Archive for In the Classroom

Give Student Writers the Freedom to Embrace Their Inner Zombies


1621704_667566729951571_1638043617_nNote
: A variation of this essay first appeared a while back over at the fabulous Nerdy Book Club, founded by Donalyn “The Book Whisperer” Miller, Colby Sharp (the man, not the cheese), and possibly several other folks. The history is not entirely clear to me. Nonetheless! You can follow all their nerdy, book-loving, classroom-centered hijinks on Facebook, Twitter, and various other social platforms, I’m sure. 

 

 

These days, young people are crazy about zombies. That’s just a plain fact. Not every kid, of course, but a lot of them.

And I’m here to say: Use that as an advantage in your classroom. Seize the day zombie! Particularly when it comes to student writing. Some girls want to team up to conjure a story about a zombie apocalypse? Here’s a pen and paper. Go for it, ladies.

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Many students, as young as third grade and on up into high school, are watching THE WALKING DEAD. The secret that quite of few of them don’t realize is that the hit television show is not about zombies at all. It’s about people surviving zombies. The zombies themselves are boring, without personality, almost irrelevant. They could be switched out for deadly fog, or World War II, a forest fire, or a tsunami. The zombies are simply a device to propel forward a character-driven story. It’s the engine that drives plot — all those pistons churning — and gives each moment heightened meaning.

That’s my point here. Any zombie story is almost entirely about character.

zombie-3-comingWhat we need to recognize is that, counter-intuitively, the zombie plot device perfectly lends itself to character-centered story. In the case of THE WALKING DEAD, it could even be argued that it’s about family, blended, modern, unconventional, or traditional.

With, okay, some (really) gross parts thrown in. Warning: Some characters in this story may get eaten. Hold the hot sauce. Ha! And why not, if that’s what it takes? If a little bit of the old blood and guts is the hook you need to lure in those writers, embrace it.

You can’t write a good zombie story without creating an assortment of interesting characters. Then you place those diverse characters in danger, you bring them into conflict with each other, you get them screaming, and talking, and caring about each other.

As, okay, they are chased by a bunch of zombies.

There’s no drama unless the writer makes us care about his or her characters. Your student writers will be challenged to make those characters come alive, become vivid and real. We have to care that they live or, perhaps, really kind of hope they get eaten alive in the most hideous way possible by a crazed zombie mob. Screaming, hopefully.

Don’t be turned off by that. Remember, it’s really all about character development, keep your focus to that. Dear teacher, I am saying this: embrace your inner zombie –- and turn those students loose. We can’t all write about dinner parties and visits from Aunt Gweneth.

What they will be writing will be no different than your typical Jane Austin novel. Except for, you know, all those bloody entrails.

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There are currently five books available in my “Scary Tales” series.

OneEyedDoll_cvr_lorez     nightmareland_cvr_lorez     9781250018915_p0_v1_s260x420     iscreamyouscream_cvr_highrez-198x300

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Donalyn Miller’s “The Book Whisperer” Reaches Cultural Icon Status

I met Donalyn Miller at a Literacy Conference in Ohio. She was the keynote speaker and I came away impressed, inspired, and determined to read her book, THE BOOK WHISPERER: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child.

I started reading it yesterday, frustrated over my own 9th-grade son’s brutal, book-hating experience in advanced, 9th-grade English.

I underlined this passage from Donalyn’s book, page 18:

Reading changes your life. Reading unlocks worlds unknown or forgotten, taking travelers around the world and through time. Reading helps you escape the confines of school and pursue your own education. Through characters — the saints and sinners, real or imagined — reading shows you how to be a better human being.

The book is filled with passages that make you want to stand up and cheer.

Anyway, this morning Donalyn Miller shared her enthusiasm over this fun bit of pop culture stardom:

Good for Donalyn Miller, good for Jeopardy.

It’s funny, isn’t it? That’s a real touchstone in America today. An undeniable sign that you’ve arrived and made your mark. You become a clue on Jeopardy!

Donalyn is also a founding member of the Nerdy Book Club, which you should definitely follow. Seriously, I insist.

The Problem with Math Problems, Common Core, Standard Tests, etc.

I’ve been meaning to write an epic post recounting my visits to schools this past year. The things I’ve seen, the things I’ve learned, but gosh, I keep watching it slide down my list of things to do.

In short:

* It’s INSANE that elementary schools don’t have full-time librarians. Crazy, backwards, tragic, stupid, ill-conceived.

* Writing that above bullet point, I know that I should try to do more.

* April used to be the first month that filled up with school visits. It was the perfect time of year for it. Nowadays all I hear after we take out the calendars, “=April is out — that’s for testing.” Okay, I’ll admit that I have a bias, but what we are saying is, “In April, there’s no time to celebrate literacy and inspire a love of reading and thinking and writing — we’ve got to give hours upon hours of lousy tests instead.”

* When educators rally around the state capitol in Albany and chant, “Let us teach, let us teach, let us teach!” that’s just a really sad thing. I wish that we would, you know, listen to them.

Some links:

* An ALA-supported education bill that aims to help support school libraries: “For too long, research has shown that students have a better chance of succeeding academically when they attend schools with strong library programs,” said Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the American Library Association’s Washington Office. “This bill will ensure that students will have access to professionals who can help them make connections between subject areas, retrieve information, and think independently.”

* I’m so sorry I missed this important public statement, but was off coaching a ballgame. A sincere “thank you” to everybody who showed up to fight the good fight.

* NY Principals: Why new Common Core Tests failed.

We New York City and Metropolitan Area Principals hold ourselves accountable to ensuring that all of our students make consistent and meaningful academic progress. Although we are skeptical of the ability of high stakes tests alone to accurately capture students’ growth, we understand a system’s need for efficiently establishing and measuring milestones of learning.

KINDNESS: My Trip to the 2013 Youth Writing Festival at Calvin College

I just returned from a wonderful, two-night trip to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I was invited (by Gary Schmidt!) to participate in the 2013 Youth Writing Festival at Calvin College.

At one point it looked exactly like this:

As my Nation of Readers is well aware, I do many visits — particularly at this time of year. It’s fun, it’s beautiful to meet those children, and it’s work. Most visits are great, a few decidedly less so (oh, the stories I could tell), and every once in a while the entirety of a visit feels like a blessing.

Like I’m the luckiest guy in town.

That’s how I felt for my entire trip at Calvin. I was surrounded by caring, dedicated teachers and volunteers  who could not have possibly treated me with more kindness.

These folks did it right every step of the way, and I am grateful to all of them (Gary, Judy, Don, Kristin, Nancy, Debbie . . . far, far too many folks to name, from the President of the College who invited us into his home to the student volunteers who assisted us in countless ways).

For example, in the hotel room, I found a basket of treats and this sweet letter:

I certainly don’t need to be treated like a big deal, and it’s not anything I’ll ever actually believe, but it’s awfully nice when it happens.

As an added bonus, I had the pleasure of meeting artist E.B. Lewis, a dignified man of talent, character, and intelligence. I picked up a copy of his latest book, Each Kindness, written by the great Jacqueline Woodson.

I love this book’s focus on kindness.

And, yes, that sad ending of lost opportunity hits me dang in the heart, hard.

Illustration by E.B. Lewis.

Since I first published Bystander in 2009, I’ve all seen a massive shift in focus on the issue of bullying in the media and in our schools. To the point where it almost feels . . . not over-stated, that’s the wrong word, but somehow . . . misguided at times. Students, especially, seem wary of being talked down to, lectured at, scolded. Hit over the head with the topic, turned off. You have to find a way to bring them to the core values, I think, and I believe that A GOOD STORY is far more effective at building empathy than a list of do’s and don’ts.

I suppose my radar has been, perhaps, more finely attuned to the issue over the past few years. I don’t really believe in talking about “bullying,” per say, since I don’t think that should be the main subject. I believe it’s  more basic than that, for “bullying” is just a sub-set of more significant themes for our children to encounter, consider, and embrace. One trend that I really like (see R.J. Palacio’s Wonder as a prime example) is a renewed focus on the simple things at the heart of the matter: how we should treat each other.

Words like empathy, decency, tolerance, compassion, and kindness.

Basic human kindness. Being a good person.

Do unto others.

Or questions like: How do you think it feels? How would you like to be treated?

This book powerfully expresses those ideas (and ideals).

We learn by meeting characters, by stepping in their shoes, by imagining their feelings, the rumblings in their hearts. We learn through the power of story — that essential human art form that’s been with us since cave dwellers gathered around the fire.

I highly, highly recommend the book, Each Kindness.

I even got a signed copy for my daughter.

Thanks, E.B.

And thank you, everyone at Calvin College, for a trip I’ll long remember.

Nice Article Based on My Recent School Visit to Fair Lawn, NY

A local reporter, Tracey Putrino, sat in for one of my presentations during a recent school visit to Fair Lawn, New Jersey. The school itself was spectacular, warm and clean and bursting with pride, one of the sweetest elementary schools I’ve ever had the honor to visit.

I’ve said it a hundred times: Authors don’t do school visits; schools do author visits. And this was one school, friends and neighbors, that did it up right.

My thanks goes out to the entire school, including Leo the Janitor! Thanks, also, to Tracey Putrino, who did a really nice job on the article.

NOTE: I took photos with my bewildering phone, various decorations and learning activities that each class created in anticipation of my visit. The school looked so welcoming and awesome. Unfortunately, every photo appears upside down when I try to post here — and I can’t figure out how to fix it. Grrrrr.

Here’s the article (for the link, to prove I’m not making this up, click here):

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A children’s author encouraged students at Westmoreland Elementary School in Fair Lawn to use what makes them unique as inspiration in their own writing.

Students at Westmoreland Elementary School in Fair Lawn were eager to ask children's author James Preller their questions during his visit to the school on April 12.

PHOTO/TRACEY PUTRINO
Students at Westmoreland Elementary School in Fair Lawn were eager to ask children’s author James Preller their questions during his visit to the school on April 12.

“Enjoy what he has to share,” said Principal Christy Dell’Aglio as she introduced James Preller during his visit to the school on April 12.

Preller of Delmar, N.Y., has written more than 80 children’s books including about 40 as part of the “Jigsaw Jones” mystery series.

Using the uniqueness of fingerprints as an example, the author told students to consider what makes them unique because no one else has their parents, siblings or experiences.

“Begin with your life,” he said.

Preller has done the same with his stories and characters. Whether it came from being the youngest of seven children, his love of baseball or his memories of his grandmother, he said those experiences can lead to ideas.

“Where do you get ideas?” he asked the group of second- and third-graders during one of the three presentations he did during the visit.

From their head, feelings, observing what happens around them, books and things that happen to them and their friends were some of the answers.

Preller said an idea is just “a little seed” that can grow. He urged students to make lists and keep writing journals to jot down ideas that could later become stories.

As an example from one of his books, he said he was listening to the radio when he heard one of the announcers say, “You can’t hide broccoli in a glass of milk.” The line stuck with him and ended up in a scene with Jigsaw Jones when his friend, Joey, stays over for dinner in “The Case of the Million Dollar Mystery.” He read the passage to students as Jigsaw’s father asked him to finish his glass of milk than was beginning to turn green from the broccoli.

“A writer’s two most important words are what if?,” said Preller, noting if they ask that question and follow the path it can lead to a story.

The writer told students it is never too early for them to make their own books. He showed them an example of one of his earliest works that he wrote and illustrated about Tarzan. While he was not much of a reader as a child, Preller said he did love baseball and always checked out the box scores and read the sports section of the newspaper.

“My love of sports made me a reader,” the writer said.

His Jigsaw Jones book, “The Case of the Bear Scare,” came from reading newspaper articles about bears showing up in neighborhoods.

As the father of three, his experiences with his children have also sparked ideas. When his daughter asked him he had ever heard the story of Bloody Mary, the story about a ghost who appears in a mirror became a scene that he read to students from one of his newest books. It is part of a new series called “Scary Tales” that will be released this summer.

OVERHEARD: “I guess science is my favorite class — I just wish it wasn’t so serious.”

Lisa had asked Maggie, grade 6, about her classes and received the above reply. Which at first struck me as a hilarious thing to say about science. It was like saying, I don’t know, math should be funnier. Social studies, sillier!

But then I realized she might be onto something. When we think of our science teachers, most of them are dry, dull, strict. This is science, this is important: this is serious business!

And in fairness, it often is, kids can get hurt, things might explode.

But then there are those rare science teachers — and scientists like Bill Nye, on television — who bring the joy of discovery into the process. Or should I say, keep the joy. The wonder.

They find the fun and the funny. Like a child with a new toy, figuring out what makes it go. Discovering the awesomeness of it all.

On Facebook I “liked” a site called, “I Love F***ing Science.” I’ve always regretted the F***ing in that title because it makes it harder for me to share with others, especially anyone who might read my books.

This post reflects a few things I’ve picked up from there, and other places.

Just trying to bring the fun, Maggie. I’m glad you like science.

The Perils of Skype: There’s the Giant “Oz Head,” for Starters

Let’s start with the horror:

Run for the hills, people.

On a Thursday morning in late November, I Skyped with students in Pine View Middle School, somewhere in Florida. The basic setup was that a small number of students gathered in the media room to ask The Great Oz Head a variety of excellent questions. Once it was established that no, in fact, I had no idea how to return them to Kansas, we talked for about 30 minutes about writing and my book, Bystander, which was read by all the language arts classes in the school, grades 6-8.

The program — that is, my enormous Oz Head — was televised live into 80% of the classrooms. The rest, I’m told, viewed the recorded presentation. In all, the Skype reached a population of 900 students. Crazy, I know.

At the risk of blowing my own horn, the reviews were good. Martha Ann Winterroth, who helped pull it all together, wrote to me with a curious follow-up question:

“Awesome!!!” “I LOVED it!!” Those are a couple of comments from the students as we disconnected from you!! It truly was an extremely successful Skype with you. However, there was one question that did not get asked that we would LOVE for you to (briefly) answer for us:

In chapter 27, did you intentionally have Mr. Scofield direct Eric to page 116 so that the reader would go back to that page and read about the quote from MLK (“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”)?

Thanks again.  We appreciate your time and knowledge and words of wisdom.  It is something that these kids will remember for a long, long time!
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My interrogators. Not sure if the word “enthralled” leaps to mind.
Well, that was nice to read. I’m trying to relax with Skype, keep it loose and — I guess the word is –  authentic. I just want to be a regular guy, talking clearly and honestly. (That’s my gimmick!) Anyway, in answer to the above question, I had no idea what they were talking about. Yes, on page 116, Mr. Scofield does introduce the quote from Martin Luther King, thus:
“What’s this got to do with us?” a boy asked.

“Everything,” the teacher answered. “It’s about having the courage to do the right thing.”

The bell rang. Eric grabbed his books and headed for the door. Mr. Scofield pointed to a photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. that had been tacked to the bulletin board. “King called it ‘the appaling silence.’”
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Scofield was on his feet now, still teaching even after the bell, still declaiming quotes. “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
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Strange guy, that Scofield. A little hyper sometimes. But the image stuck in Eric’s head like a dart to a wall: a man attached to wires, pounding on walls, pleading, “Stop, somebody please, make them stop.” It was hard to pretend that the wires were not, in some strange inexplicable way, connected to him.
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The famous Milgram Experiment, which is discussed
in the book during Mr. Scofield’s English class.
So then I turned to Chapter 27. Toward the end, Eric is distracted, thinking about Griffin and Cody and Eric’s stolen bicycle. Mr. Scofield tells Eric to turn to page one hundred and sixteen, please. A number that was a total coincidence, believe me. I wish I was smart enough to dream up that stuff! My compliments to whomever figured out that connection. It’s an impressive example of close reading and attention to detail.

I received another note, this one from Jamie, who first contacted me for a potential school visit.

Thanks so much for taking the time to Skype with us. The kids loved it! Not only were the students talking to you enthralled, but so was the entire school while they watched it! We now have a celebrity among us! Also, thank you for writing the book! As you know it was a school-wide initiative to have students become more aware of that bystander role. I, as an English teacher, loved how you showed them your “sloppy copy” of your books! You were fantastic!

Jamie

For more on the Milgram experiment . . .

. . . click here.

I May Have Just Met the Best 6th-Grade Poet in America

When I speak at schools, a teacher will often come up to ask if I wouldn’t mind wearing some kind of amplifier/microphone thingy around my neck for a student who is hearing impaired.

And of course I don’t mind. I put it on and forget about it. Easy.

Styles vary, but it usually looks something like this.

After a presentation last Friday at Northbrook Junior High, about 25 miles north of Chicago, a small female student approached to ask for the return of the assistive listening device that hung around my neck. She had a nice smile, a sweet presence, and I liked her immediately. We chatted for a short while. I asked how she managed when people didn’t wear the device, and about lip reading, and getting by. I told her that I suffered from hearing problems myself, a surgery with a specialist in Ohio and a second one planned. I understood, on a personal level, how terribly isolating hearing loss can be.

We said goodbye. As she left, I commented to a nearby teacher about how much I liked that girl. “She’s probably a writer,” I added. You can often tell. She was thoughtful and attentive, a watcher, an observer. In my experience, those are the types who make writers. The quiet ones. And there’s that other thing about writers: it’s something you sense in people, the way they absorb their surroundings. You can tell there’s something going on between the ears.

It’s rarely the way they talk, but more the quality of their listening.

“Yes, she’s a very good writer,” the teacher informed me.

A few minutes later, my friend, Erin, was back. She handed me a poem. A small group of teachers and I were about to have lunch in another room. But I read the poem while Erin stood by, watching. And finally, when I reached the end, I told her that it was incredible, that I was moved by it, that I admired and envied her talent. “You are such a great writer,” I told her, and I meant it. Erin smiled, a terrific smile, and told me that I could keep the poem. And I did, but not until I got her autograph. In green ink, no less.

Erin Rosenfeld. The writer.

I don’t know. I do a lot of school visits, a lot of blabbering about me, me, me. But it’s always these small moments that make it worthwhile, that make me feel like there’s value in it. When out of the blue a connection is made, and I meet somebody like Erin, and maybe in some small way she’ll remember this moment, for I know I’ll remember her. So much talent, insight, and depth of feeling in someone so young.

So here is “Logophile Poem,” by Erin Rosenfeld. As I understand it, Erin wrote it about a year ago. Words, words, words. Coming from a young girl who leans in and listens hard. Who reads lips. Who watches. Who see things that others might miss. And who in her own way hears the music on a deeper level than us all.

I’m glad I met you, Erin. You struck a chord in me. Keep writing.

A special shout out to Annette Farmer, a most awesome librarian (and triathlete!) who worked so hard, along with Marc Goldstein, to bring me out to Illinois in the first place. Thank you.

For Teachers: 13 Ways of Raising Your Hand in the Classroom

Teachers will like this. All teachers, every one. There will be universal “like” on this little clip.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

You can find more of her charming, off-beat clips, here.

Essential Listening: “Middle School” as featured on THIS AMERICAN LIFE

It’s been a busy month, with many school visits and almost no real writing. On Sunday, tomorrow, I’m heading to South Carolina, a trip that begins with three presentations in a middle school. So I thought I’d share my highest recommendation with you.

Listen to This American Life: Middle School. Trust me, it’s terrific. Smart, insightful, poignant, funny, heartbreaking. Really, I mean it. This is brilliant and you have must, must, must give it a listen.

Seventh-graders at a costume dance, dressed

as characters from The Outsiders.

To listen to the show, you have a couple of options. You can go here, for free, to hear the show in its entirety. Or you can catch up on all the old episodes of “This American Life” on iTunes for only 99 cents each. The “Middle School” segment originally aired in late October. Here’s some background info, as provided by WBEZ:

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Middle School

This week, at the suggestion of a 14-year-old listener, we bring you stories from the awkward, confusing, hormonally charged world of middle school. Including a teacher who transforms peer pressure into a force for good, and reports from the frontlines of the middle school dance.

Prologue.

Host Ira Glass interviews a 14-year old named Annie, who emailed us asking if we would do a show about middle school. She explains why exactly the middle school years can be so daunting. (4 1/2 minutes)

Act One: Life in the Middle Ages.

In an effort to understand the physical and emotional changes middle school kids experience, Ira speaks with reporter Linda Perlstein, who wrote a book called Not Much Just Chillin’ about a year she spent following five middle schoolers. Then we hear from producer Alex Blumberg, who was a middle school teacher in Chicago for four years before getting into radio. Alex’s takeaway? We shouldn’t even try teaching kids at this age. Marion Strok, principal of a successful Chicago school, disagrees. (6 1/2 minutes)

Act Two: Stutter Step.

We sent several correspondents straight to the epicenters of middle school awkwardness: School dances. Producers Lisa Pollak and Brian Reed, plus reporters Eric Mennel, Rob Wildeboer and Claire Holman spoke with kids across the country during the nervous moments leading up to the dances. And Lisa even ventured inside, to the dance itself. (9 1/2 minutes)

Act Three: Mimis in the Middle.

When Domingo Martinez was growing up in a Mexican-American family in Texas, Domingo’s two middle school aged sisters found a unique way of coping with feelings of inferiority. This story comes from Martinez’s memoir The Boy Kings of Texas, which Lyons Press will publish in July 2012. (11 1/2 minutes)

Act Four: Anchor Babies.

We realized that there are already reporters on the ground, embedded inside middle schools: The kids who report the daily announcements, sometimes on video with full newscast sets. Producer Jonathan Menjivar wondered what would happen if instead of announcing sports scores and the daily cafeteria menu, the kids reported what’s really on their minds. Students at Parkville Middle School outside Baltimore, and their journalism teacher Ms. Davis, agreed to try out this experiment. (7 1/2 minutes)

Act Five: Blue Kid on the Block.

Producer Sarah Koenig reports on a kid we’ll call Leo, whose family recently moved away from Rochester, NY, leaving behind all of Leo’s friends and stranding him in a new—and in his opinion, much worse—middle school. (10 minutes)

Act Six: Grande with Sugar.

Ira speaks with Shannon Grande, a teacher at Rise Academy in Newark, about a seventh grader who had all sorts of problems with behavior and hygiene and schoolwork. In order to help turn him around, Grande had to harness the power of peer pressure for good. This story came from Elizabeth Green, who’s writing about Rise Academy for a book and for a reporting project on the schools called Gotham Schools. (7 minutes)

Note: Here are the covers of the two books mentioned above. I haven’t read either, but suspect that might change: