Last post at this URL: Get the new blog address

All I Can Teach Writing posts after today, as well as the archived posts, will be housed on my new website for those who teach expository writing to teens and adults: YCTWriting.com.

3 teachers on winners' platform for teaching writing

The new blog address is https://www.yctwriting.com/blogs/

Some of the old content got rather smushed in the move; it will take some time to get it straightened out.

The new blog address has only an RSS feed at this time.  Sign up for the RSS feed here.

I’m afraid that for the time being those who want email delivery of blog posts will have to put up with a work-around in my newsletter.

Writing Points is coming back, too.

My old You-Can-Teach-Writing newsletter, Writing Points, being resurrected. I’ll put blog post summaries and links in it until my web site host, Zoho, gets set up to release blog posts by email.

I’m hoping to get the re-inauguration issue out the first week of March. That may be too optimistic a deadline. I seem to encounter a new tech challenge every day with my two newest websites, but as the man said, “Nevertheless she persisted.”

Sign up here for the new version of Writing Points.

~ Linda Aragoni

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How to give feedback on writing that says nothing

For me, giving feedback to a student who has something to say, no matter how bad the mechanics are, is much easier than giving feedback to a student who has nothing whatsoever to say but spells it correctly.

My strategy is to dodge the issue of providing feedback on the writing until I can determine why the student writes empty essays — which is my semi-polite term for writing that sounds like it was written by a moron having a really bad day.

In most cases, establishing a relationship with the student provides all the information I need to provide feedback on the student’s writing tactfully and supportively.

Empty essay example

Here’s a sample of the kind of shallow writing I mean:

There are a lot of places where I can go to be alone and relax. I personally like to go to my room. I like to listen to music to relax. I also like to go on my computer to be alone and relax. These are some places and some things I like to be to be alone and relax.

I mostly like to do to my room. I mostly like to do to my room because; in my room I can be alone and think quietly. I also like my room because it’s a place where I can always go to think about things. I also like going to my room because it’s one of the only places I feel most comfortable in. This is why I mostly like going to my room.

Another thing that I do is, listening to music. I like listening to music because certain music makes me feel good, and makes me feel like I’m relaxing in a way. I also like listening to music because of their lyrics. The lyrics relate to my everyday life, which in a way makes me remember some good memories.

Although this essay has some writing mechanics errors, they are relatively minor. The real problem is that author began writing before he/she had anything definite to say.

A glimpse of empty essay authors

Giving feedback to the authors of empty essays requires a gentle touch. Often the students who produce empty essays are timid and unsure of their abilities. They take refuge in safe ideas that they think cannot draw negative attention to themselves.

Empty essay writers may be students whose reading is so limited they don’t recognize a platitude when they pen it. They may actually think they invented a phrase they’ve heard but never seen in print.

Other times they are bright, savvy kids who have figured out how to milk the system, putting down words they know the teacher won’t bother to read past the second sentence.

And sometimes the students who write empty essays really are just plain dumb.

From a writing sample, you won’t be able to tell to which category the writer belongs. And it is possible that a student might fit into more than one category.

What empty essay writers need

A student who writes empty essays needs writing prompts that allow him to write about what he/she knows, preferably without saying to the student, “You’re a loser who knows nothing.”

The best way to provide students with writing prompts that allow them to use information they have is to have them write about class topics or on writing prompts that are related to topics discussed in class.

Once you start looking for ELA-related writing prompts, you will often find students have experience outside of class with issues centering on language, writing, reading, and media. Such topics allow students to merge their classroom learning and their outside experience, giving security to the timid and ideas to students with limited reading experience.

Besides authentic writing prompts, empty essay writers need strategies for planning and developing content. They often do not know how to go about getting started writing something that’s meaningful.

In my experience, most students who write empty essays are delighted to be given templates and strategies that allow them to do real writing providing those templates and strategies are not a great deal more work than they are used to.

Giving feedback to an empty essayist

You need to be careful giving feedback before you have a chance to sound out the empty essay writer. A thoughtless comment could hurt a student emotionally and quench any willingness he or she might have had to stay in school.

Giving feedback in ways that won’t damage a genuinely timid student’s ego is a challenge, but it’s a small challenge compared to responding to a student who has been getting A’s based on her (it’s almost always a female) legible handwriting and good spelling and has no clue she is churning out garbage.

As you are giving feedback on the early papers you are using to establish baseline performance, I suggest you keep your written content comments to a minimum. Write just enough to show that you are attentively reading the material.

You can, however, ask questions that indicate indirectly the type of content you’d like to see.

For example, instead of noting that the student wrote the same idea in three different sentences, the second time it appears you might write in the margin, “Could you give me a specific example?”

Have a conference with the student

A private conference is usually the best way to get a sense of why students are writing drivel. My initial conference with any student is not so much to discuss the student’s writing, as to find out how to support that student’s attempts to write better.

When the student writes empty essays, at the initial conference I try to get a sense of why a student writes drivel and whether the student realizes the essays are awful.

You can often get useful information by asking open ended questions such as:

Would you share with me how you go about writing an essay like this?
or
What do you think is the most important thing for a writer to be able to do well?

It could be that your student has the impression that grammar is the most important part of writing and content is just the platter it’s served on.

Or perhaps your student is doing what worked in Ms. Inky Finger’s class but would rather do something more interesting.

Disagree if you must, but don’t criticize.

Confer, don’t confront. Even if you think you’ve psyched the kid out just by watching her in class for two weeks, let her tell you about her writing experience.

And listen — really listen — when she tells you.

Rather than criticize the student’s work or the methods of other teachers, I prefer to say things such as, “I know that works for many people, but I’ve never had good luck with it,” or “Most of my students find there’s another way that’s less trouble and seems to work just as well.”

Share your plan to help the student succeed

I usually end a conference by giving students some information about what I plan to do to support them in their writing. Usually I phrase that information in terms of psychological factors.

The kids trying to milk the system are usually risk takers. I tell them I’m going to give them some work that will challenge them.

If the student is timid, I stress that I’m going to give structure and strategies for writing so that they can be confident that they haven’t overlooked something important.

The dumb kid and the kid who doesn’t read get that same message. Timid kids, non-readers, and dumb kids find just getting to school is challenge enough. They each need assurance somebody is going to help them out once they arrive.

Having a personal conference with a student is a good way to connect with students so you see them as individuals, not just as essays to be graded. Then, when you are giving feedback, you are more likely to phrase negative comments in ways that are respectful and supportive rather than disrespectful and discouraging.


This content was first posted at you-can-teach-writing.com on 2008-02-06 and updated 2011-12-28 by Linda Aragoni.

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Telling it like it is

Listening one night this week to Judy Woodruff’s follow up conversation with a group of Virginia voters about how they felt about President Trump a year into his presidency, I was struck again by the one comment his supporters invariably say: “He tells it like it is.”

“Telling it like it is” really means, “Somebody important else feels the way I do.”

I’ve been trying to think whether I’ve ever heard anyone make that comment about a teacher or a school administrator.

So far, I’ve not thought of one.

 

 

 

 

 

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How to start writing

According to Google search, there are about 769,000,000 places on the Internet that discuss how to start writing.

Despite having all those resources, most of the teens and adults who wind up in my first year college composition courses don’t know how to start writing.

One student stands out in my memory as the poster child for the how-to-start problem. He was a computer programmer in the years when many programmers were self taught rather than college educated.

computers in use at NASA.

Flight Director Robert Castle uses laptop while monitoring space walk

The student contacted me privately by email the first day of class. He said that he was taking ENG101 for the third time.

Once he failed the course because he spent so long trying to decide what to write about that he never turned in any work.

His second time through the course, he came up with a topic in time to write a paper, but not with enough time to correct his work. That time he failed the course because of mechanical errors.

He was attempting the course a third time only because his daughter was getting her bachelor’s degree in communications and he was embarrassed to tell her he couldn’t pass ENG101.

The guy’s email made perfectly good sense. There were no serious mechanical errors. I could see no reason for his failing English except that he didn’t know how to start writing.

So I told him what he needed to know. My response went something like this:

This is a writing course. The object is for you to learn the process of writing.

It doesn’t matter what you write about. You don’t have to write about an important topic. You don’t have to write about something that matters to you personally; in fact, its often easier to write on a topic about which you don’t care at all.

Instead of looking for the perfect topic, pick the first topic that comes to mind about which you think you could reasonably write 500-750 words.

Work with that topic.

The writing process is no different for a so-so topic than for the perfect topic.

The topic might not work, but you’ll find that out right away, and you can pick a different topic.  You’ll have spent less time working on the so-so topic that didn’t pan out than you spent trying to discover the perfect topic.

Once you’ve learned the process of writing, then you can write about topics that actually matter to you because by then you will know enough about how to write that you can concentrate on what you’re writing.

That was all the NASA guy needed to know. He got an A without breaking a sweat.

If you are going to succeed in teaching all students who come through your classroom door to write competently, you, too, have to begin by teaching them how to start writing.

I suggest you have students think about how people start learning other skills, whether it be playing a musical instrument or a sport, keyboarding, cartooning, cooking, or simply brushing their teeth.

When students grasp the fact that writing is a skill that is learned much as other skills are, they are ready to start writing.


Above: NASA Photo ID: STS061(S)103 File Name: 10093034.jpg  Flight Director Robert E. Castle uses a laptop computer to aid his busy tasks during one of the five space walks performed to service the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) temporarily berthed in Endeavour’s cargo bay. STS-61 lead Flight Director Milt Heflin is at right edge of frame.

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If you can’t do this, don’t become a writing teacher

If you believe that writing is a talent granted to only a select few, you will tend to focus your attention on the students you think are talented while paying minimal attention to the rest.

That’s a poor choice.

There are far more people who can become good writers through persistent practice of the right skills than there are talented writers who will become great.

 

Slogan: Writing teachers need confidence in their students.

You must believe every student can learn to write competently.

If you can’t believe that every student who walks into your classroom can become a competent writer, you shouldn’t become a writing teacher.

Confidence in your students — not in them as they are, but in them as what can become — is an essential qualification for teaching writing.

I’d guess that at least three-quarters of students have no particular interest in writing and are willing to put out only a modest effort on most writing assignments.  If you are willing to focus your writing instruction on this large group of students, you have a very good chance of making all students competent writers.

While it may not be as good for your ego to produce 100 competent writers a year for 20 years as to teach Suzanne Collins for one year, it’s probably far better for those 2,000 students and their eventual employers.


This snippet is drawn from chapter 17 “Q is for Qualifications” of The Writing Teacher’s ABCs, my sixth book on teaching writing.

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My teaching writing program has new home.

At long last,  my old website you-can-teach-writing has been reborn as YCTWriting.com.

YCTWriting home page header has pointing finger and message You Can Teach Writing.

This baby is smaller, more focused, and crafted specifically for experienced teachers who want a simple-to-learn, simple-too-teach method build to withstand changes in textbooks, technologies, and revised state standards.

I built yctwriting.com to equip folks who feel inadequately prepared to teach writing to teens or adult students but have to do it anyway — folks like me my first time teaching writing (only smarter and better looking).

What’s at YCTWriting.com

a poster of the 8 sentences that comprise all expository writers must master.

All students must master these 8 writing strategies.

1. Simple procedures for teachers.  My detailed statement of everything you need to teach students so that they can write expository texts consists of 10 sentences. It’s fewer than 150 words total.

2. Simple procedures for students. Everything teens and adult students need to do to write expository nonfiction is distilled into eight sentences, totaling 35 words.

3. A recognition that simple doesn’t mean easy. My method of  teaching writing is simple, but it’s not easy.

As a teacher, you can’t teach writing and teach all the units and lessons you’re used to using. Before you can start teaching writing, you have to select what is essential for you to teach along with writing. That means you have to do the educational equivalent of clearing out the house Gramma lived in for 87 years.

Your students’ role isn’t easy either. Learning what to do — memorizing the eight sentences and learning what they mean — is just the beginning. Just like the basketball players who learn, “Put the ball in the basket,”  the writers who learn, “Make a thesis statement” still have a lot to learn before they can implement that procedure.

What’s not at YCTWriting.com

I’ve omitted pages on grammar, punctuation, usage, syntax, and style, which were part of my first site. Isn’t necessary to teach classes in those topics as part of teaching writing. In fact, those topics can actually hold students back from learning the bigger issues of writing.

I’ve also moved most of the discussion of writing prompts to a dedicated site, PenPrompts.com. That is not useful to  teachers until they’ve mastered the instructional strategies and writing strategies I teach at YCTWriting.com, and teachers who don’t teach writing per se can use writing prompts for teaching.

How YCTWriting will affect this blog’s readers

Sooner or later, I will be move back issues of this blog to  YCTWriting.

My new site host presently allows for people to subscribe to blogs via RSS but not via email. I have to see if I can’t figure out a work-around for subscribers who get the blog posts by email.

I’ll let you know what’s happening before I move the blog posts and do my best to make it easy for you to sign up again if that’s required.

 

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Bigger isn’t better when it comes to vocabulary

Using a long word doesn’t make you look smarter.

The long word can make you look dumber.

In this help wanted ad, for example, unless the employer was offering a virtual position, using figurative instead of the shorter word figure reversed the intended meaning:

FIGURATIVE MODEL needed for sculpture class at Johnson’s Sculpture Park, Maryland, NY. 607-638-5544.

What the employer wanted was a literal figure model.

A teacher on Twitter gloried in giving her students a plethora of choices.

Plethora was originally a medical term referring to a fatal blood condition. A plethora is an excess of choices;  a plethora is so many choices that it overwhelms.

You may think using plethora may sounds smarter than saying several or many, but giving students a plethora of choices isn’t a positive accomplishment.

You know the feeling you get when you look at your choices in the cereal aisle of the world’s biggest grocery store under one roof? That’s what giving them a plethora of choices will do to students.

Many teachers say they teach argumentative writing rather than argument writing.

Argumentative writing doesn’t make you look smarter than argument writing. In fact, just the opposite is true.

Argument writing generates respectful, polite, reasonable, and emotion-free discussions of differing perspectives.

Argumentative writing is angry, emotional, unreasonable, sometimes vicious, and always disrespectful.

Choose the shortest, most common word that conveys your message.

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Holidays and pronouns always get me down.

Whatever holidays you are celebrating this month, I hope that their pronouns agree with them.

Bank window with holiday decorations.

Local bank window with decorations for several holidays and a sales pitch.

Best wishes,

Linda Aragoni

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Snake oil and double meanings

cover of The Redemption of David Corson by Charles Frederic GossIn our era of fake news, it is useful to introduce students to the way words can be used to deceive.

In the 1900 bestselling novel The Redemption of David Corson by Charles Frederic Goss, which I reviewed over on GreatPenformances blog, one funny scene presents a patent-medicine salesman’s sales pitch for worthless cures.

The snake oil salesman has gathered a clutch of people around and is reading testimonials from satisfied customers:

‘Dear Sir: I was wounded in the Mexican war. I have been unable to walk without crutches for many years; but after using your liniment, I ran for office!’ Think of it, gentlemen, the day of miracles has not passed. ‘I lost my eyesight four years ago, but used a bottle of your “wash” and saw wood.’ Saw wood, gentlemen, what do you think of that? He saw wood! ‘Some time ago I lost the use of both arms; but a kind friend furnished me with a box of your pills, and the next day I struck a man for ten dollars.’ There is a triumph of the medical art, my friends. And yet even this is surpassed by the following: ‘I had been deaf for many years, stone deaf; but after using your ointment, I heard that my aunt had died and left me ten thousand dollars.’ Think of it, gentlemen, ten thousand dollars! And a written guarantee goes with every bottle, that the first thing a stone-deaf man will hear after using this medicine will be that his aunt has died and left him ten thousand dollars.

If I were to use this, I’d probably have students read it and then pose some informal writing questions about the text:

  • When you read the paragraph, what do you visualize the speaker doing? How does the salesman act?
  • What would you say is the salesman’s attitude toward his audience? On what do you base your impression?
  • How would you describe the audience? Is your attitude the same as the salesman’s?
  • The text doesn’t tell you how the audience responds. What you do think their response would be?
  • How would you describe this passage : descriptive? expository? persuasive? comic? serious? sad? Why did you choose that description?

I think it would be fun to have the class ham¹ act the role of the salesman, maybe shoot a video of the re-enactment.

The Redemption of David Corson is available as Project Gutenberg  eBook #14730. The paragraph quoted above is in chapter 12.

¹ ham  is a word with a double meaning.

 

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Technology sprints; understanding plods.

This being Computer Science Education Week, Tuesday evening’s #RuralEdChat was about the role of technology in education.

Black and gray cover of Koestler's Darkness at Noon

A political prisoner reconsiders impact of technology on history.

As so often happens, I ran across an unrelated passage in a novel I’m reviewing tomorrow at GreatPenformances, which struck me as related.

The novel is Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. Published in 1940, the novel is about Nicholar Salmanovitch Rubashov, ex-Commissar of the People, in an unnamed country that certainly is the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. (Koestler was a communist until 1938 and spent time in Russia.)

Rubashov is arrested for acts against the Party. He’s being held until he produces a suitable confession, at which time he knows he will be killed.

Rubashov writes a diary, meditating on his political career and contemporary history.

He says, in effect that history swings from absolutism to democracy, then from democracy to absolutism, depending on the political maturity of a country’s citizens. That maturity, Rubashov writes, depend on citizens recognizing what’s in their own best interests. Here’s part of that entry:

Every jump of technical progress leaves the relative intellectual development of the masses a step behind, and thus causes a fall in the political-maturity thermometer. It takes sometimes tens of years, sometimes generations, for a people’s level of understanding gradually to adapt itself to the changed state of affairs, until it has recovered the same capacity for self-government as it had already possessed at a lower stage of civilization. …

When the level of mass-consciousness catches up with the objective state of affairs, there follows inevitably the conquest of democracy … Until the next jump of technical civilization … again sets back the masses in a state of relative immaturity, and renders possible or even necessary the establishment of some form of absolute leadership.

Rubashov likens the ability of citizens to understand the impact of technology to the progress of a boat through a series of locks. The boat rises within its lock, but even at the top of its lock, it is far from the level to which it must rise to make progress forward. The mistake of socialism, he thinks, was that it assumed the people’s ability to understand the implications of new technology rises steadily.

The peoples of Europe are still far from having mentally digested the consequences of the steam engine. The capitalist system will collapse before the masses have understood it.

We probably would do well to consider whether the fictional Rubashov is right about how long it takes people to understand the true impact of any new technology.

If he’s right, we’re in deep trouble.

© 2017 Linda G. Aragoni

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