Nearly every professional book I’ve ever read has encouraged me to include guides about writing in the classroom writing center. Year-after-year, I tried to search for books about writing for kids to stock in the classroom writing center. Year-after-year I found copies of said guides and placed them in the writing center once the school year was under way. Year-after-year the guides were barely ever touched. I believe this is because the books didn’t feel accessible to my fourth and fifth graders. Most were written with a slightly older audience in mind.
I received an advance review copy of Spilling Ink: A Young Writer’s Handbook (2010) by Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter a few weeks ago. I think I’ve found a book about writing that is written in a way upper elementary school students can relate to and learn from — finally! This book, which contains anecdotes about writing from both Anne and Ellen, is worthy of being on the shelf of a classroom writing center. The book contains illustrations by Matt Phelan, which enhance the advice in the text.
Spilling Ink can also be used as a teaching tool. For instance, if I were getting ready to teach young writers more about dialogue, I might want to read a short passage on adverbial tag lines to them during a strategy lesson. Here’s that excerpt from Spilling Ink:
Adverbial Tag Lines
This is a fancy term for something you have seen thousands of times. Adverbial tag lines are simply when an adverb is attached to a tag line. Here are some examples.
“I hope my mother doesn’t embarrass me,” Brian said cheerfully (“said cheerfully” is the adverbial tag line).
“That shade of green makes you look like a zucchini,” Alana said rudely (“said rudely” is the adverbial tag line).
Like noisy tag lines, adverbial tag lines should enhance the dialogue in some way. In the second example, it doesn’t. It’s obvious that what Alana said was rude, so the adverbial tag line, “Alana said rudely” adds absolutely nothing to the dialogue. If I were you, I’d scrap it.
The first example, however, does add something to the dialogue. If you read the line of dialogue without the tag line, you would probably assume that Brian was nervous about his mother embarrassing him. You might imagine his voice sounding anxious or distressed. Yet the tag line says he is cheerful. That adds an unexpected layer to the dialogue.
Try and use adverbial tag lines sparingly and only when they can shed light on something that the dialogue can’t.
I also can envision using some parts of Spilling Ink with a full-class as well. For instance, section six, “Blackberries, Raspberries, and Story Ideas,” of the book is an excellent form of support when talking about idea generation with a class. For instance, one might use this section of the book as a read aloud during the first weeks of the school year when you’re trying to get kids to see they can find things to write about nearly anywhere. There are seven passages in this section that can help even the most reluctant writers generate writing. Here’s a passage about advanced idea catchers, which is proceeded in the book by a passage on (basic) idea catchers.
Advanced Idea Catchers
(P.S. They aren’t hard.)
1. Notice what thoughts jump into your brain when you quit writing. Have a notepad or scrap paper ready to write them down.
2. Turn on a secret tape recorder or movie camera in your brain. Okay, don’t put your ear to your brother’s door and try to hear his private conversations. But do keep your ears open for curious sentences that might fly by. Like, “Mom can I take a salamander home?” (Yes, I did overhear that one.) Listen to your friends’ and classmates conversations. Listen to how they speak and to what they say.
3. Go to the mall. Although I dislike malls, there’s always a lot of interesting stuff going on. The mall is like a museum of stuff. You can people watch in the food court. You can stare at the odd gadgets in electronic stores, such as a fortune-telling telephone or a radio in the shape of a tooth. (Guess which one is read and which I made up.) You can note the many types of hair ribbons and/or compare comic book heroes.
When I had to take one of my kids on a shopping trip to the mall, I often found inspiration for the Abby Hayes series there — even if I wasn’t looking for it. For example, I’d always be amazed at the calender kiosks that sprung up before the holidays and would stop to look at them, even if I was in a rush. There were calendars about outhouses, movie stars, barns, mountain ranges, duct tape, sunsets, puzzles, race cars, words, pigs, mushrooms, rivers, cows, knitting, clouds, state parks, and every type of dog in existence. Since each chapter in an Abby book begins with a quote from a fictitious calendar, the mall calendars inspired me into wild fits of imagination. I had great fun inventing calendars for Abby with names like the “Marshmallow” calendar or the “Daily Eyeglass” calendar or the “Supermarkets of New Jersey” calendar.
4. Keep a dream diary. Writers can unlock characters, story ideas, images, feelings, and experiences through their dreams. Some writers use dreams as jumping-off points for stories or poems. I started keeping a dream diary in high school and have continued for most of my life.
After doing these five exercises, do you notice any difference? Are you more aware of your thoughts or the things that are happening around you?
As you can probably tell from both of the passages I quoted above, Anne and Ellen write with a kind tone, which speaks directly and frankly to a child reading their book. By the end of Spilling Ink, readers get to know more about Anne and Ellen, which make them formidable guides on someone’s writing journey.
I am a literacy consultant who has spent over a decade working with teachers to improve the teaching of writing in their classrooms. While I work with teachers and students in grade K-6, I'm a former fourth and fifth-grade teacher so I have a passion for working with upper elementary students.
I'm the author of Craft Moves (Stenhouse Publishers, 2016) and the co-author of Jump Into Writing (Zaner-Bloser, 2021), Welcome to Writing Workshop (Stenhouse Publishers, 2019), and Day By Day (Stenhouse, 2010).