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

Teaching writing is like writing

Teaching writing is a lot like learning to write.

You don’t need to know much at the start, but you must be willing to learn.

small boy spray-painting MOM on wall
You must work consistently to improve and tolerate failures as you learn.

young woman sits despondently on bench
Above all, you have to accept the fact that everyone thinks what you do is easy except the people who do it every day.

man sweeping big parking lot with broom


Photos by Ryan McGuire of gratisography.com

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Required knowledge for 2037

What can we be sure students will need to know 20 years from now?

I’ve been working at revamping content from my “you can teach writing” website begun in 2008 — a date that seems like an eternity ago — I’ve been taking a hard look at what from that bygone time is still valid.

Obviously anything that has passed its sell-buy date in 2017 has to be scrapped.

I’ve deleted the “current events” references and the rotted links: Information expires.

Now what?

How do I decide what to keep?

Skills are more durable than information, so I’m starting by looking at them.
What skills will students need 20 years from now?

I’ve started making a list of what I’m pretty sure students will need to be able to do on their own without the benefit of a teacher/supervisor 20 years from now:

That seems to me to be a reasonable method of determining what of my 2008 website content (which, truth to tell, was the accumulation of 40 years of experience as a writer, editor, and writing teacher) is durable.

In 2037 students will need to be able to:

Here’s in the order in which I thought of them are my ideas of what students will certainly be required to do in 2037.

I invite you to share your reactions in the comments section.

  • learn by reading
  • write to communicate
  • communicate by speaking
  • learn from listening
  • learn by observing
  • formulate useful questions
  • translate information from one communication medium into another
  • read and write a language other than their native tongue (language here can include computer code)
  • communicate via images
  • curate content
  • control machines
  • collaborate to achieve goals
  • get along with people unlike themselves
  • learn without a live teacher present
  • adjust their behavior in response to their learning
  • identify problems
  • formulate solutions to problems in ways that are testable
  • distinguish between causation and correlation
  • find people able and willing to share their expertise
  • distinguish between essential and non-essential activities
  • distinguish between what people need and what they want
  • manage their time well

Help me out.

What have I missed that everyone will need to do? Math skills for sure, but which?
What are essential skills in the social sciences? in the fine arts?
What’s on the list that is dubious?

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Filed under Lifelong learning, Workforce readiness

Social media as a research tool

When I teach writing, one of the strategies I teach students is a procedure for identifying experts on a topic.

I call it ripple strategy. It is basically the process journalists use when they start to investigate a topic about which they have no real starting information.

Ripples spread out from a drop of water falling into a puddle.

Ripples on water help students visualize the process of finding experts.

I tell students to begin by seeing if they have personal expertise on the topic. They may not be an expert, but specifying what they know can help them in the search for expertise.

If they can’t think of anything they know from personal experience, they move a bit beyond themselves to people they know personally: family, friends, teachers, co-workers, the owner of the pizza place they patronize. Do any of those folks have expertise on the writing topic?

If no one comes to mind, they move to the next farthest ripple: People they don’t know personally but who are known by people they know personally. These are folks like Mom’s boss’s son or the mail carrier’s brother.

Finally, they come to the people they know about but to whom they don’t have any third party link.

Let’s say a student’s rippling has led him to think a good source on his topic would be someone who  manages a nursing home.

The student can ask people in his closest “ripples” if they know someone who manages a nursing home.

If they don’t have any luck, they can use social media as a research tool.

Each of the major social media networks has its own search functionality.

Written for business people seeking customers, this article from the Business 2 Community website, gives a pretty good introduction to using Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, YouTube, and Google+ to find people with interest or expertise in a given topic. Although the list doesn’t include LinkedIn, the six options it does discuss are probably more familiar to students grades 7 to 14.

The article isn’t a perfect answer to students’ find-an-expert questions, but it’s a good start.

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Getting students to write well without writing at length

Photo of students writing In mid-January, Marc Tucker wrote a piece  for Education Week‘s Top Performers blog, “Our Students Can’t Write Very Well—It’s No Mystery Why.”

Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, is noted for his research and writing on the policies and practices of the countries with the world’s best education systems.

His EdWeek article is blunt. After noting that American high school students rarely are required to read entire novels, let alone read entire nonfiction books, Tucker says:

High school students are hardly ever asked to write anything of significant length.  Why not?  Because in this age of accountability, they are not tested on their writing ability.  By which I mean that they are not asked to submit to the testing authorities 10- or 15- or 20-page papers in which they are expected to present a thesis and defend it, analyze something complicated from multiple points of view and draw a reasoned conclusion, or put together a short story in which characters are developed in some depth and insights are revealed. [boldface added]

I empathize with Tucker. I’ve not had notable success finding qualified applicants either.)

As my regular readers know, for decades I’ve toggled together a living as a writer-editor (books, magazines, newspapers, an academic journal, marketing materials) and a college writing teacher, thanks in no small part to temporary and part-time jobs in places such as a hospital, the IRS National Computer Lab, and a resort hotel.

I’ve learned far more about writing from the places at which I’ve worked than I ever learned from my academic studies.

I believe deliberate practice is the key to learning to write.

I’m not, however, convinced that reading widely produces good writers: I see a reciprocal rather than a causal relationship.

I agree with Tucker that too many students are getting through school without learning to write.  As Steve Graham‘s research has shown, most teachers either don’t teach writing or don’t know how to teach writing, or both.

Besides that, teachers often have very little idea of what people in jobs outside education must write, the conditions under which they write, or the standards to which writers are held in jobs outside education. The typically English teacher is a person (usually a woman) whose out-of-education employment consisted of summer jobs waiting tables or working as a retail clerk — jobs that don’t entail writing complex documents or writing semi-technical documents such as are needed for the job Tucker was trying to fill.

If we want students to write on the job, they need to be taught to write, not just given writing assignments. In my experience, short papers on topics related to their courses are the best vehicles for teaching writing.

Students in an English class may not be interested in writing about why word choices matter or why English spelling is so difficult, but they can at least see it has some connection to English class. Similarly, students in science classes may not care about chemistry, but they can at least see that an assignment to compare the tone of an article in USA Today about a newly discovered use for tomato peels with the tone of an article in Scientific American on the same topic has some relationship to chemistry.

When I’m lucky enough to have students for an academic year,  I teach students a set of strategies I use in my own writing and stick to just what Common Core calls informative/explanatory writing. My students write in class every period for at least half the year so I can give them feedback orally as they write.

Whenever I can get away with it, I guarantee students that as soon as they demonstrate on two papers in a row that they have met my standard for competent writing, I will drop every writing grade up to that point. If they are happy with a C, they don’t have to do anything else the rest of the term.

I’ve done this when I’ve had three preps: five, 20-student, composition classes, one ed psych class, and one magazine journalism class. I thought I’d die before that year was over, but no student earned less than a B.

When students are competent at I/E writing — I estimate that they’ll need to write at least 20 complete, short papers to become competent — they will be able to start paying real attention to what they have to say.

That’s when they can profit from an across-the-curriculum expository writing program in which they get experience writing the kinds of longer papers Tucker expects from applicants for jobs at his organization.

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Baby steps toward reducing rural brain drain

The head of the town’s chamber of commerce facetiously says the local high school students walk off the stage with their diplomas onto a Greyhound bus, never to be seen again.Collage of 1-way signs surprinted with Suppose we could reverse rural brain drain with local information

The situation is not quite that dire, but the Bainbridge, NY, community is certainly not retaining or reclaiming enough of its young people to make even the most optimistic folks feel confident about the town’s future.

The brain drain has been on the minds of some local businesswomen who want to see the town retain jobs and create new ones.

As I’ve talked to owners and employees of businesses, when they learned I’m a writer, nearly every person has asked if I could write something they needed.

The needs they identified included radio ads, an employee manual, and web page copy — which are only a small fraction of the materials businesses really need to be competitive in a digitally connected world.

Filling local businesses’ needs for written content could become a business for some local graduate.

I suspect there are other business opportunities waiting to be discovered here as well.

Perhaps, like the town in this 2-minute video, we’ve assumed that students want to leave and not come back, when they would be open to coming back after college if they only knew what opportunities exist to create a business here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Rural schools, School-community relations