Tag Archives: writing

A Poll: What Would You Like to Read?

I have been trying out quite a few new things, and I don’t know where to start in terms of talking about them here. Take a look at this list and let me know in the comments which topic piques your curiosity, and I’ll do my next blog post on the topic that generates the most interest.

  • Using Google Docs to create rubrics
  • iMovie book trailers
  • (Almost) Paperless Classroom with Google Docs and Schoology
  • Carving out a hybrid position (or how I’m teaching two English classes and working as a Technology Integration Specialist at the same time)
  • Writing Workshop: going beyond peer editing with partners
  • Teaching The Catcher in the Rye

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March Madness Ideas

air timeIt’s March! That time of year when everyone’s filling out their brackets. You can use March Madness as a metaphor for all kinds of activities at school:

  • Poetry: Have students pit their favorite poems against one another. They can create brackets. It can be a fun segue into National Poetry Month in April (see also NCTE’s lesson).
  • Writing: TeachHub has writing prompts related to basketball and March Madness for students in grades K-12.
  • Math: Probability activities and more math-related March Madness.
  • Multiple disciplines: This New York Times activity allows students to use brackets to debate academic questions.

ESPN has tournament brackets available as GIF’s or PDF’s.

Do you have a March Madness idea? Share please!

Creative Commons License photo credit: *sean

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I Won NaNoWriMo!

Winner!I posted this on my book blog, but I don’t necessarily have the same readers on each site. I am so excited because yesterday I validated my novel, and I wrote over 50,000 words during the month of November. The story is not finished yet, and in case you care, I tried a new genre (chick lit). I usually stick to historical fiction of some kind.

I learned some interesting things about myself as a writer as a result of participating in NaNoWriMo.

First, even though I have “won” NaNoWriMo before, it doesn’t feel any less fantastic to win again. In fact, it might feel even better to win again because I feel reassured that the first time wasn’t a fluke. I really am a writer. I really could write novels if I keep at it. After I wrote my first book, I didn’t try to write another one for years. I was a little worried all I had in me was one. I tried NaNoWriMo for the first time in 2006, and I didn’t come close to winning. My story never truly gelled, but I did create a character for that novel who sort of sits in a corner of my mind, tapping her foot impatiently, waiting for me to do something with her. The first time I won was in 2009. I still haven’t edited that novel. I didn’t win last year. I fell behind at NCTE, and I never did catch up again after that. I had over 30,000 words, and it was frustrating to lose, particularly because I thought (and still think) the idea behind that novel was pretty good.

It’s weird that when you create characters they become like real people in your mind. For my 2009 NaNoWriMo novel, I created a protagonist named Imogen Medley, a girl who lived in the mountains of Breathitt County, Kentucky during the Great Depression. She is completely real to me in many ways. I had the rest of her life planned out, even though there was no occasion to show it in the novel. I know, for instance, that she grew up to become one of the first woman judges in her neck of the woods, a calling prompted by an injustice she witnesses during the course of my novel.

A second thing I learned about myself is that the large amount of writing I’ve been doing this year, mostly on my reading blog, has made me a faster, more fluent writer. I know that we writing teachers tell students that they will become faster, better, and more fluent writers if they just practice it more, but I’m not sure I ever noticed a measurable difference in my own practice until this year. I rarely had a problem reaching the daily word count of 1,667 words (except some days I skipped while at NCTE). Many days, I was able to write over 2,000 words. That last day, I wrote over 2,800 words. I was stuck one day, so I just started writing about being stuck, and eventually, I was writing my story again.

When I wrote my first book, I had this massive notebook with all my research. For my 2009 NaNo novel, I put a bunch of research into a program called Curio, but it was clunky to flip back and forth between my research and my writing. This year, I used Scrivener, and I found that having all my research and my writing in one place made me more productive. We should teach our students to try out a variety of tools until they find the ones that work for them. I think we all have trouble with finding the right tools sometimes, and the right tools can make a huge difference in our ability to succeed. I think I won NaNo this year partly because I found a tool that helped me work better and smarter than any other tools I’ve used in the past.

Another interesting thing that I noticed (not so much learned, I guess) is that I seem to like to write dialogue. I worry that my stories have too much dialogue and not enough description, but I like to hear my characters talk. I know dialogue can be tough for some people to write, but I think if you listen a lot, your dialogue will sound more natural. It goes without saying that reading other writers will also help you shore up weaknesses in your own writing. You have models for good dialogue, good description, tight plotting, characterization, and beautiful language if you read a lot. I have also been doing a lot of reading. This year, I’ve read 45 books. I am trying to make it an even 50 before the year is out. I know writing was easier for me this time because of all the reading I’ve done.

I know some writers look down on NaNoWriMo because they feel it encourages sloppy, quick, poor writing. I think some people need the pressure of a deadline to get their words down the paper, and NaNoWriMo is becoming my favorite way to start a novel. I think most people who participate realize their novels aren’t publishable on December 1. In fact, they’re likely not even finished. There may be some misguided individuals who don’t understand that revision is where the real work happens, but they’ll probably eventually be disabused of their confusion (one way or another). Another criticism I hear is that it’s unnecessary: true writers will write whether there is an event scheduled around drafting 50,000 words or not. Perhaps. But I do know that writing along with a community and receiving the moral support of NaNoWriMo has encouraged me. Maybe others don’t need that encouragement, but writing can be solitary. It helps to know you’re not alone.

The most important thing was how much fun I had this time. It was hard work—no doubt about that—but I enjoyed it the whole time, even on days when I had to make myself write because I didn’t think I wanted to.

Good luck to those NaNo participants heading into the home stretch tonight.

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Teaching Conventions of Print

Jago Tweet

Carol Jago’s tweet this morning prompted Jen Roberts to reply:

Jen Roberts Tweet

Here is a good rundown of conventions of print. Knowing and being able to use these conventions are important for literacy. What do students need to know in the 21st century? How does reading digital writing differ from print writing?

Hyperlinks, for a start. Hyperlinks open up new pages or websites that connect in some way to the text linked. It’s also important that students understand web conventions differ from print conventions, and students should learn web conventions, too. For instance, writing is usually single-spaced with an extra line between paragraphs rather than double-spaced (or single-spaced) with a first-line indent.

As we see more print from places all over the world, it’s important for students to know that even speakers of the same language have different spelling, usage, punctuation, and style preferences, and those preferences are as correct as the preferences their native country has agreed upon (this is so important for English). Students should also know which way to orient pages in a word processor to effectively communicate their message.

It’s probably more important that today’s students learn to keyboard rather than write cursive, but I hate to see them not learn to at least read cursive at all.

What do you think should be added?

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Indie Writing

Be seeing you

Writing is hard work, but finding a publisher for your writing in this market might be almost as hard—maybe harder. And yet many people frown on writers who self-publish. Even some of the best writers of classic literature have paid to have their books published in the past—Jane Austen’s father sent First Impressions, an early version of Pride and Prejudice, to Thomas Cadell in London and asked if it might be published at the author’s expense. All of her novels, with the exception of Pride and Prejudice, were published “on commission,” or at the author’s own financial risk. But paying for publication through so-called vanity presses isn’t necessary anymore, either. Nowadays, writers can take publication in their own hands. They can create books using services such as Lulu and Kindle Direct Publishing, and software such as Calibre. Writers can publish their own books in print or e-book format.

Self-publishing requires a shift in thinking, and I had to change the way I viewed it as well. Several years ago, I decided that I wouldn’t have time to keep sending my manuscript out to publishers, to find an agent, or to keep at it the way I knew I should if I wanted my book published. I have a demanding full-time job (if you read this blog, you know that because you probably have the same job—and I’m convinced that there are at least three Jim Burke clones). It’s not that I don’t want my book published by a large house—it’s just that the whole process is frustrating when I just want people to read my book. Enter the concept of the indie writer.

I wish I had made up the concept of the indie writer, but I did a Google search, and of course, there is nothing new under the sun. Thinking of myself as an indie writer shifted my perception of self-publishing. When I was in high school and college, my crowd included a lot of musicians. One thing musicians do is try to find gigs wherever they can and create their own CD’s (nowadays, I suppose they create mp3’s) and sell them at their gigs or on sites like CD Baby. No one looks down on them for that. It’s considered a great way to put your music in the hands of listeners. Of course, if a record company (is that term outdated now?) comes calling with a big contract, then you’ve made it. Some people actually prefer indie music because they love supporting local bands or musicians who are working to generate publicity for their art. But you know, we frown on writers for trying the same thing. What is wrong with publishing your own books, just to put them in readers’ hands? Writers can and have spent decades working to publish their work. John Kennedy Toole’s mother famously spent eleven years trying to attract publishers’ attention for her son’s classic A Confederacy of Dunces. Once it was published, it won the Pulitzer Prize. Publishers are notoriously leery of unpublished writers. Publishing a book is a huge risk for a company in an industry that is struggling. But just as indie bands can attract attention to their music through making their own CD’s and mp3’s, writers can also attract attention through self-publication. Brunonia Barry’s novel The Lace Reader was self-published and became a book club favorite. Eventually, it was picked up by HarperCollins.

Does it necessarily follow that an indie writer’s work will find a home at a large publishing house? No. Not all indie bands make it big, do they? But more people will read my work if I put it out there than will if it languishes on my laptop. To that end, if you want to support an indie writer, you can download my book A Question of Honor in the following formats:

It is the story of a young woman in medieval Wales who takes on her mother’s healing practice and finds herself in over her head the first time she delivers a child. When she is accused of a horrible crime, she runs to her father’s homeland in Scotland. She meets a ragtag group of minstrels on the way, and she wonders if she will ever see the young man she’s in love with again. Meanwhile, her grandfather in Scotland has definite plans for his granddaughter, and it turns out she has a sister she never knew about, too. She begins to wonder if she might be better off returning to Wales and facing the music, but she fears the consequences.

Look for another book soon. I need to do some editing. Also, I am trying to prepare an e-pub version of A Question of Honor, so look for that soon if you need e-pub. The print and PDF versions will give you the nicest layout. I am still learning how to lay out a book for Kindle, and while the book file is readable, it has a few quirks that I am working on fixing.

This post is cross-posted at my reading blog, Much Madness is Divinest Sense. If you want to continue to follow my creative writing efforts, you might want to check in at Much Madness is Divinest Sense.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Olivander

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Addressing Plagiarism

If you’ve taught for any length of time, you’ll probably have to confront plagiarism. Even in the age before the Internet, students plagiarized, though it might be a little easier to do now than it was when you were in high school. A variety of tools can help you detect plagiarism, but what are you supposed to do about it?

First of all, consider the age of your students. I think if you have middle schoolers, they likely don’t know or haven’t learned how to attribute quotes. Students should be taught how to attribute information. Model it. Teach them to use just the part of the quote they need. I have a handout on integrating quotes that might be helpful.

Teach students what plagiarism is and how to avoid it. Barry Gilmore’s book Plagiarism: Why It Happens, How to Prevent It can help you. Melissa Vosen has a great article in the July 2008 issue of English Journal entitled “Using Bloom’s Taxonomy to Teach Students About Plagiarism.” I’ve used it for two years (and will use it again in January) and have found it to be an excellent mini-unit for helping students understand what plagiarism is and how to avoid it. Obviously preventing plagiarism is the best possible means of handling it, but when it happens, and it’s probably a question of when and not if, keep in mind:

  • It’s not about you. The student doesn’t necessarily plagiarize because he/she dislikes you or your class. It’s an act of either laziness or desperation that has nothing to do with the personal feelings the student has for you or your class. You shouldn’t make it personal when you handle it.
  • Consequences are important. Your school probably has a policy about plagiarism. Follow it. That means the student will need to be punished even if he/she is contrite and promises never to do it again.
  • Move on. After the consequences have been given, forgive the student. Go ahead and check their work more carefully in the future. That’s common sense. Don’t make the student feel as if they have irreparably damaged their relationship with you.
  • Make sure the parents know. It might be a good idea to address parents from the point of view of a parent—show your concern and assure the parent that though there will be consequences, you understand it was a mistake and will be moving on and putting it behind you. Assure the parent the student will have a second chance. Parents need to know because any consequences will likely impact the student’s grade.
  • Examine the assignment. Is there something about it that made it too difficult for the student to do? Or was the topic the kind of topic that invites plagiarism because it’s a really commonly assigned topic? Is there anything you can do to improve the assignment so that students won’t be tempted to plagiarize? One suggestion I have is to construct the assignment around an authentic audience and task. For example, instead of framing the topic like this: “Analyze Beowulf’s heroic characteristics using textual evidence,” try “You are King Hrothgar. Queen Huffgar the Wise has written you in desperation. She has a horrible problem with Acromantulas in her kingdom, and she has just learned that your own kingdom was recently rid of two terrible monsters. She wants to know if you can recommend the services of a hero who might be able to do the same for her kingdom. Write a letter of recommendation to Queen Huffgar for Beowulf’s services as a hero. Use examples of Beowulf’s heroic prowess from Beowulf.” Those two writing tasks are asking students to do the same thing. One seems like a lot more fun to write (my opinion, of course, given I wrote the task).

Do you have any tips for teachers with how to address plagiarism? Please share in the comments.

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Digital Portfolios

Circled words, arrows, spiral notebookI am thinking of using digital portfolios this year. I have a wiki for my classes, and it would be easy for students to have a page on the wiki where they can collect their pieces and also pull in other items, like Glogs, images, videos, and audio. I really liked the idea of an interactive notebook, but I’m wondering if a digital portfolio wouldn’t be easier to grade.

Do you use digital portfolios? What tool do you use to create them? What suggestions would you have for implementation? Would it be better for students to create blogs? I don’t want to use too many different tools because I don’t want things to be confusing.

Creative Commons License photo credit: juliejordanscott

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Image Grammar

I have been on the lookout for books, websites, and other materials to help me teach grammar. If you have some good ideas for resources, please leave them in the comments.

A couple of things I have been trying with my students seem to be working fairly well. I used the Sentence Opening Strategy activity shared by Carol Sanders on the EC Ning to teach sentence variety. My students were fairly reflective about their writing in this activity. I also pulled out my copy of Spelling and Grammar: The Daily Spark, along with Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Devotional and have been posting grammar and writing puzzles on the SMARTBoard as a sort of journaling/opening activity while I take attendance and do other housekeeping. The students really like the grammar puzzles, and I found it sort of flexes their brains for writing.

Still, teaching grammar, and what I mean by that is correctness and variety (because everyone seems to disagree about what grammar is), is just hard. I want my students to be more fluent and fluid writers, and I want them to communicate clearly. Based on this goal, it would seem Harry Noden’s Image Grammar is an excellent choice.

I’ve read one chapter, and I like the way Noden organizes different writing techniques, such as using participles, as “brush strokes.” The accompanying CD has some good material, but in my opinion, the CD should probably be updated. The material on the CD is organized into HTML files, and they look a little archaic (think Geocities or Angelfire), but the material is solid. Noden also references a website that is no longer working—ah the joys of the Internet—as a source of images for writing prompts, but the Web does not lack examples of image sites that can be used to spark writing.

What I like best about the book so far is that Noden shows how to teach grammatical structures in a way that students will see their relevance to their own writing. I have had students who knew a great deal about grammatical structures out of context but could not apply these structures to make their own writing better. I have had students tell me that I taught them how to write well, but it’s an area in which I would like to improve.

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Editing Checklist

Let’s create an editing checklist. I think it’s helpful for students to have a guide for editing or peer editing. Suggest your idea for something that students should check for in the comments, and I will create the document and make it available here for free.

Here’s my contribution:

Mark every instance of the words “this,” “that,” “these,” and “those.” Make sure these words are being used as adjectives rather than pronouns. If they’re being used as pronouns, consider adding a noun, revising the sentence, or combining sentences to avoid vague pronouns.

I ran into that particular issue quite a few times while reading essays today.

I will be cross-posting this request at the EC Ning.

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I Need a Rewrite: Week in Reflection, 1/26-1/30

Teaching composition is difficult.  I think I had to teach it for several years before I felt comfortable.  One strategy I frequently use is peer editing.  Interestingly enough, students are often more able to help each other edit and revise than they can edit and revise on their own.  I’m not precisely sure why this is, but I suspect it has to do with the idea that we know what we meant to say, and we don’t always realized we haven’t communicated what we meant to say.  It can be difficult to be objective about one’s own work.

I don’t have students peer edit every time they write, and I frequently don’t tell them in advance that they will have the opportunity to peer edit because I worry, perhaps falsely, that knowing they may not have a chance to edit will entice them to work harder on their drafts.

My students recently wrote short essays comparing and contrasting two versions of Act 2, Scene 2 (the Balcony Scene) in Romeo and Juliet.  Prior to viewing the scenes, we created a graphic organizer to take notes as we viewed.  We shared our notes.  Students noticed very interesting things about the scenes that I in fact had never noticed before.  For instance, did you know that Olivia Hussey’s Juliet is spelling out Romeo’s name on the wall with her finger when Romeo first spies her?  I never picked up on that small action before, but I found it to be an interesting choice on the part of the actress.  I sent them home to write their compositions, and I felt very good about everything they had learned.

Students turned in their essays after the weekend, and I noticed something interesting.  They had not shared all the interesting details in their writing that they had shared in class.  It may have been that my directions were not explicit, or it may have been a disconnect on the part of the students, but I knew that they could make their reader “see” the two films better with a revision and some more direction.  So I wrote my own paragraph, modeling for the students the types of details they had shared in class but not in writing and asked them to do a rewrite for me.  They did, and what improvement!  Interesting how with writing a little modeling goes farther than almost any other instructional strategy I’ve tried.  The students don’t know it yet, but they will revise one more time to correct some mechanical issues.  We learned all about commas, apostrophes, and quotation marks, and I want to be sure students can use them correctly in composition.

Lesson learned: Model or scaffold at the start. I could have walked students through the process of moving their notes to a composition, but I incorrectly assumed the discussion would be sufficient for them to make the connections.  It was for some, but not for all.  I should have generated some questions and asked students how they planned to proceed.

I know time is hard to come by, and many of us have a lot of students.  Teaching composition effectively in those conditions can be difficult, particularly if your students have difficulty with writing.  It’s essential work, however.  In fact, I have often thought that teaching writing is at the heart of teaching English — is the most important thing we do as English teachers.  Students have to learn the writing process, that drafting is critical, that there is a lot of work before a piece of writing is “finished” (or that it never is?).

I may be blessed with smaller classes in my private school setting, which enables me to grade students’ drafts more quickly and provide more quality feedback than I think I could if I had classes of 30 students.  The best thing we could do to help our students become better writers is limit English classes to 15 students.  Still, if we are willing to sacrifice some of our sacred cows in the name of helping our students to be good communicators, it might be possible for students even in larger clases to obtain more individualized writing instruction, including modeling, drafting, revising, editing, and quality feedback.  How could we do it?  What should a writing classroom look like?  What is your dream writing classroom?  Money is no object, and you can create whatever you wish.

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