Screen-free, Low-groan Activities for Older Kids

Picking blueberries at a nearby farm. Fun, productive, and delicious.

Entertaining little kiddos can be pretty easy. “Here’s a box.” “Ooh, look at the bubbles!” “You found a lady bug. What’s its name?” Older children are not so easily amused. I can only imagine my 11 year-old’s eyeroll if I suggested that she paint a rock or line up sticks in the driveway.

It’s tough to figure out the days. We are so over the early quarantine theme days. No more “learning to sew” or baking artisan bread time, at least for now. Educational online classes have lost their appeal. At this point, what we really need[ed] are non-screen, fairly easy things to do that don’t feel like more work. With my delightful almost-10 year-old niece visiting, I’ve been trying to figure out activities to entertain and engage two tweens.

Non-screen Activities That Even Tweens Enjoy

I brainstormed ideas that we could do together, in town, that would keep us reasonably separated from other people. For our outings, we arrive close to opening, wear masks if we’re inside, and are willing to leave if it’s too crowded. We’ve been hiking, biking, and playing tennis for the last few months so I left them off the list.

Cooking Novelty Foods

Early in the pandemic, we had an unsupervised food-coloring explosion incident so I’ve been a little reluctant to let the kids cook again. When they asked to make a box of Jell-O, I agreed. AHA! The girls followed the recipe and had a good time in the process. Two hours later, we sampled the jiggly pan and then laughed about how Jell-O used to be a potluck staple. Even though most of it went into the trash, it gave them something to do.

Walkie-Talkies in the Yard

I’m not exactly sure what the appeal is, but apparently when you give walkie-talkies to kids, outside time is a lot more fun. The tweens have spent a few mornings testing out the walkie-talkies, inside and out.

Donut Picnic

This is something I’ve done since my kids were little. We bring donuts to the park and eat breakfast there. Still a favorite and easy to do even when everything was shut down.

Picking Blueberries

A great pandemic tween activity since it’s outside, away from others, and the kids are big enough to actually help. It took us about 40 minutes to pick more than a gallon of blueberries. Bonus activities: planning out and then making delicious blueberry treats.

Going to the Farmer’s Market

We go almost every week. It’s a bit different now, but still an outing that we all enjoy (even the tween). There’s something about choosing or growing vegetables yourself that makes you want to eat them more — except turnips.

Bowling

Our local place does both a Monday special and a kids’ summer bowling program. We went right at 11. It wasn’t crowded, every other lane was kept empty, and the balls were already at each station. We really enjoyed getting to do something that wasn’t at our house.

Painting Pottery

I am not a crafting person and I’m pretty tired of trying to scrub paint off the dining table from crisis-schooling murals. Going to The Pottery Place on 1/2 price seating fee day provided painting fun that I didn’t have to clean up. We got there right at opening and had our own table and paint.

As you can see from the bowl I made, I’m not much of a painter.

Kayaking

We haven’t done this yet, but we’re all excited for our upcoming trip. There’s a few places nearby where you can rent boats for a reasonable price, either to paddle around one spot or to travel down the river and then take an open-air shuttle back to the car. It’s fun even to plan for our kayaking adventure.

Creating That “Summer Feel”

It’s been emotionally beneficial for us to try out activities that differed from our crisis-school isolation time. Adding to the list here, we intend to catch fireflies, make lemonade, and do many of our other regular summer things. Despite what the kids really want to do, they are not spending all day glued to their tablets.

Boosting Student Success: How to Create Redundant Reminders in the Online Course

In shifting from face-to-face to online instruction, we lose one significant tool in increasing student success: our class announcements and reminders. When in-person, this “touch base” moment comes easily, effortlessly built into the beginning or end of class. The first slide of every one of my lectures is “Announcements,” listing what is due and when, along with other important information. Moving online, this casual connection is lost unless we deliberately recreate it.

Before I dive into my own tricks, I will note that I teach students ranging from first-years in the gen. ed to graduate students. Like everyone else, I made the crisis transition to online with my Spring students. I also just wrapped up a June term, which gave me a chance to try out a few tactics. The most common feedback I got from students was their appreciation for how I set up the class, both in flexibility and in communicating deadlines.

How to Create a System of Reminders

I use the term “redundant” in the title because it feels redundant as an instructor while you are structuring your class.

Building in reminders as you set up the class

  • Layout deadlines in your syllabus. Duh. What I actually mean is write the deadlines in two places: in the description of an exam/assignment and in the calendar in the body of the syllabus.
  • Link everything together in your online platform. Organize your class into modules and then link all quizzes, exams, Dropbox assignments, and discussion posts into the specific module so that students can see what they need to do for that particular unit.
  • Use the calendar feature of your online platform. At least in D2L, this is just a click in the settings, but it will make a big difference for students, putting all the deadlines together with automatic reminders.
  • Add an additional checklist of assignments. In my seminars, I build in a lot of choices. The checklist helps students to know what options they have and what is mandatory. I do the list in Word so that they can print it off if they would like.

Reminding students as you are teaching the class

  • Keep the course home page updated. Even though I allow students to work ahead, I keep our course home timed with the module deadlines. When students log in, they can see the week’s tasks.
  • Email the class periodically. I do a weekly announcement through email (that also contains any Zoom invitations). In this email, I list the upcoming activities. It also prompts students to email me.
  • Use your Zoom sessions. As I discussed in my “Optional Zoom” article, I enjoy teaching more when I get to know students. These sessions are great opportunities to remind and talk about upcoming assignments and the content of the course overall. Like I do in-person, I typically end sessions by asking if participants have questions and how the [INSERT BIGGER ASSIGNMENT] is coming along.

These steps may seem like too much, especially if you have very dedicated students who are only taking classes. I’ve found though that my students need and want reminders of upcoming deadlines. These points of connection also demonstrate that we care that students complete the work and pass the class. While we still miss out on in-person class chatter, at least we can still have reminders, even if we have to work at it.

The Optional Zoom: Connecting with students (while reducing your grading)

With the quick shift to online class last semester, I didn’t feel comfortable requiring synchronous class. Many of my students were struggling to keep their jobs and have moved home. At the same time, I was very worried about losing my connection with students who needed and wanted to discuss our class material. I also had to cut down on the amount of grading that asynchronous learning can produce, especially in a class of 70 students.

For the Spring gen. ed., I decided to offer 2 optional Zoom sessions per week. Monday’s session served as a “come and chat” office hours set up. My one request was that they shared something that had brightened their week. Wednesday’s session focused on discussing specific concepts and materials, therefore counted in lieu of the week’s post on the class discussion board. Students could choose which option (Wed. Zoom or the discussion board) every week and didn’t need to notify me in advance. Those who participated in the Zoom earned credit for discussion.

It worked surprisingly well. I had a core group that showed up regularly, even for the Monday chat, and then a few students that alternated between options. This approach helped me to connect with students and for them to talk to each other.

With my summer class, I built the optional Zoom into my course syllabus for my small seminar on television and culture. For every discussion post topic, there’s a choice to do a Zoom session. To earn credit, students must log in on time, write their names into the Chat window, and participate in the discussion. This is how I lay it out in my checklist:

Discussion Activity Assignments

  • Introduction post, due May 27th
  • Topic Announcement, due May 29th
  • Reflecting on TV’s Place & social injustice, due June 3rd (Zoom option)
  • Reviewing Television due June 5th
  • Music in Television due June 19th (Zoom option)
  • Adaptation due June 22nd (Zoom option)
  • Fandom due June 24th (Zoom option)

The Zoom participation has reduced the grading of discussion posts by more than half. Even more importantly, the students and I feel much more connected to each other and the material when we get to talk about it together.

I could have just required the Zooms, but I don’t believe in assigning a class time that wasn’t part of registration. This framework gives students flexibility without omitting the opportunity to get together. It’s also helped me cope with the loss of the in-person classroom. I miss real discussion. For now, I will take the Zooms.

Why We Can’t Compare the “Spanish Flu” Waves to This Pandemic

The 3 Waves of the “Spanish Flu”
Most people had no idea that the first wave was happening, thus a faulty comparison to now.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention / Public domain

We’ve heard the predictions of multiple COVID-19 waves for months. Our current stage is being disputed, with some people calling this the 2nd wave, while others argue that we’ve haven’t left the first. Regardless, the comparison between this pandemic and the “Spanish Flu” has been ongoing throughout this crisis. This focus on the waves of the 1918-19 influenza pandemic has particularly been used as a PSA of what not to do now. However, as I wrote in my post “Your Wise Friend Was Wrong” about a “Spanish Flu” meme that was circulating, this ahistorical comparison assumes too many similarities between then and now. Yes, we can and should learn from historical outbreaks, but we have to first understand what was known about disease at the time and what was communicated to the public.

Influenza (also called “la grippe”) was a familiar disease in 1918, predictably seasonal and usually mild. Doctors were not required to report deaths from influenza to the U.S. Public Health Service, even though it became epidemic in several years, including 1915-16. Influenza was not usually fatal, at least not for those outside of vulnerable populations.

The First Wave (from a contemporary understanding)

The H1N1 virus that attacked in 1918-19 was unique in its frequent complication of a deadly pneumonia and its high mortality among young adults. Outbreaks of this influenza/pneumonia likely first occurred in Kansas, at Camp Funston and the nearby Haskell Institute. Throughout the next two months, other military camps experienced high numbers of cases. These clusters of disease and death received almost no media coverage, other than a few stories that presented the outbreaks as isolated incidents, downplaying the severity of this new threat.

This article appeared at the bottom of page 2 of the Topeka State Journal on April 4, 1918. Coverage of (what we now identify as) the first wave was limited.

By the end of May, the outbreaks dwindled in the U.S.

Looking back, we now recognize these Spring outbreaks as the “first wave” of the influenza pandemic. However, in the moment, the lack of media coverage meant that most Americans had no knowledge of the rising cases. Most attention was directed to supporting the soldiers in World War I.

For the people of 1918, the influenza pandemic appeared to begin in June. Stories in The New York Times, Washington Post, and other U.S. papers reported on June outbreaks in China, Madrid, Morocco, India and Berlin and then throughout Europe in July. While cases appeared back in the U.S. at the end of the month, American media outlets only covered the epidemics elsewhere.

The Second Wave (but it seemed like the first)

It wasn’t until an eruption of U.S. cases in mid-September that the government and press publicly acknowledged that the epidemic had arrived. From September through November, the “Spanish Flu” raged throughout the United States. Quarantine was imposed at various degrees, as stores, public venues, and schools closed for 1-2 months. The people felt and lived this wave, as it affected the everyday lives of even the healthy.

The Third Wave

A third wave followed in the Spring, much of which was attributed to the mass transport of troops following the end of the war. Life didn’t shut down for this reemergence, however, at least not on a mass scale.

Why we can’t compare the pandemics

Outside of their available newspapers and magazines, the people of 1918 had very little media access. Information beyond what was in print simply wasn’t conveyed to the public, including the prevalence of influenza in Spring of 1918. To them, as presented in media, the first wave didn’t exist, the “Spanish Flu” began overseas, and even at the height of the epidemic, the war dominated all news.

With our abundant media outlets and individual-created content, we are in a different world than 102 years ago. We have known about COVID-19 since 2019, tracking its spread and watching its devastation. In other words, we cannot compare the notion of waves in 1918 as applying to this pandemic, at least not in the response of the public back then to now. What we can take away, however, is that the “Spanish Flu” eventually did subside, as will COVID-19.

Transforming a Journal Article into a Book Chapter

A picture of a journal article and its chapter
A journal article-turned chapter in my Breastfeeding and Media book.

Journal articles and book chapters are not interchangeable. You can’t (or at least shouldn’t) take your published article and insert the text into your book. The format, tone, language, structure, and reference section often differ from a peer-reviewed one-time publication to a chapter, which needs to fit into the overall book. So how do you make this switch?

Before you do any revising, you need to get permission from the journal editor to have the article appear in your book. Send a polite email, asking for permission and explaining the outlet in which the article will appear (your book). Some publishers grant individual authors the rights to their work. Others don’t. Always make the request–as soon as you know you’d like to reprint the article. At the same time, check with your book editor about the reprint, at least giving a “heads up.” If you are writing your manuscript and don’t yet have an editor, you will disclose this reprint in your book proposal. It is totally fine to include published articles-turned chapters in your book. It actually makes sense. If you are an expert on this topic and have published articles, your book can be (at least partially) a culmination of your work. Do note that editors typically want the majority of a book to be new content, but that still leaves space for revised reprints.

Assuming you’ve gotten written permission for the reprint, you can move forward. It’s tempting to just drop the article in, call it a chapter, and be done. Not a smart move though. You are (hopefully) including your article as a chapter because it adds to the content of your book. You want this addition to be seamless and not stand out as a journal article floating in the middle of a book.

Journal articles and academic book chapters do share similarities. They are typically both comprised of secondary and primary sources, woven together to create a narrative driven by a purpose and set of objectives. The differences stop there. Book chapters don’t usually have the rigid, standard sections of a journal article, especially in the middle of a single-authored book (you may find more “journal-article” elements in a chapter for an anthology, as each contributor spells out theory and method for their own projects).

Step-by-step Instructions for Making Your Article a Chapter

  1. Identify the reasons for including the article-as-chapter in your book. What does it add? How does it fit?
  2. Read your journal article with fresh eyes, looking at your work as it will fit in your book. Note spots in the chapter that need to be updated or revised to match the rest of your book, especially if it’s been a few years since the article’s publication.
  3. Remove the theory and method sections, unless they are unique to this chapter. You likely already covered these areas in your introduction.
  4. Conduct additional research needed for the chapter (updating the literature review, analyzing material that’s been created since your article research timeline ended, etc.). For example, for me to transform articles to chapters, I often have to add a sample of media content that has been created since the articles were published.
  5. Revise the chapter into a chapter format. (Yes, step 5 is the big one). Adopt a slightly more conversational tone in your writing. Define concepts for readers outside of your discipline. Add headers, topic sentences, and other language that creates a flow for your chapter that parallels the other chapters in your book. Most book chapters don’t have a RESULTS or FINDINGS section. Rephrase your primary analysis to thematic headings.
  6. Revise the references to match your book’s citation format. In my discipline, journals typically use APA, while books use Chicago Style.
  7. Read the chapter as it fits into the other chapters. Does it flow or stand out? Revise as needed so that it no longer reads as an article turned chapter, but just a chapter. Have you adhered to the press guidelines?

Chapters need to tell a story within the book’s overarching purpose. Only include journal articles if you would have wanted the topics covered in your book anyway. By revising your article into a chapter format, you increase its likelihood of success with editors and reviewers and improve the overall experience for your future readers.

10 Mistakes to Avoid in Writing the Introduction

Your first chapter might feel like a throwaway, perhaps written as a sample to accompany your book proposal in hopes of a contract. However, the intro matters. It gives readers their first impressions of you as a writer and your book as a whole. That may sound a little daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Like most forms of writing, a good nonfiction introduction follows a set of (ironically) unwritten rules.

  1. Failing to follow the “introduction” road map. At least for academic books, most intros contain the same elements: An “intro” to the intro, statement of purpose, justification, brief background and/or literature review, relevant theories that guide the research, a description of the method/approach and an overview of the chapters in the book. Choosing to skip one of these critical components will likely stall you up in the revising process or if you make it through, leave your readers wondering why you omitted an important part of the set up.
  2. Using too much jargon. This is an error I see mostly in student work and early-career scholars, who are eager to use the vocab of the discipline and to “sound smart.” Convey your ideas in plain language, saving the jargon for spots that make sense (i.e. in your theory section). Even then, it should be defined and connected to your overarching topic.
  3. Lacking a sense of purpose or direction. Your chapter and book need to have a clearly-stated purpose and flow. I recommend describing your book to a relative, a scholar outside of your discipline, and someone in your field. Talking through your book’s main objective with various audiences will give you a better idea of what you are doing and why, which you can then communicate in the first chapter.
  4. Giving too much away. I realize that you’re writing nonfiction, not a murder mystery. That said, avoid saying too much about what you’ve found in your primary research right away in the introduction. You can outline what you will do, but shouldn’t have conclusions in chapter 1.
  5. Providing too much background/literature/theory. The introduction is an introduction. If any of these sections becomes too lengthy (more than a page or two), they will take away from the chapter’s purpose of setting up the book. Consider shortening your sections and incorporating them into later chapters of the book. For example, a historical background could be split up by time period and relocated to other chapters that fit chronologically.
  6. Not providing enough background/literature/theory. Assume your reader is intelligent, but may not have the same expertise as you in the material (because you are writing the book). Giving short definitions, brief explanations, and a few sentences of background can be immensely helpful. Unless you are writing a technical manual, you want people in outside areas to enjoy your book. Write and define in such a way that your work can be understood by readers in other countries/cultures and by future generations. References that seem to be obvious now lose their familiarity over time.
  7. Including material that should be in the preface or acknowledgements. Chapter 1 is for introducing the book. It is not the place for an origin story of your book’s idea, what television shows you enjoyed as a child, or praise for your favorite barista for refilling your coffee. Put backstories and other personal info that make your book more interesting in the preface. Thank everyone in a separate “acknowledgements” page. These elements are important, but don’t belong in the intro. Note: I’m not talking about reflexivity for analysis. Identifying your intersectional positions in your theory/method section is different than reminiscing about Auntie Annie’s rice pudding (so delicious, but not intro material).
  8. Floating down the river of tangents. Every word and sentence should serve a purpose. As you edit your chapter, look (and fix) concepts that stray from the objective of a paragraph and section.
  9. Not writing enough or writing too much. Besides failing to adequately address the sections of the book, a short intro doesn’t properly set the foundation for the book. It can be a little shorter than a typical chapter, but not too far off. Conversely, a lengthy intro is not really an intro. Think about splitting part of it off into a new chapter.
  10. Skipping the intro. Don’t jump right into the main topic without first telling us what it is about and other key factors for really getting the book. Do what you want with fiction, but nonfiction needs the purpose, justification, and other relevant information laid out.

If this list made you panic about your own in-progress book, you can always revise the introduction. In fact, I recommend it. With my own books, I write the intro first and then return to it much later in the process. I typically wind up changing quite a bit, as I have a better grasp of my project after I’ve written a few chapters. None of my published single-authored books have their original beginnings. You can always revise, but only if you’ve written something in the first place.

Tackling the Tough Teaching Conversations When You Don’t Know What to Say

As instructors, I believe we have an obligation to acknowledge what is going on in the world and to provide an outlet for our students to talk about it. I was a student during Columbine and 9/11 and have been a professor through the Boston Marathon bombings, the too numerous mass shootings of the past few years, and the rise of #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, and #Time’s Up. We can’t just plow ahead with course objectives, pretending that these moments of tragedy and injustice don’t exist.

As a white woman, I am not the right person to speak about the murder of George Floyd and worldwide Civil Rights protests, except to say that such injustice should never happen and I fully support the movement. I will never pretend to understand what it is like to be a person of color in the United States. In my role as an instructor, however, it is my duty to create a space for students to discuss what’s going on. So how do we lead a conversation without overstepping or feigning an insider view that we may not have?

In a face-to-face class, our conversation would have happened organically, as I could have gauged the need to talk in our initial chit-chat. It’s so much more difficult teaching remotely. Everything feels like a big deal, like a big agenda item in which I cannot pre-assess the vibe of the classroom.

I struggled with how to approach my summer class, but ultimately decided that I had to give the group the opportunity to talk. I invited students to an optional Zoom session to talk about current events. I didn’t know how many would show up or what to expect.

Only a few students chose to do the Zoom session. The small, yet diverse, group actually worked to our advantage as each person opened up. I did not lead, except to open up the discussion, ask what was on the participants’ minds, and call on people. I won’t share the details, but the conversation flowed naturally from the protests to related topics of representation.

It was honestly one of the best, most honest, reflective discussions that I’ve experienced in my teaching career. I did little to make it that way. I just set the table, sent the invitations, and welcomed the group–the extent to which I felt comfortable doing. In other words, I created the space. The students filled it.

I realize this could have gone poorly. I’m not usually a fan of unstructured class discussion, which are prone to tangents and the injection of personal agendas that may conflict with our class diversity policy. If we had started to have issues, I obviously would have stepped in. I’m glad I didn’t have to do this.

We can’t shy away from topics that make us uncomfortable or that we don’t know how to address. As educators, we can provide a safe space for students to reflect and make sense of what is currently going on, even if it’s only for a few minutes. We are not leading so much as creating the opportunity and protecting the conversation.

Our engaging class session prompted me to add more to the itinerary, beyond what was already on the agenda. In person, this would be easy. Online, everything has to be so much more scheduled. If students are looking to connect, especially in the current climate, I want to be there to support them and listen.

Writing Through This World of Distractions

Dogs and kids at the park
Outings help reduce distractions at home. Plus we have fun going on a nature walk.

I will state the obvious and say that it’s really hard to focus right now. As I wrote about in “Why I Bought a Boat: Juggling Gender Roles in the Pandemic,” women have been particularly affected by the lack of childcare and added crisis-school responsibilities. The outcome has been significant. In academia, while male professors have been able to increase their journal article submission, women’s research output has steeply declined, covered in this article in The Guardian. Adding to this pressure, of course, is the stress of the pandemic, racial injustice, the economy. . . . I could go on and on, but I won’t.

My focus here is to help you to move past the distractions to get a little bit done right now. That’s right. A little bit, not 15 manuscripts, but small projects accomplished that can add up. I will frame this around working while having children at home as the primary sources of interruption, but you can also apply my tips to your own situations.

Feed the meter. I love Dr. Harvey Karp’s concept that giving your kids a little attention before moving on to an independent activity can greatly improve behavior. I employed this approach when my girls were little (focused time and then a little independent play while I did something else) and I definitely still use it.
I personally get more done if I focus on my kids first, break away for awhile, and then have planned segments of attention throughout the day. In fact, this has been my strategy throughout the last few months. We eat breakfast together and outline the day, then a balance of independent play/crisis school/chores and check-in moments from me. It doesn’t always work, but I am definitely more successful and my children seem happier if I focus on them first before attempting to work.

Make your kids wait. If you’ve fed the meter and your children are still interrupting you, it’s fine to put their non-emergency needs on hold. Even little kids can wait a minute for you to finish something, as long as they don’t need to use the potty.
We’ve struggled with the barrage of interrupting Mom (me) during the quarantine. I’ve found that it helps to sketch out the day’s plan on a portable whiteboard, laying out the schedule and required tasks to get electronics. Sometimes I give my kids an “distracto” pass, allowing for one interruption. I also have a “snack guide.” It’s low-tech and nerdy, but cuts down on the “I want a snaaaaaaack” whining.

My cheesy summer snack guide. I made it myself.

Ration out TV and electronics. Tablets, games, and Disney+ can be wonderful tools in helping you get some work done. I caution against overusing them to boost your own productivity for a few reasons though. First, it’s (obviously) not healthy for kids to be consuming media all the time. Secondly, too much TV/devices can actually lead to more interruptions. When kids get too used to being entertained, they can have a harder time with free play. I’m not saying NO TV (totally not, no way, not happening), but save the coveted electronics for special times of the day (i.e. when you need to focus).

Value your writing time (and make others value it too). Writing should not be perceived as an afterthought, as the first activity that gets cut out during busy times. If you are a professional writer, you need to write. If you are an academic, you need to write. If you are a person who just likes to write, you need to write. Have an outline of your writing tasks for the session, day, week, and month. Set specific times in which your partner is fully on kid duty and no one is allowed to interrupt you (lock the door if you must). Writing time should not be viewed in the same category as online surfing or social media posting. Yet don’t limit your writing to your sacred sessions. Get the small, low-focus items (see below) done during distracting parts of the day, freeing up your blocks for high-focus tasks. If you don’t make writing a priority for yourself than others won’t either.

Don’t wait for a perfect “day” of writing. I’ve never understood the need to write only in lengthy blocks. Or maybe I’ve just never had this luxury. Carving out short sessions regularly can be more productive than attempting to get one full day of writing. I also recommend using moments throughout the day to handle low-focus tasks (see below). Here’s why: the more you write, the easier it is to write. You spend less time getting back into a project and feel less pressure to create your masterpiece. If you can miraculously get a day to write, savor it, but don’t wait for it.

Divide your tasks by level of focus. As you plan out writing objectives for your current project, identify which components are high-focus and which ones are low-focus. Save the high-focus tasks for parts of your day that you are least likely to get interrupted, when you can shut the door, put on the noise-cancelling headphones, and have your partner handle whatever minor/major crises emerge. Getting up early to write may also help you carve out some high-focus time.
Some aspects of writing don’t take a lot of brain power. Your low-mid focus items can be addressed during potential interruption times. Try to use these moments to format a source, save a journal article, or email an editor. The trick to productivity right now is to finish low-focus items when you can so that your precious minutes of high-focus time can be used to tackle tough writing tasks.

Get your social media distractions out and then stop. News and social media lure us in right now. We feel a need to be part of the world and know what’s going on. Indulge this need for a little bit. Even better, do it at a time in which you wouldn’t be writing, but also doesn’t cut into interacting time with your kids. Use some of your waiting time to do this: waiting for kids to brush teeth, use the bathroom, come downstairs, for a pot to boil or something to heat up in the microwave. If you must start a writing session with a social media looksie, then limit your time online before starting the project.

Acknowledge that there will be “off” days. This is a tough time. Not every day will be a productive one. Sometimes the kids need more engagement. Sometimes the world is just too troubling for anyone to focus. Sometimes the dog rolls in poop and needs an emergency bath. It’s okay if you didn’t make today’s goal. Reevaluate (perhaps with a dish of ice cream) for tomorrow. What could make the day better/smoother/happier? I’ve found that planned outings can boost our overall moods and I actually get more done when we return home.

Feed your own meter. It’s hard to focus if you are not getting enough sleep, food, water, exercise, or mental breaks. It might seem counterproductive to give up some writing time for walk, shower, or early bedtime. Nope. Taking care of yourself will help you think more clearly and be more efficient. Plus you might get inspired during non-writing times. How can we fit it all in? Eat and exercise with the kids, which gives you multiple check marks. Or work out alone for the head-space–whatever works for you. Establishing healthy habits will aid you in the long-run.

Here’s the deal. If you have kids, dogs, a partner, elderly relative, etc. at home, you will get interrupted and face countless distractions. I fully get this and am living it. While I was writing this post, my dog tried to eat a marker and both kids woke up, needing my attention. The key to getting things done is to set low expectations, have a plan, and maximize the teeny bits of time you do have.

When “Just Get It Done” Isn’t Cutting It: Tricks to Make Your Writing Session More Productive

Coffee and a rosemary scone next to my computer
Coffee and a scone help me through a Structure Session.

Writing a book or creating a new manuscript can feel incredibly daunting, particularly in the early stages. You’ve done your research. You know you want to tackle this project. You feel intrinsically and extrinsically inspired to do so. You made your schedule. I’m not going to lie. Sometimes it’s still hard to get the ball rolling, especially in this world of distractions.

Numerous books have been written on improving productivity. Setting a timer, turning off your internet, aiming for a certain number of words, paragraphs or pages, and making an appointment with yourself to write are all good tips. I regularly use all of these tricks, depending on my current task.

However, they don’t say much about how to approach your writing to maximize your efforts. Adding structure helps navigate the blocks and smooths out the process. In other words, motivating yourself to write isn’t always about words met or “butt in chair.” It’s also about developing a writing session that feels and is productive.

Before you sit down to write, think about what type of writing you will do. I don’t mean genres, but conceptually, where are you in your process? Identifying which type of session will set you up for success. Broadly speaking, I have 4 types of writing sessions that move from a macro look at my project to the nitty-gritty details and then back to the macro level (or from the forest to the trees to the forest again).

Free-write (airplane view of the forest)
Purpose: To get the words flowing on a new topic or on a project that I am still trying to structure.
Process: I write as fast as I can, marking spots that need sources or additional facts with bold type, focusing on the macro level of the chapter.
Rule for this session: Write now, edit later! No worrying about word choice, sources, or details!
Works well for: New projects or sections of a project, especially ones that feel difficult. Free-writing gets me over the hill of beginning.
Ideal Space: Outside so I can’t really see my computer screen.

Structure Session (forest)
Purpose: To transform my outline (or freewrite) into a structured chapter or manuscript.
Process: Take the freewrite or start from scratch and work on building your chapter or manuscript, adding in topic sentences and outlining paragraphs, adding shape to your manuscript. Use bold type or another system for points that you will fill in later (i.e. ADD SOURCES or ELABORATE).
Rule for this session: Avoid external research or fretting too much about a word or sentence.
Works well for: Fully laying out a chapter to help you know what additional sources/research/books etc. you might need.
Ideal Space: Anywhere you can see the screen.

Fix the Bolds Session (among the trees)
Purpose: To turn your draft into something that you can really edit.
Process: Address every bold word in the chapter, filling in sources, adding information, clarifying points, and subbing in synonyms for repetitive words.
Rule for this session: No skipping a bold word to get to the easy fixes! Find that source. Clarify that point! Insert the transition. Solve the problem. Do not move on to the “Big Picture” until the bolds are fixed.
Works well for: Rounding out your draft and, practically speaking, interrupted or short writing sessions.
Ideal Space: I prefer my dining table or the library–somewhere in which I can lay out piles of books.

Big Picture (looking at the forest)
Purpose: To carefully edit your chapter or manuscript as a whole.
Process: Read through your work, examining word choice, wordiness, flow, organization, clarity, use of sources, and other components that contribute to the quality of a manuscript. Fix typos, check spelling, and address stylistic issues.
Rule for this session: View your manuscript as an outside reader might. Take your time.
Works well for: Your last read before submission and your first read after you get the reviews back.
Ideal Space: Office or coffee shop–a place that allows you to focus.

This approach works well for writing book chapters and other types of manuscripts. Using bold type allows you to keep moving early on in the process, instead of becoming stalled out on finding a source or too fixated on a particular word. It’s also easier to edit as you move through these stages, rather than trying to look at both sentence structure (micro level) and organization (macro level) at the same time. By adhering to a session type, you set up yourself for a smoother writing process, one that isn’t just measured in word count or time.



Why We Need the Netflix Baby-Sitters Club Reboot (and Its Timeless Appeal)

As an avid (well, obsessed) BSC fan in my youth, I was excited when Netflix announced its reboot of The Baby-Sitters Club, scheduled for early July this year. Three months later, as I am drowning in the stress of working and parenting in a pandemic, paired with my school-aged kids needing something to do, the timing of this release has never been better.

From my days reading the original titles in the ’80s, Ann M. Martin’s concept has evolved into multiple series of over 200 books, a TV show (1990), soundtrack (1992), feature film (1995), video game (1996) and 7 graphic novels (2006 — ), with six more scheduled to be released over the next few years. Why do these characters continue to translate across platforms and generations?

To me, The Baby-Sitters Club was much more than just a series. I enjoyed other books, but only in Ann M. Martin’s world did I feel completely immersed. At one point, I even thought The Baby-Sitters Club actually existed. I dreamed about moving to Stoneybrook and joining Kristy and the gang, imagining which role I could take on in the club (snack-supplier? Poster maker?). My identification with these characters as I read, and reread (and reread) their stories helped me to escape my own reality, particularly when life became tough at home due to my parents’ divorce and subsequent remarriage.

I suspect that new generations embrace the BSC for the same reasons I did from age 8–13. While the technology has definitely changed from Claudia’s landline, the foundational themes of this series continue to be relevant. Most tween and adolescent readers can relate to making new friends, learning to be independent, dealing with a bully, living with a chronic condition, taking care of kids, dating, losing a grandparent, divorce, moving away, adjusting to camp, and the many other issues addressed in these stories.

The varying perspectives of the BSC also help to explain its longevity. Each book features a different central character as the narrator rotates among the seven club members, offering a variety of traits, fashions, and interests. As a reader, each character’s perspective interested me for different reasons. I was most like Kristy personality-wise, found Stacey’s diabetes and Mallory’s big family to be intriguing, envied both Claudia’s artsy style and Dawn’s natural ways, wanted to learn sign language like Jessi, and admired Mary-Anne’s journey toward independence. With so many characters, it’s easy to identify with one, even across generations.

Netflix couldn’t have planned for better timing. My 40-something age-group desperately needs a taste of comforting nostalgia that can be shared with our kids right now. Thankfully, they are well-acquainted with the BSC characters, thanks to the graphic novels — a genius marketing crossover that refreshed the series. As with Fuller House, it will be nice to step into another familiar narrative that I can view with my girls, allowing us to escape into (what appears to be) a 1990ish-type relatively carefree teen TV world. Unlike our current reality, the BSC is always predictable and optimistic — a perfect show for a pandemic. Plus, I still dream about its existence, especially as I work from home without childcare.