NYS Science Olympiad at West Point

My weekend trip to the Hudson Valley was a fascinating mix of past and future. We stayed in a Beacon, NY bed & breakfast that my husband claimed must be haunted.

In truth, even if there were ghosts (I didn’t see any), I wouldn’t have cared because the breakfast they served — fresh fruit, a warm cherry pastry, and orange-cinnamon French toast — was worth any haunting.

The next morning, we set out for West Point, with a stop at Fort Montgomery along the way.  Standing amid the ruins of powder magazines and barracks, it’s easy to see why this spot was so strategic during the Revolutionary War.

I’d never visited West Point before. It’s a beautiful campus, with architecture that just oozes history.

But the reason we were here had to do not with the past — but with the future. The New York State Science Olympiad competition competition took place this weekend, and my son was part of his high school’s team.  They’ve been working on their projects — everything from engineering tasks like Rube Goldberg devices, mousetrap cars, and helicopters to content-area tests in subjects like earth science, anatomy & physiology, optics, ornithology…you name it. With fifty-three teams from all over the state competing, the whole campus was crawling with smart kids carrying around every manner of field guide and homemade electronic contraptions.

Here’s a peek inside the room where the Mission Possible event took place…

The kids had to create a Rube Goldberg device with ten different tasks involving simple machines, chemical reactions, closed hydraulic systems, and more, and each task had to be triggered by the one before it.  The final task?  Have the device release a helium balloon carrying a sign that says “Mission Possible!”  and you get points for each gram of weight the balloon can lift. Also?  The whole thing has to happen within a time limit that the kids weren’t told until they got to the competition site. (I’m told our team dealt with this by calibrating the sand timer that was part of the gizmo.)

The boy says I’m not allowed to share his competition results on my blog (“Seriously, Mom…”), so I’ll just say  there was much cheering at the awards ceremony.

Truly, the whole weekend was amazing. It was an inspiration to see so many kids so excited about science and engineering, and it may sound a little corny, but I really came home filled with hope. Based on what I saw this weekend, our future is in very capable hands indeed.

Meet Me in St. Louis!

This week has been busy-busy-busy…but full of good things, so this is going to be one of those mix-of-everything blogs.

First, the Meet-Me-in-St.-Louis part…

I had a great Skype visit yesterday with these Bellerive Elementary School fifth graders who had read THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z.  (In truth…only the kids and their teachers were in St. Louis.  I was at my desk in my classroom in Northern NY during my lunch break!) The students had lots of great questions, especially about where I got the ideas for the different characters in the book.  Trivia note:  Gianna’s little brother Ian’s penchant for stealing cell phones & snapping photos came from the little sister of a kid who was on my son’s soccer team years ago. Molly’s mother was forever chasing her down the sidelines to get her phone back.

The terrific librarian who organized this visit warned me that there may be a slew of Skype visit requests on the way, since GIANNA Z. is a Mark Twain Award nominee for 2011-2012. And…I found out this week that GIANNA Z. was also selected for the Pennsylvania Young Readers Choice Award List for next year, for grades 6-8. These nominations truly mean so much to me because I know how carefully committee members read through books trying to find the ones their readers will love. Thanks, Pennsylvania and Missouri librarians!

In other news, I’ve donated signed books (and a Skype mentoring session for aspiring writers) to a couple groups holding online auctions to raise money for earthquake relief in Japan.  I’ll share the links when things are up and running.

My students and I have been working on a school-wide Red Cross fundraiser, too. They’ve been learning about persuasive strategies and decided to put them to good use convincing their fellow classmates and teachers to pitch in to help with earthquake relief efforts in Japan. We’re having a friendly competition to see which homeroom can collect the most money, and my kids have been busy making posters and writing announcements to promote the effort. Yesterday, a few of my girls came into my room before school with this cake.

“We thought it would help get people to the meeting and make them excited to help,” one of them said. “We just wanted to do something.”

I loved this simple, sweet gesture so much, maybe because watching the news, it’s hard not to be filled up with despair sometimes.  I think we all need to remember that we can do things to help. Even small things make a difference. If you’d like to donate to the Red Cross, too, you can do so here.

Waiting for the perfect time to write

In one of my author Skype visits last week, a student asked this question:

How long did it take you to write your first book?

Well…er…7 years, I answered him a little sheepishly. There were some good reasons it took so long: I was learning my craft and had a long way to go before my work would be ready to send out. It was histoical fiction and involved lots of research. I rewrote…a lot.

But there were also some not-so-good reasons. Back then, I had this idea that I needed the perfect time to write. The house had to be quiet, maybe on a day when my husband had both kids. Or I needed to be away somewhere, with large open stretches of time and no ringing phone. Perfect quiet. Throw in a cupcake or two while you’re at it. And if all those conditions weren’t met?  Well, nevermind then…I’ll never get anything done, so I might as well not bother trying.

Since then, I’ve learned that the myth of perfect writing time is just that…a myth.  Sure, those ideal situations happen — usually twice a year for me, in the form of a couple retreats that I attend. But you don’t get books written in eight days a year.  You get books written by writing regularly, whether the conditions are perfect or not. And you learn to write some pretty good stuff with noise. And without cupcakes.

I’m typing this post at my daughter’s skating show practice right now. The Plattsburgh State Field House is chilly. I’m wearing a fleece jacket and scarf, and I’m sitting on the concrete floor next to the only electrical outlet because I forgot to charge my laptop last night. It’s just after 7am, my bottom is cold, I’m running out of coffee, and the techno music – some sort of space odyssey theme for the glow-in-the-dark number – is loud enough that I can feel it reverberating through my body.

As soon as I post this blog, I’m going to open up the Scrivener file for my 2013 Walker/Bloomsbury novel, and get to work. Is it perfect?  Not by a long shot. But it’s a stretch of three hours (probably more like two, actually, before someone comes to get me to help paint scenery) that I can spend frittering away wishing I had some perfect writing time…or I can just get to work and write.

“Perfect” writing time is lovely; I won’t lie. The four days I spent hanging out in an old inn on Lake Champlain, quietly tapping away with a bunch of writer friends last summer were amazing. But that image of writing is largely a fantasy world. In the real world, especially for those of us with other jobs and families, writing time lives in less idyllic settings. It’s an hour on the skating rink floor, fifteen minutes in the car in the school parking lot, a couple hours at the computer early in the morning or late at night.

Sometimes I talk to people who say they’d love to write — really — but they just don’t see how it can happen. How do you find time?  My best advice? You make time. You give up that half hour of TV or cut back on your phone time or Internet time or make something simpler for dinner.

And if you really want to be a writer?  Stop waiting for the perfect time…and just write.

Five Bookish Things on a Friday

1. I’m reading this book right now –

-and really loving the ideas it’s giving me for my new science-gone-wrong novel project. I love writing craft books and highly recommend this one for anyone planning or revising a novel.

2. I can’t believe my MARTY MCGUIRE chapter book series launches in less than two months. That means reviewers are starting to see it (eek!) – I was thrilled to come across this fantastic early blog review today.

3. There’s a MARTY MCGUIRE Facebook page now. I told her she was too young for social networking, but the kid just won’t listen, so feel free to click and “Like” if you’re so inclined and would like updates on releases, contests, & things.

4. Now that my copy edits for EYE OF THE STORM (Walker/Bloomsbury ’12) are finished, I’ve been enjoying some reading time.  I ordered two copies this book from the Scholastic Book Clubs, for my classroom library.

My 7th grade girls are loving it, so it’s been out a lot, but a copy finally came back so that I could read it, too!  Lisa Schroeder’s middle grade voice  is absolutely wonderful, and this is a fun, accessible, touching story.  Sometimes, people who have read THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z. ask me for recommendations for other books with “regular middle school kids” and their families, and I’m going to add this to my list of suggestions for them.

5. I will be at the International Reading Association Convention in May, participating in a K-5 author panel, a workshop on connecting kids & authors via technology, and three book signings, as far as I know so far. Please let me know if you’ll be there, too!

5 1/2. Have a great weekend!

World Read Aloud Day Round-Up!

Did you read aloud to someone today?  It was World Read Aloud Day, you know...an international event put together by LitWorld…and oh, what a day!

A few weeks ago, Karla Duff, a teacher in Iowa, sent me a note on Twitter asking if I’d be game to read aloud to her students via Skype for the big day.  Later on, I noticed other teachers on Twitter were looking for authors to read-aloud, too – and since I wear two hats — teacher and writer — it was easy for me to help with that and make some introductions.  The result… a list of more than thirty authors who’d volunteered their time for Skype read-alouds to celebrate World Read Aloud Day! And boy, did teachers ever take them up on that offer!

Because today was a teaching day for me, too, I shared some video read-alouds of my new & upcoming books online (you can still see them here!) and did one Skype chat during my lunch hour.

Karla’s school was delayed due to ice & snow, so I posted a quick note on Twitter, and Katherine Sokolowski swooped in to claim the Skype visit for her 5th grade reading class.  I showed the kids my new book SUGAR AND ICE as well as my upcoming spring/summer releases, MARTY MCGUIRE and SEAMONSTER’S FIRST DAY.  And then I showed them the messy, marked-up stack of papers I was about to deliver to UPS…copy edits for my 2012 novel EYE OF THE STORM.

The kids voted on which one they wanted  me to read.  Any guesses?

It was the messy, marked-up EYE OF THE STORM manuscipt!  I shared a couple pages with them before we all went to eat lunch.

Some authors from the list made three, four, five, or MORE dates for World Read Aloud Day!

Author Laurel Snyder ended up Skyping into six classrooms before her day was through. Donna Gephart had a busy day, too – her blog post about it is called “Six Schools, Five States, and One Pair of Bunny Slippers!”

Kelly Moore’s classes in Ontario hooked up with authors Lee Garretson and Ruth Spiro for online read-alouds.

Kelly’s team made the celebration last all day long.  In addition to the author Skype read-alouds, it included a Book Lovers Breakfast, Book Swap, Reading Buddies, Guest Parent Readers, Collaborative Book Making with Grades 1 & 4, and a Character Convention where students and teachers dressed up as favorite book characters.  Here are Kelly,  Charlotte Cornel, and Stephanie Martin) who dressed as Robert Munsch’s Paperbag Princesses!

If you have other photos or stories of World Read Aloud Day posted online, please feel free to share a link to them in the comments!

Thanks to everyone who shared photos for this post…and to LitWorld and all the teachers & authors who made magic happen for kids today. One teacher emailed me tonight and said one of her students summed it up best. “I wish every day could be like this.”

Skating, Frogs & Sea Monsters on World Read Aloud Day!

March 9th is World Read Aloud Day — a holiday that might not make it onto every calendar, but it sure is circled on mine.  Reading aloud has always been a big deal to me…from my toddler days when I’d stalk my parents’ dinner guests with a big pile of books in my arms to now, when I read aloud to kids both at home and at school every day.

I shared a lot more thoughts on reading aloud last spring, in this open letter to the Association of Booksellers for Children, when The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. won the E.B. White Read Aloud Award.  But right now…what I’d really like to do is read.

Here are three videos of me reading aloud in my living room.  No fancy cameras, no lights, no makeup…just a fireplace, a flipcam and three books.  (One of them, SUGAR AND ICE, came out in December, but the other two aren’t out yet, so you’re getting a special WRAD sneak preview!)  So get yourself a cup of hot chocolate or a carton of milk (I’m guessing some of you are watching at school today) and enjoy.

No matter who you are or where you are, I hope you’ll share a book with someone today, too!

Butterflies Go Free in Montreal!

I’m looking out the window at nearly two feet of new snow tonight, but before this latest winter storm hit, we got a welcome taste of spring in Montreal this weekend.

Butterflies Go Free is an annual event at the Montreal Botanical Gardens. Thousands of butterflies — almost all from butterfly farms in Costa Rica — are hatched in the main greenhouse, where visitors young and old can walk among them. It was especially fun to see the Blue Morpho butterflies this year.

We wondered if any of these were relatives of the butterflies we’d seen in the rain forest in Costa Rica this summer!

The butterflies were stunning — moths, too — and spending a couple hours with them made me feel like Spring isn’t so far away. Here are a few more photos…just in case you’re still shoveling out, too!

Remember…on the calendar at least…just two more weeks until Spring!

REAL REVISION has a cover!

As many of you know, my first teacher resource book, REAL REVISION: AUTHORS’ STRATEGIES TO SHARE WITH STUDENT WRITERS, comes out this May. It’s a book designed to help teachers – and anyone who teaches writing, really – share strategies for revision that go beyond quick proofreading and spell-checking.  What I love most about this project was that I got to interview dozens of my favorite middle grade authors about how they revise their books and then translate those strategies into activities that teachers can use in the classroom. Of course, the book is loaded with stories, tips, and tricks from my own writing desk and my classroom, too.

Here’s what the cover will look like!

Word is that Stenhouse will be offering a sneak preview of this book online in May – I’ll be sure to share a link later on!