Can students see the goal?

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:

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.

© 2021 Linda G. Aragoni

7 aims of a sensible HS writing program

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


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

Set students’ sights on successful year

As signs in every store window remind you, it’s back to school time.

Educational psychologists tell us that if we want students to do well at some task, it’s helpful to get them to envision themselves succeeding at that task.

So, as you prepare for the new school year, use an opening week writing prompt to prepare your students to do well this year.

In his 1982 novel Space, novelist James A. Michener makes this observation:

People make themselves capable.

Turn those four words into a short,  formal writing prompt in which your students must describe how they plan in your class to make themselves capable of doing one particular academic task in the 2019-2020 school year. The task could be anything from no longer confusing its with it’s, or mastering MLA citation style, learning how to respond to essay test questions, or mastering touch typing.

Without too much effort, you can make the writing prompt work as both an attitude adjustment and an assessment of your students’ writing level, including identifying some of their habitual, serious errors.

Put a note on your calendar to have students write an assessment during the last month of the school year of how well they succeeded.

Here are a few bits of Michener’s biography that you might want to share with your students.

Michener was raised by foster parents. He didn’t know who his biological parents were. Even his birthdate is a guess.

After high school, Michener won a scholarship to Swathmore College where he graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and history and a Phi Beta Kappa Key. Then he went on to study art in Scotland, London and Italy.

During the Great Depression, Michener was an English teacher.

He volunteered for the U.S. Navy in 1942. After the World War II, he turned his navy experiences into Tales of the South Pacific, which won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and became a successful musical.

Michener went on to write more than 40 other books, notable for their meticulous research.

During his lifetime, Michener’s books sold more than 75 million copies. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. His money helped establish the The James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown PA. He was active in politics and published a book in 1969 about the electoral college system, which was reprinted in 2016.

Related: My best teaching idea: Starting each course by introducing myself as a writer and having each of my students introduce themselves as writers. Naturally, we do it all in writing.

What’s your goal in teaching writing?

Since I missed Tuesday’s #TeachWriting chat on Twitter, I founnd the transcript, which I thought might interest you, too.

Below, compiled and edited for brevity, is the chat’s first question and responses to it.

The chat’s first question

Responses to the first question

If someone had more than one response to Q1, I’ve included only one, usually the first.

As you read, please bear in mind that respondents are a diverse group that, depending on the chat, may include K-12 teachers, college faculty, school administrators, and a variety of support staff. In some respects, their perspectives vary with their positions.

Quantity a top-of-mind goal

Perhaps it was the way the question was worded that prompted so many teachers to respond by framing their goals in terms of quantity.  Researchers certainly have criticized teachers for not having students write enough; however, one might almost conclude from these responses that the teachers believe students learn to write well by doing a lot of writing without the benefit of teaching or coached practice.

I noticed no one mentioned a specific genre of writing. The closest anyone came was a reference to writing across the curriculum, which would suggest expository writing.

A couple of people phrased their goal in terms of how they wanted their students to feel about writing. Affective goals are important, but they respond indifferently to teaching and are nearly impossible to measure. If, like Ben Kuhlman, a teacher wants a student to feel successful at writing, the best way to achieve that goal is to teach the student to write.

A1: My goal never changes

Here’s what I would have given as my response to Q1:


Goal: every student writes competently.

For over 40 years, my goal in teaching writing has been to turn out competent writers. I aim for every student who enters my classroom (a physical one or a digital one) to leave being able to write expository nonfiction competently in the situations in which that student has to write.  Depending on the student, that can mean writing in their college classes or at work.

In either case, students expect a quick payout.

To accomplish my goal—all-class competence—I have every student write every day in response to prompts I give them.  Most days we do informal writing about course content other than writing or about some aspects of the expository writing process.  One day a week is used for drafting that week’s formal document.

My students don’t leave my classes on an emotional high: They’re too exhausted for that.

But a significant number leave writing competently, even when the course is as little as five weeks.

Thinking backwards

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about thinking.

More specifically, I’ve been thinking about how to think backward from a goal.

For the last three months, I’ve been working at building a new website with content from my old “You Can Teach Writing” site.

That has necessitated learning a new software program to replace my antique Dreamweaver (purchased in 2000!), learning how to create responsive sites that will display properly on mobile devices, and figuring out how to organize all the website elements—photographs, illustrations, icons, call-out boxes, text, headlines—so I can find information when I need it and format it consistently across the site.

Finding all the information I need to learn requires a lot of research. All too often something I’m sure I will need to have later is discussed at the point where it is deployed, rather than at the point at which I ought to start collecting it.

I’ve not reached any earth-shaking conclusions from these three projects, but I’ve made a few observations that I want to remember when I teach.

Goals hold emotions

Goals always have an emotional component, either actual or potential.

I’ve seen that emotional component several times in software user forums where company employees were annoyed by users’ desire for step-by-step directions.

Users felt successful when they could complete a simple task quickly with the software, while the employees felt unsuccessful if users only wanted to do simple tasks quickly.

As a teacher, I’m tempted (and often succumb) to set goals whose achievement I would find satisfying. I’ve learned that if I set writing goals at a level that students think they can achieve and that they would be satisfied to achieve (I call it “C-level” for competence level), students are much more likely do the assigned work and achieve that level or higher.

Save information for use

People doing an information task for the first time waste a great deal of time and endure a great deal of frustration because they don’t know how to record the information they gather.

By contrast, experienced knowledge workers doing an information task develop strategies and templates for gathering, sorting, labeling, and saving the information they gather.

As a teacher, I try to give my students the benefit of my experience by providing strategies and templates that I and colleagues have found helpful.

Even though the materials I provide might not be useful to every student or in every situation, it’s generally easier for them to modify a prepared structure than to develop one from scratch.

Sequencing precedes skill

To an uninformed observer, skills look like an automatic response to a particular type of stimuli. Actually, skills are sets of tasks performed in such rapid sequence that the tasks seem to melt into one fluid action.

Before people are skilled, they learn to go through component tasks in sequence. Because tasks have both mental and physical components, the learners must:

  1. Remember the next action required.
  2. Physically position themselves to perform the action.
  3. Perform the action.
  4. Verify that the action was performed successfully or backup to #2.
  5. Remember the next action required and go through steps 2-5.

When my writing students “get it” they will behave—and feel—as if they were born knowing how to write.

I need to remember that getting to that point will require many repetitions of the underlying process to get their eyes, brains, and bodies to perform the necessary actions automatically.



What’s the goal of teaching writing?

If students leave the writing workshop feeling famous, then I have done my job right. Sharing your writing, being enlarged by others’ writing is what makes you feel famous.
Source: Gretchen Bernabei, 2010 Summer Writing Academy, San Antonio ISD, San Antonio, Texas

As a writing teacher, what’s your goal?

Do you want your students to appreciate literature?

Write creatively?

Respect others who are different from themselves?

Learn to work collaboratively?

Are you seeking to boost students’ confidence?

Help them develop grit?

Prepare them to participate in the democratic process?

Equip them with knowledge of the fundamentals of grammar, punctuation, and usage?

Enable them to be leaders?

My goal as a writing teacher is modest.

I simply want every one of my students to write competently by the end of the course.

The Big Thing in Education

I had a “huh?” moment this morning when I read a post that talked about education at the micro and macro levels. It began:

On a micro level, education is very simply about helping students learn the concepts and knowledge they need to know. When you zoom out from that small focus and start to look at the methods, products, debates, issues, and infrastructure that are all focused on this one goal, the sheer size and complexity of the education industry quickly becomes clear.

I beg to differ.

Lots of stuff isn’t big.

Lots of stuff is small and cluttered.

Helping students learn the concepts and knowledge they need to know is the big thing, the central idea of education.

We could (and should and will) argue about what concepts and what knowledge students need to know, but I’ve never met anyone who didn’t believe there are some concepts and knowledge students need to know, and that it’s the job of educators to help students learn them.

When we zoom out to view “the methods, products, debates, issues, and infrastructure” we are at the micro level—swimming in minutia.

Teaching for the short term

Harold Shaw Jr. blogged recently about how he wanted to be remembered as a teacher. His message was one with which most teachers would agree. After dismissing the current emphasis on data for the sake of data, he said he wants students to report “5-10-20 years from now” that he made a difference in their lives:

Personally, I want to be remembered as a teacher who cared deeply for the growth of the student both academically and as a person beyond the classroom. Those are important things to be remembered for.

Although I agree with Shaw’s point and share his pleasure in anticipating the long-range impact of his work, I have some qualms about how such comments sound to the public.

It is true that a teacher’s impact cannot be determined the end of the week or even at the end of the school year, and it certainly cannot be reduced to a number on a chart.  However, one need not be a statistician, economist, or politician to want to see positive learning outcomes in fewer than five, 10, or 20 years.  The general public, parents, and students themselves want to see some results sooner.

An experience I had my second year student teaching (during my MACT, I taught two courses a semester for two years), taught me about the importance of seeing results in the short term.

That fall I gave my freshman composition students a library activity I’d used before. It required students to find a number of  specified types of library resources for whatever major they expected to pursue and prepare an annotated bibliography.

The library’s planned summer move from a two-story building to a new six-story building was delayed until the middle of fall semester, so my class assignment came about a week after the library move.

Library books had been unpacked in their new locations, but some of the boxes were unpacked out of order. The library staffing plan had been developed for the old two-story building, not for the new six-story facility, so there wasn’t anybody to ask for help.

That semester I had a pair of students, roommates, whose majors were audiology and dietetics. While the history and music majors breezed through the bibliography activity, the two girls with the narrow specializations had an awful time finding materials. For a couple weeks, every time I went to the library, those two girls were there working on their annotated bibliography assignment.

I had told students they could ask me for help if they saw me in the library; those two took me at my word. I got to the point where I was going to the library at midnight to try to get my own research done. Eventually, the three of us managed to locate all the resources so they could complete the assignment.

Spring semester began on a Tuesday. The following Monday, the audiology student from my fall class appeared at my door. She told me she had gotten through the bibliography project by saying to herself, “Some day you’ll thank her for this.” She said she expected “some day” to be in perhaps five years.

“I’m taking my first course in my major this semester,” she said. “The semester project is to do an annotated bibliography. Mine’s done.

“My semester project is done.

“Thank you.”

It may be true that the most important work teachers do is not noticeable until students had some years to mature. That said, however, I think focusing too hard on long-range results harms our profession and our students. At least some of the academic work we do should have an impact that students, parents, and community can see every year.

What’s more, we ought to spend at least as much time talking about the impact we’re having now as we spend on what we hope to see in 20 years. In this day of declining expenditures for education, publicizing our achievements is a vital activity.

[2/26/2014 removed links to information no longer publicly available.]