25% off on ELA writing prompts

Just in time for back to school, I’m offering 25% off my collections of writing prompts for teens or adults in English/composition classes.

These aren’t just writing topics. Each prompt is embedded within a self-contained writing lesson that provides everything students need to start their writing task without having to ask you for help.

Ready, Set, Write!  includes 20 writing prompts. Bullying Begins as Words contains 15 writing prompts.  Each prompt includes:

  • Context that tells students why the prompt is relevant.
  • Directions for pre-writing preparation.
  • The actual writing assignment.

All the prompts are ready-to-go. Just fill in the due date and the writing prompt is ready for students’ use.

Twenty of the 35 writing prompts are for not-yet-competent writers, who are referred to as noncoms. (Isn’t that a much nicer term than the labels sometimes given that group?)

As the marketers say, results may vary, but  in my experience, 21 weeks of responding to one formal prompt a week supplemented by daily informal writing  got three-quarters of noncoms writing competently.

Each collection includes resources for you in addition to the writing lessons for students. Here’s what you get in either collection:

  • An E-book that puts all the student and teacher materials in one place.
  • The PPC Handbook to answer your questions about using the materials.
  • All the prompts in the collection in both .pdf and .docx versions, each saying you have permission to use them with your students your entire teaching career.
  • A rubric for easy, helpful assessments.

If you already know you have to have these prompts, visit my e-junkie shop where you can get either or both collections at the 25% off discount.

The sale ends at midnight Friday, Aug. 16, 2019.

2 ELA writing prompts sets out June 22

I have two PenPrompts Collections of writing prompts for teens and adults ready to launch on the first Saturday of summer, June 22, 2019. The delivery mechanisms are being tested this week.

Prompts in each PenPrompts Collection are embedded in self-contained writing lessons giving students all the information they need to begin work without bugging their teacher for help.

"Ready, Set, Write!" is written on cover of composition book My newest PenPrompts Collection, Ready, Set, Write!, is a set of 20 writing prompts designed to help not-yet-competent teenage and adult learners master expository writing as they write about ELA topics.

Person directs words that cause another to cringeThe second edition of Bullying Begins as Words, a revised and expanded collection of ELA writing prompts about how word choices impact behavior, contains 15 prompts for not-yet-competent, competent, and proficient teenage and adult learners.

Each student lesson in PenPrompts Collections is accompanied by material to help teachers decide if the prompt is appropriate for their students and to help teachers use the prompt well.

PenPrompts Collections are delivered as digital downloads. Each comes with a copy of the PenPrompts Collections Handbook, which serves as a reference for all PenPrompts Collections.

I’ll post more information about  each of the new collections as soon as the bugs are worked out of the delivery mechanisms. .(My Momma didn’t raise me to be a technician!)

Recommended literary nonfiction reading

3 literary nonfiction books

Note to readers: This post has been revised, I hope for the better.  When I published it April 5, 2019, Internet gremlins duplicated, deleted, and rearranged elements until they the content was unrecognizable.  

Although short literary nonfiction has its place in the academic curriculum, if we are going to attempt to encourage students to become lifelong learners we must have them read some book-length literary nonfiction each year.

The first quarter of 2019 I made a conscious effort to read literary nonfiction that some students might find worth reading. I looked for:

  • tie-ins to courses, current events, and/or students’ experiences
  • good writing that wasn’t stuffy
  • books with at least some images in them
  • books that are widely available through libraries
  • books that are available new at under $10

Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure

Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip is lighthearted history, fun to read, packed with bits and pieces of historical fact, and illustrated with 1950s photos and cleverly drawn maps.

On Jan. 20, 1953, after Dwight D. Eisenhower was sworn in as the 34th president of the United States, Harry S. Truman, the 33rd president, when back home to Independence, Missouri, as an ordinary citizen.

A few months later Truman got a letter inviting him to speak to the Reserve Officers Association on June 26 in Philadelphia. It seemed the ideal opportunity for Truman and his wife, Bess, to go East to see their daughter, visit old friends, and enjoy the open road.

Truman put the suitcases in the car and the couple took off by themselves, Truman at the wheel, Bess riding shotgun, keeping track of every fill-up, and telling her husband not to drive so fast.

Matthew Algeo uses his pleasant, often funny, nonfiction narrative as a lens through which to examine not just 1950s America, but the way the United States has changed since then.

The book could be used for literary nonfiction reading in social studies, English, art, and graphic design classes.

Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip by Matthew Algeo. (Chicago Review Press, ©2009. 264 p.) 

The Fever of 1721

The Fever of 1721 ties together famous names from American history—Cotton Mather, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams—using the story of a Bostonian merchant seaman whose crew had developed smallpox on the trip from England.

By the time John Gore’s brig reached Boston Harbor, one sailor had died, six others were nearly recovered, and Gore had begun showing smallpox symptoms.Gore was dead and buried within 10 days.

The government concealed Gore’s death for fear of creating a panic and for fear of an embargo that would ruin Boston’s economy.

From that beginning, Stephen Coss goes on to discuss the history and politics of vaccination, American-British relations, the history of American newspapers, religion in the colonies, and how the political ramifications of the epidemic laid the groundwork for the American Revolution.

The Fever of 1721 could be used as literary nonfiction reading in English, journalism, history/social studies, science, and health classes. The 1721 controversy surrounding vaccination for smallpox could be compared with the 2019 controversy around measles vaccination.

The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic That Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics by Stephen Coss (Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. ©2016. 350 p.) 

Passages to America

Between 1892 and 1954, two million child immigrants entered the United States through Ellis Island. Another one million child immigrants were processed through the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay between 1910 and 1940.

In Passages to America, developmental psychologist Emmy E. Werner presents the recollections of some of those people about their immigrant experience as children between the ages of ages four and 16.

Werner organizes the histories by population groups including those from the British Isles, Italians, Scandinavians, Armenians, and escapees from Nazi Germany.

Werner’s book is literary nonfiction for a general audience.   Although Werner was an academic, her prose is clean, clear, and easy to understand.

Passages to America could be literary nonfiction reading in social studies and English classes. Virtually every American student would find some personal connection to some immigrant group mentioned in the text. The pre-1955 immigrant experience offers opportunities for comparisons to the experiences of 21st century immigrants.

Passages to America: Oral Histories of Child Immigrants from Ellis Island and Angel Island by Emmy E. Werner (Potomac Books. ©2009. 177 p.)

In case you’re curious

I bought all three of the books mentioned here at hamiltonbook.com. I got Passages to America in hardback, Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure and The Fever of 1721 in paperback.

I have a couple more volumes of literary nonfiction to tell you about next week.

ELA synopsis and comparison, part 2

Last week I gave you directions for a having students write a synopsis of a blog post by Josh Spilker, “What to do it you’re a talentless hack.” Here’s a shortlink to Spilker’s post on Medium: https://yctw.click/whatif

Today I’m going to give you directions for having students use those synopses as one half of a comparison.

The assignment for students

Find online the text of a commencement speech given at a college or high school graduation ceremony in the last five years in which the speaker gives graduates advice about how to find the best job for them. (Hint: Each year news organizations in the US publish stories about the most interesting and/or unusual commencement addresses. You can use the stories to help you find transcripts or videos of the speeches.)

Compare the post by Josh Spilker (https://yctw.click/whatif) that you read and condensed earlier with the message of the commencement speech you read/viewed.

In no more than 750 words, explain to someone who is not familiar with either presentation what you think is the major difference between the two. You can use the synopsis you wrote earlier as part of your explanation.

There are dozens of comparisons you could make. You must choose the one you think is most significant and give enough detail that your readers will agree with your position.

Visual informal writing prompt: figure of speech

Door mat with right bottom half of design and the ME of welcome worn off.

Many people, including some of your students, probably have difficulty distinguishing between terms that are used literally and those that are used figuratively.

An image such as the photograph above of a welcome mat missing two of its letters and about a quarter of its decorative design offers a way to open a discussion of figurative language.

Ask students to write in 15-30 seconds, depending on their ages, what they literally see.

That image, of course, literally shows that people have worn out a welcome mat.

Next have students write in 60-90 seconds, what they think caused part of the doormat image to disappear.

Students should have no difficulty explaining that repeated use—people coming in and going out—wore off the image.

To get them to understand the figurative use off “wore out a welcome,” you have to make them think about the word welcome by another short, informal writing prompt, like this:

If I told you that my neighbors had worn out their welcome, would you think I meant they had worn the design off the welcome at at their home, or would you think I meant something else? In no more than four sentences explain what you think I meant and how you arrived at your answer.

After students have written their responses, you could have them look up the meanings of welcome in a good dictionary to see if they support or contradict the students’ analysis.

After that, you’re ready to introduce that phrase “figure of speech.”

Give authentic analogy practice via writing prompt requirements

When a message’s content is complex or unfamiliar to readers, good communicators look for analogies to take the mystery out of tough concepts.

When teachers want to assess students’ understanding of course content, like other good communicators they scrap worksheets and multiple-choice exams in favor having students develop and use analogies.

An analogy is a type of example or illustration that works by a comparison between something very familiar and something unfamiliar.

Why give analogy practice

Creating an analogy allows students to demonstrate:

  • content mastery
  • effective communication with a target audience.

Students may think they understand a concept or precedure until they are forced to attempt to explain that content to someone else. A failure in that communication situation acts as formative assessment for the communicator—one that is more effective with students than any test score or teacher comment.

Students need analogy practice because many of them will not think of developing analogies without prompting.

Asking students to develop an analogy as part of a writing assignment forces them to engage in a higher level of thinking than they might otherwise do.

Unfortunately for us writing teachers, crafting writing prompts that give students analogy practice is not easy. It requires that we know our content and our students. In other words, we have to know the same things we expect of our students in order to teach them.

Whew! No wonder teachers get the big bucks.

Use analogies yourself

When you teach, use analogies to explain new concepts whenever you can. Analogies, like anecdotes, help students understand concepts by putting the concepts into a familiar context. They compare something unfamiliar to something familiar.

I use analogies to explain such things as transition sentences and the structure of an introduction.

If students have seen you using analogies regularly, they will be more comfortable with attempting to create their own.

Point out analogies in students’ texts

English courses that emphasize literature are more likely to discuss similes and metaphors than analogies. However, analogies are common in nonfiction material. You will find them in students’ history, science, and technology texts where analogies are used to help simplify complex ideas.

You may need to use texts from those other disciplines for teaching the reading comprehension activities that afford opportunities to point out analogies.

If you teach English language arts in a school that adheres to Common Core State Standards, you may have no choice but to help students master reading of complex texts that include analogies.

Instead of viewing that as an unpleasant chore, look at it as a chance to hook the student population turned off by literature by showing them how the material they read uses the same literary devices as classic novels and poems.

Require analogies in students’ writing

Once you’ve introduced students to the concept of the analogy, give them practice creating analogies as a means of developing an expository paragraph.

To build in the analogy practice, you will need to require analogies and explain in your writing prompts how and why students must create an analogy.

I suggest you have younger students develop a “paragraph essay” using an analogy. (Don’t use that term, however. Essay is so nebulous a term that it is meaningless even to most college-educated adults.)

Here’s a paragraph writing prompt that calls for an analogy:

“Paragraph Essay” ELA prompt

A topic sentence and a thesis sentence have a great deal in common. Write a paragraph in which you use an analogy to explain at least two aspects of the relationship between a topic sentence and a thesis statement.

Stop right now and think about how you’d answer the question.

What analogy did you come up with?

I said the relationship between a topic sentence and a thesis sentence is analogous to the relationship of a room to a whole house.

The logical process needed to come up with an analogy is not terribly different from what a student would use to come up with the answer to a bubble-test analogy question like “cat is to  kitten as  cow is to _____.”

Although the writing prompt may look harder than a bubble test question, students see it as more relevant to their experience than standardized test questions. They know that people are asked to explain stuff every day, but nobody takes bubble tests outside of school.

As students mature, you can ask them to develop one paragraph of a multi-paragraph I/E text through analogy and use other strategies for other body paragraphs.

Ready, Set, Write nearly ready for publication

A collection of formal writing prompts I’ve been working on off and on for several years is finally nearing completion.

Each prompt in the collection is a self-contained expository writing lesson for teenage and adult writers who aren’t yet competent expository writers.

The collection contains 20 formal prompts on English Language Arts topics including grammar, literature, research skills, and a few crossover prompts that let students join ELA content to content from other disciplines.

In preparing the prompts, I’ve tried to balance writing difficulties against cognitive difficulties so that students who have not yet achieved competence as expository writers aren’t overwhelmed by having too many difficult challenges in a single assignment.

In addition to the students’ material, each prompt has a page of related material to help teachers shepherd students through using the prompt. The teacher material includes a chart showing how the prompt aligns with both

  • The Common Core State Standards and
  • A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (2001, Anderson and Krathwohl).

If I don’t have any technical difficulties this week, all 20 of the prompts should be ready for a final edit this time next week.

I’ll keep you posted.

Best practices in teaching writing #5

Quote: When you grade papers focus on a small number of serious problems.
Restricting your grading focuses students’ attention.

Grading is a necessary evil. As with other evil things, if you can’t avoid grading entirely, it’s best not to do it much.

I’ve written here about various approaches to putting a grade on work: See, for example, Better late than early; Lick the grading problem, Lollipop; and Grade incentives for learning that don’t suck.

The other potentially evil aspect of grading—and one to which we writing teachers are prone—is saying too much.

We tend to want to say something about every error we see, and all too often we see nothing but errors.

Control your negativity.

A far better approach is to strictly limit our comments.

I recommend you limit error identification to:

  • a short list of serious errors (I use the Connors and Lunsford list of 20 items), and
  • further restrict error-spotting on an individual’s paper to that person’s Individual Mastery Plan items, and
  • stop flagging errors when you’ve found enough to cap that person’s grade.

If I say four instances of any errors from a person’s IMP are too many for a student to get a grade higher than a C on that particular paper, there’s no value in continuing to flag after the first four. Marking 37 errors  rather than four will only discourage a student, and it won’t add a penny to my paycheck.

Stress positive behaviors.

I also recommend you confine yourself to writing no more than two comments on other aspects of writing:

  • one comment on something the student did well or did right;
  • one comment about something other than IMP issues that would boost the student’s grade.

If need be, you can praise students for such things as turning in work on time or  persevering when it doesn’t look like hard work is paying off. Such acts are really important: We notice if students don’t do them, so why not notice that they do?

When possible, suggest something a student can do to boost a grade within a relatively short period of time. Following directions, for example, will probably pay off on the next assignment. Using linking devices will probably not produce improvement until the student has done it deliberately a few times.

Don’t scare students.

Please, don’t write, “See me.”

That’s frightening.

If something in a student’s paper totally bewilders you, I suggest you talk to the student about it rather than writing a comment.

 

You might try asking the student if she/he has a couple of minutes after class to explain something you weren’t sure you understood. Students are normally happy to explain things that their teachers don’t understand.

When you ask a question face-to-face, you position yourself as a reader rather than as a grader. A two-minute conversation can do wonders for students’ mental image of themselves as writers whose ideas matter.

And that’s something grades don’t do well.

 

Best practices in teaching writing #4

Quote: develop good writing prompts that you can reuse year after year.
Develop enough formal writing prompts to give you a choice.

Preparing formal writing prompts may not require more effort from you than preparing informal ones, but responding to them requires a greater investment of time by students. For that reason, you ought to make sure your formal prompts are on some of the most significant topics in your curriculum.

If Susie is going to need to spend five hours on an essay, it ought to concern a topic that’s worth five hours of study.

What’s worth five hours of study? Probably it is a topic to which you devote at least a week of class time.

In all likelihood, a topic that’s worth a week of study in your English class in 2017 will also be worth a week of study in your English class in 2018.

It makes sense, then, to prepare formal writing prompts that you could, at least in theory, use year after year.

You won’t want to use all the same prompts year after year.  Besides the risk that students will recycle work by those in previous years, there’s the more serious danger of boring yourself.

Bored students are bad enough.

Bored teachers are stultifying.

The solution is to prepare writing prompts that have a high degree of likelihood of fitting into your course next year as well as this year.

After you have a full year’s worth of formal prompts, begin creating replacements for a certain number of those prompts every year.

Tip: Don’t discard a prompt unless it was a total disaster:  Tweak prompts that produced disappointing results their first time out, preferably right after you read students’ responses to the prompt.

If you have 25 formal prompts for a year and create replacements for five of those a year, by your sixth year of teaching you would have 50 formal prompts on major topics in your curriculum.  Having all those choices will help keep boredom at bay.

Even more importantly, you’ll have developed skill at writing formal prompts and at spotting current events hooks to use with them.

Those skills will help prevent burnout and boredom in later years.

© 2017 Linda Aragoni

Best practices in teaching writing #3

Quote: Give explicit directions so you don't have to keep re-explaining.
Explicit directions are good, but they’re even better written down.

No matter how clearly you phrase information, no matter how carefully you choose your illustrations,  no matter how well you prepare, you are not going to get through to every student on your first attempt.

Instead of getting yourself tied in knots over your failure—which may have nothing whatsoever to do with you—prepare in advance for failures.

When you prepare writing prompts,  include in writing stripped-down directions about how to do the main task(s) the writing entails. You can also put the directions in some other formats (audio clips or video), but always put it in writing.

If you include in each writing prompt written information that teaches students how to do one writing task, by the time students have had a dozen writing prompts, they should have a miniature handbook on writing embedded in the prompts.

Encourage students to treat your writing prompts as instructional materials by referring students to directions you included in prior prompts.

Of course, not all students will read the prompts carefully or keep them after turning in the assignment, but if your prompts include genuinely helpful tips, many will hang on to the prompts to use again.

© 2017 Linda G. Aragoni