March 22, 2019

The Reading Part of the Writing Life, Part 2

A few months ago I blogged about my reading pile. I ended that post by mentioning that I would soon write about books that incorporate empathy, tolerance and/or resilience. That's still to come...but not quite yet. Why? Because I still have my nose in potty-themed books. Although my forthcoming "potty books" (as I affectionately refer to them) are indeed written and are in the process of being illustrated, there is still plenty of potty research to be done before these books are ready to launch into the world in October.

Some of this research is a continuation of the process of finding comps, which is what I wrote about in the earlier post. Comp titles help me provide meaningful connections for teachers, librarians and booksellers when I'm talking about my own books. For example, recently I was chatting with a classroom teacher who was excited for my new potty books, but bummed because her kindergartners would be too old for them since they don't have any "potty problems." I quickly clarified that my books would actually be perfect for her kids, because they are for readers who have a penchant for potty humor, not necessarily kids with potty problems. I said my books are more along the lines of  The Story of the Little Mole Who Went in Search of WhoDunit

Image Source: Indie Bound

crossed with  How I Became a Pirate.

Image Source: Indie Bound

I could have also said they are similar to Oh No, Gotta Go!

Image Source: Indie Bound

...crossed with the silliness of  Walter the Farting Dog...

Image Source: Indie Bound

...because any reader who likes Oh No, Gotta Go! or Walter the Farting Dog will probably get a kick out of Where Does a Cowgirl Go Potty?

Written by Dawn Babb Prochovnic and Illustrated by Jacob Souva

and/or  Where Does a Pirate Go Potty?

Written by Dawn Babb Prochovnic and Illustrated by Jacob Souva

Being familiar with comp titles helps me give potential readers a better sense of what my books are like.

Being familiar with comp titles also helps me be a resource to teachers and librarians who are planning themed story times that align with my books. For example, the books referenced throughout this post (and this earlier post) would be good additions to a humorous potty-themed (or underwear themed) story time plan. Eventually, I will build a list of suggested titles for pirate-themed story times and cowgirl themed story times.

Other aspects of my current research is aimed at helping me gather ideas for my own story times and book events. For example, recently I read the songs in Alan Katz and David Catrow's On Top of the Potty

and listened to Bruce Lansky's Tinkle, Tinkle Little Pot CD

Image Source: Amazon

(yes, my family was thrilled) in hopes of getting some ideas for songs and dances that would be fun to introduce at potty-themed book events. This particular book and CD are definitely more focused on potty training, but listening to the songs inspired some ideas of my own that will be suitable for a more general potty humor themed event. A few weeks back, I happily discovered The Poop Song by (the typically more serious) singer/songwriter Lori Henriques. It's a fabulous song.

I do also make a point to read potty training books, because there will of course be some reader overlap, especially with fun books like Super Pooper and Whizz Kid: Potty Power!

Image Source: Indie Bound

Poop or Get Off the Potty

Image Source: Indie Bound

and The Saddest Toilet in the World.

Image Source: Indie Bound

This research cracks me up (pardon the pun). There is one especially hilarious spread in The Saddest Toilet in the World where the toilet, that has run away, is pictured in all kinds of adventuresome scenes, like posing for a photograph with some new friends, playing chess, watching a movie... These are ridiculous ideas, which is why I love them so much. Readers that get a kick out of these humorous potty training books will likewise enjoy humorous potty-themed books, including my own.

I also suspect that adults who are drawn to the humor in the title of Oh Crap! Potty Training, by Jamie Glowacki, the self-proclaimed "Pied Piper of Poop,"

Image Source: Indie Bound

...or folks drawn to humorous titles/book covers like the bestseller, Dave Barry is Not Taking This Sitting Down (written by none other than Dave Barry himself, who you might be interested in knowing was instrumental bringing International Talk Like a Pirate Day into the mainstream)...

Image Source: Indie Bound
... may well find my potty books amusing.

Some of the books in my research pile are simply about poop. In an earlier post I talked about Jane Kurtz and Allison Black's What Do They Do With All That Poo?

What Do They Do With All That Poo?

Along the same lines there is the more science-y Whose Poop Is That?

and the sillier Poo in the Zoo.

Image Source: Indie Bound

And, of course, you can't talk about these sorts of books without mentioning the classic book, Everyone Poops:
Image Credit: Indie Bound

Some of the books in my research pile simply align with a closely related theme: Underwear. I figure that the readers that are into humorous books about underwear will also be into humorous books about finding the right place to go potty. Some highlights: Creepy Pair of Underwear!

Image Source: Indie Bound

Polar Bear's Underwear:
Image Source: Indie Bound

And my personal favorite underwear book: Vegetables in Underwear (for which I've recently discovered there is even a holiday version called Veggies in Holiday Underwear, due to come out this coming October when my books come out!).

Image Source: Indie Bound

Lastly (for this post, at least), in addition to reading a bunch of books, I've also been doing a ton of internet research about themed games, activities and novelties in preparation for my eventual book launch. I've been collecting all of these fun ideas on my Pinterest page. Although there are sections dedicated to pirates and cowgirls (and of course, sign language), my favorite section is the potty humor section, which is bursting at the seams! I'm also on the lookout for potty jokes and puns and funny pictures and signs, like this one posted on fellow author, Angela Diterlizzi's, Instagram page.

So there you have it. The sophisticated reading list from an author who can hardly wait until her own two potty books are ready to go!

March 15, 2019

Birth Stories for Books, BUG, by Robin Koontz

from BUG by Robin Koontz and Amy Proud
I am so pleased to share author, Robin Koontz's, birth story for her forthcoming picture book, BUG (illustrated by Amy Proud, Sterling Publishing, April, 2019).

Robin is one of the first people I met in the local writing community when I started on my path to publication journey about 15 years ago. I attended my first writing conference (the Pacific Northwest Children's Writing and Illustrating Conference, facilitated by Linda Zuckerman) in the summer of 2004. One of the most valuable take-aways from that conference was the advice to join SCBWI, which I immediately did. Soon after, I received a welcoming email from Robin, who was the Regional Advisor for SCBWI-Oregon at that time. Robin let me know how to get connected with a critique group, she sent me info about local events that SCBWI-Oregon was hosting, and she sent me a sample of the local chapter's newsletter, as well as a link to the online chat group.

Soon after reaching out to Robin, I started attending SCBWI-Oregon events and volunteering to help with events and other logistical aspects of the chapter. It was through these experiences, and the people I met through these experiences, that I found my writing community, and found my way to writing and revising manuscripts that would eventually become my body of work. Thank you Robin, for helping me learn how to navigate this crazy world of publishing, and thank you for taking the time to share your path to publication story for your latest book, BUG.

Planting the Seeds for Publication
by Robin Koontz   

Thanks, Dawn, for the invitation to share the birth story of Bug, my new picture book being released on April 2, 2019.

The seed for Bug was planted when I was about five years old. I loved bugs and I loved to draw, while school, including math, was not on my list of loved things. I grew up to pursue a career in art, and first began illustrating children’s books in 1985. My fascination with bugs and all other animals continued, and they played major roles in my various projects.

Up All Night Counting and Creepy Crawly Colors, pop-up books written and illustrated by Robin Koontz 

In those good old days, children’s books were much easier to get published. Editors would take on a diamond in the rough and work with a writer to get it polished. And once published, nobody seemed to mind if a book wasn’t a big-seller. Back then, quality and variety mattered more than sales numbers.

During that period, I published seven picture books and six early-readers, almost all of which I illustrated. I also worked long hours illustrating activity books and other educational products for School Zone Publishing Company. I made good money doing what I loved. Life was sweet.

Then, long story short, the children’s book market took a dive during the 1990s, leaving hundreds of authors and illustrators behind. I had been so swamped that I hadn’t pursued other illustration jobs, and wouldn’t have had time to take them on anyway. When School Zone switched to using licensed characters, my career went from feast to famine. And after 10+ years of successful self-employment, where I was free to play during the mornings and work into the wee hours if need be, a 9 to 5 gig didn’t look very appealing. My partner of 42 years, Marvin, was self-employed as a designer and builder and doing okay in spite of the recession. We had learned to live practically and had socked away a few royalties for a rainy day. I decided to keep traveling on my chosen path and joined the tougher new world of getting and staying published.

I established new contacts and nurtured the old, continued to create new manuscripts, and kept all of my projects circulating. I also began to try something new: writing non-fiction books for kids. I honed my skills, learned from friends in the industry, and started landing projects. To note, nobody wanted me as an illustrator in this market; they only needed writers. While I missed writing and illustrating picture books and early readers, it was a fun new world. It was especially enjoyable because as a kid, I was pretty bored by the books offered to us. As a nature nerd, I probably missed out on pursuing a career in science because of the lack of inspiration/connection in school. Now I had the chance to write the books I would have loved. I could hopefully help kids get excited about things they’d never considered before, maybe even help set them on a career path that they’d never heard of or thought about.

As of yet, I haven’t turned down a job that sounded interesting no matter what the challenge or the deadline, and I’ve sold a few series of my own design. Marvin and I self-published two books: Building a Small Cable Suspension Bridge and Building a Wood-Framed Panelized Yurt. And as always, there are a variety of projects simmering that I hope to sell someday.

So, back to the birth of Bug. In winter of 2015 I had time to pursue an evasive idea that had been simmering for a while. All I knew was that it was about a little girl who loved bugs. At that point I didn’t know if it would be a biography of someone like Edith Patch or a fictional story. Meanwhile, there was also a quest to learn a different style of illustration. I wanted to try a scratchboard effect using the computer. It was a backwards way to draw: pulling white out of black rather than drawing black on white. It felt good to dabble with illustration again and to try on a new style.

Image Source: Robin Koontz

But hey! What was Bug’s story? It was time to get to work. When it was all said and done, Bug was brainstormed, researched, written, rewritten, trashed, started over, rewritten, revised, revised again, tweaked, submitted, revised again with editorial direction, and after not that many months, sold to Meredith Mundy at Sterling Publishing. After a bit more tweaking, Meredith and the art director included me in the search for the illustrator. When we chose the talented Amy Proud, we had to wait for Amy to finish up committed projects before she could start. The publication date moved from spring 2018 to this spring.

Wait. What? A story that began with an illustration would not be completed by its original illustrator?? Nope. Once I wrote Bug’s story, I knew my style was wrong for it. I pictured illustrations much like those that Amy ultimately produced. In fact, I’ve written other stories in recent years that are not suitable for my style (little animals with dots for eyes). It allows me to broaden the field of what I write about when I know another illustrator might take on the challenge. So, when I submit a story, I include sample illustrations if I feel that I could be the right illustrator, otherwise I just submit the story as a writer. That’s what I did when I submitted Bug. I’m not recommending that others do the same; it’s just what works for me. And I think that Amy Proud did Bug proud!

BUG by Robin Koontz and Amy Proud

Here’s the teaser on Amazon and Indiebound for Bug:

“Bug is the nickname-that-stuck for a quirky little girl who‘s mad about insects and drawing . . . and hates arithmetic. But when her teacher promises the class they can go on a field trip to the science museum only if everyone does well on their math test, Bug knows she HAS to pass. This humorous, character-driven story shows kids who struggle with math (or any subject) that there are many ways to find the correct answer—if you use your imagination and count on the things you love.”

Bug is already getting positive reviews. Kirkus wrote, “A respectful boost of encouragement for young minds that may be struggling with school.” That line made me smile. Thanks again, Dawn, for sharing the birth story of Bug!

Robin, this is such an encouraging and inspiring birth story. You've taught us to keep working at the stories we love AND open our minds to different paths and possibilities than we might have originally imagined for ourselves. I have no doubt that the books you have written for children have inspired a new generation of scientists, and I have no doubt that this post has inspired many authors and illustrators. Thank you so much!

Robin Koontz loves to learn and write about everything from aardvarks to ziggurats. Raised in Maryland and Alabama, Robin now lives with her partner Marvin in the Coast Range of western Oregon. In her spare time Robin likes to grow plants, lurk on Facebook, yell at the TV, and walk in the woods. You can learn more on Robin's blog, and you can see her complete list of books on Robin is Regional Advisor Emeritus for the SCBWI Oregon.

Birth Stories for Books is an occasional feature of Dawn Babb Prochovnic's blog. Dawn is the author of multiple picture books including Where Does a Cowgirl Go Potty?, Where Does a Pirate Go Potty? (forthcoming, 2019), and 16 books in the Story Time With Signs & Rhymes series. Dawn is a contributing author to Oregon Reads Aloud and a frequent presenter at schools, libraries, and educational conferences. Contact Dawn using the form at the left, or learn more at

March 8, 2019

Birth Stories for Books, PIECE BY PIECE, by Stephanie Shaw

by Stephanie Shaw & Sylvie Daigneault
Today's post is a return to the Birth Stories for Books series. Our guest today is Stephanie Shaw, someone I'm pleased to consider a friend and a colleague. She's the author of many delightful picture books including, PIECE BY PIECE (illustrated by Sylvie Daigneault and published by Sleeping Bear Press, 2017), which we'll talk about today. Let's jump right in:

Dawn Prochovnic: Thank you for stopping by to talk with us, Stephanie. If I remember correctly, you and I first met at a “first pages” session at a SCBWI-Oregon conference many years ago. I recall hearing you read one of your stories aloud and thinking to myself, “This will be a book someday.” Boy was I ever right! Now you have a heap of delightful picture books to your credit. Today we’re going to talk about PIECE BY PIECE. Can you tell us a little bit about your path to publication for this particular story? 

Stephanie Shaw: Hi, Dawn!  It’s so good to be with you.  I remember that SCBWI conference where we met. It was my first and you were so kind! I didn’t know a soul and you sat with me at lunch and you were so encouraging!  None of us get to publication without tremendous support, and I certainly credit you with holding my hand along the way.

DP: I'd forgotten that it was your first conference when we met. I’m so glad I made you feel welcome! I just remember that I enjoyed meeting you and enjoyed our chats and really thought highly of the work that you shared during open mic/first pages, year after year when we would see each other. I'm so glad we have the opportunity to chat about your publishing journey. Speaking of which, reflecting on the journey from idea to published book, is there any one moment along the way that you credit with opening the door for this particular story to find its way to publication?

SS: So, writing PIECE BY PIECE was one of the sweetest journeys ever.  And, it started with doing something I really did not want to do.  While attending a Highlights Writing Summer Camp in 2013, attendees were invited to go on a ‘sensory walk’ in the woods with author Jillian Sullivan.  I thought that sounded silly. But, I did like walking and the area was beautiful, so I went along. Jillian asked us to close our eyes and just listen. She asked us to feel plants and stones. She asked us to smell grasses and sap. She taught us to use our senses to evoke words in our writing. That lesson would be ‘the moment’ in terms of PIECE BY PIECE being conceived. I just didn’t know it yet.

The following summer I developed the first draft of PIECE BY PIECE inspired by daily walks near my home.  The start of the story has the line, “All day she gathered them up: the crunch of leaves, the springiness of moss, the leap and splash of a fish.”  I knew I wanted the story to draw on all I had learned from Jillian Sullivan. I knew I wanted a quilt in it. So, the main character became a weaver and seamstress ---which is funny because I can barely sew on a button!

In the fall of 2014, I attended an Oregon SCBWI Retreat. I read that first draft at a roundtable. A visiting editor had tears in her eyes at the end. I remember she said, “That is just so sad.” So, her suggestion was to soften it a bit.  A short while later, she contacted me and asked that I send it to her once I had made some changes. I was elated.

But, in the bi-polar world of publishing, it was not meant to be. She sent the most beautiful rejection ever when she compared it to work by Isabelle Allende, but her editorial team felt it was ‘too adult.’

I did some revision work (adding the main character’s children as the ones who save the day).  By that time, I was in conversation with the Senior Editor Barb McNally at Sleeping Bear Press regarding SCHNITZEL: A CAUTIONARY TALE FOR LAZY LOUTS (my third book with SBP).  I asked if Barb would mind taking a look at PIECE BY PIECE. But I honestly wasn’t thinking of it as a submission. I just wanted some free professional advice. She wanted to pitch it to the editorial committee and within a short time it was acquired.

DP: That IS a sweet journey...almost like a fully developed story arc in and of itself! Knowing the backstory makes this lovely book even more beautiful.

Here is another curious question: When you compare one of your earliest drafts of this story to the version in the published book, what stands out for you in terms of what is most different? Likewise, is there anything in particular that stands out that was included in your earliest drafts and survived the revision process?

SS: From the first draft to the final manuscript, not terribly much changed with the exception of the children becoming more integral to the resolution. I was able to keep all the sensory language.  I was able to keep the arc of the story in terms of the seamstress beginning with a beautiful gown and then ‘piece by piece’  reducing it to scraps of cloth.

Illustrations by Sylvie Daigneault

DP: It's very inspiring that a creative exercise that you weren't even keen on doing eventually led to such a lovely story, with such beautiful illustrations! Good for you for saying "yes," to participating in the creative exercise when you could have just as easily skipped it.

Is there something you wish someone would ask you about PIECE BY PIECE and/or your path to publication that you haven’t had the opportunity to share yet? 

SS: When people ask my husband (who is not a writer) what PIECE BY PIECE is about, he always says, “It’s about a quilt.”  When people ask my writer friends what PIECE BY PIECE is about they say, “It’s about rejection and revision.”  And, of course, both are right.  As writers, we work so hard to craft something wonderful. Then we end up tearing it apart and refashioning it --- sometimes to the point where we don’t recognize it as the story we wanted to tell. It takes hard work to seamlessly put all the revisions together.

DP: Oh, so well said! 

Some of your earlier books, for example, THE LEGEND OF THE BEAVER’S TAIL (2015) and A COOKIE FOR SANTA (2014), were also published by Sleeping Bear Press. Were there notable differences in the path to publication for your earlier books as compared to PIECE BY PIECE?

SS: This would become my fourth book with Sleeping Bear Press. And each one had a bit of a different path to publication.  The first two were represented by the fabulous agent Kirsten Hall (now owner of Catbird Agency).  Kirsten was originally with an agency in London and represented illustrator Laura Watkins from my very first book BEDTIME IN THE MEADOW, Tiger Tales, 2013.  It was Kirsten who approached me about developing a Christmas story for Sleeping Bear and then later a legend, because SBP had done a call out to agents when they were looking for these types of stories. I was so fortunate that Kirsten liked what I had done with Laura and suggested that I develop these manuscripts.  But, I submitted SCHNITZEL, PIECE BY PIECE and my next book, TAILS FROM THE SHELER (2020), on my own.

That must sound like once I was ‘in’ I just got a green light on everything, but far from it.  I have pestered Sleeping Bear with many projects that have been rejected. They are a relatively small publisher and either they don’t have room for the stories, or the stories are not right for them.

So a huge difference is transitioning to submitting on my own. When Kirsten started her own agency, she was unable to take clients she had formerly represented. I now spend a great deal of time researching publishers that will take unagented authors.

DP: Glad to hear I'm not the only one in that boat! My upcoming books are also with a (wonderful!) relatively small publisher (West Margin Press). I love working with them, but I have more stories in my backlog of inventory than they could reasonably publish, and not all of my stories are a good fit for their regionally focused list. Since I, too, am unagented, I'm grateful there are publishers that will consider unagented submissions (but, the research entailed...oy!)   

One of my favorite parts of being an author is visiting schools and libraries and reading my books to children, and I’m always looking for new pro tips. I know you were a professional educator for many years. Wearing the hats of both educator and author, I suspect you’ve read to many children over the years, too. What advice or suggestions do you have for picture book authors and/or fellow story time presenters? 

SS: Regarding presentations, one thing I learned from Sleeping Bear Press is the importance of tying activities to books.  This makes the book very appealing to families, teachers and librarians. And, once that is done, I also have a ready made classroom presentations or talking points for families.

DP: That's a great tip. Thanks! 

How about if you could go back in time: What would you tell your pre-published self? Or, said another way, what do you know now, that you wished you would have known a bit earlier?

SS: There are a lot of things I would tell my pre-published self.  But, more than anything, I wish I would have joined SCBWI when I first became interested in writing. That one step would have saved me from making so many mistakes!   And, given the sloth-paced progression of the publishing world, I wish I started writing earlier.

DP: Ditto to both points! 

Before we wrap up, do you have anything you’d like to tell us about what you’re currently working on? 

SS: I’m excited to find out who the illustrator will be for the next picture book TAILS FROM THE ANIMAL SHELTER.  It has several introductions from various fictional animals seeking adoption as well as nonfiction information about the formation of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

As for unpublished works in progress? Well, today I am channeling my eight year old self and making up humorous conversation between bats. What’s a bat’s favorite dessert you ask?  Upside down cake.

DP: That work-in-progress sounds like a VERY fun book, Stephanie. I can't wait! 

Speaking of fun books, Stephanie has offered to gift a signed copy of PIECE BY PIECE to one lucky reader. To be eligible to win, simply write one comment below. The winner will be selected at random sometime after 12:00PM PST, March 15, 2019. 

Thank you so much for taking the time for this interview, Stephanie. It was sincerely a pleasure to learn more about you and your work! 

Stephanie Shaw is a native Oregonian verified by her refusal to use an umbrella.  She is a graduate of Oregon State University (Go, Beavers!) and Lewis and Clark College and had the honor of working in Oregon’s public education system as a teacher, counselor and administrator. Things she loves includes: mustard, chocolate (but not together), her very tolerant husband and very soft dog Milo.  She uses the word ‘hate’ sparingly but she really, really does not like stickers on fruit and vegetables.

Her work includes numerous stories in Highlights for Kids, High Five and Old Farmer’s Almanac for Kids as well as books: Little Tiger UK: Bedtime In The Meadow, 2013, Under The Sleepy Stars, 2014, By The Light Of The Moon, 2015, Lullaby Farm, 2016.  Sleeping Bear Press: A Cookie For Santa, 2014, The Legend Of The Beaver’s Tail, 2015, Schnitzel: A Cautionary Tale For Lazy Louts, 2016, Piece By Piece, 2017, Tails From The Animal Shelter, 2020. Simon And Schuster, UK: Moo La La! Cow Goes Shopping, 2016, Read Your Story: What Would You Like For Tea?, 2018, My Shapes, 2019,  Sweet Sounds, 2020

Stephanie loves to hear from kids and fellow authors! You can contact her via her website at

Birth Stories for Books is an occasional feature of Dawn Babb Prochovnic's blog. Dawn is the author of multiple picture books including Where Does a Cowgirl Go Potty?, Where Does a Pirate Go Potty? (forthcoming, 2019), and 16 books in the Story Time With Signs & Rhymes series. Dawn is a contributing author to Oregon Reads Aloud and a frequent presenter at schools, libraries, and educational conferences. Contact Dawn using the form at the left, or learn more at

March 6, 2019

The "Writing Community" Part of the Writing Life

Image Source Linked Here
There are many things I love about being a writer, and in particular, a children's author. I think I've made it abundantly clear that I love the experience of school and library author visits and the opportunity to correspond with young writers. I've blogged plenty about "The Writing Life," but I realize I've not yet mentioned how much I appreciate the community of writers that I'm a part of. 

I've made writing friends through the national SCBWI organization and my local SCBWI-Oregon chapter, as well as through Willamette Writers and the Authors Guild. I've made new friends on Twitter, and developed friendships on Facebook and on Facebook groups such as Portland KidLit and Storytime Underground. I've met new friends (and caught up with old friends) at author events at my local bookstores (Green Bean Books, Annie Blooms, Dudley's Bookshop Cafe, and Powell's Books to name a few). 

I've also made new friends by following up with authors who have posted on group blogs such as GROG Blog, by writing guest posts on others' blogs, such as this post I wrote for Tara Lazar's blog, by hosting interviews with other authors on my own blog, and by participating in creative experiences such as Tara Lazar's Storystorm and Vivian Kirkfield's #50PreciousWords Contest (which ends TODAY, March 6, 2019)...and which brings me to what prompted me to write today's blog post: 

Vivian's contest is described here, but essentially, the goal is to write (and share) a story with a beginning, middle, and end that is 50 words or less. I've posted my story on Vivian's blog, but I also thought I'd post it here:


Vacation! (by Dawn Prochovnic, 48 Words)

Climb the stairs to the attic.
Find my suitcase.
Clunk, clunk, clunk back down the stairs.

Make a pile of socks, shirts, and shorts.
Fill my suitcase.
Zip, zip, zip until it’s closed tight.

Load the van.
Wave goodbye to the neighbors.

Vroom, vroom, vroom. Away we go.


Thanks for hosting this fun, creative event, Vivian. It got me writing today!

Dear Readers: Where have you found YOUR writing community? I'd love for you to share in the comments, so we can all continue to build community and develop new friendships. And, even if you don't learn about Vivian's contest until after this year's deadline, I'd encourage you to take a look at the posts on Vivian's blog and go make some new friends!

(Oh, and check out Vivian's latest books ... she has a heap of them! I'll be featuring Vivian's path to publication story in the Birth Stories for Books series next month on my blog!)

March 5, 2019

The "Speaking My Voice" Part of the Writing Life

One of my personal commitments is that I take the time to bring my voice to issues that I care about (or at least some of them ... there are so many). I also like to help others in their efforts to amplify their support for or opposition to shared issues of concern.

Today, instead of working on my own writing endeavors, I've taken the time to get informed about some key educational issues being considered by our state lawmakers, and to bring my voice and my perspective into the conversation. Today I wrote to lawmakers to share my support for four Senate Bills that are currently before Oregon's Senate Committee on Education: SB 456 (that removes the current standardized testing requirement for high school graduation); SB 433 (that provides further support for those parents and adult students who want to opt their child out of standardized testing), SB 428 (that calls upon the Secretary of State to perform an audit of standardized testing methods in Oregon schools), and SB 664 (that adds a requirement to include education about the Holocaust and genocide in Oregon school curriculum).

Thanks to fellow community advocate, Lisa Shultz, I learned how to navigate through OLIS to read about these bills, and to review public testimony that's been delivered thus far, etc. If you click on this OLIS link, for example, you can see the different SBs that were before the Senate Education Committee at their February 27, 2019 meeting (which I was unable to attend). If you click on a SB link, for example SB 456, you will see where the bill is currently, and that there was a hearing on February 27, 2019. If you click on the 2-27 Public Hearing link, you will see a page full of links to the written testimony that was given on that date (on the left side of the page). If you click on the little arrow on the right side of the Senate Education Community summary page next to the 2/27/2019 date, you will be taken to a recording of the hearing on that date. Pretty cool.

As I said, I wasn't able to attend the hearing on February 27th, but I did want to weigh in on the issues. I wrote the following letters, and sent them to the Education Committee members. I've copied them below in case they are helpful to you as you formulate your own opinions and/or choose to follow/lend your voice to these issues as well.

Here goes:

Letter One: 

March 5, 2019

TO: Chair Wagner and Members of the Senate Education Committee

RE: Support for SB 456

Dear Chair Wagner and Members of the Senate Education Committee,

I am a parent, community volunteer, children’s author, and vocal library and literacy advocate in Portland, Oregon. I am writing to share my support for SB 456 and my strong opposition to standardized testing as a requirement for high school graduation.

My two children have attended all levels of public school in the state of Oregon (my oldest is currently a sophomore in college, and my youngest is a junior in high school). I have been a guest author and/or community volunteer in a variety of schools throughout the state. During the 15 years I’ve been involved with Oregon’s schools, I’ve witnessed a significant shift in our public education system, focusing more and more on standardized testing and less and less on meaningful areas sadly deemed “extras” in our budget-challenged environment (e.g., art, music, reading for pleasure, library services, and even information literacy skills).

Our state is routinely strapped for funds, limiting our ability to provide a robust and well-rounded public education for our children, but yet, we continue to find the funds to pay for aggressive standardized testing protocols that have not been shown to benefit our children, our teachers, our schools, or our communities. The only stakeholders that have arguably benefitted from aggressive standardized testing protocols are the organizations whose business models depend on the endless loop of testing/consulting/ training/ and re-testing we have allowed our education system to fall prey to. While these profiteers lobby for more and more testing (so they can sell more test guides and more consulting services to help teachers teach to the test and help schools improve their test scores), our students, teachers, and schools suffer.

Yes, students should be able to demonstrate a basic level of proficiency in the essential skills of reading, writing and mathematics to earn a high school diploma. Students do this most effectively by receiving instruction and regular evaluation and grading reports from licensed teachers. Linking standardized tests to high school graduation requirements implies that these tests hold value for our students and their future. They do not.

Please support SB 456. It is time to put an end to Oregon’s unhealthy relationship with standardized testing and the special interest groups that profit from ongoing support for this testing.

Dawn Prochovnic
Washington County, Oregon
(I have also provided letters of support for related SB 433 and SB 428) 

Letter Two: 

March 5, 2019

TO: Chair Wagner and Members of the Senate Education Committee

RE: Support for SB 433

Dear Chair Wagner and Members of the Senate Education Committee,

I am a parent, community volunteer, children’s author, and vocal library and literacy advocate in Portland, Oregon. I am writing to share my support for SB 433.

As a parent who has long been opposed to standardized testing (see my letter in support of SB 456), and who has opted my own children out of “Smarter Balanced Testing,” both to exert my rights as a parent, and to shine a light on the controversial issues surrounding standardized testing (call it civil disobedience, if you will), I was pleased with the successful passage of the Student Assessment Bill of Rights (HB 2655). Unfortunately, HB 2655 is not being implemented in a way that adequately protects students or their parents who wish to opt their children out of standardized testing.

Prior to the passage of HB 2655, I opted my children out of “Smarter Balanced” testing based on the religious exemption that was available at the time. To quote in part from my opt out letter at that time:

“…According to the Oxford Dictionary, religion is ‘a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance.’ We ascribe supreme importance to [Our Student’s] access to a comprehensive education.

Strict adherence to state and federal high-stakes standardized testing, including the extensive classroom preparation that occurs prior to test administration, prevents our child from receiving a comprehensive education. Until focus on testable skills diminishes to a reasonable extent, we will continue to withhold our child from participation in the testing program, and we ask that you honor that decision.”

Our local middle school honored my requests to opt out of Smarter Balanced testing without incident. The situation has been different at the high school level—likely because the stakes are now higher for our schools and our school’s administrators, (especially since standardized testing is the current go-to method for Oregon schools to ascertain that students are proficient in certain essential skills and thus eligible to graduate high school—again, see my letter in support of SB 456).

I am a capable, intelligent and engaged parent, yet every school year it takes me hours of phone calls, web searches, and networking with other likeminded parents to find out where our school district’s current opt out form is buried, when and where it needs to be turned in, and when the testing will take place at my child’s school. This is inappropriate, and it circumvents the intent of HB 2655, the current Student Assessment Bill of Rights. 

I’ve been vocal about my decision to opt my student out of Smarter Balanced testing, and I’ve been vocal about how others parents have the right to do the same (or at the very least, I’ve shared with other parents where the opt out forms are buried on our school district’s website, and where and when they need to be turned in by). I’ve been publically shamed at parent meetings at my child’s school for my decision to opt my student out, and I’ve been privately contacted by school administrators with requests to revisit my decision to opt my student out. I’ve also been asked by administrators to please consider how my decision negatively impacts our school, our teachers, and our students who are at risk of not graduating because they have not yet demonstrated their achievement of essential skills. 

I’m confident and courageous, as are my children, and yet I’ve found it to be uncomfortable and intimidating to assert for my child's rights on this topic. (It is not lost on me that writing this public letter in defense of opting out could arguably impair my relationship with the administrators at my child’s school. I hope not.). Furthermore, my child’s school is now referring to the upcoming standardized testing by a different name, (no longer the Smarter Balanced test), so I don’t even know if HB 2655 protects my student’s right to opt out at this time.

Please support SB 433. HB 2655 was a nice start, but it is inadequate.

Dawn Prochovnic
Washington County, Oregon
(I have also provided letters of support for related SB 456 and SB 428) 

--> Letter Three: 

March 5, 2019

TO: Chair Wagner and Members of the Senate Education Committee

RE: Support for SB 428

Dear Chair Wagner and Members of the Senate Education Committee,

I am a parent, community volunteer, children’s author, and vocal library and literacy advocate in Portland, Oregon. I am writing to share my support for SB 428.

It is time for our state to take pause and audit/evaluate how it is we evaluate our students. As our schools continue to place greater and greater emphasis on the preparation for and implementation of standardized tests, we rob our children of the robust and well-rounded education they deserve, an education that includes the richness of art, music, reading for pleasure, library services, and even information literacy skills.

But that’s not all. Our testing protocols aren’t even logical, practical, or efficient. 

Consider for example, the experience of my two children. Both of them passed their reading and math essential skills benchmarks via OAKS testing during middle school (the writing test was not offered in middle school). My oldest child, who is now in college, got strong A’s in the college level, AP/Advanced Placement English and writing classes she took in high school, and she tested in the top percentiles in her college entrance exam pre-tests. This would suggest to a reasonable person that she was on track to (easily) pass the “alternative” writing essential skill benchmark when she took her college entrance exams, (which she did). However, she was still expected to sit for the Smarter Balanced standardized tests during her junior year in high school. Why? What a waste of resources.

Even though our family took the time and energy to opt her out of the duplicative Smarter Balanced testing, (see my related letter in support of SB 433) she was robbed of valuable instructional time and learning opportunities while her teachers prepped her classmates for the standardized tests. Further, she was robbed of valuable instructional time leading up to national Advanced Placement (AP) test dates because of several days worth of “essential skills” standardized testing. To note, Smarter Balanced testing would have yielded her zero benefits. Successful AP testing resulted in several college credits being earned, and THOUSANDS of tuition dollars being saved.

Fast forward three years later, and my son finds himself in the same boat. He’s already passed one AP English test (with the highest score possible, which will earn him college credit at nearly any university in the United States), yet the protocol for his high school is that he is expected to take the standardized test later this school year to assess that he has met the essential skills benchmarks. We are opting him out, too, but I continue to be frustrated and disappointed at all of the learning he is missing out on because of this duplicative standardized testing.

Please support SB 428. It’s time to re-evaluate our evaluation methods in our schools.

Dawn Prochovnic
Washington County, Oregon
(I have also provided letters of support for related SB 433 and SB 456) 

 Letter Four: 

March 5, 2019

TO: Chair Wagner and Members of the Senate Education Committee:

RE: Support for SB 664

Dear Chair Wagner and Members of the Senate Education Committee,

I am writing to share my strong support for SB 664.

Our family descends from Henry Prochovnic, a Holocaust survivor. Henry’s name and the name of his parents and siblings who did not survive are written on the Holocaust Memorial in Portland’s Washington Park. My children have learned about the Holocaust because we have talked about it as a family, but I’ve been genuinely surprised by the number of students that do not know very much at all about this period of history. Case in point, just recently our local high school presented a student production of the Diary of Anne Frank. I was taken aback by how little the high school students knew about this time in world history prior to seeing this production.

The Holocaust is a bleak and dark stain on humanity, and it is a time in history that we as a society cannot afford to forget or repeat. It is mind boggling to me that this subject is not already a required topic for Oregon’s schools. Please work to change this. Please support SB 664.

Dawn Prochovnic

Washington County, Oregon

Please feel welcome to use these letters as a resource and guideline or inspiration in your own advocacy work.