Thursday, January 28, 2016

Bring it to Life with Detail!

Often I come across essays where even though a student answers the question presented, it lacks detail and reasoning. 
For example, if I asked what you liked about the beach and you simply said, “sand,” I would walk away a bit bored and wanting to know why. The same is true for your writing. If the prompt provided for an essay poses a question, answer it and tell why. Give details and examples and use descriptive language whenever you can.
“What do you like about the beach?”
“I like the sand best because I have a shell collection and whenever we go to the shore, I look for colorful additions to my set. I also enjoy building sand castles in the wet sand with my little sister.”
Now this is s a full reason and explanation.  It also uses detail and adjectives (descriptive language) to let the reader form a picture and impression of his own.

Always tell more. Tell detail. Tell examples. Tell every last thing until there's nothing left to tell!

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Classic vs. Modern Literature

As a student in middle and high school, I was asked to read works by great classic authors. And, yes, I struggled to understand the old English language of William Shakespeare and to decipher the stream of consciousness style of William Faulkner. But I also reveled in the beautiful tone of Charlotte Bronte and the courageousness of Harper Lee. The point is that I was pushed outside my comfort zone to experience authors and subjects that I otherwise never would have picked up for myself.
Today, many classrooms are turning away from classic literature and replacing them with modern works of fiction. In an effort to appeal to their students and their action packed science fiction world of fantasy and adventure, our education system is dumbing down its curriculum. It is passing over time tested classics for reading lists with “teen appeal.”
Since when did our curriculum become dictated by student appeal? With this method of teaching, algebra and calculus would be omitted from many a math schedule. Physics and European history would be passed over for subjects kids prefer like cowboys and indians.
It shouldn’t matter if a student thinks he isn’t interested in 18th Century England. From reading books of this era, he will learn higher level vocabulary, more complex sentence structures, as well as vivid and descriptive prose. He will learn the historical significance of unique locations and important cultural references. Reading one good classic novel can cross curriculums for English, literature, art, history, and sociology. It can open up an understanding of humanity and how far the world has advanced over time.
But reading classic literature takes time. It cannot be gobbled up in one sitting or digested in between classes. Classic novels often require concentration and deciphering of language and style. They were penned in times when writing was an art form and authors had distinct styles and tones. No two classics are alike – there is not cookie cutter classic novel format.
This is not to say that that modern fiction doesn’t have its place in today’s world. Students are interested in science fiction and the world of possibility. They are interested in relationships that mirror their own lives and struggles. But students who are interested in these things will read them anyway. They do not need to be taught them in school. School should be about broadening the horizons beyond what a student already finds interest in.
In addition, modern fiction doesn’t challenge students in the same way classic novels do. Modern fiction employs lesser vocabulary and sentence structures. They are written for the masses. A good teacher should help students move beyond “the masses” mentality and aim for higher standards.

We’ve all heard the saying that “good readers make good writers.” But this is only true to the degree that the body of work being read is of high value and standard. A student who reads only cereal boxes and comic books will never become the next Hemmingway!  

Monday, January 25, 2016

SAT Word of the Week: GUILELESS

The word guileless is a descriptive word meaning honest or frank. One might describe a child's face as innocent and guileless.

Thursday, January 21, 2016


A contraction is a shortened version of two or more words. 

Remember that a contraction is formed by joining two small words into one and using an apostrophe in the place of the missing letter or letters. Remembering this rule will help to place the apostrophe in the correct spot. 

is not = take out the o = isn't

I am = take out the a = I'm
she will = take out the wi = she'll

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Time to Return to the Fundamentals of Writing?

In the October 2012 edition of The Atlantic, Peg Tyre wrote a telling article entitled “The Writing Revolution” in which she followed a New York public school struggling to keep its doors open in light of disastrous test scores and flailing student success. Nothing seemed to improve the situation. It wasn’t the teachers. It wasn’t the parents. It wasn’t the students. It was the writing curriculum – or lack thereof!
What the school found was that when writing proficiency became the focus in every class from English to science, student success in every subject improved and their test scores along with it.
What is most interesting to note, however, is that the writing curriculum was not simply expanded to include more writing. Instead, students began to be instructed in the strict fundamentals of writing: grammar, parts of speech, punctuation, sentence structure, critical thinking, and outlining.
It appears that in lieu of specific writing instruction, previous curriculum required writing but did not teach how to do it.

How is a student who has never been taught proper grammatical structure to be expected to write a thesis or persuasive essay? How is a student who has never been taught the difference between an adverb and an adjective supposed to write a research paper or short story?
Writing is going to play a role in every student’s future success. Whether the student is college bound or career focused, writing is essential to his growth and success.
We owe it to our children to ensure that we are not simply assigning writing assignments without arming them with the tools and skills for success.
Who can blame a child who feels inadequate or confused for hating to write? They don’t hate to write. They don’t know how to write! We wouldn’t accept that our child hates to play piano before they have had lessons. We wouldn’t accept that our child is a bad ball player when we haven’t told them the rules. So why do we accept that our children are bad writers if we haven’t ensured that they have been taught the rules and fundamentals of the skill?
Your child may not be the next Hemmingway or Longfellow. But without a doubt, he can be competent and successful in the writing realm. He may even enjoy the pride and confidence that comes with sharing his work and communicating his ideas clearly.

Monday, January 18, 2016

SAT Word of the Week: JOCULAR

The word jocular means to do something in a joking, humorous, or playful manner. It indicates a light hearted or spirited way of doing something. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Commas after Introductory Elements

Remember that you need to place a comma after introductory elements in your sentences. 

Introductory elements come before the main clause of a sentence and prepare the reader for the "meat" of the sentence. 

Introductory elements can include the following:
Prepositional phrases:  In the morning, I went to school.
Adverbial phrases and clauses: When I wake up, I will go to school.
Dependent clauses: Because I drank sour milk, now I don’t feel well.

There are other introductory elements as well, but the thing they all have in common is that they come before the main subject and verb of a sentence. They tell why, when, or where. 

Don’t forget these commas!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Writing is a Process

Writing is a process. 

It isn’t a one and done subject. It is not something you can check off your educational to do list in 5th grade and be done. 

The process of writing (pre-writing, 1st draft, revision, and publication) isn’t news to any writer or even to most writing students. Educators teach these four steps to good writing and then students regurgitate them dutifully. 

Sadly, many teachers and curriculums start and stop there. But if writing is a process, then so too is learning to write. The actual work of writing must be taught. We cannot just assign an essay and say: write. This does not teach writing.

Teaching writing skills does not need to be overwhelming or stressful. Simply start at the beginning. Begin with one sentence—this is the building block foundation. Even very young children can learn to write simple sentences with proper end punctuation and proofreading. 

Then build on this one sentence to create strong paragraphs with one central main idea. Now add description. Keep adding building blocks and practice.  If writing is viewed as a continual process, it will become a lifelong learning skill and absolute perfection will not be the immediate goal. One can never be done learning to write. There is always more to understand, more to try, and more to learn. 

Furthermore, students who view writing as a process are more likely to celebrate each small success and build confidence along the way. As confidence in writing grows, so too will the desire to continue trying new skills and developing proficiency. 

In a perfect world, writing education would begin in earnest in preschool and kindergarten as children are just learning to write their letters and words.  Young children can be asked to label drawings with a single sentence adding description and punctuation along the way. 

But it is not a perfect world and more often than not, writing instruction doesn’t begin until late elementary grades or even middle school when students are suddenly asked to write an essay about their summer vacation. Faced with a blank page and no previous teaching, overwhelming fear and inadequacy set in. 

Is it too late?


Just remember: writing is a process!

Back it up.  

Start at the beginning and assume nothing. 

Eliminate the fear of a blank page by asking for just one sentence. Then move on to a single paragraph. Don’t move on from the paragraph until it has reached proficiency. Work on proofreading, punctuation, focus, description, and coherency within a single paragraph before jumping into a longer essay even if it

takes lots of practice. There is no rush. 

And above all, remember the power of praise. Find something to praise in each paragraph because success really is its own reward. A student who sees a glimmer of hope will continue to strive for greatness. And more often than not, he WILL achieve it!    

Monday, January 11, 2016

SAT Word of the Week: Pillage

The word pillage means to plunder, rob, or raid as pertaining to war especially. It is always used with a negative and harsh connotation. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Pronoun Antecedents

 A pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun in a sentence.  Common pronouns are he, she, it, their, they and so on. Pronouns may seem simple to use in your writing, but there are some very specific rules regarding their use which eliminate confusion. 

1. Pronouns refer back to the last noun of the same number and gender. (Remember that number refers to singular/plural and gender refers to male/female.) If your pronoun does not refer back to that last noun (which is called the antecedent), then it is incorrectly used. 

2. A pronoun must refer to a noun antecedent in the same paragraph. It follows, then, that you should avoid using a pronoun as the first word of any paragraph. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

To Grade or Not to Grade: This is the Question

The decision to grade the work submitted by my online students has been a difficult one to make. In fact, in many ways, I remain of two minds about it.  The writer in me dislikes the idea of grading completely. Writing is a skill and as such has a learning curve. Making mistakes is a natural and necessary part of the process. It would be like grading someone’s ability to carve an owl out of a piece of wood in workshop. It will never come out perfect the first, second, or even third time.  I believe that confidence and practice breed writing success. How then can I grade honestly and accurately while boosting confidence and fostering a willingness and desire to try a new skill? Yet, after the first year of Online Classes, it is apparent that many students have been conditioned to write for a grade. The end grade motivates and compels them to work hard and within deadlines. The grade provides the understanding of how they are doing in the teacher’s mind.

Herein lies my dilemma. Despite the fact that I prefer to use simple feedback and encouragement as my method of correction, I see that it is quite possibly not enough for the modern student. I would prefer to believe that learning for learning sake is enough reward. Instead, I have chosen to devise my own grading system in which effort is taken as much into the equation as the output.  Learning to write is not a cut and dry subject in which mastery can be attained in a week or even two. Writing requires practice. Trial and error is required and applauded.  If students simply learn the equation for an A or B paper, then they will likely never press on to more difficult skills.  To this teacher, a student who is trying new techniques and making mistakes along the way is a student who will become not only proficient but achieve writing excellence!

Monday, January 4, 2016

SAT Word of the Week: BENIGN

The word benign means harmless or kindly. It is derived from the Latin word bene which means good or well.

We most often hear of benign attached to medical issues such as benign tumors or a benign mole meaning that it is not harmful. It can, however, be generalized to apply to anything from conversations to reactions.