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A Good Way to Start a Year

My favorite elementary writing lesson I ever taught was about breaking rules. At the time of the lesson, state 5th grade curriculum guides were heavily pushing structured 5-paragraph essays for expository prompts, complete with outline guides and rubrics that my students quickly memorized and adhered to. They knew to begin their essays with an introduction, presented with a catchy “grabber” like a question or a quote; to state their 3-point topic sentence by the end of their introduction; to support their topic sentence with three subsequent paragraphs filled with “good examples,” “meaty details” and transitions; and to finish their essay with a nice conclusion that neatly wrapped everything up. It wasn’t long before my kids were meeting those goals and following the rules, but the result? 5th Grade Robot Writers, just checking off all the boxes. Every single essay sounded the same: “Do you have a favorite vacation place? I do. I like going to Hawaii because the weather is beautiful, there are many exciting places to explore, and the food is delicious.” Sometimes, words like delicious would be crossed out, replaced with “ambrosial” or “delectable,” and that always made me smile—they were trying so hard to spice it up!—but for the most part, the writing rubrics and forced outlines were handcuffing my creative little writers to a boring formula that gave them few ways to shine their unique styles of writing.

So I wrote a similar essay and checked off all the boxes on the rubric. I slipped in a few 5-star vocabulary words, alternated sentence structure and grabbed my audience with an interesting question. Technically, it was an “A” paper. But it was still a robotic piece, perfectly organized to follow directions but lacking my personality, my edge, my humor, my exploration of style. I projected the essay on the wall and gave each student a copy of it. We read it together, graded it together and talked about all the things that made it good. I asked my students if there was anything interesting or funny or extra special about the essay other than the fact that it followed the rules. No one had anything to say. And then I ripped up the essay in front of them, telling them that who they are as writers and how they see the world is more important than adhering to all the rules.

“That was a really boring thing to write,” I admitted. “Who’s ready to climb out of the box and start making our essays fun and exciting and highlighting who we really are as unique writers?” My students were smiling. “Who wants to rip up this boring essay that follows all the rules but tells you nothing about who I am as a writer and how I see the world?” They smiled bigger. “Who wants to make a mess?! Go ahead. Rip up that essay in front of you. Rip it up and throw the pieces everywhere. I want to see the old writing style all over this classroom so we can make room for the new style. Go ahead. I brought my vacuum, I’ll clean it up later. ARE WE ROBOTS?”

“NOOOOO!” they shouted, shredding those papers with gusto and flinging the scraps toward the ceiling, at each other, all over the floor, laughing, breaking rules. After about 60 seconds of Student Writers Gone Wild, we settled back into our chairs among the shredded remains of 27 sheets of paper and wrote another essay, together. It wasn’t perfect, the organization needed to be tidied up and with the collection of shout-outs from so many different students, it wasn’t exactly a cohesive piece. But it had personality. It made you raise your eyebrow, chuckle, want to keep reading to see what that next sentence held.

I’m not sure administration would have approved a continuation of this method. I never found out as I quit at the end of that year and had my first baby a year later. But I needed to teach that lesson…for me.

I have this thing about sitting down to write—rules I’ve made up in my head like I have to have my office clean and I have to have my other work completed first and I have to have at least two hours set aside and a good idea of what I’m going to say. I have a lot of rules for other things too—who I think I need to be before I put something out into the world, what my house needs to look like before I invite people over, how old my kids need to be before I make time for a new hobby or goal.

With all these new resolutions and intentions, you might need to rip up some rules first. In fact, instead of resolutions, here are a few fun things to do this weekend if you’re not the Richard Simmons type, igniting your first goal at 12:01 A.M. 2016, with a zippy little high-kick in your neon leggings. Don’t worry. I’m a late New Year’s bloomer too. And I only made three of these because Calm Down, Richard, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

A Good Way to Start a Year

1. Rip up a rule5th grade style. Grab a sheet of paper, write the rule down in permanent marker and then rip that mofo up. Shred it. Throw the pieces all over the floor and leave them there a minute before you clean them up because STOP FOLLOWING ALL THE RULES. There’s something beautiful and intentional about the physical ritual of ripping something up. What’s your rule? That you have to have your house perfect before you host a dinner party? That you need to have a complete plan for your creative dream before you make that first step? That you have to be a certain weight before you go buy yourself a cute pair of jeans, dress up and look in the mirror to see a beautiful woman? R. I. P. Rip.

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2. Start saving quotesand display them. I’ve highlighted so many amazing quotes in books and created quote folders on my computer, but I can never find the one I want later and often forget the inspiration of a quote once it’s gone. When you see a quote that gets to you or read a passage that makes you come alive, write it down. Put it in a quote jar. Display a few of these quotes at a time–on your bathroom mirror, taped to your refrigerator, above your desk, and switch them out with other quotes in the jar from time to time. I keep a stack of Instagram prints (I print the ones with lots of negative space for room to write) in my desk, and write favorite quotes on them when I find them. There are always three of these taped above my desk and a stash ready to be switched out. A fun project to carry you through the year!

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3. Make a List. I love lists. Even if I never do anything on the list, there is such satisfying art in making the list itself. List making is a form of writing with NO RULES. This is your fun list for the year. Nothing huge and daunting goes on this list, just fun things you want to do or try this year. Like “Write a children’s book for my own kids and publish one copy of it with a nice cover (more on this later!).” Or “Invite 5 friends over on a Friday night for wine and cheese and journal writing.” Or “Make an Inspiration Board.” Or “Take a Cooking Class.” Keep the list where you can always see it. Next time you’re bored or fidgety or only have an hour before you have to pick up your kids and are trying to figure out what to do in that hour, pick up the list. Make a dent on one of those things. Set the date and send the e-mail for that Friday night journal writing so that you have to follow through.

Happy Friday. Let’s break some rules. Rip shit up. Make room for the best parts of who we are to shine through.


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  1. I have tons of sticky notes all over my computer and office w/ quotes that I love. My latest one was the one you posted last night on IG of the sun! It is already on my wall of quotes! They always have a way of jumping out at me just when I need it the most.

  2. I love the quotes idea! That lesson sounds brilliant!

    Jemima x

  3. This is perfect. Happy Friday to one of the coolest rule breakers I know.

  4. I have quotes written everywhere too: in notebooks, on receipts, scribbled on the top of bills, etc…

    Then I got smart. I now use Evernote (it’s free!) because it allows me to make a quote folder and then bookmark, take a screen shot, take a picture, etc… and save all of my wonderful, beautiful quotes to one glorious place.

  5. I love these ideas. They are easy to accomplish, fun and creative. I also love your story about teaching writing. You are a beautiful writer and you gave your students an invaluable gift. I am sure they will all remember that the rest of their lives.

  6. I am new to your blog but LOVED this article and the 3 fun things! It was relieving to know that I’m not the only one who “makes up rules in my head” before doing any project or task. THANK YOU!!!!

  7. Please make those photos above into greeting cards. I want to send them to three different friends. Seriously I think there is a website that allows you to upload I,ages and then people can print them on shirts or into cards or whatever…zazzle or something…seriously.
    Love them.

  8. Love 5th grade writing projects that break all the rules! I would love to know more about this writing project you did!

  9. Funny what you did with the 5th graders. I wonder if maybe it was a good thing it was your last year at that school 😉 What a powerful lesson for yourself to take with you.

    I am going to try to do your three “fun things,” and possibly get back to you about #1. I need some intentional time to think about what rules I need to rip up.

    For years, I have done #2 and this year I am taking it to the next level by starting a journal with my OWN quotes.

    This is my first:

    “To catch up with the present, you need to confront the past.”
    – Robin T. Galt

    As for #3, list lovers unite!!

  10. Happy for you … following your dreams, writing your heart out, and raising beautiful kids … sad for the teaching profession, who lost a teacher who so obviously gets it!

  11. This was such a great read and I couldn’t agree more with absolutely everything in it!!

  12. This is great! Thanks for the inspiration!

  13. As a sophomore English teacher, I feel the pain of such formulaic writing! Thanks for sharing some great resolutions that don’t fit the typical new year standard!

  14. Love the idea of leaving space on photo for writing in a favorite quote — I think I’m going to start doing that. Do you have an app that you use for printing up your IG photos? Curious how you print them. Do they print up in squares?

    I’m a list maker, too. And when I sit down to make a list, my stomach gets a tingly excited feeling, the same feeling I get when I have an hour to kill in a Hobby Lobby or a Michael’s or some craft store like that, without kids. I have a list for so many things: things I want to do with my kids before they turn 18, things I want to accomplish/decorate in our home, places I want to go, goals I have for the New Year….oh, and I have a list of things that I need my husband to fix around the house. Yeah, he doesn’t really like my affinity towards list making 😉

  15. Just what I needed to hear. Thank you VERY much! Here I go!

  16. I love the quotes – thank you for sharing. And maybe by doing this I will print more photos!

  17. Very inspiring :)

  18. Laura Sufka says:

    You will love the book I just picked up from my local library……..365 Days of Wonder, BY: R.J. Palacio. Same author who wrote Wonder (which you recommended and was Great!!)

    Exactly what I was looking for to start our day off in the right direction : )

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