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When Teachers Write: Strategies to Build Better Characters + 2 Free Resources!


I'm a HUGE Robin Williams fan. His rapid-fire comedy fascinates me, and I can't help but think that perhaps his synapses fired a little faster than the rest of ours. His visit to the Actor's Studio is one of my favorite recordings to revisit.  He takes a woman's scarf and riffs over 20 characterizations with it, like a scatting jazz artist. Every time I watch it, I can't help but wonder what kind of characters he would've created had he turned his attention to writing. 

Creating characters with students is so much fun.  The possibilities are endless. However, if we want our students to "go deep" with their characters, we need them to write with intention.  How do we get our writers to engage in that kind of thinking in writer's workshop?


Believe it or not, it happens in reader's workshop! As teachers of reading, we are so adept at talking about characters.  We compare and contrast them and make text-to-text, text-to-self, and text-to-world connections.  We pay attention to their actions and personalities to predict their next moves. We use their inner worlds to make inferences about their problems.  We often miss out on transformational discussions if we go no further than that. 

Think about reader's and writer's workshops as two hemispheres of the language arts brain.  The two hemispheres are connected by a corpus callosum. There must be talk that bridges the two workshops in order for students take their learning about characters into their writing.  The particular type of talk and thinking you do with your students about the author's writing acts as the corpus callosum between the two workshop hemispheres.  

For example, my students and I were reading Bridge to Terabithia by Katharine Paterson.  We were discussing the Jesse character.  As readers, my kids were drawing parallels between Jesse and Hollis Woods in Pictures of Hollis Woods. They noticed that both characters used their art as a way of connecting with others. Both characters were emotionally isolated.  Both characters transformed because of their artwork. This was good stuff. This was deep stuff. But, I wanted to go farther. I wanted them to think like writers. So I asked, "Why do you think Katharine Paterson and Patricia Reilly Giff give their characters their art props...their art habits? Why did they make those decisions?"

This type of questioning opened up our dialogue about author's craft.  Students began and then continued to notice the intentional decisions our authors were making.  This helped them make better reading predictions because they realized that there are no accidental happenings in stories.  "Katharine Paterson didn't just wake up one day and say, 'Hmmmm. I think I'll make Jesse an artist instead of a jock.'" I told them. 


When this type of  talk and thinking go on over the course of an entire school year, writer's workshop comes alive. The questioning you do in reader's workshop is like a massage for the language arts corpus callosum! One of the side effects of thinking like a writer in reader's workshop is that students will begin to apply that thinking to their own characters.  

You can see it when you hold writing conferences with your students.  Recently, I was conferring with a student about a fiction story he was writing.  He had created a "Captain Underpants" kind of character. Inwardly, I cringed a little.  It wasn't the depth of character I was hoping to encounter in my students' writing. But I kept an open mind. 

Me: So tell me about the thinking you're doing today as a writer.

Student: Well, I'm creating this superhero character. He's going to be a character who defends older brothers and sisters against their little brothers and sisters.  

Me: Tell me more.

Student:  In the scene I'm working on, the big brother and little brother are at the water park.  The little brother keeps giving the big brother wedgies in front of his friends.  

Me: So what does the superhero character do?

Student: He's going to swoop down and teach the little brother a lesson. 

Me: Like tell the parents?

Student: No. My superhero character wouldn't do that. 

Me: What do you mean? Why not?

Student: Superheroes are supposed to give out their own justice. They don't call the cops. 

Me (working hard to suppress a giggle): Ohhhh. I see what you mean. So what powers does your superhero have? How will he enact justice?

The writing conference continued.  When I look back on this, I notice something important. My student was being intentional. He was thinking about who his character was going to be and what actions made sense based on those rules. Even more impressive, he felt empowered to defend his writing decisions.

Check out some questions that can massage your students' corpus callosums below. If you click on the graphic, you'll find a downloadable version.


Teaching writing is not an easy task, especially when you don't view yourself as a writer.  But in order for your students to think like writers, there has to be a connection between the reading and writing workshops. The corpus callosum must be massaged...frequently!  Higher level questioning is just one way to help your students develop their characters. 

I've included a writer's notebook page for your students to use when writing and crafting new characters.  You can find a downloadable version by clicking on the chart below.



Next Wednesday, we'll be exploring setting and descriptive writing, as well as a new product that will help your writing conferences pop with power! Until then, write on!



If you missed last week's post, the start of this writing series, click here!

When Teachers Write: 7 Strategies for You and Your Students When Getting Started is Tough


I do not sit down at my desk to put to verse something that is already clear in my mind. If it were clear in my mind, I should have no incentive or need to write about it. We do not write in order to be understood. We write in order to understand.
                                                                                                     ---C.S. Lewis

The  end-of-the-school-year build up felt particularly hard this year---like a climb uphill carrying a 100 pound pack while wearing too tight hiking boots with cotton socks. My brain felt blistered.  I'm a believer that one can not deny her true self forever. Trying to do so leads to unhappiness, and I find that what I'm trying to deny or restrain ends up oozing out of my pores eventually.  

I've been a writer since elementary school. While other kids rolled their eyes and groaned at the newest writing assignment, I relished them and often did more just for "extra credit." When I entered the teaching field in 1991, I felt I was relinquishing my writing dreams.  But starting this blog and my TpT journey has helped me reclaim those dreams. 

I recently dusted off manuscripts, complete and incomplete, from years ago.  And I have a new one in the works.  And it won't go away.  It's oozing out of my pores and comes into my mind at the oddest of times.  And so, this is my summer of writing. I don't mean dabbling. I mean writing 4 hours every day. Every day. Because I have to. School let out on June 16th for me. That's last Friday. I've already begun to write. 

But because I am a writer who also teaches, I'm very interested in learning lessons from my own writing processes that I can pass on to my students.  We know that learners and teachers learn from doing.  Every Wednesday until school begins (the last week in August), I will be writing on this blog about my own writing process and offering tips and lessons for your writers in your classroom. My lessons have already begun. They began on Saturday morning, June 17th. Here is what I've learned about writing, so far:



As I began writing my manuscript the day after school let out, I was struck by a tsunami of anxiety.  It was almost overwhelming.  Thoughts like, "This idea sucks." and "Who do you think you are?" hovered over my head as I put pencil to paper.  I pushed through, however and was able to begin. HOW I was able to do that made me think about my own students who struggle to begin.  What could I share with them? Here's what I discovered about beginning...

  1. Start by sketching.  Words weren't coming to me at first, even though they had been for weeks before I sat down with my writer's notebook.  So I sketched at first.  This helped my brain relax.
  2. Use a pen, especially if you are a perfectionist. Using a pen is messy. It allows for all of your ideas to to be seen...even the ones you think are crappy.  Later on, when you've had some distance between you and the page, you might not think they aren't so crappy. If you erase them, you're missing out on opportunities to rediscover and remember. Students are famous for wearing down their erasers instead of their pencil leads.
  3. Talk to the voice in your head. That's write. Talk to the voice that is telling you that your idea(s) or story is worthless. Tell it to shut up. Or, tell it that if you don't believe in yourself, no one else will either.
4. Write this: I don't know what to write...I don't know what to write...I don't know what to right. Sounds weird, I know.  But the simple act of getting your pen or pencil on the paper will start the process. Eventually, the words will come.

5. Write out of sequence. Sometimes, beginnings are the hardest for me.  I've learned to skip them if I'm really hung up. I will start writing a scene that my mind can't seem to stop seeing, instead.

6. Phone a friend. One thing I have discovered both as a teacher AND as a writer, is that I need to orally rehearse.  That's right. I'm almost 50 years old, and I need to tell my stories to trusted friends. Doing so makes me a much better writer. My fifth graders need to do this, too. Sometimes, I tell my stories to them.  They HELP ME when I'm stuck. I've learned to build this practice into my classroom writer's workshop, as well as my personal writing process.

7. Research if you can't write. Sometimes, I just can't begin writing the story in my head. So, I research details I know I'll need to tell my story.  My last few sessions, I've been researching trees and how they communicate with each other.  Researching keeps me moving in the right direction when my writing anxiety feels overwhelming.  Wouldn't this work for my students, too?

I'm really looking forward to pushing myself as a writer this summer.  Even if my manuscripts are never published, I will be able to say I've finished something. I've tried. I've grown from the effort, both as a teacher and writer.  

Be sure to stop by every Wednesday to hear more about "When Teachers Write..." And, feel free to tell me about your own writing journey by commenting on this post!

I've put together these seven strategies into a little interactive notebook page for you to use with your students. You can download it by clicking the picture below. Enjoy and please leave some feedback love if you're appreciative.


You might also be interested in this!

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See you on Sunday, for my regularly scheduled post! Come back to read about an different kind of book tasting event. Until next time...




The Kindess Poetry Project: 10 Writing Exercises from Poet Andrew Green




As part of the 3 E’s Blogging Collaborative monthly link-up series on empathy, equity, and empowerment, I’d like to introduce you to our guest blogger, Andrew Green from Potato Hill Poetry.  I first met Andrew in a weekend workshop in Phoenix, Arizona.  As a teacher-learner, I watched as he inspired us to experience poetry as writers, teachers and learners. And I thought to myself, “This is something special.” Fast forward fifteen years.  I am teaching in Michigan, and I stumble over Andrew’s materials in my filing cabinet.  I find his website.  I reach out to him. He travels from Boston to Michigan to be our writer-in-residence.  I watch our students, eating poetry out of the palm of his hand. I think to myself, “His work. It’s still something special.”  He brings a unique perspective to teaching the 3 E’s as he travels the greater New England area and the rest of the United States. And yes, he’s still something pretty special. 

Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.
                                                —Henry James

 
When we feel love and kindness toward others, it not only makes others feel loved and cared for, but it helps us also to develop inner happiness and peace.
                                                —Dalai Lama, XIV

I work as a poet in the schools. My job is to inspire, motivate, and encourage kids to read and write poetry. I do this by sharing my love of poetry with them. I read them poems. I share my writing notebooks and writing habits with them. We read poems out loud and talk about them. We write poems together on the board and then we all write our own. If we have time, we revise them. Finally, we share and celebrate them in pairs and as a large group. We notice what we like. We ask questions about things we don’t understand. We encourage revision. We applaud the effort. And kids love it. Especially the sharing out loud.



It’s that simple. The trick is to help each student find a connection to poetry. This can be done by sharing many different poems so that students see all the ways poems can be written. Once students discover a poem about a subject they like, suddenly a light goes off. Bingo. Poetry speaks to me. Poetry is about something I care about. Poetry has purpose and pleasure and power.





This year, we took the act of kindness as one of our main themes to explore in our poetry. We talked about what kindness is and how we show it? We talked about the different ways people can be kind to each other. We read poems about kindness and then we went on “Kindness Hunts” to see where and how we might witness it. We discovered these acts all around us.



Kindness was everywhere. In our classrooms, lunchrooms, at recess, on the playground, in our kitchens and homes, on the sports fields, in parking lots and stores, on the sidewalks and in traffic.



And we wrote about it. We wrote poems describing what we observed. We shared them. We passed them on to others. We gave them as gifts.



When writing poems about acts of kindness, one learns that there are many different kinds of kindness. There are small momentary kindnesses to strangers – holding the door for someone, picking up someone’s dropped pencil, letting someone slide into the long line of morning traffic.


There are planned kindnesses – writing a poem for someone, taking a day off from work to stay home and nurse someone back to health, surprising someone with a special gift.

And then, there are the daily kindnesses to those we love: packing a lunch for someone, driving someone to school in the morning, helping someone with homework or reading them a story before bed.

Poetry is one place to acknowledge these acts of kindness, to write them down and measure them out, to describe them in words on the page. By describing these moments on the page, we make them come to life in a poem – it’s a way of saying thank you to those who make our lives better.



Writing Time:

When you write a poem about an act of kindness you have many choices.

Your job is to write a lot about a little act of kindness you witness. Here are some questions, strategies, and thoughts to consider when writing:

Questions to Ponder when Writing:

1.What are different types of kindnesses you can write about?  This is a good classroom topic for discussion as a pre-writing exercise.

2.What kinds of things can you include in your poem?

3.Will the five senses help you to convey the scene?

    4.What observations can you make about the people, the setting, 
        the light, the time of day, the weather?

5.Could you include a line (or more) of dialogue – what are people actually saying?

6.What are some examples of your topic that you could show us?

7.What struck you the most about this act of kindness?

8.Will the Five W’s help you? Who? What? When? Where? Why?

9.How did the people involved act and react?

10. What thoughts do you have about this act of kindness?


Ten Exercises for Writing a Poem on Kindness:

1.Write a poem about an act of kindness that you observe between two people. This could be in a coffee shop or school cafeteria or anywhere you observe people.

    2.Write a poem about an act of kindness that someone you live    
       with does for you each and every day.



    3.Write a poem about a friend who does something kind for you. What do they do that makes you feel good about yourself

and about them?


    4.Write a poem about a relative and some act of kindness they     have done for you in the past.


5.Write a poem about an act of kindness you have done for someone else. Don’t be bashful. Describe it in detail.



6. Write a poem about an act of kindness from a teacher or coach.



7.Write a portrait poem describing a person you know who is kind to you.



8.Write a poem describing your thoughts on what kindness is and why it’s important.

9.Write a poem using only simile or metaphor describing what kindness is.

10. Write a poem about the kindness of a pet or an animal or something from the natural world.

Remember, the best poems are those that don’t tell us, but show us and therefore leave the conclusions up to the reader. Put on your discovery hat and go discover kindness out there. Then write your poems.


No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.

                                                —Aesop

Here are several sample poems:

At The Grocery Store

By Andrew Green

As he walks up behind her

She turns

At the last minute

And decides

To hold the door for him

Who gladly accepts



And in return

Holds the inside door for her

Each of them

Thanking the other

For that brief moment



Before they scurry on their way

He to the produce aisle

For a box of strawberries

She to the deli

For a quarter pound of pastrami.



The Kindness of Grass
By Maisie

The first thing you do

Is see the grass.

It catches your eye.

You smell the grass.

It smells as beautiful

As perfume.

The grass is as fresh

As a strawberry just picked

From the patch.

I love the grass.

It tickles between your toes

And it’s as soft as your pillow.



He

By Samantha

He stops unloading the light bulbs

Out of his red van

To push me on the swings

With his dirty hands

He hugs and kisses me good-bye

Every day sending me

Well wishes

He always has time

After his long and weary days

To play with me

On the hoverboards

He kills the evil spiders

When I am too scared to

He asks me how

My day was every day

After school

He kisses me good night

Each night.


Penny

By Meghan

We are friends

Me and her

Her and me

And that is fact

As always will be

I see her

She sees me

Friends from beginning

Puppy her

Baby me

Friends are friends

We’ll never leave

And that is a fact

As always will be

Me and her

Her and me.


Mrs. Flieger
By Annie

She asks, “Are you okay, my love?”

She helps me stay focused

She stops her work to talk to me

She calms me when I’m stressed

She comforts me when I’m down.



Flute

By Findlay


B flat, F, F, G, F, D, E flat, F —

Mr. Harlow stopped me.

He told me:

Chin up, elbows down.

I continued:

F, G, G, F —

My hands started to hurt.

D, C.

He told me:

Take a break.

I calmed down and continued:

B flat, B flat, B flat, B flat —

I felt dizzy.

Then Mr. Harlow stopped me again

And said:

Smaller embouchure,

Slower breathing.

It helped.

I kept playing.


Pancakes

By Jasper

Every weekend: pancakes.

Recipe memorized in my head:

Flour, sugar, salt, baking powder,

Then the wet.

Butter, eggs, milk, vanilla.

Then fruit: banana, strawberry blueberry.

Then the chocolate chips.

Sizzle, sizzle, goes the batter

On the griddle.


You can check out Andrew's Potato Hill Poetry residencies and workshops right here!





This post is the last posting you'll see from the 3E's Blogging Collaborative until August! Until we meet again, you can find us at



Meanwhile, pour yourself a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, put your feet up, and check out the other teacher authors in our collaborative this month. Their links are below!




Lost in Space: Mother's Day Without Mom


Grief does not change you...it reveals you.
                                                                                             ---John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

It is Mother's Day. This is not the first Mother's Day without her.  It's the second.  And as the oldest child who consistently believes she has control over the chaos that swirls around her,  I have believed that I was over the awful speed bump of the first.  I had squared my shoulders all week, prepared to meet today.  I don't have children myself, so my Mother's Days have all orbited around my mom. Except that now they don't.  And I can imagine what it would be like to be a planet (let's say Venus, because who hasn't wanted to be a goddess of love at some point in her life?) and the sun has just simply disappeared. The pull of gravity is still there--- the residue of star dust, but I don't know why I'm orbiting anymore... kind of like that cheesy 70s show "Lost in Space."

Most often, our moms are our first teachers. Mine was. I entered into a world of song, and my mom's big soprano voice filled that world.  From it, I learned the do's and don'ts of living. I learned what it means to be a woman from my mom, and I learned from her mistakes, too. But since her death almost a year and a half ago, my mind boggles from the lessons I've realized.  I was unprepared for those lessons.  I didn't expect them.  They shock me. They leave me breathless, at times.

So on this second Mother's Day without her, I have to share:

  1. Your mind IS a beautiful, gorgeous entity. You may not realize this until you fear losing it to disease. Spend some time decorating it and less time caring about the jelly doughnut you just ate.
  2. It's okay to be like your mom. There's also free will. You can choose to emulate the parts that you love and adore.  None of us are saints.
  3. Do not wait. Don't do it. Take the trip. Buy the shoes. Drink the sangria. Now.
  4. If you still have your mom, spend some time covertly watching her. Watch what makes her face light up. Watch what makes her sad. Ask her about herself. She's more than just a mom. 
  5. If you've lost your mom, like me. Do some archaeological excavating through the family photos. Look for the old ones.  Try to organize your memories. Appreciate.
  6. Take care of yourself. Go to the doctor appointments. MAKE THE DOCTOR APPOINTMENTS. It's a loving thing to do for your family. They will worry less.
  7. Think about your happiest times with her. What made them happy?  If you could strip away all the stress of life with or without your mom, what happiness would be left? 
  8. Age well. That means saying "F-you" to naysayers sometimes. 
  9. Ask "Why not me?" more often. And just say "No" sometimes.
  10. Stand up straight and fill the space you take up with your vibrancy. Remember who you are.

My mom's story is filled with love and heartbreak. Just as yours is. Just as mine is.  My mom was the third generation of her family to fight Alzheimer's Disease, and she was robbed of so much living. None of us have any guarantees. I miss her so much. One of the best ways to honor our moms is to LIVE the lives they gave us with wild abandon.  This isn't a dress rehearsal.  Happy Mother's Day.