Yes, and…

I am not a stand up comedian. I really wish I was because middle school kids love silly humor. But I do learn from improvisation, and one of the main rules of improv involves the idea of ‘Yes, and.’

NO stops an improvisational skit in its tracks. However, if you are acting with a group and respond to another actor with, ‘Yes, and..’ it keeps the momentum going and the creative juices flowing.

One of the biggest surprises of my school year so far is how fun it has been to say, “Yes, and..” frequently and enthusiastically to my students. This is a longer blog than usual, because I am reflecting on the different aspects of our Choice Unit, which introduced Writer’s Notebooks, Writing Workshop, the writing process (and our personal preferences while writing), and how to transform notebook writing into a finished piece of writing. This reflection will help me make it better next time.

A great deal has been written about how giving students choice in their reading lives can increase their reading stamina, but more importantly, it can increase their enjoyment for books. I will argue that writers need choice, too, and not just a little bit. They need room to roam in the big ol’ fields of their imaginations, their memories, what they know, what they don’t know, what they understand, what they wonder. Approaching any type of writing with a spirit of curiosity is a massive source of empowerment and a powerful tool that kids can own forever. This is why I began my school year with a unit focusing on teaching kids how to use their writer’s notebook as a useful tool (as opposed to ‘this crazy thing my crazy English teacher makes me do’) and how to transform that writing into a finished piece while offering them tons of supported choice.

Last summer, I diligently kept a Writer’s Notebook. I completed 100 entries. I am forever and eternally grateful to Moving Writers’ 100 Days of Summer Writing because the prompts and noticings pushed, stretched, and challenged my writing in many delightfully unexpected ways. And it was FUN. Now when I turn to writing, I remember how I wrote about why a squirrel might choose to stuff a car engine with 50 pounds of pine cones (it’s true!) or how I described a dystopian scene where kindness is punished dramatically. This way of writing stoked my writing fires, and it was fueled by play. It was summer, after all. No torturous writing of any kind, thank you very much!

I wanted my students to experience that same spirit of play. Even though it is definitely not summer, my main word to my students = “Yes.”

Can I write a fantasy scene with aliens? Yes.

Can I draw a scene for a graphic novel about dolphins? Yes.

Can I write a letter from the squirrel’s perspective? YES!

I am not judging their topics. I am trying to build excitement about writing, and if describing aliens gets kids writing, then so be it. I am betting that this lighthearted attitude I’m cultivating and nurturing will pay off down the road, when the writing tasks become more complex. Beginning our year with play, with yes, with try it, will be money in the bank for my writers and will gather interest all year long.

I began the year setting up the Writer’s Notebook. Students responded to different types of prompts: photographs, illustrations, data, quotations, poems. We imitated them, talked about what we noticed, brainstormed different genres or modes we could try (a dystopian poem! an advertisement!). We also practiced using strong verbs by acting them out in front of the class, playing Kahoot, and by choosing verbs from word banks and incorporating them into the writing by ourselves and with partners (which kids LOVE). We brainstormed with partners before writing and shared ideas with the whole class. We stopped and revised on the spot for a minute by changing a word, phrase, or sentence. We volunteered to share an entry with a partner or with the entire class. We shared a line at the end of class. My goal was to build writing community, to build confidence, and to build the sense that my kids do have important things to say, and it takes risk, experimenting, and resilience. After all, writing is built on a sea of talk. Writing is thinking, and thinking is writing, and, yes, many of us need to talk about it, to see what other people are doing, to get ideas and inspiration from our neighbors, so that we realize we are not alone. We begin to see that we can do it.

Meanwhile, I kept introducing elements of the Writing Workshop. We begin every day with Book Love-10 minutes of independent reading. Then we quickwrite, in order to  build writing community, stamina, and awareness of individual preferences during the writing process. I kept telling kids our notebooks are like our second brains, a holding tank for thoughts and ideas that might come in handy tomorrow or in six months. After quickwrites, I teach a brief mini-lesson with a strategy or a focus for the Choice unit. Then, we move into Writing Workshop. Kids often asked me questions like this, and it was back to yes.

Can I draft in my notebook? Yes.

Can I draft on a Chromebook? Yes!

I don’t like my first draft. Can I change it? YES!

For the Choice Writing unit, students chose a quickwrite entry they had drafted during the first few weeks of school or created a new one. They could write in any genre or mode. We all had the same goal: use strong verbs. And, to help them cut to the bone (cut words, phrases, or sentences for clarity), their final piece of writing could only be 100 words! (This idea stemmed from Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s 180 Days).

Oh..that 100 word limitation drove kids berserk. It was the ONLY thing most kids did not like about the unit. However, I kept clapping my hands with glee. It taught my seventh graders to reread again and again and again, and CUT. Kids kept asking, “What were those ‘really bad words’ again?” and I directed them back to their list of words like very, extremely, or a lot. It forced them to adjust their sentences, and it resulted in more clarity and more urgency in their writing.

When we finished, kids recorded their strong verbs they used in their piece, and described how those verbs strengthened their writing. I only assessed their verbs and their editing. I also kept notes on kids who still struggled to employ strong verbs and need more practice. I’ll make sure to run a few group or individual conferences to help them move forward. I only noted strengths in my students’ writing, and this was the best part of all. Students who struggled with verbs still had other strengths I could easily name and describe to them, like a strong ending, using dialogue, trying some figurative language, or using powerful voice.

We ended the unit by sharing either two sentences or the entire piece with the whole class, and we nibbled on chocolate to celebrate. Many students thought differently about their writing after reading it out loud. Some noticed editing errors, while others mentioned how different their writing sounds when they read it. Many felt pretty darned good when their writing got a laugh or a smile from their audience.

I loved the Choice Writing unit. It was a breath of fresh, fun, rejuvenating air. For years, kids would say to me, “Could I try ….” and I’d regretfully say, “No, we’re working on THIS thing,” knowing full well how powerful it is to give young writers permission to excavate and explore.

Our play led to choice, which led to much higher student engagement. Some students were even empowered by their Choice Writing. Of course, some students struggled, but it is all part of the learning journey.

All writers struggle. And then we pick up the pen and keep on trucking. We keep finding our voices. We keep playing! Money in the bank. Gathering interest. Well worth four weeks of our time.

I will keeping saying, “Yes, and..”

Popcorn kernels, clouds, and ripples-why play is important

photo of blue sky
Photo by Elia Clerici on

Full disclosure. I love magazines. The New Yorker. Vanity Fair. Time. Real Simple. In Style. But I especially love People. I don’t  read it in tiny little bursts at my dentist’s office or while I’m waiting in the grocery store checkout line. That’s right…I am an actual annual subscriber! It comes to my mailbox every Saturday, and then my whole family fights over it.

I especially like stories about Brangelina. Don’t ask me why. The new royal couple is pretty gripping as well.

Sometimes people are surprised to hear this about me. But it’s part of my reading life. It’s part of my choice as a reader. While I love reading books that challenge my thinking, my vocabulary, and my beliefs, honestly, I don’t want to read them all the time. I need to loosen up and let my brain wander. I need me a little Brangelina sometimes.

While I am mentioning this in reference to reading, and many teachers and fellow readers would admit that they have ‘guilty pleasures,’ taking breathers with our writing are just as vital.

I need quick bursts in my writer’s notebook as well as more sustained implosions where I allow my thoughts to flow freely. It’s fun to shape quick thoughts I have on a run or a hike, explore them more in a blog, and see where they go. I enjoy crafting my young adult novel, and I also like the writing I do along with my students, especially during genre studies and writer’s notebook practice. So many parts of writing are challenging, and I need to feed the creative, curious, wondering parts of my thinking. It helps me push through the hard stuff-the blockages, the frustration, the self-doubt. Playful writing is restorative, it is rejuvenating, and it is important.

Choice also feeds my writing life. If I was writing ‘classics’ all the time, if I kept writing analytical persuasive essays or informational pieces, it might feel like too much. I might  not even feel like writing any more. But if I choose to write a science fiction poem, or respond to some data about a seven pound hamburger they sell at the Arizona Cardinals stadium (it’s true: I read about it in Time), or attempt to imitate a passage from a John Green novel, it doesn’t feel like work. It feels like fun. And this playful approach often leads me to a topic I feel passionately about, whether it’s social justice, literacy, or Glacier National Park.

Sometimes my thoughts are like popcorn kernels exploding in the microwave, or like clouds dissipating into the sky, or like ripples in a pond. They are unruly, and I like it that way. It’s how I stretch and grow as a writer. I don’t ever want to lose them. I need to keep it loose. I need play. And so do my students.

water ripple
Photo by Johannes Plenio on

Tight, precise writing is important, too, but it’s not everything, and it can limit or even stifle our thinking if overdone. Writing is thinking, as stated by many, many teachers and writers. Allowing kids to follow some, and actually, I would argue, MOST, of their own whimsical, playful trains of thought helps them see all the threads and possibilities in their own lives. It helps them see patterns in their thinking and their writing. It helps them understand that their words do not all have to be perfect right away. And, it empowers them to keep seeking, to keep playing, to keep questioning and wondering and remaining curious. 

I began my school year with a choice writing unit. It has gone well, and it is setting exactly the groundwork I would like it to: my students are taking risks, experimenting, and then crafting their unruly thoughts into something a little different, a little more polished. We’re practicing how we take our thoughts from kernels or clouds or ripples to words that move someone else. We’re not there yet, but this is good stuff. Choice is powerful. So is play.

I want to capture my thinking on this choice writing unit in another blog and will write about how I approached it this past month. I loved it. It stretched my teaching, my thinking,and my writing.  My students adjusted their expectations, realigned their thinking, and tried. That’s all I can ask.

Now it’s time for a little Real Simple!

100 Days of Summer Writing

Play: to engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.

Every year since I began teaching writing almost twenty years ago, the itchy, scratchy burr in my side has been Writer’s Notebooks. I’ve called them Freewrites, Quickwrites, Writing Pages, Writer’s Notebook, Rough Draft Pages, and a bunch of other names I can’t remember. Some years I give prompts every single day that I spent all sorts of time finding and trying to relate to whatever genre of writing we’re working on. Or I tell students to refer to their various lists of topics. Or we all write on the same prompt because it will hopefully generate thinking about other writing we’re working on. Or other methods I’m forgetting because it was ten years ago. Some years, kids had to produce 16 pages per quarter for an A. Last year, it was much more arbitrary-I collected them every 2-5 weeks and gave a plus, a star, or a check.

Every single year, no matter what I call Writer’s Notebooks, how I grade them, or whether I give them prompts or how engaging the prompts are, they feel like a drag to everybody, including me. I never feel like my students really ‘get’ why we are keeping them, even though I tell them all my compelling reasons. They grumble and grouse. It feels laborious and, to most of my students, purposeless. This is NOT what I’m going for. I could launch into why what I did wasn’t working-I could probably write an entire book-but instead of focusing on what didn’t work, I want to share what is working for me this summer, and how I plan to do it differently next year. This time, it’s going to be better. Mark my words.

First of all, from everything I’ve read, which is a lot, Writer’s Notebooks are meant to be a tool. Tools, by definition, are USEFUL. Yet I rarely see my kids using them as a tool, and I realized  it’s because I haven’t taught them how. And, I haven’t taught them how because I don’t know how. Duh!

So, right after the school year ended, during our rainy, cold June, I read Aimee Buckner’s super wise and helpful book called Notebook Know-How. While it’s geared towards elementary students, I can easily use many of the strategies with my seventh graders. I took notes and created (yet another) rubric, which I still need to rethink and revise before the school year starts. But I think her wisdom is partly so powerful because she knows how to teach kids to see their notebooks as tools to help them take risks, play, and grow.

Image result for notebook know how aimee buckner image

This book was all great and everything, but here’s what has helped me more than I ever thought possible. I decided I was going to keep a Writer’s Notebook of my own all summer.

I used to write all the time in sketchbooks and filled tons of them, especially in my turbulent and seeking twenties. Then, three of my own children came along, and so did better technology, and I found myself writing almost exclusively on computers.

In May,  I read about  100 Days of Summer Writing, which was launched by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell. I follow their blog, Moving Writers, and I’ve read both of their books, Beyond Literary Analysis and Writing With Mentors. I was really ready to turn my brain completely off from teaching. But I thought, okay, I need to try a new approach to notebooks. I need some structure. I want someone else coming up with prompts for me that are maybe out of my comfort zone or just different. Most importantly, I need to learn to PLAY. 

Here’s how I began.

I bought a few composition notebooks. More importantly, I bought very beautiful and colorful Flair pens. 16 medium point Flair pens from Target. I highly recommend them for all pen connoisseurs. My eight year old also gave me some special stickers.IMG_8500Then, I set goals. I got them from another teacher on Twitter and adapted them a little bit.IMG_8495 I printed off the entire 100 Days of Summer Writing and stuck them in a bright green file folder. Then, I figured out that I really like having each prompt in my notebook, so every week, I spend a little time cutting out a bunch of prompts and scotch-taping them into my notebook. I try not to peek too much at the prompts ahead-it feels a little like peeking at Christmas presents! Okay, that pegs me as a total nerd…

I set my phone timer for ten minutes. I don’t always get there, but that’s okay. Sometimes, I miss a day or two, so I’ll try two or even three different prompts when I have a mellower day or if I’m up early in the morning. And, I told my kids (especially the eight year old), “Wait until I’m done writing if you need something, unless you are bleeding profusely!” At rainy baseball tournaments when games got cancelled, I’d sit and write in the hotel room or Starbucks. I would bring my notebook and trusty Flair pens in the car when I picked up kids from softball practice and had to wait twenty minutes. The work was getting done, but it didn’t feel like work.

This endeavor has been worth every minute and every penny, because I have written most days this summer. I am surprised by how joyful it has been for me. I have written about paintings, poems, and photographs,  graphs and guides. I have imitated master writers and put my own spin on it. I’ve tried out fiction, essays, memoir, poetry, reflections, and noticings. I’ve crafted details using interesting word choice and sentence structure, and often I am pleasantly surprised by the results.  I’ve gone back and revised with a different color pen for a minute or two after writing. I’ve written words I’ll never share, pieces I could revise, details I could use in my young adult novel I’m revising, ideas for my blog, and ideas I can share with my students. I’ve noted strategies that helped me get started and strategies when I get stuck. I’ve noted prompts I think my seventh graders will really respond to. And my writing has grown way more than I ever thought possible when I began this little endeavor.

Here’s a sample of what I’ve been trying.IMG_8497 Don’t get me wrong. It is not always easy. But after five or six days, I started missing it. They say it takes 21 days to make something a habit, and I’m on Day 56.

As writing teachers, we need to be writing. I am so much more comfortable leading my kids in playful notebook writing this year and helping them see that there IS a purpose. It is late July, and I have finished one notebook. I will probably come close to filling another one by the time school starts in late August, and our first task will be to learn how notebooks are tools for play. Instead of telling my students how important it is, I will show them the pages I wrote for them and for me over the summer, and then we will try, try, and keep trying.

My Writer’s Notebook doesn’t feel like work. It feels like play. Next year I can finally show my students how to play with their own ideas and writing and how to find inspiration all around us. I’m hopeful that this time they will understand why Writer’s Notebooks are such a valuable tool to help their writing and thinking grow. I’m glad I finally understand, too; it’s about time. 


Sticky Thinking

pexels-photo-209678.jpegI’m looking for ways for my seventh graders to create real world, authentic writing that they can also share with an authentic audience. Critical reviews are a great way to teach kids how to form a specific, focused opinion, how to evaluate the best evidence to effectively support this opinion, how to write in a lively, engaging way, how to persuade us that their opinion has merit and is worthy of consideration, and always, how to let their voices shine through. Lots of meaty skills all in one little package!

When I decided on reviews for our next unit, I originally debated; should I keep it simple and stick to Nancie Atwell’s book, movie, or TV review? But then I read Beyond Literary Analysis, which reexamines the definition of a text. It talks about cultivating both authority and passion to analyze texts on a deeper level. So many times, I’ve had kids write about a book, poem, or story they didn’t connect with. No passion. Very little authority. Or, I’ll give them tons of choice for an informational or persuasive essay. The research required to deeply explore the topic takes forever. By the end, more than two months later, we’re all desperately sick of the work, and I am grumpy. No one wants a grumpy English teacher, right?

After spinning ideas around in my already overcrowded teacher brain, I decided to open it up full throttle and let my kids fly. Students can choose to write a critical review about a video game, a book, a movie, a TV series, season or episode, a restaurant, a music album, song, artist, or concert, or they can analyze a sports-related topic-a team’s lineup, a game, a trade, a particular athlete.

Of course, when I ran all these varied options by my students, thinking, wow, this is a lot for me to grab on to, one chatty kid, a kid who fights independent reading time like it’s his job, a kid who has also finished three books this year, a new record for him, immediately raised his hand.

“Can I review skis?” I knew some of my students would ask about reviewing products, and then I’d be searching for yet more mentor texts. It would complicate matters. But this kid races. We talk about the snow conditions almost every day and look up the snow report. He knows skis. He loves skis. Skiing is his passion, and if he can write about his passion, his writing will be stronger. 

Another student loves all things mechanical: four-wheelers, trucks, and especially diesel engines.  This might be the only topic that lights him up, that he knows a ton about. Authority and passion. I said yes. Sold. After all, this year is all about the learning, the messiness, the process, and creating situations where my students can fly.

We started off brainstorming, thinking, talking, and writing. On Valentine’s Day, kids wrote down five non-human things they loved. Then they ranked them. Then they partnered up to explain why they ranked them that way. A few kids didn’t follow directions, imagine that, put family, pets, or friends on the list, and discovered that they kinda missed the point. 

My list was: books, running, mountain lakes, sushi, and nacho cheese Doritos. In that order. Many students ranked sleep first! I should have! Our classroom filled with lively discussion, pointing, and wild gestures. It’s a loud group. Sometimes they deceive me with their volume. I assume they’re way off the deep end, and then it turns out they’re arguing the finer points of J.D. Martinez moving from the Diamondbacks to the Red Sox. They finished off with a quickwrite where they wrote about any of their topics and explained the reasoning behind their rankings.

The next day, I wanted to encourage messy thinking. I’ve been reading about making the writing classroom into more of a makerspace. Every year, many of my kids are super kinesthetic. They’d much rather be fixing a four wheeler, racing down Slalom on Big Mountain at forty miles per hour, or building vacuum engines out of Legos than writing some essay thingie. Fair enough, but I still need to teach them to write effectively and powerfully.

I’m trying to figure out strategies to help writing be more hands-on. Angela Stockman’s book, Make Writing, had some killer ideas about tinkering, so I jumped on it.

Kids brainstormed three main topics they’re interested in, and I let them go wild here, not worrying too much about it. They got three different colors of sticky notes, fifteen total, and a big piece of construction paper. They had to come up with their “Top 5” for each topic and rank them. They could move the sticky notes around on the paper to rank them, which many hands on kids appreciated. Plus, what’s not to love about colorful sticky notes?

Okay, having kids hand out the sticky notes was a hot mess the first time around. I kept hearing, “I don’t have enough purple!” Then again, this particular group has come a long way. Nobody even stuck them on their foreheads!

Finally, we arranged ourselves in an inner and outer circle, partnered up, and had two minutes to explain some of their rankings.  We rotated through two or three more partners, and then, at the end of class, they used their thinking in a quickwrite.

This is getting us closer to topics. As I listened to their conversations, they were analyzing! Yes! Most kids already had a starting point. Of course, there are students who looked at me slightly panicked or way too blase, not knowing what to write about yet. I didn’t make a big deal out of finishing the sticky note posters-even if kids wrote five topics down, it’s getting them somewhere. But I also talked with one student who hasn’t loved the past few genre studies. He was telling me about Primus, the bass player from Primus, his influence on different Primus albums, and the guest drummer on some of their albums. Brilliant. I can already hear his thinking shifting and deepening. Another student, who does not love to read at this juncture, could talk about the changing characters, conflict, and how it affects the plot in Riverdale. Bingo! Sold again!

We are saving these posters. Each student has a folder, and we’re going to keep dropping all of our prewriting, drafts, writing off the page, checklists, and peer revisions into the folder as a holding tank. When we are ready to reflect, students will have one place to examine their thinking through this genre study. Half the battle for me this year is how best help students track their writing process in a meaningful way.

Now we’re riding the review highway, paved with sticky notes, conversation, and most likely some detours as we discover our passion, and authority, as we write again about what matters to us and why it matters, as I learn right along with my learners and watch them fly.

Here we go.

Note: This blog post was completely inspired by Beyond Literary Analysis by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell. It’s a huge piece of the puzzle for me. I highly recommend reading it-full of great strategies and resources to give kids more room to think, learn, write, read, listen, and breathe.


Using new lenses. Paving new roads.

pexels-photo-877702.jpegThis has been a year of teaching shakeups for me, of seeing my classroom and my students through new lenses.

This year, I decided to stop grading writing.

That’s right.
I am a seventh grade English teacher, but I don’t grade writing any more.

Are you freaking out yet? Many teachers do. On the other hand, most of my students do not. They are psyched on this new arrangement.

I am, too. For years, I created different rubrics for every assignment with probably one hundred details in teeny tiny font to squish it all on one page. I revised or recreated them every year. I taught from these rubrics, a different one for every different writing assignment, and kids self-evaluated from it. But they didn’t own it. They didn’t use it as a tool to grow as writers. I’m just being painfully honest with myself here. Rubrics worked for me for a long time, until they didn’t. Until I started looking through some different lenses, until I realized what I’ve known for a long time. It wasn’t working for my students, whether any of us realized it or not. It was time for a new lens.

For clarification, not grading does not mean not teaching. Here’s what I do to get kids using the writing process during our genre studies.

First, we read many mentor texts written by published writers and former students, as well my own writing. Then, my students discuss what made that writing strong and brainstorm criteria. We’ve done this in fishbowls, though I want to try some other techniques that are more comfortable for my introverts. The criteria becomes the map they follow as they draft, revise, and edit. It becomes the blueprint for our conversations with me and with peers. “Am I cutting to the bone? Is my “So What?” clear? “Did I share enough of my thoughts, feelings, and opinions?”

This criteria becomes the foundation for the mini-lessons I teach the whole class and for the conferences I have with individual students. I conference multiple times with each student face to face about what they’re currently writing, and I track how many times we’ve met as well as a quick description of what we talked about during the conference. I try (sigh, I’m going to try harder) to give students a sticky note reminding them what we discussed during the conference so that they remember what to do. Students track their progress in the writing process on a big huge white board, and they can also see other kids’ progress. We are also working on setting goals for each new piece of writing, though this is a total work in progress as I figure out how to make it work best for kids.

For the record, this process is often a hot mess. I am just beginning. I try not to be too hard on myself!

Then, based on the criteria that my students and I established at the beginning of the genre study, they self-evaluate their writing. They use a single-point rubric to evaluate their strengths and areas to work on next time.

Because there will be a next time.

It’s not the last time they’ll cut to the bone, write a “So What,” or use TFO (thoughts, feelings, and opinions). They’ll try it again during an essay, a short story, or a book review. They get many chances to give it a go.

But we do not end any more with my purple pen stating, “This is advanced, or proficient, or, God forbid, novice.” I experiment with what the notation looks like in my gradebook. We don’t have portfolios at my school; we still give letter grades every quarter, so I keep thinking about what I want these notations to reflect. This shift is complicated, so I will save my thinking for another blog.

I have read a lot about giving feedback once a student is finished with a particular piece. It’s tantalizingly hard to resist writing all over a finished piece; won’t THIS insight make them see what they need to do next time? Sure, kids read the feedback, and they look at the grade. But does this really help them grow much, if at all, as writers? I have my doubts, and trust me, I have scored thousands of papers and worked with thousands of writers.

If feedback is most important during the writing process, where the writer can make changes in that moment, then why don’t I spend a whole lot less time and energy at the end? Why don’t I focus my efforts and my energy on the process-won’t this benefit the product most? More importantly, timely feedback in the moment benefits my WRITERS the most.

In the past, I always offered students the opportunity to revise and edit again, and I would regrade it. Very few students-maybe a few every year, if that-took advantage of this offer. This leads me to believe, once again, that it’s not about the grade, it’s not about the final feedback I used to spend hours on, it’s not about the rubric I created with fifty million little specific details that STILL doesn’t say exactly what I want it to.

And the grade itself? Well, if it’s an A, kids are happy momentarily, and if it’s not, it makes them feel bad. I’m oversimplifying, but my target has shifted.

I want my writers to grow. I want them to see their own growth. I want them to move towards this growth by figuring out what they care about, by taking risks, by experimenting, by playing with words, sentences, and ideas, and by figuring out how to make their audience care, too. A grade isn’t gonna do much. My feedback, my instruction along the way, their feedback and support from their peers, how we “float on a sea of talk” (Britton, 1970)-that’s what makes the difference.

I realize, acutely, that this is a work in progress. You can probably tell by my blog post! I have so many questions, so much to learn, and so many ways to grow. My students still need quarter grades, and I keep experimenting, tweaking, refining.  

I do know, in the immortal words of Dolly Parton, “If you don’t like the road you’re walking, start paving another.” Luckily for me, there are plenty of teachers out there paving the way. My job is to keep finding new lenses for my glasses.

If you are interested in single-point rubrics, here is a blog about it.

Here is a terrific blog from some Colorado teachers. They presented their ideas powerfully at NCTE 2017 in St. Louis.


With just a little more grace


This past month has grabbed me in an unnerving, relentless whole-body shakeup. I keep questioning if my experiment with writing workshop is best for kids. I keep questioning now that I’m emphasizing process over product, and right now the product is not meeting my expectations. I keep freaking out; what do my students need next? Where do we go after we finish our “This I Believe” essays, which, frankly, have been a struggle? Should I teach critical reviews, which I’ve never taught and am spending hours trying to find solid mentor texts for seventh graders? Should we write a quick poem? Should I acknowledge my burnout and teach a goals unit I love, kids love, and I’ve taught many times before…but is very teacher-driven, doesn’t help them with the common assessment, state testing, and I’m not sure how to workshop it? Or do I head into the abyss of persuasive essays, which take a long time and include many challenging moving parts for workshopping?

It’s all so new, and I am making so many mistakes. What do I need to stay inspired and energized? What do my students need to stay inspired and energized? Should I stop reading all these professional books, articles, and blogs on Twitter which fill my head with new ideas? What do I DO?  I am trying to keep the faith and find some clarity amidst my intense questioning, but it is challenging.

Finding immediate answers became less pressing to me this morning when I read the newest post from one of those blogs. One of my favorite inspirations to keep my currently shaky faith comes from a blog I’ve been reading called Three Teachers Talk. This morning, it gave me just what I needed. Shana Karnes wrote about how teaching is like a yoga pose, and she encourages us all to “embrace the wobble.” Right now I feel like I’m not only trying to stay upright in a handstand but also balancing fragile dishes on top of my feet as I attempt to walk around the room on my hands. Without dropping or breaking anything. Without falling. Without failing.

Then, I read her next words. “It’s only by being uncomfortable, by trying new things day or week or year in and out, that we can improve as teachers.”

Thank you. I needed that today. I am almost constantly uncomfortable as I try so hard to hold my pose, to find the grace in flipping upside down and looking at my teaching world from that angle without falling over.

Part of my internal struggle is that I feel like I have too much to prove with my new journey. I believe the workshop model is what is best for kids, and I have seen it work this year. However, when it’s not working, it feels not just messy or uncomfortable. Occasionally it feels painfully, excruciatingly terrible.I need to remember that I’ll hold my handstand longer when I stretch new muscles, when I listen, when I pay deep, neutral attention, when I let go. When I fall over (and I’m about to), the trick is to get back up, take deep breaths, and try again.

Most importantly, handstands don’t just happen. They take time. Practice. Trial and error. Tuning in. Learning what works and what doesn’t work.

Maybe I need to reread the quotes posted outside my classroom window about making mistakes. Maybe we’ll all try a balancing yoga pose tomorrow in class for our brain break as I remind my students and myself. Discomfort leads to growth.

If this is true, I could potentially grow ten feet taller by the end of this school year. Then, maybe I can hold my handstand just a little longer, just a little stronger, and with just a little more grace. Because when we allow ourselves to wobble, when we permit ourselves to fall, then we can rise up again, better than ever. 


The struggle is real, y’all

pexels-photo-356079.jpegRight now, I am experiencing a strong urge to abort my writing workshop mission.  I am feeling raw and conflicted. I know writing workshop WORKS, but I am missing something critical. I’m just not sure what it is.

After having pretty good success with a poetry unit and personal narrative, we are shifting towards persuasive writing. Last year we wrote personal philosophy papers using the ol’ five paragraph essay structure. I corralled my seventh graders through each paragraph. I used an outline that basically scripted every sentence following specific criteria. They wrote with heart and voice, but I knew that pathway to organizing thoughts was way too narrow. It compresses their hearts and squeezes out the light. This year, I wanted to experiment with less traditional ways of organizing our ideas in ways that maximize our voices and bring out the light again.

Currently my kids are supposed to be writing “This I Believe” essays based on a popular NPR program. I have always wanted to try it with my middle school students. I hoped this would lead them to all sorts of great voice and great thinking with less compression, more freedom.

So far, I am conferencing with kids. I am giving them between thirty and forty minutes a day of writing time plus sharing time plus time to work with partners and talk about their ideas. I am sharing my examples, sharing mentor texts, facilitating brainstorming, and conferencing like crazy with kids. I am using task checklists to set goals at the beginning of each writing workshop time. I am seeing some kids light up with their conversations and be able to articulate more about their writing than they have all year. This all sounds like it should be working, right?

Meanwhile, typed drafts are due tomorrow, and maybe five kids out of forty-five are done or even close to being done. I am freaking out! I’m not sure what I should do..or not do.

I could dip in and really slow down. I could make it worth a LOT of points. I could threaten my students. I could beg them. I could hold them in at lunch or put them in our at lunch tutoring program or call parents or freak out on them. I could bail on the assignment. Or cry. For obvious reasons, none of these are strong possibilities except maybe the crying part. Because what I really am trying to do is get my students to be intrinsically motivated to write. And that’s some tall order.

That’s why I am sending out alert signals like a fire alarm with low batteries. 

Throw on the brakes!

Red sirens!

SOS! Somebody help me!

I need the writing workshop gurus who specialize in seventh graders to swoop in and give me some STRATEGIES! God knows I’ve been looking. I talk to my colleagues. I read Twitter articles incessantly. I listen to podcasts. I read books about teaching writing. I still can’t find what I’m looking for. I believe so fervently in what I am doing, and I have never been so excited about teaching writing. But I am not sure what to do.. or what not to do.

Is it the assignment? Have I offered enough structure? Do my students not understand what to do? Is my instruction during minilessons  not explicit enough? Is it that my kids don’t know what they believe, struggle to manage independent writing time, or just don’t have the confidence? Is it because it’s late January? What in the name of Sam Hill is going on? And I think this is the first time I have ever used that phrase!

This is the rub with writing workshop. My more confident writers thrive using the writing workshop model. They appreciate the freedom and independence and are happier writing at their own pace. Meanwhile, my developing writers struggle more with managing their time, pacing themselves, and staying focused on a consistent basis. They get much less on the page than when I’m managing them and every little sentence. However, all of my students need freedom and choice, no matter their skill level or their desire for growth. They all need to figure out what they want to say and how they want to say it without their teacher laying out where every single sentence goes. They all need to learn how to find their own way even when the way isn’t clear. I can relate. The struggle is real!

I guess I could start blaming my students. I could say they’re lazy. I could say their ADHD hinders their ability to focus. I could say their hormones, their socioeconomic status, or their background of trauma inhibit them from pushing through struggle. And these are all excuses.

I could also say, “This is new for all of us.”

My neighbor teacher in the corner classroom always has something wise to say. Seriously, she has given me ideas for blogs more times than I can count.  A few months ago, I was mentioning similar struggles, and she said, “I wish someone told me when I was a beginning teacher to stick with those ideas that don’t go well the first time. So many times, I try something once. It doesn’t work. So I bail.” I was nodding. I almost did that with Socratic seminars. The first time was a nightmare; I thought, “Well, I’m not doing THAT again. The second time, I started hearing real thinking during our discussions. Now, they work almost right off the bat after years of honing and changing it up. Writing workshop is much more complex than a Socratic seminar, and I need to honor this complexity rather than run for the hills and go back to my old ways.

Change is extremely uncomfortable, especially when the path is not clear. I know my inner conflict will lead to better experiences for my students. I know that giving students much more ownership will only lead to better learning opportunities for them. They are used to being passive receptacles, but I want them to be active agents who own their writing. It is okay that I am freaking out and don’t know the answers as long as I don’t surrender to my fear, frustration, and confusion. I know better.

Tomorrow, I am going to extend the deadline for drafts by a day because I need to gather some much needed information first. I need to hear what’s working and not working from the people who matter most.

My students.

When I was cross-country skiing this morning (I’m a part-timer, teaching every other day), I kept turning this dilemma over and over in my frustrated mind, and I kept coming back to the questions I need to ask my kids. What is not making sense? What are you struggling with? How can you get words on the page? Why aren’t you writing? How can I help you more? And I think they need to be reminded of our writing mantras.

Writing is messy.

We are not perfect.

We learn most from our mistakes.

Our words matter.

Getting words on the page matters.

Our words can help other people get through hard times or make them laugh.

We write to be understood.

We write to be heard.

Back to the drawing board. I will keep the faith.



Deadlines vs. Engagement

goldfishOne of the main reasons I decided to shift to writing workshops is this: I want engaged students. Not compliant ones. And there is a huge difference.

I have always tried to strike a balance between writing process and the final writing product. My ego does get involved in the product. Giving up control of the process means that the final writing product may not be the polished, pretty piece I am accustomed to.  

It’s kind of like when your children learn how to wrap presents. You have to let certain things go. The bow is crooked, the wrapping paper won’t match and Scotch tape is used indiscriminately. It does not look department-store ready. But it’s THEIRS. Not mine.

It’s the same with writing workshop. The final product could look a whole lot messier than I’m used to. It’s my students’ writing, generated from their decision making, crafting, use of time, and problem-solving. Not mine.

The next time they wrap presents, they get better at it. It’s real, messy, frustrating, and beautiful. If I step in and corral my students through a process they don’t own, they are complying to my terms. They’re wrapping my package, not theirs. And I don’t want just compliant writers. I want them playing, wrestling, struggling, and trying because they care, because they want their words to be heard, because they know their words and efforts matter.

We are heading towards finishing personal narratives. My seventh graders started writing them in mid November and will turn them in next week. Too many of them are not finished, even with a first draft.  This gives me heart palpitations. It makes me feel like I am not doing enough. I am not structuring things in a way to keep my kids moving forward and feeling successful. I am not holding kids accountable enough. I am not offering enough support. My directions aren’t clear enough. My expectations aren’t clear enough. My experiment with writing workshop makes them less successful, and it’s not fair to them. Basically, I’m freaking out. And so on and so forth, the questions and doubts swim through my head like restless goldfish searching for nuggets of food.

These doubts make me want to set deadlines, to wrest control of the process, to say, Okay, today we’re back to all doing the same thing at the same time. I give you deadlines, I keep showing you what I want, and you do it.

However, my experiment has shown me that there’s no turning back. We’ve had a taste of freedom, of choice, of that open road, and we don’t want to return to our narrow streets, all heading the same direction.

When we enact big changes, it is all too tempting to return to our default, our comfort zone. As we all know, our comfort zones can be completely dysfunctional and unhealthy. My teaching zone wasn’t; my student writers grew every year. But I kept being haunted by the idea that there was a better way.

Recently, as I agonized over my conundrum, the lightbulb brightened. My kids don’t need deadlines. They need more engagement. I can’t tell them what their writing process is or should be any more than I can tell them who to marry. We’re discovering preferences, and right now, this is all new. Many of my kids are engaging with their writing in different ways. They are learning how to own it. They need my continued enthusiasm. They need to talk to each other. They need to keep sharing parts and whole pieces of writing with each other and with me, and they need to keep feeling seen, feeling understood. That connection keeps me writing, too. I need to keep showing them why their words matter to me and to each other and to themselves. I need to keep catching them playing, taking risks, trying, and rewarding them for their ownership of their writing, for shifting their ideas of themselves and what they’re capable of.

Instead of setting tons of deadlines because I’m freaking out that they won’t finish or that the quality will suffer, I need to remember how powerful it is for students to learn what they need as writers and who they are as writers. Most have no clue. This year I am giving them the gift of time and space to figure it out, to give them permission to play, take risks, and, yes, to make mistakes and fail. I need to give myself that same permission. 

When I see our writing class as a safe place to try, fall,  and try again, when I realize many of my students ARE engaged, when I remember I want engaged students, not merely compliant ones, I tell the frantic goldfish in my mind, “It’s okay. Keep swimming. We’re on the right track.” We don’t need tons of deadlines (though some, I realize, are necessary!)

The product may not arrive in a shiny package any more.

But here’s the difference. It’s not MY package any more. It’s theirs to keep forever. 

The “Share a Line” Shakedown

Hands down, one of my favorite parts of the Writing Workshop is an idea called “Share a line.” I discovered “Share a Line” in Penny Kittle’s wonderful book, Write Beside Them. During the last five minutes of class, my seventh graders read a sentence they wrote that day. I still can’t believe they do it! It’s a joyful little miracle every single day.

Every day, as we go around the circle, my students pause. They mark the spot in their writing that they want to share. Then, we all take turns reading.

Every day, I get goosebumps.  

Here’s what an especially good day might sound like.

Picture seventh grade voices. Some voices squeak, while others crack. Some voices sound like they are five years older than they really are, while others sound five years younger.

Picture a hushed classroom. We dim the lights, and we all listen intently, another small miracle with twelve year olds. Here are eight voices shared.  

*Five words. Five words that became who I was. Five words that suddenly defined me. “You’re just a pretty girl.”

*“Grandma has lung cancer. They’re going to put her on chemo but there’s only a small chance it could work.” I hugged my parents and slipped back into my room. My dad’s words smothered me, and I couldn’t breathe.

* “Look out below!,” screamed Josh, throwing himself off the twenty-five foot cliff, splashing into the frigid water below him.

*“Can I tell you something personal?” she asked, her warm brown eyes looking dead at me. I nodded. She looked at me for a while longer, to assure herself she could trust me. “My parents fight,” she said, “not just occasionally picking fights, but real fighting.”

* I ran through a set of hurdles and was walking back when Senora asked me, “Why do you always walk on your toes?”

*“ Leave me alone,”  she blubbered through her sobs.

*“Let’s go!” shouted Coach Morgan, but as I looked over at the scoreboard and saw the 6-4 score, I knew it was over.

*“It’s going to be okay,” my mom said in a voice that told me she was convincing herself as much as she was trying to convince me.

When we first began this experiment, many kids were scared to share anything and didn’t want to be vulnerable. This makes total sense to me. It’s hard to share your writing. Talk about feeling exposed. As an option, kids could choose to share one word. This helped them break through the initial terror of actually reading their own writing out loud in front of twenty other hormonal middle schoolers.

To make sure the classroom feels especially safe, I am also a ‘blurt enforcer.’ I am not super strict in general, but I tell kids right off the bat: they will have to stay after class if they talk, blurt, or whisper while we’re sharing. They get the message. They pay attention-usually, since after all, this IS middle school, and they ARE distracted by Every Single Thing. But the beauty is that they are also intensely curious about each other. 

Sometimes, I’ll have kids focus on a specific skill. For example, if we’re working on dialogue during mini-lessons, I’ll encourage them to select a line of dialogue. Sometimes we don’t have time for everyone to share, so I’ll use name cards to call on five or six students randomly. Sometimes, like today, we were working on writing hooks for personal narratives, so I asked two students if they would end class by reading their hooks in the “Author’s Chair” or by projecting their writing on the Hovercam so that we could read it along with them on the big screen. I had half the class wanting to share their hooks after that.

When students share, I don’t comment. I try to stay neutral and then get really excited at the end. Or I just smile at the student or give a little nonverbal positive reaction. I don’t want to break the spell. I’m practicing listening, too.

Now for the shakedown.

I am seeing my classroom culture change. I believe it’s partly due to the fact that every day we put everything aside and end our class with this simple yet powerful moment. We listen to each other. Because we listen closely and carefully, kids feel heard and seen.

Please note. This is NOT an easy group of students. I love ‘em, but there are a lot of tough cookies and wounded souls. Last year, I heard a lot about how unkind they were to each other. I was worried that this whole thing could backfire miserably. I credit our sixth grade teachers a ton for teaching them empathy, because now we are reaping the benefits at the end of class.

Recently, every student stood up at the front of our classroom and read one entire original poem out loud. Yes, kids were nervous. My own husband couldn’t believe it. “You made all your seventh graders read one of their OWN poems?!” he joked. It helped that they got cookies and doughnuts! However, many kids told me they were much less nervous than they expected. Many kids understood it was because they had all been sharing snippets of their writing for weeks already. They were used to having their voices be heard.

I heard recently that the vast majority of teenagers do not feel seen, no matter their gender, race, cultural background, religion, or sexual identification.

Every day, my kids’ writing is heard, and I think to myself, “I see you. We see you.”

I can only hope that this moment we take every day reminds us how we are all more alike than different. I can only hope listening to each others’ words reminds us of our shared humanity.

High hopes, I know, but I am an eternal optimist, and I believe in my students.

Share a line.


Writing Territories

One main idea behind the writing workshop is teaching the writer, not the writing. This year in particular, I keep asking myself. How can I teach my writers to be independent so that they can take those skills out the door with them and bring them to every future writing task?

A powerful way to teach some independence is through Writing Territories. It’s one of the very first mini lessons I teach, and it was developed by Nancie Atwell from In the Middle. The idea is to brainstorm, as I call it, a big fat list of areas of your life that mean something to you, that you care about, that you can return to. I actually had one kid call it his Big Fat List, which made me smile.

One definition of a territory is “a field or sphere of action, thought, etc.; domain or province of something.” We all have rich, meaningful territories in our lives, domains we own as a result of our experiences. My seventh grade students own stuffed animals, and they own phones for Instagramming and Snapchatting. Some kids are innocent, and some are not. Many kids travel back and forth between those uncharted waters of adolescence and back to the familiarity of childhood, which may feel more like a shoe they’re outgrowing. It’s vital for kids to establish their territories, those familiar domains they know they own. Territories enable kids to own their writing and to be empowered through the process of figuring out who they were, who they are now, and who they are becoming (to paraphrase Nancie Atwell-the following strategy comes from her).

To begin the mini-lesson, I show kids my list of Writing Territories. For years, I used the same list, but I try to update it or add to it in front of students. For five minutes, I talk about a few things on my list, tell a few stories, show how I might take a topic and write about it, and model how I come up with more ideas if I’m stuck. Some of my topics are huge, like Glacier National Park, and I talk about how I could break it down in all sorts of different ways. Running into a sub-adult grizzly with my three children and no bear spray. Getting lost climbing Otokomi Mountain. The smell of cottonwood trees in May. Bighorn sheep. Rockwell Falls. And so forth. Other ideas are already narrow enough to write about (we call them Pebble topics), like the time I swam with dolphins. I encourage kids to begin writing their lists while I talk about my territories.

Then, I give kids five quiet minutes to keep writing ideas in their Writing Territories, which is a section in their English binders. I tell students to write down anything that pops into their heads and not to worry if they think they can’t write about it. The main idea is to get kids used to the idea of capturing any idea, no matter how ‘good’ or how promising they think it is. Many ideas work well for different genres; I always want my kids to keep the door open to present and future possibilities for writing.

Once the timer rings, kids pair up, share their ideas, and try to write down at least five more ideas. Sometimes, students form an inner and an outer circle with their Writing Territories and keep rotating so that everyone can hear ideas from different kids and write them down if it strikes a chord. When we do our end of class share, you got it-kids share a Writing Territory and continue to jot down ideas. As a side note, many kids LOVE to count their territories, and some can get quite competitive…

I’ve used Writing Territories in the past,  but our Writer’s Notebooks were too separate from our other writing. I wasn’t great about having kids return to their list of territories and adding to it as the year goes on. This year, it exists as an entire section in our binders. We’ve already added a Heart Map and a list of drawings of things that make us happy (a little cheesy, but we’d just been out of school for three stressful days as a result of cyber threats, and we needed some positive energy). We’ll continue to add to our list periodically, especially when we begin a new genre of writing. For example, we’ve been writing poetry but will start personal narratives in a few weeks, so kids will brainstorm specific moments in their lives with emotional impact.

In the past, I have given kids daily prompts, usually with the caveat that they can use it if it grabs their interest, but if not, they can find their own topic. Kids often come to me being used to writing prompts. I am not against writing prompts-sometimes it is exactly what I need to get me writing. However, if kids are overly reliant on a prompt which is generated by a teacher, it takes away their ability to find their own way. If a picture or a question encourages ideas, great, but it’s much like trying to find that perfect class novel that every kid will love…impossible, or close to it. I’d rather have kids be able to generate their own areas, themes, and moments which they can return to, instead of becoming dependent on me to help them find an idea.

As the quarter moves by, I appreciate the conversations I have with my students. I learn a lot about them by glancing over their territories and their heart maps. I love hearing the stories they tell me about their Writing Territories. More importantly,  I love seeing their eyes light up when they look over their lists by themselves and realize that they do have something to say.

I want my students to know their own process of finding something to say and then figuring out how to say it well, so that they walk out our door with renewed confidence in their ability to figure it out by themselves. I want them to own their territories and think about who they are becoming and what that means. I believe that Writing Territories have the power to guide my students home.