Letters About Literature

Here is a plug for one of my favorite writing activities and contests for students.

For Letters About Literature, students are asked to reflect on the value a book has brought to their life – how has it changed their view of themselves or the world . I love the topic. I have had students writing moving letters about everything from To Kill a Mockingbird to How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

They are discouraged from summarizing the book and are encourage to write about its impact on them personally. When students read the past winners they quickly conclude that they are asked to do much more than prove they read the book. They must connect and reflect.

Their website has a great explanation of reflective writing:

“Reflective writing is when an individual looks back at a past experience or period of time and thinks about the meaning and significance of that experience or time. Reflection is personal. It is insightful.

Think of a mirror.  When you look into a mirror, what do you see?  Not just your own image but also the space around you and behind you.  That’s kind of what you do when you write a reflective letter to an author. The author’s work – the book – is the mirror. The letter you write should capture the image in the mirror – a little bit about yourself and your world, how you saw yourself reflected in the book.

Here’s the really interesting thing–no two readers quite see the same reflection in an author’s work!

Reflective writing is not a fan letter or a how-to-do process report.  Nor is it literary analysis or lit-crit.  Rather, reflective writing is personal.  It is insightful.  It is an expression of ideas, sometimes memories or  emotions associated with those ideas.  The author’s work is the doorway (or again, perhaps the mirror) that allows the reader to discover these things about himself or herself or the world.”

I love the people who run this contest. They believe in what they do and take great joy in receiving and reading the students’ letter. They seem to place great value on every letter they get. They encourage their contestants and find a number of ways to honor young writers. For example, they have a gallery for the envelope art that is drawn on the entries.

Visit their site at lettersaboutliterature.org. You will find contest rules and lesson plans. They also post past winners and other valuable resources for coaching students through their letters.

This year’s deadline is January 13, 2013.

Examining Character

We were looking at character in my eighth-grade English class. We had done the standard – what they do, what they say, what others say about them, but I wanted them to look deeper. I wanted my students to draw conclusions and see the patterns and meaning behind the character’s behavior.

Because that is when things get interesting.

Why do they do what they do? Why do surface traits contrast with deeper beliefs? What does that say about the character?

We are reading To Kill a Mockingbird which contains so many great characters, but we also tried this technique with a short story and it worked beautifully (“In Your Hat” by Ellen Conford).

I found a discussion of dimensions in Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. You can find a lot of great techniques for breaking down story parts at Brooks’s website – storyfix.com. It is a great site for anyone trying to teach or learn the structure underlying stories.

The technique asked writers to look at three dimensions of character:

The first dimension – What you see on the surface of a character and their interactions with their world. We looked at Scout’s first dimension. She spends long summer days with her brother Jem and Dill. She wears overalls and occasionally tries out a little cussing. She fights unless Atticus tells her not to.

The second dimension – Why the character does and says the things they do. I loved what my students discovered about Scout when we started to discuss this dimension. They pointed out that she doesn’t have a mother, so it is probably important that she fit in with the boys. They argued that while Jem is growing up, Scout is finding her identity in a town that likes to stereotype. I was blown away by their ability to take their thinking deeper when they had a method to guide them.

The third dimension – The choices a character makes and actions they take when the stakes are high. We discussed the possibility that Scout is torn between fitting in and standing out. She wants to be her own person, but she also wants to be a part of society.

After learning how to navigate the dimensions, the students filled in a simple three box chart to brainstorm the first, second, and third dimensions and wrote an essay on a character from To Kill a Mockingbird. They had much more to say after thinking about the layers of character.

Next week, we are using this technique on our own short stories. I hope it helps give the dying soldiers, broken-hearted girls, Soviet spies, and post-apocolyptic survivors populating our stories the texture readers expect and deserve.

Book Pass

Thursday was our annual book pass for the eighth graders. I love the concept of a book pass. I have seen them done many ways for many ages, but the purpose is always the same – let your kids touch and look at the books. If you are interested in doing a Book Pass for your kids, you can get loads of ideas from a quick google search.

In eighth grade we push the social side of reading. We create book groups around their summer reading; we chat about books in class; we book talk what we are reading and encourage our students to do the same. Our Book Pass is designed to create that same community of readers.

We jam two classes into the library, pile the tables with 20-25 books we love, and let the kids dig through them. It is a little messy, but the student will end up putting their hands on about 50-100 books by the end of the period.

If you are interested in hoping your own book pass, here are some steps:

1. Collaborate with your librarian and possibly another teacher. Find a date and schedule about an hour of prep-time the day before the Book Pass.

2. Create a Book Pass list or just have the kids bring a piece of paper. They will use this to write down the books that spark their interest. After the book pass, I keep these in the room so that the students can access them before they go to the library. This year, kids took pictures of the books they want to read with their phones. As a reader, I am always storing covers of interesting books on my phone. I love the idea that the kids now carry these covers around with them all the time.

3. The day before the book pass, I like to discuss the process of choosing a book with my kids. I find that many non-readers or dormant readers, struggle to match themselves with the right book. Like when I thought that I didn’t like gnocchi. Turns out, I was just eating bad gnocchi.

We discuss looking at covers, back covers, inside flaps, and inside pages.

3. At your prep-meeting, pull books off the shelves. We stack them loosely by genre – action, sports, romance, fantasy, non-fiction – so that we can pull from each stack to create a pile on a table. Number the tables to make it easier for the kids to rotate. We like five to six students per table, but that is probably very flexible.

4. Have the kids meet you at the library, send them to their table, rotate them every five or six minutes.

5. Circulate and enjoy the conversations. Help the kids who are overwhelmed by the giant stacks of potential reading material. Be excited about all the kids discovering that book that is going to make them think, or dream, or maybe fall in love with reading.

Powerful Beyond Measure

I have been thinking about this quotation a lot – as a teacher, as a parent, as a writer, and as a human being.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

—-from A Return to Love, by Marianne Williamson.


Tomorrow is my fourteenth first day of school as a teacher.

I was thinking back to my early years of teaching. My first evaluation as a student teacher said that I smiled too much: “It might give the students the idea that you are a pushover” according to the my mentor for the semester.  A year later, when I started my first teaching job in an urban high school, a colleague suggested that I refrain from smiling until December.  “That’s ridiculous,” replied another teacher who was sipping coffee at the next table.  “She should at least wait until March.”

I love to laugh. I am not particularly funny myself, but I love silliness in others. Not orchestrated silliness, but genuine, uncensored goofiness. Maybe that is why I have chosen a career teaching middle school.

There is science to back up my love of laughter. Studies show that people who are positive thinkers have more vigorous immune systems resulting in fewer and shorter illnesses.  There are also educational benefits of humor – improved attention, retention, and motivation as well as a sense of context.

But what I really love and value are the connections laughter creates. Laughter communicates to society around us.  It disarms people, lessens aggression, and creates closeness by sending the message that we are here to play, not fight. But just as positive humor has positive results, negative humor can be divisive and demoralizing.  In order to use humor as social glue, students have to watch models of appropriate humor and be given opportunities to practice it successfully just as we offer opportunities to practice writing and scientific method.

You don’t have to turn into a stand-up comedian.  I am not a particularly funny person, but I am in a roomful of 8th graders five days a week.  Something funny is bound to happen.  I don’t ignore or suppress it.  We laughed when Mrs. Honeyman knocked the phone off the wall making an unbelievable amount of noise during a state achievement test.  We laughed when one of my students asked us “Do I look like a milkman or a robot, because I was going for a milkman.”  And once you develop a pattern of good-natured, healthy laughter, kids will feel comfortable with themselves and their environment, and then the really funny stuff comes out.

Perhaps the most interesting argument for laughter that I have read recently is that laughter may be one key to future success.  Research shows that the most effective managers in business use humor twice as much as average managers.  And even though we lecture our kids about how the “real world” expects them to be punctual, responsible, and reliable, the most common reason people are fired is because they can’t work with their colleagues.

Our students are headed for a global world in which they will have to learn to seek common ground instead of differences, connections instead of divides.  Laughter is universal. Every culture on the planet represents internal happiness with a smile.  Deaf and blind children smile at the same age as those who see and hear.  Laughter is clearly a primal function and removing it from the classroom removes a bit of our own humanity.  That seems dangerous considering that the world we are sending our students into requires that they not only be good learners but also good human beings.

As we move into an age when computers can do any automated skill, humans and schools must cultivate those abilities that are uniquely… well, human.  And what is more human than a big belly laugh?

I hope all the teachers starting school in the next few weeks get to smile all year long.


I took my son Jack to Serenity Animal Sanctuary last week to do some research for my second YA fiction book. After months of sitting at my desk, wrestling with the sights sounds and smells in my head, I decided that it was time for this city slicker to get out in the country and see a real animal sanctuary.

“Why are we here,” Jack asked after an hour of weaving down a winding two lane highway.

“It’s research,” I told him, as we pulled onto the dirt and gravel road that let to the shelter’s gate.

He nodded, a serious look on his face.

After we road around on the John Deer for an hour, fed the chickens and horses, and meeting a giant pig who could sit on command, Jack turned to me, his eyes wide with the strain of taking it all in, and said, “Research is fun!” I couldn’t agree more.

I love research. I love the itch of new information in my head. I love finding out what someone else knows and trying to link it to what I know. So why, when it comes time to write research papers in school, do I dread it? I could blame the looks of pain and loathing on the kids’ faces for my poor attitude, but I think it is more than that. I dread it because I struggle to integrate real-world research into a traditional classroom.

Here is what I know about research:

Authentic research happens when there is a spark of fascination. Most of the research we do in life is motivated by curiosity or fascination. My first book, The Fire Horse Girl, is about a teenage girl living in China in 1923 and determined to immigrate to America to escape her curse and find freedom. When I started this story, I was waiting to adopt a child from China. When my writing teacher pointed out that I would have to do a lot of research to write this story, I was thrilled. I practically ran to the library. Why? When your child is in China, waiting for paperwork to pass through enough hands, there is nothing more fascinating than the people and country caring for your child.

Research is a journey. While research doesn’t have to involve a trip down rolling country roads, it is a journey, and it is difficult to assess a journey. I have torn myself away from  note cards and outlines (yes, I am one of those oddballs who liked that part, it was so predictable, so neat, unlike the rest of research). So what am I left with? A lot of stuff going on inside my kids’ head. Tricky when it comes to grading. Too often I end up assessing dictated, and sometimes arbitrary, points along the journey.

So, keeping that in mind, I am going to try to focus on make research real. Here are my goals for this year.

Make research organic. The spark of fascination happens all the time in the classroom, not just during our research unit. I like Alan November’s idea about planting a researcher in the classroom – assign one person each day to sit at a classroom computer and research any questions that come up during class. You don’t really need a classroom computer to do this. Kids can pull out their cell phones and find answers. With more people researching, we might find out different or even contradictory information, which brings up another research skill – discernment. So, I am going to try to act like a researcher throughout the year, just like I do in my own life.

Assess the synthesis of information. When I was learning research skills, I had to learn to find information. It wasn’t easy all you digital natives. First I had to walk uphill to the library…in the snow…being chased by wolves. Okay, it wasn’t that tough, but it was buried in books which were buried in selves. I had to use things like indexes and card catalogs, and here’s one for you – microfiche. It was always exciting when something was on microfiche. Now, I can sit at my computer and find plans for a garage organizer, what Thailand was called in 1923 (Siam), and the most common boy names in 1938 in Germany. If my students have all of that information at their fingertips, what can I teach them? Discernment and synthesis. Basically, it boils down to integrating that information – into their thinking, into their writing, into their world. What I would like them to do is gather information from different resources – books and websites along with first hand accounts, interviews, maps, charts, and even their own observations – and form their own conclusions based on that information. I have had a little success with this. Last year, with the help of my district’s global liaison, my classes researched human rights, talked to people from Ghana about their human rights concerns and exchanged letters sharing research and conclusions. They kept a record of their research and how it changed or fit into their existing thinking. Then, with their newly integrated information, they wrote letters to policy makers to share their new ideas based in research.

This is something I still struggle with. If anyone has any books or articles (or field trips to exotic locations) that might help me better understand how to make research relevant, please share.

Taming of the Shrew

When the local theater scheduled a run of Taming of the Shrew during our study of Shakespeare, I was thrilled.  It was perfect timing, especially when their top-notch actors agreed to do a few student matinees.  I got the chaperones.  I got the permission slips.  I got the buses.  Then, I got the phone call. Continue reading “Taming of the Shrew”

This I Believe

I have been teaching a short summer class where the students are asked to find the core of what they believe and share it with the world through several writing pieces. We used the This I Believe essays as a model. If you haven’t seen these or heard them on National Public Radio, check out the website – http://thisibelieve.org/. It is an idea revived from a program in the 1950s where public figures like Eleanor Roosevelt and Jackie Robinson along with cab drivers and secretaries read statements of their beliefs. The program hoped to foster tolerance and understanding. It is a wonderful activity for students. They can submit their essays for possible publication with parental permission.


I thought I would start my blog with one of my core beliefs. I believe in the power of stories.  Continue reading “This I Believe”