The Writing Classroom – Summer Reading Story Quilts

It may still be 15C out in the middle of August here in Vancouver (we’ve had what amounts to five days of truly hot weather this season), but the kids are out of school, the pool is open, and we are in full summer mode for a few more weeks.

That also means that my creative writing classes were PACKED (and I mean packed) with young authors who knew they need to keep reading and writing during the long break but also didn’t really want comma worksheets and book summaries.

My secret plan to keep them going was to bribe them with pizza. They received long reading lists and daily writing tasks at the beginning of the term. The pizza at the end of the Summer Reading Challenge Rainbow proved the key to getting them to read more than 100 novels this summer.

The way we kept track of it all was a bit sentimental, a bit creative, and a bit old-school community building.

We made a Summer Reading Story Quilt.

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Over the course of eight weeks, the kids got to make a quilt square every time the read a new book. Around the edges, they had to come up with symbols that stood for the theme, the characters, or a literary device used in the novel. Then, in the middle, they drew their favourite scene and captioned it.

Admittedly, there was a wide range of engagement, but they had fun using their brains in a different way, setting reading goals, and achieving them.

For me, this was also a demonstration of how much can be accomplished by taking learning one step at a time. When we started, the wall looked pretty sorry and everyone wondered if we could ever fill it.

Within a couple of weeks, the quilt started to take shape.

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Kids would pile in to see what others had read. They named their teams in order to identify which squares belonged to them and counted to make sure they were in the race for the pizza at the end.

Yesterday, the final square made it up onto the wall.

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The kids couldn’t believe how much they accomplished and we all marveled at the 100+ books read over the course of the Summer.

Now, time for the celebration!

The Summer Reading Challenge Quilt

I am totally loving the Summer Reading Challenge quilt my writing group students are making right now.

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Each student has a list of books they have to read this Summer, and the way they log them is to create a square illustrating their favourite moment in that book.

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Six teams.

28 students.

There will be more than 300 squares on that wall by the end of the Summer.

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My favourite part is how it reveals how everyone interprets a piece of literature differently. Every book shapes the individual in its own way.

When A Student Paints Your Portrait

One of my Grade 8 creative writing students painted my portrait and delivered it to me before our session today.

It may be one of the sweetest gifts I’ve ever received from one of my budding authors (and, apparently, illustrators).

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by Joanna Fu

Managing Corporate Clients & Creative Muse

I got up this morning planning to work on an article for a corporate client. This is pretty straightforward work, crafting a piece based on an interview I did last week about a technical topic I’ve done a fair bit of reading up on.

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Segmenting my days into mental spaces is something I attempt to practice with some level of religious commitment. It’s a serious business to go from corporate article to fantasy novel writing to lesson planning for creative writing classes. I need to keep a clear head to stay clear on my goals.

However, my devotion to schedule-related doctrine wanes with embarrassing regularity, especially when I get distracted by a digital rabbit hole.

Welcome to my morning, where I got up and went to YouTube to put on ten hours of cello music. Instead, a video on an ancient religious order called The Scarlet Council appeared in my feed (I feel like I’m stating the obvious, but I love a good historical conspiracy theory). How could I refuse such an offer to delve into ancient mysteries?

Well, it’s 2.5 hours later and I’m back into corporate mode – black turtle neck and hair up in a bun ready to bust out some business-focused material.

The reward is I wrote thirteen pages of The Woman On The Wall  (1500 words or so) while listening to the 70-minute video despite the fact I’m getting a later start than I wanted to on the other work.

This is my life, trying to balance curiosity and the need to create with my more intellect-based writing projects.

I’ll shift again in about two hours, prepping for an evening teaching creative writing classes.

Despite the chaos, it’s satisfying to know I’m quite capable of connecting my deep calling to write to everything I pursue in life.

Lately, people ask me why I write and I just tell them, “For me, writing is the mother blood. Everything else manifests as a result of it.”

 

When Kids Learn to Love Poetry

I admit it, poetry was never my favourite thing.

In fact, it’s easy and honest to say that I’ve spent pretty much no significant period in my life reading any sort of rhythm or rhyme.

For a long time, I dismissed such musings outright.

Who wants to read stuff that you have to guess at the meaning?

Rhyming, whatever!

I’m a novelist, not a poet!

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Then, of course, came children.

I read SO MANY RHYMING BOOKS when my kids were little, and I started to realize the true cantor of words. Then, how spoken word carried a lyrical quality when written well. Then, how writing poetry could help me become a better long-form writer.

I was hooked and slightly ashamed at my willingness to dismiss such a gorgeous art form.

As I started teaching creative writing, I used it as a way for kids to develop their descriptive writing skills. The results are often amazing

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This past week, I introduced my wonderful Grade-1 student, Rickie, to this sort of magic. He got to take home a copy of the lovely Children’s First Book of Poems with illustrations from Cyndy Szekeres.

He pored through it for the last week, and got to pick out the one that made his heart sing.

It was, indeed, a lovely tale about a lonely puffin who traded eating fish for making friends with them (and got to eat pancakes instead, bonus!).

 

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We spent time today learning how to use descriptive words to write a rhyming puffin poem of his own, and it turned out so great.

In the end, though, the biggest win from all of this poetry was receiving an inspired text from his mom over the weekend with him reading a newly minted poem written by Rickie himself. Then, I got to see the hard copy of it today:

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Why Summer Reading Makes You Smarter (Reading Lists for Every Age Included)

In the beginning, there was the word.

The word came in the form of Richard Scary’s What Do People Do All Day? 

It evolved into The Aristocats (I also owned the LP record for my wee orange record player).  I must have read that book and listened to those songs a hundred times tucked away in the quiet of my bedroom closet which I transformed into my very personal 7-year-old reading nook.

Then, I found The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe and I knew—reading was my thing.

No one really had to guess what I was going to be when I grew up, words stuck to me and with me.

I became the girl that reads everything.

Now, about two weeks before the end of school each year, my notorious book nerd status earns me about a billion conversations with other moms about how to keep the reading love (or at least requirement) going over the 10-week break about to descend upon us.

They know the Summer brain drain is real (seriously, kids lose so much when skills are not applied, like getting all flabby after not exercising for 2.5 months). However, getting most kids to read is exasperating at the best of times. When the sun is out, the pool is calling, vacation keeps them from any sort of normal routine, and parents are checking off the days until they can return their children to the care of saintly teachers, getting kids to read is, well, ya know . . .

Reading is pretty much the number one Summer brain activity.

It’s a great way to chill out, ground after a long flight, stay busy on a car trip, cool off in the tent with while camping. It’s a fantastic way to explore the world right around you (by parents grabbing some content-specific books before heading out on a trip or a day activity).

I supplement my kids’ learning all the time without them even knowing it by passing along guide books or identification books. They get storybooks on owls and fairies. I slip a fiction novel into their backpack, knowing they will love it once they’ve gotten over that their phone doesn’t work in the wilderness.

There are lots of ways to slip the reading in this Summer.

In terms of dedicated “reading” time, I’d tell you to go all free range and let them read what they want, join the library Summer reading club, or stuff like that. Let’s get real, though. Free range means they read Archie comics all Summer—fun, but not brain food. Summer reading club at the library is, well, usually not effective because we, the parents, are lousy at getting our kids to the ACTUAL library.

However, reading groups that give a few dedicated hours a week to discussing literature are a great way to make sure your kids are getting their brain food. In my writing groups, we are jumping into Summer reading love too.

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Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

 

This year, all of my writing groups are going to get down to business with some serious reading through Summer reading challenges. I had them pick the genres and “approve” the books we’d read in each group over the next 10 weeks.

Then, they get started and read until their faces fall off. 🙂

I’m not monitoring their reading in the sense that we are not doing weekly quizzes. However, they will have to know the books to make the art, write the stories, create poetry, go on scavenger hunts, and write vocabulary songs. They earn points all Summer, not just for reading, but for all of the other goodness too.

And, they are competing against the other classes for a pizza party at the end of the Summer.

Yep. It’s a little extra work on my part. However, I can report that even my most reluctant readers are totally into this Summer challenge.

If you are in Vancouver and want to get in on one of the reading challenges, CONTACT ME and I will hook you up.

Otherwise, I wanted to spread the Summer Reading Challenge love and share the reading lists I’ve developed. You can download them by clicking on the links.

HAPPY SUMMER READING!

Primary Grade Reading List

Middle-Grade Reading List

Young Adult Reading List

Fan Art From My Students

I’ve been REALLY quiet on the blog and social media this past week as I am a bit low on energy. The last couple of weeks of school are always a challenge to get my family across the finish line, and I am—well—a bit of a grump.

However, nothing warms the soul like some fan art from your students.

This appeared after my all-girl Saturday class. I love it so much.

Young Author Spotlight – The Scariest Trip by Bonnie Xu

Note: This week’s featured story is from Grade 6 young author Bonnie Xu. Her vivid imagination and love of storytelling inspire Bonnie to put so much effort into her work. Relatively new to Canada, she has struggled with writing foundations such as homophones and verb tense. However, this week she took some big risks writing a mystery that was a bit out of her comfort zone. It turned out a wee bit scary and really fantastic.

 

The Scariest Trip

By Bonnie Xu

 

My class went to the famous dark forest for an adventure trip. Mostly, I just wanted to explore new creatures. It didn’t turn out how we imagined it would be.

It was the scariest trip ever—so creepy and mysterious. That day will live forever in everyone’s memory and I shall be the girl who lived.

The night was so silent we could hear our own breath. I stopped and all of the footsteps stopped. It was weird, but I could still see my two best friends in front of me in the distance.

“Amanda and Sarah!” I yelled.

It was no use, they kept on moving.

I was very weary and chose to stay behind to rest for a minute and then catch up to them. I slowly turned my head a little and  . . .

“Ahhhhhhhhhh!”

They were no longer my classmates but instead turned into walking skeletons.

“No, no, this can’t be happening,” I thought as I trudged along. “Now what? I have to salvage my two best friends just in case they also turn into skeletons.”

How would I do it? Not in the gloomy night! There was no way to rescue my friends and get out of there. I didn’t even know where they were. At that second, I heard a familiar scream and could see a strange looking house not far from me. Sarah, I realized immediately, was in danger.

I felt like I was running faster than a jaguar, even faster than a rocket. I zoomed past where I was before, sprinting toward the house without blinking. I kicked the wooden, cracked door open with a BOOM!

“Enter will die” was written everywhere on the entrance wall, but I felt brave. I was not scared anymore.

I saw something handing in the middle of the hallway—a bloody head. It made me fall on the floor. I noticed who it was the first second I saw it. I couldn’t stand it anymore. My heart broke and I began to bawl. Poor Amanda.

“Aha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha,” said a creepy voice. I looked to where the sound came from and saw a wicked witch.

“What did you do to Amanda and Sarah, you ugly fool?” I shouted at her, eyes full of tears.

“You don’t address your queen like that. Otherwise, she will also be dead,” commanded the witch.

I turned around trying to figure out who the “she” was. I saw a girl hanging from the roof by a rope. A sparkly, sharp knife was right in front of her neck. I dreaded losing another friend.

“What do you want then?” I asked, confused.

“That! Power!” answered the witch.

“What on Earth are you talking about? My necklace, power? All that I want is my friend and to leave this place right now!” I shouted at the witch.

“Hmmmm. You give me the necklace, I’ll let you go,” she said slowly as if she didn’t care.

I was never going to give her my necklace. My parents gave it to me before they died in a plane crash.  The necklace was the only thing I have to remember them.

“Have you decided yet, you fool?” the witch spoke.

“Bonnie, don’t!” Sarah called out.

That just made everything worse.

The sparkly knife poked into Sarah’s throat. Her blood splashed everywhere.

“Noooooo!!!” I roared and turned to the witch. Flames of fury appeared in my eyes.

“You shall be dead!” I shouted, holding my necklace tightly, hoping there was real power. I closed my eyes and concentrated.

“Flash!”

The red lightning came from my necklace. That was the most powerful magic I had ever seen.

And, I survived.

I woke up in my bed two days later. All of that crazy stuff seemed like a dream, but I knew it was not.

 

Header image courtesy of  Rosie Fraser on Unsplash

Teaching The Lost Art of Letter Writing

I admit it, I’m a bit of a romantic.  If someone truly wanted to win my devotion beyond imagination, a pile of handwritten letters detailing our moments together and our deepest connections wins.

Sadly, letter writing careens quite close to the dead art category. With e-mail, texts, Snapchat, and Twitter, it seems no one recalls the magic of eloquent storytelling in the form of a hand-written personal narrative which connects two people and their shared experience.

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Photo by John Jennings courtesy of Unsplash

However, ditching the romanticism for a moment, I do believe the craft of letter writing holds a slightly secret place in the realm of mastering the art of written communication. It also gives you an edge in competitive academic as well as work environments.

A well-crafted thank you letter in the proper situation can launch you from just another person to thoughtful friend, colleague, to a top candidate. It is the key to becoming memorable, which is so much of the battle in life.

In fact,  university admissions teams from NYU and Columbia stated recently that a well-crafted letter following up with them can take an applicant to the top of an application pile. Fortune 500 CEOs have already said that, all job candidates being equal, they will take the one who communicates best in writing.

Knowing how to reach people matters.

That’s why I love to teach it in my writing groups. Students usually come into class thinking, “Well, this is going to be an easy couple of hours. Boring.” and leave thinking, “Mah ghad, that was crazy hard and I loved it.”

It blows their minds.

As challenging as most people find it, they also end up discovering pieces of themselves along the way.

Here’s how I hook them on letter writing:

First, I set the tone and mood with a sweet short film, “Joy and Heron” by Passion Pictures:

Thank you letter writing is all about bringing joy to someone else. If you can start with that, a special quality comes through in the writing.

Now, on to the actual writing:

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Photo by Aaron Burden courtesy of Unsplash

Creating emotional connection through an introduction or hook.

This is my favorite part. Students are usually stumped big-time by this little bit, thinking they should be able to start with “Hi” or “Thank you” right away.

I get them to think about a memory between themselves and the person they are writing to. How can they spark that, start the fire of service or family, devotion or love which drove the other person to connect in the first place?

I call this the big warm hug, where letter writers wrap their arms around someone and say, “I remember. This meant something to me.”

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Tell the reader why they got this little gem.

A transition in its most grammar nerd form, this part of the letter really serves to set the reader up for all of the goodness to come.

“I’m here to say thank you for. . .because . . .”

The letter is getting so good now.

Thoughtful details.

The middle of the letter is where most of the energy either builds and creates a truly meaningful experience, or it dies in a wimpy “so what?”.

When I ask students to provide thoughtful details about how a person has influenced their lives, it goes beyond the typical “You have helped me in so many ways.”

“What ways?” I ask, much to their frustration.  “This is a person you know well, with whom you have personal experiences. Share those experiences. Help them understand why they made a mark on you.”

GAH! Everyone is erasing like crazy and cramming in details, realizing they are going to have to re-copy this letter rather than just write it once and be done with it.

They think I’m evil for a moment until they see how those personal details make the letter sparkle.

Pull it all together.

Everyone loves a bit of dramatic flair. Use those thoughtful details to build to a joyful culmination where everything comes together and you explain to the reader how each detail lead to their greater impact on your life.

Whoa.

Usually, kids are blown away by this detail when they read it back to me. Even they had no idea, until writing that paragraph, the level of impact a person had on their lives.

There’s some real magic happening by the time they choose their closing salutation and sign their names.

However, there is one final part which I think happens too often when beautiful, emotional letters are written—you can’t forget to drop it in the mail.

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Photo by Kristina Tripkovic courtesy of Unsplash

Now, imagine yourself after a long day at the office. You climb your front stairs and retrieve a beautiful, hand-written letter from the mailbox.

Inside, a student, friend, or family member carefully crafted a letter sharing their warmest memories of your time together. Then, they thanked you for the experience.

Before that moment, you may not even have known those moments mattered.

Then, joy.

Words are magic.