Teaching Opinion

Response: A “Napkin Curriculum For Writing”

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 02, 2012 11 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

(Note: This is the fourth post in a multi-part series on teaching writing. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three here)

Katie Ciresi asked:

What advice can you give to help teachers be more effective in helping students become better writers?

This series is a companion to last year’s five posts on Helping Our Students Become Better Readers.

This series began with guest responses from Mary Tedrow, Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey. Another three educators -- Aimee Buckner, Carolyn Coman and Tanya Baker -- contributed their ideas in Part Two. Educator and author Ralph Fletcher shared his ideas on how we can specifically help boys become stronger writers in Part Three. Today, Barry Lane provides a guest response.

I’ll finish up the series later next week with my suggestions, comments from readers, and contributions from one or two more quests.

Response From Barry Lane

Barry Lane is an author and teacher who has worked with teachers and students nationwide and abroad for over 20 years. His books for teachers includeAfter THE END: Teaching Creative Revision, But How do you Teach Writing, Hooked on Meaning and 51 Wacky We-Search Reports. He is also a folksinger and filmmaker. You can view his films on YouTube and his songs on Soundcloud by searching barrylane55. His forthcoming projects for children include the recording/book Force Field For Good : Teaching Kindness Through Song and Literature and the non-fiction picture book Is Your Grandmother a Sea Turtle. Visit Discover Writing to find out more about his work or email him directly at barry@discoverwriting.com. Along with presenting nationwide Barry also performs a Literacy Cabaret Show that satirizes current education policy and boosts the morale of teachers:

There are many great books on the craft of Teaching writing and how to set up a writing classroom. From classics like Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle and Naming the world and Linda Rief’s Seeking Diversity to more recent books like Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like This, Penny Kittles Write by their Side, Gretchen Bernabei’s Reviving the Essay, and Pam Allyn’s The Complete 4 series. Thomas Newkirk’s Holding on to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones is a wonderful historical guide of where we are today as literacy teachers and what is at stake.

There are some fabulous websites like Writing Fix, Poem Farm, and Literacyhead that contain high quality literature based lesson plans and there are wonderful places to connect and interact with other teachers like Jim Burke’s award winning English Companion.

Read books by Katie Wood Ray, Ralph Fletcher, Karen Caine, Lester Lamineck, Lucy Calkins, Joanne Hindley, Georgia Heard, Matt Glover, Chris Tovani, Harvey Daniels, Stephanie Harvey and many more Heinemann and Stenhouse authors to get great ideas built on sound pedagogy.

By far, the best and most career sustaining professional development available for teachers of writing is the National Writing Project. This is a 5 week summer course where you walk in as a teacher of writing and walk out a writer who teaches. Because of the intensity of all the writing and sharing members often develop lifelong professional development connections. I spontaneously make video ads for the national writing project wherever it go because I believe so strongly in their central mission: Turn writing teachers into teaching writers.

Here’s one teacher who was transformed by this force.

So now let me tell you my own simplistic answer to your question. I call this my napkin curriculum for writing and if you have all these 3 concepts alive and well in your class you are on track to being an effective writing teacher.

Time + Space+ Choice= Real Writing Classroom

A Regular Writing Time

“Writing is long periods of thinking and short periods of writing”

Ernest Hemingway

A regular writing time is essential to create a class of writers. Writing is a habit and often requires long periods of rehearsal. Students who have a regular writing time will look forward to it as a cool oasis in a hot and hectic curriculum day. All real writing classrooms have this kind of time built into the day. In elementary school it could be as long as an hour a day. At the upper grades , it might be the first ten minutes of each 50 minute period or a block several times each week. Students might explore a topic on the board or a reading assignment, or work on a completely self chosen piece they started last week. Writing is used as a way to explore and play with ideas. Students often have writer’s notebooks to record their musings and collect lists of things to write about. A notebook can also be a place to ask questions and come up with theories. Sharing a writer’s notebook is a great way to generate genuine enthusiasm for writing. It is also a place where students experiment with craft ideas from a teachers mini-lesson and record observations or quotes from their reading.

I was visiting a 2nd grade class in California and as soon as I entered the room a little boy looked up at me and said, “What are you doing here? It’s writing time. “

“I’m a writer, going to do a “mini” lesson. “

He scowled a bit and looked me in the eye.

“I hope you brought your journal.”

A regular writing time builds enthusiasm and stamina for writing.

Space : The Final Frontier

If we want students to have the time to really write well we need to clear space in the day to make the time to write on topics of choice. I once worked with a principal who handed her teachers a white paper plate and said. “This is your day. Find a slice of writing.” It requires real finesse to find an hour a day for writing in most public schools today.

Space is also space for student engagement and expression within a topic. For example, If you are teaching argument, begin with something students care about personally, and ladder up to an argument about something more abstract. Short expressive assignments like recipe poems are a great way to give students space to use their creative license and create deep comprehension of a topic. Here is high school senior Marlene Martinez describing her recipe for Flapper Fondue. She wrote this poem a year earlier, but note the passion and joy I her voice. How many assignments from last year would a student in your school remember. How many would they delight in sharing.

Space also means physical space. What have you done to make your classroom more friendly to writing. Some elementary teachers hand her student a pillow and say go to your writing spot. A high school teacher may have a couch or a lamp in the classroom. Writers thrive in informal atmospheres and you could argue that even in the corporate world, workers are more productive when given more informal settings. Indeed, companies who let their workers work from home report significantly higher productivity. Furthermore, in his book Drive, author Daniel Pink says that todays American economy depends on intrinsically motivated workers. A writer who has space to express their own ideas and a teacher who listens is a big step along that path.


Here is a cartoon that describes what I call the assignment giving classroom. This is a classroom where the teacher is at the center doling out lessons and assignments. “Write an essay about freedom,” It’s due on Tuesday. The teacher doesn’t even seem to notice that his students are chained to the oars. There is little student engagement in such a classroom and these types of classrooms at the high school level are without a doubt responsible for the astronomical drop out rate in recent years. Unfortunately, the Common Core Standards, in an attempt to create more more rigorous curriculum, seem to be asking for more of this teacher driven instruction in reading and writing. This goes against what most teachers know is needed to create a class of lifelong writers. Engagement in writing and reading comes when students are intrinsically motivated and teachers facilitate deep learning, not a talking head teacher at the front of the class.

(From But How Do You Teach Writing, by Barry Lane Scholastic 2008)

Writing is complex and when teachers or curriculum try to control it often results in simplifying and dumbing down the process. In this video author Daniel Pink describes how playful intrinsic motivation beats high pressure carrot and stick motivation in complex learning situations.

Cartoon 2 shows a writing classroom. Instead of assigning ,here the teacher asks., “What are you going to write about for Monday?” Choice is integrated into the each day and students learn that they are expected to take control of their writing. In classrooms like this there are often awkward pauses and blank spots where students don’t know what to write about, or how to write about what they want to write about. Students discover they have something to say because they are expected to be writers, not students learning to write. Teachers write along side their students and use mentor texts from published authors to for inspiration and instruction. Choice based classrooms

My friend Denise Abercrombe, a wonderful high school teacher loves it when her students ask her a question at the beginning of each period, “So what are we going to do today?” Brain specialist Eric Jensen likes those kinds of questions because we learn best in a state of anticipation. Too often in today’s test driven classrooms students ask, “Why are we doing this? " Author Frank Seraphini says that if your students are asking this question, there is no suitable answer. You’ve lost them already.

The Common Coma or the Common Creativity?

One of the unrecognized side effects of standardizing curriculum is that there quickly develops a status quo for what good teaching should be. Rubrics for assessment ( even the best ones) started as a way to improve instruction but quickly have devolved into a tool for taking the magic out of learning. In this video from my upcoming film, What are Schools For?, sociologist George Ritzer talks about the disenchantment which follows from over-rationalization.

The Common Core, to it’s credit, does not prescribe curriculum but if you read it carefully it excludes important practices and prioritizes others in order to be more focused on workplace literacy. Though teachers keep saying, you tell us the what and leave us with the ‘How,” publishers make a living selling the “How” and educational leaders often think they can purchase the “how” for all their teachers . It is human nature to conform and artists of all periods in history have struggled against the powers of regimentation. Even genius artists the likes of Rembrandt have admitted they felt a bit left out. He famously said,

I can’t paint the way they want me to paint and they know that too. Of course you will say that I ought to be practical and ought to try and paint the way they want me to paint.

Well, I will tell you a secret. I have tried and I have tried very hard, but I can’t do it. I just can’t do it! And that is why I am just a little crazy.


Writing teachers today are just a little crazy and that is the way it should be. It takes courage to build Time Space and Choice into your day. Writing is not a subject like math or science or even literature. Writing is a core skill like thinking. All writing teachers are a bit like the aged Socrates. If we do our job well we will be accused of corrupting the youth of Athens. If we fail , no one will have to hand us hemlock to drink because the rigor-mortis may already be setting in.

I was once working with a 4th grade class in Texas, teaching them to explore their ability to make wisdom from what they experience in the physical world. I do this by showing them many photos and asking them to complete this sentence... I’ve learned that sometimes...” This truism lesson I learned from author Gretchen Bernabei in her dvd Ba Da Bing. On this day, I showed a photo of my cat sitting inside an Ikea bag and asked students to make up a slogan for that photo. At first, most kids wrote more literal slogans like “Cats like to hide in bags,” or references to aphorisms like ,” You must not let the cat out of the bag.” Eventually, I turned to Ryan, a fidgety blond haired kid who sat up front. His truism is one that I think of often when I work in schools today. He said,

“They want you to think outside the box, but they won’t let you out of the box.”

It is a writing teacher’s job to let students out of the box.

Thanks to Barry for contributing his response.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here. I’ll be including them in a future post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of seven published by published by Jossey-Bass.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe to this blog for free via RSS Reader or email....

And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first year of this blog, you can check them out here.

Look for final post in this series next week....

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.