• Linda Ulleseit, author

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Creative Nonfiction

writingOne of the writing genres we teach in sixth grade is personal narrative. A narrative is a story, or fiction, but a personal narrative is based on a real event. The struggle is getting students to write good stories about an event in their lives.

Now personal essay, or memoir, is supposedly a different genre. It is defined as an actual memory or experience that is enhanced by imagination. Sounds the same to me.

When we remember something from our past, we tend to remember the important part, the climax, the culmination. For example, we remember opening a present and getting something we wanted, or falling off our bike, or swimming in Hawaii. In order to make that a good piece of writing, you need to add details. Who else was there? What was the weather? What happened before that led up to it? What happened afterward? What did you feel before and how did this event change it? What did people say? These details, however, are what is usually forgotten. You are left with a story like this: I went swimming in Hawaii. It was cool. Bad story.

To enhance the memory of the experience, you need to add details. If you don’t remember what the weather was like, it’s safe to assume it was warm and sunny since Hawaii is usually warm and sunny (and you’d remember swimming in the rain). If you were on vacation with your family, you can safely assume they were there with you, even if you have to make up dialogue on what they most likely said.

So where is the line between fiction (personal narrative) and nonfiction (personal essay or memoir)? Nonfiction stories serve up just the facts, like a newspaper article. And many novelists  do a lot of research into facts to help make a novel believable. Remember, too, that memories are colored by our age at the time, and they fuzz a bit over time. When I compare childhood memories with my brother, we are often amazed we are talking about the same event. Our brain already adds creativity.

You may ask, why is it important to know if the story is nonfiction or fiction if it’s a good story? One of an author’s duties is to give the reader what they expect. If a book is billed as memoir, the reader expects that everything in it actually happened. If it’s sold as fiction, the reader assumes it’s all made up. Some people are using the title ‘creative nonfiction’ to bridge this gap. In creative nonfiction, a reader can assume that historical facts are checked and still accept that some of the characters or events are made up. My own book, Under the Almond Trees, I call historical fiction because most of it is fictionalized based on very little information. What about you? Do you like your nonfiction to be factual, or are you a fan of creative nonfiction?

 

Remembering

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I am a pretty good gardener. I plant and trim and weed the back yard, and people compliment it. There are a few things I can’t grow. Fuchsias don’t like me. Neither do yellow daisies or orchids. Violets, though, have always despised me. I have never been able to get a violet to survive, much less bloom.

Violets worshiped my mother-in-law, however. For thirty years, she had a pot of violets on the narrow windowsill above her sink. She constantly dumped the plant into the sink, stuffed the dirt back in and replaced it on the sill. It got indifferent light and inconsistent water, but it thrived. She passed away two years ago this August, and her windowsill no longer has violets.

On Mother’s Day, my husband presented me with the violet plant in the picture. I immediately placed it on my windowsill. I really didn’t expect it to live very long. The flowers wilted, but the leaves stayed healthy. Then, to my amazement, it bloomed! I have not yet dumped it in the sink, but it is beautiful and healthy. It’s not only my care that’s keeping it well. I know Mom is helping. This amazing woman laughed at the violet dirt spilled in her sink, and every day my violet reminds me of that memory.lily

Outside in that yard I love to care for, I had an orange canna lily. A year ago, it was one wilted leaf and one dead leaf. I dug it up, intending to toss it, but my husband insisted we give it another chance. I stuck it in the ground and forgot about it. The picture to the right was taken this morning, a year later. He’ll never let me forget I almost killed this plant. Isn’t it gorgeous? And that is how memories are made.

And memories usually make their way into my novels.

 

Pure

purePure, by Julianna Baggott, is my new favorite post-apocalyptic novel. At first, the horrific descriptions of the people are off-putting. The detonations have fused objects into the people so that their appearance is no longer completely human–they are not Pure. Then you get to know the characters. Pressia is the main character. She has just reached an age when she is supposed to turn herself over to the military for training–as a live target. Instead, she goes on the run. She meets other characters with damaged, tortured bodies. Almost all of these characters, though, have good inside. Don’t get me wrong, these are complex characters. They aren’t all love and sunshine.

Then there are the Pure. These are people who live in the Dome and were protected from the explosions. Their bodies are pure, but their intentions are not. Again, you meet complex characters in a complex world. All is not well in the Dome, either. Partridge’s father is an influential man in the Dome. He feels isolated–his father is super busy, his brother is dead, and his mother lost outside the Dome during the blast. Then someone suggests his mother is still alive. Partridge breaks the law and leaves the Dome to find her. He meets Pressia and worlds collide.

This is a fantastic story you will want to read in one sitting. It will have you crying and cheering as you root for the most unlikely characters.

The Guardian Herd: Landfall

landfallThe Guardian Herd: Landfall, by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez, is the third book in the Guardian Herd series. I didn’t know that when I bought it, and the story worked very well anyway. Now I have to go buy the first two and the last one, too! If you have read my books, you may guess why I picked up the book in the first place–flying horses! Then I found out the author also lives in Northern California. Done deal.

The story centers around a black flying horse named Starfire who is badly injured. The evil Nightwing will stop at nothing to kill Starfire, and he’s offered a reward to any pegasus who will turn him over. The herds split in their loyalties, some to Star and some to Nightwing. Star’s supporters unite, although it is a tentative agreement, and hide Starfire while he recovers.There is both friendship and jealousy among his friends. Meanwhile, Nightwing’s support grows stronger.

This novel is aimed for middle grade readers. Older students who like simpler stories will love it, too. The horses are wonderfully complex characters. Star realizes a war is coming, but he is reluctant to hurt any of the pegasi on either side. Girls will love the beautiful pegasi and flowing language. Boys will love the intensity of the action and upcoming battle.

The eBook Market

I recently read an article from Fortune online about trends in sales of ebooks. With the release of sales numbers for 2015, many publishers are reporting drops in ebook sales and predicting traditional book sales will pick up. This Fortune article attempts to explain the whole picture. This is a chart they share:

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Keep in mind that overall ebook sales might be slowing, but are still growing 1% or so a year. What’s changing is the publisher of those books. As you can see, traditional publishers are losing market share while independent publishers are gaining market share (go Indie!).  The article goes on to predict that digital sales will continue to rise.

I used to go to the bookstore to buy my books. I would see displays created by the Big Five publishers to announce their new books. Often, I would buy them. Usually, independently published books are not carried in bookstores. They don’t have the same visual marketing ability.

Now, however, I browse for books online. Goodreads book recommendations, as well as book review blogs, now shape my buying decisions. Suddenly the exposure to all sorts of books has exploded–like it did for music when my sons bought their first iPods. I never pay attention to whether a book is independently published or not, but I do read reviews. I also leave reviews. In a future full of ebooks, those reviews will be golden to both authors and readers.

If you have never reviewed a book online, I encourage you to do so. Amazon reviews are easy to do. Be honest about what you liked and disliked, but be accurate. Friends of mine have had reviewers blast non-existent sex scenes and use the wrong main character’s name. Be specific, too. If you didn’t like something, say why. Bad reviews may punch an author in the gut, but if it’s honest they recover. Good reviews, too, should be specific. Too much gushing loses its impact. So say what you liked and say why. Say what you didn’t like and say why. Go ahead. Write a review today and help someone discover a new book to love! Especially if it’s one of mine.:)

 

 

 

 

Behavior Management

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Managing the classroom behavior is something every teacher struggles with. Some classes are harder to deal with than others, but they all require some system of reward and consequence to keep the peace and allow lessons to occur without disruption. In the twenty years I’ve taught, behavior management has included some combination of earning Behavior Bucks for a monthly auction, changing seat assignments, being benched for recess or referred to the principal, and emails sent home to parents. I’ve never had a serious problem with behavior until this year.

Without going into the specifics of the behaviors (that would be too long a post!), I wanted to share my solution. At the CUE conference in Palm Springs this year, I learned about CLASSCRAFT.COM and could hardly wait to get home to try it.

Classcraft is a free web-based behavior management video game designed for sixth grade through high school. The interface is colorful and fanciful–it truly looks like a video game. Students log on and choose an avatar. They are put in teams where they classcraft_bg1choose the team name and logo. They also must designate team members as warrior, mage, or healer.  Students earn XP (experience points) for behaving well in class. They lose HP (health points) for breaking a rule. AP (action points) are spent healing each other–this is important because if a teammate falls in battle the rest of the team loses 10 HP and may fall, too.

One of the coolest features is the parent piece. Parents set up an account that links with their child’s. They can see what their child receives each day for rewards or consequences. They can award their child GP (gold points) for doing chores, having a positive attitude, and finishing homework. GP doesn’t affect my part of the game because those points can only be used to buy accessories for the avatar like armor and pets.

The game comes with a set of rules, rewards, and punishments (like becoming ogrefied and having to sit alone at lunch for a day) but is completely customizable by the teacher, from rules to rewards to Random Events of the Day and punishments for those fallen in battle (who lose all their XP). Every morning I log on to the game and dole out rewards and punishments for the day before and conduct a Random Event. The entire thing takes ten to fifteen minutes.

Most importantly, it works. My class has been rather notorious around campus this year. I added a big reward for receiving a compliment from an adult on campus. Within the first week, the principal, a teacher, and a yard duty all gave them unsolicited compliments. I was very impressed. The students were very proud of themselves. They follow the game without reminders. One day a noon duty told me she asked one of my students why they were sitting alone. “I’ve been ogrefied,” the student said in a perfectly normal tone. I laughed, but the noon duty was very puzzled.

We’ve been playing the game now for two months. They are just as excited now as the day we started. Their behavior hasn’t been perfect, but what fun is the game if someone doesn’t occasionally fall in battle and become ogrefied?

 

 

Improving Public Education

pencil2You can blame large class sizes, teacher experience or salary, or parent involvement in the home, to name a few, but there is no simple answer to the problems of public education. The responsibility must be shared.

In Finland, recently touted as a model for public education, students are given no homework. The younger students have school only three hours a day. Teachers there finish teaching, finish planning, and go home before my school day is done. Kids are encouraged to play and explore. The culture of the country truly supports work/home balance instead of giving it lip service like America does. The children are happier, and they are learning. While I’m sure even in Finland they have problem behaviors or students who don’t learn well, it’s a positive environment influences the children.

In the United States, students attend school for six hours a day. They are pressured to do well so they can get into a good college. In some families, grades are the most important thing about their child’s education. Parents work long hours, and their children come home to grandparents or day care. How can parents who see their children scant hours a day influence them to play and explore? If this country instituted an educational system that gave students more time to explore, the majority of kids would play video games, attend a Saturday school in language or culture, and participate on a regionally competitive sports team.

My students participate in Genius Hour once a week. They come up with an inquiry question about something they wonder about, research it, and  build it. The problem is that they don’t wonder about anything. If they have a question, they Google it. Getting them to design inquiries has taken all year. They all want to do Powerpoint presentations for their projects–to show what they’ve researched. Genius Hour is more than that, though. They need to have hands-on exploration. In the past, students have built a life-sized unicorn, made a scale model of a condor out of recycled parts, sewed a skirt, and designed their own website using html. Today’s students

In order for them to thrive in a model like Finland’s, American students need more than a redesigned program at school and a teacher’s lead. They need affordable after school programs that encourage critical thinking, parent time that is more than meals or homework battles, and time away from the screens in their lives.

While much creative energy can be stimulated on a computer, students need to explore the world around them. I teach in an area with a lot of undeveloped land close by. Mountain lions, deer, turkeys, rabbits, foxes, and elk can be seen often. A deep creek runs under the road, and none of my students have stood on the bridge and marveled at the foliage-covered twenty-foot drop. None of them have heard the ground squirrels bark a warning as they walk past a field dotted with oak trees. Non-screen experiences like these are the sort of thing that sparks curiosity. Finnish students are being given the opportunity to be curious. American students are not.

 

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