Friday, July 31, 2009

If Frank McCourt Taught It


Frank McCourt, who died on July 21, was not only a master storyteller, but also a high school English teacher. Following his death, the New York Times ran an article about him in which several of his former students were interviewed. Susan Jane Gilman, remembered that, "...he had us write courtroom defenses of inanimate objects and recite recipes as poetry." I thought those sounded like innovative writing exercises.

Vernon Silver recalled that a common exercise was asking students to describe what they had done when they got home the night before. "He would coax it out of us, showing us how to pay attention to mundane but telling details."

McCourt's memoir, Teacher Man was written in 2005 about his years as a school teacher. Since he once said, "The main thing I am interested in is my experience as a teacher," this book might be a great source of inspiration for teachers--particularly those who work in inner-city schools.

Another student, Kwana Jackson, who learned to love the written word under his tutelage said, "Only McCourt could make suffering desirable. Hell, you were going to suffer in this life anyway; you might as well do it doing something you love."

Or as McCourt himself said, "I had no accomplishments except surviving. But that isn't enough in the community where I came from, because everybody was doing it. So I wasn't prepared for America, where everybody is glowing with good teeth and good clothes and food."

Click on this link for an interview with McCourt about why he wrote about poverty.
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Sunday, July 26, 2009

AnAuthor World Interview

I must be famous. Upon arriving at the Charlotte Douglas Airport when I was headed to Chautauqua,NY, I looked around for an empty outlet to plug in my laptop. I approached a man sitting next to the only available spot and asked him if I could use the outlet. He looked at me and said, "You must be Carol Baldwin!"

Actually, the man who recognized me was Tim Davis, co-founder with Pam Zollman of AnAuthor World in Greenville, SC. He had previously contacted me to see if I wanted to participate in a kick-off conference they are holding on August 15, to which I agreed. A few weeks later Tim saw my name on the list of Highlights Writers Workshop participants. We discovered we were on the same flight, and he suggested interviewing me in the airport. We had a lively conversation about books we've loved, writing and illustrating for children, flying, children, churches, and cousins.

True to his word, Tim's interview with me was just posted on AnAuthor World. If you are interested in writing and illustrating for children consider attending this reasonably priced one-day event. You can see the schedule and register here.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Out of Austria - Part 2

Although it's been over a month since returning from Europe, thoughts about English language learners are still running around in my brain.

Packing to leave for that trip, I thought I'd catch up on my reading and threw in some journals for the plane and train rides. Appropriately, on the final train ride before returning home, I read "Why Travel? Reflections on Culturally Relevant Study Abroad." (Rhodes, J.A. & Milby, T.M. Spring, 2009, Reading in Virginia. 23-27)

Reporting on a trip in 2006 when several teachers attended the International Reading Association World Congress in Budapest, the authors concluded,

"Our two main research findings were that: (a) Study abroad program participation increased educators' cultural understanding; historical knowledge, literacy instructional strategies, and provided information from an international perspective, and (b) Participation in travel abroad placed educators in the role of language learners, thus providing an opportunity to develop empathy for ELL students within the United States."

Although I hadn't travelled to Europe as a part of language study, being immersed in other cultures among other language speakers made me self-conscious. I was the one who didn't fit in! Listening without understanding led my college-age daughter to observe, "Isn't it interesting that random sounds put together have meaning?"

Actually, these sounds are random to us, but have distinct meanings to the speaker and listener. And as Rhodes and Milby observed, "Educators who travel abroad return to American classrooms with additional instructional strengths. They have renewed interest in meeting students' needs, exhibit open and caring attitudes, and gain an expanded knowledge of history for the countries they visit."

If you travel in a foreign country, not only will you gain greater empathy for those for whom English is not their primary language, you will also encounter books and signs that have been translated into English--with more or less success.

Bookstore in Tabor, Czech Republic


Restaurant in Nuremberg, Germany



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Friday, July 17, 2009

Words of Wisdom from Highlights Writers Workshop

This week has been an amazing opportunity to learn and grow as a writer. As I look back on the week, I want so share some of the highlights (pun intended) of this inspirational Highlights Writers Workshop.

I learned from Harold Underdown, my reviewer, that I needed to figure out what my character wants. Although I have taught that principle to other writers, I had missed finding that driving force for Kate Dinsmore, my 13-year-old protagonist in my historical novel, Half-Truths. After an hour of soul-searching, I finally got it! My novel now has the "arrow which will drive a book" as Patti Gauch shared in her talk on conflict and tension.


I also learned from Gauch that, "You have to be a little crazy to write a good and original book." Getting there has to do with discovering the truth in yourself. Gauch's advice fit as I wrestled to pin down the truths that Kate will discover about herself and her family. Gauch gave us all permission to think unimaginable things and to follow what we're passionate about.


Speaking of passions...Once upon a time I wrote a kids book about the art, history, and science of glass. Although I was under contract for Discover Glass, the publisher went bankrupt and the book has languished in a box in my laundry room closet. Caught up in writing and promoting Teaching the Story: Fiction Writing in Grades 4-8, the glass book has been untouched for several years. I'd lost hope of every publishing it, until I met Andrew Gutelle, who encouraged me to speak with Carolyn Yoder, the editor of Calkins Creek Books. She said she was willing to look at the outline and Andy Boyles, science editor for Boyds Mill Press said I could send him some sample chapters. Encouragement for all types of projects- fiction, nonfiction, magazine articles--abounds here.

Kim Griswell has been one of the people who has encouraged me in my writing career. She edited both articles which I sold to Highlights Magazine and it was fun to meet her and to take her workshop on "A Sense of Place." She said a lot about the importance of creating authentic settings including how a setting can introduce a threatening element and tell the reader to pay attention to what is going to happen next. A setting can shape characters, create a sense of mystery, demand the character's immediate action, and be a character in and of itself. (Think Oz in the Wizard of Oz.) In keeping with her class, here is a picture of Kim and I sitting at an antique desk in Alumni Hall here on the campus. I took dozens of picture of furniture to help me with my research for Half-Truths.


Finally, it is always a pleasure to be around Kent Brown, executive director of Highlights Foundation. His passion for educating and nurturing children was communicated throughout the conference. Here he is at last night's annual auction. The proceeds go to a scholarship fund which helps authors and illustrators participate in this writers workshop. His energy, enthusiasm, and love of life is contagious.

Joyce Hostetter, a friend with whom I lead writing workshops for teachers, told me that coming to Chautauqua would be life changing. I suspect that she is right.

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Monday, July 13, 2009

"Fly Oh Thoughts on Golden Wings"


After playing a portion of Verdi’s opera from which these words are taken, today Peter Jacobi, professor emeritus of journalism at Indiana University, author, and writing consultant, inspired Chautauqua participants to “put fingers to the keys, give them wings, and set them flying.” To be honest, my fingers were flying as I tried to record everything he said. Here are some highlights that I captured for you.

To achieve the art of “literacy flight,” we must fulfill a set of artistic needs:
1. We must evince a willingness to soar. Imagine possibilities but then realize them. Tackle the imponderable and the unanswerable.
2. Let yourself go. Love the sense of freedom from releasing your imagination. This is non-settling for both reader and writer.
3. Acquire a yearning for adventure. He quoted Natalie Goldberg who said that “writers live twice.” They live everything a second time. Once to experience it, a second time to record it.
4. We must have courage. Annie Dillard said, “spend it all, shoot it all, give it all, give it now.” Be generous.
5. Know why you’re up there and where you’re going. Let the thing which is living in your imagination come to life.
6. Have vision to fly, write, and send forth your thoughts on golden winds.
7. Be acutely sensual.
8. Arrange words in a right logic.
9. Be passionate. Say what you have to say and say it “hot”. Have a wrestling match with your creative muse that lasts a life time.

Apparently Jacobi has been giving this advice for some time. Tonight in her speech, Candace Fleming remembered her first time at Chautauqua 16 years ago. She recalled Jacobi saying, "Write words that sing and soar." Some advice is timeless.

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Sunday, July 12, 2009

“Writing is a way of life, live the life of a writer”

Last night, Donna Jo Napoli, mother of five children and author of 70 books, inspired me and 100 other participants with these words in her opening address of the 25th Highlights Writing Workshop in Chautauqua, New York. I feel blessed to be here this week and will do my best to share some of what I learn and experience.

Napoli's advice to us as writers is also applicable to those of you who are teachers and who want to encourage your students in the writing process. She had three main points to remember this week:

  1. "Grow big ears and thick skin." She encouraged us to listen not only to the workshop leaders who have learned from their own mistakes, but to also listen to our fellow students. In keeping with this she said,
  2. "Don't defend and don't argue back." The reader of our work is never wrong. She told us to write down whatever someone else has to say about our work and say, "thank you." Anyone who gives feedback is trying to be helpful.
  3. "Enjoy the process." More than getting published (or getting an "A" on an assignment or passing a test) we must enjoy the writing process. If we don't love what we're writing about, we will never get our readers to love what we have written.

Teachers in the elementary and middle school classrooms are generally not surrounded by as eager a group of students as the writers participating in this conference. Yet, Napoli's suggestions can help you in the classroom. Writers of every age can grasp the concept that they must, "Grow big ears and thick skin." Instruct them to listen quietly to feedback their peers give them about their written work. We often don't see what is missing from our own work and having someone else read it and say, "this just doesn't make sense" can be the best piece of help. As Napoli said, "If the reader doesn't get it, then we haven't included enough clues."

Finally, how many of your students truly enjoy the writing process or just see it as a means to an end. How many are engaged in their subject material? How many get to pick what they're writing about? As a fellow participant said, "We need to bring the "F" word into the classroom—FUN!

Kathryn Au writes in the June/July issue of Reading Today that to develop students' ownership of literacy, "The teacher must be a reader and writer, and share his or her life as a reader and writer, to help students take ownership of their literacy."

This summer, read and write just for FUN. In the fall, share these experiences with your students. Your example will teach your students to live their whole lives as readers and writers. Technorati Tags:
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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Raise Your Child's IQ!

I opened this morning's Charlotte Observer to the op-ed page and the headline, "Best children's books ever" caught my eye. Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times, sang one of my favorite tunes.

In Kristof's words: "In educating myself this spring about education, I was aghast to learn that American children drop in IQ each summer vacation- because they aren't in school or exercising their brains.... A mountain of research points to a central lesson: Pry your kids away from the keyboard and the television this summer, and get them reading."

Kristof then went on to list his 13 all-time favorite books and invited readers to send in their own suggestions. From the looks of today's blog, he achieved his goal. He received over 2000 comments with other book recommendations. He is also looking for organizations that particularly encouraging reading for disadvantaged children. So if you know of one, leave a link in his comments page.

And while we're on the subject of not letting your kids "veg out" in front of the tube or computer this summer, how about linking that reading to a creative writing activity? Check out the International Reading Association's website for reading and writing activities. And what better time than the summer to get your daughter or son working on that "book" which they always say they're going to write? I just happen to know of a book which will help them along in the process. Ever hear of Teaching the Story: Fiction Writing in Grades 4-8?

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Sunday, July 5, 2009

"In the Beginning was the Word"


One of the highlights of my recent trip to Europe was seeing the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague. First built in 1391 for the purpose of preaching the Word of God in Czech, it is most famous for being the place where Jan Hus preached from 1402-1412. The rectangular hall could hold up to 3,000 people and at times there was standing room only.

The original building was almost entirely destroyed in 1786. In the 1950's a major reconstruction was undertaken using drawings and paintings that were discovered. The flagstone floor, several windows, fragments of the walls, as well as the door which Hus used to enter the pulpit, are original to the 14th century building. Click here for a beautiful panoramic tour of the main hall.
I was awed to be in the place where the gospel was preached and proclaimed to a people who were ready to receive it.

Paintings on the walls are modern reproductions of medieval paintings complimented with texts of Hussite songs.


Visiting the Czech Republic without being able to speak a word of the language, I was aware of the importance of purposeful and productive oral and written communication. Without a shared language, a person is isolated and unable to "connect" to the people around him. As I thought about the Czech people who flocked to hear the gospel preached in their own language, I thought how I couldn't imagine not being able to understand my pastor preaching the Word of God. How incredibly frustrating that would have been to a people who was largely illiterate and dependent on others to bring them the Scriptures.

I am thankful for the work of Hus and other reformers before and after him, Wycliffe and Tyndale to name two, who worked at translating and getting the Bible into the hands of the common people. Without their work, we wouldn't be able to read and understand the Word of God.
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