Memorial Day freebies

alphaorderusaI know — Memorial Day is a holiday. And holidays shouldn’t involve schoolwork, right? Well, before you decide that, let me ask you a few questions:

1. Do you know the former name of Memorial Day?

2. Do you know why Memorial Day is associated with poppies?

3. Do you know which president began the establishment of military cemeteries?

If you don’t — and chances are that your students don’t know the answers either — check out the first of our freebies. It’s a capitalization practice that is all about Memorial Day. Your students will learn the history of Memorial Day as they practice that oh-so-important skill.memdaycap

Our second freebie is a USA-themed alphabetical order worksheet.

Finally, here’s a link to the poem “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae. Take some time this Memorial Day to read it to your students and honor those soldiers who are resting eternally among the poppies.

Happy Memorial Day!

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Organic writing


Because I teach writing classes, or maybe because I’m a professional writer, or maybe just because I write kinda good-like, one question I get asked a lot is, “Which writing curriculum should I use?”

My answer: “The organic one.”

“Organic” conjures up images of purity. Of food untouched by pesticides, varmints, antibiotics, or human hands. The organic section at grocery stores retains an angelic, holier-than-you-other-foods air, and the simple act of choosing the organic $.99/lb bananas over the $.59 bananas imbues me with a feeling of virtue.

But the thing is, that’s not what organic means. It doesn’t mean good or best or perfect. It doesn’t mean angelic or healthy or pesticide-free.

Organic means “derived from living matter.”


Long ago, in our newbie homeschooling life, we tried a writing curriculum (this was before I possessed any self-confidence about, well, anything homeschool-related). The very first activity was to have the students write “I have a pencil” and add an adjective. Whoa! Fun! Instead of writing her sentence, my then-six-year-old daughter raised her hand (where did she think she was — a classroom?) and asked, “Mommy, can I write about butterflies instead?”

That morning, our painted lady butterflies had hatched from their little chrysalides. They were newborn things of wonder, drying their wings in their mesh cage, awaiting the freedom we would launch them to that afternoon. And, of course, the kids were watching their development with wide, awestruck eyes. No surprise that my little one wanted to write about the butterflies.

But you know what I said? I said, “No.” I said that we had a new writing curriculum — a highly-rated, not-cheap curriculum by a professional — and that we had to go in order of the lessons.

So, being obedient, she walked away from the butterflies and dutifully wrote the sentence, “I have a STUPID pencil.” Ah, those tiny acts of rebellion.

It came time, soon enough, to release our painted ladies. We readied the video camera, gathered outdoors in the warm spring sun, solemnly wished the butterflies long, fruitful lives, and unzipped the cage. They didn’t want to leave. My daughter reached her skinny finger inside and giggled as a butterfly planted its whispery feet on her arm. She raised her hand, breathed lightly on the butterfly, and off it flew.

Right into the beak of a cardinal.

Oh, it was traumatic. To have watched these new creatures metamorphosize from tiny caterpillars to crusty chrysalides to delicate butterflies, to have fed them sugar water from a plastic syringe, to have held them skyward and sent them off full of hopes and dreams… and then to watch that life snuffed out in a second by a bird.

Oh, the children cried. They declared that they would hate birds forevermore, that they would never put seed in the birdfeeder again.

And in between wails my daughter said, “Mommy, you should have let me write about my butterflies. Now I can’t remember what they look like and I can never write about them again!”

It occurred to me, as a lone tattered butterfly wing landed at our feet, that I was doing to their writing lives exactly what that cardinal had done to that butterfly. By not allowing them control over their writing, by not allowing them to write about life and what they loved, by not allowing them to practice practice practice and hone their skills by writing a thousand different things that they WANTED to write about — I was killing any enthusiasm or love they possessed for the art of writing. I was, in effect, that cardinal.

We don’t have talking curriculums. We don’t have walking curriculums. We don’t have soccer or baseball or hockey curriculums. We teach kids the basics — the rules, the standards — and we let them play, making sure they adhere to the rules. And we tell them to practice. And practice some more.

But with writing, we take out the play. We take out the fun practice. We distill writing down to the most basic elements. Add an adjective to this sentence. Write a paragraph about making a sandwich. Use an adverb. Use transitions.

And we don’t let them play. We don’t let them practice their new skills. Instead, once they have used an adjective, it’s on to the next lesson on adverbs. Writing becomes purely a matter of functionality.

No wonder so many kids hate writing.


When I encourage you to make writing organic, what I’m really urging — stringently urging — is for you to make writing COME FROM LIFE. What do your children love? What inspires them? What motivates them? What do they WANT to write about? Minecraft? American Girl dolls? Lego, soccer, food, siblings, a TV show character? Their friends? Their pets? What are you studying, either at school or in your homeschool? Write about that.

Teach them the basics — sentence structure, paragraph construction, essay outlines. Then, let them play. Let them practice by giving them plentiful opportunities to write.

CAM00276Writing should be a cross-curricular, multiple-times-a-day activity. Once a child has mastered writing complete sentences, have them make a sign that says Dinner is ready. We are having hamburgers. Or I’m glad you’re home, Daddy. Put it on the front door. Have them write a sentence to Grandma — I jumped rope today — and illustrate it. Make it a game to communicate only in writing for 10 minutes. I love you, Mommy. Or I’m mad at you, Mommy. It really doesn’t matter WHAT they write, as long as they’re writing something from life. My favorite bit of early writing was a note my daughter wrote to her little brother: Dear Vincent, Pleza stop puting snakes on my pillo. I love that she didn’t come to me with her problem (and I think we can all agree that snakes under a pillow is a problem, right?). She went directly to the source, and she stated her request in writing. It doesn’t get much more organic than that.

As a child moves into writing paragraphs, hundreds more opportunities for daily writing emerge. Every thank-you note, every letter, every description and explanation and whine should take the form of a proper paragraph. Stress the idea of main points. Write paragraphs about butterflies — one day write a descriptive paragraph, the next a paragraph about the life cycle of a butterfly, the next an expository paragraph about butterflies migrating to Mexico for the winter — and about elephants, explorers, scientists, plants, presidents, and anything else that crosses your curriculum. Write about life, too. Is a child misbehaving? Annoying a sibling? Being annoyed by a sibling? Write, write, write. Why are you mad today, darling? I am furious because you are the meanest mother in the whole world. Great topic sentence, honey! Now give me three sentences detailing WHY I’m the worst mother ever. Use specific examples!

Essay writing sounds difficult, but it isn’t — if you practice. How can essay-writing be organic? As my daughter would say, “Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.” The very first essay she ever wrote was about Lewis and Clark. Seventeen paragraphs, and I didn’t assign it. She was so accustomed to writing paragraphs that when I assigned one paragraph about the explorers, she couldn’t decide what particular aspect of their lives to write about, so she wrote 15. It was only afterwards that she reviewed them and decided she needed a “nice way” to introduce the topic, as well as a way to end it. That’s how she learned about writing an introduction, a conclusion, and using transitions in an essay. Yet the word “essay” never came up that day. Now we use proper essay structure in writing just about every day. One of the children was balking at writing a birthday thank-you note, stating that he didn’t know how to write one. Yet when I pointed out that a thank-you note could take the form of an essay, he said, “Oh. Fine,” and proceeded to write a beautiful thank-you note of five paragraphs. Was he particularly thrilled about it? No, but he saw the construction behind it and that made it easier because he was so accustomed to writing essays.

Making writing organic is, at its heart, a simple methodology: Teach your children the tools of writing. Give them opportunities for practice every single day. Relate writing to the life occurring around them. Let them write about what they love.

And then, you shall have writers.


thedaffodilscoverFREE POETRY UNIT!

Want to receive writing ideas and projects, inspiration, freebies and more right in your inbox? Want to know what’s happening with Wordplay and how we’re growing?

And do you want to receive a FREE POETRY ANALYSIS of William Wordsworth’s The Daffodils just for signing up?

In this poetry analysis you’ll find primers on poetic form and literary devices… student worksheets on how to analyze a poem… author information and background on the poem… and more!

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Playing outside the box

terrifictuesdayWoohoo — it’s Tuesday! I know, I know; usually only Friday engenders this level of enthusiasm. But around the Workshop, Tuesdays are the day that we play. I’m a big believer in the idea that kids need to PLAY — both outside and inside. I make it a point on Tuesdays to break out the board games.


Pogonip: When you’re on a pogo stick and a dog bites you.

Today we started with Balderdash, and I learned that 1) my children are perfectly capable of balderdashing me, 2) I’m not as smart as I think, and 3) Thomas Waddell once stole 21 pigeons and stuffed them down his pants.

History lesson, check.

On to writing. This activity took all of four minutes. But in those four minutes we practiced brainstorming, spelling, and vocabulary. What did we do? This.


These cards are part of the Outside-the-Box Brainstorming Prompts set. The methodology is simple but powerful. You set a time limit — 1 to 2 minutes — and give your students one of the cards. They brainstorm whatever is listed on the card. So if the topic is “Words that start with WR,” obviously they need to brainstorm those words. If it’s “Types of birds” or “Articles of clothing,” they list those.

We play in sets of four, so the kids are brainstorming four times. This is because 1) it’s fun, and 2) it takes a round or two for those little brains to get engaged.

The magic of this activity is (I’m really into listing today — can you tell?) 1) it’s quick and easy, 2) it’s non-threatening (there aren’t any “tricky” prompts that will stump the kids), 3) you can sneak in vocab and spelling (we had to go over a lot of homonyms like right and write), and 4) it’s only $1 in the Wordplay store!



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Deconstructing short stories

deconstructingshortstoriesThe latest assignment around here was to write a short story… which is a monumental task for elementary-age kids! It arose because the kiddos heard about a short story contest and desperately wanted to enter… but the deadline was only two days away. So after several hours (no joke) of feverish writing, we dashed off their entries and are now waiting on pins and needles to hear if they won (not really — I’m pretty sure they’ve forgotten they entered by now).

What I learned, other than that we really need to work on the use of correct punctuation in dialogue, is that a great way to approach writing short stories is to examine existing short stories and deconstruct them. See, there was a lot of stressing about the fact that the stories had to be 800 words. Despite my repeatedly telling them NOT to count the words, every few minutes I would catch the fingers going word-to-word and the lips moving in silent counting. Six-hundred sixty-three… The fact that I was a professional journalist and possess the ability to manipulate any piece of writing into the correct number of words held no weight. Six-hundred sixty-seven…

IMG_20160502_170834395Shortly after the conclusion of their stories, the fourth-grader picked up a Fancy Nancy book (the I Can Read one — she still loves these). And guess what she did? She counted the words. Roughly five-hundred. She called out, “Hey, Mom, this is a short story!” Ding ding ding. What else, I wondered, could we extrapolate from Easy Readers/ I Can Read books — which are ALL short stories — to learn about the construction of a story? In other words, could we learn to construct short stories by deconstructing them?

The answer? Yes. And you, my fair readers, are the secondary beneficiaries of this free activity I created for the kiddos to examine the stories.

First order of business was to grab a selection of short books. Ultimately, the kids each chose a couple: Fancy Nancy: The Show Must Go On, an abridged (very abridged!) version of The Little Princess, Tom Sawyer: The Best Fence Painter, and The Treasure Map from the Easy Reader Classic series of Treasure Island.

deconstructingss1The first step in deconstructing the books is not to count the words… which they did anyway. Second step: Who are the characters? This activity has a page for students to deconstruct the characters by listing the name, age, quirky/interesting traits, likable/admirable traits, flaws, and physical characteristics. It was important to note, at least to my kids, that “flaws” does not necessarily mean bad things. It can mean traits that could use improvement. For instance, Jim Hawkins, the little boy in Treasure Island, was stubborn. Sara from The Little Princess was a little too day-dreamy.

The stories might not contain all of the information on the worksheet, and that’s okay.

Next up: Deconstructing the scenes. For this, have your students envision the book on TV or a stage. A scene change occurs when 1) the scenery/set changes, or 2) a length of time passes (have them look for key phrases like “Later that day” or “Several hours later.”deconstrucingss3

There are two versions of the scenes worksheet. One is blank, and students can write or draw what happens in the scene (they should be thinking about the MAIN THING that happens). What is the point of the scene? The second version is more directed: It asks for the length of time in the scene, the setting, the major characters, and the main thing that happens.

Finally, we come to the Conflict & Resolution worksheet. Every short story has a problem (conflict) or it wouldn’t be a story. For this, it was helpful to discuss TV shows and ask, “What was the problem in the show?” The kids caught on pretty quickly. Likewise, most stories will include the solution — resolution — to the conflict.

If you’re interested in getting your students to write short stories, start by deconstructing them, and get your free activity here!


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Free game: Think Quick!

terrifictuesdayHere’s a Terrific Tuesday game for you: Think Quick!

Description: Wake up those brains! Students must write one word of phrase that comes to mind for each given word. This is a great ice-breaker or warm-up writing activity.thinkquick

What I love about using activities like this is the reminder that kids are creative! One of the words on the sheet is never. So one of my students wrote pirate as a word she associated with never. Why? Because pirates live in NEVERland!

Download it here for FREE!


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Guess the Flower

terrifictuesday“I have a game for you,” I told the kids. “It involves going outside and writing.” They looked less than enthused (it was EARLY Monday morning, in their defense), so I quickly added, “And if you do it well, you get one dollar.”

Suddenly they couldn’t wait to get started.

The “game” (in grown-up talk this translates to “writing assignment”) was this: Select a flower from the yard. Brainstorm sensory details about the flower. Then, write a paragraph describing the flower without giving its name or location. Addendum to ours: If I can guess what it is, you get $1!

They grabbed their writing notebooks and dashed outside to stake out their flowers.

Here’s what the oldest came up with:

My flower is small but so beautiful. It has all the Thanksgiving colors on one petal. Its smell is almost like a log cabin with fresh-baked bread. The petals have a light yellow on the tip and a dark comforting orange on the inside. All together it is fall on a petal.

I love love love her paragraph. We’ve been working a LOT on proper paragraph structure (intro, three supporting sentences, conclusion) and I didn’t even have to remind her this time. Also, bonus points for the awesome metaphor and simile!!!

I knew immediately what this one was. Answer: Marigolds!


The third-grader wrote:

My flower is super beautiful but super small. There’s one stem but it shoots out in eight different directions. It is small and pink and it smells like perfume. The leaves look like fern trees. The insides are glowing white and there is a dot of very pale yellow. Some are dead and the leaves are sort of furry. I think they are beautiful!

At first I was stymied by the “one stem but it shoots out in eight different directions” detail. I mean, huh? Then, when I looked closely at a potted plant, I realized he was totally correct — I had just never looked at the flower in such detail. And he was also right about how beautiful the flower was.

What I loved about his writing was how he took to heart the instruction to include sensory detail. He has info about how they smell, look, and feel. Also, he’s getting the hang of writing an introductory sentence, then restating it as the conclusion. Way to go!

Answer: Err, I don’t know what this flower’s name is, but it’s gorgeous!


Finally, the pre-writer took his guide (big sister) around the yard and dictated details about his flower to her. He came up with:

small, fresh, pinkish-purple, star-shaped, five petals, a little wet, water collects on them because they are like little bowls, just blooming, sit in lots of sunlight


Had I ever noticed his flowers were star-shaped? No. Five distinct petals? No. Seriously, my own take-away from this assignment is that I need to make time not just to smell the flowers, but to LOOK at them!




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Open Book: “Secrets of Shakespeare’s Grave”

Book: “Secrets of Shakespeare’s Grave: The Shakespeare Mysteries, Book 1” by Deron R. Hicks

***For this book review I went straight to the student, who read it long before I could open it! Also, all opinions expressed herein are those of an eight-year-old.***

Amazon description: Twelve-year-old Colophon Letterford has a serious mystery on her hands. Will she discover the link between her family’s literary legacy and Shakespeare’s tomb before it’s too late? Antique paintings, secret passages, locked mausoleums, a four-hundred-year-old treasure, and a cast of quirky (and some ignoble) characters all add up to a fun original adventure. Readers will revel in a whirlwind journey through literary time and space in real-world locales from Mont St. Michel to Stratford-Upon-Avon to Central Park!

Age range/ grade level: 7-10, grades 3+

Genre: Mystery

Setting: London, Georgia, and New York



1-10 rating: 8

Favorite character(s): Julian and Colophon because they’re adventurous

Summary (as told by an eight-year-old who made it clear he was NOT going to tell this reviewer the ending): Julian and Colophon are looking for a great family treasure hidden by Miles Letterford 400 years ago. Colophon is the daughter of Mull Letterford, who runs the family’s publishing business. ***Addendum: They find all those really cool underground tunnels and places and keys and it’s really kind of creepy and spooky!

Things you liked about the book:

  1. I like that it was a mystery. In Hardy Boys books I always know what’s going to happen. In this book I had to read all the way to the end and I was surprised.
  2. It was well-written, even though I found one spelling error.
  3. I like the characters.

Things you disliked about the book:

  1. The first part was confusing. The first chapter took place in England 400 years ago, then the next was present time. That confused me at first.

What you would tell a friend about the book: “One of the best mystery books I’ve ever read!”

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Then felt I like some watcher of the skies! On discovering John Keats.

thoughtfulthursdayA  long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I sat as an ambivalent college student in an early morning course on English Romantic poetry. We had thus far covered William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and a few others whose names and words all ran together in numbing iambic pentameter. The only poet who had remotely peaked my interest was Lord Byron, and that had nothing to do with his poetry but with the fact that ladies called him, “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” He sounded like my kind of guy.

And then, on that rainy morning, we arrived at Keats. John Keats. If I had thought the rest of the opium-addicted, absinthe-swilling, love-torn Romantics led tragic lives, Keats beat them all, times ten. Orphaned, lonely, scalded by critics, broke, and, finally, desperately in love with Fanny Brawne, at age 25 he coughed up the blood that he recognized as his own death sentence. Tuberculosis. It seemed a fitting, wretched end.

We looked at just one of Keats’ poems that morning: a little sonnet called On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer. I didn’t get it. Who was Chapman? What was Keats rambling on about with his realms of gold and goodly states and western islands? And what did he mean about Then felt I like some watcher of the skies/ When a new planet swims into his ken? And how about Balboa? What did he have to do with all this? And did I really care?

Luckily for my untapped future love of Keats, I had a terrific professor. He carefully highlighted lines from that poem and explained that it was actually an extended metaphor and that Keats was telling a story about how he had discovered the ancient Greek works of Homer. See, Keats was an educated Englishman, and like most of them, he read Latin, not Greek. At that time there was no readily accessible translation of the Iliad and the Odyssey. But one night at his tutor’s house, Keats discovered George Chapman’s English translation… and stayed up reading until the next morning.

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
   When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
   He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
   Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

For me, it was a total WHOA moment. Because just as Keats had discovered Homer, I had suddenly discovered Keats, and I, too, felt like some watcher of the skies. A new planet had swum into my ken. I had found myself staring at the Pacific, wild-eyed.

Keats sold less than 200 volumes of his poetry while he was alive. He died penniless and forlorn. Reviews of his poetry were so scathing that a friend claimed he died of a bad review. Today, he stands among the greats. Matthew Arnold called him second only to Shakespeare. And for one young college student, he changed the course of a life.

That’s the reasoning behind our line of poetry analysis units. We take the best-loved poems and make them meaningful to students while teaching them about cool stuff like rhyme schemes and allusions and metaphors and why run-on sentences are allowed in poetry.

This latest one is all about Chapman’s Homer and John Keats. My wish is that your students, too, will read it, understand it, and feel like watchers of the skies!

chapmanshomercollage (2)



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A treasure map of writing

magicalmondayI used to LOVE making treasure maps. Drawing out that dotted line, marking the spot with a giant X, crumpling the paper, burning the edges with a match (Mom and Dad, where were you guys???)… Anyway, thanks largely to a childhood pretty much devoid of television, I made a lot of maps.

treasuremapPerhaps that’s why I was drawn to Stuart Murphy’s Treasure Map at the library. We brought it home, and once we read it, there was no more schoolwork completed that day. However, it all depends on how you define “schoolwork.”

Before we read the last sentence the kids were scrambling for paper (khaki-colored paper, because no self-respecting treasure map lays itself on plain WHITE paper). I reined them in long enough to give three stipulations: 1) They had to draw a compass rose. 2) They had to include a key. And 3) Once completed, they had to write (or dictate) directions to the treasure using words like north, south, left, and right.

And off they went.


This is a great assignment that cloaks itself in fun, but in reality is a perfect time to reinforce grammar basics like capitalization of proper nouns (Turn right at Cypress Swamp) and the use of commas in a list. You can extend it into math, too, if you want to incorporate the use of a scale for miles (or feet or kilometers).

Thirty minutes later I had in my hand beautiful treasure maps, completed writing assignments, a kindergartner begging me to take his dictation, and a group of kids who were off to the next project: Compiling a time capsule of toys that they would bury and make a treasure map to, which would be handed to the next family that someday lives here.





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Celebrating Spring with a DIY magazine

Happy smagicalmondaypring! What better way to celebrate than with a creative, easy, and totally FREE writing project?

In this make-your-own magazine, students springmagcoveruse the templates to create their own magazine all about spring. They can write a spring poem, create a spring-themed word search, and design and write pages about Signs of Spring, Spring Holidays, Spring Recipes, Spring Fashion, and more! There are also blank pages, so creativity can reign.

Get it here!


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In this set you’ll find writing prompts about lost ducks… dinner at the White House… superheroes in the library… and more!

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