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. 

Monday, August 7, 2017

Little by Little: How We Learn

Many students become overwhelmed when trying to learn something new. For some, math is a challenge. Others stumble over a foreign language. And for many children, reading feels like an insurmountable mountain.

As a teacher, I was naturally drawn to the ancient story of Akiva, an illiterate shepherd who learned to read at age 40. Akiva thought he was too old to learn to read but his wife, Rachel, encouraged him. She insisted that nothing was beyond his abilities. Akiva doubted himself until he observed a phenomenon in nature. He noticed a hole in a rock and suddenly appreciated the process in which water erodes stone.

“Water is soft,” Akiva thought with amazement. “And yet drop by drop, it has managed to cut through this hard stone.”

Akiva made a connection to himself. “My mind is not harder than a rock! I can learn—just like water cuts through stone—a little bit each day.”

Read Drop by Drop: The Story of Rabbi Akiva with your students and discuss how Akiva approached his studies. He was patient with himself. He decided to master one small thing at a time.

Brainstorm other metaphors for slow but steady progress. Examples: baby steps, crawling before walking, seeds growing into plants, one stitch at a time, saving pennies in a piggybank, etc.

Ask your students to write a personal narrative describing a time when they struggled to learn something new. How did they approach the subject? What made the topic hard to learn? Can they describe their emotions? Did someone or something make the situation harder? Did someone or something make it easier?

Write a class poem about learning a skill slowly, one step at a time. You could use one of the metaphors brainstormed above such as baby steps or growing seeds or you could tie in the science curriculum. Scientific experiments must be undertaken one step at a time. Cooking recipes require one ingredient at a time. Few things are accomplished all at once. There are metaphors for learning everywhere. Happy Writing!


Monday, July 24, 2017

In Pursuit of Civil Conversation

Guest Post by Mary Knight
author of Saving Wonder, winner of the 2017 Green Earth Book Award

As I’ve traveled to schools for author visits since the publication of my debut novel, Saving Wonder, teachers have been telling me how concerned they are about the divisive rhetoric their students are witnessing from our country’s leaders. 

In the spirit of encouraging the practice of civil conversation, I’ve created the following lesson, which invites students to activate their empathy as they see an issue from the “other’s” point of view. It also offers practice in close reading, as well as writing dialogue within a scene. I use Saving Wonder as a model text in this lesson, although I’m sure examples of civil dialogue exist in other novels as well.

In Saving Wonder, my protagonist Curley Hines has a conversation with the new coal boss (Mr. Tiverton) who is threatening to blow the top off his mountain through a devastating mining process called mountaintop removal. A lot is at stake for both characters, but they nevertheless have a civil (albeit passionate) conversation that allows each to express his point of view.

The following is an abbreviated lesson with a corresponding writing prompt. It assumes that students have at least read up to Chapter “P.” If you’d like an extended version with a fun, optional activity, please contact me through my message page at my website: I’d love to hear what you think and if you use the lesson, your results!

A Lesson on Civil Dialogue

Before engaging the lesson, explore the concept of “empathy” with your students. Say: One of the ways authors inspire readers to care is by writing with empathy. Does anyone know what empathy is? Empathy is the ability to walk in another person’s shoes, to see the world through another person’s eyes or point of view, or to imagine what another is feeling. You can empathize with someone who is feeling happy or sad or any other emotion. Invite students to think of examples from their own lives where they’ve empathized with another person or animal (pet).

Before reading and/or rereading Chapter “P,” pgs. 154-163, ask: Do you think Mr. Tiverton is a “bad guy” in this novel? Ask for a show of hands, yes and no. Then ask: Why do you think that? Be sure to remain neutral. After opinions have been expressed, invite your class to reread the following, saying: Let’s (re)read the following chapter and see what our thinking is then.

Read and/or reread the scene.
After reading: On a T-chart, title the page: “Red Hawk Mountain.” Under that, make two columns: one titled “Curley’s Viewpoint” and one titled “Mr. Tiverton’s Viewpoint.” Use a different color for each point of view. Ask students to first list what Curley thinks and feels about mining Red Hawk Mountain and the mountain itself, referring to the text as often as they like. Invite them to do this by “empathizing” with Curley, by putting themselves in his shoes.

After this feels complete, facilitate the same process with Mr. Tiverton. Be sure to invite students to step into the shoes of Mr. Tiverton. How does he see Red Hawk Mountain? What does he think and feel about the mining process? Again, invite students to refer to the text as often as they like.

After you’ve completed this exercise, ask again: So, who thinks Mr. Tiverton is a bad guy? Why or why not? It’s okay for students to still hold the opinion that he’s a bad guy. That’s not a wrong answer; it’s an opinion. Ask: Regardless of what we think of Mr. Tiverton, do you understand his viewpoint a little bit better after stepping into his shoes? When we empathize with someone, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we agree with them, right? Still, empathy can help us understand someone else’s viewpoint, an important skill in a world with lots of different perspectives.

Reader’s theater: If there’s time, “play out” this dialogue (pgs. 158-163) between the two perspectives through a Reader’s Theater activity, encouraging each actor to look at the chart and “step into the shoes” of his or her character, “seeing what he sees” and “feeling what he feels.” Encourage them to: “Read from the heart of your character—like you are passionate about everything you are saying!” Reading with empathy encourages fluency!

After Reader’s Theater, ask the actors: How did it feel to play your part? Is there anything more you understand about your character after speaking his words?

Ask the rest of your class: After watching and listening, do you feel any different about Mr. Tiverton now? In what ways does the author help us empathize with each of her characters?

Writing with empathy: Using the above dialogue scene as a model text, ask students to: Write a scene like the one we’ve just acted out, where you and a parent, a sibling, a teacher or a friend are having a conversation about something that means a lot to you . . . and the other person holds a different perspective or opinion than yours. Offer examples of family or school issues students might want to explore in their writing.   

Once students have decided on their “issue,” ask them to create a T-chart—two columns on a sheet of paper, one representing the writer / narrator’s viewpoint and the other column representing the viewpoint of the other character in their story. Encourage them to “step into the shoes” of each character and write down each character’s feelings as well as ideas and thoughts about this issue. 

Ask students to write at the bottom of this brainstorming page, where the conversation is taking place and whenAfter they’ve done this pre-writing activity, invite them to write a scene between themselves and another person using dialogue that explores two different points of view.

Bio: Saving Wonder is Mary’s debut novel, published in 2016 by Scholastic Press, and selected for numerous honors, including the Green Earth Book Award for Children’s Fiction, a Parents’ Choice award, and a Children’s Book Council Notable Book for Social Studies. Mary is also working on a professional development book called, CoreEmpathy: Transforming the Literacy Classroom, with her writing partner and literacy specialist, Christie McLean Kesler.  

Monday, July 10, 2017

Summer Memories & Quilts

Summer is a time for lemonade and summer camp, ball parks and swimming - and perhaps a visit to Grandma's house, with scrapbooks, old photos, soft quilts and other treasures with stories. Like the quilts of Gee's Bend. 

Susan Goldman Rubin celebrates The Quilts of Gee's Bend in her new picture book filled with colorful images of the practical artistry of several generations of women in Gee's Bend, Alabama.  In 1928, "when Nettie Young was eleven years old, her mother gave her a pile of cloth strips and told her to make a quilt all by herself." The cloth came from old work shirts, dress tails and aprons. Nettie arranged it all into a design she called "Stacked Bricks."

“When I was growing up, you threw nothing away,” said Nettie Young. “You found every good spot for a quilt piece and that’s how you made your quilts.”

The women of Gee's Bend, descended from slaves on the Pettway Plantation, have been making quilts for generations. The quilts had a practical purpose, but they were also beautiful works of art.  "Ought not two quilts ever be the same," explained Mensie Lee Pettway.

"How did the women come up with original ideas? Annie Mae Young said, ‘You find the colors and the shapes and certain fabrics that work out right, kind of like working a puzzle.'"

The Gee's Bend quilts can be inspiration for young writers too, whether they are writing at camp, in class or surrounded by trunks in Grandma's attic.
·       Help children collect a few pieces of old clothing - especially shirts or skirts that can be cut into strips or squares.  Have them design a quilt, individually or as a group, using these pieces. Give them time to think about their design. Then ask them to write about their designs:
o   What do you like about the colors you put together?
o   Does your quilt tell a story?
o   Write a true or imaginary story about some of the fabric pieces: who wore that shirt? Where has that dress been? In the kitchen? At a party? If possible, talk to the person who wore a piece of clothing and then write down your "interview." 
o   If the quilt includes pieces of cloth from your own clothing, write about something you enjoyed doing while wearing that shirt or dress.
·       Alternatively, have children talk to an older friend or relative about some special item – a vase, a photo, a piece of jewelry, a quilt – and then ask the child to write down that story, like a journalist bringing another person alive with words.

If you are feeling very ambitious, you can help youngsters make real quilt squares and then a real quilt following the directions in Rubin's book – making their own little piece of history.  

Mensie Lee Pettway said, “A lot of people make quilts for your bed, for to keep you warm. But a quilt is more. It represents safekeeping, it represents beauty and you could say it represents family history.”

Monday, June 26, 2017

Dramatic Histories & The "Write" Stuff

“If we can’t agree on anything, how can we stay one country?”
“But we could have even bigger problems, if we break apart.”

In my book, Unite or Die: How Thirteen States Became a Nation, the students of the imaginary school of Forest Lake Elementary perform a play about the 1787 Constitutional Convention. It is a story which unfolds during a very hot summer in Philadelphia at Independence Hall. Fifty-Five delegates argued bitterly over representation in Congress and at one point, it looked like the convention would break apart. Benjamin Franklin called for prayer and it was said that George Washington looked as glum as he did during the dark days at Valley Forge. The stakes were high. The fledging country was on the brink of collapse. If the delegates had not come up with a compromise, America would not be the nation of fifty states it is today.

The conflicts and compromises of the Constitutional Convention provide a wealth of material for theatrical performance. For a short version of Unite or Die: How Thirteen States Became a Nation, please check out the Reader’s Theater available at this link.

American history is filled with dramatic moments suitable for reader’s theater. And online resources at The National Archives offer primary documents for your students to research and write their own dramatic sketches. Here are some writing ideas with corresponding links.

Idea # 1: The National Archives has a copy of Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous resignation from the Daughters of the American Revolution over their refusal to hold a concert with Marian Anderson at Constitution Hall. A letter in response from the DAR is also available at this link along with information about the historic concert on Easter Sunday in 1939 when Marian Anderson sang to a crowd of 75,000 people at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  After examining these primary documents, students could write a radio play with characters playing the part of Mrs. Roosevelt, the DAR president, and Marian Anderson. Reactions from the press and the public could be included.

Idea #2: Transcripts of the Lunar Orbit of Apollo 8 in 1968 are also available online at The National Archives . Students could write an interview with the astronauts describing what they saw and how they felt based on these eyewitness documents.

Idea #3: Susan B. Anthony surprised the registrar in Rochester, New York when she showed up demanding to vote in the 1872 presidential election. The National Archives has primary documents of the hearing which took place after her arrest. Students could re-enact Susan B. Anthony’s historic arrest based on those transcripts.

The Library of Congress also has wonderful resources for primary research. Creating a dramatic sketch based on historical documents is an exciting way to combine research and writing skills.
A great opportunity for enhancing those skills will be available at a free literary festival called THE “WRITE” STUFF which will take place at The National Archives this summer on July 7 and 8, 2017. 

On July 7th, students  will have the opportunity to hear a panel of nonfiction authors including John Hendrix, Syl Sobel, Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Tonya Bolden, and myself. Afterwards, students can choose a hands-on workshop with an author of their choice. Information to register is available here.

On July 8, there will be a family literacy, writing, and research festival with featured authors and illustrators including Marty Rhodes Figley, Diane Kidd, Janet Macreery and others. 

Take advantage of these programming and online resources. Enrich your summer with nonfiction writing and research!