Sometimes You Just Gotta Go There

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As a writer, I think it helps to have been to the places you write about. I wrote about the Grand Canyon and New York City in my series. I’d been to both places. Research is a big part of any book. The more you do, the more it helps the book come alive.

Add in history and you’ve got your work cut out for you. As you know, if you follow my blog, I’m reading the Outlander series. The author had to do a massive amount of research. She started with Scotland and the Highlander uprising and ended in North America pre-Revolutionary War. And that’s only in the four books I’ve read. I’m sure there’s more to come.

Since I like to read historical fiction and am considering writing one myself, I just had to invite my author friend, Mysti Parker, to guest blog today. She has recently released a historical romance novel. She has visited the places she wrote about and it’s an interesting journey. Love the cover, Mysti!

Travelling for Research

By Mysti Parker

I’ve never been what you’d call a history buff, but I had to become one when I wrote A Time for Everything. The idea came to me in 2010, and I began a very rough draft. I decided that I really should see these places where the story was to take place. That’s what researchers do, right? We took a trip to middle Tennessee, just the husband and I (always nice to be alone) and spent a weekend touring Franklin, Nashville, Brentwood, and Lebanon. These four towns all played parts in the story. But what I found in them truly fueled the fire of the book’s plot.

Middle Tennessee, like much of Kentucky where I live, is a beautiful symphony of rolling hills, green meadows, small farms and cozy communities nestled in quiet valleys. But during the Civil War, this area was anything but idyllic. Take Franklin, for instance. One of the bloodiest battles of the war swept through the town on November 30, 1864, leaving behind a trail of bullet-riddled soldiers, houses, and even civilian casualties.

Today, this horrific period in history is commemorated with historical sites that offer tours. We visited many of these, including the Lotz House, where German immigrant and master woodworker Johann Lotz and family had to evacuate before the battle reached their home. They sought shelter along with a couple dozen neighbors in basement of the Carter house across the street. In this beautiful historic home turned museum, you can still see the bullet holes in the original woodwork.

Just a short drive out of town is Carnton Plantation, where the McGavock family’s home became a field hospital. If you ever get a chance to visit, make sure to take the tour. It’s a fascinating and enlightening story of just how bad things could be when a battle is literally raging at your doorstep. In the home, you can still see the blood stains on the wooden floors upstairs. Here, you’ll see the window where a field surgeon tossed out amputated limbs. Arms, legs, hands, and feet of these unfortunate men supposedly formed a pile as high as the smokehouse.

The story of Carrie McGavock, however, was the most compelling. Once the war was over, and bodies buried hastily in shallow graves across the countryside, she decided to dedicate a parcel of their land as a Confederate cemetery. She began the arduous task of identifying these men when possible, and relocating their bodies to a proper, marked resting place. Her story inspired Robert Hicks to write Widow of the South, which I bought in the Carnton Plantation gift shop.

That book, along with several others like the real-life diary of a Confederate widow, A Woman’s Civil War by Cornelia Peake McDonald, helped me fill in the gaps of Portia’s story. Accounts of the Tennessee men who fought for both sides, and walking the ground they lived and died upon, helped bring Beau to life.

I think I could have written A Time for Everything without ever having stepped foot into Tennessee, but it wouldn’t have been the same book. Without touring the places firsthand and hearing such memorable and personal accounts, I don’t believe the story would have felt real enough. But I’ll let you readers decide that for yourself.

Profile Pic 2015 150x226  Buy her book here.           A Time for Everything  

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Reading and Writing and ‘Rithmetic

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I’m glad I don’t teach anymore. Don’t get me wrong. I loved it. I miss the kids. I miss creating a great lesson. I miss the light bulb moments. The reason I don’t want to be in the classroom now can be summed up in three words—common core math.

I just watched an inspiring video on Common Core Math. A mother in a certain school district gave a well-thought out presentation to a group of officials as to why parents hate it. I gave her a standing ovation when it was over. She gave an example of a math word problem to the panel. One of the women answered the question after figuring it out in her head. The mom told her it would take numerous steps on paper to show the answer, many more than necessary. And that’s what children are asked to do, show those steps, instead of being praised for figuring it out in their head.

Math and memorization have gone out the window. No more training the brain to be a calculator. I’m glad I learned arithmetic the old-fashioned way. I even know how to count change back to a customer, not that it’s a needed talent anymore. The cash register does everything for the employee these days. But still, shouldn’t we all know how to do that? Math skills should be stored in the brain, not as a ten step process on two sheets of paper.

I have read up on Common Core Math. Not to bore you, or myself, here are some main ideas of what I found. There are no shortcuts. The math is conceptual, not procedural. When you get the answer, you have to be able to write out how you got there. And from what I can conclude, solving math problems are based on rounding place values to tens (or hundreds).

Not to criticize or critique, but I would like to emphasis not all children learn the same way. I had buckets of hundreds blocks, tens sticks, and ones cubes for hands-on sessions. After one particular good lesson, or so I thought, a child raised his hand. “I don’t get it,” he said. My first reaction was to think, “What? After that great lesson?” But I proceeded to take him to the chalkboard and demonstrate the same problem on the board. “Oh,” he said, “now I see.”

I am not an expert when it comes to this new math. All I can say is that I think it looks very confusing. We can all add 26+17 in our head. Got the answer already? Right, 43. That’s considered the wrong way.

This is the common core math way:

Break apart the numbers to make a ten.

Use a number that adds with the 6 in 26 to make a ten.

Since 6+4=10, use 4.

Think: 17-4=13

Add 26+4=30

13+30=43

There’s your answer!

I admit I found this popular example on-line and didn’t try to solve a problem myself. After reading through that given model, I didn’t want to. And I don’t have to.

But kids do. Every day at school.

Put to the Test

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Tests have become the measuring stick of a student’s educational life. They were supposed to show what the child knew and what topics needed more instruction. When did the test overtake teaching, and why are we letting that happen?

Before all this mandatory testing, my students were great learners. As they took more and more tests, I felt like the creativity was being sapped from them. I noticed it when they were given a writing prompt. If they were stuck, I’d tell them to make something up and assured them it was okay to use their imaginations. After getting the “deer in the headlights” look from their little faces, that’s when I realized what was happening.

We were teaching children to answer questions on a test, not to be creative thinkers. I never taught questions. I taught concepts. I felt like concepts were more useful in life and that knowing them was a much better skill.

My grade-level colleagues got together and decided to do something about it. We tore through the results of an old test and came up with three areas to concentrate on: writing, science, and social studies/citizenship.  We chose our area of expertise based on which class did the best in that area on the test. A block of time was carved out in our schedules and divided into half-hour segments. We would develop a lesson and teach it to all three classes. That way, each teacher had more time to focus on concepts and create interesting ways to present them.

I didn’t have to plan science lessons or find materials for experiments, but they were being taught to my class. I still taught writing skills, but the major objectives, like writing a summary or a form letter, were being presented by another teacher. The end result of our plan was constant high scores in those areas. We were still accountable for reading and math in our own classroom, but we shared ideas.

Teamwork, discussions, and oral reports were used as regular evaluations besides written tests. Children were given a leaf guide in science and asked to find as many leaves as they could outside of class. Classifying and comparing, writing about their findings, and reporting to the class made for a much better way of learning. Sending letters to a favorite person, such as a local celebrity, made the writing process real. Dividing the class into four wards of a city and having students campaign and run for council positions brought the governmental process to life. Each teacher found ways for children to learn concepts without paper-and-pencil quizzes and questions.

Recently, I was invited to a high school speech class as a guest speaker. I was a little early, and the teacher was finishing up her English class. They were taking a test. At the end of the period, she started collecting the tests, reminding the students that it was a big part of their grade. She said the tests would be sent to the board office and graded there. That sounded pretty scary to me. One giant test they worked on for a few periods would be most of their grade.

The pendulum has swung too far in one direction. The system isn’t giving students a fair, balanced education. Until there is one, what can be done? Encourage students to follow their endeavors outside the classroom — keep notebooks full of poems and sketch pads of art. Attend community artistic events and talk with people in those professions. Take classes outside of school. Do research on the Internet. Do anything to keep the creative side of the brain working overtime. Don’t let the tests get you down.

This was originally posted on Class Craft’s Tumblr blog which can be found here:

http://classcraftgame.tumblr.com/post/85933447003/teaching-students-to-be-thinkers-not-test-takers

I thank them for the opportunity.

Learn Your Own Way

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I love Fleetwood Mac and their song, Go Your Own Way, is a great anthem. I’ve had a lot of people ask me how I keep my characters and stories organized. When I tell them, “In my head”, I get a strange look.

Some authors make outlines for their stories; others have charts and intricate computer programs. Others have it all in their head. I told this person they had to do what works for them. We’re all different in the learning department.

Everyone learns differently. When I taught I made sure to use as many ways as possible to educate my students. They’re called Learning Styles. Not everyone is auditory–as in the talking, listening student. Some are visual, having to see it to believe it. Others are kinesthetic and need a hands-on approach. Then there are the tactual learners who need to feel things. Many people are a combination of styles.

I had a flannel board and colored chalk, magnets of numbers and shapes in my classroom besides the computers. I guess those things would be considered outdated now with fancy whiteboards and updated computers. I had one student tell me recently he learned subtraction because of my flannel board. He learned in his own way.

What works for you, may not work for someone else. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re doing something wrong or need an outline or notebooks filled with information to do what you want. Learn your own way. Write your own way. Go your own way. Do what works for you.

 

The Lot is Full

book-67049_1280People are still reading. People are using the library. So many things are going out of style or out of date. Kids hardly watch television and find their shows on-line. They watch at their convenience. Newspapers are scaling back because sales are dipping. Only old people read it…or so I’ve been told. The younger generation gets everything on-line.

So I was very happy to see the library hasn’t turned into a dinosaur yet. I know they have computers and try to stay up-to-date but let’s admit it, it’s a place filled with books. Books! Not much else.

Don’t you love the feeling of stepping into a library? I always considered it a magical place. You go in with high hopes and come out with unknown treasures. If you don’t like one of the gems you picked, you can close it and move on to the next hoping to find the adventure of a lifetime. Nowhere else in the world can you go and get that same experience without spending a dime.

Let’s keep the younger generation reading…for fun. Not because they have to for a school assignment but because they want to. I know there are young readers out there because they blog about books. Young adult is a popular genre in reading.

Life’s at warp speed these days but I have faith in our younger generation. I think they’ll continue the tradition of reading books and supporting their libraries. Libraries may have to continue to change to keep up, adding more high tech advances inside their walls.

Maybe one day a person will scan the walls searching for the perfect book and just hold up their phone to download it. I know virtual libraries already exist and you don’t have to go to the actual place. I use one to check out books at times. But let’s admit it, there’s nothing like walking into the real thing, being greeted by the scent of a good book. Let’s hope it never goes the way of the dinosaur.

Remember the Days of the Old School Yard

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Even though I’m not returning, as a student or a teacher, a flood of emotions still overcomes me. Readying a classroom or getting new school clothes and supplies represented a fresh start, a new outlook.

A lot of young adult books take place in school. I wanted to break free of that in Waiting for Dusk but found I had to have some scenes take place there. Makes sense because of the age of the characters, but it’s also a place everyone’s been and can identify with—good or bad.

I had parents tell me they were nervous to come back to school even as adults and some would comment it still smells like school. Funny, I always thought that, too. School has a scent! Can’t describe it, but it does.

If I go way back, my fondest memory takes place in the school yard. While waiting for the bell to ring, I would trade baseball cards with the boys. Yep, back then, it was pretty much a boy’s club.

I loved baseball for as long as I can remember. My mom told me when I was just three or four, I’d ask her to throw the ball with me. I would tell her “You be Larry Doby, Mommy.”, my favorite player on the Cleveland Indians…may be dating myself a bit!

When I was older, I started buying my own baseball cards—wish I still had them.  Roger Maris, Rocky Colavito, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle to name just a few.

I was smart out in the old schoolyard. Trades were made fast and furious and someone would try to get the best of me. My first rule was to trade my doubles, then get a 2-for-1. Lessons were learned out there just as much as inside those school walls where we stood to make our deals.

I could go on and on about favorite teachers and what inspired me to choose that profession. I’ll save that for another time. This time of year is about nostalgia, a quick trip down memory lane. I hope you have a story tucked away in yours, maybe one that has nothing to do with “reading and ‘riting and ‘rithmetic”, but one that taught you a great lesson. One you’ve taken on your journey through life and remember fondly. Maybe it even happened back in the old schoolyard.

Remember the days of the old school yard

We used to laugh a lot.

Oh, don’t you remember the days of the old school yard.

-Cat Stevens

Butterflies are Free

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They start off in caterpillar form and are juicy dinner for birds, lizards and even small mammals. It’s amazing they make it to the next stage, forming a cocoon. They’re in that stage for about two weeks but have the ability to stay that way throughout the winter. The butterfly emerges as an entirely different creature than its caterpillar form.

When I taught third grade, we learned about the four stages of a butterfly as part of the science curriculum. My colleague and I worked as a team so we came up with the not-so-creative idea of folding a white sheet of paper into four parts and have the children label and draw in each square. Those would proudly be displayed on the wall outside our classrooms.

One day after school, she was hanging those designs titled Four Stages of a Butterfly so they would be ready for Open House the next night. I admired the works of art as I went along the hallway. Imagine my surprise when I came across one that said Four Stages of a Buttfly. We had a good laugh and she thanked me profusely for catching the mistake.

Butterflies have always been a part of my life, whether chasing them as a child or teaching about them at school. It’s not surprising they are now important in another way. I like to include them in my books because they’ve taken on a whole new meaning.

A Monarch visits almost every August on my birthday. I’ve come to believe it’s my dad stopping by with good wishes. A few times it didn’t come and that’s okay. It’s all in my mind anyway, right? How could something like that be true?

One year, after my birthday and no sighting, imagine my surprise when one flew right at my car’s windshield so I couldn’t miss seeing it. It was as if Dad was saying, “See, I didn’t forget.”

As a writer, I like to tuck things away in my books that others may discover and wonder if there’s a little significance to their find. Butterflies are one of those wonders. And now you know why.