Spark Book Review: The Science of Exercise and the Brain

Exercise and the brain

Changing thinking about exercise and the brain

Written by bestselling author and psychiatrist John J. Ratey with Eric Hagerman, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain is a positive book that looks at how exercise can improve neuroplasticity, learning, and executive function. It suggests exercise as a helpful addition to medication, or sometimes even a replacement for medication in the treatment of depression, addiction, and ADHD.

Exercise and the brain

I found Spark to be full of practical advice for improving education, lifting depression, alleviating addiction, improving student achievement, managing ADHD in adults and children, increasing mental performance, and reducing the likelihood of cognitive decline. If you didn’t think exercise was a panacea before reading this book, Doctor John J. Ratey will make a believer of you by the end. His book is chock full of case studies, statistics, and experimental data that both convince and encourage. Exercise may not cure everything, but it seems to optimize the brain by re-balancing the brain’s chemical and electrical signals and triggering new connections.

Why exercise and the brain?

People evolved as hunter-gatherers who were always on the move. Similarly, our brains need the chemicals released by moderate and intense exercise to function best. People typically exercise to improve their health or extend their lives but Ratey says these motivations are secondary to the more important benefits: improving the brain.This book will change the way you think about your workout. I found myself reading it on the stationary bike.

The only negative aspect of this book is that it gets very technical for the average reader, especially in ebook form. The references to clinical trials and case studies make Ratey’s style is appropriate for a cutting-edge expert in his field. As a non-expert, I could have used some brain diagrams to help me absorb the scientific names for various brain regions, growth factors, neurotransmitters and so forth. There was a lot to learn and while Ratey explains things well, it would have been nice to have a cheat sheet or visual organizers.

Who should read Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain?

I read this book with interest because of my work with children. The book leads off with a couple of fascinating studies relating how exercise can improve student achievement, contentment, and behaviour. There are sections devoted to ways in which exercise stimulates new learning and helps students with attention challenges. That said, there are sections on a wide range of maladies that affect adults from depression to Alsheimer’s Disease to addiction. This book will be useful to a broad range of readers, including those interested in practical suggestions to help stave off mental decline with age.


Richard Scrimger Interview

I was lucky enough to interview the witty, award-winning Canadian author, Richard Scrimger. Versatile, he writes for small children, middle grade, young adult, and adult categories. My current favorite is his YA novel Zomboy, in which a new student turns out to be undead, and unwanted, by unenlightened members of his community. Zomboy provokes thought but still delivers suspense and laughs. It has been nominated for a Red Maple award by the Ontario Library Association.

This year I am running a Silver Birch book club and a Red Maple book club. I’m looking forward to what my grade seven and eight club members have to say about Zomboy.

Enjoy the interview:



Shared Writing and the Classroom Novel

The popularity of fantasy adventure novels hasn’t dwindled since Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Teachers capitalizing on this popularity can inspire student writing, without marking more pages than Lord of the Rings. Today, I’m going to talk about shared-world ‘novel’ writing. This is something I did with a class of gifted grade four students, but the format easily adapts to older students, all the way up to high school.

Design the architecture of the story a bit like a video game or a treasure hunt. The protagonists are searching for a special item, or group of special items that are keys to solve a puzzle, or which give magical powers to defeat an opponent. Each chapter depicts the protagonists’ search through a different world.

In the case of our student novel, World Pool, it began when a magic rock and a runaway science experiment tumbled our heroes into a series of water portals. The protagonists, a boy and a girl invented by the class in a chalkboard brainstorming session, moved from world to world having adventures. Don’t ask me how it worked scientifically. It was magic, and as long as the rules of magic are consistent in the story, your students can do just about anything.

Our intrepid heroes visited the soccer world, the stone age, the bronze age, the land of hockey, Formula 1 racing world, the magical jungle, a planet with heart-shaped people, and finished off by visiting the Wonderful Lizard of Paws…

When the chapters were edited, we collated them, photocopied, added a student-designed cover, and bound and distributed the finished product. If I were to do it again today, I would produce an ebook on Smashwords, and give the families a coupon code for unlimited free copies. That way there could be a colour cover, and the young authors’ families and friends could access their book worldwide, at no cost to the school.

If this idea inspires you, try holding a few shared-writing brainstorm sessions with your students. This is a fruitful process but it can’t be rushed. Every student needs to feel implicated in the planning, writing, and peer-editing. The process is as important as the final product, and helps create team spirit.

Suggested procedure:

  • Set aside a daily time for work on this intense project
  • Set behaviour guidelines which allow only constructive criticism, and limit brainstorming to positive comments
  • Discuss the format, story genre, and types of characters students want for their story
  • Collaborate on a story architecture that will allow each chapter to be written by a pair of writers, inspired by a topic of personal interest to them
  • Dividing into pairs also keeps the number of chapters down to 15 or so
  • set chapter length limits (word count or page limits)
  • The class will need to collectively map out the book’s outline, including how it ends before writing begins (I like to use chart paper to keep and display our decisions)
  • One pair will write the first chapter, in which the protagonists are drawn into the first portal
  • One pair will write the final chapter where the protagonists return, victorious!
  • Make it fun! Creativity can ‘turn turtle’ under pressure
  • You may want to discuss writing characters of the opposite sex in a realistic way, and use mixed writing pairs, to avoid sexist clichés
  • Have groups ‘sign up’ for topics to avoid repeats (ex. there shouldn’t be two candy world or vampire world chapters in the same book)
  • Pairs should be given plenty of class time to write, peer-edit, and revise their chapters before the teacher edits them
  • Good copies need to be typed by each pair and submitted to the teacher as a digital file (for printing or ebook conversion)

For more information on formatting ebooks for distribution on a variety of devices, you might like to look at the Smashwords website, or the Kobo Writing Life website. Kindle Direct Publishing sets limits on what you are allowed to publish for free. If creating an ebook for Kindle interests you, check out Amazon’s fine print, or produce your .mobi (Kindle) files via Smashwords.


Creating Yearbooks with Students




Student yearbooks













Voted most likely to succeed…

A highly subjective guide to creating yearbooks

Making a yearbook is a rewarding experience for students and teachers. In spring, when the yearbooks come out, our school is a frenzy of autographing, sharing, laughing and remembering. More than a keepsake, yearbook is a process that teaches kids to collaborate on a project much bigger than themselves. It is gratifying to watch them mature into their new roles, and receive accolades for their achievement.

This short series of articles will explain how to set up a Yearbook Club in your elementary or junior high school, and produce an attractive, affordable publication. High schools produce longer, flashier, hard cover books for their graduates. Although I was copy-editor for my high school yearbook, only some of what is discussed here will apply at that level.

The goal of this series is to help elementary and junior high school teachers run an efficient club, whereby students can produce their own inexpensive softcover yearbooks. Future articles will include instructions for using Word, Scrivener, Smashwords, and local print shops to make eBook anthologies, poetry chapbooks and recipe books, but first let’s talk yearbooks.

It is possible to delegate making school yearbooks to a service. Online you will find templates made by various companies looking for your business. These services are probably fine, but before committing to their templates and timelines, consider what you want to achieve. Do you just want to make a keepsake for students and parents, or can yearbook represent a more meaningful learning experience? In our school, originality, student engagement and maintaining an accessible purchase price, are important considerations. Student photos, copy, artwork and layout make for a cheaper and more meaningful final product.

Based on several years of experience, this series of short articles describes one efficient and inexpensive method for creating attractive yearbooks. Expertise isn’t necessary. Making a yearbook doesn’t need to be difficult or excessively time consuming. The most important aspects are planning and delegation, since the technical aspects are fairly simple.

Using Publisher, it is possible to create a standard template for the yearbook which your team can use to design all their layouts. Once these are done, publication is as easy as taking the file to your local copy shop on a flash drive. The printer takes these ready-to-go files and prints your book, complete with glossy cover, in about a week. Here are some of the steps to setting up your Yearbook Club.

“When casting’s done, 90 percent of my creative work is done” — film director Robert Altman

If directing is ninety per cent casting, the same can be said of producing a school yearbook. The most essential part is assembling the right team. This is no place for half-interested students. I run yearbook more like a sports team. Would-be participants try out, or at least demonstrate dedication, before earning the right to be ‘starters.’

Making your club small and selective has many benefits.

  • Students specialize and take on responsibilities within one of several small (and therefore efficient) teams. I try to limit size to three people for quick decision making
  • Students who have chosen their roles (rather than having them assigned) are more invested in the final results, and more motivated to work long hours (as needed) when deadlines approach
  • Assigning two editors to the overall book takes some time pressure off teacher supervisors
  • There needs to be a layout editor and a content editor if your school intends to include articles, or just two main editors so they can help each other. Two are better than one for collaboration, and also in case one gets sick or overwhelmed by academic deadlines
  • Having three teacher supervisors (not just one) allows them to spell each other off, and further emphasizes to students that this project is theirs to accomplish. The teachers are just there for supervision and consultation.
  • Two student photographers, responsible for covering school events, give more reliable coverage than a changing handful. Make sure they ‘audition’ for the role by showing you/ the editors their work
  • A couple of photographers will also get enough practice to improve over the year. Help them use the way their photos appear in layouts as feedback. In a short time, you will see more close-ups, better clarity, better composition, and more expressions of emotion in their images, because the layout team will choose good photos over mediocre ones
  • Another tack is to crowd-source photos. At times when there are holes in event coverage, requesting pictures from the student body can work, particularly for events like trips and track meets if student photographers are not allowed to attend
  • The photographers should either have their own cameras, or instant access to school cameras to ensure they don’t miss unplanned photo opportunities
  • Holding meetings over the lunch hour works for us. We use tri-weekly meetings to update progress and hand out assignments, but much of the actual writing, layout and photographing is done by students on their own time
  • For the fastest, easiest yearbook, include less text
  • Text is one of the most creative aspects of a yearbook, but it requires hours of teacher editing for content, as well as prose style. Decide early on your priorities and remember, some students will try to get something funny past you! Never let a single unedited word get published. The same goes for photos.
  • To involve the greater school community, hold a contest for best cover design. Make sure your contest publicity outlines requirements for the cover such as: title, school name, year, size of image, use of colour etc.
  • If there are two great covers to choose from, or if one cover has great art but insufficient text, the second design may make a great back cover
  • Offering a free copy of the yearbook to the winners is an inexpensive incentive to encourage more quality designs
  • Reserve the right to use a photographic cover if insufficient entries are received (Our school has never had to do this.)

I hope you found these tips helpful. Before getting started on a project which can grow in difficulty and complexity with ambition, it’s important to set parameters. Next time we will talk about layout, planning, and keeping things practical.


Ideamancy – Ideas for Back-To-School Magic

A running start to Fall.
A running start to Fall.

The first week of school is over. Routines are starting to gel, kids are on their best behaviour and starting to make friends. Teachers are breathing a sigh of relief. It’s the honeymoon period for elementary teachers. This glistening doorway of opportunity, lit by September magic, will not stay open long.

Invite all the kids in, before that dull ‘day-to-day feeling’ arrives. Hook them with creativity. Kids love to be stimulated and challenged to imagine. They want your teaching to take them places they could never go on their own. Surprise them and help them stretch their minds, and they will know you are on their side when things get harder.

With this goal in mind, here are a few book suggestions for September:

Steal Like an Artist. Long books on creativity can be counterproductive. This short book by Austen Kleon is full of art, poetry ideas and inspiration for teacher-artists, or anyone who wants to live more creatively. I recently reread it and find it excellent for visual, material, dramatic and literary artists.

Kleon suggests that you take whatever artistic thing you do to procrastinate and do more of it. He gives practical advice for artists like ‘learn about money,’ and describes ethical ways to draw inspiration from the work of others. One of his big projects is Newspaper Blackout, a website which begat a bestselling poetry book.

You could have a lot of fun doing newspaper blackout poetry with your students. How? Students take fat markers and strike out words on a newspaper page, until the remaining words form a poem. The result might be a simple message like “Eat your vegetables!” More sophisticated students could juxtapose the title of the original article against their ‘secret’ message. For example, they could take an article about war and block out words to reveal “give peace a chance,” or “support our troops.”


Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends appeals to boys and girls. It’s not new material but his poem, “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out,” is a guaranteed giggle. I introduce it by telling kids how my Dad used to recite it to me when I was little. “Sylvia Stout,” is a good model for student ‘chore’ poems or poems about garbage. With Green Philosophy paramount in modern schools, it’s time for young Silversteins-in-the-making to write recycling poems. If you like his style, there are videos of many of his poems and songs available on YouTube. “I’m Being Eaten by a Boa Constrictor,” is fun to sing with young children. Just be careful, not all Silverstein material is safe for school. Ever heard “Never Bite a Married Woman on the Thigh?”


Make your own crazy character mix and match flip book. Have you ever played this game? Fold over a small stack of paper and staple to make a booklet. Make two scissor cuts to divide the book in three, top-to-bottom. Students draw the head of a character or creature in the top box, the body in the middle and the feet at the bottom. Students open the booklet to the next page and pass it to the next student. This student continues by drawing another monster, athlete, animal or character, aligning the head, body and legs in the correct box. This process continues until all pages are filled and the books are returned for sharing, flipping and discussing. This little art and creativity project can be a jumping off point for writing “What if” stories or just a fun get-to-know you activity. Enjoy!


‘What if’ story starters:

  • What if you woke up with the legs of an Olympic runner?
  • What if you had the chest of a fish and could breathe under water?
  • What if you had the body of a bird and could fly?
  • What if your head was an octopus, legs and all?
  • What if you woke up with a hairy gorilla body?
  • What if you woke up with the pitching arm of a pro baseball player?


Here are some examples of different flip books:


This one is just for writers. As a writing book junkie, I procrastinate by reading about writing. What better way to goof off and still feel productive? In my home office, I have a bookshelf of reference and writing advice books. Other titles I’ve purchased as ebooks or borrowed from the library. I’m not proud of my addiction, but it puts this next statement in context.

Elizabeth Lyon’s Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore, is the best book on fiction editing I have ever read. Reading it feels like having an editor at my side, pointing out potential flaws and providing techniques for reworking and deepening the second draft of my novel-in-progress. The chapters on polish and proofreading are short compared to those on style, craft and characterization. This is no grammar book for beginners.

If you want to do more substantive editing before you submit your work to a professional, this book is an excellent reference to read, and reread. The checklists at the end of each chapter help diagnose weak points and prioritize the complex processes of rewriting: adding, subtracting and re-imagining to enrich voice, style and emotion.

Takatsu Cell Phone Novelist

Takatsu wrote the first North American cell phone novel. I met with him to speak about creativity, multimedia art, writing, and education reform. His current project, Espresso Love, is a Wattpad novel. You can look at the video trailer, which he produced himself using Animoto to add mysterious signs to the urban landscape. His multimedia productions include songwriting, stories, video and graphic arts.

Takatsu praised the rigour of the Japanese school system and the close relationships and teamwork inherent in Japanese culture. Paradoxically, the strictness and high expectations bring out students’ talents and develop their abilities. Takatsu says that by working inside such a strong box, students learn to think outside it.

The same students who work together on a rigorous curriculum during school, and then clean their classrooms together, must participate in one club after school. These clubs involve many hours of daily practice in one area chosen by the student according to interest and talent. Choices include music, sports, visual arts and drama. The creative or athletic skills developed last a lifetime. Takatsu laments that in North America, although many people have a passion for the arts, many forget their talents once they enter the workforce.

There is a place for teachers on platforms like Wattpad, according to Takatsu. Educators are needed for collaboration, to teach net etiquette and also to mentor and teach writing skills.

I hope you enjoy this interview in which Takatsu speaks passionately about art and education. You can find his multimedia projects at


Creative Teaching Newsletter – Poetry Slam

The very first Creative Teacher Librarian newsletter has been sent. Subscribers will receive a mini unit introducing spoken word or ‘slam’ poetry. Tips, instructions, useful links and a Spoken Word Rules page are included. Lessons can be adapted for a wide range of ages from grade school to high school.


Back-To-School with Feeling: Poetry in September

Poetry gets a bad rap ;-). Quick, when you think of poetry, what comes to mind? Spring? Acrostics? Singsong rhymes? Archaic language?

Students tire of poetry if they associate it with sappy greeting cards or bygone eras or a cookbook approach that emphasizes rigid form over self-expression.

Don’t miss out because of old stereotypes. In September, poetry makes an excellent get-to-know-you and formative assessment tool. In a two or three week poetry unit, students will produce many short poems on different topics and in different forms, affording the teacher multiple chances to assess written and spoken language. The trick is to make it fresh and relevant for young people.

— from the September Newsletter



Cursed Dishes by Jennifer Lott

I recently enjoyed interviewing Jennifer Lott about her first chapter book. As an early childhood educator, she had insights into writing for children and teaching as well. Cursed Dishes is based on a ‘revenge’ story Lott wrote when she was sixteen about her uncooperative younger sisters. Ten years later this completely reworked version is volume one in the Family Magic series, published by Reality Skimming Press. Told with humour and with illustrations by Doriano Strologo, the story dramatizes conflict between three sisters entangled in a messy little curse.

I hope you find Jennifer’s story inspiring. This was my first Skype author interview and hers as well. Using Skype to connect your classes with authors is free and simple and requires only that you and the author both have a Skype account, and that you ‘add’ each other to your Skype address books. I used a H2N Zoom microphone but most newer computers and laptops come with built-in microphones and cameras that make the process easy. Read Kate Messner’s article in School Library Journal for more information about setting up Skype for author visits. You can also read up about it on the Skype website.

Make a Chapbook or Booklet – DIY Video

Getting Started with Chapbooks and Brochures

Give your students recognition for their excellent creative writing by publishing a short story anthology, or connect school and home with a booklet of favorite family recipes, or a homework guide for parents. From poetry chapbooks to collections of cartoons, publishing little books helps generate excitement for literacy. When you arrange a book launch for student authors and their families, their pride is palpable. I will never forget when one of my student’s poems was accepted into a school board anthology. It was gratifying to see her get recognized for her originality. You can create the same kind of emotion in your school, library or classroom.

Chapbooks are a well-respected form among poets, including professionals. Making a chapbook can be as easy as printing out a manuscript and photocopying. A simple chapbook can be formatted using software such as Word or Publisher. Once you have printed out the booklet, fold the paper in half to make your book. For added panache, add a separate cover using heavy stock before you staple it together.

To find simple instructions for designing a booklet, I searched the internet for templates. Unfortunately, a lot of the available templates are for tri-fold brochures or one-page flyers. In the spirit of DIY, here is a quick instructional video to get you started making chapbooks using Word for Windows 8. My version has a cover, an automatically generated table of contents, and odd and even page numbers. Click the link to watch the video: DIY Chapbook Video

I also found online instructions for making a chapbook using Windows 2002 as well as a YouTube video for using previous versions of Windows to make a booklet.



A Call from France: Learning Exchanges

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My fourteen-year-old son called from France today. He has been there for over two weeks without showing signs of homesickness. His French ‘family’ has taken him to climb canyons, visit chateaux near Paris, and to swim at a beach near Biarritz. He says he has learned enough French to communicate with other kids and his exchange partner. The two of them get along well, despite differences in age and fashion sense. My son’s fifteen-year-old exchange buddy plans to take him shopping and outfit him for his high school debut in September!

His French partner is a cool rugby player who “runs through girlfriends.” My son is a sweet kid whose clothes are très ordinaire, partly because he lacks patience for shopping. This is the surprise enrichment of exchanges. Parents send their offspring to learn a language, but the lessons of living with a new family are what stick. Exchange students discover a new world of music, sights, youth culture, ideas, folklore, geography and history.

I have done two long-term exchanges in France and was billeted for weeks with a French Canadian family. All three experiences were overwhelmingly positive. I graduated at a time when entrance to faculties of education was extremely competitive. French gave me an edge, and ever since I’ve enjoyed teaching it to kids, with an extra dose of cultural comparison and anecdote.

My first exchange was three months of immersion in a French technical high school. Starting out with limited vocabulary and grammar, taking subjects like math, natural sciences and typing was tough. At first I was exhausted daily from struggling to follow teacher’s lectures and teen’s conversations, but it got easier.

Struggling to communicate is good preparation to teach English as a Second Language. If you have tried to make a joke or ask for help without knowing the right words, you can empathize with new language learners. And all that miming is good practice for introducing new vocabulary.

Not every child is ready for immersion, and nobody can expect months of all-good days, but there is a secret to making success more likely. To get the most enjoyment out of an exchange, students should start with the attitude that they are there for learning, not entertainment. That way they are primed to look up words they don’t understand, and to push themselves to speak a bit more every day. The benefits are exponential.

Learning French by immersion is like making a snowball. You are surrounded by the white stuff, but at first you only understand a flake here or there. By the end of the first week you might scrape together fistfuls of meaning. But once you start to catch on, you find yourself rolling a runaway snowball of knowledge. It’s dizzying fun.

With only traditional grammar instruction, I doubt I’d speak French today; but the real benefits of my exchanges were bigger: lifelong friends, a love of French literature, an appreciation for travel and a more international perspective. To learn a language, to share cultures, and to make our world a better and more connected place, I recommend cultural exchanges for your students, your children and yourself.