Linda taught me how to learn

lecturer speaks to class
Teachers are people who devote their lives to working themselves out of a job.

Last week in this space, I told you that the one thing you must do when in online learning classes is to teach your students how to learn your subject. Today I’d like to tell you a story about how I came to that conclusion.

It was due to a student in a first year college writing class I taught a few years ago. The course was an eight-week, online, asynchronous course conducted entirely in writing. I was supposed to turn the students out with a semester’s worth of writing skill.

My typical writing classes were 75 to 80% male (women tended to drop out when they saw my first published book was about installing steam turbines) and usually every hour of the day some of the students were at their jobs. By some fluke, each of the students in this particular class was employed full-time, each worked days, and each was a woman.

Because the students were able to be online evenings, I made a point of being available in the “course room” evenings. The format became much like a seminar, with students interacting with one another and with me through written messages. Many evenings there would be a half dozen student and myself on line discussing their work.

One of the women, who I’ll call Alice (I’ve forgotten her name), was bright and hard-working, but she had a mediocre high school English program to overcome. All the other women liked Alice.  To encourage her, they sat for many hours when I’m sure they had other things they could have been doing while I explained to Alice what she didn’t get in high school.

Alice really struggled, but she earned the B she needed for her employer to pick up part of the tab for her course.

The last night of the class, the women were saying their farewells and talking about what courses they would be taking next. Alice posted a note saying that she wished she could the writing course over again. She hastily added, “I can’t believe I just wrote that. This course was so hard for me, and I had to work so hard, but when I started, I did not know how to learn. Linda taught me how to learn. Now that I know how to learn, I could really benefit from taking the course again.”

I consider that student one of my greatest success stories. She no longer needed me. Learning how to learn enabled her take charge of her education. She could learn what she wanted, when she wanted, whether she had a teacher or not.

The reason I teach is that I want students to be able to learn without me.

What’s your reason for teaching?

©2020 Linda G. 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

Informal writing prompts: English to algebra

Word problems are real problems for many students.  Introducing students to algebra by having them write math problems as English language sentences may help students learn to “read” algebra problems.

Sign: Informal Writing PromptsBy the time they reach seventh grade, students should have no difficulty with the math in this set of informal writing prompts, but they may be totally freaked out by being asked to write math problems in English sentences. As with other write-to-learn activities, your focus should be having students learn rather than having them get “a correct answer.”

I recommend that you display the informal prompts one at a time to students and read each one while students follow along. Since fewer than 40 percent of today’s students grades 8 through 12 can read at grade level, they need all the reading help you can give.

Informal prompt #1.

Here’s what to say: Use the numbers 2, 10 and 5. Write one sentence that tells someone what to do to the smallest number to produce the largest number. Begin your sentence with the word that describes the mathematical operation. You have 15 seconds to write.  (The answer is: Multiply 2 by 5.)

Oral follow up: Show me using addition what it means to multiply 2 by 5. (Answer: 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 = 10)

Informal prompt #2.

Use the numbers 2, 10 and 5, write one sentence that tells someone what to do to the largest number to produce the smallest number. Begin your sentence with the word that describes the mathematical operation. You have 15 seconds to write. (Answer: Divide 10 by 2.)

Oral follow up:  Show me using addition what it means to multiply 2 by 5. (Answer: 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 = 10)

Oral follow up: Show me using subtraction what it means to divide 10 by 5. (Answer: 10 – 5 then 5 – 5. There are two units of five in ten.)

Informal prompt #3.

Now for some detective work. Look at the sentences you already wrote. In a short sentence, tell me what word or words other than the numbers themselves appear in every sentences you wrote earlier. You have 15 seconds to write. (Answer: The word by is in both sentences.)

Informal prompt #4.

Looking again at the three sentences you have already written, how can you identify the number that is the multiplier or divisor in each of the sentences? Explain in one or two sentences. You have 30 seconds to write. (Answer: The word after by is the multiplier or divisor.)

Mini-lesson.

(Many students will guess that the word that comes after by is the multiplier or divisor but that doesn’t mean they are consciously aware that one of the meanings of the word by is “use the number that follows me as a multiplier or divisor depending on the sense of the sentence.” You need to help students recognize “the sense of the sentence.” Students have to use logic to figure out whether the sense of the sentence calls for multiplication of division. If they don’t grasp that idea through the written and oral discussion, they may get it using manipulatives.)

Ask students in which of their first two sentences is the word following the preposition by a multiplier. Ask how they know that word is a multiplier.

Ask students how they know the word they wrote after the preposition by in the second sentence is a divisor.

Next, have students do something hands-on, such as drawing a diagram or using manipulatives, to show:

  • multiplying 3 by 4
  • dividing 12 by 3
  • dividing 12 by 6

If you teach older teens or adult students, to let them save face tell them to show how they’d teach those mathematical computations to a neighbor’s kid or to their own child.

Finally, give students five or six equations and have them write them as English sentences, specifying the operation to be performed, like this:

25/5 = 5 (Answer: 25 divided by five equals five)
6 x 3 = 18 (Answer: Six multiplied by three equals 18.)

If this activity doesn’t result in a  light bulb moment for your students, wait two weeks and try it again with different numbers. Sometimes you need to present an essential concept multiple times before your presentation coincides with the students’  readiness to grasp that information. That’s one of the hard facts of life in the teaching profession.

©2020 Linda 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

Two young people’s true adventures

My 2020 first quarter literary nonfiction reading included two books that focus on the formative years of two very different people: twentieth century aviation pioneer Beryl Markham and eighteenth century wannabe author—and surelywas forger—William-Henry Ireland. Both books are readily available, new and used, from booksellers and in libraries.

West with the Night

Beryl Markham. West with the Night. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1983. (paperback) ISBN: 0-86547-118-5

Beryl Markham in aviator attireWest with the Night is an autobiography written by a pioneering woman quite different from the calico and wagon train pioneer typically encountered in American classrooms. Beryl Markham was born in England but,  from the time she was four, the motherless child was reared in Kenya where her teachers and playmates were the natives.

Markham’s story opens with her childhood adventures going hunting barefoot with her Murani friends, seeing “dik-dik and leopard, kongoni and warthog, buffalo, lion, and the ‘hare that jumps.'” She relates an incident which her friend Bishon Singh told her father Beryl had been “moderately eaten by the large lion.”

Markham’s father clawed a farm out of the land, in true pioneer fashion. It was beginning to be profitable when a drought killed it. Markham’s father moved to Peru to raise horses. Beryl, 17, decided to stay in Africa and try for a job training thoroughbreds. Her father advised she saddle up and move to Molo, a town where he knew a few stable owners would be willing to risk having a girl train horses. “After that, work and hope,” he said. “But never hope more than you work.”

Markham was becoming a successful trainer when a chance encounter with a pilot changed her trajectory for a few years. She took flying lessons and became a bush pilot.

In 1936 she decided to try to become the first person to fly solo from London to New York, which meant flying for more than 24 hours in the dark. In the cold atmosphere, the fuel tank vents iced over. Starved of fuel, her plane went down on Cape Breton Island. West became the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo from east to west, but hadn’t made it to New York as she’d hoped to do.

photo of Markham's downed plane
Markham’s crashed plane shares space with Hemingway’s praise.

Markham ends her autobiography with that Atlantic flight, but she went on to have further adventures. She went back to Africa and resumed her career as a trainer, becoming the most successful horse trainer in Kenya for a time.

When first published, West with the Night was included in the U.S.A.’s Armed Services Editions, and Ernest Hemingway praised the book, but it wasn’t a great commercial success. The autobiography was rediscovered and republished in 1983. It ranks eighth in National Geographic‘s list of best adventure books. It’s a beautifully written story that both teenage boys and girls can appreciate.

The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare

Doug Stewart. The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare: A Tale of Forgery and Folly. Cambridge, MA, Da Capo Press, 1910. ISBN: 978-0-360-81831-8

Shakespeare peeks from right hand side of old manuscriptIf students are inspired by Markham’s autobiography, let’s hope they won’t be inspired by William-Henry Ireland’s story as told by Doug Stewart.

Stewart, a freelance journalist, tells the true story of 19-year-old William-Henry Ireland who in 1795 began writing documents that he passed off as the works of Shakespeare.

His father, Samuel Ireland, who thought William-Henry a dolt, got him a job as an unpaid apprentice to a lawyer who was never in the office. Most of William-Henry’s work was sorting through old documents.

William-Henry’s father, an ambitious author and illustrator of a series of travel books, had a keen instinct for what appealed to the public taste and he was obsessed with everything Shakespearean. He collected memorabilia, particularly items associated with famous or notorious figures. Samuel was not adverse to fudging the truth when it was to his advantage to do so.

William-Henry was not stupid, but he had been a failure in school. He had seen no reason for learning Latin or math since he had no plans to use either. (Does this sound like anybody in your classes?) However,  he read voraciously, was fascinated by the theater, and loved to copy verse by his favorite authors in an elegant, Elizabethan script.

William-Henry penned his first forgery more or less as a joke. When his father and his father’s friends were taken in, William-Henry was both amused and angry: He was amused that experts didn’t recognize the deception and angry that his father didn’t think him smart enough to have concocted the forgery and its cover story.

Samuel saw fame and profits if William-Henry could get him more manuscripts. Samuel particularly wanted something by Shakespeare: no handwritten copies of his plays were knows to exist. Samuel pushed his son to produce the desired scripts, not realizing that William-Henry would literally produce them.

Stewart takes readers on a tour through late 18th century London using the psychologically damaged William-Henry and his crazy family as the tour guides. Stewart’s text includes 16 pages of intriguing images, and his descriptions of the English playhouses at the end of the 18th century will entertain anyone with even a passing interest in theater.

The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare will probably be heavier reading for high school students than Markham’s story, because Stewart’s book requires wider background knowledge. You might to have students for whom the book is too tough read Stewart’s article about William-Henry Ireland’s forgery career  “To Be…Or Not: The Greatest Shakespeare Forgery”  in Smithsonian magazine. On the other hand, the emotional and personality issues that the book raises may make it worth the extra effort for students who have what are politely called “issues at home.”

 

© 2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Pandemics in historical perspective

photo of armistice celebrationI intend to recommend Garrett Peck’s The Great War in America: World War I and Its Aftermath among my second quarter literary nonfiction picks, but since Covid-19 has made Peck’s information about the “Spanish flu” pandemic that began during World War I timely now, I’ll share some passages that got my attention—who knew there was an army installation called Camp Funston?— and save my overall comments for July 3.

Because it’s hard to get books now, I’ve quoted passages that English or social students teachers in particular might find useful to help students look at current events in an historical perspective. (Book details below.)

Precursor to the influenza epidemic: measles

As conscripts and enlistees were assembled to go to war, “close proximity became a breeding ground for infectious diseases. Measles struck the U. S. Army in late 1917, killing 5,741 soldiers from secondary infections, mostly pneumonia.”  (p. 174)

The “Spanish flu” epidemic began in Kansas

The so-called Spanish flu “probably began in Haskell County, Kansas in January 1918, then soon spread to Camp Funston (now part of Fort Riley) in March.”  The flu spread when soldiers were transferred, principally via New York City, for transport in cramped shipboard quarters to France. (p.174)

The name Spanish flu was given to the influenza outbreak because the King of Spain got sick from it. Prior to that, the flu hadn’t made headlines because the press in the U.S., Great Britain, France and their allies was censored. “Spain was not at war, their press was not censored.”  (p. 174)

The initial flu outbreak wasn’t particularly deadly. “Most people recovered after three days.” (p. 174)

The Midwest virus turned lethal in Boston

The first lethal strain of the flu virus appeared at Camp Devens near Boston.
“People suffered severe headaches and bodily pain. Bodies turned blue like they were being strangled, while victims coughed up blood and their eardrums ruptured. Many became delirious. The deadly influenza could kill someone in half a day. The flu was especially lethal for young adults, whose vigorous immune systems filled their lungs with fluid and white cells, resulting in higher numbers of deaths from pneumonia.” (p.175)

“Influenza struck the nation’s capital with a vengeance in fall 1918. Thousands were sickened….hospitals ran out of space…morgues soon ran out of coffins. Gravediggers were in short supply as well….About 3,500 people in Washington, D.C. died from influenza.” (p. 176)

Flu was more lethal than war

In World War I, “more American troops were killed by influenza than by German bullets.” (p. 190)

Influenza continued after the Great War ended

“A third wave of influenza would strike [America] as the virus mutated again, but it was not nearly as deadly….People continued getting sick into 1920 and even beyond, though the virus was losing its virulence.” p. 176

The flu went global

“The influenza of 1918 killed at least twenty-one million people worldwide, more than the combat deaths from the Great War. Later estimates ranged from fifty to one hundred million deaths worldwide. In the U.S. alone, an estimated 675,000 people died from the flu. The influenza was the deadliest plague in human history.” (p. 176)

About Garrett Peck’s book

Garrett Peck. The Great War in America: World War I and Its Aftermath. Pegagus Books ©2018. 415 p. ISBN 978-68177-878-5 garrettpeck.com

History and English teachers will find lots of “trivia” that they can use to make the events and the literature of the first quarter of the 20th century come to life for students.

People who care about book design will want to hold a copy of the book. The cover design is by Faceout Studio, Charles Brock. The photo is a familiar one of the welcome given troops returning from World War I.  The lettering is embossed so you can read the letters with your fingers.

This content previously appeared on my PenPrompts blog.

 

7 aims of a sensible HS writing program

A sensible goal for a high school or post-secondary writing course should be that:

ALL STUDENTS WRITE FIRST DRAFTS COMPETENTLY.

In today’s workplace, it doesn’t make any different how great a piece of writing a student can turn out in 18 drafts. It a student can’t turn out a first draft that’s competent, that student won’t last long in an 21st century office. You don’t get a second chance to write a first draft.

Define competence clearly

Competent writing should be defined like this: On a topic with which they are familiar, in one hour all students can write a clean, 500-word I/E nonfiction text which responds to the prompt.

To avoid nitpicking,  I say clean means free of the 20 serious errors in Connors and Lunsford’s 1988 list and free of topic-specific misspellings. That’s not a perfect solution, but it restricts the definition of errors to a manageable number.  If the topic is biology, biology terms must be spelled correctly. If the topic is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the student must spell novel correctly and get the characters’ names right.

To achieve the goal, take aim 7 times.

figure aims dart at target 1

Aim 1. All students must be able to write expository nonfiction texts of 1,000 or fewer words.

The 1,000 word figure is used here, rather than the 500 words specified in the goal, to allow teachers flexibility. Although multiple short papers are more effective than a few long ones in teaching students to write, sometimes 500 words just isn’t enough for students to do justice to the topic.

I don’t recommend more than one 1,000-word paper a semester with not-yet-competent writers. I do recommend having students write in class the drafts of each of the papers they  submit for a grade. Students should be able to draft half an 1,000-word paper in an hour.

figure aims dart at target 2

Aim 2. All students must write on demand in timed situations.

Students must not only know information, but must also have a process for writing that is second-nature to them. Without both, students cannot compete for jobs. Today’s workplace does not allow time for rewrites.

 

figure aims dart at target 3

Aim 3. All students must be able to follow a writing pattern.

Every workplace has certain types of texts that it requires routinely. Students must be able to identify the key features of those texts and reproduce the pattern in which the key features are organized. Teachers should never assume student can recognize a pattern in writing.

figure aims dart at target 4

4. All students must be able to summarize what they hear, see, read, or think.

Nobody takes time to read a lengthy document unless the document a good, single-sentence summary in a prominent place that gives someone reason to believe the whole document is worth reading.

figure aims dart at target 5

Aim 5. All students must be able to identify evidence to support their main point, using personal knowledge, personal contacts, and traditional print and digital information sources.

In the workplace, people are the most-consulted information sources. Students need to know how to get information from people, including people who are not interested in providing information. not just from traditional print and digital resources.

figure aims dart at target 6

Aim 6. All students must recognize situations that require a different writing pattern than they normally use.

Some employees work 10 years without having to use anything other than the basic, thesis-and-support pattern, but they need to know how to respond in the 11th year situation that requires a different pattern.

figure aims dart at target 7

Aim 7. All students must accurately assess their strengths and weaknesses as communicators.

While all students need to be able to write short I/E texts competently, they need to know whether whether their writing is their strength. You might have a student who is a whiz at editing other people’s writing, or one who has a knack for spotting what essential piece is missing from a text, or one that seems to know instinctively what visuals would communicate a message.  Encourage students to become at least competent writers and to develop other communications skills as well.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Watch my next expository writing project

I’m about to take a figure leaps gap in bridge surface
to a totally new expository writing project: a series of short, illustrated expository nonfiction stack of booksabout how to have pleasant experiences visiting in a icon representing nursing homeWhether you go to visit a resident who is part of your
icon for familyor as a call on someone as theiricon representing clergy personor,  as I did, spend time making new acquaintances as aicon for volunteerthere will be a book from the Title: Thanks for Dropping By series to meet your unique needs.

You can get monthly reports on my progress (or lack thereof) by giving me your email address and promising not to gloat if I make a fool of myself.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Taxonomy-aligned multiple choice questions

Taxonomy of Educational Objectives cover
My well-read paperback Taxonomy

 Today I’ll show you three multiple choice question sets for testing students’ knowledge of correct punctuation rules.  To create the questions, I used a sample question in 1956 Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives from a different subject for my pattern. I think you’ll see that the definition of knowledge as used in the Taxonomy means a far deeper understanding than simply being able to choose a correct answer.

If you use these questions with students, they may get some answers right by guessing, by they won’t get many right by guessing. To get all 11 answers correct, they have to understand the meanings of the terms in which the rules are expressed.

Knowledge is popularly believed to be the “easiest” of Bloom’s six types of learning, even though the authors specifically say that is not the case. Learning at the knowledge level is difficult for students because they typically have very little context for information they learn at that level. Learning at the higher levels may come much more easily because the students have far more context for understanding it.

Enough theory.  Take a look at multiple choice questions about basic punctuation rules.

A five-question set

For the five numbered items below,  indicate by letter whether the rules for the use of possessive apostrophes are:
(a) correctly applied, or
(b) incorrectly applied, or if
(c) from the information, it can’t be determined whether the rules are correctly applied.

_____1. The dog’s dish is empty.
_____2. My cars’ front and rear fenders are both dented.
_____3. He owes three month’s back rent.
_____4. The sounds of childrens’ voices carried across the street.
_____5. Jody’s sunglasses are on the table beside the door.

A second five-question set

Look at the numbered sentences below and indicate by letter whether the sentence is :
(a) correctly punctuated because the information set off by commas is non-essential (i.e., not restrictive),
(b) incorrectly punctuated because the information set off by commas is essential (i.e., restrictive),
(c) incorrectly punctuated because there are no commas to set off non-essential (i.e., non-restrictive) information.

_____6. The day, rainy and dark, was ideal for reading a good book.
_____7. I was late, having gotten caught in traffic.
_____8. The bridge, for example, is a tourist attraction.
_____9. After that dinner I am ready to burst my buttons.
____10. He plans to work this summer, and save for college.

One single question

11. Look carefully at this statement:

Bartz’ and Norton’s horses got out when the stable door was accidentally left unlatched.

To determine whether the possessive apostrophes are correctly used in that sentence, what do you need to know? Put an X in the blank before your answer.
____(a) The general rule that most words form their plural by adding -s.
____(b) The rule for forming the plural of words that end with an -s or an -s sound.
____(c) Whether Bartz and Norton are joint owners of the horses.
____(d) Both a and b.
____(e) Both a and c.

Use the results as formative assessment

You should use items like this as a formative assessment. Unless all your students are getting at least 8 of the answers correct, you need to keep reteaching the material in other ways until they do achieve that level. Don’t devote whole class sessions the reteaching: Give five or seven-minute lessons every few class periods. If you do that and you’re lucky, each time you give a lesson a few more students will catch on to what you’re talking about.

The answers

1-c,  2-b,  3-b,  4-b,  5-a,  6-a,  7-a,  8-a.  9-c.  10-b,  11-e.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Set the right balance in formal writing prompts

See-saw shows weight of total challenge changes its acceptability
The total challenge posed by a writing prompt lets students respond well — or not.

When preparing formal writing prompts, whether you’re creating them to use as learning assessments or as content teaching tools, it’s important to strike the right balance between how challenging the course content in them is and how challenging the required writing is.

If you’ve taught for more than 27 minutes, you know some content in your courses is a lot harder for students to understand than other content. Similarly, some kinds of writing tasks are harder for students to do than others.

By writing tasks, I’m not talking about surface features such as grammar and punctuation, but about whether a particular topic can be both thought about and written about following basic thesis-and-support pattern, which you might  call by the misleading term “five paragraph essay”. A topic that can be both thought about and written about using the thesis-and-support pattern is the easiest type of writing. Writing that requires modifying that basic pattern in order to plan a response using one of the vastly more complex presentation formats, argument or narrative, is much more difficult.

Getting the balance right matters

When using writing as a teaching and/or learning assessment tool, you want to avoid overburdening students with writing challenges that require such concentrated thinking that there are few little gray cells left over for dealing with the challenges of your course content.

However, being cognizant that students must learn to write prose several notches above Fun with Dick and Jane, you want to encourage students to master at least the most common types of informative/explanatory texts, such as comparisons, cause and effect, and how-tos, so you’re not embarrassed to admit they are your students. (On YCTWriting.com, I plot informative/explanatory texts on a continuum between argument and narrative. You will find it on this expository essay page.)

Visual representations of balance in prompts

Try to imagine that all the difficulties a student could tolerate in one assignment—both writing difficulties and course content difficulties— should fit in a single container. In the graphic below, writing challenges are indicated by pink boxes, course content challenges by green ones.

boxes indicate sizes of writing and content difficulties
The bigger the box, the greater the challenge.

Acceptable proportions of writing and content challenge

There are three ways of packing those three different sizes of two types of challenges in a single container. You can have a moderately difficult writing challenge and a moderately difficult course content challenge, like this:

medium sized pink and green boxes together rate a thumbs up
Moderately difficult writing and content challenges are a good combination.

Students can usually cope with an assignment that combines an easy writing challenge and difficult course content, like this:

together a small pink box and large green box earn a thumbs up
An easy writing challenge can be combined with difficult course content challenge.

They can usually also cope with a difficult writing challenge if it’s accompanied by an easy course content challenge, like this:

Small green box atop large pink box earn a thumbs up for good balance
Easy course content plus difficult writing challenge is a good balance.

What does not work is a writing prompt that poses both difficult writing challenges and difficult course content challenges. That combination earns a thumbs down.

equal-sized pink and green boxes earn a thumbs up
Too-heavy boxes representing writing and content difficulties earn a thumbs down

Plan all your formal writing prompts so their writing difficulty to content difficulty ratio earns a thumbs up.

(A version of this post appeared previously on the PenPrompts.com blog; the web host ate the graphics, so I moved the content here.)

©2018 Linda G. Aragoni