For Teachers

A Book Club for Teachers

Barbara Bosworth is the Reading Teacher at Haycock Elementary, a bustling school of over 800 students in Falls Church, Virginia.  In addition to her many duties at Haycock, Ms. Bosworth took it upon herself to initiate a Children’s Literature Interest Group at Haycock – in short, a children’s book club for teachers!  How can a reading children’s literature fit into a busy teacher’s schedule?  In a word – beautifully.  Welcome, Barbara, to the Mixed-Up Files!

When and how did the children’s literature interest group come about?

This is our third year for the group.  Several years ago, I attended a Greater Washington Reading Council Conference with author and educator Shelley Harwayne.  She said that,

“Teachers should be reading great children’s literature on Sunday afternoons instead of writing lesson plans.”

That comment resonated in me as I would reflect on what really makes a difference—whether it’s creating lifelong readers, being passionate about a nonfiction curriculum topic, or conferencing with children about their reading or writing. Good literature can be used to teach and inspire in all curriculum areas. So bringing this idea in a very practical way to teachers in my school was always a goal.

How often do you meet?  Who decides what kind of books you read?

We meet monthly during the school year.  Our librarian Sue Sugarbaker and I discuss the genre and plausible books together.   We are always glad for suggestions as well from teachers!

What factors go into book selection?

Our book group includes teachers in grades K-6, so our selections have to be appropriate for all the range of age levels.  Therefore, we frequently have two books going, one for primary and one for upper elementary in the same genre or by the same author.  Another factor is cost.  To keep costs within range, we usually select paperbacks.  This may mean that books are not current best sellers or that sometimes we are unable to discuss a book we would have selected.  We usually have two months when we select from among Virginia Readers’ Choice titles, since we want to encourage our students to read these books.  When it is a particularly busy month, such as the start of the school year, we will choose a quicker read.  As it happened, we have selected one highly popular best seller each year so far.  We read Wimpy Kid two years ago and The Lightning Thief last year, which simply delighted many of our students to see teachers carrying around a book most of them were carrying as well.    Once, we wanted teachers to learn about a nonfiction data base and utilized that for individual selections.  Another time, we had teachers select from a multitude of poetry books and then shared individually during our discussion.

In what ways is your group similar to a book club, and in what ways does your group approach books differently because  of its educational standpoint?

My first intent is that we are more similar to structuring of an informal book club and I want to create that friendly and relaxed feeling at our discussions.  I bring snacks and a welcoming ambiance for our teachers to speak and comment.  However, we also want to discuss instructional implications for various texts, appropriateness for various ages/interests and may want to show teachers either an instructional strategy or even an author web site.  So ultimately the focus is how the book could be utilized in the classroom.

How is the program funded?

We are fortunate at Haycock Elementary that our principal encourages the program and supports it financially.  Support comes from a combination of text book funds as well as PTA donations.  In addition, principals could offer teachers recertification credits.  Fairfax County Public Schools has a “Professional Learning and Training” web site where our children’s literature interest group is listed, and if teachers sign up and attend, they could earn recertification credits.  That is an additional incentive to teachers to participate.

Do all teachers participate?

Not all the teachers participate, however we have representatives from every grade level and nearly every discipline.  Frequently,  I will invite a particular teacher who may be interested in the particular book.  For example, when we read Vinnie and Abraham, last year’s Virginia Readers’ Choice selection, I invited our art teacher to attend to give us insight into aspects of sculpture, as the book was about the sculpture of Abraham Lincoln now in the Capitol.

What kind of feedback have you gotten from the teachers?   What has this program meant for their teaching?  Have there been any unexpected results or benefits?

Meg Monfett, a second grade teacher at Haycock said, “It is such a comfortable literature group where staff can come together and are given the chance to speak their mind about wonderfully chosen books… Having a comfortable “book group” helps staff come together to share a commonality they  may not have shared outside the group. “

Donna Bertsch, a third grade teacher at Haycock stated, “The Children’s Literature Interest Group gives me the incentive to read new children’s literature that I would not otherwise make time for.  I really enjoy the discussions because I always appreciate a book more by talking through it, and the group of teachers  has really insightful and interesting observations to share.”

Meredith Reid, a fourth grade teacher at Haycock said, “When we get together, the meeting turns into informal planning because teachers are always sharing creative ideas of what we could do with our students.  We are always looking for ways to enhance novels we read, so this time allows us to explore new ideas, while we enjoy discussions!”

For anyone who is interested in replicating your program, what advice can you offer?

I would say to definitely try it!  The interest created with a shared book, the acknowledgement for children when, as a group, we commit to reading more to support their learning and lifelong reading is invaluable.  Talk with your principal and/or PTA about funding books for teachers, which is a nice touch and also increases their classroom libraries, which is so critical.  If you do start a children’s literature group, write to me and share

Several members of the Children's Literature Interest Group, including Barbara Bosworth (back row, 4th from right).

your book selections and ideas at bybosworth (at) fcps (dot) edu.  I haven’t tried it yet, however would love to Skype with an author or invite an author for a shared discussion.   So, what are we doing on Sunday afternoons?  Well, we might be reading good children’s literature, as Shelley Harwayne suggests.

Wendy Shang’s first book, The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, debuts January 1, 2011.

Writing it Real

Writers are often asked where they get ideas. I was thinking about this the other day and I realized my house is too quiet. For me, ideas come when I’m surrounded by sounds and images and snatches of overheard conversation. Since my daughter trekked two states north for college, there is an eerie silence here and the cat and I don’t talk much. I think the fat lump is depressed. Or she hates me for sending away her favorite person.

So I went to lunch. At River Middle School. As an upper middle grade and young adult novelist, this was just what I needed. Not television or playlists or movies or even books. I needed real kids. Kids that gallop and goof off and chatter incessantly. Kids that express opinions and sometimes make more sense than adults I know.

It was loud. Very, very loud. River School is a charter of about 300 students; 6th, 7th, and 8th graders full of energy, eating and laughing and apparently, making body parts out of packing tape for art class. Someone’s leg was propped on a bench; another student wrapping furiously. How she was going to get that tape off the model’s leg was beyond my comprehension.

I sat down, notebook in hand, and clicked on my tape recorder. A see-through tape-head lolled in the middle of the round lunch table. It was a little disconcerting but cool, in an artsy way. Looked like Bill Clinton. (My apologies to the artist) I let the students know that I was visiting for story ideas and had so many questions we’d never finish in one lunch period. A crowd gathered. Short, tall, pink-haired and pierced, sweatshirted, brand-named, not brand-named, peanut butter and jelly smelling, elbows digging, grabbing, bouncing, shoes-untied, knees-jiggling, giggling, kids.

I scanned for teachers, instantly regressing to my twelve-year-old brain. The coast was clear so I asked the first question, possibly the most important question.

“What’s the dumbest thing a teacher has ever done?”

Heh, heh. Now we all know that laughing at our mistakes is the best cure, right? I heard the story of a teacher who got “sidetracked” and forgot to give a test and another where the teacher fell asleep in class and woke up to marker drawings on his face, which, according to the storyteller, were there the remainder of the day.

Conner, a lovely, soft-spoken girl with the coolest glasses, said, “Once, a teacher did not know there was water on the floor and she slipped, tripping through a bunch of cords. All the TVs and computers smashed to the floor. She wasn’t hurt, though.” (Whew!) Max told the story of a teacher who asked students to literally count the words they had read during silent reading time. Since he’d read 80 pages, he found it hilarious that he could just do the math—word count per page times 80. Which he did. Without a calculator. “It would have taken me about an hour to count all the words,” said Max, “more time than it took me to read them.”

Andrew mentioned that when giving instructions, “quite often” teachers “make no sense.” So they give instructions again. And again. Sometimes they still make no sense. (I totally get this one)  Jameson’s story was about two fire drills, two days in a row. “The first day was a real drill and the second day when the bell went off everybody thought it was because we didn’t do a good job on the first drill. But it was because we were in science burning magnesium, which smokes up, you know?” Conner added, “The best part about that was our P.E. group didn’t have to run.”

When I asked students who they most admire, though, it was teachers, hands down. Parents and grandparents tied for second place, with musicians third. Not necessarily indie electro hip rock. Yo-Yo Ma, for example, was mentioned as was Charlie Parker. Band Directors, of course, were cited, with forgiveness for the song “Pomp and Circumstance.” Ben, a spirited 7th grader, tucked away the sillies, morphed into deep-thinker mode, and said, “One person I admire is Galileo Galeili. Not only because of his contributions to science and how he stuck to his principles even when placed under house arrest, but that he remained positive through all the bad stuff that happened to him.” Galileo: influencing middle school kids since 1632.

If he hasn’t already read it, Ben might like:

Science aside, stupid-humor is alive and well in middle school today. It’s still hilarious if ketchup squirts up someone’s nose. There is the “occasional” inappropriate joke, said 8th-grader Alec, his blue eyes serious but the corners of his mouth twitching to stifle a smile. Tripping and falling, a towel slipping in the locker room, spilling food, stubbing a toe and otherwise random embarrassing mishaps always bring guffaws. According to one student, protocol is, “First we laugh, and then we show other people and they laugh, and then after everyone in the school is done laughing, one or two people might help the person.” Sounds like real life to me.

Using the wrong word in a sentence cracks them up, which reminded me that words count at this age. And words can be hurtful. Each student had experienced betrayal; secrets told, rumors spread, rejection, lies. I heard the screech of a tape gun as yet another strip was applied to the see-through tape-head’s mouth and I couldn’t help but recognize the symbolism. Middle school kids are transparent but stifled, too, partly limited by society’s perceptions of their capabilities. Yet they are resilient. They bounce back from friendships gone astray to make new connections. They trust. They try. It was refreshing to sit with them, laughing, listening, and learning. If we remove the tape, they have much to say. I asked the question, “What’s your biggest worry?” Answers were so varied and thoughtful and even profound, that I will spend an entire blog post on that single question some other time.

As children’s authors, we need to write real, whatever our style or genre. That means believable characters, settings that resonate, plots that strike home. Maggie, bouncy, with straight bangs and a direct gaze, told me that she reads Ellen Hopkins’ young adult books because they are “full of truth” and said that she would recommend them to kids who feel that they are mature enough to take on tough topics. She eloquently stated, “These books gave me an idea of what could happen, impacting the way I am and showing me, okay, this is what I don’t have to do with my life.”

Maggie might also like:

Alec cited Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series as “stories that relate to how we are with characters that interact the way we do.” A good story rocks with middle school kids. These are savvy readers, many of them reading beyond the state-assigned level. Ben, for example, is currently reading Grapes of Wrath because he likes Steinbeck’s writing style. Max reads most genres, especially graphic novels (and wishes there were more), sci-fi, and fantasy. He said, pointing to a Dean Koontz novel, “I don’t believe that any book is beyond my reading level.” Sci-Fi is big with both boys and girls. Ghosts are huge. Girls want paranormal romance with male characters who are not vampires. Reading for fun should be, well, fun.

This age group also accepts books with a global focus where the storyline reveals an unexplored issue, dilemma, abuse or trauma in an unusual or foreign setting. One student reminded me that “kids are more plugged into the world and people around them than adults think we are.” Kathy, the school librarian, was passionate about two titles rich in contemporary realism and social issues: Boys Without Names by Kashmira Sheth and The Breadwinner Trilogy by Deborah Ellis. I would add Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins to that list.

And here’s one for Alec:

The bell shrieked, students scattered, snatching body parts from benches, slinging backpacks over shoulders, aiming trash toward cans. I scooped my notebook and recorder into my bag, resisting the temptation to line up, fold into a desk, sharpen a pencil, pat the classroom bunny. I drove home in such silence. The fat lump of a cat stared at me when I came through the door as if to say, “How was lunch?”

Lunch was good. I’ll be visiting River Middle School again. I need sounds and images and snatches of conversation. Real kids. By staying in touch, I will keep my writing real and the next time someone asks me where I get ideas, I will say from you, my friends. From you.

Diana Greenwood and the fat lump of a cat live in Napa Valley, California. Her debut novel, INSIGHT, Zonderkidz (Harper Collins), will release in the fall of 2011.

Avid Writing Kids

Although I’m relatively new to being a published author, I’ve done dozens of school visits already. They are often long days, but I find them energizing and they really motivate me to finish the next book. Often a teacher catches my eye during a visit and wants to have a word with me about a student. Almost every time it’s an avid writer who produces volumes of stories or poems—finished, unfinished, skillfully written or simple, wildly creative or somewhat familiar. And what they want to know is what to do with all that writing.  Because teachers are great at teaching children who can’t write or won’t write or need lots of support to write; I am routinely impressed by the dedication of teachers I meet. They can see that the avid writer needs guidance, too, but they are often at a loss about where to begin. Parents of these kids are often equally in the dark—proud, but unsure of how to best support a budding author. I have four school-aged children myself, some of whom are avid writers so it’s a topic I’ve given a lot of thought. Here are three things you can do to nurture the young writer in your life.

avid writer

1. Help them save and safely store their work.

I’m bad at this myself. I love my stories but I don’t take very good care of them.  One of the most helpful things a teacher or parent can do is set up a file to keep stories both those finished and those abandoned. Most working writers begin as many as a dozen stories for every story they finish. So it isn’t important for your avid writer to finish every project they begin. Learning when to set aside a story that isn’t working is an important skill, too. But many times a writer will return to an old idea with a fresh insight and make a new story from one that wasn’t working before. Sometimes a character that didn’t work on a first try is exactly what you need in a different story. So having those files accessible is a gold mine. If your students write on a computer, getting them in the habit of a daily back up to a disc or thumb drive helps. Because thumb drives are easily lost, it’s also good to email a file and store it at the email account.

2. Help them find with a time and place for writing.

When writers get together, one of the most common topics of conversation is the struggle of finding a time and place to write. Some young writers are great at tuning out their surroundings and writing wherever they are—school bus, dinner table, math class. This of course has problems of it’s own.  But students who need a little privacy to write may need help finding a quiet corner of the classroom or an undisturbed nook in the house, and a few free afternoons a week.

I know a 4th grader who came to school one day on fire with a great idea for a screenplay. She begged her teacher for time to write it and he agreed, letting her use the class computer through all the lessons, recess and even lunch that day. In five hours this girl wrote the first three and a half acts of a screenplay. In the last half an hour of the day the teacher asked her if she could show at least a part of her work to the class so they could see what a screenplay looks like. She chose a scene she wanted feedback on and got the class to read the roles out loud. As a result a half dozen other kids got the screenwriting bug for a few weeks. A gift of time like that is a rare and precious gift for a young writer and went a long way to helping this child believe she could be a professional writer some day.

Instructional time is precious and extra curricular activities are valuable, too, but for the avid writing child nothing is so enriching as simply the time and place to create something new.

writing space

3. Help them find a writing community.

I don’t know a single author who works alone. Most of us have critique groups or at least a writing partner. They are people who help us work out all the many details of writing well. It means the world to me that if I’m stuck I can call on my neighbors Heather Vogel-Frederick, author of the Mother Daughter Book Club series, or Susan Blackaby, author of Nest, Nook and Cranny, and go out for coffee and just talk through a writing problem.

For young people community can be hard to find. A teacher who is aware of two or more avid writers might encourage them to join the newspaper staff or school literary magazine. Younger students might find kindred spirits in a Newbery Club or on a Battle of the Books team.

The connection need not be formal and organized. I met two eighth grade cousins on a school visit who have an ice cream date every Sunday after church to work on the YA novel they are writing together. Some kids enjoy fan fiction websites because they create a sense of community and offer a place to share work.

Some communities are wonderful about offering writing opportunities for children and teens. I’m going to list three of the best children’s writing communities here in Portland, Oregon and I hope you will add your local resources in the comments.

Young Writers Workshop at Powells.

Every Second Friday from 4:30 to 5:30 at the Powells Bookstore on Cedar Hills Blvd. in Beaverton.

Come meet your fellow writers, learn the craft of writing from amazingly talented and friendly authors, bring your own work to share and get feedback. Anyone ages 10-18 is welcome.

Young Willamette Writers

First Tuesdays of the month from 6:30 to 7:30, the young Willamette Writers meet in their own space during the meeting of the adult Willamette Writers. They practice the craft of writing in the company of great writers from all over the region. The meeting is held in the Old Church on SW 11th and Clay in Portland.

Oregon Writers Festival

For more than 20 years the Oregon Council of Teachers of English have sponsored a day-long writing festival in the spring for students from all over the state. The festival is held at Portland State University. The next one is Saturday, May 7, 2011.

How about you? What are your favorite events for young writers? Put them in the comments and I will compile a state-by-state resource page and keep it in our own Mixed Up Files

Rosanne Parry is the author of the up-coming Second Fiddle, a story about an avid violin player who finds friendship and adventure in some unexpected places as she travels with her friends from Berlin to Paris.