Sequenced Writing

Brendan Ryan





    When I was in undergrad I took a lot of creative writing classes, and I even took some writing workshops after I graduated to keep myself involved in that process.  One of the exercises we would do at the beginning of classes was to write for five minutes or so without picking our pen up from the paper.  It was an unprompted, free-association, mental “stretch” activity to get us engaged, especially on days when we were going to be doing some actual writing in class.  When free associating like that, some interesting things can come out, even topics or ideas that you weren’t consciously thinking about.

    The first assignment would consist of just that.  In their writing journals, students would spend five to ten minutes writing whatever comes into their heads without picking up their pen.  That doesn’t necessarily mean they have to write in cursive, or scribble on the paper so that all their words connect.  The idea is to keep writing, even if your sentences don’t have anything to do with one another.  It can even take the form of an outline, or notes.  Given a prompt to write about an experience they’ve had, students will usually tap into memories that they wouldn’t normally choose if they’d had time to premeditate or pitch a topic.  After the writing exercise is over, we’d discuss what kinds of things we’d written down either in small groups or as a class.  This is a good opportunity for teachers to participate in an assignment alongside students.  Because there is no instruction beyond “write whatever you want to” and no rules except to keep the pen moving on the paper, those ten minutes shouldn’t require any teacher involvement.


(The modification to incorporate computers is to tape a piece of paper over the monitor, and have students type that way.  Nobody should worry about spelling errors or punctuation, and removing the visual can sometimes help free up your mind.)


    On the day following that exercise, the class should reconvene to expand on the conversation from the previous day.  Here there are a few options on what to do next.  Students with similar topics can partner up to brainstorm, or just pair off to work on outlines regardless of topic.  If you want to restrict the topics to classroom experiences, that can encourage the class to come up with things that everyone has in common, and can help the workshop along.  This is also a good time to reinforce the elements of writing that make up a good story.  Setting, description, dialogue, and recalled emotions are some examples.

    By the end of the workshop, everyone should have an outline that they can work from.  This can be a visual diagram, or just a page or two of notes.  From here, the topic for the final writing assignment will be established, so the homework for that evening is to write out the first draft.  


(Technology modifications can include infographics, powerpoint, or a visual media project)


    On the third day of this assignment, students will pick a new partner and workshop their draft.  This can mean that students read out loud to each other, or just read their partner’s paper silently to themselves.  Everybody should have a red pen and be encouraged to spell check and proofread as a teacher would.  This way, everyone can turn in a final draft the following day.

    Students shouldn’t spend much time talking about grammar and spelling, however.  This class session is mostly about fleshing out their stories, giving constructive criticism, and brainstorming ways to complete the assignment.  This is where classmates can go a bit deeper on things like plot, descriptive language, adjectives, and narrative pacing.

    Having students proof read and workshop for one another takes the burden off the teacher, and gives them an appreciation for the grading process.  Ideally these assignments will result in better drafts, or at least a better understanding of what a teacher is looking for in a writing assignment.  It’s important to remind everybody to keep the comments positive, and to try and be as constructive as possible.  That doesn’t mean that all the input needs to be positive, it’s perfectly acceptable to criticise, just as long as it’s done in the right way.  For example:


Instead of saying, “I don’t like this part,” students should say, “I think this section needs to be expanded upon, or clarified.”


Instead of “The story is confusing,” students should talk directly about what confused them about the piece.  If characters are hard to distinguish from one another, then the suggestion should be to develop the characters a bit more, or include more information on what makes them different.

    All of this is basic writing workshop stuff, but it will be new to elementary students.  These assignments may skew a bit older, so my recommendation would be to save them for 4th and 5th graders.  There are ways to modify for younger students, but that inherently devalues the assignment somewhat.

I met two middle school students.

We've had a lot of snow in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs over the last week.  As a property owner, I've had to do a lot of shoveling, and I hate shoveling.

I have a bad shoulder, remember?  That actually has nothing to do with it.

Snow is heavy, man.  It's real heavy.  So when two young men showed up with shovels in hand, I would have paid them many dollars to shovel for me.  They wanted 20.

I used to do this when I was in high school, and for my dad in middle school.  It was a great way to make money.  I was nowhere near as professional as these dudes were.  They had pet-friendly salt for my stairs, they had weightlifting belts on to protect their backs, and they gave me a receipt.  What I would possibly do with a handwritten receipt from a 7th grader, I couldn't tell you, but I have it.

When they were finished I doubled their money and gave them $40.  It was worth it.  They got through it quick, but they were working hard.  It was about 20 degrees but they were hauling so much ass they were just working in t-shirts.  I respected that.

So we started chatting.  I told them they need to upcharge for the salt, and to get it in bulk at home depot.  They had a 2 pound container they paid $8.99 for, at home depot you can get 40 pounds for 15 bucks.  I told them to get a sled to haul that salt around and charge at least $5 for stairs, $10 for the whole front walk.

I also told them to come back any time it snowed more than 4 inches, and within 24 hours.  That's the rule in Evanston, and they didn't know it.

This is the kind of thing that can shape a kid's outlook on life.  Seriously.  If you hand every pre-teen boy a shovel, and tell them they can go make $100 an hour by shoveling, it can have an eye-opening effect.  Give them a rake in the fall, a lawnmower in the summer.  Same thing.

Kids are pulled in two directions.  There's the academic route, where studying hard and perfect attendance can launch you into the stratosphere of corporate America, and improve your life in ways you can't imagine.

Then there's crime.  There's enough opinions on crime, I'm not going to get into it.

But there's almost no middle ground.  Academics aren't for everybody, and that doesn't necessarily mean you have to live a life of crime, or menial jobs.  There are plenty of "alternative" avenues to success that weren't all that alternative a generation ago.

HVAC repair.  Auto repair.  Entrepreneurship.  The trades.  Things that kids can start working on now, that won't cost them 200 grand in tuition.  Ways to earn a good living outside the two paths presented in school.

It's not a failure to "only" earn a high school education.  If you do nothing with it, then maybe you've failed.  But if you go from high school into a job you like, that pays you a livable wage, with room for advancement, that's success.  Hopefully those two young men have realized that, and are aware of just how many opportunities are available to them.

Japanese Day of Remembrance

Instead of meeting for class as we normally do last Wednesday, everybody went to an event instead.  The topic revolved around Executive Order 90666, the Japanese Exclusion Act.  We've called it Japanese Internment, Relocation, and all kinds of other things, but it was imprisonment.

A few odd things kicked off the evening.  First we heard from Reverend Ron Miyamura, a historian and Buddhist reverend.  He asked how many of us learned about Japanese Exclusion in school.  I raised my hand, as did a few others, but as I did I couldn't honestly remember if I'd actually been taught anything about it in school.  Now I think it's just something I was aware of, and not necessarily because it was included in curriculum.

The second speaker was Jason Matsumoto, and he immediately looked familiar.  Then he mentioned he went to New Trier.  When I was in high school, we had a very clandestine gymnastics team, and I had a few friends who were on it.  I actually went to a couple meets, and Jason Matsumoto was on the Trevian gymnastics team, making this a very small world.  I introduced myself after.

He has a website.

His project focuses on one story, but his goal is to get school curriculum to include the Japanese Exclusion Act, and I agree with him.  Here's why:

I'm not going to mention our president.  The issue with Executive Order 90666 was that it was an executive order.  It didn't have to be approved by congress, it wasn't subject to questions about constitutionality, it just happened.

It was also never declared unconstitutional.  There were only three court cases ever heard in relation to Executive Order 90666, and of those three, two were thrown out.  The order was vacated, but never outlawed, meaning at any point it could happen again.  The burden would be on us to get it vacated again, and then outlawed, and not on the executive branch to get it approved before executing.  That's backwards government, and it's already been discussed by the current administration.  Publicly.

This is the kind of thing we need to talk about in schools, regardless of the political nature of the conversation.  If we're not helping our kids understand what's going on in their country, who will?

Teachers have blogs too

First things first, this is an assignment.  I know, I know.  You came here for pictures of Ruby and her amigos, and now you're reading about what I'm doing at grad school.  I promise it's related, and it has everything to do with my daughter.

My focus is elementary education, which means grades 1 through 5, and in today's educational environment, literacy is more important than ever before.  Every single class has dealt with getting kids to read more, helping them improve their reading, or the best things for them to read.  Every single one.

And before you ask, Ruby cannot read yet.  She loves books, and she will sit and look at them by herself, but as far as I know she hasn't figured out how to read by the age of two and a half.

However, I find ways to bring up Ruby's fondness for books in almost every class.  When her favorite story was The Little Engine That Could, she managed to commit the whole thing to memory.  She knew every word by heart, and she also knew when to turn the pages as well as which words belonged to each individual picture.  When I brought this up in a classroom, everybody was in agreement that this was the first step towards learning to read, and that her ability to memorize a story and recognize visual cues meant she was well on her way.  I asked Jesse about it later, and she echoed everything we'd talked about in class.  That convinced me.

As parents we hear that exposure to books is the best thing for your kids, but as a teacher I learned exactly how important that is.

During her little engine that could phase we read that book several times a day, every day.  It was... taxing.  I was ready to "lose" that book and never think about it again, and that would have been a mistake.  Even if a child is only interested in a handful of books, that might actually be a good thing.  So if I ever complain about how many times Ruby makes me read a children's book in your presence, please refer me back to my own blog post.  Thanks!