In the writing room right now ...

In the writing room right now ... I am working on book #3 in the Winds of Freedom series, a teen adventure series set in the 1850s in North Danville, Vermont. My 1852 Vermont adventure THIS ARDENT FLAME is scheduled for June 2021 publication with Five Star/Cengage -- I will give you updates and early order information as soon as I know! I'm also writing a memoir; revising a mystery; in the midst of a novel about a grandmother and her granddaughter; and always writing poems. Yes, I guess I do like multi-tasking! How about you?

Friday, February 21, 2014

Learning the Words: The Common Core Standards and Joyful Writing

It's easy to think of the Common Core State Standards as something "for teachers" and not for the rest of us. The newspaper coverage emphasizing the standards as related to testing, for instance -- and if you're a writer who has finished your official schooling, testing is something you're probably not going to embrace.

On the other hand, there's an aspect of the Common Core that is making my heart leap with excitement. Yes, really. Here it is: As I understand them, the new standards are saying: "By the time students leave high school, they'll be reading and processing information at an adult level."

To me, that makes good sense -- I want the kids coming out of high school and going straight to the workforce to be able to do so as adults, and even more so, I hope that those teens entering college can do it as adults. When I think about the differences among the college students I know, in terms of who is making the most of the opportunity and who is blowing it off, it boils down to exactly this.

When I pair this idea with "scaffolding" -- a term I learned from a reading teacher, at a workshop maybe 20 years ago -- the role of "young adult" fiction in the classroom becomes more complex and interesting. Not only are we giving readers a chance to experience, vicariously, the challenges, fears, and courage of life; we are also helping them rise up, one grade at a time, to being effective and joyful participants in the world of adults. We build a "scaffold" the way house painters or skyscraper builders do, so we can boost readers upward from where they already stand.

How do we do this? Here's my vocab lesson for the day, teaching myself the ways that teachers are now talking about the process, within the Common Core standards, in terms of the writer's own favorite building blocks: words.
Tier 1 words: These words are basic vocabulary or the more common words most children will know. They include high-frequency words and usually are not multiple meaning words.

Tier 2 words: Less familiar, yet useful vocabulary found in written text and shared between the teacher and student in conversation. The Common Core State Standards refers to these as “general academic words.” Sometimes they are referred to as “rich vocabulary.” These words are more precise or subtle forms of familiar words and include multiple meaning words. Instead of walk for example, saunter could be used. These words are found across a variety of domains.

Tier 3 words: CCSS refers to these words as “domain specific;” they are critical to understanding the concepts of the content taught in schools. Generally, they have low frequency use and are limited to specific knowledge domains. Examples would include words such as isotope, peninsula, refinery. They are best learned when teaching specific content lessons, and tend to be more common in informational text. (a nice version, well spelled out, from a commercial website,
We who are writing YA fiction -- whether it's mysteries or "literary" -- are invited by these standards to play with "Tier 2 words," the words that my teaching friends call "rich vocabulary." What a gift! What a delight! These are the words I've used in my poetry, always; now I'm being invited to use them deliberately and with skill, in everything else I'm writing for grades K to 12, and especially for middle grades and young adults.

See why my Writer's Heart is singing?

Learning to Write Better, Because My Co-Author Teaches Third Grade

East Barnet Schoolhouse, courtesy Janice Boyko
--> I'm working on the second draft of CHARLIE'S PLACE, a book for third and fourth graders -- and my co-author, Sue Tester, is behind many of the details in this revision. (I wrote the first draft, based on our plotting and character sessions together.)
Sue teaches grade 3 now and has taught others, and she taught me some Common Core Standards vocabulary to go with what we're now doing to the text: working on rich vocabulary that takes readers into the text. On my own, I then poked into Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning, Webb's Depth of Knowledge, technology in classroom learning ... 

I also took a course this January on the "arc of the story," and it helped me zoom through my plot twists and focus on character in fresh ways. But Sue and I are writing the kind of book where every word matters. Partly that's because it's for younger readers. Partly it's because I care about words as a poet does. And now it's also because Sue is showing me how to carry this into her classroom effectively.

Some of this is new names and frames for what good writers/storytellers do, and all of it is pushing me to dig deeper, think harder, write better. Here's a small example of the changes happening, as we take 8-year-old Charlie into school for his first time, around 1956:
First draft: Charlie looked around. Big windows made the schoolhouse very bright inside. Two windows had small screens at the bottom of them. Air from outside came to Charlie through the window screens.

Second draft: Charlie looked around. Big windows made the schoolhouse very bright inside. Two windows had small screens at the bottom of them. Charlie noticed the late summer breeze slipping into the room. Some of the outdoors came inside this way. 
Good.  It's exciting for me to see my own writing and revision process as part of what's happening in US classrooms where teachers are using the new Common Core standards. I like this chart from teaching coach Tracy Watanabe (, showing the deliberate changes that teachers are aiming for.

PS to Barnet, Vermont, and Ben's Mill readers and fans: The East Barnet schoolhouse photo is a good one, a bit earlier than the time when this story takes place.  I'm actually picturing for the story the West Barnet schoolhouse, which, when I moved to town in 1986, was the home of K&M Sales and I believe had been a Grange hall as well. If you have photos, I'd love to see them! 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Picturing World War I: Getting Ready for June 2014

Tank on Main St, St Johnsbury, 1970
June 29, 2014, will mark 100 years since the day Archduke Franz Ferdinand was killed by a shooter in Sarajevo -- touching off what would become known as the Great War, the War to End All Wars, and (ironically) World War I, since the peace at the end of this war failed to hold. In many ways, it marks the start of "modern history." And, for me, it's also the war that Claire's father returns from in 1921 in my Vermont adventure novel Cold Midnight, handicapped by the psychological illness then called "shell shock" (and rarely treated). It's also a war in which one of my great-grandfathers, Ludwig Ollendorf, was a soldier in Europe.

Regina and Ludwig Ollendorf
[TEACHERS: How far do you need to go in your life history or your family history to find a connection to World War I? How can you help your students "picture" when this happened?]

So I'm thinking about Sarajevo more this year, trying to get a sense of where it was and what made it the trigger point for this enormous conflict. I found the city's own current website,; then I browsed the Wikipedia entry for a first look at context: -- wow, this city really exemplifies a quality I think of as especially American, the determination to be independent and control your own fate ... but it hasn't had a lot of time to do that!

Somewhat to my surprise, I rediscovered that a book on my shelf, People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks, involves Sarajevo -- I'll have to go back to it and think again about what this means to me.

But for today, I want to focus on learning and remembering exactly where Sarajevo is now: It's the capital of the linked nations of Bosnia and Herzegovina. And that body of water showing in the map here is the Adriatic Sea -- which runs along the "right-hand side" of Italy on the world map. It looks like the city is surrounded by gorgeous terrain, full of rivers and mountains ... and right next to Montenegro, for which mystery fans of the Rex Stout/Nero Wolfe books will have their own inner image! Another book I loved that's associated with this region is Lawrence Durrell's White Eagles Over Serbia.

This is how I build "memorable history" for myself: I investigate for a bit, and find the parts of my life and my reading that connect to what I'm learning. Is that the way you do it, for yourself? If you are a parent or teacher or librarian, how do you show others the ways to "get history inside you"?