Students or customers?

Many months ago, I received a notice about upcoming webinars for teachers. One of the webinars caught my eye and raised my blood pressure. It was titled “4 Sure-Fire Ways to Improve the K-12 Customer Experience.”

I don’t know whether the college students in my freshman English courses have had good customer experiences in high school or not, nor do I particularly care. It’s obvious most of my students didn’t learn a lick in K-12 about how to write on demand the kind of nonfiction prose everyone has to be able to write. I do care about that.

It is not my job to improve the K-12 customer experience.

I’m a teacher, not a customer service representative.

It’s my job to take the students who didn’t learn how to write in grades K-12 and turn them into writers.

If students don’t like English 101, I don’t let them do basket weaving instead.

If students find writing evidence-based, logically presented documents is hard, I tell them, “Writing is hard for me, too. Just do it.”

If students don’t do their assignments, I don’t refund their tuition.

If your students show up in my freshman English class, they will learn what their K-12 customer service representatives failed to teach them or they will fail freshman English.

You have been warned.

©2021 Linda G. Aragoni

Can students see the goal?

When I took my MS at Syracuse University, I was awarded an assistantship at the Newhouse School of Public Communications. My first term, I was assigned to work for a faculty member in the Advertising Department.

A few weeks into the fall term, the Dean of the Newhouse School told me that the professor had protested being given an assistant with no advertising experience. The Dean said he told her there are usually a couple assistants who need to be reassigned and if she’d wait a couple weeks, he could arrange a swap. The professor had come back that week and told him I was the best assistant she’d ever had.

She said she had given me a stack of papers to grade and was astonished that I knew exactly what to look for and had graded the papers overnight. I had accomplished the task that so astonished the professor by grading students’ papers according to how well they did what the directions told them to do.

At the time, I couldn’t believe that no other graduate assistants had reached that startling conclusion. Now, that that I’m older and more disillusioned, I realize that being able to discover the goal of an assignment from the directions for an assignment is not a common skill.

That’s why I was pleasantly surprised this week by an email I received from a graduate of a area college expressing interest in doing illustrations for books I’m writing about how to visit in nursing homes. (If you’re interested in getting updates on what I’m doing, use this link: https://dropping-by-books.ck.page/signup)

The artist said was interested in the project because she had done some visiting in a nursing home and her grandmother was reaching a point at which it is likely that she will have to be in a nursing home. Those two facts from her personal experience tell me she understands the goal of my books.

As writing teachers, you and I need to regularly spend a few minutes forcing students to think about what the goals of specific writing prompts are. If students see writing prompts as just busy work, even if they respond well to the prompts, we’ve not done a good job of teaching writing.

© 2021 Linda G. Aragoni

First-day-of-school memories

icon for school

I attended an informational seminar yesterday, which reminded me of classes on the first day of school.

The subject was a financial services firm’s offerings.

The presentation was 10 minutes late starting.

The sponsor didn’t introduce the presenters.

The presenters, a man and a woman, didn’t introduce themselves.

The presenters did not summarize what the firm’s primary service is.

The presenters, did not say where the firm is located, how long it’s been in business, or give any authority to vouch for the firm’s reliability.

The presenters talked to the sponsor and one person who used their service.

The male presenter kept asking if anyone had questions, but no one did.

About 45 minutes after the scheduled start of the session, the man passed out complimentary pens. I didn’t want one, so I left. As I left, I asked for one of the plump folders of printed materials they had not distributed.

The materials were just forms for accessing the company’s services, but nothing about the company or its services or its credibility.

There was, however, in tiny print on the back of the folder, contact information, including a website address that opens to a very attractive landing page. The single-page website explains in accountant-speak what the company does.

The site does not link to authoritative government sites.

It does not offer any testimonials from satisfied clients.

That reminded me of school.

That’s like the first day of school because…

Teachers expect students to know why they should trust their teacher’s expertise.

Teachers expect students to know how they’ll profit from taking those teachers’ courses.

Teachers keep asking for questions from students who have no idea what the subject is about.

Teachers have printed materials for students’ use that provide no benefit students recognize.

Teacher-speak doesn’t tell students how a course is relevant to them.

Teachers’ don’t offer any testimonials from satisfied students.

© 2021 Linda G. Aragoni

Two sentences for informal writing prompts

More than two years ago, I clipped a page written by a school superintendent in his district’s April 2019 newsletter. My intent was to use it later as an informal writing prompt. I think August 2021 is later, don’t you?

Here’s how he began his message:

With the approaching spring season at B-G, comes the start of Phase 2 of the multi-year Capital Project. The District has successfully wrapped up Phase I and will begin this next phase hopefully in April.

The Blue and White: Bainbridge-Guilford
Central School District School News & Notes, April 2019

Those two sentences suggest two questions that you could pose to students as triggers for informal writing. After reading the sentences aloud as students follow along, ask them these two questions to which they must respond in writing. Allow time for them to write their response to one question before you ask the second question.

Question 1. After reading the first sentence carefully, identify the simple subject and the simple predicate of the sentence. If you have difficulty finding them, it may be helpful for you to rewrite the entire sentence in normal subject-verb-object order and then identify the simple subject and simple predicate. You have 90 seconds to write.

Question 2. In the second sentence, identify what that the adjective hopefully modifies. Decide if the word hopefully is correctly placed in that sentence. In no more than two sentences, explain why you think the word hopefully is or is not used correctly there. You have one minute to write.

Discussion

The first question may give students difficulty. I know I read the writer’s first sentence a couple times before I figured out what the writer was talking about. The simple subject and simple predicate are “start comes.”

As if that’s not confusing enough, the reference to “the approaching spring season” is strange: spring is nearly over in April. Furthermore, the coming of spring does not bring about the second phase of the capital project. The superintendent was trying to say “Phase II of the multi-year capital project is about to start.”

Question 2 attempts to get students to look at the word hopefully. The construction of the superintendent’s sentence has the district beginning Phase 2 of the capital project hopefully. People running projects almost always do begin hopefully and often lose hope as the project goes on. To make his intent clear, the superintendent could have said , “The District has successfully wrapped up Phase I and hopes to begin Phase 2 in April.” For even more clarity, he could have said this month instead of in April, which might have been understood to mean April of the next calendar year.

Tell your students that when they realize they’ve used the word hopefully, it’s smart to see if there isn’t a simpler way to write that sentence. I hope that helps.

© 2021 Linda Aragoni

Connotations matter

Like most other writing teachers, I’ve taught a lesson on the difference between a word’s denotation and its connotation. Quite honestly, the lesson bored me as much as it did students. Lessons, like chickens, have a habit of coming home to roost and I’ve found myself in the last six months wrestling with a denotation-connotation problem.

hands of two elderly persons
Touch is important part of nursing home visits.

I’m writing a series of books about how to visit in a nursing home. The series’ title is “Thanks for Dropping By,” which is what residents always said to me when I left after visiting them.

I asked two clergymen for feedback on the book written for pastors. I was surprised that clergy felt dropping by was too informal a term to describe what they did. They said they went to visit residents, a process they refer to as visitation. Rather than use language that offends pastors for whom I’m writing, I decided to do some research to see if the terms visit and visitation more accurately reflected what clergy do in nursing homes than dropping by does.  I began by asking female friends and relatives what associations the terms hold for them, since a majority of nursing home residents are female.

My women friends, particularly those 50 and older, typically remember being required as a child to go visit someone that one or both of their parents would have preferred never to see at all. That someone was usually either their father’s or mother’s parent. The girls would have to sit quietly while their parents and their grandparent took verbal potshots as one another. Girls’ misery was compounded if they had brothers. The boys were usually admonished to “stay clean” and sent out to play while the girls tried to ignore the bickering inside. As a result of those childhood experiences, my women friends recoil at the term visiting.

Since my clerical friends both prefer the King James version of the Bible to others, I did a little digging into the KJV’s use of the terms visit and visitation. Despite its age—or perhaps because of it—the KJV’s language is more influential than that of any other Bible translation. In it, I found visit and visited used to describe both situations that were pleasant and situations that were unpleasant, even punitive. The emotional experience of being visited depended entirely on the behavior of the person involved.

Visitation was a quite different matter.

Throughout the KJV Old Testament, visitation is almost always associated with punishment. I counted 13 out of 15 uses of the word visitation in reference to punishment. If Old Testament characters were smart, they were careful to avoid having a visitation.

Masochistic English teachers who have read this far may be wondering what all this has to do with teaching writing. Simply this: Writers, whether adults or students, need to be aware of their audience. They should choose words that most precisely convey the ideas they want readers to grasp and avoid language that is ambiguous or misleading.

In this case, I want my readers—pastors—not to describe what they do in nursing homes as visitation. Let them determine to drop by, both for their sake and the sake of residents.


A website for my nursing home book project is in the works. If anyone is afraid of missing out, drop me a note via the contact form on this site, and I’ll put you on my email list as soon as I get one.

©2021 Linda G. Aragoni

Seeing distinctions, developing habits

This morning while reading Ben Sasse’s book The Vanishing American Adult, about which I’ll no doubt say more after I finish it, I stopped short when I read, “Seeing distinctions is a learned habit.”

All of us writing teachers know our students must learn to distinguish between, for example:

  • a complete sentence and a fragment of a sentence,
  • a word that must be capitalized and one that need not be capitalized,
  • words that must be put in quotation marks and words that need not be in quotation marks.

Until this morning, however, I’d never applied the term building habits to the teaching of writing, but that’s what teaching writing amounts to. I feel quite like Moliere’s Monsieur Jourdain who discovered he’d been speaking prose for 40 years. There is something freeing about thinking of teaching writing as a matter of guiding students to develop habits.

We not only need to teach right from wrong in matters of writing mechanics, but make sure students habitually choose the right punctuation, spelling, and capitalization by giving them daily or near-daily opportunities to make those choices.

We need not only to teach procedures that produce coherent documents but give students enough practice that producing coherent documents is a habit. That will require us to have students write full documents at least weekly.

We need not only to teach students to recognize a message that’s worth sharing but also to give them enough practice choosing writing topics that they habitually write about topics that matter. Some students may be mature enough to do that in sixth grade; others may not be mature enough to do it as college sophomores.

© 2021 Linda G. Aragoni

Prepare students to compare and contrast

What can be learned by comparing these?

photos of apartment and house
What can be learned by comparing a home to an apartment?

Middle and high school students are routinely required to write “compare and contrast” essays without being shown any reason they’d need to know that information. Because most jobs require skill at comparing and contrasting, I developed a writing prompt that makes students focus on the purpose of comparing and contrasting.

What can be learned by comparing these two cooling devices?

What I do is give students several sets images of two items and ask them what can be learned by comparing the two items. Or, to put it another way, why might someone need to compare the two? And who might need to compare the two items? (This work can be done by small groups that share their conclusions with the entire class after five to 10 minute’s discussion.)

two different truck bodies
What can be learned by comparing these two types of trucks?

With that background, give all students a writing assignment.

Here’s the writing prompt

In no more than 650 words, explain why the ability to compare and contrast is an essential skill in today’s workplace. To support your thesis statement, give two to five examples of essential business functions that require comparing and contrasting. Your examples must clearly depict information that can only be gleaned by doing both comparing and contrasting.

If you choose visuals that appeal to students with a variety of interests from art to zoology and including items associated with jobs that don’t require college degrees, you’ll find students will readily grasp the idea that compare/contrast writing is not “just some dumb English teacher thing.” It actually has some real life relevance.

©2021 Linda Aragoni

Start a writing class with a writing start.

Name tag - Hello my name is Linda and I'm a writerThe start of a new school year is just a flip of a calendar page away for many teachers whose duties include or consist of teaching writing. For many years, I was one such teacher.

One thing I learned over those years was to make sure students understood on the first day of class what they were expected to do in the class. Unfortunately, it took decades of trying various approaches before I found a find a way to accomplish that objective on opening day.

The method I use I discovered when teaching asynchronous online classes for University of Phoenix. The University’s teachers were encouraged to have student use a chat room to get acquainted. When I promoted use of the chat room, students spent almost a quarter of the class chatting about their out-of-school interests before I could get them focused on learning to write.

So, I decided to start off the class by introducing myself in the online classroom as a writer. I told students they could get acquainted in the chat room, but I required students to introduce themselves as writers in the classroom space. That adjustment reclaimed nearly two weeks of class and enabled me to get most students writing at the end of eight weeks at a level that students in face-to-face classes typically took a 15-week semester to achieve.

To learn more about how I used the “I’m a writer” assignment to get students off to a good start, see this post from seven years ago.

© 2021 Linda Aragoni

Reaching the audience can be tough

For most of the last 20 years, I’ve written primarily about teaching writing to teens and adults for an audience of teachers of teens and adults. For about the last 18 months, however, I’ve been writing about nursing home visiting for an audience of people who wanted or needed visit in a nursing home.

Although I had some experience in visiting in nursing homes to draw on, the project has become a challenge. The challenge hasn’t been coming up with things to write about. I had enough experiences in doing nursing home visiting to be able to identify the information I needed.

The problem is identifying how to reach my audience.

icon representing audience
These are just placeholders. They aren’t real people.

I know from research and observation that most friendly visitors are women, typically age 30 to 60. Other than that broad age range, there isn’t much that they have in common. They aren’t defined by any of the usual categories of race, religion, political affiliation, social class, education, hobbies, etc. (A snide smirk: friendly visitor is what nursing homes typically call someone who doesn’t come to visit family members, which always makes me wonder if people who come to visit family are unfriendly visitors. But I digress.)

Before I can sell books, I must (1) find what people who are likely to be interested in becoming a nursing home visitor have in common and (2) determine who do the majority of them rely on to guide their choice of free-time activities.

What does this have to do with teaching writing?

If you’ve gotten this far, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with teaching writing. If you’re teaching high schoolers who just want to scratch something down and get out to soccer practice, it has nothing to do with teaching writing.

On the other hand, if you teach college students heading into careers, audience identification is a big deal. Students who have a skill or product to sell—even if the product is themselves—must be able to find the audience that wants what they have to sell.

The student’s first task is to identify that audience. If a student is an artist who wants to sell his art work, he has to find people who buy original art. If the student wants to work as an accountant, he has to find people who hire accountants.

The second task of anyone with a skill or product to sell is to figure out where their audience congregates and to go there. Sellers can’t can show potential buyers why they need their products unless they are in the place where their audience hangs out. That place need not be a physical place; it can be a virtual space online. Your students may need to figure out what online platform employers in their field use and learn to use that platform well.

Coming back to my problem, my buyers will probably be found on Facebook. What I need to know is which people on Facebook women between the ages of 30 and 60 will rely on to guide their choice of what to do in their free time. I’m looking for people with enough Facebook followers that their recommendation can sell 101 to 500 books about how to visit in a nursing home.

I think I have more research to do.

© 2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The challenge answered

Last week I asked ELA teachers if they could do this:

Did you have trouble coming up with the answer? If you did, the reason is not that you didn’t know the answer. The problem was that “question” was stated in an unfamiliar way. Here’s the answer:

The sentence that describes every sentence ever written in every language and every sentence yet to be written in every language is the definition of a sentence. That makes perfect sense once you see the answer, but most of us have to scratch our heads for a while before we realize that we know the answer.

It’s important when teaching basic information, such as the definition of a sentence, that you occasionally vary your wording. If you don’t do that, students are likely to learn definitions by rote without actually understanding what the definition means.

© 2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni