Friday, June 29, 2012

What I learned from kids about Accelerated Reader

Last night I taught the first of a series of creative writing workshops at the C.H. Booth library in Newtown CT. It's the second year I've taught these workshops and despite the travel to get there and back (it's an hour each way) I really love doing them. I teach two groups - one rising 6-7 graders and the other rising 8-9 graders, each for an hour and a half.

In our session last night, we talked about how writers get ideas and did some brainstorming exercises.

As a writer, I find teaching these workshops incredibly energizing. After all, these are my people, the kids I write for - okay, maybe some are little younger, but I do plan to write a middle grade again some day. I learn so much from them by listening.

Last night, what I heard broke my heart. In my younger group, the 6-7 graders, I asked the kids for some books that they'd really loved. And from one of the most promising writers in the group, I heard this: "I read this really long book and it was a waste because it wasn't in Accelerated Reader."

I died a little inside. Actually a lot. And then I said to her, "It's NEVER a waste to read a book you enjoy."

The girl next to her said that she'd started reading the Harry Potter series and loved it but then she "got stuck in Accelerated Reader."

This generated a whole discussion amongst the kids about AR. One girl complained that she likes to read high school books but because she is at 8th grade level on AR she is only allowed to read those books. Out of ten kids in the class, there was one kid who was happy with AR, and that was because she'd won a pizza party with two friends because she'd got to 500 AR points and it was a big source of pride and accomplishment.

But this is a kid who is involved with Odyssey of the Mind, multiple after school activities - a clearly bright and motivated child. Is anyone telling me that AR got her to read and that she wouldn't have been reading anyway? That she couldn't have been motivated without "points"?

During the break between my class I spoke to the librarian who runs my CW workshop about how heartbroken I was to hear this. She said that the school librarian at the elementary school was a big proponent of AR, because it had shown marked benefits with the reluctant and average readers.

I'm not convinced training kids like puppies with "treats" is the way to turn them into lifelong readers. I had the privilege of hearing our National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, Walter Dean Myers speak in May at the Hudson Children's Book Festival, and he convinced me more than ever that it's adults modeling enthusiasm for books and reading and getting books into the home EARLY through programs like Reading is Fundamental and First Book that really makes a difference. That and investing in early childhood education.

Instead we are cutting library funding and school librarians, cutting funding to literacy programs, and school systems are spending money on programs like AR, because it seems like an easy, one size fits all fix, instead of letting teachers work their magic. And in doing so, we end up with kids thinking that reading a really long book they enjoyed is a "waste." That makes my blood boil. It makes me wonder who the hell is making decisions about education in this country and if they're doing for benefit of kids or for financial benefit.

For more on Accelerated Reader from those in the trenches here's some further reading:

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

What kids want to know from a real live author

I'm going back to the wonderful and incredibly picturesque CH Booth library in Newtown, CT to teach writing workshops for young people this summer. It's a five week creative writing course, starting this Thursday.

Before the course begins, librarian extraordinaire, Margaret Brown, who organizes a series of writing workshops for kids throughout the year, including mystery and poetry,
sent out a letter from me to all the course participants, in which I shared three of the books that I'd read recently that I was really excited about (SEE YOU AT HARRY'S by Jo Knowles, ONE FOR THE MURPHYS by Lynda Mullaly Hunt and CODE NAME VERITY by ELIZABETH WEIN)and asked them to send me three questions that they wanted me to be sure to answer by the end of the course. Bear in mind that the kids range from 11-14.

The questions are so awesome I just have to share:

When do you end a paragraph?
I would like to learn more about punctuation.
A personal question, when did you start to write books?

How do you connect your ideas?
How do you make the suspense last?*
How do you come up with the characters?

What is being an author like?
How do they get their ideas for writing?
How do they publish their books?

How do you get your first book published without knowing who to go to?
Did anyone reccomend a publisher or did you ask some one about it?
Has any of your books ever been rejected? If so, how did you feel?

When did you start writing?
Did you have trouble getting published?
Do you ever get "writers block"? If so, how do you get through it?
What's your bestt advice for kids my age who are hoping to become a writer in their future?


How do you get a book published?
How does your book become a nutmeg? (CT State Award)
How do you get to be an author?
What kinds of writing are we working on this summer?
How are we developing our ideas?
Are you working on any books/projects as of now?

And this, my absolute favorite:

If you were seen in public, do you get surrounded by fans, asking for your autograph?

Answer: Yes, in my dreams...but then I wake up!

I'll add more as they come in.

Authors, please feel free to chime in with your advice to these enthusiastic creative minds. I told them that if I didn't know the answers, I would definitely know someone who did!

* Funnily enough, I try to read a book on craft before I start each big revision, one related to what I think I need to focus on in that revision. For the MS I am currently tearing apart like an 80's suit with shoulder pads, it was this book:

So hopefully I'll have some good tips that I'm actually trying to use myself!

Friday, June 8, 2012

How we brought THE INVISIBLE WAR to the Avon Theatre

Sometimes a news item reaches out from the radio and grabs you by throat, and you know you have to write about it. That's what happened when I was driving down Putnam Avenue one day and heard a report that a female serving in the military in Iraq and Afghanistan was more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire. The Department of Defense estimates there were 22,800 violent sex crimes in the military in 2011. A staggering 20% of all active-duty female soldiers are sexually assaulted. Of these , women between the ages of 18-21 accounted for more than half of the victims.

I became so angry as I listened that my hands shook as they gripped the steering wheel. When I get angry about something, my first thought is, "I have to DO something about this." My second thought is "I have to WRITE about this."

I spent the weekend following researching material for a young adult novel about how a deployed mom’s experience with military sexual trauma impacts the entire family. In the course of my research, I learned about the documentary THE INVISIBLE WAR, which had just won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. Created by Oscar®- and Emmy®-nominated filmmaker Kirby Dick (THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED, TWIST OF FAITH) and Emmy®-nominated producer and director Amy Ziering (OUTRAGE, THE MEMORY THIEF), the film paints a startling picture of the extent of the problem of sexual assault in the military—the number of assaults in the last decade alone is believed to be in the hundreds of thousands.

Focusing on the powerfully emotional stories of multiple rape victims, THE INVISIBLE WAR is a moving indictment of the systemic cover-up of military sex crimes, chronicling the women’s struggles to rebuild their lives and fight for justice. It also features hard-hitting interviews with high-ranking military officials and members of Congress that reveal the perfect storm of conditions that exist for rape in the military, its long-hidden history, and what can be done to bring about much-needed change.

I immediately contacted film’s producers to inquire about arranging a local screening and they put me in touch with Ivonne Zucco, Executive Director of The Center for Sexual Assault Crisis Counseling and Education in Stamford, CT, who was also interested in bringing the film to the area. “As part of our work at The Center, we need to bring awareness about sexual assault at so many different levels. When I heard about the film, I knew that screening it was one more way of increasing knowledge about an issue that should concern us all. Change needs to occur in all areas of society and this film is an originator of great awareness.” Together, Ivonne and I worked with Adam Birnbaum of Stamford’s Avon Theater to bring THE INVISIBLE WAR to the Avon on Monday June 11th at 7:30pm. The event is free to the public with a panel discussion following the screening.

One thing I want to make clear is that The Invisible War isn't anti-military. Many of the women in the film come from families with long histories of military service. Director Kircy Dick says the rape survivors featured in the film agreed to participate on condition that it not be an anti-military film. “All of our subjects were very idealistic and proud to have served,” Dick says. “Regardless of one’s opinion of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, we all can agree that people risking their lives should be protected from assault by their own soldiers.”

But as with all instances of sexual abuse and assault, admitting there is a problem and discussing it openly, learning to fight a culture of silence, coverup and denial is the first step to effecting change. As part of my research I attended the first annual Truth and Justice Summit in DC, organized by the Service Women's Action Network. Brigadier General (Ret.) Thomas Cuthbert, who has acted as senior advisor to both the Defense Task Force on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies and the Defense Task Force on Sexual Assault in the Military Services, stood in front of a ballroom full of women and men, (sexual assault in the military isn't just a women's issue) and told them that the system was working - when it patently hadn't - and it was a matter of "teaching kids to say no to a senior officer." I was absolutely floored by his tone deafness and surprised, frankly, that he was able to get out of the room alive after saying that to a room full of traumatized people trained in the art of warfare. I wanted to teach him a thing or two about sexual trauma, and I'm only a civilian. If Cuthbert is the kind of military expert advising the Pentagon, it's no wonder the culture and the system is stacked against women receiving justice.

I hope you'll join us on Monday evening at the Avon for the screening. Supporting the troops means every soldier who is proud to serve.

For more on The Invisible War see this eflier.