Friday, August 26, 2022

Teaching Memoir Writing to Kids: An Interview with Author/Educator Lesley Roessing

It's the start of a new school year and teachers are looking for ways to provide authentic and engaging writing experiences for students. With that in mind, I'm circling back to the topic of memoir with an interview and Q&A with Leslie Roessing, M. Ed. Lesley is a featured author in my book, Story Frames for Teaching Literacy: Enhancing Student Learning Through the Power of Storytelling (Brookes Publishing, 2021), and wrote the chapter entitled, “Memoir: Writing Our Lives.” 

She also has a book on the subject called Bridging the Gap: Reading Critically and Writing Meaningfully to Get to the Core. In this exciting resource, she uses memoir and creative nonfiction with reluctant readers and writers to form bridges between reading and writing, fiction and nonfiction, and narrative and informative writing. Lesley has vast experience on the subject. She taught middle school for more than 20 years, served as Founding Director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project, and was a Senior Lecturer at Georgia Southern University.
Carolee: In your chapter in Story Frames as well as in your book, Bridging the Gap, you talk about using memoir as a bridge between narrative and informative writing and even argument writing. What connections do you see between these very different genres, and how do you bridge that gap with students?

See Roessing's chapter entitled
"Memoir: Writing Our Lives."

 Lesley: When I teach or work with teachers, I advocate moving readers and writers from the familiar to the less familiar, moving from narrative to informative to argument in reading and writing. When we think of narrative writing, we think of fiction. Humans have always been storytellers (“Once upon a time…”). Young readers usually begin with reading stories and writing stories. And, therefore, that was how I began my teaching year—with reading and writing stories.
I found the jump to informational reading and writing presented too wide a gap. Students see that mode as completely different from the narrative mode that is more familiar, and many teachers teach fiction and nonfiction reading and narrative and informative writing in completely different ways.
I realized that memoir, as narrative nonfiction, contained elements of, and used strategies for, both narrative and informational and could be employed to bridge that gap. Memoir, as creative or narrative nonfiction, is that perfect bridge between the two modes. Students read information and facts about others through narrative structure as they write information and facts about themselves through narrative structure, meeting both State Standards in Literature and in Informational Texts and in Narrative Writing and in Informative/Explanatory Writing.
Memoir writing can also lead to more effective opinion and argument writing. Through writing memoir, writers discover and uncover their own passions and convictions, leading them to choose more effective argument topics; readers are introduced to the roots of the passions and convictions of others as they read memoirs.
Carolee:  You have observed that writing memoir helps students close the achievement gap because they are able to activate prior knowledge which improves success. You say that memoir essentially “levels the playing field.” How have you seen students transfer success with memoir writing to writing where they may not have as much background knowledge?
Lesley: Because memoir writing is personal and writers are sharing their stories, in all my classes and in classes where I facilitated a memoir writing unit, I have found that students want to do their best writing when writing memoirs. This was one unit where all these students participated and wrote (which is why I decided to write Bridging the Gap). Therefore, writing focus lessons have more meaning and students are more willing to employ lessons in their writing. Also, this is a unit where I encouraged students to take risks in their writing (with no chance of penalty for a “failure”), so they were more willing to try new strategies. This transferred to their writings in all modes for the remainder of the year and led to better writing.
It is true that writers have all the background knowledge needed to write memoir, but to make their memoirs better or to expand their memoir writing, they were taught to employ “research” strategies, such as experiential research (researching their memories and learning how to include what they experienced effectively in their writing). Even though memoir is writing about experiences as the memoirist remembers, there can be some interviewing people from the past for some details and writers learned research techniques. And last, memoirists were encouraged to utilize Google Earth and Maps to aid memory of places as well as artifacts and texts, such as pictures and news articles. In these ways, they are amassing research strategies they can employ in informative and argument writing and which can provide background knowledge.
Carolee: You use mentor texts as exemplars for good memoir writing. What are some of your favorite mentor texts to use with students?

 Lesley: My favorite mentor texts vary with the writing format I am teaching—poetry, prose, graphics, and audio memoirs, but, for memoir in general, I love Patricia Polacco’s memoir picture books and Cynthia Rylant’s picture books and her poetry book. In my book on memoir reading and writing, Bridging the Gap: Reading Critically and Writing Meaningfully to Get to the Core, I include mentor texts in each chapter. I have updated some of the oral or audio memoirs that I included. I love Jerry Seinfield’s Halloween which is available on YouTube and also was published as a picture book. Another favorite for older students is Carmen Agra Deedy's TED Talk "Spinning a Story of Mama" which I had the opportunity to see her present in person.
In April 2020 I wrote a guest blog for YA Wednesday, “Memoirs for Reading and Writing,” that reviewed full-length Upper Elementary, Middle Grades, and Young Adult memoirs but also included collections of short memoirs appropriate for different ages:
Carolee: Do you have any final tips for teachers who want to use memoir writing with struggling students?
Lesley: My best tip for teachers working with struggling or reluctant writers is to spend more time on brainstorming and prewriting. In Bridging the Gap I provide brainstorming forms for all the writings because the more brainstorming ideas and prewriting strategies (such as organizing ideas, adding details, using the senses, etc) writers employ, and the more time spent on prewriting, the easier, and better, the writing. Donald M. Murray wrote that “few teachers have ever allowed adequate time for prewriting, that essential stage in the writing process which precedes a completed first draft.” (“Write Before Writing” College Composition and Communication, Vol. 29, No. 4 (Dec., 1978), pp. 375-381, National Council of Teachers of English.
Carolee: Thank you so much for being with us today and for your invaluable insights.
Be sure to check out Lesley’s chapter in Story Frames for Teaching Literacy as well as her most recent book, Talking Texts: A Teacher’s Guide to Book Clubs Across the Curriculum.

To explore the contrast between memoir and autobiography, see my blog post from earlier in April about Memoir Vs. Autobiography: All Our Stories Matter. For a list of books written by children’s authors about their personal life experiences, go to the end of my teacher’s guide on
Activities for Using Watercress with Older Students. The guide includes several writing activities linked to the Common Core for grades 3-8 based on autobiographical stories.

To revisit posts from other Story Frames authors, go to:

Amy Miller and Superhero Stories

The Family Story: Interview with Parent Advocate Mary Jo O'Neill.

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Friday, August 19, 2022

It's My Whole Life - Q&A with Author Susan Wider

I'm excited to announce a wonderful new young adult biography just released this month by debut author, Susan Wider, It's My Whole Life: Charlotte Salomon: An Artist in Hiding During World War 2. It's the true story of a young Jewish artist who created a series of over a thousand paintings to document her experiences while she was hiding from the Nazis. It has been compared to The Diary of Anne Frank in pictures. 

This summer my blog has focused on Tips for Connecting Books for Summer Fun, but as I look back through my list, I realize that I left of exploring art through visiting museums and learning new skills like painting, drawing, or learning an instrument. That's all right. Susan's book has given me inspiration for my next summer series in 2023.

In the meantime, Susan was gracious enough to answer some questions about her book.

: In your author’s note you mention that you first became aware of Charlotte when another artist, Maira Kalman, shared in an interview about how Charlotte influenced her work? How has Charlotte influenced your work?
: When the Nazi invasion of the south of France became inevitable, Charlotte described her need to “vanish for a while from the human plane and make every sacrifice in order to create.” With Charlotte’s words in my head, I find it easier to close out the world—as politely as possible—and disappear into my writing
: What inspired you to write a book about her?
: When I realized that there were no books about Charlotte for young readers—apart from one Italian graphic novel-style biography—I wanted to write about her for teen readers. Charlotte deals with an avalanche of difficulties, from psychological abuse to family suicides to racism to genocide to living as a refugee, all issues that many teens face today.
: Your original manuscript for this book included three artists. Who were the other two? 
: As I was researching Charlotte’s story, I came across two other creative young women—among many hundreds of thousands—whose lives and talents were severely disrupted by World War II. In the initial manuscript I braided the stories of Charlotte Salomon, Helga Weiss, and Zdena Berger because their creative output was influenced by pre-concentration camp years (Charlotte); time inside a concentration camp (Helga); and post-war reflection on surviving four camps (Zdena).

Carolee: Those are three very interesting perspectives. How did you decide to focus on Charlotte? 

Susan: When my agent sent that manuscript to various publishers, they all felt that each woman deserved her own book. Back to the drawing board and my agent suggested I start with Charlotte.
: What is one thing you hope young readers take away from Charlotte’s story?
: In spite of everything she was up against—Grandfather, her stepmother, a family history of suicide, Adolf Hitler—Charlotte was able to find her voice in art and writing “with the feeling I had something I would be able to say to humanity.” I hope she inspires young readers to search for their own forms of self-expression, even in dark times.

Carolee: I was certainly inspired by her story when I read it. Art is what gave beauty and purpose to her life during a time that could have otherwise been unbearable. Thanks so much for sharing her story!

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Friday, August 12, 2022

STEM to STEAM: The Collaboration Between Art and Science

In June we explored the connection between cooking and science with the book Science Experiments You Can Eat. Then in early August, we looked at the link between science and fairy tales with the book, Fairy Tale Science: Explore 25 Classic Tales Through Hands-On Experiments. This week we are going a little deeper into the connection between art and science.

I have personal experience on this topic. After completing my bachelor's degree in music therapy, one of the first clients I worked with was a man with a traumatic brain injury who had lost the ability to speak but could still sing. It was my first real introduction into the complexities and wonders of the human brain.

Since achieving my master's degree in communicative disorders and becoming a speech-language pathologist, I have often created songs to help my students remember concepts that they found challenging. 

Einstein played the violin for inspiration. I keep him close to my work desk for a little inspiration of my own. Einstein once said, “If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music." He also said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge."

The world is filled with people who work as doctors, inventors, or scientists who could have just as easily become professional artists. Dow Phumiruk, is the illustrator of Counting on Katherine and a host of other children's books. She is also a doctor. Her understanding of science informs many of her illustrations.

We have all experienced how beautiful places affect our mood, but they also affect our mind and body. My daughter is currently studying interior design and recently shared with me how specialized decorators use Evidence-Based Design to help create healthcare settings that reduce infections as well as stress for both patients and staff. These creative spaces also promote healing.

In 2010, The Rhode Island School of Design - RISD began advocating for the addition of creativity into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education, effectively turning it into STEAM. Since then they have engaged in several exciting projects such as helping to create a better space simulation suit with funding from HIGH SEAS and a NASA Rhode Island Space Grant. Apparel design students are also helping NASA create clothing for a 2025 30-day mission to the moon called Artemis. The RISD Co-Works Research Lab provides tutoring, coursework, technology, and other resources for students and faculty from a variety of disciplines to promote interdisciplinary innovation.

Throughout the month of September, Lerner Books is offering free videos and lesson plans for STEM/STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics). Find out how to sign up HERE. They have a lengthy list of books covering STEM topics. They also have an informative blog post on the topic of STEM to STEAM: Why Arts Belong in the Sciences where they highlight several well-known scientists that were also accomplished musicians and/or used the arts for inspiration. 

Another Tip for Summer Fun is to learn an instrument or visit creative spaces like art museums. On that note, watch for my interview coming up soon with author, Susan Wider, about her debut middle-grade novel, It’s My Whole Life: Charlotte Salomon - An Artist in Hiding During World War II.

Thanks for stopping by my blog. Sign up for my newsletter HERE to keep up with news and free offers and you will receive the free writing template for Travel Trouble sent directly to your email address.

Monday, August 1, 2022

Exploring Science Through Fairy Tales

 A few weeks ago, Kristen Wilkinson wrote a post about Science Experiments for the Kitchen. On that same theme of discovering science in unexpected places, this week I'm reviewing Fairy Tale Science: Explore 25 Classic Tales Through Hands-On Experiments written by Sarah Albee and illustrated by Bill Robinson.

We've been talking a lot this summer about connecting books to summer fun, mostly by exploring hands-on activities like cooking, gardening, creating inventions, and visiting animal habitats and national parks, but it's also a time to rest, relax, watch movies and revisit Disney videos like Mulan and Tangled (aka: Rapunzel). These movies help kids internalize the structure of stories, but they do much more than that. 

One of my favorite quotes is from the epigraph of Neil Gaiman's book, Coraline. He paraphrased it from G.K. Chesterton. "Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten." 

I have this quote hanging in my house. Fairy tales teach us that although there are many things in this world to fear, we can overcome them with courage, bravery, and truth. Stories like Mulan can even give us a slice of history. The story comes from a poem from the sixth century about a girl who takes her father's place to join the Khan's army. Though no one knows for sure if Hua Mulan was a real person, it is well-documented that there were warrior women in China, Central Asia, and Greece around the time that the story takes place. 

In Fairy Tale Science, author, Sarah Albee, provides a brief summary and background information about each fairy tale and then makes a scientific connection. For Mulan, Albee discusses archery and provides a simple method to determine if it is more effective to close one eye or keep both eyes open when aiming at a target. Relax, you don't have to purchase an actual bow and arrow for this experiment. Two pencils, a paper cup, and some coins are all you need to teach your child about depth perception and stereopsis. By the way, the book is full of practical ways to learn academic vocabulary as well as science concepts and there is a fantastic glossary of terms at the back.

Can hair actually support a handsome young man's body weight? Watch Tangled or read Rapunzel and then find out how the protein chains in hair create tensile strength that is even more durable than the same amount of cast iron. Learn about parallel load-bearing and why braiding increases the strength of the strands. You won't actually be lifting a handsome prince in this experiment, just some pennies or marbles, but the concept is the same.

After watching Cinderella, you may want to experiment with whether or not a pumpkin is more aerodynamic than a zucchini or a cucumber. Then you can broaden your perspective even more by comparing the movie to one of the many versions of the story from another culture such as Adelita: A Mexican Cinderella Story by Tomie dePaola or The Rough-Face Girl written by Rafe Martin and illustrated by David Shannon. That final suggestion comes from my book, Story Frames for Teaching Literacy: Enhancing Student Learning Through the Power of Storytelling

The point is that Fairy Tales are a fun way to expand your world knowledge. Even spending a day binge-watching movies can lead to meaningful learning experiences.