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Teaching kids to be good writers

I'm brainstorming now for next year. Care to join me?

I work in an elementary school that is considered "high-performing" because of its scores on state assessments. But in the past year or two our writing scores have dropped. To me, the assessment scores mean nothing and I really wish we could do away with the whole test, but that's another blog. What does concern me is that I can see that our kids aren't learning to write well nor are they learning to read with a critical mind. From what I've observed in the students I've helped - plus my daughter was a fifth grader at the school last year - our Language Arts curriculum is weak.

A co-worker and I volunteered to put together a before school NaNoWriMo program in October and November and we had over twenty students, Kindergarten through 5th grade. Some good writing came out of that class, but ultimately it fell short in several areas. Revision being the obvious big one, especially since we only had the kids for two months. (By the way, I am very much looking forward to Kate's book Real Revision which comes out in May. I bet it's awesome!)

For next year I'm thinking we should focus on fourth and fifth graders.

Do any of you know of a good guide for teaching writing or do you have any advice to offer? I know that's a wide open question so feel free to jump in and answer it any way you like. I'm not at all clear on what I'm looking for so anything will be helpful. My fellow teacher and I are not writing teachers by any means, we are both special ed. paras and writers. We will be doing this class with very little support from the school.

Here's what I'm thinking and I'd love to have your input:
- Focus on the fourth and fifth grade writers
- Target struggling writers as opposed to building up the ones who are already interested and therefore good writers... or have a mix of both
- Instead of writing novels we should write short stories
- Guided reading should be incorporated
- We'll have a strong emphasis on revision

Writing this all out has helped me think, but I want to hear from writers, librarians, teachers, parents, kids... Do you have any ideas? Book suggestions? Websites?

Absolutely Fabulously Thankful on a Thursday

Sometime, maybe a few years ago, Lisa and I discovered that we both love AbFab. Soon, a running joke evolved that she was Patsy and I was Eddy - or maybe it was the other way around - and she said that when we meet in person, she'd buy me a margarita. I'm counting on that margarita, but until then, this AbFab is for you, Lisa.

Anastasia Krupnik and Me

Over at the Mixed Up Files blog Elissa Cruz asked us what literary character are we most like. Here was my answer:

“When Anastasia Krupnik was ten, she grew a pink wart on her left thumb and later in the story, when the wart fell off, she was sad. During my tenth summer, growing up in the Louisiana swamps, I noticed a brown mole growing on my collar bone. As the summer passed the mole kept getting bigger and more interesting. Then one day, I was absentmindedly picking at it and it fell off. As I held it in my hand it started to crawl around! My mole was actually a tick! I was sad to have to flush my summer mole down the toilet.”

I think Anastasia and I would have been best friends.

If you want to hear other writers' answers, click here:

Tell us what character you are most like.

P.A.N.D.A.S. - Update

Last month I wrote a locked post about an 11-year-old friend of mine who has P.A.N.D.A.S., which stands for Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal infections. Now that the family is doing well and I have good news to report, I have unlocked the entry and I deleted the private posts from my readers in the comments sections.

Sometime in the past several months, "Julie" had strep and her antibodies attacked the part of her brain that controls movement. Within a couple of months she developed severe OCD symptoms, tics, Tourettes, and because she was losing the ability to focus, she was having difficulty reading. She would wash her hands for a full half hour and brush her teeth until her gums bled. She spent a great deal of time arranging her stuffed animals just so and in the kitchen she constantly lined up all the drawers so that they stood opened in a staggered position. She told her mother that doing these things just felt like the right thing to do. Most alarming was that Julie's emotions had completely flatlined. She was never happy, never angry, never surprised. Her parents were heartbroken and terrified.

When Julie's mom took her to the family's pediatrician and suggested that Julie's symptoms were the same as PANDAS symptoms, the doctor said PANDAS has not been researched enough and that he didn't believe it was a real disorder. (Note: the doctor recently called Julie's mom and said his opinion has since changed and he's doing some research of his own.) If Julie's mom had listened to him that day, Julie probably would be spending the rest of her life on psychiatric medications.

But Julie's mom persisted. She found a doctor who considers himself an expert on the subject. Although the insurance company was reluctant to pay for the $30,000 treatment, the doctor was able to win them over, and Julie's intravenous immunoglobulin treatment began a few weeks ago. Already she has shown great improvement. In fact, Julie's mom told me she is about 80% back to normal. Her parents had a small celebration the other night when Julie lost her patience about something unimportant and became angry. Hooray for emotions!

Julie's parents are optimistic that she'll make a full recovery, maybe as soon as in the next couple of months. The teachers at Julie's new middle school have been patient and kind with her late assignments and her gymnastics coaches have been wonderful and understanding.

I am thankful to all who have been supportive of my friend and her family. Parents of children with PANDAS as well as doctors have reached out to them. I'm also grateful to Beth Alison Maloney who persevered in finding help when her son suffered from PANDAS. She wrote a book called SAVING SAMMY: CURING THE BOY WHO CAUGHT OCD and helped make this information available to the world.

P.A.N.D.A.S. - the syndrome, not the bear

(September 17, 2010 -- Edited to add: Today I am posting an update on Julie and her PANDAS treatment and I am unlocking this entry. Since this will now be open to the public, I am deleting the private posts from my readers in the comments section.)

I am locking this post for now because the subject matter feels too personal and private to share yet. In time, however, I will either unlock the post or I'll re-post about PANDAS because I think it's something everyone should be aware of. So, if you comment under this locked post and you want me to delete your comment when/if I unlock this entry, please let me know and I will do that.

One of my closest friend's daughter, who happens to be the best friend of my daughter, was just diagnosed with PANDAS, Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorder Associated with Streptococcal Infections. The little girl, we'll call her Julie, is eleven years old and had strep throat several months ago and was treated for it. But apparently the antibodies (not the bacteria) have attacked the part of the brain that controls thought and movement.

The family didn't know anything was wrong until a couple of months ago when Julie began to show signs of severe OCD, tics, focusing problems, joint pain, and other mental disorders. She does things like brush her teeth for exactly a half hour and wash her hands for that amount of time too before bed. She developed other rituals that include tapping her foot a certain way before she takes a step, touching specific items in a particular order, etc. She loves to read, but her lack of focus is preventing her from being able to. She does gymnastics, but her tapping rituals have slowed her down.

It has only been in the past two weeks or so that the parents have figured out that the OCD behaviors are the strep-related PANDAS syndrome. Since then, my friend has taken leave of absence from work and isn't even sure if Julie will be able to attend middle-school in the fall. They are seeking treatment from the best PANDAS specialists in the country and they've heard that there are miraculous recoveries as a result of this treatment.

I've done some online reading, but I was wondering if anyone here knows anything about this disease? Do you know anyone who has it? I'm trying so hard not to be terrified, but I want to be realistic too.

"When I grow up, I'm going to..."

I have been writing for about five or six years, and when people ask me how I got started, I always tell them about the time I met Korean-American author Helie Lee who said to me, "You've got a story to tell, you should write it," and so I did. We were living in Costa Rica at the time and I wrote a children's novel that was loosely based on our experiences there.

So, that's where I had always thought my writing dream began. But the other day when I was cleaning out my closet, I came across a box of my old journals - about twenty or thirty of them, all chock-full of Tales from the Life of Jennifer. I thumbed through the pages and found several comments from various ages saying "When I grow up I want to be a writer." When I was in seventh grade, I'd written, "I will live in Switzerland and write books," and in high school I said "I am going to live in New York and write the skits for Sesame Street." In college I started working on my art, painting and drawing, and I decided that I wanted to write and illustrate children's picture books.

But somehow, perhaps around my twenties or so, the publication dream hid itself away from me. I had great adventures, pursued other desires, and continued to chronicle my own life over those years, but it never occurred to me to write for anyone other than myself.

I'm so glad the childhood dream presented itself to me again. All in good time, I suppose.

Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?

Saturday Six

1. A big group of amazing writers and I have a surprise for you all. We'll unveil on Monday. Stay tuned!

2. I've been having a lot of dreams about poop. Be glad that I'm not going to go into detail because they're gross and make me feel sick to think about them. I'm certain these dreams are writing related. So, what do I need to raise my author-ly confidence: Imodium or Ex-Lax? Both, I think.

3. I feel so guilty for not loving my new laptop. The screen gets real big and then real small without my telling it to do so. It will also scroll up and down all by itself. I think I need to get a desk for it and a real mouse. Have any of you all had problems like this? (Please don't tell me I should have gotten a Mac!)

4. Mike and Little A come home from Costa Rica tomorrow. As most of you know, we lived there and still have our house in the jungle. Little A said sadly that it doesn't feel like home anymore. I miss our simple life there.

5. In writing this post so far, my screen has scrolled down four times all by itself! What the heck! I'm afraid my neighbors can hear me cursing!

6. I'm just about at the halfway mark of my wip. I'm really happy with it!
Listen to this: Author Deborah Halverson (HONK IF YOU HATE ME and BIG MOUTH) is offering her critique expertise in a contest at her blog, Dear Editor. Before writing her own books, she was an editor at Harcourt, so she clearly knows her stuff. To enter the free edit contest, follow the rules listed on her blog.

You can earn chances to win simply by emailing her on her blog, subscribing to her blog, and by electronically posting about her contest on your own blog, FB page, etc.

So, as much as I'd like you to think that I'm being generous by telling you about this screamin' deal, I must confess, I am only posting because I want an extra shot at winning the edit. I NEED to win! THE GRAY MAN is still under consideration with some big houses, but if Agent W needs to start a new round -- fingers crossed she won't have to -- I'd love to have further expert advice on the ms.

Even if you aren't entering the contest, either because you love me and want me to win or because your own ms isn't ready, Dear Editor is still a great resource to add to your bookmarks.

Spring Break!

I wish I could be greedy and hog up all my time this week with writing, but, alas, I can't. My children need my attention and, honestly, I'm grateful to be able to give it to them. A very wise author friend sent me a loving email reminding me to enjoy my kids, right now, in the present. Good advice, dear friend, thank you. Publication will come for me some day and I have a lifetime of writing ahead of me. My children, well, they're only young for a moment. I want to be there for them.

My solution: I'm squeezing in some good writing by waking up at five and having pure quiet time until about nine when J and A wander down for their breakfasts. Then we start our day together. Four hours of writing time everyday isn't too bad.

Need help - Question about tween novels

My current wip really wants to be a tween in spite my agent's advice to keep the story smack dab in the middle of MG. It's a funny, upbeat, and non-message-y story about a boy and girl who've been close friends since they were toddlers and they discover something in their past that makes them become uncomfortable with each other. (I can't tell you what it is they discover, but I guarantee that whatever you're thinking it is, you're incorrect.:) )

The story works fine if the boy and girl are just friends throughout, but I keep seeing that the boy has a crush on the girl and I think it would be fun to see their relationship evolve. This would bring it to the tween category, don't you think? I also keep seeing the kids as twelve-year-olds, which would also make it tween.

I aim to keep it sweet and appropriate for younger kids too. Think along the lines of The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z, or Savvy. Both are books I absolutely love, by the way.

What do you think? Is tween a sought after category? Would I be wiser to keep it more solidly in the MG category?



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March 2011


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