Teach writing. Writing forces a student to think.

I was born on a pirate ship.

Middle school students, for all their fantasies about being movie stars and writing video games, just are not very creative. By middle school, their peers have influenced them with enough criticism to the point where they no longer believe the impossible can happen for them. Like adults, they tend to fall back on what works for them, and that trait continues on throughout adulthood. I teach and plead and harangue students to write great essays and stories. Mostly, it falls on waxy ears, and I wind up my day spending endless late nights reading stories that start “Once upon a time…” or “My story is about….” or “Hi! My name is…” or the worst beginning of all – “Hi! My name is Kristen and my story is about once upon a time…”

But once in a while I get a gem, a diamond among lumps of coal, a glow stick on a Halloween night. I was born on a pirate ship. This first sentence of an autobiography project by a sixth grader named Christie hooked me like a trout on a well-crafted fly! When I read that sentence, I immediately gave her an A+ and settled back for one of the most interesting and enjoyable autobiographical essays I had read in a long time. It truly entertained.

So, I am faced with the task I have assigned hundreds of times. I need to “hook” the reader. So, I figured if she hooked me with this, maybe I could hook you with it. If you’ve read this far, it worked.

Mundane writing programs

Many, many writing programs exist for teaching middle school students. One of them is very good; most of them deserve to be shredded and recycled. Even the fair ones are cleverly disguised organization programs designed to teach a student how to organize their thoughts (which is an oxymoron in middle school.) Very few writing programs teach a student how to write. I will discuss this more in a later entry.

However, if your district adopted a writing program (I should call it an organizing program), or if you have a favorite writing program, I will give you ideas that you can adapt and squeeze into that program.

Give credit where you can and “borrow” the rest, but do not plagiarize.

My ideas are not new. There is nothing new under the sun of public education. Whenever I can track down the source of the idea, I will cite it. When I cannot find the source, I simply state the idea. If I created a new, fresh idea, I’ll say so. However, I’m not sure there is an original idea left in education. When I find an idea I seldom leave it alone; I change it. I tweak and twist, and turn it on its head until it fits my situation. I encourage you to do the same thing. If you Pinterest everything in your classroom, learn to tweak it.

When I mention ideas for writing, someone always says, “Yeah, I thought o’ that about five years ago.” And then I find someone else who thought of it eight years ago, and then I discover the creator of the idea did so about twenty, thirty, fifty years ago. All this to say: There are no new ideas, only new versions of old ideas. So, take what you find here. Cradle it in your hands as a nugget of gold. Then melt it down, and reform it until it becomes yours. Borrowing is just part of teaching. Do it and own it!

I wrote a cookbook.

I have a cookbook at home. It’s mine – written by me. It is brilliantly titled: Cooking with Doug. Every recipe in it starts with the word “Doug’s.” Doug’s Italian/American Spaghetti, Doug’s Chicken with Swiss Cheese, Doug’s Cabernet Beef Stew. I do this because when I find a recipe, I always change one ingredient or one direction. I change the cooking time or the oven temperature. I tweak the recipe and make it mine. Then, I name the recipe after me. It drives my wife crazy that I have the audacity to name something that is someone else’s after me. There is nothing new under the sun. Borrow, tweak, own it!


If my writing doesn’t inspire you to do something different in your classroom, throw it in the school compost pile and allow the worms to do their thing – turn it into what it really is! But if this inspires you to try something different when you teach writing, reading, or language arts, pass it on! The world needs good writers!

Yes, this chapter has little to do with God or guitars, but establishes the basis of most public education: borrowing.

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