Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Heroes - With Will Alexander & Kekla Magoon

On Saturday, November 14th, Will Alexander (Nomad, Goblin Secrets) & Kekla Magoon (Shadows of Sherwood, X: A Novel, How It Went Down) came to our Author-Educator Series to talk about Creating Heroes. You can read more about the authors in this earlier post

Okay, we knew that "creating heroes" was a big topic, a topic that undoubtedly has underpinned dozens (hundreds) of careers in sociology, anthropology, folkloric studies, modern literature, and psychology. We'll call this recounting of the workshop with Will Alexander and Kekla Magoon: "Heroes: Discuss" because it brought up many interesting ways to frame thinking about a "hero" for classroom discussion.

As Will noted in his introduction ". . 'hero' - we all know what it means and none of us agree."

Types of Heroes

Will divides the hero world into three basic flavors - the trickster (a hero with agency but no power), the badass (a destructive hero, they break things, they're cathartic entertainment - like most comic book heroes) and the superhero (who builds things, renews, is a culture hero).

You can think of these types of heroes in terms of rites of passage as well. Tricksters have little to no externally derived power or respect and they're not physically powerful either, similar to children. They rely primarily on their wits. The badass is more or less an adolescent fantasy (as a side note, I looked up a more-classroom-friendly synonym for badass and the online thesaurus included "Vladimir Putin"). And a superhero would be the "best kind of grown up."

Will writes about trickster heroes and observes that middle grade fiction is primarily focused on this type of character.

Hobbits are an example of the trickster hero - they're middle aged and frumpy, and lacked heroic tendencies until they found themselves in the middle of a hero story, learning to navigate a world they didn't understand. Children identify with these power dynamics and the need to learn to navigate the world (although perhaps not so much with being middle aged and frumpy). The trickster stories also tell an important flip side of the coin - how to best handle power when you do have it. . . a lesson sometimes taught by counterexample as the heroes encounter powerful villains. As children grow older they're navigating not only the dynamics of possessing limited power, but of changing amounts of power - culturally, intellectually, and also physically.

In Will's books, Rowny in Goblin Secrets is a young, powerless child who doesn't have possess the direct power of casting spells like a Harry Potter character, but rather exercises an indirect magic conjured through masks, performances, and influencing others in that way.

In Ambassador, the protagonists are (as the title suggests) ambassadors, but they reside relatively low in the power structure. They don't have authority to break rules, they can only move around them. But it is very important that children be Ambassadors between worlds in this science fiction novel. As one can observe in ever-popular Unlikely Friendships series, interspecies friendships always begin between juveniles. This structure gives the children important responsibility even if they don't have a large amount of power.

Almost Heroes

There are some murky hero waters. For example, is a hero defined by the situation or by inherent talents? Superheroes in comic books have inherent powers used for good. Hobbits don't have inherent powers, but are heroes due to situations they were forced to navigate. Katniss in The Hunger Games eventually emerges as a hero, but in the first book most of her actions after stepping forward to save her sister were focused on saving herself - she had the goal of surviving the games, not of challenging the power structure. She wasn't out to Do Good in a broader sense, but her actions and what other people made of her actions led to greater good.

Antiheroes and reluctant heroes don't start off with the expected hero qualities of wanting to bravely fight for an important cause, but they may find themselves in that situation over the course of the book. The protagonists' characters usually develop along with their actions to assume more heroic qualities. What if they didn't? Would the actions be enough to qualify?

Heroes Who Develop Across a Series

Reluctant heroes like Katniss can develop across books in a series. The first book of Kekla's Robin Hood retelling, featuring Robyn Hoodlum, just came out this fall and in it the protagonist doesn't yet own her identity as a hero, even though some hero-like actions have come about from her adventures in Book 1. One way of looking at the arc of Robyn Hoodlum and other heroes who develop over the course of several stories is 1. they develop their hero qualities 2. they take ownership of their role as hero and 3. they fully enact their heroism and achieve a major victory for the cause of Good (whatever Good happens to be). 

Heroes Aren't Always Great Role Models 

Hero and role model aren't synonymous. As Will puts it "Is Batman a good person or even remotely on an even keel?" Not really. Destructive, bad ass type heroes offer a smash-things-up sort of catharsis without representing great life choices. They let readers play out in their imaginations all kinds of possible, and also impossible, actions and their consequences. They're faced with larger than life dilemmas, up to and beyond threats like the entire Earth being exploded by alien invaders. Will would argue in favor of readers of all ages letting these scenarios play out in their minds via the written word.

Are Protagonists Always Heroes?

Lots of protagonists aren't heroes, but in books where Stuff Happens and there's a fair amount of action and overcoming of obstacles, it's hard not to apply some hero framework to the characters. Many children's or YA books have storylines that lend themselves to heroic protagonists.

Kekla tries not to write about heroes. Her early books set during the Civil Rights movements of the last generation focused on average citizens, not the big name heroes like Martin Luther King Jr. who we learn about in school. It's the people who showed up to listen to the I Have a Dream speech, not the person who delivered it. That begs the question whether these characters still count as heroes? We have a cultural understanding now of "everyday heroes" and popular culture highlights the concept of aggregating lots of very small actions from thousands of people for large impact.

In Kekla's book How It Went Down she tells one story from 19 perspectives, which takes away even the structure of a single main character to navigate the story.  But each of those people has their own story, with its own arc, and actions and consequences.

In another book, X: A Novel, Kekla writes about Malcolm X before he was a popular hero. He made a lot of bad choices - it's a hero origin story when the hero comes from a somewhat dubious origin. She wanted to strip away hindsight and show a time when Malcolm X had no way of knowing how his life would turn out, and hero status seemed very unlikely. It makes it clear that he wasn't born into his role, like Superman was born to be Superman, but rather arrived there through a complicated life path.

Heroes in the Classroom:

Will and Kekla's talk offered several ways to examine fictional characters in classroom books. Here are some of the points they brought up, in question form:

  • Is this main character a hero? 
  • Where does the main character's power come from? Compared with other characters in the story?
  • Does this character begin with an inherent heroic quality? (Like secretly being a wizard)
  • Does this character acquire heroic personal qualities across the course of the story?
  • Is this character's heroism defined by actions? What actions and what choice led to those actions?
  • If you think this character isn't a hero, what changes would make them a hero? How would that change the story? (Not necessarily for the better, since presumably the author wrote it this way for a reason)
  • What about the characters who aren't the main character in the story, what if they became the main character? Would they become heroes? (In the new book The Rest of Us Just Live Here Patrick Ness does this with characters who would otherwise be "extras" in a Chosen One style story about battling supernatural evil)

Friday, November 13, 2015

(Re)vision - Linda Urban and Melissa Guerrette

Linda Urban (left) & Melissa Guerrette (right)

We love picking up a brand new book, with a seemingly perfect story inside waiting to be read. Of course, we also know in the back of our minds that a lot of work - hard work - went into creating that final story. That story likely spent a long time very far from what the author wanted it to be. Young students rarely observe that difficult process behind their books, much less participate in it. Nonetheless, knowing the work that goes into a final book helps students understand writing and improve their own writing. It also helps them realize that if their work begins in a state they don't like, it doesn't mean they're terrible writers - it only means they need to revise, just like professional authors do (and do a lot).

When author Linda Urban began her latest book Milo Speck, Accidental Agent, she knew she was at the start of a difficult process. For one thing, writing books is just hard. For another, this story would be a departure from her previous novels (Center of Everything; Crooked Kind of Perfect; Hound Dog True). Linda explains that she knew her books had "lots of character and dialogue, without a lot of plot." They were quiet books, with well developed voices in the main characters and, as her son pointed out, an absence of HAM. Humor, Action, Mystery. He wanted a HAM book because that's the type of book he likes to read. Linda promised she'd write something for him.

Creating a different style of book required Linda to find a whole new way to write. Her earlier books she wrote taking her cues from sound (for example, dialogue) and based on feeling, not visuals and action. The common writing advice of "see the story like a movie" didn't apply. Now it did. The early drafts, Linda says, read like a list of set directions. Even the stuff that always worked well for her, the dialogue and the characters' own voices, didn't work well in this new context. Simply getting her main character Milo across the room took heroic effort. (To be fair, Milo spends a lot of the book moving across rooms populated by ogres in the made up world of Ogregon, reached through a malfunctioning clothes dryer, so she wasn't moving him across any old living room. It was nevertheless frustrating).

At the same time that Linda was working on Milo, she was also in communication with Maine-based teacher Melissa Guerrette. Melissa's fourth grade class had won a Skype visit and doughnut party with Linda as part of the promotions for her earlier book The Center of Everything. Linda had been impressed with how engaged Melissa's students were. The students were full of enthusiasm for their own reading lives, and full of advice for books Linda should read to inform her next writing project. An author-classroom learning partnership seemed like a good idea.

Linda sent 5 chapters of Milo to Melissa's class for feedback. These weren't the early super, super messy attempts, but they were also several steps away from what the final product would be. The students loved getting a look at these drafts; they wanted more.

"I know we were just talking to you, but now we just can't stop thinking about Milo, like we want more, we want more. Some books are like that. Some books are that good - people just say please make a book about the same thing, the first one was so good. I feel like those people about this book Milo Speck," one student explained.

The students sent Linda a stack of cards with the general theme "You Can Do It". As one student counseled "I agree it's hard to revise but in my opinion it feels good when you finish."

Linda naturally enjoyed a pep talk. She also honestly valued feedback these students, her future readers, might have. And she knew a close look at a writer's process could change how the students approached their own writing. Melissa, from the teacher's role, didn't correct the letters, but she did read them. . . and learned about many things students hadn't necessarily shared with her directly, their hang ups, concerns, frustrations about writing.

The attitudes students carried towards writing had previously raised concerns for Melissa. Many students arrived in 4th grade with negative feelings, convinced they weren't writers and resisting regular practice in the classroom. She worried about a classroom emphasis on deadlines, and mechanics, and not on creating a writerly practice. Students didn't appreciate writing's potential to let them share the ideas in their heads with the rest of the world.

Melissa's students' attitudes changed over the course of the two years she worked with Linda.

One major point of change in students' approach to writing came with their writing notebooks. Linda keeps multiple notebooks for each project: messy notebooks, more task-oriented project notebooks, and during the Milo project she even began a progress notebook (reflecting on the day's work) based on the recommendation of business writer David Allen.

Page from Linda's notebook

Melissa's students had kept notebooks for class assignments, but they'd viewed them as simply that - a place to complete assignments. Even the way they took care of the books physically reflected disinterest (and sometimes resentment). But, Melissa says, the classroom time dedicated to working in the notebooks soon became a chance to develop their writing practice, with ". . . authentic conditions for writing, not just moving through a check list" and the notebooks themselves were seen as "a place that took care of their ideas."

Linda explains it this way: "A writing notebook is supposed to be a playground. . . a safe place for yourself and others, and within that you can do whatever you want."

And the half ideas, doodles, story boards, random thoughts in notebooks did evolve into polished pieces of writing. Melissa's students were okay with the idea of very messy starts followed by a lot of hard work to get to a final product. As one student described, all the arrows connecting his different ideas were "showing the roads to victory."

Linda and Melissa worked together on ways to help students navigate those roads to victory from what can be rocky beginnings. Below are slides from Melissa showing examples of two exercises:

Exercise comparing two passages (pre-and post-revision) from Milo and discussing what changed, and speculating on why it might have changed. Melissa notes that this exercise was part of thinking about how "writers act deliberately" and their revision goes beyond a spell check.

Exercise in description and action - page from student notebook.

Melissa and Linda both feel that their project can be replicated in other classrooms. Finding classroom time for the work proved challenging, especially since it had many phases of exploration -- with all the expected dead ends and backtracking inherent in exploration. Melissa notes, though, that curriculum standards emphasize quality of writing and that, ultimately, this process produced high quality writing, so it fit into those priorities. She also adjusted her own attitude towards notebooks and early drafts, letting go of any expectations she had of what students would produce. Another challenge is finding those author-educator partnerships. Linda notes that it's a rewarding form of community service, and the author role could be filled from any genre or style, since the need for thoughtful, deliberate revision holds true at the heart of most writing.

At the end of the Milo-based partnership, Linda traveled to Maine for a surprise visit to Melissa's classroom, where she met with students in person and had writing conferences with students who wanted to share their work with her. Now, Melissa reports, her students feel a great pride of ownership in Milo Speck: Accidental Agent, and she herself has returned to doing more of her own writing.

If you're interested in more thoughts on writers' notebooks check out:

This Collection of Blog Posts by Melissa
This Collection of Blog Posts by Linda
If you're interested in other examples of authors working with students on writing skills, check out these earlier Author-Educator workshop notes:
And, finally, we hope you join us for our final fall Author-Educator Workshop on Saturday, November 14th, at 11:00 am with Kekla Magoon and Will Alexander as they discuss "Creating Heroes." As usual, it is free, open to the public, and comes with refreshments. 

Monday, November 9, 2015

Kekla Magoon & Will Alexander - Saturday, November 14th

Vermont College of Fine Arts draws many talented authors into the Montpelier community - many of whom are writing important, entertaining, fantastic, humorous, serious, and generally wonderful books for children and young adults. Two of those are VCFA faculty members Kekla Magoon and Will Alexander. Lucky for all of us, they are also generous with their time and coming to speak at Bear Pond Books this upcoming Saturday, November 14th, at 11:00 am.

The topic of Saturday's workshop is creating fictional heroes for young readers. Kekla and Will will be speaking about how they create these characters, and what impact these characters can have on the perspective of readers.

You don't have to take our word for it that Kekla and Will have interesting opinions to share, here's a sample of interviews, reviews, essays, and conversations about their work:

Come hear Kekla and Will this Saturday, November 14th, in the Children's Room at 11:00 am - there will be coffee and snacks, and the event is free and open to the public.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Problem Solving in Stories with Nicole Griffin

N. (or Nicole) Griffin is the author of the new young reader series featuring Smashie McPerter and her friend Dontel. In the first book, Smashie McPerter and the Mystery of Room 11, the two search for who stole the class hamster after it goes missing under the reign of a vain substitute teacher at a time when the class is already miffed that Smashie considers hamsters creepy.

Nicole is also a math education consultant and so it shouldn't surprise us that she started her workshops on problem solving in stories with a math problem. Take a few minutes to consider it:

Now, a few more minutes to consider how did you go about solving this problem?

1. Deal with your feelings.

Some choice comments from the audience on their first reaction to the assignment "Flash backs of horror"; "sweaty palms"; "Relief at not having to share the answers out loud"; "happy because I used to really love math and never do it any more" (followed almost instantly by the discovery that you can forget a lot of math in a few short decades).

The dealing with your feelings phase often gets forgotten in teaching kids about problem solving. Nonetheless, if you're feeling anxious, discouraged, cocky, etc. that impedes your problem solving. Sometimes the feelings part gets forgotten with fictional problem solvers too (particularly odd since emotions usually make stories interesting). Think of Sherlock Holmes who rarely had to deal with his feelings.

2. Make sense of the problem

Making sense of the problem means not just reading it, but using tools like drawing visuals (shapes to represent the paintings for example) or identifying key parts to grasp what you're reading. In mysteries, it's common for investigators to talk over the problems confronting them as ways of making sense. In Smashie McPerter, Smashie and her friend Dontel fill notebooks with their outlines of trying to understand the key parts of the missing hamster problem.

3. Solve the problem

Workshop participants all went about solving the paintings problems in different ways - the blunt instrument of arithmetic (adding prices until you reached the set amount); trying to find an equation from the dim recesses of memory; etc. Often this solving involves false steps that send you back to #1. In Smashie, for example, the kids run through possible suspects and need to return to their notebooks each time they find evidence that one of their suspects can't have taken the hamster.

4. Explain your thinking.

In the math problem handed out at the workshop the test writer specifically requested "show your work." In the world of mysteries, the climactic speech by the sleuth explaining how she deduced what happened (I picture Angela Lansbury here) and caught the perpetrator is a nearly unavoidable plot point.

5. Check your work.

Double checking is, of course, a constant part of the problem solving process and Jane points out that when the kids in Smashie make a false accusation there are real consequences. This is not a problem solving duo who can point fingers until they happen upon the guilty party.

~ ~ ~

When we lay out basic problem solving structure and look at it through the lens of writing for kids, mysteries are an obvious choice for illustrating this skill. They're engaging stories built around a problem to be solved. They're a more fun way of understanding curriculum goals like CCSS.Math.Practice.MP1 - which Nicole shared at the workshop:
CCSS.MATH.PRACTICE.MP1 Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
Mathematically proficient students start by explaining to themselves the meaning of a problem and looking for entry points to its solution. They analyze givens, constraints, relationships, and goals. They make conjectures about the form and meaning of the solution and plan a solution pathway rather than simply jumping into a solution attempt. They consider analogous problems, and try special cases and simpler forms of the original problem in order to gain insight into its solution. They monitor and evaluate their progress and change course if necessary. Older students might, depending on the context of the problem, transform algebraic expressions or change the viewing window on their graphing calculator to get the information they need. Mathematically proficient students can explain correspondences between equations, verbal descriptions, tables, and graphs or draw diagrams of important features and relationships, graph data, and search for regularity or trends. Younger students might rely on using concrete objects or pictures to help conceptualize and solve a problem. Mathematically proficient students check their answers to problems using a different method, and they continually ask themselves, "Does this make sense?" They can understand the approaches of others to solving complex problems and identify correspondences between different approaches.
Not all children's mysteries are created equal and hit the balance of entertaining storytelling and strong problem solving, like what we find in Smashie McPerter. Jane suggests this list to get started:

Julian, Secret AgentCameron, Ann9780394819495Random HouseOct 20082-4
The Book ScavengerChambliss Bertman, Jennifer9781627791151Henry HoltJune 20154-6
The Clubhouse Mysteries Draper, Sharon9781442427099AlladinJuly 20112-4series
Operation BunnyGardner, Sally9781250050533Square FishSept 20142-4series
Smashie McPerterGriffin, N9780763661458CandlewickFeb 2015series
Adventures of Arnie the DonutKeller, Laurie9781250072498Square FishMay 20152-4series
Nancy Clancy Super SleuthO'Connor, Jane9780062084194HarperApril 20132-4series
Greetings From SomewhereParis, Harper9781442497184SimonJan 20141-3series
The Case of the Missing MoonstoneStratford, Jordan9780385754408KnopfJan 20153-6series
Secrets of Selkie BayThomas, Shelley Moore9780374367497Farrar, Strauss GirouxJuly 20153-6
Whodunit Detective AgencyWidmark, Martin9780448480664Grosset & DunlapOct 20141-3series

~ ~ ~ 

Don't forget on Saturday, November 7th, we've got another educators workshop coming up with Linda Urban and Melissa Guerrette - learn about their unique collaboration around teaching writing and revision in the classroom as Linda worked on her fun new children's book Milo Speck: Accidental Agent.