Tag: Writing

Assigning Essays: Embedded Differentiation

I miss the classroom. I miss my students. Working with students is less intimidating than working with adults.

However, the power of social media has allowed me to stay in contact with x-students and continue to be a support for them as they enter college. I didn’t allow them to connect with me through social media when I was their high school teacher (back then, I only used Facebook).

Below is a college assignment sent to me by a former student I had for Creative Writing. I’ve Skitch’d over it and reorganized the details for clarity.

So, the annotations might provide you with some insight into my cognitive processes for taking in information and organizing it.

I’ve used a yellow highlighter to focus on the writing mode and its components. I’ve used the Blue Question stamp to concentrate on a text I might need to reexamine. I marked the topic choices with a Green Check to denote that there is a decision to be made. And finally, I’ve used red to focus on the logistical requirements.

Of course, I’m even more OCD than that. I have to rewrite this in a more actionable sequence. So it may look something like:

Product: Casual Analysis (Argumentative Mode)

  • Make a case (or take a stance)
  • Use supporting evidence (x3) – facts, figures, quotes

Model: What’t Really behind the Plunge in Teen Pregnancy? – (I think this is the right article, but I’m double checking)

Topics: choose one

  1. Why is the auto accident fatality rate so high for teenagers?
  2. Why do so many young people drop out of high school or fail to graduate from college?
  3. Why is the suicide rate so high for teenagers?
  4. What is behind the self-destructive use of illegal drugs and practices amount young people?
  5. Why is voter apathy so high or church attendance so low?


  • MLA Format
  • Separate Works Cited Page…
  • …with minimum three entries…
  • …parenthetical reference
  • 1 periodical source
  • 5 pages in length
  • New Times Roman, 12 points

So what’s the point? Organization.

Students, like myself, can get lost in an assignment’s organization. Students like me need to decipher the wordiness and, sometimes, completely rewrite the format. Then, it’s easier to digest and understand. So, this presents an opportunity to reflect on how we write and organize our classroom assignments.


  1. We differentiate our classroom instruction, but do we also differentiate our assignments on paper to limit confusion?
  2. Or, is the ability to decipher a wordy assignment a valuable skill that deserves classroom time?


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

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