Recapturing the Magic of Stories – Practical Ideas for Better Creative Writing

“Do we have to write?”  He looks at me and awaits my answer.  I know he wants me to say no, but instead, I nod.  Every day.  Just try.  It’ll get better.  “But I hate writing…” and the kids around him nod.  So many kids not considering themselves writers.  So many kids who write simply because school tells them to.  And I see it every time I assign a story project.  I see it when they write summaries of stories rather than an actual story.  I see it when they fiddle with their papers, break their pencils or write one line.  We hate writing, and there is nothing you can do about it.

And yet….writing is stories.  Writing is our past and our future.  Writing has the power to break us apart or put us together.  So when our students tell us that they hate writing, it is usually not the writing itself they hate, it is everything attached to it.  All of the tasks we add in with writing to make sure they know how to write.  To make sure they can write.  And I wonder, once again, in our eagerness to create students who can write are we, instead, producing students who won’t?

So what can we do within our writing instruction to reignite or protect the writer that lingers within each child?  What are ways we can help them see that writing is something we need as human beings, and not just because the teacher told us to?

We hear their truths.

Much like we must uncover what protects or demolishes their love of reading, we must ask the hard questions about writing too.  Why do you think you are not a writer?  When is writing hard?  When is writing amazing?  How can I be a better teacher of writing for you?  And then we take those truths with us, we unpack them and then we reflect on our teaching practices; what have we done that have done damage?  How can we navigate all of our requirements without doing irreparable harm?

We make it a priority.

I know we do a lot of writing but how much of that is process writing; summarizing, essays, analysis, informational writing.  Where is the creative writing?  I know when I taught 5th grade it was the final unit of the year.  If we got to it, that is.  Why not start with them finding their writer’s voice.  Tell them to write a story, either real or fictional.  and reconnect them with their storytelling skills.  Begin the year with free writing and maintain it throughout the year.  Don’t save it until the end of the year when we can have done so much damage already.

We give them time.

We cannot create writing opportunities in our classrooms without dedicated time.  And I don’t mean the writing instruction slot where they are working on their assigned project, but free writing time, where they are encouraged to write whatever they want.  Free writing time every day so that they get in the habit.  Free writing time so they can work through what it means to be a writer and start to see the small success that will carry them forward.  Whether it is ten solid minutes like it is in my Informational Studies class or even just four minutes like it was last year for me.  Time should be dedicated to free writing every single day, even if you only have 45-minute classes.

We give them freedom.

Every day we tell our kids to write something in their writer’s notebook.  We offer up a prompt but we also tell them they don’t have to use it.  And then we step back, encourage them to write, but nothing else.  This is about them, not us.

We tell stories.

Great writing starts with stories, so we tell our own stories and model what it means to capture an audience.  We have them share their own stories as they practice how to hold an audience captive.  We do speeches so they can see what grabs people’s attention and what doesn’t.  Through the stories we tell we encourage them to write someday, to find ideas for writing.

We withhold judgment.

Every few weeks I look through their writer’s notebooks just to get to know them.  I don’t assess, I don’t correct.  Instead, I write comments, genuine reactions to what they have written so they know I am reading.  But I do not tell them how to be a writer, not here, not now.  That writer’s journal is exactly that; a journal, not an assignment.  And so some write comics, others journal, some writ lengthy stories.  Poetry, scribbling, moments of their lives burst at me from their pages and I hope that within all of their ideas they start to see what writing really is; an extension of self, of who we are and an exploration of how we fit in.

We bring authors in.

Many of my students are under the impression that “real” writers knew they were writers from a young age.  That story ideas just come to them.  that they sit down and a whole book just flows from their fingers.  But that’s often not the case at all.  how do I know?  Because “real” writers have been speaking to my students via Skype for the last few years.  And they dispel their writing myths one at a time.  It turns out there is no one right writing process.  There is not a right way to write.  Inspiration comes from many places.  And it also turns out that writing is hard work.  That getting the idea is often the smallest part but the actual revising and cutting out and making better is where the work comes in.  They don’t believe me when I say these things always but when authors do, they start to.

We are real writers.

How many of us teach writing but don’t write ourselves?  How many of us create our modeled texts at home because we know it will be hard to do it on the spot in front of the kids?  How many of us would never consider ourselves writers but then expect our students to be?  Be a writer yourself, it doesn’t have to be published, but go through the process and do it authentically.  Share how hard writing is for you, share your bad habits of writing, give them a real role model of what writers are so they don’t think that it is something that just happens.

We ask them who they are as writers.

And we come back to the question throughout the year.  We ask them to explore what writing means to them.  We ask them what their writing process is and we share our own.  We ask them to find some sort of value in writing, not because they have to love it but because they should be at peace with it.

We have them lead the conversations.

Less checklists.  Less pre-determined goals only set by the teacher.  Less specific feedback that teaches them that this is the only thing they need to work on because that is all the teacher told them to work on.  More student reflection, more student questions, more student ownership over how they need to grow.  When we confer they should do most of the talking.  When we confer they should start to find out what they need our help with, not vice versa.  In the beginning, it is hard but it will never get easier if we don’t start the conversations and hand over the reigns.

We don’t give up.

Every day we write.  Every day we share stories.  Every day we create something.  Every day we become more than what we were.  And we don’t give up.  We hear their truths as we gently encourage them forward.  We showcase many kinds of writing.  We give them freedom, trust, and a safe space to share.  We tell them to share when they can and not when they don’t want to.  We tell them to use our space as writers would; get comfortable, listen to music, discover your writing process.  Find your writing peers so you have people you trust that will give you honest feedback.

For too long creative writing has taken a backseat to task writing and while I know we need to be able to write things that fulfill purposes, we cannot lose sight of the bigger picture here.  We have to give our students opportunities to have a relationship with writing that goes beyond what the teacher told them to do.  And that starts with the very decisions we make every day in our classrooms.  That starts right now.


If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.


Finding Our Voices Again

It has been six full school days.

Six days of remembering names and sometimes still getting it wrong.

Six days of questions. Of answers.  Of repeated directions and pointing to the right place.  Of saying yes more than no, of smiling wide to make sure they all see it.

It has been six days of feeling like everything is taking a long time.  Of not getting enough done. Of not having any assessments yet and feeling like already I am behind.

And yet…

In those six days, we have read our own books, perhaps even abandoned a few.

We have discussed why reading is trash or magic.

We have set goals that matter to us and fit our needs.

We have started our reading check ins as we figure each other out.

And we have talked.  A lot.

I have withstood the urge to have them write their answers and instead just talk it out.

I have withstood the need for silence and seen where the conversation will take us.

I have withstood my own imposed pressure of having them produce something in order for me to say; look I taught them something.

Every day instead of finding our pencils, we have instead found our voices and shared with each other.  We have pondered.  We have sighed.  We have even been shocked.

The writing will happen.  The assessment will too.  But for now, we are speaking up instead of writing down as we figure out how this learning community is going to work.  We are finding ourselves in the cacophony of thoughts and we are finding each other as well.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.



On Embracing Our Stereotypes – A Post from A Student

Every year we finish our year with the This I Believe assignment.  Every year I am floored by their messages of hope, of figuring out right from wrong, of creating a world where kids feel accepted, engaged, and loved.  While many of them are incredible, I asked one student if I could share what they wrote.  

Note:  I did not do a good job explaining why I asked this child to share their writing publicly.  To me, hearing these words, caused immense sadness.  It was a metaphorical slap to once again remember how much power we have as teachers, as adults, to confine the view that students have of themselves.  While people have debated in the comments, I know what the intent of the student was.   She chose to rise above the stereotypes thrust upon her, which I told her made me sad.  No child should have to fight stereotypes in this way.  She disagreed with me, but I still wanted to post the speech because it really made me think deeply about things I still have to do better.  Thank you to those who have engaged in the debate.

Have you ever felt that because you’re different from someone, that you somehow needed to prove yourself or make someone think a certain way? That you had a stereotype that was so untrue you almost could laugh. Stereotypes. We all know them. Most of your childhoods we’ve grown up believing them. People who wear glasses are… People who are blonde are… People who are tall play… people who are popular are…  Stereotypes are bad. You shouldn’t say them, use them, or even think them. We need to do something about them. At least that’s what many of you probably think. Nope, not me. I believe stereotypes are good! They make you your best self, at least from my experiences.

There is a moment I think of whenever I say my “This I believe” sentence. I remember this moment perfectly, it wasn’t  the moment I realized stereotyping is real, I already had seen it and even had it happen to me. Instead, what I really realized was that people don’t mean to do this they just do it without realizing what they are doing. I was in the 5th grade and it was the first week of school. I’d barely talked to the teacher the past day and she barely knew me at the time. We were working on some project talking about how we thought our year would go. I was writing and writing until my hand hurt I was so excited about the year. I walked up to the teacher to ask if I could go to the bathroom. She was typing on her computer. I barely got the first syllable out when she turned around so fast it was like she was expecting me to do something and she needed to watch for it. She sat up in a more authoritative position and folded her arms and did that mean “what do you want” teacher face that almost all teachers do and said, “What?!”. I went ahead and asked her if I could go to the restroom, but as I was talking something weird happened. Her position became more relaxed and she started to unfold her arms and look less cross. Her eyes also became very wide and then normal and kinder. You would only notice this if you were watching closely or used to this happening. And she said in a much kinder way than before. “ Of course you can honey it’s right around there, Do you know where it is?” Well, that was weird I thought as I walked to the bathroom. I stayed in there for probably longer than I had to, just looking in the mirror and trying to figure out what just happened. “Was it what I was wearing?” “Had she heard I was bad!?”

It was as if just by hearing me talk no different than how I normally talk or how anyone else talks she thought higher of me and then after I used manners like thank you she was even more surprised. So I thought if that made her think higher of me then where was I on the scale before? But it was okay, I knew what she was thinking. She was expecting me to talk “ghetto” or say something rude or be loud because those are her experiences I guess.

The thing is, no one remembers the polite, quiet, hard working black kids.

Oh no, they remember the loud obnoxious ones who are rude, disrespectful, talk back and cuss at them.  Those experiences stick in your head. Not the good ones.  At first, when I realized this, I was angry. I wanted to go in there and accuse her of being mean or a bad teacher. I wanted to judge her on something, see how it made her feel. I thought about that pretty much all day. About what “thing” or stereotype I wanted to give her.

And I thought about it while sitting at lunch, Waiting for my bus. Even when I was home. And I forgave her. She probably didn’t do it on purpose and besides, I barely knew her yet anyway. But when I went back to school the next week, I made sure no one would ever have that realization again. In every class I sat up straighter, so straight it would probably be parallel to a board. I made sure without fail I always said please, thank you, May I, etc. I made sure my work is always in on time and always my best. I was kind to everyone and never scowled or looked angry. Close to the third week of school, we started to get homework which I made sure I did. When the teacher went around to collect it, she looked impressed that I had mine out and done and did that thing where you purse your lips and nod sort of. She didn’t do that to anyone else. Umm…. was I not supposed to have it done?

I didn’t miss one assignment that year.  Every stereotype I made sure I proved that stereotype wrong. Such as black kids being rude. I was never mean and/or rude to anyone in my class. Or that black kid who would all talk “ghetto” and have bad English. I made sure whenever I talked it was never with much slang or used words like ain’t but with respectable english. And my tone was always quieter than most very much so. (That actually took me awhile to get out of because, I became very quiet that year and I got used to it. I had to work myself back out of my shell). Whenever you have a stereotype that is not true, you work hard to prove someone wrong. You are your best self too! And most of all you show what you want to. So that people see what you really are not just what they want.

I’m used to this now. I no longer spend hours thinking about these things. I don’t get mad or sad anymore  either. But sometimes we are judged, we are judged all the time actually. And I speak from experience, it doesn’t matter if it’s the clerk’s eyes on you in a store like every single second or the way you talk. What you wear,  how you look, if you wear glasses or not. Your stereotype makes you better by giving you motivation to change it or change what people think when they first see you.  It’s very easy to form a stereotype. Heck, we do it all the time. So if you come across someone who has a completely untrue stereotype of you, don’t dwell on it. Make sure you change their minds. Make sure they remember how you proved them wrong. That’s why stereotypes help you. It makes you think more, It makes you present yourself the way you really want to be seen like. It makes you think about every decision more carefully and think “Is this what I really want to do?” It makes sure that you make yourself stick out from the crowd and prove your stereotype wrong and that’s what makes you your best self. I believe  stereotypes make you your best self.


Can We Please Stop Grading Independent Reading?

“But how do you grade their independent reading?”

I am asked this question while presenting on how to create passionate readers.

I am stumped for a moment for an answer.  Not because I don’t know, but because we don’t.  Why would we?  And yet, it is a question I am asked often enough to warrant a decent response.

My middle school does not issue a grade for how many books a child has read.  For how many minutes they have read.  For how far they have gotten on their book challenge goals.

And there is a big reason for this.

How many books you read does not tell me what you can do as a reader.  How long you can sustain attention to a book may tell me clues about your relationship with reading but it will not tell me where you fall within your reading skills.  Actual skill assessment will do that.  Explorations where you do something with the reading you do will tell me this.  The amount of books you have read will not tell me what you are still struggling with or what you have accomplished.  Instead it will tell me of the practice you do with the skills that I teach you.  With how you feel about reading in front of me and when I am not around.  About the habits you have established as you figure out your very own reading identity.  These habits are just that; skills you practice until something clicks and it becomes part of who you are.   Those are not gradeable skills but instead a child practicing habits to figure out how to get better at reading.  A child figuring out where books and reading fits into their life.

So just like we would never grade a child for how many math problems they choose to solve on their own, how many science magazines they browsed or how many historical documents they perused, we should not grade how many books a child chooses to read.  We should not tie pages read with a grade, nor an assessment beyond an exploration into how they can strengthen their reading habits.  Number of books read, minutes spent, or pages turned will never tell us the full story.  Instead it ends up being yet another way we can chastise the kids that need us to be their biggest reading cheerleaders.

So when we look to grade a child on how they are as a reader we need to make sure that the assessments we provide actually provide us with the answers we need.  Not an arbitrary number that again rewards those who already have established solid reading habits and punish those that are still developing.  And if you are asked to grade independent reading, ask questions; what is it you are trying to measure and is it really providing you with a true answer?  Are you measuring habits or skills?  Are the grades accurate?  If not, why not?  And if not, then what?

PS:  And for those wondering what we do assess in our reading, here is a link to our English standards.  

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like to infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.


Some Ideas for Better Student Revisions

I have never been good at helping students understand how to revise better.  It seems like every idea I have had has only made them more dependent on other people, rather than develop their own skills.  Sometimes I feel like I have tried it all; from checklists, to peers, to specific directions from me. From strengths to goals to next steps, for some reason the art of revising and revising well has not truly blossomed in our classroom.  Until now.  Because if the last two days are any indication, we are finally on to something.

This unit came from my own realization as a writer.  When I write, I edit as I go, but I also step away and give it time.  I don’t jump right back in even when my editor emails me back.  I marinate, I process, and I try to make it better when I finally do jump back in.  I take my time, I make it a priority and I don’t try to squeeze it in.  This is what I want my students to realize; that revising and editing creates more beautiful work.  That it is not just something a teacher makes you do.  That it is not just some thing on a check list.

So what have we done so differently these past few days?  Here are few things:

We stepped away from our written work for a while.  And by a while I mean over a month.  The two pieces my students have been revising were handed in before winter break. One is a short story, another is either an opinion piece or a summary.  Some of my students did very well, others did not do at all.  Before break they were asked to hand in their best draft (thank you Kelly Gallagher for that term) and then I told them to not do anything with them until I asked.  I told them that rather than they trying to figure out what to work on we would work on our revisions in class.

Why?  Because when we do revision during our writing process we cannot look at our own work with fresh eyes.  We get tired of it.  We don’t see our own mistakes.  We go through the process because the teacher told us to, not because we see anything wrong with what we have done.

We have one next step.  Inspired through a conversation with my friend Lauren, she told me how she tells her students what their specific next step is when she reads their writing.  I loved this idea; one next step, not ten things you still need to work on. So after my students had self-reflected on their work, I wrote what I saw as their strengths in their writing and then the very next thing they should work on next.

Why? This means that as a I handed my feedback to them, they knew where to start.  Instead of “just” trying to read the rubric, which most of them admit that they don’t read or understand, they knew how to get started.  Their process then developed from that next step.

We read our work aloud.  And not to get through it quickly but as if we are narrating our very own audiobooks.  My students do not believe me when I tell them that I read every thing I write aloud, but it’s true (I am reading this aloud as I type right now), however, this approach has helped me catch many mistakes.

Why?  I have been sharing with my students how when they read things aloud their ears often catch things that their eyes did not.  Once I got students to actually believe me, some moved into quiet spots and started to read.  They were often amazed at how many things they caught.

We edit on paper.  I asked every child to print their short story and hand it in.  Not because I needed it, but because they did.  On Wednesday, I handed it back to them as I asked them to read it aloud and then asked them to edit directly on it.  Not because we did not have computers in the room, but because they needed to see the mark ups that happen when we edit by hand.  As they read their story aloud, their papers filled in.  I did not tell them how to mark up their paper; they need to figure out their own symbols, but I told them I expected to see change.  And change I saw.

Why?  Because when they only edit on a computer they mistakenly believe that they either have little to change because there are no squiggly red lines, or they think they have already changed a lot.  When they sit with a paper version of their story they can see what they are changing, they can feel their story better, and they then get to type their changes into typed story.  This also offers them another hidden chance of editing their work.


A student let me share their marked up paper after they were done editing it.

Everybody edits and revises.  Often times we only tell our kids who may not have mastered something to edit/revise their stories deeper.  We assume that the kids who show us strong written work already have edited/revised it a lot, but that is not always the case.  In fact, I have seen how little editing/revising some of my more developed writers do.

Why?  For this every child was expected to change their work, even the ones who clearly had exceeded expectations, because they need to realize that there is no such thing as perfect work.  We can always make something better, we can always polish something more.  And sure enough, some of my more developed writers made their stories even better.

We took our time.  This was a unit in itself, not just one day’s worth of activity.  This was an event, something important that I hope they carry with them.  I explained how when I taught younger grades we used checklists and fabricated peer edits to show them what to focus on but that now they were ready for the next step; the idea editing rather than a checklist.  This means that I offer them ideas of what they can work on and sometimes even where but that they must critically evaluate their own work to see what it needs.

Why?  This is hard work and deserves to be treated as such.  This is why it stood on its own and not just the two final days of our writing project unit.

I didn’t partner them.  While I love a great writing trio (trio so that one child doesn’t do all of the work), I purposefully did not put them with a  peer.  I instead wanted them to shape their own process by choosing who they could work with.  And they did, often trading computers and leaving each other comments.  Were the pairings always the most powerful?  No, but they were honest.

Why?  The kids knew that they could help each other and were chosen to be a help and so they did their best to offer critical feedback.  I also want them to make connections without me so that they can shape their own writing process.  It was exciting to see how much students supported each other when I got out-of-the-way.

Once again, I am in awe of the small tweaks that we can implement to create a better writing process.  I have seen incredible changes in the work that my students have revised.  I have seen care taken to a new degree.  I have seen a re-investment, rather than just a shrug off.  By giving them the time and elevating this process to something that was treated with importance, my students now see a larger value in editing.  Now the very next step is to help them hang on to that as they continue to shape their writing identities.

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  I also have a new book coming out December, 2017 .   Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.


5 Tenets of Choice

I have long believed in putting the “person” back in personalized learning.  In creating engaging classroom experiences with our students as we try to help them discover how they learn best and what they still need to grow in.  However working in the public school system in a state that has mandates and tests to take, means that we sometimes cannot just do whatever we want as we explore 7th grade English.  Means that I am not always able to tell my students to create whatever they want and make it work within our standards.  Means that sometimes we all do the same lesson or produce a similar outcome.  Even if I work in a district that is focused on doing what is best for each child and puts immense trust in its teachers.  Even if at my core I believe that children need to feel like they have control in their learning experience so that they will invest themselves.  And I think this is the reality for many teachers that are trying to do their best in engaging all of their learners.  So how do we truly create experiences where students feel empowered and engaged and have choice, even when it is not free rein at all times?

One of the foundations in our classroom is the five tenets of choice.  These ideas by themselves are the foundation for many successful educational experiences, these ideas have been around for a long time, and these ideas, when coupled together, mean that my students always have choice in something, even if it is not apparent at a quick glance.  While the optimal experience would be for them to have all of these choices at any time, sometimes this is not possible within the system I work.  So, instead, I strive for at least two of these, but preferably more, at any given time.

This tiny excerpt from my forthcoming book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Engaging and Reaching Every Child, details the five tenets of choice, hopefully they will be of help to others as well.

1st Tenet

Choice in engagement, meaning how they access the learning; do they need small group instruction, one-on-one conferring, are they independent or want to work with a peer?  I have students do a pre-assessment of how they would like to work through a project and then plan my classes according to their needs.  To see a sample pre-assessment survey, please see the appendix.   

2nd Tenet

Choice in product, meaning what would they like to create to show their understanding and exploration of a concept.  Sometimes this means full control of the product depending on the standards we are working with, while other times it only means minimal choice such as the format of their written work.   

3rd Tenet

Choice in setting, meaning how and where would they like to learn.  As discussed previously, students need to be afforded opportunities to manipulate the learning community environment to suit their needs.  This is part of their learning journey and so students can choose where they sit, how they sit, whether they work in the learning community or in other designated areas, as well as how they use the environment they are working in.   

4th Tenet

Choice in timeline, meaning when they are ready to be assessed.  While this one is harder to do at times, I do try to provide flexible timelines for students, as well as stay in tuned with what else is happening in other classes.  This may mean that for a longer project I will tell students what the final day is for them to turn something in but that they can turn it in any time they are ready before then.   

5th Tenet

Choice in assessment, meaning how and what I assess as far as their mastery of concepts.  Inspired by Kelly Gallagher I will often ask students to turn in the piece that they think showcase their depth of understanding the best and then assess and confer with them regarding this one piece of work.  This allows students more flexibility and control over how they are assessed, as well as gives them the opportunity to reflect on what mastery really means.  This tenet also means that once students have shown mastery for a quarter, they do not have to prove it to me again but can instead move on to more challenging work.  This is a way for me to ensure that students are provided with learning that matches their needs better and also allows them for more self-directed learning.  

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  I also have a new book coming out December, 2017 .   Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.