What Hemingway Taught Me About Teaching Writing

Gambling and writing seem to go together like a pen to paper (see my previous post about Dr. Seuss). Here’s another example of a gamble.

Ernest Hemingway was challenged to write a story containing a beginning, middle, and end using only six words. He won.

 Hemingway had other daily rituals with the potential to inform our teaching practices, but I’ve focused on three essentials.

Short Sentences

An essay, even a paragraph, is daunting for struggling student writers. On the other hand, a student’s writing can be overly enthusiastic with adjectives. Regardless of a student’s interest or abilities, mastery comes from practicing the basics. Challenge them to craft grammatically correct, short sentences. Particularly in the elementary grades, stick to a basic [subject] + [verb(s)] structure.
Here are a couple of practical resources to get you started:
  • 6 Word Memoirs (sixwordmemoirs.com): WARNING – preview it before using with students. Some of the memoirs are very humorous; others are mature in content and tone. Visitors can also receive more background about Hemingway’s six-word story.
  • Pic Lits (piclits.com): Give your students some visual inspiration to write. This site also throws in a drag-n-drop word bank to get their sentences started.

Write First

Hemingway, along with many of his successful peers, preferred to write early in the morning while his mind was clear and the environment was free of distractions. We can’t always guarantee this in the classroom, but we can try to Write First, as in, before starting the lesson of the day and before starting or continuing a class reading.
  • Free Writes: Students come to class with life distractions. If we want them to focus on learning, let’s provide an outlet the thoughts in their head. Start class with an open-ended free write. If a student needs more structure, take another cue from Hemingway; instruct them to “…write one true sentence.” The “truest sentence” they know! You might consider asking them to write more than one sentence.
  • Story Starters: Again, if students have trouble getting started, TheStoryStarter.com provides starter sentences. They just have to compose every sentence after it. Alternatively, a student could volunteer to provide their original story starter, and all students would be asked to respond to it.
  • HO.T.S. Questions: Use a writing prompt at the beginning of your class to get students focused and engaged with the topic of the day. If you have trouble creating a writing prompt, consider building off the Higher Order Thinking Skills (or H.O.T.S.) template available here (via the Teaching Channel).

Track Progress

At the end of the day, Hemingway always reviewed his writing. He not only read through the work but kept a record of the number of words written.
  • Student Portfolios: Gather and track this easily with Evernote.
  • Student Samples: Gather and track this easily with, yep, Evernote.
  • NaNoWriMo (nanowrimo.org): NaNoWriMo provides some structure and support for you to lead students to write their first novel. The challenge is completing this task within a month!

More Advice from Writers

Read the essays attached to the article 10 of the Greatest Essays on Writing Ever Written by Emily Temple.

Seussism – Teaching Writing with Creative Constraints


Theodor Seuss Geisel won a $50 bet by writing a book, Green Eggs, and Ham. The bet was to write an entertaining children’s book restricted to fifty unique words.

Make expectations clear and use restrictions strategically when designing classroom writing tasks.

By nature, I dislike constraints. As educators, we work with or against constraints every day (that’s why I subscribe to the maxim “ask forgiveness, not permission”). As with most aspects of life, constraints need to be balanced. Too many can hinder, and too few can overwhelm. Confession: I’ve seen the best work from myself and my students when setting up well-developed constraints. How do we get the rebellious student to subscribe to the idea of working under constraints? Attitude has a lot to do with it. Students sense when your objectives lack authenticity, meaning, or feel forced without consideration for their needs. Instead, present constraints as a puzzle without repercussions – a challenge intended to exercise creative muscle.

Well-balanced, thoughtful constraints can support a student’s growth as a writer and impact their learning. Here are a few practical ideas:

  1. Timed Trials – Use E.ggTimer.com and set a specific amount of time for students to respond to a prompt without repercussions. Give students an engaging topic and set them up like it’s a foot race. Let them get accustomed to the pressures of timed writing now because someday they might have to share their thoughts within a limited deadline! Remember, no repercussions! This time is intended for students to experiment with their writing styles and voices.
  2. Topics – Narrow topic choices and get students to step out of their comfort zone from time to time. What do students WANT to write about? What do students NEED to write about?
  3. Wording – Instead of requiring a minimum (or maximum) amount of sentences, require students to write a minimum amount of words. Also, you could restrict them from using certain words (especially overused words).
  4. Literary Devices – Same as above: require students to step out of their comfort zone by experimenting with a variety of literary devices they might not be accustomed to using every day.

More Advice from Writers

Read the essays attached to the article 10 of the Greatest Essays on Writing Ever Written by Emily Temple.

Works Cited
Mikkelson, B., & Mikkelson, D. P. (2007, July 12). Did Dr. Seuss take a dare he could write a book using fewer than fifty different words? Retrieved May 16, 2014, from http://www.snopes.com/language/literary/greenegg.asp

IMHO… Keynotes

In my ten years in the education profession, I’ve had the opportunity to sit through and, when it’s good, participate in a lot of professional development. I’ve listened to and Tweeted inspiring, thought-provoking quotes by numerous keynote speakers. I find myself becoming increasingly underwhelmed. Some people may label me a cynic, a pessimist, maybe even arrogant. That could be true too, but I’d also like to start seeing the changes I’m told needs to happen in education.

Here’s what my cynical experience has been with a lot of highly paid, optimistic keynote speakers.

Keynote: Teachers deserve to be treated with respect!

<Audience cheers.>

Keynote: Teachers should be paid a lot more!

<Audience claps and nods heads.>

Keynote: Standardized testing happens too much!

<Audience claps and nods heads and cheers. Some throw shade at their administrators.>

Sure, for the amount most keynotes are paid, they are a little more eloquent than what I’ve presented, but it boils down to the same, obvious, repeated message. We don’t need a keynote to tell us why our profession is so important, that we deserve to be compensated, or remind us about the unbalanced emphasis on standardized testing. After ten years in education, I’ve heard plenty of inspiring speeches. I’m plenty inspired, thanks. I’m ready to start working toward action.

So I Passed Out

Turning 34So, recently I passed out. It was unplanned. It was at home with my family. Yes, I was sober. It was a first for me. I’ve been rocked in sparring sessions. I’ve come close to passing out during Jiu Jitsu grappling sessions. This was the first time I’ve passed out.

My stomach began hurting during lunch. I assumed I didn’t eat enough for breakfast – six raw eggs (a.k.a., Rocky style) and multiple cups of coffee supplemented with coconut MCT oil. I forgot to measure the MCT oil correctly but assumed my stomach could handle it. It couldn’t.

I stood up and tried to relax on the living room floor. Suddenly I felt exhausted. And nauseous. Peeling myself from the living room floor, I began to stumble to the bathroom. I had to pause and brace myself against the wall just outside my downstairs bathroom.

Then I woke up to Julie shouting my name.

I thought I was running late for work. I didn’t know I had just passed out. I figured I was waking up like I do every morning, except I was waking up on the dining room tile floor, not like I do every morning. And the right side of my jaw was throbbing. That rarely happens every morning.

According to Julie, I landed on my face – which explains why my jaw hurts – and was out for approximately 7 seconds. I didn’t have much trouble picking myself off the floor. The EMTs came and cleared me. Then my family came and doted on me. I put off a trip to the ER but promised to make an appointment with my doctor ASAP.

So, on my 34th birthday, I visited my doctor and recounted everything leading up to passing out. He lectured me about eating raw eggs. They took my blood, and I was done. I hate needles. It was a helluva way to spend a  birthday. And my jaw is still a little sore when I chew.

Controversial Feedback

NCTE CEL Profile PicI had the honor of presenting at NCTE and CEL this year (2016). It was my first time, and I was assigned to sessions about PLCs, Action Research, and Professional Development. To the best of my ability, I connected all three topics by sharing the story of Oklahoma Education from the perspective of a fish-out-of-water state government employee, me. Participating in Oklahoma Education’s four-year long story was exhausting. Presenting a condensed 25 minute (approximately) oral account was easy. I simply had to brag about Oklahoma teachers. As it turns out, I had a lot to brag about. I don’t know with any certainty whether the public impression of Oklahoma is negative, but I feel as though it isn’t as respected as it should be.

I put together a slide show complete with Reaction Gifs, old selfies with teacher friends, and screenshots of news headlines and various teacher resources developed in-house. I recounted the standards struggle that started in 2010, my role in it starting in 2012, the various efforts to build relationships with teachers, and the pushback by obstructionists. It was a risky presentation because so many of the speakers are dynamic and interactive, but my presentation was a lecture, of sorts, driven by narrative. However, I believe it is an important narrative. It highlights where we’ve been, where we are, and an outlook for the near future. As it turns out, it was a shared narrative. Many attendees lamented having experienced or currently experiencing similar hurdles. That frustration unites us. It is unfortunate that Oklahoma had to be the first to undergo such struggles, but we should acknowledge and accept the responsibility to help our sister and brother states.

We don’t have everything we need or deserve yet. But we have, believe it or not, done great things by building a community of leaders and advocates.

The full story deserves a dedicated post. What I most want to share here is my favorite feedback from one of the attendees. I wrapped up the story with a hopeful outlook, highlighting the work of the Implementation Collaborative, and said “any questions?” To which an audience member responded…

I know what you’re thinking: “That’s not a question.” That’s not the point. I guess we are a bunch of rebels in Oklahoma. We do controversial things in times of great need. What’s the alternative?

“You sure do play it safe.”

No one wants to hear that story.

I guess, what I’m trying to say is, thank you for four controversial years of support, Oklahoma Teachers.

Prewriting

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Parallels

“It disgusts me how these immature, millennial liberals are burning the American flag just because their candidate lost! Grow up and get over it!”

“I know, right? There’s no excuse for such disrespectful behavior!”

They said, walking past the recently vandalized university dorms, carefully avoiding the wet paint dripping from the racial slurs.

Camouflage Racism

How do you camouflage racism?

Cover it up under patriotism.

Use religion.

Label groups as “too sensitive.”

How do you camouflage racism?

Bedtime Story

Tonight’s bedtime story: Dan, the Taxi Man.

I ask questions as we read because I want him to be College- and Career-ready or whatever. So I ask, “Where’s the Stop Sign?”

Stark: (Points to a stop sign.)
Me: How’d you know that’s a Stop sign?
Stark: S-T-O-P. Stop sign. (He says touching all the letters.)
Me: I would have also accepted “it’s red” as an answer.

The video that follows is an early indicator that this kid would grow up to be brilliant like his mother.

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