All writers have little habits; rituals, that get their creative juices flowing. For some, it’s a special notebook or a laptop, for others it’s a specific time of day that inspires. So we posed this question to two Stenhouse authors: What are your strategies for finding motivation to write?
I’m left-handed. Back in grade school I quickly learned that whenever I wrote something, the edge of my palm would inevitably drag over the page, smearing pencil or pen marks and leaving a black or blue smudge on my hand. If I was writing in a binder, the curved metal clips inhibited my style and forced me to curve my hand even more awkwardly. So, in the early ’80’s when word processing came into my life, I felt as though I had been delivered to the promised land.
Today I use a Mac for my writing, which consists of me pecking away furiously with two fingers (I never learned to touch type). I usually begin a piece of writing by making a list of the ideas swirling in my head on any handy piece of paper — a magazine subscription insert, a napkin, the back of an envelope, a piece of scratch paper cut from discarded drafts or e-mails. As rapidly as I can, I jot down any and all thoughts pertaining to the topic, not censoring, just recording. Then I go to my laptop, create a file, and type the hastily scribbled list, embellishing it as new thoughts occur. I print out that list and use a red pen to make additions, deletions, revisions, to switch words around, make notes, and add names or places or specific vocabulary related to the topic. As I enter these changes on my laptop, I cross out each one with a blue pen, so that should I be interrupted, I can tell at a glance what entries I have already typed and which ones still need to be entered.
My writing always goes through multiple drafts — often I’m not even sure where a particular piece is going until I am in draft 4 or 5. Poems take many attempts to get it right — I’m now on draft #23 of a recent poem and feel that I may, just may, be nearing the end of it.
I write/type in my office, at my desk, looking out the window to the Rio Grande River valley and the distant west mesa. A rhyming dictionary and a combination dictionary/thesaurus sit in the bookcase next to my desk; I use these two reference tools more than any others. I don’t need a lot of sleep, so I do a lot of my writing in the morning, often starting at 5 a.m. Jeannie is still sleeping, the house is quiet, and I can work without interruption. Once I have completed a draft, I print it out and then do something else –I find that I need time between drafts to “forget” what I said and bring somewhat fresh eyes to the text to be able to improve it.
When I take my daily walk, I carry a piece of scrap paper and a pen with which to jot down ideas that occur to me while walking, But I am essentially a word processor — the computer is the place where I set down my ideas, even my journal entries. I do not like the physical act of writing — it feels laborious, and I actually can type faster and more accurately than I can compose in longhand.
Between occasional poems, e-mail, book chapters, essays for certain occasions, commissioned poems, letters to friends and family, and journal entries, I write something every day. It’s easy — I’ve been doing it for years, and if I don’t write regularly, the ideas start to well up inside.
Making space for my reading and writing time is always an essential struggle. Often I trick myself. I am just going to jot down a few ideas and before I know it, I have written much more. I will read for just a few minutes before I fall asleep. (I find that reading makes me want to write.) I also email myself ideas or thoughts I get during the teaching day. That way, I have the collections of a writer’s notebook in a searchable format.
I am an addict for notebooks, the right pen, etc., but over the last few years I’ve gone to drafting exclusively on my MacBook Pro. But I had to turn off the email alert. That helped so much. It really seems to save time too. It’s all about how I save it now.
I have a wonderful space to write, a desk that looks out a window. And I use it–sometimes. Most of the time though, I grab my laptop and write on the couch or on the porch, weather permitting. The trick for me is to get the draft going. Once I have had the time to draft, I can tinker with the writing later. I have to print things out and mark them up and then re-enter them.
I find that doing this with Judge Judy on in the background is optimal. I also get a great deal of rereading and marking of drafts and revisions on the elliptical trainer at the gym. It makes both tasks go quickly, though it’s impossible to keep your target heart rate up. But if I am writing and reading, I am happy. If I am exercising and writing or reading, my creativity soars.
“The single biggest reason that students don’t read textbooks is because they don’t understand the vocabulary words. That becomes not only an impediment to their reading but it becomes the single biggest problem with their writing, because if you don’t have insider vocabulary it’s almost impossible to write about content.”
Members of the Teacher Leaders Network, a project of the Center for Teaching Quality, have posted two new reviews praising Stenhouse books about using short texts in the classroom and the craft of editing. Cindi Rigsbee, a middle school reading specialist in North Carolina, calls Less Is More a “smorgasboard of ideas” and “a practical guide to teaching literature with short texts.” Reviewing Everyday Editing, Mary Tedrow, a high school teacher and co-director of the Northern Virginia Writing Project, writes that Jeff Anderson “seems to be just the person to impart pleasure to a task most often seen as drudgery.”
Describing Kimberly Hill Cambell’s book as a “tremendous resource,” Rigsbee comments: “Less Is More offers an innovative change for those teachers who still vehemently believe that real literature can only be taught through the study of novels. After two introductory chapters on the art of teaching with short texts, Campbell divides the remaining chapters by literary genre — short stories, essays, memoir, poetry, children’s literature and picture books, and graphic novels — and offers varied instructional strategies that correlate with each genre.”
Tedrow praises the way Anderson integrates grammar instruction with mentor text: “The genius of Anderson’s book is in demonstrating how to restructure lessons into student-centered inquiries. Anderson weds William Purkey and Paula Stanley’s invitational teaching concepts to strong writing models and adds many opportunities for experimentation. In every lesson Anderson begins with mentor models of sentence structures taken from books the students are reading and invites his students to tell each other what they notice. Through discussion and repeated modeling, the students identify the sentence patterns that exemplify the grammar lesson being taught. These patterns become opportunities for students to adapt what they observe, using their own words and ideas.”
Not all kids love to read. And finding a book to whet the reading appetite of a young adolescent can be a challenge. So we asked Teri Lesesne, author of Making the Match and Naked Reading, how she selects literature for a reluctant reader and what she recommends if a student is only interested in books with violent content. Where should teachers draw the line? How much should teachers modify the curriculum to reach these reluctant readers? Here is Teri’s response:
Working with reluctant readers can be quite frustrating. However, when a reluctant reader finds that one book that touches her or him, the reward is even greater. So, even when a student is interested in violent content or texts that someone else might deem inappropriate, we must proceed with caution. The pages of a book offer a safe environment in which to experience, vicariously, those things we might not want our students to experience personally. Just because a student reads a book with violence does not mean this student has a violent nature. Often, the opposite is the case. Of course, if there are other signs (i.e., the student herself or himself is violent or exhibits violent tendencies), then there is reason to refer the student to a school counselor. However, many students read about war, rape, shootings, drug use and the like in the safe confines of books, a place where they can come to no harm.
How much to modify the curriculum for the reluctant reader is another challenge for educators. Often in schools, there is ONE book that all our students are expected to read and to comprehend. One book does not reach out to all readers. Even Harry Potter and his compatriots, books that sold millions upon millions of copies, are not for every reader. Personally, I do not care for romance novels (though I was a sucker for them as a teen). I have a friend who only likes nonfiction. I think the time has come for us to offer a variety of titles to our students. Instead of one book, offer five that are related thematically. The other selections can include some high/low materials for our English language learners and for students reading below grade level significantly. Other selections might be more challenging in form and format for our advanced students. If we do need to have a core text, offer it in different modes. Include an audiobook version (unabridged or abridged) or a graphic format (remember the Classic Comics?). Decide what is essential to glean from the text (honestly, other than a game show, when has someone asked you to name the gravedigger in “Hamlet?”). These modifications are not onerous and might mean more of our students complete the required reading with some respect for the text.
Finally, I would encourage educators to offer contemporary (young adult) materials to students to read for pleasure. It seems to me that as my own teens progress through school, there is less emphasis on reading for pleasure and way too much emphasis on reading for tests and analytical papers. How can we possibly encourage lifelong reading if we never give our students time to experience the pleasure of reading for reading’s sake? If this is going to happen, it is, of course, essential that we all read. We need to provide that model of lifelong literacy for our students. And it would not hurt if we read the books they find motivating. Take a look at this year’s TEENS TOP TEN:
1. New Moon by Stephenie Meyer (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2006).
2. Just Listen by Sarah Dessen (Viking Children’s Books, 2006)
3. How to Ruin a Summer Vacation by Simone Elkeles (Flux, 2006).
4. Maximum Ride: School’s Out — Forever by James Patterson (Hachette Book Group USA/Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2006).
5. Firegirl by Tony Abbott (Hachette Book Group USA/Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2006).
6. All Hallows Eve (13 Stories) by Vivian Vande Velde (Harcourt, 2006).
7. Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer (Harcourt, 2006).
8. River Secrets by Shannon Hale (Bloomsbury, 2006).
9. Bad Kitty by Michele Jaffe (HarperCollins, 2006).
10. Road of the Dead by Kevin Brooks (Chicken House, 2006).
Assigning a full-length novel to a group of middle or high school students is probably met with a lot of eye-rolling and groaning. Many students will struggle to complete the book and those who do may read it quickly and superficially. Teachers often find themselves sacrificing valuable classroom time to allow students to read the book, leaving little time for discussion.
Members of the Mosaic Listserv — a discussion group devoted to teachers who want to help their students become thoughtful, independent readers — recently participated in an online discussion about a book that suggests using shorter texts as a way to expose students to a wide range of literature while deepening their comprehension. In Less Is More: Teaching Literature with Short Texts, Grades 6-12, Kimberly Hill Campbell encourages teachers to look beyond novels to engage students, and embrace a richer variety of literature, including graphic novels, short stories, and essays.
She argues that not all students are ready — or in many cases willing — to take on a full-length novel and that short stories provide most students a way into literature. “When students are confronted solely and consistently with texts that are complex and lengthy, there is resistance, a tendency to disengage and to look for shortcuts that may help complete a required assignment but that circumscribe or even totally avoid actual reading,” writes Leila Christenbury in the book’s foreword.
Many of the teachers participating in the Mosaic discussion found themselves in that situation: trying to coax middle and high school students into reading lengthy pieces of required literature in a limited timeframe, and engage them in meaningful discussion about the piece. Leslie Popkin, a literacy coach from Bellerose, NY, shared that “as a coach in a K-8 building, writing a curriculum for the upper grades that is workable and meaningful has been a challenge. The reading of Less Is More couldn’t have been more timely.” She added that the strict time constraints faced by middle school teachers makes fitting all the components of balanced literacy into the confines of a middle school ELA program very difficult. “This book is a superb source for high school teachers,” Popkin wrote, “and a good one as well for middle school teachers.” She considers the book a “must-read” for teachers of grades 6 through 8 and thinks that the strategies from the book can be used at almost any level.
Heather Rockensock, a literacy coach from Holmen, WI, shared that she had a hard time helping her reading and writing teachers integrate learning strategies into their teaching. “As soon as I read this book, I knew that I had a solution to my problem,” Heather wrote. Instead of struggling with trying to fit full-length novels — and the time it takes to read them — into the allotted time, Heather and other teachers are now adding shorter texts to their library. Rockensock’s students in the eighth grade are beginning their study of the Holocaust. Reading the usual required texts — The Diary of Anne Frank and The Devil’s Arithmetic — “would take forever,” she said. “I am excited to say that we are adding picture books, short stories, and graphic novels to our collectionâ€¦I can’t wait to see how this enriches our discussions because now we will have time to actually have discussions!” The eighth-graders will also write a memoir as part of the unit and Rockensock says that she can already see the advantages of exposing students to various forms of literature.
Donna DeTommaso, an ESL teacher from Hatfield, PA, said that she likes to use short texts to provide her students the opportunity to reread the piece multiple times and to dig deeper into the text. Inspired by the book, DeTommaso read the story Charlie by Shirley Jackson to her students. “Sometimes I get so hung up on having them muddle their way through it that I don’t choose to do this. Kimberly inspired me to back up and do more it,” she said. She then asked her students to reread the story on their own and used Campbell’s strategies to teach the class about foreshadowing and inferring.
Amy Windus, a fifth-grade teacher from Scio, NY, is also faced with trying to fit a lot of material into a limited amount of time. She believes that the strategies in Campbell’s book will not only help alleviate the time issue by using shorter texts, but will also allow students to read, re-read, and truly engage with the text in a meaningful way. “In my opinion, this is actually one of the greatest benefits of shorter texts,” she said. “Once they’ve been read and students understand the content, you are then free to re-examine them from any number of lenses, depending on the skill, strategy, or craft that you want students to understand.”
All teachers dream of a classroom where they can walk in and find all the materials where they are needed, where they don’t have to dig through stacks of supplies or books, where the teacher’s desk isn’t a dumping ground, and where teachers can spend valuable time with children, instead of looking for stuff.
In her new book, Spaces & Places, Debbie Diller shows you exactly how you can achieve the classroom of your dreams. Debbie believes that if teachers begin the year with a thoughtful plan for classroom design, they can spend their time examining their teaching, rather than their surroundings.
Take a three-minute video tour with Debbie as she describes how the book will help you plan and arrange your elementary classroom step-by-step, make the best use of your walls, and organize and store your stuff.