How to cure the “I don’t have anything to write about” blues

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Students having trouble choosing a memory for a memoir? Have them make a map.

A few weeks ago, my junior and senior students wrote memoirs… creative personal narratives about an important memory that taught them an important truth about life, growing up, or the world in general.

In the past I’ve always passed out an idea sheet to help students gather ideas for their memoirs. It contains about thirty questions that are intended to spur memories or at least interesting stories. That sheet is beneficial, but this year I wanted to try something new: map-making.

I read about map-making in Writing Life Stories, a book by author and writing coach Bill Roorbach. In his book, he recounts how he has his own students draw maps of special places in their childhoods: their house, a neighborhood, a farm, a grandparents’ house.

Roorbach suggested to his students to draw as detailed as a map as they could. He asked them to include the hiding places, the forbidden zones, and the favorite spots of their location. The point: to jog their memory about a forgotten incident… a long ago discarded recollection of a particularly scary game of tag, for example. Or maybe a memory with a grandparent they had nearly let go of.

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Drawing a location will naturally help one remember, says Roorbach. He suggests putting as much detail as possible into their maps. For example,

  • Don’t forget the propane tank behind the oak tree.
  • The dog bowl under the porch.
  • The soybean field.
  • The clothesline.
  • The garden gnome at the end of the iris patch that you tripped over one time.

My students took about one or two 56-minute class periods to draw their maps. Some finished much more quickly than others and once they landed on a memory, they could start writing. Here are some of the maps (or some detail shots) that my juniors and seniors drew:

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Here’s my own example map that I showed students before they started their own. This is my maternal grandparents’ farm in rural southwest Missouri.

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This is my maternal grandparents’ farm near Hume, Mo. I drew in as much as I could… even where I watched a possum play possum one afternoon from the “davenport” near the front of the kitchen. My map shows the grape arbors, a cherry tree, a peach tree, a fuel tank for the tractors, a propane tank. I put a question mark where I couldn’t quite remember the exact positioning of things.

 

My classes wrote first and second drafts of their memoirs. I gave each student full participation points if they reached the word-count minimum, which was 750 words for their second draft. (First drafts could be turned in with only 450 words, but their first drafts did need to be complete with a beginning, middle, and end, including the reflective “lesson learned” part of their memoir.

I still have the second drafts of everyone’s memoirs. In about a month, I’ll pass these back out for further revision. I hope we are able to look at them with “fresh eyes.” We may get into Protocol Peer Review Groups to collaborate on revision and editing.

It’s my hope that there will be a handful of memoirs that can be entered into the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards in December.

After students had turned in their second drafts, I asked them their thoughts on the map-making portion of the project. Was it beneficial? Did drawing a map help them recall memories they had forgotten?

I didn’t do a Google Form to survey them, but just asked for a show of hands at the end of class. Some acknowledged that yes, the maps were helpful. Most students, however, seemed indifferent (a common response to just about anything it seems!).  But then again, a few were emphatic that the map exercise brought forth the memory that they ended up writing about.

One student in particular agreed that the map helped him.  Drawing his farm allowed  him to recall a tree that he climbed when he was about twelve. That tree caught on fire when he was still in it due to some burning paper airplanes that a cousin, I believe, flew into the tree. Reading about his fiery hot, melting rubber shoe soles and his ensuing panic made for a stirring and shocking story. Fortunately, he wasn’t hurt and the main outcome of the fire was that a cousin had to pick up rocks on the farm for a good while afterward.

This story, “The Burning Tree,” has so much potential for the Scholastic Art and Writing contest. It’s my hope that further revisions and editing will allow us to enter it into the student’s contest account soon.

And to think it all started with making a map.


Thanks for reading again this week! Are you planning to enter some student work into the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards this year? Students could begin opening accounts on September 12. None of my students has opened their accounts yet. Those who submit work will likely upload their work in November or December. Leave a comment or question about the contest and I’ll see if I can help.

Follow my blog for more middle school and high school teaching stories

Slice-of-life writing: the anti-Instagram narrative

These short narratives celebrate the ordinary and challenge high schoolers to write creatively

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One result of a three-month summer break? Students out of practice with writing, especially creative writing.

To remedy that last week, I decided to introduce my high school students to slice-of-life writing, a fairly new genre within the world of narrative non-fiction. In my former middle school ELA teaching position, slice-of-life writing was a staple with my students. They enjoyed writing slices more and more as they became familiar with the form.

By the way, I learned about slice-of-life writing from this inspirational group of writer-teachers. Teachers write and post their own slices on Tuesdays at this site. For information about this group’s Slice-of-Life Writing Challenge for classrooms, visit here.

One way to think of slice-of-life writing is to consider it an acknowledgement of the moments we wouldn’t post in an Instagram feed. Usually, we put the major moments of our lives in our feeds… memorable vacations, weddings, graduations, fun outings. With slice-of-life writing, however, we write about the more ordinary moments of our lives. These have merit, too, and perhaps as much merit as the milestones in our lives simply because the small moments are more numerous.

After a brief introduction of the genre to my high schoolers, I went over the points on the PowerPoint slide (shown below).

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After talking through the above Powerpoint slide, I passed out copies of a sheet with mentor slice-of-life essays. I read aloud these three from the sheet: Drip Drop by Annison E., Feeding the Dogs by Isaiah F., and Cutting the Grass by yours truly.

The first two were written by former students, and were published by Creative Communications of Logan, Utah in one of the publisher’s essay anthologies. (While the company continues to publish poetry anthologies for middle schoolers, they no longer publish the essay anthologies. Darn!)  Here’s that mentor text handout:

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After reading and discussing the mentor texts, I asked students to spend thirty minutes working on a first draft, after which we would do some revision. As for length, I asked students to fill the front side of a sheet of notebook paper plus a few lines on the back.

In some of my classes, it was evident that some additional guidance was needed. Some students seemed to be confused by what exactly constituted a “slice.” During my first hour class, I wrote alongside them, scribbling out a first draft about cleaning the windshield of my car, which I had done the night before. I read it aloud, stumbling through my quickly written cursive. I told students I was not totally satisfied with it (especially the  powdered sugar reference), but it was a start. Here’s my quick “demo” first draft of my own slice:

“Shhhhhhhhh.” The foamy spray fizzes onto my car’s windshield like a thin layer of powdered sugar. A sweet chemical odor lifts from the foam.

The foam sludges down the glass like a glacier, shifting and sliding slowly down toward the wiper blade, a guardrail of sorts.

The stains of unlucky insects that fluttered their wing one final time against the glass melt into the white of the foam cleaner. Moths, wasps, and horseflies decompose and disintegrate into the liquid… a tiny life lost and wiped away.

I rip off a handful of paper towels  and wipe the glass. Clean straight swaths absorb and remove the foam, the bugs, the film of road grease and oil.

The window is wide and requires that I stretch to reach the entire glass. So I walk around to the other side to clean the remaining half.  I trip on a cord from the leaf blower left on the floor. I untangle my ankle from the cord and finish cleaning the windshield.

The glass is clear. One crusty patch remains and I spray it one more time. The crust dissolves and I smudge out the remaining residue.

The paper towels, damp and dripping, feel cold in my hand. The job is done.

Following my read aloud of my demo slice, they started or continued on their own. After about thirty minutes, I asked students still working to finish the sentence they were writing, so we could add to our first drafts.

Adding to our writing is one way we revise, I said.

“Let’s add to our first drafts with sensory language,” I said. “Skim through your draft and look for  a place to add a sound,” I suggested. Students worked for about five minutes to add a sound.

Of course, without fail, in each class, one student would ask, “What if you already have a sound?”

“See if you can add another,” I prompted.

Following sounds, we then added fragrances/odors (smell), textures (touch), and if appropriate, a flavor (taste) to our drafts. Obviously, if students were “showing and not telling,” their writing should have already have contained an image.

After our revision, I asked for volunteers to share their slices. A few students agreed to do just that. My first impression from their writing: I hadn’t sufficiently stressed the importance of focusing on a single moment in their slices. When a few students shared their entire morning routine (First, I get up and then I take a shower, and then I grab some breakfast, feed the dog, brush my teeth, wait for the bus, and then it comes and I go to school.), or evening football practice, I knew I needed to emphasize that slice-of-life writing is all about focusing on a single small moment in life, an ordinary moment that one would never think to include in their Instagram feed, for example.

I had conveyed this idea earlier in the lesson by recalling last week’s reading of excerpts from Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories, where Roorbach discusses memory. He mentions “informational memory,” which he calls the “stuff of lost days.”

Slice-of-life writing  builds on  and celebrates the “stuff of lost days” people are engaged in on a daily basis.

Yes, our lives are punctuated with big life events, but our lives are also lived in the not-so-big events, the events that are easily forgotten or downplayed, but actually form the bulk of our existence.  Slice-of-life writing capitalizes on these easily dismissed activities.

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Because a handful of students (in one particular class, curiously) wrote what I call “And then I did this, and then I did this” essays, I tweaked my Powerpoint slide to place more emphasis on focusing on a single moment or task. The final version of that slide is the one I’ve included in this post above.

However, I still need to add these points, which should help them write “in the moment” better next time:

  • Write in the first-person point-of-view to put the reader right there with you.
  • Write in the present tense to add immediacy to your slice.

The next day in class, students typed up their slices in the computer lab. I told them that if their slice was a series of events or moments, that they could go ahead and use it for this first slice, since I felt my instructions hadn’t been clear enough at first. Next month, however, when we try another one, they will need to get choosy with their writing and focus on a single moment.

Right before they began typing, I asked students to create a Google Doc and name it Slice- of-Life Essays so we could add a slice monthly for the next few months. We’ll plan to publish a small collection of slices at the end of the semester or at the end of the year. Having a collection of essays about their everyday and ordinary teenage life should be a treasure as they continue through high school and beyond.

After typing, I asked students to print two copies and read their copy aloud to a partner who would follow along on their own copy so they could  offer feedback for more revision. I specifically asked students to look for:

  1. First: unclear and/or confusing areas
  2. Second: editing, such as punctuation, grammar, and spelling

I added, “When you turn in your final draft, also hand me your first draft copies so I can see the feedback your partner gave you.”

Unfortunately, most kids brought me their final drafts with a first draft that contained minimal feedback provided by their partner. Many simply had misspelled words circled or commas added in here and there. “That’s not revision. That’s editing,” I thought, making a mental note that my new students would need extra encouragement to revise.

And that’s where we are in my new high school classes. I am figuring out that they need to learn some revision strategies. This week, I plan to cover “exploding a moment” and “writing small,” two similar yet separate strategies that should help students flesh out their writing into fuller, more meaningful compositions. Stay tuned.


Thanks for reading again this week. It’s interesting to make the transition from middle school to high school. Older students definitely have different motivations and goals. Learning ways to make writing (and revising) more relevant is definitely my charge.

 

 

 

 

Breakthrough moment: How to teach what “be specific” means

I think I’m finally on to something

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Photo: Pixabay

Be specific!

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written that on my students’ essays, poems, and narratives. They know the importance of adding relevant details and crystal clear descriptions to their writing. We talk about it all the time, after all. In fact, “add more detail” and “be more descriptive” are the top two comments I hear them saying to each other during peer review groups. However, for some reason, kids still often neglect to be specific.

Maybe they don’t recognize “vagueness” in their own writing. Maybe they’re in a rush and don’t see the value in taking the extra time that being specific takes. Maybe it’s late the night before their essay is due and, as a result, they’ve lowered their standards. The loosey-goosey thoughts that make it into their first drafts—however general and lackluster— are good enough to turn in at the last minute. Whatever.

Last fall, I came upon a chapter in Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories and discovered a helpful section on the merits of being specific in writing. By “being specific” Roorbach means putting a name to the objects, things and people in our writing.

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This is an awesome book that I’ve found helpful (like REALLY helpful) in my classroom.

For example, if one mentions a tree, Roorbach suggests being exact. Is it an oak? maple? pine? If possible, he suggests going further. Is it a chinquapin oak? silver-leaf maple? lodgepole pine? If one mentions Dad’s car, Roorbach suggests identifying the exact car: Dad’s brown 1995 Subaru Forester or his sleek, brand-new silver Prius.

Roorbach stresses that “naming is knowing.” Putting a clear and precise label to the objects in our writing lends credibility and a subtle authenticism to our writing. (He also discusses how determining the exact name of something—a particular flower, for example—may help writers discover unexpected revelations about their pasts. Seriously, check out this book!)

I notice that in my own writing I will often add the specific labels to things on the later drafts of a piece. I often do this work intentionally, taking care to notice generalities as I read and re-read, and re-read again. It’s amazing how much richer and concrete and visible my writing is when I follow Roorbach’s advice and specifically name things in my writing.

So with Roorbach’s book in hand, I created a mini-lesson for class. Maybe this time, I thought, with the help of Roorbach’s down-to-earth and eloquent text, students will understand what I mean when I write “Be specific” in the margins of their papers.

For the mini-lesson, I decided to read aloud from Roorbach’s “Naming is Knowing” exercise. Everyone agreed that the specific examples given in the text were effective revisions of the more general originals. I asked the kids to keep this in mind as they wrote that day… “Don’t just say that you put on your clothes; be specific. Name the clothes. Say you put on your bright white NASA hoodie and a faded pair of jeans. ”

About two days later, a student named Jacob dropped a poem into my second drafts box during writer’s workshop. I read it, noticing that it was about a trip to Florida he took last summer with his family. The poem mentioned finding “a coin,” “finding “a food,” and visiting “the museum” and finding “something” there.

Here we go again, I thought. More vague writing.

I asked Jacob, “Remember when we talked a couple of days ago about how it makes sense to be as specific as possible and put a name to things when we write so readers can visualize our stories better?” He nodded. I inquired what kind of coin he found; he replied “a Spanish medallion.” I asked him what exactly he found at the museum; he said “a Honus Wagner baseball card.” I asked him about the food mentioned in the poem; he replied “chicken Alfredo.”

Try naming those things in your poem, I suggested. He returned several minutes later with another draft, this one much more specific, much more visual, and much more effective.

“Yes! You did it!” I told him after reading his revision. “This is what we were talking about!”

I asked him if I could use his drafts in class the next day to show everyone how much more visual his second draft was. He agreed and printed copies of his poem’s “before and after” versions.

I placed them side by side on a sheet of paper and ran off copies for everyone. The following day we revisited our “naming” lesson and with Jacob’s poems in front of them, everyone readily was able to see the difference between vague writing and specific writing: it all has to do with naming things.

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The next day, I asked Jacob to read both poems aloud. After that, we all discussed how effective the changes were and the consensus was that the “after” version was definitely the draft we all preferred. Why? Because we could visualize the Spanish medallion (someone said it was probably all crusty and gross) much more clearly than we could visualize a coin. We could taste the chicken Alfredo. And of course, we all knew that a Lamborghini is the ultimate fancy car.

Of course, being seventh-graders, the added details spurred conversations about coins that kids had found or lost. Practically every kid in the room said they loved chicken Alfredo. I guess all that conversation proves that specific writing resonates. Being specific helps readers connect better with the writing and, in the end, that’s what it’s all about.

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I made this slide on my Smartboard using a quote from the exercise on “Naming is Knowing” in Bill Roorbach’s book, Writing Life Stories.

One student asked,  “What if the extra detail seems distracting?” I acknowledged her smart observation and advised her to play around with being specific. Yes, it’s entirely possible to have misplaced detail, I told her. If that’s the case, she as the writer then has a decision to make. For example, if it seems distracting and irrelevant to know that you wore a bright white NASA hoodie, then leave it out and go general. But try naming and being specific first, I told her because you never know until you try. Plus, you can always change it back later, I added.

I feel as if I’ve finally hit on something when it comes to teaching kids to write specifically: it’s about naming things. Since teaching this “Naming is Knowing” mini-lesson—with the help of Roorbach and Jacob’s examples— my students better understand how to add relevant, visual details and names to the people and objects in their writing. It’s nice to know that they finally understand what “Be specific” really means.


Thanks for reading again this week! Click “like” if you learned something with this post and feel free to follow my blog for more news from my classroom. How do you teach your students to be specific in their writing?

Outlines have a time and place; a personal essay isn’t one of them.

One of my students is learning that “Discovery is the thing.”

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This book contains nuggets of writing wisdom that make great mini-lessons in my Writer’s Workshop sessions. Another one to be discussed in another post: the importance of being specific.

Last week, I wrote about Writer’s Workshop and how I am really enjoying it this fall in my middle school language arts classes. I have a few books that I pull ideas from to use for mini-lessons before the kids transition to working on their writing projects.

One of those books is Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories. It’s a book I ordered a year or so ago for ideas on memoir and biographical writing. I have found several eye-opening sections in the book that I have shared with my students. One of these points we’ve discussed is the value of digression in writing. To digress, Roorbach recommends writing without a plan, of allowing your writing to reveal your thinking on a topic.

In class, we read this excerpt:

“Part of what’s in your head is going to be stories, and when you start telling stories from your life, your life itself becomes evidence. The personal essayist examines the evidence until it’s plain to both reader and writer just what’s evident. Abandon the outline, all ye who enter here! Discovery is the thing. Too firm a plan, and you miss the digression that takes you where you didn’t know you wanted to go.”

Writing Life Stories by Bill Roorbach with Kristen Keckler, PhD; Ch. 1

Kids usually breathe a sigh of relief when they find out they don’t have to use an outline. And when we read this in class, I clarify that there are indeed times when an outline will help them. For example, outlines are useful when their writing is an assemblage of pertinent facts and details that need organizing or when they’re having trouble getting started.

However, for some types of writing, outlines may actually hinder the thought process that writing spurs. That’s what Roorbach is getting at. Following an outline may constrain a writer’s thinking and inadvertently cause her to shut down her analysis of a life situation or recollection of a life event.

One of the projects on our Writer’s Workshop assignment list is a memoir or personal narrative essay. I have one student in particular (I’ll call her Camille) who I can tell is learning how the act of writing is helping her to define and refine her thinking and stance on a very controversial topic.

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To observe Camille intentionally and willingly struggle through her draft means she is growing as a writer, thinker, and learner.

She’s been working on her essay for a few days now, and I can tell as she works alone at a table in the back of the room, she is muddling through her ideas. She is starting and stopping, backing up again, and then restarting a sputtering paragraph to finally blaze through it as she clarifies and discovers how she feels on her topic.

She told me on Friday at the end of class, “It’s so hard to write about this because I have to think about every possible perspective and there are so many ways to look at it.” It’s obvious that Camille is learning that “writing is thinking.”

For me, this is one of the most difficult things about writing: giving myself the time to discover my own thinking. Most of the time, I want to get the piece done. I don’t want to spend the time lost in thought and unsure of how I feel. I want to say what I know and move on.

Those hours of mental wandering used to feel like torture to me (and still do, at times), but I’m learning to accept that this is writing. I must allow myself to not know where a piece is going and to just write, knowing that clarity in some measure will result… eventually.

Seeing Camille learn this writing truth and find that “discovery is the thing” is a huge personal accomplishment for me as a writing teacher. To observe Camille intentionally and willingly struggle through her draft means she is growing as a writer, thinker, and learner. Understanding that “writing is thinking” will serve her well as she continues into high school and beyond.


Thanks for reading! There are other similar viewpoints to Roorbach’s on outlines and other forms of prewriting. I’ll discuss another teacher/author’s ideas on this topic in an upcoming post. Click like if you found this interesting and follow me to get that upcoming post.