Book Summary: ‘Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire By M. Fontaine

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Steps II and III. Essay of the Week and Monthly Book Report

The next two writing exercises arose from mistakes I made in my younger days. As an elementary-school teacher, I had frequent conversations with former pupils now attending middle or high school. They missed Room 56 and would tell me what I was doing well and, more important, what I could do to improve. One of my many mistakes was not helping the children understand the importance of time management. All of the homework assignments in my class were given one day and due the next. My recent graduates thought it would be helpful for some assignments to be due at the end of the week or even the month. In this way, students could learn to begin work on such projects before they piled up.

Enter the Essay of the Week and the Monthly Book Report. These two projects are harder to assign, grade, and teach than the grammar exercises, but they teach the value of time management while simultaneously improving the students’ writing.

Essay of the Week. Each Friday, I assign the Essay of the Week. These short essays, usually about a page long, run the gamut from serious to silly. One week the children may be asked to weigh in on George’s decision to kill Lennie in Of Mice and Men. The following week the students may write a page on how they would spend twenty-four hours if they swallowed a potion that made them invisible. In all cases, the students are asked to write with proper grammar, spelling, sentence structure, and organization. I want their writing to be—as Francis Bacon says—precise.

These essays are assigned on Friday and collected a week later for two specific reasons. First, it gives the kids the opportunity to write on the weekend. They don’t have to do this, of course. I encourage them to spend lots of time with family and friends, playing ball, relaxing, and having fun. But even if they spend only an hour or two writing on the weekend, they still have dozens of hours for play. The Essay of the Week gives students the opportunity to practice balancing work with play.

Second, it gives me the weekend to give student work the time it deserves. There is no way for me to adequately correct essays on a school night. With so many lessons to prepare for the next day, and my family to care for, I am too tired and busy to do the essays justice. By Monday morning, my students have their work back with helpful comments. I must show them I care about their writing if I expect them to care as well.

Over the weekend I do something else I’ve found to be extremely effective. I choose a few of their essays and type them up exactly as I received them, mistakes and all. On Monday morning, instead of a grammar assignment of the day, the students read two or three essays from the previous week. The names are removed from the papers to avoid embarrassment.

Within weeks the kids grow enormously as writers. By looking at a range of student essays, they start to see why some are better than others. By the end of the year, my fifth-graders rarely make mistakes in spelling, grammar, or structure, and they even master many finer points of writing, such as avoiding dangling modifiers. By constantly writing and evaluating one another’s work, the kids become better writers, and they have a good time getting there.

The Monthly Book Report. Like the Essay of the Week, monthly book reports are an effective way to help students learn time management while simultaneously improving their writing skills.

Our monthly book reports are divided into short sections, each of which is devoted to a different element of the novel: the protagonist, antagonist, conflict, setting, plot, climax, denouement, and theme. To help the kids understand these difficult concepts, I show them The Wizard of Oz (which the majority of my students have never heard of!).

I use Oz because the story is so clear it allows the kids to quickly understand the concepts. Dorothy is the protagonist and the Wicked Witch the antagonist. The conflict is person versus person (as opposed to person vs. nature, himself, or society). The setting is a Kansas farm and the Land of Oz. The climax is the moment when the Wicked Witch gets hit by water (“I’m melting!”). The denouement comes when Dorothy and her friends resolve their situations: the Scarecrow gets his brains, the Tin Man his heart, the Cowardly Lion his courage, and Dorothy returns home. Of course the theme is easy enough for the children to identify, because Dorothy repeats it so many times: “There’s no place like home.”

Of course, the kids will make all sorts of mistakes on their first book reports. Even with an example to follow, they make numerous errors in spelling, grammar, tense, and sentence structure. They also make analytical errors. They often identify the wrong character as the protagonist or tell the entire story rather than summarizing the plot. But that’s okay. It’s only the first time they’ve tried it. I take at least a week to go over these book reports. In the meantime, the kids begin working on their next report. By the time they get their first papers back and see what they could have done better, they are able to use my comments to improve their second papers. After a year of this, my students generally turn in excellent papers and have read ten or twelve good books in the process.

Monthly book reports are not easy for teachers or parents. It can be a challenge to select books that children find captivating, and it takes time to grade the reports and provide helpful feedback. But your kids will grow as readers, writers, and critical thinkers when this happens. It’s hard work but it’s worth it.

Step IV. Paperback Writer: The Young Authors Project

Young Authors projects are not for the faint of heart. They are hard to pull off, take massive amounts of time and patience, and can be exhausting. But I will let you in on a little secret: I have students from twenty years ago who completed hundreds of assignments for me, and the only things they have kept after all these years are their Young Authors books. They are important to the children.

The idea itself is not complicated. Basically, each student is given a year to write a book. There is more than one way to accomplish this, but I can share with you what has worked for Room 56. Here are a few dos and don’ts.

The students should write most of their books during class. This ensures the work is being done by the children and not by overanxious parents, siblings, or family friends. It also encourages the children to take their time.

I give my students thirty- to forty-five-minute chunks of time two or three afternoons a week in which to write their books. During each session I meet with five or six children. I ask each child to tell me what he is writing about. He shows me what he has written. This way, I can help him with grammar and spelling mistakes as the book is being written. It’s the “ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” school of editing. I also talk with the writer about his characters. Too many kids write about what happened and forget that the best stories generally revolve around characters we care about. I make sure the forest is indeed a magical place but remind the kids to write about the characters who go into that forest.

From time to time I divide the class into small groups of three or four children who share their stories and edit one another’s writing. This is good for all of us. The editors learn about writing by helping others get better. The writers get helpful advice. And I save time because many sloppy mistakes are cleaned up before the final stories are turned in.

During the editing process, you can encourage the kids to use figurative language. If a child writes that a character was scared, ask him, “How scared was he? Was he as afraid as a balloon near a porcupine?” Show the kids how much fun writing can be. It’s a project, after all, not an assignment. It’s different from test questions, Essays of the Week, or science experiments. Writing these books might be the only thing the children get to do with complete control—from the characters to the language to the plot twists. Remind the children that Shakespeare, Twain, Cervantes, and Steinbeck were once Young Authors, too. Your students could grow up to write the books that readers around the world will fall in love with.

Once the stories are completely written and edited, the kids type them into the computer, making sure they leave space throughout the text for illustrations. Drawings are done separately and pasted into the books. This way the children can attempt all sorts of drawings before settling on the perfect ones for the printed page. The kids come up with all kinds of creative pictures that pop up, unfold, or dazzle the reader.

When the books are ready to be bound, some teachers simply take them to Kinko’s, which is fine, but I prefer to do the binding in class. The kids use heavy cardboard for the book covers and create bindings with Contact paper, glue, and masking tape. It’s always a lot of work, but I’ve found that the kids appreciate seeing the project through to the end.

If you don’t give up, writing might just be the key that unlocks a child’s heart. We want to make connections with our children. Sometimes we build bridges playing catch, reading, or solving problems. Yet it is the power of the written word that might change a life. Children often write things they may feel too shy to express publicly. One girl I had wrote a story about her red ball. The ball had a happy face on it, and she and the ball played every day. One time her ball bounced over a fence and rolled down the street. The ball got covered in mud and now wore a sad face, as did the little girl in the story. The next day the girl’s father drove down the street and saw the sad ball lying in the mud. In the author’s words, “Her daddy saw it but was too lazy to pick it up.”

Ouch! Here was a little girl who needed some love and attention, but I would have never known it without reading her story. She was a quiet and beautiful girl who was so painfully shy she was afraid to leave the classroom and play in the yard. It was her story that inspired me to be the man who would take the time to pick up the ball, clean it, and return it to her. We had a wonderful year together, and I gave her a red ball for graduation. We are still close twenty years later. She is a lawyer today, and her Young Author book about the red ball sits on her shelf with the law books in her office.

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