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Using Music to Develop Authentic Voice

A few years back, I sat down at my kitchen table on an early Saturday morning to begin the arduous process of grading a set of seventh-grade persuasive essays. I had postponed the task for too long and grades were due on Monday. Why did I dread the grading so much?

I knew what to expect. I would see the results of my instruction and significant improvement. I would feel self-validated and be able to give myself a well-earned pat on the back. The essays would sound like miniature versions of me. No doubt my essays would make me look good that week during our department read-around. However, I knew what would be missing in my students’ writing: Soul, Passion, Commitment, Connection. No… it was not the fault of the writing prompt. There were several to choose among, and they were intrinsically motivating for my students. There was something else.

As many teachers naturally do, I reflected back to my own successes as a writer. I drifted back to my own junior high experience. Mr. Devlin was an odd teacher with horribly worn black shoes. He was odd, even by English-language arts teacher standards. However, his writing assignment is the only one I’ve saved from my entire K-12 experience.

Mr. Devlin gave us a journal assignment with no rules. No, I’m not advocating this kind of unstructured experience, per se. After all, I’m still assigning those argumentative essays, right? In fact, it was not the assignment that was meaningful at all; it was what I did with it.

My room was my personal sanctuary. I’m dating myself at this point. My room was covered with psychedelic rock-art posters-each painted/printed in luminescent color. Yes, I had a black light. Yes, I had a strobe light. I begged my parents for black-out drapes, but olive-green was their choice. My stereo was bitchin’. I burned incense, even though I hated the smell. It was 1968.

I played the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers and Magical Mystery Tour albums non-stop. One of the most irritating memories I have is that of my father, a professional musician, saying that the flutes sounded like cheap recorders on Paul’s “The Fool on the Hill.” He said the song was garbage.

I listened-no… I felt the music and I wrote. As I read the journals today, much of the writing is juvenile and prurient—a budding Steinbeck I was not. However, my analysis of lyrics, wanna-be girlfriends, my parents, comments and warnings to Mr. Devlin to hold true to his promise that he wouldn’t read the journals rings true to my age and experience. The journal had what my students’ persuasive essays lacked-an authentic voice. With all of the Soul, Passion, Commitment, Connection.

I graded the argumentative essays, and as I expected, most were technically very good. But, I vowed to do things much differently with their next persuasive essay. I was going to Mr. Devlin their writing by allowing my students’ cultures to create their own voices. Music would be the transformative medium. Connecting to student experience with their own music can transform the way they write essays, reports, narratives, poetry, and letters. Music was just as influential, just as pervasive, for my students as it was for me. I knew what I was getting into. I hate their hip hop, new R&B, metal, and rap. It really is garbage.

Music, and songwriting in particular, can help teachers develop a creative writing culture. Learning the lessons of musical composition can improve student writing writing. Read how teachers can develop a productive writing climate by learning a bit about how the music business operates.

Find essay strategy worksheets, on-demand writing fluencies, sentence revision and rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in the comprehensive writing curriculum,Teaching Essay Strategies.

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Using Music to Develop a Productive Writing Climate

In my last article, “Using Music to Develop a Creative Writing Culture,” I suggested that music remains the singularly most influential motivator and reflection of youth culture. Ask students how much they listen to music today. It’s certainly more than they spend reading or writing. And they listen to music while they are on Facebook®. That’s a powerful combination. It seems to me that we can apply a few lessons from how our students combine music and social networking to how we should teach them to write.

As music has always been a social medium, in makes sense to analyze the music business, and songwriting in particular, to see how we might apply some of their lessons to improve student writing.

At the height of the Great Depression in 1931, the recently completed Brill Building at Street in Manhattan opened its doors. The owners were forced “by the deepening Depression to rent space to music publishers, since there were few other takers. The first three, Southern Music, Mills Music and Famous Music were soon joined by others. By 1962 the Brill Building contained 165 music businesses (http://www.rockphiles.com/rp_artist.php?act_id=19).”

“A musician could find a publisher and printer, cut a demo, promote the record, and cut a deal with radio promoters, all within this one building. The creative culture of the independent music companies of Brill Building and the nearby 1650 Broadway came to define the influential “Brill Building Sound” and the style of popular music songwriting and recording created by its writers and producers (http://www.rockphiles.com/rp_artist.php?act_id=19).”

While songwriters such as Carole King, Neil Diamond, Boyce and Hart (writers of The Monkees hits), and Neil Sedaka were cranking out the hits out of the Brill Building community that defined American music in the 1960s, their British counterparts were doing the same thing on Denmark Street in London. On this short, narrow street The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix all recorded in basement studios. Publishing companies were headquartered on this street.

The Kinks’ Ray Davies writes the following in their 1970 hit, “Denmark Street.”

Down the way from the Tottenham Court Road

Just round the corner from old Soho

There’s a place where the publishers go.

If you don’t know which way to go

Just open your ears and follow your nose

“cos the street is shakin’ from the tapping of toes

You can hear that music play anytime on any day

Every rhythm, every way

In 1972 “Elton John wrote his classic early song Your Song, here. Later, the Sex Pistols lived above number 6 and recorded their first demos there. The street contains London’s largest cluster of music shops. It was also the original home of London’s biggest science fiction and comic store, Forbidden Planet.

Writing Lesson #1

Although writing can be done most anywhere, it certainly makes sense to do so where resources are available and accessible. Both the Brill Building and Denmark Street provided all of the resources necessary to write, record, market, and sell music. A teacher’s classroom can provide the necessary resources for academic writing. Not just dictionaries, thesauruses, and computers… but the human resources as well. The writing expertise of the teacher and the listening ears of fellow student writers make the entire process of composition efficient within the classroom community. In my experience, rarely does the quality of at-home or at-library student writing match the level of in-class composition.

There’s just something about the social nature of composition that motivates creativity. Don Kirshner, 1960s publisher, record producer, and radio/television mogul recognized the fact that massing talent would be beneficial. Kirchner subdivided his Brill Building office space into cubicles and hired eighteen songwriters to crowd into these spaces. He then directed his songwriters to churn out love songs, and occasionally dance and novelty hits, for the teen masses (http://www.rockphiles.com/rp_artist.php?act_id=19).

“Describing conditions in the Brill Building, (Barry) Mann said, Cynthia ( ) and I work in a tiny cubicle, with just a piano and a chair, no window. We’d go in every morning and write songs all day. In the next room Carole (King) and Gerry (Goffin) are doing the same thing, with Neil (Diamond) in the room after that. Sometime when we all get to banging pianos, you can’t tell who’s playing what.’ (http://www.rockphiles.com/rp_artist.php?act_id=19).”

Writing Lesson #2

A productive writing climate can be promoted by establishing a collaborative community of student writers. Allowing students to help each other by “borrowing” ideas, providing immediate feedback (including criticism), and thinking out loud can motivate effort and improve the quality of the product. A community that feels that they are all in the same boat remains task-oriented and maintains motivation. There is a reason that Don Kirshner did not let his songwriters work from their apartments.

The teacher can facilitate this kind of intense writing community, ala Don Kirshner, by establishing a business-like, no-nonsense, and product-driven set of high expectations within the tightly confined community. Kirchner, and good teachers, can choreograph the activities, but the writers are the ones who have to write the hits.

Beyond massing writing resources and developing a collaborative community of writers, there is something to be said for the value of competition and the pressure/adrenaline that it produces. “Carole King described the atmosphere at the Brill Building publishing houses of the period:

“Every day we squeezed into our respective cubby holes with just enough room for a piano a bench, and maybe a chair for the lyricist if you were lucky. You’d sit there and write and you could hear someone in the next cubby hole composing a song exactly like yours. The pressure in the Brill Building was really terrific-because Donny (Kirshner) would play one songwriter against another. He’d say: ‘We need a new smash hit’-and we’d all go back and write a song and the next day we’d each audition of Bobby Vee’s producer (The Sociology of Rock 1978).”

Writing Lesson #3

One of the positive outcomes of developing a productive writing climate is that success breeds success. A healthy competition among student writers can be enormously motivating. Students care about what other students think, no matter what they say. Public sharing of student writing in class, online, in book stores, coffee houses, etc. can inspire quality writing. More gifted students can inhibit some student writers, but the wise teacher can even use these inhibitions to improve writing.

Check out this complete writing process essay to see a sample of the resources provided in Teaching Essay StrategiesThe download includes writing prompt, paired reading resource, brainstorm activity, prewriting graphic organizer, rough draft directions, response-editing activity, and analytical rubric.

Get the Writing Process Essay FREE Resource:

Find essay strategy worksheets, on-demand writing fluencies, sentence revision and rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in the comprehensive writing curriculum, Teaching Essay Strategies

Find essay strategy worksheets, on-demand writing fluencies, sentence revision and rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in the comprehensive writing curriculum,Teaching Essay Strategies.

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Teaching Essay Style: 15 Tricks of the Trade

“Never start a sentence with But.” Countless middle school and high school English-language arts teachers cringe when their students faithfully repeat this elementary school dictum. “Never use I in your five-paragraph essay.” Now university professors similarly cringe and shake their heads at the straight-jacketed rules placed upon their students. However, maybe there is a method to our madness. Perhaps these writing absolutes serve a useful purpose for coaching developing writers. Perhaps the little white lies that we teach our students are actually our tricks of the trade.

Instead of bemoaning past “bad writing instruction,” we should celebrate the fact that our students did remember these rules. After all, writing teachers of all levels are always shocked at how little transfer students make from grade to grade or from course to course. Anything that students retain from previous writing instruction can be used by resourceful teachers as “teachable moments.” Perhaps it’s time that we trust our colleagues that they understand best what works for their students at their age levels.

Teaching all of the seemingly arbitrary rules and enforcing them in student writing practice makes sense. As writers mature, 7-12 English-language arts teachers and university professors can encourage “rule breaking” with sly nods and winks. Without knowing the rules, developing writers cannot make informed choices about which ones to break and when they should break them to serve their writing purposes. In fact, the best writers are rule-breakers. E.B. White revised and updated Strunk’s Bible of writing style, yet he consistently chose to break the rules in his own writing. He knew enough to consciously deviate from the norm.

Writing teachers should worry more when their students unconsciously deviate from the norm. Of course, other forms of prose and poetry have their own stylistic rules to learn and break. But this article will concentrate on those of the essay. So, following is a list of the Teaching Essay Style: 15 Tricks of the Trade.

  1. Require students to write in a formal voice. No figures of speech, slang, clichés, abbreviations, flowery language, or contractions. Teach them to dress in a tuxedo or bridesmaid dress when they are in a wedding, not baggy pants or skinny jeans with flip-flops.
  2. Teach students to write in third person. It’s not that the I is inappropriate in all essays. The problem is that the use of the I requires a sophisticated rationale and limited usage. For example, qualitative research requires the I; however, quantitative research does not. Let the post-graduate supervising professors teach their students to break this rule. Furthermore, the “no I rule” forces a certain degree of objectivity and requires students to focus on the subject, rather than on the writer. These are the real concerns of K-12 and university professors.
  3. Teach students not to use their to reference singular non-gender nouns. Approving such sentences as “The student likes their classes” transfers to other more egregious pronoun reference problems as in “Those desk in the back of our room belong to them guy.” Also, no one likes reading he/she, him or her, s/he or the like. It does make sense to teach students to pluralize when at all possible, but the use of he or she throughout (please don’t alternate!) is no crime.
  4. Teach students to vary their sentence structures. “Never more than two simple sentences back-to-back and never follow a complex sentence with another complex sentence” will increase readability. “Have no more than 50% of your sentences follow the subject-verb-complement pattern” helps students focus on sentence variety.”
  5. “No more than one to-be verb per paragraph” will force students to avoid passive voice and strengthen nouns and verbs.
  6. Require your students to write in complete sentences. “No declarative sentences beginning with but, and, or, so, like, because, how, when, where, or why, unless you finish them” reduces fragments.
  7. “No unparallel verb structures” helps eliminate verb tense errors and awkward writing. For example, “Going to the store, to get some gas, and maybe have a cup of coffee are appearing on my agenda for today” can be eliminated with this rule.
  8. Require transitions between paragraphs. Sophisticated writers may have no need, but your students do to write coherent essays.
  9. Teach your students to choose simple words, not their weekly vocabulary words. Precision is better than pomposity.
  10. Demand specificity and do not permit generalizations, except in conclusions.
  11. Don’t allow your students to make parenthetical remarks. Most misuse these.
  12. Never allow repetition for emphasis. Developing writers do not have the skills to use this rhetorical strategy properly.
  13. Never allow double negatives. Students will confuse their readers.
  14. Teach students not to over-state evidence and to limit their conclusions.
  15. Teach students to place pronoun references close to their subjects to avoid ambiguity and dangling modifiers.

Find essay strategy worksheets, on-demand writing fluencies, sentence revision andrhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in the comprehensive writing curriculum,Teaching Essay Strategies.

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How to Teach a Balanced Writing Program

The “Reading Wars” and “Writing Wars” have preoccupied educational researchers and teacher-practitioners for nearly five decades. Much like the soldiers along the Western Front in World War I, we have settled down into our fixed positions and rarely leave our trenches to skirmish anymore. An occasional Krashen or Adams volley may occasionally wake us up, but no one really wants to go back into “No Man’s Land” for extending fighting. In fact, much of where we are today reminds me of the scene from All Quiet on the Western Front, in which the opposing German and British soldiers join in the singing of Christmas carols and crawl out of their trenches to exchange gifts and greetings.

Now I may be over-extending my metaphor a bit, but teachers see more value today in an eclectic approach to teaching reading and writing. We embrace both part-to-whole and whole-to-part instruction. No one wants to throw away the explicit teaching of phonemic awareness/phonics or reading to learn; no one wants to throw away explicit grammar, spelling, and writing strategies instruction or the writing process with Writers Workshop. In a previous article, I have made the case that a balanced reading program makes sense. In this article, I will attempt to make the case that a balanced writing program also makes sense. First, I will list 21 Curricular Assumptions that most of us would accept about writing instruction to build a consensus. Then, I will detail six steps to take to ensure a balanced and effective writing program in any classroom.

Most of us would agree with these… 21 Curricular Assumptions about a Balanced Writing Program

1. Teaching and practicing the stages of the writing process through writing process papers in various genre is important. The writing process is not rigid, however. Writers compose differently. Word processing has certainly reinforced these differences. For example, some revise and edit after drafting; some do so during drafting.

2. Teaching and practicing specific writing strategies/skills in short writing pieces, such as “Quick Writes,” is also valuable.

3. Students vary in their writing abilities and have different writing skill-sets. Simply teaching grade-level standards in writing strategies and applications (process pieces) is not enough. Certainly, we teach content, but we also teach students. We need to both “keep them up” with grade-level expectations and new instruction and also “catch them up” with additional targeted practice in their writing deficiencies. Teachers see the value in diagnostic assessments to determine who does and does not need extra instruction and in which writing skills. Yes, we need to differentiate our writing instruction.

4. The reading-writing connection much be taught explicitly. We learn reading from writing, but we also learn writing from reading. For example, teaching expository text structure is both reading comprehension and an essay strategy. Analyzing both good and bad writing is instructive.

5. Good writing instruction is necessarily “recursive.” Students need to review, but also do new. As teachers review, writing foundations are solidified and depth of understanding increases. For example, first graders work on sentence construction, but so should high school seniors.

6. Teaching content is an essential ingredient to teaching writing. Writing is a constructive thinking process, built on prior knowledge. Time spent teaching critical thinking skills, such as errors in reasoning, is time spent teaching writing.

7. Vocabulary development is an important component of writing instruction. Knowing the meanings of words and how to properly use them cannot be confined to a revision task such as substituting boring or over-used words with “cool words” found in a thesaurus. Teaching Greek and Latinates, semantic shades of meaning, idiomatic expressions, etc. are all components of solid writing instruction.

8. Explicit grammatical instruction (sentence components, word choice, usage, word order) should be more than just error analysis or correction. Daily Oral Language is certainly not the answer. Teaching grammar and mechanics rules/proper usage in the context of targeted lessons that integrate this instruction with student writing is appropriate. For example, teaching a prepositional phrase and then following instruction with writing practice in which students use prepositional phrases as grammatical sentence openers makes sense. Grammar and mechanics cannot exclusively be relegated to end of writing process as mere editing skills.

9. Spelling matters and requires direct instruction, even throughout high school. The spelling-vocabulary connection is well-established and needs to be taught in the context of word study (including derivatives and etymological influences), syllabication, and conventional spelling rules. Spell check did not suddenly make orthographical study passé.

10. Revision is the key to writing improvement. Revision requires direct instruction to teach sentence manipulation, sentence combining, sentence variety, and precision of word choice. Revision requires focused tasks in the writing process to add, delete, substitute, and rearrange ideas to afford writers alternative means of expression. Hemingway completely re-wrote the last chapter in For Whom the Bell Tolls in 39 different ways. There must be something to this revision stuff.

11. Authentic writing tasks that are relevant and meaningful to students motivate quality writing, especially when the writing will be published in a venue that students care about.

12. Teaching rhetorical stance: voice, audience, purpose, and form produces significant writing pay-offs. Writing style can be modeled, mimicked, and developed over time.

13. Degree of oral proficiency in vocabulary and grammar impacts writing ability. ESL students need differentiated instruction to bridge language barriers.

14. Direct instruction is not enough—coaching is necessary to teach students how to write. The “sage on the stage” has to be matched with the “guide on the side.”

15. Teaching structured writing makes sense to focus on writing organization and unity. However, form and purpose dictate structure, so structural straight-jackets can be counter-productive, if pressed into service for every writing task.

16.  There are certain writing rules that are worth teaching.  Of course, rules are specific to each writing form. Indenting paragraphs, writing in complete sentences, and the like add to writing coherency.

17.  Writing coherency should be the ultimate goal of any writing task.

18. Teaching grammar, spelling, vocabulary, and writing strategies are more than just test prep. These skills require teaching and practice, not testing. Fortunately, quality instruction and practice in these writing components will result in higher test scores.

19. What we say shouldn’t always be the way that we write. Good writing instruction helps students learn to distrust their oral language as a grammatical filter. Authentic writing voice is not the same as playground banter.

20. Writing fluency is a worthy goal; however, contrived on-demand writing for the purpose of writing lots of words in a given time does not achieve that end.

21. Teaching writing shouldn’t take up an entire English-language arts course. We have other fish to fry as well.

How to Teach a Balanced Writing Program in Six Steps

1. Develop a Writing Plan

Establish a comprehensive writing scope and sequence of instruction with your colleagues, including those who precede and those who follow you. Base your plan on your more general grade-level state standards, but get as specific as possible. I suggest integrating grammar, mechanics, spelling instruction, specific writing strategies, writing genre, and writing process pieces into a multi-year plan. An specific writing scope and sequence makes more sense than a “shotgun” approach.

2. Direct Grammar/Mechanics/Spelling Instruction

Allocate 15 minutes, 2 days per week, to direct instruction of the grammar, mechanics, and spelling skills dictated by your scope and sequence, say on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Find resources that will teach both sentence modeling and error analysis. Require students to practice what has been learned and formatively assess their skill acquisition.

3. Differentiated Grammar/Mechanics/Spelling Instruction

Use an effective diagnostic assessment to identify grammatical and mechanical skills that your students should already know. Also, assess students on their spelling skills. Chart their deficits and find brief, targeted instruction that students can independently practice. Develop brief formative assessments for each skill. Allocate 15 minutes, 2 days per week, of teacher-student mini-conferences to review their practice and grade their formative assessments, say on Wednesdays and Fridays. Have students keep track of their own mastery of these skills on progress monitoring charts. Re-teach and re-assess skills not-yet-mastered.

4. Do Direct Writing Instruction

Allocate 10 minutes, 3 days per week, to direct instruction, sentence models, and guided writing practice in vocabulary development and sentence revision (sentence manipulation, sentence combining, and sentence variety) say on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Require students to practice what has been learned and formatively assess their skill acquisition.

5. Do Differentiated Writing Instruction

Allocate 15 minutes, 2 days per week, to direct instruction of the writing strategies/skills dictated by your scope and sequence, say on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Design paragraph assignments to keep writing and review time manageable. Develop brief formative assessments for each skill. Allocate 15 minutes, 3 days per week, of teacher-student mini-conferences to review their practice and grade their formative assessments, say on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Have students keep track of their own mastery of these skills on progress monitoring charts. Re-teach and re-assess skills not-yet-mastered.

6. Teach Process Papers

Teach and require students to compose at least one process paper per quarter, as dictated by your scope and sequence and grade-level standards. Not every process paper must include all steps of the Writing Process.

Check out this complete writing process essay to see a sample of the resources provided in Teaching Essay StrategiesThe download includes writing prompt, paired reading resource, brainstorm activity, prewriting graphic organizer, rough draft directions, response-editing activity, and analytical rubric.

Get the Writing Process Essay FREE Resource:

Find essay strategy worksheets, on-demand writing fluencies, sentence revision and rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in the comprehensive writing curriculum, Teaching Essay Strategies

Find essay strategy worksheets, on-demand writing fluencies, sentence revision and rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in the comprehensive writing curriculum,Teaching Essay Strategies.

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Teaching Essay Strategies

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How to Teach Transitions

Transition words are essential ingredients of coherent writing. Using transition words is somewhat of a writing science. Teachers can “teach” the nuts and bolts of this science, including the categories of transitions and what each transition means. Teachers can also help students learn how and where to use them with appropriate punctuation.

However,  using transition words is also somewhat of a refined art.  Matters of writing style don’t “come naturally” to most writers. Teachers do well to point out the effective use of transitions in exemplary writing models and help students mimic these in their own writing. With targeted practice, students can learn to incorporate transitions as important features of their own writing voices.

Before teachers launch into instructional strategies, they need to make the case for their students that transitions are necessary for effective writing.

Transitions are Necessary

Transitions provide connections between words and ideas. They also signal change. Without transitions, reading comprehension is minimized. Here are a few classroom-tested activities that will help students see how transitions are essential.

Make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Bring in the materials: bread, peanut butter, jelly, a butter knife, and plenty of napkins. Tell students to write detailed instructions about how to make this American classic. Then, collect the instructions and call on a few students to follow the directions exactly as you read them. If the transitions are not perfect, you will definitely need the napkins.

Learn and play a new game. Gather a bunch of different board games and/or decks of cards, each with a printed set of directions. Find different card game directions at this site.  Match students to games they have never played. Students learn and play the new game. The teacher directs the students to put away the game and directions and students are to compose their own directions for the game from memory, using effective transitions. Great for sequencing skills, too. Extension: Jigsaw students and have them follow student-created directions to try and learn how to play a new game. Further extension: Have students “tweak” the directions of an existing game and play it as revised. Even further extension: Have students create their own board or card games.

Learning Transitions

Students must understand the definition of the transition words and their categorical relationships.

Instructional Strategies: Teach the meanings of transition words in the context of transition categories. Have students read passages that use different transition categories and discuss. Have students complete a Cloze Procedure, using those same passages. Following are the transition categories (What You Need to Signal) and the common transitions:

What You Need to Signal                  Transitions

definition

  • refers to, in other words, consists of, is equal to, means

example

  • for example, for instance, such as, is like, including, to illustrate

addition

  • also, another, in addition, furthermore, moreover

sequence

  • first, second, later, next, before, for one, for another, previously, then, finally, following, since, now

analysis

  • consider, this means, examine, look at

comparison

  • similarly, in the same way, just like, likewise, in comparison

contrast

  • in contrast, on the other hand, however, whereas, but, yet, nevertheless, instead, as opposed to, otherwise, on the contrary, regardless

cause-effect

  • because, for, therefore, hence, as a result, consequently, due to, thus, so, this led to

conclusion

  • in conclusion, to conclude, as one can see, as a result, in summary, for these reasons

Using Transitions

Students must understand basic sentence syntax, to know where to place transition words.

Transitions can open paragraphs and sentences. Transitions can be placed mid-sentence to connect ideas. Transitions can close paragraphs and sentences. Transitions can be used to place emphasis on a certain sentence or paragraph component.

Instructional Strategies: Assign students a variety of writing tasks that will each require the use of different transition categories. Have students practice sentence revisions in which they place existing transition words at a different part of the sentence. Have students change transition words ending paragraphs to the beginning of the next paragraph and vice-versa. Have students compose compound and compound-complex sentences with transition words and then revise the placement of these transitions for different emphasis.

A Few Things to Avoid

Remind students that overusing transition words is almost as bad as not using transition words. Don’t teach structured transitions, such as these: Always place transitions at the end of an introduction. Always place transitions in a concluding statement ending a body paragraph. Always begin a conclusion with a transition. By the way, although most teachers insist upon a thesis restatement, most published essays do not have them. Two good rules of thumb apply: If the thesis restatement is expected, such as on the SAT 1® essay, write one. If the essay is long, use one; if it is short, don’t. Don’t use transitions solely as an editing skill.

Check out this complete writing process essay to see a sample of the resources provided in Teaching Essay StrategiesThe download includes writing prompt, paired reading resource, brainstorm activity, prewriting graphic organizer, rough draft directions, response-editing activity, and analytical rubric.

Get the Writing Process Essay FREE Resource:

Find essay strategy worksheets, on-demand writing fluencies, sentence revision and rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in the comprehensive writing curriculum, Teaching Essay Strategies

Find essay strategy worksheets, on-demand writing fluencies, sentence revision andrhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in the comprehensive writing curriculum,Teaching Essay Strategies.

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Teaching Essay Strategies

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Ten Tips for Coaching Basketball and Writing

Being born and raised in Los Angeles, I knew little about life in the country. Newly married, I agreed to follow my wife’s dream and apply for teaching jobs in the Gold Country of Northern California. I sent out my resume, highlighted by my three-whole-months of substitute teaching experience and hoped for the best.

Four days before the start of school, I got a call from Sutter Creek Elementary, a K-8 school, in picturesque Sutter Creek. The principal asked two questions: “Could you be here and ready to teach by Monday?” and “Are you willing to coach our eighth grade basketball team?” I gulped and said, “Yes.” Little did I know what I was in for…

The teaching part of the job was challenging. I taught six periods of history and English to the seventh and eighth graders. My principal asked me to focus on their weakest area: writing. I jumped in with the Five-Paragraph Essay. I lectured them about all of the component parts and had them write one final draft essay most every day. That’s all I knew about writing instruction, but I struggled in silence–too embarrassed to ask for help. However, compared to the other part of my job as basketball coach, teaching writing seemed “a walk in the park.” The basketball part of the job was a nightmare.

My Sutter Creek students pummeled me with questions on the first day: “Why did you leave Los Angeles?  What’s it like having McDonalds®, Burger King®, and KFC® all on the same block?” “Do you know any of the Los Angeles Lakers?” There wasn’t much for kids to do in Sutter Creek, other than basketball.

Basketball was pretty much an entire-school-year affair. We began practicing a few weeks after the beginning of school. More than half of the eighth graders tried out, and I had to “cut” the team down to the number of our uniforms. This was a difficult proposition because the kids were really quite good, having played in community leagues for years. In fact, I had a bonafide superstar: David Dalton. David could dribble between his legs and do both right and left-handed lay-ups. And he could shoot the “lights-out.”

I knew little about basketball. Baseball had been my game. So, I turned to the experts. I called up my six-foot-five-inch best friend and asked his advice; I read books; I watched video tapes; I studied diagrams; I learned how to teach the game.

We had three months to practice before our season was to begin. I taught a motion offense and set-plays, full-court and half-court traps, and complicated zone defenses. I fancied myself the “sage on the stage.” Our practices consisted of eighty-five minutes of walking through my complex plays and five minutes of scrimmage at the end of practice. My principal left me to my own devices and supported me when a few of the parents began grumbling about my rigorous practices.

Our season began and we won every game. I don’t think we scored more than a few points off of my elaborate motion offense or set-plays. We did, however, score plenty of points when the plays broke down and on opposing team’s turnovers. David Dalton was incredible. He consistently doubled the score of the opposing team all by himself. We even handily beat our archrival, Jackson Elementary, in our one seasonal match-up. Victory was sweet, but after that game, the opposing coach took me aside and asked me if he could give me one small piece of advice. “Of course, I said.” He advised, “Perhaps you should teach less and coach more.” I thanked him, but really didn’t understand the difference.

In the final game of our championship tournament, we once again faced our archrival, Jackson Elementary. The high school gym was packed with 800 spectators. We again were winning handily after the second period of play. As the third period began, Jackson’s defense had changed. Two of their guys were stationed “under the bucket,” but three guys were glued to David Dalton. Frustrated, David began picking up fouls. I did not know how to adjust. None of my six-foot-five-inch friend’s advice, the books I had devoured, or the video tapes I had watched had said anything about adjusting to a triple-team.

At the beginning of the fourth period, David fouled-out. I kept calling out plays, but we couldn’t score. I called time-outs and reminded the players about everything I had taught them. Nothing worked. Jackson crept closer. With time running out and the score tied, a Jackson player hit a “buzzer-beater” and Jackson Elementary earned the championship. The parents and my players were disgusted with me. Jackson’s coach had out-coached me.

After assuring me that I would not be fired, my principal “suggested” that he would coach next  year and I could serve as his assistant. Quite humbling. However, the next year, with my principal’s help I learned how to coach, not teach basketball. And learning how to coach basketball made me a much better writing teacher.

Here are  ten tips that my principal shared with me about coaching basketball that helped me change from a teacher of writing to coach of writing:

1. My principal had me practice with the boy’s eighth grade basketball team. It was embarrassing not being the best player. I learned the value of doing each of the writing assignments that I assigned to my students. By doing each writing task, I began to see things from the students’ perspectives. I caught my instructional mistakes, realized how much I assumed students already knew, and re-worked my instruction accordingly. I began doing Write-Alouds with my classes to model my own writing problem-solving.

2. My principal had me shoot free-throws with the team. The boys all shot better percentages than I did, but I did improve. I learned to share my own writing with students. Some of it was quite good; much of it was poor. But, the  writing assignments were authentic and provided reachable models for the students. Solely reading great works of literature does not help students improve their writing skills. The reading-writing connection is not the magical “be-all,” “end-all” solution to literacy.

3. My principal emphasized drills: passing, dribbling, rebound, and defensive positioning. I learned to teach writing inductively—from the part to the whole. I spent time coaching students on sentence structure, modeled sentence combining, had students work on grammatical sentence variety, and paragraph development. I took classes from mentors through the Area 3 Writing Project and began to help students practice the components of the Writing Process. I put the five-paragraph essay on hold for a while.

4. My principal scrimmaged a lot. Of course the boys loved this, but I noticed something else. They were incorporating what they practiced in their drills, with a few reminders. I learned to allot more time to actual writing in a wide variety of voices, to different audiences, for different purposes, and in different forms to build writing style and fluency. Students got better at manipulating the elements of rhetorical stance and their writing coherency significantly improved.

5. My principal kept things simple. He taught very few basketball plays. He did demonstrate and practice “the pick and roll” and “the pick and pop,” but not much else. Mostly, he told the boys to “free lance.” I learned to relax and stick with the “main and plain” components of writing instruction. I dropped my demands that “the devil is in the details” and stopped obsessively red-marking every mechanics and spelling error.

6. My principal didn’t force every player into the same box. He didn’t have any David Daltons that next year, but he let players go with their strengths and interests. He even let our only six-footer play the guard position, and not the center position. I learned to differentiate my writing instruction. Some students wrote three-page narratives, while some wrote one-page narratives. I still slept at night and the sun still rose and set. I discovered grammar diagnostic assessments and stopped teaching parts of speech to my students who had already mastered their parts of speech.

7. My principal never taught from the sidelines during our basketball games. He knew that coaching was for practices and not for games. I learned to use judicious error analysis and criticism in writers conferences with students during the prewriting, drafting, revision, and editing stages of the writing process. But, I focused only on what students did right on their final “game time” published products.

8. My principal was a motivator. Instead of focusing on the myriad of things our players did wrong, he focused on the few things they were doing right. He built up their self-confidence. He let the kids play. I learned that students could write better, if they perceived themselves as effective writers. I praised student work, published student work in the local paper, made parent phone calls.

9. My principal knew about successive approximation. He pushed his players to do “do-able” process tasks on the court, not product tasks, and then asked them to “do a bit more.” He had his son keep track of “do-able” tasks, like running down the court during transition defense and “boxing out” during our games, not product tasks like points scored, rebounds, turnovers, or assists. I learned to use detailed analytical rubrics to help students self-evaluate their writing and specifically inform them how to improve upon their strengths.

10. My principal planned his practices well, but he was flexible. If a drill did not go well, he knew when to devote more time to the drill, at the expense of another. He also knew when to “ditch” the drill and do something else. I learned to adjust my writing instruction to what students were and were not learning. Some carefully planned week-long lessons were accomplished in two days. Many mini-lessons turned into multiple-day lessons as I re-taught and struggled to find ways to get my students to learn what seemed so easy for me to teach. I learned the value of quick, informal formative writing assessments. I learned the value of asking students “thumbs up” if you understand, and “thumbs down” if you don’t.

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Find essay strategy worksheets, writing fluencies, sentence revision activities, remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in the comprehensive writing curriculum, Teaching Essay Strategies.

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