The Value of Failure?

For the past few days, I’ve been thinking about the value of failure.

Sounds counterintuitive, I know.  But last week, I went with the other teachers at my school to the NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools) conference for a day.  I expected lots of information about how we can set our students up to succeed, but in two different workshops, the presenters talked about the importance of letting students fail sometimes.

One teacher was describing an impressively complex and student-driven project he calls the “World Peace Game,” and he explained that he sets the game up to “fail massively” at first.  Another teacher was talking about how she lets her students choose their own teams for a challenge-based learning unit, but only after she has set them up to “safely fail” at picking suitable groups for an earlier project.  That way, they can choose more wisely when the stakes are higher.

There are several reasons why teachers might want to allow their students to fail.  Some kinds of failure can teach a specific lesson.  I still remember the “quiz” that taught me to read the directions carefully before beginning any assessment.  I was in elementary school, and the quiz had all sorts of complicated questions.  Most of us slogged through problem after problem, sweating and grumbling at our little desks, but a few kids just sat there contentedly, giggling at the rest of us.  Turns out the directions said to turn the paper over without answering any of the questions.  After failing at that task, I learned my lesson for good. (But I also felt pretty duped by my teacher.)

In addition to teaching specific lessons, failure can also lead to success.  As both presenters at NAIS suggested, when students experience failure (preferably without any drastic consequences), they can learn from their mistakes, take more responsibility for their learning, and figure out how to succeed later on.

And more than that, we’re all going to fail sometimes.  As the teacher who designed the “World Peace” game put it, failure is a part of life.   Things are going to go wrong, so we want to help our students become resilient.  One way to do develop resilience is to experience failure and see that you can deal with it.

I know this rationally, but it isn’t easy to watch kids struggle.  It isn’t easy as their teacher, and I’m sure it really isn’t easy as their parent.  It isn’t even easy for me as a writer to let a fictional person fail.  But I like the idea of allowing for “safe” failure, and I’ve been thinking about ways I can incorporate safe failures into my teaching.

This could be as simple as including difficult but ungraded writing challenges—things like writing a poem that follows a strict form or writing for a set amount of time and then having a set amount of time to cut the word count in half without losing content.  I can also work on setting the bar high for writing assignments and then being truly rigorous about evaluating the work, even if that means that students do poorly at first and have to revise one or more times before they have succeeded, or I can give students more flexibility in choosing groups, even if I don’t think their groups will work, to let them problem-solve and manage conflict.

Letting students fail is scary because it involves giving up some control, and it’s hard to ensure that the failure will really be safe. I mean, I can ensure that everyone will be physically safe, but is it still a “safe” failure if two students argue during failed group work and one really gets her feelings hurt?  And is it still a safe failure if a student ends up with a slightly lower grade for the marking period?  It’s difficult to factor in opportunities for safe failure when grades matter so much to people and everybody always feels short on time.  But if we really want to help students develop resilience, then maybe we do need to let them struggle and rebound sometimes…just as we writers have to let our characters suffer and bounce back in order to create compelling fiction, and just as we’ve all had to do, in large and small ways.

Going for 1000: Lessons from Rebecca Levenberg

Confucius said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” And that has become a mantra for Rebecca Levenberg.

A little over two years ago, Rebecca was hit by a garbage truck while riding her bike to work.  In the accident, she sustained severe injuries, and one of her legs had to be amputated.  In the last two years, Rebecca has learned to walk, bike, rock climb, and rollerblade with her bionic leg.  She’s also set an inspiring goal: to walk a thousand miles post-accident, one step at a time.

Last Friday, Rebecca caIMG_0367me to talk to a group of middle school students about her injury, her rehabilitation process, and her thousand-mile journey, and then we joined her for the end of her 950th mile.  As we walked, one student carried a sign that said “950,” and another carried a sign that announced, “Going for 1000.”

Rebecca gave us the “Going for 1000” sign to hang in my classroom, because, as she put it, we can all strive for our own version of walking a thousand miles.  For some, “going for 1000” might mean running a marathon.  For others, it might mean earning a certain grade in a difficult class, or—oh, gee, I don’t know—finishing a novel.

She gave us some excellent guidelines for setting goals.  She said that a goal should be:

  • challenging
  • realistic
  • specific
  • measurable
  • flexible

Her thousand-mile-journey goal fits all of these criteria.  It is clearly challenging and specific.  It is measurable, because she has a pedometer to track her progress.  It is flexible, because she can walk anywhere, including on a treadmill when the weather is bad.  Plus, she can walk a lot on days when she is feeling good, and she can take days off when she needs to.  And as long as she takes the journey one step at a time, the goal is absolutely realistic.

I was so grateful to meet Rebecca and have her speak to students, and I wanted to share these five criteria for goals along with Rebecca’s amazing story.  I hope they help you “go for 1000” in whatever way you choose!

Embracing Your Strengths, New Challenges, and Those Ever-Present Contraries

Recently, I stumbled upon two engaging, thought-provoking things that really resonated with me even though they seem almost to contradict each other: a blog post by middle grade and young adult author Lindsey Leavitt and a podcast in which young adult author Sara Zarr interviewed another young adult author, Siobhan Vivian.

In the blog post “Embracing the Cute,” Lindsey Leavitt explains that she looked at Goodreads reviews for her YA novel Going Vintage, which is coming out in March, and images-1 several complimentary reviews describe the book as “adorable,” “hilarious,” “fun,” and “quirky.” (You can read the first three delightful chapters of Going Vintage here, and Lindsey is lovely—she was generous enough to send me an ARC of her novel Sean Griswold’s Head a couple of years ago and then Skype with my students about her writing process).   Lindsey suggests that she might have bristled at these descriptions back in high school, when she resented being called cute.  But now she is trying to “embrace the cute” and accept that she gravitates to writing fun, quirky stories, and her strengths as a writer enable her to tell those kinds of stories well.

She writes, “I don’t do gritty or profound or twisted or raw. I still love to read these kinds of stories, still love to understand other world views and backgrounds. But when I spend a year with a book, I prefer it to be something that makes me giddy and satisfied, an escape for me and for you. There are days where I question this, days that I wish I was more of something else, but that’s like wishing I was shorter or had thicker hair.”

I appreciated this blog post for a couple of reasons.  First, I also like to write fun stories that could be seen as light, and it’s easy to feel like that kind of story is less important than a book that is “gritty or profound or twisted or raw.”  Second, the post makes the point that writers should recognize and use their gifts—that we should embrace what we do well rather than beating ourselves up about what we don’t do well.

One of the best things about my MFA program was that my advisors helped me to become aware of my strengths as a writer.  I tried out lots of different kinds of writing and got lots of insightful feedback, and, in the process, I came to realize that I have certain strengths, like using humor and creating endearing, vulnerable-yet-strong characters.  (For the record, I also discovered and worked on many aspects of writing that are challenges for me—my MFA definitely wasn’t all about celebrating things I do well.  And see what I did there?  Using the word “challenges” instead of “weaknesses”?  Much less discouraging that way.)

Anyway, part of what I learned during my MFA is that I can write stories for different age groups and with different narrative styles and structures, but it makes sense to know that I have a couple of fundamental strengths and to look for ways to take advantage of them.  I think it also makes sense to write what brings me joy, not what I think other people would find most impressive (although obviously, no writing project is going to bring only joy). Like Lindsey, I like to read all different kinds of books, but when I think about what kinds of stories I want to write, I think back to the books I read over and over when I was growing up and the ones I want to read more than once now.  Those are the kinds of stories I can spend enough time with to try to write.

Soon after I read Lindsey’s blog post, I was very excited to find Sara Zarr’s “This Creative Life” podcasts, because I’m a big fan of Sara Zarr’s books, and I listened to an interview she did with another author I really like, Siobhan Vivian (Sara also has an interview with A.S. King, whom I blogged about last weekend!).  While Lindsey Leavitt’s blog post is about owning your signature style of writing, this interview is all about branching out and writing something completely outside of your comfort zone.

imagesSiobhan Vivian talks about writing The List, which was a scary project because it was so different from her other novels.  The List is written in third-person point of view, while her other novels are in first person, and it follows a daunting eight point-of view characters.  In the interview, Siobhan talks about how difficult The List was to write, but she explains that she eventually got to a point where she felt like she’d told the story she wanted to tell, and therefore she was proud of the result, whether other people liked it or not.  (And incidentally, lots of other people liked it.  I, for one, tore through it when it came out last spring and was just as into it when I re-read it this week after listening to the podcast.)    

On the surface, the main takeaway of this podcast seems contrary to the main takeaway of Lindsey Leavitt’s blog post: the podcast suggests that it’s scary and difficult to move away from the kind of book you gravitate toward writing, but the suffering and self-doubt inherent in writing something so different are worth it, because you might end up creating something really special.

But when I stop and think about it, I realize the blog post and podcast don’t really contradict each other after all.  Both are about blocking out what other people might think (or what you think other people might think) and writing what you truly want to write.  And writers can both embrace our strengths and sensibilities and try out different things.  Lindsey Leavitt’s books may all share a certain humor and quirkiness, but her tween Princess for Hire series is very different from her YA realistic novels, and The List diverges from Siobhan Vivian’s other novels in its tone and narrative structure, but it still focuses on girls in high school, navigating relationships and forging their identities.  And in fact, it took leaving my comfort zone and trying out different kinds of writing to discover that I had some consistent strengths.

One of my favorite articles about teaching is Peter Elbow’s “Embracing Contraries in the Teaching Process,” in which Elbow writes about all of the seemingly contradictory roles that teachers have to fulfill.  Lindsey Leavitt’s blog post and Sara Zarr’s interview with Siobhan Vivian reminded me that the writing process is just as full of seeming contradictions as the teaching process…and, well, I suppose the rest of life is, too.


Book Binges

I love it when I discover an author a little late in the game, after he or she already has multiple novels out, so that I can finish one and pick up another without having to wait too long.  A couple of years ago, I fell in love with Jaclyn Moriarty’s Ashbury High novels, and I read Feeling Sorry for Celia, The Year of Secret Assignments, The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie, and The Ghosts of Ashbury High within a couple of months (it would have been less than a couple of months, except I had to request many of them from other branches of the public library and wait for them to arrive).

All of these Ashbury High novels use an epistolary format: they include actual letters, imagined letters, transcripts from hearings and meetings, diary entries, emails, blog posts, exam essays, and more.  The format is creative and engaging, and, as a teacher, I appreciate that it puts readers into an active role.  Readers must sift through the materials we are given and decide which narrators and materials are reliable and how the pieces fit together.  It was fun to read these books in a short time frame because I knew what I was getting from each one—zany humor, big plot twists, and extremely endearing characters—and yet each one was different enough to surprise me (especially The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie, which has a jarring shift toward the end, and The Ghosts of Ashbury High, which features time travel and, as the title suggests, ghosts).

Last year, I ended up finding three of the four Ashbury High books at a used bookstore images and purchasing them for my classroom library because I thought some eighth and maybe seventh grade readers might enjoy them.  I wouldn’t have thought they’d appeal to sixth graders, and I almost didn’t buy Bindy Mackenzie because it was a little pricey for a used book and I couldn’t decide if middle schoolers would “get” it.  (Silly me.)  But this year, to my delight, a few sixth grade girls have excitedly read Bindy MacKenzie and The Year of Secret Assignments. One even told me we should do a pen pal program, like the Ashbury High students do.   

Recently, I embarked on another book binge when I discovered the novels of A. S. King.  I started out reading Everybody Sees the Ants, on the recommendation of my friend and colleague Maureen, and I loved it so much that I moved right along to Please Ignore Vera Dietz and Ask the Passengers.  (I have a Kindle now, which is both convenient and dangerous—kind of like the bags of peanut butter pretzels I stocked up on at Trader Joe’s today that are now in the cupboard—so I didn’t have to wait at all between books this time.)

As with Jaclyn Moriarty’s novels, I know what I’m getting when I start an A.S. King novel: a smart, funny first-person protagonist who is dealing with some very tough circumstances; complex and flawed adult and teenage characters; and surreal elements.

I’ll admit that I don’t always know what to make of the surreal elements.  In Ask the Passengers, the main character Astrid is struggling to figure out what it means that she is maybe/probably in love with a girl.  She is neglected by her parents; disappointed by her best friend; and fascinated with philosophers, especially Socrates.  She imagines Socrates appearing in her day-to-day life, and she sends her love up to people in airplanes, because she feels like nobody needs her love at home.  King includes vignettes from the perspectives of people in the airplanes; these vignettes could be scenes Astrid simply imagines, but King suggests that the people in the airplanes might actually feel Astrid’s love and be impacted by it.

In Please Ignore Vera Dietz, meanwhile, Vera is coping with the death of her ex-best-friend, Charlie, and coming to grips with the secret of what happened the night he died.  King interrupts Vera’s narrative with chapters that feature “brief words” from Vera’s dad, Charlie, and even the pagoda in her town.  Even though he is dead, Charlie is able to communicate with Vera through her dreams, and to force her and other people to do things.

images-1And in Everybody Sees the Ants, Lucky Linderman is brutally bullied during the day, but in his dreams at night he visits his grandfather, a missing prisoner of war, in the jungles of Vietnam.  King suggests that Lucky’s dreams may in fact be real (or Lucky may be unreliable and possibly not quite sane, because he believes they are real; detaches from his traumas; and sees ants, who wear party hats and provide commentary).

The paperback version of Everybody Sees the Ants includes a Q and A between A.S. King and fellow author Paolo Bacigalupi at the end, and Bacigalupi notes, “You ride a lot of surreal edges where, as a reader, I found myself questioning whether Lucky had a grip on his sanity or whether he was completely off his rocker.  That strikes me as rich but also treacherous ground.  The safe choice would have been to make this a completely ‘realistic’ novel.”  “Realistic fiction that rides surreal edges” seems to me the perfect description of King’s style, in Everybody Sees the Ants as well as in Please Excuse Vera Dietz and Ask the Passengers.  It’s a much more precise and fitting label than “magical realism” (but, a little unwieldy for, say, a section of books in a bookstore or something).  I also agree with Bacigalupi that King’s novels tread “rich but treacherous ground.” Her unusual choices are thought-provoking and would lead to fascinating book-group or class discussions (and the educators’ guides on her websites include excellent questions I’d love to talk about with a group of students), but they also might alienate or frustrate some readers.

King’s books are a little mature in content and language to use in a middle school curriculum—on her website, King explains that most of her books are for ages 14 or 15 or up because of the content.  I’m not sure about assigning one in class, but I’m sure some of my students would be ready to read and discuss them, and I think young people are remarkably good at choosing books they’re ready for and focusing on the parts that resonate without worrying too much about the parts that don’t.  I’ve recommended Everybody Sees the Ants to my eighth grade students, and now I’ll try to get copies of all three novels for my classroom library and then sit back and be surprised by who gravitates to them.

How about you?  Anybody else indulge in any book binges lately?

Some Realizations from My Time Away from Writing

A little over a month ago, I wrote a blog post about how I hadn’t had time to write, wouldn’t have time for the foreseeable future, and was determined not to feel too guilty.  Now, finally, I’m getting back to my manuscript a little bit at a time, and I’ve realized some things.

1.) Writing is like exercising; it’s harder to force yourself to do it when you’re out of the habit, and you have to build your endurance back up.

In my early-to-mid twenties, I ran a few marathons.  I now find this fact hard to believe, but I have the finisher’s medals in a box somewhere to prove it.  Anyway, I remember feeling pretty indignant when I did my first training run for the second marathon.  How was it possible that I could not run three miles?  I’d run 26.2 only months before!  With a hurt Achilles tendon!  They gave me one of those snazzy aluminum blankets at the end to put over my shoulders!   It was a big deal!

But none of that seemed to matter after I’d taken some time off.  Luckily, my body and brain knew deep down that they were capable of running for an inordinately long time, since they’d done it before, so I was able to get back into shape faster than I had the first time around.  I’m hoping the same goes for writing.

2.) It’s one thing to keep your conscious mind from feeling guilty for not being as productive as usual and another thing to make sure your subconscious gets the message.  The other night I dreamed that I hadn’t actually graduated from my MFA program yet, and it was time for workshop, but I hadn’t submitted anything or critiqued any of anyone else’s pieces.  It was terrible.

3.) I need to increase the “Oh no, don’t do that!” factor in my novel.  I had this epiphany Nice-and-Mean-coverwhile I was reading Nice and Mean by fellow VCFA grad and teacher Jess Leader.  I’d read and enjoyed the book a couple of years ago, but I was reading it again to prepare for a mini course on middle school girl culture that I’m co-leading in March, during which a group of students will read the book and Skype with Jess.

I re-read Nice and Mean in a night, and part of what compelled me to finish so quickly was that each of the two first-person narrators does something that made me, as a reader, think, “No!  This isn’t going to work out!  There’s going to be trouble for you!”  One of the narrators, Marina, hatches an ill-advised plan to get revenge on a friend who keeps undermining her and generally driving her crazy, and the other, Sachi, keeps a secret from her parents.

I knew how things worked out in the end of the book, but I didn’t remember the details, and I experienced that delicious internal conflict of both wanting to look away from the disastrous results of not-very-wise decisions and needing to read on to know that the characters would be okay.  One important element of an effective “Oh no, don’t do that!” factor, I think, is that the reader should see why the character is behaving as she is and sympathize with—or at least understand—her motivations.  Even though Marina’s revenge plan is cruel, for instance, I felt her frustration with her friend and knew that she wanted to prove her own worth, so rather than being alienated by her “mean girl” behavior, I found it captivating.  I felt exasperated with her and protective of her, all at the same time.

In the first full draft of my novel, I already had my main character make a questionable decision to sell out a new friend, but now I think that if I change the order of some scenes so that the decision comes a bit later, and and if I play up certain dynamics, I might be able to induce that unpleasant-but-engrossing “No, don’t do it!” sensation.

4.) It can take a long, long time to figure out a character.  I’d always thought character development was my strong point, because I tend to see a character first and then the plot comes later.  Like, much later.  But when I looked back at the revisions I’d done on my novel this fall, I realized that I have to rethink some core things about my protagonist.  When I started revising in October, I made changes to a couple of secondary characters to increase conflict and tension.  I see now that changing these secondary characters changes some of my protagonist’s formative experiences, and that impacts her outlook and her motivations in subtle but definite ways.

It’s possible that I’m just delaying getting back to the actual hard work of revising scenes because that feels very daunting right now (see number 1).  But I think I’m actually working through things that tangled me up before. And I really couldn’t figure out these dynamics earlier—it took pushing through a draft, trying to fix a problem, and then seeing how the solution impacted elements that had seemed like they were working.

I don’t know about you other writers out there, but I both love and fear this process of figuring out how to make a novel work.  I love the puzzle of troubleshooting problems, but I am also sort of terrified by how unwieldy and out-of-focus the whole puzzle sometimes feels.

But just when I’m feeling especially overwhelmed, I read a wonderful book or see a beautiful movie or play and am inspired to keep on trying.  In fact, I’d better get back to trying now, so my subconscious won’t deliver more guilt-nightmares tonight.


Short, Fun Projects to Energize Student (and Adult) Writers

I’m working my way through the first seasons of Dr. Who, and last night I watched an episode called “The Girl in the Fireplace.”  In that episode, the Doctor passes through time windows to 18th century France to protect a young woman being stalked by extremely creepy looking clockwork droids.  For the Doctor, only a few minutes separate his trips to protect the young woman.  But for the young woman, years pass between each of his visits.  She realizes that he can jump into a page of her life, as if her days were bound together in a book, but she is stuck on the “slow path,” living out each long day in order.

See? Creepy.

See? Creepy.

It’s a great episode.  However, I don’t know about you, but I don’t often feel like my day-to-day life is a “slow path.”  Days seem to pass especially quickly on vacation, but even during a work week, I’m amazed at how fast Friday arrives (and then I’m really amazed at how soon Sunday evening comes).  It’s hard to believe that the school year is almost halfway over!

Even though time seems to pass so quickly, I don’t like to rush my classes through assignments.  For writing assignments, especially, students often do best when we move along fairly slowly, spending time on each stage of the writing process.  And when we’re reading books as a class, I don’t want to assign too many pages of reading every night because my students are so busy, and reading carefully can take a long time for many of them.  If I give them too much reading, it’s as if I’m encouraging them—forcing them, even—to have to skim.  But I also think it’s important to vary the pace.  If we spend too long on each unit, English class might begin to feel like a long, slow path indeed.

In both seventh and eighth grade, the couple of weeks between winter break and the end of the second quarter felt like a good time to do something different and creative in a short mini-unit.  I can’t actually take credit for coming up with the eighth grade mini-unit, because a student gave me the idea.  She lent me a copy of Sarah Durkee’s novel The Fruitbowl Project and suggested that it would be fun to try out our own version of the project together. fruitbowl

The first part of The Fruitbowl Project introduces an eighth grade writing class in New York City.  Their English teacher invites her cousin’s husband, a rock star, to visit the class and talk about how he writes songs.  He offers an analogy: a song (or any piece of writing) is like a bowl of fruit an artist might paint.  The bowl of fruit is a stable, definite thing that the artist wants to represent, but the artist can use all different colors and techniques to depict it.  Similarly, writers start with a basic story and play around with point of view, genre, and style, and can tell that story in an infinite number of ways.

In the first part of The Fruitbowl Project, the class comes up with a basic story, about a boy who drops his pencil during a reading test and bumps a girl’s elbow.  The second part, then, is an anthology of the students’ versions of this story.  The anthology includes the boy’s perspective, the girl’s perspective, the teacher’s perspective, a limerick, a sonnet, a rap, a screenplay, a fairy tale, a preschooler’s version, a newspaper article, and a whole lot more.

I shared excerpts of The Fruitbowl Project with my eighth grade students, and then together we came up with our own basic story, which involves two shopping carts colliding in the toy aisle at Target.  For the next few days, eighth graders will be writing their own versions of the story we’ve created.  They’ll be writing from all different perspectives (including that of the baby in one of the shopping carts and a toy inside the other) and in all different genres (including text messages back and forth between two characters and a cross-examination).

For the seventh grade mini-unit, we read two short stories with multiple first-person narrators: “Jeremy Goldblatt is So Not Moses,” by James Howe, and “The Arf Thing,” by my good friend Val Howlett, who was generous enough to share her writing (which my students loved and deemed “funny but sad”) with us.  In both stories, the narrators have very different voices and perspectives, and they’re all responding to an important event that has already happened (but that the reader doesn’t get a full explanation of until late in the story).

Now, seventh grade students are writing their own stories with multiple first-person narrators and a revelation in the second half of the story.  Because we don’t have a lot of time to work on this project and students have a lot of end-of-quarter work in all of their classes, I’ve put students into groups of three or four instead of having them write their stories individually.  Groups have enthusiastically come up with a story idea, narrators, and an outline together, and then each student is writing two or three narrators’ short sections.  They’ll compile their sections together next week.

One nice thing about this project is that I get the benefits of group work (students’ enthusiasm, less work for each student, and less volume to grade during crunch time for me), but I can still evaluate students on their individual work.  (As someone who wasn’t all that crazy about group work when I was a student, I always like to make sure that students are held accountable for their own contributions.) There are logistical issues, of course, because some kids have been sick, but so far the benefits of the group assignment have outweighed the challenges.

I’d love to hear about any short, energizing assignments other teachers out there like…or short, energizing projects you writers use when you need a break from the long, slow path of a longer endeavor.  Happy 2013!

No Time to Write and the Skewed Guilt/Happiness Balance

For the past few weeks, I haven’t had time to write creatively.  I pushed through the end of the rough draft of my novel before school started, took a month or so off while a couple of smart and generous writing friends gave me feedback, and then dove into the process of re-envisioning and revising.

Revisions were coming along slowly but surely.  Without the urgency of a monthly MFA deadline, I found I couldn’t muster the energy to write at night.  But I took to waking up an hour early and getting at least a little bit done every morning, before the rest of my day began.

Then came mid-November.  I got to a tricky part of the novel, and my non-writing commitments picked up big-time.  Don’t get me wrong: the past month has been an incredibly exciting and fulfilling one, and the next couple of weeks promise to be the same.  I’ve attended engagement parties for people I love, taken weekend trips, moved in with a completely wonderful guy, had my mom visit, and hosted a couple of lovely gatherings.  And now I have Christmas with my family, a great friend’s wedding in Florida, and a trip to Uruguay to look forward to.  No complaints there.  But with all of these exciting occasions in my non-writing life, my writing has sputtered out.  During November and the beginning of December, I kept trying to push on, although not with much success.  But for almost three weeks now, I’ve barely glanced at my work-in-progress.

Rationally, I know this is okay.  During the last two years, when I was teaching and working on my MFA, I had to say no to a lot of fun-sounding things because I needed to block out evening and weekend time to complete my MFA work.  Now, I have more flexibility.  And pretty much every story I’ve ever tried to write has been, at its core, about a character who yearns to connect with and feel loved by someone else.  So it would feel pretty misguided to prioritize writing over teaching kids I care about and spending time with people who are important to me.

But then there’s the gut-level, irrational part of me that feeds on guilt and isn’t appeased by this reasoning.  The part that says, “You need a schedule!  If writing is important to you, you need to make time for it no matter what!”  And, “You think you’re busy now?  Think of all of the people who write and work and have kids!  You don’t have to take care of anybody but yourself, you whiner.  Suck it up!”  And even, “If you don’t keep writing, you’ll never finish this novel and you’ll probably forget everything you ever learned and your MFA will have been useless!”

Not so helpful.

I’ve always been sort of glad that I feel guilty when I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing, because it means that I usually get back to work in order to get rid of the guilt.  But maybe working-to-pacify-guilt is not the best model.  As a teacher, I know that I can usually motivate students by recognizing their successes and supporting them as they encounter challenges.   I should probably try the same approach with myself.  Sure, I feel happy when I accomplish something, like finishing a rough draft or figuring out how to fix a subplot that wasn’t working.  But I feel the guilt and frustration of not accomplishing what I wanted to accomplish so much more intensely than I feel the joy and satisfaction of doing something well.  And judging by my conversations with writer friends, I don’t think I am alone in this imbalance.

So I am going to try to silence that nasty, undermining voice inside me by stating my fears out loud or writing them down and then dealing with them one by one.  I am going to try to remember something Grace Lin said when she was Skyping with my students: that she doesn’t write every day—sometimes she can’t—but then she’ll write and write on days she can.  I am going to try to shake up my guilt/happiness balance so that I feel at least as proud of myself when I get something done as I feel disappointed in myself when I do not.  And I am going to hope that when I do have time to return to my novel-in-progress next month, I will see the tricky parts with fresh eyes and feel my love for my main character more strongly than ever.

And to my friends who are also struggling to find time and energy to write, I hope that you will be able to confront your mean, guilt-feeding voices and trust that all of the writing lessons you’ve learned are there inside you, too—they just don’t make quite as much noise.

How Structured Writing Assignments Can Unleash Creativity

In July of 2011, I was beginning the third semester of my MFA program, and I had some very definite goals.  I was going to start a new teaching job, so I knew the first few months of the school year would be especially busy.   To make the beginning of the year more manageable, I wanted to push through an ambitious amount of MFA work—my full critical thesis and a completely unreasonable number of pages of my new novel—before September.  So when my new advisor, Mary Quattlebaum, asked me to write a fractured fairy tale in addition to working on my critical thesis and novel, I wasn’t entirely thrilled.

But that fractured fairy tale turned out to be one of the most important writing assignments I’ve ever completed.  The project had clear guidelines: to take an existing fairy tale and make it my own by changing the perspective, setting, or other elements, and to tell my story in no more than 1,000 words.  At a time when I was wrangling numerous academic sources and big ideas for my critical thesis and trying to wrap my brain around how to structure a novel, it was a relief to have a short assignment with clear expectations.  I learned some helpful and transferrable writing lessons as I wrote and revised my fractured fairy tale—lessons about crafting a surprising but logical ending and managing multiple characters—and the stakes felt low, so I was able to relax and have fun. I made the story funny, and once my advisor Mary had seen the humor in my fractured fairy tale, she encouraged me to enhance the humor in the novel I was beginning.

That fractured fairy tale assignment showed me that structured creative writing projects can set writers up to experience success, take their own individual approach, and enjoy the writing process.  It seems like the best way to spark young writers’ creativity should be to give them a chance to write whatever they want with no restrictions.  Open-ended writing opportunities are valuable, too, but I’ve found that giving more controlled writing assignments with clear criteria can free students up to be creative and relaxed.

My sixth grade students are currently working on a very specific writing assignment, and I’ve been amazed by how original and full of personality their stories are.  We read Donna Jo Napoli’s novel Bound, which tells a Chinese Cinderella story, and then we read picture books that tell other Cinderella stories: Adelita: A Mexican Cinderella Story, The Way Meat Loves Salt: A Cinderella Story from the Jewish Tradition, and The Korean Cinderella.  We decided on several elements that all these Cinderella stories share: a main character who is separated from his or her parents; one or more helping characters; one or more cruel characters; a special event the main character wants to attend; an article of clothing/possession/feature that proves the main character’s identity; and an ending in which the main character finds a romantic partner, family, friend, or passion.

The variety in my students’ stories is remarkable.  One student is writing about a gingerbread Cinderella named Gingerella whose father was eaten by the king.  One is writing about a mouse Cinderella named Henry, who gets separated from his family when they are on the way to the National Subway Dwelling Mouse Association’s annual ball.  One is writing the story of how Prancer became one of Santa’s reindeer, one is writing about a boy with a wand that is supposed to grant wishes but keeps backfiring, and one is writing about a shy girl whose beautiful singing voice catches the attention of her “prince” when she sings at a masquerade ball.

It’s been fun to break down the key structural elements of a classic story and then see all of the variations they can come up with.  And these key elements provide a skeletal story structure, so students get experience writing a piece with a clear beginning, middle, and end, and they can be freed up to focus on developing vivid scenes within that structure.  Plus, in January, we’ll get to experience another take on Cinderella’s story when we go to an inventive production of Cinderella at the Arden Theatre, where a very dear friend of mine is starring as one of the stepsisters.  I’m looking forward to our discussions analyzing the story structure and creative choices after we see the show!

Skyping with a True Pro

Last Thursday afternoon, thirty-nine seventh graders crowded into my classroom.  I handed them index cards with the questions they’d prepared ahead of time, signed on to Skype, and set up the projector.  Soon, Kate Messner’s face appeared on the screen, and we began our virtual author visit.


Photo courtesy of FSS (thanks, Sarah!) because I was a little too frazzled making sure everything went smoothly to remember to take one.

The day before, we’d finished Capture the Flag, the first book in Kate’s middle-grade mystery series.  During our Skype session, students asked great questions about how Kate handles writer’s block; where she gets her ideas; whether she has a dog that inspired the dog in the novel; whether she likes Tootsie Rolls as much as another character in the novel does; and why we can’t yet buy Hide and Seek, the next book in the Silver Jaguar Society mystery series, when she already had a copy in hand to show us.  Then they got to hear the beginning of Hide and Seek, which is due out in April.

Kate Messner is truly a virtual author visit pro.  She taught middle school English for many years, so she has experienced Skype visits both as a teacher and as an author.  Our Skype visit was valuable not only because it was an exciting opportunity for students to connect with the author of a book they’d just read, but also because it gave me some ideas about Skyping best practices, for future virtual author visits I coordinate for my students…and maybe even for author visits I conduct myself some day, I hope!

Kate has written some articles in School Library Journal about virtual author visits: this one from 2009 includes a list of authors who Skype for free, and this one from 2010 expands on the benefits of virtual author visits.  Kate also emailed me a book order form before the Skype session; interested students filled out the form and brought in a check, and then I sent all of the forms and checks to an independent bookstore Kate chose.  She will go to that bookstore to sign my students’ books (as well as books that students from other schools have ordered), and then the bookstore will send the personalized, signed books to me before the holidays.  So we’re really getting almost all of the perks of an in-person author visit at no cost to the school and with minimal hassle.  Amazing!

Drawing to Learn: Visual Projects in the English Classroom

Recently, I got the chance to visit middle school English classes at another school as a professional development opportunity.  It was really helpful to step outside of my day-to-day routine, see what other teachers are doing, and then reflect on my own practices.

One teacher gave me some great ideas about independent reading projects. She showed me samples of student work for a couple of different assignments.  One was a literary analysis wheel, with a rotating window and several different segments, including things like themes and powerful language.  And one was a character analysis poster, with a summary, character traits and examples, and a background design that highlighted something important about the book.

I’m not particularly artistic, and when I was a student, I dreaded assignments that forced me to make a diorama or redesign a book cover.  As a writer, I squirm when someone advises me to storyboard a scene or draw out the shape of the plot in my novel.  And as a teacher, I don’t often think of artistic assignments, and if I ever do, I worry that they’re not as rigorous as more writing-intensive assignments.  But as I was looking at the students’ posters and literary analysis wheels, I was impressed by the original finished products and struck by how much critical thinking they’d done to create them.

So a couple of days after my visit, I did an experiment with my seventh grade students.  We’re just finishing Okay for Now, which has a prominent drawing subplot, so it seemed especially appropriate to try out an art-related assignment for that novel. I gave students some large white paper and asked them to create a visual representation of the plot, which includes many, many subplots.  I offered them the example of a story with three main subplots, which could basically be drawn out as a braid, and I gave them one guideline: to label the different subplots on their poster.  They came up with some great designs.  One group drew the plot as a flower, and they thought through which subplots would be the roots, the leaves, and the petals.  Another drew a paper bag with a smiley face, like the one on the book’s cover, with items representing each subplot spilling out of it.  Another drew a different bird for each subplot, because the main character draws several birds throughout the novel and each chapter is named after a bird.  And another drew a jacket that plays an important role in the story, with subplots as parts of the jacket and threads unraveling from it.

I’m planning to use a larger art-related project with my eighth grade students, too.  The eighth graders have been reading Gilgamesh in history class and learning about Joseph Campbell’s ideas about the hero’s cycle.  In English class, we’re going to read Paper Towns by John Green and analyze how it conforms to the classic hero’s journey and how it does not.  I’m going to give students this image of the hero’s cycle, which I first saw on Laurie Halse Anderson’s blog, and then have them create their own image that charts out the protagonist’s journey in Paper Towns.

Neither of these projects is replacing a writing assignment, but we’re at a busy point in the year (because of the crunch time between the holidays and because the seventh graders are working on a major search project in history class), so I have to assign less ambitious, less time-intensive writing assignments than I would otherwise.  This kind of artistic project will complement smaller writing tasks, and it seems like it will give students another way to develop and show off their understanding of topics we are working on.  Plus, it will result in some lovely work for me to hang in the classroom!

Teachers, what kinds of assignments do you include to complement writing assessments and offer students the opportunity to use different skills?  And writers, how do you use drawings or charts to support your writing process?

Getting into Character

When I was in high school and college, I took some drama classes and acted in a bunch of plays.  I always enjoyed being part of a cast and performing on stage, and I liked the exercise of attempting to become a character—figuring out her relationships with other people, her formative experiences, her motivation onstage, and her quirks.

The thing is, though, I could analyze the characters I played and imagine all these things about them, but I don’t think I was ever really able to inhabit them.  On stage, I was either too aware of the need to remember all that important character work I’d done, or else I was too aware of myself—what my next line was, what gesture I was going to use, and how much the audience had or had not laughed at my last line.  When I stop and think about it now, acting starts to seem pretty much impossible: you want to be in the moment and be your character, but you can’t lose yourself completely in the moment or character because you have lines to deliver and blocking instructions to follow.

Writing poses a similar challenge.  Writers have to maintain a sense of story structure, pacing, and urgency within scenes.  But at the same time, as Ursula K. LeGuin points out
in her excellent book Steering the Craft, writers also have to inhabit their characters.  LeGuin explains, “Writers must do what a serious actor does, sinking self in character-self.  It’s a willingness to be the characters, letting what they think and say rise from inside them.  It’s a willingness to share control with one’s creation” (121).

Not an easy thing to do under any circumstances, but sinking into character-self feels especially challenging when you’re squeezing in an hour of writing early in the morning or at the end of an energy-zapping day.  I’ve heard some writers say that they hear their characters speaking to them and just write down what the characters say.  That must be convenient.  But if your character doesn’t whisper in your ear as you’re sitting in front of the computer with forty-four minutes until you really, really have to get in the shower if you’re going to get to work on time, then what?

I don’t entirely know.  At this point in my revising process, I’ve figured out the important information about my characters; I just need a way to access their personas and briefly step out of my own.  Some people make playlists or collages to get into the mindset of their characters.  That hasn’t worked for me yet, but it could be worth another try.  Mary Quattlebaum, one of my advisors at Vermont College of Fine Arts, showed me how to do brief meditations to ground myself in a scene before writing.  That definitely helps, but sometimes I end up picturing myself in the scene and imagining how I’d react instead of reacting as my main character.

One other thing that’s been helping me lately is thinking my characters’ controlling beliefs.  I first heard the term controlling belief from Kathi Appelt during my first workshop at Vermont College. Kathi also talked about controlling beliefs on Thorough the Tollbooth, and she defines a controlling belief as “the belief or attitude that is so tightly ingrained in the character…that it shades every action and every response.”  A controlling belief acts as an engine that drives the character, but it might not be logical or true.  A character’s belief could be that he is not as smart as his brother, for example, or that if he works hard he will succeed no matter what.  Before the end of a book, the character sometimes reaches a crisis of faith, during which she has to examine the validity of her controlling belief.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about my protagonist’s controlling belief as well as a related concept: what another of my Vermont College advisors, Franny Billingsley, would call my character’s “vacuum.”  A character’s vacuum is basically what she longs for but doesn’t have—something inside her that feels empty and calls out to be filled.  I’ve figured out the controlling belief and vacuum for the other central characters in my book, also, and I keep them taped to the bottom of the shelves above my desk.  Often, looking at these statements of controlling beliefs and vacuums helps me to sink into my characters and be more present in the scenes I am trying to write.

What works for you?  How do you get into character as you write, or what are some books in which the characters’ voices are especially distinct and consistent, so they authors seem to have done an exceptional job of sinking into character-self?

Technology and Human Connection: Skyping with Grace Lin

As a middle school teacher, I often feel nervous about how connected everyone is in the age of the Internet and how public everything can be.  I know, I know.  Kind of ironic, worrying about how the Internet lets people connect and publicize their ideas on my blog.

The thing is, though, drama already spreads fast enough among middle school students, and with social media, it can spread far faster and wider. Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites make it seem totally normal to publicize every detail about your life, from what you had for breakfast to the obnoxious thing someone did to you or the reason you’re mad at your friend.  It’s hard enough for adults who came of age before status messages and tweets to make good decisions about what information to keep private and what to share.  But kids who are going through adolescence with all of these options for connecting and showing off and continuing conversations that aren’t going anywhere productive?  Yikes.  That feels like a setup for conflict and hurt feelings.

But then there are times when the ability to connect online allows for some pretty awesome opportunities.  Like today, when the sixth grade at my school got to Skype with Grace Lin, author of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (and several other wonderful books).  This wasn’t my first time setting up a Skype session for students to chat with an author; in the past, some of my students have gotten to Skype with Lindsey Leavitt and Donna Gephart, and those were wonderful experiences, too.  But for those events, only a couple of students had read books by the author who was “visiting” with us.  Today’s Skype session was especially exciting because all of the students in the room had read and loved Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, and there’s something powerful and intimate about connecting with an author who has written a book that you love.

Before the Skype session, I was stressed about the logistics—making sure the technology would work, finding a room that was open, and pulling students from another class for our fifteen-minute appointment.  But once Grace’s face appeared on the white board, the conversation was easy.  Students asked question after question about the book and about Grace’s career and her process of writing and illustrating.  And then later in the day, we wrote thank you notes, which we’ll send along with stamped, self-addressed envelopes so that Grace can mail each student a signed bookplate.  It feels kind of fitting, to have a video chat in the morning and then write old-fashioned letters in the afternoon.  The whole process was a blend of new(ish) technology and good old human connection—the relatively new opportunity to see and hear each other over Skype coupled with the timeless joy of loving a book and thrill of meeting the person who created it.

Pretty great, sometimes—this whole Internet thing.

8th Grade Dystopian Unit

Teaching middle school English often feels like a juggling act.  It’s hard to make time for everything that falls within the realm of “English” when I only have each group of students for 40-45 minutes most days.  And it’s especially hard to make sure that students are reading independently when we have an ambitious list of novels to read and analyze together.

Every year, I struggle with how best to encourage and assess independent reading.  I certainly understand the benefits of a curriculum in which students choose all of the books they read and read those books individually; I’ve gotten a lot of inspiration and ideas from Nancie Atwell’s materials, and this New York Times article from 2009 is great for sparking thoughts and discussions about the reading workshop model (I’ve actually read it with students in the past).  But my school schedule, curriculum, and classroom aren’t really set up to have students choose all their own books.  And as much as I want students to have time to explore books that excite them at their own pace, I also believe in the benefits of exploring great books as a class, and I feel much more confident in my teaching when we are reading a novel together.

So I juggle.

In addition to the books we read as a class and the writing assignments we work on, my students get independent reading time during class once a week.  I try to spark their enthusiasm by telling them about books I’m reading, I recommend authors and series so if they like one book they might get hooked, and I set up online book discussion forums in which they can recommend books to each other (and sometimes I require them to post for a homework grade).

But still, I struggle to assess their independent reading and hold them accountable for it.  They have so much going on outside of school, and so much work for other their classes.  The ones who love to read make time to read (and certainly appreciate that I factor some  in for them), but other students don’t seem to gain much momentum with the books they’re reading on their own.  Some of them have been plugging away on the same book during independent reading time since the beginning of the year, and they aren’t making much progress.

One strategy that’s worked well for me, though, is a kind of compromise between whole-class and individual reading.  If I can structure a unit so that I give students a list of related books and have them choose one and finish it by a given date, then I can give them choice while also holding them accountable.  Last year, with the help of the wonderful middle school librarian at my school, I came up with a dystopian unit for eighth grade, which we began just after finishing Lord of the Flies.  Yesterday, I introduced the dystopian unit to this year’s eighth graders.

We’ve talked about what a utopia is and how Lord of the Flies can be described as a dystopian novel, and now students have chosen books from a list of other dystopian novels.  Because all of their book choices are linked by genre, we can explore similar elements and questions as a group; we can consider why the dystopian genre is currently so popular and what traits dystopian novels and stories share.  They can write in response to common reflective prompts.  We can all read dystopian short stories, including “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut and “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury, and they can make connections to the books they are reading on their own.  We can read articles that comment on the dystopian trend, like this one, about how Lois Lowry’s new book Son is different from the rest of the bunch, or this one, about whether contemporary YA fiction is too dark.

This unit comes with its own juggling—making sure students get one of the books they want, strategizing with some students about how they can finish their books in time while scrambling to find more choices for other students who are speeding through book after book, etc.—but last year it engaged students and gave them some choice, and I hope it will do the same this year.

In case you’re curious, here are the dystopian options for this year:

Anderson, Feed
Bacigalupi, Ship Breaker
Carman, The House of Power
Collins, The Hunger Games trilogy
Condie, Matched and Crossed
Dashner, The Maze Runner series
DeStefano, Wither
Doctorow, Little Brother
DuPrau, City of Ember
Farmer, The House of the Scorpion
Goodman, The Other Side of the Island
Grant, Gone
Haddix, Among the Hidden
Hautman, Rash
Huxley, Brave New World
Lowry, The Giver, Gathering Blue, The Messenger, and Son
Lloyd, The Carbon Diaries
Mardsen, Tomorrow, When the War Began
Ness, The Knife of Never Letting Go
O’Brien, Birthmarked
Oliver, Delirium and Pandemonium
Pearson, The Adoration of Jenna Fox
Rosoff, How I Live Now
Roth, Divergent and Insurgent
Ryan, The Dead-Tossed Waves
Shusterman, Unwind
Westerfeld, The Uglies series

Tension, and Conflict, and Antagonists–Oh My!

I am starting to revise my novel-in-progress after getting some insightful feedback from two smart and generous first readers.  I’m working on increasing the tension and conflict in the second half of the novel (among other things), so I’m thinking a lot about antagonists.

Now if you know me, you probably know that I don’t really care for conflict in my day-to-day life.  I have a low conflict threshold, I think.  When I’m writing fiction, I’m often squirming around in my seat thinking, “Ooh, this is tense.  Look how uncomfortable I’m making these characters!  Look at all these subtle psychological dynamics at play!”  And then other people read what I have written and say things like, “Who’s the antagonist here?  Everyone is so nice to each other.  Can you ramp up the tension?”

In my current novel, the beginning is plenty tense.  There’s a very clear antagonist—a boy who humiliates my main character and breaks her heart, propelling her to leave home and spend the summer with her estranged father.  Nobody who reads the beginning of the novel tells me to add more conflict.  This is good.

But then the boy doesn’t appear again for a long time, and the estranged dad tries really hard to make the main character feel welcome.  To me, her interactions with her dad are full of tension and discomfort because, while her dad means well, he inadvertently undermines her and makes her feel like she isn’t good enough.  I find their father-daughter relationship compelling because I think it’s heartbreaking when people care about each other and have good intentions but hurt each other anyway. But I’ve realized that I need to make the dad a lot more antagonistic, even though he isn’t antagonistic on purpose.

I’ve always kind of backed away from conceiving of clear-cut antagonists, hiding behind the knowledge that a book’s main antagonist doesn’t need to be a person—it could be a character flaw, or a societal problem, or a force of nature.  But as I’m forcing myself to consider how the dad in my novel can function as a stronger antagonist, I’ve suddenly begun to think of other secondary characters in the novel who can stand in the main character’s way more dramatically, too.  By standing in her way and therefore adding to the story’s tension, these secondary antagonists will ultimately make her growth and her triumphs all the more satisfying.  (Or I hope they will, anyway.)

Meanwhile, I’ve also been looking at the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) Young Writer’s Project’s Middle School Workbook, because I’m attempting to lead a NaNoWriMo club at school, and the workbook includes some pretty helpful information about antagonists.  Here’s the definition of an antagonist from the workbook: “The antagonist is the character in a novel that is standing in the way of the protagonist achieving his or her goal. That does not mean that all antagonists are evil, scheming monsters. Some antagonists stand in the way simply through jealousy, or misunderstanding, or by having a set of goals that differs from the protagonist’s.”  (The workbook also provides a few questions you can ask yourself about your antagonist: 1. Why is he or she facing off against the protagonist? 2. Any likeable traits? 3. Sure-fire ways to defeat your antagonist?)

What I’m realizing, though, is that there doesn’t have to be only one antagonist in a book.  Maybe there is one capital-A Antagonist, but then there can be little-a antagonists, too, who hold the protagonist back in smaller, but related, ways. Right now, my seventh grade students are reading Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay for Now, and I’ve been noticing all of the different antagonists that the main character Doug faces when he first moves to “Stupid Marysville.”  The various antagonists don’t dilute or confuse Doug’s struggles, because they treat him in similar ways and activate the same kinds of defensive responses from him.  But they really do help ramp up the tension and encourage readers to empathize with Doug.

How about you?  How do you craft antagonistic characters, and/or who are some of your favorite (big-A or little-a) fictional antagonists?


Reading Levels Don’t Tell You Everything: A Great Book Is a Great Book

This year, the theme for fifth and sixth grade English and social studies at my school is China.  Last winter and spring, I read several China-related novels as I tried to figure out my book list for sixth grade English.  I wanted a range of books that would engage sixth graders, expose them to aspects of Chinese culture, and address relatable themes.  I chose Laurence Yep’s The Tiger’s Apprentice for their summer reading book because I thought they’d like the fantasy-style adventure and because it’s the first in a series, so they could pick up the next two if they got hooked.  I chose Bound by Donna Jo Napoli for its strong female protagonist and powerful treatment of foot-binding, and I chose American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang for the humor, fitting-in themes, and riffs on Chinese folklore.

But I almost DIDN’T choose Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.

I am so happy I came to my senses!

I was lucky enough to hear Grace Lin speak (and even eat lunch across the table from her) when she was a visiting writer at Vermont College of Fine Arts a couple of years ago.  She was inspiring and amazingly personable, and lots of people whose opinions I trust told me how much they adored Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (plus, there was that shiny Newbery honor sticker on the cover…).  So at first, I thought the novel was a shoo-in for my sixth grade book list.  And when I started reading it last March, I was captivated.  I loved the characters and the descriptions.  I was charmed by the blend of magic and everyday life, past and present.

But there was this little voice in the back of my head that kept on saying, “It’s too young.  Sixth graders will think the print is too big.  They might think the illustrations (which are lovely, incidentally) are babyish.”  It didn’t help that a colleague of mine told me how much his third grade son had liked the book, or that Scholastic says the book will appeal to grades 3-5 and the reading level is 5.4.   It also didn’t help that I felt like I had to make sure the sixth grade curriculum seemed more advanced than the fifth grade one, even though both age groups were focusing on China.

When book lists were due, I left Where the Mountain Meets the Moon off mine.  It’s a beautiful book, I thought to myself.  Perfect if I were teaching fifth grade, probably.  I figured I’d just find some Chinese folktales that felt a little more…sophisticated or something, and start the year with those.

But as I read other Chinese folktales last spring, I kept thinking about how much more compelling I found the folktale-inspired stories that are integrated throughout the main character Minli’s journey in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.  I reminded myself that a book’s reading level doesn’t determine how rich or complex its story is, and good books have layers of meaning.  Sure, younger readers would enjoy Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, but sixth graders would be able to appreciate nuances and make connections that they might have missed at a younger age.

I managed to add the book to the sixth grade curriculum a little late, and my students LOVED it.  They made great predictions about how the different storylines would come together and thoughtful observations about the varied characters.  The book introduced folktales and aspects of Chinese culture in such an engaging way, and there were plenty of opportunities for me to challenge my students as we read (and actually, it wasn’t at all difficult to pull forty unfamiliar vocabulary words from the book for our first vocabulary list).

Bottom line: quality of writing trumps “reading level,” and I recommend Where the Mountain Meets the Moon to readers of any age.

Celebrating Banned Books Week

It’s Banned Books Week, a time to celebrate the freedom to read!  For the past few years, I’ve talked with my students about book banning at some point in the year, but this is the first time I’ve remembered the official week and commemorated it on time.

ImageYesterday, I introduced Banned Books Week to my eighth grade students by telling them that Lord of the Flies, the book we are currently reading as a class, is on the American Library Association’s list of frequently banned classics.  I asked them which aspects of the book they thought people might find objectionable, and they said the violence between the boys, the way the boys pick on each other, and what the book suggests about human nature.  When I asked them why those elements of the novel might worry some people, they said people might be concerned that students who read the book would see the characters in the book as role models and act in some of the ways that the characters do.

I then showed them John Green’s video “I am Not a Pornographer,” his funny and insightful response to some adults’ attempts to remove his novel Looking for Alaska from an eleventh grade English curriculum in the Depew School District.  I asked my students to figure out what John Green’s main points Imagewere, and they realized that a.) John Green was saying people shouldn’t assume that teenagers will read uncritically and go out and try everything they read about, and b.) Green was objecting to the fact that adults who didn’t even have children in eleventh grade in the Depew school district were trying to prevent all of the eleventh graders in the district from reading the book, whether the students and their parents were okay with the book or not.

The first point fit right into our discussion of why people might object to Lord of the Flies (in case adolescents might go out and act like the boys on the island), and the second point illuminated an important distinction, especially in a middle school class.  The thing is, there are some books that middle school students might not be ready to handle or that their parents might not be comfortable with, and that’s okay; the “freedom to read” we celebrate during Banned Books Week doesn’t mean that every reader is developmentally ready for every book.  But it does mean that young people (with the help of their parents and teachers, sometimes) should have the freedom to figure out which books they are and are not ready to read.

After we watched the video, I showed students the full list of frequently challenged classics as well as the most frequently challenged books from 2000-2009 and from 2011 so that they could take note of any books they had read and think about why people might object to those books.  (They were surprised and rather tickled to see that two more of the books we’ll read in eighth grade English, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and To Kill a Mockingbird, made the top ten for 2011.)  I will also quickly booktalk one frequently challenged book that I think students might enjoy at the beginning of each class this week.  After recommending Looking for Alaska and John Green’s other novels on Monday, I told students about Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson today.  I will booktalk The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky tomorrow (good timing with the movie out) and then The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler on Thursday.

What, if anything, are you doing to celebrate the freedom to read during Banned Books Week?   What are your thoughts on how young people (and their parents and teachers) should figure out which books they are ready to read?

My Book of Life by Angel: A Review

Not so long ago, Angel was an ordinary girl.  But after her mother’s death shattered her family, Angel began shoplifting, and a manipulative, sweet-talking man named Call gave her “candy” (a.k.a. crack) for the first time and took her in when her dad kicked her out.   Now, Call is Angel’s pimp, and Angel has to turn tricks on a Vancouver street corner to keep him happy.

But when Angel’s friend Serena disappears, Angel becomes determined to get clean and to write down her story and the story of others like her, as Serena had urged her to do.

Martine Leavitt has written a beautiful, haunting, terrifying, and delightful verse novel. Each word thrums with meaning, and the poems present a remarkable blend of lovely imagery and believable, matter-of-fact commentary from an extraordinarily loving and lovable first-person narrator.  I adore Angel’s observations, which surprised me, made me chuckle, and made me think.  “God thinks he is so funny sometimes,” she says at one point.  And while looking at posters of missing children, she muses:

I wonder how those kids felt,
stars of the missing children’s
poster club,
but not being anywhere, just missing.
I wondered if they ever said,
I would never wear my hair like that.

As Angel writes her story, she recognizes the power of words and names to shape people’s identities.  Once she has had this realization, she recalls:

I was smiling with the knowledge
of it—
that if you say the word whore
you can make a girl into
but she can make words do things,
I smiled to know
that you can’t see a thing
unless you put on words like
Everything is just a wobbly vision
without a word,
something at the side of your eyes.

I love that simile there, of words functioning like glasses.  In a book, there are few things I enjoy more than a simile or metaphor that makes me think, “Yes!  That’s exactly right, but I’d never thought of it from that angle before, and now I see something new!”  I had many of those moments while reading this novel.  This isn’t the first book I’ve read that explores the motif of the power of words, but boy does it explore that motif powerfully.

Throughout the novel, phrases from John Milton’s Paradise Lost appear as markers between groups of poems, and Angel’s story echoes and builds upon book nine of Paradise Lost, which she has to read out loud to one of her “dates” as he “does his business.”  The Paradise Lost references enrich the novel’s themes and encourage readers to make connections.

This is an important story inspired by the women who disappeared from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside between 1983 and 2002, but it doesn’t feel message-driven or heavy-handed at all.  It feels like a brave and loving peek into the life of one very memorable heroine.   I’ve seen the book recommended for readers 14 and up, and I think it would be a wonderful book to read in class or as a book club choice to discuss in high school.  I plan to suggest it to some of my mature eighth grade readers later this year.

CHAINS and FORGE: Historical Novels that Pass the Student-Interest Test

The English and social studies curricula at my school are integrated, so I end up teaching a lot of historical fiction.  It isn’t always easy to find a book that’s firmly grounded in a historical time and place and well-written and engaging for middle school readers.  But Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains and Forge are all three of those things.

My students filled out reading and writing surveys at the end of last week, and I was struck by how many seventh and eighth graders chose Chains or Forge as the best book they’d read for school in the past year and listed Laurie Halse Anderson among their favorite authors.  So I got to thinking about what makes these books so good.

In Chains, Isabel, an eleven-year-old slave, is sold with her younger sister Ruth to a Loyalist family in New York City at the beginning of the American Revolution. Anderson uses restraint at the beginning of the novel, trusting young readers to make inferences as they come to understand Isabel’s circumstances.  And the novel balances Revolutionary War history with Isabel’s personal struggles to win her freedom and protect Ruth.  Each chapter starts with a quote from a relevant historical document, and Isabel is a feisty, likable heroine in a compelling, often terrifying situation. Chapters end on cliff-hangers, and Isabel’s first-person voice is full of personality.  Her narration is packed with similes and metaphors that convey her intense emotions (she writes of bees buzzing in her head and ashes inside her) and distinctive, old-fashioned word choice, such as “confuddled” and “remembery.”

Forge, the sequel to Chains, follows Isabel’s friend Curzon, an escaped slave who has been promised freedom, as he links up with the Patriot army before the difficult winter at Valley Forge. As she does in Chains, Anderson opens each chapter with a quote from a letter or another historical document, and she weaves in old-fashioned language, especially through colorful insults that feel true to the time period (and are a lot of fun to read).  Curzon is an interesting protagonist because he is hotheaded, self-protective, and conflicted in his feelings towards Isabel.  He develops satisfying friendships with some of his white fellow soldiers, and he comes across as vulnerable and endearing through his relationships with other characters.

These two novels are well researched, and the historical details are woven in beautifully.  But I think it’s Curzon and Isabel—their intense desires, their vulnerability, their affection for other people, their morality, and the unbelievable unfairness of the situations they face—that make these two historical novels so outstanding.  Readers can’t help but care and worry for these protagonists, and Laurie Halse Anderson manages to give Curzon and Isabel agency and let them take action without minimizing the oppression and horrors that slaves faced.

I recommend both novels to young readers as well as adults and would love to know other examples of captivating historical novels!

CAPTURE THE FLAG: Another Great Read Aloud

I don’t know how Kate Messner does it.  She just keeps coming out with new books of so many different kinds: realistic middle grade, dystopian middle grade, picture books, chapter books, books for teachers, and now the first mystery in a three-book series.

I really enjoyed Messner’s new adventure-mystery Capture the Flag.  She sets up a clever premise for the series: her three protagonists, Anna, José, and Henry, are descended from influential artists and craftspeople, and their families are part of the Silver Jaguar Society, whose members protect the world’s most valuable artifacts.  When the flag that inspired “The Star Spangled Banner” is stolen, Anna, José, and Henry find themselves snowed in at an airport…along with the perpetrator and the flag.  They embark on an exciting adventure to find the thief and recapture the flag.

Yesterday, I began reading this book aloud to my seventh grade students—I think it would be great for fifth and sixth grade students, too, but the seventh grade English/history curriculum at my school focuses on American history so this mystery is an especially good fit.  Last week in my review of Liar and Spy, I proposed four elements of an effective read aloud: compelling protagonist and distinctive narrative voice, relatable themes, opportunities for reflection, and opportunities for making inferences.  Capture the Flag fulfills all of these criteria for sure.

I have to tweak my first element a little because Capture the Flag really has three protagonists and it isn’t written in first person.  But the three main characters, Anna, José, and Henry, are all engaging and distinct.  Messner does a nice job of giving them each a defining passion that helps them contribute to solving the mystery: Anna is a determined journalist, Henry is a video game expert, and José is an avid reader who memorizes inspiring quotes.  And I like the way Messner sets up the third-person narration.  She creates dramatic irony by showing readers the flag theft (which Anna, José, and Henry don’t see) before focusing in on the kids’ perspectives, and she sets up a funny, over-the-top tone when she introduces the Tootsie-Roll-toting Senator Snickerbottom and other larger-than-life characters.  This tone prepares readers to dive right into the book’s adventures and suspend their disbelief.

Messner addresses relatable themes—the three main characters have interesting relationships with their family members. (Henry, especially, is grieving for his mom’s death and has to deal with his dad’s remarriage and an upcoming move.  Anna, meanwhile, struggles to get her busy, politician father’s attention.)  Messner encourages readers to think about big issues such as immigration, racism, and corruption, and she lets readers piece together clues to figure out the mystery.

This is a creative, fun, and fast-paced story that I think my students will really enjoy—I certainly did.  I look forward to the next installment in the series!


I’ve decided to write a review of E. Lockhart’s Dramarama for a couple of reasons.  One, because I love it.  I read it last spring, and the story is still churning about in my brain. And two, because I’ve seen a lot of tired, sweaty high school students roaming the halls after preseason practices the past couple of weeks as I’ve been at school getting ready for middle schooImagel students to return tomorrow.  And that’s made me think back to my own high school preseason soccer practices.

When I was in middle school, I was really into soccer, and I thought I was pretty darn good.  But when I went to my first high school preseason session, I was completely intimidated.  Other girls were faster and stronger than I was, with better ball handling skills and better endurance.  Plus, all the best players bonded immediately and gave each other nicknames, but nobody gave me one.  People yelled at other people when they messed up.  Suddenly, I second-guessed myself before I did anything on the field and started hoping the ball wouldn’t come my way.  I didn’t have much fun playing anymore, and I didn’t improve.

E. Lockhart’s Dramarama isn’t about soccer.   But it is about a girl who loves something and thinks she can do it well…until she finds herself in a highly competitive situation that makes her doubt her talents.

Sarah Paulson doesn’t fit in her “vanilla” Ohio town, and she’s sure that she has some “lurking bigness” inside her.  She and her best friend, whose real name is Douglas but who christens himself Demi and renames her Sadye, set off to claim their inner “bigness” and become stars at an intensive summer theater program called Wildwood.

It can be fun and comforting to read a story in which the seemingly ordinary main character turns out to have amazing natural talent and becomes a superstar, but that’s not what happens in Dramarama. As a writer, I always have to remind myself not to protect my protagonist too much because it’s compelling to watch characters struggle, and Lockhart definitely doesn’t protect Sadye.  She is willing to let Sadye fail—to give her a summer that is not what she hoped for, on or off the stage, and to set up dynamics that push Sadye’s buttons and exploit her insecurities.  She lets readers feel Sadye’s disappointments and see how she handles them—sometimes admirably, sometimes not—and she crafts a beautifully bittersweet ending, which left me with the hope that Sadye might find a new passion within the world of theater, and that new passion might be a better fit for her strengths.

Like Lockhart’s other novels, Dramarama is a very funny book, and there is a lot of authentic, book-specific slang that sounds like how teens really talk.  For instance, Sadye calls herself “mint chocolate chip” in opposition to the other “vanilla” girls from her hometown, and she describes small, perky girls as “Kristinish” after Kristin Chenoweth.  The book includes complex friendships with nuanced secondary characters (especially Demi) and a very interesting romance element—Sadye’s relationship with a boy she likes at Wildwood ends up being unsatisfying, but it leaves her with confidence that someone will like her for the brash, unusual girl she is.

I found it captivating to look at a character who might not quite have what it takes to succeed at the highest level, despite her passions, and who has to deal with that letdown.  Because many high school extracurriculars get extremely competitive, a lot of teens will be able to relate to Sadye’s experiences, and readers who enjoy Glee will appreciate the performance focus.  This is a fun, thought-provoking read, and I highly recommend it.