Read Alouds: Fall 2015

This past week, a service day and some standardized test taking interrupted our regular school schedule, so I didn’t get to teach my normal classes for a couple of days. When the schedule got back to normal, I wasn’t at all surprised by the question that many of my students asked: “Are we doing read aloud today? We haven’t done read aloud in forever!”

As I’ve explained on this blog before, one of my favorite parts of teaching middle school English is reading great books aloud to students. Read alouds happen in addition to the independent reading students are encouraged to do and the whole-class novels that students read for homework and write about for grades. They are for enjoyment and conversation only. Students can choose to write about read-aloud books as they write essays on their final exams at the end of the year, and many of them do, but other than that option, I never quiz students or grade them on their comprehension or recollection of details. And even students who don’t like to read on their own often beg for extra read aloud and complain if we run out of time before getting to the next chapter or skip read aloud when we don’t have class.

But it’s not easy to pick a perfect read-aloud book. I want something with crowd appeal, but that students might not necessarily select on their own. Something new, ideally, so that chances are, no one in my classes will have read it yet. Something that will lend itself to interesting, resonant discussions and encourage students to make inferences and predictions.

It’s especially challenging to find something right for my eighth grade students, because there aren’t a whole lot of books out there that feel just right for eighth graders…or at least not just right to read aloud to them. Most middle grade novels feel too young, and many young adult novels might be great for them to read on their own, but I wouldn’t be particularly comfortable reading them out loud to a group of students who would erupt into giggles any time I had to say a swear word or describe any kind of PG-13 content.

By August of this past summer, I’d read a whole lot of wonderful books, but nothing that felt quite right for my new seventh and eighth grade read alouds. If I were teaching younger kids, I would have seriously considered Kirsten Hubbard’s lovely and intense Watch the Sky, Cassie Beasley’s magical Circus Mirandus, Lauren Magaziner’s hilarious The Only Thing Worse than Witches, Corey Ann Haydu’s poignant Rules for Stealing Stars, or Heidi Schulz’s delightful Hook’s Revenge. If I hadn’t included it as a summer reading choice, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s beautifully written and compelling historical novel, The War that Saved My Life, would have been a contender. But I was still stuck.

Luckily, toward the end of August, as my remaining vacation time dwindled, I found two promising titles on NetGalley that were coming out in September, and both turned out to be exactly what I was looking for.

For seventh grade, I settled on Ali Benjamin’s powerful novel The Thing about Jellyfish.24396876 I hadn’t heard about it before I found it on NetGalley, but clearly my students and I aren’t alone in thinking it’s excellent because it’s now a finalist for the National Book Award. The Thing About Jellyfish is a grief story: twelve-year-old Suzy Swanson has refused to engage in “small talk” since her estranged best friend, Franny, drowned in the ocean over the summer. Suzy has plenty of people who want to help her to heal—both of her parents, her brother, her therapist, her science teacher, and her lab partner—but Suzy shuts them out because she thinks she knows the one way she can make things better. When Suzy learns about the deadly Irukandji jellyfish, she believes she can prove that a jellyfish killed Franny, and then she won’t have to accept her mom’s unsettling “sometimes things just happen, so Franny drowned even though she was a great swimmer” explanation. The book is divided into sections based on the parts of the scientific method, and Ali Benjamin weaves in flashbacks that show different stages in Suzy and Franny’s friendship and lead the reader toward an understanding of what happened between the girls on the last day of sixth grade.

Suzy is an endearing narrator who insists on thinking rationally and scientifically about topics that defy logical explanation. My students like guessing what happened between Suzy and Franny, and, thanks to Benjamin’s nuanced portrayal of Suzy’s character, they like Suzy, root for her, and feel heartbroken for her while also finding her amusing and frustrating at times.

19104829For eighth grade, I chose Shelley Pearsall’s The Seventh Most Important Thing. The Seventh Most Important Thing is set in Washington, D.C. in the 1960s. The main character, Arthur Owens, is said to be fourteen but in seventh grade; I wish he were in eighth grade since some of my students aren’t crazy about reading about characters who are in younger grades and since fourteen-year-olds tend to be in eighth grade, not seventh. But Arthur feels like an eighth grader, and I haven’t had any trouble getting students to buy into his story.

Like Suzy Swanson, Arthur is also grieving; Arthur’s father died a few months before the book begins. When his mother, who is angry with his father for throwing his life away, gets rid of all of his father’s things, Arthur sees the “Junk Man,” who picks through the neighborhood trash, wearing his father’s hat. Furious, Arthur throws a brick at the man and then ends up working for the man collecting seven strange, “important” things as his punishment. The Junk Man, James Hampton, is a real, fascinating historical figure, and I admire Shelley Pearsall’s creativity in bringing his story to life and imagining his connection to a vulnerable but resilient teenage boy. Students have enjoyed puzzling out the bizarre tasks the junk man asks Arthur to complete and attempting to decode his strange way of speaking. The book has terrific art and history tie-ins and an engaging cast of secondary characters.

I highly recommend both, whether you’re reading aloud or not!

Takeaways from Last Year’s Author Events

Now that school is about to start up again, I’m reflecting on the author events we did last year and what I learned from new things we tried. We had some exciting virtual and in-person visits, and my main takeaways from our events may be helpful for others, too, so here’s what I came up with.

Preparing and Being Flexible for Skype Visits


Google hangout with author A. B. Westrick

Last year, we were able to virtually visit with two of the authors whose books we had read as a class. After reading Everybody Sees the Ants, the eighth grade Skyped with A.S. King, and after reading Brotherhood, the seventh grade had a Google Hangout with A.B. Westrick. (Google Hangout seemed to work when there were challenges with Skype and provided a nearly identical experience, so if you’ve had Skype issues, that could be something to try.) In addition, different groups of students Skyped with Varian Johnson and Uma Krishnaswami, two authors I would have loved to host in person if they lived closer.

I’ve been organizing Skype visits for several years now, and my number 1 takeaway is that it pays to be both prepared and flexible. To prepare, it’s great to have students read something by the author. It’s especially great when the whole class has read one of the author’s books, but if that’s not possible, it also works to share the beginning of a book or even a short story or article by the author; when we talked with Varian Johnson, some but not all of the students had read The Great Greene Heist, but all of them were excited because they all read “Like Me,” his short story from the anthology Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices, and “Where are all the black boys?“, a blog post he wrote back in 2013. 

It’s also helpful to have students brainstorm questions ahead of time. If you’re doing a Skype in an auditorium for a very large number of students, then it’s a good idea to plan out which students will ask which questions in what order. However, that’s not necessary when it’s a smaller group (although I find it’s best if I call on students so that the author doesn’t have to say, “Okay, you in the blue shirt. No, not you, him”).

After the students are prepared and the technology is set (it’s always great to have someone around for troubleshooting), it works well when the author knows what he or she will do if students run out of questions. Sometimes, Q and A will fill up the entire allotted time. When eighth graders talked to A.S. King, our time was up before the kids were out of questions. But when a group of students visited with Uma Krishnaswami, Uma offered to read a picture book at the end of the visit, and that was a big hit. If authors are comfortable with the technology, it’s a lot of fun when they have slides or documents to share in order to supplement the Q and A; A.B. Westrick started our Google Hangout with a PowerPoint that included some great photos, and Uma Krishnaswami shared her first edit letter for one of her books.

Thinking Outside the Box with a High School Visit

ilene 2

Awesome turnout for upper school lunch visit!

At the end of the year, we had the opportunity to host I.W. Gregorio, author of None of the Above. Ilene’s book is most appropriate for high school readers, and she has a very busy schedule. The only day she could come was at the end of May, close enough to final exams that high school teachers weren’t comfortable giving over class time for the visit. So we thought outside the box and planned a lunch time visit. To make sure stressed-out students would come, my colleague Maureen suggested that we provide pizza for students who signed up ahead of time. We also enlisted SAGA (the Sexuality and Gender Alliance) to help us spread the word. In the end, we had a great turnout and were glad we weren’t deterred even though the visit came at such a busy time. In general, it can be more difficult to plan high school visits than middle school ones because high school schedules are harder to interrupt, so I think lunch time visits with local authors can be a great option.

Managing Panel Discussions and Book Sales at Local Author Day

Our biggest event this year was a Local Author Day for the middle school. We hosted three authors–Paul Acampora, Lisa Graff, and Dianne Salerni–and we invited fourth graders, who are entering middle school this fall, to join us. Each of the authors visited with one middle school grade before lunch, and then they all had lunch with the writing and library clubs. After that, they participated in a panel discussion for the whole middle school and fourth grade, and finally, they signed books that students had purchased.


Local Author Day panel

All in all, it was a very successful event! The individual presentations were the biggest hit, with the authors offering some writing activities and making connections to each grade’s curriculum. Lunch and the panel were also great opportunities for students to hear from all three authors, and we sold a whole lot of books! We organize author visits in part to get kids excited about reading, and since each author had more than one MG book, there was something to appeal to almost every reader.

When a single author comes to visit, we tend to order their books from their publisher, because the publisher can usually offer a great discount. But for three authors with many different publishers, we partnered with a local bookstore. The bookstore provided books for us at a small discount, and we sold as many as we could and returned the books we were unable to sell. A few of the books sold out, and we had the authors sign bookplates and then ordered additional copies from the bookstore.

It went very well to partner with the local bookstore and have so many books available (seven choices total). We also shared this Local Author Day Book Order Form with both students and parents ahead of time, so many students ordered books ahead of time. If you are hosting authors for a visit (or if you are an author visiting schools), I would highly recommend supplying some kind of pre-order form.

However, a lot of students still wanted to buy books at the event, which was great, except that it got chaotic to make change for them and give other students the books they had already paid for so that they could wait in line to have them signed. Next time we do an event like this, I might want to have one station set up where someone has all of the unsold books and a cash box to make change, and then another station closer to the authors, with all of the pre-sold books to hand out.

Finally, during the panel, we had authors read very briefly (for just a few minutes) from one of their books, then I asked them some questions, and then we opened things up for audience Q and A. Students told me afterwards that they would have liked to hear the authors read for longer, and many more students had questions than we could get to. So even though I love going to events at which a moderator asks panelists questions (and even though I had consulted with students before asking questions), if we do this again, I might suggest that we have the authors read for longer, shorten the time the moderator asks questions, and leave more time for student questions. (Hmm…so minimize the part where I was talking, basically!)

All in all, we were able to connect students with some terrific, inspiring authors, and I’m looking forward to building on last year’s author events and making use of these takeaways! I hope they are helpful to others, as well.

On Writing and the Struggle to Keep Control

I’ve been neglecting this blog for a long time now because even during the summer, when I have glorious stretches of writing time, there are only so many words I can crank out in a day, and I’ve been hoarding them all for the manuscripts I’m writing.

Since I last posted, I finished and revised the young adult book I’ve been working on, and a friend and I jumped into a collaborative middle grade novel (which has been so much fun that I hesitate to say we’ve been “working on it” because it hasn’t felt like work at all), and I’ve played around with the beginning of another middle grade story I started last summer.

The past year has been draining and difficult for me in a lot of ways, and it has felt incredibly invigorating to have so much of this summer just to write—to sink into characters’ perspectives and explore ideas I care about and have some real control over the structure of a plot and the events that happen in a story. Control is something I’ve felt like I’m lacking in parts of my regular life, so it’s been pretty wonderful to have so much control over my schedule and writing this summer.

But the closer I get to having my new young adult novel ready to send to my agent, the more that sense of control starts to slip away because now I’m starting to think about what might happen if (and when, I hope) this book goes on submission to editors. Suddenly it seems like there are too many other YA books that share an element with my new book. Suddenly, even though this book seemed so different from my last two, I imagine getting rejections that are just like the ones I saw for my last two manuscripts.

Plus, after getting very encouraging, “this is so close to ready” feedback on the version of the book I sent to critique partners early in the summer, the response I got to the next version was thoughtful and useful for sure, but it didn’t feel quite as positive. And while I’m trying to take my time with this book to make sure it’s as strong as I can possibly make it, I’m having to be patient about so many things right now, and the idea that this manuscript might not be where I thought it was felt disheartening.

But then three things happened. First, on Monday night, I saw the movie version of Paper Towns. I’ve read Paper Towns at least five times, and for the past three years, my eighth grade students and I have discussed the book in depth and analyzed the shape of the main character’s hero’s journey. So I know the story very, very intimately. At first, I was happily struck by how much of the dialogue in the movie is replicated word for word from the book, but then as the movie went on, I began to notice story lines that had been cut, changed, or rearranged. Some of the elements that don’t appear in the movie are things I really like from the book, and occasionally I burst out with comments like, “This isn’t supposed to happen now!” or “She’s not supposed to go on the road trip!” But despite those moments of resistance, I thought the movie was great. Certain elements were emphasized and other ones were downplayed, but a book with a lot of internal narration can’t just get plopped right into movie form, and I think the the movie version absolutely captures the spirit of the book.

The second thing that happened is that on Tuesday, when I was having a rough morning for non-writing reasons, I was in my car in a parking lot after an appointment and trying to make an important phone call that I needed to focus on before I started driving, and a woman came up to rap on my window and tell me to please do whatever I was doing somewhere else because she had an appointment and needed my spot. So I pulled out of the parking lot, found a quiet residential neighborhood where it would be safe to stop on the side of the road, and burst into tears. That’s not strictly relevant, I guess, but I was trying so hard to do all the right things and be okay, and maybe sometimes we all just need to let go of the need to hold everything together and fall apart parked in front of a lovely house on a suburban street after somebody scolds us for hogging a parking spot. Or something.

And that release allowed me to be a bit more relaxed when I drove to a restaurant where I had lunch with a very wise writer friend who had read the most recent version of my manuscript and had a lot of extremely kind things to say about it but also some pretty major suggestions about switching the way the premise plays out, combining or changing some of the characters, and bringing in a couple of characters who have shaped the main character but didn’t show up in the action. Her suggestions involved completely rewriting the beginning of the book, which I had gotten extremely positive feedback on from my first round of critique partners and at a writing retreat in the spring. She was also suggesting I change one character, the protagonist’s sister, when that sister relationship was one of the things that all of the people who had read the novel so far liked the best.

But the thing is, as much as I like the sister and the beginning, I completely understood why making those changes could strengthen the overall novel. As with the movie version of Paper Towns, I may miss some elements of the first version I knew, but I can see how cutting or switching them will serve the end product.

And so, as I begin this revision, I feel confident that the changes I’m making will preserve (and maybe even amplify) the tone of the story. And I realize that I still am in charge of sorting through and incorporating other people’s suggestions, and while I can’t control whether there are other YA books that have something in common with this one or whether that will be a deal-breaker on submission, I can ensure that my story is as vibrant and fun and meaningful as I’m capable of making it. So I’m energized again, thankfully. And now I need to get back to work!

Relating to a book vs. liking it: A(nother) case against “girl books” and “boy books”

At the end of lunch a couple of weeks ago, a group of seventh grade students called me over to their table to tell me that they’d been talking about our read-aloud novel, Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead, which will come out this August, and they had a suggestion. On double period days, we should read aloud for twice as long as we do on regular days because they were so eager to find out what was going to happen.

“Except not today!” one of them said. “I have to go to the doctor and won’t be there, so you shouldn’t read aloud today at all!”

Then, during class that afternoon, I tried to stop after a particularly juicy chapter ending, and everyone begged me to keep going.

That’s exactly the way I want read alouds to go. I want students to be excited to talk about our read-aloud books and to look forward to the next chapter. And I’m especially happy that Goodbye Stranger has been so popular because at first I wasn’t sure whether or not I should use it.

9780375990984That’s not to say that I didn’t immediately fall in love with Goodbye Stranger, because as soon as I got to read an advance copy, I did. I adore the cast of well-developed characters and the poignant friend and family dynamics. I’ve used Rebecca Stead’s last two novels, When You Reach Me and Liar and Spy, as read alouds in the past, and Goodbye Stranger includes a lot of the same features that made those other two books work so well to read aloud: beautiful writing, lovable characters, thought-provoking ideas, and a puzzle for readers to work out.

But When You Reach Me and Liar and Spy appealed equally to boys and girls, and when I first read Goodbye Stranger, I wondered whether boys would like it as much as girls would. A lot of the novel is about the changing friendship dynamics of three seventh grade girls–Bridge, Tab, and Emily–as Tab discovers feminism and Emily starts to get a whole lot of attention from an eighth grade boy, and I wondered if the novel would be as much of a whole-class crowd pleaser as I wanted it to be. When I stopped and thought about it, though, I realized that there was plenty in this novel that would engage the whole class; there’s a mystery high school character who slowly reveals why she is so upset that she’s skipping school on Valentine’s Day, there’s a boy who can’t understand why his grandfather left his grandmother and his whole family out of nowhere, there’s a girl trying to make sense of what it means that she survived a terrible accident even though medical professionals told her she shouldn’t have, and there’s some powerful exploration of the kind of peer pressure and bullying that can happen over texting and social media. It’s an excellent book, and I believed that it was worth sharing.

A week or so after we started Goodbye Stranger, author Shannon Hale wrote a powerful20708771 blog post called No Boys Allowed: School visits as a woman writer. This post has rightfully received a whole lot of attention, so you may have seen it already. In the post, Hale describes her experience visiting a school where she presented to all of the elementary school students but only the girls from the middle school; middle school boys were not excused from their regular classes. One middle school boy who had loved one of her books got special permission to attend, but he was too embarrassed to come. And another elementary school boy wanted to wait until everybody else had left–even his teachers–before asking Hale if she had a copy of The Princess in Black, the book she had read from at the end of her presentation.

This school had sent a message to boys, loud and clear: they were not supposed to want to read books about girls, written by female authors.

Excluding boys from a female author’s presentation is an extreme example of a problem with the way we present reading options to boys and girls. But Hale also discusses subtler examples: “[W]hen giving books to boys, how often do we offer ones that have girls as protagonists? (Princesses even!) And if we do, do we qualify it: ‘Even though it’s about a girl, I think you’ll like it.’ Even though. We’re telling them subtly, if not explicitly, that books about girls aren’t for them. Even if a boy would never, ever like any book about any girl (highly unlikely) if we don’t at least offer some, we’re reinforcing the ideology.” She then points out that while lots of people might tell boys they’ll like The Hunger Games “even though” it’s about a girl, people probably wouldn’t tell girls they’ll enjoy the Harry Potter books “even though” Harry is a boy.

Reading that part of Hale’s post, I realized that I was guilty of some of that same thinking; I had questioned whether or not boys would like Goodbye Stranger since parts of it are about female friendship dynamics, but I probably wouldn’t have questioned whether or not girls would like a book about male friendship dynamics. And as Hale explains, that kind of thinking suggests that the male experience is somehow more universal and more important than the female one, and it contributes “[t]o a culture that tells boys and men, it doesn’t matter how the girl feels, what she wants […]. No one expects you to have to empathize with girls and women. As far as you need be concerned, they have no interior life.” Clearly, this is not the message anyone wants to send. It’s not fair to boys or to girls.

After reading Hale’s article, I was feeling relieved that I’d gone ahead and chosen Goodbye Stranger for our read aloud, but then we reached a scene in which two female characters, Tab and Em, have a disagreement. In the scene, Bridge, Tab, and Em, three of the book’s main characters, are in a convenience store, brainstorming ideas for their Halloween costumes, and an eighth grade boy named Patrick walks in with some of his friends. Patrick and Em have been texting each other increasingly daring photos of themselves, and Bridge and Tab don’t understand what Em is doing and think she should stop immediately. Patrick’s last photo was of his bedroom doorknob, and when Patrick walks over to the girls, Tab says, “Nice doorknob.” As soon as Patrick and his friends leave the store, Em gets angry with Tab.

When we finished reading that chapter, one student said he thought Em had overreacted when she got mad at Tab for mentioning the photo to Patrick. Other students immediately jumped to Em’s defense, explaining why she was so embarrassed by Tab’s comment and why Tab should have known better. As we debated the issue, it became clear that most of the boys in the class thought Em had overreacted and most of the girls in the class took her side. We talked about why that might be, and it came out that more of the girls in the class could relate to Em.

Prompted by that conversation, I shared Shannon Hale’s blog post with the class. The students were surprised to read about Hale’s experience, and as we talked about the article, one student’s comment really struck me: “Relating to a book and liking a book aren’t the same thing. I don’t need to relate to something to like it.” So even though some of the boys didn’t really relate to Em, that didn’t mean they weren’t as into the book, or that they were getting any less out of reading it.

And actually, that scene led the class to talk about some pretty important ideas: things like how much confidentiality we expect when we share a secret with a friend, and what happens when somebody thinks they’re teasing but they’ve still done something hurtful, and how it feels when we trust someone and then feel that they’ve betrayed our trust. It was a valuable conversation for everyone in the room, male or female, middle-school-aged or adult.

For me, that conversation emphasized that we do everyone a disservice when we assume that boys won’t enjoy or benefit from reading books that focus on female characters and are written by female authors. In a book as layered as Goodbye Stranger, different readers can find different aspects to connect to, and even if there are some elements that some readers don’t connect to, that doesn’t mean that the book isn’t for them. We need to trust that kids can select the books they want to read without confusing the matter by telling boys that certain assemblies aren’t for them, or by creating book covers that appeal to some potential readers but alienate others. And we need to trust that good books are good books, period.

Student-Author Interview 13: Robin Herrera

9781419710391_s3Back in the summer of 2010, I was just starting my MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and Robin Herrera was graduating. At Robin’s graduate reading, she read a funny, poignant excerpt from a novel about a girl named Star Mackie, and I was hooked. I couldn’t wait to read more about Star, so I was thrilled last year when Robin’s book came out and I finally could!

Hope Is a Ferris Wheel tells the story of Star, an unforgettable character who lives in a trailer park with her mom and her older sister Winter, writes hilarious vocabulary sentences that she doesn’t turn in to her somewhat clueless teacher, and says things like, “Heavenly donuts!” Star is determined to find real friends and convince everyone her layered haircut is not a mullet, and she starts a poetry club with an unlikely crew of members: two boys named Eddie and Langston, who are stuck in detention, and a sweet girl named Genny plus Genny’s grumpy brother Denny. When a couple of surprising revelations shake up Star’s view of her family, she turns to Emily Dickinson’s poetry to find a new kind of hope.

Sixth graders Emma, Mia, and Carly read Hope Is a Ferris Wheel and had some excellent questions for Robin.

First, here’s what the girls liked most about the book:

Carly: I really liked how the book always left me wondering, especially about
Winter. I also liked how Star learned to live with things not going her way, and I liked how she ranted about her life in her vocabulary sentences.

Mia: I liked how when Star thought something was going to be so good it turnedemma.mia.carly (1) copy out awful, and when she thought something was going to be awful it turned out to be good. I also liked how she learned from Winter that you can’t always get help from other people and sometimes you have to rely on yourself.

Emma: I liked the ending with the postcard and how it made me wonder what would happen next. It was funny how Star wanted to start a club because the club kept not being what she wanted, like she first wanted a trailer park club and then an Emily Dickinson club. I liked how the club ended up being a poetry club and Eddie helped her, and I liked when her teacher finally read her vocabulary sentences.

And here’s what they wondered about HOPE IS A FERRIS WHEEL and Robin’s writing process:

Carly: Was the book inspired by your childhood in any way?

Only a little bit. While I never lived in a trailer park, I did live in an area with a lot of trailers, and had a close friend who lived in a trailer—though not in a trailer park! Her family owned some land, and instead of a house, they had a trailer.

A few of the details, like Star shopping at thrift stores and her admiration of Winter, were definitely based on my childhood. My sister and I didn’t have a great relationship like Star and Winter have, though. We didn’t get along until we’d grown up.

Mia: How long did it take you to write the book? How long have you been writing?

It took me six months to write the first draft, and I spent about three and a half years revising the book over and over before my agent sold it. I’ve been writing for about ten years now, even though Hope Is a Ferris Wheel is the first book I ever finished writing!

Emma: Did you have your plot already planned out or did it come to you as you were writing?

I only had a few details of the plot planned. This book definitely did NOT have an outline, which I don’t normally like to do! I wrote the book in chunks and figured things out as I went, but it did make revising MUCH harder. I’m working on another book right now and I had a pretty detailed outline for it.

Mia and Carly: If you were to make a sequel, where would it start and what would be included? Or if the book had an epilogue what would be included?

Note: if you haven’t read HOPE IS A FERRIS WHEEL yet, you might want to skip over the second paragraph of Robin’s answer.

I do have an idea for a sequel, though I’m struggling to write it. It’s more of a companion, which is kind of like a sequel but usually just involves the same characters. The companion would follow Eddie immediately after the end of Hope Is a Ferris Wheel, and his struggles with school, his life, and co-running the newly-minted Poetry Club. There would also be a lot of Langston. Star would be a more minor character. I’m hoping I’ll get it written someday!

I can tell you about Winter, if you’re curious. Around the time I finished the first draft of Hope, I found out my sister was pregnant with her first child. That kind of informed a lot of what I thought Winter would do, so in my mind Winter keeps her child, a boy, and moves out of the trailer into another trailer in Treasure Trailers. She’d keep up with school and eventually move out of the trailer park, too, and Star would be the world’s greatest babysitter.

Emma: Did you come up with the poems that Star, Eddie, Genny, and the others write? How did you come up with them?

I did! They were very fun to write.

I like poetry, but I really love writing it. The problem is, I write silly, funny poems. But it turned out that worked perfectly for this book!

Genny’s haikus are similar to the ones I wrote when I first learned about haikus. Star’s poems were very much keyed off of Emily Dickinson’s, filtered through her own innocence. Langston’s, of course, was very easy to write!

Carly: Why does Denny have such a problem with Star and Winter?

Why indeed? The short answer is that he’s kind of a stick in the mud. Very serious, very ordinary, and very resistant to change. He’s also very protective of his sister, and doesn’t want her becoming the “free spirit” kind of person she’s becoming. So since he doesn’t like people who are too different, he doesn’t like Winter. And since he doesn’t want his sister becoming too different, he doesn’t like Star, whom he thinks is pulling his sister in that direction.

And last but not least, the girls had a lot of questions about when Robin was in middle school!

Mia: Did you have to write vocabulary sentences as a kid and did you like them?

Yes I did! And I loved vocabulary sentences. I had a game I’d play with myself whenever we got a fresh batch of vocabulary words. Basically I’d try and “hide” the vocabulary word in the sentence, make it feel as natural as possible, so that if someone read the sentence, they wouldn’t be able to tell which word was the vocabulary word. So this resulted in some very long, rambling, or convoluted sentences, much like Star’s.

Emma: Did you ever not turn in vocabulary sentences or any other assignments?

There were assignments I didn’t turn in, though not purposefully, like Star. In 5th and 6th grade I was actually a very bad student and hardly turned anything in! My family was going through a pretty rough time, so I never got in trouble for it, really… but after the rough times, when I entered 7th grade, I did a complete 180 and started turning in all my work. Weird, huh?

Mia: Did you ever start a club?

No, although I was a “founding member” of a club in high school. We were called “The Movie Crew,” and we’d go see a movie every Friday, all through high school. The group grew in numbers, but always retained a core group of about four of us. We even had shirts and hats!

Carly: Star doesn’t like her teacher Mr. Savage and wishes Miss Fergusson were her teacher. Did you have any teachers like Mr. Savage or Miss Fergusson? Did you have any teachers that you didn’t like, or were there any teachers you wished you had but didn’t?

My 5th/6th grade teacher was very similar to Miss Fergusson. Her name was Ms. Lawson and she had that same tough but fair demeanor, underneath which she was very sweet and really cared about all her students.

I never had a teacher like Mr. Savage, but I did have some bad teachers. One of my teachers in high school I think judged me harshly because he’d had my sister. (She was normally a great student, but he had her when she was a senior, after she’d already gotten into her college of choice, so she often blew off his class.) I had another teacher who often said mean things—not about me, but about other races and cultures. He was old as dirt, so no one ever called him out on it, but now I wish I had. I also had a teacher in college who for some reason didn’t like me. I never figured out why, either.

Emma: Did you ever have a friend who had a sibling who didn’t like you, like Star has with Genny and Denny?

I can’t think of anyone, actually! But my sister hated all of my friends. Does that count?

Thanks so much for writing HOPE IS A FERRIS WHEEL and answering our questions, Robin! Oh, and if you’ve read Robin’s book (or if you want to, now that you’ve read this interview), you should check out Robin’s awesome blog posts that include her drawings for all of her characters! Here’s the one for Star, and she has posts with drawings of her other characters too:

Why Teach Analytical Writing?

Welcome back for the final installment of my series on teaching analytical writing. If you’re new to the series, you can check out my series introduction, which provides some context, and the next three posts in which I explained how I break down the essay writing process to teach analytical paragraphs, thesis statements and topic sentences, and introductions and conclusions. Now I want to wrap up by considering why analytical writing is important to teach and learn.

When my seventh grade students started to work on their essays this winter, a student raised his hand and asked, “Why are we doing this?”

One of his classmates spoke up, reminding him that the essay was important because I’d said it was worth 100 points and that was more than most of the writing assignments they worked on.

Another chimed in, too. “And she said we’ll have to write lots of essays in high school, so we need to learn how to do them now.”

“Yeah, I get that,” the first student said. “But why? Why is it worth so much, and why will we write so many in high school?”

The question of why the assignment was worth so much had a simple answer: we were going to work on it for a long time, and I tend to determine how much an assignment is worth based on how long we spend on it. But I had to stop and think for a while before I could answer the rest of his question. I ended up telling him that each discipline at school teaches critical thinking in some way, and in English class, students learn to think critically by analyzing passages, recognizing patterns and symbols, and seeing what they can notice by breaking down sentences and focusing on the effects of individual words and sounds. I explained that essays ask students to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate, and these are sophisticated skills that will help them with other complex tasks and problems throughout their lives. I pointed out that writing an analytical essay forces students to slow down and look very closely at small chunks of text, and in a world of overstimulation and constant rushing, it’s valuable to learn to slow down. And I said that it’s important to know the basic rules of a genre of writing so that you can use them when they work for you and break them when they don’t.

The student seemed satisfied by my response (I even asked him to paraphrase what I’d said a few classes later and he remembered the gist of my answer) but the truth is, I’m not sure that I’m completely satisfied with it. I know that academic discourse isn’t without problems. When I studied Rhetoric, Composition, and the Teaching of English in graduate school, I read a lot of articles about how academic discourse tends to privilege those who come from positions of power–students whose parents went to college before them, students who get to attend elementary and secondary schools that have lots of resources, and students who speak English at home. I learned about the code-switching that has to happen when students use one kind of language at home and have to learn to use another, more authoritative and definite, academic language at school. And the bottom line is, even with all of my methodical, color-coded handouts, there are kids who still really struggle to grasp the accepted conventions of analyzing texts.

The best compromise I can come up with is to be as transparent as possible as I break down the essay writing process, to share lots and lots of examples, to allow students to push the boundaries of the form when they want to, and to give students other, more informal and creative ways to respond to texts as well, whether in writing or in conversation.

And in the future, I’m going to pose the question that one seventh grader posed this year; I’m going to ask students why they think they need to do this kind of writing, and what they think they learn from it. I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on the reasons for writing analytical essays, as well, and I hope you’ve found this series helpful! Tune in later this week when I’ll post an exciting new student-author interview!

Teaching Analytical Writing: Introductions and Conclusions

Now that I’ve described the way I teach students to write the core of an essay (by constructing an essay skeleton and crafting TIQA paragraphs), I’m ready to discuss the last two essay elements: the introduction and conclusion.

Yes, the introduction comes first, and when I write my own essays, I usually start with it. But when students are learning how to write essays, I find that it works best to tackle the introduction after the body of the essay is mostly set. That way, students don’t spend time getting the introduction just right and then have to scrap it if their main points change or if they end up repeating something from the introduction in one of their body paragraphs.

The way I see it, a traditional analytical introduction has four main elements: a hook, a link, some summary, and the thesis. Here’s a document I use to teach introductions. It offers more details about these four elements, breaks down some possible types of hooks, and provides an example introduction. Students can think of the introduction as an inverted triangle with the point at the bottom; it starts somewhat general and relatable and then gets more specific.

The conclusion, on the other hand, is shaped like a right-side-up triangle with the point at the top. (Although not literally, of course. Literally it’s just shaped like yet another blocky paragraph.) Conclusions are tricky because it’s boring if they merely repeat the points of the essay without offering anything new, but it’s confusing if they suddenly bring up a brand new topic.

Here’s a document that offers some specific strategies for conclusions and includes an example conclusion. Basically, a conclusion should recap the essay’s main ideas, ideally without being too repetitive, and then it should consider the broader implications of the essay’s topic, come to some kind of evaluation of the literary work in question, and/or come full-circle back to the hook.

When I talk to students about structuring traditional, five-paragraph-or-so analytical essays, I often think back to when I was in middle school, when we were working on essays and a classmate said he already knew how to write them. “You just tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em; then you tell ‘em, tell ‘em, tell ‘em; then you tell ‘em what you told ‘em,” he announced.

Oversimplified? Definitely. But in a very basic sense, my middle school classmate was mostly correct. The introduction “tells ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em.” The body paragraphs “tell ‘em, tell ‘em, tell ‘em.” The conclusion “tells ‘em what you told ‘em.” The other resources I’ve provided here offer some concrete information about how to do all that telling, and I hope they’ve been helpful! I’ll have one more installment of this series: a post that asks the question “Why teach analytical writing?” and summarizes my thoughts.