Category Archives: Writing

Pencil on notebook

The Write Reminders

As many know, three years ago I spent a large chunk of my summer commuting to UC Davis, dodging bikes and squirrels and writing. There was lots of writing. I was lucky enough to be trained as a Teacher Consultant for the Area 3 Writing Project. Not only did I write, I also learned very valuable lessons on the pedagogy of writing, getting our students to write well, but also why it was vital that I write, too.

Last week I had a refresher. I took part in the Advanced Institute, where in just three days my head was full with incredible ideas of how to bring writing, REAL writing to our students. Authentic.(Mentor texts, people!) I was reminded of Donald Graves and his understanding of the process of writing, and how we butcher that process in school. Graves understood that writers need to write almost every single day–not just for the essay at the end of the grading period. Writing is not merely just the end. Writing is thinking, formulating thoughts and getting them out on paper or a screen. It is not always polished, and it is definitely not always good. Reading a passage from Graves, again, his work hit me as hard as the first time I read them: “If students are not engaged in writing at least four days out of five, and for a period of thirty-five to forty minutes, beginning in first grade, they will have little opportunity to learn and think through the medium of writing” (A Fresh Look at Writing, 1994). Graves goes as far to say that if you can’t commit to the time, don’t even bother teaching writing. Whew! That’s a tall order for a middle school teacher who only has her students for 45 minutes each day. So how do you fit it in? 

One of the best parts of my three days was getting to sit and discuss that exact question with a group of like-minded and like-frustrated middle school teachers. We discussed many viable solutions–starting the period with writing every day no matter what (which is what I have done the past three years), creating a system of centers to try and differentiate needs and meet with students. Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle tackle this same issue in their awesome book 180 Days (READ IT!). What resonated with me wasn’t just the solution in the English classroom, it was the suggestion of a systematic approach. Writing should be done across all content areas. The 35 minutes a day should not be just in the English classroom. In that case, how do we get our science, social studies and even math teachers to embrace writing? 

I think the answer is low stakes writing. Low stakes means the writing can be on the spot, not even graded, but a way for students to explore ideas, as well as for teachers to check in on their students’ understanding. It can be shared with peers or simply live in a journal. It’s low stress for students and creates fluency in writing. Non English teachers often think that they are not qualified or do not have the time to “teach” writing, but every subject requires writing. What is missing is the constant practice of writing in those classes. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a science or social studies teacher complain about student writing. But would we expect an athlete to win a game without hours of practice? Plus, writing is thinking, right? Then let’s get students thinking and writing in all subject areas. Every. Day.

As I move into administration this coming school year, I am hoping the reminders of the importance of writing across the curriculum will stay with me. I know the lessons I have learned from the Writing Project will never leave me. Because of that, I will end this post with my favorite proverb from our writing retreats: If you are reading everything (or grading everything) your students are writing, then your students are not writing enough. I am now amending this to include all content areas.

Outside the box

Balancing the Box

Last month, sitting in a workshop discussing the power of writer’s workshop, the inevitable question arose: “How can I find time for this when I have a mandated curriculum to follow?”

One seasoned educator responded, “I just do it. What are they going to do, fire me?”

I chuckled, along with the rest of the room, but it really got me thinking about this common dilemma so many educators face: trying to follow along with a boxed curriculum, while still trying to bring in activities and lessons that help and engage every student. We know our students and so often the “one size fits all” curriculum doesn’t fit the missing puzzle pieces. It is in these moments that we need to trust ourselves as professionals and do what is right for students.

On the social media/message app Voxer, I am a part of an amazing community of middle school English teachers from across the country where we discuss this dilemma often. The pressure to keep pace with our PLCs, complete the required assessments on time, while still having time to reteach, accommodate for those with special needs and engage students with topical, relatable activities that bring fun to the classroom can be overwhelming. It can leave teachers feeling inadequate and as if they are failing. This common scenario is definitely not good for students.

The key is balancing the box with what you think is right for your students. I often think the best thing that ever happened to education was the adoption of Common Core standards without having any approved curriculum. It forced teachers to not only truly understand the standards, but also trust ourselves to create lessons to meet those high benchmarks. Sure, it was brutal, and if you’re like me, most of those units were far from smooth, but personally, I learned so much. About the standards. About curriculum development. About my own teaching gaps. There was no box to protect me.

This is my second year with purchased curriculum, (third if you include piloting). The greatest gift my district gave our teachers was not mandating that we teach every single activity. We do have common unit assessments (three times a year) and common writing pieces (3-4 a year). Don’t get me wrong; I think having these common assessments are incredibly important. District wide we can make decisions on areas of growth for our students and teachers based on results. Even in our PLCs it is important to have shorter-term common assessments, as well. It drives instruction and monitors student growth.

What does not need to be common and identical is the way we teach the standards. I am a huge fan of UDL (Universal Lesson Design) and one of the cardinal rules is that not every student learns the same way, so if we give students options for learning, we can essentially get more bang for our buck, creating a more successful learning environment.

For those of you struggling with being trapped inside the box, I thought I would share a few things my PLC has done with our box curriculum. Hopefully you can share some of your ideas with me, as well.

  • The first time, try it all. You really do not know if an activity is any good, unless you try it. Last year my partner and I taught a chunk of our curriculum to fidelity. This year, we were able to pick what we thought was the best for students and meeting the standards. We have done a lot of taking the “essence” of the lessons and using more topical pieces to hit the same standards.
  • Give CHOICES…
    • for whole class novels or other long term projects. The only whole class novel I teach is The Outsiders. I start this right away and use it as a tool to teach independent reading strategies and review writing. I’ve never met an 8th grader who doesn’t like the classic story, so it’s a safe choice. But that’s it. When our box curriculum includes teaching a novel, we give the students choices. As my Voxer friend Joy Kirr put it, if you teach a novel for 4-6 weeks, it’s likely only a certain portion of your students are engaged with it, so you’ve lost the rest of your class for all that time. I hate to tell you, English teachers, not every student enjoys Of Mice and Men. Let it go.
    • in writing and other assessments. In my class we start the day with daily writing in journals. I give prompts, but students can always write about whatever they want. This is just about building stamina and learning to love writing. We also publish our choice writing in blogs most weeks. As far as our academic writing, the only writing that will ever be the same for every student is short formative pieces, where I need to give quick feedback. Essays? I would shoot myself if I had to read 100+ 8th grade essays on the same topic. Why would I have them write the same argumentative piece? I would much rather have students write about something that matters to them. Fortnight? By all means, write me a well-written, researched essay about the pros and cons of a Battle Royale game.
  • DON’T FORGET INDEPENDENT CHOICE READING. (I’m yelling that, btw.) I had a high schooler in the back of my car the other day who said, “Ah, I miss choice reading.” Students NEED to read books, but not the ones YOU choose. And not just in English class. This should be a school-wide culture adoption. Independent reading improves student academics in so many aspects, plus the research on how reading creates empathy is worth checking out.

Check out this video from Penny Kittle as a reminder of the importance of choice reading.

Having common language, goals and assessments district-wide, but especially in your PLCs is incredibly important. Looking at data, at each level should help drive instruction, but don’t get trapped by the box curriculum. It is there to help frame your lessons not determine the needs of your students. So, don’t feel guilty when you veer. You might need to. As long as you are heading in the right direction and doing what is right for your students, you are not failing anyone. In fact, celebrate the fact that you are the kind of educator who does whatever it takes to make sure his or her students succeed. I celebrate and commend you. You are my people. Cheers!

Pencil on paper

Wait. Don’t Wait. Write.

This post originally published at:

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of sitting in a workshop led by the legendary Ralph Fletcher. When I first started teaching, his book What a Writer Needs transformed the way I taught writing in my classroom. Giving students choice and time to write about topics for which they are passionate is a lesson I have carried with me since my writer’s workshop inception over 20 years ago. This weekend, sitting with members of my local Writing Project (Area 3 in the house!) Fletcher reminded me of the power writing has on the individual. And I’m not just talking about my students. I’m talking about me. I love writing, but I rarely do it because there are always so many other things to do: Laundry, grading, that new series on Netflix…

Since May, I have embarked on a writing journey, unlike any other. When CUE asked for applications to be a regular contributor to the OnCUE blog, I was so excited, I filled out the questionnaire within minutes. Then the doubt set in. How was this going to fit into my already busy schedule? Was my voice one that people even wanted to read?

Soon, though, I was in a groove. I explored areas of teaching pedagogy and educational technology, where I always wanted to learn more, but never chose to spend the time on follow through. I reached out to friends and acquaintances, asking for expertise and publishing their voices. It wasn’t hard to find the time. I gave myself deadlines, made plans and hit every one of my goals.

Looking back, I know it was a lot of work, but that’s not what stands out. What I remember is how easy it was to sit down at my computer and get my thoughts out. I remember how good it felt when others reacted to the content I chose to publish. Honestly, it was an amazing ride.

My Instant Gratification Monkey.

My Instant Gratification Monkey shirt always comes out to play!
Each year I show my students Tim Urban’s Ted Talk: Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator. We discuss how procrastination is a very normal thing and how all of us have our “Instant Gratification Monkey.” It’s a great lesson for us all, but what strikes me every year is how Urban ends his talk. He references times in people’s lives where there are no deadlines. That’s when we can miss out on trying something new. Taking risks. Challenging ourselves to become more than we ever thought possible. He says, “We need to think about what we’re really procrastinating on, because everyone is procrastinating on something in life.”

I took a risk and went on a journey with CUE. It may have been a small trek, but it helped me grow in ways I couldn’t have imagine. How are you procrastinating and not living your best life? Take a little advice from Tim Urban and me. Don’t let your Instant Gratification Monkey take the wheel. Make a plan and do it!

Oh, and if you want to apply to be a part of the Social Media Champs for CUE the deadline is October 31st. Go to today. Well, maybe not today.

Sharing Humanity in the Classroom

If you’re like me, I love engaging students with short videos. I especially love short inspirational videos that get my students to think. I use them as starters for writing, discussions, or even teaching specific concepts. Strangely, most of my videos are advertisements. My students have even begun guessing half way through the video what the company behind the message is. “What are they selling?”

Recently, I came across a blog post by Larry Ferlazzo about StoryCorps. I had never heard of the series which records everyday people’s stories to share with the world and archive experiences for future generations through podcasts. As their website reads, “We do this to remind one another of our shared humanity, to strengthen and build the connections between people, to teach the value of listening, and to weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that everyone’s story matters. At the same time, we are creating an invaluable archive for future generations.” And the stories are incredible.

StoryCorps has taken many of these stories and turned them into animations. Watching a few of them, my heart has grown three sizes! As Ferlazzo points out on his website, these short videos are perfect to use in the classroom. Check out Ferlazzo’s blog post here and add StoryCorps to your list of video resources. You might even want to take some time today to get lost in these beautiful shared human experiences.

Showing not Telling: Writing is a Process

I am a huge fan of teachers writing. Not just emails and the mundane reports we need to fill out, but real writing. Of course, being an English teacher, I am a bit of a writing pusher. I know how powerful journaling or even blogging can be for personal growth through reflection, but also to share ideas. I mean, it’s why I blog. It helps me focus my thoughts and share my crazy ideas with the world. It doesn’t even matter if no one reads my posts. It’s about the process.

Of course, I also know what kind of writer I am. I need a quiet comfortable place, wine in reach, with the ideas already worked out in my head. I also never show anyone my writing unless I think I’ve done my best. With that being said, my teaching partner inadvertently challenged me to break all my writing comfort zone rules.

Our eighth graders are drafting “Hero’s Journey” stories. When I walked into my partner’s room the other day, she shared how she was writing with her students. Now, I have always tried to draft a version of the assignments I give my students for a few reasons: mainly to give the assignment a trial run and to have an example to show students. Usually, I have done this in my quiet bedroom, revising over and over before even considering presenting an example in class. But in her classroom, my partner was writing at the same time as her students, and not just that. She had granted them access to comment!

This blew my mind. We talked about it later, and she shared how powerful letting her kids see her process was. She was so right. I knew I needed to try it.

So yesterday, I shared my unfinished, first draft (dribble) with all my classes. I asked them for advice and put my heart on my sleeve. I sucked up my pride and posted my story in our Google Classroom. I must say it was not easy. I am supposed to be the expert, right? Aren’t my students supposed to see me as a mentor?

As hard as some of the comments were to take, it was a powerful experience. They loved it. My students could see how I was trying to navigate the assignment, the same as them. They could see that writing is messy, even for the ones who are supposed to be “experts.” Writing is a process, and it isn’t easy, but getting feedback from others is how we grow. I will expect them to share their drafts with their peers and with me. I needed to show my students that sharing and allowing others to give feedback is valuable. Growth mindset, right?


And they also had a little fun with commenting.



Reflecting before Relaxing: Ending my School Year

When I end the school year, I try to take a moment before I reach full blown summer mode to reflect on my year. Today I chose to sit down for a few minutes and decipher my report card: the survey my students take to grade me. It includes quite a few questions that I take to heart: have I treated them fairly, am I easy to understand, do I care about them. I’m a huge proponent of getting feedback from my “customers” and unlike the local retailer who has to bribe consumers with coupons or chances to win $100 gift cards, my students gladly take the time to be honest with me, especially when I give them class time to do it.

In August, I set out to make my classroom a place of readers and writers. So, this year I added a few specific questions about each. Did student attitudes about either change? Answering on a Likert scale, here’s what my students responded.


For the most part, attitudes changed for the better. I was generally pleased, but that bottom end still bugs me. I know there is still work to be done.

What I did:

I tried desperately to create a culture of reading. Students were to read at least two hours every week. On Fridays, they would have a book talk with their group members where each would share one assignment from this grid. Based on the standards, I wanted students to try to make more meaningful connections with their books. Plus the assignments gave them something to talk about. I also shared what I was reading, and we had whole class book recommendation time. At the end of each trimester, we would make book trailers and write reviews on Goodreads.

What I would change:

I would no longer require students have their grid assignment done for homework. I want the focus to be the reading. Instead, I would give them time just before book talks to do some sort of reflection for the week, then share that. I’m considering dropping Goodreads and somehow incorporating their reviews instead into student blogs. I love the online community, but we just don’t have time to utilize it. Also, I would do more individual book conferences. In a 47 minute class period it takes me a week to get to every student, but the one time I did accomplish it this year, it was powerful.


Like reading, I’m very pleased with the attitude change. The negative attitude (1-2) dropped significantly. Of course, still work to do!

What I did:

I wrote a blog post about this a few months ago, but basically, I kept my promise. We wrote every day and we shared in some form every day. Monday-Thursday we wrote in our journals and Fridays we blogged. In addition, we wrote many other genres: stories, essays, letters, etc. In a nut shell, we wrote a lot.

What I would change:

First of all, I would personally write and share more. I can stop what I’m doing for three minutes and write at the beginning of each period with my students. The times I have shared my writing, the students loved. It’s powerful to be a model. Sometimes I forget that. I would also try to carve more time for personal feedback. Whether that’s an official writing conference, or even just an email or comment on a Google Doc. I need to make it a priority to make sure I give each student something to improve. It’s how we all grow.

It was a great year, and I’m thankful my students thought so, too. Now, it’s time to start summering. The stack of books on my nightstand are waiting.