Teachers Write Special Guest Donalyn Miller, on “Writing Where You Are”

Happy Friday! Congratulations on wrapping up your first week of Teachers Write 2013 – it’s been amazing to read your brave ideas and to watch writerly relationships growing. Many thanks to all who shared this week or commented to cheer on other writers.

Every Friday this summer, the party moves over to Gae Polisner’s blog for Friday Feedback, a chance to share your writing, get some feedback, and give feedback to others, too. Wondering how to do that in a helpful, supportive way? You may want to check out this essay I wrote for the Stenhouse Summer Blogstitute last year:

How to Critique Writing

It includes excerpts from the real editorial letter I received from my kind, smart Walker/Bloomsbury editor,  Mary Kate Castellani when we were working together on THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z. and offers specific ideas for how you can use Mary Kate’s strategies to encourage writers and to help them think more deeply about their work. So check this out, and then head on over to Gae’s blog to give it a shot.

But before you do…I promised some surprises this summer, and I’m thrilled to share an extra special guest post today from none other than The Book Whisperer herself…Donalyn Miller.

Donalyn is a classroom teacher, blogger, and author. Her first professional title, THE BOOK WHISPERER, has encouraged teachers around the world to set aside the worksheets and dioramas and focus on real, authentic reading in their classrooms. Donalyn’s next book, READING IN THE WILD, comes out in November.

I think READING IN THE WILD will be one of the most important books you’ll read this year. It focuses on what makes a Reader… not a lower-case school reader who goes through the motions, but a lifelong Reader with a capital R, who lives and breathes words and loves to learn and inhabit new worlds. Can teachers help kids become that kind of Reader? Donalyn says yes and shows us how, with vivid examples from her own reading life and classroom.

Today, she’s sharing a bit more of her writing life with us in a special guest post that explores how you might get started writing about your own classroom, too.

Write Where You Are by Donalyn Miller

When I was a kid, writing well was part of the school game. I never wrote outside of school. I was told that I was a good writer. I earned high grades on my writing from teachers—the only audience who saw my writing. In high school, I wrote my assignments in the car on my way to school, while my best friend, Larry, navigated his Ford Pinto around potholes. I dodged my English teachers when they asked for my rough drafts. I never wrote any; it seemed like a waste of time. I don’t think I was ever taught how to write. I was a student of what my fellow Texan, Gretchen Bernabei, calls the “Ass/Ass” method of writing instruction: assign the writing, and then assess it. For me, writing was an obstacle course of grammar, mechanics, and formatting. I wrote the papers my teachers assigned, earned my A, and gave my papers to my mom to hang on the fridge.

Even after I became a language arts teacher, I didn’t write outside of school. I wrote in front of my students as a model—because my mentors told me I was supposed to—but that was it. Writing for the sake of writing held no relevance for me. I didn’t have a clue about how to teach writing. I knew that something was missing, and I was at a complete loss to figure out what it was.

During my fifth year of teaching, I enrolled in grad school. Every week that fall, I sat with colleagues, Audrey Wilson and Jennifer Isgitt, listening to them talk about the National Writing Project and how much it changed their professional lives. The fire I saw in their eyes when they talked about what they had learned about writing and teaching during the Summer Institute compelled me. I wanted that fire, too. I applied to the Writing Project that spring.  I wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting myself into, but I didn’t care. I only wanted to be a better writing teacher.

Spending a month that summer surrounded by other teachers as we wrote and shared our stories changed me. I finally understood that to be a better writing teacher, I needed to write. I began keeping a notebook and jotting poems and essays about my daughters. When school started, I recorded anecdotes about my students and our days together as readers and writers, too. Showing my real writing efforts with my students terrified me, but I discovered that sharing my writing life with my students helped them write better. Writing outside of school for the first time, I began to see myself as a writer.

Early that school year, I received a call from Elizabeth Rich, an editor at Teacher Magazine. Elizabeth had worked with my principal, Ron Myers, a few years before and she contacted him to see if he had any teachers who could write a one-shot “Ask the Mentor” column for the magazine. Ron told her, “I have one.”

After introducing herself, Elizabeth asked, “I hear that your students read 50 books a year without any rewards or incentives. Is that true?”

I replied, “Isn’t reading its own reward?”

She responded, “Well, how do you do it?”

Put on the spot, I realized that this was not an easy question to answer, “I don’t know. It’s like I’m some sort of whisperer. I talk to the kids about books and they read them.”

The moniker “The Book Whisperer” stuck as did Elizabeth’s original question, “How do you do it?” Through my writing, I have been trying to answer that question ever since—both for myself and for the people who read my writing. That first “Ask the Mentor” column turned into three. Teacher Magazine invited me to write a blog. I remember thinking at the time, “I won’t tell them that I don’t know the first thing about blogging.” When several publishers approached me about writing a book, I thought, “I wonder how long it will take them to figure out that I am not a writer?”  Whenever I receive an invitation to submit an article or write a blog post, it still surprises me. Don’t they know that I am still trying to figure out how to be a good writer? Don’t they know that I struggle with writing and hate it some days?

Dorothy Parker famously said, “I hate writing, I love having written.” I relate. I do. Discovering that I am able—in spite of crushing insecurity and my complete lack of discipline—to write something worthy amazes me.

I think it is OK to admit when we have a love/hate relationship with writing. The most important thing is to keep writing. We are writers because we write—nothing more, nothing less.

Penny Kittle talks about Writing Territories—topics that writers revisit again and again. My territories include my daughters, my love for nature, and my childhood stories. Mostly, I write about my students and our shared lives as readers and writers. As teacher writers, recording our classroom stories can be a great place to start writing. For teachers, writing about our classrooms is the ultimate reflective practice—we see how our daily interactions and observations inform our thinking about teaching and learning. We also capture our remarkable students, their experiences, and how they shape our lives.

Think about your classroom and your students. What moments stick with you? Record your daily anecdotes in your notebook. Start with what happens in your classroom each day. What did your students say and do? How did you respond or feel about what happened? What did you notice that was funny or insightful or poignant? After recording an event as well as you can, dig deeper into what this moment reveals about your teaching and your interactions with your students. Did this moment move your students forward somehow? What did you learn? How did this moment build community among your students and you? What did you discover about your students that you didn’t know?

Look back through your school stories occasionally to see what threads emerge. Is there an over-arching theme about your teaching that emerges? Perhaps, you can shape your anecdotes into an article and submit it to a professional journal. Is there a particular student that you write about often? Perhaps, this child can be the protagonist in a fictional story. For every teacher, our classroom stories provide powerful writing territory that fuels our writing and our teaching.


Teachers Write 6/27 – Thursday Quick-Write

Hi, everyone! Before we get to today’s prompt, I just want to let you know that I’m on the road for the next few days. I’m speaking at the Penn State York Summer Writing Institute (yay!) and will take longer than usual to approve new comments, just so you know. Also…don’t forget that on Fridays, Teachers Write heads on over to Gae’s blog for Friday Feedback, so that’s where we’ll be on Friday! Now…let’s get writing!

Our Thursday Quick-Write guest is no stranger to Teachers Write.

JackieChanCoverJo KKnowles Headshotnowles (of Monday Morning Warm-Up fame!) is the author of the young adult novels Living with Jackie Chan (coming in September), See You At Harry’s, Pearl, Jumping Off Swings,  and Lessons from a Dead Girl. Some of her awards include two SCBWI Crystal Kite Awards; A New York Times Editor’s Pick and Notable Book; and the PEN New England Children’s Book Discovery Award. Jo lives in Vermont with her husband and son. You can learn more about Jo’s work on her website and blog, and click here to follow her on Twitter.

Jo’s joining us today with this writing prompt:

Getting to know our main characters!

Think of this as an interview, of sorts, where you ask your character questions to better get to know him or he. This applies to all ages, whether you’re writing a picture book, middle grade, or YA. Remember to treat this like a free writing exercise and have FUN. Things to ask yourself:

• What do you look like? (Remember to answer how your character would answer)

• Describe your bedroom. Do you have your own room? Share?

• What is your family like?

• Do you have any pets? Describe them.

• What is your favorite thing about yourself? Least favorite?

• What is your biggest pet peeve?

• What are you afraid of?

• What do you want, but can’t have?

• Who is your best friend?

• Who is your worst enemy?

• What do you want people to know about you, but are afraid to share?

Note from Kate: If you don’t have an active work-in-progress, try writing this from the point of view of a character you dream up today. Maybe it will turn into a bigger idea! Or if you’d like to focus on history or science, try writing from the point of view of some historical figure or scientist or animal!

If you’d like to share a few lines of what you wrote today in the comments, we’d love that – and promise that all our comments will be friendly and supportive. If you’d rather keep your writing to yourself today, in your notebook or on your hard drive, that’s fine, too.

Happy writing!

Teachers Write 6/26 Wednesday Q and A

Got questions about writing?  Wednesday is Q and A Day at Teachers Write! Virtual Summer Writing Camp, and we’ll have some great guest authors answering – today’s official author guests are Laurel Snyder, Joanne Levy, and Jody Feldman.

Teachers & librarians – Feel free to ask your questions in the comments.  It’s fine to ask a general question or to direct one directly to a specific guest author. Our published author guests have volunteered to drop in and respond when they can.

Guest authors – Even if today isn’t a day you specifically signed up to help out, feel free to answer any questions you’d like to talk about.  Just reply directly to the comment.

Note from Kate: I’ll try to be here for Q and A most Wednesdays, too. Please be patient with me if you’re a first-time commenter – it may take a little while for me to approve your comment so it appears.

Got questions? Fire away!

Take the Friend Fish Pledge with Sea Monster!

My latest picture book SEA MONSTER AND THE BOSSY FISH takes on the issue of bullying, and the  terrific folks at Chronicle Books have put together a poster and classroom pledge for your students. It’ll be available at ALA, and you can also download to print copies for your students!

Download to print copies for your classroom:  SeaMonsterBossyFish_FriendPledge_8.5×11

You can read more about SEA MONSTER AND THE BOSSY FISH here. It comes out July 9th and is available for pre-order from your favorite bookseller now.

Teachers Write 6/25 Tuesday Quick-Write: Sometimes…

On Tuesdays & Thursdays during Teachers Write! Virtual Summer Writing Camp, we’ll be sharing quick-write prompts, designed to get you free-writing for a few minutes in response to a question or idea. Some of these will feel like writing memoir, some will focus more on fiction or nonfiction or poetry. Some of them will just be hard to categorize. Many will be prompts that you can bookmark and share with your student writers later on.

Our Tuesday-Thursday quick-writes can be used as a simple free-write, brainstorming, warm-up activity OR as a way to deepen your thinking about a work-in-progress.  So feel free to approach the prompt in whatever way works best for you, even if that means ignoring it and writing about the other thing that sprouted in your head when you sat down to do the quick-write. Okay… got your keyboard or pencil ready?

Tuesday Quick-Write: Sometimes…

Imagine a place that you love… It can be your own kitchen or backyard, a faraway beach, a bustling city market, or a hard-to-reach vista at the end of a hike.

Start by writing this:

Sometimes, (in your place, on your beach, wherever you are)…

Then brainstorm all the things you might see, hear, smell, feel, taste and wonder in that place.

Feel free to scribble this in prose or just as a list, or if you want, you can write it as a free-verse poem. Here’s part of a poem that I wrote, called “Sometimes on a Mountain in April,” that you can use as a mentor text if you’d like. It starts like this…

Sometimes, on a mountain in April
the rocks are so slippery
you have to slow down
and this is good.
It’s when you’ll notice
a quiet curtain of moss
that drips with melting snow.

It’s when you’ll hear the rush
of streams,
swooping up tired old leaves
carrying them off
in dizzy laughter
to somewhere warmer,


Or go in your own direction. The idea here is to mine some memories and focus on sensory language. If you’re working on fiction and want to do this activity writing in a character’s voice, feel free to try that, too – you may find that what your character notices will be interesting to you. If you love science writing, try “Sometimes in an electron field…” or whatever fits your passion.

If you’d like to share a few lines of what you wrote today in the comments, we’d love that – and promise that all our comments will be friendly supportive. (We’ll talk about more constructive critiques later on. Let’s just get our feet wet with compliments today!)  If you’d rather keep your writing to yourself today, in your notebook or on your hard drive, that’s fine, too.Please feel free to TALK to one another in those comments, too! Some things you read there will resonate with you or spark memories or simply make you sigh. Writers will appreciate hearing about that… I won’t be able to comment on every single post today, but I’ll pop in and read, and you know that cheering one another on is part of this community, too!

Please note: If you’re a first-time commenter, I’ll have to approve your comment before it appears. This may take a while if I’m not at my computer, but don’t worry – I’ll get to it and it will show up later on!

Teachers Write 6/24/13 – Mini-Lesson Monday: Notebooks

Welcome to writing camp, everybody!

Teachers Write! is a virtual summer writing camp for teachers and librarians. Click here to sign up if you’d like to join us!  If you’re on Facebook & want to also join our group there,here’s the link. Then click “Join Group.”

A quick note about blogging your Teachers Write experience: It’s GREAT if you want to set up a blog where you share all of your writing from this summer. One important request: Please do not copy and paste the mini-lessons or writing prompts – publish only your own writing on your blog. If you’d like to reference the ideas shared here, providing a link is the best way to do that. Thanks!

Today’s mini-lesson is all about keeping a writer’s notebook. When people ask me about how to get started writing, I almost always share the same two pieces of advice, whether those people are nine years old or thirty-five, or seventy. The first thing is this: Read. Readers develop an ear for what good sentences sound like and a sense for what makes a story work. Reading will make you a better writer. The second piece of advice is: Write. This may sound ridiculous, but you’d be surprised how many people talk about wanting to write without actually sitting down and doing it. A writer’s notebook is a good way to start.

There are some very strict rules for having a writer’s notebook. Here they are:

Rule #1: Write in it.

Rule #2: There are no other rules.

 Because here’s the thing… A writer’s notebook can have a million different jobs. Some people scribble a few lines first thing every morning when they wake up. Some write throughout the day, at breakfast, in the grocery checkout line, waiting for the kids to get out of school.  You can use a writer’s notebook to journal, to scribble story ideas, to record snatches of conversation or names you like or the way the leaves make swishing sounds in the wind. You get the idea…

So if you don’t already have one, choose a notebook. And write things in it. Here are some of mine…

I am a multiple-notebook kind of writer. I usually have at least three going at once. The little black ones are “idea books,” and every time I get a new book idea while I’m working on a project, I scribble a note on one page — it only gets a page — and then I go back to work on my work-in-progress. These books are where I go sniffing around for stories when I’m ready to start something new.

I have a shameless addiction to Eco-Jot notebooks, and I often have a big one that I’m using for taking research notes on whatever book I’m working on as well as a small one that I carry around for all sorts of scribbles. The thing about my writer’s notebooks is this… They aren’t sacred. They are full of all kinds of things, often all mixed together. Here are just a few random notebook pages:

Here’s a page where I was brainstorming ideas for HIDE AND SEEK…

Here’s a list of questions I wanted to remember to ask one of the tornado specialists I went to interview in Oklahoma when i was researching EYE OF THE STORM

Here’s a page I scribbled when I was outside one spring day, writing with my 7th grade students. We were practicing noticing details.

My notebooks are full of things like this, as well as collections of names, descriptions of clothes I borrowed from strangers to save for my characters later on, blurted “what-ifs” that I scribbled because I thought they might help solve story problems, funny things my kids and their friends said, all mixed in with a scattering of to-do lists, grocery lists, and things like this…

This eclectic mix makes for a lot of searching when I need to find something, but the whole mishmash also creates a fertile breeding ground for fresh ideas. It works for me. You’ll figure out what works best for you.

Your writing notebook doesn’t have to be perfect or sacred. It doesn’t have to be tidy. It should be something you reach for often, something that hangs out with you so much you feel naked if you’ve left home without it. Practice having it and using it. Practice writing.

Your assignment for today: If you don’t already have a writer’s notebook, find one.  Write something. Need inspiration?  Jo Knowles shares a Monday Morning Warm-Up on her blog each week. Visit her… she’ll ask good questions to get you started.

In the comments: Share a few lines of what you wrote in your notebook today, OR tell us a little about what kinds of things you like to write/sketch in your writer’s notebook! Please note: If you’re a first-time commenter, I’ll have to approve your comment before it appears. This may take a while if I’m not at my computer, but don’t worry – I’ll get to it and it will show up later on!

Giveaway: In honor of the first day of writing camp, I’ll mail a signed copy of HIDE AND SEEK to one commenter, drawn at random. The winner will be announced Friday morning!

Great Summer Mysteries for Kids

I’ve been getting more mail than usual lately, most of it from mystery fans who have read the first two books in my Silver Jaguar Society series with Scholastic.

Pretty much everyone has the same question: WHEN will the third book be out???

The third book is called MANHUNT, and it comes out in May.  Some kids aren’t satisfied with this answer. One kid asked me to just send it to him now; he promised to keep it under wraps. One girl wrote back and said, “Well, do you think you and the publisher could speed it up a little?”

Sadly, no… Books take time. MANHUNT still needs to be illustrated (there are cool maps in this one!),the cover needs to be designed, and the text itself needs to go through final edits. The last time I saw MANHUNT, it looked like this…


Not exactly ready for readers just yet.  But I want to share two kids’ mysteries that I read and loved recently. I think readers who love the Silver Jaguar Society mysteries will love these, too.

THE WIG IN THE WINDOW by Kristen Kittscher (out now) features best friends and spy partners Sophie Young and Grace Yang. These two tween sleuths face all the struggles of middle school’s changing friendships AND the dangers of a real life-or-death mystery that starts when they *think* they’ve just seen their school guidance counselor commit a terrible crime. This book is funny,
realistic, and suspenseful — a pitch-perfect mystery for the tween set.

Erin Dionne’s MOXIE AND THE ART OF RULE BREAKING (comes out July 11th) is another action-packed choice. I’m a sucker for a book with a strong sense of place, so this Boston-based mystery based on the real-life Isabella Stewart Gardner heist didn’t disappoint. Moxie and her best guy-friend Ollie get wrapped up in searching for the stolen art after Moxie begins to suspect her grandfather, now suffering from dementia, was involved in hiding it back in 1990. Moxie and Ollie are real, imperfect kids – best friends who have great family relationships that are explored in this novel, along with the Boston-based treasure hunt.

Both of these are great summer reads for mystery fans ages 10 and up – and both will be especially popular with middle school readers who love the idea of doing a little sleuthing on their own!

Introducing the Summer 2013 Teachers Write Guest Authors!

One of my favorite things about Teachers Write is that it gives me the opportunity to introduce some of my favorite people (teachers & librarians!) to some of my other favorite people (children’s and YA authors!).

When you join Teachers Write, you’re signing up to be part of a writing community, and all summer long on this blog, you’ll have the chance to talk with people like me (I’m Kate, by the way, in case you were stumbling around and found yourself here. I write books for kids and host this online summer camp), Gae Polisner of Friday Feedback fame, and Monday Morning Warm-Up guru Jo Knowles, as well as a whole bunch of kind, smart, funny guest authors.  We’re all volunteers, so please check out our websites and support our books by asking for them at your local bookstores and libraries, reading them, and sharing the ones you like. Here’s our author list for Summer 2013!

Kate Messner

Gae Polisner

Jo Knowles

Laurel Snyder

Joanne Levy

Lisa Schroeder

Jeannine Atkins

Jenny Meyerhoff

Lynda Mullaly Hunt

Donna Gephart

Amy Ludwig VanDerwater

Cynthia Lord

David Lubar

Megan Miranda

Linda Urban

Nancy Castaldo

Phil Bildner

Erin Dionne

Diane Zahler

Anne Marie Pace

Shutta Crum

Sarah Albee

Danette Haworth

Margo Sorenson

Erin Dealey

Sarah Darer Littman

Jody Feldman

Some of these folks will be sharing mini-lessons on Mondays, others will be offering quite-write prompts on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and some will be answering your questions for Q and A Wednesdays. While these are the “official” guest authors, I have to admit that I also have some surprises planned for various Fridays, and many other authors drop by to chat and answer questions even if they haven’t committed to visit on a particular day.

If you’re a teacher or librarian and you’d like to join us, you can sign up here! We’ll be starting with our first Mini-Lesson Monday on June 24th!

Gearing Up for Teachers Write 2013!

Starting a week from today, this blog will be hosting Teachers Write, an online summer writing camp for teachers and librarians from all over the world. I’m too excited about this to sit still, so I thought we’d have a quick preview post today – think of itas the official Teacehrs Write warm-up!

If you’re a teacher or librarian and you’d like to learn more (and maybe join us this summer!) you can click here to learn more.  And the sign-up page is here.

Today, to get us ready for next week, I’d like to address two big questions that have come up from teachers who have heard about the program but feel a little hesitant about diving in.

Question 1:  How do you find the time to write? I’d love to do this, but I’m busy, even in the summer months.

Answer: I’ve always found the idea of “finding time” to be kind of misleading, as if you can poke around in the garden and come up with an extra couple of hours a day if you look hard enough. The truth is, you don’t find time to write; you have to make it. And you make it by choosing to spend a little time each day – maybe just 15 minutes – writing, instead of doing something else. That something else that you give up might be one television show, or fifteen minutes of sleep, or (gasp!) time on Facebook or Twitter. You have to choose to make that writing time. It’s worth doing if writing is something you really want to do. I posted about this last year on Teachers Write, and you can read more of my thoughts here. Writer John Scalzi also wrote on this topic – in a blog post that is the rougher-language, tougher-love version of mine. Not really suitable to share with kids, but great if you really want a kick in the pants – it’s here.

Question 2: I’d like to do this writing thing, but I’m kind of afraid.

Answer: Yeah…me, too.  Still. Every time I start a new book. I don’t have a magic answer for this one, other than to tell you that you’re not alone. Writing can be scary, but in the best possible way. Here’s a 2012 Teachers Write post about Writing Scared, and I also recommend this book – ART AND FEAR. But mostly, I recommend that if you want to write, you write. We’re all in this together, and we’ll be cheering you on if you do.

Now…what other questions do you have?  Fire away in comments – or just take the plunge, sign up for Teachers Write, and join us next Monday.

Visiting Readers in Bloomingdale and Saranac Lake, NY

My last author visit of the 2012-2013 school year was a warm, wonderful, welcoming day spent with readers in Bloomingdale and Saranac Lake, NY. I was a little worried about making it to the schools because the night before this visit, our weather radio went off at 3am, warning of flooding rivers in the area. It was obvious on my drive that the waters were threatening, but the roads were fine.

I made it to both schools and was so, so glad. The kids were amazing readers and had so many terrific questions after my presentation – I could have stayed to talk books with them all day.

Me with with librarian extraordinaire, Allison Follos.

These readers were full of surprises, too. In Saranac Lake, the school had two T-shirts waiting for me — one from the school to show my Petrova spirit, and one from the Saranac Lake Teachers Association that I loved, too, because we share the same values.

Many of the students surprised me with posters they’d made themselves, illustrating scenes from my books or creating idiom illustrations like the character Sinan loves to do in CAPTURE THE FLAG.

Thank you, Bloomingdale and Petrova Elementary Schools, for making my last school visit of 2012-2013 such a day to remember!