The challenge of challenging students: Have you met it?

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.

Lady in Civil War era hat and dress
Paperback edition of the novel

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?

©2021 Linda G. Aragoni

Two thoughts on visuals for online teaching

You don’t need a live video feed to teach online.

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.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

I’m thankful I learned something

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.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Teaching writing online: Three practices that work

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.

Icon represents textbooks
Teach writing without 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.

one-way sign
Limit students to your choice of prompts.

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.

a double-sided sheet of paper
Put all students 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.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

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

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

Success in an unstable world

A writing prompt for students in 2020

I usually start an online writing class by having students introduce themselves as writers. I’m debating whether current events call for posing a different question this fall that recognizes students’ anxieties are about more than whether their bad grammar will make them fail first semester English.

Introduction to the proposed prompt

You are enrolled in an academic program at a time when much in our world seems unstable and unpredictable.

What tools have you developed thus in your academic program that will help you succeed in life? Are those the tools that are in demand in a stable world, or are they tools that will enable you to face an unstable, unpredictable world? If the world into which you’re entering is unstable and unpredictable, how can you prepare for it? How do you know what tools you’ll need?

The writing prompt itself

Write an informative/explanatory text of no more than 650 words in which you explain how well you personally are prepared to function as an independent adult in the world that’s before you. In your text:

  • Identify the information source(s) from which you deduced the tools that are needed in an unstable, unpredictable world.
  • Describe two, three, or four specific skills or knowledge you possess that either will or will not equip you to take up an adult role in this unstable, unpredictable world.
  • Tell readers either how you came by those skills and/or knowledge or why you didn’t acquire them already.

Comments? Suggestions?

I’ll have to give this some more thought. Many of my great ideas turn out to be duds. If you have any insights, please put them in the contact form.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Feedback is central to online teaching

I’ve been teaching online courses for more than 30 years. In that time, I’ve taken dozens of training programs about how to teach online. The one thing I can’t recall anyone ever talking about in one of those trainings is how much time giving feedback in an online classroom takes.

I’ve been fortunate (although I didn’t feel fortunate at the time) to teach 3-credit college writing classes in half the length of the same course in a physical classroom. I prepared with the knowledge that, in order to give students enough time to do a semester’s worth of writing, I had to eliminate more than half the material I typically presented in a semester.

As a general rule, you can’t see students in an online classroom, at least not well enough to tell whether they are getting what you’re presenting or not. I’ve been fortunate to teach primarily asynchronous classes in which instruction was delivered in writing, students learned at their convenience, and I delivered feedback in writing at my convenience. All that writing took time, but it didn’t feel pressured.

By contrast, a synchronous classroom requires you to “teach” less, dropping the presentation of non-essentials entirely, because unless you strip the curriculum to essentials you won’t have time to receive and give feedback as you deliver information orally. It is feedback that teaches, not presentations. Feedback makes learning personal. It also puts a lot of pressure on teachers.

Recently, I’ve participated in some training sessions for online teachers given by Russell Stannard of TeacherTrainingVideos.com. Russell is a marvelous teacher. He has great information, logically arranged, and well-presented. He also understands that presenting is really the smallest past of online teaching. During one training, Russell spent over an hour on material that participants probably have read in ten minutes if it had been written. He worked at getting feedback from participants and  delivering feedback to them so that everyone finished the session able to do what Russell said he was going to teach us to do..

If you are going to have to teach online in the future—and you probably need to be prepared to do just that—you must develop mechanisms for getting feedback so you aren’t teaching blind. And you must prepare to devote a great amount of time to getting and giving feedback. Just because you’re live on screen doesn’t make you an entertainer. Feedback is what distinguishes teachers from performers.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni