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If I Taught Writing: What I Learned About Teaching Writing from Becoming a Writer…and a Mother

The other day, my six-year-old son and I serendipitously ended up at a classic-car show in our downtown. I didn’t really know he was even that interested in cars. But he was and asked me to take a couple of pictures of him with cars and even a picture of an engine (I think it was an engine).

That night he had me take one more picture of him “working” and then asked me to print the pictures. I was sure they would end up somewhere random, such as crumpled in his pocket or stuck between couch cushions. Instead, that same night he showed me a book he had made all on his own.

If you’re familiar with Chris Van Dusen’s If I Built a Car, you will notice my son follows a similar structure to Van Dusen’s book, even to the end (“If I built a car, that’s just what I’d do.”) The ideas, though, were all my son’s. This is not a child who normally sits down to write for pleasure. But there’s a lot I learned from this experience.

I am a former elementary and middle school teacher. I actually left teaching to pursue a career in writing as well as to start a family. What I’ve learned is that when I return to teaching (it’s inevitable I will), I will definitely teach writing differently.

Here are some tips I have for teaching writing to elementary and middle school students. In other words: If I taught again I would do the following:

  1. As a writer, if I’m not inspired, I’m not inspired. I put my work-in-progress to the side and come back to it when I’m ready.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I wouldn’t expect students to pump out a product when they’re just uninspired. I’d have students do something different for a bit (even something not writing related) and try again later.
  2. Whenever I get inspired by something I see, I try to write it down before I forget it.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d have students keep a running list of topics. They’d have access to their list to add to it throughout the day. It wouldn’t have to include only topics, either. It could be a funny sentence or the name of a character, etc.
  3. When I’m stuck for an idea, I look at picture books to see if they inspire me. Sometimes I even attempt to write in a similar style to one.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d allow students to write “fan fiction.” If they liked a book, I’d have them do a spin-off of it (for instance, my son’s spin-off of If I Built a Car). Then they wouldn’t have to worry about inventing characters or inventing a plot. They could focus on other aspects of writing.
  4. I find that when I’m running, I get all sorts of ideas (such as the idea for this post!). It clears my mind and allows ideas to flow.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d have students work on discovering how they can clear their mind. How can they become inspired? Does drawing help? Running? Bouncing ideas off peers?
  5. Unless I’m typing, I am not working at my desk. I edit on my couch in front of the fireplace, and I work through plot issues by spreading my manuscript out on my floor.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d remember that writing at a desk doesn’t work for everybody. I’d allow students to test out different ways of working.

    My second office.

  6. I find a lot of value from reading mentor texts. I learn about different formats, styles of writing, etc. I see what good writing looks like.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d have kids use books as much as they could as inspiration for their own writing. If they are writing nonfiction, I’d let them tear apart the nonfiction section of the library. Which book formats do they like? What writing styles do they like? I’d have them do the same with narratives. They would look at humorous books and sweet books and scary books.
  7. Most of my time as a writer isn’t spent writing new material; it’s doing revisions.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I would change the focus of editing away from the grammar. Instead, I’d spend time on how to both add and cut text. I’d do an exercise in trimming a longer piece to figure out what’s really crucial to what they are writing. I’d have them make every word count.

    How I edit a novel. Assistant pictured in background.

  8. Writing fiction requires lots of research. With my latest novel on sled dog racing, I interviewed many mushers, attended sled dog races, and looked up the correct wording on websites.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d have students do research even when writing fiction. There must be something they need to look up or verify.
  9. Experts are the best source for fact checking. No matter how much book and online research I’ve done on a topic, when I show an expert my work, they find a better way to word something or find a part that should be tweaked.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d remember that kids are even experts on something. A lesson I’d love to try out: have students write down topics they’re experts on (skateboarding, sewing, etc.) Then give one of their topics to a student who’s not an expert in it. Have that student write about it as best they can without any resources. Then have the expert read and edit it for accuracy and word choice.
  10. So going back to my son. I think the biggest lesson I learned about teaching writing is from being a mother. My children watch me write day and night. They see that when I have some spare time, I write—even on vacation. That’s because I really love writing. I did not ask my son to write about his experience at the car show. I think he chose to make a book because he saw me making books.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d be sure to write when my students are writing. I’d share my work-in-progress with them. I’d show them that writing isn’t just something you do in school. It’s a way to express yourself: your likes, your dislikes, your beliefs.

So if I taught again, that’s just what I’d do!

I also asked my fellow middle grade authors, What tips do you have on teaching writing as a writer yourself? Here’s what they said:

Ditch the “trade and grade” style of peer editing and form mini-critique groups in teams of 4. One child reads while the other three follow along, writing down suggestions and then discussing before moving on to the next student’s turn.
– Kym Brunner, author of Flip the Bird

I wish we had done more fun writing exercises in 5th grade. My main advice is, let them have some fun by creative writing. Schools are so focused on structure and preparing for the tests, that writing for fun, is often overlooked.
– Jonathan Rosen, author of Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies

Sit down. Then, no matter how much you want to, don’t stand up until you’ve written something.
– Darcy Miller, author of ROLL

Every first draft is bad. The magic is in rewriting.
– Kristin L. Gray, author of Vilonia Beebe Takes Charge

The hero and the villain in a story either both want the same thing for different reasons, or different things for the same reason. Either way, they’re reflections of each other.
– Katie Slivensky, author of The Countdown Conspiracy

Your writing will never be perfect. But you can always make it better.
– Beth McMullen, author of Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls

Writer’s block could mean that you’re focusing too hard on the wrong things. Back up and try looking at the writing from a different angle.
– Allison K. Hymas, author of Under Locker and Key

Sometimes it’s helpful to plan a story out before you write, but it’s also a-ok to start writing the story and figure it out as you go. The important part is to revise carefully once the first draft is finished.
– Lindsey Becker, author of The Star Thief

It’s okay to feel like you don’t know what you’re doing.
– Gareth Wronski, author of Holly Farb and the Princess of the Galaxy

If you confront three of your characters with an identical problem, each should solve it in their own way. What they do tells us so much about who they are!
– Sarah Cannon, author of Oddity

You don’t have to write every single day to be a writer. Thinking and reading counts too.
– Carter Higgins, author of A Rambler Steals Home

No matter how challenging or scary it may seem, it’s important to write a story from the heart—it will make the writing stronger!
– R. M. Romero, author of The Dollmaker of Kraków

Be kind to your curiosity. Embrace the moments when you think, “I wonder…” – especially when the “I wonder” seems silly and strange and like no one else will care.
-Patricia Bailey, author of The Tragically True Adventures of Kit Donovan

Go for a walk, go to the park or the grocery store or anyplace new and soak up the sensory details. Take notes on the sights, sounds, and smells–they will make your writing come alive!
-Christine Hayes, author of Mothman’s Curse

When teaching setting, I like to use the “5 Senses Rule.” Does your story have details the character can see, hear, touch, feel, smell, and taste? If not, you may want to work more on the setting.
– Hannah Kates, author of Patel Patterson and the Apocalypse Key

So here’s a tip I give to all aspiring writers, young and old: the most important question a writer can ask themselves as they’re developing their story idea or even just when they have that “spark” of an idea is “What If?” That question is the engine that drives the plot. What if there were a young boy who’s parents were dead? And what if he lived with these really terrible relatives? And what if he discovered on his birthday that he was, in fact, a wizard? Oh! And what if there was a wizarding school? I like giving that example of how JK Rowling asked and explored “what if” when she wrote Harry Potter.
– Bobbie Pyron author of many middle grade novels, including the upcoming A PUP CALLED TROUBLE.

What tips do you have for teaching writing?

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Six Titles for Your Writing Workshop Bookshelf

There are some things about being a teacher that stay with you  – even after you’ve packed up your posters and curriculum binders and left the classroom for other adventures. It’s been a few years since I’ve been in a classroom, but I still consider the true start of a year September 1 – regardless of what the calendar and my accountant says. And I still create lesson plans in my mind – especially when I come across books that I know my students would have loved.

Lately, I’ve been thinking  a lot about what makes a writer – and how we can nurture and support that yearning early on – especially in kids who would never dare to imagine that being an author is even a possibility for them. So, I’ve put together a book list for teachers (and parents) who might want a little writing workshop inspiration on their shelves for those kids – the ones who just might become our future favorite authors if we only let them see that it’s possible.

Our Story Begins:  Your Favorite Authors and Illustrators Share Fun, Inspiring, and Occasionally Ridiculous Things They Wrote and Drew As Kids – edited by Elissa Brent Weissman

“From award-winning author Elissa Brent Weissman comes a collection of quirky, smart, and vulnerable childhood works by some of today’s foremost children’s authors and illustrators—revealing young talent, the storytellers they would one day become, and the creativity they inspire today.

Everyone’s story begins somewhere…

For Linda Sue Park, it was a trip to the ocean, a brand-new typewriter, and a little creative license.
For Jarrett J. Krosoczka, it was a third grade writing assignment that ignited a creative fire in a kid who liked to draw.
For Kwame Alexander, it was a loving poem composed for Mother’s Day—and perfected through draft after discarded draft.
For others, it was a teacher, a parent, a beloved book, a word of encouragement. It was trying, and failing, and trying again. It was a love of words, and pictures, and stories.

Your story is beginning, too. Where will it go?”

I want to go back in time and give this book to 10 year old me. I was well into adulthood before I saw an early, unpublished draft from a “real” writer’s notebook. I remember the feeling that came over me when I realized that this Pulitzer Prize winner’s work wasn’t just magically wonderful. In fact, his early draft wasn’t really any better than some of the stuff I was producing at my desk late at night. It was the first moment I realized that Writers (with a capital W) weren’t somehow a super special subgroup of our species who emerged filled with brilliance and wit and talent from birth. They were just people who wrote – and rewrote – and rewrote again and again until they got it right. Imagine how empowering it would be to realize that as a young reader and writer.

Some Writer:  The Story of E.B. White by Melissa Sweet

“Caldecott Honor winner  Sweet mixes White’s personal letters, photos, and family ephemera with her own exquisite artwork to tell the story of this American literary icon. Readers young and old will be fascinated and inspired by the journalist, New Yorker contributor, and children’s book author who loved words his whole life. This authorized tribute, a New York Times bestseller, includes an afterword by Martha White, his granddaughter.”

I love seeing glimpses of young E.B. White’s life and writing. I especially love seeing how these young experiences are reflected in the novels he wrote as adult. I think kids will enjoy seeing the revisions White did on the books we know know as masterpieces.

Writing Radar: Using Your Journal to Snoop Out and Craft Great Stories by Jack Gantos

“The Newbery Award–winning author of Dead End in Norvelt shares advice for how to be the best brilliant writer in this funny and practical creative writing guide perfect for all kids who dream of seeing their name on the spine of a book.

With the signature wit and humor that have garnered him legions of fans, Jack Gantos instructs young writers on using their “writing radar” to unearth story ideas from their everyday lives. Incorporating his own misadventures as a developing writer, Gantos inspires readers to build confidence and establish good writing habits as they create, revise, and perfect their stories.”

Funny. Smart. And full of motivation and great tips. This book is a fun way to help kids see that their lives are already story worthy. They just need to notice everything that’s going on around them and write it down in their trusty journal.

Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire by Susan Tan

“Priscilla “Cilla” Lee-Jenkins is on a tight deadline. Her baby sister is about to be born, and Cilla needs to become a bestselling author before her family forgets all about her. So she writes about what she knows best―herself! Stories from her bestselling memoir, Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire, include:

– How she dealt with being bald until she was five
– How she overcame her struggles with reading
– How family traditions with her Grandma and Grandpa Jenkins and her Chinese grandparents, Nai Nai and Ye Ye, are so different

Debut author Susan Tan has written a novel bursting with love and humor, as told through a bright, irresistible biracial protagonist who will win your heart and make you laugh.”

Cilla Lee-Jenkins is simply a delight. She’s also a great role model for writing about your life (and your feelings) in a fun and interesting way. Kids who like to write will relate to Cilla immediately – and may even begin thinking about (and writing down) their own life stories.

The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary by Laura Shovan

“Eighteen kids,
one year of poems,
one school set to close.
Two yellow bulldozers
crouched outside,
ready to eat the building
in one greedy gulp.
 
But look out, bulldozers.
Ms. Hill’s fifth-grade class
has plans for you.
They’re going to speak up
and work together
to save their school.
 
Families change and new friendships form as these terrific kids grow up and move on in this whimsical novel-in-verse about finding your voice and making sure others hear it.”

The 5th graders in Ms. Hill’s class have a lot going on this year. And they chronicle it all – their doubts, their worries, their friendships, and their desires –  in a poetry project. Kids can see that writing really can make changes in their lives – and that their voice really does matter. Bonus: the book is full of poetry how to’s and prompts to help kids create their own poetry project.

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo

“Holy unanticipated occurrences! From #1 New York Times best-selling author Kate DiCamillo comes a laugh-out-loud story filled with eccentric, endearing characters — a novel interspersed with comic-style graphic sequences and full-page illustrations, all rendered in black and white by K. G. Campbell.”

So much fun! Part graphic novel/part traditional novel – Kate DiCamillo’s story of comic book loving Flora and her super hero squirrel buddy is page-turning fun. It’s also a great look at imaginative story-telling at its finest. A fun way to get kids thinking creatively about the stories they want to tell – and how to best enhance the telling. Best of all, it will give them permission to  let their imagination go a little wild. Kid me would have loved this – and would have come up with a dozen super hero style stories that would have made me laugh out loud while I was writing.

BONUS Title:
Humongous Book of Cartooning by Christopher Hart

“Chris Hart’s Humongous Book of Cartooning is a great value book covering everything the beginner needs to master cartooning. It teaches how to draw cartoon people, fantasy characters, layouts, background design and much more. This latest cartoon title from Chris Hart, the world’s bestselling author of drawing and cartooning books, packs a wallop. It’s the cartooning book that has it all: cartoon people, animals, retro-style “toons'”, funny robots (no one has ever done cartoon robots in a how-to book before, and movies like “Wall-E” and “Robots” were smash hits and prove their appeal), fantasy characters and even sections on cartoon costumes, character design, and cartoon backgrounds and composition. The Humongous Book of Cartooning is humongous, not only because it’s so big, but also because it includes a huge amount of original eye-catching characters and copious visual “side hints” that Chris is famous for. There is more actual instruction in this book than in any other of Chris’ cartooning titles. In short, if you want to know how to draw cartoons, Chris Hart’s Humongous Book of Cartooning is for you.”

Every writer gets a little stuck sometimes. Sometimes moving from words to pictures helps break the log jam. Doodling some basic character sketches activates a different part of the brain – and can often move you from stuck to full of ideas again. This book makes drawing characters fun and easy – even for someone who mostly deals in words all day. Kids will like the simple how to and the funny characters – and I’ll wager that more than one imaginative story will come from drawing some of these cartoons.

These 6 (okay, 7) books are on my inspirational writing workshop bookshelf right now. What’s your favorite “Get kids writing” book? Or even your favorite “Get me writing” book? Let me know in the comments below.

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Transporting Students Into the Past With Historical Fiction

What teaches you the perspective of others… the struggles a society may have suffered, the demands of distant cultures, or about an era so far removed from our own, that you are forced to wrap your brain around a different logic?

HISTORICAL FICTION is such a beast. It transports you into the past where life and a culture previously existed. You become part of a world where you walk-the-walk alongside characters dealing with the trials and tribulations of an era long gone.

Creative Commons Read Aloud

When I was in college, we were introduced to Jim Trelease, an educator who stressed that reading aloud builds students’ imaginations and improves listening skills. It also gives them a love of books.

I have read many books aloud to my classes ranging from 4th to 8th grade since my first year of teaching. (In case you aren’t aware, read-alouds are in addition to students’ regular reading and work that is associated with it, not a replacement for it.)

Last school year as a teacher, I used historical fiction to bring life to the social studies curriculum. I correlated our read-alouds to what was going on in their social studies lessons.

I read the section first with my best dramatic voice, and  asked comprehension questions along the way. We stopped, occasionally, for someone to look up a more challenging vocabulary word in the dictionary.  They identified locations on maps; they researched details to know more about a related topic; they ate foods that we read about.

A good portion of the class asked if they could take notes. Before long, everyone was recording in their journals, which supported their required writing and reflection afterwards. As a teacher, I know that annotating their thoughts helps them to develop a stronger understanding of the material and organize the details.

The best part were the discussions sparked by the stories themselves. They were meaningful and thought provoking. Mini-lessons to further understanding were also part of the process.

I collected their journals every week to do a quick check for comprehension and to assign an effort grade. If a student was absent, they picked-up the book and read the pages they had missed. At the end of the book, they took an assessment test. Many reported that our read-alouds with social studies was their favorite subject.

In Blood on the River: Jamestown 1607 by Elisa Carbone, we traced the journey from England to the coast of America on our map. We focused on how the colonists grappled with the hardships of the Jamestown colony as it struggled to survive, discussed their governing laws, and debated how business sponsored the settlement.

We also learned about the introduction of slave labor. When we got to the 13 colonies in social studies, there wasn’t a student in the class who didn’t understand what was involved in starting a new world.

In Under Siege! by (me) Robyn Gioia, we continued our discussion of how European nations were expanding into the New World for resources and the conflict between early colonial groups maneuvering for control.

In the story, my class learned about one of U.S. history’s best kept secrets: the 1702 English attack on the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine, Florida (a city later recognized as America’s oldest). Students deal with the angst and hardship of being under siege inside a fort surrounded by a superior enemy. At the heart of the story is survival and loss, war, friendship and adventure.

In Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, we see the colonies through the eyes of a slave girl. There were many discussions on the ownership of peoples and the burdens they bore, the dependence of society on slave labor, the laws governing the colonies, the discourse between factions, and the devastating hardships of war.We continued our read into the next book in the series, Forge, which deals with being a slave and a soldier coupled with the realities of war.

Johnny Tremain, by Ester Forbes, was not used as a read-aloud for the entire class. It was read by one of my literature circles. Those students were quick to jump in with further details about the Revolutionary War during open discussions. Insight into the Sons of Liberty was a favorite topic.

There are many wonderful historical fiction books out there. The problem is narrowing it down to just a few. Interacting with history through read-alouds is an excellent way to build conceptual knowledge and for students to internalize the intricacies of that era long ago.