My Writing Background (and why it matters)

Hutterite Teachers Newsletter, 1994 – present: This quarterly newsletter shares practical teaching ideas that work in a one-room, multi-graded classroom.

Sports Column, 2000–present: I write a weekly sports column for our local rural newspaper. By the end of 2016, I will have written approximately 884 of these editorials in which I look at various sports from different perspectives.

Novels: Trouble in Palmyra (2005) and Rescue the Prophet (2007) are both historical fiction for youth published by Covenant Books.

Writing historical fiction is different than writing teachers’ worksheets. Writing a sports column requires a different skill than sharing teaching tips in the Hutterite Teachers’ Newsletter. Having written in three diverse genres, I’ve experienced both the joy and frustration that writing can bring.

I’ve been teaching school for more than 25 years, and I’ve thrilled as students have excelled. But I’ve also agonized when they struggle with their writing. I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to teaching effective skills for creative writing.

One Bite at a Time

This Creative Writing program breaks story writing into its smallest bites. Beginning students need to learn the basic skills one bite at a time.  And more advanced writers can sharpen their talent one bite at a time.

Why this writing program?

A few years ago, I tried to find a teacher-friendly writing program. I found many programs for the primary grades that were written for beginning writers. I also found several programs written for advanced writers, but they used terminology that upper elementary and junior high teachers would rarely get to.

Thus, I wrote this program for me to use in my multi-graded classroom in a Hutterite Colony School, and I focused on Grade 4-8 students. Here are some of the reasons this program works for me (and might work for you):

  • Integrated creative writing coincides with the reading students are doing in novels or Language Arts. The students’ reading provides a context from which they can write, so why not tap into the worlds they’ve already gone to in their reading?
  • Varied story starters (prompts) give students choices. As much as I believe in using the students’ reading as a source, the story prompts should be varied. Individual students will respond better to some prompts than they will to others.
  • Classroom-proven marking guides have been “field tested” in a real classroom. I’ve also refined the marking guides so that students know what’s expected for the various assignments.
  • Poetry projects help students gain an appreciation for poetry. Students don’t realize how much they like poetry until they’ve experienced it. In recent years, we’ve put together a poetry binder of our creations. As we begin our week-long work with similes, the first thing we do is read the similes we’ve collected in our binder. Half of our binder contains poems that were written by students in the class. Reading the work of peers inspires students to want to do more. Why did it take me almost 20 years of teaching to find out how much fun students can have with poetry?
  • Story writing focus is one of the latest additions to my Creative Writing program. In my early years of teaching, I asked students to write narrative stories, and I marked them. Now, once we’ve developed the basic routine of story writing, I add one focus for each assignment. Having students focus on a “quick start,” for example, highlights the need to engage writers early in a story. I still want the students to write a complete story; however, additional emphasis (and marks) can be placed in the focus area. This creates more effective focus on different areas of each story for two reasons. First, it creates variety in terms of what students are working on. Second, it’s not possible to focus on all 16 writing focus areas at once—when we try to do too much, we get nothing done effectively.
  • Basics skills and content that upper elementary and junior high classrooms need are covered by the writing tools and strategies in this book. If we cover the basics effectively, we can later build on that.
  • Teacher-ready worksheets are provided in this writing program, with only minimal babbling on by me. Teachers are too busy to read a 50-page document that describes why this writing program is philosophically ideal for classroom education. Teachers don’t have time to read all that—they just need to get the materials ready.
  • New curriculum won’t make these worksheets obsolete because they cover the basics. In Grades 4-7, the main objectives of the curriculum will be covered in the units. With very little modification, the objectives covered could be used in any province or state because they cover the main points of learning.
  • Multi-graded classrooms are provided the advantage of teacher-ready worksheets that allow for whole-group and small-group instruction at the same time. I can, for example, explain the concept of conflict to all the students, then they can each do the worksheet at the appropriate level. In recent years, I’ve picked a grammar topic for the whole class to cover. Students can then complete the worksheet based on the story they’re working on that week.
  • Field testing occurs naturally. Because I use these worksheets in my multi-graded classroom every week, they’re used (proofread) by real students. (Even after using a worksheet for five years, someone might find an error, and I wonder why no one spotted it before.) Last school year, I revised and/or updated six of the worksheets.
  • Growing the resource also happens naturally. Five years ago, I finished writing this Creative Writing program—or at least I thought I was finished. However, because I use this as the core for my writing program, I end up adding a few new worksheets each year.

Creative Writing: One Bite at a Time

This resource is a checklist of the various worksheets I’ve created. I am combing this list so that you can see the types of writing activities that are covered.

Section A – Story Planning

Many professional writers create their stories without using outlines. Can that work for our multi-graded students? The answer is almost always “no.” Most students need some type of web or outline. Webs give students a structure that they can use as they learn to write and are more effective at encouraging students to divert from an outline into a new story path. If students are writing without a plan, it’s easier for them to get lost because they didn’t know where they were going to start with.

Several different outlines are included.

Section B – Evaluation

After years of trial and error, I’ve developed several marking rubrics. Some work better for beginning students, and others work better for more advanced writers. I’ve included the four basic marking templates that I’ve developed and used. The most effective is also the simplest one. Worksheet A-8 is the most effective for three reasons:

  1. The structure of the outline shows students how much time (and writing) needs to go in each section.
  2. Evaluation is incorporated into the template so that both students and teachers know the value of each section.
  3. This template is flexible. The teacher can choose, for example, which of the elements from the Elements of Fiction section they want to focus on. This can be modified in a multi-graded classroom so that some grades or students can be evaluated on more elements than beginning writers.

Section C – Writing Source (Story Starters)

An effective story starter is essential for all writers. The seventeen worksheets included in this section give the teacher a variety of ways to engage students to become more effective writers.

Worksheet C-2 is the one I use the most. After reading a novel or a story, students are familiar with the characters and the setting. Asking students to write about what happens next taps into their creative energy when they already “know” the world they are writing about.

Section D – Story Writing Focus

As students become more advanced in their writing, different elements can be emphasized, even as we use the same template and story starter. For Worksheet D-1, Quick Start, we’ll often write quick starts for several days as we focus on this area of writing.

Section E – Newspaper Article Writing

This can be a difficult skill to teach. After spending considerable time and effort to help students learn how to write narratives, writing newspaper articles is a complete course change. Many times, young writers turn their newspaper articles into stories without realizing it. Once they’ve been taught the elements and parts of a newspaper article, worksheet E-7 Article, not Story helps them see the difference between the two forms of writing.

Section G – Poetry

Poetry has engaged my students more than any other writing assignment. On a yearly basis, we cover the first eight worksheets in this outline. Their favourite part of poetry is reading the ones written by students in years past. I also found that poetry writing improved when I created a marking template to go with it. Once students see the requirements in front of them, they’re more focused.

Limitations of Creative Writing: One Bite at a Time

While I use these worksheets as the core to my writing program, and while I try and do a writing activity every week, there are still many worksheets I don’t get to in a given year. There’s simply more here than I can cover.

Even though this is the core of my writing program I bring in outside story starters to provide variety. In order to prepare Grade 6 students for the Provincial Achievement Tests, for examples, I used the unsecured story writing and article prompts. Students need to experience these specific starters several times before test day.

Contact me at ficiur@shaw.ca if you want more information about any of the Creative Writing: One Bite at a Time or to receive the Teacher Ready (Generic) Worksheets not linked here.

Worksheets Available at adlc.ca

Note: Find the full worksheet checklist here.

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