Recently, a teacher friend of mine asked me to write a blog post on the topic of “What Writers Wish Teachers Knew About Writing”. I thought a lot about it and found it rather challenging: After all, there are so many approaches to teaching writing and so many different learning styles among students—and most teachers already know far more about both of these things than I do.
As I mulled it over, I found myself thinking about something my son said when he was in kindergarten. “Work,” he told me, “is when you do something because someone says you have to. Play is when you do something because you want to.”
By that definition, I rarely work. I’ve written sixteen books, I teach creative writing to kids and adults, and I homeschool my nine year old son… but I love how I spend my time, and most of the time it all feels like play.
So I think that the single most important piece of advice I have is to let writing be play. Make it enjoyable for your students. Make it something they do because they want to. The more fun writing is, the more they will want to write- and the more they write, the more their skills will improve.
Easier said than done, right? How exactly do you make writing fun, especially for the reluctant writers in the group? Here are a few thoughts:
FREEDOM AND CHOICE: No more “what I did this summer” assignments: let them choose. A story about zombies? Great. An article about a favorite computer game? Go for it. Vampire romance? Awesome. All forms of writing are valuable- blog posts, poems, stories, comic strips, essays, lists, screen plays… try to open up possibilities rather than narrowing them. Sometimes it’s hard for students to start writing without a direction, but rather than assigning a specific topic, what about a list of possibilities? What about getting students to help generate that list?
PROCESS OVER PRODUCT: When I was a kid, I started hundreds of stories and finished hardly any. Sometimes you’ve taken what you need from a particular project and you are ready to move on, to start something else. As adults, we often focus on output—we want to see completed work. But producing output and completing projects isn’t always what kids need to do in order to learn. The end product that you see is only the very tip of the iceberg: there is a huge amount of deep, private, imaginative learning that goes on that you can’t- and sometimes maybe shouldn’t—see. As adults- teachers, parents– we have to trust children to know what they need, and trust that learning is always happening.
CREATIVE WRITING IS NOT HANDWRITING: I’ve met a lot of kids who say they hate writing but when I talk to them, I discover that they are overflowing with imaginative and original story ideas. Sometimes the barrier is that they find handwriting awkward, slow and uncomfortable. Sometimes they are avid readers—and their story ideas are so big, so complex, that their reach far exceeds their grasp. They have high standards and won’t be satisfied with a simple story, but haven’t yet developed the skills to tell the stories they want to tell. Providing a computer or scribing for these students can make a huge difference. Developing skills is important but just as important, we need to protect their confidence and their sense of themselves as storytellers. We need to make sure that when the writing (or typing) skills catch up, the desire to tell the stories is still alive.
FIND AN AUDIENCE: For a student to want to write, they need to have something they want to say—and someone they want to say it to. As much as possible, writing assignments should have a purpose. Look for websites where students can post book reviews. Start a school newspaper. Enter writing contests. Let students pair up and be beta readers for each other. Facilitate a lunch hour writing club. Help older students write picture books for younger buddies. Write letters to the paper or to politicians. Make it fun– and make it meaningful.
KEEP FEEDBACK POSITIVE: If you want students to take risks in their writing, you need to make it safe for them to do so. Support, facilitate, encourage. Give constructive feedback but don’t overdo it. If writing is play, they will write; and if they write, their spelling, punctuation, grammar and style will improve. Help them to believe that what they say matters, and that they are the only one who can tell their particular stories.
And finally, do some writing yourself. Fan your own creativity and take your own risks. Share your learning and excitement—and your struggles—with your students. And have fun!
So I was updating my website today and I just noticed something funny…
I had two novels published this year, and they both have images of feet on their front covers. Yup, feet.
They’re very different from each other, of course: The cover of Record Breaker shows twelve year old Jack’s slightly scruffy Converse running shoes while Attitude’s cover image is of a dancer’s feet.
So (since I was procrastinating doing various other things, like working on my next book) I googled book covers, and trends, and then, more specifically, book covers with feet on them. And what I learned was that– while Foot Book Covers aren’t as overdone (not to mention nowhere near as problematic and disturbing) as, say, Pretty White Girl in Fancy Dress covers, Submissive Girl covers, Headless Girl covers, or Dead Girl covers– there are quite few of them out there and a lot of them are pretty cool.
And unlike the cover trends I mentioned above, Foot Book Covers have some nice benefits. They give the reader a glimpse of the character’s quirks or hobbies or personality but they don’t assume a particular body type or skin color. They don’t spoil the reader’s ability to envision the character however she or he chooses.
So to celebrate my two newest releases, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite Foot Book Covers for various age groups.
First, the grown-ups. I read this one last year. It’s rather sad and somewhat dark and at times very funny.
And a Foot Book Cover for teens. I actually haven’t read this one but it sounds awesome (cyborg mechanic Cinderella? How cool is that?) and I love the cover…
One for the tweens…. Remember this classic novel by the prolific writer and wonderful anti-censorship advocate, Judy Blume? I devoured it (along with every other girl in my fifth grade class) :
And for the little ones, I almost picked Feet Are Not for Kicking– but who wants lessons when you can have one of my all-time favorite authors, Dr. Seuss? I think I still know this book by heart (“I wish that I had duck feet, and I can tell you why. You can splash around in duck feet. You don’t have to keep them dry…”
Then I started thinking about my other books, and wondering if they had new Foot Book Covers, what they would look like. Out of Order would have black Doc Marten boots, for sure. Or bare feet standing on a bathroom scale, though I’m sure that’s been done too many times already. And Liars and Fools would have boat shoes. Inferno? Running shoes.
What about your favorite books? What kind of Foot Book Covers would you pick for them?
Orca’s Limelights series– a brand new series of novels about teens in the performing arts– will be launched in a few weeks time (woohoo!), with the publication of the first three Limelights novels. The three of us authors are spread across this rather large country, but we’re not strangers to each other. Though currently living in Ottawa, Tom Ryan is an old Fernwood writing buddy of mine; and in March, I visited Toronto and had the pleasure of meeting Toronto author, Karen Krossing, for coffee in a great local cafe– and we had a great conversation. It turned out we’d been published together before, a few years ago in the anthology, Cleavage, and within five minutes, I felt like I’d known her for ages. Soon, Karen, Tom and I starting chatting online, and somewhere along the way, decided it would be fun to interview each other about our new books.
So… Here is my interview with Karen Krossing, about her soon-to-be-published novel Cut the Lights!
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
In Cut the Lights, the director of a student-written fringe play is at odds with her cast, until the breakdown of the lead actor forces them to work together.
Each of the Limelights novels is about a performing art. Why did you choose to write about directing?
This book captures my passion for theatre. I became hooked at an early age after seeing performances at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, and I later took drama courses in high school and university. For me, theatre provides the opportunity to examine our world through a finely tuned lens, and it’s more exciting and interactive than film.
I chose the point of view of a director of a play because I could easily imagine the conflict between the director’s vision for the play and the needs of the actors and stage crew. My director, Briar, struggles to maintain control over her cast and crew while attempting to inspire them to greatness.
What kind of research did you need to do to write this book?
My teenage daughters were both attending an arts high school as I wrote this novel, so they were a terrific source of practical knowledge. My eldest daughter had recently directed a play at her the school’s fringe festival, and I based some of Briar’s experiences off her insights.
I also researched how to direct a play using books and articles, and I had to learn how to write a one-act play for Briar to direct during the novel.
Finally, I researched mental illness, since one character in the book suffers a breakdown. I don’t want to reveal too much plot, so I won’t get into specifics about that research. But I also talked with people who’ve experienced a breakdown in order to be true to life.
Have you drawn on your own experience at all in writing this book?
Absolutely. I’ve drawn on my experience in theatre classes and working on shows – acting, managing sound and lighting, and designing sets and props. I absorbed the atmosphere of my daughters’ arts high school in creating the school featured in the novel. And since I’ve supported family and friends through mental illnesses, I borrowed from those experiences. I’ve observed that, although we all face trying times during our lives, performing arts like the theatre can be a great comfort and source of insight into how to move forward.
How are you like (or different from) your main character?
Briar and I both share a love of theatre. Like me, Briar doesn’t want to act on stage, she prefers to direct. I don’t like the spotlight, but I do like creative control over my projects, although Briar needs to learn how to share control – something that I hope I do a better job at than Briar!
I can understand why Briar wants to create a masterpiece on stage, since I want every novel I write to be as good as I can possibly make it. Briar works with light, sound, actors, and so on, while I prefer words, yet we’re both building scenes, characters, and story.
Both Briar and I want to create deep emotional experiences for our audiences. And we both want to inspire those around us to do the same. I mentor emerging writers, and Briar learns to empower her cast and crew.
How did you come up with your title? What other titles did you consider?
“Cut the Lights” refers to the moment when Briar decides to cancel the play – the moment when everything about the upcoming performance seems bleak and impossible to overcome. The stage lights fade to black, and Briar’s dream of directing a play is lost. I brainstormed titles as I conceived the novel, mostly using theatre terminology. Other titles I came up with but rejected include: Curtain Call, The Fourth Wall, and Fade to Black. I basically wrote a long list of possible titles, letting myself write poor ones as well as ones that didn’t capture my theme. Eventually, one arrived that fit.
What else about your book might pique the interest of readers?
For readers interested in the theatre, this novel gives insight into how to direct a play. What does a director do? How do you envision a stage production, manage the personalities of the actors and stage manager, and work with lighting and sound? The community of people who work on a play together can become quite close – too close at times – but that closeness can also become a strength.
Thanks so much for the great responses Karen!
You can read more about Karen on her website or find her on Twitter or Facebook. For an interview with Tom Ryan, author of the Limelights novel Totally Unrelated, visit Karen’s blog. For an interview with me about my Limelights novel, Attitude, visit Tom’s blog. You can also read sample first chapters of all three books– and enjoy the Limelights video trailer (made by Tom Ryan!) at the Orca Limelights site. Have fun!
When I was twenty-one I decided to go to Australia. I managed to get a job making milkshakes in a university cafeteria, which was a pretty good gig—friendly people, a regular pay check, and I could take home as many leftover meat pies as I liked. Which, admittedly, wasn’t very many. Still, perks are perks.
Then, after a couple of months, I decided to follow the guy I was living with to another city, which meant I had to leave my milkshake bar and free meat pies and look for other work. I had no qualifications at all, and I had just fallen off a horse and had a concussion and hip and back injuries, which ruled out anything too physical. I didn’t really mind what kind of work I did- but I needed some quick cash.
So when I saw an ad in the paper that said CASH PAID DAILY I was all over it. There wasn’t much information about the nature of the work, but I was too broke to be picky. I showed up at the designated intersection at eight the next morning.
A white van picked us up. Us, in this case, was me and a motley assortment of others, mostly male and mostly quite a few years older than me. We all climbed in and were told we’d be canvassing door to door, fundraising for charity. We’d be allowed to keep a percentage of the money we collected. I think we all had different charities that we were supposed to be fundraising for, but there wasn’t much chat. In fact, most of the guys in the group didn’t speak English and several were fast asleep in the back of the van.
We were dropped off in various residential neighbourhoods, handed maps with our assigned streets highlighted, and told where to be at the end of the day to get our ride back into town. I got out of the van and looked up at the steep hill and blazing blue sky and the endless rows of houses. It was over forty degrees and the sun was melting the tarmac under my feet.
I consulted my paperwork and read that I was collecting money for the Visually-Impaired Blind Lawn Bowlers Association. So off I went to knock on my first door. I had no information at all about the charity and no idea what percentage of the money would actually go to it. I had no idea if the charity even existed or if the whole fund-raising system was a scam.
As it turned out, none of that mattered. Because something about me saying Visually-Impaired Blind Lawn Bowlers Association reduced people to hysterical laughter.
I didn’t know why. I’d never actually seen people lawn bowl, blind or otherwise, so maybe I was missing the joke. Or maybe it was my Canadian accent, which everyone seemed to think was an American accent and which reminded them of some TV show I’d never heard of. Or maybe lawn bowling had some weird and wildly amusing double meaning that I was unaware of. Regardless, by lunchtime I had switched to saying Wheelchair Basketball. It still had a connection to both sports and disabilities, so I didn’t think it was entirely dishonest, and more importantly, it didn’t result in such hilarity. Unfortunately, it didn’t result in large donations either.
And that CASH PAID DAILY? After eight hours, I had collected eight dollars. Mostly in very heavy small change. I got to keep 10%. Yes, that would be eighty cents. Yes, that is in fact ten cents an hour.
So if there are days when writing is ever-so-slightly less than exhilarating? There are worse jobs.
I LOVE Pride Day. I’ve been going to Pride parades since I was a teenager– starting several years before I came out myself. Toronto Pride was my first, but the much smaller Victoria Pride parade is my favorite. It’s changed a lot– or maybe just my experience of it has. The last few years, Pride has meant more playgrounds, less partying, a much earlier bedtime– but it is just as special a day. My son went to his first Pride day here in Victoria when he was two months old, and hasn’t missed a year since– this will be his ninth Pride Day, yikes– and I love seeing all the queer families out enjoying the day together.
Check out my Pride Week guest post over at E. Kristin Anderson’s blog, Write All the Words!
Our house is overflowing with books. I have had less time to read in the last few years than ever in my life– but I still seem to acquire books at the same pace, so there are stacks of unread books everywhere. We could use them as furniture, really. Book tables, book chairs… But my idea of “less time to read” still leaves room for a few good books each week, so I figured it was time for a reading-related post. I’ll tell you about a few of the more awesome books that my son and I have read recently.
What I am Reading:
1. Why Be Normal When You Could Be Happy, by Jeanette Winterson.
When she was twenty-five, Jeanette Winterson’ published her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit . It is a brilliant and beautiful book about a young girl growing up with an oppressive evangelical giantess of a mother, rejecting the expectation that she become a missionary, and falling in love with another girl. It won the Whitbread prize in the mid-eighties, and deserved to. I loved it, and have reread it several times. It isn’t autobiography but it does draw on the author’s life quite strongly. So when I heard that Jeanette Winterson- some twenty-five years later- had written a memoir, I couldn’t wait to read it. Why Be Normal When You Could Be Happy is Jeanette Winterson’s own story–her adoption by the enormous and rather fearsome Pentecostal Mrs. Winterson; her discovery of literature in a home where books were banned; her process of coming out as a lesbian; leaving home at sixteen and finding her own place in the world. I don’t often use this word, but I found her courage, insight and acceptance very inspiring. And as with all her books, her language is lovely.
2. The Tenth of December, by George Saunders
I loved this collection of short stories: original, subversive, darkly humorous (and sometimes snort-your-coffee-hilarious), and occasionally gut-wrenching in their emotional impact. If you like short fiction and quirky intelligent writing, check this one out.
3. The View From Penthouse B, by Elinor Lipman
Like all of her novels, this latest one is lovely– intelligent, funny, and immensely satisfying. Elinor Lipman’s characters are appealing and her dialogue always clever, amusing and fun to read. And nothing too awful ever happens so this novel, like all of hers, is a greatly optimistic comforting kind of read. I think her novel My Latest Grievance remains my favorite though.
4. My Foreign Cities, by Elizabeth Scarboro
I like memoirs, and this one is lovely. Well-written, honest, poignant and funny. When she is still a teenager, Elizabeth meets Stephen, and falls in love. She is an adventurous and independent young woman who had lots of plans– none of which included marrying young or settling down. But Stephen has cystic fibrosis and doesn’t expect to live much beyond thirty– a person with a short life, as she says– and she realizes that if she wants to be with him, she has to make the choice to be with him now. To make the most of the time they have. And they do, packing as much living as they can into the ten years they have together. Reading this book made me think about how future-focused we often are. It made me think about how I would live differently if I knew I only had ten years, or that my partner did, or my child. Especially my child. How would I parent if I knew my child would have a short life? I’d make every minute as awesome as I could. Not a bad way to live… Anyway, this memoir is well worth a read. It’s never preachy or sentimental, but it is thought-provoking- and very moving.
What my son is reading:
1. Animorphs. Need I say more? The series runs into 50+ volumes, so we’re barely half-way. They’re funny, clever, and like most good sci-fi, full of interesting ethical issues. And unlike some kids series, they’re well-written.
2. Foxtrot. My son learned to read with Calvin and Hobbes so I figured he’d like Foxtrot… since the character of ten year old Jason has always seemed to me like an older geekier version of Calvin. All the wickedness and mischief and humor, but with computers and math instead of toboggans and tree forts. How awesome is that?
2. The Wind on Fire Trilogy, by William Nicholson. This goes in both categories, since I am actually reading these to my son– and they are such a pleasure to read out loud. (Any parent who reads to their kid a lot knows how clunky some books are when read aloud– and how lovely it is to read aloud when the rhythm of the words is entirely clunk-free!) The trilogy includes the Wind Singer, Slaves of the Mastery and Firesong, and the books do get more mature and darker as the trilogy progresses. The characters are wonderfully developed– I love Kestrel’s determination, strong will and rebelliousness, and her brother Bowman’s gentler nature, and my son adores Mist the cat. The setting is vivid and richly described, and the story entirely captivating. Highly recommended for fantasy lovers in the eight to fourteen range… and also for adults who appreciate a good story well-told.
In my 2009 young adult novel Inferno, Dante met her friend Parker while handing out flyers printed with the words: School. Prison. Can you tell the difference? I wrote that book when my own child was only four and kindergarten still seemed a long way off– but apparently my own not-so-great memories of school were vivid enough.
Plenty of people over the years have made the observation that school bears a distinct resemblance to prison, so the comparison is hardly new. But in the last ten days or so I have had a series of experiences that have brought me up against the realization that it is sometimes more than just an analogy. For some kids– the ones who are bullied or bored or just craving autonomy, who spend their days watching the minutes tick past or looking out the window at the blue sky and the trees, just waiting for three o’clock when they will be set free– school really is a prison.
A couple of weeks, my son told me that he was curious about school. Not curious as in wanting to attend, but curious about what happens in schools and what it all looks like. He attended kindergarten at a lovely and very small school when he was five, but that ended three years ago and he doesn’t remember much of it. So we arranged to visit our local public school. And then, because he was curious about the differences, we also booked a tour of an expensive private school.
Of course, there were some pretty obvious differences of the kind you would expect. The private school had a huge art studio, a music room, cosy carpeted classrooms, a big bright library with lots of books, and students who seemed happy and engaged with their work. The public school hallways looked older and a bit dingy, but the teachers were friendly and warm and clearly committed to their students, despite the challenges of working with large classes and a great diversity of issues and needs. Each was, in its own way, a good school.
And yet to attend either school would, for my son, mean surrendering his current freedom. (In fact, when he made pro and con lists for each school, the private school got an extra demerit point for requiring students to wear uniforms). At either school, he would be expected to attend every day for a set number of hours and expected to do exactly what he was told during that time, right down to how and where to sit and when to eat. He would be told what to learn and how to learn it and he’d be expected to do assigned work whether or not it was of interest or value to him. He’d have to raise his hand to ask permission to speak or to get a drink or to go to the bathroom. He’d be told when he was allowed to go outside and when he was allowed to leave. He’d be told what values he should embrace. Even after the school day ended, his free time would be infringed on by homework. From nine until three, five days a week, he would have none of the choices he has now.
To say it would be a huge adjustment would be an understatement. After three years of very free learning, I suspect being in a classroom would feel to him rather like it would to me if I woke up in the body of an eight year old and had to relive elementary school.
The day after our second school tour, we headed to Portland for the Life Is Good Unschooling Conference. Nine hundred unschooling kids and parents in one hotel. Yup, we took over the Hilton. Teens dancing and talking and laughing together, little ones running and playing, kids selling crafts and candies they’d made, kids in the swimming in the hotel pool, kids with Nerf guns in the park, a whole room full of kids with laptops gaming together. No bells ringing, no arbitrary rules, no required activities. No coercion. No one segregated by age, everyone choosing what they wanted to do and when (and the choices at this buffet of experiences were tough: like, hula-hooping or making stomp rockets or playing Minecraft or going to the International candy-tasting funshop.
Everyone learning all the time, in their own ways, according to their own interests. And so much joy. So much laughter.
I am actually a strong supporter of the public school system. Every child should be able to get the kind of education he or she needs, without having to pay for it. We didn’t plan to home school– that’s just how things turned out. It works for us, but it doesn’t change my belief in the importance of good public schools. As a former social worker, I have seen the huge difference a caring teacher can make in the life of a child. I think it is incredibly important that everyone have access to good schools– to learning, to resources, to generous and kind and passionate teachers and mentors.
I just think we need to figure out a way to add a hefty dose of freedom to the mix.
The launch for my new books, Record Breaker and Damage, was a blast. I launched with a great group of authors and loved hearing about their new books. There were yummy snacks (see table above and note how close I am standing to those brownies!) And best of all, there were KIDS! When you are launching kids books, it is pretty awesome to have kids in the audience. One little girl said that the cream puffs were the second best thing at the launch, and my reading was the first best! Yes, I actually read from my book, which I don’t usually do, and it was great to hear the giggles from the kids in the crowd. Even my own son was smiling at the funny parts, which made my night. And I got AWESOME cards from a couple of the kids (thanks R and F!). Here’s one of them that pretty much expresses how I feel every single time I publish a new novel:
Almost three years into our unschooling life and I still find myself caught in ways of thinking that reflect conventional ideas about learning. Maybe not as often as in our first year, or our second—but fairly frequently nonetheless. I’ll see a friend’s kid doing his math homework or proudly sticking his spelling test on the fridge and instead of my usual internal reaction (SO glad we don’t have to deal with homework or tests!) I’ll have a moment of unease about how far we have wandered from the mainstream.
Often, when this happens, I feel impatient with myself—Move on already! We don’t do school! You’ve already read about and talked about and thought (endlessly!) about this! I re-read things I find helpful and I remind myself to pay attention– to our days, our relationships, our lives and our learning.
But it’s kind of a big deal stepping out of the school system, and maybe even a bigger deal to bypass homeschooling and go straight to unschooling. Unschooling, as I am reminded whenever I try to explain it to someone who is encountering it for the first time, is pretty far out there. So maybe it is inevitable that choosing this way of living and learning brings with it a certain amount of questioning.
Especially if you tend to overthink everything the way I do.
But most unschooling blogs read like a celebration of the awesomeness that is unschooling– my own blog included.
And unschooling is pretty awesome, but I don’t think I’m the only one who sometimes struggles with questions or doubts. At least, I like to imagine I have company.
Here’s my theory: When one is part of a small community that is often misrepresented by the media and misunderstood by the majority, it is tempting to present only the positive. To ignore the niggling doubts or at least save them for private conversations with like-minded friends who will understand that occasional moments of unschooling panic do not mean you want to send your kids to school. You don’t even want to borrow the great math curriculum their kids are using.
We don’t want to fuel other people’s unease or disapproval so we say how great everything is and how well it works for us. So it is tempting to speak with certainty. But that can get in the way of having conversations that lead us to challenge ourselves and our thinking. I’d love to hear what other people think about this.
So talk to me. What are the questions that get the hamsters in your head spinning on their wheels at 3 am? Where are the snags and tensions? How do sort through your own experience, past and present? How do you filter all the contradictory research and theories and approaches to figure out what you really believe? How do you determine what works for you, your kids, your family? What lets you know when you are on the right track?
I’ll be launching my two new books next month- along with a fabulous group of authors. Come join us if you can!
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