Category Archives: Writing


Writing Language and Culture

This is a guest post by Ellen Shubich. 

Language changes, as do the “rules” related to its usage.

My sixteen-year-old granddaughter drew my attention to this when she enlightened me about the unspoken rules widely adhered to by teens that apply to the social network she uses.

The directives of social networks have developed over time. For example, I found that My Space, an early network, had very strict indications. According to Clare Stephens,
“You had to put your very best friend in your Top Eight, or you might
as well have told the whole school they were a loser.” “You HAD to
reply ‘thnx 4 that add:)’ when someone added you, and you HAD to
reply to their comments on your page.”

Stephens adds that more recent networks, like Instagram and Snapchat, have their own rules. Instagram users want to have more followers than they follow. They know that to get the most likes, prime posting time is between 5 and 7 p.m.

Snapchatters often take as many selfies as possible, the uglier and weirder the better, rather than the posed snaps that are more customary on Instagram. Teens know to avoid overposting and to maintain streaks, especially long ones. They avoid posting the same content on Instagram, Snapchat, and private messages.

These emerging network directives reflect the social and emotional demands placed on teenagers. Peer pressures, the desire to belong and to be in fashion, and the extensive use of slang are characteristic of this stage of life. Teachers are aware of how these pressures affect class participation, relationships, and work. And as teachers of language, we often draw students’ attention to the types of language used in the different social networks, but I am not sure if we focus sufficiently on the languages’ social and emotional components.

A case in point: As the networks’ rules developed, the language(s) underwent transformations. New words such as Facebook’s unfriend appeared; trolls departed fairytales to do damage in new, more personal venues; emoticons imaged feelings.

Of itself, this is nothing new. Language has always undergone change. Authors from Dickens to Dr. Seuss invented new words we use every day. New words are continually added to the dictionary. James Joyce changed the language by avoiding punctuation, and rap changed the rhythm of language.

No matter what grade or subject we teach, it is essential for students to understand that language is a living entity and the changes it undergoes affect the way we think, feel, and act. The language we use and the accompanying explicit and implicit rules influence social and emotional development. The relationship of language to bullying is a prime example. To be “unfriended” or trolled may be a truly disturbing experience.

It is essential for teachers to introduce this conversation. As we teach language, we are also responsible for the healthy growth of our children. Guiding them toward a deeper understanding of the implications of language is an important step toward that goal.

[1] Stephens, Clare. “There’s an unspoken set of ‘rules’ teenagers religiously follow on Instagram.” MamaMia. N.p., 10 Jan. 2017. Web.

[2] Choi, Mary H. K. “12 Rules for Winning at Snapchat Like a Boss—A Teen Boss.” Wired. N.p., 25 Aug. 2016. Web.

[3] Dickson, Paul. “How authors from Dickens to Dr. Seuss invented the words we use every day.” The Guardian. N.p., 17 June 2014. Web.

 Ellen Shubich was born and raised in the Bronx and moved to Mexico 48 years ago when she married. She has a B.S.N. degree from Cornell University-New York Hospital and a Masters Degree in Educational Administration from the Universidad La Salle. Ellen has held many different positions: nurse, gerontologist, teacher of nursing, English teacher, coordinator, principal (Elementary and Middle School), and English principal. She is married, has a son and daughter and three grandchildren. 


Grading Practices That Grow Writers

This is a guest post by Arina Bokas. 

Two years ago, I started to question my grading practices and what they communicated to my students. What mattered in my class – the learning process and growth or the outcome and fixed skills?

Like many English teachers, I strove to help my students grow as writers and thinkers. However, this honorable intent, although supported by hours of dedicated effort to focus on the writing process, was inevitably sabotaged by the way I approached grading my students’ work.

My idea of assessing student writing, similar to many current practices, was about grading the output – such as an essay – with some consideration given to revision. This sent my students the message that it was okay to put minimal effort into “how” they wrote as long as “what” they wrote met all of the required criteria. As a result, my students rarely took revising seriously, while peer editing too often turned into a waste of time. Serious work took place a day or two before a paper was due.

 Growth Mindset or Fixed?

Awarding all of the points to the final product perpetuates a fixed mindset that students, especially those who lack confidence and those who excel in writing, develop about their writing abilities. When the focus is on the output, we de-emphasize growth and target existing skills students use to produce their work. Good writers don’t feel the need to push themselves to grow; not-so-good writers settle for what they can get, as “there is nothing they can do about it.”

The truth is that we grow as writers through investing time, thought, and meaningful effort in the process of writing. What if we stopped grading only papers and started assessing a writing project – the entire work that goes into understanding a particular genre and piece of writing?

Assessing the Process

Having realized that how I awarded points for assignments could make a difference in how students approached writing, I made drastic changes to my rubrics, shifting nearly 50 percent of the points toward the process. This meant that students began accumulating points early on, well before their essays were due.

I expected my students to produce a portfolio, not just a paper. They had to show their work by including documentation of thinking, observation notes, revisions, and post-assignment reflections, in addition to their final products. Each component was worth a specific amount of points, and omitting one would mean a lower grade.

bokas-research-surveyThinking/Notes – Depending on a writing unit, students were required to take a slow walk, observe something, interview a person, read an article, or test a product. During this action-based thinking activity, they were expected to record their thoughts, ideas, and observations. These notes made up 10 percent of the overall grade.

First Draft – This initial writing allowed students to put their thoughts on paper without worrying about polishing their prose. A completed first draft with a peer editor’s markings contributed to 10 percent of the overall grade.

bokas-peer-editing-sectionPeer Editing Workshop Work – Only students who had completed their essays prior to the workshop were qualified to participate; if students didn’t have a finished first draft, they worked on it during class and had the option to conduct a peer editing session on their own time. During the workshop, I gave students a peer editing worksheet with tasks and questions, asking them to highlight structural elements, comment on quality, and provide practical suggestions for improvement. This work was reflected in both the text of a reviewed paper and the provided worksheets. It determined 20 percent of the grade.

Final Draft – The final paper had to differ from the first draft and reflect revisions. I downscaled my usual rubrics to count it for 50 percent of the grade.

bokas-student-documentationPost-Assignment Reflections – Students had to reflect on their writing process after completing each writing project: what they found to be easy or difficult; their struggles and discoveries as writers. This not only provided students with an important conclusion to every unit, but it also served as invaluable feedback that allowed me to modify my teaching. Reflections made up 10 percent of the grade.


De-emphasizing the final product and focusing on the project one step at a time helped my students slow down. No longer could high achievers ride on their existing skills and excel in my class; they had to work through stages, think more deeply, and make connections they otherwise wouldn’t have made. Other students first saw this as an opportunity to improve their grades. As they embraced the process, they didn’t worry about the outcome, which helped them focus and better capture their thoughts.

Working on the process seemed to relax the atmosphere in class, brought a flare of humor, and sparked a lot of open thinking. And sure enough, as we took care of the process, outcomes took care of themselves. My students produced some of their best pieces, written with a strong writer’s voice.

Children are different from one another. How they approach their learning and the lessons they learn along the way vary greatly. When we tell them that their journey is just as important as the destination, they take the time to wander, discover, and understand themselves.

The best proof of my students’ growth as writers are their own testimonies that describe a shift in their thinking. One student’s reflection on a commentary project captures the moment of discovery that so many of my students found with this new approach to writing:

Standing there among the trash, I felt that my words had purpose. I wanted them to impact others so that they would never litter. I cared deeply about every possible word I could write on this subject. I went over my paper four or five times, trying to make every letter count. This essay project changed the way I was writing and the way I felt about my work.

 Arina Bokas, PhD, is an educator, author, presenter, and educational consultant . She is the editor of Kids Standard magazine and a faculty member at Mott Community College, Flint, Michigan. Arina is the author of Building Powerful Learning Environments: From Schools to Communities (2017) and dozens of educational publications. Follow her on Twitter @arinabokas.


What Writers Really Need: A Trifecta of Teaching Moves That Revolutionize Writing Instruction

This post is written by member Patty McGee. 

A few questions for you:

  • Have you noticed that when you correct writing, students often pay little attention to those corrections and their writing does not seem to evolve from those corrections?
  • Do your students seem to approach writing as a task to complete rather than an expression of their voice and ideas?
  • Are your students quick finishers and reluctant to revise their writing?

If the answer is yes to any of these questions, you may want to employ this trio of teaching moves so writers grow in the light of your feedback.

pattymcgee1stpicture1. Be a Mentor Writer

A mentor writer is one who:

  • gives feedback (outside of grades) throughout the process of writing, not just at the end
  • shares his or her struggles in writing with other writers and ways to work through these struggles
  • brings a tone of support, understanding, and passion for writing
  • sits side by side with writers and names strengths and the next step

Teachers who have made this switch have found profound changes in their writers both immediately and over time.

When writers are mentored, they are more likely to take risks, ask for feedback, and make writerly choices.

Because writers expect not to be judged (or graded), the writing flows and struggle is normalized.

A few tips on being a mentor writer:

  • If you are in a classroom that must give grades, let the writers know that you will be taking the grading hat off and putting on your mentor hat. Explain to them the difference and what to expect from you.
  • Ask writers what they would like feedback on and give feedback on only those parts. It is not necessary to mentor a writer’s entire piece in one meeting.
  • Bring a notebook and pen to model writing strategies in your own writing.

This last tip brings us to the other two instructional moves to complete the trifecta: strategies and modeling.

2. Teach Strategies (with Soul)

Knowing writing strategies is a great challenge for many students. They may know that they need to elaborate (which is a skill), but how to elaborate is the challenge. By definition, a strategy is a how-to, a way to access a skill. Where can you find these strategies? The most meaningful strategies are found within your head and heart. This is teaching strategy with soul. Here’s how it might go.

  1. Notice the skill the writer is ready for or has asked to learn.
  2. Think to yourself, “If I were the writer of this piece, with the skills that this writer has, what would I do?”
  3. Then share that step-by-step with the student.

Let’s try it with this sample:


This writer looked at this page in her informational book on soccer and wanted to add detail. I asked myself, with what I can see this writer can already do, what can be her next step? While there are many possibilities, let’s say she’s ready to add boldfaced words with definitions. A strategy could be:

Writers of informational text often add important words and their definitions. Here’s one way:

  1. Take a look at your diagram and find the keywords a reader should know.
  2. Write them in bold.
  3. Write a definition or description next to the bolded word.

While this may be enough for some kids, the final, knock-writing-instruction-out-of-the-park move is to add a model.

pattymcgee2ndpicture3. Model

As a mentor writer who shares writing strategies, you may find that writers often need to see the strategy in action. We naturally do this all the time—I certainly do! When trying a new dish, I am more likely to choose the recipe that has a video paired with it. My mentor and friend Gravity Goldberg compares the modeling we do in the classroom to that of a cooking show host. Cooking show hosts:

  • Show a step-by-step
  • Have ingredients ready
  • Offer advice on the tricky parts
  • Narrate the strategy as they model
  • Don’t ask questions (How much ground beef should I use for this meatloaf?)

To model this strategy, you might use a separate piece of paper and say, “Watch me as I . . .” and then model step-by-step, going from the diagram, picking out a keyword, bolding it, and writing a definition. For you to model strategy as a mentor writer, you simply need pencil and paper to show and advice to add.

I invite you to build this into your writing classrooms. Take off the correcting hat and be the mentor writer who models strategies. I know you will experience what so many other teachers have—joyful, connected writing instruction and writers who grow exponentially.

Patty McGee is a literacy consultant whose passion and vision is to create learning environments in which teachers and students discover their true potential and power. She is the author of Feedback That Moves Writers Forward: How to Escape Correcting Mode to Transform Student Writing (Corwin 2017). Patty’s favorite moments are when groups of teachers are working with students collaboratively in the classroom. She tweets at @pmgmcgee.


Sneak Preview of May EJ: Textual Revolution: Reading and Writing the Word and the World

The following post is by Julie Gorlewski and David Gorlewski, NCTE members and editors of the English Journal.

Words matter. Oral traditions of Indigenous peo­ples sustain connections to land, cultural traditions, and historical accounts. Written language in the Declaration of Independence set in motion colonial liberation from England. And digital speech has the capacity to create swift social movements across vast distances.

Laws are written in words. Justice and op­pression are reinforced through language; words inspire hope and cause despair. Many ideas are born in and nurtured through language. Words offer a means of sharing dreams. Words also transmit ha­tred and incite violence. Words can spread love and foment malevolence. Words can bridge differences and build walls.

English teachers work in the world of words. Our practice involves immersing learners in lan­guage and ensuring that they are buoyed by pow­erful texts. We hope to teach them to consume and produce words, and to understand reading and writing are as natural and necessary as breathing. But words are not air; people can survive without exercising the power of language. And danger exists in such defenseless survival. Societies that cede the power of words to leaders risk both integrity and liberty. When “alternative facts” drive policy deci­sions, the public suffers. The path toward justice recedes. Words become weapons of domination.

Educators have the capacity to teach language as a tool of transformation. Poets are protesters. Authors reveal dystopian and utopian possibilities through literature. Journalists are soldiers in service of truth. In our classrooms, students can be poets, authors, and journalists. We can teach them to dis­cover the multiple meanings in texts and to contest propaganda with truths. Teachers can model reflec­tive, critical consumption of texts, as well as coura­geous production of essential dissent.

In this issue, authors explore how textual rev­olutions occur within and stretch beyond classroom walls. They investigate how texts have evolved and reflect on how this evolution influences how learn­ers experience language as an instrument of su­premacy or resistance.

Our learners are tomorrow’s leaders. They will invent textual applications beyond our imag­ination, but only if we teach them that they can. They will use words to challenge inequities and advocate for justice, but only if they learn to ex­ercise the power of language. As English teachers, we are charged to cultivate skills and foster dispo­sitions. Learners deserve the capacity and the desire to use language as a means of personal enlighten­ment and social transformation. We can embrace the evolution of discourse and teach students to re­flect intentionally on how language affects human­ity. Reflection, coupled with evolution, can lead to revolutionary textual practices, uses of words that can change the world.

Language matters to us, and it matters to our students. If we do our work well, today’s learners will know that words are a matter of life and death.

JulieGorlewskiJulie Gorlewski is chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning at Virginia Commonwealth University.

DavidGorlewskiDavid Gorlewski works with preservice and practicing teachers and conducts research on literacy and professional dispositions.  Both are former English teachers and members of NCTE, Julie since 2004 and David since 2001.



You Mean She’s Alive?

This post is written by member Lindsay Illich. 

I get this question from students often when I share a poem in class by a living writer. For some students, poems are historical, discrete things that come to them by way of textbooks,  anthologies, or riddles of dead writers come to haunt them. Or worse, poems are inflicted on them as assessment instruments in standardized tests where students are asked to dissect the poems’ meanings (you can read about Sara Holbrook’s horror after discovering two of her poems were used on standardized tests in Texas). It does not always occur to them that the poet might be a contemporary who could be writing poems on this very day, or even right now.

The poems writers are sharing right now are beautiful and devastating, shimmering in their perfect singularity. Poets ask us to consider what it must be like to love a brother who is an addict (Natalie Diaz), to see a flower that might have been planted by the hands of Eric Garner (Ross Gay), to love someone more than all the windows in New York City (Jessica Greenbaum), or to be getting an MRI to monitor the spread of your cancer (Leilla Chatti). Not only do these contemporary poems and poets show students how poetry is uniquely suited to address emotional complexity, but also they demonstrate how it is poems build invisible bridges that connect people across time, space, and experience.

Poems overcome our separateness.

“Good Bones,” a poem by Maggie Smith, garnered a worldwide readership after it was published just after the Orlando Pulse shooting. Although the poem was not written in response to the tragedy, its sentiment resonated. Many felt that it gave a collective voice to how hopeless we feel in the face of violent tragedy. The poem was named poem of the year by Public Radio International and was featured on the April 9 episode of the CBS TV series Madam Secretary.

So where do you find these alive poets? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Subscribe to the “Poem-A Day,” sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, and get new (and some old) poems delivered to your email.
  2.  If you have the resources available to you, request institutional subscriptions to a few print poetry journals (like Gulf Coast, 32 Poems, or Prairie Schooner).
  3. Follow online poetry journals like Waxwing or The Shallow Ends on Twitter, where they post links to newly published poems.
  4. Finally, find some poets you like and follow them on Twitter. Poets love poems; they will share links and even pictures of poems daily (you should start with @KavehAkbar, a prolific lover, sharer, and writer of poems).

Another reason to read and connect with contemporary poets is to offer your students the opportunity to ask writers questions about their work. After reading a poem by Adrian Matejka, my students wondered why the poet identified with the boxer, Jack Johnson. It occurred to me that with Twitter, we could just ask him. So we did, and he graciously replied.

Yes, the poet is alive, and students will love her work if you share it with them. And, perhaps, reading the current work of living writers will serve as reminders to students that writing as a way of expression is a thing that people do, that even they could do.

Lindsay Illich is an associate professor of English at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts. Her first book, Rile & Heave, won the Texas Review Press Breakout Prize in poetry.