Let’s Close the Word Gap

Ready to learn about the Word Gap?

I love to sneak learning into all parts of life. I’m a curious person, I can’t help it! My son asked if we could go on one vacation without learning things, and I answered with a maniacal laugh and a deep, sonorous NO. In this family, we love to learn!! And we talk about what we learn!!

Seriously, learning does not have to be boring. Learning can be fun if you do it the right way. And the right way is to make it into a game.

On car trips, when our kids were very little, we played rhyming games. They are all now school age so we will often play ‘Spelling Bee’ and give our kids funny words to spell at their grade level. We also keep a small but mighty trivia book tucked in a seat pocket and take turns passing it around and answering questions.

But let’s say you’re not on vacation and want some fun learning games for young kids. My first recommendation is BINGO. Yes, the classic game of Bingo is perfect to start playing with young kids (and older kids).

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Learning Numbers

When my oldest started kindergarten, I couldn’t wait to volunteer and help out. So as we neared Halloween, his wonderfully patient and experienced teacher invited me in to play a game with the class. I brought in our Bingo game set, complete with rolling ball and playing cards and red plastic markers. I started calling out letters and numbers and my son (and maybe a few other students) marked their cards. But most of the kids didn’t know what I meant when I called out double-digit numbers.

I felt embarrassed, but I also knew these kids could learn these numbers and that a game like Bingo was the perfect way to help them. We had been playing Bingo with our kids for a long time. If I hadn’t been so flustered, I could have written the numbers on the board and helping the kids look at their cards and match them up. I also could have done peer teaching and paired kids up.

Learning Words

It’s really important that kids learn their numbers, but it’s also important that they master our language and learn the parts of speech. Having a strong and varied vocabulary increases our ability to explain ourselves and understand others, to express complex thoughts and build connections between concepts and create new ideas. And that’s where Mad Libs comes in.

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Yes, Mad Libs. That old school paper book (not an e-device) that asks players to write in verbs, adjectives and nouns. The one where you couldn’t resist writing “butt” and “poop” at least a few times. It works.

My friend took a Mad Libs story into her son’s fourth grade class as a part of a holiday party and she was surprised how few kids could provide suggestions for the parts of speech. Standards in third grade already covered adjectives, adverbs and proper nouns! By fourth grade, students should be able to provide appropriate suggestions for those parts of speech. But even if they struggle, Mad Libs is a fun, non-academic way to encourage them to think about what kind of word is both grammatically logical but also hilariously out of place.

The Word Gap

Thinking about Mad Libs brings me back to the Word Gap. Simply put, kids from low income families are hearing and learning fewer words than kids from high income families. By age 3, kids from low income families are hearing 30 million fewer words. 30 million. And the discrepancy only increases as the kids age. It impacts these kids in terms of school success, which in turn impacts their chances of continuing education, job readiness, and the cycle of poverty.

A lack of words? It’s totally unfair.

It seems so bitterly unjust to me, someone who loves to talk and learn, that these children are already behind due to a lack of words. I try never to talk ‘down’ to children (or adults). But lots of people aren’t aware of this and say they aren’t sure what to say to kids. And sometimes when I take my children’s writing to more general critique groups, I get comments that my vocabulary is too high and I need to ‘dumb it down’ or ‘make it more kid friendly.’

But now you and I know being kid friendly means offering them more words, not less.

There are some amazing ideas out there. People are working to increase the number of words kids see, hear, read, learn and say. I’d love to contribute in some way to reduce the Word Gap. I’m going to keep thinking about it and I’m going to ask my kids what they think would work.

How would you reduce the Word Gap?

 

Pitching Your Writing

pitching your writing

Every day should be Coffee Day!

Pitching your writing doesn’t come easy to every writer. In fact, I have a friend who just shared on Facebook that she recently sent out her first query in a long time and “didn’t die.” Of course she didn’t die. Sending out queries should not be life threatening. But for many writers, pitching your writing is super stressful and not something that can be done everyday.

I don’t pitch every single day, but I try to pitch something every week. And sometimes I get on a big tear and pitch a lot of things in one week that keeps my monthly average high. For instance, September was a mighty busy month for me. I submitted several non-fiction pieces to children’s magazines, my novel manuscript to some carefully selected agents, and finalized my new children’s ebook for it’s October release.

Maybe you like pitching your writing is something special, that you should save up and do it big, do it right.

But I suggest you think about National Coffee Day. National Coffee Day happens once a year. If I treated National Coffee Day like some amazing holiday, I might plan a huge party, decorate my house, invite my closest friends, raise my expectations and demands to incomprehensible levels. And when the day finally arrived, if the roast was a little weak or the water not quite hot, or no one showed up at all, I could be sorely disappointed. Hopes dashed, coffee grounds strewn across the counter, stumbling around blinded by my caffeine-headache in despair.

Which is why I drink coffee every day. I don’t wait for one special day a year to enjoy it.

And that’s why pitching your writing should be an every day, or at least every week event. It doesn’t have to be the most perfect cup of coffee/article idea you’ve ever written. It should be GOOD. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggested you go about pitching your writing crap. But you shouldn’t wait for that perfect moment. Work on it as often as you possibly can. Pitch frequently. Pitch to new places. Pitch to your old favorites. Put it out there.

You need to pitch often for one important reason: so you can practice. Because pitching your writing isn’t something you’re going to be great at the first time. And if you don’t practice you’re not going to get better. I certainly was not any good at pitching when I started back in the early 2000s. But I’ve experimented, learned, practiced, learned more, taken classes and practiced even more. And I force myself to write pitches even when I’m not sure the editor is going to bite because the act of practicing pitching your writing is an essential part of being a freelance writer.

(Just like you have to practice running to get better).

So if you don’t want to send out what you think are weak pitches to editors, send them to your writing partner. But send them. Force yourself to hit send. Then celebrate with a cup of coffee or your beverage of choice. And get ready to pitch again tomorrow!

Help for Moms of Picky Eaters: Mom Talk with Denise LaRosa

I am so thrilled to share the link to a truly fun conversation I had with Denisa LaRosa, host of Mom Talk with Denise LaRosa. Denise and I are both Pittsburgh moms, but she is raising girls and I have all boys. We share a common goal in helping our kids develop a healthy relationship with food. Denise is a former elementary school teacher and I admire anyone who can tackle a classroom full of kids.

Denise is the founder and CEO of Mom Talk with Denise LaRosa, LLC, a multimedia platform designed to motivate, inspire and inform mothers. Denise’s website focuses on “providing mothers with encouragement, support and resources as they travel the journey of motherhood.”

Denise and I had a inspiring talk about what inspired my books and how I encourage my kids to try new foods. But her website has many more resources for moms.

Moms learning from Moms

Moms learning from Moms

Denise and I are both supporting the Burgh Baby Diaper Drive and collecting diapers for the smallest members of our community.

Make a change in a little one's life!

 

It can be hard to be patient when kids refuse to eat. Moms know that many times dinners and meals with picky eaters end up in food fights and battlesI Denise and I shared great ideas on how we take our children to the grocery store, get them involved in cooking and encourage them to try new foods. I invite you to listen to this podcast and check out more from Denise!

 

 

New articles published

I am excited to announce a few new articles are now published and ready to be read!

In August, my article “Make Your Open House a Hit” went live on PTOToday.com.

In September, my article “Ways to Help Your Child Succeed in School” went live on SchoolFamily.com.

And in October, my article “What to Do With Poo” came out in the November 2014 issue of Odyssey Magazine.

Odyssey magazine

Attention grabber!

Writing Clips

writing clips

“Jane D.O.E.” is included in Issue 65

I’m happy to announce a few new writing clips in my portfolio. Writer’s Weekly, a fantastic source of information and publications for freelance writers recently published my story about learning InDesign to boost my income and increase my client work.

Next, Children’s Writer, a newsletter produced by the Institute of Children’s Literature, published my article Procrastination into Productivity by way of Pinterest. Sometimes I think procrastination is just based on your perspective, but this article offers real tips for fiction writers looking for inspiration.

While it’s not published yet, I’m thrilled to hear that Family Fun magazine is buying an essay I submitted back in January! It’s scheduled to come out in the June/July 2014 issue and offers kids and parents a great boredom buster idea. Stay tuned.

I also completed an assignment for AppleSeeds for an their September 2014 issue on skyscrapers. I am not an engineer and have no construction experience, but I do have a lot of experience explaining complex ideas to nine year olds, so this article was right up my alley.

These new writing clips really enhance my samples and focus in on topics that are important to me. I try to update my writing clips list on my website monthly, but I’ve been so busy writing lately that I’ve fallen behind!

And I don’t think I ever formally announced that my flash fiction story “Jane D.O.E.” received an Honorable Mention from Leading Edge Literary Magazine. This award was extra-special because one of my favorite sci-fi/fantasy authors, Orson Scott Card, was also published in Leading Edge. I think that makes me cool by association. I started “Jane D.O.E.” in the years before I had three children. It waited in my stacks of old stories until the time was right for me to revise, revise, revise and then re-submit this futuristic re-telling of the classic novel Jane Eyre.

Do you have old stories laying around, waiting for your fresh eyes and enhanced skills? What would you like to do with them?

Do you have any new writing clips you’d like to announce?

 

The Secret of Social Media

The Secret of Social Media

Right now, I’m working with the U.S. part of a major corporation to plan their social media strategy for the next twelve months. We’ve identified buckets of topics to discuss, like insider info on their brand, fun contests, debatable questions and lots, and lots, and lots of photos. We’ve selected people from the various departments in the company to contribute content so it’s not all one person. But after developing all that social media content, I told the client we were only half done.

“Half?!”

My client was a bit upset.

“What more do we need??”

“You need someone that you trust to listen and reply to every comment, every retweet, every mention, every question. Social media is a party. Sometimes it’s a business party, sometimes it’s a cocktail party, sometimes it’s a Sunday afternoon football watching party. When you go to a party you don’t stand there and shout out all your thoughts. If you did that, you’d be called a jerk and never invited back. You need, as a brand, to have conversations. And that’s the secret of social media.”

“What? What is the secret?”

“Listen, and then let your customers know you heard them.”

social media secret

Good listening is hard.

Why brands and businesses are like little children

This client conversation was especially important to me right now because I am having the exact same conversation with my children. I am trying to train my children on the art of conversation and building relationships with people, including their family members. And that means when someone (like Mom) speaks to you, you acknowledge that you heard (‘Yes, Mom”) and answer the question (“Yes, Mom I was the one who unrolled all of the toilet paper. I was trying to see how much was left.”).

The secret to social media is simple. Talk to your customers the way you would -hopefully- talk to people in real life. You would listen to what they say and reply.

Many brands are not practicing good listening on social media. A recent study by Simply Measured showed that 98 of the top 100 brands on Twitter tweeting daily, but only 54% replied to messages. Like my little children, this makes it seem like they are simply not listening.

Good listening is hard. Really, really good listening is a learned technique. It involves certain body postures and skills like repeating back what you have heard someone say to validate their comments. It can also involve asking more questions instead of jumping to the conclusion that you already know the real issue. Lots of adults are not good listeners.

I’m not saying parents are the best listeners. But I am saying when you’re looking for someone to manage your social media, it’s not really about whether they understand ‘the technology.’ The secret to social media is to find a skilled listener.

Thank You Notes from Kids

thank you kids thank you notes

Good habits start early

Do you send thank you notes?

Have you ever forgotten to send a thank you note?

I volunteered at our elementary school this month helping with an assembly and the launch of a new school activity, Kids of STEEL. Kids who join this program will get to run together once a week and learn about healthy eating. It’s right up my alley.

But after the assembly ended, our PTO president and principal realized they had forgotten to unroll the giant thank you sign they had created for these kinds of events.

“There’s just so much going on,” lamented our PTO president.

So I opened my big mouth and made this suggestion: “Let the kids take over saying thanks. Have the student government put together a gratitude team, and they can write thank you notes to volunteers and guests.”

We discussed photographing the large thank you sign and creating custom thank you cards. The principal is taking the idea to the teacher who advises student government, and I am hopeful they will give it a try.

The PTO can still write notes or send emails, but I think involving the kids has so many benefits. Writing thank you notes as a kid is almost as important eating healthy and exercises. Writing thank you notes is a physical, active way to help my children develop a strong sense of gratitude. I know that feeling gratitude can go a long way toward helping a child feel happy and satisfied in whatever path they follow in life.

Gratitude and Thank You Notes

I recently finished local Pittsburgh author Britt Reints’ book An Amateur’s Guide to the Pursuit of Happiness. Reints dedicates an entire chapter to the science of gratitude. She cites research that argues when we feel and express gratitude, we are happier. She also emphasizes that gratitude is not the same as feeling indebted, and I am working hard to help my children understand the subtle difference there.

Working with volunteers gives me many times to feel and share my gratitude. Over the past ten years, I have often found myself struggling to find ways to express my gratitude that matches the value of the gifts these volunteers have shared. I collected a list of the 100 most creative and relevant ways I’ve said thanks to volunteers and these ideas are available to you as an e-book called Thanks! 100 Ways to Appreciate Volunteers.

Should you force it?

Some families don’t have a habit of writing thank you notes. I often give my grandmother credit for building the habit for me, but really my mom was just as influential. She would often say, “Write the thank you note, or we’ll never hear the end of it from your grandmother.” I guess they had a pretty effective good cop/bad cop system going because even now I say those things to my children.

Technology offers lots of ways to say thank you now beyond the traditional handwritten note. And my family has used a variety of them, like the photo at the top of this blog. But we never abandon the thank you note completely. I do agree that the way we say thank you isn’t as important as remembering to do it in the first place. A true, heartfelt “thank you” is all we need to offer.

I have two requests for feedback here:

Do you value handwritten note more or less than other ways of showing gratitude?

What creative ways you have helped your children – or you have used yourself – to express gratitude?

More Advice on Writers Conferences

This year I’m heading to my first writers conference. I’m gathering tips and advice from people who have been to writers conferences before. So I asked one of my good friends Beth Skwarecki about her most recent writers conference. She’s also really analytical and never takes things at face value, which makes her a great science writer. We met last year when she agreed without ever having met me, to be my writing mentor for National Novel Writing Month. Since our first meetings, which were quiet and focused on writing, we’ve had some interesting shared adventures like hiking with our kids and spotting an owl as well as visiting gun and archery ranges. Yep, we’re exciting people.

Beth recently attended a science writers conference called…ScienceWriters hosted by the National Association of Science Writers. Pretty much it was science writers heaven to judge by her enthusiastic – almost giddy – tweets and emails!


Writers Conference Tips

Before Beth jetted off to London for SpotOn, another science conference, I asked her to share with me some advice for a great writers conference experience.

From Beth:

I suspect ScienceWriters is a different beast than other writing conferences. Not sure how much of this applies elsewhere. That said, I jotted down a few thoughts.

To know about writing conferences like ScienceWriters:

Editors want to meet writers. Writers want to hear cool stuff from PIOs. Freelancers want to compare notes with other freelancers. Introduce yourself to anyone and everyone; you won’t regret it.

Don’t skip the parties. Your conversation starters are:

So where are you based?
Are you a freelancer / who do you work for?
What sessions have you gone to? How was that one? Which ones are you doing tomorrow?
Have you been to these conferences before?
We’ve emailed / I follow you on twitter / etc / and I just wanted to say hi in person.

If you’re just starting out as a freelancer and don’t have tons of clips you’re proud of, and somebody asks you who you write for? DO NOT PANIC. It’s OK to say you’re new. Mention a thing or two you’ve done. Or just evade the question and tell them about the latest topic you wrote about, or something you’re interested in. They’re not fact-checking your resume, they just want to start a conversation.

When there are food tables, skip the first one you see. The ones at the back of the room have shorter lines.

There will be times you have to choose between sessions. Don’t sweat it too much; just ask other attendees later about how that session was. Sometimes I’ll skip a session if I know it’s likely to be blogged or videotaped, and instead choose something where the in-the-moment experience will be the best.

You don’t HAVE to do anything. If you want to skip a session to write, go ahead. If you’re partied out, feel free to hole up in your hotel room. Just not all the time.

NASW has lots of field trips and opportunities to meet researchers. Even if what they’re doing seems boring, put on your interviewer hat and start asking questions. Imagine an editor has told you “This person does super cool stuff, but you’ll have to dig to find out what it is.” Ask dumb questions, smart questions, anything that comes to mind. Stumped? Try “What is the worst part of your job?” and “What’s the most exciting thing in your field?”. Those two questions, if propelled with just a little bit of “so tell me more about that,” can cover anywhere from minutes to hours.

We did a “Power Pitch” session which was like speed dating with editors. It was AWESOME. Here’s my approach, which seemed to work well for me.

Find out how it works. Wake up early to sign up (they did a lottery in the morning)
Know, ahead of time, who your first (second, etc) choice of editor is. Have a list of pitch topics.
Don’t worry about fleshed out pitches; there isn’t time. Think in terms of headlines and hooks.
Here’s what I would usually say:
I’m [name] from [city] covering [beat].
(Business card swap)
I ask: Where does your pub fit in the news cycle? What counts as a good news peg for you?
Maybe another quick question or two to narrow down where their needs intersect with the kind of stuff I can write (topic areas, word counts, etc)
Rapid fire pitches: a headline, a few sentences of explanation if needed. Get a yes/no and move quickly to the next. Time will be up before you know it.
They won’t assign stories on the spot; it’s more of a rapid fire “Do you want a pitch on this?”
If they give a yes, or a strong maybe, I star that pitch in my notebook.

To check out Beth’s science writing, a good place to start is her Pinterest board. But I’d highly recommend following her on Twitter, too.

 

What Goes in Work Bags?

contents of work bags

What’s in your work bag?

Work bags are essential for freelancers. I rarely go places without mine. Not everyone can work at home all the time, even freelancers need to visit the outside world. Sometimes I’m meeting deadlines at soccer practice, cranking out words at a local coffee shop, or strategizing at a client’s office. I don’t mind leaving my home office but I do mind when I’ve forgotten something essential.

So I wanted to put together a standard ‘desk on the go’ that was always ready in case I wanted to head out the door and didn’t leave myself enough to check over the contents of the bag.

So I asked four creative professionals what they always pack in their work bags in order to get things done.

First I asked Susan Paff from Ideality Communications what she carries.

“Believe it or not I used to carry a travel file folder in my trunk. Now dropbox carries everything for me. A laptop, an iPad, an iPhone – I’ve worked from them all. Add Skype for conferencing and messaging and we can work from anywhere.”

Susan sent her answer using voice texting from Siri. I’m impressed at her multi-tasking.

Shawn Graham, who offers marketing services for badass small businesses, brings these items:

  • Laptop (with charger)
  • Tablet
  • Pen
  • Outlet
  • Internet Access
  • Table/Chair
  • Cell Phone (with charger)
  • Coffee
  • Ear buds (personal preference or if people are loud talking around you)
Both Shawn and Susan provide serious creative strategizing for their many clients. I wondered if writers have anything different in their work bags?
So I asked Jennifer Bright Reich, coauthor of The Mommy MD Guide to Losing Weight and
Feeling Great.

This is a great question, thanks for asking! I generally work in my home office, but each week when my boys are in karate, I usually take “the show on the road.” I have a large laptop bag that’s about the size of a piece of carry-on luggage. I always keep it packed and ready to roll! Even though there was some up-front cost, I bought duplicates of most things in my bag so that way I keep the extras in there and don’t forget to pack them!Here’s what’s inside:
Spare laptop cord
Spare mouse and my Disney Vacation Club mousepad (Will work to travel!)
Spare calculator
Pens, Post-it notes, pencils

I liked that Jennifer packs Post-it notes and I think I’m going to add that to my work bag. Local science writer Beth Skwarecki was the only one who mentioned a caffeinated beverage – maybe that’s why we make such good writing partners.

Here’s what Beth keeps in her work bag:

1. My laptop.
2. The knowledge/attitude that if I have my laptop, I have the tools I need to get work done. Even if I don’t have internet, I can draft, outline, or brainstorm.
3. My smartphone – in case I don’t have internet, I can still look stuff up. (Or take a peek at my email without getting bogged down in it.)
4. Headphones, in case people are getting loud; and a playlist that helps me tune out distractions. I like ambient music like God Is An Astronaut.
5. A notebook (and pen), or failing that, a scrap of paper. I write down things that pop into my head that I don’t have time to deal with at the moment; I also use it for brainstorming and organization. It’s like having an extra brain.
6. Extras that are helpful: laptop charger, usb cable to charge phone, caffeinated beverage or means of procuring same.
Of course everybody I talked to has some serious tech in their work bags. But old-fashioned paper snuck it’s way in there, too. It looks like almost everyone uses earphones, too, whether for phone calls or inspirational music. I feel like I’m well on my way to having a useful bag ready whenever I need to rush out the door. Of course I always have a nice selection of pens. They are so crucial to my productivity. But if you look closely at the photo at the top of the post you’ll see a funny little metal rectangle. I have no idea what it’s called but I call it a book stand or book holder. I’ve had it for years and I love it. It is always with me in my work bag, at my desk, wherever I go. It is my essential item.

 

Best Billboards

Here are two of the best Pittsburgh billboards I’ve seen lately. One’s silly and one’s clever.

This billboard for Fodi Jewelers cracks me up every time I drive by it.  It’s not the use of the word ‘chicks’ that got me, it’s the fact that they put baby chicks on the billboard.

Too many puns!

Yes, we get the pun that studs is either diamond studs or studly men. And both of those meanings of the word “stud” make sense in this context. I’m just glad they didn’t put some pieces of lumber on the billboard, too. I have to say the image of the baby chickens is just silly and makes me laugh every day.

 

Awesome play on words

This billboard created by Marcus Thomas for just the Pittsburgh market makes perfect wordplay sense. It’s the 40th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception and Pittsburghers will totally get this reference. Makes me wanna buy some chips right now!