The Re-Write Blog

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What Should We Do With the Five Paragraph Essay?

“What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.” -Samuel Johnson

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Kids book author Sandra Boynton’s classic sketch of the five-paragraph theme.

As a writing teacher, one of the most common questions I’m asked is how do I handle the five-paragraph essay. If I’m being honest, until relatively recently, I tried my best to avoid this question, as discussion of the five-paragraph essay is the writing instruction equivalent of talking about politics at Thanksgiving. It is the third rail of ELA instruction, with an army of passionate and seemingly intractable supporters on both sides.  Continue reading “What Should We Do With the Five Paragraph Essay?”

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How to Cultivate Strong Student Writing Identities

This weekend a friend of mine introduced me to a writer who focuses on habits and decision making named James Clear. He isn’t exactly an education writer, but his posts are in many ways completely about education, as they are about how we learn, evolve, and view the world. There was one post in particular called Identity-Based Habits that sent me running to find my notebook for quotes like the following:

Your current behaviors are simply a reflection of your current identity. What you do now is a mirror image of the type of person you believe that you are (either consciously or subconsciously).

I think what grabbed me about Clear’s work is that I’ve been thinking a lot about the massive role identity plays in how students perform in our classes, and his wording so clearly encapsulated what I’d been noticing. The post’s introduction to me was also timely, as my interest in identity has further solidified over the last month as I’ve watched my Juniors go through the spring battery of standardized testing (for regular readers, that is where I’ve been over the last three weeks). While helping them prepare for these tests, I stood amazed by just how much their core beliefs about themselves seemed to control every aspect of how they approached these tests. The students who identified themselves as a bad writers and expected to fail avoided studying at all costs. The message was clear: They knew they were bad, so what was the point and why spend time thinking about something they will never be good at? On the other side, students who identified as strong writers came into my classroom at all hours of the day with stacks of practice essays, highlighted practice questions, and dozens of clarifying questions concerning the most minor rhetorical or mechanical details. They knew that they were good writers, and they were going to ensure the number the test spit out would match their skills. Continue reading “How to Cultivate Strong Student Writing Identities”

What We Need A Lot More Of: Writing to Learn

This week kicks off a new mini-series of posts I am doing on the things that we need a lot more of in the classroom. Today’s is on one of the most important types of writing that many have never heard of: Writing to Learn.


“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” -Flannery O’Connor

One of the biggest misconceptions that many people hold about writing is that it is mainly a vehicle for recording and sharing what we already know. While preservation and dissemination of knowledge is certainly a key reason to write, any writer will tell you that writing just as often (if not more often) is actually about figuring out what we know.

This is why people write journals, why writing is so often a part of therapy, and why so many people write stories, essays, and ideas that are never shared with the world. It is why J.D. Salinger said, “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself,” and the creator of the essay Michel de Montaigne said, “I put forward formless and unresolved notions…not to establish the truth but to seek it.”

In all of these situations, the act of writing and the knowledge it brings about ourselves, our lives, and our world are what matter most; if someone else gets to share in our thoughts, all the better, but the main reward is our deepened understanding.

While on the surface this misconception might seem like a minimal, somewhat semantic detail, I would argue the impact that it has on both students and teachers can be profound for these three reasons: Continue reading “What We Need A Lot More Of: Writing to Learn”

Tuesday’s Teaching and Reading Tips: How teaching argumentation could be hurting students, the other PTO, and the secrets to building better habits both in and out of the classroom

Last week I introduced the blog to my Tuesday Tips that were previously just sent to subscribers. This week, it continues with, among other things, a must read for teachers of argument and the secrets to building good habits that last.

This Week’s Articles:

“We Spend Too Much Time Teaching Students to Argue”
In this EdWeek Article, Kate Ehrenfeld Gardoqui makes a convincing case that while teaching argumentation is an essential part of our job, the classic approach of teaching it by having students make arguments that they then seek to support with quotes from the text is problematic. Her reason for this is that in the silo-ed off world of 2018, seeking just the evidence needed to support a preconceived viewpoint of the world–as opposed to weighing all the facts–has become a dangerous new normal. She argues that instead what a modern writing teacher should do is to teach students to weigh the facts first and then construct their arguments. This article is a must read for any modern teacher of argumentation!

The Secret Skills of Master Teachers: Predictable Time Off

While this post isn’t about writing, it is about being a writing teacher. Arguably no teacher has longer hours or faces a greater risk of losing her/himself in the face of endless stacks of work. In this post, Dave Stuart Jr. reminds us that we do better work and live better lives when we have scheduled, regular, and predictable time off is, which feels incredibly timely in mid-October, as that is when the paper piles often begin to build and the respite of Thanksgiving is still well off on the horizon.

The Ultimate Guide to Student Writing Contests

I’ve always loved the concept of my students doing student writing contests. The times when my students have entered contests, they’ve tended to throw themselves into the writing in a different sort of way because of its “realness.” The trick has been finding decent contests for them to do, which has been really hard. We Are Teachers has potentially solved this problem for good with this guide of 30 strong writing contests from across the country. The contests are wide ranging, but what they share is that every one is a real, well-supported, and viable contest that I can’t wait to show to my composition students.

This Week’s Teaching Tip
This week’s teaching tip, is a request of you–my readers–for some tips. I am currently working on a published piece and presentation for the NCTE national conference in Houston next month concerning peer review of writing, and while I have my thoughts, I would love to hear your thoughts on what you do to get kids talking about their writing with each other. Specifically, I am curious about what works for you, what doesn’t, and how you do it! If you have things that work, know what doesn’t work, or have other key insights, please share, as I would love to bring them to a wider audience! Also, no names will not be used (unless you want) and the responses that I use will only be used once I have cleared the content with you! Here is a quick link to my contact page, if you are interested.

Book Recommendation:

This week’s recommendation is Atomic Habits by James Clear. Clear is a relatively new pop behavioral science writer in the vein of Dan Pink or Malcolm Gladwell who focuses specifically on habits. I’ve been on Clear’s subscriber list for a while now, and his work has informed everything from my writing habits to my National Writing Project post this month on building student writing identities, which begins with a quote of his. And while I think Clear’s wisdom concerning habits and identity are essential reading for any teacher, I have also found that my students love his work too! In an advisory at my school that I do, I have begun to share some of his pieces, and the response has been overwhelming and positive. This makes sense because students, like us, know that they likely engage in too many of the wrong habits and not enough of the right ones and would like the tools to hack their natural impulses, and that is exactly what Clear provides!

Thanks as always for reading!

Yours in teaching,

Matt

Tuesday’s Teaching and Read Tips: Using Writing to Create Meaning, a Case for Spiral Curriculums, and the Underrated Power of Quick Checks for Understanding

While a short Tuesday list of reading suggestions and quick teaching tips has been apart of my bi-weekly Re-Write Newsletter for some time now, I haven’t included it on the blog until now. It has been such a hit with subscribers that I decided I would start to put it on the blog too, starting now! So without further preamble, here is this Tuesday’s Teaching and Reading Tips!

“THE MOST IMPORTANT TOOL FOR BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS”

Discussions of how to best build relationships with students tend to center on teachers reaching out to students and getting to know more about them. While this is undoubtedly important, Doug Lemov of Teach Like a Champion fame argues in this article that what is even more critical is our instruction. Specifically, he suggests that the key to building strong student-teacher relationships is instruction that makes it clear to students that we believe in them, are paying attention to them, and are there to help. While I don’t agree with all of his assertions, overall this is a really interesting new addition to the conversation concerning how we can encourage and accelerate the growth of strong teacher-student relationships. Continue reading “Tuesday’s Teaching and Read Tips: Using Writing to Create Meaning, a Case for Spiral Curriculums, and the Underrated Power of Quick Checks for Understanding”

The Most Overlooked Yet Important Writing Instruction Stat I’ve Ever Seen

The massive 2011 “Nation’s Report Card” on writing contains a number of striking statistics. Among other things it found that…

  • barely a quarter of students in both 8th and 12th grade are proficient in writing
  • students who were assigned 4-5 pages per week of writing had the highest average scores
  • computer access translates clearly into larger writing success.

But tucked in amongst all of these stats–as a mere footnote–is one of the most important stats I’ve ever seen concerning writing. Out of all of the factors measured, which do you think was the most correlated with students’ levels of proficiency in writing? Is it the schools they attended? Their socioeconomic status? How much they wrote each week? These things were correlated or even highly correlated, but they were not the best predictor of their writing scores. That honor belonged to how many times the students hit the backspace key.

When the data was parsed out, of the high school students in the top quartile, a striking 67% hit the backspace key more than 500 times! Compare this to the bottom quartile, where only 10% hit the backspace key more than 500 times.

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From the 2011 Nation’s Report Card

No other data point from the study had such a wide division between the top and bottom quartile, and what this means for our job as writing teachers is that of all the skills we need to teach our young writers, few are more important than to teach them to develop as Ernest Hemingway so eloquently and saltily put it, “a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.”

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This is not an easy thing to do. Most students are in survival mode most of the time when they write. They aren’t sitting there wordsmithing or trying on new ideas like costumes out of a costume closet. They are instead hunched over a keyboard the night before an assignment is due just trying to remember comma rules, how to format quotes, keep straight who was a Capulet and who was a Montague, and get to the two page minimum so they can go to bed. Many of these students soldier so unblinkingly ahead that they won’t even remember large swaths of what they wrote the night before if asked.

To shift this, the first step is to teach students about the writing process. So many students see revision, and especially revision that involves cutting, as something that is done only when they make mistakes, as opposed to what it really is–an essential (or even the essential) part of the writing process.

My favorite way to start this shift is to share with them clips and articles where writers discuss the necessity of revising and using our “crap detectors” to cut the unnecessary and the mediocre so the necessary and beautiful can shine through. Two of my favorites to do this are Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts” (apparently shit is a favorite word of writers when talking about drafting) and this clip of Ta-Nehisi Coates talking to high school students (the part about revising and writing process is from 1:30-5:00).

I also show them how this looks in my own writing, so they know that this isn’t just another thing that adults say but don’t actually do themselves. For example, here is just a small part of the revision history of three of my ten drafts of the introduction for an Edutopia piece that I wrote on writing more and grading less.

Here was my second draft after my initial one:

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Here was my third attempt:

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And here was my seventh:

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These examples are meant to help students see the importance of learning to detect and cut crap and model a more writerly process, but I also need to teach them how to do it, as for many the cutting process is not intuitive. To teach students this, I generally start by giving them specifics about the kinds of things they can cut at a sentence level, as this type of cutting is more concrete, making it easier to access for many students. Here are some sentence level tips that I share with them (these are from the wonderful grammar manual Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace and here is a pdf):

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Once they have gotten comfortable with smaller scale cutting, we move on to larger scale revision in the following ways:

  • I have students engage in what Linda Christensen from my beloved Oregon Writing Project calls an “accordion write.” This is where you assign students to expand a scene for a page or write one page too many and then compress it back down again.
  • By having early assignments that put emphasis on concision. These can be 100 word memoirs, 6 word stories, haikus, sonnets or anything else where the parameters mean one has to be surgical with the details and wording.
  • Training students to go through metacognitive revision where they follow a series of checklist items to systematically prune their pieces down.
  • Having contests to see who can trim an overly verbose passage to the shortest amount without losing its essence.

In the end, what makes the shift to a cutting mentality cool is that it is a precursor to a whole host of other lessons. Cutting is a synonym for engagement, as when students start to truly cut their own writing, that means they have started to actually look at and think about it. Once they have begun doing this, the door swings wide on a host of other lessons–ranging from word choice to characterization–that require engagement and a willingness to take the scissors to one’s own writing!

Yours in teaching,

Matt

Connect with Matt

If you would like more about teaching the essay and all things writing instruction, join my mailing list for a weekly writing newsletter, weekly list of curated articles on writing instruction, and a copy of my free ebook A Game of Inches: Making the most of your feedback to student writing.

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Writing Essays Should Be Fun

The iconic writing resource They Say/I Say, begins with a quote by literary theorist and poet Kenneth Burke where he likens academic discussion to a dinner party…

You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about…You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you…The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.

When I first encountered this quote, I was enamored, and then, nearly as quickly, horrified. The quote perfect encapsulated what I wanted my class to be, and for a moment I reveled in that vision before being crushed a few seconds later under the sad realization that my class as it currently stood looked nothing like that.

Of course, if I am being fair to myself, the discussions in my class around ideas and literature sometimes verged on passion and heat, but the essay–the main historical vehicle for centuries to deeply engage in the dinner party of thoughts–was generally as cold and lifeless as some remote moon orbiting an outer planet.

I’ve written before about the problems with keeping essays penned-in to five paragraph boxes, and there is no doubt that the form-first teaching of essays contributes to the lack of passion so omnipresent in so many student essays, but there is more to the story than that. Most students when questioned don’t actually know what an essay is, what they are for, and why they are valuable to write. They generally know nothing of the diverse universe of essays that exist beyond the school walls and are shocked when I tell them that authors ranging from Ta-Nehisi Coates to Mark Twain are at their cores essayists. And nearly all of them chuckle and eye-roll the first time I tell them that writing essays should be fun. Continue reading “Writing Essays Should Be Fun”

Why Students Brag About Not Doing Work (And What We Can Do About It)

We’ve all probably heard it.

“I didn’t even study for this, and I still got a B…”

“I wrote this entire thing an hour before class. I don’t even know what is in it…”

“I haven’t’ read a book all year. I just look at SparkNotes, and I still pass everything…”

The sounds of secondary students boasting about not doing their work to their friends as they walk the halls or shuffle in and out of class.

Early in my career, I heard so many of these comments on the peripheries of my classroom that I got lulled into thinking that these comments were normal markers of adolescence, a notion supported by my vague recollection of making similar types of boasts to my friends during my secondary years.

But if we think about it, bragging about doing substandard work and having Swiss cheese sized gaps in one’s knowledge is an odd thing. Boasting is generally supposed to be reserved for our successes and positive traits. It is supposed to be the hope that someone will ask about the marathon you just completed, how many books you read this summer, or if you have lost weight, so you have an excuse to gush a little bit about a triumph–not a place to celebrate laziness and mediocrity. Continue reading “Why Students Brag About Not Doing Work (And What We Can Do About It)”

The Game-Changing Teaching Tool That Is the Micro Conference

Nearly every teacher I know likes the idea of conferencing with students. When we talk one-on-one with students we can clarify messages, correct misconceptions, build relationships, cultivate key beliefs, and give the students a platform to be heard.

Where the issues with conferencing often come in are in the logistics, which can be next to impossible in an age where teachers often carry 140, 150, or 160 students on their loads. Take my American Literature classes, both of which currently sit at 35 students. If I have a five minute conference with each student and factor in a minute of transition time, the amount of time needed comes to 210 minutes, which is nearly 83% of the time I have with them each week. Add in logistical details like taking role, providing directions, logging into and off of computers, etc., and it wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that each five minute conference with students requires an entire week of class time.

I have written before about my strong belief in the value of conferencing, and so despite the massive time investment, I do full conferences with students several times a semester, but this has never felt like enough for me. Continue reading “The Game-Changing Teaching Tool That Is the Micro Conference”