Monday, November 13, 2017

Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library

As a boy in Puerto Rico, Arturo Schomburg’s fifth grade teacher told him that “Africa’s sons and daughters had no history, no heroes worth noting.”  But in her new picture book Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library (Candlewick, 2017), Carole Boston Weatherford  writes,

“After that teacher dismissed his people’s past,
did the twinkle leave Arturo’s eyes
like a candle blown out in the dark?
No, the twinkle never left. It grew into a spark.”

That spark led Schomburg to collect a life’s worth of books, letters, art and prints that told the story of African accomplishments all over the world, especially Africans who came to the New World – like Toussaint Louverture who led a slave revolt in Haiti and Paul Cuffee who was one of the richest black men in early America. Schomburg found African roots in the family trees of naturalist John James Audubon and composer Ludwig van Beethoven.  When Schomburg’s collection outgrew his house, the Carnegie Corporation bought everything for $10,000 and donated it to the New York Public Library.

This book opens the door for students to learn and write about the unsung heroes Schomburg discovered but also others from their own ethnic backgrounds.

·       Learn and write a little more about someone in the book you’ve never heard of.
·       Research someone from your own ethnic background who came to America and made a difference.
·       Write a paragraph or a poem about someone you admire – either from your own ethnic background or someone else’s.

Arturo immigrated to New York from Puerto Rico in 1891, when he was 17 years old. He carried with him letters of introduction to help him find work. 

·       Students can work in pairs to write letters of introduction for each other. Each student imagines a future job and writes a letter recommending the other student for that chosen career. What qualities and skills would be important? What would convince someone to hire the person?

“Arturo Schomburg studied the past… His mission looked to the future. ‘I am proud,’ said Schomburg, ‘to be able to do something that may mean inspiration for the youth of my race.’” He told professors to “include the practical history of the Negro race from the dawn of civilization to the present time. Then young blacks would hold their heads high and view themselves as anyone’s equal.” 

Schomburg’s collection became the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library. Earlier this year, the Center was designated a national historic landmark.

·       Is your school named after a person? Learn and write something about that person.
·       What type of building or space would you want named after you?

If these projects are initiated early in the school year, students can be encouraged to look for people whose stories are not well known in all their classes. 

Monday, November 6, 2017

I'm Not Taking a Bath

In Peep and Egg’s third adventure, Peep And Egg: I’m Not Taking A Bath, Egg gets muddy playing with the pigs. Peep tries to convince Egg to take a bath…but Egg is not taking a bath. No way, no how!

After you read Peep And Egg: I’m Not Taking A Bath out loud to your class, try these activities to get your students writing.

1. Persuasive Writing
Peep tries to convince Egg to take a bath by suggesting different alternatives, such as going to the river, or the duck pond, or the dog bowl.
Write a letter to Egg. In your letter, try to convince Egg to try something new. It could be anything! Maybe you think Egg should go on a roller coaster. Maybe you think Egg should try your favorite video game. In your letter, give at least three reasons to convince Egg.
2. Excuses, excuses!
Peep gives a lot of reasons why taking a bath is not happening—too wet, too bubbly, too slobbery!
Imagine a family member is telling you to clean your room. Make up a list of excuses to show why you can’t possibly clean your room.
3. Make it fun!
Peep finally convinces Egg to take a bath by making bath time seem like a lot of fun.
Imagine it is your job to take out the trash or sweep the floor, but you don’t want to do it. How could you convince a brother, sister, cousin, or friend to do the job instead, by making the job seem super fun? Think of a game to make taking out the trash or sweeping the floor seem as fun as going to Disneyworld!

Monday, October 23, 2017

Jim the Wonder Dog--Writing About Pets

guest post by Marty Rhodes Figley

My newest book, Jim the Wonder Dog, is about a Depression Era Llewellin setter that many believed was either a genius or possessed of clairvoyant skills. This hunting dog predicted seven Kentucky Derby winners, the winners of the 1936 World Series and presidential race. He could also take direction in foreign languages (Italian, French, German, Spanish), shorthand, and Morse code—and recognized both colors and musical instruments. After a thorough examination by veterinarian scientists at the University of Missouri the mystery of Jim remained.  No one could ever figure out how he did those things. 

In the back of my book I have an extensive discussion of oral history. We have a much better understanding of Jim the Wonder Dog and the town where he lived because of the oral history created by the Marshall, Missouri Chamber of Commerce and the Missouri Valley College. In 1997, those two organizations conducted video interviews of people who had known Jim when they were children or young adults. Their recollections have details about Jim and Marshall, Missouri that would otherwise have been lost to time.

Classroom discussion: Discuss what an oral history is, its strengths and weaknesses.

Oral histories capture a moment in history that might have otherwise been lost.
In the case of my book, these personal stories, from people who are no longer with us, about their experiences with an amazing dog they could not forget, let history come alive. Their enthusiasm and love for Jim the Wonder Dog are apparent, as is their obvious enjoyment in having an opportunity to give their honest account of their treasured memories of Jim from so long ago.

Some disadvantages of oral history are: The person who is giving the firsthand account might not have been able to observe everything that happened or his perspective might have tainted what he saw. That person also might not have made an accurate observation because of his location, the surrounding circumstances (such as darkness, rain, or smoke), or his personal circumstances (such as excitement, sleepiness, or poor eyesight).  Finally, that person might not remember accurately.  Memories can fade with time or be influenced by hearing other accounts of the same event. 

Your students can make history come alive by creating their own oral histories by interviewing family members.

It’s important to conduct the interview in an informed manner.
Ask questions one at a time.
Give time for an answer before you ask the next question.
Try to ask questions that can’t just be answered with a yes or no.  Get more detailed responses.
Be a good listener.

Here are some questions  students could ask family members about their experiences with pets.  

Did you have pets when you were growing up?
How old were you when you got your first pet?
What kind of animal was it?
Where did you get it?
Who named it?
Who took care of the family pet?
Where did your pet sleep?
How did your pet show you love?
Did any of your pets have special talents?
What was the most interesting thing your pet did?
Did you feel your pet understood you? Why?
Did you have a favorite pet?
If so, why was this pet your favorite?
What did your favorite pet look like?
Did you ever have more than one pet at the same time?
If so, did they get along?

Bio: Marty Rhodes Figley is the author of several picture books including Emily and Carlo, Santa’s Underwear, Saving the Liberty Bell, and The Schoolchildren’s Blizzard. She grew up in Missouri and now lives in Virginia with her husband and Airedale terrier. She is a graduate of Mount Holyoke College where she earned a bachelor's degree in American Studies. Besides writing for kids Marty enjoys making pies and playing the guitar. Visit Marty online at /

Monday, October 16, 2017

Rock, Paper, Scissors!

The Legend Of Rock Paper Scissors by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Adam Rex, is a great book to spark writing in your classroom.

Just in case you have any students who don’t know the game “Rock Paper Scissors,” you can start off by explaining the rules. Then you can let kids practice playing the game in pairs.

After you explain and play the game, have fun reading the book out loud to your class.

Once you have finished the book, here are some related ideas to get kids writing!

1.    There are some funny battles in this book, such as Paper versus. Half-Eaten Bag of Trail Mix and Scissors versus Dinosaur-Shaped Chicken Nuggets. Can you think of some other battles between regular objects that might be found in your home? Write out a battle scene between two of those everyday objects. Use dialogue! See if you can think of funny-but-not-too-mean insults to use, like those in the book (“Giant box monster” “tacky and vaguely round monstrosity” “weird scissory one”).

2.    There are humorous locations in this book, such as the “Kingdom of backyard” and the “tiny village of Junk Drawer.” What funny names can you make up for other locations in your home, school, or neighborhood? Write a story that takes place in at least one of those locations.

3.    An important theme in this book is that Rock, Paper, and Scissors are used to winning all the time…but they don’t like it. All three of these characters wish for well-matched opponents. Think about your own life. Do you agree that it is more fun to play a game if there is a chance you will lose? Have you ever been on a team that won every single game, all season? Did you like it or not? Do you have a younger sibling who you can always beat at every game? Is it still fun to play? Write a paragraph explaining whether you agree with Rock, Paper, and Scissors that playing games is most fun when you have an evenly-matched rival.

After you complete the writing activities, you might enjoy a fast-paced classroom battle of “Rock, Paper, Scissors.” Here’s what to do:
1)    Have students pair off (if you have an uneven number, you get to play too!).
2)    When one student wins against another student, the losing student instantly becomes part of the “squad” for the winner and starts chanting his or her name. “Emily! Emily! Emily!”
3)    When two winners play against each other, the one who loses—and his or her squad—all start cheering for the winner. Now you have a bunch of kids chanting “Nico! Nico! Nico!”
4)    Continue until only two students are left, with everyone else cheering for one or the other.
5)    One student becomes the class champion, with everyone chanting his or her name at once!  “ASHA! ASHA! ASHA!” Hooray!

Monday, October 9, 2017


In a new book, Writing Radar: Using Your Journal To Snoop Out and Craft Great Stories, Jack Gantos shares more than classic tips for writing a great beginning, middle, and end. He shares his own passion to become a published author. Do you have students who dream about seeing their own books on library shelves? If so, give them Writing Radar. Give them the opportunity to hear Gantos describe in emotional detail the moment he placed his hand in the exact spot where a fiction book written by an author named “Gantos” would be shelved.  

Fans of the Joey Pigza books will enjoy the story of how Gantos met the student who inspired the character of Joey at an author visit. Gantos has lectured in dozens of schools about the craft of writing. He shares those lessons in Writing Radar along with many short writing examples teachers could use as models in the classroom. Gantos uses anecdotes from his childhood to demonstrate how everyday experiences make excellent writing material. “The Cool-Air Chair” is a brief story of how Gantos liked to read with the refrigerator door open because it was the coolest place in his Florida home without air-conditioning. Examining how Gantos makes a fairly mundane activity into a very amusing story should help your students discover the stories in their own lives. The book is peppered with such stories and many chapters can stand alone as a read aloud, making Writing Radar a great text to use periodically throughout the year.

In a chapter called, “Breaking It Down,” Gantos provides a step-by-step guide to the elements of storytelling. Writing and reading teachers could use this as a model for studying character, setting, problem, action, etc.  

Finally, Gantos nudges the young writer to simply get moving—to write. In his most important writing tip, he says: “Don’t be that writer who waits all day for the perfect first sentence, or you will grow old while learning to hate yourself and writing.” Gantos cautions young writers not to expect creative thoughts to line up neatly “like a long string of dominoes standing on end and all the writer has to do is push the first one over.” He accurately describes the messy process of creating story while brimming with excitement for the craft. Writer Radar is an excellent resource for the classroom and all those who love writing.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Storytellers -- CABA Awards

“There is a unique kind of magic that comes from hearing a story told. With only the power of a voice, an entire world can be created,” writes Evan Turk in the author’s note to the new book he wrote and illustrated, The Storyteller.

The Storyteller is one of this year’s Children’s Africana Book Award (CABA)  winners.  The awards honor books that contribute to an accurate, balanced picture of Africa.  The Storyteller takes place during a drought in the ancient Kingdom of Morocco. Only the power of storytelling is capable of filling everyone’s brass cup with water to share.

Encourage children to write their own story – and then share the stories out loud or with pictures. Talk about what makes a story so exciting that readers or listeners never get bored and keep wanting more.
·       Are there stories or legends you hear at home about the countries where your parents or grandparents were born?
·       Can you imagine a story to explain a natural phenomenon – like why fireflies sparkle at night, what the man (or lady) in the moon might be thinking or why pandas love to eat bamboo?
·       Write about a day in your life when something magic happens to you – like the boy in the story whose brass cup is suddenly overflowing with water.

Each of the 2017 CABA books could generate writing prompts – beginning with finding out more about the African country featured in each title.

The 2017 CABA Winners are:
·       Gizo-Gizo! A tale from the Zongo Lagoon (Ghana) by Emily Williamson with the students and teachers of the Hassaniyya Quranic School in Cape Coast Ghana/Sub-Saharan Publishers / available via African Books Collective
·       The Storyteller (Morocco) by Evan Turk/Atheneum
·       Amagama Enkululeko! Words for Freedom: Writing Life Under Apartheid (South Africa) Anthology/Cover2Cover/ available via African Books Collective

2017 CABA Honor Books
·       Aluta (Ghana) by Adwoa Badoe/Groundwood Books
·       The Bitter Side of Sweet (Ivory Coast) by Tara Sullivan/Putnam
·       The Boy Who Spat in Sargrenti’s Eye (Ghana) by Manu Herbstein / self-published for international distribution via Ingram Publishing Services /Techmate in Ghana

2017 CABA Notable Book
·       The World Beneath (South Africa) by Janice Warman/Candlewick

This is the 25th anniversary of the CABA awards - 90 books set in 24 countries have been recognized since the awards began.  The authors of all seven 2017 winners will receive their awards at a celebration dinner November 3, 2017, in Washington, D.C.   

Ten previous winners are also attending the dinner, including Kathleen Wilson winner of the first CABA, five-time CABA winner E.B. Lewis and two-time winners Liz Zunon, Baba Wague Diakité and Ifeoma Onyefulu.  Ntshadi Mofokeng, representing the NGO Equal Education will be coming from South Africa, author Manu Herbstein will be traveling to the celebration from Ghana, Adwoa Badoe from Canada and Janice Warman from the U.K. Click here for tickets and more information

On Saturday, a free CABA family festival will be held at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.  Children can learn to spin a yarn and weave a story, based on tales from Ghana, Morocco and Ivory Coast.  A panel of CABA authors/illustrators is featured and both current and past CABA winners will be signing their books. The event is free and open to the public. More information here. 
“When a storyteller dies, a library burns.” Old Moroccan saying

Monday, September 25, 2017

This is Just a Test -- Collaborative Writing

Guest Post by Madelyn Rosenberg and Wendy Wan-Long Shang

When we worked on our new middle-grade novel, This Is Just A Test, the two of us (Wendy Wan-Long Shang and Madelyn Rosenberg) collaborated, sending our manuscript back and forth, back and forth, until it was complete. In school, kids collaborate all of the time, on science labs, social studies projects, sports teams, and of course, on writing assignments. Most of the teachers we’ve talked to say that the main way their students collaborate on writing is through peer editing. We thought we’d offer a few ways to have them collaborate on the writing itself.

Our character, David Da-Wei Horowitz, is Jewish (like Madelyn) and Chinese-American (like Wendy). Little pieces of our own experiences and culture went into forming that character, along with plenty of things that are just David’s alone.

Have your students work in pairs to build a character. Think of it like the Build-a-Bear workshop: You’ll be discussing what the character looks like on the outside, but to create a true character, you can’t forget the stuffing – the things that go inside.

Have your students go back and forth, adding one trait at a time until they decide the character is complete.
What does the character like?
What is the character afraid of?
What does she want?
What does he like to eat?
How does she get along with her mother?

This Is Just A Test is set in the 1980s so it counts (much as we hate to admit it) as historical fiction. This assignment can work well as an introduction to historical fiction. Are your students studying World War II or Ancient Civilizations? Have them create a character from the time period they’re studying. How would that character’s fears and foods and fun be different from today?

Now that your students have a character, have them collaborate on a setting. They can brainstorm and draw. Complete sentences aren’t necessary, just words, phrases and ideas. The focus can be close (the character’s bedroom) or from farther away (the city or woods).

Try brainstorming again, with plot, before having your students sit down to create their story. Make sure they negotiate: Would our character do this? Would our character say this? And make sure they read for voice. Assignments like this help them learn to pay attention to each other’s writing styles so they can make them similar – so that the text and dialogue sound like they’re coming from the same narrator and the same characters.
Is the character serious or sarcastic?
Does she use certain phrases?
If there is interior monologue, how does the character talk to himself?
When our agents said they couldn’t tell which one of us had written what in our book, that was when we knew we had a true collaboration.

Feel free to throw out a few touchstone words to help students find inspiration (yellow, hard drive, cantaloupe) a sentence they have to use (“Oh, it’s on.”) or even a situation (“It was not the sound they expected to come out of a space ship.”) If you’ve chosen to go with historical fiction, provide some old newspapers and photos.

Another type of collaborative story is where authors take on different characters with different perspectives instead of joining forces for one. Given our current political climate, the idea of exploring situations from different perspectives is especially appealing. Our story would have been completely different if it had been told from the point of view of Scott or Hector instead of David.

Shout Mouse Press explored different perspectives on a large scale, when they had students work together to create The Day Tajon Got Shot. Author Jen Malone and six co-authors approached the night of a dance from different perspectives in Best. Night. Ever.

Consider a prompt where each student takes on the perspective of a different character. You can divide into larger groups for this one. Students must agree on plot and setting, but they have more independence in creating their characters. They’ll have to consider, though, how the actions of one character influence another.

For more on Madelyn Rosenberg, visit
For more on Wendy Shang, visit
For more writing prompts by Madelyn and Wendy on collaboration,