My Absolutely Crummy First Draft: The Trials and Triumphs

Cowles | My Absolutely Crummy First Draft:Shirley
The Trials
and Triumphs of Motivating the Adolescent Writer
My Absolutely Crummy First Draft:
The Trials and Triumphs of
Motivating the Adolescent Writer
f only I had a penny for every time
I heard, “It’s not very good,” or “I
really don’t like writing.” It has been
a journey, to say the least. Sometimes it
felt as though I were moving uphill in a
pushcart from the 1850s, old and rickety
with rusted out wheel spokes and warped
wooden planks buckled from sitting still
in the intense summer heat.
But as my students and I trudged up that twisted
dirt road together, along the way our experiences often included listening to the sweet song of
a chickadee, gazing up at a cloud formation or
brushing our fingertips over tall wheat undulating in the breeze.
Working with gifted young adolescent readers and writers in a weekly pullout program is
both a challenge and a joy. Their energy, combined with imagination, candor, and spontaneity
makes for an interesting concoction of discourse,
and ultimately, if mixed well and simmered long
enough, a recipe for success with the writing process that yields lifelong readers, and courageous
So just how does an educator motivate her
middle level students to write, regardless of their
academic abilities? How do you teach writing?
What is the perfect recipe for success and how
can we get our students to understand writing is
thinking and writing matters? How can you discover your students’ talents and interests in an
effort for them to develop a sense of self as they
progress academically? In public middle schools
today, there is significant emphasis on establishing student engagement, discourse, and connec-
tions. I believe creative writing is one tool an
educator can use to begin to develop positive relationships with their students and, at the same
time, produce resilient writers. Establishing a
foundation around the origins of writing, embracing one’s own voice, and emphasizing that
revision is the key to good writing, are cornerstones to building a community of writers.
The first piece of writing I share with my
young adolescents is a simple letter, “I care about
you, you are important to me, and I want you to succeed. Now, you might say, These students don’t need
motivation! They’re gifted! Yes, they are bright and
do well academically. However, there are, hidden
among them, twice exceptional students, perfectionists, introverts, students experiencing social
and emotional difficulties, and underachievers.
Creative writing exercises encourage critical
thinking and motivation in students, even the
ones who are hesitant to try.
Where Did Writing Come From?
In an attempt to build a community of writers
and frame middle level students’ beliefs around
writing and the writing process, I introduce
students to the question of where writing originated, from early man painting pictures on cave
walls to hieroglyphics to cuneiforms and papermaking, from Chinese calligraphy (Fisher, 1978)
to the Book of Kells to the invention of the printing press and the discovery of the Rosetta Stone.
These historical introductions, examinations of
secondary sources, and even writing our own calligraphy (Figure 1) allow students to build background knowledge and begin to see the sequence
of development from pictograms to graphology
to modern language.
Copyright © 2015 by the National Council of Teachers of English. All rights reserved.
Voices from the Middle, Volume 23 Number 2, December 2015
o74-80-Dec15-VM.indd 74
10/30/15 8:36 AM
Cowles | My Absolutely Crummy First Draft: The Trials and Triumphs of Motivating the Adolescent Writer
Got Voice?
Figure 1. Student calligraphy
Figure 2. Newspaper found poem
With the historical perspective in place, students begin to germinate from researchers who
have investigated word origins and languages
to practitioners beginning to take ownership of
their own word choice and voice development.
By generating their own favorite word jars (Allen, 1999) and lists, creating poetry using cut-up
words from actual poems, along with crafting a
newspaper found poem where the focus is solely
on selective word choice (Dunning & Stafford,
1992), students morph chosen words into short
phrases and the elements of poetry (Figure 2).
During monthly library visits students are encouraged to utilize small sticky notes to identify
words of interest from their independent reading
books and then use them in their own speaking
and writing (Figure 3). The beauty then, of a single word, has been transferred into the writer’s
own vocabulary or incorporated into an original
piece of writing that empowers the writer to take
their skill to greater heights.
Figure 3. Sticky-note words—swath/acquiescing/usurp/
Voices from the Middle, Volume 23 Number 2, December 2015
o74-80-Dec15-VM.indd 75
10/30/15 8:36 AM
Cowles | My Absolutely Crummy First Draft: The Trials and Triumphs of Motivating the Adolescent Writer
Young adolescents love giving “voice” to an
inanimate object from our artifact bag that contains objects such as a Ping-Pong ball, chopsticks,
a rock, or duct tape.
Young emerging writers They select an object
along with an emotion
become very adept at writing
card (caring, sarcastic,
what they see, but often they frightened, courageous)
and write a short piece
overlook what they hear.
giving the object that
particular voice. Imagine what a creative middle school writer can
come up with while matching chopsticks and the
word frightened!
Paul Fleischman’s “My House of Voices”
(2003) is an excellent springboard for students to
use as a mentor text for essay writing and voice
development. Young emerging writers become
very adept at writing what they see, but often they
overlook what they hear. In this essay, writers are
focusing on the sounds that surround them each
day. They are forced to move from a visual landscape to an auditory backdrop, choosing specific
words that impact our behaviors, emotions, and
personalities through sound.
A unit on humor enlightens students to the
difficult job of writing something to get a laugh.
Not an easy task. By mimicking Nancy’s Letters
from a Nut (1997), students practice a humorous
voice by crafting a letter to a company executive
or describing an awkward social situation, including hyperbole (Figure 4).
Selecting a visual image with no text, students must prove the theory that a picture tells
a thousand words by crafting a 1,000-word narrative. Research is conducted around their image
and great leads from popular young adult fiction
are examined (Figure 5).
Holocaust themes and historical background
knowledge is integrated into a poetry writing assignment entitled Paper-Bag Poetry. Based on
excerpts from Ruth Minsky Sender’s The Cage
(1986), middle level students write a thematic
poem inspired by the memoir and transfer their
words onto an actual brown paper bag (Figure
6). Words have now become recognizable, decipherable, and hopefully, interesting to young
All of these writing exercises include creative thinking, interdisciplinary-based thematic
knowledge, and research. While making the
writing real and meaningful and allowing student’s choice and the opportunity to be creative,
the outcome of their writing is nothing short of
rewarding. In fact, it is aiding in defining who
they are as young writers.
In the pride, do most of the hunting together
spend 16-20 hrs of sleeping every day
roar can be heard from 8 km away
have amazing night vision
can live more than 20 years in captivity
weigh about 280 lbs
Peaceful body language:
head nuzzling, licking
purrs, meows, hissing, snarls
The only kind of big cat that lives in groups
“I understand I should have been flattered, but
being a goody goody in first grade meant boys
had cooties and should not be within 30 feet of
any girl.”
Her eyes lock onto mine, their intelligent gleam dulled
by the dusty window. What the heck was a lioness doing in the back of my car? I glance around, not exactly sure what I’m looking for. A zookeeper? Animal
control? The rest of the pride, perhaps? I take a deep
breath and turn my gaze back at the huge cat, who’s
apparently situated her den in the backseat. I must be
Figure 4. Awkward social situation—Hyperbole
Figure 5. Narrative research and lead paragraph
“All the trees in a hundred mile radius must
have toppled down to the ground with the racket
I was making.”
Voices from the Middle, Volume 23 Number 2, December 2015
o74-80-Dec15-VM.indd 76
10/30/15 8:36 AM
Cowles | My Absolutely Crummy First Draft: The Trials and Triumphs of Motivating the Adolescent Writer
them, and embrace them. They must become eager to tackle the revision process.
The essential question, What is writing? (Atwell, 2002), is explored followed by the design
of our own classroom
posters. We then expand While making the writing
our discussion around real and meaningful and
the query, What if no one
could write? and take the allowing student’s choice
writer’s oath promising and the opportunity to be
to write as often and as
much as I can, respect my creative, the outcome of
writing self, and nurture their writing is nothing
the writing of others.
At age twelve, identi- short of rewarding. In fact,
ty is an important theme. it is aiding in defining who
Students construct a
“Who Am I” poem emu- they are as young writers.
lating the style of Diana
Chang’s “Saying Yes,” Victor Hernandez Cruz’s
“Side 32,” and Emily Dickinson’s “I Am Nobody” (Schumacher, Francis, Ofner, & Christian, 2006). Writers are then invited to read their
poems aloud and, instead of verbal feedback, receive a valentine from each class member written
on a sticky note that includes specific, positive
comments (Figure 8). This form of nonverbal
feedback boosts adolescent writers’ confidence
and interest in continuing to improve their writing and to share it with others. In fact, many of
Figure 6. Paper-bag poetry
RE/VISION: The Key to Good
“It’s not very good.” There it is again, rearing
its ugly head! “Well, of course not, it’s your . . .
crummy first draft!” I reply. “Mine’s terrible,”
counters a student. “Horrible,” “Sloppy,” “Not
very good.” Clearly, writing creatively is not the
all-encompassing answer to producing motivated
young adolescent writers. Taking ownership of
and embracing the revision process allows writing to become part of their fiber as developing
writers. They must see the results, appreciate
“Voice is the way you express yourself
through your writing. Your ‘voice’ is unique to
you—no-one else perceives the world just as you
do. (So, it’s special, ha-ha. Your voice is you.)
As you strengthen your voice, you strengthen
your writing . . . and yourself.”
“VOICE in writing is the author’s unique
personality shining through a piece. VOICE is
what differentiates an author’s style from that
of others. VOICE is the author’s personal touch
and flare to their piece. VOICE is the author
speaking directly to the reader’s mind.”
Figure 7. Student definitions of voice
Voices from the Middle, Volume 23 Number 2, December 2015
o74-80-Dec15-VM.indd 77
10/30/15 8:36 AM
Cowles | My Absolutely Crummy First Draft: The Trials and Triumphs of Motivating the Adolescent Writer
these final drafts are submitted for publication
to a larger audience in our schoolwide literary
magazine, Equus.
Our prose writing includes a personal reflective letter addressed to an author of an illustrated
The time spent (sometimes poem, or piece of fica class session of 45 min- tion. This letter is meant
to correspond with the
utes) on a handful of stu- author about how their
dents’ opening lines, lead work changed the reader’s view of the world or
sentences, or poetic verse, themselves. It also gives
analyzing and synthesizing, students material to enter in Letters about Literaexamining word choice, ture, a national writing
eliminating wimpy verbs competition sponsored
in association with Affiliand replacing them with ate State Centers for the
vivid ones is priceless. Book under the Center
for the Book in the Library of Congress. Who takes the time to write a
letter? We do. Because writing matters. Students
take risks by sharing an emotional journey, a connection made with a character or interest shared
with an author. Like bungee jumping, mountain
climbing, or riding an intimidating wave, taking a
risk in one’s writing is equally as scary, especially
for a twelve-year-old developing writer.
There is never any pressure for a student
to share their letters with the class (or any other piece of writing, for that matter), unless, of
course, they are seeking constructive criticism.
Through valentines or sharing a first line for
revision on the whiteboard (Figure 9), students
begin to see the value in revising one’s written
work, and once one brave soul shares, they all
want to jump on the bandwagon. It allows them
a second chance at making the writing stronger
by looking at it through a new lens, hearing a different view point, and solidifying that every word
counts. Our mantra: RE/VISION is the key to good
Just like the artist, musician, and athlete must
practice relentlessly to gain mastery in their disciplines, so must the young adolescent writer. By
breaking down the word—re/vision—students
discuss the meaning of the prefix and then further elaborate on the word vision. The time spent
(sometimes a class session of 45 minutes) on a
handful of students’ opening lines, lead sentences, or poetic verse, analyzing and synthesizing,
examining word choice, eliminating wimpy verbs
and replacing them with vivid ones is priceless.
Figure 8. Identity poem model (Cowles) first draft & student response valentines
Voices from the Middle, Volume 23 Number 2, December 2015
o74-80-Dec15-VM.indd 78
10/30/15 8:36 AM
Cowles | My Absolutely Crummy First Draft: The Trials and Triumphs of Motivating the Adolescent Writer
“Wonder made me feel more human.”
“Wonder made me feel more human like.”
“Wonder made me feel more like a caring
and kind human being.”
“Every page, every word made me feel
like I couldn’t stop reading.” “From the first
page to the last, your words made me feel
one with the book.”
Figure 9. First line revisions for Letters about Literature
So we understand where writing came from
and what it is. We have taken the writer’s oath
and recognize re/vision is the key to good writing. We know that writing is thinking and it is
hard work. Now we ask, Why do we write? (Figure
10). This framework of knowledge around the
writing process leads students to a better understanding of voice and its power behind the written
word. The definition of voice, while it varies even
among the experts, sets the stage for middle level
students’ thinking around writing on a deeper
level and begins to create a sense of ownership
around the writing. Adolescent writers now have
a personal stake in this thing we call writing, and
they truly want it to be the best it can be.
search, inquiry, and development of my own
personal writing has been invaluable on both a
professional and personal level.
And finally, be a writer with your young adolescents. When students see you writing right
along with them, you be- As a 2012 participant of the
come part of their writers’ group. When they Connecticut Writing Projhear you taking a risk to ect, the knowledge gained
share your crummy first
draft, you show your around adolescent writing
struggles as a writer and research, inquiry, and develyour insecurities with
sharing what might not opment of my own personal
be your best work. But writing has been invaluable
in the long run, that uphill journey moves from on both a professional and
one of isolation to one personal level.
of a cohesive community sharing the challenges
of the writing process, learning to replace those
old rusty spokes with brilliant wheels of steel and
those warped wooden planks with dazzling hard
wood that can stand the test of time. Who knows,
you might even hear a student say, “You know
what? I actually like writing!”
Be a Writer
Middle school educators of
English language arts can benefit by investigating writing
classes offered within their state.
In Connecticut, The Mark
Twain House in Hartford offers
many excellent short-term writing classes to enhance writing
talent. An exploration of your
state’s National Writing Project
(NWP) will greatly enrich your
writing instruction, regardless
of your discipline and level of
instruction. As a 2012 participant of the Connecticut Writing
Project, the knowledge gained
around adolescent writing re-
Figure 10. “Why We Write” poster responses
Voices from the Middle, Volume 23 Number 2, December 2015
o74-80-Dec15-VM.indd 79
10/30/15 8:36 AM
Cowles | My Absolutely Crummy First Draft: The Trials and Triumphs of Motivating the Adolescent Writer
Allen, J. (1999). Appendix E. In Words, words, words:
Teaching vocabulary in grades 4-12 (p. 146). York,
ME: Stenhouse.
Atwell, N. (2002). Lesson 8-What is writing. In Lessons
that change writers. Portsmouth, NH: Firsthand/
Dunning, S., & Stafford, W. (1992). Found and headline poems. In Getting the knack: 20 poetry writ-
ing exercises 20 (pp. 3–23). Urbana, IL: National
Council of Teachers of English.
Fisher, L. E. (1978). Alphabet art: Thirteen ABCs from
around the world. New York, NY: Four Winds
Fleischman, P. (2003). “My House of Voices.” Retrieved April, 2014, from http://www.paul
Nancy, T. L. (1997). Letters from a nut. New York, NY:
Avon Books.
Shirley Cowles is a language arts Challenge Resource teacher at Sage Park Middle School in
Windsor, Connecticut, and an NCTE member since 2004.
Connections from readwritethink
“My House of Voices” was used in the article to teach about voice. A further use of Paul Fleischman’s essay
is described in this resource from
Lisa Storm Fink
Voices from the Middle, Volume 23 Number 2, December 2015
o74-80-Dec15-VM.indd 80
10/30/15 8:36 AM