Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Getting-to-Grow-You... The Once-a-Day Way

Let’s hear it for the past two weeks’ TeachingAuthors’ Back-to-School Getting-to-Know-You Writing Workouts
as well as
for the teachers readying their students’ Contest-qualifying Six Word Memoirs.

Note: In case you’ve forgotten the Contest details, deadline and prizes – a FREE (!) SKYPED Author Visit from a TeachingAuthor or a Basket of TeachingAuthor books, click here for the reminder.

We’re all in our places, yes?
With bright shiny faces?
Good morning to you! – writers of all ages, teachers, librarians, homeschooling parents.
Now it’s time to get growing…..
The Once-a-Day Way.

It turns out, the sky’s the limit when it comes to the learning available for email delivery on a daily basis, once a day.

For instance, each day my Email Box delivers:

• a new word – (today’s word for Sept. 27 – when I’m writing this post, is fatwa) - courtesy of A.Word.A.Day.(;

• a new writing excerpt – (“The Return of Odysseus” by George Bilger) - courtesy of NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac;

• news of a writer or two’s Birthday -( Scottish writer Irvine Welsh and Louis Auchincloss ) - again thanks to The Writer’s Almanac;
• even a song – (“Older” by Band of Horses) – courtesy of NPR Song of the Day.

I’m also learning to speak Brazilian Portuguese one day at a time –“ Que luvas lindas voce tem?/What beautiful gloves you have!” – courtesy of Brazilian Portuguese Word of the Day.

Whatever it is you have a hankering to learn, whatever you think might start your day off swell -
a joke,
a riddle,
a Bible verse,
a Birthday or Anniversary,
an inspiring thought,
a quotation,
a folksong,
your daily horoscope,
simply Google your choice, followed by the phrase“___________a day/of the day/for the day."
Click on the appropriate website. If it meets with your approval, promptly subscribe.

I’m not certain why I so delight in these once-a-day nuggets.
Except I do love learning.
And in a funny kind of way, especially in the Fall, it takes me back to my teaching days and ways.
Each day, I'd write the name of a famous person celebrating his or her (or even its) Birthday in the top right corner of my fifth grade classroom's front blackboard. (i.e. "Samuel Adams").

Chase’s Calendar of Events is chockfull of delicious and fun information meant to be shared on a daily basis.
Sometimes, the names and/or occasions can serve as a writer's prompt.
Other times, they serve as brainstorming opportunitites.  (Who might this person be?)

Incidentally, anyone can propose a day for the Chase's Calendar of Events.
Last Friday’s National Punctuation Day came to be when Jeff Rubin, a newsletter publisher and former reporter, fumed at the increasing number of punctuation errors in newspapers.
Children’s Book Author Ruth Spiro created Bubblegum Day, celebrated February 4 in 2011, in honor of her Dutton picture book Lester Fizz, Bubblegum Artist.

The Writer’s Almanac brings to mind the signature quotes I’d shared in my Sept. 15 TeachingAuthor post.
The NPR daily posts close with the words “Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.”
And that quote brings to mind the black-construction-paper letters (and exclamation point) that always topped my classroom’s front blackboard, spelling out my vision for each and every student:
(I began the practice when the N.Y. Mets won the World Series in 1969.)

Anything – for instance, growing and going, learning, even writing, is especially possible, if tackled daily, once-a-day.

Esther Hershenhorn
Non-stop finder of Life’s Silver Linings

Monday, September 27, 2010

The SH- Word

My daughter learns lots of interesting things at school.  While she is loath to respond to direct questioning, occasionally I'll get a glimmer of a glimpse into her daily adventures.   Last year, her best friend taught her the word 'vagina.'  Of course I have no problem with her learning the anatomically correct terms for body parts, but we had never found a need at home to get more specific than 'bottom.'  After all, while the penis has two functions, the vagina has only one, and we were really not ready to have 'the talk' at age four.      

Shortly thereafter, Kate came home and told me that one of her little friends had said the 'Sh word.'  I explained to her that this was not a word that we use in polite conversation.  I graphically described the literal meaning to drive my point home.  Only later did I realize that the offending phrase was "shut up."  While I issued an immediate (if awkward) retraction, my daughter probably still retains a notion that "shut up" has vaguely scatalogical connotations.  And, like the sixth graders my husband teaches, she apparently believes it to be one of the most offensive phrases a person can utter. 

On a very basic level, ordering someone to refrain from talking, from sharing, from doing, from BEING, to is a grievous offense.  On the other hand, there are rules of decorum and tenets of tact.  In the weeks following the great Koran-burning scandal, Banned Books Week seems particularly well-timed.  

If I may exercise my First Amendment rights to pontificate for a moment on the First Amendment... I am a news junkie, and the airwaves have been dominated in recent weeks by the Dr. Laura controversy, the "Ground Zero mosque" debate, and yes, the Florida pastor bent on destroying holy books for the world to see.  With freedom of speech comes, it should go without saying, the tremendous responsibility to use our words wisely.

As a parent, I am learning swiftly that when you release your children into the world, you relinquish all control over their influences.  When I asked my daughter what she learned in kindergarten the first week, she said that Hannah P. and Hannah M. and Kailyn all knew a particular Lady Gaga song.  I suggested that perhaps it was not appropriate for kindergarteners to be talking about Lady Gaga, and Kate apprised me the next day that she had brought up the subject on the playground, but, "It's okay, Mommy, because we whispered." 

As parents, as teachers, as writers, as grown-ups, we are the gatekeepers to the ever-widening world in which our children live.  And as I navigate the etiquette of play dates and disciplining others' children (aagh!), I discover that rules and norms are not as readily apparent as one might hope. 

Last year at this time, the fact that our President planned to speak to our nation's schoolchildren was the subject of national brouhaha (despite longstanding precedent).  As my teacher-husband pointed out, his sixth graders were on that same day listening to a presentation from a magazine salesperson for a school fundraiser.  Parents had not been required to give permission for their students to hear from this non-teacher about subject matter barely pertinent to the curriculum.  He made the point that if individual parents with their wide array of beliefs and mores had direct input into what is taught in the schools, mayhem would ensue. 

I support our public schools, I send my child to public school and, for better or worse, I trust the professional gatekeepers, the teachers and the librarians whose job is to ensure that materials presented are age-appropriate and accurately reflect the world around us.

In reading about the recent book-banning controversy regarding Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, I remembered a discussion of our neighborhood book club on the same subject.  Many parents of older elementary students and younger middle school students had difficulty with the notion that this might be a book appropriate for middle school readers.  Parents of older kids didn't find this notion controversial at all.  We talked a bit about the difference in maturity levels between sixth and eighth graders.  We agreed that this was an important book for kids to read, especially kids who might be dealing with similar issues in their own lives.  We decided that as parents, we have the right to decide that we think our children might not be mature enough to appreciate or understand a particular text.  However, it is not our place to say, "This book should not be in the school library." 

When I was revising Mind Games, my editor noted a sentence that had a sexual implication that, she felt, might make the book less inviting to younger readers.  I removed the sentence because it was not important enough to the story to justify including it.  On the other hand, my fellow Vermont College grad Lauren Myracle tops the list of most-banned books.  I applaud her decision to stand firm and portray a gay couple as parents of one of her main characters.    

As writers, as teachers, and as parents, we have to be open-minded, ever-vigilant, and firmly resolved to shush less and listen more. --Jeanne Marie

Friday, September 24, 2010

National.Punctuation.Day? & Poetry Friday!

FIRST…Did you know that there are only (gasp!) 10 days left to enter our giveaway contest for classroom teachers, librarians, and homeschooling parents?!?!? Win your choice of either a 30-minute Skype visit from a TeachingAuthor or a set of six autographed books—one from each TeachingAuthor—such a deal! 

And guess what?  The odds of winning are ginormous—we only have three entries so far!!!!!!

For all the hairy details, read this post. And please spread the word to your fav teachers, librarians, and homeschooling parents.

SECOND, did you know that today is the seventh annual NATIONAL PUNCTUATION DAY?  According to the website, NPD, begun by Jeff Rubin in 2003, is “A celebration of the lowly comma, correctly used quotation marks, and other proper uses of periods, semi-colons, and the ever-mysterious ellipsis.”

Getting a ticket from the Punctuation Police
for driving under the influence of apostrophes...
What a relief to know I’m not the only member of the Punctuation Police!  Here are some of NPD readers' photos of poorly punctuated signs.

I'm so happy that Carmela showed me the NPD site!  Other punctuation resources I use are: Grammar Slammer  and Grammar Girl.

Writing Workout:
  Write a poem about punctuation. If you’d like to write a haiku, consider entering the National Punctuation Day Haiku Contest (which ends September 20, 2010) and see examples here (scroll down).

If haikus don’t light your creative fire, write any kind of a poem featuring your favorite punctuation mark…and then share it with us!

For inspiration, here are two of my own poems about punctuation…or are they about punctuation?

by April Halprin Wayland

she signs her emails
without the comma

and I think
without the comma
is really
what she means

by April Halprin Wayland

It sounds so final. 
Like things stop.
When you get it.

I know that when I finally get mine,
I'm going to be so thrilled I'm going to call it my
Exclamation Point.

First published in GIRL COMING IN FOR A LANDING—a novel in poems by April Halprin Wayland, illustrated by Elaine Clayton (Knopf 2002)

Remember to breathe...and whatever you write, write with joy.
poems and drawings (c) April Halprin Wayland

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Teacher as Student, and a Giveaway Reminder

I love learning. If I had unlimited resources, I'd be a full-time student for the rest of my life. Instead, I'm a teacher, which is the next best thing.

[Speaking of teachers, if you're a teacher, librarian, or homeschooling parent, be sure to read the end of this post for an update on our current giveaway contest. And if you're not a teacher, librarian, or homeschooler, please help spread the word to those who are.]

For me, being a teacher is as much about learning as it is about teaching. To prepare for my classes, I not only reread the assigned text, I also research supplemental resources. Currently, I'm reading Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I don't read horror stories, so I'm not a fan of Stephen King's fiction. However, I've heard wonderful things about this craft book for years. Ten years, to be exact, as the 10th Anniversary edition came out this past July. So I decided it was about time I read it.

I have to say, the timing is perfect. I'm currently teaching a six-week "Craft & Critique Workshop." The first aspect of craft I discuss in the workshop is characterization. Last night I shared with my class two things about characterization that I learned from King's book:
“Everything I've said about dialogue applies to building characters in fiction. The job boils down to two things: paying attention to how the real people around you behave and then telling the truth about what you see. You may notice that your next-door neighbor picks his nose when he thinks no one is looking. This is a great detail, but noting it does you no good as a writer unless you’re willing to dump it into a story at some point.”
"Skills in description, dialogue, and character development all boil down to seeing or hearing clearly and then transcribing what you see or hear with equal clarity . . . ." 
These aren't exactly new ideas for me. I received similar instructions from my teachers at Vermont College. But sometimes, I forget. That's why I consider myself fortunate to be a teacher--it forces me to remember, and it prods me to "practice what I preach."

Last week, Esther posted about Signature Quotes. The following is another quote from Stephen King's On Writing. It's rather long for a Signature Quote, but it really spoke to me when I read it:
     "You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair – the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.
     I’m not asking you to come reverently or unquestioningly; I’m not asking you to be politically correct or cast aside your sense of humor (please God you have one). This isn’t a popularity contest, it’s not the moral Olympics, and it’s not church. But it’s
writing damn it, not washing the car or putting on eyeliner. If you can take it seriously, we can do business. If you can’t or won’t, it’s time for you to close the book and do something else."
If you're ready to take writing seriously, I suggest you go "back to school" this fall by reading (or re-reading) a book on the craft of writing. Below, I list a dozen books that have helped me as both a teacher and a student. Do you have a favorite that's not on this list? If so, please share it in the comments.
  • Bauer, Marion Dane: What’s Your Story? A Young Person’s Guide to Writing Fiction (While this book is aimed at young people, it’s a great introduction for adults, too.)
  • Bell, James Scott: Plot & Structure: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot that Grips Readers from Start to Finish
  • Bell, James Scott: Revision & Self-Editing: Techniques for Transforming your First Draft into a Finished Novel
  • Burroway, Janet: Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft
  • Card, Orson Scott: Characters & Viewpoint
  • Frank, Thaisa, and Dorothy Wall: Finding Your Writer’s Voice: A Guide to Creative Fiction
  • Hemley, Robin: Turning Life into Fiction
  • Kress, Nancy: Beginnings, Middles & Ends
  • Novakovich, Josip: Writing Fiction Step by Step
  • Stein, Sol: Stein on Writing
  • Strunk, William, Jr., and E.B. White: The Elements of Style
  • Wood, Monica: Description (This book has the clearest explanation of point of view that I’ve read so far—I recommend it to ALL my students!)
Happy Fall!
Fall begins today, Sept. 22 (if you're in the northern hemisphere).
And now for the Giveaway Update I promised: There are only 12 days left to enter our giveaway contest for classroom teachers, librarians, and homeschooling parents. You can win your choice of either a 30-minute Skype visit from a TeachingAuthor or a set of six autographed books—one from each TeachingAuthor! The odds of winning are great, as we've had only two entries so far. (Is everyone waiting until the last minute to enter?) Read this post for details. And if you're not eligible to enter yourself, please spread the word to all the teachers, librarians, and homeschooling parents you know.
Happy writing, and happy fall!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Thank you, Brian, wherever you are

   As a child, the first day of school was synonymous with "first day in new school." My dad was an FBI agent which meant a transfer to some far flung part of the country every couple of years. Somehow, whatever neighborhood we lived in, it was the one part of the school district that was shifted from year to year. Whatever school had room for us, that's where we went. In thirteen years of school (counting kindergarten) I went to twelve different schools.
     You would think there would be at least a core group of kids that would carry over from one school to another.  Nope. Most of my friends went to parochial school. I was always the only "public kid" on my street.  It was almost as if we were a military family. The difference was that in schools in or near military bases, the school population is in constant flux. Year after year, I was the only "new kid." When we moved to Mississippi, I was the first new kid in that class ever;  my classmates had been together since pre-school, and they were now fifth graders. Yikes.
    Our teachers did make us stand and introduce ourselves. This was OK, as far as it went, but then some of us were already pretty nervous on the first day of school. I still remember a kid who got no further than "I'm Brian" before leaving his breakfast on the classroom floor. No one ever bothered to find out his last name, because to us he was already "Brian the Barfer."
     I never forgot poor Brian. I really remembered him when I had a children's writing workshop with twenty kids from the metro Atlanta area. Metro Atlanta is huge, and not one of those kids were from the same town, let alone the same school. They had to introduce themselves, or it would be a long week of people being called "hey you." There were more than a few writers whose primary language was not English. I had visions of kids heaving all over the carpeted classroom. I remembered how much my own daughter disliked introducing herself. But. . .
     . . . she had no problem introducing someone else. By the end of the first week of school, she could tell me who had a peanut allergy, who danced in the Nutcracker at Christmas, who's mother was a veterinarian.  It was one of those Oprah Ah-ha! moments. I would have my young writers introduce each other. 
     I paired them off, and gave them five minutes each to ask questions.I started off with the basics, since I was making this up as I went along: name (as in what they wanted to be called), age, grade, school (or if they were homeschooled), favorite book, what they liked to write themselves. Then each writer, would introduce his/her partner.  I thought it went really well; nobody threw up or burst into tears or hid in the bathroom.
     Over the years, this"get-to-know-me"exercise has turned into a two parter; the original five minute basic presented orally in the first half hour of the first day, and a second longer written piece which I cleverly call "The Interview."  This is read only by me, and serves several purposes. It not only gives me a lot of information that even the most insightful teacher can't learn in less than a week, it also shows me how well they wrote. Below is "The Interview"

Writing Workout
Ground rules:

1. If you are doing this later than the first week of school, do not allow friends to be partners.

2. A student must answer at least five of the questions they are asked. They can answer more if time allows (I give each interview seven minutes for this slightly expanded version). Prepare a handout (which the students will not write on, so you can use it again next year) with a lot of questions to choose from. I use twenty-five. Questions that would be considered no big deal when I was a kid (Where were you born? How many people are in your family? How old are you?) can be considered intrusive by both the student and the adults involved (family members, school administrators, etc.)

3. Here are the only two questions I require that each child answer: What is your name? What is one thing you would like your classmates to know about you?  These are the two items that are used in class when making the oral introduction.

4. The other three or more pieces of information are written in third person, newspaper-style; short paragraphs of no more than fifty words each, in descending order of importance. Example:

 Mary Ann Rodman was born in the United States but she wasn't born in a state. She has lived in eight different states and one foreign country. Even though she is an only child, she calls her dog Boots her big sister. (I was a weird kid).

The reason she moves around so much is that her father is an FBI agent.  Her mother used to be a Russian translator for some government office, but now she stays home and watches C-Span all day.

Mary Ann loves to read, climb trees, play baseball. Her favorite TV show is I Love Lucy even though her parents think it's a dumb show. Since this is also her grandmother's favorite show, she sneaks into her room and watches it from under her grandmother's bed.

Her unfavorite things are math, allergy shots every week, wearing a night brace and salmon.

From my imaginary bio (all true, by the way, except for the C-Span part, which came years later), you can see the kinds of questions possible.  Here are a few of mine.

least favorites as well).

Places they've been or lived.

Pets (past, present or future)

What they would like to be if they could be anything or anybody (as in rock star or Beyonce).

I have a notebook with hundreds of questions, since I often have the same students in my workshops over and over.

One more thing...since this a get-to-know-you for both the students and you, the emphasis is not so much on the mechanics of writing (this is a kind of diagnostic test for you), but the students ability to ask and interpret questions about their classmates.

You will be amazed at what you all learn about each other.

Friday, September 17, 2010


I greet the approach of a new school year with about as much enthusiasm as I do the beginning of flu season. The only thing I enjoy about the whole back-to-school phenomenon is the chance to buy office supplies at a discount—hardly worth getting excited about. To me, fall feels more like an end than a beginning—an end to drinking coffee on the front porch with my husband in the morning while we listen to birds and feed squirrels, an end to canoe trips and camping and bike rides. I dread the beginning of each new class, I agonize over syllabuses, and I lose sleep fretting about filling class time with meaningful work.

And then?

Then I take a look at my class lists, and hey! I recognize the names of some returning students. I remember their work. I look forward to catching up, finding out what they did over the summer. I pore over textbooks, search for new approaches to the material, rediscover what I love about teaching and writing. I go to the first class and meet the rest of the students, all of them eager to learn, all of them accomplished writers with worthwhile insights to share. I look forward to learning from them, from the research, and from the whole teaching process. Lucky me—I always do!

Writing Workout

As an introductory exercise in my Creative Nonfiction class, I ask students to write their own background list poems using George Ella Lyon’s wonderful poem “Where I’m From” as a model. A check of the poet’s web site shows that I’m not alone. A whole page is dedicated to the use of the poem as a writing prompt. “The list form is simple and familiar,” she says, “and the question of where you are from reaches deep.” People all over the world have followed her example, and the web site provides suggestions for using the poem as a jumping-off point to other kinds of writing. Making my own “Where I’m From” list helped me remember details from my past that could lead to new projects for me. Give it a try!

And remember to enter our contest for classroom teachers, librarians, and homeschooling groups. Try the Writing Workout with your students, then post a comment telling us how the lesson went. Include your students’ poems if you like. See the official rules here.

Out and About

On Saturday, September 25, I'll be at Harvest Fest 2010 at Boerner Botanical Gardens in Hales Corners, Wisconsin, reading and signing Waiting Out the Storm and Flip, Float, Fly: Seeds on the Move from 1-3 p.m. If you're in the neighborhood, stop by!

JoAnn Early Macken

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Getting-to-Know-You: Signature Quotes!

Getting to know you,
Getting to know all about you.
Getting to like you,
Getting to hope you like me...

Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics, sung by Anna in The King and I, waltzed through my mind while I grew and wrote today’s post.
The words and tune make the perfect ring tone for students and teachers attempting our Back-to-School Getting-to-Know-You Writing Workouts.

before you read about today’s Writing Workout - creating an identifiable verbal ring tone of sorts, i.e. a Signature Quote, be sure to enter our latest contest for classroom teachers/librarians/homeschooling groups. The prize? Win either a 30-minute Skype visit from a TeachingAuthor or a set of six autographed books – one from each TeachingAuthor!

Esther Hershenhorn
“Go, Cubs, go!” (Steve Goodman, "Go, Cubs, Go!")
“It’s never too late, in fiction or in life, to revise.” (Nancy Thayer)
“Onward, kiddos! The world awaits!”  (Esther Hershenhorn, Loop-de-Loop Leo)

Writing Workout

Six-word memoirs.
Poetic expressions of pivotal Life moments.
The personal essay.
Creating each of the above offers us the opportunity to choose and order words that best reveal our true selves to the world.
But the words of others can also do the same when quoted and placed beneath our names.
The right quotation can serve as a signature every bit as singular as John Hancock’s bold cursive strokes or Zorro’s three sword-drawn lines.

What words - spoken, written, sung, filmed or posted by others, tell the world who you are?

The possibilities are infinite. So,

• Brainstorm topics/themes/subjects that speak to you – i.e. family, friends, heroes, school, learning, writing, sports, drama, music, pets, dreams, hobbies, traveling, as well as those topics/themes/subjects that speak about you – determination, humor, love, kindness, courage, discovery, creativity, etc.
What key words capture you?
List those key words or themes in your Writer’s Notebook, as you did when brainstorming your Six-word Memoir.

• Discover the words of others! Explore collections of quotations from famous people, copying your favorites into your Writer’s Notebook. 
Quotation sources highly recommended for young writers include: Adrien Betz’ Scholastic Treasury of Quotations for Children, Jacqueline Sweeney’s Incredible Quotations, J.A. Senn’s Quotations for Kids or Katura Hudson’s “Quotes for Kids."
Of course, the standard bearer is Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations: A Collection Passages, Phrases and Proverbs .
(FYI: John Bartlett was an American publisher who compiled remarks from famous people in a volume titled Familiar Quotations in 1855!)
Quotationary (Random House Webster’s) offers quotes alphabetically organized by subject matter, from Ability and Airplanes to Zeal and Zen.

• Brainstorm and list famous people, famous Americans, people in the news YOU admire, people who serve as solid role models.  Research and/or Google your favorite, looking for words they've spoken or written at one time.
• Think about and list your favorite song lyrics or musical artists.

• Think about and list advertising slogans or billboard signs you find yourself repeating.  Might one refrain or motto say it all about you?

• Think about and list your favorite book and/or movie characters and lines they have spoken; think about your favorite authors and words they have written. 

  Don't forget to include your favorite phrase, your favorite rhyme, your favorite poem, your favorite Bible passage.

• Remember words from family members, friends, neighbors, teachers, coaches, religious leaders. Do you find yourself stuck on a favorite phrase they've spoken?  List those words and phrases too.

• Perhaps you’ve coined your own favorite expression, utilizing your own style.  Your words count too!

Grow your list, then return to select those quotes that, placed beneath your name, do the job - i.e. ring out to the world who you are and what's in your heart. Don't forget to attribute your source - i.e. the book, the song, the person, the company - in parentheses.

The Good News is: you can continue to grow your Quotes List as you grow too! Like you, your signature quote is ever-changing.

So, think:

“I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.” (The Little Engine That Could)

“So many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.” (Milo, The Phantom Tollbooth)

“Kid, you’ll move mountains!” (Dr. Seuss, Oh, The Places You’ll Go!)

In other words,

Just do it!” (Michael Jordan, Nike)

“Do it! Do it! Do it! Do it!” ("I Gotta Feeling", The Black Eyed Peas)

Monday, September 13, 2010

L'Shana Tova

My daughter started kindergarten two weeks ago.  She seems to be enjoying it tremendously (the most frequent descriptor being "awesome").  On the social front, to my horror, she has been eager to tell us who knows which Lady Gaga songs.  (I do not let my 5-year-old listen to Lady Gaga, I swear.) 

Academically, she was fairly mum until about the third day when she said, "Mommy, I have a big problem.  You know those composition books we bought with the Redskins on the cover?  We have not used them at all."  At her Montessori preschool, journal writing was a BIG DEAL for the kindergarteners, and I think coloring the letters of the alphabet has been a bit of a letdown.  However, she came home proud as can be on Friday with news that, not only had she written in her journal, but she'd completed her first poem!

She went on to explain that she got to cut and paste (excitement!) a computer printout and fill in one blank.  The poem, she tells me, goes like this:
Happy Birthday to you
Happy Birthday to you
Happy Birthday, dear Kate, Happy Birthday to you

Never mind that her birthday is in April.  As far as she's concerned, it should be her birthday every day.  She was pleased as can be with her accomplishment, and she is tremendously excited about writing her next poem because the first one was so simple.  Kate thinks that writing is easy and fun.  Yay!  May it always be so!

My three-year-old, meanwhile, is working on tracing his letters in shaving cream.  He, too, is learning to love to write.

My husband and I are in the process of easing our new students into a writing-intensive semester.  I caught a glimpse of the sixth-grade curriculum and was (somewhat naively) surprised to note that many of the objectives and outcomes were the same as those for my first-year college students taking English 101.

Our education-major baby-sitter was here last night.  She is extremely bright, is terrific with our children, has several part-time jobs, and is taking 13 credits as a college junior.  She said that she is enrolled in two writing-intensive classes that were going to "kill her." Now, I've read one of her papers in Spanish.  She is a very good writer.  She added that she loves the text (Zinsser's On Writing Well -- one of my faves, too) and the teacher, and she was very positive about how much she feels her writing will improve as a result of the class.  It was the actual work that freaked her out.  As a professional writer, I can totally relate.  Can't we all?  What to do?  The first rule I teach my students: Butt in Chair, baby!

Don't forget to enter our biggest contest yet! The prize? Win either a 30-minute Skype visit from a TeachingAuthor or a set of six autographed books—one from each TeachingAuthor!  Your entry doesn't have to be long.  See the Carmela's post (updated 9/12) for more details. -- Jeanne Marie

Writing Workout

Our babysitter did turn me on to an awesome website that, I'm sure, many of you teachers out there are familiar with:  This site offers curriculum for teachers of students from middle school through college.  It offers an opportunity for publication (an important motivator for serious student writers, in my opinion), a supportive forum, numerous inspirational essays, and specific writing prompts that are bound to generate passion from even the most dispassionate writers. 

In college, I frequently find students who have been told that they may never use the first person in their academic essays.  While I don't care to read the words 'I believe' in a research essay, the first person is certainly justified and yes, even preferable in some circumstances.

Asking student writers to distill their most personal and cherished beliefs, to edit, to do peer review, to put themselves out there for the world to see, to figure out what's most important to them... what better assignment could there be for writers who need a little dose of confidence and excitement at the beginning of a long year?

Just as important, of course, is the obvious fact that everything we write -- even the most outlandish science fiction -- stems from our core being.  Sometimes we don't even consciously realize what we want to say until we take the time to examine what we truly believe.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Quick! What's a pivotal moment in your life? A back-to-school writing exercise and poems, of course!

Happy Poetry Friday! 
But first, Campers, make sure to enter our latest contest for classroom teachers/librarians/homeschooling groups! The prize? Win either a 30-minute Skype visit from a TeachingAuthor or a set of six autographed books—one from each TeachingAuthor!

Our current topic is getting-to-know-you exercises as this new school year begins.  ('s started already?!?)

Writing Workout: Back-to-School/Getting-To-Know-You Exercise

My niece, writer Julia Halprin Jackson, sent me a prompt which fits our topic.

Julia said Smith Magazine suggests writing about “a single moment which changed...(your) life in a profound way. Your “Moment” could be a decision you made, something you saw, a letter or email sent or received, a literal or mental discovery. The Moment can be serious or funny, dark or light.”

What an interesting way to get to know your students!

Okay, so here's the step-by-step:
1. Brainstorming. First, share a few of the pivotal moments in your own life.  To get your juices flowing, here are three of my Moments:
  • I remember when my father tried to pull a waterlily out of Ellis Lake so we could plant it at home...but try as he might, he couldn't break its strong root.  That was the moment I realized my father was human.  
  • I remember being on the phone with Shelley, my best friend; I remember the moment she stopped being my best friend.  
  • And I remember when Great Aunt Genia was astonished I didn't know how to wash the spaghetti sauce stain from my shirt.  At that moment I realized I was capable of doing more than my mother asked me to do.
2. Brainstorm as a group, list possible pivotal moments on the board.
3. Have each student make his or her own list of pivotal moments. 
4. Have them select the one they'd like to write about.
5. Write a poem, a story or an essay about that moment.

I ended up with several versions of one pivotal moment in my life: a Long version, a Tanka (syllable count: 5/7/5/7/7), and a Six-Word version. 

So, Campers, let me know: do any of these work?  Which do you like best? 

This is the first one I wrote.  You know that Mark Twain quote: "I didn't have time to write a short letter so I wrote a long letter instead."  So true!  I always need to tell the whole dang story first.  This is a simple poetic form called an Envelope Poem.  An Envelope Poem simply begins and ends with the same line or lines.  This form is sometimes called a Circular Poem.

by April Halprin Wayland

I love Uncle Ruthie Buell.
I love her weekly radio program, HALFWAY DOWN THE STAIRS,

which has been around for…forever.
So I went to her music-and-storytelling concert.

I waited in line…and waited in line…

and waited in line…
for her to sign her album.

When I got to the front,
I told her I had written a story.

 “Send it to me!”
Uncle Ruthie said this!

So that night I rewrote it
and rewrote it and rewrote it.

I printed it out and carefully tucked it into an envelope.
I decorated her name with purple and green stars.

Then I sent her my story.
I sent my story to Uncle Ruthie.

A week later she called me.
Uncle Ruthie called me!

Even though she couldn’t see me,
I put down my toast,

wiped raspberry jam from the corner of my mouth,
sat up straighter.  

I mean, this was Uncle Ruthie.
Calling me.

“I love your story,” She said.
Uncle Ruthie said she loved my story!

And then she said,
“May I read it on the air?”

She wanted to read my story on the radio.

I love
Uncle Ruthie Buell.


by April Halprin Wayland

Uncle Ruthie phones.
“May I read your story on
my radio show?”
Uncle Ruthie just sang me
a beautiful song called YES.

by April Halprin Wayland

Don’t wake me, I am famous!

If you try this with students, let me know if you needed to change it to make it appropriate for their ages.

But, of course, this Writers Workout is not just for your students.  It’s your turn to write about a pivotal moment in your life.  Surprise yourself!  Remember to breathe …and to write with joy.

poems and drawings © by April Halprin Wayland

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Win a Skype Author Visit with this Back-to-School Writing Activity

Whether your school year started weeks ago or only yesterday (as in the Chicago Public School system), we thought this would be a good time to kick off a series of posts featuring back-to-school getting-to-know-you writing activities especially for teachers, librarians, and homeschooling parents. And, as an added incentive to try our Writing Workouts with your students, we're offering a special giveaway contest exclusively for teachers, librarians, and homeschooling groups.  (If you're not qualified to enter yourself, please tell all the teachers, librarians, and homeschoolers you know about this great opportunity!)

The prize? Your choice of:
A) a 30-minute Skype author visit from one of the TeachingAuthors  OR
B) a prize package containing six autographed TeachingAuthor books.

Not sure you want to host a Skype author visit for your book club or classroom? Then read teacher and author Kate Messner's blog post,  Virtual Author Visits: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, & the Awesome or check out Skype an Author Network.
What do you have to do to win? Below, you'll find a Writing Workout on using six-word memoirs as a getting-to-know-you activity. To enter our contest, you need to try the Workout with your students some time in the next few weeks. Then come back and post a comment to this blog entry by 11 pm (CST) Monday, Oct. 4, 2010.  We've extended the deadline 24 hours! You now have until 11 pm (CST) Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010. Be sure to also read through to the end of this post for complete entry rules and instructions on how to qualify for a second, bonus entry. (If you've never posted a comment to a blog before and need some help, you can email me via my website.) 

About the activity: I first wrote about using six-word memoirs in the classroom a year ago. It's an activity students enjoy that can be adapted for all ages. I tried it over the summer with my writing camp students, and they had so much fun, they didn't want to stop--they wrote one memoir after another!  I hope you'll give the following lesson a try and then enter our contest. And if you're not a teacher or librarian, why not write some six-word memoirs for yourself? You can visit the Six-Word Memoirs website for inspiration. The site even provides a box where you can type in your memoir and the computer automatically counts your words!

Writing Workout
Getting to Know Me Back-to-School Activity:
Writing Six-Word Memoirs 

Objective: To engage students in thinking about their lives and to show them how to write concisely. Secondary objective: as a beginning-of-the-school-year activity, sharing these memoirs can serve as a way for students to get to know one another, and for the teacher to get to know the students. This is also a fun activity for a librarian to do with a student book club.

Lesson: Begin by talking about the word "memoir," and how it has the same root as the word "memory." Then share examples of six-word memoirs. Note: I'd planned to post examples written by my summer camp students, but now I can't find them. Argghh! So here's my six-word memoir for today:

Although organized, I still lose things.

Anyway, here's a link to some six-word memoirs written by eight- and nine-year-olds, and another to a blog post listing some by fourth-graders. One third-grade class even created their own six-word storybook. You can see it here. And if you're working with older students, be sure to read this post about a teacher who had her ninth-graders not only write six-word memoirs but also publish them with visual pieces on their own blog. 

Lesson Instructions: Have students make lists of facts about themselves. For example: Where do they live? How many siblings do they have? What are their favorite things to do, favorite foods, etc.? Depending on the students' ages, you may want to let them work on this with a partner.

Then have the students choose six words to summarize some aspect of who they are or what they like. Encourage them to use mainly nouns and verbs.

When the students have finished their memoirs, they can read them aloud to the class. Or if they have worked with partners, one partner may introduce the other to the class via the six-word memoir. You may also have the students post the memoirs on a bulletin board or create a class book like the third-grade project mentioned above.

Now, for the contest details:
The winner will receive his or her choice of:
A) a 30-minute SKYPE author visit from one of three TeachingAuthors:
April Halprin Wayland, Esther Hershenhorn, OR JoAnn Early Macken
B) a prize package containing the following TeachingAuthor books:
  • Girl Coming in for a Landing by April Halprin Wayland
  • S is for Story: A Writer's Alphabet by Esther Hershenhorn
  • Mind Games by Jeanne Marie Grunwell Ford
  • Waiting out the Storm by JoAnn Early Macken
  • A Tree for Emmy by Mary Ann Rodman
  • I Fooled You: Ten Stories of Tricks, Jokes, and Switcheroos, edited by Johanna Hurwitz and featuring a story by Carmela Martino (with a printout of the corresponding Teacher's Guide)
 Contest Entry Requirements:
  1. After you've completed the Writing Workout with your students, you must post a comment below telling us how the lesson went. (Clarification added 9/12/10: Your comment needn't be long, just a few words saying whether the activity was a success or not.) If it was a success, we encourage you to include one or more of your students' six-word memoirs in your comment.
  2. You can receive a bonus entry by helping to spread the word about this giveaway via a blog post, Tweet, or Facebook link. As proof, you must post a second comment containing a link to your blog post, Twitter address, or Facebook wall. [You can post this comment before you actually try the Writing Workout, but the entry won't be valid unless you also tell us about your experience with the exercise.]
  3. You must include contact information in your comment. If you are not a blogger, or your email address is not accessible from your online profile, you must provide a valid email address in your comment. Entries without contact information will be disqualified. Note: the TeachingAuthors  cannot prevent spammers from accessing email addresses posted within comments, so feel free to disguise your address by spelling out portions, such as the [at] and [dot]. (We will NOT add your email address to any mailing lists.)
  4.  You must post your comment by 11 pm (CST) Monday, Oct. 4, 2010. We've extended the deadline 24 hours! You now have until 11 pm (CST) Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010! The winner will be chosen at random from valid entries and announced on Wednesday, Oct. 6.
  5. You must have a mailing address in the United States.
  6. If you win, you automatically grant us permission to identify you as a winner on our TeachingAuthors website. 
I think that's it, but if I've left something out, feel free to post your questions in the comments.
Good luck, and happy writing!

Friday, September 3, 2010

How Do You Use Your Library Card?

September is Library Card Sign-Up Month. To celebrate, the American Library Association has provided a list of 52 Ways to Use Your Library Card. Number one on the list is to get to know your librarian, which strikes me as an excellent idea. Librarians are among the most knowledgeable and helpful people I know.

I make regular trips to the library, both for work and for entertainment. I enjoy searching the catalog online, reserving books from other libraries in the system, and picking them up at my local library. Since I discovered caterpillars on the milkweed plants in our yard this summer, I've been researching monarch butterflies, and I've checked out lots of books.

I found a few more intriguing uses for a library card.

22. Trek to another planet in a Sci-Fi novel.
30. See a new art exhibit.
52. Read a newspaper from another country.

A couple more practical ideas on the list also appealed to me.

32. Find a new recipe. Right now, the garden is providing us with plenty of tomatoes and other fresh vegetables. The library has a huge selection of cookbooks to browse through and experiment with. I enjoy cooking, and I could use some new ideas.

45. Learn about home improvement. After our sons left for college, we emptied out one bedroom, hung drywall to cover the ugly old ceiling, mudded the joints (a process I found surprisingly similar to frosting a layer cake except with my fingers), sanded, installed crown molding, and started painting. I'm enjoying the chance to spend time together (school starts soon!), even during our many trips to the hardware store. Next we plan to install new sliding closet doors.

After we finish this project, I'll have to try out some new recipes. Maybe I'll invite a librarian for dinner.

JoAnn Early Macken

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Our Book Giveaway Winners (plural)! - and - Another Patricia Reilly Giff Gift

Congratulations to teacher Karen Brooks of East Bridgewater, MA and parent and children's book reviewer/blogger Pat Zietlow Miller of Fitchburg, WI, our TWO TeachingAuthors Book Giveaway Winners of Patricia Reilly Giff’s first two Zigzag Kids series titles – Number One Kid and Big Whopper (Wendy Lamb Books, Random House).
We appreciate the many readers who entered our Book Giveaway, sharing their identities, passions and interests.

And, in keeping with my fellow TeachingAuthors’ sharing of model texts this month, how could I not offer up yet another Patricia Reilly Giff gift, the first page of her Newbery Honor middle grade novel Pictures of Hollis Woods (Wendy Lamb Books, Random House).

"This picture has a dollop of peanut butter on one edge, a smear of grape jelly on the other, and an X across the whole thing. I cut it out of a magazine for homework when I was six years old. “Look for words that being with W,” my teacher, Mrs. Evans, had said.

She was the one who marked in the X, spoiling my picture. She pointed. “This is a picture of a family, Hollis. A mother, M, a father, F, a brother, B, a sister, S. They’re standing in front of their house, H. I don’t see one W word here.”
I opened my mouth to say: How about W for wish, or W for want, or W for “Wouldn’t it be loverly,” like the song the music teacher had taught us?
But Mrs. Evans was at the next table by that time, shushing me over her shoulder.

Here’s the novel’s front flap copy in case you’re unfamiliar with this beautifully-written story.
“Twelve-year-old Hollis has been in so many foster homes, she can hardly remember them all. Hollis Woods is a mountain of trouble. She even runs away from the Regans, the one family who offers her a home.
When Hollis is sent to Josie, an elderly artist who is quirky and affectionate, she wants to stay. But Josie is growing more forgetful every day. If Social Services finds out, they'll take Hollis away and move Josie into a home. Well, Hollis Woods won't let anyone separate them. She's escaped the system before; this time, she plans to take Josie with her.
Still, even as she plans her future with Josie, Hollis dreams of the past summer with the Regans, fixing each special moment of her days with them in pictures she’ll never forget.”

I often share this first page in craft workshops.
Talk about Show, Don’t Tell.
“Did you see what she did there?!” I ask my writers.
Giff lets us hear Hollis share a visual memory, and just like that, we’re inside Hollis’ heart. Just like that, we know her longing to belong to someone.
Giff doesn't tell us that Hollis actually speaks the words.  She simply lets Hollis tell us "she opens her mouth" to speak the words.
The teacher's act of shushing Hollis before she actually speaks the words? A telling detail that allows us to know all we need to know about how the world sees Hollis.
How could we NOT want to turn the page?

This first page represents the first of fourteen "pictures" - i.e. memories - Hollis paints with words, pictures she intersperses between titled chapters that move her story's plotline along. Each picture is further set apart by its italicized print. The First Picture is titled X. Giff artfully uses the pictures as bricks to build Hollis' story. Hollis refers throughout the story, in her first-person telling, to "the W picture with the mother, the father, the brother, and the sister."

Esther Hershenhorn