A Change in Direction

Hello! I haven’t posted in a long time, but I think I might pop on here from time to time to write about teaching.

I’m still running, but that’s become sort of old news and since I rarely race anymore, there isn’t much to talk about. I’m not sure how much you want to hear about my morning runs with my friends, because it would go like this: Tuesday I ran 3.44 miles! Thursday I ran 3.44 miles! On the weekend I ran [something longer] miles! I’ve fallen into a comfortable rhythm of 3 days a week and races almost never. I did one in 2017 so far and I might do 1 more Christmas run, depending on the weather. I have to say, running is a lot more relaxing when you aren’t training for anything. I do always run at 5:45 a.m. now, which is different, but I’ve come to love morning running!

I did go back and delete over 1000 old posts about random things–running, photography, etc. to change the direction of the blog and protect my family’s privacy a bit. It seems odd to have people reading about what we were up to in 2012, you know? I did keep the teaching posts. Since I completely changed my curriculum, I don’t even do most of those things anymore, but maybe someone else will want to.

In teaching news, this year I’m teaching 6th grade English and literature as a block, and I love it. I’ve also switched to standards-based grading, so I am going to start posting about that a bit.

We’ll see how long I keep it up this time!


I am a little behind in teaching this year, so my students are just finishing up their first round of free choice essays. This means they can pick any topic/type of essay they want. My only parameters are that it has to be prose and at least a page double-spaced (normal font, margins, etc.).

The way my students view this assignment is split pretty much into two. One group is paralyzed by it. They will ask me over and over, “What should I do?” “What should I write about?” and they do not like it when I tell them I want them to choose. I do give them a huge list of ideas. I have a binder and an online folder of assignment ideas. But even that list is too many choices.

Have you heard that story about the boy whose kindergarten teacher told him exactly what color to color everything, and then later when he was given freedom he just continued to use those same colors?  Some of my students remind me of this. They are so used to being told exactly what to write and exactly how that they just cannot function with the freedom. It may seem harsh, but I force them to work through it and I will not give them suggestions on how to start other that the assignment sheets I mentioned above and maybe a few very general ideas I toss out.  Once they’ve started and have their own idea, I give them suggestions on how to move forward/improve. But, it’s important to me that they are able to start with a blank page and create a piece of writing.

Then there’s my other group of students, who are overjoyed with this assignment. They simply cannot wait to get started. Some will ask a few (more like several) times, “I can write about anything I want?” or “I can write about ___?” Once they start writing, they don’t stop. They will write pages and pages. I think twelve pages is the most this time around, which is an awful lot of writing for a 6th or 7th grader.

Here’s the amazing thing.  When we are writing structured essays, or at least essays in which I definite the type and/or topic, I do recognize a handful of gifted writers. However, when given free choice, the quantity of great writing increases exponentially. Students who have struggled to revise essays over and over and over in the past can whip out an amazing story on the first try when given free rein.

I realize it’s important to be able to write to a prompt. That is the reality of most classes in school, college entrance essays, job applications, etc. However, free writing is important too. The confidence alone is worth it. They are so excited about these stories. Not one student was excited about the argumentative essay they wrote before this one. They are proud of these stories that are pages long and actually interesting to read. And of course, they are increasing their writing skill in the same way that reading books on any topic increases your reading skill. Yes, you need to be able to read and understand books that you are forced to read, but the true love of reading comes in selecting books you WANT to read. Writing is the same–free choice writing is where the love and magic happens. It builds skills that carry over into all types of writing.

I’m not sure what the point of this post is. I guess I just wanted to share the joy so many of my little 6th and 7th graders felt in this assignment. And for those who were paralyzed at the beginning? Well, most of them did pretty well in the end, once they got started.

It does make me think about school in general. We learn so much more when we are learning about/doing things we have control over. It’s really too bad the structure of school doesn’t allow for more independent learning. That’s where the magic happens.

What was the last piece of writing you wrote that you were excited about? For me, it’s been a very long time. I actually can’t remember…I know I write often on my blog, but I don’t consider that “real writing”…more just journaling. I’ve written a few sample essays for students over the years that were fun, but nothing stellar that I feel like bragging about. Maybe I should work on a free choice essay of my own!

Teaching Students to Write their First Narrative Essay

When my sixth graders write their first narrative, I have them start by writing five sentences about an important time in their life. This is after we do a “choosing a topic of the right amount of specificity” activity that I need to share later. Why only five sentences? Because I want the playing field to be level. EVERYONE can write five sentences. No one feels behind. I write one, too. Here’s 5-line “essay” I wrote for one of my classes this year (remember I think it’s very important to be a transparent writer).

One time I baked a loaf of bread in the evening and left it on the counter to cool when I went to bed. The next morning, a whole bunch of the bread was chewed off the sides. I knew the cat did it! I was so mad at the cat. The next night when I put my daughter to bed, I found a whole bunch of bread crumbs and pieces under her pillow.

(I purposely started with “one time” because oooooh does that beginning my my skin crawl. Almost as much as “This essay is about…”).

Then, we walk around and read each other’s essays (mine too). As we walk around, we ask the writer questions by typing them right on the screen. There are a lot of ground rules, like only one person per computer, absolutely no talking, ONLY question-asking and no general comments (this prevents things like “good job!” and “funny story!” or even “this stinks!”). I model this before we start. As they question, I circulate too and make sure I hit the essays without many questions (I can quickly type 3-4 and the students have no idea who typed them or that I added more than one question).

Next, everyone goes back to their own computer and uses the questions to create a new version of the essay. Here’s my version 2:

Last spring I baked a loaf of bread and left it on the counter to cool when I went to bed.

The next morning, a whole bunch of the bread was chewed off the sides. There were crumbs all over the countertop. The entire loaf was practically ruined since there was a row of little chunks missing all around the top.

I knew the cat, Charlotte, did it! Who else could it have been? The dog is in a crate overnight, and we have no other animals but the cat. Cats are perfectly capable of jumping on countertops. Even though our cat has never done that in the past, she was the only possible culprit.

“That stupid cat!” I said to myself, “I don’t even like cats!” I even took a picture of the bread and posted it on Facebook to show all of my friends how bad my cat had been. I couldn’t wait to get home from school to check the sympathetic comments from my friends.

Then, I put the cat outside. I wasn’t sure how else to punish her. You can’t exactly spank a cat without them returning your wrath.

The next night when I put my three-year-old daughter Campbell to bed, I found a whole bunch of bread crumbs and pieces under her pillow.

The next day, we finish up version two. As the students finish, they stand up. As soon as someone else is finished and also stands up, they read each others’ , and within a short time everyone is circulating around reading essays and typing questions on them (once again, mine too).

At this point I start teaching a writing mini lesson every day. Things like using dialogue, good beginning strategies, vivid description, adding character traits, adding reactions, etc. After the mini lesson, they revisit their essay and try to add the skill we just learned about. When they are ready, they stand up, and start circulating. Not everyone ends up circulating every day, which is okay. Some are more comfortable with it than others.

A week or two in, I share with them my third version, which is closer to completion. I point out the techniques I’ve used that we’ve learned about. I explain that my essay is about 95% true but that I’ve embellished details to make it more interesting and filled in things I can’t exactly remember (like exact dialogue). It’s getting to long to block quote here, but you can see all four versions here: essay progression “Framed”.

When I finish my final version, I read it to them. Other days, I’ll read them the final versions from my other classes. This year, I also wrote about the time Lori and I saw the “cougar” eyes and about skiing with Evan and Lori . They enjoy listening to personal stories of mine. I’m not a fantastic narrative writer, but I think I can write well enough to explain it to a sixth grader. 🙂 I keep all of my stories in a folder where they can read them.

Once they have their final versions finished, they start sharing them with me, writer’s workshop style. This continues several times until they are ready for grading.

After we have written personal narratives (the easiest type), we are ready to work on other narrative tasks like writing an ending, retelling a historical account or scientific process, and so on.

Other narrative writing posts:
Teaching Historical Fiction Narratives
Narrative Writing — Using Character Description as the “Hook”
Using Art to Teach Descriptive Writing
My Narrative Essay Rubric (ironically I’m not using that one this year)
Using Skippyjon Jones to Teach Narrative Writing Strategies

In case you weren’t around to enjoy the “bread” story the first time, here are the pictures:

My loaf of bread on the counter:

Campbell’s bed: