Category Archives: Teaching Writing

Slice of Life #11: The Year of Lear

Slice of LifeI haven’t taught King Lear in a few years, but my AP students are reading it alongside Jane Smiley’s modern adaptation, A Thousand Acres. I so enjoyed returning to this play, which is one of my favorites. As students read, they are creating character maps with the twinned characters in each work, detailing which characters are allied with Lear (or at least have his best interests at heart), and which ones are his enemies. At the end of the play, students will create a literary reduction.

A quick Google search of the term “literary reduction” doesn’t yield fruitful results. I learned about reductions from my Dean of Faculty, Cindy Sabik, who has used them in her own English classes. Essentially, students create graphic representations of what they have learned. Using a standard 8½ x 11-inch sheet of paper, students  distill the essence of the work by organizing quotes, ideas, images, and connections from a work of literature. My students are working in groups focusing on four different themes in the play. They will create reductions based on these themes, so as they read, they are looking for quotes that connect to their themes.

Look what I received in the mail today:

The Year of Lear

I’m so excited for this book. I absolutely loved James Shapiro’s other books A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 and Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, and given that I am currently teaching Lear and have often taught Macbeth, I expect I will learn a great deal from this book. Actually, I’ve just read the first chapter, and the first thing I wanted to do was go back in time and do Monday’s class over again. Ah well, I can still share what I’ve learned with my students tomorrow. Shakespeare is a deep well, and even when I think I know just about everything, I plumb a little deeper and uncover something new. The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 looks like a great addition to my learning library.

Later this week, I will be presenting on writing workshop in my classes at OESIS (Online Education Symposia for Independent Schools) in Boston. Here is my presentation (for the curious). I want to share one interesting finding. My students use Google Docs to write, and I selected an assignment from the end of last year at random from which to draw some data. I selected an assignment from the end of the year because at that stage, students were acclimated to the workshop process. Students wrote an analysis of Macbeth. I examined how many edits they made to their essays. Keeping in mind that not every single edit is a substantial change, each edit does represent a different time that students opened the document and made some changes. Google Docs saves work every few seconds, but that does not mean a new version is created every few seconds. If you do want to see these more detailed revisions, you can click the button that says “Show more detailed revisions.” Students must stop working and return to the document after some time has passed for it to count as a new version. With that caveat in mind, here are some figures:

  • Students made an average of 8.79 edits on this one assignment.
  • One student made only two edits, but I suspect he wrote his essay in Word and pasted it later.
  • One student made 19 edits.
  • All of the students who made 12 or more edits are currently taking AP-level classes. They were not in an Honors class last year.

Even if each edit was not substantial, I admit I was blown away by these numbers.  It’s entirely possible students were making the same number of edits before I introduced writing workshop / in-depth critique to my classes (but I doubt it). It’s also possible that when students use Word, they make just as many changes, but I can’t see them because there is no revision history available for me to see. This kind of data is just one more reason, in my mind, to use Google Docs.

Just as an experiment, I decided to take a closer look at the student who made 19 edits. His last edit was insertion of a citation and a few word choice tweaks. The previous edit included removing a block quote and adding the evidence to a different part of the essay (and integrating it more tightly), deleting a sentence, lots of word choice tweaks, and reworking his conclusion. The edit previous to this one included the addition of three sentences and the deletion of two others. The previous edit included quite a lot of revision of the first page of the essay—lots of additions and deletions. The previous edit was minor, including only a sentence and a few punctuation marks. Over time, it’s interesting to see the way the essay took final shape.

In our last department meeting, we were discussing writing and the ways in which our school has embraced writing workshop, and one department member shared that he feels that students seem to understand how to revise and edit better than they had in the past. In addition, bringing writing in to the peer editing club has carried a bit of a stigma in the past, but now, he added, it’s just something that you do to improve your work. I couldn’t be happier that the work we are doing is bearing such fruit. When you treat students like writers, including emphasizing the process and teaching them to edit, they become better writers.

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Dickinson and Diction

Emily Dickinson House

Last weekend, I presented at a digital storytelling conference in the Northampton/Amherst area, so I took the opportunity to visit Emily Dickinson’s house, now a museum.

Photographs are not allowed inside the house, so I can’t give you a tour, but I would really encourage you to visit if you find yourself in western Massachusetts. I took a docent-led tour of Dickinson’s house, but you can also take a longer tour that includes her brother’s home next door as well. My favorite part of the tour was upstairs. On the stairs’ landing is a replica of Emily Dickinson’s dress. The light shines through the window just right, and it looks almost ethereal. In Dickinson’s bedroom, the docent told us that the room had recently been renovated to include several items that were not previously there and new wallpaper that is a reproduction of the actual paper Dickinson had in the room. Her own sleigh bed is there. I was fascinated to learn Dickinson had pictures of George Eliot and Elizabeth Barrett Browning hanging in her room. Whether those pictures currently hanging in the room are the same ones or not, I don’t know, but Dickinson’s niece attested to the fact that she had pictures of these two women writers hanging in her room.

Across from Dickinson’s bedroom is an empty room with two poetry installations. One examines many ways in which Dickinson’s poetry stands apart from other poetry—slant rhyme, ballad meter, and diction. The other examines a poem with alternative word choices. The poem is Fr 1469 “A Chilly Peace infests the Grass.” (Fr is the R. W. Franklin number for the poem, and along with Johnson’s edition, is considered a restored, authoritative edition.) In the installation, there are sliders installed so that you can examine the alternative word choices Dickinson was thinking of for some of the words. For “Chilly,” she also considered “lonesome—” and “warning—.” I kind of like the effect of “warning—” myself. There is no final copy of this poem, and it wasn’t published (as many were not), so we don’t know what Dickinson ultimately decided for the poem. Of course, it gave me a great idea for a lesson. I was extremely sad not to be able to take pictures in the museum at that moment, but in speaking with the docent, and taking notes, I did walk away with a good lesson plan, and I was later able to find enough information online to create a good lesson plan.

Caveat: The Franklin edition poems are copyrighted, as are the Johnson editions, so I can’t post what I created, but the limited preview edition of the three-volume Variorum Edition edited by Franklin does include this poem. Be mindful of the copyright. It is probably fair use to use it in your classroom, but it wouldn’t be fair use to distribute the poem online, I don’t think.

Anyway, I re-created the diction variations for this poem using Smart Notebook software so students can interact with the different word choices like I could when I visited the museum. Later, I found this lesson by Cynthia Storrs on the museum website that is extremely similar to my own idea (only much more fleshed out in that Storrs considers other poems as well). After reading Storrs’s lesson, I added the poem Fr 124 “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers—,” which Dickinson appears to have edited extensively. It’s been suggested that she was never really quite happy with it. You can read two substantially different versions on’s site. Incidentally, this poem is one of the few published in Dickinson’s lifetime, and she still continued to edit it after publication, so even publication cannot be considered the final word on word choice. I also added Fr 598 “The Brain—is wider than the Sky—” as an introductory piece in the lesson, as it had only two alternative word choices. I had forgotten how much I loved that poem. I hadn’t read it in many years.

I don’t believe I’ll execute my lesson in exactly the same way as Storrs has written it. I plan to begin by asking students to journal about the question “How much does word choice really matter?” I did rather like Storrs’s essential questions, so I will borrow those. After a review of what “diction” is, I plan to display Fr 598 and allow students to examine the effect of the two alternate word choices. What is the effect? Which do they like better and why? Next will be the interactive version of Fr 1469. Students will be able to manipulate the word choices. I emailed our math chair to help me with the math, and he walked me through the reasoning (it’s been a long time since I did this). Considering all the word choices Emily Dickinson considered for this poem, there are potentially 120 different versions of that poem. Finally, I will have students examine Fr 124 in some detail, and perhaps with a partner or small group, much as Storrs describes in her lesson.

Prior to this lesson, I will ask students to write poetry of their own (this part is not fully formed in my head yet). They will think about alternative word choices in their own poems and workshop the poems with these alternate word choices.

I wish I’d been able to be in Amherst this weekend, as it was a Poetry Festival. I was definitely inspired by my visit. I’m lucky to live in what is essentially the cradle of American literature, and visiting Dickinson’s house made me realize there are probably similar lesson ideas an opportunities waiting out there for every other New England writer I could think of. I have some work to do. I ran right out and bought the R. W. Franklin edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson and White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson by Brenda Wineapple.

A few more pictures before I go.

"Love Lies Bleeding” (Amaranthus caudatus)

This gorgeous flower was in Dickinson’s garden. The label says, “Love Lies Bleeding” (Amaranthus caudatus). I immediately thought of Shug saying that it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple and don’t notice it.

Emily Dickinson's Grave

Emily Dickinson’s grave is only a short walk from her house, so of course, I had to stop by and pay my respects. I placed one of those stones there. I had to wonder how often the caretakers remove these items.

Dickinson Graves

The Dickinson family plot is surrounded by a wrought iron fence. This plaque is on the gate. There is a tree growing in the plot. I am no botanist for sure, but I suspect it’s a yew tree. Can anyone confirm?

Dickinson family plot

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The Transformative Kenyon Writer’s Workshop for Teachers

Doc Emily's Groovy Writers
Photo courtesy Andy Sidle

I spent June 27 to July 2 in Gambier, Ohio at Kenyon College as a participant in the Kenyon Writer’s Workshop for Teachers. Given how much writing I did while I was there, I had a difficult time figuring out how to begin talking about it here on my blog. I thought about it for a few days. I’m still not sure I’ll be able to put the experience into words, which is ironic given how I did rediscover a writing voice I thought I had lost.

I think one of the reasons I was nervous about going to Kenyon was that I didn’t necessarily consider myself a writer anymore. I don’t really want to characterize what I did as “giving up,” but I guess it was. I no longer did any of the things I told my students to do—to just dump out ideas, to write first and revise later, to write for themselves. I had this internal editor going all the time. Most of all, I just didn’t write. Not really. I mean, I wrote the occasional blog post. But I couldn’t have told you the last time I wrote a poem. I used to write poetry all the time. I always had a notebook for my poems, pretty much all through high school and college. I can’t even tell you when I stopped. I think one day I just thought maybe I wasn’t very good at writing poetry. I have written fiction off and on for a while, but it had even been a while since I had written fiction.

What this writing workshop did is crack me wide open. Now I have all these ideas and all this material to work with, and I feel like I found my voice again. I am a writer again. There was a time when writing was something I thought I would always do. I even started an application to study creative writing Emerson College in Boston (I abandoned it once I realized I would not be able to attend college out of state, and at that time, I lived in Georgia). My high school English teacher, Shelia Keener, encouraged me to write and has been telling me for years that I missed my calling. I do believe that I should be an English teacher, but Shelia is right that I should have kept up the writing.

I feel like I found my tribe at Kenyon. We had excellent instructors, for one thing. Real teachers who work with students in the classroom. My instructor, Emily Moore, is a gifted writing instructor. I am stealing simply everything she did with us. The participants were also writing teachers. I was struck not only by their dedication to the craft of writing but also to their dedication to their students. Many of them are practicing writers, and I admit to feeling a bit intimidated by them. They are really good writers. I was thrilled when one of our tribe, Joe Carriere, not only took on the task of creating a literary magazine out of our work, but also created a Facebook group for us. All of us wrote something to share at a reading, even our instructors. Each time we did a writing prompt, they wrote with us. In fact, Emily has a great technique of freewriting on the board with her students, making the messiness of freewriting public. It is freeing to see writers in process. I knew, as a writing teacher, that writing didn’t come fully formed and perfect from anyone’s pen, but for some reason, this inner critic inside me expected my writing to be different from every other writer. If I had to pick one moment when I realized what I had been doing, it might have been when we read the Robert Frost poem “Design.” Emily shared two versions: a rough draft and a final draft. It was like something clicked into place. Even Robert Frost wrote shitty drafts. Even Robert Frost!

Seeing that poem in draft form really helped me see that I am not a bad writer. I probably need to spend more time revising. Just like my students. And a writer’s workshop is extremely valuable. Given how much workshop I have done with my students the last two years, you’d think I’d have figured that out. Somehow I always separated what I did as a writer from what I did as a teacher.

The five days and change that I spent at Kenyon were transformative. I actually see myself as a writer again. I feel like I have been given a gift. The people I met were amazing. I think I have made new lifelong friends. I really do. The campus is gorgeous. The stained glass windows in the dining hall depict scenes from books! It truly is English teacher (or English major) heaven. In addition to giving me back my writing life and helping me make excellent friends, I also met two writers and had an opportunity to talk shop and now have a year’s subscription to The Kenyon Review. I actually read poetry on the plane back home. When was the last time I read so much poetry? I discovered Andrew Grace in the May/June 2015 issue and liked his poem so much I ordered a copy of his collection Shadeland. I really, really can’t remember the last time I read contemporary poetry.

At the workshop, I ran into Sam Bradford, a friend and former colleague from the Weber School, where I worked in Georgia.

Dana and SamSam has been writing fiction for years and will be the department chair at Weber next year, so we will have a lot to talk about, and I am so grateful we are back in touch. Neither of us knew the other would be there. I was so excited to see him, but even more excited to see him connect with Charley Mull, a colleague from Worcester Academy and one of my favorite people. I made them both take a picture with me on the last day.

Charley, Dana, and Sam
Charley, Dana, and Sam

I am so glad they became friends. Charley and Sam were in the same group, which was not my group with Emily. We still had plenty of opportunities to interact.

Here is a picture Sam took of me doing my reading.

Dana Reading
Photo courtesy Sam Bradford

A photo of me with my new friend Whitney (and a photobomb with my new friend, Andy).

Whitney, Dana, and AndyAnd a photo of me with my instructor, Emily. Andy somehow photobombed that one, too!

Emily and DanaWhat a phenomenal experience. I have to thank my Dean of Faculty, Cindy Sabik, for convincing me to go.

I learned some new techniques for teaching writing. I wrote some things I feel pretty good about. In fact, I am actually thinking about pursuing publication, which is something I haven’t thought about doing for many years (and that is one reason I haven’t shared anything I wrote at the workshop here). Honestly, I thought that ship had sailed a long time ago. I truly can’t remember the last time I thought about publication for myself.

You should go next summer.

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Digital Storytelling Final Projects

I struggled with whether to write this post or not because digital stories are personal, or they can be personal, but I really believe my students have done good work that is worthy of the world, so I am plunging in.

As I have mentioned before, I went to a digital storytelling workshop last summer. It was life-changing. I decided I had to do a digital storytelling project with my students, but the concept of narrative needed to be woven through the year in order to make the project work. I asked my students to listen to podcast episodes of This American Life to learn more about storytelling in general. Students chose to examine the stories or the production values or related the stories to a story of  their own in a written reflection each month. Students really came to enjoy these assignments. Often after a due date, they came to class talking about the episode they chose to listen to and recommending it to others. I still recall one student writing in his reflection that he thought all his classmates should listen to the episode he chose, even if it was not for an assignment (that’s how I knew the kids were really getting the point). I also wove narrative writing into the curriculum, particularly in the second semester. We wrote narrative essays and discussed elements of storytelling. Next year, I want to do a better job with shorter narratives that will help my students learn to show more instead of tell.

When the time came to begin the project, I started with some good digital story models. We brainstormed ideas for topics and had a topics workshop that the students really liked. We shared ideas for stories and gave each other feedback on the ideas as well as thoughts about how to proceed with the stories. This stage of the process was absolutely critical, and the students agreed that it needed to remain a part of the project next year. I myself found this part of the process to be the most valuable when I went through the workshop.

Next, we wrote drafts of the digital story scripts. And we workshopped the drafts. And we wrote second drafts. And we workshopped second drafts. I limited students to 300 words, but I think I will raise the ceiling next year to 400-500 words. I am worried that in doing so that the videos will get too long, but I think students will find it easier to cut than add details. One important thing I learned in my own workshop is that five minutes is really a good upper limit. Longer, and the viewer loses interest. Three minutes seems to be a sweet spot.

After that, I gave students a tutorial in using iMovie and GarageBand to put together their movies and record voiceovers. One issue I noticed is that students recorded their voiceovers in one single chunk. Next year, I will give them more guidance on pacing and cutting up their voiceovers into segments so there is judicious use of silence when viewers can take in the images and music. One student commented that more of a tutorial would be helpful, but the best way to really learn how to use the software is to use it. I think we can show people how to use technology, but until they actually use it, it’s hard to learn. Another student suggested I could collect a playlist of helpful tutorial videos for iMovie and GarageBand, which was a helpful (and obvious) suggestion that I will will definitely implement next year.

Students felt they did have enough time to complete the project. Keeping in mind we did a process of revision and were also doing other things in class, such as reading literature, writing, etc., we spent about a month on the project from start to finish. That is not a month of working on it every day, but we did have class time to work on it, particularly with scripts and with iMovie drafts. I checked with students at various stages of project completion.

About a week and half ago, I was really worried about the projects. Right before a performance or a game, practices look terrible, and teachers and coaches often despair of students pulling out a performance at the concert, play, or game. Learning is messy, and it never looks messier than with a project that both the teacher and the students are trying for the first time. In the end, I think the students made some quality videos. I am proud of what they did. You can view their work here, and cycle through the videos using the fast-forward and reverse buttons if you want to skip around.

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Digital Storytelling: Models for Students

I have written before about the profound experience of attending a digital storytelling workshop run by the Center for Digital Storytelling, but I thought I would gather here some resources for teachers to use as models for students. Selfishly, it helps me by gathering all the models I want to use for my own students in one place. Some of these videos were made by my workshop facilitators. Others were shown to participants at the workshop. Still others are stories I found compelling and plan to share with my own students. The final two are my own stories, and feel free to share them with your students. If you ever get a chance to go to a Center for Digital Storytelling Workshop, do it.

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Featured on the CDS website right now, a short and incredibly moving video about adoption and expectations.

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Holly was one of the facilitators at my workshop, and we saw this video during the workshop. I love the way Holly was able to use the song her father recorded in the video.

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Daniel Weinshenker is the Rocky Mountain/Midwest Region Director at CDS and was present when we shared our own digital stories at the end of the last day of the workshop. We watched this video during the workshop.

We watched this video in the workshop. It is an excellent example of what you can do if you don’t have a lot of your own pictures to tell your story. Brad Johnson created this story using mainly clips from As Johnson explains, “95% of the images and footage is from I have about 5 shots of my grandfather in there that are mine.” He adds, “I was experimenting with telling a personal story using footage that was ‘public’ and that was about the ‘larger, American immigrant’ story that seems part of our collective identity (or at least for many of us).”

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This story is a remarkable example of what students might be able to do with just one photograph, no music, and a powerful narrative.

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Students think a lot about who they are, and pieces about identity are important to share with students, especially those who think they don’t have a story (we all do).

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This excellent letter to a beloved grandmother not only tells a powerful story, but also shows what finding the perfect music will add to the video. We saw this one in the workshop.

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What I liked about this one was the way in which the video’s creator tied the story of her own car to the greater history of women.

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This wonderful video shows what students might do with a single Foley sound effect.

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This one is a little on the longer side for a digital story (we were advised to try to keep the videos at shorter than five minutes, but it tells a powerful story about place and family.

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This story is told with a series of self-portraits strung together in a powerful narrative about difference.

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This video is a good one to show students about the power of well-timed music and what they can do with video that might not even illustrate the narrative they’re telling.

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Again, a little on the long side, but worth it and and a great example of pacing.

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I also liked this one as a poignant story about being the other and well-timed music.

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This one is mine, and it includes an interview with my grandfather about World War II. Students might find an interview with someone else will add something to their story.

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This last one is really my grandmother’s story. It also includes an interview. As soon as I heard the music, I said, “That’s the piece,” and once I added it, I could hear how the music pulled the whole story together.

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Tales from Writing Workshop

writing photoWhile my students engaged in writing workshop with short persuasive speeches, this year’s workshop really began in earnest this week with essays about the definition of an American. My students have read the frequently taught and anthologized letter by Crèvecoeur in which he offers his famous definition of an American. I won’t link to any particular version because I used a condensed version I edited myself. My students compared their definitions to his. I imagine it’s a fairly standard assignment for that particular piece of early American literature. We workshopped two essays in each of my American literature English classes. My goal is to offer each student in my classes an opportunity to workshop their writing.

As we workshopped the first essay in one of my classes, I could hear the student next to the essay’s writer talking to the essay writer (and not in an out-loud-I’m-sharing-feedback-for-workshop way). I asked him what was wrong; he seemed if not exactly distressed at least a little uncomfortable. He said, “Oh, I just need to rethink my whole essay.” I said, “You won’t appreciate my saying this, but my reaction is: good! I’m glad. How much better is it to figure that out in this early drafting stage than get it back and realize you had some problems?” He agreed it was probably better that way and took my teasing—even if did contain a serious message—in good-humored way.

Because I’m nosy, I just checked his Google Doc to see what the revision history looked like. Check this out:Google Docs Revision HistoryThe pink icon belongs to the writer whose essay we were workshopping. I didn’t tell them to share. They just decided to help each other. I was able to see what the suggested edits were—a couple of grammar/mechanics suggestions. More important to me is the number of times the writer made his own edits, and the substance of edits. He’s not finished either. The end of his document contains quite a lot of notes and ideas for proceeding. In any case, the paper isn’t due until next Thursday.

The evening after this writing workshop class, I received an email from one of my students. He was requesting that we workshop his essay in the next class, if we had time, and he was hoping he could get some help with development and structure. We did look at his essay. It was well written. Some quotes were tightly integrated; others needed more anchoring. He used outside research. He developed his ideas well. He crafted a fine argument. One of my students (just so happens it was the same one who said he’d need to rethink his essay), remarked that he felt sure the writer would have earned an excellent grade without the help of workshop. I pointed out, “But we made it even better.” I could tell the writer was really happy with the accolades of his classmates:

“Please don’t grade my essay after his, Mrs. Huff.”

“Wow, that was amazing.”

“That was awesome.”

“Way to set the bar high.”

I would love to have a picture of his beaming face.

Today, a student in that class came by during our cooperative/collaborative learning time. “After reading that essay yesterday, I realized I need some help with mine.”

Students have an authentic audience of their peers in writing workshop. They learn to be much stronger writers and editors as a result of sharing their own work and reading their peers’ work. My student writers probably did more for helping their peers with their own essays this week than I could have done all year. I’m willing to bet quite a few of them turned to their work with a more critical eye after seeing the possibilities. And it’s only a few weeks into the year.

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Summer PD Reading Book Club

Some of you may remember that I have hosted summer PD reading in the past. I hope to get another summer PD reading book club off the ground this summer. I have narrowed the selections down to three choices:

Falling in Love with Close Reading: Lessons for Analyzing Texts—and Life by Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts:

Falling in Love with Close Reading shows that studying text closely can be rigorous, meaningful, and joyous. You’ll empower students to not only analyze texts but to admire the craft of a beloved book, study favorite songs and video games, and challenge peers in evidence-based discussions. Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts offer a clear, fresh approach to close reading that students can use independently and with any text. Falling in Love with Close Reading helps you guide students to independence and support the transfer of analytical skills to media and their lives with lessons that include:

    • strategies for close reading narratives, informational texts, and arguments.
    • suggestions for differentiation
    • sample charts and student work from real classrooms
    • connections to the Common Core
    • a focus on “reading” media and life closely

Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading by Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst

Just as rigor does not reside in the barbell but in the act of lifting it, rigor in reading is not an attribute of a text but rather of a reader’s behavior—engaged, observant, responsive, questioning, analytical. The close reading Strategies in Notice & Note will help you cultivate those critical reading habits that will make your students more attentive, thoughtful, independent readers. In this timely and practical guide, Kylene and Bob:

  • examine the new emphasis on text-dependent questions, rigor, text complexity, and what it means to be literate in the 21st century
  • identify 6 signposts that help readers notice significant moments in a work of literature
  • provide 6 text-dependent anchor questions that help readers take note and read more closely
  • offer 6 Notice and Note model lessons that help you introduce each signpost to your students

Fearless Writing: Multigenre to Motivate and Inspire by Tom Romano

What does it mean to write fearlessly? Tom Romano illustrates the power of multigenre papers to push students beyond the “safety zone” of narrative and exposition into a place where fact meets imagination, and research meets creativity. A place to try the untried. Fearless Writing empowers students to leap into this personal, multifaceted take on research writing by giving you specific strategies and practical ideas to help students:

  • generate topic ideas
  • design research plans
  • develop core elements of a multigenre project
  • create innovative genres and “golden threads” of unifying elements

While multigenre papers address many Common Core standards, Tom’s passionate response to both the strengths and weaknesses of the Common Core serves as a lightning bolt of awareness, and a rallying cry for a writing curriculum of genre diversity. Expand your notion of writing and teaching writing, fearlessly.

While I cannot make promises or offer guarantees, it is possible that I can persuade the writers to become involved in our discussions. We can work out logistics in terms of how we want to conduct the discussions, and if you have suggestions, by all means, share in the comments.

Please vote in the poll if you want to participate. The poll closes on July 5 at midnight, so please share this post with colleagues and friends who might be interested in joining us.

Which book do you want to read?

  • Falling in Love with Close Reading, Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts (39%)
  • Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading, Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst (36%)
  • Fearless Writing: Multigenre to Motivate and Inspire, Tom Romano (25%)

Total Votes: 28

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E is for English Language Learners


For most of my career, I have taught in independent schools. At my previous school, being an independent school teacher meant that I didn’t have English language learners in my classroom. In the eight years I taught at my previous school, I had one student who was learning English when she entered my classroom. Unfortunately for her, we were in the midst of studying Romeo and Juliet. She spent hours and and hours every day learning English and used an electronic translator in class (I didn’t mind). By the time she graduated, she spoke and wrote well and was inducted in the National Honor Society. We are still in touch.

I know learning English was hard for her, but she was dedicated, and she had been admitted to the school with the condition that the school not be responsible for helping her learn English—she needed to gain proficiency and perform at the level of the other students. It was harsh. I didn’t agree with it, and I was inclined to help her along as much as I could as well as evaluate her writing with the thought in mind that she was still learning the language. And let’s face it—English is a tough language to learn.

My current school has many international boarding students from all over the world. We have English classes for English language learners. These classes help students learn conversational and written English and include high-interest/low-level reading that is accessible and engaging. These students typically do well and move into regular English classes within a year or two.

I have noticed several things about teaching international students: 1) they typically work very hard to achieve the same results as their native-speaking peers; 2) they are often quiet in class discussion, leading to the familiar refrain on progress reports—”Student X needs to participate more in class discussion”; 3) they have difficulty with verbs, agreement, and prepositions; 4) they sometimes struggle with directions.

I am not sure there is anything you can do about the first issue. There is no way around the fact that learning in a second (or third, and so on) language is more difficult. However, there are some things you can do that will make it easier.

One tip I learned from the ELL teachers at my school is to give an ELL student a question I want them to answer in class the next day at the end of a class period. It gives them time to process and think so that they can participate. Often, these students have much to say, but they are translating and thinking, and by the time they want to contribute, we have moved on to the next topic. Another way to give ELL students time to think is to engage the whole class in a Socratic seminar and give all students the questions in advance. The international students still have trouble jumping into these discussions at times, but they are prepared with written comments and often do better in these kinds of discussions than in typical class discussions, when they don’t know the questions in advance. Another great way to engage these students in discussion is to leverage technology. If your school has a learning management system or online course with discussion forums, you can ask them questions online, and allow them to respond online, which gives them time to process and think about a response to the question.

Language issues in writing are often best dealt with on and individual basis. You can point students in the direction of resources. If a learning management system allows you to individually assign practice assignments, you can try that as well, but one of the best tools for working on writing issues of any stripe is writing workshop. The more students are exposed to models of writing and work through drafts, they better they will write.

Struggling with directions is a problem certainly not limited to English language learners, but I have noticed they sometimes are not sure what they are being asked to do. You can help by making directions as explicit as possible (clear, no ambiguous language, direct vocabulary). It also helps to hear directions aloud and see them in print. It helps to allow students to ask questions. English language learners sometimes hesitate to ask questions either because of cultural reasons or because they don’t want to look like they don’t understand. Some cultures believe it is insulting to ask teachers questions because it insinuates the teacher didn’t explain well enough. Students from these cultures should be encouraged not to look at asking questions in this way, but it can still be difficult for them to overcome. They sometimes feel more comfortable asking questions in private, so making time to meet with students (office hours, help sessions, email) can go a long way toward helping students feel more comfortable asking questions.

I don’t have all the answers, especially given my limited experience with English language learners in my classroom. What tips would you add? What issues do you see arise?

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D is for Deeper Learning

EinsteinWhen I taught pre-K, science was my favorite subject to teach because all of the science lessons I taught involved experiments. What happens if you plant a potato eye? What happens if you let an egg sit in a glass of cola? How can you make a tornado out of two bottles? My favorite science teacher was Mr. Tusa. I was in 7th grade. All I remember about his class was doing experimental labs—everything from combining chemicals and recording reactions to raising small rodents.

Science wasn’t my only experience with deeper learning, or inquiry-based learning, when I was in school. I have written previously about a role-playing game my 7th grade history teacher had us play. In Understanding by Design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe write about the “twin sins of design.” The “sin” more often committed at the secondary level (in my experience) is focus on coverage-based teaching. Coverage-based teaching is marching through the content, often at breakneck speed, which doesn’t allow for deeper learning.

Deeper learning offers students an opportunity to explore a topic. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has a good explanation of what, exactly, deeper learning is. One persistent criticism I have heard about deeper learning, project-based learning, and its cousins is that it removes any emphasis on knowledge and comprehension, the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. I don’t think deeper learning or project-based learning means you do away with these foundational types of learning, but I think it asks that you not stop there and that you move into application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and creation.

The ways in which I try to engage my students in deeper learning mostly involve writing. I have recently described the writing workshop model at the center of my classroom:

Writing workshop involves student collaboration in writing and opportunities to give and receive feedback. It has also improved my students’ writing. Yes, it takes longer, and it results in higher grades (two somewhat controversial sticking points). However, I would argue that the goal of teaching writing is that students become better writers. Period. The goal is not to write essays every single week if students never engage deeply enough with the writing to revise and edit their work, much less receive and offer feedback. Nor is the goal to slap a grade on it and move on to the next one. I know too many English teachers who use writing as a stick to hold students back, and I don’t understand why. I’m not sure they’re consciously doing it, but they are making students hate writing instead of engaging them in learning how to write well.

My students recently selected topics for multigenre writing projects. The way I described the projects was that they were a way to “go deeper” with the material we had learned in class this year. I want to write more about multigenre writing projects later when I get to letter “m,” but essentially I asked the students to pick something we had studied this year that they wished they could learn more about or go deeper with, and the end result was an incredible variety of genres and a profound connection to the texts. One of my students declared, “I’d rather do two of these projects than write one essay.” Truthfully, the multigenre projects were more work than a traditional essay. However, students enjoyed the choice and creative license that the projects offered.

As I was writing, I rediscovered an old post in which I described writing a test with my students. I haven’t tried writing a test or a quiz with my students in a while, and it was a worthwhile activity. I should try it again. It was, I recalled as I re-read the piece, an interesting way to engage students in deeper learning, thinking about the material in ways they had not. It also made instructional design and assessment explicit to them.

One thing we have to consider when we teach, especially at the secondary level, and especially in AP courses, is whether or not we are giving students the time and space to engage deeply with the subject matter. We need to allow them to see the relevance of what they are learning by giving them opportunities to apply it, take it apart, put it together, and connect it. Deeper learning takes more time, and it means not “covering” everything.

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C is for Collaboration

Working TogetherI recently had an exchange with the parent of one of my advisees. He shared a paper his older daughter wrote in college with me. I don’t have permission to reprint any of it here, but she made some interesting comments about collaboration in schools. She made the comment that academics collaborate all the time on lab reports and journal articles, but collaboration among undergraduates and K-12 students is more rare. In some extreme cases, we might call it cheating.

I recently tried out a new way of teaching writing which involves collaboration. You can read my posts about here:

I have had an opportunity to present how it works both to my own colleagues and at a local conference (here’s hoping NCTE is interested as well; we find out next month). One of the things I pointed out both times is that if we write professionally, we expect to have an editor. No one says we don’t really know how to write on our own if someone edits our work. No one says we’re cheating. Yet, with students, I have heard teachers argue that students need to write in isolation. As I mentioned in the post, I have seen students revise much more often now that we are doing writing workshop, but one of the other byproducts of writing workshop has been a classroom community that I didn’t anticipate. I have noticed it even if we’re not writing. Students are friendly and collegial with one another. They have learned to value each other’s voices and opinions. They work together readily.

We were recently working on multigenre writing projects in the classroom, and as I came in the room and prepared to start class, I noticed two students who had both chosen to write about Edgar Allan Poe sitting together. They do not normally sit right next to each other. They had their heads together sharing their work with each other and talking about the different types of writing they were doing for the project. Would another teacher have wanted to keep them apart because they were working on similar projects? Possibly. Why? They shared great ideas with each other, and their projects will be stronger for the sharing and feedback. I think we are afraid sometimes that it is not original work if students collaborate, but truthfully, we often benefit from models. Models can show us how to do something and give us ideas we might otherwise not have had. A recent study by Thomas N. Wisdom, Xianfeng Song, and Robert L. Goldstone from University of Indiana explores the ways in which social learning can improve problem solving. The implications of the study suggest that sharing ideas and encouraging individuals to work as a team will result in better learning:

The results of both experiments show that imitation can be productive for groups as well as individuals, because it enables the preservation of good tentative solutions in “group memory” and their further improvement through cumulative exploration. These results also showed that the pursuit of larger amounts of exploration can result in diminishing returns for both individuals and groups. (Wisdom, Song, and Goldstone 1419)

One of the things I have noticed about writing workshop is that students often open their laptops and revise their own writing when we are collectively editing a peer’s paper. They notice something they want to change or that they want to try, or they have an idea based on something their peer has said. As such, my students’ writing has strengthened a great deal over the course of the year.

Students might not necessarily go on to be professional writers, but often, the situations in which professional writers work mimic the writer’s workshop more than writing in isolation does. Journalists always collaborate. It’s understood that an editor and copyeditor will work on a journalist’s writing. The writing room for just about every television show you can name involves collaborative writing. Students can apply these skills to the other work that they do.

Students have commented on first trimester course evaluations that the class is “like a family” and that they are “always collaborating.” Second trimester, one student said they “are asked to work together and by ourselves. We do a lot of group work.” The same student added that I make “sure we understand things before we move on.” Another student remarked that the class is “an opportunity to meet challenges.” I share these comments because I think they are a window into how establishing a classroom community and offering opportunities for collaboration helps students learn better and enjoy their learning more. We are reading article after article about the skills employers are looking for in college graduates, and over and over, we read that the ability to work as a team and to collaborate and to communicate well are important. However, we are strangely selective about the opportunities we give students to collaborate. We rarely allow students to write together, and having seen the ways in which collaborating in this way have not only contributed to my students’ ability to write but has also built a strong classroom community, I’m convinced that collaborative learning like writer’s workshop is the way to prepare students for the real work of the world.

Work Cited:

Wisdom, Thomas N., Xianfeng Song, and Robert L. Goldstone. “Social Learning Strategies in a Networked Group.” Cognitive Science 37 (2013): 1383-1425. Print.

Image by Lolly Man

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