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.

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The rubric rub

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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.