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

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

Curse the curse of knowledge

Affinity Publisher Screenshot
LEARN is a prominent option in the black ribbon above the graphic.

The “curse of knowledge” is that once you know how to do something you can’t imagine not being able to do that action or activity. Teachers are particularly susceptible to the curse, and their students suffer as a result.

I’ve been experiencing the effects of the curse of knowledge as I began to learn to use the  Affinity Publisher program developed by Serif, which was, quite by coincidence, as the Covid-19 epidemic roared into New York State. Serif has a variety of aids to available to learners, including written materials and videos in which graphic specialists show and tell what to do.

I do not learn well from videos: There are far too many distracting elements,  I often can’t visually isolate what it is I’m supposed to see unless an audio track describes the appearance of what I’m to look for, and presenters often obscure or cover the vital element. After watching a video clip, I have to, for example, click on all the elements in the upper left corner of my screen to see if I can figure out which of them the presenter clicked.

To work around my video handicap, I began by using Affinity Publisher’s written instructional materials. For realistic practice, I’m using the manuscript of second edition of my Writing Teacher’s ABCs, which I have to have to the printer in June.

I was able to build page templates and use them to make pages into which to put my content, but the process wasn’t easy or intuitive. Tools had different names than I was accustomed to seeing in other page layout programs I’ve used. And there didn’t seem to be any logic to how tools were grouped:  I kept finding the graphic equivalents of ladies’ hats in the underwear drawer.

I’d click a dozen times on the arrowhead  icon to flow text from one block to another and nothing would happen except that I’d  cause the program to hang up and have to close it, reopen it, and recover the text.  I discovered quite by accident after I’d built more than 170 pages of my book that to flow text between blocks the cursor must be within the link “from” text block before you click the arrowhead icon.

The problems I’m having learning to use Publisher aren’t happening because the graphic specialists don’t know their jobs, but because they know them too well. They’re victims of the curse of knowledge. They no longer recall what they needed to know before they could do anything, let alone learn the fancy stuff.

Unless the pandemic magically disappears, we teachers are going to be doing a lot more online teaching where we have manifold opportunities for displaying the curse of knowledge. It’s vital that we make sure we aren’t assuming students (and/or their parents) know more than they actually know. You probably have relatively few opportunities to get feedback from your students or their parents now, so you really have to double-down on scrutinizing what you plan to present and ask yourself whether you are assuming students know some prerequisite information or skill that they may never have acquired.

It won’t be easy to get through the rest of this school year, but if all the pandemic does is teach you to avoid the curse of knowledge, it might just be the best learning experience you ever had.

©2020 Linda Aragoni

The key to successful online teaching

If you’re an online teacher, you probably were forced into online teaching. That’s how many people get into distance learning: There’s a need, you’re here, you start tomorrow.

That’s basically how I got started teaching at a distance about 30 years ago. I’ll tell you about that another day.

Today, I’d like to tell you the one thing you absolutely must do when you teach online. teacher presenting to class

You must teach your students how to learn your subject.

Please read that last sentence again slowly. This concept is critically important.

Teaching students how to learn your subject is different than teaching them your subject matter. Online classrooms aren’t good places for delivering the drill necessary to get most students to do well on bubble tests. (Offline classrooms aren’t either, but they have the advantage of more time for drill.)

In online settings, your live presentations (or your prepared and posted ones if you’re teaching an asynchronous course) must focus students’ attention on how to go about learning what they must learn.

Even in classroom settings, you cannot expect your presentations to teach everything students must learn. Online teaching requires even more selectivity. Your distance learning presentations must focus on teaching the terms, facts, patterns, and strategies that are required for learning your subject. Most of students’ learning will need to occur after your presentations.

All subjects aren’t learned the same way. Students don’t learn algebra the way they learn history.  So, in addition to teaching that relatively small core of essential terms, facts, patterns, and strategies, you must craft appropriate activities that enable  students to learn to apply those patterns and strategies on their own after your presentation.

If you are an elementary or middle school teacher thrown into online teaching during this pandemic, you have two sets of students instead of one. You have your pupils, of course, but you also have those pupils’ parents. You should try to

  • put the essential terms, facts, patterns, and strategies where parents can access them and
  • make your follow-up activities parent-friendly.

Giving third graders assignments that mom and dad can’t do won’t win you friends at the PTA.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Thanks for nothing, Mrs. Clark, or What’s important to teach?

As people have been hunkered down at home during the Covid-19 epidemic and parents have been smacked in the face with the difficulties of trying to keep children productively employed in confined spaces for hour after hour, I’ve been thinking about Mrs. Clark.

Mrs. Clark was my high school English teacher. I clearly remember two things from her classes.

First, I remember that when she talked about fiction, Mrs. Clark said the details a novelist chooses are important. To illustrate that concept, she said that when she did dishes, there was always one spoon left in the bottom of the dish pan after she thought she’d finished washing up.

 

kitchen sink with single spoon in it
Sure enough, just as Mrs. Clark said, there’s a spoon left in the sink.

I don’t recall what novels we had to read in Mrs. Clark’s classes other than Lord of the Flies and I’m pretty sure is there was no dish-washing scene in  that. Nonetheless, what Mrs. Clark taught, stuck with me. I probably remember her a couple times a month when I do dishes and find a spoon left in the bottom of the dish pan after I think I’ve finished washing up.

I also remember that Mrs. Clark taught us to spell cemetery.

Mrs. Clark said that if you went by a cemetery on a dark night, you might cry, “E-e-e.” That mnemonic came in handy after the death of my uncle’s widowed second wife’s second husband when I emailed my sister to report that I had gone to the funeral and to the cemetery to represent our family. That was about 50 years after Mrs. Clark had taught me to spell cemetery, and I hadn’t forgotten.

Mrs. Clark taught well. Her mnemonic stuck with me for 50+ years.

I also hadn’t needed to spell cemetery any other time in those 50 years.

And this is the first time I’ve needed to spell cemetery since.

Why think about Mrs. Clark now?

When the children who are confined at home during this epidemic look back in years to come, I wonder what they’ll have learned from the experience.

What will kids learn now from the pandemic and afterwards in school?

Will it be something they will use just once in 70 years?

Or something worthless they remember vividly?

And when the epidemic is history and they get back to school, what will they learn there?

Will it be something they will use just once in 70 years, or something worthless they remember vividly?

Or might it be something they use day in and day out for the rest of their lives?

While we’re hunkering down in our homes, waiting out the Covid-19 epidemic, let’s use some of this time to think about what we can teach students that will have every-day-all-their-lives significance.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Who’s helping teachers teach academic content?

I’ve recently received a list of new webinars for teachers from a prominent provider of professional learning webinars. There were eight or nine webinar titles listed. Not one webinar on the list was about teaching content.

As I looked at the list, I tried to remember the last time I saw a webinar that was targeted at helping teachers do a better job of teaching academic content.

In the last year, I’ve seen lots of webinars offered on topics such as

  • mindfulness,
  • family engagement,
  • social and emotional learning,
  • dealing with traumatized youth,
  • selecting technology.

Is anybody offering webinars on academic content teaching topics such as:

  • using informal writing to teach grammar
  • teaching dual-enrolled (high school and college) students to write across the college curriculum
  • using literary nonfiction in teaching high school courses
  • how to teach high school writing so every student writes at least competently?

I hope somebody is teaching some of those topics because reading and writing nonfiction is a requirement in the working world outside education.

Focus student activities on learning

Quote from the revised Bloom's taxonomy about activities.

In one of the very first English 101 courses I taught, most of the students struggled with the concept of specific detail. I decided to try an activity a member of the Western Kentucky University graduate faculty had shared with the teaching assistants there.

I bought a bushel of apples. (I was teaching five sections of English 101 with 20 students per section.)

In each section, I had every student take an apple from the basket and write a description of that apple. When everyone finished, they put their apple on the teacher’s desk.

Then I had each student read his or her description aloud while another student tried to pick out the apple that was being described.

In the first four sections, every student was able to identify the apple by its description. As a reward for writing good descriptions, each student left class that day with an apple.

In the fifth section, I had students take an apple to describe, and then put it on the desk after they’d written their descriptions, just as I had in the four other sections.

The activity ran smoothly, with students readily identifying the apples from the descriptions, until it came Jerome’s turn to read his description.

Jerome was a black kid from Cleveland, first in his family to go to college, the first black at that particular college, an incredibly hard worker with a sweet disposition and a delightful sense of humor. Of all the students I’ve taught over nearly a half century, Jerome was my favorite.

When Jerome read his apple description, probably half the apples had already been identified, but the student attempting to identify Jerome’s apple couldn’t find it.

Jerome had written a beautiful description of the ideal apple, a distillation of the essence of an apple.

It was a fine piece of writing.

But Jerome hadn’t described his particular apple.

We had to wait until all the other apples were identified by their descriptions before we knew which was Jerome’s.

In four of my five sections that day, students performed an activity. They had fun doing it. Maybe they learned something, but I wouldn’t swear to it.

In the fifth section, students didn’t just perform an activity. Those students saw acted out before their eyes the difference between a generalization and specific details. They all learned why specific details matter.

But the student who learned the most was Jerome.

That’s why Jerome left class that day with two apples instead of just one.