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!


Publishing Academy at Open Books: My Magical Summer


12 teenagers…

4 weeks…

Hours of writing…

3 volunteer writing coaches and editors…

4 Open Books Leaders…

…on the quest to publishing.

This is a summary (rather brief one) of what happened at the Publishing Academy program Open Books had this July. Twelve teenagers from Chicago Greater Area embarked on a journey of writing their own fantasy novels and publishing them with Open Books. And I had a pleasure of being one of their writing coaches!

First thing that struck me was that everyone had different fantasy stories, from the far-away kingdom tales to dystopian future epics, or a dreamland of a dying girl sick with cancer.

Open Books created a magical atmosphere that sparked imagination and had plenty of resources for writing.


During the first week, the students created and built engaging fantasy worlds. The coaches helped them by brainstorming ideas and making science fair poster boards with the description of the worlds.


A talented young writer Natalia and a story board for her book “Chimera”.

The authors invented their main characters, protagonists and antagonists. The coaches explained what indirect and direct characterization was and assisted in developing characterization skits for all the characters.

Open Books invited local artists to make sketches of the young authors’ main characters. This helped them visualize their main characters and connect to them better.


Next week, the students completed plot outlines and hero’s journey. We used The Hunger Games as an example of the character’s hero’s journey.

No good fantasy novel can do without combat scenes and action. During the second week Open Books invited martial art expert and creative writing teacher Jordan Bond to work on our students’ battle scenes. First, they discussed the difference between mentioning a fight and describing it in detail. Next, Jordan explained descriptive language to enhance battle scenes. What are synonyms for “defend” or “attack”? What kinds of weapons can be used and how they affect the person’s movement? What kinds of sounds can be heard during the fight? With this new knowledge, the students had a chance to write or refine a fight scene from their novel. Then they took turns reading their scene aloud as other students acted it out.


combat 1

The students participate in “sword fighting” with pool noodles.

During the third week, guest speaker John Murphy, a game designer from Young Horses, discussed the overlap between writing and video game design with the students. He showed Young Horses’s new game, Octodad, and introduced TWINE – a software that is used to create interactive stories. The students had a chance to use it to develop their stories’ endings.


The students also learned how settings “show” the characters and how mood affects the type of story you are writing.

During the last week, the young authors wrote their author bios and had their photos taken for the book covers. They also had a chance to take part in front/back cover design.

Writing process included one-on-one conferences with the coaches, writing time alone, activities such as “question hat”, “put your character in a scene” etc.

Open Books Leaders created many incentives. Passports, for example, served to mark how many points the students had for completing their quests. Quests were tasks that we asked them to complete during each session (i.e. finish chapter or add character’s characteristics) or at home (i.e. write a review for the last fantasy novel they read). For each completed quest they got “coins” and stamps in their passport. They could later redeem their “coins” at the Open Books bookstore for used books.


My students Victoria(on the left) and Natalia(on the right) and me after completing their novels.

At the end there were a lot of hugs, happy tears, and a pizza party. Finished line crossed!

My student Aine and me on the last day of the Publishing Academy.

My student Aine and me on the last day of the Publishing Academy.

The author launch party took place in the Open Books Bookstore on September 19th 2013. The students, now published authors, read extracts from their books to the audience of their relatives and friends.


There was an autograph party afterwards and coaches-students reunion. And a sense of pride that we have accomplished such a big goal – a creation of the book from an idea to 70 or more well-written pages!

Me and my student Aine.20130919_192236[1]




These words were the biggest reward for me for taking part in PA.

So, if any of you will ever take part in similar programs, I have a few tips:

– Personal bond with teens is very important.  Don’t talk down, but rather show your interest in them.

– Despite what you’ve heard, teens do need a “counselor”, an advisor figure. Don’t be shy to show your authority.

– When critiquing, first point out what you like about the work. Then move on to the areas that need improvement. I found it useful to write everything down on a separate paper for them.

– There is no such thing as “too much editing”.

Here are some tips for helping your students write:

  1. Encourage them to be good thinkers.
  2. Meet students where they are. Figure out where the students need help to get started, and begin there.
  3. Be excited, engaged, and curious, ask questions.
  4. Be a good listener. Some students struggle with getting ideas from their minds to the paper. Yet, they have no problem telling stories all the time. Before you even hand your students a pen and a paper, ask them to tell you their story, orally.
  5. Be an active part in the writing process. Regular check ins are a great way to make sure your students are on track.
  6. Celebrate the small victories and be specific about them.
  7. Set achievable goals.

The young authors talked about their experience and gave advice to the aspiring writers at the Authors’ Launch which you can check out here.

At the end, I think I got even more from this experience than my students. I exercised in brainstorming ideas, editing someone’s work…Publishing Academy helped me to be a better writer!

You can learn more and purchase books by Publishing Academy authors by following this link.