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: 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.





Your child’s/children’s school district is closed.  You have to figure out how to keep the learning going. Most teachers are putting in extra hours to provide resources, and they will work through the shutdowns to support their students and their students’ parents. But what if you need more?

There are so, so many resources available to parents online.  I have compiled a list of some of my favorites so you can find them all in one place.

Before we get to the resources, here are a few things to think about.

Create a schedule.

Children need structure and boundaries to feel safe.  Even teenagers.  You will need to balance their work with yours, so think about ways to merge your peak times with their quiet work time. Then work with your child to create a schedule, and  stick to it as much as possible.

  • Younger students will need a balance of quiet work, activities, and free play time. Use this resource on normal attention spans to help you plan.  Several sample schedules are available on social media and Pinterest, but the best schedule for you and your child will be the one you create together.
  • Older students should create their own schedules. Just provide some non-negotiables and let them come up with a few options. Turn it into a lesson and let them present their first choice and reasons to you in a persuasive presentation!
  • For students of all ages, brainstorm a list of what to do if they are stuck and you are unavailable.  For example, they could write their questions on a post-it before moving on to a back-up activity or a next-on-the list task.  Older students could have a network of friends to work with through a site like Flipgrid (see below) or Zoom.

Make sure younger children know what you mean when you say “emergency” so they’ll know when it’s necessary to interrupt you. 

Build in incentives/rewards and social time.

We will all need some things to look forward to during these days of limited social contact.  Part of planning the daily schedule should include a plan for incentives and rewards.

  • Ask your child to create a “menu” of reward options. Then plan on ways they can earn the rewards.
  • Build in time to be silly or move. I have included a few sites that might help for short breaks or for days kids can’t go outside.
  • All students will miss spending time with their friends, so a reward option might include social time on their phone. Fligrid is a great option for kids to use to keep in touch.  Learn about it here.

Help children process emotions.

Everyone is experiencing some level of anxiety and fear right now.  Be sure to build in time to address feelings.

  • Writing is one of the best ways anyone can tap into and address emotions. Most children can write openly about what they are feeling or experiencing, but if a child is especially anxious, writing a story about someone else and speculating on what that person might be feeling can help.  I included some sites that provide other ideas on the resources page.

Limited/no access to online tools

What if you do not have enough devices or Internet to use any of the online sites and tools?

  • Contact your child’s school. Schools are working hard to put plans together for all students, including students who do not have access to devices.

Resources List

Don’t get overwhelmed; there’s a lot here!  My goal was to create a one-stop resource that you can come back to as needed.

Processing emotions

Information on emotional development by age groups:

Helping younger students process emotions:

Using writing to process emotions:

Activities for processing emotions:

Sites to get kids moving

Fun short activities aimed at elementary kids, but fun for kids of all ages:

Lots of virtual dance parties on Youtube.  Here’s one:

For younger students:

Sites for English language arts

For younger students:   Streams videos featuring celebrated actors reading children’s books alongside creatively produced illustrations.

For all age groups:

Access books through local library apps and

For older students:

Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle’s lesson ideas for secondary students:

Not sure what’s important to do to help students in grades 6-12 with reading? 

Podcasts and storytelling

26 Best Podcasts for all age groups:

Authors reading aloud online:

For older students:

Storytelling, all topics:

True scary stories (14+) 

Sites for all subjects

Game learning:  recommended for 8-13

Social studies

For younger students:

For older students:  20+ resources

Also, please note many sites like Newsela and Readworks include social studies texts.


For younger students:

Science Mom shares videos:

For older students:  and


64 websites:

Sites for art  mostly elementary  Use sketchnoting to learn content and respond to reading.


Enjoy exploring these amazing resources with your children!





Ask any ELA teacher to tell you some of the main challenges of the job, and a likely answer is keeping up with responding to student writing.  It’s a laborious task, yet we know it’s a significant part of helping student writers.  In fact, no writer improves without two things: lots and lots of practice, and helpful feedback.

Yet a secondary teacher who has anywhere from 100 to 180 students cannot provide as much effective feedback as they would like to provide.  So many of us turn to peer feedback to help.

From my experience, peer feedback works best when students are with writing partners/groups for a chunk of time.  Building trust must happen before students can provide good feedback, and more importantly, before they will accept feedback from other students.

Just like any other structure, the success of peer feedback rests on clear expectations and modeling of both the “right” and “wrong” way.  The first time I expect students to provide feedback in a school year, I like to ask volunteers to fishbowl an example. I pull the volunteers into the hall while I ask the remaining students to work with their groups to create descriptions of what they expect a good peer conference to look like.  I work quickly with the volunteer group to create a brief example of a bad conference.  Honestly, it usually goes beyond bad to truly terrible!

As you might guess, this fishbowl results in a lot of laughs, but it also creates an entry point to talk about negative behaviors.  After the laughs subside, we debrief and create a list of all the bad behaviors and a class chart of what should happen instead.

Then it’s time to practice.  Like with any other practice, I walk the room, listening in on groups and making notes of points and behaviors to highlight.  Students love to be highlighted in positive ways, and I reinforce my expectations through these positive highlights – a win-win!

In addition to behavior expectations, I also use protocols to provide structure and language so all students can find success.

Here are a few of my favorite protocols.

Best Line and Three Questions:  Peers find a “best line” in the piece, and they share why they chose this line in discussion.  Then they ask three genuine questions.  Students may need a mini-lesson on generating helpful questions, and all students will need you to model this protocol, maybe several times, before they will be able to do it well.

If students are not quite ready for Best Line, perhaps start with this sentence stem protocol: I noticed (positive) . . . , and as a reader, I would like . . . .

PQP – Praise, Question, Polish: This protocol is widely used, and you can find many versions online.  This works well with older or more experienced students.  Most teachers provide a few sentence stems for each of the three feedback categories, so I listed some below.

Praise:  Identify the strengths of the piece.

  • “My favorite part is … because …”
  • “… was effective because …”
  • “You were really clear about …”
  • “As a reader, I particularly enjoyed …”

Question:  Dig into both the structure and the content of the piece.  Cross reference the writing with the assignment and/or rubric.

  • “Could you help me to see … better?”
  • “Would you consider adding (taking out, changing) … in order to …?”
  •  “What if you moved this word or phrase? (Provide thinking for the move.)
  • “I’m not sure I understand this part clearly; (then provide specific question)”

Polish:  Look at the “big picture” to consider the writing as a whole.  What should the writer focus his/her attention on to add the final touches to the piece?

  • Have you considered …?
  • Could you add more to … in order to …?
  • What do you want your readers to think, do, or believe when they are finished reading your piece?
  • If you made this structural revision [define], your readers would ….

For younger students, use My Turn, Your Turn. You model a specific feedback statement, like a “best line” that includes figurative language, and then instruct all students to find a best line with figurative language.  Be sure to model with academic language.

There are many, many protocols to help you guide students as they provide peer feedback, and in helping each other, they become critical readers and develop strong “read like a writer” skills.  Done well, days spent providing peer feedback are powerful learning days!



It’s that time of year — the dreaded preparation time for state assessments!

Over my career, many folks told me “Just don’t worry about it.”  The reality for a classroom teacher is we have an obligation to our students, to their parents/guardians, and to the other stakeholders of our communities to do what we can to prepare students both academically and emotionally.

I am a parent and a community stakeholder, too, you see, and as such, I support measures for reducing the number of tests, I participate in writing and evaluating assessment questions, and I advocate for kids always.  But if students will be tested, I will help them prepare.

Although most tests are a combination of reading and writing (and a few other topics), I am going to zoom in on writing for this post.

In recent years, as we approached review time, I would lead a book chat on the Divergent. Most of my students have read the series, but there were always a few who were not familiar with the story.  Then students would line up and draw for their “faction,” an idea I stole from colleague Mindy Bishop years ago.  Throughout test review time, usually two weeks, students sat with their factions, and each day, I presented the factions a challenge.  Often students had to work individually on the task first, but I built in a collaborative element to each challenge. As a team, the factions scored points every day.  (These were not grades or points for the gradebook.)  Setting up the review in this way made it fun, and honestly, the students put more effort that usual into each task.

I recently heard from Mindy, and here’s her new spin on making assessment review fun: “I called it March MAP Madness.  The kids were different college basketball teams from the tournament, and the different MAP prep activities scored them points for their teams.  It was a huge hit with the kids.  The championship team from each hour “won” a pizza lunch with me.  They worked so hard to be the winner.  I just love middle schoolers!”

To review for an on-demand writing assessment, I usually start with prompt analysis.  If students cannot determine exactly what they are being asked to do, they cannot be successful. Some questions for prompt analysis include the following:

  1.  What exactly is the prompt asking me to address in my answer?
  2.  How many tasks are listed in the prompt?
  3.  In what format should the answer be?
  4.  How should I support my answer?
  5.  How will my answer be evaluated?
  6.  What process should I go through to accomplish this writing task?

While I model with a true prompt, one way to add fun is to ask students to devise silly, overly complicated prompts.  Then they trade, do a prompt analysis, and share their results with the class.  Be ready to laugh during the sharing part!

Next, I remind students not to skip prewriting. For most of us, the most difficult part of writing is simply gathering ideas and starting.  Students can go into all-out panic mode just looking at the blank writing space!  If you have been utilizing strategies such as Writing into the Day with quickwrites, your students only need a gentle reminder of tools in their toolbox, such as

  • Quickwrite strategies for prewriting
  • Protocols and reading strategies to approach prompts and articles
  • Habits of mind to “enter the conversation” and to think about all perspectives

For tests, I think the most powerful strategy is the writing sprint.  If students have practiced writing quickly from a word, picture, or simple prompt, they can utilize this strategy to get their thoughts started on the topic, and the simple act of stream-of-consciousness writing may calm their nerves.

As a way to practice without simply asking each student to write an essay, I often ask students to spend 10-20 quiet minutes writing ideas for answering a prompt, followed by time to share and discuss.  Then students collaborate on an outline or draft, depending on time.  Another approach is to ask everyone to write a quick draft, and then the group creates one draft, incorporating parts from everyone’s quick draft.  The real benefit to these strategies is the conversation and negotiations the students have with each other as they work together.

Another activity I used many times was to provide students with student essays I had saved from previous years. Students highlighted parts they felt were successful in one color and unsuccessful in another color.  Then they wrote feedback based on the checklist and/or rubric that would be used for the assessment. Usually the students were more critical than I was when I provided feedback!

If you need practice prompts, I have written two Missouri examples and linked them here:

The MAP prompt is argumentative.  (In Missouri, the EOC is a high school assessment, and the MAP is a middle school assessment.)

An important point to note is that some students need strategies for calming anxiety even after you have provided them with all they need to be successful.  I found that having a conference to talk through the strategies students might use to calm the anxiety was worthwhile.  It didn’t take away the anxiety, but the students knew I supported them and would be pulling for them on test day, and that’s worth something.

Want more ideas?  See this work from the Plymouth Writing Project!

Good luck to everyone, teachers and students alike!

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“It must be a piece of writing which, even if someone else reads it, doesn’t send any ripples back to you. It is like writing something and putting it in a bottle in the sea. . . . Freewritings help you by providing no feedback at all. ” Peter Elbow, 1973

“A quickwrite is a first draft response to a short piece of writing . . . . This is writing to find writing, but using someone else’s words to stimulate their thinking.”  Linda Rief, 2018


Now comes the fun part – gathering ideas for writing!

Every writer can struggle to get started.  Sometimes our commitments demand all of our attention.  Sometimes our worries crowd out every other idea or thought.  For many of us, our inner critic smashes down every inkling of an idea before it blossoms.

If all writers struggle, how does a teacher get a classroom full of students to write at the same time ?  Quickwriting!

I first learned of this concept from Peter Elbow’s work.  I was a new teacher at the time, and Elbow’s “freewriting” not only made sense for use with my students, but also helped me with my own writing through college.  Freewriting as Elbow defines it is writing without stopping for a designated length of time.  Then the writer chooses an idea from the freewriting and writes again. The goal is to keep going no matter what, even if you repeat a word or phrase over and over until a new idea comes.

In recent years, I’ve heard educators use terms such as “writing sprints” or “quickwrites.” Writing sprints increased in popularity alongside NaNoWiMo’s climb into the education world, and writers can even join a writing community of sprinters through Twitter ( See @NaNoWordSprints )Linda Rief uses the term quickwrite to combine mentor text models with writing ideas quickly as she described in her book The Quickwrite Handbook: 100 Mentor Texts to Jumpstart Your Students’ Thinking and Writing.  Lots of educators, including me, use the term “quickwrite” to refer to a variation of freewriting and writing sprints.

All variations of a quickwrite have a few key qualities in common.  They all

  • Increase the amount writing in the classroom
  • Help the writer focus on ideas without critique, either by an inner voice or the teacher
  • Increase fluency over time
  • Help writers of all ages find success, even enjoyment, in writing
  • Utilize little class time
  • Provide starting points for writing conferences

For our flash fiction unit, I used a variation that focuses the writer on brainstorming for a particular writing task.  Although I altered the quickwrite prompt each year, here is an example:

Choose one of the following settings (or one of your own) and build the picture by focusing on imagery:  What do you see? hear? smell? feel? taste?

  • a real or imagined classroom
  • night time in a woods (or city!)
  • a childhood bedroom
  • distant relative’s house
  • an abandoned car on an embankment of a stream
  • a setting of your choosing

My classroom routine for quickwrites looks like this:

  • After I share the prompt and students have written the date in the quickwrites section of their notebook, students have a couple of quiet minutes for thinking. Then everyone, including me, writes for three minutes without stopping.  I volley between writing and “kidwatching” to notice who might be struggling or to note someone to give a shout out to for their work.
  • I quietly tell students when they have 30 seconds remaining. At the end of 30 seconds, I ask students to stop without finishing the sentence they are working on.  If they know they want to come back to this piece, they can put ellipses.
  • Everyone tallies their word count and writes it in the margin next to today’s quickwrite. I ask students to give me a thumbs up if their word count is at least 5 more words than their previous word count, a “thumbs to the side” if their word count is plus or minus 5 words, and a thumbs down if their word count is 5 or more fewer words than their previous word count. I make it clear that everyone is working on fluency at his or her own pace.
  • Depending upon the goals for the day’s lesson, students might do a two-minute share with a shoulder partner, a few whole-group show of hands for who wrote to which choice, or a whole-group workshop session if a writer wanted to share his or her piece to get advice for next steps.

This routine is something I introduced every year, no matter which grade level I was teaching that year,  in the first few days of school, and the classes practiced with high-engagement prompts until everyone knew the routine.

Yes, there were usually students who tried to avoid writing by writing “I don’t know what to write” over and over for the full three minutes, but that often stopped without my intervention.  Students quickly realized how boring it was to write the same thing over and over, or they realized all writing was celebrated and none of it was perfect.  If we were a week into the routine and the avoidance behaviors were still in place, it was time for a one-on-one conference to find out why and to do what I could to take away the student’s fear of writing.

For this assignment, I often chose a whole-group show of hands to get a sense of which settings appealed to each class, and then students shared with a writing partner. The partner’s job was to ask questions so the writer could continue to think about how the setting could be developed. We spent about 10 minutes of partner time, so this lesson was not a whole class period.

Next, students go back to a mentor text to read like a writer with a purpose.


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!


My long-time mentor, Maridella Carter, invited me to participate in the Greater Kansas City Writing Project’s Summer Institute over and over.  She knew I would love the experience, but life kept interfering.  Finally, one summer, I could commit.

She was right; not only did I love the experience, but it was the BEST graduate class/professional development of my career, and I write these words with no exaggeration.

The SI, as it is known, is hard to describe because the experience provides each person what he/she needs.   This is in part because of the goals of the Writing Project, which builds and sustains a professional community by valuing the individual strengths and passions of each teacher.

The SI begins each participant’s journey into this professional community.

During the SI, teachers do the same work they ask of students:  They read, discuss, question, develop inquiry workshops, and write, write, write.

You might think teachers are overflowing with confidence, especially about their writing skills, but most adults are wary, even afraid, to share their writing.  Yes, even English teachers.  Maybe especially English teachers.  After all, we savor the words of the most gifted writers in the world daily. To work past this elemental fear, participants are placed in supportive writing communities in true workshop fashion.

One day during my SI experience, I listened to person after person share their literary luncheon pieces. These are not pieces writers spend weeks and weeks perfecting.  Even so, as each person read, I was caught up in the story, and all the words, phrases, sentences, and so on, seemed perfect. Not good; perfect.  Perfect because the writing matched the purpose, to share the writer’s story.  These pieces were not judged by a rubric, graded for specific traits, edited for grammar, usage, and mechanics.

They were judged by reflective smiles, out-loud laughter, occasional head-nods, and wiping of tears.

It suddenly occurred to me that I should not write any differently than I do.  I will keep practicing and improving, and I will never write as well as the writers I love to read, but that will not stop me from writing.  What a freeing thought!  I decided critical voices will always cut through my words, but unless those voices reflect purposeful, encouraging guidance, they should be ignored.  I left the experience saying in addition to all the content, skills, and connections I gained, it was like I had been to teacher therapy!

My teaching changed after this experience.  I was embraced by a strong community of professionals who encouraged my pursuit of personal inquiry.  I had also broken free of many insecurities I had about writing, which led to a more authentic writing workshop structure in my classroom.  This experience also helped me understand why some teachers resist implementing workshop in their classrooms.  It’s difficult to implement something you have never experienced.

I stayed involved with The Greater Kansas City Writing Project, which provides various opportunities for continued growth and support from this professional community. This summer, I served as the SI co-facilitator, and in the fall, I took on the role of PD Coordinator.  (Let me know if your district is interested in scheduling PD through the GKCWP.)

My only regret is not participating earlier in my career; don’t make the same mistake!

If you would like to get involved in the National Writing Project, go to and search for your local site.  If you are in the Kansas City area, email me at  You won’t regret it.


This is a piece Linda wrote for the summer institute in the Greater Kansas City Writing Project.  Participants wrote about food that is important to them in some way.  Some of the participants had nicknamed Linda Wonder Woman during the SI.


Before my mother discovered she could communicate important family information by texting all nine of her children at the same time, we relayed information in a haphazard way that was more like playing telephone than a pipeline of accurate information.

Patrick:  Two weeks ago mom told me to tell you Barbara’s cat pooped or something.  I can’t really remember what was important about that.

Me: Why would I care if Barbara’s cat pooped?

Patrick:  I don’t know – call Mom!  She’s the one who told me to tell you.

(The real message, Barbara’s cat died, and I looked like the uncaring big sister who didn’t say anything because the message I received was weeks late and about poop.)

On June 5th, I got the message on time:  My dad’s brother Jim had died.

Some time ago my cousin Kelli labeled the generations in our family.  Our grandparents were the G1s, our parents were the G2s, we were the G3s and so on.  The labels were helpful at family gatherings to get people organized for pictures or to indicate who was supposed to go through the food line first.  Uncle Jim was the first G2 in our immediate family to die.

This past weekend, the family held a memorial in my hometown, which was Jim’s hometown, and my grandfather’s hometown.  (In fact, my relatives settled in the area around 1823, and we are related to Daniel Boone, but that’s another story.)  This memorial was as much about sharing our oral history as it was about grieving our loss, so Saturday the G2s, 3s, and 4s gathered on my aunt’s giant deck while the younger G4s and G5s ran and played and reconnected.

Do you remember when Jim and Dan tried to drive over a giant snow pile and ended up stuck on top with the wheels still spinning?

Remember how Jim would make all the kids get up at 6:00 AM on vacation at the lake because that’s when the “water was glass”?

Stories buzzed all around, and I couldn’t settle myself into any one of them for very long. Along with all the action stories were stories about food.

I was always told that since I was the youngest, I had to pick through the cherries that had fallen rather than climb the tree or get on the ladder.  But do you remember how good those pies were – the cherries went straight from the tree into a pie.

My favorite was Grandma’s orange bundt cake.  I still think about that cake when I eat an orange.

Remember when Mom made us eat potato soup for a week so we could donate money to help those in need? I still love homemade potato soup!

On my drive home, I wondered, what food would my children connect to their childhood? I often feel guilty for not giving them the same kind of childhood I experienced, and not having time to make all the food, especially baked goods, is part of that guilt.

Mea culpa, my children.

So I asked.  The answer – black eye pea dip.

But that is so easy to make; it doesn’t even require a recipe! That’s not a signature dish, and it’s certainly doesn’t warrant Wonder Woman status! 

I pushed.  “Surely there’s something else.  Chicken Madeira, perhaps?  Caramel pecan rolls?  Scones?”

Kelsey answered, “No. You always make black eye pea dip at the lake, and when you bring it out, everyone immediately flocks to you. Then we all sit around telling stories about who got up on the wakeboard for the first time that day, or how Brice almost killed me, Emily, Hannah, and Anna trying to throw us off the tubes, or how Robert caught a snake by throwing an empty Huggies box on top of it that one time!  The lake is like my second home.”

Then her eyes and voice softened, “And black eye pea dip always reminds me of family.”


Wonder Woman worthy after all.












After students practice reading like a writer to create anchor charts for elements of flash fiction,  it’s time to apply their learning to new texts.  Again, I like providing several text selections so students have choice, but this time, I give students a very brief text chat, a shorter version of a book talk, and let them come to the table and choose the story they want to read.  I am sure to include information on text complexity, such as a setting that flashes back and forth in time.  Sometimes this challenges students to try a more complex text; other times students choose a safe, easier text structure.  Regardless of their choices, all students hear information about text complexity in an authentic way, and over time, they start to articulate ways in which a text is complex, too.

As students settle in to their text selections, I instruct them to annotate for the elements on our class anchor chart. Some sample questions to focus their work might include the following:

  • Which elements are present in this new text?
  • How effectively does this author use each element in comparison to your previous text?
  • What new information do you notice with this text?

This is an excellent time to walk around with a clipboard and make notes of students who seem to be struggling or who have naïve misconceptions about the elements or structure of fiction.  During independent work time, I ask these students to join an invitational group to review and to shore up their understanding.

When they have finished reading and annotating, students discuss their findings with their table group. (If you have enough time, students could meet with other students who read the same text to discuss first. If the stories are good, students will want to talk about them!) They each share what they noticed with their new text, and as a group, they decide whether anything should be added, changed, or deleted from the anchor chart.

Why do I spend a whole extra class period reading a second text and continuing work on an anchor chart?

The first day students bring their schema to the task, and until they have time to discuss, they do not have new learning.   By the time they read the second text, most have added at least one or two new ideas or more complex ways of looking at structure to their schema, so their experience reading the second text is richer.  Some will hear the same information a second time, but their understanding of that information is clearer and potentially more nuanced.

In the next blog post, students deepen their understanding of these structural elements again as they begin to apply their learning in writing.




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?