Category Archives: Teaching Writing in the Summer


I think I thought I knew what rigor meant when I taught exclusively in urban schools. It meant holding kids to high expectations, of writing a lot, of reading a lot, of showing kids how to mine the text, to analyze, to synthesize.

Then, I went to the suburbs and I realized how much I didn’t know. My writing instruction, which was strong, got stronger because I am now much clearer about what is required to help kids become powerful writers. I’ve always believed that to become a good writer, you have to write.

But, only this week, while teaching in my summer program, did I understand the difference between what the city does and what the suburbs do, and the difference is, conceivably, why urban kids are perpetually behind.

I asked one of my sophomores how many papers she writes in a year. She goes to an exam school in the city: highly competitive, motivated, does her work, all of that. She told me five, usually following after reading a whole-class text.


In the ‘burbs, kids are required to write four papers PER TERM. Add that up and you get a total of 16 papers per year. That’s 11 more papers than kids in the city write–and let’s be clear, this is one of the exam schools, so no telling what kids are writing at schools that are non-exam.

That’s the problem right there.

If kids aren’t writing enough, then they’re not improving, not revising…and they’re always behind. You become a better writer through practice. Not rocket science to know that if you don’t get enough practice, you’re not going to become proficient.

Sure, there are all kinds of distinctions between city and suburbs, but facts are facts, I’d argue. There is a disparity in what we are asking kids to write.

I like data. I like knowing what I’m up against. Over the next school year, we’re going to be writing like our lives depend on it.

They actually DO depend on it.

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Filed under Equity, Teaching Writing in the Summer

“I Wish We Had a Template”

I like to take time for mid-course reflections as a way of assessing how kids are doing. I’ve found they tend to be more honest at this point in the course after having a few papers assigned and returned and after being around me (and realizing that while some of the rumors about me being tough are entirely accurate, other rumors are probably not). Today, I asked them what they aspects of their writing they felt positively about, what they wished we could spend more time doing and a suggestion about how to improve the remaining classes (about 2.5 weeks worth).

One student wished we could use a template more for writing assignments. These kids are relatively skilled with formulas as they prepare to enter their junior year. They know, generally, that if they can plug an analysis into five paragraphs, do some integration of quotes and have a decent thesis, they’ll typically receive a good grade. As another student noted, “The writing criteria and expectations here [are] totally different from my school so it kind of threw me off when I would write something.”

I don’t eschew formulaic writing. In fact, I learned how to do it and can draw on that knowledge when I work with younger writers because they have some general understanding of it. But, what happens when kids can’t move past the formula? I ask them to stretch their writing. I am demanding (but a warm demander): I want more analysis beyond a summary or a pat so what. I want nuance. I want counterarguments. I want to be moved. And I tell them all of this and we write and revise and revise until we approach or exceed those expectations, but it’s often not a linear movement. Instead, I often look at something they’ve written and rework it with students because (usually) I didn’t explain it correctly or clearly, or I’ve noticed something else about their writing that needs attention.

I don’t provide a template. Don’t get me wrong: I used to provide templates and the kitchen sink. I was doing waaay too much for the kids and they didn’t really have to put that much work into their writing. I was young and didn’t have a full handle on real writing.

This entry isn’t complete. I’m still turning over what it means to take away the template and to teach writing to kids in ways that matter, ways that don’t conform to five paragraphs, and ways that are about something.

This summer course always is the place that these ideas begin, get turned around, reformulated…yet another reason why I love the summer.

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Filed under Teaching Writing in the Summer

Single Stories

Another secret about my summer program: I love it because I have an uninterrupted 45 minutes each morning to read whatever I want on the train. Since I recently finished Gone, Girl by Gillian Flynn and don’t want to commit to another book just yet, I’ve been reading magazines. Up today: Rethinking Schools and an article about narrative and who controls the narrative by Linda Christensen. “The Danger of a Single Story” is quite compelling and totally fired me up to teach it this fall. She draws on Brent Staples “Walk on By” about Black men in public spaces, Chimimanda Adichie (Half a Yellow Sun and other fantastic works) and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow to help students use their voice to address systems of inequality.

Christensen writes: As I listened to their stories, I thought about the Daniel Beaty poem that laments the “lost brilliance of the black men who crowd prison cells,” and I thought about my moral obligation to tap into this injustice, this birthplace of anger and rage, to expose it and validate students’ experiences. But if I unleashed this rage and pain, I knew I had the parallel moral obligation to teach students how to navigate a society that discriminates against them and to teach them how others have dealt with these injustices. So I designed curriculum to address the needs of these black youth, and also the needs of all my students who feel singled out because of a defining feature that turns them into a target.

Again, another reminder that when we encourage students to “let it all out,” we best be ready for what that means, and we better be ready to help them do something with that “righteous rage” that can threaten to destroy them without some meaningful direction.

I’m excited to make this lesson my own. I’m excited to hear students write about self in ways that are critical and in ways that do something to make some change. Also, for those of us who are integrating the Common Core into everything we do, this is an excellent way to get critical, complex texts that kids will WANT to read into our classrooms. Brilliant!

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Filed under Teaching Writing in the Summer, Writing About Race

“But What I’m Writing Isn’t True…”

I tend to have the best conversations with students in the margins (read: the time and space before class starts, or the moments when it ends and they’ve gathered their belongings and linger to talk about something of interest to them, risking being late to their next class ’cause there’s something on their mind). Today, I was running late to class after HAVING to order an iced coffee from the T station and ran into one of my students. She wanted to discuss her writing and explained to me that she felt that she wasn’t going to get a good grade on her narrative essay because during our Friday workshop share (I’ll write another post about that), two of her peers wrote about places where “significant” events occurred: one an act of violence and another an act of gender discrimination. She said that overall, she hasn’t had anything horrible happen to her, and she tends not to pay attention in ways they do. But, was simply being observant about a place that was interesting, but where nothing momentous happened, from her perspective, enough for this assignment?

One of the things I love about this summer program is that I get to know kids as writers. I also think teaching for a while now has created a pretty good BS-meter. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. But, I think I’d not thought deeply enough about what it means for kids to mine the ordinary in their writing. When she told me her feelings, I quickly wondered if I’d set up some expectation that their narratives be heart-wrenching and traumatic, so I disabused her of that notion and told her, essentially, that what mattered most and what I was interested in seeing was showing rather than telling. Most importantly, I told her that if she had to make it up, it would come through and that if it didn’t feel right to her, in her gut, then it wouldn’t read well on the page.

She was relieved. And I was reminded that just because they are living in urban environments doesn’t mean that their lives suck. I’m looking forward to reading her essay about the ordinary. I’m certain that, since she’s writing from her gut, it stands to be quite extraordinary.

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Filed under Teaching Writing in the Summer