Tag Archives: writing

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Teaching writing

Writing for work-readiness

If you’ve been out of the universe for a while, you may have missed the cries for students to be “college and career ready.”

Since writing and teaching writing are particular interests of mine, I’ve been checking out a few scholarly reports about where writing fits into getting students ready for life beyond high school.

Two themes stood out to me: The reports assume that (1) college attendance is required for entrance into the world of work and (2) the world of work means offices occupied by salaried professionals.

College is an assumed prerequisite

Here are four excerpts from the opening pages of reports issued between 2003 and 2013.

The Neglected “R” (subtitled The Need for a Writing Revolution), published by the College Board in April 2003, says:

More than 90 percent of midcareer professionals recently cited the “need to write effectively” as a skill “of great importance” in their day-to-day
work.  The world in general, and advanced societies in particular, now demonstrates a nearly voracious appetite for highly educated people. (Underscores added.)

Writing: A Ticket to Work…Or a Ticket Out published by the College Board in September 2004, had these observations:

A survey of 120 major American corporations employing nearly 8 million people concludes that in today’s workplace writing is a “threshold skill” for hiring and promotion among salaried (i.e., professional) employees. Survey results indicate that writing is a ticket to professional opportunity, while poorly written job applications are a figurative kiss of death.

Writing is a “threshold skill” for both employment and promotion, particularly for salaried employees. Half the responding companies report that they take writing into consideration when hiring professional employees. (Underscores added.)

The Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing developed by Council of Writing Program Administrators, National Council of Teachers of English and the National Writing Project, published January 2011, says:

This Framework describes the rhetorical and twenty-first-century skills as well as habits of mind and experiences that are critical for college success. (Underscore added.)

What Does It Really Mean to be College and Work Ready? an NCEE English report, published in May 2013:

… addresses a simple question: what kind and level of literacy is required of a high school graduate if that student is going to have a good chance of succeeding in the first year of a typical community college program? (Underscores added.)

Suppose the assumptions are wrong?

Suppose college isn’t the only gateway into the workplace.

Suppose there are good-paying jobs outside of offices.

Suppose high schools turned out graduates with skills necessary for entry-level jobs in businesses in their areas.

Suppose MOOCs and coding academies and apprenticeships allow students to go from high school to good-paying jobs.

Suppose Makerspaces allow inventive, entrepreneurial students places to become business owners.

If those and other alternatives to college-going (other than unemployment) were widely available, what then?

Would how we teach writing change?

When I realized the majority of my college students either didn’t want to be in college or shouldn’t have been there, I changed how I taught freshman composition.

What’s been your experience?

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Teaching writing

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 Alibris.com

Leave a comment

Filed under Teaching methods

Take one step. Take another.

When students whimper about how hard writing is, I usually pull out my tissues and sniffle right along with them.

A quote I found in a post by Michael L. Umphrey, together with his photos, gave me a different way of thinking about that hard work.

“When I’m climbing, I don’t think of it as climbing a mountain,” Michael said. “I think of it as just walking. I’m just going to take a step. I’m going to take another step. Take another step. And pretty soon you’re someplace really cool. It’s not that hard just to take a step. ”

And so I write one sentence.

Write another sentence.

And another.

And pretty soon I’ve written a whole page.

It’s not that hard just to write one sentence.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Teaching writing

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Teaching methods

Let’s take English out of the classroom

Scarcely a week goes by that I don’t see an article such as this about teachers taking STEM teaching out of the classroom into alternative settings.

11-20-14_Lab_series_2Science, technology, engineering and mathematics teachers seem to have no difficulty finding topics their students are already interested in that apply science, technology, engineering and math concepts.

I rarely see English teachers getting students out of the classroom to see how reading, writing, and speaking are done in alternative settings.

Visiting a TV station or interviewing seniors about how life was different before cell phones may be more interesting than doing grammar exercises, but I doubt those activities do much to show students how something they are already interested in applies reading, writing, and speaking on a regular basis.

Working on ” if you can’t fight ’em, join ’em” premise, you could try working with STEM teachers who are taking their classes into alternative settings.

At some point all that knowledge about the physical world needs to be documented so it can be readily transmitted. Figuring out how to craft the documentation for a particular audience is applied English.

Your school may offer opportunities for students to use English class skills in nontraditional settings.

For example, the college application process is tough on students.

How could your students use their English skills to make the application process easier for next year’s crop of applicants? Video interviews with people with particular expertise? Infographics? A series of weekly podcasts to help applicants break the application process into manageable bits?

logo from Federal Student Aid website

Getting their kids into college isn’t easy for parents either. How could your students use their English skills to make sending their kids off to college easier on parents?

Are there specific groups of parents who need specialized help with the transition, such as parents whose son or daughter will be the first person in the family to attend college or parents for whom English is a second language? What kinds of communications would be most useful to those small groups of parents?

Article consisting of sample college recommendation letter from a teacher

Sample recommendation letter is a teacher resource

School staff may also appreciate a little help as students go through the college application process.

How could students use their ELA skills to make staff’s lives easier? Would curating a list of online resources help? Perhaps a private (school-only) resource in which college-bound students summarize their goals and accomplishments with appropriate pictures to remind those who may be asked to give recommendations of what the student wants to be remembered for.

In working on projects within their school, students are likely to run into problems in which their view of their audience’s needs and the school’s view clash. Such problems are routine occurrences for people whose jobs entail communicating on behalf of an employer.  And learning the soft skills of navigating over such rough spots is an important part of English language arts.

What do you do to show students how ELA skills are used beyond the classroom?

Photo credits:  Lab series 2 by sadsac

Leave a comment

Filed under Teaching methods

What I Learned When I Botched First Grade

My local school district newsletter tells parents of first graders to “have your child practice printing their first name.”

This is very important advice.Linda written three times, printed once

Because my parents didn’t know they were supposed to teach me to print my name, I botched first grade.

Here’s what happened.

One rainy, late fall afternoon, my first grade teacher was reading Holiday magazine. If you’re too young to remember Holiday, it was famous for its layouts, photography, writing, and general sophistication.

We first grade students were correcting mistakes we’d made in our We Think and Do exercises. They were, as I recall, sort of a black and white, nonfiction version of Fun With Dick and Jane.

I don’t know what We Think and Do exercises were supposed to teach. However, I think its fair to say We Think and Do pages were not noted for their layouts, art, writing, or general sophistication.

I had corrected my doing several times that afternoon. Each time I was thinking I’d done it right, but each time I submitted it, the teacher told me to do it over.

I had thought and done all I could possibly do without knowing what it was that the teacher thought was wrong.

At that age, I was still a timid child, but I’d gotten frustrated enough to Speak To The Teacher, something I’d never done before.

I found the prospect terrifying.

I stood beside her desk, looking at her magazine, waiting for her to acknowledge my presence.

To this day, I could draw the layout of that page. It was built on what I’d learn years later to call a seven-column grid. The large horizontal photo of a pristine beach in Bermuda covered roughly the top third of columns two through seven. The caption was about two thirds down the first column. The text featured dropped caps, very elegant.

We Think and Do did not use drop caps.

It seemed I stood there for an eternity, wishing she’d would say something, wishing even more that I could read about Bermuda in Holiday magazine.

When she finally looked up, I blurted out that I couldn’t correct my paper because I didn’t know what I’d done wrong.

“Stupid,” she snarled, “in first grade we print our name, we don’t write it.”

I went back to my seat, erased my signature, and printed my name in its place.

The incident changed the way I thought about school.

I wasn’t upset by being called stupid.

What I remember was feeling sorry for the teacher. I thought she probably was as bored by having to teach first grade as I was by having to complete We Think and Do exercises.

And that is why it’s so very important that students practice printing their first names: We don’t want anyone to find out that some teachers hate teaching.

Leave a comment

Filed under Teachers

Purposeful Opening Day Introductions

Opening day is a time for introductions. You introduce yourself, the subject matter, the texts, your expectations.

Often we forget that students also have personalities, information, and expectations that can either support or sabotage our teaching plans.

Name tag - Hello my name is Linda and I'm a writer

Hello, I’m a writer

Here’s a trick I use in online writing classes. I say something like this: We are all writers. Some of us like to write, some hate it. Some write well, some write poorly.

I’d like each of you to write a note to the class that begins, “Hello, I’m [put your name here] and I’m a writer.
Then tell us:

  • What kinds of things you write.
  • Whether you think you are a good writer or a poor writer.
  • Whether you like writing.
  • What you mean when you use the word writing.
  • What you would like to learn in this course to help you be a better writer.

Demonstrate

I usually begin by posting my own introduction, which shows the format and makes clear that most of the writing I do is work, not fun. Knowing their instructor thinks writing is work helps struggling students feel more comfortable in the class.

As students respond to the assignment, a few students (almost always girls) say they love to write, write fiction and poetry, and think writing means sharing their honest feelings. The rest don’t like writing much or at all, do it poorly or just OK, and say writing is about communicating ideas. Most of this second group report having problems with “grammer and spelling.”

Interact

For this activity to be useful, you must interact with students, using the information they provide as a springboard to help them adjust their expectations in line with what you expect.

If possible, put a significant portion of your interaction in writing to suggest that writing for readers sets up a conversation.

Adapting this idea

If your opening day is full of bureaucratic stuff, you could have students write informally in response to the first bullet item and share a few of them orally. You could have students finish up the assignment for the next day’s class.

A blog would make a super publication medium for the introductions since it encourages interaction.  Other publication options are bulletin board postings or a “class directory” perhaps with digital photos added. If you have students prepare portfolios, their “I’m a writer” could be their first item.

You could have young students do the sections of the activity as informal writing activities, initially sharing their writing orally, then compiling the series of informal responses into written introductions.

The “I’m a writer” opener can be adapted to various grade levels and to subjects other than writing (I’m a scientist, I’m a historian, etc.).

This article originally appeared in the August 2009, Writing Points © 2009 Linda Aragoni

2 Comments

Filed under Teaching writing

Boys need help to see patterns

Boys generally are less verbal than girls. Tests find—and educators confirm—that boys lag far behind girls in writing skills.

Veteran teachers (like me) say boys are less able to spot patterns in written material. That means their teachers need to be diligent about teaching pattern recognition in reading and teaching patterns for writing.

Boys also have less patience with verbal work than girls. They need quick feedback. That’s why they can spend hours on a video game but only 5 minutes on a writing assignment.

To teach all students successfully, employ teaching practices that don’t unduly favor verbal students, most of whom are female:

  • Simplify verbal directions.
  • Reduce complicated processes to a few  steps; if you can find or invent a mnemonic for the steps, use it.
  • Teach strategies, which are flexible patterns of behaviors for accomplishing various tasks.
  • Seize opportunities to have boys think about how patterns are useful in out-of-class activities; for example, why is third base always on the batter’s left and never on the batter’s right?  If you run out of ideas, do an online search for pattern recognition training and notice the different fields in which the term is important.
  • Have students describe or predict how writing/reading patterns can help them.
  • Get boys into writing quickly by giving writing prompts that include a thesis statement; spending too much time on any element obscures the overall pattern.

By consciously taking into consideration the differences in the ways boys and girls process verbal material, writing teachers can make keeping up with the girls a lot easier for boys.


[Portions of this post appeared in the August 2008 issue of Writing Points, ©2008 Linda G. Aragoni. Broken link removed 2014-11-29.]]

Leave a comment

Filed under Teaching writing

Writing is key to literature appreciation

Like playing violin or clarinet, writing is a skill. Talent alone—or even talent coupled with motivation, good teaching, and family support—doesn’t produce musical prodigies.

A study by a researcher at the University of Arkansas found that world-class musicians became proficient by practicing music.  Of course, not everyone becomes a world class musician no matter how hard she or he practices. Talent does come into the picture. But those folks who don’t achieve star billing are a vital part of the arts scene. They become the orchestra and the audience for the top performers.

Similarly, those who don’t become great writers become a huge audience of amateurs who write competently, if not brilliantly, themselves. They know from experience how difficult writing is, how hard one must work to become really good at it.

So if you want your students to appreciate literature, require them to write regularly until they become competent amateur writers. They’ll become the book buyers, the book club members, the parents who read to their children.

[2016-02-03 updated link]

Leave a comment

Filed under Teaching writing