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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?


Stop Your Kids from Whining in 3 Easy Steps

17 Jul

no_whining (Photo credit: frotzed2)

In my last post, I wrote about an amazingly resilient student of mine. I also mentioned a student who would complain about anything (literally: she once stopped class to announce to me, sniffling, “My nose itches!”)

This sparked a great discussion in the comments section, and I thought that I would share some tactics that I’ve recently discovered for preventing whining in the classroom, and for bringing out the resilient, adorable darling within every kid:

Step 1. Clearly define “whining” with your kids. In my book, whining is:

  • Asking me to solve a problem that you could have solved yourself. (For example: the floor is sticky here! Well, go get a napkin and clean it up. I am not your maid.)
  • Complaining about a problem that cannot be solved. (For example: Maria doesn’t like me! I’m sorry that’s the case, hon, but I can’t make her like you, and you have to learn to accept the fact that not everybody will always like you. Other examples: I’m tired, I’m hungry, it’s hot. I can’t give you a bed, feed you, or change the weather in the middle of class. Sorry.)
  • Comparing yourself to another kid. For example: But you let Billy do a special project yesterday–so I should get to do one, too!  or You got me in trouble for this, but you didn’t get mad at Anthony! This is the toughest one to swallow, especially with younger kids who are obsessed with fairnessbut I can’t always catch every classroom misdemeanor, and to be a good teacher, you sometimes have to accommodate individual needs. This means that kids who are falling behind might get more attention than kids who are doing fine. Kids who are ahead of the game might get to do special enrichment projects. Sometimes, kids get away with breaking a rule because I don’t see the infraction. Is this fair? No. Is it necessary? Absolutely. Your students need to accept this. 
  • Pouting because you didn’t get what you wanted. (For example: our team lost the game because Lucy wasn’t fast enough! or I don’t want to practice multiplication today!) Too bad, kiddo. Unless it is either physically injuring you or seriously hindering your ability to learn, you’ve got to learn how to handle being in situations that you don’t like, sometimes. It’s a valuable life skill.

Step 2. Outlaw whining–and have consequences to back it up. This worked wonders with my itchy-nosed student–I told her that the next time she pouted and stopped participating in class, I would ask her to leave. She tested the waters once, but when I pointed out that she was pouting, and that this meant she would have to leave the class if she kept it up, she pulled herself together and joined right in. We haven’t had a problem with her since, and it’s been great to watch her apply her newly discovered energy to some really wonderful, creative work!

Step 3.  Offer constructive ways for students to share their needs and opinions. Whining is about attention–kids who are whiners just want you to listen to them. So give them attention for creating solutions and offering suggestions! Here are some tools that work well:

  • Class Comment Box. Offer students a place to put complaints and suggestions after class is over; this way, it doesn’t disrupt your work, but you still get to see what kids are thinking and adjust to their needs.
  • Individual Conferences. If you check in with your students individually, it will help clear the air of any serious problems and develop the trust that will allow them to accept your decisions even when they don’t like them.

Do you have any tactics for preventing whining? Please share them!

Why You Should Teach Your Kids to Steal

29 May
Two of Beerbohm's self-portraits. "The Th...

Two of Beerbohm’s self-portraits. “The Theft” depicts him stealing a book from the library in 1894. “The Restitution” shows him returning that book in 1920. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few weeks ago, I taught my students how to steal. It was the best lesson I’ve done in ages.

No, I’m not talking about petty shoplifting or muggings. I’m talking about a blatant, shameless, grand larceny of ideas. I’m talking about stealing words.

Typically, we teachers frown on copying, but I argue that copying other writers–stealing their syntax and flow right from under their noses (or proses?)–is one of the best ways that students can learn to write. In our focus on originality and personal expression, we can often forget that human beings learn best through mimicry. The same way that we learn how to cook by watching Mom and copying her recipes, we can learn how to write by stealing from better writers’ stories.

Recently, a fellow teacher and I showed students how to write the first chapter of a novel by having them copy the first chapter of the Hunger Games sentence by sentence–mimicking the exact structure and purpose of each Hunger Games sentence (description of setting, action, dialogue, etc.) but changing the individual words themselves to suit their own stories.

My students have never written so well in their lives. The scenes were full and detailed, the sentences were varied and interesting, and the dialogue was punchy. And my students noticed the difference, too–they began to get the feel for pacing and structure in a way that they never had before. Far from being bored or annoyed, they were inspired by having such a clear road map (and I imagine they enjoyed as the sneaky fun of intellectual theft as well).

Do you ever ask your students to steal from other writers? If so, when and how do you do it?

Are You Teaching Your Kids to Hate Writing?

24 Apr

In this blog, I spend a lot of time talking about how I try to teach my students to love writing. Just as important, though, is NOT teaching your students to hate writing–something that many teachers, myself included, do accidentally all the time.

Here are three surefire ways to teach your students to hate writing (and some ideas for how to avoid them):

1. Use writing as a punishment. We are all familiar with the image of an Anne-of-Green-Gables-type kid being forced to write “I will not lose my temper” a hundred times on a blackboard. We laugh at the idea, but modern teachers still pull this kind of stunt all the time. Have you ever heard (or said), “If y’all don’t settle down, I’m giving you twice as much homework tonight!” or “Since you all were horrible to the substitute teacher, you all have to write a five-page apology letter to her.”

But here’s my question: Has giving extra writing assignments as punishment ever made a disruptive child sit down, cock their head thoughtfully, and say, “Why golly! You’re so right, teacher! I really should love learning more than I do. I’ll be sure to work hard and care deeply about the quality of my academic papers from here on out”? Classroom rules and consequences are an important part of many well-managed classrooms, but there are plenty of useful consequences that are non-academic, such as lunch detentions or phone calls home, and using these can help your student separate their behavioral consequences from their interest in their schoolwork.

2. Don’t give any feedback. Students thrive on feedback; they love to know what they are doing well and what they need more help with. Without timely, meaningful feedback, writing assignments can feel like writing to a pen pal who never writes you back–draining and pointless.

3. Don’t let your students do creative writing projects. It can be hard to save time for creative projects when we are faced with countless testing requirements, but it is more important now than ever. Writing poetry, stories, and plays inspires students to care about writing (and it also teaches them important skills, as well.) Consider setting aside one day each week for creative projects, or offering creative responses as a more fun alternative to literary essays or multiple choice tests.

What do you do to keep your students excited about writing? Let me know in the comments section!

Got Lazy Students? Get Them Writing With One Simple Trick.

10 Apr
US Navy 021114-N-5862D-007 Students playing fl...

US Navy 021114-N-5862D-007 Students playing flag football (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few weeks ago, I had a student who kept goofing off during writing time. He had written barely a sentence, and he kept distracting the students around him. I knew that he was clever and fully capable of doing the assignment; he was just being lazy.

My solution? I turned my back to the student and focused, instead, on a friend of his who was doing a great job. I praised her (loud enough for the disruptive student to hear) and joked with her for a minute about a funny line she had written. I smiled at her and told her to keep doing exactly what she was doing.

Then I turned back to the disruptive student. I asked to read his work and picked up the (nearly blank) sheet of paper. I smiled and raised an eyebrow: “Really? That’s all you got? You got some real catching up to do if you want to keep up with these other guys. Check out the great metaphor that Shondra just wrote.” I said. I put his paper back down on his desk and turned away to praise another successful student.

You might think that this was mean (and if you do, you probably this that this is mean, too)–but my student didn’t think so. He actually smiled, laughed, and got to work.

Thirty seconds later, he was scribbling furiously. He even asked his friend to look at her paper so that he could see what she had done and (I quote him directly here) “Do it better.” His final piece was fantastic, and he felt happy and proud at the end of class.

Competition–ranging from formal contests to informal rivalries–is an instant cure for laziness. Some teachers are hesitant to use it because they are afraid that it creates a tense or adversarial atmosphere. While I understand that concern, I believe that competition can actually create a jovial and supportive atmosphere, when used well. Kids love playing sports, even though they lose games all the time.  In the same way, students enjoy academic competitions, even if they don’t win them every time–in fact, losing just may inspire them to work harder next time.

Fair warning: this isn’t the right tactic for every student. Here are a few things to keep in mind when introducing competition into your classroom:

  • This works best for students who are confident, resilient, and have a good sense of humor (and with whom you have a good relationship). If you don’t don’t get along well with a student, or if they take offense easily, then they might feel attacked rather than encouraged.
  • The younger a student is, the more likely it is that competition will light a fire under them. It’s a surefire technique up until around 8th grade. Unfortunately, high school students are more likely to try to “logic” themselves out of working by saying things like, “I don’t care if Stacy’s poem is better than mine. I’m not going to be a writer anyway.” Making high school students compete in teams is often more effective because energetic students are likely to inspire their lazier teammates to work harder.
  • Make sure that you only challenge students who have the capacity to do much better than they are currently doing. If a student is obviously trying their hardest but still failing, it is cruel to compare them to their classmates. The best way to help a student like that is to praise them for their hard work and offer them assistance. If, however, students are not trying at all–or doing only the bare minimum when you know that they can do much more–they are fair game for a little friendly competition.
  • Don’t use this tactic on students who suffer from anxiety, social problems, or a serious lack of confidence. This kind of direct confrontation can be harmful to students who already suffer from social anxiety.

Do you use competition in your classroom? What works best for you? Let me know in the comments section!

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.

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


Image via Wikipedia

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.