Category Archives: Teaching methods

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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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.


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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Grade incentives for learning that don’t suck

Andrew Miller posted a piece on Edutopia almost a year ago titled “When Grading Harms Student Learning,” which he ends with “an essential question to ponder: How can we grade and assess in a way that provides hope to all students?”

By the time Miller’s post showed up in my Twitter feed this week, it had drawn 31 responses.

Polar positions on grading

As you might guess, the comments on Miller’s post ranged from a recommending that grades be eliminated entirely saying indirectly that grades—or at least the standards they seem to represent—are an essential part of the school’s role in preparing students for life after school.

Mark Barnes takes the first position:

“Have you considered eliminating all number and letter grades? Is it possible that if a child does not complete an activity, there’s a problem with an activity? Number and letter grades lie about learning. Learning can never be measured.”

Mrs Hitchcock, an 8th grade science teacher from Eagar AZ leans, somewhat reluctantly, toward the tough love approach:

“On the one hand, our kids are more than just grades. On the other hand, we ARE still trying to teach kids to be responsible adults…Compliance is a HUGE part of being an adult, and public school is the only place a lot of kids will ever be held accountable for anything.”

Her sentiment was echoed by Kimberly Livaudais, who has taught 7-12 and at the college level.

“[college] students are so used to being able to turn work in late or re-test that many of them fail their first year when they have that rude awakening.”

Grades aren’t going away

I see no chance that schools will get rid of grading systems any time soon: They are too convenient.

(Convenience is one of the most desirable characteristics of 21st century products and services)

Nor do I see large employers abandoning grades as a hiring consideration, even while deploring the fact that grades are meaningless.

As an employer who also worked in human resources, I know employers who need staff ASAP are not going to look through electronic portfolios at least until they’ve narrowed the candidate pool to between three and five people: Portfolios aren’t convenient.

I also don’t see digital badges gaining traction among employers hiring for low-end, no-degree-needed jobs for the same reason: convenience. Employers hiring for those jobs aren’t going to click a half-dozen links to see what Josh’s badges mean.

And a surprising number of employers who ask applicants to email a letter of application don’t know those blue underlines in email messages indicate a clickable link.

My position on grading

My own position on grading sits somewhere between the two.
Don Doehla stated my position better than I can:

“We should have grading systems which honor growth, which empower, and which help support reflective practices.”

Such grading systems would accomplish Miller’s goal of providing students with hope that they aren’t doomed to a life of failure without encouraging students to think effort is the same as accomplishment.

Iteration is key to deep learning

I decided 40-some years ago that grading systems “which honor growth, empower, and support reflective practices” are incompatible with teaching content by units and with arbitrary marking periods. Even semester grades are a stretch for many subjects.

The most important concepts rarely can be mastered within a single unit: Important concepts are important because they apply to a great many specifics and have wide applicability.

Students need to be exposed to multiple examples of a concept and often need to be exposed to the concept in multiple ways. Squeezing a half-dozen examples shown via a half-dozen techniques into two class periods is not nearly as useful as spreading the material out in smaller doses over a period of weeks.

Teaching important skills requires even more iterations—which means a longer time frame—than teaching concepts.

The total amount of class time required for iterative teaching can be less than the time required for the concentrated focus, but is may very well need to extend over several marking periods.

Ditch the unit mindset

Shaking off the unit mindset allows teachers to work in environments employing procedures and processes such as:

  • annual outcomes
  • competency-based learning
  • mastery learning

I suspect many teachers would have no trouble getting rid of units if they could figure out how to grade a student’s achievement on a particular annual outcome when learning activities aimed at helping students master the outcome extend over months.

I do a couple of things in first year college English classes that may offer some insights.

My practice for grading

I set as my writing goal getting every student to write nonfiction competently. I call that C-level.

All topics that need to be covered in the curriculum are evaluated by means of written (“essay”) tests done in class.

All of the formal writing and informal writing (ungraded) assignments are about communications topics in the curriculum.

I evaluate each week’s formal writing—one paper is required each week—in terms of a list of characteristics of C-level writing. I word each characteristic so a student’s work can be assessed as meeting or not meeting the standard.

I tell students that once they reach C-level, I will drop all their grades to that point, even if they had straight F’s to that time.

Empower growth

With students writing just three days a week, I know it’s probably going to take a full semester before most students get to C-level.  That long slog is discouraging, so I provide a way for students to see measurable progress in one area that will contribute to their overall grade: writing mechanics.

Every student in the class has the same number of specific errors to master (usually three; never more than five),  but each student has his or her own list of habitual, serious errors in their writing to master during the course.

One student’s individual mastery plan might look like this:

  • put comma after introductory element
  • separate clauses in a compound sentence with a comma
  • distinguish between its and it’s

Each student gets a percentage of the paper’s total grade for having no more than X total errors of the types listed in their IMP.

I don’t grade informal writing, but I sometimes give bonus points—I call it an easy A—to  students who do all the informal, in-class writing every day they don’t have an excused absence from class.  For struggling students, the prospect of a few extra points may be enough to get them to engage with the informal writing, which will have more impact on their grade than the bonus points.

Hold students accountable

Students are responsible for mastering their own habitual errors. I have students graph their progress in eliminating their errors, and I keep track both of each student’s writing grade for the week and the part of the grade that is represented by the writing mechanics.

Once students see that their writing mechanics have improved enough that they could get higher than a C in the course, they are motivated to keep plugging away on the writing.

In my classes, no student ever fails just because of errors in writing mechanics, but no student gets higher than a C on a paper with more than the acceptable limit of errors from their own IMP.

Honor growth

When a student has performed at C-level or higher on three formal weekly papers in a row, I consider that student competent.  I strike through all previous grades and let the C stand.

The C represents what the student learned in my class. All the earlier F’s were for what the student learned in other teachers’ classes.

If they are happy with a C, students can stop turning in formal writing and still have a C for their grade.

Nobody has ever stopped working after earning their C.

For the final grade, I average the last three weekly papers, which approximates their performance level at the end of the class.

What’s your grading practice?

Have you found some ways to assess and grade without falling into the twin traps of giving away grades or punishing students for their prior teachers’ failings?

Please share.





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A new way to think about literacy

Literacy = reading and writing, right?

Technically, yes.

But suppose we broadened the skills that we include under the literacy umbrella to include speaking, listening, and thinking.

Then we’d have a suite of skills that people use to learn complex material.

Broadening the definition of literacy is where Mark A. Forget begins teaching any subject, from the humanities to vocational courses.

 Red umbrella labeled LITERAACY over 5 gears labeled reading, writing, speaking, listening, thinking

An expanded definition of literacy facilitates teaching in the content areas using both reading and writing.

Skill acquisition during content learning

Forget (pronounced forzháy) stumbled over some good ideas that he later built on, drawing on research into how people learn.

Forget flips the classroom, using the class time for reading text material that typically is assigned for homework and giving as homework activities that encourage higher order thinking about that same content.

Forget uses textbooks the school provides as the reading material. Students acquire reading skills in the process of reading those texts strategically and collaboratively discussing their reading, defending their interpretation of it by reference to specific passages in the text.

Forget teaches strategies that students can use for the rest of their lives.

Forget varies activities to prevent boredom. He  has about two dozen activities that he picks from to accomplish specific objectives, such as learning to preview text, for example. Having those choices lets him insert some variety into the classes without changing his overall procedure.

Forget uses in-class writing every day. Usually the writing is informal (i.e, ungraded), a tool to help students “generate ideas, become engaged through concrete commitment, clarify their own thinking, or otherwise organize ideas in useful and meaningful ways,” Forget says.

MAX teaching strategies

After testing the procedures for years in a variety of school settings and in many different disciplines, Forget wrote Max Teaching with Reading and Writing: Classroom Activities for Helping Students Learn New Subject Matter While Acquiring Literacy Skills¹.  The “MAX” in Max Teaching stands for Motivation, Acquisition (learning that happens without instruction), and eXtension.

Forget does for reading what I attempt to do with writing: Use it as a tool for teaching content and developing the skills Forget includes under the literacy umbrella: reading, writing, speaking, listening, thinking.

What makes Forget’s method brilliant is less his originality than his consistency: He figured out how to teach so that students learn subject matter content and acquire literacy skills—reading, writing, speaking, listening, and thinking—and he stuck to doing that class after class, week after week.

I don’t recall who recommended the book to me, but I wish I did so I could thank him or her.  If my colleagues in other disciplines used Forget’s methods, teaching writing to their students would be a piece of cake.

I’m sure I’ll be writing more about Forget’s ideas as I work through the rest of the book.

¹ I got my copy of Max Teaching with Reading and Writing through an independent bookseller at

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Learning should go beyond teaching

Recently after I’d been talking to some folks about how to design a marketing program, someone asked me where I learned to do systems analysis work.

My answer shocked them.

I learned systems analysis while studying the Renaissance and Reformation for my Master of Arts in College Teaching in the humanities.

My courses were in literature, drama, history, and the arts, not in business and science where systems analysis is typically taught.

I had an amazing history teacher who not only presented information, but asked me questions about what the information meant, how it compared to what I learned in other classes,  how it fit with what else I knew from life as well as from books.

He made me learn to ask, “What is not here? Where are the gaps? What is the most reasonable explanation for the leap across that gap?”

Those questions—and the diverse jobs for which they prepared me—convinced me that the difference between good teaching and excellent teaching is the questions teachers ask.

Good questions not only reveal what students have learned, but also immerse students in pushing beyond what they’ve learned.

It’s not good teaching that creates lifelong learners; it’s good questioning.

Good questioning is part technique, part luck, and a whole lot of practice.

I might also add, it’s a whole lot of fun.



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How else could you use this?

I get many newsletters that give me useful information.

I don’t get many that really make me think. offers its Innovation Bulletin free
One of the very few is the Innovation Bulletin from Springwise, an independent, London-based innovation publisher, scans the globe for the most promising innovation and new business ideas.

At Springwise we believe that the route to the finest innovation ideas and creativity on the planet is via entrepreneurs and the businesses they create. We discover and share those ideas with our readers and the people, businesses and institutions who want to be outstanding in their field.

The articles in my free weekly digest (there’s also a daily version) tell me about innovations around the world. It’s fascinating reading.

Springwise hooks hooked me

What has most intrigued me, however, is not the inspiring stories but the closing hooks on the stories. They move readers beyond “that’s cool” to think about how to adapt or build on the basic idea oresented in the story to solve some different problem.

A story about 3-D printed car parts ends with this question:

What are some other consumer needs of future driverless passengers?

A story about Dutch supermarket staff keeping an eye out for signs of loneliness or neglect in >older customers as part of the Super Care initiative ends with this:

Are there other initiatives that could combine employment and public service in this way?

A story about a mobile app that offers curated museum guides for each visitor, based on their profile, interests and learning style ends with

Could other real-world experiences — such as entire cities or theme parks — be customized in this way?

Hooks for educational uses

The technique Springwise uses could be easily adapted to educational settings to stimulate creative thinking, innovation, and problem solving.

Instead of presenting examples of solutions to problem X in the field of horseradish, for example, present examples of solutions to problem Z in the field of sequoias.

In a composition classroom, students might read a short passage related to the course and be asked,

Are there topics in other subjects you’re studying that could be organized on the same pattern as this article?

In a faculty meeting, instructional staff might be given a short passage about hiring employees and asked,

Are their problems in our school that could benefit from the the feedback technique used here?

In a community meeting, people might be given an article to read (or a short video to watch) about a student group working on a community problem and asked,

Could any problems in our community be turned over to young people to solve?

If questions about how to adapt and re-purpose information and techniques are asked often enough, they could move students—and maybe some “it’s always been done this way” educators—to doing some original thinking.

Wouldn’t that be a good idea?

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Formative assessment aids explanations

The always-stimulating Maryellen Weimer has a post in the teaching professor blog this week in which she gives suggestions for crafting better explanations.

Although Weimer is writing primarily from the position of the teacher-as-lecturer, what she has to say is appropriate to anyone who is teaching, regardless of the setting, subject, or level.

Unless feedback from students comes close on the heels of our explanation, we often don’t realize that our “explanation” was a problem rather than a solution.

I never cease to be surprised (and dismayed and often appalled) by the misinformation students learned in elementary school that they continue to rely on when their own children are in elementary school age.

  • I’ve seen mid-career professionals who, even though they were able to use fire as a verb and a noun, insisted that fire is only a noun.
  • I’ve seen a 60-something read definitions from a dictionary whenever he gave a speech because he’d been taught as a youth to define his terms.
  • I’ve had a library aide tell me that “Joe the plumber” was a sentence because it had a subject (Joe) and a verb that showed Joe’s state of being (the plumber).

Our students may understand our explanation well enough to repeat what they heard, but not well enough to put the idea into some other wording or some other context.

As teachers we need multiple ways of phrasing formative assessments that force students to tell us what they understood from what we said.

Getting that kind of feedback from clickers or multiple choice items is tough.

It’s a whole lot easier (although not actually easy) to craft an informal writing prompt that reveals what students thought the teacher said.



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How to align courses to Common Core: a tongue-in-cheek guide

I’ve been reading the education blogs, and I think I’ve finally figured out this whole “align with the Common Core” thing.

1. Take a lesson you’ve been doing that didn’t produce the learning students need.

2. Find something in the lesson that is like something called for in Common Core.

3. Include the code for the Common Core standard with your lesson plan.

How hard is that?


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Reading Pairs Repair Written Grammar

one person reads aloud from a paper written by the listener
You can use native English speakers’ ability to hear errors to help them identify potential grammar problem areas in their writing, such as run-together sentences.

Using students to give feedback about their writing is a powerful way to develop students’ skills while reducing your workload.

Simple two-step process

1. With students working in pairs, the author reads his/her work aloud while the other listens.

Why it helps: Slowing down to read aloud may be enough for the author to spot grammatical errors that the author doesn’t see when reading silently.

2. For a second check, the listener reads the work aloud to its author.

Why it helps: The person who didn’t write the paper is far more likely to read sentences as written instead of the way the author intended.

Why it helps: Hearing the paper read by someone else is more likely to reveal to the writer problems he/she corrected mentally but still needs to correct on paper.

During the second reading, students may want to stop at the end of every paragraph, or more often, to see if either questions something that they read. A penciled question mark in the margin (or highlighting on the computer screen) is all that is necessary to help the author remember to check that sentence later.

Tips for trying the technique

Although most strategies I recommend are geared toward teaching teens and adults, this activity can be done with students as young as fourth or fifth grade.

For the activity to work, students need to be fairly well matched in respect to their reading and writing skills.

Also, the reading order is important. The author gets the chance to identify needed changes before the partner can note them. If the listener has reading difficulties, reading second lets him anticipate words s/he will see in the reading.

Read aloud pairs is not a peer editing activity per se. The point is to get the author to focus on the words s/he put on the page.

Comments? Questions? Let’s hear from you.

This post appeared in Writing Points for May, 2011, ©2011 Linda G. Aragoni

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Actively teach active learning with online tutorial

 The University of Minnesota Center for Teaching and Learning contains many resources that can be adapted by teachers of upper middle school and high school students. A great one is a tutorial on active learning strategies.
screen capture shows first slide in tutorial on 12 active learning strategies
Besides using the slides for your own professional development, you could use the slides to teach students to use active learning and to enable them to study your  content.

How to use the tutorial

I’d probably present one strategy to students every second or third week. For the presentation, I’d show one example of a strategy applied to English language arts.

For example, the first slide about reflecting on experience with PowerPoint and finding a positive and negative example could easily be adapted to hundreds of informal ELA writing prompts, such as:

Take a moment to reflect on your experience with poetry. Come up with an example of a positive experience and a negative experience.

Take a moment to reflect on your experience with advertising. Come up with an example of an ad that you think works well one you think does not work well.

Take a moment to reflect on your reading about using commas. Come up with an example of a comma rule you think you understand well and and an example of a rule you don’t understand.

Rather than ask for oral responses, I’d use informal writing, which gets all students involved. I could present the strategy and have students write on any one of those prompts all in 10 minutes.

The rest of the first week I would use the same type of reflect-on-knowledge exercise for some aspect of that day’s work. That might take 2-3 minutes for informal writing. In a week, students would be able to use the strategy on demand.

Of course, the goal is to get students to use a strategy without prompting. That typically means forcing students to practice the strategy on material they select from options you set.

I might have students bring an “admit slip” each day for a week explaining how they used the reflect-on-experience strategy to help them activate knowledge prior to coming to my class.

The third week I might require an admit slip explaining how they used the strategy to help them activate knowledge for some other class.

Teaching this way gets students to apply the strategy enough times that they understand its value and limitations.

They may even use it on their own without prompting.

Questions? Alternative ways of using this material? Share your ideas.

This material previously appeared in Writing Points for April, 2011, © 2011 Linda G. Aragoni

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