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I vividly remember looking at the B+ on the top of my essay and seeing the A on the top of my friend Kristen’s. I flipped through the five pages of the essay, searching for teacher comments.There were none, no explanation for why I had received a B+.

I promptly made an appointment with the teacher. At our meeting, he flipped through the paper and pointed out one sentence.

“I don’t like this sentence,” he said as he handed the paper back to me.

“I got a B+ because of one sentence?” I asked incredulously, expecting him to either further explain or raise my grade.

Instead, he shrugged his shoulders.

I left the meeting unsure why Kristen had earned a higher grade than I and unsure about how to improve my writing for a better grade.

As a teacher and tutor, that experience has guided my own feedback on student papers.

The best method I have found for giving clear, fair feedback is to use rubrics. Rubrics make clear which writing strategies a writer has mastered and those that need improvement.

Here is an example:

Family Legend Rubric






Organization Strong lead that develops readers’ interest, a developed middle that builds tension; and a satisfying ending that provides closure. Either a strong lead, a developed middle or a satisfying ending but not all three. Maybe the middle drags on too long or the ending is a bit abrupt. Organization is rough but workable. Story may get off topic once or twice. Story is aimless or disorganized. It lacks direction.

Paragraphs Beginnings of all paragraphs indented and capture the reader’s interest. Beginnings of all paragraphs indented, have one topic/paragraph. Several problems with paragraphs. Use of incorrect paragraph format.  
The Legend Story gives details about one exciting, funny, sad or unusual historical event and uses hyperbole to create the legend quality. Tell about one specific historical event in detail but not much exaggeration for legend quality. Focus on more than one historical event, none of which have enough detail to give the story a clear focus. Story has no focus and is probably confusing to a reader.  
The narrative arc Narrative includes a hook, exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Narrative includes at least hook, rising action, climax, and resolution. Narrative includes some elements of the narrative arc. Narrative is missing the elements of a narrative arc.  
Conventions Use of first person form, and correct sentence structure, grammar, punctuation and spelling. Mechanics are good. Errors may be from taking risks, trying to say things in new or unusual ways. Frequent errors which are distracting but do not interfere with meaning are made. Numerous problems with grammar, spelling, etc. make the story hard to read.  

The above rubric gives descriptions for a writing project that has exemplified the expectations of the assignment, and descriptions for assignments that have missed some expectations. What makes this rubric effective is that it ties directly to the lessons that are part of the instruction for writing a family legend: lessons about a hook, the narrative arc, and essential elements of a legend as well as general expectations for mastery of written English conventions.

To create a grading rubric, follow these steps:

1. Decide on four or five specific writing strategies the writer should have mastered.

2. Write descriptions of the “perfect” assignment for each writing strategy.

3. Write descriptions for assignments which meet some expectations but not all.

4. Share with writer so he/she is aware of the expectations.

It is easy to find grading rubrics on-line, but it is best to create one which ties directly to the assignment and the focus of the instructional content leading up to the final draft of the writing project.

In a perfect world, a student or learner will be able to continue to work on a project until it is perfect. I am currently revising, again, an essay I have been working on for 18 months. It’s still not good enough so I keep improving the piece. But, sometimes a writing project needs a grade and serves as a lesson for future writing assignments.

Using grading rubrics to provide clear, specific feedback allows a learner to recognize those parts of the assignment she was successful on, and those areas needing improvement.

When teaching students how to write, clear feedback will motivate students, not leave them wondering why they received an arbitrary grade.

I can remember when my son took swimming lessons so many summers ago. It was great fun to watch him go from a floundering water baby to a  proficient swimmer. Then several years later, he decided to join the swim team. Suddenly his proficient swimming skills were exposed to be basic, beginner techniques. Sure they were good enough to keep him from sinking, even to get him to win the pool game of Marco Polo, but to be a member of the swim team required that he perfect his swimming techniques, from kicking with straight legs to cupping his hands correctly.

Then this summer, watching the Olympics swimming contests, the beauty of the sport lay in the perfection of the techniques, so much so that the techniques weren’t even apparent.

If we think about the progression of learning to swim, it is very similar to the progression of learning to write, specifically how grammar, or the cupping of the hands, fits.

To learn how to swim, children must be in the water. Likewise, to learn how to write, learners must be in a text-rich environment.  Surrounding learners with text they are interested in and honoring their writing is the first step in teaching children to write. Practice worksheets with corrections to make is like having children sit by the pool and practice the dog paddle, explaining they will get to swim once they can show on the dry land that they know how to do the proper strokes.

Once children begin to write on their own, focusing on grammar lessons which are relevant to their writing will make the lessons meaningful and memorable. The basics, capital letters to begin sentences and end punctuation, is  the beginning of managing grammar in writing. From there the rules and techniques grow more and more complex in direct correlation to the complexity of the writing.

The level of instruction needed to teach grammar within a writing curriculum will be based on the level of complexity of a child’s writing. It may be enough to rely on peer editing, parental feedback and tools found within word processing programs.

Ultimately, though, just like my son had a swimming instructor when he was on the swim team, learners will need an expert in writing to be able to explain the nuances and requirements of grammar.

And yes, there is a place for worksheets to practice grammar. When a student is struggling in his writing with correctly punctuating dialog, I provide a worksheet for him to practice these skills. Once he has practiced enough, the rules and techniques will become automatic. Remember, the worksheet is practice that is relevant to the student writing.

Grammar is important. Can you imagine driving without following driving laws with other drivers who are making up their own rules? Now, can you imagine reading this post without relying on grammar and punctuation to guide your reading?

Proficient writers will want to have a mastery of grammar and punctuation rules. Mastery begins with beginning, then slowly adding techniques toward mastery.

Points to remember:

1. Effective grammar lessons are relevant to a learner’s writing.

2. Effective grammar lessons become more complex as a learner’s writing becomes more complex.

3. Effective grammar lessons are best taught by an expert in the field.

4. Practice is an important part of effective grammar lessons when the practice is relevant to authentic writing.

For some great grammar products, go to the “Help for Parents” page.

So, it’s officially back to school.

Though many schools no longer follow the traditional school year and begin school after Labor Day, that Tuesday reality sets in that it is a long ten months until June.

Even home-schoolers get back-to-school blues according to Danielle Ali Shah in her blog about returning to homeschooling. But it helps if you keep in mind the “four agreements for home schooling.”

1. Follow your heart when making educational decisions.

The numbers are out and it seems more and more families are choosing to home school their children for a variety of reasons.  It seems odd that this would be news since we have always believed that parents are a child’s first teacher. Parents often lament not following their hearts when making decisions about the education of their children. I pulled my son from a well-regarded public school and never regretted it.

2. Don’t take anything personally.

Unfortunately, many home-schoolers continue to feel ostracized by the established educational community. As a public educator for over 24 years, the one thing I have learned for sure – I may be an expert in my field of study, but I am not an expert in another person’s child and my job as a teacher or tutor is to provide a service for that first teacher and child expert.

3. Find your tribe.

Luckily, many families are finding ways to home school which best meet their needs at home and in community.

4. Always do your best.

This may seem obvious, but it is nice to be reminded that we do the best we can and forget the rest. This is true for parents and for students.

So, as we all get back to school, we relearn to juggle our life commitments with our educational commitments – and look forward to Winter Break.

In the 2007 report Writing Next: Effective Strategies to Improve Writing of Adolescents in Middle and High Schools , eleven strategies are listed as showing statistically proven results. The first of these is to teach students writing strategies. It is reported:

Writing Strategies (Effect Size = 0.82)
Teaching adolescents strategies for planning, revising, and editing their compositions has shown a
dramatic effect on the quality of students’ writing. Strategy instruction involves explicitly and
systematically teaching steps necessary for planning, revising, and/or editing text (Graham, 2006).
The ultimate goal is to teach students to use these strategies independently.

In my opinion, the key to these strategies is to teach strategies “explicitly and systematically.”

What are some steps home schoolers can use to do this?

1. When assigning a writing project, assign the student to read models of that type of writing.

For example, when students are to write “business” letters, we spend time reviewing letters to the editor, letters from companies that come in the mail, and sample “business letters” found on the internet. Likewise, when I am attempting to write a specific type of essay, such as a travel essay, I read lots of these. Usually, I find an anthology of this type of writing and read through it before I even begin writing, but sometimes I first write several rough drafts so my thoughts are on paper, then use the models to guide my revision. In either case, looking to see how others have completed this writing project will help to guide my writing.

2. Use prewriting tools to organize thoughts on topic.

A search for a graphic organizer for a writing type or genre will give students one way of organizing their thoughts. Compare and contrast essays are organized differently than persuasive essays. Graphic organizers will help students understand the difference. Simply type the genre and “graphic organizer” into  google for several examples.

3. Use peer editing for revision.

The simplest but very effective use of peer editing the writer reading the essay out loud to a parent or sibling or friend. The listener’s only job is to write down questions they have while listening. These questions will help guide revisions because they will force the writer to make clarifications or add information.

4. Use a checklist for editing.

A checklist forces students to go through the essay methodically to be sure everything is in order. A checklist which  requires students to check for developmentally appropriate writing conventions ensures the student is pushing herself to present a publishable piece of writing. To determine what is developmentally appropriate think about the complexity of the grammar, punctuation and sentence forms being used. For example, if a student is still struggling with writing complete sentences, it is probably not a good idea to require the writing project to include complex/compound sentences.

These are easy writing strategies which can be used for every writing project to improve the writing of your home school writer.

When most high school, home school writers think of writing in a journal, they think of Anne Frank’s Diary – personal anecdotes, dreams, and rants captured in a diary.

But most writers use a journal not to capture day to day anecdotes and moods, but to explore writing topics before actually writing about them.

Hence, below is a list of journal topics for exploring specific writing genres.


Some Possible Journal Topics



Journaling topics below may help to inspire you to think about topics for your writing projects.

Friendly Letter Writing Journal Topics


  1. What is your favorite time of year?
  2. I was happiest when. . . .
  3. What is the most important thing you will ever do?
  4. I always wanted to …
  5. When I’m older. . . .
  6. If I had my way. . . .
  7. My plans for the summer…
  8. Describe the best hour of the day.
  9. Complaints.
  10. Daydreams.
  11. What is your favorite kind of weather? Why?
  12. Write one characteristic or habit about yourself that you like and describe it.
  13. What is your hobby? Why do you enjoy it?
  14. Write about something you desperately wanted when you were a kid.
  15. Write about a time you were talked into something and regretted it.
  16. Did you ever make friends with a wild animal?
  17. Write about picking apples, berries, or other fruit or vegetables.
  18. What was it like to get glasses or braces?
  19. Describe your favorite restaurant.
  20. Write about a time your parents were proud of you.
  21. What is the best decision you have ever made?



Personal Narrative Journal Topics


  1. Home
  2. My neighborhood
  3. My family
  4. My pets
  5. My favorite holiday
  6. Awards I’ve earned
  7. My favorite toy
  8. My favorite game
  9. My friends
  10. Traveling
  11. My favorite song
  12. My birthday
  13. Chores
  14. My bedroom
  15. The local store
  16. Cousins
  17. My yard
  18. Hobbies
  19. Unforgettable vacations
  20. Strangers


Family Narrative Journal Topics


  1. Nothing can be worse than. . . .
  2. The problem is. . . .
  3. I know better now.
  4. I’ll never forget …
  5. I took the blame for …
  6. Why does it always have to be me?
  7. Jealousy led to his downfall.
  8. _____ used to be my hero.
  9. I was telling the truth and ____ didn’t believe me.
  10. When he(she) showed up, we were all surprised.
  11. Our next door neighbor…
  12. On my first visit to the dentist…
  13. This weekend I couldn’t ….
  14. My dad’s (mom’s) greatest accomplishment is …
  15. The neighborhood bully…
  16. We were so disappointed …
  17. It seemed like he (she) had everything.
  18. I can’t believe I forgot….
  19. I was only trying to help…
  20. Thank goodness it was only a nightmare.
  21. The best advice I’ve ever gotten was from …

Legend Journal Topics

  1. What is something you do well?
  2. What is a good neighbor?
  3. What is your idea of a dull evening?
  4. What is something that really bugs you?
  5. What is your favorite song and why?
  6. 6.                  What is your favorite movie and why?
  7. What would happen if everyone wore the same clothes?
  8. What would happen if you found gold in your backyard?
  9. What would you do if a friend borrowed things from you but never returned them?
  10. What would you do if the surprise party was for you but you weren’t surprised?
  11. What would you do if you found a magic wand?
  12. If you were five years older you would…
  13. How would you feel if a new child moved into your neighborhood?
  14. How do you feel on a warm sunny day?
  15. How do you feel during a thunderstorm?
  16. How do you feel when something scares you? What do you do when this happens?
  17. How do you think eating junk food affects you?
  18. When you are angry, how do you look?
  19. Once, when your feelings were hurt, what happened?
  20. Once, when you were very frightened, what happened?
  21. Once, when you were embarrassed, what happened?

Interview Journal Topics

  1. Describe a family member.
  2. Compare the personalities of two of your friends.
  3. _____ used to be my hero.
  4. If he/she had his/her way …
  5. My favorite holiday guest is …
  6. I was telling the truth and ____ didn’t believe me.
  7. A strange meeting …
  8. The unexpected guest …
  9. The stranger ….
  10. Our next door neighbor …
  11. My favorite teacher …
  12. My favorite cousin …
  13. My best friend …
  14. I’ll never look him/her in the face again.
  15. Who is the person from history that you would most like to meet and talk to? Why? What would you like to ask?
  16. Who is the person alive today that you would most like to meet and talk to? Why? What would you like to ask?
  17. Who is the person from literature that you would most like to meet and talk to? Why? What would you like to ask?
  18. Babysitting …
  19. How do you get along with your cousins?
  20. A famous person …

Research Project Journal Topics


  1. How do I feel about competition? (sports, school, friends, etc.)
  2. How I can earn money.
  3. Buying your own clothes.
  4. Places I have lived.
  5. Describe the qualities of a good teacher.
  6. Describe the qualities of a good parent.
  7. Describe the qualities of a good friend.
  8. Pets are like people.
  9. Cooking is an art.
  10. Who is the person from history that you would most like to meet and talk to? Why? What would you like to ask?
  11. Who is the person alive today that you would most like to meet and talk to? Why? What would you like to ask?
  12. Describe an animal that you identify with strongly.  Why do you have a special feeling about this animal?
  13. What is your favorite kind of weather? Why?
  14. If you could go back in time anywhere and “anywhen,” where/when would you go and why?
  15. What law would you like to see enacted which would help people? How would it help?
  16. What is your hobby? Why do you enjoy it?
  17. Is there any machine you feel you could not live without? Explain.
  18. Write about something you desperately wanted when you were a kid.
  19. Were you ever in a helicopter? limousine? hot-air balloon?
  20. Write about moving to another city.
  21. Describe an outdoor game you used to play in the summertime.

Poetry Journal Topics



  1. A place from my past, including smells, tastes and textures, is …
  2. Describe sloppy.
  3. Nothing can be worse than…
  4. Compare the personalities of two of your friends.
  5. I was happiest when …
  6. If my desk could talk…
  7. Write about an incident that illustrates shyness.
  8. Write about an incident that illustrates kindness.
  9. Write about an incident that illustrates courage.
  10. Write about an incident that illustrates selfishness.
  11. Write about an incident that illustrates boastfulness.
  12. I cooked the dinner.
  13. If I had my way.
  14. Money of my own.
  15. Being alone…
  16. Pets are like people…
  17. Cooking is ….
  18. My favorite weather …
  19. My first vivid memory is …
  20. The most real emotion is …
  21. Two animals…




Technical Documents Journal Topics



  1. Describe your concept of luxury. Create an advertisement for it.
  2. Describe your ride home. Create a map with direction for it.
  3. How I can earn money. Write a series of steps to earn money.
  4. Buying your own clothes. Write a series of steps for how to buy new clothes.
  5. Your favorite food. Write the recipe for making your favorite food.
  6. My jobs at home. Write the steps to completing one of these jobs.
  7. My plans for the summer. Create an advertisement.
  8. Describe your holiday dinner table.
  9. Describe a day at the mall.
  10. Describe your dream room.
  11. Describe a day at the beach.
  12. Describe a practical joke you played on a friend or family member.
  13. Describe a narrow escape.
  14. Write an advertisement that describes the qualities of a good teacher.
  15. Write an advertisement that describes the qualities of a good parent.
  16. Write an advertisement that describes the qualities of a good friend.
  17. Write the steps to playing with your favorite childhood toy.
  18. Finish this thought: “If I could change one thing about myself. . .” and write a series of steps for making the change.
  19. What law would you like to see enacted which would help people? How would it help?
  20. Is there any machine you feel you could not live without? Write about how your life would be without it.
  21. Write about a time you performed in front of an audience. List what you did to prepare.



In his article, “Common Core Concerns,” Bob Kellogg states the  Home School Legal Defense Association  policy against national standards. This makes perfect sense.

Most parents choose to home school to avoid the measuring stick used to prod children along in the public schools. To be fair, with 35 students in a class, it is imperative to have a system of measuring progress and ensuring preparation for the next grade level, to keep the conveyor belt of grade level accomplishment moving. But, home schooling is a jumping off of the conveyor belt of preparing 35 children for the next teacher and is an embrace of a unique’s child’s unique gifts and development.

So, can common core standards help home school parents?

As a tutor, I know that looking at grade level expectations, currently in the form of state standards, helps my students and I keep on track with what we aim to accomplish.

For instance, the expectations for writing builds from one grade level to the next. Once students are proficient at writing narratives and summaries, they are then asked to write biographical narratives and literary analysis. Students must be able to write less complex compositions before they are asked to write more difficult ones.

The other useful component of the writing standards is the grade level “writing conventions” included (grammar, spelling and punctuation). Of course, these also grow more and more complex as students move through the grade levels, but there was also an attempt to match conventions with age appropriate intellectual development. As all parents know, rarely do our children match the development charts and maps. Many children seem to absorb proper writing conventions through osmosis, or from extensive reading, and other children must be taught these conventions explicitly with lots of detached practice until they have internalized the rules for writing conventions. Still, a guide for which conventions to tackle when is helpful. It may be best to ignore mistakes in dangling modifiers before learners understand parts of speech.

In both cases, the common core standards can be a useful guide for parents, though should not be taken as a dictum for a synchronized march toward graduation. Even classroom teachers, myself included, understand that standards for learning are signposts and points on a map. The joy is always in the journey, and no journey is completed in lockstep march steps.

To be against the common core standards as a defense to being forced to join the conveyor belt of education makes sense. To embrace they as a map for possible destinations also makes sense.

One reason parents home school is the an opportunity for their children to learn authentically.

What exactly does that mean?

I remember when my own son came home to ask when he would even need to know how to write an essay about a book.

“In college?” I answered.

“Besides school, I mean…” he waited, patiently. I’m sure he was convinced that since I was a high school English teacher and regularly made my own students write essays about books, I would have a better answer.

“The assignment is full of many transferable skills like analyzing themes and critical thinking and -”

He cut me off. “So, never. Right?”

I was tempted to launch into my back up speech about jobs and careers which required good writing skills, but from my experiences with my own students I knew this line of logic would be met with the question: “But essays about books, what jobs will require that I write those?”

Rather than make the case that someday he may become a book reviewer or an English professor who must publish or perish, I nodded. “Right.”

Fortunately, when parents choose to home school, they can allow their children to pursue authentic writing or allow them to write about things which interest them and which are useful to them.

Like Caleb Warner in the article, “Happily Home Schooled,” who explains he is writing short stories and a novel and songs. You might wonder when he will ever write any of these things for a job. Well, if he is lucky enough to become a novelist or song writer… but more importantly, each of these writing assignments falls into the category of a narrative, which is done in any job requiring an employee to write an incident report – most jobs.

Now I admit that I do “guide” the students I tutor to write essays exploring issues or analyzing themes of books, but because the instruction is individualized, the writing assignments are authentic or grow out of the child’s interests and knowledge.

I do have a student who is currently writing a novel, but I also tutor students who write about their own experiences with chronic illness, about their family stories, about the effectiveness of the Israeli West Bank Barrier, and a student who is writing a children’s book.

Authentic writing for Home Schoolers is about helping children to write about what they are interested in and in the genre they are interested in because out of these writing assignments they will learn the conventions of writing.

Here are the steps I take for guiding students to authentic writing.

1. Examine which genre fits the student’s interest and ability. 

For example, a student interested in astronomy may want to write a children’s picture books as a summary for what he knows, may want to write a persuasive essay for why Pluto should be considered a planet, or may choose to write an autobiographical narrative about his first time viewing the stars and why he’s so interested in them. The choices are an endless series of mix and match of interest and genre.

2. Review examples of the genre.

To prepare to write in a particular genre, it is imperative that the writer review how proficient and professional writers are successful. When I teach writing “family legends” I have students read a variety of legends so we can examine the difference between a narrative and a legend.

3. Begin writing but be open to revision of expectations.

Most professional writers have had the experience of sitting down with a writing project in mind only to figure out that the genre does not fit the topic – or at least the treatment of the topic the writer is interested in pursuing. It is a sign of a good writer when she can revise her own expectations to produce the best product.

4. Find an audience.

All authentic pieces of writing have authentic audiences. Whether the audience is a student’s younger sibling, an uncle who works for NASA, the local paper letters to the editor page, or a personal blog, nothing motivates writers like writing for an authentic audience. Usually an authentic audience means someone other than the “teacher.”

Helping your child to write authentic pieces for an authentic audience will help him to be more motivated to write and, hopefully, more successful.