Archives: THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY

Poetry Friday: #10FoundWords

Poetry Friday blogger and picture book author Penny Klosterman is hosting all of the poetry links today. Stop by A PENNY AND HER JOTS for more poetry posts from around the web and around the world.

Happy February, everyone. This week, we kicked off my annual poem project, which has moved over to Facebook.

This year’s theme is #10FoundWords. We have a daily news story, speech, or current event selected by a project member. That person chooses 10 words from the news source, which makes up our word bank for the day.

Because we’re all writing with the same daily prompts, my favorite part of the project is reading the response poems. I notice the ways our writing overlaps, and cheer people on when their poems are unexpected, when there’s an innovation. (You can still join the project. Leave a note in the comments if you’d like to give it a try.)

Speaking of news — scroll to the bottom of the page for two announcements: an event with me and YA author Heidi Heilig, and a book giveaway.

Here’s one of my own poems, written as a warm-up exercise.

Division
By Laura Shovan

Remember learning long division?
This was long ago, 20th Century math.
Historical stuff. We’re talking
a solid wall between two different numbers.
The smaller number makes its appeal.
“Let me inside. It’s cold.
I’m suffering out here.”
The wall stays up because
that’s how division has always
been calculated. But the big number
is overcome with a generous spirit.
It sneaks the shivering digits inside,
counts how many will fit.
Soon, there are numbers
climbing on the roof, thankful numbers
tunneling underneath.
It’s a kind of freedom,
the way they gather on all sides
of the wall, which looks thinner,
less substantial, surrounded
by the orderly many.

This was Warm-up #6: January 29, 2017. Kip Rechea was in charge of this day’s #10FoundWords and news source.

division
wall
freedom
20th Century
overcome
spirit
historical
thank
appeal
suffering

Source: An appeal from the mayor of Berlin not to build a wall across the U.S. border with Mexico.

Still here? Great! Thanks for sticking with me. I’ve got two announcements.

Announcement #1: On February 8, I’m hosting YA author Heidi Heilig (THE GIRL FROM EVERYWHERE) as part of the Master Storytellers series run by the Ivy Bookshop. Join me and Heidi as we discuss the broad appeal of young adult fiction. You can find details and RSVP here. If you’re in town for AWP, it’s a short trip up to Baltimore. Hope to see you there.

Announcement #2: Foundry Media is giving away four copies of THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY on Goodreads. Sign up here to join the giveaway.

Announcement #3: (When I said “two announcements,” I was simply stating an alternate fact.) I’m excited to share that THE LAST FIFTH GRADE is a finalist for a Pennsylvania Young Readers’ Choice Award!

NCTE

Heading to NCTE this weekend? So am I.

ncteMy first job after graduate school was teaching high school English. I was a member of the New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, but I never got to a national conference. Educator friends have told me how good it feels to be surrounded by people who love all things reading, writing, and learning.

This year’s conference theme is both timely and necessary, “Faces of Advocacy.” As educators, we must advocate for ourselves and our students in so many ways. Classrooms need to be a safe space for all of us, no matter our ethnicity, race, religious beliefs, or background.

Below is my annotated conference schedule. Stop by and say hello!


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NCTE 2016

Saturday, November 19

9:30-10:45 am
Writing for a Better World: Poetry as an Agent of Change
Georgia World Congress Convention Center B210

Program Description: When headlines shout tragic news, we often feel powerless. Yet poetry can help. In this session, a panel of teachers and poets share ways to respond to world events and work to make positive change through poetry, beginning at the most personal level and later echoing out into the world.

Margaret Simon is the program chair. Katherine Bomer is a respondent. Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, Irene Latham, Margarita Engle, and Tara Smith are the other authors on this panel.

Notes: Many of our students are struggling with how to respond to the recent presidential election. This is going to be a powerful discussion about how we can use poetry as an agent of change and a source of comfort. I’m looking forward to the conversation, and to meeting several longtime Poetry Friday blogging friends.

4:00-7:30 pm
SCBWI Member Book Signing and Reception
Georgia World Congress Convention Center A411

Sponsored by the SCBWI Southern Breeze. The signing runs from 4-5:30 with a reception following. At the reception, 14 authors — including me — will have a chance to pitch their books to attendees. Should be fun!

Sunday, November 20

9:00-9:45 am
Laura Shovan Autograph Session, THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY
Georgia World Congress Convention Center, Random House Booth #412

12:00 PM – 1:15 PM
Writing Strategies for Teaching Empathy Through POV
Georgia World Congress Convention Center A310

Program Description: Seeing the world from another’s point of view is a key element of empathy—a necessary component of advocacy. In this interactive session, three authors and writing teachers will engage participants in a series of fun, hands-on, easily replicable POV writing activities designed to create an appreciation for others and their communities.

Victoria J. Coe and Cheryl Lawton Malone are the other authors leading this workshop.

Notes: I’m looking forward to co-leading this workshop with Vicki, author of the middle grade novel FENWAY AND HATTIE, and Cheryl, whose debut picture book is DARIO AND THE WHALE. We’ve been hard at work on this session. Each of us is presenting one writing exercise for teaching students point of view.

I’m rounding out the conference by meeting up with a 100 Thousand Poets for Change friend, poet and educator Waqas Khwaja, who is a professor at Agnes Scott College. You can read an interview with Waqas here. I also encourage you to read his poem, “I Bide My Time.”

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday, everyone!

 

 

Poetry Prompt Jar Giveaway

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Laura Purdie Salas is hosting Poetry Friday this week. Visit WRITING THE WORLD FOR KIDS to check out all of this week’s poetry posts.

Hello from Klamath Falls, Oregon! In real life, I’m on the West Coast to do some school and library visits with my good friend Janet Sumner Johnson, author of THE LAST GREAT ADVENTURE OF THE PB&J SOCIETY.

But online, I’m guest-blogging this week at poet and children’s author Jacqueline Jules’s blog, Pencil Tips: Writing Workshop Strategies.

 

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Empty protein powder jar.

When Jackie asked me to put together a workshop or activity, I decided to get crafty. I dusted off my long-neglected glue gun, grabbed some wrapping paper scraps, and got busy… making a poetry prompt jar that Ms. Hill’s class would be proud of.

There is one and only one of these beauties. I am giving this prompt jar, full of poetry prompts from my book, away to one class! Leave a comment on this post to be entered in the giveaway.

UPDATE: The drawing will be on Monday, November 21, after NCTE. See you there!

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Glue gun!

You can read full instructions for creating a Poetry Prompt Jar (just like the one in THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY) at Jackie’s blog. Meanwhile, enjoy the photo gallery of my prompt jar in progress.

There’s a photo of the finished product at the Pencil Tips blog.

Good luck with the giveaway!

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My kids don’t need those “Magnetic Poetry for Kids” tiles anymore. Time for a poem!

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Almost finished.

Poetry Friday: “Where They Live”

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Jone at Check It Out is hosting the Poetry Friday links this week. Thanks, Jone!

Happy Poetry Friday, Everyone!

Last month, Poetry Friday blogger Michelle H. Barnes invited me to her site, Today’s Little Ditty, for a post about persona poems. Although I used many poetic forms in my novel in verse, THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY, every single poem is a persona poem. Why? Because each poem is spoken in the voice of an invented character.

In my post for Michelle, I highlighted the development of one character in the book, fifth grader Brianna Holmes. You can read the full post at Today’s Little Ditty.

In that post, I wrote: When I came up with the character of Brianna Holmes, I only knew one thing about her: Her family was homeless. A neighbor of mine works with our local school system, providing support to homeless families. Because Emerson Elementary is modeled on schools in my area, it was important to include a homeless character.

Today, I’d like to welcome my friend and neighbor Kim McCauley. Kim works to support homeless children and their families here in Howard County, Maryland. If I didn’t know Kim, the character of Brianna Holmes would never have been invented.

At the end of our interview, I will share the poem where Brianna describes one way that she copes with being homeless.

Laura: THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY is set in Howard County, Maryland. How would you describe your work with homeless children? What are some ways that the school system gives them support?  

Kim: I work in the Pupil Personnel Office which is part of Student Services in the Howard County Public School System. We have a comprehensive homeless policy in Howard County Schools and we also follow the McKinney-Vento law [read about it here] to make sure that all homeless students can attend school and receive the supports that they are entitled to by law and policy. Our job in the PPW office is to make sure all of these policies and the law are followed while also supporting the students and families as they navigate through homelessness.  I have many responsibilities that relate to making sure that homeless children are monitored regularly for grades and attendance, ensuring that they are receiving free meals and transportation, data collection and other duties. There are so many things that go into supporting a homeless family. The PPWs work to address the issues on the school level. They case manage all homeless children and work extensively with the families to help support them while they are experiencing homelessness.

Laura: Is homelessness a big issue in central Maryland? How many school-aged children does it affect?

Kim: Homelessness is a big issue in all of Maryland. Each county reports to the state regularly on the numbers of homeless kids. You can find the numbers for each county by visiting the MSDE website and searching homelessness. In Howard County, we currently have approximately 550 children that have been identified since the beginning of the 15/16 school year that are experiencing homelessness. Not all of those are HCPSS students. We include all youth that we know about in this number. Also, this number changes almost every day. Almost all of our schools in Howard County have homeless students.

Laura: The character Brianna Holmes tells us that she is homeless. She’s living in a motel with her family, not in a shelter or on the streets. Is this something you see with the families you work with? Can you explain how a homeless family might come to live in a motel?  

Kim: We see many of our families that are living in motels.  Sometimes a family will lose their home through eviction or foreclosure and living in a motel is the most that they can afford.  In other cases Grassroots Crisis Center will temporarily place families in a motel to help them through the transition of losing their home.  Families experiencing homelessness in Howard County must go through the Coordinated System of Homeless Services to be eligible to receive services.  They start this process by calling the Grassroots emergency hotline number 410-531-6677.

Laura: Thank you for sharing that contact information. How can parents, educators, and other adults help children understand what it means to be homeless? Are there ways that school children can support their peers who are homeless or food insecure?

Kim: This is a hard question because no matter what we say or do, children and adults will never fully understand what a person goes through when they are experiencing homelessness and sometimes hunger unless they experience it themselves. However, there are certainly ways to help children and others understand and offer them ways to help. There are many fundraising opportunities in HoCo designed to help Grassroots Crisis Center. One of those programs is called Change Matters and it’s tied into student service learning in many of our schools. For example, they usually incorporate lessons into the curriculum and then it culminates with a fundraising activity so that students feel like they are helping. There are many other opportunities to help by volunteering to make meals, work in the cold weather shelters, etc.  There are also many films available for viewing that show homeless youth  and how they deal with homelessness.  One very powerful film that has been shown on HBO and is also available as a teaching resource is called Home Stretch.  There are several others such as American Winter that are being used as educational resources as well.

Laura: Do you have any children’s books you recommend that touch on the issue of homelessness?  

Kim: I do not know of any children’s books that touch on homelessness. However, there are many books that are extremely insightful and powerful that depict real-life homelessness.  Enrique’s Journey and An Invisible Thread are two books that I highly recommend. These books shouldn’t be read to young children. I recommend an adult review them before having children read them.

Kim, thank you so much for sharing all of this information and telling us about the work that you do to support homeless children and their families.

Brianna

Illustration by Abigail Halpin

Meet Brianna Holmes, an Emerson Elementary fifth grader, who is one of Ms. Hill’s poets.

In her first poem, Brianna tells us that she loves being as fashionable as the “fifth-grade queens.” So she’s taught herself how to sew, embroider, and repurpose hand-me-down clothes to make them stylish.

It’s not until Brianna’s second poem that we learn more about her family situation. Brianna is living in a motel with her mother and older brother. Although she hopes they will have their own home someday, for now, Brianna’s family is homeless.

 

 

WhereTheyLive

Readers, I hope you enjoyed hearing from Kim McCauley today, and learning more about my inspiration for this character.

I recently read Katherine Applegate’s middle grade novel CRENSHAW, which is about a family on the brink of becoming homeless. Feel free to share your recommended reading about homelessness (specify whether it’s for kids or adults) in the comments.

Launch Day Challenge

Happy launch day to the Emerson Elementary School fifth graders! Today, Ms. Hill’s student poets finally graduate from work-in-progress to published book.

I’ve got something special planned for you, my friends.

Welcome to my Launch Day Challenge. It involves poetry, of course — this is National Poetry Month. It also involves hamsters. (I’ll explain that in a second.)

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This is Refried Beans the hamster. He belongs to a 5th grade poet named Jason Chen. He’d better not eat one of my special launch day cookies.

CHALLENGE PROMPT: Write a haiku about fifth grade.

It can be about your favorite teacher, the funniest thing that happened to you that year, or something that you were proud of. All subjects are okay.

Strictly speaking, these poems will be senryu. Never heard of them? Read more about senryu here.

HOW TO SUBMIT: There are two ways…

  1. Leave your haiku in the comments of this post.
  2. Tweet your haiku with the hashtag #My5thGradeAsHaiku. Be sure to tag me (@laurashovan).

DEADLINE: The challenge runs until 4/26.

You’ve got two weeks. I’ll announce winners on the last day of National Poetry Month, April 30.

WHAT’S IN IT FOR ME?: I’m glad you asked.

Check out this amazing THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY prize pack. It comes with…

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Three haiku-writers will win this prize pack.

*a Refried Beans hamster plushie,

*a signed copy of THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY,

*a “Free Speech” pin,

*and a Save Our School button card.

ARE THERE ANY RULES?: I will select three prize-pack winners.

Be prepared — I may ask your permission to post winners’ and runners’-up haiku on my blog.

WHAT’S WITH THE HAMSTER?

If my book had a mascot, Refried Beans would be it. He is the only pet to appear on the cover (can you spot him in the third row from the top?), and he steals the show at the 5th grade science fair.

I can’t wait to read your #My5thGradeAsHaiku poems! Good luck and happy writing.

Acknowledgments: Special Edition

Tomorrow is the official publication date for my debut children’s novel. I started working on what became THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY in July, 2008. You can imagine how many beta readers, paid-for critiques, SCBWI retreats, critique group meetings, and hand-wringing sessions it took to get me from idea to published book.

In the back of the book, after the story is over but before the list of poetic forms and writing prompts, you’ll find the formal acknowledgments. I limited thank yous to people who beta read in the year before the book sold, otherwise the acknowledgments could have doubled as a phone book

But now that launch day is almost here, there is one big “Thank you!” I wish I had included.

Today’s post is devoted to my parents.

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They are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary this summer!

My parents did not give me feedback on my book. I wouldn’t let them read it until the ARCs arrived.

I never cried on their shoulders about how hard it was when agents sent form rejects or said a verse novel wasn’t for them.

I didn’t do these things because I’m an adult, and proud of it, but sometimes that means I forget to thank my parents.

So, here is a great big acknowledgment just for you, Mom and Dad.

Thank you, Dad, for reciting “The Song of Hiawatha” and “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” to us when we were little. You are such a great performer that I can still picture “the shining Big-Sea-Water” and hear the hoof beats of Paul Revere’s horse pounding through the night. You taught me to love the music of poetry.

mom

A handmade birthday card, painted by my mother.

Thank you, Mom, for sharing your love of William Wordsworth’s “The Daffodils,” and for being an artist. Your tool is the paintbrush, mine is words. I pursued my dream of being a writer, encouraged by your belief that we should all follow our bliss.

***

When I left home for NYU’s Dramatic Writing Program, my parents gave me a special gift. I went hunting for it today. It’s dusty and some of the lines have faded. The butterfly in the corner is in tattered pieces. But I’ve saved the list poem they wrote for me all those years ago.

This week, when I publish my fourth book — the first from a major publishing house — I want to thank my parents for their faith in me.

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My parents wrote this list poem nearly 30 years ago.

Why do I, Laura Elizabeth Dickson, write?

by Pauline and Franklyn Dickson

I write to heighten my own awareness of life.
I write to lure and enchant and console others.
I write to serenade my lover.

I write to be able to transcend my life, to reach beyond it.
I write to teach myself to speak with others, to record the journey into the labyrinth.
I write to expand my world when I feel strangled, or constricted, or lonely.

I write so that I can create a world in which I can live.
I write to integrate the different women inside me.
I write to solidify my inner convictions.
I write to balance two worlds — earth and imagination.
I write that I can communicate by way of the emotions, imagery, and myth.
I write in order to liberate other women, to inspire other women.
I write in order to grow and to reach my potential as a human being.
My writing is an inner journey, a quest for a center, a gift to the world.

–With Love from Mom and Anais Nin

I write to earn a living, to be financially independent.
I write to please myself, my parents, my family and friends.
I write to communicate!
I write to express myself, what I see, feel, and experience.
I write because I care!
I write to celebrate myself.

–Love, Dad

Laura’s Bookshelf: Special Giveaway Edition!

It’s only three weeks until the launch of THE LAST FIFTH GRADE. Good thing I don’t have to wait alone. Three other debut middle grade authors are celebrating book birthdays on April 12, 2016.

We’re calling ourselves #April12thMGShelf.

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Together, we are giving away a shelf-worth of new middle grade books, all four of our titles, to one lucky winner. Skip to the bottom of this post for giveaway details.

We are also visiting four blogs (plus one “B side” blog with bonus info) over the next three weeks.

First, let me tell you about the books.

counting thymeCOUNTING THYME is about Thyme, a middle schooler who moves across the country to New York City, where her little brother is going through a cancer trial. It’s an upbeat story about how a family copes, adapts, and does their best to feel “normal” when there is a crisis. Melanie Conklin is the author. She has paired up with the non-profit Cookies for Kids’ Cancer for some fundraisers. You can read my full post about the book here.

Pre-order at Indiebound.

my seventhMY SEVENTH-GRADE LIFE IN TIGHTS by Brooks Benjamin is about Dillon, also a middle schooler. Dillon longs to take dance classes at a prestigious studio in town. However, his dance crew/best friends dislike the studio or the kids who dance there. When Dillon has a chance to compete for a scholarship to the studio, he has to decide whether to go for it at the risk of losing his crew and his own unique dance style. My post about this book is here.

Pre-order at Indiebound.

THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY is my new novel-in-verse for children. If you read this blog, you already know about my book. I just received the Teacher’s Guide and can reveal (exclusive information alert!) it was created by none other than Sylvia Vardell of the blog Poetry for Children. Pre-order a signed copy from the Ivy Bookshop.

treasure at lureTREASURE AT LURE LAKE by Shari Schwarz is a family adventure story. Brothers Bryce and Jake hike deep into the woods with their grandpa, to spend a few weeks at their family’s secluded cabin. There, they have to deal with sibling rivalry, a hungry bear, a curious elk, and an old family secret. I’ll be blogging about this book soon.

Pre-order from Indiebound.

#April12thMGShelf Blog Tour Details

Sub It Club: March 22nd, Topic: Path to Publication
Kidliterati: March 29th, Topic: #April12thMGShelf Talk Books, Writing, and Inspiration
KIDLIT411: April 1, Topic: Friday bonus feature
MGM: April 4, Topic: Brooks Benjamin pairs videos with our books
Mixed up Files: April 7, Topic: Interviews

You will find the book giveaway here!

The Last Fifth Grade ARC Giveaway!

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Make mine banana cream.

Happy Pi Day, poets and friends! I’ve got a slice of something special for you today.

To help celebrate the 20th anniversary of National Poetry Month, I’m giving away a signed ARC of THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY. The giveaway starts today and ends on April 1.

You’ll find details and giveaway instructions at Goodreads.

What would the Emerson Elementary 5th graders  be reading on Pi Day? How about my friend Jean Meyers’ poem, “I Prefer Pi”?

 

I PREFER PI

Oh pi, we celebrate you,
you, discovered by Greek mathematicians,
you, come down to us through the centuries,
unchanged, unchangeable.

Without you, pi,
how would we get through fifth grade math?
Or how could we make crop circles?
Or those things the New Englanders call rotaries?
Without you, would cookies be round?
Would we have wedding rings?

You look so sturdy there, pi,
with your two firm legs
and the little table across the top.
You are just the right spot, pi,
for afternoon tea, served with —
of course, my favorite —
raspberry pie.

by Jean Meyers, from You Are Here Too
All rights reserved.

(Some of you will see a little joke at the end of the poem, but it was written and published long before Raspberry Pi came on the scene.)

Poetry Friday: Moving Day

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This week’s host is Catherine at Reading to the Core.

Happy Poetry Friday, friends.

After nearly eight years blogging as Author Amok, I am moving to my new website! As of February 1, I will be blogging and participating in Poetry Friday right here at www.laurashovan.com.

There are a few housekeeping items to share before I close up shop at the old digs.

First, the annual daily writing prompt project is on for 2016.

This year’s theme is FOUND OBJECTS. I invite you to join this community project. The focus is on writing every day (or as often as you can) and sharing the results with our fellow poets and authors — an opportunity to focus on drafting and to turn off our inner-editors for one month. We always have a great time with this project and there are prizes for contributors.

100 year old wooden mailing box RHB

This year, we are focusing on writing about FOUND OBJECTS using multi-sensory imagery.

You’ll find more information about the project at this post. And here is a sneak preview of our first writing prompt, contributed by Robyn Hood Black.

 

If you’d like to contribute a poem, please leave it in the comments of this post. Be sure to specify that this is your DAY 1 found object poem.

Second, an update on my book launch. THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY will be published on April 12. I’m excited to have a book birthday during National Poetry Month. The Poetry Friday community has been so supportive of this project.

In the weeks leading up to NPM, I’ll be introducing the Emerson E.S. fifth graders at the new blog. I came across this poem today, which was cut from the novel. Newt Mathews is an amphibian-loving, rule-following student who shares in his poems how Asperger’s Syndrome affects his writing. Mr. White is his aide.

The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary

You can spot Abigail Halpin’s wonderful illustration of Newt at the bottom right. He’s dressed in his favorite frog T-shirt.

Sound Poem
By Newt Mathews

Buzz! Beep!
Goodbye sleep.
Time to get out of bed.

Honk! Zoom!
Rumble! Vroom!
Time for the bus to come.

Rush. Zing!
The late bell rings.
Time to take my seat.

Scritch, scratch.
Quiet at last.
Mr. White helps me write a poem.

 

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The Tower, symbolic or real, is the theme of this speculative fiction anthology. Read more about it at Goodreads.

Another update: I am giving away two copies of the spec fiction anthology HIDES THE DARK TOWER at my author Facebook page.  I was honored when editors Kelly Harmon and Vonnie Winslow Crist asked me to write a poem to open the anthology. Stop by to enter into the drawing.

Last, I thought it would be fun to reprint something from my very first blog post, from August of 2008. I was just back from a creativity workshop with master storyteller Odds Bodkin.

This Week’s Writing Exercise (Appropriate for All Ages and Levels)

Don’t Write! Imagine

We often ask students, and ourselves, to be imaginative when writing. But imagination without boundaries can be uncomfortable. After all, our imaginations produce nightmares. Here is one of Odds’ best recommendations from the storytelling workshop: when you’re asking someone to use his/her imagination, start with a familiar setting to warm-up those mental muscles. So, put away the notebook and pencil while you try this exercise in sensory imagination (adapted from Odds Bodkin’s workshop). You can take notes later. 

Sit quietly, close your eyes and imagine that you are in your bedroom. Your bare feet are standing on a low marble pedestal. Turn slowly – 360 degrees – and take in every detail of the room. Not just the pictures on the walls and the colors of the bed spread, but also any smells, and the temperature of the air. You notice a light coming from under the bed. Filled with curiosity, you step off the pedestal. You move the bed aside with one hand – it’s as light as an empty box and glides across the floor. There, where you expected to see carpet or planks of wood, is a window. What a strange place for a window! How can sunlight be shining through a window in your floor? You kneel down beside the window and see… this is the tricky part, writers. Without composing a story, let your imagination see, feel, hear, taste and smell whatever is beyond that window. Let us know what’s out there.

Thank you all! Blogging at Author Amok has been an adventure. It’s been wonderful to have so many traveling companions.

Save Our School

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This “Save Our School” button is actually a promotional postcard for my book. Can you imagine Ms. Hill’s class wearing buttons like these to protest the closing of Emerson Elementary?

It was one of those serendipitous moments.

My friend, poet and educator J.C. Elkin. was asking about my debut children’s novel, THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY.

“So, what’s it about?”

This, fellow writers, is a question that strikes fear into the hearts of many novelists. As soon as these words fall from someone’s lips (especially if that someone is an editor, agent, or book blogger), you have exactly 2-3 sentences to explain the book that you have spent the last X amount of years working on. In a nutshell.

I’d been working my 2-3 sentences, what’s known as “the elevator pitch.” I was prepared.

“Jane,” I said. “It’s about a group of fifth grade poets whose school is being closed and they stage a protest to save it.”

Here comes the serendipity part.

Jane didn’t reply with, “That sounds interesting.” Or “Great topic!” Or even, “And it’s a novel in verse?” Instead, she said. “That happened to me.”

What? Schools — both public and parochial — being shut down is a huge issue in my home state of Maryland right now. [You can read about parents protesting the closing of North Carroll HS at the WBAL website.] Communities are, understandably, invested in their schools. When a Board of Education slates a school for closing, it has a negative impact on the students, families, and the surrounding community.

But that’s happening now. Jane was talking about many years ago, when she was in high school.

“What’s more,” she continued. “We won. We saved our school. And it’s still around today.”

I’ll let Jane, who is a past contributor to my Author Amok blog, tell us the details.

Saving Saint A’s
by Jane C. Elkin

In the winter of 1974, my school nearly closed and I found myself fundraising for a place I thought I hated. It was freshman year at a parochial school I’ll call Saint A’s, which my mother forced me to attend after student-teaching a year at the public school my brothers attended. She transferred me in July when it was too late to say goodbye to my junior high friends, the best friends I’d ever had at the school where I’d been happiest.

Saint A’s was wrong for me on every level. It drew scholars from a thirty-five mile radius in a town I’d never been to. I was a so-so student, gifted with words and inept with numbers. Saint A’s had the worst music program in the state, officially, based on a state-wide competition. I was a talented singer, and the public school music program was the best in the state. Then again, they also had a slew of social problems my mother had seen first-hand: drugs, violence, bomb threats . . . She had seen girls cat-fighting over the fathers of their babies and seen my eldest brother beaten to a bloody pulp by a gang in the woods where he ran cross-country. She saw only a den of iniquity and a naïve girl she needed to shelter. Academics had little to do with her decision, though my second brother, the smart one in the family, was allowed to transfer with me.

Of course, Saint A’s had problems, too. Over its thirteen year history, it had developed a reputation for academic excellence amid mismanagement. Students wore any of four different uniforms dating back to the school’s inception, and the place was drowning in debt because the nuns who founded the school were now outnumbered by lay teachers. The football team, however, after two years without a win, had just won the state championship, and the once glorious debate team was rising from the ashes of dormancy. Nevertheless, when the administrators called a meeting to inform us of the financial crisis, they had already made up their minds to close.

The meeting was held in the gym on a school night, standing-room-only amid a crescendo of nervous chatter. The new principal, a stout nun, sat on the stage as rigid as a deposed monarch on a folding throne. Her diminutive administrator, an affable little priest who’d bungled the budget from day-one, was hunched by her side, the Board lined up at a distance.

After a brief prayer, they cut to the chase. Unfortunately and unavoidably, that year’s graduating class would be the last. Everyone froze in stunned silence. Then a look of dismay washed over their faces, infecting me. After only five months, I suddenly didn’t want to leave. I should have been ecstatic; I was finally going to get what I wanted. But leaving Saint A’s would mean leaving new friends, the speech team, the band’s baton squad, honors classes where I was excelling, and even the tiny chorus where I discovered I liked small ensembles better than large ones.

So there we were, four hundred students trying to wrap our heads around this new reality, and you could hear the hum of the lights.

Then the questions began. How did this happen? How much do we owe? A junior, raising his fist in defiance, yelled Hell no, we won’t go, and I joined in the anti-war chant, marveling at how original he was. The accountant appealed for order and someone from the bleachers called out, “How much do we need to tide us over? Maybe we could raise the money. ”

Instant silence. Why not? A car wash, a raffle, a spaghetti dinner? The usual ideas were tossed around and rejected like underinflated volleyballs. Then some rich kid suggested, “What if each family gave a dollar a day?” A mighty groan went up from the blue collar sector. Three hundred sixty-five dollars was about a year’s tuition in 1974. Today it is over twelve thousand.

Another guy jumped up on the bleachers, patting the air to hush us. “What if we had a pledge drive? We could call it the 365 Club!”

The segue from idea to action was immediate. Desks were dragged in, and within minutes the gymnasium was divided into communities with committees formed and names, phone numbers and addresses recorded. The accountant targeted a figure, and a Saturday was set for the student body to go door-to-door with coffee cans. Our sales pitch: no donation too small but a dollar a day would be great.

A plywood thermometer was posted on the lawn, and we reached our immediate goal by spring. Only one student received a pledge of $365 from a stranger, but it was a real eye-opener to see who gave and who didn’t. My 7th grade English teacher, who lived in a beautiful seaside cottage, didn’t believe in supporting private education –not even a dollar’s worth –but a shabbily dressed maid from the nearby resort emptied her pockets for me.

Smaller fundraisers followed, but our grassroots organization was the magic bandage. Three years later, with the school’s music program officially defunct, I won the state championship for debate and was accepted to a prestigious liberal arts college.

I often ponder how my life would have been different if Saint A’s had closed. I would have gone on to study music, but I wouldn’t have developed academically. I definitely would not have met my debate partner, who caused me to meet my husband, and that meant I wouldn’t have lived in Europe where I became bilingual and continued to hone my vocal skills, which ultimately led to a career teaching language and music.

I went on to sing professionally for thirteen years at, ironically, the country’s largest Catholic church –the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. There, I sang televised soli, made seven recordings, travel to Rome twice, and even sang for the Pope in a private vespers service.

Forty-two years after the 365 Club, twenty-one years of teaching later, thirty-three years of marriage later, two children and two grandchildren later, I can’t complain.

janeJ.C. Elkin is an optimist, linguist and singer whose writings draw heavily on spirituality, feminism, and childhood. Her work teaching English as a Second Language inspired her chapbook World Class (Apprentice House, 2014). Other poetry and prose appear in such journals as Kestrel, Kansas City Voices, Delmarva Review, and Angle.