Sunday, February 28, 2010

Our Book Giveaway Winner

Congratulations to the winner of our latest giveaway:
Doraine B!
Doraine will receive an autographed copy of Sarah Campbell's new book, Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature. For her entry, Doraine shared that she'd like to see a photo-biography of "Debi Thomas, African-American figure skater back in 1988 who went on to become a doctor." Maybe one of our readers will write one!

Our thanks again to Sarah Campbell for her interview, and to all our readers who participated in the giveaway. Stay tuned for another guest Teaching Author interview and giveaway in early March!


Friday, February 26, 2010

Question Poems for Poetry Friday

Dear Followers of Teaching Authors,

Happy Poetry Friday!

I need your help.

I have been an instructor with UCLA Extension's Writing Program for ten years.  I adore teaching there, love the students, love the challenges.  Following the example of master teacher Myra Cohn Livingston (with whom I studied for twelve years), I am a big believer in homework for adult learners. Lots of it. I've found that the more work they do and the less dancing-on-a-table-top-in-the-front-of the-classroom I do, the better the teacher they think I am.

In Myra's Master Class, we basically shoved the rest of our lives aside for ten weeks to write poetry for children.  Myra taught so many now well-known children's poets, I call her the Johnny Appleseed of children's poetry.  My classmates including Monica Gunning, Janet S.Wong, Alice Schertle, Ann Whitford Paul, Tony Johnston, Joan Bransfield Graham, Madeleine Comora, Ruth Lercher Bornstein, Sonya Sones and many others.

Sometimes, though, critiquing each student's story every week wears me down.  (Can you relate?)  It's a fine line between thoroughly critiquing each story in order to help the author get it into shape...and spending more time critiquing it than the author spent writing it.

I don't know how you teachers with six classes a day, thirty students per class do it.  I think you may be magicians.

I wanted to change my universe.  I wanted the playfulness back in teaching.  So I proposed a new class.  It was accepted and I'll be teaching it this summer (yippee!). Here’s a draft of the course description:

Chockful of short and longer in-class writing exercises, this workshop is designed especially for children's picture book writers.  By focusing on recurring subjects such as Tell the Truth, Less is More, Quote-Unquote, and The Power of Observation, you have the time and creative space to delve into a range of fresh approaches to these universal themes as you engage in stimulating writing exercises and constructive give-and-take with your instructor and peers.  In addition to inspiring new work and points of view on it, this workshop loosens up your tight fists, unwrinkles your worried brow, and reminds you how satisfying and fun writing can be.   All writing and critiquing is performed in class; students are given the opportunity to read their work aloud if they wish.  Enrollment limit:  20 students

NO HOMEWORK for me OR for the students!  Doesn't that sound great?

Each of the six classes is three hours long, so I’m collecting fun, inspiring writing exercises.

Of course there are wonderful books that include all sorts of writing exercises.  Among them: Ann Whitford Paul's terrific WRITING PICTURE BOOKS (see Teaching Author Esther Hershenhorn's review of this book), Natalie Goldberg's WILD MIND--Living the Writer's Life, and my friend Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge's wonderful POEMCRAZY.

Here's where you come in.  Do you have a favorite writing exercise (or book of writing exercises) to recommend that would be particularly useful to picture book writers?  The catch?  I'm especially interested in exercises that make you get up and move…

or go outside…

or use a prop…

or use a book you wouldn’t ordinarily use.  Exercises that use other postures and modalities beside sitting at a desk staring at a blank page.  Ideas employing music or meditation, physical movement, complete silence, blindfolds and squishy things to touch…weird out-of-the-box stuff.

You get the picture.

If you do, I'd love to hear from you.  And I'll be forever in your debt.

                                                                    Cross my heart.

 Writing Workout: Writing a
Question Poem

 Poet and author Sonya Sones sometimes writes poems in which every sentence is a question.  These always inspire me.  They have a brightness; a special energy.

I  know, I know…that isn’t exactly getting students up out of their chairs.  But maybe if they are asked to use a rhyming dictionary as they write this poem or story....maybe that would give this exercise a twist.

I took a stab at it.  I had a blast using my rhyming dictionary.  I was shooting rhymes at it with a machine gun. So here’s my very, very, very rough draft:

very rough draft by April Halprin Wayland

Are you going to make your bed?

     Who said?

Are you going to make your bed so that pillows and sheets aren’t exploding all over our room?

     You mean this fantastic sonic boom?

Are you going to make it before we eat monkey bread and jam?

     Who do you think I am?

Are you going to make it so we can lie down with Cat, flat?

     What made you think of that?

Are you going to make it to show Mick this morning?

     Is that a warning?

Are you going to make your bed instead of galloping goats over those blanket canyons?

     Me and which companions?

Yoooo—hoooooo?  Are you?

     Am I what?

Tut, tut…
     ARE YOU
          GOING TO

     Who put that idea in your head?

Now try writing your own messy, imperfect rough draft Question Poem (or Question Story)! 

And always--write with joy.

all drawings © by April Halprin Wayland

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The "R" Word: Revision (with a Tie-In to our Current Giveaway)

One of the greatest challenges writing teachers face is helping students understand that a first draft is only the beginning of the writing process. As TeachingAuthors, we often talk about the  "R" word: Revision.  Two weeks ago, Mary Ann shared her memories of being a young writer who hated revision. (You can read her post here.) I meet many young writers (and some not-so-young ones) with a similar attitude. They feel that after struggling long and hard to complete that first draft, they're done. That's it! Convincing these writers to revisit and revise can be next to impossible. Today I'll share three points I emphasize with such students to help them appreciate the value of revision. I hope these ideas will help you and/or your students embrace revision:

1. Revising a story doesn't mean it isn't a good story, only that it can be better.
In Seeing the Blue Between: Advice and Inspiration for Young Poets, compiled by Paul B. Janeczko, award-winning poet Naomi Shihab Nye writes:
"If a teacher told me to revise, I thought that meant my writing was a broken-down car that needed to go to the repair shop. I felt insulted. I didn't realize the teacher was saying, 'Make it shine. It's worth it.'
Now I see revision as a beautiful word of hope. It's a new vision of something. It means you don't have to be perfect the first time. What a relief!"
To emphasize this point, I tell young writers about the process I went through to write and eventually publish my novel, Rosa, Sola. I wrote the novel as my creative thesis while pursuing an MFA in Writing at Vermont College. The first draft took me three semesters to complete. By the end of my third-semester, my adviser was pleased with the manuscript. She was even willing to sign-off on it as my thesis, but she suggested I hold off and have my fourth-semester adviser critique it first. Or, as I tell young students, she was ready to give me a "B+," but she knew my next teacher could help me make it an "A."

My fourth-semester adviser did provide wonderful feedback, especially regarding some weaknesses in the plot. However, one of her suggestions was rather daunting: she wanted me to rewrite the entire 125-page novel from third-person point of view to first-person. I resisted the idea, in part because I liked it in third-person, and in part because of all the work such a change would require. In the end, though, I gave in and did the rewrite. At the same time, I revised the plot issues. When I was done, my adviser loved the first-person voice of the new draft. She signed-off on that version as my official thesis.
This is a picture of my thesis draft, which I show students when I talk about revision.
There was only one problem--I still preferred the voice in the earlier, third-person draft. The first-person narration didn't ring quite true to me; it felt too mature and thoughtful to come from an average ten-year-old struggling with complex emotions. After graduation, I decided to go back to third-person viewpoint before trying to sell the manuscript. Of course, since I'd changed the story's plot in between, I couldn't just go back to the earlier draft (which I had saved on my computer). I had to do another FULL rewrite. Knowing how much work that would take, I procrastinated for a long time. However, I eventually bit the bullet and did the rewrite. To my surprise, the revised third-person draft was MUCH better than my earlier third-person version, and it wasn't just because of the plot changes. The process of rewriting the story in first person had given me a better understanding of my main character, and that new understanding now made the third-person version  much richer .

This is the third-person draft that was accepted by Candlewick Press.
My revision story doesn't end here, though, which leads to my second point:

2. Published authors typically revise again (and again and again), even after they've sold their work.
January 2003, I received a call from an editor at Candlewick Press who wanted to buy Rosa, Sola. I was ecstatic!  She mentioned on the phone that she had some revision suggestions she'd be sending me. Fortunately, I knew enough about publishing to know this was common. However, most of my students (even the adult ones) are surprised when I tell them this. I point out to them that the editor obviously thought I'd written a good novel or she wouldn't have wanted to buy it in the first place. Or, as Naomi Shihab Nye would say, the editor didn't think my novel was a broken-down car wreck; she simply wanted to help me make it shine.

First, the editor sent me a single-spaced, three-page letter filled with questions and suggestions for improving Rosa, Sola. It took me several months to work through those changes and send her a new manuscript. She then read through the story again and marked the pages she still had questions or comments on with yellow sticky notes. When I show that version of the manuscript to students, they usually gasp:   
Unfortunately, this photo only shows the sticky notes on the LEFT side of the pages. There are as many, if not more, on the right side.

I fixed those issues, sent the new draft back, and my editor replied with more yellow notes, though not quite as many this time:
Again, students are usually shocked to see all the pages that still need revision. However, by this time, the students usually begin to see my point--a first draft is only the beginning of the writing process, especially if you want to create something that really shines.

If you or your students aren't convinced such last minute changes are common, then I encourage you to read our Guest Teaching Author Sarah Campbell's blog post about revising her latest book, Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature. And don't forget to enter for a chance to win an autographed copy of the book here.

Finally, the third point I remind students of to help them appreciate the value of revision:

3. We are constantly growing as writers.
The more we read and write, the more we grow as writers. While this may seem obvious, at least to adults, we often forget it. And for young writers who are learning and maturing at a tremendous rate, the passage of a month or more can make a tremendous difference in their writing skills. The following Writing Workout is a way to help you take advantage of that growth, whether you're a writer or a teacher.
Writing Workout:
After submitting a draft of Rosa, Sola to my editor, I sometimes had to wait months for her feedback. While that long wait was often frustrating, it did have some benefits: by the time I looked at the manuscript again, I could read it more objectively. It was almost as though someone else had written it. The "cooling off" period, combined with my ongoing growth as a writer (mentioned in #3 above) made it easier to see how I could improve the story.

You can create a similar effect. After you or your students have completed what you believe is a polished draft of a piece of writing, try the following:
  1. If the work is on a computer, print it out in a font you don't typically use. For example, if you usually print in Times New Roman, try an Arial or Verdana font, and maybe change the font size to slightly smaller or larger, too. If you're working with students who have written something by hand, have them type up and print out their work. (Addendum 3/15/10: I recently came across a blog post by Sharon Creech where she discusses using different colored paper for different drafts. I may try that some time. See her post here.)
  2. Put the work aside for awhile, preferably, at least a month.  No matter how tempted you are, do NOT look at the manuscript at all during this time.
  3. While the work is "cooling," keep reading and writing. Read the kinds of things you like to write and/or books about the craft of writing. At the same time, start a new writing project, brainstorm future writing topics, or write daily in a journal, even if for only a minute. (See April's post about this.) This step is VERY important--you want to continue your growth as writer while your story cools.
  4. At the end of the month, pull out your "cooled" draft. When you read it, pretend it was written by someone else. What do you like about the piece? What don't you like about it? What would make it better?
Happy writing (and revising)!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Book Giveaway and Interview with Guest Author, Sarah Campbell

    The Teaching Authors are pleased to present an interview and book give-away with our friend, Sarah Campbell. On a personal note, I met Sarah when she came to my very first book signing in our shared hometown, Jackson, Mississippi. Sarah and I got to know each other pretty well that day, given the number of people who did not attend the signing!
     Over the years, I have had the pleasure of observing Sarah at work with her elementary school students. Their joy in the act of creating, and pride in their completed writing is a direct result of one very fine teaching author.
     Sarah is not only a gifted teacher;  she is an award-winning author as well. Her first book, Wolfsnail:  A Backyard Predator is a Geisel Honor Book.
     A former journalist, Sarah is the mother of three sons, which she and her husband are raising in Jackson, Mississippi
     Her new book, Growing Patterns, is set for release next month. To celebrate both Sarah's appearance on Teaching Authors, as well as the publication of her new book, we are giving away an autographed copy of Growing Patterns.  To enter the drawing, see the instructions at the end of this post.

     How did you become a Teaching Author?
     When my first son was born, I left full-time journalism and took a part-time job teaching a journalism class and advising the student newspaper at a liberal arts college. After my third son was born (three-and-a-half years later) I wanted to use the little time I had for my professional self to write--not teach.  At the time, I was writing magazine articles and corporate communication pieces.
     When my third son went to school, I ventured into the classroom again, this time as a volunteer at my sons' elementary school. I was in the midst of transforming myself into a writer for the children's market.  Whenever the students embarked on an interesting unit, I would turn up at school with lots of books (mainly from the public library) on the topic. Both the students and I read and read. I also photographed their classroom activities.
     From my own writing, it wasn't much of a leap to start co-creating books with the students, kindergarten through third grade.  I wrote grants for money to cover the expense of printing and binding the books, as well as a small stipend for myself.
     Currently, most of my teaching consists of short residencies, combining photography and writing.  I typically partner with elementary school teachers to teach a project-based unit with their class. (For examples of these units, see  and
Whenever possible, I work with students in small groups of four to six, taking photographs, and writing captions and other informational text to accompany the photographs.

What is a common problem or question that your students have, and how do you address it?

 A common problem is what to write.  By this, I mean both the topic and the actual construction of a piece of writing (organizing information, word selection, etc.)  Using photography is one of my favorite ways to address the "what to write" problem.
     One of the first photography activities we do is to make paper frames. Students take them out to the playground and practice composing photographs. This is a hands-on way to illustrate the idea of narrowing a broad topic into something more specific--framed, close-up, detailed and in focus.
     Another activity is a caption writing exercise. To ready my students to write informational text to accompany their photographs.  I have them study the masters;  the writers and photographers of National Geographic magazine. Students are split into groups and given a photograph, with the caption removed. Working together, they write their own one-sentence caption for the photo. When all groups have finished, each group presents their work. I then read the original magazine captions and the whole class participates in matching the National Geographic captions with the requisite picture.
     A variation on this involves the students working alone, instead of groups.  Ask each student to write a story based on their assigned photograph. (They may also choose a photo from the available, prepared collection.)  This exercise takes several sessions to finish as the students ask themselves these questions:
What was happening before this picture was taken?  What will happen next?

You are also a photographer. Tell us how photography informs your work as a writer.

As a writer, I use photography to help me with topic selection. In many ways, my first book Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator, landed in my lap.  My son found two wolfsnails in our backyard.  We then went on an odyssey of exploration that resulted in the book.
     When I started thinking about what to write next, I knew I needed to find something I could photograph. The subject had to be aesthetically pleasing to me and accessible from my home base in Jackson, Mississippi. In my new book, Growing Patterns, that turned out to be flowers, pine cones and pineapples.
     Photography also helps me with my decisions about storytelling.  Growing Patterns is a picture book in the classic sense; the text alone cannot tell the story. It wasn't until I figured out how pictures could illustrate the building of mathematical patterns, that I was able to write the story.
    At one time, I would have laughed at anyone who said that some day I would illustrate my own books.  Now I have a hard time understanding how picture write books without also doing the art.  It is a give-and-take process between the writing and the pictures. Sometimes a good picture will eliminate the need for a particular descriptive word.  Other times, I need words to help the reader understand that what they see is two-dimensional and therefore, doesn't give them all the information they need.
   I hope you will visit me at  The current opening page features a book trailer for Growing Patterns.

     Thank you, Sarah, for bringing Teaching Authors into your classrooms.

     Contest requirements:
     Want to win a copy of Growing Patterns?  Combining Sarah's use of photography in her books, and the fact that we still have one more week of the Olympics--send us the Olympian (summer or winter, past or present, living or dead) who you think would make a good subject for a children's photo-biography. Or if you already know a good biography of an Olympian, send that. Post your entry in the comments of today's blog interview
Be sure to include an email or blog address so we can contact you if you win. To qualify, your entry must be posted by 11 pm CST, Saturday, February 27.  The winner will announced on Sunday.

  Before entering our contests, please read our Giveaway Guidelines here 

  Good luck...and keep writing! (Pssst--I'm secretly glued to the Olympics...while writing, of course. Up next--ice dancing!)

     Mary Ann Rodman

Friday, February 19, 2010

March 4th!

Where I live on the shore of Lake Michigan, city snow has turned that end-of-winter smoky brownish gray. Everyone I know has lost at least one mitten. Even diehard winter sports enthusiasts grow weary of ice, cold, and shovels before any hint of green decorates the landscape.

One change is visible, though—about this time of year, sunlight takes on a different quality. Could it possibly be brighter? Animals seem to notice. Crows group up and flap around, cawing. Squirrels make desperate leaps to the bird feeders. Owls hoot for mates at night. My favorite season is just over the horizon. I look forward to spring with such relish that I always celebrate the date that feels like its true beginning to me: March 4th.

Get it?

March 4th is more than a date—it’s an attitude. For me, it’s a reminder to take the bull by the horns and take care of business. Blaze a trail and follow it. Harness the horses and plow ahead.

You get it, right? March forth!

Come spring, I keep my eyes and ears open for warblers and orioles. I peer beneath snow trying to spot the first daffodils, walk around searching for snowdrops and crocuses, peek into gardens where scilla spreads. Any day now, we’ll all surrender to one of those glorious afternoons when everyone rejoices in the world and we all leave our jackets on the playground. Troubles seem trivial, problems feel petty, and all we want to do is drop everything, run outdoors, and soak up the sunshine.

Now is the time to pick up your pen or your paintbrush or your hammer. Plunge ahead with determination. Join me—and the wrens and the wildflowers—and celebrate spring, the season of renewal and opportunity. March forth!

Writing Workout

Think up your own personal holiday and write about it. Answer these questions:
  • When would you celebrate your special day?
  • Why did you choose the date you chose?
  • What would you call your holiday?
  • How would you celebrate?
  • Who would you invite to celebrate with you?
  • Where would your celebration take place?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Happy Random Acts of Kindness Day!

No matter how you came to this blog post today, by chance,
by intention,
or simply by Good Luck,
may I be the first to wish you Happy Random Acts of Kindness Day!
Yes, you read that right: February 17 is Random Acts of Kindness Day.

Not to worry if you didn’t know this fact.
I know I didn’t, until I turned to today’s date in my copy of Eileen and Jerry Spinelli’s newest book, today I will (Knopf, 2009).
I’d been savoring the moment (translate: assigned blog posting date and subject matter) to kindly share this newly-published small but useful and inspiring book with TeachingAuthors readers and writers.
Today’s post became that random moment.
How perfect is that!

I ardently believe in Paying Kindness Forward.
I practice it daily.
I believe in Good Karma.
So consider this introduction to the Spinellis’ book my February 17 Act of Kindness.

FYI: February 15 through 20 has been designated Random Acts of Kindness Week!
Googling left me thinking the Acts of Kindness Foundation was behind the designation.
No matter the Who, though, or even the How. I’m smiling and paying kindness forward to you.

I’d purchased the Spinellis’ book fully intending to use it as a journal-writing tool with my Young Writers.
The review blurb highlighted the book’s simplicity. In a single page entry for each day of the year, the Spinellis
(1) share a quote from a children’s book, referencing the title and author;
(2) reflect meaningfully on the quote;
(3) make a “today I will….” promise that relates to that reflection.
The February 17th quote?
“Kindness comes with no price” from Tongues of Jade by Laurence Yep.
The Spinellis’ reflection?
Talk is cheap but kindness is free. Why isn’t there more of it?!
Their promise?
"I’ll make sure February 17th lives up to its name. And it won’t cost me a penny!”

I love that the Spinellis used children’s books as their source of thought-provoking, heart-grabbing journal prompts.
The middle-page responses make perfect practice for students boning up for the reflective reading passages in any and all state achievement tests.
The “today I will…” promise makes the reader sit up straight, indeed stand up tall, to claim his reflection and translate it into action.
The quotes offer a wide sample of titles, from Alice Dalgliesh’s The Courage of Sarah Noble and Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting to Sarah Dessen’s Keep the Moon and Carolyn Mackler’s The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things.
The Big and Small topics range from Fear and Failure and Thinking about Others to Hope and Choices and Asking for Help.

The book’s turquoise back cover says it all:
“…look inside. Turn to today. And make a promise to yourself.”
Being kind to yourself is now downright doable, daily if not randomly, thanks to this small book.
And passing word of this Important Truth on to you, our readers?
I’m simply paying it forward…hoping you will do the same.

Happy Random Acts of Kindness Day!
Esther Hershenhorn

Writing Workout

Copying is the supreme compliment, yes?
So, why not create your own book of quotes, notes and promises to yourself!
Any book or writing vessel will do: a commercially-sold composition book or a purchased blank journal or diary, books with folded and gathered, pull-out or accordion-style pages. Leaf books. Shape books. Scroll books.
  • At the top of each page, copy a favorite quote from a children’s book. Include the title, author, perhaps the character who spoke the words.
  • In the middle of the page, respond thoughtfully to the quote. Why did it touch you? How did it speak to you? What do the words mean to who you are now? Do they inspire, encourage, comfort, acknowledge, advise, recommend, illuminate, give hope. You choose the verb and the accompanying emotion and memory.
  • At the bottom of the page, make a real-and-doable promise based on your reflection. Now I will….
  • Decorate front and back covers and/or personalize each page with an image or symbol.
  • Gift yourself. Or gift another.
          Either way, it’s an act of kindness.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Snow Daze

For our East Coast teacher readers enjoying (and I use this term somewhat loosely) an extended break from school -- I hope you were finally able to get outside this weekend.  As for me, I was tempted to kiss the ground when I finally made it to Costco.  (For the record, my daughter finds snow "too cold" for play and my son is too short to venture outdoors at the moment, lest he should disappear into a drift.  Thus I literally did not leave the house for at least 5 days.)

As a teacher-spouse, I am always happy to do the snow dance with my husband in the event of a flake or two in the forecast. However, after ten days trapped indoors with two little kids, our feelings toward snow days have begun to evolve.   My husband is worried about his students' ability to pass their upcoming state tests, and I've all but given up on the first two essays I've assigned to my class.

So, teachers among us, do we have a contingency plan in the event of interrupted instruction?  I have asked (and reminded) my students to check school email and Blackboard regularly.  Since the first class cancellation (three snowfalls ago) I have been emailing them like a crazy woman.  Their papers were due last week.  I have heard from about 5 students since we last met. In short, I wish I had been clearer regarding my expectations in the event of a missed class.  Of course, given the conditions, some may have been without Internet access, computers, or even electricity for a time.  But over the course of two weeks, if I could make it to Costco and throw a dinner party attended by out-of-state guests  -- am I really expecting too much?

I just made a list of the material I need to review in class today.  I'm hoping to cover 4 chapters in 75 minutes.  I don't even know where to begin -- MLA, revising, grammar?  Aagh!

By contrast, I remember my childhood snow days with such fondness. The year we moved here from Hawaii was the year we experienced the blizzard of '79.  Well, I do recall being in big trouble for climbing on my father's car (I couldn't see it!), but otherwise it was a week of building forts and playing rummy and re-reading THE BOBBSEY TWINS' OWN LITTLE PLAYHOUSE.  I have thought often of that book this week.  That, and (of course) THE LONG WINTER.  The details I remember are an odd assortment -- tea and hearts from the former; from the latter, brown bread, twisted rope used for fuel, chapped hands.  Give me LITTLE HOUSE IN THE BIG WOODS any day.  Actually, give me Hawaii any day! 

Wishing everyone a safe, warm day, and Kung Hei Fat Choi!  ("Congratulations, and wishing you prosperity!")  For what it's worth, the celebration of the Chinese Lunar New Year is also known as Spring Festival.  Celebration time!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Two Writing Quotes, Two Children’s Poems & How to Write a Valentine’s Day Poem with Heart

Hello, howdy and Happy Almost Valentine's Day!

This week, Teaching Authors’ Mary Ann Rodman posted on rewriting.

Rewriting always makes me think of the quote by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch  (great name!):
"Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings."

And I LOVE the comment author and reader Irene Latham made when she said in part, “The biggest "aha" moment came for me as an adult when I lost a bunch of files. As I went to recreate, I realized words are disposable and MEANT TO BE MOVED AROUND. That's the beauty of the whole thing.”

One of the rewriting agonies I suffer is: how do I know when it’s finished?  There is no green button that says DONE.  No red light that says: STOP REVISING.

In writing and rewriting a Valentine’s Day poem, I came up with two versions.  Which one should I send to Cricket Magazine?  So, here they are—which do you like best?  (Which one did I send?  The answer's at the bottom of the second poem.)

By April Halprin Wayland

My first day of school
I didn't know anyone.
I stood in the middle
of a swirling blender

of kids talking
of kids laughing
but not to me
not with me.

I stood in the middle
not knowing anyone.
Then you came up.
You came up to me and said hi.

When you said hi my whole day
                            my whole week
                            my whole year
rolled out happy.

After that
there was our rock collection
the Club House
and more.

When you said hi
that was the day
I started making this
Valentine's Day card for you.

© April Halprin Wayland

by April Halprin Wayland

Last summer when we were at the creek
and you and Andy and Joey
climbed up to the highest rock

thought about it
saw how deep it was
thought about how cold it would be

and finally
one by one

when you didn't tease me
or try to coax me up the rock
or call me a baby

Last summer is why
I'm giving you
this Valentine.

© April Halprin Wayland, first published in Cricket Magazine, February 2008

Writing Workout / Lesson Plan
How to Write a Valentine’s Day Poem With Heart

Valentine’s Day poems can be funny and rhyming and light.  They can be deeply felt.  Today, let’s do an exercise that will help you find rich, dig-down-deep content for your Valentine’s poem.

When someone tells me that they like me, I never say this, but I secretly, achingly want to know: what did I just do?  Why do they like me? 

Here are six steps to help you find the heart of your poem which will tell your friend why:
1)    Make a list of five people you love...or at least really like.
2)    Circle the one person for whom you want to write a poem.
3)    List at three times you were with this person which you remember fondly—was it in the living room after dinner?  Sitting next to that person at the movies?  Going shopping together?
4)    Choose one of these events.
5)    Give us the nitty gritty details.  Where were you?  What did this person do that you liked?  Were there any smells that you remember from that day?  Did you eat anything?  If so, list the foods.  Did that person hold your hand or hug you or pat your back or kiss you or pat your head?  If so, how did that feel?  Was his or her hand warm or cold?  Write down the details.  What did you see in that person’s face?  Were his or her eyes wrinkled or soft or shining?  Did he or she have a special smile for you? 
6)    Now you have the content for a poem explaining why you love (or really like) this person.  You may decide to use only one or two of the details from your list, but it’s those little details that will make your poem shine. 

Writers, start your engines!

And always, always, write with joy.

drawing by April Halprin Wayland

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Davy Crockett Gets Hitched--Announcing Our Winner!

The entry from Wehaf with the Norwegian folktale of "Buttercup" was chosen in the Teaching Authors Book Giveaway of an autographed copy of Bobbi Miller's picture book Davy Crockett Gets Hitched. 

Congratulations, and thanks to Bobbi and all who took part in the drawing!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Taking our Writing Workouts on the Road & Sharing the "Writer's Rap"

Today I'm braving the snow to travel to DePaul University in Chicago. There, I'll meet with my fellow blogger Esther Hershenhorn and education professors Roxanne Owens and Marie Donovan to discuss our upcoming presentation at the Illinois Reading Council Conference, which will be held in Springfield, Illinois next month. On Thursday, March 18, the two DePaul professors and five of the Teaching Authors (including me) will present "Flabby to Fab-y: Writing Workouts to Shape Up Your Curriculum." If you're attending the conference, I hope you'll join us. We will begin our presentation by discussing the "Top Ten Challenges" for those who teaching writing to children and teens, based on the experience of Professors Owens and Donovan, and on the input our readers provided as part of the contest we offered in January. Here is a summary of the challenges our readers shared:
  • Lack of sufficient time to teach writing
  • Difficulty teaching to differences between second-graders and sixth-graders participating in the same writing workshop
  • Keeping students on task
  • Teaching students how to give constructive feedback
  • Challenges helping students, especially non-native speakers, expand their vocabulary
  • When to emphasize grammar versus focusing on content
  • Helping students understand that a first draft is just the beginning of the process
  • Knowing when to begin the critique process
  • Finding ways to make learning grammar fun
  • How to eliminate fear of writing, fear of "getting it wrong"
  • How to balance teaching of different genres
  • Looking for helpful mini-lessons to teach 1st/2nd graders fiction writing
  • Having students use their own ideas instead of taking ideas from examples
  • Helping students with good ideas develop the skills to translate them onto the page
If you didn't get a chance to share last month, it's not too late--we'd still love to know about your greatest challenges when teaching writing to grades 1-12. Please post your comments below.

Don't forget--there's still time to enter for a chance to win an autographed copy of Davy Crockett Gets Hitched by Bobbi Miller. See JoAnn's Guest Teaching Author Interview with Bobbi for details.

If you're looking to win books for a slightly older audience, check out the love-themed giveaway at the Classof2K10 blog. Their entry deadline is midnight on Valentine's Day.

Finally, here's an early Valentine's Day gift for aspiring writers (and those who teach them), courtesy of author Erin Dealey. Her "Writer's Rap" will have you moving to the beat. (Thank you, Alice Pope, for posting the clip on your CWIM blog.) When you're done watching, go out and "hook 'em big"!
(If you're an email subscriber and the clip doesn't come through, you can watch it on YouTube here.)

Happy Writing!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Never Right the First Time or How I Learned to Love Revision

   As long as I can remember, I have loved writing. I turned those "make a sentence with your spelling words" assignments into short stories. My science reports read like episodes of Wild Kingdom ("brought to you by Mutual of Omaha".) Book reports allowed me to pick apart the language and logic of adults who write for children. If it involved putting words on paper in some creative fashion, I was in the Zone (a phenomena I understood long before it had a name.)
    What didn't I love about writing?
   "Revision" meant everything was spelled and punctuated correctly, the nouns and verbs agreeing. All sentences must be complete; no fragments or run-ons allowed.
     I was a lousy speller, in those pre-Spellcheck days.  Teachers liked papers with tidy margins, perfect Palmer Method cursive, and no erasures.  My papers looked like grey Swiss cheese with streaks of not-quite-erased words, and holes where I'd erased a little too hard. I wrote assignments over and over to achieve the required neatness.  No matter how good my writing, it was never neat or legible enough to win the attention I thought I deserved.
     Thanks to my early teachers, I learned to confuse revision with "following the rules"(grammar, spelling, neatness). Because I liked making good grades, I eventually forced myself to check every other word in the dictionary and slavishly follow the punctuation sections of my grammar book.
     There is absolutely nothing wrong with grammatically correct, well-spelled writing.  But in my case, "learning the rules" came at the expense of creative re-thinking. Not once did anyone mention "revision" as a way to make your writing better.
     There are kids who don't mind doing things over and over, and there are kids who would rather eat flies than do something a second time. The former kids are the ones who become Olympians, win the National Spelling Bee, solo with the New York Philharmonic at age seven.
     I was not one of those kids. Since I had mastered the art of being "a teacher pleaser" (ie, spelled right and neatly written), I saw absolutely no reason to re-write anything to make it better.  It was already
"better";  the teacher could read it and I got an A. Good, right?
     I continued my policy of Get it Right the First Time into high school. I won several state and national writing contests by never revising. I was under the impression that "good" writers always got it right the first time. If I got stuck after the first two paragraphs (which was happening with alarming frequency), I would tear up the story. If I couldn't write that third paragraph, the idea was no good, right?
     Then I met the Famous Southern Writer. (Because memories have a way of revising themselves, I cannot swear that this is absolutely the way things happened, so no names will be mentioned.)
     One of my writing contest prizes was lunch with Famous Southern Writer. I was fifteen and had absolutely no idea how gifted and famous this writer was. I was much more interested in the prize money that the Writer was to present me at the luncheon.
    The Writer liked to talk. A lot. Mostly about how hard writing was. "I write two pages and tear three up.  I write the same page over and over."
     I didn't think the Writer was making much of a case for writing as a career, to say nothing of being a monotonous lunch partner. So when the Writer took a break to actually eat, I chirped up and said, "Wow. You really re-write stuff a lot. I never write anything more than once."
     I might have said more, but was stopped by a withering look from the Writer.
     "Is that so?" drawled the Writer.  "Only once?"
      I nodded modestly, trying not blush.
      "Well my dear, when you learn to re-write and re-write and when nothing ever looks right to you...then you'll be a  real writer."
      You would think such direct and honest advice would've been my big "Ah-ha!" moment.
      It wasn't.  I was fifteen.  Fifteen-year-olds are very wise.  Just ask them.
      Not until I was in the MFA program at Vermont College that I learned what true revision is. How to take apart a story and put it back together, using any number of techniques.  Only then did I truly appreciate that a story is never right the first time. I learned to embrace the opportunity to get it right the third time...or fourth time....of the 560th time!
     As William Zinsser said in his book On Writing Well: "Rewriting is the essence of writing well; it is where the game is won or lost.  That idea is hard to accept.  We all have emotional equity in our first draft;  we can't believe that it wasn't born perfect. But the odds are close to 100 per cent that it wasn't."

 Writing Workout
These are some of the things I do when a story isn't working. I can become so focused on what doesn't work, I can't think of constructive ways to "fix" it. For me, the trick is to distance myself from my work by using some of these ideas. Removing the "emotional equity" helps me to be more objective (always a problem for me.)

Re-write changing one basic element. It it's in first person, change it to third. Or change the narrator to a different character. Switch the tenses; if it's in present tense, try it in past, or vice versa.

Sometimes I write what I think is a picture book, and discover it is really a novel. I just finished a book that I thought was a chapter book, but turned out to be a picture book. You can't force a story into a format that doesn't work any more than you can cram your size 8 foot into size 6 shoes (even if they are really cute and on sale.)

Sometimes when I am having trouble with voice, I re-write a section, consciously copying the style of another writer. I have used J.D. Salinger (R.I.P. to the father of Holden Caulfield), Charlotte Bronte, Hemingway, Faulkner, Dorothy Parker....and Beverly Cleary. Writing in someone else's style somehow helps you discover your own.

Share with us your own ways of handling revision.

BTW, it's not too late to enter our latest Teaching Authors contest. Read JoAnn's last post for details 

                     Mary Ann Rodman

Friday, February 5, 2010

Book Giveaway and Guest Teaching Author Interview with Bobbi Miller!

The Teaching Authors are tickled to present a book giveaway and interview with our dear friend, Guest Teaching Author Bobbi Miller! Bobbi is the author of the picture books One Fine Trade and Davy Crockett Gets Hitched. She lives in a log cabin, loves the outdoors, and spins tall tales. Of course, she also teaches.

To celebrate Bobbi’s appearance on our blog, we're giving away an autographed copy of Davy Crockett Gets Hitched. To enter the drawing, see the instructions at the end of this post.

How did you become a Teaching Author?

I am one of those nerds who knew how to read and write by kindergarten. I have always read and written stories. I studied hard to hone my craft, too. As an undergraduate, I studied writing and anthropology. I went to Simmons College, the Masters of Children’s Literature Program, where I studied the folklore process in children’s literature. I investigated voice and perspective, and most of all, the language of the storytelling process! I also went to the Vermont College (now the Vermont College of Fine Arts) MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Program. To tell you the truth, I think everything I learned up to that moment was preparing me for this experience at VCFA.

But the real surprise in this journey is that after graduation, I became a writer who teaches writing. While I was a student, I worked as an editor, a bookseller, and just about anything to pay the bills. Once I became a teacher, however, I discovered that I really enjoyed the connection to the students, to my colleagues, to the process of teaching. This teaching of writing keeps me connected to language itself. I find that in the teaching of writing, I engage more in understanding and expanding my knowledge of writing.

What's a common problem or question that your students have, and how do you address it?

I teach composition and advanced composition as well as all levels of writing for children. In all of my classes, the primary question becomes the use of language. It’s more involved than simply using a thesaurus. Language is more than mere words; it’s not only the rhythms and patterns, the musicality and the poetry of language, it’s a character in its own right. Writers talk of voice, but it’s a metaphorical application, because writing has no voice! Voice is grounded in the organic nature of language.

In my tall tale retellings, for example, the tall-talk of the tall tale is as wild and unabashed as the frontier. The language, like the characters that inhabit these tales, is rambunctious and bodacious. The language of the tall tale defies the tidy and restrictive, even uptight structure of formal grammar. It mocks it, in fact, using pseudo-Latinate prefixes and suffixes to expand on the root. The result is a teetotaciously, splendiferous reflection of a frontier too expansive for mere words to capture. By creating such a grand language, the frontier storyteller found a means to make an unknown frontier less scary. More than this, the grander language captured the bigger ideas.

In this day of truncated text-talk and quick fixes, we take reading and writing for granted. The crux of this is that we take language for granted. So, in my classes, even as we discuss character, plot and setting, we explore how language reflects character and plot; how language reflects the bigger idea.

How does your love of folktales and storytelling inspire your writing?

It’s a natural fit, folktales and storytelling and writing. Traditional tales are a genre defined by its oral nature, and language becomes as integral to the package as the story and the illustration. In fact, language becomes as much a character as the protagonist. Think Eric Kimmel, Virginia Hamilton and Ashley Bryan, Verna Aardema, Julius Lester, Jane Yolen and Gail E. Haley, to name a few whose use of language creates storymagic.

This language is crucial in all genres of writing, and is reflected in the best readings. Science fiction and fantasy tend to use the formal language as found in Grimm’s fairy tales. Historical stories worth their while tend to reflect -- without falling back on cliché -- the language of their times. Two books I recently read that exemplify this marriage of language and story: Kathi Appelt’s book, The Underneath, and Grace Lin’s book, Where The Mountain Meets the Moon.

How can teachers use your books in the classroom?

Obviously, the first connection is with language. My website includes links to lesson plans created by teachers who have used my books in their classroom. Studies suggest that language acquisition is keyed to youth, and we can infer that language appreciation is similarly keyed.

Another concept: Yana Rodgers, of Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children, suggests using my book, ONE FINE TRADE, for teaching the importance of self-reliance, bartering and trade to young readers.

Then, at its core, ONE FINE TRADE is a process analysis, reflecting how one man achieved his goal. And DAVY CROCKETT GETS HITCHED is a cause and effect, reflecting what happens when a burr gets stuck in the bum. These two organizational strategies, process analysis and cause and effect, are at the core of most academic writing and analysis. Learning these strategies is key to successful writing in school and higher learning.

Would you share a favorite writing exercise for our readers?

In my writing for children courses, we use poetry -- continuing our study of language -- to recreate a character from one of the stories we read. They cannot name the character, of course, and then the class has to guess which character is reflected in the poem. We repeat this exercise, using a secondary character from our own stories. Because poetry by definition reflects the emotive element of language, students often discover some emotional element of their character that they could not see before the exercise. The exercise clarifies their process in unseen ways. Sometimes, they discover -- to their utter surprise -- that the secondary character often make a stronger protagonist.

Thank you, Bobbi! The Teaching Authors appreciate your stopping by!

Contest requirements:
For a chance to win an autographed copy of Bobbi Miller's Davy Crockett Gets Hitched, post a comment to today's blog post telling us the title of your favorite folktale. Be sure to include an e-mail or blog address so we can contact you if you win! To qualify, your entry must be posted by 11 p.m. on Wednesday, February 10, 2010 (Central Standard Time). The winner will be announced by 11 p.m. on Thursday, February 12, 2010.

Before entering our contest, please read our Giveaway Guidelines here.

We look forward to reading your entries. Good luck!

JoAnn Early Macken

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Start Spreadin' the (New York SCBWI Conference) News!

As your luck and mine would have it, I met up with three members of SCBWI’s 11th Annual Winter New York Conference Team Blog - Jolie Stekly, Jaime Temairik and Lee Wind, at the Friday night Faculty/Industry Cocktail Party.  Over a glass of Chardonnay, I shared my angst concerning the writing of my blog posts.
“I’m the Slowest Writer East of the Mississippi!” I lamented. “I’m a wordsmith, not a blogger. How do you three do it?”
All three smiled their knowing smiles.
“Act like you’re talking to a friend,” CuppaJolie blogger Jolie told me. “It’s not about writing a perfect sentence. It’s about sharing.”
CocoaStomp blogger Jaime seconded Jolie’s advice.
“Quality is awfully good but so is quantity. If the blog is good, I don’t care if it appears once a day or once a month.
Jaime’s Final Words? “Whatever floats your boat!”
Then Lee Wind (I'm Here. I'm Queer. What the Hell Do I Read?) kindly photographed the smiling Jolie, (on the left), me (in the middle) and Jaime (on the right) to share with you, my post-Conference readers.

Jolie, Jaime and Lee joined Alice Pope, Suzanne Young and Paula Yoo to tweet and blog the weekend away.
Speaking of which, it’s not too late for you to vicariously attend the conference through their tweets and posts. I promise you a semester’s worth of Writing and Illustrating for Children.

Our luck continued as Good Ol’ Serendipity introduced me to Quinette Cook, SCBWI Minnesota's Regional Advisor, as well as writer, designer and talented illustrator.
Quinette’s business card image so captured my attention, I invited her to share conference sketches on today’s post.
So, just between you and me?

This was the 11th Annual SCBWI Winter New York Conference I’ve attended.
I’d been lucky enough to have heard each main stage speaker numerous times, with the exception of agent Tina Wexler and author-illustrator Jim Benton.
Yet like a good children’s book which invites revisiting, so did each of the conference speakers.

I needed to hear Prinz medalist Libba Bray compare writing to an extreme sport.
She quoted Leonard Cohen’s lyrics when she spoke of the courage and vulnerability needed to tell a story true.
“Everything that’s beautiful is cracked,” sing Cohen’s words. "That's how the light gets in."
“Find the cracks that let in the light,” Libba ordered.

I needed to hear Newbery medalist Jacqueline Woodson remind us, “Each of us has a story worth telling. Each of us has the right to tell it.”

I needed to hear the award-winning author and poet Jane Yolen share her writer’s story, cracks and all, to illuminate for us the writing truths she’s gleaned.  BIC.  Butt in chair.  HOP.  Heart on the page.  P not F.  Passion, not fashion.

And, to my surprise, Jim Benton’s spirit should be bottled like medicine. "Writing and illustrating children’s books is fun!" he repeated.

Conference folders included My Networking Tips – “Confessions and Secrets of a Veteran SCBWI Conference-Goer (Or, Do As I Say, Not As I Did). My final reminder:
“Pack extra film and save photo album pages for those Kodak Moments you hadn’t even imagined.”

So again, between you and me, picture:

• Rushmore Kid Tina Nichols Coury video-taping me in my Grand Hyatt hotel room as I shared a  Conference Writing Tip to be posted on an upcoming blog.
• Baltimore writer (and client) Claudia Friddell sharing the f and g’s of her gorgeous May Sleeping Bear Press picture book Goliath, Hero of the Great Baltimore Fire
• an end-of-the-day-over-wine catch-up with my moved-to-Vermont fellow Writing Group member Sharon Darrow, at the conference to sing the praises of Vermont College’s MFA in Writing for Children Program.
• Too-many-to-count in-the-elevator, on-the-escalator, across-the-room-or-crowded-lobby-or-Saturday- luncheon-table sightings of shiny Lincoln pennies inside fellow Illinois members' badges.
• Client hugs and student high-fives, welcoming embraces from long-time friends, editor hand-shakes and non-stop introductions, to the person on my right, to the person on my left, to the person behind me, to the person in front.

Throw in a tour of the Century Club, courtesy of Leonard Marcus, (successful) shopping in Nolita and a finally-realized visit to the Tenement Museum.

My Monday morning breakfast with Lee Wind at a chic French Bistro was yet another Kodak Moment. I’d met Lee five years ago, when I critiqued his very first children’s book manuscript at the LA Conference. And there we were, thanks to SCBWI, friends, colleagues and fellow Kidlitosphere neighbors, talking writing and sharing our writer’s journeys.

In welcoming the Conference's 1047 attendees, from 45 states and 14 countries, founder Lin Oliver spoke of SCBWI as family.
Kin and connections.
The two words say it all – for this past weekend’s 11th Annual SCBWI Winter New York Conference, and for SCBWI.

May this blog float your boat.
The Conference sure floated mine.
Esther Hershenhorn

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Rules

Congrats to Ticia, first grade teacher, mom of three (including twins -- wow), and winner of our Teaching Authors book givewaway contest!  She will receive, per her request, a copy of the wonderful Sing-Along Song, by JoAnn Early Macken. And thanks to all of you, including Ticia, who so generously shared your own teaching and homeschooling experiences.

And speaking of contest winners...
The Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour takes place next February 1-5. The schedule is posted at Please stop by to read our own April Halprin Wayland's interview, posted February 1st at

As a kid, I read the All-of-a-Kind Family series at least 20 times and cannot tell you how thrilled I am to know TWO Sydney Taylor Award winners (hello, Esther!). I am now craving a midnight snack as I think of Charlotte regaling Gertie with stories while eating chocolate and crackers in bed. I only recently learned that the character of Sarah was, in fact, based on Sydney Taylor herself.  Knowing the stories were autobiographical, I was always sure Sydney would turn out to be Charlotte, the storyteller, Henny the "spirited" one, or Ella, the star.  Did anyone else ever guess Sarah?


So, I was just on the elliptical reading a fantastic mystery by Ayelet Waldman, the premise of which was basically that being an overwhelmed mommy is completely and totally normal. The relief I felt from reading this affirmation in a light work of fiction is, honestly, indescribable. My 20-minute workout also somehow spurred a plot idea to emerge, fully formed, in my tired brain. Takeaway message -- reading and exercise feed the soul and should be performed with utmost regularity. Of course I might have to engage a babysitter in order to do so, but that's another story.

"The rules" of society tell us, it would seem, that we cannot be good parents if we don't cherish every moment spent with our children. The truth is, I deeply cherish every pleasant moment spent with my children. But today, my husband and I had a rare afternoon date. When our wonderful baby-sitter texted: Where is the toilet plunger? and we returned home to a list headed "Patrick's Accidents," (five items in three hours) we were gladder than I can say for our temporary escape. Our babysitter might never return, but again, that is another story.

My composition students this semester -- and most semesters -- are all about "the rules." By the time they get to my class, most of them have been drilled mercilessly about topic sentences, thesis statements, and the five-paragraph essay format. When I tell them that they may indeed begin a sentence with "but" or use a sentence fragment as long as they do so in a purposeful manner, many honestly don't know what to do with this freedom. While I certainly believe that it is important to learn the rules before we break them, sometimes it seems that breaking them is the hardest thing to do.

I was a very conscientious child who burst into tears if mildly scolded. It wasn't until high school that I became conscious of my secret identity as a rebel. No, I didn't smoke, drink (though I sure do now -- thank you very much, Kate and Patrick), carouse, skip school or even a single homework assignment. But I was, (a trait I proudly recognize in my daughter now), a bit feisty. If I was assigned to write an essay on a "mythic hero," I tried to make it a little bit different. But I still wanted my "A."  Some teachers, I learned through the years, reward and applaud what they see as creativity. Some do not recognize or appreciate what they see as failure to follow the rules. The latter kind of teacher crushed my spirits but, I realize now as a teacher and parent, would have helped others to flourish.  The trick is striking an appropriate balance out of respect for our diverse learners.  But (yes, I chose this word on purpose) --  is this ideal remotely possible to achieve? Experienced teachers out there, you tell me. 

Writing Workout

In honor of the rule-breakers among us, I am linking to an article about William Safire's "rules" of writing.  Have your students do their own takeoff of this exercise based on the great Strunk & White. They can learn the rules at the same time they discover for themselves how (and when) to break them.

Jeanne Marie Grunwell Ford