Tag Archives: revision strategies

Why I Love My Writers (and some book suggestions, too) #FridayReads


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I’ve got truly brilliant, fun-loving, willing-to-learn students this year, but when it comes to writing, they are as sloppy as a room full of toddlers with their first plates of spaghetti.  Missing periods and capital letters, too many commas (or not enough), and the makes-my-eyes-bleed lower case i. That one’s all over the room.

And I keep seeing this new thing:  the missing “it.”

Take this for example, all sentences from a self-evaluation students completed last week:  “My reading’s good, is something I do to release stress,” or this one: “Is the same thing as going somewhere,” or this: “My reading improved is better because I tried more.”


Do I worry about mechanics over ideas? Never. Do I worry that my students know better and are just not paying attention? Always.

I teach juniors in AP English Language. This string-your-spaghetti-anywhere-you- want-punctuation should not be happening.

So we slowed down a bit. Took a step back. Searched in our in our independent reading books for sentences that struck us as interesting.

Students wrote their sentences on notecards. Here’s some they chose:

“It’s easier to jump out of a plan — hopefully with a parachute — than it is to change your mind about an opinion.” Think like a Freak by Levitt and Dubner

“We looked over toward the echoes of burdensome chimes, the slip and boom of the clutch and rasp of gears as the ice cream truck entered the dead-end streets and curves of Las Lomas.” Always Running by Luis J. Rodriguez

“They played basketball the way basketball is supposed to be played, and in the end they lost — but not before proving that Goliath is not quite the giant he thinks he is.”  David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

“The barber gazed in amazement at this man with long-thick and black hair and beard, which gave his head the appearance of one of Titan’s portraits.” The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas

“When he smiles, she notices that he has a dimple on only one side, and there’s something about this that makes him seem endearingly off-balance.” The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight  by Jennifer E. Smith

“At the end of the hallway is a boy so powerful, so fearless, that he’s set up shop in the middle of a sacred site and renamed himself Goliath.”  Vivian Apple at the End of the World by Katie Coyle

“I felt a hot, tingly sensation spread spread over my skin as I slid down a few inches against the bench seat, wishing I could just melt directly into it’s crusty upholstery.” We Should Hangout Sometime by Josh Sundquist

“This is an ordinary Monday morning school day.A Stolen Life by Jaycee Duggard

“You see, Cinderella and I know what it’s like to look in the mirror and not recognize the reflection.”  Skinny by Donna Cooner

Then, in small groups we categorized sentences long and short, many punctuation marks or few. And we discussed the whys:  How does that mark help create meaning?

We could have spent days on this lesson. I should have allotted more time, and we will certainly return to it (maybe next week — it’s that pressing).

Then, yesterday as a way to join in on the National Day on Writing, I asked students to create a slide that explained why they write. Their slide needed to contain an image, a beautifully crafted sentence that included at least one of the literary or rhetorical devices we’d focused on recently, AND everything had to be correct: capitalization, spelling, punctuation. You might call me out on Olivia’s, but I think it works.

The ratio for correctness on this voluntary assignment was 22:6.

Here’s some of their tweets, evidence of why I love my writers. And also the reasons I hope we can take a little more care as we write. They have such amazing things to say.






Mini-lesson Monday: Taking on the Thesis Statement

Right now, my students and I are writing spoken-word poems. I’ve wanted to play with language this way for a long time now, but finally mustered the courage — and figured out a way to make this kind of poetry fit into my AP Language goals and the needs of my students as they prepare for the AP Lang exam.

While watching and listening to many spoken-word poems, I realized that most of them are an argument, filled with not only beautifully crafted language — devices galore — but they also show craft in the use of the appeals. With the help of my student teacher, Mr. Zachery Welch, we designed a unit that centers around the rhetoric in spoken-word poems. And we are all writing our own. (This is a challenge for me, but I absolutely believe the the importance of a teacher writing beside her students. Thanks, Penny Kittle, for teaching me that!)

The performance task for this unit reads:  Craft a spoken word poem that addresses a personal conflict and/or a social issue, include rhetorical techniques and literary and rhetorical devices to convince your audience of the need for positive change. Perform your poem for the class live, or create an automated slide show with visuals, or a video recording as a way to digitally perform your poem.

This lesson stems from our work  — and the need for students to include stronger thesis statements in all of their argumentative essays.

Objective:   Using the language of the depth of knowledge levels, students will identify powerful lines in a spoken-word poem that serve as position statements. They will discuss and then categorize these statements in order of importance as it pertains to the poet’s overall theme. Students will then formulate three powerful thesis statements of their own and revise their drafts to include these powerful thesis-like lines.

Lesson:  Watch and listen to “Paper People” by Harry Baker. Ask students to pay particular attention to the lines of the poem that hold the weight of the poet’s position. They must listen carefully because Baker’s poem is primarily crafted with the alliterative “p”. Give students a copy of the lyrics, and on the second listening, having them mark specific lines they think represent Baker’s position. Then, ask students to discuss the lines they marked with their small groups. As a class, determine the line that best serves as Baker’s thesis.

Next, instruct students to write three thesis statements for their own poems. They should discuss their thesis statements within their groups and help one another develop powerful statements that hold the weight of the meaning in their poems. Then, instruct students to revise their poems, including all three of their new strong lines.

Follow up:  Students continue to revise and strengthen the arguments within their spoken-word poems. They should also remember to write three powerful thesis statements in their argumentative essays and challenge themselves to use all three in their writing.

Mini-Lesson Monday: Talking Tone and a Bit More Reasoning in Our Writing

I sat at our staff Christmas party talking to a colleague about the essays my students just drafted. We read and analyzed several pieces by Leonard Pitts, Jr, talking about the effectiveness of his style, arguing over his opinion, justifying our own. The task was to write their own OpEd piece, responding to a topic in the news or a topic of their choice. Most chose interesting topics:  How the world defines beauty, Should armed guards protect our schools, Does keeping a home clean matter in the long run..

A few students wrote clearly articulated arguments that show intentional craft moves.

Many showed intentional craft moves but wrote little in the way of argument — or anything close to critical thinking about their topics. In short, some of my writers say pretty much nothing, but they say it very very well.

Therein lies the problem:  How do I get some of my students to think critically about their topics so they can write critically about their topics?

Sitting at that dinner, my friend and colleague, Mary Heffner, shared an activity she’d recently done with her students to help them understand tone. I decided that not only would it help my students understand tone (which most failed to consider when they began writing — “Do I have to remind them of every little thing?” she says with a sigh), but it could help them reason through the beliefs they have about their topic and write stronger sentences they might use when they revise.

Objectives — Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels: Define the tone of your essay; Construct reasons to express why your topic should be expressed by that tone word; Create sentences and synthesize your knowledge of punctuation, syntax, and sophisticated vocabulary to express your reasons while using this tone; Revise your writing to include these well-constructed sentences.

Lesson — (Prior to reading their drafts, I asked students to identify the tone of their pieces and write it in the top right corner of their papers. I determined quite easily that many of my writers thought they felt a certain way about their topics but were having trouble expressing that tone.)

First, I ask writers to clarify their choice of tone word by putting a short list of common adjectives that describe tone on the board:  infuriated, excited, confused, sorrowful, scornful, exasperated, concerned. We quickly define what each word means. I then tell students what I noticed when I look at the tone word they wrote on their papers and when I read their essays. “Some of you have a misconnect — you think you’re taking a certain tone, but you have little or no evidence of it in your writing. (Time permitting we might revisit one of Pitt’s pieces that we read as our mentor text and analyze the tone.)

“The other thing I noticed in your writing is a lack of reasoning. Today we are going to practice getting both a clear tone and powerful reasoning into our arguments.

“Once you have your tone word, and you know this is how you feel about your topic, you will write five reasons that support your topic and demonstrate this tone. Sometimes you can even use the tone word, or a synonym of it, in your reasoning sentences.”

Then I show students my own reasons I wrote to add to my writing. My topic “longer vacation time over the holidays.” The tone “emphatic.”


  1. Two weeks vacation time hardly covers the travel time when a family must drive far distances to share just a moment with their loved ones.
  2. Teenagers thrive on rest and relaxation.
  3. If families spent more time together we may have fewer problems in our society.
  4. Teachers work too hard, sometimes even taking work home over the break, to not enjoy more one-on-one time with their families over the holidays.
  5. With a longer, more relaxing, break, students and teachers would return to school more rejuvenated and infused with energy to embrace the love of learning.

As they read through my reasons, I ask students to talk to one another about my word choice:  How do I show I emphatically care about this topic?

Follow up — Students will revisit their drafts and work on clarifying gaps in reasoning. They will add their five new sentences to make their arguments stronger and more logical.

Reflection — As we move into our next writing piece, I will be more purposeful in directing students to think about tone. We will spend more time thinking through our reasoning before we begin writing.

Sometimes I assume too much, and I end up having to take us back and start again.

Writing critically is hard for many of my students — although their style is improving. I remind myself that I must continue to give them interesting and thought-provoking things to think about — their words and many of their worlds are so limited.


Mini-Lesson Monday: Learning Concrete Details with Independent Reading

More than any other writing, I love reading my students’ narratives. We start the year with narrative for many reasons, but my favorite is that I get to know my students faster than I can get to know them during one-on-one reading conferences or during group activities and discussions.

Here’s a short list of what I’ve learned from student stories just this week:

  • several of my male students wish they had a father who showed interest in their lives
  • a few of my girls live with their fathers because of their mothers’ poor choices
  • several boys and girls journeyed long and far, walking miles through jungles, so their families could escape oppression, rape, and murder
  • many of my teenagers have experienced heartache because of love interests, friends, and family members
  • a few are still grieving the loss of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends who died from suicide
  • at least one young woman still holds anger toward her mom because of the way she handled a brother’s addiction and abuse

Personal and powerful, all of these stories matter. My goal as a writing teacher is to help my writers harness the words so emotion reigns in the heart of the reader. The problem?

Abstract language.

Objectives — Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels: Show understanding of the terms abstract vs. concrete; in your independent reading books, identify concrete details and figurative language; analyze the effectiveness of the author’s language; revise your writing to include fresh concrete details and figurative language as you create a text that evokes powerful emotions.

— Before the mini-lesson, students have already drafted a few pieces, narratives or poems. I abstractconcreteusually do the mini-lesson after silent reading time, but for this lesson I begin before because I want to give students a specific purpose for reading.

First, I write on the board ABSTRACT and CONCRETE and we review what these terms mean when it comes to writing. I try to use only abstract words as they begin to discuss this with me.

“Awesome, you might get it,”

“Wonderful, I think you know what I mean,”

“Hey, that’s pretty good…”

Eventually, they will pick up on what I’m doing, and we make a list of abstract words. Then I give each table-group a word and challenge them to come up with a concrete description that shows us that abstract word. They get 1-2 minutes, and then we share out as I write the concrete details on the board. We discuss the difference in how an author can create emotion.

Next, I ask students to pay attention to the concrete details in the book they are reading, and I give them each a sticky note. “As you read today find at least one sentence where the author does something really clever with concrete details and/or figurative language,” I say.

Students read for 15 minutes, pen in hand, paying particular attention to the author’s craft. When time is up, I ask students to share their sentence in small groups and to analyze the effectiveness of the author’s word choice.

AllieTate“Think about what he’s trying to do there. Why did he mention the color of the sweater, or the smell of the breeze?” If they feel like the author’s accomplished creating emotion, they put the sticky on the board (or as in the photo here –poster).

Students need to not only recognize the details and know that they create some kind of imagery, they need to think about how effective the word choice is for what the author is doing at that moment in the story. If I can get them to start thinking about this, I can get them to begin making purposeful choices in their own writing.

Next, I ask students to search their own writing for concrete details that create images and to add a lot more. “Where can you add a phrase or line similar to what you found in the book you are reading? Is there somewhere you can add color or shape or texture?”

And we revise.

Follow-Up — When students immediately apply learning we’ve practiced using their personal reading materials, they begin to see the connections between becoming active readers and purposeful writers. This is the kind of lesson I do again and again with a different literary or grammar skills students to master. Next up:  subordinating conjunctions.

A few lines from students’ published narratives:

“Each body turned to watch as the green army, blurry, entered the gate. The ground only knew sadness and the sky transformed into a dark night, roaming like a lion.” –Tha Sung

“My first impression when I met Lucila:  petite, chunky, short red-velvet hair, wearing a sweater that covered her sins, mysterious face with a sealed silent mouth.” –Karina Rangel

“My brothers slept like angels with devilish grins.” –Geovanni Medina

Embedding Poetry in Core Literacy Instruction


Selfie at our session. –“The Sound of Sense: Putting Poetry at the Core of Literacy Instruction”

Saturday Heather and I presented a session on poetry at the Texas Council of Teachers of English Language Arts. When I wrote the proposal last year, I had been accepted but had not attended The Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching, and I had hope that my life would be transformed through poetry after my stay in Franconia at the end of June. I knew I’d have ideas to share with other teachers at this conference. I was right.

That’s how faith works.

I shared the strategies that have shaped my teaching into fine points for skills acquisition since I learned them at the

Frost Place:

Dictation. When we dictate a poem, slowly, speaking each word and each line with care; when our students write each word, each phrase, each metaphor and simile, they take ownership of the language and see into the craft of the poet. In this ever-moving world, our students need to s-l-o-w-d-o-w-n and feel the beauty of the print on the page. Words become tangible and approachable. Comprehension improves. Analysis advances.

Arguing a Tone. My friend Margaret shared this strategy:  Choose a poem that begins with “how” or “why” or one that you know can be read in opposing tones. (Dickinson’s “How gentle is the little brook” works well.) Divide the class into two teams, and ask one side to read the poem with a tone of anger. Ask the other side to read the poem with a tone of happiness. Instruct students to find text evidence that supports their given tone then hold a debate. After discussing, students can then take their thinking to paper and write paragraphs that show analysis of the tone.

I Wonder for Revision. At the Frost Place, I loved being in the company of working poets. They inspired me with their thinking and their calm. I learned as I listened to their language. One afternoon we sat in a circle as a poet shared his work. We listened and offered feedback in the form of “I wonder…” He listened and took notes. And he left with a page of possibilities that he might have wanted to play with as he revised his poem. I’ve used this strategy with my students and had great success. I wrote about it here: A Feedback Protocol for Revision Workshop.

At the end of our session on Saturday, I read my poem I wrote modeled after Meg Kearney’s poem “Creed.” Just like at the Frost Place, I cried when I read about my mother. Poetry is emotion. And it’s an emotion that we need to help our students see and feel and play with. Sure, we can reserve a unit in our curricular year to devote to poetry, but our students will love it, understand it, and appreciate the wonders of language when we embed poetry in every unit throughout the year.

It is possible, I know, because I do it.

What are some of your ideas for embedding poetry in your core instruction? or, what are some of your favorite poems to share with students?

A Feedback Protocol for Revision Workshop

I didn’t mean to make them cry, but that’s what soul writing can do to a person. (Soul writing is what my students and I coined as the type of writing that rips at our guts, makes pools fall from our eyes, and leaves us lurching toward the door to “take a little break.”) We are only into the third week of school, and I tried a new protocol for feedback; something I learned at The Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching, directed by Dawn Potter.

Giving honest and critical feedback to one another is difficult for many of my students. So afraid of offering offense, they either do not say anything, or they do the proverbial pat-on-the-back and mutter “good job.” I tell  them that when they refuse to be honest in their feedback, it’s cheating. They cheat their friends out of ideas that can help them grow. And that is what we want in a community of writers — we want everyone to experience opportunities to grow.

The tears today watered some tender little seeds. All afternoon I gushed about it to anyone who who listen.

We sat in a circle around the large table in the center of my classroom. Many students came to class without their drafts*, so I sentenced them to the outer edges and advised them to get their brains and their pens working. I told them to write silently, but they might want to keep an ear tuned to the conversations happening in the middle. If they did, they learned more than they could have from any one-on-one conference with me.

First, I explained that giving feedback can be a bit tricky. We want to be honest, but if we do not deliver that honesty well, we can cripple our writer. (I use the word cripple because that was my own experience. I’d spent months drafting a chapter for my book. I’d finally finished what I thought proved to be a powerful piece of writing. Then I asked a friend, someone I trust, for feedback. She gave it to me: honesty cloaked in sweet little daggers. When I read her comments, all my ideas crumpled, and my focus limped right out the door. I didn’t write another word for six months.)

The “I wonder ____” protocol is really very simple:

Those who offer feedback:

  • Listen carefully as a classmate reads her piece.
  • Think about ideas that might help her improve it.
  • Offer feedback that allows for the writer to “play with the possibilities” (Dawn Potter) by putting the ideas you have that might help the writer revise the piece into statements that begin with “I wonder ___”.

Those who receive feedback:

  • Read the piece loudly and with clarity. (Repeat if necessary.)
  • Listen to the “I wonder” statements made by peers and write yourself notes.
  • Try to just listen (This is hard because we tend to want to justify why we wrote certain things).
  • Play with these various possibilities while revising.


I asked for a volunteer to read her writing. Eyes darted all around the table until Jessica read her draft.

Jessica went first:

Jessica GoWorld story

Wow, right? She punched us right in the stomach, and we sat in silence. Finally, I said, “Okay, we’ve got some amazingly powerful stuff right here. How can we improve it?” and they looked at me like I had hornets on my head. I knew I better go first, or this feedback thing wasn’t going to work.

“I wonder if you need to tell us that Lori’s a woman,” I said.

Long pause.

“I wonder who ‘assigned’ her to you,” Mikaila spoke up.

“I wonder what she did that was so helpful,” Mariam said.

“I wonder how you survived,” said Daissy.

Jessica listened, answering a few questions, and taking a few notes on the comments her friends gave her.


And we were off . .


Daissy read next:

Daissy GoWorld story


“I wonder who ‘those’ are.”

“I wonder what the problem was.”

“I wonder what happens next.”

“I wonder what happened that made you change.”

And then Daissy could not remain silent any longer. She had to explain her stuttering, and how she’s worked so hard to overcome it, and how now wants to major in broadcast journalism and speak on live TV.

We forgot to preface our comments with “I wonder” when we all told her THAT is the story she needs to write.

revision corrections 2-7-12Feedback Magic happened with this “I wonder” protocol. And it happened in every class period, and so did the tears.

Students shared the honest writing from their hearts, and students gave honest feedback with tender and caring insight. Writing improved.

Even better? Imagine being in this kind of classroom with this kind of community of writers.




*Our mentor texts were VISA Go World commercials. I got this idea from an assignment I did at a class taught by Penny Kittle at the University of New Hampshire Literacy Institute. We watched several of the videos in class and discussed and analyzed the various structures of these very short, yet poignant, stories. Students were to watch and analyze a few more examples, transcribing the words to use as models for their own writing. Then they were to write their own, playing with word choice and syntax.

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