Wednesday, November 14, 2018

How Do You Define 'Writing'? by Amy Spiker

I love encouraging students to think about their definition of “writing”.  I currently work with pre-service teachers and we discuss this in class often.  But, even when I was working with young elementary students I would talk with them about what it meant to be a writer and what writing looked like.  In schools we tend to value a written composition, using pencil and paper, with a clear and predictable structure.  My students, not surprisingly, also defined writing in this way.  I sought out ways to broaden their definition of writing.

The best success I had in this endeavor was to replace the standard state report with multi-genre projects.  Instead of providing a graphic organizer to create an informational report, I provided my students with a menu from which they had to choose at least five ways to display their learning.  This menu included choices like creating a comic strip, creating an acrostic poem, writing a rap, writing new lyrics to a well-known song, and scripting a podcast or news report.

Using multi-genre projects had so many benefits.  My students who usually left the room for special education support during writing could stay and be supported in a variety of text generating activities. My students demonstrated a much deeper understanding of their state’s unique facts.  Perhaps most importantly, my students’ definition of writing was broadened and they saw themselves as writers, some for the very first time.

I still utilize multi-genre projects with my pre-service teachers at the end of each semester.  They are engaged and motivated to display their learning and they see a model for teaching and assessing that they can utilize in their future classroom.  They learn that writing can take many forms and is ultimately about communicating meaning.  I hope that they will one day challenge their students to broaden the definition of  “writing” and create a community of writers.   

Amy Spiker is a Senior Lecturer in Elementary Education and a former elementary teacher.  She can be found on Twitter @abethspiker.  Her blog is located at

Monday, November 12, 2018

Getting Ready to Write? Just Breathe.

“Rule #1,” I tell my AP English Language students every year, is “to just breathe.”

It’s said in jest, mostly.  My Advanced Placement students are some of the most anxiety-ridden, uptight individuals I have from year to year.  They need a reminder to not let those anxieties get the better of them, to stop them from doing their best.

When students are confronted with writing prompts and timed writings and the pressures of the AP exam they tend to freeze.  I always told them “Just breathe,” but what I never did was actually give them the opportunity to breathe.  Who had ever heard of making time to breathe in the classroom? 

Caleen Jennings had.  Caleen was one of the many influential instructors I had at the 2018 Teaching Shakespeare Institute (TSI) this summer and she introduced me to the idea of breathing before starting any kind of writing.  Which, don’t get me wrong, even as I type it sounds ridiculous.  Who needs to be told to breathe?  But it’s true.  We get so tense, so stressed with the very idea of writing that our ideas become blocked up before we even begin. 

I had picked up on that, as evidenced by my #1 rule, but I hadn’t really practiced teaching students how to breathe.  I’ll admit, I’m still guilty about actually teaching this idea since it is now November and I haven’t brought it up.  I’ve let the other aspects of teaching AP get ahead of me and some of the ideas I swooned over at TSI have fallen by the wayside. 

But maybe breathing should be just as essential to writing as brainstorming, creating an outline, or supporting your claim with evidence. I still have time to incorporate this aspect into my teaching.  It’s not too late! I need to teach my students that before you jump into the prompt, before you put pen to paper, before you put fingers to a keyboard take a moment and breathe.

Just breathe.

Erica Johnson has been teaching for seven years in central Arkansas and currently works with juniors and seniors at Vilonia High School.  She spent the past summer transforming her teaching philosophy at the Teaching Shakespeare Institute in Washington, D.C.  When she isn’t spending time with her dog, she is visiting with her family and their latest addition: her niece Ivey.  She just started blogging recently with Teacher Captain’s (B)log and tries to post semi-regularly, but you can catch her more reliably on twitter @teachercap_e.

Friday, November 9, 2018

A Taste of Memoir by Fran Haley

I’ve done a lot of writing: Literary criticism, poetry, fiction, fantasy.

But it was teaching writing that led me to memoir.

Years ago, a colleague invited me to write with her fifth-grade class. She said she wanted to “spice up the unit” to get the students excited. Would I come to model how to write a memoir?

“I’d love to!” I replied.

        Then… where to start?

After a little research and much pondering, I decided that a fifth-grade memoir is really a moment maximized to its fullest, woven with universal themes. A small moment on steroids, I told myself.

This is going to work best if I use experiences from when I was their age…

Nearly-forgotten memories suddenly clamored in my head:
-Being invited to a costume party at the last minute (my mother coated my face and arms with white shoe polish, wrapped a sheet around me, painted my eyes black: I went as Death. The white shoe polish cracked all over, the perfect zombie-like effect)
-My grandmother sending me a horrible daisy outfit for my birthday (shudder!)
-A boy in my fifth-grade class doing the noblest thing I’ve ever seen, one Valentine’s Day
-A sick kitten that I couldn’t save
I realized there were strong emotions attached to each memory: Excitement, embarrassment. Anger. Awe. Grief.

Life is, after all, full of feelings. The universal thread of the human condition. I let the class pick the emotion they wanted to experience when I wrote; they asked questions they wanted me to answer in the writing … and so our amazing memoir adventure began.

And, once stirred, the memories keep rising to meet me, as if childhood wasn’t so long ago. We’re still here! they call. Tell about us. Let us live again.

And so I do.

With profound gratitude.

Fran Haley is a K-12 English Language Arts educator currently serving as a K-5 literacy coach. Writing is her favorite thing to do and to teach; she loves helping others of all ages grow to love writing. She facilitates writing workshop training for teachers in her district and authors the blog Lit Bits and Pieces: Snippets of Learning and Life. Connect with Fran on Twitter: @fahaley.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

My Favorite Recipes for Writing by Tiffany Rehbein

The inside cover of “Favorite Recipes” sponsored by St. Paul’s Lutheran Church showcases my mom’s familiar handwriting. To: Tiffany, Love: Mom ~ 1995. The recipe book, dedicated “to all cooks”  is organized topically.  Growing up in eastern Montana, the concept of a potluck is familiar, and all of the dishes can be prepared and served to large groups. Everyone contributes.

This post could be titled “Favorite Writing Ideas” as my goal is to share some ideas and resources for writing inspiration. Using picture prompts is one of my favorite activities. Use the image here, taken at Curt Gowdy State Park in southeastern Wyoming.  What is the story behind this image? Use your imagination. Write.

Similar to the organization of the recipe book, there is also an organization to writing. Think for a moment about your approach to writing. Do you follow the same pattern every day?

Considering this question pushed my own thinking. In my heart, I thrive doing work with WyoWrites, a group that proclaims on Twitter: Writers Teaching ~ Teachers Writing. The work feeds me. I have both the time and the space to write every day. What might this suggest about inspiration: find your writing tribe.

One of my favorite resources WyoWrites uses for professional development is Georgia Heard’s Writing Toward Home: Tales and Lessons to Find Your Way (1995). Heard offers short narratives and a writing prompt that touches on a variety of topics, including childhood, rejection, and writer’s block. What might this suggest about inspiration: find rich pieces of mentor text that jumpstart writing.

“Favorite Recipes” is not without its advice: share widely, cook every day, generously contribute. These same pieces of advice could be applied to writing. What might this suggest about inspiration: find all the ways to speak up, speak out, and make wherever you are a better place with your words.

Tiffany Rebhein is a former high school English teacher and current English Language Arts District Coordinator. She and her family live in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Follow Tiffany @Rehb31 on Twitter and her blog at  

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

A Recipe for Writing by Tammy Breitweiser

A Recipe for Writing:

Ingredients you will need:


Combine main ingredients with other words. Mix, combine, moosh and make sure ingredients are main parts of your final dish. Fold in voice and creativity within a beginning, middle, and end. Add some conflict. Let marinate for a day and then bake. Before serving add sparkle and serve hot!

As writers, we start with basic ingredients: words, ideas,  and our own voice. One of my favorite writing prompts is to simply start with a list of words. It is the perfect mix of parameters and freedom and results in endless possibilities.

The special instruction is to make sure that the words in the list are major components of the story.

The sharing of this type of prompt in a classroom or any group of writers is powerful because everyone starts with the same four words and every story will be different because of individual tastes, voice,  and experiences. It is a great exercise to do if your state requires prompt writing and you need to practice.

The surprises that come out of this simple prompt will make it a favorite for you to add to your recipe book of writing!

 Tammy L. Breitweiser is a curriculum coach in Northwest Indiana where she is currently dedicated to impacting student achievement in grades 7 and 8. With more than 22 years of experience, she is a reading advocate who believes in the reading and writing connection. She is working on a collection of short stories.  You can connect with Tammy on Twitter (@tlbreit) or through her blog Tammy’s Reading/Writing Life:

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Survival Tips for Writers

As I write this, I'm taking a break from my writing for NaNoWriMo. I'm five days in and it's hard. Writing is hard. I'm plagued with self-doubt and insecurity. I'm sure that I can't do it and it's no good anyway. If it's so hard and painful, why do I do it? It's worth it. I believe that everyone (including me) has a story that the world needs to hear. I'm the author of my story, so I need to craft those words, sentences, and chapters and share it with the world. How do I sustain myself as a writer? Here are my survival tips for writers...

1. My notebook writing. 
This brings me peace and laughter and clarity in an uncertain world. Spending a few minutes (or more) in the pages of my notebook every single day soothes my soul and brings me back to life when I'm struggling.

2. Fellow writers. 
Currently, I'm in an accountability group for NaNoWriMo. Those four other people hold me up when I can't stand. They nudge me and make me laugh and encourage me when I want to quit. How do they do it? They accomplish this by showing up themselves and by being authentically imperfect writers. 

3.  Audience.
Hearing what others think of my writing or how others are affected by my story...this moves me to continue. Having readers gives me another reason to write. It's not my primary reason, but it does help.

4. Grace. 
Showing myself grace when my writing isn't perfect. Showing myself grace when the words don't say what I want them to say. Showing myself grace when I feel insecure and unworthy. Grace saves my writing life over and over again.  

5. Faith. 
Believing that my story is worth writing. The only way I know that is by sitting down and writing it. During each and every writing session-even when I feel like I am the worst writer in the world- there's a glimmer...a phrase, a sentence, an idea that makes me feel proud of myself. Hold onto those glimmers. They keep you going when things feel overwhelming. 

Writers, you aren't alone. Writing is hard, but writing is worth it. Have faith. Show up. Give grace. And write...

As my friend Andy says, Onward Writers...

Michelle Haseltine spends her days with middle schoolers in Loudoun County, VA. Together they write, read, think, and create every single day. Michelle is a co-facilitator of our #TeachWrite twitter chat and a Teacher Consultant with the Northern Virginia Writing Project. She blogs regularly at One Grateful Teacher . Michelle tweets regularly at @Mhaseltine and Instagrams at @Mhaselti 

Monday, November 5, 2018

Just One Sentence by Jennifer Laffin

A lot of teachers are reluctant to say, "I am a writer."

I think this is because their definition of "writer" includes producing large quantities of words that often get published into books or professional journals.

But that is not true.

A writer is someone who writes. Period.

You don't have to write pages and pages every day to call yourself a writer. You just have to write.

And sometimes writing doesn't even involve actual writing -- thinking about story formation, noticing the world around you, and formulating ideas all counts. Those are the ingredients of writing and without them, writing wouldn't exist.

I have a daily writing habit that I began four years ago.  Every day, I spend a few moments thinking about the day's events and capture a sentence in my Sentence a Day Journal.

I write these lines in my Sentence a Day Journal because if I don't, I am likely to forget them. If I forget them, they cannot find their way into my longer writing pieces.

A Sentence a Day Journal is a great writing activity for students too. Students can look back into their journals for writing inspiration or character development ideas. An added bonus -- if you run student-led conferences or use reflection portfolios, recording a sentence a day can help students remember all they did during the school year.

Writing doesn't have to be long and drawn-out to count as writing. When you develop a regular writing habit and put words to the page, you ARE a writer.

Jennifer Laffin is a teacher of teachers, the owner of Teach Write LLC, and a co-moderator of the #TeachWrite Twitter Chat. She is committed to helping teachers and their students grow as writers because she has seen how writing can transform you both personally and professionally. You can find her learning with others on Twitter  @TeachWriteEDU, on Facebook, or at

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