writing tips

Advice From a Teacher: Recommendations for Writing Help

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As a teacher* I’m frequently asked for advice on teaching, learning, studying, reading, and avoiding getting sick. While I don’t consider myself an expert on any of these things, I always try to give some helpful suggestions.

So… I’ve decided to start sharing those suggestions on my blog, hoping that my small pieces of advice might travel a little bit further.

* NOTE: I’ve decided to stop referring to myself as a “former” teacher. I am a teacher. I have a valid, current teaching certificate and over fifteen years of experience in the classroom. Regardless of the fact that my current job is not teaching, I am still a teacher.

Advice From a Teacher

Last week, a friend of mine sent me this question about his daughter:

“Any recommendations for helping a new 5th grader to write better? Any good grammar books for her to learn from? Any habits I should be forming with her for reading and writing? She did not do so hot on the STAAR test, but super enjoys school.”

Here’s my reply:

The short answer is that I don’t have a good short answer. But here are some thoughts:

#1:
Does she like to read? Find something she loves to read and get her to read a lot. Reading good writing is key to writing good writing. If she likes Star Wars, I’m currently loving the Origami Yoda series by Tom Angleberger. Some people probably consider it more of a “boy book” (<– ugh, I hate those words) but I love it. I also love many other books and can compile a list if you want. (I did compile that list! See below.)

#2:
Rather than force a grammar book on her, which could easily kill her passion for writing and/or her soul, get her to practice writing about things she likes. Letters to people, a description of a favorite movie or book, a story she made up. If you’re really serious about getting her some help before school starts, you could hire a writing tutor, but I would try to find one that will make the experience fun and interesting and not just drill her with test prep. There might also be a camp or something she could attend. I know we have some in Austin. (I’ve compiled a list of those too.)

#3:
For essay writing, I do have a book I recommend. It’s called Reviving the Essay by Gretchen Bernabei, and it’s an awesome teaching tool. It comes with many useful exercises and great examples. But it probably wouldn’t be seen as a “fun summer activity” by most kids, so you’d still need someone to guide her through it. Also, the exercises teach kids how to write REAL essays, not 26-line timed standardized test crud. Which brings me to my last point…

#4:
Standardized tests are mostly crud. (See example of cruddy test materials below.) If she’s doing well otherwise in school, I wouldn’t worry too much about it. However, not worrying is easier said than done. If getting better at the test questions will make you and your daughter feel better, you can always access released tests online and practice with those.

Resources

Books

Books I Love That I Recommend for Fifth Graders:

  • The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger
  • Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar
  • Wonder by R.J. Palacio
  • The Lost Track of Time by Paige Britt
  • Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
  • The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy by Nikki Loftin
  • The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly
  • Greenglass House by Kate Milford
  • A Tale Dark & Grimm by Adam Gidwitz
  • The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co. #1) by Jonathan Stroud

Austin Summer Writing Camps for Kids:

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The Awesomeness of Gretchen Bernabei:

If you’re a writing teacher, I highly recommend buying a copy of Reviving the Essay. You will definitely get your money’s worth. But if you’re a parent looking for some writing exercises for your child, check out Gretchen’s website. She offers a wide variety of downloadable writing advice, including strategies to help with the STAAR test.

Speaking of the STAAR Test…

THIS is what the STAAR Writing Test answer document looks like.

STAARWriting

Ugh.

But don’t worry. Good teachers know it’s crud and they will teach your kids to write well in spite of it.  :)

* * * * *

Need advice from a teacher?
Send your questions to cariejuettner[at]gmail[dot]com.

10 Tips For Keeping a Journal

Journals

I started my first journals when I was in junior high. I called them my “poetry journals” because they were filled with—you guessed it—poetry. Mostly really, really dramatic rhyming poetry with titles like “Flirting with Disaster” and “Dancing with Danger.” Those journals evolved to include favorite quotes, photos, birthday cards, cartoons cut out of the newspaper, random snippets about my life, and strange collages created from cutting up trashy tabloid magazines. But I still called them my “poetry journals.”

On the night before I left for college, when I was eighteen, I finally started my first real diary-like journal, and I’ve been keeping one pretty consistently ever since. I currently have twenty-eight volumes. That doesn’t include those old “poetry journals” I made, or the few dream journals I kept, or the many writers’ notebooks I’ve compiled in the last few years. That’s twenty-eight journals full of pages and pages and pages of writing about my life. Of talking to myself on paper. Of all the love and loss and contentment and craziness crammed in my little brain.

Some people have trouble keeping a journal for a month, much less twenty-one years. (Yep, I’m 39. Good job on those math skills.) So how did I do it? How did I keep a journal going for more than two decades? I’ll tell you.

10 Tips For Keeping a Journal

JournalCollage

1. DON’T Write Everyday!

Wait, what? Are you serious?

Yes, I’m serious. This doesn’t apply to people working on a novel. In that case, yes, you should probably write everyday (even though I consistently fail at that). But when it comes to journaling, the quickest way to kill the habit is to put undue pressure on yourself. If you tell yourself you HAVE to write everyday, one of three things is going to happen.

  • A) Pretty soon you’ll miss a day and then you’ll feel like a failure and you’ll give up.
  • B) You’ll actually write in it everyday, but soon your entries will start to sound like this: Bought milk on the way home. Did some laundry. Um… what else? Congratulations! You’re writing a journal no one (not even you) will ever want to read.
  • C) You’ll write every single day, and it will become easier and easier, and your entries will get longer and longer, and you will learn so much about yourself, and when you finish the journal you’ll realize it contains the memoir you’ve always wanted to write, and it’s publishable immediately with no revision!

Just kidding. C doesn’t happen. It turns out there were only two choices.

Here’s the deal: when it comes to your journal, sometimes distance makes the heart grow fonder. Think of it like a really good friend who you don’t see every day. Isn’t it more fun to get together when you have life stuff to catch up on? Keep your journal handy—it should never be far—but let it rest a little while you gather some things to tell it. Next time you pick it up, you may write something worth reading.

2. Skip to the Good Stuff.

When you do pick up your journal and start to write, don’t feel like you have to fill it in on every detail of your life. If you did that to your friend, her eyes would glaze over pretty quickly. Show your journal the same respect. I don’t know how many times I’ve scribbled out four pages of babble until my hand was sore and THEN written, “But what I really wanted to write about was…” When I do that, the big news often gets short-changed in the entry.

Journal #29

Journal #29

3. Think Small.

Then again… if you wait until you have “good stuff” to write about, your journal may stay closed for months, and that’s no good. The truth is, there’s “good stuff” happening all around us almost every day. Consider this—who’s this journal for? You, right? What will YOU want to look back on in ten years? Chances are, you’re going to remember the big things. Your wedding, your novel getting published, that time you won $7,000,000 in the lottery—those are going to stick with you. What you’ll crave are the little things. The tiny little slices of life that you’ve forgotten about. So your job when journaling is to master the mundane. Where are you? What are you wearing? What are you listening to? Personally, I’m sitting in my office at home at 10:23PM, wearing my polar bear pajamas (pretty new) and my faded black Dirty Dancing t-shirt (very old), and my iTunes just started playing “Cheating Man” by Jeff Plankenhorn. That right there will tell me more about life at this moment than anything else I can think of to say. Write small now and it will have a big impact later.

4. Get Some Guidance.

If you’re stymied by the blank page and even thinking small isn’t helping, consider starting with a journal that offers some assistance. There are numerous diaries and journals out there that offer a lot more than empty space within their pages. There are journals that guide you through prompts, questions, lists, meditations, affirmations, and more. Three popular ones are: Listography, Wreck This Journal, and the 5-Year Q&A Journal. <– I have this one and I recommend it even if you use a traditional format too. Each page is a day of the year and each day has a question. You have four lines to answer it. You repeat this daily exercise for five years. I admit, the first year it was a little boring, but I’m on the fourth year now, and I love reading my past answers and seeing how life has changed (or not) during that time. Four lines is not a lot of space, so the writing gets cramped. For that reason, I write in a different color every year to make the separation visible. (2016 is blue.)

5. Break the Rules.

Write upside down. Doodle. Skip a page. Use a big fat Sharpie. This is YOUR JOURNAL. Whatever rules you’re following came from YOU. You can change them.

If you’re using a guided journal, don’t be afraid to stray from the path. Ignore the question of the day and write whatever you want. When you find yourself going on more and more tangents, you’ll know you’re ready to tackle the blank page.

I contemplate journaling theory in the second entry of my first ever diary-journal.

I contemplate journaling theory in the second entry of my first ever diary-journal in August 1995. I must have come up with a point, since I kept writing.

6. Go Back.

You’re doing it! You’re finally keeping a journal! You’ve written so much! Now what? Let a little time pass, and then go back and reread. This is a wonderful experience. Yes, you’ll probably cringe a little. There will be at least one point where you’ll blush uncontrollably, look around to make sure your mom/dad/husband/high school crush is not reading over your shoulder, and then slam the cover shut anyway, just in case. But you’ll also laugh and smile a lot and maybe even find a few treasures.

I have a ritual I like to do. When I finish a journal, I like to flip back to the first page and read the first sentence of every entry. Sometimes just those snippets tell a story.

7. Choose Wisely.

Take the time to find a journal you really love. There are so many styles and varieties out there, you should be able to get something that’s comfortable and fits your personality. But don’t choose something so fancy and expensive that you’ll be afraid to write in it. Your journal shouldn’t be a shrine. Let it get messy.

Bookmarks

8. Mark Your Place.

In addition to a good journal, you also need a good bookmark. Whether it’s a cute little tasseled thing with a kitten on it, a photograph, a fall leaf you picked up in the park, or simply the closest not-too-crinkled post-it note, use something to mark your progress through your new adventure. If you’re like me, as the marker approaches the finish line, you’ll find yourself writing more. Oh how I love to finish things!

9. Enter the Cloud, If You Must.

Obviously, when it comes to journaling, I am a pen and paper person. Give me ink and parchment or give me death! No, wait. Not death. I’ll scratch my diary entry in the dust with a stick if I have to. Luckily, I have a lot of both around. But I digress. (Sorry, it’s really late.) If you’re more comfortable keeping your journal online, so be it. Tips #1-6 still apply. Although it will be a lot harder to write upside down on the computer. ˙ƃuıɥʇʎuɐ ǝlƃooƃ uɐɔ noʎ ¡ɐɥ ɐɥ ɐɥ ɐɥ ɐɥ ɐɥ ¡ʇno ʇı pǝɹnƃıɟ ı ¡ʞool

10. Get Back to Basics.

Let’s say you start a journal. Let’s say you take my advice and don’t pressure yourself to write every day. Or every week even. Let’s say that… oh… SIX MONTHS go by without you writing in your journal. Or LONGER. There’s NO WAY you can catch up on everything that’s happened since you’ve been gone. You don’t even remember the big stuff, much less the small stuff. That blank page of failure is staring up at you. What do you do?

You pick up your pen. You write down today’s date. You jot down the time. You take a deep breath. You write, Hello journal. I’ve missed you. And you go from there.

Just be yourself. Just have fun with it. Just write. Journals are very forgiving creatures. There’s no way to do it wrong.

JournalStack

For a sneak peek into some of my old journal entries, check out this post from my previous blog.

 

Driven to Distraction: How to Avoid Losing Focus When Writing

The internet gets a bad rap. People are always talking about what a time suck it is and how “these days” we have such difficulty staying away from distractions. While I agree that it’s easy to get lost in social media, educational blog posts, and cute pictures of puppies, the interwebs are not solely responsible for the downfall of humanity. People have always struggled with focus.

Don’t believe me?

I recently read a short story by Bram Stoker called “The Judge’s House.” It was written in 1891. This is how it starts:

“When the time for his examination drew near Malcolm Malcolmson made up his mind to go somewhere to read by himself. He feared the attractions of the seaside, and also he feared completely rural isolation, for of old he knew its harms, and so he determined to find some unpretentious little town where there would be nothing to distract him. He refrained from asking suggestions from any of his friends, for he argued that each would recommend some place of which he had knowledge, and where he had already acquaintances. As Malcolmson wished to avoid friends he had no wish to encumber himself with the attention of friends’ friends, and so he determined to look out for a place for himself. He packed a portmanteau with some clothes and all the books he required, and then took ticket for the first name on the local time-table which he did not know.”

See? Over a hundred years ago, this character took a train, alone, to a town he didn’t know, then rented an old abandoned house which local villagers claimed was haunted, all in a desperate attempt to escape distraction while he studied. Of course, this decision worked out very poorly for Malcolmson in the end, so I suggest using these less severe methods for keeping yourself on task.

Screen Shot 2015-06-23 at 6.05.33 PM

1. SelfControl

No, not actual self control. Everybody knows that doesn’t work and I have an empty bag of Milanos in my trash can to prove it. I’m talking about the app. SelfControl is a free app for Mac that allows users to block distracting websites for a certain amount of time. You control the websites and the length. So if you’re doing research and need some internet access, that’s fine. You can still block Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, or any other urls that frequently try to grab your attention. I find it very useful and usually set it for an hour or hour and a half block.

SelfControl

2. The Green Folder

Sometimes shutting off the internet isn’t enough because the distractions aren’t in the computer– they’re in your own brain. (The call is coming from inside the house!) Sometimes you’re working on a project and you’re really in the zone and it’s going great and you’re getting so much done and all of a sudden your brain is like, “Wait! Oh my god, I just had the BEST idea! What if…” and then she proceeds to tell you the basic plot of a novel that would absolutely 100% be a bestseller. When this happens, it’s temping to stop what you’re doing and just type up a few words of it, maybe a rough outline, so you don’t forget. Don’t do that! It’s a trap! If you go down that rabbit hole, the next thing you know it’s two o’clock in the morning and you’re stuck in the middle of a chapter of THE WRONG NOVEL. No. Don’t do it. Then again, simply ignoring her isn’t a good idea either because, damn it, Brain’s really onto something this time. So here’s what you do instead:

  • Get a folder. (An actual, physical folder, not one on your computer. Mine is green, but the color is optional.)
  • Keep the folder on or near your work space.
  • When Brain comes up with a BRILLIANT idea, jot it down on a sticky note and put it in the folder. (Or write on the inside of the folder itself as I have done.)
  • Keep the folder CLOSED. Now all of Brain’s ideas are safe and sound but out of sight.

TheGreenFolder

I think it’s important that this is a physical folder in the real world and not one on your computer. Computer files are too easy to access when you’re looking for somewhere to stray while typing and it’s a lot more satisfying to close a real paper folder than to click the red x of a digital one.

Of course, the folder shouldn’t stay closed forever. After all, there’s some good stuff in there. Set a timer on it the same way you do with the SelfControl app. My green folder is closed for the month of June while I work on my novel revisions. It’s accumulating everything from poem ideas to possible blog posts to flyers about future writing contests to… I don’t even know what anymore. On July 1st, I get to open it and see what’s inside. It’ll be like my birthday!

3. Get Away

Malcolmson actually had a pretty good idea in “The Judge’s House.” Sometimes turning off the internet and sticking distractions in a folder still isn’t enough to keep you in the chair and writing. Those are the days when a change of setting can do you good. Some people write in coffee shops—that usually works for me for a couple of hours—but if, like Malcolmson, you need a quiet space for a lengthy period of time, the hustle and bustle of your favorite coffee shop may not work.

Luckily, if you live in Austin, Texas, like I do, you don’t have to go to a haunted house to find the perfect place to work because we have The Writing Barn, a unique space operated by Bethany Hegedus, author of Between Us Baxters, Truth with a Capital T, and the Bluebonnet Award Nominated picture book, Grandfather Gandhi.

From The Writing Barn website:

Situated on 7.5 wooded acres in Austin, Texas, The Writing Barn is surrounded by mature trees, home to birds and deer. It’s a peaceful out-of-town environment without ever leaving Austin.

With floor to ceiling bookshelves, rows of instructional craft books, free wi-fi, and no television, The Writing Barn is the perfect spot for an overnight writing retreat, to host a writing class, or throw a book launch party.

TheWritingBarn

In addition to workshops and classes, the Barn also hosts “Write Away” days where, for just $15, guests can spend the day at the site, enjoying hours of distraction-free* work time among other writers. These days are so great for getting back into the groove if you’re been away from a project or focusing to get through a troublesome revision or just enjoying the peace and serenity of the surroundings while typing. In fact, I just took part in a “Write Away” day today and I left the Barn with 4,000 revised words of my novel, half of this blog post drafted, and six new friends.

* Okay, it’s not completely distraction free, but baby deer are allowed to interrupt me anytime.

That’s all I’ve got today. Limit the internet with SelfControl, stick your Brain’s brilliant (but ill-timed) ideas in a folder, and find a writing retreat in your area (but good luck finding one as lovely as The Writing Barn). And if you do decide to go off on your own for awhile, remember—safety first. Tell someone where you’re going, take your cell phone with you, and heed the warnings of the local villagers if they say the house you rented is haunted. Because, after all, you’d eventually like to be able to get away from your get-away.