The Book Fort

Instructional Ideas for Immediate Implementation

Welcome to The Book Fort: Issue 28

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Week Twenty Eight: How DO You Teach Writing?

“Writing is thinking on paper.” ~William Zinsser

Since I am only teaching composition classes online right now that do not afford me much latitude in changing assignments or instructional approach, I am taking time to deeply examine my pedagogical and ideological identity as an English teacher. In keeping with last week’s focus on writing with Gretchen Bernabei’s book, Reviving the Essay (2005), I had to dig out Barry Lane’s But How Do You Teach Writing? (2008). These two educators complement each other so well, as do their approaches to literacy instruction. In fact, Chapters 4, 9, & 10 of this text are based on ideas from Gretchen.

Barry Lane’s introduction went straight to my heart and made me re-examine why I have traditionally disliked teaching writing. Upon reflection, I know it is due in part to the lack of training I received as a pre-service teacher. We learned standards and methods theoretically, but we never focused on how to actually teach students to write. I was never asked to consider why writing is important beyond what standards and state testing requires. I guess I didn’t know it for myself until I became a teacher leader and advocate for public education, both of which forced me to carefully consider the power and effect of my words.

So, Lane’s text is both philosophically and pedagogically least it was for me this week and I hope you’ll find useful the few bits of text I pulled out for you. Please, please purchase or borrow this book. It will give you a boost and remind you that writing can be both fun and transformational while also meeting requirements of state standards and such.

Lane, B. (2008). But how do you teach writing? A simple guide for all teachers. New York, NY: Scholastic.

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A New Writing “Program”

The new writing program is no program at all, it’s you. In Part I of the text, Barry Lane tells us that we must write with our students. We must shift the idea of writing from a loud groan inducing chore to an interesting time to be creative and explore. In order to do that, we really need to open ourselves up to our students in many ways, including sharing our thoughts on paper and then aloud. I have shared many times before that we must read if we expect our students to read, so why should this be any different? The answer is time, of course. We always get caught up in what else we have to do. Lane and I suggest that you stop thinking about what else there is to do and just write with your students. It will amaze you what comes out of these experiences.

Below you will find a few of Lane’s ideas from this section of the text.

  1. Create regular, sustained writing time (26-27), just like you do self-selected, independent reading time (or I hope you do).

    1. Try using a simple blank calendar template to block off time each week for writing and reading, even if you alternate days, so that you’ll see it as a commitment. One of my colleagues, Aretha Whaley, calls it “Sacred Writing Time.”

    2. Let nothing, and I mean nothing (short of a fire drill— even then, grab the journals and run!), interrupt this time. Students need this guarantee, this structure, since the time can often be spent in unstructured thought.

  2. Shift the view of The Writing Process from a set number of steps to a set of writing tools, all of which can be used in any order at any time as the writing situation changes.

    1. Try Lane’s idea “My Writing Process” (29) for determining the writing process for each student (and yourself). A snapshot of the protocol is below.

  3. Just as you create an inviting space for self-selected independent reading, create a physical atmosphere that encourages creative energy to flow in your classroom for Sacred Writing Time.

    1. In a traditional classroom, all energy flows up the rows to the teacher’s desk and/or the presentation board (30-31). Switch it up to include flexible seating, desks in a circular or U-shape, or floor sitting. It changes the whole dynamic in ways that encourages students to focus inward instead of on you as the instructor. Let go of your control issues! :)

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Reasons to Write

“If we had to say what writing is, we would define it essentially as an act of courage.” ~Cynthia Ozick

In Section II, Lane begins with a topic that might just be the most controversial one in his entire approach, but one that I really had to consider, particularly because I teach high school and college students who have significantly different reasons to write. You see, Lane’s advice is to always start with narrative, no matter what, because it encourages authenticity and voice in writing, something that is sorely lacking in all types of writing. I mean, if we’re honest, he’s right; grade a stack of required timed writings like AP English Literature & Composition essays or On-Demand Writing responses and your eyes will cross within minutes because every one sounds the same as the last and the average score is usually right in the middle, 2 out of 4 for example, because students are stuck in the superficial, rote response. If we expect different results, we have to take a different approach, folks, it is just true. Lane mentions Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind; Pink asserts that storytelling is one of the most crucial 21st century skills for the global marketplace (106).

That being said, we do have to teach students how to write pieces other than stories. Below you will find a few of Lane’s ideas on how to progress from story-telling and narrative writing to more traditionally required forms, such as the informational research paper.

  1. Begin with narrative and try new ideas like the story circle (98), which comes from Native American culture, in which students use a “story stick” (hopefully decorated in a fun way), to share stories about their lives.

    1. You will begin by sharing a quick story from your life and then you pass the stick to a student to start a new story. The only person speaking is the one with the stick. This is brilliant for management & norms as well of course. It sets the stage for Socratic Seminar, also.

    2. Ask students to debrief by answering some reflective questions like: what makes a story boring or interesting, was it hard for you to think of a story, how does what we learned from each other and about story-telling apply to other stories and/or writing?

  2. Move from purely autobiographical or fictional narrative writing and storytelling to weaving stories into other types of writing, like persuasive speeches.

    1. Anecdotes make speeches more effective because they engage the audience and make the speaker seem more authentic and human. Why would we teach students to leave anecdotal evidence out when it is so essential to effective persuasion? Practice writing them and sharing them on various informational or persuasive topics.

    2. Watch TED talks and evaluate the anecdotal usage in them. An interesting one that I used recently in AP training is David

  3. Create the right conditions for voice in nonfiction writing (118-119) by focusing on the following important pieces of effectiveness (see visual below).

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Website of the Week

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Knight Lab

The timeline creator offered by Northwestern University’s Knight Lab is completely free and easy to use. The idea is that you decide what your timeline will be titled, hunt down the specific dates and items to put on it along with images and/or photos, and paste them into a Google Sheet that becomes a beautiful timeline. So simple and elegant, as my colleague Brandon Abdon put it when he shared this with our doctoral class last week. Students with Google Classroom can easily add this to their presentation toolboxes. Even without Classroom, any user with Google access can utilize this tool. Check it out here.

EdTech Tool of the Week


I finally got over my fear (and horror) of recording my own voice for others to hear for my doctoral class this can, too! If you'd like to flip some lessons, create tutorials to save time explaining things, or push students to do the same, check out Screencast-o-Matic. It is a free tool that captures audio while also recording video of the computer screen, so click-by-click navigation through websites, apps, or documents. I used this to record my tutorial for Insert Learning so that I could stick to the 10 minute time limit and have a record of my presentation. Super easy, and the YouTube tutorials are more than enough to get you going. If, like me, you want to edit, you can upgrade to the paid version for less than $50 a year, or pay monthly.

What Students Are Reading

Missed Previous Issues?

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Kristie Hofelich Ennis, NBCT

In an effort to systematically study relevant research and stay connected to the teachers I greatly respect and with whom I have worked for years to successfully implement independent reading, this newsletter came about. It will offer research and practical ideas for quick implementation and may prompt further discussion or study with your colleagues. I hope you'll find it useful and thought-provoking; I also hope you will stay in touch if you implement any of the ideas with your students. They are, after all, why I do what I do!