Posted in Workshop, Writing, Writing Process Explained, writing prompts

Squirrel Guardian, of the House of Procrastination and Random Mischief

A huge shout-out of gratitude to Angela Stockman: read this first:

Ah, the synergy and serendipity of collaboration and conversation.

I’m sitting in my writing shed, something I wanted forever, am very grateful to have, and am still paying off. And the barn-style door does not stay propped open on its own (does anything?). Returning from a walk, I go back to the shed to see what kinds of inspiration can be gleaned from a sunny, anxious depressing, cortisol-filled day. Now, mind you, the garden statuary of the squirrel has a long story, and not sure I’m going to write it right this minute. But I use this statue to prop open the door, and it came to me that this statue is symbolic of a guardian, a talisman, of mine. Quick snapshot, and onto my IG post of the day. Today is the 218/366 (it’s a Leap Year).

And then I thought–whew– wouldn’t this be a good writing prompt idea for my students? I know we all live in different spaces, sometimes sharing an apartment with extended family. But if they could imagine and fantasize about legendary guardians and protectors, what fantasy objects could their “loose parts” help them create?

I’ve often said being an art major informed my teaching. I use writing territories and many low-risk writing strategies. The trick is I’m not going to be ‘there,’ but merely a hologram. Stockman’s Loose Parts reminds me of writing territories but more refined and functional. When I’ve used writing territories in the recent past, some students are confused and don’t grab onto their own stories. The three timeline writing works, but even that can be traumatic. Allow writers to choose from their own writing territories, or collection of loose parts.

It may be wrong or naive of me to hope that the state standardized testing is gone, at least in its current form. The writing has morphed into solely writing to respond. It’s an autopsy of reading, too, and makes little or no connection to the symbiotic act of reading and writing.


Posted in Narrative, Writing, Writing Process Explained

Writing: Voice

A great question:

Some of the best educators on Twitter weighed in with their advice and insight, so if you’re on Twitter, I highly recommend reading some of the comments. And since this is my blog and personal pensieve, I choose to explore this a bit further.

Rebecca is correct: the five of the six traits are skill-based, concrete and easily translated into learning targets and success criteria, and Voice stands out as an gossamer butterfly – hard to capture. Her metaphor is better. My apologies for a weak attempt.

My suggestion was to use mentor texts from a variety of sources. A #pairedtexts approach is useful. Thinking of speeches by recent Presidents and other leaders, both great and ignominious, would also provide rich conversations about voice. Ultimately, the goal is to help guide student writers to define, defend, and develop their own voices.

Craft and Structure:

Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.

Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.


I put together a Google Doc of how the 5 other writing traits supports our discussion and analysis of Voice:

Here is a selection of texts which may provide writing students with ideas of voice:

Resource 1

Just started reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky today and the meandering voice of a teenager could not be missed:

From The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Resource 2

 – June 16, 2015 – In the same speech announcing his candidacy, Donald Trump said, “I will build a great wall—and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me—and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.” Trump’s belief that Mexico should finance construction for the wall led Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to cancel a meeting with Trump in June 2017, and again in February 2018. Peña Nieto has repeatedly said that Mexico will not fund the border wall.

Resource 3 (pair with #2)

Resource 4

Compare Pride by Ibi Zoboi to Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen:

Pride by Ibi Zoboi
How do we teach 'voice?' Using mentor texts and then discussion/analysis questions for students to find their own
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Resource 5

And though this is a great media literacy lesson, too, consider the “voice” the headline uses (word choice, etc.) that runs throughout these headlines:

Maybe voice is difficult to ‘teach’ to adolescents because their voices are still developing; however this does not mean their voices should be marginalized or misjudged. Adolescent voices are often brilliant. Perhaps whenever we have young authors in our care we must remind them, and ourselves, often and kindly, that their voice matters, is growing, and writing is a way to hold onto and reflect on one’s growth. Writing is the best way to provide our own histories with personal primary documents. (I’m going to find those sixth grade journals someday, I swear.) Voice evolves, strengthens, breaks, and regenerates. Consider whose voices to we tune-out, and whose voices do we ache to hear?

PS I’ve been writing this blog for over a decade and want to thank those who read my voice. In truth I’d probably continue to talk to myself, but it’s nice to know you’re out there, too.

Posted in Workshop, Writing, Writing Process Explained


I am not sure how or why, but am completely starstruck: Larry Ferlazzo asked me to be on one of his BAM! podcasts, and that was so cool! The panel consisted of me, Katherine Schultan @KSchulten and Tatiana Esteban @tmce0419, and it was a pleasure to hear their advice and insight on our topic, authentic writing.

The TL:DR version: be explicit when you tell students they are not writing just ‘for the teacher.’ Their audience is secondary to their voice, passions, burning questions, and their own author’s purpose. Use mentor texts and make the invisible visible. Frame what ‘writers do’ and they are writers, too.

And now that I have the podcasting bug, we shall see!

Posted in Workshop, Writing, Writing Process Explained

Hugo House and Writing Communities

This summer I read Why They Can’t Write by John Warner and attended a Hugo House event called Write-O-Rama. Often the most valuable professional development include those we do for ourselves, not necessarily as teachers but for our identities and passions that sustain us outside of the classroom, too.

I have been wanted to dismantle/disrupt the five-paragraph essay for some time now--look for other formats/mediums for students to consider instead of the strict, unresponsive format of the five paragraph essay. As Warner states:

The worst of those training wheels is the five-paragraph essay. If you do not know the form, ask the closest school-aged child or, indeed, anyone who has been through school in the past twenty or so years:

  1. Paragraph of introduction ending in a thesis statement that previews the body paragraphs.
  2. 2–4.  Body paragraphs of evidence supporting the thesis.
  3. Conclusion that restates the thesis, almost always starting with, “In conclusion.”
    Warner, John. Why They Can’t Write (Kindle Locations 121-127). Johns Hopkins University Press. Kindle Edition.

I’ll share what others offered during the Write-O-Rama. There are so many great ideas provided by Hugo House: if you have a resource like this in your area, I strongly recommend attending some sessions. We all want to be better teachers of writing, and oftentimes we’re overwhelmed and don’t know where to start. We feel inadequate about our own writing, and writing is, a lot. A lot a lot.

Write-O-Rama at Hugo House has different conference rooms and times so you can attend several of the sessions, but usually not all. Copyright Hugo House.
The class descriptions give a preview so one can choose. Copyright Hugo House
Background on the instructors: and what a great writing exercise for students! To write their own bios and expertise!

I attended these five:

  • Character Development
  • Dialogue Tricks
  • Plotting with Index Cards
  • Better Sentences
  • Write Your Novel Now

I took notes on each class using Evernote. Just re-reading them, in this moment, my note-taking skills need to improve. But I’ll attempt to give the gist of each session:

  • Character Development: study characters in mentor texts and describe what makes them memorable, and keep them centered in the plot.
  • Dialogue Tricks: no exposition in dialogue: “when writing dialogue keep in mind to have the the conflict sustained quickly” – in other words, no adverbs in dialogue
  • Plotting with Index Cards: use index cards to storyboard a piece of writing. Each card is an atom.
My random notes on plotting with index cards

Here are a few more images from the session:

Novel writing
Novel Writing
Sentence Writing
Sentence Writing

If you want to brainstorm or think of applications of these ideas in your classroom please do not hesitate to contact me. These have direct writing instruction for ourselves and our students of writing. We can go far beyond the five-paragraph essay.

Posted in Best Practices, Workshop, Writing, Writing Process Explained, writing prompts

Sturdy Structures and Tapestries


Every time I feel I have my Professor McGonagall-mojo in place, inevitably realize I am only a Trelawney. I want to be firm, peering over the edge of my spectacles, jumping in and of animal bodies with ease and precision (aka going from my awkward projector on the cart to the tiny weird screen, to the tiny space for the doc camera, etc.: the tech in my room is…uncomfortable). If I could shout out with my confident Scottish brogue, “TWENTY POINTS FOR FIRST PERIOD!” with a flick of my wand, oh what wouldn’t I give?

But alas, every day my practice leans toward the Professor Trelawney style, and unfortunately, for the Dolores Umbridge’s of the world (of education) this is –not good. For me. But like Trelawney, I have a few tricks in my sturdy tapestry bag:

  • I know my content area (even if tea leaves and tarot cards are to ELA like potions are to Science: ELA content is confusing for more linear-minded folks)
  • I love my students. And I know it takes time and the small moments that can’t be documented to build relationships and trust. Expecting it to happen overnight doesn’t honor the humanity in teaching.
  • I love my colleagues: and a huge thank you to a mentor in the building who jumped in and helped me with one particular lesson.

Tessomancy 101: your first draft will not be your best. Pour another cup.

Breaking it down:

In my new district, the first Module is about refugees and reading Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai. 

One of the cumulating assignments (not a project, mind you, an assignment) is a traditional essay. Here is the prompt:

Consider the meaning of the novel’s title, Inside Out and Back Again. How does this title relate to the universal experience of fleeing and finding home, and in what ways is Ha’s experience a specific example of this universal experience?

Essayius Patronus, yo! This is a high cognitive, rigorous and steep prompt. Deconstruct how much it’s asking for the second month of school from 8th-grade students (who are still essentially 7th-grade students): it’s…a lot.

But that’s my job, and what I love doing: how to build a scaffold so that no one falls off, or at least can get back on to meet the requirements.

Remember: this doesn’t happen overnight

  1. Throughout the course of the novel and other readings, we curated quotes and moments

    This was one interactive lesson: quote pages and comments.
  2. Provide a graphic organizer that meets two approaches: linear and non-linear. (This isn’t the best, but it was a good start for us.)
  3. Spend a fair amount of time having them just connect concepts to themselves.
  4. We wrote a hook to ease them into the larger prompt about a time they moved or transitioned. This is a human experience. Some have personal stories that are similar to Ha’s: they are indeed, refugees, immigrants, and moving closer to home, many students have encountered big transitions of emotional lives.

And this is where my occasional Professor Trelawney got something right: one of our building mentors who frequents our afternoon classes helped me model the writing: I interviewed him as I tell all students –that’s what writers do–they ask questions for themselves and put the answers–and more questions–on the page.

Mr. Sudon helped me with this:


We wrote the hook first, then spent a class on the introductory/thesis paragraph (we had talked about thesis prior), and then each day as a class decided what parts to focus on next. Here’s where we landed:


Introductory/Thesis/Claim paragraph

Body Paragraph: Focus on Ha leaving/fleeing Saigon

Body Paragraph: Focus on a speech about Refugee Transitions by Til Gurung

Body Paragraph: Focus on Ha’s life in the US and how she comes ‘back again’

Concluding Paragraph: used Laura Randazzo’s Concluding Paragraph graphic organizer (which will work great when I teach funnel paragraphs).

Every day I provided sentence starters for the paragraphs (practice and identifying what they are doing as writers helped). Students wrote a little every day, by hand, then typed up what they could in a Google Doc, and submitted what they have done so far.

I know a few fell off the scaffold.

And to get them back on, I’ll put together a paragraph-by-paragraph resource document for them, and they can finish on their own. I’m thinking of doing stations next week

  • Station Ideas:
    • If you still need to type your draft
    • If you still need to write your draft
    • If you are nearly completed with the essay, need to make a few changes, and refer to the rubric
    • Ready to move on: provide enrichment ideas (use my Reading Road Trip blog for this purpose)

I’m now thinking…when can or should I introduce the concept of dismantling an essay? 

Thinking sooner than later, because it’s time to bring some magic into the mix.


“You can laugh! But people used to believe there were no such things as the Blibbering Humdinger or the Crumple-Horned Snorkack!”
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

PS: This past week was full of Crumple-Horned Snorkbacks, too:

*dog poop tracked in my already smelly room

*someone threw three students’ notebooks in the girls’ bathroom trash (I replaced them all, and am buying cool markers for the students whose notebooks were trashed)

*many confusing schedule changes and rearranging of students without consultation, discussion or teamwork –here’s to that getting better.

Posted in Being a better teacher, Story Telling, Teacher Troubles, Writing Process Explained

write now

It’s 12:15 PM on November 10th. Do you know where your NaNoMo novel is? Yeah, about that. Good intentions aside, I have done everything but just sit and type. I made a video. Updated grades. Reheated a bowl of chili mac (that will come back to haunt me), and read a few Tweets.

But two things grabbed my brain this morning:

  1. The epiphany that teachers enjoy creating lessons for themselves and having agency, just like students. This has nothing to do with the rest of the post directly, just needed to remember this.
  2. We must flip reading around to writing, or balance it much better.

For some time now, my professional opinion held the research of the National Writing Project that writing helps us become better readers. Reading helps us become better writers, too, but somehow that message got lost in translation.

Summaries, Claim, Evidence and Reasoning paragraphs, Short Answer Responses, etc. are not ‘writing instruction.’ They are a form of writing, of course, living in the Land of Explanatory, formulaic, structured texts, but alas, really do not help or support writing instruction.

And, as one who prides herself on good writing instruction, it’s hard. It’s really hard.

Until it’s not.

Do you know why middle school students give up on their writing lives? Well, wouldn’t you if no one really cared to hear what you had to say? If you didn’t get the answer “right” or scrambled madly for text evidence just to get the dang assignment done? (I asked my students this week if they ever just grab text evidence randomly and every one giggled and confessed yes.) This is not any teachers’ fault –not at all. I am recommending that we teach them how to find their OWN “text evidence” first. Their own stories, insights, moments, etc.

From The Real Reasons So Many Young People Can’t Write Well Today–An English Teacher

“A 2010 study by the Carnegie Corporation called Writing to Read found ample evidence that writing can dramatically improve reading ability. The authors discovered that combining reading and writing instruction by having students write about what they read, explicitly teaching them the skills and processes that go into creating text, and increasing the amount of writing they do results in increased reading comprehension as well as improved writing skill.”

I know this so well. This message is inscribed in my heart. I passed along Writing to Read to past administrators, who’ve come and gone, and I am not sure current ones want or need it. I’ll ask. In the meantime, I’ll take a look at works and reformulate them to fit the digital instruction:

The current test focuses so much on reading, it’s true, but not all of it. Here is the brief write portion of the test, just in case anyone wants it, (even new teachers).

Here is a lesson on memoir writing:

And the parallel writing structure:

Now I’d better go write my own story.

Posted in Writing Process Explained, writing prompts

Best laid plans.

We broke rain records this year, no small feat considering the Seattle area maintains a well-deserved reputation of one of the soggiest places around. Drizzles, downpours, drenching or dollops–no matter the size of the drop, it’s wet. Personally, my older son and I share the love of the gray, goopy clouds. Whenever I think of our rain, inevitably Tom Robbins’ thoughts on rain come to mind. (Some works of fiction stain a lifetime.)

“And then the rains came. They came down from the hills and up from the sound. And it rained a sickness. And it rained a fear. And it rained an odor. And it rained a murder. And it rained dangers and pale eggs of the beast. Rain poured for days, unceasing. Flooding occurred. The wells filled with reptiles. The basements filled with fossils. Mossy-haired lunatics roamed the dripping peninsulas. Moisture gleamed on the beak of the raven. Ancient Shaman’s rained from their homes in dead tree trunks, clacked their clamshell teeth in the drowned doorways of forests. Rain hissed on the freeway. It hissed at the prows of fishing boats. It ate the old warpaths, spilled the huckleberries, ran into the ditches. Soaking. Spreading. Penetrating. And it rained an omen. And it rained a poison. And it rained a pigment. And it rained a seizure.”
Tom Robbins, Another Roadside Attraction

Imagine the first clear, bright May day. A day after two days’ of testing. More days of testing to come. A moment in time–brief and elusive, but there. When we went outside for zombie tag, students felt so free they asked me to go outside again. Knowing I had hit on a currency I could use to all of our advantages, sure. In years past, we’ve gone outside for a Writing ‘rally,’ or as dubbed this year, a Walk’N’Write.

Here’s how it is supposed to work:

Students grab their composition notebooks, something to write with, a writing prompt slip (printed out and cut into strips). The ground rules are laid out clearly on the board, and repeated:

  1. Do not in any way cause any disruption. I don’t want to see my name in an email, hear from other staff members, see a passive-aggressive post on Facebook, be mentioned in ANY WAY, SHAPE OR FORM. Some student asked in disbelief if other teachers put other teachers “on blast” — yes, sadly. They do.
  2. Stay within earshot: I must be able to see you in the courtyard or the small field at all times.
  3. Try the prompts. Move after around ten minutes.
  4. They were allowed to take their cell phones if they wanted to take photo notes.
  5. Be prepared for an exit ticket (writing a reflection or expanding on an idea).

And, by golly, the majority of students did exactly all of these. They knew that the reason they were going outside was because they were so awesome during the zombie unit, and they earned trust to go outside again. 

[embeddoc url=”” download=”all” viewer=”microsoft” ]

Here’s how it worked:

During the first class, one student found some chalk, and one drew a penis on the ground. I don’t know who it was, and I didn’t have anything to clean it up or didn’t think quick enough to grab a cup of water and wash it away. I saw it at the end of the time outside. Middle school students draw graffiti, and genitalia is one of their common art forms. Like cave paintings of beasts and hunts, their choice of symbolism and pictographs trend toward the representation of middle school angst and Maslow’s lowest levels of the hierarchy. Watch ‘Superbad’ if you don’t believe me.

The second misstep was in not confiscating the chalk. From what I saw, there was a small piece of it, I didn’t know where it came from, and moved on. I wish I had thrown it away because other students found it and drew more…things. Pentagrams. Hearts. Butterflies. Initials. And yes, from what admin told me, more genitals. I received an email rightly advising me to make sure students did not do this in the future. But I am still not clear whose students drew all of the drawings.

So now I’m left with the unenviable task of telling my students what happened and consequences. That they have to keep themselves in check, or we can’t go outside again. Some of my fourth-period students waved in other teachers’ classrooms, and when I reminded them that that was a disruption, one argumentative young man justified it by saying the other student waved first.


However, there was far more positive than not. Students wrote. The noticed details, the trash, the good, ugly, and emotions tied with their surroundings. They struggled and grappled with worldly metaphors. Many saw the courtyard with new eyes. They looked up from their phones or used them to take pictures for later writing. They enjoyed the sun on their faces and breathed fresh air. It gave them one of the most important strategies for creativity: look up.




…look up.


PS If you look closely at the picture, there is a big white square of chalk. Someone drew over the drawing. They had better things to draw.

Posted in Argumentative Reading and Writing, Being a better teacher, Big Questions, Reading Strategies, Research, Rhetoric, Social Media, Writing, Writing Process Explained

Structure Series: Essays for the 21st Century


Writing a quick paragraph on social media is good practice.

The five-paragraph essay is likened to learning the foundations of structure and organization critical to being able to write other organized pieces. There may be merit to this, however learning how to write something no one reads anymore may only serve to rust and crumble authenticity.

Might I offer some suggestions, or additions to the five-paragraph essay, especially for secondary students?

Consider these sites/links as mentor texts as well as powerful places to publish essays. Use examples of the essays written here and challenge students to compare their essays to these.

Some close reading/close writing ideas:

  • Read for anecdotes: these may be strewn throughout the piece, or used in the beginning to provide humanity and context.
  • Read for truth (personal truths), opinions (things that strive to persuade) and facts (quantifiable data)
  • Read for thesis (claims)– but more importantly, read for ‘what question the writer is ‘answering’ — identify what prompted the piece, and what happened before and what might happen after is critical to consider the context of any essay.
  • Identify where the author broke away from the standard “five paragraph essay” and where she may have taken some key pieces for organization — how does it begin? How is it concluded? What points are made in the middle?
  • In the conclusions: analyze how the conclusion stacks up with leaving the reader with the desired outcome, whatever that may be. Does the conclusion provide wisdom, more questions, a summation of ideas? How? Why or why not?




Op-Ed Pieces from NY Times, Washington Post:

The Right Call: Yale Removes My Racist Ancestor’s Name From Campus

No, Robots Aren’t Killing the American Dream

In contrast, posted in Medium:

A warning from Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Stephen Hawking

There is always more to the story. Consider what perspectives or voices are not being heard, what are the perceptions, and what is ‘stochastic terrorism’ —

From Quora:

Read Chris Joosse‘s answer to What is it that conservative voters just don’t get yet? on Quora


These sites allow for curation and dialogue. Challenge students to find pieces that bounce against one another, the claims and counter-claims of 21st-century discussions. We are not sitting around dinner tables anymore, we are sitting in a web of ideas, and sometimes we are the prey: in this day and age, it is critical to not gloss over what is fake news, but to empower our students to consider and weigh the entire issues at stake. It is a monumental task but may mean life or death. Hyperbole? Not when others are reading conspiracy theories and threatening lives. Even if this isn’t factual–consider that some do believe it, and act accordingly.