And the Tasty Writing Award Goes To . . .

part 1: i was always a reader

During tenth and eleventh grade, I probably read The Catcher in the Rye 20 times. I read it during geometry, which is why I am terrible at projects that involve measuring and fitting pieces together; I also read it during study halls when I should have been doing my homework; I read it on the bus, ignoring the spitballs and competing boom boxes; and I read it walking the halls between classes. Salinger’s book never left my side those two years–I lived that book. Holden was my friend, and he became part of my consciousness.

part 2: some things change and others don’t

More recently, I’ve graduated from Salinger, whom, incidentally, I still love. You might catch me reading his short stories or parts of Catcher on a snowy day or lazy summer afternoon. But now my scope of interest is wider. I don’t just read fiction. I read almost anything I can get my hands on–anything from astrophysics to history to self-help to literary fiction to graphic novels. One genre that I never read much of unless I was forced to were books about educational practices. But now that I have over twenty years in the field, I find that I can’t read enough of them. There are so many good ones! One that has had a substantial impact on my practice is Sarah Tantillo‘s The Literacy Cookbook . It’s currently available on Amazon for $15.97, which in my eyes, is a bargain for a book that contains effective strategies instantly applicable to any classroom.

part 3: reading about teaching reading and writing

I began reading Tantillo’s book shortly after I left high school and became a middle school ELA teacher in 2014. Tantillo immediately influenced my instruction because her suggestions are practical. If I were an administrator responsible for designing or guiding curriculum in a building or district, I would buy a copy for every teacher in my purview because every teacher is a literacy teacher. I can’t listen to educators of non-English/language arts classes when they try to refute this fact. It will never make sense to me. We are all reading and writing teachers, and Sarah Tantillo’s book is a sensible and efficient way to provide teachers of all subjects with the tools they need to incorporate more literacy instruction into their subject matter.

part 4: all writing is persuasive

Chapter 5 of The Literacy Cookbook is titled Tasty Persuasive Writing, and in this chapter she reminds teachers that all writing is persuasive, but in order “for something to be persuasive, it has to be tasty” (p. 145). This year I began writing instruction with this quotation to remind students that no one wants to read writing that is colorless and dull. People want to read compelling, thought-provoking ideas–they want to be moved, excited, and astonished. To reinforce this idea, I created a “Tasty Writing Award.” Every day I choose a delicious piece of student writing (a passage that is somewhere between one and three sentences long), and I feature it on the blackboard for the entire day. I always ask the students for permission to share their work, and I give them credit. You can’t win the award if you are anonymous!

part 5: the power of recognition

When I started this routine, I did not understand the power of recognition. I had no idea how much the students would enjoy reading and honoring the work of their peers. I also did not expect that students who did not like writing would now strive to write something so that they could see their name on my “Tasty Writing Award” board. At the beginning of last week a student who rarely writes more than two or three sentences, despite my efforts to push his thinking forward, asked me how he could get his name on the board. My answer was something along the lines of you have to wow me, and I moved on to another student who had a question. For the next few days, this student listened to the mini-lessons more carefully and asked for more feedback from me and his peers. He was determined to get his name on the board, and by the end of the week he did. He still does not write much, but what he is producing contains some juicy words. He is producing quality work, even though he is not producing volume. I do not have a sample of this particular student’s work because I forgot to snap a photo of it before I left school on Friday; however, I do have another example. One portion of my blackboard looks like this every day. In this pic, the student was writing about All Summer in a Day by Ray Bradbury.

Tasty Writing (1).jpg

part 6: feedback from my colleagues → the future

Other teachers have come to me and suggested that I turn this award into a contest where parents, teachers, and students vote on the best piece of writing every month, and then that student wins a certificate and a journal or some other prize that relates to writing, like maybe a special pen or highlighter. I have considered these ideas, but I’m not quite ready to do that yet for many reasons, one of them being that I have enough on my plate with the new curriculum changes in my district. I hope that maybe next year I can expand upon this idea a bit more and implement some of the suggestions other teachers have made. If you have any suggestions, I would like to hear them! Please feel free to post them in the comments. And if you use the “Tasty Writing Award” in your classroom, please let me know how it goes! I would like to know if you receive similar responses from your students.

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Can Somebody Push the Restart Button, Please?

Below is the beginning of a story that I’ve been working on in my head for about 24 hours now. I’m doing more modeling with my students this year by showing them more of my own writing. Here’s the idea that’s been brewing in my mind since yesterday. Please comment and let me know what you think!


Can Somebody Push the Restart Button, Please?

Chapter 1

Second period. Staring at the notebook on my desk–Mrs. Sentor would call it my journal. I call it painful. A poster on the wall in front of me reads: There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed. –Ernest Hemingway. Well, here I sit. Trying to bleed. When I just want to cry. No. Disintegrate. No. Or is it dissipate? Ugh. I have no ID-E-A what I want, OK??? Please.

OK. I do know what I want. I want to cry. How about that? That’s what I want. And I want it to feel good. But it won’t. So I don’t. I sit here. In second period.

Mrs. Sentor put a prompt on the board:

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

Seriously? Seriously . . . Just one thing? Where do I start? With my eyebrows and work my way down to my preposterously thin ankles? Why do I stop at my ankles, you ask? Well, I like my feet. They are my best feature. They are dainty with perfect toes–not short and stubby and not long and knotty. My dad has gnarly yellow toes that he really shouldn’t ever show in public. I’m truly grateful that I did not inherit his feet. I wonder if Mrs. Sentor will notice if I write about something I like instead, like my feet.

But my pencil still doesn’t move. It can’t. My elbow is frozen. I wonder if that excuse will get me a pass to the nurse. But wait. I think my shoulder is frozen, too. This would explain why my pencil isn’t moving. Ugh. This day needs to be over.

Anyway, I was talking about my feet. Pretty feet don’t get a person much here at Brook Trout Middle School because they are covered up all day on the count of shoes–a required part of the dress code here in school suburbia. Not just any shoes, though. For instance, shoes without backs are verboten, as Mrs. Person, the German teacher, would say. Most of us call them slides. My mom calls them clogs or flops. Whatever. Doesn’t matter. Just don’t wear them unless you want to visit the goofy principal’s office. 

Tommy Ranker, who sits next to me in language arts, looks like a forty-year-old man because he has a glaring bald spot at the top of his head. It is round and clean, like a plate that just came out of the dishwasher. The rest of him is not unattractive. He’d have a nice smile if he didn’t spew vomit every time he opened his mouth. And he can be funny. Like the day he asked Mrs. Kleindock the question no one ever dared to ask.

Tommy has never noticed my feet. He notices everything else, though, from my unnaturally dark eyebrows compared to my light blonde hair, to my burgeoning mustache, to my small chest, hairy arms, and string bean legs. I imagine that someday someone will find him charming if they can ignore the fact that at thirteen he is already going bald and perpetually immature. If he found a girl, maybe he would focus on her instead of humiliating me.

Even without looking at him, I can feel his eyes on me. He’s smirking. “Hey, Skinny,” he whispers when Mrs. Sentor isn’t looking. “What did you write?” His quick, stubby, chewed-to-the-bone fingers try to snatch my journal. I slap my hand down into the middle of it just in time. I give him a look like the one my cat gives me when it’s hungry: the I-am-going-to-eat-you-if-you-don’t-feed-me-soon look.

“Knock. it. off!” I say through clenched teeth. Mrs. Sentor turns our way. I look at my desk. Again, what do I want? If this is the only kind of attention a girl like me gets, then I think what I want is to be left alone.

When I woke up this morning, I thought today would be different. Let me rephrase that. Mrs. Sentor is always telling us to choose that clearly convey our meaning, so what I really meant was that I thought that today HAD to be different. I didn’t think the universe had a choice. There is no way that today could be as bad as yesterday. It had to get better. It just had to. When you already have no friends, things can only get better, right?

So why don’t I have any friends? I could make a long list, but I guess the closest answer to the truth is that I lie, hoping to impress people. I do it all the time. I can’t help it, even though it never works. People know I want them to like me too much. So, as I said, I really have no friends. No one that I would link arms with or willingly share the answers to my homework with. But yesterday–for half the day anyway–I thought I had a friend. Randi. Her real name is Miranda, but she prefers Randi. Anyway, she was my friend, until Kim handed me a “message.” Right before lunch, nonetheless. She says to me, all nonchalantly, “Randi wanted me to give you this,” as she holds out her fist. When I innocently open my hand to take the “note,” seventeen little pieces of shiny paper fall into my hand. Seventeen little pieces. I wonder if Randi counted them. Or did she just blindly rip without thinking.

She ripped my school picture, the one I gave her in October, the one with my note of friendship to her on the back. She shredded it. Like it was a piece of junk mail. Like it was something that meant nothing to her. I feel my thyroid drop into my stomach like a ball of acid. What did I do to make her so mad at me?

I throw the seventeen pieces to the top shelf of my locker. What the hell? Maybe there I won’t ever have to look at them. Someday a janitor will find them and never look to see what they are before he throws them in his oversized trash can.