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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American Road Trip

I was invited, along with two colleagues, to join 60 teachers in Denver, Colorado, for a National Writing Project professional retreat last week.  Even though we live in Kentucky, we decided to drive instead of fly. We wanted to see the country and knew we could get a lot of the preliminary work done on our project in the car during the 1200 mile jaunt.

We arrived on Monday evening at a lovely Hilton resort, which was to be our home for the next five days. The first night we met other teachers who had been invited to do similar work:  developing instructional resources, from teaching argument writing in the science classroom to sponsoring school-wide family literacy nights.

As educators, we shared many of the same concerns about our students and the future of the country.  It didn’t matter where the conversations started around the buffet tables, they ended up political.  Jennifer from Mississippi told me about segregation academies, private schools in the South established by white parents in response to desegregation in public schools.  Nicole from California talked about “dog whistle” words, coded messages that are only heard and understood by a particular segment of the population.  Victoria from Oklahoma filled us in on the nearly criminal cuts in their state’s education budget.  

One night after dinner, we watched a seven-minute trailer for a documentary featuring a cross-section of Americans talking about their conception of America’s “creed.”  The trailer was slick and well-done, featuring veterans and authors and teachers, different races, different ages. Words like “freedom” and “diversity” were featured equally. I was crying by the end of it.

I may have been crying because of the relentless nature of the week’s work or because I hadn’t been sleeping well due to Denver’s altitude.  Or it may have been because I desperately want to believe what the film was tilting toward:  that even though Americans are deeply divided, there are basic values we all hold dear–family, safety, education, freedom, equality.  

I want to believe this, but I’m also fairly cynical.  Freedom doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone, and the equality of one group is a threat to another. I know many people in my home community who would see the film as left-wing brainwashing, an attempt to force political correctness and West Coast liberalism down their throats.

After the viewing, we discussed how we might use it in our classrooms to start a conversation, but even the term “start a conversation” seemed vexing to me for its coded progressive intentions.  The only people who ever want to start a conversation are those who think they know better than you:  teachers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pampered Chef consultants.  

Finally, a teacher from Montana remarked on the enduring complexity of humanity, and we nodded sagely and shuffled off to our individual hotel rooms.  

At the end of the week, my Kentucky team struck out for home on I-70. The scenery through Colorado and Kansas was crushingly, achingly beautiful. The deep blue skies, white clouds layered over golden prairies. We passed combine convoys headed toward the summer wheat fields, and we passed fields of soybeans, corn, and pasture land, dotted with white-faced cows.

Somewhere we stopped at a Pilot Travel Center to fuel the car and get a sandwich. The Travel Center was packed with families of every color, class, and age, all of them hungry and tired, cautiously herding their children into the bathrooms, waiting in line for a burger. A Little League baseball team came in.  An elderly couple dressed head to toe in black. A middle aged woman in a pink tank top with a pistol strapped to her waist. SeaHawks, Broncos, and Steelers fans.  

We spent the night in a Holiday Inn Express in Topeka, Kansas, ten miles away from the national historic site of Brown vs. Board of Education.  In the lobby, there was a man in the corner reading a Hebrew Bible. In a circle of chairs, a self-help group gave each other hugs and offered words of encouragement.  In the elevator, we met some little girls who were staying at the hotel because their mom was in a powerlifting competition.  The next morning we had breakfast with bikers, a church choir, and an elderly couple on their way to see a new grandbaby.

I understand public policy is not made at Pilot Travel Centers and midwestern Holiday Inns, but in many ways, we’re all just dads and moms, sons and daughters trying to get home from a long trip. I’m disheartened we are so polarized by politics.  Most of us can agree with each other on a basic human level, but when we approach each other with buzzwords and ideology, the humanity falls away, and the labels become both a target and a launch pad.  We may be unwittingly creating our own segregation academies, dog whistling unconsciously.  Maybe if we could avoid talking about America as a grand ideological subject, and instead talk about ourselves and others in small, specific frames, we might discover a common moment, a shared feeling, a sensible creed.

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 15: What is the best way to involve parents?

Communication and trust between parents and their child’s teacher is crucial, and you should strive to initiate and maintain that relationship as soon as you get your roster until the last day of school. You’ll have no better partner in the academic success of that child than his or her parents.  Here are a few ways to build that bridge and connect with parents often:

  1. Home visits: This is a huge time investment, but so worth it. Home visits at the beginning of the year show parents you care enough about your job and their child to drive around three hours every night for a week to visit families. Call ahead, send an email, or write a letter and let parents know when to expect you.  Go with someone, another teacher or a principal, for company.   Have something like a welcome letter or a contact sheet or a personal profile to leave on the porch or in the door to say that you’ve been there if no one is home.  If they are home, stay long enough to introduce yourself and meet the family, answering any questions they may have, but be considerate of their time. This is a great way to start the year on a positive note.
  2. Communicate virtually:   There are times when talking directly to a parent on the phone is necessary and preferred, but using virtual communication is often more efficient and effective to keep parents in the loop about assignments, field trips, dues, or club activities.  You can create a simple newsletter to distribute via email or create a class website that you update frequently with assignments and a calendar of events. I also use a  great texting app called Remind that is both safe and secure.  Students and parents join your class by texting a class-specific code to a five-digit number. Once they’ve joined, you can send a single announcement to the whole class or contact a parent or student directly with a private message.
  3. PTA: We have an unbelievably strong parent-teacher-student organization at the high school where I teach, and one of the great benefits of that organization is the parent involvement with other parents.  By joining in the planning or working at a school wide event, their involvement increases the family’s investment in the culture of the school.
  4. Open House: If your school has open house before school starts, your role is hostess. Print up some nice inexpensive business cards with your contact information, classroom website, times that are good for parent conferences, and hand these out to parents.  Be sure to welcome them in and encourage them to look around and ask questions. If your school has open house after school starts, your role is to communicate to parents how their child is doing in your class.  Have samples of each student’s work available for parents to see along with a specific praise for their child.  If there are concerns, request a parent-teacher conference later; open houses are usually not a good place to go in depth about one child because multiple parent and guardian groups may be moving in and out of your classrooms, and confidentiality may be compromsied.
  5. Field Trips: The parents that I’ve had the best relationships with have been the ones that I’ve asked to help with field trips. I believe in the value of taking kids outside the brick and mortar school as often as possible, and I have several small walking field trips to places near our school throughou the year. Because our district requires a 1:10 chaperone-student ratio on field trips, I often reach out to parents to help.  These are low-stakes trips that often do not require transportation and last only for a few hours.  It’s a great opportunity to get to know parents beyond a cursory conference.
  6. Night Events: Another great way to create parental involvement is to plan events where their child will be performing or participating. This might be a debate or a mock trial, a spoken word poetry open mic, or a theatrical performance. All of these activities draw parents out to support their children, and you can use this as an opportunity to make contact and give them an update on their child’s performance in your class.

New Teacher Series/ Question 14: How do you stay on top of grading?

Grading is the English teacher’s special crucible.  Sunday nights are especially arduous. You’ll bring those papers in on Friday afternoon, promising yourself to grade them first thing Saturday morning.  But Saturday morning rolls around, and you run some errands, go to the grocery. Then you promise yourself that you’ll get to them Saturday afternoon.  You know what happens. Finally, it’s 3:00 pm on Sunday, and there’s a pile of ungraded essays on your coffee table that you keep circling.

My late father-in-law always said to me, “You know how to avoid those essays? Don’t assign them!”

Of course, it’s not that simple with English teachers.  Writing is a skill that requires nuanced and individualized feedback.  Last year, a meme was making its way around the interweaves that showed how many hours it takes teachers to grade essays.  At the low end (a teacher who had 100 students and only spent 5 minutes on each essays) the teacher spent 8 hours grading papers.  At the high end (a teacher who had 150 students and spent 20 minutes per paper) the teacher spent 50 hours grading papers.  That’s just insanity.  So how does a high school teacher, with a relentless daily schedule, do it?  Here are a few tips:

  1. Don’t make everything due at the same time. I know this might be impossible if you are teaching several sections of the same class, and you want to keep them at the same pace, but one class of 25 essays isn’t as daunting as five classes of 25 essays.  Even if you break them up by a few days, the wiggle room will keep the grading stress to a minimum.
  2. Don’t grade everything all the time. There are numerous activities that are both important and beneficial that don’t need to be assessed.   Carol Jago’s book Papers, Papers, Papers gives many examples of strategies for assessments that are non-graded, but still provides students with skill practice.
  3. Google Forms is your friend. Any online grading system, such as a clicker system, which collates student answers in a spreadsheet and provides graphs and individualized data for you is excellent for quick assessments.   Use these online data gathering tools to streamline your grading flow.
  4. Grade essays with an analytical rubric, preferably one designed with your students. Rubrics make grading essays easier as the descriptions and feedback concentrates on 3-5 categories in a range of performance levels. Creating a rubric with your students is an instructional gold mine that allows them to understand how they are being assessed and what the expectations of the assignment are before they start.
  5. Formative assessment comes in many forms. You don’t have to have a paper and pencil test to assess all student learning. A quick conference or a thumbs up/thumbs down survey can yield the information you need to know.

 

New Teacher Series/ Question 13: Do you find bell ringers helpful?

In 2008, I first used bell ringers to sneak in a few ACT strategies before the regularly scheduled curriculum, but I liked them so much I began using them in every class to prime the class for whatever learning objective was on the table.   They have been lauded by everyone from Fred Jones to Harry Wong, and they serve as an effective way to set the tone and smooth the transition from the bustle of class change to an academic environment.

The utility of the bell ringer is myriad.  During a unit on the argument, I might post two short blurbs from opposing views on a controversial topic for a quick bell ringer debate. During a literature class, I might use the bell ringer to take a quick formative assessment to test for retention of a concept or skill from the previous day.  During a study skills class, I might introduce a free time or money saving app and have students try it out on their cell phones.  During a project-based writing class, I might use a quick Google form to check in with each student’s status and their goals for the day. During film units, I might show establishing shots or clips of dialogue or one scene and ask for a quick analysis.   Bell ringers can be used for introducing, reviewing, reteaching, or building on a skill or concept.

  • They need to be relevant. Don’t slap a bell ringer on the board just so you can take attendance in quietness.  Make sure the bell ringer is relevant to the skill or content you are teaching.  Ideally a bell ringer previews or taps into prior knowledge of what you are teaching that day or connects to an essential question that drives a larger part of your curriculum.
  • The transitions need to be smooth. One of the main reasons bell ringers are popular is they create a good transition from the bustle of the hall to the academic environment in the classroom, but the transition from the bell ringer into the main lesson needs to be equally seamless. Bell ringers that require a lot of moving parts are cumbersome and the cost-to-benefit ratio decreases when that is the case. The strategy should increase, not decrease, classroom efficiency.
  • They need to be time-bound. Don’t allow the bell ringer creep. This is sometimes difficult, especially if your bell ringer involves discussion or debate, but I use the online stopwatch and project it onto the whiteboard to make sure the bell ringer stays within the time limit.  Some teachers play music and the bell ringer is finished when a single song is over.
  • They should be diverse. Having a writing prompt every single day can get stale. Using a variety of  bell ringers will keep the practice fresh.   A quick poetry analysis or a visual rhetoric inquiry using a video will create the necessary change of pace, but also include inquiries, grammar, journaling, vocabulary, silent reading, even mindful meditation, breathing and stretching– all great bell ringers.

 

 

New Teacher Series/ Question 12: What are the best strategies for teaching grammar?

Confessions:  I’ve never diagrammed a sentence in my life. I always have to roll around lay/lie and who/whom in my head before I commit. And if someone put a gun to my head, threatening death unless I told them the pluperfect subjunctive tense of a regular verb, I most likely would die.

However, I love language, and I love to write.  And gosh darn it, people can understand me, so what gives on the grammar front?  Unfortunately, grammar has gotten a bad rap because teachers tend to trot out the grammar exercises as the path to writing greatness, when actually clarity of expression, significance of idea, and originality of style and voice have more primacy in good writing.   Yes, correctness is significant because without an agreed upon system of communication, how could one enjoy the expression, idea, style and voice? But grammar and usage are only a small part of the wider practice of writing.  Many of us have made grammar instruction the one and only path to better writing.

Let me save you a few years of frustration.  In the first decade of my teaching career, I was a beast with the grammar worksheets and grammar units. But here’s what I discovered.  Kids might score 100% on an isolated comma drill worksheet, but then write an essay as if they’d loaded up their BB gun and comma shot through every sentence.

Even after I circled every single grammatical mistake and wrote in the margin the page number where this error was addressed in the textbook, they might fix the errors on that draft, but would make the same mistakes on the next essay.  The corrections didn’t stick.

I was teaching these rules in isolation without understanding that while most people think of grammar as a bunch of arbitrary rules, grammar is actually a system by which a writer can order words in sentences for power and beauty.  Here are three broad tips I use for teaching grammar:

  • Teach grammar in the context of their own writing. Teaching grammar in the context of a student’s own writing is the key to students understanding and applying the logic of a grammatical system.   Students have varying readiness levels for grammar instruction, and meeting them where they are, on the page, is the most effective, differentiated instruction you can use. Read Constance Weaver’s Grammar to Enrich and Enhance Writing, a fantastic book that shows a teacher how to teach grammar in the context of a student’s own writing.
  • Teach students explicitly the top 20 most common grammatical errors as they edit their own writing. Most students consistently make the same types of errors in their writing. After you’ve read several thousand student essays, you will see that the pattern of errors concentrates on about 20 old familiars.  Showing them why these errors occur and how to remedy these errors will improve their writing more than a blue million grammar worksheets.  Use mini-lessons to instruct students how to avoid The Big 20, and then refer back to those lessons during one-on-one conferences.
  • Teach grammar in the context of their own reading. Students who read independently are more likely to absorb the sound and sense of syntax. They can hear the balance and rhythm in their own sentences.  If a sentence is awkwardly constructed or logically flawed, they will be able to identify it even if they don’t know exactly what is wrong with it.  That’s where you coach them on the structure or punctuation or positioning of clauses and phrases.  Ask them to examine the sentences of an author they love.  Illustrate the power of style, grammar and usage by examining the sentence structure and usage of William Faulkner alongside Raymond Carver.