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. 

Here’s what Writer’s Workshop looks like in my middle school classroom

I’m so glad I didn’t give up on what is now one of my favorite activities

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Since I began teaching seven years ago, I’ve learned that sometimes it may be necessary to try a new technique, a new curriculum unit, or simply a new idea more than once in order to fairly assess its effectiveness.

Usually, the first time I try anything, it fizzles. At the conclusion of the semester, when students were turning in their final drafts of their projects, I was glad Writer’s Workshop (WW) was finally over. I didn’t like the unstructured nature of class time that the workshop encouraged. Perhaps my classroom management skills weren’t up to par, or perhaps I’ve just relaxed a little. Perhaps it’s a bit of both, but the less structured nature doesn’t concern me like it used to because…

I’m sold on Writer’s Workshop now.

Besides, my WW is fairly structured in its procedure to begin with. That built-in structure requires that kids stay on task. If I had decided to give up on WW after my first attempt, or even the second, I would have missed out on an activity that some students say is their favorite. Many students seem to like coming into class, having a short lesson, and then being able to work at their own pace on the projects of their choosing.

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Zoom in to see the Writer’s Workshop project list for 7th graders. Students choose eight projects from the list of twelve. The procedure for each assignment is on the back.  This entire procedure is based on one by K-12 teacher Corbett Harrison.

Writer’s Workshop puts these two things front and center: student choice and the writing process. Here’s what it looks like in my classroom: Every student gets a project sheet that lists about twelve possible writing projects. The list includes a mix of discourses: narrative, informational, argument, and poetry.  I usually don’t specify how many of each discourse they must do, since there’s enough of a mix to guarantee they’ll write a variety.  Kids must complete eight projects of their choice in a given time period. This fall, we started Writer’s Workshop on November 1, and their final portfolios are due Dec. 14. Here’s the rest of the basic procedure:

  • On day one of WW, as a class, we discuss the entire project list. Some of the assignments are new and don’t require that we go over them, but I introduce a few new projects each time, so we make sure to briefly discuss those. I pass out an assignment sheet to each student and we talk through each assignment, brainstorm some ideas, and talk about other details such as that assignment’s word count requirement.
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These two racks hold all the paperwork for Writer’s Workshop. On the left are the 7th and 8th grade project lists and responder sheets. On the right are the folders that contain the individual assignment sheets for each project, as well as mentor texts, and contest guidelines, if applicable.
  • After discussing each assignment, I gather up the project sheets and put them in a manila folder labelled with the project name in a rack on a book shelf at the front of the classroom for kids to reference later when they need them. (By the way, the procedures for WW are listed on the back of each project assignment sheet.)
  • Writers choose a project, read through the project’s assignment sheet, and then brainstorm, and write a first draft. The first drafts can be handwritten or typed at this point; eventually, they’ll need to be typed.
  • After completing a first draft, writers must find a classmate to be their reviewer, who will provide feedback and suggestions for revisions. This is done by attaching a narrative, informative, argument, or poetry responder sheet to the first draft. (The responder sheets are also kept in labeled manila folders in a rack next to the assignment project sheets at the front of the room.)
  • The reviewer then must answer in writing four questions listed on the responder sheet. The reviewer writes their answers on the back of the responder sheet on the lines provided. One thing I learned after my first WW attempt: If I don’t provide lines on the back of the page, students won’t write their answers down. They’ll simply jot a few very brief notes, or just tell the writer, “It was great. You don’t need to change anything. The lines on the back of the responder sheet holds students accountable to be more thorough with their feedback. I check these first draft sheets and talk with students who aren’t doing their fair share of feedback.
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Zoom in to read this responder sheet for an argument assignment. There is one of these sheets for poetry, informative, and narrative assignments, as well. Students must answer at least four questions about a classmate’s first draft on the backs of these sheets. Writers make changes to their first draft based on the answers their reviewer provides. After making their changes, writers staple their first draft and the responder sheet to their second draft and place it in my WW box for my feedback.
  • After providing their feedback, the reviewer gives the first draft and responder sheet back to the writer, who makes revisions, edits, and any other changes suggested. This creates a second draft, which the writer then places (with the first draft and responder sheet) in my second draft box. I do set a deadline for students to turn in their second drafts. At this point, that second draft deadline is one week before final portfolios are due. (I may need to reset that deadline to an earlier date.)
  • I read the second draft and fill out my own responder sheet, which has my suggestions and notes for the student. I ask that students give me a few days to return their second drafts to them.
  • After I return the second draft to the writer, they generate a third and final draft, referring to my ideas, revisions and edits that I suggest. While I don’t have time to mark every issue I notice on a paper, I do make sure that students understand what I do mark. I’ll usually talk with students when I hand their second draft back to them. This is always a good time to get in some one-on-one conferencing with each student, which, by the way, I am doing now on my phone with the help of Google Forms.  (I’ll explain this new experiment from Two Writing Teachers in a future post after I become more accustomed to it.)
  • After completing their final draft, students compile all three drafts, responder sheets, and any prewriting or brainstorming and staple their “latest greatest” final draft on top. They then keep these finished projects in a two-pocket folder in a file cabinet in my room. On December 14, these folders will be turned in. And yes, I get it, that’s a lot of work being turned in at once; however, I’ve already seen every assignment in the folders (if students put their second drafts in the box). It’s basically a matter of verifying that students used the writing process to complete the assignments.
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You’ll need to zoom in to see what’s inside my memoir assignment folder. This folder contains the instructions for the memoir, three student-written mentor texts, and two handouts with memoir topic ideas. Students use any or all of these as they need them. 

only aspect of WW I’d like to change for next time would be a more direct way for students to publish their work. Right now, I plan to post articles and stories and poetry in the hallway or in my room. Next semester, if all goes well, I will be having students choose which of their projects they would like to publish online in their Kidblog portfolio. (Again, that’s another future post.) Having an audience and a readership is crucial for motivating kids to write; I know this from my own writing experience on this blog and on Medium.com.

Here’s where I give credit where credit is due:

My Writer’s Workshop format is based on one designed and used by Corbett Harrison, a K-16 teacher with an EXTREMELY comprehensive website I located on the internet. Search his site (and its associated Northern Nevada Writing Project and WritingFix websites) for all kinds of ELA materials and ideas. (In fact, block out an hour or two if you intend to look at his site. It’s chock full of ideas and resources.)  In the past, I’ve also had success with his creative approach to vocabulary instruction that provides as much choice and accountability as his WW.

Harrison offers a free 18-page PDF that explains how he facilitates WW in his middle school classroom. This PDF also includes the responder sheets and my second draft responder sheet.  I can’t recommend Harrison’s plans enough. If you haven’t tried WW in your classes, his would be a good place to start. The plans have definitely worked for me by providing me a template to tweak here and there over the past couple of years. I’m so glad I didn’t give up on this solid, necessary, tried-and-true activity in my middle school ELA classroom.


Thanks for stopping by! Click like and follow this blog for more posts about middle school ELA. Also, feel free to leave a comment about how you approach Writer’s Workshop in your classroom. 

I’m still using and really, really liking Planbook

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This is my desk one morning in early November. As you can see, I am very paper-based.

Here’s my follow-up post about my online lesson planning

I’m still using Planbook! Every day, I can enter my lesson plans for the next day, the next week, the next month, and even the next year. If I like how I did something, I just copy it into the future and voila! it’s done. (Click here for my earlier post written the first day I started using Planbook.)

I’m following a year-long plan that I have outlined in my spiral planner that I keep on my desk on top of another binder where I keep printed copies of my Planbook plans. As you can see, I’m a very paper-based person.

So even switching to entering my lesson plans online was a huge step; however, it’s going well. I like how I can skip around to the next week quickly, or bounce back to the previous week or month to see exactly what I did during each class.

In addition, the search function is priceless. For example, I can enter “run-on sentences” into the search bar and a list of lessons pop up that show me exactly when run-on sentences were taught or discussed. In the past, I had to manually page through my binder and search.

Planbook’s $15 annual subscription fee is worth it. Before jumping into the subscription, however, I investigated Planboard, another online lesson planning tool. (Planboard is free of charge, by the way.) To set up Planboard, it required several details about times of classes, duration of terms, and other aspects of scheduling. At the time, I wasn’t able to devote that much thought to it, so I reverted back to Planbook because it is so straightforward and simple to begin. I bet no more than five minutes passed between when I initially logged in to when I began entering plans.

So, bottom line: Planbook is working. Planbook is simple. If you haven’t started using an online lesson planning tool, I would definitely recommend Planbook. It has completely changed the way I plan lessons.


Thanks for stopping by! How do you plan your lessons? Planbook? Planboard? Do you use good ol’ binders? Comment away with your experiences with lesson planning. See you next week.

Contest #12: Fleet Reserve Association’s Americanism Essay Contest

Here’s a new contest you may want to check out.

Copy of Writing Contest #1 (15)

A former student told me about this contest, which I don’t have any experience with. It’s one I’m totally new to, but thought I would add it to my blog’s contest list anyway. It might be something I can invite or encourage a few students to try this year. I’ll let you know if that happens.

Fleet Reserve Association is “first and foremost a community of the Sea Services; U.S. Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard personnel,” according to their website.

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Photo: Christin Hume on Unsplash

Topic/Prompt: What Americanism Means to Me… It’s a fairly open-ended prompt with lots of room for interpretation by a young writer. Students can read the winning entry from last year here. 

Skills Addressed:  This essay would be a good way for students to hone their expository or argument writing skills. Depending on, however, how they approach it, there may be opportunities for your students to add narrative elements, such as dialogue or a few sequenced events. Make sure your students know they can try different techniques.

Length: 350 words

Deadline: Dec. 1, 2018. Students must submit their essay through a sponsor, which could include an FRA member, a member of the Ladies Auxiliary or an FRA member-at-large. Click here for a link to their website and a tool that will show sponsors in your area.

Prizes: The grand national winner receives $5,000. The top three essays in each grade category win the following: $2,500 for first place; $1,500 for second place; and $1,000 for third place.  There are also plaques and certificates of recognition. Local and regional levels may also have award their own prizes, but I don’t have information on that.

For More Info: Locate an FRA sponsor here for more information here. The FRA website also has more information.


Thanks for reading this week! I’ll be back next week with a rubric I am using with my eighth-graders to create “One Word Summaries,” a favorite activity that I use at least once a quarter during each school year. The activity is one I learned about from my favorite English teacher-guru Kelly Gallagher. I’ve added a few tweaks to it this year and I’ll be sharing that information with you next week!