Easy Does It

My mother, oldest daughter, and I created a company called Hopeful Expressions in 2003.   We are a breast cancer support company that makes products for breast cancer patients and their families and friends.  Most of the time we make original, hand-stamped greeting cards, but we also have journals and tote bags.  My sister always took a tote bag with her to chemotherapy, and then one time she noticed that there were very few cards available that supported breast cancer patients, so our goal has been to make those products she would be making now if she were still alive.

Recently, we decided to try covering journals with fabric.  My mom made many tote bags using fabric that supported breast cancer research.  Instead of using paper covers for our journals, we decided to download some free patterns from the computer so she could use more of our fabric for the journals.  It seemed easy enough.  However, we encountered a major problem with on-line directions.  They were confusing and many just did not work the way they were supposed to.  Because my mom is a great seamstress, she is working to modify the patterns, but it is taking days of work.

I started to think about how people, especially bloggers, write directions for the products they make, including greeting cards.  I know they know how to make the product, and most of the time the directions are great.  But when they are confusing, I suspect it’s because they have left out certain steps that are obvious to them but not to the crafter.

When I was teaching middle school, one of  my favorite assignments was writing a how-to paper.  Today as technological advances occur almost daily, our children need to be able to explain how things work.  Young children are frequently asked in school to write directions for making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or tying their shoes.  I asked my middle school students to decide what it is they do well that everyone can’t do.  It could be how to make a certain craft (I often did the assignment right before Christmas so they could show how to make an ornament, wrap a beautiful package, or make a special treat), or it could be sports-related, such as how to make a goal in soccer or a special technique to make a three-pointer in basketball.  It could be how to hold a musical instrument or how to clean it or how to play a few notes.  It could be how to play a card game or do a magic trick. The assignment required the student to write clear directions and choose a classmate to demonstrate it while the writer read the directions aloud to him.  The writers were not allowed to show their partner how to do it.  The written directions needed to be clear.  This was often a funny assignment as some directions were definitely confusing, resulting in a comical and literal  interpretation.  One year a girl decided to show a boy how to do a manicure.  She brought in blue nail polish and a very confident boy agreed to try to follow her directions.  The problem occurred at the end of the demonstration when the girl realized she had forgotten to bring polish remover and the boy went through the school day with blue nails.  He also had to explain to his parents why he was wearing nail polish.

Students quickly discovered that the directions they thought were so clear were not clear at all,  so revision was necessary.  In recent years, I encouraged students to explain how to use some of the new technology, but because it was difficult for them to find someone who didn’t already know how to do it,  I often became the person who needed to learn it!

I wish anyone who posts on-line directions for making a craft or using today’s technology would try them out on someone first, someone who is not very knowledgeable about the subject, so confusion and frustration could be avoided.  My mom is still struggling with how to make a fabric book cover that actually fits and lies flat.  The directions need to be clear and simple.  Isn’t that true for everything we need to learn?

So if you are a teacher needing a new writing assignment for your students, I would encourage you to help them write directions.  Technical writing is an important skill for them to learn and will be even more important for them as they get older, go to college, graduate, and start a career.  If you are a crafter who often posts directions, try them out on someone first.  I think many people today choose to follow bloggers who are not only successful but who can also write clearly.  Those bloggers become our favorites to follow.  My goal today to find someone who can give us clear and easy directions for making a  fabric book cover!

Creating a Writer’s Notebook

Many teenagers reject the idea of keeping a journal.  To them the word “journal”  is synonymous with “diary,”  something very girly and childish.  Teachers and parents should set an example by keeping a journal themselves.  Teachers have little time, I know, to do this, but writing about each day at the end of school is a great way to release the tensions and frustrations of the day and also to note successes and memorable moments.  Parents can plan their days in a notebook and then add notes throughout the day, writing down reactions to events or funny or poignant words from their children.

The best way to begin to keep a journal is to put effort into selection of a notebook.  Bookstores have sections devoted to journals.  Any student can select one that seems to fit his or her personality.  Boys who resist the idea of a journal can always find a color or design to suit them.  However, it isn’t really necessary to select a ready-made journal when you can design one yourself.  There are many ways to do this.

I took a class one summer from an established writer at a writer’s conference who began the class with a lengthy discussion of notebooks and pens. I remember wondering what difference it made what I wrote in or what pen I used.  I was soon  convinced to spend some time selecting my writing materials.  I chose a grid composition notebook and Pilot Precise V5  rolling ball pens in black.  I use the notebook not just for daily comments but for all the work on my novels.

In school I have my students create a writer’s notebook.  I like to encourage them to buy an artist’s sketchbook but a regular spiral notebook will work.  Some students need lined paper, but I think they can be more creative with blank space.  Then I encourage them to collect clippings or download images from the computer that relate to them.  (See post on Writing Workshop.)  After gluing them in randomly throughout the notebook, they will have prompts that can encourage them to begin to write.  Also they can clip words or slogans from ads that inspire them.

Many students prefer to draw rather than write, and I think art and writing belong together.  One of my favorite books about journaling is Erin O’Toole’s Create Your Own Artist’s Journal.  It is mainly a book that teaches how to sketch scenes, but along with every drawing are words that describe the artwork.  Students who are artistic are often more willing to keep a journal when they know they can also draw in it.  In class, I encouraged those students to begin with a sketch and then write about it.  They often drew ocean scenes or people or objects, using them as prompts for a story or descriptive paragraph.

I believe there are great advantages for people of all ages in keeping a journal.  It’s a record of your life, the good and the bad, the funny and sad moments, the anxieties and triumphs we all have.  So spend some time in the journal section of a bookstore.  Then also go to an office supply store and look for notebooks with plain or lined paper.  Select a special pen.  My students loved to write in colored ink, mainly because all work to be graded had to be in blue or black ink.  I just make sure they don’t use a light-colored gel pen that is hard to read.

The cover of a plain notebook or artist’s sketchbook can be decorated to reflect the writer’s personality.  Photos, colorful print ads or magazine pages can personalize the simplest notebook.

After creating the notebook, the next challenge is to create a time in the course of every day to write in it.  It needs to become a habit.  Moments slip away from us all too quickly.  Young people can benefit greatly from looking back over their journals to discover how they have changed and grown, how those events that seemed so disastrous at the time of writing turned out to be less significant as months passed and strength to handle those challenges grew.    The same is true for adults.  I look back at the journals I kept when my children were younger and see an entirely different person then than I am now.  Would I have remembered all those times without the journals?

Teenagers today do write a lot in the course of a day, but they use technology to do it.  There isn’t anything wrong with that.   In fact, it’s crucial to keep up with advances in technology today.  They text, e-mail, and twitter.  The problem is that those words aren’t preserved the way words are in a journal.  Those words are often about mere moments in a day that are fleeting and soon become insignificant.  Words in a journal can be revised, edited, and added to.  Journals give us all a chance to be more reflective, to slow down our thinking, to use as many words as we want.  They record our lives forever.  What a wonderful gift they are to those who come after us!

Teaching Students to Write a Poem

One of the most difficult areas in teaching students to write is getting them to write poetry.  Actually, I don’t think it’s possible to teach someone to write a poem.  There is no magic formula.  It is possible, however, to help students improve their poems.  It’s always a challenge to begin a poem.  For me, I have to have an image or a specific line that comes to me at a moment when I am not trying to write, many times in the middle of the night or early in the morning.  For students, an assignment to write a poem usually ends up being time spent staring at a blank page or looking around the room to see what other students are doing.  Only a few students in each class can write poetry easily.

In the beginning of every year, I started my seventh grade students off with a simple poetry assignment–a list poem.  The challenge in this assignment is to get students to go beyond the initial list of things to creating lines that resemble poetry.  They tend to write something resembling a grocery list.   First I had them make a list of things they liked.  It could be a mixture of serious and funny things.  Then I had them add adjectives and prepositional phrases to the lines.  For example, if one item on the list was “snowboarding,” they could revise the line to say “snowboarding in the silence of an early morning snow.”  Then they needed to work on the arrangement of the lines.  I had them group similar items together, choose a line for the beginning,  and then find the one line that said the most, the one they connected to the most, the one that seemed to be the culmination of the entire list.  That was the last line.

This assignment usually is fun for students.  I always shared with them my own list before they began to write.   I showed them my first list, then a revision, and finally my final draft so they could see the process involved.  Then they worked on their own list poem and at the end of the class I asked for volunteers to share their lists.  Usually students do not want to share their writing, but this assignment offers many students the chance to read their poems in an nonthreatening environment because they haven’t had to rhyme or work on rhythm or create some flowery images.  It’s just a list of their personal favorites, and it’s fun for them to read them.

Here is a draft of one of my own list poems so you can see how it works:

What I Love

Powerful ocean waves
the cries of seagulls
the sunrise over the lake
foggy mornings
falling leaves that swirl in the wind
chickadees and nuthatches at the bird feeder
squirrels chasing each other in the woods
the first snowflakes of winter
white Christmas lights and cheery music
stained glass windows in church
the church bells chiming on Sunday morning
my Aussie greeting me when I come home
my cat purring softly next to me
the warmth of a fleece blanket on a cold winter night
the sound of my granddaughter crying.

I rearranged this list many times.  I first tried to capture all five senses.  (Encourage students to try to connect to what they see, taste, hear, smell, and touch.)  I found that I could arrange my list somewhat in order of the seasons–summer, fall, winter.  I went from being outside to the coziness of inside.  The last line was a problem for me at first, but when I connected to the sound of my new granddaughter, it became obvious to me that that line was the strongest.

As you can see, the poem is not meant to be one that other readers will necessarily connect to.  I think a good poem should point out to the reader something new or get the reader to feel something he didn’t feel before, something that doesn’t usually happen here because the poem is so personal, but this exercise can free students from the fear of writing a poem.  It’s fun, and it also gives the teacher some insight into the personalities of  her students.  I hope you will try this yourself and with your students!

How to Help Your Child Become a Better Writer

During my years as a writing teacher, I often encountered parents who wanted to help their children write better.  A normal course of action for them was to get too involved.  The student who struggled with writing would often turn in a well-written paper that was obviously not his own.  I sympathized with parents’  frustration and need to help their children get a good grade.  However, the disparity between a piece of writing done in class and a piece done at home was often striking, and the grade given was more the parent’s grade on the assignment than the student’s.  This was a serious problem in preparing students to pass state writing exams.  No parent would be sitting by the side of the student when it was necessary to write under pressure at a level that was at or above state requirements.  I frequently made available to parents the following list of suggestions so they could work with their children at home in a way that would improve their writing skills and build confidence in them.  I hope this list will continue to be of use to parents even though I am no longer in the classroom.  Good luck!

  1. Make sure your child has understood the writing assignment.  A student should not leave the classroom until he has a clear understanding of the directions.  At home have your child explain to you the teacher’s requirements for the assignment.
  2. To get started, just get words on paper.  The student should just start writing.  It does not have to be the first paragraph.  Just get down some main ideas. If no words come at first, tell her  to just talk to you about the subject.  Do not write down the sentences for her.  After a few sentences, the student should start writing herself.
  3. Have the student read the rough draft out loud to you.  Do not read it yourself yet.  Many times a writer catches his own mistakes or awkward phrasing just by hearing the words spoken.
  4. After a first reading, make some general comments.  What did you like about the paper?  What more would you like to know?  What is the best part?  What details are still needed?  Work first on content.  Have the student add in details.
  5. Now work on sentence structure and awkward phrasing, still without reading it yourself.  The student should read it again and this time stop him when a sentence seems awkward.  Help him rephrase it, but do not write it for him.
  6. Revision is the hardest part.  Every writer needs to do the following:  change a word or words, add details, delete unnecessary words and details, move ideas to a better place.  Work especially on the introduction and conclusion.  Think of a snappy title.  Students should make all changes directly on the rough draft.
  7. Now comes the editing part.  This time read the paper yourself.  Take a pencil and put a check mark in the margin before any line with an error.  Look for misspelled words and punctuation errors.  Find fragments and run-ons. The student should try to find the errors herself, but you can provide guidance.  Have a dictionary handy. Try not to spell for her.  This is a learning process.  You can also have her start a spelling list of her own to use as a reference in future papers.  After the writer has tried to fix all the errors herself, provide any additional assistance.
  8. Now have your child read the paper out loud again.   It should sound a lot better!
  9. Remember your role is to encourage, praise, assist, support without doing all the work for him.  Also remember there will be additional support at school from classroom peers and the teacher.
  10. Writing is a hard task for many students.  Encourage your son or daughter to write frequently in a journal.  Just free write on any topic.  This writing does not have to be read or revised.  Just get words on paper.  It helps.

Writing Workshop

One of  my favorite classes to teach has always been Writing Workshop.  Over the years I made changes to the set-up of the class, but the best part of the class was the informality and the relaxing atmosphere in the classroom.  The class met once a cycle (the school where I taught had an eight-day rotating schedule), and the best writing I read from my students always came out of this class.

It’s a real challenge to teach kids to write.  Within each class there are students who love to write, who are confident about their writing, and eager to share it with others.  Then there is a group of reluctant writers, who are also usually reluctant readers.  They often have the most wonderful ideas of all the students, but they just can’t access the words.  That’s where Writing Workshop can be a great class for them.

Here’s how I set up the class:

1.  In the  beginning of the course, students are assigned to create a writer’s notebook. I suggest they buy an artist’s sketchbook if they can afford it because I allow them to draw also in the notebook and then write about the drawing.  Sometimes just starting with a sketch frees up the mind to get down words describing the picture.  They can buy an inexpensive spiral notebook instead.  Students are also required to clip at least twenty pictures from magazines or download graphics from the computer that relate to them.  For example, a skier could find a picture of a snow-covered mountain and a basketball player could find a picture of a basketball.  Students could also bring in photos of family and friends and pets and vacations.  All these images provide a starting point for a writing topic.

2.  The Writing Workshop always began with a mini-lesson about some aspect of writing:  how to write a lead, choosing an effective title, writing conclusions, word choice, for example.  Students were then asked to work on incorporating that lesson into their writing that day.  I also put quotations on the board, inspiring or controversial words by authors or actors or athletes that students could respond to,   giving them an opportunity to write reflection or persuasion.  The pictures in their notebooks usually provided opportunities to write description or narration.

3.  After the mini-lesson came the music. I always chose classical or New Age or something relaxing without lyrics.  Students often complained about my choices, but they got exposure to a variety of music and they could focus more on writing than the words of a song.  It was important for me to write with my students.  No teacher should attempt to teach writing unless he or she also writes.  That is especially true for major writing assignments.  Writing along with the students enables a teacher to find those difficult parts of the assignment, the parts that can trip up students without the teacher’s knowledge of the problem.

4.  The best part came next–conferencing.   I would circulate the room offering suggestions and help, especially stopping at those desks where no writing was happening.  These students would insist they had nothing to write.  That was often because somewhere along the line they came to believe that perfection was expected,  no errors allowed, and that was paralyzing.    Once they realized they were not going to be graded on spelling or grammar or even completeness of ideas, writing became easier.  Sometimes I would even tell them to write down “I have nothing to write” until something came to them.  They could write an entire page of nonsense if they wanted because inevitably something would happen along the way, some seed of an idea would be planted and that seed could become the first sentence of another piece of writing.

5.  Next would come the sharing.  This was not the best part of the class for many students, but usually one very confident writer would raise his hand and read his piece for the day with the realization that we all knew it was not finished, not polished, not perfect.  No negative comments were ever allowed, just words of praise or support.  I did require each student on the last day of Writing Workshop to read something from their notebooks, even if just a paragraph or short poem.  All writers need an audience.

6.  Students were required to turn in two pieces of writing each quarter, usually a short piece such as a poem or descriptive paragraph and one a little longer, a narrative or persuasive essay.  The choice was up to them. The idea was to focus on the kind of writing each student did well.  Some students wrote long stories or the beginnings of a novel!

Teachers can and should develop writing workshops for their students that they have created entirely their own way.  I read dozens of book about teaching writing and attended many teacher conferences on how to teach students to write, but in the end the workshop needed to be something I created that fit my teaching style and the personalities and needs of my students.

More about teaching kids to write will come up frequently in my blog.  Keep checking in!