Category Archives: Teachers

What are you reading for?

Writing teachers need to be readers.

Everybody knows that.

But what must they read? And why should they read it?

What writing teachers tend to read

If you look at lists of what writing teachers are reading (or at least what those on Twitter say they are reading), the titles tend to fall into three categories:

  •  nonfiction books about “soft skills” for educational settings
  • nonfiction books related to writing and literacy
  • fiction

What I read

Labor Day weekend, I moved the stack of nonfiction books I read over the summer from the coffee table to the bookcase in the back room.  (The fiction was already scattered in three rooms and on digital devices.)

When I looked at the titles, I realized (not for the first time) that I am not normal.

 

Stack of nonfiction books

Ten nonfiction books I read between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

There’s one title about writing I read because writing is the subject I teach.

Two history books about World War I were on my list because I’m re-reading novels of the Great War era for my book review blog.

Two titles are about the American dream  in today’s economy.

Two titles are about the importance of social relationships for those who want to sell good or ideas.

Two books are on principles of communicating so people get it.

The final book is a book about logotypes, “words and letters that are designed to be recognized.”

Why these particular books?

I read things that interest me, either because I am interested in a topic or because looking for ways I can use my students’ vocational interests to help them learn to write.

Getting outside of my knowledge base upsets my standard thought patterns that I can see ideas I’d never have noticed if they were wrapped in a book on something I know about.

What about you?

What nonfiction do you read?

And why do you read it?

If you need any suggestions, I’ll be happy to give you some suggestions.

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What’s your goal in teaching writing?

Since I missed Tuesday’s #TeachWriting chat on Twitter, I founnd the transcript, which I thought might interest you, too.

Below, compiled and edited for brevity, is the chat’s first question and responses to it.

The chat’s first question

Responses to the first question

If someone had more than one response to Q1, I’ve included only one, usually the first.

As you read, please bear in mind that respondents are a diverse group that, depending on the chat, may include K-12 teachers, college faculty, school administrators, and a variety of support staff. In some respects, their perspectives vary with their positions.

Quantity a top-of-mind goal

Perhaps it was the way the question was worded that prompted so many teachers to respond by framing their goals in terms of quantity.  Researchers certainly have criticized teachers for not having students write enough; however, one might almost conclude from these responses that the teachers believe students learn to write well by doing a lot of writing without the benefit of teaching or coached practice.

I noticed no one mentioned a specific genre of writing. The closest anyone came was a reference to writing across the curriculum, which would suggest expository writing.

A couple of people phrased their goal in terms of how they wanted their students to feel about writing. Affective goals are important, but they respond indifferently to teaching and are nearly impossible to measure. If, like Ben Kuhlman, a teacher wants a student to feel successful at writing, the best way to achieve that goal is to teach the student to write.

A1: My goal never changes

Here’s what I would have given as my response to Q1:

 

Goal: every student writes competently.

For over 40 years, my goal in teaching writing has been to turn out competent writers. I aim for every student who enters my classroom (a physical one or a digital one) to leave being able to write expository nonfiction competently in the situations in which that student has to write.  Depending on the student, that can mean writing in their college classes or at work.

In either case, students expect a quick payout.

To accomplish my goal—all-class competence—I have every student write every day in response to prompts I give them.  Most days we do informal writing about course content other than writing or about some aspects of the expository writing process.  One day a week is used for drafting that week’s formal document.

My students don’t leave my classes on an emotional high: They’re too exhausted for that.

But a significant number leave writing competently, even when the course is as little as five weeks.

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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 is goal achievement

The PenPrompts mission is goal achievement.

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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Filed under Teaching methods, Teaching writing

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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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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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

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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Filed under Lifelong learning, Teachers

Technology and skills: Today’s best BOGO deal

In the lead up to Black Friday, my inbox was full of messages from technology companies that don’t want me to miss out on the greatest deal ever—usually theirs.

Photo of classroom computers overlaid with "Is this technology a good deal?"

To get a really good deal on technology, buy one product that gets you two benefits:

  1. It’s technology you can use now.
  2. It’s technology that will allow you to develop a skill you can use later.

Technology you can use now but which doesn’t help you develop new skills isn’t worth what you’ll pay for it.

And you’ll probably never get around to learning to use new technology for which you have no immediate use, so that’s not worth having at any price.

The buy-two-benefits principle holds whether you’re buying technology for yourself or selecting technology for your classroom.

 

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Foiled by training: Why multi-modal learning materials matter

I rarely attempt a new task without being reminded that not all people learn the same way.  I’ve written about how that plays out on the job here and here and probably other places I’ve forgotten about. This month I’ve been wrestling with a similar problem in the context of trying to master a new piece of software.

I’m in the process of trying to set up a new website to hold content from my old “you can teach writing” site.  I needed new web creation software to replace the Dreamweaver program I’d had since 2001.

I did my homework, tried CoffeeCup‘s Responsive Site Designer and decided to buy it.

I knew it would require some time to master RSD, but I’d learned Dreamweaver, I’ve had plenty of experience with grid-based design, including changing designs to fit various sized pages, so I didn’t think learning RSD would be too hard.

What I didn’t stop to consider was that Dreamweaver provided a book with text and screenshots; CoffeeCup recommended a video tutorial for RSD.

Screenshot of title page of one RSD training video.

For efficient learning, I need fixed text and still pictures.

I watched the first two RSD video segments which showed someone creating webpages.

There was no narrative to explain what trainer was doing. I could see his cursor hovered over certain places on the screen but I couldn’t tell what action, if any, he took.

I watched the videos again.

And watched them again.

And again.

screenshot of part of the RSD control panel

Section of RSD control panel.

After two days of that, I opened the program and tried to recreate what I saw on the video.

I’d watch a few seconds of video, switch to the program and try to reproduce the changes I saw in the page in the tutorial.

Back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth.

I did the back-and-forth bit for several days and still had no clue how to use the program.

The control panel for the page creation screen has a black background with tiny light gray type. If I zoomed in to see the tiny type, I couldn’t see the page creation screen.

In the last two of the five videos in the tutorial, the action that the trainer took was masked by the Vimeo progress bar.

In frustration, I contacted CoffeeCup support and asked how to open a blank page.

Armed with that information and a rough layout I’d planned using a spreadsheet in lieu of a wire frame, I created a webpage in one afternoon.

My page isn’t great, but it’s not bad either. I’ve seen worse from people who supposedly knew what they were doing.

Take-aways

For me as a teacher and writer of instructional materials, every frustrating experience is a learning experience (after it’s over).

Some notes to myself, based on this experience:

  • Don’t make people feel stupid.
  • If you have something to show, make sure it’s visible.
  • Help people get started.
  • Provide cheat sheets.
  • Don’t assume everyone learns best the way you do.
  • Don’t assume everyone has prior experiences similar to yours.
  • Provide a menu (or other structure) to help people find the most relevant resources at various stages of the learning learning process.
  • If learners segment into distinct groups based on prior experience, consider making different menus for the different groups.

 

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