May 31, 2013

Baxter the House Lamb

Anyone remember Baxter the house lamb? He was born with a selenium deficiency and couldn't walk. His brother and sister both died within days of birth. We brought Baxter inside to make him comfortable for as long as he would live. At six months, he was still following us around the barnyard and sleeping on the rug on our front porch. He still doesn't quite understand why we put him out with the sheep. He's two years old now and he'll rest his chin on the fence like this until we pet him.

After our ram was struck by lightning (true story), we decided maybe we weren't meant to raise sheep, but we still have six. They earn their keep by munching weeds and being cute. We also play with the wool.

May 30, 2013

Retelling Fairytales

 Bored Villains workshop, I talked with middle grade students about a writer's voice.  Some variation of every story idea already exists, but individual storytellers breathe new life into old narratives.
During a recent

One way to approach the writing of stories is through plot.  A great example? The retelling of fairytales, an idea still popular among contemporary authors. For the workshop, I brought an armload of books based on this idea, but here I'll refer you to lists compiled on other sites:

For short stories, I highly recommend A Wolf at The Door and Swan Sister, two books of retold fairytales.  The short form allows students to explore a variety of stories, getting a sense for the many ways a story can be retold and how much the voice of the author impacts the story itself.

From A Wolf At The Door,  Neil Gaiman's, "Instructions," provides a playful list of directions for navigating the fairytale world.  This is a beautiful example of writing in second person.

We also discussed Garth Nix's "Hansel's Eyes" (written in third person) for a good example of a retelling of Hansel & Gretel with contemporary references.  Video games rather than a candy house?  Why not?

To see the way a strong voice can impact the feel of a fairytale, we looked at the beginning of "Lupe" by Kathe Koja .  This story from Swan Sister is a first-person retelling of Little Red Riding Hood.  Koja's sensory details draw the reader fully into the story and even a short look at her approach is helpful to students.

Keeping all this in mind, I asked my Bored Villains to retell fairytales in 1st person, each group member writing from the perspective of a different character in the story, passing the story baton from one character to the next.  This was our final workshop of the day.  Short on time, we moved from initial discussion to final story in just 45 minutes, including recording of video.

In editing, some of the students' beautiful words were lost, but I tried to keep the final videos close to 90 second each.

Cinderella: A Retelling

by two evil stepsisters, a fairy godmother, a prince, and Cinderella

Litte Red Riding Hood: A Retelling

by Little Red, Little Red's best friend, Little Red's grandmother, a wolf, and a woodsman

Jack and The Beanstalk: A Retelling

by Jack's dad, a swindler, Jack, the giant, and a woodsman

My heartfelt thanks go out to the kids who spent the day with me and to their wonderful teacher for inviting me.  I had a great time with you all.

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Illustraiton credit:  Audrey Beardsley "The Slippers of Cinderella" published in Le courrier Francais, February 10, 1895

May 27, 2013

Happy Memorial Day

This morning I wished everyone on Twitter a happy Memorial Day and one person wrote back that "happy" and "Memorial Day" shouldn't go together.


That was a new thought for me.  I know that Happy Mother's Day is often an oxymoron.  Too many people spend the day feeling like they're pressing their noses against the windows of other people's happiness.  Same with Christmas.  Same with Thanksgiving.  But Memorial Day?

This has always been a holiday of deep happiness for me, remembering those who have passed in the way they'd want to be remembered--through stories and laughter.  When possible, we do get together with family.  For many years, we camped with my husband's extended family and I learned so much family lore sitting around those campfires.

After a childhood of camping trips, the last time I went camping with my dad was over Memorial Day in 2007. He died the next September. It's the only time my kids remember going camping with him.

My husband and I both visited cemeteries as kids and we still visit them, leaving thanks and memories.  I remember going when my grandmother was strong enough to carry a huge bucket in each arm.  Both were filled with purple and lavender iris from her garden at home.  She'd arrange flowers and send us kids running back to the car for reused milk jugs filled with water.

Years later, I'd drive to her house and pick her up.  We'd walk through her garden and she'd tell me which flowers to pick---a single stem for each of the most important people in her life.  "We can't pick flowers for everyone," she said.  "I know more people who are dead than alive now."

At the cemetery, I'd hold her by the elbow, steadying her as her feet wobbled on uneven ground.  We'd go straight to the markers of her husband and parents and siblings and then I'd leave her to her thoughts while I ran back to retrieve our offerings.

On our last visit there, we stood in front of my great grandfather's grave and she took one of my hands in both of hers.  Those hands that once held firm to mine to keep me safe were now small and dry and rough, age spots lined up alongside calluses.

"The last time I was here with my dad. . ." She paused and I wondered if she'd lost track of her thoughts.  Then she took in a deep breath and continued.  "He said, 'Sis, who's going to come here after the two of us are gone?'"  The words caught in her throat and she looked up at me through tears.  My grandmother wasn't much of a hugger, but I hugged her that day and she held on to me for long enough I realized our roles had reversed. I now kept her safe in my strong arms.  Then, quick as the emotional storm arrived, it passed. She wiped her tears and patted my hands more firmly.  "You're a good girl," she said.

A few years later, in my grandmother's last lucid days, she again patted my hand, repeating the words:  "You're a good girl."

My grandmother passed her sense of responsibility to me:  the keeping and retelling of family stories, the ritual of walking through cemeteries, the uttering of names again and again until they feel like poetry in the minds of our children.

Is this a happy day?  Yes.  Definitely yes.  For me, it is a day of profound happiness.

So when I wish you a happy Memorial Day, know that I am wishing the same things for you---a day of remembering who you are, a day of remembering the sacrifices made on your behalf, a day of remembering the stories that belong to you and yours.  I even wish you happy camping trips and cookouts, because these are the places where we often share our stories and create new ones.  No matter how you celebrate the day, I wish you a sense of belonging. I wish you love and peace and, yes, happiness.

May 26, 2013

Very Big and Very Small Schools

While doing some research this week, I found a fascinating 2010 study by Barbara J. James:  "School Size and Student Academic Achievement in Idaho High Schools."

In her research, James looks at many of the acknowledged pros and cons of small and big schools.  In small schools, students get individualized attention.  In large schools with better funding, students have newer resources and more specialized courses available to them.  The arguments sound familiar.

The surprise for me? The results.

James divides schools by student population, from 1-5.  One represents the smallest schools.  Five represents the largest.  James' chart here is based on standardized test scores of average students:

Average students in the biggest schools outperform average students in the smallest schools by 5%, but that doesn't tell the whole story.

Economically disadvantaged students perform 5% better in the smallest schools when compared to the biggest.

Special education students test 35% better in the smallest schools than those in the largest.

Still, those statistics don't grab me as much as the pronounced U-curve.

Could it be that we've been asking the wrong questions?  While we've been debating the virtues of big and small schools, the students falling through the cracks seem to be mostly in the middle.  They don't have the benefits of the bigger, wealthy school districts and they also don't have the benefits of small classroom size and individualized attention.

We often discuss balance as a healthy thing.  We want the best of both worlds.  We want our districts big enough to offer some specialized classes and provide reasonably-current materials.  We also want small class sizes and individualized attention.

If the results here are any indication, this balance may not be such a good thing for our kids.

If we cannot pull together to provide superior funding and resources for average students, we're better off splitting into small, close-knit communities.  For students with special needs, nothing competes with individualized attention.

Test results for my homeschooled kids arrived a few weeks ago.  We live in size 4 town, in a district with serious financial troubles. The schools here need more money to provide even a minimum of needed services.  Still, in this size-4 place, our homeschooled kids are thriving.  James' study helps explain why.  For many Idahoans, homeschool is the new one-room schoolhouse.

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Photo credit:  Library of Congress.  Jacknife School, Gem County, Idaho. Eleven pupils, two of them children of families belonging to Ola self-help sawmill co-op. October 1939.

May 24, 2013

Saying Yes

I hadn't planned to do any Bored Villains Workshops this spring. Chaos rules my life. I have a book hopefully going out on sub soon, revisions due on another, a short story deadline coming up---not to mention homeschooling, field trips, conferences, and boxes of my mother's belongings yet to sort.  When asked to put my name into a directory of speakers, I declined.

Then a request came from a friend of a friend.  Would I be willing to talk about writing with some students in a small, rural town?  The combined classroom of 4th and 5th graders consisted of only thirteen kids.  They'd love to have me spend the day with them.

I admit it's a dream of mine to someday do a book tour across all the counties of Idaho
, stopping at schools where kids attend kindergarten through high school in the same building.  Yes, it's true.  While some authors dream of stops in big cities, I'm dreaming of workshops in Bliss and Arbon and Rockland and Carey .  I can't help it. My heart leaps at the thought.

Still---bad timing, right?  I had to say no.

Then the teacher said the name of her town and it worked magic on my heart.

My husband and I have driven to that tiny place many times in our lives.  I remember dearly the first time we went to the cemetery together and Greg walked me through, introducing me to the lives represented by all those names carved on headstones.

"I'm related to just about everybody here."  He caught my eye for only a moment, making sure I understood what this meant to him.  Then he took my hand and told me story after story about couples and families---about the hardships and wonder that made up their lives.

Now we take our kids to that same place, walking them back through six generations of family in Idaho.

So yes, I did say yes to this small community, as I always have, and I'm so glad I did.

Those kids are creating great stories about unicorns and bull riding and hunting. One kid tells about a peanut planning to take over the world!  Another spins magic around a girl whose wishes come true. Oh!  And in another? You'll love this. All the buildings are held together with gum---and there's a terrible boy stealing all the gum.

Students shared narratives handed down to them, bits and pieces from their own lives, and jokes---so many jokes! Through it all, we discussed why it matters that they continue this tradition of telling tales, why it matters that they develop voices that could only be developed through their individual experiences.

At lunch, a quiet boy leaned across the table. In a low voice, he confided, "I'd have told you some of my family stories, but they're too long." He looked from side to side and leaned in farther.  "Everybody just goes on and on and on."

I couldn't hold back the grin.  "You know," I told him, lowering my voice to match his, "I think we might just be related."

And somehow, in that moment, my life felt slightly less chaotic.  Sometimes knowing who you are and where you belong is enough.  The pieces start falling together on their own.

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I'll be adding some video created by the kids in the Bored Villains section of the website soon.

May 17, 2013

Bored Villains Presents: The Graveyard Book

A 90-second Newbery for The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, presented by Bored Villains.

When I do workshops with young adults and middle grade students, they go by the name of Bored Villains (credit for naming of the group goes to my daughter).  All comments will be moderated to assure that student names are not inadvertently revealed. 

May 16, 2013

Introducing Bored Villains

Bored Villains is the brainchild of my daughter, who created a role play with that name on a kids-only website.  She's growing up and can't stay on the site forever, so she's lending the name to the student workshops she's helping me lead.

Privacy issues are always a concern.  We love to showcase young talent and creativity, but we also want to keep participants safe.

With this in mind, all the kids and teens in my workshops become part of an elite, secret society known as Bored Villains. Our mission?  To love great books, to respond to stories through creative avenues, and to participate in the telling of our own narratives in our own voices.  Sometimes we'll even entertain you.

Our first online project will be a 90-second Newbery of Graveyard Book.  It will follow in a day or two. :)