Monday, October 17, 2016

Salvador Dali Clocks

Creating art based on the work of famous artists in history are lessons commonly used in classrooms from kindergarten to college. While studying and copying from the masters is an important part of an art education, it can sometimes frustrate the younger student that has more difficulty with drawing and painting.

A fun and alternative way to learn about a particular artist and their work, is to have students create a 3-D project based on a painting. A sculpture made of found or recycled objects, papier-mâché, or clay can be a fun alternative lesson.

In a recent art class, we looked at the work of Salvador Dali, perhaps most known for his painting titled The Persistence of Memory. Students were instructed to make a “melting clock” from air-dry clay. After observing and talking about the original painting, clocks were sculpted using about two fist size pieces of clay, with the winding mechanism and clock hands added. Numbers were carved into the clock face. After the project dried for a week, the clocks were painted with acrylic craft paint, using similar colors from the original painting.

For a writing exercise, ask students to observe the various objects in the painting and come up with a short story. Why do they think the shapes are distorted? What do the objects represent? How do the objects relate to one another? What would happen if you found a “melting clock?”

Materials used:

Crayola brand air-dry clay

Plastic bowl (bottom side up) to mold and warp the clock face

Pencil or other tool to carve the clock numerals

Acrylic craft paint (silver, gold, blue and black)

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Essence of Everyday Life

I have recommended Gary Soto before in a Pencil Tips post about his short story collection, Baseball in April. But when I recently came upon his collection of poems for young adults, A Fire in My Hands, I knew I had to write about Soto’s work again. A Fire in My Hands was re-issued in an expanded edition.  All middle school and high school English teachers need a copy of this book.

Soto is one of my favorite authors.  His words beautifully capture the essence of everyday life. Every poem in A Fire in My Hands is a wonderful example of how to create poetry from one’s life experiences. Soto shows us how to notice every detail of a visit to a drugstore with someone you care about. How to see a blimp float across the sky on a hot August day, “quietly as a cloud, /Its shadow dark enough to sleep/ Or dream in.” Soto elevates the everyday to palpable moments of epiphany.

In the introduction, Soto advises young writers to look into their own experiences for inspiration. This is not new advice for middle school and high school students. But Soto knows how to convince them. He says, “Some of you may argue that your life is boring, that nothing has happened, that everything interesting happens far away. Not so.” Soto’s poems demonstrate that every moment is worthy of being captured in a poem. Every feeling is important.

Each poem is accompanied by an anecdote, sharing the memory that inspired it. Soto is honest about changing the facts to capture emotional truth in his poems. This layout is a wonderful model, showing how a poem develops from its original inspiration.  

The interview at the end of the book “Chatting with Gary Soto” is a must-read for anyone interested in teaching poetry. Soto discusses his process and motivation. He explains the difference between a lyric poem and a narrative poem. But most of all, he reveals how writing poetry feeds his soul.

A Fire in My Hands models everything we want our students to emulate in their writing. Get it for yourself. Share it with your students.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Do You Want to be President?

A friend and fellow member of the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, D.C. , Katherine Marsh  was urging her son Sasha to stop teasing his five-year-old sister Natalia.

“She could be president someday,” said Katherine.
“But I don’t want to be president,” responded Natalia.
“Why not?”
“Because I want to be a duck.”

Pamela Ehrenberg, another author friend, helpfully pointed out that Natalia could be both, recalling Duck for President by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Betsy Lewin.

Indeed, Duck for President is a perfect starting point to help students write about our own presidential election without sinking into the quicksand of the current campaign. Even the youngest children will appreciate Duck’s constant search for a job that isn’t such hard work. 

Youngsters can write a sentence, a paragraph, a poem or a page –

·       Would you like to be president?  Why or why not?
·       Write a list of fair rules for voters. This could be a class list. In Duck for President, Duck’s first list of voter registration rules said voters must live on the farm, show a valid ID and be at least as tall as Duck. The “mice got together and protested the height requirement. So Duck crossed it off.”  (And there you have the beginnings of a discussion about how to change rules you don’t like.)
·       What do you think is the hardest part of the president’s job?
·       What would be the most fun?

For older students, there is a wealth of election and writing resources in the current issue of “Teaching Tolerance,” from the Southern Poverty Law Center.


Students may end up agreeing with Duck that “running a country is no fun at all,” but at least they will appreciate the importance of carefully choosing the person who will. 

Happy Writing!

Monday, September 26, 2016

Learning from Fictional Child Writers

          Just as it can be inspirational for young writers to have a published author visit their classroom, it can be inspirational to read about child characters who love to write and who take seriously the development of their craft.

          My most recent middle-grade novel, Write This Down, stars Autumn Granger, a seventh-grade writer who is determined to impress her scornful older brother, Hunter, by achieving her dream of publication. She is taking a middle-school journalism class from a charismatic teacher. I put various bits of writing advice into the mouth of Ms. Archer and showed how Autumn responded to them in her own writing.

          In Chapter 4, as the class begins their study of the personal essay, Ms. Archer opens with the provocative statement: “A personal essay is not about you.” Instead, “people read personal essays to learn something about themselves.” A personal essay is more than a report of what happened to somebody; it’s also about its larger significance for a more universal audience –what that incident means. She then has the class do a free-write on the topic: “The worst – or best – gift you ever received.” Autumn comes up with her own list of best and worst gifts, finding herself grabbed by one that leads into a reflection on her troubled relationship with Hunter and the bond between siblings.

          This scene could be a jumping-off point for asking students to write their own list of best and worst gifts. Autumn thinks, as she begins her brainstorming: “Bad things are always good to write about.” Ask your students:  Is this true? If so, why is it true? Might it be because the heart of a strong story is some problem or conflict? Autumn writes about a best gift instead – but one that leads her into dark early childhood memories.

          As students work on their lists of “best gifts and worst gifts,” encourage them to do more than simply think about what a disappointment it was to receive, say, an electric toothbrush (as Autumn received one year from her dentist father), or joy to get a coveted video game. What does the best or worst gift say about the relationship between giver and recipient? (When Autumn’s Aunt Liz gives her the same book three years in a row, what does this say about Aunt Liz?) Does a “worst” gift show indifference on the part of the giver? Or desire to send a not-so-subtle message about who the giver wants the recipient to be? Why might the same item be the best gift for one person but the worst gift for another? Why might what seemed to be a bad gift turn out to be a wonderful one, after all?

          Autumn learns that even a simple list of best gifts and worst gifts can lead to powerful personal reflections on the nature of families, love, heartbreak, and healing. Maybe this same exercise can lead your students there, too.

BIO: Claudia Mills is the author of over 50 books for young readers, including How Oliver Olson Changed the World (an ALA Notable Book of the Year) and The Trouble with Ants (which just received a starred review in Publishers Weekly), as well as the Franklin School Friends series of chapter books from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Claudia lives in Boulder, Colorado, with her family and her cat, Snickers. Visit

Monday, September 19, 2016

Peep and Egg: I'm Not Trick or Treating

My newest picture book with illustrator Joyce Wan, Peep and Egg: I’m Not Trick or Treating, is the second book in the Peep and Egg series. Unlike Peep and the other farm animals, poor Egg isn’t excited about Halloween. Egg is terrified of witches, mummies, and vampires; there is absolutely NO WAY that Egg is going trick or treating!

Peep and Egg: I’m Not Trick or Treating can be a fun writing prompt in your classroom.  After you read the book aloud, here are a few ideas to try with your students:

1)    Peep and Egg wear coordinated Halloween costumes. Peep is a butterfly, while Egg is a caterpillar. Challenge your students to make a list of other coordinated Halloween costumes that would be fun for siblings or friends to wear. Some possibilities include salt and pepper, ketchup and mustard, or milk and cookie.  For an extra challenge, see if students can come up with ideas that work especially well for an older sibling and a younger sibling, the way a butterfly and a caterpillar work for Peep and Egg.  A seed and a flower, a tadpole and a frog…how many examples can your students think of?

2)    Peep tells Egg Halloween jokes to help Egg feel less scared. What other strategies can your students think of for helping a friend or younger sibling who finds Halloween frightening?

3)    As a class, brainstorm a list of “scary” Halloween characters—monsters, zombies, etc. Then work with your students to make each character less scary by adding nontraditional traits. How about a monster who loves to sing songs from Disney movies, or a zombie who wears a rainbow bikini? 

4)    For many kids, the best part of trick or treating is the CANDY.  Ask your students to invent their own Best Halloween Candy Ever.  Would it be a dark chocolate bar studded with white chocolate chips in the shape of a skull? Or a lollipop that looks like an eyeball, with an oozing red center that tastes like cherry cola?  Anything goes!

5)    Even though many kids find trick or treating fun, there are plenty of kids who are scared by Halloween in general and trick or treating in particular. Can your students make a list of other activities that are fun for some kids but scary for others? Rock climbing? Horseback riding? Ziplining?

Peep and Egg: I’m Not Trick or Treating reinforces the message introduced in Peep and Egg: I’m Not Hatching…that sometimes all we need to overcome our fears is someone we love by our side.  Happy early Halloween!

Monday, September 12, 2016

You Just Wait: A Poetry Friday Power Book

Guest Post by Janet Wong

Have you noticed an explosion of activity books in bookstores and box stores? Elaborate coloring books, clever creative journals, and books similar to those in the Wreck This Journal series? These books allow tweens and teens to interact in ways beyond reading—drawing in them, writing in them, and exploring their thoughts and feelings. Why do kids love them? Because they’re fun—and writing in them is an act of ownership.

For those of us who teach language arts: how can we take a middle school student’s excitement for activity books—and bring it into the classroom?

Sylvia Vardell and I are trying to do just that with our newest collaboration, You Just Wait: A Poetry Friday Power Book, published this month by our imprint Pomelo Books. It’s part activity book for tweens and teens; part verse novella; and part writing coach, combined in a way designed to gain the approval of both the school board and your favorite skeptical tween.

Here are the steps that we followed in creating You Just Wait. My part of the book came first.

—I took a dozen “outside poems” (“already-published poems” by eleven different poets, all found in The Poetry Friday Anthology for Middle School).

—I imagined how these outside poems could be woven together and wrote two dozen new poems that form a story featuring Paz, an Asian-Latina soccer player, her movie-loving cousin Lucesita, and Joe, Paz’s older brother, who dreams of playing basketball in the NBA. These new poems became “Response Poems” and “Mentor Text” poems as the book evolved.

Sylvia Vardell then added her magic touch. She:

—created twelve quick, creativity-spurring, PowerPlay activities;

—paired twelve Power2You writing prompts with my Mentor Text poems; and

—assembled twelve Resource Lists for writers (and readers) for the back matter of the book.

Here’s a look at PowerPack 5, one of the twelve PowerPacks in You Just Wait. You can find downloadable files at

We think we accomplished what we set out to do, but we’ll only know if we start seeing ragged, well-loved class sets of You Just Wait filled with scribbles. Send us your photos at—we’d love to see them!

Janet Wong is the author of 30 books including You Have to Write. She is the co-creator (with Sylvia Vardell) of The Poetry Friday Anthology series (

Note: Some vendors such as are offering healthy discounts this month as part of the book’s promotional launch; please consider ordering some copies for your school. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

30 Day Creative Challenge

The new school year has officially started, and classrooms are buzzing again!

A fun way to get the creativity flowing after the summer break is to initiate a 30 day creative challenge for your students.

Using 5x7 index cards (or other small pieces of paper), pick a simple one word prompt for children to do a quick drawing or doodle. Emphasize that the drawings don’t have to be realistic; they can be funny, whimsical or anthropomorphized. On the back side of the paper, have students do a short writing exercise. For example, using the word “paintbrush,” have students draw a paintbrush and then on the back of the drawing either describe the object using the five senses, write a poem about the object, or turn the object  into a character for a story and list character traits. 

Do this every day for 30 days allowing about 10-15 minutes per day. At the end of the 30 days, have students look over their collection of challenges. Have them pick out their favorite drawings and creative writing. Ask students to expand these simple exercises into a short story or picture book. These 30 day challenges can be kept in an envelope and used throughout the year as inspiration for other artistic works or writing assignments.

Happy September!