Category Archives: Writing

All In The Family

What could go wrong?

Yesterday my brother and his wife welcomed their sixth child and my parents’ 20th grandchild into the world. I’m the mother of four of those 20 grandchildren, which makes me an aunt to 16 smallish people. I love being an aunt! Compared to parenthood, it’s a trip to Disneyland. As the oldest of five children, I feel it’s my sacred duty to recount to my nieces and nephews all the hairy details of their parents’ early years. I might embellish a bit from time to time, but it’s mostly all true.

I’m still learning how to be a teacher, but I’ve been a parent for almost 18 years now (how time does fly when you’re having fun!). In thinking about families and teaching, Super Genius 1it occurs to me that families are a child’s first teachers and home her first school. The instructional methods vary widely; there’s no prior-year CRT or curriculum map for a kindergarten teacher to review. Nevertheless, children learn a great deal from their families, and a smart teacher is mindful of the many ways students’ family backgrounds affect an individual student’s educational outcomes and, in a broader sense, the classroom dynamic.

Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson

The summer is fast winding down to a close, and that means it’s time for family reunions. In fact, I’m scheduled to attend one next week. I’m looking forward to watermelon, green grass, delicious salads, sticky children, and clusters of chatty grownups.


Thinking about the reunion reminded me of one of my favorite children’s books! I read this book for the first time about five years ago, when it came in a group of Newbery-award-winning books I had purchased through school book orders. It’s called The Relatives Came, and it was written by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Stephen Gammell. 

I don’t think it’s the kind of book I would ever have picked up on my own, but the first time I read it to my children, I knew it meant something special to me. The story, told from the perspective of a first-person omniscient narrator, begins by detailing the narrator’s relatives’ long trip from Virginia to visit. The joy experienced by each member of this extended family as they see and greet and love each other again is plainly evident through the pictures and the words.

I can envision this book used as the anchor text for a first-week-of-school lesson plan for language arts. First, ask students if they have ever attended a family reunion, especially during the previous summer. Invite several students to share their experiences. Next, play this YouTube video for your students–it’s a read-aloud of The Relatives Came. Ask the students how the relatives felt about each other and what words the author used to communicate those feelings.

edoutreach_1Next, have the class participate in a graffiti shared-writing experience; you might have different writing spots where students share what family reunions look like, smell like, and feel like. Then assign the students to write about a family reunion they have attended using as many descriptive details and words as they can. Ask them to include a “family picture” that would have been taken at the reunion.

Once the students have completed the assignment, don’t forget to allow a few students to share their stories and artwork with the class, and while they do, emphasize that everyone’s family is different and special because of its unique ways. This lesson is especially effective at the beginning of the school year because some students experience new-school-year jitters, and thinking about their families can bring feelings of comfort and security. Moreover, our students’ families play a dramatic role in shaping their identities, and when we honor their families, we demonstrate that our classrooms are safe places for our students to learn and grow.

More books for celebrating extended families:

Aunt Claire’s Beehive Hair by Beborah Blumenthal, AuntCLAIREillustrated by Mary GrandPré (2007, Pelican);

What a Family! WhataFAMby Rachel Isadora (2006, Putnam)

Me and My Family Tree me & famTREEby Joan Sweeney, illustrated by Annette Cable (2000, Dragonfly Books)

In My Family/En mi familia by Carmen Loma Garza, In-My-Family-En-Mi-Familia-9780892391639illustrated by Annette Cable (2000, Children’s Book Press)


Posted by Karen Rapier, an elementary education major at Utah Valley University in Orem, UT

Tiny Gardens, Young Minds

I think I went to school with that guy...

I think I went to school with that guy…

Earlier this week I tweeted and posted a thing or two on Facebook about fairies–books that describe them, gardens that welcome them, and adventures in finding them. Since then I’ve been thinking a lot about how to incorporate a study of fairies into the classroom. Hold on a second! I know what you’re thinking: “C’mon, are you serious? If I started teaching about fairies, I’d have a flood of parent complaints. If I’m going to do that I may as well enroll a chimpanzee as a student in my class and call it an ‘educational experience’!”

Bear with me for a minute. Without question, the first order of business would be to send home a well timed and carefully worded note that clearly explains the unit you have planned and details the pedagogical value of the unit on fairies. You’d be sure to make clear that you can neither confirm nor deny the existence of fairies to your students, which is best handled by your students’ families. Now you’re asking what I might possibly find in a study of fairies that could have pedagogical value, and that’s a valid question. The following is my answer, which I hope you will find not only legitimate but persuasive as well.  


The Utah Core Standards for social studies in kindergarten, first, and second grades state that students will be able to use geographic tools and skills, including maps and globes, and 1364782980_1understand map legends and directions. Now, because of that wonderful semester I spent in Educational Psychology (I’m serious! It was hard, but it was also really fun) learning about Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, I know that some students’ learning styles are better suited to visual/spatial, bodily/kinesthetic, and naturalist approaches.

I think you know where I’m going with this one. That’s right, a fairy garden is little more than a diorama of a physical (either real or imagined) space, combined with soil, plants, and other living and nonliving natural features. Because it is a 3D representation, it benefits visual and kinesthetic learners. Its use of plants, rocks, and natural objects facilitates learning for those who lean in the naturalist direction. A fairy garden can include houses, streets, signposts with directions, water features, even tiny human people. Depending on how the garden/city is laid out, students can gain a clearer sense of Core Standards concepts such as “grid,” “landmark,” and “compass.” Moreover, because it’s a fairy garden, the unit satisfies a science Core Standard with regard to examining living and nonliving things (such a multi-tasker!).

moreI think I’ve made a fairly strong case for this idea, but I’m not one for resting on my laurels. That’s why I’ve come up with even more applications. In Writers’ Workshop, why not encourage students to write stories set in the class fairy garden? Instruct them to visually examine the garden and then include those details in their writing, so that someone who hasn’t had a chance to see the garden personally can still imagine what it looks like.

Here’s another idea–as a class, identify a tiny object that can be moved within the fairy garden. Explain to students that as soon as they get to school tomorrow they will want to search for and find the object. Then, after students have gone home for the day, hide the object in a particular place in the garden. For bell work the next morning, have students find the object and write a short paragraph describing its specific location in the garden. Emphasize that they should use directional and measurement words. Collect the responses and pull them randomly to read aloud. The first student whose response correctly describes the location of the target object can have the chance to hide the object for the next day.

Once upon a time in a quiet, peaceful village lived a....

Once upon a time in a quiet, peaceful village lived a….

At this point you’re probably thinking you might be able to do this with your class, but you’re not sure where to start. How about this–collect students’ milk containers, rinse them out, and have students make them into houses and other buildings in the fairy garden. In the note you send home explaining the project, tell parents that students are welcome to contribute craft supplies, plants, and other small objects lying around the house. Ask students to gather pebbles, twigs, acorns, pinecones, and other interesting items in nature. Consider writing a grant proposal and submitting it to local garden centers, asking for donations of soil, plants, and a large container for your garden. More than anything, keep it simple and cost-effective, and as a teacher, you’re already really good at that!

Posted by Karen Rapier, an elementary education major at Utah Valley University in Orem, UT

Meet Steve Sheinkin… next year!

Because we want to give this year’s audience attending UVU’s Forum on Engaged Reading, a preview of next year’s program, I want to introduce you to Steve Sheinkin, SteveSheinkinone of the Keynote Presenters for UVU’s 2014 Forum on Engaged Reading.  I “found” Steve on Ink Think Tank itt-logo — a great website that is a true “think tank” of nonfiction authors.  In Steve’s bio, he confesses to being a recovering textbook author… whose mission is to simply prove to kids that his­tory is actu­ally cool.”  You’ll probably recognize a couple of his books:  The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story About Adventure, Heroism, and Treachery (Square Fish Publications, 2013) and Two Miserable Presidents: Everything Your Schoolbooks Didn’t Tell You About the Civil War (Roaring Brook Press, 2008).

Notorious Benedict2MiserablePres

Whether or not you recognize those books, you’re sure to be interested in his most recent one, Lincoln’s Grave Robbers (Scholastic, 2013), and the one just before that (a Newbery Honor Book), Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon BombBook(Flashpoint Publications, 2012). These books aren’t “your mother’s nonfiction” — these are “thrillers and adventure stories first” so that Sheinkin’s readers will want to read them!


Since the Common Core State Standards have shifted the focus of teaching comprehension and writing of complex nonfiction, it’s refreshing to find authors like Steve, who lure kids (and their teachers) in to the wonderful world of facts and details that make history come alive.

If you join us (UVU’s Forum on Engaged Reading) in October of 2014, you’re sure to become a Steve Sheinkin fan, as I have. In preparing for this blog post, I read a blog post by Sheinkin, himself, where he refers to his writing as detective work.  “… a nerdy kind of detective work,” he says, “but still… My job is to find stories, and I read books to look for clues, follow leads, gather evidence.” Wow, what an example for our students!

I’ll end this blog with just a bit of serendipity: at the end of Sheinkin’s blog post, author Jim Murphy makes a comment…  and guess what?  Jim Murphy is Keynoting this year’s Forum on Engaged Reading (Sept. 19 & 20, 2013).  So, Dear Reader, I hope you have become a believer: our conference — “For the Love of Reading” — is just a gift that will keep on giving, to you and to your students!  See you there!

Posted by Nancy Peterson, Professor of Teacher Education at Utah Valley University, and Co-Chair of UVU’s Forum on Engaged Reading

I was attracted to the book because of its title: Creative Power: The Nurture of Children’s Writing, by Ronald L. Cramer. That title makes me wish had written that book!  I bought it and read it, and I keep going back to it… Would you believe, Cramer actually tells his readers that if we are unable to “hear” his voice in this book, to lay it aside and pursue some other enlightening activity!  I’m telling you, his book renews my courage for making bold statements such as…

Thinking is part of writing, and writing is thinking.

Children come wired for writing.  

Our job is not so much teaching writing as it is discovering children’s writing ability.

Cramer isn’t afraid to say it, and does so right up front, in the beginning of his first chapter:     “Writing emerges from the crib with the first thought, the first sound uttered, the first mark scribbled.”

             Cramer goes on to make a wonderful case about the fact that “writing facilitates thinking,” and as such, it is “the supreme intellectual achievement of humankind” (p. 2). And then he presents five characteristics of writing that influence thinking:

1.    Writing is visible.  This means it can be manipulated to help us discover relationships among ideas we might have missed if thought depended only on verbal expression.

2.    Writing is permanent. While oral language un-captured is soon forgotten, writing “leaps the bonds of time and space.”  Cramer says writing gives “eternal life” to our words and ideas.  He says “Writing is the repository of humanity’s accumulated knowledge.

3.    Writing is active. Cramer says it is a “search for meaning” requiring the fullest possible use of mental capacity.  It requires physical action, including “handwriting, spelling, punctuation, depressing keys on a typewriter or computer, erasing, crossing out, rereading, rewriting.” 

4.    Writing is precise. While it is not inherently precise because of how it is subject to the actions and understandings of the sender and the receiver, it does “discipline the mind into precise formulation of its thoughts.”

5.    Writing focuses thinking.  Cramer says that the writing process “enables us to summon thoughts out of darkness and into light.” 


“Language is a miracle…” says Cramer (p. 5) and as a pivotal event in a child’s life, the acquisition of it cannot help but make us want to know how it happens. And, he spends the rest of his first chapter briefly reviewing how the major theorists of child development and learning back this up.

I was so enamored by these lofty ideas that I had to find out more about this author, Ronald L. Cramer.  I googled him.  (Yes, really! And I found a photo, plus a long and distinguished list of his credits).  He is impressive, as the documentation of his career shows, but I found the best indication of his “teacher-heartedness” and proof that we are kindred spirits when I went back to the preface of the book I have discussed in this blog.  I may be in trouble for quoting so much of his preface, but I’m telling you, my heart just sings when I read his words:

I believe children are creative; I believe that creativity is as natural to children as breathing. I also believe that its manifestations are often kept under lock and key, that children are reluctant to exhibit their creative instincts if they suspect their gifts will not be well received, it they sense hostility, if they sense indifference.  Good teachers strive to unlock children’s creative potential; they understand that the mind and spirit of a child is as fragile as it is malleable. Children are artists of language, not language scholars. They use language not to impress but to express. Given a little fall of rain from a fine teacher, children can make the flowers grow (p. xiv).

Doesn’t that just make you want to be a “fine teacher”… one that can offer a “little fall of rain”?  Here’s more:  All children possess creative potential; it is resident in them from the beginning, but too often it is creative power unrealized. Someone has to tell them; someone has to apprise them of their ‘wonderful ideas.’ Someone has to entice talent out of the closets of children’s minds (p. xiii)

 Well, he had me back at “the mind and spirit of a child is as fragile as it is malleable.” But here’s where I leave him with you:

And who might that someone be? Teachers, parents, peers, but especially teachers. It is our mission; it is our sacred duty (p. xiii).  Amen!

Posted by Nancy Peterson, Professor of Teacher Education at Utah Valley University.

This is the classroom I’m dreaming of…

Imagine writing at the heart of classroom life… teacher and students valuing themselves and each other on paper… Can you imagine it!  Imagine how books and reading are second nature to these children, instead of a “subject” that has to be scheduled, grouped and graded. Authors in this classroom are friends and mentors, and in this place, children seek them out, write letters to them, get to know them and emulate them. This is the classroom I dream of. This is the classroom I would give up my office, my Ph.D. diploma, and my rank and tenured position for. If I thought I could find it, create it, observe it, support it, and help it thrive… I’d be there.  I mean it! Why is this so hard to find? Does anyone out there know a classroom like the one I have described?

 Oh, I know that by the time kids roll into high school, writing has become, for some of them, a measure of prowess. Not for all of them, though, because I still read more than a fair share of college papers that wouldn’t pass 9th grade English comp. The fact is, many intelligent, articulate people (including adults!) seem to enjoy preserving much of themselves on paper. Some types of writing may have increased because of texting, blogging, and every other technological form of literacy we have witnessed over the past 20 years, but since most classrooms around here still rely heavily on papers and pencils, I still lament this sad state of writelessness.  

I’m going to go out on a limb here.  I’m going to be bold.  I’m going to stick my neck out on this issue.  Here goes: elementary teachers (even kindergarten teachers) who neglect or underestimate what kind of writing and how much writing children are capable of and, elementary teachers who are quietly or secretly holding out for when technology takes over and makes writing instruction an extinct practice and a non-issue for them, really ought to get out of the classroom.  Really, I wish they would! Get with it or get out of it.

Here’s the saddest truth, and the biggest waste of classroom time I know: children can think. What they think, they can say. What they can say, they can draw, and what they can draw, they can write. When they do a lot of this thinking, talking, drawing, writing and sharing in an environment where they consistently feel inspired, validated and empowered, they quickly become good at thinking and writing, or thinking and drawing and writing. I am not talking about children sitting in a classroom and being coerced, pushed, drilled or required to fill in the blanks or to copy mundane gibberish that is composed and produced by grown ups. I am talking about watching and listening as their teachers and their friends, who are their own size (or slightly taller in the classrooms down the hall), talk and draw and write, and share what they’ve written. I’m talking about where books are read and celebrated, and where book authors become as real to the children as their own friends and neighbors are, and where the books discussed and analyzed copied in ways that would very much flatter the authors, were they there to witness the work. I’m talking about classrooms where children are, as I said before, validated, inspired, and empowered as writers, and then very clearly celebrated as such. Yes!  Imagine writing at the heart of the classroom.

Posted by Nancy Peterson, Professor of Teacher Education, Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah & Co-Chair of UVU’s Forum on Engaged Reading

Write on… for the love of writing!

Many children come to us less motivated to write than they are to read. This is probably because they are less likely to have witnessed writing for pleasure or writing for the purpose of accomplishing something important to them, than they are likely to witness reading for those purposes.  Whoa!  That worries me, and it serves a powerful wake up call to those of us who are passionate about a love for reading and for its literacy sister, writing!  So, let me unpack that sentence and some ramifications of it: many children are even less motivated to write than they are to read. We have long known that many reluctant readers are that way because they lack reading models in their lives – important people they care about, who they see also care about reading, and who they have witnessed reading for the pleasure of it. Similarly, many children are reluctant to write, and perhaps hesitant to see themselves as writers, because they haven’t witnessed others writing for the enjoyment of it, or they haven’t seen others writing in order to accomplish something that is important or valuable, or powerful. This is one of the saddest stories I ever have to tell my students (pre-service teachers)! It simply should not be! All children possess creative potential, from the very beginning of their conscious lives. They are naturally curious and innately full of wonderings and imaginings. But far too often their creativity is unrealized power because no one has shown them it is there. No one has asked them what they are thinking. No one has given them the words to use, nor shown them how to put those words down on paper.  Sometimes children are given words, but they are someone else’s words, and they aren’t natural words, or fun words.  Sometimes they are “fit-in-the-box words,” or “fill-in-the-blank words,” or “spell-it-correctly” words, with little thought about what wonderful composing the child might have in mind for his own words.

If there is no one in a child’s life who has invited those unrealized dreams, those amazing ideas and incredible talents out into the open in the form of wonderful words on paper — out into the light, forever — well, a child just might decide that writing is not a pleasant task, not something she gets to do or wants to do, but rather, just another “school” thing that she has to do.  How lucky are the children who have a savvy loved one with a knack for these kinds of things… maybe an innate sense of it being the right thing to do, or who stumbles across the beauty of it by accident.  It should especially be happening, on purpose and by design, in classrooms.  It should be a top priority… a side-by-side mission with learning and loving to read, in every year of school… for the love of reading and for the love of writing.

What can we do about this?  That is, what can we who are in a mentoring, parenting, teaching, or caring capacity with children and want to do something about this, do about this?  I say, let’s write on. Just as reading for the love of it is the best thing we can do to help our children see the value in reading, writing for enjoyment and purpose is the best thing we can do to help them understand the value, the wonder, even the magic of writing. So… write on!

 I’m not really changing the subject now, so stay with me for a moment… I think you’ll get my point. My sister-in-law Karen lives by the philosophy that you can always comfort others… even win them over, with fresh, wholesome and delectably prepared food, and boy oh boy, can she ever cook up the comfort!  I love to spend time with Karen in her kitchen, and I have spent hours there, working side by side with her, learning to create some wonderful, refreshing dishes. This past summer Karen visited me in my kitchen, and left me this sign that says “Love people.  Cook them tasty food.”  So now, every time I look at those words I think of Karen, of comfort and love, and how I want to provide that for those around me.  So, I say, “write on.”  I’m making a bumper sticker…  no, I think I’ll call it a filing cabinet sticker, or a bulleting-board-above-the-desk sticker: Love kids. Teach them wondrous words.  Come on, my friends! Let them see you writing and loving it!  Let them hear the words and feel the magic – for the love of writing!