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! 

Monday, June 19, 2017

Writing Connections with Kelly Barnhill

Kelly Barnhill’s atmospheric novel The Girl Who Drank the Moon won this year’s Newbery Medal.  In an interview with the KidsPost section of the Washington Post, Barnhill talks about trying to create nuanced characters and her desire for a pet dragon as a kid.

Below are writing lessons for the classroom or for individual writers ages 8 and up.  Barnhill’s website has a hilarious FAQ about her writing process and information on her other books.

CREATING CHARACTERS:  Exploring Stereotype:  Barnhill’s novel is full of witches, who are usually presented as problematic in most books. Witches often are the villains or antagonists in fairy tales, for example.  Barnhill said that she wanted to push beyond the usual stereotype of the witch as mean (even evil), old, homely, and solitary.  Her witch characters are unique individuals, with a mix of positive and negative traits.

Classroom Discussion:  Have kids read the novel and make a list of the positive and negative traits for some of the witches.

Classroom Discussion and Writing:  Have students think about a character in a fairy tale or story that is usually presented in a stereotyped way.  The wolf in “The Three Little Pigs” or “Little Red Riding Hood,” is an example of a character that is usually presented only with negative traits.   The princess (“Cinderella,” “Snow White”) is usually presented with only positive traits.  Ask students to read their fairy tale carefully and list traits of this character or what they learn about the character from this tale.  Then ask them to give this character 1 or 2 traits that are the opposite of what they listed.  For example, the wolf might be listed as “nurturing” or Cinderella as “lazy.”  Ask students to write a story or even just a short scene to show this character with at least one positive and one negative trait.

An Unexpected Character:  We usually think of dragons as large fierce characters but the young witch’s pet in Barnhill’s novel is a tiny bossy dragon.  Classroom Discussion:  Ask kids to list some the physical and psychological traits of one of their favorite animals.  Then ask them to change one or two of the traits to its opposite (for example, from “big” to “small” of from “cuddly” to “fierce”), and in this way the character becomes fresh and unexpected.  Classroom Writing:  Ask students to create a story about or that includes such an unexpected pet.   Perhaps the unexpected pet is even the main character!  What happens next?

Ask a few students to volunteer to read their pieces aloud.  As a group, discuss what they learned about creating more nuanced or well-rounded characters and unexpected pets.

Monday, June 12, 2017


7 Ate 9: The Untold Story, written by Tara Lazar and illustrated by Ross MacDonald, is a clever mystery and a great book to read aloud in your classroom.

After you read 7 Ate 9 to your students, you can use it as a fun writing prompt for the classroom. Here are a few writing suggestions:

1) The author, Tara Lazar, took an old joke (“Why is 6 afraid of 7?” “Because 7 ate/8 9!”) and turned it into the plot of a book. Can you take a joke and turn it into a story? Use one of these jokes, or any other joke you like:
-“Why did the chicken cross the road?” “To get to the other side!”
-“How do you catch a fish without a fishing rod?” “You use your BEAR hands!”
-“What is it called when a cat wins a dog show?” “A CAT-astrophe!”

2) This book is positively FILLED with puns and plays on words.
Here are just a few:
-Private “I”
-I orders a slice of “pi”
-7 is described as “odd”
How many other puns and plays on words can you find in this book? Check the illustrations too! Make a list as a class.

3) 7 Ate 9 is a mystery story. Try writing your own mystery story. Before you start writing, organize your thoughts. How does the mystery begin? Is there a missing person or item? Who will solve the mystery in your story? What clues can you sprinkle into your story so that the mystery can be solved?

4) Ross MacDonald managed to draw numbers in a way that gives each one lots of personality. You try! Draw a number and give it hands, feet, and a face, like in the book. You can add clothes or any other touches you like. Now write a few sentences describing the personality of your number. What foods and activities does your number like? Dislike? Who are your number’s friends? Does your number have a pet?

5) Write your own ending to 7 Ate 9. Instead of 9 turning out to be 6, and 6 trying to frame 7…what else could happen? You decide! Think of a different solution to the mystery and write it down.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Time Capsules & Letter Writing

In Abuela’s Special Letters, the irrepressible Sofia Martinez decides that her whole family, including her cousins and grandmother, should make a time capsule.

 “Why?” Sofia’s youngest cousin asks.
“So we can have fun in the future by looking at our past,” Sofia explains.

Time capsules are a creative way for young writers to capture the present and dream about the future. Read Abuela’s Secret Letters from the Sofia Martinez series with your students. Discuss how each child in the story wrote a one word description of themselves. Sofia called herself “curious.” What word would your students choose to describe themselves and why?    

Ask your students to create a personal time capsule. This could be an end-of-the-year activity in which students reflect on the school year coming to a close and what they hope next year will bring. Time capsules are also a great way to start off in September with students writing down their predictions for the school year. Either way, ask you students to include answers to all or some of the following:

Favorite activity

Favorite food, song, color, TV show, game, etc.

Favorite School Subject

Favorite School Memory

Favorite Family Memory

Hopes for the Future

Three Personal Items & Why They Represent Who I Am Right Now

The Best Thing That Happened This Year

The Worst Thing That Happened This Year

What Makes Me Laugh

What Makes Me Cry

Places I Hope to See One Day

Time capsules can also be used to add writing to your social studies curriculum. Can your class make a time capsule for a historical figure like Benjamin Franklin or George Washington Carver? Could they make a time capsule for the Jamestown colony or Plymouth Rock? Time capsules provide many opportunities for imaginative learning and writing. No time capsule is complete without letters explaining the purpose of the objects included and other background information. Time capsules are also a great discussion starter for why it is important to preserve history. Your students could do research on time capsules and report on their findings. What did city officials bury in the cornerstone of important buildings? Do you agree with their choices? What items would you choose to represent your city?

And once students have finished their time capsules, they will enjoy decorating them. Creative learning is so much fun!