3 articles worth reading and debating

These three articles captured in my RSS feed reader caught my eye today. Perhaps they’ll interest you as well.

1. Is the Internet Changing Kids’ Minds?

In this excerpt from his book The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads, Daniel T. Willingham argues that the brain is always changing; there’s no reason to assume the Internet is damaging kids’ brains so they can’t concentrate.

What is problematic, Willingham says, is that using digital technologies of all types change users’ expectations: Users are impatient with boredom. They expect instant success with minimal effort.

That sounds like an education problem to me. What do you think?

2. In a Changing Rural America, What Can Charter Schools Offer?

I’ve seen many articles about how school choice championed by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos won’t help — and may hurt — rural areas. This article by Terry Ryan and Paul Hill at Education Next suggests that charters, properly done, could be an alternative to school consolidations in sparsely populated areas.

If you live in a rural area, you ought to read their short piece.

3. Why do college students have 6th-grade writing skills?

That question was the headline over an e-Campus News report on a research study by peer-to-peer learning markeplace StudySoup. StudySoup’s own headline was “At Which U.S. Colleges do Students Write at a Middle School Level?”

Educators need to take a look at the StudySoup data: It’s the sort of “research” that will grab media attention and get discussed over coffee at the local diner.

A team from the business used the Hemingway app to analyze hundreds of written documents submitted to the StudySoup . The app evaluated the samples for clarity, readability, and calculated the reading level of the writing. The average reading level score was 12th-grade level. Student work was also given a second score based on how difficult individual sentences were to read. Of the 20 schools from which writing samples were analyzed, 12 were graded “poor.”

The app doesn’t look to see whether writers have anything to say; it looks just at their individual sentences.

Notice that StudySoup assumes that the higher the reading level score the better the writing is. Actually, the higher the reading level, the smaller the audience that will be able to understand it: Here’s StudySoup’s own explanation of Hemingway which supports that interpretation:

Hemingway provides two “readability” scores for each document. The first is the “grade level” of the content, which is determined using a readability algorithm. According to Hemingway, this score determines “the lowest education needed to understand your prose”.

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PenPrompts: Required course remedy

Teaching required courses at either the high school or college level is often a thankless job.

The classes are usually large.

Student interest is usually modest, as in “I hate [subject goes here].”

Often the course content is prescribed to fit the administration’s desire to make the required course serve the rest of the institution.

At the high school level, required courses are often assigned to the less experienced teachers, as if teaching required courses demands less practice than teaching electives.

At the college level, required courses often are taught by adjuncts who lack resources — time, supportive colleagues, professional development, office space — to teach as well as they’d like.

All those negatives were on my mind when I decided to create a new website, PenPrompts.

Partially open laptop with surprint "Lift the lid on learning"

The stripe reminds me of an Oxford-cloth button down shirt; very preppy.

PenPrompts is now live.

Many readers of this blog knew me when I operated a website called you-can-teach-writing.com, a website for people who teach writing to teens and adults. PenPrompts recycles a small part of that content for a different audience.

PenPrompts is designed for teachers who are looking for help teaching  high school or college required courses.  On the PenPrompts site, I call these folks liberal arts teachers, which isn’t entirely accurate but serves to distinguish them from teachers of career-specific courses.

Liberal arts teachers’ general education courses are supposed to teach “every student” about something, such as art, rather than to teach a few students to be something, such as an artist.

Regardless of what subjects these liberal arts teachers teach, their central task is to help students develop the knowledge and skills for thinking critically and for continuing to learn after their exit from formal education. They use their subject as a tool for accomplishing that task.

If they help a few students discover they are interested in the course subject as a career or avocation, that’s a like getting a free upgrade to the Ritz-Carlton from Motel 6.

PenPrompts’ mission is to help those teachers do their job.

PenPrompts mission statement

The solution I propose to help these teachers fill their supporting role well  is instructor-crafted expository writing prompts that:

  1. Ask students to explain something in writing, and
  2. Include all the information students need to start and to finish writing, having meet all the requirements.

In preparing PenPrompts, I envision its users as classroom veterans — most visitors to my old site had 15 or more years’ teaching experience — who are unhappy with the results they are getting but remain convinced that students need to have a basic understanding of their discipline.

I’ve tried to provide teachers with the least information they need to know to craft and deploy writing prompts.

I haven’t figured out how to get submissions to the newsletter signup to populate the subscriber list automatically, but the contact form works, so if you visit the site you can say hello.

 

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Individual mastery plans: my best weird idea

As many people have pointed out, I do a lot of really weird stuff when I teach writing.

Sometimes the stuff I do becomes mainstream after a few decades: I began flipping my classroom during my first college teaching job back in 1970; I began doing backward design six years later as I wrote instructional materials General Electric’s Field Engineering School.

My best weird idea

One of my best ideas is a method of attacking the written errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling that are harder to get rid of than Lady MacBeth’s spots.

You know the ones I mean. They are intransigent errors such as:

  • Using it’s when its is called for.
  • Failing to put a comma after an introductory element in a sentence.
  • Writing unintentional fragments.
  • Using commas to splice sentences together.

They are often errors that happen because the writer was concentrating on getting ideas down, not thinking about the appearance of the text.

Or they may happen because the writer’s brain makes his fingers write the most familiar spelling of a homonym set rather than the less common spelling.

Such things are mistakes.

Let’s stop treating them as if they were tragic flaws.

Teach students to deal with them as editing issuesmistakes they can correct before anybody else sees them.

Individual Mastery Plans defined

I call my method Individual Mastery Plans. They are a bit like special education IEPs.

The IMPs identify each individual student’s habitual and serious errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling (GPS) — including homonym errors—and lay out a plan so the individual student can focus on his or her most serious habitual errors.

The goal of an IMP is for students to produce  clean first drafts, rather than error-free final drafts, because a large proportion of writing today is done with only one draft. Clean first draft is a journalist’s term for writing that’s been edited to contain very few serious GPS errors.

My procedure is to identify for each student a list of their most frequent serious errors and then turn responsibility for editing their own work for those errors over to the students. For courses of less than 12 weeks, I usually have students work on eliminating three errors. For year-long courses, I raise the number to five.

How I set up IMPs

I use Connors and Lunsford’s 1988 list of the 20 most common errors in student writing as a tool for establishing students’ baseline performance. Early in a course, as students submit written work, every time I see an occurrence of only those 20 conveniently numbered errors  I put its number in brackets after the error.

I don’t correct errors or identify them other than by the bracketed number.

I use word processing software to tell me the word count, and I use find and replace to put each bracketed number into blue type. That process tells me how many errors of a particular type were in the document.

I make sure each student has access to the Connors and Lunsford list in multiple places;  I also provide highly-specific resources  so students can turn in their text or go online directly to the exact paragraph(s) where the rule governing error [13] is discussed.

When I return written work anytime throughout the course, I require each student to graph the type and frequency of their errors. Some students really like graphing their progress.

After students have written enough to give us a picture of their most frequent errors at course entry, I negotiate an IMP with each student based on that student’s graph.

Examples of IMPs

Here’s a sample IMP for Josh who has a real problem with commas:

By Dec. 20 in your in-class writing you will have no more than two errors total of these three types per 500 words:

  • Missing comma in a series
  • Missing comma(s) with nonessential (nonrestrictive) element
  • Unnecessary comma(s) with restrictive element

Here’s a sample IMP for Caitlin who has a problem with sentence boundaries and distinguishing its from it’s.

By Dec. 20 in your in-class writing you will have no more than two errors total of these three types per 500 words:

  • Comma splice
  • Run-together sentences
  • It’s/its confusion

You’ll notice the IMPs specify a numerical error limit.  Depending on how long the course is, I set my error limit at no more than 1 or 2 IMP errors per 500 words written in class in an hour on a writing prompt the students did not know in advance.

IMPs and the grade cap

If students exceed the error limit set in their IMP, I impose a grade cap. Typically a student who exceeds the limit cannot get a grade higher than C, regardless of the quality of the writing. The grade cap policy eliminates a lot of sloppy papers.

Once the baseline is established, when I grade papers I flag only errors on a student’s IMP plan, and stop flagging when the error limit is reached.

Having fewer errors to flag when I grade papers saves me a lot of time over the course of a year. It makes no difference to Caitlin’s grade if she had 3 or 30 comma splices in 500 words, but seeing 30 comma splices flagged might well make Caitlin give up trying to master comma splices.

Value of IMPs

Setting up a system for establishing and using IMPs take a bit  of work, but it is a good investment.

IMPs make students responsible for applying their learning to their writing.

Students who historically have not been successful in a writing classroom find reassurance in having an aspect of writing that they can measure and control. Having the same number of errors to work on as the class genius has is good for a weaker students’ self-images, and mastering their IMP items is wonderful for their self-esteem.

An IMP is the only method I’ve found that works for such things as eliminating homonym errors and getting students not to use possessive apostrophes when the context requires only a plural. Those are errors that publisher-created exercises can’t touch.


Other blog posts about IMPs are here and here.

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Thinking about proficiency in writing

Seth Godin posted thoughts about quality on his blog today. He says that at the workplace there are at least three different ways to define quality:

  • The outcome satisfies the requirement.
  • The outcome goes far beyond what’s required.
  • The outcome shows the worker put in a lot of effort.

In New York State education regulations, students who do passing work are deemed proficient. In my dictionaries, proficient means expert. An expert is not just satisfying the requirement; he’s going beyond.

That’s why it bugs me when I see a rubric that labels the middle of the scale proficient.

On my mental rubric, the mid-point of the Writing Quality Scale isn’t proficient but competent.

Competent writing satisfies the requirement.

Writing that goes way beyond what’s required is proficient.

Writing that shows the writer put in a lot of effort is not yet competent.

I can teach not-yet-competent writers to be competent writers.

I can give competent writers time and encouragement to become proficient writers.

But I can’t turn out proficient writers.

Proficiency requires a discipline and dedication that the writer has to provide. If someone has a bit of talent, achieving proficiency may be a little bit easier than for someone without talent.

But in the end, proficiency is up to the individual.

 

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Teach the students

Teach the students you have

child pedaling a tricycle

not those you wish you had.           

                 girl's multi-speed bicycle

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Writing is a foreign language

It’s time American teachers face the fact that for our students, written English is a foreign language.

Our students can decode writing if it’s not too complicated. They can pass tests of grammar knowledge. They can put together collections of sentences in written English.

What they can’t do is write English language paragraphs for the purposes for which they need or want to write English language paragraphs.

In brief, our students haven’t learned to use written language in real life as a tool for communication.

The way we teach writing (or don’t teach writing) is the major culprit.

We don’t teach writing right.

We don’t give young children enough opportunities to use writing to do things that are both interesting and useful to them.  And we need to give even grade school students opportunities to write both fiction and nonfiction.

We regularly encourage elementary school students to invent stories, which may be interesting to them, but rarely encourage them to do writing that’s useful. Because of that, we turn off many youngsters who are creative but not imaginative, the ones who see how to make something better rather than envisioning an entirely new thing.

There’s no reason that writing cannot be both interesting and useful to youngsters. Even invented stories can be turned to practical uses, which is a fact teachers at all levels routinely ignore.

While we’re having students invent stories, we’re also having them learn grammar and related writing mechanics in isolation from their own writing. The writing mechanics exercises we give students don’t sound like they were written by elementary school students because they weren’t.

Students do exercises (many of them are disguised as games these days) but success with the exercises doesn’t translate into ability to write good sentences of their own. To be able to write good sentences, students need to practice with their own material.

We expose without teaching.

After messing up the teaching of writing in K-6, we mess up from grade 7 through college by failing to give students either procedures or practice in writing the kinds of things adults must write in the kinds of situations in which adults must write: short, nonfiction texts written with an eye on the clock.

In grades 7-12, we expose students to various kinds of writing—perhaps one narrative essay, one comparison essay, one argument essay—but we don’t actually teach students to write any of those things.

It’s hardly any wonder students don’t learn to write: They graduate high school with just enough exposure to writing to build up an immunity.

By the time they reach my first year college course, teens and adults don’t need or want any more exposure to writing. They have enough information about writing, but nobody has taught them to do it.

Most first year college students  would be happy to have help to improve their writing providing the help focuses on a limited number of procedures which are

  • easy to understand
  • easy to learn
  • easy to adapt
  • widely applicable to their own writing situations.

For my students, I’ve identified 10 procedures, each of which can be stated in one sentence, which work in probably 95 percent of the writing situations adults encounter. Unfortunately, teens and adults aren’t able to write just because they have a set of procedures to follow.

Teach and then supervise practice.

In my experience, to become competent at writing most teens and adults need 100 hours of practice—supervised practice—applying the strategies in authentic writing situations. Typically, for first year college students, 20 times through the entire writing process is about 100 hours practice.

That may sound like a lot, but 100 hours of practice between seventh grade and high school graduation shouldn’t be a big deal.

In those 100 hours, we need to do some honest-to-goodness teaching of writing, being physically present while students practice, interacting with them, helping them apply their developing skills to their own writing situations.

And we need to do it now before young people lose the ability to communicate without pictures.

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Schools’ role: enable teachers to teach curriculum expertly

America's oldest wooden schoolhouse,

America’s oldest wooden schoolhouse, St. Augustine, Florida

Every so often I run across something that makes me think there may be hope for American education yet.

Robert Podisco’s piece  “Time to Connect Professional Development and Teacher Training to Curriculum” at EducationNext earlier this month was one such encounter.

Podisco writes:

Slowly, slowly, a small but persuasive body of work is emerging which raises curriculum to an object of pressing concern for educators, and expresses long overdue appreciation for the idea that the instructional materials we put in front of children actually matter to student outcomes. A welcome addition to this emerging corpus is a new Aspen Institute paper by Ross Wiener and Susan Pimentel, which makes a compelling case—equally overdue—that professional development and teacher training ought to be connected to curriculum. A primary role of school systems, states, districts, and charter-management organizations, the pair write, “is to create the conditions in schools through which teachers can become experts at teaching the curriculum they are using and adapting instruction to the needs of their particular students.”

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I think making sure teachers are experts at teaching curriculum is long overdue.

And I’m sure the English teachers with 15 or more years experience who tell me they’ve never had any instruction in how to teach writing will agree it’s time to shake up teacher preparation and professional development.

It’s time to move to a new schoolhouse model.

Read the rest of Podisco’s piece at EducationNext.

 

 

 

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Are you a technologically literate teacher?

blog post title against collage of technology graphics

Could you, for example, walk into the office of a typical small business somewhere in America — a construction company, for example, or an independently-owned convenience store with fewer than 10 workers — and begin work immediately doing routine work, such as answering the phone and taking messages, using the office computer for recording receipts and disbursements, and faxing documents to state agencies?

Naturally, you’ll say you’d need some training. That’s undoubtedly true.

What’s also true, however, is that small business people expect college-educated people to know or be able to pick up very quickly skills that people with a high school education do every day.

I believe that being able to pick up new skills quickly is going to be the most sought-after attribute of 21st century workers.

The last time I tried to hire an editorial assistant for my publishing business, I asked people who’d lived in this community all their lives for suggestions. An ex-teacher was highly recommended.

She was interested in the work and the pay until I told her we use Open Office rather than Microsoft products because that’s what my customers use.

That was a deal breaker.

“I’d have to go take a course to learn how to use it,” she said.

The woman might have been a wonderful teacher, but she didn’t have the technology skills for an entry-level job in a small business.

If you have to go take a training course in a software program before you can use it, you can’t handle an entry-level job in a small business.

Folks, one word processing program is pretty much like another.

And if your skills are up to the challenge of the entry-level work in 2017, can you honestly say you’re able to prepare your students for today’s workplace, let alone tomorrow’s?

Related reading:

Work Experience as Education

The Collaboration Model for Entry Level Jobs

Dear Applicant: The reason you weren’t hired.

 

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Filed under Educational technology, Lifelong learning

Learn to write in eight weeks.

No reason it should take more than eight weeks.

I mean, writin’ is like just sayin’ stuff only, you know, with a pencil or computer or somethin’.

I’ll bet if you worked hard, you could ace it in six.

Five maybe.

After all, writin’s just like, well, it’s just like sayin’ stuff.

Ya know what I’m sayin’?

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Create no-bore writing classrooms

Good teaching occurs halfway between being an entertainer

 

juggler keeps balls in air
 

and being a wet blanket.

 

money wet with snow looks depressed

 

Examine the most boring parts of your curriculum for opportunities to introduce something unexpected.

 

woman walks quickly carrying mannequin leg

 

Just because you cannot make learning to write fun doesn’t mean you have to make it boring.

 

woman looks up from computer in pleasant surprise

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Filed under Teaching methods, Teaching writing