Friday, July 31, 2009

Topic: Reading Compositions Aloud

10-second review: Help students to practice reading aloud by having them read aloud their compositions to other students, parents, relatives and friends. The purpose is to engage in discussion about writing.

Title: “Beyond checklists and Rubrics: Engaging Students in Authentic Considerations about Their Writing.” CM Dawson. English Journal (May 2009), 66-71. A publication of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

Summary: The author suggests teaching students to practice reading aloud by reading their compositions aloud and gives two generic questions to encourage discussion: What do the listeners like about what they heard and what are the listeners wondering?

Comment: I don’t think it occurred to me to use students’ reading of their compositions aloud in order to prepare them for effective reading aloud. A missed opportunity for me. I think this is an excellent idea. Students will be uncomfortable to begin with, but they will become used to reading aloud effectively. Practice is the key.

Tomorrow, I will share with my readers my thoughts on the most forgotten skill in the English curriculum, reading aloud. RayS.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Topic: Real World in English Class

10-second review: Two responses to the charge that English teachers do not live and work in the real world.

Title: “How Would You Respond to Someone Who Says English Teachers Don’t Live or Work in the ‘Real World’ ”? English Journal (May 2009), 38-40. A publication of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

Quote #1: “Good literature, no matter how great the demand for suspension of disbelief, is an expression of truth. Adults may look to fiction as an escape from reality, but students come to English class to embrace it and find a place to express their own truth. I couldn’t keep the ‘real world’ out of the classroom if I tried….” Ann Magyar, p. 38.

Quote #2: “Academics are forever being accused of not living in the real world, but it is in our classrooms that students explore issues that are integral to our nation’s democratic existence.” Gregory Shafer, p. 39.

Comment: First, I would ask the people who made the charge to define “real world.” Their responses should be interesting. I wonder if they would agree on a definition.

In some cases, the classroom is not the real world. It engages students in practice for the real world. In other cases, students deal directly with real-world skills and issues.

Students learn both to cooperate and to compete, to speak formally, to work in small groups and to debate.

In literature, students discuss real-world issues, the illusion of an American dream in Gatsby, the nature of sin in The Scarlet Letter, the nature of war in The Red Badge of Courage, etc., etc.

In writing they are learning to shape their thoughts in order to express themselves eloquently. They learn to read aloud fluently so that they can participate in civil (the double meaning is intended) meetings. They learn how to shape their own learning in completing independent study and in research papers.

How do my readers respond to this charge that English teachers are not living in the real world? RayS.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Topic: Real-World Writing

10-second review: …begins with a statement of purpose and audience.

Title: “Real-World Writing: Making Purpose and Audience Matter.” G Wiggins. English Journal (May 2009), pp. 29-37. A publication of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

Summary: Write for the real world. Make your purpose clear and specify your audience and write for that audience so that you receive reactions from which you will learn about how to write.

Quote: Real-world writing: “Fiction writing is rare…. School-like research papers with disembodied audiences and no bottom-line purposes are not the norm. Persuasive and informative writing for specific and real audiences are common.” p. 31.

Quote: “More than half of all responding companies also report the following forms of communications as required ‘frequently’ or ‘almost always’: technical reports (59%), formal reports (62%), and memos and correspondence 70%).” p. 31.

Comment: More and more, I am beginning to realize that the focus in writing instruction should be on real-world writing and that means reports as opposed to descriptive, narrative, argumentative, etc. writing. If students wrote blogs, they could put into practice writing with a purpose for a specific audience. RayS.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Topic: The State of Writing

10-second review: Students are not writing enough and they are not writing at any length.

Title: “What Is Happening in the Teaching of Writing?” AN Applebee and JA Langer. English Journal (May 2009), 18-28. A publication of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

Summary/Quote: “What is clear is that even with some increases over time, many students are not writing a great deal for any of their academic subjects, including English, and most are not writing at any length. Some 40% of twelfth-grade students, for example, report never or hardly ever being asked to write a paper of three pages or more. Although short, focused writing is also important, extended writing is necessary to explore ideas or develop arguments in depth. It also represents the demands that they will face in post-secondary education.” p. 26.

Comment: Not writing enough affects development of the writing habit. Writing is more difficult without that habit.

If 40% of 12th graders are not writing papers of 3 pages or more, then 60% are—and I bet it’s once a year, with a research paper.

Of course, the time needed to mark the papers is probably a factor in not assigning lengthy papers. Still, the authors have a point. Students are going to need—I assume—to write lengthy papers in college and reports in the business and professional worlds.

I think three lengthy papers, including the research paper, should be assigned throughout each year in the high school. Marking will be made easier by the students’ using tables of contents, bold-face headings and diagrams and pictures to illustrate ideas. Failure to make use of all of the features of the computer was another concern by these authors. They used the results of the questionnaire that accompanied the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to draw their conclusions. RayS.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Topic: Writing on Issues

10-second review: Find issues on the Internet and in newspapers or magazines and have students write their points of view on the issues It’s “authentic” writing because students care about expressing their points of view.

Title: “Making Writing Instruction Authentic.” E Kahn. English Journal (May 2009), 15-17. A publication of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

Summary: “I avoid expressing a view point myself, and when I need to play devils’ advocate, I preface statements with a phrase such as ‘But some people argue that...’ so that students don’t mistakenly assume that I am more sympathetic to one viewpoint than another.”

Comment: Supreme Court decisions are one source of issues, but you will also find them on CNN, the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, etc. Today, for example (6/18/09), the Supreme Court decided in a split decision that long-term prisoners do not have a right to DNA testing g on cases from many years ago.

Where have I seen this idea of writing on issues before? Note below. Not the same purpose, but the same idea.

10-second review: How teach students to deal with controversial issues in writing? Motivate students to write by raising emotional, controversial issues, but show students how to control their emotions when discussing them and writing about them.

Source: J Lindquist. College English (November 2004), 187-209. RayS.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Topic: An Assessment Challenge

10-second review: Develop an assessment tool and use it for three weeks. The data might surprise you.

Title: “Assessing Assessment.” DJ Linville. Language Arts (May 2009), 396. The elementary school publication of the National Council of Teachers of English.

Summary/Quote: “Someone once told me that if something is done daily for three weeks, it has the capacity to become a habit. Teachers should take the three-week challenge to assess their assessment. Adopt one new mindful, purposeful assessment tool (checklist, rubric, grading criteria, status of the class chart….) and evaluate the data. It just may inform this instruction in a radically new way.”

Comment: I thought of applying this idea to the 10-minute essays with which my students began each class period. I would record the number of changes I made each day for each student. What would I learn? RayS.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Topic: Testing and Assessment

10-second review: “Testing is for final results”; “assessment” is for learning what a student knows and needs to know and for the teacher to know what to do to meet the students’ needs.

Title: “Testing and Grading vs. Assessing.” G Goode. Language Arts (May 2009), 395-396. The elementary school publication of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

Summary/Quote: (For students, assessment means nothing if it is not part of their grades.) “These views challenge teachers to be clear about the difference between testing and assessment, terms that for many teachers are synonymous in meaning. Testing is supposed to be for final results, while assessment refers to an ongoing collection of data that directs teaching and learning. Assessment is not supposed to be about the grade: it is supposed to be about 1) students demonstrating that they have learned and what they still need to learn, and 2) about teachers determining what steps to take to accommodate the needs of students in order to advance student learning.” p. 395.

Comment: A useful distinction between testing and assessment: final result vs. learning what students have learned and need to learn and teachers determining what the students need. RayS.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Topic: Process and Projects in the Inner City

10-second review: The importance of process—inner city girls writing plays and acting in them. The process of writing, imagining and performing increases participation in the process. If the product is measured by standardized tests of reading and writing, the result will be a mismatch between process and product.

Title: “Process, Product, and Playmaking.” MJ Fisher, SS Purcell and R May. English Education (July 2009), 337-355. English Education is the teacher training publication of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

Quote: “Fraden contextualizes the role of participation in theater for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women: Process…refers to how participants learn skills and create art when they become involved in a project…. What many shared was a sense in which the point of process is to produce more process, more participation. …Participation entails more of itself, it regenerates itself and this is its purpose. The process of participation is therefore never quite complete. It is a performance constantly reconstituting itself.” p. 338.

Quote: “Allowing the girls to create and tangibly see the scene form before their eyes better encourages them to put pencil to paper and create stories in the form of a play.” p. 346.

Comment: Standardized tests don’t measure what these girls are learning. The sequence of process and product increases participation, but the product comes directly from the girls’ participation in writing, imagining and acting stories in plays. Emphasizing standardized tests in the inner city kills creative projects like this one. RayS.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Topic: Writing and Minorities

10-second review: How do you answer the head of the English department of a high school with about 95% minority students, most of whom are African American, when he says, “Why try to teach them to write? They can’t even write a good sentence.”

Title: “Comments by RayS.” July 17, 2009.

Comment: Well, I have not heard that one in a long time. It reminds me of the reasons that English teachers taught grammar when I was young. The thought then was, “You can’t teach them to write compositions until they have learned to write good sentences.” And so I was never taught to write. The teachers never got beyond teaching me to write good sentences. I diagrammed from eighth grade to twelfth. The purpose? To get those lines straight or whatever geometric angle was used for gerunds, phrases and clauses. I never wrote a composition. I never wrote a term paper. I did not know about summary paragraphs. Or introductions. Or thesis sentences. Occasionally, one of my teachers taught us to write paragraphs, so I did know about topic sentences.

Grammar and composition are two pretty distinct subjects that enlightened teachers show students how to apply one to the other. Grammar focuses on sentences. Composition focuses on paragraphs, on organization, on coherence in which the writer starts and the reader follows, undistracted by grammatical mistakes, from beginning to end.

Composition means the writing process: (1) brainstorming the topic. (2) Writing a first draft, beginning with a thesis sentence, (3) writing middle paragraphs some of which begin with topic sentences, (4) writing a final, summary paragraph, (5) constructing an introduction to add in the beginning to the thesis sentence, and concluding with (6) revising and (7) editing. Writing means “Telling them what you are going to tell them (introduction and thesis), telling them (middle paragraphs) and telling them what you told them (final, summary paragraph).”

Grammar study has one purpose, and it usually occurs after the draft—to polish the writing.

These students have ideas. They need to be taught how to express those ideas in paragraphs and whole compositions; they need to know how to tell the readers what they are going to tell them, tell them and tell them what they told them. They can go back and fix up the sentences. They should not be limited to the sentence or even the paragraph. Begin by teaching them to write whole compositions and then show them how to use a knowledge of grammar to complete and smooth their sentences. RayS.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Topic: Urban Education

10-second review: Every evening on the local news out of Philadelphia, stories of inner-city violence are played out—hit and runs, execution-style murders, innocent store owners gunned down in robberies, bank holdups, young children losing their lives in cross-fires and rampaging teenagers in school, out of school and in the streets of the city. What effect do these images each night have on the children and the teachers who work with them? The editor of this issue of English Education, Valerie Kinloch, has some pertinent questions.

Title: “Themed Issue on Critical Literacy Research with Urban Youth: Implications for Teaching and Teacher Education.” Valerie Kinloch. English Education (July 2009), 311-315. English Education is the teacher training publication of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

Quote: “What are some of the longstanding public (mis)perceptions and conflicting images of urban communities that are pervasive in mass media? In what ways do such (mis)perceptions and images affect the literacy lives and literate identities of urban youth, their peers and their families? Why and in what ways do certain stories about urban communities become privileged over others, and what are the dangers, especially for youth, of privileging negative stories about negative communities? What are we—teachers, researchers, community activists, and policy makers—doing to address unfair, often stereotypical stories about urban communities and the young people who live and/or attend school there?” pp. 311-312.

Comment: How do you respond when the head of the English department in an urban high school with mostly minority students says, “Why teach them to write? They can’t write a good sentence.” My answer will appear in the next blog. RayS.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Topic: Standardized Testing vs.Teaching English

10-second review: Standardized testing does not test what teachers do..

Title: “Testing the Life Out of Language and Creativity.” A Salm. Language Arts (May 2009), 395. The elementary school publication of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

Comment: Compare what English teachers do and what standardized test test. There’s a mismatch.

Speech: English teachers teach speaking: formal, small-group, interviews and debate. Standardized tests do not test speaking.

Writing: English teachers teach the writing process, including brainstorming, thesis, first draft, revising, and editing, including grammar and style. Although students are tested on grammar and style in isolation, they write essays on someone else’s topics, allowing little or no time for brainstorming, revision and editing. They must “write it right” the first time, while teachers teach them to re-work their writing until they make the product as good as they can make it.

Literature: English teachers try to help students appreciate the literature they read and its role in the development of literary history, with focus not only on interpretation and the techniques of literary language, but on the literary work’s relationship to their lives which gives the literature personal meaning to them. English teachers show the students how to use discussion as a way of understanding that literature can have several possible meanings.

On the other hand, standardized tests choose reading passages from different subjects—history, sociology, biology, chemistry, psychology, etc.—and often use trick questions as a method of testing “reading,” with only an occasional literature passage included. Cf. the SAT.


English teachers at their best teach process and product. Standardized exams test product—somebody else’s product—in writing and reading—no speech. In general, I have to conclude that standardized tests do not measure what the English teachers teach.

What relationship exists then between what is taught and how it is tested? What is the validity of standardized tests in measuring what English teachers teach? RayS.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Topic: "Good" Assessment

10-second review: Defines “good” assessment.

Title: “Assessment; The Good, the Bad, the Ugly.” JC Scott. Language Arts (May 2009), 394-395. The elementary school publication of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

Summary: “My sense is that during this era of test mania, more and more teachers are taking a stand largely in favor of formative assessments that help them understand 1) what their students know, and (2) how to intervene in order to advance student learning.” p. 394.

Comment: One role of the teacher is to help. The second role of the teacher is to judge.

Unfortunately for the idealist, the public and parents want to know how their children compare to other children’s achievement. I don’t question the author’s definition of “good” assessment, although Assessing students’ strengths and weaknesses for the purpose of intervening to help is little used by the majority of teachers in my experience as an English supervisor for twenty years. “Formative” assessment needs to become a part of every teacher’s repertoire.

But the other responsibility of teaching, in addition to the “guide by the side,” is judgment. The teacher must make judgments of student progress and convey that information to the parents, who have the right to know, and to the public concerning group performance. And the latter is the role of high-stakes testing. Its side-effects of too much testing and substituting test preparation for teaching are other issues.

I conclude that both formative assessment in order to help students learn and high-stakes testing are both helpful for students, parents and education’s critics. RayS.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Topic: High-Stakes Testing

10-second review: Testing has become a money-making industry at the expense of teaching.

Title: “Taking Testing’s Temperature.” Yvonne Siu-Runyan. Language Arts (May 2009), 393-394. The elementary school publication of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

Summary/Quote: “Since passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, high-stakes testing continues to be a great distraction to education as well as a great moneymaker for the test publishers. Huge resources in time, energy, and money are spent prepping students for tests, taking the tests, scoring the tests, and reporting the results of tests. Schools have been shut down, teachers have left the field, and funding has been diverted as these test data are being used for tracking, promoting, retaining and graduating students.” p. 393.

Comment: That’s one point of view of high-stakes testing. Teaching has become test preparation and, as I am sure you can tell from my blogs on English education, I prefer 95% teaching and a testing program that allows for some (5%) test preparation. I still believe that if I teach effectively, my students will succeed on any fair test of reading and writing.

A standardized test cannot duplicate what happens in literary discussions, does not allow students to ask their own questions concerning the literature and gives little time for brainstorming, revising and editing in writing . For the most part, students have to write it right the first time. High-stakes testing is an artificial situation that reflects very little of what occurs in the English classroom. RayS.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Topic: Letter Writing and Assessment in the Tech Age

10-second review: Student writer sends an e-mail via Kidnet, an after-school international digital exchange program, to students in Africa and India. She changes color of text. She uses emoticons. She prints her main message in capitals. And the whole letter exudes having fun while writing.

She also misspells three words. The entire letter is in a single, lengthy paragraph and she concludes by saying, “Wel I got to go, peace.”

Title: Mobile Texts and Migrant Audiences: Rethinking Literacy and Assessment in a New Media Age.” A Stornaiuolo, G Hull and ME nelson. Language Arts (May 2009), 382-392. Language Arts is the elementary school publication of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

Summary: The authors plead with today’s teachers to use a different kind of assessment since students are using tech tools in their writing.

Comment: I accept the tone, the sincerity of the message and even the joy in the play with words in the introductory example of the child’s e-mail. But the problem with spelling, paragraphing and cliché closing is still a problem when the student moves into formal expression at another time and in another situation. I do not think a new [or more lenient?] method of assessment is needed because students are using the new tech tools to write. The tech tools simply enhance, perhaps, the basic structure of writing—tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them and tell them what you told them. They do not change the nature of written communication. They are not essential to basic written communication.

Students need to recognize that increased levels of formality are required in society in order to be successful.

The writers for NCTE journals rattle my nerves when they insist that tech tools like texting are equal in importance to learning to communicate in writing at an acceptable level of organization, style, usage and correctness. You can call me the Grammar Grouch. RayS.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Topic: Involving Students in Improving Schools

10-second review: Ask students to contribute suggestions for how to improve their school or school day.

Title: “On Assessment, Accountability and Other Things That Go Bump in the Night.” S Ohanian. Language Arts (May 2009), 379. The elementary school publication of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

Summary: “Just try asking your students—today—to suggest one thing that would improve their school day. The simplicity of their suggestions will surprise you.”

Comment; This suggestion comes under the heading of “Why didn’t I think of that?” Does anyone ask the students what they think? Why did I never ask my students how I could help improve their learning? The question has many possible variations The answers could be very useful. RayS.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Topic: The Language of Poverty

10-second review: There are two ways of looking at the language poor children bring to school: “different” or “deficient.” If we respect the language of these children, we have the opportunity to help them be successful in school.

Title: “Pathologizing the Language and Culture of Poor Children.” C Dudley-Marling and K Lucas. Language Arts (May 2009), 362-370. Language Arts is the elementary school publication of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

Comment: “Different” vs. “deficient.” Two significantly different points of view toward language development. The key is how to turn the students’ differences into strengths. The same contrast is true with English Language Learners (ELLs].

Theoretical article, but worth thinking about. The implications for teaching of the attitudes labeled “difference” and “deficient” are significant. You respect “differences,” but you look down on and deplore deficiencies. I think this idea deserves serious consideration. RayS.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Topic: Teaching Writing, When?

10-second review: Teaching writing is a complex task, involving teachable moments while the children are writing—assessing what the children already know and determining what they now need to know.

Title: “Teachable Moments: Linking Assessment and Teaching in Talk-Around Writing.” K Glasswell and JM Parr. Language Arts (May 2009), 352-361. A publication of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

Summary/Quote: “Examining children’s texts for evidence of learning and as a source for thinking about what to teach next is a long-standing and worthwhile tradition in early years classrooms.”

Comment: In this article’s first- and second-grade classroom, the teacher must make quick decisions on what children know and what they need to know about writing as she converses with children while they write.

But the principle is the same at every age level. The high school teacher needs to assess what each student knows and each student needs to know about writing before marking the paper or while engaging in a writing conference. Worth thinking about. RayS.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Topic: Reading as a Writer

10-second review: A writer should read for more than enjoyment and education. A writer should read to note effects that are worth studying.

Title: “How I Write: Mark Bowden.” The Writer (May 2009), 58. The Writer is a magazine by writers for writers.

Summary/Quote: “If you admire a certain piece of writing, study it and re-read it often. I frequently copy passages of writing I admire by writing it out longhand to study word choice, rhythm, sentence structure.”

Comment: Reading as a writer. RayS.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Topic: Writing "Flash Fiction"

10-second review: Flash Fiction consists of stories under 1,000 words and requires a beginning that captures the reader’s attention immediately.

Title: “An Insider’s Guide to Flash Fiction.” M Miller. The Writer (May 2009), 46-47. The Writer is a magazine by writers for writers.

Comment: You can find examples of flash fiction online. Type flash fiction in Google. Select a few interesting stories to copy as examples for your students. Then, as part of a short-story unit, ask students to attempt the genre. I agree with the author of this article that the beginning is significant. The article also supplies markets for this type of fiction. RayS.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Topic: Editing

10-second review: When should you edit?

Title: “Novel-Writing Insight for Beginners” (Review of A Novel In a Year: From First Page to Last in 52Weeks by Louise Doughty. HarperCollins, 272 pages). Chuck Leddy. The Writer (May 2009), 43. The Writer is a magazine written by writers for writers.

Summary/Quote: “Doughty is also a strong believer in editing as you go. She urges would-be novelists to begin each day by editing the previous day’s work. ‘If you can get in the habit of ‘editing as you go,’ it will save you an awful lot of time later,’ she says.”

: At first, I thought ‘editing as you go’ meant line by line while writing. My experience is that that kind of editing keeps me from writing. But if I had used this technique of editing the previous day’s writing, I would not have fallen into the trap of having to edit the whole book I was writing under pressure to publish, causing me to overlook detailed editing, with subsequent mistakes in my self-published book. What the author is recommending is editing in chunks every day, much more manageable. Ouch! I wish I had known that. RayS.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Topic: Interviews

10-second review: Advice on interviewing.

Title: “The Most Common Interview Problems—And How to Get Around Them.” Norman Lobsenz (past president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, who has authored 20 nonfiction books and written 1,000 articles for national magazines). The Writer (May 2009), 32-33. The Writer is a magazine written by writers for writers.


1. “Have a list of questions, but refer to it sparingly. A casual conversation gets a person talking more freely than a rigid Q & A.”

2. “Save your toughest question for last.”

3. “When the interview is over, always say, ‘Is there anything else I should have asked?’ ”

4. “Finally, walk slowly when leaving, People often remember a key fact or the perfect anecdote just as you go out the door.” p. 33.

Comment: Useful advice from an expert. RayS.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Topic: Writing and Outlining

10-second review: Crime writer Robert Crais tells why he outlines when he writes.

Title: “Doing What He Loves.” Robert Crais (as told to Jeff Ayers). The Writer (May 2009), 18-21. The Writer is a magazine by writers for writers.

Summary/Quote: “Outlining allows me time to think…. I spend a lot of time outlining because I want the characters to come to life for me. I want to know who they are and why they’re doing these things and how it all fits together. …. Outlining is an organic, growing process.” pp, 19-20,

Comment: For me, outlining is thinking. RayS.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Topic: Writing and Publishing

10-second review: Some plain thoughts about writing and publishing by a published writer.

Title: “The Novel’s Cure Was In Throwing Most of It Out.” Peter Baird. The Writer (May 2009), 14. The Writer is a magazine by writers for writers.


“Don’t ask nice people to critique your work. Find the bluntest bastard you don’t know to do that.”

“When you finish the day’s writing, set it aside, leave it alone, and let your unconscious do its work.”

“You will get more from writing than you will from publishing.”

“After publication, you will learn more about the cold winds of commerce than you ever wanted to know.”

Comment: For me, Baird’s thoughts on writing and publishing are thought-provoking. He published the novel Beyond Pelelieu about his father’s return from WWII “involving depression, alcoholism and violence.” Pelelieu was a horrific WWII battle. RayS.