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Let’s Talk Grammar

Grammar is simply the study of how words combine to form sentences. Words are like putty, they can change purpose depending on how they combine with other words in the context of a sentence. Grammar is complex and essential.

But grammar does NOT come first.

So let’s talk grammar.

Once upon a time I had a conversation with a fellow educator who believed that, if we simply gave young children quality art supplies—Windsor Newton paints, sable brushes, stretched canvas—and let them explore, they would create little masterpieces. Certainly not the kind that would hang in the Louvre, but she truly believed children would learn art-making via materials. This is NOT the case.

Learning an art form involves work.

Work is the only path to beauty.

There is no shortcut.

Visual arts, music, dance, woodwork, knitting, weaving, and more fall into this category. Each art form is founded with unique elements of grammar. Line, shape, texture, value, and color are the grammar of visual art. Melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, timbre, and dynamics are the grammar of music. Body, action, space, time, and energy for dance. Within each art form, the artist who has mastered the grammar, is able to use that grammar to bring shape to an original idea. Think Mona Lisa. Think Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Think Balanchine’s Nutcracker. Think Shakepeare’s Romeo and Juliet. All these works of art began with an original idea. Writing is an art form that always begins with an original idea.

Art is never born of grammar first.

Art is always idea first.

Grammar is simply at the disposal of the artist. Form follows function. Function is rooted in the idea itself. Function is the reason the art maker is motivated to make art. Form, or grammar, simply enables the artist to bring shape to the idea.

When it comes to writing, who of us, when we want to write an idea in sentence form, ask: “Which preposition should I begin with and which verb would best demonstrate the action of the noun?”

No one, right?

Rather, being honest to our idea, we writers grab hold of its ethereal nature and courageously lift our pencil, scribbling the shape of our idea as best we can. Because we have read widely, learned to appreciate words, have a good understanding of grammar as tool, we can courageously craft. Once we have a sentence on paper, we are able to re-read, edit, and polish. This is the process of writing. This is art making.

Elements of English Grammar:

The Alphabet / Phonics – the building blocks, 26 letters that independently and in combination imitate the 44 sounds of spoken English

Words / Parts of Speech – noun, verb, adjective, adverb, article, preposition, conjunction, pronoun

Clauses – both dependent, independent

Punctuation – period, question mark, exclamation point, comma, semicolon, colon, em dash, en dash, hyphen, parentheses, brackets, braces, apostrophe, double quotation marks, single quotation marks, and ellipsis

Syntax – The way that writers arrange words and phrases in a sentence adds poignancy and pleasing poetic flavor.

The moon whimsically sang as the stars twinkled a tune in the night sky.

Whimsically, the moon sang as the tune of the stars twinkled in the night sky.

Even more, changing the position of even one word, can change the meaning of the entire sentence.

Only Sandra eats oats. 

Sandra only eats oats. 

Pablo Picasso once said, “Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.”

It takes many, many years to use the rules like a pro, this does not mean that all those years should be spent entirely memorizing rules. Students of writing should be writing more than participating in grammar exercises disconnected from meaningful ideas. Students of writing should be actively engaged in the art of idea making followed by the exercise of learning how grammar might best serve their idea. Form follows function.



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Around the Campfire: Essays and Tigers and Poetry, Oh My!


Let’s talk middle school.

In our CORE materials for middle school—Level 3 Reading & Writing Discovery Guides—students will continue the good work of writing ideas  they began in the Level 1 & 2 units.  With Blackbird & Company, your middle school students will develop the skills and confidence that will prepare them for high school reading and writing.

Tip #6

LOVE the red pen.

All writing comes into being through a process:
1. First comes the IDEA. Without an idea, the writer will simply stare at the blank page.
2. Once there is an idea in the mind of the writer, the pencil steps in to translate thoughts to words on the page.
3. When the pencil’s work is complete, the job of the writer is to become a reader. Encourage your students to RE-READ everything they write.
4. Empower students to use the RED pen as they re-read. Teach them to use strong words, to fearlessly re-arrange, and not be afraid to strike through.
5. Polish the draft, preferably in cursive…

Tip #7

Write in cursive!

Writing with a pencil by hand is a foundational skill. But it’s also a beautiful endeavor. I have fond memories of learning to form the ABCs in cursive. This work was quiet, slow, and mysterious. Yes, mysterious. My grandmother, who raised me, wrote little notes by hand and left them in various places around the house to my great delight. Her cursive was one of a kind, a lovely extension of her loving self.  It was not like any other by-hand note I’ve ever encountered in life. That’s the thing about penmanship. Penmanship is personal.

Tip #8

Essays are ideas!

An essay by definition is an attempt or endeavor. An essay is an exploration of an idea, a meandering journey like following a river. An essay is an opportunity to simultaneously explore an idea and to navigate your reader through its wonder. Great essays have the power to encourage, empower, and enlighten. For this reason essay writing should never be treated as a mechanical endeavor, but rather,  a pathway for the writer to communicate the depths of the heart and mind.

BIG ideas can be communicated through a range of forms. The essay is a specific form. But often students hear the word and suddenly experience writer’s block! Some become frozen by fear. This should not be the case! Remind students, an essay is simply an opportunity to explore an idea in more depth.

Introduction to Composition: The Essay, for  middle school students, provides the scaffolding that will enable students to shape meaningful essays.

Tip #9

Read poems // Write poems

T.S. Eliot said: “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”

Poetry is a close cousin to visual art. Poetry is an opportunity to paint—to paint with words. Writing poetry helps students not only learn that words have specificity, but that sometimes less is more. Writing poems help students discover, when it comes to words, possibility is vast. But the best lesson learned is this: it is always better to SHOW versus tell.

The snow is white.


Winter wind gently lifts sparkling flakes, little rainbows floating and drifting around my head.

Your middle school students will discover the delight of reading poetry and the craft of writing poems as they are guided through Exploring Poetry.



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Campfire Season: Writing an IDEA is genius!

For those of you who are new to Blackbird & Company, and those who are seasoned users, pull up a log, and gather round the campfire!

During the month of January we’ll share stories and offer ideas to ignite curiosity and motivate enthusiasm as you and your students move into the long stretch of this coming school year.

Tip Number 2.

Begin 2023 by making the most important question the centerpiece of your approach to language arts:

“What’s your big idea?”

Valuing ideas is key to authentic writing . If your  student does not care, then the pencil will reflect this fact. The act of writing will be boring. The simple truth is that, once a student develops the confidence to write an idea, the work of writing becomes an intrinsically valuable exercise.  Our CORE Literature and Writing Discovery Guides challenge students to journal their ideas week after week.

Learning to Write Well! is simply-one-step-in-front-of the-other, I promise! If you partner with us and encourage your students to journal their way through six stories per year, you’ll be amazed by robust growth in your child’s ability to take an idea from a tiny seedling of imagination to a carefully crafted sentence, paragraph, poem, essay, and more.

There is NO substitute for consistently encouraging your children to write their ideas. No matter the level, kindergarten through high school, the long stretch of the school year is looming. We urge you to courageously press into coaching your child in the daily art of writing! Don’t give up! Come June, your students will have brought shape to significant original ideas as they moved through the CORE of our program!!! And, more importantly, they will have gained confidence in their ability to communicate. Writing an idea is genius.


Enter to win an easy light up fire pit built for the backyard and beyond from our friends at Solo Stove – plus, a Blackbird & Company Yeti Thermos (2 total)!



Each student’s work is important work!

Read well! Write Well! Think well!



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Written by Hand

Writing with a pencil by hand is a foundational skill. But it’s also a beautiful endeavor. I have fond memories of learning to form the ABCs. This work was quiet, slow, and mysterious. Yes, mysterious. My grandmother, who raised me, wrote little notes by hand and left them in various places around the house to my great delight. Her hand was one of a kind, a lovely extension of her loving self.  It was not like any other by-hand note I’ve ever encountered in life. That’s the thing about penmanship. Penmanship is personal.

Sadly, digital teaching tools have pushed handwriting instruction to the back seat. But writing by hand is multi-sensory, connecting hand-eye coordination and memory. Writing by hand, the art of encoding language, strengthens the ability to read (decode) language. Writing by hand slows us down so that we might engage with and bring shape to our ideas.

This past Sunday, January 23, was the birthday of John Hancock—the first person to sign the Declaration of Independence. I can see his strong, courageous calligraphy in my mind’s eye. His is the one famous signature that my elementary classmates and I committed to memory. So it is fitting that here at the end of January each year we celebrate the art of handwriting connected to this larger than life signature!

So at the dawn of 2022, may you pick up a pencil, craft your very own John Hancock, marveling at each individual stroke that defines your hand.

Want to learn more about printed letterforms?

Take a look at our free worksheet: Typography 101

Typography 101

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The Art of Crafting a Letter

The potential of the letter is expansive. Its form is deftly suited for all occasions.

Letters bridge.

Letters are common ground.

Letters are a gift.

But our slapdash digitalized pace has fashioned handcrafted letters out of style.

Let’s face it. Letters are a gift we scarcely know how to handle.

As a writing mentor I’m at odds with the pervasive mechanistic approach to writing that cultivates dread and squelches the writer’s voice.

The work of writing is first and foremost an art form. I want my apprentices to marvel at the potential of language to transcend communication.

Words, crafted well, echo in the heart.

I am always seeking new ways to engage young writers with the finer of art of crafting words, making every effort to inspire through writing meaningful exercises. My goal is to cultivate curiosity and motivate young writers to engage in the complex process of writing that will produce something that echoes their heart. When young writers are empowered that their ideas are meaningful, they raise an authentic voice. Grammar and mechanics are secondary to voice.

I’ve come to discover in my own process as a writer and, after twenty years of mentoring, that writers who value their voice will not only focus on the difficult work of unpacking the rules of writing—grammar and mechanics—but will also integrate and apply that work. 

Might the art of letter writing be revived?

This said and the Thanksgiving season upon us, I’m giving my writing apprentices a gift that I want to share with you, a gift in the form of a challenge:

This week, craft a letter of Thanksgiving. This week give words.

Here are some tips that will help your writing apprentices get started: 

1. Riff on another writer’s work.

To begin the Thanksgiving letter, encourage writers to begin by listing some facts about Thanksgiving. Next, read Abe Lincoln’s 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation. Think about these words being written in the midst of Civil War. How are these words relevant in 21st Century America? Now have them read Lincoln’s first sentence closely. Instruct writers to use Lincoln’s quote at the start of the letter and to do the work of translating the sentence, “I think Abe Lincoln meant ___________.”  Finally, challenge the writers to use the phrases “blessings of the fruitful fields” and “healthful skies” to create a personal metaphor of thanksgiving. What might they represent in the apprentice’s world? Riffing on the work of a master mentor such as Abe Lincoln promotes specificity of language, here, the fruit will take the form of gratitude. 

“The year that is drawing towards its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.” – Abe Lincoln

2. Utilize parallel writing.

Begin with an interesting quote:

“I would rather sit on a pumpkin, and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.” – Henry David Thoreau

Find a pattern and craft a sentence of your own your own:

I would rather _________________________ than _________________.

I would rather consider the diversity in a pile of freshly raked fall leaves than wander aimlessly in a grumble of boredom.

3. Make your letter beautiful.

Writing is a process that begins with an idea.

Ideas must be forged to words on a page.

Never skip steps.

Rough drafts matter!

But once your drafting is done, once every word is as it should be, then (and only then) dive into the work of making your words shine on the page. Writing is gift and a gift is never wrapped until it is complete.

Once upon a time writers were apprenticed in the art of handwriting, were compelled to practice the basic shapes and orientation of letterforms. Once, writers were required to master a script, establish a hand—slant and flourish—one that was both legible and lovely. Now, there is not much value placed on this work.

Must the art of handwriting become yet another artisanal extracurricular? Engaging in the process of beautifying forces the young writer slow down to focus on words and phrases in a way that typing can’t, promotes the self-edit to a whole new level. I ask my apprentices often, “Isn’t a handwritten document more precious than a computer generated one?”

– Kim

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Connect the Dots: Craft a Letter


What do the circulatory system, WW1, the life-cycle of a star, Samuel Adams, great characters from exceptional stories, and a single spring from the workings of an ink pen have in common?

Why human potential, of course.

Interdisciplinary endeavors provide the grand opportunity to perch students high above the realm of facts and mechanics, inspiring them to weave connections across disciplinary boundaries as they reflect on common themes, symbols, and purpose.

What better way to fortify learning?

An interdisciplinary endeavor challenges students to weave new knowledge to what is previously known. Challenges students to assemble and construct as they learn ignite curiosity.

And so letter writing is a tradition in my writing workshops. Letters crafted by hand. From the pencil markings scratched on paper to polished draft. The kind that take nearly an hour to read, to seep in and savor. Letter writing empowers student writers to share the connections they are making. Interdisciplinary connections. Connections at the intersection of acuity, creativity, and and ingenuity. But most important, engaging in the art of letter writing demands authenticity. Letter writing requires writers to raise their voice.  

This year, letter writing at the Guild coincided with a wonderful Miss Lori (our Historian in Residence) lesson. When introducing students to The Committees of Correspondence, she first asked for a definition of the word correspondence and was met with the chirp of crickets. Not one could conjure a working definition.

“What does it mean to correspond?”


I imagine she stopped for a bit of word study before proceeding: “To correspond is to communicate by exchange of letters. Correspondence is a letter or letters that passes between correspondents (the letter writers).”


This set the stage for Miss Lori to continue, “The American Revolution would have never succeeded if it weren’t for letter writing.”

Think Samuel Adams. Back in 1772, he organized a network of letter writing—The Committees of Correspondence—to keep colonists informed of British actions against the colonies, and to plan a concerted response. Letter writing united the 13 colonies and girded their loins for revolution.

Letter writing is a terrific domain to teach a writing truism: one idea leads to another. And when it does the reader is engaged, intrigued, mesmerized.

At the Guild, letter writing exercises are a grand opportunity to inspire young writers to connect the dots, dots that they might not have imagined could be connected. And as the correspondents weave this disparate knowledge to one, they bring permanence, relevance, and significance to what is learned.

Trust me, it requires courage to weave the circulatory system, WW1, the life-cycle of a star, Samuel Adams, great characters from exceptional stories, and a single spring from the workings of an ink pen to a cohesive letter of consequence. But the task is worth the effort. So pull out some paper, think about this past year's learning, connect the dots. 

Letter writing is kindly, generous, revolutionary.



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Discover Research and the d’Aulaire’s


Hear the tale of Pocahontas as only she can tell it… Experience the wit and wisdom of Ben Franklin… Sail the seas with Leif… Join the Pony Express with Buffalo Bill, the man in the buckskin suit… Join the adventures of the great mariner Columbus…  Follow George Washington from the little red brick house where he was born to the White House…. and climb upon the shoulders of our beloved Abe Lincoln. And who better to tell the tales than Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire? We are so thankful to our BFFs at BFB—Beautiful Feet Books—for keeping these beautiful pockets of history in print.

Blackbird & Company's brand new History Discovery Guides will inspire your students to engage in meaningful research activities. As students are encouraged to independently investigate, they will gain a greater depth of understanding, and a broader knowledge base of the great men and women who have shaped our history. Use one guide of your choice in the fall and another guide in the spring in conjunction with our year 2, Level  2 or year 1, Level 3 Literature and Writing Discovery Guides and your student will have a seamless transition to the entry level Introduction to Composition: The Essay during middle school to fully prepare them for Level 4 in high school. 

Our History Discovery Guides provide the scaffolding your student needs to successfully craft a biographical essay. Each week, for three weeks, the student will examine rich vocabulary to describe character traits exemplified by the historical figure, respond to comprehension questions designed to help them extract details that matter, and craft one body paragraph that will later become part of the culminating essay. During the fourth week, students will be guided through the process of composing a simple three-sentence-with-a-punch introduction and a simple-three-sentence-with-a-punch conclusion. They will put the components together and, viola, an essay! There is a fifth week creative project, of course, that offers directives to tap into the students imagination.

Honestly, the d'Aulaire books have been part of my personal library since childhood. I read them to my children when they were small enough to nestle on my lap during story time. Later they read them again silently, on their own cozily snuggled in our living room armchair. As a writer and an educator, I am happy to offer this opportunity for your students to not only experience these wonderful stories, but also to glean from their riches and to offer in response their own original insights inspired by our rich history. So challenge your students to raise their voice! Challenge them to write authentically so their ideas will Take Flight



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Think Persona Poem


What do Man with a hoe, by Jean-François Millet and Starbucks have in common?

Being an avid follower of Van Gogh (who created a drawing inspired by Millet's Man with a Hoe), I recognized at once Starbuck's nod to these great artists. Brilliant.

Millet was a thoughtful artist who cared deeply about the dignity of the commoner. As I stood in line waiting for my pumpkin-spiced latte, I whipped out my phone to consider Millet's wisdom via Google and consider why in the world Starbucks would echo his painting (a painting that I've stood before on many a trip to the Getty). This is what I discovered:


This: "Sometimes, in places where the land is sterile, you see figures hoeing and digging." "From time to time one raises himself and straightens his back, …wiping his forehead with the back of his hand." 'Thou shalt eat thy bread in the sweat of thy brow.'"

And this: "Is this the jovial work some people would have us believe in?" "But nevertheless, to me it is true humanity and great poetry."

And this: "To tell the truth, the peasant subjects suit my temperament best; for I must confess, that the human side of art is what touches me most."

And then Van Gogh's voice chimed in: "I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people."

And I thought: Persona Poem, yes, yes, yes!

Personae, in Latin, this form of poetry is a terrific opportunity for pretending on the page. Several years ago, when I was teaching the feudal system and medieval art, I had children pretend to be stationed in various social roles and to create persona poems to help them explore daily life in medieval times. The persona poems were brought to life in a collection of short films.      

So, what do Man with a hoe, by Jean-François Millet and Starbucks have in common?

For me, two words come to mind: Important Work.

This year at the Guild our persona poems will be inspired by Millet, Van Gogh, and yes, by Starbucks.

Stay tuned.



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Important Work: the Art of Integrating Literacy


Blackbird & Company Discovery Literature Guides are designed to integrate the skills of reading and writing. 
Over time, the curriculum will enable your children to develop the tools necessary to independently analyze and respond to great stories. Our goal is to help the child work independently freeing up the mentor’s expertise. Each week, the mentor has two tasks:
1. Read the section to facilitate discussion, helping your readers tap into the heart of the story. Our guides have discussion questions built into every section, providing the framework for weekly interaction between you and your children. Questions are designed to spark student’s memories, trigger their interpretations, and get them thinking beyond the page about how a story can relate to their actual lives. In time, students who participate regularly in a discussion circle will become excited and amazed about what they glean from books.
2. Conference with the writer, lending expertise necessary for the emerging writer to gain the skills necessary to articulate an original idea on paper. Encourage young writers in Levels 2 through Level 3 to develop the skill of self-conferencing —having drafted, re-read, and made self-edit marks in red. 

Establish a routine. The comfort of routine, once established, will set roots deep into soil, establishing a framework for the tree to grow strong. The following schedule—45 minutes to 1 hour per day—will allow your children to pace (not RACE) through the Discovery guide and establish the Habits of Beings specific to literacy.  

Saturday & Sunday – Read the new section over the weekend… Create a tradition of cozy reading!
Monday- Complete the vocabulary Acquire and begin taking notes in the Journal (Characters, Setting, Plot)
Tuesday- Complete notes Journal (Characters, Setting, Plot) and begin comprehension Recollect
Wednesday- Complete the rough draft Explore, re-read and make edits with a red pen
Thursday- Conference with an adult mentor and complete comprehension Recollect
Friday- Complete the final draft, carefully re-reading and implementing all edit suggestions 

We remember the things we discover for ourselves. As your children grow, the intensity of the important work that will enable them to discover, increases. Work is GOOD!

Remember, no child is able to do the work of bringing an original idea into the world without the tools. You can present a child with oil paint, for example, but without the skill to utilize the tool properly—color theory, practice mixing, good brushes and so on—the child will produce muddy colors.

Nothing fosters the higher-level thinking that allows students to form new ideas and opinions about real life more than hashing through a story in a discussion circle. What begins as an imagining in the mind of the writer is translated to story, and in turn, transferred to real life through group discussion. Integration is a powerful tool.


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Write for Real


The exchange always goes something like this:

“I can’t teach writing.”

“Yes you can! If you have ever been inspired by words on a page, then you can teach writing.” 

If you can read and ask questions when you read something that is not clear, you can be a writing mentor. Whether we are reading a newspaper article, a scientific journal, a novel, or a poem, who wants to read words that are void of ideas? 

Great writing begins with an idea crafted to words on a page by a courageous writer.

Madeline L’Engle in, Walking on Water: Reflections of Faith and Art, confides, “I am grateful that I started writing at a very early age, before I realized what a daring thing it is to do, to set words on paper, to attempt to tell a story, create characters.”

The most important thing we can do when it comes to teaching a child to write is to value their imagination and to teach them to do the same.

In my book, Habits of Being: Artifacts from the Classroom Guild I’ve collected snapshots from my experience teaching my own children and students in my Guild to demonstrate just what happens when they engage their curiosity. 

Ask yourself, “Do I want my child to write formulaically or to write for real?” 

Teaching children to write for real begins by teaching them to believe that their ideas are important enough to do the work of shaping words on a page.

Teach your children to become storytellers. Regardless of domain—fiction to non-fiction—great writing tells a story. Writing is a wonderfully tedious process. Provide writing opportunities that teach children the cardinal rule of real writing: Imagination first. After all, imagination is the seat of great ideas. When children discover that their imagination is valuable and relevant, they will work diligently to refine their voice. Purpose helps writers develop habits of being that motivates them to move through the writing process:

  1. Come up with an idea
  2. Write your idea
  3. Re-read and refine your idea
  4. Have someone else re-read and refine your idea
  5. Polish your words on the page

Moving from reading and recognizing ideas, to engaging in personal expression through writing, develops an awareness of the world at large. When students are encouraged to engage in the process of writing, they will discover the power of words.

Great writing is work connected to the soul. Great writing brings shape to imagination. Great writing evokes, engages, and inspires human curiosity. 

Students who engage in the process of real writing will develop confidence in their voice, strengthen their ability to communicate new ideas and become keen observers of their world. Authentic voice is a one-of-a-kind fingerprint. And those are words on the page that are worth reading.