Writing Lessons

During the summer of 2015, I was writing what I had hoped might become a collection of short stories. One day  I took a break to write a letter to prospective students of the literary arts program where I teach.  As I wrote the letter,  I was struck by how differently I taught writing then as compared with the first half of my teaching career.

That might make a good book, I thought, and I jotted down about eight rough ideas for chapters.  The next day, I typed it up and did some research on publishing houses.  I contacted an education writer friend of mine for pointers.  Then I wrote out a more formal proposal, a fleshed out table of contents, coupled with a cover letter and shipped it all off.  That was June 30.  

On July 7, my cell phone rang. It was an acquisitions editor with Heinemann Press. They were interested in my book idea.  I was completely floored.  I thought I had just sold my first book.  

Not so.

During the next nine months, I rewrote that proposal six times.  My editor was interested in my idea, but I couldn’t frame the subject in a way that convinced the marketing department. Finally in March, I was offered a contract and started the process of writing.  

During the summer of 2016, I wrote daily,  and by the time  I was ready to go back to school in August, I had a 70,000-word draft finished. I revised that draft twice, and the final manuscript was delivered to Heinemann on January 3, 2017.  

Sometime in September, I will hold the finished book, Project-Based Writing: Teaching Writers to Manage Time and Clarify Purpose, in my hands, this book that happened while I was working on another book. This is the way life works, of course.  

I always thought my first book would be either a memoir or a collection of short stories. A teacher’s resource book just wasn’t sexy enough for my inaugural foray into the world of publishing, but here it is, and I’m so proud of it and stunned by the insights I’ve gained along the way. In no particular order, here are some of those observations:

Every teacher should write a book about her practice.  Like writing, the actual moves of teaching are enormously personal and idiosyncratic. My teaching strategies are mostly of the moment. Until I sat down to try to  articulate my practice, I had no idea what elemental steps figured into my methods. Even though I daily reflect on my teaching practice, it’s often done anecdotally with friends over BBQ nachos, and not as a serious reflective endeavor. Writing this book forced me to seriously look at what I do; some of it was nice, even fun, to look at. Some of it, I realized, didn’t work, but I got the opportunity to figure that out.  

I am a first draft disaster. I have never been a writer who thinks through a logical line or narrative arc,  then commits that to an outline. I just throw a bunch of sentences on a blank page and cry for several days.  I have to write bits and halves and parts before I recognize the whole. Once I’ve discovered that, I have to organize it in such a way that readers won’t want to toss it in the trash in disgust. Organization requires looking at big chunks of writing for patterns and commonalities, then arranging those chunks in a sequential way that helps a reader see the point. So I wish I’d learned how to outline earlier in life.   

Edu-speak makes me lazy.  There were so many times when I was writing this book I unconsciously lapsed into the convenient jargon of our ilk.  When I couldn’t find the right words to describe something real in my classroom, sentences like “Students benefit from innovative competency-based practices in a data-driven environment” were always hanging around like an old boyfriend– comfortable, willing, and only a keystroke away. Ugh.  Think about how much better those awful education classes would have been if the writers had just used regular words to describe learning. Why don’t we demand better writing from the books of our discipline?  

Keeping a source list is crucial.  In college, I hated compiling the works cited and consulted page after I finished a research paper; it just seemed so unnecessary.  I wasn’t vested in the writing I was doing and the stakes were low. (This is how, I imagine, most students feel about writing for teachers.)  But during the writing of this book, I realized the stakes were much higher.  People would be reading this book, I hoped, and I certainly didn’t want to unwittingly plagiarize someone else’s language. The problem I had was 1) I don’t typically write down the sources of cool things I find in books or online, and 2) there are books, essays, and stories I’ve read so many times, they’re ingrained in my mind to the point where I didn’t know where their words ended and my words began. Two weeks before the book was printed, I was horrified to discover I had not attributed a beautiful quote from a friend of mine.  Source list:  it’s a must.

No one really knows what you’re doing.  If I mentioned to friends I was working on a book, “that’s nice” or “how interesting” was the normal response, followed by silence.  The last thing anyone wants to ask is “what’s it about?” because then they’re on the hook to act interested while I nanner on for twenty minutes about some possibly esoteric topic.  So when you write a book, you are laboring completely alone.  You are working and creating and having bad days and good days and stonewalls and breakthroughs, yet no one knows you are doing anything at all. You might as well be lying on the couch watching SVU.  As is the case with all creative endeavors, I suppose.  As is the case with research scientists too. Only after the creation emerges can it be shared with others.

 

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Publishing Outlets for Teen Writers

Students in my Literary Arts program are required to submit their creative projects to the outside world:  writing contests, literary magazines, or local, regional, and national publications. I believe students should experience submitting their academic and creative work for publication for the numerous tangential lessons, including close reading for submission guidelines and preparing their manuscripts with formatting dependent on those guidelines. Researching a possible venue for an article or essay, studying submission guidelines, and actually submitting their work to a contest or a publication is great training for budding writers.

Each year I introduce them to websites such as New PagesWriters Digest  and Poets and Writers,  which has a searchable index for numerous possible venues as well as a database of articles on both fiction, poetry, and non-fiction craft issues. Students have also submitted their work to contests like Scholastic Art and Writing and the National Council of Teachers of English’ Norman Mailer contest, which awards, as part of their prize package, the chance to be published. There are also local contests (local for me is Kentucky) such as the Kentucky Poetry Society contests which publishes the winners in their literary magazine. Students also submit to our school literary magazine or school newspaper, and really industrious students can even self-publish their work and distribute it.

Another indirect benefit of seeking publishing outlets is that students begin to read online literary magazines searching for potential submission spots. I tell them not to just send their writing like a plague of locust out upon the land, but to make a smart, targeted, well-research submission. One of the first things I ask students when they are considering submitting to a venue is: Have you read their publications to know what kinds of work they publish? Some online venues have hyperlinked back copies or send free sample copies.

Another lesson of submission for publication is the soft skill of fortitude.  The goal of submitting a piece of student writing to the real world is not necessarily to get published, but merely to understand the process of submission.  However, when one does get a response, either publication (yeah!) or rejection (seriously?), there is value in getting that first rejection slip.  Students join the ranks of great writers, like Rowling, Gaiman, or Melville, who were rejected numerous times.

Publishing Outlets

Here are a few of the publishing outlets I suggest for teen writers:

  • Amazing Kids Network Magazine is an online publication that features work by both middle grade and teen writers. They also host interviews with mentor writers and have monthly writing contests.
  • The Claremont Review publishes young writers and artists, aged 13-19, from anywhere in the English-speaking world.  Twice yearly, they accept fiction, poetry, drama, graphic art and photography.
  • Creative Kids Magazine publishes poetry, fiction, personal narratives, humor along with fantasy, historical and science fiction. They publish four print issues and maintain a website of work written by teen writers.
  • Hanging Loose Magazine.   A division of Hanging Loose Press, the subscription magazine supports and publishes teen writers in their monthly magazine. They accept poetry and prose from high school students and will offer feedback and editorial advice if requested. If work is accepted, writers are paid a small stipend and two copies of the magazine wherein their work appears
  • Rookie Magazine This is a publication especially for teen girls, and I love the funky graphics of this site, which posts writing and art from their readers.  Rookie also hosts over twenty categories of posts from “eye candy” to “you asked it” sections with writing on music, style, clothes, and fashion.
  • Stone Soup has been around for more than 40 years and is now available in both print and web versions.  The readers and writers of this magazine are 14 years or younger, so only freshmen writers might want to pursue a publishing spot with this publication.
  • Teen Ink.  Since 1989, teen writers have found a publishing opportunities at Teen Ink, who considers submissions for their online and print magazine, as well.  Teen Ink also provides feedback on novels as well.
  • Teen Lit  distributes free books to teens in exchange for a review that is edited and then published on their site.  They also publish short stories, poetry, and essays on their site, and host a discussion board, a writing community, and a treasure trove of writing links for craft and inspiration.
  • VOYA or Voice of Youth Advocates Magazine  is a journal that promotes YA literature and reading. The magazine invites teen writers to contribute to the magazine through poetry and art contests, as a book reviewer, or by submitting a manuscript for the Notes from the Teenage Underground column.
  • YARN or Young Adult Review Network is an online literary journal the publishes fiction, poetry and essays for Young Adult readers, written by established authors and teen writers

Online Writing Communities

Another way students can reveal their work to the world is to join an online writing community.  In these communities, participants submit their pieces for discussion and ranking by other members.  If students are old enough and responsible enough to have a Facebook page, they also may enjoy joining online writing communities.  Several of my students have used one or more of the following to publish their work:

  • BookCountry is an online writing community with a crisp look where students can read and review others’ works as well as learn about the craft of writing and pick up a few publishing pointers.
  • Figment has a lot of bells and whistles including a blog called “The Daily Fig,” which features posts about craft, inspiration, plotting, manuscript formatting, and much more. There are also multiple forums and a feature called “Figment Chat” where members can chat with published authors and writers.
  • Go Teen Writers is a supportive community with a seriously well-stocked archive of craft articles about plot, characters, point of view, and much more. Maintained by YA authors Stephanie Morrill, Jill Williamson, and Shannon Dittemore, the site is well-designed and generous with resources for teen writers.
  • Scribophile is less a social media site than it is an online workshop site where community members share their work to get and give feedback as well as trade information about writing.
  • Wattpad is a streamlined social media site for writers and readers.  If student create a profile, they can post chapters of their novels and read the work of other writers for free from more than 20 different genres.
  • Writer’s Café is a similar social media site that hosts a blog and has a neat publishing tab with a searchable database of literary magazines and writing contests.
  • Write the World is my new favorite teen writing community.  A nicely-designed, global, non-profit organization that works with teachers and student writes all over the world, they offer writing groups for peer review as well as competitions, writing prompts, and expert feedback.  This site also provides resources, writing prompts, and lessons for teachers of creative writing.

 

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New Teacher Series/ Question 2: Should I create a website?

Absolutely.  This isn’t the dark ages of 2010, after all.  Creating a positive and professional web presence says to the world:   I’m a 21st century educator, and my teacher game is strong.  However, there are a lot of options out there in the virtual world, and the key, like buying a good pencil skirt, is choosing one that both flatters and fits.

School directory page:  Many school districts host teacher directory pages that are linked from the main page by school, then grade/department, then teacher.  This is a great place to provide basic information:   a brief professional bio with a current (and/or ironic, depending on how you roll) picture, your class schedule, your email address, a supplies or book list, your school phone number and the best times of day to call, and also links to your blog, larger classroom website, Twitter feed, or any other social media tool you might use.  If your district has this page, definitely occupy it even if it’s a simple profile without much appeal. It’s most likely the first place a parent or student will look for you.

Classroom website: Some teachers choose to create websites through popular platforms like  Edmodo  which do not require knowledge of coding or programming to set up.  WordPress and Weebly also offer web templates so easy you can whip up a nice-looking site in less than an hour.   Another website building favorite is Google, which provides teachers with Google Sites, Google Classroom, and other Google Apps for Education (GAFE). A well-maintained and up-to-date website can be a great way to make announcements, post newsletters, and update calendars for parents.  Posting homework assignments, test info, vocab/spelling words, and supplemental instructional web links can also reduce paper copies while providing additional resources to students.

Classroom blog: While you might not have time during your first year of teaching to launch a  teacher blog, allowing your students to create their own blogs is a great collaborative publishing tool.  Blogger, which is Google’s blog option, is free and easy to use and manage. Kidblog and Edublogs, powered by WordPress, both offer a safe space for students to publish their work while offering options for secure teacher management of discussion, comments, and content.

Social media:  Some teachers elect to create a teacher fan page or a classroom page on Facebook or maintain a class page on Twitter.  Social media outlets are great for club sponsors, coaches, and parent-teacher organizations to make announcements, post reminders, and alert students to schedule or location changes for games or meets.  By creating a classroom or teacher fan page, you can also avoid the awkwardness of parents and students friend requesting your personal page.

Online classroom:  Online learning management systems (LMS) which are free and easy-to-use are also an option.  These systems have embedded facilities that can transform your site into an online classroom.  If you’ve just recently graduated from college, you most likely took an online course managed by a popular LMS, like Canvas or Blackboard, which now offers a free K-12 system called CourseSites.  Others like Moodle, Schoology, and Weebly provide a private and secure location for teacher assignment pages, homework submissions, chat rooms with threaded discussions and time stamps, collaborative group pages, and embedded gradebooks.  Even though LMS are great for online instruction, systems can become clunky or impossible if the application does not play well with your school district’s student information system (SIS) or pass your district’s privacy standards.   Shoot an email to your school or district technology director for the 411 on what is kosher within your district.

Whether you decide to create a website, Facebook page, blog, or launch an online class, here are a few digital cautions to observe:

  • Diamonds can get lost or stolen, but the Internet is forever. Never, ever, ever post anything online that you would not want Sam Dick to read on Channel 27 at 6:00.
  • Know your district and your school’s social media policy. Never post a student’s picture, class work, or name unless you have permission or a release form from their parents to do so.
  • Before you invest a lot of time in designing an online classroom, check with your district/school’s technology director to find out which systems work best with your district’s SIS.
  • Understand how to protect the privacy of your students while giving parents access.
  • Avoid private Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter communication with students.
  • Make sure website page titles, headings, and sub-headings are well-organized and logically sequenced.
  • With online content, prefer quality over quantity. Do not make parents endure twenty inspirational cat memes when they just want your classroom calendar. Post information that is relevant and useful for school or classroom business, instruction, intervention, or enrichment.
  • Just as you would with parent letters, hand-outs, homework assignments, or PowerPoints, make sure your online content is free of grammatical and spelling errors, no matter what you teach. Hook up with another webby teacher and proofread each other’s posts/pages before you publish them online.

One last thing:  while all the above information is about professional online use, you should also be judicious about anything you personally post or are tagged in online, regardless of your privacy settings.  Districts use Google to vet potential teachers.  If Insta’ing your drunken beer-pong victory feels vital to your existence, teaching might not be the right place for you at the moment.

Below are three links to help you on your virtual conquest.  Good luck!!

Create an Impressive Class Website in Under an Hour

Ten Excellent Platforms to Create Your Classroom Website

Online Resources for Teachers