The Re-Write Blog

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?”

That One Big Thing I Got From These Six Things

A month ago I identified six books that I simply have to read this summer. Since that point I’ve read 5 of 6 (Circe; There, There, These Six Things, Grit, andThey Say, I Say, ), and I’m happy to report that all five have absolutely lived up to my expectations. Out of the five though, Dave Stuart Jr.’s These Six Things is the one that has stuck with me the most. Not only is it the most comprehensive, polished, and practical compilation of Stuart’s work (which regular readers of the blog know I love) to date and loaded to the brim with brilliant suggestions about teaching reading, writing, arguing, speaking/listening, and content, but it begins with a section called “Start With the Heart” that absolutely blew me away. Stuart prefaces it as follows:

All of our work in and out of the classroom ought to be informed by a fundamental, internal layer: the layer of key beliefs. The best kinds of classrooms rely on inside-out learning.

What Stuart so succinctly says here is that in the same way that a vegetable garden bears more fruit in carefully prepared soil, our students will learn and grow best when we cultivate in them a handful of key beliefs about learning, the classroom, and themselves. The beliefs that Stuart recommends we focus on building are the following:

1. I believe in my teacher.
2. I belong in this classroom.
3. I can improve through my effort.
4. I can succeed at this.
5. This work has value for me.

Continue reading “That One Big Thing I Got From These Six Things”

Why I Don’t Grade Anything Until October

main-qimg-2c5b31ed3874d9d845eecddfdd9f5905While they feel inextricably linked with school, grades are actually a relatively new invention, with the first known grades appearing at Yale in 1785 and widespread grade usage (and the current A through F system) only beginning a little over 100 years ago.

While it is hard to imagine a time before report cards, that was exactly the case for thousands of years and in millions of schools, ranging from the School of Athens to Harvard’s early days. In the place of grades in most schools was feedback, with the idea being that school was meant for building knowledge, not sorting students into categories. Of course, before waxing too nostalgic for it being a wiser time, it is important to note that most people (women, non-white, non-wealthy) were generally not welcomed into the halls of education during these times and feedback largely came in the unnecessarily harsh form of critiques delivered by stern-faced professors in front of the entire class. But in the ungraded spirit of those early pre-grade days lies an important point that has been consistently backed up by modern research: teaching someone and rating someone are distinctly different practices that weaken each other when put together. Continue reading “Why I Don’t Grade Anything Until October”

A Simple Plan for Significantly Increasing Student Motivation to Write

I have long been interested in motivation. Why is it that one person will spend 20 or 30 hours a week training for a marathon and someone else will stay up late for weeks on end carefully sanding and breathing in lacquer fumes to refinish an antique table? Why do some students throw themselves into school, or theater, or a sport while others who engage in the same things put in almost no effort at all? And why can some push through even the stiffest adversity while others fold at the first flimsy obstacle they see?

I find these motivational questions endlessly fascinating, and luckily for me the last few years have seen a plethora of new developments and discoveries concerning motivation. A few of the most important for educators include:

  • The University of Chicago, among others, makes a compelling argument in this meta-study that external motivators–both positive and negative–generally decrease future student motivation because they replace the internal joy we get from accomplishing something with a need for receiving or avoiding something externally. One notable exception to this is that for repetitive, rote, and required tasks, external motivators are often needed because these things simply do not inspire internal motivation.
  • The recent book The Motivated Brain explains that the release of dopamine comes not when we get something we want, as was long suspected, but instead when we are in the pursuit of something we want. The new theory is that dopamine is part of a “seeking” system in our bodies designed to get us to constantly seek new information and accomplishments, as from an evolutionary perspective, the creatures that always seek are the ones that live longer and do better. This seeking system explains why seeking-style hobbies like marathon running or refinishing a table appeal to so many and why smartphones and social media are so addictive. In all of these, when we seek something new–whether it is running an extra mile or to see who our Twitter notification is from–our brains reward that seeking with a small shot of dopamine, encouraging us to do the same action again in the future.
  • A large study of critical traits for the 21st century commissioned by the Dept. of Education confirmed what a lot of teachers already know: when students feel that their teachers care and are paying attention, those feelings turn into significantly more motivation to engage with the course work and succeed in it.
  • And of course, there are Daniel Pink’s three keys to what inspires internal motivation: having purpose, having autonomy, and having the belief that we can reach mastery.

But amongst all of this research I’ve read on motivation, potentially the most useful piece is this short post from the University of Virginia’s groundbreaking Motivation Lab called “I Could Be Changing the World Right Now, But Instead I’m Solving for X.” In it, Motivation Lab director Chris Hulleman discusses the expectancy-value theory, which for a theory from a bunch of university professors, is remarkably straightforward. It goes… Continue reading “A Simple Plan for Significantly Increasing Student Motivation to Write”

An Argument for More Empathy in the Classroom


I had a different entry planned for my return to writing posts today, but this weekend I went to see the new Mr. Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and walked out glowing with inspiration.

Beyond being a well-constructed film following the life and times of a fascinating man, the main theme of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was a message sorely needed in today’s world: what made Mr. Rogers successful and great was his relentless, unwavering commitment to empathy. 

There is a wonderful line in the movie where one of Rogers’ tech crew said that Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood did everything wrong from a TV production perspective. TV is supposed to be ceaselessly noisy, but his program was filled with silence. TV is supposed to move fast, but he moved at a nearly glacial pace (he once set a timer for a minute and sat there in silence for the whole time to help kids understand what a minute is). TV shows are supposed to use their vast resources to make the costumes, sets, and props as real and polished as possible, and yet he used the same ratty puppets and papier-mache set for over thirty years. But the show still worked, earning consistently high ratings in five decades and the reason was that while kids do often love noise and action and pageantry, they also love people who make them feel understood and valued, and that is exactly what Fred Rogers did for millions of kids.  

Besides being of topical interest due to the profound lack of empathy that seems omnipresent in the media and social media of 2018, the movie entranced me because it brought home an idea that I’ve been thinking about over the past few months: empathy is vastly underrated and remarkably powerful stuff. As teachers it really should play a central role in our daily plans. Continue reading “An Argument for More Empathy in the Classroom”

The Six Books I’m Reading Before School Starts

“Summertime, and the livin’ is easy” -George Gershwin

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To start, I want to make one thing clear: Summer break is a blessing. Having some time to do the important work of breathing deep and clearing my head is so important to me as a teacher and person, but, as ungrateful as it sounds, I would be lying if I said that the blessing wasn’t a mixed one at times. The reason for such a seemingly preposterous statement? Expectations.

You see, the school year is so hectic that I can’t help but to make summer the place in my mind where I put everything that I would like out of life but don’t have time for during the school year. Do I need to start running again? No worries, there’s summer. Does the house badly need painting? No worries, there’s summer. Has it been over a year since I got my eyes checked, teeth cleaned, and allergies dealt with? No worries, there’s summer. Do I still need to send out thank you notes for my daughter’s April birthday? No worries, there’s summer…

And so on. Add it all up–one little desire and maintenance detail of life at a time–and by the time summer rolls around, it is already impossibly full of to-dos, which can make it really hard to effectively recharge.

So this year, I went out of my way to aggressively cull my summer to-do list before the summer even started, and the first order in doing that was to significantly trim down what is always one of my top summer stressors: my reading list.

A well known irony of being an English teacher is that we gravitate to English because we love books and yet it can be maddeningly hard to read as much as we’d like during the school year. The consequence of this for me is that by the end of each year I have dozens, or even hundreds, of books that I absolutely must read this summer. In earlier years, I tricked myself into believing that I would read them all, and then when the first day of school rolled around I always felt like I’d failed in some way if the list sat mostly unread.

This year I’m trying a new approach. I am capping my list at six books (3 non-fiction, 3 fiction) over the next six weeks that I just have to read. If I finish those and read more, great, but I am not putting pressure on it, as there are still those rooms to be painted and thank-you notes to be mailed, and summer’s lease is all too short. So without further preamble, here are the six books I can’t wait to read before school starts:

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth

Screen Shot 2018-07-11 at 3.20.37 PM.pngMuch like with growth mindsets a few years earlier, the notion of grit made a sudden and serious impression upon education world. Seemingly overnight it was everywhere, and (also like with growth mindsets) it was nearly as quickly misunderstood and misapplied in a thousand different ways. Of course, the initial reasons for grit’s success is that understanding why some people can absorb failure and disappointment when others can’t is incredibly important to our jobs and Duckworth is a top notch researcher (not to mention a MacArthur Genius Grant winner), so my plan this summer is to go straight to the source. Further, I’ve been told that in many ways the book actually fits with the summer reading spirit, as it is largely narrative and far more accessible and engaging in its prose than what one might expect a University of Pennsylvania professor and researcher.

These Six Things by Dave Stuart Jr. 

Screen Shot 2018-07-11 at 3.31.17 PMDave Stuart Jr.’s was the first education blog I began to follow and it continues to be one of the few that I always read. From what I can glean, These Six Things reads like a comprehensive greatest hits compilation of one of the best educational writers around today. Its focus is on keeping us focused on what really matters in the classroom, and it looks to offer a whole host of practical resources for teaching reading, writing, arguing, speaking, listening, and identity-building. It doesn’t come out until the end of July, but I will be the first in line to get it when it does.

They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein

Screen Shot 2018-07-11 at 3.33.01 PM.pngI have no idea how I missed this book for so long. Since my early days in the classroom, two of my teaching bibles have been Rhetorical Grammar by by Martha J. Kolln and Loretta S. Gray and Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by by Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup. These two books, more than any others, have informed the content of my writing lessons, as both break open how writing works and make accessible topics that are normally dense and difficult to comprehend. They Say/I Say came on my radar this year, and it looks like it will do the same for the specialized features of academic writing. I am also particularly drawn in by the They Say/I Say approach, which focuses on teaching academic writing as contributing one’s own verse to a long-running, essential conversation.

Circe by Madeline Miller

Screen Shot 2018-07-11 at 3.32.33 PM.pngMadeline Miller’s first book The Song of Achilles was a thoroughly enjoyable read. An LGBTQ retelling of the story of Achilles, it was fun, thought-provoking, and has consistently registered with a number of my students, both LGBTQ and not. Her follow up Circe follows the story of the witch Circe from her early days in the halls of Helios to her banishment and encounters with Odysseus. From what I’ve heard, it sounds like Miller further refines her approach of blending ancient myth with modern commentary as she weaves the conversations of the #MeToo movement into a story of a Greek goddess trying to make her way through a world set up to favor both immortal and mortal men.

There There by Tommy Orange

Screen Shot 2018-07-11 at 3.31.52 PM.pngThe debut book by Tommy Orange, There There is a series of interconnected vignettes spanning multiple generations of urban Native Americans from Oakland, California. Much like Pulp Fiction or early Guy Richie movies, the seemingly separate stories begin to barrel towards a single time and place, in this book a major pow-wow in Oakland. What excites me most about this book beyond its intricate design and impressive characterization is that a major publisher has decided to support a Native American author not named Sherman Alexie. While I love much of Alexie’s work, Orange tells a very different story of the nearly 80% of Native Americans who don’t live on a reservation, and from everything I can tell, he tells it with a voice and skill that is likely to make him one of the most important novelists of this generation.

Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston

Screen Shot 2018-07-11 at 3.31.36 PM.pngBarracoon is the new (!) book by Zora Neale Hurston. It is the previously unpublished account of a slave who was brought over on the last slave ship to the United States and then after emancipation helped found Africatown, a town that for the next 100 years would maintain a West African society in the forests outside of Mobile, Alabama. For those not familiar with Hurston’s other work–the lyrical novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, the folklore collection Of Mules and Men, and one of my favorite short stories of all time, “Sweat“–her works all read as love letters to language and humanity and tell African American stories not told anywhere else. While acclimatizing oneself to her use of the country vernacular (she wanted to show the beauty of simple country talk and thus doesn’t censor it for urban audiences) can be tricky, it is worth persevering, as she is one of the great wordsmiths, researchers, and storytellers in the American pantheon. From what I can glean from reviews, Barracoon looks like Hurston at her very best, and I can’t wait to read it!

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My Most Important Pedagogical Changes of the Year: Time = Importance

I occasionally teach a film elective, and when I do, I find that the transition from watching movies as a viewer to watching them from a film perspective is a really hard one for a lot of students. In order to help them in their transition, I have found that giving students this one simple rule on the first day makes all the difference:

Time = Importance

The reason for this is that movies are incredibly tightly packed affairs. Like books, they are supposed to build up tension, establish interesting themes, and get us to connect to characters, but they only have a fraction of the space (a screenplay directly converted to regular pages would likely be 30 or 40 pages). This means that if a director has us spend nearly 30 minutes at a family wedding like in opening of the The Godfather (see below), it means something; in this case it is largely about characterizing the family members as humans first before showing them as mobsters, as this is essential in a movie where criminals are the “good guys.”

Continue reading “My Most Important Pedagogical Changes of the Year: Time = Importance”