Teaching Writing in Middle School: Using Meredith Sue Willis’s Blazing Pencils and Personal Fiction Writing

FROM THE ARCHIVES: This article previously appeared in Teachers & Writers Magazine.

by Dean Schneider

I introduced autobiographical essays or memoirs as simply a “collection of memories,” as Willis calls them in Blazing Pencils. Of all the writing that I teach, the memoir is my favorite. It seems to be a form that comes naturally to students in the middle school years.

“MR. SCHNEIDER, I’M BECOMING A NERD, A REAL geek. I actually wrote on the airplane this weekend and I didn’t have to. I even bought a notebook for my writing.” Vadie Turner, an excitable eighth grade girl, has become an inspired writer. Meredith Sue Willis’s Blazing Pencils and Personal Fiction Writing have been at the heart of my recent experiments with teaching writing in regular English classes, and as Vadie’s reaction shows, the results have been impres­sive. Our work on descriptions of people and places inspired Vadie to write on her own, even during a flight back from a holiday weekend.

Blazing Pencils is for middle school and junior high students, and Personal Fiction Writing is for teachers, writers, and older students. I use these books, as well as any other good ideas I come across. My students keep all their writing in file folders, which Meredith Sue Willis calls “idea journals.” By the end of the year, these journals are a record of the students’ writing for that year, full of descriptions, memories, narratives, stories, essays, plays, poems, and various freewritings.

I used Blazing Pencils in all three of my regular English classes this year, in grades six, seven, and eight. The early work we did on description proved essential to good writing in later fiction and nonfiction writing assignments. The crucial first project was to describe a place by closing your eyes and imagining it in such detail that you can write about what you see, hear, smell, touch, and taste there. Neely Coble, a sixth grader, wrote the piece below. I like it for its local color and simplicity.

The Swamp

There is a cool breeze rattling the cypress trees in the lowland swamp. The swamp is covered with gross green algae. There is a musty odor coming from the swamp floor made of decaying plants and animals. As I look farther into the gloom I can see and hear the fluttering and quacking of wood ducks. I see turtles on the rotting logs in the water. Quickly, the rumble of five deer passes behind me. Then once again everything is calm and gloomy.

— Neely Coble, a sixth grader

We did several descriptions of place — the classroom, a bedroom, a favorite place — and went on to applying the same skills of imagination, observation, and sensory detail to describing people: a person in a place; a classmate (the rest of the class has to guess who it is); and a person (from the top of the head to the bottom of the shoes). Students had fun with what Willis calls inside/outside portraits:  describing a person on one side of the paper and writing the thoughts of that person on the other side, an experiment in both description and interior monologue. They wrote the imagined thoughts of a friend during a panic attack in math class, of a boyfriend before a date, and of various fictional characters.

A favorite project was writing a profile, or word portrait. As Willis says, “A profile of a person, like one of a place, is longer than a description, and it has more kinds of information.” Sarah Oliver, an eighth  grader, wrote this profile of a friend:

Her long blond hair is pulled back in a ponytail, loose from all the activities she’s been involved in today. She has many long curls, or ” wispies” as she calls them, hanging in her face. She has blue eyes, but you can’t tell what color they are when she smiles because her smile is so big that her eyes squint up. She has braces on that big smile of hers, which she desperately wants off before the Washington trip. She is wearing a short-sleeved t-shirt with the ends rolled up that says “VH1.” She probably got this from someone in her father’s advertising agency. Her shirt has dog paw prints on it from her beloved “Honey.” She must have had a goodbye hug before she drove to school. Her white t-shirt is tucked in some stone-washed blue jeans, and she is wearing her favorite duck boots, which she very much enjoys. She has a lively personality which has helped us get into many outrageous experiences. In about second grade, when I spent a night at her house, I was scared that there were mummies under the bed. Finally I made her get up and look under both of them. There was nothing of course, but ever since then she teases me by saying, “Boog-a-la-rum, Boog-a-la-rum, the mummies are gonna get ya!” Then when we were in the 6th grade we both liked this guy, well, mostly, her. Anyway, we had stayed after school to watch her brother play basketball in the teacher/student game and it got sort of boring so we came inside the building. We went into the bathroom and one of us decided we should write a secret admirer’s letter to him and put it in his locker. On a paper towel we wrote, “Do you love me, like you really should?” and put hearts all around it, signing it “your secret admirer.” We dropped it in the slots in his locker, giggling the entire time. We were so scared that someone might have seen us. Then on Monday morning he didn’t find it. He didn’t find it the next day either. In fact, he didn’t find it for the next month. After a week we had totally forgotten it. Then one day before spring break we had to clean out our lockers and all of a sudden there was a big commotion in the hallway and everyone was laughing. I went over to see what was going on and it turned out that he had found the note! Varina and I were about to die! He thought that this other girl in the class had written it and they were all laughing at her. We felt so bad we couldn’t tell them that it was us. We just kind of slipped into the background and didn’t say much. These are the kinds of things Varina and I get into all the time.

— Sarah Oliver, an eighth  grader

I like projects such as word portraits because they have, as Willis says, a “natural shape.” They can stand by themselves as complete, finished products. Students love writing about their memories: happy, sad, embarrassing, exciting, lonely. As Harvey Weiner advises in Any Child Can Write, “Use children’s great knack of telling real events as the core of established writing programs.” He encourages students to focus on a single moment and to flesh it out with lively sensory details. Such memories combine action with description of places and people. A student of mine wrote this true story a few years ago:

It was a Sunday morning sometime in October, when I was about eleven years old. I was about to hear the biggest shock of my life. I woke up that Sunday morning about 6:30. I heard my mother talking on the phone and the t.v. was on. I automatically knew something was wrong because my mom never got up this early on weekends. My dad never got up early either, but he was gone and  in Lebanon somewhere doing who knows what for about the past two months. I sat up in bed and came to my senses. I heard that the t.v. program was the news because of the drone of the announcer. I couldn’t make out what he was saying-to me it was mumble­  jumble through the walls of the house. My mom was crying as she was talking on the phone. I got out of bed and stood up. The room was black and I felt a sharp pain go through my foot. I fell back on the bed and felt the floor. I realized I had just stepped on one of my G.I. Joe figures that I was messing around with just last night. I got back up and dodged the other toys on the floor and made it to the door. I opened the door and stepped out into the hall. My sister was still asleep and I heard my mom hang up the phone-still crying. I went into the t.v. room and sat down to watch t.v. The man was talking about some terrorist bomb that blew up a building. I had no idea it was in the exact building in the exact same country my dad was in. Then my mom came in, crying hard. I asked her what was wrong and she said the building my dad was in was bombed by a truck with a back-load of explosives. She did not know if dad was alive or dead, just that men were pulling pieces of other men out of the smoldering, caved-in building. I remember looking at the t.v. and watching as the cameras were viewing body-bags lying in neat rows. I don’t really remember what happened after that. I just remember that they never found my dad’s body and I was hoping he was out for a jog that morning. I never cried myself-I guess I was a bit sad, but things were just too busy at my house for the next three days. People I had never seen before were coming in and out of the house, and the telephone was in constant use day and night. Three days later, we received the good news that my father was alive in a Lebanon hospital. We couldn’t get in touch with him, but we knew he was alive, and that eased the tension off everyone in my family.

Travis Gerlach, grade 9

I introduced autobiographical essays or memoirs as simply a “collection of memories,” as Willis calls them in Blazing Pencils. Of all the writing that I teach, the memoir is my favorite. It seems to be a form that comes naturally to students in the middle school years. They create a substantial

piece of writing alive with description, action, and the authority of their own voices. Vadie, a teenage whirlwind in eighth grade, wrote the following memoir. It’s a fine piece of writing, but it was even better hearing Vadie read it aloud to the class:

My Old Neighborhood as a Child

When I was quite young and not even in preschool, my parents and I lived outside of Lebanon, Tennessee. There, I began my social life with intriguing next-door neighbors. On the right of our house we had a rather large family of cows who did not have homes and managed to camp out every night, and to the left there lived the orchard family. For all you slow learners, yes, I lived on a farm. We had a big yard where I played many games. One specific time, I remember waiting all week for a cloud to fall on the lawn so I could play and sleep on it, but it never came. Down our driveway  a bit, one of our workmen and his family lived. They had a boy my age and we were the best of friends  and did everything  together, but obviously  he had no great influence on my life since I can’t even remember his name. I always found myself trying to impress him since he knew so much, or so he told me. One summer morning he tried to teach me how to ride a horse. He said to climb up the horse’s tail and get in the saddle. Naturally I failed at doing this because the dang animal kicked me in the tummy and I puked in the trough. What memories.

A while later he invited me for supper, which did not tickle my mother pink at all. I begged to go but she feared I would lose my properness being with a typical country family. When I returned home my mother asked what I ate for dinner and I simply replied, “Steak, taters, and beans.”

Then we moved, to where we live now and where I entered the “real world” — Opryland, malls, and junk food. When I began my  first day at preschool I stayed till one and brought my lunch so I could eat at noon. My mother only packed me the finest wheat bread, plums, dates, and home-grown veggies to eat, though when she came to pick me up I was in the “naughty corner” because I had stolen someone’s Cheetos, and when he grabbed them back I punched him in the arm. What a nightmare. But now my mother knows better than to send me without my Cheetos. After this I got into mega-trouble so I ran away. That afternoon during my nap in my pajamas I snuck out of my room while my mom was gardening. First I went to the kitchen and got one carrot, three pickles, and a  sip of milk that I carried  in my mouth, then went to the creek behind our house and hit the road. I became so tired I began to wearily drag each foot, step by step. Since I have always been a smart girl I decided to nap in someone else’s yard. When I awoke, their sprinklers were on full blast. Brr. I came back home, thawed, and got back into bed before it was time to get up.

After this minor school I went all the way to the big leagues, St. George’s, and there I picked up a new and handy talent, cutting. One bright and sunny Sunday my father was on his weekly little snooze. He was my new victim. He was on the couch after church just purring like a little baby and I had just arrived back from Kroger with a new pair of shiny scissors… let’s just say he still has a faint souvenir…Yes, a bald spot.

My childhood was such fun, and I have so many wonderful memories, and even more to look forward to. So look for more interesting stories by Vadie.

— Vadie, eighth grade

Although the early work on description and narration can serve as the foundation  for writing short stories and plays, I try to avoid seeing early writing simply as preparation for the big projects. I love a lively portrait of a person or a place as much as a well-crafted story. Not every story has to be big and polished, or even finished, to be good. As Willis says in Personal Fiction Writing, “For most children, a pile of beginnings and fragments is a great wealth, something I’m delighted to see.” This is what I love about idea journals and what eventually hooked me on Blazing Pencils: by the end of the year, students have a folder full of their writing, something to show for their school life that year. Some of these writings remain “raw,” while others  are “cooked”  in the revision process.

Revision

People learn to write by writing and rewriting. Revision helps a creative writing program be more than random bursts of energy.

As a first step in revising, I often have my students read their work aloud. One reason analytical writing done in English class is dry and tedious is that no one reads it aloud. Reading aloud attunes beginning writers to their own voices, helping them to establish an easier, more natural voice in their writing. Vadie’s writing is excellent, but not because of topic sentences and carefully constructed paragraphs, and certainly not for her spelling and punctuation. What she has in her writing is her own voice; her writing sounds like her talking, and that’s not something you teach. I have specific things I want to teach, but I give students  plenty  of  latitude  within my assignments. As Willis says, “You learn wrong writing habits only if you are trying to please someone else instead of developing your own way of saying what you want to say.”  My projects give direction, but I can’t take credit for Vadie’s writing; that comes from her own experience and enthusiasm, expressed in her own voice.

I see reading aloud — to the class, friends, or even yourself, as the first step in revising a composition. The second step is teaching other students how to listen, so they can help the author. I usually give two or three specific criteria by which to judge papers, and as the year progresses, the criteria get more rigorous. Early on, I might ask peer editors to find two details they really like and two spots where more specific details would help, and to check for spelling and run-on sentences. (The “Looking Again” sections in Blazing Pencils offer lots of suggestions in this vein.) Later, I expect editors to find, on their own, strengths and weaknesses in a composition and to offer appropriate help.

After these early stages of editing, I roll up my sleeves and get under the hood to tinker with the nuts and bolts. As a more experienced writer, I take the initiative to help students with  finer points of content and style and  have students follow through with further drafts.

For every project “cooked” in the above manner, students write lots of “raw” pieces that go no further. These arc like sketches in an art class, meant to teach something about the  art of writing and to promote frequent writing, but done with the understanding that not every piece has to involve the teacher so closely.

The English Teacher’s Juggling Act

It is certainly easier to “run” an English class the traditional way: grammar books, vocabulary workbooks, and lots of tests. Not only do many schools prescribe a set curriculum, but they train students to see tests and  worksheets  as he stuff of real education; if you do not come through with enough sacred busywork, such students will see you as an “easy” teacher who is not serious. Even the best students m the best schools sometimes  feel adrift  without  assignments so cut and dried that no imagination is required. Still, I have tried to become one teacher along the way who thinks writing ought to be fun, a teacher who can teach skills in projects students enjoy.

Now that I have a school-age daughter, I think more about what kind of teacher I want for her, and I want to be that kind of teacher. I want her to love reading and writing and not just plod through a daily grind at school.

Basing my teaching on ideas such as those in Blazing Pencils and Personal Fiction Writing means juggling everything else. I set aside at least three periods each week for creative writing. I put creative writing at the heart of  my work, letting literature be a parallel thread that sometimes connects to projects suggested by the writing program. I like Willis’s vision of the ideal classroom: “My ideal classroom, then, would be one in which the teacher and children wrote regularly, and they talked together about writing, and  they read together and separately from the whole panoply of literature.”

What is so valuable about Blazing Pencils and similar resources that I am willing to juggle everything else in order to make it work? Partly it is  to counter  what John  Holt called “writing in the third remove”-writing on subjects students don’t know much about, don’t care much about, and on which they say only what they think the teacher wants them to say. A good writing program gets students writing about things they care about, and for most young writers this means writing about their own experience.

Not only do students learn to write by writing,  they learn literary terms and concepts-character, setting, plot, monologue, dialogue, conflict-by using these techniques in their own writing, which is much better than the usual plodding analyses of stories and memorization of terms.

Without even realizing it, students are learning a lot about literature by writing.

John Holt, the educator and writer, inspired me to see children as natural learners if we parents and  teachers don’t get in their way too much. John gave me a determination to teach in school pretty much the way I would teach my own children at home. I want children to enjoy  writing as they pick up skills in meaningful projects. My students write up a storm, write well, and by the end of the year don’t feel they have been through a meat grinder. In fact, some of them probably feel they have gotten away with something, since they haven’t done as many worksheets or taken as many vocabulary quizzes as they used to. But the ultimate indicator of a good program is when students start asking in February if they get to keep their writing folders at the end of the year.

DEAN SCHNEIDER is chairman of the English department at The Ensworth School in Nashville, TN. His essays have appeared in 1othering , Growing Without Schooling, and other magazines.



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