Writing

Teach writing? Then you’d better BE writing.

I told my husband that he needed to come with me for an evening canoe ride. We were vacationing at our cabin, and although I was working very hard at not working, I was also working on a piece of writing that had to get done. And I needed to bounce some ideas off of him.

We paddled up the lake a bit, the late sun bright and low, the water calm and clear. My mind was racing with an idea that had come to me in the middle of a sleepless night, and I thought it might work but I needed to verbalize it first, needed to hear it aloud before I could be sure.

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Fortunately my husband is used to this, as I often ask him to just listen while I try out an idea on him; sometimes it’s my writing, often it’s an idea for a lesson for my students. We reached the end of the lake and he listened while I ran through my idea. Saying it aloud not only helped me get clear on what I was thinking; it also gave me the opportunity to get feedback from someone else. And by the time we tied up the canoe at our dock, I was confident and ready to get these new ideas on paper.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing this summer, far more than usual, and it has reminded me (again and again) how important it is that, as a writing teacher, I am also writing. It seems so obvious: how can I really understand and teach the writing process if I am not experiencing it myself? But for many years I taught writing without actually writing myself. I gave students assignments; I gave them graphic organizers; I gave them feedback on their drafts; and I gave them grades. But what I didn’t give them was honest writing practice based on my own writing struggles. And, yes, writing is a struggle. Every time we put pen to paper (or, let’s be honest, fingers to keyboard), it is a struggle. It is making something out of nothing. It is creating something new. It is an art and a science and a production.

So when I tell my husband, “I’m going for a walk. I need to get away from my writing in order to find my writing again,” it’s only fair that I make a mental note: how can I let my students “go for a walk” so they can find their writing again, too?

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The writing classroom needs to be quiet, of that I’m sure. Writing is hard work, it requires concentration, and when writers are interrupted by noise, it takes a Herculean effort to find the writing again. So during writing time, I insist on a quiet writing classroom. So how can I give my students opportunities like I needed to go for a canoe ride or a walk, or to talk out their ideas with someone? Here are a few ways I try to support their writing needs:

  • in our flexible seating classroom, students are able to get up and move when they need to. They know that they need to be quiet, but they also know the value of movement as part of the creative process. Our furniture is on wheels, which allows them to move even as they write, but they are also free to get up and move, to walk around, even go outside (weather permitting) to walk a little.
  • we use Google Docs for most of our writing, so my students are able to bounce ideas off their friends via comments on their Docs. I also jump into their Docs during writing time so I can give them feedback as they work, rather than waiting until an entire draft is written and turned in.
  • homework: debate rages over whether or not homework is beneficial or even necessary for our students, but I am certain that writing for homework is critical, if only because it allows my students to figure out how they write (work) best. During NaNoWriMo, I have my students reflect on what they are learning about their own writing preferences; their answers help them see how they can work best on any assignment. They discover if they work best with music, with quiet, with snacks, and what time of day is ideal. These are discoveries that will help them now and in future work endeavors.

I may not be able to send my students out in canoes when they need a writing break, but I can learn from my own writing needs so that I can help my students find theirs. How about you? What have you learned about writing from your own writing experiences?

#NaNoWriMo: ask the experts

I’ve never published a novel of my own, so it’s intimidating to ask my students to write a novel under my tutelage. But since the answer to just about every question can now be found online, I decided this year to ask my students to search the web for writing advice from those most qualified to give it: published writers.

Much of the wisdom they found echoes what I will be teaching them in the next few weeks. Maybe my lessons will carry a bit more weight since the experts said it first!

  • Don’t give up. Trust your journey.

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  • Editing matters. Write truth.

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  • Your story matters.

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  • Make it real; make it scary; and … cliffhangers.

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  • Make it human (but don’t let your mom read it).

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  • Also good: tension and snap.

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  • When you get discouraged, remember: the world needs your novel!

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What advice do YOU have for my #WriMos?

 

Brainstorm backwards, then look ahead

The first time I read Billy Collins’ poem “On Turning Ten,” I thought it would be wonderful if my 8th graders wrote poems about the nostalgia of childhood and the uncertainty of growing up, since they were kind of in the middle: finished with elementary school and looking forward to high school. We watched a video of Collins reciting the poem, and I distributed it on paper so we could dig in to the imagery that made the poem so powerful. We talked about the value of specific details (“I could make myself invisible by drinking a glass of milk a certain way,” “my bicycle never leaned against the garage as it does today, all the dark blue speed drained out of it”), and then they started working on their own poems.

Bicycle at Venice Beach, by Michael, flickr.com

Bicycle at Venice Beach, by Michael, flickr.com

But before long, they started complaining. They didn’t know what to write. They didn’t understand why Collins would compare growing up to “a kind of measles of the spirit, a mumps of the psyche, a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.” They didn’t get the nostalgia at all. One student helped me see why the assignment that I thought would be so sweet was falling flat: “Mrs. Bradley, we aren’t sad about growing up! We can’t wait to get to high school, to learn to drive, to get a job!”

Ah ha. Now I got it. They were a little young to be feeling nostalgic about childhood; in fact, they were still in it. Collins, after all, didn’t write “On Turning Ten” when he was nine going on ten. He waited until he was an adult and could appreciate those years.

But I wasn’t ready to give up. I knew my students would experience rollercoaster emotions as they hurtled toward the end of 8th grade and began to anticipate moving on to high school. It may not be cool to fear growing up, but many of them were feeling just what Collins did; they just didn’t know how to identify and express it.

boys being boys, by Mighty mighty bigmac, flickr.com

So we worked backwards. They took out their notebooks for some brainstorming. We started with kindergarten, 1st grade, 2nd grade: what clothes do you remember wearing? What TV shows did you watch? What did you do at recess? What did you eat for lunch? Who were your teachers? Your friends?

Thinking of my now-grown children, I tossed out some memories of my own: “Did you wear those light-up shoes?” The room exploded! “I had those!” “Those were soooo cool!” “I had the rolling ones!” And then I asked, “Did you watch Blue’s Clues or Sponge Bob?”

The room was filled with happy remembering. Now it was my turn to be quiet while they got lost in the details of their childhoods. They brainstormed with their friends, bouncing memories off each other until the room swirled with sweet nostalgia, these just-turned-teens so worried about being cool, laughing as they remembered their worn out superhero costume that they insisted on wearing everywhere, including the grocery store.

Anders Ruff superhero party by Becca Bond Photography

Anders Ruff superhero party by Becca Bond Photography, flickr.com

Now I know that we need to start this assignment with backwards brainstorming, giving them time to fall into nostalgia on their own, to appreciate their innocent little selves before they think about growing up. And then when we read “On Turning Ten,” they get it. They sigh at the closing lines:

“But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,                                                                                    I skin my knees. I bleed.”

They understand those sidewalks now, and when they write their own poems, they are so sweetly nostalgic they make me cry, every time:

Now it’s time to hang up my invisibility cloak.                                                                                               Now you see me                                                                                                                                                       Exposed to pain and responsibilities.  ~Humberto

I was the crazy little girl who jumped off her bed                                                                                                 thinking I would dive into the ocean                                                                                                                       but instead ended up with a sprained arm.  ~Dulce

Math Facts, book reports, mission project, and cursive writing                                                                     These things troubled me about turning 10                                                                                                            I was worried about big changes.  ~Lucas

I won’t cry out of sadness                                                                                                                                              I refuse to give in to my fear                                                                                                                                         I can’t let go of the warm rays of sun on my skin                                                                                                 I’ll never let go of my imagination.  ~Brenna

Even if the images were in the past they stay with me forever,                                                                         all I have to do is open my mouth and tell my story with a smile.  ~Amelie

Sometimes a lesson has to go wrong before we can get it right. Right?

Read > blog > discuss > repeat

Blogging isn’t new. In fact, blogging came on the scene a full decade before my current students were born. But have our students discovered the power of their own blogging?

If your students are writing, I challenge you to move that writing to blogs. And if your students aren’t writing, blogging is one way to change that. When students move their work from paper to blogs, they:

  • publish their writing to a bigger (and more significant) audience;
  • can easily access and read their peers’ writing;
  • can engage in online conversations in response to their peers’ writing;
  • learn to work online for academic purposes;
  • learn a variety of digital skills within a meaningful project.

For a few years now I have had my students create digital portfolios using Weebly.com, where they showcase and reflect on the learning they have done throughout the year. I like Weebly because it is a free and easy program that allows students to create beautiful and personalized websites with their own blog pages.

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So this year my students built their Weebly sites and published one blog post… and then, in ongoing efforts to regulate students’ access to the internet, our district tightened up the filter. And just like that, we lost access to Weebly.

Sigh. Such is life in a tech-integrated classroom. But we know from experience to think fast, change gears, and pivot to the back-up plan.

Did you know that Google Docs make pretty good blogs? Students write their blog post in a Doc, and then their classmates use the insert-comment option to respond to the post. The authors are then able to read and reply to the comments, and shazam, we have our own blogs with comment threads. Take that, filter.

blog sample Tito

Last week my students finished reading Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie, by David Lubar, and they were eager to talk about the story. Since they had already blogged their responses throughout the reading, they had a wealth of resources from which to draw for a class discussion.

At the start of class they went to our document of blog links and read entries from six of their classmates’ blogs. In their notebooks, they jotted down the names of bloggers to recommend and topics for our discussion. They shared out what they found and I started a list on the board:

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(Bonus points for Mikaela for pointing out the red herrings!)

Then we moved our chairs into one huge circle (thank you, flexible furniture with wheels!) so we could see each other as we talked about these big issues.

I am so proud of and impressed by the discussion my students had. They are 8th graders, which means that sometimes they have the insight and sensitivity of adults, grappling with issues like poverty and the presidential election; and then the very next day (or minute) they are more like 4th graders, rediscovering the humor of bodily functions. But after reading each others’ blogs, they entered our discussion understanding that many of their peers, like Lee and Mouth, have been victims of bullying. They saw themselves in Scott’s family dynamics, as well as in the familiar cliques of Scott’s classmates. They recognized the angst Scott experienced as he pined for Julia while discovering unexpected friendship in Lee. And although depression and suicide may seem like scary and far away concepts for 8th graders, my students discovered through blogging that some of their classmates had been close to those very situations. Their class discussion was polite, mature and sensitive, and covered a wide range of topics inspired by the novel. With all of their blogs as starting points, they could have continued their conversations well past the final bell.

Blogging is a natural for English class (and a powerful platform for English language learners), but teachers and students are also discovering the benefits of blogging in classes like math, sciencehistory and more across the curriculum.

How could your students benefit from blogging? What could they blog about that would further their own learning, as well as prompt their classmates to deeper thinking?

50% means it’s time for a box castle

My students have been working on their novels for a couple weeks now, and as November 15 approaches, they know it’s time to get to 50% of their word goal. When they cross that halfway line, they choose a NaNoWriMo button to wear proudly on their hoodie:

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But many of us are starting to feel like we’re running out of steam. The story we were so excited about in October is suddenly boring and annoying, and we need some inspiration. According to writer and pep-talker Robyn Schneider, it’s time for a box castle:

We don’t have room in our classroom for cardboard boxes, blankets and pillows, but we can take Robyn’s advice that a change in location can help vanquish our suck dragons and move us into another great scene in our novels. And we know that just one great scene can lead to another and to another…

So we move outside, or we curl up on carpet squares, or we just roll over for a different view of the classroom. And of course we string up lights, because it isn’t a box castle without lights.

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How do you celebrate that magical 50%? And what is your favorite version of a box castle? Where do you go when you need a change of writing scenery?

Do you speak NaNoWriMo?

Today is November 1st, which means WriMos all over the world are silencing inner editors, tackling plot bunnies, vanquishing suck dragons, building box castles, pantsing or plotting, striving for that ever elusive word goal and the bragging rights of winning as they NaNo the night away in Write-Ins with fellow WriMos. They rely on caffeine, sugary snacks (thank you, Halloween), the Dare Machine, Pep Talks, fellow WriMos (both online and in person), Word Wars, NaNo Stats, and an ever growing online community of WriMoVloggers.

Do you speak NaNoWriMo, or did I lose you at “plot bunnies”? Either way, you are sure to be bombarded with NaNoVocab, as your WriMo friends clutter your Twitter/Facebook/Instagram feeds with their daily word goals, #amwriting, word count celebrations, and woe-is-me-I-didn’t-have-time-to-write-today sob stories. To help you understand all things NaNo this month (and possibly entice you to join), I offer you a glossary of NaNoVocab:

NaNoWriMo: the vision that started it all, NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month, a challenge to writers everywhere to pen 50,000 words of the first draft of a novel in the month of November. The student version from the Young Writers Program allows students to choose their own word goal and write towards it in November.

Young Writers Program for student WriMos.

Young Writers Program for student WriMos.

NaNo: verb; to participate in NaNoWriMo; to write; as in, Did you NaNo today? How much NaNo-ing did you do over the weekend?

WriMo: noun; person who participates in NaNoWriMo; as in, Are you a WriMo? Did you see all those WriMos in Starbucks?

Word Goal: noun; the total number of words a WriMo will try to write in November; also the number of words a WriMo needs to write each day in November. Not to be confused with a complete draft of a novel, a word goal is simply a target. As experienced WriMos know, reaching the magical 50,000 words on November 30 does not give one a complete draft of a novel, especially if one reaches 50,000 words right in the middle of a sentence.

Day 1 of NaNoWriMo and this student is well on her way to winning!

Day 1 of NaNoWriMo and this student is well on her way to winning!

Pantser: noun; person who writes without planning or plotting ahead of time; as in, Are you a WriMo pantser? Do you write by the seat of your pants? Pants: verb; to write without a plan. Due to the tight time frame of NaNoWriMo, pantsers can learn from plotters (below) so that when they get writer’s block, they can go back to their plan for inspiration.

Plotter: noun; person who outlines, plots, and plans his/her novel before writing it; as in, I outlined my entire novel, but it took a turn I didn’t expect, and now I have to start all over, plot it again, and start writing again. I’ll never win! Due to the tight time frame of NaNoWriMo, plotters can learn from pantsers to just write from their guts without needing to follow a plan.

Winner: noun; one who reaches 50,000 words by midnight on November 30; NaNoWinners receive no prizes, but they do earn bragging rights forever (or at least until the next November, when everyone’s word count is reset to 0). Participants in the Young Writers Program who reach their self-determined word count goals by November 30 are also crowned winners, and along with bragging rights, they earn five free copies of their novel published through CreateSpace, and they may (like some of my students) sell them on Amazon. Of course, this means these young writers must also complete, revise, and edit their novels for publication.

NaNoWriMo winners, 2011.

NaNoWriMo winners, 2011.

Novels published by some of my 8th grade students.

Novels published by some of my 8th grade students.

Inner Editor: noun; often the bane of every writer’s existence, our inner editor can lead to writer’s block, as it sits on our shoulders and nags us, pointing out every mistake we make, every awkward sentence, every plot hole and inconsistency. While an inner editor really comes in handy in the revision and proofreading phase of writing, we need to silence that nag during the rough draft phase. Since we need to write a lot (and fast) in order to win by November 30, we need to let go of that need to write perfectly and beautifully, and heed the wise advice of novelist John Green, who says, “NaNoWriMo gives me permission to suck.” Yes, get those English teachers off your back, silence your inner editor, and write that sucky first draft! Plenty of time to entertain that inner editor after you reach your goal on November 30.

Box Castle: noun; cozy place to curl up with your writing; place of WriMo inspiration; cardboard box or table+blanket fort or pillows in your closet. Inspired by NaNoWriMo Pep Talker Robyn Schneider, your box castle just might get you past the mid-way point in November when you aren’t quite to the mid-way point in your word count. My students were inspired to write in their classroom version of box castles:

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Plot Bunnies: noun; story ideas that invade your brain and must be written into your novel. Ignored plot bunnies will badger you until you do include them. While they may seem to be bad ideas, plot bunnies can benefit the WriMo because (1) they will add to your word count, and (2) they can surprise you by breathing new life and unexpected twists into your story.

Suck Dragons: noun; issues in your story that get in the way of its success, such as lack of plot (there is no problem for your protagonist to solve) or structure issues (such as boring scenes or pacing problems). WriMos facing writer’s block can break through it by going back and vanquishing suck dragons from earlier in their draft.

WriMoVloggers: noun; WriMos who vlog (a.k.a., video blog, or make YouTube videos) about NaNoWriMo. Since writing is very hard work, many WriMos discover that it’s much more fun to make videos about writing than to do the actual writing. The online community of WriMos on YouTube is an enthusiastic, devoted, and very silly group of vloggers (and procrastinators) who are available to inspire, motivate, and chastise you to get back to your writing instead of wasting time watching videos on YouTube.

There is no shortage of tips from NaNoWriMo Vloggers.

There is no shortage of tips from NaNoWriMo Vloggers.

Write-Ins: noun; community events where WriMos gather together to work on their novels. Held in coffee shops, bookstores, gymnasiums and basements, Write-Ins offer writers the chance to write with other writers, but often lead to more community building, game playing, coffee drinking, and plot planning than actual writing. While writing may be a solitary, lonely endeavor, we often get more writing done when we are alone. But, hey, even writers need a break. And friends. And fun. So get thee to a Write-In!

Word Wars: noun; timed writing events that challenge writers to write more words than another WriMo in a brief, timed race. While Word Wars may not produce the best writing, the desire to beat an opponent can blast a writer out of writer’s block and back into the game of writing. Word Wars may happen face-to-face during a Write-In, but more often they take place online via chat rooms or Twitter.

Dare Machine: noun; tool to combat writer’s block. The Dare Machine dares writers to incorporate random plot/character/setting/conflict suggestions into their novel. Similar to plot bunnies, the dares might be ridiculous suggestions that don’t make any sense in one’s story (e.g. “include a dog who steals underwear,” or “have someone eat poisoned food”), but they can also take a WriMo’s story on an unexpected path that leads to an actual plot goldmine.

Combat writer's block with the Dare Machine.

Combat writer’s block with the Dare Machine.

NaNo Stats: noun; online graph of progress toward one’s word goal. Plot, character development, and conflicts may be central to the writing of a novel, but during NaNoWriMo it’s all about writing 1,667 words per day to reach the magical 50,000 by the end of the month. To help motivate WriMos, the NaNoWriMo sites offer visual tracking of each writer’s progress. And sometimes updating one’s word count and seeing that bar graph move up is the only thing keeping us in our chairs (or box castles) and writing.

How much did I write today? How much more do I need to write? Will I make it to my goal in time?

How much did I write today? How much more do I need to write? Will I make it to my goal in time?

So there you go. Now when your friends post #amwriting and over-share their NaNo progress, you can reply with the vocabulary of someone inside the NaNo circle of WriMos. Or you can hide them from your feed until December 1st. We understand. Really, we do.

Want to know more about NaNoWriMo? Check out:

Happy NaNo-ing, all you WriMos!

#oneword for 2015

Share #yourEdustory, week 1: What is your #oneword for 2015?

In spite of the ongoing attacks on public schools and teachers; in spite of too many students in my room; in spite of too many papers to grade; in spite of never enough time or resources, my one word for 2015 is this:

POSITIVE

There are so many factors beyond my control that affect my work as a middle school teacher, that it is easy to whine, complain and be negative. But what good would that do? I’m not a Pollyanna, but I do know that each morning when I walk into my classroom, I have the choice to focus on what makes me smile or I can dwell on what makes my job difficult. And here’s the thing: if I am smiling and finding the joy in my days, there is a better chance that my students will also smile and find their joy, and that translates into a POSITIVE classroom environment, which means more fun and learning for all of us.

Screen Shot 2015-01-10 at 11.34.36 AMMy #1 reason for staying POSITIVE in 2015 is my students: they are 8th graders, full of all that 8th grade brings, which means mood swings, enthusiasm, questioning authority, goofy giddiness and deep compassion. They can be hooked into a lesson by a silly grammar video just as easily as by one that exposes life’s tragic injustices. They wear their hearts on their sleeves and they need my POSITIVITY every day.

So how will I stay POSITIVE this year? One area of challenge for me is including lots of POSITIVE Screen Shot 2015-01-10 at 11.35.00 AMfeedback on my students’ writing. With 160 students who need to do a lot of writing and who need lots of help strengthening their writing, it’s easy to fall into the habit of marking what needs improvement and ignoring what was done well. This year I aim to amp up my POSITIVE comments on my students’ work, building their confidence and boosting their self-esteem by honoring their successes, even those as seemingly tiny as one excellent word or brilliant sentence in an essay.

How do you stay POSITIVE in the classroom? What aspect of teaching challenges you the most to stay POSITIVE? Share below and let’s make 2015 a year of POSITIVITY!