Sunday, November 25, 2007

"Reading a book is a kind of conversation"

This quote, from Mortimer Adler's book, How to Read a Book, requires a little more explanation. In his chapter entitled "Criticizing a Book Fairly" he comments:

"A good book deserves an active reading. The activity of reading does not stop with the work of understanding what a book says. It must be completed by the work of criticism, the work of judging. The undemanding reader fails to satisfy this requirement, probably even more than he fails to anyalyze and interpret. He not only makes no effort to understand; he also dismisses a book simply by putting it aside and forgetting it. Worse than faintly praising it, he damns it by giving it no critical consideration whatever." (p. 139)

Further along he points out that,

"Cervantes may or may not have been right in saying, 'There is no book so bad but something good may be found in it.' It is more certain that there is no book so good that no fault can find with it."

As an author I find that last comment to be simultaneously intimidating and liberating. But then since Adler was an author himself, I assume I am in good company--his own work was probably critiqued many times!

This is a point that I encourage teachers to make with their students: to learn to read novels, their own work, and their peer's work critically and analytically. Those skills help us as readers and as writers.

Friday, November 23, 2007


What happens when a 13-year-old girl who invents a non-existent father and lives with a palm-reading wacky mother befriends a 9-year-old boy who is mourning his mother's death? You end up with a sometimes explosive, rocky friendship that bonds two lonely children together in their need for love and acceptance. In this another "I-read-this-because-I love-the-author" book, Jerry Spinnelli's new book, Eggs, will not disappoint readers from 4th grade through middle school. Teachers can use Eggs to begin a discussion of how these young characters say "I hate you" to one another, but just like people in real life, their actions really say, "I want to be your friend." I am impressed with Spinnelli's consistent ability to paint a visual image and show characters through their dialogue and actions. I regularly use Misha from Milkweed in seminars where I show teachers how an author "shows" rather than "tells about" a character—another way in which teachers can also use this book. I may just have to add Primrose, a main character in Eggs, to my teaching repertoire. (Little, Brown, and Young Readers, 2007)

The Castle Corona

I have to admit it. I began listening Sharon Creech's new book, The Castle Corona with skepticism. Not another mistaken-identity-orphan book, I thought. But Creech's power as a "wordsmith" (yes, you have to read the book to find out exactly who that is) won me over and I happily recommend this humorous book to upper elementary students. The short tale that takes place "long ago and far away" has similar themes to other books I have recently reviewed. Like Enter Three Witches: A Story Of Macbeth, the reader discovers the consequences of misunderstood actions. More gently than Carolyn Cooney's rendition of the Shakespeare tragedy (and appropriate to a younger audience) the reader also sees how wanting what one cannot have can shape a person's thoughts, dreams, and actions. And like Keturah and Lord Death, The Castle Corona skillfully weaves together several stories within a story. It makes me hopeful that storytelling is not a lost medieval art!

I hope that the girls and boys who read this book will think about the simple words of wisdom sprinkled throughout the book and consider pearls such as "When one has nothing, then nothing can disappear" and "A thief steals to get what he does not have." Teachers could use this book as an example of how to infuse a story with a moral without hammering the reader over the head with it. (Harper Collins, 2007)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Teacher Appreciation

While I was in San Antonio, I had the opportunity to visit with a VISTA volunteer who works to in drop-out prevention among the Hispanic population. Partnering with College for all Texans, Communities in Schools, and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, her mission is to educate students about career and college options. Over lunch, I asked this extremely motivated young woman who had been instrumental in her own life. Without hesitation, she said that her high school teachers had high expectations for the student body; their encouragement inspired her to succeed. This made me realize once again, the pivotal job which teachers share: our supportive words that come alongside students and say, "Come on, you can do it!" may mean the difference between a student staying in school or dropping out.

At Thanksgiving, I am thankful for the millions of teachers who embrace this task.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Everyone has a story

Just as I love playing with words, I also love stories; those that are written as well as ones told to me. Yesterday when I was riding to the Houston International Airport after the Texas Gifted and Talented conference, I heard my driver's story. Born in South Africa, educated in Great Britain, and now a 20+ year-resident of Houston, my driver had a degree in mass communications and was also a computer analyst. When I asked him why he was driving a shuttle he laughed and said that everyone asked him that! He explained that he was the owner of the SuperShuttle franchise in Houston and this job allowed him to be home with his family and be more involved with his children than his previous employment. He was delighted to find out I was an author because when I asked him what his dream job would be he answered, "I'd be a writer!" He has two novels written and is working on his third. Afraid to send his work out for fear that it would be stolen (a common fear, but rare occurrence), his books have remained private and unpublished. I encouraged him to find a local critique group, look at the publishers who publish work in the genre in which he is writing, and work on getting it out there!

These are key pieces of advice for any aspiring writer. To "birth" a piece of writing, writers must put time and energy into writing, revising, and perfecting it; risk the trauma of potential rejection, and then send it out into the world.

Everyone has a story. What's yours?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A day at Harlandale Middle School

Yesterday I had the opportunity to visit my first middle school outside of North Carolina. The warm San Antonio sun matched the welcome I received from the students, staff, and administration of Harlandale Middle. The 100 7th and 8th grade students enjoyed thinking about "Stories that are out of this world" as together we brainstormed a science fiction character. Although a little shy in the beginning, soon they were involved in the creative process. Afterwards, representatives of each small group read their descriptive paragraphs as the rest of the group enjoyed hearing about a variety of original characters: the man who was made out of soup cans who worked as a spy in the local grocery store, the 12' butterfly who could destroy her enemies with tornadoes produced by her powerful wings, a 4-eyed creature whose two eyes could see into the future, and several 10'+ giants with powers to match their size.

These students certainly got the idea that there are, "No CARS in Middle School!" That is, C-copying, A- adding on, and R-rewriting are prohibited when it comes to producing original fiction.

If you are interested in fun writers workshops for your students or teachers, please contact me at the e-mail address listed below.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

On the way to San Antonio

Not only am I addicted to writing and blogging, but apparently I have a growing hobby of talking about literacy with the person sitting next to me on an airplane. Today, as I flew to San Antonio to visit family, I met a professor who formerly taught business management and business statistics at Northeastern Oklahoma State. When she discovered my passion for writing she said that she always told her students that, "When you leave here you'll have to be a writer and a reader or else you won't succeed in business." Quizzes regularly included questions based on their reading of the Wall Street Journal. When she taught college Algebra at Texas Lutheran, she always asked her students to write a research paper on a famous mathematician-- despite their groans and complaints.

Three cheers for writing across the curriculum--on the college level no less!

National Middle School Conference Report

9000 middle school teachers and administrators. Hundreds of workshops stuffed into 2 1/2 days. Ten enormous rows of vendors selling everything from excellent writing lessons plans Maupin House to interactive maps Rand McNally, to spicy popcorn used for fundraising, to worldwide travel experiences for students. Add several roving reporters for The Conference Insider who desipte being dwarfed by the adults swarming around them navigated the exhibit halls as if they were in middle school....and you have the 2007 National Middle School Conference in Houston.

Was I overwhelmed? Slightly.
Stimulated? Without a doubt.
Excited to be a part of an event that drew educators from as far away as Seoul and as close as Louisiana? You bet.

Hands down this was the largest conference I have participated in and was rewarded by the opportunity to speak with dozens of educators about Teaching the Story. The response to my question, "Do you have time to teach creative writing?" was mixed. Many shook their heads sadly and admitted that preparing for standardized testing and or district mandated curriculum precluded time for creative writing. Others were excited about finding a book like mine and commented that they'd never seen anything like it (always heartening for an author to hear!) and were looking forward to using it. One teacher declared that she didn't care about the test: she taught what her she thought was important and her students consistently performed well. A seventh grade teacher said that in an exit poll her students invariably wished they had written a short story. A school outside Wilmington, NC offers creative writing in the 9th block; although the instructor admitted that gothic poetry was the frequent genre of choice.

I discovered that 7th graders in Kentucky and 9th graders in Canada had to write short stories. (Frankfort and Alberta here I come!)

I was tutored throughout the conference by my roommate and fellow Maupin House author, Jane Kiester (pictured above). Random gleanings from her 30+ years of experience:

  • Middle school teachers love to have fun by working together. They love to laugh, giggle, sing, and do calisthenics while they're learning. It's important they do some type of activity every 10 minutes. No wonder they are so high energy!
  • Make back-up overhead transparencies of all powerpoint presentations. Glad I listened!
  • I have a found a way to make revision (usually a boring and dreaded chore) fun.

What can I say? I'm addicted to wordplay and now to blogging and sharing this experience with all of you!

Thursday, November 8, 2007

On my way to Houston

One of the fun things about traveling is that you never know who you'll sit next to on the plane and what your conversation will include. On my way to Houston for the National Middle School conference yesterday, I sat next to a vice-president of a manufacturing company. After finding out the reason I was visiting Texas and my interest in literacy, he began talking about the problems his company has when it comes to hiring high school graduates. He is deeply concerned that many high school graduates lack basic reading, writing, and math skills and are therefore eliminated from the pool of applicants. At entry level positions that begin at $85,000, jobs at his company are job market plums.

When I asked my seat partner (who served on his local school board for 12 years and made academic issues his priority) why he thought so many high school graduate were under-perfomers he listed 3 reasons:

  1. Parents weren't setting high enough expectations for their children.
  2. Parents are not adequately encouraging their children and not involved enough in their lives. "Kids can quickly be sucked into an 'underworld" type environment," he said. Parents need to know what is going on with their kids and care about their academic performance.
  3. On the state level, he felt that although he believes that "life is a test" there is too much stress on high-stakes assessment testing.

My new acquaintance believes that the answer to this dilemma is that all of those who have a stake in the education process-the students, parents, teachers, administrators, and the "customers" (as he termed others in the industrial sector like himself) -- need to be working together.

And that's what I'm seeing here, at the National Middle School Conference. Teachers and administrators who take seriously the challenge to educate young people. My new friend would be impressed.


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