Monday, September 15, 2014

September Memories by Danette Vigilante

As a kid of the 70’s, one of the biggest and best highlights of my Septembers were the premieres of new television shows. Back then my days were simple: homework, play outside until mom called me home for dinner (“DA-nette, DA-nette” echoing throughout the entire neighborhood), bath time, and then television until it was time to go to sleep (after going to ‘sleep’ I read beneath my covers way past my bed time).

There was something comforting about how our living room glowed by the blue light of the television set. Even today the theme songs of Mash, The Odd Couple, What’s Happening, Welcome Back Kotter and many others make me feel warm and cozy! 

"Because of Sinclair" - September Theme (Blank Slate) by Bob Krech

Having been a teacher for many years I can relate to earlier posts about how September is that time of clean slates for both students and teachers. Those thoughts brought me right back to my second year of teaching.

I was teaching third grade for the first time in a school that was new to me. I received my room key and my class list and made my way to the second floor of a great old school building. It was a 1930's classic with hardwood floors, high ceilings, and huge windows. My list had 24 boys and girls. One of the veteran teachers on the floor poked her head in. "Do you have your list? Let me take a look."

I handed her the list and she began ticking off the names "Marie. She's sweet. David. Oh, he's nice. He's quiet, but very smart. Tania. She's a bit of a hand full." On and on till she stopped in the middle of the list. "Oh. You have Sinclair. He's just bad. Don't turn your back on that one. He hit a teacher last year!" She shook her head and went on.

As we set up our rooms that day I met another teacher who asked to see my list. I asked her about Sinclair. She was hesitant. "He has a twin brother, Otis. Otis is the nice one. But Sinclair was in a lot of trouble last year." Her mouth turned down. "Then again his father died."

That night I planned my first day. Though I was still a new teacher I knew the beginning would be important. Especially for Sinclair.

Sinclair showed up the first day pimp rolling into the room. Head shaven. Collar of his jacket up. He found his name on a desk and threw himself down in the chair. He stared at the floor. No hello. Not even a glance at me.

I was going to try something I had read about, thought about, but in only my second year, had never yet tried. I asked everyone to come up and take a seat on the carpet. "Okay. Three things I want to do to start us off. One - let's get to know each other." To do that we played a fun memory game that allowed us all to learn each others' names. Sinclair mumbled his name and did not really participate except to smirk to another boy. When I asked him a direct question he just shrugged and looked down.

After the name game, I said, "Two. I have a question for you. Why are we here?" This simple question lead to a great discussion about what their expectations were and what mine were. They were very engaged and visibly surprised. I don't think anyone had ever asked them the question before, but it helped us clarify what the real goals of our year would be and what our beliefs about school were. Sinclair studied his sneakers the whole time, picking at the frayed laces. He never once looked up. When I asked if he wanted to add anything, he shrugged to the floor.

And finally, I made the speech I probably wouldn't have, except for Sinclair. I lowered my voice. "Three. I want you all to know something. Everyone here this year starts with a clean slate."

I said the next words slowly and with emphasis, "I-do-not-care what-you-did-last-year." Sinclair finally looked up. I met his eyes. They actually, visibly widened. I continued locked in, "I don't care if it was great or terrible. I don't care if you got all A's or all F's. It doesn't matter to me what you did on the playground, or in the classroom, or even at home. It means nothing to me."

I paused again. I drew an empty rectangle on the board and wrote under it, "Clean Slate." I turned back to the group. "Your year with me starts today. Right now. This is when we begin." I stopped. "There is no limit to how good we can make this year."

Believe it or not, as hokey as that all sounds, Sinclair really heard those words. He apparently needed to hear those words. I was just lucky I sensed it.

Sinclair turned out to be a fun, intelligent, loyal, trustworthy child. He had his incidents on the playground and could get stubborn and angry, but he always kept it together. He seized his second chance. His blank slate.

Because of Sinclair, every September for the rest of my teaching career, I drew that empty rectangle on the board and talked very deliberately about the clean slate.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

“Middleview” Interview with Debut Author Edith Cohn

Posted by Tamera Wissinger

Today, Edith Cohn is joining Smack Dab In The Middle Blog for a guest “middleview” interview. Edith’s debut middle grade novel SPIRIT’S KEY, FSG/Macmillan released on 09/09/2014! Congratulations, Edith!

Here is a bit about Edith:

Photo by:
Rita Crayon Huang
Edith Cohn was born and raised in North Carolina where she grew up exploring the unique beaches of the Outer Banks. She currently lives in the coyote-filled hills of Los Angeles with her husband and fur-daughter Leia. All of these things provided inspiration for her debut middle grade novel, SPIRIT’S KEY, a mystery about a girl and her ghost dog coming soon from FSG/Macmillan.

Here’s a description of SPIRIT’S KEY:

By now, twelve-year-old Spirit Holden should have inherited the family gift: the ability to see the future. But when she holds a house key in her hand like her dad does to read its owner’s destiny, she can’t see anything. Maybe it’s because she can’t get over the loss of her beloved dog, Sky, who died mysteriously. Sky was Spirit’s loyal companion, one of the wild dogs that the local islanders believe possess dangerous spirits. As more dogs start dying and people become sick, too, almost everyone is convinced that these dogs and their spirits are to blame—except for Spirit. Then Sky’s ghost appears, and Spirit is shaken. But his help may be the key to unlocking her new power and finding the cause of the mysterious illness before it’s too late.

Here are the links to Edith online: Website, Goodreads, Twitter, Facebook

Now it’s time to hear from our guest:

Smack Dab Middleview with SPIRIT’S KEY author Edith Cohn
1. In a nutshell, what does Spirit want?
Spirit wants to be with her dog Sky--running up and down the sand dunes or swimming in the ocean together.

2. What is in her way? 

3. Did you know right away that this was your story, or did you discover it as you wrote? How did the story evolve? 
I knew I wanted to write a story about a kid and a ghost dog. But at first I thought the main character would be a boy and that he'd live in a city with his dog who'd be hit by a car. And I had what I thought was a separate book idea about a girl and a dead body washed ashore on the beach. It was only when I realized that the body was a dog that the two stories came together to become the mystery of twelve-year-old Spirit, a psychic girl, and the ghost of her pet dog, Sky.

4. Was SPIRIT'S KEY always for middle grade readers or not? If so, why did you choose middle grade? If not, what had to change for it to be considered a middle grade novel? 

Yes. I always knew this was a middle grade novel. My previous (unpublished) novels were all young adult, but I knew this idea was best suited for middle graders. The only problem was that I was terrified to try to write it. All my favorite books were middle grade and I felt the bar was higher than I could reach. Books like The Giver, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Secret Garden, The Mixes Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Lord of the Flies--holy cow middle grade books are amazing, you know? So I held on to the idea for a year and a half before I figured out how to start writing it. I had to tell myself no one would see it. I whispered to my laptop that it would be our little secret.
5. What is the best part of writing for middle grade readers? 
So far the best part is getting to read lots of middle grade novels and call it "work" or "research." And I look forward to connecting with kids directly again. I used to teach 7th grade, but it's been awhile since I've been in a classroom. It'll be nice to do school visits, to teach writing and talk about books.

Thanks for joining us at Smack Dab in the Middle Blog, Edith. Again, congratulations on the release of SPIRIT’S KEY!

Friday, September 12, 2014

September Memories

There was always a ritual for Back to School. My sister and I looked forward to it at the end of August.  By now, summer had worn thin; we were bored and anxious to get back to school to see our friends. And, we wanted new clothes to start the school year.
 Every September 2nd, Mom, my sister and I headed to the local shopping center - there were no indoor malls near us - for our Back-To-School outfits.  We always got three new dresses. (In those days, girls didn't wear pants to school.)  Why three?  One for each day of the first week of school - Wednesday, Thursday, Friday of Labor Day week.  It was an all day adventure, making the most of a taxi ride since neither of my parents drove or had a car.

We'd try on dozens of dresses as Mom waited patiently, until we settled on just the right ones.  Then it was on to shoe shopping, again trying on endless pairs until the perfect shoes were found.  Once we had them, we'd get new socks and underwear to go with it all.  Depending on the fashion of the time, we'd also get hairbands, barrettes, or bows  to enhance our new "dos".  We'd get haircuts or perms, to match the whims of style.    
Then it was on to school supplies.  Brand new notebooks, loose leaf binders, pencils, pens, rulers, crayons and construction paper.  I took almost as much care selecting these mundane items.  To me, the sight and smell of fresh paper and newly sharpened pencils was anything but mundane.  It meant a new beginning, a fresh start to try something different.

We'd be exhausted after the long day of shopping.  We'd pick up an order of Chicken Chop Suey from the Chinese restaurant before getting the cab back home.

Laying everything out on the bed when we got home filled me with pride and satisfaction.  With new outfits - lovingly chosen - and fresh supplies stacked and ready, I could conquer the world.  At least the K-8 world!

Do today's kids get that same feeling about back to school shopping?  Dressing up in your best clothes, the pride of having your own "gear" and feeling a sense of anticipation?  I still get "goose-bumpy" when I see those Back-To-School displays.  With my own children grown and out on their own, I've had to channel my enthusiasm in a positive direction. So, every year, I load up on notebooks, pencils and all the goodies. Only now, I fill up two backpacks and donate them to OPERATION BACKPACK to give other children a chance to feel that special feeling.  Everyone should have the thrill of a "fresh start" and a new beginning. 

Happy September.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

September Theme Post from Jody Feldman

Thoughts and Things from Then

Still vivid in my memory, there are balsa-wood airplanes and Sunday quarters and fall-apart brisket and fried chicken and lemon meringue pies and other trademarks of my grandparents. These are the things stories are made of. Bus excursions to mid-week movies, waffles from scratch, leather factory smells, hands calloused by the strings that used to bind newspapers into tight rolls.

We all have so many personal details burnt into our memories, but the times they come alive for us is when we can also recall the facial expressions, the tone of voice, the emotions behind them. And only then can we begin to make our readers feel what we did once upon a time.

How can one write a blog post on "Remembering" -- on September 11 -- without a heartfelt mention of those who lost friends and family and to those who showed unparalleled bravery and compassion. I can't even imagine your difficult memories. I wish you millions of beautiful ones to stand to their side or

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

By Marcia Thornton Jones

I like what Kentucky author Jim Shields says in his book of poetry, KNOTHOLE REFLECTIONS ON LIFE’S PARADE. “Perhaps life can best be described as simply a series of snapshots strung together with time. The old adage ‘Watching a parade through a knothole in the fence’ seems so appropriate to describe our ability to observe and reflect upon the unfolding experiences of our lives in contiguous, single frames.”

I don’t know about the rest of you, but my personal ‘snapshots’ backlit with intense emotion are always the most vivid, and using them as springboards for writing helps me emotionally connect to character and story. If I don’t have a personal memory that fits my story, I find that peeking through the knothole at my parade of memories until I find one with the same emotion one of my characters is experiencing enables me to write scenes with more authenticity and immediacy. And, in some small way, using those memories makes them more meaningful—as if the experience was necessary for a bigger purpose that I just wasn’t ready to understand at the time.

Why not give it a try? The next time you find your scene a bit awkward and stilted, peek through the knothole at your own personal parade of memories. Find one with the same emotional heft and describe—not the actual memory—but what it felt like. Then find emotional connection to your story by transferring your freewriting to one of your characters.

By Jim Shields

Commotion in the kitchen
And the slamming of a door,
Noisy footsteps down the hallway
Precious sounds I hear no more.

Those countless interruptions
Interfering with my day,
Memories in books and boxes…
All grown up and gone away.

(Quote, poem text, and photographs printed with permission of the author.)

Sunday, September 7, 2014

A Blank Slate (September Theme)

by Naomi Kinsman

Every September, even now, I feel possibilities opening up, thrilling and clean and new. It as though a brisk wind sweeps through my life, blowing away the clutter and sharpening my focus. I always feel the urge to learn something new, to try a new approach to my life and projects, to see something familiar with new perspective.

I'm sure this feeling is thanks to a collection of teachers who started out each school year with fresh ideas and new ways of doing math and science and reading and class community. I love it. I love the idea that no matter how old I grow, I can always see my life with fresh eyes.

This fall, for instance, I'm diving in deep on the topic of drawing. While I've always dabbled, I'm being intentional about making time to work on drawing skills each day. Every morning when I wake up, I feel a little jolt of excitement, knowing that today, I'll learn something to make me a better artist than I was yesterday.

I'm also trying some new habits with my time. I've been starting out each day by writing out my three top priorities for the day in a journal. I leave space to write how long I spend on each, and then write down what I'll do for a rest after finishing each. For instance, after I finish my first priority, writing a chapter of my novel, then I might get to have a latte, or read a poem, or draw a quick sketch. I like the flow this gives to my days, and love that I can look back from day to day to see how long I've spent on projects, and my general progress. While I continue to use my computer to-do list, this daily planning focuses my attention and helps me to truly address my top priorities. Writing it on paper feels more permanent, like a physical contract I'm making with myself. I also have a weekly list I print on Monday. It has stars I can fill in when I address each of my top areas of focus. This way, I can make sure I address my key responsibilities each week, even if only briefly.

And just like that, my work feels new, and my days feel full of possibility. I know I could do this kind of life make-over in any month, but it's not surprising that September feels like the right time for a fresh start.

Friday, September 5, 2014

I Remember September by Deborah Lytton

Some people mark a new year on January 1, others like to use their birthdays as a jumping off place.  For students from kindergarten to college, September is the beginning of school.  And since I am an eternal student, I still consider September the start of my year.  At the close of summer, I take time to evaluate my goals from the past year, to see what I have accomplished, and where I can use improvement.  Then I consider the goals I am setting for myself going forward.  My daughters sign up for new activities in the fall, and many times, they are moving up a level because of their achievements the past year.  In a likewise fashion, I challenge myself to step up.  I set new writing deadlines and push myself to reach deeper in my stories, to find the inner truth that longs to be revealed.  I make promises to myself about publicity and reaching out to other writers more.  And I always set up a new exercise plan, something that will inspire me and allow me to free up my imagination to create.  But mostly, I breathe in the scent of fall, with the warm memories of summer still lingering in the air and the promise of the holidays on the horizon--and it fills me with excitement and hope.  So even though I love the weather in summer, the flowers blooming in the spring and the coziness of winter, it is fall that holds my heart.  Do you have a favorite season?  When do you like to set goals for yourself?