Category Archives: Teaching

5 Final English Projects that Aren’t Analysis Papers

It’s getting close to the end of the school year.  The students are antsy for summer vacation; you, the teacher, are probably even more restless.  Only one thing stands between you and sweet, sweet freedom: final projects.  (And grading.  And data entry.  And end-of-the-year professional development meetings.  Okay, lots of things stand between you and freedom.)

Do yourself and your students a favor and assign a final project that isn’t a book review or analysis paper.  Below is a list of projects I’ve assigned in the past.  You can choose one or mix-and-match.  (I usually ended up assigning two or three of them for a portfolio kind of project.)

1) Two characters walk into a bar coffee shop…..

Write a 5-page creative paper where two characters from different novels sit down together and have a discussion about a common theme in the books.  For instance, Edna from The Awakening and Hema from “Hema and Kaushik” could talk about the social and cultural pressures of being a woman, Hamlet (from Hamlet, obviously) and Milkman from Song of Solomon could talk about their mommy issues, or Jake Barnes from The Sun Also Rises could talk to Billy Pilgrim from Slaughterhouse-Five about the scars leftover from war.  Even when books are written in very different time periods and about very different places, there are still a lot of common elements (a good way to demonstrate the universality of literature!).

This project should be written like a short story with scenes, settings, movements, descriptions, dialogue tags, etc.

2) Write a chapter from a different perspective

Take an event from a book you’ve read in class and re-write it from another character’s perspective.  How does that change things?  This project is great for demonstrating narrative bias and understanding characterization.

3) Three-panel books

Someone re-told a bunch of Shakespeare plays through three panel comics.  I had my students do this for books we’ve read in class.  They had to pick three books and illustrate/write the plot in three panels– harder than it sounds!– and they also had to use their vocabulary words in the dialogue.

4) Write a missing chapter (+explanation of author’s style)

Students write a missing chapter from a book in the style of the author.  This is actually incredibly difficult and requires a nuanced understanding of what makes each author’s voice and style unique.  I also made my students turn in a short (1 page/3 paragraph) essay explaining the voice and style they used.

5) Write a literary analysis of a song of their choosing

Okay, this one is cheating a little because it is an analysis paper– but the subject of the analysis should at least be a bit more interesting to the students than assigning a book or poem to write about.  Using the literary/poetic devices you’ve covered in class like imagery, alliteration, slant rhyme, mood, tone, metaphor, etc, students can analyze a song like a poem.  There are so many wonderful songs out there that are very literary and perfect for this project.  You can have students turn in their song choices beforehand to make sure they’re literary enough to work.  (The first time I did this, one student chose “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” as her song and another student chose “Party in the USA.”  Let’s just say I didn’t make that mistake again.)

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The end of the academic year is tough.  Why not make it a little less tough by choosing a final project that’s fun for the students to do and fun for you to grade?

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11 Indispensable Resources for Writers and Writing Teachers

Like most writers, I split my time (albeit unevenly) between writing, editing, and teaching.  Here is a list of websites that have proven to be incredibly valuable resources over the years in all three areas.

1- Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab)

Let’s start with the basics.  Purdue University has an absolutely fantastic Online Writing Lab, free for everyone to use, where you can find the answer to almost any question about writing– whether it be about grammar, structure, style, how to cite sources, or anything else.  I used to put the link to this site on my syllabi at the beginning of the academic year and link to it on my class websites so my students would know to use it, and I’ve often used it myself when I can’t quite remember something like where the commas go in MLA citations.

2- UNC Writing Center Handouts

Can’t find what you’re looking for on the Purdue OWL?  Search the long list of handouts available on the University of Chapel Hill’s Writing Center website.  Both sites also have PDFs available to download and print to use in class.

3- Duotrope

Interested in publishing your own writing?  Duotrope.com is an exhaustive database of places where you can submit your work, everything ranging from the typical poetry and literary short stories to novellas, flash fiction, fan fiction, genre fiction, and everything in-between.  You can search for specific criteria (for example: journals that pay, are both print and online, and that publish vampire story flash fiction) and the database gives a brief description, run down of important information like pay and publishing schedule, how quickly the editors respond, and provide a link that takes you directly to the outside pages.  It is a pay site, but if you submit a lot, it’s worth the money.

4- Newpages

Newpages.com provides reviews of literary magazines (including specific issues and authors– I was reviewed on there years ago(!), and also mentioned briefly in one of their press releases) and has a long list of literary magazines that accept submissions.  Unfortunately you can’t search the list the same way you can with the Duotrope database so it involves a lot more time, energy, and clicking around, but it is free.

5- AWP

Everyone of course knows about the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) yearly conference, but if you don’t regularly check out their website, you should.  (And if you don’t know about the conference, look into that too!  Incredibly useful panels and a good excuse to hang out with your writer friends for a few days.)  They have videos and podcasts and craft essays and interviews and job listings, among other things.  Some of the content is only available to those who have paid for membership, but a lot of it is available for free.

6- List of Writing Residencies, et al.

Post-mfa.tumblr.com is a good resource in general, and this list of writing residencies and writing conferences is especially useful.  It is not an exhaustive list and some of the information may be outdated, but it’s a good place to start if you’re interested in applying for residencies and a little lost about how it’s all done.

7- Show Me the $$$!: Literary Magazines That Pay

This post on the Review Review site gives a run-down of which literary magazines pay their writers, what they typically publish, and about how much they pay.  We all know that the days of making a living from publishing our writing in literary magazines is long gone, but it’s still nice to know we have options and may even make a little pocket change.

8- Who Pays Writers?

If you write more general-interest stuff (as opposed to literary), this is a list of magazines, both print and online, that pay for things like personal essays, reported pieces, interviews, etc.  Again it provides brief information about the magazines, what the pitching and editing process was like, and about how much they pay.

9- EFA Editorial/Writing Rates

Are you working– or interested in working– as a freelance editor, writer, proofreader, fact-checker, transcriber, ghostwriter, translator, or anything else involving words?  And if so, are you having a hard time figuring out what to charge for your time?  This is a fantastic list of what to charge per hour, depending on the specific service you’re providing, from the Editorial Freelancers Association.  The list was updated as of July 2015, so the rates are fairly current.

10- Pricing 101: How to Price Yourself as a Freelancer

Would you rather charge your clients per project, rather than per hour?  This post on Careerfoundry.com is a good tutorial on the benefits of project-based pricing and how to start.

11- Social Security Website Database of Baby Names

Okay, this one is a little different than the other resources on this list, but it’s still useful, I promise.  The Social Security website has a database of the top 200 baby names (both male and female) for every decade since the 1880s.  If you are a fiction writer who is struggling to think up names for your characters, you can usually find something that works if you click around long enough.  And if not… hey, it’s still interesting to look at.  (Fun fact: Flossie climbed from #198 in 1880s to #151 in the 1890s, then fell to #164 in the 1900s before disappearing in the 1910s.  Poor Flossie.)

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6 Things I Wish My Students Understood

I realized recently that I’m currently in my fifth year of classroom teaching.  It doesn’t feel like that long, but maybe that’s because of how much moving around I’ve done: I started teaching at a big state university, switched to teaching at a small, nontraditional high school, and am currently in my first semester of teaching at a private university in Istanbul.  I’ve taught everything from creative writing to academic writing and remedial writing, and both American and world literature.  I’ve never had the same teaching schedule two years in a row.

Regardless of where I’m teaching or who I’m teaching, I notice a lot of similarities between the students.  Below are five things I wish all of my students understood.

1: The syllabus is more than just a list of rules and a schedule; it’s a blueprint for how to get a good grade in the class.

Students tend to zone out on the first day of class when the teacher/professor is going over the syllabus.  It might be because it’s boring, or it might just be that they figure they’ll worry about it later, when work is actually due.  However, if you care about doing well in the class, paying attention to how the teacher explains the syllabus will make things much easier.  We are EXPLICITLY TELLING YOU WHAT TO DO FOR A GOOD GRADE.  Not to mention that we get sick of answering the same questions over and over during the semester.

No, really. It's ALL on the syllabus.

No, really. It’s ALL on the syllabus.

2: Coming to class will make the assignments easier.

Students often seem really committed to the idea that they will only attend as much class as necessarily to not fail, and then are confused as to why they don’t know how to complete a project or answer questions on a test.  The point of assignments is not to randomly torture you; it’s to prove you know the material.  The material that we explicitly go over, and that I spend a lot of time explaining, in class.  Maybe you are one of those people who can magically understand everything from reading the book, and if so, congratulations, but you’re in the minority.  Additionally, I often give direct rubrics and outlines for the information that will be covered that you only get if you come to class.  It’s worth your time, I promise.

3: Related, the point of the class is to learn something.

The point of the class (ostensibly) is not to get a grade or a credit on your transcript– it’s to learn information and/or skills that will help you in life/your career/etc.  Again, skipping class as often as possible and then begging the professor to pass you anyway or trying to find other ways around actually doing the work doesn’t fulfill the actual purpose of getting an education.  I was definitely guilty of this as a student at times, specifically in classes that I wasn’t all that interested, and I think it’s a reminder that we could all use every now and then.

4: If you are a good, responsible student, I will be more understanding if you need a favor.

Shit happens.  People’s grandmothers do die (although probably not at quite the rate that students would seem to suggest when there is a big project coming up), printers do malfunction, we all get sick sometimes, we go through bad break-ups that leave us comatose for a week or two, so on and so forth.  However, if you never come to class or turn your work in on time and then you tell me your stoner roommates used your term paper to light a bonfire for their s’mores right before class, whether or not it’s true, I probably will not give you an extension.  If, on the other hand, you come to class, do your work and do it well, and participate, I will be MUCH more understanding if a situation arises where you need extra time or extra help.  I think this goes for pretty much every professor.

5: We are human too.

We all know that teachers make mistakes– in fact, students often are completely delighted to point it out when it happens.  However, know that we have bad days, too.  There are times we haven’t gotten enough sleep, or have headaches, or are worried about something that’s happening outside of work and distracting us.  We usually teach anyway, but there are times we are not at the top of our game.  I’ve been fighting off a cold and just this morning I taught my class with a major case of the sniffles, barely able to breathe and feeling like crap– and I went through the material quickly and let them go early.  No one wants a stuffed-up, sneezing professor (and everyone DOES want to get out early on a Friday).  So be patient with us on the days when we might be a little slower or a little less polished than normal.

6: I truly enjoy teaching, or I wouldn’t be doing it.

Yes, really.  There are times I’m tired.  There are times I’m irritated (again, it’s on the damn syllabus!).  But I really enjoy being in the classroom and working with students or else I would have found a different career by now.  No one stays in this job unless they love it, and here I am, five years later.

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5 Short Stories to Teach Craft

Every writing instructor is faced with a challenge when deciding on the curriculum for his course: What texts is he going to choose to reinforce craft or stylistic elements that he’s trying to teach his students to use themselves?  For most, this is a welcomed challenge, because it gives instructors an excuse to dig through their bookshelves and file cabinets for their favorite stories and essays and ruminate on comparative artistic value.  (If a writing instructor ever tells you he doesn’t enjoy this, he’s lying.)  And there are times when the challenge is easier than others– there are tons of pre-assembled resources for composition and remedial writing courses, for example, along with lesson plans set up that directly relate to the texts.  But half the fun of teaching is being able to tailor your curriculum and get creative, and this is especially true when teaching a fiction workshop.

Below are some of my favorite short stories to teach specific elements of craft:

Ernest Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home” to Teach Iceberg Dialogue and Subtext

The idea behind iceberg dialogue is that, like an iceberg, only 1/8th of what’s actually being said is visible or surface-level.  It’s an incredibly effective tool because it forces your readers to look beyond the dialogue for the emotion entrenched in what’s being said, thus making your story deeper, without actually telling them how they’re supposed to be feeling.  It involves nuance, inference, and context, and Hemingway is famous for it (or infamously cryptic, depending on who you’re asking).

The story “Hills Like White Elephants” is typically considered Hemingway’s magnum opus of iceberg dialogue, but I would argue “Soldier’s Home”– written earlier in his career, when he was less polished but no less effective– is an even better example as well as a better short story.  It’s a story about a (you guessed it) solider who comes (you guessed it) home from fighting in Germany in WWI, and he has trouble acclimating back into his old, small-town life, particularly when it comes to relating to other people.  It ends with a scene of dialogue between him and his mother where the words are brief and the meaning sizzles just under the surface, much like the plate of bacon fat the protagonist stares at when he can’t look his mother in the face (emotional context detail!).  Great story, even better iceberg dialogue.

Bonus: Depending on the kind of course you’re teaching, it can easily be tied into a plethora of current events/dialogues about veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.” to Teach Voice and Unreliable Narrator

Here is a confession: I’m a Southerner born and bred, but I’m not particularly familiar with Southern literature outside the occasional Faulkner and years of teaching Mark Twain to high school students.  That said, I adore this short story by Welty.  It’s a story about a dysfunctional family, told from the first person perspective of a sister who describes how she ended up (again, you guessed it) living at the post office rather than at home.  There is sibling rivalry.  There is a love triangle and babies who may or may not be adopted.  There are fireworks and epic, decades-long beards.  There is a drunk uncle in a kimono.  So basically, it has everything you could want in a story.

The voice of the narrator (one of the sisters involved in said sibling rivalry) shines through loud and clear– you can practically feel the Southern lilt slide across your skin– and at some point in the narration, you start to get suspicious that her version of what happened might be a bit biased.

Bonus: It’s funny enough that even the most stoic students crack a smile once or twice.

Ursula Le Guin’s “The Poacher” to Teach Narrative Perspective/Point of View (POV)

There is a popular trend nowadays of retelling old, familiar stories, usually fairy tales, from the perspective of an unexpected character.  I’m not going to do a google search to confirm, but I’m pretty sure at least eighty Snow White retellings have come out in the past three years.  (That sounds right, right?)  And there’s that movie about the jive-talking, snowboarding Granny in The Big Bad Wolf story, and the musical Wicked where the Wicked Witch of the West retells The Wizard of Oz and you see she’s actually the good guy, and so on.

Ursula Le Guin basically did the same thing with “The Poacher”, a (kind of) retelling of Sleeping Beauty published in 1992.  The short story tells about the life of a poor poacher growing up penniless with his father and stepmother in a hut in the woods, when he one day stumbles upon the enchanted kingdom after everyone/everything has been put to sleep.  Rather than wake everyone up or even try to figure out what the heck is going on, he takes advantage of having a free, security-less kingdom at his disposal.  This particular story is such a good example because it’s subtle– there are hints throughout, but most students don’t figure out what story is being told until pretty far into the plot, and some don’t figure it out until the very end, when Sleeping Beauty herself is mentioned (albeit not by name).  Basically, it shows how the same basic plot or situation can be perceived in completely different ways depending on whose perspective is being told.

Bonus: The descriptions are amazingly beautiful and the story can be used to teach that, too.

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Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” to Teach Setting as Mood

We all know Edgar Allan Poe.  We studied “The Bells” in high school English, “The Tell-Tale Heart” probably scared us at some point in our lives, and those of us who are old enough to be familiar with it love The Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror version of “The Raven”.  While Poe’s stuff isn’t exactly complicated for the most part, he’s a lot of fun to teach and there are definitely things that can be learned from his writings, particularly how to set the mood of a piece.

“The Fall of the House of Usher” is about as Poe-ian as it gets.  The basic plot involves a man (the narrator) going to visit an old friend.  Predictably, this friend lives in a falling down mansion in the middle of nowhere, and creepy things ensue immediately upon the narrator’s arrival, like possible zombie sisters, mysterious illnesses, voices coming from crypts, furious thunderstorms, corpse-like doctors, and…. just about every other cliche you can think of.  That being said, the opening scene describes the mansion impeccably and the adjectives are picked just right to set the creepy tone of the story.  It’s easy enough to underline and switch out the adjectives with different ones to see how the mood can change depending on description.

Bonus: Since “the fall of the house of Usher” refers literally to the house falling in addition to the end of the Usher bloodline (ie, the house of Usher), you can use it to discuss double meanings and extended metaphors.

Junot Diaz’s “Alma” to Teach Characterization

I absolutely love, love, love Diaz (he is one of the few writers I would fangirl all over if I met him) and this flash piece, originally published in the New Yorker, might be my favorite of his short fiction.  Weighing in at just under a thousand words, it grabs you from the first line: “You have a girlfriend named Alma, who has a long tender horse neck and a big Dominican ass that seems to exist in a fourth dimension beyond jeans.”  (Obligatory warning: I wouldn’t use this story with students younger than college aged, due to potentially offensive language and content.)

“Alma” is part story and part character sketch.  There is definitely a story arc and a conclusion where something is different than when it began– the last line is brilliant, and Diaz actually uses that line as the title of another of his books.  But more than anything, Diaz packs more vivid characterization in those 900-odd words than I’ve seen other writers do in 700 page novels.  The reader knows what Alma looks like, how she dresses, how she sees the world, her ambitions, her disappointments, how she drives, her hobbies, her heritage, all through a beautifully written laundry list of carefully chosen details about her and her life.  We get to know just as much about the narrator, too.  If there’s one thing I want my creative writing students to walk away from my class knowing, it’s how to create character through specific, concrete details (for instance, the difference between saying “the banker had on a button up shirt” versus “the banker had on a pink pinstriped Brooks Brothers button-up, impeccably smooth beneath his nautical tie save for that one mustard stain near the hem that he always forgot about until it was too late”) and Diaz is a master of doing just that.

Bonus: It’s a great example of the second person narrative.  And voice.  And flash fiction.  Actually, you can use this to teach pretty much anything.

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Lessons From The Front Of The Classroom

Recently I finished my third and last year teaching English and writing at a public charter school.  Before that, I spent two semesters + a summer session teaching at a big state university.  Over these last four years, I fell in love with teaching more than I could have thought possible, especially considering it wasn’t a clearly defined career goal for me before actually doing it, and while I will not teach in a public school again until some major changes are made, I have a hard time imagining staying away from the classroom forever.

There is an old cliche that teachers use sometimes about their students teaching them, and it’s definitely true.  Here are a few of the most important lessons I learned at the front of the classroom.

How To Speak In Front Of A Crowd

I’m naturally a quiet, introverted person, and I’ve long had an intense fear of public speaking; any presentations I gave in high school and college were red-faced and stammering.  The first time I ever taught a class (a 200-level fiction workshop at the aforementioned state university), I was 25 and so nervous that I could not force myself to smile on that first day.  Who knew what those poor students thought of me.  However, within a few class periods I had loosened up (a passion for the subject matter definitely helped!), and over the years it’s gotten easier and easier to where I am totally comfortable addressing a class-sized crowd of 30-ish people or less (whether it be students, coworkers, parents, or anyone else).  There have been times where I’ve had to talk in front of a much larger crowd for my job– briefly addressing hundreds of people at school assemblies and the like– and that still is uncomfortable and nerve-wracking for me, but is getting better.

Most recently, the seniors at my school asked me to be the faculty speaker at their graduation, and I agreed.  My delivery wasn’t perfect and I was still very nervous,  but I managed to get through it calmly, speak slowly, and even smiled a few times.  No red face, either.  That definitely wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago.

How To Discipline With Empathy

Going from teaching college to high school was an interesting experience– I had absorbed and fully believed in the tough-guy-takes-no-bullshit professor persona that you can get away with in college classes.  Didn’t do the assignment?  You get a zero.  Missed too many days?  You fail the class.  No, you can’t argue your way out of it, and there’s no appeals process.

I still believe in setting and sticking to tough parameters and holding students to high standards, but I figured out pretty quick that being overly rigid with teenagers usually does more harm than good.  Teens have a tendency to give up on themselves if they’re (metaphorically) beaten down too much, and I found that high standards and discipline with a heavy dose of understanding and encouragement were much more effective.  I feel like dealing with teenagers on an almost-daily basis fort three years has taught me tons of lessons that will come in handy in the future event that I find myself with kids of my own, and this is one of the top ones.

How To Be A Better Writer

Grammar is a tricky thing.  For most of us who spent our childhoods with our faces buried constantly in books, writing comes naturally– it’s something I’ve always been good at without having to think too much.  However, being good at something doesn’t mean you know the technical terms for what you’re doing or can explain it to anyone else.  I’m sure my teachers taught me grammar at some point in my education, but the rules never really stuck… until I had to teach them.

By the time I started teaching high school, I already had an MFA in creative writing, was a published writer, and had years of freelance editing experience– but there were still certain grammatical mistakes I consistently made.  (And let’s be honest, there probably still are.)  Having to know grammar/sentence structure/organization well enough to put it in plain terms for my students, including all those scary-sounding technical terms like “dangling modifier” and “dependent clause”, made my own writing crisper and more confident.

How To Widen The Definition Of Success

As educators, we want to save everyone, and it’s really easy for teachers, administrators, and even parents/guardians to think that success is a one-size-fits-all outcome where a student gets top grades, has high standardized test scores, and scores dozens of college acceptance letters.  It doesn’t always work like that.  There are some students who, for myriad reasons (a lifetime of struggling with learning disabilities that have left their confidence severely shaken, traumatic past events, an unsupportive home environment, etc), will never be top performers or even do their work consistently, regardless of how much you encourage, support, or threaten them.  And as teachers are beating their heads against the wall trying to get students to do well in their class, that can be very, very frustrating.

However, there’s two things to remember when we’re tearing our hair out over students who aren’t turning in work or performing well for whatever reason:

1- If you take a group of students who have a past of academic failure (again, for myriad reasons), you probably will not be able to save them all… but you will be able to save some of them.  I’ve had students who society would easily write off as hopeless turn over a new leaf and graduate with decent grades, when before it didn’t look like they would graduate at all.  Even if it’s just 10% of the group, or 25% or 50%, each student matters, and you never know which students it will be.

2- Becoming too focused on that one definition of success discounts the million other things a student can get from being in your classroom.  You might have a student with learning disabilities, for instance, who will never pass a standardized test (it’s tough to score well on a science exam if you have a lot of trouble reading), but who will walk out of your class knowing much more (and able to tell you verbally all about it) than they would if everyone had already given up on them and they had dropped out.  You might have a student who will never turn in a literary analysis paper that’s worth a large chunk of their grade, but who discovers a love of poetry or creative writing in your class and that helps them get through tough times and maybe even steers their later education or career path.  Or sometimes, for some kids, it’s just knowing an adult is on their side and having a safe place to come every day.

If you can ask yourself “Is this student better off in some way than before he/she came into my classroom?” and answer “yes”, no one has failed.  It’s the kind of success that will never be reflected in standardized test scores, but it shouldn’t be underestimated, either.


Like virtually every list on my blog, this is an incomplete compilation.  I could go on and on about the things teaching has taught me– how to multitask like a boss, how to understand and respect my own limits, how to unjam copiers using a combination of light caresses and brute force, etc– but we’d be here all day, and it would still never be finished.

I do ask that you take a couple of minutes to read this article: A Teacher’s Tough Decision To Leave The Classroom.  It puts eloquently into words what so many of us are thinking and experiencing these days.  I’m returning to my summer job teaching at a writing camp so I’ll get my classroom fix in the short term; after that, I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing (and am much calmer about the uncertainty than I would have guessed), but I’m holding out (perhaps falsely naive) hope that something good will come around.  I do know, however, that I am going to miss teaching for however long I’m away from it.  I’ve said a million times that teaching is the steepest learning curve I’ve experienced, but once a passion for it gets under your skin, it’s hard to shake.

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13 More Creative Writing Exercises and Prompts

This is a follow-up entry to 28 Creative Writing Exercises and Prompts.  I’ve realized, after writing them down, that most of these prompts are geared towards high school writing classes  and are very poetry-heavy (can you guess what I’m concentrating on this year?), but they could be adapted for older students easily enough.

1) Mystery Persona Poem: As a class, read “Monologue in the Valley of the Kings” by Anthony Thwaite.  (Bonus– you can find videos of him reading this poem on youtube.)  This poem is from the perspective of an Ancient Egyptian mummy, speaking to archaeologists who are trying to find the treasure in his tomb.  Discuss what a persona poem is, then write persona poems from the perspective of someone or something that knows the secret to a mystery.

2) Bizarre News Story: Go to one of those “weird news” websites and copy down five of the most intriguing headlines.  Put them on the board; have students choose one and write the story behind it.

3) Spirit Animal: One dusky evening, you meet your spirit animal in the woods.  What is the animal and what happens next?

4) The ___ Line of the ____ Page Poems: Cut strips of paper in two different colors.  Write numbers on each strip (usually anywhere from 1-200, not necessarily in any sort of order).  At the beginning of the class period, have students poke around the bookshelves and choose one random fiction book (or, if you’re at home, pull a random book off your shelf).  Have the students draw two strips of paper, one of each color, with the numbers on them.  One number is the page they need to flip to in the book, and the other number is the sentence they need to find on that page.  Use that sentence as the first line of a poem.

5) Confessional Poems: Have students read “Confessions” by Lowell Jaeger and “This is just to say” by William Carlos Williams.  (You can also listen to confessional songs like “I Shot the Sheriff” by Bob Marley and “Criminal” by Fiona Apple as extra examples.)  Have the students write their own poems in which they confess something– but don’t have them put their names on it.  (And encourage them to keep it school appropriate; otherwise, there’s a good chance this one will get out of hand.)  Then, switch the poems, have each person read the poem they got aloud, and as a class, guess who wrote which poem.

6) Human(ity): Peruse the Humans of New York blog.  Choose one of the brief interviews and write the story behind it.

7) Hollywood in Detail: I used this one when I was teaching college-level fiction workshops.  To practice descriptive writing, I had each student go home, watch a well-known movie (or at least the beginning of one), and describe, in as much excruciating and vivid detail as possible without giving any identifying names, the opening shot (maybe the first 30 seconds – 1 minute).  In class, we read them aloud and guessed which movies they were.

8) The Fall I was 14, the Winter I was 17:  Read “The Summer I was 16” by Geraldine Connolly.  Have the students switch the season out for whatever season you are currently in and 16 for whatever age they are.  Have them write a poem that captures the feeling of being ________ years old in the season of _________.

9) Write a story from the perspective of a character you don’t like.  For instance, write the story from the perspective of someone who’s bossy, or stuffy, or manipulative.  Make them sympathetic.

10) Write a story where a good person does something morally reprehensible.  What is their motivation?  what is their justification?

11) Where I’m From: Read and discuss “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon.  Switch out things that the poet lists for things from your own childhood/home.

12) Active Verb Poems: Choose a poem with a lot of good active verbs (a couple of my favorites are “Snow Day” by Billy Collins and “Earthmoving Malediction” by Heather McHugh).  Replace all the verbs with blanks and have the students fill them in with their own.  It’s amazing poems can take entirely different meanings and directions just by switching out one part of speech; students will start with the same framework and end up with something completely unique.

13) I Am Not A Painter: Read “Why I Am Not A Painter” by Frank O’Hara.  Take the first line (“I am not a painter, I am a poet”) and replace “painter” and “poet” with blanks.  Have the students fill in the blanks and use the poem as a guide to write their own.

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Uphill Battles and Experiential Education: Inspiring Teens to Learn

I had a really frustrating period with one of my 11th grade classes recently: Less than 1/3rd of the students turned in their projects on time (absolutely shameful, as I told them) and then a handful exhibited less-than-desirable attitudes throughout a hands-on, creative lesson plan I had spent a long time putting together.  I dismissed them that day feeling very irritated and was all set to come in the next day and give them the lecture of their lives.

Instead, after coming across an article titled How A Radical New Teaching Method Could Unleash A Generation of Geniuses that was being tossed around on Facebook by my teacher friends, I printed off copies and passed them out.  I did so without context, merely saying that we were going to push back what we had planned for the day, and I gave them time to read the article in class.  They were completely silent during that time– no one was whispering to their friends, fidgeting in their seats, or sneaking peeks at their phones.

Although the article doesn’t mention the phrase specifically, much of what it’s talking about is experiential education, or learning through hands-on experience and problem-solving.  Often this involves presenting students with a problem or task without explaining it, having them hash it out on their own or within pairs or small groups to see what they come up with, and then explaining the concept behind it and coaching the students to reflect on their process.  Another key element is having students teach each other.

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This approach involves active thinking from the students rather than passive reception of facts or knowledge from teachers and has been proven over and over again to be highly effective.

I admittedly gave the article to that class as a less-than-subtle “hint hint, nudge nudge, shape up” and with a “discussion” afterwards about how they need to make the choice between participating in hands-on learning with a good attitude or doing grammar worksheets quietly at their desk all year, which is the alternative.  And it worked– I overheard one student say “This is really messing with my head” as he left, and it prompted several of them to talk to me privately over the next couple of days about things they’re struggling with or apologizing for the way they’ve been acting– and just opening that door for communication has been good, plus I’ve noticed a definite uptick in their behavior in the week since.

I found the article so interesting that I decided to have my other classes read and discuss it.  I work at a small, interdisciplinary public charter school where the students come from a wide variety of educational backgrounds– most either were homeschooled or had bad experiences in large public schools, with a few coming from Montessori or Waldorf schools.  We sat around and talked about their different experiences with education and school structures, what our school does well and what it could still work on, and what some of the roadblocks are with public education right now.  The conversations were interesting and enlightening, and there seemed to be a consensus among my high schoolers that they learned best by problem-solving and doing hands-on activities rather than worksheets or lectures, during which they have a hard time staying focused and interested.

As a writing/English teacher, I am the first to admit that sometimes traditional ass-in-chair, pencil-to-paper lessons are a necessity.  However, I’m lucky to work at a school that lets us build our own curricula and not teach to the test, and I take advantage of that and push myself to be creative in how I structure my class periods and teach topics.  This doesn’t mean, however, that I’m completely immune from the pressures of getting my students to “perform” in traditional ways– for instance, all North Carolina juniors are required by the state to take the ACT, which they are now using as a standardized test for that grade, and I find myself having to spend much more time than preferred teaching them how to write ACT essays even though colleges agree that the five paragraph essay structure on these exams is counterproductive to students’ writing and my professor friends bemoan that they have to teach students how to un-learn that kind of essay writing once they get to the next step in their education.  Still, my school is graded on how well my students do on those essays, so– I teach them, through handouts and boring lectures.  It is what it is.

With schools and class sizes expanding (even at our small-by- comparison-but-getting-less-small charter school), funding being cut, resources taken away, and ever-increasing demands put on teachers, it can be easy to lose your motivation and just hand out worksheets and push the students through.  These discussions have made me recommit to the kind of experiential learning that students prefer and that, lets be honest, is more fun and engaging for me too.  As long as I’m here, that’s how I’ll teach, standardized tests or no.

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Year-End Wrap Up, Teacher Edition.

Another school year is over.  Yesterday, I sat in a ballroom and watched a small group of students I’d worked closely with for the past two years give speeches and walk across the stage with diplomas in hand.  I teach at a very small school– the graduating class was 13 students– and I had seen each and every one of those students struggle, mature, and shine over these two years, and seeing them graduate and symbolically move on to the next step in their lives filled me with such a sense of rushing pride that it was almost unbearable.  After the ceremony was over– after the students stood up, turned to face the crowd, switched their tassels as we applauded, most of them holding back tears themselves– I let out a big, long, shaky sigh.  The coworker sitting next to me, another English teacher, responded with, “Yeah, that about says it all.”

This was my third year in the classroom but the first teaching full time, and it was equally full of challenges and successes.  The first semester, particularly, getting used to being around teenagers all day long and taking work home with me every night and every weekend, was tough; I loved my job but I almost constantly felt overwhelmed and stressed out, like I could never quite get my feet under me.  Then, little by little, lesson planning became a little easier once I figure out what worked and what didn’t, and grading started to go a little more quickly, and I had a bit more much-needed free time during evenings/weekends.  I started not letting things bother me so much (having a Type-A personality can be catastrophic when you work in a job that requires the kind of flexibility that mine does).  By partway into the second semester, things had settled into a much more manageable rhythm.

[One of my biggest challenges this year was the fact that I had a particularly big and rowdy study hall, and it came at the end of each day when I was already tired and my patience was not always at its highest.  A lot of energy was spent on class management just to get the kids to, like, sit in their seats and not yell or throw things.  After an instance one day where something crazy happened– I can’t remember– I just put my head in my hands and sighed, too tired to even lecture them or give out detentions, and one of my other students tentatively offered up the information that they do weekly relaxation yoga sessions on Wednesday afternoons next door.  Ahahahahaha.]

But as often as I was stressed out or tired or wondered whether the compensation is worth all the hard work, there are a million things that were wonderful about this year.  I taught AP English and two sections of 11th grade, in addition to Creative Writing and Remedial Writing, and it was my second year having most of these students in class.  One of the most rewarding things was watching students grow into themselves over the two years, to become more confident in who they are and in their work, to see students overcome their anxiety about speaking in class or to see their enthusiasm when they realized that, hey, reading can sometimes be fun, and writing too.  At the end of the year, I had my students write reflective essays rather than taking an exam, looking back at their year in English class and thinking about what they were proud of and what they found most challenging, and setting English goals for the next year.  It was wonderful to read their feedback on what they were proud of, especially; several of them wrote about how this was the first year they became invested in school and kept up with their homework, and one student wrote about how getting good grades in my class gave him the confidence to do well in his other classes.

Probably the thing that was most rewarding this year, almost to my surprise, was my Remedial Writing class.  I was wary going into it– I had never taught remedial before, and I was worried that the students in it, who struggle with reading and writing, would be particularly unhappy about getting a double dose of their most challenging subject and it would turn into a year-long fight to get them to do anything– but it turned out to be fantastic.  The wonderful administration made sure to keep the class small so I could spend a lot of time working individually with the students.  (Out of all the bickering and conflicting theories surrounding education, the one thing I am absolutely convinced of is that class size matters.  The smaller, the better; students who otherwise would slip through the cracks might actually have a shot at being successful if teachers have the time to sit down and work with them.)  We went slowly and worked hard on pre-writing, drafting, revising, and editing until they had final products.  The students showed up each and every day enthusiastic and ready to work, and I could see a marked progress in all of their skills over the course of the year.  Students who literally could not write a paragraph at the beginning of the year were turning in polished, decently long papers by the end, with very little help from me.  Watching them become confident in something that they had always struggled with before and being able to track their progress was one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever experienced.  One of them told me once that I made writing easy, and I could not ask for a better compliment.  

Teaching is tough, for sure; there are days when you’re just not sure you can put up with one more teenaged eye-roll or grade one more essay without losing your sanity.  But it is, by far, the most exhilarating, satisfying, and challenging (in a good way) job I’ve ever had, and I love it.  I love that I’m on my feet all day and that it demands every bit of creative energy I possess, that each day is different, and that there’s such possibility for the extraordinary because you never know when a student will surprise and delight you, from the tiniest things like a failing student turning in a well thought out essay to the big things, like watching your seniors receive scholarships to their top schools.  I am looking forward to my summer break (I leave for South America in two days!), but there is already a part of me planning for and looking forward to next year.

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28 Creative Writing Exercises and Prompts

This is my first year teaching high school creative writing, and at the beginning of the year, I wasn’t entirely sure what to do, or how to do it.  I’d only ever taught college-level fiction workshops and I knew the same approach wouldn’t work with younger students and a ten-month class, so I have kind of trial-and-errored my way through the year, and am pretty pleased with how things have turned out.

I decided to structure my class by spending about 4-6 weeks on each of the following: General intro to literary devices/elements of craft (voice, POV, imagery, etc), fiction, poetry, drama, and creative nonfiction.  After giving them a basis for creative writing and touching on the four genres, I’ve started providing prompts and letting them choose how– which genre– they use to respond to them.  We do a lot of casual in-class writing to get the juices flowing and to flex the creative muscles, and then every couple of weeks I have them choose an in-class assignment that they want to turn into a more finished, polished piece.  It’s been working well so far.  (The students were all shocked at how much they liked writing plays, which was a fun unit.)  I’ve used excerpts from Imaginative Writing by Janet Burroway and Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern.

Needless to say, we use a LOT of exercises and prompts, so over the months I’ve figured out which ones have worked and which ones haven’t.  I’ve pulled them from all over– some I’ve straight-up stolen from other teachers I’ve either studied under or worked with, some I’ve yoinked from the internet and tailored, some I’ve come up with on my own.

Here are some favorites.  Some only work for one genre, some can work for any.

1) Literary Telephone: Have each student write a brief descriptive paragraph, then pass it to the person on their left.  Have that person translate the paragraph into boring, nondescriptive language, and fold the sheet down to cover the original paragraph.  Pass to left; have the person fill in the descriptions.  Wash, rinse, repeat, etc until it’s gone around the entire circle and is back to the original author.  Have them read the first paragraph and the last one, and see how things have changed.

2) Mixing Up Metaphors: As a class, put every overused metaphor or simile you can think of on the board (quick as a fox, strong as an ox, cold as ice, swift as a river, etc).  Then, erase the last word and replace it with something unexpected (quick as an ER waiting room,  strong as a diamond, cold as a doctor’s hands, etc).  It’s a fun exercise and teaches students to avoid cliches.

3) Raising Voices: Write down a character’s name, age, and occupation; give a character to each student.  Have them write a first-person monologue in the voice of that person.  (Example: Lisa Topaz, 46, Green Peace Organizer; what does this character sound like?  What about Susie Johnson, 4, preschooler, or Jonathan Miller, 63, preacher?)

4) Bait and Switch: Write a flash fiction piece about an argument between a mother and a daughter.  Almost every time, students will write about it from the viewpoint of the daughter.  Then, have them re-write it from the viewpoint of the mother.

5) Life is Not Like a Box of Chocolates: Replace “chocolates” with something they do think life is like, and write about why.

6) Red Bicycles, Blue Seas: Pick a color and write about a memory associated with that color.

7) Triptych: Choose three physical objects you own, and write a flash piece about why each one is important to you.  Don’t try to connect the flash pieces to one another.

8) Found Poetry: Have students bring their cameras to school and spend a class period walking around the campus (or surrounding town, if possible), taking pictures of signs, labels, notes, etc that they come across.  Compile the words and phrases into a list, and have them construct poems using nothing but those words and phrases.  For an extra challenge, give them a topic their poem has to be about (love, the environment, passing of time, loss, etc).  Also optional: Creating a collage from the pictures they took that tells the poem.

9) Four-Sense Food Sonnets: Blindfold each student and hand them a plastic sandwich baggie with food in it.  (I used kiwi slices, peanuts, chocolate-covered raisin, pickles, and stuff like that– be sure to check for food allergies and restrictions first.)  For five minutes, they should taste, smell, feel, listen to their food items without knowing what they look like.  After five minutes, they can take off the blindfolds and write sonnets about their foods, being as descriptive as possible but without including a physical description.

10) No-Send Letters: Write a letter (or letters) to someone (or someones) that you know you’ll never send.

11) In Transit: Write about a time you (or a character) were walking, flying, running, or biking somewhere, why it was important, and what you (or the character) were feeling as you moved.

12) This I Believe: Write an essay, fiction piece, or poem based on the NPR series.

13) Fill in the Blanks: “I think the world needs more of _____________” or “I think the world needs less of __________________”.  You can take the serious route (more love, patience, compassion), the absurd (more air fresheners, hamsters, pencil sharpeners), devil’s advocate (serial killers, discrimination, etc), or anything else.  Use your answer as the first line of an essay, fiction piece, or poem.

14) Dr. Farsnworth, A Chiropodist….: Print off copies of the poem “Dr. Farnsworth, A Chiropodist, Who Lived in Ohio, Where He Wrote Only the First Lines of Poems” by Tom Andrews (available in his collection Random Symmetries, or online, although I don’t think I can provide the link here for legal reasons).  Take one of the first lines, and continue it into a story or poem; if you get bored with that one, choose another.

15) Something Beautiful, Something Ugly: This one takes about three class periods.  For the first one, freewrite on what you think makes something beautiful and what you think makes something ugly (half the class period for each).  For the second one, let loose in the school or go outside, and turn on your “macro” lenses to look at as many tiny details as possible, taking extensive notes as you do so.  For the third, focus on the objects you took notes on and write two creative responses, one on something beautiful and one on something ugly that you found.

16) Write About Names: Where yours came from, or where you wish it came from.  Who you’re named after.  Who your father, mother, neighbor is named after.  Odd names.  Nicknames.  Street names.  Family names.  What you wished you were named.  Why they’re important, why they’re not important.  Write about names.

17) Have them write a creative response to this:

surreal_scene_full_of_life_by_mai994-d5j1woc

18) Or this:

purple-rain

19) Or this:

surreal-10

20) You can also ask specific questions about visual prompts, such as: Who is the man in the picture frame on the left, or what is the helicopter looking for?  What are the woman in yellow and man in white talking about under their umbrellas?  What is the woman in the last picture thinking?

21) Write a letter to your future self.

22) Write a letter to your past self.

23) How the World Began: Peruse animated creation myths from around the world via The Big Myth website, then write your own.

24) Write about an emotion without stating the emotion.  Avoid stereotypical responses to the emotion as well; if you character is sad, convey it in a different way than making them cry, or if they’re happy, show it some way besides them smiling or laughing.

25) Long Division: Write a flash piece where two characters are splitting something between them; it can be a record collection, an inheritance, Thanksgiving dinner leftovers, or anything else.  Do they both want it; do neither want it?  Are there old rivalries between the characters or backstories to the items themselves?  What is causing the tension?

26) Colorful Writing: Pick up a bunch of free paint cards from Lowes or Home Depot.  Spread them out on a table.  Have students choose one; whatever paint sample they choose, they have to use the name of that color (which is usually kind of ridiculous or unexpected) as the title to a short story, poem, or essay.

27) The Very Recent Noel: Re-tell a famous Christmas story using modern-day celebrities and public figures as the characters.  This can be a short story, narrative poem, or play.

28) Write a flash fiction piece for each shape/some of the shapes in Stern’s Making Shapely Fiction.  I did this around Halloween and had the additional caveat that they had to be “horror” flash fiction pieces (campy rather than truly scary was always welcomed, too).

 

 

So there you have it.  Undoubtedly you’ve seen some of these before, but hopefully there were some new ideas too.  (Also, if I stole one of your prompts, forgive me; I’ve taken them from so many different sources that I have no idea where any of them came from any more.  This is just a compilation.)  If you have any new exercises or prompts to add, feel free to leave them in the comments– I’d love to hear them and stock pile for next year’s class.  

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