Tag Archives: Writing process

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.

It’s about the Process. C’mon Guys!

There’s this thing about students with attitudes. Sometimes I just do not deal well.

Last week while meeting with students one-on-one to discuss their improvement in class and their current writing piece, I felt a little beat up.

How is it that two students can ruin the euphoria I felt after conferring with everyone else?

First, N tells me that narrative will not fit anywhere in his piece.

“Why not?”

“Because of the topic,” he told me.

“And your topic is?” I said.

“Governor Perry,” he told me.

“You’re writing something like a bio of the governor. Why won’t narrative work anywhere?”

I do not remember the actual words, but what he meant was “ I do not want to spend anymore time on this writing.”

Later, A tells me that no matter what she writes I tell her it’s not good enough.

“What do you mean by that?”

“Because you always ask a question about what I wrote,” she told me.

“And why do you think by asking questions I’m telling you your writing isn’t good enough?”

“I’m just giving up,” she told me, completely avoiding my question.

I do not remember the actual words she said next, but what she meant was “I do not want to work any harder.”

Tough luck, kiddos.

Writing is hard. And writing well is even harder. Hemmingway quote

Too often my students just want to draft something roughly and turn it in for a grade. I’ve stopped even putting grades on papers, unless we are at the end of a grading period and the policy says I have to. So many students stop their process once that score sits on their page.

Here we are just starting our final nine weeks, and I must figure out how to do more with teaching writing process over writing product.

It’s an uphill stretch.

Students come to me with specific writing habits, and many are stalled on the hill, resisting the charge to be better. Since many of my kids have been in gifted and talented classes for years, they often think that learning comes easily. Maybe in some classes it does. But in my experience with English, too many teachers have not demanded growth through process and have been satisfied with students just turning in papers that will score an A. Mind you, not ALL teachers, but I can tell which teachers at the sophomore level value process over product and which do not, based on the attitudes and practices of the student when they come to my room their junior year. Or, maybe those sophomore teachers haven’t been able to change those bad habits either. I get that, too. Some of these students are stubborn in their know-it-all-ness.

I struggle with this every year:  You know the student who walks in the door at the beginning of the year and could make a 5 on the AP exam if she took it that week. Do you grade her on the struggle of the writing process and her improvement as a writer, or do you grade her on the writing she is capable of at the beginning of the year, even if it’s already an A?

I tend to want to see improvement in all my writers– even the ones who are already pretty good at it when they come to me.

But this year, maybe I haven’t emphasized that enough. I’ve written in front of them, shown them my struggle, used mentor texts, conferred with them individually, begged, prayed.

I pulled out Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg a while ago and read a few pages in the front of the book. I got my center back. I also got a few thoughts I may write on sticky notes and hand to N and A as they come to class tomorrow.

“You practice whether you want to or not.” p11

“You have to give yourself the space to write a lot without a destination.” p11

“It’s the process of writing and life that matters.” p12

“We must continue to open and trust in our own voice and process.” p13

“Writing is so simple, basic, and austere.” There are no fancy gadgets to make it more attractive.” p26

No doubt when I keep reading I will find more and more advice from Goldberg that will help me help my students. I love that about good writers who want to help others become good writers, too.

Where do you go to find your center? Who are your personal writing coaches?



Workshopping Yourself: A Self-Intervention


Inspired by Shana’s post, I have appropriated her title and shall use this post to tell you about how I have performed a self-intervention using the WW model.  (That is how I am justifying this confession/resolution/declaration post of mine.)

First off, it’s been awhile since I’ve written on TTT.  The first time was because I apparently never hit “publish” on a post I wrote around Thanksgiving!  The second time was because I got pretty ill.  But this time, I’m here!

It’s 2014.  I have just finished administering my last final of first semester.  And it’s a mixed bag, I tell ya.  A mixed bag.

It all hit me hard at the end of winter break.  I hit a wall and thought, “I cannot do this anymore. I must quit my job. I am doing damage to students all over the world!”  (I get a bit melodramatic, as you can tell.  I realize I could only be doing damage to a small percentage of the students of the world.  But the hyperbole does wonders during a whirlpool of perceived despair.)

Rather than allow myself to go under and give up altogether, I decided to…WRITE!  I applied the workshop model on myself.  I just started writing about all the gunk that was swirling around inside.  Why was I feeling this way when I know that teaching is pretty much the only job I can see myself doing, other than being paid to read and talk about books.


ah, to be back in the zen pools of diana’s baths. unh lit 13, we hardly knew ye…

I sifted through the pages and pages, diagrams, charts, and song lyrics (yes, song lyrics…I went deep), highlighted lines that stuck out, phrases that hinted at more, and crossed out what I knew was just in-the-moment-I-don’t-REALLY-mean-it-stuff.  I revisited the “What’s in my Teaching Soul” that I wrote over the summer when I was in Penny’s UNH Literacy Institute class.  I looked at the handwriting I recognized as mine, and asked, “Where did you go?!?!”  (Melodrama, again.)  

I then did a few things.  I wrote a list of all the things that have gone really well this semester.  Things that I can say I am proud of.  Things that are in-line with my teaching soul.  I made a list of things that I want to bury deep into the ground.  And then I buried it.  (I did!)  I wrote a list of things I know to be true about myself, about my passion for teaching, and about my passions in life (looking at the areas of overlap and of tension).  I wrote about all the things I would miss if I left the classroom. I wrote a list of things I would NOT miss.  I re-visioned my Teaching Soul piece.  I wrote a snapshot of a day in the life of Emily with a “regular person” job.  (I suppose if I really wanted to make a go of it, I could do a whole multi-genre project on this!)

Basically I wrote A LOT.  And I came to know by experience the truth of one of my favorite quotes from one of the books we read during the magical two weeks of UNH Lit 2013 (#peacelovenotebooks, y’all)

“Writing remains the best route we know toward clarity of thought and feeling.”  (from Good Prose by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd)


yes, my friends, that is a fork in the road.

I started with a mish-mash of thoughts, feelings, and knew I was at a fork in the road.  I needed to decisive action for my physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health.  And I’ve come out of it all with deeper understanding of what is important to me, what I have to do in order to do what is best for students, and also best for me.

Rather than bore you with all the muck, I will say this.  Being a teacher, in whatever subject, using whatever model – workshop or not – is hard work.  No doubt.  I’m in my 9th non-consecutive year of full-time high school teaching.  What’s with the “non-consecutive”?  I wasn’t trying to be an actor or singer; I took a five-year hiatus in grad school, only to return to the classroom because I realized I LOVED IT and my SOUL WAS DYING in the ivory towers.  And yet…it’s hard work.  It’s hard work that drove me to the “should I quit?” question.

My “regular” friends say, “Why is it so hard? You’ve been doing it almost 10 years.  Doesn’t it get easier once you’ve taught the same thing a couple of times?  Don’t you just rinse and repeat?”  I smile pleasantly and then scream inside – are you kidding me?!

Aside: If I were using a rubric on this post, I would ding me on the “control over topic” box.  Sorry for the tangential nature of this post.

I will end with these few thoughts/reveals/celebrations:

– I have workshopped myself and have come to deeper self-understanding and life-understanding.  Isn’t that what we hope our students will reach through their own writing process?

– I am not going to leave teaching. 🙂  I realized I love it too much.  I reminded myself (through my writing, natch) of how much I missed the students when I was outside of the classroom.  I took the initiative and met with my bosses, and have come up with some options for next year. Options that might actually add to the workshop model conversation: looking at how the workshop model, and reading choice can be implemented in elective courses.  I would still get to teach mostly 9th graders (my sweet spot).  I would still get to talk about books and reading, but in a different context.  It’s still in the works so I can’t say much more than that at the moment.  But I’m excited.  And I wouldn’t die under the guilt and weight of the paperload.  I could be part of bringing rigorous literacy skills into content area courses, which is “so Common Core” (buzzword alert).

– Though there are so many things I have written on the list I buried underground, I do know that my students are reading more than they ever have.  They are being exposed to books that push them out of their genre comfort zones (I am Malala in the house!).  And I myself am reading more than I ever have.  In an effort to out-read my students, to have great titles to book talk, and to demonstrate that reading widely and just reading more is possible and beneficial, I read more last year (136 books officially on goodreads, and 10 more that I didn’t log) than I have since…1992, probably.

– Change in education is like trying to turn a stationary ship, and my school site is no different.  But I think we may have started the engine of the ship!  I believe I have found a kindred spirit in my department.  Someone who is on the same page (see what I did there?) about reading choice, and moving away from teaching literature towards teaching literacy.  *Of course I might be moving departments next year, but I can still help effect change!

– The Freedom Readers, our student book club, organized a Winter Break Book Giveaway, during which we were able to give away over 200 donated books to over 100 students so that they could read over winter break and beyond.

Even though we hardly had a winter out here in California, the winter of my discontent (allusion alert!) is thawing with the hope of second semester.  I won’t give up (unintentional and unrelated song lyric reference alert). What else can I do?  I’ll keep trying, and I’ll keep writing.  (And reading, of course!)


that’s my hope growing out of my non-California winter

“Going There”…and Hopefully Bringing Others Along With Me!

Our Compass Shifts 2-1

I thought for sure my first post would be about my classroom library and books.  My library, which takes up my entire classroom, is my pride and joy.  I’ve worked hard to make it my place of zen (to borrow from Amy).  But it is also my comfort zone; helping students find books they can connect to is one of the few things I know I do well.

In the first two weeks of school, I’ve experienced the familiar joy and success of matching students with books. I’ve connected with students who are devouring books at breakneck speed. I’ve also gladly and eagerly taken on the challenge to find that perfect book for the stubborn “I don’t read” holdouts.  This challenge energizes me like no other!  But I have taken on another challenge, and that is what I want to share about today.

Given I am part of the “Our Compass Shifts” project, you all know that this summer I took a class with Penny Kittle at #UNHLit13. [I will save my fangirl post for another time!] That class totally CML* (Changed My Life). I received affirmation, direction, and practical ideas on how to shift my class to a reading and writing workshop model. But the most important experience from the class was becoming reacquainted with the struggle and vulnerability involved in authentic writing.

Our final project was a non-fiction narrative piece incorporating information or research. I chose to write about my grandfather’s suicide five years ago. I knew it was the story I needed to get out, but as my friends can testify, my writing process was mildly torturous, fraught with resistance, paralysis, and self-doubt. In the end, I “went there” (in the words of Erika, aka “Brooklyn”). I poured much of my own self into the piece, and crying through the read-aloud to my newfound friends and Professional Learning Community took a lot out of me emotionally. It was cathartic, to be sure, and in some ways the beginning of needed processing and healing, but I realized that if I want my students to write the stories they need to get out, I am going to have to commit to “going there” with them all year through writing beside them. I wasn’t sure if I was ready for it!

DaringGreatly_coverRight before school started, I began reading a book called Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead by Brene Brown. [Aside: If you haven’t seen her amazing TED Talk: “The Power of Vulnerability“, you simply must!] Right away, I knew this was a book I needed to read. I started highlighting like crazy, typing out quote after quote.

Brown defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure” (34). What’s more vulnerable than “going there” in my writing, and then sharing it with others? This summer I learned that I need to model process, not product. That means tons of vulnerability before my students.

My first opportunity came the fifth day of school, as we were writing in response to the poem “Days” by Billy Collins. I chose a particularly happy day from my junior year of high school. As I talked through my own writing process, I showed my students that as I wrote, I remembered more details. My goal was to show my students how you can start out writing one thing, but find kernels of other stories during the process of revision. Through the process of rereading, I noticed a particular detail was much more significant than I had thought initially. In fact it was ominous foreshadowing of the tragic loss of my dearest friend to suicide a year later. But as I explained this, I ended up choking up and crying in not just one, but all five of my classes that day.

Initially I felt embarrassed and really…vulnerable.  I was most definitely emotionally exposed before 150+ young people I had basically just met.  People I had been entrusted with the responsibility of teaching this year.

But later that day I came across a particularly timely gem in Daring Greatly.  Brene Brown’s vulnerability prayer is “Give me the courage to show up and let myself be seen” (42).  I was able to push out the feeling of embarrassment and worry that my students perceived my display of emotion as weakness, and instead recognize it took courage to let myself be seen by them that day.  I didn’t only model for them my writing process, but I took the risk to be the first one to “go there,” and modeled placing trust in the safe space of the community we were beginning to build together.

photo-1Taking that first step has made it easier for me to continue writing authentically with my students. This summer, I circled around the topic of my parents moving away, the difficulty of my relationship with my father, and the “grief” of saying goodbye to my childhood home. I wasn’t ready to write about it then, but I began to today. I’ve experienced personally how courage begets courage, increasing connection and building community. Accepting the challenge to write through my vulnerability, rather than resist it, has signaled to my students that it is safe for them to go there as well. And though I haven’t won over everyone yet, there are definitely some who are beginning to take the risks to tell the stories that matter to them.  The stories only they can tell.

*You will get used to some of my go-to initialisms! 

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