25% off on ELA writing prompts

Just in time for back to school, I’m offering 25% off my collections of writing prompts for teens or adults in English/composition classes.

These aren’t just writing topics. Each prompt is embedded within a self-contained writing lesson that provides everything students need to start their writing task without having to ask you for help.

Ready, Set, Write!  includes 20 writing prompts. Bullying Begins as Words contains 15 writing prompts.  Each prompt includes:

  • Context that tells students why the prompt is relevant.
  • Directions for pre-writing preparation.
  • The actual writing assignment.

All the prompts are ready-to-go. Just fill in the due date and the writing prompt is ready for students’ use.

Twenty of the 35 writing prompts are for not-yet-competent writers, who are referred to as noncoms. (Isn’t that a much nicer term than the labels sometimes given that group?)

As the marketers say, results may vary, but  in my experience, 21 weeks of responding to one formal prompt a week supplemented by daily informal writing  got three-quarters of noncoms writing competently.

Each collection includes resources for you in addition to the writing lessons for students. Here’s what you get in either collection:

  • An E-book that puts all the student and teacher materials in one place.
  • The PPC Handbook to answer your questions about using the materials.
  • All the prompts in the collection in both .pdf and .docx versions, each saying you have permission to use them with your students your entire teaching career.
  • A rubric for easy, helpful assessments.

If you already know you have to have these prompts, visit my e-junkie shop where you can get either or both collections at the 25% off discount.

The sale ends at midnight Friday, Aug. 16, 2019.

Preparation for writing

When I read Ken Ilgunas’s book Trespassing Across America Sunday evening, one sentence leaped out at me:

Cover of Trespassing America shows man in hiking gear balancing on a large pipe.
The hike wasn’t this carefree.

The only thing that would prepare me for a long-distance hike, I realized, was a long-distance hike.

In many ways, writing is like that long-distance hike. There’s only one way to prepare for writing, and that’s by writing.

And, as with Ilgunas’s hike along the XL Pipeline from Alberta, Canada, to the Texas Gulf Coast, writers aren’t really prepared for writing until they’ve written day after day, in all kinds of whether, no matter whether there’s anybody around to notice or not.

Doing isn’t necessarily understanding

The last two weeks, I’ve worked every day to learn how to create document templates in OpenOffice that contain everything I need for a project I expect to go on for several years.

The effort has reminded me daily of the difference between being able to do something and understanding what you’re doing.

In certain academic areas — writing and math come to mind immediately — being able to perform operations without understanding what you’re doing is as bad, if not worse, than not being able to perform those tasks at all.

The problem is even more serious in non-academic settings.

Imagine a pilot, accountant, surgeon, or cashier who knows how to perform certain actions but doesn’t understand the consequences of those actions.

You may not have to imagine the cashier. You might have seen that person on your last trip to the superstore.

If someone can’t explain:

  • what they are doing

  • why they are doing what they are doing

  • what the previous action had to have been to get them to this step

  • what effect their action will have if it’s done right

  • what effect their action will have if it’s done wrong

  • what the effect of not doing that action at all would be

  • what the next action must be

that person doesn’t know what she’s doing.

Do you make sure your students know what they are doing?

Storytelling should be tethered to a cause

People read what they want to know about.

Most people must be seduced into reading what they need to know about.

When business and professional leaders tell teachers they want students to be able to tell stories, what they want is writers who can tell the stories the business and professional leaders want told.

Those stories are rarely first person narratives.

They are nearly always third person reportage.

And they are almost never a story the writer would have chosen to tell if she weren’t being paid: They are almost always boring stories.

The only reason writers get paid is because, unlike the suited-individuals who hire them, they can take uninteresting stories, find something in them that could be made to be interesting, and use that nugget to grab the attention of people who haven’t been paying attention and move them to action.

If you are going to teach narrative writing, what you should be focusing on is what people are willing to pay for: third-person reportage that finds a human story that can be told to breathe life into the boring story so it moves people to action.

Growth mindset for writing teachers

Carol Dweck showed that a growth mindset can be taught and that it matters.

If you teach teens and adults, that doesn’t mean you can tell students they can learn to write competently and think you’ve done your bit toward promoting a growth mindset.

If you are paid to teach expository writing to teens or adults, you must:

  • Believe that every one of them can and will learn to write competently in your class.
  • Convince every one of them that they can and will learn to write competently in your class.
  • Teach every one of them to write competently in your class.

Your mindset matters.

You had better be focused on growing each of your students into a competent expository writer before your class is over.

If that’s not your mindset, then you are not earning your paycheck.

About the five paragraph essay

The "five paragraph essay" is rarely presented as an essay outside of schools and even less rarely has just five paragraphs, yet even in 2018 it flourishes unnoticed as the organizational skeleton for most expository nonfiction that’s not presented as a narrative.

Consider this: Revealing a skeleton ought to require a serious surgical operation. When you can see a skeleton beneath someone’s skin, that means the person has a serious deficiency. That body is undernourished.

When you can look at a piece of writing and spot the five-paragraph structure at 50 paces, the problem isn’t bad bones but malnutrition.

The "five paragraph" skeleton needs to be fleshed out well enough that the bones don’t stick through the skin.

Be fair.

Give explicit directions  so students can tell whether they did or did not meet your standard. Vague directions and hints are both unfair and counterproductive.

If material is essential for students to know, present it at least once from each primary learning mode. It’s not  fair to expect all students to learn well the way you do.

Don’t grade student writing on factors you don’t teach. For example, don’t evaluate work for creativity unless you teach all students to be creative.

Evaluate for a grade only writing in your chosen instructional genre.

Best practices in teaching writing

The best practices in teaching writing not only produce competent writers, but allow the teacher to live to tell the tale.

Here in no particular order are practices I’ve found work in teaching teens and adults to write expository nonfiction competently:

Teach one lesson multiple times in multiple ways. If the lesson’s not important enough to teach, it isn’t worth presenting in the first place.

Give explicit directions so you don’t have to keep re-explaining.

Make every writing assignment do double or triple duty. Don’t give writing prompts that do nothing other than force students to write.

Develop good writing prompts that you can reuse.

Enlist other students and outsiders to provide students with an audience.

Teach students to make checklists and use exemplars to monitor their writing behavior.

When you grade papers, focus on a strictly limited number of serious issues.

Hold students responsible for correcting their own work.

Slow down teaching writing.

If you rush through a writing unit because you need to cover the curriculum, you risk producing whole classes of students who

  • cannnot write.
  • hate the thought of having to write.
  • may also hate having to read. 

It is far preferable to take six years to turn out competent writers than to run those risks.

Whatever you teach about writing, teach well and teach thoroughly.

What’s your goal in teaching writing?

Since I missed Tuesday’s #TeachWriting chat on Twitter, I founnd the transcript, which I thought might interest you, too.

Below, compiled and edited for brevity, is the chat’s first question and responses to it.

The chat’s first question

Responses to the first question

If someone had more than one response to Q1, I’ve included only one, usually the first.

As you read, please bear in mind that respondents are a diverse group that, depending on the chat, may include K-12 teachers, college faculty, school administrators, and a variety of support staff. In some respects, their perspectives vary with their positions.


Quantity a top-of-mind goal

Perhaps it was the way the question was worded that prompted so many teachers to respond by framing their goals in terms of quantity.  Researchers certainly have criticized teachers for not having students write enough; however, one might almost conclude from these responses that the teachers believe students learn to write well by doing a lot of writing without the benefit of teaching or coached practice.

I noticed no one mentioned a specific genre of writing. The closest anyone came was a reference to writing across the curriculum, which would suggest expository writing.

A couple of people phrased their goal in terms of how they wanted their students to feel about writing. Affective goals are important, but they respond indifferently to teaching and are nearly impossible to measure. If, like Ben Kuhlman, a teacher wants a student to feel successful at writing, the best way to achieve that goal is to teach the student to write.

A1: My goal never changes

Here’s what I would have given as my response to Q1:


Goal: every student writes competently.

For over 40 years, my goal in teaching writing has been to turn out competent writers. I aim for every student who enters my classroom (a physical one or a digital one) to leave being able to write expository nonfiction competently in the situations in which that student has to write.  Depending on the student, that can mean writing in their college classes or at work.

In either case, students expect a quick payout.

To accomplish my goal—all-class competence—I have every student write every day in response to prompts I give them.  Most days we do informal writing about course content other than writing or about some aspects of the expository writing process.  One day a week is used for drafting that week’s formal document.

My students don’t leave my classes on an emotional high: They’re too exhausted for that.

But a significant number leave writing competently, even when the course is as little as five weeks.