Saturday, December 28, 2019

2019:Shoes, Stories, and Skypes...oh my!  

It was wonderful to be back on the road in schools again in 2019!  With my trusty road crew (husband Mike),  we toted our writing workshops and presentations to more than 25 schools and libraries in Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and New York.  Virtual visits connected us with 12 other places across the country. 

Enjoy some favorite photos from the year showing shoe writing joy!, cardboard wisdom, pyramid building, research magic...and more.  (And if you are looking for an in-person or virtual visit this May, we still have a few openings left.  Contact me through my website for more details.)

Monday, December 9, 2019

In Praise of School Janitors

It is probably no secret that I have a special place in my heart for school janitors. 

I can name the first one I ever met: Mr. Boder at Hanna Elementary, where I attended school as a child.  He was a regal, soft-spoken man with iron-gray hair and (I seem to recall) a slight English accent.  In another place or time, he might have been the perfect butler for a queen. 

Later on, when I started my first job in education, my aunt (who was a lifelong teacher) gave me one piece of advice: always make friends with the school custodians. “Trust me,” she said. “They will matter a heck of a lot more than your principal.”  

Sure enough, as I struggled through my first year of teaching fourth grade—stressed and constantly sick—it was Janitor Steve and his wife who showed up at my apartment one afternoon with an enormous pot of homemade pasta to keep me alive.

(In fact, Steve kept all of us going as teachers. He was our daily sounding-board—the keeper of our rants and our sanity.)

As a traveling author now, I meet janitors far more often than I meet principals.  I’ve met janitors who write poetry and ones who impersonate Elvis.  Janitors have read my books and hauled our equipment through wind and rain and snow—and done emergency “clean-ups in aisle 5” during writing workshops (no explanation needed!) 

It’s no coincidence that janitors appear as characters in three of my seven books:  There’s Mr. Joe who protects the students and their project from disaster in All of the Above, mysterious Mr. Ulysses in my upcoming book Things Seen From Above, and of course—Mr. Hampton, the former janitor turned artist in The Seventh Most Important Thing.

So, this holiday season, let’s recognize and PRAISE the unsung angels, men and women, who clean up our schools and keep everything (including us) going each day. 

 As Mr. Hampton says about the angels in our lives: “Some are like peacocks. Others are less flashy. Like city pigeons. It all depends on the wings.” Thank an angel today.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Writing with Your Halloween Candy

Are you more like candy corn or lifesavers?  I ask students this question in one of my writing workshops. 

It is a way to get kids to think more creatively—more imaginatively—more divergently—which (if you haven’t met me) is a “soap box” issue of mine.  I talk about it constantly.  It keeps me awake at night.  Because I truly believe our students won’t be able to solve the extremely challenging problems of the future if we don’t work on developing their creative thinking skills today.

So, if you are a teacher (or just a random person reading this blog) and you are staring at that large bowl of candy that you weren’t able to hand out last week because of the inclement weather (okay, gale-force winds and rain) that blanketed much of the country on Halloween – try this out:
Which candy are you most like?  Least like?  Why?

You can write about it. Talk about it. Turn it into a poem.  If you teach school, have your students bring in a piece of candy from their Halloween stash—the candy that most represents/ reflects them.  Not their favorite one. Not the one they’d most like to eat.  The one that is most like them.  Have them write about it, talk about it, turn it into poem…

Here’s mine: 

I’m a pack of lifesavers, mostly sturdy and strong. Except for the hole in the middle of who I am.  That’s where the loved ones I’ve lost used to be.  But around those empty spaces are determined circles of sweetness.  And color. And resilience.  That’s who I am.  I go on.

(You can also choose candy for some of the great characters in children’s literature: What candy would be Harry Potter? Or Hermione?)

Your turn.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

A Circle of Orange:Writing With Incarcerated Youth

A circle of anonymous orange shoes. 

At the end of September, I spent two days with the Ohio teens who wore these shoes.  If you asked me to describe the group to you, I would say that, as a whole, they were bright, chatty, and creative girls. They seemed like typical teenagers—like the daughters of your next-door neighbors.

Only they were incarcerated. 

The girls who wore these shoes were being held in a juvenile facility in SW Ohio.  Most were serving 10-day sentences before their court appearances. I worked with two groups of boys and two groups of girls.  The average age was fifteen or sixteen years old. Some were younger.

At times during my visit, it was easy to forget that these teens were behind bars.  They talked easily and thoughtfully about favorite books and pets and family members who meant a lot to them. We had conversations about grief and loss—and what it means to be an outcast like the character of Arthur Owens in my book, The Seventh Most Important Thing.

(Nearly all of these kids considered themselves to be outcasts.  Many had suffered the recent loss of at least one close family member.)

But there was no escape from the ever-present sound of their incarceration: metal doors slamming and locking.  It is this sound that always brings you back to the shocking reality that you are inside a correctional facility for youth.  The reality reverberates through the antiseptic halls. It sets your teeth and your brain on edge.  

The sound was a constant reminder of the fact that these teens were not innocents—all of them had committed crimes.  Some serious, some minor.  In one of my groups, there was a boy accused of attempted murder.

In other words, this wasn't the Boy Scouts.

It is easy to be overwhelmed by the weight of the lost potential when you are sitting in front of these lost kids.  It is hard not to question: what went wrong here? Or how could we, as a society, have kept this from happening in the first place?  You can’t help thinking that maybe there has been some mistake and this shy, soft-spoken child shouldn’t be here.  You want to fix things—to erase the page. 

In reality, you can’t.

That’s the tough lesson of juvie. You can’t fix very much about these kids’ lives.  Yes, some will be scared straight, but others will go back to worlds and circumstances you can’t imagine.  A fair number will end up in juvie again.

As a visitor passing through their lives, I knew I didn’t have much to offer.  I couldn’t change the circumstances of their lives. All I could give them was a break—a few hours to be someone else and to set free the creator, the artist, the writer, or the reader inside of them.

Using a box of Goodwill cast-offs, the teens created characters with me. We created characters from shoes that sparkled and lit up and ran the length of basketball courts and jumped in mud puddles.  There were no anonymous orange slip-ons in our imaginary worlds.  No forgotten juvie kids.  Every person was noticed—every shoe had a story.

In between the orange shoes in the blogpost photo, you can see the shoes that each girl chose to write about.  (I can tell you that there was at least one very gifted writer among this group.)  I like to think that maybe this photo illustrates the potential of these anonymous teens—the people who they might have been—and still might become.

And maybe it pushes all of us to see a little more.

Monday, September 9, 2019

School Success: Potlucks and Principals

As the new school year gets rolling, I’ve been thinking a lot about education in America.  Over the years, I’ve been inside a wide variety of schools as an author.  Rural, suburban, public, private, Muslim, Quaker, Catholic, rich, poor, free and incarcerated—you name it, I’ve probably seen it. 

The diversity of American education can be head-spinning. But there are a few things that seem to hold true no matter where I am:

First – just like a book…you can’t judge a school by its cover.  I’ve been in some truly impressive schools that were so decrepit on the outside, I half-expected the kids to be wearing hard hats and hazmat suits inside.  At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve seen schools with all the latest technology and designer furniture and glass atriums…and not much else going for them.

Second – I know this will sound obvious, but principals really do matter more than anything else in a school.  Good principals = good schools. Almost always.

Over the years, I’ve developed my own totally random list of what makes an excellent principal.   It does not include things like: “achieves the highest test scores.” It does include things like: knows the name of every child, smiles at kids and staff (and authors), is willing to sweep up cafeteria floors or wipe down yucky tables when necessary, knows exactly what is happening in the school on any given day, is excited about learning and conveys that excitement, participates in nearly all school events, is someone who motivates people to be better people, is a leader that everyone (from parents to custodians) respects and appreciates…

Schools that are lucky enough to have these excellent principals tend to hold onto them very tightly.  Like rare gems. They don’t let them leave or move or retire easily.   I know of one principal who still goes on his school’s eighth grade Washington, D.C. trip as a chaperone every year—although he “retired” several years ago.     

That’s the kind of dedication I’m talking about.

Third—I have a theory (completely untested) that teaching staffs who cook together, stick together.  

When I’m in a school where the teachers have pulled together a lunch potluck on a Friday—or for any special occasion, I’ve noticed that it usually isn’t a one-time event.  They cook for each other often.  They have favorite recipes and dishes that they share. They joke around with each other. They seem to genuinely like hanging out with one another as colleagues and friends.

Here is my theory: Potlucks = teamwork = school success.
Add in a dash of excellent leadership (an excellent principal) and you have a successful school.

And don’t worry too much if you don’t have a glass atrium.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Being the Lion Tamer: Why I Love Speaking to Middle Schoolers

Picture an auditorium full of seventh graders.  It is right after lunch.  The room is literally vibrating with barely-controlled energy and noise.

As you take the microphone, there is a brief, breathless moment when everything stops.  All eyes focus skeptically on you—the short, brightly-dressed stranger at the front of the room. You are suddenly aware of the fact that being eaten alive is just as much of a possibility as being an inspiration. It could go either way.

Although it probably sounds crazy—this is the moment I love the most as a middle school speaker.

Facing the sea of unfamiliar faces, I'm instantly transported back to my own adolescence.  I attended Greenbriar Junior High, a public school in a working-class suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, where I was just as awkward, impulsive, angry, sad, tender-hearted, idealistic, and totally freaked-out as the middle schoolers in front of me. 

And that’s the place that I always start speaking from.   

I begin with my failed attempts at being published in middle school because who hasn’t experienced the sting of rejection?  I read from some of my truly dreadful middle school poetry because who hasn’t put their heart and soul on paper (or online) at least once? 

Then I plunge into the process of writing for a living.  I’m unafraid to say that some days I hate writing, especially when it takes eight or nine drafts to get something right.  I talk about how much money I make—or don’t make.  And I usually mention my unsuccessful effort to contact Oprah after the publication of my first book—because all of us need to reach for an impossible dream once in a while.

In other words, I try to keep it real when I’m speaking to middle schoolers.  My audience may—or may not—care who I am or what I’ve written.  What they want to know is this: What can I tell them about who they are?

Often I’ll get letters from students after the author visit—or a note slipped into my hand before the school day ends.  The letters will say things like: “Thank you for showing me that it is okay to not fit in and it’s okay to be different.”  Or: “I really liked how you weren’t afraid to laugh with us and talk about your mistakes.”  Or “thank you for showing me that my writing dreams are possible.”

Occasionally I’ll receive a self-published novel from a middle schooler during a visit. (Yes, some of them are secretly writing and publishing their own books!)

For me, that’s the proof that these middle school gigs matter, even though they can be frustrating for authors.   Unlike elementary school visits, it often takes a “village” to pull together an author visit in a middle school.  Lack of PTA funding and staff support, rigid curriculum requirements, and demanding bell schedules can all be major roadblocks to bringing in an author for tweens and teens.

But for schools who make the effort and time commitment— the experience of meeting an author can be a life-changing one for older students. It’s why I focus on them.

Actually, I’ve only been eaten alive once in the past seventeen years and that was by an audience of first and second graders packed into a stifling school gymnasium.  They were so out-of-control, I had to put down the microphone and literally walk out of the room.  

I learned an important lion tamer lesson that day—stick to what you know.