Archive for the 'Teacher Resources' Category

Why Your Mean English Teacher Made You Learn Sentence Types

When I was a “mean, old English teacher,” I was young!

Today’s topic is sentence variety.

As you may remember from middle school, there are different types of sentences: simple, compound, complex, and compound/complex. You probably had to take a test on them at some point. It may have been one of those, “When will we ever need to know this in real life?” moments for you. And you were right. But also wrong.

Chances are, outside of a test, no one will ever expect you to label a sentence by type (or at all). So why did you learn it?

Because language is music.

Take a moment and sing “Jingle Bells” to yourself. Or out loud, if you want to annoy someone. But just keep on singing the words “jingle bells.” Don’t change the words or the musical notes you’re singing. Do NOT, under any circumstances, jingle all the way.

How long before you drove yourself–or those in earshot–mad?

My point is that “jingle bells” is fine for a few bars, but for the love of humanity, enough is enough.

And so it is with your sentences. We vary the types of sentences to make the words pleasant to the ear, even if the “ear” is in your own mind while you read to yourself.

Some writers can instinctively employ sentence variety, but others may need to break it down. One good trick for teachers is to have students write a paragraph or two and then highlight the different sentence types in different colors. If everything on your page is, say, blue, then chances are you need more sentence variety. Unless you happen to be Ernest Hemingway. Then you could do whatever you want.


Teaching TIG

If you’re a middle school teacher looking for a new, fun, wholesome book for your reading list, I may just happen to know of one. Tig Ripley, Rock ‘n’ Roll Rebel will be available this September.

And to make your teaching life a little easier, here are some classroom activities based on Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Tig_TeachersGuide-2(1)

In the meantime, here’s hoping that all you teachers are currently enjoying a much-deserved restful summer break!


Making Book Gifts Super Fun

I’m the aunt who gives books.

It’s not always easy being the aunt who gives books. Because at birthday parties, when the nieces and nephews are opening every manner of shiny new toys, it’s not like the kiddos get crazy excited over unwrapping a book. Yes, I know that, later, when the house is quiet and the bells and whistles of show-stopping toys have taken a rest or become old hat, my gifts will create cozy memories of parent/child bonding that will live forever in memory. But in the heat of the party, in that frenzy of unwrapping, it’s hard to remember how special a book gift is. Sometimes I can almost hear the sad trombone playing wah-wah as my niece or nephew says, “It’s a book.”

That’s why I’ve come up with a plan. Continue reading ‘Making Book Gifts Super Fun’

“Let’s Get Rid of ‘Said’!” she said.


When I was in grade school, one of my favorite teachers did an exercise with us called, “Let’s Get Rid of ‘Said’!” The idea was that “said” is a boring, generic way to tag a writer’s dialogue. She was totally right. And yet, she was totally wrong.

Yes, “said” is a boring, generic word. But guess what? That’s exactly what you want. Other than an occasional “replied,” all your dialogue should be tagged with “said.” Anything else is the mark of a novice. Professional writers do not want their characters to state, announce, assert, claim, declare, disclose, reveal, pronounce, utter, or, for heaven’s sake, chortle. Therefore, step away from the thesaurus.

“But that’s so many ‘saids,'” you say. You’re right. But it’s OK. The idea is for the reader to gloss right over the dialogue tags and pay attention only to the dialogue itself. And gloss the reader does…as does the agent reading your work while thinking, “Thank goodness I’m dealing with someone who knows to use ‘said.'”

Trust me. Just use “said.”

There. I said it.

Voice: If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It (Because You Can’t Teach It)

One of my favorite writing instruction books, but it can't teach voice.

One of my favorite writing instruction books, but it can’t teach voice.

Years ago, my editor-in-chief at Sweet 16 magazine (a moment of silence for that awesome publication!), told me she liked my voice. It was a compliment that meant a lot to me, but what she said after that made a real impression, too. I’ve never forgotten it. “You know,” Mary Lou said offhandedly. “Voice is the one aspect of writing that can’t be taught.”

I thought about that long and hard. I’d taught English for years and had taken pride in helping writers grow, but had I ever TAUGHT voice? I realized I hadn’t. Mary Lou was absolutely right. I could teach sentence variety, I could build vocabulary, and I could help students learn to organize their thoughts, but I couldn’t teach voice. Continue reading ‘Voice: If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It (Because You Can’t Teach It)’

Four Things Public Speakers Can Do, But Writers Can’t

Less scary than a blank piece of paper? (photo from

For a short while in my teaching career, I taught public speaking in addition to teaching writing. I loved teaching public speaking, mainly because the students seemed to take it so much more seriously than they did writing instruction. Most kids are perfectly willing to slap some words on a piece of paper in study hall seconds before a writing assignment is due and think nothing of it–after all, who cares if the teacher is impressed? But it’s an entirely different matter to present ideas that are unorganized and ill-conceived to an entire room of one’s peers. I found that the students who took public speaking took all the instruction about getting attention, staying focused and organized, and using relevant examples to heart and were better writers because of it. Good public speaking skills translate into good writing skills. But there are some things public speakers can do that writers typically should not. (Note: The list below does not apply to technical writing, where all bets are off when it comes to style.) Continue reading ‘Four Things Public Speakers Can Do, But Writers Can’t’

In Which I Juxtapose a Metal Power Ballad and Writing Instruction

Remember the 80s hair band Cinderella? Sure you do. Their lead singer had that awesome screeching voice and everything they did was so marvelously loud. They rocked! And do you also remember when all the metal bands went through the power ballad phase and Cinderella sang that one about writing called, “Don’t Know What You Got (Till It’s Gone)”?

OK, that song wasn’t really about writing. But it could’ve been. Because that’s the song that has been playing on repeat in my head the past few weeks as I search for old copies of Writing! magazine. Continue reading ‘In Which I Juxtapose a Metal Power Ballad and Writing Instruction’

What’s Your Point of View?


I had this amazing English teacher in high school. Her name was Dorothy Ward. I wish I knew where she is now so that I could call her up and tell her she was awesome. Anyway, Mrs. Ward once gave us an assignment to retell the story of Rip Van Winkle  from his wife’s perspective. Maybe she wouldn’t have nagged him all the time if he’d quit sleeping all day while she did all the work…maybe Rip was just a lazy bum…maybe Mrs. Van Winkle had gotten a bad rap all these years. This assignment–with just about any story–is a fun and highly instructive exercise for writing classes, and I highly recommend it to teachers who want to get across the importance of point of view in a cool way.

For fiction writers, point of view is a little more tricky. Not only do you have to decide who will be your POV character, you also have to decide whether you’re going to tell the story in first or third person, or just have an omniscient third-person narrator. (I’d say it’s probably a good idea not to attempt second person unless you’re writing one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books, which, btw, I loved as a kid…but I digress.)

So, how do you know when to use which method? The answer is…I don’t really know. That’s the funny thing about writing–it’s an art, not a science. Sometimes you just have to try something and see if it works and if it doesn’t, go back and try something else. Not the most expedient of methods, but there you are. I can, however, offer a few things to think about when deciding whether to go with first or third. I wish I could remember where I picked up these nuggets of advice, but I’ve been tucking these hints away for so many years now that I’ve lost track. In any case, here they are…. Continue reading ‘What’s Your Point of View?’

Those Easy Creative Writing Courses


In college, I minored in creative writing.

Most of the people in my poetry writing courses loved words and wanted to learn a few things about poetry, even if they didn’t aspire to be poets.

Inevitably, though, there was always at least one of those “the cat sat on the mat” guys–people who thought a class on poetry writing was a big joke and an easy A. Continue reading ‘Those Easy Creative Writing Courses’

Writing Instruction: Tone and Mood


When I was a teacher, it was difficult to get students to understand the difference between tone and mood. It’s understandable: tone and diction are what create mood, so without tone, mood doesn’t even exist. Diction, of course, is the writer’s word choice, while tone is defined by most dictionaries as “the manner in which a writer approaches the subject at hand.” Mood, then, is the feeling evoked in the reader based on the author’s choice of words and his/her tone. It’s a cause and effect relationship. Still, though, these definitions in and of themselves fall short of having any real meaning to students, which is why, when a splendid example of tone and mood comes along, it’s a great opportunity to show instead of tell.

The other day, syndicated columnist Jae-Ha Kim produced a most instructive piece of writing for illuminating tone and mood. If you want a wonderful lesson for your writing class, have them read Jae’s blog post called, “JiSun: Do You Remember My Sister?”  While most textbook examples of tone are merely “sad” or “happy,” Jae’s tone here could best be defined as confrontational or angry–probably a lot more interesting to study. Ask your students how she accomplishes that tone. Have them notice how beginning the piece with a direct address immediately points a finger in the offender’s face. Ask them how that beginning serves the piece differently than if she’d begun, “Once there was a girl who was mean to my sister.” Have them notice the series of one-sentence paragraphs with parallel construction, each beginning with the same word, “maybe.” Ask them to sum up the message to JiSun in one or two sentences. (My take? “My sister’s over it, but my mom and I aren’t. Watch your back.”) What you’re teaching them, then, isn’t just a fuzzy definition of tone, but rather how tone is constructed by the choices the writer makes.

Ask them how they feel after reading the piece. My guess is that they will feel unsettled. And why? Because the writer’s control of tone CAUSED that reaction. Tone CAUSES mood.

Finally, for a fun and educational writing exercise, ask students to write a reply from JiSun’s point of view. After all these years, is she defiant or remorseful? Their use of tone will make it clear who JiSun grew up to be.