A few weeks ago, a Writing Project colleague engaged a group of us in a conversation about how teachers might end the school year.  This is typically an easy question.  Most districts have traditions and rituals in place for ending the year, along with district assessments to measure academic growth.  None of these typical ways to end will be in place this year, so this easy question morphed into several challenging questions:

How can we help students find a meaningful conclusion to this strange school year?  What important elements of ways we typically wrap the school year can we preserve in a virtual assignment?

I started thinking about the ways I typically wrapped up the learning for the year in my own classroom.  For many years, I asked students to write me a letter (or any format they wished to create) reflecting on their growth as a reader and as a writer.  I also asked them to create an “other” category to reflect on something else they felt they learned through the year. I wanted to hear what they thought about their own learning:  successes, struggles, next goals, and personal reflections to make sense out of everything.

The “other” category often spoke to my teacher heart, and that section was the reason a letter ended up in my “forever” file.  One of my last years of teaching, a boy wrote about how he learned he was not such a misfit after all.  One of my early years of teaching, a girl wrote about how journaling helped her process and figure out a way to let go of an abusive boyfriend.  This was the learning that I worry virtual classrooms cannot foster, at least not as well.

The teenage years are a critical time for social interaction.  Robbed of face-to-face connections, teens are not developing their identities through normal social interactions, rituals, and traditions.

Thinking about these issues of isolation, I brainstormed a list of key elements of an end-of-year activity.  I landed on two: reflection and choice.

Asking students to process and reflect on the realities of this school year might help them make some sense of their world.  Having worked with teenagers for more than 30 years, I also know meaningful reflection is not something all teens do naturally.  Choice is always important for teens, but distance learning elevates choice to a critical component to me.  Now I just needed to combine reflection with some choices for self-expression to create an answer to the question of how to wrap up this year.

First, students would need to review our common definition of reflective writing.  For this blog, we will use this one: Communicating your thoughts and feelings about experiences, opinions, events, or ideas; exploring your learning and gaining self-knowledge/insight.

Next, I would tap into prior knowledge by asking groups of students to post what they remembered from mentor texts we had read during the school year.  Groups could collaborate on Padlet, meet in small breakout rooms on Zoom, or use whatever virtual platforms your district provides.

Some of the mentor texts I have used for reflective writing include “Fish Cheeks” by Amy Tan and “Us and Them” by David Sedaris for middle schoolers; House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and Night by Elie Wiesel for students in 9th/10th grade; and selections from Walden by Henry David Thoreau and from Citizen by Claudia Rankine for students in 11th /12th grade.  Students could dip back into key parts, such as the last segment of “Fish Cheeks,” to review what they had learned about reflective writing early in the year.

Because video is a key component of distance learning,  the mentor text I would use for this lesson would be in video format.  I recommend an old favorite: the Favorite Poem Project.  There are many, many potential mentor texts on this site, but the one I have used with success is John Doherty, a construction worker from Boston, who explains why Whitman’s Song of Myself is his favorite poem.  I would ask students to do what we typically do when we look at a mentor text for craft.

Noticing craft:  What do you notice about this video?  What resonates with you as a viewer and listener? What seems to be important for this mode of expression?


Listen again, and jot notes.

Then as a class, we would build a list of qualities we noticed in this mentor text, a list to help shape our idea of what reflective thinking/writing includes.  Here is an example a class might shape from the video:

  • Share a little background information.
  • Reflect on your topic:  How do you feel about it?  What makes sense to you?  What doesn’t? Why is it important to you?
  • Draw conclusions or make implications: How is this important in a larger context, such as next year (or several years)? (Older students might use a specific critical lens.)

If there was enough time, I would ask them to listen a third time to see if they wanted to add anything to our list.  Then we would discuss the list, and I would pose my typical questions: What would be easy about this kind of reflection?  What would be challenging?

Working through a mentor text to create a list of qualities would be one full mini-lesson.  If you want to extend this lesson, students could select another video on their own to “test” the class list of qualities. They could also create a Flipgrid to share a reflection on their own poem and give feedback to each other if you wanted to provide some practice.

For an end-of-year assignment, though, reflective writing (or a reflective video) would be part of a larger assignment.  I decided the best way to provide students with options would be a choice board.  Choice boards seem to be the perfect distance-learning tool, and I found some easy-to-use templates on helloteacherlady’s blog: helloteacherlady.com. Then I brainstormed ideas for activities at various difficulty levels.

I linked a sample board here.

All of the choices have components students would be familiar with from earlier in the school year.  My goal is that each student will find a vehicle for self-expression and reflection no matter what activity he/she chooses to complete.  There are so many potential adaptations for the choice boards, and the template is easy to revise however you wish.

After students completed the activities, another essential part would be to share and to provide responses to each other’s products.  One way students could share would be to post their final product to a Padlet wall, such as this one. Then students could provide feedback to some of their peers with a little guidance if you wanted to provide it.

While no activity can substitute for finishing a school year with friends, maybe reflecting and sharing will help students make a little sense of their current reality.  Maybe it could help us, too.





A few years ago, my best friend Penny gave me Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person by Shonda Rhimes. Penny and I have been faithful followers of Grey’s Anatomy since it first aired, so she knew I would enjoy learning a bit of Shonda’s story.

The book details a year in Shonda’s life that stems from a discussion with her oldest sister at Thanksgiving in 2013, a discussion that centers on one statement:

“You never say yes to anything.”

Shonda describes how this statement created a pivotal moment in her life. The statement sticks with her until it wakes her up in the middle of the night several weeks later.

What follows is an inner monologue in which Shonda reveals her introverted nature, and as I was reading it, I was struck by how her words could have flowed from many students in my classroom that year. She has a revelation at the end of the monologue, and admits she is unhappy, even though she doesn’t feel she is “allowed” to be unhappy. This was another feeling I knew several students in my class held inside.  As the title suggests, she commits to saying yes to as much as possible for an entire year to address her sister’s statement.

I decided to use this story as an after-holiday-break quickwrite. I shared some of the information in story form, and I read a couple of key pieces out loud, making sure to pick classroom-appropriate sections. Then I asked the students to reflect on what they could “say yes” to in their lives to help them reach a goal or generate more happiness. We all wrote for three minutes, and then for another three minutes, since no one was ready to stop when the usual length of time was up.

A few students were willing to share out loud, but most said their writing was too personal, and I respected that. Many said how much they enjoyed writing this quickwrite, and a few even said they were going to add more later.  I transitioned to a discussion on stream-of-consciousness as a stylistic choice, and we had a fun first day back from break.

What struck me most about this experience was the way students kept bringing it up over the next few weeks.  Some would come up to me in the hall to say they had been “saying yes” more often.  Other said they told their parents about the writing and their parents offered to help them reach their goals.  One girl asked if she could meet with me in private, and she shared her realization that she had not been very kind to a few other girls in the class because she felt inferior to them without cause.  My goal had been to ease into a new semester with something I thought students might enjoy, and I had not anticipated the depth of their response to the assignment.  I vowed to weave in more reflective quickwrites.

This kind of reflective journaling is not new, but some of the research about it is. In a recent New York Times article “What’s All This About Journaling?” noted the resurgence of reflective writing:

Once the domain of teenage girls and the literati, journaling has become a hallmark of the so-called self-care movement, right up there with meditation. And for good reason: Scientific studies have shown it to be essentially a panacea for modern life. There are the obvious benefits, like a boost in mindfulness, memory and communication skills. But studies have also found that writing in a journal can lead to better sleep, a stronger immune system, more self-confidence and a higher I.Q.

With all of these benefits and the current focus on trauma-informed teaching, reflective journaling is worth fitting into your curriculum if you have the option.  I used my students’ positive reactions as my motivation to keep this as a first-day-back-from-break activity from that year on, and now I’m sharing it with you. Enjoy, and Happy New Year!


We have all read the research about the benefits of reading fiction, but isn’t writing fiction a task for the few talented, creative people in the world who will make their living writing novels or children’s books?

Most every English language arts teacher has either heard this question or has posed this question. Many ELA teachers I know have made the decision to avoid or to cut writing fiction from their lesson plans due to the demands of their curriculum.  Perhaps that’s a mistake.  Are there benefits of writing fiction, and is there a place for teaching it in the curriculum?  I decided to spend a little time researching this topic, which led me down a rabbit hole of fascinating scientific information!

In a 2014 NY Times article “This is Your Brain on Writing,” writer Carl Zimmer shared a few insights from a neuroscience study of creative writing.  Scientists mapped brain activities connected with creativity by asking people to participate in a series of writing tasks:  copying text, brainstorming, and writing literary text.  “For the first time, neuroscientists have used fMRI scanners to track the brain activity of both experienced and novice writers as they sat down — or, in this case, lay down — to turn out a piece of fiction.”  fMRI is a process called functional magnetic resonance imaging in which a machine shows blood flow to various parts of the brain. “The inner workings of the professionally trained writers in the bunch, the scientists argue, showed some similarities to people who are skilled at other complex actions, like music or sports.”

This study indicates that practicing writing leads to activation of a part of the brain that “takes over” when actions become more automatic, which has implications for the regular practice of writing, certainly.  What stood out to me more, though, was that both groups of writers showed brain activity during brainstorming and writing creatively that was not present when the subjects merely copied a piece of text. This is enough information for me as a teacher to prioritize creative writing in the classroom. Use this link if you are interested in the specific findings.

While Steven Pinker, the cognitive scientist who wrote How the Mind Works, was skeptical of the findings from this creative writing study, stating that creativity is difficult to define and measure, he does support the idea that fiction provides us with opportunities to learn. “Fictional narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcome of strategies we could deploy in them” (543).

Current research on aging and age-related illnesses reveals powerful connections between storytelling and both mental and physical wellbeing, especially resilience.  Writing stories or sharing stories verbally is used as a “healing modality” for the aging.  (See The Effects of Storytelling on Happiness and Resilience in Older Adults and Narrative and identity in Alzheimer’s disease: A case study for more information.) Even digital storytelling  makes the list as a potential therapy to promote healthy brain function in older adults.

While asking adults struggling with Alzheimer’s to remember their own life stories can cause stress and negative emotions, asking aging adults to create stories provides a positive, creative experience that exercises brain functions.  Suggestions for creating a good story in the article Anti-Aging and Anti-Depressant Effects of Storytelling include advice such as adding strong details that show rather than tell, adding emotion and voice, and revealing character through details.

Sound familiar, teachers?

We know from research on reading that different parts of the brain are activated when readers connect with sensory details.  A team of researchers from Emory University found that metaphors like “The singer had a velvet voice” activated sensory parts of the brain that phrases like “The singer had a pleasing voice” did not.  They found “. . . there is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters” (Paul 2012).  Paul Zak’s research tells us that powerful stories cause the brain to release oxytocin and can cause us to empathize with characters, which can lead us to change our beliefs and behaviors.

So, scientific research points to clear benefits of writing (and reading) fiction, but what do some of the leading educators say?

Thomas Newkirk, author of Minds Made for Story, asserts that narrative is the “mother mode” to which all other modes of writing cling.  He also claims “. . .narrative is the deep structure of all good sustained writing.  All good writing’ (19).   He goes on to say “. . . the narrative thread, the anecdote, the story of human interest, the apt metaphor are crucial tools in all forms of discourse . . .” (28).   The entire book is a compelling argument supporting his title, our minds are made for story.

In their recent book 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents, Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle ask the very question I started this blog with, why fiction?  Their response: “The skills of narrative writing are the same in either genre [memoir or fiction] and many of our students love the opportunity to imagine and create.  Writing fiction is neglected in middle and high school.  Each year we see students deeply engage in writing when given the opportunity to imagine a setting, its characters, and a conflict” (139).  For their lesson ideas, see Chapter 6.

My personal conclusions:

If storytelling, both creating stories and sharing stories, is so powerful that it stimulates multiple parts of the brain in ways that help keep our mental capacity sharp, this alone tells me all teachers should take note.  Add this to the facts that fiction can lead people to empathize and take positive action, can help engage students in ways writing purely informational texts cannot, and can provide a structural base for all other modes of writing, then devoting time in the curriculum to writing fiction certainly seems worthwhile to me.

For more information, see the following articles.

How Stories Change the Brain

Researching the Brian of Writers

The Neuroscience of Your Brain on Fiction

Why You Are Wrong If You Think Creative Writing Is a Frivolous Waste of Time

Hasson brings real life into the lab to examine cognitive processing

Why Fiction Matters

Writing Can Help Injuries Heal Faster

Can Fiction and Academic Writing Help Each Other?