Archive for the ‘Teacher’s Lounge’ Category

Character Qualities – IV

June 3, 2015

One more to close out the school year!  Yesterday the sixth-graders at John F. Kennedy Middle School in Kankakee, Illinois, voted on the character interview they’d most like to see, after Shelly, Bender, and Igor.  This time the vote went to


Take it away, Jay!cartoon_0022

What’s your favorite color?

Blue and silver.  Go, Cowboys!

What do you consider to be your strongest quality?

Setting a goal and sticking to it.

In what area of your life would you most like to improve?

Life’s pretty good right now; I’d be almost afraid to “improve” it.  Or me.

Okay, I guess there’s one thing.  I freak a little too easily.  It may not look like it, especially compared to Spencer, but like for instance.  When I started going nearsighted, I didn’t want to admit it.  It went on for a long time—even last year I started noticing, but I kept hoping it would get better on its own.  Nobody in my family wear glasses.  Peppy still has eyes like a hawk; he told me so.  He just uses reading glasses sometimes.  Even my dad.  So I didn’t mention it to anybody for a whole year, even when I started missing Poppy’s throws.  He brought it up himself: how’s your eyes lately?  It wasn’t until early this year that I had to say something, because I was writing the wrong assignment pages down from the smart board.  Just admitting it made it seem like the end of the world for a while.  I know that’s stupid, but it took some attitude adjustment.  All the time I was thinking I should be able to take it more in stride.  NFL players get injured all the time.  And I see it in the movies; star runner gets body-slammed, the doc says he’ll never be able to play again but he sucks it up and . . . Forget the sucking-up, I just don’t want anything like that to happen in the first place.  I have to be extra careful.

Who had or has the most influence on you?  How and/or why?

That’s easy.  Without Poppy I never would’ve been able to develop my talent to this level, or get as much fun out of it.  My dad’s a good dad, but he’s just not into the whole pigskin thing.  I would have grown up watching the History Channel and not have a clue until I got to high school, maybe, about a whole big side of my life.

What three words would your friends use to describe you?

Happy, friendly, fun.

What do others not understand about you?

Whoa, dude.  I’m not sure what there is to understand.  I mean, I’m pretty much out there all the time, you know?

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

In ten years, I’ll be in the top ten contenders for the Heisman Trophy and talking to pro sports agents.  I’d really like for both Cowboys and Steelers to be bidding for me, but I’d settle for one or the other, plus at least one more club showing a strong interest.  Maybe an expansion team, like the Titans or Panthers.  I could live with that.

What was the happiest moment of your life?

I don’t know if I would pick a happy moment.  But a happy time would be winter.  You’d probably guess my favorite time of the year is the fall, but actually it’s between Christmas and Super Bowl, when the playoffs are going on.  On Monday and Sunday nights, I run across the commons after dinner—Mom always yells, “Is your homework done?” and I always say Yes.  It usually is.  Cold air freezing my ears as I sprint through the woods, dodging trees like they were defensive blocks, leap onto the patio like I’m clearing the goal posts, chest-bump the grill, knock on the glass door.  Geemaw slides it open, hot dry air rubs my face (they’re always arguing about where to set the thermostat).  She says, “Come on in out of the cold, Trey!  You want some spice tea?” I love her spice tea—she loads it up with extra sugar and Tang and puts in a cinnamon stick to stir it with.  Poppy won’t touch the stuff, calls it warm syrup.  He’s already set up in his Lay Z Boy with a can of beer and a bowl of Doritoes or popcorn, with the platform rocker pulled up for me.  That’s Geemaw’s chair, but she never watches the game so she doesn’t mind Poppy moving it as he puts it back.  Which he never does anymore, so I do it myself just before going home, so they’ll have one less thing to fight about.  The fighting doesn’t really bother me, since it doesn’t seem to bother them.  I’d just rather they wouldn’t, especially if it’s got anything to do with me.  Anyway, those few minutes before the game starts, when I’m stirring my spice tea with the cinnamon stick and we’re talking over our picks and he’s threatening to trounce me on the averages again, and we don’t kind what kind of surprises the game is going to have for us . . . I don’t remember being any happier than that.

What is your greatest fear?

Do we have to talk about fear again?  Okay: knees.  Then calves.  Then shoulders.  I just have to be careful.

If you died tomorrow, what would your ideal epitaph be?

Uh-uh.  I’m not going there.  No way.




Character Qualities, III

May 29, 2015

Continuing this short series on character interviews . . . If you’re just joining us, I’m exploring the use of imaginary “interviews” as a way for authors to get to know their characters better.  Somebody on this Bus Is Going to Be Famous is a great example of the benefits of this technique, because with nine (count ’em! Nine!) main characters I needed an effective way to get to know them better.  Earlier this week I visited with kids at Montessori Magnet School in Kankakee, and asked them which interview they’d like to see.  The winner:


(She’s not surprised at all.  Just wait until she’s famous–everybody will want to read her interviews!)

What’s your favorite color?cartoon_0025

Silver!  That’s my brand.

What do you consider to be your strongest quality?

My strongest quality is determination and focus.  Is that two qualities?  How about focused determination?  Or determined focus?  You know Roger Foulkes, on American Star Search?  He says not having a focus is like playing darts with a balloon. He means you have to be sharp.  And I guess kind of hard, too.  I can’t think of anybody in my whole school like that except me.  Focus means you have to think about something all the time and set goals for yourself and figure out ways to reach those goals.  The only people I know like that are in the All-City Glee Club.  I’m the youngest member, did you know that?  Luke Springer, our coach, says that I—

What?  Go on to the next question?  Okay . . .

In what area of your life would you most like to improve?

Well, I believe that you don’t focus on your weaknesses; you build on your strengths.  So sure, I want to improve on everything there: voice, volume, breath control, musicality, body stamina, flexibility.  Grades?  Okay, I want to improve on those enough to get into some good performance schools.  Even though, like, how is it going to help me to know when the Civic War was or how to find the area of a circle?  But whatever it takes, I guess.

Who had or has the most influence on you?  How and/or why?

Claire, definitely.  Did you know she was the youngest of six kids, and their dad ran off and their mother had to work all the time and she grew up in Arkansas?  And she made it big singing country and western?  Yeah.  You can find her old clips on YouTube, age 15 or something like that, singing “Wildwood Flower” on an acoustic guitar.  Wearing white cowgirl boots and a shirt with a fringe!  What I admire about her is that she wasn’t afraid to change or, you know, evolve.  She kept the white boots but that’s it.  And now she’s so . . . so . . . just dazzly.  She lights up the whole stage.  She’s going to be in St. Louis in January and I’m dying to go.  But Dad says it’s either that or save the money for camp, so . . . Nobody should have to make a choice like that!

What three words would your friends use to describe you?

Sparkly.  Exciting.  Focused.

What do others not understand about you?

Well, I think everybody understands my goals, and that’s all I care about!

But . . . I don’t think they understand what performing does to me.  I guess maybe they might think I’m just a showoff.  But there’s a lot more to it than that.  Really, a lot more.  Like music.  Music takes me places, you know?  When the music gets inside and starts swirling around it kind of lifts me up and swirls me around, too.  And then I’m exactly who I want to be, not a little Mexican beanpot like Uncle Mike says.  (I guess I used to fart a lot, though I don’t remember.)  He still calls me that, even though my ears fit my face a lot better and my hair got long and thick enough to cover them.  It’s like a big hilarious joke that nobody thinks is funny except him.  He’s a loser, anyway.  But the music, that’s what people don’t get.  The talent show really showed me that.  I know, it was just a little dinky elementary-school show, and when the sound went off I would have freaked, totally, except for the music.  It was inside me—no, it was me, and it made me so much bigger and stronger I could pick up that whole cafeteria full of kids and take them anywhere I wanted to go.  Talk about focused!  I was so there, I never want to be anywhere else.

That’s what I wish people understood about me.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

In ten years I’ll be 22.  Claire did her first concert tour when she was 19, her first platinum album at 20, her first Super Bowl halftime at 21.  Does that give you an idea?

What was the happiest moment of your life?

Well, I was going to say the talent show—duh!  But then I thought a little more about this question, and I remembered this funny thing from way back when I was only 7.  M6y grandpa on my mom’s side, Papa Early, he gave me my first showbiz break.  Really.  He was the entertainment chairman of this old-folks group he belonged to, the Golden Gang, and he came up with this bright idea to have a grandkids’ talent show.  He called it Bragging Rights Night, because he told us he got tired of all the old duffers bragging on their grandkids and wanted to see all these wonderkids strut their stuff (he actually talked like that).  He’s the one who talked my parents into letting me sing, because I used to sing for him on the back porch on barbecue nights.  He picked two songs and even coached me a little.  I didn’t think too much about it.  I always liked to sing but never thought about performing.  I didn’t get too nervous, or not too anything until I was halfway through “The Good Ship Lollipop” and noticed all these old people smiling at me.  Really smiling, not like Aw Isn’t She Cute, but like I was making them happy.  And that made me happy.

At the end of the show, Papa Early picked me up and walked around with me like I was, like, three years old.  “Here’s my little star,” he kept saying, like he wanted all his friends to know me.  And all the time they were smiling like they were still in that happy place.

Papa Early died a few months after that.  Heart attack, really sudden.  I wish I could remember him better.

What’s your greatest fear?

Well, if you want to stay focused you can’t think about fear!  So I’ll pass on this one.

If you died tomorrow, what should your epitaph be?

What kind of question is that?!  And what’s an epitaph?  Like, what you put on your gravestone?  Okay, if you want to know how I’d like people to remember me, how about Shelly Alvarez: a Real Shooting Star.

But really, it’s a stupid question.


To see how other characters answered these same questions, here’s Bender and Igor.

Character Qualities, II

May 27, 2015

So, last week I introduced

The Interview

as a useful tool for helping an author get to know her character.  That is, about halfway into the first draft, I  figuratively sit the main characters down and ask them a set of predetermined questions, which they must answer directly, as if they themselves were writing or speaking.  Some details of their answers are already in the manuscript; others will never find a place in the story.  Nothing mystical happens here; I’m answering as if I were Jay or Shelly or Igor.  But I have to use what I’ve already determined about them, what I’ve come to know, and what I might be able to feel my way toward, in order to answer these questions.

Last Thursday, I posted my interview with Bender Thompson at the request of the class I Skype-visited.  Today, at the request of King Middle Schoolers in Kankakee, IL (thanks for your great questions, guys!) I’ll share my interview with

ROBERT JAMES PRICE SANDERSON, better known as “Igor”

(I pronounce it EE-gore, by the way)

 What’s your favorite color?


Neon!  I know, lots of colors can be neon.  But that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

What do you see as your strongest quality?

My strongest quality is my abdominal muscles because I can leg press 200 pounds.  No kidding.  My Webelos troop that I was in for about two seconds (before they kicked me out) had a fitness day at the Y and we tried out all the machines.  That’s what I could do.

In what area of your life would you like to improve?

I would like to improve my report card.  But not enough to, like, work at it.

Who had or has the most influence on you?  How and/or why?

The person who has had the most influence on my life is the Incredible Hulk.  That’s why I turn into this big green destruction machine when nobody’s around.  The person with the second-most influence is probably my real dad.  Even though I don’t really remember him.

What three words would your friends use to describe you?

Funny, crazy, hysterical.

What do others not understand about you?

My friends don’t understand how smart I really am.  I’m just pretending to be stoopid.  Most people don’t realize, but it takes a lot of brains to act dumb.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

In ten years I’ll probably be finishing junior high.

What was the happiest moment of your life?

My happiest moment was when I finally managed to flatten the Empire State Building in Monster Donkey Kong.

Okay, here’s the truth: my happiest memory is the day we left for Disney World, in Florida.  Big Al, my stepdad, told us two weeks before that we were going on this vacation, but up until that minute I didn’t believe it.  I’ve been told enough things were happening that ended up not happening.  Big Al is a morning person—when he’s at home his normal get-up time is like 4:30 in the morning—and he likes to get an early start on any trip, so we were on the road before the sun came up.  I know what that that time of day feels like, because every time we make a move that’s when we leave: it’s kind of fuzzy and blurry but sharp at the center.  Does that make sense?  Anyway, Big Al had the van all loaded up so all we had to do was pile in, but I was already awake—I’d been lying in bed thinking about Space Mountain and Haunted Mansion and all the other rides.  The baby was a little fussy when Mom strapped her in her car seat, but I knew she’d be out like a light once the car started rolling.  Little Al and Samantha started a fight over whose space was whose and Mom told them to knock it off, but not like she was mad.  Big Al said, like he does every time, “If we ain’t got it, we don’t need it,” and we backed out of the driveway.  There was a rim of orange light on the horizon and I knew that in about fifteen minutes Big Al and me would be the only ones awake in the van but we wouldn’t need to talk.

Of course, we ended up having to leave a day early and I never got to ride Space Mountain.  I guess nothing can be perfect.

What is your greatest fear?

My greatest fear is that someday the space/time continuum will break down and I’ll wake up to find I’m 87 years old but still think like a kid.

If you died tomorrow, what would your ideal epitaph be?

Here’s lies Igor Sanderson—just kidding!

(Illustration courtesy of Tielman Cheaney, Cartoon Vegas.)

I’m a Believer . . . in the Oxford Comma

May 8, 2015

My story: I didn’t even know what the Oxford Comma was, but in general, I was against it.

For instance, what’s the difference between these two sentences?

Grandma sent me to the drug store to buy shampoo, toothpaste, and corn plasters.Oxford-Comma

Grandma sent me to the drug store to buy shampoo, toothpaste and corn plasters.

Eagle-eyed readers will immediately see that the difference between these two sentences is one little comma, which appears to have no particular use and adds no additional meaning.  When you are listing items in a sentence, the “and” is a signal that you’re wrapping up the list and the list does not need doesn’t need that sporty little curve with the dot at the top that looks like a tadpole with a ruptured appendix.  It’s redundant.  I hate redundancy.  I take commas out whenever they don’t appear to be needed, and if copy editors put them back in, I will sometimes (if I’m very, very sure) take them out again.

But . . . all the experts said that items in a list must be distinguished by a comma before the “and.”  Much as I hate redundancy, I hate incorrectness more.  How mortifying, to be passed over for the Newbery or National Book Award because I disdained the Oxford comma.  That’s almost like disdaining Laurence Olivier, or telling William and Kate their new baby is ugly.  (Which she isn’t.)

So I accustomed myself to using the Oxford comma without knowing the reason why.  Sometimes it’s wise to obey the rules even if you don’t understand the reason for the rules; else you may end up looking silly.  As I would have, if I persisted in my disdain and wrote something like this:

Among those interviewed were Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.

This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

Highlights of Peter Ustinov’s global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800 year-old demigod and a dildo collector.*

. . . .oh.  I get it.

Adding the Oxford to items in a list is merely to distinguish it from items of attribution, such as those falsely and ignominiously attributed to Haggard’s ex-wives, parents, and Nelson Mandela.  Notice the Oxford comma in the last sentence: does it appear to be wagging its head and nodding its little head at you?  That means I told you so.

But don’t get me started on apostrophes . . . .

Or elipses . . .

* These examples have been floating around the web for a while and may be apocryphal.  Apologies to Nelson Mandela.

Where Does the Magic Come From?

May 2, 2015

In 2008, a middle-grade novel called Savvy, by first-time novelist Ingrid Law, swept numerous awards lists and was anointed with the silver medallion of Newbery runner-up.  Savvy has certain distinctive elements: a real-life location (rural Ohio), a loving though eccentric family, quirky characters, a desperate situation–and supernatural intervention, because each member of the family has a particular “savvy,” or supernatural power, that’s revealed at his or her 13th birthday.  The genre is best described as magical realism: a story set in an actual place and time, where the main problem or conflict is solved by other-worldly phenomena. (Even though, in this book and many others, the “savvy” is as much a problem as it is a solution.)

Since the publication of Savvy, I’ve noticed a bunch of books cut on the same general pattern.  Of course, stories where supernatural events occur in our own world (as opposed to a mythical kingdom or alternate universe) have plenty of representatives in classic children’s fiction—think The Indian in the Cupboard, or Tuck Everlasting, or—even farther back—Mary Poppins.  “Magic” is a staple of children’s literature, from fairy tales to Arabian nights, so what’s new?

Well, nothing is really new, as Solomon noted (cf. Ecclesiastes 1:9).  But “new” does go in cycles, and we seem to be in a magical realism cycle now.

Important to note: this is different from magic as the learned power to manipulate inanimate forces (as in the Harry Potter series) or to conjure and control spirits (as in the Batimaeus series).  Savvy is a prime example of what I’m seeing more of.  Just recently I reviewed Lucky Strike: real-life location (Mississippi Gulf Coast), loving but eccentric family (Nate’s crotchety grandpa), quirky characters (Genesis Magnolia Beam and her father the Rev.), a desperate situation (lightning strike), and a supernatural power (sudden, inordinate luck).   And A Snicker of Magic: real-life location (western North Carolina), eccentric family (wandering mama), quirky characters (just about everybody in Midnight Gulch), desperate situation (homelessness), supernatural power (seeing words).

Then there’s Almost Super.  And Bliss and Cake.  Also Flora & Ulysses, and Egg & Spoon.  Sometimes the formula takes an interesting twist: the main characters in Almost Super receive “stupid” powers, and in Remarkable the main character is the only one in her town who doesn’t possess some phenomenal gift.  The magic almost always occurs without explanation; it’s just there, or it’s part of the family heritage from way back.

Most of these books tend toward sunny optimism.  Even though danger or sadness weaves into the plot, the reader knows that the best friend will not die, that the main character will find a home, that Dad will recover, and their immediate neighborhood will be much better off than it was before.  In fact, if I could sum up the theme of almost all the aforementioned books, it would be

The world is a beautiful, fascinating place, and you are a magical person if only you would realize it and tap into your special power.

 This is true and not true.  The world is beautiful and fascinating but also hard and cruel (that’s a point that YA literature has often been criticized for making).  How to solve that paradox, or at least live with it, might be seen as the big theme of all literature.  “Magic,” in the magical-realism genre, could be interpreted as a way to make the world come out right without recourse to any form of religious consolation.

Classic fairy tales like Cinderella perform a similar function, but fairy tales take place in a world understood as Once upon a time.  In other words, not here.  Also fairy tales are peopled by types rather than personalities: the wicked queen or stepmother, the noble prince, and the kind and beautiful heroine, with dwarves, giants, gnomes, and talking animals for magical mischief and comic relief.  The generic nature of fairy tales insures their survival.  They are for all time, not today’s Issue of the Week.  When highjacked and made to serve an agenda they lose their power.

The uniformity of fairy tales (truth and beauty always win) tells us something about the moral compass and human yearning for clear distinctions between good and evil. I’m not sure what the increase in magical realism for middle-schoolers tells us, except perhaps that when God goes out the door, “magic” creeps down the chimney. We have our supernatural yearnings, and need our supernatural fix.

I believe the world is beautiful and fascinating because God made it, and I believe the world is also hard and cruel because it’s fallen. We yearn for something beyond the world because He has planted eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes again, 3:11). In an increasingly secular society, though, I can’t say that just anywhere, and perhaps the last place I can say it is in a novel.  Fiction can’t preach.  But it can reflect, and current youth fiction might be reflecting a response to practical atheism in the public square and the public schools.  As these become more secular, life can’t be seen as a gift, because gifts demand givers. Life can only be a problem, or a series of problems, to be solved with facts and hard data (and gritty “realistic” YA novels).  With nowhere else to go, imagination retreats into fantasy, offering hope that there’s a little magic in all of us.

But where does the magic come from?  If we can’t answer that question, or if the answer is strictly relative, those puffy hopes are nothing but clouds.

Teacher’s Lounge: The Search for Delicious

April 3, 2015

In 1969, Natalie Babbitt published The Search for Delicious, in which a king’s quest to discover what food should be the definition of “delicious” in the royal dictionary almost touches off a war between kingdoms.  (Babbitt is best known for Tuck Everlasting–now 40 years old–but Delicious deserves to be reread to a classroom of, say, fourth-graders.)  The title presented itself to me when I was putting together a series of workbooks on creative writing.  Rather it (the title) slipped in through the back door as I was writing a lesson on adjectives.  How many words do we have to describe food?  They say Inuit languages have umpteen words for ice, because ice is so important to them.  That might just be arctic legend, but I know for sure that Americans can lay tongue to dozens of adjectives that can be applied to food, because we have lots, and eat lots.   Food, in its voluminous variety and abundance, makes an excellent motif for teaching about adjectives.


And I don’t mean qualitative adjectives, like scrumptious, yummy, or toothsome.  We throw these around all day–well, except for toothsome–but they don’t actually describe anything except our feelings.  You might have a great day at the beach while your cousin has a great day at the library.  You would get bored at the library; she would get sunburned at the beach, so you would have conflicting definitions of what makes for a great day.  Same with food: what’s delicious in a potato chip is is not so much in a chocolate chip.

Stretch your students’ descriptive vocabulary by teasing their palates.  Bring in 6-8 foods with varying tastes and textures and serve small amounts of each for snack time.  These could be pretzels, grapes, apple slices, tortilla chips, marshmallows, raisins.  Ask the students to think about what makes each one “delicious” and write two or three descriptive adjectives for each.  Some interesting distinctions to make: what’s the difference between tangy and sour?  Crunchy and crispy?  Gummy and chewy?  Spicy and fiery?  And what about words that mean roughly the same thing, but one is positive while the other is negative–like moist/stale, firm/hard, crunchy/dry, tart/sour?

Make a list of “delicious” adjectives ahead of time and write them on the board.  Your students will be amazed!  And so will you.


Teachers’ Lounge: Growling at the Camera

March 20, 2015

One of the most important lessons any writer can learn, whether child or adult, is this:


Writing is largely a matter of framing.  Take your picture frame or camera lens or screen or however you want to imagine it, and zoom in on the subject.  Don’t try to take in everything; observe only a few details, focusbut observe them lovingly.  Don’t list every action, but bring out the actions that contribute to one focused whole.

Say you ask a classroom of kids to describe their best friend.  How likely is it that most of the descriptions will read something like this:

Selena is like a sister to me.  She has brown hair and brown eyes and is very athletic.  She won the hundred meter dash in all-city track last year.  She’s four inches taller than me and sometimes she calls me “Shrimp.”  But she would never hurt my feelings on purpose.  We like a lot of the same things, like dance movies, M&M cookies from the bakery, soccer and Danny Rodgers (he’s in seventh grade).  Our favorite author is J. B. Cheaney.  We’re almost always together and we have a lot of fun.

Okay, I get it; they’re buddies.  But Selena as a person eludes this description, and that’s because it’s often tough for beginning writers to describe someone they know and love.  So try this: ask them to describe  a local TV personality, such as the Channel 8 meteorologist or a talk show host.

  • After observing this person on TV, decide what image of himself he’s trying to get across (or her, of course)–is the person trying to look trustworthy? fun? interested? nuts (like the furniture or used car salesman who wants you to think you can totally take advantage of him)?  Write down one or two details that support your impression.
  • Write one thing the person says.
  • Describe the person’s surroundings in one sentence, including the most prominent feature (such as a car dealership sign or program logo).

Once you have all that, put it together in a one-paragraph description.  Here’s an example:

“In other news, the stock market fell almost 5% today,” says Mark Spencer.  His eyebrows pull together in a serious look and his mouth is a thin straight line.  Just behind his left shoulder is a big lighted sign reading, “Channel Six headline News.”  His dark suit and plain tie stand out against the sign.  His solemn face wants to reassure me that I can trust him.

Want to try that again?  Rewrite your description of the same person, but this time, imagine that he or she is an animal.  What animal do they remind you of?  Once you’ve figured that out, fill in the bullet points above and use appropriate details to create the picture:

“In other news, the bone market fell almost 5% today,” growls Mark Spencer.  His eyelids droop over mournful-looking eyes and his tongue hangs out sadly.  Just behind his hulking brown shoulder is a big lighted sign reading, “Channel Six Canine News.”  His droopy bulldog face wants me to think he’s very serious about the news, but I can hear his tail thumping behind the desk.

Focusing takes some time to develop (photography pun–sorry), but if practiced enough it can become second nature.

Teacher’s Lounge: Six Ways to KILL the Love of Reading

February 27, 2015

Or, suppose they gave a common-core-aligned lesson plan and nobody came?

Here’s a tale of three sisters.  The first two don’t remember learning to read as a struggle, even though kill-readingtheir companions on the journey were the pasty-faced and bland Dick and Jane.  And Spot and Muff.  From See Spot run.  Run, run, run they made the leap to more exciting fare like Honey Bunch: Just a Little Girl (I loved it when she fell down in the coal cellar, though I had no idea what a coal cellar was).  They would just as soon curl up with a book as pedal their bikes madly around the neighborhood.  For the youngest sister, though, reading didn’t come easy.  She would get frustrated sounding out words (“What does a b sound like?” the middle sister would ask impatiently, when forced to listen to her practice.  “Bu-bu-bu, a, a, a, du-du-du . . .”).  Little sister was (is) a smart cookie and reads perfectly well now, but it was never her favorite thing to do.  Her house is crammed with everything except bookshelves.  She’s just not a reader.

Reading itself is not a “natural learning process” for most children; it has to be taught, and basic phonics is probably the best way to do it for most.  But the break-it-down-in-little-bitty-learning units doesn’t work for every child.  The “whole-language” approach to reading, which used to be called look-say and is probably called something else now, had one idea right: reading is an integrated process involving vision, brain circuits, emotion, and physical and mental readiness.  And it’s a mystery: how does anyone grasp this highly complex system of combining and recombining 26 symbols into the entire western canon?  It’s much more than just translating symbols: it’s also catching inferences and making connections and understanding figures of speech and gaining a sense of plot and character development, all of which comes with practice and can’t be front-loaded: readers will understand the subtleties of reading only after they’ve read.  A lot.

Surveys indicate that reading for pleasure is a declining activity, for lots of reasons.   but teachers and parents can help kill it off, if we’re not careful.  For instance, we can

1. Make everyone in the class read the same book.  As much as I love it when a school district buys copies of The Middle of Somewhere or Somebody on This Bus Is Going to be Famous for an entire class, I know that not every student is going to love reading it.  (Even though they’re both lots of fun!*) Book discussions are valuable, but only if the participants have some interest in the book.  A better way to generate book discussions is to allow free-range reading, as much as possible.  Donalyn Miller, The Book Whisperer, simply stocked her sixth-grade classroom with books to appeal to a broad range of reading tastes and levels, and tried to set aside an hour a day for the students to read whatever they liked.  (By the end of each school year, she claims, every one of her student had found lots to like.)  Their enthusiastic recommendations to other kids developed impromptu discussion groups on the fly.

2. Hand out work sheets at the end of every chapter.  Really?? Every chapter?  When the kids are dying to find out what’s behind the door or what happened after Danny accidentally ran into the principle with his go-cart?  The author wants them to turn the page.  The kids want to turn the page.  Let them turn the page.

3. Make the study of a book all about how the author writes the book, not what the book is actually about.  If a young reader makes it all the way to college (or senior year honors English), that’s the time to do literary analysis.   As mentioned above, analysis can’t be front-loaded: it’s too much to ask a young reader to write character sketches when they don’t have a firm grasp of “character,” or outline a plot while they’re still gaining a sense of plot.  It’s like grammar: you learn to use nouns and verbs fluently long before you know what they are.

4. Cut money for the library budget.  See #2 above.  Students will not learn how to pick up and browse a book if they have no books to pick up.

5. Cut classroom reading time in order to schedule a test.   And another test.  And another test.  I know, if the district mandates a certain number of tests, you don’t have much choice.  But maybe something else could be cut to allow for reading time.  We’ll never know how much education is caught rather than taught, and how much a student subliminally learns about reading (and much else) just by doing it.  This takes time.  For reading’s sake and for the child’s, do whatever you can to give them time.

6. Talk it up every chance you get.  Look, I’m a reader.  And even I get fed up with rhapsodies about being swept away by a story or “saved” by a book.  It happens, but not to everybody.  Overselling can make the non-reader feel like they’re seriously missing out if they don’t hop aboard the good ship There Is No Frigate Like a Book and let it carry them to worlds unknown.  For some kids, all you need to do is help them find a book or story (or subject, if they’re more inclined to nonfiction) that they enjoy.  Transcendence will come from some other source for them.  And that’s perfectly okay.


*Hey, don’t take my word for it.  Here’s what VOYA says: “Cheaney’s narrative style is dynamic and lively. She clearly has high expectations of her audience, creating a middle-grade reader with both substance and complexity that is also truly fun.”

Teacher’s Lounge: George Washington . . . and YOU!

February 20, 2015

Yes, I know . . . we already celebrated President’s Day.  But when I was a kid, and not the crabby curmudgeon I am today, we celebrated Washington’s Birthday when it was really, you know, Washington’s Birthday.  If there are any teachers out there who would like to at least acknowledge the Father of His Country on a close approximation of his birthday (it’s Feb. 22), here’s an interesting way to do it while at the same time getting in a little education.  First of all, get a copy of this picture, or sit the kiddoes down in front of their computer screens and post it up.  Try to get a clear full-screen view:


Yes, you’ve seen it: the object of many a parody.  But even though we’re too sophisticated to be moved by such obviously heroic scenes, it’s still a awesome painting in all kinds of ways.  The original canvas is 21’4″ by 12’5″ (you read that right) and was painted by Emmanuel Leutze in Dusseldorf, Germany.  Leutze has come from Germany to America at the age of nine, then moved back to Germany where he opened a successful art school and waylaid any Americans who passed through to model for him, especially when he started his great canvas of Washington.  The local Germans, he felt, were too short.  Worthington Whittredge, an American admirer of Leutze, came by to visit when the artist was first sketching out his canvas, and he became the model for Washington: “Spy glass in one hand and the other on my knee, I stood and was nearly dead when the operation was over.”  He was standing because Leutze wanted him standing to suit the composition of the picture, even though Washington almost certainly sat down during the actual crossing, for obvious reasons.

Anyway, tell your students the story of that Christmas Eve in 1776 that changed the fortunes of America–here’s an account from the Mt. Vernon website, and another with more background and an eyewitness account, and here’s one for kids.   Once they have the story straight, ask your students to study the paining and choose one man in the boat to write about (decide for yourself whether to eliminate Washington–or you can be Washington.  That way you can insure the Father of Our Country gets some respect!)  They’re going to write a paragraph about that night from their chosen character’s point of view, following these guidelines:

  • Write what someone says.
  • Include two sounds and one smell (hint: there animals present, and people didn’t take baths much back then).
  • Tell what you’re looking at, including color, texture, and/or motion.
  • Tell what you’re doing.
  • Tell how you feel, without using the words “I feel.” Remember, it’s Christmas Eve!

After everybody is done, choose some students to represent each character in the boat and ask them to arrange themselves in imitation of the painting (life-sized vignette, anyone?).  Then ask them to read their accounts aloud  or choose a good reader to read all the accounts, going from left to right.

Does anybody want to share???


Teachers’ Lounge: More Rabbit Tales

February 13, 2015

Two weeks ago we looked at ways to tweak a narrative in order to provoke a particular response in the reader.  (Actually it wasn’t tweaking so much as taking the narrative by the ears and wrestling it to the ground.)  If you were here in the Teachers’ Lounge you might recall me wondering aloud how the first few paragraphs of The Tale of Peter Rabbit would sound if Beatrix Potter were writing an action-packed adventure tale . . . or a cautionary tale . . . or a humorous romp.Battle-Bunny

(I would try a combat Rabbit, but Jon Schieszka and Mac Barnett beat me to it: )

So anyway, here’s what I came up with.

The call of ADVENTURE:

Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits.  Their names: Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter.  Peter marched to the beat of his own drum.  But you’ll see that.

They lived all crammed up together with their Mother in a sandbank, in a house that made Peter feel like he was suffocating.  The root of a very big fir tree bumped his noggin every morning when he jumped out of bed.

“Now, my dears,” said old Mrs. Rabbit one brisk and sunny morning, “you may go into the fields or down the lane, but don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden – your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.”  She glared at Peter when she said this, but her words sounded more like a challenge to him.

“Now run along, and don’t get into mischief. I am going out.”

Peter’s ears tingled–freedom!

The weight of a MORAL:

Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits, and their names were: Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter.  Please pay special attention to Peter.

They lived with their widowed Mother in a fine home that their father had dug out of a sandbank, safely situated underneath the root of a very big fir tree.

One morning Mrs. Rabbit noticed there was nothing for breakfast–who had nibbled away the parsley buns?  She had an idea, but was loath to accuse without proof.  So it was off to the market: “Now, my dears,” she said briskly, “you may go into the fields or down the lane while I’m gone, but don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden – Remember what happened to your poor Father?”  Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail nodded solemnly, but Peter snickered behind his paw.  Mrs. Rabbit sighed.  What was this black sheep of the family coming to?

“Now run along, and don’t get into mischief. I am going out.”

Peter’s ears twitched: freedom!

Reaching (maybe too far) for LAUGHS:

Once upon a time—or maybe it was just yesterday; I’m fuzzy on the details–there were four little Rabbits, and their names were: Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter.  (Somebody might have been hitting the blackberry wine a little too hard when they were handing out the names.)

They lived with their poor-but-honest Mother in a sandbank, underneath the root of a poor-but-honest—and very big–fir tree.

“Now, my dears,” said old Mrs. Rabbit one morning, as she absent-mindedly tied a sausage on top of her head, “you may go into the fields or down the lane, but don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden – your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.”

“Mom,” remarked Peter, “did you know you had a sausage tied on top of your head?”

Mrs. Rabbit started, darting a paw to the incongruous object.  “Goodness me!  Why didn’t you say so?”

“I just did,” sighed Peter. 

“Never mind, then,” she sniffed.  “Now run along, and don’t get into mischief. I am going out.”

Other genres may come to mind: romance? spy thriller? combat drama?  Many possibilities, and many more words to work with.