Many months ago, I received a notice about upcoming webinars for teachers. One of the webinars caught my eye and raised my blood pressure. It was titled “4 Sure-Fire Ways to Improve the K-12 Customer Experience.”
I don’t know whether the college students in my freshman English courses have had good customer experiences in high school or not, nor do I particularly care. It’s obvious most of my students didn’t learn a lick in K-12 about how to write on demand the kind of nonfiction prose everyone has to be able to write. I do care about that.
I’m a teacher, not a customer service representative.
It’s my job to take the students who didn’t learn how to write in grades K-12 and turn them into writers.
If students don’t like English 101, I don’t let them do basket weaving instead.
If students find writing evidence-based, logically presented documents is hard, I tell them, “Writing is hard for me, too. Just do it.”
If students don’t do their assignments, I don’t refund their tuition.
If your students show up in my freshman English class, they will learn what their K-12 customer service representatives failed to teach them or they will fail freshman English.
When I took my MS at Syracuse University, I was awarded an assistantship at the Newhouse School of Public Communications. My first term, I was assigned to work for a faculty member in the Advertising Department.
A few weeks into the fall term, the Dean of the Newhouse School told me that the professor had protested being given an assistant with no advertising experience. The Dean said he told her there are usually a couple assistants who need to be reassigned and if she’d wait a couple weeks, he could arrange a swap. The professor had come back that week and told him I was the best assistant she’d ever had.
She said she had given me a stack of papers to grade and was astonished that I knew exactly what to look for and had graded the papers overnight. I had accomplished the task that so astonished the professor by grading students’ papers according to how well they did what the directions told them to do.
At the time, I couldn’t believe that no other graduate assistants had reached that startling conclusion. Now, that that I’m older and more disillusioned, I realize that being able to discover the goal of an assignment from the directions for an assignment is not a common skill.
That’s why I was pleasantly surprised this week by an email I received from a graduate of a area college expressing interest in doing illustrations for books I’m writing about how to visit in nursing homes. (If you’re interested in getting updates on what I’m doing, use this link: https://dropping-by-books.ck.page/signup)
The artist said was interested in the project because she had done some visiting in a nursing home and her grandmother was reaching a point at which it is likely that she will have to be in a nursing home. Those two facts from her personal experience tell me she understands the goal of my books.
As writing teachers, you and I need to regularly spend a few minutes forcing students to think about what the goals of specific writing prompts are. If students see writing prompts as just busy work, even if they respond well to the prompts, we’ve not done a good job of teaching writing.
More than two years ago, I clipped a page written by a school superintendent in his district’s April 2019 newsletter. My intent was to use it later as an informal writing prompt. I think August 2021 is later, don’t you?
Here’s how he began his message:
With the approaching spring season at B-G, comes the start of Phase 2 of the multi-year Capital Project. The District has successfully wrapped up Phase I and will begin this next phase hopefully in April.
The Blue and White: Bainbridge-Guilford Central School District School News & Notes, April 2019
Those two sentences suggest two questions that you could pose to students as triggers for informal writing. After reading the sentences aloud as students follow along, ask them these two questions to which they must respond in writing. Allow time for them to write their response to one question before you ask the second question.
Question 1. After reading the first sentence carefully, identify the simple subject and the simple predicate of the sentence. If you have difficulty finding them, it may be helpful for you to rewrite the entire sentence in normal subject-verb-object order and then identify the simple subject and simple predicate. You have 90 seconds to write.
Question 2. In the second sentence, identify what that the adjective hopefully modifies. Decide if the word hopefully is correctly placed in that sentence. In no more than two sentences, explain why you think the word hopefully is or is not used correctly there. You have one minute to write.
The first question may give students difficulty. I know I read the writer’s first sentence a couple times before I figured out what the writer was talking about. The simple subject and simple predicate are “start comes.”
As if that’s not confusing enough, the reference to “the approaching spring season” is strange: spring is nearly over in April. Furthermore, the coming of spring does not bring about the second phase of the capital project. The superintendent was trying to say “Phase II of the multi-year capital project is about to start.”
Question 2 attempts to get students to look at the word hopefully. The construction of the superintendent’s sentence has the district beginning Phase 2 of the capital project hopefully. People running projects almost always do begin hopefully and often lose hope as the project goes on. To make his intent clear, the superintendent could have said , “The District has successfully wrapped up Phase I and hopes to begin Phase 2 in April.” For even more clarity, he could have said this month instead of in April, which might have been understood to mean April of the next calendar year.
Tell your students that when they realize they’ve used the word hopefully, it’s smart to see if there isn’t a simpler way to write that sentence. I hope that helps.
This morning while reading Ben Sasse’s book The Vanishing American Adult, about which I’ll no doubt say more after I finish it, I stopped short when I read, “Seeing distinctions is a learned habit.”
All of us writing teachers know our students must learn to distinguish between, for example:
a complete sentence and a fragment of a sentence,
a word that must be capitalized and one that need not be capitalized,
words that must be put in quotation marks and words that need not be in quotation marks.
Until this morning, however, I’d never applied the term building habits to the teaching of writing, but that’s what teaching writing amounts to. I feel quite like Moliere’s Monsieur Jourdain who discovered he’d been speaking prose for 40 years. There is something freeing about thinking of teaching writing as a matter of guiding students to develop habits.
We not only need to teach right from wrong in matters of writing mechanics, but make sure students habitually choose the right punctuation, spelling, and capitalization by giving them daily or near-daily opportunities to make those choices.
We need not only to teach procedures that produce coherent documents but give students enough practice that producing coherent documents is a habit. That will require us to have students write full documents at least weekly.
We need not only to teach students to recognize a message that’s worth sharing but also to give them enough practice choosing writing topics that they habitually write about topics that matter. Some students may be mature enough to do that in sixth grade; others may not be mature enough to do it as college sophomores.
The start of a new school year is just a flip of a calendar page away for many teachers whose duties include or consist of teaching writing. For many years, I was one such teacher.
One thing I learned over those years was to make sure students understood on the first day of class what they were expected to do in the class. Unfortunately, it took decades of trying various approaches before I found a find a way to accomplish that objective on opening day.
The method I use I discovered when teaching asynchronous online classes for University of Phoenix. The University’s teachers were encouraged to have student use a chat room to get acquainted. When I promoted use of the chat room, students spent almost a quarter of the class chatting about their out-of-school interests before I could get them focused on learning to write.
So, I decided to start off the class by introducing myself in the online classroom as a writer. I told students they could get acquainted in the chat room, but I required students to introduce themselves as writers in the classroom space. That adjustment reclaimed nearly two weeks of class and enabled me to get most students writing at the end of eight weeks at a level that students in face-to-face classes typically took a 15-week semester to achieve.
To learn more about how I used the “I’m a writer” assignment to get students off to a good start, see this post from seven years ago.
For most of the last 20 years, I’ve written primarily about teaching writing to teens and adults for an audience of teachers of teens and adults. For about the last 18 months, however, I’ve been writing about nursing home visiting for an audience of people who wanted or needed visit in a nursing home.
Although I had some experience in visiting in nursing homes to draw on, the project has become a challenge. The challenge hasn’t been coming up with things to write about. I had enough experiences in doing nursing home visiting to be able to identify the information I needed.
The problem is identifying how to reach my audience.
I know from research and observation that most friendly visitors are women, typically age 30 to 60. Other than that broad age range, there isn’t much that they have in common. They aren’t defined by any of the usual categories of race, religion, political affiliation, social class, education, hobbies, etc. (A snide smirk: friendly visitor is what nursing homes typically call someone who doesn’t come to visit family members, which always makes me wonder if people who come to visit family are unfriendly visitors. But I digress.)
Before I can sell books, I must (1) find what people who are likely to be interested in becoming a nursing home visitor have in common and (2) determine who do the majority of them rely on to guide their choice of free-time activities.
What does this have to do with teaching writing?
If you’ve gotten this far, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with teaching writing. If you’re teaching high schoolers who just want to scratch something down and get out to soccer practice, it has nothing to do with teaching writing.
On the other hand, if you teach college students heading into careers, audience identification is a big deal. Students who have a skill or product to sell—even if the product is themselves—must be able to find the audience that wants what they have to sell.
The student’s first task is to identify that audience. If a student is an artist who wants to sell his art work, he has to find people who buy original art. If the student wants to work as an accountant, he has to find people who hire accountants.
The second task of anyone with a skill or product to sell is to figure out where their audience congregates and to go there. Sellers can’t can show potential buyers why they need their products unless they are in the place where their audience hangs out. That place need not be a physical place; it can be a virtual space online. Your students may need to figure out what online platform employers in their field use and learn to use that platform well.
Coming back to my problem, my buyers will probably be found on Facebook. What I need to know is which people on Facebook women between the ages of 30 and 60 will rely on to guide their choice of what to do in their free time. I’m looking for people with enough Facebook followers that their recommendation can sell 101 to 500 books about how to visit in a nursing home.
The untold story of the Mount St. Helens eruption that Steve Olson tells is not about volcanology. Olson’s book is about the choices people made before, during, and after the May 1980 eruption, and, by extension, about the choices they are making today that will influence what happens—who dies—the next time Mount St. Helens erupts.
Olson grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and although he’d gone East before the mountain blew up, he always wondered if he might have been one of the 57 people killed the morning St. Helens erupted. In Eruption, he looks at the stories of those who died and why they died.
Olson sketches the development of the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest which gave the region its prosperity. Weyerhaeuser, America’s biggest lumber company, was determined to keep logging old-growth timber in the Mount St. Helens area despite the rumblings of the volcano or conservationists trying to get protected status for the old-growth timber.
When the volcano began to rumble, outsiders came in to watch: gawkers, volcanologists, pilots, radio operators, and news people. Some of them were among the 57 killed (including former President Harry S Truman) when the mountain erupted. The descriptions of how people died are necessarily horrific; most people fortunately didn’t live long enough to suffer.
Eruptionexplores topics in science and history classes and in current events.Volcanoes, conservation, disaster preparedness, and the health of America’s lumber industry are all timely topics. Mount Nyiragongo in Congo erupted in June and is still disrupting life there.The US is due to hear from Mount St. Helens again soon: Volcanic eruptions in the Cascade Range occur on average every 25 years, according to Olson..
Olson divides his book into seven parts (plus a prologue and epilogue). Each part is subdivided into topics which function as chapters, although some of them are under three pages long. The longest subdivisions are between 11 and 17 pages; most are much shorter.
Killing the Poormaster is history that reads like a novel, keeping readers engaged and rooting for the underdog hero to triumph. Holly Metz opens the book with a three-paragraph description of the death February 25, 1938 of Harry Barck, Hoboken, New Jersey’s poormaster. The poormaster job gave him power to determine who got financial help duing the Great Depression and how much they got.
That morning in Barck’s office Joe Scutellaro asked for money to feed his family. When Barck refused, there was a scuffle. Scutellaro said Barck fell forward onto a spike used for holding papers, which was on the desk. Police said Scutellaro picked up the spike and stabbed Barck with it.
Scutellaro’s trial for Barck’s murder threw a spotlight on Hoboken’s corrupt government and the nation’s inadequate response to the needs of the jobless. Scutellaro was defended by a celebrity attorney, who turned the trial into an indictment of the American system of public welfare.
Killing the Poormaster is a literary nonfiction text with relevance to courses in the social sciences: history, social psychology, and economics. It also has connections and/or analogies to current political events.
Metz divides her book into 14 chapters plus a brief prologue and chapter-length epilogue about what happened to the main characters after the trial. Three of the 14 chapters are between 20 and 30 pages, but they are broken into sections by dingbats, so they wouldn’t be hard for students to read in two or three sittings.
At a cost of about $180,000, every year the citizens of Halifax, Canada, send Boston, Mass., a 50-foot Christmas tree, John U. Bacon says in his opening chapter of The Great Halifax Explosion. The tree is Halifax’s way of thanking Bostonians for coming to the Canadians’ aid when a ship loaded with six million pounds of explosives—one-fifth of the force of the A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima—blew up in Halifax Harbor on Dec. 6, 1917.
In subsequent chapters, Bacon relates the often-frosty relations between the US and Canada before World War I. He tells about Halifax Harbor’s response when the Titanic sank April 15, 1912, and describes the effects the world war being fought in Europe was already having on the Halifax population.
Using local people as his lens, Bacon shows the series of misjudgments that led to the explosion and other misjudgments that resulted in needless tragedies afterward. He also relates tales of heroism and many more tales of dumb luck.
In telling his story, Bacon dips into topics such as diverse as forensic science, munitions, right-of-way rules for seaways, contingency planning, and experiential learning. Every student ought to find something interesting in Bacon’s text. What’s more, teachers should have no trouble coming up with a set of writing prompts based on the text.
Bacon “writes tight.” His chapters average eight pages. There are plenty of direct quotations. Readers can’t just skim the text, but it’s rare to find three consecutive paragraphs that require slowing down to understand some technical information.
A note about book sources
I bought all these books from HamiltonBook.com. You won’t get the latest bestsellers there, but you get deep discounts on books that have been in print a few years. All items are new, and all the books are hardbound unless marked otherwise. Hamilton Book has a flat shipping and handling fee of $4 for an order of up to 18 books.
I’m currently writing a set of books about how to visit in nursing homes. Each book covers very similar topics, but each is written for a different group of readers.
As I’ve started getting feedback from readers in my target groups, I’ve been particularly struck by the fact that, based on our prior experiences, each of us has a somewhat different picture of what we regard as normal nursing home procedures. Although I was not surprised to see differing perspectives, I was surprised to realize now readily I forget that every person’s unique experiences incline that individual to expect that certain behaviors are the norm in certain situations.
As I mulled that over, I decided that teen-age and adult students could profit from writing about how experience shapes not only present expectations but also inclines future behavior in certain directions.
Working thesis and writing skeleton™
I would give students this working thesis to explore: Prior experience shapes present behavior.
Novice writers could use a writing skeleton™ like this to plan an essay on that topic:
I know that prior experience shapes present behavior because Person One’s prior experience with __A__ shapes Person One’s present behavior.
I know that prior experience shapes present behavior because Person Two’s prior experience with __B__ shapes Person Two’s present behavior.
I know that prior experience shapes present behavior because Person Three’s prior experience with __C__ shapes Person Three’s present behavior.
That skeleton probably won’t produce great writing, but it will enable fledgling writers to organize their thoughts and force them to look beyond their personal experiences.
More advanced students could modify the writing skeleton™ to discuss a particular individual, such as an historical figure, or to discuss some current events.
Students could also use the writing skeleton™ to develop a personal essay.
I pluck sentences I find in written materials that individuals and businesses actually distributed and put those sentences into informal writing tasks that give students practice in finding and correcting writing mechanics errors. Informal writing tasks are more realistic than publisher-created exercises because, like real-world writing situations, they don’t tell students what types of errors to look for.
Here’s a script for a two-minute informal writing task for high school or adult students.
I’m going to show you a sentence from a story by Vanessa Romo which appeared Nov. 19, 2020 in the NPR—National Public Radio’s—news feed. The sentence appeared under the headline “Tyson Managers Suspended After Allegedly Betting If Workers Would Contract Covid.” Here is the sentence:
[Display and read aloud] “The plaintiffs say managers also continued transferring employees between plants after some had tested positive for the coronavirus without requiring them to quarantine.”
In no more than two sentences, identify any errors you find in the sentence. You have one minute to write.
Now that you’ve identified the error, rewrite the sentence to eliminate the error. You’ll have 30 seconds to write.
You’ll notice I say to “display and read aloud” rather than merely give students the item. I do that to help weak readers and students for whom English is not their primary language.
Students should find that “without requiring them to quarantine” is misplaced. Being quarantined is not required before people can test positive for a coronavirus. Quarantining is required for:
People who have already tested positive for the coronavirus, and
People who have been exposed to other people who tested positive for the coronavirus.
The corrected sentence should read like this: The plaintiffs say managers also continued transferring employees between plants without requiring them to quarantine after some had tested positive for the coronavirus.
The corrected sentence indicates that anyone exposed to corona-infected people should be quarantined.
I like having written; that is, I like being finished with a piece of writing, having the desk cleared, the early drafts in the shred basket, the pencil stubs in the trash.
But writing—putting one word after another in an order that’s that’s more or less sensible—is not my idea of fun.
I’ve been writing a book nearly all day every day for several weeks.
I’m heartily sick of the whole thing.
Worse, I’m now at a point where I know I’ll have to start going through the manuscript with an outsider’s perspective, seeing needs to be clarified, what is beyond repair and needs to the scuttled, what examples need to be swapped out for better ones, what lovely phrases don’t fit in their context, perhaps—as too often happens—seeing that the whole thing needs to be reorganized.
As writers go, I’m not very different from my students: They don’t like writing either.
It’s not fun for them.
They get sick of writing long before they finish.
They do their best writing and see that it’s not as good as they’d hoped it would be.
And bless their little pea-pickin’ hearts, they stick with it anyway. They inspire me to try to learn to write better, too.
Join me in giving a round of applause to our students who don’t give up on learning to write, no matter how tedious or how difficult it is for them.