Rebel writer

Lefty’s second-grade daughter faced the “dread diorama.”  After sacrificing every shoebox in the house, parent and child rebelled:

. . .  this morning, my daughter walked into school empty handed, her depiction of her favorite scene of her favorite book rendered not in 3-D cardboard, but in words on two sides of a sheet of paper tucked neatly into her backpack, along with a note from yours truly.

The males in my family have problems with small-muscle coordination: For my brothers (or my father), building a diorama would have been frustrating and tedious, a real turn-off. Writing a book report? No sweat. I’m a little better at arts and crafts, but not much. Do teachers really believe that all students must master the cardboard diorama to be useful citizens of the 21st century?

About Joanne


  1. momof4 says:

    AMEN, The only thing worse than the diorama is acting out, in costume and with selected classmates, a scene from the book. Each one of those little capers ate up at least 30 minutes of class time. Meanwhile, the little darlings learned nothing about HOW TO WRITE.

  2. Nicksmama says:

    Typical middle-school “language ARTS” assignment. Save the writing instruction for some poor high school teacher.

  3. I think you’re missing the point momof4. It’s the lack of any worthwhile educational content and the vacuuming up of all that time the recommends dioramas and similar worthless exercises.

  4. I don’t think it’s realistic to expect most second graders to produce a “book report”. Learning to put pencil to paper is a challenge for many kids. If Lefty’s daughter can ~ good for her.

    The dreaded second grade diorama directly lead our family to the decision to homeschool. The tremendous frustration I felt glueing paper cut-outs inside a shoe box for a book that my kid wasn’t able to read independently lead me to believe the school wasn’t really serious about teaching reading. He was the only kid in his class at our affluent, high performing school that wasn’t able to read ~ at all. His math skills were (and remain) accelerated. He had flunked out of “Reading Recovery” and we were talking special ed with the school.

    Four years later, I’m able to just laugh about the whole thing. He’s a real bookworm now. Of course, if he’d remained in school, I’m not sure the outcome would have been as positive. Maybe, but than again,maybe not.

  5. Margo/Mom says:

    Well, I am sure to get slimed for this response. But imagine how life is for a kid who struggles to form every letter he writes, but has a good understanding of character nuances and interactions, and could act them out, or use the details to sculpt them in clay. To actually be identified as “gifted” in these areas, while simultaneously reinforced as dumb due to the incredibly limited quality of written work. Are there appropriate accommodations for this kind of output limitation? Of course there are. LS is probably very familiar with all of them. In my kids’ schools, well, maybe a couple of decades down the road (you know, first you have to admit that there is a problem).

    As allen points out–there is always the danger that such things are handed out by teachers with no grounding in the arts or drama–and who haven’t had any conversation with the people in the building who actually do–so that instead of becoming a vehicle for exploring key story transitions or plot or character, it’s just a study of who who has the most access to shoe boxes, or most helpful (and artistic) parent support.

  6. Miller T. Smith says:

    This morning a student came to me and begged to skip my first period class because she needed to finish a powerpoint presentation for a history class. Her problems were not with the content but rather the powerpoint program that she was trying to learn. Her mind was not on the content but rather the program which was not the intent of the teacher.

    Stop giving work to students that makes them think about things other than the intened objective.

  7. Homeschooling Granny says:

    Margo/Mom, to me you highlight the problem of trying to have one-size-fits-all for our unique individual children.

  8. I’ve always thought a lot of modern art was created by people without much small muscle coordination 🙂

  9. deirdremundy says:

    Ugh. I hated dioramas. Especially since my parents had the “You have to do it yourself” policy. So mine always looked like a crack-addled chimp made them, and the other kids in the class had works of art.

    I used to BEG to be allowed to just write something instead. No luck.

    THEN there was the year my sister built a coliseum out of toothpicks. She slaved over it for weeks, it was perfect and amazing….. and the teacher downgraded it because ‘it was obvious she had help.’ (she didn’t. It was just her and the elmer’s…..)

  10. momof4 says:

    Your point about written reports for all second-graders and kids with specific learning disabilities (but what about voice-recognition software, etc)is valid, but I object to the HUGE number of artsy-crafty projects my kids had throughout ES-MS, at the expense of any real writing. I don’t count journal-writing, since there was NO correction of content, format, style, grammar, spelling, punctuation etc.

    I object to the drama option primarily because it eats up far too much time, which could be much better spent. Even if only 10 kids out of a class of 25 use 30″ each, that is 5 hours of dubious instructional value.

  11. Ponderosa says:


    I hear you when you complain about the artsy-crafty projects –as a middle school history teacher, I am rebelling against this trend. However, I’m also dubious of the mania for writing. In most schools I’ve been in, kids write and write and write –short stories, persuasive essays, expository essays, etc. –soaking up tons of classtime, not to mention ungodly hours for both students and teachers outside of school. What does all this practice yield? Grammar and mechanics remain sloppy; content of the writing remains rudimentary. Learning what a thesis is or how to organize an essay takes one lesson; practicing over and over doesn’t necessarily make better writers. What good writing requires, beyond these formal principles, is knowledge of the subject you’re writing about as well as exposure to excellent models of writing in a given genre. So I think the best path to good writing is indirect –through meaty content teaching and reading the best literature in all genres.

  12. McSwain says:

    Isn’t it best to have balance in everything? Kids need to do things that stretch them–even if one of those things is a diorama. Reader’s theater is not a bad idea, either. It engages kids and gives them a reason to gain fluency as they practice their parts. It helps them visualize and understand what they’ve read in a deeper way. My pre-teaching (and even teaching) career was heavily shaped by the fact that I am confident in addressing both large and small audiences, something children learn to do when they get up in front of a class.

    Our state standards in CA are quite high in elementary school. My kids spend a good part of the year preparing to write multi-paragraph narratives, summaries, and response to literature. I might assign one diorama a year done in class, and we do some theatrical presentation because the kids enjoy it and it solidifies concepts. If it takes your kid out of his or her comfort zone, then good. Your child is probably learning far more than you realize.

  13. Andy Freeman says:

    > But imagine how life is for a kid who struggles to form every letter he writes, but has a good understanding of character nuances and interactions, and could act them out, or use the details to sculpt them in clay. To actually be identified as “gifted” in these areas, while simultaneously reinforced as dumb due to the incredibly limited quality of written work.

    Welcome to life. No one is good at everything.

    That kid can be an actor or sculptor (or operate a manual machine tool). However, she’s going to fail in tasks that involve writing unless that problem is addressed.

  14. Cardinal Fang says:

    Whoa, Ponderosa, “Learning what a thesis is or how to organize an essay takes one lesson”? In the same sense, learning how to throw a football takes one lesson– that is, in no sense at all.

    Writing takes practice. Lots and lots of practice.

  15. SuperSub says:

    Cardinal and Ponderosa-
    I think the key factor that is missing is not practice writing but instead critical evaluation of written assignments. I remember the good old days when I would see more red than black ink on my papers, and eventually as the year (and drafts) progressed the amount of red ink would decrease. Our school’s 10th grade English teacher has recently told me that on their state final essays are to be graded based upon content only, not on spelling, grammar, or essay organization.

    As for the “dioramas make assignments accessible to students with difficulty writing,” they’re not going to learn how to write without practice and critique from teachers. Making dioramas simply makes their writing difficulties even a greater stumbling block as those students who can write advance in skill. If anything, they should be writing more than other students.

    Dioramas shouldn’t even be an option. There are students who will constantly choose such artsy options if given the chance and never write a single thing other than their name.

  16. Hmm. As an English teacher, Ponderosa, I’d say you’re pretty much dead wrong. I wish teaching a thesis (and by the way, there are different types of them for different purposes and audiences) was a one-shot deal. Writing well takes lots and lots of practice with feedback (crappy practice produces crap, so make the next one better).

    I’ve never assigned a diarama.

  17. Ponderosa says:

    Lightly Seasoned,

    I respectfully disagree. If you know your stuff, essays almost write themselves. Writing is agonizing for teens and freshman college students because they haven’t mastered many bodies of knowledge yet. Writing well entails knowing a bunch of conventions (put the thesis up front; support the thesis; don’t use a comma to separate independent clauses) that should be taught explicitly and practiced somewhat, but the critical and rarely-acknowledged key to good expository writing is knowing your sh*t, which demands good content instruction –something that’s discounted in the current American education scene. It’s putting the cart before the horse to have kids write a ton before they’ve learned much. Teach them about the world first, have them READ great writers, teach them the conventions of writing, have them write essays ABOUT WHAT THEY”VE LEARNED IN CONTENT CLASSES, but don’t waste time with writing bad short stories, personal narratives, persuasive essays about the dress-code, etc. If we followed this policy, then we’d have more truly solidly-educated adults, the only kind who can write anything worth reading.

  18. Ponderosa says:


    The current trend is to grade writings mostly on content and organization; grammar and mechanics –to say nothing of penmanship –are slighted. The idea is that, by focusing most of our attention on the content, we’ll elicit deeper, more meaningful thinking from our kids. Alas, another foolish trend! Our school secretary recently brought in an essay she’d written for an eighth-grade class forty years ago. It was a sight to behold: gorgeous handwriting, almost-flawless mechanics, great organization, elaborate sentences with rich vocabulary, and deep thought. Truly, it exceeded what even our best students could do. Somehow the old, broken, bad traditional education system was able to inculcate both great “rote” learning (e.g. penmanship) and the “higher-order” writing abilities –we’re fooling ourselves if we think that by jettisoning the former, we’re enhancing the latter.

    I think one culprit is the mania for young adult literature. How are kids going to expand their vocabularies and see models of complex sentences if they don’t read the classics?

  19. I rarely assign projects, however, this year my GATE students have been begging to do projects. We are currently studying Ancient Greece in my history class. One of the parts we spend time on is Greek Mythologies. They have the choice of creating a diorama (for those kids who love arts and crafts) or creating a brochure (for those who enjoy writing, they re-tell one of the labors) on one of the labors in Heracles 12 Labors. I also follow up with watching the Disney Hercules movie. In the past, many of my students are amazed to learn that the movie ties in with pieces of a real Greek myth. When we watch the movie, I stop the video and we discuss how the myth has been changed and reasons for it. Students follow this up with a brief essay comparing the original 12 Labors myth with the Disney version.

    When I gave out the assignment today, my students were excited that I was giving them something “fun” to do. Just so you know, most of my school year is spent on learning how to write, analyzing different literary features, grammar, and analysis. (I teach both 6th grade language arts and history.) My students do not do a lot of “fun” or “fluff” projects and they are usually assigned at the end of the year after high stake testing is finished.

  20. momof4 says:

    It is possible to combine the acquisition of knowledge and writing skillls. I can remember being given a map, with numbers but no names, and a list of questions for a 3rd grade geography lession. We were expected to identify the geographical feature for each number and answer the questions. This was all to be done in complete sentences, which were then graded for both content and grammar. This pattern was followed throughout my 1-12 small-town school, with increasing amounts and complexity of writing expected. It was done both in English (literature-based) and in the content areas. I agree with the comment about stories and personal narratives, as well as the ones about the need to avoid “lit light” and go with the classics; originals please, no watered-down options. There is a place for some non-lit based writing instruction, such as writing a business letter, a follow-up thank you following an interview etc. The MD writing exam, given for the first time in 7th or 8th grade, used to include a street map (certain features identified) and the student was to write directions from one place to another by the most direct or the safest way. Scoring didn’t include much emphasis on grammar, spelling, etc., if I remember right.

  21. Ponderosa: I’m glad you don’t teach English. Since my students routinely tell me they’re some of the best prepared writers in their freshman comp courses (in highly competitive schools), I’ll stick with what begets success. And that includes research papers, critical essays, and yes, the persuasive essay — about the content we’re learning.

    Be careful. Your emphasis on content is correct (especially for your subject area), but you’re a half step off being an evangelistic crank, and we don’t need any more of those in our profession. We’ll never get anywhere if we, as professionals, don’t gain enough clarity to understand balance. Writing nothing but a series of vapid “narratives” is not sound writing instruction, but neither can writing instruction, which requires proper ly structured practice, be ignored in favor of only content. You may have your way with the current standardized testing trends, however, which I am led to understand in California don’t require writing.

  22. momof4 says:

    When I was in high school, in the 60s, we were assigned a one-page-max, in-class essay about once a week, in English classes (college-prep track). This was done in response to a question or quote (written on the blackboard) relating to whatever literature we were currently reading. If a quote, we were expected to identify the source and discuss the significance. Almost every week, we would also be assigned a 2-3 page, out-of-class essay. In junior and senior years, we also did a 20+ page research paper, to college standards. ALL of these were corrected and graded for content, mechanics and style. We had had lots of writing in elementary-junior high years, with intensive grammar instruction (with sentence diagramming!) in junior high. It really does take multiple years of corrected practice to write well, in any discipline. Does anyone still follow that pattern? and is it part of the curriculum or an individual choice? I know my kids didn’t get it at school; Mom was much more particular than the vast majority of their teachers.

    We did the same types of essays in freshman and sophomore college English, with term papers assigned in upper-division classes.

  23. Ponderosa says:

    Mom of Four,

    I find your comments helpful in advancing my thinking on this topic.

    A couple new thoughts (for me, at least):

    1. Writing is not a monolith. There are rote parts (e.g. grammar and penmanship) and higher-order parts. It seems to me that schools grossly neglect the former; that there is, in fact, a disdain for them. Ed school dogma discounts them. Which is convenient, because English teachers at my middle school admit that they’re not so good at grammar. If this makes me sound like a crank, so be it: I think we ought to teach penmanship (as they obviously do abroad and used to do here), and grammar –not just in occasional mini-lessons, but systematically. And I think writing assignments should be graded more heavily than it tends to be now on penmanship, grammar, and mechanics. The fact that we neglect these things is symptomatic, in my view, of a overall will to escape from the hard stuff, from discipline, among students and teachers. It’s also a result of the ed school imperative that everything must be made fun, engaging and directly relevant to kids’ lives. Though not impossible, it’s hard to do this with penmanship drills and grammar exercises. It’s easier to have them write a narrative about their vacation and illustrate it. Teachers who try these old-fashioned methods will face rebellious kids who’ve absorbed the zeitgeist that learning should always be fun and pleasant to do, not to mention displeased principals who want harmony and the look of dynamism above all else.

    2. Your description of your writing education is very illuminating for me (my memory of my own writing education in the late seventies and eighties is hazier than yours). The progression from simple, short writings to complex, longer writings makes sense to me. As you say, there is a way to weave writing instruction into a content-oriented curriculum that simultaneously builds knowledge and writing-skills. Unfortunately, we now have a tendency to ask the kids to do complex writing prematurely (e.g. research reports and short stories in middle school). Twelve year olds are asked to write like experts. And to write all the time. While not a complete waste of time, I think there are better ways to spend this time. Yes, have middle-schoolers write –about what they’ve learned –in paragraphs and short essays, but focus the curriculum on grammar/mechanics, reading classic fiction and well-written non-fiction to provide models of good writing and boost vocabulary, and learning about the world (history, economics, geography, politics, math, biology, physical science, current events) so that they’ll have the facts and concepts at their “mental fingertips” when, later in their development, they sit down to write. In short, K-10 education should lay the groundwork for good writing, not try to squeeze it out of kids prematurely at the expense of more appropriate learning.

    Finally, to Lightly Seasoned, I’m sorry that my views come off cranky-sounding. I have a tendency to state things strongly and perhaps over-simply when new ideas are emerging –especially when I want, as we all do, to be listened to. I wonder who all these other evangelical cranks are –especially anti-writing cranks. I don’t know anybody who says we should do less writing! My school has no cranks for any kind –my colleagues cheerfully comply with the ed school orthodoxy.

  24. SuperSub says:


    Agreed, the overemphasis on higher-level writing in elementary (yes, I’ve seen it in 5th and 6th grade) and middle school is part of the problem. First, as you say, students do lack the variety of background knowledge to add depth to their writing. Second, the students are likely still working on basic grammar and spelling. Also, teachers at that level are likely not experienced writers or editors themselves (especially the elementary teachers). Finally, since the teachers are told to focus on higher-level conceptual understanding of the writing, they ignore grading the basic but necessary skills.

    The result? Students who in 10th grade have no knowledge of grammar or spelling and who take pride in their writing nonetheless because they have received high grades from teachers who know little of writing themselves.

  25. momof4 says:

    In the vein of promoting use of well-written fiction and non-fiction, I will pass along a recommendation of an author my kids loved; Rosemary Sutcliff. She has good versions of classic tales; Tristan and Isolde, the Odyssey, the Iliad, Beowulf, Boadicea and a 3-volume King Arthur sequence, all of which are suitable to read to young elementary students, although some may read them on their own. She has also a number of historical fiction books, many set in Roman Britain, with young male protagonists (can be hard to find), which are for more advanced readers. All that I have seen are very well-written, with the kind of structure and vocabulary not usually seen in modern works for children and young adults. I can read the latter group with enjoyment, as an adult. Libraries often have some of them, although I usually had to order them from bookstores, but they don’t get much publicity. I know some young, fluent readers who have enjoyed Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfael mysteries, with good language and historical content, which were also shown on Masterpiece Theater. I’m always interested in recommendations, since most of what I see in the bookstores seems to trivial at best and navel-gazing drivel all too often.

  26. Margo/Mom,
    I can’t believe what I’m reading. If you really believe that your child is better off having his self-esteem bolstered by modeling a scene from a book in clay instead of being frustrated by being taught how to write, then you should be opposed to NLCB and accountability through standardized testing. Almost all state tests require students to be able to write an essay, and even the lowest level of test accommodation does not allow a student to replace the written sections of the test with a clay model. I am not trying to “slime” you. I am genuinely puzzled by a position that seems so contradictory.

  27. BadaBing says:

    But imagine how life is for a kid who struggles to form every letter he writes, but has a good understanding of character nuances and interactions, and could act them out, or use the details to sculpt them in clay.

    This sounds realistic for a 2nd grader. Really, it does. No, really.

  28. McSwain says:

    Lightly Seasoned–California standardized testing includes a writing component in both 4th and 7th grades. As a fourth grade teacher, I must prepare my kids to write multi-paragraph narratives, summaries, and responses to literature.

    Once again, this is all about balance. Many of these replies are from the POV of HS teachers. But we are talking about 2nd grade here! The fact that a student is asked to do a diorama does NOT mean that the same student is not required to write.

    In my classroom, we usually do some sort of diorama once a year. I have kids who have poor fine motor skills, yes. They have trouble drawing, cutting with scissors, etc., even at the age of 9. And you know what? These things don’t get any better without practice. Someday when kids grow up and try to figure out an aesthetic way to put together a multi-media presentation or attempt to remodel their own bathroom, the things they learned in doing those silly dioramas will come in handy.

    If a task is tough for a kid, if they don’t like it, then they probably need to practice at it. Since when should we not do things in school that are hard for us, unless they are reading, writing, and math?

    And since when does the assignment of an “artsy-crafty” project mean the teacher must not be teaching enough writing? In second grade. Sheesh.

  29. Margo/Mom says:


    I am not talking about “self-esteem boosting.” I used an example of a kid (my kid actually) who excels at diorama related skills but has real live barriers when it comes to constructing letters and words on paper because I thought that the parent in the original post might just need to suck it up and get over it on this one project–as so many expect kids with various disabilities to do on more accustomed kinds of things. In other words–imagine if the whole world relied on your ability to make a diorama–and you were required to do it as an integral part of every other part of learning in school.

    It is also very important (as many have missed) to separate the process of getting letters and words onto paper via pencil, and the ability to “write” meaning to express thoughts/feelings/observations/data in an organized and understandable fashion through written language. As mo4 suggested, there are, in fact, ways around the kinds of things that stand in the way of, and frustrate folks who have barriers to “writing” in the process sense. As I alluded, knowledge of and willingness to implement these kinds of things is widely variant in schools. Lightly Seasoned has frequently shared that her school has many such things in place and uses them. In my district, suggestions regarding “Dragon Speech,” keyboarding or other accommodations to keep kids up to speed just get blank looks. Their preference is to segregate all the kids with disabilities (unless their disabilities don’t interfere with learning in any way), and oversimplify the work. So, they read snippets (I cannot even say books) of things at lowered reading levels, answer questions by “looping” answers, or “fill in the blank” (to avoid the necessity to produce complete sentences). In standardized testing situations they use “scribes.”

    In any learning situation, it is very important at the outset to determine what the learning objectives are: what you hope to teach. If the primary objective is to examine the plot and characters of a story, the selected media should enhance, rather than diminish, the student’s ability to do so. And the most appropriate medium may vary from student to student. If you want to know the absolute truth of the matter, my son was “protected” from diorama-like projects throughout school. He had plenty of worksheets instead. Any ability to learn from things that he was good at was really out of the question. The thinking was always that he could “get that later,” after he “mastered” the “basics.”

    So–at the end of the day, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for folks who feel put out that once a year they have to use an uncomfortable medium for expressing their learning.

  30. I used to go crazy over science projects that took more of the parent’s time than that of the student and taught almost nothing, except who could trace or color best.

    It was the same thing every year with trips to the craft and school supply stores, finding the right poster board and project materials, which weren’t cheap, and working hours and hours. I asked one poor kid about his project, and he told me that he didn’t have one because his mother didn’t have any money and couldn’t help him because she had two jobs.

    Guess what I was told (privately) when I asked what was the sense in these projects. The answer was that the teacher wanted something to show off on parent-teacher night.

    One of the best moments of my life was when my last child moved past the grade that required these projects.

    These are our government schools.

  31. Ponderosa says:


    It’s really the fault of our ed schools. They tell budding teachers that projects are good teaching; direct instruction is bad teaching.

    I just finished viewing our sixth-graders’ science projects –large swaths of butcher paper covered with acres of coloring and a few dinky –often incorrect –facts pasted here and there. The teacher is a greenhorn –very bright and hard working –but thoroughly indoctrinated with ed school/progressive ed dogma. The problem is not that she’s working for a government school; it’s that stupid ideas prevail in this country –in charter schools, many private schools, in university ed departments, etc. It’s like Europe before Martin Luther –we need someone to launch a Protestant educators’ movement centered on the ideas of E.D. Hirsch.