Archive | March, 2012

Put Your Lesson Where Your Mouth Is

23 Mar

When you are planning a writing assignment for your students, how do you know if it will work?


Writing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What are the odds that you will have to yank the words out of your students like so many rotten teeth, and what are the chances that your assignment will ignite your students like little rockets of creativity?

If you are like me, you have had both of these experiences. You dread the former, and you chase after the latter like the Holy Grail. But what if I told you that you could take all the guesswork out of this process? What if you could know for sure–every time–what will work for your students and what won’t?

Well, you can. Here’s the trick: do it yourself first.

I actually stole this trick from my colleagues John Powers and Kim Reilly during a class that we co-taught, and it completely changed the way that I teach. Every time we planned a lesson, we wrote the assignment ourselves first. It became instantly apparent to us when we had a great writing prompt, and when we had a writing prompt that was too boring, too abstract, or too prone to cliche–not to mention the fact that these exercises made us better writers, better examples to our students, and thus better teachers. (Plus, your students are far more likely to get excited about a prompt when they see that you found it interesting and worthwhile enough to do it yourself.)

Try it yourself and let me know how it works for you!


Fix Your Bad Mood Instantly

21 Mar
Illustration of a goblin

Illustration of a goblin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been grumpy this week for no good reason, and so have many of my students.  (I like to imagine the “grumps” like a roving band of pillagers; this week, they seem to have ransacked Savannah.) Luckily, I have a surefire defense against the grumps, and I am about to use it to turn my week around. It takes ten minutes, and it is absolutely foolproof. You ready?

I am going to write a thank-you letter.

That’s it. Not only do I know from personal experience that this works wonders, but there’s also research to back it up. According a paper by Stephen Toepfer and Kathleen Walker in the Journal of Writing Research, writing letters of gratitude significantly improves well-being. (Note, though, that writing is the key here. You can’t just think grateful thoughts–you have to act on them for it to work.)

Why don’t you try getting your students to write letters of gratitude? It is not only a great cure for today’s bad mood, but also a fantastic preventative measure. Writing one letter of gratitude each month will help your students build a lasting feeling of happiness and well-being.

Here’s mine:

Dear Mom and Dad,

Thanks for being great parents. Some examples of your awesomeness include:

  • Paying for my college education (and never making me feel guilty about it)
  • Letting me come visit you whenever I want, without giving you any warning (and picking up food from Nicola’s on your way home when I do)
  • Not always telling everyone when I’m in town, so that I can sit on your couch all day and read New Yorkers if I want to (and/or watch Game of Thrones–let’s be honest)
  • Always supporting my nonprofit, despite the fact that it probably made you very nervous when I announced that I was abandoning the safe path in life in order to found a kooky writing commune in a city I had never lived in before

So yes, you rock. Thanks!



3 Weirdly Successful Writing Prompts

9 Mar
A Barber Shop in Koovery

Image via Wikipedia

Over the years, my colleagues and I have tried thousands of different writing prompts–some wildly successful, some total duds. Here are three rather surprising ones that result in exciting, specific, and creative work every time:

1. Write about the place where you get your hair done.

Beauty salons and barber shops are full of interesting smells, sounds, and conversations, and they are just strange enough to keep your students from falling back on cliches to write about them.

It is also a place that likely contains many vivid memories and strong meanings for your students. Think about it: it can take up to eight hours to get braids or a weave. Perms are a smelly and painful experience. Barber shops are an important social hub in many communities. Your kids will have a lot to say about this place.

2. Write about this orange.

Hand your kids an orange. Tell them to tear it apart, squish it, eat it, whatever. Then tell them to write about the orange.

That’s it.

If you really want, you can offer additional prompts: Does it trigger any memories? Can they personify it? Can they describe the taste and texture?

This assignment always leads to an incredibly variety of responses, but what they have in common in that every response is specific, vivid, and energetic. Having a tactile prompt–one with smells and tastes and heft–will inspire your students to make their writing specific and real.

3. Write about your name.

We don’t often think about breathing, but it is a vital part of our lives. The same goes for our names. When you ask your students to write about their names, they often discover feelings and ideas that they didn’t even know they had. Here’s one of my favorite examples of student writing from this prompt:


The Crazy Name You Gave Me
By Tashjadala Norette Anacaryica Mikell
Hubert Middle School
Is my name the frogleg of names.
First Name: Tashjadala
It sounds like four different names put together.
Tasha, Jada, Dada, and the letter “a”
That’s just crazy. You could have at least called me Tasha or Ta’sheai,
but why Tashjadala?
Is my name the frogleg of names.
Second Name: Norette
Look, I know you were trying to be nice,
But what were you thinking?
Norette sounds like a way to stop smoking.
Is my name the frogleg of names.
Third Name: Anacaryica
Wow! I thought Norette and Tashjadala was Crazy
But Anacaryica? Where in the ham sandwich
Did you get that from? It’s a shame.
Grandma can’t even say it.
Again I say:
Is my name the frogleg of names.


Find more prompts like these in The Cure for IDK!

The Biggest Secret Your Students Keep From You

2 Mar

Image via Wikipedia

Here at Deep, we recently surveyed several dozen high school English teachers to see what their biggest teaching challenges were and how Deep could help them out. We expected to hear complaints about large class sizes, poor writing skills, and not enough planning time, but the response was surprising and specific:

The biggest problem, teachers said, is that the kids just hate writing.

To which my response is, No! They love writing. They just keep you in the dark about it.

Think about it: they love writing text messages, they love scribbling raps on the backs of worksheets, they love Facebook comments and tweets. They love passing notes furtively under the table. They love scrawling their names in Sharpie on bathroom walls. They love carving stories into their arms and chests as tattoos.

Students love writing. They just love a different kind of writing.

Here are some of the differences between the writing that they love and the writing that they are asked to do in class, with some suggestions for how to bridge the gap and get your students excited about completing your assignments:

1. Ownership.

If you were going to buy a new car, would you rather buy the car that you picked for yourself, or the car that your weird third cousin picked out for you?

Similarly, students prefer writing when they can pick their own topics, rather than topics that a textbook or a principal chooses for them.

Try assigning free writes or journal time. If students know that the writing is theirs, not yours, they’ll be more likely to open up and get comfortable with putting words on paper.

While it is important to eventually teach students to write on specific assigned topics, see if you can give them a little leeway in how they write about those topics—can they write a poem about their interpretation of a story, rather than an essay? Can they write a monologue from the point of view of a character? Can they write an essay that connects their own life experiences to the topic at hand?

2. Technology.

Cell phones today are like an extension of your students’ brains. Working without technology can feel crippling to some students. (Besides, every project feels “cooler” when you have some expensive equipment attached to it.)

What if you let your students tweet discussion questions, or write poems on an iPad? Can they make an audio recording of their poem? What about a video essay?

3. Audience.

It’s a lot more fun, and a lot less intimidating, to write for your peers than for a teacher. Click here for some more ideas on this topic.