Teacher Tips

Writing Tips from Writers

Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting schools to do writing workshops. As a former teacher, I loved having a chance to work with students again on their writing. As an author, I had a new perspective on it.

With my life now devoted to writing, I realized certain things about teaching writing I hadn’t before. So I thought it would be interesting to hear what tips authors of books for middle grade readers had for teaching writing to middle graders. Here are their tips, as well as some of my own.

Tip 1:
Have students get all of their needed writing materials ready before beginning the writing lesson. I found that, when I have an idea, if I need to stop to locate a pen and paper, I might lose my idea. If you’ve gotten your class excited about a topic, you don’t want them to lose that momentum sharpening a pencil or locating their writing folder.

Natalie Rompella
Cookie Cutters & Sled Runners (Sky Pony Press)
The World Never Sleeps (Tilbury House)

Tip 2:
Appeal to 5 senses to expand descriptive writing. Close eyes and bring in unidentified sounds or freshly popped popcorn or something sticky.

Carolyn Armstrong
Because of Khalid (Tiger Stripe Publishing)

Tip 3:
Encourage young writers to read, read, read.  What better way to learn what good–or bad–writing is, build vocabulary and sentence structure, and identify different genres?

Marlene Brill
Picture Girl, Golden (Alley Press)
Dolores Huerta Stands Strong (University of Ohio Press)

Tip 4:
The follow up to that would be to write, write, write.  Not formal writing but journals and diaries to freely get feelings–and words–out and for students to use their words to express themselves.

Marlene Brill
Picture Girl, Golden (Alley Press)
Dolores Huerta Stands Strong (University of Ohio Press)

Tip 5:
Word swap: make a game of swapping out boring words with better ones to enhance writing.

Carolyn Armstrong
Because of Khalid (Tiger Stripe Publishing)

Tip 6:
Teach not just writing but revision. Let students know that ALL the books on shelves went through multiple revisions before they became books, so students shouldn’t judge their own work based on the books they’re reading. But instead, teachers should build in revision techniques and time for classes — even for essays — so students can see how their work slowly improves.

Samantha Clark
The Boy, The Boat, and The Beast (Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster)

Tip 7:
I always try to impress upon kids the power of revision. Just because you wrote a “first draft” doesn’t mean your piece is done. Rather, you have a starting point for revision! Now you can take your time and choose just the right words to make what you have written stronger. They are shocked to hear that some of my poems may go through 15 different revisions!

I keep a paperweight on my desk that says:
The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is that little EXTRA.
Revision gives us that EXTRA!

Eileen Meyer
The Superlative A. Lincoln (Charlesbridge, Nov. 2019 release date)
Sweet Dreams, Wild Animals (Mountain Press)

Tip 8:
Five Ws and the H will always help in any type of writing. Who are you writing for, what does your character want more than anything else, when does the story take place, where does it take place, why does this story have to be written and how does your character overcome obstacles to reach his or her goal?

Catherine Ann Velasco
Behind the Scenes of Pro Basketball and Behind the Scenes of Pro Baseball (Capstone Press)

Tip 9:
Writing success for the day can be small: even one word. It’s okay to spend a writing session on one sentence or even trying to brainstorm that one perfect word—authors do it all the time! Quality over quantity.

Natalie Rompella
Cookie Cutters & Sled Runners (Sky Pony Press)
The World Never Sleeps (Tilbury House)

Do you have a writing tip for middle grade teachers? Share in the comments section.

Delve Into a Good Book: Celebrating Black History

by Robyn Gioia

Where can we experience different cultures, meet new personalities, visit old friends, drop by for a minute, or stay for as long as we want? Where can we learn about things we never knew existed or explore things on a new level? Where can we look through the eyes of another and suddenly understand the pain and sorrow of their emotions? Or the happiness that comes through accomplishment and success? Books speak directly to the soul. The following books come highly recommended by classroom teachers.

Celebrating Black History Through Books

Henry’s Freedom Box:  A True Story from the Underground Railroad by Ellen Levine

Henry Brown doesn’t know how old he is. Nobody keeps records of slaves’ birthdays. All the time he dreams about freedom, but that dream seems farther away than ever when he is torn from his family and put to work in a warehouse. Henry grows up and marries, but he is again devastated when his family is sold at the slave market. Then one day, as he lifts a crate at the warehouse, he knows exactly what he must do: he will mail himself to the North. After an arduous journey in the crate, Henry finally has a birthday — his first day of freedom. Henry “Box” Brown became one of the most famous runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad.   Scholastic Teacher Guide

The Kidnapped Prince: The Life of Olaudah Equiano adapted by Ann Cameron

Kidnapped at the age of 11 from his home in Benin, Africa, Olaudah Equiano spent the next 11 years as a slave in England, the U.S., and the West Indies, until he was able to buy his freedom. His autobiography, published in 1789, was a bestseller in its own time. Cameron has modernized and shortened it while remaining true to the spirit of the original. It’s a gripping story of adventure, betrayal, cruelty, and courage. In searing scenes, Equiano describes the savagery of his capture, the appalling conditions on the slave ship, the auction, and the forced labor. . . . Kids will read this young man’s story on their own; it will also enrich curriculum units on history and on writing.  Scholastic Teacher Guide

One Last Word by Nikki Grimes    

“Through a chorus of contemporary voices–including proud parents, striving children, and weary but determined elders–Grimes powerfully transposes the original poems’ themes of racial bias, hidden inner selves, beauty, and pride into the here and now.” –  starred review, Publishers Weekly      Bloomsbury Teacher Guide

A 2017 New York Public Library Best Kids Book of the Year
A Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2017, Middle Grade
A School Library Journal Best Book of 2017, Nonfiction

The Hero Two Doors Down by Sharon Robinson

Steven Satlow is an eight-year-old boy living in Brooklyn, New York, which means he only cares about one thing — the Dodgers. Steve’s love for the baseball team is passed down to him from his father. The two of them spend hours reading the sports pages and listening to games on the radio. Aside from an occasional run-in with his teacher, life is pretty simple for Steve.

But then Steve hears a rumor that an African American family is moving to his all-Jewish neighborhood. It’s 1948 and some of his neighbors are against it. Steve knows that this is wrong. His hero, Jackie Robinson, broke the color barrier in baseball the year before.

Then it happens — Steve’s new neighbor is Jackie Robinson! Steve is beyond excited about living two doors down from the Robinson family. He can’t wait to meet Jackie. This is going to be the best baseball season yet! How many kids ever get to become friends with their hero?    Scholastic Teacher Guide

Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis

Eleven-year-old Elijah lives in Buxton, Canada, a settlement of runaway slaves near the American border. Elijah’s the first child in town to be born free, and he ought to be famous just for that — not to mention for being the best at chunking rocks and catching fish. Unfortunately, all that most people see is a “fra-gile” boy who’s scared of snakes and tends to talk too much. But everything changes when a former slave steals money from Elijah’s friend, who has been saving to buy his family out of captivity in the South. Now it’s up to Elijah to track down the thief — and his dangerous journey just might make a hero out of him, if only he can find the courage to get back home.   Scholastic Teacher Guide


Let’s Clap, Jump, Sing & Shout; Dance, Spin & Turn It Out!  Games, Songs, and Stories from an African American Childhood

Patricia C. McKissack, Illustrated by Brian Pinkney

Educator’s Guide: This engaging treasury of games, songs, and stories reflects the rich tapestry of the author’s African American childhood. Along with an array of activities, award-winning author Patricia C. McKissack weaves in anecdotes from growing up and facts about black history. The collection will appeal directly to students while also tying into the curriculum. Children will recognize hand claps like “Patty-Cake,” jump rope rhymes like “Hot, Hot Pepper,” and songs like “Amazing Grace.” Many children will have learned games and songs from their families that are similar to those in the book but not exactly the same, reflecting our diverse cultural heritage. These connections will draw in students and create enthusiasm for the meaningful curricular activities suggested in this guide. Students can share what they’ve learned with younger children as service projects, performing for them or making them books.  Educator’s Guide

Chains (The Seeds of America Trilogy) by Laurie Halse Anderson

If an entire nation could seek its freedom, why not a girl?
As the Revolutionary War begins, thirteen-year-old Isabel wages her own fight…for freedom. Promised freedom upon the death of their owner, she and her sister, Ruth, in a cruel twist of fate become the property of a malicious New York City couple, the Locktons, who have no sympathy for the American Revolution and even less for Ruth and Isabel. When Isabel meets Curzon, a slave with ties to the Patriots, he encourages her to spy on her owners, who know details of British plans for invasion. She is reluctant at first, but when the unthinkable happens to Ruth, Isabel realizes her loyalty is available to the bidder who can provide her with freedom. (Amazon website) Teacher’s Guide  


Hey, Let’s Build a World!

When I was in the fifth grade, my teacher frowned on all fantasy books that hadn’t been written by Natalie Babbitt. We read Tuck Everlasting and The Search for Delicious, which were certainly fantastic, but failed to provide a full grounding in the fantasy genre.

This month, my daughter started a unit on fantasy stories in her fifth-grade class, with an integrated curriculum of reading, writing, and analysis. 2019 might have its problems but this, at least, is an enormous step forward. I take this educational unit as a sign of the inroads of respectability the genre has made. And, of course, the great service J.K. Rowling has done for our society.

Pulling fantasy from shadows shines a spotlight, especially, onto the skill of worldbuilding, the construction of convincingly functional settings in which a story can unfold. Although most vital for fantasy, science fiction, and horror, proper worldbuilding provides a canvas that any story can hang upon.

Proper worldbuilding addresses the unseen 90% of the story world that never makes it into a book, the part that hangs below the surface like the bulk of an iceberg, but which has to exist in an author’s mind in order to make the other 10% feel like it’s happening in an actual place.

When setting a story on an alien planet, or on an altered version of our own world, or in a fantasy land with its own laws of physics, I’ve tended to make up the details as I went along. Random bits of geography, weather, culture, history, architecture, cuisine, fashion, governments, and organizations all hung out in my head, on a scribbled map, and in a jumbled file of digital notes. I called this process worldbuilding, once I eventually heard the term, and my stories usually felt like they were set somewhere. But if readers looked too closely, they could see the rivets of a shoddily constructed facade.

Then I had a revelation that my story, set in a specific time and place, with an alternate culture, a huge cast of characters, and a deep mythology, would require more worldbuilding than I could carry in my head.

My second revelation was that there were specialized worldbuilding tools available that nobody had ever told me about.

My third revelation was that there are active communities of worldbuilders who put a whole lot of time and effort into exploring the strange new worlds that they’ve made up themselves. Some of these worldbuilders build their worlds to support a writing project. Some build their worlds to support tabletop role-playing game campaigns. And, most amazingly to me, some build their worlds just for the fun and challenge of it all!

And it is fun. And it is challenging. And it does get your puzzle-solving mind to wander off in all sorts of interesting directions. And it requires a bit of discipline remain focused on just the necessary parts of a constructed world, and to avoid the excessive breadth and depth they refer to as “Worldbuilder’s Disease.”

So I got myself into worldbuilding. I got my fifth grader into worldbuilding. She got her teacher into worldbuilding. And now their whole class is worldbuilding!

If you care to join us, here are some resources to get you started, or to help you guide your own class of worldbuilding students:

World Anvil

I can’t recommend World Anvil highly enough as a platform for developing and organizing notes on worldbuilding. It’s a wiki-type system where users build a Wikipedia style encyclopedia of people, places, and things in their story worlds. Like Wikipedia, these articles can be organized into categories and can reference each other with links. Even better than Wikipedia, for worldbuilding purposes, there are templates that help in eliciting and developing ideas in greater depth. The free version is quite usable, and premium versions offer more presentation options, storage space, and access control.

Worldbuilding Magazine

Now into its third volume of publishing six issues per year, Worldbuilding Magazine and its archives are free online. Each issue focuses on a different theme and its relevance to the development of an imaginary world. The most recent at this writing is “Death and Taxes,” but previous issues have explored the worldbuilding aspects of Magic, Food, Government, History, and other useful topics.

Worldbuilding Books

Tops on my list to read is Collaborative Worldbuilding by Trent Hergenrader, who teaches worldbuilding co-creation as part of his classes in creative writing at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Worldbuilding on Social Media

Worldbuilder’s Sanctum is a Facebook group that skews toward tabletop role-play designers and game masters, but includes are many resources and discussions of value to authors as well.

Worldbuilding on YouTube

Worldbuilding Software

If you need a map to visualize your world, Wonderdraft is a specialized graphics program that makes it quick and easy to create some very nice looking maps in a variety of styles.

My Newsletter

Plug, plug! I’m starting a newsletter focused on my writing and worldbuilding, with instructive examples of how the one helps with the other. The first issue comes out next month, but the subscriptions page is live right now!

Other Resources?

Do you have any resources you like to use to help develop, visualize, or organize your story worlds? Share them in the comments!