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

IMG_1472

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.

IMG_7689

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:

IMG_1537

IMG_1532

IMG_1533

IMG_1535 (1)

IMG_1534

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.

IMG_1493
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

The rubric rub

andrey-zvyagintsev-Eyg5Z7ARjWk-unsplash
Photo by Andrey Zvyagintsev on Unsplash

 

Do what the rubric says. And only what the rubric says. And by all means, don’t think too hard.

 

Last week in my high school Language Arts classes, students spent time planning memoirs that they will begin drafting this week. On Friday, a few girls who had already decided on a memory to recount were starting to write their opening paragraphs.

As one student was scribbling out her first lines, she asked, “Do you have the assignment sheet for the memoir?”

“No, I’ll have it ready for you next week. For now, just go ahead and start writing,” I told her.

“How long does it have to be?” another student at the same table asked.

“I’m not sure. I haven’t decided yet. It’s too early to think about that anyway,” I told her. Actually, I had already considered an approximate length, but hadn’t decided for sure.

“But what are we supposed to put in it?” the first student pressed.

I was surprised. We had been learning about the genre of memoir all week.

“Well, what we’ve talked about the past few days,” I told her, alluding to the mentor texts we had read during our class periods earlier in the week, including a narrative by Annie Dillard, an essay written by a young woman, which appeared in Teen Ink, plus a short memoir I wrote a few years back. “You’ll write about a memory or moment that impacted your life in some way and then you’ll reflect on it… tell why the memory has stayed with you… what you gained from the experience… how it affected your life or your understanding of life.”

“Well, I’m not gonna start writing then if I don’t know what you’re looking for,” she said. “I’ll just jot down some notes for now.” In no way was this student rude or disrespectful; in fact, her candor with expressing how she wished to approach the task at hand impressed me.

“That’s fine,” I replied, surprised at her hesitation to get started. Five minutes earlier, she was ready to begin, ready to start recounting her experiences. Without the assignment sheet, however, she seemed unwilling to experiment.

I thought, Yes, make sure you don’t write anything that might not be ultimately used in your final draft. Of course, I was being sarcastic, so I kept that thought to myself; however, it did lead me to wonder that perhaps these students merely possess a “one and done” approach to writing not only in my class, but possibly other classes across the curriculum.

The whole situation gave me pause. I was taken aback that this student and her friend refused to write simply because they didn’t have “directions.”

So I rationalized. These girls are conscientious students, after all. Maybe they just aren’t used to creative writing, I thought. Or maybe they’re unaccustomed to revising their work beyond mere proofreading. That could be it.

But could it be more than that? Picturing my own detailed assignment sheets (some of which contain rubrics), I know these sheets may appear to students to spell things out a little too clearly, as in “Here’s the rubric. Do what it says. Don’t do anything it doesn’t say. Turn it in. Get the A.”

Of course, part of my reasoning for providing such detailed rubrics takes absent students into account. If a student is absent when an assignment is explained, everything they need to know about it is found on the sheet.

But in the case of these girls, could their hesitancy to start writing their memoirs be the unintended result of well-meaning teachers like me who provide students with specific checklists, detailed rubrics, and formulaic instructions for getting the job done right the first time?

By providing rubrics consistently, have I unintentionally signaled to students that the rigid adherence to a rubric is what’s most important?

Have I signaled to students that there is only one way to complete a task?

Have I inadvertently prioritized specific steps or criteria in the rubric at the expense of experimentation? In other words, can I use a rubric that encourages flexibility in a process and creativity of thought?

Does the rubric with its points awarded for a correctly cited quotation, for example, receive more consideration than it should from a busy student who just wants to finish the assignment as quickly as possible?

After all, if a student focuses on satisfying the rubric, then it won’t be necessary to rethink an idea or backtrack on a thought… essential, organic, and mysterious parts of the writing and thinking process.

Of course, rubrics serve a valid purpose. Rubrics clearly convey to students how to succeed on a task. And for teachers, rubrics allow quick, fair, and objective grading.

However, as my students’ hesitancy indicated, perhaps I should use rubrics and checklists more sparingly. Perhaps I should allow for variation from the expected way to complete a task. Perhaps I should allow—encourage even—students to find their own way through an assignment. To get lost in it. To muddle through it. To get unorthodox with it. To think it through on their own.

After all, their future boss won’t provide a rubric for landing an account or creating a marketing campaign. Instead, she’ll expect the former student to know how to figure things out for themselves.


Thanks for reading! School has started and we’ve already got a few assignments under our belts. Rubrics be warned. Stay tuned for more posts about the transition from middle school to high school ELA.

 

“Where I’m From” Poems

My All-Time Favorite Poetry Activity

 

71SSEfkvlOL._SY600_
George Ella Lyon, American Writer and Teacher

Have you heard of George Ella Lyon? She’s an American writer and teacher from Kentucky who wrote a poem several years ago called “Where I’m From.” Here’s Lyons’ poem:

Where I’m From

I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening,
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.

I’m from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
I’m from the know-it-alls
and the pass-it-ons,
from Perk up! and Pipe down!
I’m from He restoreth my soul
with a cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.

I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
to the auger,
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.

Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments–
snapped before I budded —
leaf-fall from the family tree.

Lyons’ website is extensive and explains the inspiration for her writing the poem. Here’s an excerpt from her website:

“Where I’m From” grew out of my response to a poem from Stories I Ain’t Told Nobody Yet (Orchard Books, 1989; Theater Communications Group, 1991) by my friend, Tennessee writer Jo Carson. All of the People Pieces, as Jo calls them, are based on things folks actually said, and number 22 begins, “I want to know when you get to be from a place. ” Jo’s speaker, one of those people “that doesn’t have roots like trees, ” tells us “I am from Interstate 40” and “I am from the work my father did. ”

In the summer of 1993, I decided to see what would happen if I made my own where-I’m-from lists, which I did, in a black and white speckled composition book. I edited them into a poem — not my usual way of working — but even when that was done I kept on making the lists. The process was too rich and too much fun to give up after only one poem. Realizing this, I decided to try it as an exercise with other writers, and it immediately took off. The list form is simple and familiar, and the question of where you are from reaches deep.

Each spring, my sixth-grade students write their own “Where I’m From” poems. These poems never fail to produce highly personal, touching, and honest poems.

I always display the students’  work in the hallway or on a bulletin board so everyone can read them. Students are drawn to these simple little poems that can’t help but be packed with imagery and sensory language. In fact, just last week, one of my eighth-grade students mentioned that it was one of her favorite things she had written in my class.

To get started, I read aloud Lyons’ “Where I’m From” poem as a mentor text and then I follow that up with reading three or four poems from former students. Then I pass out a template to guide students through the poem’s organization and ideas. There are several versions of the poem template out there on the Internet and on Lyons’ website; this one works especially well: iamfrompoem

Students should use this template as a guide when brainstorming and writing their poems. I don’t require that every blank be filled out as printed on the template; students can modify it to fit their life story. It’s simply a guideline, a starting point.

These poems speak for themselves. Since that’s the case, I have simply posted below some of the more poignant ones from my current sixth-grade classes.

IMG_8659

IMG_8657

IMG_8658

IMG_8662

IMG_8664

I schedule our “Where I’m From” poems so they can be considered for publication in Creative Communication’s Spring Poetry Anthology. (By the way, check out this link for more on this publisher and its contests.) Each year, more than half of my sixth-graders see their “Where I’m From” poems published in a real hard-cover book. It’s very inspiring and is an awesome way to end the year!


Have you ever taught “Where I’m From” poems? Leave a comment with your thoughts and experiences. Thanks for reading! See you next week.

It’s a Wrap! Three Take-Aways from Writer’s Workshop

Students turned in their final portfolios on Friday, and just like that, the semester is nearly over.

IMG_7828
A 7th-grader assembles his final Writer’s Workshop portfolio.

On Friday, my seventh- and eighth-graders turned in their final Writer’s Workshop portfolios. In early November, students began choosing eight writing projects from a list of twelve. The list offered a range of projects ranging from poetry to arguments to narratives to informational works. The focus of WW was the writing process. The procedure required that they complete three drafts and share their work with their peers and me for feedback and revision suggestions.

Click here to read my post from three weeks ago that outlines how WW works in my classroom.

By the way, I didn’t include a list of the various writing projects in that earlier post. Here are two photos of the final portfolio rubric I used this year, which lists the projects students could choose from.

IMG_7831
7th-Grade Final Portfolio Rubric | Instructions and word count requirements for each project were provided on a separate sheet.
IMG_7832
8th-grade Final Portfolio Rubric | Instructions and word count requirements for each project were provided on a separate sheet.

It might appear that the grading was intensive and time-consuming. However, since I had already seen the students’ second drafts and provided feedback on those, my main task in assessment was confirming that students followed the writing process for each project. Students turned in a two-pocket folder with their eight projects enclosed. For each project,  I looked for their first draft, their first draft responder sheet, their second draft (the draft I provided feedback on), and finally on top of the stack, their third and final draft. I did make sure that significant changes were made at each stage of revision. Points were deducted if they didn’t make any changes from draft to draft. In addition, I gave a “quality of writing  & presentation” grade and then also circled a holistic rating for their work (see arrow on the final portfolio rubric in the photo below).

In case you’re wondering, yes, we do use a lot of paper (and ink) in my classroom. Students composed mostly on their Chromebooks, but then I also required that every project is printed. I know many students share their Google Docs with each other for revision and editing purposes, but I still require that students turn in hard copies of all drafts. Here’s my post that explains my loyalty to having students submit paper copies, rather than just dropping a file into Google Classroom.

IMG_7834
One student’s final portfolio

Overall, WW was a great experience this year. As I graded rubrics this weekend, I came upon three main take-aways. Here they are:

  1. Require that students choose an equal number of each genre. While the variety offered in the project list usually guarantees that students will write across genres, I did notice that some students were heavy on poetry, which makes sense. Free-verse poetry (which I encourage over rhyme) seems to have (to students, anyway) fewer rules and punctuation usage can be looser. However, I would prefer that students get more practice in essay writing. Next year, I’ll make sure to enforce “genre equality!”
  2. Schedule a progress grade mid-way through the workshop schedule. I did this informally by checking with students during conferencing to ensure they were on-task throughout the six weeks, but assigning a formal grade that required the completion of four projects at the three-week point may have helped some of the students with budgeting their time.
  3. Continue the responder sheet grade. This year, I added a responder sheet grade. I asked each student to show me a responder sheet that they filled out for another student. If they followed the directions on the responder sheet, which were to choose four to six questions and answer them in writing on the back of the sheet, they would receive full points. If they answered only two questions, then half points. If they only made a few editing marks on the draft, or provided minimal answers (as in “I think it’s great!” with no suggestions for improvement), they would earn fewer points. Including this grade in the workshop this year made students more accountable for providing constructive feedback. I need to make sure I continue with this practice.

IMG_7835

It’s been a good semester and I’m looking forward to January. After Christmas break, seventh-graders will begin reading Chasing Lincoln’s Killer followed by an analysis of the film, The Conspirator; eighth-graders will continue work on their human rights dissertation and also begin reading Frederick Douglass’ narrative. My sixth-graders? They’ll be continuing their mastery of the beloved five-paragraph essay, the champion of academic writing. More on that in a later post!


Thanks for reading! Feel free to click like and leave a comment with your own Writer’s Workshop experiences. 

 

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.”

IMG_7689
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.

siddharth-bhogra-143322-unsplash
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. 

The Candy Memoir: A Sweet Assignment

This candy-themed essay is a great intro to the genre of memoir

candymemoirs
I made this image using Canva.com and included it on my Instagram account, @elabraveandtrue.

My second writing project with sixth-graders (after the Sometimes Poem) is memoir writing. We dip our toes into memoir writing by documenting memories that involve candy. If kids can’t think of anything or don’t really like candy, they can write about a favorite food instead.

Memoir is usually a new genre for sixth-graders, so we first learn what a memoir is. To do that, I start with what they know… a story about something that’s happened to them. It can be a happy time or a sad time, but it just has to be a true story. This is called the personal narrative, and this year, when I asked who could tell me what a personal narrative is, several hands shot up. That’s an awesome sign! I so appreciate the teachers these kids had in their elementary years. They have established such a firm foundation to build on!

After discussing the features of a personal narrative, I passed out a memoir to everyone. This one was called “Whatchmacallits and Me” and had been written by Hunter, a former student who is now in high school. Several of the kids knew this student and were curious to see his writing.

I turned on my document camera, and asked kids to draw a line on their copy of the memoir. This line was just above the last paragraph, which contained a reflection or observation written by the student about the memory. I then asked the kids to crease the paper on the line, folding the last paragraph under the sheet of paper. I made a point to call the part they were now looking at a personal narrative.

I read aloud the narrative from the beginning to the line that we had drawn. As I finished reading, I told them, “That was the personal narrative.” Then we briefly discussed the strongest moment in the narrative, the weakest moment, and other things we noticed.

Then I asked the kids to unfold their paper After everyone had unfolded their paper, I announced, “Presto! Abracadabra! Just like magic, Hunter’s narrative has turned into a memoir!” By folding down the final paragraph, which contained the reflection, we revealed the memoir. I explained it this way so they could see that a memoir contains everything that a narrative does, but that it also includes a moment of reflection.

I also show a Powerpoint slide that shows the differences between the personal narrative and the memoir. I leave this up on the Smartboard for the duration of class. See below for these lists:

Here are the features of a personal narrative, as listed in my Powerpoint:

  • A story based on a memory or experience
  • Uses 1st-person point-of-view (I, me, we, us, our…)
  • Has an interesting lead that “hooks” the reader
  • Has a beginning, middle, and end
  • Uses sensory language (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, texture)

Here are the features of a memoir, as listed in my Powerpoint:

  • A story based on a memory or experience
  • Uses 1st-person point-of-view (I, me, we, us, our…)
  • Has an interesting lead that “hooks” the reader
  • Has a beginning, middle and end
  • Uses sensory language (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, texture)
  • BUT ALSO: Has a reflection… a “lesson learned”, a realization, or an explanation of why the memory is important to you
  • BUT ALSO: May contain exaggeration, and made-up details, if necessary.

We repeated this same procedure for another former student’s memoir about chocolate-covered graham crackers. For good measure, we did this one more time with an essay titled “Ice Cream” from the book, Candy and Me: A Love Story by Hilary Liftin. I searched on Amazon.com for it and its current edition’s title is Candy and Me: A Girl’s Tale of Life, Love, and Sugar.

IMG_7239

Liftin’s book contains several (around 30-40) memoir essays about specific candies. I especially like the chapters on Bottle Caps, Ice Cream, Tootsie Rolls, the Bubble Burger, Sugar, Candy Corn, and Conversation Hearts. (There are a few essays with passages not suitable for middle school, so plan ahead for that.) However, this book provides enough texts to share with students to help them get ideas for their own.

Following all of these read-alouds, we did quite a bit of sharing. We talked about our favorite candy, why we like it so much, and then we tried to narrow our ideas to a specific memory with that candy.

candy and me 2

Memories with our favorite candy don’t have to be life-changing to make a good memoir; if sitting around the campfire eating s’mores just reminds one of being happy, then that’s a special enough memory for the assignment. It’s okay for the reflection to simply acknowledge that a s’more reminds you of good times.

IMG_7242
This is the table of contents from the Liftin book, Candy and Me. It’s full of fun chapters.

At this point,  I had students get out a sheet of notebook paper and asked them to do some free-writing about their favorite candy. Getting thoughts down about their candy was the main objective. They could start by simply describing their candy… flavors, texture, appearance, or what the

Many started bringing me short paragraphs about how great their candy was and that was okay. However, at this time, I asked them to record a memory with the candy. It could be as basic as just riding home from the grocery story in the back seat of the car, slowly peeling back the wrapper and inhaling the white chocolate aroma of a Zero bar. This usually prompted students to get a little more down on paper.

Sixth-graders love to write a few lines and then come up to you and ask, “Is this good?” They really want to do well.

As a usual practice, I like for kids to do their initial writing by hand on paper. When they have filled up the front of a sheet of paper, I allow them to get out a laptop and type it up, making any changes they need to as they go. One page of writing is a lot to a sixth-grader, so I offer to give them ideas if they get stuck and can’t fill up the page.

Probably the best thing about these candy memoirs is they allow me to talk with each student individually and get to know them a little better. It’s fun to find out that we like the same candy, for example. Sometimes we find out that someone’s favorite is someone else’s least favorite.

It is difficult for some kids to add reflective moments into their narratives. Many will simply not add them until I prompt them with a phrase such as, “Looking back on it now, …” or “Eating Skittles showed me that…”

The candy memoir is an entry point into the genre of memoir. In fact, we follow up this sweet assignment by writing a memoir that isn’t based on candy, but on a memory of a special moment from their young lives. As we get into this part of the unit, I’ll fill you in on those details.


Thanks for reading! Check back with me next week for a continuation of this post. I’ll write about the next step… venturing out into writing a memoir about a special or memorable moment.