Room 313

adventures in teaching creative writing

Archive for the tag “writing”

Writing Retreat Excitement

3 students & teacher

OWP Spring 2016 Conference with winning writers: Andrew (short story), Taylor (memoir), Katie (poetry), & me (poetry)

I am the teacher I am today in large part because I took a chance and applied for the 2009 Oklahoma Writing Project summer institute. I was accepted and joined other teachers in becoming better teachers, better writers, and better teachers of writing. We met for a month on the campus of the University of Oklahoma, participating in workshops and ultimately creating and leading our own.

My continued involvement with OWP has seen me presenting workshops for teachers around our state. I’ve been to three of the four corners. If any of you teachers in the Idabel area need some PD from me, hit me up! Ha ha. In years past, I have also been the co-director of the summer institute, and now I’m the editor of the anthology for the summer institute. I take my high school creative writing students each semester to the OWP conferences.

For  over a year now, I’ve been in a writing group with some other OWP teacher consultants. Deb, Lisa, and Diahn are very dear to me. We meet monthly in each other’s homes to share a meal and our writing for feedback. These meetings are balm to my soul. I look forward to hearing another one of Deb’s adventures from her childhood in Colorado, Lisa’s next novel installment, and Diahn’s heartfelt pieces. I usually bring my poetry, but I’ve also shared some memoir and fiction pieces. I teased my group with the beginning of a novel project I’m calling Panhandlers. They keep asking me to write more, which is good accountability.

Tonight and tomorrow OWP is having a writing retreat at Roman Nose State Park in Watonga. My writing group is going, so we plan to meet during part of the retreat. I’m bringing two new poems and a bit more of my novel. It will be fun to be surrounded by my tribe of like-minded teachers. I’m going to soak it up. Writers write. It’s as easy as that. It will be nice to take a break from being Teacher and Student Council Sponsor, so I can be Writer, if even for a handful of hours.


Venn Diagram Poems

Without Twitter, I would not have discovered the concept of a Venn diagram poem. A couple nights ago before bed, I noticed that Joyce Carol Oates had retweeted what appeared to be a Venn diagram by Brian Bilston. Upon closer examination, it turned out to be a poem, which could be read three different ways:

At the Intersection

  1. him circle
  2. her circle
  3. the overlap

I knew immediately that I could challenge my Creative Writing 2 students with this writing task. I showed it to them on my SmartBoard and explained how it worked. Then I got a girl and a guy to come up and read the two different parts. They concluded by reading the overlapping section together.

To write their own Venn diagram poem, I told students to think about two characters who have something in common. This idea would go in the small overlapping section. From there, it was a matter of building off into two different characters. It seemed easier to me to write the right circle first and then write the one on the left. I cut students loose to begin their Venn diagram poem drafts.

Some struggled at first.


But then they started to get the hang of it. I really liked this poem about two friends, one of whom is about to move away.

Best Friends

One student captured the dynamic between a mother and daughter.

Mom Daughter

Even I got into the spirit of things and wrote a poem about school. I was having a bit of an Eeyore moment, and it felt good to write through my feelings–in Venn diagram form to boot!

Teacher Student

In order to type it up, I used PowerPoint, which has a circle maker. I wondered if I could just type the words and center them and add spaces, but my lines weren’t equally balanced between the circles, so I had to just space bar everything. It turned out pretty well.

Screenshot (106)

How will you use Venn diagram poetry in your classroom?

PRESLM 2013 Results: Pie-Charted

One of the most challenging and rewarding times of the school year as a creative writing teacher is overseeing the production of our annual student anthology of art, writing, and photography. After a few years of undertaking this project, I decided to submit our ninth volume of The Red Line to NCTE’s 2013 PRESLM contest.  We were delighted to receive a Superior ranking. On top of this, we were nominated for the highest award, which is only given to a handful of magazines. As you can see on the PRESLM website, 373 magazines were submitted and only 26 of them received the highest award, one of which was Eyrie from Edison Preparatory in Tulsa. Huzzah, you guys!

I wanted more data than this, though, and it crossed my mind in the flurry of the spring semester to sit down and tabulate the results. I never got around to this until today. After finishing my binge-watching of Scandal, I felt the need to do something a little productive, so I clicked on each state’s results on the PRESLM page and started making tally marks. My results are not completely accurate because I only got 372 entries, not the 373 that NCTE had. I’ve got to be pretty close, though.

  • State participation: 42
  • Highest Award: 26
  • Nominated for Highest Award: 106
  • Superior: 43
  • Excellent: 153
  • Above Average: 41
  • Average / Unranked: 3

PRESLM 2013 chart

In order to be nominated for the highest award, magazines must receive a superior ranking. In essence, 175 magazines achieved a superior ranking. The pie chart could be reworked to reflect this.

PRESLM 2013 chart 2

If you would like to submit your school’s literary magazine, the deadline for the 2014 PRESLM contest is July 2. You have time! We at Deer Creek High School have already submitted our tenth volume of The Red Line. If you’d like to preview or purchase a copy, check out our magazine on It sells for $27, but our students only had to pay $10 because we sold ads and held a few fundraisers. I could save all that for another post.

Wanted: Blackout Poets

Blackout Poetry Week
April 7-11, 2014
Use #blackoutpoets on Twitter and Instagram

blackout poets logo

Fellow teacher and poetry enthusiast Lesley Mosher and I  invite all educators, students, and authors to help celebrate poetry in the classroom by participating in a worldwide blackout poetry event on Twitter and Instagram. Remember to tag all your posts with #blackoutpoets. You can find more information about how cool blackout poetry is by reading blog posts by Lesley and me. We also created some special examples based on the literature for the grades we teach. Lesley created this poem from A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd.

Middle Grade Example


I made a blackout poem from Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley.

YA Example


We’d love for you and your students to create blackout poems from your favorite novels, newspaper articles, or any piece of writing lying around your home. Students from all over the world will be participating and sharing their love of words. See you on Twitter and Instagram!

Please contact @blackoutpoets, @lesleymosher, or me for more information.

First Lines Writing Game

My parents have hosted dinner parties for as long as I can remember. Dad cleaned, Mom cooked, and my sister and I mainly stayed out of the way. Usually the families we invited over had children around the age of Lynn and me, so we kids entertained ourselves after dinner by playing outside or invading the play room. The adults usually just visited, but sometimes they played a game they called Dictionary, which you might know better as Balderdash. In Dictionary, one person flips through a dictionary and finds a word whose definition escapes everyone. That person copies down the actual meaning on a slip of paper while everyone else writes down a definition that will fool everyone. The more people you fool, the more points you get and win the game. Sometimes the game devolved into writing down humorous definitions instead. I observed this game, and  as I got older, I eventually got to play. I recall sometimes playing just with Mom, Dad, and Lynn.

Imagine my delight when I heard of a similar game but with first lines of novels. I’m a regular listener to the Book Riot podcast, which shares news about all things bookish in the world, including this First Lines game. The person who created this game focused mainly on genre fiction–romance, mystery, etc.–but I think almost anything could work.


  1. Show participants the novel’s cover.
  2. Give participants the title of the novel.
  3. Give participants the summary of the novel from the jacket flap or back of the book.
  4. Have participants write down the best first line that fits with the title and summary while you write down the actual first line.
  5. Collect all the slips of paper and shuffle them. Read them aloud.
  6. Have participants vote for their favorite line. The participant with the most votes wins that round.

I decided to try the First Lines game with my Creative Writing 2 students. For the book, I chose The One I Left Behind by Jennifer McMahon.

Summary from the back of the paperback:

The summer of 1985 changes Reggie’s life. An awkward thirteen-year-old, she finds herself mixed up with the school outcasts. That same summer, a serial killer called Neptune begins kidnapping women. He leaves their severed hands on the police department steps and, five days later, displays their bodies around town. Just when Reggie needs her mother, Vera, the most, Vera’s hand is found on the steps. But after five days, there’s no body and Neptune disappears.

Now, twenty-five years later, Reggie is a successful architect who has left her hometown and the horrific memories of that summer behind. But when she gets a call revealing that her mother has been found alive, Reggie must confront the ghosts of her past and find Neptune before he kills again.

First lines from my students:

  • Today is Mother’s Day. [This line was ultimately chosen as the winner.]
  • Reggie sat up quickly, hands shaking from the reoccurring nightmare of that day in 1985.
  • Summer of ’85 was hands-down the worst summer of my life.
  • It was the summer of 1985 that my mom’s hand appeared on the step.
  • I’d never smoked pot before the summer of ’85.
  • He had a hunger that only hands could satisfy.
  • I have a weird face.
  • I try to forget what happened so long ago.
  • Nothing could ever be so horrifyingly unforgettable as the sight of her mother’s severed hand.
  • It was a dark and stormy night, when suddenly, all hell broke loose.
  • What’s worse than a bee sting? Seeing your mom’s severed hand. This is my story.
  • Cereal [sic] killers, to your surprise, do not kill cereal; they kill people.
  • Ever since my childhood passed, life was great.
  • Where are my hands?
  • Ring! Ring! Reggie’s phone began to ring.
  • Just one call and the nightmares resurface as I remember the one I left behind.
  • I had hoped to forget these things, along with my mother.
  • I guess you could say things got a little out of hand that summer.
  • I’m a cold, sassy tree.

The actual first line: It began with the hands. [No one chose this line as the actual first line, so I fooled all my students.]

I think this game offers students an opportunity to study the elements of different genres. It can also generate interest in the book being used for the game. If you’re ever at a loss for what to do in your English class or need something for a light day when half the students are gone, give the First Lines Writing Game a try.

Self Assessment with Google Forms

On the third of class in Pre-AP English 2, I had my students assess their English skills. I had created a Google form to do this, and I knew the vast majority of my students would have smart phones. They took the survey in class in just a few minutes. I was hoping to display the link to the survey in large text on my SmartBoard, but I had technical difficulties, so I just wrote the survey link on my marker board. Thankfully, I had thought ahead to create a tiny url out of the long Google form website. If you aren’t familiar with tinyurl, it’s a free, helpful website that converts long, bulky web addresses into much smaller ones. I had also thought of converting the website into a QR code, but most of my students don’t have QR code apps on their phones. Anyway, I’ll include the survey below, so you can see it, followed by some of the results and my thoughts on this activity.

I’ve done an activity like this before on paper, but using a Google form allows me to see and compare the results so much faster. I get a quick snap shot of where my students think they are at in their English skills.


When I looked at my students’ responses, I wasn’t too surprised. These Pre-AP classes are filled with many high-achieving students, and many of them rated themselves as 4 or 5 in most categories. I did notice, however, that some students were either very honest or very hard on themselves by ranking some of their skills as 1. I know now in advance to give them extra help and support. I can also use this data to form writing groups for my students comprised of students are strong, medium, and weak in their skills.

How will use Google forms in the classroom?

The Dot Insights

On the very first day of Creative Writing 1, I read The Dot by Peter Reynolds aloud to my students. I did my best to show them the pictures too, even though they’re in high school. My classes have students from all four grades, and this read-aloud was our first step toward building a writing community. I love this story for many reasons, and I highly recommend it if you’ve never read it. The audience is everyone, not just children.

dot august 2013After I finished reading the book, I asked students to think about the story. What lessons did it offer? How might it connect to this class? Why would I select this book for the first day of school.

I was so impressed with what my students came up with. I gave them time to discuss with a partner or a small group, but then we shared out as a whole class, which was made easier by our circular seating arrangement. I got so caught up in the discussion in 5th hour, I didn’t document what my students said. I knew it would equally good in 7th hour, so I used the talking feature on my smart phone to record my students’ responses. I’m posting them below in the order my students said them. Each student contributed and tried not to repeat any students before him or her. One of the best insights came at the very end.

  • You can always fix it and make it better
  • The dot represented the creativity
  • Pictures equal imagery
  • Be an original
  • The more you try, the more creative you get
  • You’re more capable than what you believe you are
  • Sometimes when you finish something, it’s not how you had planned it
  • Sometimes all it takes is a start
  • Inspiration can come from different people and different things
  • Put in the effort to try something even if you don’t think you can
  • It’s yours, put your name on it, make it your own, it’s your writing
  • Something may not mean a lot to you, but it could mean a lot to other people
  • She started with something simple, and it turned the something big because of her ideas
  • Don’t give up on a piece if it seems too simple at first
  • Don’t doubt yourself, be proud of your work
  • You can always start at the bottom to make it to the top
  • Our ideas grow because we brainstorm
  • Sometimes all it takes is trying/you can’t fail until you try
  • The best standard you can reach is trying your very best
  • Something little can open doors to a whole new meaning or something bigger than you thought it was
  • Big things with small beginnings

Favorite Podcasts

I resisted getting an iPod when they became popular when I was in college. Even when I started teaching in 2005, I thought I could live without one, or any MP3 player for that matter. A few years into teaching, though, I asked for an iPod for my big Christmas present from my parents. They got me an 8GB black iPod mini–at least, I’m pretty sure that’s what it is.

Overtime, I expanded the use of my iPod from just listening to music by subscribing to podcasts. I quickly found Grammar Girl‘s podcast along with NPR’s podcast featuring education news. I also discovered why Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion is so popular. I rounded out my initial subscriptions with This American Life, another classic. While walking my dog, I could stay current on issues relevant to my profession as well as just enjoy some news and entertainment.

More recently, I discovered The Moth, which was featured on This American Life. The Moth features storytellers telling their stories live on stage, and they often deeply moving / hilarious / surprising.

My friend Maggie posted a picture of the Selected Shorts podcast’s logo on Instagram a few months ago, and I’ve found those podcasts to be equally entertaining, although a little challenging at times since the literature can be complex at times, and it’s hard for me not to have the text right in front of me.

Somehow a few years ago I stumbled upon Amanda Nelson’s blog, Dead White Guys or her Twitter. She was hilarious and bookish, and she wrote for a website called BookRiot, which recently started a very informative and entertaining podcast. I found out that Rebecca Schinsky, one of BookRiot’s hosts, also contributes to the Bookrageous podcast, which has quickly become one of my favorite book-related podcasts. Rebecca and her two colleagues/friends, Josh and Jenn, bring such a fun energy to their discussions about books, and there are many podcasts in the archives.

*     *     *

This summer I wanted to expand my podcast subscriptions. I reached out to Twitter (Thanks, Kevin!), and I also just browsed the iTunes library. Here are a few more podcasts that you might want to consider adding to your list of must-listen-to podcasts. I’ve organized them by topic.


  • NewsHour Poetry Series | PBS Poetry Series | PBS
  • IndieFeed: Performance Poetry
  • Poem of the Day (Poetry Foundation)
  • Slate’s Poetry Podcast
  • All of these short podcasts can be found through Stitcher, a free iPhone app that automatically downloads podcasts. You can skip the syncing and just listen to them on your phone as you get ready in the morning. I’m still downloading in iTunes in case I want to keep any of them long-term.


  • The Lit Show
  • NPR: Books Podcast
  • ReadWriteThink – Text Messages: Recommendations for Adolescent Readers!
  • I’m so glad that Kevin told me about Text Messages because it fills what I thought was a void: a podcast about young adult literature. There are a few others out there, but Text Messages is definitely the best one. I still kind of think there’s room for another one. I just don’t know if should devote the time to tackling it. Me? A podcaster? We’ll see. 🙂


  • Slate Presents Lexicon Valley
  • That’s What They Say
  • Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac Podcast
  • New Yorker: Fiction

I’m not sure if I have time for another podcast, but I’m willing to listen to your recommendations. What are some of your favorite podcasts?

The Red Line: Our Student Anthology’s Journey

This is my fourth year to teach creative writing and my first year to have a Creative Writing 2 class. Some of the seniors I currently have in CW2, I had as freshman in CW1. When I began teaching CW, I inherited the task of sponsoring our high school’s student anthology of poetry, prose, art, and photography, humorously titled The Red Line after Microsoft Word’s grammatical error signal.

My first year as adviser, I worked alongside some great students who produced a book much like ones from the past. The Red Line 6 was the size of computer paper (8.5 x 11), and we had it printed and bound at FedEx Office. The end result had some fine content, but I was not very pleased with the tape binding of our book. It seemed like something that could have been done 10 or 15 years ago. I wanted something better because the work our students produce is so good.


I was pleased to learn about  in a session at the National Writing Project’s Annual Meeting in Orlando the next school year. With Lulu, we still created the document, but we used their template, which automatically numbered pages for us. We went went for a much smaller book size for the 2011 issue of The Red Line (volume 7) and to save money we included the best art on the cover, but we kept everything in the book black and white–including all the other artwork and photographs.

red line 7 cover

Last year I attended a workshop on high school literary magazines with Paul Stevenson at the Nimrod conference at Tulsa University. Paul has been at the helm of Eyrie, the student journal of creative expression of Edison Preparatory School in Tulsa, for quite some time now. Their work is remarkable and gets high honors in the PRESLM contest sponsored by NCTE. Paul shared some good pointers and even gave me a copy of Eyrie to show as a model to my students. It was decided we would do a full-color book, even though it would be more expensive. The end result was quite nice, and The Red Line 8 cover looked amazing thanks to the desktop publishing skills of one of my seniors. I uploaded a digital version of RL8 using FlipSnack if you’d like to give it a read. The downside of this book was its cost, and we just told published and interested students to buy their own book from the Lulu website. That procedure definitely needed some improving.

red line 8 cover

This year we continued our full-color book tradition but decided to sell ads to offset costs. My editor Katie and I called area businesses. To be honest, neither one of us was expecting to get any sponsors. To our surprise, we got some affirmatives over the phone as well as some potential interest. Plus, we had some connections with a fellow CW student and our photography teacher’s wife’s business. Our sales pitch was rather last-minute, so we’ll definitely need to begin that process earlier next year. In the end, we sold $440 in ads and got a $50 donation from our school’s principals. I took down orders from students, and ordered the copies of The Red Line 9 with a school credit card. Now instead of having to pay $22 for their books (the price on the Lulu website), students will only have to pay $10, a much more affordable price for a 60-page full-color book. Here’s a preview of The Red Line 9 if you’re interested.

red line 9 cover

What about you? Do you sponsor a student anthology of writing? What advice or questions do you have?

Inaugural Poets

Four years ago I remember Elizabeth Alexander reading her poem “Praise Song for the Day” at President Obama’s first inauguration. My first reaction to the poem was a little like this:


As I reread and studied the poem, though, I grew to like it more and more because it speaks to our identity as Americans. Just hearing a poem read aloud once is not the same as pouring over it on the page. Of course, I’ve heard poems before that I liked right from the start, but sometimes poems grow on you.

Alexander is only the fourth poet to read at a presidential inauguration. And earlier today, the fifth inaugural poet, Richard Blanco, read his poem. According to The New York Times, Blanco wrote three poems for the inauguration, and Obama’s team selected the one for him to read to the nation. (I want to know what the other two poems were!)

The inaugural poets and their poems are:

  1. Robert Frost, “The Gift Outright” & “Dedication” (Kennedy, 1961)
  2. Maya Angelou, “On the Pulse of Morning” (Clinton, 1993)
  3. Miller Williams, “Of History and Hope” (Clinton, 1997)
  4. Elizabeth Alexander, “Praise Song for the Day” (Obama, 2009)
  5. Richard Blanco, “One Today” (Obama, 2013)

Frost is the most well-known of the five, one of our nation’s greatest poets. Kennedy asked Frost if he would recite a new poem for his inauguration, but suggested he use “The Gift Outright,” a poem he’d already written, as a backup. Kennedy even went so far as to suggest a revision of the final line of the poem. Frost wrote “Dedication” specifically for the occasion, but the the sunny, snowy day kept him from being able to read the words (Frost was 86 at the time), so he recited “The Gift Outright” from memory, including the modified, final line. That’s why Frost has two poems listed.

Angelou is best known for her memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which I still haven’t read. I own a copy. Maybe I’ll read it this year.

Williams was an Arkansas man like Clinton. I have not read any of his other poems, and I don’t think I’ve come across any of his other poetry in anthologies or literary journals.

Alexander was the second black woman chosen as an inaugural poet. She has quite a few poems available on her website. You can also follow her on Twitter.

Blanco as a gay Latino expands the diversity of the inaugural poet. Named after Richard Nixon, at 44, Blanco is also the youngest poet ever selected. He’s on Twitter as well, and some of his poems, including a chapbook, are available online. Here’s a word cloud of Blanco’s “One Today” I created with Wordle:


During this semester, try incorporating one the inaugural poems or poets into one of your lessons. April is National Poetry Month, so that’s a good time to introduce your students to one of our nation’s historic poets. I’ll probably use “One Today” in my sophomore English classroom. I’ll post about how it goes when the time comes.

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