I had a doctor’s appointment Tuesday. From the entry, I could see a woman, probably in her early twenties, wearing a Covid-protective mask and face shield, seated at a table in the hallway. The woman recorded my name, the purpose of my visit, took my temperature, and sent me on to the doctor’s receptionist. I couldn’t help thinking the woman’s job could be done by a reasonably intelligent fifth grader. She must be bored nearly to tears.
After my appointment, I noticed that the clerk who had signed me in had a tablet on her desk propped up at reading angle. As I zipped up my coat, I asked her what she liked to read, and she said fantasy fiction was what she most enjoyed. She’d just finished a fantasy novel and didn’t have anything else on her device to read.
I said I’m not a big fan of fantasy fiction, and that I’m currently rereading a 1980s novel that had fascinated me when I read it as part of my GreatPenformances survey of the twentieth century’s bestselling fiction: Helen Hooven Santmyer’s “…And Ladies of the Club.” It’s a novel about a dozen women in a small southern Ohio town between the Civil War and FDR’s election in 1932, their families, and about how America and Americans changed over those decades.
“…And Ladies of the Club” is over 1,000 pages of small print. It’s not difficult reading, I told the clerk, but it does require you to pay close attention. I’ve found I need to draw family tree diagrams to keep the characters straight. The book fascinates me not only because it’s about a rural community that wouldn’t have been very different from our village in the same period, but also because so much of the national politics of the period sound very much like the political news we get on TV every day.
When I finished my book pitch, the clerk surprised me by asking, “What’s that title again?” She wrote down the title and the author’s name and said she thought she’d like to read that book.
I’d gotten lucky.
I hadn’t recommended a book the clerk would enjoy: I’d unwittingly offered her a challenge, a book that would require all the mental skills she didn’t need to use in her clerical job. She could accept the challenge or not as she chose.
For me, the most difficult part of teaching teens and adults is identifying challenges for each student that they accept as having personal relevance to them. I wish I knew a sure-fire, never-known-to-fail way to produce personally challenging writing activities for each of my students, but I don’t. For me, it’s always a lucky shot, hit-or-miss, never “results guaranteed.”
What about you? Have you mastered the challenge of providing appropriate challenges to teens and adult students? If so, would you share your insights?
My three choices deal in very different ways with how individuals or groups of people incorrectly perceive and misinterpret the world either because of their prior experiences or because of the way humans’ brains work. As the author of one of the three books says:
The End of White Christian America
The End of White Christian America is a history of white Protestant churches’ influence on America’s national policy and the country’s ideals with particular emphasis on the churches’ role throughout the twentieth century and into Barak Obama’s second term.
Author Robert P. Jones set out to discover why white Protestantism, hugely influential in the first 240 years of American history, faded. He found that during the 20th century, Protestant churches divided into two groups according to their theology, beliefs about race, and what Jones calls “accommodations to the modern world and science,” specifically their positions on evolution and racial issues.
Jones says: “This is a story of theology and culture, but it is also a story of powerful demographic changes.” His findings may help students bewildered by what may seem to them to be hysterical behavior over what they may consider to be settled issues of science, race, and gender.
Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change
White Protestant America might be different today if its adherents had had psychologist Timothy D. Wilson’s Redirect.
Wilson’s work builds on the long-known fact that how people interpret events has much more influence on their behavior than the events themselves. What’s more, human brains jump to make sense of what just happened to their owners, and they do it so quickly people don’t realize that what their brains report is an interpretation of what happened not an observation of what happened. From that foundation, Wilson built techniques he calls story editing, “which is a set of techniques designed to redirect people’s narratives about themselves and the social world in a way that leads to lasting changes in behavior.”
Redirect has multiple applications in a school setting. Several chapters deal with prevention issues: pregnancy prevention, prevention of abuse of alcohol and drugs, violence prevention, discrimination prevention. There’s also a reading group guide.
Redirect is particularly useful for writing teachers because in the first chapter it gives a simple tool—perfectly suited to use in writing classes—for shaping students’ behavior in positive ways. To use the tool, you need to view students’ situation from their perspective and get them to redirect their narratives about that situation, which is pretty much what you need to do to teach students to write.
In a writing class for adult students who are parents or who supervise employees, Redirect could be used as nonfiction reading. While it’s not as engaging as narrative nonfiction, it’s well-written and should be well within the reading skills of adult learners.
A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives
The cover of Cordelia Fine’s A Mind of Its Own shows a middle-aged, bald guy whose thought bubble reveals his brain tells him he’s a muscular, iron-pumping type. Inside, Fine describes in well-documented facts that human brains are so well built to put the best possible interpretation on any of its owner’s experiences that only a few people have anything like a realistic view of themselves.
Fine doesn’t delve deep into the brain’s anatomy and physiology. Her interest is on the observable human behaviors that brains trigger in their owners. Fine’s writing is witty and charming, but you can’t speed-read it. Just because her writing isn’t academic and dull, doesn’t mean it isn’t thorough and precise. You need to pay attention.
Chapter 7, “The Weak-Willed Brain: The Prima Donna Within” holds ideas of particular relevance to teachers because we phrase many of the tasks we give students in ways that disassociate will, determination, mind, imagination, behavior, conscious effort, think, and even make up your mind from the congregation of cells we call the brain. Fine deliberately connects those terms to the brain.
For example, she says, “The conscious is not every good at multitasking,” and “the will is feeble, drained by emotions; it is thin-skinned, and has woefully limited powers of concentration.” Because of those limits, she says, when you need to change behavior (your own or those of a student), you should concentrate on one behavior at a time.
Fine’s book is relevant to older teens and adults and might be used in the second semester of a two-semester course as background reading for writing prompts. It’s certainly is a good book to have on your classroom shelves for students to browse.
Underlying most educational programs is an assumption that beyond a certain point all that’s necessary for students to become better at that subject is more practice. Whether or not that assumption is true across the curriculum is debatable, but I find the premise useful in teaching writing.
Students don’t need to know a lot of stuff in order to learn to write nonfiction. Most of what they need to know is really about how to plan a piece of writing. Unlike something like grammar, where the rules are the same for every sentence, planning a piece of writing is tough because very writing assignment is different. That’s why learning to write seems like such a long slog for students and their teachers. But once students master the skill of identifying a single assertion to discuss and picking three reasons why that assertion is true, they’re two-thirds of the way to being able to pull together a document that focuses on that single assertion and mostly makes sense.
I know that even in a half year course that meets three full hours a week in person or online, I can’t get a group of adult students to all write comfortably. A couple students may have enough previous experience to write quite well, but the majority will still have to push themselves to complete each writing assignment. The best I can do—what I’ve decided must be my goal—is for each student to write three competent papers in a row.
When a student can write three consecutive papers that are competent work, that tells me that all that student needs get better at writing is more practice. They don’t need me any more. They can get that writing practice in other courses and in other subjects.
What for you is the point at which all your students need only more practice—without additional input from you—in order to become better writers? Define that point and you’ve defined your goal as a writing teacher.
When you reach that goal post, you’ll no longer have to drive students through the basics. Instead, you’ll be able to talk to each student as one writer to another. That’s when teaching writing becomes fun.
Live video might actually hinder students’ learning by giving them too many things to look at. Visuals for online learning must give students some place to focus their attention during an oral presentation and reinforce the message of that presentation. You don’t want students wondering whether they should focus on the presenter, the whiteboard on which the presenter writing, the notes they were told to download before the presentation, or the fly on the presenter’s head.
Visuals for online teaching should teach.
If what you’re teaching lends itself to graphic images, that’s fine. Use them. But if what you’re teaching doesn’t lend itself to images, use the computer screen as the equivalent of the classroom white board or overhead projector.
The best visuals are mnemonic devices underscoring the lesson’s main takeaway. They don’t need to be works of art. They need only to communicate a message clearly. There’s nothing wrong with using text instead of images providing you limit the amount of content students must read at one time. Display text should reinforce your teaching, not be your teaching.
Since yesterday was Thanksgiving, I’ve been thinking about what teachers and students have to be thankful for in 2020, which has been a bummer by just about every standard you could think of. At the risk of sounding like a Pollyanna, I’m going to suggest that between now and Christmas, teachers ask students to identify something they’re glad they learned this fall in their classes. What students learned may have little to do with the course content, but a great deal to do with students’ attitudes toward learning in general and academic learning in particular.
Let me tell you a story.
Although I was a psychology major as an undergraduate, the class in which I learned most about psychology wasn’t a course in psychology. It was a course in algebra. The professor had chosen a newly published program-instruction text in which we were to learn bit by bit how to do algebraic calculations.
I worked hard and got a C on the first test. Unsatisfied with a C, I got tutoring from my roommate, a chemistry major, and from the math major down the hall.
I got a D on the second test.
I redoubled my effort. My roommate and the math major helped. The professor gave me additional help.
I failed the final exam.
Programmed instruction isn’t how I learn best. I’m someone who learns best when I start out knowing what I’m supposed to learn and why that knowledge is important. What I got in the algebra course was procedures without any context about what they were used for.
That algebra course was undoubtedly the most significant academic course I’ve ever taken. It taught me the importance of initially teaching students a subject using methods that fit the way they learn best. After college when I was hired to write instructional materials, I understood the importance of making sure that I provided both the big picture for learners like myself and step-by-step instruction for learners like the others in my algebra class who got the big picture by assembling the fragments.
What’s the story got to do with you?
This fall you may have some students in your classes who stumbled through distance learning the way I blundered through algebra. You can’t undo the unhappiness that students may have experienced because of the unfamiliar and, for some, unsuitable technology. You can, however, ask students to identify something they learned about themselves, and particularly about how they learn, that will be useful to them in the future.
I suggest you have students write about what they learned in 2020 about how they learn best. Ask them to reflect on how well their learning strengths and weaknesses fit the technologies they were required to use for classes. And, most importantly, ask them to identify one way they can turn what they learned—even if they hated every minute of their learning time—to their benefit in the future.
You, dear teacher, might benefit from doing the same writing assignment as your students.
One of the few bright spots in the current political turbulence is the way misplaced modifier production has ramped up. I collect those that amuse me and often have students attempt to figure out what the writer intended to say, where the writer messed up, and, if possible, revise the sentence to fix the problem.
Here are three that other teachers might want to have their students attempt to untangle:
“Karl Rove gently explains that Joe Biden beat Trump in Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal.”
“After making landfall in Cuba early Sunday, Florida now faces storm surges of up to four feet.”
“While he said testing can help, former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb cautioned against holiday gatherings and encouraged the use of high quality masks during an interview on Face the Nation on Sunday.”
Until students write competently, most teacher feedback is usually more of a hindrance than a help. That’s not because the advice is bad, but because the writers are already drowning in advice that they aren’t yet capable of following. What keeps a student from writing better isn’t lack of information; it’s lack of practice.
Like beginning basketball players or beginning clarinet players, beginning writers know basically what to do, but they don’t know how to get their eyes, ears, muscles, and brain working together to make it happen. Giving feedback is no substitute for giving students adequate time to practice writing.
If you’ve been required to become an online writing teacher during the Covid pandemic, the difficulty of teaching students to write in an online class may have driven you to the point of despair.
I know that feeling all too well.
In recent years, I’ve typically been expected to provide an entire writing course online to employed adults in eight weeks. A writing course should provide a minimum of 100 hours of actual writing practice to get students to the point at which all that’s required for them to continue improving their writing skills is more practice. It is clearly impossible for me to give my students that amount of writing practice within an eight week period: They would need nearly two hours of free time a day to accomplish it.
In order to get anywhere near the minimum amount of practice, I’ve developed unorthodox procedures to eliminate any activities that are not absolutely necessary and give students as many hours of actual writing practice as I can possibly cram into eight weeks. The process is flexible, easy-to-learn, and it works for all kinds of expository nonfiction writing: It’s the process I’ve used for newspaper reporting, magazine articles, nonfiction books and what is politely called ephemera. (You may refer to ephemera as junk mail, but you won’t sound nearly as well-educated.)
You can reduce the stress of online teaching by adopting three of my practices. They’re equally applicable to teaching students grades seven through 12 as they are to teaching college students.
Here are three strategies that enable me to give students a maximum of writing experience in a minimum amount of time.
1. Don’t use traditional textbooks.
In lieu of a textbook, I have a list of eight writing strategies for expository writers. My list condenses what students must learn to do into eight imperative sentences, none longer than five words.
By learn, I mean not only that students memorize the 34-words list, but that they also are able to apply the concepts and skills inherent in those strategies to different expository writing situations. In some writing situations students encounter, they won’t be able to apply the strategies in their pure form, so they must understand the objectives of the strategies well enough to be able to accomplish them via some non-standard method.
If you’ve seen old films about World War II, you may recall situations in which the good guys in a risky situation have to devise a new way of achieving an objective. Soldiers might have needed to blow up a bridge, but they couldn’t accomplish that objective in the way they’d practiced, so they had to improvise to make use of resources at hand. A similar ability to improvise to achieve a writing objective when the actual writing situation is different from the “typical writing situation” is what I mean when I say students know the eight strategies.
2. Limit learners to prompts you assign.
I don’t allow a great deal of learner choice in the way you probably would define the term. All my writing assignments require expository nonfiction writing on communications-related topics. That’s how I give students authentic “English class” topics and still provide a way for them to bring in their out-of-class experiences.
One of the writing prompts in my PenPrompts collection Ready, Set, Write for not-yet-competent writers is this:
“In an I/E text, discuss 2 to 5 words used to change public perception of some topic, issue, or product in each of three fields of human endeavor.”
Word choices are definitely an English class topic. My writing prompt allows students to draw on both their in-school and their out-of-school knowledge to identify fields in which the choice of terms affects public perception. This year, politics would probably be on most students’ lists. Other fields where word choices matter include such different fields as sales and marketing, education, science, law, economics, real estate, and teaching.
3. Provide everything writers need in one place.
All the formal writing prompts I assign to students I embed in a self-contained writing lesson that’s rarely longer than both sides of a single sheet of paper. In lieu of having students look things up in textbooks, each lesson gives students all the information they need to get started on the assignment. For not-yet-competent writers that includes a working thesis that responds to the prompt and a writing skeleton™ so they can quickly “prime their brains” to notice information that may be relevant to their assignment. As they do each assignment, that writing prompt’s lesson drags them through a single problem-solving process that is repeated in greater or lesser detail in each writing prompt’s lesson material.
A few final words.
I’ve been fortunate so far in being provided with learning management systems to use in teaching writing online rather being required to use a business presentation technology. My students and I have communicated entirely in writing, so every student-teacher interaction reinforced the need to communicate clearly in writing. If you are stuck with Zoom or some other program developed for oral presentations rather than for online teaching and learning, you will have much more difficulty teaching writing online and students will have much more difficulty learning to write in the online environment. I wish that were not the case, but that’s reality.
With the 2020 presidential election just four days away, English and social studies teachers probably have only one more chance to take advantage of the learning opportunities it affords before their students start thinking of it as history.
Today I’m going to give ELA and SS teachers a formal writing prompt to assign before the election to teens grades 11 and 12 and to adult students.
(If you missed last week’s blog post, it suggested having teens or adults in students in English classes and appropriate social studies classes attempt to outline each candidate’s position on one of the questions asked in the second 2020 presidential debate.)
Here’s how to prepare students
First, assign students to read or listen to comments by two prominent academics who are concerned about how of people’s ability to discuss politics civilly has almost disappeared in America. The two are Danielle Allen, an author and the director of the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, and Pete Peterson, dean of the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy, who writes and speaks about public engagement. They were interviewed on PBS NewsHour by Jeffrey Brown on Oct. 1, 2020. The NewsHour provides both a transcript and an audio tape of the interview. Here are shortlinks you can give students:
Read or listen to these a short interview with two scholars about what they think are the reasons Americans can no longer discuss political issues without being rude or nasty to those with whom they disagree. As you read/listen keep alert to what the two commentators identify as the reasons for the breakdown of civil discourse. Here are links to the written transcript and the audio recording of the Oct. 1, 2020 interview.
In an informative/expository text discuss what you think is the single most important cause of the breakdown in political civility. Please confine your analysis to no more than 750 words. Deadline for submission is [time, date].
Here are additional directions:
Write your analysis in the third person. Support each topic sentence with summaries or quotations from different sources. You may use your personal experience or observation only as one supporting point of one of your three body paragraphs.
Here’s a pattern students can use to plan their responses:
Thesis: X is the single most important factor in the breakdown of political civility.
X is the single most important factor in the breakdown of political civility because [reason 1].
X is the single most important factor in the breakdown of political civility because [reason 2].
X is the single most important factor in the breakdown of political civility because [reason 3].
A hint that might help uncover related ideas
Find out when whatever you think is the most important factor in the breakdown of civility began to be talked about in books and in the news media. If you can find the names of a couple people who wrote about that subject, you may be able to get related ideas from Wikipedia. Knowing the approximate time the factor you’ve identified became a topic for public discussion might also suggest people you know that you could interview about whether/how that factor affected them.
I didn’t see last night’s debate between President Donald Trump and his challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, but when I scanned this morning’s headlines, I got an idea for a writing activity that might be useful in both English and/or social studies classes.
Here’s what I propose: Outline the arguments
Have teens and adult students analyze both candidates’ responses to one of the questions moderator Kristen Welker posted to the candidates and build a skeleton outline™ for each candidate’s response. The skeletons could follow this pattern:
Working thesis: I know Trump/Biden has a plan to protect Americans who could lose their health insurance if the Supreme Court overturns the Affordable Care Art.
1. I know Trump/Biden has a plan to protect Americans who could lose their health insurance if the Supreme Court overturns the Affordable Care Art because he said [ this] in the presidential debate 2020-10-22.
2. I know Trump/Biden has a plan to protect Americans who could lose their health insurance if the Supreme Court overturns the Affordable Care Art because he said [ this] in the presidential debate 2020-10-22.
3. I know Trump/Biden has a plan to protect Americans who could lose their health insurance if the Supreme Court overturns the Affordable Care Art because he said [ this] in the presidential debate 2020-10-22.
Here’s how to set up the activity
Give teens and adult students one (or a choice of no more than three) sets of moderator Kristen Welker’s questions to the candidates in the October 23, 2020 debate.
Tell students to copy (Ctrl C) the entire section of the transcript between the starting comment in that thread and the last one. (The last one will be the paragraph above the next topic.)
Tell students to paste the material they copied into a Word document or other writing program file, so they can manipulate the text. Because they’re going to chop up the text, they might want to make two copies right away so that have a full copy in addition to the manipulated copy.
Have students examine the candidates’ responses to the question (including to follow-up questions from the moderator and unsolicited comments offered by the candidates.) To make that task easier, tell students they can delete from the Word document they created anything a candidate says that doesn’t seem to respond to the question the moderator asked them.
From their analysis of what’s left—the material that seems to respond to the question—have students write two skeleton outlines, each one summarizing one candidate’s position on that topic.
Debate topics and their transcript locations
In each of the debate topics below, I’ve enclosed a term within less than < and greater than > signs that can be used to search the transcript for the start of that topic.
Leadership in the Chronavirus epidemic (08:27)
Welker to Trump: (08:27) How would you lead the country during this next <stage of the coronavirus crisis>?
Welker to Biden: (11:06) How would you lead the country out of this [Coronavirus] crisis?
Welker to Trump: (17:03) “If the Supreme Court does overturn [the Affordable Healthcare Act], there’s 20 million Americans could lose their health insurance almost overnight. So what would you do if those people have their <health insurance taken away>?”
Welker to Biden: (19:43) “Your healthcare plan calls for <building on Obamacare>. So my question is, what is your plan if the law is ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court?”
Minimum wage (30:10)
Welker to Biden: (30:10) “Mr. Vice President, we are talking a lot about <struggling small businesses> and business owners these days. Do you think this is the right time to ask them to raise the minimum wage? You of course support a $15 federal minimum wage.”
Welker to Trump: (31:39 and 31:46) “You said recently you would consider raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.” (implied question: Is this the right time to seek a raise in the federal minimum wage.)
Welker to Trump (32:37): “Mr. President, your administration <separated children> from their parents at the border, at least 4,000 kids. You’ve since reversed your zero tolerance policy, but the United States can’t locate the parents of more than 500 children. So how will these families ever be reunited?”
Welker to Biden: (35:05) “The Obama Administration did fail to deliver immigration reform, which had been a key promise during the administration. It also presided over record deportations, as well as, family detentions at the border before changing course. So why should voters trust you with an immigration overhaul now?”
Race in America (38:37)
Welker to Biden: (38:37) I want to talk about the way <Black and Brown Americans> experience race in this country. Part of that experience is something called the talk. It happens regardless of class and income, parents who feel they have no choice, but to prepare their children for the chance that they could be targeted, including by the police, for no reason other than the color of their skin. Mr. Vice President, in the next two minutes, I want you to speak directly to these families. Do you understand why these parents fear for their children?
Welker to Trump: I would like you to speak directly to these families, do you understand why these parents fear for their children?”
Election security (29:19)
Welker to Biden (29:19) “…<both Russia and Iran> are working to influence this election….What would you do to put an end to this threat?
Welker to Trump (31:45) “For two elections in a row now, there has been substantial interference from foreign adversaries. What would you do in your next term to put an end to this?
Climate change (12:41)
Welker to Trump: (12:41) For each of you, how would you <both combat climate change> and support job growth at the same time?
Welker to Biden (14:44) Vice President Biden, two minutes to you uninterrupted.
Inauguration Day message (24:30)
Welker to President Trump: Imagine <this is your inauguration> day. What will you say in your address, to Americans who did not vote for you? NOTE: The next three text blocks in the transcript (24:47, 25:01, and 25:28) are attributed to Joe Biden, but they are President Trump’s responses.
Welker to Biden: (25:49) “What will you say during your inaugural address to Americans who did not vote for you?”
Why this activity is worth doing
Like many of my ideas, this might not work, but I think it might be worth trying. In an English class, it would test students’ ability to distinguish between information that supports a thesis and that which is related but doesn’t actually support the thesis. In social studies, the completed English class assignment might prompt a discussion about political discourse: Does what politicians say make sense? Does it matter to voters if they don’t make sense?