Writing as Punishment? Oh, the Nerve!

“As punishment I have my students write a response to an ethical question when they are done with their social studies test,” a colleague said during a recent professional development session.

I’d been asked to lead a discussion on writing in disciplines other than English, and I’d asked the attendees to share out the various types of writing they have students practice in their classes.

“That’s pretty much the only kind of writing I do in my class,” he said, “That’s why I’m here.”

I might have stuttered a bit as I caught myself from falling down. I guarantee my neck turned red as it does when I am frustrated.

PUNISHMENT?! Did I hear that right?

What does a writing teacher do with that?

Imagine if I sat in his history classroom and boasted that I punished students by making them learn the historical context of a text prior to reading it. Imagine if I made a disparaging remark about his content at all. The nerve.

Therein lies a big part of the problem with student writers. Many people, teachers included, think writing is boring, or too much work, or punishment.

Then, it’s left up to English teachers with a passion for the craft to push and prod and plead with students to put at least a tiny thought on the plain white page. Somewhere someone ruined that child for the written word, and we have to undo some damaging false notion.

Don Graves reminds us that children want to write before they want to read. I know this is true. My own children reached for their dad’s pen or the random crayon before they ever sat still long enough to read a book. The two-foot-tall art on the clean white walls of my brand new house was evident often enough.

Children want to write. We must protect that desire. Nurture it with freedom and ideas and time.

Shame on the teacher who ever makes writing a punishment.

And yes, in case you are wondering, I spoke my mind.

“I challenge you to never call writing a punishment again,” I said as he squirmed just a bit, “Students will write, and they’ll love writing. You have to be the model of what that means in your own classroom.”

I believe that with all my heart.

It goes far beyond your Everyday story

51i318LHixL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_If you doubt, question, or undermine the complexity or rigor of young adult literature, read Everyday by David Levithan. Despite the book’s bland beige and gray cover, there is nothing dull or colorless about this story. It is a philosophical and, in my opinion, a political statement that calls into question what it means to be an individual in today’s world.

In the book, A is a genderless soul that inhabits a different body everyday (hence the title). The conflict is that A, in the first chapter, falls in love with Rhiannon, the girlfriend of a boy whose body A currently inhabits. Don’t worry; it isn’t as confusing as it sounds. This simple love story leads its readers to question what defines gender and even love as A inhabits different bodies throughout the book. Furthermore, A questions what the difference is between the soul and the body and how they can function as one or even two distinct beings.

David Levithan captures the beauty and innocence of being human through the simple yet straight forward perspective of A, an old soul with deep knowledge: “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this: We all want everything to be okay. We don’t even wish so much for fantastic or marvelous or outstanding. We will happily settle for okay, because most of the time, okay is enough.” A goes on to one of my favorite passages of the book, a passage that is great for book talking and providing a brief teaser without giving anything away.

I am a drifter, and as lonely as that can be, it is also remarkably freeing. I will never define myself in terms of anyone else. I will never feel the pressure of peers or the burden of parental expectation. I can view everyone as pieces of a whole, and focus on the whole, not the pieces. I have learned how to observe, far better than most people observe. I am not blinded by the past or motivated by the future. I focus on the present, because that is where I am destined to live.

“I learn. Sometimes I am taught something I have already been taught in dozens of others classrooms. Sometimes I am taught something completely new. I have to access the body, access the mind and see what information it’s retained. And when I do, I learn. Knowledge is the only thing I take with me when I go” (Levithan 6).

As a teacher, it is easy to love this passage. After all, it ends with the value of learning, but beyond that, this page (the entirety of page 6) shows A’s struggle with defining him/herself as an individual. Not only is there minimal diversification in the sentence starters, but A uses the personal pronoun “I” 25 times in just one page: “I would,” “I took,” “I felt,” “I am,” etc. This practice goes against the rule of what we oftentimes teach to young writers—stray away from using I at the beginning of every sentence. Levithan’s willingness to break the rules and question the norm is what makes this piece both a masterful mentor text and thought provoking must-read.

Running Away From Grading My Students’ Problems

when-i-runWhen we had to run the mile in elementary school, I was always at the back of the pack, inhaler in hand, slowly walking my way across the finish line. I have never been a runner; believe me, I’ve tried. So on Saturday afternoon, when I got the urge to hit the pavement in a light, albeit slow, jog, I was running away from more than my problems—the heaps of papers, laundry, meetings, assignments, and work I had waiting at home. I was running away from grading the problems of my students.

In the beginning of the year I always find that students are hesitant with their writing, cautious to share with one another, eager to find personal stories that are interesting yet not too revealing. I don’t blame them—after all, as much as we want to believe high school is a safe space to share our feelings and experiences, it isn’t. Bit by bit though, students unravel, some sooner than others, and slowly I begin receiving stories that are raw and honest. This last set of personal narratives I received included stories about the deaths of parents and grandparents and the suicide of a close friend. Students spoke about dealing with anorexia, suicidal ideations, and clinical depression. At 16 and 17 years old, many of these students have lived more life than some adults.

Part of this process has to do with the fact that my students peer review each other’s work. I find that as they are exposed to one another’s writing they tend to open up further. In addition, I share my own writing with them, in particular one piece on the complications that happened after my father had open heart surgery two years ago. I pick and choose what classes I share this piece with. Some classes are ready to hear that their teacher is capable of fear, anger, anxiety, and hurt; some classes aren’t. The piece is revealing of who I am as a daughter and sister instead of pigeon holing me into the role of a leader and teacher.

The problem with this dynamic is that it doesn’t fit into the traditional education system. While I am not an advocate of grades, I am also not anti-grades. Still, I find that no number can adequately convey the power of writing or the strength and guts of these students. As a teacher, I have to look at the structure, craft, mechangrade-620x425ics, and formatting of a paper, but no matter how much I observe the concrete aspects of a piece, I cannot help but remember that my job isn’t just about correcting punctuation or spelling; my job is to do justice to the stories of my students, to help them tell these stories in the most compelling way possible, which is what led me to my run on this fall day.

Unfortunately, my tromping across scattered leaves with heavy breathing and a stitch in my side didn’t bring any clarity, and when I returned to my kitchen table, the same stories sat underneath my pen, covered in blue ink that praised their bravery, their craft, their story. But still, these stories were gradeless, waiting for a number, waiting for the end of the quarter, waiting to be put into my online gradebook. So my question for all of you teachers, those of you who have been teaching and grading for far more many years than I, how do you tackle these difficult papers? How do you tack on a number to something that has so much more value?

A Novel in Verse to Study Craft

I recently read my first Ellen Hopkin’s novel in verse — all 666 pages. I’d often wondered why some of my most reluctant readers, girls mostly, would stick with and finish Hopkin’s books. Now I know.

While the thickness of the book is intimidating, the number of words on each page is not. The poems are short and beautifully worded, using language that makes the storyline pop like a 3D movie.

Impulse is the story of three characters, all with distinct voices, portrayed in their own series of poems. The point of view shifts from character to character, which I love because that adds to the complex thinking students must do to understand what is happening in the story.

All three characters suffer from some of the worst abuses that can happen in the lives of individuals. All are in a facility trying to figure out themselves and their horrid lives — primarily as result of the actions of adults.

This morning while checking my Twitter feed I was reminded of the need to introduce students to books as mirrors and windows. Students should be able to see themselves within the characters they read about, and they should be able to see into the lives of others that they may never know. Sometimes books allow students to do both. Impulse is one of those books.

I think it would be interesting to use this poem from page 2 as an exercise in imitation. What four verbs might students choose to write into their four sentence poem?

The Thread


you could turn off

the questions, turn

the voices,

turn off all sound.


to close out

the ugliness, close

out the filthiness,

close out all light.


to cast away

yesterday, cast

away memory,

cast away all jeopardy.


you could somehow stop

the uncertainty, somehow

stop the loathing,

somehow stop the pain.

Why Are So Many Adults Threatened by Students Choosing Books?

Amy Rasmussen:

The teacher-readers at Three Teachers Talk agree. The only way to promote, encourage, foster, nourish, and engage readers is to let them read. We thank The Reading Zone for this post. Our thoughts exactly.

Originally posted on The Reading Zone:

  • Flowers in the Attic
  • A Wrinkle in Time
  • As I Lay Dying
  • Mists of Avalon
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
  • The Hobbit
  • Little Women
  • Anne of Avonlea
  • the Bible
  • Cold Mountain
  • Angela’s Ashes
  • The Celestine Prophecy
  • Dreamland
  • Speak
  • The Hot Zone

A list of books you can find at garage sales or friends of the library sales?  Probably.  But the above-named books are also just some of the books I chose to read in high school.  They weren’t assigned books but instead were books that friends and I passed around.  Of course we read Hemingway, Salinger, Achebe, and Shakespeare in school.  Well, we “read” those.  I can tell you exactly which assigned books I read and which ones I “read”.  But the books I picked on my own and the ones my friends were all talking about?  Those I didn’t put down until I turned that last page.


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PTSA Reflections: The World Would Be A Better Place If…

Amy Rasmussen:

I love this line: “As I try to do with all assignments, I did the writing along with them.” This is a teacher who knows what her task is as an English educator and honors her students by walking the talk. If we expect our students to learn to write, take time to write, be willing to write — WE must write. We must write so they see our thinking, our struggle, our process. Because it’s in the process that all the learning happens. Thanks for sharing a slice of your pedagogy with us Mrs. Kelley.

Originally posted on Along for the Write:

The theme for this year’s PTSA Reflections competition is “The World Would Be A Better Place If…,” and I have assigned my students to write an original work for a ReadAround in class tomorrow.  As I try to do with all assignments, I did the writing along with them.  Below is my response to the prompt.

If “ifs” and “buts” were candy and nuts, oh what a Christmas it’d be.

My brother and I always said that when we were growing up, and it’s been running through my mind since we began the Reflections writing.  I think about the truth behind that little chant, and I have to shake my head that we had no idea what truth we were actually speaking in our naïve youth.  Quite honestly, at the time we liked being able to say the word “buts” without getting in trouble, and we also liked to taunt…

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A Whole New Take On He Said, She Said

307652“This raw and powerful book will hammer its way into your heart and haunt you,” says Laurie Halse Anderson, and boy, is she right.  Keir Sarafian, the narrator of Inexcusable, is one I won’t soon forget.  Not only is he guilty of having committed a horrible act, he’s also guilty of being completely unaware that he did anything wrong.

Keir is a rambling narrator, spilling sentences onto the page in an attempt to understand his past even as the reader struggles to alongside him.  He is a subtly unreliable narrator.

The narrative structure is my favorite part.  We jump back and forth between the present–as Gigi accuses Keir of rape, while he focuses on the fact that he’s a good guy–and the past–as we see the senior year storyline that leads up to the climax.

The focus is on perception–Keir sees the same events completely differently than Gigi does, which is so amazingly educational for my students.  The jumps in time are difficult for some, but the compelling subject of date rape keeps them hooked.  Inexcusable makes a reader feel empathetic, disgusted, confused, and ultimately, thoughtful–all in 176 pages.

From Inexcusable by Chris Lynch – p. 1

The way it looks is not the way it is.

Gigi Boudakian is screaming at me so fearsomely, I think I could just about cry.  I almost don’t even care what the subject is because right now I am sick and I am confused and I am laid so low by the very idea that Gigi Boudakian is screaming at me that the what-for hardly seems even to matter.  I love Gigi Boudakian.  I hate it when people I love scream at me.

And I don’t feel guilty.  That is, I don’t feel like I am guilty.  But I sure as hell feel sorry.

I am sorry.

I am one sorry sorry bastard.  And I feel very sick.

I am so sorry.

"All this happened, more or less."

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