Monday, April 27, 2009

Photosynthesis and National Poetry Day

Kay McSpadden, in a recent column in The Charlotte Observer, invited her readers to celebrate National Poetry Day on April 30th, by posting a blog, tweeting on Twitter, or by simply sharing a verse or two with a friend.

I immediately thought of my good friend, Linda Phillips, who has been writing poetry for years and frequently uses it in her classroom. She graciously agreed to share the following poem with all of you. The poem received the Caldwell W. Nixon, Jr. Award (Honorable Mention) in the N. C. Poetry Society's 2001 contest.

Whoever said that poetry only belonged in language arts classrooms?


Mother Nature is in the kitchen
cooking up a storm.
She turns the sun onto medium high
and waits 'til it's nice and warm.

She mixes six molecules of carbon dioxide
with six molecules of plain old water.
She folds in a few of her favorite minerals
as Father Time has taught her.

The secret ingredient is chlorophyll.
It soaks up the energy from the sun.
This recipe yields sugar and oxygen.
Isn't cooking fun?

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Friday, April 24, 2009

The Gatekeepers

Normally I wouldn't recommend ending a story with the words, "To be continued." But when the story weaver is Anthony Horowiz then I throw my hands up in the air. I can only hope that my library has the 4th book of the series on CD, or I'm in trouble.

I am generally not a fan of epic fantasies, but I am inexorably hooked on The Gatekeepers that should capture the attention of any middle schooler -- boys particularly. Horowitz masterfully interweaves the lives of five 14-year-olds (four boys and one girl--thus the draw for male readers) who have been chosen to save the world from the "Old Ones." These are powerful evil forces that "feed on human misery" as Scar, the female character relates.

Each of "The Five", as the young adults are referred to in the books, have paranormal powers. An intrinsic part of each book is how the characters come to grips with his or her powers and learns how to use them in this colossal struggle of good vs. evil. There is a great deal of leaving one part of the world and ending up on the other side of the globe, but for the most part, Horowitz has prepared the reader to successfully suspend disbelief and the ways in which the characters end up connecting with one another is convincing.

Horowitz is a masterful storyteller and suspense is hardly a big enough word to describe the predicaments which the characters face. Each main character is always facing imminent danger but the author "somehow" (a word he uses a lot) safely brings him through. These are great books for the writer-to-be to study and see how the author is constantly "upping the ante" through physical danger, time running out, or impossibly close calls. And talk about cliff hangers! The ending of each book entices the reader to go to the next.

Although I have obviously enjoyed these three books, I felt as if the detour in the third book into a time 10,000 years ago and the introduction of characters who mirrored "The Five" was a bit of a stretch. If I could discuss the books with Horowitz, more then once I would have said to him, "Is this really necessary?" But although it seemed long and drawn out, afterwards I understood how Horowitz used this detour to add another dimension to the saga.

Christians who read the books can have some interesting dicussions on the religous themes that run throughout all of them. There is a strong message of "this is what was meant to be" which Calvinists call "predestination." In the same way, there is also a theme of sacrifice as the characters consider that they might have to give up their lives to save the world. On the other hand, some Christian parents might be uncomfortable with the characters' paranormal abilities.

Overall, I highly recommend the books for adventure, descriptive writing, and a story that hooks the reader's imagination. But I'm in trouble. Book 4, Necropolis, isn't even at my library yet and there are 18 people ahead of me waiting to read it! To be continued....
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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Celebrating a Miracle

As I say to teachers at teacher's conferences, I usually blog about literacy...unless I'm blogging about one of my grandchildren. Here is one of those exceptions to my blogging rule: this blog is dedicated to Ebby Clark.

Here is a picture of Leslie holding her about six weeks after her birth on October 20, 2006. She was born 3 months early and weighed just under 2 lbs.
She stayed in the New Hanover Regional Medical Center NICU for 3 months.

Fast forward two-and-a-half-years later. Ebby is now a fun, inquisitive, loving toddler.

Today, Leslie and Neill, were the Ambassador Family for the Wimington March of Dimes walkathon. Neill gave the family's story, including the fact that Ebby was helped by the research that the March of Dimes has contributed in the area of an infant's lung development.
I am thankful to the Lord for Ebby's life. In her growth and development she demonstrates that we are "fearfully and wonderfully made." Psalm 139: 14.

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Friday, April 17, 2009

Reading, Writing, & Gingerbread Houses

When my daughter Lori graduated from Covenant Day School three years ago, she challenged me by saying, "Mom, you've got a lot of time now. I think you should volunteer somewhere." I don't know about the "lots of time" -- but I did agree that I could be more involved on a volunteer basis in the community. Since my love is literacy, I approached Covenant Day High School and volunteered to coordinate a tutoring program. Together with volunteers from Christ Covenant Church, we are now in our third year. Last year we added a monthly trip to the school library as well as playing educational games when the students are done their work. Here is a video showing one of the library trips, tutoring, and our recent holiday party.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Celebrate National Poetry & Jazz Appreciation Month

April is National Poetry Month and Jazz Appreciation Month. What better time to read Becoming Billie Holiday, a fictional verse memoir by Carole Boston Weatherford with sepia-toned illustrations by Floyd Cooper. The book, Carole's 32nd, recently won a Coretta Scott King Author Honor from the American Library Association.

Legendary Billie Holiday was born in 1915 as Eleanora Fagan. She endured pain, poverty and run-ins with the law. Fortunately, Eleanora had a voice and commenced her singing career as a teen. By age 25, she had fronted the era's hottest bands and recorded her signature song "Strange Fruit." In this collection of 97 poems, Becoming Billie Holiday, New York Times best-selling author Carole Boston Weatherford traces Eleanora's metamorphosis into Billie Holiday, from her Baltimore beginnings to her Harlem heyday.

Like Billie, Weatherford grew up in Baltimore. And thanks to her father's musical tastes, she, like Billie, was introduced to jazz as a young child

Here is one of the poems from Weatherford's award winning book (Boyds Mills Press/Wordsong, October 2008):

I Hear Music: The Blues Are Brewin'

I was no stranger to hard work

And Miss Alice had plenty of it

In her good-time house.

I kept busy with errands and chores—

washing basins and toilets,

changing towels, putting out

Lifebuoy soap and peeking through

a keyhole now and then.

I got paid in tips,

but would have worked for free

to wind up her Victrola

and hear music fill the room.

As Bessie Smith belted out

bar after bar, bending notes

to moods, I mouthed the words

till I knew her blues by heart.

The jazz bug bit me good

when Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five

swaggered through "West End Blues,"

and turned music on its ear.

I had never heard

singing without a single word.

Scat! Dig that!

Those blues were surely brewin'.

You can hear podcasts of the book at:
WBGO-FM (Newark, NJ):
WICN-FM (Worcester, MA):

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Friday, April 10, 2009

Hot News from the Association of Educational Publishers

Today I received word from my publisher, Maupin House, that Teaching the Story: Fiction Writing in Grades 4-8
was named as a finalist in this year's Distinguished Achievement Awards given by the Association of Educational Publishers. What was the first thing I did after hearing this exciting news? I went digging to find out who the folks are who granted me this award. Here is what I found:

According to their website, they are a "national, nonprofit professional organization for educational publishers and content developers." The organization started in 1895 as a university-supported institution, most recently on the campus of Rowan University in Glassboro, NJ. In the "it's a small world department," as a teenager I attended a fine arts camp (I focused on creative writing--what else?) at Rowan University—which at that time was named Glassboro State Teachers College.

AEP is a group of approximately 400 publishers who submit their books to judges who are "selected from a pool of educational publishing professionals (writers, editors, designers, educators, product developers, and marketing directors)." I looked at the judge's evaluation form and was pretty impressed with the rigorous assessment used to evaluate the educational books. Each year the Distinguished Achievement Award identifies superior educational products in four categories: Curriculum, Periodicals, Professional Development, and Technology Innovations. Teaching the Story is under "Professional Development" and one of four finalists in the subcategory of Differentiated Instruction.

For those of you who aren't in the educational field, you may wonder what the term "Differentiated Instruction" means. Here is AEP's definition from their website: "Products that are designed to take into account students' varying background knowledge, readiness, language, preferences in learning, and interests. They provide a model or process to aid in teaching and learning for students of differing abilities in the same class."

I can't honestly say that when I conceived the ideas behind Teaching the Story, I thought it would be a book used by students at many different levels. All I thought about was that writing a story is something that many students are naturally drawn to and that the task stretches students' imaginations. As I tell teachers who attend my writing workshops, when students write a story they practice all of the skills necessary for expository writing—it's just a lot more fun. But, since narrative writing is taught in upper elementary through middle school, my editors and I decided that the book needed to be flexible. It had to be designed in such a way that a teacher in any of these grades could pick it up and use it in her particular classroom and address the needs of students with divergent interests and abilities. Many hair-pulling hours went into figuring out how we might successfully pull this off—apparently the judges at AEP thought we did.

I am pleased and honored at this recognition, but am also fully aware that it would not have been possible without diligent coaching and editing by my editors at Maupin House. Kudos goes to them for having two other titles honored in this year's AEP line-up: Writing Intervention Kit for High School by Nancy Dean, and Learning Through Writing Series: Authentic Writing Activities for the Content Areas: Grades 3, 4, and 5 by Kathleen Kopp.

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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Red Pencil Advice from Chekhov

"To write a story you need five or six days, during which time you must be thinking about it every moment, otherwise you'll never be able to frame good sentences. Before it reaches the page, every sentence must spend two days in the brain, lying perfectly still and putting on weight. It goes without saying, of course, that I'm too lazy to mind my own rule, but I do recommend it to you young writers, all the more so because I have experienced its beneficent results firsthand and know that the rough drafts of all true artists are a mess of deletions and corrections, marked up from top to bottom in a patch-work of cuts and insertions that are themselves recrossed out and mangled." –Anton Chekhov in How to Write Like Chekhov, edited by Pero Brunello and Lena LanĨek, quoted in Writer's Digest, February, 2009.

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