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: https://dropping-by-books.ck.page/signup)

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

Teaching writing online: Three practices that work

If you’ve been required to become an online writing teacher during the Covid pandemic, the difficulty of teaching students to write in an online class may have driven you to the point of despair.

I know that feeling.

The first time I taught a writing class, I told students everything I knew about how to write in the first class period. For the rest of the semester, I didn’t teach at all. I gave students nonfiction writing topics to write on in class. While they wrote I walked around and talked with individual students about what they were doing. Despite my untraditional procedure, students learned to write and I learned that what students need more than information about writing is practice writing.

To teach writing online, you will also need to find ways to have students practice writing under your supervision. Doing that isn’t easy using Zoom or similar technologies designed for large group meetings, which are essentially lecture halls. Here are three tips for teaching writing online.

Don’t use traditional textbooks                      

To learn how to write, students need to have only the most basic information that they can use and reuse repeatedly. That means they need easy-to-remember strategies for nonfiction writing. Nonfiction is the writing everyone is required to do, and most required nonfiction writing is short: a telephone message, a request for vacation, a report on why pump #2 failed. Textbooks have far too much information.

Teach writing strategies

Instead of a textbook, I give students eight writing strategies building upon a pattern of thesis and support. They can use the strategies as a basis for virtually every bit of nonfiction writing they’ll be called upon to do in school or in most work situations.  

The frightening word write doesn’t appear in the directions.

One of my writing strategies is an alternative to an outline that I call a writing skeleton™. A writing skeleton™, like a human skeleton, forms a framework that holds the body together but isn’t obvious on first glance.

Every assignment I give novice writers includes a writing skeleton™. The skeleton typically consists of three sentences in which a working thesis is followed by a place for the student insert a reason for believing the thesis is true. Writing skeletons are clunky and awkward, but they’re convenient for students to use: they keep the students’ supporting statements linked to their thesis statements.  Since no one but you and a student need to see that student’s writing skeletons, they don’t need to be pretty.

Stick to essentials

Variety may be the spice of life, but variety keeps students from learning to write. You must stick to the same eight writing strategies. You must keep repeating yourself until you’re ready to scream before you see the first glimmer that someone is catching on. If you can’t stand being bored, perhaps you ought to consider a career other than teaching English.

That’s all you really need to know and to teach.

© 2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Factual accuracy is a writing requirement

An article in my local school district’s newsletter written by a fifth grade ELA class about a presentation by a retired teacher from the district contained this startling fact:

“Haiti is an island located in the Pacific Ocean, east of Florida.”

Haiti shown in Atlantic Ocean east of US

Haiti shares an Atlantic Ocean island with the Dominican Republic.

Whatever else a writing teacher does, he or she should not allow students to get away with such blatant factual errors. Accuracy in writing should extend to more than correct placement of commas.

 

 

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.