Teaching Writers of All Ages

We are getting close to (or perhaps, for some of you, have already arrived at) that most wonderful time of the year, as a certain famous and favorite commercial goes. While this blog normally focuses on the reading part of the old 3 “R”s of school, it also seems appropriate to talk about reading’s hand-in-glove partner, writing. Many authors conduct school presentations on writing and of course, teachers and parents are frequently on the lookout for a great writing exercise.

With that in mind, today’s post features another multi-author blog which focuses on lessons for anyone who teaches writing. The Pencil Tips Writing Workshop blog provides concrete, hands-on lesson plans, and practical ways to approach writing and illustration. Have a child who innocently but clearly plagiarized a work? Pencil Tips provides the words and steps to take in such a situation. Does your student want to illustrate his or her work, but isn’t getting the right expression for the characters? Pencil Tips can tell you the three places on the face that show expression. Think of this multi-author blog as a Hall of Justice for anyone who wants to engage children in writing. Remember the Hall of Justice cartoon from the 1970s? It was a pantheon of superheroes, ready to use their particular superpowers for anyone in distress. In this case though, instead of Superman, Aquaman and Plasticman, Pencil Tips offers the talents of writers who, collectively, have experiences to share as workshop leader, school librarian, parent, teacher, illustrator and author of everything from picture books to YA to non-fiction.

According to the members of Pencil Tips, the blog was born out of a desire to provide effective posts on the art of writing. “We know everyone–teachers, parents, librarians, writers–has limited time so our goal was to craft practical posts that would offer lessons/tips that could be implemented in the classroom or at home,” said Mary Quattlebaum, a writing teacher with 20 years’ experience and an author whose middle-grade titles include the Jackson Jones series. “It was important to all of us to create a specific focus for our blog…we wanted ours to provide something more specific than musings on the creative process,” added Jacqueline Jules, whose school librarian experiences inspired many of her titles, including the Zapato Power series. “Our mission statement was discussed at length and went through several revisions.”

Many of the lessons provided by the blog contributors come from the “tried and true” file. Pam Ehrenberg, whose most recent title is Tillmon County Fire, uses her “twenty percent off” exercise in her classes and her own work. However, the fact of belonging to the blog can also be inspiring. “Now that I’m involved in writing this blog, random things that I read or hear about will trigger ideas for writing lessons,” said Laura Krauss Melmed, the author of sixteen picture books including I Love You as Much. Pam Smallcomb, author of middle-grade titles such as The Last Burp of Mac McGerp, has had posts inspired by her experiences as the mother of a reluctant reader. Instructors and students alike may appreciate her suggestion to use video games as writing inspiration.

Pencil Tips has no age limits in mind when it comes to its posts. For Joan Waites, a neo-natal intensive care nurse-turned-illustrator, her what’s-inside-the-egg writing/illustration exercise has generated wonderful, imaginative work from children as young as the preschool age. Quattlebaum, meanwhile, has found that her five senses lesson will work with everyone from second grade to college and beyond.

Some lessons provide broader, but still very relevant, lessons in writing. In describing her post on Remember the Reader, Jules offers this insight: “All writers, but especially young ones, do their best when they think about their readers…This provides incentive to change a confusing sentence, add details to make a scene clearer, or vary sentence structure to make a story more interesting.” Melmed, meanwhile, suggested this viewpoint for writing teachers. “Our goal when teaching creative writing should be to help kids access the right brain process, within the parameters of an assignment, without imposing stifling requirements like forced rhyming schemes. Later on, we can help them cast a critical eye on the raw material they have mined.”

As for school visit “nightmares” that authors have about losing control of their audience, the Pencil Tips offer some hard-won advice. Jules advises having activities that involve movement at the end of a presentation, when kids are at their wiggliest. What about when one child is acting out? “[T]he most effective way I have found to turn things around is to have that child become a ‘helper,'” said Waites. More concerned about literally getting lost? “Mapquest your route in both directions and review carefully the night before,” said Melmed, who describes herself as ‘directionally challenged.’ Ehrenberg likes to keep an extra activity or sub-presentation planned, just in case, but also gently notes, “I don’t think anything that’s actually happened to me could live up to the horrors I’ve imagined.”

Everybody ready now for a new school year? Sharpen your pencils and share your favorite writing exercise below! (And stop by Pencil Tips for information on how to win a signed copy of Pam Smallcomb’s I’m Not.)