Teaching Blog

From the moment I received my book tour itinerary, I have expected Cincinnati to be the worst day of my tour. This has nothing to do with Cincinnati itself. In fact, I don’t know anything about Cincinnati, other than the Reds and WKRP are there. But the way my schedule shook out on that particular day was brutal. I left my Chicago hotel room at 4:30AM for my flight (luckily it was the airport hotel, so I just had to wheel my luggage through some moderately creepy tunnels to get there). However, my flight to Boston was due to depart that same night at 8:15; I would wake up in Chicago, spend the day in Cincinnati, and sleep in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

At the airport, a nice dude at the baggage check counter, seeing my schedule, suggested that I send my luggage straight through from Chicago to Boston, bypassing Cincinnati altogether. This meant I wouldn’t have to go through the hassle of baggage claim and checking my bag all over again, but the idea of all my clothes going AWOL for day made me nervous. This might have had something to do with the way the conversation played out:

ME: Wow, send it straight to Boston, huh? That sounds great! You can do that?

NICE DUDE: Um…sure. Yeah. We can do that.

ME: So I’ll just leave my bag here and pick it up in Boston?

NICE DUDE: Yeah. I think. It might get there before you, though. So if you can’t find it on the baggage carousel…just ask around.

ME: Ask…around?

NICE DUDE: I’m sure it’ll be somewhere.

For the rest of the day, I was concerned that the clothes currently on my back would be the ones I wore for the remainder of the tour. Promise I’ll get back to that story at the end of this post…

I met Annette, my media escort for the day, at the airport. She could not have been sweeter. As an introduction, she even gave me a little care package filled with chocolate and other goodies. This would be a harbinger of things to come: people in Cincinnati are ridiculously, improbably, unnaturally NICE.   This phenomenon continued as we arrived at Sts. Peter and Paul Academy, where I met Kelly and Dave from JosephBeth Booksellers. They were both the absolute coolest, and despite my increasingly comatose state I could see that it was going to be a fun day.

As I did my presentation in the cafeteria, I grew worried that the students were bored or disinterested, because they just stared at me the whole time without making a sound. Then I started worrying that there was something on my face and they were just too polite to say anything; remaining silent might have been the only way they could restrain themselves from bursting into hysterical laughter. (Sleep deprivation does funny things.) It was only at the end, as I answered the students’ thoughtful questions, that I realized they had been totally invested in what I was saying and were just preternaturally well behaved.  And their questions! Whoa! So smart! Even the teachers got into it, asking me about themes and my writing process and all manner of things that kept me on my toes.

“Which is scarier?” results…

abandoned hospitals vs. abandoned amusement parks (abandoned hospitals)

spiders vs. cockroaches (spiders)

dolls vs. creepy children (creepy children)

the dark vs. clowns (the dark—first time winner!)

After the presentation we went to JosephBeth Booksellers—what an amazing bookstore! It’s HUGE, but it also feels cozy and welcoming, a neat trick to pull off. Kelly and Molly–queen of the children’s department and another stellar example of Cincinnati friendliness–had tag-teamed to make THE THICKETY the Kids’ Book of the Month for May. Pretty sweet!

JosephBeth Booksellers

With Annette and Molly at JosephBeth Booksellers

Kelly & Molly

With Kelly and Molly

We had lunch at the cute café attached to the bookstore (turkey sandwich, much laughter) and then, as there was still time before my next school visit, I did what comes naturally and shopped for books. On the plane ride I had read THE DINNER by Herbert Koch—which was unsettling in the best way possible—but now I was looking for something a little lighter. I decided on MR. PENUMBRA’S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE by Robin Sloan. It sounded kind of quirky, but more importantly it had been recommended by a member of the staff, which is always the way to go at independent bookstores.

My second presentation that day was to an adorable group of third graders at the Cincinnati Public Library, a building larger than most malls and/or airport terminals. It was HUGE! Being in front of a group of third graders was pretty comfortable for me (being a third-grade teacher and all) but it did make me miss my students.

Cincinnati Public Library

At the Cincinnati Public Library

In the “Which is scarier?” survey, my library group picked hospitals, cockroaches, creepy children, and clowns, bringing the current totals to:

abandoned hospitals (4) vs. abandoned amusement parks (1), 1 tie

spiders (3) vs. cockroaches (3)—this one’s close!

creepy children (5) vs. dolls (1)

clowns (5) vs. the dark (1)

box o' Thicketies

Holding a box o’ Thicketies. Too…many…pages…

Kelly Cincinnati Library

Signing books with Kelly at Cincinnati Public Library.

I was nervous about making my flight after my JosephBeth event, since we were cutting things kind of close schedule-wise. Annette drove like a champion, however, and I was in plenty of time. (The fact that there was NO LINE at security helped a lot.) Since I had some extra time at the gate I figured I would check on my bag’s status. I didn’t think the woman at the counter would be able to help me, but I decided to try anyway—and lo and behold, she found my bag…which was still in Cincinnati. She asked, “Would you like this to come to Boston with you?” to which I replied, “That would be swell.”

Moral of the story: It never hurts to ask.

Next stop: Boston!

During my flight to Chicago I was able to finish Paul Durham’s THE LUCK UGLIES, which is a great new middle-grade novel.   Although technically it falls into the fantasy genre, I think of it more as a “swashbuckling adventure with monsters,” despite its notable lack of swashes and buckles. It definitely made the time just vanish—and when you get right down to it, isn’t that the best compliment you can pay a book?

Our first stop was Puffer School in Downers Grove. The librarian, Ms. Box, showed me her wall of fame: dozens of photographs of all the famous writers she has met over the years. Although I am hardly in that category, I got to take a photo with Ms. Box, and after some fancy lamination I’ll be on the wall of fame as well! (Federal law 732.A7 mandates that anything hanging on a school wall must be laminated.)

ms fox

An incredibly well spoken boy named Jake introduced me to the students. His speech was hilarious; he had done his homework via my website, and while he agrees that THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is an awesome movie, he couldn’t resist taking a dig at my beloved Mets. Actually, I think his speech was more entertaining than my presentation! Nothing will check your ego more than be completely upstaged by an elementary school student.

jake

Here are the “Which is scarier?” tallies for Puffin School:

abandoned hospitals vs. abandoned amusement parks (abandoned hospitals)

spiders vs. cockroaches (spiders)

dolls vs. creepy children (creepy children)

the dark vs. clowns (clowns)

I’m still a little surprised that more kids are choosing creepy children as opposed to dolls. I suppose they’ve never read the short story “Prey” by Richard Matheson, or seen the filmed version in the TV movie Trilogy of Terror. That would change their minds quickly, I think.

My media escort for the day, Bill Young, took me to a beautiful local bookstore/café in St. Charles called Town House books.   After that it was off to Lincoln School. Ms. Dainko, the librarian there, had done an amazing job decorating the library window for my appearance! The school itself was so incredible! The front part of the school is very sleek and modern, but this was a later addition to the school; once you cross beneath this stunning archway you are in the older, original building (which of course I prefer, as the chance of ghosts rises exponentially). Each room has these beautiful, recessed shelves, and the kindergarten room even has a small pond with tiny fish! After following Ms. Dainko through a labyrinthine series of passageways, I found myself in a first grade classroom, which is where I gave my presentation to a large group of upper-elementary students.

dainko

Here were their answers to “Which is scarier?”:

Abandoned hospitals vs. abandoned amusement parks (hospitals)

Spiders vs. cockroaches (cockroaches)

Dolls vs. creepy children (creepy children again—have all these kids recently watched THE SHINING or something?)

The dark vs. clowns (big surprise—clowns)

Here are the totals so far:

abandoned hospitals (2) vs. abandoned amusement parks (1), 1 tie

spiders (2) vs. cockroaches (2)

creepy children (3) vs. dolls (1)

clowns (4) vs. the dark (0)

After Bill took me to a scrumptious dinner of hot dogs and beefsteaks, I attended an event at Anderson’s Bookshop. It’s located in Naperville, an idyllic suburb that looks like it has been time warped from the 1950s—save, perhaps, the Apple Store and Starbucks. (I actually didn’t see a Starbucks, but I’m going to play the odds and assume we just didn’t drive past it.) I really loved the town, and wished I could have spent more time there. The other thing I really loved—and that came as a complete surprise—was that Anderson’s lets their visiting authors choose any book in the store as a parting gift. Thank you!! Tons of food and now free books! This writing gig keeps getting better and better!

anderson's

I picked THAT IS NOT A GOOD IDEA! by Mo Willems, because Colin and Logan love his books!

this is not a good idea

Next stop: Cincinnati!

This was my first trip to Texas, so I had two very concrete goals in mind: I wanted to eat authentic Texas barbecue and also some awesome Mexican food. For me, it’s all about the food. Luckily, as I was soon to learn, the city of Houston revolves around food, which is dished out in behemothic portions. A match made in heaven.

bbq

My flight landed two hours late, so I didn’t arrive at my hotel until late Thursday night. The hotel restaurant was closed, but I did manage to find a noodle joint in the shopping plaza just next door, where I had something called “Sexy Chicken Noodles.” I’m still not sold on this overly generous estimation of my dinner’s physical attractiveness—but it was pretty yummy nonetheless.

noodles

The next morning, my media escort Mary Ann picked me up bright and early. (A media escort is the hugely important person who meets an author in each city and gets them where they need to be.) Mary Ann couldn’t have been more gracious and helpful. Not only is she known and loved by, as far as I could tell, EVERY SINGLE PERSON IN TEXAS, but she also told me fascinating stories about Houston and other authors she has toured. The hours flew by in her company.

Our first stop that Friday was Victory Lakes Intermediate School, where I was completely stunned to find that the art students had decorated the entire library Thickety-style, including a corn maze, a scarecrow (by Elizabeth), two one-eyed birds (by Mason), and a beautifully drawn map of De’Noran on burlap (by Jacob). One student, Nora, even wore the blue cloak that Kara wears in the trailer, and their cool performing arts teacher, Mr. Shukis, recorded the prologue to The Thickety and played it for all the classes beforehand. (He was also kind enough to give me a copy of his performance, and let me tell you—the man has skills.) It was a joy to meet Jeanie Dawson, the remarkable librarian at Victory Lakes, who put all this together and clearly inspires a love of reading in her students on a daily basis. They are so very lucky to have her.

victory lakes vic lakes map vic lakes2

As for my presentation…my Jedi Master Soman Chainani had wisely suggested that I include an interactive component, and as he is the bestselling writer of The School for Good and Evil and I am the new kid on the block, I thought it would be prudent to listen. Luckily, the kids at Victory Lakes, an amazingly attentive audience, were totally into it. Every five minutes or so I gave them two options and asked them to vote on which one was scarier. I promised I would keep a running tally during my tour, so here goes….

Which is scarier?

Victory Lakes edition

Abandoned hospitals or abandoned amusement parks (tie)

Spiders or cockroaches (spiders)

Dolls or creepy children (close, but creepy children)

The dark or clowns (almost unanimously clowns)

vic lakes3

Between schools Mary Ann and Cathy, from Blue Willow Bookshop, took me out to a Mexican restaurant called Chuy’s, where Cathy convinced me—with remarkably little prodding—to try to the shrimp tacos. The good news is they were heavenly. The bad news is that Cathy and Mary Ann have completely ruined Mexican food for me in the tri-state area, because all the choices there pale in comparison.

Thanks, ladies. Thanks.

mexican

My next stop was Bobby Shaw Middle School. Here I met another extraordinary librarian, Julie Mulkey, who introduced me to a small group of enthusiastic kids for a casual Q and A. Plus, there were cookies! After this, I did a larger presentation for all the sixth graders in the school cafeteria.

Which is scarier?

Bobby Shaw Middle School edition

Abandoned hospitals or abandoned amusement parks (abandoned hospitals)

Spiders or cockroaches (cockroaches)

Dolls or creepy children (really close, but dolls)

The dark or clowns (once again, clowns by a landslide)

bobby bobby2

I was presented with my very own Bobby Shaw Middle School journal (which I used to make notes for Thickety 3 when I got back to the hotel that night). I also got to sign this awesome chair in Ms. Mulvey’s library, featuring all the authors who have previously visited. I’m right next to Lisa McMann! How cool is that?

We made an impromptu stop at gorgeous Blue Willow Bookshop, where I had a fun conversation with a girl named Charlotte who liked my book (yay!) and asked lots of astute questions. I also got to sign Blue Willow’s wall of authors!

bobby3

The next day, after the most incredible barbecue in the history of barbecued things, Mary Ann brought me to another independent bookstore, Brazos Bookstore, where I said, “Hey!” and signed things.  I only spent a few minutes there; I probably could have spent all day just gawking.

From there, Mary Ann and I headed out to a Barnes and Noble in College Park, which is about an hour and a half outside of Houston.   Here I finally got to meet my Twitter buddy Kelsey, who had set up an awesome signing with balloons and cookies. It was her last day of work before moving to New York—she’ll actually get there before I will. Good luck, Kelsey!

b&n

Next stop…Chicago!

For just two weeks, I am going to be changing the format of this blog from a “writing lesson” blog to a “book tour” blog. For you teachers who have signed on solely for the purpose of lesson ideas, I won’t be offended if you jump ship for a little while, and I promise I’ll share a few more lessons before summer vacation. As a parting gift, here’s a link to an AWESOME lesson about creating a blog from the point-of-view of a fictional character:

http://www.readwritethink.org/classroom-resources/lesson-plans/creating-character-blogs-1169.html?tab=1#tabs

Now onto the tour stuff…

Part of the reason I’m writing this is because I want to record all these once-in-a-lifetime experiences before I forget them–which, given my memory, means I better write fast. The other reason is so the students that I abandoned back home can read about what their teacher is up to at other schools.   (Hey kids! I miss you! I hope you are listening to Ms. Rodrigues! Rhino Romp and Field Day soon!)

My first stop, on May 9th, was my very own Ridgewood Avenue School, where I teach third grade. I wanted to start my tour here because I anticipated being somewhat nervous, and I thought having a home field advantage would make things easier. This ended up being true and…not so much with the true. It was nice knowing my locale so well, but what I hadn’t anticipated was the MIND STAGGERING outpouring of support from parents, teachers, and students. The Home and School Association purchased one copy of the novel for every family in our school and all teachers, via Watchung Booksellers, an awesome local independent bookseller. The Home & School also printed Thickety t-shirts to sell to the kids, and gave a t-shirt to each teacher! In the week leading up to the event, food inspired by The Thickety was cooked by the fabulous Sharon and sold in the cafeteria, including beef stew (yum) and apple pie (double yum).

Sadly, there was no hushfruit, but I’ll forgive Sharon, because hushfruit doesn’t actually exist.

The books were handed out to students on publication day (May 6th) so they could have three days to read as much as they could before the author “visit.” And man, did they ever dive in! Walking through the hallways and seeing all these kids reading my novel was just such an incredible experience. As an author, I don’t think anything can top that.

On the day of the event, Harper Collins provided Thickety buttons for each student.   Parents designed an amazingly elaborate entrance to the auditorium so students could “enter the Thickety,” and even rented something called a gobo (which sounds like a creature from my book but is apparently a real thing) to create shadowy tree effects on the walls.

enter the thickety

Enter the Thickety!

Behold the power of the gobo!

Behold the power of the gobo!

The front row was packed with my family and friends, who were kind enough to log in some serious travel time in order to attend, and at one o’clock the kids spilled into the auditorium, along with many of their parents. All told, there were about 700 people there, waiting for me to say something meaningful.

No pressure.

Mr. Donovan, our principal and stalwart supporter of me during this whole crazy journey, gave a very moving introduction, and then I did my thing for a little over an hour. I admit this part is a little fuzzy. I know I talked about how The Thickety was published, read an entire chapter (the part when Kara first finds the grimoire), riffed on the importance of reading and writing for young people, and told a story about cheese whiz, but mostly I kept thinking in my head, Don’t say anything stupid. Don’t say anything stupid. If you mess up, you see these people EVERY DAY. Don’t say anything stupid.

Although I paced back and forth as I am wont to do, I did not trip. Not even once. I am very proud of this fact.

principal

Principal Mike Donovan, styling in a Thickety shirt and button.

JA White reads to RAS

I like this picture because it looks like a tiny ghost is escaping the book.

first stop RAS

The students asked questions afterwards, and I quickly learned that this will absolutely be my favorite part of touring. Since many of the kids had already finished the book (in three days!!!) there were some crazy insightful queries. Some of my favorites:

“What is Grace’s backstory?” (Complicated.)

“Where do you get the ideas for all your scary monsters?” (I wish I knew!)

“Are any of these characters based on kids you’ve taught?” (Nope—but I did use some names I liked.)

so many ques

So many great questions!

so many ques 2

student signing

Signing books for the students in my class.

Alex

After the event at Ridgewood Avenue School, I journeyed down the road to Watchung Booksellers in Montclair. It’s such a cozy, comfortable environment—perfect for browsing—and this allowed me to chat with some very enthusiastic readers about the novel and what it’s like to be an author. It was a welcome change of pace after the larger crowd. Both events were very memorable, but in different ways.

watchung booksellers

At Watchung Booksellers…

All in all, I couldn’t have asked for a better start to the public appearance side of my writing career, and I am so grateful for the warmth and support of everyone. Ridgewood Avenue School really is my second home.

Now onto Texas!

Final note: During my presentation, I showed the Thickety book trailer and a short film called “Good Vs. Wiivil,” which I made with my friend Jack Paccione Jr. a few years back. A number of students have asked for the links, so here they are!

The Thickety

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v2rYqRtRWw0

Good Vs. Wiivil (in HD)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d4KzBaQ6jKg

Theoretically, I’d love for my students to write in their journals every day. Does that happen? Of course not! There is homework to review, questions to answer, notices to collect, notices to hand out, stories to read, lunches to find, pencils to sharpen, old assignments to finish, writing workshops to run, something called “standardized tests” to review for… the list goes on-and-on. Since our time as teachers is so limited, I try to keep journals short—more like exercises than complete stories or essays—and connected to the specific writing skill that I’m focusing on that week. From now on, every month I’ll post some journal prompts I use to help students work on a particular skill.

This month’s winner: POINT-OF-VIEW.

I feel like the idea that you are writing from someone else’s perspective is a big leap for my students to make. Far too often they write from outside the story, as a kind of omniscient summation: “The children are playing soccer. The boy kicks the ball. A dog runs onto the field and tries to steal the ball.” What I really want them to do is choose a perspective and stick to it. Once they do that, a lot of the other problems that plague their writing seem to fall into place.

Here are some prompts I have given in the past. I emphasize to my students that a work of fiction is kind of like a personal narrative (a type of writing they understand very well) except that instead of you seeing the world, it’s an imaginary person.

Here are some sample journal prompts to help with that concept:

DAY 1

Write about a time you opened a present you really loved.

DAY 2

Write about the time Nathan Dilkes opened a present he really loved. Be sure to use his thoughts in your writing.

DAY 3

Write about the time Kelly McFaze opened a present—but it wasn’t what she wanted. Be sure to use her thoughts in your writing.

DAY 4

Who are you more like, Nathan or Kelly? Why?

I like to link journal prompts into weekly themes. This seems to cut down on the amount of time I need to explain the assignment, which of course gives the kids more time to write! Also, the journal assignments themselves become a type of story, with each day being a new chapter. The kids really dig it.

Another type of point-of-view journal set I like to do is taking one event and skipping around from perspective-to-perspective. It’s the Rashomon theory of journaling…

DAY 1

Write about a sporting event that you attended.

DAY 2

Keith Baker is dragged to the same sporting event you attended, but he really does not want to be there. Write about the event from his perspective.

DAY 3

Shannon Lemmings has been waiting to go to this sporting event for months! She is so excited! Write about the event from her perspective.

DAY 4

Alice Hobart is five years old, and she has never been to a sporting event. She doesn’t understand what’s going on! Write about the event from her perspective.

DAY 5

Write about the sporting event from the perspective of one of the athletes on the field (or court, or ice, etc.).

Those are just a few ideas. I’m sure you can come up with even more!

Although it’s always a good thing for children to share their writing with an audience, it can sometimes be challenging as well.  Some children are not yet blessed with good presentation skills or loud voices, and they often stumble over their own writing.  It’s easy to see why the students in the audience—even those who are trying really hard to listen—can sometimes find it hard to remain focused.   With that in mind, here are some different ways for students to present their work to the rest of the class.

Support Chairs

This is basically the equivalent of an on-deck circle in baseball; I’ve used this trick for close to a decade now, and it really works!  Instead of one student presenting his/her work, I always have two at a time—one standing and one sitting.  The non-reading, sitting student is there to “support” the standing student.  This reduces some of the nervousness of the student reading, since she isn’t all by herself, and it gives the sitting student some time to warm up to the idea of reading to the class before doing it.  In short, you get better presentations!

Journal Musical Chairs

Okay, there’s no actual music involved, but there could be!  This is good for when you want students to receive some positive feedback for their writing.  It works best if your desks are arranged in two long, banquet-style tables, but you can play around with it and see what works best for you.

To begin, students hand their journals to the person opposite them.  They have two minutes (adjust for grade level) to read the journal prompt for that day.  After that, I give them 30 seconds each to share some positive feedback about what they just read.  (My journal prompts are usually based upon a specific skill, so I might ask them to comment upon how the writer used this in his/her journal.)

After this, they have 15 seconds to stand up and bring their journal to the next seat, and begin the process anew.   (In my banquet table example, one side would move and the other side would stay seated.)  Because this is such a fast-paced exercise with frequent breaks, students are able to focus carefully on their peers’ writing.  Plus they get to hear lots of great things about their own writing!

Pick a Prompt

Instead of sharing the prompt for that day, students choose whatever prompt they want from the past two weeks—the one they think is the strongest.  They revise this for homework, and should be prepared the next day to read it to the class.  My expectation for this kind of presentation is much higher because students get to practice it at home first.

Young authors often have trouble making the distinction between summarizing a story and writing from “inside the story” (a phrase coined by Lucy Calkins, who has some brilliant thoughts buried in those wordy manuals of hers).   This is a quick, simple activity to help students understand the difference.

You’ll need some photographs to start.  It’s important that they have people and/or animals in them—anyone who could be a potential character in a story.  Photographs of your family work well, or images cut from magazines. A simple google search of “photographs of people” will turn up a treasure trove of material.  Or you could always make it a homework assignment: “Bring in a photo of a group of people or animals.”  Don’t tell them what it’s for; curiosity is the greatest hook.

When I introduce this activity, I do it with the students sitting on the floor in front of me, circle time style.  However, it could just as easily be done with the students at their desks, especially if you have a Smartboard on which to display the images.

Let’s say the first photo is of a…pensive kitten.

If I ask the students to describe this image, they might say something along the lines of, “It’s a cute kitten.  It looks like it’s thinking about something.”  Great!  But now I explain that while that’s an excellent summary of the photo, it’s an exterior description, as though you (the writer) were standing across the street staring at the kitten.  Authors write from the interior of the story, as though they are actually a part of it.  For example, “The kitten wondered what its master was going to give it for lunch.”

Students may point out that writing from the interior of the story means the author is choosing a perspective, and that’s a great observation.   I make sure I point out that although writers may use more than one perspective in their novels, they only use one perspective at a time.  (This is important to note, because some students have a tendency to flip back and forth indiscriminately between characters.)  I may read from a few chapter books to give kids a taste of this, and touch on 1st/3rd person as well.

From here we go on to the assignment.  I place about ten of these photographs around the room, and students are to walk around the room with their journals and write one sentence from the exterior of the photo and one from the interior of the photo.  Although the goal is to have students write from the interior of the story, I find that having students write both sentences helps them to distinguish between the two—and it’s not like you never write from outside the topic, after all.  Summarizing and expository writing are important too.  (Just not as important as fiction.  And yes, I’m biased.)

In the end, of course, the students share at least one set of sentences that they’ve written.  If the photo has a group of people or animals it’s even more fun, because then the other students have to guess whose specific perspective the writer has chosen, based on facial expressions.

This is a very repeatable little activity, and can also be used as a quick and easy center!

Giving a specific writing prompt to the entire class can be a great way to start—or end—a language arts lesson, but it has some flaws as well.  I’ve found that the main one is time management.   While some students get right to work and complete the assignment quickly, others need more time to gather their thoughts before beginning.  Or heck—they just write slower.  Ideally, writers should be allowed to work at their own pace, as long as they are producing the best work possible for them.  Of course, this isn’t always possible.  Certain events, such as tests that compulsively require the use of number 2 pencils, have precise time limits that must be obeyed or the space/time continuum will collapse.  Also, as much as I’d like my students to write all day long, language arts does, on occasion, have to end.  Chicken nuggets must be eaten, small cartons of milk must be imbibed, and every so often I have to teach them about those number things.

In the case of journal prompts, I like to give everyone the same amount of time to work but offer them slightly tweaked assignments based on their ability level.   I’ll write the prompt, and then put two boxes beneath it (usually written in different colored chalk).  The first box is for modification, the second box is for enrichment.

Here’s a recent prompt (from the classic “What did you do over summer vacation?” genre): “Write a paragraph about one specific, memorable event that happened over the holiday break.”

In my modifications box, I usually chunk the assignment so those students who might have trouble can get to work faster and better utilize their time.  For this prompt I wrote: “1. List three exciting things you did over the break.  2.  Which of these can you picture clearest in your mind? 3.  Write about it, starting with a grabber beginning.”

In this case, I didn’t really change the assignment, but I offered suggestions as to the best/quickest way to begin.  The bonus part about this modification box is that many students who don’t require modifications might still find it useful.  It’s basically a reminder about how to brainstorm, but it’s specific to this prompt.

As for the enrichment box, I sometimes add a reflection component, such as: “Write a second paragraph explaining why this event is memorableWhat did you take or learn from it that you will remember in years to come?”  The other enrichment option that works is a perspective switch: “Write about a memorable activity but not from your perspective—choose someone else who was there.”

Do I do these modifications for every journal prompt?  Absolutely not.  Sometimes the prompt doesn’t lend itself to modification. Sometimes I ask the students who finish first to illustrate their writing because…they really like to draw.  Sometimes I didn’t have enough coffee that morning and can’t think of any bright ideas.  But occasionally it’s good to have a modification box and an extension box, just to make sure that all students are getting the most out of journal time!

All children have specific writing weaknesses, mistakes they are inclined to make over and over again.  As a teacher, I find this particularly frustrating.  “Sebastian, I told you that you have to indent when you begin a new paragraph.  Actually, I’ve told you fifteen times.  Today.  FOR THE LOVE OF GOD WHY WON’T YOU REMEMBER?”

Thus, at the start of the new year, I have my students make three—and only three—“writing resolutions,” or specific ways they hope to improve their writing.  I do this not only to potentially preserve my own sanity; I want each student to have a self-generated reminder of writing elements that must be improved.  The key is making sure the kids come up with their three writing resolutions on their own.  As all teachers/parents know, the best way to make kids do something is to convince them it was their idea in the first place.  (They really should teach Psychological Manipulation to Foster Student Improvement in teacher school.)

It’s hard for children to think of concrete examples without guidance, so we spend some time brainstorming common weaknesses that the class thinks I see in their writing, breaking it into three categories: content, grammar, and spelling.

Here are some of the usual responses I get, divided by category:

CONTENT

–Does not stay on topic.

–Does not start with a grabber beginning.

–Ideas are not good. (That’s a bit harsh—and vague—so I usually tweak it to “Writer needs to spend more time brainstorming before starting.”)

–Does not use sensory details.

–Tells too much; doesn’t show.

GRAMMAR

–Forgets periods and upper-case letters at the beginning of sentences.  (Ouch.)

–Does not indent paragraphs.

–Needs to vary sentence patterns.

–Must remember to proofread to catch silly mistakes.

–Needs to remember that apostrophes actually serve a purpose and are not simply decoration.

SPELLING

–your vs. you’re

–excited vs. exited

–their, they’re, there

–to vs. too

I’m sure your students will come up with even more than the ones I’ve listed here; they always do with me.  I have students make this list with their writing notebooks open, so they can search back to see what types of errors they’ve made.

After we’ve brainstormed, students should choose three things that they resolve to improve over the coming year, preferably one from each category.  Each student should write these on an index card, which is then taped to his/her desk.  After every writing assignment, students should re-read this card as part of their proofreading.  If they catch an error that they would have made if they hadn’t been reminded by their list, they can put a checkmark next to that category.  When sharing assignments, I also like to share one or two “resolution corrections” just to remind students that this is an ongoing process.  It really works!

(My writing resolution is to update this blog bi-weekly!  If anyone has any particular writing topics that you’d like me to address, please feel free to send me an email via the contact button!)

Children attempting to set the scene in a story tend to fall into one of two categories: too much or too little.  The too-littlers are quite content with giving the reader only a general idea of their characters’ location (“Beth and Bob were outside”). They might even skip describing the setting all together, forgetting that just because they know the setting doesn’t mean their reader does.  The too-muchers, on the other hand, seem to be under the mistaken impression that their grade is based entirely on word count.  For example: “Beth, wearing a red scarf and black boots, and Bob, who was her boyfriend and had blue eyes and long hair, stood outside the large, tall building which had blue and white flags and lots of windows.”

The following activity is an attempt to find a middle ground between the too-littlers and too-muchers.  Students will write THREE (no more, no less) sentences describing a setting, in the following order: MASTER sentence, specific detail#1, specific detail#2.   They will try this first with a series of photographs, and then move to settings from their own imagination.

Let’s walk through an example.  Any landscape-type photo will do, but I like the ones on www.naturephotographers.net.  Here’s a good one to start with:

http://tinyurl.com/kb2ehso

After putting this up on the Smartboard or computer monitor, I ask my students for a very simple, “master shot” sentence.  This is to force them to remember to establish exactly where they are, which is something the too-littlers often forget.  A simple sentence is fine.  In this case, it might be: “The old barn is in the field” or “I am in front of the old barn” if they are in a first person sorta mood.  It doesn’t matter, as long as the reader absolutely knows where they are, in terms of the setting.

The second two sentences are where young writers can get fancy.  Sentence two and three should be very specific details.  This is where all that good stuff you’ve been teaching them like figurative and sensory language comes into play.  For example, “A pine tree guards the barn,” “Wooden boards are coming free,” “The forest behind the barn is obscured by mist,” “The barn sits on a bed of stones.”

Give students time to share their ideas.  I list the good ones on the board and then discuss which two are the best.  I like to emphasize the fact that their first idea might not be their best idea.

The final result will be three sentences put together in the master-detail-detail pattern: “The old barn is in an empty field.   Its boards are weathered and old.  Above the barn the sun tries to break through the morning mist.”  There you have it: a quick sketch of a setting, with a concrete format to keep students from feeling overwhelmed.

For a week or so I post one of these photographs as a morning assignment (I believe in repeatable activities—students shouldn’t be expected to get these things the first time through).  This also works well as a center; just take a few photography books from the library and let students pick their own photo to describe.  Eventually, students should draw their own setting, and use this three-sentence method to describe it!