Monday, October 29, 2018

Recycled Storylines or Mythic Mash Ups: A Look at A STAR IS BORN and PHANTOM OF THE OPERA

We went to see Love Never Dies, the sequel to Phantom of the Opera, at the Buell Theater in downtown Denver and I was surprised by how captivating it was. I'm usually not a fan of sequels and remakes. It's difficult to surpass or even come close to equaling the power of the original version of a story and although I do appreciate recycling, it feels lazy when it comes to storytelling. 

A couple of weeks ago we saw the latest remake of A Star is Born with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga and I was surprised to learn that it is the fourth version of the story. I remember well the Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand adaptation but was surprised to find there was a 1954 Judy Garland rendition and that the original was filmed back in 1937.

It got me thinking about what these two stories have in common. There is the age old trope of the mentor creating a work of art and falling in love with it. My Fair Lady is another example of this. It was based on a 1917 play by George Bernard Shaw called Pygmalion which became a movie of the same name in 1938. Pygmalion was inspired by a story of the same title from Ovid's Metamorphoses about a sculptor who fell in love with one of his statues. Ovid was a Roman writer who died in AD 17 so it's a pretty old story.

There there is the even older Greek myth of Eros, the god of love, and Psyche. The Oracle of Delphi predicts that Psyche will marry a terrible serpent. She is whisked away and taken to the castle of Eros (aka Cupid in the Latin version, son of Aphrodite) where she is quite happy, though disturbed by the fact that her husband will not show his face to her. He warns her that she can never look upon him. Her sisters come to the castle for a visit and tell her that her husband must be the terrible serpent foreseen by the oracle. Psyche lights a candle to look upon Eros' face and is amazed by his beauty, but when he awakes and realizes her betrayal, he flees. Psyche must undergo three difficult trials including a nasty trip down to Hades, to prove her love and regain the trust of Eros.

In later versions of the story the man appears to be a beast (as in Beauty and the Beast and Phantom of the Opera) and his true inner beauty must be revealed. Though in the case of the Phantom he also has a murderous dark side as well. In other stories the man appears to be beautiful (as in a Star is Born) but then his darker side is revealed.

The truth is that almost all stories are recycled to some degree. Some writers believe there are only three basic plot lines. Others argue for six and still others for more but most agree there is a finite number. I believe that the reason the above stories are successful is because they resonate with stories we know and love. Check out my tab for The Secret Language of Stories to see how I address story plotting when I write my books and teach story structure to my students.

Check out this article  on How Many Basic Plots Are There?

When we left the theater we were greeted by the street performers below. The whole day was magical!

Saturday, October 13, 2018


Autumn is here and that means Annual Conferences for many large educational organizations. Below you will find my top three conference survival tips and a FREE recipe for Conference Survival Bars.

I was recently in San Diego talking about Story Frames. Later this month I will be presenting at the New Mexico State Speech and Hearing Conference in Albuquerque and after that I'll be at IDA. If you happen to be at the International Dyslexia Association Language and Literacy Conference in Connecticut later this month, check out my Friday (F3) session on "The Science and Art of Stories."

The following tips will help you get the most out of your conference:

1. Buy the Conference Recording - I know, you already spent $500 on the conference fee. Why would you spend another hundred bucks or more on the recordings. The obvious reason is because you can't  attend all of the sessions, but there is another important reason. If  your brain is like mine, you can't possibly absorb all of the information of the few sessions you do attend. By purchasing the audio version you can listen to them in manageable pieces during your drive to work and retain  much more of the information.

2. Plan for Downtime and See the City - This relates to item #1. Your brain can only absorb so much information at any given time and it needs rest. Don't get me wrong, I'm NOT advocating that you get your employer to pay your conference expenses, ditch all the sessions to go to the beach, then return just in time to collect your CEUs. That would be unethical. But consider fitting in a late afternoon trolley tour of the city or dinner on the waterfront. Don't go all the way to New Orleans and then not see the French Quarter.

3. Pack Your Own Breakfast - Don't be late to that important Keynote Address because you are stuck in the Starbuck's line with 300 other conference attendees. Make your own gluten free/ high protein breakfast bars at home and bring them with you. See recipe below:

These bars are miraculous because they freeze well, travel well, and fill you up. Kids even love them. They are dairy free, low carbohydrate, high protein, and gluten free/paleo- unless you use oats/peanut butter. They are NOT low calorie. They contain lots of good fat that keeps you going for hours.

2 cups almond flour
1/2 teaspoon soda
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon fresh orange zest (1 tsp. dried orange or lemon peel may be used)
I cup unsweetened shredded coconut
1/4 cup flax seed or flaxseed meal
I cup dried fruit- chopped (or use small varieties like currants or raisins- try to use varieties low in sugar)
1 cup unsalted nuts- chopped
1/4 cup coconut oil
1/4 cup honey (may use more or less honey to taste) drizzle on top or mix in

topping (optional) Dark chocolate squares and peanut butter

Stir together flour and soda with a whisk to combine.
Stir in shredded coconut, flax seed, nuts, and fruit.
Whisk eggs. Melt coconut oil and add to eggs. Add honey. Combine wet and dry ingredient, combining thoroughly
The mixture should be moist.
press into greased 9x13 inch pan.
Drizzle honey on top and spread with a knife to coat the top evenly
Bake at 350 degrees for about 20-25 min.
Cool and slice into 2x2 inch bars.
Keep in an airtight container or freeze.
Yield- 12 bars

NOTE: Before I bake these I like to spread peanut butter  on top. About halfway through the baking cycle I add squares of dark chocolate (70% cacao or higher. Sprouts has dark chocolate in bins). When this is melted I use the back of a spoon to spread it across the bars.

Sunday, September 9, 2018


Fall means back to school. For many places it also means state fairs and autumn carnivals. You may see Ferris wheels and bouncy ball pits popping up unexpectedly in parking lots and parks. It’s a great time to explore Mr. Ferris and His Wheel, written by Kathryn Gibbs Davis and illustrated by Gilbert Ford. This non-fiction narrative picture book tells the story of how mechanical engineer, George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., designed the first Ferris Wheel for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

Although this is a picture book primarily for kids ages 6-10, the vocabulary and concepts explored make it worthy of discussion for middle school and high school students as well. High school teachers may even want to contrast Mr. Ferris and His Wheel with the non-fiction thriller, The Devil in White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson. Contrasting the two books with older students provides an opportunity to talk about how different authors may use the same event to explore a topic for very different audiences and very different purposes.

I have been using my story plot analysis called Story Frames, to explore Mr. Ferris and His Wheel for the past couple of weeks with my third, fourth, and fifth grade students. For those of you unfamiliar with Story Frames, the tool I use to talk about story structure, see the description on my blog page entitled, The Secret Language of Stories. Information in bold below represents the key ideas for each section. Young children or children with expressive language challenges may only be able to state these key ideas. Older students may be expected to add more detail as well as transitions between ideas.

Check out the 10- Page VOCABULARY FREEBIE I have created for this book at my Teachers Pay Teachers Store.

It is part of a comprehensive 57-Page book companion also available on TpT entitled STORY FRAMES: NARRATIVE STRUCTURE FOR MR. FERRIS AND HIS WHEEL.

                               PLOT ANALYSIS FOR MR. FERRIS AND HIS WHEEL

The information in bold is the essential information I want my students to be able to discuss in their story retells and their written summaries.

Ordinary World: When George Ferris is a boy he dreams of riding on the water wheel he sees on the Carson River where he frequently goes fishing (see the very first illustration with the quote from Daniel H. Burnham). As an adult, Mr. Ferris works as a mechanical engineer in Pittsburgh designing roads, bridges, and tunnels.

Call & Response: The newspapers announce a nationwide contest for a design for the star attraction for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The judges don’t like any of the drawings. They all look like the Eiffel Tower, the star attraction of the 1889 World’s Fair in France.

Mentors, Guides & Gifts: George's partner, William, helps him create a design for a Monster Wheel. The wheel is inspired by the water wheel of George’s youth along with many other smaller items like bicycle tires.

Crossing: Mr. Ferris takes his drawing to Chicago to show it to the construction chief of the fair.

New World: The construction chief tells Mr. Ferris that his wheel looks flimsy and will collapse. Opening day draws near and there is still no star attraction.

Problem, Prize, & Plan: Ferris finally gets permission to build his Monster Wheel (Prize) but the construction chief won’t give him any money for the materials he needs (Problem). Mr. Ferris goes from bank to bank to ask for a loan (Implied Plan), but they won’t give him money either. He finally uses his own money and the money of some rich investors.

Midpoint Attempt: When George’s crew starts digging, they face two new challenges. The ground is frozen and the shovels break. Underneath the frozen earth they find 20 feet of quicksand.

Downtime Response: Thirty-five feet down, George’s crew finally hits solid ground. They erect the two towers and the axle that serve as the foundation for the wheel.

Chase & Escape: It’s a race to the finish as thousands of parts arrive by train every day. There are 100,000 parts in all and the men work non-stop to complete the Monster Wheel.

Death & Transformation: George’s partner, William, loses hope and wants to give up. He is responsible for the many parts. They finally finish the project and George’s water wheel is transformed into a Monster Wheel that’s 265 feet high.

Climax/Final Attempt: The final test is to see if the wheel will spin. On opening day, 2,000 people watch as George, his wife, and their guests board Car Number One. It’s the size of a living room with 40 velvet seats. The wheel works and news of George’s invention, now called the Queen of the Midway, soon spreads across the country.

Final Reward: George’s wife gives him and golden whistle. The investors decide to give the invention his name and call it the Ferris Wheel. The Chicago World’s Fair, also known as the “White City,” inspires the Emerald City in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as well as Disneyland. Walt Disney’s father was a construction worker at the fair.

Themes: The book explores several important themes including Inspiration and Invention.

  1. INSPIRATION: Inspiration is a thread found throughout this wonderful little story. On the first page, before the book begins, we see an illustration of young George fishing by the water wheel on the Carson River. A drawing of the water wheel is also posted on the wall in his workshop. The illustration of his workshop includes many other items of inspiration such as a bicycle tire and a pencil sharpener. I like to have fun with students searching that page for the many things that inspired the design for the Ferris Wheel. In addition, the bird cage is the inspiration for the first sky scraper. The White City is the inspiration for the Emerald City and Disneyland.
  2. INVENTION: The story is primarily about mechanical inventions, but it opens up discussions around all types of inventions including electric light bulbs, also appearing for the first time at the fair, and food inventions like the hamburger and Cracker Jacks. Cracker Jacks first appeared in 1893 at the Chicago World’s fair while the hamburger made its big debut at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Kids enjoy talking about interesting food inventions. I also like to point out that both George Ferris and Walt Disney had childhood dreams that seemed crazy at the time but later changed the world. I tell students that they might have an idea right now that will one day become a reality.

Sunday, August 5, 2018


I returned from break last spring and shared with my students my exciting trip to Italy to visit my daughter who was studying abroad. I usually just stay home and organize my closets during spring break, and I had never travelled across the ocean, so this was a big deal for me.

One of my students followed up by talking about taking a family trip to Disneyland. Another shared about visiting cousins in Colorado, then a third boy who had been very quiet up until that point shared how his family had gone to Hawaii and then New York City and then Florida. I got the distinct impression that he was confabulating his tale. This was a very low income school after all, and that's a lot of traveling for a one week vacation. But who could blame him? I had set the bar pretty high by describing my Italy trip.

As I'm preparing to return to school, I'm rethinking the typical summer break conversation and reframing it through a story plotting lens in a way that I hope will celebrate every student's summer experience. For a more complete discussion of my story analysis format, visit The Secret Language of Stories page on this blog. For activities based on this structure, visit my Teachers Pay Teachers Page.

The Downtime of a story occurs after the Midpoint where there is major attempt by the hero to solve a problem or attain a prize. The Midpoint is full of action but the Downtime is when the hero must face the consequences of those actions. 

Students are typically good at creating action in their original stories and identifying these high points in the stories of others, but much can be gained from exploring what happens during the quieter moments in a story. These downtimes are when planning, reflection, and internal responses occur –the evidence of higher cognitive processes.

Since we are all returning from summer vacation where we most likely experienced adventure as well as downtime, and since these experiences are fresh on our minds as well as on the minds of our students, instead of giving them the age old assignment of "What did you do over summer vacation?" try this activity: As a class brainstorm two lists: 

Adventure vs. Downtime

1. Have students talk about their summer experiences and categorize these experiences as a group.

2. Discuss what makes one experience an adventure and what makes another experience an example of downtime. Are there any experiences that could be both?

3. Not all adventures involve going on an expensive vacation. Did anyone stay in their Ordinary World and have an adventure without leaving home? 

4. Highlight the importance of quiet times for our personal development, our mental development, and our stories.

5. Be sensitive to the fact that students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds may not have stories to tell about riding in an airplane, going to the beach, of visiting an amusement park. Be sure to honor all experiences. 

6. Talk about examples of Downtime in movies students have seen over the summer.

7. What did I leave out? What are other ways you could explore Downtime with your students?

A Crazy Summer Adventure

If you want to turn this discussion into a writing assignment do the following:

1. Add additional examples of Adventure vs. Downtime to your lists. You may even want to download images from the internet for students who are visual learners.

2. Instruct students to choose one example from the Adventure list and one from the Downtime list.

3. Outline a story that leads to the Adventure and then reflects on the adventure during the Downtime.

4. Write the story and share it with the class.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Plot Tips: Spectacular Sun Rises, Stunning Sun Sets, and the Dry, Hot Middle of the Day

I recently attended an informal writing retreat in the middle of the desert at an abbey with a few of my long-time writing friends. The abbey rents out its facilities for retreats and the accommodations were sparse, but it was also far enough out of town that the mountains didn't block the sunrises or sunsets. It is this very desolation of the dessert that allows for such a beautiful, unobstructed sky.

It got me thinking about stories and how it's fairly easy for me to create a spectacular beginning and/or a stunning ending. It is often my vision of an exciting scene at either the beginning or the ending of a story that inspires me to write the story in the first place. Then there is the despair that happens in the murky middle where I have to invent plot twists just to keep the story slogging along. It's not unlike the dry, hot middle of the day when nothing much seems to be happening and I can barely put one foot in front of the other just to make it to the shade.

The beginning of a story starts out in the main characters (MC) Ordinary World. Then some inciting event and a Call to Adventure turn the MC's world upside down. This is followed by a reaction, typically a Refusal to embark on the Hero's Journey because the danger is just too great. A Mentor shows up to provide advice along with cool Gifts like ruby red slippers or an invisibility cloak. Then the MC Crosses over to the New World where we enter the middle of the story.

The story is still exciting at this point because the MC faces all manner of dangerous and often hilarious attempts to fit in. Soon there is a Problem to be solved or a Prize to be sought and a Plan must be made to achieve it. There is a Midpoint Attempt to solve the problem and/or gain the prize, followed by Downtime Response as the MC reacts to either the success or failure of the attempt.

This structure works quite well for a short story, a picture book, a play, or even a screenplay with a fairly linear plot, but what if you want to write a 300, 400 or 800 page novel? You're going to need more action in the middle.

Going back to the mid section of the story outlined above, there is a Plan, Attempt, Response sequence that may be repeated an infinite number of times. This is why the structure of an epic poem, a narrative picture book, and War and Peace all have a fundamentally similar foundation. The MC makes a Plan and then Attempts to carry it out and Responds emotionally to the success or failure which leads to the creation of a new Plan. Other elements may also be repeated such as Crossing over into additional New Worlds. 

Karen S. Wiesner discusses a similar structure for the middle of a story in First Draft in 30 Days: A Novel Writer's System for Building a Complete and Cohesive Manuscript.

Christopher Vogler explains the Hero's Journey structure in his book, the Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. I discuss how I use a combination of strategies for both writing my novels and teaching writing to children in The Secret Language of Stories.

As for the ending of the story, the Downtime Response is followed by Chase and Escape as the action twists in an unexpected direction. A Death and Transformation occurs either before or during the Climax and the story ends with a Final Reward where the MC gets what he or she deserves which is not always what was desired at the beginning of the story.

To learn more about this structure, check out the books by Christopher Vogler's, Karen Wiesner, and my page on the Secret Language of Stories. Also watch my Teacher Resource section for Teachers Pay Teachers activities using the Hero's Journey coming soon!

Sunday, March 18, 2018


I began a new adventure in December of 2017 as a tele-therapist delivering speech-language services in the public schools. I knew this would be a very new experience for my young students, so for my first session I created a power point where I introduced myself and showed pictures of my home and my family. Then I gave students a virtual tour of my office, showed them my guitar and bookshelf and talked about my hobbies. Next I asked about their hobbies.  One little five year old told me he liked to watch TV TEACHER. It was his favorite show.

At first I didn’t understand. I thought maybe it was a new PBS special or a Netflix original series. Then I realized he was talking about me.

I had just become the TV TEACHER. I thought briefly about explaining the difference between a TV teacher and a speech-language pathologist/ tele-therapist, but I decided to ditch the vocabulary lesson and embrace my new found fame.

I have learned so many things in just the last few weeks, I can tell this will be an amazing journey. Many people have questions about teletherapy. How could it possibly be as good as therapy in person? A recent STUDY looks at student progress and examines the evidence to support tele-therapy in the schools.

I’m sure I will have many interesting stories to tell over the next few months, but here are a few things I’ve learned so far:

1. TRADE THE GLUE STICK FOR LIPSTICK - I never paid much attention to my make-up when I was an on site therapist, especially not my lip stick since I often ate breakfast in the car, but now that I see my face staring back at me on the screen every day, I’ve started keeping lipstick on my desk. Students only see me from the shoulders up, and they are often focused on my mouth, so lipstick comes in handy. Added bonus - I no longer need to stock up on boxes of glue stick.

It did come in handy for my daughter’s wedding last year though. She had created a photo booth for her reception, but the pictures were not sticking to the album. I saved the day because I happened to have glue stick in my pocket. Maybe I should keep one stick handy!

2. SAY YES TO THE DESK - When I created my home office, I treated myself to something I’d been wanting for years - a standing desk. It moves up and down at the touch of a button so I can stand or sit. Alternating my position throughout the day has almost entirely eliminated the aches and pains I suffered from sitting for hours at a time. I ordered my desk through Versa IKEA also has options both manual and electric.

3. STAY CONNECTED- Hardwiring your computer to the internet will provide the best connectivity, but I was not able to do this because my husband also offices at home. His office is at the opposite end of the house and extending the internet cable to my office through the attic would have been difficult and expensive. We tried two different sets of WiFi extenders with poor results. Then someone suggested a whole house mesh. We installed one and it’s been amazing. My husband is so excited he texts me from the garage with the connection speed of 180. On our old system my connectivity was 9 or 10 on a good day. The brand I purchased was Orbi by Netgear. It boasts a >150 Mbps internet speed over a 5,000 square foot range including the yard.

4. HAVE A BACK UP SYSTEM - While I was having issues with our internet, prior to the Orbi, I purchased a Jet Pack from Verizon. It is a device the size of a phone that creates a personal hot spot. It is also password protected, creating a portable firewall for security. It is great for travel but also good when the WiFi goes out.

That’s it for now! Watch for more tips coming soon. Go to my CONTACT page to sign up for my free monthly newsletter.