Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Topic: Mentoring and Student Teachers

10-second review: Stop looking at student teachers as the low person on the hierarchical totem pole. The true mentor tries to help student teachers to make their own decisions.

Title: “Dialogic Praxis in Teacher Preparation: A Discourse Analysis of Mentoring Talk.” D Bieler. English Education (July 2010), 391-426.

Quote: “The deficit-oriented language and images often used to describe student teachers suggest that they are being ‘trained’ to be comfortable in the role of being ‘trained.’ ”

Summary: What follows in the article is a discussion between a student teacher and the author about the student teacher’s philosophical differences with his mentor that resulted in the student teacher’s transferring to another high school to complete student teaching: they obviously were unable to use “dialogic praxis” to resolve their differences.

Comment: I completely agree about encouraging student teachers to experiment in the classroom and to make decisions. And mentors should mentor, not tell the student teacher what to do, which usually means doing things the way the mentor does them. If mentor and student teacher could achieve “dialogic praxis,” it would be the best possible situation for both. RayS.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Topic: Teaching a Novel. A Strategy.

10-second review: Teaching the novel Huck Finn using another teacher’s model that the author deems “critical literacy,” the teacher comes dangerously close to proselytizing for feminism, and, I think, deprives the novel of its proper focus.

Title: “Pre-service Teachers Planning for Critical Literacy Teaching.” P Wolfe. English Education (July 2010), 368-390. The editor of English Education describes the readers of this journal as “Our readers largely prepare pre-service and in-service teachers of English language arts and are interested in how to prepare such teachers.”

Comment: The interesting part of this article for me was the way the teacher of American literature began with thought-provoking questions related to the novel BEFORE the students read it. She began by asking who are the dead white men who began American culture, asks questions about the authors and texts her students have read in school, asks specifically about the African-American presence in certain novels, and the presence of other non-white Americans in American literature, and concludes by asking the students to define “whiteness.” She then seeks to find relationships to feminism in Huck Finn.

The questions are good. The trouble I am having with this approach to introducing a novel is that it shapes the students’ thinking. It jumps ahead of the novel that, I think, should be read on its own merits. I have no problem with asking these questions AFTER students have resolved the problems in the novel itself. First, tackle the students’ questions about the novel—then extend the meaning of the novel to related issues. The questions are good, but, in my opinion, take the focus away from the novel—too much to deal with in addition to the novel which has a significance all its own. RayS.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Topic: Grammar: Some Pet Habits to Avoid.

Purpose of this blog: Reviews of interesting ideas in recent English education journals.

Title: “Train Your Pet Words.” Noelle Sterne. The Writer (September 2010), 33.

Summary: The author’s editor did not just go after the usual mistakes, but added some that the author [and I] did not expect.

Quote: “The favorites my editor skewered weren’t these pet words we all hug—overuse of passive tense [sic. voice. RayS.], (‘The computer was powered up by the writer’), adverbial abuse (‘definitely,’ ‘very,’ ‘weakly’), and modifiers clawing for a foothold [danglers, RayS.] (‘Writing this article, the errors were glaring’).”

The four errors her editor skewered were starting a sentence with “and” or “but.” [Comment: I do it all the time and so do many published writers. However, I think I do it too often and unnecessarily.  I’ll check. RayS.]

Overuse of “now” and “then.” [Comment: I can recognize that these words can be overused. In the future, [I almost said “from now on….”]I’ll check to see how often I use them. RayS.]

The verb with the “-ing” tail: “ was finishing.” [Comment: The author had 13 repetitions of this verb use. Her editor said that the simple past tense “finished” was adequate. I tend to agree. From now on, I’ll check how many times I have put the “-ing” tail on my verbs. RayS.]

Same-start paragraphs. [Comment: Hard to avoid starting the same paragraph in the same way. However, sometimes it’s important for emphasis, but if emphasis is not the reason, then I shouldn’t do it often. Touché. RayS].

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Topic: Writing Memoirs

Purpose of this blog: Reviews of interesting ideas in recent English education journals.

10-second review: Be careful about whether your words will offend others whom you write about in the course of writing your memoirs.

Title: “A Memoir is a Reckoning. Are You Ready to ‘Invade Another’s Space?’ ” Gregory Martin. The Writer (September 2010), 32.

Quote: “…there is no avoiding it: your story will inflict damage—willful damage—on real people. The truth hurts. It hurts you, and it hurts your characters, who are not –not really, not ever—words on a page.”

Quote: “I have had people I love not talk to me for years because of something I wrote and published. They did not dispute the truth of what I’d written. They wanted to know why I couldn’t have just kept the story to myself. Good question. The world is full of stories. Ask yourself, why does the world need yours? What absence in the world does your story address and attempt to fill?”

Quote: “The art of memoir by its very nature, comes equipped with its own built-in litmus test. How willing are you to expose and hurt real people in the pursuit of some larger, difficult to justify, greater purpose?”

Comment: When I wrote my memoir—Teaching English, How To…., Xlibris, 2004—I tried to put problems in a positive light. I tried to stay away from villains. Problems were people who had different points of view from mine. And yet I couldn’t help striking out at people with whom I crossed swords even though I never mentioned their names. They knew who they were and resented it.

Frankly, I never thought about this problem in writing memoirs. It’s a real one. RayS.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Topic: Evaluating Student Essays

Purpose of this blog: Reviews of interesting ideas in recent English education journals.

10-second review: It might be interesting to share with students this series of questions on completing personal essays. They are offered by a professional writer.

Title: “Is the Writing in Your Piece Concrete—and Does something Happen?” Barbara Abercrombie. The Writer (September 2010), 31.

Questions to Ask Upon Completing a Personal Essay

“Does your opening get right to the subject?” Does it engage the reader’s interest and curiosity?

“Does the first paragraph set up accurate expectations for the rest of the essay, show clearly what it will be about?”

“Is your writing specific and concrete?” “Cut all adjectives and adverbs that don’t give essential information. Remember, verbs carry the energy in your writing.”

“Does something happen in your essay?” “Is there action, not musing. Is there at least one specific incident or anecdote?”

“Are your own specific feelings in your essay?”

“Is there a theme?” “Does the essay make a point?”

“Have you read your essay aloud?”

Have you found another person you trust to critique your essay? “Have the [person] read your essay and tell you … anything that is unclear….”

Comment: Might be useful for students to read the expectations of a professional writer. You could distribute the essay. It’s only one page, or you could distribute my outline and have the students discuss each point.

By the way, I have found that when asking someone else to read the essay, it is wise to ask him or her to refrain from judgments like “This is great” or “This needs a lot of work” or remarks about grammar and spelling. I suggest that the person reading it for the writer identify what is not clear by putting question marks in the margin. Then, if the writer wants to, together they can discuss why the idea is not clear. Fixing unclear ideas can be done by re-wording or by adding detail. RayS.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Topic: Advice about Writing

Purpose of this blog: Reviews of interesting ideas in recent English education journals.

Topic: Advice about Writing.

10-second review: Stop worrying about past failures and rejections and imagined hopes.

Title: “What Writers Can Learn from Professional Athletes.” BD Diggs. The Writer (September 2010), 12.

Quote: “Stay in the present. Athletes who allow past failures and future worries to intrude on their game hinder their performance. When writing [Jim Taylor, author of the Triathlete’s Guide to Mental Training] says, clear your mind of past rejections and future hopes.”

Comment: As constantly stressed by coaches in every sport, half the game is talent. The other half is mental. Past failures and future hopes are distractions from writing. Can be said of almost any profession involving performance. RayS.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Topic: Writer's Block

Purpose of this blog: Reviews of interesting ideas in recent English education journals.

10-second review: The author suggests consulting quotes on writing, in order to get back to writing productively.

Title: “Writer’s Block? Get Back in Gear.” Noelle Sterne. The Writer (September 2010), 11-12.

Summary: One other piece of advice: Stop trying to make your first draft flawless.

Quote: “So if you’re hopelessly stymied, how can you get back into gear? Like I do, surround yourself with stirring reprimanding writing truths.”

Gives as examples Judge Louis Brandeis: “There is no good writing; there is only good rewriting.” Samuel Johnson: “What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.”

Comment: Here are some additional inspirational quotes on writing. RayS.

William Maxwell: “I don’t think writer’s block is anything more than a loss of confidence.” Plimpton, ed., The Writer’s Chapbook.

“…Sometimes you ask an author how his new book is coming along, and he tells you: ‘It’s finished—all I have to do now is write it.’ ” Gross, ed., Editors on Editing.

“Good Writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next.” Zinsser, On Writing Well.

“The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis.” Zinsser, On Writing Well.

“The act of writing has always been a method of clarification for me, a way of getting down to how I really feel about an issue, a decision, a place, a person.” Bradley, Time Present, Time Past.

“One thing I found out early in the game was that there was no way I could simply walk up to that room after breakfast, think of something to write about and then just spit it out in four or five hours…. …had to settle on an  idea a week or so in advance and let it stew for a while. Browning, Notes from Turtle Creek.

Angus Wilson: “So many people have talked out to me books they would otherwise have written; once you have talked, the act of communication has been made. Cowley, ed., Writers at Work.

John Hersey: “Writing is a search for understanding.” Hull, ed., The Writer’s Book.

Ann Petry: “I have collected enough rejection slips for my short stories to paper four or five good-sized rooms.” Hull, ed., The Writer’s Book.

Jacques Barzun: “It is…important not to let the vigilant censor within freeze everything…that sudden stoppage due to the lack of the right word.” Hull, ed., The Writer’s Book.

“The reader is a person with an attention span of about twenty seconds…assailed on every side by forces competing for his time by newspapers and magazines, by television and radio and stereo, by his wife and children and pets, by his house and yard and all the gadgets that he has bought to keep them spruce, and by that most potent of competitors, sleep. Zinsser, On Writing Well.

And finally, Hemingway: “You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. Plimpton, ed., The Writer’s Chapbook.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Topic: The Limitations of the Simple Thesis

Purpose of this blog: Reviews of interesting ideas in recent English education journals.

Title: “Going beyond the Thesis.” AC Smith. English Journal (July 2010), 97-99.

Summary: When you read Walden or Dr. King’s speech, “I Have A Dream,” it becomes clear that their theses cannot be reduced to a simple statement. You have to know the entire book, or, in the case of Dr. King, the entire speech, in order to be able to devise the thesis.

Comment: I can’t argue with the author’s thesis. What he says is true. No book or even essay that is important to read is easily summed up in a simple thesis as we teach our student-writers to use. And yet, if you are going to sell an agent or an editor in publishing your book or article, you had damn well better reduce the contents to one sentence.

As in the case of the five-paragraph essay, you begin with the simple and the writers grow as they develop their writing. The five-paragraph essay and the simple thesis provide a beginning, not the end of writing. I must admit, too many teachers think of the five-paragraph essay and its thesis as the end and not the beginning of writing instruction. RayS.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Topic: Reflecting in Teaching.

Purpose of this blog: Reviews of interesting ideas in recent English education journals.

10-second review: We need to teach our pre-service teachers how to use reflection as part of the teaching experience.

Title: “Meeting the Challenge: Beginning English Teachers Reflect on Their First Year.” M Shoffner, et al. English Journal (July 2010), 74-77.

Quote: “Reflection provides teacher educators with a valuable tool to address these difficult areas with pre-service teachers. Teaching our pre-service teachers how to make sense of their experiences through reflective consideration provides them with a means to interrogate their teaching once they enter the classroom and deal with the challenges they face in the first years of teaching.”

Comment: In my first year of teaching, I taught my classes, thanked my lucky stars that I had got through the day feeling pretty good about my teaching and that was it. That’s teaching as an incomplete act. Taking the time to reflect on what happened, what I did, what worked, what did not work was another dimension to my teaching. But I did not take the time to reflect on what happened. What questions did my teaching raise? I thought about it in passing, but I rarely thought it through in a structured, habitual manner.

Frankly, I never changed my practice of not reflecting on my teaching and I was the poorer teacher for it. Developing in pre-service teachers the habit of reflecting on their teaching experience is a useful idea. Taking the time to brainstorm provides a structure for this reflection.

Similarly, I never reflected on the articles I read in my professional journals. I simply summarized them, which was good, but limited. I never addressed the key question, what does the idea in the article mean to me? That’s what I do now in writing this blog, and it opens up a whole new dimension in my thoughts about teaching English. Now I ask the question, what does the idea mean to me? RayS.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Topic: Some Common Logical Fallacies.

Purpose of this blog: Reviews of interesting ideas in recent English education journals.

10-second review: From ad hominem to hidden premises.

Title: “The Three R’s of Teaching Logic: Revelation, Relevance and Reinforcement.” RC Covel. English Journal (July 2010), 49.

Common Logical Fallacies
Ad hominem: Attacking the person instead of his or her argument.

Ad Populum: Appealing to people’s emotions, prejudices.

Ad authoritate: Appeal to authority, using a celebrity, for example.

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc: Faulty cause and effect

Non sequitur: It does not follow.

Circular logic: Begging the question. Saying the same thing twice in different words.

False dilemma: Given only two options when other options may be possible.

False analogy: “Teenagers are like move sets.”

Faulty generalization: Conclusion claims all, when it is based on a few.

Hidden premise: An unexpressed assumption.

Comment: How many arguments have we experienced with these logical fallacies? RayS.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Topic: Some Terms Related to Logic

10-second review: Defines inductive and deductive reasoning, syllogism, enthymeme, valid and true, and types of syllogisms—categorical, conditional and alternative.

Title: “The Three R’s of Teaching Logic: Revelation, Relevance and Reinforcement.” RC Covel. English Journal (July 2010), 47-50.

Definitions Related to Logic
.Inductive reasoning. Begins with particular facts and draws generalizations or conclusions from them.

.Deductive reasoning begins with a generalization

.Syllogism: Major premise—all men are mortal. Minor premise—Socrates is a man. Conclusion—Socrates is mortal.

.Enthymeme: A compressed syllogism expressing a syllogism in a single sentence.
Syllogism: Authors who use too much detail ruin their stories. Orwell does not go into too much detail in his Animal Farm. Therefore, Orwell doesn’t ruin Animal Farm. Enthymeme: George Orwell didn’t ruin Animal Farm by going into too much detail.

.A syllogism may be true without being valid. Truth has to do with the accuracy of the conclusion. Validity has to do with the method used to arrive at the conclusion.

.Test of syllogism validity: Major premise must be expressed in universal terms. If one premise is expressed in negative terms, the conclusion must be negative. If both premises are negative,, no conclusion is possible.

Types of syllogisms: Categorical begins with words such as “all” or “None.” Conditional syllogism is “if-then.” Alternative is “either-or.”

Comment: I find that sweeping generalizations like major premises in syllogisms have exceptions and therefore can’t be true. Furthermore “either-or” syllogisms are the syllogisms used by the NCTE in taking issue with the way to do things in the English classroom. Either phonics or whole word; either basals or whole language; either writing process or writing product; either grammar or writing. In almost every case the solutions to these phony “dilemmas” are the words “both-and.” Both phonics and whole word; both basals and whole language; both writing process and product; both grammar and writing, etc . RayS.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Topic: Argumentative Writing.

10-second review: Attempts to explain Toumin’s “warrant” that supports the claim and the data.

Title: “Taming the Warrant in Toulmin’s Model of Argument.” JE Warren. English Journal (July 2010), 41-46.

Summary: The Toulmin model of argument is as follows: The claim is supported by the data. “The movement from claim to data is authorized by a general, unstated proposition Toulmin calls the warrant.” [Did I used to call this an enthymeme? RayS.] “Support for the warrant is termed backing; words that limit the force of a statement are called qualifiers (‘nearly all teachers’….). “Exceptions to the claim are called conditions of rebuttal.”

Toulmin justifies his method of argument by saying that’s the way the real world argues.

Toulmin begins with a syllogism: “All humans are mortal. Socrates is a human. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.” In the Toulmin model, the third statement in the syllogism, the conclusion, is the claim. The second premise is the data. The first statement is the warrant. So, in effect Toulmin stands the syllogism on its head: Socrates is mortal (claim) because Socrates is human (data) because all humans are mortal (warrant for the data).

Comment: The author criticizes textbooks on the Toulmin method for not explaining the warrant clearly and are often incorrect in giving examples of a warrant. I know what a warrant is, I can define it—it supports the data which supports the claim. But after reading the article, I’m no clearer in being able to identify a warrant. RayS.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Topic: Writing Arguments

10-second review: “One of the most radical shifts in high school and college writing instruction over the past 20 years has been the move toward argument as the dominant mode.” P. 41.

Title: “Taming the Warrant in Toulmin’s Model of argument.” JE Warren. English Journal (July 2010), 41-46.

Quote: “In two massive studies of first-year college composition conducted in 1984 and 2004, Andrea Lundsford found that the biggest change in writing assignments during the period was a shift from personal narrative essays to argument essays.” P. 41.

Quote: Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein: “…broadly speaking, academic writing is argumentative writing.” P. 41.

Comment: Next question, how do we teach argumentative writing? RayS.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Topic: Logic in Oral Exchanges in Preparation for Argumentative Writing

10-second review: This author is probably right—logic is a problem, not only in writing, but in conversational exchanges.

Title: “Gateways to Writing Logical Arguments.” TM McCann. English Journal (July 2010), 33-39.

Summary: In preparing for writing, identify the problems with logic in newspaper articles and in normal conversation. Unfortunately, the article does not shed much light on how to analyze the problems in logic in oral give-and-take.

What the article does do is give a model refutation for a parents’ and students’ typical argument.
Timmy: I should have your permission to stay out after curfew at the skateboard park.
Parent: No way.
Timmy: Oh, come on. All of my friends are doing it.
Parent: Yeah, and if all of your friends jumped off a bridge into the Chicago River, would you do that too?

Now here’s a model of how the parent and student should argue:
June: I should have your permission to stay out after curfew at the skateboard park.
Parent: Why do you think you should have permission?
June: All of my friends are doing it.
Parent: So what? How does your friends’ behavior warrant your staying at the park?
June: Adolescents feel a strong need to define their identity by joining with friends in shared experiences.
Parent: How do you know that to be true?
June: A recent survey of 582 child psychologists revealed that 87% of the respondents recognized that children who are excluded from joining with peer-sponsored group activities felt isolated and lonely.

I can hear my saying to June: Well, you still can’t stay out.
June: why not?
Me: Because I say so.

The author frames the question—how can we analyze the logic in oral arguments in preparation for writing arguments? If students gathered examples of discussions in which logic is involved, the teacher and students could have some fun analyzing them and offering alternatives. But then they would need to apply what they have learned to writing. RayS.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Topic: The Vocabulary of Argumentative Writing

10-second review: Claim, evidence, warrants, backing, qualifications, rebuttals.

Title: “Teaching Argument for Critical Thinking and Writing: An Introduction.” George Hilllocks, Jr. English Journal (July2010), 24-32.

Quote: “Toulmin’s basic conception of argument includes several elements: a claim based on evidence of some sort, with a warrant that explains how the evidence supports the claim, backing supporting the warrants, qualifications and rebuttals or counterarguments that refute competing claims.” P. 26.

Quote: “That’s a very important point. The arguments we will be talking about are all arguments of probability. That simply means that we can be only fairly certain of our claims. That is why we call such statements claims—because we are claiming they are true.” P. 29.

Comment: A clearly organized model might have helped this article sort out the various elements of argumentative writing. The author describes what he did in class, but stops short of offering a model. RayS.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Topic: A Statement on Writing History.

10-second review: Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. on the purpose of [writing] history.

Title: “Israeli Encounters: Books for Teens about Israel.” LR Silver. English Journal (July 2010), 21-23.

Quote: “They [the books reviewed in this article] promote the historical understanding that Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. referred to when he wrote: ‘The purpose of history is to promote not group self-esteem, but understanding of the world and the past…judgment and perspective, respect for divergent cultures and tradition, and unflinching  protection for those unifying ideas of tolerance, democracy and human rights that make free historical inquiry possible.’ ”

Comment: “…unflinching ;protection for those unifying ideas of tolerance, democracy and human rights that make historical inquiry possible.” That last statement, in my opinion, is most significant. RayS.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Topic: Math, Science and English

10-second review: The teachers of math, science and English need to talk to each other to discuss the ideas they have in common.

Title: “Literature, Logic and Language.” MA Dakin. English Journal (July 2010), 18-20.

Summary: The essence of science, math and literature is logic and language. We need to connect again with our sister disciplines to learn from each other.

Quote: “I do not think the discipline of English needs to be remade: like the cross-communicating hemispheres of a single brain it needs to be re-connected.”

Quote: “If there is a family of universal languages, then math, science and English are the mother tongues of the 21st century, but our students lack fluency in all three.”

Comment: Way back in the 60’s, I was privileged to be involved in an experiment. The middle school was divided into six teams of teachers, each team consisting of a math, science, English and social studies teacher with a group of 100 or so students. Half of each day was allotted for team planning. It was our hope that the four teachers from different disciplines would talk together, learn from each other, plan together and discover ways in which they could produce common units.

They did and they didn’t. One team did exactly as we had hoped. One team sometimes did as we had hoped and the other four teams stayed within their disciplines and taught their subjects in isolation of each other. Sandy Smith, who was a member of the team that worked together, said, “The more you try to do it, the more ways you find for crossing the borders of the different disciplines.”

I think it is time for the disciplines to work together. But it will take teachers who are willing to learn from teachers of other disciplines.

It is common sense, however, that the four teachers cannot always work on units together. One teacher of math said to me, “Math is math.” Forcing teachers to work in common units or on common themes all the time is a strait jacket that does not allow for the necessity to teach math as math or English as English when it is appropriate. RayS.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Topic: The Five-Paragraph Essay--Again

10-second review: The five-paragraph essay results in writing without thinking.

Title: “From the Editor.” Ken Lindblom. English Journal (July 2010), 14-16.

Quote: “One of the many problems with the five-paragraph essay—at least as it is most often taught—is that it does the thinking for the author. Or, to put it more precisely, it creates a rhetorical situation in which thinking has been rendered virtually unnecessary. Often, that this form creates a pre-thought-out structure is seen as a positive for students: it is intended to help them compose a piece of writing that will allow them to survive typical school-writing scenarios. Unfortunately, the popularity of the five-paragraph essay as a method for helping students get through standardized exam situations has also helped to create a curriculum in which logic and critical reasoning get too little attention.”

Comment: I would suggest that the wrong villain has been selected. Try the short amounts of time available (25 minutes in the SAT and an hour in most state tests). There’s no time to think in these situations. Don’t blame the five-paragraph essay. If used as a model for how to organize expository writing, given enough time, hours, days, etc. students will not only think and shape their thoughts in writing, but they will certainly not limit themselves to five paragraphs.

Although I have used the five-paragraph essay as a model for how to organize expository writing, I’ve never had a student yet who did not expand the opening paragraphs to multiple paragraphs, including the thesis, expanded the middle paragraphs, and broken even the final paragraph into two or three paragraphs. RayS.