Can you help Hillary with writing hurdle?

Your chance

to share

I devote this page to your thoughts. Thank you for sharing your stories, tips, websites, plans and photos. I love to hear about how you and your students make learning personal, rigorous, and fun. When you email me, let me know if I can share your name.

Email me: Click here for Karen's email address


Hillary teaches in middle school. She writes about assigning a research paper in her health class, which is a special-area class. It didn’t go the way she planned so now she’s left wondering. She writes Mike, a high-school teacher, who presented a workshop on research writing after the project she assigned. The following is their email exchange, where they address Hillary’s concerns. We need your input, too. Send your ideas to I will post your suggestions or stories here in the Collaboration Corner.

Hello there, Mike! I wanted to share.

Today I received an answer from a little shy kid in the back of the room. I was inquiring why this research paper I’d assigned was so hard. I gave my students three sources, gave them a very detailed rubric, and gave them time in class and in the computer labs with my help available. After hearing answers like I don’t have a computer, I couldn’t find information, or I didn’t know how to write it, I began to feel discouraged. Is this not what we teach our children? To write, read, and explore the technology we so highly praise? How could they “not know?”

Then, this little scrawny guy in the back spoke up with a quivering voice… “Uh…Ms Helms…we don’t know how to write this because we have NEVER, EVER, NEVER written a paper like this… and that’s why I didn’t write mine.”

So, here I stood, pelting them with questions and criticism and causing countless bruises to their minds and hearts and all for an unrealistic reason. I thought for sure they had completed a paper before, and if not, I gave them a rubric. But, the students didn’t see that rubric as “help,” just directions. And, they do not see the teacher sitting quietly at her desk as a helper or a resource. And, they definitely do not see themselves as writers. What a waste of my students’ time. All along I wondered why, and even emailed teachers and asked for help. And yet this little shy guy, who hardly talks at all, explained it all. “They had NEVER.”

As a result here is my question…. Do I become the English teacher inside the health class or do I quit on the assignment and find something else that does not require writing research? Shouldn’t we all be preparing them for this “research” they are supposed to know how to do by the time they leave high school?

I feel I have so many ideas, but none of them are something I feel I can achieve. The PE teachers told me today they would incorporate a paper so that during the same time, our language arts teachers can work on research papers; health on eating disorders, and PE on soccer, basketball, or volleyball. If we completed this, we could use our content to help teach English.

How will we get there if not together? How will we understand that we can only achieve if our powers are joined? Yes, even a health teacher joining with a language arts teacher from a high school in the tiny town of Mount Pleasant - what will help??



I LOVE how passionate you are! That inspires me, and I love to see and hear and work with people who share my same passions in the profession we chose. Listening to you yesterday in the meeting did something for me. I came to school today reignited and happy knowing that other teachers are out there sharing the same kind of thoughts and ideas I have. It seemed you don't want to buy into the status quo and you took the job to make a difference - and that is amazing. Truly appreciated.

I think that as long as you 'sell it' in how the PE teachers, etc. can benefit and show their students learn just as much, or at the very least, have their students' learning "enhanced" by the research process, it can be done. I know it's a tough sell...hard to break the mold that so many have adopted over time.

I don't think that you have to necessarily teach the language arts part in your classes, but assist when you are the only teaching resource the kids have while they are in your class. And, if you are working with another teacher, have them share in the creation of how each teacher will play their role. Also, create a dual rubric - something that is part language arts and part health. Keep in communication with the other teachers on what you're seeing they need to focus on with relation to language arts, and have them keep in contact with you regarding health-related questions.

I am more than happy to help in any way possible! I loved your email and appreciate your sharing. I look very forward to working with you more!


So, what ideas do you have for integrating writing into content classes and collaborating that will help Hillary and others? Send them to me at and I will post your suggestions.

Gayla's kindergarten update - 'Love them!'

Leslie's growing pains

Common questions about daybooks

Turning lame-o into authentic

Inspired to share

Gayla read about daybooks on this site and decided to try them with her kindergartners She wrote me a couple weeks ago (see Gayla's first letter, below). I'm posting Gayla's updates as promised. – Karen update...We have been using our daybooks (we call them thinking books) in kindergarten for 2 weeks now. LOVE THEM! and the students do too. We write and/or glue everything in them all day long...reading, science, math, centers...everything! They even take them home every night...because thinking continues at home, doesn't it?!
I can hardly wait to show them how to use this incredible resource for writing.
We purchased five books for each child, which we will number. At kinder-graduation, we are thinking about presenting their books, wrapped with a ribbon. What a treasure to keep.
Who would have even thought about this for kindergarten (except our friend, Karen)? Thank you, Karen. You have opened the door to an exciting place of adventure for us (sort of like the wardrobe in "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe)" ...and that's NO exaggeration.


I think you will agree that Gayla and her students have already got the hang of it! Please share your story, too! – Karen

I just wanted to update you on the journey my daybook has taken me. First of all, my husband and I were eating dinner at Outback, about a month ago, and I brought my daybook along for him to read something I had recently written. I knew he would laugh, because it was about something that had happened on a previous "date." He was laughing so hard, when the waiter came over and asked if he was reading his journal. My husband replied that it was not a journal, but a daybook. When the waiter inquired, "What is a daybook?" my husband just slid over and made a space for him to sit with us. 

I briefly talked with him and he said he hated to write. As a matter of fact, he was a third year math and science major at UNC Charlotte and had stayed as far away from writing as possible. He got so excited and brought his manager over to hear about it. They both said they were going to get daybooks and brought brochures and other items for me to add to my book. When I told them I would be writing about them in my daybook, they made me promise to come back and let them read it and they would show theirs to me. The waiter said he couldn't wait to get off, purchase his book, and that the first thing he was going to write was his "bucket list."

This is just one time the daybook has been a conversation starter. So many people have started daybooks with their children, their parents, etc. I have been invited by a teacher of behavior emotionally disturbed students in our school to come in and get her students started on theirs. Another teacher and I are starting a Daybook Club after school for students and teachers to come and share ideas and to write.

Thanks so much for inspiring me and being such a great motivator. It just goes to show that you CAN teach an old dog new tricks. You see, it wasn't just a workshop or session. This old dog will have something that will be special for my family and me for the rest of my life.

– Angie Currin

An inspiring middle-school teacher who, as you can see, is still learning even though she retires this year, shares this story. – Karen

OK, so I've been very excited about something for the past few days and just desperately wanting to share it with someone! I'm taking science methods as one of my requirements for my masters, right?

This week, we had a guest speaker in to talk about Problem-Based Learning, which I had heard *of* but never really heard *about*. The idea seems to be that you give the kids a big messy problem and just enough information to get started, and then coach them through coming up with detailed, appropriate solutions.

Now, obviously this is brilliant in science especially - I'm already planning a PBL for my weather unit along the lines of "a major hurricane *appears* to be headed this way - you're the adviser to the mayor of Wilmington; what do you tell him/her to do?"

But it also hit me the other night... seventh grade writing test! One of the forms of writing students are "supposed" to learn in seventh grade is problem/solution. In parent conferences I've heard four different ELA teachers explain over and over that this is brand-new territory for the kids, so they all struggle with it.

And now my brain does the synthesis thing and goes. “What if I taught problem/solution writing through SCIENCE-based PBL units?” What if I took them through the exciting process of finding a viable solution to a GENUINE science problem (like hurricane evacuation) and then as a completely natural continuation of that process taught them to write their solution in such a way that it would satisfy the guidelines for the writing test?

Especially since we have the science writing "task" now AND I get to pick the prompt for my students. Can you tell from all the capital letters how excited I am about this? I've been struggling the last two years with lame-o writing prompts because I didn't have the time or the expertise to teach research skills... but if I'm doing a PBL anyway we have to research... and if I choose a really good topic the kids will actually be interested... call me wildly optimistic but I can see this going really well!

– Megan York

There's never enough time to teach everything, is there? This teacher shares her discovery on how to breath authenticity into " lame-o writing prompts" while teaching science.– Karen

Gayla, a new visitor to LikeToWrite, shares familiar questions about the many possible uses for daybooks. Here is our e-mail conversation. I welcome your questions, as well. – Karen

Gayla writes:

I have just found your sites, and I love them! Being a keeper of a daybook for many years (I didn't realize that is what it was), I am intrigued by the idea of children having one. Questions. How does a daybook differ from a journal? Do children just have one or both or even others for other subjects? I'm just wondering.

Gayla, in Texas


My response:

Hi Gayla,

I’m assuming you read Even so daybooks are confusing. The National Writing Project embraced Don Murray who called his notebook a daybook because he said, “Everything I write in a day goes in my book.” Daybooks are different in my mind though than journals.

I keep everything along with my students in the daybook - all content areas. However, middle school and high school kids keep one notebook per class in the schools I've worked in. If a team works well together, the students take the notebooks with them from class to class, even PE - just to write a teeny, tiny bit of reflection (like what is the most important thing you learned today?) It's a great place to start when the students meet that teacher again.

It's also not a place to keep diary entries. If you have a daybook you have a project of some kind. Everything you need to be better at that project goes in the daybooks. In school, it's obvious: learning to be a better writer or reader or thinker. I have adults who keep wine daybooks and sports daybooks and family-story daybooks. You write just a few minutes when you can grab the time, and collect things that help you learn your subject better. Then, when you have more time, you synthesize what you've written and collected into learning for you.

Does that make sense? It's hard to explain but we've made great progress with K-college students who use them. I’m amazed at how the students love them and so we wanted to let people know. Our book, Thinking Out Loud on Paper, is available through Heinemann.

Wish we could meet for coffee and talk.




Gayla replies:

Your work has got my brain a-churning! We finished school last Friday, but I am packing/reorganizing my room AND I am reading your sites!!!!! Maybe it is just the catalyst I've needed to gear up for next year. I printed and read a lot of your site, and I'm thinking I have a better understanding of daybooks now. I'm thinking of how my students and I can personalize and grow with this. Like I said, my mind is thinking of all sorts of possibilities and I'm loving it! I think it will put more responsibility on the students and have less busy work for them and ME!

Gayla, in Texas

I'm posting Leslie's letter to her staff in Collaboration Corner. Leslie, Director of Curriculum and Instruction, shares her vulnerability in this summer letter to her teachers. She says, "I'm not writing the way I want to. I'm going to set personal goals." She puts herself in the position of a co-learner with her colleagues. This IS at the core of the new taxonomy - asking students to set personal goals and go public with them, encouraging them to name a place for growth. Her letter is a powerful sample of modeling for her community, which her teachers will feel comfortable using as well. In this environment, the students will follow suit. – Karen

I will tell you that a few weeks ago I found a journal of mine from ten years ago. As I read through it, parts of it made me laugh, smile, cry and marvel at what a different person I am now from then. I use to journal all the time and over the years as I have become a mommy and gotten busy with school I have not done a very good job of keeping up with that part of myself.

So...I have set a personal goal for myself to tap back into the writer that I use to be. Reading that journal made me realize the importance of documenting my feelings, thoughts, and ideas about myself at that point in my life. Now more than ever it is important for me to write because I have two perfect topics (my son and daughter) to write about. I will someday want to share with them things we did together and memories we made when they were babies.

I am going to share my personal goal with you: working on my technological skills (which are horrible) along with my writing! I am going to start a blog about my kiddos and the things we do together...a type of electronic journal!

I will keep you posted on my progress. I encourage all of you to think about a personal goal for yourself this year. It doesn't have to be writing, but do keep in mind that your students love it when you write with them and share your writings with them.

I also encourage you to really think about those struggling readers and writers in your classroom and what can you do to hook them in this year. As I have observed my own two-year old over the past few months, it is interesting to see what books he chooses for me to read to him. He definitely has a love of non-fiction truck books and avoids fantasy books right now. Think about these things with your students and what you can do to deepen their love of reading and writing.

I am excited about the year ahead of us!  I look forward to helping each and everyone of you with your goal(s) this year.  I have already started my blog, and can’t wait to see how it unfolds into the story of my life with my two wonderful children! 

– Leslie Tomko

Copyright 2018 by Karen Haag


A resource for people passionate about helping students write well, compiled by Karen Haag

 Home  About Karen Haag liketoreadteaser