What to do with all those old files…

atticfiles1We’re cleaning out the attic, a task we’ve promised ourselves we’d do before we were unable to creep and crawl around it ourselves. Our children will thank us. Anyway, no matter anyone’s age or fitness level, the attic is a challenge. This house was built in 1867, and the roof requires anyone over 5 feet to bend at the waist and beware the rusty roofing nails that jut out every couple of inches.

Last Saturday we hired one of my shorter ESL students, Elmer Jr, to help us bring down everything from the scary attic. Elmer was posted at the pull-down ladder, I carried the boxes to the ladder, and Peter was on the second floor, which he took to calling “the staging area.” A lot of the “stuff” was Peter’s old film equipment and photographs, but the greater amount was my miles and miles of manila folders, newspaper clippings, and journals that pretty much encompassed my entire “writerly life.”

For every book, there’s a folder. For every freelance assignment, there’s a folder. My first of 43 books was published in 1985, long before manuscripts were kept in files online. So the dilemma was what to keep and what to throw out. Once a book is published and has gone out of print, is there any value in saving the final manuscript? Not really, unless someone wants to see how many revisions a book goes through. But I don’t need 43 examples of that. In fact, one or two pages is enough. So here’s what I decided to do:

1. If the book or assignment was published, I tossed out the manuscript.
2. If it wasn’t published (and every writer has a drawer of these) I kept it because who knows?
3. If there was a work-for-hire series for which I’d written many titles, I kept the Book One drafts, mostly out of nostalgia, and tossed the rest.
4. I kept the journals, 40 years worth, because that’s who I am. Maybe in another 20 years they’ll remind me of a life lived.

In the end, I probably recycled about 75% of the paper. I’m already feeling lighter, although the process of reviewing my life was an emotional rollercoaster. But that’s another blog.

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Invitation to a free in-service workshop for teachers

Classroom Teachers! Please join me and my colleagues at Creative Connections for this fun, educational workshop.

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An update on my co-writing project

So…as many of you know, since last October I have been co-writing a middle grade novel with a colleague, Susan Montanari. This is the first time either of us has co-written something, so it has been something of a literary adventure.

Now that we’re “co-finishing” a readable draft, I think we have a somewhat better perspective on the process at large. I admit that once we decided to embark on this idea, we had to google “how to co-write a book” to figure out what to do next. Luckily, a gazillion writers just like us had already co-written books, giving us more advice than we would ever need.

What it all boils down to is this: determine your strengths and weaknesses, make a plan, and proceed with caution.

Here’s how it went for us:

1. We created a very loose chapter by chapter outline ie. two or three sentences for each chapter that tell what happens to move the story forward (most of the gazillion seemed to agree with us on this one).

2. I wrote the prologue and then Susan re-wrote it. That made me a little grumpy but her revision made sense.

3. Susan wrote the rest of the chapters and focused primarily on the plotting and action. She writes very fast.

4. I revised all of the chapters and focused on adding descriptive details, internal voice, and pacing. I write very slow.

5. We shared chapters with our critique group and then together revised those chapters.

There’s still more writing/revising to do until we’re finished, but it’s fair to say that as writing partners, we’re on a roll now. So…

My lessons learned:

1. A partner can be a great asset. Both of you are invested in the project and your mutual obsession means that it’s got a double-whammy of energy, creativity and forward motion. For a slow poke like me, it’s amazing to realize we’re already nearing the finish.

2. Co-writing does not mean co-composing. It’s important to allow yourself the space to write alone, to let the muse channel your brain, heart, and words, and then to come together to revise.

3. When we do revise, some days are easier than others. Sometimes we argue longer than we should over a word, or an idea. Sometimes we arrive in bad moods that have nothing to do with the work. And I have been known to reverse a decision weeks later. But what keeps us going is our love for this story and the mutual respect we have for one another as writers.

Learning to work with someone else can be a big adjustment at first, but once you get going, once the rhythm of the story starts to zip, it’s really a lot of fun. One of the best compliments we received from someone in our critique group sums it up: “I can’t tell who wrote what.” Perfect!

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Getting the Most Out of Your Dough: a fun home-based activity

Looking for an old-fashioned activity to do with a child or grandchild over the holiday break that’s fun, cheap, and educational? Why not use a slow afternoon to combine a few chemistry experiments along with a bread-baking lesson?

First, have your child help you make the bread. For the bread recipe you’ll need:

2 ½ cups warm water
3 tablespoons honey
3 tablespoons oil
1 package dry yeast
1 tablespoon salt
6 cups whole wheat flour

Pour the warm water, honey and oil into a large bowl. Add the yeast. (Note: In case anyone asks, here is the scientific explanation: Yeast is actually a living organism. To be activated, it must be mixed with a warm liquid and flour.) Let the mixture stand for a few minutes until the yeast begins to foam slightly. Gradually stir in about half the flour and salt until the mixture becomes too difficult to stir with a spoon. (The yeast feeds on the natural sugars found in the flour, producing a gas called carbon dioxide.)

Sprinkle some of the flour onto a wooden board and then knead the remainder of the flour and salt into the bread (about 10 minutes). (The kneaded flour and water have now created a sticky protein substance known as gluten.) When the bread is fully kneaded, put it back into the bowl, cover it with a towel, and put in a warm place. (The carbon dioxide is now trapped inside the sticky gluten and will begin to create tiny bubbles, forcing the bread to expand.)

Allow the bread to double its original size (about 1 ½ hours). Punch the bread down with your fist. (That hissing noise is the carbon dioxide escaping.) Form the bread into two loaves, place in well-oiled loaf pans, and re-cover with a dishtowel. Let the bread rise to the top of the loaf pans (about 1 hour). Place the loaf pans in a pre-heated oven and bake at 375 for 40 minutes. The bread is ready if it sounds hollow when tapped.

While you’re waiting for your bread to rise, you and your junior baker can try these two simple science experiments that demonstrate the chemistry happening inside your bread. You’ll need several empty plastic water bottles (beer bottles will do as well) and a package of large, round balloons.


You can watch how yeast gas (carbon dioxide) is created by conducting the following experiment. Pour one package of yeast and ½ cup of sugar (remember, yeast feeds on sugars) into an empty water bottle. Add warm (not hot) water to the top of the bottle and then carefully put an empty balloon over the neck of the bottle. Wait 15-25 minutes. The substance should start to bubble. As the gas is being released, it will cause the balloon to gradually fill up. This same gas gets trapped inside the sticky bread dough and causes the bread to rise.


Yeast can be very sensitive to different temperatures because it is alive. To discover how various temperatures can affect yeast, take three water bottles and fill each bottle with ½ package of dry yeast and ¼ cup of sugar. Add cold water to the first bottle, warm water to the second bottle and very hot water to the third bottle. Put a balloon on each bottle and then wait at least an hour. You will discover that the warmer the temperature, the faster the gas is generated. However, if the water is too hot, it kills the yeast and no gas is generated at all.

By now, your bread is on its way to the oven and your junior baker has gained a better of understanding of baking chemistry. Your last scientific experiment for the afternoon is easy — a taste test. No need for instructions here. Just wait for your bread to be done, sit, and enjoy.

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Slave Cabins on Ossabaw Island

On my book research trip to Savannah in October, I spent a day on a magnificent barrier island called Ossabaw Island.  It is reachable only by boat and has a history that stretches back to when the Spaniards arrived, leaving behind heritage breeds of burros and pigs whose descendants still graze in the marshes.

But I digress.

Starting in the late 1700′s, rice plantations were established on Ossabaw. Today, the plantations no longer exist, but thanks to restoration efforts, it’s possible to see what the slave cabins looked like.

The cabins were built of tabby, a mixture of oyster shells and lime.

These were of interest to me because the story I am co-writing at the moment takes place in Savannah in the early 1800′s and features several slaves as well as plantation owners.

Oh, and did I mention it has a ghost?


Ghosts were called “haints.”

"Haint blue" paint covered the interior walls to protect the inhabitants against ghosts or haints.

The door frames were covered in “haint blue” as well.





One can still find many homes in Historic Savannah that use “haint blue.”

Here’s one of the most haunted little houses in Savannah:

They say that the woman who once lived here, a "root doctor," still haunts the place.

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What the *##@** is a Teaching Artist?

I’ve worked in the arts in education field most of my career, but it’s only been in the last 15 years or so that “what I do in the classroom” has been given an official and completely baffling moniker: teaching artist.  Most people assume that means I am an art teacher.  If you knew me, and had ever seen me wield a piece of chalk or crayon, you would buckle to the floor and wet your pants.  Or something.

The truth is that teaching artists are ARTISTS in the broadest sense of the definition: dancers, actors, poets, writers, painters, ceramicists and so forth who come into the classroom and work with the teacher to use the arts to enhance the curriculum.

Unfortunately, this is only the follow-up elevator speech to the person who says, “My sister is an art teacher.”  If someone genuinely wants a follow-up, my best shot is to give a simple explanation of a recent residency.

In an attempt at shameless self-promotion, here is a (downloadable) flier I created to explain what a residency with a teaching artist might look like.

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How to harvest compost worms

In a previous post, I showed a photo of the worm castings I harvested last Spring from my low tech Rubbermaid bin…a whole bucketful!  Today I harvested again, and here are some gooey wormy pictures to illustrate my old school technique.

Step 1  Wait for a sunny day.  Put down a plastic sheet.

Get ye a bucket and the worm bin from yonder dining room.

Step 2

Find ye someone strong or agile to help tip over the bin in one swift motion.

Bin upside down. Worms confused.

Step 3

Unleash the worms.

They will recover.


No worries. The ooey gooey worms head for the bottom. Quickly.

Step 4:  Worms hate the sun.  Give them a few minutes to burrow down and then gently skim off the top, layer by layer.

Our friend Don takes a moment away from installing a new screen door to try his hand at harvesting worm castings.

As you sift through the top layers of castings, toss the worms you come across back into the bin.

Step 5: Once the bucket is full, gently move the rest of the worms into the bin.

Bucket full. Worms anxious.

Happy to be home in their newspaper nests.

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Colonial Burial Vaults

This past week I was in Savannah, Georgia to research a new middle-grade (or should I say “grave”) novel.  This is my first co-writing adventure, and my writing partner, Susan Montanari, and I had lots of fun learning about Colonial burial practices.

Our story, loosely based on a Savannah ghost legend, takes place in the early 1800′s.  Savannah’s oldest existing cemetery, Colonial Cemetery, dates back to the mid-1700′s.  One of its most interesting architectural features is its burial vaults, which are unique to Savannah and its sister city, Charleston.

Although these brick vaults appear to be ground level, these are the "rooftops."

The small arch at the bottom of this vault is actually the top of the entrance.  A set of steps (now covered over) lead down into the vault’s interior, which is about 8 feet tall.

Inside the vault were shelves on three sides, designed to hold wooden coffins or draped shrouds.

Overcrowding was never a problem.  In the center of the vault was a large stone urn or urns, where the bones of decomposed bodies could be deposited to make more room on the shelves.

"Tabletops" were another popular option. Some held 3 or 4 coffins underneath.

The Colonial Cemetery was closed in around 1850.  Residents were asked to move their family members to Laurel Grove Cemetery and many did.

During the Civil War, hundreds of Union soldiers were billeted in the closed cemetery.  At that time, it was surrounded by a 7 foot brick wall.  The soldiers set up tents and, as you can imagine, wrecked havoc on the place.

Bored out of their minds, the soldiers pranked the cemetery's dead. They used their bayonet tips to "alter" dates and ages on many of the cemetery stones, including this one.

I think Josiah Muir, a husband and father, was older than 11 at his death.  His wife, Mary, must have made medical history when she gave birth at 5.

By the late 1800′s, the park had become dilapidated and rundown.  Concerned citizens created a committee to clean it up.  The brick wall was removed on three sides and replaced with wrought iron.  Plantings were installed and many of the grave markers and vaults removed.


Colonial Cemetery today.

Although only 600 markers are visible in Colonial Cemetery today, it’s estimated that 8,000 souls are buried in its soil.

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The rewards of worm composting

In this blog, I’ve talked before about the rewards of worm composting, but today I thought I’d post a few photos to illustrate my point.

This is six months worth of worm castings harvested from my 18 gallon Rubbermaid worm bin in early spring.  It took me about an hour to sift through the bin after I carefully flipped it over and onto a plastic tarp.  The worms burrowed down to the bottom, making it easy for me to collect this great compost.

This is my lovely garden, even in what I consider to be a off year, since I did lots of drastic pruning.

I’ve found that the worm castings really encourage both bloom and height.  If you’re wondering why I don’t have a vegetable garden, it’s because the yard is small, and I prefer instead to support small farms by belonging to a CSA.  Every Wednesday from June to November, Stoneledge Farms drops off our “share” at a nearby location.  My only edible plants are herbs and an Asian pear espalier that has unfortunately been discovered by the squirrels.  If anyone has a suggestion on how to keep them off the convenient pear lattice, let me know.

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A recap of my recent all-school residency


Last Friday was the “culminating assembly share” for a rather remarkable all-school residency.  As a children’s book author, I do lots of school visits.  Usually, it’s a quick in and out, a one-day visit.  But this visit became a 23 day residency.  Here is how it came about.

Jack Jackter Intermediate School (JJIS) in Colchester, CT has 700 students in grades 3-5.  Each year they bring in a HOTs teaching artist to do an all-school residency.  (HOTS stands for Higher Order Thinking Schools: a CT school reform model that integrates the arts across the disciplines.)  Last year they worked with a musician, the year before an artist.  This year they wanted to do something with an author.  A recent mini-residency with Louise Pascale, author of The Afghan Children’s Songbook, convinced them that they wanted to focus on a more global theme, and they contacted me because I’m a HOTS teaching artist and have also written books with Heifer International.  I met with a group of teachers and we decided our residency theme would be “What Does It Mean to be a Global Citizen?”

The residency had many components and grew in depth and scope as the project evolved.

1) Students raised money for Heifer in three ways: first, through a Lead the Stampede Read to Feed campaign; second, a school Literacy Night that featured games and activities focused on literature (and Heifer books and t-shirts for sale, designed by a student); and third, a “Hat Day” where each student paid $1 to wear a hat to school.

2) Students raised their global awareness by listening to my author talks based on Beatrice’s Goat ( for gr 3-5), Winter in Songming (gr 3) and Once There Was and Was Not (gr 4-5).  Teachers were given Heifer Global Education Resource Kits for the books introduced to their classroom.

3) I did three follow-up visits to each classroom.  The first two visits, students reviewed the slides from the author talks and did reflective writing that encouraged them to think more deeply: ie. What did you notice? What connections did you make to your own life? (Colchester used to be a farming community, so there were lots of connections to the animals.) What kind of feelings did you have?  What questions do you have? The questions led to group discussions…everything from “Why do we have so much and they have so little?” to “Where do the villagers get their hair cut?”

For the last visit, students in all three grades wrote poetry that reflected their learning.  Third graders wrote lunes (a 3-line poetic form that uses 3 words on the first line, 5 words on the second, and 3 words on the third).  Fourth and fifth graders worked in groups to create poems from the point of view of a Heifer animal (gr 4) or a person who had just received a Heifer animal (gr 5), and then presented them to their classmates using movement and music.

4) The final component of the residency was an all-school share this past Monday to celebrate what the students had learned and to congratulate them on becoming global citizens.  Students sat outside by grade level on the athletic field in three large circles.  Fifth graders were the outside circle, then the 4th graders, and last the 3rd graders.  A small stage was put in the center.

After opening remarks from the principal, the ceremony began with students using sign language to recite “Hold Fast to Dreams” by Langston Hughes as a reminder that their hard work and accomplishments would help those in need hold onto their dreams for self-reliance.  Then the two winners of the Heifer t-shirt design contest were given certificates.  (It was determined that one of the winning designs was too complicated for a t-shirt design, so a high school student worked with that student to create a larger watercolor poster that will hang in the school lobby.) After that a few Grade 3 students, chosen by the school editorial board, shared their lunes.

Next, five 5th grade classes shared an awesome project they created on their own initiative based on the book, If the World Were a Village, and what they’d learned during the residency.  One of the teachers wrote a beautiful song that was sung by the students.  This was interspersed with quotes from the book and quotes from the students’ reflective writing that they’d done in our classroom sessions.  They also included reflections from a question posed to them after my first assembly program: How has your thinking changed?

Following that, some 4th grade poets shared (“I am a tilapia” and “I am a camel”).

Then several teachers did the Read to Feed presentation.  $2000 was raised… Earlier, classes had to “vote” on which of three possible animal combinations they wanted, and a 3rd grader decided to “do the math” to see which one would produce the greatest number of offspring ie. value.  His mother helped him write up his computations, and he shared those with the audience.

Fifth grade poets shared next.

Then we had a Passing of the Gift ceremony where each grade passed on their words of wisdom to the younger grade.  Each class had been asked to come up with a list of things they could do as global citizens (ie. “Respect all people, regardless of color.” “Don’t litter.”"A global citizen protects the environment.”)  Each student wrote his or her favorite on an index card and used yarn to create a “necklace” that was worn to the assembly.  At the appropriate time, the circle of 4th graders stood, turned to face the 3rd graders, and then each 4th grader placed his/her necklace on a 3rd grader.  Next, the 5th graders passed their knowledge to the 4th graders.  In the fall, the new 4th graders will pass their words of wisdom to the incoming 3rd graders at the opening day assembly.  In addition, each class created a quilt square of their top global citizen suggestion, and those are being made into a quilt over the summer that will be unveiled at the opening day assembly in the fall and hung permanently in the school lobby.

The closing song was the 4th and 5th grade choir singing and signing “We Are the World.”

I must say, sitting in our world circle like that felt magical.  JJIS faculty and staff spend a lot of time working with the students on how to be good school citizens, and now I think the kids really understand that being a citizen of the world requires the same kind of thoughtfulness that is asked of citizens of a school, a town, a state, and a country.  It was a wonderful experience, one that will certainly stay with me a long while.




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