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4 Questions That Get Kids to Read Like Writers

20 Mar

At Deep, we are all about the craft of writing. This means that, while most reading teachers ask their kids to read like guests of a book (asking questions like, “How are you, Book? What are you about?”), we writing teachers want them to read like thieves holding the book at gunpoint (asking questions like, “What have you got, Book? What can I steal from you?”)

This approach has a ton of advantages. It gets kids excited about reading, it gives them a clear and fun purpose as readers, and it improves their writing skills. In my workshops, I run the exact same discussion every time we read a new text. It goes like this:

  1. What is the writing skill that we just learned? (Usually, I’ll have just taught a mini-lesson on  figurative language, telling details, or something similar.)
  2. Where does that skill show up in this text? Get your kids to circle it wherever it appears! Have them offer a few examples to make sure they’re identifying the right things.
  3. What effect does it have? Usually, I offer a non-example and ask them about how this author’s work has a different effect. (For example: “This author describes his friend as ‘so tall that he constantly stooped forward as if afraid of the ceiling.’ How is that different from if he had just said, ‘my friend was tall’?”)
  4. What are you going to steal from this author in your next piece of writing?

It’s a simple, fun discussion structure, and it leads to great results every time! I would love to hear your ideas, too–how do you get your kids to read like writers?

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!

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.

How Two Minutes of Writing Can Cure the Common Cold

12 Feb
English: taking blood pressure in PE

Image via Wikipedia

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.