For Teachers

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.

Using Trade Books in the Classroom!

“How do you fit time into your school day to read trade books when you teach in a test-preparation environment?”



by Kimberley Griffiths Little with her amazing sister Kirsten Werk, a teacher in the Bay Area of California.

Let’s face it; teachers are feeling pressure to bring up test scores more than ever before. In some districts, the curriculum you have to teach is scripted every moment of your day. How do you possibly fit in trade books? Here are a few very easy ideas:

1.  SSR/DEAR Time: Students should have time to choose what they want to read-even if it’s only for 10 minutes a day. Here are some ideas to help teach reading strategies while they’re reading.

a. Have your students fill out a chart for every book they read giving the title, genre, problem, solution, and theme. For non-fiction books, they can write down the main idea and a few of their favorite details. This is an easy way to practice the very same concepts students need to identify on standardized tests.

b. Students are always more excited about a trade book when the teacher recommends it. Highlight a Book of the Week and take 10 minutes to introduce a new book.

c. Can’t find 10 minutes? Use the last 10 minutes of class while you pass out homework. Students can be quietly reading during this time. Or tighten up your transition times using a timer to gain an extra 10 minutes a day.

2.      Read aloud every day to your students. Here are ways to make it more productive:

a.  Never read aloud without asking something from your students in return. Children can listen for a purpose and respond in a “Reading Response” journal. Have the students write about the main idea, three things they learned about a character or the setting or problem, make an inference, compare and contrast, or write about the author’s purpose. Mix it up! Have them draw pictures in their Journals instead of writing.

b.  Read from a variety of genres. Track the books you read aloud (and the books they read on their own) on a classroom chart that shows the title of each book, the genre, the characters, problem, solution, and setting, theme, author’s purpose and/or point of view. Each of these is a skill needed on standardized tests.

c.  Look at your grade level standards for the reading strategies that students will be tested on. Then pick books that have one of those reading strategies strongly identified in the book. Make their response be one where they practice your pre-determined reading strategy. Here are some examples:


USING INFERENCES: Read The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Palocco. On a “Character Study Chart” have the headings: Character’s Name, What he/she says, What he/she does, What I can Tell. Identify a character, such as the grandmother. From a page in the story, write down in the boxes on the chart what the grandmother says and does, and then ask the students how they think the grandmother feels or what she thinks.
AUTHOR’S VIEWPOINT: In the book Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt, the author has a clear viewpoint about whether living forever is a good thing or not. Similar to the “Character Study Chart”, have the students identify the author’s point of view and back it up with examples from the book. Then have them share/write their own opinion and back it up with evidence/examples.
COMPARE/CONTRAST: In My Teacher for President, by Kay Winters, have the students make a Venn diagram of the similarities and differences between teachers’ and presidents’ jobs. Depending on the age, you could even go beyond the book and ask the students to compare and contrast students and citizens in the same way.
MAIN IDEA and SUPPORTING DETAILS: Any non-fiction book will have a clear main idea and supporting details. Pick books that go with your Social Studies or Science curriculum. Have students draw a simple four-legged table with the Main Idea written on top of the table. Then on each of the four legs underneath, the students list a supporting detail from the book with either words or pictures or both.

Using trade books is easy when you know what you need to teach. Start with a read aloud of your favorite book tomorrow!

Kirsten Werk has taught for more than twenty years in both Washington and California, second-language learners, students in poverty, as well as students in affluent, private schools. Her current third grade class is at a Title I school and includes 60% ELD students, 95% free and reduced lunch, and over 90% minority students. Since Kirsten has been there, her school has raised their API score nearly 300 points. In 2005, the Touchmath Company awarded her a $1,000 grant for helping low-achieving students raise their math proficiency. In 2007, she was awarded Teacher of the Year.

Kirsten Werk also creates Teacher and Book Club Guides for Authors: Teacher Guide for The Healing Spell and Mother/Daughter Book Club Guide.

So do we look like sisters?


Kimberley Griffiths Little just finished her 9th book event for The Healing Spell (Scholastic Press). Her next Middle-Grade novel is scheduled for release October, 2011, also with Scholastic. Currently, she’s crashing with a stack of books, a box of chocolates, the remote–AND listening to the totally cool music written for her book trailer, which Scholastic negotiated for FREE DOWNLOAD from Nua Music (bottom of the page).