Modeling Good Writing

In an NPR video series on Billy Collins, the poet laureate was asked how young poets could get started writing poetry. Billy Collins responded, “it’s such dull advice, there’s really no key to it, you just have to read, read poetry for 10,000 hours.”

Immersing young writers in models of fine writing was an idea echoed during a 2017 NCTE conference session on literary magazines. This session was a wonderful brain trust for individuals new to sponsoring a school’s literary magazine. In addition to bringing back copies of other schools’ literary magazines, I brought back the advice repeatedly heard: provide student writers with models of good writing and read, read, read.

In an earlier AISL blog, “Inspire Writing with Memorials,” I mentioned that our library and student LitMag editors are sponsoring a writing contest. Our LitMag editors were challenged to make promotional posters that not only advertised the contest, but also featured a poem example reflecting the contest theme of memorials or collections. As our LitMag editors searched for models of well-crafted poems, the library poetry book shelves became a cornucopia of inspirational ideas.

Below are two examples of poetry books that sparked imaginations, along with students’ poem reflections and poster design decisions.

Bravo! by Margarita Engle.
Margarita Engle, named in 2017 as the Young People’s Poet Laureate, celebrates the lives of Hispanic people from all walks of life in this collection of poems.

Poem Reflection:
LitMag editor, Sebastian, chose the poem “Life on Horseback”and explained, “this poem is a memorial to a Mexican-American cowboy named Arnold Rojas (1898-1988). Due to lack of job opportunities for immigrants, he worked as a farmworker. He leaves that job for a more exciting life as a cowboy. This poem emphasizes that you must take pride in your work and if you don’t, you should search for a more meaningful job.”

Design principle for poster: Symmetry.
Silhouetted horse heads face each other on the poster and displayed below are flags of Mexico and the United States of America, indicating the duel heritage of cowboy Arnold Rojas.

Maya Angelou (Poetry for Young People).
This collection of poems by Maya Angelou display her emotional connection with struggles
and triumphs of African Americans, including the struggle from oppression to attaining
lives of dignity.

Poem Reflection:
LitMag Editor, Alex, chose the poem “One More Round” and observed, “this poem shows a man who loves to work and believes his work is much more than slavery:  ‘I was born to work but I ain’t no mule.’”

Design Principle for poster: Repetition.
An intricate assembly line shows miniature factory workers heaving, hoisting, and loading large flour bags onto automated belts. These bags of flour are being processed so another man, drawn above the assembly line, can enjoy a bowl of cereal. Alex reflected that his drawing shows “a man that’s just eating a bowl of cereal and is treating it like any other. Look further down on the poster and you can see the work that goes into making this bowl of cereal is worth a whole lot more than it looks.”

This process of selecting poems to model well-crafted writing was a creative stretch for our LitMag editors: an opportunity both for design thinking and personal reflection on how poems communicate to an audience. The finished posters are now displayed throughout the school, inspiring our young writers through reading poems by established poets.

For further exploration of how writers rely on models of good writing, see these books that celebrate famous poets:

Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets
by Kwame Alexander, Chris Colderley, and Margery Wentworth
Kwame and co-authors pay tribute to famous poets by imitating the poetic style or enkindling the emotional connection of these poets.

Boshblobberbosh: Runcible Poems for Edward Lear
by J. Patrick Lewis
Lewis, the 2011 Children’s Poet Laureate, writes poems in the style of Edward Lear to honor Lear’s whimsical language and playful use of the sounds of words.

To read more on how NCTE supports school literary magazines, see REALM Awards (Recognizing Excellence in Art and Literary Magazines).

Inspire Writing with Memorials

Memorials promote powerful, personal encounters with moments in history.  I recently created my own memorial to commemorate a time in which my newly married parents were separated during World War II. The assemblage of photos and letters documented the years 1942-1945, when my father, JJ, was setting up radio communications in Iceland while my mother, Wanda, worked in an ammunition plant and then, later, stayed at home raising a newborn son (my brother, Joe).

The centerpiece of the memorial was a newspaper clipping that featured a story about my mother’s drawing of my father holding his newborn son. The idea that prompted the drawing was that JJ had never seen or held the newborn. Wanda created the drawing by viewing a photo of her husband in uniform and then adding the baby in his arms.  When Wanda sent this drawing in the mail, the army “censors” discovered the drawing; they then shared the drawing and story with the St. Louis newspaper.  A photographer at the newspaper created a photo montage; using a photo of my father dressed in his army uniform, the photographer combined it with the baby’s photo.

The collaged photo appeared alongside my mother’s drawing. In the newspaper story, she explained, “You see, he has never seen, much less held his 11-month-old son.  So, to fulfill his desires as best I could, I sketched this picture of him holding his own flesh and blood.” Wanda also added “We write each other every day and the mail arrives on an average of once a month, so, at times, I get as many as 30 letters in one day.”

In addition to this newspaper clipping, the memorial contains several letters that JJ wrote, including the letter that tipped off Wanda about his destination in the war.  Before JJ left for army training, they discussed that letters would be censored (“Idle Gossip Sinks Ships” was stamped at the bottom of his army stationary). So my father devised a code: when he knew the location of his war assignment, the first word of that letter to my mother would indicate the country by the initial letter of the word.  JJ’s letter dated on November 11, 1942 began “Incidentally, as you know all my letters in the future and as of now are subject to censor….” He intended to signal that he would be stationed in Iceland, but my mother in a panic thought the letter “I” stood for Italy and that JJ was headed to the fierce combat.

A final item that I included in the memorial was a harmonica.  As the story goes, when my father arrived home to be welcomed by my mother and the 2 ½ year-old son, a son he had never seen in person, my young brother clung nervously to my mother’s dress, fearful of this tall, strange man with the booming voice. My father crouched down and dropped the duffle bag from his shoulder. As he unzipped the bag, he brought out a shiny harmonica, blew across it, and handed this magical, musical object to his son, winning him over.

This memorial was created as an example for a student writing contest that the library is sponsoring this fall, inviting students to create their own memorial or collection of things that have a special significance.  Students will then be encouraged to write a short essay or poem about how this collection is meaningful to them or suggests a special moment in history. In creating my own memorial, I rediscovered the importance of the bonds of love in the face of separation, and I realized that creativity can defeat challenging hurdles. Memorials can help us connect to our shared humanity; as author and historian David McCullough often states, “history is about people, history is about being human.”

Write for Your Favorite Professional Journal

Is there a particular journal that you really enjoy reading? Your favorite journals are always looking for writers. Why not write an article, on a topic that you are passionate about, for that special publication?

AISL bloggers explore current library topics, entertaining lessons, intriguing displays, research, etc. Bloggers, you might want to turn one of your blog posts into a journal article. We have compiled a list of publications and their writing requirements, plus an article, Writing for Teacher Librarian: A Guide to the Process, which is an excellent resource to read before submitting your work to any journal.

Open your favorite journal link below, and read the submission instructions. For periodicals like Educational Leadership that describe upcoming themes, select one for which you can make a case for your expertise and a unique point of view.  Others, like Literacy Today, want you to submit a proposal before you write.

Always read one or more issues before you start the process.  When you write for an audience other than school libraries, recognize that the more you can “speak” their language and reflect their goals, the better your communication will be.

Instructions for Submitting Articles

ACCESSPOINTS(ATLIS – Association of Technology Leaders in Independent Schools)

Educational Leadership  (ASCD – Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development)

Independent School (NAIS – National Association of Independent Schools)

Independent Ideas Blog (NAIS Blog)

ISTE Publications (International Society for Teaching Technology in Education)

Kappan Magazine (Journal for Educators, members of Phi Delta Kappa)

Knowledge Quest (AASL)

Knowledge Quest Blog

Literacy Today (International Literacy Association membership magazine)

Rethinking Schools (social justice teaching and educational policy)

School Library Connection

School Library Journal

Teacher Librarian

Teaching Tolerance (social justice teaching and anti-bias topics)

The Publication Group members are available to help you observe, brainstorm, organize, synthesize, and edit your writing. Or, in design thinking terms we can help inspire, ideate, and implement your ideas. We look forward to hearing from you.

Don’t forget to list your AISL membership in your biographical information.

Our next blog post will discuss Editorial Calendars for the different journals.

 

Debbie Abilock: dabilock@gmail.com

Tasha Bergson-Michelson: tbergsonmichelson@castilleja.org

Dorcas Hand: handd51@tekkmail.com

Christina Karvounis: KarvounisC@Bolles.org

Sara Kelley-Mudie: sara.kelleymudie@gmail.com

Cathy Leverkus: cathyl@thewillows.org

Nora Murphy: NMurphy@fsha.org

Writer’s Block

I’d like to start by thanking my friend and colleague, CD McLean, for stepping in on my behalf last month. I did indeed have some family circumstances that kept me from blogging, but I’m back now and ready to write.

Or am I? Therein lies the problem. I knew my deadline was approaching and I pondered it aloud in the kitchen one night as my husband and I prepared dinner. “Middle school,” I said. “I have no idea what to say!”
“Maybe you should write about writer’s block,” he joked.
I dismissed this initially and decided that was too obvious and gimmicky, but . . . here I am.

Writer’s block is a condition that plagues all of us from time to time: this is especially true for students, except they are even more handicapped by their youthful inexperience and their general feeling of invincibility. How many times have you witnessed a kid furiously scribbling out the last sentences of an essay ten minutes before it’s due because “I work better under pressure!” A little pressure can inspire a good performance, true, but chances are the muse dances more gracefully if her tune is not quite so breathless.

As some of you know, I have a summer job. As well as a library degree, I have degrees in art history and I was a lecturer at various colleges before I became an independent school librarian. Thus, I spend my summers writing reports for a company that authenticates works of art for galleries, insurance companies, auction houses and collectors. So basically this means I write research papers for money, except mine are legit and not those horrible “use this as an example!” ones for $24.95 on Cheaters-R-Us.com. I have a deadline to meet (and the pressure of deciding if someone’s family heirloom is a valuable original or worthless fake). I don’t get a grade but I do receive a reward, so to speak. My process is exactly what you’d expect: do some research, create a bibliography, sketch out an outline based on the evidence, give examples to support my argument, fill in with some prose, wrap it up, proofread, and submit.

So how do I overcome the problem of writer’s block, and what advice would I give to a seventh grader writing a three-pager about volcanoes?

Do the grindstone kind of work while waiting for inspiration. Can’t think of an opening sentence? Put together your bib instead. Can’t decide on a conclusion? Go back and reread some key passages in your research. Can’t figure out what your third example should be? Rewrite your intro. If most of the major pieces are in place well before the deadline, then the writer is afforded the luxury of just waiting for a beautiful first line, or graceful segue, or perfect conclusion. On the other hand, if the writer is too busy finding three volcanoes that all erupted in the last 50 years the day before the paper is due, there’s no room for real inspiration and the result is a mediocre essay at best.

It leaves room for serendipity, too. There have been times when I just couldn’t draw a conclusion or felt like my evidence was inadequate, and simply having the time to accidentally discover something useful while skimming a random book or even watching a TV show is priceless. What if there were a PBS program on Mt. St. Helen’s with new facts that completely blew apart the writer’s conclusion? Three days is plenty of time to rewrite page two and make a spectacular final essay, but jamming in an ill-placed sentence the hour before it’s due is veering into C territory, or worse if the writer ends up contradicting herself.

There’s no magic recipe for convincing middle schoolers to get it done early, but if we shepherd them along carefully, eventually they’re bound to see that a well-paced process allows for discovery, thoughtful examination, rewriting, and happy accidents. To make it real I try to share something of my own process when I give research lessons, and they always focus on the remunerative part of it, to which I say, “Sure, I get paid for it . . . IS YOUR GRADE WORTH LESS THAN MONEY?” No kid in his right mind says yes, so they shake their heads and get to work.