The Hochman Program

Posted: November 26, 2012

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The October issue of The Atlantic ran some feature articles on “what’s working” in American schools. One, “The Writing Revolution,” is about a school-wide writing program that was developed at a small private school in White Plains, New York, and implemented at a failing school in Staten Island, with great results. It raises some important questions. When did “literacy” come to mean, strictly, “the ability to read”? And when did we start confining writing instruction to Language Arts? The Hochman Program sounds like a writing teacher’s dream: “Every instructional hour except for math class is dedicated to teaching essay writing along with a particular subject.”


Upcoming Essay Contests

Posted: November 19, 2012

The following national essay contests are coming up. Feeling inspired? Maybe not? Either way I’m here to help, if you need it.

the face of political courage

Courage when it matters

1. Sponsored by the JFK Presidential Library and Museum, the prestigious Profiles in Courage Essay Contest invites United States high school students “to consider the concept of political courage by writing an essay on a U.S. elected official who has chosen to do what is right, rather than what is expedient.”
Due Date: January 7, 2013
Award: $10,000 scholarship

2. The National Right to Life Pro-Life Essay Contest is right around the corner.
Essay Topic: Why I Am Pro-Life.
Due Date:  January 18, 2013
First place: $200

3. Sponsored by the United States Institute of Peace, the National Peace Essay Contest “promotes serious discussion among high school students, teachers, and national leaders about international peace and conflict resolution today and in the future.”
Essay Topic: “What does it mean to have a gendered approach to war and peace issues?” (Psst! There is a study guide available for this one at their website.)
Due Date: February 1, 2013
Award: State winners will receive scholarships and will come to Washington for an educational awards program.

4. This national essay contest for high schoolers, sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists, would be a good one to submit to if you plan on majoring in journalism!
Essay Topic: “Why is it important that we have news media that are independent of the government?”
Due Date: March 7, 2013
First Place Award: $1,000 scholarship

I am teaching my students about narrative structure in my seventh grade Language Arts class, and they have begun writing short stories of their own. This week, I invited them to share the beginnings of their stories. Two of them could not wait to read theirs aloud, and I should have known why: Their obsession with The Hunger Games has been clear since day one, and they co-wrote a story in which Katniss Everdeen is the protagonist.

“Nooooooooo!” I thought. “Why didn’t I make a rule? I should have said: No fan fiction!”

It seemed like cheating, albeit unintentional. I was tempted to ask these girls, and any other student who had written fan fiction, to start over and use their imaginations this time to come up with something original. But as the girls began reading their story, all I could think was, “Wow. This is really good.”

Fan Fiction

Illustration by Kagan McLeod, “Watson is a Woman” | My Dear Miss Watson by bravehearttegan | Sherlock Holmes’s famed sidekick Watson is reimagined as a woman who struggles to be taken seriously by other investigators.

I think I’ve come around. If you think about it, it is very difficult to create — out of thin air — everything that is needed for a story: a compelling character, a world in which that character lives (setting), and the plot (what happens).  The beauty of fan fiction in a creative writing class is that it gives students a familiar character and setting to work with. Those are givens. They can then focus on plot, which is quite helpful when the whole point of the exercise is to implement what one has learned about narrative writing, and to write a story that has a clear beginning, middle and end. In fact, next year, if I teach this class again, I may actually recommend that students write fan fiction. I think that by doing so my two Katniss-obsessed students were able to focus more on the plot and the details that would help their characters and setting come alive.

The more I think about it, the more accepting I am of the fad. Was Homer, our first poet, cheating when he composed The Iliad and The Odyssey? Most scholars agree that the story of Helen and the Trojan War had been around for a long time before Homer created the rivalry between Achilleus and Agamemnon, and the tale of Odysseus’ subsequent journey home to Ithaca. We don’t know for sure that they were even written by the same person. It is possible that The Iliad was “fan fiction” based on an oral tradition and that The Odyssey was “fan fiction” based on The Iliad!

Not to mention, as the Wall Street Journal article “The Weird World of Fan Fiction” reports: “Several publishing stars got their start in the genre [of fan fiction]. Meg Cabot, the best-selling author of the ‘Princess Diaries’ series, started writing ‘Star Wars’ fan fiction when she was 11 years old. Young-adult fantasy author Cassandra Clare, whose books about teenage demon hunters have sold 12 million copies, wrote Harry Potter and ‘Lord of the Rings’ fan fiction before she broke into professional publishing. Novelist Naomi Novik, who writes a best-selling fantasy series about dragons that’s set during the Napoleonic Wars, started writing ‘Star Trek’ fan fiction when she was a college student at Brown in the 1990s.”

Who knows? Maybe my students’ fanaticism for The Hunger Games could be a stepping stone. They could be the publishing darlings of 2027! So, ladies, “cheat” away!


I have a new article up today: “Why Your Kid Can’t Write.” It includes a few thoughts and theories on our current state of affairs and what you (or I) can do about it. I hope you find it helpful…and hopeful!


And we’re back.

Posted: October 17, 2012

Ms. Scribbles’ Workshop is back in full swing for the 2012-2013 school year. I am off to a late start this year, because in August, I started teaching two classes at a Catholic hybrid school.

“What’s that?” my friends ask.

“A school for homeschoolers,” I say.

It has been a blast so far! I have been brushing up on my Homer for Ancient Greek literature and revisiting some fairly detailed grammar concepts, the likes of which I haven’t seen since grade school. Maybe for normal people that sounds like a nightmare, but it makes me go like this:

M.C. Hammer loves grammar

Ms. Scribbles’ Workshop is still open five days a week. I’ll be trying my best to maintain this blog. Hope to see you again soon!

Summer blogging break

Posted: June 11, 2012

Ms. Scribbles’ Workshop runs year round and is currently accepting new enrollments. The blog will be in remission until autumn, however. When she is not taking long walks in blond fields with her parasol, Ms. Scribbles will be tackling a few writing projects of her own. Have a fair and fruitful summer!

photo credit: Atelier blog

"...The green will never again be so green, so purely and lushly new, grass lifting its wheaty seedheads into the wind..."

Writer Knows Best

Posted: May 15, 2012

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One of my students is writing a short story. It involves a motley crew of people who escape from a town taken over by zombies. It is really, really good (if I don’t say so myself). Anyway, they have been riding away from the city in a Humvee, headed toward a house in the country which one of them remembers from sometime in the past (and which may or may not still be there), and they have been in this Humvee, riding, for several chapters. I was beginning to wonder if they would ever arrive at the house. Not that it wasn’t exciting! It was. Some interesting developments have taken place en route, but still, I was getting anxious.

I wrote to the student (age 11) and said, “Russ, how much longer are they going to be in the Humvee? Shouldn’t they be arriving soon? We have to move this story forward.”

He responded, “I haven’t put much thought into how many more chapters of the story they will spend in the Humvee… And currently, I’m still not sure… Basically, they’ll get there, when they get there.”

I’ve worked with Russ for almost three years now. It’s pretty great to see your students start to take ownership of their work, to the point where they can (respectfully but assertively) tell you to back off! There was only one response for Russ: “Well then, Russ, proceed!”

David Brooks at The New York Times wrote an article last week called “The Campus Tsunami,” about a coming move toward online learning in higher education.

He writes: “Research into online learning suggests that it is roughly as effective as classroom learning. It’s easier to tailor a learning experience to an individual student’s pace and preferences.”

I second that!

Everyone always talks about what makes for good writing. Well, I gave a 20-minute workshop at CHS last weekend on “How to Destroy a Piece of Classic Literature in 20 minutes or Less.” We took the opening passage from Willa Cather’s “O Pioneers!” and rewrote it in the worst way possible. This is what we learned about bad writing:

– Don’t use creative figurative language like personification.
– Don’t be specific when you describe things. If there are buildings in the town you are describing, don’t say what they are. Better yet, don’t mention them!
– If the story takes place in a certain era and in a certain place, don’t say specifically when or where.
– Leave out as many details as possible.
– Use boring verbs and only the most basic diction.
– Write like you talk, i.e. “some random guys.”
– Don’t use interesting details about the physical world to convey information (“There would not be another train until night.”). Just tell the reader the information.

Willa Cather used some awesome verbs in her passage, like anchored, curling, eddying, straying, huddled, straggled, flashed, and shivered.


“One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away. A mist of fine snowflakes was curling and eddying about the cluster of low drab buildings huddled on the gray prairie, under a gray sky. The dwelling houses were set about haphazard on the tough prairie sod; some of them looked as if they had been moved in overnight, and others as if they were straying off by themselves, headed straight from the open plain. None of them had any appearance of permanence, and the howling wind blew under them as well as over them. The main street was a deeply rutted road, now frozen hard, which ran from the squat red railway station and the grain elevator at the north end of the town to the lumberyard and the horse pond at the south end. On either side of this road straggled two uneven rows of wooden buildings: the general merchandise stores, the two banks, the drugstore, the feed store, the saloon, the post office. The board sidewalks were gray with trampled snow, but at two o’clock in the afternoon the shopkeepers, having come back from dinner, were keeping well behind their frosty windows. The children were all in school, and there was nobody abroad in the streets but a few rough-looking country men in coarse overcoats, with their long caps pulled down to their noses. Some of them had brought there wives to town, and now and then a red or a plaid shawl flashed out of one store into the shelter of another. At the hitch bars along the street a few heavy workhorses, harnessed to the farm wagons, shivered under their blankets. About the station everything was quiet, for there would not be another train until night.”

We, on the other hand, used two was’s and five were’s!


The wind was blowing through the town. The snow was falling on the houses. There were some houses. The dull houses were falling apart. There was a road that went through the town. People were in their houses. The kids were in school. Some random guys were in the street. Ladies were shopping. Cold horses stood in the street. No visitors came often.

Pretty bad, eh? We gave ourselves a round of applause. Thanks to all who participated!

One final note on the Catholic Homeschoolers of Georgia conference, which I had the honor of attending yesterday: On my website, I say that in the workshop, “teaching points arise organically.” Here is one good example of what that means.

Now I should have know that when I picked three kinds of magnetic poetry to bring to the conference — the haiku edition, the genius edition, and the zombie edition — it could make for some pretty crazy poems! Exhibit A:

Zombie poem written by a group of five very cool siblings

the vicious undead zombie
destroys the mindlessly wild world
an obtuse dandelion mushrooms grotesquely
she cried in mellifluous blood zeal

(I decided to replace “blood” with zeal to make it a little less scary!)

A group of five delightful siblings convened around my table, and we had a blast working on this poem together. We were trying out all kinds of combinations, when one of the children, Tom, put together the combination “mindlessly wild world” and said it aloud. All six of our faces lit up, and we all smiled and said, “Yeah!” So, there was the teaching point.

I asked them what they thought it was about that combination that made everyone react the same way, what it was in the language that we were all responding to. I pointed out the music in the words: the internal rhyme of long i’s in “mind” and “wild,” the alliteration with the w’s in “wild world,” and the consonance of the “ld” endings in “wild world,” not to mention the l’s and d’s in “mindlessly.”

THAT, I said, is poetry, and look: It came naturally once they started working with the words.

In a typical writing class, students might study the concepts first, reading famous poems that demonstrate them, and then attempt to apply the concepts by writing verse. There’s nothing wrong with that. It is one way to learn. But in a workshop, these things often happen naturally, and when you discover what it is that you did that made your writing “work” or “click,” there is something extremely satisfying about that.

Well done, Tom!