By Lillian Stulich
More than an autumn wind came to our region of New Jersey in October of 2012; it was Superstorm Sandy. While the storm may have cancelled the tradition of “trick or treat” in Toms River and the surrounding areas, this storm was no match for our Halloween spirit!
There was no candy given out or costumes donned, instead children and their parents and neighbors rallied together and brought out the best of the best of their own characters. Schools were transformed from educational facilities into storm shelters. Grown-ups and children served as volunteers in multiple capacities, including getting food and supplies to those in need.
My colleague Kevin McCormick and I did not know it at that time, but those events and these students would inspire us to write a story.
When we finally returned to Toms River Intermediate East, one of the many schools in our district that served as a shelter and volunteer site, Kevin and I felt that there was a renewed feeling of community among the students and staff. We wanted to capture the fortitude, survivorship, caring and sharing that our students went through during those recovery weeks. We wove the happy feelings from Halloweens past into our story as well as the reinforcement of remembering to stop and smell the flowers or—to go along with the myth of our book—plant and smell the mums.
Writing literature for children has led Kevin and me to teach children’s literature in a unique way and to offer writing presentations for students at school assemblies around the state. We encourage teachers and students to read our book prior to our student presentations so that they are familiar with our characters. We also created a plush glow in the dark Little Ghost that is used as a reading and “glow to sleep” buddy. The characters from our book are our co-teachers in engaging students.
Tell your students that they are scholars, authors, illustrators or whatever applies.
When we visit a school, it’s not just Kevin and me presenting. We like to display our characters and book to make the presentation visually appealing to the students. We take our characters out of the book in the form of 3-D wooden cut-outs. We also have a large 3-D wooden version of our book.
We introduce Little Ghost, Tommy and Suzie to the children. Once we begin the slide presentation, they know that Little Ghost, along with characters Tommy and Suzie, will be encouraging them to learn and apply any of the three styles of writing in the story.
We consciously chose to use three different styles of writing in our book: acrostic poetry, rhyme and prose. Besides having the creative control to incorporate the three styles of writing, the goal was to make the story more engaging by varying the style.
“Most books only have one style of writing, but our book has three,” we tell the students. “And, why not? After all, we are the authors!”
The end of our presentation highlights skills for young artists who aspire to become illustrators. Students see the development of the characters from the illustrator’s original drafts. Students come to realize that art and writing are each a process, not something you can do in one shot. Editing is a big part in the process to create a book or an illustration.
I often use acrostic poetry in my classroom. I chose that style of poetry to introduce Host a Little Ghost with a myth: the “Myth of the Mums.” This type of writing includes choosing a word and writing it vertically on paper to create a word association poem rather than a rhyming poem. Acrostic poetry encourages students to brainstorm words. In autumn, students tend to employ words such as “ghost” or “pumpkin” to create their own acrostic poems.
Writing in prose gives students the opportunity to express themselves in a more conventional way. Those students familiar with realistic fiction can use events from the book, such as when the characters Tommy and Suzie plant the mystical fall mums. Students can also reflect on their own experiences and activities as a springboard to writing a short story or paragraph. Prose allows concrete thinkers to write in a more traditional way. More creative writer can go in a host of different directions.
Prose writing introduces the basic story and gives way to character development. Once the Little Ghost appears as a fully developed character the story is told through rhyme. This introduces an element of whimsy as well as taking the story from “real to surreal.” Students usually need little encouragement to then tell a story, or part of a story, in rhyme.
When developing Host a Little Ghost, we thought of other basic elements with which students are most familiar: their five senses. Children are great observers. Once students have chosen a theme for their stories, we encourage them to reflect on what they would see, hear, taste, touch and smell. We remind students to rely on their five senses and incorporate each one—or as many as possible—in their writing. Students might not always remember every writing “trick” we demonstrate as teachers, but they will always remember how things feel, look, smell, sound and taste.
We were careful to include young artists in our program. Even if you’re not the best artist (myself included) sometimes if you see the character on paper, it may help to develop your story We encourage students and aspiring writers alike to use doodles, sketches, and clip art.
“When developing the illustrations for Host a Little Ghost, I drew from my previous experience as an elementary school art teacher,” says our illustrator Bill Dishon. “I used bright colors, repeated patterns, textures and whimsical friendly characters that I felt children would respond to and connect with. My hope was that the patterns representing grass, tree bark, wind and other elements would help students solve the problems of creating textures in their artwork, but also add interest to drawings.”
As Bill began his illustrations, Little Ghost first looked like a squiggle holding flowers. Showing students the early stages of illustration helps them understand that even professional illustrators, just like writers, need to revise and edit. There is a progression. In both writing and illustration, you begin with an idea, make rough sketches, and finally produce a fully developed character.
Host a Little Ghost and the Story of the Mystical Mums is a Halloween book as well as an educational vehicle. Vocabulary extension activities, reading comprehension questions, writing skills, and so much more seemed to mystically and magically develop from the text.
A major theme of the book is caring for your family and your community. Engaging students in character education lessons can motivate students to become the best they can be. Little Ghost doesn’t just say to care and share in the story—expectations are explained and modeled. Children respond better when shown what caring, sharing, respect, responsibility and trustworthiness look like. This is where students and teachers can apply Little Ghost character lessons from the teacher’s guide that accompanies the book.
STEAM lessons developed organically from the story and are explained in the teacher’s guide we created. Science lessons come in the form of investigating one’s senses and technology is applied through Kahoot and Quizlet vocabulary lessons. Art, engineering and math activities based upon the text are explained in the teacher’s guide.
Student engagement is the most rewarding part of our work as we present the writing and illustration processes. My dual identity as a classroom teacher and author has given me tremendous insight to the psyche of elementary children and it is quite simple: you tell them you are an author and they think you are a rock star. I chose to take that insight and make it overt in my classroom.
The converse is also true: tell your students that they are scholars, authors, illustrators or whatever applies, and the students identify themselves with those roles and rise to the occasion.
Lillian Stulich, pictured above, is a teacher at Toms River Intermediate School East, has a love of writing and a passion for teaching. She, along with fellow Toms River teacher Kevin McCormick, created a method of teaching writing and illustration based on their collaborative children’s book, Host A Little Ghost and the Story of the Mystical Mums. Toms River High School East art teacher, Bill Dishon, illustrated the book. Stulich can be reached at email@example.com.