Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Problem Based Learning and Stakeout by Bonnie J. Doerr

After reading Stakeout by Bonnie J. Doerr, I was inspired to design this problem based learning project.  New to problem based learning?  Key components include:
The following unit could be completed entirely within a middle school English classroom or science classroom (covering such topics as environmental science, meteorology, ecosystems, habitats, and biology), or some combination of the two.
The problem:  You are members of Key Teens Care.   Big Pine Key is suffering from a drought. You are worried about the welfare of the animals at National Key Deer Refuge.  What will you do?
Part 1

1.  Whole class:  Read Stakeout by Bonnie J. Doerr

2.  Whole class:  Watch a video on drought

3.  Pairs: Make a 3 column chart—What we learned from Stakeout that might help us (resources, habitat, animals, process, etc.)/What we know about drought/What do we need to know about drought and the ecosystem in Big Pine Key

4.  Whole class:  Begin a Learning Issues Board (a working three column-chart for the class)

5.  Whole class: Prioritize learning issues

6.  Whole class: Select research groups for the top priority questions.  Possible topics include: 

  National Key Deer Refuge

  Ecosystem and habitat of Big Pine Key

  Drought and water conservation

  Endangered Species Act

7.  Whole class:  Assign interest- based research groups

Part 2

1.  Whole class: Review Learning Issues Board

2.  Small groups: Conduct research

3.  Whole class:  Discuss findings and update Learning Issues Board

4.  Whole class:  Make a list of possible interview subjects.  Possible list might include:

  Representative from National Key Deer Refuge

  Author of Stakeout, Bonnie J. Doerr

  Representative from Aransas Project

  Representative from the Florida Office of Water Policy

  Representative from Texas Commission on Environmental Quality

  Representative from Florida Office of Ecosystem Projects

5.  Small groups: Write interview questions while teacher secures interviews

6.  Whole class:  Review LIB

7.  Whole class/Small groups:  Conduct interviews via Skype, phone, or email or in person

8.  Whole class:  Share and update LIB

9.  Optional:  Whole class:  Consider possibilities for appropriate field trips

Part 3

1.  Small groups:  Rewrite problem to more narrowly define it based on your understanding

2.  Whole class: Using small group drafts, create a whole class version of the new problem

Part 4

1.  Whole class: Review structured problem

2.  Individuals:  Brainstorm possible resolutions

3.  Small groups: Share brainstorms and then decide on the three most promising. Create a pro/con T-chart to evaluate each one.

4.  Whole class:  Share T-charts and as a class decide which solution is the strongest.

5.  Whole class:  Determine who might benefit from their research and how best to share information with them.  Create a plan for this and carry it out.

Part 5

1.  Whole class:  Discuss any response to their findings from their audience

2.  Individual:  Evaluate the process, your role, how you could have done better, how the group could have done better, etc.

Have you tried problem based learning?  Tell me about it.


Mary Helen Sheriff lives in Richmond, VA with her husband, two children, and two cats. She has an MFA in children’s literature from Hollins University and is an experienced teacher of elementary, middle grade, and college students. Her most recent publishing credits include four middle grade short stories for a reading comprehension website and a YA short story for an anthology written for Ethiopians learning English. She is currently writing a novel and maintaining a blog where you can read her thoughts on writing and education. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Five on Friday: Readingjunky

For today’s Five on Friday we interviewed Sally over at Readingjunky.  Sally teaches Children’s Lit and Adolescent Lit at Siena Heights University in Adrian, MI.  Her students post book reviews every week here.  Be sure to check them out!
What was your favorite book last year (2013)?
ELEANOR & PARK by Rainbow Rowell – To be totally honest, I passed it by for months thinking it just didn’t seem like something I would like.  I finally purchased a copy, read it, and still find myself thinking about it months later.
What advice do you wish you could give to your younger self?
Be confident in who you are!  I stayed in the shadows and didn’t realize I had a lot to be proud of and a lot of great stuff to offer.  You don’t have to be an athlete or a popular kid to be a great kid.
What super power do you wish you had and why?
My name would be Timesaver and I’d wear a huge clock like Flavor Flav.  My super power would be add hours to your day when you are faced with time commitments that don’t allow you time for yourself or time to relax with family and friends.  I could grant your wish for more than a 24-hour day.
What are three things you always have with you?
A book, a backup book, and a backup for the backup book.
What's your favorite season of the year?
I am completely enjoying our record-breaking Michigan winter because the snow days are great for added reading time. 
Sally, keep enjoying the snow and writing the book reviews!


Jessica Donbrosky lives in Richmond, VA, and is the youngest of 6 children.  She has a BS in Sociology from Brigham Young University – Idaho.  She spent her teenage years writing hundreds of horrid poems that she can’t bring herself to burn.  Now she uses her creativity to write YA and New Adult fiction.
When Jessica isn’t writing or reading she’s running local races in the Richmond area, working on developing her photography skills, and trying out new recipes for anything sweet.  You can check out her blog.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Famous Authors Offer Help and Encouragement

I have a really cool opportunity coming up. I get to meet Charlaine Harris, Dean James, and Carolyn Haines. That's right—I'M MEETING FAMOUS PEOPLE.


As a writer, the best thing you can do is pick the brain of another writer. What do you do? How have you done well? What should I not do? Do you have a magic wand that made you famous?

These authors will be coming to the Delta to promote three books: Harris' new graphic novel,
Cemetery Girl: Book One, The Pretenders, James's The Silence of the Library written under the pseudonym Miranda James, and Haines's The Seeker written under the pseudonym R.B. Chesterton.


I've read them all, I love them all.


Although they aren't YA books, they are all mysteries and Haines' book is pretty scary (I may or may not have slept with all the lights on in my house that night).

Cemetery Girl is the story of Calexa Rose Dunhill, who woke up in a cemetery and has no memory of who she is. Taking her name from the graves she is surrounded by and from the cemetery itself, Calexa searches for answers on who she is, how she got there, or who left her for dead.


The Silence in the Library is the fifth book in The Cat in the Stacks Series and is about the town librarian Charlie Harris and his Maine coon cat Diesel. During National Library Week, the library plans an exhibit to honor the centenary of famous novelist Electra Barnes Cartwright—creator of the beloved Veronica Thane series. Charlie, who admires Cartwright and has a collection of her books, is excited to meet her and learn that she will be making a very rare public appearance. The news of her appearance goes viral and soon collectors are swarming the small town. A rumor begins that there are unpublished Veronica Thane novels, and Charlie soon realizes these collectors will stop at nothing—even murder—the get what they want.


The Seeker tells the story of a young graduate student, Aine Cahill, who travels to Walden Pond to work on her dissertation to prove her aunt Bonnie was Henry David Thoreau’s lover during his supposed solitary time at Walden Pond. Upon arrival, Aine's cursed family past comes back to haunt her, and she must fight to hold onto reality while the spiritual world and her sinister legacy attempt to take over her life. Lastly, she must discover whether or not there really is a young girl lurking in the woods surrounding her cabin.


When you have the opportunity to talk to talk to a writer ho has been successful you should always do so. You never know who they know or what they know what might be helpful. So, I got to ask these authors several questions, and I am going to share the answers I thought were the most interesting.



Harris is the author of the Sookie Stackhouse books, which inspired the True Blood TV series. I haven't watched it yet, but I feel a Netflix marathon coming on.

As a writer I was excited to ask Harris some questions that were more for me rather than for my article. Come to find out, she used to work for the same newspaper I write for! She worked in the offset darkroom for $1.60 an hour, "standing on concrete all day. Quite a job." I can only imagine! How cool that this amazing author got a similar start, right down to us being in the same building.

God knows EXACTLY what He is doing.

What inspired the story?

Inspired. I really don't like that word. That implies the process is magical. I believe if you're a writer, the ideas come because that's what you're supposed to be doing.

What advice could you give to aspiring writers?

Writing is hard work. You have to enjoy being by yourself. You have to be self-motivating. And you have to be persistent.

I had told her about my experiences writing and that I recently received some rejections. This was her response:

This is a tough business, Courtney, and it's not for sissies, that's for sure.



Who do you prefer, Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple and why?

Miss Marple is my favorite. Having grown up in a Southern family, with steel magnolias in the form of grandmothers, great-aunts, and aunts, I really enjoy characters like Miss Marple.

What advice could you give to aspiring writers?

Read, read, and read some more. Read good books and try to understand what makes them good, what makes them satisfying to readers. Read a few bad ones, too, so you can identify the mistakes you need to avoid in your own writing. Above all, write and hone your craft. Writers often find critique groups helpful. I get great feedback from my critique group.


Haines is definitely a favorite author of mine. I wrote a paper about her in grad school a few years ago and was able to speak to her then about her Sarah Booth Delaney Series. She was great, and we are Facebook buddies now. Pretty cool if you ask me.

I've read several of the Bones books, and they are incredibly different from The Seeker, tell me about writing dark and writing light. How is it different and why did you choose to do it?


I am a dark reader, for the most part. I grew up in a haunted house, and my mother and grandmother were wonderful storytellers. We would all gather up in Grandma's room, and Mama and Grandma would have all of us kids (there were 3) shivering under the covers. I was a huge Poe reader as a young person, and a ghost story or haunted house is irresistible to me. But I also love humor--and while I am terrible about scaring people, I am equally bad about playing practical jokes to make people laugh. So I think it's only natural that I enjoy both humor and fun and a little walk on the dark side now and again. My writing simply reflects my personal preferences, and I also believe that by allowing my creativity to run rampant, I keep myself fresh as a writer. If I could only write one kind of story each time, I'm afraid I would grow stale and boring.

Why did you choose to write under a pseudonym?

Part of it is a courtesy to my Bones readers. I never want a reader to buy a book expecting a particular kind of read and end up disappointed. The pseudonym (though we never tried to keep it secret that R.B. Chesterton is me) is a signal – hey, this is different. Look before you leap. And also there is a prejudice that women can't write scary, so I took initials. My book is "gentle" horror, or what might be termed "British" horror. It isn't bloody or gory (not my cup of tea), but it is creepy. 

So, like I said, SUPER COOL opportunity. Anytime you have an opportunity like this, TAKE IT! You never know what you may learn.


I was iced in for days and had three wonderful books to read. Now, go out there and rub elbows with some famous people.




Courtney Warren is a writer for her local newspaper, as well as a graduate student at Hollins University where she is pursuing a degree in Children’s Literature. She has a bachelor’s degree from Delta State University, the home of the Fighting Okra (which she is incredibly proud of). She loves to read just about anything placed on the shelves but has a special place in her heart for the Harry Potter series.

When she is not writing about herself in third person, she loves to write stories about middle schoolers with spunky attitudes who intend to save the world, as well as drinking Earl Grey tea from a very prissy teacup.

Check out her blog, Tea, the Spirit, & a Pen.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Books That Go Bump in the Night

What is our fascination with ghosts? We both fear them and also secretly hope our loved ones become one. I suppose the fear of death drives our obsession. We hate the idea of leaving this world behind after death, but we also fear those who haven’t “moved on.”

And of course, now that I’ve noticed ghosts, I seem to be seeing ghosts all around me – at least in fiction.

I have recently found myself reading a series of ghost books. There was the YA,  Lockwood & Co, and a milder, younger version of a ghost mystery, Constable & Toop. And then if that wasn’t enough, I read the thirteen stories of Spirited.

Spirited represents a wide variety of ghost stories, from those that border on horror, to those that are sweet. I liked that there were stories that could be considered contemporary, stories that could be fantasies, and everything in between.

Most ghost stories can be roughly divided into two types: those with “good” (non-threatening) ghosts and those with “bad” (threatening) ones. Of course there are works that fall in between where the threatening ghost is the good one. Anna Dressed in Blood brings that particular type of ghost into play. What’s nice is to find an anthology where all of these different types of ghost stories read smoothly together. Personally, I think an anthology where all the stories are about one type of ghost could be a fairly dull read. I like books like Spirited that mix things up.

If you are like me, then I must warn you that Spirited isn’t the kind of book to read just before bed. Threatening or not, ghost stories are still ghost stories and are best read on a beautiful, sunny day. At noon. When there are clearly no ghosts around.


Madeline Smoot is the publisher of Children's Brains Are Yummy Books, a micro publisher of fantasy and science fiction for children and teens.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Heartbreakers Blog Tour

This February two Leap authors along with 12 other great authors be heading out on a heart-stopping blog tour filled with great reads and cool SWAG.
Click here for more inf

 Here's a list of the participants:

Judith Tewes
Tina Bustamante
Laurie J. Edwards
Janet Gurtler
Denise Jaden
Barbara Binns
Renee Pace
Jen McConnel
Eileen Cook
D.G. Driver
Christine Duval
Sara Hantz
Brenda Hiatt
Jenny Kaczorowski                                                                                       

Lots of great books and authors and fabulous prizes, including a free Kindle. Check out Facebook and Twitter to learn more.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Blurred Lines

The other day, I was at Barnes and Noble when I noticed the “What Teens are Reading” display prominently placed so that anybody, like me, waiting for their Starbucks fix would have to see it. Being a teenager—at most—at heart, I started perusing the titles. Here are some of the titles that stuck out to me: The Hunger Games, Divergent, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and Maze Runner. Having just finished the last one, James Dashner’s first book in his Maze Runner series, I began to wonder just how exactly it is considered to be a young adult novel.
            I won’t spoil the books for you, so don’t be afraid to keep reading. It is sufficient to say that Dashner is not stingy with his vivid descriptions of gruesome violence and post-apocalyptic desolation. That being said, I am already voraciously attacking the second book in the series, The Scorch Trials.
            I am not an advocate for censorship by any means—quite the opposite, actually. You would be hard-pressed to find a stronger advocate for the freedom of information. Rather, I am interested in definitions—specifically, I want to know what the “young adult” part of Young Adult (YA) Literature means.
            Naively, I used to believe that the author gets to choose. It sort of makes sense, right? Let’s say I write a novel—a spanking good one, I hope—and decide its target audience is teens between the ages of 14 and 17. Shouldn’t that be enough to get it shelved in the Young Adult section somewhere between Stephen King (yes, some of his books are actually YA) and Lois Lowry? The short answer is no—and so is the long one. There’s a large group of literary critics out there who believe books have their own meaning completely independent from any sort of authorial intent.
            So, who decides?
            Technically, it could be argued that the people who put the books on the shelves decide. But, how do they decide? What criteria do they use to determine if a book is Middle Grade or Young Adult or even Adult? Here are some basic characteristics used to classify a book:

            The Protagonist: Generally, he/she/it is a young adult

            What’s the Story Really About?: These days, it’s probably about star-crossed lovers or some sort of misunderstood mythological beast whose worried about his SATs, but what’s the story really about? It’s about growing up and becoming something or someone different than you were before you started.

            Content: This is a bit of a gray area. Obviously, if the book is overflowing with blood and gore or certain adult aspects of romance, it should not be middle grade. However, at what point does the blood and gore and sex become enough to bump it up to the Adult classification? Sometimes the lines are a little blurry.

            Money: Sadly, this one plays a pretty big role in where a book’s going to get shelved. Where will the most people buy this book?

            However, I think there may be another answer to the question of who gets to decide. What if it’s you? If a book does not get its meaning from the author, then where does the meaning come from? The reader—you. Not too many people would consider War and Peace to be Young Adult, nor does it meet most of the criteria requirements, but when I read it when I was 14, it changed me— it helped me to grow up a little. I’m sure if I read the book again today, almost 14 years, a wife, three kids, and a dog later, it would have a completely different meaning for me. But, at the time, it was young adult because I was a young adult and it contained some of the answers I needed then.
            Besides, whoever said that a young adult has to be a teenager? The day I outgrow Harry Potter or A Wrinkle in Time or Where the Wild Things Are for that matter, is the day reading stops being worthwhile.


Joel Kotanko likes to write books at his kitchen table in the dark after his three little children have gone to bed. He is a graduate student at Hollins University where he is pursuing a degree in Children’s Literature and also a student at National University where he is pursuing a degree in Creative Writing. He has his undergraduate degree from Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan (a place almost no one has even heard of but that he loves dearly). He was inspired to become a writer by J.K. Rowling and Jane Austen and Ernest Hemingway and about a million other brilliant authors.

When Joel is not writing in the dark, he is a captain in the United States Army where he works with radios and computers and spends most of his time wishing he were home with his lovely wife, Ali, and his three perfect (though perhaps a bit unruly) little babies.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Characters You Love to Hate

In my "Giving Voice to the Voiceless" class we were told: "To be heard is to have power over one's life. To be silenced is to have that power denied. Throughout history many have been silenced and children most of all." In this course, the goal is to read "young adult and middle grade novels where authors have given voice to the truly voiceless, where speaking is not possible or perhaps permitted, and study how the creators of these texts created an authentic narrative experience so that we can apply the same approaches in our own writing." So far this has been a great experience, and I have loved every book we have read. This past week I was assigned to read the book Silent to the Bone by E.L. Konigsburg.

 What is Between the Covers?
Silent to the Bone was a challenge for me because the author chose to allow the narrator to have a very mature mindset, despite being only thirteen. While it was a challenge to picture this young boy speaking the way he did and having such a large vocabulary, Konigsburg painted a perfect picture of a child with highly educated parents (his father was the registrar at the local university). This allowed the character to be believable. I loved the word choice. It's a breath of fresh air to read characters that have a large vocabulary. It seemed that most of the characters were well educated and through my reading I was able to learn a great deal. 

Connor captivated me from the beginning. Branwell Zamborska, one of the main characters, is the best friend of Connor, the narrator. After an incident involving Branwell's baby half-sister Nikki being sent to the hospital and put on life support, Branwell stops speaking. A mystery surrounds what happened that day and the young au pair, Vivian, paints an ugly picture of Branwell's unnatural obsession with his little sister and claims that Branwell shook and then purposefully dropped Nikki. Branwell is sent to Clarion County Juvenile Behavior Center where his only visitor is Connor. Connor has to figure out a way to communicate with his best friend, and through their communication he begins to untangle the web the Vivian has cleverly created.  

What Did I Think?

 I tend to latch onto a story when there is a character I can hate, and that character was Vivian. Once I figured out that Vivian was a young woman and not a Mary Poppins or Mrs. Doubtfire type of nanny, I disliked her even more. As the story played out and I discovered that she had Morris over while Nikki was sleeping or that she paid no mind to Branwell being there, the fire only grew. I truly enjoy when an author can create a villain like this and not overdo it. Some in other books seem somewhat overdone, but Vivian reminds me so much of these women I'm seeing on CNN lately---using sexuality to get ahead or out of trouble. 

Konigsburg uses physical signals to reveal more about Vivian as a character.Her physical signals were more angering than anything she \said. Examples: “Vivian had another cigarette with her coffee. I volunteered to light it for her. She held my wrist again. Same wrist. Same place. And then before I pulled my wrist away, she smiled shyly and lip-synced, “Thank you, Connor.” (108) Here she is playing with the emotions of a prepubescent kid. It makes one wonder if she acts this way with Connor, how did she act with Branwell—this question is revealed later in the book. 

She knows she can get her way with men, yet we don't actually see her attempt this with any grown men other than Morris, who obviously is infatuated with her because he lets her stay with him. Maybe Vivian's powers only go so far, and she can only control the younger men; however, it's evident that if a male is around, she will get what she wants. She seems obsessed with being the center of it all. Why hold his wrist in such a way? The focus must be on her. 

Another example: "Vivian laid her wineglass down on the coffee table and took a small handful of peanuts in her right hand. She opened her hand and studied the peanuts for what seemed like a minute before choosing one" (93); “Vivian plucked a single peanut from the bowl and held it between her thumb and forefinger and studied it for a while. […] Vivian put that peanut—no, placed that peanut—on her tongue and slowly closed her lips” (98). NO ONE EATS PEANUTS LIKE THAT. It was at this point I began to feel sick. I was ready for Margaret, whom I believe was my favorite, to slap her in the face and knock those peanuts to the floor. Once again, through physical movements and signals, Vivian is taking the heat of the crime off of her and attempting to get the focus on her sexuality.  

How Did This Help My Writing?

I have a little trouble creating a villain that doesn't come straight from a cookie cutter. It was so great to watch how Vivian began as an au pair, a character who wasn't mentioned much in the beginning, to a character who became front and center in Branwell and Connor's mission to show the truth of what happened to Nikki. It was Vivian's motions, rather than her words, that made her seem like a predator. These slow motions of having Connor light her cigarette, or how she treated Branwell in regards to the Jack-and-Jill bathroom in Branwell's home, showed that actions read more loudly than dialogue. 

Konigsburg tackled scenes that allowed me to challenge my own writing. There is a particular scene where it is revealed that Vivian truly does use her sexuality to control Branwell. This scene was a difficult one to digest. I can only imagine attempting to write it as tastefully, yet honestly, as Konigsburg did. How Vivian acts when being watched versus how she acts when she thinks she is not, plays into the recurring messages that all is not as it seems. When Branwell finally speaks and reveals who Vivian truly is, I was ready with my pitchfork and torch to attack. Vivian was definitely a character I loved to hate.

 Do I Recommend This?

Whether it's for pleasure or an assignment, Konigsburg has painted a captivating picture of two friends from worlds that children don’t read about often. It has become the norm for kids to talk in text lingo or pepper sentences with expletives, however these two boys enjoyed using larger words that needed to be defined. This would be a great read for a middle school or early high school student and is loaded with juicy words that sometimes Connor unveils for readers, but other times it is up to the reader to thirst for more and pull out Webster's.

Using the Techniques in Your Writing 

Think of someone you love to hate and use them as the basis for a character. Change the character's age, gender, and identifying details. Come up with a situation where the character's true colors are revealed through subtle actions.

Ties to Leap Books

A recent release, Deep in the Meadows by Lisa M. Cronkhite, has a character you may love to hate. Read it online and tell us which character or characters you thought were creepiest and you'll win a chance to get a free Leap Book.


Courtney Warren is a writer for her local newspaper, as well as a graduate student at Hollins University where she is pursuing a degree in Children’s Literature. She has a bachelor’s degree from Delta State University, the home of the Fighting Okra (which she is incredibly proud of). She loves to read just about anything placed on the shelves but has a special place in her heart for the Harry Potter series.

When she is not writing about herself in third person, she loves to write stories about middle schoolers with spunky attitudes who intend to save the world, as well as drinking Earl Grey tea from a very prissy teacup.

Check out her blog, Tea, the Spirit, & a Pen.