Archive | February, 2012

Who Are Your Students Writing For? (And Why It Matters)

24 Feb

I took a graduate class this last summer with a professor who annoyed the heck out of


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me. He was a nice enough guy, and he was extremely knowledgeable, but he had a habit of assigning what struck me as exceedingly dull, restrictive essay topics—short, bland “compare-and-contrast” assignments, mostly.

I voiced my desire to write longer, more complex papers on broader topics, on the grounds that no one in their right mind would actually want to read a five-page paper detailing the different uses of the word “furious” in two Faulkner short stories, but he shot me down. He made it clear that it didn’t matter if my essays appealed to a wider audience; he was the only person who was going to read them anyway.

This didn’t exactly inspire me.

I started to wonder: why is it that we expect our students to be excited about slaving over an essay for an audience of exactly one curmudgeonly old teacher?

The fact is, who your students are writing for is just as important as what they are writing about. The Journal of Writing Research recently published an article about peer editing that showed that students who knew they would share their work with a peer editor wrote higher quality first drafts and also revised more thoroughly than students who were writing for a TA or a professor. If you’re having a hard time getting your students to write for you, then why not try getting them to write for each other? Or—better yet—publish their work for the whole school? Reading aloud or publishing an anthology of student writing can work wonders for motivation.


Close the Achievement Gap with One Simple Writing Exercise

17 Feb
Achievement gap in the United States

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Did you know that, by as early as third grade, nearly 25% of African-American boys believe that they lack the innate ability to succeed in school?

While many policymakers blame the minority achievement gap on income disparities, public school inequity, and different extra-curricular learning opportunities (and rightly so), recent research suggests that one of the most important factors in student success is actually a factor that takes very little time and money to affect: the expectations that students have for themselves. Luckily, there is a simple one-hour lesson that can alter low expectations and prepare minority students for success.

The Lesson

Psychologists Geoffrey L. Cohen and Gregory M. Walton have invented a method to help students overcome their fear (and expectation) of failure. Here is what you do:

Step One: Have students read essays by minority students who have overcome academic challenges and succeeded as students (particularly ones that focus on feelings of “not belonging” in an academic situation, such an essay by a student who felt unprepared for AP classes because none of her friends family have ever taken one before, but who then learned to overcome that feeling of alienation). I would suggest asking former students of yours to pitch in and write these speeches for you.

Step Two: Ask students to spend 20 minutes writing their own short speeches to the next year’s freshman (or 7th-graders or seniors) detailing how their own experiences dovetail with those of the essays they just read.

Step Three: Videotape or record students presenting these speeches.

The Results

Here is how an article from the LA Times summarizes the results of the initial Walton and Cohen experiment, performed on a group of college freshman:

“Over the next three years their grade-point averages steadily rose, compared with the GPA’s of a similar group of black undergraduates: the control group who didn’t participate in the “social belonging” exercise. At graduation, their grades were a third of a point higher than the grades of the students in the control group; that’s the difference between a B+ and A- average. Twenty-two percent of the minority participants, but only 5% of the control group, were in the top quarter of their class; only a third of them, compared with half of the control group, wound up in the bottom quarter. What’s more, they were substantially less likely to have become sick, and more likely to report being happy, during their undergraduate years than the other minority students.”

Try this with your students, and then let me know how it goes by commenting below!

Why You Should Never Tell Your Students They’re Smart

12 Feb

I grew up during the self-esteem craze of the early nineties. In third grade, I had to take a class called “Me-ology” in which I completed an entire workbook about how special and amazing I was. The theory was that if kids thought they were brilliant and perfect and special, they would do better in school. As I’m sure many of you can imagine, this was an extremely stupid and unsuccessful exercise. All it did was make me painfully sensitive to criticism of any kind.

As it turns out, telling kids that they are smart and great and special actually has a detrimental effect on their performance in school. For example: in one recent study, two groups of students took an easy test and did well on it. One group was told, “You did so well on this test! You must be so smart.” Another group was told, “You did so well on this test! You must have worked so hard to prepare.

Guess who did better on the next test?

By an astonishing margin, the kids who were told “You must have worked so hard!” outperformed the “you must be so smart” kids. And for reasons that are obvious: if you think that you are smart enough to succeed naturally, then you don’t put in any work. If, on the other hand, you recognize that you aren’t perfect, and that it takes hard work to achieve a goal, then you are set up for success.

Set your students up for success. Praise them for hard work and diligence. Prepare them to face a challenge. Don’t feed them the myth that they’re perfect.

After all, they can’t control their IQ score, but they can control their effort and attitude.

How Two Minutes of Writing Can Cure the Common Cold

12 Feb
English: taking blood pressure in PE

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Most teachers know that writing can make you more thoughtful, insightful, and logical. But did you know that it can make you healthier?

In particular, writing about a trauma–even just once, for only two minutes–has been proven to significantly improve long-term health (Burton and King, 2007). When researchers asked participants to write about a traumatic experience, compared to a control group, who wrote on an unrelated topic, the participants who wrote about trauma demonstrated significantly better health over the course of the next year, ranging from fewer overall doctor’s visits to lower blood pressure.

How to use this in your classroom:

If you use journals in your class, a great journal topic could be: “Write about something very sad that happened to you” or “Write about a difficult time in your life.” If you don’t use journals, then consider using personal trauma as an essay topic when you teach essay structure. Most students leap at the chance to talk about difficult experiences, but if you meet with resistance, you might want to read them a student example like this one by Yusef Butler, an 8th-grade Deep student:

One night, it was I believe Fourth of July or two days after,
people was still poppin’ firecrackers. I looked out the window
and seen some boy poppin’ fire crackers with his mom and
his brother. Then like thirty minutes later I heard a pop, pop
then looked out the window to see whether the boy was still
out there with his mama but he wasn’t. So I was wondering
where the pops came from.

Then one of my friends came to the window and saw
something I didn’t. He noticed something by the tree.
He said, “Boy look at that dead horse by that tree.” But I
remembered that I saw some people arguing earlier. So across
the walkway a lady came out her house screaming. Then
we went outside to see what the thing was by the tree and it
was one of my older friends who was ’bout twenty-four. Shot
three times in his face, one in the chin and on both sides of
his face and he was still trying to breathe cause blood was
coming out his mouth and he was moving. He told me before
he don’t want to die but he was trying to hold on. His head
was swole like a fully grown watermelon, then I started crying
like I never did before cause I couldn’t believe he about
to die in my face. Then I realized he was dead.

A 1-Hour Assignment that Stops Kids From Failing?

12 Feb

Yep, you read right: there is a 1-hour writing assignment that will make your students significantly less likely to fail out of school. In fact, there’s a writing assignment that can do just about anything. We’ll get to more of them in the next few months.


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The Assignment

Take one class period and ask your students to write about a value they hold, such as honesty or loyalty, or even just good friendships. This incredibly simple exercise can change the course of their lives. Researcher Gregory Walton has done some fascinating work in this area. Check out what the LA Times has to say about it:

“Simply writing an essay about a personally important value, like relationships with good friends, seems to have changed attitudes toward school and, consequently, how well the essay writers did in a particular course. Only 3% failed the course for which they wrote the essay, compared with 11% of the control group. That’s critical because data show that students who fail classes in middle school are prime candidates to drop out before graduating.”

But why does it work?

Who knows? My guess is that by asking students to think about and affirm their values, we send them the implicit message that their values are, indeed, valuable, and that they should spend time thinking about and acting in accordance with those values. Writing down an idea is a hugely powerful affirmation of that idea, and when students affirm their personal values, it boosts their confidence and gives them agency. When students feel as though they are the masters of their own fate, they are probably a lot more likely to make good decisions.

Ten Words to Ban From Your Classroom

12 Feb

No, I’m not talking about the words you think I am. I’m talking about dead words: an insidious breed of words that encourage lazy thinking and lazy writing. Banning these words from your classroom will have an immediate, significant effect on the creativity, originality, and specificity of your students’ writing.

The Origin of Dead Words

Once upon a time, there was a race of beautiful words, as beautiful as fairy tale princesses in golden ball gowns. These words—words like love and amazing and awesome—were so gorgeous and important that people brought them out on only very special occasions. Because they were used only every once in a while, they were able to stay shining and new year-round. Whenever they appeared, everyone was so moved that they stopped and stared. But then, some people got lazy and said to themselves, “Well, if these words are so gorgeous and important, why don’t we use them all the time? Then everything will be more beautiful!” And so, rather than saving these words for special days, they started asking these words to come out every day. First, they asked the words to give political speeches, and later they started asking them to answer phones at receptionist desks, and before you know it, they were making these words take out the garbage and pick up dog poop. The words, who were once so beautiful, became tired and old, and their clothes turned to rags. But still, the people weren’t satisfied. They kept demanding that the words be beautiful all the time, and when they couldn’t be, the people punched them in the face and told them to work harder. The more people used them, the more these words got beaten up and exhausted, until they finally just dropped dead. All their meaning was gone. But still, even after they died, people kept propping them up and trying to make them do work, hoping that they would be meaningful once more. Instead of doing any good, though, their corpses just flopped around and stunk up the place. To this day, when you use these words, it has the same effect on your writing as shoving a putrid, rotting body between your punctuation marks.

The Deadest of Dead Words:

  • Beautiful (or “pretty” or “cute”)
  • Nice
  • Good
  • Bad (or “horrible” or “awful” or “terrible”)
  • Stupid
  • Fine
  • Great
  • Special
  • Unique
  • Cool (or other slang variations on this theme)

What To Use Instead:

In banning these words from your classroom, you will force your students to think about what they really want to say, rather than just writing down the first vague thing that pops into their heads. Be warned, though–the point of this exercise is not to encourage students to use more high-falutin’ synonyms (“gorgeous” instead of “beautiful,” for example) but, rather, to teach them to use specific details to show you what they mean (like,”each blink of her eye was like a little sunset”). Check out The Cure for IDK for fun lessons that banish dead words and teach your students to use specific details instead.

That writing lady is here!

9 Feb

Welcome to That Writing Lady, a blog about teaching writing in urban public schools.

I love writing. I love it so much–and for so many reasons–that I have dedicated my adult life to spreading the gospel of creative writing as the executive director of Deep, a nonprofit that runs free writing workshops for inner city public school students.  (Hence the blog name: I frequently find myself in the soup aisle–Ramen noodles being another secret passion of mine–only to be interrupted by a kid I’ve never met before squinting at me, head cocked to the side, asking, “Hey–are you that writing lady?”)

This blog is the story of my journey as a writing teacher and a record of all the helpful hints and tricks my colleagues and I have accumulated to help make your classroom a haven for creativity and learning.

This blog is intended to be practical and useful (and, at times, a little irreverent). Please share your own experiences and ideas in the comments section. I look forward to hearing from you!