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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?


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?

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.

Close the Achievement Gap with One Simple Writing Exercise

17 Feb
Achievement gap in the United States

Image via Wikipedia

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!

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.

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.