Writing Workshops

Writing workshops are a time to share your writing and to learn from other forms of writing, be it student or professional.  Writing workshop requires some intellectual risk and the courage to show your work to others.  It familiarizes you with some of the first steps of the revision and editing process.  Writing workshops are no replacement for working out first drafts, studying technique, or revising but they do serve a large part in creating writing communities.

There are many ways to hold writing workshops as a teacher, and there are many methods to have a student analyze their writing.  In class this week we had “fishbowl” writing conferences.  This is a practice style of conference where the teacher and student will meet in the middle of the room to go over the student writing; meanwhile, all the other educational students in training watch the conference to see what the teacher does to get the best out of the student.

In a fishbowl conference the teacher wants to ask the student questions.  These questions are directed towards getting the student to talk in an open ended manner about their writing.  The teacher will obviously give suggestions, but the suggestions are never conducive to what the teacher wants to see.  The questions are about getting the student to actively engage and to read their piece closely in order to highlight where their writing is strong and weak.  Questions that facilitate discussion with the student can be numerous.

  1.  What do you think is working in your piece?
  2.  Have you ever written anything like this before?  When?
  3.  Is there anything in particular that you want me to help you through?
  4. Where did you have trouble in your piece, why?
  5.  What audience are you writing this to?
  6.  Is this a piece that you feel attached to, why?
  7.  This is a great section of your story, what did you do here to create this?
  8.  Do you like this character?
  9.  What do you think a good story does?  Where does your piece try to do that?
  10.  How can you develop this further?  Where?
  11.  This is a wonderful scene, what did you do with language here?
  12.  How did your journal help you for this writing assignment?
  13.  How did you organize your journal to create this piece?


There are many questions you can ask your students, but it is best to try to keep them open ended.  Meaning, try not to pose questions that can be answered with “yes” or “no.”  Another thing a teacher needs to do in front of the student is engage with the text.  Read bits of the student’s work back to them and encourage them.  This encouragement and and discussion should come before critiques and suggestions are given.  A student will better receive some light criticism if you can truly tell them where there piece is working first.


I read some books this week too.  I read “Walden on Wheels” by Ken Ilgunas and “The Pride of Baghdad” by Brian K. Vaughn (with art by Niko Henrichon).  The books were vastly dissimilar, as “The Pride of Baghdad” (graphic novel) is a social commentary on the crisis in the Middle East and “Walden on Wheels” is about escaping student debt and living a life of solitude and the search for enlightenment.  Ken Ilgunas was actually one of our featured authors at the StoryCatcher Writing Workshop this past summer at Fort Robinson.  I hadn’t read his books before the workshop but now wish I had so I could’ve asked him some pertinent questions.  If you ever are scheduled for a writing workshop with published authors, try to read some of their works in advance.  It is just another context you can give yourself to become a better writer.  The book by Ilgunas is quite moving, as it takes you on a journey from New York to Alaska to Ontario to New York to Mississippi to Alaska to New York to Duke.  All these places serve as stops in the journey of Ken’s life to find something like peace and understanding.  “The Pride of Baghdad” may have tried to pack too many social issues into one book, but it gives a valiant try.  In this short graphic novel there is commentary on tribalism, domestic living, Islam extremism, Western Imperialism, gender equality, gang violence, climate change, and the overall crisis in Iraq.  If you want a book that tries to cover every angle this book is for you.





Letting Go

“Control by the numbers, and number them for control,” says the automated message played on a loop in some testing center.  In my mind I’m laughing at the bar graphs.

Language Arts is an experience that requires the individual to let go.  The delicate understanding that you are never going to read everything you want to, and will never communicate everything you feel you can.  It is the thought of hopelessness, in such an expansive field, which drives the individual to gather the hope they can.  Writing and reading is a personalized navigation process, and there are so many roads, so many side trails.  Each and every time a sentence grips you, or when you spin a sentence into an auditory pleasing, you are winning in this field.  More importantly, each time you see another student smile at themselves for what they have delivered on paper, compliment them, and understand you are combining your hopes together.  This is all intrinsic stuff, and the student is off on their own pondering their surroundings and their memory.  How can all students arrive at self-satisfaction and self learning?

I watched two TED Talks this week: “Child Driven Education” presented by Sugata Mitra, “The Puzzle of Motivation” presented by Dan Pink.  They both deal exclusively with putting the individual in control of their own education.  Mitra has performed a wide variety of experiments across the globe, and has come to the conclusion that students “will learn what they want to learn.”  His approach is isolated from the student learning taking place, but this isolation is aware students will embrace a “learning space” if they are first taught how to do so.  He highlights the current educational system as being a closed space and advocates against it.  Language arts is anything but a closed sphere and assigning students nothing but grammar sheets and worksheets on plot summary makes it a closed system.  It places the importance within Language Arts as something to be tracked, something to be copied.

I realize I’m merely summarizing these TED Talks at this turn, but I need to in order to get where I’m going.  The other presentation “The Puzzle of Motivation” was all about intrinsic motivation.  The labyrinth of becoming the self by giving yourself the ability to embrace the mind and body you’ve been given.  In other words, giving yourself the privilege of autonomy.  Which Dan Pink summarizes as “the urge to direct our own lives.”

Teachers have to give their students the power to self govern in order for students to achieve personal enlightenment, in order to understand their capabilities and self worth.

In my future classroom, everything starts at “play.”  When I play at whatever I am doing, be it writing or fly fishing, I am rewarding the art of self communication.  I am giving my mind the ability to operate with my organs, and that communication is the reward.  Any concrete value that comes as a result of self or group communication, such as money or catching a fish on the stream, is only the label assigned to the important, preceding events.   It starts with having students understand they are not the defendants of the courtroom, waiting to be judged, but the very creators of the courtroom itself.  Play with the structure of your own truths, without having to look over your shoulder for numbers that will be assigned to it.

Once you recognize intrapersonal and interpersonal communication in your own life, you can recognize it in another.  This goes back to Dr. Ellington’s premise of placing yourself as the most important person in the educational process.

Inside a literate life comes the knack for recognizing it in another.  Just as the carpenter knows the product of their apprentice, the teacher can see the work of their students.  They know where help is needed, because they know and understand the literate life.  There will of course be the unknown to the teacher, but that is where human adaptability arrives, and we have the capability of learning new things every day.

The techniques of getting students to play, starts with the teacher letting go and placing the students in control of their reading and writing lives.  Show the students small pieces of writing to instigate writing prompts.  Have students write about something bugging them, and then help them to form a story thread of the itch they are feeling.  As a teacher, vary your own reading, and suggest books to the individuals.  If you engage in close reading you should never have to worry about finding books suited to individuals.  Have students mine their own dreams to create pieces of poetry.  Don’t solely prepare students for the next grade level, give them structured space in the present so they can find out who they are.  These intrinsic motivation techniques become addictive, and students end up doing more work.  The research is their to support intrinsic motivation as noted by Dan Pink.

I’ll leave you with the two TED Talk videos I’ve talked about, and a motivational video I like that deals with “dreaming the self.”

Featured Image on Blog: Photo by Dawid Zawiła on Unsplash

Your Classroom

“Your objectives are in the wrong place and your post assessment is not matched perfectly with your pre-assessment.”  Me: “Okay”.  “I like this assignment you have created but it doesn’t appear to be very measurable.”  Me: “Oh, okay.”  “Your students are going to have to prepared for college, and are going to need to be able to defend their thesis with three supporting points; three is measurable.”  Me: “Yes, yes, okay.”  “Everything you hand your students to do must follow a behavioral verb, and that verb needs to be observable.”  Me: “Observable for who?”

It seems teachers are being put through the factory as much as students are.  This is wrong, that is right, this is really wrong, that is correct.  I won’t speak for the “we” here but I will speak for myself with the help of Randy Boman and his enlightening text “Time for Meaning.”  At the end of the day, it will be my classroom but it will be full of students whom I don’t own.  Control devices in the classroom such as ridged assessment and centralized writing and reading assignments is going to assume that all students have similar backgrounds and stories, and will want to learn because they should be “grateful” for being there.  And if they are not then I guess they lose out.

I don’t find this to be true.

“But our need to feel like a dispenser of information seems to overwhelm that sense of freedom” (Bomer, 1995).  Robotic actions will create robotic responses but it is easy to measure, and that is what matters!  No, no I believe it doesn’t.  The mind of the individual is not being measured, and, in fact, the only thing being measured is the ability to follow instructions.  Students spend more time comprehending instructions than reading books.  Bomer also writes, “Teaching is full of choosing, and so we make up our minds about what is most essential about literacy and then work only there.”

Hey wait a second!  That advice puts the teacher in a position to choose!  Yes, it does, and it reflects the knowledge of a flesh and blood individual who understands history and where language arts education has been pushed to, and the individual says “no I’m good” I am going to teach my class the way I believe will be most effective.

Bomer believes his teaching methods reside in the individual experiences of the students.  Through their memories, musings, and aspirations he derives his classroom content.  Not through the aspirations of the system they are contained in.  Students have turned away from literature because they have been programmed and lied to about what literature is.  Bomer argues it is not the New Critic method and does not rely solely on the ability to have perfect grammar and punctuation.  Literature is our story, our students’ story.  The things students bring into the classroom from the other 23 hours of the day is the canvas for writing and reading experiences, and teachers have the choice of catering to those raw experiences and creative imaginations, every day.  The choice is honestly there, and Bomer argues to make the choice to teach inside the world of individuals and their perceptions, and to mold students there.  He wants to know about them in order to help them become better writers and readers.

And I think this has to be step one in a classroom, every day, not just the first week of school.


Make it Relevant

A language arts classroom needs to have relevancy, and especially so in writing.  It is hard enough to write good essays and stories, and even more arduous if the chosen theme or prompt is out of context.  Teachers may sometimes create a prompt in which a majority of students struggle for inspiration; the teacher will then discard that prompt for the future, or reorganize it.  It seems silly to have standardized testing have one prompt as shown by Kittle in “No Evidence of Achievement.”  The students won’t have a second chance at those.  The questions asked may be completely out of context, or as shown by Kittle, impossible to answer based on circumstances at home.

To this day, I will display pitiful writing if a wordy prompt “scenario” is chosen for me.  I can acquiesce from time to time, and be fine.  But if I had to follow topical creative writing prompts for the rest of my life I would simply quit writing.  Writing has to be an individualized process and to pose one writing prompt on a standard test is quite laughable.  Typically, I remember getting to chose between three or four but still it immediately shuts down imaginative processes and shifts the measuring stick towards ridged structure.  The prompts probably were not written by somebody who has dedicated their life to language arts and teaching.

The point of relevancy, for me, was best taken in the article entitled “Introduction to Teaching for Joy and Justice” by Linda Christensen.  It starts with Christensen pointing out that students may not need to be “fixed.”  This immediately says a student is flawed and out of order with normality.  I think anybody who loves to write knows it is okay to have some dings.  Students aren’t commodities in which the oil has to be changed for future efficiency.  Students don’t have to be weighed and measured every day, and teachers shouldn’t have to feel the pressure of standardized assessment lurking in the weeks ahead.  The more students read and write the better they will score on tests, and students will read and write more if the topics are relevant to their lives.  Christensen clearly backs up here method by posing a killer writing prompt in which students ask themselves or their parents how they “read without words.”  Meaning how are the duties of the day processed, physically and cognitively, without words.  For example, reading the slope of a construction site, or how to read customers coming into a business.

The articles this week were about teaching towards the students, and how this can be accomplished by reading out loud, personalized writing prompts, writing about authentic experience, and positive feedback which stresses on trigger words like “this piece of writing is important and you should pursue it” (Kittle).

Efforts should be sounded forth on getting students to believe their experience in the world is unique and authentic.  This will create better writers because the teacher will be able to give feedback in an area of interest rather than boredom.  Students will be receptive to feedback on pieces of writing that contain relevancy.

My independent reading this week has been “Black Elk Speaks” by Nicholas Black Elk and told by John Neihardt.  I’m only fifty pages in but it’s a great book, so far, about the spirituality of Sioux culture in the wake of Anglo expansion.  index4

Read. Write. Talk

After week one in my Language Arts Methods class the concept of “read, write, talk” stuck with me.  I can imagine there will be quite a bit of pressure on me as a teacher, but I think I can meet those three goals, every day.  So right there a little bit of the tension dissipates because the wheel doesn’t have to be reinvented on a fundamental level.  Within those three elements there are worlds to cover and in a multitude of ways, but “read, write, talk” is a great base to have in the classroom.

Another great takeaway this week for me was to “start at the end” with regard to expectations and visions of the students.  By asking myself where I want my students to be I can better plan instruction toward those goals.  I can say now that I would want my students to be able to read and write substantially better than when they arrived.  This requires not only effective instruction but a model of the behavior.  Therefore I as the teacher would still need to practice the behaviors of a writer and reader.  It is easy to forget the good writing isn’t the easiest process in the world, and being too busy to read is an excuse which can be used every day.  This is the profession of teaching reading and writing, and so therefore the teacher must be able to do both.

I recognize that until this point this blog post is just a regurgitation of what was taught to us this week, but I believe it is sound advice.  In that light, I’m okay with just writing mainly from my cognitive recall, not just for the sake of memorization, but for a foundation in which to operate critically down the road.  Innovation doesn’t just springboard from nowhere, it comes from a context we have already formulated somewhere in our brain.

For our independent reading this week I read the graphic novel “March” by John Lewis.  It was a book that made me ask a lot of questions about the civil rights movement and the two main movements of acquiring civil rights for the disenfranchised African American people.  These two main movements were non-violent (headed by leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and the author, John Lewis) and the other movement was frequently tabbed as gaining equality by “whatever means necessary” (Malcom X, etc).  I liked the book “March” for its childhood parables and because of its insistence on non violence.  I have absolutely no rationale for believing in non violent movements at this stage in my life; it simply feels like the right thing to believe in.  But this book opened the door to many of these questions I have, and I am eager for the second installment of “March.”

Upcoming Summer Reads

The tax return is in, and after paying off a hefty vehicle bill, I have taken the privilege of ordering summer books.  Is summer everyone’s favorite time to read?  It wasn’t when I was child or teen because I was go, go, go and baseball, fish, baseball.  But now, as I’ve grown older I think it has become my favorite time to read.  The pages of books warm up, and the entirety of my community setting becomes a place to indulge in good books.  I can read outside, on the porch, in the hammock, or under a tree miles from the drone of any vehicle or lawnmower.  Of course I’m still working full time, but the hours off work become a homogeneous existence of reading, fly fishing, and some camping.  I’ve certainly read more this semester than ever before, volume wise.  So how will I challenge myself to continue forward with this reading habit?

I’ve done some math and I figure right now I’m reading about 400-600 pages a week.  This may not be a lot for some people but it is a heavy load for me.  I’ve done the Kittle time clock and I think I can read at a rate of 50-70 pages an hour in the young adult genre, and can read 20-30 pages an hour in the genre of adult fiction/nonfiction/challenging texts.  Since I will be reading mostly in this second category this summer, I will base my reading off of that rate.  I’d like to average two hours of reading a day, and I’m setting that a little low in order to account for days when I push ahead of that mark.  So, I’m going to set a goal of 75 pages a day, which puts me at approximately 500 pages a week.  In otherwords, two books a week by the numbers.  Two books a week, over roughly thirteen weeks, would give me the goal of twenty six books this summer.  I can’t think of anything lucky about the number twenty six, except it being my current age.  I have the courage to reach for that mark.

What am I going to read?  Twenty six books is a lot to plan for.  I’ve never read that many books in a summer, and it’s not close.  I will start with a favorite author of mind, whose anthology I would like to complete; Cormac McCarthy.  My first four books will be Blood Meridian, The Crossing, Cities of the Plain, and Suttree.  Moving on from there I will go to Cather with Death Comes for the Archbishop.  I’d like to be done with those by the end of May.  Entering the dog days of summer I will reach to Jim Harrison and the books Dalva, Legends of the Fall, True North, and The River Swimmer.  When the weather really gets hot and sticky I will continue with Faulkner and the follwing titles: The Reivers, Absalom! Absalom!, Intruder in the Dust, Seven Short Story Volumes.  I’m about halfway with these books I have mentioned.  This might be a good time to read some more young adult books.  Maybe a slew of graphic novels to get my numbers up, and what do I care about numbers, I just like graphic novels.  Random books that I want to read are The Idiot by Dostoevsky, Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck, and The Shipping News by Annie Proulx.

If I read twenty six books I will be really surprised with myself and I foresee myself landing in the thirteen to fourteen range, but the goal is there.  As far as discipline goes, the only way to read more is to hold myself accountable.  Reading will stay a habit because I love books, so I’m not to worried about that.  Also finding good books to read shouldn’t be too hard with the internet at hand.  Another goal of mine this summer is to find two or three more “go-to” authors.  I wish everyone the best of luck in their reading lives this summer!

Book Unity

Part of the reason I am inspired to read is because I desire to know what other people think of the books I have read.  Narrowing the lens further, I am inspired to read in order to gain a grasp of how other people decode themes presented in books.  Penny Kittle’s chapters eight and nine in Book Love are talking about this exact thing.  Kittle titles it “interdependence” and “school community of readers,” but an even simpler term would be unity.  I think she may have even used a team sports’ cliche or two in the chapters of our reading.  It really is important though.  We can become good readers and writers by ourselves, but in order to attain a higher level of skill and knowledge we must connect with people who are doing the same thing.

Kittle first idea, which is fantastic, is her themed notebooks, or what she calls her “big idea books.”  These are merely notebooks with one theme written on the cover.  That theme may be love, social isolation, family, or any number of different themes..  What makes this exercise unique is that the notebooks are used by everyone in the class.  Upon reading a book in Kittle’s classroom, a student will grab the corresponding notebook for the major themes in their book they just read.  The student will then write a summary or reflection on the theme they have chosen from their finished book.  By writing in these notebooks, students can read what their classmates have discovered about the same themes.  This brings a class together by tackling themes from all different angles of perspective.  Kittle aptly places a “rules for civil discourse in community writing” in each notebook to defend against plagiarism and bullying.


On page 121 of our text Kittle writes, “Prompting students’ thinking by way of inquiry, not direct teaching, is the essence of education.  Students remember what they do and what they discover, not what they are told.”  This is one of the major purposes of the “big idea books;” present students with activities that allow the student to answer their own questions and the teacher’s questions.  It doesn’t stop at reflection notebooks for Kittle.  She also has her students, as a class, connect texts together through the history of literature by what is contained within them.  What this does is show the class the coupling effect books have.  It is one giant book biome formed through hundreds of language reorganization, and thought organization.  This along with “big idea books” are a classroom assignment designed to mold a collaborating classroom.  Kittle calls the “Order of Literature” a “reading journey,” which means that books are not mutually exclusive and desire to be connected and studied for their messages.  Buzzing books quickly is all good but teachers have to expect a high understanding of content dissection.

Chapter nine of Kittle’s book goes beyond the classroom to incorporate the entire school.  This is done through what is called a “Schoolwide Reading Break,” where four days a week the school will break, as a unit, for twenty minutes of silent reading.  One of the goals of schoolwide reading, Kittle says, is “to develop the capacity for sustained, focused attention” and to “invite students” into the reading world rather than coerce them sharply.

If you don’t practice you get worse.  I know if I quit reading and writing for more than a week, I totally leave the mindset and it takes awhile to reform some of the skills I gained.  Some books, writing techniques, and knowledge will stick but much of it goes into hibernation.  This is what summer can do to a student; set them back in their writing and reading growth.  It is paramount for educators that students at least leave school with summer reading and writing goals.  This will help catch up time in the fall, and brings students back to school ready to talk about books.  Kittle suggests setting up reading groups in the summer at local community centers.  Kittle gives us a summer reading goal that stuck with me: “Challenge kids to read three books by one author so they can speculate on a writer’s growth or read three books from a similar time period or analyze the prejudices and unspoken values in a series of fantasy novels.”  I would call these master key reading goals.  For me, reading in series form (not an actual series, though sometimes) can spark substantial insights into writing technique and philosophy.  It really pulls me down a specific alley, and helps me to understand other writing alleys because I’m fully engrossed in an author or time period.  Kittle has rewarding summer reading advice, and that advice is to go somewhere with a plan rather than float around with varied books (though that is not a bad idea either).


It is a moot point here at the end of the semester, but Kittle succeeded in giving inspiring advice to me once again with this week’s readings.  My main takeaways are to open a classroom to the world of themes, connect books across time, and spread the love of reading to the summer season.