Friday, December 21, 2012


Matt Daly is a teacher everyone loves. And we all wish we could have had him as our own. He is engaged, funny, firm, and willing to listen. He brings to his kids a way of thinking instead of dictating how to think. I visited his school twice on book tours in 2011 and 2012. I hope I get the opportunity again.

As MG authors, we can learn from his words. He sees what effects our books have on the children who read them and the teachers who teach them. And as we head out there, visiting schools and sharing with kids, it is good to hear from someone who knows both about learning and writing and how they must exist together.

We welcome to Project Middle Grade Mayhem, Matthew Daly!

The Need for Privileging Authentic Writing in the MG Classroom

Over the past 11 years, I’ve been blessed to be able to pursue many of the things that I am most passionate about.  My development as a middle school Language Arts teacher has led me into a position as an Instructional Leader in my building, allowing me to teach AND shape policy and philosophy in other classrooms.  I’ve also been fortunate and able to considered myself a writer for most of my life.  I was able to turn my love of Poetry into an MFA, and utilize many of the workshop strategies I learned during my time in the program, within my classroom,  as a means toward helping my students develop a strong sense of authentic writing.
Too often, “Language Arts Teachers”, especially those at the MG level, are lovers of fiction.  Obviously, there are worse things to be than a lover of fiction, but this doesn’t always translate into creating cogent writers.  In fact, I think most LA teachers at the MG level would be hesitant to call themselves “Writers” outside of the classroom.  
This is a problem, and the long term effects of this type of instruction can have potentially crippling outcomes if there are no good models for teachers to base their instruction on in a rapidly changing educational landscape.
    When a teacher is unskilled in the time it takes to truly and authentically develop a piece of writing, they often resort to creating “process” papers, with arbitrary hoops for students to jump through, or with prescribed forms that turn writing into a glorified version of Mad Libs.  In this way, they can more easily manage the outcomes their curricula often demand.  As a society, the new Core Content Curriculum Standards (CCCS) are also moving American education faster and faster towards this practice.
    The new CCCS standards place a high value on reading what they call “Informational Texts”.  While this should be a serious cause for concern within the YA/MG writing community in terms of schools buying and creating access to their work, there are other potentially damaging repercussions as well.  By devaluing fictional texts, the CCCS essentially devalues Creative Writing.
    This flies in the face of what all writers know at their core, which is that all writing, “Informational” or otherwise, is a form and extension of Creative Writing.  An informational text that is devoid of voice, interesting syntax, and varied sentence structures, fails to engage its reader, and therefore, fails in its job of effectively conveying information.
    This is where input from writers can be powerful, especially when dealing with the middle grades.  Educational policy in this country is being shaped by people that are generally far removed from classroom environments.  YA/MG writers have the opportunity to add to the national conversation in a way that shows people that you don’t become a “writer” (and not even a professional writer, just a writing writer, a literate adult) by completing hundreds of prescribed, mandatory, forced topic 5x3 Persuasive Essays.
Eden visiting the classroom last May where the kids are recreating an invention from The Young Inventors Guild.
The best thing that YA/MG writers can do when visiting schools, or speaking to groups of teachers or students, is to tout the way that they compose, and how radically different it is from one author to the next, but also from the way it is taught in schools.  Bring an open workshop to a school, and show the teachers how it functions.  Design an activity for your visit that requires or allows students to complete the assignment in as many ways as possible, and discuss the values of each.
    Two of my favorite authors describe their processes in radically different ways.  Stephen King compares his journey through his story writing as an excavation; the story is there, hiding below the surface, and his goal is to get it out of the ground without damaging it.  He rarely plans out plots in advance, and likes to see where the story takes him.  Orson Scott Card, on the other hand, spends an inordinate amount of time intricately mapping out the multiple plot lines and story structures he desires before ever putting a pen to paper.
    Students and educators need to be made aware of all the different ways that writing writers compose, and begin to demand that they are given the same opportunities.  As authors, you have a great deal of credibility and validation that you can add to that discussion.  Let’s be publically vigilant about the authenticity of writing as something that must be gifted to all students, not simply the ones who have mastered compliance in classrooms devoid of the love of composing essential in becoming a writer for life.

Matt Daly is an 8th grade teacher and Instructional Leader in New Jersey.  If you are interested in his thoughts on education, please visit The Educational Arsonist at . If you are interested in his writing, you can check out .


  1. Makes a lot of sense. I appreciate the teacher perspective.

  2. Wonderful post, Matt. As an author and a 5th grade teacher, I appreciate this dilemma. I shudder at the Common Core being forced upon us -- which is essentially a common denominator. I want to promote the creative process in my classroom, but I need to get kids to pass a standardized writing test. (And let's not get started on the artificiality of standardized writing.)

  3. We only find our voices through a lot of experimentation and exposure to a variety of styles. The more opportunities kids have to play with language and read broadly, the richer their writing (and lives) will be.

    I've been out of the classroom for a few years, and I'd love to know more about Common Core. I thought there was a push for a variety of genres in the classroom, or does most of the reading fall in the nonfiction/technical side of things?

  4. The way it's being sold, versus the way it will be implemented, is where the real problems begin. There will be a trickle down effect that will begin to reduce our children's experience in school to a very quantitative model. The role and importance of "Instructional Texts" becomes the main vehicle of assessment as students get older, and teachers will try to game this system by inserting more and more in the lower grades as a way of "gaming" the tests, which are more and more tied to teacher "performance". It's a terrible cycle, and one we know to be against what w know to be true in terms of the neuroscience of learning.

    Seth Godin's "Stop Stealing Dreams", as well as many other publications are addressing the continued industrialization of our current model. If we want to switch to something that begins to approach individualization, it will take teacher's viewing their roles in the classroom differently. No longer can we be the font of information, the gatekeeper, or access point. Our role switches to that of coach or mediator. When that occurs, the standardization that is being attempted in schools ceases to be an acceptable practice. Please check out my blog, as well as some of the others posted there, to see where we hope education is changing.

  5. Here's a link to a TED talk given by Seth Godin:

    ...and the free text of his book on education, "Stop Stealing Dreams":

  6. I've seen Matt in action. When I was in NJ as a visiting author, I could see the love and respect those kids had for him. It is a balancing act with kids, letting them feel at ease in their adolescent awkwardness while maintaining the strength they need to learn boundaries and understand integrity. Those kids were psyched to be there with Matt. All kids should be so lucky.

  7. Excellent, excellent post. I remember reading that the president of the college board said, in defensive of this initiative, that schools are focusing too much on self-expression. ......I'm sorry, and that's a bad thing because why?

  8. I'm late to the party, but this post was so phenomenal, I had to say: thanks, Matt!

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. Extremely proud to announce that my short story, Strikethrough, has been nominated for "Short Story of the Year: All Genres" at Preditors and Editors.

    The award is a reader's poll, and the voting is live from now until January 14th. You can vote here :

    It was a great writing year for me, and this nomination was just a bit more icing on the cake, and any support you can offer would be much appreciated.



Thanks for adding to the mayhem!