Thursday, March 17, 2016

Of Soup and Synthesis

A few nights ago, Tyler announced that he wanted to make dinner for Jen, Ben, and I.

"What are you going to make?" We wondered aloud.

"You'll see!" came the excited retort.

And so, we saw.

Tyler asked Jen to purchase a number of items from the store--red peppers, onions, garlic, avocado, grape tomatoes, tomato sauce...and a few hours later Tyler was at the stove adding ingredients into one pan and getting ready to chop up others and fry them in another pan. The entire time, as he progressed in his yet-unannounced recipe preparation--he voiced aloud exactly what he was doing as he was working off the set of his own veritable cooking show.

Hearing our seven old utter sentences like,  "So what I'm doing here is I am cutting these peppers into very tiny pieces to get them all to be just the right size for the mix" filled us with a synthesis of wonder and delight.

We relished it. (Even if we were just a bit mystified and fearful of how the eventual result would taste.)

Fast forwarding an hour later, we all sat down do a kind of soup. The onions had been fried and we browned just towards the heavy side of soft, the peppers were (as predicted) just the right size, and the other ingredients seemed to elbow out their space in the mixture to announce themselves subtly yet powerfully enough to get noticed--"Hey man! I may be small and have strange ties to varies but I AM HERE TOO" said the garlic.

In the days that have followed, I've thought a lot about soup.


It's a synthesis really, and I have thought a lot about synthesis lately, too, since my 7th graders just finished writing their synthesis essays and since my school backpack is burdened with the 100 essays labeled TO BE GRADED.

The theme my thoughts have taken with all of this soup and synthesis has coalesced into one curiosity today: I wonder how many students in our schools feel like they can make their own soup?

In other words, I am wondering how often we ask our students--and our children--to work with the ingredients they know and come up with new possibilities. Instead of handing them recipes to be followed meticulously, how often do we let their minds wander around the educational grocery store and say, come up with something new!

RUBRIC is a buzzword we hear everywhere these days, and if I ever assign some kind of writing and don't provide a rubric (which is becoming more and more frequent!) I certainly hear the fear that arches back: "But how will we KNOW what to produce?!"

And the answer that rises up--the YAWP if we can invoke a little Whitman here--is simply, "You won't!"

And maybe that's okay. Maybe that's even a good thing.

In one of his poems, the great rule-breaker e.e. cummings wrote, "I would rather learn from one bird how to sing /  than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance." Maybe part of what he meant here relates to soup and synthesis. Maybe part of what he meant was about learning a new song rather than teaching what NOT to do because it's not on the rubric.

I have a lot to learn. And watching my seven year old son make soup, I felt a kind of challenge from the young to the old: watch this, Dad. It doesn't have to be all planned out. I don't even have to know what I am doing! And it will be okay!

It may not always taste great. But then again, isn't that, too, what real learning is all about?

Thursday, March 10, 2016

"Charmed and Delighted": An Interview with Tara Lazar

Tara Lazar is a veritable whiz of boisterous, joyful, fun, and empowering picture books. She is the author of The Monstore, Little Red Gliding Hood, and many other books--including her latest, Normal Norman

As a teacher and a dad, Normal Norman is about everything I want my students and my kids to know and believe: that being EXACTLY who you truly, authentically are is the only real "normal" worth striving towards! 

Tara hits this beautiful message out of the park with her latest picture book, which includes an awesomely unique orangutan and a passionately empowered young female scientist. It's DEFINITELY worth buying and reading to yourself and your kids and your students many times over again!

And here's Tara's wisdom on writing, living, Normal Norman, and her love of waffles and Roald Dahl...

How did you first get the highly original and engaging idea for NORMAL NORMAN?

All I had was the title, or rather, the character’s name. I love word play so my only real thought was that it was fun to say. This kind of thing pops into my head from nowhere, so I don’t remember any specific lightning bolt of inspiration.

I’m a pantser, so sometimes ideas don’t manifest themselves fully until I’m actively writing. It seemed to make sense to introduce Norman first, so I created the junior scientist narrator. Then I knew Norman had to be very uncooperative. And the story took off from there!

You've created not only a very unique and fun and funny orangutan, Norman, but also a very empowered young female scientist! How did you arrive at the identities of these two protagonists? Did they change throughout the revision process?

I just wrote the words. S.britt created the characters. I had no idea what they looked like! I never specified what kind of animal Norman was, nor did I state that the junior scientist was female. That was all Stephan’s brilliant interpretation.

Norman started out as a lion, but he didn’t feel quite right and we all knew it. Then he was a blue lion but he looked more like a monster. Then came the purple orangutan and we all knew it—we knew it like you know about a good melon.

One line you hope kids think or feel after reading NORMAL NORMAN?


Ha ha, just kidding.

“…everyone likes being his or her normal self.” No explanation needed.

One line you hope parents / teachers / librarians think or feel afterwards?

Same for them, too!

You've got an amazing and inspiring (and hugely helpful) blog WRITING FOR KIDS WHILE RAISING THEM, and you also run PiBoIdMo, the picture book writing equivalent to NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Can you share why you so strongly believe in, support, and create picture books?

I have always loved picture books, the unique format, the interplay between words and pictures. Honestly, I love the pictures more than anything else! I remember being in 2nd grade and being told to read chapter books and novels. BUT THERE ARE NO PICTURES, I said. I was devastated. To this day, I still feel sorry for my 8-year-old self.

I create picture books because they are a child’s first introduction to literature and I want the children reading the books to be charmed and delighted. I want them to LOVE reading for a lifetime. Reading is instrumental to a child’s success in school and later in life. If I can reel one kid in, my job here is done! Err, I mean, my job here is ongoing!

Can you finish these lines for us...?

If I were to have a five-hour breakfast with someone, it would be...

Roald Dahl (with waffles)

If I could have a superpower it would be...

To fly.

If I had to choose between eating the same piece of fruit every day for every meal or only relying on a tractor for all forms of transportation, I would choose...

The tractor. Come on, how fun would that be?

If I could create a constellation of my own design, it would be...

Roald Dahl (with waffles)

And last: can you share a little about your journey as a writer--what has inspired and sustained you?

The kids! My readers. When I receive a fan letter, my heart melts and I feel happy, content and inspired to keep creating.