tinkering with writing by Angela Stockman

Gaming the Writing Process

Have you ever felt overwhelmed by the abundance of incoherent writing ideas taking up space in your brain? When I conference with writers, they often let me know that they’re experiencing this by sharing statements like…..

“This is hard.”

“I’m not even sure where to start.”

“I don’t know how to get what’s in my head down on paper.”

“I can’t organize my thoughts.”

“I can’t pick one idea.”

“I’m not sure which ideas are the best ideas.”

“I’m not sure which order I should use.”

“I have too many things to say.”

“I can’t get my ideas to connect.”

I find that placing graphic organizers in front of writers at moments like these can often do far more harm than good. Graphic organizers are flat and static.They also command immediate coherence, stifling the idea generation process or at the very least, forcing boundaries around it.

Gamestorming helps writers map and connect their thoughts in the same way that graphic organizers intend to, without rigid frames.

Consider this: What if you asked me to help you map out a story, and I handed you a graphic organizer and asked you to brainstorm each element of the plot? How would this effect the way you generated and organized your ideas? What would that process look like? How would it feel?

Now consider this: What if, instead of handing you a graphic organizer, I inspired you to think about real people, fantastical characters, profound dilemmas, and important messages that you want to share with the world, and what if I encouraged you to brainstorm many great possibilities for your story? How would that effect the number and quality of the ideas that you generated?

Rather than expecting you to tame those ideas and make them sit nicely inside the squares of a graphic organizer, what if I invited you to simply spill all of those beautiful but still incoherent ideas onto the table in front of you, like this:


What if you started clustering those ideas and learning more about the shape of your story from the content of each cluster?


How would this effect the number and quality of the ideas that you generate?

What would this process look like?

How would it feel?

Something else: See all of that white space in the photos above? It invites experimentation. Writers can mix and remix those sticky notes, and when they do, new ideas emerge. There is plenty of room for new ideas, too.

Here are a few other ways to game the writing process.

And this is one of our favorite games. You can grab the original from Canva.







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If you’d like to read a chapter from the bestselling Hack Learning Series book, Make Writing, by Angela Stockman, download Hack Learning Anthology free at HackLearningFree.com.

3 Make Writing Must-Haves

In Make Writing, I share the three layer design process that I’ve used each time I’ve set up my own makerspaces or helped school districts develop their own:

  • First we establish the substructure of the space, which is prepared before we open the doors of the space.
  • Then, we assess the needs and interests of the makers we serve during the start-up phase, which begins when the kids walk in the door.
  • As individual writers begin to pursue unique projects that they are passionate about, we specialize our tools and resources in response to their emerging needs.

Regardless of where the space will be located, who will be using it, and the vision that the designers have at the outset, my initial recommendation tends to remain the same: Don’t spend big money until you have very good reason to.

Making doesn’t require much money, especially at the outset. As interests and needs change and grow, helping students find ways to creatively fund their projects becomes another satisfying challenge to pursue.

That’s a different topic for a different post, and I’ll be sharing it soon.

Today, I’d like to give you this “must-have” list of budget-friendly materials and tools. Local friends of mine have been requesting it for some time, so I thought I would share it here as well.

MakeWritingMust Haves

Use it build the substructure of your own makerspace. Tell me what you add or amend as well!

5 Strategies Most Writing Teachers Never Learned

In a different life, I was an English teacher. In fact, I spent the first half of my twenty-four-year career in education writing beside middle and high school kids. Writing workshop was my passion, and Nancie Atwell was my hero (well, she still is).

Naturally, I was thrilled when my principal tapped me to design and teach an entire course specifically devoted to this endeavor. For many years, all of the kids in our middle school enjoyed writers workshop beside their core English classes, and I got to be their teacher.

I loved this, and I loved teaching so much that when I stepped out of the classroom to begin doing staff development, I refused to let it go. Nearly a decade ago, I founded the WNY Young Writers Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing. Then, I began doing a whole lot of action research.

Here’s what I learned: When many young writers sit down to confront flat, empty screens and pages, they experience frustration and even defeat. Wading into procedures that often feel contrived using tools that are completely intangible paralyzes them.

Over time, these tensions perpetuate a sort of quiet trauma: children begin to believe that they can’t write, and then they stop trying. I have to wonder: How many adults might be better able to advocate for themselves or for justice within their communities if experiences like these hadn’t silenced them?

Many children and adults tell me that their writing ideas are quite literally out of their grasp. They can’t wrap their hands around them, and since this is how they learn best, writing remains beyond their reach.

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Years ago, I began realizing that maybe the problem wasn’t the writer.

Maybe it was the way I was defining and teaching writing.

This is why I began hacking my writing workshop model. This began with powerful visioning work and careful attention to the culture I hoped to create. These five moves were the ones that mattered most once I had clarity here, though.

Five Ways to Make Writing

1. First, I got writers out of their seats and onto their feet.

I’ve discovered that many writers need to move, and they need their writing to move as well. They need to write out of their seats and on their feet, spreading their ideas across whiteboards and tables, lifting pieces of them up with their hands, cutting them apart, randomizing them, and tacking them into new and completely unpredictable forms.

Look inside

These writers need access to diverse tools and resources– far more than paper, laptops, and iPads. They build their stories using blocks and boards. They blend plot lines using sticky notes and grids. It’s not enough for these writers to study mentor texts. They need to tear them apart–physically. They need to use their hands to play with other peoples’ writing, and they need to tinker with their own in order to become adept.

2. This inspired us to remake our space.

When kids make writing, they use classroom spaces in uncommon and even unexpected ways. If your room is filled with desks arranged in rows that cover every square inch of your floor, some quick changes will need to be made. Tables, empty wall spaces, whiteboards, individual foam boards, tacks, scissors, painter’s tape, and chalkboards enable writers to do more than merely sit and tackle the assignments that teachers give them.

They allow them to generate a variety of ideas and draft them on their feet. Tools like these invite writers to literally crack their writing open and unpack its working parts. They can spread them across empty space and study how their pieces work in isolation and in concert with the whole. Tools like these also help writers make their ideas, plans, and drafts transparent to others, so that they can contribute to them, provide feedback, and push one another’s thinking.

3. We’ve begun thinking differently about audience.

Making writing truly inspires writers to value process ahead of product, and this changes everything we thought we knew about seeking audience. Gone are the days when WNY Young Writer’s Studio fellows celebrated their accomplishments by participating in readings or showcasing their anthology submissions.

We produce powerful stuff and recognize published writers to be sure, but kids who make writing seek audiences who will appreciate the expertise they gain through the process as well. For example, each spring, we host an exhibition where writers of all ages facilitate conversations about strategies that work for them, how they make writing, and the resources and tools they rely on.

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Those who publish in our anthology receive their copies that day, and we enjoy a hearty round of applause upon distribution, but the focus is on sharing what was learned throughout the process instead of the results of it.

4. Soon enough, everyone was tinkering. 

While many writers begin the process by sketching outlines and filling out graphic organizers, adept writers often begin by tearing other texts apart. They break down the work that inspires them, studying how it works so they can mimic an expert’s approach. While these initial efforts might feel unsatisfyingly derivative, modifying existing frameworks typically inspires the development of texts that are legitimately original.

Rather than treating the process as a routine or a set of defined steps, adept writers move through it in a recursive fashion. Most notably, they tinker during each phase of the writing. When writers tinker, they often make their writing moveable, crafting it on index cards or sticky notes, slicing their drafts into pieces, and isolating portions of their work from the whole in order to study and play with them.

5. This is how kids are inspiring teachers to hack their curriculum. 

The WNY Young Writers Studio exists outside of school systems, and the kids I support consume a Common Core aligned curricula every day. They make connections between the processes they use at Studio and the way they approach writing in school all of the time. When these kids share how they make writing with their classroom teachers, I bear witness to the power that children have to lead critical change in this world.

Standards are no excuse for standardization, and when kids who make writing show teachers how it can be done, they’re often inspired to “do the Core” a bit differently. Making writing isn’t about ditching workshop, evading standards, or going rogue while your department commits to an aligned curriculum. It’s about rethinking how you attend to these things though. Most imnportantly, it’s about letting the writers we support lead the way.

Interested in learning more? I lay out a very practical approach for getting started in my new book, Make Writing: 5 Teaching Strategies that Turn Writers Workshop Into a Maker Space. 

Here, I unpack each of the steps above in careful detail, providing practical applications that can be used immediately and a blueprint for sustainability. My own stories from the WNY Young Writers Studio are included, as are examples from real teachers who work in real classrooms. These ideas are very new to me, and I’m excited about all that I have left to learn.

How are you leveraging the connection between making and writing? What are your students teaching you? Share your experiences in the comments or catch up with me on Twitter. My handle is @angelastockman, and you can use the #makewriting hashtag.

Want even more?

Check out my new online Make Writing Master Course. And because you are a Hack Learning supporter, use coupon code MAKE at check out and save 25%.

A version of this first appeared at Brilliant or Insane

30-second assessment

13 Thirty-Second Assessment Strategies

I know a few teachers this year who are committed to assessing students without testing them. That’s right: they’re not only ditching grades, they’re trying to ditch the tests that produce them too. They’re confident that the data they’re gathering provides far better information than those tired instruments used to, particularly when it comes to understanding when learning is happening, when it isn’t, and why.

They’re doing this without adding “one more thing” to their curriculum or extending their preparation time, too. How is this possible? In addition to making learning visible and documenting it in a variety of ways, they’ve created a toolbox of 30 second assessment strategies. They’re putting these strategies to the test before, during, and after instruction.

You’ll find a collection of the most popular strategies below, but know that this isn’t a definitive list, and each strategy can and should be adapted to fit your purposes. It’s one that teachers are adding to over time, and as they test approaches in their classrooms, they’re discovering that some work better than others, depending on their needs.

I’ll add this reflection as well: when learners are invited to bring their cell phones into the classroom, they power up the documentation process. Gathering and curating the right data at the right time becomes far more efficient as well.

Of all the work I’m facilitating this year, these projects are my favorite. If you’re interested in collaborating with me and the teachers that I  support, just drop a line in the comments below or connect with me on Twitter. The more the merrier.

30 Second Assessment Strategies

1 – Tweet at Me: Before they walk out the door, ask your students to send you a tweet that states the most important thing they learned that day, one thing they are confused about, or how they know they met the instructional target.

2 – Monitor Your Frustration: Use a simple frustration scale to keep tabs on how learners are feeling and why. I use one that looks similar to a hospital pain scale, and I ask students to track their frustration levels several times throughout a day’s lesson. When I ask them to reflect on this data, I always learn a lot.

3 – Cool Review: Ask your students to shoot you an email, a text, or a handwritten review of your instruction that day. Make it clear that you want to know what you can do better.

4 – Flashback: When the day’s learning should remind students of something they learned previously, challenge them to frame out a flashback by making clear comparisons and providing a reason why.

5 – Show Me You Know It: Challenge students to complete just one task that proves they know what you taught them that day.

Make Writing

6 – Shoot Your Data: Invite students to review the day’s work and take three photos using their cell phones: one that reflects the best learning they accomplished that day, one that reflects the highest moment of frustration, and one that reflects another moment of their own choosing. They may text these to you, archive them in a space that you create, or establish their own album to expand upon over time.

7 – Record Your Reflection: When you ask reflective questions, ask students to video tape their responses rather than writing them. This is a time saver, and it allows learners to focus more on reflecting than on producing perfect written pieces for critical eyes.

8 – Headings and Subheadings: Provide learners with sticky notes, and ask them to create a headline for an article about the day’s learning. Require them to post their headlines on the board as they leave the classroom that day. When they return the next day, warm up by reviewing the ideas shared and if necessary, debating a bit in order to choose the most appropriate heading. As learning continues, challenge them to check out of class by sharing subheadings. Build your class article over the course of several days or weeks, as learning deepens (okay, so this will take more than 30 seconds, but it’s one of my favorites, so forgive me).

9 – Four Corner Feedback: Post four posters, one in each corner of your room: I’M CONFUSED/I’M CURIOUS/I’M QUESTIONING/I’M CLEAR. Ask students to reflect on the day’s learning. Are they confused about something? Curious about some aspect of what you are studying that was not discussed? Questioning what was learned or even disagreeing with points shared? Clear and ready to move on to the next phase? Once they know what they’re thinking, they should visit one corner of their choice on the way out the door. When they arrive, they must leave a note on the poster that explains their thinking.

10 – Analogies: Invite learners to create an analogy for some aspect of the day’s learning. They should share these in an open Google Doc, where they can see how others respond and push their peers’ thinking.

11 – Red Flags: If the lesson included the production of notes or other products, ask students to review the work they created and place red flags on areas that reflect where greater clarity or reteaching is necessary. Consider using colored sticky notes, dots, or red pens or markers.

12 – Collaborate, Cluster, Categorize: Provide learners ten slips of paper or sticky notes. Ask each learner to brainstorm ten things learned during the day’s lesson in thirty seconds or less, placing one item on each note. As a warm up the next day, challenge students to form teams and spill their notes into a shared space. Once all notes are visible, the team should work to cluster the notes and then categorize them.

13 – Plus/Delta: What’s working, helping, clicking, sticking? What needs to change? Ask learners to reflect on these questions, and ask them to add their thoughts to a plus/delta chart like the one featured in the photo above.

So, how do teachers use what they learn about students from these assessments to speak with parents or other educators about their strengths and struggles?

pen in notebook Hack Learning

6 Things to Consider Before Writing


Photo Credit: https://flic.kr/p/8s4PDi

It’s 5:15 am on a Tuesday morning, and my day is beginning in its usual fashion–quietly. Everyone else is still asleep. I relish this part of my day. I’m tempted to open my email inbox first but instead I sign into  Twitter and scroll through the updates from educators I follow there.

Several people are sharing their thoughts about how the writing process is changing, wondering why it’s happening. They are sharing how their own practices are changing as a result. Or not. My head is full of new questions, and I share a few as I take the few last bites of my breakfast.

Before I close the page, I catch this tweet: “Is it possible to teach writing well if your students aren’t aware of what’s possible now? If they aren’t publishing online?”

I start to reply, but I’m not quite sure how to respond.

The question continues to follow me around all morning.

It’s 12:30 pm that same afternoon, and I’m sitting beside the members of the Kenan Arts Council in Lockport, New York. They’ve asked me to join them for lunch and talk with them a bit about the WNY Young Writers’ Studio, a writing community I founded.

Some of the people in the room are retired teachers, but most are not. Many of them are parents, like me. Some are even grandparents. They want to know more about technology. They are excited and intimidated by the possibilities.

“Tell us some stories about what kids do with computers at Studio,” one of them presses; so, I do.

I tell them about Dan, about how he hated school, hated writing, and hated that his mother made him come to Studio. I tell them about the stop motion video he made with another friend. I tell them how I didn’t teach him how to do this, but that he learned what he needed to from another Studio fellow who was three years younger than Dan.

“That kid also hated school, hated writing, and hated that his mother made him come to Studio,” I grinned. “They’re happy to be hanging out with us now though,” I assure them. It had nothing to do with me.

“They taught me that storytelling isn’t just about text anymore,” I suggest. Then, I show them what I mean

“This is Sam,” I continue, projecting the first slide of his digital story onto the wall. They giggle in response. His story is about an alien. He chose to play the part himself and design his own costume. His pictures are compelling. His story doesn’t have any text, though.

It doesn’t need it.

Mark Writing - Hack Learning Series

Look Inside

“Sam does not like to sit still, and when we make him, he tells us that he has a hard time concentrating. So when Sam came to Studio, we made sure he was never sitting. The first thing that he wanted to do was write this digital story,” I explain. “Then, he invented a game that can be played inside the arena here at the Kenan Center. He’s publishing this game now. We’ll be playing it at our writing celebration this spring, and he’ll tape it. Then, he’ll share that video and the game with others who want to play it too.”

“How?” someone asks.

“On the web. His teacher uses Twitter in the classroom.”

Their eyes widen. Some are smiling. Some are not. Everyone is listening though. Nearly everyone has a question, too. I invite a woman on my left to speak. Her hair is white, her smile is kind, and her eyes are filled with skepticism.

“What if teachers don’t care about these possibilities? Whatever happened to pen and paper? Does that not matter anymore?” she asks, her voice laced with just the tiniest bit of disdain. “Isn’t it possible to teach writing well even if kids aren’t publishing online?”

Déjà vu.

“Ironically, I’ve been thinking about that all morning. I don’t know how to answer your question,” I admit. “As a writing teacher, I guess I’m wondering if that’s even the right question for me to be tangling with.”

“What do you mean?” she asks.

“Well, I guess I rarely think about technology when I begin to teach. I don’t think about the computer at all, in fact. Is that bad?”

“Well, what do you think about then?”

“The kids, what matters to them, and the difference they hope to make.”

I ask myself questions like the ones below.

Six Things to Consider at the Start of the Writing Process

1. Who are the writers you serve? Some may be athletes. Others, artists. Some may love Minecraft. Others may love baking. Get to know them, and inspire them to write about what matters to them.

2. What kind of difference do they hope to make with their words? Will they write to entertain? To inform? To advocate for justice?

3. Who is their audience? Classmates? Community members? Global readers?

4. Which modes and tools will help them reach their audience most efficiently? Should they publish a letter to the editor of the local paper? A blog post? A short story, within an online forum?

5. Who has already published something powerful in this arena? Their work could serve as mentor text.

6. How can I position myself as a facilitator rather than a leader of the learning? How will inquiry play a role?

This is hardly an exhaustive list, but it is representative of the questions I find myself mulling over most. Strangely enough, they often bring me right back to where I began.

Is it possible to teach writing well if kids aren’t using the web to amplify their voices?

What say you?