In mid-career I became the writing specialist for 125 sixth graders. I loved writing, but I had no curriculum and very little support. I did inherit some outdated grammar books, but they held nothing that addressed content in a meaningful way, nor any advice about what truly inspires writers to express their truth; they didn’t speak to me, let alone to my students. But then I found children’s writing guru Barry Lane. His ideas gave me ideas, and my young scribes were soon creating rich and real content. (Today, I’m proud to say that Mr. Lane wrote the foreword for my book.)
Why I wrote it:
I learned a lot about how kids develop as writers. I pieced together a rigorous curriculum that addressed all aspects of the craft, and my reward was reading thousands of pages of wonderful work. After retiring, I felt obliged to record what I had learned and pass it on to others—those who are struggling to create a productive writing classroom, as well as those who are training to become teachers. At first, my efforts were too much about me—my views on public education, teaching in general, and essays about why and how writing should be taught—but then something changed: Even as our students’ writing skills began to deteriorate, the topic of writing itself disappeared from the national discussion, yielding to reading and math.
Today, it seems that all things art are getting short shrift. STEM is king, and the humanities—language, literature, thought, and culture—are passe; as a result, we are becoming less human. It’s my hope that teachers will find my book a unique, practical, and complete companion as they strive to deliver quality writing instruction to our nations youngsters.
The big ideas behind Keys to Inspiration:
• Emotion and inspiration are one and the same. To a greater or lesser extent, all forms of writing spring from emotion, and when children are emotionally inspired they respond by writing freely and honestly.
• We don’t think to write; we write to think; in other words, once we’re driven to write about something that touches us, our thoughts take over and guide us forward. They encourage us to question ourselves and consider our world from all perspectives. They even give rise to new thoughts and emotions that redirect our path. We have to be open to anything, like watching an innocuous essay morph into a turbulent poem.
• There are common threads that run through all forms of writing. The idea of beginning, middle, and end is obvious and overarching, but some are more subtle. If students learn, for example, that topic sentences benefit from the use of adjectives, they can apply that knowledge when creating essays, editorials, research papers, and narrative.
• The elements of good writing are not all that mysterious—solid ideas; vivid detail that employs all of the senses; correct mechanics; simile and metaphor; rich vocabulary; powerful verbs; smooth sentence flow—and they can all be taught.
• Writing needs to be taught and assessed holistically. While out-of-context mechanics mini-lessons are often appropriate, competency with regard to the elements listed above are best evaluated where they appear—in student work. Vocal and written comments and corrections from teacher and peers can and should address any and all skill areas.
• Students who are invested, who care about their content, willingly work to improve their mechanics skills; they learn best by studying their own writing.
• Writing prompts are like crutches: Use them only when you absolutely have to; children generally don’t cozy up to them. It’s best if they feel personally connected to their work.
• Young writers need constructive feedback in order to gain self-confidence, but that doesn’t mean that their teachers have to go over every piece of work with a fine-tooth comb. I believe it was Donald Graves who said that if teachers have time to assess everything their students write, they aren’t writing enough, and that if they have time to even read everything they write, they still aren’t writing enough. The message is clear: Daily practice, in and of itself, is a learning experience.
What you need to know about the contents of the book:
• The exercises, lessons, and projects are unique, and they address almost all forms of writing, academic and personal. They’re explicitly laid out—call them lesson plans—complete with bullet points that inform teachers of what they need to know before they begin an activity, as well as what they need to do as they guide students through it.
• The chapter order loosely reflects the chronology of a school year, but many of the activities—specifically those referred to (below) that constitute a group of ten chapters—can be taught any time and in any order. Also, I recommend that oral presentations, described in one of the later chapters, be assigned two or three times during the school year. Technical Writing appears at the end of the list, as it is difficult and requires advanced content and mechanics skills. Open topic writing, described in the Introduction, is that which students choose to create; it should be encouraged—even required—and accommodated.
• The first two chapters, Moment One and Revising Moment One, are designed to get students writing on the first day of class and not look back. Teachers learn how to introduce young writers to their go-to source for inspiration (emotion) and then they invite them to write about an emotional moment from their past, describing it in vivid detail. This description is expanded, revised, edited, and proofread as it evolves into a memoir.
• The next two chapters also fit well early on: Student Biographies and Respect, the Booklet, continue playing on the emotional theme. Classmates learn about each other, write about each other, and express their views about respect and disrespect.
• The three chapters that follow are for teachers only. They explain the Writer’s Workshop model of classroom management, offer assessment tips and tools, and reveal the traits that various forms of writing have in common.
• The next ten chapters (referred to above) might be called the meat and potatoes of the book. They consist of a wide variety of exercises and assignments that require students to observe and describe details, manipulate time, translate emotional expression into words, and much more.
• At mid-year, when students are becoming more skilled and confident, it’s time to start rolling out the bigger projects: persuasive essay; editorial writing and cartooning; research reports; and debate. These four chapters are preceded by one that points out the traits that these projects have in common—knowledge that proves helpful for teachers.
• The last chapters address mechanics, the introduction to which includes a humorous-but-instructive vignette featuring the verb lie. The chapters themselves go on to discuss the most relevant rules of grammar, punctuation, and spelling, as well as the common mistakes that developing writers and speakers make. Think of it as a primer for students and teachers alike.
• Finally, there is an appendix of downloadable lists—spelling lists, emotion-related terms, powerful alternatives to went and said, and more—as well as a few grammar worksheets.