Tag Archives: writing

SQUIDD: an origin story in 10 facts

FACT 1: When I was a kid and I needed help with my homework, I’d often ask my father who would sit next to me at the table and begin fumbling for paper and a pencil. I need a pencil, he’d say. I can’t think without a pencil.

It rubbed off. I like taking notes. I love taking notes. And doodling. My father can’t think without a pencil, but whenever I’m sitting down listening to someone talk at me, I can’t focus without doodling. I mix thinking and playing, notes and doodles. Sometimes the two coincide. Sometimes not.

Definitely more doodles than notes here. An artifact from my previous career.

FACT 2: At the beginning of the year I warn my English students with an adage I heard from Marilyn Elkins during the AP training course I took before teaching the class: AP English Language is just good readin’, writin’, and thinkin’.  I don’t transmit a lot of data, facts, and information to my students. It’s a skills-based writing class and what we do is write and read. And write about what we read and read as examples of how to write. We practice those skills all year long. 

FACT 3: About five years ago one of my former students stopped by to say hello and she was eager to tell me about her first college English paper she had to write. Her class had just finished a poetry unit and she had read about 100 poems. Her assignment? Write a 15-page paper on poetry. What was the prompt? I asked. Write a 15-page paper on poetry. There was no prompt. I had spent so much time giving students writing prompts, prepping them for a prompt-based test, but I hadn’t prepared them for this: no prompt.

FACT 4: Up to a couple years ago I’d get frustrated seeing my students simply sit and watch the front of the room during lectures or discussions. I’d see very few of them write anything down, and after reminding myself that they can’t all be doodlers like me, and that there’s not ONE vocab or factual question on the AP test I’m preparing them for, I knew I had to do something. Worksheets were not an option. 

FACT 5: Thoughts and ideas are elusive creatures.

FACT 6: The Aquatic Life of Steve Zissou. Bill Murray’s character, oceanographer Steve Zissou, travels everywhere with a rag-tag film crew documenting just about every move he makes as he searches for a creature he calls a jaguar shark that ate (“swallowed whole? Klaus asks. “No, chewed,” Zissou says) his partner.

“Klaus, why aren’t you rolling? Why aren’t you getting this?”

FACT 7: Probably over tacos, my friend David Theriault and I were picking each other’s brains, looking for ideas to improve our classes. He had his struggles. I had mine—I needed some way for students to keep track of their thinking, something beyond taking notes. Something simple. Something that would provide fodder for their writing now, and something that would serve their learning well into the future.

FACT 8: David Theriault LOVES acronyms (more precisely, he hates crappy acronyms. KWHLAQ gives him hives while something like SCUBA warms his soul), and so we cobbled together S.Q.U.I.D.D., a low-fi, extremely malleable, life-long learning tool. In a nutshell, after we read, listen to, or watch something in class I ask my students to put down some S.Q.U.I.D.D. ink, a quickwrite where they focus on one S.Q.U.I.D.D. element, either in composition notebooks, or on a 3×5 card. In just a few minutes all students have thought about and responded to the work in question and they’re ready for a discussion. Then on a regular basis I’ll have them do a deep dive where they expand on one or more of their S.Q.U.I.D.D. inks.

FACT 9: David and I do A LOT more with S.Q.U.I.D.D. (did I mention S.Q.U.I.D.D. is extremely malleable and easy to use in lots of ways?), but that will have to wait for another post or twelve.

FACT 10: The bare bones of S.Q.U.I.D.D.—

What Are You Doing About It?


After seeing the above sketch in her Twitter feed a couple months back, my good friend and teacher-neighbor across the field, Seena Rich, sent me this response:

While she did so gracefully, Seena was calling me out, challenging me, asking me to put my money where my mouth is.

What she wanted to know was: Ziebarth, I’ve been watching you tweet out all your little doodles about that book you read over the summer, so what?!? What are you doing about it?

Up to that point I hadn’t committed to doing anything about my reading other than tweet out the sketches of it. Probably because my head was spinning with ideas, but a book like English Composition as a Happening needs some time to settle, digest, sink in.

I’m grateful for friends and colleagues who push and challenge my thinking, my practice, who get a little antsy when I’m just tossing bread crumbs to the world. Seena’s tweet started me thinking … What have I learned? What is my big takeaway from Sirc’s book?


Respect for what my students have to say.

Respect for their voices.

Respect for my students as writers.

Respect for the journey my students are on as writers.

Respect for my students as human beings.


What’s curious is that I’ve been changing my composition course every year, bit by bit, as my students teach me every year that they deserve and are worthy of my respect.

What this respect looks like in my classroom (and the changes Sirc inspired) is ongoing, and like Deemer says, there is no blueprint. Happenings happen. Teachers must inspire their own. Regardless, I hope to explore mine here in the near future. Stay tuned.


Learning to be concrete and specific

Photo ©2010 Nayla [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

“Nine-tenths of all good writing consists of being concrete and specific. The other tenth doesn’t really matter.”
-Harry Shaw

It’s easy for us to be vague and general when we write. But that’s not how we experience the world. The world comes to us specifically: the red of a rose, the moaning of sirens, the squishiness of slugs, the snap, crunch and slippery saltiness of potato chips. But too often developing writers don’t linger on things long enough (or like my father teaches his fifth graders to do: hover), whether they describe an image in a sentence then they’re off to tell us about the next, or they’ve supported a claim with a vague reason or two, then they’re off to write that fourth out of five paragraphs. Either way they don’t hover to allow their readers to discover or experience it for themselves.

I repeat myself repeatedly in class and in feedback to students: be specific, use more details, more evidence. What I’m longing for is for students to clog their writing with more details, more images, more specifics. At least that way there will be more to choose from and work with and patterns will become more apparent.

I have ways and means to help students be more specific, but I’m rethinking them all because they don’t seem to be very effective. Rethinking, nothing. I’m ditching them altogether because I found something I’m hoping will work much better: Lynda Barry’s Six Minute Diary.

Let me show you what it looks like. This is one of my Six Minute Diary entries from a recent-ish visit to Hawaii:


This format fit my needs perfectly. It was the first time my kids had been to Hawaii and I wanted to capture the experience without spending my time writing a nightly novel, which is what our trip deserved. The trick is to spend two minutes jotting down what you did (or what happened) and another two minutes tracking what you saw (and/or heard as I did here). Then you spend 90 seconds drawing something from the day and a final 30 seconds transcribing something someone said.

Barry says “having to write it down makes us begin to notice when we notice something. We remind ourselves to ‘save’ it for the diary.” It also helps us hone in on the specific. Because we’re going to have to draw something we focus on what we actually see, and our ears are tuned in to the specific because we’re going to transcribe verbatim what we hear.

Then we get closer to how Barry describes the best way to write, “Let the image pull you. You should be water-skiing behind it, not dragging it like a barge. Writing should take you for a ride.” That’s how I recognize good student writing, when I feel like the writer is taking me for a ride. And I know a writer needs more support from me when I feel as if their writing is dragging me along their sentences from a barge, or worse, from a horse along the raw desert floor.

So whether you’re a student in my class, or just someone who’s hoping to capture your world with a tighter net, try out the Six Minute Diary for a couple weeks and see how it focuses your eye and tunes your ears and pulls them closer together with your hands and fingers as you write.

Watch the video below and be timed by the master herself, Lynda Barry.

Zero Drafting: Falling in love again with a simple pleasure, timed writing.

Zero Drafting. I stole the term from a young adult author. I’ll have to go track her down after I’m finished writing. See that’s the point with zero drafting, the first rule: don’t stop writing. One of my college writing teachers, Darrell Spencer, taught me the method. We had to write three pages a day for his class and zero drafting was the most effective way to hit that mark. I can still hear Darrell say, in his small, hesitant voice: “kill the editor.”

That’s the second rule in zero drafting. Kill the editor. Don’t get in the way of yourself. Don’t erase, don’t cross out, don’t fix spelling, don’t stop pushing your pen forward. Zero drafting is pure writing. Revisions and edits can wait. Right now, just write.

Before the practice got branded, Natalie Goldberg referred to it simply as a timed exercise. Peter Elbow calls it freewriting and that was in vogue for a while until it was co-opted by quick writes, loaded with required topics and questions aligned with curriculum.

You hear a refrain sung by many writing teachers, in high school especially, that goes like this: our students don’t write enough. Our students need to write more than we can grade. And then guess what we do? Not write. We fret about assessing student writing or giving feedback on student writing and we ask colleagues for advice, go to workshops and conferences looking for advice. Nothing but a bunch of not writing. No one has ever learned to write by not writing.

I’ll be honest. I’ve been hot and cold with zero drafting. I once went an entire year without using it in class. My students still wrote, but we could’ve and should’ve written more. Never again, as long as I’m a writing teacher, will I deprive my students of this simple exercise.

Here’s how I do it…

…and what my students think about it (I’ll detail the benefits and outcomes later in this post):

Use a spiral or composition notebook. The cheaper the better. If it’s too fancy they’ll want to be careful what they write. Zero drafting doesn’t do careful.

Same goes for the writing instrument. I prefer the trusty Bic blue

Photo ©2008 Wikimedia Commons user Trounce. Licensed under CC-BY-SA

Use a prompt. You can get these from anywhere. I love writingprompts.tumblr.com I’m amazed at the prompts he cranks out. I try to put a week’s worth of prompts together in one sitting, but I’m always open to last minute inspiration. Prompts are great because no one can just sit there wondering what to write about.

The prompt is optional. That’s right. Don’t force them to use the prompt. It’s only there to get students started. But plenty of students don’t need prompting; they have lots of things they want to write about. I tell my students they can write journal entries, letters to friends, short stories, poems, novels, rants, reviews, wish lists, bucket lists, to-do lists. And if they run out of things to write I tell them to write their name over and over again until they think of something to write, or write about the last meal they ate. This is rarely necessary because a good prompt usually does the trick.

The prompt is mandatory (I love exceptions to rules). Sometimes. Make it mandatory sparingly. You’ll assign a prompt at the beginning of a unit, or at the beginning of a debate perhaps.

I really wish we had more than 8 minutes to write, though. sometimes I want to continue that zero draft the next day or something, but by that time I’m not able to remember what I wanted to write anymore. —Karen

Time the prompt. I usually go for eight minutes. But it’s good to throw in longer sessions occasionally. I wouldn’t do it for less than five minutes though. You’re barely getting to the good stuff at that point. Once the timer goes off I’m usually still finishing my last thought or two. Let students do the same.

You heard that right. I write with my students. Write with your students. No excuses. Just do it.

Picture 8
“Blindfold,” © 2006 Dr Case, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial license.

Don’t read their zero drafts. Not ever. Never. No! As soon as another set of eyes are on it, it’s no longer zero drafting. Students have to feel free to write whatever they please without anyone reading their work. It’s not ready yet. And please, whatever you do, don’t try to assign zero drafting some kind of grade. I think I just threw up in my mouth a little at the thought of this impulse.

The best part about zero drafting is that no one else will read it. I don’t have to worry about what others think or if what I’m writing makes sense, I can just write whatever I think. —Katherine


On your marks, get set, go! I think humans are natural procrastinators. To delay is probably the marquee problem for writers. Beginners especially. Writers are among the most skilled procrastinators. One of the biggest obstacles to writing is getting started. The blank page haunts us. But as soon as we throw down some ink on that page, the hard part is over, and it’s hard to stop.

Inspire more writing, collect more fodder. After my first zero drafting session this year I heard a student say, “I have so much more to write,” and another said, “I could go on and on.” I’m thrilled they walk out of my class feeling like they want to keep writing. And when a longer piece is assigned they’ll have a lot of writing and ideas to mine. Zero drafting kills writer’s block dead.

I don’t like that some of them are only 8 minutes! Sometimes I have so much more that I want to say and talk about! — Ashley

Force students away from the screen. Ray Bradbury imagined our addiction to and dependence on screens decades ago. It goes without saying, computers are essential tools. But they’re also great distractors. Hundreds of apps, sites, programs, tweets, and texts draw our attention elsewhere, but zero drafting cuts through the noise and keeps our nose to the page. Sure, you could probably type faster than you can write, but the physical act of gripping a pen and running it over paper has a power all its own. Sometimes the best tech is low tech.

Give students choice and voice. My summer reading really hammered home the importance of allowing students ownership of their learning. Thomas and Brown assert that “students learn best when they are able to follow their passion.” Yong Zhao says that giving students choice rather than prescribing their learning “helps preserve creativity, another quality of entrepreneurs.” Zero drafting is an easy, risk-free gateway strategy for teachers who are hesitant to turn the learning over to their students.

It’s amazing to have a non intimidating school activity where we have so much power to choose what we want to do. —Katherine, again

Practice filling the blank page. An underrated skill. If you can demolish that blank page in front of you when faced with an essay test, research paper, business report, client pitch, or letter to your local member of congress the heavy lifting seems bearable.

I’m just too tired at the end of my day to do so this activity allows me to write for a little on a daily basis. —Tiffany

Discovery. Even though the quotation comes from one of his fictional characters and not E.M. Forester himself, this line still rings true: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” It’s not in any standardized standard, but learning about yourself is as worthy an outcome as I’ve ever encountered.

I also think zero drafting helps you realize things you haven’t realized before, like how much you might love a sandwich. —Calvin

It’s really making me realize all of the ideas I have about certain issues before my brain gets the chance to dismiss them for being too ‘silly’ or not well-phrased enough. I think it’s an excellent technique to help us see where our actual priorities and interests lie. —Alexis

It adds up. Students average about one page every eight minutes. They start wrapping their brains around how long writing takes and they realize it doesn’t take much. A student who decides to double their zero drafting time at home could crank out one hundred pages in little over a month. That’s a first draft of a novel.

Zero drafting allows my thoughts to consistently flow without pauses. I think that’s a lot of writing for only 8 minutes; if you think about it, you can accomplish about 10 pages of writing in 80 minutes. —Nam

Writers write. Obvious? Yes. But one of the key outcomes of part zero drafting is that students start to think of themselves as writers.

I don’t really like writing but zero drafting makes me feel free and that i can write whatever i want to without restrictions. —Christina

Editors, Deadlines and Networking: Why Student Newspapers Matter

Talk about a blast from the past.  Audrey Smilley, a band whose music I reviewed early in my college career, contacted me out of the blue last week about an upcoming reunion show. They just completed a modest Kickstarter campaign to fund the digitization and remastering of their original recordings. Hoping to get a bit of press about their reunion show, the band contacted the paper I used to write for, Student Review, who in turn contacted me for my perspective some 22 years later.

Reviewing my review, my perspective is this: I’ve come a long way as a writer. That’s to be expected. Writing for the Student Review was the first time I’d ever written for a real audience. Or at least a wider audience. Teachers, friends, girlfriends had all read my essays, letters and notes, but the Student Review published me first. (They’ve published many better writers. Trust me, I’m nothing special.)

It’s much easier to have your work widely read and viewed these days through blogging and social media, but having your work combed over by an editor ups your game exponentially. Sure people may read your work on a blog, but they’ll consume it quickly and may not even read the whole piece. Very few of those readers will comment on the quality of your work, offer suggestions for improvement, push you to write better, more effectively.

That is why if a student wants to write, or just wants to improve their writing, they should join up with their campus newspaper pronto, post haste. Working with editors and deadlines are crucial components to a writing education.

Writing for a school newspaper also provides ample opportunities for networking. You’ll meet and work with a wide variety of people on campus and in the community. My career in the radio, then record business, correlated directly to my experience with the Student Review.

It should be obvious why and how much I love my job: teaching writing and journalism to high school students. I didn’t get involved with my school paper until college, so I missed out on a few key years of writing instruction and a chance to rub shoulders with people I probably should have rubbed shoulders with.

A couple side notes:

The first tip I’d give to my younger self: use stronger verbs. It’s not until paragraphs two and three that I use verbs like yield and surface, which aren’t even all that strong. And the title is begging for a verb that would actually draw people into the review. “Audrey Smilley Reviewed”? Yeah, so what?

The first tip I’d give the band: don’t send half your members to another state to promote your music. Stuff everyone in a van and hit the road.

Yes, I reviewed a cassette tape. This was 1991 folks.