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professornana July 26 2014, 01:00

And what do YOU teach?

On the surface, it is a harmless question, the sort you hear at gatherings. People ask to open up conversation. Without thinking, I generally respond that I teach literature to folks who want to become school librarians. And that is entirely true and quite false all in the same breath. You see, I teach PEOPLE, students, grads, teachers, however you wish to identify the people in my courses.

I am reminded of this on a daily basis as these students ask questions and make comments. It is, sometimes, as if I never left the middle school classroom. The emails I receive remind me of so many of my younger students. The uncertainty (am I doing this correctly?), the dismay (I submitted the wrong file!), the frustration (now I have to read the second and third book in the series and I don't have time), and the joy (I discovered some books I missed before) and gratitude (thanks for explaining everything so clearly). I am so fortunate that my job is to teach people and not content alone.

Here is another clarion voice on this topic, too: http://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2014/07/08/teaching-students-not-standards-or-programs/
slayground July 25 2014, 13:00

Poetry Friday: Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

- Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley

If you can't see the video player above, click here to hear Ozymandias as read by Bryan Cranston from Breaking Bad.

View all posts tagged as Poetry Friday at Bildungsroman.

View the roundup schedule at A Year of Reading.

Learn more about Poetry Friday.

professornana July 24 2014, 23:13

50 shades

It is all over the media today. Have YOU seen the trailer for the movie? Why, no, I have not. Nor do I particularly care. It is not because I worry about the content (which various outlets have called porn, erotica, and all manner of other names). Never read the books. Do not intend to do so. Again it is not about content. I spent time during my young adult life reading romance novels and popular novels by Danielle Steele, Jackie Collins, and Sidney Sheldon. Been there, read that.

Mostly I do not care about the books or the movies because I elect to spend time reading books for children and YA readers. I have read more than 450 of books for youth this year. I hope to read hundreds more. I do not have the time nor the inclination to veer from my path unless someone recommends a book to me no matter the age of the intended audience. I suspect none of my friends will suggest I pick up 50 Shades. Right?

And as a snide aside, could I ask where the outcry in the media is that SO many adults are turning to books like this? Where are the calls telling adults to read more rigorous books? JK.
aprilhenry July 24 2014, 17:14

How to write about violence

If you’re going to write mysteries, thrillers, horror novels, or many other types of books, you’ll need to decide how to approach writing about violence and physical harm.

There are at least three ways to approach it:
1. Slow it down. Each step makes it clear just how bad it is.
2. Make the readers fill in the blank. Their solutions are usually far more affecting than yours, because they will think of the things that frighten them the most.
3. Underplay it. Use short, simple declarative sentences. Think Hemingway.
black eyes
A couple of years ago, I was running in my neighborhood when I fell, cracking the bridge of my nose, and scraping my face, hands and knees. I knew it was bad when I saw the expression of two guys I waved down to ask for help. Here are three ways to describe what happened.

Slow it down
“Running up 45th, April’s toe caught a crack in the sidewalk. The next thing she knew, she was in the air. Time slowed down, the way it did when you reached for a glass and knocked it over instead. She got her hands up in front of her as the sidewalk tilted at a crazy angle. Her palms skidded along the dirty concrete, but her momentum wasn't slowed.

Oh no, she thought, not her face! – then there was the solid surprise of her nose meeting the unmoving sidewalk.

And still April fell. Her front teeth hit the concrete, wavered, decided to stay put.

Finally she was still, face down, unmoving on the cool Sunday morning.

Make the reader fill in the blank
One minute April was running, mentally writing her next blog entry. The next thing she knew she was flat on the sidewalk. Something was terribly wrong. Her face felt wet.
The woman standing by the side of the road was frantically waving her arms. At least Josh thought it was a woman. Her face. Jesus Christ, what had happened to her face?

Underplay the prose
She ran up the hill. It was a Sunday morning. Her thoughts were elsewhere.

The sidewalk had lifted at an expansion joint. Her toe caught the crack. She fell very hard. She lay on the cement. Maybe she was okay. It was just a fall. She started to move but something grated inside. Her mouth tasted like rust.

Next to her was a bush with white flowers. She stared at it. Her vision was growing dark at the edges. The bush would look good in her garden.

She closed her eyes and was still.
More examples of fill-in-the-blank
I think the fill-in-the-blank idea can be the most powerful of the three. Here are two examples, one short and one long:

Five miles up the road, he opened the window and threw out the first of Karen Reid's teeth.
—The Intruders, Michael Marshall (the book does not say anything else about what he did to Karen Reid - but doesn't your mind supply a few details?)

She swam against the grain of the ocean, using a short and sharp stroke and a smooth kick.

She did not see the murky shape drifting toward her. It was more than half-submerged, and it had eyes. When she barged into it, the silent mass reared up.

Her scream was muted, most of it locked in her throat.

On the beach, her sons threw sand at each other and the man with the device unearthed a nickel. The lifeguard rearranged his legs in a way that the girls below could see the filled harness under his neon swim trunks. A stray cloud blotted some of the sun.
One of the boys pointed with his shovel. "Look at Mommy."
—Widow’s Walk, Andrew Coburn
cynthialord July 24 2014, 10:50

At the shore

Today, I'm visiting with Fit Girls of Wilton Maine, a reading and running club for girls. They read Half a Chance and they have been taking scavenger hunt photos, like Lucy in the story.

We're meeting at Wilson Lake (that has loons), the girls are going to show me their photos. Then if it's not raining, we're going on a hike together. How cute are these two?

professornana July 24 2014, 00:18

back to school supplies

I admit it: I love buying pens and paper and stuff whether or not it is time to go back to school or not. But lately, the displays in office stories are growing with bask to school aisles and displays. I saw folders for a penny recently, and I had to keep myself from buying some. I have no need for folders, mind you, but they were on sale!

The back to school supplies for my courses in the fall are fairly predictable: books and time to read. Students will have a new reading list this flu, one I have been revising for some time. I have cut back on the required and opened up more CHOICE of books. Granted, the choice is still limited, but I am feeling my way to a more open selection thanks, in part, to a great conversation with Margaret Hale. My colleague Karin Perry helped me make some tough decisions in terms of cutting required and how to offer more choice. It has been a process of collaboration, one I hope will benefit students in the fall.

I think the supplies I require are essential for success as a school librarian. School librarians need to read, need to know books. They need to know how to connect kids to books, too. That means knowing kids, books, and strategies and activities for connecting the two. I wrote about this in my first book 11 years ago. It is still true today.

As these final weeks drift away, I wish all teachers time to read and stacks of books at the ready. Right now I am stacking books for an upcoming trip to Arkansas. Priorities, you know.
professornana July 23 2014, 00:52

puzzle pieces

I never was a big fan of jigsaw puzzles. I am fine when it comes to edges and corners, but if you ask to start filling out beyond that, I can only progress so far. I tend to work with some sort of pattern such as a color or shape from the finished picture of the puzzle. And piece by piece it begins to come together. It is laborious, though, and not something that I turn to willingly as a hobby.

I think much of the current discussion (and that is not the right word from my perspective, but let's stick with it for now) of a need for balanced literacy, though, is part of a larger puzzle. I have been seeing some of the pieces in various locations, and they are beginning to form a larger picture. Here are some of the pieces to consider:

1. This snarky piece from the NY Post decries the NYPL Summer Reading List by opening with this paragraph: "What should kids read this summer? Don’t ask the New York Public Library: Its “Summer Reading Challenge 2014” is among the silliest, most politically correct and uninspiring lists around." It decries the lack of anything other than fluff (from this writer's perspective). Here is a link to the middle school books: https://www.nypl.org/sites/default/files/Middle%20School%20Booklist%202014.pdf. Not much fluff here. As a matter of fact, I spy some award winners, some delicious paranormal books, and a great assortment of books about other people, places, and times.

2. Several editorial pieces in the NYT have called for an end to using "popular" literature inside of the classroom and recommended it be used only for "leisure" reading.

3. Many, many, many pieces in various outlets are calling for a "return" to the standards, specifically CCSS.

4. Troubling endorsement of tough standards (and specifically CCSS by various organizations as if CCSS is some sort of miraculous way to get rid of the achievement gap.

5. Some other states pulling out of CCSS.

Ah, the picture is beginning to emerge. See it?
professornana July 21 2014, 18:49

Soon, I promise

Today's agenda included two Skype sessions. In the morning,the ALAN Executive Committee met via Skype to talk about the fall workshop, upcoming elections (information is on the website: www.alan-ya.org), some potential new projects, and more. We do this monthly to make sure we are hitting deadlines and making headway. I have enjoyed being the Executive Director of ALAN for 4 years. One more year is left before someone else gets the chance to become a leader of ALAN. I look forward to passing on the torch, too.

Early this afternoon I had the chance to Skype with Dr. Vic Malo's class. I still miss FTF chances to interact with students, so even though the FTF is via video, it is so enriching. When I listen to the questions and comments, I know there are so many bright, energetic, and dedicated teachers coming into schools today.

Now, though, it is nap time for me. I am hoping the antibiotics start conquering this bacterial infection soon. Once they work, I will work. I promise.
aprilhenry July 21 2014, 18:08

How the writing process REALLY works

I used to write books just for me. No publisher was waiting for them (although I certainly had the fantasy that once publishers saw the finished book they would fight each other to publish it). And the books were done when they were done.

Now most of my books - I’ve had 17 published in 15 years - are written under contract, which means they have a fixed due date. (Although I still sneak off to work on a “spec” book now and then, like a married woman making out with some hot guy from her Body Pump class in the parking lot of the gym.)

My current writing process is:

  • One year before the book is due: I have plenty of time. And I deserve to relax after how hard I worked to get the last book done. I might make some notes and brainstorm a little. After I clean out the basement.

  • Nine months before: This plot idea is intriguing. The characters are starting to seem like real people. Maybe I should create a thorough outline instead of just plunking away at it.

  • Six months before: The outline is finished. This is going to be so easy. I should outline all the time! I’ll just take it step by step, like paint by numbers. The book is practically going to write itself now that I have all the hard work done. I think I’ll call my friend and go out for ice-cream to celebrate.

  • Three months before: Holy crap! This outline doesn’t work at all. And why do my characters keep doing things I never planned on them doing? This one guy was meant to be a secondary character, but for some reason he thinks he’s the real love interest. And my main character refuses to do this one dangerous thing the outline says she should do. She says it’s a bad idea.

  • Two months before: I will never be done in time. Never. The only way I can do it is to write two thousand words a day, every single day. Didn’t manage more than three hundred today? No problem, I’ll make it up tomorrow.

  • Two weeks before: There’s too much blood in my caffeine stream. I’m writing like a mad woman. But I can do it. If I just give up on this sleeping thing.

  • Due date: There. Finished. Is it any good? I’ve read it over, but to be honest, I have no idea. I hit the send key. I really should celebrate. Or work on that other book that’s due. But how long has it been since I swept behind the couch?

jbknowles July 21 2014, 13:05

Maybe I was wrong...

Hello and welcome to Week #3 of Teachers Write! I hope you're all having a wonderful time writing and creating and thinking and learning. I know I have!

Today I want to talk about moments of clarity. Moments of realization. In real life, these can come like a slap to the forehead, or sometimes more deeply, like a fist to the heart. I'm going to give an example.

Last week, my son and I spent five days volunteering for Habitat for Humanity. We got up early, met with an incredibly inspiring group of people, received our goals for the day, and got to work. By the end of the day we'd be tired and sweaty, and extremely grimy. My job for most of the week was putting up vinyl siding which had been stored in a wet spot of ground that received little sun. Each strip was covered in mud, leaves, pine needles and a fair amount of slugs which I continuously stuck my fingers in. We'd sweep the siding off (there was no electricity or running water for a hose) cut it with what we lovingly called "snips" which had my hands bruised by the end of the week, and cross our fingers that we'd measured correctly and hung them true. Most of the time, our fearless leader would come around the corner, inspect our work, and have us start over. It was difficult, and frustrating, but we kept our sense of humor.

As you can imagine, coming home to electricity, water, soap and (honestly) a toilet, was pretty nice. On one day, I went out to check our blueberry bushes and discovered several were ripe and ready to eat! Plus, they were HUGE. Beautiful, plump and oh so sweet. I took a photo of one and posted it on Facebook. Then, since I'd been away from electronics all day, I started to read headlines from the BBC, and catch up with friends' posts. And I realized that while I was off feeling so good about building this home and then celebrating the glory of a blueberry, horrifying events were happening. In that moment, I thought of that stupid blueberry photo and how insensitive and lost in my world I'd been. It was my punch to the heart moment.

Here's what I wrote on my Facebook wall:

"After I posted my blueberry photo, I realized how crazy and selfish it is to post a photo of an especially large blueberry when there is so much horrific violence going on around the world. And close to home, learning of the tragic death of a woman who babysat for us when we were kids. I am thinking about all the people who are touched by grief every day. Every day there are horrors and tragedies. And every day there are things like the wonder of a blueberry you picked from a bush you've been nurturing for ten and a half years. And every day there are cats doing cute things. And baby photos posted by a proud new grandparent. Every day there is sadness. And every day there is joy. And every day there is love. And who gets what every day seems to be a cruel crapshoot. And I don't know what to do about that except try to remember it. And try to be more kind. So I am sorry about the blueberry. But I am also grateful for it. Maybe more so because it grows despite the sorrow."

After that initial punch of guilt over the blueberry I realized that the world continues to spin no matter what happens on it. I have had my share of grief and I know what it feels like to not understand how this is so. There have been days in deep sorrow when I couldn't understand how people could keep going on with their daily lives, oblivious to the pain next door. But they do. We all do, eventually. And this, too, is another type of moment of clarity, or realization: That when faced with despair, we have a choice. We can feel the despair, and carry on trying to make the world a better place, or we can feel the despair and let it win.

The day after the blueberry incident, after feeling that despair and anger over all that senseless killing, I was filled with more determination than ever. I wasn't changing the world, but small acts of good work add up, and they do make the world a little better. I really believe that. I went back to that frustrating siding with a vengeance. I was determined to work harder. To make that house more beautiful. Liveable. Loveable. It fueled me. On the last day, we nailed the final piece of siding up. But the walls were still dirty-looking and it was hard to feel 100% proud. So another woman and I (she is a teacher!) filled a bucket with water from a nearby stream, got some rags, and washed every last strip until it looked new. We had to refill that darn bucket over and over because the water got muddy so fast. I fell in the stream up to my knee and had to spend half the day with one wet foot. It was gross and stinky but I didn't care. Because in the end, the siding did look just like new.

So what does all of this have to do with fiction? I would argue that this is how stories work. The protagonist makes a big realization, usually early on in the story, and it's what sets the story in motion. It's how quests begin. They hinge on a choice: give up or carry on and try to fix the problem. Fixing the problem, solving the mystery, trying to survive, whatever the situation, that's your story. And whatever it is that fuels your character to try, that's your characterization.

So what, specifically, is your character's big realization and what fuels him or her to try to make things better, or survive?

I started this entry talking about my work with that gross siding. And it seemed like kind of a drawn out story to get to my point. But I told it because of all the parallels I see in writing, and in particular revision. We almost never get it right the first time. We think we've measured correctly, or at least well enough, but when we step back and look, we can see it's a little off balance. So we take things down. We get help. We get feedback. we remeasure. We try again. We get dirty. We get frustrated. (Luckily there are no slugs!) But something in us doesn't let us give up. Something fuels us to keep going. And eventually, we get it right. Then we clean it up. And hopefully we feel good about it. Hopefully we feel proud. :-)

Today, I want you to think about your story, your protagonist, and what he or she is facing. Why is his or her story important to you? Why is this story worth telling? Try filling in the blanks:

This is a story about a _________________ who realizes/learns that _____________________________________________________ . So, he/she __________________
_____________________________________________________________________________________ .

This story is important to me because ______________________________________________ .


If you aren't working on a particular story, try writing to the prompt, "Maybe I was wrong..."

I hope you'll share what you come up with!

And as always, have fun. :-)


My son and I, working for Habitat for Humanity
professornana July 21 2014, 00:03

With a little help from my friends

I have the best friends. Really, I am blessed. What I adore is that they send me links and notes giving me fodder for the blog. Despite feeling puny today, I did manage to get online for a while. Here is one of the wonderful jpegs awaiting me:

CCSS cartoon

Anyone who reads this blog knows how I feel about reliable sources. As I was napping later in the day, I began musing about odds and ends and I wondered:

1. It seems to me that most of the folks calling for reform went to school at some point in their youth. They seem to have turned out just fine. We have dot commers, politicians, and a host of others who are doing well in their professional lives and yet believe schools are failing. How do we get from successful to critical?

2, There seems to be an alarming trend of unreliable sources. And the information us coming from sources we have traditionally trusted. How did that happen?

3. Why the reliance on testing? Did these reformers fall in love with testing at some point in their lives? I wonder how they would fare on PARRC and other assessments?

4. Where is the data showing improvement now that we have these new and rigorous and improved standards? I know it has only been a short time, but should we not have some data and then perhaps some evidence?

That's all for today. I am slowly in the mend, but I need to conserve some energy for crawling back into bed. Stay tuned...
professornana July 20 2014, 14:24

BPRoots archive

Last night Donalyn Miller and I held our monthly #bproots Twitter chart. This "best practices roots" seeks to bring some of the "classic" articles about books and reading to the attention of those who might have missed them before. Last night we talked about comics and GNs courtesy of an article by SDKrashen (available at his web site: sdkrashen.com). Here is the archive of the chat.

cynthialord July 20 2014, 10:52

Six Things on a Sunday

Photo: My assistant is ready to go to work.

1. I've been working on my 2015 novel, A Handful of Stars. My editor and I are doing a fast pass through to get it ready for copyediting. Milo, my little assistant, is always ready to work!

2. Yesterday I went up to Camden, Maine to meet with Nancy Johnson and Scott Riley, with whom I'm presenting at the National Council of Teachers of English conference in November. Our program is about my books and keeping the ARTS in Language Arts. They are such amazing and inspiring teachers. It was great to meet them in person and spend the day with them.

3. I had another special treat yesterday, too. Author/illustrator Chris Van Dusen is Scott's neighbor. Chris and I have done lots of events together, but I'd never seen his studio! He gave us a tour and showed us what he's working on right now.

I got to see the sketches for the second "Tales from Deckawoo Drive" book by Kate DiCamillo (Wow!) and a book called Hattie and Hudson that Chris both wrote and is illustrating about a girl and a sea monster (publishing date 2016), which I think is already my favorite book of his! I absolutely loved it! Here's Chris with the original art for President Taft is Stuck in the Bath.

Photo: Today was so fun! I had a fabulous and inspiring time with Nancy Johnson and Scott Riley planning our program for NCTE. It's about keeping the ARTS in Language Arts. Then I had a surprise! Author/illustrator Chris Van Dusen is Scott's neighbor.Chris and I have done lots of events together, but I'd never seen his studio! He gave us a tour and showed us what he's working on right now. At the risk of making you all jealous. . . I got to see the sketches for the second Tales from Deckawoo Drive by Kate DiCamillo (Wow!) and a book called Hattie and Hudson that Chris both wrote and is illustrating about a girl and a sea monster, which I think is already my favorite book of his!  Here's Chris with the original art for President Taft is Stuck in the Bath.

4.  For the 10th Anniversary of the Schneider Family Book Award, I was interviewed on The Late Bloomer's Book Blog. Rules won the Schneider back in 2007. I talk about the award, my purple dress from Goodwill, and a surprising and lovely moment at the Schneider luncheon with Katherine Schneider and her seeing-eye dog.

5.  This week, I am visiting a girls' day camp in Wilton, Maine that has read Half A Chance. The program meets at a local park on a lake with loons. How perfect!

6. Yesterday was also the official loon count day in Maine. It makes me smile to think of all those people out doing Loon Patrol!

"Since 1983, citizen scientists have gone out to their favorite lakes and ponds on the morning of the third Saturday in July to count loons. . . .With more than 900 volunteers statewide, their observations help us promote policies that protect loons and their lake habitat in Maine. Volunteers make their observations between 7:00 and 7:30 a.m. – this early morning time provides an excellent snapshot of Maine’s loon population."

Photo: Today is the official loon count day in Maine. It makes me smile to think of all those people out doing Loon Patrol! "Since 1983, citizen scientists have gone out to their favorite lakes and ponds on the morning of the third Saturday in July to count loons. . . .With more than 900 volunteers statewide, their observations help us promote policies that protect loons and their lake habitat in Maine. Volunteers make their observations between 7:00 and 7:30 a.m. – this early morning time provides an excellent snapshot of Maine’s loon population."
professornana July 19 2014, 23:18

Did ya miss me?

A bacterial infection has kept me offline for three days. I know I am in need of meds when I cannot get up the energy to head over to Facebook, Twitter, or even to post to the blog. And I am still way under 100%, so today, I am giving you a link to an article Marjie Podzielinski write for IRA: http://www.reading.org/reading-today/post/engage/2014/07/18/fly-to-twitter-for-online-pd#.U8r7gVZFEdv.

While I am mentioned, the point of the link here is to point to online PD in all of its forms. And tonight? One more: #bproots chat at 7 pm Central with Donalyn Miller. We will be talking about this article by Steven Krashen: http://www.sdkrashen.com/content/articles/comicbook.pdf

We hope you will joins.
melissawyatt July 19 2014, 12:55

More on Tarsem Singh's The Fall: Beethoven, Back Braces and Blue Cities

(Livejournal friends, I am still obsessing, so feel free to skip over this.)


Several nice people have asked me to expand on my defense of Tarsem Singh’s masterwork The Fall and since I could talk about this movie until my tongue falls out, I am happy to oblige. If you are as insanely devoted to it as I am, come on in and see if you agree with me on desert islands, blue cities and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.Read more...Collapse )
slayground July 18 2014, 13:03

Poetry Friday: There are two things from Finding Ruby Starling by Karen Rivers

There are two things:
True things.
And lies.
When you figure out
which is which
it's like you are on the inside
of the balloon
looking out,
seeing the pin coming toward you
in the sunlight
but not being able
to move away.

Or maybe,
the thing is
that all of us are two people:
the one inside
the balloon.
And the one
holding the pin.

This poem is featured in the epistolary novel Finding Ruby Starling by Karen Rivers. Though the majority of the story is conveyed in letters and emails, one of the characters, Ruth, has a poetry journal hosted on tumblr - which, as of this posting, is not an active account in real life. (Yes, of course I checked!)

View all posts tagged as Poetry Friday at Bildungsroman.

View the roundup schedule at A Year of Reading.

Learn more about Poetry Friday.

professornana July 17 2014, 20:16


I love Apps. They crowd the screens of my mobile devices. I do presentations on Apps for various audiences. However, when I read a blog that touts apps that can teach or promote skills or strategies, I want to tear my hair out. The latest egregious offender was a post on apps that promote close reading. First and foremost, apps do not TEACH or PROMOTE. And to suggest that the Kindle app promotes close reading is just flat out absurd. I have been reading eBooks for some time. I do not read eBooks any more closely than I do traditional print or even audiobooks. Yes, I am aware that the Kindle can highlight text, etc. However, that is NOT close reading, folks. Ditto using speed reading apps or apps that count the amount of time you read online. Creating a PDF for your notes is also not close reading.

I wonder how long before this type of mis-APP-lication spreads? How long before there is an APP for that? How long before teachers are replaced with Apps that promote, teach, clarify, etc. any and every thing?

Let's set aside the bells and whistles.

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