Posts Tagged ‘writing’

So, I’ve been thinking about the final writing assignment in my YA literature elective. Last year, there was a lot of moaning and groaning about the length. I wrote about it then.

Briefly, the students read an article from Slate by Ruth Graham (“Against YA“), several responses to Ms. Graham, and then entered the debate by writing their own article, either supporting or opposing Ms. Graham’s original. Last year, after all that complaining, the students’ articles were pretty solid. However, I thought they could have done a better job of dissecting the original article and either countering or agreeing with specific points. They had the same problem with the response articles–too general, not enough of the nitty gritty. This lead to some arguments that were too simplistic. As they did last year, again, students could take either side but needed to make solid and well-defended arguments, reference the first article, at least two others, and at least two books that we read during the semester.

For several students, this was the most successful writing of the semester in terms of their clarity and level of detail. I’ve been thinking about why that might be.

This year, I made sure that we analyzed the first article and several other examples in more detail. We I used the webtool to annotate collaboratively. For each response article, we looked more closely at the particular points of the original article the author chose to address, the tone of the response, and students’ responses to that tone. Some students liked an equally snarky response; others preferred a more neutral tone combined with evidence of experience or expertise. We spent more time talking about format options, and several students took good risks in that department. A few wrote as if they were YA bloggers, and one attempted the ‘take the argument to the extreme to prove its ridiculousness’ option.

Another important characteristic of this assignment, in terms of having more success for more students, was the fact that this writing did not need to have quite as serious an analytical tone. Although the assignment required significant thought and synthesis, it was not “an analytical essay” in their minds. There was some option for creativity of format and less formality in language. It is this language business that often trips them up. The clear writers are clear writers. The problem comes for the students who equate serious analysis with overly complex sentences and overly formal word choice, both of which lead to awkward writing that gets in the way of itself and any point to be made.

So, the better teaching of the arguments in the article is on me. Although, now I wonder if I went too far in terms of digesting so many of the articles together in class.  The part that I am really thinking about is the significant improvement in clarity of writing in this assignment (for some students).

  • Did they just relax with the less formal style and therefore write better?
  • Did they say to themselves, “hey it’s my last English paper, I’ll ease up on the fancy language I’ve been trying to use.”
  • Did they feel pressured in other assignments to write in a voice that is unnaturally serious and therefore awkward?

I tend to think that the understanding that this piece of writing could be less formal was the key for those students who were more successful than they had been earlier in the semester. Interesting to note though, the final articles were not all that casual. No one took it too far. Good thinking, synthesis of ideas, and integration of quations were all obvious.

What if it was all just the perception that they could write as themselves?

I have a lot to think about on this one.

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about how students do or do not make good use of the processes we as teachers try to put in place for them. Since it’s summer, I have time to chat about this with the folks who just can’t stay away from school and end up on campus. This is one of the things I love about summer. Even though I now have to work all year, I am always getting to spend quality reflection time with other teachers.

Recently I have been talking with two colleagues in the math department. We have been talking about homework, effective study skills, making use of teacher time etc. In particular I was talking to @LisainPA about helping students see the process of preparation (for a test, for homework, for writing, for learning in general). We talked about how to impress upon students the impact of the decisions they student makes have the outcome. Of course, there are many students who understand this and act on it. However, for those who do not, what can we do to help them realize that they are in control of the situation? That their own actions, especially actions that happen significantly before any assessments, are the key stepping stones that create a path towards success? The conversation was going along, and I wondered if an infographic would be useful. I do love infographics. Then we agreed that really a flow chart was in order. I also love those silly flow charts for things like ‘should I keep or throw away this item of clothing’ or ‘is this hallowe’en costume appropriate’. Anyway I got excited to make some charts.

Then, I had to pick a web tool. Well, I didn’t want one of the true infographic tools because I was really after a flow chart. I usually use for infographic making. Moving on. I went through the following:  Piktochart (again more infographic than flow chart) Lucidchart for Education, MindMeister, Coggle, and MindMup. They each have their strong points, but since I wanted to be able to have a more free form linking pattern than org chart layers, I went with Lucidchart. I spent quite a while thinking about all the steps of the writing process, which of course actually starts with reading. I made a large and elaborate chart and sent if off to Lisa for feedback. Again, summer is awesome because not only did Lisa and I have time to have the conversation, I had time to test the tools I wanted to use, make a beta version, and ask for feedback. Lisa had time to look over my chart thoroughly and send my several paragraphs of thoughts. One of the things that Lisa mentioned was that the chart was pretty massive. True enough. Also, it seemed like it might be too hard to get off on a not-successful path and never have a way back. Another good point.

With solid feedback in hand, I went back to my chart and broke in into two charts tentatively called ‘Preparing to Write’ and ‘Writing Process’. I have to say I am quite proud of my little charts.

First up, the preparing to write flow chart. I wanted to stress that much of the preparation for writing about a book is done in the reading and discussing phases.

Next, the actual writing. Here I wanted to stress the time and thought that needs to go into the planning as well as the need for real revision, not just spell-check.

For the moment, I am going to let them be. I will come back to them closer to the start of the year to see if I want to change anything.

Any comments so far?

Public domain image from

Public domain image from

So, I’ve been thinking about this blog. I set a goal last summer to write 5 posts/month. At that time, that was a lot, and I thought I could only begin to consider that much writing in the summer when I may be working, but the pace is summerish.

It turns out, I could make the goal. I think maybe in August I didn’t make it, but that’s such a crazy month from the middle on, that I gave myself a bit of a break a bit. It also turns out that it wasn’t hard to do. Certainly it helped that I was participating in a great online mooc/community (CLMOOC–can’t wait to participate again.) That gave me a lot to consider and write about. What it also did was get me in the habit of writing.

Then, this past school year, I was teaching a new senior English elective each semester (Truth and Fiction in the fall and YA Literature in the spring), which also gave me a lot to ponder. In addition, I started thinking about sets of works (either art or poems or just creations) after hearing a colleague talk about her MFA course work (Taxonomy projects). And, finally, I have some wonderful colleagues with whom I chat regularly which also gives me plenty of food for thought. All of this is to say, I found I could keep writing during the school year as well.

Since June 2015, I have written 4 posts each in September and December, 5 posts each in October, November, January, and April, and 6 posts each in February, March, and May. I know these are not big numbers for serious bloggers, but they are huge numbers for me. I’m not getting many comments, so that’s certainly not keeping me going. And, I don’t get many reader either. However, I’m still writing. So far this month, I’m only on post 2, and it’s already mid-June. I still think I can make it to 5 this month.

I may not have been able to get in the habit of exercising this year, but I’m getting in the habit of writing, audience or no. Maybe I’ll get on the exercise thing this summer.

Public domain image from

Public domain image from

So, I’ve been thinking about YA literature all year. My second semester senior elective focused on YA literature. Part of the goal of the coarse was to read enough to think about YA literature and how it is similar to and also different from a lot of the literature they normally read in class.

The final assignment asked them to read “Against YA: Read What you want, but you should be Embarrassed to read what was written for Children” by Ruth Graham which appeared in Slate in June of 2014. I also collected several responses which we looked at as examples of various ways to engage in a debate of ideas. Students then had to weigh in on their own. (see my description below.)

You have now read a number of YA novels and heard about even more. In addition you have read the Ruth Graham article and several responses. It is now your turn to enter into the YA debate. You should write your own response to Graham’s article.

Your response will:

  • Be 1200+ words
  • Have an opinion as to the value or lack thereof of YA literature.
  • Define what “having value” or whatever criteria you use to evaluate YA literature means.
  • Defend that opinion in a way that allows the reader to understand your thought process.
  • Reference and cite specific points by Graham and at least one other article.
  • Reference with specifics at least two book that you read in the course to support your idea.
  • Be engaging


  • First, read and digest the articles. Determine what criteria Graham has used to reject YA literature and the criteria others have used to support it.
  • Decide where your opinion falls in the debate.
  • Determine what criteria you think are most important and how you will define them.
  • Determine which points are most important for you to refute or confirm. Find evidence for this.
  • Choose several books from the course that you will reference in your response.
  • Draft several paragraphs (there is nothing magical about 5) by Tuesday, May 3rd
  • Share this beginning with peers in class on Tuesday.
  • Complete a draft by Thursday, May 5th. Required. (could be completed earlier)
  • Review feedback.
  • Complete final draft by Wednesday, May 11th. Required. (could be extended to Friday 13th)

There was a lot of complaining about the 1200+ words. To hear some of them, you would have thought I had asked them to climb to the moon. Since I was not going to budge on it, so we did not discuss. What I said in class was that yes it would be possible to toss off a quick 300-400 word superficial answer, but that one of our critiques of Ms. Graham’s article included its generalities and lack of specifics. I stressed over and over that carefully analyzing her particular points was important. She may state her big point in the title of the article, but she has particular points that are much more specific. I’m not sure I was convincing.

Anyway, I thought I should maybe write my own article to see if my word count was in fact way off. Um, no. It was not. I sat down and just scratched the surface of what I wanted to say with 700 words. I know, I’m not a high school student (just had a big reunion to prove it), but I’m confident that the task does in fact warrant some words.

The next day students came in more ready to work. I arranged the room so that everyone was looking away from each other as much as possible and so that I could see screens. A number of students came in and went back to the Graham article, which is what they needed to do. So, I’m feeling decent about that. Also, midway through class an impromptu discussion broke out about some of the points she makes in the article. About half the group joined in for a bit. I am feeling somewhat optimistic about this.

Update: I made sure to set the rough draft due date before prom weekend, but I did not get all drafts. Ugh! The ones I got were solid, so there’s that.

So, I’ve been thinking about the impact that restraints have on writing. This was a topic on one of the days of the teaching writing workshop I attended and loved over the summer. The two creative writing teachers shared a number of ideas from their classes.

The idea is that having some constraints around the writing is in fact helpful for getting going. They particularly suggested setting as something to consider making a constraint. So, the class might brainstorm a list of possible settings and then each student would write a brief piece set in one of the times and places. Try considering this yourself. If you are told the story takes place on a bus or in a local chain restaurant or at the library, there are probably ideas that come to your mind right away.

This past semester one of my goals for my English class was to do some creative writing. We did talk about the setting exercise and played with the idea in class. Then, what I ended up doing was asking students to find a sentence in the book we had just finished and use it in their creative writing. (I wrote earlier about my other goal for this project, which was to find an audience for this work. That part did not end up being super successful. More on that later.) However, providing the constraint of the sentence by our expert author was successful. Some students took a sentence and also borrowed a similar  general genre. Sentences from Slaughterhouse-Five ended up in new stories about people returning from war. However, others took it as a deliberate challenge to do exactly the opposite with the sentence. What? Students setting a challenging goal for themselves and then following through? Victory.

I did not write a story with a sentence, although I should have. I have continued to work on blackout poetry, which I have written about numerous times on its own and in conjunction with my personal taxonomy projects. Most recently I tried using catalog text, which did not lead to such great work. I have been thinking about moving to the sports section of the newspaper as my starting block. Like my student who wanted to turn the sentence he found on its head, I wanted to take on the constraint of articles from the sports section and erase all sports from the resulting poems. Although I had started this a few times, I finally got to it on our snow day. Sports themed blackout poetry taxonomy project here I come. Thank you Jonas the blizzard.

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I took the Sunday Sports section of the January 24th New York Times and started with the front page articles. I was lucky in that there were a few not so sporty articles. As I got going, I realized that the article was continued on an inside page, as were all the articles. So, I decided to add another constraint to my poetry–all the poems from the front page portion of the article had to end with the word continued (or continue).

I found that having that end goal gave direction to some of my other word picking. I find it easy to be distracted by a choice word when I am trying to write one of these poems. (I have the same trouble at a buffet. One thing grabs my attention and then the next thing you know I have a plate full of random items that do not go together in any way other than they are yummy.) Since I do need to have something leap out at me or force me to make a first choice, it’s in some ways handy to have a word jump out at me. The problem is that sometimes that first sparkly word should just be the catalyst and nothing more (catalysts do not actually get mixed in with the chemical reactions. They get things going, but stay apart. So interesting.) Anyway, some of the first words that catch my eye or ear should not really be involved at all in the final poem. But knowing that I had at least one word all set was sort of comforting.

Here are the three first poems.

Poem 1


A car shop on Friday afternoon

He leaned on the counter and smacked the bell several times

He claims to have arrived that day

He figures that some version of his sales pitch can continue.

Poem 2

“Danger May Lurk”

Take Pause,

They meet to decide to do

Something they rarely do

It is continued.

Poem 3

“Most Unlikely”

The man did not mind

The talk about lucky charm that seemed to grow

Like virulent kitchen mold.

There is the matter of finances;

The spending continued.

Then, I decided that I would go to the continuation of each article and make another poem from the rest of the article. No continued in this poem and the point was to have the poem be different. I also tried to have words from all columns, even though the poems are meant to be read left to right instead of up and down, and to have some words towards the end so that the poem got all the way, or most of the way, down the page. This seemed important to me visually; I’m not sure why. Another constraint.

First second part

“At Least in Winter”

From the front room you can probably see

Posters from the movie.

I’m thinking why would you do that?

For about the next 15 years

He does good work–great work,

Cradling the phone

Flashing a peace sign.

Second second part

“Favorites, Take Pause”

At this time of year

You just get accustomed to this trouble spot.

In late November love

Was a lot different

To play.

Final second part

“Most Improbable”

The story routinely

Almost exclusively

And undeniable

Took place at the final buzzer

In Charlotte four years ago.

He would never forget

That there was more.

So, there you have it. I claim neither to have written award-winning poetry nor to have students who wrote prize-winning stories. However, we all created. We all made these little bits of things with words within the constraints, which turned out not to constrain us at all.

So, I’ve been thinking about my seniors. As I decided recently, they are my people. And, they make me crazy. This is not unlike how I feel about my personal kids. I love them dearly; they make me crazy.

This past week or more, I have felt more of the “make me crazy” feelings for these young adults whom I am trying desperately to engage and teach a few more lessons before they are off to something new. I seriously doubt that a lot of the reading is getting read. If the recent test is any indication, there is also not a lot of thinking about the reading going on. I had to stop grading the test; it was too distressing. But, since I can’t seem to convince those grading fairies to do my work for me, I have plenty of other work that needs attention.

I turned to their memoir writing. I have to say that I was not really looking forward to diving into this bunch of papers. We have just finished reading Black Ice by Lorene Cary, a memoir, and I thought that some writing in the same category, memoir, would be a nice change of pace. A friend of mine posted this video on Facebook, which I showed to the class.

George Saunders Explains Storytelling for The Atlantic

George Saunders Explains Storytelling for The Atlantic

I think this is great stuff.

Yawn, said my seniors.

No one had come to class with an idea or topic, despite the fact that it had been part of homework for a while. The next day, people did come ready to write. We talked about a few more things: turning a real event into a story, that is still nonfiction, but which needs to be a good read; coming back around to the same idea that began the story. I suggested thinking about a goal response from readers. Should they laugh, cry, cringe? I have to say that I was not overly optimistic.

I was wrong! The pieces are funny, dramatic, revealing (but not too much so), and sad. The students are so recognizable, not only by what they chose to write about, but what the way they told their stories. One student wrote this in the email he sent me with his piece of writing:

I really enjoyed writing this paper, this is the first time I have ever felt comfortable talking about this incident.

I saw him today in the dining hall and said how much I enjoyed his piece and the interesting way he chose to tell the story of coming to a new school. And, while he did ask about the grade, he also said,

It was like what we talked about with the video. I started off thinking it was going to go one way and then it changed. I had to totally rewrite whole first paragraph.

Victory filled up my teacher self . . . “until everything/ was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!” (with apologies to Elizabeth Bishop)

It’s good to know people are listening, even when it doesn’t seem like it.

Just like my own kids.

So, I have been thinking about how to help students write effective analytical essays for what seems like forever. Shouldn’t I be better at this by now? The goals are certainly different at different ages; what I expected in 5th grade was different from what I expected in 9th and what I look for in 12th. However, I still see the same old divide between those papers that are about the book (effective summaries) and papers that are about an idea that is discussed by way of the book. Really what it comes down to is how do I move the book report writers into the analytical writers’ camp. Is there a magic wand, pen, saying? Would bribing them with s’mores do the trick? Seriously, I would do whatever it takes.

I’ve been talking with colleagues about this, going to summer workshops, thinking of new and not new ideas. The more I think about it, the more I think that I need to go back to what I know worked in 5th grade. I don’t say this in a mean way or to be insulting. But, for the students who have not found their way to the analytical camp on their own, how can I check in earlier, before they head off down that long, boring summary road.

So what do I know?

In 5th grade I never let students start writing without an approved plan of some sort. As the year progressed, I knew who was ok without a detailed plan and who was not. So there might be students whom I let start writing with what was a very brief plan; however, they were students who had proven themselves to be on the analytical path, which in 5th grade is more like the “having an opinion” path.

In 5th grade I had students do physical things to identify different sentences in a paper. So, I might read aloud a paragraph. One side of the room would stand when the sentence was a retelling or summary sentence. One side would stand if it was the writer’s opinion (which is what analysis starts as in lower school). This turned out to be one of the most effective tactics in helping students even understand what I meant by summary or opinion sentence.

In 5th grade we sometimes wrote papers a paragraph at a time and “discovered” that this might actually be an essay with a bit of introduction and conclusion added to the paragraphs. Sneaking up on the essay was not a bad strategy. Everybody could write a paragraph on Karana’s friendship with Rontu (Island of the Blue Dolphins is still a winner), a paragraph on her friendship with the birds. Oh, look it seems like we are writing about her friendships. Hmmm. What could we say about the community she has or has created? Seems like that would be an interesting conclusion. While we’re adding things, let’s just introduce the book at the beginning. Tada, essay!

In 5th grade I learned that writing gets better writing. It’s like babies and sleep–good naps lead to good betimes, overly tired kids fight sleep. I learned, and was reminded of this fact at my summer workshop this past summer, that I did not need to edit everything, give extensive comments, and have students write many drafts of every assignment. We need to do some of that. We also just need to write. A lot. That is how my class’ blog was born, oh so many years ago

Now, how to take these lessons to some 12th graders.

Plans are totally doable. Shame on me for not making students be more intentional here. Some do a quick list of big point and sub-points and I can tell they are all set. No need to force the issue. However, for those who have proved that they are summarizers, I need to be more forceful. They may be 12th graders, but if I see they need the scaffolding, I should be providing more of it, even students don’t like it.

Standing up and sitting down in class to identify parts of the essay, probably not going to work with high schoolers. However, for those who are not getting to the analysis, insisting that their rough draft have analytical sentences highlighted, totally doable. Again, it is about me insisting.

Sneaky papers. This one I think I might be able to do next semester. I had forgotten about it, but I think it has potential. Again, there are going to be those who do not need this support, and I will need to think about whether everyone does it anyway or some folks do something else. I have time on this one since my current class ends mid-January and I won’t have time to do everything between now and then, but I’m definitely going to move this to a front burner item.

Just writing. I’ve been really trying to do this. My summer workshop reminded me of and reaffirmed my belief in this strategy in addition to convincing me that it would work in high school. My class has been doing a lot of short writing in online forums, in class, wherever. On the recent reflections that the students wrote, many commented on the amount of writing, not always in a complementary way, but many of those same students also said they felt more confident in their writing.

Now if I could just go back to not having to give letter grades, that would be great.