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Why is writing an essay so frustrating?

Ralph Fletcher--in his awesome how-to-be-a-writer books--talks about walking through the world with a "writer's eyes." Smart people walk through the world and make observations, but making an observation doesn't make you a writer; it makes you an observer and a thinker. Writers are thinkers who take the time to write their observations down, good writers write them down so they're engaging to reread or to share, and good writing teachers provide at least ten minutes so that their students can turn their thinking into interesting snippets writing. "We write to prove that we think" is the motto of my classroom, and it always will be. Just knowing that the next time they enter my classroom they will be doing Sacred Writing Time makes them actively walk through their world looking for interesting topics. SWT is a classroom routine whose simple presence makes my kids more observant, and they become observant for a different reason: to prove to me they think about things in interesting ways.

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Be personal: Make your essay about you; speak in the first person. Avoid speaking in the editorial “we.” Tell a story from your own life; this is not an opinion piece about social ideals. Write in words and phrases that are comfortable for you to speak. We recommend you read your essay aloud to yourself several times, and each time edit it and simplify it until you find the words, tone, and story that truly echo your belief and the way you speak.

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When you have completed your first draft, and you think your paper can be better organized, consider using a reverse outline. Reverse outlines are simple to create. Just read through your essay, and every time you make a new point, summarize it in the margin. If the essay is reasonably well-organized, you should have one point in the margin for each paragraph, and your points read out in order should form a coherent argument. You might, however, discover that some of your points are repeated at various places in your essay. Other points may be out of place, and still other key points may not appear at all. Think of all these points as the ingredients of an improved outline which you now must create. Use this new outline to cut and paste the sentences into a revised version of your essay, consolidating points that appear in several parts of your essay while eliminating repetition and creating smooth transitions where necessary.

Concerned teachers during my trainings and workshops ask, "What if they write about a topic that's not okay for the classroom?" At every training, I get asked this--most recently by a third grade teacher, which I found fascinating. Have third graders de-evolved since I last had a classroom full of them? My kids just don't attempt inappropriate topics. Early on, I establish the rule that SWT topics and writings must be 100% classroom appropriate, and that "If it would make my sweet grandmother blush," they don't write it down. Recently, I've begun a home-based writer's notebook that I don't show my students because it has more adult-oriented thoughts, jokes, and word-play (I wrote two very funny pages about , for example). Why did I start that notebook? Because several of my students told me they were keeping their own notebooks at home so they could write using the language of their peers. Krystal, one of these students, assured me, "We're not writing anything mean, Mr. H. We're just expressing ourselves with words we really use." And...I do trust them. These are the kids who've heard me disapprove when they made fun of former Speaker of the House, John Boehner's, last name in their classroom writer's notebook. And I told them they couldn't paste a printed meme with "D'at Ass" written on it next to their writing. They're in eighth grade, and I'm almost fifty, and they have the Internet at their fingertips; if they're keeping a personal writer's notebook at home, I know they're not writing anything too terrible in them. Plus...they're keeping a writer's notebook on their own. Author Ralph Fletcher would be thrilled that they've picked up the practice as a life-skill. Isn't that more important than stressing about their use of PG-13 language? I think so.

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Should we have a guest observer or an administrator in the room during Sacred Writing Time, as soon as we are finished writing silently, I ask, "Who can tell our guest(s) the three reasons why we write quietly every day in this classroom for ten uninterrupted minutes?" Half of the kids wave their hands frantically in the air, hoping to be the one who explains to our guest the three objectives I link to Sacred Writing Time:

A teacher told me recently that her administrator had suggested that Sacred Writing Time was a waste of ten minutes since the kids could write about anything they wanted, not necessarily about anything directed at the teacher's current unit or lesson. I've never seen this teacher teach, and I don't know her administrator at all, but I'm going to say the following boldly: either the teacher hasn't established the routine well enough to make it appear to be anything more than quiet busywork, or her administrator is not very smart. I liken the process of SWT to a student learning music and sports. The most important thing I do is teach my kids to write, and I teach them write well. If I was teaching them to play music well or to be a valuable member of their sports team, there would need to be practice ahead of time. You don't just expect students to perform at the spring concert or win the big game without practice, and there are two types of practice: directed practice and fun practice. Sacred Writing Time is our fun practice. It's ten simple minutes out of my daily schedule, and I assure you the remaining time I spend with my kids is directed practice and directed learning of Common Core Standards.

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Now compare that dry, 7th grade essay to this heartfelt, well-written Sacred Writing Time submission Gerry wrote about five months later. Whether you agree with Gerry's admiration of the Patriots or not, you cannot miss his skill as a writer shining through: .

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One student I recently graduated into 9th grade--Gerry--is a great example of how good writers need freedom to show off their best skills. In seventh grade, we write our first literary analysis essay. I know, how very Common Core of me, right? For three weeks, my students analyze Steinbeck novellas for theme, writing style, setting, and dynamic characters, then they plan a formal essay. We pre-write, draft, respond, revise, edit, publish, conference...the whole gosh darn writing process with a state-sponsored standard (or two) as our chief objective. In a perfect world, this writing workshop experience would help all students produce one of their best pieces of writing, right? Hardly. Forced writing formats, purposes, and topics don't always push a kid to discover his best writing skills. This is the essay Gerry published after our three-week writing workshop and in-class analysis of John Steinbeck: .

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Name your belief: If you can’t name it in a sentence or two, your essay might not be about belief. Also, rather than writing a list, consider focusing on one core belief.

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Put simply, I have a handful of students who showcase their best writing skills during Sacred Writing Time. It's not the majority of them, but it's enough of them for me to hang on to Sacred Writing as a daily practice, especially knowing that my three main objectives of SWT help all my students in some way grow as writers. The fact that I have some writers doing their best writing during those ten minutes is an additional perk.

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