My Story

#NaNoWriMoTinyTip: Houses & Hamburgers

The first few years that my students and I wrote novels with NaNoWriMo, I neglected settings. This wasn’t intentional, but my main concern was helping my students plan enough of a plot that they would be able to keep writing for the full month. My lack of novel-writing experience caused me to miss the fact that settings make a big difference in adding more story, more conflict, more ways to move the story forward while also revealing more about our characters. Last year we discovered a great way to detail settings for our novels before we start writing.

First, though, I want my students to see why settings matter. They read The Outsiders in 7th grade, and since it is a story that most of them love and remember, it serves as a great reference when we plan our own novels. The settings in S.E. Hinton’s classic novel show us just how valuable our own stories’ settings can be:

  • Ponyboy’s home and neighborhood, where we see the bond of the brothers who try to support each other without their parents; plus we see the fear and danger of walking the streets of their neighborhood, and the support the Greasers give each other when one of them is jumped by Socs.
  • The drive-in theater, where we see Cherry take on Dallas, and where she and Ponyboy begin to get to know each other.
  • The abandoned church, where Johnny and Ponyboy hide, and where we see their friendship develop. Later we see how courageous and generous the Greasers are when they risk their own lives to save children who are trapped in the burning church.
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Photo by Harry Miller on Unsplash

Looking back at these settings helps my students understand why they need to decide which settings will be important in their novels. But where do they get ideas for settings? How do they create settings that are realistic? #TinyTip answer: the Chamber of Commerce.

After my husband and I enjoyed a vacation in Grand Lake, Colorado, I decided to set my next novel there. I loved the tiny mountain town, the beautiful lake, the downtown boardwalks, and the live theater. But as a California native, I didn’t know much about living in Colorado. Thank you, Grand Lake Chamber of Commerce, for providing ideas for not just places, but also local hangouts, activities, festivals, and weather. After all, a novel set in Colorado must have some snowy winter scenes, and that is far outside my own experience.

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Photo by Alisa Anton on Unsplash

Even if my students want to set their stories in fictional towns, using a Chamber of Commerce site for that area of the country will help them plan settings that will improve their stories. Writing science fiction? Fantasy? Your characters still need places to live, to travel, to hangout, to enjoy a burger… and Chamber of Commerce sites are gold mines for setting ideas. Students can even visit Chamber of Commerce sites all over the world with this international list.

Where do you get ideas for your novel’s settings? How do you make them realistic?

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#NaNoWriMoTinyTip: Ask & Suggest

My students are deep in the planning stages of NaNoWriMo, which means they have crafted their main characters and plotted some main events. But we are all a bit foggy about where our stories might go. Brainstorming ideas and bouncing them off our friends only takes us so far. So today we tried something new, and my students (and I) were so excited about the results that we knew it must be shared.

First I should confess: my own novel plan this year is painfully thin. I’ve got a main character and her dad, I’ve got a setting, and I’ve got a touch of mystery, but that’s about it. So my reason for today’s lesson is a bit self-serving: I needed my students’ help.

Photo by Callum Chapman on Unsplash

So I wrote a couple paragraphs about the story I have so far, and then I read them aloud to my students. I told them I wanted two things from them: questions about and suggestions for my story. As they peppered me with questions, I didn’t try to answer them. I just wrote down exactly what they said, using my laptop and projector so my students could see that I was writing down their exact words: “Where’s the mom?” “Why did they move?” “Who’s in the photograph?” Whether or not I could answer the questions didn’t matter; the ideas sparked by the questions would.

Then I asked them for suggestions, and that’s when they went crazy! I think we love to tell others what to write because we know we won’t have to actually make those ideas work. And again, as students shouted, “They live in an RV!” “The mom is a spy!” and “Her dad is actually her older brother,” I dutifully wrote down everything they said, smiling and nodding as if every suggestion would save my story (and some of those ideas really did!).

After I modeled the exercise in front of the class, my students partnered up and did the same. I had to remind them a couple times to just write down whatever their partner said and not worry about whether or not the ideas even made sense, and by the end of class they were glowing with excitement.

“Did this help?” I asked. They clutched their notebooks and grinned up at me. “Yes!” “I got so many great ideas!” “Mrs. Bradley, listen to this….!” Writing is usually a solitary endeavor, but the benefits of participating in a writing group are touted by many. We don’t need to (and shouldn’t) make this journey alone!

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Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash.

Sometimes the best lessons come out of our own desperation, and sometimes we just need our writing friends to inject some inspiration into our stories. My protagonist doesn’t live in an RV, but that suggestion triggered the idea of a mysterious friend who walks miles home from school every day because she doesn’t want anyone to see that she and her mom live in an RV on the outskirts of town…

This is what the Dare Machine on the NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program website does for us when we struggle with writer’s block. With one click we’re given a suggestion that might make no sense at all in our story, but if we just try writing about it, chances are our creative juices will start flowing again and our stories will get right back on track.

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Where do you get ideas for your novel? What’s your best strategy for developing your plot? Please share!

Teach writing? Then you’d better BE writing.

I told my husband that he needed to come with me for an evening canoe ride. We were vacationing at our cabin, and although I was working very hard at not working, I was also working on a piece of writing that had to get done. And I needed to bounce some ideas off of him.

We paddled up the lake a bit, the late sun bright and low, the water calm and clear. My mind was racing with an idea that had come to me in the middle of a sleepless night, and I thought it might work but I needed to verbalize it first, needed to hear it aloud before I could be sure.

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Fortunately my husband is used to this, as I often ask him to just listen while I try out an idea on him; sometimes it’s my writing, often it’s an idea for a lesson for my students. We reached the end of the lake and he listened while I ran through my idea. Saying it aloud not only helped me get clear on what I was thinking; it also gave me the opportunity to get feedback from someone else. And by the time we tied up the canoe at our dock, I was confident and ready to get these new ideas on paper.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing this summer, far more than usual, and it has reminded me (again and again) how important it is that, as a writing teacher, I am also writing. It seems so obvious: how can I really understand and teach the writing process if I am not experiencing it myself? But for many years I taught writing without actually writing myself. I gave students assignments; I gave them graphic organizers; I gave them feedback on their drafts; and I gave them grades. But what I didn’t give them was honest writing practice based on my own writing struggles. And, yes, writing is a struggle. Every time we put pen to paper (or, let’s be honest, fingers to keyboard), it is a struggle. It is making something out of nothing. It is creating something new. It is an art and a science and a production.

So when I tell my husband, “I’m going for a walk. I need to get away from my writing in order to find my writing again,” it’s only fair that I make a mental note: how can I let my students “go for a walk” so they can find their writing again, too?

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The writing classroom needs to be quiet, of that I’m sure. Writing is hard work, it requires concentration, and when writers are interrupted by noise, it takes a Herculean effort to find the writing again. So during writing time, I insist on a quiet writing classroom. So how can I give my students opportunities like I needed to go for a canoe ride or a walk, or to talk out their ideas with someone? Here are a few ways I try to support their writing needs:

  • in our flexible seating classroom, students are able to get up and move when they need to. They know that they need to be quiet, but they also know the value of movement as part of the creative process. Our furniture is on wheels, which allows them to move even as they write, but they are also free to get up and move, to walk around, even go outside (weather permitting) to walk a little.
  • we use Google Docs for most of our writing, so my students are able to bounce ideas off their friends via comments on their Docs. I also jump into their Docs during writing time so I can give them feedback as they work, rather than waiting until an entire draft is written and turned in.
  • homework: debate rages over whether or not homework is beneficial or even necessary for our students, but I am certain that writing for homework is critical, if only because it allows my students to figure out how they write (work) best. During NaNoWriMo, I have my students reflect on what they are learning about their own writing preferences; their answers help them see how they can work best on any assignment. They discover if they work best with music, with quiet, with snacks, and what time of day is ideal. These are discoveries that will help them now and in future work endeavors.

I may not be able to send my students out in canoes when they need a writing break, but I can learn from my own writing needs so that I can help my students find theirs. How about you? What have you learned about writing from your own writing experiences?

#NaNoWriMo: ask the experts

I’ve never published a novel of my own, so it’s intimidating to ask my students to write a novel under my tutelage. But since the answer to just about every question can now be found online, I decided this year to ask my students to search the web for writing advice from those most qualified to give it: published writers.

Much of the wisdom they found echoes what I will be teaching them in the next few weeks. Maybe my lessons will carry a bit more weight since the experts said it first!

  • Don’t give up. Trust your journey.

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  • Editing matters. Write truth.

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  • Your story matters.

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  • Make it real; make it scary; and … cliffhangers.

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  • Make it human (but don’t let your mom read it).

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  • Also good: tension and snap.

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  • When you get discouraged, remember: the world needs your novel!

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What advice do YOU have for my #WriMos?

 

Always a learner; also a teacher.

Screen shot 2014-10-04 at 1.29.05 PMGreetings! I am a veteran middle school teacher with nearly 30 years experience teaching English language arts. In 2012 I added Digital Design and Broadcast Media to my schedule, and discovered the joys and power that an internet-connected 1:1 classroom can bring to my students. Revising my curriculum to take advantage of 21st century tools while also developing our digital media programs have kept me engaged and excited to be in the classroom every day. In addition to teaching, I also present workshops for teachers on Google Apps, project-based learning, and writing; plus I work as a community facilitator for Edutopia and write for KQED Learning and Edutopia. I love to connect with other educators, so please enjoy this site, check out my how-to NaNoWriMo site, see my students’ novels for sale on Amazon, and contact me here or via Twitter @LAMBRADLEY.

Thank you (so much) and I’m so (very) sorry.

I know I’m not the only teacher who struggles to meet the needs of all her students, but after 25 years, I am still surprised by the wide range of responses I get from my students and their parents. The following comments come from parents of students (and students, too) who have been in the same class period with me this year:

“Thank you so much! I think you are such an amazing teacher, and my son says you are the best teacher he has ever had. Thank you!”

“My son thinks you don’t like him, and I agree. And that’s why he isn’t doing well in your class.”

from Megan Harris

“My daughter is so much more confident now about her writing! Thank you so much for pushing her and challenging her. She struggled a lot in your class, but she says she has learned so much.”

“She has no desire to learn because of the way you teach. You need to teach so that she will want to do the work.”

“Thank you for all that you’ve done for my son. He really likes English now and thinks the world of you as his English teacher. I know you’ll be one of those teachers he looks back on in years to come as the one who taught him how to read and understand books.

“I think I’m going to pull him out of your class. This whole experience is hurting his personality.”

from Maya Shern

“She said she actually likes to read now! I am thrilled, she hasn’t liked to read since pre-school!”

These students have been in the same classroom, with the same teacher, doing the same assignments, and they have had such different experiences. As the year comes to an end and my students move on to high school, I would like to say:

I am so very sorry for failing to reach you. For all you students who struggled in my class, who didn’t love the books we read, who couldn’t find good books to read, who didn’t get the help you needed, I am truly sorry. I wish we could have a do-over, go back to August and start over again, so I could see you in a new light; so I could see what you needed as a reader and writer; so I could try again to find the right books to get you hooked on reading; so I could offer the right suggestions for you to find your voice in writing. I am so very sorry.

Thank you so much, all you parents, for reading to your kids, bringing your kids to the library, reading books yourselves, and talking about the value of reading. When your kids came to my classroom already identifying themselves as readers, they were one step ahead of the game. Their literacy skills were already above grade level, so they were prepared to tackle the reading and writing of 8th grade. They were ready to analyze writing, to pick apart figurative language, because they could easily move through comprehension and up into a richer, more complex appreciation of literature.

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Thank you so much, all you parents, who supported your kids in their school work. I have never met a parent who said, “I don’t think school is important,” but I have met plenty who didn’t know how to make school important for their kids. Thank you for asking your kids about their homework, for holding them accountable for completing their work, for checking the online gradebook for how your child is doing, for contacting me when you had questions or concerns, for supporting me in my role as teacher. Thank you for doing your part in making me a good teacher.

Thank you so much, all you students, who came to class with a thirst for knowledge. Thank you for asking questions, for seeking answers, for coming in at lunch to get help on your work. Your desire to learn and efforts to improve are a significant factor in why you have succeeded this year. You didn’t watch the clock, counting down the minutes until you could leave. You focused on the work, which made the work more interesting to you, which made you a better student. You call me a great teacher, but maybe it is your great desire to learn that makes me look good.

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Photograph 022 by Katie Purnell found on minimography.com

I have heard from enough students and parents over the years to be confident that my work impacts my students. But I also know that there are many other factors that impact my students, factors that can improve their learning experiences and those that can impede them. And that’s what makes me say “I’m sorry” as the year comes to a close and I know that, once again, I have not been successful with some of my students.

To all my students, thank you for teaching me more about how to be a good teacher. I learn from you every year, and every year I hope that I can take what you teach me and bring it to my next class in the fall.

Have a great summer and keep on reading those good books!