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.

Argument texts are fine; argumentative texts are not

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.

A tool to save your time and temper

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.

ShortKeys and other programs are available from Insight Software Solutions whose website is

I was told to avoid using ShortKeys for typing passwords, because they would be too easily hacked. But other than that one no-no, your options are just about limitless.

Since I bought my licenses for my computers ages ago, the company has come out with a portable version that can be run from a flash drive. It which would be great if you wanted to be able to carry your ShortKeys with you from home to school.

I don’t get any compensation for plugging ShortKeys. I wish I did. I’m always plugging the program.

BTW, my computer glitches were easily fixed by removing and reinstalling the messed up programs.

Do you have any questions?

Teachers don’t have to have all the answers.

They should, however, always have questions.

Not test questions, but thought questions.

question mark

Questions to get students to think about something they’ve never thought about before.

Questions to make them think about something they’ve always thought but think about it from a new perspective.

question mark

Questions to enable students to learn they don’t have all the answers yet.

Questions to open students to old problems that need new solutions.

question mark

Questions to make students wonder if there isn’t a better way than the usual way.

Questions to make students ask their own questions and to, perhaps, change the world for the better by the answers they find.

question mark

Do you have any questions?

Your reading list is too narrow

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.

teacher searches library shelf for professional development help

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.