Writing Workshop

Rigor Mortis Bend

CD01EE2F-A29F-4FBA-86C6-4102F3C6FAA8Excerpt from The Running Dream

by Wendelin Van Draanen

“Rigor Mortis Bend.

It’s a place in the 400-meter race where every cell of your body locks up.

Your lungs ache for air.

Your quads turn to cement.

Your arms pump desperately, but they’re stiff and feel like lead.

Rigor Mortis Bend is the last turn of any track, and at Liberty High you’re greeted with a headwind.

The finish line comes into view and you will yourself toward it, but the wind pushes you back, your body begs you to give up, and the whole world seems to grind into slow motion.

Your determination is all that’s left.

It forces your muscles to fire.

Forces you to stay in the race.

Forces you to survive the pain of this moment.

Your teammates scream for you to push.

Push! Push! Push!

You can do it!

But their voices are muffled by the gasping for air, the pounding of earth, the pumping of blood, the need to collapse.

I feel like I’m living on Rigor Mortis Bend.” (16-17)

So, I knew I was scheduled to write this blog post for about two and a half weeks now and I just kept pushing it to the metaphorical back burner. I tried to sit down and write. I made a list of topics to write about. I definitely thought about what to write. But no ideas emerged. Nothing worth sharing. Spring break is right around the corner, and I’ve hit a wall. Like Jessica, the protagonist in Wendelin Van Draanen’s award-winning and inspiring novel The Running Dream that I recently read, I hit Rigor Mortis Bend, the place where you have to push yourself to complete something.

I continued to find other tasks to complete, no matter how menial, in order to avoid thinking about and coming up with a topic to blog about this week. I changed all of the bed sheets in the house. I did the dishes. I looked for a missing library book that has been renewed on my account over a dozen times. When at school, I organized my desk, I walked around the building finding others to chat with. I contemplated e-mailing our blog team to let them know I was going to have to bail on this week’s blog post, and to see if anyone else was ready to post instead.

Then it occurred to me that I was doing EXACTLY what some of my learners do–they hit Rigor Mortis Bend when writing, and then they stop. They avoid. They quit. Like me, they have things they’d rather be doing. They have other things to think about. The problem lies in that I can usually come up with something to post or submit, but once learners hit this wall, they’re finished. So, how can we help learners fight and push through Rigor Mortis Bend when writing?

I think the answer to this question is twofold. First, as teachers (and notice I didn’t say JUST English/Language Arts teachers!), we need to create opportunities for learners to write more in class, not for homework. And second, we need to be writing beside students to model our own imperfections and struggles with writing.

My PLC saw that we weren’t giving learners as many writing opportunities as we wanted to when we started off the school year. Things happened–snow days, lessons ran over, assemblies, changes in the schedule, you name it. And for whatever reason, time with writer’s notebooks haven’t made the final agenda in quite some time. Now that we’ve recognized this, we are devoting Friday’s classes to writing and conferencing about writing. We want learners to know that writing is important and that talking about writing is important as well. We are being very cognizant of making sure that learners are drafting and writing in class and not out of class where they can’t ask questions, or talk to friends about their writing. This also gives us the chance to do a better job of talking to students about the writing they are doing, whether it’s a quick reflective piece in their writer’s notebook, or one of our big essays for the school year. We are planning to use things like “What’s Going on in This Picture?” from The New York Times and The Quickwrite Handbook by Linda Rief to get our learners thinking about something, whether it’s a picture or more writing, and build a volume of writing from which to draw ideas for more extensive and developed pieces. We totally regret not doing these things at the beginning of the year, yet we aren’t waiting for the beginning of next year to try these ideas in our classrooms. Why? Because it’s never too late to try something new. Our learners are more flexible than we think, and if it’s something they can do and have fun with, they will do it and not even realize that they’re learning.

In the same fashion, we need to be sure we are modeling our own drafting and thinking process for students. Don’t get me wrong, I struggle with this as well. I have a young family at home who demands my attention and I’m currently teaching four preps and six classes at school every day, so I completely understand the excuse that there is no time to get writing done to share with learners. But that’s the thing–they need to SEE/WATCH/OBSERVE us in this process, so it’s not about coming to class prepared with a mentor text to share with them. It’s about drafting on the SmartBoard or Elmo, in front of them, and doing your thinking out loud, letting them watch you struggle. In her book Write Beside Them, Penny Kittle insists, “I wasn’t supposed to be a writer–just someone trying to write–like them. In fact, I was a better model because my hesitations and insecurities were just like theirs…I finally understood that ‘model’ was a verb. I wasn’t creating a model, I was the model–which made the difference.” (9). So, in that vain, I pulled this very blog draft out and shared it with my students. I told them I couldn’t think of anything to write and that writing, in general, was on my mind and this is what I had come up with so far. I talked through what I wanted to say, and hearing their feedback and ideas gave me a better idea of what I wanted to write in this post AND what they need from me in class when practicing writing.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that in order to help our learners push through Rigor Mortis Bend in their writing, we need to be able to push through it with our teaching (and with our own writing!) as well. Teaching writing is tough and we have to be willing to accept that what we’re doing in the classroom isn’t working as we intended it to, and make the change to be better, despite the timing. It’s never too late to try something new.  

Culture · Environment · Students · Writing Workshop

Slowing Down for Writing Success

It seems like everyone is in such a hurry these days – me included at times. This past week my older daughter was in a hurry to get to work. As she prepared to turn into her workplace, there was a car taking up most of her turn lane. She was going too fast to stop and allow the car to make its turn, so she ran up onto the curb HARD. The impact slashed a hole in her tire which was flat by the time she parked. (Luckily she was at her place of work and didn’t have to pull over on a road, and she was completely safe.) There were tears when she called and plenty of panic. Once we took some time to process what happened, our conversation consisted of “What could you have done?” and “Would things have been ok if you had slowed down and allowed the vehicle in your way to get out of the way?”

As I spent a few days processing this incident, I was reminded of the fact that even in my classroom I am often rushing to get to the end goal. Sometimes it is with reading a shared text or with a writing project. Teachers often ponder where to find more time and sometimes if it’s worth it to take the time.

My learners recently embarked on a narrative writing assignment from brainstorming to first draft to revising to a final draft. As a teaching team, we chose from the beginning to slow down and spend time before putting pencil to paper or fingers to a keyboard to begin the stories. Using “data” from the previous year’s students’ struggles, we knew that taking the time to fully research and to fully develop a character was important. That meant spending multiple days in class asking students to plan and get ready for writing.

Believe me, there were quite a few students who said, “Can’t we just write?” I explained that I had watched students struggle the previous year to fully develop characters and to write narratives that had a theme (which is required by Ohio’s standards for eighth grade writers). Students spent two days researching the time period for their historical narratives, three days working on who the characters were going to be, and another day on story arcs. Several lessons were modeled on Units of Study for Teaching Writing K-8.

The next week, the writers in my classes began to compose their first drafts. As they worked all they needed was time. Often they would walk into class itching to get to the Chromebooks. It was a slow process for some as they’d sit and stare at their computers or their notes. It was a quick process for others whose fingers would fly as they got into their writing. After about a week of drafting in class, most first drafts were complete. Others were finished quickly after.

Then we took a break. Just like my daughter, I asked my students to process and think about what had happened. This time away gave them a different perspective, and it also gave them ideas about what to do next and what to do the next time they looked at their drafts.

During the “break”, I read the historical narratives and gave feedback – the positives and the places where extra work was needed.

The third week of work brought us to our revising phase. There were many small group mini-lessons offered for both extension and refinement areas. Every day in class was offered as time to revise and edit. Again, we took our time.

I sometimes feel like taking “time” is undervalued in education. There’s so much to cover or we have to get to ____________ before the semester is over. I try to never let myself feel like this in my classroom. My students did good work this past week. There were many conversations between writing partners. I saw students going back to do more research on the time period. Quite a few students worked on elaborating with characters and theme. The use of dialogue was examined and questioned. Drafts were scrutinized and edited.

Slowing down is a good reminder for all of us – whether we’re driving in a car or working with students. I still have to remind myself of this in my classroom, but I firmly believe that my students are better writers because of the time we take working through the process.

 

Reading · Students · Writing Workshop

Building Stamina

As I work my way through the first mile of my long run, I usually hit a point when I want to give up. I’m too tired. My stomach aches. Did I just come down on my ankle wrong? There’s always some excuse that I could give for turning around and going home. Rarely, if there really is a problem, I let myself. Most of the time though, I stick with it and push through. I have to build my running stamina, or I would never be able to reach my goals.

While running those long runs (anywhere from 6-12 miles), I am reminded of this idea of stamina. My mind tends to wander when I run, and I can always make clear connections between what my students face as readers and writers, and what I face as a runner.

I get it – we all have things that are challenging for us. For me, running keeps me in shape, but it’s not always easy. Most days, I don’t want to lace up my Hokas and pump out those miles. But the feeling I have when I am done, when I have accomplished something even though it was hard getting started, is so rewarding.

I work toward running long distances because I know it is good for me, and that I have set a goal (usually a half marathon, or 13.1 miles), that I am working toward. It takes a while to build up to the longer distance – I can’t go out and run 12 miles at the beginning of my training, when the farthest I can usually go is six. (And I can only get those six in because I’m always making sure I’m keeping up with some sort of running plan in the “off season” – it’s like students’ summer break!) However, I need to keep this in mind when thinking about expectations for my students – I can’t expect some of them to be able to write a 2-page paper because they’re struggling through that first paragraph.

There’s always a point, a hump, that you have to get over when working on something that takes extended effort. For me as a runner, that point is mile 1 (why is the first mile always so dang hard?), and hitting the halfway point. For students, this may be just getting words down on a page in writing workshop, or reading through a whole page without stopping during independent reading.

Even when I’m reading something that isn’t fully grabbing my attention, it takes me some checkpoints in order to push myself to keep going. Just read for 10 minutes. Finish this chapter.

There are moments when temporarily quitting is okay – injury (running), or just flat-out dislike for a story, character, or a writing style (reading). Most of the time though, we need to stick with it. What makes it hard is what makes it worth it. With practice, you only get stronger.

And that will make it easier next time.

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Writing Workshop

#WhyWeWrite

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As we sat at Panera at 6am on a Monday morning having breakfast and feeding our writing souls, Kara reminded us that the National Day on Writing was fast approaching. Our conversation quickly turned to why each of us writes. We noticed many similarities but also recognized that each of our reasons why is a little different and that these differences stemmed from the what and how attached to our why.

Why We Write

Beth →  Honestly, I find writing to be a way to process and reflect on everything. I find more power in writing my thoughts down than just reflecting in my mind (which is what I often do due to time). I write to find myself and to figure out where I want to go.

Corinne →  Writing isn’t easy for me. But the more I do it, the more I realize it can be a relaxing and creative outlet for me. When the words come easy, it is one of the most rewarding things I do in my week.

Kara → I write for a couple of different reasons. I write because I’ve recognized the importance of doing what I ask my students to do. I also write because I believe that I have something worthy of sharing. Rarely does anything go perfectly in my classroom, but when something is especially successful or impactful, I don’t want it to end with my students. I feel an obligation to share successes with educators in hopes that other students are impacted, too.

Lori →  I write to challenge myself and my thinking.  I have never truly identified as a writer, but I have always valued the importance of it.  Blogging has allowed me to experience writing differently.  Writing helps me to think deeply about what I do and why I do it. For me, it is an outlet to reflect and adjust my thinking and practice.  This is powerful and productive.

Rachel → Writing is a way for me to decompress and reflect. I keep a daily journal that I write in before bed every night, and it helps to take a weight off every time I put words down on the page. I also think of this writing as a way to remember what I was going through at the time – I have looked through past journals and reflected on the growth I’ve made since I was the person who wrote those past words. I also write to model for students – in my professional writing and the work that I do specifically to show to students. I want to be an authentic teacher of writing, and I can’t achieve that if I’m not writing myself.

Rita → I am finding that the more time I make for writing the more rewarding writing is. I am writing most often to help me reflect – on my day, my work, my learning, my life in general – and this writing is inspiring me to broaden my why. These daily reflections are spurring writing that (hopefully) moves beyond me and that I hope will help others to think and reflect.

How We Write

Beth – I write with little planning unlike what I ask my students to do. I often sit down in a quiet place and just start with a dribble or torrent of words. It depends on the topic and how comfortable I feel with the subject. When I write narratives, it is a slow, sometimes painful, process. Writing about my work or my family is much easier. I typically write more for this blog, but I do keep a journal that I try to write in often.

Corinne- I need a purpose and a passion before I can produce a piece. The brainstorming is the most important step for me. Once I have an idea, I write a first draft quickly.  My confidence level isn’t very high so I need feedback from my writing partners. I tend to revisit a draft many times before I am satisfied and towards the end of the process, I try to spend several days away from the draft so I can get some clarity about what I was trying to say.

Kara → I have to write ideas down as quickly as they pop into my head. Sometimes they go on sticky notes, sometimes they go in my planner, sometimes they go in Google Docs, sometimes in emails to myself, sometimes in the notepad app on my phone. I have ideas spread everywhere, and they’re often difficult to relocate! Once I have an idea, I have to have a quiet space to bring the little seed of an idea to life. Late nights no longer work for me and my family, so I find quiet time in the early morning hours when most of the world is still snoozing.

Lori – I start with an idea that I am excited about.  I choose topics that I want to dig deeper with or that I want to share with others.  I write a draft, revisit my writing, and then I share it with my think partners.  I don’t rush, I take my time in the process.  I appreciate the feedback from others as I write.  I always need an extra nudge from others to publish as I gain confidence in writing for an audience.

Rachel → Usually, I just start. I’m a writer who needs to just dive in, with my plan in my head. Then, as I’m writing, I will jot down little planning notes, or make boxes that say, “Look here! This is where you can go.” I am someone who loves to hold a pen, so writing in a journal or a notebook is the most satisfying to me. Digital writing is wonderful for easy revisions and the ability to share, but I’m a pen-and-paper rough draft person. I also love playing with hand-lettering, which I think lends itself to my love of journal writing.

I need a quiet space to write or some instrumental music in my headphones. I love being places where I can observe, especially when I can either be outside or look outside when I’m writing. Even when it’s not the subject of my writing, nature inspires me.

Rita → The 10-15 minutes I spend each in my bedroom sitting in my Gram’s chair surrounded by the smell of eucalyptus with my reflection journal in my lap has become one of the favorite parts of my day. I find myself writing sentence after sentence about the day. These sentences might tell of something that made me happy, or something I am still thinking about, or help me develop a plan for moving forward; they are messy, sometimes incomplete thoughts.  As I finish writing about that day I reread noticing ideas that I need to write more purposefully and coherently about so that I might be able to share them with others. The possibility of sharing this writing with others forces me to be much more careful. I find myself writing and revising, working hard to choose just the right word to convey an authentic message.

What We Write

Corinne– Nearly all the writing I do is professional.  I am not pleased with this because I am learning that writing is a personal and cathartic exercise that fulfills my verbal needs. Day to day, most of my writing is in the form of email to teachers and parents in our building, but I also enjoy blogging with my friends and texting with my daughters. I am also exploring how I can use social media like Twitter to express myself outside of my professional work.

Kara → I write a lot in my profession; I write emails, lesson plans, models of for my students, and now I blog! In my personal life, I write text messages, captions on my Instagram posts, and write an occasional Facebook post. A little over a year ago, I spoke at my grandfather’s funeral, and that was obviously an especially meaningful piece of writing for me to craft and share. This weekend, my cousin and best friend are getting married, and they’ve asked me to officiate their wedding, so I’m currently writing their wedding ceremony, which is exceptionally exciting and an unbelievable honor!

Lori – Much of my writing is professional writing that I do for my work. I am an idea writer.  When I have a thought or idea, I always need to jot it down (often on a post-it!), but then I take these ideas and elaborate further.  Sometimes these ideas turn into an email conversation with a colleague or a tweet or a conversation or a blog post or a professional development item. I write when there is a purpose – the format often changes.

Rachel → My favorite form of writing right now is my reflection journal, in which I write thoughts from the day, but it also serves as a gratitude journal. Being reflective is what helps me grow, and for me is a method of self-care. I also write models for students, but most of the time I show them a “final product.” I am going to work on showing them more of the messiness of the writing process. Blog posts are another form of writing I do, and a fun way to challenge myself to put my writing out there for others to see. One of my dreams in life is to write fiction, so I usually have at least one story cooking on the back burner. I don’t always give much attention to these, but I like knowing they are there.

Rita → Journaling is the most consistent writing I do and often leads to the two professional writing adventures I am currently enjoying – blogging with my writing friends and working on my dissertation. Also, I Tweet pretty often, write emails for work and text with family and friends.

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Why do you write? How does your why connect to what and how you write? How can we help students identify their why and encourage their what and how?

Students · Teaching · Writing Workshop

Writing Territories

It’s the first Friday of the school year, and my classroom buzzes with excitement and the movement of pencils across a page. My students are working on creating writing territory maps, and there is a lot of chatter as they discuss some of their favorite things with their writing tables. Two students (oddly) bond over a shared fear of kidnapping, while others find out that they have the same favorite food (spoiler: it’s usually pizza). Regardless of what they’re writing down, they’re all engaged in the process. Creating writing territory maps is one of my favorite activities of the year because of this energetic environment.

The idea of writing territories originated from Nancie Atwell, but I got the idea for creating writing territory maps from two places. First, from Penny Kittle, who referred to these as “heart maps” in her powerful book Book Love, and focused on the music that lives in one’s heart; the second source was the Two Writing Teachers blog, one of my favorite websites for practical teaching ideas and inspirational reflection.

Writing Territories are a powerful writing tool for three main reasons.

  1. Students can create something unique to them.

I am always amazed by the wide range of “map” I see – from kids doing something basic like a heart to something incredibly detailed like a rocketship or a pair of ballet slippers. Students take this map to heart because they get to choose the shape. They get to choose what they write or draw within their map. The only part that I play in this activity is suggesting categories to brainstorm ideas (using this lovely handout from TWT), but they are the designers. I stress to them that what they put in their maps are things they think they might be able to write about later, which brings me to point number two.

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  1. Students have something to reference when they feel stuck.

We do a lot of choice writing in Language Arts. Often when we’re working on a skill or a certain aspect of grammar, students will have the opportunity to choose their topic for writing. It is so much easier for students to find a topic for a “free write” if they have a cache of ideas sitting on the first page of their writer’s notebook. Again, students have choice in what they can write about, and their writing stems from choices they made at the beginning of the year. Everything they pull from these writing territories is all their own, which means that they feel more ownership over their writing. Students feel like their notebooks and their writing for them, not for their teacher.

  1. This activity helps build our writing community.

unnamed-4Students love connecting – heck, all humans love connecting. When my students sit at their tables and brainstorm their favorite things, or places they’ve traveled, or issues they care about, they are bound to talk it out with the people around them. Many of them find connections they didn’t know they had. They may end up talking to someone they thought they had nothing in common with. When students share their interests and what is important to them, it opens them up to sharing their writing as a community. When students struggle, they turn to their classmates for suggestions. By brainstorming and creating writing territory maps, students are given a chance within the first week of school to start building this writing community. They also have the shared experience of creating something that is valuable to their individual self.

There is power in choice, and there is power in students sharing their experiences. One of my main goals as a teacher of writing is to help students take ownership of their writing and to see the value in building strong writing skills. I hope that by appealing to their interests, students can use their writer’s notebooks as a place to explore their own writing selves. They can build on ideas they’ve created within their writing territory maps, and little by little, grow as writers.

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