Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Wondering about Writing for Kids!

Spent the past week of my life in this beautiful spot as an attendee at the Oregon Coast Children's Book Writers Workshop.

Five days of instruction from picture book, middle grade,  non-fiction, and YA (young adult) authors plus wise words from editors and agents on the state of the industry and what they want from those of us seeking publication fill a notebook and my head.

My manuscripts came home with scratchings and arrows and rewrites all over them as the personal critiques sent me on a roller coaster of wonderings …emotional ups and downs when my pieces were found lacking to one….and  interesting and full of promise to another.  Suggestions for revision from published authors or those who represent the big NYC houses seeking the next big kid lit hit headed me north one day and southeast the next. Yet every lecture underscored what we all know ….. you MUST write your own stories!

I dipped into a funk on day four.  Out of gas and feeling like my sweet and tender writing style aimed at young children was just not going to fit this wild, crazy and edgy age had me depleted.  The need for a strong social media presence - websites, blogs, Facebook, twitter, instagram, tumblr - sent this 64 year old into a dither.  I wondered if the time this required was worth the time away from kids and grandkids, walks, gardening, my husband, my retirement plans, and more.

And then, as so often happens, a nugget or two to slip into my pocket came my way.  David Gifaldi, middle grade author and staff member for the 2014 OCCBWW spoke on Storytelling - The Wonder and Why of it?  He talked about times as a writer when he asks himself Why do it?  Then, he makes a list for himself.  And almost always, he finds Wonder and Astonishment at the top of his list.  YES -- me, too.  I love to wonder!  I stuck this one in my pocket.  And at the end of that long day I slogged my way back 'home'  and my brother shared one of his favorites …Dead Last is better than Did Not Finish …. is better than Did Not Start.  I grabbed onto that one too.

So I'll keep at it and keep looking for the WONDER.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Licking and Grooming - Not just for Rats - PART TWO

So summer is here and the days are crazy…. and not nearly as lazy as I would like.  But I did finish the book (Paul Tough's How Children Succeed - Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character) whose beginning pages inspired the last Licking and Grooming post.

I am always looking for examples of kids (or adults for that matter)  displaying strong character.  I enjoy conversing about what it is, exactly.  I am fascinated with how we teach it …. or don't.  I am dismayed that there are so few opportunities for our young people to see it modeled by the celebrities or government leaders or corporate heads who grab the headlines. I wonder why we don't  talk about it more.  Is it something we shy away from because we feel there is a moral component to it that should be left to our religious institutions?  Or perhaps we fear it comes laden with judgement about how to best parent?

So I was absorbed in  Paul Tough's book and it  didn't disappoint.  But I have to admit I was hoping for an answer to fix the problems that seem so rampant in our country ….. simple ways we could help kids develop Character - especially those around us who grow up in poverty and within families where survival takes precedence over and time away from nurturing - licking and grooming.  And they are there, but it is NOT simple.

 on page 191 of his book Paul Tough asks ...
       What can we as a country do to significantly improve the life chances of millions of poor children?
(I think the guy's last name is apropos)

And this question comes after he has shared the daunting statistics about the number of people in poverty (40% of American families according to our country's Education Department)  and the dysfunctional pipeline that those living in poverty must maneuver …. overcrowded medicaid clinics, social service and child-welfare offices and hospital ER clinics.   A school system that often steers them into special ed, remedial classes or alternative schools.  And outside school?  A broken system of foster homes, juvenile detention and probation officers.  In Tough's words, "an extremely expensive system, wildly inefficient and has a low success rate."

So I was getting rather dismayed.  Especially since so much of my work as an educator has been with middle school and high school age young people and if they missed out on Licking and Grooming and nurturing (i.e. support) when they were young, are they doomed to be those 'throw-away kids'?   And to make things worse,  Tough suggests one way of looking at character is how it "functions as a substitute for the social safety net that students who come from [affluence] enjoy - the support from their families and schools and culture that protects them from the consequences of occasional detours …  mistakes and bad decisions."  He also says that  low income kids need more grit, more social intelligence, more self control than wealthier kids.  CRAP ---- there is NOTHING SIMPLE ABOUT THIS!

At this point, I came close to stashing the book in the bedside drawer and getting out a steamy summer romance novel.  After all, I am only one older retired lady without an endless cash stream!

But then I went back to my dog-eared pages and re-read the highlights….

  • about how researchers and school-reformers have found that being a successful human is not just about IQ and doing well on tests and that the most critical missing piece is character.
  • that many people think character is something innate …a core set of attributes, but researchers (Seligman and Peterson) suggest character skills can be learned, practiced and taught at any age.
  • that a researcher at Penn (Duckworth) did a study where she found that students' self-discipline scores from the previous fall were better predictors of their final GPAs than their IQ scores.
  • that there are schools where students actually accumulate a CPA (character point average) along with their GPA (Kipp).   Hmmm --- what could that mean for those hiring?

So I came away grateful for this book and for all the schools and researchers who are studying this and making concrete and quantifiable what has been so abstract.  I am grateful for the new and hard work that is being done to help kids succeed.

But I still wonder …. what can I do?  Especially to support those kids who fall below the poverty line and who might not have had that L an G nurturing when they were young.    Paul Tough has an answer for me ….

       "…when children reach early adolescence, what motivates them most effectively isn't licking and grooming-style care but a very different kind of attention….the unexpected experience of someone taking them seriously, believing in their abilities, and challenging them to improve themselves."

Can't we all do that?  In big or little ways, can't we seek out kids who need us to do this for and with them?

 It is simple after all.