’s really hard to distance myself from the story, which is necessary to develop a successful second draft; you want to be able to look at your work as though someone else has written it, as a reader instead of a writer. In a classroom, I would recommend moving onto the first draft of a second story and putting this first story aside for two weeks.  By the time students return to these drafts, they’ll have forgotten what was originally in their heads and have to rely only on the words they’ve written (just like a reader), which will allow them to pinpoint issues of clarity.  Also, since the amount of work students put into their first drafts will no longer be fresh in their mind, they will usually be more open to constructive feedback.

Outlines

I revise in a very specific order, from the largest chunks (major narrative changes) to the smallest details (language, word choice). This is simply a matter of time efficiency; I don’t want to spend two days perfecting a scene that’s going to get cut anyway.   I don’t outline before writing, but I do outline after writing, using my first draft as a guide. Often I use index cards or just a single typewritten page. I find that seeing the plot in this simplified form helps me spot inconsistencies that I might have otherwise missed. (Sometimes I will do mini-summaries while I’m writing as well, if I feel like I might be getting off track.)

I’ve had my sixth grade students write summaries or outlines of their own stories and this has really helped them with the revision process. Another strategy is to have students partner up and outline each other’s stories as part of a writing workshop. This helps student writers see the difference between what they meant to write and what was actually conveyed to the reader.

Checking for Consistent Characterization

Once I’m sure that my major scenes are all going to stay in place, I do what I call character read-throughs.   I re-read my draft with the specific purpose of making sure my characters are acting consistently (in action, thought, and dialogue) all the way through the novel. For example, while revising The Thickety: A Path Begins, I did both a Taff read-through and a Grace read-through, reviewing only the scenes they appeared in and thinking about the events through their perspective. Narrowing my revision concerns to individual characters helps me to refine their personalities.

Editing

The last thing I do before submitting a manuscript to my editor is clean up the nitty-gritty details, with a specific focus on trimming as many words as possible. Generally speaking, I’ll cut out 10-15% of my total novel at this point. (This excludes the material I cut while revising my rough draft; throughout the entire drafting process of The Thickety: The Whispering Trees, I wrote 18,000 words that never made it into the final novel.) I never view material cut from a novel as “wasted” work—if I didn’t write it, I never could have figured out the good stuff!

When I feel as though my manuscript is absolutely perfect, I send it to my editor Katherine Tegen—and find out how wrong I was.

Working with an Editor

It takes Katherine a few weeks to read my manuscript and write her notes, which is perfect—by the time I get back to work, I’ve had the needed “space” from the material to help me see things with clear eyes. Katherine’s feedback has two parts: an email with a list of major revisions that might require multiple changes throughout the novel, and the manuscript itself, now with colorful revision bubbles that point out more specific changes. I think that being an editor is an incredibly difficult job, because you need to develop a keen understanding of someone else’s story in order to provide useful feedback—it’s actually very similar to being a teacher!   Katherine’s notes always start out with a few positive comments about the manuscript, because she deals with writers all day long and understands our fragile psyches. After this is a bullet-point list of revision ideas. For me, these usually involve areas of the novel that need either clarification or elaboration.

I read these ideas—as well as Katherine’s more specific comments on my manuscript—and then do something completely mindless for about three days.  (For my last book, I played a lot of video games with my sons and caught up on Game of Thrones.) I need time for these new ideas to percolate in my brain before I begin to revise. After this, I make a plan for how to approach the larger changes and email Katherine with my ideas, just to make sure we’re on the same page. I leave the shorter edits for now and make the larger ones that involved multiple edits first. Then I work my way through the comment bubbles on the manuscript, making the smaller changes. This is actually my favorite part of the revision process, because it usually involves deconstructing imperfect passages and making them shine, which is incredibly fun and gratifying.   I often find myself revising by hand at this point—when I’m struggling to find just the right way to phrase something, good old paper and pencil works better for me than a keyboard.

Once these changes are in place I send the manuscript back to Katherine so she can do another read through and see if I successfully applied her notes to the novel. After this, the revised draft is sent to the copyeditor, who finds a whole slew of new errors to fix (these vary from grammar problems to consistency errors, such as the foolish author changing a minor character’s name or hair color mid-novel). It’s important to note that Katherine does not take the time to address any grammatical errors during her read-throughs; her focus is entirely on any major content changes. I think splitting content revision and copyediting into two separate drafts is a good rule of thumb in the classroom as well.

There might be a few other minor odds and ends to fix before the book is sent to press, but mostly that’s it! Honestly, by the time the final stages of revision roll around I am completely engaged in the next book, so I am really able to view my work dispassionately and objectively. Ideally, students can also be revising and working on their next project at the same time. Keep them writing! 🙂

Greetings, teachers! My apologies for not blogging more often, but things have been a little hectic with teaching, writing, and occasionally spending time with my family. I do have a backlog of writing lessons and assignments that I will definitely throw online in the next couple of weeks, and when I say “definitely” I mean “almost positively.” Maybe.

I wanted to share a really simply lesson that I hope addresses a problem I see a lot with young writers. Kids, especially those who struggle with writing, tend to write from “outside” the story, as a spectator. I liken it to those old-fashioned nature documentaries wherein an omniscient narrator does a play-by-play of some unfortunate animal in the wild: “The innocent gazelle has no idea she’s been stalked by the hungry lion. Watch as she innocently nips at the leaves, completely unaware that she is in the final moments of her life…”

These types of videos can be really useful for a quick writing exercise. However, I don’t recommend showing scenes of graphic animal violence in your classroom (unless, of course, you’re tired of being a teacher), so I thought something like the following might be a bit more kid-friendly. In it, a pancake tortoise slips away from a predator—it starts at around 7:50 and is only 30 seconds long.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o6KB1eF8bWY

(Important note: I have NOT watched this whole video, so make sure you cut it after the scene, just in case subsequent footage contains psychologically damaging tortoise carnage.)

After watching the clip, talk about how what the narrator is saying is very similar to writing from “outside” the story, without choosing a perspective. “There is a tortoise. A caracal sees it. The tortoise has to escape by slipping under the rocks.” This is great writing for lab reports, but not for fiction. Our job as fiction writers is to make readers feel like they are in the shoes (or, in this case, claws) of the protagonist.

With this in mind, have students re-write the scene from the perspective of either the tortoise or the caracal, using thoughts and actions and all that good stuff. It might be easier to write from the first person, though third person can certainly work just as well. The important thing is to remain within the viewpoint of their “character” and see the world solely from that perspective. This is showing and not telling on a very basic level, and a necessary stepping stone to more complex techniques.

This is an activity that can—and should—be repeated, so here’s another example. At 10:14 you get to watch an echidna chowing down on some termites, which would be a good choice for this activity (plus you can incorporate sensory language—yummy termites). Again, I haven’t previewed the entire video, so be forewarned.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pyPMDCeH0k4

I’ve also attached a Powerpoint presentation about this particular skill—with a follow-up assignment! Bonus!

Show-Dont-Tell 2

If there is one concept I want my third graders to understand by the end of the year, it’s the difference between showing and telling. Of course, the goal is that they’ll be able to incorporate this crucial technique into their own writing, but not every child will be ready for this major step. (They are, after all, only 8 and 9—some of the cute little tykes can’t even tie their own shoelaces yet.) My goal for all students, however, regardless of their ability level, is to make them aware that there is writing that “shows,” and writing that “tells.” Hopefully they’ll begin to notice these different forms in the books they read, and this awareness will eventually parlay itself into better writing.

Again, that’s my theory. I also think that unicorns were probably real at some point. Caveat emptor.

A good starting point when teaching showing vs. telling, especially with struggling writers, is the inclusion of specific details. True, including specific details doesn’t always mean a student is necessarily showing (that comes more through demonstrating a specific perspective, in my humble opinion), but it’s an easy enough concept to grasp and it pays quick dividends.

And I made a Powerpoint, which means it’s super easy to teach! Powerpoints are fun like that, though I apologize that there are no cute graphics or other such flashiness. Truth be told, I’m a pretty boring Powerpoint maker, so if you like the content, feel free to jazz it up!

The final two slides present quick writing assignments (for grades 3/4 and 5/6) that can easily be done in a journal. In my school we have a show don’t tell competition every other month: a new concept is introduced, and there is a follow-up writing activity to be judged by the teachers. The winner from each grade gets to read his/her entry over the loudspeaker, because what writer doesn’t want to be heard?

Show Don’t Tell

Wow—it has been a LONG time since I updated this blog. I intended to get back to it when school began in September, but I was in the midst of finishing Thickety 3 and that, along with the usual start-of-school craziness, pushed this blog to the bottom of my to-do list. Things are a little more stable now, however, so hopefully I’ll be able to share some ideas with more regularity.

As a teacher, one thing I try to do is make those “necessary evil” skills somewhat more palatable. For example, I teach my students to re-state questions by asking them to create imaginary answers to ridiculous queries. If you’re interested, the link to that lesson—and a worksheet—can be found here:

http://jawhitebooks.com/teaching-kids-restate-question-sorta-fun-way/

Another skill I’ve found that my students need to work on is answering multistep questions, a perennial favorite of standardized exams. You know, the kind of question that seems to exist purely for the reason of cruelly fooling 8-year-old children? Here’s an example:

In the story “Baby Sister’s New Shoelaces,” Nicole learns a valuable lesson.

  • What lesson does she learn?
  • Do you think she’ll treat her baby sister differently from now on?
  • Have you ever learned a shoelace-related lesson in your life?

As you can see, that is three freaking questions, and many children will gleefully answer the first part and, in the process of formulating their answer, forget that the other two questions exist. It would, of course, make sense to split up the three questions with answer blanks so that this doesn’t happen, but we all know that’s not how standardized exams roll.

(“Why the heck not?” is a perfectly reasonable question; “Because they are evil, soul-crushing tests manufactured by malevolent trolls” is my not-so-reasonable response.)

Anyway, there are several very good techniques for tackling this type of question

  1. Crossing out each question as you answer it.
  2. Numbering bullet points so you remember to answer each one.
  3. Teaching students to proofread questions before they proofread

I think any of these approaches would definitely work, but I also like my students to practice answering multistep questions with purely imaginative responses (just like my restating the answer activity). There often isn’t enough time for creative writing in the day, and this is my way of cheating. (“Yes, they’re using their imagination, but they’re really practicing for exams.” Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.)

I hope the attached worksheet can be of some use to you. This is a repeatable activity, so after the initial introduction just change the questions and it can be used as a writing center. Also, more advanced writers often enjoy making up their own questions!

Multi-Step Questions Worksheet

I met Paul Durham, the author I would be touring with that day, for breakfast, and we instantly hit it off.  Paul, a former lawyer and author of the excellent middle-grade novel THE LUCK UGLIES, lives up in New Hampshire with his wife and two daughters.  He’s laid back, funny, and an all around good guy.  He also writes in a refurbished chicken coop, which is ridiculously cool.

Ginny, our media guide that day, took us to two schools in the New Bedford area.  Doing a shorter version of my presentation was a nice change of pace, and it was fun to play off Paul when we were answering student questions.  Paul is an engaging speaker with all sorts of tricks up his sleeves, such as writing on bananas and making kids wear crazy masks.  It makes a lot more sense when you see it!

Our bookstore engagement that evening was at Wellesley Books, where Paul and I chatted about our lives, writing, and inspirations.  Allison, one of the booksellers there, asked us to discuss our favorite deleted scene from our respective novels.  What a good question!  (Quick answer: THE THICKETY was originally written in an omniscient voice, jumping from character to character, before I realized that would make it far too long.  I miss the scenes written from Grace’s point-of-view.)

Paul Durham

Paul Durham and I at Wellesley Books.

I spent that evening walking around New Bedford.  It was once a major whaling village, and as I was staying right by the water I took some time to check out the ships and narrow cobblestone streets.   As it grew dark I was reminded of another coastal town, this one from the H.P. Lovecraft story “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” but that’s probably just me.  (I’m sure there are no cults that worship ancient underwater sea creatures in New Bedford.  Probably.)

whaling museum

In front of the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Not at all a totem to Cthulhu.

clam chowder

Anyone who enters the Boston area is legally obligated to purchase clam chowder.

The next day Ginny drove me all the way from New Bedford to Cohasset, a little over an hour. Although I was pretty drained by this point in the tour, I really enjoyed the scenic drive past thick foliage and cranberry bogs, as well as our pleasant conversation about books and family.  When we arrived in Cohasset I snagged coffee at Marylou’s, which proudly announced, via a bright pink sign, that it had the “BEST COFFEE IN TOWN.”  (It was the only coffee I drank in Cohasset, so I have no point of comparison, but it was way better than Starbucks!)

The first school I spoke at was Inly School. The path to the office was lined with colorful cow statues, so I immediately knew I would like this place—and I wasn’t disappointed.  However, the librarian at Inly School, Shelley Sommer, did a much better job writing about my visit there than I ever could, so though I’ve already tweeted it I’ll re-include her post here:

http://sommerreading.wordpress.com/2014/05/23/into-the-thickety/

(Her blog is a great resource for teachers and librarians—I particularly liked the post about 10 picture books for teaching kindness and compassion: http://sommerreading.wordpress.com/2012/08/04/ten-picture-books-about-caring-and-compassion/)

moo

My new best friend.

moo cow

Moo?

After Inly School we journeyed to Buttonwood Books and Toys, where I did some shopping (they give visiting authors a free book—so cool!—but as they have a great selection I couldn’t settle on just one for my kids).  I also picked up a copy of THE COLD SONG by Linn Ullmann, a Norwegian thriller that is also an IndieNext pick.  How could I resist?

Ginny and I enjoyed sandwiches in the back room (with cranberry sauce, a local thing that I felt was a definite improvement over the usual condiments).  Afterwards, we headed over to Hingham Middle School, which was a blast!  The kids were incredibly enthusiastic, cheering and applauding throughout my presentation.  The fact that they were on the verge of a long Memorial Day weekend might have had something to do with that.  One student, who had done his research on my website, asked me the level of my Skyrim character…and shook his head sadly at my pathetic answer.  Another student asked me for the name of my favorite horror movie.  I started saying the real answer—SUSPIRIA—but then scrambled for something relatively more kid friendly and came up with UGETSU, the great Japanese ghost story.

Here are the FINAL tallies for “Which is scarier?”—along with my choices:

abandoned hospitals (7) vs. abandoned amusement parks (2), 1 tie.  I have always had a thing for abandoned amusement parks, and I feel like there is a story there somewhere, waiting to be told.

spiders (5) vs. cockroaches (5).  It ends in a tie!  I’m not particularly frightened of either one of these—spiders eat other insects, which is why I try to let them do their thing, and cockroaches are pretty gross, but not really scary.  Millipedes, on the other hand…I hate millipedes.

creepy children (8) vs. dolls (2).   I think I’m going to write a story about a creepy child carrying a doll.  It will be the scariest story ever written.

clowns (8) vs. the dark (2).  I was really surprised by this one!  I don’t find clowns particularly scary at all, just kind of sad.  Mimes, on the other hand…

In conclusion, when my next novel is published, you’ll know where I got the idea.  It’s called CLOWNS AND CREEPY CHILDREN IN THE COCKROACH-INFESTED SPIDER HOSPITAL.  NY Times Bestseller Listhere I come!

Tri-state area events next…