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Write Nerdy

I had dreams. I had goals. I think we all do. But the same thing kept happening to me. Big idea, after big idea…new goal, after new goal. I didn’t succeed.

Sure, there were small wins along the way. I learned a lot from every failure. My problem was pushing through the tough parts of the creative process…where there is no adrenalin and anticipation moving you forward. In reality, I wasn’t good at finishing what I started.

Then I read about Nathan Barry writing 1000 words a day. He had a great blog. He had two books published. And it instantly made sense…he accomplished similar goals that I had by focusing on what would lead him to success. The great Tony Robbins has an interesting perspective on this exact point:

“In essence, if we want to direct our lives, we must take control of our consistent actions. It’s not what we do once in a while that shapes our lives, but what we do consistently.”

That quote made a ton of sense to me. So, I sat down and looked at some of the professional goals I had for myself:

  • Create a blog that mattered
  • Write and publish a book
  • Make some real change in education

I have many other personal goals, and life goals, but I wanted to focus on what I could change professionally. Nathan’s work on writing 1000 words a day really motivated me to do the same thing. If I wanted to create a blog, write and publish a book, and make change in education…then I had to create a system to get me through the tough times when inspiration was lacking.

Creating Systems for Goals

I was recently interviewed on the Edu All-Stars podcast. It was a great discussion, but Chris Kessler asked me an interesting question at one point on the show: What’s your process like? This post is really a fuller explanation of what I shared with Chris on the show, because I hoped to talk about how my goals were never accomplished until I had systems in place.

Almost 500 days ago I started to write regularly. I decided to “commit” to the writing process and a system and see what would happen. As I began to write 100 words a day, it became easier to write 250 words a day. My system allowed for constant improvement because I wasn’t focused on the end goal (writing a book or building a blog) but instead just the act of writing. Last March I set up this blog for the first time and started putting a blog post up every now and then. Here’s what the last year looks like in terms of growth:

Ajjuliani.com Growth

This past summer I started writing 1000 words every day. It’s hard to do some days. I’ll only get 500 one day, and have to make up for it the next day. I’ll miss a day here or there and have to catch up over the next week. But I’m committed to the system.

Here are a few of the things I’ve worked on with my 1000 words each day:

  • Blog posts
  • Guest blog posts
  • Website copy
  • Book proposal
  • Inquiry and Innovation in the Classroom manuscript
  • Teach Above the Test eBook
  • Teacher’s Guide to Tutoring eBook
  • Curriculum writing
  • Unit and lesson planning
  • Grant writing
  • Emails (lots of them!)
  • Weekly Newsletter
  • The Best and Next in Education (digital magazine)
  • 20% Time MOOC (this past summer)
  • Coaching
  • Consulting work
  • Video scripts
  • Random thoughts

Since October I’ve been focused on building a system for my blog. I’ve posted two blog posts per week and two guest blog posts per month. Instead of focusing my blog as only a place for reflection (which it sometimes is) I’ve tried to make my posts as useful and helpful for other teachers, writers, and learners as possible. Really, I try to teach with my blog as much as possible.

The Power of Habits

Habits and systems are something we don’t talk about nearly as much in education as we should. If we want to improve student engagement and performance, the trick is to work on systematic change. As the quote above said, “take control of consistent actions”. What do your students do as soon as they walk into your classroom? What does your staff do as soon as they walk into a meeting? Are we building good habits?

My system of writing everyday isn’t necessarily a habit. The habit part comes when I tell you that the writing almost always comes around 5:30am with a cup of coffee next to my computer. Habits have triggers, specific times, and repetitive actions. James Clear gives “3 Rules For Actually Sticking to Good Habits” and I think they are spot on:

Here are the rules:

  1. You have to start with a version of the habit that is incredibly easy for you. It must be so easy that you can’t say no to doing it and so easy that it is not difficult at all in the beginning.[1]
  2. You have to increase your habit each day, but in an incredibly small way.[2]
  3. Even after increasing your habit, all repetitions must remain easy. The total habit should be broken down into easier pieces if needed.

As a teacher or leader how could you implement these rules? As a writer I used these three rules to keep improving my system. So, even when I have days when my writing stinks (happens a lot), I’m still going through the motions and working.

When you ask yourself what your goals are, do you have a system of how you’ll reach those goals? For a long time I didn’t…and I thought they might magically happen with hard work. It’s not enough to have goals…everyone has goals. The systems and habits you create for yourself are where the magic happens.

What’s been really exciting for me is seeing how talking about “systems” can help other people I’ve worked with in the last year. Whether it is working with teachers, students, leaders, or other authors…I’ve seen the power of systems at work! In two weeks, I’m opening up my first ever coaching program to help five people go from an idea to a finished book, product, or course that they want to launch. I’ve been doing this type of coaching on an individual basis for a while, and truly enjoy it. If you’re interested and want to learn more, sign-up here.

And there you have it. Another 1000 words for the day. What are some habits or systems you’ve built up over the past few years to help you reach a goal? Please share so we can all learn!

Photo Credit: tonyhall via Compfight cc

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Each year after holiday break I told my students their writing would change forever. It was simple statement, but most of them did not take it seriously. What ensued was “Writer’s Boot Camp”. A 10-day writing program I put my students through each year. It didn’t matter if I taught 8th graders or 11th graders, the rules and guidelines stayed the same. Each day we would cover a new rule. Each day they would write 250 words in class, and 250 words at home. At the end of writer’s boot camp students had to produce a piece of analytical writing, and they had to demonstrate an understanding of the rules.

What I loved about Writer’s Boot Camp was the simplicity…but also the feedback I received from students. They complained when I assigned the writing project, but as the days went on the complaining stopped and they realized that writing wasn’t all that hard, or all that boring! In fact, many students continued to write each day and keep the journal they had built through the boot camp.

I made it a ten day period because we often focus on writing “here and there”. By deliberately focusing my students’ (and my own) attention on writing, it became a challenge that we all had to overcome together. At the end of boot camp my writing had drastically improved…and my students felt a new confidence about their craft.

Here are my 10 lessons to make anyone a better writer.

Lesson #1: Behind every great piece of writing is a great story.

I don’t care if you are writing a letter, email, essay, book, or company memo…if it is boring, no one will care. Furthermore, it needs to tell a story. Human beings learn better through stories than anything else. If you want people to learn from your writing (however big or small the piece) it needs to be a great story.

Lesson #2: You become a better writer by reading. You become a better reader by writing.

This generation of students reads and writes more than any other before it. However, much of that reading and writing is text messages, Twitter/Instagram/Facebook posts, short blogs (like Tumblr), and other online pieces. The type of reading you feed your brain is also going to end up in your writing. If we want students to write analytical pieces, they must read analytical pieces. If we want them to write a narrative, they must read a narrative. Make sure you are on a good “diet” of reading, and try to read what you’ll be writing. It will make your writing better than you could have ever imagined.

Lesson #3: Vigorous writing is concise.  Every word should tell. Make your point well and once. Then shut up.

Every word should have a purpose within the sentence. Every sentence should have a purpose within the paragraph. Every paragraph should have a purpose within the piece. It’s that simple.

Thanks to Strunk and White for that lesson!

Lesson #4: Learning to use words effectively will be the most valuable tool you’ll ever need.

Want to get a job? You are going to have to speak and write well to even get an interview. Want to ask that girl/guy out on a date? Make sure you use the right words! Want to be a better thinker? Build your vocabulary…we think in words!

My good friend Anthony Gabriele used to have this lesson hanging from various spots in his classroom. In fact, many students already know how to use their words to effectively persuade parents or friends…but they fail to transition this type of persuasive language into the classroom in their writing. My job as a teacher was to make that connection to “real world” language use, and how it applies to even the smallest writing task in school.

Lesson #5: Always be prepared to write. Always be prepared to think critically.

At this point of Writer’s Boot Camp I would give my students a Bourne Identity writing moment. What does that mean exactly? I’d quickly surprise them with a critical thinking scenario that require them to not only “think on their feet” but also “write on their feet”.

Why do I do this? Because you never know when you’ll need to use your writing skills for a specific moment. Prepare to write and think when you are unprepared. Success will follow!

Lesson #6: Style = Your grade.

Maybe you’ve got great content. Your structure and grammar are perfect as well. Yet, whether it is a teacher, a blog reader, or a boss…something is still missing when they read what you write. That’s because your writing style is what takes readers from passively absorbing your work, to actually believing in you.

Style is in short…your personal writing voice. It separates you from everyone else. In order to improve your style you must write, write, and write some more. Once you find it, you’ll know…because your readers will want to talk with you.

Lesson #7: Cheer up, great writing isn’t laborious, it’s tedious.

I used to landscape during my summers while I was in college. One of the first things I learned to do was mulch. Taking hot (and smelly) mulch from off the truck, into wheel barrels, and spread it all over huge properties was no fun task. It was a workout!

I also had the opportunity to do some gardening as a landscaper for a huge estate. I’d spend all day walking around the grounds picking a weed here or there, and pruning different plants. It took a lot of time, but I never broke a sweat.

Great writing won’t make you sweat. It isn’t laborious like mulching, it is much more tedious like pruning and weeding a big estate. Great writing takes time and you have to keep working at it. Think about writing as a journey and you’ll continually improve.

Lesson #8: Write to entertain, not to impress.

Big words, fancy sentence structures, and deep thoughts aren’t what writing is about. Writing is about conveying an emotion, and your focus as a writer should be to entertain the reader through your words. Many time we think about “entertainment” as something that is fun…but, in reality to be entertained is to care about what is happening and be connected to the words.

When’s the last time you read a book, watched a movie, or listened to your favorite song and said, “That was impressive writing…?” We don’t think about the actual writing, we think about how we feel and connect to that book, movie, or song. We’ll end up liking the book, movie, or song because we are entertained by the words and story. Aim to do the same with your writing.

Lesson #9: Know the difference between revising and editing. Then do both.

As a teacher I have a few opportunities to improve and change my lessons throughout the year. The recent snow days force me to make quick rearrangements of what I would teach, and cut out some of the content I would bring to my students. Various choices have to be made throughout the school year in terms of what I would teach, but I have to be flexible enough to make it work for the students and fit the curriculum.

During the summer I can look (often with a colleague) at the entire year. We can change and modify entire units and add or take away new projects, papers, assignments etc. The process goes back and forth each year as big changes are made during the summer months and small quick fixes are implemented throughout the school year.

Chances are you rarely edit…or revise. I’m here today to tell you that both are necessary! Editing your writing is similar to what we do during the school year as teachers or leaders. Changes sometimes need to be made. Cuts need to happen. And every once in a while we’ll add something new of value. Revising is similar to the work we do in the summer when we look at the entire structure and flow of the content and curriculum. In order to improve the teaching and learning, the changes made during the year and during the summer are necessary. In order to improve your writing, revising and editing are also necessary.

Lesson #10: If you want to improve, you’ll continue to improve.

In the end, it’s all about attitude.

For the final lesson of Writer’s Boot Camp I’d ask my students to write down the biggest challenge they ever had to overcome. For some students this was very personal, and for others it often was about a sporting challenge or related to one of their activities they do outside of school. The students were very open about this question and it sparked the same debate in class every single year.

Do your circumstances make you who you are? Or, does who you are impact your circumstances?

When it came down to it, every one of my students believed they had the power to improve their life in some way. Many didn’t know exactly how they would do it, but they had hope in their own individual power to move their life forward.

I left them with a simple message: Life, just like writing, is all about attitude. If you push yourself to constantly be better, then you’ll eventually get there. If you sit back and hope that you’ll improve, chances are you’ll never improve.

The Writer’s Boot Camp was about a lot more than just writing, and as a teacher it taught me that helping my students’ develop successful writing habits, is no easy task. But it can be done with the right attitude.

PS- I’m debating between a few new book ideas and I could use your help. My purpose is to provide the most value to the readers of this blog, so if you could answer this one question survey, it will help me get the clarity I need!

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 “Science, by its own definition, doesn’t give us meaning. It just provides us with facts . . . Our lives gain meaning only when we tell our story.”—David Steindl-Rast

A few years ago I was lucky enough to teach the book, Things Fall Apart, to my 10th grade English class. It’s a great book…but that’s not why I was lucky.

I had recently been to Africa two times and learned so much from the people there, and now I finally had a book that related to my experiences. Each day in class I had another story to tell, and when we missed a day of storytelling in class, my students eagerly asked me if I had any more stories, or if we were “just going to have a regular class”.

That comment opened my eyes to the power of stories in my own classroom. My students wanted to hear about my experiences because they connected to those stories. As we read through the book and discussed Okonkwo’s (the main character) motivations and actions, there was a deeper understanding taking place.

Soon, we were all sharing stories that related to the book. Okonkwo had wanted to be a different man than his father was, and now his son wanted to be different than he was. Young men and women in my class spoke about the pressures they put on themselves to live up to their parents, or be different than their parents. We began to relate to the deeper conflicts in this book, because our stories connected with them as well.

I’m a big believer in project-based learning and inquiry-driven learning…but there is something special about “story-driven learning”. My students ended up scoring better on their quizzes and projects for Things Fall Apart than any other book I’d ever taught. From that moment on, I knew there had to be something to the power of story.

The Science Behind Storytelling

Every night before my daughter goes to bed I tell her a story. Sometimes it is based on the day’s events, and other times it is a story about when I was a child, but usually it is completely made up…and she loves it. She also vividly remembers the stories later on.

If I hit on a similar theme or topic in my bedtime story the next day, or next week, or even next month…she calls me on it. She lets me know that I talked about that before, or that this sounds like the other story I told her… She’ll also relate our bedtime stories to real events that happen, and many of the same themes and topics that come up in our stories…come up in our lives.

This is not unique to my daughter, instead it is based in science and research. “A 2010 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed an intimate connection between the brain activity of speakers and listeners in conversation, demonstrating how the brain of an engaged listener “syncs up” with a speaker. By engaging students with compelling stories that impart important material, teachers reach students both emotionally and biochemically, increasing the potential for rich learning experiences.”

Sherrelle Walker – a teacher, administrator, and professor of 30 years – wrote about the science behind stories:

Scientists have long known that human beings are storytelling creatures. For centuries, we have told stories to transmit information, share histories, and teach important lessons. While stories often have a profound effect on us due to emotional content, recent research also shows that our brains are actually hard-wired to seek out a coherent narrative structure in the stories we hear and tell. This structure helps us absorb the information in a story, and connect it with our own experiences in the world.

So, if you are like me, maybe this is all starting to make sense. I know that I learn best through experience and stories. If I think back on some of my best learning experiences they were often either having to do with hearing a great story…or creating a new story. When I look at what articles I enjoy, they almost always teach me something through a story. That is the initial hook of many great learning experiences.

But yet, so often in our techno-focused world we fail to take the time to actually teach through stories. I’m guilty of this, you might be too. Technology is a great tool for learning, but guess what, storytelling might be a better tool.

Stories, Technology, and Innovation

Pamela Rutledge is a Professor and Director of the Media Psychology Research Center. In an article she wrote for Psychology Today, Rutledge says:

Even with technology’s increasingly sophisticated and jaw-dropping capabilities, the tools are becoming simultaneously more accessible and user-friendly. So much so, that the boundaries are blurring not just across technologies but also across the people who are creating, using, producing, augmenting, distributing, hacking, mashing, and every other ‘-ing’ imaginable.

In spite of all the excitement, however, the human brain has been on a slower evolutionary trajectory than the technology. Our brains still respond to content by looking for the story to make sense out of the experience. No matter what the technology, the meaning starts in the brain.

The research has shown that stories fuel understanding of all types of learning objectives. If you want your students to…

  • understand mathematical principles
  • write better essays
  • learn through inquiry
  • apply scientific theories
  • tackle real world issues
  • innovate in the classroom

…then teach them with stories.

Leo Widrich, the co-founder of Buffer, wrote a fantastic article on the science behind storytelling. He explains that our brains can’t help but function differently when we are being told a story:

When we are being told a story, things in our brain change dramatically. Not only are the language processing parts in our brain activated, but any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story are too. And yet, it gets better.

When we tell stories to others that have really helped us shape our thinking and way of life, we can have the same effect on them too. The brains of the person telling a story and listening to it can synchronize, says Uri Hasson from Princeton:

“When the woman spoke English, the volunteers understood her story, and their brains synchronized. When she had activity in her insula, an emotional brain region, the listeners did too. When her frontal cortex lit up, so did theirs. By simply telling a story, the woman could plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners’ brains.”

Anything you’ve experienced, you can get others to experience the same. Or at least, get their brain areas that you’ve activated that way, active too.

What does this mean then for our teachers and students?

First, it means we should spend some time rethinking the “best practices” in instruction. Stories are often told in History and Language Arts classes, but are they used effectively? And are we ever thinking about teaching with stories in the STEM subjects? For example, John Spencer’s book, Wendell the World’s Worst Wizard, teaches “making” and “STEM” concepts through the story of a young wizard with no magical powers.

Second, I’d argue that one of the most innovative ways to teach may be to slow down, and tell a story. Figuring out what story to tell, and how it connects, is the job of any great teacher. If we want our students to change the world, they’ll need some inspiration from the stories of those that have already changed the world.

Finally, books like Kendall Haven’s Story Proof, need to be must-reads for anyone who is teaching anything. Haven’s book explores more than 150 qualitative and quantitative research studies that discuss the effectiveness of stories and/or storytelling on learning. Let’s use the research we have to improve how we teach. I know I took the time to change a lot of my guide, “The Teacher’s Guide to Tutoring“, in order to add more stories. I hope that type of teaching benefits my readers.

Somehow I was never told to “teach with stories” when I was starting out as a teacher, even though that is one of the best ways in which I learn. However, “story-driven learning” may be one of the most underused and oldest methods of teaching…and the most effective.

What’s your story?

PS – Thanks to Nick Provenzano for inspiring this post with a story of his own.

PPS- I’m debating between a few new book ideas and I could use your help. My purpose is to provide the most value to the readers of this blog, so if you could answer this one question survey, it will help me get the clarity I need!

17 comments

I’m really excited to share some awesome news! I’ve been working on my first published (by Routledge) book for the past year. It’s been a learning process throughout, but now I can say the finish line is near.

My book is titled, Inquiry and Innovation in the Classroom: Using 20% Time, Genius Hour, and PBL to Drive Student Success. It’s a collection of stories, research, and useful resources that help bring inquiry and innovation into your classroom and school.

I’ve had the opportunity to interview and work with some amazing people throughout the writing process…and I’m not finished. I wanted to write this post so you could join me in the final steps of the book writing/publishing process. I don’t want to keep it a secret, and I hope you’ll be excited when the book is finally released (hopefully this May).

Here’s what I’m planning to do in preparation for the book’s release this spring:

  1. Keep you posted each week in my newsletter on the process. From the final cover choice to interviews to what I’m doing to launch the book…it will all be there.
  2. I’m releasing a short 52-page eBook called “Teach Above the Test”. You can download it for FREE by signing up for updates below. This guide has interviews with some awesome educators on how they create projects and learning experiences that go “above the test” and “beyond the standards”. It’s a fun and useful read!
  3. I’m hoping to do a lot of guest posting. I’ve loved writing for Edutopia, Edudemic, Fluency21, SmartBlogs, and other blogs like Angela Maiers. It’s a great way to spread the message of “inquiry and innovation”. If you are looking for a guest post on your blog/site – let me know.
  4. There will be a contest, and there will be some freebies along with the book’s release. Stay tuned for these in my newsletter.
  5. I’m launching a new podcast called “Scratch Your Itch”. My book covers so many individuals that have worked to find their passion and are now living with serious purpose. Their stories are fascinating, and I want to document more ways to get the most out of life by “scratching your own itch”. The first episodes will come out later this December.

Well, that’s it for now. I want you to be as much a part of this process as possible. I could never have written this book without the help and guidance from so many teachers and leaders…and I’m asking for that same help in the launch!

Thanks again for reading my blog, and I hope to share even more in my newsletter and podcast! If you want to get all of my updates and the free “Teach Above the Test” book just enter your email below and click “Get Updates!”


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In the past six months I’ve launched four different ebooks for EducationIsMyLife.com. We’ve had great success in getting our readers to share and spread the ebook before launch. What’s been fun is seeing which methods work, and which are worth a try. I’m trying a few different pre-launch strategies with my new ebook, ‘Teach Above the Test”, and I want to share what’s working well and what you can do if you plan on launching an ebook. Here are five steps to get started on your launch before you actually send out the book.

Step 1

Design a cover for your ebook. Why do I start with design? Because designing your cover focuses on what your book is all about. You’ll also want to have a finished looking product on your landing page so people know they are getting a quality product. Too often you see landing pages and ebooks with covers that have no depth or design aesthetic. Keep it simple. One color, maybe a background image, and big bold text. I’ve designed some covers that I’ve liked, and ones that I haven’t with free ebook cover software online. Recently I went the route of using a Photoshop template, and I’m excited about the “Teach Above the Test” cover.

cover.bestnext cover.eddesign cover.intellectualTeach Above The Test

Step 2

Find the pain for your readers. Your landing page should get readers thinking about your ebook and what value it has for them. If you are going to be selling this book, then it needs to solve a serious problem, or provide a resource that will help them with their job (or some other main part of their life). If it is free, then why is this book worth their time? Once your find the pain point, make sure it is in BIG BOLD letters on the landing page. That is your “call-to-action”.

pain point

Step 3

Choose a landing page/platform. There are MANY landing page platforms and sites out there, but for the sake of what we are looking to do (and what works) I’d suggest three options.

  1. Launchrock.com: When LaunchRock first came on the scene it was much needed. It was a quick and efficient way to put up a landing page that looked great, and had social power. Three years later and it’s still one of the leaders in the area of landing pages. When you sign-up they give five different options for creating a landing page, and you can go through the process in about 10-15 minutes before it is live. You can attach it to one of your own domain like I did with “book.ajjuliani.com” or keep the domain they give you. If you are not a WordPress user, this still might be the best option for collecting email addresses and sharing ability.launchrockk
  2. WordPress Launch Effect Theme: One of the great reasons to have a WordPress blog (or site) is the functionality. This theme allows WordPress users to have their site turned into a “Lauchrock esque” type landing page. The best part is that it connects potential readers to the actual site/blog you will be hopefully using thus keeping them in the loop before and after your launch. It has many of the same features as LaunchRock, but you can take it a step further with their Premium theme. The original is free to download and install.launcheffect
  3. LeanPub.com: We’ve used LeanPub for four successful launches of our ebooks from Education Is My Life. We’ve had thousands of readers download our ebooks through the site, and I’ve heard tons of positive feedback. LeanPub provides a “lean” solution to publishers and authors. When you use LeanPub readers can download your book in formats for iPhone, iPad, Kindle, and PDF. It makes it easy to reach all the different devices. The LeanPub landing page collects potential reader interest and provides a short way for them to share out after interest. They are notified via email when you launch. It doesn’t have as much pop as the other options but if you are going to use LeanPub to publish it might be the best option.
    leanpublanding

Step 4

Get the sharing settings right. You want your potential readers to spread the word. Make sure when users sign up for your ebook they are able to share on social media with pre-made messages. You’ll also want a confirmation email to go out to the readers who sign up. In this email you can explain more about the book and then have another call for sharing. I used to feel a bit odd about asking people to share, but now I think it is silly not to! These readers obviously want to read your work, and giving them options to share starts the discussion. Hey, it’s all about the community!

Step 5

Write blog posts on your site and for others. So you have a cover, call-to-action, landing page, and sharing settings all set up. Hopefully your ebook is written and being edited/formatted! Now you have to spread the word yourself. If you have a blog that is an obvious place to start. But you can also reach out to your network of friends, family, and learning network to write guest posts. Guest posts are a nice avenue to provide quality content, while receiving some traffic from the links. Remember to focus on providing real value for the readers of the blog you are writing for. It should be your best work!

Now go out there and launch that ebook!

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