Monday, August 20, 2012

Keep Your Friends Close and Your Notebooks Closer.

In his "How to Use Your Writer's Notebook" section of Tips for Young Writers Ralph Fletcher suggests,  
"Use your notebook to breathe in the world around you." 
An interesting idea: your notebook as a way of taking in the outside world.  And for something as critical as breathing, it seems you might want to keep it close.  

I had a writer's notebook at school for years before I ever thought to take it home with me.  When I did take it home, it usually sat in my bag at the top of the stairs with all the other work I intended to do.  
A few years ago--about the time Twilight author Stephenie Meyer started talking about the dream that inspired her--I started taking my notebook out of my bag and keeping it by my bed at night.  And it seems we're not the only ones.  Barbara Park, author of the Junie B. Jones series (and I didn't know it, but also Operation: Dump the Chump), says, "I don't keep a notebook, but I do keep a paper and pencil on my nightstand in case I get an idea in the middle of the night." (That's the same thing as keeping a notebook, if you ask me.)

At first, my bedside notebook was for those nights where I'd awake at 3am to download a nagging list of things to do and return to sleep.  But lately, I've also found that a good movie before bed can inspire me to pick up the pen at all hours, desperate to catch an elusive dream like this one:

We were onboard the container ship and had been separated for some time.  I could hear the game coming through the satellite radio on the bridge as I surfaced. My senses were alert, desperate for a sign that would let me know everything was all right, that our mission was still a go.  We had left our last port two days ago, and we didn't have much time.

Disappointed that a sign wasn't waiting for me above deck, I retreated below and headed to the chow hall.  I grabbed a page off the stack of freshly printed daily briefings.  And this morning would have unfolded like the last two if I hadn't given that stack a second glance:

News Briefing
June 30, 2012
News Briefing
June 30, 2012
News Briefing
June 34, 2012
News Briefing
June 30, 2012

And just like that, I knew today would be different.  Today was the day we'd sink the ship or die trying. 

It seems that having a notebook nearby helps me see stories where I never thought I'd find them. It even helps me unearth stories that might otherwise remain buried.  
You never know when an idea might strike you.  Who hasn't said, "Oh, I should write that down before I forget it"?  For many of us, the story stops there.  We say it, but we don't write it down, and before we know it, ideas are lost.  

So what happens if we start keeping our notebooks close?  
  • Do we start to see our world as writers (even in our sleep)?  
  • Do we start to see authors as mentors of the writing process as well as of the writing? 
  • Do we start to see writing as essential as breathing? 
I think so.  But don't take my word for it; try it.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Joyful Noise

For all those who thought this was going to be my attempt at turning a movie into a mentor, think again. (Though it's not a bad idea.)   But, no.  Today, I am not channeling Dolly Parton or Queen Latifah.
Instead, I am sharing a way of capturing those moments in life that require a different kind of voice.  In this case, multiple voices.  Some things in life deserve to be told through poetry.  So, taking a cue from Joyful Noise by Paul Fleischman, you can craft poetry to tell a story you might not be able to tell any other way.
Do you know how the poems go?  They are meant to be read aloud by two people, one reading the left column, the other reading the right.  Sometimes the words come together.  Sometimes, deliberately, they come apart.  Find someone to read this excerpt from the poem "Grasshoppers" with:



Vaulting from              
leaf to leaf
stem to stem
plant to plant



leaf to leaf
stem to stem

This form of poetry can put our writer's observations in new light, setting a new  pace, and--in this case--giving readers the sense that these tiny insects are skittering across the pages.  It can also catch hold of conversation, as in the 
You Read to Me, I'll Read to You series.  But, for my purpose, I needed it to hold onto a precious memory (Again, the power is in reading this kind of poetry aloud, so find someone to read this with you or click on this podcast):

I Remember

Tickle my feet


Do it again

Push me

I could touch the sky
I swing so high

Grab my feet

Let go

Just for me?


I can still remember
How you would
Tickle my feet

Even when I'd beg you to 

Do it again

I'd swing forward and you'd
Push me

Until I thought
I could touch the sky

Grab my feet

And pull me until I thought
I would come out of my seat
And then you'd
Let go

I knew you'd built that swing set
Just for me

Sometimes I close my eyes and
I remember

Putting thoughts and experiences into narrative doesn't always come easy.  But this form of poetry--by the virtue of its poetic form--takes the pressure off.  And gives us a way of experimenting with language  that sometimes lets the story tell itself.  Have fun with this one!  Go on, try it!  

Monday, July 9, 2012

Thunder Cake? Try...Wonder Lake!

Setting is a very important element for most stories.  For some, it adds depth to an existing plot line.  For others, it is the story.  Take Thunder Cake by Patricia Polacco. Setting is so important to this story's development that Patricia takes an entire page from the start of this picture book to set the scene: 
"On sultry summer days at my grandma's farm in Michigan, the air gets damp and heavy.  Stormclouds drift low over the fields.  Birds fly close to the ground.  The clouds glow for an instant with a sharp, crackling light, and then a roaring, low, tumbling sound of thunder makes the windows shudder in their panes.  The sound used to scare me when I was little... This is the story of how my grandma--my Babushka--helped me overcome my fear of thunderstorms." 
What do you notice?  

  • Precise language--sultry, damp, heavy, and not just adjectives: drift, tumbling, shudder.
  • Figurative language, specifically, personification:  The windows shudder in their panes.
  • Present to past tense
  • First person
  • A mix of short, snappy and long, lyrical sentences.
What a perfect mix of the qualities I was looking for to capture my weekend getaway, as I went camping again for the first time in almost a decade:  
When I was little, we spent warm July weekends camping in this very spot.  Back then, we called it Wellington Lake.  Now, it goes by "Castle Mountain."  The lake--like glass--still reflects the forest and the sky the way I used to try to capture it in my sketchbook: dark against light.  The clouds, churning from white to grey, still roll in over the top of the "Castle" mountain as the wizard I always imagined living there perfects his early afternoon spells.  This is the story of my return to the lake, the mountain, and my childhood.
Think of what might happen next in this story.  This weekend was the first true rain of a very busy fire season.  And not just any rain.  Monsoon rain. Fire-ban-lifting rain.  Some things I'm considering as I continue writing:

  • Would the story be better told from the point-of-view of my six-year-old daughter?
  • Would it help to eliminate some of the six characters?
  • How might I incorporate the power of repetition and dialogue the way Patricia does as they count the distance of the lightning?
  • How can I pass time to capture an entire weekend? Or should I capture just the first night?

We pulled off the dirt road that winds its way around the lake.  I looked in the rearview mirror, "Camryn, we're here.  We're camping!" 
Without another word, we both jumped out of the car.  The air was crisp and clean.  The clouds, already beginning their trek across the sky, marched from the mountain at our backs to the horizon split by two dark hills on the opposite side of the water.  
"Are we sleeping here tonight, Mama?" Cam asked.
"Yes, baby.  But we've got some work to do before it rains."  No one, except the weather, was keeping time.  I headed to the trunk of the car and pulled out the green drawstring bag.  "First, we need to get our tent up.  So, find us a nice, flat spot," I told my six-year-old apprentice.  
Scanning the ground--littered with nothing but pine needles, pine cones, and decomposing granite--she pointed to a spot just at the base of a tree. "How 'bout here?" she asked.
"Perfect," I answered, sliding the contents of the tent bag onto the gravel that would serve as front porch to the space that--for the next two nights--we would call home. 
As I unrolled the tent, she helped me pull each corner until it was stretched on its woven bottom.
"Now, for the fun part," I said as I emptied the smaller, narrow green bag of its contents.  
"Like this, Mama?" she checked with me as she slid each fiberglass rod into its steel ferrule, turning each useless bundle into two fully-functioning tent poles.  
Just as she finished, the first rumble crept over the mountain.  The clock was ticking.
"I know, sweetie. We'll hurry." Our eyes met, silently assuring each other that we would make it in time.   
Summer is full of sensational settings.  The weather can work for or against us.  And even if weather is not the issue, this mentor helps us establish the importance of setting the scene before the story ever gets off the ground. Or--in this case--falls from the sky.  
What story might you tell? Go on, try it.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Heat a la Hoops

After spending a day at the pool and returning to a car that reported the Death-Valley temperature, I just knew this slice was dying to be written.  So, for only the second time in my career, I reached for Hoops as my mentor.  This poetic rendering of a relate-able experience made capturing this moment a true experiment with language.  From one-word sentences (again) to alliteration, and (what my teammate calls) hyphenated hound-dogs, this mentor has a little bit of everything.


The skin-whitening, sun-deflecting smear. 
The impatient feet dipping beneath
The blue-glass surface.  
The toe-dipping deepens.  
The shoulder-tense, hands-in-the-air crisp chill
Replaced by cool relief. 

Feel the arctic shiver.
Feel your skin pop, starved for sun-drying.
The as-long-as-you-can-stand-it stand-off
At the edge of the pool.
You can do it this time.
Knees bent,
Hands in fists at the end of pumping arms.
The free-as-a-bird flight.
Feet leaving the pavement,
Hitting the warm water wrap,
Slicing through to the bottom.
The not-too-deep depth.
Just enough.

Back to the wall.
Arms planked to pull you from the suit-clinging sea.
Stand-off on the side. 
Deep breath.  
The I-know-you-can-do-it
I'm-watching-you stare.


Hoops.  The book.  Imitate it.  
Go on.  

Friday, June 15, 2012

It's Official: A Slice of Summer is Here!

This book has been around for a while.  But yesterday was the first time I wrote under its influence.  We were immersed in a day of learning around mentor text and I was fortunate to be among fellow writers, who--even at 3:00 on a summer afternoon--were still enthusiastically engaged in the work.
We studied the effects punctuation has on even the smallest, one-word sentences.  How a single word can carry such different meaning depending on the mark of ink that follows.  
Imagine for a minute you were watching a young man propose to his childhood sweetheart. 
What if she answered, "Yes." or "Yes?" or "Yes!" 
The word doesn't change, but the story that follows definitely does.
This started a brainstorm of other words.  Consider:

Now put them together:
(Sound familiar to anyone else? Especially now that summer is here?)

This kind of play doesn't have to stop here.  In fact...
It's time!
Here it is...
The moment we've all been waiting for...(drum roll please)
A Slice of Summer:

Today, Mama?
Is it today?
Our first day of summer?
Yes, baby. It's today.
What are we gonna do?

I bet you won't be able to stop thinking of one word sentences. So come on.  
Try. Try? Yes. Try!

Monday, June 11, 2012

With a Cherry on Top

I was recently asked by my very first follower (thank you, Kathy) if I want people to comment on the "Try-It" posts.  And my answer:
But it wasn't until last Friday, while in a session with Donalyn Miller, that it hit me:  
Member of the Nerdy Book Club
The Nerdy Book Club
I needed a mentor for how to craft the participation plea!  
Donalyn talked about her experience with her "The Nerdy Book Club" blog.   She explained how the whole thing just exploded.  But not without the help of her 
guest bloggers and avid readers.  
So, I have used her site as my mentor, and now you'll find a description of how you might choose to participate in this online community at the top of the page as well as a "Submit a Try-It Idea" link on the right.  So, come on, give it a try:  

  • Go back to a post that struck you in some way and share your Try-It via the comment link.  
  • Or, if the summer sun has made you particularly adventurous, click on the link to submit your own idea.  I am hoping to launch a "Slice of Summer" soon and would love your ideas to kick this off (and create a tool we can all use in the fall).

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Lucky Us!

As I was crafting the previous post (as so often happens) I was reminded of this excerpt from Michael J. Fox's memoir, Lucky Man, which just a few weeks ago, I used with teachers to explore mentor text:

Teachers labeled this technique:  leaving out critical information to build suspense.  

So how 'bout this try:
    They wheeled the portable ultrasound into the room on the sixth floor.  I was reclined at the foot of the bed.  Everyone was there: my mom, sister, dad, husband.  Everyone was there to catch a glimpse of Camryn months before we'd ever get to hold her.  
    But one of us was watching more closely than the rest.  One of us wouldn't get to hold her.  Indeed, no one knew better than my dad the importance of this invasion of his room on the oncology floor: his final birthday gift.  

I like the way authors establish this sort of comparison.  They start by telling you what something isn't before revealing what it finally is.  

Now, it's your turn...

Friday, June 1, 2012

It's Addicting

This cover story begins:
"It happens so often, we rarely think about it. But which of our everyday rituals better shows how we live than eating?"
I was writing up a shared reading lesson today on this article, trying to identify some stopping places, and I just couldn't help but notice the craft :  
  • Yes, it is a rhetorical question. 
  • Yes, it is an example of a question that begins with the word "But."  
  • Yes, it is an example of a lead that speaks directly to the reader.  
It is all of these, but what struck me was the relationship between two words: It and eating. 

I know what you're probably thinking.  As a comprehension skill, how many times do our students struggle to maintain the relationship between pronouns and antecedents?  And then, look at the one in this opener:  The antecedent--which, by definition, comes before the pronoun--is at the end of the second sentence.  

What a catchy hook.  
So, let's give it a try:

  • It was the only way.  She knew she would have to do it.  And the thought of ____ scared her to death.
  • He didn't even think twice before asking her.  He knew she would say yes.  "Mommy, would you play with me?"
  • She came around the corner faster than lightning.  She looked up and saw me standing there, frozen.  She sped up, if such a thing were possible. And then she stopped.  Right at my feet, and I knew I would be taking this puppy home.
  • They fought for hours, each pushing the other's stuff across the center line.  One was obviously in charge, taking up more space, but the other kept pace just the same.  As the wind picked up, they moved faster, and then, just as quickly as they had started, they came to an abrupt halt; these windshield wipers finally got a much-needed break as my grandpa pulled into the parking lot at the mall.

Yes, it is catchy: this writing backwards.  Now you give it a go!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

WANTED: Student Samples

Hello friends!
We are so often asked for mentors of student writing. Some of you might think we have a stash hidden away.  You know, under our desks or in a dark locked room.  
But the truth is, we need your help to collect them.  And once we do, we are happy to share!

Besides, have you seen under my desk lately?  And if I were to find a dark, lockable room, I'd be using it for some much needed quiet time!  (Sound familiar?)  

Monday, May 21, 2012

Coach Books

Just like any teacher-mom would, I found myself playing school with my five-year-old on our day off.  And, as usual, I was the teacher.  On the board, I wrote "Mentor Text" (I know what you're thinking, but it is the world I am living right now.)
"What's that?" she asked me.
I explained to her that a mentor was kind of like her softball coach, and "text" was a fancy word for book, so a mentor text was really just a coach book.  And I asked her to pick one from her shelf.
She did, but not one I would have.  It was no award-winning text by any means, and far from the best in children's literature, but I cracked open the Disney anthology to the table of contents and asked her to pick a story.  The one she chose began like this:
Long ago, deep in the jungles of faraway India, there lived a wise black panther named Bagheera.
Recognize the story?
It's one of her favorites, and  now it was her turn:  "How would you finish a sentence that began, 'Long ago...'?" I asked her.
She said and then she wrote:
Once upon a time in faraway California there lived a smart and wise tiger named Tigeress.
Wow!  Even though she didn't recognize "mentor text," she sure knew what to do with one!  At that moment, clearer than any other, she told me what she'd been doing in kindergarten: learning to read like a writer.  What a gift!  

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Truth and a Story

"Never let the truth get in the way of a good story," my friend always says.  
As I was reading Dr. Seuss' first book with my daughter today, those words began playing in my head like a scratched CD.
And into the mix: a phone call with my mother.  This is the result:

So my mom called today 
And the first thing she said,
"What have you done today
Since you got out of bed?"

Well, I thought for a minute
Felt like a real winner,
I was still in my bed
And it was quarter to dinner!

That can't be my story
She'd think I was lazy
So I had to think quick
Lest she think I was crazy.

"Well," I told her, "this morning was weird.
I got out of bed so fast, you'd have cheered.

"I jumped up quick from where I was laying
For two children appeared, so we started playing."

Now I know what you're thinking:
I only have one
So where did this other come from?
What had I done?

How would you explain a day, a walk, any moment that feels ordinary?  Would you keep changing it like Marco does in the story?  Would yours even have to rhyme?  
This one is addicting.  I've started one draft in my notebook where I was swept away by red-tailed hawks (who started to squawk, by the way) and as I began to write this one post, it took me in an entirely different direction.  And isn't that the point?  Where will this mentor take you?  Because now it's your turn...

Monday, May 14, 2012


So what are mentor texts?  Just what they sound like: books, blogs, stories, articles, brochures...any text that acts as coach and adviser.  And you decide which books act as your mentors.  
I was first introduced to mentor texts by one of my mentors, Katie Wood Ray, who asks "What have you read that is like what you are trying to write?"  
But today?  Today I was just assaulted by their power:

I was busy stacking mentors for an upcoming lesson on personal narratives. And out of nowhere, I was struck by a book.  I mean literally.  Struck.  The four-year-old (who apparently is too young to use a library voice, let alone take direction from his mother at any other volume but "stadium") threw this book at my table.  And, oh, what a joy!  Have you seen it?*
A book full of what I had just taught last week.  A whole book of "information equations," which  are powerful tools for showing relationships among ideas and concepts. 
Consider this:  red + blue = ___ 
Easy right?  
How 'bout this one: cozy + smell of pancakes - alarm clock = ____
Just like that, I found a mentor for the kind of writing I wanted to do.  I call them "Information Equations" after Linda Hoyt and Tony Snead.  this plus that  calls them "small delights."  Whatever you call them, they turn this book into a mentor, and I'm so glad it struck me.  

In other words:  
Noisy 4-year old + some sort of physics = just what I didn't know I was looking for 
Now you give it go...
*For more information and a discussion on this particular mentor, please visit "Writing to Learn."