Category Archives: Writing


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. 


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.