Monday, October 16, 2017

Rock, Paper, Scissors!

The Legend Of Rock Paper Scissors by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Adam Rex, is a great book to spark writing in your classroom.

Just in case you have any students who don’t know the game “Rock Paper Scissors,” you can start off by explaining the rules. Then you can let kids practice playing the game in pairs.

After you explain and play the game, have fun reading the book out loud to your class.

Once you have finished the book, here are some related ideas to get kids writing!

1.    There are some funny battles in this book, such as Paper versus. Half-Eaten Bag of Trail Mix and Scissors versus Dinosaur-Shaped Chicken Nuggets. Can you think of some other battles between regular objects that might be found in your home? Write out a battle scene between two of those everyday objects. Use dialogue! See if you can think of funny-but-not-too-mean insults to use, like those in the book (“Giant box monster” “tacky and vaguely round monstrosity” “weird scissory one”).

2.    There are humorous locations in this book, such as the “Kingdom of backyard” and the “tiny village of Junk Drawer.” What funny names can you make up for other locations in your home, school, or neighborhood? Write a story that takes place in at least one of those locations.

3.    An important theme in this book is that Rock, Paper, and Scissors are used to winning all the time…but they don’t like it. All three of these characters wish for well-matched opponents. Think about your own life. Do you agree that it is more fun to play a game if there is a chance you will lose? Have you ever been on a team that won every single game, all season? Did you like it or not? Do you have a younger sibling who you can always beat at every game? Is it still fun to play? Write a paragraph explaining whether you agree with Rock, Paper, and Scissors that playing games is most fun when you have an evenly-matched rival.

After you complete the writing activities, you might enjoy a fast-paced classroom battle of “Rock, Paper, Scissors.” Here’s what to do:
1)    Have students pair off (if you have an uneven number, you get to play too!).
2)    When one student wins against another student, the losing student instantly becomes part of the “squad” for the winner and starts chanting his or her name. “Emily! Emily! Emily!”
3)    When two winners play against each other, the one who loses—and his or her squad—all start cheering for the winner. Now you have a bunch of kids chanting “Nico! Nico! Nico!”
4)    Continue until only two students are left, with everyone else cheering for one or the other.
5)    One student becomes the class champion, with everyone chanting his or her name at once!  “ASHA! ASHA! ASHA!” Hooray!

Monday, October 9, 2017


In a new book, Writing Radar: Using Your Journal To Snoop Out and Craft Great Stories, Jack Gantos shares more than classic tips for writing a great beginning, middle, and end. He shares his own passion to become a published author. Do you have students who dream about seeing their own books on library shelves? If so, give them Writing Radar. Give them the opportunity to hear Gantos describe in emotional detail the moment he placed his hand in the exact spot where a fiction book written by an author named “Gantos” would be shelved.  

Fans of the Joey Pigza books will enjoy the story of how Gantos met the student who inspired the character of Joey at an author visit. Gantos has lectured in dozens of schools about the craft of writing. He shares those lessons in Writing Radar along with many short writing examples teachers could use as models in the classroom. Gantos uses anecdotes from his childhood to demonstrate how everyday experiences make excellent writing material. “The Cool-Air Chair” is a brief story of how Gantos liked to read with the refrigerator door open because it was the coolest place in his Florida home without air-conditioning. Examining how Gantos makes a fairly mundane activity into a very amusing story should help your students discover the stories in their own lives. The book is peppered with such stories and many chapters can stand alone as a read aloud, making Writing Radar a great text to use periodically throughout the year.

In a chapter called, “Breaking It Down,” Gantos provides a step-by-step guide to the elements of storytelling. Writing and reading teachers could use this as a model for studying character, setting, problem, action, etc.  

Finally, Gantos nudges the young writer to simply get moving—to write. In his most important writing tip, he says: “Don’t be that writer who waits all day for the perfect first sentence, or you will grow old while learning to hate yourself and writing.” Gantos cautions young writers not to expect creative thoughts to line up neatly “like a long string of dominoes standing on end and all the writer has to do is push the first one over.” He accurately describes the messy process of creating story while brimming with excitement for the craft. Writer Radar is an excellent resource for the classroom and all those who love writing.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Storytellers -- CABA Awards

“There is a unique kind of magic that comes from hearing a story told. With only the power of a voice, an entire world can be created,” writes Evan Turk in the author’s note to the new book he wrote and illustrated, The Storyteller.

The Storyteller is one of this year’s Children’s Africana Book Award (CABA)  winners.  The awards honor books that contribute to an accurate, balanced picture of Africa.  The Storyteller takes place during a drought in the ancient Kingdom of Morocco. Only the power of storytelling is capable of filling everyone’s brass cup with water to share.

Encourage children to write their own story – and then share the stories out loud or with pictures. Talk about what makes a story so exciting that readers or listeners never get bored and keep wanting more.
·       Are there stories or legends you hear at home about the countries where your parents or grandparents were born?
·       Can you imagine a story to explain a natural phenomenon – like why fireflies sparkle at night, what the man (or lady) in the moon might be thinking or why pandas love to eat bamboo?
·       Write about a day in your life when something magic happens to you – like the boy in the story whose brass cup is suddenly overflowing with water.

Each of the 2017 CABA books could generate writing prompts – beginning with finding out more about the African country featured in each title.

The 2017 CABA Winners are:
·       Gizo-Gizo! A tale from the Zongo Lagoon (Ghana) by Emily Williamson with the students and teachers of the Hassaniyya Quranic School in Cape Coast Ghana/Sub-Saharan Publishers / available via African Books Collective
·       The Storyteller (Morocco) by Evan Turk/Atheneum
·       Amagama Enkululeko! Words for Freedom: Writing Life Under Apartheid (South Africa) Anthology/Cover2Cover/ available via African Books Collective

2017 CABA Honor Books
·       Aluta (Ghana) by Adwoa Badoe/Groundwood Books
·       The Bitter Side of Sweet (Ivory Coast) by Tara Sullivan/Putnam
·       The Boy Who Spat in Sargrenti’s Eye (Ghana) by Manu Herbstein / self-published for international distribution via Ingram Publishing Services /Techmate in Ghana

2017 CABA Notable Book
·       The World Beneath (South Africa) by Janice Warman/Candlewick

This is the 25th anniversary of the CABA awards - 90 books set in 24 countries have been recognized since the awards began.  The authors of all seven 2017 winners will receive their awards at a celebration dinner November 3, 2017, in Washington, D.C.   

Ten previous winners are also attending the dinner, including Kathleen Wilson winner of the first CABA, five-time CABA winner E.B. Lewis and two-time winners Liz Zunon, Baba Wague Diakité and Ifeoma Onyefulu.  Ntshadi Mofokeng, representing the NGO Equal Education will be coming from South Africa, author Manu Herbstein will be traveling to the celebration from Ghana, Adwoa Badoe from Canada and Janice Warman from the U.K. Click here for tickets and more information

On Saturday, a free CABA family festival will be held at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.  Children can learn to spin a yarn and weave a story, based on tales from Ghana, Morocco and Ivory Coast.  A panel of CABA authors/illustrators is featured and both current and past CABA winners will be signing their books. The event is free and open to the public. More information here. 
“When a storyteller dies, a library burns.” Old Moroccan saying

Monday, September 25, 2017

This is Just a Test -- Collaborative Writing

Guest Post by Madelyn Rosenberg and Wendy Wan-Long Shang

When we worked on our new middle-grade novel, This Is Just A Test, the two of us (Wendy Wan-Long Shang and Madelyn Rosenberg) collaborated, sending our manuscript back and forth, back and forth, until it was complete. In school, kids collaborate all of the time, on science labs, social studies projects, sports teams, and of course, on writing assignments. Most of the teachers we’ve talked to say that the main way their students collaborate on writing is through peer editing. We thought we’d offer a few ways to have them collaborate on the writing itself.

Our character, David Da-Wei Horowitz, is Jewish (like Madelyn) and Chinese-American (like Wendy). Little pieces of our own experiences and culture went into forming that character, along with plenty of things that are just David’s alone.

Have your students work in pairs to build a character. Think of it like the Build-a-Bear workshop: You’ll be discussing what the character looks like on the outside, but to create a true character, you can’t forget the stuffing – the things that go inside.

Have your students go back and forth, adding one trait at a time until they decide the character is complete.
What does the character like?
What is the character afraid of?
What does she want?
What does he like to eat?
How does she get along with her mother?

This Is Just A Test is set in the 1980s so it counts (much as we hate to admit it) as historical fiction. This assignment can work well as an introduction to historical fiction. Are your students studying World War II or Ancient Civilizations? Have them create a character from the time period they’re studying. How would that character’s fears and foods and fun be different from today?

Now that your students have a character, have them collaborate on a setting. They can brainstorm and draw. Complete sentences aren’t necessary, just words, phrases and ideas. The focus can be close (the character’s bedroom) or from farther away (the city or woods).

Try brainstorming again, with plot, before having your students sit down to create their story. Make sure they negotiate: Would our character do this? Would our character say this? And make sure they read for voice. Assignments like this help them learn to pay attention to each other’s writing styles so they can make them similar – so that the text and dialogue sound like they’re coming from the same narrator and the same characters.
Is the character serious or sarcastic?
Does she use certain phrases?
If there is interior monologue, how does the character talk to himself?
When our agents said they couldn’t tell which one of us had written what in our book, that was when we knew we had a true collaboration.

Feel free to throw out a few touchstone words to help students find inspiration (yellow, hard drive, cantaloupe) a sentence they have to use (“Oh, it’s on.”) or even a situation (“It was not the sound they expected to come out of a space ship.”) If you’ve chosen to go with historical fiction, provide some old newspapers and photos.

Another type of collaborative story is where authors take on different characters with different perspectives instead of joining forces for one. Given our current political climate, the idea of exploring situations from different perspectives is especially appealing. Our story would have been completely different if it had been told from the point of view of Scott or Hector instead of David.

Shout Mouse Press explored different perspectives on a large scale, when they had students work together to create The Day Tajon Got Shot. Author Jen Malone and six co-authors approached the night of a dance from different perspectives in Best. Night. Ever.

Consider a prompt where each student takes on the perspective of a different character. You can divide into larger groups for this one. Students must agree on plot and setting, but they have more independence in creating their characters. They’ll have to consider, though, how the actions of one character influence another.

For more on Madelyn Rosenberg, visit
For more on Wendy Shang, visit
For more writing prompts by Madelyn and Wendy on collaboration, 

Monday, September 18, 2017

Family Chores, Siblings, and Writing Fun

My new book, Koala Challah, illustrated by Maria Mola, is about three sisters. The older two sisters have important jobs to help their family get ready for the holiday of Shabbat—the Jewish day of rest, which occurs each week and is a special time to enjoy being with family. Lila, the youngest sister, wants to help too. But every time Lila tries to help, she ends up making a gigantic mess!

This book can be used in the classroom to encourage your students to reflect and write.

After reading Koala Challah out loud, here are some activities to try:

1)    What jobs do you do every week, or every month, to help your family? Do you put away dishes? Feed pets? Take out the trash? Are there any jobs you would like to try? Have you ever tried to help out your family and then ended up causing more problems, like Lila?

2)    Lila is the youngest of three siblings. Do you have any siblings? If you have older siblings, are you jealous of how much they get to do, like Lila is in the book? If you have younger siblings, do you see them trying to copy you, like Lila does in the book? If you don’t have any siblings, how do you think that changes the way your parents treat you? Do your parents expect you to do more to help out, because you are the only kid? Do they play with you a lot, since you don’t have siblings to play with, or do they expect you to read books and find other ways to play independently?

3)    In Koala Challah, Lila shows a lot of persistence. She keeps trying to find a job to help her family. And after she settles on a job—baking challah—she keeps trying until she perfects her recipe. Can you think of a time you showed persistence in your own life? Did you keep trying and trying until you learned how to do the monkey bars on the playground? Did you keep working and working until you could shoot a basket, or solve a Rubix Cube? Write about a time you persisted until you accomplished your goal, or write about a goal you have and how you plan to be persistent until you accomplish it.

4)    In Koala Challah, Lila is helping her family get ready for the holiday of Shabbat. What holidays or rituals do you celebrate with your family? What is your favorite type of family celebration? How does your family prepare for this holiday or celebration? Do you have any special job to help your family get ready?

5)    Koalas live in the wild in Australia. Where do other animals live in the wild? Pick an animal and research where that animal lives in the wild. Or pick a country that you are interested in and research which animals live in the wild in that country.

6)    Challah is a braided bread that Jewish families eat on Shabbat. What are special foods for your family? Do you ever help make those foods? Would you like to try?

If your school allows students to bring in homemade food, encourage them to help make foods that are special to their families and then bring those foods in to school to share! Have a tasting day! If your school does not allow homemade food, students could still help make special foods at home and then bring in pictures and/or recipes.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Writing Connections with Rachel Vail

Rachel Vail is the author of many popular novels for young people, including the Justin Case series, the Friendship Ring series, Unfriended, and most recently, Well, That Was Awkward.  In an interview with the KidsPost section of the Washington Post,  Vail talks about the play that inspired her latest novel and the middle-school experiences that helped inform it.

Like the 1897 French play “Cyrano de Bergerac,” Vail’s novel Well, That Was Awkward features a main character that tries to help a friend to further a romance.  The problem, though, is that the love interest is actually someone that the main character also likes.

Below are writing lessons for the classroom or for individual writers ages 8 and up. 

RE-IMAGINING A CLASSIC:  Classroom Discussion, Part 1: Talk about how Vail reimagined a play with adult characters as a story about a group of middle-school students in a contemporary school.  Other writers have done this, too.  For example, the movie “Clueless” in based on Jane Austen’s Emma.

Classroom Writing, Part 1:  Choose a scene or chapter from a book with adult characters, from a different time period.  For older students, this might be a book that the whole class has read.  For younger students, this might be a fairy tale like “Cinderella” or “Snow White.”  Ask them to brainstorm changes they might make.  Encourage them to feel free to switch characters’ genders.  For example, the evil queen in “Snow White” might be a vain football player or the prince in Cinderella might be a girl who is a wealthy science geek with a lab and Cinderella a poor guy eager to build his own robot. 

Classroom Discussion, Part 2: In the KidsPost interview, Vail is candid about her awkward middle-school years and how those embarrassing moments have helped her to create believable characters and situations that her readers can relate to.

Classroom Writing, Part 2:  Ask students to close their eyes and imagine their middle-school characters in an awkward or embarrassing situation.  What embarrassing thing happens to their middle-school Cinderella or prince?  How do they react?  Ask students to write their scenes.  Ask for a few volunteers to read theirs aloud.  Hilarity may ensue!

Additional Resources
Rachel Vail’s website -

Monday, August 21, 2017

Shopping Trip Stories

While many students are reluctant to return to school after a too short summer break, most still love back-to-school shopping. Kids have fun choosing new backpacks, pencils, and notebooks.  In Shopping Trip Trouble,  seven-year-old Sofia Martinez goes school shopping with her two older sisters, Mamá, Tía Carmen, and her four cousins—Hector, Alonzo, Manuel, and baby Mariela. Everyone is excited to pick school supplies in their favorite colors. But when Sofia notices that four-year-old Manuel is missing, chaos ensues as the family races around the store searching to find him.

Read Shopping Trip Trouble out loud to your students and have fun discussing their own shopping trip adventures.

Suggested questions:
Were there too many choices of colors and sizes? Not enough? 
Did you have trouble choosing?
What are your favorite back-to-school items? Are there any you do not like?
Did you accidentally knock something over like Hector and Alonzo?
Did the family stay together? Or did a child wander off?
Have you ever heard an announcement over the loudspeaker calling for a lost child?
Is it more fun to go shopping in a large group? 
Or would you rather shop with one person?
What other elements of Shopping Trip Trouble mirrored your own shopping experience?

Use the discussion to help young writers remember and record details for their own writing. Afterwards, ask your students to do one or more of the following:

1.     Write a personal narrative of a family shopping trip.
2.     Create a fictional story in which a child was lost and found in a store.
3.     Write a poem about a specific school supply. (ie: pencil, notebook, backpack, ruler)
4.     Write a diary entry from the viewpoint of a school supply (ie: crayons, markers, notebook) waiting to be chosen by a shopping student.