Tag Archives: Teaching writing

If you can’t do this, don’t become a writing teacher

If you believe that writing is a talent granted to only a select few, you will tend to focus your attention on the students you think are talented while paying minimal attention to the rest.

That’s a poor choice.

There are far more people who can become good writers through persistent practice of the right skills than there are talented writers who will become great.

 

Slogan: Writing teachers need confidence in their students.

You must believe every student can learn to write competently.

If you can’t believe that every student who walks into your classroom can become a competent writer, you shouldn’t become a writing teacher.

Confidence in your students — not in them as they are, but in them as what can become — is an essential qualification for teaching writing.

I’d guess that at least three-quarters of students have no particular interest in writing and are willing to put out only a modest effort on most writing assignments.  If you are willing to focus your writing instruction on this large group of students, you have a very good chance of making all students competent writers.

While it may not be as good for your ego to produce 100 competent writers a year for 20 years as to teach Suzanne Collins for one year, it’s probably far better for those 2,000 students and their eventual employers.


This snippet is drawn from chapter 17 “Q is for Qualifications” of The Writing Teacher’s ABCs, my sixth book on teaching writing.

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Best practices in teaching writing, #7

Quote: hold students responsible for correcting their own work.

Teach students how to edit and what to edit. Make them edit.

Don’t correct students’ writing

As a teacher, you cannot possibly do everything you think you ought to do.

One area you can skip without any qualms is correcting students’ responses to your formal writing prompts.

You know the kinds of things I mean:

  • Correcting spelling.
  • Fixing verb tenses.
  • Putting the missing comma after an introductory element.

Making those corrections may make you feel you’re accomplishing something, but they won’t make a tad of difference in students’ writing.

As long as someone else —like you—will identify their errors for them, most students will not take responsibility for correcting even their most serious, habitual errors.

So take the easy way out.

Set up Individual Mastery Plans. Establish caps on the number of errors you’ll accept without limiting the top grade students can achieve. Then IMP flag errors until you reach the cap.

It won’t take long for students to see the relationship between the number of flags and their grades.

Spend time you might have wasted changing it’s to its in teaching students how to edit their work for their own most serious, habitual errors.

There’s more to editing than correcting typos and grammar errors, but if you get students to do the simple corrections without prompting,  you qualify for a Lifetime Achievement Award.

 

© 2017 Linda Aragoni

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Best practices in teaching writing #6

Quote: teach students to use written aids to monitor their own behavior.

The best written aids are the ones writers make for themselves.

 

Having students develop checklists and similar easy to prepare, easy to follow aids for monitoring and improving their own writing behavior works far better than giving them rubrics, charts, matrices, and posters that I, or some other teacher made.

For a student who hasn’t gotten past D-level writing, a rubric that distinguishes between A-level and B-level writing might as well be in Greek for all the meaning it conveys to that student.

The student whose writing is D-level needs something that will help him or her write C-level work.  For a student used to getting Ds, a C is a stretch, but it’s not so far from a D that it feels totally out of reach.

Writers’ own lists of action statements

The best way to get students to systematically work toward the higher grade, is for each student to make his or her own short checklist of items:

  • the student understands how to do
  • can do without assistance
  • will help raise the student’s writing up to the next higher grade level.

The checklist becomes useful only if each student phrases the checklist items in his/her own words as action statements telling what the student does, not what the student hopes the outcome will be.

If you’re teaching writing strategically, some items can be derived from strategies. For example, if you teach students to prepare a writing skeleton™, the D-writing student’s checklist might say:

  • I wrote a working thesis statement.
  • I made a writing skeleton from my working thesis statement.

Other items on the checklist might be pulled from the student’s own Individual Mastery Plan. For example, a student whose work is usually riddled with comma splices, might want to get rid of those comma splices. To accomplish that, the student might set out his action statement:

  • I checked every comma to make sure it wasn’t being used to splice together two separate sentences.

Teachers have to monitor students’ preparation of written aids to make sure students target actions that will prove useful and to make sure their plans aren’t overly ambitious. Beyond that, however, it’s useful to let students manage their own improvement. That’s what they’ll have to do once they leave school.

Individualized learning isn’t the next best thing.

It has always been the best thing.

© 2017 Linda Aragoni

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Best practices in teaching writing #5

Quote: When you grade papers focus on a small number of serious problems.

Restricting your grading focuses students’ attention.

Grading is a necessary evil. As with other evil things, if you can’t avoid grading entirely, it’s best not to do it much.

I’ve written here about various approaches to putting a grade on work: See, for example, Better late than early; Lick the grading problem, Lollipop; and Grade incentives for learning that don’t suck.

The other potentially evil aspect of grading—and one to which we writing teachers are prone—is saying too much.

We tend to want to say something about every error we see, and all too often we see nothing but errors.

Control your negativity.

A far better approach is to strictly limit our comments.

I recommend you limit error identification to:

  • a short list of serious errors (I use the Connors and Lunsford list of 20 items), and
  • further restrict error-spotting on an individual’s paper to that person’s Individual Mastery Plan items, and
  • stop flagging errors when you’ve found enough to cap that person’s grade.

If I say four instances of any errors from a person’s IMP are too many for a student to get a grade higher than a C on that particular paper, there’s no value in continuing to flag after the first four. Marking 37 errors  rather than four will only discourage a student, and it won’t add a penny to my paycheck.

Stress positive behaviors.

I also recommend you confine yourself to writing no more than two comments on other aspects of writing:

  • one comment on something the student did well or did right;
  • one comment about something other than IMP issues that would boost the student’s grade.

If need be, you can praise students for such things as turning in work on time or  persevering when it doesn’t look like hard work is paying off. Such acts are really important: We notice if students don’t do them, so why not notice that they do?

When possible, suggest something a student can do to boost a grade within a relatively short period of time. Following directions, for example, will probably pay off on the next assignment. Using linking devices will probably not produce improvement until the student has done it deliberately a few times.

Don’t scare students.

Please, don’t write, “See me.”

That’s frightening.

If something in a student’s paper totally bewilders you, I suggest you talk to the student about it rather than writing a comment.

 

You might try asking the student if she/he has a couple of minutes after class to explain something you weren’t sure you understood. Students are normally happy to explain things that their teachers don’t understand.

When you ask a question face-to-face, you position yourself as a reader rather than as a grader. A two-minute conversation can do wonders for students’ mental image of themselves as writers whose ideas matter.

And that’s something grades don’t do well.

 

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Best practices in teaching writing #4

Quote: develop good writing prompts that you can reuse year after year.

Develop enough formal writing prompts to give you a choice.

Preparing formal writing prompts may not require more effort from you than preparing informal ones, but responding to them requires a greater investment of time by students. For that reason, you ought to make sure your formal prompts are on some of the most significant topics in your curriculum.

If Susie is going to need to spend five hours on an essay, it ought to concern a topic that’s worth five hours of study.

What’s worth five hours of study? Probably it is a topic to which you devote at least a week of class time.

In all likelihood, a topic that’s worth a week of study in your English class in 2017 will also be worth a week of study in your English class in 2018.

It makes sense, then, to prepare formal writing prompts that you could, at least in theory, use year after year.

You won’t want to use all the same prompts year after year.  Besides the risk that students will recycle work by those in previous years, there’s the more serious danger of boring yourself.

Bored students are bad enough.

Bored teachers are stultifying.

The solution is to prepare writing prompts that have a high degree of likelihood of fitting into your course next year as well as this year.

After you have a full year’s worth of formal prompts, begin creating replacements for a certain number of those prompts every year.

Tip: Don’t discard a prompt unless it was a total disaster:  Tweak prompts that produced disappointing results their first time out, preferably right after you read students’ responses to the prompt.

If you have 25 formal prompts for a year and create replacements for five of those a year, by your sixth year of teaching you would have 50 formal prompts on major topics in your curriculum.  Having all those choices will help keep boredom at bay.

Even more importantly, you’ll have developed skill at writing formal prompts and at spotting current events hooks to use with them.

Those skills will help prevent burnout and boredom in later years.

© 2017 Linda Aragoni

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Best practices in teaching writing #3

Quote: Give explicit directions so you don't have to keep re-explaining.

Explicit directions are good, but they’re even better written down.

No matter how clearly you phrase information, no matter how carefully you choose your illustrations,  no matter how well you prepare, you are not going to get through to every student on your first attempt.

Instead of getting yourself tied in knots over your failure—which may have nothing whatsoever to do with you—prepare in advance for failures.

When you prepare writing prompts,  include in writing stripped-down directions about how to do the main task(s) the writing entails. You can also put the directions in some other formats (audio clips or video), but always put it in writing.

If you include in each writing prompt written information that teaches students how to do one writing task, by the time students have had a dozen writing prompts, they should have a miniature handbook on writing embedded in the prompts.

Encourage students to treat your writing prompts as instructional materials by referring students to directions you included in prior prompts.

Of course, not all students will read the prompts carefully or keep them after turning in the assignment, but if your prompts include genuinely helpful tips, many will hang on to the prompts to use again.

© 2017 Linda G. Aragoni

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Best practices in teaching writing, #2

Quote: Make every writing assignment do double or triple duty.

Time is too valuable to squander on writing with just one purpose.

To make wise use of your time — and your students’ time — craft writing prompts that do more than make students write.

Prepare writing prompts that teach students something about how to write rather than just directing them to write.

Have students write about course content or about topics related to course content.

(Please, if you teach English, don’t limit yourself to literary topics. Many students find language topics more relevant.)

If you’re really a creative teacher, you can not only make your prompts

  • teach something about writing, and
  • teach or apply some non-writing course content,

but also politely force students to seek connections between the writing topic and something that matters to them.

I strongly recommend developing writing prompts that are, in effect, self-contained writing lessons complete with help getting started on the assignment and resources to consult if students get stuck.

It’s much more efficient for students to use their own material as they learn how to do a writing task than to do exercises isolated from their own writing.

To learn more about crafting formal writing prompts, visit the formal writing prompts section of my new website, PenPrompts.com.  If you sign up for the PenPrompts newsletter, you get a copy of my formal writing prompts template free.

© 2017 Linda G. Aragoni

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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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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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Getting back in the saddle

When I closed my “you can teach writing” website, I thought I would take some time off before picking up the pieces and trying again.

I didn’t think it would take this long.

Once I got away from working on the site every day, I didn’t have a reason to keep up with the technology needed for website work.

But the tech world didn’t wait for me.

When I was ready to get back in the saddle, I couldn’t reach the stirrups any more.

The software problem: directions

I’m struggling to learn new software and encountering the usual difficulty that accompanies technology: its directions.

Sometimes the directions are vague.

Sometimes they’re so detailed they make the head spin.

Sometimes they don’t exist at all.

The student problem: teachers

The wonderful thing about bad directions is that they force teachers to recognize that someone who isn’t learning is not necessarily lazy, stupid, or unmotivated.

That’s not an earth-shaking revelation, but it’s a fact every teacher needs to remember.

The problem of the kid in the fourth seat in the third row just might be the teacher at the front of the room.


New websites in development

I’m going to split content from my old website into three smaller sites.

Currently, I’m working on a slimmed down version of my original  you-can-teach-writing site. I’ve even slimmed down its URL to yctwriting.com. It will focus on the least teachers need to know to teach nonfiction writing, and the 10 strategies teens and adult students need to know to write nonfiction texts competently.

grampuss.com will be a site about how to help students master essential writing mechanics (grammar, punctuation, usage, spelling, and style) without worksheets and drills.

penprompts.com will focus use of formal and informal writing prompts as teaching materials, not just as “writing tests.”

Keep an eye on this blog for details about when yctwriting.com launches. You can get posts by email or RSS if you sign up below the search box in the right hand column.

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