Why fiction has value: informal writing prompts

If you believe the 20th century novels, there was a time at least one student in each high school and college English class aspired to produce the great American novel.

Today we’re hard pressed to find one student in each high school and college English class who’s even interested in reading a great American novel.

rounded squares of varying sizes suggest need to analyze meaning of unfamilar content
A visual analogy: The shapes look familiar but what are they supposed to mean?

Introduce today’s students to fiction

When we “introduce a novel” or “introduce long fiction” to today’s students, we need to forsake the language of Literature with a capital L and speak to the students who speak the language of bits and bytes and augmented reality.

Unlike technical documents, good literary fiction is rarely obvious. In fact, part of the attraction of literary fiction is identifying and interpreting the clues to what the story means.

Many of today’s students are familiar with analyzing computer code to see how it delivers its message. We need to seduce them into learning to analyze linguistic codes to see how a work of fiction delivers its message. With luck, some with learn to enjoy the process.

Instead of lecturing, I like to give students verbal puzzles embedded in informal writing prompts to get their little grey cells moving.

Informal prompts about fiction

Here’s the sort of thing I’d use in introducing fiction reading to literature-phobic students. I begin with a quotation, which gives students a tiny bit of close reading. I chose a quote from Stephen King because he’s a living author—so much more relevant to students than old, dead guys—and because even students who hate to read are likely to know his name from the film versions of his books.

In “The Body,” one of the novellas in his book Different Seasons, Stephen King writes about why people write fiction. He says this:

The only reason anyone writes stories is so they can understand the past and get ready for some future mortality; that’s why all the verbs in stories have -ed endings…even the ones that sell millions of paper backs.

Informal writing prompt #1. What does Stephen King mean by “-ed endings”? In your answer, give two or three examples of the sort of verbs King means. Please keep your response to no more than three sentences. You have 1 minute to write.

This informal prompt can be answered just with grammar knowledge. Students don’t need to know anything about fiction to get it right.

Informal writing prompt #2. Why do you think King ignores the present when he talks about the purpose of writing fiction? Please keep your response to no more than three sentences. You have 1 minute to write.

Prompt #2 requires an understanding of different ways of defining the word present. Here, again, no knowledge of fiction is required.

Informal writing prompt #3. Why does King say “get ready for some future mortality” instead of just saying “get ready for the future?” Please keep your response to no more than three sentences. You have 1 minute to write.

Prompt #3 is the tricky one. King uses the term “future mortality” because there’s nothing certain in the future other than death. It’s the only event that’s likely to happen to everyone. Even the most irreligious typically want their deaths to be mourned by the people whose opinions they valued. By extension, then, the purpose of fiction is to give guidance in how to live.

I don’t expect students to figure this prompt #3 out in an hour, let alone a minute. I just want them to try to figure it out on their own before presenting them with fiction to read.

Other informal prompt options

You needn’t use my informal writing prompts. You could look up quotes on fiction at GoodReads.com or some similar site, or pull some out of your own reading to get students thinking about the value of fiction.

What’s important is that you include both prompts to which students can readily respond with a correct answer and some that present a puzzle with no obvious correct answer. Easily answered prompts encourage techie-type students to experience success in something to do with fiction. Puzzling prompts gives them a mental itch to find out the answer.

A writing teacher’s reading around ELA

Reading nonfiction is probably the best—and certainly the easiest and cheapest—means of lifelong learning.

Such reading is obligatory for writing teachers.

We have to prepare our students to write in whatever fields they enter, and it’s hard to do that if unless we know what kinds of writing and what kinds of topics are used in other disciplines.

Below are brief summaries of my nonfiction reading for the third quarter of this year.

Trespassing Across America by Ken Ilgunas

Trespassing Across America cover shows man with backpack balancing on a pipeline

Ken Ilgunas was working as a dishwasher in an oil camp in the Arctic Circle when he got the idea to walk the 1,700-mile length of the Keystone XL pipeline. He wanted to see the land that the pipeline was going through and test his personal limits.

He wasn’t athletic, hadn’t hiked before, and, although he considered himself environmentally conscious, had no political agenda.

This literate but easy reading narrative by a guy who sounds as ordinary as most of the guys in my English classes ought to appeal to those guys.

His stress on the importance of being polite to people ought to appeal to teachers.

Rust: The Longest War by J. Waldman

Rust's cover features photos of rust by Alyssha Eve Csük

Ilgunas had his book organized for him by the path of the Keystone XL pipeline. Jonathan Waldman had to devise a way to organize his examination of rust, “the great destroyer,” “the pervasive menace,” “the evil.” He chose to organize it in terms of stories about men and women whose life work is fighting rust on surfaces as diverse as The Statue of Liberty, bridges, and beer cans.

To balance his narratives about rust fighters, Waldman tags along with Alyssha Eve Csük as she climbs over a chain link fence into the closed Bethlehem Steel Works in Bethlehem PA to take photographs of rust. The granddaughter of a steelworker, Csük makes her living photographing rust, including the one on the book’s dust jacket.

Waldman can not only make technical material understandable, he makes it fascinating and often funny. Rust is a marvelous nonfiction book to make available to your students as an exemplar of expository narrative.

Jane Austen’s England by R. & L. Adkins

Cover of Jane Austen's England shows child-like drawings of ship, hanged man, a fire, a chimney sweep, a house, a horse-drawn carriage.

Roy and Lesley Adkins focus their panoramic history of Jane Austen’s England (she lived from 1775 to 1817) on domestic matters arranged by topic rather than chronology.

The topical approach makes the book convenient pick-up reading, which is fortunate because Jane Austen’s England won’t be many people’s choice for cover-to-cover reading.

However, chapter titles such as “Wedding Bells,” “Fashions and Filth,” and “Dark Deeds” might tempt a teenager to thumb its pages. Once inside, the content is quirky enough to get students to read a page or even a chapter.

The End of White Christian America

White on black, all-text cover of The End of White Christian America

In this unusually readable book of survey research, Robert P. Jones examines the impact of demographic and cultural changes since 1900 on current American religion and on American politics.

The first paperback version of The End of White Christian America (published  July, 2017) which I used, includes an afterward in which Jones discusses how the election of Donald Trump in 2016 fits into the pattern of changes he wrote about prior to the election.

In those changes, Jones finds an explanation for why America’s white protestants have passed over candidates whose values matched their own, supporting instead candidates whose values seem a direct contradiction of theirs. The explanation is fear. With their declining numbers, white protestants see the loss of political clout and of their vision of America.

Explaining survey data so it is understandable and meaningful is an art. Jones is a master of it.  Students could learn a lot from this book about how to explain technical material for people who aren’t particularly techie.

Failure: Why Science Is So Successful

Black cover with Failure and Stuart Firestein printed in green to indicate positive side to failure.

Failure is a book about how scientists do science, which author Stuart Firestein, himself a scientist, says isn’t the way the public thinks science happens.

Firestein’s thesis is that science is less rule-driven and methodical than the public supposes, and that “failures” advance science at least as much as successes.

Firestein is scholarly without being stuffy, but the topics he discusses are not for for folks whose science education ended with high school physics.

Failure is more a collection of essays than a book that must be read as sequential chapters, which makes it a good addition to a writing teacher’s classroom bookshelf for those few rare students (and perhaps some of the teacher’s colleagues) for whom this little book will be a pleasant challenge.

The Vanquished by Robert Gerwarth

Robert Gerwarth’s subtitle reveals his focus: Why the First World War Failed to End. 

Cover of the Vanquished is photo of soldier seated on ground,head on knees, hands on back of his neck, picture of misery.

While we think of WWI ending with the armistice on Nov. 11, 1918, the process of negotiating peace treaties went on for five years. During those years, European nations already weakened by war, famine, and disease fell victim to revolutions, pogroms, and mass expulsions.

The conditions of those five years gave rise to new states and extreme political movements. All that was needed for the cumulative after-effects to ignite another world war was the fuel provided by the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

While Gerwarth writes well, he’s not writing for an audience of high school and community college students. To appreciate his work requires more than a general knowledge of the WWI era and the ability to grasp sentences than can run 5-8 lines long.

I learned a great deal from his book, but I had to work at the learning.

My other reading

During the third quarter I also read at least two novels a week, most of them bestsellers of the 1970s. Reviews of those books will be posted at GreatPenformances.com before the year’s out, if they aren’t there already.

Summaries of my earlier nonfiction reading are posted on this blog. Here are links to the list for first quarter and the list for second quarter.

Reading around ELA, second quarter 2018

I started more nonfiction books than I finished this quarter. Two or three that I began turned out to be not what I was looking for or too much of what I was looking for. Those I set aside until I am less pressured.

The four I finished are an historical memoir, two books on education, and a book about self-directed learning in business settings. (If you’re interested in my fiction reading for the quarter, those reviews are posted at GreatPenformances.)

Armenian Golgotha: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1918

Armenian Golgotha was written by Grigoris Balakian, an Armenian Apostolic Church priest who was in university in Berlin on Aug. 1, 1914 when Germany declared war against Russia and, by extension, on Russia’s allies.

photo of Grigoris Balakian on Armenian Golgotha cover

Less than a year later, Balakian was arrested in Constantinople along with other leaders of the Armenian community, as the Ottoman Empire under the Young Turks began to systematically eliminate the Armenian people from Turkey’s borders.

Thousands of Armenians died or were slaughtered over the next four years. Balakian survived, promising that he would tell the world what happened to his people as civilized nations averted their eyes.

I couldn’t read much of Armenian Golgotha at one time. Even in translation the memoir is harrowing. Pushing on despite feeling revulsion, one risks becoming deadened to the horror.

Translator Peter Balakian, nephew to Grigoris and a noted author in his own right, and the late Aris Sevag, a prolific writer on Armenian history, provide time charts, maps, and photographs. The paperback volume from Vintage Books, 2010, is beautifully laid out and printed on high quality paper, a stark contrast to the events it relates.

I highly recommend this memoir. You won’t enjoy it, but the whole point is that you dislike it enough to protest when history repeats itself.

Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel T. Willingham

This is the third book I’ve read by Daniel T. Willingham, who writes about the implications of cognitive science for the classroom in a highly readable style not often associated with academics.

silhouette of child fleeing school desk is on cover of Why Don't Students Like School

Willingham starts out by saying, “People are naturally curious, but we are not naturally good thinkers; unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking.”

The rest of his book is devoted to exploring how classroom teachers can overcome their students’—and their own—disinclination to think. The content is not just thoughtful; it’s useful, too.

Unfortunately, nothing about the physical book makes for comfortable reading. It’s a good thing Willingham writes well, or I wouldn’t have gotten through the book. The typeface appears to have been chosen by someone whose hobby is engraving the Bible on the heads of pins, and the text is printed on cheap, thin paper that rapidly mellows to budget-apartment beige.

If your eyes are up to the challenge, you’ll find useful information in a refreshingly human delivery in Why Don’t Students Like School? (Jossey-Bass, 2009)

All Learning Is Self-Directed by Daniel R. Tobin

On front cover, figures run toward learning

Published by ASTD in 2000, this paperback by Daniel R. Tobin is geared toward leaders of large organizations who even then were shedding their training function and attempting to shift the those responsibilities to employees.

Although the book is geared toward businesses, Tobin’s main points apply to schools as well.

Tobin argues that although employees have to do their own learning—learning isn’t something someone else can do for you—the organization must take responsibility for

  • identifying its needs,
  • creating an environment that values learning,
  • encouraging diverse types of learning situations, and
  • facilitating employees’ ability to take engage in learning experiences.

Tobin’s text shows its age, but his general points are still valid and worth consideration in today’s public schools.

Someone Has to Fail by David F. Labaree

Someone Has to Fail (Harvard University Press, 2010) is a historical sketch of American education with David F. Larabee’s running commentary about the winners and losers in each successive reform from the early years of the republic to the present.

The book’s subtitle is The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling, which sums up Labaree’s assessment of the present state of education in America.

In group photo, one student's face is hidden by the word FAIL.

Larabee, a professor of education at Stamford University, asserts that American schools have historically done a lousy job of educating students, but they have been more successful at schooling students. Credentials mean only that students are trainable, Larabee says; credentials don’t imply that even those with advanced degrees have job skills.

He also says that America does not need—and has never needed—large numbers of people who have mastered the academic curriculum. What America needs, Larabee says, can be obtained by going to school quite apart from learning curriculum:

What school teaches that students need

School teaches [students] how to juggle priorities, how to interact effectively with both peers and superiors, and how to manipulate an institutional context in a way that serves their own individual ends. The best preparation for life, in short, may not come from getting an education but from doing school.

Larabee’s book is stuffy and highly repetitious. Moreover, his argument that schooling per se is valuable even if the schooled acquire neither knowledge or skills seems quaint. If businesses below Amazon-size ever really happy having to train highly credential employees for their first jobs, they aren’t any more. Even the rationale being given for combining the federal Departments of Education and Labor is that education should be focused on skill development for the workplace.

Nevertheless, I recommend taking a look at what Laramee has to say about America’s compulsion to treat every social problem by applying a poultice of education. I suspect that tendency won’t disappear regardless of changes  at the Cabinet level and it is an impulse that makes itself felt right down to the school janitor.

Gleanings from my summer nonfiction reading list

After last week’s post in I asked why writing teachers should read, a reader of this blog asked if I would post a list of the nonfiction I read over the summer.

I have a blog about 20th century bestselling fiction, but I don’t often get to talk about my nonfiction reading outside of education. I appreciate me this opportunity to share some of my enthusiasms.

Since this is my education blog, I’ve drawn out some of the elements of each book that have relevance to teaching writing or more broadly to education. I often find I learn more about how to teach from books totally unrelated to teaching than from education books simply because I encounter the ideas in a new context.

I’ll skip over  Hochman and Wexler’s August release The Writing Revolution; I wrote about it  here and here.

FYI, I purchased each of the nine books profiled below from my preferred online book source Alibris.com.

Happiness for All by Carol Graham

foreclosed home in poor condition
Residents lost house and hope.

The pursuit of happiness is an unalienable right according to the U.S. Constitution, but it happiness equally available to all today? Graham writes about America as a county divided not only in terms of income distribution and opportunities, but also in terms of hopes and dreams.

Carol Graham’s book isn’t easy reading—I’d had to take her statistical analyses on faith; they’re beyond my comprehension—but when she steps back from her data to look at the people, she writes engagingly about why her findings matter.

Many of the correlations she pulls out, such as the strong correlation for lower socioeconomic status kids between “soft skills”  and their success in life, raise questions that any teacher or administrator ought to consider.

This is a book I’ll dip into again to reread those sections with particular relevance for educators.

Carol Graham. 2017. Happiness for All.  Princeton University Press.

Glass House by Brian Alexander

Lancaster, Ohio, seen through shattered glass
A company’s demise is killing its town.

This book’s subtitle, The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town, sounds more formidable than Carol Graham’s book, but Glass House reads like fiction.

Brian Alexander went back home to Lancaster, Ohio,  a town celebrated in a 1947 Forbes article as the quintessential American town, a model of “the American free enterprise system” before the 2016 election brought southern Ohio to the national spotlight.

He weaves together the story of the town, once home to the headquarters of Anchor Hocking glass, with the stories of the town’s residents, whose good, no-higher-education-required jobs disappeared though mismanagement and private equity slight-of-hand, leaving in its wake a trail  of shattered hopes and heroin addicts. Anyone who reads a national newspaper will
recognize names of some of the culprits. (One of the firms that helped dig Anchor Hocking’s grave had a part in the bloodletting at one of the major employers in my area.)

Alexander is a superb writer. He cares deeply about his hometown and makes readers care.

This is a book I will read again because I got carried away by the people story and missed significant parts of the business story.I found myself turning pages hoping everything would turn out all right in the end, but, alas, Alexander has given cold, hard truth instead of heartwarming fiction.

Highly recommended reading.

Brian Alexander. 2017.Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town by St. Martins Press.

The Great and Holy War by Philip Jenkins

Soldier among crosses on WWI battlefield
Red, white and black: the colors of the war.

In this century, World War I is often described as the war that “marked the end of illusions, and of faith itself.” Philip Jenkins argues that “The First World War was a thoroughly religious event, in the sense that overwhelmingly Christian nations fought each other in what many viewed as a holy war, a spiritual conflict.” Without acknowledging the war’s religious dimensions, he says, we fail to see how it redrew the religious map and gave rise to the religious conflicts we see on every day’s newscasts.

The emotion and passion that marks Alexander’s book is missing from Jenkins’ text. Because he’s presenting an argument, he’s focused on presenting his case clearly without bringing emotion into it.

That doesn’t mean the text is dry.

Jenkins writes a scholarly text that’s easier to read than most daily newspapers.  He’s not writing down to readers: He’s writing simply enough that readers can come up to the level of his analysis.  For example, he often includes that chapter’s thesis in some form in each paragraph of the chapter’s introduction. It’s subtly done; unless you stop to analyze the text, you’d probably not spot it.

This is a book I will read again, probably more than once. I’ve already made a list of fiction Jenkins mentions that I want to read.

Philip Jenkins. 2014. The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade. Harper One.

Great War Britain by Lucinda Gosling

canteen waitress serves soldiers
Happy side of home front war

This book takes a look at World War I as it was experienced by the upper class, female readers of the popular magazines of the era.

When the war wasn’t over by Christmas, the magazines switched their focus from balls and Paris fashions to photo stories about duchesses’ fundraising efforts and dowagers turning their stately homes into convalescent hospitals.

Lucinda Gosling studied history and worked in the picture library industry. She backs up her text with illustrations—there are many—without which it would be rather dull. Gosling is not a great writer.

Also many of the people mentioned in the text, whose names  would be familiar even today in Britain, wouldn’t draw a yawn on this side of the pond.

Photos aside, for American readers, I think the novels of the WWI decade provide as much insight into WWI Britain as Gosling’s text.

I’m not likely to read this again, but I may look at the pictures again.

Lucinda Gosling. 2014. Great War Britain: The First World War at Home.The History Press.

Made to Stick by Chip Heath & Dan Heath

title printed over duct tape
Duct tape is sticky stuff

Made to Stick is a book about communication. Its premise is that if you can understand why some ideas persist—even fake, screwball, and totally repulsive ideas—then you can use your knowledge to make your own communications sticky.

The Heath brothers are each involved in a different aspect of education, and, although the book is far more widely applicable than education, they frequently use education related illustrations and applications. Their discussion about the need for relentless prioritizing struck a chord with me because I’ve been trying to figure out how to explain to teachers why they have to jettison vast stacks of lessons if they expect students to learn.

The Heaths write well, with a friendly tone and humor. Having discussed how the military makes plans as a way of thinking about situations rather than expecting the plans to work, the Heaths provide a education riff on the military truism no plan survives contact with the enemy: “No lesson plan survives contact with teenagers.”

Every teacher on the planet needs to read this book.

Most of us ought to read it every year.

Chip Heath and Dan Heath. 2008. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.  Random House.

The Laws of Simplicity by John Maeda

two ball shapes and metallic bar
Lots of detail in simple design.

John Maeda is a visual designer, graphic artist, and computer scientist working at MIT.  His book takes some of the same ideas of Made to Stick and applies them to visual communication, product design, and how we can have a better quality of life in a fast-paced, quickly changing world.

Maeda is a smart guy and his writing reveals that. He’s not pedantic, but he’s far from engaging. Also, perhaps because he set out to say all he wanted to say in 100 pages, some of the text that summarizes essential points ended up in go-get-the-magnifier size type.

If you read this book, take its chapters like multivitamins, one a day.

If you teach writing, you might read the Heaths’ book first and compare their six principles to Maeda’s 10 laws, not only in what they say but how they are presented.  It would be an instructive exercise.

The Laws of Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life. John Maeda. 2006. MIT Press.

Grouped by Paul Adams

Groups of eight figures loosely linked by small thread
Eight-member groups are loosely linked.

Paul Adams knows a thing or two about the social behavior on the web. He worked for Facebook as Global Brands Experience Manager and for Google where he worked on Gmail, YouTube and Mobile.

He also knows a thing or two about writing off the web. Adams writes well. His prose has the directness and simplicity that comes from years of disciplined writing.

Instead of having consecutive chapters (old fashioned!) Grouped is a series of sections: Pick and choose at will, just as if you were visiting a website. The sections include quick tips that zero in on some super-important point in the already brief chapters and a summary—think: short, shorter, shortest—and resources for further reading.

The diagrams in the book have a hand-drawn appearance that underscores the idea of the importance of small, informal groups.

Grouped is a book about social behavior and, although the main audiences is businesses with products to sell, is relevant to teachers with lessons to pitch and administrators with budgets to pass.

Highly recommended.

Paul Adams. 2012. Grouped: How Small Groups of Friends Are the Key to Influence on the Social Web. New Riders.

Hug Your Haters by Jay Baer

angry emojii within heart symbol
PR aid for schools?

Jay Baer is a marketing guy,  but not the sort who try to push products on customers. His approach a public relations approach. He responds to customers, particularly if the customers are complaining, in order to keep that person as a customer.

Baer shows why ignoring criticism is bad for  business (even if the business is a not-for-profit organization or government entity). He distinguishes between complainers who want a solution to their problem and those who were disappointed by how the business  treated them and are seeking an audience to share their indignation.  Baer shows how to deal with both groups.

Baer writes well, and includes a lot of material that’s funny. He won’t let you get bored.

There’s plenty in this book that is useful to teachers, administrators, and school board members. For example, Baer points out how today’s best businesses are shaping how parents and community members on whom the school depends expect to be treated by the school.  If your school experiences a problem and delivers an Equifax response, you can bet your bottom dollar, its community stock will have an abrupt drop.

Highly recommended.

Jay Baer. 2016. Hug Your Haters: How to Embrace Complaints and Keep Your Customers. Portfolio/Penguin.

Logotype by Michael Evamy

logotype in white on magenta background
It’s easy to spot the logotype book.

A logotype is a brand identifier made from type—letters, usually—and designed not to be read the way words are read, but to be read as a symbol.  For example, if you see a certain fat F shape, you identify that logotype as meaning Facebook.

This is an entire 336-page book  of such logotypes with short blurbs about the business or organization that owns it and a sentence or two about how the logotype reflects its owner.

This is a fascinating book for people fascinated by such things. If you happen not to be one of them, you won’t like this book at all.

Michael Evamy. 2016. Logotype. Lawrence King Publishing.

What are you reading for?

Writing teachers need to be readers.

Everybody knows that.

But what must they read? And why should they read it?

What writing teachers tend to read

If you look at lists of what writing teachers are reading (or at least what those on Twitter say they are reading), the titles tend to fall into three categories:

  •  nonfiction books about “soft skills” for educational settings
  • nonfiction books related to writing and literacy
  • fiction

What I read

Labor Day weekend, I moved the stack of nonfiction books I read over the summer from the coffee table to the bookcase in the back room.  (The fiction was already scattered in three rooms and on digital devices.)

When I looked at the titles, I realized (not for the first time) that I am not normal.

 

Stack of nonfiction books
Ten nonfiction books I read between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

There’s one title about writing I read because writing is the subject I teach.

Two history books about World War I were on my list because I’m re-reading novels of the Great War era for my book review blog.

Two titles are about the American dream  in today’s economy.

Two titles are about the importance of social relationships for those who want to sell good or ideas.

Two books are on principles of communicating so people get it.

The final book is a book about logotypes, “words and letters that are designed to be recognized.”

Why these particular books?

I read things that interest me, either because I am interested in a topic or because looking for ways I can use my students’ vocational interests to help them learn to write.

Getting outside of my knowledge base upsets my standard thought patterns that I can see ideas I’d never have noticed if they were wrapped in a book on something I know about.

What about you?

What nonfiction do you read?

And why do you read it?

If you need any suggestions, I’ll be happy to give you some suggestions.

18 years of compliance training

I inadvertently stumbled into a Twitter discussion about school activities, such as most homework assignments, that seem to exist for no other reason than, “We’ve always done it that way.”

Here’s an extract:

The conversation suggested that requiring compliance by students is bad.

I don’t think complying with such things as instructions to print one’s name on a document infringe on civil liberties or turn students into automatons: It might be regarded as a simple courtesy.

By the same token, I don’t think complying with school rules has much of an effect on students’ “real lives” outside school.

In fact, as I said, my observations of students in work settings has led me to think the fact that something is required in kindergarten or high school or college is likely to lead students to assume they can safely ignore it elsewhere.

I’ve written several posts over the years about my observations of ex-students’ behaviors outside classrooms when they attempt to enter the workforce. Taken together,  they may suggest it’s not compliance or the lack thereof  that’s a problem.

I’ve pasted the leads of three of them below with links to the entire posts.


Top writing requirement: Read the directions

Teaching students to adapt their writing to the situation never was easy, but is is becoming increasingly difficult. Within a few minutes’ time, we expect students to turn from texting friends to writing research reports to blogging—and to meet the different requirements of each of those situations.

One of the ways we can help students learn to navigate between writing situations is teach them that when directions are provided, they should read and follow those directions, regardless of what they’ve been taught was the appropriate thing to do. Read more of this post.

Work experience as education

Do you want to know how to prepare your students for an entry-level job? The best way to learn what students need to know is to do different entry-level jobs yourself.

Unless you already know somebody at the business, you’ll have to fill out a job application, just as your students will unless they, too, get their jobs through networking or nepotism. Completing a job application requires what the Common Core State Standards refer to as reading informational text. Read more of this post.

Dear applicant: The reason you weren’t hired

Since April,  I’ve been advertising unsuccessfully for two part-time, virtual workers in my educational publishing business. The responses have been mainly from highly schooled individuals who:

  • Don’t know how to write an email,
  • Either don’t read or don’t follow directions, and
  • Don’t have a clue what skills are needed for the 21st century office.

I sent respondents boilerplate “thank you for your interest” replies, but mentally wrote letters I wished I dared send. Read more of this post.

A new way to think about literacy

Literacy = reading and writing, right?

Technically, yes.

But suppose we broadened the skills that we include under the literacy umbrella to include speaking, listening, and thinking.

Then we’d have a suite of skills that people use to learn complex material.

Broadening the definition of literacy is where Mark A. Forget begins teaching any subject, from the humanities to vocational courses.

 Red umbrella labeled LITERAACY over 5 gears labeled reading, writing, speaking, listening, thinking

An expanded definition of literacy facilitates teaching in the content areas using both reading and writing.

Skill acquisition during content learning

Forget (pronounced forzháy) stumbled over some good ideas that he later built on, drawing on research into how people learn.

Forget flips the classroom, using the class time for reading text material that typically is assigned for homework and giving as homework activities that encourage higher order thinking about that same content.

Forget uses textbooks the school provides as the reading material. Students acquire reading skills in the process of reading those texts strategically and collaboratively discussing their reading, defending their interpretation of it by reference to specific passages in the text.

Forget teaches strategies that students can use for the rest of their lives.

Forget varies activities to prevent boredom. He  has about two dozen activities that he picks from to accomplish specific objectives, such as learning to preview text, for example. Having those choices lets him insert some variety into the classes without changing his overall procedure.

Forget uses in-class writing every day. Usually the writing is informal (i.e, ungraded), a tool to help students “generate ideas, become engaged through concrete commitment, clarify their own thinking, or otherwise organize ideas in useful and meaningful ways,” Forget says.

MAX teaching strategies

After testing the procedures for years in a variety of school settings and in many different disciplines, Forget wrote Max Teaching with Reading and Writing: Classroom Activities for Helping Students Learn New Subject Matter While Acquiring Literacy Skills¹.  The “MAX” in Max Teaching stands for Motivation, Acquisition (learning that happens without instruction), and eXtension.

Forget does for reading what I attempt to do with writing: Use it as a tool for teaching content and developing the skills Forget includes under the literacy umbrella: reading, writing, speaking, listening, thinking.

What makes Forget’s method brilliant is less his originality than his consistency: He figured out how to teach so that students learn subject matter content and acquire literacy skills—reading, writing, speaking, listening, and thinking—and he stuck to doing that class after class, week after week.

I don’t recall who recommended the book to me, but I wish I did so I could thank him or her.  If my colleagues in other disciplines used Forget’s methods, teaching writing to their students would be a piece of cake.

I’m sure I’ll be writing more about Forget’s ideas as I work through the rest of the book.


¹ I got my copy of Max Teaching with Reading and Writing through an independent bookseller at Alibris.com

Reading, readiness, and unreadiness

I sat down to write a bit about three nonfiction books I’m reading.

That led me to wonder if there is a word that means the state of having started, but not yet finished, reading a book.  Unreadiness gets things wrong end round; nonreadiness is no better.

Probably the Germans or Japanese have a word for it that an alert reader will share.

But I digress.

3 books: Why Rural Schools Matter, The Physics of Business Growth, Max Teaching with Reading and Writing

Books I’m reading

The nonfiction books I’m reading are

  • The Physics of Business Growth: Mindsets, System, and Processes by Edward D. Hess and Jeanne Liedtka,
  • Why Rural Schools Matter by Mara Casey Tieken
  • Max Teaching with Reading and Writing: Classroom Activities for Helping Students Learn New Subject Matter While Acquiring Literacy Skills by Mark A. Forget.

Despite their quite different subject matter, they have a few common elements. Each is

  • written by people who write well
  • written by people who have lived the subjects they write about
  • written with the expectation that readers will do something based on their reading.

That last point is what’s keeping me from finishing them.

Why I’ve not finished

When I get to the end I’ll need to do something with what I’ve learned, something that’s likely to be uncomfortable, possibly difficult.

I’m ready to learn about.

I’m not ready to go try.

This is the central problem of professional development for educators: Moving from readiness to learn to readiness to apply.

Be an amazing writer: Read like one.

When it comes to reading, there are two ditches modern-day web writers may fall into. Both are notorious, unrefined, and dangerous — especially if you want to be more than an ordinary writer.

On one side, you have the ditch of never-ending digital content where you spend all your time reading online.

……….

On the other side, you have the ditch of “made-for-loneliness” wonkism where all you do all day is read about one topic — and one topic only.

……….

There is nothing wrong with these two approaches to reading if you have no ambition to be a great writer. However, if you aspire to be an
exceptional writer, follow these sophisticated reading habits.

Read all this great post from Demian Farnworth at Copyblogger.

Reading Pairs Repair Written Grammar

one person reads aloud from a paper written by the listener
You can use native English speakers’ ability to hear errors to help them identify potential grammar problem areas in their writing, such as run-together sentences.

Using students to give feedback about their writing is a powerful way to develop students’ skills while reducing your workload.

Simple two-step process

1. With students working in pairs, the author reads his/her work aloud while the other listens.

Why it helps: Slowing down to read aloud may be enough for the author to spot grammatical errors that the author doesn’t see when reading silently.

2. For a second check, the listener reads the work aloud to its author.

Why it helps: The person who didn’t write the paper is far more likely to read sentences as written instead of the way the author intended.

Why it helps: Hearing the paper read by someone else is more likely to reveal to the writer problems he/she corrected mentally but still needs to correct on paper.

During the second reading, students may want to stop at the end of every paragraph, or more often, to see if either questions something that they read. A penciled question mark in the margin (or highlighting on the computer screen) is all that is necessary to help the author remember to check that sentence later.

Tips for trying the technique

Although most strategies I recommend are geared toward teaching teens and adults, this activity can be done with students as young as fourth or fifth grade.

For the activity to work, students need to be fairly well matched in respect to their reading and writing skills.

Also, the reading order is important. The author gets the chance to identify needed changes before the partner can note them. If the listener has reading difficulties, reading second lets him anticipate words s/he will see in the reading.

Read aloud pairs is not a peer editing activity per se. The point is to get the author to focus on the words s/he put on the page.


Comments? Questions? Let’s hear from you.

This post appeared in Writing Points for May, 2011, ©2011 Linda G. Aragoni