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Kirkus Star!

A Path Begins has been given a Kirkus star!

Nail-biting suspense is the hallmark of this long fantasy novel, from the terrifying prologue to the shocking epilogue…The spellbinding story, lashings of suspense and stalwart heroine will draw in fantasy fans and keep them reading until the bitter ending…

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Publishers Weekly Starred!

A Path Begins received a “STARRED REVIEW” in Publishers Weekly!

In this darkly imaginative debut, White creates a fantasy world with creatures that are anything but sweet—a cyclopean bird, a multi-mouthed horror—and, after a deceptively satisfying resolution, he unfurls a twist that will make readers want the next chapter…

 

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Journal Entries for Point-of-View

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!

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Journal Writing Presentation Tricks

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.

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Helping Students Distinguish Between Interior and Exterior Writing

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!

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Modifying Journal Prompts

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!

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Student Writing Resolutions

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!)

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Describing the Setting in Three Sentences

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!