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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Maker movement makes rural life make sense

mountain forest with fog cover obscuring top half of photo
Rural America is a place where place-based learning and the maker movement can meet for economic development  when rural teachers take the lead.

A blog post by earlier this week by Leah Shaffer at MindShift begins by contrasting maker programs in cities with rural ones:

The maker movement has expanded greatly in recent years and much of the attention has focused on cities with high population density and large well-funded school districts. In rural districts, teachers are also developing maker projects to help students gain the benefits that come from hands-on experiences, while better understanding the needs of their communities.

Maker projects in Montana and Iowa

Shaffer reports on work by a students in a Montana community who built and programmed air sensors to monitor pollution from forest fires and wood smoke cause year-round air pollution, and one in which Iowa high school students analyze agricultural data they gather by flying drones over farm fields.

photo collage of drones in air surprinted "Drones gather data from farm fields, boost students' skills"

Shaffer’s sources note the need for teachers to anticipate skills students are likely to need a decade or more in the future and design projects that help them develop those skills.

Her sources also point out that schools can’t just equip a maker space and assume students will know what to do: Initial experiences must be structured.

Read the entire blog post.

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Using MOOCs to get refugees into college

collage of refugee images with superinposed text

MOOCs, Massive Open Online Classes in which students could study college-level material for free, were initial seen as major disruptive force in education.

It didn’t happen.

Even when they were free, many students didn’t find them worth completing.

Higher ed has learned from the experience, and begun seeking better ways to use their assets—all those highly skilled professors—to greater advantage.

One of the most intriguing MOOC applications I’ve seen was reported in the March 1 Springwise.com weekly newsletter. Here’s what it says:

Berlin-based Kiron works with refugee students to put together an online course of study, rigorous enough to provide entry into a partner university’s second year of study. Using Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), Kiron helps students master their new country’s language while studying basic prerequisites for a chosen university degree. Already working with more than 1,500 students in Germany, Kiron recently expanded into France.

With less than one percent of all refugees able to access higher education, MOOCs help get new students to the necessary level of knowledge for in-person university study. Kiron also provides off-line support including study buddy programs and career guidance. Once a participant completes the two-year online program, he or she has the opportunity to enroll for free (as a second year student) in one of Kiron’s partner university’s programs.

If the model works for refugees who have to master another language in order to get maximum benefit from college-level work, it seems to me that pairing free online educational content suited to students’ career objectives along with off-line support might be a solution to some of America’s skill-gap problems.

What do you think?


Kiron offers internships and volunteer opportunities in Germany and the possibility for people with special skills such as tutoring or programming to volunteer remotely.

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Relationships and learning

Since I came across this image in a tweet, I’ve been trying to decide whether or not I agree with the quote, “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.”

I agree with the @teachergoals that relationships must be encouraged and maintained. I suspect the intent of the quote is to encourage teachers to interact with their students as people instead of as rectangles on a seating chart, which is a worthwhile aim.

What I’m not so sure about is the meaning of a “significant relationship” in the educational context.  (I’m sure, however, it’s not the meaning we occasionally hear about on TV newscasts, in which one of the parties wears a bright orange jumpsuit.)

Who are the parties to a significant relationship in which learning occurs?

In what way(s) must the relationship be significant to impact learning?

Do the learning and the relationship have to occur contemporaneously?

If all significant learning requires “a significant relationship,” is turning students into lifelong learners a pipe dream?

And, last but not least, I wonder if I the only person in the world whose most significant learning came from books?

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Have a challenge? Need a challenge?

Challenge is a challenging word.

We in education most often use the singular noun to mean a task that demands special effort or dedication, but which is within the ability of the person who accepts the challenge.

We like kids who accept a challenge.

By contrast, we typically use the plural form, challenges, to mean things that require more ability than an individual has, as in “that kid has serious challenges.”

We prefer kids with challenges be in another teacher’s classroom.

I ran across two items today on Twitter that made me think about those two opposing usages.

Challenged workers

The first is a National Skills Coalition report showing roughly 20 million Americans employed in key service-sector industries lack basic skills in literacy, numeracy, or digital problem-solving.

These are people that we educators would probably say “have challenges.”

A large proportion of these people work in just three areas: retail, health care and social assistance, and in food services and accommodations. Surprisingly, 58 percent of them have been with their current employer at least three years, and 23 percent of them are supervisors.

Here’s the most astonishing fact about these workers:

More than one in three (39%) participated in a learning activity over the past 12 months, including 27% who are pursuing a formal degree or certificate.

Ignore for the moment the question of how all those people get into post-secondary education when they trouble with reading, writing, arithmetic, and problem solving: Think about how someone with challenges becomes someone who accepts a challenge.

Workers who take on challenges

There may be many factors the lead to someone accepting a challenge, but they certainly include:

  • Having a personal reason for accepting the challenge of learning.
  • Sensing that doing nothing will produce a bad outcome.
  • Believing the desired outcome is worth the effort it requires.

At some point, we educators have to start figuring out how to get those “kids with challenges” to accept the challenge of learning how to learn what they will need to know in their work and in their lives. It’s particularly important for us to do that for the students who aren’t natural, book-learning scholars: the hands-on, vocational, CTE students.

They crave a challenge, too, and they deserve it.

What else could we be doing to see that all students have opportunities to take on challenges?

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Great schools v not-so-good schools

I’ve had a week bordering on the frenetic.

Perhaps you have, too.

Take a minute to breathe deeply while you consider two sentences from Sir Kenneth Robinson.

 

Quote: Schools that don't get their role in the community can drain the life force out of the community.
 

On the other hand:

 

Quote: Great Schools enrich the entire neighborhood, the entire ecosystem.

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Let’s get strategic about writing strategies

Last week a publisher sent me an ad for a new book for teachers which is now on pre-order:

The Reading Strategies Book made the New York Times Best Seller List by making it simpler to match students’ needs to high-quality instruction. Now, in The Writing Strategies Book, Jen Serravallo does the same, collecting 300 of the most effective strategies to share with writers, and grouping them beneath 10 crucial writing goals.

In her introduction, Serravallo explains her purpose:

My aim in this book is to offer my favorite, most useful collection of strategies that span all aspects of the writing process, all genres and modes of writing, and that will work well with students in grades K–8.

advertisement for book 300 Writing Strategies

Appealing and practical

I just dipped into The Writing Strategies Book, but I found it pretty impressive.

I can see why the book would appeal to teachers.

Serravallo writes well: There are no long-winded, polysyllabic sentences. She has an authentic voice that sounds like person-to-person communication.

The book’s page layout makes it easy to find information and apply it quickly.

What Serravallo says is practical. She knows her audience and gives them what they need.

But 300 strategies is excessive

I have reservations, however, about needing 300 strategies.

My career blended writing nonfiction for adult readers with teaching nonfiction writing to post-secondary writers, which I realize is a far cry from teaching K-8.

However, I’ve found both as a writer and as a writing teacher, the fewer the strategies, the better the writing outcomes.

definition printed on photo of block wall: Strategies are ways of systematically implementing a process designed to achieve carefully defined goals.

One of my gripes about K-12 English programs is that they are not strategic: Strategies are ways of systematically implementing a process designed to achieve carefully defined goals. Does that sound like anything that happens in K-12 education?

Students come to first year college composition with no strategies for tackling routine writing situations. They treat every writing situation as if it were unique when, in fact, they, and most other people, regularly encounter perhaps a half dozen different writing situations.

10 strategies instead of 300

Instead of 300 writing strategies, I have just 10—and three of them are actually research strategies.

Ten are all I need to write nonfiction on a daily basis.

Ten are all I need to teach nonfiction writing.

Ten are all my students require to learn to write nonfiction competently.

To make the writing process efficient, I need to make sure each individual:

  • Understands the strategy.
  • Memorizes the strategy.
  • Uses the strategy repeatedly in disciplined practice.

Something that’s done once is not a strategy.

A strategy is only strategic after it’s an automatic response to a set of stimuli.

A real strategy enables the user to recognize almost at a glance when conditions require something other than the strategy — something innovative, something creative.

Real strategies scale.

Real strategies can be deployed in situations far different from that in which they were learned and on tasks far more complex than the tasks on which they were practiced.

I’d call them feedback

What Serravallo calls strategies, I’d call feedback.

In a writing class, feedback is talking to an individual student about what he’s doing, finding out what the student is having difficulty with, and and helping the student find ways to overcome the problem.

Strategies enable the writing student to get along without the teacher present.

Feedback shows the writing student how to understand and use the strategies.

I’ll continue to advocate for a few good strategies for writing teachers: I think my system beats Serravallo’s.

But regardless of what age your writing students are, if you’re looking for good suggestion on how to provide students with feedback on their writing while they’re writing (when it can do some good),  you ought to take a look at Serravallo’s Writing Strategies Book.

 

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Rural triangle: School, community, economy

Curved arrows labeled Education, Economy, and Community chase one another in front of a green triangle.In November, 2015 I began posting a list of resources for folks who want to improve the relationship between rural schools and their communities for their mutual benefit.

It’s time to revisit the topic.

It’s still true that, as I wrote in 2015:

In rural communities, schools cannot be considered separate from economic development and community development. The vitality and policies of any one of the three impacts the other two.

And the 2015 description of rural brain drain still is largely accurate.

But rural America’s problems are getting more attention these days, most notably from rural Americans themselves who are stepping up try to reverse the decline of the rural American economy and prevent the loss of their communities and community schools.

I’ve shortened descriptions of resources I posted in 2015 and added dates for the resources so readers can quickly get a feel for the changes.

What’s happening in rural America?

(2009) The brightest students are leaving rural communities; job options for those who remain are diminishing.

(2012) The rural student population is getting larger, more diverse, and poorer.

(2013) Net migration isn’t offsetting the effects of brain drain.

Who is to blame for rural brain drain?

(2009) Schools and their communities each contribute to rural brain drain, setting the course for both to die. “Teachers, parents, and other influential adults cherry-pick the young people destined to leave and ignore the ones most likely to stay or return.”

(2017) Rural schools are failing their communities. A college degree in rural America is now synonymous with leaving and having no way to sustainably come back. Rural schools must work with their communities, rather than seeing themselves as separate from the cycle of economic decline.

How could rural schools aid in community development?

(2011) Schools could address community problems around medical care, food access, etc. by acting as self-sustaining revenue facilities.

How could rural schools aid in economic development?

(2011) A class of high school students in the poorest county in North Carolina designed and built a much-needed farmer’s market pavilion for the area.

(2012) Add skill applications to high school courses.

(2012) Greenville, NY, High School created what was, in effect, a small business incubator within its facility, offering a business rent in exchange for hands-on work experience for its high school students.

(2012) Encourage entrepreneurship by showing students online training resources they can access, and (2014) teach students to look for problems that require solutions.

(2013) Place-based, scholarly research by rural students can have direct, positive impact on local economic development.

(2013) Students in Cody NE, population 154, built a a 3,300-sq. ft. straw-bale building to use as grocery store and run it themselves. Inside, lettering on the wall above the produce cooler reads “It’s more than a store. It’s our future.”

(2014)  Capture the imagination of students who don’t see college as a path for themselves by school programs that target local economic problems.

(2015) Pell Grant experiment needs needs rural  scrutiny to make sure its rules won’t keep some rural students out of courses that fit their needs and interests.

(2017) Offer students a combination of coursework, internships, and job shadowing experiences to enable them to make informed choices about higher education, work, and place of residence. Preparing students for a continuously changing mainstream economy can give them the opportunity to return home as entrepreneurs or participants in the online space.

(2017) Schools can support project-based learning on authentic local problems that challenge students. For example, in Ness City, KS, an industrial arts class elected to design and build a tiny house. Other classes helped with interior design and marketing, and a special education class is documenting the project in a book. The classes plan to market the home across the country.

(2017) A SCORE chapter in Massachusetts collaborated with PTOs to deliver a six week, after-school program to train students in grades 4 through 8 to run their own businesses. The 72 participants in the initial program launched 52 new businesses, some of which were partnerships complete with partnership agreements.

How can rural schools and communities collaborate?

(2011) Help teens get ready for the world of work with good attitudes and good skills.

(2012) Let teens work alongside adults to contribute to their communities and to develop and apply real skills.

(2012) Require students to apply classroom knowledge to real world writing situations and offer hands-on learning of salable skills.

(2012) Schools can grow their future teachers who will also be their communities’ future leaders.

(2014) Offer teens after-school programs that do more than distract.

(2014) Integrate non-academic services to students, their families, and even the wider community into the academic program.

(2016) Communities and schools need to work collaboratively to generate educational opportunities and economic prosperity in places where the number of voters without a child in school is a majority. Downloadable PDF from Battelle for Kids.

(2016)  School personnel and community members need to change the mindset that every kid needs to go to college. Today’s career and technical education, or CTE, can lead to a decent-paying job, particularly in those fields where employers say they are trying to cope with a serious “skills gap.”

(2017) Rural schools and their communities need to work together to turn around neighborhoods and schools long before those schools—and all the significance and services they bring with them—disappear.

What about the “no college for me” kids?

(2013) Give Career and Technical Education (CTE) students the same degree of academic support given their college-bound counterparts so they can take advantage of educational opportunities they need for their careers.

(2012) Six ideas for businesses serving the business market that require no post-high school training.

(2015) The internet allows someone with determination to learn skills for a good-paying job without the expenses of a college degree.

(2016) For years, there’s been almost no assistance for CTE students seeking post-secondary training. Three recent developments suggest the tide may be turning: An experimental program to give  in financial aid to those in nontraditional programs (such as coding boot camps), a MOOC with a graded-paper option, and the introduction of a federal law to expand concurrent enrollment opportunities for CTE students.

Who is working on the three-pronged rural problem?

SaveYour.Town Two small-town Iowans offer webinars, toolkits, and online communities to help people learn, grow and take action to revitalize their communities.

The Rural School and Community Trust (ruraledu.org) has many resources, including Tools to fight rural school consolidation.

The Center for Rural Affairs (cfra.org) developed a series of articles on why rural schools need to be kept alive. The articles are available as a 6-page pdf document.

The Orton Family Foundation empowers people to shape the future of their communities by collective, collaborative activities focusing on their unique strengths.


Have I missed items that should be here? Give me a shout in the comments or @LindaAragoni on Twitter

Updated March 27, 2017.

© 2017 Linda G. Aragoni

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18 years of compliance training

I inadvertently stumbled into a Twitter discussion about school activities, such as most homework assignments, that seem to exist for no other reason than, “We’ve always done it that way.”

Here’s an extract:

The conversation suggested that requiring compliance by students is bad.

I don’t think complying with such things as instructions to print one’s name on a document infringe on civil liberties or turn students into automatons: It might be regarded as a simple courtesy.

By the same token, I don’t think complying with school rules has much of an effect on students’ “real lives” outside school.

In fact, as I said, my observations of students in work settings has led me to think the fact that something is required in kindergarten or high school or college is likely to lead students to assume they can safely ignore it elsewhere.

I’ve written several posts over the years about my observations of ex-students’ behaviors outside classrooms when they attempt to enter the workforce. Taken together,  they may suggest it’s not compliance or the lack thereof  that’s a problem.

I’ve pasted the leads of three of them below with links to the entire posts.


Top writing requirement: Read the directions

Teaching students to adapt their writing to the situation never was easy, but is is becoming increasingly difficult. Within a few minutes’ time, we expect students to turn from texting friends to writing research reports to blogging—and to meet the different requirements of each of those situations.

One of the ways we can help students learn to navigate between writing situations is teach them that when directions are provided, they should read and follow those directions, regardless of what they’ve been taught was the appropriate thing to do. Read more of this post.

Work experience as education

Do you want to know how to prepare your students for an entry-level job? The best way to learn what students need to know is to do different entry-level jobs yourself.

Unless you already know somebody at the business, you’ll have to fill out a job application, just as your students will unless they, too, get their jobs through networking or nepotism. Completing a job application requires what the Common Core State Standards refer to as reading informational text. Read more of this post.

Dear applicant: The reason you weren’t hired

Since April,  I’ve been advertising unsuccessfully for two part-time, virtual workers in my educational publishing business. The responses have been mainly from highly schooled individuals who:

  • Don’t know how to write an email,
  • Either don’t read or don’t follow directions, and
  • Don’t have a clue what skills are needed for the 21st century office.

I sent respondents boilerplate “thank you for your interest” replies, but mentally wrote letters I wished I dared send. Read more of this post.

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