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.
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.
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.
I Wish My Teacher Knew, the non-fiction online book I made to collect first-person stories about education and creativity, has received over 1050 reads on Wattpad. This is exciting because the more people read it, the more will contribute. The hope is that these stories will inform Creative Teacher Librarian with fresh ideas for renewing education. Find out more about it by clicking on the story below. Drop me a line if you have a story of your own to add. It would be great to hear from you.
Creative Writing Update
As of October 31, the new serial novel, Feeding Frenzy, is underway. Over a hundred readers have perused the first three chapters. As it grows, the hope is many more people will read it. Serial fiction is a great motivator and antidote for writers’ block. Since making a promise to update weekly, there is real pressure to follow through. Last week I posted chapters on Wednesday and Friday. Reader comments have been encouraging. Writing Feeding Frenzy is a nostalgia rush too, as it forces me to reflect on my first year of university, although mythical Loon Lake University is nothing like my alma mater, University of Toronto. If you like fiction with a little humour, mystery and paranormal suspense, this one may be for you.
The Wattpad experience has been stimulating in a lot of ways. I attended a second Toronto meetup at the Wattpad offices in October, which resulted in a new Halloween Story compilation. This platform makes it easy to engage online with writers and readers in their late teens and twenties. Who better to discuss creativity and new ideas in fiction?
My schedule for http://sfcontario.ca/ has firmed up. If you are in Toronto next weekend, and you are interested in speculative fiction, attending a convention is worth doing. I’m moderating three discussion panels and I’ll be running a flash fiction contest, open to attendees. If you are at the convention, be sure to say hello. Here is my schedule:
Reviews and Critiques – Saturday 11 AM
Tricorders in the Classroom – Saturday 12PM
Flash Fiction Slam – Saturday 7PM
Sherlock vs Elementary – Sunday 1pm
In case you are wondering what a Flash Fiction Slam is, I admit I made it up. The idea is to have writers perform their own 500-1000 word stories, and have the audience choose the winners. In a traditional poetry slam, a couple of volunteers are chosen from the crowd who give each slammer a score of 0-10 for his or her performance. No props or costumes are allowed, and only 20% of the offering may be sung. Beyond that, there are few rules. Whatever the reader does to make the performance exciting is allowed. My idea is to take this format and apply it to flash fiction, all in aide of engaging entertainment.
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?
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’sManuscript 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.
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.
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.
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.
Students are bombarded with media and spend too many hours in front of computer and TV screens. Does this mean we shouldn’t show videos in class? Of course not.
There is an important place for watching videos in the French or Spanish language classroom. Second languages are best learned in situ but not every student can jet off to Paris to experience French immersion. Video is a convenient alternative. For years I have used educational videos to help students learn French because it exposes them to native speakers.
Téléfrancais is for children in elementary grades. Sol, a French Canadian comedian, stars in the Parlez-Moi series for older students. I’m on the lookout for more modern materials, but the content and the pedagogy is excellent. My students giggle at the passé fashions but still enjoy the characters and stories.
The beauty of these two series is that episodes are short and funny. They explain vocabulary using sight, sound and repetition, within a controlled vocabulary which accumulates chronologically. For each video I make up a brief worksheet and have students hunt for the answers as they watch. Classes ask me to repeat the video, sometimes twice, to help them find the answers. In language teaching, repetition is gold and any time the students are asking to watch a native speaker over and over, they are concentrating on immersion learning.
French teachers interested in using my Téléfrançais worksheets should send me a message. I will scan them and email them to you personally.
Adult learners and students looking for enrichment can benefit from videos too. Check your local library for movies and TV shows in your target language. Make sure there is an option to view with English subtitles for maximum comprehension. Series which deal with everyday life and express a lot of emotion are especially good for learning common vocabulary, cultural gestures and facial expressions. I learned a lot of Spanish watching telenovelas (soap operas) before visiting Peru and it made a measurable difference in my ability to understand native speakers. If you need to refresh your oral comprehension or you are learning a language for the first time, I recommend watching a serial whether or not you like soaps in your mother tongue.
For pleasure as well as utility I strongly recommend BBC’s interactive web mystery for Spanish learners, Ma Vida Loca. In it, you are a tourist caught in a web of intrigue that takes you all over Spain. I wish there were more free web resources of this quality. If you know any, please share with fellow teachers by leaving a comment.
This is a CBC show which allows you to test your knowledge from the comfort of your chesterfield. The studio contestants included: The Celebrities, The Romance Writers, The English Teachers, The Sorority and Fraternity Students, The language gamers, The Comedians and the Ad Writers. The winner overall was a seventeen-year-old who is already publishing crosswords in newspapers. The winning team was the Ad Writers.
I sat through the whole test, carefully jotting down numbers and letters and hoping my son wouldn’t wake up and interrupt me. The results?
I have finally found a quiz show that I wasn’t lousy at. Could it be that the purpose of this show, unlike so many game shows, wasn’t to sell me something?
I got 58/70 (83%). Wanna face me? Wanna? Huh? Huh? You can. It’s pure fun for language geeks. If you missed the show tonight, you can play online at Test the Nation. Careful now, there are some questions designed to test your knowledge of Canadian English. I got tripped up by the Bismark question.
Of course what I’m really burning to know is:
The average score on the winning team
Russell Smith’s score
The score of the seventeen-year-old, overall winner and youngest contestant. I didn’t catch his name but you can see his picture here.