Teaching transitions in writing, part 2

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Photo by Sam Carter on Unsplash

This student-written essay illustrates transition ideas

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about how the nonfiction author James Swanson’ transitions from paragraph and from chapter to chapter in his nonfiction narrative Chasing Lincoln’s Killer. The post discussed transitions words (such as therefore, however, in contrast, nonetheless, and others) that we all know and love and teach. However, the post also discussed a more subtle form of transition… transition ideas. Read that post here. 

Below, I’ve shown a student-written example of  the same primary technique, repetition, that Swanson used to carry the reader from one paragraph of her text to the next.

This student’s term that she chose to guide the reader through her essay was “moving on.” In the photo below, I’ve underlined the five times that the writer repeated the words “moving on” or “move on.”

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In the photo above, I’ve underlined in red the repetition of key words a student used in her personal essay about how she learned resilience and perseverance amid negative circumstances. 

The student told me that she didn’t realize she was using repetition to create her transition ideas. Once I called her attention to it, however, she could see how using those words could help a reader navigate her argument’s reasoning and follow her ideas from one paragraph to the next.

We also discussed how repetition can backfire because it’s possible to overuse words and phrases in a piece of writing.

How to tell the difference?

It’s often a judgment call… a judgment call that requires lots of reading and re-reading (especially aloud!) to determine whether the repetition connects ideas and builds the argument, forming a continuous thread through the piece or merely distracts the reader, pulling them away from the argument.

It’s fun to see students making effective moves in their writing, especially when it comes to writing transitions and working hard to make their ideas carry through a piece smoothly, seamlessly, and unobtrusively.

I’ll have a few more examples to show you in a future post or two. Become a follower to catch that post!


Thanks for reading! How do you teach transitions? It’s one of the more challenging aspects of the craft. Feel free to leave a comment with your experiences and thoughts on the subject.

 

Teaching transitions in writing

Don’t teach just transition words… teach transition ideas as well.

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I taught this book for eight years in my middle school ELA classes. It’s such a ride! Plus, when you read it as a writer, you notice key skills the author James Swanson utilized heavily when he wrote this little gem.

For me, teaching transitions is one of the most difficult concepts to teach in writing and one of the most needed. When you teach transitions, you are helping students learn how to write smoothly, to make their ideas flow from one paragraph to the next, even from one sentence to the next.

In short, we’re talking about the concept of cohesion in writing. As you know, cohesion happens when an idea is carried through from the introductory paragraph(s) to the supporting sections of the text and finally, to the summary or conclusion. There are two ways to accomplish cohesion: transition words and ideas as transitions.

Transition words

I’ve done what many other teachers have done. We post anchor charts around our classrooms that divide transition words into groups based on their intended jobs within a piece of writing. It’s a fairly cut-and-dry skill to teach. Here are three examples of many:

  • Transitions that show sequence: first, second, third, etc.
  • Transitions that show cause and effect: as a result, consequently, etc.
  • Transitions that compare and contrast: on the other hand, in contrast, etc.

Yes, anchor charts do an adequate job of supplying these phrases for students as they write. In addition, I’ve also distributed handouts that list these same groups of words. And that’s all fine and good. Most students understand how transition words can help their writing flow smoothly so the reader can easily follow their ideas.

Transition ideas

But there’s another kind of transition—transition ideas—that are just as important, if not more important, than all those transition words. It’s also more difficult to teach because you can’t point to a list of words and phrases for students to use. That’s why I was excited when I found several examples of transition ideas in a text that I routinely taught, Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James Swanson.

Transition ideas rely on words used in the text by the author to connect the scenes in a story, the claim in an argument from one paragraph to the next, or important big ideas in an informative article.

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Chasing Lincoln’s Killer contains several examples of transition ideas. And since it’s often easier for me to show this than it is to explain it, take a look at the photos below.

The first photo below is from Chapter IV in the book. I’ve underlined in red the transition ideas… places where the writer wanted to move the story from one scene to another on the night of April 14, 1865 when President Lincoln was assassinated. To continue his story from one location to another Swanson utilized key words to carry the reader from the home of Secretary of State William Seward to the scene of the Lincoln shooting, Ford’s Theater.

As you can see, Swanson intentionally repeated key words and phrases–“drenched in blood”– to help his reader make the leap in the story with him.

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Here’s another example. Swanson’s narrative needed to transfer from the farm and home of Dr. Mudd back to Ford’s Theater. Swanson showed the Mudds sleeping and transitioned that idea to President Lincoln, who was also “sleeping” after being shot by the assassin John Wilkes Booth.

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Below is yet another example where Swanson carries the reader, at the conclusion of Chapter VII, into the action of Chapter VIII. He uses transition ideas to switch the reader from the lowland river areas where Booth and conspirator David Herold prepared for camping to Washington, D.C., where Mary Surratt, another conspirator, also was wrapping up the busy day.

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And below you can see how Swanson began Chapter VIII in a way that echoed the action at the end of Chapter VII.

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If you’d like even more explanation of transition ideas, show your middle school and high school students this video by Shmoop. It’s quirky and a little weird, but that’s Shmoop.  It gets the point across well, I think.

Transition words and transition ideas are super important. They help students write smoothly and cohesively. Both are the key to writing pieces that absorb the reader, causing them to focus intently on the message of the writing. Use these passages from Chasing Lincoln’s Killer and this Shmoop video the next time you prepare a mini-lesson on transitions.


Thanks for reading again this week! How do you teach transitions? Leave a comment to share your ideas and follow my blog for weekly posts about teaching ELA.

NaNoWriMo Nostalgia: NaNoWriMo, my students, and my historical nonfiction project thingy

You gotta start somewhere.

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My students work on their individual writing projects after school during our version of NaNoWriMo.

Note: I published this post about a year ago when I first attempted an after-school NaNoWriMo program. This year, I have recently moved and am now teaching high school. I hope to eventually host a similar after-school NaNoWriMo program in my new district, but for now, I’ll just look back fondly on last year’s endeavor.


 

I’m finally doing NaNoWriMo with my students. Well, sort of.

All during November, about fifteen students ranging from fifth- through eighth-grade arrive in my room after school and write for forty-five minutes. I only know a little about what they’re writing. That’s because I’m busy working, too, on my own project… what I call my “historical memoir project thing.” Yes, you heard right. I’m doing NaNoWriMo and I’m not even writing a novel. Oh, well. You gotta start somewhere.

No, the NaNoWriMo in my classroom is not a full-blown NaNoWriMo experience. I don’t have the official posters, or the workbooks, or the full curriculum. But we’re still having a good time getting together after school and just writing.

From some conversations I’ve overheard around my classroom, I know some kids are writing fantasy stories. Some are writing sci-fi. One kid is writing about a worm. Regardless, each student is writing for themselves and that’s the key.

In case you’re unfamiliar with NaNoWriMo, it stands for National Novel Writing Month, when writers around the country write a first draft of a 50,000-word novel. There’s a youth version of this challenge, where students set personal goals to accomplish the first drafts of their own novels, and that’s what we are attempting in my classroom every day after school all November long.

I’ve thought about doing NaNoWriMo for a few years, and finally, last summer, I decided I would stop waiting to do it “right” and, in a nod to Nike, “just do it.” So, in June, I tested the idea with my students with a teaser post on my private class Instagram. Several were interested, including some recently graduated students who were disappointed that I hadn’t tried it when they were in middle school.

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Jump forward to last Monday, Nov. 5, the first day on my calendar that we could meet. At the end of the day, when I was tired and definitely ready to lay out my plans for Tuesday and head for home, I asked myself Why did I ever decide to do this?!

However, now with that first week behind me, I’m so glad I “just did it” because my lame version of NaNoWriMo is already illuminating two truths that are easy to forget:

  1. It’s amazing how dedicated kids can be when they’re personally motivated. The mood in my classroom during NaNoWriMo is quite different from my regular classroom, which always contains a few students with little desire to pursue writing. They distract others. They sharpen their pencils four times an hour. They need drinks and bathroom breaks. But after school during NaNoWriMo, it’s a different world. These kids are choosing to write, imagine, create, produce, and they go at it earnestly and with enthusiasm.
  2. Some kids have writing lives outside of school. It’s gratifying to know that there are several students who are writing on their own, at home in notebooks, and online. They “own” these works… no teacher has asked them to outline their ideas, no teacher has asked them to turn in a synopsis or a summary.

Plus, these kids are excited to get to work. I’m amazed that—after eight hours of classes, mind you— my NaNoWriMo kids willingly (with smiles on their faces!) walk into my room with their coats and binders, drop them into a chair, get a laptop from the computer cart, sit down, and write. And think. And quietly chat with others at their table.

It’s a social get-together, after all. I bring snacks of some kind on Mondays, but for the rest of the week, the kids bring their own if they need to. Some bring an orange, some a small bag of chips or crackers, but most don’t bring food.

What they do bring is their imaginations, their productivity, and their determination to get something down on paper. I’ve made sure to tell them that NANOWRIMO is the time to shut off their “inner editor” and just get words on the page. Revision can happen later.

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At the end of the hour, we fill out our word-count goal chart.  On this chart, we’ve each listed our names with our word-count goal for the month at the far right. If a student reaches their word-count goal for the day (the monthly goal divided by the number of days in the month), they put an X on the chart in that day’s column.

We’ve kept our goals reasonable. Next year, we may be more ambitious. This is not a real NaNoWriMo after all. However, it’s a start. We each have a word-count goal. We each have a project to work on and the dedicated time to work on it.

Who would have thought that I would have accomplished real progress on my “historical memoir project thing” in just forty-five minutes a day… at the end of a busy school day… with twelve to fifteen middle schoolers in the same room?


Thanks for reading! Have you ever tried NaNoWriMo? How was your experience? Did you participate with your students or was it just a personal challenge? 

I would love to try NaNoWriMo with my new high school students eventually, but first things first. This year definitely presents a learning curve for me with adjusting to older, more reserved older students.

Headline poetry for high school students

Abi B., junior

Watch older students create stunning expressions from everyday language

This year, for the first three days of school, I again indulged in headline poetry with my students. It was a new activity for my new high school students and I was glad for that. (I’ve introduced headline poetry to middle schoolers in the past. Click here and here for two posts on that.)

To start the activity,  I simply held up and read aloud a few laminated poems created by former students. After reading, I asked, “What did you notice?” Students tended to mention the unusual word choices, strange phrasing, unexpected metaphors, and other observations. They also mentioned the poems’ originality and freshness.

I also read this excerpt of a poem written by award-winning poet Naomi Shihab Nye. The poem is called “A Valentine for Ernest Mann.” Here’s the excerpt:

So I’ll tell a secret instead:
poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment 
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.

-excerpt from “Valentine for Ernest Mann” by Naomi Shihab Nye (1952)

Seth C., junior

I read this poem excerpt to illustrate how headline poetry (and found poetry in general) is built on the notion that poetry is hiding all around us in the language we find in our everyday lives. Signs, posters, bumper stickers, magazines, mail… these provide the words that can create powerful poems.

Headline poetry means kids are moving around, cutting, gluing, talking, and sometimes pausing to read an article or two here and there.
Ella  D., junior

Many students visited while they cut out words, and that was fine with me. On the other hand, many other students worked quietly… especially as they entered the arranging phase where they sorted words, and then positioned twenty to thirty of them into intriguing lines and phrases to create stunning experiments in language.

Since I asked students to make sure their poem was “about” something (it’s not just random words), many students spent a lot of time thinking about the words they had selected. I asked them to take it slow, and allow a theme to surface as they arranged and rearranged their cut-outs into a poem of at least ten lines.

Angelina C., junior

And then some students were impatient or just didn’t seem to think anything meaningful could come from this form of writing. However, as they continued to work, they usually discovered a theme emerging.

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Here are some signs I post around the room when we work on headline poetry.

Overall, it was again the perfect activity for reluctant writers and enthusiastic ones alike to kick off the year.

Here are the steps we took to create our back-to-school headline poems:

  1. Get an envelope and put your name on it. Keep your cuttings in it.
  2. Select some newspapers and magazines, leaf through them, and cut out interesting words and phrases from headlines. It is best to collect somewhere between 75 and 100 words and phrases from different sections of newspapers and magazines to gather a range of vocabulary, as well as selections of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.
  3. Scatter the words and phrases on a table and look for themes, synonyms, rhyming words, etc.
  4. Arrange and rearrange the words and phrases on a page and read them aloud to check for fluency and impression. Because there is a visual quality to headline poetry, the placement of text can contribute to the presentation of ideas and meaning.
  5. Create a poem that consists of at least ten lines.
  6. Yes, you may create one word with individual letters, but remember: this is a form of found poetry.
  7. When the desired order and placement of text is achieved, glue the words onto a blank sheet of construction paper.
  8. Reflect. When you are totally finished with your poem, write a paragraph to explain the impetus for your poem. What ideas did you decide you were trying to convey with it? How did you choose this theme/subject matter/topic? Did you change your mind as you worked? What words or phrases especially helped you shape the meaning of your poem?
I asked students to choose their favorite poem in each class by putting  a check mark on a sticky note attached to the poems. The three poems with the most votes were posted in the hallway.

Try these bonus tips to get even more out of this activity:

  • Use as many different types of magazines as possible. Collect a wide selection that might include Vogue, Motor Trend, Better Homes and Gardens, Wired, Forbes, People, Elle, Architectural Digest, and Gourmet. A variety of subject matter will yield a better mix of words.
  • Provide 11- x 17-inch paper. Bigger paper allows more freedom with layout.
  • You will likely have a student ask if a line can be made with one word. Take the opportunity to talk with your student about why he thinks the word will be more powerful on its own. If allowing that word to stand on its own adds to the meaning of the poem, fine. If he’s just trying to race through the project, then nope.
Sam F., junior

Two more tips:

  • Encourage students to play with the layout. The examples here show poems that occupied the entire sheet of paper. I did have one student who arrange dtheir poem in one corner of the page. I found that one particularly striking. You can see it on the far right in the picture below.
  • Invariably, a student will ask if they can create a word out of individual letters. I allow kids to do that once; however, it does defeat the spontaneous nature of headline poetry, which is a form of found poetry. It’s not really found poetry if you can make any word you want, right?!

If you haven’t tried headline poetry yet, make a note on your calendar to try it soon. It’s a non-intimidating way to jump into writing, and for many students, that’s a definite necessity. Use this handout from NCTE for more guidance and resources.


Thanks for reading again this week! I meant to post this sooner (as in right after we created these poems), but the year took off and I’m only getting to it now. Leave a note or comment about your experiences with headline poetry. What could I be doing differently or better? Got any other ideas? Click like if you enjoyed this post and follow my blog to stay in touch. 

Use this movie clip to teach high school writers how to “explode a moment”

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Plus, here’s a free slow-motion video site to give students more practice

For some reason, young writers seem to want to write as little as possible when describing a scene. I read descriptions as sparse as this example: I shot the ball and it went in and everybody freaked out. However, when kids see the effectiveness of exploding a moment, they’ll surprise themselves with how much description they can generate.

About a year ago, I wrote this post about a mini-lesson where my students watched a slow-motion video clip from writer and author Barry Lane’s YouTube channel. We watched the clip in five- to ten-second second segments. Following each segment, I would pause the video and the kids would write down what they saw. In effect, they were exploding a moment. The video was of a boy who looks about ten years old hitting a baseball. The idea is that the boy hits a home run, which causes the crowd to go wild.

If you’re unfamiliar with “exploding a moment”…

Exploding a moment is one of Lane’s signature revision strategies. When writers explode moments, they do what movie directors do to indicate a film’s pivotal moment: they show the moment in slow motion to indicate its importance. When a moment in a narrative holds the same importance, exploding that moment  across a page or two can do the same thing. If students take an important moment from their narratives and envision it happening in slow motion, and then write what they see, they’ll inevitably “paint” a much more detailed rendering of the moment than they would otherwise. 

This year, I wanted to try this same Barry Lane idea with high school students.

This year, I wanted to try this same Barry Lane idea with my students at the high school where I now teach; however, I thought the ten-year-old’s baseball video might seem too much like middle school material.

So, I tried to remember movies that I’ve seen that include slow-motion moments. One of those I remembered also just happened to be baseball-themed: The Natural.

If you watch this YouTube video clip and watch it from :40 to 1:20 in eight- to ten-second chunks, you’ll provide your students a similar moment to explode that is a little more “grown up.”

Here’s that clip from The Natural, which only a couple of my students (out of about 90) had seen.

Before playing The Natural clip, I asked students to imagine that they were Roy Hobbs, the player at bat (played by Robert Redford), and I also suggested that they write their explosion in first-person point-of-view. I thought this would make their writing more immediate. Also, when it came time to share, it might be helpful if we all focused on the same character’s perspective in the video.

Playing the movie clip, pausing, asking students to write what they saw, and then also having a few of them share their “explosions” took about thirty minutes or so. (With some classes it took less time because —at least at my school— many of these older students are reluctant to share their writing. Right now, many of my high school students don’t care to share their writing, which is a real change from middle school where kids can’t share enough!)

Here’s one student’s exploded moment:

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Here’s another example from one of my high school students:

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Finally, here’s a copy of my handwritten explosion that I shared here and there during my classes to either encourage sharing or just to help students see what exploding a moment might look like.

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Here’s that free slow-mo video site…

I’ve also thought about finding more short video or movie clips to play during the year so kids can continue to practice this technique more. Videvo.net has a huge supply of short, slow-motion video clips of everything from runners in a marathon to a candle flame.

Many are free to view and some are only available for purchase with an account. Here’s a link to a free clip of that candle flame.

https://www.videvo.net/video/candle-flame-in-slow-motion/2683/

I haven’t used any of these yet, but I think an occasional one might make a good bell-ringer activity while also keeping the explode a moment technique fresh in students’ minds.

And no, it might not seem that a candle flame would be a pivotal moment in a narrative… but it could be.

Imagine if you had a character making an important life decision while watching a candle flicker. For example, I can picture the character watching the flame, pondering her choice of whether to marry her boyfriend. As she examines the flame, she might see connections to their relationship. For instance, she might see that the flame bends and sways in the breeze, much like their relationship has had to bend and sway to accommodate their individual needs and goals. Anyway, you get the idea.


Thanks for reading again this week! Feel free to click “like” if you found this post helpful, and leave a comment as well. Also, follow my blog to stay in touch.

Focus Your Binoculars and Zoom In

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Photo by Chase Clark on Unsplash

I created a mini-lesson that uses a technique from Barry Lane and a handout from TpT

Because it seems my high school students would benefit from learning some revision strategies, I decided to do a search on Teachers Pay Teachers for any revision handouts featuring the work of Barry Lane. I found this one (it’s FREE from Texas ELAR Coach) entitled Writing Strategy: Adding Detail by Zooming In with Barry Lane’s Binoculars. Lane’s technique of “focusing the binoculars” allows readers to see better, clearer pictures in our stories.

When you download the page, you’ll see that the page’s title is “Focusing the Binoculars.” However, I decided to write “Zooming In…” at the top of my handout since I’ve often seen these two terms used interchangeably in some of Lane’s materials. In addition, when I talk in class, I often use both terms. To avoid confusion, I wanted to make sure that both terms appeared on the page.

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Find this handout at this TpT page: Texas ELAR Coach

The handout features this example of a fuzzy sentence: The lady looked kind of funny. In class, we talked about how that sentence doesn’t paint a clear picture. It’s a good example of vague language that accomplishes nothing. For example…

  • What does “kind of funny” look like?
  • Does funny mean humorous?
  • Does it mean weird?

Below the fuzzy sentence are two sentences that paint a vivid picture of the funny-looking lady. It gives a crystal clear description that provides a “mind movie” to the reader. We discussed how much more vivid the zoomed-in sentence is. We can picture the woman, her hat, her pale skin, her bobbing head, the way she looks like a black lid.

Mr. Lane’s handout makes an obvious point: when you imagine that you’re looking through binoculars at an object, person, or landscape—or anything, really— in your story, and then adjust those binoculars, and describe what you see, your readers will be able to visualize your writing so much more clearly. Writing we can see in our mind while we read creates memorable writing.

On the handout, there are four further examples of zooming in.  I decided to write each of these on an index card and then I made some more cards so kids could get with a partner, pick a card, and then zoom in.

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I made these cards. Four of them feature fuzzy sentences from the handout and I created a few more so I would have enough for class.

Kids moved around the room to find partners and to write their sentences. I asked them to write their fuzzy sentence at the top of a sheet of notebook paper, and then add two to three more “zoomed in” sentences. After about five minutes of work, we went around the room and listened to each pair’s attempt at using their narrative binoculars.

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This photo shows some of the “zooming in” my high school students tried last week. They wrote the fuzzy sentence first and then “zoomed in” for two to three more sentences.

Even though I had asked students to read their fuzzy sentences first, I also reminded them that if they “zoom in” well, the fuzzy sentence is unnecessary. This activity illustrates how the fuzzy sentence tells while the “zoomed in” sentences show

Following our share time, I wrapped up the mini-lesson by reminding students to use this technique in the computer lab (where we were going next) where they were to continue revising their memoirs.

Side note:  Because I thought my students might confuse ‘zooming in’ with “exploding a moment,” a technique we had explored a few days before,  I reminded them that writers “explode a moment” when they want to fully develop the most suspenseful, climactic part of their narratives.

On the other hand, writers can focus the binoculars and “zoom in” at anytime during a story.  “Zoomed in” detail makes the difference between vivid and dull writing. It’s especially useful for grounding dialogue… adding scene-setting imagery and details to conversations to develop characters or set a scene. Without this grounding, dialogue can feel like mere isolated lines of speech devoid of life.

After returning the conversation to zooming in, several students skimmed through their drafts looking for places where they could focus their binoculars and describe a person, object, or landscape more acutely.

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This activity lasted for about twenty minutes. It was just enough time to explore the concept sufficiently, yet also leave enough time for students to immediately practice it in the computer lab, which is where we spent the remainder of the class period.

Since I had requested that their next draft be 750 words,  most students recognized the lesson’s usefulness in helping them to increase their word count.

I felt this lesson resonated with my students. There was real purpose in it and they were able to immediately implement it.


Thanks for reading again this week! Feel free to click like and leave a comment or question. And if you have any ideas to share, please do! If you’d rather contact me directly by email, please contact me at marilynyung@gmail.com. Have a great week! 

Acknowledgement: Thanks to author Barry Lane and Texas ELAR Coach at Teachers Pay Teachers for the use of their fantastic materials.

 

 

I teach kids it’s okay to be rejected

Rejection proves that my students are indeed writers

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Here’s a picture of my students posing with their first rejection letters from a youth writing contest. They thought it was funny that I wanted their picture. I just wanted them to know that a rejection letter proves that they are indeed writers.

I teach kids it’s okay to be rejected.
I teach them it’s okay to fail and
That it’s good to receive a rejection letter because
That’s what writers do: They get turned down.

I teach kids it’s okay to be rejected.
I teach them to risk it all and
Write it down now because
That’s what writers do: they deal in danger.

I teach kids it’s okay to be rejected.
I teach them to give themselves permission
To write a junky, uninspired first draft because
That’s what writers do: they don’t wait for inspiration.

I teach kids it’s okay to be rejected.
I teach them their words must work hard,
That lazy words aren’t worth their time because
That’s what writers do: they crave precision.

I teach kids it’s okay to be rejected.
I teach them to write, to rewrite, try once more
Only to receive this message yet again:
“Best of luck in your creative endeavors.”

And then I photograph my kids,
My fiery bunch of seventh-graders,
Clutching their “Best of luck” letters because
That’s what I do: I create writers.


Thanks for reading! I’m a big advocate of encouraging students to enter any and all writing contests I can get my hands on. Click here for my favorite contest of the year, the Daughters of the American Revolution American History Essay Contest. See my Student Writing Contests page for the entire list of contest I use.

Next year, I’ll be moving to a new school district where I’ll be teaching high school students. There are even more contests for older students than younger ones, so follow my blog to learn about those opportunities!