Tag Archives: Student

How did kids from a low-scoring school end up published authors reading their stories to an audience of 600 people?

8 Jul

ImageCheck out this great article about what happens when teachers and communities expect great things from every kid:




School’s out for the summer, but rising seventh-grader Imani Blackshear is not on a break from reading or writing. Not her or a lot of the other DEEP Kids from East Broad Street Elementary.

She was at the school last week when I visited language arts teacher Salacthia Coast. She won the Education Partner of the Year award at the “DEEP Speaks” show June 3 at the Savannah Theater.

That night, 42 middle school students from across the county took the stage and read their original works of fact, fiction, poetry and prose — hot off the presses and hot out of their notebooks from spring semester — but cool under the spotlight.

Coast took the stage, too, with a lot of help. In pain with a serious knee injury, the principal and another teacher helped her climb the steps to the stage and then safely return to the audience. I wanted to meet this trooper who toughed it out that night and who embraced the program so enthusiastically.

Coast said this past year was the first for East Broad to participate in DEEP. It is a voluntary, after-school creative writing program with limited spaces. She said her students didn’t want to miss any sessions. Word of how much fun it was spread after the fall semester.

“It’s like the art of writing, that has been lost, is now being found,” Coast said.

Blackshear was happy to tell me how the sessions went. Two DEEP volunteers/writing fellows would lead a discussion about a topic or theme. The kids would then hand-write a poem or story or essay. They would read them to the group and get feedback and suggestions about their ideas. Then they might re-write or revise.

“We got help from each other on how to express our ideas and help on writing better. You learned to really think it through,” Blackshear said.

And write they did.

At the DEEP Speaks event, the imagination and sincerity of the students made me proud, and I’m not a parent to any of them.

DEEP published five books, grouped by schools, with the best works of the 150 young authors who participated in the spring program. The artwork and photographs of the kids are excellent.

The students themselves chose what to read the evening of DEEP Speaks, but the books have lots of their other work.

Coast sang the praises of the East Broad girls in the program.

I remember how confidently Blackshear read her work on self-esteem, “She is Everything.” And how tenderly soft-voiced and well-mannered D’erea Johnson told the story of her grandmother. Another of her stories in the book, “The Moldy Wig,” shows great sensitivity.

I can tell that Zahra Pleasant Murphy is an avid reader. And her quiet and thought-provoking “Awake” resonated with the night owls in the audience. And bubbly Sha’keriah Wilson made you do mental double-takes with her lighthearted “I Am a Squirrel.”

Petrice Crawford sounds like another precocious reader. Her story of the eccentric lady who steals the queen’s identity with some sour punch cracked me up. Lakeasha Quarterman sounded like she blossomed with her writing, and her “I Like to Be a Lion” would make any lioness proud.

Blackshear said writing fellows Sarah Wagner, Kolby Harrell, Austin Christmon and Dustin Michael helped them find their voices better every week.

She’s keeping a journal with ideas she’s thinking about for next fall’s DEEP. A story of self-discovery called “Lost and Then Found” sounds like it will really sing.

Since I live on Tybee, a story she’s thinking about called “Lonnie, the Lonely Lawn Chair” caught my attention. It’s about an old folding chaise lounge with tattered webbing that gets uncovered by a storm on the beach.

The wind exposes a little more of it every day. How did it get buried? Who sat in it before? Blackshear says there will be a surprise at what they find under it.

Coming from a long line of beachcombers, all I can say is, “I can’t wait.”



The Worst Question You Can Ask a Student

14 Nov
Question mark

Question mark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The worst, most annoying, most pointless question that you can possibly ask a student is also, hilariously, probably the most common question in classrooms today:

“Do you understand?”

It seems innocuous enough–it’s important to make sure that your students are keeping up, after all–but let’s look at the effect that this seemingly harmless question actually has on students:

  • If your students do understand, then this question will likely seem patronizing and annoying.
  • If your students do not understand, then this question will make them feel stupid and helpless.
  • If your students misunderstand, then they will remain blissfully ignorant of that misunderstanding and continue to make the same mistake for a long time.

Some other questions that have a similarly detrimental effect are:

  • “Do you have any questions?” (Students, particularly young ones, rarely know how to phrase their confusion in terms of a specific question.)
  • “So we all agree that [fill in the blank here with whatever idea you want them to believe].”
  • “So we’re ready to move on?”
  • “What do you guys not understand?” (Again, if they knew what they didn’t understand, they’d probably have come to understand it by now.)

So what should we do instead? Ask students to demonstrate their knowledge in some specific way. Rather than saying, “Do we all understand what Esperanza is trying to say in this passage?” try saying, “Everybody circle a sentence that shows you what Esperanza thinks of Nenny and then write your own sentence about what you think it means. Share your sentences with your neighbor and see if you both came up with the same answer for what Esperanza thinks of Nenny.”

Then, you can see if yourself if your students are ready to move on. If they aren’t, you’ll have a lot of data to help you figure out what they missed, and how you can help them learn it.

How do you make sure that your students understand what you are teaching? What’s worked well in your classroom? I’d love to hear your ideas!


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!

You Won’t Believe What This Kid Did

10 Jul

Right now, I’m teaching summer writing classes at a Boys and Girls Club. I have a 9-year-old girl in my class whose house burned down in February. She escaped the fire by throwing  a TV through a stuck window, but not everyone in the house was so lucky. Her stepfather died that night, and her mother only barely survived (she just came home from the burn unit, more than four months later.) After the fire, my student couldn’t go stay with her father or her brothers because they are all in jail. She currently lives with her older sister and three “ratchety” cousins (her words, not mine). She has every excuse in the world to be sullen, disengaged, and badly behaved.

But here’s the thing: she isn’t. Not even a little bit. Last week, she missed a class because she was out of town. Here is what she did when she got back:

She voluntarily left lunchtime–a prime time for social fun–half an hour early so that she could come to my class, find out what she had missed, and catch up before the next class started.

I didn’t ask her to do this. No one would have. It’s a casual summer course, and any adult would be willing to cut her some slack. But she didn’t want slack. She just showed up, sat down, and asked me for the assignments from the week before. Consider my mind officially blown.

Just for comparison: there’s another student in my class who came up to me one afternoon, sniffling and pouting, to complain, “My nose itches!” (No, I’m not making this up.)

Why is it, do you think, that some students are so much more self-directed and resilient than others? How can we teach all kids to be as incredible as this one student of mine? I’d love to hear your ideas!

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?

The Most Important Thing We’re Not Teaching Our Students

9 May

Last week, the CRCT (a local standardized test) swooped down upon the Chatham County Public School System. With its intimidating blank answer sheets and telegraphic “STOP DO NOT TURN THE PAGE UNTIL INSTRUCTED STOP” commands, it bullied students through a battery of tests on math, reading, social studies, and science.

Managing emotions - Identifying feelings

Managing emotions – Identifying feelings (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These tests try to cover all the bases of a good education. Though we can debate till the cows come home whether or not standardized tests measure student achievement in these areas reliably (I, myself, am still forming my opinion on this topic), there is no arguing the fact that these tests completely fail to measure one extremely important element of a child’s education: emotional intelligence.

Though we may be teaching our students basic academic skills, are we teaching them the emotional intelligence they need to use those skills thoughtfully? How can we tell?

Studies show that students who demonstrate emotional intelligence (which includes being aware of, understanding, and managing one’s own emotions and the emotions of others) are far less likely to become dependent on drugs or alcohol. They are also more likely to become successful leaders and entrepreneurs.

Writing teachers are in a unique position to teach this skill; studies show that reading and writing increase emotional awareness and help students to put themselves in others’ shoes (see this New York Times article for more details). So why isn’t this kind of emotional growth just as big of a focus in schools as the ability to comprehend a scientific passage on toads? Why don’t we try to measure this, too?

There are lots of interesting “EQ” (emotional IQ) tests available to educators, and I am thinking of using them in my classroom to assess my own students’ emotional growth over the course of the year.

What do you think? Should we give our students “EQ” tests? What are some other ways that we can measure the effect that we have on our students’ abilities to handle their emotions?

To Bleep or Not to Bleep? (Ideas for Solving An Age-Old Teacher’s Dilemma)

2 May
Vector drawing based on Image:Profanity.JPG En...

Vector drawing based on Image:Profanity.JPG English: swearing in cartoon Suomi: Kiroileva sarjakuvahahmo Nederlands: Schelden en vloeken in strips 粵語: 粗口 中文: 罵髒話 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Writing teachers are supposed to encourage students to express themselves openly on paper–but what about when students want to use profanity to do it? Should we let them?

I face this question all the time, especially since I often work with students from neighborhoods where profanity is an important part of the vocabulary (and I don’t mean this sarcastically–words that might be offensive to me are often, to these students, signifiers not of disrespect but of cultural identity, familiarity, and even affection). Should I play it safe and tell these students to censor themselves (risking turning the students off to writing and stifling their voices), or should I let them express themselves openly in their writing (risking making principals or PTAs upset or, worse, failing to teach my students how to speak in a formal setting)?

Here are some of the solutions that I have come up with that have worked well for me:

1. Separate “casual writing” from “publishable writing” and provide a time for each. I ask my students to keep a free write journal in which they are free to use whatever language they like, including profanity. I comment on their free writes, but only in a social, “pen pal” kind of way. This has a huge effect on their motivation in class, including on the more academic assignments (which I refer to as “publishable pieces” since the goal of a Deep writing workshop is publication).

2. Have an open discussion about why profanity makes for boring writing. When you ban something because it is “bad,” you only make it seem cooler to your students. But when you show them how it makes for lazy, uninteresting writing, they will decide for themselves to abandon it. (For example, why would you use a lazy and extremely vague word like “b*tch” to describe an annoying person when you can make your writing much more interesting by telling us something that this person did that illustrates who they are and what makes them a unique and memorable character? Taking the lazy shortcut just makes your writing sound mundane.) This tactic has had a tremendous effect on my students’ writing without making any of them feel like I was censoring them.

3. Allow profanity if it is in a direct quote or if the word itself is a subject of major importance in the piece of writing. Great modern authors use profanity all the time–but they always use it for a specific reason. I tell my students that I will accept the same from them. I would have missed out on a lot of fantastic writing if I had not allowed this exception! Honesty is a crucial element of truly great writing, and if a student grows up in a family where profanity is commonly used, and you ask them to write a story about their family, you can’t in good conscience expect them to lie about what other people say–that would make the writing bland, and it would also make the student feel as if they have something to be ashamed of. (Though if I publish these pieces, I usually warn the student that I will bleep it out for the sake of the principal, etc. The students don’t usually mind this.)

What do you do to deal with profanity in your students’ writing? Feel free to share your ideas!

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!

Want Your Students to Write More? Tell Them to Write Less.

13 Apr
girl, writing Deutsch: Maedchen, beim Schreiben

girl, writing Deutsch: Maedchen, beim Schreiben (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A blank page isn’t just a piece of paper. To some, a blank page represents possibility and creativity. To most people, though, (especially students) it just looks like a failure in progress.

I have watched hundreds of students admit defeat the moment they pulled out a fresh sheet of paper. They tell me, “I don’t know what to write,” or “I can’t write,” or even, “I don’t feel like writing.” But I have one simple trick that gets them over the hurdle, and it has never failed me:

I write the first sentence for them.

It looks like this:

“Jaquan, what have you got so far?” (Jaquan shrugs passively and looks down at his blank page.) “You mind if I help you get started?” (Jaquan shrugs passively again and I pick up his pencil.) “We’re writing similes for ourselves. So let’s start with weather. If you were a kind of weather, what kind of weather would you be?”

He thinks. “A storm.”

“I like that. What makes you say a storm?”

“‘Cause I get mad.”

“When do you get mad?”

He ponders this for a moment. “When my brother takes my stuff.”

“Great. I’ll write down, ‘When my brother takes my things, I am like an angry storm.’ Is that okay?” I write it down, and Jaquan reads it over, pleased. “Awesome. That’s really good. How about we take turns writing? You do one, and then I’ll come back and write the next one for you. Why don’t you write about an animal. Tell me what kind of animal you would be and why.”

Jaquan picks up his pencil and starts to write.

Sometimes, that’s all it takes. Sometimes I take turns with the student for a few minutes before I say something like, “Oops, looks like Terrell needs my help, too. Why don’t you keep writing and let me know if you need help. You’re doing great.”

So why does it work? I have two theories:

1. It shows your student that you care. By taking the time to write down their words yourself, you are validating their thoughts and showing the student that you care about what they have to say. This alone is enough to inspire most stuck students.

2. It gets rid of the scary blank page. Facing down a blank page can be daunting. By writing down the first few sentences yourself, you help the student overcome their fear of getting started.

Of course, I understand that in a hectic classroom you may not always have time to do it yourself. If you can’t personally write down what your student says, here are some other options:

  • Have students work in teams and write down what the other says. If you have recording devices, this is a great time to use them.
  • Try using dictation software, if you’ve got it.

Do you ever write for your students? How does it work for you?

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!