Hesitant Writers


Did you read the post today on The Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project blog, Teacher to Teacher: Helping Students Write? It’s a great read with questions and suggestions to help writers who cry, “I don’t have anything to write about.”

I also read Karon LaBonte’s post “Composing vs “Digital Writing,” which explained her personal process of and struggles in writing with all the digital and analog possibilities. I commented on her personal process and we both agreed that it’s the “personal” part of writing that engages students, yet our classrooms may be so focused on the requirements of nonfiction writing and essays that we neglect this most important aspect.

Which is why I enjoyed the “Helping Students Write” post. Lynne Dorfman suggested questions and getting to know the student:

…what the student likes to read, who his favorite authors are, what he watches on television. I ask him about his interests and hobbies. I want to know who is important in his life. Sometimes, I will try to find out if he has written a story, poem, description, etc., that he felt really good about and would like to tell me about that piece.

I love how Lynne invites the writer to think about writing through questions that show how personal writing is– that it starts with what the writer knows, his or her interests and passions.

Especially important for hesitant writers (and those who do not regularly write at all) are the questions about writing outside of school, and the questions about their interests. I try to listen to these students in conversation with others to discover in their chatter the story of the shot s/he made at recess, or the planned trip to a basketball tournament, or the dog who chased away the cougar, or the new video game played. Anything that will allow me to ask a question so the student tells the story, which then can be written.

Once they are written, the feedback on what was written well is key to encouraging students to continue. The action, the strong verb, the precise noun, the dialogue. After a few successes, sharing with peers to offer the positive feedback to each other begins the journey of thinking like writers.

Once students begin identifying the good writing, the teacher starts suggesting using that good skill in more areas, or suggests a skill another writer has shared. After a few sessions of the “compliment sandwich” [compliment, suggestion, compliment], students can begin compliment sandwiches with each other. They become a community of writers.

Still, there are students whose only writing may be the texts in their chats. It’s true that I’ve found students with piles of composition notebooks filled with poetry, but who don’t write at school until that talent is tapped. But many times, I’ve students who just have never written as a choice.

Key to engaging those students is the process of writing about what they know. The relationship between teacher and student is key — the discovering of their interests is key. Listening to their stories from your discovered questions asked from learning about them is so important. Guiding them to write by jumping into their action with an event or dialogue also helps them start the writing. A person can have a story, have told a story, but starting the story can hold them back.

I ask them to freeze a portion of their story — take a snapshot. Whatever action is there becomes the focus — frozen, we begin describing the moment, get it down as if it is just happening using action verbs, second by second. Soon the moment is alive and the student has a first action memoir.

It is those few first stories, that show how writers write about what they know, that begin the development of confidence so that students can find their own story and voice in the days to come, and begin their journey as writer.

And I love when those at first hesitant writers become the models for others.

How do you engage the hesitant writers?



#DigiLitSunday Motivation



It’s pretty simple: we like to do want we want to do when we want to do it because we have a reason and we know we can do it.

If you have read any of Daniel Pink’s work, you will recognize his research shining through that statement:

“The secret to high performance and satisfaction—at work, at school, and at home—is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.”

“the three elements of true motivation—autonomy, mastery, and purpose”

Mastery means that you know you can do the task; you might struggle, but you know how to get there.

In writing class, help students see they can master the aspects of writing that is required of them. Do this by providing feedback first for what they are doing well. Find the strong verb and let them know. Point out the transition word that helps the reader. Indicate the specific nouns that paint the precise image in the reader’s mind. Whenever a student writes, there is something they are doing well. Acknowledge that first.

The second part of mastery is knowing you can get to the expectation. Feedback includes that acknowledgement of what was done well, and then a nudge of one or two things that would improve the writing. Ask a question about “How…” to get at the hidden action that needs to be clear.  Ask a question about what the character was thinking or feeling so the writer can build his character.  Their answers let them know what to add; and they know they can then.

Autonomy means choice– choice of which to improve, choice of tool, choice of genre, choice of topic.

Much of school requires nonfiction and essay writing, yet good nonfiction writing often includes narratives. Since everybody likes to share their stories, use narrative as the first genre to acknowledge good writing and strategies to improve it.

Students are constantly telling stories. As students enter a classroom, they are buzzing with stories from the moment in the hall or from the game last night.Time to write those stories is not an extra–it’s the starting point that they know how to do so they know they can master whatever goals they need.

Give them choices. Entry tasks, blogging options,  free writing, power writing, choice time.

Create project choices: Tuesday +Slice of Life, DigiWriMo [all year], Writing Menus.

Provide language prompts: Language is a Virus Prompts  New York Times Learning Network

It’s the play to begin. Let them choose paper or typing. Play with words and phrases. Play collaboratively as students each write the story from their perspective, then collaborate to improve. But most importantly, it’s what they know and can do. Peer and teacher feedback then indicate what was done well and one or two areas of question to improve. Shared Google Docs or Slides allow peers and teacher to add those feedback comments.

If students draft on paper first, do a “Gallery Walk.” Leave writing on the desk with a lined paper beside it. Students walk around silently, commenting on the blank paper to identify what they liked as good writing with the example and a question about an area of the writing piece.

Depending on the needs of the students, the tool used to write could be a choice; the genre [script, story, lyrics, poetry] could be a choice.

Finally, purpose. Finalize stories by taking out the personal information, tweaking the content for public viewing, and make those narratives part of the school culture of learning and sharing with the world.

Have a category on student blogs as “Slices of Our Lives” which can be searched and linked to for sharing in a kiosk during any event, added to parent newsletters, sent out in Remind or other parent notification platform. Encourage parent comments.

Connect with quad-bloggers or connect with your own PLN classes to share, comment, and perhaps collaborate on stories. Or join in with Youth Voices Live for sharing and prompt ideas.

Let students know that their work betters the world; that sharing their stories helps others learn and grow.

Setting up a the writing classroom with time for narrative writing with the purpose of sharing short stories, anecdotes, lyrics, poetry to better the world provides students and teachers with the confidence to learn writing skills transferable to required essays and the choice to write about what matters. It develops a community of writers and that’s motivation with authenticity, purpose, and mastery. Celebrate that each week with live “Storytelling” from their own stories.

How have you found narrative writing as motivation?

Please use this button on your site for DigiLit Sunday posts

This post is part of #DigiLitSunday

A challenge by Margaret Simon




Slice of Life I Missed Venice

3483444919_01e38b03b1_b venice

I’m in class all day. But my granddaughter currently travels throughout Italy with a backpack and an adventurous attitude. Her blog says:

 A vacation is a break from everyday life that in the end leaves you to return to the same pattern.

This is a factory reset. The goal is to come back as someone completely new, refreshed, and open minded.

To rediscover what it is to be human, not to be an American.

~Allison Fischer

That’s quite a statement. “To rediscover what it is to be human, not an American.” Imagine understanding the world from a human perspective, rather than a national or personal perspective.  I’ve heard that some where; I believe that somewhere. Imagine.

Today, she enjoyed Venice, a city I would love to visit. I missed her travels there and any live feeds while I was teaching and at the dentist. I can hardly wait to learn about her visit. She always talks to the local residents and learns about each city and place she visits. Just think of a city whose roads are rivers, or rather canals fluctuating with the sea’s tide and connecting the tiny islands from which the city arose ten years before the birth of Jesus.

I would have loved to see this city as she floated through the canals, winding through the waterways. What would that be like?  The colors in the pictures of the houses and shops, the waves reflecting the lights of the sun, the moon, the city lights, or perhaps the fishy smell from the sea, or the constant sounds of boats bouncing on the waves and clanking on the docks.  What happens when the tide recedes? So many questions about such a different type of city.

As a child, the journeys and story of the Venetian Marco Polo intrigued me — how he needed to open his mind and be more than a Venetian; I’m sure that’s why Venice has always been interesting as well.

And Allison is my Marco Polo.


I missed it.



Writing Strategy:

Wonderment: asking questions

Links:  Venice, Marco Polo, Allison’s blog, Imagine.










Image Source: Venice by Dominic Sherony

Slice of Life Cobbles



Her feet hurt.

For hours she walked upon volcanic basalt cubes, the cobblestone streets of ancient Rome. One foot carefully placed, then another. Step by step in shoes without support in the arch or ankle, she tread through the tiny alleyways winding in ancient patterns to the places most of us only dream or read about: the Colosseum and the Pantheon.

The cobblestones cover the streets in the ancient city of Rome. They are cubes of basalt, a hard volcanic rock. The basalt cubes lay spaced atop the earth below, fitting together loosely to allow them to form to the earth. Settling into the ground, the cubes are uneven in height, creating a difficult terrain, much less friendly than the soft earth on the mountains of home in Washington State, where the wet earth would cushion her step beneath the tall firs.

The well-worn cobbles, two-thousand years old, welcome travelers; their unevenness forces them to notice the rugged roadway, and to notice each step of their adventure through the winding streets. Just as the firs of home have beckoned her towards the next bend in the narrow path,  the rows of cobbles now seem to say, “You’re almost there. Look ahead– look around the corner; there’s more to see. You can do it.”

The adventure itself eases her pain as she stops for a chocolate frappe and chats with locals. She steps back onto the cobbles, joins the troupe of travelers, and turns the corner to discover a new destination ahead, which will be followed by more.

Her feet quicken.


Public Domain Image: South_east_view_of_the_Pantheon_from_Piazza_Minerva

Life in Italy: Sampietrini

About the Roman Cobbles BBC


Writing Strategy:


Develop the topic with relevant facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples.

Layer each idea one upon another.


For hours she walked upon volcanic basalt cubes, the cobblestone streets of ancient Rome. One foot carefully placed, then another. Step by step in shoes without support in the arch or ankle, she tread through the tiny alleyways winding in ancient patterns to the places most of us only dream or read about.

walk — ON cobblestone streets—  BY foot — EACH step –WILL tread — THROUGH alleyways —  TO places

Alliteration:  — repeated beginning consonant sounds –

s – Step by step in shoes without support

c – cobblestones cover

d- discover a new destination

Strong Verbs:  walk, tread, creating, welcomes, beckoned, steps, joins

Slice of Life Silence

IMG_7411 silence

Morning flew by along as many students continued to finish arguments [like this one] and personalized book reports based on student reading notes shared over the month in Google Forms. Some students worked on Keynote videos based on their social justice issues. Others reviewed make-up assignments. Students helped each other and asked questions related to their current task: argument warrants or concession/rebuttal; how to download their Google Slides as images for Keynote; how to review resources for figurative language. I love the sounds of workshop time: soft whispers asking for help and getting advice from peers, keyboards clicking, the ahhhs from sharing successes and techniques, focused silence for those reading, and discussion in my small group reviewing argumentative strategies. There’s a quiet hum that fluctuates between the calm of concentration and the chatter of collaboration, a wave of sound and energy in an ebb and flow of student agency.

It was a good morning, I thought, as I considered our successes during the final five minutes of noon break. I glanced across the empty desks reflecting the sunshine softly glowing through the window’s blinds.  They seemed to say, “Are they back yet?”



I stood to greet them.



Writing Strategies:

Strong Verbs:  flew by, continued, reviewed, worked, helped, download, fluctuates, considered, glanced

Personification:  The desks seemed to say, “Are they back yet?”

Onomatopoeia:  Riiiiiiiiiiiinnnnnggggggg!

Slice of Life Transitions #DigiLit Sunday

writing strategies transition words.001

DigiLit Sunday under the leadership of Margaret Simon focused this week on Transitions. Margaret delighted in the transition her students made to independent learners through the workshop approach in her classroom. discussed the importance of transition words in writing and in movies for her photography gallery. I love that she wrote her ideas in a poem.

Transition and connecting words are exactly what my students considered the past two weeks.

Transition words connect ideas in sentences and paragraphs.  Connecting words layer ideas from sentence to sentence using similar or the same words so the reader follows the logic.

Two examples from class show the idea of these two strategies to develop one’s ideas for the reader

Screen Shot 2016-03-13 at 1.14.23 PM


One strategy to build ideas is to ask questions:

Why is are desserts your favorite?

What dessert is your favorite sweet one?

What is it about the ice cream that you like?

Why is the cold of the ice cream important?

Screen Shot 2016-03-13 at 1.15.08 PM

Why is topping trees harmful to the bark?

Why is direct sunlight harmful?

What happens when sunlight burns the skin or bark?

What else could happen besides cankers?

So what if the bark splits?

Asking questions and including connecting words help build your ideas in layers that flow logically.  Transition words make the connections more clear.

We also learn about other strategies authors include: Writing Strategies

How do your students learn to build their ideas, instead of simply listing them?



Please use this button on your site for DigiLit Sunday posts



Slice of Life March 10 Writing Roots



Writing is is not easy. It’s not simply talk written down. I tell my students that. It’s not just rambling on and on like we do sometimes with friends. It requires thought. Lots of it. With a friend, we can backtrack and add asides. But in writing, we’ve got to plan those — we’ve got to make our ideas clear.

That’s why we support each other, show our words, ask, “Does this sound right?”

When we ask that, we’re wondering if our ideas are clear and our words speak with both language and story sense.  We KNOW what it should sound like, but authors are always growing — moving from “talk” to “text,” and sometimes we just know we’ve written talk, but not text, not story.

That’s where peer and teacher feedback is so important to budding authors. That’s why teachers provide models and lessons. As students branch out into different styles and genres, as they try to compose a description of their character or a comparison of ideas from their reading, that’s why those who’ve learned it will share, “Oh, try it this way. Here, read how I did that in this paragraph.”

When we know that support is there, we branch out and bud out more and more, knowing we have a community to learn with. We share our successes and smile. Because writing is hard; but it’s hard fun.

We’re participating in the Slice of Life Classroom Challenge, unofficially. We’ve reviewed descriptive writing — especially using the sense of sight and sound. Here’s one example of description: A Day Fishing for Salmon.   He included many of the strategies we’ve discussed:ask a question for introduction, action verbs, sights, sounds, snapshot writing [take a snapshot and describe what happened before, during, after.]  Now, it’s not perfect writing, but it is practiced writing from support.  And that’s our goal.

Models and practice with time to write about one’s own topics have helped this young author develop description,  with sturdy roots that are the foundation of solving writing problems: strategies to use when branching out in new directions. And he’ll be there for the other writers who struggle with the hard task of writing and ask him,  as they learn to write descriptions, “Does this sound right?” Both will discover that “Writing is hard fun,” as Donald Murray used to say.

So, open your mind and listen to each other find the right sound in your writing. Develop strong roots from writing lessons to draw from whenever you write.

What strategies are the roots of your foundation in writing?



Writing Strategies

Gather idea:  Use images, quote, and recent experiences to draft.

Explain: Develop the idea — define what writing is and isn’t

Snapshot: capture the moment of struggle and describe the solution

Image:  use the image to choose words [branch, bud, roots, support]