National Poetry Month is almost here, a time to celebrate the beauty, wonder, and wild exuberance of words and poetic forms both for reading pleasure and personal expression.
How might you enjoy National Poetry Month?
There are many ways to savor poetry this month. Your first stop might be your own bookshelves. What about that little volume on friendship your best pal gave you? How about those dusty textbooks from college? If a few years have intervened since your last reading, you might encounter something completely new and unexpected, or long beloved. (Shakespeare’s Sonnets, anyone?)
Consider an outing to the library. National Poetry Month is when volumes of poetry are often on display. Pick out a few that appeal to you. Sit down and sample some random pages. Check out one that “speaks” to your imagination, interests, or (dare-I-say) soul. And don’t forget the children’s section….
I will never forget the day my Mom discovered Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. She was a volunteer in my little sister’s elementary school library and brought the book home with her. When my brother and I got home, she told us we had to listen and read us a poem. I don’t remember which it was because we spent the rest of the afternoon passing the book around, reading, and roaring with laughter. (And please note, Silverstein is not the only author of humorous poetry, nor is the children’s section the only place you will find it. Talk to your librarian.)
Speaking of children, if you have any of your own or perhaps nephews, nieces, pupils… read poetry aloud to and with them. Children’s poetry covers an amazing range of subjects, and if you love long fiction, you can even select a novel in verse. (I just finished a great one, Blue Birds by Caroline Starr Rose.)
Young children especially love the bounce and swing of rhythm and rhyme. Read to them either from a collection of poems, nursery rhymes, or a picture book written in verse. (My all-time favorite rhyming read-aloud is Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat; and whether it is written in prose or not, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are is pure poetry.) Either format is sure to delight. When done, get silly and have fun coming up with rhyming words together. This kind of verbal play is great for building pre-reading skills.
Got teens? Got lyrics? Rap is not the only form of music that is poetry based. Share with each other favorite lyrics from songs—rock, blues, show tunes, even. (They, too, are great for telling a story; I fell in love with Arthurian legend on the basis of the soundtrack for Camelotthat my parents bought after seeing the play.) You don’t even have to sing; savor the magic of the spoken words alone.
Copy down or memorize favorite poems. I often have difficulty falling asleep, and just yesterday I remembered how soothing are the rhythms of “Sweet and Low” by Alfred Lord Tennyson, and “Wynken Blynken and Nod” by Eugene Fields. Maybe this poetry month I’ll memorize one, or both, and recite them to myself as I’m seeking to drift off to sleep.
If you find a line you love, or even a whole poem, post it somewhere it can be appreciated. Thanks to sticky notes we’re not limited to refrigerators and bulletin boards. Or, gift little snippets of poetry to loved ones or friends.
Write poems. There is such a wide range of poetic forms to play with. You do not have to be a Shakespeare and write sonnets. You do not even have to write poems with meter or rhyme. Free verse is truly free. What matters with this form is the distillation of experience into well-chosen words. You steer your reader through the poem with your word choices, line lengths, line breaks, strategic repetition, and the echoes of well-placed rhyme or alliteration, and more. With free verse, even punctuation is up for grabs. (Remember e e cummings?)
I will continue my practice of capturing moments from my life in poetic forms. I love haiku, free verse, and the rhythm and rhyme of quatrains and couplets.
I may pull down the volume of Christina Rossetti I purchased because I love the Christmas song “In the Bleak Midwinter,” which is based one of her poems, and continue reading wherever I left off.
Also, I love the poetry of many hymns. Maybe, in addition to my personal “lullabies” I mentioned above, I will try to memorize all the verses of a few favorites starting with “Be Thou My Vision.”
And I hope to enjoy some read-alouds and giggles with my grands.
Poetry is one of the oldest forms of literature and an amazing means to appreciate language and our world. What are you going to do to celebrate National Poetry Month? Please use the comment box below to respond. Let’s encourage one another!
Today I would like to introduce you to my friend, Gretchen McLellan, author of I’m Done, as well as Mrs. McBee Leaves Room 3 and, coming soon, Button and Bundle. Gretchen has been a friend of mine through SCBWI (that’s the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) Oregon Chapter for many years. I hope you’ll enjoy her and her writing as much as I do.
LL: What was your inspiration for I’m Done?
Gretchen: Kids! In my former life I was a reading specialist in elementary schools. I heard, “I’m Done!” over and over and over again, but the children making this very public announcement rarely understood what being done meant.
I knew that I wanted to write a book with that title, and one day after work I decided to give it a try. I still only had a title, or so I thought. I said to myself, I’ll try this out as an animal story. (I usually write human characters.) Pick an animal, any animal. It was no stroke of genius that a beaver popped into my mind. Then my pen started moving, and this story poured out of me like water breaking through a proverbial dam.
But the unconscious inspiration for this story is much deeper. “I’m Done” is a deceptively simple phrase. Said with joy, frustration, or despair it takes on many meanings, all that resonate with me in the process of writing and in the journey toward publication and beyond.
LL: Describe I’m Done in 5 words:
Gretchen: a joyful celebration of perseverance
LL: What theme/s play an important role in I’m Done?
Gretchen: Perseverance. I am the poster child of perseverance. My journey to publication was as lengthy and arduous as an epic tale. At one point, I thought I was done. Finished. I was quitting writing, abandoning my dream. I knew I could not show up at another conference or retreat unpublished, ever again. I didn’t want to be an object of pity. But at the eleventh hour, I signed up for an SCBWI retreat for the last time, partially lured by the last-day-of-the-early-bird-discount email and the news that there was still a critique slot left with an agent, and partly because I wanted to see my friends.
It turns out I wasn’t done yet.
In that critique slot, I met my wonderful agent. I have two published picture books with three more on the calendar.
I didn’t give up and neither does Little Beaver.
LL: What is it about I’m Done that has turned out to be the most meaningful to you?
Gretchen: Definitely the relationships I’ve made in the making of the book, first with my editor, second with my illustrator.
Working with my editor was a joy. We had several rounds of written revisions that made the story better and better. Finally, the story was ready for the art. Then the f&gs (the folded and gathered pages of the printed but unbound book) arrived, and we had a phone meeting to discuss them. Sometime during the nearly two hours we spent on the phone together, I stopped and said, “Can you believe that we get to do this for work! This is so much fun!” Revising with her was a peak experience.
Next, the unexpected relationship with my illustrator, Catherine Lazar Odell, has been meaningful as well. Authors and illustrators rarely communicate. I have never written or spoken directly with any of my four illustrators during the process of making our books. If I’m invited to comment on the illustrations, my comments are filtered by the editor and art director, and rightfully so. I respect this process. Maybe it’s because Catherine’s and my editor realized how close we lived to each other that she broke protocol. But after the book had gone to press, she asked us if we’d like to exchange emails. We both did. What came next was up to us. Now I have the pleasure of gushing in person about how wonderful her artwork is and doing events together.
LL: What is the most fun you’ve had with I’m Done since its release?
Gretchen: Doing story times at bookstores with an audience of families. I love creating all the adjunct activities that go with my books for story times. My story times involve puppets, fingerplays, chants and crafts, and are always under revision as I try to improve each time. Sharing the stage doing Little Beaver’s voice and not only reading aloud with Catherine but watching her draw Little Beaver with kids is fantastic.
LL: Which of your picture books was easiest to write? Why?
Gretchen: I think I’m Done!, probably because it had been incubating, unbeknownst to me, for a long time. When I sat down to write, it came to me whole with a nibble, nibble, snap. Naturally, I made lots of changes to the first draft, and after the book sold (to Holiday House) made a lot more, before and after the art was in. But the story was there from the beginning.
But being “done” with a manuscript is often defined by the deadline to get the book to print so it can make its release date😊. I’d still like to make a change or two.
LL: Which of your picture books is your favorite?
Gretchen: I’m working with one of my editors on a picture book named I Hate Favorites! Does that answer your question?
LL: Funny! …on to the next question– How does your training as a reading specialist influence your writing?
Gretchen: I have shared a lot of books with a lot of children. I know the spell a good story can cast. Those that speak beautifully to children’s curiosity and hearts and honor who they are and their current developmental challenges are received with a quiet, active listening that is magic during a read-aloud. I try to write so that magic can occur. That involves knowing where kids are in their development as readers and as little human beings.
When I use repetition, rhyme, assonance and word play, I know I am writing in a way that is both pleasing to the ear, but also developing phonemic awareness, a necessary skill in becoming a reader. The nibble nibble snap, scoop scoop pat repetition and onomatopoeia of flish flish swish and wing wing zing in I’m Done! are examples.
When I use an unfamiliar word (for the picture book set) I know I am adding to their vocabulary, sometimes giving children a word at the center of an experience that they don’t yet have a name for. For example, in Mrs. McBee Leaves Room 3, I explore the word bittersweet. The story is about the bittersweet of saying good-bye to a beloved teacher at the end of the school year. In the story Mrs. McBee explains the word to her class with a simile. “It’s like a swirly ice-cream cone with sad and happy twisted together.”
I am intentional about my word choice, aware of the role of picture books in building vocabulary. I don’t write down to the picture book audience, but I also try not to overload them with too many new vocabulary words either. In the reading field we talk about concept load. I can remember having too many new vocabulary terms loaded on me in school. It made me feel both ignorant and like screaming. I don’t want to make this mistake with my readers.
I am very aware that children’s background knowledge, or schema, influences their comprehension of a text. I ask myself what I can reasonably assume that a child knows about the topic (including vocabulary) and this influences what I state directly and what I can leave to the reader to infer. This is important in fiction and nonfiction texts. Reading builds schema, which improves future comprehension. Furthermore, illustrations in picture books do lots of heavy lifting in providing visual information that aids comprehension. I write with the illustrations in mind too.
LL: Describe your early life as a reader/writer.
Gretchen:One of my most precious memories of school is my teacher reading Charlotte’s Web aloud. I couldn’t wait to go to school every day to hear more of that book. I can’t separate my early life as a reader/writer from my life as a listener. I still love the spoken word and listen regularly to books on CD.
I became a letter writer early, because I moved so much. Back in the days before instant communication, if I didn’t write the friends I had to leave behind, these friendships would die. I lived overseas and making international calls was too expensive. So I wrote letters.
My dreams of being a writer came much later when I discovered picture books as a mom.
LL: Describe your “literate lifestyle” now.
Gretchen: On the back flap of I’m Done! is the following:
Gretchen Brandenburg McLellan writes everywhere she can–in barns and bookstores, bathtubs and beds, cars and coffeehouses. She has yet to write in a beaver lodge.
That about says it all. I write where ever I can with whatever time I have, and I try to write every day. I have several projects going at once, setting one aside to gain the perspective of distance and shifting to another. Since publication, I have been doing a lot of business and promotional writing. This kind of writing doesn’t exactly feed my soul. But it is an unanticipated necessity in the life of an author. I need to write fiction to feel balanced.
LL: What are you presently working on, and what’s next for you?
Gretchen: I am revising several picture books and a couple middle-grade novels. I’m always open to the rush of a new idea and honor ideas when they come, because they come with their tanks full. I’ve got a lot of projects stuck in a long line at the pumps.
LL: How can Literate Lives readers help you get the word out about I’m Done?
Gretchen: If readers are willing, requesting the book at their local library is always helpful. Libraries usually honor patrons’ requests, and it’s easy to make one from the comfort of your favorite chair and computer.
Reviewing books on Amazon and Goodreads is helpful as well. This can be as simple as rating the book with the number of stars it deserves for you or writing a quick review that could guide readers to the book.
I think I’m Done! is right for many audiences for many reasons.
For children it’s an entertaining and humorous story about the value of perseverance/persistence and the joy of completing a task that you are proud of.
For parents and teachers, it’s a story that can lead to discussions about what it means to be done and what it takes to stick with something.
It’s a story that promotes social and emotional development. How many of us were criticized for not doing something well when no one ever defined what the job at hand entailed in the first place? I’m hoping that at home and at school, the story will help adults help children understand expectations more clearly and experience success more regularly.
If Literate Lives readers have Preschool-2nd grade teachers in their lives, a recommendation would be fantastic. Every teacher has heard “I’m Done!” and every teacher is looking for texts that promote emotional intelligence, reading development, community, and the value of perseverance.
In addition, I have resources available on gretchenmclellan.com for teachers to download e.g. a Readers’ Theatre adaptation of the story, chants, and blackline masters for crafts.
It wasn’t until I held the f&gs for I’m Done! that I realized the story is a metaphor for writing—and so much more. How do you know when you’re done with a novel? How do you develop the internal guide that tells you to stop writing or painting or carving before it’s too late? I think this book speaks to young and old alike in so many ways. It speaks about the support we need in our creative work, how comradery can be so important to completing a project (and a distraction too!) and how we must develop an inner sense of quality, form, and beauty to know when we are done. So this book is for you too!
LL: Thank you, Gretchen! It is so interesting to learn about I’m Done! in particular, and how you craft your books to help build early literacy skills in young readers. Little Beaver’s story, and your own, are both so encouraging.
I don’t know about my readers, but I most definitely have a little one on my Christmas list who I think might be receiving a copy of I’m Done! this December.
Gretchen’s story about her first book sale continues to inspire me as I seek publication for my own novels.
Have you ever felt, after a lot of hard work, that you were “done” before life surprised you with a wonderful opportunity? Please use the comment box below to share your story.
I love reading response questions and exercises. As a teacher, they served as a means for building my students’ reading skills with self-selected reading; as a parent, they provide valuable conversations starters and opportunities to nurture my kids’ literacy skills (whether reading is done together or side by side); and as a reader, I enjoy how they propel deeper thought about what I am reading, and their usefulness when thinking about writing a review—which helps both authors and fellow readers.
What follows are six reading response questions/exercises to prompt writing or conversations. Before you or your student uses them, however, be sure to read either a whole picture book or for 15 to 20 minutes in a novel
Put on your newspaper reporters hat. Answer the 5 W’s (Who? What? When? Where? Why?) You can even throw in #6—How? Support your answer to each question by including a detail for each from the text.
Play teacher. Write three questions about what was just read: 1) A factual question, a question someone can find written in the text, 2) An inferential question, a question that can only be answered using clues within the text, 3) A critical question, a question that asks for an opinion or conclusion based on evidence in the text. Have fun sharing your questions and answers.
Compare and contrast. How does what was just read compare to a previous book read or movie/TV show viewed? How are they similar? How are they different? Was one enjoyed more than the other? Why?
Be the judge. Pick a character and list three things he or she has done. Pick one of these actions and explain why you think it was a good or bad thing to do.
Make a simple prediction. What do you think will happen next or result from a plan made in your reading? What in the text makes you think this? What do you think will be the consequences of this action or event?
Be a time tripper. How would being set in a different time period effect what you are reading. For example, if the story is set in the past, how would happening now change it. You can choose to jump forward or backward in time. Explain how the change in time period would effect what has happened so far in your reading and might impact the outcome.
There you have it—6 ways to have fun with your and your kids’ reading and improve reading/thinking skills.
Which exercise did you like best? Did you or your student/s write one you’d like to share (be sure to let us know the title and author of the book it’s based on, in case we are intrigued and want to read it.
Or, do you have particular reading response exercise you enjoy using? How about sharing it here? Just use the comment box below.
*Background for graphic: Depositphotos_135562_original
This month’s theme, “A New Season, A New Year, A New Life” will manifest itself the most obviously in a new blog schedule and strategy.
The Biggest Change
Starting this week, I will be posting on Thursdays.
Why Thursdays? I make this change (back to what was, initially, part of my blog schedule) out of consideration of my audience: individuals (including writers), parents, and teachers interested in nurturing literacy both for themselves and their kids.
As we move back into the school year, it occurs to me that many of the nurturing literacy ideas I share need some lead time in order to be incorporated into lesson plans and family activities (which will now mostly occur on the weekend).
Thursday is a good day to introduce ideas for the weekend and following work week.
Blog posts will now be scheduled for the first, third, and (when it occurs) fifth Thursday of each month.
The reason for this change is my desire to share more from my daily reading, and quote, reading response, and writing prompt collections. I have been doing this in the form of “omnibus” posts, which I enjoy creating, but which also keep me from creating more, meatier posts.
Therefore, I am starting an author’s Facebook Page.
What You Will Find Here on Debby Zigenis-Lowery’s Literate Lives?
Here on the blog I want to delve deeply into the reading, writing, teaching and learning life, share more complex Language Arts lesson ideas, and interview writers and possibly even host some guest bloggers.
It is hard to believe summer is nearly at an end. Of course, the season lasts until September 21, but the start of school makes it seem like the start of fall. So before summer of 2018 yields to autumn, let’s pause to appreciate this season.
You will need: a bowl or jar, slips of paper, pens, pencils, or crayons.
Place these in an easily accessible spot in your home.
Tell your family that you want to celebrate this summer and ask them to use the slips of paper to write down favorite activities and memories, then fold them up and drop them in the bowl or jar. (For toddlers and preschoolers ask them what they enjoyed and write it down for them on the slips. Before you drop the slips into the bowl or jar, read back to your child what you have written, pointing to each word as you read it to reinforce the one to one connection between the spoken and written word.)
Set a date for your celebration and encourage everyone to drop in at least one memory/favorite activity per day up until that date.
Plan Your Celebration
Maybe you want to plan a picnic. Maybe you want to plan a bar-b-que. However, you choose to celebrate solicit your family for suggestions of favorite summer foods to create a proper summer feast.
Celebrate Summer 2018
To celebrate, eat together and play together, and make time to read and discuss the slips of paper that have been placed in the bowl/jar.
reflecting on which activities/memories the family liked best
making note of things you want to repeat next year or try in a new way. (For example, if you visited one national park this year and enjoyed it, consider visiting a new one next year.)
listing things you would like to do more often.
Enjoy each other.
If you are a scrap booker or photo album maker, you can use these slips in your layouts to better characterize this time in your family’s life.
What do you do to celebrate and memorialize summer?
If you embark on this particular practice, let us know how it went, what fun twists you might have introduced, how you might do this next year. Just use the comment box below. Let’s encourage one another!
This week my daughter, son-in-law, and grands left on a road trip. To help keep the kids entertained on the way I prepared a travel pack with items for the whole family and for each individual child. (I know; they have tablets with movies and video games, but even those can get old after a few hours)
Travel Folder Contents
For the family:
hidden picture books
decks of cards
For each child (in a sturdy report folder with brads and pockets):
a bag of stickers to decorate their folders, or in the case of the younger grands, themselves
4 coloring pages each
2 scavenger hunt / paper games each
2 Mad Libs
a mechanical pencil
A Little About Some of the Items
Stickers: 1) to be used to individualize each folder (and exercise their creativity), 2) as I said, the younger kids enjoy putting them on like Band Aids (and just manipulating them is good for developing fine motor skills), 3) all of the kids could use them to make collages on the blank sides of the papers in their folders (another exercise in creativity)
Coloring Pages: I tailored each coloring page selection to each child’s skill levels and to the trip itself (coloring provides more fine motor skill practice, eye-hand coordination, and self soothing skills). For instance, they were traveling to my parents’ house, and my parents have hummingbird feeders outside their dining room window, so I found pictures of hummingbirds for the kids to color. Also, my mom plans to take them to see the musical Beauty and theBeast, so I found free, on-line, Beauty and theBeast coloring pages to print out for them. (Note, I did not pack crayons. The grands already have plenty of those, so I did not want to burden my daughter with still more.)
Scavenger Hunts: For the older kids, I created a grid of boxes lettered A-Z. The objective? While riding, hunt out the window for objects that start with each letter and write the name of the object in the boxes (providing observation and spelling/guess-and-go practice). For our pre-kindergartner, the scavenger hunt was similar, except it was for items that fit the basic shapes and colors (thus sharpening her skills at identifying basic shapes and colors). Alas, no scavenger hunt for our little guy.
Paper Games: For the older kids, I printed out a sheet with “supercalafragilisticexpialadocious” written across the top and instructions to make as many words as possible using only the letter in the feature word. These can be made with any word or phrase, for instance, at first they were going to travel the coastal route through the redwood forest, and I planned on making the word “Redwood National Park.” (Note: this activity builds vocabulary, and spelling skills.) Our pre-kindergartner loves mazes so I found a free one on the internet for her (another good builder of eye-hand coordination and fine motor skills).
Mad Libs: I photocopied six fill in the sheets out ofVacation Fun Mad Libs and put two in everyone but the toddler’s folder. (As a Language Arts teacher, I loved Mad Libs for building student knowledge of the basic parts of speech, and my students loved hearing the crazy results of their word lists.) I figured one of the older kids could whisper what type of word was needed in our pre-kindergartner’s ear, so she could still ask the family for each word, and likewise her helper could help her write down the response.
A Book: Again I made sure each book was the appropriate skill and interest level for the older kids (so they can work on maintaining and building their reading skills). For our pre-kindergartner, the book I picked was a folktale I had already read to her.. Therefore, she could look at the pictures and, as she turned the pages, tell herself the story (thus developing verbal and narrative skills). For our little guy, since he got cheated in terms of activity pages, I included 2 board books–one of which features cars and trucks, some of his favorite objects.
It took me way longer to prepare these things than I had anticipated, but it was a labor of love and worth the time. When done, I gave everything to my daughter to dole out along the way as necessary.
I really enjoyed preparing personalized entertainment folders for each of my grandkids. Furthermore, it occurred to me not everything I packed was just for kids. Next road trip with my husband, I will definitely bring along the Vacation Fun Mad Libs .
What do you pack for road trips? If you have children, or grandchildren, what do you include for skill building? What about entertainment? Please share using the comment box below. Let’s encourage one another!
Reading fiction and reflecting on, writing about, and discussing what has been read is a great way to build reading comprehension and other reading skills, as well as deepen understanding of the various elements of fiction.
For the writer, it is a way to learn the craft by examining and analyzing the practices of others.
Read a novel or short story for fifteen to twenty minutes.
Think about what you have read.
Make a list of things you like about a character in the story.
Pick one trait from the list and explain why you like it.
Explain how this trait contributed to your liking of the character.
Share your response with your reading partner, partners, or as a comment here. If you share here, please remember to include the title of the book and its author. Your “response” could prove intriguing enough that someone else might like to read that book as well.
Building Pre-readers’ Literacy Skills
Read a picture book that contains a storyline together.
Ask your pre-reader which character they liked best. Once your pre-reader has identified a character, ask what he or she liked best about that character.
Enjoy a lively “book talk” with your pre-reader!
How did it go? Please share any of your actual responses, observations, or comments. Let’s encourage one another!
Writing to a prompt is a great way to exercise writing skills. Today’s prompt was inspired by a post I read recently on the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts Blog, “How many horns does a unicorn have?”
I found this article delightful and was both surprised and inspired to discover so much variety in the “unicorn species.”
Prompt: Use the writing process to write a description of a unicorn. Use some of the surprising details from the article, dream up your own.
Brainstorm a list of characteristics for your unicorn–both in appearance and nature. Throw down anything you think of. The list doesn’t commit you to using any of them.
Describe your unicorn.
Look back at your description.
Do you use any words that are kind of bland? Substitute in more specific words.
Are there places where a comparison might enhance your reader’s understanding? Use metaphors or similes to create vivid word picture’s in your reader’s mind.
Ready to share? Not yet. Once you have finished revising, proofread your description. Do you use uppercase letters at the beginnings of sentences? Do you use end punctuation at the end? (I often skip these when I’m doing a rough draft because my mind is so focussed on creating.) How about your grammar and punctuation? Remember, writing conventions help to make your writing more easily understood and therefore you communication more effective.
Share your description with your classmates, friends, or family. If they have also written a description, compliment them on the strengths of their writing. Encourage one another.
* Want to do this exercise with a pre-reader writer in order to improve their pre-literacy skills? Read the article to them and point out the pictures. Then ask them to imagine and describe their own unicorn. If you’d like, write their description down as they create it, then read it back aloud, pointing to each word as you pronounce it. This reinforced the one-to-one correspondence between the spoken word and words on the page.
Share your response in the comments box. If you share yours, I’ll share mine. Let’s encourage one another.
It has been fun blogging twice per week through my recovery from mono and over the summer, however, like summer itself, this too must come to an end.
While I love blogging, sharing my life, my reading, my love of writing, and my encouragement for parents and educators, I will be returning to the class room as an educator and will therefore have less free time for blogging.
A Temporary New Schedule
Next week I will begin blogging once per week, and next week’s post will come out on Tuesday.
I will only continue the Tuesday schedule if I do not hear from you.
On what day of the week would you prefer to see Literate Lives bounce into your inbox? Please voice your opinion using the comment box below. Based on your preferences, I will determine and begin blogging on your chosen day for posting.