Tag Archives: Teaching writing

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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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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