Monday, August 6, 2018

One Voice Can Change the World

Guest Post by Kathryn Erskine

It’s true ... with incredible determination and persistence, one person really can change the world. I was introduced to the voice of Miriam Makeba, dubbed Mama Africa, during the oppressive apartheid regime. Despite danger to herself and family, she told the world about the atrocities in her country. Singing was her art and talent, and using that, she forced the world to look at what was happening in South Africa, and to do something about it. We may not have her gifts, but we can all be brave. We can all speak out and change the world.

Young people often feel unheard. As a child, especially a girl in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, I took heart that a woman could speak out and that people would actually listen. I loved that she forced everyone to look at, and deal with, what was happening to her people –and not just in South Africa, but in the United States, and anywhere in the world. Her voice gave me hope that I could have a voice, too. I wanted to give that same feeling of empowerment to young readers today.

To that end, here are some writing activities you can use with Mama Africa:

1. Use Miriam’s story as a jumping off point to learn more about her or one of the other people mentioned in the book, like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald. Also, see the timeline and Further Reading sections for more ideas, e.g., Fannie Lou Hamer and John Lewis. What contributions did these people make? What do you think was most important, and why? If you could ask one of these people a question, what would you ask?

2. What is an issue you feel strongly about? How would you use your voice to tell the world? In today’s world, unlike Miriam Makeba’s during the mid-twentieth century, what avenues do you have available to get your message out?

3. Mama Africa can also be used as an introduction to apartheid, and other oppressive regimes, and how such regimes can be called out and, eventually, brought down. What is happening in the world today that is similar to a tyrannical government like South Africa’s under apartheid? What do you think is an effective way to stop that regime?

And, any of the above activities can be written in the call-and-response style used in the book, either as a song or free verse poem, where the last word of the preceding line is also the first word in the following line.
An example from the book:
Still, that doesn’t stop Miriam from singing.
Singing always gives her strength.

Mama Africa: How Miriam Makeba Spread Hope with Her Song, was named a 2018 Best Book for Young Children by CABA, Children’s Africana Book Awards.  It was also the 2018 Coretta Scott King John Steptoe Award winner.

Kathryn Erskine is the author of six novels for young people, including National Book Award winner, Mockingbird, Jane Addams Peace Award honor book Seeing Red, and most recently, The Incredible Magic of Being, about a boy with anxiety who believes in the power of the universe to save us. She also recently wrote an award-winning picture book, Mama Africa, a biography of South African singer and activist Miriam Makeba.  Kathryn Erskine draws on her life stories and world events for her writing and is currently working on several more novels and picture books.  Visit her at

Monday, July 23, 2018

Birthdays, Chickens, and Writing Fun!

I Got A Chicken For My Birthday, written by Laura Gehl and illustrated by Sarah Horne, is about a little girl who wants tickets to the amusement park…but receives a chicken instead.

After you read I Got A Chicken For My Birthday to your students, you can use the story as a writing prompt in the classroom. Here are some suggestions to get kids writing:

1) In this book, the chicken builds Ana an amusement park in her back yard. If you received a magical engineering chicken for your birthday, what would you want your chicken to build for you? Describe the creation you would wish for.

2) Ana has a special relationship with her grandmother, Abuela Lola. Think of a member of your family, or a neighbor or family friend, who is special to you. Write about that person and why you feel close to him or her.

3) At first, Ana is disappointed that she received a chicken instead of tickets to the amusement park. Have you ever received a gift that you weren’t expecting or didn’t want? What was it? What did you want instead?

4) The chicken gives Ana a list of items needed for building the amusement park. The list has both practical items and silly items. Make up your own list of supplies for building an amusement park. What would you include on your list?

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.