My continuing troubled relationship with poetry


“A Sober Poetry Reading at Brickbat 09” by Jeremy Tenenbaum. Used under CC license.

April is National Poetry Month.  The only significance to this post is that I remembered that last night and found myself falling down one of my favorite YouTube rabbit holes–spoken word poetry.  Otherwise, that’s about it.

Okay, not entirely.  After finally shutting my computer down, I picked up my notebook and began scribbling some verse, which is something I don’t do very often.  I consciously stopped writing poems in college when I realized that I was really aping my professor’s style so I’d get an A and even then, the poetry wasn’t particularly great.  But I will admit that every once in a while, I jam one out in the notebook because it’s a way for me to write something personal that isn’t about pop culture or isn’t about teaching.  It’s also nothing that will see the light of day unless you bug me enough (although funny enough, I threw one into an “anonymous poetry” assignment last December, so my 10 advanced class read one of my poems aloud without knowing it).  And I will admit that watching poetry being read or recited makes me want to get behind a mic and do it, although then I realize that despite my current job I have a low threshold for embarrassment.

Anyway, the other reason that I had been finding it hard to write poetry (and honestly some more personal types of essays while we’re at it) is that when I look at the poetry I have written over the now many years, I see that many of my topics were well-suited to someone who is in their formative years and not on the brink of middle age.  Granted, I probably have the maturity of a 15-year-old at times (and some of the people in my life have seen me demonstrate this in spades), but writing poetry about having crushes on girls when you’re 39 is kind of weird.  However, I don’t know how ready I am to go down the road of saying that the woods are lovely, dark, and deep and all that.

At a glance, poetry really seems to fit those who are young or those who are old because they either have the fire and passion that comes with inexperience or they have the flicker of a long-used candle.  And I never actually thought that there would be a point where I felt that I had lost my voice.  I mean, despite all of the business and stress in my life, I still find time to write and some of those blog entries and podcast episodes get personal, but even then it’s personal reflection within the context of nostalgia.  So I’m not actually getting personal so much as sharing personal memories.

I’ve tried to remedy some of this by finding inspiration in reading a variety of poetry.  I enjoy the passion and the idealism found in a Brave New Voices or Button Poetry video, but I also enjoy the simplicity and wit found in a poem by Billy Collins or Ted Kooser.  Still, I don’t know if anyone one will find it inspiring or even interesting if I wrote about a life of suburban domestication.  Do these lines inspire you?:

I make sure to wash my hands
after pouring bleach
into the washing machine.
This is my favorite T-shirt
and I don’t want to ruin it.

Yeah, not exactly.

All this, however, begs the question with which I am going to close this post.  Does poetry … does writing have to come from a source that appears “interesting”?  Can the mudane, the everyday be inspiring?  Have thousands of “writer types” in undergrad and MFA progams who flock to readings with the pretense of “being deep” ruined the act of writing for those who don’t fit their mold?

Maybe I’ll write about that.


I Hear Your Voice, But Your Argument is Wrong

04 - Hack your high school

Prompt by John Spencer.

Next month, my advanced English class will take on their annual research project. In the past, we’ve had debates on issues important to them or they have researched the history behind a famous photograph, but last year (and this year), I have changed things up and started things off with a visual prompt that I swiped from John Spencer: Hack Your High School. List five things you could change about your school. We begin by listing what they came up with and then have an open discussion about it before moving on to the actual project.

That project is a collaborative presentation. A group chooses a topic, identifies the problem, and generates a viable solution. The research comes as part of finding proof of the problem and testing that solution’s viability, something that I emphasize in a brief lecture on how problem/solution presentation works: you have to not only identify the problem, but its cause, see who has the power to change things, and not only come up with a solution but consider as many logistical or cultural issues that may arise during the implementation process. I also note that one of my biggest pet peeves was people who either complain for the sake of complaining or offer a solution that is nothing more than a platitude or wishful thinking.

The presentations are graded on content as well as aesthetic. After all, good information can fall completely flat or get ignored when the audience is bored out of its skull (all teachers have experience with this). I give some recommendations–make sure that you and not the slide are the focus of the presentation, don’t just stand in front of the class and read bullet points, and make sure your slides can be and you can be heard from the back of the room. From there, I said they can do whatever they wanted, but with the knowledge that I would be asking questions after every presentation (and if all goes well this year, I might have an administrator or other teacher to make comments as well). We’ve been in the class together for 3/4ths of the year so far, so that last item is not to be taken lightly and they know it.

Last year’s presentations were solid and there was some real enthusiasm throughout the class, and I am hoping for some of the same this year. In looking back, though, I know that I need to work with my class on creating a polished presentation as well as refining some of their arguemnts. Still, in my first shot at this last year, I was impressed by a few things and have really come to see the benefit of a project like this.

1. Students gain an understanding of logistics. Last year, among the popular topics was being able to customize one’s class schedule more as well as more funding for the arts and non-sports activities, better school lunches, and solving our growing overcrowding problem. When offering solutions, many groups knew what could or should be done, but had a hard time working through logistical or financial roadblocks. It seemed that one solution put in place caused another problem or that “doing more with less” was not always easy. Some were frustrated; some saw a pathway via incremental solutions instead of focusing on the big picture.

2. Students want to be proud of their school. The idea behind this project is not “This place sucks. How do we fix it?” It’s more of trying to optimize what is provided for us and improving things for the future. A few students tackled issues such as sanitation and building construction and I specifically wanted them to come up with solutions that didn’t involve knocking the building down and starting over. In other words: can you work within the existing system to enact the change that will benefit you and future students?

To say that a place is terrible or a system is broken without really analyzing the hows and whys is a nice political tactic that will get you noticed (or even elected) but is ultimately a cop-out. Thinking within the system forces the class to thinkin more thoroughly about the school and their place in it. While some fo my class’s arguments last year came from a place of frustration, there wasn’t much throwing up of hands. In fact, a number of them genuinely wanted to improve the place and tried to find a way to focus their energy for the better.

3. The research is more solid. It shouldn’t be assumed that for a project like this, there is going to be more quality of research, but when I did this last year, there was. And I am not going to fling edubabble like ownership of learning or authentic audience at you. What I will say is that I think the research was better because as they looked at their topics, students narrowed them down to a specific process, and a specific process that is very common–after all, problem/solution was the process for just about every business proposal I ever helped write during my marketing days–and the topics were very localized. Getting the information needed could not all be done online. Some students had to interview teachers and administrators as well as students and many did field research of sorts by taking pictures. This provided more thorough information and actually made for better presentations.

4. Student voice is not all for one, one for all. Having been a publications adviser, I am a strong advocate for students having a voice. But I have found an odd sense of elitism within the #stuvoice conversations I have seen. Then again, I apparently misinterpreted the purpose of #stuvoice years ago when I wondered if they stood for everyone.

So the problem is obviously me.

Anyway, when some of the issues that my students were concerned about were brought up in a whole-class discussion last year, especially when it came to things like schduling, a number of students seemed tob e very dismissive of those who they perceived as “less than.” In fact, I actually wound up stepping in at one point and saying that they may not think that the students who, according to them, “don’t care about this place” matter, but the school serves everyone, so the solution that is generated must work for everyone as much as possible. I don’t know if I changed any minds, but I did want to point out that you canot solve a problem larger than yourself if you are in your own bubble.

5. Empowering students to use their voice isn’t enough. There was only one point last year where I found myself frustrated and arguing with a group. Their topic was parking and they were arguing that because the rules of parking passes are not always enforced, students should not have to pay for parking passes. It is unfair, it was argued, that students who did not pay and do not have a hang tag were not getting in trouble, which was a very fair and valid argument. However, I had one question: at 150 spaces and $25 per parking pass, the school makes $3750. If parking passes were done away with (or were free), how does the school make up the loss of that $3750?

This had not been addressed in the presentation and I honestly thought it was a legitimate question because very often schools are on a tight budget and that money goes to a general fund that pays for various amenities. Plus, $3750 is not a small amount of money.

However, the responses were all about how it was unfair how people who didn’t pay for parking were parking illegally, and I heard that so many times that I had to stop the discussion and not only restate my question, but make the point that regardless of whether or not students are parking illegally, the school is still making money because the pasess are prepaid and always sell out. In other words, you need to listen to the question being asked instead of claiming that life is unfair.

Which is really what it comes to, when you think of it. Truly empowering student voice is not just giving them a chance to say something, but helping them refine how they say it. Because if we want them to feel that they are being heard, they need to make sure they are speaking clearly when we’re listening.

In defense of a notebook


This is my writer’s notebook. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

I was trawling eduTwitter recently and came upon someone’s tweet where they were talking about writer’s notebooks and how introducing students to “digital notebooks” might “breathe life” into the old process.  I have to admit that I was a little confused when I read it because I didn’t realize that the idea of a writer’s notebook needed life breathed into it.  Then again, I have been keeping spiral-bound writer’s notebooks for more than 20 years, so maybe my habits as a writer are not a good guide.  After all, I haven’t had enough legitimately published to actually be considered a writer, and a very powerful and experienced Connected Educator Thought Leader did once write, “The unspoken truth about teaching writing in schools is that few people doing so are published writers themselves,” so I am pretty irrelevant.

But let’s just assume for a moment that the ideas I have about writing are actually worth considering.  I mean, they aren’t–I checked my blog stats recently and seven people read my last post, so I am the furthest thing from a Thought Leader–but indulge me for a moment, if you will.  I see what the person I paraphrased in my opening sentences was saying:  this generation of students feels more comfortable with a screen instead of a piece of paper, so digital notebooks are the way to go.  I don’t see how digitizing a writer’s notebook will be a solution to any perceived problem in students’ writing; if anything, that is a very #edtech solution or strategy, like giving Malibu Stacy a new hat.

The issue with writer’s notebooks in English class is not the method by which they are kept; it’s the logistics involved in keeping them at all.  I started keeping a writer’s notebook in my creative writing class as a high school senior and what that helped me realize was the value of habitual writing.  Yes, the notebooks were checked for journal grades at the end of the quarter, but I wound up writing way beyond that because Mrs. Taber had more or less instilled within me that this was a place for a free flow of ideas that wasn’t being questioned, judged, or assessed.  Full disclosure, though: I was an honors student and you didn’t need to convince or bribe me in order to get me to do my work.

Which, by the way, is where the first problem lies.  When we seek to make habitual writers out of our students through notebooks, we have to acknowledge where we start and that may be with the following:

  • students who don’t even own a notebook or bring it to class
  • students who bring their notebooks to class but do absolutely nothing when it comes time to write
  • students who immediately ask, “Do we have to hand this in?” and don’t do anything when you say, “No.”
  • students who will do the assignment but will half-ass it because it’s not for an immediate grade.
  • students who take that time to socialize, text, play games, or go to the bathroom.


This, of course, sounds like I am blaming students for all of my faults and that I am hurting children by my very presence, but I list those to illustrate why teachers seem dismissive when it comes to student writing or how they may end up defaulting to a canned assignment instead of a more creative, free-writing environment.  It’s born of frustration, and often of frustration that is amplified because it’s multiplied 100 times.

And let’s be honest, notebook checks can be very time consuming and may or may not be helpful.  If I assign points and grades to “what’s in the notebook,” I am continuing the ritual of Pavlovian grading.  If I don’t grade on quality, I am giving students the impression that this is busy work and not worth their time.

But how does one get better at writing if they’re not … writing?  And how do I, as a 10th grade English teacher, approach undoing what might be years of bad habits and expectations when it comes to writing, like length requirements, sentences per paragraph, and all of the other nitpicks that teacher drove into their heads in the name of “good writing” and “proper English”?  And is a digital notebook really the solution to this?

I happen to work in a building where technology is a crap shoot.  It may not always be available and when it is there may not be enough to go around or something might go belly-up to prevent its proper use.  Add to that user/student issues–they can’t remember their account passwords or never learned how to actually work a particular application because everyone assumed they were digital natives or something.  And while we’re working to improve this, there are still people in my own district who are not aware of the problems.  No joke–I had a conversation with a teacher from another school who was genuinely surprised that we weren’t a 1:1 school.  So a digital notebook that you’d use every day?  Not really.

As I said up top, I don’t see how keeping a notebook digitally “breathes life” into anything.  In fact, I think it would kill it.  The average blog post takes me a ridiculous amount of time to write when I am writing online because I am constantly distr–

I’m sorry, there was a Twitter notification.  Where was I five minutes ago?

I encourage paper notebooks because of the silence and the solitude.  It may be hard for a teenager to slow themselves down and focus on one task that doesn’t have a lot of noise for a few minutes, but that can prove beneficial, and the permanence of the ink on the page as a draft allows for more ownership than something typed.  The notebook is where everything is rough, where things nobody was meant to see dwell, and where the seeds for better, more complete works are planted.  It’s a device that doesn’t need anything for it to work and if we’re going to push this idea of comfort and choice and freedom, we shouldn’t push technology that can actually in an ironic way be constraining because it’s tied to a particular application or infrastructure that may not always be there.  I know this isn’t an innovative thought and therefore it’s invalid, but in the last twenty years, I have flipped through old notebooks more than I have accessed old files on a hard drive.  In some cases, I’ve laughed at how badly I was writing when I was 18 or 19; in other cases, I’ve revisited poetry or essays that I drafted and forgot about a decade ago.

There was never a need to “breathe life” into a writer’s notebook with something new and shiny in the way a pill will solve a problem that a change in diet would actually solve.  Yes, we should embrace the way technology and how our students interact with the world has changed as a result.  But that doesn’t mean pandering, and it certainly doesn’t mean throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

But hey, I’m not a published writer myself, so what do I know?

Short But Sweet: “Scissors”

Ever sigh and say, “I wish I could teach poetry but I … a) can’t find anything good, or b) don’t have the time.”? This occasional series of posts will focus on specific poems that I like and have even used that I find to be both engaging and amazing.

A few weeks ago, I had a sub, and I needed something for my advanced English class to do.  We had been discussing some poetry, so I made a packet out of several poems with some questions.  I know that a worksheet attached to reading is fairly sacreligious these days, but it was a sub plan and these were questions I probably would have used in a discussion anyway.

So one of the poems that I used was a poem by Sarah Kay called “Scissors.”  It’s from her 2014 collection No Matter the Wreckage and goes as such:



When we moved in together,
I noticed–

You keep your scissors in the knife drawer.
I keep mine with the string and tape.

We both know how to hide our sharpest parts,
I just don’t always recognize my own weaponry.


That’s it.  The poem is six lines long.  How do you even analyze a poem that is only six lines long in a high school English class?  Poetry analysis is what you do to Whitman, Frost, Shelley, or Keats.  you work and you wind your way through “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey” or “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (the poem or the Iron Maiden song, take your pick), not six lines.

Yet here were my questions:

  1. Who is the “we” in the first line?
  2. Why is she comparing where they keep their scissors?
  3. What do the last two lines of the poem mean?
  4. How does this poem manage to be effective even though it’s only six lines long?

I have no idea if any of this is at all pedagogically sound, but I will say that I was at least trying to build up to that last question because it’s the big one:  how do you say so much with so little?

One thing that I usually emphasize when teaching poetry is word economy, and this is not an easy principle to grasp.  Very often, students are told to elaborate and write using greater detail because the writing curriculum is essay-focused. I have no problem with essays–if you read either of my blogs, that’s obvious–but at the same time, there is something to be said for the brevity that comes with writing a poem.  It’s ironic, in a sense, that the six lines of this poem are incredibly elaborate and provide a significant amount of vivid detail, so much so that I can see what the scissors mean and what happens to the couple she is describing.  This is a painful poem in a sense, one that cuts (pun intended) deep because of the way the reader can see those people as well as themselves.

So if we’re going to take this whole thing to its inevitable conclusion on the taxonomy of Bloom, we should ask our students to create six-line poems.  But is that easier said than done?  I mean, I’m sure that any teenager anywhere could crap out a six-line poem if they were asked to with the same lack of effort they use when asking me, “Can I write a haiku?” during a poetry writing assignment.  But I don’t want poetry that was crapped out.  Even if it’s not the best poem ever, I’d at least like to see some sort of effort put into a student’s poetry.

Perhaps–and this is probably going to blow your minds–you actually assign writing a poem that is longer than six lines and then the students have to edit the poem down to just those six lines?



Seriously, though … wouldn’t it be a great way to not only teach creative writing, but vocabulary, word meaning, grammar, usage, and mechanics?  By trimming off all of the fat and getting down to the words that really matter or really mean something, maybe we’ll not only teach how to refine writing but teach an appreciation for the language it uses.

Edusplain, Defined.

Urban Dictionary defines “Mansplain” as: to delight in condescending, inaccurate explanations delivered with rock solid confidence of rightness and that slimy certainty that of course he is right, because he is the man in the conversation.

So while I was writing the draft of last Monday’s entry, I found myself in one of those Twitter conversations that I sometimes find myself in because I happen to have an opinion or point that is slightly contrary to edutwitter groupthink.  It began when I responded to someone’s point about deadlines.  He had said*:

 I’m a grant writer. My papers are due at a certain time & there is no forgiveness.

I more or less agreed and replied:

I used to be a proposal writer.  Not getting it right meant no new business.

What followed was a quick back and forth that was less of a discussion of education theory and more of two people commiserating about professional experience and work situations.  I jokingly ended with “Oh God, I’m getting flashbacks” and went back to working on my draft.  Some time later, I opened Twitter and was greeted with a ton of notifications.  Someone else had decided to respond and they were tweets that quite a number of people thought were profound because even at least two days later, they were being retweeted.  Here are a few:

 if Thomas Edison were denied redo’s, would we still be in the dark?


We’re asking tchrs 2 really teach, not play, “gotcha,” then blame students when they fail.


“One and done,” rarely leads to effective instruction. Descrptv fdbk and revision needed.


It’s hw we learn to get things right & on time. Giving F’s doesn’t build self-discipline

I responded to such profound words with my usual brand of sarcasm:

It’s not worth arguing with tweets meant to display a person’s sense of superiority.


Gee, my experience as an editor never taught that feedback was important.  Thanks.

What this confirmed was that the person I’d been talking to had been doing what so many Connected Educators™ love to do, which is edusplain.  Building off the  definition provided at the beginning of this post, here is a definition:

Edusplain: to delight in condescending, platitude-filled explanations delivered with rock-solid confidence of rightness and certainty that he/she is right because of self-professed expertise based on years of experience or number of followers on social media.

Now, if you look at my tweets, I am coming off as a big baby, and it was noted as much in the conversation:

Tom, it seems I’ve offended you in some way, and sarcasm is your response. ‘Apologies.

And I honestly find that tweet funny because of the way it tries to downplay my voice simply because I’m being snarky and suggests that I may be offended in some way.  In other words, the response re: my sarcasm was an attempt to claim some sort of moral high ground.  I also find it funny because that person doesn’t seem to know the difference between offended and annoyed, because I was simply the latter.  And I personally think my tone was wholly appropriate because what was going ton wasn’t a conversation so much as it was someone tweeting bullshit at me for the sake of offering “advice” or “feedback” or “clarification” for the purpose of getting retweets and followers.  Is the point that descriptive feedback is necessary if students are going to learn and grow a good point?  Of course it is–anyone with half a brain will tell you that.  But look at the way those tweets were phrased.  They are the Twitter equivalent of a bumper sticker–you can drop them into a number of online conversations and the same sheep will retweet them.

Now don’t get me wrong, I would have loved to have had a solid conversation on the topic of feedback and retrying after failure, but the minute anyone starts edusplaining, I push back with snark because I frankly am tired of it and I want it to be called out more.  Edusplaining is what makes people like me who are “just teachers” feel increasingly irrelevant or make us not want to participate in whatever Connected Educator™ revolution that Connected Educators™ think they have launched.  The edusplaining drowns out the actual substance of education’s social media presence and needs to stop.  Stop tweeting nonsense, stop putting quotes in pictures, and stop being son condescending to anyone who might have a slightly different take on the world just because you have “decades of experience.”  Use the greatest communication tool of our time to actually communicate for once, not to continue to pump your ego.

*Names have been withheld to protect the innocent and not give credit to the guilty.




Forcing Myself to Do This

One of the odd things about 2015 for me was that I wrote quite a bit but if you look at my various blog stats, it looks like I barely wrote anything.  But my podcast episodes are scripted and I spent much of the fall semester writing papers fro graduate school, so that technically can be considered writing.  Still, 2015 didn’t feel productive and I’ve resolved in the new year to write more.

When it comes to Pop Culture Affidavit, this is no problem.  The reason I fell off on that blog in the last four  months was because of work and classes taking up most of my time, so being more proactive there is no problem.  This blog, however, is a problem.  At the end of 2013, I said I was done with blogging and then took the site down.  Then, some time later, I quietly relaunced it, thinking that maybe I still had something insightful to say.  But with the exception of maybe one or two posts since 2014, I have rarely, if ever, felt inspired to write in this space and it’s because of the same issues that I was having two years ago.

In short, I have a hard time believing that my voice matters when it comes to the discussion on education.  I actually said so much at one point while on Twitter and someone replied with a nice, patronizing “Every voice matters,” which basically confirmed my feelings.  I have nothing innovative to offer anyone, and at time when I have been the contrarian voice in a conversation, I have been accused of hating, oppressing, or abusing children; being part of the problem; or trying to “mainsplain” whatever it was we were talking about.  Why would I continue to want to try and contribute to a discussion that is essentially an echo chamber of ideals and hyperbolic optimism that is wildly disconnected from reality?

But the other thing I have discovered in recent weeks is that I need to write.  More specifically, I need to blog.  I think it goes back to when I had a column in college.  It wasn’t always the best quality writing, but it was a weekly writing assignment, and I remember feeling accomplished after wrapping it up in the spring of my senior year but then felt adrift afterward.  Sure, I wrote–a couple of manuscripts of questionable quality, for instance–but it wasn’t until I started blogging in 2001 and basically gave myself that assignment back that I felt that what I was writing was more tangible.  I guess you could say that it was the publishing that did it, but I think it actually was having the assignment.  The college journalist/columnist part of me was satisfied in being forced to find something to write about on a regular basis.

Nobody is going to give me an education column.  Granted, that’s probably a good thing because all edutwitter does is go out of its way to prove my irrelevance or use points I have for their auto-fellatio.  And this blog is never going to win an edublog award or a Bammy or make me a Thought Leader who gives keynote addresses.  Which is why I have a hard time wanting to write here.  So many times, I have great ideas (okay, what I think are great ideas), but nearly instantly, I find myself setting them aside because when I come up with them I hear every voice of every Connected Educator™ pointing out how that idea or thought is not only bad or wrong but is also the reason why the 19th Century Factory Model Conventional Schools are destroying the dreams, souls, and lives of children.  Then, I beat myself up for listening to that bullshit and letting it affect me the way it has.

But instead of staying quiet, I’m forcing myself to do this.  I am forcing myself to pick up the pen and have a voice.  Maybe my writing will feel like it has life again.

How do we help students through writer’s block?

Photo by Rennett Stowe.  Used under cc license

Photo by Rennett Stowe. Used under cc license

The second hardest semester of my college career was the spring semester of my junior year.  That was the semester where I took both creative writing: advanced fiction and writing for the stage and within a few weeks I was hit with a furious case of writer’s block.  Everything I came up with was utter crap and I struggled to put something together that I deemed worthy of being workshopped by peers and graded by my professor.  I eventually got a B+ in each of the classes, probably because I persevered, but I can’t say that I ever felt I earned it.

Looking back, I see that was the moment that i should have realized that my strength in writing was non-fiction prose, as I rarely if ever had a problem writing my weekly column in the student newspaper and even once resorted to the tried and true hack way of writing about writer’s block.  I have brought this up in my English classes on occasion when students are stuck because I want them to know I empathize–I have been there more than once.

Writer’s block can kill a developing writer’s motivation so easily that you as a teacher want to do everything you want to prevent those you teach from becoming even mildly frustrated.  You want to keep them constantly inspired to constantly reflect and share, and when you do that it is the only time you ever do your job the right way.  At least that’s what I’ve been led to believe.

Never mind, of course, that writing is about work and even the greatest writers hit walls, scrapped ideas, got frustrated, attempted to throw in the towel, and in some cases needed an even more capable editor to pull them out of whatever rut they’d dug themselves into.  Because as much as the inspiration maniacs will deny it, the reality of writing (and by extension, being a writer) can be harsh.

But as much as I think that persevering through a can be rewarding to a young writer, I don’t want to hang them out to dry because I want to help them see the reward that comes from such perseverance.  How do I as a teacher help combat writer’s block?

I’ve got five ideas.  They aren’t tested or proven using any sort of measurable data, nor are they comprehensive.  They are simply ideas.

1. Vary the assignment as much as you can. In teaching writing, you are working within a curriculum with a set of standards, so there are certain modes of writing you want your students to work on, especially if you also have the obligation of a state writing test in the spring.  But there is a difference between following standards and teaching to the test.  With the latter, you are feeding them state-provided writing prompts as practice all year.  With the former, you can have students generate their own topics to fit whatever you’re looking to cover.  They might enjoy it more.

2. Have a pile of backup prompts.  That being said, don’t throw out that state-provided list of prompts.  I have given students free reign on writing assignments before and while some absolutely love it, others completely freeze and actually wish they would be forced to write about something.  Before we start such writing assignments, my classes and I often do a whole class brainstorming session and I add what they come up with to a list I already have so if a student is stuck, i can offer suggestions.

3. Allow for conversation.  Sometimes, ideas come from having someone to talk to and “bounce ideas off of.”  Other times, what is in your head can’t seem to get to the page but you definitely can say what you mean.  It’s helpful to give young writers the time to talk out their ideas; heck, it’s helpful to give any writer the time to talk out his or her ideas.  I’m still learning how to do this with 28 students in the room without making it a cacophony for those who want peace and quiet, but I have encouraged students to talk to one another or to me and to take notes while doing so in order to jog things along, or to talk into their cell phones and record their thoughts (something I have done countless times with my MP3 recorder) out in the hall.

4. Limit distraction.  Yes, I work with music playing too, but I also write a number of drafts in longhand in a notebook because I find typing on a computer doubles my writing time due to the number of tabs I keep open.  Saying that my students should cut themselves off somewhat electronically does not make me an Innovative Educator, but one of the drawbacks of multitasking is that it makes it hard to get into the zone.  If you want to be productive there is a certain amount of self-discipline required.

5. Be the editor.  For the past couple of years, I have had seniors hand me draft copies of their personal statements for their college applications, asking me to “tear them apart.”  It’s because I murder their papers in sophomore English.  I don’t do this because I am sadistic; I do it because I have high standards.  What I also do is allow time for revision and rewriting.  Every paper that my students write is eligible for a rewrite for a higher grade, and when I give those paper back I try to be as clear with my comments as possible.  I also try and set deadlines that are reasonable so that we can both work well within them.  This does sound like a very traditional teacher role, but I see the back and forth with my students as more editorial than professional.  I can see wh

at they can’t and help them shape their pieces so they use their own strengths more often.

This is not a foolproof system, but I prefer it to being a taskmaster who constantly cracks the whip of assignments or a pollyanna who speaks nothing of rainbows, unicorns, gumdrops, and lollipops of inspiration.