Watching Young Writers Bloom is Magic!

As I went through the process of shopping a publisher and then having a book published during this school year, I shared all I learned along the way with my 8th grade class in hopes that they would share in the excitement of birthing a book. To encourage them to write, and ultimately to pick up a book and read for pleasure, I had them writing a chapter story (we called it a novella) throughout the entire school year. Once a week, in our Language Arts Lab class, we sat for 45 minutes in front of a Chromebook and GoogleDocs, working on plot, dialogue, creating characters with backstory, and dabbling in other such helpful author-like tricks and tools. Read-alouds of their favorite scenes were done briefly every few meetings to encourage collaboration on ideas and feedback.

At first, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. My resource teacher and I stepped back and watched, encouraging the students as they hunted-and-pecked at the keyboards and engaged in lively discussions about their characters, their plots, and other musings. To keep them on track, each quarter we gave a goal to reach (two chapters and a character trait sheet, four chapters, etc.) We weren't sure if they would ever reach the goal we set of 8 chapters, but each week they continued to type, and share, and talk.

Advance 165 days to the end of the school year, and guess what? Our challenge was met. And boy, did they succeed! Many of them typed out over 30 pages of storyline, which included zombies, loves lost, family drama, social issues, war and death. Working in some cross-curricular activities, the technology teacher had them design a book cover and back for their "novella", which included great graphics, a summary of their story, and an "About the Author", including a picture. After constant bouts of editing and revising, the students handed in their manuscripts, along with dedication and acknowledgement paragraphs, and we are now having them bound by our most wonderful copy-room attendant.

I asked some of them if they were proud of their accomplishment, and many thought they'd never be able to write a piece that long over such an extended amount of time, and yes, they were proud of it. A few asked if they could continue their story after they've graduated (Umm... that's called a sequel, I told them with a smile and an emphatic YES). One young man, who didn't consider himself a writer in any sense, actually told me that he feels he became a better writer because of the weekly class that focused him and forced him to write and set goals. Well, chalk one up for the good guys.

Will they write for pleasure after they graduate in three weeks? Time will tell, but I know one thing for sure. They certainly aren't afraid of that task anymore. As a teacher, I would call this a success.


Whatever happened to....?

It's Mother's Day, and I find myself lounging in the backyard with a cool drink and a good book.  With nothing but time ahead of me, I dig in, absorbing the storyline, feeling as if I'm right in the room with them, a fly on the wall,  as the characters reconcile and find their way back to each other after they've been torn apart. I'm rooting for them all the way. I've been with them through the good times, the bad times, and I look forward to what lies ahead for them. But then, I turn the page, and they are gone. The story ends, and I'm left saddened that I'll never know how their lives turned out. Ever been there?  It's the mark of a great book - one that takes hold of you and carries you along until that last word on the page has been read.

Why do we fall in love with some characters, but not others? I guess it's the same reason we have the friends we do. I have to admit, there are some people in life I care a lot about, and others who I don't. So I imagine it's the same way with characters in a book - you find some that appeal to you, and others, well, you know the rest.  I often wonder about some of my favorite book characters and what's become of their lives. Did they stay together? Beat that illness they were battling? Graduate from college and become successful in their career? Marry and have children?

As I get ready to have my first novel published, I wonder if readers will feel the same about the characters I've created. Will they think of them after the story ends?  If I've done my job, then they will. Time will tell.



A Missing Piece of Common Core

Every year, teachers count down the days until summer vacation. Heck, I had the countdown on the board from the first day of school, and a student in my class was given the task of changing the number each day. But as the number on the board gets smaller and smaller, and the stress level of making sure you’ve covered all of the required curriculum gets higher and higher, it’s time to take a deep breath and convince yourself that you’ve done the best you can to get through it. No matter how well you’ve pulled together detailed plans, printed off those Pinterest ideas, downloaded those tips from Twitter, there is no way you’ve been able to get to everything you wanted to. Those assemblies, snow days, state tests, class trips and ad-hoc conversations that the kids can always drag you into somehow keeps you from covering all you planned to cover. And when the weather suddenly breaks and you get that urge to have a kickball game during 6th period? What’s wrong with that? Nothing!

Some of my most memorable teaching moments have come when we’ve put away the books, dropped the pencils and just talked. We talked about what we had for dinner last night, what our favorite movies are, what music we like to listen to. We talked about divorce, new babies, moving out of town and leaving friends behind. We talked about current events and the SuperBowl. And from those conversations, we learned a lot about empathy.

If you look at the Common Core Standards, somehow empathy was left off the list of standards in Language Arts. Somehow someone who wrote those standards didn’t feel that learning to put yourself in other’s shoes would help you to become a better writer, or understand what a character in literature was feeling or experiencing. For that matter, it also doesn’t help someone become a better person either. Isn’t that what we are supposed to be helping our students become? More well-rounded, ready-to-take-on-the-world people?

So my advice to teachers in these last few weeks of school: Put down the expo markers, close the books, and take a walk outside to the playground to hang out and just talk. About the weather. About vacation. About family. About the kids. Let them tell you about themselves, and then tell them about you. They may not remember how to conjugate a verb, or the theme of their latest novel, but they will remember the day they told you about the time they crashed their bike, or visited the beach with friends. And they’ll remember when you told them about your experiences. And they’ll appreciate the time you spent getting to know them. That’s what I call a learning experience.