Monday, July 9, 2018

Dressing Up for Special Occasions

In my new title in the Sofia Martinez series, Sofia’s Party Shoes, Sofia is so excited about her new white shoes that she disobeys Mamá. Instead of keeping her party shoes clean and safe in their box, she wears them to her cousins’ house where they meet an unhappy accident. Sofia must face the consequences of her actions and wear the stained shoes to her friend Liliana’s quinceañera anyway. At first Sofia is grumpy, certain that she can’t have a good time.  But as the party progresses, she learns that fun does not require the perfect outfit.

Read Sofia’s Party Shoes and ask students to share a time when they got something new to wear for a special occasion. How did they feel? Did the new clothes stay perfect or did something happen?

Describe the special occasion. Was it a quinceañera, a wedding, or a Bar Mitzvah?  Did they look forward to attending? Or were they nervous?

Clothes can be a fun topic for young children to write about, especially dressing up for a special event. Kids might have funny stories about spills, lost ties, torn skirts, or wardrobe malfunctions.

What’s more, everyone has one item of clothing they love more than anything else in their closet. Do you remember when you got those pants or that cap? Does that T-shirt remind you of a special day with a grandparent or parent? How do you feel when you wear it? Do favorite clothes make you feel different? Why or why not?

Focusing on one special item of clothing will also give your students practice in description. What color is the dress? Can the color be compared to something else? For example, strawberry red or sky blue. Is the dress long or short? Scratchy or smooth?

When it comes to clothes, the possibilities for realistic writing are endless. Happy Writing!

Monday, June 25, 2018

Pillows, Dogs, and Writing Fun

My Pillow Keeps Moving, written by Laura Gehl and illustrated by Christopher Weyant, is the story of a lonely man who tries to buy a pillow and accidentally buys a dog—who becomes his new best friend.

After you read My Pillow Keeps Moving out loud to your students, you can use the story as a fun writing prompt. Try these suggestions for getting your students writing:

1) In this story, a man walks into a pillow store and accidentally buys a dog. Write your own story using this formula:
? walks into a store to buy ? and accidentally buys ?
Replace the first question mark with a character, the second question mark with an item you might buy in a store, and the third question mark with an animal.

2) The man in the story starts out with no pets and ends up with two. Do you have a pet? Do you wish you had a pet? What pet would you like to have, and why? You can even write about an imaginary creature you would love to have as a pet, like a unicorn or a dragon!

3) This book has a lot of pages without text, where the story is told only through pictures. Choose one of those pages and imagine that you need to describe what is happening to someone who cannot see the illustration. Use words to tell that part of the story.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Cooperative Learning with Brave Like My Brother

As a teacher, I was thrilled to discover Brave Like My Brother by Marc Tyler Nobleman. This slim title will make a perfect read-aloud and writing model for the upper elementary classroom. Told entirely in letters, Brave Like My Brother depicts a touching relationship between two brothers writing to each other during World War II. Joe’s letters home to younger brother Charlie share a fascinating account of an American soldier’s life abroad. The portrayal of war is neither too sugar coated nor too frightening for upper elementary students. Charlie’s letters to Joe share his struggles with a bully at home in Cleveland. The book’s large font and 100 page text should make it attractive to reluctant readers. 

Letter writing is a wonderful vehicle for sharing information. After reading Brave Like My Brother, students could work in pairs, each one taking on the role of a person separated from a loved one by war or circumstance. The letters could involve research into either a historical era or geographic region. It could be an exciting cooperative project. Here are some suggestions.

Student 1: Write letters to a sister/brother/friend describing your life as you travel to a new country and build a new life.
Student 2: Describe your life at home in response to these letters.

Student 1: Write letters home to a sister/brother/friend while you are at summer camp or on a vacation.
Student 2: Describe your life back home in response to these letters.

Student 1: Write letters to a friend during a move to a state across the country.
Student 2: Respond to the letters with information on how things are going in your friend’s old city.

Student 1: Write letters to a parent/sister/brother who is away on business, deployed, or incarcerated.
Student 2: Respond to the letters, explaining your current life situation.

Student 1: Write letters to a grandparent asking what life was like for them and explaining what your life is like.
Student 2: Write letters answering your grandchild’s questions.

In an age, when most people communicate by email or text rather than speaking on the phone, the ability to express ourselves by means of a letter is more important than ever. A cooperative letter writing exercise will give your students practice in both writing and essential life skills.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Experimenting with Imagination

guest post by Sue Fliess

The title of my new book Mary Had A Little Lab came to me in a dream—really. So when I visit schools and talk about this book, I tell them that they can dream up any story they want—or any machine they’d like—the only limit is their imagination. 

 My book is about Mary, a scientist and inventor, who makes her own dreams come true. She doesn’t have friends, so she decides she needs a pet. But rather than buy one, she makes one! A sheep, of course.  Once she makes a sheep, she is no longer lonely, and it soon allows her to make friends. Then her friends want sheep as well. But her Sheepinator goes haywire and starts making so many sheep that she and her new friends have to solve this new problem. The story has several problems that Mary and her friends must solve before the end. It’s like any experiment—things don’t always go right the first time. It takes many tries. Just as this book did to get it right!

One fun activity I do with students when I visit schools is to have them line up and recreate the Sheepinator from my book. They each have to choose what function they serve, what simple machine or movement their body must do to perform that function, and what sound it makes. They go in order, until, at last, a sheep pops out in the end—one student getting to be the sheep (I have a costume for this part, but that’s not necessary!). This gets them thinking about machine parts, how things work, and how things must work together.

Another activity is to have students create their own version of a Sheepinator. Draw a schematic on paper, then build it with arts and crafts and explain how it works.

A third, and maybe my favorite, it to ask students “If you could construct a machine to make anything you wanted, what would it be and what would it make?”  This allows them total freedom. Maybe they want to create an ice-cream-o-scooper, which makes any flavor of ice cream with the push of a button. Or a Cash-o-matic that spits out money. They can draw it, explain how it works, and even create a 3-D model of it, if they like.

Let the inventions begin! 

Sue Fliess ("fleece") is the author of numerous children's books including A Fairy Friend, Calling All Cars, Robots, Robots Everywhere!, The Hug Book, Tons of Trucks and Shoes for Me!  Sue lives with her family and a Labrador named Charlie in Northern Virginia. For more information about Sue and to check out her books and song parodies, go to

Monday, May 7, 2018

“Thinking with her hands”

Maya Lin has built monuments in clay, granite, water, earth, glass and wood. Her most famous monument is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, an opportunity she won in a contest she entered anonymously as a college student.  It was controversial from the beginning.  Critics wondered why a person of Asian heritage should design a monument to veterans of a war fought against Asians. Others criticized what appeared to them as a black scar in the earth. But now this monument in Washington, D.C., is visited by more than three million people every year.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial/Creative Commons photo
Susan Goldman Rubin’s new and highly acclaimed biography of Maya Lin – Maya Lin: thinking with her hands - includes photos of the many more monuments and sculptures she has designed, along with her struggles about whether and how to design each one. 

“I try to understand the ‘why’ of a project before it’s a ‘what.’”

She used the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, to “give people an understanding of what that time period was about.”  She literally sculpted the earth to create a grassy Wave Field at the University of Michigan’s aerospace engineering building. She redesigned an old barn for a retreat center in Tennessee for the Children’s Defense Fund. 

Not only is Maya Lin: Thinking with her hands a thought-provoking story of how an artist works, it can spur conversations and writing as well.  It could be a perfect way to open a discussion of national and local monuments – including the many that are controversial right now - but you could also have students : 

·       Write about a monument or statue in your town. What does it mean to you? Why is it important for that statue to be in your town?
·       Do you think there are other monuments that could be added or removed from your town? Write a persuasive essay explaining your reasons.
·       If your school is named for a person, what sort of monument would you create to honor that person? This could be a class project, especially for younger children. (My own children’s elementary school in Montgomery County, Maryland, was always known just as “Barnsley.” Turns out it was the first Montgomery County school named for a woman. Lucy V. Barnsley not only taught for 35 years, but also donated books to start the first library in Rockville and started the Retired Teachers Association in the county.)
·       Design a monument to any person or event that is important to you and write an artist’s statement about your monument.  Maya Lin’s essay about her Vietnam Veterans Memorial competition entry is included in the book, but may also be read here.

Maya Lin expects her last commission to be a project called “What is Missing?” at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York. This ecological history of the planet invites scientists, conservationists and everyone to find ways to “learn enough from the past to rethink a different and better future.” And that can spark many many more writing ideas.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Taking Care of the Earth

guest post by Madelyn Rosenberg

Both Earth Day and National Poetry Month fall during April, so it’s a good time to introduce you to Take Care, a rhyming book about taking care of the earth and each other.

I wrote Take Care after watching a series of gut-wrenching events unfold in the news. This particular series of events culminated in the nightclub shooting in Orlando. How can we keep doing this to each other? I thought – and have thought, again, many times since. I have similar thoughts when I see people abusing the planet – when someone throws a cigarette butt out a car window or when they find a whale on a beach in Spain with his stomachfull of plastic.

I react with rage. And sadness. And I try to reassure myself that we can learn to take care of each other and the planet and make things better. Poetry, whether we’re writing it or reading it, can be burn or balm. My book is meant to be a balm, though it’s fueled by burn. It begins:

Take care of the world, of the mountains and trees
Tend to the world, all the bumbles and bees
Color the world, with greens and with blues
Heal up the world with the words that you choose

Following are a few related prompts:

Emotion poems
What makes you angry? What makes you sad? What makes you happy and what makes you heal? All poems convey emotion, and for this writing prompt, we’re going to come at it full throttle. The lesson I try to always teach my kids when it comes to writing is that specifics are important. So urge your class, when they’re writing about a particular emotion, to think really hard about the things that make them feel the way they do. Does their emotion have a color? A temperature? A season? Is it tied to a specific event, like a fight with a friend or the loss of a stuffed animal? (Was anyone else riveted by the search for the rabbit lost on the London Underground?) There are no real rules for this one, but for students who thrive with rules, you can tell them the poem has to be the same number of lines as letters in the type of emotion they’re feeling – or a multiple of that if it’s a short one. Challenge: Can you convey the emotion without mentioning it by name?

A letter to the world
Have the class write a letter to the planet. Maybe it’s an apology note. Maybe it’s a thank you note for a dandelion or a dimpled strawberry or the color green. Again, it’s always great when you can get kids to focus on something specific. Want to get them in the right mood? ? Consider a nature walk around the school for inspiration. Prose or poetry for this one, your pick.

A take-care tree
A tree branch (a fallen one, please =)
A hole punch
String or yarn
“Leaves” cut from recycled paper. It’s fine if there is printing on one side, as long as the other side is blank. Multiple colors help.
A flower pot
Rocks or newspapers

Place the branch in the flowerpot and use rocks or wadded up newspapers to hold it in place. Have students write their ideas for taking care of the world on the paper leaves. Punch a hole in each leaf and attach it to your branch with the string. Use as a reminder and a classroom decoration for Earth Day, Arbor Day, Tu B’shevat or spring. 

ADAPT IT: If your students do the letters-to-the-world prompt, excerpts on tree leaves also make a nice classroom display.  

BIO: As a journalist, Madelyn Rosenberg spent many years writing about colorful, real-life characters. Now she makes up characters of her own. The author of award-winning books for young people, she lives with her family in Arlington, Va. For more information, visit her web site at or follow her on twitter at @madrosenberg. And if you try this exercise in your classroom, she’d love to see the results!

Monday, April 9, 2018

HIC! HIC! Writing about the Hiccups

Hiccups are funny! They happen to everyone! An experience everyone can relate to makes a great writing prompt for a personal narrative. It can also give your students an opportunity to write humor since hiccups often create a funny situation.

In my new book, Hector’s Hiccups, Sofia and her cousin, Hector plan to attend a movie with Abuela. They are all ready to go when they realize Hector has the hiccups. Abuela tries to cure Hector with a lemon and other remedies. Sofia tries to help by holding her breath with Hector. HIC! HIC! Now Sofia has the hiccups, too. Abuela suggests a change of plans and soon they are all dancing in the kitchen. Who says the hiccups can’t be fun?

After reading Hector’s Hiccups to your class, ask your students to describe a day when they experienced the hiccups. Ask them to consider the following questions to expand their narrative.

1.    Describe the time of day and what you were doing when the hiccups started.
2.    Did you change your plans or keep on with whatever you were doing?
3.    Did you get the hiccups in a place where you were supposed to be quiet?
4.    How long did your hiccups last?
5.    Were you embarrassed? Frustrated? Or did you laugh?   
6.    Did others try to help you?
7.    What is your favorite cure for hiccups?
8.    Did you learn something from the experience?

Happy Writing!