Guest post: Teaching Writing [Relatively] Painlessly by Denise Boiko

With most of us under some sort of stay-at-home order, I know many parents who are bravely trying to homeschool their kids for the first time! The learning curve is steep, and it can be hard to know where to start, especially in a subject that’s difficult for you–which for many people means writing.

Today I’m lucky enough to host Denise Boiko–veteran homeschool mom, teacher, speaker, and author of the book Homeschooled and Headed for College–for her tips on teaching writing at home. This post specifically focuses on elementary- and middle-school-aged children, but there is a version on her website focusing on high schoolers.

denise book photo idea 20180816 cropped

Welcome, Denise!

For many parents, getting an elementary or middle school student to sit down and write a paragraph or essay is like pulling teeth. (Actually, pulling teeth is easier, especially with the Siren song of the Tooth Fairy.) Writer’s block, combined with the fear of blood-red ink defacing the first draft, can deter all but the most passionate writers. Clearly, writing skills are vital for school success and for life, but getting there can be quite a challenge. However, with a little forethought and the courage to just plunge in, you can successfully coach your student in writing skills.

First, Set Goals

Assess your student’s starting point and then set measurable, high-priority goals for each school year. For instance, does your student need to write longer essays? Does his or her style need polishing, with more sentence variety and specific words? Is this the year to work on inserting higher level vocabulary? Or would you be content if your student conquered a raft of punctuation, spelling, and grammar errors? Whatever your goals, communicate them to your student and set manageable checkpoints. Maybe a reward system, too!

Teach Writing as a Process

The best pieces of writing don’t flow effortlessly out of the pen (or keyboard) without some crucial steps engaging the brain. Teach your student to approach the rather amorphous task of writing, one step at a time. First, prewriting involves brainstorming and outlining ideas before beginning a draft. The beauty of prewriting is that it can be done anywhere and at any time—ideas may pop up when the student least expects them. The next step, drafting, means capturing ideas in an approximate, “pretty good” form, while revision requires polishing the piece’s content, style, organization, and mechanics. To help a student suffering from writer’s block, walk through the prewriting stage together, moving steadily from the spark of an idea to the rough outline and then to an expanded outline with specific useful examples. 

Use a Check Sheet

To turn the fuzzy task of evaluating an essay into a more objective, goal-oriented task, try using a check sheet of elements you’re looking for in the finished essay. My own rubrics include sections for content, organization, style, and mechanics. Content means having enough “meat” and examples to develop the topic sufficiently. Organization involves inclusion of thesis statements, topic sentences, and transitions. Style encompasses sentence variety, smoothness of phrases, and adding “sparkle” with elements such as “-ly” words and strong verbs and nouns. Finally, mechanics deals with the proper use of grammar, punctuation, spelling, and capitalization. Remember that young writers will always make mistakes in these areas. Focus on what they are saying and how they are organizing their thoughts.

Insert Variety

The younger the student, the more important it is to experiment with creative fiction, journal entries (real-life or writing as a fictional character), mini-mysteries, letters, and other fun genres to add different “food groups” to their writing plate.  You can even have your student write a “how-to” essay: students will enjoy showing off their knowledge of cooking scrambled eggs, creating a virtual background for Zoom, or climbing a tree!

Likewise, whether or not your student demonstrates a flair for writing, discovering practical or artistic applications of the writing craft can make a huge difference in motivation. Writing for newsletters, contests, blogs, or other online venues—as well as crafting real-life letters to loved ones, or pursuing creative poetry—can be a fruitful and fun way to hone skills and to enjoy “being published.”

Use Literature as a Springboard

Uncovering themes, symbols, character traits, and author techniques is a key focus of literature-based essays, and much of this will arise after a lively discussion of the literary work. Begin teaching your students how to use examples and quotations from the book to support points being argued. Instead of just retelling the story, the student should examine how the author communicates themes or develops characters.

Revise, Revise, Revise – But Not Ad Nauseum! And Not in Red Ink!

Diligent revision is the mark of a skillful writer and should be neither skipped nor skimped. But neither should it become a dreaded chore. Work together as needed, teaching your student to proofread essays slowly and deliberately. Seek out mechanical errors, as well as spots where ideas don’t flow logically. Check for lackluster words; change sentences that need variety. One third-grader I once tutored said “revive” instead of “revise,” and indeed, an essay that has been revised has been “revived,” or given new life. This is the time to reinforce style and grammar rules, gently, and with an “I’m on your side” attitude. One more trick: use colorful gel pens for correction—never red—so that it doesn’t look like something bled and died all over the essay.

Finally, Write, Write, Write

One bit of advice that has stayed with me since my own high school years is “The only way to become a good writer is to write, write, write.” While mastery is elusive, improvement is guaranteed if your student keeps practicing and keeps producing. And in the end, encouragement and consistency can be the most effective tools in your writing teacher’s toolbox.

Thank you so much for stopping by, Denise!

If you’re interested in more homeschooling resources, a copy of Homeschooled and Headed for College, or connecting with Denise, please visit her website or pick up her book on Amazon!

Book party for a friend!

In a time when we’re all craving some good news and something fun to do at home, here’s something: a new book release from my friend A.R. Silverberry!

We first met at an author event at the lovely, late Village House of Books (R.I.P.) and swapped fantasy titles. His new collection of original fairy tales, Cerberus: Tales of Magic and Malice releases tomorrow, so he’s touring the Web to promote it! I got to ask him a few questions on the way. Enjoy!

Welcome, A.R.! So tell us: how did you get started writing?

My wife and I were on a fairy tale kick back in 1998, reading them to each other. When we ran out of those, I started checking out Oz books from the library. After a few of those I said to myself, I bet could write one of these. How wrong I was! But I started working on a fantasy, which was never published, and that’s when I got bitten by the writer’s bug.


What draws you to fantasy/fairy tales in particular?

I love creating worlds where anything can happen, where I’m not restricted by the boundaries of reality. And there’s something seductive about magic. It seems to be the twin of Imagination. Plus, the villains and heroes in fantasies are often larger than life.


What inspired your current series?

Aside from the short stories in Cerberus, I’ve been working on a novella and a novel, paired prequels to my first book, Wyndano’s Cloak. Same world, a few overlapping characters. I’m not sure where it will go. I really like the main characters in these new tales, so I’ll probably have to usher them out of the picture so they don’t interfere with events in Wyndano’s Cloak.


Did anything unexpected happen as you were writing Cerberus?

Yes! There are interesting pairs. Pairs of stories. Pairs of villains. Pairs of orphans. Pairs of fairy tales. Pairs about love and loyalty. You can’t plan these things. I realized it as I was getting them ready for publication. But we only have one unconscious, and when it comes to creativity, though one may think otherwise, it’s always in the driver’s seat.

The fact is inescapable: you’re doing your book tour from home as we shelter in place due to COVID-19. What is your favorite strategy for staying sane in the midst of the pandemic?

Here’s my short list:

  • Do the things I enjoy every day
  • Only look at the news briefly to find out if there is anything important I need to know to keep my family safe
  • Exercise daily
  • Connect with the people you love
  • Read something that sweeps you away

Thank you so much for joining us! You can pre-order the book from Amazon now for $0.99!

Follow A. R. Silverberry:

Website

Facebook

Twitter

About the Author:

A. R. Silverberry writes science fiction and fantasy for children, teens, and adults. His novels, Wyndano’s Cloak and The Stream, earned numerous awards, including the Benjamin Franklin Award gold medal for Juvenile/Young Adult Fiction. He lives in California, where he explores enchanted forests, searching for pixies and elves.

To celebrate the release of Cerberus, A. R Silverberry is giving away prizes! To enter the contest, click here!

Spring 2020 in ten pictures

Umpteen weeks of sheltering in place later, I’m unsure what day it is. All things seem canceled until further notice. I miss hugging my friends, I miss restaurant dining, I miss not rationing toilet paper.

Yet humor and hope sprout between the sidewalk cracks. Here are ten pictures representing some of the bizarre, productive, delicious, and funny moments I’ve encountered in the alternate reality of Spring 2020.

Spring is not canceled. Love is not canceled. Hope is not canceled. Stay strong, my friends.

Reading Resources Roundup

Here in California, we’re now starting our third week of the COVID-19 shelter-in-place order. It’s rough, and I’m eating WAY too many peanut butter cups and using too much alliteration in my blog post titles. But I know I have it easy compared to some others–I’m looking at you, parents who suddenly find yourselves thrust into the roles of teachers. Who are on around the clock. With no help. While possibly also trying to work another full-time job. I feel for you.

Books are here to help! Reading is not only a great way for kids to bridge the learning gap while they’re out of school, but it might just be a way for parents to buy a few moments of peace and quiet as well. As an educator and writer, I’ve rounded up some great spots where you can get free or discounted books for this moment. I’m touched by all the ways that publishers, authors, and booksellers have shown up to make literacy accessible to all in this time. So sail away with a book from these sources!

  1. Check your library’s website for ebooks and audiobooks you can borrow for free!

2. Audible.com is offering a selection of audiobooks free during this time! The books are grouped for different ages, from preschool through teens, but the list also includes a number of classics that are great listens for any age.

3. Many classic books are available as free Kindle downloads on Amazon.

4. Bookbub.com offers a weekly roundup of ebooks you can get for free or at a steep discount. You choose the genres you’re interested in, and they’ll send you a selection of deals by email every week.

5. Smashwords.com offers a huge selection of ebooks at a wide range of prices. Right now they’re running a sale called “Authors Give Back,” in which many authors have discounted their titles through April 20 (The Illuminator’s Gift is only $2)!

6. Looking for paper copies? Local stores are closed, but independent booksellers like Books Inc. are still fulfilling online orders (with free shipping)!

7. And let’s finish out with some fun! The first 10 people to send me a Facebook message will get a free promo code for one of my audiobooks! Just tell me something fun you’ve been doing to stay sane while sheltering in place, and which audiobook you’d like. Choose from The Illuminator’s Gift (#1), The Illuminator’s Test (#2), or The Illuminator Rising (#3)!

Books not only fill the time; they also teach us how to live and cope in the midst of the stress and boredom and cabin fever. I hope these resources bring you some joyful reading in these crazy days!

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

If you’re not up to the minute on the global COVID-19 pandemic, you’ve probably been living under a rock (and for now you should probably stay there). For me, it’s difficult to read any amount of news without a raised pulse. The situation is unfolding moment by moment, especially here in the San Francisco Bay Area, and each new development seems worse than the last. Today officials in several Bay Area counties issued a shelter-in-place order that will last at least three weeks, so we are all now hunkering down with our stocks of snacks and (oh-so-precious?) toilet paper.

But I don’t need to tell you that.

What I’ve been thinking about, partly to help myself stay calm in the midst of all the anxiety, are the things coronavirus can’t touch. It is easy to feel helpless, to feel defeated, by such a complete global crisis. But one of the reasons I love fantasy literature is that it clearly delineates the conflict between good and evil, and it instills a strong sense that good will win out in the end–if we choose it.

So here’s where I see goodness, hope, joy, and love still very much alive and well, even in the time of coronavirus.

I see it in the faces of a few friends sharing a home-cooked meal (albeit a few days ago), practicing social distancing yet closing all the distance between them.

I see it in a homemade Communion of white wine and sandwich bread, dipped with washed hands and shared among family members around the kitchen table.

I see it in Netflix nights and blanket forts.

I see it in slow-cooked meals made from scratch, savoring the preparation and enjoyment of joyous flavors.

(Do you know what these are? They are DUMPLINGS that I made FROM SCRATCH!)

I see it in church services held on Facebook Live, the viewer count in the upper left corner ticking higher and higher as community comes together.

I see it in connection with elderly neighbors, standing six feet away, yet knowing they are provided for and not alone.

I see it in the slower pace of life, hectic schedules replaced with time for the classic introverted pleasures: good books and movies, writing projects, self-taught skills, feel-good music.

(A sign I saw in a bookstore window a few weeks ago.)

I see it in video chats with loved ones, the screen jerking and halting as a five-year-old bolts up the stairs to show off her dolls.

And I see it not least in my puppy, whose passions for snuggles and crunchy apples are undimmed by any number of global crises.

Though I am terribly afraid and confused and uncertain of the future, there is love, love, love, tenacious and unstoppable, pushing up through the sidewalks and jetting out through the cracks of pandemic lockdown–through text, video, Facebook Live, six-foot-distant smiles in the grocery store, and around the kitchen table.

So be safe, everyone. Follow the CDC health guidelines, and get a good laugh out of these amazing hand-washing music videos from around the world. And in these strange times, whatever the form, hold on to goodness and love. I give you one of my favorite fantasy quotes, taken from The Fellowship of the Ring:

‘The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”

Fire by Night: Release Day!

It’s poetry book release day!! Fire by Night is now available online!

To me, it feels appropriate that this book goes out into the world on the weekend Daylight Savings Time ends. The days get shorter, the brilliant trees go bare, and we must remember how to be in the dark.

But this is also one of my favorite times of year. As an introvert,  I love few things more than curling up with a good cup of tea and a cozy blanket. Yes, there’s less daylight. But that can also mean a slower pace of life. (Maybe) a less hectic social calendar. More time to process and think, to read and just be. It’s a good time for authenticity and reflection. A good time for poetry.

Fire by Night isn’t an easy book. It’s raw; dark in places. But as the days shorten and the dark comes early, it’s also about the authenticity and hope to be found along the way. 

I hope it is a quiet companion at the close of the year. 

Find the book now on Amazon! In a few weeks, signed copies will also be on the shelves at Books Inc. Campbell!

Announcing: Fire by Night

Last autumn, I gave a TEDx talk called “Do Something Worth Writing.” It was about the strange feeling of accomplishing a dream and the disorientation that can come with that. Writing The Voyages of the Legend series was the work of over a decade. Finishing it left me wondering: what’s next?

The answer is: poetry.

With a mixture of nerves and delight, I announce my 5th book: Fire by Night, releasing on November 2nd. It is a collection of 50 poems grouped around the theme of wilderness wandering. These poems explore dark places, such as loss, grief, depression, anxiety, and spiritual deconstruction. Yet they also catch glimpses of love, joy, wonder, and above all, hope–a theme this book shares with my previous novels.

This is the most personal and honest piece of writing I’ve ever published, which is why it’s both exciting and scary. But I share this book because I think every person’s voice has something unique to contribute to the music of the world, and because courage means taking a step in the right direction in spite of fear.

The e-book is available to pre-order on Amazon now, but both the e-book and paperback will officially launch on November 2nd. After that, Books Inc. Campbell will stock signed copies in time for Christmas! I’ll be publishing poem snippets to my social media pages (links at the bottom of this email) so keep your eyes peeled for upcoming clips like this one!

Stone Church

Prayers are candles
in a dim stone church.
Some are slim tapers
in tall glass flutes.

Mine are squat,
smeared with sooty fingerprints,
mismatched all.

Still,
the flames rise
and light.

The Particular Rock I’ve Been Under

Well, hello there. It’s been a while!

Where have I been? I’m so glad you ask.

Under a rock is the answer. A very particular, very heavy rock.

I spent this last year teaching.


Yes, last fall I accepted a job with a one-on-one private school. I taught English and Life Skills to students with a variety of learning needs, from ADHD and dyslexia to autism and severe anxiety.

It was very rewarding. I met some incredible kids and inspiring teachers. Education is amazing, because you literally get to see your work growing up in front of your eyes. Someday I’ll probably end up writing about the experience.

My English-teacher Halloween costume. (Also Hamlet in the corner.)

It was also hard. Extremely hard. Even if I don’t mention the hours (ahem, unpaid overtime), that doesn’t even begin to touch on the stress and the chaos, the student meltdowns, the last-minute sub requests, the weekly Contagious Diseases Roulette, the discipline, the lengthy and critical parent emails, the active shooter drills.

If you can read this, go thank whoever taught you to read. No, really. Stop what you’re doing. Okay.

For myself, I decided to step away from the position at the end of the school year. While my teaching experience left me with immense respect for everyone who works to help young people grow up okay in a world that isn’t, I also realized that being a full-time classroom teacher isn’t for me. A worthwhile experience in itself. And the reason I have been mostly MIA from the writing/publishing world for a year.

Which was one of the hardest things about this job. Writing gives me life, and it was so tough to have nearly no time to work toward my passion. However, in spite of the chaos, I did still manage to accomplish a few things on the writing front this year. I wasn’t very good about communicating them, though, so here’s a brief recap in case you missed anything!

  1. I released audio versions of The Illuminator’s Gift and The Illuminator’s Test
  2. I gave a TEDx talk called “Do Something Worth Writing”
  3. I had a poem published in an online literary magazine
  4. I wrote a handful of new poems
  5. I’m just happy I stayed alive for a year, let alone published anything!

Now that I’m starting to recover from a year’s worth of lost sleep, the creative juices are flowing once more. I have a few new projects coming down the pipe, at least two of which I hope to release before the end of the year! Keep your eyes peeled for:

  1. An audiobook of The Illuminator Rising, read by my awesome British narrator, Wendy Wolfson!
  2. A completely new book! It’s still very much under construction, but I will say that it is a book of poems.

Yes, poems!

I focused on fiction writing during my English studies and have never primarily thought of myself as a poet. Yet I’ve been writing poetry since I was 12 and have read, studied, and taught poetry in various contexts. I’ve even written about poetry, shared a few poems, and interviewed a poet on this blog. More importantly, poetry is the clearest way I know to give voice to the truth as I see it. And to make music with words, because words are beautiful and interesting and filled with all the meaning in the world. It will be very different in genre and tone from my previous books, yet I can already see that they will share a number of themes, such as loss, hope, and redemption.

More details to come! For now, I am happy to be climbing out from under my particular rock.

The Illuminator’s Test Comes to Audio!

Merry Christmas…Audiobook #2 Is Here!

Hooray! The second audiobook in the Voyages of the Legend series is here!! If it’s possible, I’m even MORE excited about this audio adventure–more characters, more action, and more amazing voices by Wendy Wolfson! It makes a great companion for holiday travels (or holiday introverting).

Buy it on AudibleAmazon, or iTunes (a great use for some of those holiday gift cards!)

Not already an Audible.com member? Then you can listen to the audiobook for free by trying a 30-day membership (you can unsubscribe anytime you want!)

(Did you miss out on Book 1, The Illuminator’s Gift audiobook? Check out the debut of Wendy Wolfson’s spellbinding British narration and incredible cast of character voices!)

Enjoy this new adventure (and those holiday leftovers!)

TEDx talk: “Do Something Worth Writing”

About a month and a half ago, I was invited to give a TEDx talk at Saratoga High School. It was scary, but exciting to talk about my writing and publishing journey. Here’s the video, entitled “Do Something Worth Writing.” Enjoy!