The Importance of Joining a PLN (Personal Learning Network)

I'd have to say that one of the greatest things I've done for myself as both a teacher, and a writer, has been joining a Personal Learning Network (PLN).  Being able to converse regularly with like-minded professionals has really inspired me to become a better writer, teacher, and learner.

I've found my Teacher PLNs on Twitter.  Yes, folks, it's not just for chasing the Kardashians. There are actually well-educated and very dedicated teachers on Twitter every day sharing ideas, teaching philosophies, lesson plans, insight, and not to mention opportunities for jobs!  I've learned more from my "tweachers" than attending any other professional development through my own district.  One of the things I most love is that ideas are exchanged in 140 characters or less, and the pace is very dynamic. Unlike traditional learning where one person talks and others just try to absorb, Twitter allows for a pure learning experience where ideas are exchanged rapidly and succinctly, and this dynamic allows for much more information to flow in a more natural way. It's like having a conversation at a cocktail party!

One of my PLNs meet at 5:30am each weekday (#bfc530).  I attend with a cup of coffee, and wearing my pajamas. A question is thrown out to all, and we have 15 minutes to discuss it before everyone needs to move on to begin their work day.  It's a great way to engage, get your head into "school mode", and feel energized to give students your best.

On the weekends, #satchat at 7:30am on Saturdays, and #sunchat at 9:00am on Sundays, keeps the topics flowing.  These half-hour chats give a bit more time to explore different topics and engage with teachers more in-depth.  The teachers on the chats live and teach all over the globe, and exchanging ideas and philosophies with them is so inspiring. I feel as close to them as I do the teachers I see daily in my own faculty room!

On Twitter, you can find chats for all disciplines, from Language Arts and Writing to Classroom Management and Field Trips. Hashtags make it easy to find the chats, and following these wonderful educators ensures that your stream of tweets will be filled with wonderful ideas and inspiration 24/7.

One of the teachers I've been conversing with is a Canadian transplant who opened a school in the Dominican Republic over 25 years ago, Carla Meyrink.  She wanted her own children to have more than the DR public school system would offer, so she decided to do it herself. Her school has grown into a wonderful community of caring teachers who bring hope and love to the students who attend. On a recent trip there, I was able to meet her in person, and it felt as if I'd known her for years. Her school is a true success story, and gives the students of the DR so much love, support and opportunity!  If you want to truly be inspired, follow her (@carlameyrink).  Her blog is filled with great information and insight. Truly a wonderful educator and role model.

I've also found a great group of Language Arts teachers on Facebook (Yes, Facebook is more than just seeing what restaurant your neighbor is eating at tonight).  There is a wonderful group to follow called "2ndaryELA" which is over 8000 members strong, sharing everything from book recommendations to writing activities and classroom ideas.  This world-wide group discusses all types of topics, and if you need anything, they're willing and able to help you find it.

As a writer, I've found just as much support. Both Twitter and Facebook are filled with author, editor and illustrator groups willing to lend support to any project. Stuck on a word, a scene, a character?  Just put the word out and they are there to make suggestions, point to resources, or help with a rewrite.

It's been said we've lost the art of face to face communication due to the digital age. I don't see it that way, though. I see it as an opportunity to expand our communication with those we would never have the chance to meet, or exchange ideas with. We lived in a bubble in the past, but now, we have access to so many more people with great ideas, so many new resources, so many more opportunities due to this digital age.

The best part, though, is when the curtain is lifted and you meet these folks face to face at conferences, or chance meetings. There is nothing like shaking the hand or giving a hug to someone you've conversed with for years. Looking into their eyes and seeing how alike you are and realizing that had it not been for joining that PLN, you never would have known this amazing person?  Cool, huh?

Here are just a few of the best teachers and writers I've ever met, thanks to my PLN!:







Guest Author Blog: Traci Sanders

I'm pleased to hand over my blog today to my friend Traci Sanders, award-winning author and creator of the Readers Review Room, an on-line review site for authors, which provides fantastic indie books for lovers of reading.  Traci is a multi-genre, multi-award-winning author of ten published titles, with contributions to three anthologies. An avid blogger and supporter of Indie authors, she writes parenting, children's, romance, and nonfiction guides.

Her ultimate goal is to provide great stories and quality content for dedicated readers, whether through her own writing or editing works by other authors.  Here, she provides one of her writing tips from her newest release, "Living the Write Life".  Without further ado, here is Traci's Tip:


The following tip can be found in Living The Write Life, now available in digital and paperback format.



Have any of you who are authors noticed that your circle of friends grew smaller once you published your book(s)? I’m not only talking about the friends who still haven’t reviewed, much less read, your books. I’m referring to the ones who seemed to have disappeared once you began even talking about your books.


Don’t feel alone. It happens to many authors.


In fact, it happens to many people in general, for several reasons:

  • Some people feel threatened when their friends aren’t on the same “level” (socially, financially, or career-wise) as they are.
  • Some people back off because they are afraid you will ask them to read/review your book and they are afraid of being honest with you if they end up not liking it. In other words, they don’t want to be put in an awkward position.
  • Some people feel threatened by anyone who has goals.
  • Some people are selfish and only want their friends to be happy if they are happy. (It’s the same with the friends who only want you to be single when they are single.)
  • Some people aren’t interested in anything to do with reading or writing. Yes. They do exist. (Breathe. Breathe.)


Many authors enjoy talking about all things related to books and writing. However, their friends and family do not.


Sure, they may be supportive and buy—and if the planets align, maybe even review—our books. But this doesn’t mean that they will ever be as invested in the process as we authors are. It’s not their passion. They don’t lose sleep over a certain line of a story. They aren’t tormented by the fate of characters. Even if they are avid readers, it doesn’t mean they care about the writing process as much as authors do.


So how do we deal with the ones we love, who don’t love what we do?

  • Don’t bring up the subject of your writing or anything related to writing unless asked. And even then, learn to gauge if the person asking is truly interested in learning about it, or if he/she is simply being polite.
  • If you do mention your writing, be sure to talk about other topics as well.
  • Ask your friends/loved ones about their lives. Remember, whatever is going on in their lives is just as important to them as your writing is to you.
  • Don’t ask your friends/loved ones to read or review your books. If they offer, great. Otherwise, leave that to avid readers who will appreciate your work.
  • Don’t try to coerce your friends/loved ones into reading your book by giving them free copies, thinking you are doing them a favor. If they are truly interested, they will ask you how to buy a copy to support you.
  • Don’t hold it against them if they don’t want to read or even talk about your books. Keep in mind that they knew you before you began publishing, and that person is who they built a relationship with, not the author you became. Don’t take it personally if they don’t want to talk about things in your life that don’t involve them.
  • Remember to balance your time between your writing and your friends/loved ones. It’s hard. As authors, we get an idea in our heads and want to run with it, damned the rest of the world when we’re in the writing zone. But as humans, we can’t do that too often or we will burn some bridges we don’t want to burn. Make time for your spouse, other than getting him/her to read your latest synopsis. Make time for your children. Yes, it’s great for them to see you going for your dreams and goals, but don’t make them feel as if they aren’t as special or important to you as your writing. No matter what book I publish, writing award I win, or celebrity status I ever reach, my ultimate achievement in life is being a great mom to my children, and wife to my husband. They will always come first.
  • Don’t correct your friends/loved ones’ grammar on social media or in person, unless you have that kind of relationship with him or her. No one likes a know-it-all. Whether they are being lazy or simply naive, it’s not your place to judge them or correct them.
  • Don’t forget to thank your closest family and friends who do support your writing journey, whether it’s your spouse who cares for the kids so you can write, your best friend who reads your worst crap before you rewrite it, or your children who learn to wait “just a few more minutes” to eat dinner because you are trying to wrap up a chapter. Just because they don’t materially participate in your writing, doesn’t mean they don’t play a huge role in your process. Thank them in your books, and in person.
  • Don’t buy books for your friends/loved ones who you know don’t enjoy reading, thinking you will convince them how great it is. Or worse, buy them books you know they won’t enjoy so they will give the books to you. That’s just wrong. (smile)


It’s hard for us authors to remember sometimes that there are people in this vast world who don’t enjoy and appreciate the written word as much as we do. When I hear someone say, “I simply don’t enjoy reading,” I want to claw my eyes out. But it’s not my place to force it on them or judge them for their lack of interest.


So, keep your relationships with those you love by remembering what brought you together in life in the first place. Focus on that and let them know you cherish their presence in your life … even if they don’t enjoy all the same things you do.



Traci Sanders

Award-winning author of parenting, children's, and romance titles

Working with Young Writers

One of the things I look forward to each year is my after-school Writing Club.  For 10 weeks, middle school students (aged 12-14) sign up to spend an hour after school with me just...writing.  Luckily, my district recognized that not all students are involved in sports so they agreed to allow me to host a club that focused on creativity and writing skills. It's not STEM, it's not homework, it's not chess.  It is just a keyboard, an idea, and a bag of pretzels.  We talk while we write. We talk about ideas, about characters, about showing and not telling, about really cool names for antagonists and protagonists, about plots and conflict and appropriate topics and inappropriate ones.  And we write. We laugh, too, and build relationships and trust.  We need to trust each other since we rely on one another to offer true constructive feedback on our writing pieces.

This is the fourth year we've had our Writing Club.  I'm hoping to expand it next year to include a second session for younger students who have reached out asking to participate. In that group, I'd focus more on writing skills as we write, as opposed to content.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on working with young writers. Feel free to comment!


November Writing Challenge - K-8 (modified NaNoWriMo challenge)

If you haven't heard of it, November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. It's a time for buckling down, setting some word count writing goals, and spitting out an entire novel in one month's time. While I admire anyone who can actually do this (and it would require almost 2000 words a day!) while holding down a full-time job, I think the idea behind it is too good to waste on just, you know, authors.  So, I've adapted the idea to implement a NaNoWriMo type of event in my school.

Since I'm wearing the hat of "writing coach" now, I feel it's my duty (much to the groans of my already over-worked and overwhelmed colleagues) to introduce great writing opportunities for them to use in their classrooms. The school is a Kindergarten through 8th grade school, but with some adjustments, we've now got ourselves a November Writing Challenge.

The Kinders are working on their letters, so their goal per day is to work on certain letters. They'll track their progress on a chart that they'll display in the hallway. If they can practice 2 letters a day, for example,  we can probably have them writing their names legibly on papers by the time the holidays roll around!

First and second graders are working on sentence structure. They have goals to write (x) number of sentences per day. They'll keep track of what they write as a class (See? Throwing some math in there as well!) and will keep track of their number of sentences each day to see how many they write by the end of the month.

Middle grades, 3-5, are working on stories. They'll be tracking word count, and will try to reach personal goals. Since the students in these grade levels have writing binders, they'll have individual trackers to keep a word count per day. They also use chromebooks which allow for easy access to word count totals. The chart is just a November calendar that they'll keep in their binder, and they will write their own daily numbers on it. Some of the more confident writers will commit to a word count per day, and others will just simply track what they do. Either way, they are writing, and that is what counts.

Our Middle School students, grades 6-8, will be writing stories and tracking word count. One of our Common Core Writing Standards is to "write routinely over extended time frames". Well, here is a perfect opportunity for that.  I'm most excited about the 7th and 8th graders - they will be attempting to end the month with a long story that may reach novella length!

Oh, and the teachers? They aren't passive observers in all of this. In the middle of our main hallway will be a chart to track their progress as they write each day as well. Hey, we walk the talk in our school.  Good sports, all of us, allowing everyone to watch as we color in the squares indicating that we have or haven't been reaching our individual goals each day. (As if we don't have enough pressure grading papers on time, right? *wink*)

Each of the classrooms will celebrate on November 30. And they should. If we can get our students excited about writing, and they improve through this challenge, then the effort put into this event will have been well worth it.

Pictures will be posted of how we tracked, and how we did. Stay tuned!


Writing with Senses - Descriptive Writing

One of the first things we try to drill into the heads of young writers is to "write using senses" - describe for the reader using sight, sound, smell, touch.  This is one of my favorite activities for demonstrating to students how they can do that, and all it takes is a trip to the home improvement store's paint aisle.

I usually do this with middle school classes, but this past week I tried it in a 5th grade classroom and the kids loved it.


Bright colors are great for younger writers.



First, head out to your local paint store and browse the paint chips.  Look for some visually stimulating colors. With the 5th graders I went bright, but with the older kids I was able to mix it up.  You'll want to grab the single color chips that have names that the kids will be able to visualize.  For example, I was able to grab a  bright green chip called Amazon Parrot, and a gorgeous yellow called Warm Sunrise, among others.  You'll find many great names - Pacific Surf, Tropical Paradise, Cowboy Hat, Desert Oasis, Wet Riverbed, etc.

As I mentioned, for the older kids, I stuck with more muted colors which were named a bit differently, with names like Midnight Fog, Sea Spray, Thunderstorm, Harbor View, Gentle Moss.


Middle School kids can be challenged with more difficult names.




For the activity, you'll need a graphic organizer such as the one I've shown below. You'll review with them the importance of "creating a scene" when writing, of being so graphic that the reader feels as if he is right there with you in that moment. Also, read a great passage or two from a book that they can relate to, pointing out how the author uses different senses to help the reader get pulled into a scene.

I also explained how color is tied to emotion, and I read the text "My Blue is Happy" by Jessica Young. It goes through each color and shows how people can respond in different ways to each one. It's a great mentor text, and the illustrations are perfect for this activity. I also went around the room and asked each student what their "happy" color was. The responses varied, which further illustrated how color draws different emotions from each of us.

I drew an organizer on the board and then used the name from a paint chip (not revealing to them yet what they would soon be doing!) and asked them to help "visualize the scene using the name". After brainstorming a bit, I told them to now continue with a few words knowing that the name corresponded to a color - and I showed them my paint chip.  Harbor View - was the name and evoked great scenery of standing on a dock looking at sailboats. But the color was grey, so now we looked at it as a rainy, or foggy day, and that changed our descriptive words.


A sample brainstorming for "Harbor View"



I told them that writers can be inspired by anything - even paint chips - and that doing practice writing exercises will help authors  become better at their craft.  Then I distributed their own copy of the graphic organizer and followed that with one paint chip. They couldn't choose the chip.  It was dealt to them to give them a bit more of a challenge. They were told to write words and phrases inspired by both the color and name on the chip.


Just a simple graphic organizer will guide them.




Following a fifteen minute brain dump into our graphic organizers, during which everyone participated enthusiastically, the next task was to write a one-to-two paragraph "scene" based on what the color and chip brought to mind.

For example, for the grey Harbor View chip, it came out something like this:

"The early morning fog settled heavy onto the water as I walked to the end of the dock. The stillness of the air seemed peaceful, and allowed the mist to envelope me, swallow me up. The faint sounds of gulls and voices of fisherman, their yellow raincoats barely seen, were about the only sounds I heard. Fog horns interrupted my thoughts, and I watched as small boats and fishing vessels moved carefully about. The grey skies reflected my somber mood. A chill went through me, but the smell of the salt air still made me feel wonderful, and I continued to watch as the harbor's day went on despite the weather."

The students glued their paint chip right onto their graphic organizer and stored it in their Writer's Workshop binder as a reminder to write using senses.  The paragraphs they wrote became part of their writing portfolio.


This was definitely an activity that they enjoyed, and hopefully will try to do with other writing props.




Sharing the Joy of Other Writers

I was honored to be invited to the book release of a newly published author. I loved it.  From the butterflies in his stomach, to the pride on his face as he read a few excerpts from his book, I lived every moment along with him. I mean, let's face it - nothing matches the feeling of that first book being birthed and shared with the world.

Woody Keller wrote a fantastic book about tragic love, jealousy and revenge, and wrapped it in characters who couldn't have been more opposite each other - a soldier who served in Afghanistan and a woman from that part of the world who followed him back to live in this country. The clashing of cultures was intriguing to watch as it unfolded before me on the pages, yet the story was universal.  I was happy to be part of his big night and was equally thrilled to watch someone get a chance to share his creative side with the world through a now-published book.

Woody told the story of how this story idea, along with countless others he's written as a hobby to pass time, was sitting in a box in his home, and was eventually ruined when Superstorm Sandy rolled through the NJ Coast back in 2012. While recovering from that tragedy, he found solace in writing once again (as many of us do) and completed the manuscript that would be published as "Ria, Remnant of the Khan".   I wonder how many of us have boxes or files of ideas sitting around just waiting to be turned into the next published book? I hope we don't wait for the next big tragedy to occur before we do something about them.


The "Key" to Creative Writing in Middle School

The key to creative writing in Middle School is...  keys, apparently.


Using ornate keys is an easy way to get Middle School kids excited about writing.

Inspired by a pin I saw on a pinning site, I searched for some inexpensive, ornate keys to use with my 7th graders in a writing activity.  We've been spending so much time working on structured writing - essays, formal letters,  responses to questions - I wanted to give them a chance to stretch their imaginations a bit as we began a new marking period.

Each key was attached to a tag with a single sentence on it. For example,  "This key would hold the answer to the mystery." "He put the key in her hand, and then gasped a final breath." "Under the pile of old books and papers...was a single key."  The tags were face-down on a desk with the key sitting on top.  As they entered the room, they were told to file past the desk, take a key that interested them, and then take their seat. They were not allowed to look at the tag until they sat at their desk. At this point, they had no idea what the activity was, but they were very intrigued.

Once all of the keys were chosen, the assignment was revealed.  Using the key as a muse, they had to write a story that incorporated their tag sentence into it. The stories were done on Google Docs, allowing us to share and edit easily, and most importantly, track our word count. The story had to be at least 1000 words.  This part got some moans and groans at first. They were a bit intimidated by the word count. But I assured them, they'd reach it quite easily as long as they developed their story using our plot chart. Setting and character development, dialogue, rising action, conflict, resolution... all the pieces would easily get them to their goal.

The rules we had in place:

  • Proper heading on paper.
  • Times New Roman 12 or 14
  • Title of story, centered and underlined
  • Dialogue must be properly written - quotation marks, punctuated correctly, and matching the character. New paragraphs as each character speaks in a conversation. All the things we've gone over, looked at, written notes on.
  • Due date written in their planner so they wouldn't forget
  • Properly edited - highlighted to ensure correct capitalization, peer readers, listened to using Google translate, etc. (We have a list of ways to edit our writing in our writing journals)
  • 1000+ words
  • The sentence on the tag MUST appear in the story, and must be in bold and red font so it can easily be seen.

After going over the ground rules, I did get some questions such as, "Can I do this?" and "Can I write about that?" and I said, YES! It's your story, so let your imagination go!  It wasn't long before I heard them calling out to each other their word counts, their tag sentences, their ideas.... they were in full writing mode.

Writing formally for academic essays and test response is certainly important. But the feeling that comes from being able to lift the restraints and boundaries, and watching what happens once Middle Schoolers let loose, is pure joy.  For them, and for me.






When a Character Takes Over...

Over the past few months, I've been carving out time in my busy schedule to write a sequel to my first book, "Casey of Cranberry Cove".  The main character, Casey, is fun to write, and I'm enjoying the adventures that we've been having together. However, she suddenly has become a bit of a brat. Instead of following the path that I had set out for her in this book, she is beginning to act out against my wishes, much like a real teenager would do.  As a result, my story line has taken a left instead of a right, and I'm heading down a road that's not very familiar.

While I love the idea that Casey has a mind of her own, it's causing havoc all over my neat little outlines. I've now got lines, arrows and scribbles, characters that I never knew existed, and a deadline that is in jeopardy.  I could very well be a real parent here, put my foot down, and send her to her room, which would allow me to get back on the path I was on. But I'm beginning to wonder, maybe her tantrum is going to take us on an adventure she's never dreamed of, to a place she's never been before, to find a proverbial door that will open a realm of new opportunities for her. Who am I to deny her of that?

So here I sit, on a snowy day, wondering if maybe the guy I wanted her to end up with wasn't right for her after all. Maybe she's found someone better, and is leading me to him. Maybe she wants a different "happily ever after" than the one I'd imagined for her.

One thing I did learn through all of this. Creating a character is like giving birth. You grow with them, discipline them, learn from them, cry with them, love them, and sometimes you just have to give in and let them have their way.





People DO judge a book by its cover!

I'd have to say that one of the true pleasures that happens after "birthin'  a book" is speaking with your audience.  Since "Casey of Cranberry Cove" has debuted, I've been blessed with having the books sold locally in Lavallette, where I live. Recently, I was shopping in one of the stores that carries the book, and witnessed someone pick it up, read the back, flip through it, and then add it to her items already on the counter to be purchased. I pondered whether to say something, but then decided that this was an opportunity I couldn't pass up. I'd be able to gain valuable marketing insight from her! So I put on my big-girl panties, and walked up to her, excused myself, then said, "I see you are buying that book. May I ask why?"  Her response, "I liked the cover - it caught my eye and then I read the back, and it looked like something I'd enjoy."  I thanked her for her honesty and then told her that I was the author and I'd gladly sign it for her. She was thrilled. But what she didn't realize was that I was more thrilled than she was!  I learned the importance of taking time to make sure a book cover is eye-catching and relevant. I learned that what appears on the back of the book cover is just as important as what is inside the book. And I was thankful that I'd taken the time to speak to her.

Inside of each book, I put a card with a request to the reader to take a minute to review the book on Amazon. Feedback, while sometimes not pleasant to hear, is invaluable.  As writers, it's important to embrace it and learn from it.  So, don't be afraid to ask for it.


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.