Monday, December 29, 2008

Aleutian Sparrow

Karen Hesse, known for the award-winning free verse book, Out of the Dust, used the same poetic style to write this poignant description of the effects of World War II on the Aleutian Islands. As a fan of historical fiction, I probably wouldn't have considered using poetry to tell the story of the displaced Aleut people. But Hesse, using the voice of the young girl Vera, paints a complete picture of displacement, suffering, and homelessness with sparse language and beautiful imagery.

Her poems speak for themselves:

"Leveling the World of the Aleut"

We hear the white people at the Institute talk. They say

whenever the fog clears over Attu and Kiska,

American fighter planes race out to the very end of the

Aleutians, releasing their bombs on the Japanese


I tremble beside Eva, imagining American bombs dropping

like deadly seeds on our emerald earth.

"Oh, Eva," I say, "the bombs are taking root in our place."


"The Value of an Aleut"

Pari and I want to go out and gather the dead grass,

To light a cooking fire outside the tent.

This is the Aleut way. On the chain there are no trees,

Driftwood is scarce:

We make fires from bundles of dry grass.


The man from Indian Affairs

Stitches his net around us:

Aleuts go nowhere without permission, he says.

Aleuts go nowhere.


And we submit.

We stay in a bundle at the Institute.

But our dreams are ravens

Flying west over Shoemaker Bay.


Aleutian Sparrow would be a great supplement for upper elementary and middle school students who are studying the Pacific Theater of Operations in World War II or the Aleutian Islands. This would be an opportunity for Social Studies teachers, who want to integrate literacy practices into their classrooms, to point out Hesse's use of figurative language. The disconcerting image of bombs planting seeds in the first poem, and the metaphors of bundles and nets in the second, are examples of topics that could promote discussion and prompt poetry writing in the history classroom. Recommended for ages 10-14, this book is also available through Listening Library. Although I enjoyed listening to it, students who are studying Hesse's poetic devices should read the hard copy. (Simon & Schuster Children's Books, 2003)

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Food for Thought for 2009

Posting this blog on Christmas will be too late for this shopping season, but it may influence your shopping choices in 2009. My daughter Lori who is a communications major at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, composed this video after reading, The Better World Shopping Guide. The book is a “comprehensive, up-to-date, reliable set of rankings on the social and environmental responsibility of businesses and corporations” (p.2).

Lori and I had an interesting discussion about her thoughts and intent in creating the video. “This is a purposeful message,” Lori said. “These are real problems and without the images, the words are just facts. Without the emotional impact that these images have, people will be less likely to take the message seriously and act on it.”

An article in the September, 2008 issue of Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, “Remix: The Art and Craft of Endless Hybridization” defines remix: “To take cultural artifacts and combine and manipulate them into new kinds of creative blends. “ Although remix originally referred to using audio-editing techniques to produce a new mix of a recorded song, recently it has been “expanded to include music and sound as well as moving and static images taken from films, television, the Internet, personal archives, and elsewhere” (p. 22).

The authors note that “we remix language every time we take an idea, artifact, or a particular stretch of language and integrate it into what we are saying and doing at the time” (p.23). The article explores several remix practices and the art and craft of remix. The implications for literacy education are enormous. As you view the video, consider not only the facts that Lori presents, but also the literacy skills she needed to create it. Food for thought for 2009.

Lori recommends that you purchase a copy of the book yourself; it is compact and travels easily. But if you don’t want to purchase it, you could e-mail me at and I will send you a spreadsheet that she and two friends created condensing the information from the book.

Images for this video were taken from Google images; the text is from The Better World Shopping Guide, music is Love Come Down by The War.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Ideas and Images

"I write as a participant, to see what will happen." Patricia MacLachlan

Many of the recent quotes which headline this blog have come from SCBWI's journal, Ideas and Images. I thought MacLachlan's words were worth their own separate blog since she expresses my feelings as I write my first novel. Although I have a broad outline in my mind of the adventures Kate Dinsmore and Lillie Harris, my two main characters, will experience together--how their story will play itself out has yet to be determined. I have a feeling that these two girls will have a lot to say about their story - how it is written and how it will end.

For those of you who are either shopping for a last minute present for a friend who wants to write for children, or contemplating a new year's resolution of your own--consider this journal or a year's membership to the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators. The journal is inspirational; the membership is a gift of encouragement and instruction.
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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Help for Haiti

“Cupboards were nearly bare before the winds started whipping, the skies opened, and this seaside city filled like a cauldron with thick, brown, smelly muck.”- Marc Lacey

Storms heighten Haiti’s suffering, Charlotte Observer, September 12, 2008.

I used that quote this fall to demonstrate to teachers how image-driven writing should include specific nouns ("cupboards, seaside city, cauldron"); image driven adjectives ("thick, brown, smelly muck"); and figurative language ("winds whipped") to grab a reader's attention.

I didn't know then that I would be able to participate in an opportunity to help the people of Haiti. As followers of this blog know, I generally blog about issues related to literacy. Today I'm taking a detour to let you know what I did yesterday instead of write.

Covenant Day School, a ministry of Christ Covenant Church, announced last week that they were working with the church to provide volunteers, medical goods, and clothing to help fill up a 53-foot trailer. The school specifically helps a school in Gonaives and some of the Crocs, medical supplies, and school supplies were going directly to orphans there.

When I arrived yesterday afternoon, this is what the trailer looked like on the inside:

I had the opportunity to not only interview Della and her father, but I also spoke with Susie Austin who has traveled to Haiti several times. She is returning in February to give hygiene training in three areas: hair care (so they don't get scabies), oral hygiene, and using Clorox to disinfect the children's bedding. Bed wetting is a big problem because there is no indoor plumbing and the children are afraid to go outside at night (tarantulas and the dark are two common enemies). Shoes are extremely important because without them, the children frequently get worms (intestinal parasites) and sand fleas.

A high point of the afternoon was the delivery of donated Crocs. Volunteers of all ages helped to unload the FedEx truck.

The shoes came in lots of colors and sizes, and the volunteers who had been to Haiti were excited about seeing the children's faces when they received them.

By the end of the afternoon, the trailer looked a lot different than when I had arrived.

Click here for more information about ministry to the Haitians or here for specific information about helping orphans worldwide.Technorati Tags:
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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Friday, December 5, 2008

After the Wreck, I Picked Myself Up, Spread My Wings, and Flew Away

If you have ever known a teenager who sullenly withdraws into herself, begins doing poorly at school, denies cutting classes, drinks, lies, steals, and "accidentally" OD's on Christmas Eve—then you might recognize Jennifer Abbot, the 15-year-old protagonist in Joyce Carol Oates' young adult novel, After the Wreck, I Picked Myself Up, Spread My Wings, and Flew Away.

After Jenna's mother is killed in a freak car accident in which Jenna is severely injured, she is left feeling guilty (the accident must have been her fault) and angry (rehab is painful, her house is sold to pay for the medical bills, her teachers and friends feels sorry for her) and powerless (she has to move to New Hampshire to live with her aunt- there is nowhere else for her to go). Her father, who abandoned the family years earlier for a new wife and family, is of no help and Jenna's bitterness towards him fuels the flame of her anger and despair.

In her loneliness, Jenna finds acceptance from 'Trina, a bulimic teen who befriends Jenna, but also uses her. A dramatic scene at a party gone bad shows Jenna the direction in which she is heading. Although the reader only sees him briefly, Jenna's one true friend is a young man nicknamed "Crow" who speaks words of truth that resonate in Jenna's heart. His own traumatic experiences (including his brother's death, living with a father who is an injured Vietnam vet, and his own accidents) enable him to come alongside of her and provides the exact help that she needs—a firm hand that pulls her out of her fears and self-incrimination and pushes her to move on with her life.

Oates use of symbolism is powerful. When you read this book, be aware of how birds and bridges are important in the story. I would recommend this to older teens (there are some sexual references in the book, although nothing explicit) and adults. Parents who are struggling to understand their own teen or the effects of peer pressure might better appreciate the iceberg underneath the surface of a teen's "whatever" fa├žade after reading this book. (Harper Tempest, 2006. Recorded Books)


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Monday, December 1, 2008

The Voice that Challenged a Nation

Award winning author Russell Freedman published this biography of African American vocalist Marian Anderson in 2004. I selected it as background to the novel that I'm working on and was not disappointed.

Anderson was born in 1897 and grew up in the ethnic neighborhoods of south Philadelphia. Her mother was widowed when she and her two sisters were young; her father was injured in an accident at the Reading Terminal Market where he worked as a front loader. (On a personal note, my German grandmother would take me and my brother and sister to the market once a year to buy delicacies from home. I can still remember the crammed rows of stands that sold sausages, chocolates, breads, and cheeses.) Anderson's church recognized her talents as a contralto when she was only 8 years old and helped raise the money that she needed for lessons. Her instructors included Guiseppe Boghetti who was moved to tears after hearing her sing, "Deep River."

In the 1920's Anderson began touring the country singing at black churches and colleges. She received a boost in her career when she beat 300 rivals and won the prestigious the Lewisohn Stadium competition in 1925. But her performances in the United States were mostly to fellow African Americans; and she knew that her career would never advance unless she had a wider audience. She decided to go to Europe to study Italian and German so that she could be better equipped to sing operas. During the 1930's Anderson was enthusiastically received by heads of state and famous composers in Scandinavia, Germany, Austria, and Russia. Arturo Toscanini, a very well-known conductor, heard her sing and said, "Yours is a voice such as one hears once in a hundred years."

But when Anderson returned home racism and prejudice still haunted her. She frequently received third or fourth class hotel and travel accommodations and even into the mid 1950's was blocked from walking unto a "Whites only" train platform in the Deep South. The pinnacle of her fight against racism occurred in 1939 when her manager wanted to arrange for a concert at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. The hall was operated by the DAR (Daughters of the American Republic) who had initiated a "white artists only" policy in 1935. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned her DAR membership and public outrage followed this act of outright racism. As a result, Anderson performed for 75,000 people in front of the Lincoln Memorial: establishing the Memorial as the "moral high ground" for protest rights. You can view a short video of this event at: . From that website you will find links to other historical videos, including her reminiscing about her hero, Roland Hayes .

Although Anderson did not begin her singing career in order to combat racial injustice, she tenaciously conquered many racial barriers. In recollecting the 1939 concert she said: "I said yes, but the yes did not come easily or quickly. I don't like a lot of show, and one could not tell in advance what direction the affair would take. I studied my conscience. …. As I thought further, I could see that my significance as an individual was small in this affair. I had become, whether I like it or not, a symbol, representing my people."

When I listened to this book on CD, I wished an audio clip of her singing had been included. Middle school and high school students will appreciate reading this book and teachers should consider using it as a resource for Black History Month. I. Go to or for more details about Marian Anderson and her contribution to American history.

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Friday, November 28, 2008

NCCAT Teachers Exercise Muscle Words

If you've been to one of my writing workshops you know that when it comes to learning Show, Don't Tell writing and revision, I get teachers up out of their seats in this kinesthetic activity.

If you want to try it in your classroom, first teach the "Muscle Words":
- vivid verbs
- specific nouns
- image-driven adjectives
- similes, metaphors, & personification
- onomatopoeia & alliteration

Then, assign an exercise to each one and voila! you have your own version of Exercising Muscle Words. This is a great way for students (and teachers!) to remember words which will jazz up their writing.Technorati Tags:
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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Favorite Books Selected by some Favorite Teachers

At NCCAT where Joyce Hostetter and I have been co-teaching the "Is There a Children's Book in You?" seminar, I asked the teachers to tell me what their favorite books were and why. Here are some of their favorites:

My Little Sister Hugged An APE by Bill Grossman, illustrated by Kevin Kawkes. Gail Hurlburt of Randleman, NC recommended this cute rhyming book that teaches the alphabet. She is an ESL K-2nd grade teacher.

The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd and Well Witched by Frances Hardinge were recommended by Pam Brillisour, a media coordinator. She said that The London Eye Mystery is about a boy whose brain figures things out differently and solves the mystery of his missing cousin. The Well Witched starts slowly but has amazing descriptions. "Three friends miss the bus home from a village where they aren't supposed to be. Since they don't have the bus fare they decide to take some coins from a wishing well. The problem is that they each develop a unique (but scary) skill that they need in order to grant the wished tied to each coin."

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Jester was recommended by Laurie Foote who is an EC teacher in Henderson County. She writes, "The moral of the story is the world is full of exciting things to learn and interesting people to meet if you're just open to it and take the time and look."

Freaky Green Eyes by Joyce Carol Oates is a young adult book recommended by creative writing instructor, Rebecca Wheeler. She says, "This is a coming of age story that is packaged in a wonderfully executed psychological thriller as a teenager discovers her parents' relationship is veiled in secrets."

Gooney Gird Greene, Gooney Bird and the Room Mother, and Gooney the Fabulous
by Lois Lowry. Kathy White, (who couldn't choose just one book) is a second grade teacher in Greensboro, NC. She says that these books star an unusual second grade girl with a gift of telling "absolutely true" stories about herself. Through her stories she explains good writing skills.

Every Living Thing by Cynthia Rylant was recommended by Jan Caldwell, NBCT, Grade 4, Candler Elementary. She writes, "This book provides twelve short stories in which animals change people's lives for the better. It has limited illustrations. The children love it, and it has great themes and life lessons."

Love that Dog by Sharon Creech was recommended by Elizabeth Bemiss, a third grade teacher in Mint Hill. She wrote, "This is a great poetry read aloud/quick read that you'll want to read over and over! This is for second grade and up. A new sequel just came out which is just as great, Hate That Cat."

Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech was recommended by Karen Kollar, a teacher at Ashley Elementary in Fayetteville. She wrote, "Sal is suddenly left without a mother and a mystery as to why she left.  This story will take you on an emotional rollercoaster and the intrigue about the whereabouts of her mother and why she left will keep you wondering to the end."

I will leave the week feeling like a mid-wife, expecting that I helped birth some books from this talented group of teachers and writers.
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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

How Writing a Nano Novel is Different than “Normal” Novel Writing

On the ride to NCCAT with Joyce Hostetter, my fellow presenter, we talked about our NaNoWriMo books. This is my first foray into historical fiction; this is Joyce's fifth book. Her story is about a teenager who for unexpected reasons finds himself working in a mental hospital in the 40's. I was curious to know how writing a book within the framework of one month has been a different experience than how she normally writes her books.

"Before I started NaNo I actually used "Create a Character" from Teaching The Story." (Of course I was delighted to hear that!) "It pushed me to identify major people in my character's life and formative events and helped me to know his back story. I don't usually intentionally sit down and brainstorm about my character first; usually I just discover my characters as I go along.

"I haven't had as much time to research as I would have liked," Joyce admitted. "I have books on my shelves that I haven't even had a minute to read. For example, I want to read the memoirs of a mental hospital employee from WWII but I've been so busy trying to write that I haven't even been able to contact him yet.

"The other difference is that before I had high speed internet connection and the distractions of Facebook and blogging, I would just get up every morning to write. Now, I get up and check my e-mail, and troll around the web and it is all very distracting. NaNoWriMo has helped me to remember what it feels like to create a character and to have my mood lifted by the writing process itself. It energizes me. After recently experiencing the tediousness of proofing the copyedits for Comfort, the sequel to Blue, it is exciting to have a new story and a fresh new character."

Joyce and I became so engrossed in talking about our experiences with NaNoWriMo, that we missed our exit coming here. Fortunately, we figured it out before we drove too many miles out of our way. Get two writers together and that's what happens! But we arrived with plenty of time to set up and lead 24 teachers in the process of exploring, "Is there a Children's Book in You?"

This is Joyce sharing how to create characters with voice. Hopefully a character who doesn’t miss her exit driving along I-40 West in the Appalachian Mountains!

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Writing Lesson Plan for November 14

I'm giving all of the teachers out there a present for this Friday. Since Saturday November 15 is "I Love to Write Day," take a minute and click on the link on the first paragraph on that site. If you don't find a novel writing idea that will fit your classroom, why don't you look at MIGUEL ANGEL ARENAS HARO's website. At the IRA's 22nd World Congress on reading in Costa Rica he placed a large white strip of paper on the floor and let it snake throughout the conference hall. He then invited participants to write poems on it. "The Giant Poem is very classical," he was quoted saying in the Oct/Nov issue of Reading Today. "It puts the paper close to people and gives them a chance to read their own words."

Why not try creating a giant poem that meanders down the hall of your school? Or how about one that goes around the perimeter of your school cafeteria or up and down the bleachers of the gym?

As for me, I think I'll celebrate by trying to add another 2000 words to my novel. It is now at 14,317 words and has a new working title: Half the Truth.

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Saturday, November 8, 2008

Literary Odds and Ends

Since working on NaNo depletes my brain, this blog will be a consortium of quotes from other people who are inspiring me at the moment. Appropriate for writers as well as teachers, I hope these words inspire you too:

This is how I feel when I am writing: "Writing a first draft is like creating clay out of nothing, just dirt and water." John Green, winner of the 2006 Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature for Looking for Alaska.

This is what I struggle with (see last post):

"For the same reason that active verbs are generally better than passive verbs, a lively present tense will beat a sodden past tense every time. It's the difference between a saunter and a trudge." James Kilpatrick, "Why because? Since is sounds better, that's why," November 8, 2008 column.

This is what I have to remember: "I firmly believe the story knows itself and the really good stuff just pops up when we let down our guard." Joyce Hostetter, author of Blue and Healing Water.

This is what I'm doing now and later:

"Of course we [Joyce is also in the middle of NaNO] can layer in what we know for now but we don't have to know everything. We can leave _____________s for filling in later or make up something totally not accurate. I do have some sensory details and little descriptions of what is going on around my character but I expect to have tons of stuff to layer in later (and lots to take out)."

This is what I have to think about:

"Novels that last and please readers are written because the novelist is intoxicated by the delight and the endlessly renewable joy that comes from engaging with imaginary characters—with story; and that engagement always begins with reading; and if it catches you, it never lets go. Write a novel if you want to win a competition, or impress your friends, or possibly make some money—do so by all means. But if you're not a lover of stories, a passionate and devoted reader, don't expect your novel to please many readers." Phillip Pullman – from his NaNo Pep talk on 11/7/08.

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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Teacher Learns to “Show, Not Tell”

I'm thick into NaNo and realizing that I can describe something to death-- but making up something that hasn't ever existed except in my mind is really HARD for me! As I push along at the keyboard and struggle to produce (gulp!) 2,000 words a day, I barrage myself with hundreds of questions: What will Anna Katherine, my 12-soon-to-be-13-year-old protagonist say or do next? What words would she use? What hand gestures or facial expressions would show her feelings? I am aware that every snippet of conversation can take her and my other characters in multitudes of directions and the possibilities overwhelm me.

I feel like I'm floundering in deep water with some knowledge of how to swim and hoping I can finish the race. Although I talk about show, don't tell in lots of workshops, I am at home doing that in nonfiction. This plunge into fiction is another story all together. (Pun intended.) I am more comfortable narrating what Katie (her nickname) did last summer than showing what she is saying, thinking, or doing in the moment.

So what is helping me? Remembering my own acronym for showing a character- FAST.

  • F- Feelings
  • A-Action
  • S-Speech
  • T- Thoughts

It's nice that my own book is informing my writing! I am convinced that this foray into fiction will not only move me toward making my dream of writing a book for young readers become reality, but it will make me a better writing teacher also.

Last night at a writing workshop at South County Library I happily concurred with my teen participants that "plot holes" happen. Now I know the pains of dialogue that doesn't sound authentic; the reality of making all of the details fit together into a cohesive whole.

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Friday, October 31, 2008

Let the Writing Begin!

When friend and fellow author (and soon-to-be partner in a crazy writing adventure) Joyce Hostetter asked me to join her at NaNoWriMo when other out of their mind writers attempt to write 50,000 words during November...I thought, I can't do that. I have a presentation for the NCAIS coming up and a week of teaching at NCCAT with Joyce. And Thanksgiving and kids home from college and a trip to Wilmington and how could I ever write a book in one month?

Then I visited the NaNo website, saw that it was built for people like me, who keep saying they're going to write a novel (in my case the YA historical novel to take place here in Charlotte in 1950) but seem to never get around to writing it, and I signed up.

So, tomorrow the non-editing, gush-it-out-and-don't-look back-writing whirl commences. I'm wondering if my family can abide dust balls, dirty dishes, wrinkled clothes, and peanut butter for lunch and spaghetti for dinner. I'm wondering if my eyes will grow weary from being glued to the computer and I'm scared that nothing will come out of these fingers.

But next time you hear from me I should be several thousand words into this adventure. Hey, I may not make it to 50K--but I'll sure get a lot more pages written than I have right now! I'll keep you posted and...let the writing begin!
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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

It's nice when someone else does your work for you

Last week I spoke at Holy Family University in Philadelphia and today I forwarded pictures of the event to one of my editors at Maupin House, Emily Raij. She kindly put together a blog on Maupin House's site. When I got done smiling, I realized the next blog Emily had posted was a review of my book by my hostess at Holy Family, Dr. Lynn Orlando.

This was the first time that I presented this 2 hour workshop on "Reading, Writing, & Technology" and it was well received. Using the new technology mini-lessons that Steve Johnson wrote for my second edition, the students used PowerPoint, Microsoft Word, a SMART Board, and a wiki to practice
Show, Don't Tell writing and to see how fun revision can be.

Here's another picture from that event. Dr. Orlando is on my right, and the hero of the night, David Slowik (the technology wizard) is on my left. We grabbed a few students as well as Sally Jo Reid, a local teacher to complete our photo shoot.

It sure is nice to have friends in all the right places!

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Monday, October 27, 2008

Seven Laurels

There aren't too many novels which I can personally relate to. This will date me, but as I read Seven Laurels, which progressed from 1956 until 1994, I kept thinking, I was alive then.

But living in southern, suburban New Jersey is a universe removed from rural Alabama.

So although I can tell you exactly where I was in 5th grade when I heard the news that JFK was shot, my experience of life south of the Mason Dixon Line didn't begin until I moved to Charlotte, NC in 1986. Certainly I thought little about the southern African American experience while I attended high school and college. And my knowledge of Alabama didn't extend much beyond visits to Birmingham to see my in-laws and to present at the Mid-South Reading and Writing Institute. Seven Laurels, written by Linda Busby Parker, took care of those knowledge gaps.

Parker's award winning book was recommended by Doyle Boggs, Executive Director of Marketing & Communications at Wofford College and a South Carolina history aficionado. It eloquently tells the story of the life and struggles of Brewster McAtee, a talented carpenter who experiences the pains of prejudice and segregation. Parker told it like it was: showing the relationships between the whites and the blacks, the family conflicts that played out in their lives, and the joys of the accomplishments gleaned.

I often think that a well-written novel must have a great story and be written with beautiful, expressive language. Parker succeeds in doing both. I particularly enjoyed the way she wrote about Brewster's son Laurel's passionate piano playing. Laurel is an exceptional musician and in this passage, is competing in what will become a series of piano competitions:

"[Brewster] knew Laurel would be the only black student to perform. He wondered if this made his son nervous, to be the only black player in front of an all-white audience, if he carried the burden of his race as had Joe Lewis and Jackie Robinson, if he carried the burden into this new age in this new area, in front of black and white piano keys, at a white Methodist college in middle Alabama." I will remember the allegory of the white and black piano keys. This magnificent musical instrument needs both to produce the sonatas and jazz improvisations that Brewster's son loved. "Laurel took old pieces and made them new, adding his own syncopated rhythms, adding parts of his own self that came through his arms and down past his elbows to the tips of his fingers."

An adult novel, I would recommend this book for older, mature teenagers as an accurate historical picture of Alabama during the second half of the 20th century. Although there is no gratuitous sex in the book, there are several explicit scenes involving the main characters which parents may feel uncomfortable having their children read.

I appreciate Boggs recommending this book. As I proceed into writing my own historical fiction (to take place in Charlotte, 1950) this helps me to be informed about a time and a place that was far away from Cherry Hill, N.J.

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Friday, October 24, 2008

Reading (and writing) in the 21st Century

At the Pennsylvania Reading Association conference this week (KSRA) I listened with interest to Dr. Donald Leu, a professor of Education at the University of Connecticut, speak on Technology and Literacy. "The Internet is this generation's defining technology for reading," he told his audience of reading specialists, literary coaches, and language arts teachers. "We place our students at risk if they're not prepared."

To be honest, I hadn't thought about the skills that students need to decode websites. Dr. Leu was quick to fill in my knowledge gap. "First a student must be able to look at a website and see who wrote the material and discover the author's bias," he told us. He demonstrated this by showing what search results for Martin Luther King turned up. The first Google hits were websites for bookstores which would not give students the information they sought.

Once a seemingly suitable website was located, Dr. Leu pointed out that student researchers must find out who hosts the site so that they can discover the author's bias in presenting the material. This would prompt critical evaluation and discussion in the classroom. He emphasized the two reading skills which are exercised at this point: locating information and then evaluating it. New literacies of online reading comprehension include identifying important information, reading to synthesize the information, and reading to connect answers to other material. Visual aids such as photos and videos can aid comprehension, particularly for slow learners.

Obviously there are issues with online reading. Students must go beyond Wikipedia searches (although as a novice wiki user there is a definite place for wikis in the classroom- my wiki at shows what I presented at KSRA). But wikis can be edited and thus they are less reliable as a source of information. Teachers must make sure that students are reading in depth and not simply scanning a site, and of course when it comes to writing, there are plagiarism issues with a "cut and paste" mentality.

By the way, did you know that you can have your students filter their work through a website such as which checks a document for originality? I heard of this site the day before KSRA, when my friend's teenagers told me they had to submit their papers through this website before turning them into their teachers.

Check out New Literacies Reading Lab at the University of Connecticut. Dr. Leu is the director of a team who researches the new reading comprehension and learning skills that 21st century students will need as technology changes the nature of our classrooms.

Online reading leads to online writing (e-mail, blogs, wikis, Facebook, etc) and as a writing aficionado, how can I argue with that? After all, this is the 21st century.

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Saturday, October 18, 2008

Monday, October 13, 2008

Happy Birthday, Mr. Webster!

Today is the 250th anniversary of Noah Webster's birth. Where would writers and teachers of English be without the American Dictionary of the English Language? I can't help but wonder what Webster would have thought of dictionaries embedded into slim machines that weigh less than the tome he wrote and published.

Webster was more than just a eminent lexicographer (how's that for a 50 cent word!) Before he wrote his famous dictionary, he wrote a speller that had 385 editions in his lifetime and, according to Wikipedia, taught children how to read, spell, and pronounce words. "It was the most popular American book of its time; by 1861, it was selling a million copies per year, and its royalty of less than one cent per copy was enough to sustain Webster in his other endeavors."

Aspiring writers be encouraged! Webster supported himself on a book that earned a penny a copy…and become a national treasure that is still used two centuries later.

And who hasn't suffered the embarrassment, sweaty palms, and knotted stomach of a classroom or school-wide spelling bee? Thank Mr. Webster for that too.

This week, Anu Garg, the wordsmith behind A Word A Day, is honoring Webster with words about words. Today is Dictionary day. Celebrate Webster and words by playing The Dictionary Game!

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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Second Edition is Here!

I'm excited to announce that Teaching the Story: Fiction Writing in Grades 4-8 is now at the printers. You can order this expanded version from Maupin House at 10% off the cover price of $23.95 until mid-October. Not only will you find more ideas on how to teach short fiction to 4th & 5th graders, but there are almost 20 new technology mini-lessons that infuse technology into the writing process maximizing differentiation in your classroom. You and your students will enjoy learning how wikis, podcasts, and virtual worlds can help them jazz up their writing and create more well-written and original fiction. Steve Johnson, a technology facilitator in North Carolina who I met at NCCAT, did a great job writing the technology mini-lessons. I can't wait for all of you to see what a fine addition these tech lessons are to the book.

Let me know when you get your copy!
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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Nonfiction Needed

As an addendum to last week's post, I just read an article in this month's SCBWI Bulletin in which Libby Nelson listed the following subjects that teachers, students, parents and librarians were requesting. If you're a writer looking for a topic, try one of these. (Remember, you have to feel pretty passionate about it yourself--you'll be spending some time researching it!)

If you're a teacher looking for a book, please e-mail me at and I'll relay it to Libby to include in her next column.

Here is the list:

- global warming and its effects
- erosion; weathering
- hail, rain, sleet, snow- what they are and how they are formed
- different types of eggs and what animals produce them
- Kodiak bears
- Kangaroo rats
- Swans
- The sport of curling
- biographies of the Beatles

And for preschool aged children:

- poison prevention/safety inside the house and plants in a yard
- how children can recycle
- books on senses of the body
- animal groupings (such as a litter of cats, herd of cows, etc.)
- community figures and how they help
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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Great Writing Resources for Children’s Writers

Hello from Cullowhee, North Carolina- home of NCCAT where Joyce Hostetter and I are teaching the seminar, "Is There a Children's Book in You?" We are acting as midwives-- helping 21 talented teachers from across the state write picture books, early chapter books, and novels.

Here are some writing resources I have collected for them, as well as for any of you who are also interested in writing and publishing for children.

Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators
Children's Book Insider



EDUCATIONAL MATERIALS WEBSITES National Geographic School Publishing. Materials for the classroom. ***** ***** - Get a list of the 500 people who attended the Association of Educational Publishers summit on publishing for the digital future. ** – An example of one educational publisher, Evan Moor. ** Publishes materials for gifted children *** Megabig publisher for school materials ****,3120,-802,00.html ) author's guidelines for Pearson's companies **** lists websites of major educational publishers *****-lists of educational publishers


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