11 Writing Contests to Challenge Students

I've always loved writing. Crafting papers in high school came naturally to me and I generally got them back with an A and a comment like "good work." It was a mix of pleasure and disappointment every time. On the one hand, yay for the "A"! On the other hand, I had put in plenty of work and I wished I could get more feedback from my teacher.

Then came junior year with my favorite teacher ever. She had us enter the citywide Rotary Essay Contest. Cash prizes, honor and glory awaited, and I was dying to win. I glowed as I handed in my first draft, then received it back with a dozen or so comments and suggestions for improvement. A bit stunned, I diligently drafted and tweaked, trying to make my images and ideas fit the rotary glove perfectly. After three drafts my English teacher gave it the green light and I submitted my essay "A Presence in the Waves" (yes, I still remember the title).

I won! It was more money than I had ever had and that delightful feeling that someone besides my parents thought I had writing talent. I was so honored to attend the awards brunch with my teacher.

When it comes to teaching writing, it is easy to focus on how to systematize the process and fix the errors. With so many students to help catch up and so many papers to grade, who has time to enrich the writers who are already proficient?

Enter, the writing contest bulletin board. While it takes an hour or so of work at the start of the year or term to get it set up, it will pay off in giving your strong writers enrichment for the rest of the year. Whenever they finish early or don't need the writing lesson of the day, they can work on their submission to whichever contest they have chosen.

You might even want to let your class vote on one contest from your bulletin board to focus on with a unit and have everyone to submit to.

The List:

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Talking about Life with Students

I generally eat lunch alone. As an introvert, the pressure of so many students' emotions bouncing off me all day can be overwhelming. 

I love to know them - to understand their joys and delights, their frustrations and sadness. I want to support them. Yet sometimes it feels like more than I can handle. 

That's why I almost never seek the group when lunch time rolls around. I'm sure I've lost some chances to be part of the cool teacher gang at more than one school because of it. But I just seem to need ten minutes of reading The New York Times or watching Netflix as I eat my lunch. Ten minutes when I don't need to read anyone's emotions and try to figure out how I could be helping.

Do you ever feel this way? Like you need a few minutes to be yourself alone? 

Though most of my students are not facing extreme poverty or danger, they have their own hardships. I once had parents drop off an advisee of mine with an obvious and extreme eating disorder to the dorm, saying to me "just make sure you're checking that she eats." I sat in a room with an advisee's mother who lived several states away from our boarding school. "We're getting divorced," she said to me. "But we're not telling her yet, OK?" I've checked in students for lights out who were obviously crying in bed and listened as a student shared her fear that a friend might take her own life.

What to do?

Sometimes I don’t know what to say. Sometimes I wonder why anyone thinks my degrees in English literature have prepared me to help students with these things. Sometimes I almost wish I had a nice safe job climbing a corporate ladder somewhere. 

But I want to help these kids. 

Several years ago my husband attended The Stanley King Counseling Institute, where he spent several days in intensive role plays, discussions and presentations to learn how to listen and counsel students. As the dean of dormitories at our school, he frequently finds himself listening to students who are upset and in crisis. 

I asked him what his biggest takeaway from the institute was. It turns out to be a pretty doable, actionable step we can all take. "When a student is going through something, being a teacher doesn't mean you have to fix it. Sometimes it just means you have to give them space to express it."

Wait a minute, don't try to fix it? Really? Just listen? The video below is the best illustration I've ever seen of this concept, which is so easy to agree to in theory and SO HARD to put into practice. 

Although it’s difficult for me at times, I WANT to listen to my students and give them a way to be heard and understood. Though I might not be able to solve their problems, if I can remember that listening is it's own gift, that can strengthen me to hear. 

All it takes is a moment to get started. 

"You seem sad this week. Is anything bothering you?"
"I noticed you were awfully quiet in class. Are you OK?"
"I know some big things have been happening in your life lately. Do you want to talk at all?"
"If you feel like talking about anything, I'm here."

But sometimes that moment can be hard to find. That's why this month I made a downloadable poster you can put up in your classroom to invite students to bring things up with you. Just print it and put it up next to a stack of stationary and a drop box. Give students a chance to open a conversation even on the overwhelming days, when there is no time to find a quiet place to talk. You can make a permanent statement to your students that you want to hear what they have to say, just by putting this up. 


Don't let Grading Papers Drive You Out of Teaching

As a teacher, nothing has caused me more of the icky feeling of guilt than formal papers. Guilty that maybe I wasn't assigning them often enough, guilty that maybe I wasn't teaching them well enough, guilty that I wasn't grading them fast enough. 


The struggle is real. For English teachers, the grading load can be enough to drive us out of the profession. Writing substantive comments on one paper, much less multiple drafts of the same paper, can take thirty minutes. If you collect one hundred and twenty papers on a Friday afternoon, are you supposed to spend sixty hours grading it over the next week? 


Over time, I began to chip away at my guilt and start to feel good about the way I did formal papers in my classes. I owned the fact that I wanted to teach my students about creative and critical thinking and have them apply it across a range of genres, not just in one style of formal paper. I developed two systems for teaching formal writing that made things very straightforward for me - an introduction blueprint and a very specific way to analyze quotations I called the "Quotation Burger." And though I never became exactly "fast" at grading papers, I did develop a system to be a lot faster. A system I'd like to share with you today.

Back in high school I took an A.P. Spanish class, and my Spanish teacher had us all write regularly in journals. Every week she collected all the journals in all her classes. That must have made for quite a weekend of work. The heart trembles. But when she passed them back she always did so with a list she called "Los Errores Del Infierno" (The Erros from Hell!). It was a list of the crop of errors she saw the most often in our journals, so we could learn from that list and hopefully never make them again.

So brilliant. I salute you, SeƱora! 

I have adapted her system for English papers. Over time it became clear that a huge amount of the long comments I was writing could be classified into ten common errors. By giving these errors each a number, it was easy to simply put a number in the margin of a paper so that the student could look up the fix they needed for that particular error. If every student has a list of the most common errors as the front page of their binder or glued into their notebook or uploaded to the class website, etc., you can save yourself a GIGANTIC volume of comment writing. 

Where before you might have written: "This is a true statement but it's not exactly a thesis. Dive deeper, try to find something you can argue with specific evidence from the text to prove your larger point." Instead you can write, "#1." Multiple that by five hundred or so comments and you've saved yourself enough time to train for a marathon! Sure, you'll still need to write comments, but you won't need to repeat the same ones over and over and over. Instead, you'll be able to dive deep into nuance with advanced students and give some extra attention to struggling students. 

And still save so much time. 
After years of teaching all the high school grades, I can confidently say the ones in the handout above are ten of the most common errors across the board. I'd love to share this PDF with you for your own classroom, so you can start saving your time for more creative pursuits. Just fill out the form below and you'll be on your way. 


10 Unconventional Forms of Summer Professional Development

When I offered to write an article about summer professional development for We are Teachers, it was fun to think back over all the different ways I've learned and grown as a teacher over the years.

I vividly remember thinking of every day as a new teacher as professional development, and counting to myself how many classes I had already taught. I went from having taught just one class to having taught over one hundred so quickly, and I gave myself credit for every single one.

Every moment in front of the class we learn and adjust our strategies to match our students' needs. But there are also a lot of ways to develop away from our students, and that's what I focused on with this article. Summer is coming (believe it or not!) and soon you will be out of the fray and into the gentler days of the off season. But I know after a few weeks you will want to be developing as a professional once more. My favorite summer schedule involves 80% relaxation, 20% enrichment. I like the feeling of accomplishment I get from investing in my future year over the summer, and I bet you do too.

Before I link to this article, featuring ten ways you can get that summer enrichment without attending a single conference, I want to tell you something very exciting. It's the ELEVENTH way, and it's by listening to my very own podcast, just out today! The first four episodes are available and I have the next half dozen planned. You can check out The Spark Creativity Teacher Podcast now on iTunes.

And now, with no further ado, 10 Unconventional Forms of Summer Professional Development, for your reading pleasure over at We Are Teachers.

P.S. Need some creative activities to have in your back pocket for busy days, sub plans, and crazy lessons that go way faster than you thought? Have I got something for you!

Showcase Projects

My first day as a teacher was a COMPLETE disaster. It was also the defining moment of my career. You can read all about it here if you want, but for now let's just say I discovered that lecturing would NOT be my method of choice.

Luckily rather than quit the profession, I veered in a direction that has brought me great joy in the classroom. Creative teaching. Once I knew that lecturing was not and would never be for me, I began the search for the hundreds of other ways that exist to put information across and inspire students to think deeply and produce creative work.

One of my favorite methods for bringing creative engagement to any unit now is something I call the showcase project. A showcase project is simply an exciting culmination for any unit, generally involving an authentic audience for student work beyond just my own eyes. It could be a project gallery, a debate, a mock trial, a play performance, a poetry slam, a speech, a creative story festival, the unveiling of a mural, a video awards nomination event, etc. The sky's the limit!

The great thing about a showcase project is that it builds engagement THROUGHOUT the unit, not just at the end. If you can weave the project into the unit, then students know that everything they are reading, writing, and saying is related to this big event they are (hopefully) looking forward to.

Let me tell you about a few showcase projects I have done with my students, and how the projects helped boost student engagement with the unit as a whole.

When I read The Canterbury Tales with my sophomores, it wouldn't be putting too fine a point on it to say they HATED it. We spent every class minute just desperately trying to understand what was happening. They couldn't understand the language, so they couldn't dive deep. They didn't really get what was going on -  a storytelling contest full of humor and intricate detail - because they were so turned off by the language that they couldn't engage. Many of them spoke English as their second language, and I would never have chosen Chaucer for them at that moment in their education, but it wasn't up to me.

So I got to work trying to come up with a showcase project that would help draw them into what was really going on in the text. I came up with an idea to do our own storytelling pilgrimage. I asked them all to write their own original stories and get ready to perform them to their classmates as we took a hike around campus at the end of our unit. As in the text, we would award one fabulous story with a special prize. As the students worked on their own stories and looked forward to our special day, they began to invest more in Chaucer's stories. Suddenly everything seemed to make a little more sense.

On the final day of the unit we wandered campus, pausing at every inviting rock and tree for someone to tell their story. We finished with a party and voted to give several stories special awards. I invited several of my administrators to attend (always a good idea to share your best work with the higher-ups!) and we all enjoyed the wonderful event. I honestly think my students will remember that Chaucer unit, that started so poorly, with a proud glow.

Another showcase project that I love to use for plays is what I call the progressive performance. I first learned this technique from Martha Andresen, my amazing Shakespeare professor and adviser in college. In every term of her Shakespeare class, she would have her students perform one play, divided by acts, at different locations around campus. Each group would choose a theme, design their own sets and costumes, and rehearse in a location of their choice. At the end of the term, the class would travel around the campus, viewing the acts in order.

I have done this showcase project with both Death of a Salesman and Long Day's Journey into Night. Since we don't spend a whole semester on it, I choose vital scenes from throughout the play to assign to my students. Then we sprinkle rehearsal days in throughout the unit and finish with the progressive performance. This means that right from the start, students are imagining the world of the play for their own performance, and thinking deeply about the character they will be performing and his or her relationships with the others in the play. As we read and discuss the work, each student brings that perspective to the conversation and engagement can't help but rise. With every class I've tried this project with, the final performances have been moving, meaningful, and memorable.

So many students struggle with poetry, that I knew even before I started my first poetry unit that I would need a wonderful showcase to help them engage. And that's how I first learned about poetry slam. I've already done an extensive post on how to host a poetry slam or jam, but let me just say that using poetry slam is an ideal way to get students to pay attention to poetry. When every writing workshop just might produce the poem they will eventually perform for their peers, and every video clip and piece of text is filled with techniques and examples of how to weave ideas and images together in poetic language that they just might want to use in their own pieces, engagement is the obvious choice!

When I was in high school, I didn't particularly love the novel Madame Bovary, but I did LOVE the mock trial we put on of Flaubert for offending the public decency in conjunction with our reading. I was Flaubert's defense lawyer, and I actually went so far as to visit the public university in my hometown and track down the original transcription of Flaubert's actual trial. I reveled in my preparation to destroy the prosecution. Perhaps that's why I always love doing mock trials in class. My Bulgarian tenth graders put Danforth and Hawthorne, from The Crucible, on trial to discover whether or not they were to blame for letting the judicial process get out of control in the text. We had quite a rip-roaring event in class for that one. Again, we met in our teams throughout the unit, building engagement with the text overall as well as preparing for the final assessment.

I could give you many more examples. I let very view units slip through my fingers without a showcase project of some kind. My whole curriculum is built around them.

What showcase projects do you do? What might you want to try? Swing on over to our Facebook group, Creative High School English, and tell us all about it! We LOVE to learn from each other.


Interview: Meredith Dobbs, founder of TeachWriting.org

I'm happy to bring you an an interview today with the founder of TeachWriting.org, Meredith Dobbs. She has recently launched this rapidly growing website filled with wonderful, practical, immediately-applicable ideas for teachers to use in their writing instruction. It's a life-saver for new teachers and a goldmine of fun, fresh ideas for experienced teachers. 

Meredith has taught high school English for more than ten years in Dallas, Chicago and New York City and holds an M.A. in Literature from Northwestern University. She also runs Bespoke ELA

1. Tell me a little bit about yourself. How did you end up becoming an English teacher?

I have always had a connection to the written word.  Growing up, I used to play piano and guitar.  After I "discovered" The Beatles, I really poured myself into songwriting.  Later on, I got into screenplay writing and loved to read screenplays.  Reading literature was the backbone of my creative writing endeavors, and English was always my favorite subject in school. I had some incredible English teachers along the way, and I always thought teaching English would be a great way to marry my passions with a career.  Flash forward to today, and I've taught English for 12 years.    

2. What drew you to focus on the teaching of writing, in particular?

As the years of teaching have ticked by, I have noticed a significant need to focus on writing instruction above all other skills.  This is the tech generation, and love it or hate it, technology has had a significant (and sometimes negative) impact on student writing.  Writing is so incredibly important because it makes up 50% of fundamental communication (the other 50% is from speaking, of course).  It is intertwined into every single discipline in life.  A person who can communicate effectively can yield great power in life.  

3. You've started a wonderful new collaborative site for teachers, TeachWriting.org. What made you decide to do it?

TeachWriting.org was born out of a need for top-quality writing instruction by teachers across the nation. While there are many fantastic workshops available to teachers, I found that I needed resources at my fingertips in a timelier manner throughout the school year instead of waiting for summer workshops.  If I have a particular writing instructional need, I'd like to be able to go online and find resources that I can literally use in my classroom the next day.  TeachWriting.org is aimed at putting timely resources into teachers' hands on demand.  The great thing about TeachWriting.org is that we are a group of real life teachers who know the challenges teachers are facing in the classroom and know what they need.   

4. What is your favorite thing about the site?

My favorite thing about TeachWriting.org is the collaboration!  I love that a group of teachers can come together to share ideas in a collaborative and supportive spirit to help fellow teachers on the front lines of education.  I also love the fact that TeachWriting.org puts much needed content at the fingertips of teachers who can literally get ideas for writing lessons to teach in their classrooms the very next day!  And I've found that these lessons, ideas, tips, strategies, and printables are more relevant than what I often receive at professional development workshops that aren't always delivered by people who have done much writing instruction.

5. How can teachers stay in touch with TeachWriting.org if they'd like to get writing tips but are too busy to check in often? 

The best way to stay in touch with TeachWriting.org is to subscribe to the newsletter.  That way, you will receive the most recent posts directly to your email inbox.  To sign up for the newsletter, click here and scroll to the bottom of the page. 

6. What advice would you give to a brand new teacher about to give that first writing assignment?

I would tell a brand new teacher to aim for improvement, not perfection. We can get so caught up in marking every error in an essay that it can be discouraging to both the teacher and the student.  Many new teachers go through a period of disillusionment in which they come to terms with the reality of student writing in the 21st century.  I think this transitional period can be far less frustrating by focusing in on one or two targeted writing skills at a time and allowing time for the writing to breathe.

7. When you explain to students why you want them to become good writers, what do you say? Why does writing matter?

I explain to them that written communication is a fundamental part of life and that written communication affects every part of life-- from getting a job, to communicating with a landlord, to writing editorials to voice opinions for change.  Communication is everywhere and involved in everything.  Besides the practical "stuff," writing is also flat out entertaining.  The very people that write the scripts and lyrics to the TV shows, movies, and songs they love are all prolific writers. They are highly skilled and highly experienced.  Writing is what captures the very essence of the human condition.  We must carry that forward.

8. What's your favorite writing assignment that you have ever given to students?

Since I am a lover of creative writing, one of my favorite lessons is to have students create the absolute worst story they've ever written and ever read in their entire lives.  I instruct them to break every single rule of story telling that they know.  Then, I have them explicate why the story doesn't work.  This is a great strategy to start a dialogue about the traits of a "good story."  Afterwards, students can apply their definitions of "good storytelling" to classics from the Literary Canon such as Macbeth.  I find that constructing original stories enables students to understand deconstruction and analysis with much more depth and insight.

9. How do you grade major writing assessments? Any tips in that realm for new teachers?

One of the things I do is I take up pieces of the essay along the way so that by the time I see the "final" draft, the essay is familiar and has gone through several rounds of revisions.  I also grade the final essay twice. For the first submission, I grade for quality against the rubric.  After students receive the graded essay back, they can revise the essay and resubmit it for half the points back to 100.  During this round of grading, I check for the effort put into revising the essay.  For students who score a 75 or lower, this revision is mandatory and also includes a mandatory tutorial or at least one visit to the Writing Center (as applicable to the school).  If a student scores a 70 on the first round of grading, that student can earn up to an 85 depending upon the quality and effort put into revising the essay.  This grading philosophy enables me to better reflect the idea that writing is a process while simultaneously holding them accountable for their efforts.

10. What is your own writing process like? What do you enjoy about writing, personally?

My own writing process has always involved ample free writing. Oftentimes, I have no idea where I'm going or what I want to create when I first start.  I keep writing and writing and writing until I find the direction. I love how free writing enables me to tap into my subconscious mind, and I'm continually surprised by the connections my brain can make through this process.  I also love that writing gives complete freedom to process and analyzing life experiences.
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