Tag Archives: writers

On Writers’ Testimonies & Why We Need Them

If I want to call myself a writer, I better start writing. Seems simple enough, right? I’ve read tons of quotes from writers who say the best way to begin is just sit down and bleed on the page. But I struggle.

As I was trying to write this post, with my dogs barking incessantly at an invisible squirrel in the backyard, and The Walking Dead booming from the bedroom tv where my husband languished with flu-like blahs, I thought of all the tweets last week for the National Day on Writing (fantastic inspiration and ideas there).

tweet#whyIwrite

I thought of why I write:  to think, to feel, to clarify, to play with language, to vent and heal and commit to change. All the reasons that everyone else writes. I am not unique.

Or am I?

Recently, I’ve been reading and re-reading the writing of Donald Murray. (Learning by Teaching: Selected Articles on Writing and Teaching is my bible as a writing teacher. Huge thanks to my friend Penny K. for the recommendation!) But I’ve also delved into Murray’s Shoptalk: Learning to Write with WritersIt’s a collection on quote on writers about their craft. Murray states in the preface that he began collecting quotes on writing when in junior high, filling twenty-four three-inch-think notebooks with at least eight thousand quotations. His motivation? He just wanted to know how writers wrote. Murray explains the importance of writers’ testimony:

     Many people have the romantic notion, encouraged by those writers who feel comfortable in the magician’s robes, that writing is an instinctive matter of talent, an art, not a craft, and therefore cannot be explained.

     But writing is not an unintelligent act. Writing is a craft before it is an art, and writers can and do discuss their craft in terms we can understand. There are good reasons teachers and students of writing should hear what writers say about their craft.

     . . . I bring writers into my classroom through their written testimony. As writers of today and yesterday–female and male, young and old, poets and novelists and playwrights and nonfiction writers–talk about their feelings and their problems while writing, my students discover that their natural responses to writing are often the same as experienced writers.

     This is vital. Students facing a writing problem will often find they have to solve it by starting over and will fell they have failed. When they read the testimony of experienced writers, however, they discover that they too act like writers and this increases their confidence in designing their own solutions to their own writing problems. School often teaches unnatural, non-writerly attitudes toward writing–know what you want to say before you say it–and students need to see that their own instincts are the instincts of published writers.

     Students also need to see that writers are not looking back at a finished text but are in the act of confronting the blank page–or looking at the world before their is a page; trying to get started; trying to keep a text on tract or following it off track; working to make a text clear to themselves and to a reader. Writer’s counsel isn’t distant, detached from the act of making; it is immediate, speaking to the writer in the middle of making, a master sharing the tricks of craft with an apprentice at a common workbench.

I need these reminders–for myself and those I hope to take on the identity of writer, other teachers and students alike. Murray explains:

Too often we defend writing as a skill, saying writing should be taught so that students can fill our a job application or write a better letter asking someone to buy a cemetery lot. Writing is a skill on that level, but it also a craft and an art; it satisfies an essential need of the human animal.

So how do I share more writers’ testimonies? How do I help satisfy the essential need of the humans in my care daily?

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Here’s some ideas:

  • Share some quotes on writing by writers. There’s lots of insights in that link and even some nice images like the one above.
  • Share Poets & Writers and follow on Twitter, too. I love their weekly update.
  • Read and share articles from NY Times Writers on Writing. This one by Amy Tan is a favorite and makes a fantastic mentor text to write beside.
  • Think, write, model, talk, share, and repeat with writers every single day. Let them know they are not alone in their pursuit of putting meaning on the page.

When I brought the barking dogs in, and before the tv went off and the zombies faded out in the bedroom, I heard a line that gave me pause. It went something like this: “This place is a canvas, and we are the paint. We were sent here to create. We did.”

I don’t know about you, but I think that relates to writing. I write to paint my world in the swirl of language, to create images and goals and imaginings, to figure out what I feel and think and know. I write because it feeds my need. I am human, so I write.

Amy Rasmussen writes most often sitting at her newest DIY project, a desk she repurposed from a vanity her paternal grandfather made for her grandmother over 70 years ago. She lights a candle and listens to Michael Bluble radio on Pandora. And when she gets stuck in her head or on the page, she reads. Follow her @amyrass

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Kids Want to Write! (and why my writers need yours)

photo(1)Two weeks before the end of summer break Kayla shared a three-page Google doc of writing exercises with me. Yesterday morning Kate showed up at my door at 7:15am, brimming with writing prompts and workshop plans. And yesterday afternoon my writing meeting with two students turned into an impromptu gathering of ten. The odd part is that these aren’t my students. In fact, I haven’t even met the vast majority of these students who show up at my door. But they keep arriving, and the reason is that kids want to write.

I know this because for the last two years, I have co-advised my school’s Writer’s Club, a community of students who set aside time each week to explore words, laugh over prompts, and share their writing.

When I inherited Writer’s Club last year, I didn’t think the concept was unique to many schools. A teacher established the club before I was even hired, but as I grew to know my members, I realized Writer’s Club served a larger purpose. Students ranging from freshmen to seniors and academics to honors showed up at my door with notebooks. Students who had been writing their entire lives arrived with laptops packed with stories. While many of these students had tried out newspaper club, yearbook, and literary magazines, they told me they had found their niche here among like-minded peers. Unlike other clubs that focus on publication, Writer’s Club focuses on the process.

This club provides a safe space free from the pressures of classmates, peer groups, and lesson plans. Even my best classes (and believe me I love my classes) don’t capture the pure acceptance and kindness these students have for one another. Just like with adult writer’s groups, these students rely on each other to explore their thoughts and work. Some students carve out time to work on a book they’ve been writing, others plug away at fan fiction, and the majority dabble in a wide variety of styles and genres. This club gives them their fix of creativity that can’t always be reached within the classroom.

This year we have a variety of activities lined up. We’re already planning to decorate writer’s notebooks and create a colorful display for the club fair. We’re creating lists of workshop dates so members can sign up and discuss one of their pieces with the group. We’ll have lunch with visiting writers and invite local authors to discuss their craft. As the foliage turns, we’re planning a field trip to downtown Exeter where we’ll take a walking tour then settle into the park with donuts, cider, and notebooks in tow. But above all, we will write and share to our heart’s content.

Yesterday afternoon one of my freshmen stumbled into my room to look at the homework board. She froze in the doorway, scanning the room of students who were brainstorming on the white board and sitting at tables painting and coloring club posters. Music was blasting and kids were engrossed in their individual projects, laughing with each other, and telling stories of their summer.

“What is this?” she asked me.

“It’s Writer’s Club! Want to join?” I said.

“Well I’m part of yearbook club. We meet at the same time,” she said.

From across the room a student yelled to her, “Cool sweatshirt! I like that” while another struck up a conversation about writing fan fiction on the student’s favorite TV show Supernatural.

“Do you want to stay?” I asked.

She smiled, looked around, and took off her backpack. “Yeah, I think I fit in here.”

What do you do to inspire writers outside the classroom? Do you have a Writer’s Club or a writing group for us to team up with? We’d love to Skype, e-mail, share, and chat with writers from across the country!

Why Assignment Sheets Might Be Killing Your Students’ Writing

58090ec056811830ee936030edb1c9dbMy first year of teaching, I didn’t realize that the “five-paragraph essay” was a dirty phrase. My  internship year I painstakingly dragged my freshmen through the essay outlining process, watching them regurgitate homogeneous essays about symbolism in Lord of the Flies. At the end of our six-week study of the book, I slogged through 25 nearly identical essays, all of which had eloquent yet oddly familiar intro, body, and conclusion paragraphs. I’ll readily admit that despite the dull content, I felt victorious. My students had completed literary analysis essays and I had taught the foundation of essay structures.

It was that summer that my perception on structured essays changed. Two days into taking Penny Kittle’s writing course at the University of New Hampshire’s Literacy Institute, I realized that I had committed a cardinal sin of workshop teachers. Admitting to teaching the five-paragraph essay (let alone the sandwich method of paragraph-writing) was like confessing to enjoying McDonald’s burgers at an elegant chophouse: the cut (or concoction) of meat might serve the same purpose, to fill me up, but the quality was quite different. In turn, I was feeding my students homogeneous writing, a detailed equation to a subject that couldn’t be distilled down to simple mathematics. If I expected greatness, I needed to break beyond the boundaries of such a restrictive form of writing. After all, an introduction + body paragraphs + conclusion didn’t guarantee a solid essay; if anything, it guaranteed an entirely unspectacular essay.

This process of digesting the material and then providing a summary of the structure was far too easy for students. Not only did it place the onus on me to provide a set guide of instructions, but it also required me to complete the majority of analysis. Instead of my students engaging with the text and delving into the intricacies of structure and craft through individual exploration and group discussions, I was basically pre-digesting the material before offering it to them.

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Students analyzing an author’s craft in front of the class.

This year I have made a point to wean my students, particularly my juniors and seniors, off the assignment outlines they so desperately desire. Instead, my students now receive a half-page sheet simply telling them the type of essay they are writing (cause and effect, definition, personal narrative, etc.), the mentor texts they may refer back to, the page length requirement, and the due date.

Initially, they were frustrated with this format. As one student said during our career building unit in which we practiced writing cover letters and resumes for celebrities, “Ms. Catcher, do you have an assignment sheet for this or something?” When I pointed out the paper I had given to him previously, he replied, “No, I mean something that tells me how to write this paper.” We discussed the numerous mentor texts we had read and dissected and how these as well as our class discussions ultimately provided the basis we to develop our pieces. As a class, we asked questions of the text and author, starting broad by looking at the overall tone, voice, structure, intended audience, and progression of the piece. Then, independently or within small groups, we delved into more of the intricacies—what examples were provided, word choice, sentence structure, punctuation, and transitions. Students have gradually learned that there is no set solution for getting an A, which also means that they are forced to read and reread mentor texts to gain a firm understanding of a piece’s intricacies.

My problem from the beginning was that I was too busy telling my students how to write an essay to allow them to discover the messy albeit enlightening connection between reading, writing, and modeling. As we complete the last six weeks of school, I have noticed a significant difference in the structure and craft of my students’ work. They are relying more readily on mentors to help guide them in their process, and I can see both their group and independent analysis directly translate into their writing. For the past three years, I have harped on my students about showing rather than telling, but as the year comes to a close, I can finally say that I have internalized my own advice when it comes to my teaching.

How do you inspire students to rely on mentor texts instead of assignment sheets?  What steps have you taken throughout the year to make them more independent and confident writers?

The Question That Changes My Students’ Writing

My first year of teaching I taught thesis statements as these grandiose sentences that establishedimages the entire infrastructure of a paper. I conducted minilessons and writing units just on how to write a three-pronged thesis, which would inevitably lead into a five-paragraph essay. While this technique was arguably successful in its own right, it was also highly limiting. Because the three-pronged thesis set students’ papers up with a distinct outline right from the beginning, it didn’t allow students to delve deeper into their topics. If anything, it actually limited their exploration of their topic or research because it set too stringent of guidelines.

It wasn’t until I read Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like This that I found one of the single-most valuable suggestions for student writers. Somewhere in this treasure trove of practical suggestions, Gallagher changed my approach to teaching theses with one question. Instead of asking what the point of the paper was, he questioned what the student wanted their reader to learn. Now during mini-conferences I ask students, “What do you want your reader to take away from this piece?” Not only does this question prompt them to acknowledge and think about their audience, but it also makes them recognize the value of their writing as a reputable, informative piece. As students answer this question, I jot down their responses, asking them additional questions to deepen my understanding of the subject. Eventually, when the point of the essay has become clear, I give them the notes I have taken and say, “This is your thesis,” showing them that the information we want our readers to take away is really the mission of our essay as a whole. From these notes, we formulate their thesis together to better address the overall message of their paper.

In the end, this approach oftentimes transforms students’ papers from flat, five-paragraph essays, to papers that delve deeper into the content. My freshmen recently finished their five-page research papers while my juniors and seniors completed eight-page TED talks. I used this approach during the initial conferences to help them hone in on the issues they wanted to research. After our conference, Emily’s essay transitioned from a simple history of prosthetic limbs to a deeper exploration of the rapid evolution of modern prosthesis and the technology needed to make them more lifelike. Sarah, on the other hand, found that her fascination with the Russian mafia also led into a deeper exploration of a lethal new drug called Krokodil, which is being trafficked through Russia. Each time students were able to isolate what they found to be fascinating about their topic and then ultimately use that as a jumping point for the rest of their paper. In the end, asking this one question helps students clarify an otherwise intimidating thesis while also helping them to polish their approach to the subject.

Students Need Real-Life Writing

suit-and-tieWe live in a technical world. People rarely see one another face-to-face anymore, which is why writing has become our hypothetical suit-and-tie. To get a job, one uploads and sends a cover letter and resume. To apply to college, one submits a college essay. To correspond with a colleague, one sends an e-mail. To be engage in online discussions or to communicate on social media, one must post or blog or tweet or comment. More than ever before, we are our words. We live in an age where we can look and act like slobs behind the screen while our words tell a different story. It’s empowering and liberating but also terrifying. Terrifying because too often our students don’t understand the value of formality in writing.

This has become even more apparent as I, a 26-year-old, am both exposed to and part of a generation of socially illiterate people. We, as well as our students, understand text language, chatting, posting, and tweeting, but our colloquial language seeps into our every day interactions, handicapping us in other ways.

While students can effectively communicate with their peers, they have not received the training to engage in formal written conversations—the types of conversations that drive the academic and business world. In turn, students arrive in college lazily piecing together informal e-mails to their professors that poorly represent their abilities and knowledge. We assume that because they have grown up as Internet babies and that because they are constantly on their phones, they understand the unwritten rules of Internet writing, but they don’t. This year I have made it a point to inject the discussion of voice, formality, and audience into my reading and writing units in an attempt to widen my students’ understanding of and comfort with writing.

In all of my classes I have sought to push my students outside of their comfort zones by exposing them to diverse mentor texts and assignments that force them to play with words. For many students, voice is a challenging concept. They struggle with finding a voice in their own writing, which makes it even more imperative students be exposed to comedic, sardonic, opinionated, and academic pieces. The only way to develop voice is to study it. Not all of the pieces I show my students are high brow; I pull from a variety of sources ranging from blog posts to articles from The Atlantic. But the pieces I choose are intended to show that a wide range of writers and voices exists. The more students understand that there is no one-size-fits-all structure, the sooner they will be willing to dabble in their sarcastic or silly side.

In learning about voice, students must also understand the value in formality and audience in their writing. Too often the e-mails I receive from students look like a long rambling text message. We’ve all received them—the ones riddled with grammatical errors, making us cringe and wonder if they’ve learned anything this year! Teens quickly become comfortable with the fact that teachers are the only people reading their writing. Students become overly comfortable with teachers reading their writing at times. We’re seemingly safe and familiar; we know their quality of work. Exposing their writing to new eyes and ears increases the stakes and makes their work more relevant.

This year, I was determined to push my lower level freshmen beyond the classroom and get them engaging with mentors. I could tell my students to work hard, which I did many times over, but in the general scheme of things, I was their teacher (akin to their mom). So I recruited a Navy Seal, an elementary school teacher, a forensic anthropologist, a photojournalist and others to do the job for me. Students were required to research a career. While they completed their research, I sat down with each student and helped him or her to draft an e-mail that they would send to a professional with which I paired them. Oftentimes I would return to find my students’ e-mails plagued with the same grammatical errors I’d seen so many times before,Depositphotos_7626816_m only this time, I was with them on the sending end.

My mini-conferences turned into minilessons on the importance of editing and the impression it had on the e-mail recipient. Students struggled with how to start their e-mails, how to address the recipient, and how to sign their name at the end. We practiced online manners, thanking the professionals for their time and answers while also noting something the student found to be interesting or appealing from the professional’s answers. In the end, their attention to detail paid off. A forensic science professor who teaches college students included the following in his e-mail:

“I was taken aback when I saw that he is only in ninth grade; I have students much older who do not bother to write properly and it disappoints me.  I am not your friend on FB nor are you texting me so no need for brevity at the expense of complete and correctly written sentences.  Salutations?  Maybe next year.

I have a 12 year old son so I think I will have him peer over my shoulder as I write to Carter so he can see how polished someone so young can be.  Thanks!”

Our students are going to college arguably without knowing or understanding the importance of voice, formality, and audience. To prepare them for life beyond high school, we must strive to incorporate real-life writing assignments into our classrooms. While some of my students may never write a research paper after they graduate from high school, I know that nearly all of them will use e-mail, apply for jobs, and engage on social media.

My role as an educator is to help mold and train productive and intelligent citizens and while giving them lifelong skills that translate beyond the classroom. Part of this is continuing to develop and adapt my classroom to better fit the needs of 21st century students. So regardless of what my students do in their free time whether they enjoy lounging in sweatpants with a tub of Doritos or taking selfies in a bathroom mirror, I want them to sound like poised, intelligent, and confident individuals. I want the world to be open to them—both online and in real-life.

Dream Come True: Conferring with Penny Kittle

imageFor a teacher like me, this moment was a pretty big deal. I attended the University of New Hampshire Literacy Institute and learned from Penny Kittle for two weeks. Her class was called Writing in the World, and I have to tell you, I learned more than I could have hoped for when I set off with my new green notebook for New England, a place I’d never been.

I’d heard Penny present before, first at Region X here in DFW, and then again when my district brought her in for a couple of days–both turning points in my classroom instruction as I changed my thinking about teaching readers and writers and not just reading and writing. Then, of course, I was a fangirl at NCTE last fall in Las Vegas, tracing my hand in my notebook like she does in hers.

But sitting in her class every day, listening to her read poetry, share videos of her students, and explain that all students will write–and write well–when they are given the opportunity to explore their hearts, reshaped me as an educator, and thankfully, I got my passion back.

Everyone who knows me well knows I had a tough year. Lots of reasons, and none of them pretty. At one point I thought about throwing in the pubic education towel, even applied to Pearson in a moment of desperation. See? I was quite low.

When Penny meets with students in a conference, she focuses on the writer and not the writing. She let me ask questions, and she alleviated my fears. She prodded and questioned, and I found answers to questions I didn’t even think to ask. I saw myself as the student, and I saw my students in me. And I realized when it comes to meeting with my students to help them improve as writers:

I can do better. I must do better.

Of the huge stack of books I lugged home from UNH [I am Amy, and I am a (book) addict], Tom Newkirk’s Holding on to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones resonates in my teaching soul. Even this one little thought speaks to me: “excellent instruction rarely feels rushed.” I know that, really I do, but why do I always feel like I’m in a hurry?

When it comes to teaching writing effectively, helping students to see themselves as writers, allowing students to feel accomplished communicators, I must slow down.

I need to do what Penny did for me in New Hampshire: relax into chair, look into my face, smile her warm smile, and speak to me like she already knew I was writer.

[Special thanks to Emily Kim for capturing this special photo. I owe you.]

Writers on Writing: Thanks, I Needed This

Wow. Just wow. Maybe this won’t be new news to you, but I just found this awesome site:

Writers on Writing  –A complete archive of the Writers on Writing Column from the NY Times.

I decide to read a few of the opening paragraphs. The first link I open is Geraldine Brooks from July 2, 20o1:

My writing desk is a tankard-scoured tavern table that once saw service in an 18th-century inn. When I look up, the waved and bubbled window panes of my study offer a view that has changed very little in the 200 years since the glass was set in place. A small paddock rises gently to an apple orchard, the trees laced with white blossoms. An elderly stallion flicks at flies with a long, supple tail.

At this time of year boughs of unfurling oak leaves hide the black slash of electric wires. And that’s helpful; for every morning, after I turn off the urgent chatter of news radio — its breathless headlines and daunting traffic reports — I make my way up to this little room and attempt to leave my own time behind.

Tell me that’s not a tiny literary treat?

And this one from Jamaica Kincaid, June 7, 1999. It’s hard to stop at just two paragraphs:

How do I write? Why do I write? What do I write? This is what I am writing: I am writing “Mr. Potter.” It begins in this way; this is its first sentence: “Mr. Potter was my father, my father’s name was Mr. Potter.” So much went into that one sentence; much happened before I settled on those 11 words.

Walking up and down in the little room in which I write, sitting down and then getting up out of the chair that is in the little room in which I write, I wanted to go to the bathroom. In the bathroom Mr. Potter vanished from my mind; I examined the tiles on the floor in front of me and found them ugly, worn out.

 I open more, Annie Proulx, Amy Tan, Scott Turow, Kurt Vonnegut, and they all have elements of story. Interesting. I was just part of a Twitter chat where the question rose:  Can non-fiction help us make life-long readers? Some responded yes, most responded no. Me? I think yes. Good non-fiction dwells in story. It sucks you in and spins you around and opens your eyes to thoughts, emotions, facts that you’d never considered before the telling. These short texts are evidence of that. And these short texts are about to become mentors in my writing class. Thank you, Literary God, I needed this!
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