My third semester as a graduate teaching assistant, one of the two sections of first year college writing I was assigned to teach was scheduled for 90 minutes starting at 4:15 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.
Nothing had prepared me for the problem I discovered the first session of that class.
The time slot attracted student athletes who needed Fridays for games and part-time local students who could adjust their work schedules to take the class. I anticipated this particular class might struggle more than most. The elimination of a third of the typical sessions would mean students would do 26 documents instead of the 39 I required from students who met three times a week. In addition, the twice-weekly students had more unavoidable demands on their time than were typical for first year students.
At the first class meeting, students, as always, filled the back seats first, with one exception: one male student took a seat at the front of the room beside the teacher’s desk. There was no one else within two seats of him. I thought he might have a vision or hearing problem.
I passed out the syllabus, gave my usual introduction about how in my writing courses everyone wrote every class period, and then asked everyone to take out a piece of paper and write for two minutes about what they hoped to get out of the class. When students bent to the task, the guy in the seat at the front broke out in a sweat and began to shake. He could barely hold on to his pen. He wasn’t acting. It was clear from his body language that he was terrified by the blank piece of paper.
I made an on-the-spot decision.
When the two minutes were up, I said, “Congratulations. You’ve just done your first timed writing. From now on, you’ll be doing timed writing every class period so that you get used to forcing yourselves to write for short periods of time without stopping.”
Then I told students that probably none of them would go on to make their living as a writer, but that all of them would have to write. They wouldn’t have to write novels or poetry, but short, factual messages at work: a telephone message, a report about the failure of pump #2, or a request for vacation. I said I intended to prepare them for that kind of writing by requiring them to do at least one short piece of writing every class in anywhere from 30 seconds to five minutes by the clock.
I said that just as what they had to write at work was about something at work, what I’d required them to do in class every class period would be related to the work they had to accomplish in the class to get a passing grade. I said I expected them to write short, factual, useful messages in a couple minutes at least once, possibly several times, during class. “I don’t expect you to produce art. I expect you to produce accurate, concise, clear messages fast. If you can do that, you will not only do well in this class, but you’ll be able to write well in your work and in other classes you take.”
Then I picked up the trash can and said, “I’m going to pass around the trash can. Unless you want me to read what you wrote or unless to keep it as a memento of this happy occasion, throw your paper in the trash. Next class, we’ll start learning how to write fast, accurately, concisely, and clearly.”
I don’t remember anything else about the guy who was initially terrified of a blank piece of paper. By the end of the semester, he exhibited no more anxiety than anyone else, and he must have done OK because no one in the class earned less than a C.
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.
Poorer writers spend more time worrying about writing mechanics as they compose than good writers do. In fact, the better the writer, the more likely she or he is to leave those corrections until after their draft of that day’s work is completed.
Students writers’ thoughts typically wander far afield between sentences. Writing seems to them to take forever because most of their “writing time” is spent thinking about things other than the topic about which they’re supposedly writing. To get students to think like writers, you need to get them to think consecutive thoughts on a single subject quickly and put those thoughts on paper quickly without crossing out and rewriting.
I use informal writing prompts on course-related topics to teach students how to speed draft, that is, how to put their ideas (typically two or three sentences) on paper quickly. Then after students have written their short responses, I typically have them check their work for just one particular type of error that I choose from the grammar and punctuation errors their class members make most often.
By forcing students to write responses to informal prompts quickly and following the informal writing with a requirement to check that work for some error I specify, I accustom students to editing their work before they close their writing session.
I had a doctor’s appointment Tuesday. From the entry, I could see a woman, probably in her early twenties, wearing a Covid-protective mask and face shield, seated at a table in the hallway. The woman recorded my name, the purpose of my visit, took my temperature, and sent me on to the doctor’s receptionist. I couldn’t help thinking the woman’s job could be done by a reasonably intelligent fifth grader. She must be bored nearly to tears.
After my appointment, I noticed that the clerk who had signed me in had a tablet on her desk propped up at reading angle. As I zipped up my coat, I asked her what she liked to read, and she said fantasy fiction was what she most enjoyed. She’d just finished a fantasy novel and didn’t have anything else on her device to read.
I said I’m not a big fan of fantasy fiction, and that I’m currently rereading a 1980s novel that had fascinated me when I read it as part of my GreatPenformances survey of the twentieth century’s bestselling fiction: Helen Hooven Santmyer’s “…And Ladies of the Club.” It’s a novel about a dozen women in a small southern Ohio town between the Civil War and FDR’s election in 1932, their families, and about how America and Americans changed over those decades.
“…And Ladies of the Club” is over 1,000 pages of small print. It’s not difficult reading, I told the clerk, but it does require you to pay close attention. I’ve found I need to draw family tree diagrams to keep the characters straight. The book fascinates me not only because it’s about a rural community that wouldn’t have been very different from our village in the same period, but also because so much of the national politics of the period sound very much like the political news we get on TV every day.
When I finished my book pitch, the clerk surprised me by asking, “What’s that title again?” She wrote down the title and the author’s name and said she thought she’d like to read that book.
I’d gotten lucky.
I hadn’t recommended a book the clerk would enjoy: I’d unwittingly offered her a challenge, a book that would require all the mental skills she didn’t need to use in her clerical job. She could accept the challenge or not as she chose.
For me, the most difficult part of teaching teens and adults is identifying challenges for each student that they accept as having personal relevance to them. I wish I knew a sure-fire, never-known-to-fail way to produce personally challenging writing activities for each of my students, but I don’t. For me, it’s always a lucky shot, hit-or-miss, never “results guaranteed.”
What about you? Have you mastered the challenge of providing appropriate challenges to teens and adult students? If so, would you share your insights?
If you’ve been required to become an online writing teacher during the Covid pandemic, the difficulty of teaching students to write in an online class may have driven you to the point of despair.
I know that feeling.
The first time I taught a writing class, I told students everything I knew about how to write in the first class period. For the rest of the semester, I didn’t teach at all. I gave students nonfiction writing topics to write on in class. While they wrote I walked around and talked with individual students about what they were doing. Despite my untraditional procedure, students learned to write and I learned that what students need more than information about writing is practice writing.
To teach writing online, you will also need to find ways to have students practice writing under your supervision. Doing that isn’t easy using Zoom or similar technologies designed for large group meetings, which are essentially lecture halls. Here are three tips for teaching writing online.
Don’t use traditional textbooks
To learn how to write, students need to have only the most basic information that they can use and reuse repeatedly. That means they need easy-to-remember strategies for nonfiction writing. Nonfiction is the writing everyone is required to do, and most required nonfiction writing is short: a telephone message, a request for vacation, a report on why pump #2 failed. Textbooks have far too much information.
Teach writing strategies
Instead of a textbook, I give students eight writing strategies building upon a pattern of thesis and support. They can use the strategies as a basis for virtually every bit of nonfiction writing they’ll be called upon to do in school or in most work situations.
One of my writing strategies is an alternative to an outline that I call a writing skeleton™. A writing skeleton™, like a human skeleton, forms a framework that holds the body together but isn’t obvious on first glance.
Every assignment I give novice writers includes a writing skeleton™. The skeleton typically consists of three sentences in which a working thesis is followed by a place for the student insert a reason for believing the thesis is true. Writing skeletons are clunky and awkward, but they’re convenient for students to use: they keep the students’ supporting statements linked to their thesis statements. Since no one but you and a student need to see that student’s writing skeletons, they don’t need to be pretty.
Stick to essentials
Variety may be the spice of life, but variety keeps students from learning to write. You must stick to the same eight writing strategies. You must keep repeating yourself until you’re ready to scream before you see the first glimmer that someone is catching on. If you can’t stand being bored, perhaps you ought to consider a career other than teaching English.
The past month, the topic teachers most often searched for at PushWriting.com has been outlining. I suspect the reason teachers are seeking help with outlining is that they secretly concur with their students’ far more public opinion that outlining is a weird English class thing totally unrelated to their real lives. Actually, stripped of the furbelows that decorate it like a Victorian ball gown, an outline is about as exotic as a grocery list scribbled in pencil on the back of an envelope.
Outlines are misunderstood
Every post-secondary student I’ve ever had has believed outlining is a post-composition activity. That preposterous idea may not actually be taught in American schools, but it certainly isn’t refuted there. My sister, who is enrolled in a master’s program for physician assistants, is taking a course that requires students to pick a research topic, prepare a PowerPoint presentation outlining the research they plan to do, and then write their research papers. She said her classmates each picked a topic, wrote their research papers, and then wrote detailed summaries of their work arranged in “outline format.”
Students’ misunderstanding of what an outline is may derive from the common use of outline to refer to the contours of an object. For example, when we read the phrase “the outline of a barn in the distance,” we assume that the barn already exists. Perhaps that’s why students who haven’t had good ELA teachers tend to think of an outline as a sketch of the contours of a completed piece of writing .
Writers’ outlines should be tentative steps toward accomplishing some communications goal, just as a grocery list is a shopper’s tentative step toward preparing meals. Unfortunately, students tend to think the outline is a list of what the shopper actually brought home after visiting three stores and deciding to order take-out Saturday evening instead of cooking.
An outline is just a plan.
You need to teach your students how to use an outline as a communication planner in the same way you use a grocery list as a shopping planner. When you notice you’re running low on coffee, you write coffee on your grocery list. Writing that may remind you of two or three other items you need to buy or it might remind you of something you need to do before going to the grocery, like get gas or deposit check. Even if you don’t immediately think of anything to do other than buy coffee, you’ve primed your brain to look for other things you need to get on your shopping trip.
For an outline to be worth doing, it needs to be prepared as soon as possible after a writer is assigned a writing task. Your students may not think immediately of all the points they are likely to need or want to make in their communication, but like your shopping list, the plan should remain open to additions and substitutions right up to the time the communication is delivered.
An outline by any other name gets more use.
If you want your students to plan their written work—which is a highly desirable goal—don’t use the words outline and outlining. Instead, use the word plan. The plans students make are usually geared toward something they want to do or achieve. Thus, by saying plan instead of outline, you make the skill you’re about to teach into a familiar activity that students’ typically associate plans with positive outcomes.
In keeping with that informal, you’re-already-familiar-with-this approach, avoid talking about writing a plan. Instead use terms that make outlining seem a very routine, informal, no-sweat activity that helps students accomplish something they want to do. Students associate verbs like make, do, scribble, jot, record, construct, build, and craft with activities that most of them find much more fun than writing. If you use one of those non-ELA terms instead of write, you make preparing a plan sound like something students might possibly find useful outside school. That is precisely the impression you want to give.
Teach and monitor students’ planning.
Planning is a skill that students will need throughout their lives and in every aspect of their lives. The ability to put a plan for communicating ideas and information on paper is particularly important in their “public” or outside-home roles. You don’t need to preach, “Someday you’ll need this.” What you do need to do is:
Teach students how to prepare a simple, written plan for communicating information (which textbooks often call a “three-point outline” and which I call a “writing skeleton™“).
And make sure students practice preparing a communication plan every time you give them a writing assignment.
Teaching how to make a writing skeleton™ is a quick and easy task. Making sure students practice planning isn’t hard, but it requires you to closely monitor every step of students work. That is tedious, time-consuming, boring, and absolutely necessary if students are going to learn to write well on demand, which is the writing that counts outside school.
A written communication plan has two parts.
In its most basic form, a communication plan has two main parts: a single-sentence assertion of what the planner says is true—which is the thesis the communicator hopes to prove—and a series of between three and five reasons for believing that assertion is true.
A thesis statement (A single sentence that makes an assertion about a topic.)
Thesis + because + reason one.
Thesis + because + reason two.
Thesis + because + reason three.
You can teach the writing skeleton™ format to students as young as middle school by using an example of something students of their age might want to convince someone about. Middle schoolers might want to convince their parents to let them have a dog; high school students might want to convince their school administration to let them hold a fund-raiser at the school for non-school organization.
Although I don’t normally recommend having students write about topics that are not course-specific, having students plan how to convince someone to do something for them can be a useful introduction to using a writing skeleton™. When students feel a personal stake in the success of the communication, it is relatively easy to make them realize that to be convincing, they must look at their proposal from the perspective of the person(s) they need to convince.
Craft topics that encourage planning.
For most students, the tricky part of writing is deciding on something to write about. By write about, I don’t mean just a topic, like peanuts or presidential debates. What students write about must be an idea that:
Is expressed in a full sentence.
Elicits differing viewpoints.
Has been discussed by knowledgeable people willing to share their insights publicly.
Is worth spending time discussing.
The best way to make sure students have good writing topics is to craft them yourself. That way you can be sure topics students write about are relevant to other required topics in your curriculum. Once you’ve taught the general plan, you should have no trouble thinking up a legitimate, class-related topic on which to have students develop a communication plan. However, if you’re still baffled by how to craft course-related writing topics, you may want to take a look at my books of ELA writing prompts, each prompt wrapped in a writing lesson:
Ready, Set, Write: 20 writing prompts on ELA topics for teens and adults who are not yet competent writers
Bullying Begins as Words: How verbal and nonverbal communication can promote or reduce hostility is explored in three sets of five prompts specifically for either not-yet-competent, competent, or proficient writers.
Ideally, the writing topics you assign should be interesting to a majority of students, but not to the same majority each assignment. If you have assigned three topics that each interested the same 75% of your students, you need to deliberately seek out topics that will interest the other 25% for at least a quarter of your remaining class writing assignments.
To do competently the writing tasks ordinary people get stuck with, a person doesn’t need to be a really good writer, but the individual needs to become a really good planner.
Planning separates the wannabe writers from real writers. The wannabe writer is wrapped up in himself. Real writers are focused on the one really important point they must make in the piece they are to write.
Real writers push themselves to identify their central point quickly. They realize that getting an early start is an insurance policy against unpredictable events close to deadline.
Real writers focus all their attention on the main point they’ve decided their work must convey. That point dictates what supporting evidence they’ll need.
Real writers understand that the quality of their sources will largely determine the quality of their information. So, they systematically look for people who have genuine expertise: a combination of personal experience plus study of the work of other individuals whose experience is even broader or at an even deeper level.
Having a systematic way to identify people with expertise gives real writers a fast start, which, in turn, gives them more time to dig into the evidence, to see where it leads, and to follow up if it leads to new evidence or new sources of evidence.
Planning, fortunately, is a skill whose foundations can be taught fairly quickly. Ripple strategy is a simple, easy to learn process for developing an initial list of sources to consult. In a very few minutes, writers can have an initial list of sources to contact.
Moreover, ripple strategy alerts writers’ brains to watch for additional evidence sources even when the writers are seemingly immersed in other activities.
Having a familiar planning strategy gives a writer a significant edge over someone who treats each new writing project as totally new and totally unfamiliar. Time saved by reusing a strategy can be devoted to researching and writing.