Category Archives: Writing


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. 


What Does Cherry Picking Have to Do With Literary Analysis?

This post is written by member Christina Lovdal Gil. 

I’ve been thinking and reading a lot recently about the various ways that people convince themselves that what they believe is true, in spite of whatever evidence might contradict those views.  Now that I seem to live in a time of fake news and alternative facts and hyper- partisan politics, it has become increasingly important to me to figure out how to help teenagers to avoid following in those deep-rutted tracks of flawed thinking.

Analyzing poetry might not seem like the best way to deal with current situations, but in fact, whether students are talking about America’s greatness, or about death and old age, or about the immigration experience, I believe that teaching them to analyze poetry by looking at all of the evidence is a great way to help them develop their critical thinking skills.

Here are a few terms that I have learned in my research:

Confirmation bias or cognitive bias is the tendency of human beings to ignore any evidence that refutes already-held beliefs.

The backfire effect is the name for what happens when human beings hold those possibly flawed views even more strongly when they are presented with evidence that refutes them.

The illusion of explanatory depth is the belief that we know more than we really do.

The fallacy of the single cause is the belief that there is one, simple reason for a phenomenon when it might have been caused by number of factors.

The cherrypicking fallacy is the tendency to choose evidence that supports an argument while ignoring that which disputes it.

I have recently learned these terms, but I have been fighting these biases and flawed ways of thinking for years—in the way that I teach my students to analyze poetry.

The steps that I instruct my students to follow when analyzing a poem are the same ones that they can follow when attempting to understand any kind of complex idea or issue.  My biggest goal here is not for students to create a smooth-sounding thesis or for them to identify poetic elements by name.  What I most want is for them to embrace the parts of the text that are confusing or ambiguous or contradictory.  Those are the pieces that scare the human brain the most, and they are also the places where the meaning happens.

This process could be followed for any kind of examination or analysis.

First, you examine the evidence.  Notice that I didn’t say that you start with a thesis or an idea that you want to prove.  Doing that will only encourage cherry picking and flawed ideas.  Instead, you look at what’s there and notice everything you can.  For poetry, this might mean that you annotate all of the interesting words or images, for a science experiment it might mean that you take notes on the effects of a catalyst, and for a history analysis it might mean that you read multiple accounts of an important event and analyze data about the outcomes of that event.

Then you come up with an idea based on the majority of that evidence.  Looking for trends or causes or reasons is a good way to make sense of complicated information, but we also have to watch out for the old fallacy of the single cause.  I like oversimplification as much as the next person, so this is one that I have to be especially cautious of.  But a good first step towards understanding evidence is to come up with a way to explain the majority of what you’ve found.

Then, you look specifically for the pieces of evidence that contradict that idea.  When you’ve lumped together data in order to make sense of it, there will always be something left out.  Rather than see that as a minor drawback to your thesis or as a piece to quickly identify in a short paragraph about the counterclaim, you’ll need to recognize that evidence is very important.

Finally, and this is the hardest as well as the most important part, you create a new thesis that incorporates the evidence that seems to refute your idea.  The best way that I know to train your brain to let go of all those tendencies to ignore evidence or alternative ideas is to embrace the stuff that is subtle or ambiguous or hard to fit in a nice neat mold.  Ideas that incorporate it all are far superior to ideas that are based on cherry picking evidence.

It’s not that every human being is subject to these tendencies towards biases in our thinking all the time, but we have them in our brain chemistry.  And when you put all those fallacies and beliefs together, what you get is a room full of people, screaming their heads off about their own ideas, listening to no one except themselves and those who repeat their thoughts, and refusing to acknowledge any evidence that doesn’t support what they already think.

I want to do anything that I can to get those people to quiet down and start listening to each other.

Christina Gil was a high-school English teacher for sixteen years, but she recently left the classroom to follow a dream and move with her family to an ecovillage in rural Missouri. When she is not hauling water to her tiny home, she can be found homeschooling her two kids or meeting with her neighbors about the best way to run their village.


Lost in the Past

This blog is written by seventh grader Grace Higgins, a student of NCTE member Joe Pizzo.

Joe Pizzo’s introduction:

When asked what techniques I use or lessons I teach to inspire depth in my students’ writing, such as Grace demonstrates in the following poem and explanation, I simply return to the main message of Laurence Perrine’s Sound and Sense: we do indeed write for sound, as well as for sense. I begin each of my integrated language arts classes with a “Do now” activity through which we learn a daily word and its definition. Next, my students write sentences of ten or more words and use the new word in those sentences. I must note that Grace has the unique ability to infuse poetry throughout her prose, no matter what the task happens to be. After reading a number of her original sentences that contained various poetic devices implemented with precision, I encouraged her to expand one of her sentences into a poem. She did so after some additional encouragement, and the result is typically impressive. As a writing teacher, my mission is both to inspire and to encourage my young writers. In the words of Virginia Woolf, “Yet, it is true, poetry is delicious; the best prose is that which is most full of poetry.”

Lost in the Past

The wind whispers, to the tune of an eternal brook, in my ear, the stories
that have slipped abruptly through my grasp.
My mind wanders,
then returns,
for I have remembered my adoration for the life in the reality,
set in my haven that provides my remembrance,
from the serene environment that wraps me tight,
like a snake vigorously squeezing its prey.
The sun shimmers, softly on the left side of my brain,
causing me to, like water to fire,
engulf its memories of days far from the moment.
Again, my mind lingers in memories
but as quickly as a forceful breath is drawn from my mouth,
I realize, like a mother recalling her flock, my dream
and return to the actuality of existence I call my haven of sanity.
Lightning crashes onto a tree,
in the forest beside my right hand,
and my mind flashes, like the flicker of a lightbulb,
to the purlieus of my youth
I have forgotten reality.
I am lost in the past.
—Grace Higgins

The present is a gift. However, many people do not experience this gift. The poem “Lost
in the Past” represents the feeling of not being able to live for today because the past holds one back. Without peace with the past, one cannot move forward in life. “My mind wanders, then returns, for I have remembered my adoration for the life in the reality” means that the person loves their life in the present but the past keeps haunting the person, therefore preventing progress in the present.

The inspiration for this poem came from both meeting people who struggle with
their past and seeing the pain and suffering they face every day. This inspiration then led to the idea to writing a poem about the daily struggles that hundreds of people face. The poem hopes to shed light on both these struggles and the burdens of the past.

After finishing the poem, my writing style has changed from a more immature, bouncy
style to a sophisticated, in-depth style. For instance, I used to write, “The room was colorful.” However, now I write sentences like, “The room flourished with colors of green and painting of days long past adorned the turquoise walls.¨ This experience has widened my expanse of writing styles, thus allowing me to play with unique writing styles and technique.

Grace Higgins is a 7th grade student from Chester, New Jersey who has achieved high honor roll every semester while at Black River Middle School.  In addition to being a dedicated student who loves to read and write, Grace participates in soccer, basketball, ski club, track, chorus, Girl Scouts, and the alter server ministry at Saint Lawrence Church.  Grace is known by her friends and family to be kind-hearted, helpful, and someone who lets her light shine in a way befitting of her name.  


I, Too, Am a Writer

This post is written by member Katie Kraushaar. 

Six years ago, if you had told me that I would be sharing my messy, work-in-progress writing with my 7th graders and listening as they gave me feedback, I would have laughed. Feedback? From my students? Who’s the teacher here?

But there I was, standing in front of 25 thirteen-year-olds, bemoaning the fact that the scene where my protagonist was supposed to meet a friend just wasn’t working.

I looked at my students. “I need some ideas. What do you think?” Hands started to raise, and conversations floated between writing partners as they excitedly discussed directions for my story. As students shared ideas, I furiously typed comments on my manuscript, trying to capture all of the possibilities. Later, I’d go back and rewrite the scene, weaving in Kate’s suggestion that my protagonist give herself a pep talk before meeting her new friend, as well as Izzy’s idea that she should be writing in her journal, a character trait that was important to the storyline.

These days, I am intentional about using the word writers when referring to my students and myself. This language makes it clear that, in this room, we write and learn together. It wasn’t always this way. Too often, the way writing is taught amplifies the division between the students and the teacher: one is there to teach, while the rest are there to be taught.

When I first started teaching, I was guilty of approaching writing this way because I did not call myself a writer. Sure, I wrote, but I wasn’t a writer.  Like many of our students, I associated the word with someone who had an agent and who spent hours workshopping manuscripts to shop around to publishing companies. The word “writer” was reserved for the elite few…not for teachers like me.

This mindset is damaging. It is what made me spend the first few years of my teaching career turning to the comfort of pre-made graphic organizers and canned, prescriptive ways of teaching writing, turning the art of putting words on a page into a paint-by-numbers activity.

It is what made me clutch my own words close to my chest, scared to share my writing with my students for fear that they would see my imperfections and declare me unfit to teach English. It is what ultimately made my teaching of writing inauthentic, unmemorable, and frankly, ineffective.

Six years later, I am comfortable calling myself a writer, both to my students and to myself. This simple statement is one that resonates. It dismantles the pedestal writing is often placed on and makes it accessible for anyone who has something to say. It gives students the confidence to say, “I, too, am a writer.”

This revolutionized my approach to the teaching of writing. When we began gathering ideas for our realistic fiction stories, instead of spending time searching the Internet for graphic organizers, I filled pages in my journal with my own ideas and noted my process. I shared my approach with my writers and invited them to experiment with different methods of discovering story ideas.

As we began drafting, predictably, we learned that writing a story is anything but easy. We hit many snags: ideas that didn’t go anywhere, phrases that just wouldn’t sing, the long distance between what’s in the head and what ends up on the page.

In the past, these struggles would have elicited rubric-based criticism that emphasized my role as an evaluator. However, because I write, feedback looks less like an “I say, you do” process and more like a conversation between two people who are on a journey together.

I am able to nod my head in solidarity when students describe a difficulty and say, “Oh, me too. I’ve had trouble with that before. Let’s figure this out together.” Because I write, I am empathetic, not just sympathetic. Telling my students that I deal with the very same issues they do allows both of us to put our heads together as fellow writers to determine a best course of action.

When we published our realistic fiction stories, we took time to share them, savoring the chance to read each other’s words. In the past, I might have skipped this step, instead gathering up the stories to critique and grade. However, because I see myself as a writer too, we take time to celebrate. We honor our work because writing is hard. Writers need this encouragement. They need to know that their words matter and that someone has read them. This perspective is only possible because I write.

The truth about writing is that it is never finished. And we are never completely finished “becoming” writers, no matter how many years of practice we have or degrees we hold. Every time I pick up a pen, I remember that writing is hard. This knowledge follows me into the classroom when I watch my writers work to put words on the page, and weaves itself into every interaction I have with them.

In the classroom of a teacher who calls herself a writer, writing is no longer a remote act reserved for the creative few. Writing is for everyone with something to say, and anyone who writes is a writer. A freeing truth for both students and teachers alike.

Katie Kraushaar is a 7th grade English-Language Arts teacher in St. Louis, MO. In addition to her seven years in the classroom, Katie is a Teacher Consultant for the Gateway Writing Project, a satellite of the National Writing Project. Connect with Katie through her blog and on Twitter.

Student Athletes and Writing Transfer

This post is written by member Michael Rifenburg. 

michaelrifenburgWhen I stepped in my first-year writing classroom this year at the University of North Georgia, I found students separated into groups. Softball players to my right, baseball players in the room’s center, cross-country and soccer players to my left.

I have taught first-year writing courses for only a decade, but this semester I’m with a class populated much differently than others I have taught.

Twenty-five of my twenty-six students are student athletes.

It’s not by chance. I worked with the athletics department and the athletics advisor to fill my class. And I have a plan for how best to develop their writing skills.

I am using research on transfer, which conceptualizes how learners take knowledge from one context and apply it to another. Writing transfer research has gained traction recently, and I am structuring my course around prior knowledge and metacognition—both of which are central to successful writing transfer.

In 2006, Kathleen Blake Yancey and two co-researchers (all at Florida State) received a CCCC research grant to study transfer. A year later Yancey connected with two graduate students at Florida State, Liane Robertson and Kara Taczak. Shortly thereafter, Robertson and Taczak began dissertations on transfer. All three participated in the Elon University Research Seminar called Critical Transitions: Writing and the Question of Transfer and began moving toward a book-length study of transfer.

The three authored Writing across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing, which was recently awarded a CCCC Research Impact Award.

In their book, they sketch a curriculum called Teaching for Transfer (TFT), which connects with students’ prior knowledge and uses structured metacognitive assignments.

Prior knowledge and metacognition link with my research on student athlete literacy. For the past decade, I’ve worked with student athlete writers. My work culminated in a book, The Embodied Playbook: Writing Practices of Student-Athletes, forthcoming from Utah State University Press.

Sports require a high level of literacy, most clearly seen in how players learn and run scripted plays. Think about the sketching of football or basketball plays you might have seen, the lines, arrows, and shapes dictating physical action. When student athletes enter my class, they bring experience in engaging with this form of text. Transfer research asks me to leverage this form of prior knowledge into curricular work.

Additionally, student athletes refine their sports literacy through watching film on their performance and reflecting on successes and failures. I’ve sat in on numerous film sessions where coaches and players watched clip after clip in hopes of bettering subsequent performance. Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak believe this reflection is crucial to developing as a writer.

The TFT curriculum introduces students to eleven key terms; I adopted the eight found on our class website: genre, exigence, audience, rhetorical situations, reflection, context, discourse community, and knowledge. We began by looking at the first four terms. I moved students through a quick presentation I created titled “Athletics & Writing,” which includes images from my book: e.g., a defensive football play, a head basketball coach drawing a play. I showed commonalities between writing a play and writing an academic paper. Both are rhetorical situations reliant on audience, exigence, and genre.

I then brought students’ attention the first writing assignments: a 500-word mini-paper in which they pick one of the four key terms, explain how the term is defined in Keith Grant-Davie’s “Rhetorical Situations and Their Constituents”—anthologized in Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs’s Writing about Writing—and then state how understanding this term will help them in future writing contexts.

To scaffold into this assignment, students worked in groups. Together they answered the questions aloud; individually they composed their answers on a shared Google doc:

  • What is Grant-Davie’s most important point about exigence? About audience?
  • Think about competing in a game for your sport. Who are the different kinds of audiences watching and responding to how you compete? What expectations do these audiences have for how you compete?
  • Think about a paper you wrote for a class last semester. Now look at the three questions Grant-Davie gives [What is the discourse about? Why is the discourse needed? What is the discourse trying to accomplish?]. Answer these three questions in regard to your previous paper.

The initial question related to the mini-paper, the second called on student athletes’ prior knowledge about audience, and the third planted a seed for the second writing assignment, a 1,500-word rhetorical analysis of a previous writing assignment taken from Chapter 3 of Writing about Writing. The questions help student athletes see that both writing an essay and writing a sports play require writers to respond to ever-shifting rhetorical situations.

Our many, many students bring with them unique ways of knowing and being. When we work to connect with their prior knowledge of writing, whatever the context, and structure our curriculum with moments of reflection, we help develop them more fully as literate persons.

Michael Rifenburg is an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of North Georgia. For the past decade, he has worked with and written about student athlete literacy at two different Division I schools and one Division II school.