Teachers Write 8/12/13 Mini-Lesson Monday with Erin Dealey

It’s time for your Thursday Quick-Write with guest author Erin Dealey. Erin writes board books, picture books, mg, YA–and raps.  : ) Her picture book, DECK THE WALLS (Sleeping Bear Press), a kid’s-eye view of holiday dinners, will release Sept. 21st. Erin is an English/ theater teacher, Area 3 Writing Project presenter (UCDavis), and heads the theater department at Sugarloaf Fine Arts Camp each summer. Former co-Regional Advisor for SCBWI CA North/Central, Erin has presented at conferences, reading association PDIs, and LOVES school visits.  Today, she joins us to talk about…


Good Morning! Since it’s almost Back-to-School for all, I thought it would be a good time to share a lesson I have used in my classes–at many grade levels–so you can take it back with you. (Warning–it’s a bit longer than a “Mini” lesson–but it has truly resonated with my students.)

If you’ve been doing the quick-writes (and posting them) and/or keeping a Writer’s Notebook, as Kate suggested in June, chances are your own voice has evolved this summer.  In fact, take a look at your first entries  & posts and compare them to recent ones. (Go ahead–I’ll wait. Just don’t forget to come back…)

Notice any differences between your earlier entries and now? (Other than the luxurious feeling that summer stretched endlessly before you.) When I participated in my first Writer’s Project summer seminar, I remember making sure my writing was grammatically correct. After all, I taught English, right? The result was a textbook tone that had me zoning off by the end of the opening paragraph, a stark contrast to the plays and skits I’d written for my drama students.

Which brings us to voice.

I’ve heard many editors say voice is what hooks the reader. Even non-fiction needs an engaging voice. Some editors say you can teach form and plot, but you can’t teach voice. I disagree. The breakthrough for me came when I realized a big part of teaching theater is voice. Voice comes from learning who you are, and not being afraid to share that honesty with others. As you’ve grown more comfortable with your writing this summer, your own voice has emerged or grown stronger. However–as you’ve also experienced this summer, this sharing takes courage, even in this supportive community of TeachersWrite!

“To gain your own voice, you have to forget about having it heard.”
—Allen Ginsberg

If your students are like mine, voice takes tremendous courage. It emerges first in journals and quick-writes, and I always make a point to comment when a student’s voice shows up on the page. Like this acrostic I got from Darin A. , one of my seniors who bristled at any assignment from an authority figure…







The day I used it as an excellent example of voice, Darin’s writing took off. Voice freed him to see writing and words as power–not just a means to complete his assignment.

But it’s scary. Even for adults.

When my writing pal, debut author Scott Blagden wrote the first drafts of his YA novel, DEAR LIFE YOU SUCK, he was afraid publishers would reject it because of the profanity used by his main character, Cricket, so Blagden tried to make his character’s voice softer.

“I toned down a lot of the language, the swear words,” Scott explains; “I toned down some of the jokes and this and that, and then I read the whole book and I had lost the character. I had lost the voice.”

Voice and vocabulary, sentence structure & pace (long sentences or short choppy ones &/or fragments) grow from your character–or the character of your narrator.

One way to release student voices is by warming up with a stream-of-consciousness format I call  Clearing out the Cobwebs. (The following is what I tell my students. Try it!)

Clearing the Cobwebs.
When I say “Go”,
write 3 words
per line (stream
of consciousness—not
laundry or grocery list…)
until your are
told to stop. 
(usually 3-5 minutes)
If your mind
is blank, start
with I don’t
know what to
write, or a
line from your
favorite song.  If
you get stuck
on a word,
Write your last
word word word
over and over
until something clicks.
Don’t think—WRITE !

The cool thing about this Cobweb pre-write exercise is that students think it’s so ridiculous, they let go of trying to write, and their authentic voice emerges.

Another way to approach voice is to refer to it as eavesdropping.  Creating the voice of a character is easier if you think of it like acting in the theater:  Being someone else for a while. If you ask my students, they’ll probably tell you my Best Rule Ever is:  Stop thinking–and listen.

In DEAR LIFE, Blagden learned to listen, by “getting into character,” along the same lines as actors do. “When I would sit down at the computer,” he says, “I would get into character, and  start writing in his voice. I wasn’t just writing about the character, I was [the] character.”

The voice of my latest picture book, DECK THE WALLS, came easily since I originally wrote it for my high school theater students to perform at a holiday assembly, and I could hear their voices.

Read the first 2 pages of any of the following books aloud and LISTEN to each voice. {Some of the books are on your summer Suggested Reading list. If you don’t have copies of these yet, you can find their first pages on Amazon –after which I bet you’ll want to read the whole book!}

Note that it’s not just the tone of the reader that distinguishes each voice. Patterns, pace, word choice, pet phrases, and content/topics make each voice different.  Each first page is like meeting a different person. What makes each voice stand out?

First person:

The Adventures of  Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain (Remember when we used to call “voice” = “writing in the vernacular” ?)

Locomotion, Jacqueline Woodson http://www.jacquelinewoodson.com/

The One and Only Ivan, Katherine Applegate http://theoneandonlyivan.com/

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: the Lightening Thief , Rick Riordan http://www.rickriordan.com/home.aspx

Geronimo Stilton, The Curse of the Cheese Pyramid  http://geronimostilton.com/portal/US/en/home/

Pickle, Kim Baker  http://www.kimberlycbaker.com/KCB/Home.html

Pull of Gravity, Gae Polisner  http://gaepolisner.com/html/ya.html

Dear Life You Suck, Scott Blagden http://scottblagden.com/

How does the tone of the YA’s differ from the middle grades novels above? What tips you off to the age of the protagonist/narrator?

Third person:

Hide and Seek, Kate Messner,  https://www.katemessner.com/hide-and-seek/  How does the narrator set the tone? How does the grandmother’s voice (especially pg. 2) differ from the narrator?

Capture the Flag,  Kate Messner https://www.katemessner.com/capture-the-flag/

“It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.”
—Jack Kerouac

Now, do some eavesdropping of your own….

This lesson actually evolved when my husband asked why I have such a collection of “rusty, dusty” antiques. Now I use these treasures as writing prompts. : )


In advance: select an object –anything will do–an antique, a child’s toy, family memento, etc.

Variation for your classroom: If you’re introducing a book or even a history unit to your class, gather some objects that might represent that story or era. I once used a few river rocks (the Acropolis) and my husband’s “Greek” sandals to intro a mythology unit.

What I tell my students: Each object, like a seashell which whispers of the ocean’s roar, has a unique story to tell.  All you have to do is eavesdrop, and write it down.

The stories have been left on the object by all who have come in contact with it:  The person who made it, the one who sold it, the one who purchased it, or trades for it, or received it as a gift;  the person who tossed it in the attic,  and the one who found it again… All of these people have left their stories for you to find.

No two individuals will hear the same story, because the object knows which one you want to hear.

DON’T  THINK !!! (Students love this rule.)  LISTEN !!!!!

(And write down what you hear…)

I can’t wait to read what you’ve HEARD!

Note from Kate: Me too! So please share a sample of today’s writing in the comments if you’d like.


22 Replies on “Teachers Write 8/12/13 Mini-Lesson Monday with Erin Dealey

  1. Clearing the Cowebs
    In just two
    short hours we
    will drive down
    the road to
    take Daisy to
    the vet. Is
    it her last
    visit there? Is
    it the last
    time we see
    her? If the
    cancer is only
    in her spleen,
    we will pick
    her up and
    she’ll live out
    her doggy days
    with us. If
    not, we will
    come home with
    her, dig a
    hole alongside
    her best friend,
    Keko. Her son,
    Boomer, is confused.
    What will he
    do without her?
    I’ve prayed, and
    hope it’s been
    enough. She’s been
    the dog that
    just wanted to
    be loved. Nothing
    else. We’ve done
    that for nine
    short years. Our
    dogs are truly
    blessed. No leashes,
    no dog runs,
    they run free
    on our land.
    A 5 mile
    jog on a
    dirt road daily.
    Snowshoeing in the
    winter. Four wheeler
    rides on crisp
    fall days. Swimming
    in Moosehead Lake,
    Cold Stream Pond.
    In just two
    short hours, we’ll
    know. I’m not
    ready to know.

    1. I have been out of the range of WiFi and just began to read these wonderful responses. Sending you and Daisy hugs, Kim. We have been there before as well. Please let us know how your vet visit went…

  2. Dear Erin,

    Thanks for the great ideas for exploring Voice in the classroom. Here is my Clearing the Cobwebs activity! This was very helpful for me this morning!

    I am tired
    read Endangered till
    midnight couldn’t stop
    compelling book to
    share with class.
    Perfect for science
    and discussion of
    endangered animals &
    our role in
    helping around world.
    Will I work all day or
    enjoy an afternoon
    nap since the
    days of summer are quickly leaving?
    Only 7 more
    days till I
    have to be
    at school. I’m
    so excited to
    be starting 6th
    grade again, but
    also nervous to
    try all my
    new ideas for
    reading & writing.
    I’ve learned so
    much this summer!
    I need to
    slow down a
    little so I
    don’t overwhelm my
    new students with
    my enthusiasm &
    pace! I must
    slow myself down!

    1. Hi Debbie,
      I’m glad it helped. It’s an interesting release for your students too. I hope you’ll share their cobwebs with us some time soon. #Lucky6thGraders : )

  3. Thanks, Erin, for these several ways to make the abstract idea of voice more accessible. I picked an object and drafted this: (Teachers Write has revealed that my voice(s) gravitate towards the parenthetical!)

    Our lives used to be grand. We perched at the center of everything, without stooping to be centers of attention. Amid the bustle, we were stoic calm in blond wood and acrylic. The rich and famous buzzed all around us, sometimes reaching for me (shake, shake my savory flakes), sometimes for you (grind, grind your piquant flecks), and sometimes (joy!) for the two of us in quick succession. And then it all ended. One moment, we basked in our usual bliss; the next, we noticed a nearby lady eyeing us with greed – not the familiar greed of hunger, but outright covetousness. Her two hands, each clutching a bulky, black mitt, hovered above the edge of the table. We saw those hands go up, and then darkness swooped down. The woman’s hands slid us right into her lap and then bundled us out of the ski lodge. Days later, she installed us in her own home (cemetery-quiet) on her own table (more blond wood), and that is where we linger, dwelling on what we lost.

    1. This is wonderful Brian! (I gravitate toward the parenthetical too!) Now that they’ve found their voice, the savory flecks and flakes can at least tell their tales of the ski lodge. (To be continued?)

  4. On the shelf lurks a crab. Metal but not silver, bumpy and gray. Waiting. Beady eyes standing guard, his mustached face frozen in mid-scuttle. Tiny hands once lifted him down, opened the hinged head and stroked rich red felt, not velvet. The secret guardian waiting for the treasure. A necklace. A tiny doll. A piece of broken plate found digging in the backyard. A tooth. A vial of homemade perfume, leaky and sweet.

    Time-softened hands, weathered by writing and stroking and holding and making, by playing and wringing, by conjuring and fixing and hoping and doing, reach for him now, no longer afraid of pincers. He has never faded or tarnished. He is still waiting, ready to guard. He is empty.

    If you fold him back and breathe deep, it will come tumbling out. Memories of pouring bath oils and mother’s perfumes, mixing and testing and sampling and sharing. Of days on your knees in the backyard digging. Of birthdays and ticket stubs and necklaces made from thread. Of riches. Of friends gone on. Time has faded, but the fragrance lingers.

    1. So lovely, Jane. What a treasure of vivid memories you’ve unleashed. As a reader, I want you to “fold him back,” and let more images tumble out.
      As a teacher, you’ll find your students will think it’s easier to “eavesdrop” and write from this technique because they aren’t “really” writing as themselves. : )

  5. Dear Erin (and Kate)
    I’m so glad you wrote about voice! This is by far (I think) the hardest to teach and to acquire as an author. I loved the cobweb activity, and enjoyed hearing about the struggles of getting students to write. I tried the writing prompt, and two things occurred. One, I started a poem. I can’t wait to see where that takes me. I’ve learned to TRUST in the process this summer. And the second thing is the object prompt. Here is “it’s” story:

    Tante Eva’s Tea Cup

    I have an “aunt” who took care of me after I escaped from communist E. Germany. My escape story is quite a secret.

    When E. Germany was under communist rule, barbed wire surrounded the countryside and riflemen perched in the towers aimed to shoot anyone that dared approach the fences from either side. I was trapped inside the gated country for years. My family kept me hidden in the hopes that I might get out someday. Every once in a while, Oma held my white, porcelain complexion carefully, dusting my gold trim and dainty flowers from time to time. Mostly, I remained wrapped, protected from the outside world. “No time for tea,” was the expression I heard most often.

    My owner, Oma Liebbecke, the proudest baker in our village, always gave me hope that someday I would get to see the world. On occasion, I’m not sure why, we would get a visitor from outside the fence and Oma would bake the most delicious treats to prepare for the visitor. I could smell the butter cakes baking, but I would not be placed on the table. “No time for tea,” Oma would say. But, today was different. After she made the batter, she uncovered me. She talked all day about the most perfect birthday cake for the visitor from West Germany. I didn’t understand, when she covered me all up again. I didn’t understand at the time that today was the day I would escape. I smelled the delicious birthday cake baking, it seemed close enough to feel the warmth. That was unusual. I heard the visitor talking and then she started to leave. I moved with her. That was unusual. And heard I heard Oma’s voice calling out, “Make sure you take good care of the birth-“ and her voice trailed off. Then, the door slammed. I was moving.

    That was the day the visitor, Oma’s sister, took me over the border, baked inside of a birthday cake. Do you know the guards never checked the cake?

    Tante Eva, Oma’s sister, has taken care of me ever since. Now she is travelling with me again. This time to America! Oma was right, I would escape and see the world. And celebrate another birthday. A special one. Eva’s niece in America is celebrating her 40th birthday. This time, I’m wrapped inside a box with lots of tissue paper and soft bubbles packed all around me. I hope the niece in America likes me enough to hide me, too, and keep me safe.

    Thanks again to everyone who guided us during TeachersWrite!

    1. Dear Andrea,
      Tante Eva’s tea cup story gave me chills. What a fabulous journey it has had, and how wonderful you can share it with others. I encourage you to listen to it again, and this time maybe Tante Eva’s voice or Oma’s will speak to you. the possibilities are endless!

      1. Thanks for the kind comments…I just noticed the word “eavesdrop” in the Tuesday prompt…again. Just like the kids at school, right? Listen to the directions 🙂

        But, I’m happy with this passage I wrote…wouldn’t have thought to go there without your prompting.

  6. Cleaning Out the Cobwebs

    Today I am feeling

    many, many things,

    frustration, anger, apathy.

    It’s overwhelming, really.

    I can give into it.

    I want to badly.

    I tried and hoped,

    felt defeat, at times,

    but felt success – sometimes.

    I was proud, thankful.

    But now I hear

    my efforts were

    not what was wanted.

    I want to scream.

    Did I mess up?

    Are the scores that bad?

    No, they really are not.

    Miracles, in my mind, occurred.

    Really, Really, Really!

    Successes were made.

    A whole lot of them.

    Students moved up.

    Students who thought they

    couldn’t, DID. How wonderful!

    Yes, a couple,

    literally, just a couple

    (that would be just two)

    slipped down, and

    just a little.

    There are reasons,

    excuses some would say.

    But those don’t matter.

    They aren’t a factor, really?

    So, as my mind churns

    and as my heart aches,

    my hurt pride

    tries to extinguish

    my hope, my purpose.

    But I know down deep

    it won’t happen.

    I know what

    and who really matters.

    I won’t give up.

    I know who I am,

    One person answering

    a life call.

    Working hard every day,

    (well, most every day.)

    So, I won’t be defeated.

    I am a success.

    They are a success.

    We are a success.

    So, I move forward.

    This is a new year.

    More opportunities to meet,

    lives to change.

    Scores will move up,

    or maybe down.

    Students’ lives will move

    in many directions.

    And I’ll be right

    where I’m meant to be –

    in front of them, leading,

    and beside them, learning,

    and probably most of all,

    behind each of them –

    encouraging each of them,

    maybe even “moving” them

    to be all

    they can possibly be.

    1. Hi Janet,
      I love how you progressed from your frustrations and fears to the final epiphany and love of teaching. What lucky kids to have you in their lives. : )

  7. Yikes! I didn’t read the directions. Thought it was 3-5 words per line. Oh well, still made me feel better!

    1. Ha–no worries. I always tell my students that it’s ok if a few extra words pop onto the lines. I never mark them off for this. Truly, my feeling is there are really no wrong answers. The words tumble out just the way they are supposed to. That’s the magic of Voice.

  8. I feel the
    boat heel and
    my senses go
    all haywire. I
    can’t explain it
    away and I
    don’t know how
    to talk myself
    down. From high to
    low and back again,
    I don’t know
    why I don’t
    know why the
    Fear clutches me
    in its fist
    in my gut.
    There is nothing
    at all to fear,
    just water and
    a heeling boat
    ready to sail,
    ready to fly…

    1. I loved the immediacy of this exercise! I chose this because I’m struggling to write a piece about sailing for a competition. This greased the wheels and that’s very helpful! I also love, Erin, that you gave artifacts as a prompt. My WIP was inspired by the embroideries and handwork of the real life woman who has become the main character, so this one touched many things in me today. Thank you!

      1. Wow–This gave me chills, Valerie. I was right there with you in that boat.

        I’m such a tactile person that the artifacts always seem to push me further into the story. I’m glad it touched you too.