Teachers Write 8/7/14 – Thursday Quick-Write

Good morning! Guest author Erin Dealey joins us for today’s Thursday Quick-Write. Erin writes wonderfully fun picture books for young readers, including GOLDIE LOCKS HAS CHICKEN POX and DECK THE WALLS: A WACKY CHRISTMAS CAROL.

Let It go

Congratulations! You’re already five weeks into TEACHERS WRITE! I applaud you for taking the time for YOURSELVES this summer. Your students will notice the difference, believe me. As a teacher, I know that the minute I started writing for myself, I began to look at every writing assignment I gave my students with new eyes, and a renewed passion. But we’re not done yet!

After Monday’s work on dialog, you’ve no doubt gotten to know your characters better, but I’m betting they’re hiding something from you. Today’s Quick-write is designed for you to put a finger on that missing piece… Characters have layers. Here’s a way to dig deeper.

Before you write: Take a moment to get into your main character’s head–or that of a supporting character you’ve been avoiding… You can do this by closing your eyes and visualizing the character or reading a key scene you’ve written about him/her. Is your MC hiding important feelings? Covering for a friend? Too shy to verbalize something that’s been bugging him/her? (Are you afraid of letting the MC change the course of your outline or story? Have you been so worried about proper punctuation and grammar you’ve stifled your character’s voice?)

For the next two minutes, try this quick-write as if your character is writing it.

Begin with this sentence: I’ve sort of been afraid to tell you this, but……

WARNING: Do NOT let the teacher in you OR the obsessive-editor-in-your-head hijack this assignment. : ) See what shows up on the page. Not all books are grammatically correct. When I first started writing I thought I had an obligation to my students to set a good example! What would have happened to e.e. cummings if he’d let his “editor-hat” take over his poems?

LET IT GO!!!!!!! Feel free to share your final paragraph in the comments if you’d like!

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Teachers Write 8/6/14 – Q and A Wednesday

Got questions about writing?  Wednesday is always Q and A Day at Teachers Write! Virtual Summer Writing Camp. Today’s guest authors are Sarah Albee and Lynda Mullaly Hunt!

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 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!

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Teachers Write 8/5/14 – Tuesday Quick-Write

Today is feeling like a poetry sort of day, isn’t it?  And you’re in luck because we have a terrific guest author for this Tuesday Quick-Write.

New York Times bestselling author Nikki Grimes is the recipient of the 2006 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. Her distinguished works include ALA Notable book What is Goodbye?, Coretta Scott King Award winner Bronx Masquerade, and Coretta Scott King Author Honor books Jazmin’s Notebook, Talkin’ About Bessie, Dark Sons, The Road to Paris, and Words with Wings. Creator of the popular Meet Danitra Brown, Ms. Grimes lives in Corona, California.

Nikki Grimes’ Poetry Writing Prompt

Step 1: Write a short paragraph about one of the following words: Bell, Shadow, Leaf, Lemon, Bullet.

 Consider all aspects of the item each word represents—how it looks, sounds, feels, tastes; what it does; what you can do with it; how it affects you; what it is made of; where it is found. Does it have an age, a color, a smell? Bring all of your senses into play and try to describe this item to someone who has never encountered it before. The idea is to think about each word in a new, and animated way.

 Step 2: Turn this paragraph into a poem. Use as many or as few, poetic techniques as you like: metaphor, simile, repetition, alliteration, assonance, rhyme, etc. Keep your lines simple. The idea is to think about words in a new way. This exercise can help you to keep your use of language fresh. Here are two examples to keep in mind:

 Ball is a round, rubber word.                          Pen is a slim word,

It fits inside my palm.                                        a tube of possibility.

I play with it outside,                                         Poems and essays hide inside

bounce it on the sidewalk.                                or ride the river

When it hits the ground,                                   of her ink.

it makes a smacking sound.                             Pen jots down things

My cupped hand waits for it                            that make you think.

to come back home.                                             Pen is round.

                                                                                    Pen speaks, yet

                                                                                    makes no sound.


Note from Kate: We’d love to see how some of you did with this prompt – feel free to share your writing from today in the comments!

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Teachers Write 8/4/14 – Mini-Lesson Monday

Good morning! Ready for today’s Teachers Write mini-lesson? It’s all about dialogue – with guest author Megan Frazer Blakemore.

Megan is the author of great books like THE WATER CASTLE and THE SPY CATCHERS OF MAPLE HILL. (Fun fact: Megan and I share an editor at Bloomsbury – the terrifically talented Mary Kate Castellani, so we get to sign together at conferences sometimes. That is the best. :-)

Writing Dialogue

You want Buffy the Vampire Slayer not Dawson’s Creek.

That’s the easiest way I can think of to describe how to write dialogue spoken by kids.

Sashi Kaufman, a young adult writer, puts it this way: “Your dialogue should be your average teenager on their smartest, wittiest day.”

Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) takes it a little bit farther: “Nobody but nobody will believe me on this, but the best dialogue sounds not at all like human beings talking in real life.”[1]

And adult author Adam Mansbach says: “It’s got to ring true without being overly slavish to the boring and inarticulate ways people often speak in real life.”[2]

Essentially what we are all saying is that dialogue should be true, but not necessarily realistic. It needs to be specific to the character’s age, location, background, etc., but it also needs to read well.

As teachers, you have the tremendous gift of hearing kids talk all day long. You know what they sound like. You probably hear it in your sleep. When I was working in a school as a librarian, I would keep a journal with things I overheard. On the other hand, you don’t want to be to beholden to what you hear. You need to give your characters room to be poetic, even if your students don’t always get there.

What follows are some bulleted thoughts on dialogue to keep in mind as you write.

Potential Pitfalls in Dialogue

  • The exposition fairy: one character tells another character things they both know as a way of telling the reader.
  • Avoiding contractions: people use them, and so should your characters, even if your prose is more formal.
  • Speechifying: If dialogue goes on for more than three sentences, check to see if you should limit what they are saying. (This isn’t a hard and fast rule, like “Dialogue must not go on for more than three sentences.” – just something to think about in revision.)
  • Adverbs with dialogue tags. “Stop!” he said urgently. Your dialogue should be doing the work. If you think you need an adverb, revise your dialogue.
  • Similarly, avoiding dialogue tags. He bellowed, She whimpered, etc. Stick with the basics, — otherwise it’s distracting. You might not even need dialogue tags. Lately I’ve been ruthlessly cutting them in my own work, and find the conversation flows much better.
  • Slang: Youth slang changes very, very quickly. I mean, YOLO, right?
  • Profanity: If it’s profanity, it’s going to make it harder to get your work on school and library shelves. I don’t think I’m shocking anyone with this here. You need to decide how you feel about the role of profanity in your book, and in books for children in general. Is it necessary? Does it fit the characters? Then use it. Otherwise, reconsider.

Some Dialogue Tips:

  • Read your dialogue aloud. Even better: have someone else read it while you listen.
  • Make up your own slang.
    • This works especially well in SciFi or fantasy (think Firefly or Battlestar Gallactica)
  • Find ways to be creatively minimize profanity

o   Inspired by Norman Mailer, characters in John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines use Fug instead of that other F word. This makes perfect sense in the context of the book, because the characters are smart and would be reading Norman Mailer, but also the kinds of kids who would take joy in the fact that “you can say it in class without getting into trouble.” (Chapter 12)

  • Think about what your characters are doing while they are speaking. “I love you” means something very different if a character is staring into her crush’s eyes than it does if it’s mumbled while she eats a sandwich.

I’ve given you some thoughts on dialogue, and now it’s time to get to work. This exercise has two parts.

Part 1: He Said, She Said

To make sure your focus on dialogue, write a scene using only dialogue and minimal tags (“he said”, “she said” — hence the title of this exercise). This prompt is one of my favorites and it was suggested to me long ago by the author Saundra Mitchell: two characters having an argument about cheese. At least one of your characters should be a child or teen.

Part 2: Setting the Scene

In my first novel, Secrets of Truth & Beauty, Dara goes to live with her sister who she has never really known. All summer they are dancing around the secrets of their past, and the moment finally came for them to talk about it. I wrote the conversation, and it felt too raw. The novel is set on a goat farm, so I moved the scene so that Dara and her sister are cutting the hooves of the goats as they talk. This changed their physical relationship to one another. They aren’t sitting across a table or in a car; there’s a little distance. The slow pace of the work also served to slow down the conversation. Something you should always ask yourself is: Where are my characters and what are they doing?

Take your He Said / She Said scene and now place it in a context. Actually, multiple contexts. Write and rewrite the scene in three out of six of the following places:

  • A tree house
  • A mall
  • A sailboat on the ocean with no wind
  • Underground
  • On a carnival ride
  • Free choice

 For part two of this exercise,  you are now encouraged to flesh out the scene with details about the surrounding including both the setting and the actions the characters take. In other words, you are no longer limited to “He said”/”She said”, so add those sensory details and character reactions. A good example of what I mean comes from Terry, who has the first comment on this post.

[1] From: The Secret Mystery: The Novelist’s Handbook, edited by Daniel Alarcón (Henry Holt, 2010) This is a great reference for writers. In it, Alarcón interviews several authors on issues relating to the writing process. Wonderful for dipping in and out of.

[2] Ibid.


Note from Kate: We’d love to see some of your writing from today’s lesson. Share away in the comments if you’re feeling brave!

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Teachers Write 8/1/14 – Channeling Your Inner Nerd with Donalyn Miller

Happy Friday, Teachers Write campers!

You’ll want to be sure to visit Gae’s blog for Friday Feedback today, and we also have a special Friday Feature here – with our amazing guest author Donalyn Miller! Donalyn is probably no stranger to most of you at Teachers Write. She’s co-founder of the Nerdy Book Club and the author of two great books about authentic reading – THE BOOK WHISPERER and READING IN THE WILD

Channeling Your Inner Nerd: Writing About Your Passions

by Donalyn Miller

The word “nerd” first appeared in Dr. Seuss’ I Ran the Zoo (1950), when the narrator, Gerald McGrew says he will collect, “a Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker, too” for his zoo. “Nerd” is often used in pejorative terms to describe a person who is socially awkward, obsessed with trivia, or overly intellectual. In certain social groups such as video gamers and science fiction/ fantasy fans, the term nerd is seen as a badge of honor—identifying your group affiliation with others who share common interests.

The cultural popularity of movie and television franchises like Doctor Who and Star Wars, along with the rise of nerdy celebrities like Wil Wheaton (http://wilwheaton.net) and Cory Doctorow (http://craphound.com), have moved nerds into the mainstream—making the term more socially acceptable and even desirable.

As Wil Wheaton famously said in a speech at the Calgary Expo last year, “Being a nerd isn’t about what you love, it’s about how you love it.” (http://wilwheaton.net/2013/04/being-a-nerd-is-not-about-what-you-love-its-about-how-you-love-it/) Moving away from negative stereotypes and expanding our definition of nerd, we are all probably nerds about something.

I am a reading and book nerd. I could spend every day (and often have) reading and talking about books. I collect more books than I can read. I own bookish jewelry and clothes (not a requirement, but fun). I always have a book recommendation or book loan for you. I visit bookstores and libraries on vacation. All of my close friends are book and reading nerds, too. I am blessed that my nerdy passion for reading is also my vocation. In many ways, I am a professional reader, which makes me happy beyond belief.

My obsession with reading feeds my writing, too. A lot of my writing ties back to reading. I write about my work as a reading teacher, my love for books, and my efforts to connect more people with reading. Mining my passion for reading as a source of writing material, I am more comfortable with my nerdy obsession and understand myself better. I recognize and accept the role that reading plays in my life and in my relationships with other people and the world. I read more than ever and enjoy my reading life unapologetically.

No matter what your interests might be—running, restoring furniture, collecting Pez dispensers, gardening, watching old movies—I encourage you to embrace your inner nerd and write about it.

Reflect on your own nerdiness and see what bubbles to the surface. Consider the following questions.

  • If you could spend all of your leisure time invested in one activity, what would you choose? Allow yourself to be selfish and honest here.
  • How did you first discover your hobby or interest? What excites you about it? Who do you share this interest with?
  • If you had to describe your interest to people who knew nothing about it, what would you tell them?
  • How did your interest or hobby look to people the past? How has it changed over time?
  • Removing all limits, how might your hobby or interest look in the future? How might technology or cultural evolution change it?
  • What would you like to learn about your passionate interest or pastime?
  • View your passion through the eyes of someone who hates it or doesn’t appreciate/understand it. What’s their objection or obstacle?
  • How does your passionate interest connect to the interests of others?
  • How might your interest look different to someone younger or older than you?
  • What topics have fascinated you, but you never pursued them?

 Looking at your reflection, what surprises you? What’s worth exploring further? Could you write an essay about your hobby describing your experiences? Could you write an article explaining its history? How about an ode gushing about how awesome it is? How might your nerdy obsession look in a fictional setting? What passions might your characters have?

Writing about your nerdy interests can lead to greater self-awareness and acceptance. Your enthusiasm may spark interest or forge affiliations with others. Given free rein to research and write about what jazzes you can increase your personal enjoyment and understanding of it, too. Writing about your passions can be an interesting source of inspiration and ideas.

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Teachers Write 7/31/14 – Thursday Quick-Write

Good morning!  We’ve been writing together four weeks now, and maybe you’re looking back at some of your earlier pieces, thinking, “You know…I’d like to work on that some more.” Today’s Thursday Quick-Write is about revision, and it’s courtesy of guest author Kim Norman.

Kim has ten picture books in print, include TEN ON THE SLED, I KNOW A WEE PIGGY, and CROCODADDY.  In addition to writing, she maintains a website listing authors who visit schools, “Author School Visits by State.”


As a picture book writer, I have to make every word count. Sometimes it comes down to cutting individual words, one at a time, until the manuscript is as tight as New Year’s Spanx. One way to eliminate extra words is to give my verbs multiple tasks. Choosing strong, specific verbs means I don’t have to prop them up with manuscript-bloating adverbs.

Actually, “choosing” isn’t the right word, because that implies I choose perfect verbs for my first draft. I don’t. Any verb will do in a first draft, as long as I get the story down. But as I begin the revision process, one of the first things I look at is the verbs in my sentences. During school visits, I tell students, “I think of a verb as the engine of the sentence.” Like a powerful engine, a strong verb will take you a lot farther a lot faster. On that first revision, I’m looking for “hot rod” verbs to rev up my story.

To illustrate the power of hot rod verbs, I share a passage of text from Toni Buzzeo’s book, DAWDLE DUCKLING. (Used with Toni’s permission, of course!) The first line of Toni’s passage reads, “Past the marsh with cattails waving.” On the first PowerPoint slide, I offer a slight variation. I have replaced Toni’s hot rod verb with a bland, first-drafty sort of verb: “Past the marsh with cattails growing.” There’s nothing much happening with the word “growing.” And it’s a very poor word to ask an illustrator to show. You cannot SEE a plant growing. On the next slide, I have students choose from a list of alternative verbs: waving, blowing, nodding or whipping. I call on someone to choose one.

Regardless of which verb the student chooses, it’s already a better sentence, because each of those alternative verbs is capable of double-duty. Not only does “whipping” (for instance) add movement to the image–giving your illustrator something more dynamic to show–it also gives us a clue about the WEATHER. By changing ONE WORD we now know more about our setting.

In the second line, (where I have replaced Toni’s hot rod verb “paddles” with the less specific “swims”), students choose from this list of verbs: paddles, floats, glides, drifts or thrashes. If a student chooses “glides,” I ask: “When Mama Duck was ‘swimming,’ did we know how she was FEELING?” Nope. “But if Mama Duck is GLIDING… she’s just GLI-I-I-DING (I’m comically acting this out) how is she feeling?” Students realize that again, by swapping one verb for another, we have now given more information about Mama Duck’s calm state of mine. If “thrashing” was the chosen word, students comment that she is perhaps frightened by an approaching bear.

 So today, I’ll ask you to choose a passage of text from your own work. Take a look at your verbs and see if you can select stronger words capable of double-duty. Do you have a character “walking slowly?” Search for a word that not only allows you to strike out that extraneous adverb “slowly;” see if, instead, you can rev the engine of the sentence to hot rod status by choosing a single verb that tells us your character’s state of mind as he wanders/stomps/rambles. In other sections, tell us more about setting with double-duty verbs in descriptive sentences.

If you need inspiration, think of my husband’s 1970 Chevelle.


It’s noisy, but man, it’ll get you there FAST. The nice thing about revving up your writing? No worries about speeding tickets!

Note from Kate: If you’d like, share a bit of your revised text in the comments!

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Teachers Write 7/30/14 – Q and A Wednesday

Welcome to another Q and A Wednesday!  Guest authors Kim Norman and Jody Feldman are here to answer your questions today.

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 usually try to pop in for Q and A many Wednesdays, too, so I’ll be in and out.  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!

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Teachers Write 7/29/14 – Tuesday Quick-Write

I’m cheating a little….Today’s Tuesday Quick-Write is really the second part of our nonfiction double feature from guest author Lola Schaefer.

Lola is the author of some of my favorite non-fiction picture books, including JUST ONE BITE and LIFETIME, both from Chronicle Books. Today, she’s here with a lesson on nonfiction endings.

Nonfiction Endings that Satisfy and Give the Reader Something to Think About

This giant mini-lesson is divided into three parts for use with your students. Enjoy!


And in conclusion, trees give shade, exchange gases, stop erosion, and hold groundwater in the soil. EGADS! Let’s support students in writing strong nonfiction endings so we never see this kind of repetitive summary.


Avoid poor endings, especially those that insult the readers by restating what has been, hopefully, elaborated on in the body of the piece. Before you ask students to craft an ending or conclusion, introduce a few weak, or lazy, endings and post them in the room. Have your students identify why these endings are not effective. It is so much easier to be proactive and steer students away from poorly written endings rather than having to help them rewrite endings as part of the revision process.

Here are some examples of what you might present and discuss:

  1. That is all I know about how these islands form.
  2. Those are the reasons that we should like trees. Aren’t they great?
  3. Now you know some important facts about Benjamin Franklin.
  4. I bet you will never think about microbes in the same way.
  5. Conserving water is really important. Please do it.


Mini-lesson #2

What are the jobs of a strong nonfiction ending or conclusion?

            The ending needs to satisfy the reader and provide a sense of completion.

            It needs to leave the reader with some over-arching, or profound thought on the topic.

            It could catapult the reader into wanting to know more about the topic.

            It could pose a question to the reader that would continue his/her thinking or research.

            In some small way, the ending relates back to the lead?

Just like with leads, show your students that not all nonfiction endings or conclusions need be a 3-5 sentence paragraph. Sometimes that works well, but many times it becomes forced or artificial. It is better to examine, then write, endings that offer the reader 2-3 of the criteria stated above.

Study three or more mentor endings from published nonfiction with your students. Ask them,

“Would this give the reader a sense of satisfaction or completion? Does this ending make a big point, or pose a unique thought? Would you want to learn more about this topic or is there something else that you might still want to research? Do you see any similarities between this and the lead?”

Suggested mentor text:

Bomb by Steve Sheinkin – last five sentences on p. 236

Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? by Tanya Lee Stone – last five sentences

Living Sunlight by Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm – last four sentences

The Secret World of Walter Anderson by Hester Bass – last page of the text

Feathers: Not Just for Flying by Melissa Stewart – last sentence of the text

How Big Were Dinosaurs by Lita Judge – last sentence of the text

Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table by Jacqueline Briggs Martin – last page of the text


Mini-lesson #3

Practice writing endings/conclusions with students on a topic they know well. Better yet, write endings for their practice leads. Encourage them to write at least two different endings (three is even better) and select the one they think is most effective. It is fun to partner the students and let them have a conversation about which of their endings is most suitable for an audience.

I need to interject here that when writing is crafted well, leads and endings complement one another. If you are able to read the leads and endings from some of the mentor text that I recommend, you and your students will notice how the two tie together in at least one way.

I always think of leads and endings as bookends. They are strong supports that often use similar language, phrases, or even a repeating sentence. This truly helps to tie up loose ends for the reader.

Of course, as teachers we need to model this process for them.

Since I wrote a variety of leads on the food web of the wetlands in yesterday’s mini-lesson, I will draft a few endings that might work for those.


From the tiniest mosquito to the largest alligator, life abounds in the wetlands. The more plants and animals, the more choices. When creatures have a wide selection, they try new foods. Because of this, the wetland food web is always transforming itself plant by animal.

With the proper respect and care from man, wetland animals will be able to search, stalk, and eat the food they need for many years to come. What can you do to insure that outcome?

As weather, pollution, and migration impact the wetlands, the food web undergoes a continual change. But those animals that nibble, slurp, and crunch will never run out of food if man works with nature to preserve these rich ecosystems. Their life is reliant on us, and ours on them.

For today’s practice, write two or more endings for your best lead from yesterday. If you’re just joining us, select a nonfiction topic that you know well. Visit yesterday’s mini-lesson and write 2-3 leads. Select your best one and then write 2-3 endings. Reread the jobs of a nonfiction ending, then craft those that you believe would satisfy readers, relate back to the lead in some small way, and offer an over-arching or big-picture thought.

I’ll return later today to post celebrations on your writing.

I hope these two mini-lessons gave you some food for thought, as well as a couple of solid strategies to share with your students.

So glad you visited.


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Teachers Write 7/28/14 – Mini-Lesson Monday

Good morning – I hope everyone had  a great weekend! Ready to write?  You can check out Jo’s Monday Morning Warm-Up to get your fingers stretched.  And our mini-lesson is a double feature; we’ll be talking nonfiction today and tomorrow, specifically about beginnings and endings, with guest author Lola Schaefer.

Lola is the author of some of my favorite non-fiction picture books, including JUST ONE BITE and LIFETIME, both from Chronicle Books. (Fun fact: Lola and I both work with editor Melissa Manlove there, and we’ve both had the joy of having our books illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal.)

Nonfiction Leads That Pop on the Page and Lure Readers

This giant mini-lesson is divided into three parts for use with your students later on. Let’s begin!

I’m going to tell you everything I know about trees. UGH! As teachers we have all seen our fair share of these kinds of leads. How do we steer students away from this lazy writing? Easy. Be proactive.

Mini-lesson #1

First make a list of horrid nonfiction leads and post these in the classroom one by one. Allow students to tell you why THEY think they are poor leads. Once they scorn them and know that these are ineffective ways to begin a piece of nonfiction, they will not use ANY of them for the rest of the year. Promise.

Examples of Ineffective (or lazy) Leads to Post:

  1. Islands form in different ways. I will explain three.
  2. Do you like trees? I do. Let me tell you why.
  3. Ben Franklin did a lot of things. I’m going to tell you some of them.
  4. Microbes are tiny, yet they are important.
  5. All living creatures need water. Here is how we can conserve it.



What are the jobs of a strong nonfiction lead?

            The lead needs to introduce the topic.

            It needs to lure the reader into the rest of the writing.

            It needs Zip! By zip, I mean there must be a phrase or sentence that carries energy with   onomatopoeia, or an interesting detail, a thoughtful question, or even a unique viewpoint or voice.

Dispel the myth with your students that leads MUST be a paragraph of 3-5 sentences. Sometimes they are. But strong leads could be one sentence, two, or three in length. It’s much more important how the lead is crafted rather than its length. Make sure it fulfills the three goals stated above?

Select three mentor leads from published nonfiction and study these with students. Ask them,

“What’s the topic? Which group of words makes you want to read more? Which group of words or sentence adds zip?”

Suggested mentor text:

Bomb by Steve Sheinkin – the first paragraph

Who Says Women Can’t be Doctors? by Tanya Lee Stone – first three sentences

Living Sunlight by Molly Bang & Penny Chisholm – first page

The Secret World of Walter Anderson by Hester Bass – first page

Feathers: Not Just for Flying by Melissa Stewart – first page

How Big Were Dinosaurs? by Lita Judge – first two sentences

Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table by Jacqueline Briggs Martin – first page of the text


Mini-lesson #3

Practice writing leads with students on a topic they all know quite well. That might be simple machines or animals of the savanna. I always encourage students to write three different leads and decide which one they think is the strongest. They enjoy this mini-lesson and are surprised that sometimes their strongest lead is the first one they write, and other times it’s the last one. The more we model this process, the more confident they will be when crafting their own leads.

For instance, I might write these three leads for the topic of the food web of the wetlands.

From the tiniest mosquito to the largest alligator, wetland animals rely on plants and one another for their food. Who eats what and why?

What if we had to roam near our home for food? What would we eat? The animals of the wetlands are always searching, stalking, and eating their neighbors. How does this food web work and what can we learn from it?

Nibble. Slurp. Crunch. For thousands of years wetland animals have been eating food within a few feet of their homes. It’s an amazing story that shows how the balance of nature maintains itself despite continual change.

For your own practice, select a topic that you know your students study in school, or one of your own interest, and craft three leads. Decide which lead is your strongest and write why. Post your leads. If you want some suggestions for topics, here you go:

the sun         cells         Harriet Tubman       landforms         renewable energy       whales

I’ll pop back later today to leave celebrations on your posted leads.

Have fun!



*** Leads and Endings typically have a lot in common. Like bookends they support the rest of the text. For more on this, visit tomorrow’s mini-lesson on Endings.

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Teachers Write 7/25/14 – Friday Feature with Kat Yeh

Happy Friday, everyone!  You’ll want to visit Gae’s blog for Friday Feedback today. Even if you’re not quite ready to share, it’s so interesting to see what others are sharing and how it’s being critiqued. Check it out; you’ll learn a lot.

We also have a Friday Feature today – “Letting It Go,” with guest author Kat Yeh.

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Kat  grew up reading, doodling, and scribbling in Westtown, Pennsylvania. She worked for many years in advertising and sports marketing — while writing for herself in the wee hours of the night. She currently lives on Long Island where she can see water everyday and explore all the bay and harbor beaches with her family. She is the author of children’s books YOU’RE LOVABLE TO ME, Random House Books for Young Readers (2009), THE MAGIC BRUSH: A STORY OF LOVE, FAMILY, AND CHINESE CHARACTERS, Walker Books for Young Readers (2011), and THE TRUTH ABOUT TWINKIE PIE, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (coming January 2015!), and THE FRIEND SHIP, Disney-Hyperion (coming 2016)!

Letting It Go

When it comes to writing, like the song says: Let it go.

I admit that the first time I heard this song, I wept a little weep.

Letting go is a hard thing for me. And in writing, it means two particular things.


Let it go.

First of all, it means to put away all plans. All lessons. All outlines. All preconceived ideas. Actually allowing yourself to write without a goal or destination. Do not ask Do I need to begin with a scene that establishes my protagonist’s motive? No. Let it go. Allow yourself to play. It’s during this loose, unstructured time that you just may discover the little jewels that become the heart of your story.

When I first began writing what would become my middle grade novel, THE TRUTH ABOUT TWINKIE PIE, I knew very little about it. Okay. Honestly, I knew nothing about the story or my main character. Zero. All I knew was I wanted to write a book about food. And family. And probably love. I had no plot. I had no outline. All I had was an idea. Kinda. I thought that Twinkie Pie would be a fun recipe to open a novel with. I’d never had it. I had no idea what the actual recipe was, but I liked the sound of it. So, I opened up a big blank document and just — let it go. I made up a recipe. I wrote without agenda. No rules. No judgment. No expectations. Whatever came out was written down. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I wrote a whole lot of terrible stuff that made no sense and did not live to see another draft. But in the middle of all that letting go, I also wrote these few lines. Here they are pulled directly out of those messy first pages — misspellings and all:

“…this way, the cherry juice gets all soaked up by the twinkies and the creamy centers turn this beautiful shade of pinky-red – just like revlons cherrys in the snow lipstick. That was my mom’s favorite lipstick shade and the only one she’d ever wear. Why, if she walked into a drugstore and they were out of Cherries in the Snow, she walk right out and down the street to the next store and the next and the next.”

I remember this moment, because I stopped dead in my tracks.

Something had happened.


I went back and deleted “mom” and changed it to “Mama.”

And, suddenly, I had a voice.

I saw that I had written about my main character’s mother in the past tense. With a little wistfulness and longing and pride. When I look back, I realize that the entire plot and heart of this story that I love so dearly came from a moment of writing where I didn’t plan anything. I just let go and wrote. That one line led to everything else. I honestly don’t think it would have happened if I had had a plan.


Then next part of Letting It Go is harder for me.


Let it go.

It means letting go of the ironclad grip I keep on the many, many crossbars and dead bolts that guard the way to my heart. See — right there — how dramatic I am? This is the kind of thing I usually like to keep behind the locked door. Letting go of what’s inside. It’s a hard thing to do when you are a deeply private person. And I know the story is not actually my own story. And I am not any of the characters. Nor have I had their experiences. But, this book. Oh, this book is so me and so my heart. And I’m not really sure how to tell anyone else how to let that part of you go — but I can tell you what I do.

I take a deep brave breath. And then I take what I’ve written to places that scare me a little. I put it all there on the page for the world to see and let it go….

Feelings of Not Fitting In.

Wishing I could reinvent myself

Wishing for Impossible things

I let go of how I’m just a big cheesy crybaby in love with love.

I let go of the weird quirky humor that I never think anyone else will ever get.

I let go of how I’m probably Too Much and so everything I write will probably be Too Much, but that’s just the way it is.

I let it all go and it’s out there now.

And what I thought was going to be a few years of my life spent writing a novel about food and family and probably love became something more. It became a lesson in learning how to Let It Go. Everyone has their own personal door with their varying degrees of dead bolt needs. These are mine. I encourage you to open yours.


As I find myself currently working on my second novel, I realize that I have not completely Let It Go yet. The crossbars and dead bolts are still in place and my heart is still safe from all heart-hurting things. But I know it will happen. Maybe today. Maybe tomorrow. Because I do not want to write a safe book that shows nothing of my heart. I’m going to Let It Go. After I take another deep brave breath.

Any minute now.


Note from Kate: I love this post and am bookmarking it. Also, I think you should all watch this now. Happy Friday!

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