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
social and emotional learning,
dealing with traumatized youth,
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.
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.
I thought a million years of teaching freshman composition had inured me to people using the wrong word, but I was wrong.
Lately I’ve seen the word argumentative used in place of argument all over my Twitter feed, and the mistake is being made by English teachers.
Argument means polite discussion
An argument is a discussion in which differing perspectives are offered on a single topic and discussed within certain rules of logic and civility that are traditionally referred to as argumentation.
Traditionally, English teachers spoke about argument essays, which meant a text in which the writer was expected to know what people who disagreed with her position believed and, whenever possible, to show that the opposition’s logic or was flawed or its evidence inadequate to support the opposition’s position.
Argument is a forensic activity
When I was a teenager, the organization that’s now known as the National Speech and Debate Association was the National Forensic League. Forensics in that context meant the study of the formal art of argumentation. In other contexts, forensics is the use of science and technology to investigate and establish facts in, for example, an accident or legal proceeding.
Arguments are supposed to be forensic activities. Their goal is to establish facts upon which people can agree.
That means arguments are not argumentative.
Argumentativeness is a negative quality
Being argumentative is anything but civil. All the meanings of argumentative are negative. It means, according the American Heritage Dictionary 5th ed., "contentious, disputatious, quarrelsome, scrappy."
The American Heritage Dictionary gives these examples of how argumentative is used: "an argumentative child; a contentious mood; a disputatious scholar; a quarrelsome drinker; a scrappy exchange."
When English teachers use the term argumentative writing, they suggest to their students raised voices, slammed doors, and hurled insults.
Let’s not give that impression.
Twentieth century society is uncivil enough without teachers implying argumentative behavior belongs in academic classrooms.
I recently had a computer glitch that messed up a couple of my most frequently used programs—just long enough for me to realize how much I depend on them.
One program I wouldn’t want to be without is a software package I bought over 10 years ago called ShortKeys. It’s a text replacement program that can double as a time management aid.
I bought ShortKeys specifically to use for providing feedback when I teach writing classes online, but have come to use it for everything from frequently needed URLs to hashtags and Twitter handles for online chats.
Here’s how ShortKeys works: I set up a ShortKey code for something I need to reuse and don’t want to retype and put that text into the ShortKey. When I need to have that content again, I type the code and the ShortKey types the text for me.
Since each ShortKey can hold up to 3000 characters, I can, for example, put directions for an assignment in a ShortKey and use it to send personal emails with that information to two dozen students.
The beauty of ShortKeys is that I don’t need to strip HTML code from text before putting it into the program. (Sometimes I think half my life is spent stripping code so I can paste it into my blogs and websites.) ShortKeys types the text in the same font used in the target space just as it would appear if I typed each key myself.
If you’re like most teachers, much of your reading is done to keep up in your field.
For ELA teachers, that typically means reading books about schools, about best practices in education, about new developments in teaching English and communications, and, of course, reading literature, particularly new fiction and your favorite classics.
Photo by John Michael Thomson at Unsplash
Most of us, at least for our first decade of teaching, attempt to apply the new ideas gleaned from our reading to teaching today’s students yesterday’s curriculum, since keeping curriculum current costs much more than many schools can afford.
Before too long, we begin to realize something isn’t working as well as we had hoped. Despite the fact that most teachers improve with practice, many of our ranks don’t improve enough in their first decade to do the kind of teaching they envisioned they’d do when they decided to become a teacher.
Those folks may look for another job in education where their degree of teaching skills is adequate—have you ever noticed how many ex-teachers on the professional development lecture circuit left the classroom after fewer than 10 years?—or begin searching for a way to do a better job with the skills and constraints they have.
Read around, not just in, your field.
For those who want to do a better job now with the skills and constraints they have, one of the best—and the cheapest—ways for teachers to acquire new ideas for updating their curriculum is by reading around their field.
Reading around your field means reading nonfiction books on topics that aren’t normally part of your discipline, but which:
are related to your discipline, or
have relevance for your discipline, or
can be used to provide relevance to students.
For the ELA teacher, related topics include media history, forensic linguistics, content marketing.
Topics with relevance to ELA include photography and illustration, opinion polling, and digital communications.
Topics that can be used to provide relevance for ELA include business, the arts, sports, and other aspects of contemporary culture.
How reading outside your field helps you
Working within just one career field for as long as a decade is liable to restrict your interests and your knowledge. The value of reading outside your field is that it opens you to different perspectives that you might never encounter in your chosen field.
For many ELA teachers, it’s eye-opening to find that terms and practices which the education community considers very positive are considered negative within, for example, the business community.
Teachers whose classes include ESL students can lay the basis for better understanding of those students by reading about the history, culture or language of their countries of origin.
Teachers who have students preparing for careers as something other than English teachers—that’s most of us, right?—will find it valuable to learn how people in different occupations think about and approach problems and how those people communicate with their publics.
Such reading might, for example, encourage an ELA teacher to deviate from the typical assignments for teaching purpose and audience by allowing students to investigate how people in a career that interests them regularly communicate with their publics. That’s information that our students will need to know, and which they probably won’t resist learning.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention another value of reading outside your field: You will find some great writing in fields outside English and in formats other than fictional narratives.
Finding nonfiction writing whose language can be savored—historian Philip Jenkins’s The Great and Holy War comes to mind—may make you want to devote the rest of your teaching career to growing great expository writers.
If you believe that writing is a talent granted to only a select few, you will tend to focus your attention on the students you think are talented while paying minimal attention to the rest.
That’s a poor choice.
There are far more people who can become good writers through persistent practice of the right skills than there are talented writers who will become great.
If you can’t believe that every student who walks into your classroom can become a competent writer, you shouldn’t become a writing teacher.
Confidence in your students — not in them as they are, but in them as what can become — is an essential qualification for teaching writing.
I’d guess that at least three-quarters of students have no particular interest in writing and are willing to put out only a modest effort on most writing assignments. If you are willing to focus your writing instruction on this large group of students, you have a very good chance of making all students competent writers.
While it may not be as good for your ego to produce 100 competent writers a year for 20 years as to teach Suzanne Collins for one year, it’s probably far better for those 2,000 students and their eventual employers.
This snippet is drawn from chapter 17 “Q is for Qualifications” of The Writing Teacher’s ABCs, my sixth book on teaching writing.
In a design thinking course just wrapping up, I ran across the term repertoire used in a way that was new to me.
I’m used to seeing the term used to refer to the musical pieces a performer is prepared to play or to the whole catalog of music of a particular type. Less often, I’ve seen repertoire applied to the set of skills needed in a particular field.
In “Design Thinking for the Greater Good: Innovation in the Social Sector,” offered on Coursera by the University of Virginia, repertoire was used to refer to an individual’s set of life experiences.
Repertoire includes one’s educational background and work experience, but it’s not a CV. It’s actually a description of the mindset and skill sets a person can bring to a complex problem.
I’ve been thinking about repertoire in this sense for a long time, but I didn’t know that’s what I was thinking about. (I also recently discovered that I’ve been using single-point rubrics for a half century and didn’t know that either. Shades of M. Jourdain.)
The broader the person’s repertoire, the better equipped someone is to work in an unstable world. We certainly live in an unstable world.
Ignore (if you can) political instability.
Think about the changes that are happening in the world economy with the increasing deployment of artificial intelligence and robots taking over many repetitive jobs.
Think about the technology that’s increasingly used in education — technology that’s been invented since this year’s high school graduates started kindergarten.
Narrow, specialized experiences don’t help people — or their institutions — cope with an unstable, uncertain environment. A narrow range of life experiences leaves people vulnerable when the world around them changes.
Even more frightening is that when someone with a narrow range of life experiences teaches, that person transmits their narrow mindset to the students they teach.
It concerns me when I read local teachers’ autobiographies and don’t see any of them mention working anywhere other than education. Do they not have work experience outside education or do they have such experience and not value it?
If they don’t have, or don’t value, work outside schools, how will those people be able to teach students to work in a world where every three-to-four years they need to re-skill for a new occupation?
What about you?
Do you have a repertoire that will enable you to survive in the next 30 uncertain years?
Do you have a repertoire that will allow you to teach students to survive in the next 60 years?
If someone had more than one response to Q1, I’ve included only one, usually the first.
As you read, please bear in mind that respondents are a diverse group that, depending on the chat, may include K-12 teachers, college faculty, school administrators, and a variety of support staff. In some respects, their perspectives vary with their positions.
A1 I work in a lot of classrooms biggest goal is -WRITE everyday w some choice resting w the writer. #TeachWriting
Perhaps it was the way the question was worded that prompted so many teachers to respond by framing their goals in terms of quantity. Researchers certainly have criticized teachers for not having students write enough; however, one might almost conclude from these responses that the teachers believe students learn to write well by doing a lot of writing without the benefit of teaching or coached practice.
I noticed no one mentioned a specific genre of writing. The closest anyone came was a reference to writing across the curriculum, which would suggest expository writing.
A couple of people phrased their goal in terms of how they wanted their students to feel about writing. Affective goals are important, but they respond indifferently to teaching and are nearly impossible to measure. If, like Ben Kuhlman, a teacher wants a student to feel successful at writing, the best way to achieve that goal is to teach the student to write.
A1: My goal never changes
Here’s what I would have given as my response to Q1:
For over 40 years, my goal in teaching writing has been to turn out competent writers. I aim for every student who enters my classroom (a physical one or a digital one) to leave being able to write expository nonfiction competently in the situations in which that student has to write. Depending on the student, that can mean writing in their college classes or at work.
In either case, students expect a quick payout.
To accomplish my goal—all-class competence—I have every student write every day in response to prompts I give them. Most days we do informal writing about course content other than writing or about some aspects of the expository writing process. One day a week is used for drafting that week’s formal document.
My students don’t leave my classes on an emotional high: They’re too exhausted for that.
But a significant number leave writing competently, even when the course is as little as five weeks.
Teaching required courses at either the high school or college level is often a thankless job.
The classes are usually large.
Student interest is usually modest, as in “I hate [subject goes here].”
Often the course content is prescribed to fit the administration’s desire to make the required course serve the rest of the institution.
At the high school level, required courses are often assigned to the less experienced teachers, as if teaching required courses demands less practice than teaching electives.
At the college level, required courses often are taught by adjuncts who lack resources — time, supportive colleagues, professional development, office space — to teach as well as they’d like.
All those negatives were on my mind when I decided to create a new website, PenPrompts.
PenPrompts is now live.
Many readers of this blog knew me when I operated a website called you-can-teach-writing.com, a website for people who teach writing to teens and adults. PenPrompts recycles a small part of that content for a different audience.
PenPrompts is designed for teachers who are looking for help teaching high school or college required courses. On the PenPrompts site, I call these folks liberal arts teachers, which isn’t entirely accurate but serves to distinguish them from teachers of career-specific courses.
Liberal arts teachers’ general education courses are supposed to teach “every student” about something, such as art, rather than to teach a few students to be something, such as an artist.
Regardless of what subjects these liberal arts teachers teach, their central task is to help students develop the knowledge and skills for thinking critically and for continuing to learn after their exit from formal education. They use their subject as a tool for accomplishing that task.
If they help a few students discover they are interested in the course subject as a career or avocation, that’s a like getting a free upgrade to the Ritz-Carlton from Motel 6.
PenPrompts’ mission is to help those teachers do their job.
The solution I propose to help these teachers fill their supporting role well is instructor-crafted expository writing prompts that:
Ask students to explain something in writing, and
Include all the information students need to start and to finish writing, having meet all the requirements.
In preparing PenPrompts, I envision its users as classroom veterans — most visitors to my old site had 15 or more years’ teaching experience — who are unhappy with the results they are getting but remain convinced that students need to have a basic understanding of their discipline.
I’ve tried to provide teachers with the least information they need to know to craft and deploy writing prompts.
I haven’t figured out how to get submissions to the newsletter signup to populate the subscriber list automatically, but the contact form works, so if you visit the site you can say hello.