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.

When Reading is Trash or Magic

A couple of years ago I asked my students to tell me why reading was amazing.  When Jack whispered to Michael that “Reading sucks…” the rest, they say, is history.  Inspired by Jack’s words of truth, I have asked students for years now to tell me their reading truths and not hold back.  I cannot be the kind of teacher I would like to be if I don’t get to know them.  The real them.  Not the school-primed, sanitized version.  Not the kid that knows how to play the game.  Not the kid that says whatever they think we want to hear so they start off on a good foot.

So on the third day of school this year, I told the story of Jack. Of how I had been doing that lesson where I talk about the magic of reading.  How he had dared to whisper those words.  Some of the students laughed, they remember the lesson I was referring to, as they have also head about how amazing reading is for years.  And then they got quiet as I asked them so when is reading not magical?  And when is it?

I wrote in big bold letters “Reading is magical” and then asked them what to write on the other side.  “Reading is trash!” they said as they chuckled, not quite sure, I am sure, of what to make of all of this.

They grabbed as many post-its as they could and then started to write their reasons.  Please tell me when reading is amazing.  Please tell me when reading is trash.  Tape your post-its to the board so they stay up.  Sign your name if you want.  And then step back, read the post-its.  What do you notice?

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Over and over their words joined together to form the same patterns I see year after year.  The same things I have done to kids through the years.  The same things many of us educators are told to do every year by well-meaning administrators who are led by an expert curriculum that someone told them to purchase to raise test scores.

No choice!

Boring books!

Too much writing!

Tests!

Forced reflections!

Sitting still!

Their words glared at us.

 

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But wait?  When is reading magical?  Again a pattern that we all know.

When I find the right book!

When I am given time to read!

When I find a great series or author!

When it is quiet!

When I am allowed to just read!

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Their words have carried us into our beginning reading conversations, into our analysis, into our very community.  They have guided us as we start to figure out where reading fits into our lives and whether we can protect or promote a strong and personal relationship with reading.  They have guided us as they have mentioned the amazing experiences they have had with their previous teachers, and the ones they wish that had not had.

We fret so much over what curriculum we should use, how we should teach, and how we should grade, yet sometimes the biggest impact we can have with kids is simply when we stop and ask them for their truths.  Do you know what your students would say?

PS:  This lesson and the others that surround it are all discussed in my new book, Passionate Readers.  Passionate Readers.  

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 Authentic Reading Goals and Conversations

The silence envelops us a few minutes into class.  I look around and see one of my favorite sights in the world; kids reading.  Quietly I walk up to the first kid, grab a chair, sit next to them and ask; what is your goal for the year? And for the next few minutes, I get to know this child a little more, not just as a reader, but also as a human being.

Last week, I wrote about our the changes to our 7th- grade reading challenge and how this year we had decided to move away from just quantity to make it more authentic for students.  I was excited to roll it out but not sure how the students would react.  Were they even up for a challenge or would it just be another thing to get done just so the teacher would stop bugging them?  Only one way to find out; ask them.

This week, as I started my quick reading check-ins, asking about their goal, has been the main topic of conversation.  With a simple question, we are off and I am starting to get a feel for these kids and who they are as readers.

So what have I noticed?

That no goal fits all.  As an elementary teacher, I often provided my students with a specific goal for them to work on and while instructionally this makes sense, after all, I can see what they need to work on, there often was very little buy-in.  When students reflect on their own needs and set a goal, they immediately see the reason for it. Those goals that I also see for them?  We will work on them together in a small group.

That when we ask kids to really think about what they need to work on the answers are very varied.  This also means that the years I have pushed for more of a quality goal or other single-minded goals, that many kids have not bought into it because the goal has not mattered to them.  Some kids immediately had something come to mind, while others needed more support.  Most kids though have created a goal that is specific to not just their reading identities, but also their reading lives.

Those individual goals encourage more honesty.  I always operate under a policy of total honesty when it comes to reading and ask my students to also do so.  By starting our reading conversations early in the year and asking for them to tell me the good and the bad as far as their reading experiences, that judgment-free reading discussion follows us into their goal setting.  When I ask students why they chose that goal, many discuss how or when they read or when they don’t and why they need to change that.  Some kids also discuss how even with this goal they don’t think they will be successful because of various obstacles.  Rather than hiding these thoughts, they are willing to share them which means I can now note it and try to do something about it.

That they do most of the talking.  While I start the conversation and also offer up follow-up conversations, I need to make sure that it is their response that guides the path.  Too often I have overtaken a conversation out of my own helpfulness, but now I try to listen and then respond to get them to elaborate.

Those relationships are built in small pieces.  One of the best benefits of these reading check-ins simply has to do with relationship building.  Every time I am able to devote a few minutes to just one child that is one child I know better.  While this might be a “Well duh” moment, I often think of how many conversations we don’t make time for especially in middle school and high school.  How often do we feel like we don’t have time for that check-in or small group because we have so much to cover?  The reading check-in is a foundation of my further instruction and I need to remember that when I feel like I am pulled in a different direction.

That quantity goals often mean that the child does not know themselves well as a reader.  While quantity goals used to be our norm, I have found in my conversations that often when a child now sets the minimum quantity goal it is often because they do not know what else to work on.  Our reading check-in then centers around what else they could focus on.  When they are not sure then that tells me a lot about their reading identity.

That reading check-ins offer me a chance to remind.  Those first few days of school are such a blur for all of us and I shudder to think of all of the information that these students have been presented within all of our classes.  So while I offer reminders in the beginning of class, I am also reminding them of reading rights as we speak.  It is important that kids know that they can book shop anytime they want, that they can abandon any book they need to, and that they need to plan for reading throughout their day.  How many times do we say things in those first few days that kids never hear?

That I write very little down.  Too often we get caught up in our conferring notes, rather than in the conversation itself.  I am intentionally limiting my notes just so I can focus on the child, so I can look them in the eye, react to what they are saying and then jot a few things down that can spark the next conversation.  (To see the form I use, go to our Facebook group).

As I think ahead to the coming week, I am excited.  Excited to have more conversations.  Excited to move further in our instruction.  Excited to learn more about these kids that have been entrusted to me every day.  All through one little goal and a few minutes of conversation.

PS:  If you would like to have more reading conversations or you have questions, come join our Passionate Readers Facebook group, 

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.

 

 

Ten Tools for Changing the Grading Conversation

While I have tried to move away from giving grades over the last seven years, I have been a failure at it.  Those pesky numbers or letters keep popping up in our classroom, whether I want them to or not.  That seems to be what happens when you work within a public school system that has made the grading decision for you.  For the past seven years, I have written about how to move away from grades, but what if that is not an option?  What if grades are a part of your duties and you have to give them no matter what?  And let’s face it; assessing students through grades is easy; put a number/letter on it and it tells the whole story for you, or so we think.  Put a number/letter on it and surely a child, or a parent, will know exactly what we are communicating and how they are doing.  And yet, that is not what happens within most traditional grading; kids don’t know why they get what they get, they feel they have no control, and parents aren’t aware of the full story.

I have to come realize that while I can pine for a gradeless system, where we do not place children into such boxes, in the meantime I can work within the confinement currently presented and change the conversation itself.  So rather than focus on trying to remove grades completely, I can make sure that the ones I am in charge of giving are actually meaningful, as well as controlled by the students, providing us with another tool for giving the learning back to the students.

We start by breaking down our learning targets whenever possible, and while this sounds incredibly formal, it is more of a pointed conversation.  What are we learning and why are we learning it are questions that students should be able to answer, even if the answer to why is to be better human beings.  Students have a hard time taking ownership over their learning process if they have no clue where they are headed.

We then discuss ways to get there.  As often as possible, students need have to different pathways to reach their learning goals.  While full personalization of product would be lovely, I am not able to provide that for my students at all times.  We then look to the five tenets of choice as ways to incorporate more personalization.

Students must know themselves.  We have two central questions we pursue as an English class all year; who am I as a reader and who am I as a writer?  Both of these lead to the self-reflection and discovery that students undertake.  After all, I need each child to know themselves well enough to know how they actually need to grow and also to find the motivation to become better.  That will not happen if I make the same goal for each child. It is also telling that many of my most resistant learners do not know who they are as learners.  How can we expect them to grow if they don’t even know who they are?

We know what the end assessment will be.  We have to discuss with students and help them understand what our grade level work reads like or presents itself as, otherwise we are asking students to shoot their learning into the dark and hope it sticks somewhere.  So actual student examples, modeling, and shared conversations have to be present during our learning as guides to the students.  Make it accessible without your direction so they can access it at any time.

We change our language.  Two years ago I adopted the “Best draft” terminology from Kelly Gallagher and have not looked back.  Often students will hand in their “best draft” rather than their final product.  Final product means exactly that; final, no need to revise, revisit, or rethink.  But “best draft” means that it is unfinished, that there is still work to be done, that even if the assessment is attached to it, it is preliminary at best and can be molded by their own efforts to change their learning product.

Students assess themselves first.  For big projects, (and I need to do it more) I will not assess it unless a child has first.  Otherwise, my voice is what they will conform to rather than their own reflection on where they are on the learning journey.  I need them to do the hard thinking work of breaking down their own skills and then seeing what their strengths are and how they need to grow further.  They, therefore, need to understand the rubric, the terminology used, as well as how they CAN grow.

They come up with a next step.  While I focus my feedback on the one next step, they also need to focus on what they are working on next and how else they will grow.  It is not enough for them to place themselves into an assessment category and then do nothing about it.  Every child needs to set the next step goal for themselves and then come up with a tangible plan to pursue it.  This will be a major focus for me next year as I am still trying to figure out how to do this best with teaching 130+ students.

They direct their learning.  Part of our learning journey is figuring out how they learn best within the confinements of our time, our environment, and the curriculum we do need to explore.  So who do they work best and where in the room do they work best are parts of their self-assessments, not just a number or a letter grade.

They take ownership over their assessment.  While the number (we are standards based) is not the description of them as a learner, it becomes part of our conversation.  We must go beyond handing out numbers or letters so that students can understand what it means to create work that is at a “2” or a “3” and then move beyond that even.  Making the number or letter something that is in control of the students changes their own classification.  No child is a “2” in our classroom, the specific work may be at a “2” level; there is a big difference there.

They want more.  My students know that their score, which is often selected by themselves, is just a part of their assessment because they are consistently provided with feedback either through a rubric, written out, or a conversation.  Very rarely, except for on our spelling packets, are they just given a score with no further explanation.  That means that they know that the number is merely a symbol of something larger and not the only designator.  They know that there is more to the story.  In fact, they get so used to this that if feedback or reflection opportunity is not provided that they ask for further clarification.  This is an indicator, in my eyes, that they see how little the actual number/letter symbolizes and need more information.

The thing is with grades, they are a tool like any other.  It is when we let them dominate our conversation when they become the only thing we discuss that we lose kids in the process.  Grades were not meant to be easy, they are meant to be a conversation starter and so it is up to us to start having those conversations if we want students to truly have ownership over their own learning journey.

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.

My End of Year Student Survey 2017

I owe my greatest growth as a teacher to the truths that my students have shared with me.  The courage that they have had to speak up for the type of education they would like to be a part of.  It is therefore only natural for me to ask all of my students for their honest feedback as we finish the year.  Every year, their surveys have shaped the coming year, whether it meant getting rid of a project or completely revamping something I knew was almost working.  My students’ answers have shaped much of my writing as well, both books and blog posts come from the answers they give me.

And what do I ask?  What I need to know; was this a good class for them, did I give enough help, what did they like or dislike?  Was I fair, did I get to know them enough?  How do they feel about reading, what do I need to change?  Anything I can think of that will help me grow, and not just the easy questions either, if a child did not like this class or felt disrespected then I need to know so I can change.

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So I hope you take the time to ask your students as well as the year ends and then use those truths to change the way you teach.  Once again, we have the best professional development sitting right in our own classrooms, so don’t miss out on this opportunity to learn about what worked, what was ok, and what definitely needs to change.  I have given it both as a paper survey and an electronic one, this year I decided for a Google form.  To see what I asked, go here.

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.