Strategic Tips for Novel Revision from One Beginner to Another

Maybe it’s been a couple of months since NaNoWriMo or you have a novel draft pining for your attention and you’re thinking: I would love to revise, but I have no idea where to start!

I feel you.

Turns out that there are not very many blog posts about novel revision that describe the logistical HOW of the herculean task. Do you buy a whiteboard the size of a wall and get all Jackson Pollock with post its? Do you roll 19th century and lay your handwritten pages over every surface like I anxiously watched Jo March doing in Little Women? I mean — maybe!

Writers should do exactly what works for them. As a writer who lives by that rule, I hesitated when I considered writing this post. However as a person who spent years (yes, years) spinning their wheels trying to revise one novel draft only to gain a lot more momentum with a second one in progress, I’d love to share what I’m learning.

Tip #1: Think in passages 

If you have the draft of a novel, you have written a series of passages that tell a story. When I think about revising an entire chapter, I get overwhelmed. But revising a passage? I can totally do that. Short form revision is so much more rewarding. It’s helpful for me to trick myself into believing I’m just writing a series of short form pieces.

Tip #2: Organize digitally 

Locating a passage is much easier if I have them organized. Not only can I copy and paste what I want to keep then rework, I can also make easy adjustments to my macro-structure. You might use Google Drive with folders for each chapter and docs for passages. Maybe you want to make the best novel writing investment ever and try Scrivener (thanks, Brooke!).

If your manuscript is in one long document, reread your draft and organize as you go! It’s actually pretty fun.

Google Drive

Tip #3: Think in sections

Remember plot maps from middle school? They’re helpful now! Novels always follow the same structure: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution. Five basic sections. Why not map your novel in a similar way to take the pressure off grasping your story at a high level?

High level plot
Multiple perspectives

Tip #4: List questions and free write

There will be things you don’t know about your characters, setting, and plot when you’re rewriting — like a supporting characters backstory or like, how it will end… Write those gaps down as a list of questions and spend some time free writing or drawing or mapping or writing a new passage on each as you need. Other inevitable gaps can be addressed in the next draft.

Tip #5: Pace yourself

Because smoothing out plot and developing character and setting in draft two is a reasonable goal, let’s assume every passage won’t be “perfect”. How long would it take to revise one passage? A few days? Having a loose schedule will help keep the fire lit. My current schedule has me revising 2 sections of my book every 1-2 months. I’m behind but making progress, which is better than a dead stop.

The most important thing I’ve learned in the process of revising a second novel is learning my process. It’s been hard to convince myself that that’s enough — but maybe it is…

Write on, writers!


I Wrote a Novel in 30 Days… Now I’m Doing It Again

Two days in to NaNoWriMo 2019, I’m 5,325 words down on a goal to write 50,000 words in 30 days. 10% — that’s something to celebrate already I suppose, but the first week is the easy part. I know what’s ahead. Which is why I’m publicly disclosing my intention to write a shitty first draft of a novel this month. Apparently I’m 78% more likely to finish it by telling a friend. I like to think I’m increasing that percentage by telling the internet.

2012 was the first year I attempted this masochistic madness. I finished that shitty first draft, dammit. And you know what? It’s still pretty shitty, even after some reworking.

Over the next two years, I tried two more times but didn’t hit the goal for reasons that are probably more obvious to people reading this than were to me at the time. I didn’t like failing. A few years later and hopefully wiser, one thing I’ve learned about myself is that I much prefer to start things than to finish them. I love the excitement and adrenaline in the early stages of creativity, when imagination is the pilot and I’m not responsible for where we’re flying. Things that feel like a chore are an energy suck, but the fact remains that there is power in this exercise no matter how much of a chore it will inevitably become.

The next month will go something like this: the 1st week, ideas will be rapid fire; brushing my teeth, taking a shower, and driving familiar routes will open creative space for so many ideas that my voice memo app will get more use than it does in a year; then there will be a 2nd week slump when I begin to dislike the character I’ve created with all of her neurosis and afflictions, and I will have to acknowledge that they are sprouting from my own subconscious; a plot will somehow take shape in week 3 through a combination of stubbornness, ego, and pride; and at long last, at the end of week 4 I’ll have something like a novel. Hopefully.

I wanted to repost the blog piece I wrote years ago about finishing that first novel to remind myself of the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of this venture, but I guess not everything lives on the internet forever. Well, I if I supposedly learned it then, I must have internalized something, so here is what I remember:

  1. I (you… this is true for you too) have everything I need to write the best, worst, or anywhere in between novel right now. There is no amount of life experience or knowledge or wisdom that determines my level of readiness. You are living a story– so you can write one.
  2. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes it’s easy. Mostly, like with all writing, I just have to sit down and do it.
  3. It’s okay not to know where the story is going. The story will come out, for better or for worse, if I just keep writing.
  4. Write a ton of words up front to cover my ass when I inevitably have to miss a day  or two.
  5. When I’m done for the day, write down the things I want to write next. And then don’t be afraid to abandon those “great ideas” the next time I sit down.
  6. Write with others and share what what I write. Ask them for what is memorable. Ask them what about my style drives them crazy.
  7. Use it as an exercise and a way to center a writing practice in my life rather than a destination somewhere in particular. People don’t run a marathon for any accolade other than to have a goal and reach it… and maybe a little for bragging rights.
  8. Write the whole time. The words should be forming on the page from left to right motion not the other way around. Avoid that ‘delete’ button.

That first year I finished 50,000 words, I was living in a studio in a house converted to apartments in Sullivan’s Gulch. I told my neighbor who rented the studio above me that I was attempting NaNoWriMo. After work the following day, I came home to find he had taped a little notes to my door:  “Write on, writer.”

I never want to forget that story. Writers who write in community with others and with encouragement from loved ones and near strangers continue to write. Without expecting joy or ease or traditional versions of success, there is liberation and refuge on a page. The question is whether or not that I’ll feel as sentimental or optimistic at 25,000 words.

Next month, the result. 🙂


Teaching Narrative? Start with vignettes!

Teacher Essential Questions: 

  1. How can my students see themselves as writers?
  2. How could I teach narrative this year and what is one model text I could use to teach it?
  3. How can I become a practitioner of writing myself?
  4. Where can I find examples of student writing?

The Rationale

Why do units have to be writing genre themed? Why a narrative unit? A poetry unit? An essay unit? Why shouldn’t every unit include students practicing all three?

One of the greatest lessons I learned about teaching writing from Linda Christensen, director of the Oregon Writing Project, was to weave narrative, poetry and essay into all of your units around a common theme. This doesn’t mean that students craft, revise, and polish all three (though you could have them do this), but it does mean that students are dabbling in these modes throughout the year.

I love this for a few reasons:

  1. Students can see their progress over time. They’ll look at a vignette from the fall and a full narrative from the spring and witness how their use of narrative moves (techniques) became more nimble and interesting. Perhaps their poems in the fall helped them improve their imagery, but by the last poem of the year, they began to add extended metaphors and use white space to create meaning.
  2. Students get repeated practice with each mode of writing. It is rare for students to get something the first time. If they only write one narrative at the beginning of each year, how can we expect them to retain their learning and comfort with the genre 10 months later? By bringing narrative writing into all units in some form, students receive multiple opportunities to practice.
  3. Students build their confidence. If I only wrote one poem a year, I would never feel like a poet. Poets feel like poets because they write poems. We want our students to see themselves as writers. Asking students to write less than a handful of times a year does not a writer make.

In the spirit of taking laps with writing throughout the year, I like to have students write Micronarratives or vignettes at the start of the year. These pieces are shorter and less intimidating than full narrative pieces and also build the practice of writing great scenes with lots of narrative moves (techniques). If students can’t write rich scenes, how can we expect full narratives to be any good?

One of my favorite beginning of the year narrative assignments is My Education Vignettes. My teaching partner and I taught a cross curricular unit themed around Indigeneity and Manifest Destiny, so I wanted to use a narrative written by an indigenous author that would also connect with their learning in social studies. I landed on Sherman Alexie’s “Indian Education” as a model text, but this piece could be used in many other thematic units.

Before sharing my lesson plan, I’d like to say hi to the elephant in the room. Teaching Sherman Alexie these days is tricky. A. Because he sexually harassed at least several women who bravely came forward to share their stories last year (what a great opportunity to talk to kids about the ethical dilemma of consuming art created by people who have harmed others, btw). B. Because his success has unintentionally(?) eclipsed many other incredible Native writers including writers like Louise Erdrich, Joy Harjo, Thomas King, and Leslie Marmon Silko among others.

The reason I like this model text so much is because of the writing it got out of me and my students. It’s quite fun to write scenes from your life throughout school, mess around with tone, and borrow some of the great narrative moves (techniques) that Alexie uses in his writing.

Here are some examples of my writing and student writing based on Alexie’s model:

Kindergarten by Student A (link to entire model, the student used colors to show their use of different narrative moves)

My hair, too short for my liking, whipped behind me as my legs carried to the back of the playground where the wall of trees stood. My two best friends Ashley and Oaklee trailed in behind me, dragging a boy behind them.

Instantly my guard went up. I knew both Ashley and Oaklee liked this boy, Wesley, so this could only mean trouble… well as much trouble as four six year olds could get into. 

Being the voice of reason, I defiantly crossed my arms over my chest and with as much brattiness I could muster asked, “What is he doing here?”

“Relax,” Oaklee said. “He’s just here because we asked him to come.”

I was even more annoyed than before. Both Oaklee and Ashley knew how much I despised Wesley for I found him incredibly annoying. 

I glared at him as we gathered in a circle.

“Let’s play truth or dare!” Ashley suggested while Oaklee nodded excitedly.

Ugh, I need to find new friends.

Ten minutes into the game, I was sure of one thing, I NEED to get out of here. Just as I was planning my escape route, things got serious. 

“Wesley, I dare you to kiss Ashley on the cheek,” Oaklee said gleefully. 

Before I knew it, Wesley was leaning in to kiss Ashley. Then, to my horror, Ashley turned her head and full on kissed Wesley.


My head snapped to the the left where I was greeted with the sight of moms car.

Thank God! Saved by the bell!!

I sprinted toward my safe haven, jumped in the car, and slammed the door.

“Mom,” I gasped still trying to catch my breath, “Boys are gross!”

Third Grade by Ms Fitz (link to entire model)

Who knows what my third grade teacher, Mrs. Baker, was saying before she said Oregon. Only, I know she didn’t say “Oregon”. She said, “Ore-ee-gone”.

My spine sat straight up, my right arm shot itself into the air. None of these Virginians knew how to pronounce my parents home state, and I was going to set this Virginian straight. Or I was just a know-it-all. 

“Yes, Jacque?” Mrs. Baker said, calling on me. 

“That’s not how you say it,” I unapologetically started, “It’s pronounced Ore-gun.”

“No. It’s not,” she said matter of factly. 

“Yes it is! Look,” I said, leaping from my seat and running to the bookshelf for a dictionary. I was pretty good with words, so I got to the ‘O’ page fast, scanning with my index finger down to ‘Oregon’ to look for the pronunciation.

Oregon /ore-ee-gone/

I stared at the page incredulously. My god, it’s a damn conspiracy! I thought. I flipped to the front of the book to confirm that indeed, the dictionary had been published on the East coast. 

Good thing my mom was my P.E. teacher and was teaching gym glass for first graders right down the hall! 

I sprinted out of the classroom, down to the gym and yelled for my mother with an urgency she couldn’t ignore. 

“Come on, Mom! I need you in my classroom!” I yelled, grabbing her hand and rushing with her back to class. 

My mom and I stood in the doorway of my classroom and I shouted, “Mom! How do you say the state you’re from!?!”

“Oregon…?” my mom said with a tone of inflection that denoted her utter state of embarrassment and surprise. I’m sure her eyes were wide with apology to Mrs. Baker, but I didn’t notice. I was too busy gloating. I was triumphant. 

9th Grade by Student B (link to entire model)

Athena’s curly, wild hair was moving all around her. It was layered like a birthday cake, the top brown, middle blue, and bottom purple, with cat ears adorned on top. Her brown eyes stared directly into my own hazel ones. Her face was flushed pink from the cold, and us arguing.

“But I’m telling you, if the grass is every single color except green, then it’s not green! It’s every color except green,” I said with a relaxed smile on my face, taking joy in the fact that she could get so worked up over colors. But, it would be a given that she wouldn’t want to be proven wrong by her friend that wasn’t an artist.

“It’s how we see light! It’s basic physics!” Her voice was getting louder, higher pitched than normal. Her cheeks puffed out as she breathed in, and held it to calm herself down. The people waiting for the bus around us didn’t pay us any mind at all, too busy either talking or dreading the school day. I gave a tiny giggle, it bubbling out before I could try to keep it down. A look of pure annoyance passed over Athena’s face, before she stopped mid eyeroll. It seemed that she had remembered the most important part of the argument.

“I forgot that you don’t take physics,” she muttered. I broke out into laughter, it tearing through me like an earthquake. It seemed that the earthquake was too strong, because moments later Athena was laughing too. We stood there, laughing like idiots for a good few minutes, before the bus rolled up to come pick us up. As we got onto the bus, I murmured to her,

“Grass is still technically not green.”

The 90 min Lesson Plan:

Before the lesson: Label pieces of paper with numbers 1-12 and tape them around the walls of your room. You are creating talking stations for later in the lesson. 

  1. Each student receives a copy of “Indian Education” by Sherman Alexie
  2. Read the story (either silently and alone or the first couple together then alone)
  3. Highlight at least one noticing* per vignette
  4. Label 4 of your noticings with a corresponding letter: (A) the noticing that resonates with your experience the most (B) the noticing that made you stop and think (C)  noticing a narrative technique you like (D) noticing a new narrative move that you want to try out
  5. Ask students to stand up and move to the number poster on the wall that matches the grade level from Alexie’s story where they labeled noticing A. For example, if the noticing that resonated with their experience was in Alexe’s “Fourth Grade” vignette, then that student would move to ‘4’ on the wall.
  6. Ask students to share their noticing and why it resonated with them in their small groups (usually 2-3 people)
  7. Ask students to move to the number poster on the wall that matches the grade level from Alexie’s story where they labeled noticing B
  8. Ask students to share their noticing and why it made them stop and think
  9. Repeat this for noticing C and noticing D. Be sure to make a note that students do not have to know what something is called to notice it — for instance, maybe a student notices a really great metaphor, but struggles to remember that its called a metaphor, that’s okay and will be addressed later.
  10. Between the C and D rounds, call on 2-3 groups so that students can hear the narrative moves that their classmates noticed. As they share, make a list of the narrative moves they notice on the board. This is the time to help students name their noticings. That great metaphor that student noticed and shared? Remind them that that is a great example of a metaphor! Write ‘metaphor’ and a few key words from the example on the board.
  11. After sharing noticings, ask students to return to their seat and let them know that they are going to be writing vignettes modeled and inspired by the vignettes of Alexie’s “Indian Education”. No need to go into depth about what a vignette is. Repeat the word and reference it and the text features, they’ll get it.
  12. Pass out a model (ideally yours!) and tell them that this is an example of three vignettes inspired by “Indian Education”. Read aloud or have them read and mark the text to notice where the writer (ideally you!) borrowed narrative moves from Alexie.
  13. Ask students to turn and share their noticings about what was borrowed. If time allows, share out to the whole class and add to the big list of narrative moves on the board. They’ll notice things like structure and dialogue and the fun hyphenated words and humor/sarcasm and irony etc.
  14.  Ask students to make a 3 column chart in their notebook and label them with Elementary | Middle | High. Have them take a moment to brainstorm memories and moments from each of these periods of time in their life. I prompt them a bit here (because they always say they can’t remember) to think about moments with teachers, friends, people they thought were their friends, after school, before school, learning something, lunch time, the playground, funny times, sad times, embarrassing times, times they were angry, etc. to help get them going. You could also model your brainstorm in front of them if you want.
  15. After 3-4 minutes of brainstorming, do a Mingle Share. Take 4-5 minutes of walking around the room to give one, get one. Give a story, listen to a story with 3 different people. No beehives! Meaning, they should only be partnering with one person and should mix it up! You can give them fun prompts for this.
  16. Ask them to return to their seats and add to their list. Hopefully the Mingle Share gave them some ideas.
  17. Before they start writing, remind them about the time and pacing in these vignettes, they take place over a very short moment. Remind them of the narrative techniques they noticed and we listed on the board.
  18. Write on writers!

Over the coming weeks of the unit, I ask students to write another narrative. For the portfolio, I ask them to pick one to work on and polish. We use feedback groups and mini lessons and coloring to revise and finally polish their pieces.

I had a ton of fun with this lesson and the students did as well. Their favorite part? Reading my writing about vignettes from my education and then sharing their own stories no matter how sad or funny or embarrassing. Try to write your own vignettes. The kids will love it.

*A noticing is anything a student notices related to style or content. It can be the use of italics in an interesting way or a part of the story that made them feel sad.


Picking Up (In) This Mess

I knew I both was and was not my age when I said to myself, “Okay, you’re going to clean your room and then you get a popsicle” — OUT LOUD; I lay on my bed, my body woven between piles of clean laundry and held my phone to my heart as “MOOD 4 Eva played through the speakers; I grabbed an album of photographs taken when me and my dear friend Elo road tripped through France, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, and Greece and placed it in a section of children’s books on the shelf between Where the Wild Things Are and Oh, the Places You’ll Go; I was distracted from the reality that there are 8-year-olds getting a shower for the first time in weeks who don’t know where their parents are and that if we don’t institute sweeping global policy to combat climate change during this next administration we’re fucked but I have hope that the revolution will not be televised; I watered two windowfront plants by splitting what remained of the water in my 16 oz water bottle between them and stopped there; I considered the black and white photo of my grandparents on their wedding day and wondered if my grandpa looked happier in the wedding photos from his two future marriages; I commented “<3 u Obamas” under Barack’s Instagram post listing 44 songs from his and Michelle’s Summer Playlist 2019; I listened to the Dirby Bros “Drift Away because it was in said Obama playlist and the lyrics “day after day I’m more confused / yet I look for the light through the pouring rain” made me cry and I tasted salt as I tucked pairs of my socks together and mouthed every word to the rest of the song until the end; I went to change the lightbulb of an IKEA lamp that had gone out and cursed IKEA for weird Swedish lightbulbs and remembered I‘d seen an extra Swedish lightbulb in a basket I’d relocated and praised myself for stashing another one away when in reality IKEA is capturing us with their socialist capitalism or democratic socialism or whatever it is and I made a note to buy a rug and basket the next time I was there; I realized the blue light in my throat, the supposedly repressed part, does not feel that way today; I unplugged and put away my Nintendo Switch that I bought on impulse the winter of 2016 because rescuing Zelda seemed easier than everything else; I found The Complete Idiot’s Guide for Training for Triathlons, the whereabouts of which I’d considered just a couple of days before and I made a promise to leave it out to look at training advice if I want to get serious about the whole thing then got annoyed that the book was lying around when everything else was going to a place, so I put it on the bookshelf where I promptly forgot it lived until this exact moment writing this; the sound of Jose Gonzales’ voice and guitar accosted me with nostalgia for life in Spain and I felt like my heart would bleed through my tear ducts and be sucked down the veins of my legs into the soil of the earth which at least is closer to the polaroids in my mind; I contemplated the benefits of bar soap versus liquid soap in the following ways: as a guest at a party right after using the bathroom or chopping dates for a summer salad, how visible the soap shelf actually is while standing at the bathroom sink with hands dripping wet, the amount of space a soap dish leaves on the rim of a sink versus a liquid soap bottle, how plastic soap bottles and their pumps never decompose and everyone should buy bar soap forever; the lyrics “I, I can’t deny I’m paralyzed from the inside / Every day I wake to feel the same / And every time you ask me how I’m feeling / I just smile and tell you that I’m fine… Whoa oh” didn’t seem to resonate with the happy vibe of the instrumentals and I got stuck unraveling that;


My “Good Enough” is Great

Where I’m from, there is no “good enough”. You’re either great, bordering on perfection or you’re just mediocre. Virtually unseen.

Growing up, this idea was reinforced at home, at my over-achieving academic elitist high school, and among my friends. What I’ve come to understand is that it wasn’t the places and people in my life that fed this message, but insidious imperialist and capitalist values that were — and are — running the show. In America, if something is available to you, you should take it and not think twice about the consequences.

To believe that “good enough” can ever be “great” means that you lack ambition — have sold yourself short.

For years, when I told people that I was a teacher, one of the most common questions I received was, “What do you eventually see yourself doing?” To me this question implied that being a public school teacher was insufficient. I interpreted it that way either because the asker thought it on some level or because my conditioning in life had done its job and some part of myself believed it too. Regardless, there was something about that question that insulted an already de-professionalized profession where I was working a necessary 60-70 hours a week to do right by my students. It reinforced the notion that to be a teacher was settling for “good enough” and that to be “great” I had to be and do more.

Rather than communicate any of this, of course, I answered the question anyway and told people that I eventually wanted to be a professor in a Masters program. This was a satisfying answer for me and for them. And it wasn’t a lie. For years, I saw myself on a 10-15 year track to that goal.

Last week, I received an offer to teach a course as an Assistant Professor. And even though I’d just made a career switch and am in recovery from old habits that have been dying hard, a familiar mixed tape pushed Play. I began to imagine the narrative of success as a professor that was etched into my mind before I considered if it was still something I wanted.

My friend Kailla snapped me out of it when she asked, “So, is that something you still feel the urge to do?”

That word — an ‘urge’. A want. A longing. When she asked me this way, the mixed tape stopped and flipped over. For the first time, I heard a quiet part in me voice a simple, ‘no’.

IMG_1502That same weekend visiting my parents in Eugene, I went on a hike with my husband and little brother. We were discussing the position at the college and my husband asked, “What would you be giving up to take that on?”

Answer: Sleeping. Exercising and training. Writing. Learning the ropes of a new career. Yoga. Reading books. Hanging with friends. Kayaking and hiking. Phone calls to family. Time to live the life I’ve been working hard to live.

I realized I wanted all of those things more than I wanted to pursue “greatness” defined by values that aren’t serving me. I had been asking myself the wrong questions and am grateful to the people in my life who are helping me ask the right ones.

Don’t get me wrong, I still believe in working hard and kicking ass. I just want to redefine “greatness” on my own terms and quit compromising and confusing happiness for traditional definitions of success.

When I got back to my parents’ house, I sent an email to the college saying thanks but no thanks.

That night my dad said, “So, tell me about your days now that you’re in a new job.”

As I described a life that I hope will honor a work, life balance, he started to tear up. He could see and hear that I was happy. I know this look from my dad — pride.

I felt seen.

And he didn’t ask what I eventually see myself doing.




Democracy is Alive in Classrooms

How can we guide the next generation to internalize and understand democracy? How can we bring what feels out of reach sometimes in our society to a shared and common space? The classroom.

Years ago, I read the book City Kids, City Schools. In an introduction by Willian Ayers, I learned about the United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child, which says that students have the right to an education which,

  • allows you to demonstrate your talents and be your best self;
  • protects human rights and personal freedoms;
  • respects and honors your cultural identity;
  • prepares you to act in the spirit of tolerance, peace, and friendship towards all people;
  • promotes the importance of sustainability and respect for planet earth.

When I read these, I knew I wanted to share them with my students, and also to weave them into the micro-society of our classroom. So I created a series of short lessons that leverage these United Nations Rights as a springboard into the democratic process of creating class norms.

Last year, I dusted off this old lesson from when I taught 8th grade and reimagined it for a fresh start in a new school. Before sharing, I want to acknowledge that the traditional school system birthed from industrialization imagined classrooms to function as dictatorships rather than democracies, and that until we can revolutionize that system, all classrooms have power systems that are out of balance. I’m not above having “dictator” moments in the classroom sometimes. But as educators we can flip the script of what classrooms can be and do.

This is what I did with my kids:

Day 1

  1. I asked student to choral read the UN Rights in their groups of four. (They were so cute. They actually counted “1, 2, 3” before starting)
  2. I had them put their heads down and raise their hand as I read unfamiliar terms that they may not understand or be able to define. I knew freshman may not come forward with their lack of knowing without a safe way to do so.
  3. Then we discussed the meaning of terms they flagged like ‘sustainability’ and ‘tolerance’.

Day 2

  1. We reviewed the rights and then I asked students to write down on a post it one behavior or expectation they have of themselves and their classmates that help then be their best student selves.
  2. On 5 posters labeled with the UN Rights, I asked students to put their post it on the poster that upheld a matching right. I rephrased the rights again to help them think through where their post it should go before they moved around to match them.
  3. We looked at where the students put their post it’s and where they didn’t. The posters about ‘sustainability and respecting planet earth’ and the ‘honoring cultural identity’ had one or no post-its in all sections.
  4. In order to push their thinking, I gave two post its to each group and asked them to think of one behavior norm as a group that would fit those two rights. They added post its to the posters that didn’t have norms on them previously.
  5. Students were asked to do a silent galley walk. They could “star” one norm each per poster to vote for the one that they thought most upheld the right to education.

Day 3

  1. Before class: I looked at the posters from all the classes and made a ballot using the norms that received the most stars so that the ballot had the most voted for norm per class.
  2. I gave students a ballot and told them to vote for the norm that they felt best upheld the their right to education explaining that the ballot included the collaborative best thinking of all the students from all of the sections.
  3. I tallied the votes (one student volunteered during lunch to come help me), and turned these into our agreed upon norms for the year.

Day 4

  1. We’ll read our norms chorally at the start of next class and I’ll have every student sign the poster as a sign of agreement.

This lesson can be done over two days, but there are many other things to cover, so I spread the activity out over a week. Plus, I want students to hear us talk about and return to the idea of classroom values, rights, and norms over multiple lessons to give weight to the importance of them for everyone in the room.

My Freshman Academy team will adopt these norms and they’ll be used in their social studies and physics class as well as mine.

Here are the norms my students created this year:

  1. Be accepting of one another’s differences and don’t judge others
  2. Give everyone equal voice to share their perspective
  3. Respect one another
  4. Guide, assist and support one another
  5. Conserve materials and clean up after yourself

Over the next few weeks, we inevitably have non-examples of these behaviors come up in the classroom. I try to use these moments as an opportunity to return to our norms and discuss the meaning of the one that has been violated. If students are about to leave my room a complete disaster at the end of class, I return to norm #5 and they stay a few moments after the bell to take care of the space. If one student has started to tease or bully another student over a personal preference, I crouch down next to them at an appropriate time to talk with and remind them about #1 and #2 of our norms. It’s not a magic bullet for everything, obviously, but because all students were a part of the process, there’s buy-in.

I’m always inspired by how seriously students take the work of developing classroom norms, and I hope that they can see democracy in action through the process as well.

Comment below to share the ways you would change this or use it in your classroom!

Slides to get you started:

Day 0 

Day 1

Day 2

Note: These slides also contain a Random Autobiography poem lesson, which was part of our first unit, Identity Lit Circles.



After 10 years in the classroom…

What do I do with all of it? Stack it up in a corner of my living room and wait for the motivation to go through it? Yes, and…

Still sitting there a week and a half later. I’m finally ready emotionally.

Feel it!

When I left the building on my last day of work, I was numb. Over the next few days, I got up early for workouts and tore apart my closet to reorganize it. Basically, I filled my life with distractions.

It shouldn’t have surprised me that when I sat and closed my eyes for my first IFS session (see last week’s post) since my last day, tears immediately began to form.

“What do you notice?” my coach asked.

“I’m sad,” I said, surprised. “Yeah…” she said, in that way that denoted her compassion and entire lack of surprise.

Why the hell would I be surprised by this? I lived and breathed teaching for a decade. I won’t list all of the things that means. If you’re a teacher — you know. If you know a passionate teacher, you should ask them about what their days feel like. Ask them what they do for their students, for their fellow teachers, for their curriculum, for the world. Ask them how often they think about something related to their job.

Long story short, feeling the sadness was intense. I felt grief. I felt irrelevant. I felt helpless. And I felt like I had years of expertise with no outlet for any of it.

Apply it!

If my transition into a new career has taught me anything, it’s that teaching skills are transferrable. I never realized this before. I remember on the days when I was feeling most burned out that I feared being completely trapped in teaching. There was nowhere for me to go. I could continue teaching, become a teacher on special assignment or become an administrator. No thanks + no thanks + no thanks = trapped.

I received new career opportunity because I created and facilitated a workshop with a group of Project Managers at Jute Creative. Our goals were to share and develop individual and group identities, essentially develop culture. Using all of the student-centered tools in my tool belt, I developed two half-day workshops. One of the founders of the company afterward said, “I have done a lot of these in my career and this one was excellent.”

So, yeah, I can run activities that are participant-centered and reach goals with well thought out rationale. Thank you, teaching. The added bonus was that I was asked to write a blog post about the activity and a designer turned my activity into an online tool. What I did with the Jute team felt honored and celebrated.

Screen Shot 2019-06-26 at 1.52.51 PM
A blog post I wrote based on one of the workshops for the Jute Creative team.

Also, it turns out that the business world is about 10-15 years behind teaching (maybe more — yet to be seen) in equity work. The acronym I’ve been hearing a lot is DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion).

I was at a BBQ a couple of weeks ago talking to someone in the field. She asked me what I would be doing in my new job with the agency. “Project management and also continuing to work on a project called Collective Good, which is essentially Jute’s DEI initiative.”

The friend standing with us who also works in the field looked over at me and said, “People don’t know what that is.”

While I thought this was a commonly used acronym, I’ve learned that equity is most definitely not a commonly used or understood term, and that DEI is very new to many businesses.

This is fascinating to me. While folks in education are working their asses off to close the achievement gap and get kids from all backgrounds ready for a path of their choosing, is the private sector ready for them? Is leadership in other fields outside of education using equity to inform decision making? I imagine that there might be more barriers to success than my students found in school. I want to be a part of the solutions force for this problem.

Share it!

How many original lessons and units have I created over the last ten years? I have to do some math for this one.

I’ve taught 11 courses for grades 6th-12th graders in English Language Development, Humanities, and English. That’s about 66 units of material given that each course contains about 6 units. If each unit contains roughly 14-16 lessons, that equates to around 1,050 lessons I’ve created or borrowed and reshaped.

Because I was a masochist and only taught the same unit once (see Ineffable Unit) and because things that I don’t create tend to be hard for me to teach in an authentic way, I have hundreds of lessons that I brought to students no more than a half dozen times. And I’d say there are good number of those that are worth sharing. So I will.

In the coming weeks and months, I’ve made space in my weekly posts to share lessons and units that I’ve taught that I think are worth sharing. I’m not interested in making money, and I’ll share any materials with you that you’d like. Steal, tweak, critique in the comments — whatever! But I can’t imagine doing nothing with some of the lessons that I’ve crafted. So more to come.

Let it go…IMG_1264

I have a tattoo on my arm of William Butler Yeats’ theory of the gyres, most famously referenced in Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”, which is based in Judeo-Christian thinking. While I’m not religious, I appreciate Yeats’ metaphysical theory of time and history. His theory is quite complex, but simply put, the gyres represent the beginning and the end of things. There’s chaos and messiness and beauty and order in the center, but just as assuredly as that happens so too does an ending, and from that ending a new beginning will emerge.

I have the gyres on my body because it reminds me of this simple and absolute truth. Whether I’m thinking about things much grander and more important than myself like the sixth extinction or about making life changes that lead to new chapters of life, I find great comfort in this notion.

“God is change.” Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler


freer than you

on the 243rd year of our nation’s independence
i am in a kayak underneath a fireworks show
bursting bombs in air for entertainment
my ‘wow’s turn into laughter stifled in an embrace
of booms bouncing from the hills to the forest and back
across the river settling into stillness flowing south

the black water lights up red and white and blue
someone plays “god bless america” from their boat
and i feel my throat tightening and my nose tingling
and i start to cry for beauty in the way
i cry at church even though i’m resentful and don’t believe
my shame the lie of freedom exposes is numb

a toddler cries alone on the floor of a detention center
they did not drown in the desperate crossing
their diaper has not been changed in days

a woman is desperate for a fix and angry
she beats her boyfriend’s chest enraged
he has lost his job and their skin is waking up

a black man puts his hands on the dashboard
keeps them in plain sight, hushes his daughter, wonders
what shade of racist the officer is behind him

humanization is freedom

i place my oar into the water and push it forward
fracturing the light beams with dark water
i tip back my gin and soda cocktail to get it all
and feel the waves kicked up by wakes
i wonder if it will be easy to get back to shore

how wonderful it would be
if we could all be this free




I Love My Parts and They Love Me

I suppose it’s a cliche to say that something changed your life. I’ll say it anyway: IFS changed my life.

Depression fully hit me in September 2018. I’d kept it at bay since the 2016 election by spending every waking moment resisting. I resisted through protest signs and marches, writing and publishing, through curriculum and organizing, through media consumption and canvassing. If resisting is winning, then I was winning.

And then I wasn’t.

Through the fall and into winter I woke up each morning feeling defeated before the day had even begun. My words and actions in the classroom had no zeal. My afternoons and evenings were spent beating myself up for my performance at work, smoking cigarettes to cope, and crying all the time. The part of me that for 10 years had been carrying my sadness about all of the injustice in the world and the secondary trauma from my students had no other place to go but out of my subconscious to my conscious. That was very uncomfortable. I knew it was time to go into therapy again.

Serendipitously, I had a series of opportunities present themselves to me during that time. One was the possibility of a new job outside of education. Another was a silent retreat. The third was a series of free sessions with a life coach who was building a new practice. I said ‘yes’ to all three.

Saying ‘yes’ was the easy part. The hard part was working on myself and getting through the 8 months that remained of the school year before I could breathe.

I eagerly jumped into life coaching, but by the third session, I knew my progress would be paralyzed if I didn’t manage my depression. My coach reminded me she wasn’t a psychologist, but that she did have training in a type of coaching that might help.

“Anything,” I said, “I know I need more.”

Traditional therapy has been helpful for me in the past. I’d had three rounds of it before this year. The first when I was in middle school to diagnose me with depression and related OCD (which would now most likely be called an anxiety disorder). The second time was right after college to help me deal with grief and my stunted understanding of love and healthy relationships. The third was in 2015 to address my perfectionism and the struggles with work that were contributing to my declining physical health (Who needs cortisol!? We all do!!!).

Guess how many sessions of IFS with a great coach it took me to move away from crippling sadness and guilt and stop smoking?

3 sessions. Like, a little over 4 hours.

All the parts inside.

Internal Family Systems (IFS) is some samurai shit. I can explain it best in two ways:

First, Pixar’s Inside Out is a very helpful visual and probably what allowed me to access the therapy more easily for a visual learner like me. Also, the protagonist is someone I strongly relate to having moved so much as a kid. The line “It’s okay to be sad” is perhaps one of the simplest and most healing things the child in me needed to hear, so naturally I wept and wept through the ending. If you haven’t seen it and want to understand IFS, watch it and then reread this.

Second, IFS is also best described as when the most clear headed, compassionate, curious, creative, calm, and courageous part of you is having a therapeutic listening session with the part of you that is in distress — the part of you that is occupying your attention to the point where moving through the world feels harder.

IMG_1259 (1)
A busy mind in November 2019

Who knew that I had a little Jacque in me who was carrying such sadness all the time? Or an older part of me that carried so much guilt about privilege and not doing or being enough to fight injustice? Or a part of me that was isolated, hidden away in a cave where its light had been extinguished until I went inside to face it and let it out? Those parts needed my love and my attention. They needed to wail and cry and rage and scream out a message to me and not be alone. And just as I do when I sit down with someone, vent and feel better, I can do that for the parts of me that need someone. That someone is me.

To meet these parts, I sit with my eyes closed in stillness and evoke that feeling or part and let it take form or color or both. Then, with my coaches help, that part and I get to know each other. Some days these conversations are easy, sometimes there’s a lot of distraction from other parts trying to protect me from sitting with discomfort, sometimes the parts are so intertwined with me or one another that it gets confusing. Having an amazing and supportive coach helped me tremendously with navigation.

For years, I buried my sadness, guilt, helplessness and other “bad” feelings because they scared me, but they didn’t go away. Our culture teaches us that these feelings are “bad” and that we should shove them down and ignore them. We all do this as children, throughout life, and into adulthood and then before we know it, we have a whole host of parts that need attention, love and care and are so ignored that they never get what they need — YOU never get what you need. As a result, other parts emerge to cover it all up. For me that meant hyper-vigilant, perfectionist, critical, fighter, logical, and task-oriented parts appeared to protect me from the parts carrying the “bad” stuff. I’m not saying those protectors are a problem. Those parts are completely welcome! In fact, they’re my little heroes! They’re looking out for me and don’t want me to hurt. But they have agendas and cover up the parts that need tending and listening, creating an unharmonious system. The beauty of IFS is that when those protector heroes see that feeling the bad stuff isn’t so terrible, they’re able to chill, and to let my best self be in the driver’s seat. They begin to understand that I can take care of those painful parts. I offer genuine gratitude to those hero protectors, let them know they don’t have to work so hard, and the long term pay off for me is that I feel balanced and steady.

I’m painting an easy picture of this process here, but just to be clear, IFS is the hardest therapy and introspective work I’ve ever done — ever.  I’ve revisited experiences and moments in my life that I have shoved so deep down that I didn’t even know I was preoccupied by them. I’ve felt very real fear and deep sadness meeting and speaking to the parts of myself that have been exiled from my consciousness. I also had periods of time when the part holding my rage was finally allowed to surface so I felt a lot of anger, or a part that needed to be quiet and alone manifested in my withdrawal from the people around me. If this sounds scary, I’ll say that the fact that there are three of us doing the work: me, my parts, and my coach make jumping into the abyss possible. And it gets easier when your parts learn that not only do you not die from going to the painful places, but you actual begin to truly live. I’m deeply grateful to the parts of myself that are brave and adventurous and intuitive as they’ve given me what I needed to push myself into a new way of being.

Oh, but aren’t there easier ways?!

Mindfulness has been extremely helpful to me over the years. Stop. Feel. Notice. Name. Noticing is wonderful. It helps us pay attention when we’re feeling something instead of just mindlessly reacting all the time. Without IFS, though, I wouldn’t understand the root of those noticings. Before I noticed, but didn’t dive, never facing truly facing the source.

Traditional therapy was also helpful for me. I evolved in ways that led me to take healthy risks, travel, adventure, and grow. But talking out loud to someone else gave me permission me to rationalize and detach. I’m a very good thinker, but thinking is not feeling. Thinking can lie to me. Feelings cannot.

With IFS, I spend a long time forming a relationship with the parts that holds feeling. Those parts share wisdom with me, they share snapshots of my life, they show me a memory and ask me to sit with it and heal.

A powerful part that I was hiding. I met her in December.

For folks reading this thinking that this is a load of hippy, new-age malarky, I won’t argue with you, but I would ask you why you kept reading this far (Is there something here that a part of you is asking for?). I’ll also share with you that IFS helped me see new, exciting possibilities for my talents outside of teaching, it’s helped me be more vulnerable with my life-partner and led us to a new level of intimacy, it’s gotten me to a place where I have the most healthy relationship with exercise that I’ve ever had (I’ve gone to the gym 4x a week for 7 months straight!), it’s helped me have courage to do more personal writing and write music for the first time in years, it’s helped me start my own business, it’s helped me to stop being “nice” and start being me (which is sometimes blunt and assertive — I love those parts!). And if that’s hippy, new-age bullshit, so be it! Not to mention the fact that the teachings from IFS and my understanding of it is rooted in an ancient Eastern spirituality and thought that have always had enlightening and transformative power.

For other folks reading this thinking they want to try it — that’s great! I would offer that IFS would have been harder for me without quite a long history of meditation, mindfulness and yoga practice. In IFS, you have to be okay sitting with yourself in quiet and listening inside even when its very uncomfortable, but everyone is capable of getting there in their own time as they’re ready. Forcing this process is not helpful. Having a great coach who you trust is important, of course. And ultimately for me it is worth every moment of pain!

I write this one week into a summer break between the end of the school year and the first week at my new job at Jute Creative. I have no idea where the sandy bottom is below me or how far I’ve swum below the surface, but I feel like I’ve eaten gillyweed, grown gills, webbed fingers and toes, and am up for the adventure!

I daydream sometimes about where IFS could lead people and how. That’s the rescuer part in me. But for now, I’m working on rescuing myself.





Bravery, Mistakes, and Healing

During my lunch hour, Senna, a senior in my Literature and Composition class, came up to my desk on the verge of tears.

“Ms. Fitz, can we talk about my portfolio?”

I noticed that something wrong right away and asked her to walk and talk as we headed away from the busy teacher cluster to my classroom for some quiet space.

“I was wondering why I got an Incomplete on my narrative,” she said, the tears starting to fall, “That was so hard for me to write. It took me a week to finish it.”

My stomach sank with the knowledge that I had failed Senna somehow and I panicked as I realized I had no clue what I might have done. Taking a seat, I watched Senna’s neck and face flush and passed her a tissue as she began to weep.

“Senna, whatever happened here, it’s clear that I made some kind of mistake. I’m so glad you came to me. Let’s work through this together, okay?”

Senna nodded as I opened my laptop and began toggling through the pages to her portfolio. In it, I saw her required drafts and the final for her essay and poem. I also saw the single draft of her narrative, which had not been completed in time for me to read and give feedback on before the portfolio was due. I glanced over the solid one page block of text and reread my comment: “This looks like a very early draft. Let me know when you’re ready for me to read the final.” Then, I began to read Senna’s narrative, looking for words and phrases that would give me a more complete picture of what had gone wrong. I read words and phrases like: ‘party’, ‘friend left me’, ‘led into a room’, ‘last thing I remember’, ‘he threatened to hurt me again if…’.

  Senna had written the story of being sexually assaulted as a freshman, and I, probably in some text inundated haze that comes with sitting down to grade student writing, had failed her horribly. Not only had I not read the piece because I assumed a lack of effort on her part, but I had shamed her further by making her feel like she had done something wrong.  I was speechless. What could I possibly say or do to make this right? Could I make this right?

I turned to Senna, my throat tightening and tears in my eyes now. “Senna…” I started slowly, “I am so, so sorry. I have to admit to you that I never read this piece. It looked like a first draft, and I dismissed it. I had been grading for a long time and you were at the end of the list. But it’s no excuse for me missing this. That must have felt so horrible for you, Senna. I’m so sorry.” I paused. “Is this the first time you’ve told this story?”

She nodded. “It happened when I was a freshman and when you asked us to write a Justice Narrative, I couldn’t get this story out of my head, but I wanted to try. I was just so confused about my grade…”

“Senna, I can’t imagine how awful that must have felt.”

She just kept saying, “It’s okay. It’s okay.” But it wasn’t okay. From the time she wrote that piece until the time she and I talked and long before and likely long after, so much was not okay.

I apologized over and over again to Senna. There was no limit to the number of times I wanted to and still want to apologize. She had been carrying the weight of being raped all by herself for years. I had opened up a way for her to come forward and begin to heal, and then I had denied her that space.

The only thing I knew how to do then, was listen. I held Senna’s hand as she told me her story, as she explained why she hadn’t said anything to anyone, as she expressed how she had not been sleeping in the aftermath of writing it all down, and how she didn’t know what to do next. I told to Senna how humbled I was by her bravery, not only to share her story, but to come to me after the confusion and pain I had caused her. We then made a plan to go talk to a counselor together.   

Even after years of teaching and reading thousands of stories, poems, and essays, I love reading my student’s writing. Despite this, constraints on time and stacks of writing portfolios containing over a hundred of pieces always has the potential to thwart my best intentions. It’s tempting to reach the end of a stack of papers and speed up to just be done assessing already. But what happened with Senna is a reminder that a student’s story is always worth more than a score. I am not above making mistakes, and through words and actions I can amend my human error.

In a nation shifting through the #metoo movement and other social movements that communicate to students that their stories are valid and deserve to be heard, students are more likely to write about trauma, harm and injustice. I have a choice to guard myself from the complexities that writing these stories can unravel and assign writing that is devoid of lived experience, or I can continue to create opportunities for them to write what’s real. But if I do that, then every word they write must be treated as sacred. Every piece. Every word. Every student. Every time.