Writing with Multiple Voices

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This post was inspired by questions from early readers of THE PERFECT SCORE (scheduled for release on October 3rd).

 

THE PERFECT SCORE is a sixth-grade school story featuring a new cast of characters (a mix of boys and girls) who take turns telling you about their year. The kids find themselves in the same after-school program for different reasons. They’re not necessarily excited about the program—or each other. But through their work in the program, and events in and out of school, they find themselves in a tricky situation where they wrestle questions of right and wrong. They’re not sure what to do, but decisions will be made and things will change for them and for the people around them. The question is: Will it be for the better? Sometimes we do the wrong things for the right reasons.

 

I’ve been asked many times how I keep track of my characters. Do I write the entire story for one character and then go back and do a second voice, and so on? Or do I juggle all of them as I go along?

 

Before I answer that, let me be clear. While some have said I have a talent for writing in multiple voices (thank you for the compliment), I don’t see it like that. Maybe I have a knack for it. I certainly love it. But it is not easy for me. It’s not talent that gets the job done. It takes mental endurance, patience and persistence, and tons of revising. It takes good old-fashioned hard work—and lots of it.

 

Now, to answer the specific question about how I write with multiple perspectives. Keeping track of a cast of characters and their many back stories does take organization. I use a grid (see picture #1 for an example from MR. TERUPT FALLS AGAIN).

 

I do not have the grid completely filled in before I start. There are empty squares, but I have enough that I’m excited and can’t wait to get going. So I begin, writing with all of my characters as I go along, weaving their stories together. As I write, I learn more about the story and the characters, and eventually the grid is completed (see picture #2).

 

All that being said, I must admit, when I first wrote THE PERFECT SCORE I only had four characters telling the story. My first revision involved adding a fifth voice (Trevor’s). I already had Trevor in the story, but now I had to insert and weave his chapters throughout. I started that process by making a new grid and then going from start to finish with all five kids. I’m so happy I did this work because I can’t wait for my readers to meet Trevor and the rest of the kids in THE PERFECT SCORE (pre-order here)!

 

Happy Reading!

Rob Buyea

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Picture #2:

Tip #12: Get Serious about Sharing

Throughout the past school year I had the opportunity to work on writing with students in many different schools and classrooms. It is always a fun and rewarding experience, and one that I look forward to. After a brief mini-lesson the students turn their writing switches on (see Teaching Tip #7) and get started crafting wonderful scenes and sentences. I always like to give the students the opportunity to share their creations with each other. My observations during sharing time have prompted my newest tip.

Tip # 12:  Get Serious about Sharing     

Oftentimes writers share their work for one of two reasons: (1) in celebration, or (2) in order to get a reaction and honest feedback for help with revising.  It has been my observation that our students are well-versed and good at the former, but do not always have as much experience with the latter. (Also true, is the fact that getting our students to revise remains one of the bigger challenges.)

It is important for our students to know that writers share for different reasons, and they need opportunities to engage in purposeful sharing that is meant to help with future writing (revising) and not always sharing that is done in celebration. Students need to understand that sharing in order to get feedback is a part of the writing process that is just as valuable and important as everything else. Sharing can be done in a critique group setting (see Teaching Tip #9), or in a pair situation. Either way, our students need instruction and practice so they can improve in this area, and grow as writers.

How do we improve sharing time to make it more purposeful?  Start with additional mini-lessons on what good sharing looks and sounds like.  It will require attentive listening.  When the author is done reading the “listener” needs to first say something positive.  What did you like?  Then move on to critiques and questions. (Again, see Teaching Tip #9 for more on sharing.)

How do you know if the sharing session was beneficial? The writer will use some of the feedback in his/her next round of revising. You might even consider having your students write a response explaining how the share session helped and how they used it in their revising.

I’d love to hear from you if you find Mr. Terupt’s tips helpful or if you have additional thoughts or questions.  You can email me at rbuyea@robbuyea.com and visit me at robbuyea.com.  Follow me on twitter @robbuyea.

Happy Summer!

 

A Few Writing Strategies

For this month’s post I’ve decided to address a few writing questions that I often hear from kids during my school visits.

Tip # 11:  A Few Writing Strategies

Question: How do you create your characters?

Answer: My characters are bits and pieces or many different people (former students, teachers, coaches, friends, enemies, my wife, my children, bus driver, etc.), bits and pieces of me, and my imagination all glued together.

I don’t necessarily know everything about my character (or my story) when I start, but as I write my character continues to end up in new situations and then I always have to ask, “Why? Why are you going to do this? Say this? Feel this? React this way?” As I get answers to those questions I learn more and more about my character. When I finally get to the end of the story I know my character better and I’m ready to go back and revise!

Question: What do you do if you have an idea but don’t know where to start?

Answer: Start anywhere, but start—that’s the key. It doesn’t have to be the beginning. If you worry about having everything figured out and making it perfect the first time, then you’re setting yourself up for writer’s block. It’s never perfect the first time, so just get started. Many times I learn more about my story and characters by doing the writing than by sitting and thinking about it. Revising is the part of the process that’s about trying to make your writing the best. So just get started anywhere.

Question: What do you do if you get stuck in the middle?

Answer: I have two strategies: (1) Leave the part where you are stuck and jump ahead to a different section (maybe the ending) and start writing that. As you continue to work and craft sentences ideas will evolve and you might suddenly figure out what needs to happen in the middle, or (2) Share what you have. Read your piece aloud to someone and then wait and listen to what they say about it. What questions do they ask? This conversation should help spark more ideas. If you have questions you want to ask your reader, then you should ask them after they are done talking.

This type of focused and purposeful sharing is just as important as everything else that makes up the writing process, so I intend to devote next month’s teaching tip to this topic.

Happy Writing!

I’d love to hear from you if you find Mr. Terupt’s tips helpful or if you have additional thoughts or questions.  You can email me at rbuyea@robbuyea.com and visit me at robbuyea.com.  Follow me on twitter @robbuyea.  Look for tip #12 to be posted in June .

Knowing When to Stop

Over the course of the last month, while working on a revision, I was reminded how knowing when to stop is something that helps me to keep going as a writer.

Tip # 10:  Knowing When to Stop

Many writers will agree, getting started can be the biggest hurdle in front of you each day, but once you manage to get going, the work tends to keep going. So how can you make the getting started part easier for your students?

For me, knowing when to stop in my writing is something that helps me start up again the next day. I might stop:

  • When I have the next scene I intend to write completely outlined.
  • After I’ve worked on a scene and have it figured out, but before I have it completely written.  My next day’s work will start with finishing that scene. (This strategy works well for me.)
  • After I’ve shared my writing with someone and have feedback to help me with my next day’s revising.
  • After I have a new chapter written and I know the next day’s task will be rereading it. (See Teaching Tip #1 for more specifics on revising and rereading.)

I encourage you to talk to your students about this way of thinking. Writers don’t just plan the piece, but we’re careful planners about the process, too.  We have plans for what we’re going to do as writers and in our writing on a daily basis. It might not be practical to allow your students to choose when to stop writing each day—that might be hard to manage—however, you can definitely have them start thinking ahead as writers.  With the last ten minutes of writing time, ask your students to start thinking about what they will be doing tomorrow.  Have them make plans.  If desired, you can have them write their plans down and maybe even share with the rest of the class—because every opportunity we give our students to talk like writers is valuable (see Teaching Tip #9).

Happy Writing!

I’d love to hear from you if you find Mr. Terupt’s tips helpful or if you have additional thoughts or questions.  You can email me at rbuyea@robbuyea.com and visit me at robbuyea.com.  Follow me on twitter @robbuyea.  Look for tip #11 to be posted on Monday, May 9th.

Implementing Critique Groups in your Writing Classroom

As promised, this month’s teaching tip is about implementing critique groups in your classroom.  WHY do it?  Because critique groups provide your students with valuable opportunities to talk the talk of writers, which will only help them walk the walk later.  If done right, critique groups will become something your students look forward to, thus motivating them to produce writing that they can share.  Lastly, the friendships, support, and encouragement that exists in a successful critique group is invaluable, and will promote and foster a positive classroom community.  So HOW do you make it happen?   

Tip # 9:  Implementing Critique Groups in your Writing Classroom 

First, let’s talk about what a critique group might look like.  Picture a small group of people sitting around a table.  There are snacks in the middle (candy, goldfish, etc.) along with small scraps of paper (¼ sheets or smaller, and maybe different colors).  The first author reads his piece to the group—without interruption—while everyone else listens and jots down notes on a scrap of paper. Once the reading is complete group members will take turns commenting, sharing things they liked, questions they had, etc.  The author only listens.  After everyone shares the author may ask the group one or two questions, if desired.  The author collects the notes and staples them to his piece so that he has them to refer back to when revising.

Questions:

1. How do you introduce this concept?

Consider modeling it during a whole class lesson.  Take a piece (one you’ve written or a student’s) and read it to the class.  After the reading have students share critiques.  During this time you can discuss what makes good feedback (I liked this . . . I was confused when . . . I want to know more . . .) and emphasize one important point, which is to always start with a positive comment.

2. How long is a piece and how many people are in a critique group?

The answer to this depends on how much time you have for writing.  Assuming you have an hour, you could have 5 students in a group.  Each person would get 10 minutes to read and collect feedback.  This would leave you with 10 minutes to use between the start of class and for closure.  How much can be read in that allotted amount of time determines the length of the piece to be read.

3. When do you fit it in?

This will be different for everyone.  Try doing it once per unit.  Have groups meet a week or two before final drafts are due, because the idea is for your students to use the feedback gathered when revising.

4. What if a student doesn’t have writing to share?

I would suggest still allowing the student to participate because he will benefit from hearing the talk of writers in the critique group, and if all goes well, this student will be left wanting to share in the future, so his writing will be done for the next time.  If this is a chronic problem, then other steps will need to be considered.

5. What happens when a student comes to you and says he didn’t get any helpful feedback from the group?

Chances are, this will happen the first time you do critique groups, so be prepared. In this situation, it’s important you let the group know they didn’t do their job, and then I suggest you take the student’s piece and read it so you can provide him with valuable feedback.

If you want to try this in your classroom, but are still feeling leery about the idea, then let me remind you of Teaching Tip #5: Do Not Be Afraid of Failure.  It won’t be perfect the first time, but if you get your students excited and stick with it you will be inspired by your community of writers.

Happy Writing!

I’d love to hear from you if you find Mr. Terupt’s tips helpful or if you have additional thoughts or questions.  You can email me at rbuyea@robbuyea.com and visit me at robbuyea.com.  Follow me on twitter @robbuyea.  Look for tip #10 to be posted on Monday, April 4th.

Attend A Critique Group

After turning my writing switch on (see Tip #7), there came a day when I got hit by a story idea that wouldn’t leave me alone. It was that first idea that started me on this journey.  I went to the bookstore and found a book on how to publish.  From there I learned about the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).  I joined.  And from there I discovered a local critique group—which turned out to be more than I ever imagined.

 Tip # 8:  Attend a Critique Group 

Of all the professional development I did as a teacher—and I did a lot—attending my critique group was the most valuable.  The only rule the group had was that you couldn’t share writing your first time attending.  So I went just to listen.  And it was amazing!  The group was so welcoming and encouraging, the writing was beautiful, and the comments were so smart and insightful.  It was incredibly inspiring to hear passionate readers and writers sharing their stories. But here’s what’s most important:  The conversations that took place in my critique group made me a better writer and a far better teacher of writing. 

I became so excited about my critique-group experiences that I went back to my classroom and implemented critique groups with my third graders.  We were authors!  That too, was an awesome experience!  Look for implementing critique groups in the classroom to be next month’s teaching tip.     

Happy Writing!

I’d love to hear from you if you find Mr. Terupt’s tips helpful or if you have additional thoughts or questions.  You can email me at rbuyea@robbuyea.com and visit me at robbuyea.com.  Follow me on twitter @robbuyea.  Look for tip #9 to be posted on Monday, March 7th.  

Turn Your Writing Switch On

I’ve previously written that some of my very best sentences and ideas happen in my head when I’m far away from my writing desk (see Teaching Tip #4).  It’s important our students understand that this happens for authors.  Why?  Because it can happen for them too—and you!  How?  You need to turn your writing switch on.

Tip # 7:  Turn Your Writing Switch On    

Imagine a light switch on the wall.  You can turn that switch on and off.  Each of us has a similar mechanism in our head—it’s what I call the writing switch.  Most likely, our students flip that switch on at writing time and turn it off when writing is over.  For an author, the writing switch is never off.

So what does it mean to have the switch on?  What does it look like?  Simply put, it means you go through daily life thinking like a writer.  Your stories and characters go with you everywhere and you think about them throughout the day, but you must also pay attention to the world around you—much like a scientist using his senses to make keen observations—so that you notice, and then you need to take time to wonder:  How could that be used in a story?  With my character?  What if this were to happen?

Once you’ve turned the writing switch on, you’ll have ideas come to you when you least expect it—on your walks, in the grocery store, in the shower, driving your car—which is why I recommend taking your writing notebook with you wherever you go.  If that’s not practical, then consider using your phone to record a voice memo.  (This has saved me on several dog walks when deep in the woods.)  When one of those ideas grabs a hold of you and doesn’t leave you alone, it’s time to get serious.

Happy New Year!

I’d love to hear from you if you find Mr. Terupt’s tips helpful or if you have additional thoughts or questions.  You can email me at rbuyea@robbuyea.com and visit me at robbuyea.com.  Follow me on twitter @robbuyea.  Look for tip #8 to be posted on Monday, February 1st.

Tip #6: #JoinTwitter

Last month I talked about not being afraid of failure and challenging yourself to try new ideas.  In an attempt to model this attitude, I admitted to taking the plunge and joining Twitter, something I had been hesitant to do.  My only regret now is that I didn’t join the Twitter community sooner.  I’ve been so surprised by what I’ve learned on this social media network that I’ve decided to make it my next tip. 

Tip # 6:  #JoinTwitter    

Here’s why:

1. Readers love to talk about what they’re reading, and this is happening all the time on Twitter.  You will learn about new and upcoming releases (like what I’m working on now) and you will discover new authors and titles that are creating buzz.  You will find new books to recommend and potentially use in your classroom.  It’s amazing!  Believe me, this alone is reason enough for you to join the Twitter community.  You won’t be disappointed.

2. You will hear about author events and literacy conferences—potentially in your area!  Who wouldn’t want to hear favorite author or panel of authors talk about their work?  It’s all happening on Twitter!

3. You will find motivating, thought-provoking, and enriching blogs posted by terrific writers and educators.     

4. You will discover other teachers and educators who are using the same book in their classroom.  What are they doing with it?  This is a great chance to network and share ideas and projects.  Or maybe even to collaborate!

5. I have been in many classrooms in which there is a school and/or classroom Twitter page, and the students are motivated by it.  They like to see their project work being tweeted.  And they love it when they get retweeted!

There are plenty of other reasons to do it, so stop waiting.  Join the Twitter community.  Start to follow a few of your favorite authors and/or organizations.  Start out by doing some retweeting until you get the hang of things.  And remember Teaching Tip #5: Do not be afraid of failure! 

#HappyTweeting   

I’d love to hear from you if you find Mr. Terupt’s tips helpful or if you have additional thoughts or questions.  My Twitter handle is @robbuyea. 

You can also email me at rbuyea@robbuyea.com and visit me at robbuyea.com.  Look for tip #7 to be posted on Monday, January 4th.  

Tip #5: Do Not Be Afraid of Failure

As a teacher you hear many ideas. You travel to conferences and listen to speakers, engage in professional reading and workshops, and attend faculty meetings. Some of those new ideas are things you know won’t work in your situation or don’t apply to you, others are things you are already doing, and then there are those that sound wonderful and you’d love to try but doubt will work. I’d like to encourage you to try. Do not be afraid of failure.

Tip # 5:  Do not be afraid of failure     

When visiting schools and talking to students, this is a tip that I always share. It’s an attitude that is essential for writers. I do not know of an author who wasn’t rejected before being published.

Failure is part of the journey leading to success. There are countless examples of this in life. It is important that we help our students understand this and encourage them to set high goals and work hard to attain their dreams. It is also important that we model this by trying new ideas, even if we’re afraid it might not work.

Believe me, I’ve had my fair share of failures. But I’ve always learned from them. I remember laminating large-size construction paper in an attempt to create homemade white boards for my students to use during math class. I distributed cups of water and paper towels to use as erasers and had high hopes for a class where my students would be standing and sharing a variety of strategies when solving different problems. It was a disaster—and it was during one of my formal observations! I was distraught, but I was fortunate to have a principal who helped me recognize what was most important—I was trying, and because of that she knew I’d eventually make it work. Indeed my early failures ultimately helped me to create the math classroom I envisioned—just not with homemade white boards.

You never know where a new idea will take you. I remember reading Carl Anderson’s book, How’s It Going? (a book I highly recommend). Essentially, Anderson shows us that the goal of the writing conference should be to help the writer, not the writing. And you help the writer by teaching him or her to think like a writer and use strategies that real writers use that will help the student forevermore, long after your conference. I bought into Anderson’s idea wholeheartedly, but how do you teach these strategies if you don’t know them? I didn’t know if I could do it, but I started writing more and paying attention to my writing so I could try to better help my students (my writers) during our conferences.  And guess what?  Not only was I able to help my students, but that writing was the early inspiration that started me on the path leading to my first Mr. Terupt novel.

So be brave. Take one—just one—of those ideas you’ve heard about that you liked the sounds of but haven’t yet tried, and do it. Maybe you want to incorporate a rubric for the writing process (Teaching Tip #1 can help with that), or maybe you have a project you want to implement (Teaching Tip #3 can help with that), or maybe there is a new book you want to use with your students. Whatever it is, go for it. And do not be afraid of failure.

To be fair, I’ve challenged myself to do the same. Though it scared me, I recently joined Twitter. And I’m happy to report, it has been going well.

#HappyTeaching

I’d love to hear from you if you find Mr. Terupt’s tips helpful or if you have additional thoughts or questions.  You can email me at rbuyea@robbuyea.com.

You can visit me at www.robbuyea.com.  Look for tip #6 to be posted on Monday, December 7th.

Tip # 4: Send Writing Home

From the time a child first enters school until they complete middle school—maybe longer—it seems homework often consists of some combination of math, spelling, maybe a grammar exercise, social studies, science, and reading.  What about writing?

Tip # 4:  Send Writing Home

Given that there seems to be less and less time for creative writing, why not consider making it a part of homework?  Provide a prompt, if needed, and give your students a week to write a story.  (I’m not suggesting you pile on writing homework every night.  That would only create kids who hate the subject and make homework a nightmare.)  You can collect all the stories and grade them as a simple homework assignment, or you can collect a small number of them on different days of the week and give your students a formal grade and/or feedback, and then they can revise if they choose or if you want, or they can move on to a new piece.  By having a small number due on different days assessing should become more manageable, and in turn, meaningful, but these are decisions to be made based on you and your classroom.

If you are incorporating units of study in your writer’s workshop, then sending writing home on a nightly basis seems like a natural fit.  You might consider having due dates for drafts so you can give your students written feedback, thus providing them with an opportunity to engage in real revision based on your comments.  (Again, by having a small number due on different days, reading and giving feedback should be more manageable.)

Students need increased opportunities to think about and work on their writing outside of the classroom, at different times in the day and in different environments.  Those of you who like using writer’s notebooks with your students, here’s another opportunity.  The writing notebook can go home nightly so that your students begin to better understand they can use this tool when away from their desk and outside of the classroom.  (Mine travels with me everywhere.  Some of my very best sentences and ideas happen in my head when I’m far away from my writing desk.)

Communicating with parents

Take the opportunity to help parents understand the goals and their role in this process. Start by explaining to parents what the expectations are when you meet them early in the year at your Open House or Back To School Night.  Follow that up with newsletters on how to help with writing at home.  With a team approach, you can capitalize on parent support.

What if your student forgets his draft at home?  Doesn’t class time become wasted the next day? Having parents on the same page will help to prevent this, and by taking advantage of google docs, thumb drives, and email, connecting home and school is easier than ever.  If there isn’t a computer at home, you can make a photocopy of the draft before it leaves the classroom.  Yes, this might be a hurdle, but it is one you can overcome.

I do not know anyone who will argue with the old adage, more reading makes better readers.  The same is true for writing.  Get your students writing.  And talking about writing.  Send writing home.  Celebrate writing!

I’d love to hear from you if you find Mr. Terupt’s tip helpful or if you have additional thoughts or questions.  You can email me at rbuyea@robbuyea.com.

Happy Writing!

You can visit Rob at www.robbuyea.com.  Look for tip #5 to be posted on Monday, November 2nd.