Short writing calms fears

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.

©2022 LINDA GORTON ARAGONI

Informal writing prompt: no euthanasia on Facebook

A story on National Public Radio this morning suggested a 1-minute informal writing prompt about the correct placement of modifiers.

THE NPR report was about a 500-pound black bear called Hank the Tank who had broken into more than two dozen homes around South Lake Tahoe, CA, and was responsible for 152 incidents of  what the California Department of Fish and Wildlife call “conflict behavior.” Conflict behavior is what the CDFW says happens when a “severely food-habituated bear” like Hank breaks into people’s homes.

The NPR story reported that “the Bear Legacy, a local nonprofit that aims to protect bears, expressed its relief of Hank not being euthanized on Facebook.”

Informal writing prompt

Here’s how to turn that sentence from the NPR news story into an informal writing prompt. First, display and read the sentence:

The Bear Legacy, a local nonprofit that aims to protect bears, expressed its relief of Hank not being euthanized on Facebook.

DNA evidence shows Hand the Tank didn’t work alone. By Jonathan Franklin, February 24, 2022, NRP News

Next ask students to identify any parts of the sentence that doesn’t sound right to them. Tell them to write their response in no more than two sentences. Depending on your students’ ages, give them between 30 and 60 seconds to respond.

Depending on their literacy skills, students may notice any, all, or none of these problems:

  • The prepositional phrase on Facebook is misplaced. Facebook was where the bear protection group expressed their relief.
  • It is unlikely that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife would have posted to Facebook a video of an animal being euthanized or even a photo of a euthanized bear.
  • Relief of Hank not being euthanized should be relief that Hank wasn’t euthanized.  

Wrap up the informal writing by giving students 30 seconds to write one thing they learned from examining the sentence.

©2022 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Spot the misspelling

Two informal writing prompts using found messages

Today I have two informal writing prompts to show you that use messages posted in public places. The errors are easy for students to spot, which is not only good for their morale, but also shows them the importance of carefully rereading their messages for errors.

Begin by displaying one of the photos and reading aloud the message captured in it. (It doesn’t matter which you use first.) Then tell students to write one sentence in which they identify one error they noticed in the message and tell how to correct that error. Give students a half minute to do that.

sign has the word touch misspelled
What’s wrong with the note on this plant pot?

Follow the same procedure with the second photo, displaying it and reading what’s written. Again have students identify and correct the error in a single sentence. A half minute should be time enough for students to do that.

grocery store bags make dumpster mess
Is this an effective message?

If you keep your eyes open and a cell phone with a camera handy, you can grab items like these regularly. They take very little class time, but they make students aware of the importance of re-reading their work to eliminate silly mistakes.

(Another day could make the “shute” message into an assignment aimed at getting students to write a message that accomplishes a single objective.)

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Historical fact, grammatical error:

An informal writing prompt

This newsletter item can be a writing prompt.

One important and often-broken rule of grammar is that a pronoun should refer to the last preceding noun. By following that rule, writers help readers grasp the meaning of a sentence without rereading it. Following the rule also keeps readers from snickering over an absurd idea created when a writer ignores the rule.

Today’s writing prompt, which uses an historical fact prominently printed on the front of a rural chamber of commerce’s newsletter, would help your students learn why that rule is a rule.

Begin the mini-lesson with a statement of the rule. To make sure students pay attention, write the rule on the board or display just the rule using whatever technology you have for projecting information. To make sure students understand the rule, restate it at least once using some alternative to last preceding noun. You could say, “In other words, a pronoun should refer to the person, place or thing named at the left of the pronoun.” Or you could say. “A pronoun is a substitute for an already-identified person, place, or thing.”

Then say something like this:

“I’m going to show you what appears to be a three-sentence historical fact that was published in a small town chamber of commerce’s newsletter. Then I’m going asks you for some observations about the item.”

Ideally, you should show students the item in context, so that even if the picture is fuzzy, students get the idea that a photograph accompanying the written item shows a building with a windmill on its roof. Here’s the historical fact:

Mt. Pleasant Drive, showing part of the water system, circa 1890. This was the Roberts Waterworks. The huge windmills pumped water from two deep wells into a reservoir, which was then pumped into the village.

Watch students’ faces. You’ll be able to tell which ones see the grammatical (and engineering) problem of pumping a reservoir into the village.

Now say something like this: “Write one sentence in which you identify all the pronouns in that historical fact. You have 30 seconds to write.” Time students as they write. Then go on to a second, third, fourth, and final task.

“Next, I’d like you to write one sentence in which you tell me what the nearest preceding noun is for each of the pronouns you identified in your previous sentence. You have 30 seconds to write.”

“Now pretend you’re the writer of the item about the waterworks. Rewrite the sentence or sentences in which you found a pronoun that didn’t refer to the noun at its left, fixing the sentence or sentences so they won’t make anyone snicker. You have 60 seconds to write.”

“Finally, aside from any problems you found with pronouns that the writer dropped too far from their preceding nouns, is there anything else about this historical fact that you think sounds funny?  Tell me in one or two sentences what other problem you find in that historical fact. You have 90 seconds to write.”

If you wish and have enough time, you may want to have students share their ideas about the other parts of the item that sounded funny to them. You’ll have some students who recognize that the first of the three sentences isn’t a sentence at all. I suspect it probably was the caption for the photo in the book Stones from the Walls of Jericho. Captions are not always full sentences.

Collect the informal writing to scan to see who struggled with the assignment. Informal writing prompts should prompt you to take precautionary measures to keep students who didn’t get material the first 14 times it was presented from missing it again in your classes.

© Linda G. Aragoni

Two sentences for informal writing prompts

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.

Discussion

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.

© 2021 Linda Aragoni

When shouldn’t scientific method be used?

I’ve been giving you informal writing prompts for several weeks. Today, I have a formal writing prompt suitable for high school juniors and seniors and for first-year college students.

The prompt requires students to use information from outside the English curriculum to which all students should have exposed by the time they reach high school. If you’re an English teacher reluctant to have students write on a topic that sounds like it belongs in the science curriculum, you could partner with someone on the science faculty to assign a paper that can be turned in for credit in either or both courses.

The prompt

Identify three questions in your major field for which the scientific method is entirely inappropriate. In your response, discuss at least two characteristics of the scientific method and explain precisely why each of those characteristics makes the scientific method an inappropriate way to investigate each of those three questions.

Please confine your response to no more than 650 words.

Notes on the prompt

Responding to this prompt is easy once students get over the shock of being asked to identify questions in their major field. They may never have thought of physical education or ceramics as fields that have questions. Writing the actual response should take no more than an hour once they identify some questions in their fields.

© 2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

A writing prompt: experience shapes expectations

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:

  1. I know that prior experience shapes present behavior because Person One’s prior experience with __A__ shapes Person One’s present behavior.
  2. I know that prior experience shapes present behavior because Person Two’s prior experience with __B__ shapes Person Two’s present behavior.
  3. 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.

© 2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Find the error: An informal writing task

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.

graphic representation of a coronavirus
Now-familiar imagery representing the Covid 19 virus.

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.

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Two errors in two sentences: an informal writing prompt

Here’s a notice sent by a business to its customers that you could drop into a class session to give students grades 7 and up practice in spotting and correcting errors. Simply display the item, read the item aloud, and then assign students the task of finding any errors in it and telling in no more than two sentences how to correct them. They should be able to find the errors and write their response in no more than one minute.

Informal writing prompts such as this allow let you break up a class with activity that makes students focus on doing something other than listening. By using found materials rather than publisher-created materials, you can have an inexhaustible supply of activities with no financial outlay.

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Informal writing prompt: trees coming down

Again today, I have an informal writing prompt built on a message actually sent by a business. That means this writing prompt is an authentic writing task, similar to those students are likely to encounter in nearly every type of work. The prompt is could be used in classes from grade 8 through first-year college.

Here’s your script:

I’m going to show you a four-sentence message that contains some errors and ask you to identify the errors by writing one sentence about each of the four sentences in the message.  This is the message:

memo about tree-cutting
This is the message that was actually sent.

Please identify the error or errors in the message sentence by sentence. As you make clear which sentence you’re discussing, you don’t need to write your sentences in the same order in which they appear in the message. You have two minutes to write.

[After the two minutes] Now I want you to rewrite the message to make it shorter and clearer. You have one minute to write.

Optional group activity

To get maximum value from this informal prompt, you could have students work in small groups for five minutes, to discuss what they changed and why they made those changes.

Students should notice grammar errors

Every student should notice that the second and fourth sentences are actually sentence fragments. Every student should also notice that the third sentence begins with the pronoun that cannot logically refer to the preceding noun: buildings don’t get loud; sounds do.

A few students may quibble over whether “multiple trees” is redundant and whether “will be taking down” should be “will take down,” since the activity appears to not be scheduled to start before tomorrow.

Students should identify the point

The point hidden of the message is: “Expect loud noise tomorrow morning when trees are cut on the front and back sides of the building.”


FYI: Next week I plan to take a break from posting informal writing prompts to recommend three fascinating literary nonfiction books. Two are about famous people and one is about a man who was tremendously influential but is barely remembered today. 

© 2020 Linda G. Aragoni