How Do We Teach Style in Research Writing?

research_0“And this needs to be in MLA format.”

Those of us who teach in the humanities frequently ask our students to use MLA format when writing research documentation. Because a lot of research writing tends to come through English classes, especially in high school, students are most often exposed to MLA rules for citing sources.

Although there is nothing wrong with that, teachers should know that APA style is also alive and well on college campuses. Focusing exclusively on MLA might cause problems for students when they step foot on a college campus. With that in mind, here are some suggestions for teaching research writing in high school and introductory college writing classes.

Let’s take a step back. MLA is the acronym for the Modern Language Association, an organization focused on the use and study of language, primarily in academic settings associated with the humanities. APA is the acronym for the American Psychological Association, an organization focused on all aspects of psychology that has developed a set of rules and standards for scientific writing used across many disciplines. Although MLA and APA are the most common formats used on college campuses, there are some professors who require papers written in other formats: Turabian, Harvard, Chicago Manual of Style, and IEEE (Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers).

Because college students are likely to encounter multiple documentation formats in their classes, introducing students to research writing by requiring them to memorize the specifics of a particular documentation format is less important than helping them know how to find the right format. After all, the formatting rules change from time to time rendering obsolete those memorized specifics. If a student knows MLA and only MLA, confusion can arise when college professors require other formats.

Although I work with many humanities students using MLA format for documentation, one of my biggest eye-openers from working in our college’s writing center is the depth involved in the term “APA style.” Papers written in “APA style” for a nursing, psychology, or sociology class look very different from interpretive papers for an English class or a narrative for a child development class.

In other words, an individual college student is required to write in widely varying styles as he goes from class to class, so as we prepare students for college writing, we need to make them aware of these different expectations.

For example, in addition to documentation and page layout, APA style actually includes a rhetorical stance that emphasizes precision, clarity, and objectivity, which is consistent with APA’s scientific orientation.

apa pub manWhile more expressive writing may strive for variety by using synonyms, the APA Publication Manual suggests that using synonyms is risky in scientific writing: “The intention is commendable, but by using synonyms you may unintentionally suggest a subtle difference. Therefore, choose synonyms with care. The discreet use of pronouns can often relieve the monotonous repetition of a term without introducing ambiguity.”

APA style also prefers “economy of expression”: “Say only what needs to be said. The author who is frugal with words not only writes a more readable manuscript but also increases the chances that the manuscript will be accepted for publication.” (“Publication” as used here clearly refers to academic or technical journals.)

For precision and clarity, APA suggests avoiding colloquial expressions and jargon, and being careful when using pronouns or comparisons.

APA style also has no use for what the Publication Manual calls “linguistic devices”: “Devices that attract attention to words, sounds, or other embellishments instead of to ideas are inappropriate in scientific writing. Avoid heavy alliteration, rhyming, poetic expressions, and clichés. Use metaphors sparingly … Use figurative expressions with restraint and colorful expressions with care.”

Perhaps the most important element of writing in APA style is the issue of bias. The APA Publication Manual devotes seven pages to guidelines for reducing bias in language relevant to gender, sexual orientation, racial and ethnic identity, disabilities, age, and “historical and interpretive inaccuracies.” Objectivity is obviously important in scientific writing: “If your writing reflects respect for your participants and your readers and if you write with appropriate specificity and precision, you will be contributing to the goal of accurate, unbiased communication.”

So, if we want students to be college-ready writers when it comes to research, here are some suggestions:

1.  Provide students with practice in a variety of rhetorical stances, including those without traces of subjectivity or bias. In an earlier post, I wrote about how students think they are not supposed to use “I” in their writing, although they frequently misunderstand the intention of that rule. Be the teacher who helps writers understand how to adapt their writing to all kinds of situations.

2.  Provide students with practice in following in detail at least one specific documentation format, but make sure they are aware of the existence of others.

3.  Help students understand the mechanics and purposes of documentation. Be aware of the existence of automatic citation generators such as EasyBib, BibMe (my favorite), and Citation Machine. These are amazing time-savers, but they work more smoothly for those who understand what is being created. Although students are responsible for the results of their work, those who use these sites are not cheating.. In fact, many databases and college libraries now provide citations in a variety of formats alongside the entries so that users can simply cut-and-paste them.

expository_books4.  Help students understand the dichotomy of research writing. Research is not writing, and writing is not research. They are two separate activities. As we said in Expository Composition: Discovering Your Voice, “Good writers can create sloppy, meaningless research projects, and good researchers can write research papers that are dreadful to read.”

Of course, research writing is just one element of a healthy writing curriculum. In addition to the research writing discussed here, young writers need opportunities to practice narrative, analytical, expository, personal, and creative writing. Students who are comfortable and competent in all of those modes are ready to face not only academic writing challenges but can also embrace writing as a vital, fulfilling means of expression.

Thank you for reading this, and your comments are always welcome. What is your best tip for teaching research writing?

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My Illinois State Board of Education Adventure

isbe aud
In June, 2014 I made two moves in my professional life almost simultaneously: I retired as a high school teacher, and I renewed my K-12 Illinois teaching license. Although that may seem paradoxical, I was preserving my options in case an opportunity arose that might require a teaching license. Renewing a teaching license in Illinois is a fairly simple process that involves filing claims related to professional development activities, and I had plenty of those.

Then in January, 2015, an official-looking envelope arrived from the Illinois State Board of Education. Its contents informed me that I had been selected for an audit of the professional development activities claimed in my K-12 license renewal application. That’s right. Out of the tens of thousands of Illinois teachers actively involved in day-to-day contact with K-12 students, they chose to audit a college teacher with no K-12 affiliation.

Now here’s the part where I would like a do-over. During my last few years as a high school teacher, the time covered by my previous license, our on-site professional development was somewhere between comical and counter-productive. I considered it a point of honor that when I applied for license renewal, I did not claim those on-site professional development activities that I found so pointless. Instead, I used the activities I found more valuable—publications, conference presentations, and online activities. Well, that point of honor jumped up and bit me on the butt in the audit process.

For audit purposes, on-site activities are verifiable by a piece of paper, known in Illinois as a CPDU form, signed by an administrator. The off-site and publishing activities that I claimed required far more extensive documentation. I needed help from people at the Illinois Association of Teachers of English, The National Council of Teachers of English, and three different publishers in order to round up the documentation to complete the audit. (Thanks to everyone who helped. I literally could not have done this without you.)

So, a few reams of paper and a couple of print cartridges later, I submitted the documentation back in February. I was then informed that I would hear the results of the audit by late May or early June. Today—June 27—I received official notification from the Illinois State Board of Education that my audit “was completed successfully.”

So, what have we learned?

1. If you’re an Illinois teacher, hang on to your CPDU forms. Even if the activities they certify have questionable value, the form itself has value if you’re selected for an audit.

2. Save your righteousness for things that matter. If the bureaucratic game regards silliness and productivity as identical, do things simply and move on. Spend your energy more wisely than I did.

3. Growing professionally is important, and there are many ways to accomplish it. Keep learning for your students, your profession, and yourself, even if the educational bureaucracy doesn’t recognize or value it.

4. Share your mistakes so that others can learn and benefit from them!


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Top Ten Summer Reads for #APLit Students

top ten covers

Advanced Placement Literature students and their teachers know that next May they will address a prompt that asks test-takers to discuss a literary work and how it relates to the prompt. The prompt will be accompanied by a list of books that are appropriate choices for the topic, but students are welcome to choose other works of merit that they know well enough to discuss. Obviously, the more literary books that a student has read, the more comfortable she will be in tackling next year’s prompt.

But it’s summer! Who wants to read those kinds of books in the summer? Summer is for beach reads, thrillers, bodice rippers, and melodramatic books with cliffhangers. Significance is for the school year! While I can respect those assertions, there is some middle ground.

For the list below, I chose books that are compelling enough to read during the summer and still make the “literary” cut. These are books that AP students can navigate on their own without the support of teachers, classmates, or Shmoop. Some of these books have appeared on the AP Lit test lists in previous years, so we know they are considered worthy. Some are by authors with other books that have appeared on the AP Lit test in previous years, so these are also likely to be safe. A couple of the books are by authors who have never appeared on the list, but they are clearly fair game when it comes to literary merit.

Most importantly, I picked books that are page-turners with deeply compelling characters and situations. Most of them have been best-sellers so they appeal to a wide audience. While not exactly frothy, these books are likely to be satisfying summer reads that will also make worthwhile additions to the list of literary titles that AP Lit students can draw upon next May.

Many thanks to Sandra Effinger for continuing to curate a list of titles and prompts that have appeared on the AP Literature test since 1971, including updates from May, 2015.

My choices for the Top Ten #APLit Summer Reads are presented here in no particular order:

Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale. Set in a time when women are nothing more than birthing vessels, The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of Offred, a young handmaid who remembers how things were before.

Cormac McCarthy: The Road. A father and son travel through post-apocalyptic America trying to find their way home. Students who liked The Hunger Games and Divergent when they were freshmen are ready for The Road, a more haunting dystopian vision.

Alice Walker: The Color Purple. Set in 1930s Georgia, The Color Purple is told through letters, mostly to God, as several black women struggle to find their place in a changing society.

Cristina Henriquez: The Book of Unknown Americans. Published in 2014, The Book of Unknown Americans won numerous awards for literary excellence. It tells the story of two immigrant families, one from Mexico and one from Panama, who find themselves in Delaware trying to maintain hope in the face of discrimination and an immigration system mired in bureaucracy. At the center of the story is a riveting unlikely romance.

Khaled Hosseini: The Kite Runner. Set against a backdrop of Afghanistan’s political and cultural turmoil, The Kite Runner deals with a young boy damaged by his country’s caste system. The book’s central question is whether friendship can endure.

Kazuo Ishiguro: Never Let Me Go. Students at a mysterious boarding school are treated as special. Years later, they discover the truth behind the bonds connecting them. Never Let Me Go has enthralled several of my students.

Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird. If you just rolled your eyes over this choice, please hear me out. I’m pretty well on record as a big fan of this book. I’m also on record as saying I don’t think it’s a good choice for a whole-class novel after about eighth grade. Nevertheless, To Kill a Mockingbird has appeared on the AP Literature test list five times in the past eight years. More importantly, seniors might be starting to feel a bit nostalgic about their younger years, and those who re-read To Kill a Mockingbird will perceive it differently than they did when it was assigned to them several grades ago.

William Faulkner: As I Lay Dying. This is arguably the most challenging book on the list, but oh boy is it fun. There isn’t much plot—a Mississippi family takes its matriarch’s body for burial—but As I Lay Dying is full of quirky alternating narrators that force us to almost co-create the novel with Faulkner as we read. As I Lay Dying is also funnier that I just made it sound.

Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar. This one isn’t for everyone, but in The Bell Jar Sylvia Plath takes us through Esther Greenwood’s disintegrating mental state. A masterful example of drawing a reader into empathy with a character, The Bell Jar is disturbing and powerful.

Sherman Alexie: Indian Killer. Does “Indian Killer” mean a-killer-who-is-an-Indian or one-who-kills-Indians? Shaped as a murder mystery, Indian Killer becomes much more as it examines both prejudice in general and issues related to Native Americans more specifically. Alexie’s Reservation Blues was on the AP Lit list in 2008 and 2009, and Indian Killer is just as solid.

There you go. However, there is nothing magical about the number ten. Feel free to quibble with my choices or make other suggestions of books that are both great summer reads and high-quality literature. As always, thanks for reading.

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What a Night!: Fremd High School’s #WriteNite

write nite sign
Kudos to Fremd High School for holding its first Write Nite last night as a fund-raiser for their mighty Writers Week program. (Disclaimer: Although I was an organizer for Fremd’s Writers Week for many years, my only involvement in Write Nite was as an enthralled observer.) What is Write Nite? Well, it can take many forms, but Fremd’s version included the following:

Three students involved in spoken word poetry who opened with pieces that set the tone for the evening by combining humor, insight, courage, and excellent writing

The Ukeladies—two talented singers who played ukuleles and sang parodies of Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum songs, including a version of “I Need You Now” that served as a plea to the superintendent to call off school due to cold weather. The superintendent was in the audience for Write Nite, and he later tweeted, “Totally energizing and glad-to-be-alive-in-this-moment evening at Fremd. Outstanding performances by all. Great for the soul!”

Ed Nickow—the father of a Fremd English teacher whose day job has nothing to do with writing but who has become something of an online celebrity due to his blogging and his Twitter persona @TheCubsInHaiku

A haiku competition featuring people who have the same names—a married couple who both teach at Fremd, siblings who both teach at Fremd, two students who have the same name, and a teacher and student who both share the same name

An a cappella competition—a mini-Pitch Perfect show with three groups of energetic singers

Write Club—a head-to-head competition between writers on assigned topics, including students who blog together writing about siblings; the newspaper advisor on Truth and the state champion sportswriter on Dare; the principal advocating online communication and Fremd’s tech director advocating face-to-face communication

Semester Abroad—a student pop-punk band that brought the crowd to its feet and eventually turned the media center into a mosh pit

The energy in that room was amazing. A lot of schools are dragging at this point in the year, but the faculty, students, parents, alumni, and community members at Write Nite were the opposite of dragging.
Fremd High School is a writing community. The best student writers are as well-known and respected as any other campus paragon. Many teachers at Fremd understand writing as something more than an academic endeavor; they cover the academic bases when it comes to writing, but they go far, far beyond regarding writing as nothing more than assignments and test prep. Many students at Fremd use writing as an outlet and as recreation. And, of course, for 21 years Fremd has hosted Writers Week, an annual week-long celebration of writing that brings together student, faculty, and professional writers.

write nite hansBeyond writing though, last night the school strengthened itself as a community. The audience cheered the principal. They cheered teachers. They cheered each other. Take a look at the #WriteNite hashtag on Twitter. One student said, ” There isn’t a lot to love about public high school, but the allegiance Fremd kids feel towards Writer’s Week is something to believe in.”

Any school can do what I saw last night at Fremd’s Write Nite. All it takes is dedicated teachers willing to plan, work, and organize, along with a supportive administration and community. Every school has student writers. That’s the easy part. Find the writers and build a program around them.

I’ll bet the fund-raising part of Write Nite turned out well, but that’s almost beside the point. What happened last night in the school’s media center for three hours helped Fremd’s students experience writing with a depth and passion that is rare in schools. I’m proud of my former colleagues and students for what they put out in the world last night. Respecting student writers and holding up their work is something that Fremd High School in Palatine, Illinois does extremely well.

Lately I’ve been seeing this quote from business consultant and writer Shawn Parr: “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” In other words, you can strategize all you want, but your organization’s culture is really its essence. Schools need to strategize to a certain extent, but you have to work with the culture that is already in place. From what I saw at Write Nite last night, Fremd’s culture as a community of writers is in a very healthy place.

Thanks for an inspirational evening.

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The Mariner and Me:  Telling Our Stories to Help Students (and Ourselves) Reflect

magritte_grande-familleStudents are usually interested in developing a résumé: leadership positions, extra-curricular activities, service projects, etc. They carefully choose and articulate each crumb of success and arrange them so that they will present the best possible version of themselves.

But what about creating a failure résumé? A recent blog post by Angela Skinner Orr entitled “#FML (Fail My Life): A Failure Résumé” inspired by Tina Seelig’s 2009 blog post “FAIL in order to SUCCEED” has me thinking about the power of reflection as an important tool for teachers.

One of the most important traits of an excellent teacher is a growth mindset—constantly searching for ways to improve one’s craft. Reflection—the act of stepping back and analyzing what worked and what didn’t work, either in writing or in collaborative discussion—is an important practice to develop.

As we reflectively process an experience or decision, we are not only generating new ways to benefit from what happened, we are also thinking about our own thinking and what we can learn from it. This deepens our understanding of how thinking and learning operate, and we can use that new learning for the benefit of our students and ourselves.

When we incorporate the results of our reflection into our practice, we may try new concepts or approaches, or we may try old concepts in new ways. These re-boots can then serve as fuel for future reflection.

I’m especially excited about helping students become more reflective. Learners become better at thinking when they better understand their own cognition. That failure résumé is a brilliant exercise for just this kind of activity, and Orr’s blog post can serve as an excellent model.

I would suggest introducing the failure résumé by telling a story to your students. Tell them about a time you struggled or failed. I guarantee they will pay attention. There is just something about a teacher telling a personal story revealing vulnerability that students respect.

Last year I told my class a story I’d never told anyone before. We were studying Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in which a mariner kills an albatross for no apparent reason and suffers both internal shame and public humiliation because of his act.

I began, “This reminds me of a time when I did a really stupid thing that I’ve never told anyone about.”

Do you think students who were moments ago less than enthused about the Coleridge poem perked up a bit? Oh, yeah.

“When I was about ten or eleven, I was really into archery. We had a big field behind the house, and I set up targets. Eventually I got pretty good at it. Across the road from the field our neighbors had an old barn and some ponies. I was free to roam their property, including the barn which was home to quite a few pigeons in addition to the ponies. One day I was shooting arrows in our field and then wandered over to the neighbor’s barn carrying my bow and arrow. The ponies were outside, but the rafters were full of pigeons.”

(Yes, the students are still locked on, and Coleridge is far, far away.)

“For absolutely no reason, I drew an arrow, took aim, and shot one of those roosting pigeons, sticking it grotesquely to the wooden barn wall. I immediately felt terrible about it. I climbed up a little ladder, pulled the arrow and the pigeon from the wall, went outside and threw the pigeon in some weeds, and put the arrow back in my scabbard.

“Until just now, I have never told that story. I have never understood why I did such a terrible thing, but I wish I knew why I did such ‘a hellish thing.’ I always think about this though when I read what the sailors say to the Mariner: ‘God save thee, ancient Mariner! / From the fiends, that plague thee thus!– / Why look’st thou so?’

“I can relate to why the Mariner looks stricken. Is it guilt, shame, or confusion about why he did this thing? I’m not sure, but I know something of how it feels to do a stupid thing that I don’t really understand.

“Now, shall we go on with the poem, or does anyone else have a story about a time something similar happened?”

And Coleridge always takes a seat on the bench for several minutes. When we go back to the poem, it’s with renewed interest and focus. It’s no longer a dead-white-guy poem; it’s about a situation newly infused with empathy.

Telling stories makes the learning “stickier.” Maybe it’s the inherent energy of a story and how human brains are wired to learn especially well when concepts are embedded in a story. Maybe it’s what happens when a teacher challenges the stereotype and becomes a little more human. Either way, modeling courage and maturity before students consider their own struggles or failures is likely to lead to more powerful reflection.

Tell stories. Reflect on how the stories affected the learning. Help students tell stories. Help students reflect.

As always, thank you for reading, and I’m eager to know your thoughts.

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Doing a Scary Thing

dT8bdoETeThis blog post is going to be a little different. It’s mostly just for me.

A revelation that came to me from Gretchen Rubin’s Better than Before, a book about habits, is that we form, maintain, and break habits in different ways depending on our personality traits. In my case, I’m not too good at keeping personal goals, but I’m very good at meeting deadlines. In other words, I might tell myself that I want to accomplish something, but if I don’t quite cross the finish line, I’m usually OK with that. On the other hand, if I have an assignment or deadline from an outside source, I make sure that it gets done.

Here is the scary part. I’ve wanted to lose weight for a long time, but it’s been an unaccomplished goal. So now I’m moving that goal from something that is “merely” personal and private to something that seems like an assignment because other people will know about it. The plan is to lose at least twenty pounds by January 1, 2016.

Blog subscribers who tune in here for posts about writing, reading, literacy, education, books, baseball, etc. need not worry. I don’t plan to write post after post on this topic, unless it happens to intersect with those other topics in unforeseen ways. Instead, I will post my progress, or lack thereof, in the comment section of this post once or twice a month.

It’s OK with me if no one responds to this. It’s also OK if someone wants to add a tip or two. The scary part is over after I hit the Publish button on this post. Whew.

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A Dozen Cool Ways to Use Periscope in Your Class

periscopePeriscope is a fairly new app (and web site) connected to Twitter. The basic idea is that a user can broadcast from anywhere any time with a device as simple as a smart phone. (In fact, I’m broadcasting my writing session as I draft this post! Why anyone would want to see that is beyond me, but 83 people have watched me type this.)

A Periscope broadcaster simply points a device’s camera and begins to broadcast through the app. The broadcaster can add a text description of what is being shown so that anyone surfing Periscope will have an idea of what the broadcast is showing. Broadcasters can also add a location or send a Tweet announcing the broadcast.

Those who are watching a Periscope broadcast can interact with the broadcaster in several ways beyond simply looking at the streaming video. Viewers can tap the screen which makes a little heart float up through the right side of the video. This is similar to a “Like” button on other social media sites. Viewers can also add text comments that appear in boxes on the lower left of the screen and also show the viewer’s screen name. If a lot of comments are coming in at the same time, this can be cluttered, but the boxes eventually sort themselves out when the comment stream slows down.

A dialogue can emerge if a broadcaster responds out loud to the comments through the broadcasting device’s microphone, or if the commenters begin to comment on each other’s observations.

As with any tech tool, there are advantages and disadvantages. Periscope is like Skype in many ways, although it is more portable. Skype, however, offers the advantage of two-way oral communication.

The Periscope app is free, easy to use, and actually pretty fun. Here are some nifty ways to use it for educational purposes.

1. Show how to do something. Your students’ classic how-to speeches can be shown in real time to the Periscope audience. Your students may or may not want to interact with the commenters in real time, but either way the speakers tend to take the concept of audience more seriously when they know it includes people besides the other students sitting in the room.

2. Arrange a virtual visit to a cultural institution or landmark. Why not use Periscope to visit a museum on the opposite side of the country, or check in on what is happening at one of the wonders of the world? Museums, parks, or other public facilities will usually work with teachers to arrange virtual visits. Talk to the most tech-forward person you can find in their personnel list, and tell that person what you would like to do.

3. Arrange a virtual visit with an expert. What are you learning about? Who is an expert on that topic? Contact the experts and ask if they will join you via Periscope to talk with your class and show where and how they work. I’ve had wonderful experiences doing this kind of thing with Skype, but Periscope’s portability enhances the potential for even more dynamic learning opportunities.

4. Perform live. Students who are working on monologues, dramatic scenes, or poetry readings can prepare their performances and then broadcast them to the world. Because Periscope can be easily connected to Twitter, these performances can be promoted ahead of time to ensure bigger audiences.

5. Help with homework.
A teacher or other homework helper can be available for help while class is not in session. When students get stuck on homework, they can type in a question as a text comment through Periscope, and the designated homework helper can respond out loud. This has great potential for review sessions.

6. Reach absent students. Sometimes students are unable to be in class. Periscope easily allows students to virtually participate in real time. Just point a device at the instruction as it’s being delivered, and the absent students can follow along in real time.

7. Invite observers. Periscope allows parents, or anyone really, to virtually visit your class. As the broadcaster, you decide when and what to broadcast. There is obviously potential for misuse with this one, but Periscope allows parents to get a sense of what your class is like.

8. Connect classes. Many of us have virtual colleagues, and Periscope allows us to join classes with teachers in another state or country. If you’re having a guest speaker in class tomorrow, why not broadcast it to the classes of your colleagues who would also benefit from the experience?

9. Show thinking. Sometimes we ask student to show their work or describe their thinking. A student can use Periscope to simultaneously create something, or solve a problem on paper or a different screen while narrating her process. You or other students can watch it live, or students can archive it for sharing with you later.
10. Ask for help. If the class is trouble-shooting or debating an issue, you can start a Periscope broadcast with an inviting query in the text description and see what happens.

11. Conduct a survey.
Your class can use Periscope to pose a question to other Periscope users. “Who would you like to see elected as the next governor?” “What did you have for breakfast?” “What is your favorite Shakespeare play?” As respondents provide answers in the comment bubbles, the results can be tallied in the video part of the broadcast.

12. Share a gallery. If your class has a gallery of recent artwork or writing, you can broadcast a “gallery walk.” Show each student’s creation while he or she tells about what the viewer is seeing.

As with any tech activity that involves the outside world, be sure to monitor what your students are experiencing. Although Periscope’s rules clearly prohibit most kinds of bad behavior, some things can slip through fairly easily.

As you can probably tell, I’m enthusiastic about Periscope’s educational potential, and I hope you will share your experiences and other ideas.

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Hello and Goodbye: Introductions and Conclusions

hello my name isStudent question: “Does this paper need an introduction?”

My answer: “I think that would be polite. Do you agree?”

Quizzical looks follow. What does politeness have to do with writing an introduction?

Then I explain that an introduction is really just a way of saying hello to our readers, and usually when we say hello we try to be polite.

Many students come to us with formulaic notions of what an introduction should be and do. They think an introduction is a paragraph that begins with a startling statement, dictionary definition, or provocative question, followed by a general overview of the topic, and ends with a thesis statement as the last sentence.

That’s a nice little checklist, and maybe it’s useful for very young writers, but writers with any sophistication at all are ready to move beyond those limits.

If we are helping students think of writing as authentic communication between human minds rather than as the culmination of piling predictable rhetorical bricks upon bricks, an introduction becomes something much more interesting.

Most human interactions begin with some variation of “hello,” right? We say hello when we formally meet someone for the first time. We usually say hello to the people we see every day. Sometimes we say hello to an old friend after being apart for a long while. Within each of these situations, we can bring a variety of attitudes to the interaction. For example, a blind date is different from an inherently adversarial first meeting, as in some kind of legal proceeding. We say hello differently depending on the situation. The same is true of writing introductions.

If we help students think of writing introductions as a way of saying hello, we are asking them to think deeply about important elements of composition, including audience, purpose, and tone.

  • Who is my audience? Is it one person, a specific group, or a more amorphous readership? Do we have any kind of pre-existing relationship with this audience? What kind of approach is most likely to engage this audience, and what kind of approach is more likely to create distance?
  • Why am I writing this piece? Assuming it’s meant to be read by others, the piece has a purpose–persuasion, nostalgia, delivery of information, call to action, etc. What is the best way to say hello to my specific audience that is most likely to achieve my purpose? Do I engage charmingly and then work my way up to the most challenging main points? Do I drop an attention-getting bombshell right away and then attempt to pull together the shrapnel? Do I begin with a straightforward preview of what I’m going to say in the rest of the piece?
  • What about tone? What attitude should I adopt at the beginning of this piece in order to elicit a certain type of response from a reader? If I immediately begin ranting, how is a reader likely to respond? If my introduction is stuffy or overly academic, what effect will that have on my audience?

When we discuss tone, students usually are quick to understand that whatever attitude we present in writing or face-to-face is likely to be reflected back to us from our audience.

A great discussion usually emerges when I explain a bit of theory from psychologist Eric Berne’s transactional analysis model. Berne said that we operate from one of three ego states when we interact with each other: Parent, Adult, or Child. These terms have specific meanings in Berne’s model. If we act like a Child (unreasonable, overly emotional), the person we are interacting with will likely respond as a Parent (condescending, authoritarian). If we act like a Parent, the person we are interacting with will likely respond as a Child. However, if we act like an Adult (reasonable, empathetic), the person we are interacting with is also likely to respond as an Adult. In this way we can predict and, to a degree, control how others will respond to our tone.

With this understanding of tone in mind, a writer can decide whether to begin concretely, emotionally, or poetically. Good writers are good decision-makers, and that decision-making ability is really the most valuable skill we can help develop in young writers.

But what about writing conclusions? Well, a conclusion is really just saying goodbye. As with introductions, we say goodbye in a variety of ways depending on the situation and the people involved. Maybe that will be another blog post.

Meanwhile, thank you for reading this. Your comments are always welcome. (Goodbye.)

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Learning with Second-Language English Writers

One of my biggest learning challenges this year has been figuring out how to help writers for whom English is a second language. These are students who have completed English as a Second Language (ESL) programs and classes but who are not completely fluent in English. They are fluent in their native languages–Serbian, Ukrainian, Jamaican Creole, Polish, Spanish, Japanese, Turkish, Korean, and Hindi—but their English includes non-standard idioms, expressions, and mechanical errors.

Interestingly, I can converse with these students almost perfectly. They may have accents, but I have an accent too. With the help of eye contact, vocal inflections, and gestures, we can understand each other easily. I’ve enjoyed fascinating conversations with many students this year about cooking, culture clashes, technology, and schooling. But when it comes to writing, the communication begins to break down.

The most common types of English errors from second-language writers include missing articles, missing or misused prepositions, and variations on irregular nouns and verbs. I can understand why these are tricky for those still learning the finer points of English. Of course, I also see errors in tense, sentence formation, spelling, and punctuation, but native English speakers frequently make these kinds of errors too.

So I find myself wrestling with how to separate the second-language issues from the other composition concerns. In other words, as I look at a student’s writing, I try to understand what its strengths would be if it were written in the student’s native language. Even when the writing is somewhat garbled, I can usually tell if the thoughts are organized, developed, and focused. In many cases, the writing includes significant amounts of explanation, detail, and even some humor.

I’ve always believed that clear writing represents clear thinking, and unclear writing represents unclear thinking. For a second-language English writer, I’m not sure that’s true. His thinking might be completely clear in his native language, but his lack of facility in English muddles that clarity in the version I’m seeing. Like I said, the clarity isn’t completely obliterated; it’s just muddled. But it might be perfect in his native language.

When working with students in our writing center, I usually begin by asking how I can help them. Many second-language writers say, “Tell me all of my mistakes. I want to write in English perfectly.” So how do I help these motivated but sometimes frustrated students move forward as writers?

First, I look for patterns in their errors. I learned this diagnostic practice from Mina Shaughnessy’s Errors and Expectations back in the 1970s, and it’s served me well for several decades. For example, if I can point out to a student that she is missing articles in several places, she will frequently say something like, “Oh, yes. In my language we do not have articles, so I make that error.” Then we can go from there. Of course, I’m limited by my understanding of my students’ native languages, but they usually are expert enough to help me help them if I point out a consistent error pattern.

The second approach is to urge simplicity of expression. I frequently see students who write complex sentences to convey sophisticated ideas, but that complexity increases the likelihood that a sentence’s grammar wheels will come off. So, I suggest that the writer break down the complex idea into shorter, simpler chunks that he can manage linguistically. My hope is that as he becomes more adept at manipulating shorter, simpler sentences, he will eventually develop the ability to manage more complex sentences. Learning to walk before trying to run seems like good advice, but it also feels a little condescending to ask writers with big ideas to practice simplifying them.

The third aspect of my approach with these students is to be sure they know what they are doing correctly. My feedback always includes commentary about the depth of their ideas and the quality of their development, in addition to my focus on their mechanical issues. If we concentrate only on negative aspects of a student’s writing, she will frequently overgeneralize and think, “I’m a bad writer.” On the other hand, if we can let a student know that she has good ideas but is still learning some linguistic nuts and bolts, we can hope that eventually her mechanical abilities will catch up to her high-level thinking, with the result being complex ideas expressed in clear, correct English.

Am I on the right track? I’m grateful for any suggestions you have for helping students at this level of development as English-language writers.

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Reading Between the Lines with Jo Knowles

FingerFinalCoverNerdy Book Clubbers can celebrate: Jo Knowles has a new book! And it’s really good!

Read Between the Lines, Jo’s sixth novel, gives us a son bullied by his father, a girl suddenly ignored by her friends, the embarrassed children of a hoarder, a star athlete hiding his homosexuality, a “chubby” cheerleader, and other compelling characters in a powerful story about the unpredictable ways our lives affect others. Each chapter of Read Between the Lines focuses on a character whose actions and attitudes affect other characters in different chapters. And each chapter includes at least one person flipping a middle finger to somebody else.

I’m happy and grateful that Jo agreed to participate in an email interview about Read Between the Lines.

Can we start with my favorite questions for adults who work with young people? What were you like in high school? Are you still the same in some ways, and how have you changed?

Knowles HeadshotOh my gosh I am totally cringing just thinking about it right now. I was very quiet and shy, and incredibly insecure. Soooo insecure. I was not very smart when it came to boys (understatement). I was a chronic worrier (sad to say I still am). I wanted to be invisible when I couldn’t be, and often didn’t want to be invisible when I was. Basically, I was kind of a mess. I’m still shy and a bit insecure, and I still worry a lot, but I’m not the scared girl I used to be. I wish I could go back and tell teen me it will all work out.

Every episode in Read Between the Lines has a moment where someone gives the middle finger to somebody else. As the title suggests, that gesture can have many different subtexts. I wonder if since finishing the book you’ve witnessed any new instances of people using their middle fingers to express themselves.

I see it EVERYWHERE now. Teens especially seem to use it as a friendly way to say, “Oh shut up” to their friends. But it’s also in the news in funny ways, too. I actually started a Pinterest page to pin my favorite stories and photos:

The structure of this book is one of its most appealing aspects. Readers find that the characters’ lives touch or connect to each other in surprising ways. Was that a literary convention for shaping this story, or is that how you see things—that we are all somehow connected?

Oh, we are definitely all connected. You might post something on Facebook like, “Hug a teacher today!” Say 200 people will see it. Those 200 people will all instantly have 200 different associations with the word teacher. Good memories, bad memories. Regrets. Feelings of gratitude. Whatever. But planting the idea of “teacher” in all of those minds could actually change the course of each person’s day. We don’t realize what a big impact even small interactions with each other can have. Eleven years ago, my husband honked the car horn at a man who was about to drive into us. That man gave us the finger. I was upset because we didn’t deserve it. So upset, it soured my day and I couldn’t stop talking about it. The next thing I knew, I started plotting a book about all the different ways we see the middle finger in our daily lives. For the next eleven years, I worked on that book trying to figure out how to tell the story. So you see just one moment in time, a brief interaction with a complete stranger, shaped a significant part of my life for a very long time. And it resulted in a book! You just never know how a dirty look or a smile or a gesture or a word could change a person’s life, and I loved exploring those possibilities while I wrote the book.

What were the challenges and joys of writing a story with so many character threads?

The biggest challenge was keeping everyone’s schedules straight. The book takes place in one day, but all of the characters overlap, so you might read the same scene from two different points of view. Since the characters are different ages, they wouldn’t have the same class schedule, so I had to keep track of where everyone was throughout the day. I actually created class and job schedules for them so I would know where they were at all times.

Much of what we read in Read Between the Lines is each character’s interior thoughts, which seem to be a complex mix of vulnerability, confusion, anger, frustration. But when they speak out loud to other people, it’s frequently more forceful and direct. What do you understand about the language we use to make sense of ourselves to ourselves versus how we present ourselves to others?

Well this is really the whole point, isn’t it? That none of us on the surface are the same underneath? I could meet two people at the same time and talk with them for ten minutes and then if you asked them to describe me they might give you two completely different interpretations and I would probably be shocked by how off I thought both of them were. I was just talking to some students this week about how we are all carrying some pretty heavy stuff inside, but we don’t show it. I asked them to imagine if everyone knew their secrets, their worries, the stuff they’re dealing with at home. They were all nodding and sort of squirming just thinking about it. But they also started looking at each other differently. It was kind of amazing to watch. Because it dawned on them that if they had secret struggles, most likely everyone else in the room did, too. They instantly saw one another on a deeper, more meaningful level. We learn to wear our invisible armor at such a young age. But what I think we need to learn at an equally young age is that we are ALL wearing it. A little empathy goes such a long way.

You’re a master of evoking the concerns and feelings of today’s adolescents. How do you stay so in touch with this age group?

Thank you so much. You know, I don’t think adolescents and adults are all that different, to be honest. The more time I spend with my fifteen year old son and his friends, the more I’m reminded of this. We’re all human. We’re all vulnerable. Sometimes we’re unbearably insecure. Sometimes we’re annoyingly cocky. Maybe we’re insecure and cocky about different things, but the raw feelings and emotions are still pretty much the same, really. I think when writers for young adults stop trying to “think like a teen” and just think like a human, that’s when their characters feel most authentic. That’s when their truest writing comes out.

Teachers comprise an interesting group of characters in Read Between the Lines. Although a couple of them are kind of blustery, we also find that some of the teachers wrestle with insecurities similar to those of their students. Can you say anything about how teachers’ lives and students’ lives reflect each other?

I suppose this reflects a bit on what I’ve already said, about all of us being human. It doesn’t matter what job we’re in, we’re all still struggling to get through each day. But thinking as a teacher, I feel a huge responsibility to be positive and encouraging. I know what an influence teacher comments can have on a student’s self-esteem. I’ve had teachers who made me feel very small, and I’ve had teachers who gave me the most generous encouragement. If it weren’t for certain teachers I’ve had, I would not be a writer. I try to remind myself of this every time I send students feedback on their writing. In terms of reflection, a student’s “success” (and I supposed I define this as when a student falls in love with writing and revising and doubles their efforts) is my success. We all really fuel one another, don’t we?

A lot of things in Read Between the Lines happen in and around vehicles. There are dream cars, boring cars, a stinky “total mommy car,” a school bus, and several other important cars. What have you noticed about the role of cars in the lives of young people?

This book is a lot about wanting to “escape,” and especially for teens, cars often represent freedom. But the ticket out for each of them is going to require a lot more than simply running (or driving) away. I think the vehicles help to illustrate the deeper level of entrapment each character is feeling. They circle the town but can’t leave, just like they circle around and around in their situations, struggling to find a way to break out.

This question is probably just an English-teacher hallucination, but Read Between the Lines has some Dickensian aspects: mean grown-ups, plot threads that eventually connect meaningfully, a stray dog named after Oliver Twist. There are also shout-outs to The Outsiders and Death of a Salesman. Are you trying to sneak in some book recommendations for your readers?

Me? Try to sneak in book recommendations? Never! You know, if I’m going to be perfectly honest these references really did just come naturally to me as I developed the stories. Books I read in high school influenced my life in such huge ways, so it just seems realistic to have them influence my characters, too.

Robin Wasserman and Jo Knowles

Robin Wasserman and Jo Knowles

The Acknowledgements page tells about Robin Wasserman’s role in keeping this book on track. I’ve met Robin a couple of times, and she’s a force of nature. Can you tell us about how she affects your life or work?

Haha. I wonder what Robin will think of that description! Robin is one of the first people I told about this crazy idea I had to write a book with connected stories revolving around the middle finger. Every time we met up, which was a few times a year, she would ask me how the book was going, and eventually convinced me to share pieces with her. She is the first person I dared to show any of this too, and one of the people I trust most to be honest with me if something is really terrible. She was so encouraging after reading one story that I decided to try another. And that’s pretty much how it went as I slowly put the book together.

So many of the characters in Read Between the Lines talk about being empty and feeling that they are nothing. At one point Claire tells herself, “Maybe I just need to be able to feel the significance of my own existence.” How can we help young people who feel like their lives are empty?

For one thing, we can treat them as the smart, thoughtful people they are. Talk to them. Ask their opinions. Show them respect. If there is one phrase about teens that drives me nuts it’s: “Today’s teens…” followed by some disparaging generalization about how they “don’t read” or “spend all their time staring at screens.” I live with a teenager. I carpool with teenagers. I watch them struggle with school and relationships and I watch them lift each other up. These kids care deeply about the world and world events. And they have a lot of really great ideas for addressing the problems our world faces. Sure, that teen you see staring at a screen may be scrolling through Instagram, but he might also be reading a link a friend sent to him about [insert the big world news story of the day here]. Want to make a kid feel like her life is less empty? Ask her to share her opinion about something. I guarantee she will have one, and feel like you gave her a voice by asking what it is.

With Read Between the Lines, Jo Knowles continues to build a body of work that approaches the lives of young (and not-so-young) people with empathy, humor, and a sense of drama that keeps her readers eager for more. Her audience knows that Jo Knowles always shows us ways to move beyond mere acceptance of others to the importance of embracing and supporting each other regardless of our differences or how we present ourselves to the world.

Visit Jo Knowles online at and follow @JoKnowles on Twitter!

This post originally appeared on Nerdy Book Club in slightly different form.

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