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

Writing prose and cleaning toilets

A neighbor whom I know well enough to greet by first name—hers and mine are the same—said to me yesterday, “You must really enjoy writing.”

“I enjoy it about as much as I like cleaning the toilet,” I replied.

Toilet with plunger and brush beside it.
I’d as soon clean a toilet as write.

She recoiled. “That’s a horrible thing to say.”

Horrible, perhaps, but true.

Writing is my work. It’s not something I do eight hours a day for the fun of it.

I enjoy having written. When I finish something that accomplishes what it was supposed to do—introduce students PERT charting or drill sales people on the characteristics on an oncology drug—I feel good about my work. But the actual act of writing anything but a humor piece is work, and sometimes even being funny is a chore.

I can sympathize with students who moan about how hard writing is because writing is hard for me, too. But I refuse to allow students to dodge writing because it’s hard.

Writing is work.

Work is hard.

I don’t love writing.

Students don’t have to love writing either, but students must learn to do it and you and I must teach them how to do it.

We must teach students that not every piece of writing has to be art.

We must teach them to recognize when what they’ve written fulfills the assignment.

We must teach them that “good enough” is usually good enough.

We must teach them most writing they will be required to do in their lives will be a lot like cleaning toilets: something almost everybody can do, that almost nobody likes to do, and which they will often not be able to avoid doing.

Please excuse me now. I have to go write.

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Focusmate: Tool for adults learning to write

Adults in remedial education classes or post-secondary programs (whether degree-granting or not) who sit and stare at their paper or computer screen without writing a single sentence might be helped to overcome their inertia by a new, free, on-line tool called Focusmate.

I suspect adult students who don’t have a support group of other learners also might find the Focusmate procedures helpful to keep them on task.

What Focusmate does is randomly match a user with a partner for a 50-minute, no-talking, no-wool-gathering, no goofing around work session streamed live to the co-worker.

To use Focusmate, a student would have to be at least 17 and have  a computer with a camera and microphone and an Internet connection to use for the sessions.

At the beginning of a session, each partner says hello, identifies their goal for the session, and goes to work. At the end of the session, they say goodbye. In between hello and goodbye they work.

The Focusmate community includes writers, freelancers, virtual workers, entrepreneurs, programmers, designers—people who need to accomplish work alone but need to be accountable to someone in order to be productive.

Both parties must work with their video on. Having the microphone on throughout each session is encouraged, but not required. Hearing someone else working boosts each individual’s productivity—who wants to be the lump who sits and does nothing?— and makes both of them feel accountable for producing during the session.

Just learning Focusmate’s community rules and tips for users would also be very useful for job-seekers in today’s market.

You might want to try Focusmate yourself over the summer. Four 50-minute sessions a week for six weeks could get you ready for fall with less stress than trying to cram everything into one week before opening day.

 

Vague writing: a formal ELA writing prompt

Photo of novel The Hotel New Hampshire and quote from it.

Turn this quote into a writing prompt

 

While reading John Irving’s 1981 bestselling novel The Hotel New Hampshire for GreatPenformances, I ran a statement teens and adult students in English and composition classes should consider. Irving says, “When you write vaguely, you are always vulnerable.”

I think it’s safe to say that Irving isn’t talking just about a student writer getting a bad grade on an English class assignment.

Have your students consider Irving’s assertion, taking into consideration:

  • What does Irving mean when he says a writer is vulnerable?
  • To whom or to what is a writer vulnerable?
  • Does being vague always pose a problem for writers or is vagueness only a problem in certain situations?
  • If vagueness makes writers vulnerable, how does it accomplish that?

Have students write a formal document in which they either agree or disagree with what they understand Irving means.

Doing isn’t necessarily understanding

The last two weeks, I’ve worked every day to learn how to create document templates in OpenOffice that contain everything I need for a project I expect to go on for several years.

The effort has reminded me daily of the difference between being able to do something and understanding what you’re doing.

In certain academic areas — writing and math come to mind immediately — being able to perform operations without understanding what you’re doing is as bad, if not worse, than not being able to perform those tasks at all.

The problem is even more serious in non-academic settings.

Imagine a pilot, accountant, surgeon, or cashier who knows how to perform certain actions but doesn’t understand the consequences of those actions.

You may not have to imagine the cashier. You might have seen that person on your last trip to the superstore.

If someone can’t explain:

  • what they are doing

  • why they are doing what they are doing

  • what the previous action had to have been to get them to this step

  • what effect their action will have if it’s done right

  • what effect their action will have if it’s done wrong

  • what the effect of not doing that action at all would be

  • what the next action must be

that person doesn’t know what she’s doing.

Do you make sure your students know what they are doing?

Teaching: Those who can, do

You’ve heard it said with reference to writing that "Those who can [write], do, and those who can’t [write], teach [writing]."

However, it’s is often true that those who do write, can’t teach writing.

And it’s sometimes true that those who can’t teach writing, do.

And it’s always true that those who can’t teach writing, shouldn’t.

Learn to write in eight weeks.

No reason it should take more than eight weeks.

I mean, writin’ is like just sayin’ stuff only, you know, with a pencil or computer or somethin’.

I’ll bet if you worked hard, you could ace it in six.

Five maybe.

After all, writin’s just like, well, it’s just like sayin’ stuff.

Ya know what I’m sayin’?

Teaching writing is like writing

Teaching writing is a lot like learning to write.

You don’t need to know much at the start, but you must be willing to learn.

small boy spray-painting MOM on wall
You must work consistently to improve and tolerate failures as you learn.

young woman sits despondently on bench
Above all, you have to accept the fact that everyone thinks what you do is easy except the people who do it every day.

man sweeping big parking lot with broom


Photos by Ryan McGuire of gratisography.com

Writing for work-readiness

If you’ve been out of the universe for a while, you may have missed the cries for students to be “college and career ready.”

Since writing and teaching writing are particular interests of mine, I’ve been checking out a few scholarly reports about where writing fits into getting students ready for life beyond high school.

Two themes stood out to me: The reports assume that (1) college attendance is required for entrance into the world of work and (2) the world of work means offices occupied by salaried professionals.

College is an assumed prerequisite

Here are four excerpts from the opening pages of reports issued between 2003 and 2013.

The Neglected “R” (subtitled The Need for a Writing Revolution), published by the College Board in April 2003, says:

More than 90 percent of midcareer professionals recently cited the “need to write effectively” as a skill “of great importance” in their day-to-day
work.  The world in general, and advanced societies in particular, now demonstrates a nearly voracious appetite for highly educated people. (Underscores added.)

Writing: A Ticket to Work…Or a Ticket Out published by the College Board in September 2004, had these observations:

A survey of 120 major American corporations employing nearly 8 million people concludes that in today’s workplace writing is a “threshold skill” for hiring and promotion among salaried (i.e., professional) employees. Survey results indicate that writing is a ticket to professional opportunity, while poorly written job applications are a figurative kiss of death.

Writing is a “threshold skill” for both employment and promotion, particularly for salaried employees. Half the responding companies report that they take writing into consideration when hiring professional employees. (Underscores added.)

The Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing developed by Council of Writing Program Administrators, National Council of Teachers of English and the National Writing Project, published January 2011, says:

This Framework describes the rhetorical and twenty-first-century skills as well as habits of mind and experiences that are critical for college success. (Underscore added.)

What Does It Really Mean to be College and Work Ready? an NCEE English report, published in May 2013:

… addresses a simple question: what kind and level of literacy is required of a high school graduate if that student is going to have a good chance of succeeding in the first year of a typical community college program? (Underscores added.)

Suppose the assumptions are wrong?

Suppose college isn’t the only gateway into the workplace.

Suppose there are good-paying jobs outside of offices.

Suppose high schools turned out graduates with skills necessary for entry-level jobs in businesses in their areas.

Suppose MOOCs and coding academies and apprenticeships allow students to go from high school to good-paying jobs.

Suppose Makerspaces allow inventive, entrepreneurial students places to become business owners.

If those and other alternatives to college-going (other than unemployment) were widely available, what then?

Would how we teach writing change?

When I realized the majority of my college students either didn’t want to be in college or shouldn’t have been there, I changed how I taught freshman composition.

What’s been your experience?