An Interview with Deb and Jim Delisle: Building Strong Writers in Middle School

Aug 1, 2011 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1) Jim, you and Deb have just written a book on Building Strong Writers–what brought this about?

Throughout our careers in education, we have noticed that many middle school students are less than enchanted with the topics and formats of their writing assignments. In compiling “Building strong writers”, we wanted to share some writing activities that the majority of our students have really enjoyed completing. Many of the activities ask students to do what middle school kids do naturally: focus on themselves, their friends, their family and their hopes and dreams for the future. Each of the 24 writing assignments combines innovative activities while paying attention to national content standards. It’s a good combination, we believe! The book is also a great tool for teachers who wish to expand have their own repertoire of lessons.

2) It seems that schools are over-focused on multiple choice tests and AYP–how do we get them to re-focus on writing?

We believe that a well-designed writing assignment can meet multiple goals simultaneously–that is, allowing students to express themselves creatively while maintaining a focus on writing skills that are essential for teachers to address. There is no reason for teachers to use low-level, monotonous activities that garner little student interest when they can use some well-planned and focused alternatives. We believe that the activities in “Building strong writers” help to bridge the gap between what students want to express and teachers need them to learn. Additionally, as new assessments are developed and implemented, they are overwhelmingly moving away from multiple choice formats and requiring students write short and extended responses. For example, students are asked to rationalize an answer in math, analyze historical facts, and predict what may happen as a result of a character’s action in a reading passage. Our book builds upon students’ needs to play with language and have opportunities to express themselves prior to being assessed.

3) How does your book inspire creativity?

Whenever students are encouraged to produce a piece of writing that never before existed, creative responses are possible. In “Building strong writers” we have made a deliberate attempt to design activities that allow students to express themselves and their ideas in ways that have no right or wrong answers. For example, in the activity titled “The ABCs of Journaling”, students respond in a 26-sentence essay (each sentence begins with a different alphabet letter) to prompts such as “Describe a masterpiece you will create someday”, “Whose hero are you?” or “What is the most important lesson you have ever learned from a fictional character?” In our “Nanofiction” activity, students create a short (…and we do mean short) story with a beginning, middle and end, even though it contains a total of only 55, well-chosen words. Many of the creative responses that our students produced in completing these and other activities were stunning in their originality and depth. Truly stunning.

4) Why is it important for middle school kids to write?

Generally, students are not drawn to writing- they don’t feel it to be a natural act; sometimes it is a painful chore that people undertake only when they are required to do so. In designing the activities in “Building strong writers” we were very conscious of creating lessons that would appeal to middle school students who are attracted naturally to writing, as well as to those who are averse to producing the written word. Thus, in addition to the more traditional format used in writing–an essay–we also include poetic expression, song lyrics, and illustrations as formats, as well as the option of working alone, with a partner, or in a small group. Too, many of the products completed by students are meant to be shared with an audience outside the classroom–everyone from family members to magazine publishers–giving students the idea that good writing is meant to be “given away” to others who would be interested in their creations. Middle schoolers respond well to options and this book offers these.

5) What are Common Core Standards and how does your book address them/link to them?

In 2009 and 2010, a national initiative led by states identified what it is that students should know and be able to do in mathematics and English/language arts. These standards became known as the Common Core State Standards and have been adopted by 44 states to date. Designed to prepare students to be college and career-ready, the Common Core State Standards are far more rigorous than the majority of standards that exist in our schools today. “Building strong writers” identifies the Common Core State Standards that are incorporated into each lesson. Even if a state has not adopted the Common Core State Standards, the lessons cover essential skills required for English/language arts and most likely are included in an alternative set of standards.

6) Can you tell us about some of the activities? Can they be used outside of the classroom?

The book’s activities are divided into four sections, “Writing to get to know each other”, “Writing to understand ourselves”, “Writing to make a difference” and “Writing to create art.” The activities in the “Writing to know each other” section are quite short, and many are useful for getting students to know their classmates better. We feel this is important, as students seem more willing to share their heartfelt work with classmates with whom they have a connection. An example of “Writing to understand ourselves” is My personal quote shield, in which students are asked to select five adjectives that best describe them, placing these words on an illustrated shield and composing an essay on why these attributes are most significant to their lives. In “Writing to make a difference”, the activities are designed so that the completed student products are meant to be shared with others. In one activity, A case of vowel play, students create an illustrated “big book” that is shared with kindergarten and first graders upon its completion. And in “Writing to create art”, writing and artwork combine as students explore topics as varied as Blues poetry, foreign languages, and the interesting links between mathematics and poetry. Also, some of the book’s writing activities combine the students’ written words with the already-printed work of books like “The Outsiders” or the Harry Potter series. We believe our book is a cornucopia of writing lessons…and life lessons.

7) What about this CD-ROM? What is included on that?

The included CD-ROM contains all of the book’s 61 reproducible handouts. (An added convenience for teachers.)

8) How did you juggle a full-time University job while teaching middle school simultaneously?

For the last 17 years of his career at Kent State, Jim took time to teach one day each week in a local public school. Since Jim’s university job as an education professor required him to teach undergraduate and graduate students how to become good (or better) teachers, it just made sense that he would be an active teacher himself. Fortunately, Jim’s Kent State supervisors saw the benefit of this K-12/university collaboration, and two local school districts allowed Jim to come into their schools on a regular basis. As a professor of education, it doesn’t get better than this!

9) How do you hope other teachers will use this book?

We hope that teachers will consider our activities as worthwhile for the following reasons: each activity was used with middle school students of all ability levels over multiple years (so we worked the “bugs” out of the activities before putting them in our book); a conscious effort was made to design activities that could be justified to school administrators as worthwhile (thus, the link to common core state standards); and by focusing on the emerging independence of thought and depth of emotions that are a part of the daily lives of most middle school students, we believe the activities are as interesting as they are beneficial. Not incidentally, every activity in “Building strong writers” contains one or more examples of how our students completed the lesson’s task. For students who ask, “What do you really want?”, teachers will be able to provide exemplars from real middle school students.

10) Where can teachers get more information? Do you have a web site?<>

Jim and Deb Delisle

Dr. Jim Delisle
Distinguished Professor of Education (Retired)
P.O. Box 3550
North Myrtle Beach, SC 29582

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