Memos help in teaching teens and adults

If you teach courses to teens or adults courses (social studies, biology, bookkeeping, or welding—you name it) you can review class content, introduce new topics, and help students master important on-the-job communication skills by regularly having students produce memos and brief reports.

memo pad and pencil
Nonfiction writing doesn’t get much simpler than the memo.

Despite what you have heard from CEOs of multinational corporations whose direct reports have PhDs from places like Stanford and Harvard, the writing required in entry-level jobs is mostly short expository items like memos and single-page reports or recommendations to higher-ups in the chain of command. Such pieces of writing have to be clearly written and adequately detailed, but they mustn’t be long-winded. They should also take “office politics” into account.

You could require each student to come up with one of the following types of reports each month:

  • A memo describing which part(s) of a particular lesson or unit were the most effective and why the lesson/unit was effective.
  • A suggestion that a specific course-related topic be incorporated into the curriculum and suggesting how the addition could be fit into the course.
  • A memo to you in which the writer recommends an alternative to a pencil-and-paper test that the writer thinks would produce a more accurate picture of students’ understanding of [some particular course topic].
  • A recommendation that a certain information be made available in a particular format. For example, students might like to have slides that show step by step how to do a particular procedure, so they can review the visuals instead of having to rely on their handwritten notes.
  • A recommendation for a particular scheduling change for the following year, such as a class that meets for two, two-and-a-half hour sessions a week instead of the five days of one-hour sessions a week.
  • A report on student satisfaction with a particular textbook, a field trip venue, an outside speaker, etc.
  • A “damage” report on some piece of equipment or some instructional material that does not work properly.
  • And, of course, there’s the vacation request in which students apply for permission to miss class and explain how their work is going to get done in their absence.

You can come up with better ideas for your courses than my generic ones. Smart cookie that you are, you won’t promise to perform what students recommend, but if some student comes up with a good idea, give it a try.

The worst thing that could happen is that it would flop, which could happen with one of your ideas, too.

And trying out students’ ideas shows your heart’s in the right place.

©2020 Linda Aragoni

Don’t throw lulas in students’ way

Teachers are like ordinary people in at least one way: They have a tendency to behave as if everybody has the same background knowledge they have. Unfortunately, not all students’ background experiences aren’t the same as those of their teachers.

Do you know the answer?

As an undergrad, in connection with a psychology class I was taking, I had the opportunity to work a half day a week at a facility run by the Cerebral Palsy Association. I was assigned to assist in a class of multiply-handicapped children who were roughly first through fourth grade age.

One day, one of the students asked me, “What’s a lula?”

I had to sit down and think about that for a minute.

A volunteer had been in earlier in the morning for the weekly music session. One of the pieces students were learning was “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

My questioner had been singing, “Glory, Glory had a lula.”

I explained that in the song glory was like saying “wow!” and hallelujah was like saying “I’m really happy.”

Every teacher needs to keep alert for language that would throw a lula in the path of students, particularly if they have any students for whom English is a second language.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Image credit – The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Good Old Songs We Used to Sing, ’61 to ’65, by Osbourne H. Oldroyd, Public Domain

 

Pity the poorly prepared teacher

An opinion piece I read back in the World Before Covid about teachers buying lesson plans on the Teachers Pay Teachers website,  got me thinking about a topic that the author didn’t address: teacher preparation.

header from Education Week article
The title tells Tipton’s position

Author Kat Tipton argues that when she was hired as a first grade teacher, her school didn’t provide her with curriculum and fellow teachers who shared theirs didn’t have time to discuss them with her or for her to observe their teaching.

“I was in over my head and had no idea what I was doing,” Tipton wrote.

Whatever one’s stance on teachers selling their lesson plans (I personally agree with the US Copyright office about sales of works made for hire), it is certainly worth inquiring what Tipton’s undergraduate preparation involved that she was shocked to find she was expected to prepare her own materials.

Did she think her college education profs were following curricula someone had handed to them?

My guess is that she entered teaching after completing a bachelor’s program in elementary education, which presumably would have included student teaching. I spent a week observing in an elementary school classroom before deciding elementary teaching wasn’t for me—people who choose to do that qualify either for sainthood or the psych ward—but that week was enough for me to realize the teachers are on their own.

Didn’t Tipton have to prepare lesson plans when she did student teaching?

When I went for a MACT in the humanities, although I had done my undergrad work in psychology, I was offered a teaching assistantship in my university’s English department. All the other TAs had English education backgrounds; some had been teaching English in public schools for years. We weren’t given a curriculum or even textbooks. The course description in the college catalog was considered adequate direction.

When I started working online with ELA teachers in 2008, the majority who visited my website were teachers with 15 or more years’ experience. They had exhausted themselves looking for materials that worked, but they at least had had materials to use.

I wonder if newly-fledged junior-high and high school English teachers are, like Tipton, over their heads and without any idea what they are doing when facing an ordinary, bricks-and-mortar classroom.

I’m not sure I want to know what the newly-credentialed teacher faces in the fall of 2020 when classroom teaching seems a distant memory.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

A writing prompt on epidemics in history

Today’s writing prompt could be used in social studies, science, or English classes. It requires some rather superficial research to show students that pandemics are not some misery deliberately inflicted on them. Their research will undoubtedly show that people don’t change much: the way politicians responded to an epidemic a few centuries ago is basically how they responded this year.

graphic representation of a coronavirus
Now-familiar imagery representing the Covid 19 virus.

Background for teachers

America’s earliest explorers brought diseases with them, which wiped out large numbers of native peoples. The smallpox epidemic of 1721, which came to Boston via infected seamen, played an important role in preparing the way for the American Revolution. And during the Revolution, North America’s first continental smallpox epidemic killed more than five times as many Americans as the war did. Casualties would have been even higher except that in 1777 George Washington ordered American soldiers to inoculated—a highly controversial move for the time.

Writing prompt background for students

As you’re well aware, we are in the midst of a pandemic. You may feel that what you’re going through is a totally unique experience. Actually, epidemics are not unusual. There have been epidemics throughout history.

Students’ assignment

Identify an earlier pandemic/epidemic to compare with the Covid 19 epidemic. Compare and/or contrast the response of government to that contagion to the response of government to the Covid 19 epidemic.
Based on your analysis, write an informative/explanatory text in which you explain how the earlier government’s response to its epidemic was better/as good/worse than America’s to Covid 19

Format your text for reading as a digital document, using hyperlinks to resources you cite. Please keep your text to under [650] words. Deadline for submission is [date, time].

Suggestions for success

It will probably be easiest to limit your analysis to one geographic area even if the governmental entity in charge at the time of the earlier epidemic may have been superseded by another government since them. Geography has a significant impact on the spread of contagions and geography doesn’t change quickly.

Depending on your interests, you might investigate similarities/differences with regard to such things as:

  • The initial reaction by government
  • Who/what did government initially blame
  • Whether the source identified by government was the actual source
  • Did the populace trust the government’s story
  • Actions taken by government to halt the contagion. Were they appropriate?effective? Why/why not?
  • Duration of the epidemic
  • Death figures, esp. as % of population

NOTE: You are not limited to choosing from those comparison points.

You could use this fill-in-the-blanks format to help you formulate a working thesis and writing skeleton™:

The government[s] of [Place] in [year] has done [better/as well/worse] at responding to the Covid 19 epidemic compared to how the government[s] of [Place] in [date] did at responding to the [type of epidemic] at [time].

  • I know that the government[s] of [Place] in [year] has done [better/as well/worse] at responding to the Covid 19 epidemic compared to how the government[s] of [Place] in [date] did at responding to the [type of epidemic] at [time] because [reason you know #1].
  • I know that the government[s] of [Place] in [year] has done [better/as well/worse] at responding to the Covid 19 epidemic compared to how the government[s] of [Place] in [date] did at responding to the [type of epidemic] at [time] because [reason you know #2].
  • I know that the government[s] of [Place] in [year] has done [better/as well/worse] at responding to the Covid 19 epidemic compared to how the government[s] of [Place] in [date] did at responding to the [type of epidemic] at [time] because [reason you know #3].

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Teaching in a pandemic: A public service message

Learners do not need to see you in person or even in live video in order to learn long division, the causes of the American Revolution, or subject-verb agreement.

You may want to have face-to-face interactions with students, but it’s not necessary for you to have face-to-face interactions with students in order for you to teach or for them to learn.

Seeing you may even distract students from attending to what you are teaching.

Students forced to become distance learners must have teachers who can distinguish between what’s essential to teach and what’s not essential to teach. Students must have teachers who choose to focus on essentials—even if teacher and students can’t see each other.

Yes, it’s possible that not being able to see you will make students feel less connected to you, less connected to school.

But just because students feel connected to you doesn’t mean the students learn any faster or learn more thoroughly.  Being deeply connected to your students doesn’t make you a better teacher.

Frankly, any persons over 24 whose lives are shattered if they don’t spend face time with 7-year-olds five days a week has a serious problem that discovery of a Covid-19 vaccine will not cure.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Pattern recognition is a life skill

Three apartment floor plans identical except for colors
A single floor plan is used in three apartments, each of which has a different owner.

The ability to recognize patterns is an essential life skill. Whether a pattern is learned by association, the way a very young child learns to associate certain sounds with being fed, or at a sophisticated level using spreadsheets and graphs, the ability to see and derive meaning from patterns in data is vital to humans’ existence.

Not all students come to school able to recognize patterns. Absent direct instruction, some of them will remain unable to recognize patterns throughout their schooling. I’ve had students in their thirties who couldn’t recognize patterns. Most students can develop pattern recognition skill simply by having their attention called to patterns in the class content they need to learn. You need to deliberately, habitually, draw students’ attention to patterns in the class content they must learn.

Deliberately look for patterns.

If you’re going to teach successfully, you need to be sensitive to the presence of patterns in the material you teach. If you can see patterns in a large number of individual cases, you can—and should—condense that vast number of cases to a fraction of its original size. The condensed version—the pattern— can be more readily taught to students than the dumpster-sized loads of individual cases.

Patterns don’t produce replicas.

It’s very important to note that individual examples of a pattern are not replicas of the pattern. A paper pattern may be used to produce objects made from fabric, sheet metal, or cardboard boxes. In the hands of a skilled workman, a single pattern can produce objects with very different appearances and very different functions.

A visitor to the apartments of the Blacks, the Greens, and the Browns, shown at the top of this blog post, might not be consciously aware of the common floor plan even though all three were built by the same construction crew from the same blueprint. The owners put their individual stamps on their homes with different furnishings and distinctive decorations. Similarly, writers put their own individual stamp on writing they built following a pattern.

Patterns simplify.

Part of your teaching job is to impress upon students that being able to see patterns simplifies their lives.  Something as simple as putting your house key in the same place every day or putting your mask in the same place every day is a pattern that saves you from a frantic turn-the-house-upside-down search before you can make a 10-minute run to the grocery. Identifying a new place to put your keys/mask every day wouldn’t be efficient; it would be dumb.

In just that same way, having a pattern for planning a piece of nonfiction writing lets students concentrate on what they need to accomplish, instead of trying every day to invent a new way to organize their writing. If you can teach students that patterns automate routine procedures, they’ll have time and attention to devote to the task at hand. When there’s already a pattern available for organizing most nonfiction writing—thesis and support—it isn’t efficient to expect students to identify a new way to organize their writing every day; it’s dumb.

Identify course concepts.

For convenience—I’m a big fan of convenience—I suggest starting with one course for which you have what you think is a pretty good textbook. Use that text’s table of contents to help you identify the essential concepts within its subject matter. There are usually a lot of concepts, but far fewer of them than there are individual facts.

Identify concepts that are also patterns.

If possible, reduce the list of concepts by identifying those that are also patterns. For example, when the Common Core State Standards were compiled, they realized that all the different ways of organizing short, nonfiction writing—that long list of “types of essays” in English books—boiled down to just three patterns:  narrative, argument and informative/expository texts.That was a stroke of genius. They distilled what students needed to learn to about 20 percent of its prior size.

When you have a list of essential course patterns, you have all the information students will need to memorize before they can begin to work with individual data points.  (Actually, you’ll have more than just essential course patterns, and you’ll have to put the other stuff aside to concentrate on the patterns.)

Teach concepts via descriptions.

Most of the time, we can start teaching using descriptions to identify objects or concepts rather than taking time to teach course vocabulary. Were you required to learn the correct names of the parts of a shoelace before you learned to tie your shoes?  I’ll bet you weren’t. I’d also bet a small sum that you can’t tell me right now the name of the hard things on the ends of shoelaces. There are many objects and processes and other thingies you engage with daily that you can’t identify by their proper names. The world doesn’t come to a screeching halt if you don’t know an aglet from a piglet.

You can plunge into having students work with specific examples rather than presenting abstract and theoretical content and they will pick up the correct terminology as they work. Working with examples—even if the examples are written descriptions—is more like hands-on activity than listening to your lecture, stimulating as that may be. Even students who think they hate your subject would rather do something—anything—than listen to a teacher lecture.

Related post: Boys need help to see patterns.

© 2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Literary nonfiction for teachers

covers of 3 featured works of literary nonfiction
Their covers reveal the tone if not the content of these literary nonfiction books.

The literary nonfiction I read during the second quarter of 2020 was disappointing in terms of finding books that could be read by teens and college students. All three books I chose turned out to be more appropriate for teachers of a certain age. (You know who you are.) The three are Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, and The Great War in America by Garrett Peck.

Gift from the Sea

by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Vintage Books, 1991, 138 p.

Photograph of a shell is on cover of book
The writing is as calm as the cover image.

First published in 1955, Gift from the Sea is a tranquil account of a brief vacation by the sea during which author Anne Morrow Lindbergh reflected on her life in particular and the lives of women in general. Just under 50 when she wrote the book, she had had a far from tranquil life, as Wikipedia will tell you. She was an aviation pioneer along with her husband, Charles. The couple’s first child was kidnapped in 1932 amid national hysteria.

In Gift from the Sea, Morrow Lindbergh writes as wife, mother, and writer, reflecting on her different roles and how best to deal with the conflicting demands on her time and attention. She finds solitude essential for her if she’s to be able to connect to others.

Gift from the Sea is a lovely, lyrical book, but it’s not a book for teens and twenty-somethings, nor a book for men. It’s for nurturing women, desperate for time to be nourished.

Outliers: The Story of Success

by Malcolm Gladwell, Little Brown, 2008, 309 p.

One marble is separated from a group of marbles
What makes one individual stand out?

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell tackles the question “Why do some people succeed far more than others?” After extensive—and fascinating—research Gladwell found that while intelligence, personality, and hard work play a part in success, many of the most important factors are that successful people were just lucky. They were born at the right time in the right place and those factors gave them unusual opportunities to do things for which they had the interest, training, and skills that permitted them to seize those opportunities.

Gladwell can make complicated material easy to read. Adult students and teens in dual-enrollment programs could read Outliers, but not all of them should. Folks who already think the world is against them could find Outliers depressing. Like Gift from the Sea, Outliers requires readers have enough maturity to be able to accept unpleasant realities without feeling victimized.

The Great War in America: World War I and Its Aftermath

by Garrett Peck, Pegasus Books, 2018. 414 p.

A dark photo of the celebration in New York City of WWI's end
Celebration is dimmed in the context of WWI’s impact on America.

Many historians have written about the impact of World War I on Europe, in particular about how the war’s end held the seeds of World War II. Garret Peck focuses his study on how America’s involvement in the war and more particularly Woodrow Wilson’s role in the peace negotiations afterward reverberated throughout the US. I’ve written in another post about Peck’s discussion of the 1918 flu pandemic.

Most general readers will need a map of Europe and lists of who was who in the European capitals  and the American government in 1918 to help them sort out what’s happening at the international level.

Peck writes well. Some of his scenes are almost cinematographic. They make me wish for TV series about Wilson’s life in the White House done in the BBC manner.

© 2020 Linda G. Aragoni


In accordance with my normal practice of posting about literary nonfiction books the first Friday of each quarter, I had intended to post this on July 3. I not only failed to post the material, but I deleted what I’d already written. I apologize to anyone who had been waiting with bated breath for the latest installment. I just recently realized my mistake.

Senior moments are lasting a lot longer these days than they used to.

Define globalization neutrally

A McDonald's in France
Service-au-volant. McCafé.  How do you say “Micky D’s” in French?

This cross-curricular writing prompt is designed to make students consciously aware that even definitions can be slanted. The prompt could be used in social studies courses, media courses, or ELA courses.  At the high school level, teachers of two different courses might use the prompt, which reduces students’ workload while increasing students’ perception of the importance of the assignment.

A formal writing prompt for teens and adults

Globalization is a term we hear nearly every day. What is globalization? Consult at least a half dozen reputable sources for their definitions. Do the definitions provided by each source agree? If they don’t agree, are their definitions totally at odds or do they disagree over a few specific points? Does the wording of the various definitions suggest an inclination to regard globalization either positively or negatively?

Your assignment

Based on your analysis, craft what you believe to be a definition of globalization that is neutral; that is, a definition that is neither enthusiastic about globalization nor totally opposed to it.

Using the neutral definition you crafted, write an informative/explanatory text in which you explain how according to that definition globalization either is or is not good for America. Format your text for reading as a digital document, using hyperlinks to sources you cite. Please keep your text to under [650 words].

Suggestions for success

This assignment is as much about how carefully you read as it is about how well you write. Don’t assume that people whose position you agree with define globalization in the same way you do. Also, don’t assume that people with whom you disagree define globalization the same way you do. One reason political arguments can get heated is that, without realizing it, two people often use the same terms with different meanings.

You may work with a partner or group if you want to increase the number of sources you examine and have the benefit of more than one point of view. It is probably unwise to have more than a dozen sources or more than four people in your group. With too much material, you’ll never get through the assignment.

If you work with a partner or group, each person should write his or her own text. Having each person write certain paragraphs is rarely successful, and assigning one person to do the writing is unfair to everyone.

A note to PUSHwriting readers

If you use this prompt, you’ll need to be prepared to suggest reputable sources that students can consult. Dictionaries alone are unlikely to be adequate and most students’ nonfiction reading won’t include publications about world trade and international economics. They’ll need to be pointed toward sources that won’t overwhelm them, but will provide different perspectives. In preparing to prepare students for the prompt, you’ll probably need do more work than they will.

This prompt previously appeared on another of my websites which is no longer live. A post which linked to the prompt has been removed.

Photo by JP Valery at Unsplash.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Good writers must be good planners

To do competently the writing tasks ordinary people get stuck with, a person doesn’t need to be a really good writer, but the individual needs to become a really good planner.

Target with unusually large bull's eye
The writer’s goal should be important and unmistakable.

Planning separates the wannabe writers from real writers. The wannabe writer is wrapped up in himself. Real writers are focused on the one really important point they must make in the piece they are to write.

Real writers push themselves to identify their central point quickly. They realize that getting an early start is an insurance policy against unpredictable events close to deadline.

Real writers focus all their attention on the main point they’ve decided their work must convey. That point dictates what supporting evidence they’ll need.

Real writers understand that the quality of their sources will largely determine the quality of their information. So, they systematically look for people who have genuine expertise: a combination of personal experience plus study of the work of other individuals whose experience is even broader or at an even deeper level.

person at start of path to distant place
Having a clear goal lets the writer to take advantage of evidence sources on the way.

Having a systematic way to identify people with expertise gives real writers a fast start, which, in turn, gives them more time to dig into the evidence, to see where it leads, and to follow up if it leads to new evidence or new sources of evidence.

Planning, fortunately, is a skill whose foundations can be taught fairly quickly. Ripple strategy is a simple, easy to learn process for developing an initial list of sources to consult. In a very few minutes, writers can have an initial list of sources to contact.

Water droplet has set off ripples in a pond
Writers start from their knowledge and work outward to find evidence sources.

Moreover, ripple strategy alerts writers’ brains to watch for additional evidence sources even when the writers are seemingly immersed in other activities.

Having a familiar planning strategy gives a writer a significant edge over someone who treats each new writing project as totally new and totally unfamiliar. Time saved by reusing a strategy can be devoted to researching and writing.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni