Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Review: Writing Magic:Creating Stories That Fly

Writing Magic: Creating Stories That Fly by Gail Carson Levine.  2006 HarperCollins Publishing New York, NY; 161 pages.

In looking at books for instructors, I am also looking at books to recommend for kids, after all, what's the point if all the books out there are technical and school like? Don't kids need a place to turn to for instruction and advice that speaks to them?  What kind of books should teachers have available to students?  

I have always liked Gail Carson Levine's easy style so I wanted to take a look at this book and found, like her fiction, this has an easy style to draw the reader in.  Each of the 30 short chapters cover an aspect of writing and finish with a writing exercise.

For the student, Levine starts by making the reader "promise" to save everything they write for at least 15 years.  Each writing exercise ends with "save what you wrote," harkening back to that promise without that nagging reminder: you promised.  It is merely part of the writing exercise instruction.

She draws heavily on books of her own the students most likely know (Ella Enchanted, Dave at Night, etc.) but also on other books that they are most likely familiar.  Just like teachers in a writer's workshop, she gives her own stories and examples along with advice.

For example, chapter 17 "Stuck," has the words, "There is no such thing as a perfect book or a perfect story," set in large, italic type so it truly stands out on the page and draws the reader's eye.  She goes on to explain why perfection doesn't matter and options for approaches when a writer is stuck. 

Geared for kids ages 9 and up, this is a great resource book for a classroom library or for exercises in the classroom.    Like Lucy Calkins, Ruth Culham and others, Levine is hitting on writing habits and traits but her lessons are echoing what the students hear in the classroom in a language that is comfortable.  Adults can benefit from this book as well in spite of the target audience as the quick mini lessons with advice and exercises are universal.

Overall, this book is well worth the price tag.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Sifting through the data

As part of my thesis, I am giving a survey 70 third grade kids with 15 questions where they check a box for "A Lot" "Some" "A Little" or "Not At All."  There are also four short answer questions and an old Kliban cartoon with the question, "What is the cat dreaming about?"

One of the statements was "I think I could write a book some day."  The answer was surprising in that 44% of the kids said "A Lot" and 17% said some.  That's over half of this year's third graders think that they have a book in them.

What was also heartening for me was to see the large number of kids who like to write about non-fiction.  One third of the class like writing about Science and a quarter of them like writing about Social Studies.

This is at a time when the kids are just starting to really receive instruction in how to write.  I love that this is the age where the kids are moving from learning to read to reading to learn.  They took the survey a week after they started writer's workshop instructions, they'll take the same one again at the end of October and again at the end of November.  The big difference will be kids who choose to participate in National Novel Writers Month Young Writers Program.  My theory is that kids who are on the fence about writing and then participate in YWP don't fear the blank page the way kids who don't participate, even though they all have the same instruction.  I'm also curious to see what happens to the "I could write a book some day," numbers.

But I have to share some of my favorite cat dreams (so far).  As expected, a number of kids were rather literal.
Many of the kids observed the cat was "fat" and had the cat dreaming about chasing, catching and eating mice.  One kid  had the cat dreaming of a land where the grass is made of kibble and the rocks were made of turkey.

There were also a lot of answers about the cat feeling safe and secure.  Sometimes the cat was dreaming of chasing dogs or in a world where there were no dogs to chase them.

Another popular theme was the cat playing with or meeting new friends.  One kid had the cat trying to sleep before going on a cruise with lots of other cats that will stop in every country and be able to buy souvenirs to remind him of his trip.

Many of the kids mentioned flying carpets and had the cat flying over Egypt or referenced some form of the story of Aladdin.

There was even a "since this is a writing survey..." answer where the student determined the cat was dreaming about writing since he saw people writing in the house and figured he could too.  But there were some that made me laugh, some that made me sigh.  Among my favorite was a story about the cat being the first cat in space and how he was going to colonize Mars and create a new civilization.

One of my favorite comical answers included, "Bots!  A lot of Bots!  The stars.  The stars are beautiful!!!! Go stars!!!!!!!!"  From one of the most touching stories "...The cat thinks almost everything below is beautiful.  The cat observes its beauty and then moves on to the next thing.  Then eventually he looks at the stars and finds the beauty in them.  He is feeling the wind and think it is the intense version of leaping through the air....."

It will be interesting to see if the numbers do shift at all and, if so, how much and in which direction.  Right now I'm looking at my two sleeping cats and wondering if either of them are dreaming about colonizing Mars or cheering on the stars.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Book Review: Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide

(This is the first in a series of reviews about books on teaching writing to kids.)

Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide by Ralph Fletcher and JoAnn Portalupi.  2001 Heinemann Press, Hanover, NH; 159 pages.

For those going into teaching and trying to slog their way through Lucy Calkins books and curriculum materials, this is a companion book that you may want to have on your bookshelf.  What Fletcher and Portalupi do is take Lucy McCormick Calkins method of teaching writing and boil it down into essential steps right down to a timeline for the educational year for teaching writing.

At the end of each chapter is a bullet pointed breakdown called "Making it Work in the Classroom" and the appendices contain a variety of check lists and materials that can be used in the classroom for charting various writing, editing, evaluation and progress steps necessary for the teacher and student.

One main drawback, because it is a boiled down version of the full curriculum, the authors are trying to cover everyone from primary teachers through upper levels of education.  The results are the kernels are there but not everything applies to everyone, which can be a bit frustrating.

While this can't replace the broad spectrum of materials and instruction provided in the books and series by Calkins, it is a solid quick reference book for teaching professionals for a reasonable price.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

School, NaNoWriMo, reviews and such

After a summer of intense classes, I am now in final push mode.  This includes my capstone thesis on changing how 3rd graders view writing and the ever looming NaNoWriMo in November.  Not only will I be writing again this year (and going for the the fourth win) but I'll also be leading a motley crew of 3rd graders through as well.


My capstone thesis is thus: kids don't like writing because they are scared of things like blank pages, how much they're expected to write and because it's not always perfect.  (Hmmm... sounds like most adults I know.)  I think that as they go through Writer's Workshop, they begin to deal with some of those issues but pushing a crew through NaNoWriMo blows those fears out of the water.  Because NaNoWriMo has the Young Writers Program (YWP) where kids set their own goal, it's less intimidating than 50k words, but still a challenge.  We're thinking 50 words a day for the kids for a 1,500 word push is pretty good.  I suspect a lot of the kids will choose to do more while others will hang on.  One kid that has started talking to me about YWP is one of the kids who struggles greatly with writing but is so excited about writing a pirate story, he's already counting the days to November first.

The other part of this is the research component.  Many of the books on teaching and encouraging writing I am reading, I must review which leads me to....


I will start posting reviews of various books I am looking at for my research component.  It will include some of the more instructional sort of stuff from folks like Lucy Calkins and Ruth Fulham to more general advice by folks like Gail Carson Levine.  Those will start springing up here in the next few days and will continue through the end of November.


Finally what I'm writing about this year.  Last year I wrote 30 short stories in 30 days.  The year before that was "Cyn," about a young girl torn between familial duty and her own desire to be a mechanic set on a steampunk airship.  My first year was an MG piece called "Diversity is Not a Race," about the weirdos in a middle school.  While that piece is truly horrible on many levels, the reality is that it gave me the confidence to write and reminded me that I had novels in me even if I'm not currently writing them.

This year is looking like I may finally write that epic adventure "Bring me the Cryogenically Frozen Head of Ted Williams," about a couple of typical Masshole Red Sox fans on the quest to find the meaning of life, the universe and everything and how it all relates to their passion for the hometown team.


Through it all, I still have to do weekly essays for my child psych class, my big paper for my history class on Profiles in Power (DeGaulle, Nixon, Deng Xiaoping and Gorbachev).  Then there's always the mundane things like cooking, cleaning and such in all of that too.  But do stay tuned as things heat up here once again.