by Brian Dolezal

“Creativity is not always the invention of something new but taking what exists and reinventing it.”

We all know that teaching writing is a difficult process and engaging students in writing can be even more difficult.  With the demands placed upon teachers to teach formal academic writing, many times informal personal writing is pushed aside as being a luxury or squeezed in when there is time.  However, rarely are things in life so polarized into this either/or approach. (At least not as much as society wants us to believe.)  Personal writing is the “gateway” to any form of writing.  Personal Writing allows students to write with their hearts and minds.  It allows them to grapple with how they perceive and make sense of the world.  Most importantly, it gives them a venue to tell their stories.   Once we have engaged the hearts and minds of  students, they then have the confidence and the mindset to tackle more academic formal types of writing that are emphasized in the Common Core State Standards. (ie. emphasis on argumentation, research, and informational writing).

There are several strategies  and approaches out there to engage students in personal writing.    The strategies below are flexible and can be adapted and utilized in several ways.  Many of these ideas were inspired and adapted from Nancy Atwell and her work in Lessons that Change Writers, Kelly Galllagher and his work in Write Like This as well as many others.

Writing Territories 

Writing territories are what define you as a person.  They are who you are and what you want to become.  They are your experiences, your dreams, your ambitions, and your nightmares.  Writing territories give you a vast repertoire to write about and explore.  They  help connect with academic topics just as much as they help us explore ourselves as people.  Some of my Writing Territories are:

  • Music and the power of lyrics. (Is there any good music being made anymore?)
  • The birth of daughters and how I want her to grow up
  • The loss of my second daughter and struggling to come to terms
  • My brother…his obsessions
  • BBQ and Smoking meat…nectar of the gods
  • My love of Literature and being an English Major
  • My passion for education

These territories act as a place  for students to explore through writing. Once a territory becomes dry, dull and no longer engaging, students simply move to another.

Things to consider when establishing writing territories: Memories, problems, obsessions, books, music, fantasies, sorrows, passions, dreams, experiences, pet peeves, hobbies, sports, pets)

Establishing questions for Memoirs 

We have all read bad memoirs…(and then we did this and then we did that and it was so much fun…and we had ice cream then went to the park) Many times, these memoirs are bad because students have not questioned as to why these memories are important…they write superficially.  To get students to write deeply, use these types of questions.

  • What are your earliest memories?  How far back can you remember?
  • What are the most important things that have happened to you in life so far?
  • What are incidents that show why your family and you are alike?  (Friends, pets)
  • What has happened at school that you will always remember? (Home)
  • What is an incident that has changed you as a person?  Changed others as people?
  • What is a time or place where you felt great joy? (Great sorrow)
  • What memories emerge when you make a timeline of your life so far and which ones are the most important.

After students process questions like these, they begin to write about them. Share them with classmates, digging deep into each memory, using just as many words as needed to shape them…. focusing on the SO WHAT.  The SO WHAT gives the writing purpose, a point and a reason to be written and a reason to be read.  It looks for and finds meanings, the significances, and the implications.  Sometimes it is explicit, other time implicit, but the point is to find deep meaning.

Starting  Short Story Writing…The What if

Writing Short Stories is hard. In my experience, without scaffolding and guidance, the short stories students write are rather laborious to read.   Rather than starting with just writing a story, or  developing the characters in the story first, start with the problems that the characters will encounter in the story.  Good writers are compelled to elaborate on the problems that their characters encounter and usually end up developing a stronger theme. What is the conflict?

Engage students in the stories they have read with you:

  • What problems did the characters deal with?
  • How did they respond to these problems?
  • What if they would have responded differently?

Many times characters are developed through how they interact with people and problems.  After they have analyzed this in the short stories they have read, have them take a stab at starting with the problem the characters will deal with and how they will interact.  This acts as a form of Mentor Text.

Writing a SLAM poem

Never underestimate the power of the spoken word.  I watched the dream of a friend, Paul Richardson, embrace Louder Than A Bomb and sell out the Gem Theatre in KCMO in its first year.  Kids are yearning to have their stories heard. There are several ways that you can help guide your students towards writing a SLAM poem.  Once they find their niche, they will fly.

Allow students to process these questions:

  • What is your topic in one word?
  • What do you want your audience to know?
  • How do you want your audience to feel?
  • Why is this topic important for your audience to think about?
  • If your audience does not listen to this poem, what will happen? If your answer is “nothing,” then you need to think more about why your topic is important.
  • What are three powerful life experiences you have had that involve this topic?

After students have processed these questions..ask them to begin crafting their poem. Some guidance on how to start could be the following scaffolds:

  • Your opening line  immediately throws your listeners into the poem. Examples:  “In case you hadn’t noticed, it has somehow become uncool to sound like you know what you’re talking about?” – Taylor Mali    “I have biracial hair.” – Zora Howard
  • Have students write two powerful opening lines you’re considering
  • Allow students to choose one personal experience from the processing questions. Filling the following space, tell what happened in this experience. Use descriptive imagery and evocative language. Make your readers feel like they were not just with you, but were you.
  • Help your students tell your listeners exactly what you want them to know, feel, and think about. Also tell them why they need to listen to your poem. Really think about this.

Topics in the Jar 

Sometimes, personal choice can still be given direction.  The idea of Topics in a Jar allows the teacher to randomly choose topics that students can write about through their own perspective and experience.  Kelly Gallagher identifies several topics that can help students begin writing about personal experience.

Hard Moments? We have all lived through hard moments in our lives.  The toughest thing I have ever dealt with was dealing with a stillbirth.  I remember writing her a letter to bury with her.  It was a profound moment in my life and writing helped me through it.  Thinking about it hurts but writing about it helps. Students select a list of hard moments in their lives and not only write about it but also reflect on what they have learned about it.

  • Breaking up with my first girlfriend.
  • Leaving home for the first time.
  • Getting my first “F”
  • Leaving my home country
  • Watching my parents argue

What did  your Childhood taste like? Consider the food of your childhood.  What was the best tasting food you remember and what was the worst.  Which of these foods have good stories attached to it.   The smells, the moments, the tastes, the memories that are attached to it.  Many people may go to Sunday mornings after church or Family Holidays.  Have students write about the entire experience around food.

  • My Mom waking up at 5:00 A.M. and me smelling the Turkey on Thanksgiving
  • My Dad’s horrible attempts at grilling…burnt bbq sauce
  • My Dad’s Fried Chicken and the sound of it through the house
  • Bacon in the mornings.

What are your dreams?  Do not underestimate the power of students dreams.  Dreams being goals and ambitions. Do this in steps:

  1. Identify a dream you have (e.g. owning your own home someday, getting accepted into college, becoming a video game programmer) and explain why that dream is important to you.
  2. Consider what you need to do to make this dream come true.
  3. What help do you need to make this dream come true.  Where can you find this help?

The Neighborhood Spot. Begin a brief brainstorm of the most awesome spots in your neighborhood that you will always remember.  Model this in front of students.  Have students choose their own lists to choose from and have them select one spot.  Here the teacher selects their one spot.  Make a T-Chart.  On the left side, recall all the memories, details, memoires, and dialogue.  On the right hand side, why that spot holds such significance in their memory.  You may even have them draw the area first.  From this list begin writing in front of your students.  Students follow your lead.

Sentence Starters. Have students complete sentence starters.  This helps them generate writing to get them started.  Some examples that are given are:

  • “I appreciate_______________ because ____________.
  • I really wish I hadn’t _______________.
  • I remember trying to learn_______________.
  • On lesson I learned the hard way was ________________.

Some examples that teachers could use. I appreciate musicians because of their ability to connect to the soul or I really wish I hadn’t put those keys in the car.

We cannot ignore the increasing demands for formal academic and logical writing.  We cannot deemphasize the need for our students to be able to research and form effective arguments.  However, it cannot come at the cost of pushing out personal writing.  Personal writing opens the doors to our students becoming more proficient writers regardless of genre or type.   Explicit connections can be made from personal writing to formal academic writing and it is our job to guide our students into making those connections.   Embrace the need to write formally but for sake of your students, do not force them to abandon the opportunities to tell their stories as well.