“Postcards from Camp” Book Review

I remember going to Girl Scout camp in 4th grade, the first time I was away from home for a significant time. It was a week…but I swear it felt like at least a month! I wrote cards and letters to my parents almost every day. I gave my mom the complete scoop on the bunk drama and how the showers only had cold water. As a miserable 9 year old, my letters were long  like a Bronte novel with painful descriptions of every nook and cranny in the camp. This book brought me back to my days of camp and my earliest memories of writing. This conversational tale about a young boy sharing his camping experience with his dad through postcards, letters, and art. Mike hates camp and especially hates his bunk mates and homesickness radiates throughout the pages of the book. The father writes with encouragement to his son and even pokes a little fun at Mike’s overdramatic reaction to everything awful about camp. However a change overcomes Mike as camp becomes more familiar and his bunkmates go from villains to friends. He even says he wants to stay the entire summer next year.

The art work in this book is magnificent. Intended to look like hand-drawn postcards with block letters and large pencil lines, each post card reflects the emotion in each written conversation. In addition there is purposeful thought in making the postcards look real with authentic postage stamps that mimic the sentiment of the letter. There is a combination of typed font mixed with handwritten letters which keeps the written message visually appealing to the reader.

One of the best parts of this book are the envelopes that contain letters from Mike and his father. This interactive element makes the reader feel like they are receiving an actual letter in the mail! Unfolding each letter and seeing messages on all sides truly transforms this book into an experience. It reminds me of a scrapbook format with 3D memorabilia sprinkled throughout its pages. I am reminded of books like “The Jolly Postman” I read when I was a child, receiving letters from favorite fairytale creatures. These stories almost come to life with the turning of each page.

As a teacher I read this book and immediately thought of Vera B. Williams’ “Stringbean’s Trip to the Shining Sea” which is also a story told through letters and postcards. However the interactive nature of having envelopes containing letters takes this book to another level. I think about how writing letters and communicating through mail was often someone’s earliest (and sometimes only) experience with writing. In an age when email, texts, tweets, and other forms of technology  it’s unfortunate that the beauty of receiving a hand written letter is lost. I think about ways to provide opportunities for students to write and receive letters and have a written conversation.

Recently students in my class sent letters to favorite authors asking questions about their craft and writing process. The shock and joy of receiving a response of favorite authors like Meg Cabot, Sarah Weeks, and Louis Sachar floored my students. The best part was how excited they were to keep the conversation going, and write them all back. Some students even sent in samples of their own writing for feedback. Often I will have students “pass notes” to each other as a way to discuss a topic in class. Writing down their thinking and passing it on to another requires students to think about clarity of their writing and respond quickly.

What are some other ways you have encouraged students to write letters? Who are they writing to?


Procrastination … Why Accomplishing Things Becomes Difficult

I have had a pending deadline hanging over my head for about 2 months. A colleague and I are co-writing a proposal to present at the National Council of Teachers of English conference in November 2013. The deadline is January 11. And although I have known about this looming date and I have all the data I need to write the proposal, for some reason I cannot pull myself to sit down and do it. Right now, I am writing a post about procrastinating my proposal rather than actually writing it.

Procrastination. It’s a trait I cannot stand in myself and my students. I always felt like such a nag when I would impatiently tap my toes as I would watch students piss their time away on other crap during writer’s workshop. I’d think to myself, “Boy they are going to regret wasting their time.” I too am plagued for I will often claim that I’ve been consumed by other more pressing priorities rather than actually working on what I need to complete. It makes me wonder, how to be inspired (and inspire others) to get something done.

I googled “procrastination” and was pleasantly surprised to find a slew of self-help books on amazon.com on the very topic. Titles such as “The Procrastinators Handbook” or “The Now Habit” provide plenty of professional advice on what one should to do become more productive. You can scroll down to find books of all lengths to assist you in solving your sloth-like habits. However I must ask, if you are busy reading one of these books, aren’t you also not completing the task that you need  to finish?

I can’t help but think about my students and how procrastination almost disables many young writers. When thinking about revising and editing, many students will say, “I’ll do that later” only to find that they really just didn’t want to edit or revise in the first place. They become frustrated by the reality that sometimes the hardest tasks must be completed one way or another. Is this my problem as well? Do I just not want to write my proposal because it’s too hard? Often I consider helping students break down the challenging aspects of writing that they appear to be resistant towards. Like eating vegetables at dinner, the broccoli doesn’t seem so bad when eaten in small bites (and also covered in mashed potatoes). If editing for clarity and punctuation is the struggle with students, having writers take only a small paragraph in isolation to examine can help get their mental train moving in the right direction. This can also happen with revising or adding different craft elements (dialogue, character description, metaphors) for students to take smaller chunks to work with. It doesn’t have to happen all at once but at least allowing students to stretch their writing muscles can help them to it again in the future and therefore make the difficult task seem not as intimidating.

Of course its easier to occupy our minds and hands with other activities that require less thought and stress. This is what I have been doing for the past two months instead of completing my NCTE proposal. However, more anxiety is caused as you get closer to a deadline. Helping students break down the barrier of a task into more manageable steps is how we support self-proclaimed procrastinators. I must recognize that a task needs smaller steps and actually follow those steps. I am an expert at writing to-do lists that never get completed. But if I can make each task on my list small and tangible, it is more likely that I will complete what must be done.

And so, the proposal must be written. But maybe I’ll get to that tomorrow when I have more time. 🙂