In case you wonder what it feels like to get published…

Day 2

So how did capturing a “smell” in notes turn into a manuscript–a book–and why would publishing said book change a person?

The Dad who smelled earthy, the smell in the train station of metal burning foreshadow the coming of age the narrator (a twelve-year-old girl) is about to go through.

The writer (me) is committing to following the idea of a girl coming of age to its conclusion. Somewhere early in the writing, not long after taking notes on smell, I came up with the book’s title The Starlings in London. This is the one thing I never wavered about. It helped me focus on the unfolding story.

I decided I was going to write this story of anguish, the break-up of a large American family in the foreign city of London in the late 1950s and I decided I wanted to contrast the city with the country to make it more interesting for the reader, and to give the anguish a breather once in a while.

The book’s ending, I knew from the book’s beginning. That helped give it bookends so to speak.

Each chapter I wrote was brought to writing group to be critiqued. I did not incorporate all the suggestions of the other writers. Instead, I thought about the suggestions and decided which of the suggestions made sense to me.

After a good long year of writing and critique in writer’s group, and re-writes, I then worked without interruption…not reading any books during this 3-month period because I did not want any other voices in my head other than the ones I was honing in the book. No reading. No Facebook.

When I had completed the manusrcript to the very best of my ability, I sent it to a very good copyeditor. Lots of grammatical errors were corrected. I had to give way to her suggestions about word changes (hard to do). For instance, I wrote that Lily Starling states, “my socks were dew wet.” The copyeditor changed that to “wet with dew.” For the most part I went with all the copyeditor’s corrections/suggestions, as in copyeditor knows best. However, I would only do this because I know how good my copyeditor is.

Now we have the final file. Great! I can read again! Check out Facebook if I want to again. Have a dinner date not just with my husband, but with friends. Rejoin the human race.

To be continued…

Why Learning the Ethical Culture Way Sticks

From kindergarten through the fifth grade, I attended The Ethical Culture Fieldston School in Riverdale, New York. This was no ordinary school, but an educational environment so interesting and alive that I couldn’t wait to get dressed in the morning in order to walk the numerous blocks with my sisters from our house situated in the Catholic–wrong side of the tracks– neighborhood to the wealthy neighborhood near Fieldston Road where the school was located.

In the third grade, when we studied Native Americans across the curriculum, we sewed our own Native American garments in industrial arts, crafted papooses in woodshop, learned Native American dances in rhythms, sang Native American songs in music. At the end of the year, as a culminating project, we dressed in our Native American clothes and took to the woods for a day where we baked fish in clay over a wood fire we built, ground corn for cornmeal cakes, played Native American games and lived for seven hours communally as Native Americans.

I loved this school. When I became a teacher of gifted kids, I used the emersion techniques I experienced as a Fieldston student to create curriculum for gifted kids to make their own learning meaningful from the inside out…the students encouraged to seek answers to their own questions in areas of their own interests.

If you go on The Fieldston School website today, the school’s philosophy of learning remains unchanged from the school’s philosophy when I attended the school in the 1950’s:

“The students become active learners and engage in vital discourse in a community of dedicated teachers and an atmosphere of intellectual discipline and creativity. Through a curriculum rooted in the tenets of progressive education, students become independent thinkers as they learn that asking their own questions and seeking their own answers provides the key to the deepest kind of understanding. Cooperative, student-centered, discussion-based learning, and the freedom to make mistakes, are part of our students’ everyday lives. We value inclusion and economic and racial diversity, and we honor all of our students for their unique contributions, cultural backgrounds, and beliefs. We consider service to be critical to the development of character, so we incorporate community service into the children’s school experience from the earliest grades.”

Teachers of elementary school students in public schools today have to meet so many requirements: school, district, state, nation. I think it is only the exceptional teacher who can meet those requirements and still create a living, breathing, exciting educational environment for students in which there is time for the students to ask their own questions about what they are learning–or better yet–choose something they want to learn and be guided to get meaningful answers to their questions.

I have not forgotten my elementary school teachers. Nor have I forgotten the satisfaction I felt in learning in the ethical culture way. My third grade teacher’s name was Ms. Barbara Phenner. We called her Phenny.

It might even be because of her I chose to be a teacher of gifted kids. She certainly made us all feel important and unique…special. Learning, Phenny taught me, is exciting, interesting, understandable, fun.

A “Published Book” by Students for Students of Students Has Impact

The book Written and Illustrated by: A Revolutionary Two-Brain Approach for Teaching Students How to Write and Illustrate Amazing Books by David Melton is a wonderful tool for adapting to your school’s writing programs, but only if there is a teacher in charge who cares deeply about children, writing, art, books, and professionally finished products.

For eight years, I developed my own writing program using this book. Each year, the student books got better and better. As the writing program grew in reputation more students wanted to write a book, to have a book by the end of the program to take home and keep. A book they could display on their own shelves, knowing they had created it from its very inception to its self-manufactured sewn and pasted product. (Many of them looked like professionally published books.)

Ron Knox for the Lawrence Journal World wrote an article “Student writings will be added to West library” about the pride some of my students took in their books. In order to have a book to take home and one book for the library these students had to make two. It took a semester of work to complete them.

I liked when Knox said, “After the students and their parents cleared the room, Burlingham spoke softly about her student’s accomplishments.

“Patience,” she said, “that helps bring them along.”

The class, although part of the school’s gifted program, was open to everyone. Some of the kids could flat-out write, she said. Some struggled to finish their projects.

For the words of the students and a photo open this link:

Encouraging Writing for Eighth Graders

The National Council of Teachers of English holds a writing competition each year for eighth graders called the Promising Young Writers Program. The students have to write an Impromptu Theme under teacher’s supervision and submit a Best Writing Sample (poetry or prose), both not more than 10 pages in length.

Student participation is dependent on nomination by teachers; a selection committee is recommended, and nominees should show evidence of effective writing before they are chosen. The number of nominees is dependent on the average daily enrollment. For example, under 100–1 nominee; 500 or more–6 nominees.

As a coordinator of gifted ed. at West Junior High School in Lawrence, Kansas, with most of our programs open to all interested kids, I was uniquely positioned to assess students with interest and ability in writing. I took note of the seventh graders with such abilities and encouraged them to try out for the competition once they reached eighth grade.

The process of writing and revising on a subject that the students themselves selected was beneficial. They took time to think about their chosen topic. They created their piece for the Best Writing Sample. Thought about it some more; revised, and revised some more.

On the day of, they handed in their Best Writing Sample and sat for 75 minutes at the computer writing on the subject of this year’s Impromptu Theme.

Every year, my students were winners in the state of Kansas. I think the reason they were is that because I cared so much about it, it rubbed off on them. They internalized the success and became more confident about their writing ability. Word spread with these successes, and other kids wanted to try out. The importance of writing became more “in” at school.

Teaching Kids to Connect to Art

My webmaster suggested that I write some blogs about the teaching of writing as it connects to art, since this is a subject that has interested me for many years, a subject that I concentrated on as a teacher of kids: kids who were gifted; kids who were “average”; as well as some with dual exceptionalities, such as gifted and having Asperger’s syndrome.

At the Philadelphia Museum of Art many years ago, I attended a workshop called Writing through Art. We teachers sat on little stools with pads on our laps and took down notes about what we saw and felt in a painting or sculpture before us; then we learned how to take our own words and compose poetry or prose with them.

I took the ideas from this workshop back to the classroom and experimented with them. Over the years, I had great success with the method. I found that any kid could write a good poem.

Here’s one example of how it works:

I blew up Roy DeCarava’s photographs from The Sweet Flypaper of Life, not showing the accompanying narrative by Langston Hughes. These are very engaging portraits of black people living in Harlem: an old woman standing tall and proud against a wrought iron fence, a young family on a Sunday outing at the Hudson River, mischievous boys letting water out of a fire hydrant on a scorching summer day, a girl dressed up all in white for a confirmation, crossing a dirty empty city lot.

The photos were laid out on the floor. (I think there were 40 of them; I duplicated favorites.) Each student picked one he/she liked. Then, on a piece of paper with three headings—seeing words, action words, feeling words—the students studied their photographs and jotted down notes.

Man in a suit
Girl with a bow in her hair
Two boys in shorts

What’s the man doing?
Sitting on a log

What’s the girl doing?
Playing down by the water

What are the boys doing?
Sitting on handkerchiefs on the log

How are the different people feeling?

The man’s feeling proud of his family
The girl’s happy to be by the water
The boys feel good sitting next to their father

And how does the photograph make you feel?

The photograph makes me feel interested and joyful. It’s different from my life, but I’m glad they’re having a good time. I’m always happy by the water myself.

What words on your page interest you the most?

Girl with the bow in her hair

That’s a good title.
Start from there.


Girl with a bow in her hair
Plays down by the water
She doesn’t dare get her feet wet
Cause it’s Sunday

Her brothers sit stiff on handkerchiefs
Gazing at the black river
They are still, next to their proud father
On the old log
Having a quiet Sunday time

This technique works with any piece of art that interests kids, but they need choices with which to identify.

I’ve had success using the photographs from Charlotte’s Web and Stone Fox with younger kids because kids have such strong feelings about the characters in those books.

Three Steps to Creativity

Observing three-year old children in free play as part of my first teaching job opened the magic of their imaginations to me. I noticed they

  • Choose what interests them
  • Use what’s available to create (including the teacher and other kids)
  • Take risks to figure things out

After using all their vitality and resources, they need a nap.

Four years later, the principal of my new school, Hunter College Elementary School, suggested I devise my own way of teaching my gifted four-year olds to read.

What interests four year olds most?

Self/family/home. Five year olds? Machines, snakes, caterpillars, boats, kites. What better way to learn to read than to make a book? The kids started with a word like me. They wrote out the word and drew a picture of me above it. Next, Mom, Dad, brother Joe, sister Kate. Pretty soon, they had a bunch of pages, which became their first homemade book and…they could read it! Book two was another self-made book about what interested them the most. From there to picture books.

Lesson 1: Spend your creative energy on things that fascinate you.
I put this plan for creativity to use myself when, two years later I sat down with a legal pad and a pencil at my desk facing the Delaware River ten months after my son was born and wrote the words: gifted, or just your average weirdo? These last six words became a book. The question I was trying to answer was: Do gifted children learn differently from other children? My observations had taught me that if gifted children are forced to conform in their learning, the result could be disastrous. Some children go overboard and take on the identity of a troublemaker becoming a behavior problem.

According to psychologist and educator of gifted and talented children, Joseph Renzulli, the highest level of learning is when “the learner assumes the role of the first hand inquirer, the student thinking, feeling and acting like a practicing professional.” This is why writing a book to learn to read worked.
“I am an author and artist. I can write, draw,” the gifted four-year olds at Hunter said to themselves. “I want to know the words I’ve written. If I know them, I’ll be able to read my very own book!”

Lesson 2: Design something that gives you a product.
The word DESIGN fascinates me. Like the Kindergartener building a fort, the designer joins his imagination and knowledge to create something for himself, but that others can see and use. “I designed an energy efficient city,” an eighth grader said. I designed the set for a play,” a ninth grader said. How can the designers ever forget how they have used their minds, if the process to get to product was so energizing, so thrilling? The designers also had to deal with ideas that did not work, before they came up with the ones that did. They learned to handle frustration because they were invested in “seeing” their product, and having others “see” it. Have you ever watched a kid build a structure from blocks only to knock it down, and start all over again?

Lesson 3: Understand your failures build your success.

After using all your energy and resources, take a break.