Online Summer Workshop Schedule

The covid-19 pandemic may have upended traditional teaching, but we remain committed to pushing forward as writers and educators. No matter where you are, you are welcome to join us in one or more of our online summer workshops.

summer conference flyer

Click on the flyer for more information on sessions and how to register.

Writing to Learn: Two Times Two

Writing to learn removes barriers that formal assessment might place in the way of creative thought and exploration.  Writing to learn activities are spontaneous, short, exploratory, expressive, informal, personal, unedited, and ungraded. This is much like what we expect brainstorming or pre-writing to be.  We can use writing to explore and muddle through complicated new ideas at both pre-writing and writing beyond the content.

Two tools discussed here are clustering and concept mapping.


Clustering is a form of writing-to-learn using a kind of right-brained outlining first described by Gabrielle Rico in her book Writing The Natural Way (Tarcher, 1985).

  • Start with a key concept, term, or name in a circle at the center of a page.
  • Draw spokes radiating out from the center circle.
  • Through free-association, jot down all the ideas in circles arrayed at the end of the spokes, in whatever pattern “seems right.”
  • Add more spokes as ideas lead to further thoughts and connections.

For Pre-Writing.  For creative writing, this topic might be a self-selected, perhaps one from a previous writing.  As an entry point into a lesson, it might be a concept suggested by the instructor.  Writers can then use this diagram as an outline or list of subtopics they wish to cover. Then, they can use scaffolding that leads to the issue that they really want to focus on. It can be a guide to a group of issues related to one another in one region of the diagram.

For Writing Beyond the Content.  Clustering helps writers see how all the main ideas and details in a unit of study are connected together. In addition, clustering often reveals unrecognized connections and relationships. group writing

Concept Mapping  

Concept mapping, originating with Joseph Novak and Alberto J. Cañas, depends on relevant relationships among the ideas on the page.  This method is especially helpful for writers who are trying to learn and write about larger subject areas.

  • Begin with a list of subtopics, cause-effect relationships, or whatever aspects of their topics are relevant.
  • Add words and phrases to the list, drawing connections to other items.
  • Label lines (connections) to explain how the two items are related.

For Pre-Writing.  The relationships identified among the topics generated in a concept mapping session can springboard a writer into inquiry (What other connections might there be? Why are these two items connected?) or creative writing (What do I have to say about these connections?)

For Writing Beyond the Content.  Identifying relationships among concepts moves writers beyond the day’s lesson or week’s mini-unit.  Encouraging writers to think about the crossovers in their lives (other content areas, extra-curricular, family, community, and world) enhances understanding of the concept.  Fire up those synapses!

Going Digital A Google search for digital brainstorming or mind mapping tools will populate your screen with countless options.  I have had success with digital tools Padlet or Popplet  because they are so easy to use.

Resources provided by the Illinois Writing Project Basic 30 Team. Don’t forget to check out the IWP on Twitter!

Writing to Learn

Writing is more than just a language art.  It is a means of engaging and exploring subject matter more effectively.  Over the next weeks, we will share writing-to-learn activities that reach across many subject fields and teaching styles. As a result, we are helping students move into, through, and beyond the content of the curriculum.  However, we must first lay some groundwork.


Writing to learn activities differ from formal expository or creative writing assignments in important ways.  They are…

  • SPONTANEOUS vs.  planned
  • SHORT vs. lengthy
  • EXPLORATORY vs. authoritative
  • EXPRESSIVE vs. transactional
  • INFORMAL vs. formal
  • PERSONAL vs. audience-centered
  • UNEDITED vs. polished
  • UNGRADED vs. graded

Writing as a tool for learning gives extra leverage to thinking.  Consequently, it works best when we personalize the language.  We invite writers to be informal, colloquial, and personal — as close as possible to everyday speech.  We should invite experimentation and risk-taking. Never mind proofreading and grading.  These results are used in class for ongoing exploration of content.

This week, here is a nugget for writing through the content to try in either face-to-face or online virtual class meetings.

Take a writing break.  Too often in presentations, teachers feel a need to plunge on and “cover the material.” (My online video lectures – guilty!)  In fact, students would benefit greatly from an occasional pause for them to write and reflect on what is being taught.  Some possible focusing questions might be these:

  • What are you thinking right now?
  • Where have you gone so far?
  • What questions are bugging you?

This break provides students a chance to consolidate what has been learned and prepare to go on.  

Resources provided by the Illinois Writing Project Basic 30 Team. Don’t forget to check out the IWP on Twitter!

Visualizing Your Writing

Using visualizing as a brainstorming tool can generate amazing ideas for writing.  With four steps, participants can spring into writing, hurdling over those stubborn blocks that can sometimes halt us in our writing tracks.  The basic structure of classroom visualization or guided imagery has four steps: choice, relaxation, visualization, and return.  Consider the following guide through this brainstorming process.
  1. Choice:  Guide the writers in selecting a particular remembered or imaginary scene.  Ask questions such as, “What is a memory that makes you smile?” or “Where is a place you treasured growing up?”  You can take this in directions of the imagination, as well, with questions about favorite settings in books (Hogwarts, anyone?).
  2. Relaxation:  Help writers relax by establishing a mood for the exercise.  Eyes may close.  Writers should breathe calmly.  Lower your own voice to a clear, gentle tone.
  3. Visualization:  Provide a series of “contentless” prompts based on the guidance during the choice step.  Ask questions such as, “Look to your left — what do you see there?” “What is the sun doing?” “What does the air feel like?” “Who else is with you?” and others.
  4. Return:  Ask writers to gather their details from the visualized scene.  Bring them back to the present time.
imagination Consider using this technique to search memories for details about past experiences, reconstruct scenes from stories (or combinations of stories), or create new, imaginative experiences. You may be surprised what you can come up with! Because guided imagery works so well, evoking vivid details which people have often forgotten, and because it requires some rather carefully worked out methods, Zemelman and Daniels wrote a whole chapter about this procedure in A Community of Writers (Zemelman and Daniels, Heineman, 1988.) Credit goes to Steve Zemelman, Smokey Daniels, and the Illinois Writing Project Basic 30 team for this content. Check us out on Twitter!

Modifying the Writing Marathon

The writing marathon has become a mainstay in many Writing Project summer institutes, workshops, and conferences.  The goal of a writing marathon is to weave together movement and writing.  A writing marathon might have a theme or purpose for visiting particular sites.  For example, in 2011 during my Louisville Writing Project summer institute experience, we drove to Civil Rights landmarks. Our writers learned about the events and people they represented, and then reflected and wrote.  Similarly, at several conferences and workshops, I have seen hosts conduct walking and writing tours of their home cities. running So how might the writing marathon be modified for the classroom or home when mobility is limited?  When conducting a writing marathon in a limited space such as around the classroom or home, consider guiding participants to find inspiring spaces or objects.  Lately, scavenger hunts have become popular activities.  Similarly, writing can be inspired by reflections about the simplest objects in our local spaces – birds in flight, spring awakening, cracks in sidewalks (where did old wives’ tales come from, anyway?).

Writing Guidelines

Modifying the recommendations of “A Guide for Writing Marathon Leaders” posted by the National Writing Project can help.
  1. Treat the participants as writers.  Be a writer.
  2. Keep the marathon focused on the writing.  Sightseeing, tour guide speaking, and socializing take backseat.
  3. Conduct as many rounds of writing as possible.  The walking, talking, reading, or interacting should spur writing, not detract from it.
  4. Write, read your writing to others, and say only “thank you” after each reading (Natalie Goldberg, whose book Writing Down the Bones).
  5. Say, “I am a writer.”  Really.  Do it.
  6. Keep groups small.  In the case of a classroom, 3-4 students writing together is appropriate.  At home, write alongside your child or children.  Be partners in writing.
  7. Remember that writing happens even when we’re not writing.  The moment the writing marathon has begun with introductions of participants as writers, the mindset has shifted to positive productivity.
  8. Select an appropriate closure.  It might be a select reading of the marathon’s writings.  Stay flexible.  Participants might not be ready to stop writing at the same time.
  9. Remember: choice, community, diversity, spontaneity, serendipity, discovery.
  10. Write for the experience, not the product.
As stated in the Guide, “A writing marathon is all about the writing and writer. Say it again. It is all about the writing and writer. And writing is enjoyable, especially when you do not have to do it for anyone else but yourself, when no one will criticize it, when you give it plenty of time, and when you allow yourself to write about things you did not expect.”  Also see this handout for more tips. Finally, share your writing marathon experiences as participants and leaders as comments to this post.  We look forward to hearing from you!

Writing an Apology Poem: What Else Can We Do with a Direct Address?

Increasing the focus on clear communication moves writing,

speaking, and listening to the center of our teaching. What are ways other than speech and argument essay writing can we teach students to address an audience? How do we foreground students’ creativity? Furthermore, what are ways other than speech and argument essay writing can we teach students to address an audience? Also, how do we foreground students’ creativity?

sorry Some poems take the form of “direct address”—that is, the speaker in the poem talks directly to a specific person. Poems can be used to develop initial reactions to situations or current events or as extensions of other types of writing.

An apology poem uses direct address to apologize for something the speaker has done or said. One of the most famous examples is William Carlos Williams’ “This Is Just to Say.” The following activity description can guide students through close reading, analyzing, creative brainstorming, purposeful drafting, language revising, and peer collaborating.

Possible script for writing an apology poem:

  • Read Williams’ poem.
I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox and which you were probably saving for breakfast Forgive me they were delicious so sweet and so cold
  • Decide for yourself whether the speaker is actually sorry for what he has done.
  • Think of a situation like this from your own life.  Have you ever been forced to apologize when you didn’t really mean it? Try to recall two or three examples of times like this from your own experience.
  • For each example, write a very short description of what you have done (the action).
  • Think about details of sense: taste, touch, sound, sight, or smell. Give your readers a clear idea of what the action felt like for you.
  • Choose one of your examples to mine very short lines for your apology poem in a similar format to the one by Williams. Probably no punctuation is necessary.
  • Finally, use “This is just to say” as your first line if you wish. If you want, you can also include the words “Forgive me” in the last stanza of your poem.

Experiment with different ways to make line breaks or stanza breaks in order to get the effect that you want. Remember, there is no wrong way to write an apology poem. When William Carlos Williams wrote “This Is Just to Say,” no one had ever created a poem quite like this before. You can borrow his format if you want, or you can create something totally new.

Give the activity a try and post a comment or tweet a link to your draft! Better yet, come show it to us in person at our mini-conference on March 14th! You are welcome to share this post. Consider including hashtags such as #ilwrites, #teachwriting, #writing, as well as your own chat groups.

Four-Square Activity for Brainstorming

Returning to the Classroom

Classroom writing after any departure from routine is certainly challenging, particularly following winter and summer breaks. Tapping into personal experiences may be the way to re-engage students (and teachers) in the return to routine writing.

This four-square activity can be used for brainstorming details about an event in one’s life. Structuring the paper into four quadrants chunks the writing into manageable quantities. This activity enables writers to recall details to help paint a vivid word-picture of an event that the person has experienced. It is not necessarily intended for an external political or social event (unless that event itself had an immediate effect on the person). brainstorming

The activity script can be something like this:

  • Identify an important event that you have experienced.
  • On a full-sized sheet of paper, draw a vertical and horizontal line to divide the sheet into four equal rectangles.
  • Use each square to brainstorm a list of words and phrases about one of the following aspects of the event:
    • Visuals: place, others who were there, description of the place
    • Emotions: how you felt before, during and after the event
    • Action: the time or timing, plus words and phrases that describe how the event took place
    • Dialogues: quotes, words or phrases from the event
  • Turn and talk with a partner. See if that leads to any additional details.
  • On the reverse of this paper, quick write for 5-7 minutes. Write whatever you are thinking about the event to get as much down as possible. Do not worry about format, punctuation or spelling. Get your thoughts and memories onto the page.
  • Decide what type of writing you would like to do: poem, narrative, letter to a friend, announcement, memoir.
  • Draft the piece OR outline what you plan to do. People can share when ready.

Give the activity a try and post a comment or tweet a link to your draft! Better yet, come show it to us in person at our mini-conference on March 14th! You are welcome to share this post. Consider including hashtags such as #ilwrites, #teachwriting, #writing, as well as your own chat groups.    

Overcome Writer’s Block!

People sometimes get stuck in the middle of a piece or do not know what to write about in the first place. This is sometimes called “writer’s block.” What do writers do to get themselves unstuck? Here are ten simple strategies from the IWP to support writers in your class or for writing at home.

writer's block

To escape writer’s block, dump your thoughts on the page

Write or word process whatever is in your mind. Do not worry if the ideas are coherent or even make any sense. Just keep your pen (or cursor) moving. This is a great way to loosen up and brainstorm possible writing. You might keep just one or two bits and throw the rest away — that’s OK!

Get up and go away from the writing

Take a walk, get a snack, do some calisthenics, or drink a cup of tea. A change of movement or scenery can unlock ideas. Try some movement in the classroom for a change of pace!

Focus on something other than your writer’s block

Clear your mind. Sit outside and listen to the birds or street sounds. Put on a piece of relaxing music.

Switch channels

Write something different about the topic. For narratives, describe a new character, setting, or conflict. For arguments, try taking on a new point-of-view. What would [this person] say about the topic. Get creative!

Read and reread

Read what you wrote. Ask yourself questions such as, “What do I want to say? What do I want the reader to know? Why am I writing this?” Read what you wrote again, looking for key or favorite phrases or words. Write about why you like them.

Explore the internet

Look for details or facts related to your writing.

Read to a partner

Share your writing with someone you trust and ask what the writing makes them think about.

List your ideas

Make a list of words, or phrases, ideas connected to your writing. Each of the items on this list might become new sentences, paragraphs, or directions for writing.

Take a power nap

Give yourself a 5-10 minute power nap (though not during your class, of course). But intentional meditation or relaxation can work in class. Have students close their eyes, breathe in and out slowly, and let all minds rest.

Read for inspiration

Read something enjoyable — an interesting article on the Web, a magazine, or a book. Select a quote or passage to share. Invite comments and connections.

What strategies work for you to dispel writer’s block? How do you help your students?


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