Friday, June 19, 2015

Q & A Friday: How to Teach Poetry to Kids

Hi, everyone, and welcome back to Q&A Friday here on the blog! 

So, what is Q&A Friday? Often I get emailed questions about writing, teaching, editing, book recommendations, and general questions about the literary life, and I was thinking that other people might be interested in these questions, too! Q&A Friday is where I will answer one of these questions every other week or so. I hope you find it to be helpful and inspiring! 

 If you have a question, please feel free to email it to me at dallaswoodburn gmail com with "Q&A Friday" in the subject line. Also, if you have thoughts to add to my answers, I would LOVE if you would share your ideas in the comments section below! My aim for this blog is for it to be a positive resource and community-builder for readers, writers, teachers, and book-lovers of all ages! 

Question: I love reading and writing poetry myself, and I have an opportunity coming up to teach a group of kids. I would love to teach a brief lesson about poetry and maybe even write some poetry together, but I have no idea where to start. Do you have any experience teaching poetry to kids? If so, can you suggest any activities that work well?

What a worthy endeavor! Yes, I definitely teach poetry to kids. In my experience, most kids seem to really enjoy reading and writing poetry. One thing I've noticed is that many young kids believe all poetry needs to rhyme, which can be very restrictive when trying to write a poem. So, one of my goals as their teacher is to try to broaden their view of what poetry is and can be. 

Here is a website that I like with different viewpoints from kids of what poetry is: (Note: in the group shots it is hard to read the posters, but if you scroll down a bit you get to singular shots, and some have translations of the kids' handwritten words typed out below the photograph.) 

Perhaps a simple activity you might start with is asking the kids what they think poetry is, and on the board you could brainstorm a list of their responses. In this way, you create a "poetry collage" together! I would encourage you to format this lesson as a discussion among everyone. Instead of telling them what poetry is (or telling them that poetry does not have to rhyme, for example) ask them questions and share examples of different types and styles of poetry. 

Another fun activity would be to write a poem together as a group, or help the kids write their own poems individually. An easy poem that works well for beginning poets is an "I love you" poem. It is basically a series of "I love you more than..." statements, using descriptive language or metaphor, addressed to a person, place or thing. 

When I was in elementary school, I wrote a poem like this for my grandfather "Gramps" which is included in my collection of short stories and poems, There's a Huge Pimple On My Nose:

Dear Gramps,
I love you more than a boxer puppy loves his bark.
I love you more than a loaf of yummy cinnamon bread loves to bake.
I love you more than a gardener loves his red, red rose.
I love you with my whole little-girl heart.
Love, Dallas

Below is a template you could use to help kids come up with their own "I love you" poems:

Think of a person you want to write a poem to. This might be your mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, aunt, uncle, brother, sister, or friend. 

Brainstorm a list of things you like to do with this person. Try to be as SPECIFIC as possible! For example, in “My Monday Guy” the author describes baking “yummy cinnamon bread.” 
 1) _____________________________________________________________ 
 2) _____________________________________________________________ 
 3) _____________________________________________________________ 
 4) _____________________________________________________________ 
 5) _____________________________________________________________ 

Now, brainstorm a list of SPECIFIC things this person likes or that you associate with this person. For example, in “My Monday Guy” the author describes “a boxer puppy” and a gardener’s “red rose.” 
1) _____________________________________________________________ 
2) _____________________________________________________________ 
3) _____________________________________________________________ 
4) _____________________________________________________________ 
5) _____________________________________________________________ 

Go back and read through both your lists. Draw stars next to your favorite four or five items you brainstormed. Now it’s time to weave your ideas together into a poem! 

Title: ______________________________________________ 
Dear _______________________________________________,  
I love you more than ______________________________________________ 
I love you more than ______________________________________________  
I love you more than ______________________________________________  
I love you with my _________________________________________________  
Love, ______________________________________________

Good luck, and have fun! If you liked this poem and activity, you might want to check out my children's book There's a Huge Pimple On My Nose and accompanying Teacher's Guide!

Previous "Q & A Friday" posts:
- How to manage class time as a writing teacher
- How to build a platform as a freelance writer

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

We Are All "Creative People"

Occasionally when I tell someone that I am a fiction writer, a stunned expression crosses their face -- as if I confessed that my day job is being a Superhero.

"Oh, I could never do that," they say. "I could never make up stories out of thin air. I'm not that creative."

However, if there's one thing I've learned from teaching writing to people of all ages for the past eight years, it's that everyone is indeed creative. Some of us just might have more trouble accessing our creative selves. And others might not recognize their own creativity, even if they use it all the time.

We all possess imagination; we all solve problems; we all daydream. Sure, the problems I solve at work often revolve around fictional characters in made-up situations. But I don't think there is much difference between a fictional character's problem (for example, trying to solve a crime before the murderer strikes again!) and a real-life workplace problem (such as trying to put together a business strategy the client will love, in time for a big meeting with the team.) I think we use the same problem-solving, creative muscles to do both tasks. I guess a main difference is that as a fiction writer, I create both the problems AND the solutions! (And believe me, sometimes I manage to create real doozies for myself and then have to try to wrangle my characters free...) ;)

A real-life problem I am trying to fight is these boxes many people drop down around themselves, labeled as "not creative." It makes my heart ache every time someone tells me they could never be a writer, because they are "not creative enough." It's not true! Don't believe it!

This is a serious matter. Because to accept that limiting, false belief -- to hunker down into that "non-creative" box -- is to turn away from your inherent gifts as a human being.

In his ground-breaking book Genership 1.0: Beyond Leadership Toward Liberating the Creative Soul, leadership guru and business expert David Castro approaches creativity and leadership in an entirely new way. He transforms the way we think of organizations, communities, and "progress" in general. He writes:

"What if our most critical human goal, the most fundamental human activity, is not to know or to understand, but rather to create, to generate? What would it mean if at the heart of human nature we discovered not reason, not rationality, not the capacity to grasp the world in the mind, but rather the capacity to imagine and invent that world?"
(pg. 3)

In Genership 1.0, David Castro explores exciting, freeing new definitions of leadership in the 21st Century. He coins a new term -- "genership" -- defined as: "The capacity to create with others; the community practice of creating." What would this approach mean for our businesses? Our schools? Our politics? He guides the reader into a new way of thinking about leadership that transcends limitations.

To me, this book is not only about being a leader in a business sense; it applies to our personal lives too. It inspires you to reflect on how you see yourself and how you live your everyday life. Here are some questions I jotted down:

  • What world do I want to create and invent? 
  • How can I take the steps to get there?
  • What does it mean to come together and lead as a team?
  • What can I generate, for myself and for others? 

I want to close with a poem that Castro quotes in his Preface, from Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and
try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms
and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue.
Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you
because you would not be able to live them. And the
point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.
Perhaps you will find them gradually, without noticing it,
and live along some distant day into the answer.

Maybe leadership -- or knowledge, or adulthood, or teaching -- is not about "having all the answers" but rather about helping others to learn to embrace life's uncertainties. Maybe true wisdom means cultivating an insatiable curiosity.

Here's to living the questions.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Q & A Friday: How to Build a Platform as a Freelance Writer

Hi, everyone, and welcome back to Q&A Friday here on the blog!

So, what is Q&A Friday? Often I get emailed questions about writing, teaching, editing, book recommendations, and general questions about the literary life, and I was thinking that other people might be interested in these questions, too! Q&A Friday is where I will answer one of these questions every other week or so. I hope you find it to be helpful and inspiring!

If you have a question, please feel free to email it to me at dallaswoodburn <AT> gmail <DOT> com with "Q&A Friday" in the subject line. Also, if you have thoughts to add to my answers, I would LOVE if you would share your ideas in the comments section below! My aim for this blog is for it to be a positive resource and community-builder for readers, writers, teachers, and book-lovers of all ages!

Question: I'm just starting out as a freelance writer and want to expand my areas of expertise, and also build my platform... but I have no clue where or how to start! It's overwhelming. Do you have any suggestions?

My Answer: Yes, I have been there and I know it can feel totally overwhelming! My biggest advice is to try to pick one small thing to do a day relating to building your platform... maybe that means doing some online research of markets you can send your work to; or reading and taking notes on a writing newsletter; or writing an article or blog post; or even starting a page on Twitter or Facebook for your writing career.

Here are some places to start that have been helpful resources for me:

  • One newsletter that I subscribe to that I love is Funds For Writers. It's free, comes out frequently, and lists a variety of publication opportunities and contests for that time frame. I like that it's manageable; if I happen to be really busy and "miss" looking at an issue, I can just move along the next one and boom! I'm up to date again. 
  • Chicken Soup for the Soul is always looking for stories for their upcoming titles, with a variety of themes and topics. They list their upcoming topics and guidelines on their website. Note: there is definitely a specific Chicken Soup for the Soul "type" of story they are looking for... basically, it should be first-person, a true story, and about an event or a person that shaped your life in some way, made you think, made you better, gave you a new appreciation, etc. I would definitely recommend reading a few of the books before you submit. They pay $200 and 10 copies of the book. 
  • Another strategy that has worked for me to build my platform is to reach out to bloggers I admire and offer to write a guest post for them for free. It's a great way to build connections and expand your exposure. 
I hope this is helpful. If anyone has some additional resources to add to the list, please add them to the comments below!

The most important thing I have found when it comes to freelance writing -- and writing in general-- is to keep your spirits up, stay motivated, and believe in yourself. Perseverance is the name of the game. Remember that every "no" is one step closer to a "yes." Little by little, big things happen!

Previous Q&A Friday posts:

- How do you manage class time when teaching creative writing?

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Interview with Writer & Filmmaker Marjory E. Leposky

Tell us about your various writing projects. What inspires you? 

To date I have written two feature films: Reasons? and Getting To The Game; two TV pilots, Gables and Who's Jared; one short film, La Fuente (The Fountain); and one animation script/children's book about a cat named Mr. Grumbles. Reasons?, Getting To The Game, and Gables -- the first three -- were written from anger over what was going on in my life and my world at the time. Who's Jared, La Fuente (The Fountain), and Mr. Grumbles were written a few years later, inspired by ideas that came to me and events that happened to me. For me personally, it is a lot easier to research and write from anger than from inspiration.

What made you want to become a writer? 

My parents are non-fiction writers. I never really had plans to become a writer, too. I'm really a filmmaker. I've been told that if I want to move up in my career, I should write my own projects -- but no one explained what went into getting them made: finding an agent or publisher, and raising the necessary funds. So I have had to learn all that myself.

Can you give us a peek into your writing schedule?  

I have not written a script in the past five years. I have spent this time grant-writing and fund-raising, looking for an agent and publisher, and trying to decide if I want to self-publish Mr. Grumbles, which would lead to more grant-writing and fund-raising.

When I am in a writing mode. I just sit down with good music on, and I write in Finaldraft. I do not write the old-school way with cards and strips. I might write an outline. Most of my characters just talk to me, and I write. I find that most of the time I have to do research on the subject I am writing about. I do interviews and "hang out" with the subject.

What is your biggest advice for people who want to write films? 

Don't waste your time and money on those $1,000-dollar writing programs. With screenwriting you need to know the rules before you start to change or break the rules of screenwriting. Do take a screenwriting class at either a community college or university.

What are your favorite children's books? 

The Giving Tree and other poem books by Shel Silverstein; and Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel and Blair Lent.

Is there anything else you would like to add? 

Start with writing from the heart. Then you need to do re-writes, which no one wants to do. Also, always have a good proofreader.

Connect with Marjory at the links below: 

Monday, May 18, 2015

Interview with Young Author and Entrepreneur Chental-Song Bembry

Chental-Song Bembry is the creator, author, and illustrator of The Honey Bunch Kids series, which she uses to promote literacy and entrepreneurship in youth. The Honey Bunch Kids is a humorous book series for boys and girls ages 7-12. The series follows the adventures of a group of middle-schoolers who learn the meaning of true friendship, respect, and getting along with others. You can purchase her books directly here.

Chental-Song was recently honored at the 2015 BET Honors as an "Early Riser" for her accomplishments as a young author and motivational speaker. Last month, she was honored as a Making a Difference Girl at the 2015 BET Black Girl's Rock awards show for her commitment to community service and education. 

Tell us about your book series THE HONEY BUNCH KIDS. What inspired you to write these books? 

I created The Honey Bunch Kids when I was 10 years old. At this age, I loved to read, write, and I loved to watch cartoons. I created three cartoon characters of my own and called them "The Honey Bunch Kids." When I turned 11, my mother sent me to a writing camp at Middlesex County College, where I wrote a story about my three characters, and I called that story The Honey Bunch Kids. In April 2010, The Honey Bunch Kids was published, and based on the overwhelmingly positive feedback I received from boys and girls, I wrote two more books: The Honey Bunch Kids: School's In Session (Book 1) and The Honey Bunch Kids: School's In Session (Book 2). Throughout each book, I highlight elements of African-American history, group dynamics, teamwork, and problem-solving skills.

In addition to being a writer, you are also a literacy advocate. Why are reading and writing so important, especially for young people? 

After publishing the first book in The Honey Bunch Kids series, I started the "Chental-Song Literacy Campaign," which allows me to travel to schools, libraries, and churches to speak to youth on the importance of literacy, goal setting, and the impact of reading on academic success. I believe that reading and writing are so important for young people because with reading comes knowledge, and with knowledge comes confidence. High confidence levels create the drive to achieve any and all goals in life. Writing allows freedom of expression and a chance to showcase creativity. It is an escape, and when people write, they discover stories inside of them that might have never gotten a chance to be exposed. The better the reader, the stronger the writer. When young people embrace literacy, they will be more inclined to tackle difficult homework assignments, and will be able to converse with others at a higher level. Literacy and education are crucial components to the success of a young person, and this is why I am so dedicated to the advancement of literacy in all children. 

You were a busy student in school when you first published THE HONEY BUNCH KIDS, and now you are a college student. What is your writing schedule? When/how do you find time to write? 

Currently, I attend Hampton University as a sophomore Broadcast Journalism major with a minor in Leadership Studies. Before sitting down to write anything, I make sure that my assignments are completed. I write (and draw) whenever I have the free time, and whenever a great idea hits me. If I cannot sit down at the computer to fully flesh out an idea, I will jot it down in my notes. I usually have more time to write and develop story ideas during Christmas, Spring, and Summer breaks. I always make sure to put energy into my craft each and every day, because energy creates movement in a positive direction.

Very true! What is your biggest advice for people (especially young people) going after their dreams and facing their own challenges in life? 

My biggest advice for young people (and all people) who are going after their dreams is to push forward, never settle, and do not give up. There will always be roadblocks and challenges along your journey to success, but you must remember that each challenge is put in your path to help you grow and develop into a stronger person. Do not fear challenges. Embrace them. Always remember that nothing of greatness comes without struggle. It is through hard work and difficulties that you become humbled and more prepared for the next chapter of your life.

Another piece of advice I have is a quote by Louis Pasteur: "Chance favors the prepared mind." You will only get your greatest opportunity in life when you are both physically and mentally prepared for it. You must always trust God and know that He has ordered your steps, and through Him, you can do all things.

Who are some of your favorite writers? 

Some of my favorite writers include Nancy Farmer, Virginia Hamilton, Zora Neale Hurston, and Maya Angelou. I grew up reading fantastic pieces by each of these authors, who influenced my passion for writing a unique story that all children can enjoy. 

What's next for Chental-Song Bembry? 

As I finish out my remaining three years at Hampton University, I am currently developing The Honey Bunch Kids book series into an animated series and a global brand, which will be featured on a major television network. From the animated series will come more books, and I will continue the literacy campaign I have started.

Is there anything else you would like to add? 

I am so grateful to God for each and every opportunity He places before me. I am looking forward to expanding The Honey Bunch Kids brand into an entertainment source that children around the world will enjoy, because I believe it is so important for all children to have positive role models within their cultures.

Here are links to connect with this amazing writer, illustrator, entrepreneur, and literacy advocate, Chental-Song Bembry:

Friday, May 15, 2015

Q&A Friday: How to manage class time as a writing teacher

Hi, everyone! I have something new that I am excited to debut on the blog today. 

Often I get emailed questions about writing, teaching, editing, book recommendations, and general questions about the literary life, and I was thinking that other people might be interested in these questions, too! So I had an idea to start a new feature on the blog called "Q&A Friday" where I will answer one of these questions every week or so. I hope you find it to be helpful and inspiring!

If you have a question, please feel free to email it to me at dallaswoodburn <AT> gmail <DOT> com with "Q&A Friday" in the subject line. Also, if you have thoughts to add to my answers, I would LOVE if you would share your ideas in the comments section below! My aim for this blog is for it to be a positive resource and community-builder for readers, writers, teachers, and book-lovers of all ages!

Question: When teaching a creative writing class, how do you manage the class time?

My answer: It depends on how long the class is, but I like to mix things up every 20 minutes or so. Usually we do a short "freewrite" prompt at the beginning to get kids in the "writing zone" -- for example, at my Summer Writing Camp, I have a prompt written on the board when kids come in. When everyone has arrived and has written for 5-10 minutes, I give time to share if anyone wants to read what they've written.

Then, we spend another 15-20 minutes or so going over the topic/lesson of that day -- maybe it's a class discussion about favorite literary characters and how we think the writer created such a memorable character, or talking about ways to re-start the story's plot if you're feeling stuck, or a compilation of descriptive-writing prompts to really delve into the setting. It's great to do class brainstorming where you write down what students say on the board so you have a wonderful list at the end full of ideas.

For the remainder of class, I  usually use one or two writing activities/prompts that relate to that topic -- for example, dialogue activities or character-creating activities, with time in between for students to share their writing if they wish. A lot of the younger kids REALLY enjoy sharing and it is a big motivation for them, so if you can it's great to build in that time.

Of course, during sharing it is important to only encourage positive comments and positive feedback. As a teacher, you can set this environment by asking, "What did you like about xxx's story/poem/etc?" and have the class raise their hands to share compliments. It's a great way to build each other up. And of course you the teacher should give them compliments, too! It means a lot to them, believe me. They will be looking up to you!

Friday, May 8, 2015

Finding Your Voice as a Writer

“Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning.” –Maya Angelou 

How do I find my writing voice? This is a question I hear often from writers of all ages, and especially from young writers. And it is very closely related—indeed, I would say it is interwoven—with other important questions, such as:

  • How do I get “unstuck” when I am struggling with writer’s block? 
  • Will other people think my ideas are interesting enough? 
  • What do I have to say that the world will care about? 
Developing your voice as a writer is akin to developing your voice as a human being, as a global citizen of this one world we all share. Cultivating your own unique writing voice will resonate in all aspects of your life. It requires you to reflect on what you believe and how you feel comfortable sharing those beliefs with others. What feels natural to you on the page? What captures you most fully and truthfully?

All writers begin as readers, and when we first begin writing it is natural for us to write like—for our voices to sound like—the writers we most love and admire. The first pieces I ever wrote were Dr. Seuss-like poems; years later, in college, I was still honing my writing voice, working on magical-realism short stories inspired by Aimee Bender and George Saunders. Gradually, as I have grown and learned and developed as a writer—and as a person—my own true voice has emerged more and more clearly.

Now, when I sit down to write, I don’t sound like anyone else. I simply sound like me.

The process reminds me of breaking in a pair of shoes until they fit your own individual feet perfectly. You can even use your speaking voice to develop your writing voice! How? If you feel stuck, a great strategy is to “talk through” your idea to a friend or teacher. Better yet, talk it through to yourself by recording your thoughts—you can buy an inexpensive tape recorder or digital recorder, or many smartphones have free apps you can download.

Why does this strategy work? Speaking often feels like “less pressure” than writing; the more pressure you put on yourself to write, the harder it can be. Many people feel more comfortable talking out a story or essay instead of trying to write the words down on paper. Once you’re done talking it through, play back the audio and write down, word for word, what you said. Now you have your authentic voice down on paper, and you can edit and shape it as you wish!

The engaging and inspiring book, a picture is worth… the voice of today’s high school students (available from Arch Street Press) used a similar strategy to help the students develop their essays for the book. The sixteen students featured in this outstanding collection write about everything from their families to their faith, from their communities to their experiences in society as a whole, from their past histories to their dreams for the future. In order to craft their essays, each student told their story to an interviewer, preserved it as a recording, listened to it and shared it, and—yes—captured it in written words. But the writing down of the story was simply one strand of a larger web of storytelling, connecting, and sharing.

In the introduction of a picture is worth…, David Castro and Alisa del Tufo write: “Particularly within the personal essay form, good writing demonstrates voice. … [B]eginning with each student’s voice, this project grounds itself in the essential strength of the spoken word as a harbinger of awareness, creativity, and human connection.” By discovering and defining your own voice as a writer, you are then able to engage with the voices of others—and that is how meaningful conversations happen and true connections are born.