ReadThenWrite at Mitchell: Two Sides of Every Story.


What can be better than reading an engaging and mind-opening book with children? Right, helping them to write their own pieces based on the book they’ve read. This is exactly what I did along with other writing coaches and  leader Anna at Mitchell Elementary School this fall. Twenty students from various backgrounds who attend 6-8th grades took part in ReadThenWrite program and became published authors at the end.

wonderThe book that we read holds a special place in my heart. “Wonder” by R.J.Palacio is a story about a boy who was meant to stand out. Auggie, a sweet and tough 10-year old, who was born with distorted facial features, has been homeschooled by his mother. When his parents decide to enroll Auggie in a regular school, a beautiful story of challenges and acceptance begins. R.J. Palacio said that the book was inspired by a real-life encounter of her own kids six years ago with a girl with a serious facial deformity. You can read a great interview with the author here. The book is written from the points of view of Auggie, his sister, sister’s boyfriend, sister’s best friend, and Auggie’s new friend Jack Will. This helps to remind us that there is always more than one side to a story…

During this program we focused on developing reading strategies and building engagement with the literature. We taught our students that there are six Active Reading Strategies(ARS) they should use in order to become successful readers:

Strategy 1: VISUALIZE. Readers create a picture or image of what is being described in the story. This strategy is good to use when people or places are introduced and/or described in a story.

Strategy 2: CLARIFY. In their own words, readers restate what they just read in the text. This helps readers better understand the main idea of stories, as well as simplify dense text.

Strategy 3: CONNECT. Readers identify connections between their lives and the events of the story. They can also find similarities between the current stories they are reading and previous stories they have read. These connections are referred to as text to self (TS) or text to text (TT), respectively.

Strategy 4: PREDICT. Readers make predictions, or educated guesses, about what will happen next in the story. This encourages readers to synthesize the events that have been occurring in the story.

Strategy 5: QUESTION. Readers ask questions about what is happening in the story. This strategy is useful when new characters or information are referenced.

Strategy 6:EVALUATE. Readers form their own opinions and /or conclusions about characters and events in a story.

The students filled out many knowledge quizzes along the way and earned points for completing their homework. At the end of the program they could redeem the points for free books, candy, or stationery.

For our writing assignment students wrote two narratives. The first one had to be written from their point of view and tell the audience about a conflict they had with another person at one point. The second narrative had to be written from the      perspective of the other person in the conflict that they had, and  tell that person’s side of the story. 



The students used Venn Diagram where “A” was a private(1st person) POV, and “B” – public(3rd person) account of the event, to find out what they share and how it would affect their narratives.

We also explained the importance of inference, when the author uses details to show the character’s personality and traits vs. just telling the readers about it. We used “Mystery bag” activity to illustrate it. Site leader Anna brought a bag with different objects in it to the class. She let the student who picked one object from the bag infer about a person who owns the object. For example, a notebook with lots of neat notes might make one think it belongs to an organized person.

With the help of their coaches and peers the students completed outlines for their stories. And then my favorite part started: writing, editing, dealing with writer’s block, more writing, spicing up the language, final editing…and completing author’s bios.

“Two Sides of Every Story”, an anthology of their stories, was published by Open Books. In December the students of Mitchell Elementary came to the Open Books Bookstore for their Author Launch.

I should say it was an honor to work with Mitchell Elementary students! It was great that every coach was assigned a small group of students and could make sure that everyone got an undivided attention. Together with Diane and Kassandra, my ReadThenWrite students, we formed what we called “Only Girls Club”. We became not only a strong academic group, but also friends. And that is what matters the most to me.

Our "Girls Club" group: me, Diane(left) and Kassandra(right). What a pleasure it was to work with these girls!

Our “Girls Club” group: me, Diane(left) and Kassandra(right). What a pleasure it was to work with these girls!




 In winter 2014 Open Books will launch ReadThenWrite program in different schools in the City of Chicago. If this post has inspired you to try yourself as a writing coach in this program, please feel free to follow this link and browse for more information. Or you can email Ava Zeligson, Volunteer Manager, at and ask her to contact you in regards to the program.

Thank you and Good luck!


Sweet Home, Chicago: Slam Poetry With Middle Graders.

     Hey, everyone! Summer is gone and the season for vacations and time away from my laptop is over. I had a very busy summer though volunteering at Open Books and taking part in almost every literacy program they had:) In the next blog posts I will share this experience with you.

    “Go Big or Go Home!”- these were the encouraging words that started each slam poetry performance at summer field trips on creative writing I was a part of. It means “express yourself to the fullest or leave”. Originated in Chicago as a competitive art of performance, slam poetry helped bring poetry into the masses and stop it from being still. All topics are safe and acceptable in slam; it explores what hurts the most and what is the most important for the author.

Slam is very popular in the Windy City. For instance, Young Chicago Authors(YCA) hosts Louder Than a Bomb Slam competition that gives young talent a chance to show themselves. At the field trips we used this video of Adam Gottlieb (a slam poetry star at YCA) to illustrate what an effective slam was:

A performance by Lamont Carey “I Can’t Read” is also a powerful example:

And so, at slam poetry field trips we taught our middle-graders to focus on WHAT they are saying with their work and most importantly HOW they are saying it, using body language, voice, and face expressions. The topics for their work the students could choose varied from the dreams for their future to their favorite activities. Since we asked them to describe something intangible,  we told them to use five senses to talk about it. To warm up the students, we first created class slam poems about happiness:

Happiness looks like a rainbow.

Happiness tastes like buttery waffles with syrup.

Happiness sounds like pop music on a sunny Saturday while sipping lemonade at the beach.

Happiness smells like cotton candy flavored gum. Yum!

Happiness feels like winning the World Series.

 …and summer:


To my surprise, when asked to write what they want to become, students’ answers ranged from a movie star or a cook to an astronaut. One girl touched my heart and the hearts of others when she wrote that the things she liked to do was not to feel medicine in her blood after she’d recovered from an illness…

Please, enjoy the poem about future dream my student and I created together:

My dream is to be a dancer.

Being a star. Practice makes perfect.

My dream is bright like the stage lights when people applaud me after the dance.

Being a star. Practice makes perfect.

My dream tastes like a big piece of watermelon that my mother cuts for me on a summer morning.

Being a star. Practice makes perfect.

My dream smells like a touch of a perfume before the dance performance.

Being a star. Practice makes perfect.

My dream looks like beautiful costumes made especially for me.

Being a star. Practice makes perfect.

My dream feels like sore muscles after a tough training.

I want to become a dancer. I want to feel elevated.

Volunteering in a local bookstore is an excellent way for beginning writers to observe their audience-kids, get creative with them and, of course, get some publicity. And you get to read books as much as you wish for free!:)

5765513620_888221e583_mThey say independent bookstores thrive to survive nowadays. It’s true only to some extent. “Open Books” in Chicago, IL that  I visited recently is an example of how a passionate work of volunteers through engaging programs can create a competing alternative to major bookstores not only because of the price of the books, but because of an extra value it creates for children and their parents. “Open Books” is a non-profit organization, which means almost all of its employees are volunteers. All profits from book sales are used to fund various educational and literacy programs.

It impressed me how many books the store had in every genre andIMG_2193[1] for kids of all ages! The most amazing thing was that all the books were donated! During the time I was in the store, four new boxes of books were brought in.


If you are from Chicago or an area nearby, it might be interesting to learn how you can volunteer and get closer to your potential audience in your community. Others can do long-distance volunteering with the “Open Books” or you can see which programs this bookstore has and find similar in your local venues.

The Store Manager Kevin took time to explain me about four major volunteering opportunities this bookstore provides. They are as following:

  1. Book Buddies. Being in a bookstore, I talked to volunteer Joan who did this a year ago. She was paired with a second-grader boy, and read books with him for over a year. She said, at first she would bring a box of books at the meeting and would spread them oIMG_2189[1]n the table in front of him. The boy  would pick which book they would read. After she learned that stories about Spongebob excited him, she would bring similar books to their “buddy readings”. It helped the boy to be passionate about reading and more consistent with the time he spent on it. Joan said that she noticed definite improvement in his reading techniques during a short period of time because she was always there to correct him when needed or explain a hard word. These meetings are usually held twice a week.

2. VWrite is a long-distance volunteering that can be done via emails or phone. It’s concentrated mostly on post-high school coaching on business writing (i.e. job applications, resume writing).

3. ReadThenWrite. This program is done by volunteering in specific classrooms in public schools. It’s a sort of a book club with a unique flavor. Members of the club meet every week to read a book. It’s usually picked up by the kids. Literacy coaches make surIMG_2195[1]e it’s related to a high school life. The second time they meet that week they focus on writing their own pieces which would be similar to the book they are reading with the help of the coaches. Kids also have a chance to publish their work.  They choose the pieces they want to see in print, and the bookstore publishes a compilation book with  “Open Books” then has an Author Event several times per semester when children present their book and make a public reading on the “stage” of the boostore. Every child-author gets a copy of the book;  it’s also sold in the store. Currently 3 schools participate in this program. Next Author Events: launching of the book “It’s All About  Awesome Poets” from Fairfield Academy will take place on February 7, 2013 at 3:30 pm in the bookstore; February 20, 2013 4:30-6 pm  7th and 8th grade students of Mitchell school will present an anthology of memoirs “Now You Know Us” inspired by David Klass’ s novel “You Don’t Know Me”.

4. Field Trips. 2-hour writing workshops are held in the classrooms at the bookstore and are also led by volunteering adult writers.  At the end of the workshop kids get to perform their work and get a feedback from their peers and a professional coach. There is a small entry cost; however, at the end of every meeting each child gets one coupon for a free book in the store.

Store volunteering opportunities are also available. Each volunteer is given three slots a month to choose from. Responsibilities will include assisting customers, making inventory (systemizing, shelving of the books), ranking the books, and many other.  To apply for any volunteering opporunity, just go to the bookstore website and fill out the form. After they contact you, you’ll be invited to attend one of their orientations where you can choose which days and hours you’ll work. Store volunteering is a great way to see what kind of books  in your specific genre kids like to read. And imagine what impact you might have on children in your community by simply spending time with them and reading!IMG_2186[1]


I already signed up for the volunteering in the store and can’t wait to start!

I hope you’ll also grab the opportunity and engage yourself in an amazing world of children’s literature in your local bookstore!