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!

Novels in verse, discovery drafts, writing music, & Skype

A few weeks ago in the advanced creative writing class that and I co-teach, one of our 7th grade girls had a question about writing novels in verse that stumped us. "Is it better for me to just write these poems as they come to me, do you think? Or should I have an outline first?" Having never written a novel in verse, I wasn’t sure how most people approach the process, but never fear… a talented author and Skype came to the rescue!

Lisa Schroeder, the author of I HEART YOU, YOU HAUNT ME, FAR FROM YOU, and the soon-to-be-released CHASING BROOKLYN, woke up bright and early on the West Coast to join us for a 9AM class in Northern New York.

Since Skype is already installed on my desktop computer, we didn’t need to do anything special to prepare. When Lisa called us at the appointed time, we projected her onto the big screen, and the kids came up to the computer one at a time to ask their questions.

Lisa chatted about her writing with my 7th grade writers with a genuine thoughtfulness and warmth that stayed with the kids long after their Q and A session was over. (In fact, I saw the girl from this photo in the library later on. "That Skype chat was awesome!" she said. "I was thinking about it all through math class.")

Some highlights? Lisa shared her process for writing novels in verse, including the fact that music plays a role. She mentioned bands like Lifehouse and Evanescence that help to inspire her words. She encouraged our young writers to read and read and read some more and shared some of her favorite authors, too — like John Green, Laurie Halse Anderson, and Sarah Dessen. I saw a couple of our kids smile great big smiles when Lisa admitted that she doesn’t always know all the answers when she starts writing a book. It felt like she was giving them permission to do that "discovery draft" as well, to figure things out along the way and then go back to revise.

After our Skype session, our students tweeted what they felt were some of the key points on our class Twitter account (@MessnerEnglish), so that schools that haven’t tried Skype chats could get a sense of how valuable (and fun!) they can be. Thank you so much, Lisa, for sharing your time and talent with our kids!

If you’re a teacher, librarian, or author looking for more resources on how all this works, here are a few links to check out:

Lisa Schroeder’s Skype an Author page (And she’s fantastic with kids!)
The Skype an Author Network
School Library Journal technology feature on Skyping authors: "Met Any Good Authors Lately?"
An updated list of authors who Skype with Book Clubs

Stories and Standards: Pairing Fiction & Nonfiction (from NCTE)

On Friday afternoon, I was part of an author panel at NCTE on the topic "Stories and Standards: Pairing Fiction & Nonfiction" along with Loree Griffin Burns, Jenny Moss, and Tanya Lee Stone. We spoke about curriculum connections for our books and suggested other titles that would pair well with them in the classroom. Here’s the presentation, via SlideShare.

Our facilitator for this session was the Goddess of YA Literature herself, Teri Lesesne, (she’s here on LJ) who generously posted all of her NCTE presentations to slideshare as well. Check out her SlideShare site for a ton of great book suggestions!

When You Reach Me, A Tale of Two Cities, and Mr. Caisse

Today in my 7th grade classroom, we started our first read-aloud of the school year, Rebecca Stead‘s amazing WHEN YOU REACH ME.   If you read my review, you know how much I love this book.  I’ve already read it aloud to my eight-year-old daughter, who swooned over it just as much as I did and cannot wait to see Rebecca at the Rochester Children’s Book Festival in November to ask her how she made everything fit together so perfectly.

When I finished reading the first two chapters to my classes and closed the book today, I got thinking…   If this book had come out when I first started teaching, I might not have chosen to share it with my students.  Why?  Because there is absolutely no chance I will be able to finish it without crying.

I actually remember setting aside a couple stories in my first year of teaching because I almost loved them too much…because I knew I couldn’t read them without getting all emotional, and that worried me. What would the kids think?  

But after spending thirteen years with seventh graders, I don’t worry about that any more. I know what they’ll think.  "Wow. Stories are powerful."  And they’ll be right.

I remember two things about my own eighth grade English class.  One was dressing up in an enormously fluffy rabbit costume to give a speech.  (I cannot remember what the speech was about or why it seemed like a good idea to deliver it dressed as a rabbit, but I remember being hot in there.) 

And I remember Mr. Caisse reading the very end of A TALE OF TWO CITIES aloud to us.  I can still hear his voice breaking on the words…

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.

And I still remember the impression it had on me. That a book could move someone who had clearly read it about a hundred times to the point where he would tear up in front of a room full of 8th graders.  That a man could love a story, a particular line from that story, so much, that he seemed to forget we were even there.

Not a bad lesson at all.

First Day of School

The kids came back today!  We had teacher meetings yesterday, but the first day isn’t really the first day until the seats in my classroom are full of 7th graders.  I’m always excited for the start of a new school year, but this year brings some extra joys.

  • One of my former students is all grown up and working as a teaching assistant in our school.  She’s helping out students in my classroom one period a day, and she is every bit as smart and kind now as she was when she was twelve.  I’m so excited to have her in our classroom this year!
  • Another one of my former students is teaching third grade in our district, and my daughter is in her class. I remember thinking when this young woman was in seventh grade what an amazing teacher she’d be if she chose that path, and I’m thrilled that she did.  It makes me feel so proud of her.  (Also kind of old…but mostly proud.)
  • Tomorrow, we’ll start our first whole-class novel of the year, Rebecca Stead’s WHEN YOU REACH ME.  I gush about this book at every opportunity, and I’m so excited to share it with my kids that I kept bouncing today while I was telling them about it. It feels like I have a huge surprise present for them – I just know they’re going to love it as much as I do.
  • Our students will have the opportunity to see President Obama’s back-to-school speech this week.  They weren’t back to school when he delivered the speech yesterday, but they’ll meet by grade levels in the auditorium to see the recorded speech on Friday.
  • Our district is taking real steps to embrace Web 2.0 opportunities for teaching & learning.  This year, I’ll be teaching a mini-unit  on social networking and talking with kids about Facebook, MySpace, & Twitter – and how those who choose to use these sites can do so effectively, responsibly, and safely.
  • Along those same lines, we’re having a class Twitter feed! We’ll be tweeting reflections on our learning, book reviews, and all sorts of things, and we’re inviting parents, other teachers and librarians, and kids’ authors to follow us and maybe join in some of our conversations.  Here’s our Twitter profile – if you’d like to follow us, just send a request. (The feed is locked so that I can filter out inappropriate followers,  but we’re happy to talk with anyone interested in reading, writing, and learning.)
  • I’m teaching an advanced creative writing class again, this year in a team teaching situation with , who is both a great teacher and a gifted writer. She’s also my friend and funnier than most comedians I’ve seen, so I expect this class to be a lively one!

I hope your September shines and smells like new pencils, too.

Twitter, Teaching, & Totalitarianism

I’ve always been a fan of technology and its potential to help people learn and collaborate.  I’ve been thinking for a while about social networking and education, and how it’s probably not such a great idea for schools to simply block sites like Facebook & Twitter and pretend they don’t exist, rather than teaching kids how to use them responsibly.  I’m hoping to do some collective tweeting with my classes in the fall as a way to model effective, responsible use of social media.  I’ve been on Twitter as @KateMessner for a while, but I’ve set up a special account, @TweetK12, to talk with other educators interested in the concept of using Twitter in the classroom.  Feel free to follow & join in that conversation if you’d like.  I’m working on a proposal to present to our district technology coordinator for approval right now.

This past week, I’ve also been lamenting the fact that our regular classes are over — and that I didn’t have the opportunity to talk with my students about the way the world is changing right before their eyes…on Twitter.

Even if you aren’t on Twitter, you’ve probably heard the news reports of how protesters in Iran are using it to overcome government censors, to organize and share news and images of the demonstrations with one another and with the world.  If I were still teaching this week, we’d be talking about the history of uprising, thinking back to Thomas Paine and our reading of Laurie Halse Anderson’s CHAINS and how Isabel had to hide her illicit copy of Common Sense.  We’d talk about the efforts that those in power have always made to control the flow of information.  Totalitarian regimes, in particular, use isolation as a weapon against their people. 

Only now it’s not working.  Iranian protesters are using 21st century communication tools to circumvent government filters, and people around the world are using those same tools to help them – changing the time zones in their profiles to Tehran to help shield those tweeting from Iran, even showing support by tinting their avatars green, the color that’s come to symbolize the Iranian opposition.

John Green talks about all this much more eloquently today at his blog, Sparks Fly Up, summing up with this:

Twitter is not about what you had for breakfast, or Khloe Kardashian, or me. It’s about evening the playing field.

Exactly.  How the story of #iranelection will end is anyone’s guess, but I believe the world is a different place than it was just a week ago. A place that’s a little less safe for governments that deny human rights, and a place where people living under those governments feel a little less alone.

Welcome to the Future

As a teacher, I’m so very fortunate to work in a school district that supports creative technology integration in the classroom. The kind of technology that let my kids chat with Laurie Halse Anderson via Skype last week. The kind that lets them participate in Harvard University’s River City research project about how science-based virtual reality games can promote authentic scientific inquiry. It’s a school district that just gave me permission to visit other teachers’ classrooms from my desk during my lunch hour, to talk with their kids about my books and writing.  I’m thankful for all of that.

I know not everyone is fortunate enough to have that kind of technology or the kind of leadership that recognizes how it can help kids explore and learn. Sometimes, there’s fear of what’s "out there."  My own district has blocking software that used to filter out all of LiveJournal, but a discussion with our technology boss about the author blogs that my kids read and love prompted some tweaks to let your blogs through. I truly believe that teachers and administrators AND students need to have those kinds of talks. If you’re interested in how kids are taught in schools, you’ll want to check out this video of Peggy Sheehy’s student keynote for the Net Generation Project (thanks to coolcatteacher for the link!). It’s a wonderful way to begin the conversation.

Find more videos like this on grownupdigital

Creating Characters

I’m teaching a brand new elective at my middle school this semester — Advanced Creative Writing — and I’m lucky enough to be working with ten of the coolest, smartest 7th graders you ever did meet.  They’re working on independently selected writing projects, from novels to short stories to screenplays.  Along the way, I’ll be sharing some of our activities and asking for some of your favorite strategies to get the creative juices flowing.  I emphasize the concept of "mentor authors" in this class, encouraging kids to study what really works in their favorite authors’ writing and learn from it, so I’m hoping some of you writers out there (published and pre-published) might join in our conversation!

This morning, we worked on some introductory character development, answering these questions as our main characters:

What did you have for breakfast today?
What does your bedroom look like?
What are you worried about right now?
What do you want more than anything?
Who’s your best friend?
Who’s your worst enemy?

I always scribble along with the kids when we have a writing prompt, and today, I discovered some interesting things about a brand new main character who’s been starting to whisper in my ear. 

What about you?  What are some of your favorite strategies for getting to know your characters?

Congratulations, Laurie Halse Anderson!

The talented Laurie Halse Anderson (halseanderson ) just shared the news that her historical novel CHAINS has won the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, and I couldn’t be happier.  My 7th graders and I will be reading the final chapters tomorrow and Friday, and I was excited about that even before I heard today’s news.  CHAINS is about Isabel, a slave girl trapped in New York City and torn between Loyalists and Patriots as the Revolutionary War  ravages the city.  Yesterday, President Obama (I love writing that) gave us a brilliant connection to this chapter of American history when he quoted Thomas Paine’s "The Crisis" in his Inaugural Address.

"Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it."

Just days after Paine shared those words, General George Washington did what no one believed was possible — defeated the Hessians at Trenton after the famous river crossing immortalized in this painting by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze.

      George Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851 – Metropolitan Museum of Art

In my classroom this week, we’ll be talking about turning points and history and hope.  And we’re going to write letters through time, to tell Isabel and Curzon from CHAINS all about what happened in Washington, DC on a cold day in January, 2009.  We’ll let them know about Laurie’s award, too.  On both counts, I know they will be so very proud.

Friday Five – Hand Sales in the Classroom

As authors, we talk a lot about "hand sales" — when a bookseller personally recommends a book to a customer in the store.  But that’s not the
only place hand selling happens. 

I often give quick book talks in my 7th grade English classroom.  I’ll pull a pile of new or favorite books from my classroom shelves or the school library and give quick pitches for them at the end of class.  My students keep a list books they want to read, so if they like the idea but are already in the middle of something, it goes on their to-read list.  It’s a great way to share new books with kids and make sure they always have a steady supply of recommendations.

In that spirit, here’s my Friday Five — a list of the most-snatched-up books from this week’s book talks, in no particular order:

~Waiting for Normal by Leslie Connor — I read this last June, loved it, and couldn’t wait to share it.  The kids are loving it, too.
~Alabama Moon by Watt Key — One of my favorites for kids who ask for "something like Hatchet."
~First Daughter: Extreme American Makeover and First Daughter: White House Rules by Mitali Perkins — Super high-interest novels about a Pakistani-born girl whose dad runs for President of the United States. These books give a fascinating and incredibly timely look at life on the campaign trail and in the White House.
~Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney — This one consistently wins over the I-hate-reading crowd.
~The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary Pearson –  I loved this book, and it’s a title that some of my more advanced readers have a LOT to say about when they come by to talk books after school.

As for me, I’m immersed in the 1918 flu epidemic, with an ARC of Winnie’s War, Jenny Moss’s 2009 debut from Walker Books.  I’m halfway through and (aside from feeling feverish now and then because I’m so impressionable) LOVE the book.  Teachers who use historical fiction in the classroom will want to snatch this one up when it’s released in February.

What about you?  What new titles are you hand-selling this week?