Show, don’t tell

Every student in every class I’ve taught could tell you what ‘show, don’t tell‘ means. This is because it is one of the most fundamental lessons in writing. In order for your audience to feel something, they have to believe what you’ve written, be able to create a mental image of it and connect with it.

Consider any great fiction book you’ve ever read. I’m going to use J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as an example. The author’s of these books do not simply tell you that a character was pretty or angry. They show you how the character looks, what they are doing, and what they are saying, and the you, the reader, decide that they are pretty or angry or excited.

Have a read of this passage from the beginning of The Lord of the Rings when Gandalf asks Bilbo to leave the ring for Frodo:

“… Now it comes to it, I don’t like parting with it at all, I may say. And I don’t really see why I should. Why do you want me to?” he asked, and a curious change came over his voice. It was sharp with suspicion and annoyance. “You are always badgering me about my ring; but you have never bothered me about the other things that I got on my journey”…Bilbo flushed, and there was an angry light in his eyes. His kindly face grew hard… “And what business is it of yours, anyway, to know what I do with my own things? It is my own. I found it. It came to me.”


In the passage above you can feel Bilbo becoming more and more unsettled. The dialogue between Bilbo and Gandalf becomes more fraught, and by the end Bilbo is beside himself at the notion of parting with the ring. From this short paragraph we begin to suspect that there is more to the ring than simply being a piece of jewellery (providing you’ve not read The Hobbit!) The sudden change in Bilbo’s demeanour with Gandalf, and his words, show us there is a deeper mystery here.

Practising ‘show, don’t tell’ yourself, and modelling it for your students, is a critical element in order for you, and them, to connect authentically to the audience. If we only ‘tell‘ our audience what is happening our story becomes boring and our audience will pop our book down and move on to something else.

Imagine what Tolkien’s writing had been like without the ‘show’.

Gandalf asked Bilbo to place the ring on the mantlepiece. Bilbo didn’t want to because he really liked the ring. He got cross at Gandalf for asking him to give it up and told him to stop meddling in his business.

The same basic information is provided to the reader, but the original allows us to see the characters and feel them, where as the other, well, it’s just boring and one dimensional.

It’s not that we need to get rid of the ‘tell’ altogether. It’s very necessary to tell our readers some things, of course. Even in the above example Tolkien tells us that Bilbo’s voice had become ‘sharp with suspicion and annoyance.’ What we are trying to do is make sure we are ‘showing’ enough to the reader to allow for that mental image to form. To allow them to connect with the emotions of your characters, or the importance of a setting.

In the writing course I am participating in at the moment we had an exercise to write for 8 minutes using the prompt ‘Standing in the rain…’ We were to focus specifically on developing details of our character in order to evoke emotion in the reader. We needed to try to use all of our senses. Here’s what I wrote:

Where had all these people appeared from? Robert glanced around the tram stop to find himself completely hemmed in. He could see the tram coming, and he’d been here first. Longest! He was getting on this tram by hook or by crook.

‘Urgh,’ Robert said out loud as a man pushed past him inhaling a tuna sandwich. The smell was so strong, and there were so many people around, he felt like he was trapped with the sandwich rammed up his nose. He tried breathing through his mouth but that just made him notice how fuzzy his tongue felt. He’d had way too many coffees today.

The tram clattered to a halt and the wave of Johnny-come-lately’s pushed forward. No matter how much he wanted to, Robert could not bring himself to stick his elbows out and force his way on as others were doing. Instead he watched as all but three travellers squished themselves in. Most avoided his gaze as the doors closed, which he thought was prudent.

As the tram pulled away the first raindrop fell. Robert looked up just as the sky opened. He stood, shoulders slumped, allowing the chill of the rain to penetrate his Target business shirt. It rolled right off his Target pants. Whatever they were made of they did not absorb water. Finally he shuffled backwards to shelter undercover with some poor woman and fucking tuna guy.

K. Portier

In this piece I was trying to convey a sense of injustice as well as defeat. But at no point did I use either of those words. I wanted Robert’s actions and thoughts to tell that story.

‘Show, don’t tell’, like everything else about writing, needs practise. By noticing little details in the world and recording them in your writer’s notebook, you will find you have an endless supply of interesting details that will help bring your stories to life. You can also try little prompts like this one, and practise showing your characters feelings through their actions and interactions.

I hope you have a wonderful day and plenty of tea to keep your creative juices flowing! See you soon xx

When writing quiets the mind and soothes the heart

Sometimes the desire to write is so great, if you don’t do it immediately you feel like you might spontaneously combust. Whatever has captured your interest is so important, so necessary, that you have to write it down in order to continue breathing properly.

This is how I felt today. I took my two boys to school, their first day of 2020, and I fully expected to feel sad, and proud, and all the other appropriate adjectives. What I didn’t expect was to feel was so profoundly connected to my children, just by noticing the tiny details of that half an hour drop off.

As I walked away from the school and felt tears stinging behind my eyes for more reasons than I can mention, I knew I had to write. Immediately. I drove to the nearest library and realised it didn’t open for an hour. So there I sat. In the car. The temperature had already soared to around 35 degrees, and wrote everything I felt. I wrote without stopping. Without worrying about whether they were the right words. The best words to capture my emotions. I’ll worry about that later. I just wrote it all, and let the words and the tears fall on to the page in a big, blobby mess.

So here they are. One poem for Albi and one for Noam.


I know how you feel my love

Nervous, so nervous

It makes you angry

We’re embarrassing

Walk behind you

I remember that feeling

towards my own Mum

I get it but, oh

how it hurts

It’s not you though.

Not really

It’s those nerves

The fear that you’ve missed something

That everyone will already be friends

But not you

You’ll be alone

I know how you feel my baby

I wish I could say it changes

It doesn’t

Well, not for me

I’m just better now at hiding it

No Mum to blame

And I’m too old for that

Hang in there my love

Today will be fine

Most days will be fine

And I will be there for them all

I’ll soak up your nervous anger

And wring it out

through my tears

When I’m alone

I know how you feel

my love.

The end.


Look at you

my beautiful soul

Your brother’s cross at me


You feel his pain

And mine

He walks ahead

You drop back

To tell me I’m the best Mama

I pull you close

and ruffle your hair

I don’t understand

when we arrive at the school gates

why every single child

doesn’t rush to you

and greet you with love

like the incredible friend you are.

I go to your brother’s class

He needs me

That’s ok with you

As always

Off you go

Towards year 4 alone

When I return you’re milling around

Looking for a friend

to latch on to

for those first, crippling moments

at least.

Other boys talk

and laugh


You twirl around a pole

I know how you feel my love

Invitations to a party circulate

One for you?


I look away

I don’t understand

A boys stands near you and says hi

You talk together

And in that moment

I love this boy.

The bell rings

Off you go

Towards year 4

But not alone

Never alone

my beautiful soul.

So there you have it. I feel exhausted emotionally but if I hadn’t stopped to write these immediately, in this rough but pure form, the feelings would’ve ebbed away across the day. I couldn’t let them go. Not the words, nor my babies.

In need of a restorative tea now. Until tomorrow xx

Imposter Syndrome

Have you ever experienced that feeling like you’re in over your head? Like you’re about to be found out that you have NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE DOING? Whether it’s at work, or at home, or playing sport? I bet you know exactly what I’m talking about. I bet every single one of you has experienced this feeling at least once, but probably a lot more. Well it’s called Imposter Syndrome, which makes sense since it really boils down to feeling as though you don’t belong.

I have experienced Imposter Syndrome in almost every area of my life. From teaching, to writing, to motherhood. Even recently when learning how to paddle board, I thought to myself – ‘what are you even doing here, you fool! You don’t know what you’re doing, you look like an idiot. Just give up already!’ And in the past I would’ve done just that. Given up and skulked away, back to the safety of…where? Just somewhere else. Away from the countless people I imagine who are mocking me. The problem is, you can never escape from your own damn brain, and that little voice follows you everywhere. If you let it.

Neil Gaiman during his commencement speech at the University of the Arts in 2012 put it this way:

The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something, and that any moment now they will discover you. It’s Imposter Syndrome…I was convinced there would be a knock on the door, and a man with a clipboard…would be there, to tell me it was all over, they had caught up with me, and now I would have to go and get a real job.

Neil Gaiman

My problem is that I’ve always allowed Imposter Syndrome to sink my boat before it’s even afloat. I’d give up on whatever idea I’d had before I’d put pen to paper because:

Obviously everyone can write better than I can. Their ideas are better. Their commitment is stronger. Sometimes I read things that other people write and I don’t even understand half the words they’ve used. What kind of writer am I if I feel like that? My vocabulary must be terrible. My writing must only appeal to the lowest common denominator. If it appeals to anyone at all. 

K. Portier 2020

This is how I used to feel. Well, I still feel it but I am refusing to allow this ridiculous notion thwart my growth any longer. Instead I am harnessing the power of Imposter Syndrome to propel me to learn and grow and practise my craft. So I stretch myself to be the best writer, and best person, I can be.

In my role as a teacher, I’ve heard a lot of educators say things like ‘I’m just not a writer.’ To me, this is Imposter Syndrome infiltrating the classroom. We are all writers really, if we want to be. We just have to actually write, not allow the feeling of being a fraud derail us, and be brave enough to ask for help in order to grow.

In his TED talk on Imposter Syndrome, Mike Cannon Brooks said:

Most successful people don’t question themselves. But they do regularly question their ideas and knowledge…they know when to ask for help and they don’t see that as a bad thing.’

Mike Cannon Brooks

This is where we need to get to as educators. We need to be able to write with the students without allowing the feeling of Imposter Syndrome to impede our growth. To scare us off and whisper ‘I’m just not a writer’. We need to look to colleagues who can help us, or ask to go on a particular PD, in order to practise what we expect our students to do.

I wonder whether there are teachers who feel Imposter Syndrome everyday, regardless of what they’re teaching? If, at times, they think – ‘I have no idea what I’m doing’, and feel suffocated by this notion. Other teachers do it so much better. Other teachers know so much more than I do. Other teachers are more organised. More creative. And the rest. How empowering would it be if instead of telling ourselves that we are no good, that we are merely frauds who’ve snuck in the backdoor somehow, we told ourselves that we have room to grow here. And then set about doing what we need to do, to facilitate that growth.

Consider a doctor who has a patient with symptoms they’ve never seen before. Would that G.P tell themselves ‘Urgh – I’m such a fraud for not being able to diagnose this instantly. I must give up practising medicine immediately’? Of course not. Rather, they may tell themselves – ‘Well this is something new. I’d better do some research and speak to some other people for their ideas’. And that’s what we, as teachers and writers, must also do. Not question ourselves, but our ideas and knowledge.

If Imposter Syndrome has ever infiltrated your consciousness or if it exists there permanently, I urge to think about it in this new way. Instead of allowing that little voice to talk you out of something, let it propel you into something. New learning, growth, practise, development. Let it push you towards the writer and educator you know you can be.

If you have a moment, here is the link to the TED talk I mentioned earlier.

I’m learning to harness Imposter Syndrome and it is empowering. I know you can do it too. Tea time now. Until tomorrow xx

Horses for courses…

I love writing. As you know if you’ve read any of my previous blog posts. I love it but it’s hard. It’s work. Sometimes it even feels like really crappy, dumb work that you wouldn’t wish upon your nemesis. Urgh the slog. But then, at other times, words just seem to fall out of you in the right order. Not only do you not hate what you’ve written, you actually kinda like it. Oh those are the moments! Writing is made up of all those moments plus more. The slog and the crescendo. The dirty and the bright. The uphill battle and the downhill thrill.

Recently I registered for an online writing course about ‘unlocking creativity’. From time to time I enjoy participating in a course to learn new skills, refresh old skills, meet new people, read the work of others, and generally just continue to practise the craft. This particular course has thus far, been enlightening. There are lots of exercises to do that take you to places you may not get to on your own. It’s also a requirement that you leave feedback on the writing of others, which is a skill unto itself, and for teachers, something that is useful to practice. This course also includes tutors who read your writing and give constructive feedback which is supremely helpful. Their insights are thoughtful and beneficial.

Recently in this course I had to write a short piece in response to the word mother. It was a timed exercise of about three minutes. This is what I wrote:

Mum’s room still looks the same. Except for the dust. She’d have hated the dust. The intricate glass trays on the antique bedside tables still hold perfumes from 18 years ago. Chanel No. 5, Amarige; scents that I can never smell without being plunged through the wormhole to 1996. Clothes still hang in the cupboard, most bought on a tab arrangement from Shoppe 336 where she was friends with the owner.

I searched the bedside drawers once, looking for who knows what? A letter from a clandestine lover? The drawers have a particular smell now. That special smell when jewellery, papers, trinkets, buttons, threads, all share a small space for many years. Tiny memories of a life, held within each item, slowly seep out and bond, until the time when you finally, finally open the drawer again and it hits you, in your face and in your heart.

Kristine Portier

I quote Robert Frost to the kids in my classroom all the time:

No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.

Robert Frost

I believe his words with all my heart. If you, as the writer aren’t moved in some way, then you can never expect to move your audience. That little piece above, that means a lot to me. I can feel it and smell and see it. As the author I hope you can too.

This course has already helped unleash ideas and motivate me in ways that I hadn’t contemplated. I’m grateful that I took the plunge to join and I’m going to use this opportunity and get the most out of it. If you’ve ever considered doing an online course to kick start your writing journey, or reinvigorate it, I would highly recommend it. I’m also a regular at Catherine Deveny’s Masterclasses and Writing Retreats which are phenomenal.

Courses, (of course) are not necessary in order for you to write, just having a writer’s notebook handy and noticing the world will facilitate that. But sometimes courses pop up at the right time for the right reason and give you that swift kick up the bum you need to just write. The slog and the crescendo.

In the meantime, have a think about the quote from Robert Frost. Perhaps it’s something you can also connect with? I hope you’ve had a lovely day full of writing and tea. xx

Dear fellow educators, please stay the course.

With the new school year only days away, I know that most teachers are busy preparing classrooms, resources, planning documents and a host of other things, in order to at least start the year feeling on top of work. I also know that it won’t take too long for the administrative duties, meetings, emails and phone calls to start to erode that feeling preparedness and control.

On top of all this, I know how a lot of teachers feel when they see something like this:

Despair. A lot of teachers feel despair. That all the hard work and energy they put in to this incredibly challenging, and rewarding job, really boils down to how the kids perform in NAPLAN. This was a display that confronted me at the entrance of Costco today!

The sad reality is a lot of schools do teach to the test. They know that parents will be looking on the MySchool website and if the school up the road has better NAPLAN results then those parents will choose that school. Forget the fact that the kids at the school up the road may hate writing, because it’s so prescribed, or may feel no passion for reading, because they can’t choose what to read. That all comes a distant second to NAPLAN results.

It really has just become a tool for comparison. School comparison. And I can see the principal’s are stuck in the middle. They may dislike NAPLAN as much as the rest of us but if school enrolments drop, then classes are cut, and teachers lose their jobs. It’s a very sticky situation.

All I can say is this: stay the course.

  • Keep teaching students in a way that makes them love literacy (and maths if that’s your jam).
  • Don’t start teaching to the test. That is a sure fire way to suck the joy out of learning.
  • Keep using your writer’s notebook and modelling what excellent authors do.
  • Keep immersing your students in different ways to write genres so NAPLAN assessors don’t read thousands of persuasive pieces that all read: firstly, secondly, lastly.
  • The ‘ideas’ component of NAPLAN is worth much more than spelling or paragraphing for a reason!
  • Remind the students that this test fails to show what truly matters; their love of learning, compassion, and persistence, among other things.

NAPLAN doesn’t help teachers one jot. By the time the results come back (many months after the test is taken) they are no longer relevant. Students have learnt so much in that time, their marks from a test months ago are completely redundant. We know that in order for feedback to be of any use it needs to be timely and NAPLAN is far from that.

It’s a shame that it is still in operation but while it is we have to manage it.

Good luck to all you glorious educators out there as you in to the 2020 school year. You do an incredible job that isn’t given half the recognition it’s due. But when NAPLAN rolls around again, don’t despair. Stay the course and remain true to your teaching philosophy. And if it ever all feels too much – have a cup of tea (or several). xx

Cartoon Courtesy of Cathy Wilcox

Practising Gratitude

Like everything good in life that’s worth learning, gratitude takes practise. It’s all well and good in theory, ‘yeah, yeah I’m grateful for my friends and family etcetera’, but when you actually want to feel a shift in your being; real meaningful change, that’s a different thing.

I’ve always been a pretty happy person and by that I mean, I love to laugh and make people laugh. But over the course of my life I found myself leaning further into the ‘this is all rubbish, why does the world hate me?’ camp. You know, deaths and divorces, moving homes and challenging jobs, awful world leaders hell bent on killing us all. These things take their toll.

All of a sudden I found myself feeling perpetually sorry for myself and wondering what I could do to change the situation. I’m still working on this of course, but I feel there are a few things that have certainly helped me begin to acknowledge and appreciate the joy in life.

The first, and the most important for me, has been to change the things that I can change to improve my situation. I needed time away from a stressful job and more time with my children. Done. I’ve taken a year off and I’ll do what I have to do to pay the rent. I once listened to Nelly Thomas speak about being a stand up comedian and she said this which I’ve never forgotten:

In order to do what you really want to in life, you have to understand what you’re willing to take on to make it happen. I decided that I’d clean houses to make up any shortfall in income I had from comedy.

Paraphrased from Nelly Thomas

For me, I’m willing to make up any shortfall I have from writing by doing relief teaching and consulting. Though I may not make as much as I did from my full time job, I will make what I need. This decision has allowed me to feel a much deeper sense of gratitude towards how I spend my days. I feel grateful to be able to read more with my kids. I feel grateful every time I sit at my desk and churn out another solid writing session. Last night as my kids ate their dinner on our back patio and my partner and I sat next to them, I looked out over our rented property and for the first time I did not feel sad that we weren’t in a home that we owned. Instead, I felt gratitude at the memories that our family has made in this house and the memories yet to come.

Another important learning curve I’m going through on the path to gratitude is from Tony Robbins, who I’ll admit I’ve steered clear of for a long time. I’m not sure why except to say that I thought he was a bit of a charlatan. Apologies to everyone who’s a fan. Anyway, someone pointed me in the direction of his discussion on blame. Imagine, if you will, you have a partner, or boss, or friend, or colleague, or parent and you feel deep resentment towards them for whatever reason. You blame them, to some degree, for the bad things that have happened to you. It can be all-consuming can’t it? Well Tony’s advice is this: if you’re going to blame them for all the bad stuff they’ve done to you, you’d better blame them for all the good stuff too.

For example, if your Mum was cruel to you and you blame her for that, you also need to blame her for the strength you now have to ensure no one else is treated that way. If you feel let down or injured by a friend and blame them for hurting you, you also need to blame them for showing you how to behave in a friendship. What it means to be a good friend. I had a boss who fired me once and I hated him for the longest time. Instead I could’ve been feeling gratitude towards him for teaching me exactly what a leader doesn’t look like. You get the idea.

I am very aware that this thinking has limitations in some spaces but for run-of-the-mill blame games it is quite liberating to be rid of that bitterness and instead be grateful for what that person has taught you.

Finally, I have found that taking time everyday to reflect, and write down what I’m grateful for, has helped me to be more aware of the little things in life we often miss. Lighting a beautifully scented candle, taking a walk alone, having time to make a green smoothie; these are all moments that disappear without a trace unless we take a moment to appreciate them.

I know many people who use gratitude journals and write in them daily. I was gifted one for Christmas that I’m learning to use every day. I also believe you could use your writer’s notebook for this purpose because to me, being grateful is just another way of noticing the world. Perhaps you could write down some moments or people you’re grateful for today?

Right now I’m eternally grateful for tea. And words. Until tomorrow xx

Scotty from (sports) marketing

Guess who’s back? Back again.

Scotty’s back. Tell your friends…

In the third instalment, Scotty from (sports) marketing has released another poem to explain to the ‘loud’ Australians how good sports grants are.

Well hi there my friend,

My cobber, my pal,

I’m back to remind you

It’s all going well

The fires have stopped

Well most of them anyway

And we’ve said that we will

Give the volunteers pay

But only if they worked

Between 8 and 6

And only if they wear

A gold crucifix

And only if they didn’t

Then go on to work

And get paid for that

Woah! I’m not a jerk

I’m generous, I’m kind

I’m unreasonably fair

No one could say

I’m not doing my share

Now back to the weather

How good is that rain?

It’s just what we prayed for

To ease all our pain

And now that it seems

It’s all under control

You wanna rip in

About a soccer goal?

Do me a favour

And give me break

Bridget’s alright

She aint no snake

And nor for that matter

Are me or old Josh

We gave money where needed

That’s not hogwash

Yes it may seem that

We favoured some places

Where the LNP struggled

But by God’s good graces

You’ll see that’s not true

I firmly deny it

This did not help us

Win the election (or buy it)

Sure there’s some suspect

Aspects about things

Like Lilli Pilli v Coledale

They both fought like kings

But Coledale, well

They didn’t have the right stuff

In the end they weren’t quite

Marginal enough

So Lilli Pilli

Got their fair share of the cake

Just ’cause it’s my electorate

Doesn’t mean it’s a mistake

Coledale and the others

They’ll all be fine

A nice little chook raffle

Will raise a few dimes

People are generous

Haven’t you seen

How much was raised

For the after fire clean?

It seems like Australians

Are desperate to part

With their hard earned cash

In the aftermath

So why should the Government

Spend taxpayer money

On fires or sports club

In any way impartially?

Well, quite right, we shouldn’t

You’re much better off

With us in control

Trickling down from the top.

The end. It seems I had a lot of pent-up Scotty from Marketing issues that needed an outlet. I hope you all have a wonderful day that includes plenty of tea and plenty of writing. xx

Picture courtesy of AAP: Mick Tsikas

Poetry Arsenal

When I started teaching I was fortunate enough to meet two literacy consultants, Alan Wright and Vicki Froomes. They guided me, and a host of graduates, through our first, terrifying year of teaching, encouraging us in our use of writer’s notebooks, conferences, and book boxes. Alan shared his writer’s notebook often, and I’d regularly find him in the staffroom at lunch time, busily recording his thoughts in it.

He also introduced me to his poetry suitcase and it made such an impression on me I immediately bought an old case from the op shop, and began my poetry collection for school. I couldn’t remember reading much, if any, poetry at primary school. At home I was obsessed with Spike Milligan’s Silly Verse For Kids. My Dad would read his poems to me and I found them hilarious. But at school? I couldn’t even recall a poetry section in our little school library.

These days I am fully aware of the importance of poetry. As Ralph Fletcher explains in his book Poetry Matters, poetry is always what we turn to in important times. When we want to say something beautiful and succinct, at a wedding or funeral or birthday, we turn to poetry. We need our students to feel the importance of poetry too, and write it! We need them to experiment with rhythm and rhyme, alliteration, imagery. All the clever devices poets use to make their audience feel something.

I’ve observed that students find the technical freedom poetry presents as a key that unlocks their writing passion.

Whenever I’m at an op shop or a bookstore I am always on the hunt for poetry books to inspire our young writers. I have developed quite a collection that I’ll share parts of over the coming months. Today however, I think it’s poignant to show you this beautiful example. As you are aware Australia has been in the grips of a bushfire crisis and many of us have felt a sense of helplessness in the face of it. This magnificent book: I Am The Seed That Grew The Tree, has a beautiful environmental theme by offering a nature poem for every day of the year.

Selected by Fiona Waters. Illustrated by Frann Preston-Gannon

Imagine starting each day in the classroom with a nature-inspired poem? Poetry would become a regular fixture for your students, rather than just a topic you look at once and then move on. As I read through this book I found poem that I think would be perfect for the beginning of the school year. Forget the boring old ‘write a recount about what you did on the holidays’, read the kids this poem and see what they make of it. Then see what they write in a similar style.

Russel Hoban

So many interesting conversations to be had here about the way the poem is structured, how not all the lines rhyme and how that adds to the music of it. The details that the poet has included could be a fabulous launching pad about noticing the world around us. You can tell I love this poem!

I am excited to continue adding to my poetry suitcase and if you don’t feel as though you have enough poetry in your school or library (or life!) perhaps think about starting your own poetry suitcase. The students love them! All it takes is a trip to the op shop and an eagle eye.

Right. That’s all from me today. Cup of tea time then off to the land of nod. Until tomorrow xx

Getting out of the comfort zone

Yesterday I spoke about conferencing with students and how important a tool it is to know your students more deeply and understand them as writers. Today I’m continuing on with that thread and writing about how to give useful feedback to students in order to encourage them, as well as identifying areas they would benefit from focusing on.

Have you ever faced this situation? You’re conferencing with a student, you’ve noticed there are parts of the story that are less coherent; the audience would feel confused, and you discuss this with them. They look at you, listen, and repeat the words, ‘yep, yep, yep,’ to everything you say. You try to open the dialogue so it’s an actual conversation, you use all the open ended questions, but they still reply, ‘yep, yep, yep’. As though they already knew what you were telling them.

Sound familiar? It’s happened to me as well. For a while I beat myself up, thinking, ‘wow, I really mustn’t have given them enough opportunity to speak. Perhaps I was just ‘telling’ them what to change rather than discussing the passage with them’. But no, on reflection I had tried my utmost to make it a two-way conversation. Maybe then they just can’t take feedback? Perhaps they’re the kind of kid who always has to be right and gets their puss on even discussing the possibility that their writing has room for improvement? Again, no. They’re not like that in class usually, or out in the yard.

And then it dawned on me. Receiving feedback can be really hard. If you’ve put a lot of effort into a piece of writing and then hear there’s an area where the audience might be confused, that can seem quite confronting. Of course, it’s all in the way it’s delivered but it is also a skill that needs practicing. Learning to take feedback in the spirit in which it’s offered, is as important as many other areas of learning.

I wonder how often most teachers receive feedback on their own writing? Sometimes? Never? It can be tricky to navigate and if you don’t have a lot of experience in it yourself you can leave a student feeling wounded, or, equally as harmful, as though their writing is perfect.

I am a big believer in being willing and able to participate in the same learning as your students, and the writer’s notebook is an excellent way to begin. Keeping your own shows an authenticity to the students. If their teacher uses a writer’s notebook to keep ideas in then it must be important to do.

Another, less comfortable avenue to take is to do some writing yourself and ask for some feedback. Ask your students for feedback, ask your colleagues or another trusted adult for feedback. Focus on the conversation that is had about your hard work and how it makes you feel and why? This experience can only serve to help you converse more thoroughly with your students during conferences.

The NYC Midnight competition is fabulous fun for any teachers (or anybody) who would like to have a go at writing a short story and receive feedback on it. It’s prompt-based, which may not suit everyone, but again, all our students have to sit the prompt-based NAPLAN writing test, so why shouldn’t teachers have a go at how that feels? NYC Midnight gives you 8 whole days to write a short story and all entries receive feedback, which is unusual for a writing contest.

The first time I entered I was deadset nervous. Would the judges think it was rubbish? Did it make sense? Who knew? But when I received the comments from the panel I was able to identify where my piece needed additional information and which parts had left them laughing. It was an illuminating experience which helped me understand how some students may feel when they engage in a writing conference.

The NYC Midnight contest starts again today. I’ve entered, and I know some of my colleagues have too. Wish us luck! But the process is always more important than the outcome. Until tomorrow friends, tea and writing xx

To be or not to be…a great teacher

In his highly instructional and engaging book Everything I Know About Writing, John Marsden’s dedication page reads:

In my primary, secondary and tertiary schooling I had some terrible teachers, a lot of mediocre ones, and a few who were wonderful. Among this last group were: Mrs Marjorie Scott, Mr Tom Baddiley, Mr Robert Parker and Mr Nigel Krauth. This book is dedicated to them, with thanks for their encouragement, support and inspiration.

John Marsden

I would hazard a guess that most of us had a similar experience. I can remember the names of all my terrible teachers and how they made me feel, and I look back fondly on those very few teachers who treated me like a person, and saw something in me beyond a loud, but terrified teenager. All the mediocre teachers have seeped from my memory leaving barely an imprint.

As I wrote in the ‘About Me’ section of this blog – I remember two of my high school English teachers as being in the ‘wonderful’ group; Mrs Panayotis and Mrs Nikolades. I often think about what it was that elevated them into a truly special group of educators who helped me become me. I believe it was because they took the time to see beyond the facade that I, and no doubt countless other teenagers present at high school. They actually read my writing and saw some positives in it, even if there was technically more to work on than celebrate. Oh how I wish more teachers did this.

Now, as a teacher in the classroom, I realise how challenging it is to juggle the needs of 28 students and give them each enough of my time to make a difference.

Writing conferences are not a new idea but I know there are plenty of schools out there who haven’t yet adopted this critical practice. To create the time and space for a one on one discussion with a student about their writing and about them as writers, is just about the richest data you can obtain.

By creating a routine, where teacher and student can work together, with the aim of improving the writer, rather than a particular piece, everyone benefits. Teachers learn more about the writing habits of their students, their passions and challenges, and students have a golden opportunity to talk about themselves, without having to cut through the noise of 27 other kids. Together they can establish goals for the student to think about and work on, and at their next conference, reflect on how they’ve progressed.

Without writing conferences, I wouldn’t have begun to understand the needs of each individual student across the years. I may’ve missed the incredible poetry of A, because she was terrified of making spelling mistakes. I may’ve been blind to the dedicated revisions made by M, who was able to write coherent parallel storylines in year 4, or I may never have told L how her experimenting with structure lifted her piece from good to incredible. I was able to do these things though, and share in the triumphs of these young writers, because I made time.

I was fortunate enough to work in a school who valued the opportunity to conference. I can see how difficult it would be to implement in a school that did not. It does take time and organisation, but it is without question the richest source of information you can gather on your writers.

In another post I’ll examine the importance of being a teacher-writer in order to better help your students. I think it stands to reason though, that it would be challenging to have a meaningful conference about the effort and struggles of a student writer, if the teacher is unfamiliar with those struggles themselves.

Quite often teachers question whether or not they are, in fact, having a positive impact on their students, or if they might instead be one of those mediocre teachers John Marsden refers to. (The fact that you’re bothering to read a blog about writing automatically elevates you from the ‘terrible’ category 🙂

A few days ago I received a message from a parent that made me teary.

H loves writing, she loves it even more than reading now…She has you to thank for this, H was never a writer until she met you.


I’m nothing out of the ordinary as a teacher. I’m no John Keating from Dead Poets Society. But I do try to remember how those two great teachers made me feel about writing, and offer the same courtesy to my students. By conferencing with them regularly, listening to them, and reading their work, I am making time for them.

I hope you all have a few teachers that bring back fond memories for you? Why not write about them and what made them so special? Or the reverse and write about how those evil, swamp-dwelling teachers made your life a misery. Either way, write something, drink some tea, and enjoy. xx