Commas à la carte for the punctuation-challenged

Today’s lesson is on commas.

Don’t freak out.

It has pictures.

A pair of commas work like a little cart or wagon.

A red wagon
Imagine the wagon wheels are the commas in the sentence.

You put the sentence content between the commas onto the cart.

If you can pull the cart into a new place within the sentence or move it out of the sentence entirely and still have the sentence make sense, the commas belong there.

If you can’t move cart without destroying the sense of the sentence, the commas don’t belong there.

Let me show you how this works.

Here’s a sentence culled from the local school district newsletter:

You may have heard that B-G is piloting a new ELA program entitled, Wonders, for our students in grades PK-3.

Put the comma-separated content on a cart and see what happens.

the title Wonders is on the cart.Goodbye, Wonders.

When the cart content is removed, what remains is this:

You may have heard that B-G is piloting a new ELA program entitled for our students in grades PK-3.

Does that make sense?

Of course it doesn’t.

That means the commas didn’t belong in the sentence.

There endeth the lesson for the day.

 

 

Collateral damage of the classroom

Have you noticed that educators’ messages have grown increasingly unintelligible lately?

Perhaps it’s a reaction to Donald Trump: For every single-syllable word he uses, educators are popping-off with a four-syllable one just to show who wins the IQ competition.

Whatever the reason, it’s getting to the point where you need a translator to understand messages from the school.

I found some of the following descriptions in educational journals.

I pulled one from a local school district newsletter.

I made some up.

Can you tell which is which?


The school says:

[name of student] was reaccommodated to facilitate individualized dialogic experiences as a pragmatic step toward embracing behavioral methodologies directed toward enhancing academic success.

The translator says:

[name of student] was sent to the office and told if he didn’t shape up, he’d flunk.

The school says:

[name of student] exhibits periodic withdrawal of attentiveness which constitutes a significant contributing factor in his failure to thrive in an academic environment.

The translator says:

[name of student] is flunking because he doesn’t pay attention.

The school says:

[name of teacher] impacts her students by providing a nurturing and positive environment in collaboration with parents to provide a foundation for students to reach their highest potential.

The translator says:

[name of teacher] does fun projects during the schools and sends students’ academic work for homework.

The school says:

[name of administrator] is committed to building a trusting culture in which school improvement is a constant priority and to shaping the future of our precious students.

The translator says:

[name of administrator] lets staff alone unless they mess up spectacularly.

Use cell phones to teach editing

Editing and teaching editing are not my favorite activities

Learning editing and editing are not my students’ favorite activities.

But neither of us enjoys being laughed at when we’ve let some silly mistake slip by us.

To help students realize the importance of editing their work for errors, I have students snap three shots with their cell phones (or grab screen shots) of errors. I ask students to submit each of their items with a single-sentence caption that indirectly indicates what the error is.

Below are three sample visuals.

ad in which chauffeur is misspelled
Any gifts for moms who spell chauffeur correctly?


ad containing misplaced modifier
I don’t think I know anyone with unwanted space.

ad for a two-sided box
This two-sided planter box is a one-of-a-kind item.

 

This is a simple activity that can lighten up a classroom and make the point that people notice errors.

Your students might even make news: A 9-year-old  shocked her teacher by finding 15 apostrophe errors in 15 minutes in a market in West Yorkshire.

 

 

What are you reading for?

Writing teachers need to be readers.

Everybody knows that.

But what must they read? And why should they read it?

What writing teachers tend to read

If you look at lists of what writing teachers are reading (or at least what those on Twitter say they are reading), the titles tend to fall into three categories:

  •  nonfiction books about “soft skills” for educational settings
  • nonfiction books related to writing and literacy
  • fiction

What I read

Labor Day weekend, I moved the stack of nonfiction books I read over the summer from the coffee table to the bookcase in the back room.  (The fiction was already scattered in three rooms and on digital devices.)

When I looked at the titles, I realized (not for the first time) that I am not normal.

 

Stack of nonfiction books
Ten nonfiction books I read between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

There’s one title about writing I read because writing is the subject I teach.

Two history books about World War I were on my list because I’m re-reading novels of the Great War era for my book review blog.

Two titles are about the American dream  in today’s economy.

Two titles are about the importance of social relationships for those who want to sell good or ideas.

Two books are on principles of communicating so people get it.

The final book is a book about logotypes, “words and letters that are designed to be recognized.”

Why these particular books?

I read things that interest me, either because I am interested in a topic or because looking for ways I can use my students’ vocational interests to help them learn to write.

Getting outside of my knowledge base upsets my standard thought patterns that I can see ideas I’d never have noticed if they were wrapped in a book on something I know about.

What about you?

What nonfiction do you read?

And why do you read it?

If you need any suggestions, I’ll be happy to give you some suggestions.

Thinking about proficiency in writing

Seth Godin posted thoughts about quality on his blog today. He says that at the workplace there are at least three different ways to define quality:

  • The outcome satisfies the requirement.
  • The outcome goes far beyond what’s required.
  • The outcome shows the worker put in a lot of effort.

In New York State education regulations, students who do passing work are deemed proficient. In my dictionaries, proficient means expert. An expert is not just satisfying the requirement; he’s going beyond.

That’s why it bugs me when I see a rubric that labels the middle of the scale proficient.

On my mental rubric, the mid-point of the Writing Quality Scale isn’t proficient but competent.

Competent writing satisfies the requirement.

Writing that goes way beyond what’s required is proficient.

Writing that shows the writer put in a lot of effort is not yet competent.

I can teach not-yet-competent writers to be competent writers.

I can give competent writers time and encouragement to become proficient writers.

But I can’t turn out proficient writers.

Proficiency requires a discipline and dedication that the writer has to provide. If someone has a bit of talent, achieving proficiency may be a little bit easier than for someone without talent.

But in the end, proficiency is up to the individual.

 

18 years of compliance training

I inadvertently stumbled into a Twitter discussion about school activities, such as most homework assignments, that seem to exist for no other reason than, “We’ve always done it that way.”

Here’s an extract:

The conversation suggested that requiring compliance by students is bad.

I don’t think complying with such things as instructions to print one’s name on a document infringe on civil liberties or turn students into automatons: It might be regarded as a simple courtesy.

By the same token, I don’t think complying with school rules has much of an effect on students’ “real lives” outside school.

In fact, as I said, my observations of students in work settings has led me to think the fact that something is required in kindergarten or high school or college is likely to lead students to assume they can safely ignore it elsewhere.

I’ve written several posts over the years about my observations of ex-students’ behaviors outside classrooms when they attempt to enter the workforce. Taken together,  they may suggest it’s not compliance or the lack thereof  that’s a problem.

I’ve pasted the leads of three of them below with links to the entire posts.


Top writing requirement: Read the directions

Teaching students to adapt their writing to the situation never was easy, but is is becoming increasingly difficult. Within a few minutes’ time, we expect students to turn from texting friends to writing research reports to blogging—and to meet the different requirements of each of those situations.

One of the ways we can help students learn to navigate between writing situations is teach them that when directions are provided, they should read and follow those directions, regardless of what they’ve been taught was the appropriate thing to do. Read more of this post.

Work experience as education

Do you want to know how to prepare your students for an entry-level job? The best way to learn what students need to know is to do different entry-level jobs yourself.

Unless you already know somebody at the business, you’ll have to fill out a job application, just as your students will unless they, too, get their jobs through networking or nepotism. Completing a job application requires what the Common Core State Standards refer to as reading informational text. Read more of this post.

Dear applicant: The reason you weren’t hired

Since April,  I’ve been advertising unsuccessfully for two part-time, virtual workers in my educational publishing business. The responses have been mainly from highly schooled individuals who:

  • Don’t know how to write an email,
  • Either don’t read or don’t follow directions, and
  • Don’t have a clue what skills are needed for the 21st century office.

I sent respondents boilerplate “thank you for your interest” replies, but mentally wrote letters I wished I dared send. Read more of this post.

Teaching vocabulary in reading context with four-letter words

I have a spreadsheet of four-letter words.

Not those words.

My words are common words that can be used as more than one part of speech and/or in different contexts thereby changing the words’ meaning.

photo collage showing 3 turtles, 2 frogs, and a football team

Here’s what I’m thinking of using as an informal writing activity to arouse some interest in the boring but vital topic of the value and limits of using context in determining a word’s meaning. This activity is suitable for high school and college students.


Step 1. [Me to students] I’m going to show you five words. I want you to tell me in a sentence or two  if there are any of these words whose definition you aren’t sure you know. Here is the list:

  • test
  • mess
  • knot
  • walk
  • team

In your response, mention the words whose meanings you know and the ones whose meaning you aren’t sure about. You have 30 seconds to write.

[Students write.]

photo collage of people walking, two snails, and a duck

Step 2. [Me:] Now let’s see if you really know the meanings of those words.

I’m going to read you five clues [displayed or in hard copy so students can refer to them]. On your paper, beside the clue’s number, write the word that fits.  You have 90 seconds. [Read clues aloud.]

  1. You wouldn’t like finding one of these in your shoelace or in your shoes.
  2. Don’t ruffle members’ feathers by cheering.
  3. You take it in school, but a clam carries one everywhere.
  4. This moves slowly, but you could take a quick one.
  5. Unless you’re an iguana, if you make one, you clean it up.

Those are the clues. On your paper, beside the clue’s number, write the word that fits.  You have 90 seconds.

[Students write.]

Step 3. Give correct answers.  Students grade themselves.

Step 4.  In no more than three complete sentences, explain what this rather silly quiz shows that is important for you to know to be a good reader.  You have two minutes to write.

[Students write.]

Step 5. In no more than three complete sentences, explain something taking this silly quiz shows you that’s important for you to know to be a good writer. You have two minutes to write.

[Students write.]

Next steps. This informal writing forces all students to think about the process of deciphering a “strange word” they encounter in their reading. Some students will be able to figure out at least a couple correct answers from the total quiz context, but still not know the meaning of the term.

I’d probably have students work in pairs or small groups to find the actual meanings of the terms in the contexts indicated in the clues.

One point of the activity is to show students that they can use reading context to make educated guesses about words they don’t know, but to be sure they guessed correctly, they need to check a dictionary.

The second point is to show students that as writers they often need to provide indirect definitions of words (for example, by using synonyms) to help readers who may be unfamiliar with a term they use in a restricted or technical sense.

FYI A test is the hard outer covering of certain invertebrates, such as the clam. The other four words in the quiz are group names. A group of frogs is a knot. A group of snails is a walk.  A group of ducks is a team. A group of iguanas is a mess.


Comments? questions?

A new way to think about literacy

Literacy = reading and writing, right?

Technically, yes.

But suppose we broadened the skills that we include under the literacy umbrella to include speaking, listening, and thinking.

Then we’d have a suite of skills that people use to learn complex material.

Broadening the definition of literacy is where Mark A. Forget begins teaching any subject, from the humanities to vocational courses.

 Red umbrella labeled LITERAACY over 5 gears labeled reading, writing, speaking, listening, thinking

An expanded definition of literacy facilitates teaching in the content areas using both reading and writing.

Skill acquisition during content learning

Forget (pronounced forzháy) stumbled over some good ideas that he later built on, drawing on research into how people learn.

Forget flips the classroom, using the class time for reading text material that typically is assigned for homework and giving as homework activities that encourage higher order thinking about that same content.

Forget uses textbooks the school provides as the reading material. Students acquire reading skills in the process of reading those texts strategically and collaboratively discussing their reading, defending their interpretation of it by reference to specific passages in the text.

Forget teaches strategies that students can use for the rest of their lives.

Forget varies activities to prevent boredom. He  has about two dozen activities that he picks from to accomplish specific objectives, such as learning to preview text, for example. Having those choices lets him insert some variety into the classes without changing his overall procedure.

Forget uses in-class writing every day. Usually the writing is informal (i.e, ungraded), a tool to help students “generate ideas, become engaged through concrete commitment, clarify their own thinking, or otherwise organize ideas in useful and meaningful ways,” Forget says.

MAX teaching strategies

After testing the procedures for years in a variety of school settings and in many different disciplines, Forget wrote Max Teaching with Reading and Writing: Classroom Activities for Helping Students Learn New Subject Matter While Acquiring Literacy Skills¹.  The “MAX” in Max Teaching stands for Motivation, Acquisition (learning that happens without instruction), and eXtension.

Forget does for reading what I attempt to do with writing: Use it as a tool for teaching content and developing the skills Forget includes under the literacy umbrella: reading, writing, speaking, listening, thinking.

What makes Forget’s method brilliant is less his originality than his consistency: He figured out how to teach so that students learn subject matter content and acquire literacy skills—reading, writing, speaking, listening, and thinking—and he stuck to doing that class after class, week after week.

I don’t recall who recommended the book to me, but I wish I did so I could thank him or her.  If my colleagues in other disciplines used Forget’s methods, teaching writing to their students would be a piece of cake.

I’m sure I’ll be writing more about Forget’s ideas as I work through the rest of the book.


¹ I got my copy of Max Teaching with Reading and Writing through an independent bookseller at Alibris.com

Be an amazing writer: Read like one.

When it comes to reading, there are two ditches modern-day web writers may fall into. Both are notorious, unrefined, and dangerous — especially if you want to be more than an ordinary writer.

On one side, you have the ditch of never-ending digital content where you spend all your time reading online.

……….

On the other side, you have the ditch of “made-for-loneliness” wonkism where all you do all day is read about one topic — and one topic only.

……….

There is nothing wrong with these two approaches to reading if you have no ambition to be a great writer. However, if you aspire to be an
exceptional writer, follow these sophisticated reading habits.

Read all this great post from Demian Farnworth at Copyblogger.

A cautionary message

Probably nothing about public education irks the general public more than graduates who can’t spell.

 

Warning cone shows a passerby corrected spelling of CAUTION by adding the U wrote DUNCE on the backfront

The person who noticed the U was omitted from the word caution on the warning cone in front of a Bainbridge NY business added it.

Then he or she added a comment about writer: DUNCE.