Category Archives: Being a writer

What Fuels a Writing Culture In Your Classroom?

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Tell Your Story Camp72.JPG McKyln Madsen, reads her writing to the group, including Poet, Jack Collom, center.
Area middle school students participated in the "Tell Your Story" camps, using multimedia, art, poetry and writing, at the University of Colorado.
For more photos and a video of Tell Your Story, go to
Cliff Grassmick  / June 20, 2013

What drives the work/learning?

  • Identifying a goal/product/performance/culmination that you want to achieve with your students that is connected to the world outside the classroom
  • Figuring out all of the ways that you and your students can be writers to accomplish that end (writing reflectively, analytically, and creatively)
  • Modeling the writing life through the design of the unit and the way you think, talk, and act with your students.

What does the writing life look like in the classroom?Qui vive

  • Catching thoughts, ideas, questions, solutions, passing fancies down on paper/screen to create a reservoir of potential writing material
  • Reading models to help you think and do your own writing
  • Discussing models to figure out the moves that make the writing work
  • Engaging in idea generating conversations to figure out what you might want to write
  • Writing….a lot!
  • Returning to a piece of writing to elaborate and craft it based on the understanding you’re developing around the moves
  • Sharing works in progress for feedback
  • Putting the writing out into the world for impact
  • Keeping all writing work to be able to access and use at a later date

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat are the kinds of writing that should be happening in a unit?

  • Reflective writing: thinking in writing about life and work; post product analysis; question posing; answer seeking
  • Analytic writing: writing about reading; reports; essays; criticism; speeches; technical; informational
  • Creative writing: stories, poems, plays, memoir, blogs, hybrid-texts

What are potential culminations?Canon EOS Digital Camera

  • Performances: plays, public readings, debates, websites, shows, live museums, installations, works of art
  • Publications: books, anthologies, individual pieces, newspaper editorials, letters to officials, websites, blogs
  • Actions: meetings with significant people (physically/virtually), rallies, service

Developing An Understanding Of How And Why We Write

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jack kerouac on the road

One of the important aspects of a writing-based practice is exploring with your students the way writers talk about their craft. Fortunately there are many books and websites out there that feature all different kinds of writers talking about how and why they do what they do. These windows into the idiosyncratic ways that writers get words down on the page open up the possibility for your students to appreciate and strengthen their own idiosyncratic writing processes and to find writers that they want to emulate. We know from research on talent that a key element in skill development in youth is connected to whether or not they develop strong affiliations with people that are particularly good at something that they themselves want to get good at (think Lionel Messi, Serena Williams, and Lebron James). When youth identify with someone, they adopt their moves. So, just like a young soccer player may spend ours out on the pitch practicing the moves of Lionel Messi, a young writer enamored by the writing of Steven King may spend hours imitating the moves that Steven King makes on the page as well as emulate the habits of mind and body that King embodies as a writer.

Below you will find a pretty basic Google presentation of a variety of different writers sharing their practice – the how and why of what they do as writers. There is loads of good advice in here. The way I use it in the classroom is to simply display a slide or two, read it out loud, and then ask my students what they find interesting about it. I also ask the question, “How can we use what this writer says in our own practice as writers” or something to that effect. This kind of craft conversation lays the groundwork for both affirming writing practices that your students have formed and introducing new ways of being as a writer. You will find over time, if you make this a semi-regular ritual in your class, that certain advice given by writers will become part of the language of the class. For example, one of Jack Kerouac’s beliefs and techniques for modern prose is “You are a genius all of the time.”  This mindset when facing the blank page can be tremendously liberating. It would not be unusual for you to hear students referencing this when talking to each other about their writing or to hear me suggest it at the beginning of a writing experiment.  You can reinforce particular writerly advice by putting it up on big sheets of paper around the room, collecting an electronic list that you and your students collaboratively build over time, or including it in handouts associated with writing projects in class.

A beautiful way to extend this classroom practice of exploring how writers talk about their craft is to have your students take pictures of themselves in the act of writing, and then to have them write an accompanying piece that discusses why they keep a notebook or how they see themselves as writers or why they write. You could then hang these portraits along with the pieces around your room or throughout the hallways to celebrate your students as writers. And, in true writing-based practice style, you, of course, should take a picture of yourself as a writer and write a piece as well!

If you choose to do this activity, please send some of them my way, I would love to build a slideshow of images of young writers talking about how and why they write.


What does it mean to be a writer? Ask a fourth grader

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What does it look like, sound like, and feel like to be a writer, reader, and thinker in the world? This is the overarching question that fuels teachers who design writing-based curriculum. They are constantly scheming and planning how they can design learning environments where students and teachers become many different kinds of writers over the course of the year. One of the rituals of the writing-based classroom is  to think critically about the writing work that has been done over the year as a way to process the work, deepen the learning, and set future writing goals. The questions that teachers ask their students are pretty simple:

What have you learned about being a writer?

What is your favorite piece and why?

What do you like about writing?

Bonus question: What do you want to get better at as a writer?

The way in which students reflect on these questions depends on their developmental level. Pre-K students talk about the questions as a group with the teacher writing down what she hears. 4th graders write down their own answers to the questions. Teachers collect the responses and use them to reflect themselves on the year and to plan for next.

As this school year quickly comes to a close, teachers and students are in the throes of this ritual, and I wanted to share a particular class of fourth grader’s responses to the questions. For me it shows what can happen when we design learning environments where students and teachers are living a writing life together, where they are writing reflectively, creatively, and analytically out in the real world. Specifically, what I love about these responses is both the sophisticated writerly-sense that the 4th graders have developed over the year and the sense of play that they connect to the act of writing. The responses are also a guide for how we should be designing writing environments if we want students to truly be engaged and to feel that writing is a part of who they are.

1. What do you like about writing?

  • exciting stories from my imagination
  • making up fun awesome stories and characters
  • I like the part where you are kind of just thinking what you’re going to do.
  • I like when I try to put my own self in the story
  • I like when I’m about ready to go to the next chapter but before that I may leave a little “Cliffhanger!”
  • I like to have a sharp pencil.
  • I like when the teacher gives us topics.
  • I like to write stories about fairies.
  • My favorite part of writing is the editing because I get to go back and reread my stories and make sure everything is the way I want it.
  • A fun activity you can do pretty much everywhere.
  • Writing gives you the chance to write down what you’re thinking or about what happened today.
  • Sometimes I like to think about a book that I want to read but hasn’t been written yet, and then write it myself.
  • I love writing fiction stories.
  • What I like about writing is that I can just be free. I can just express how I feel while I am writing.
  • I love that you can pick your characters and their personalities.
  • You can use your imagination to create someone else’s reality.
  • Writing is a new way to let out your emotions on paper

2. What have you learned about being a writer?

  • have fun
  • use your imagination
  • get creative and write about  what YOU want to write about
  • you need correct punctuation and uppercase letter
  • write about what you think you will like
  • all stories don’t have to be true – it can have talking bugs or whatever
  • you can always add people in it if you don’t have the people you want
  • Plan your story before you start writing
  • Don’t ever pick something you don’t like.  Don’t pick it just because your friend is doing it.
  • Write a story that fits your personality.
  • An author should remember the Steps of Writing: Peer conferencing, editing, revision
  • Don’t get frustrated if writing a story takes a long time.  Writing takes a long time.
  • Start with a good beginning.
  • Your book has to make at least a little sense.
  • Choose to write about something that you know a good amount about.
  • Be proud of what your wrote even if someone else does not like it.

3. What is your favorite piece and why?

  • Persuasive letter to Channel 10 – I had fun writing about it and used my imagination from my Robotics team
  • Friendship story – I worked hard on it and at the end it has this thing where it’s like a fable.  Some parts were funny and some were sad.
  • My Dress story because this is the first time I actually wanted to keep writing all day long.
  • I liked my Time Travel and Special Place stories. I like them because they are very different than any other story I wrote.
  • I like my story about my dad because I feel like I got all the details from when he was 10 to when he is 50.
  • My favorite was my time travel story because I put a lot of detail in it and big adventures. I felt that I had a really good connection with the story and the characters.
  • My animal story because it’s different than anything else I’ve written. This story did not have a happy ending which is different for me.
  • I am proud of Chloe’s Dress Visit because when I wrote this I felt like I was a professional author.



Interesting Books and Websites to Encourage the Writer in All of Us

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bk-old_faithful  what is poetrypoetry everywhereinside out

writers desk





Over the years, teachers, students, and I have assembled a running list of books and websites that encourage us to be writers with each other. These books and websites contain great writing experiments to try, essential information and guides for form, the keys to the language of writing we want to develop and share, and the names of fellow writers and teachers that we should be connected to. Click on any of them to explore. Chime in with other suggestions, and I’ll be sure to add them in.

Books on writing with kids

Poetry Everywhere by Jack Collom

Handbook of Poetic Forms – Ron Padgett

The Alphabet of the Trees – Christian McEwen

June Jordan’s Poetry for the People – Lauren Muller

Inside Out by Dan Kirby

The Adventures of Dr. Alphabet: 104 Unusual Ways to Write Poetry in the Classroom & the Community By Dave Morice

The List Poem: A Guide to Teaching & Writing Catalog Verse By Larry Fagin

Moving Windows: Evaluating the Poetry Children Write By Jack Collom

Talking to the Sun: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems for Young People By Kenneth Koch & Kate Farrell

True Notebooks : A Writer’s Year at Juvenile Hall by Mark Salzman

Rose, Where Did You Get that Red? – Kenneth Koch

Sleeping on the Wing – Kenneth Koch and Kate Farrell

What is Poetry – Daniel Kane

Third Mind – Tonya Foster and Kristin Prevallet

The Whole Word Catalogue – Rosellen Brown

The Oulipo Compendium – Harry Mathews, et. al.

Old Faithful – Christopher Edgar and Ron Padgett

Writers talking about how and why they write books

The Writer’s Desk by Jill Krementz

The Writers Notebook edited by Howard Junker

Great websites and organizations

Teachers and Writers –

826 Valencia –

Pennsounds –

Charles Bernstein and Bernadette Mayer Writing Experiments –

Category: Being a writer

Words To Write By

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There are a number of writers that have made lists of maxims for writing that they use to help guide them, push them, encourage them to get words down on the page. As part of the writing-based curriculum, I share these maxims with my students. I print them out and have the students read them, picking out the maxims that most resonate with them, surprise them, inspire them, or just plain confuse them. We talk about the maxims that are chosen guided by the question, ‘How can these maxims help us with our writing craft?’ This kind of craft conversation enriches the language of writing and helps to create the kind of mindset needed to approach the blank page and to get stuff down that has potential. These maxims also help students see the playfulness of the act of writing, always a good thing.

I have collected a few of these kinds of lists below. Two are from Jack Kerouac. One is from Allen Ginsberg. One is from Emma Coates, Pixar’s Story Artist. Let them fuel you. Let them fuel your students. Put them to work in your writing-based classroom.

Jack Kerouac’s Rules for Spontaneous Prosekerouac

1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house
4. Be in love with yr life
5. Something that you feel will find its own form
6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
19. Accept loss forever
20. Believe in the holy contour of life
21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
22. Dont think of words when you stop but to see picture better
23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
29. You’re a Genius all the time
30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven

ginsbergHere are Allen Ginsberg’s Mind Writing Slogans

“First Thought is Best in Art, Second in Other Matters.”
— William Blake

             I Background (Situation, Or Primary Perception)

  1. “First Thought, Best Thought” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
  2. “Take a friendly attitude toward your thoughts.” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
  3. “The Mind must be loose.” — John Adams
  4. “One perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception.” — Charles Olson, “Projective Verse”
  5. “My writing is a picture of the mind moving.” — Philip Whalen
  6. Surprise Mind — Allen Ginsberg
  7. “The old pond, a frog jumps in, Kerplunk!” — Basho
  8. “Magic is the total delight (appreciation) of chance.” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
  9. “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” –– Walt Whitman
  10. “…What quality went to form a man of achievement, especially in literature? … Negative capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” — John Keats
  11. “Form is never more than an extension ofcontent. — Robert Creeley to Charles Olson
  12. “Form follows function.” — Frank Lloyd Wright*
  13. Ordinary Mind includes eternal perceptions. — A. G.
  14. “Nothing is better for being Eternal
    Nor so white as the white that dies of a day.” — Louis Zukofsky
  15. Notice what you notice. — A. G.
  16. Catch yourself thinking. — A. G.
  17. Observe what’s vivid. — A. G.
  18. Vividness is self-selecting. — A. G.
  19. “Spots of Time” — William Wordsworth
  20. If we don’t show anyone we’re free to write anything. –– A. G.
  21. “My mind is open to itself.” — Gelek Rinpoche
  22. “Each on his bed spoke to himself alone, making no sound.” — Charles Reznikoff

II Path (Method, Or Recognition)

  1. “No ideas but in things.” “… No ideas but in the Facts.” — William Carlos Williams
  2. “Close to the nose.” — W. C. Williams
  3. “Sight is where the eye hits.” — Louis Zukofsky
  4. “Clamp the mind down on objects.” — W C. Williams
  5. “Direct treatment of the thing … (or object).” — Ezra Pound, 1912
  6. “Presentation, not reference.” — Ezra Pound
  7. “Give me a for instance.” — Vernacular
  8. “Show not tell.” — Vernacular
  9. “The natural object is always the adequate symbol.” — Ezra Pound
  10. “Things are symbols of themselves.” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
  11. “Labor well the minute particulars, take care of the little ones.
    He who would do good for another must do it in minute particulars.
    General Good is the plea of the Scoundrel Hypocrite and Flatterer
    For Art & Science cannot exist but in minutely organized particulars.” — William Blake
  12. “And being old she put a skin / on everything she said.” — W. B. Yeats
  13. “Don’t think of words when you stop but to see the picture better.” — Jack Kerouac
  14. “Details are the Life of Prose.” — Jack Kerouac
  15. Intense fragments of spoken idiom best. — A. G.
  16. “Economy of Words” — Ezra Pound
  17. “Tailoring” — Gregory Corso
  18. Maximum information, minimum number of syllables. –– A. G.
  19. Syntax condensed, sound is solid. — A. G.
  20. Savor vowels, appreciate consonants. — A. G.
  21. “Compose in the sequence of musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.” — Ezra Pound
  22. “… awareness … of the tone leading of the vowels.” — Ezra Pound
  23. “… an attempt to approximate classical quantitative meters . . . — Ezra Pound
  24. “Lower limit speech, upper limit song” — Louis Zukofsky
  25. “Phanopoeia, Melopoeia, Logopoeia.” — Ezra Pound
  26. “Sight. Sound & Intellect.” — Louis Zukofsky
  27. “Only emotion objectified endures.” — Louis Zukofsky

III Fruition (Result, Or Appreciation)

  1. Spiritus = Breathing = Inspiration = Unobstructed Breath
  2. “Alone with the Alone” — Plotinus
  3. Sunyata (Sanskrit) = Ku (Japanese) = Emptiness
  4. “What’s the sound of one hand clapping?” — Zen Koan
  5. “What’s the face you had before you were born?” — Zen Koan
  6. Vipassana (Pali) = Clear Seeing
  7. “Stop the world” — Carlos Castafleda
  8. “The purpose of art is to stop time.” — Bob Dylan
  9. “the unspeakable visions of the individual — J. K.
  10. “I am going to try speaking some reckless words, and I want you to try to listen recklessly.” — Chuang Tzu (Tr. Burton Watson)
  11. “Candor” —Whitman
  12. “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”  — W. Shakespeare
  13. “Contact” — A Magazine, Nathaniel West & W. C. Williams, Eds.
  14. “God appears & God is Light
    To those poor souls who dwell in Night.
    But does a Human Form Display
    To those who Dwell in Realms of Day.” — W. Blake
  15. “Subject is known by what she sees.” -A. G.
  16. Others can measure their visions by what we see. –– A. G.
  17. Candor ends paranoia. — A. G.
  18. “Willingness to be Fool.” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
  19. “Day & Night / you’re all right.” — Gregory Corso
  20. Tyger: “Humility is Beatness.” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche & A. G.
  21. Lion: “Surprise Mind” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche &A.G.
  22. Garuda: “Crazy Wisdom Outrageousness” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
  23. Dragon: “Unborn Inscrutability” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
  24. “To be men not destroyers” — Ezra Pound
  25. Speech synchronizes mind & body — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
  26. “The Emperor unites Heaven & Earth” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
  27. “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” — Shelley
  28. “Make it new” — Ezra Pound
  29. “When the music changes, the walls of the city shake” — Plato
  30. “Every third thought shall be my grave — W Shakespeare, The Tempest
  31. “That in black ink my love may still shine bright.” –– W. Shakespeare, Sonnets
  32. “Only emotion endures” — Ezra Pound
  33. “Well while I’m here I’ll
    do the work —
    and what’s the Work?
    To ease the pain of living.
    Everything else, drunken
    dumbshow.” — A. G.
  34. “… Kindness, sweetest of the small notes in the world’s ache, most modest & gentle of the elements entered man before history and became his daily connection, let no man tell you otherwise.” — Carl Rakosi
  35. “To diminish the mass of human and sentient sufferings.” — Gelek Rinpoche

Naropa Institute, July 1992        
New York, March 5, 1993        
New York, June 27, 1993 


These rules were originally tweeted by Emma Coates, Pixar’s Story Artist. Number 9 on the list – When you’re stuck, make a list of what wouldn’t happen next – is a great one and can apply to writers in all genres.

  1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
  2. You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.
  3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
  4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
  5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
  6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
  7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
  8. Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
  9. When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
  10. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
  11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
  12. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
  13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
  14. Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
  15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
  16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
  17. No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
  18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
  19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
  20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
  21. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
  22. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.