Monday, December 16, 2013

Spilling Ink. How to get kids (and you) to write

by Hilde Garcia

Spilling Ink.

Seems easy. To simply let ink flow out on to paper as their ideas evolve. Not easy at all. But if you think it is hard for us, try teaching kids to do it?

Well, two amazing ladies created a fabulous handbook that makes this task extremely accessible- and forget the kids- I use the book too!

Their book titled Spilling Ink: A Young Writer’s Handbook by Ellen Potter and Anne Mazer is fabulously written and kid friendly. I used it two years ago when I taught 6th grade how to write a novel and the project was a hit thanks to the handbook. Now, I am introducing it to my 4th and 5th grade class and now the rest of the upper grade staff wants to join in on the fun.

What’s the fun?

Let’s write a novel, kids. Yep, and then publish it.

A bit crazy to undertake the way today’s schools are set up, but I’m that kind of nut. I like the road bumpy all the way around.

I remember listening to Gordon Korman deliver a key note a few years ago at an SCBWI conference here in LA and he spoke of how he got his book published at the ripe old age of 12.

He had all twelve hundred of us dying when he said, “I simply sent it in with the Scholastic book order since I was the rep and had collected the money.” It was something he’d written during those long hours in English class when the “coach” teaching his class was simply “not” teaching.

And they called him to publish it. Yep.

My students went nuts.

“He was only 12?”

“That’s so cool?”

“Is it the same Gordan Korman from The 39 Clues and Ungifted?”

“You heard him speak?”

“He’s just a kid like me?”

Yes, I tell them, he was and still is, if you read his characters, full of warmth, quirkiness, honesty and yes, they still sound their age.

Now that I have hooked the class, I start reading from Ellen Potter and Anne Mazer’s amazing book Spilling Ink. I have the kids at hello. Right there, on page 1. Some of it I act out. Some of it they read out loud. Most of it they identified and laughed at, but most of them feel the same way. “Not me, I’m just a kid.”

And I am here to tell them that size matters not and neither does age. A story can be told by anyone, at any time, although it usually helps if you can write or talk.

Then I do the next coolest thing in this awesome book- I take my character to dinner. My students were like, “What?” I said, “Sure just ask them questions. And to warm you guys up, let’s see how well you know your pals.”

I assigned my students the 15 questions from the book, which I have included here, and told them, ok interview your pal.

1. What is your happiest memory?
2. What makes you laugh so hard soda shoots out of your nose?
3. What don’t you want anyone to find out about you?
4. What is the best part of your personality?
5. What shoes do you usually wear?
6. Name some things that you are not very good at.
7. How would your best friend describe how you look?
8. What irritates you (i. e., noises, bad habits, personality traits)?
9. What are you afraid of?
10. Tell me about your family.
11. What does your bedroom look like?
12. What do you think of yourself when you look in the mirror?
13. What’s the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to you?
14. Do you have a crush on anyone?
15. What do you really, REALLY want more than anything else in the world?

Now pay attention. Here is the number one most important question you can ask your character. Ready? (page turn)

What’s your heart’s desire?

Turns out they didn’t know their pals as well as they thought they did. They were truly aghast when friend A couldn’t tell friend B her favorite color and Friend C guessed the wrong team Friend D loved to watch play football.

And they have been in the same class for 4 years.

Over the winter break, their job will be to think of a character, real or imagined, they would like to tell a story about and then take them to dinner, using the 15 questions from Spilling Ink.

And that will be our jumping board for starting our novel.

I love reading what they write and seeing how it evolves. There’s one more component of this amazing project. I put the students into critique groups. Yep, peer groups. They print their new pages. Then share them with each group member.

I tell my students when critiquing to use the compliment sandwich:

TOP BUN: “Hey, I like how much you wrote.” (something nice)

THE FILLING: “Maybe add a line to explain the joke.” (something to add)

BOTTOM BUN “But it certainly is funny. “ (something nice #2)

There you have it. A compliment sandwich. Works with adults too, I hear.

But of course, we still have to publish it don’t we?

There’s a great website that let’s you create book that you can then buy called Tikatok. It puts your students in the driver’s seat.

Of course, there is constant reading and editing to help the kids mold a story when many of them can’t write a successful paragraph.

But when the stakes are high and it’s something that matters like their idea, the kids really go the distance.

And subsequently, their writing improves by leaps and bounds.

It’s that easy. Stuck on starting a new project? Well….

Think of a character you’d like to write about.

Take your character to dinner.

You never know what they might order.

Thanks Ellen and Anne for such an amazing tool that parents, teachers and writers can use to continue writing stories that Scholastic and others might want to publish from the Scholastic Book order envelope. (I know! That still just cracks me up!)


  1. Can't wait to try this. Thank you, Hilde

  2. Terrific post! I love the idea and want to thank you for it and for sharing this great stuff with us...

  3. What great ideas! As a teacher and writer I appreciate these ideas.

  4. Hi HIlde, this is a great post -- what a wonderful way to engage students (at any grade level!) Thanks for sharing.


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