Tag Archives: Teaching writing

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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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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Plan for outcomes, not activities

As I’ve been revamping my old you-can-teach-writing website after a nearly three-year hiatus, I’ve been looking for up-to-date resources for teaching writing in way(s) that produce entire classes in which every student age 13 and over writes competently.

I don’t mean AP classes, or dual-enrollment for college credit classes.

I mean ordinary classes for ordinary teens and adults, the ones in which most entering students have little or no interest in writing.

What I am finding is that most current resources for writing teachers are activity resources. They tell a teacher how to use a website of vocabulary activities, for example, or suggest a tool for digital publishing.

The resources support individual lessons or, occasionally, lesson units.

I’m not finding resources that enable teachers to do the kind of all-year teaching that enables students—all students—to meet the kinds of annual outcomes that make them “college and career ready” by the end of high school.

More upsetting, I’m not seeing much awareness among educators that the lesson and unit education model doesn’t work any more—if it ever did.

Some days it seems as if the only thing that’s changed since I was in high school is that digital devices have replaced glue and glitter.

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How would you teach teachers to teach writing?

I have  some “What would you do in my place?” questions especially for folks who teach writing to teens and adults in post-secondary education settings  (which for convenience I’ll call grades 7-14) but school administrators and other interested parties are urged to offer their feedback as well.

Suppose you were given the task of teaching in-service English teachers grades 7-14 to teach nonfiction writing well enough that by the end of one school year every student in their class(s) will be able to write in good English short, timed, informative/explanatory texts on topics with which the students are familiar.

What short title would you give the course?  There would be a subtitle that adds detail.

This would be an online course requiring perhaps a 10-hour time commitment.

I’ve played with ideas, but haven’t hit on anything that felt right.

Thanks in advance for your comments and suggestions.



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Is this any way to teach writing teachers?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why American educators do such a poor job teaching people to teach students to do the kind of writing everybody must do, which is what the Common Core State Standards call informative and explanatory texts and arguments.

An article that I clipped from from Teaching/Writing: The Journal of Writing Teacher Education last year gave me some insights.

The article¹ discusses a research project undertaken by two University of Alabama education faculty, Latrise P. Johnson and Elizabeth P. Eubanks.

Basically what they did was teach a summer class for seven students seeking their secondary education certification in English Language Arts and took notes.  They used nearby Eastern High School as a place for students to try out their skills.

The high school offered a summer bridge program for rising ninth graders. The high school was willing to participate because its principal wanted to see his faculty improve as writing teachers and his incoming ninth graders learn to write better.

Two English teachers, who wanted to improve their writing instruction and were working in the bridge program, partnered with the researchers to teach the pre-service teachers. Prior to the program, the two experienced teachers taught writing by assigning  prompts and giving feedback on grammar and mechanics, the article says.

The UA students, their professor, and the two high school teachers constituted a “community of practice.”

To begin the course, the UA professor modeled a lesson on the “anthem essay” (a sample essay posted at about.com) for the pre-service teachers.

Then the seven students delivered the same lesson to their fellow class members.

The students worked among themselves, with their professor, and the collaborating teachers to improve their lesson presentation before they presented it to students.

After students taught their lesson, they evaluated their teaching and discussed with their  community of practice  ways to improve the lesson.

According to the article, at the conclusion of the course, the preservice students were able to take the downloaded content and

  • “revise handouts, create new ones”
  • decide “which parts of the anthem essay lesson were most important to teach and learn”
  • select “the delivery method and curriculum presentation that they were most comfortable with”
  • “negotiate their identities as teachers and as teachers of writing.”

What I didn’t see in the article was anything about whether the two high school teachers learned how to teach writing better, or whether the students in the bridge program learned to write better, or what the education professors expected students to do in the classroom the 179 days they weren’t teaching the anthem essay.

All I saw was a handful of green teachers being taught to pull a lesson off the Internet and make it fit the way they like to present.

If that’s a way to achieve better teaching of writing, I’ll re-negotiate my identity as a teacher of writing.

¹Johnson, Latrise P. and Eubanks, Elizabeth P. (2015) “One Good Lesson, Community of Practice Model for Preparing Teachers of
Writing,” Teaching/Writing: The Journal of Writing Teacher Education: Vol. 4: Iss. 2, Article 8.
Available at: http://scholarworks.wmich.edu/wte/vol4/iss2/8


Filed under Teacher preparation, Teaching writing

What the Maker Movement Can Teach Writing Teachers

The Maker Movement can give writing teachers useful tips on how to teach writing.

Words "maker" and "writer" Of course, writing isn’t making. It’s harder than that.

But kids or adults who grasp the idea of making products—whether the products are silk pajamas or software platforms—will be able to grasp how to go about writing to produce something good enough that it can be refined to be really good.

They may even stick with writing long enough to write something awesome.

Borrow Maker Movement techniques

Writing teachers can incorporate some of the characteristic procedures of making things in the process they teach students for writing things.

1. Start fast.

Words "maker" and "writer" Makers learn the least they need to know to get started making.

Incorporate that same quick-start into your teaching: Teach the least students need to know to get started writing.

I start with the thesis statement. That’s the idea that will guide the rest of the development process.

As concepts go, the thesis statement about as hard to understand as the concept of cutting a board with a handsaw. And like the handsaw, that one sentence is harder to use than it looks.

Just cutting a board into two pieces can be success for the first-time carpenter; just writing a clear thesis sentence can be success for the beginning writer.

2. Fail fast.

Words "maker" and "writer" Makers understand that failing is good: It not only gives hands-on practice, but it shows what not to do the next time.

Nobody wants to put in hours of work developing a great idea only to find after six weeks that the idea can’t possibly work. Fast failure is essential to get students to try a second time.

Until students are competent writers, I avoid any writing assignments that can’t be entirely completed in short sessions (typically in 10-30 minutes) a day for five or six consecutive days.  That’s drawn out by Maker standards, but within the ability of young people who have other things to do that matter more to them than writing class assignments.

3. Move on when skills are good enough.

Words "maker" and "writer" Makers don’t need to be aces at sawing boards before they try nailing together their first cut pieces. Trying to align boards cut crooked is an incentive for learning to cut straight.

Darcy’s bird house may be lopsided, but Darcy will learn more deeply and more quickly how to build a bird house by making several birdhouses than by practicing each component to mastery.

Darcy’s first essay may be lopsided, too, but Darcy will learn more deeply and more quickly write an essay by writing several essays than by practicing each component skill to mastery.

I like to get beginning writers producing an essay in a week, building one or two components a day.  Instead of having students revise and edit those first attempts, I allow students to scrap those awful early attempts.

Students will know when they’ve produced something that merits extra attention. When that time comes, they’ll put in extra effort, perhaps even learn some additional information or a new skill, to do the fine tuning to make their work good instead of just good enough.

4. Iterate.

Words "maker" and "writer" Whether someone is building a bird house or writing an essay, making something in which all the parts together make one distinct product requires repeated practice in the entire process.

When the product developers—whether makers or writers—don’t have to think about what step comes next, they can focus their attention on doing the job at hand well.

Writing teachers must make sure student writers have many, many opportunities to become so familiar with the processes and tools of writing that they can do the next step, use the next tool without stopping to ponder, “What do I do next?” It’s only when writers are that sure of the process that they can give serious attention to the message they are trying to communicate.

5. Consult.

Words "maker" and "writer" Makers talk about what they are making. They explain their thinking, their processes. They allow others to ask them questions, to suggest options they may not have considered.

Writers also can derive benefits from talking with others about their plans. The first benefit comes from hearing how the idea sounds when it’s articulated out loud. The second comes from having the benefit of others’ reactions and suggestions.

The maker’s audience may tell about their own experiences in similar situations; the maker isn’t required to accept that advice.

[Fixed bad link 2016-01-22]

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Writing Is Not Making

English teachers on the prowl for the next big thing have picked up the language of the Maker Movement. Writing is no longer just Writing (so last-year!); writing is now a type of Making.

the single word MAKER, each letter made of different materials

Writing an essay has been transformed into making media, in the same way killing civilians was transformed into collateral damage.

Teachers may believe that writing is making, but students won’t be fooled.

the single, handwritten word "Writer"

Writing an outline is not like drawing a floor plan for a kitchen remodeling job. A finished document is not like a remodeled kitchen.

The Maker who designs the remodeled kitchen doesn’t have to find the trees from which to build the cabinets or mine the metals that go into the plumbing fixtures.

By contrast, Writers have to make their own raw material.

Writers start from nothing—or as near to nothing as to make no difference—and manufacture every sentence that goes into the finished product. When they finish, the sentences may turn out to be unsuitable: They may not have the strength to carry the weight of the thesis.

It may even turn out that Writers neglected to manufacture a thesis, leaving them with nothing but a trash bin full of paper or pixel construction debris.

Instead of trying to pass writing off as making, writing teachers should latch on to similarities between writing and making that will help students understand why writing is so hard and takes so long. We’ll look at that topic next Thursday.


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Teaching writing is not for wimps.

Writing teachers need to be risk-takers.

It is risky for writing teachers:

  • to believe all students will learn to write competently when every English teacher in the faculty room says it can’t be done
  • to believe that they can get all students to write competently when veteran teachers don’t even attempt it
  • to stick to their plan when a third of the way through the course there’s no sign that the plan is working

But remember this: The students sitting in our classrooms are also taking a risk by:

  • believing us when we say they can write competently
  • believing we can teach them to write when all their teachers in all previous grades couldn’t
  • doing their work when though a third of the way through the course there’s no sign that they are becoming competent writers

Writing teachers have to be willing to take chances in the hope of creating changes.Tweet this

This material is excerpted from The Writing Teacher’s ABCs, © 2015 Linda G. Aragoni. You can read more about qualifications for teaching writing in chapter Q of the book, which is available in three different digital formats at LeanPub.

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