This One Simple Tool Will Make You a More Effective Writing Teacher

Teenagers are notorious for their lack of attention and internal busyness– especially in a classroom. They live in a chronic state of unawareness and have a cantankerous yearning to be somewhere else.

“I want to go to sleep.”

“I want to go home.”

“I’m starving, when’s lunch?”

And in these modern times of computers and smartphones, the teenage attention span is quite slim (and seems to be getting slimmer by the day).

As writing teachers, this wandering teenage mind is one of the greatest challenges we face.

So how do we tame the teenage monkey mind? How do we get a classroom of unfocused students focused and prepared to write?

The answer, is a surprisingly simple one. (And yet took me many painful years to figure it out.)

A timer.

In recent years, a timer as become my most important and effective teaching tool to tame the wild teenage mind.

 

The use of a timer in the classroom creates three things…

  1. focus
  2. urgency
  3. a goal

Experience has shown me that students actually enjoy the demands of the timer. It teaches them that in brief, focused bursts they can overcome procrastination and actually accomplish things.

Lesson Plan

Let’s say you want to have your students write a narrative piece on failure.

Here’s a simple 3 step, 240 second process you can implement to get students started, focused and excited to write…

Step 1 (180 seconds)

  1. Have students write the heading “Times I failed today…” on a blank page.
  2. Set a timer for 30 seconds.
  3. Beneath the heading, tell the students that when the timer begins, to scratch down all of today’s failures (these can be internal and external). Tell them they’re not writing sentences. Just a word or phrase (Alarm clock) that indicates a failure. I call this word or phrase a “working title”.
  4. Ready, Set…Go!

Prior to and during Step 1 it’s vital to stress that students are not to worry about spelling or grammar. This worry will only slow them down and restrict the process. Encourage students write messy. Tell them that this activity is not for a grade and that their list only has to make sense to them.

I would then repeat Step 1 two more times, each with a new heading, “Times I failed this week…”, then “Times I failed this year… “. I would also expand the time– 60 seconds for the former, 90 seconds for the latter.

Step 2 (30 seconds)

Have students evaluate all three lists. Have them mark three moments of failure that they still think about. That if they had the power, would turn back time and do over. 30 seconds. Go!

Step 3 (30 seconds)

Finally, evaluate the marked three failures. Which one still keeps you up at night? Which one has changed you the most? Mark that one. 30 seconds. Go!

This one failure will be the focus for the narrative writing assignment on failure.

Collectively, the three steps are 240 seconds of focused brainstorming that, when completed provide each student with a powerful, personal moment that harbors all the intimate ingredients needed for a good writing piece.

Furthermore, after just 240 seconds, the page should be littered with ideas. For students, this littering is rewarding. Students can be messy, not be judged (which is a natural confidence booster) and in a brief time realize that they’re lives are worthy of writing about.

Note: As the classroom teacher, you’re the expert on your students. You’re encouraged to modify this strategy to meet the age and level of your students.

Takeaways

  • A timer is essential for a writing classroom since it helps create focus, urgency and a goal.
  • Brainstorming should be structured.
  • Eliminates the “I have nothing to write about” problem.
  • Students can accomplish much more in quick focused bursts, then a long meandering brainstorming session.
  • Students enjoy a focused brainstorm activity.
  • This activity allows students to fill the page with meaningful experiences that can serve as great writing subjects.
  • This “messy” activity provides apprehensive writers with confidence.

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The Power of a Conversation: A Recap of the 2017 Spring Write-a-Thon

Never underestimate the power of a little conversation.

The Write-a-Thon grew its roots in 2015, during a little conversation between my school district’s (Robbinsville, New Jersey) Superintendent, Dr. Steven Mayer and myself.

The crux of the conversation was, “How can we teach teenagers to see writing as an exercise in self-discovery and authenticity not just a forced activity aligned with the harbingers of school?”

So we talked. We listened. We brainstormed.

And 3 months later the first Write-a-Thon was held in my classroom., a 2-hour writing event that afforded students the opportunity to write, to tell their story.

The event hosted 13 writers including Dr. Mayer and received donations and support from my student’s parents, faculty and my own friends and family.

When concluded, the Write-a-Thon raised $1,300 for the Special Olympics of New Jersey.

Write-a-Thon-November 2015.

A few months later, in April 2016, as I was planning the second Write-a-Thon, Dr. Mayer was tragically killed.

The May event was held in his honor.

An event that began with me, fighting tears, recounting our little brainstorming session and how though he is physically gone, his story, his passion is alive and well.

The heart of the Write-a-Thon is simple–show up and tell your story.

This week, the fourth installment of the Write-a-Thon had 30 student writers, ranging from 7th to 12th grade. The event hosted a $500 college scholarship essay challenge and was filmed by the Emmy winning “Classroom Close-up NJ” and will be featured in October 2017 episode.

My experience as both a high school teacher and an adult has taught me that, in the contentious transition between young adulthood and adulthood, it’s easy to get distracted with the noise of the world.

It’s easy to forget about the importance and power of your voice, of your story.

It’s easy to believe your story doesn’t matter.

It’s easy to believe fiction.

The Write-a-Thon is a celebration of the human voice. Of the lasting power of the true human story.

And it’s our stories that stand before us, that become the permanent teachers, forever instructing the lives of the living.

Be well,

Jay

Write-a-Thon Supporters

The 2017 Write-a-Thon received tremendous support from the following Robbinsville High School programs:

The Debate Club

Coach Patterson and the Robbinsville Football Program

Robbinsville Boys Lacrosse

The Drama Club

GSA

The RHS Literary Magazine

The RHS Class of 2019

A Look at the Spring Write-a-Thon

 

Check out more pictures courtesy of NJEA


 

When Former Students Die: A Teacher’s Reflection

If you teach long enough you’ll come to learn that the human story never graduates.

I last saw him 11 years ago.

Waiting for the graduation procession to begin, under that shadow of his squared cap, tassel dangling about his face, he smiled and said, “Mr. Armstrong, can you believe it, they’re actually letting me graduate!”

I smiled, “Yeah, God knows what they were thinking.”

A few years after graduation, he married his high school girlfriend, the girlfriend he sat next to in my English class.

They had a daughter together. Built a life together. And then he died.

He was 29.

In truth, I haven’t thought much about Mark since our time together.  Nothing intentional, it’s just as a teacher, so many lives come in and out of your life that it’s easy to lose track of who has passed through.

Yet when a Facebook post informed me that Mark had died, his name, his smile toggled memory, transporting me back to my old classroom–room 201.

In 2006, we were all young.

Collectively, what we lacked in knowledge we made up for in enthusiasm.

I was 26, inexperienced, short on life-lessons yet excited at the prospect of teaching and inspiring and helping mold the minds of young adults.

Most of the students were 18, fueled by hormones, seduced by the promise of adulthood and all its liquid freedoms.

They weren’t malicious.

Just kids straddling adulthood. Bursting with energy. Kids uninterested in dated stories scratched in stale books written by dead white guys.

It was in those days when I began to learn how your students’ lives wedge themselves into your life. How their drama becomes your drama. How their remarks and actions and attitudes confound you, unnerve you, keep you up at night and make you question the fate of the world.

But teach long enough and it all begins to run together.

Summers are merely conjunctions linking one run-on school year to the next.

And in this rambling life sentence, the days and weeks and years overlap. The names and faces and voices that were once so prominent, so sharp in your life only round and dull over time.

But when you learn a former student has died and you hear their name, you read their obituary, something happens. A key is turned, an engine started and the memory machine chokes and begins its work.

It’s been 11 years but…

I remember…

…the class consisted of mostly males. It often felt and sounded and even smelled like a locker room. Based with deep laughs ,those students in room 201 were unconcerned with things like death, poetry and me–a young teacher fixed with a knotted tie, polished shoes teaching his little heart out.

I remember…

…how the classroom windows faced east and how in the Spring sun would rise and blaze through the thin windows and how after lunch, room 201 turned into a cinder block oven.

I remember…

…Mark complaining it was just too hot to learn.

I remember…

…for most of the school year Mark slouched in his seat. Legs stretched out as far as they would go. In his hands, he would often work a hand grip. Squeezing the tension and releasing, until one hand would tire then he would switch to the other.

I remember…

…how his girlfriend sat beside him in class. How they would slide their desks close together. How he would rest his free hand on her knee and continue to work the hand grip with the other.

I remember…

…when they weren’t flirting they were fighting.

I remember…

…during a stretch of days, in late May when the outside world hummed with life and there was little reason to pay attention to me, Mark’s feet were flat on the floor, elbows on the desk, hand grip unseen, eyes glued to the pages of the book we were reading, The Things They Carried.

I remember…

…he told the class to shut up when I was reading how Curt Lemon, a 19 year old U.S. soldier, walked carelessly through the Vietnam jungle, stepped on a mine and blew himself apart.

I remember…

…Mark holding a copy of the book, standing in the class doorway looking at me and smiling and saying, “I really like this book.”

Mark wasn’t the first of my former students to die however, it’s always hard to imagine your former students dead.

Because when you taught them, they were young and indestructible and alive. As if they would always be that way.

It’s not in the job description, no one tells you this, but teachers are carriers of life.

Every student’s story, no matter of big or small, how dramatic or pedestrian is fixed with an intangible weight.  A weight that you carry with you, from lesson to lesson, from year to year, forever. So when you learn that a former student has died, that former student and their former life is suddenly present, is suddenly now.

And 11 years later, when your on your couch, scrolling through your Facebook feed and you read the news and see the face, you retreat into memory and you feel a familiar heat and hear the straining echoes of your first lessons and your big blue eyes dart across the classroom to find a smiling young man, working hand grips with one hand, cupping his girlfriend’s knee with the other, waiting for high school to end.

Waiting for life to begin.

Be well,

Jay

Playing School (or why I still want to be a teacher)-Guest Post

Playing School (or why I still want to be a teacher) is guest post written by  Julianne Frascella. Julianne is currently a 12th grade student in my AP Literature class at Robbinsville High School (NJ). She will be attending The College of New Jersey in September 2017.


It was like we were playing school.

Except, this was not supposed to be a game.

Wearing old glasses with the lenses popped out and clacking about in my mom’s oversized black high heels, I asserted myself as the head teacher. A pointer with the white gloved finger at the tip, in hand, I was in charge and my classroom was an orderly hierarchy.

One person played teacher.

In my classroom, I had a diverse array of students, consisting of teddies, American Girl dolls, Barbies, Power Rangers, and my little brother.

Arranged one behind the other in columns of four, my class of twelve “students” arrived each day, sitting neatly with their legs tucked under their makeshift cardboard desks. Strips of construction paper glued to the tops, printed with their first and last names in Sharpie, the letters stretching to reach the dotted lines.

The teacher’s desk (which magically transformed into a coffee table when “school” let out) was shoved in the corner, the swivel sofa behind it imitated the staple teacher’s spinny chair. My Barbie laptop plopped upon it, I clacked my fingers against the keys, typing very professional emails to the principal.

Each day, I’d call attendance, logging checks and x’s in my teacher’s book (a stack of white printer paper with three-staples down the side and grid lines that my mom sketched on for me in black pen did the trick).

The whiteboard, the one my dad reluctantly nailed to the wall, displayed the date in the top right corner and the spotlighted Morning Message, exuded cheerfulness in its rainbow letters.

My expectations of a structured classroom developed from the make- believe school in my playroom at home. However, my anticipations were completely defied as I entered the first grade. For most seven-year olds, their largest source of stress stems from a coloring mishap or their word sorting homework.

First grade was a rough year.

My school day often began with hyperventilating at the bus stop and concluded with a bellyache complaint and a nurse visit.

While I should have been enjoying the thrills of the first grade, I was instead inundated with anxiety- a consequence of my classroom environment, a mere discrepancy of my idealistic imaginary classroom.

Our class recycled through at least three teachers over the course of that year, with random substitutes scattered in between. They varied from apathetic to dictatorial, with few falling in between the extremes. And the majority of which, did not have the competence to organize our collapsed classroom.

They’d fumble through the teacher’s desk at the front of the class, which was cluttered with worksheets, yet to be graded and new copies, strewn throughout. They’d quickly scribble their name on the whiteboard upon their arrival, leaving the board bare and dreary otherwise. The date in the corner never seemed to switch, except when it was half erased and fading off.

It was November 3rd for three weeks.

Each day, I’d peek in my classroom to see who was playing teacher. Who would be squinting at the teacher’s book awkwardly trying to sound out our names for attendance? Who would be hollering to quiet down, overwhelmed by the lack of routine and order?

Where is the attendance book? How long do you usually read for? Where do you keep the markers? What are you learning in science?

Different students would jump to their feet arguing whether math or social studies came first on the schedule and whether we left off on chapter three or thirteen in the class novel.

We had twenty- three teachers leading our class, the better of which seemed to be under the age of 8.

And me, praying for an orderly routine, would tremble in my desk, completely distraught by the disorder I was immersed in.

School wasn’t supposed to be a game of role play, yet it had become just that. Wilting in my chair, amidst the mayhem of the classroom, my love for school along with my idealized vision of a harmonized school environment had been tarnished.

I now understand that being a real teacher will differ from my childhood fantasies. Nevertheless, I aspire to carry my childhood passion for teaching throughout my career.

 Why I Still Want to be a Teacher

  1. Offer a Comfortable Place to Learn

The school environment should offer children a consistent routine and a comfortable atmosphere. There is no need to impose extra anxiety on a child by having unexpected changes and irregularities. I want to ensure that my students feel prepared and excited for school each day, not fearful.

  1. Instill Respect as the Foundation of a Child’s Education

Realistically, students will not need to retain the details of American Revolution or the life cycle of a worm. However, they will need well-founded social skills. Classmates can be as much of a hindrance as they are an asset to a child’s education, hence my desire to develop a socially synchronized community within the classroom.

Teachers have a significant hand in shaping the future of society (that’s a lot of power!). Therefore, one of my greatest values is to impart respect as the primacy of learning to instill it as a foundation of future society.

  1. Cherish the Value of Individuality

It is easy to overlook the individual needs of every student with the overwhelming responsibilities of operating a classroom. The instruction of each child should be tailored to their identity, specifically their mannerisms, behaviors, and learning methods. Different tone, approach, and consequences should apply to every distinct child. I never want a child to feel inferior because a situation was not handled to compliment their personalities and abilities; emphasis on a child’s individuality may hold the key to their greatest growth potential.

  1. Emphasize the Inevitability of Imperfections

Learning is infinite, except when hindered by the trepidation of failure.

Dreading to answer a question and fretting over the repulsive B grade has become the reality of the education system from a student’s perspective. As a teacher, I aspire to break this falsified stereotype of failure and rather highlight the value in making mistakes. In fact, I want my classroom to be a place where mistakes are encouraged and no longer seem a place of consistent performance, but instead a place of constant practice.

Despite, my early experiences in the public school system, I still believe in education.

As I am about to leave high school and embark on my future, I often think of myself as a timorous, little girl sitting in a first grade class. I know there are other girls out there just like me and I feel it is my responsibility to make school no longer a place of fear and chaos, but instead the start of an exciting journey.

 

Teaching Students the Power of Vulnerability

This week’s post was inspired by Teacher Appreciation Week.


It takes more courage and less time to admit you don’t have the answer then to pretend you do.

For most aspiring teachers, writing a Philosophy of Education is not only a requirement, but a pedagogical rite of passage.

I remember, 15 years ago, in the swarms of early May, littering my philosophy with the theories of Skinner, Maslow and Erickson and thinking (albeit foolishly) I had arrived as a teacher. I thought that because I could regurgitated theories and infuse chic educational language into my philosophy I was bound for classroom success.

But 15 years later, 3 high schools later, and thousands of students later here’s what I have learned:

Underneath all the best practices and strategies and theories and high-stakes testing and educational bureaucracy remains one critical component for successful teaching: Vulnerability.

A few years ago…

…at Back to School Night, a parent approached me, shook my hand and said, “I don’t know how you do it.”

I smiled, “Well, teaching is tough but I enjoy it.”

She shook her head, leaned in and whispered, ” No. Deal with teenagers. They’re scary. I can’t wait until mine graduates.”

When I first started teaching…

…I was afraid to show weakness in the classroom.

I thought not knowing the answer to a grammatical question or the definition of some ornate word like sophistry would trigger not only the quick death of my teaching career but a storm of teenage mockery.

So I fashioned an authoritative front–polished shoes and a tightly knotted tie.

I deflect questions I didn’t know the answers to with responses like, “I’ll answer that later.” And would either not answer the question or conduct some stealth research and pass off the answer like I knew all along to fortify my position as the all-knowing teacher.

Why?

Because teenagers, like Back to School lady said, “are scary.”

However, little did I know, the all-knowing, impenetrable  teacher was uninspiring, unreliable and further forging the many falsities that narrate the realistic fiction novel known as High School.

Fortunately, something happened.

11 years into my teaching career, I was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disorder– Sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disorder that can, if not monitored, be fatal.

In my first few visits, the doctors told me it didn’t look good. They told me to get my affairs in order.

I was a 33 years old,  a husband, a father of 3. I was suppose to be a rock. Strong. Brave. And here I was standing feebly at the most vulnerable intersection of my life.

Enter Vulnerability

Struggling with the diagnosis, I returned to the classroom. I had to. I had to go back to what I knew, to the stability of the school day.

I think it was the sudden awareness of my own mortality that made me realize it was okay and even acceptable, to tell my students I didn’t have all the answers. That much of life and literature is and always will be a mystery. And that the mark of a good teacher is having a willingness to learn alongside of their students.

Since my diagnosis, I constantly reinforce to my students that life, like high school, comes to an end. And with the gift of time it’s our job, our responsibility, to question and think and explore and share our stories and have courage to blast beyond the limits of rudimentary theories.

One the first day of school this past September, I introduced myself to new batch of students by telling them how I once stood 30 feet away from my literary hero, Tim O’ Brien and how I lacked the simple courage to introduce myself to him. How I missed an opportunity of a lifetime.

I wanted them to know that vulnerability is the essential root of the thinker and learner.

I wanted my new students to know that– before the syllabus was handed out– they weren’t being taught by an educational cyborg. That my wounds are both fresh and real. And how the seminal teenage belief that vulnerability is a weakness is completely and utterly false.

~

With education changing at a blistering pace, technology and quantified data research now dominates best practices.

And I do believe classroom education should be pillared with research, poignant questioning and differentiated instruction.

But underneath all the pedagogical verbiage, education has and always will be powered by human connection.

An electric connection that jolts you to know vulnerability is both a strength and an essential pillar of learning.

Be well,

Jay

3 Strategies You Need to Know When Teaching Writing to Teenagers


Teenagers often swagger into an English classroom with a fixed mindset.

A mindset of either:

1. I’m not good at writing and never will be.

or

2. I’ve always earned high marks in English and past rubrics indicate I’ve achieved mastery in writing.

My experiences have shown me that though it’s difficult to transform a fixed teenage mindset into that all important growth mindset– it is possible.

In my first seven years of teaching English, I struggled with writing instruction. The class and I would slog through writing assignments. The writing was forced, inauthentic and painful.

I was doing a disservice to my students, to writing. In order to change their mindset, I had to change mine.

My change began when I realized writing is not about mastery.

In fact, even the masters– Stephen King, Anne Lamott, have openly reflected on how language and writing can never be mastered.

(And I often think what a blatant and harmful lie it is to tell a 16 year old that they have achieved mastery in writing!)

In my efforts to make writing more meaningful, more real for students, I began to approach writing in a more authentic way. In a way that encourages students to make a mess and to understand that mastery in writing is a myth.

Here are 3 strategies I’ve learned (with a lot of trial and error) to help change your student’s mindset and help you achieve a more fun and authentic classroom writing experience:

#1- Your Language is the Hook

At the beginning of the school year,  I ask my students to do a little word association with the word writing. Popular choices are, “dull, boring, structured, rigid, painful.”

I believe the ‘hook’ for teaching writing begins with the teacher’s language.

Knowing my students initial thoughts on writing allows me to immediately understand their writing ideology.

From then, when I conduct writing lessons, I use words and phrases that grab attention and interest.  Words and phrases like “messy, deviant, don’t care, whatever, no rules, wild, fast & furious”  litter my lessons. These words help show teenagers that writing is exciting. (This is also a great time do mini-lessons on how in certain time periods, for certain cultures and genders writing was viewed as an act of defiance).

I’m not saying all teenagers are deviants but the idea of breaking rules intrigues and engages them, as if they are doing something wrong, as if they are literary outlaws.

#2 Teenagers love Autonomy

As a writer, when someone tells me to write something a certain way my first reaction is often, “No!”

My writing process needs to be organic and has to sprout from my passions. This is why I believe it’s so incredibly important for teachers to allow students time to pick passionate topics.

And fortunately, teenagers don’t have to work hard to find passionate topics. Guilt, fear, uncertainty, joy, anger, love and even apathy all paint the teenage landscape.

In my classroom, the writing process always begins by making a mess.

I often instruct students to pick a strong emotion and using a brief, designated time (1-3 minutes) to make a mess. I encourage them to scratch down words/phrases, working story titles, drawings associated with the selected emotion, word maps, idea clouds, etc. I simply want them to explore.

I have found that this brief, but focused activity, encourages spontaneity and messiness, two things that attract teenagers.

I then use the selected emotion as a springboard into a writing piece.

For example, if I want them to write a narrative I will have them write a personal story about the chosen emotion or if I want them to do an analytical piece on the emotion, I will have them conduct research on the chosen emotion.

#3 Teenagers need Models

In my practice I’ve learned that modeling brainstorming is incredibly important.

First, when the students brainstorm, so do I.

When the brainstorming session is over, I project my brainstorming on the board, allowing students to see my process. This is helpful since my brainstorms are messy and full of misspellings and grammatical errors.

For students, seeing their teacher’s thoughts in their raw form is an empowering model.

This model promotes messiness yet fosters creativity and vulnerability. It also tells the students that we’re a long way from mastery.

Call to Action

Writing is a powerful form expression. A form that is challenging yet incredibly rewarding. Next time you’re teaching writing I hope you consider these activities. I hope you consider the impossibility of mastery.  I hope you consider making a mess.

Let’s Talk

I’m looking to grow my teaching arsenal and would love to hear what successful writing strategies you have used to encourage teenage writers to embrace the writing process!