The Re-Write Blog

(Arguably) The Greatest Free Writing Instruction Resource on the Internet

A Quick Note from Matt: Happy spring, everyone! I’ve got a short one for you today, as between a couple of very exciting writing projects (more on those really soon), the end of the quarter push, and a couple plagues descending on our house via my daughters’ day care, March hasn’t made much room for blogging. What today’s post lacks in length it makes up for in practicality, as the resource shared within it regularly saves me a lot of time. Thanks as always for reading, and I hope you enjoy!

I was talking to a regular reader of the blog yesterday and she reminded me about a topic I’ve meant to mention for sometime: Allison Marchetti, Rebekah O’Dell, and the work they have done concerning mentor texts. For those not familiar with the term mentor text, the basic idea behind them is that to grow as writers we need to write a lot and get direct instruction, but we also need to closely read both professional and student work on a regular basis in all of the genres we require students to write. Reading these “mentor” texts is essential because they teach our students lessons about form, audience, genre conventions, voice, style, and organization that can’t really be gotten through direct instruction. Continue reading “(Arguably) The Greatest Free Writing Instruction Resource on the Internet”

Zen and the Art of Paper Grading

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Last Wednesday I woke to a soft quilt of fluffy snow outside my window. It looked like about three inches, which would not be enough to cancel a school in Michigan but would be enough to turn my normally five minute commute into a fifty minute one. The reason for this is one light on one hill that I have to go through. When the road gets coated in snow or ice, cars stopped at that light struggle to move on the incline when the light turns green. They spin their tires, weave side to side, and ultimately a couple are able to get up enough speed before the light turns red and the whole process begins anew.

As I sat in the backup, my thoughts turned to another bottleneck that I live with every day: the fact that as a writing teacher, I need to respond to student writing if I want them to grow as writers, but I have 33 kids in each class. In a 5 section load, that is 165 kids whose papers need my feedback. Even if I were to respond in the relatively fast time of 10 minutes per paper, it would take me 27.5 additional hours beyond my prepping, planning, meetings, and emails to respond to all of them. And that is just for one paper. Continue reading “Zen and the Art of Paper Grading”

Using Writing as a Tool to Figure out a Difficult World

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Last weekend I opened my computer in the hopes of getting some grading done, and then I saw the following headline in The New York Times: “Trump Suggests Giving Bonuses to Trained and Armed Teachers.” At the sight of this, I closed my computer and opened my journal.

I’m still not sure exactly what it was about that specific headline that inspired a sudden need to write. The last few weeks have seen a flurry of headlines involving guns, schools, and politics coming before the well-being of students and teachers, but for some reason the article stirred up something inside me that I needed to sort out before moving on with my day.

Now, I want to make it clear that I don’t bring this up in an effort to make a political point. There is already an incredible array of statements on shootings and schools, ranging from this powerful op-ed in Education Week to Kelly Gallagher’s unit on mass shootings. And while I did write a piece on school shootings, I did it solely for me as an effort to understand and unpack my own feelings.

The reason I bring this up is that I think it is important to remember that we write for a lot of reasons. While many of those reasons involve audiences, many do not. People have been filling mole skins with musings and diaries with their darkest worries since writing began, and most who do this don’t do it in an effort to build an audience, shift someone’s thinking, or get a good grade. Instead I would argue the majority of those who scrawl in journals late at night do it because writing is powerful personal medicine. It can clarify thinking, unlock thoughts, forge connections, and help us to understand a world that is not always nice and hardly ever clear.  Continue reading “Using Writing as a Tool to Figure out a Difficult World”

Quick Responses to Students Who Refuse to Write, Revise, or Peer Review

Today’s post is short but sweet with ready made answers to areas where students commonly resist writing or the writing process. Without any additional preamble, let’s begin with three common classroom scenes followed by ways a teacher can often respond effectively.

A student is asked to do a short/free write on a topic in class. The student is given 5, 10, or 15 minutes, and yet after only a third of that time the student is sitting there with pen or pencil down on the paper. When approached the student states simply that he/she/they is “done.”  Continue reading “Quick Responses to Students Who Refuse to Write, Revise, or Peer Review”

The Writing Teacher’s Secret Weapon: Listening

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I come from a long line of talkers. One should only embark on a conversation with my father if you feel like resting your vocal chords for the next forty-five minutes, my grandfather (and this is true) used to communicate with his out-of-state relatives almost exclusively through sending them 90 minute monologues recorded on cassette tapes, and on my dad’s side, my lineage traces all the way back to Gov. William Bradford, the first governor of the Pilgrims, who was noted by one historian as a “storyteller of considerable power.”

I share this with you to make it clear that listening is not a trait that comes particularly naturally for me. While I am wildly fascinated by the stories of others, I would be lying if I said that my disposition wasn’t to talk first and listen later. During my first years as a teacher, this trait manifested itself in my tendency to play the part of the stereotypical sage on the stage on a regular basis. Students from that era have since confided to me that it was well known amongst the student body that all it took for them to get a nice long break from the lesson was to get me pontificating about one of my many interest areas.

And it wasn’t just standing in front of the class where this trend appeared. When I look back on my lesson plans and papers from that era, what is conspicuously missing is any trace of listening. Instead, from how the students should approach the writing process to how they should “fix” their papers, every step of the way was the equivalent of my grandfather’s cassette tapes. There was no moment for students to share their thinking, nor was there even the pretense that this was about anything but me disseminating information to them. Instead, it was the classic teacher/student dynamic–which is so easy for everyone, talker or not, to fall into–of the teacher acting as a pitcher full of wisdom while the students were the empty glasses waiting expectantly for knowledge to be poured into their heads.

Now I want to make it clear before moving on that this is not a post against direct instruction. I’ve written before about how important it is, as we have lots of valuable information to impart. What this is a post against is forgetting to listen to our students. We need to listen to them because students and teachers are co-founders of the student’s education. It is only when both turn the key to unlock the student’s mind, that learning can happen. Further, both bring important expertise to the table. Teachers bring an expansive understanding of how writing and the writing process work, and they can act as sure-footed guides through the twists and turns of drafting a piece. Students bring an expansive understanding of how they work and know exactly what scares, inspires, interests, bores, and helps them. When those two are put together, the stage is best set for learning.

With this in mind, I have now built in moments of listening to nearly every step of the writing process. This is meant to send a clear message to students that we are partners in this endeavor and that their voices matter just as much as mine.

Here are some of the ways that I now include listening in my process:

  • I ask students to “clear” their topics with me when they finish pre-writing. While I will use this as a moment of guidance if students seem to be veering off course, my main goal in doing this is to establish myself as an interested and engaged listener. I do this by asking a lot of questions and by truly trying to hear out their concept before offering any advice.
  • When students share papers with me for revision, I ask them to share a short note  telling me how they view the paper as it currently stands and how they would like me to respond to it. This sort of reflection trains them to be more metacognitive and involved in the revision process, but it also makes it clear that I need to hear their voices to craft the best response possible.
  • When I provide feedback, I always strive to have more questions in the margins than suggestions. I don’t always accomplish this, as it depends on the student and paper, but the goal helps me to remember that my margin writings are there to motivate, guide, inspire, and teach, and in many situations questions are actually far more effective at accomplishing these goals than statements because they put the ownership and effort back onto the students.
  • When I conference with students, I always start with a broad grin and the same question: “How’s it going with the piece?” My students sometimes poke fun at me for this pseudo-cheesy standard greeting, but I feel its regularity, light-heartedness, and invitation for them to speak first establishes me as someone who genuinely wants to hear what they have to say, which in turn opens them up to my suggestions.

This post’s central claim that listening is a secret weapon might seem hyperbolic, but after using it for years, I don’t think that it is.  The average students spends the majority of the average day being told to do things: sit there, eat here, read these pages, don’t do that, do this instead. Thus, when someone actually asks for his/her/their opinion, the contrast is often really powerful.

Further, it we look at the beliefs that are commonly shared by our strongest students, as Dave Stuart Jr. does in this amazing recent post, we see a lot that is closely tied to being heard. Dave’s five beliefs that are keys to long-term flourishing are the following:

  1. My teacher is good at her job. (Credibility — this is featured in John Hattie’s meta-analysis)
  2. This work is valuable to me. (Value)
  3. I can improve my knowledge and skill through my effort. (Effort)
  4. I can succeed here. I can do this stuff. (Efficacy)
  5. I belong in this class with these people. I’m one of them. (Belonging — this, and the rest of the list, is featured in Camille Farrington’s review of over 400 pieces of research literature)

Out of these five, there is not a single one–whether its value, belonging, or efficacy–that doesn’t have has a prerequisite that the student feels heard and valued, and I would argue nothing is more effective at growing those feelings than to have someone simply listen to you.

Thanks as always for reading, and yours in teaching,


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Why Your First Assignment of the Second Semester Should Be a Narrative

An interesting shift has happened over the last couple decades in the world of business. The spreadsheet loving, dollars and cents world of business has fallen head over heels for the decidedly unspreadsheet world of storytelling. This can be best seen in the evolution of advertising. Even during the 1990s, commercials were largely information/tagline dissemination vehicles (see below). For example, car commercials at the time spent most of their time giving numbers concerning the price, reliability, gas mileage, and longevity or showing random montages of Americana followed by vague taglines like Chevy’s “Like a rock” or  “The longest lasting, most reliable trucks on the road.”

Compare that to Chevy’s 2014 Super Bowl Ad (below), which shows a young woman’s coming of age with her dog, Maddie. This ad gives no information about the car whatsoever and every frame is connected to a story. Even the tagline at the end, “A best friend for life’s journey” signals a shift towards story.

Continue reading “Why Your First Assignment of the Second Semester Should Be a Narrative”

Relationship-Based Writing

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In one of my first posts of this blog I talked about a subject that I think doesn’t get nearly enough attention: writing is really hard.

We all know that it is hard, but I’m not sure that during our day-in and day-out dealings with student writing we appreciate enough how incredibly hard it is or how hard it can be on us. I mean take me for example. I teach writing, I write a lot, I have a deep understanding of how writing works, and I’ve got a generally good track record with writing. And I still struggle to find the right words, agonize over choppy constructions, lose my train of thought and grow overwhelmed trying to find it again, and face waves of exhaustion and worry almost every time I sit down and put my hands to the keyboard. Continue reading “Relationship-Based Writing”