Teaching Conventions of Print

Jago Tweet

Carol Jago’s tweet this morning prompted Jen Roberts to reply:

Jen Roberts Tweet

Here is a good rundown of conventions of print. Knowing and being able to use these conventions are important for literacy. What do students need to know in the 21st century? How does reading digital writing differ from print writing?

Hyperlinks, for a start. Hyperlinks open up new pages or websites that connect in some way to the text linked. It’s also important that students understand web conventions differ from print conventions, and students should learn web conventions, too. For instance, writing is usually single-spaced with an extra line between paragraphs rather than double-spaced (or single-spaced) with a first-line indent.

As we see more print from places all over the world, it’s important for students to know that even speakers of the same language have different spelling, usage, punctuation, and style preferences, and those preferences are as correct as the preferences their native country has agreed upon (this is so important for English). Students should also know which way to orient pages in a word processor to effectively communicate their message.

It’s probably more important that today’s students learn to keyboard rather than write cursive, but I hate to see them not learn to at least read cursive at all.

What do you think should be added?

Related posts:

Indie Writing

Be seeing you

Writing is hard work, but finding a publisher for your writing in this market might be almost as hard—maybe harder. And yet many people frown on writers who self-publish. Even some of the best writers of classic literature have paid to have their books published in the past—Jane Austen’s father sent First Impressions, an early version of Pride and Prejudice, to Thomas Cadell in London and asked if it might be published at the author’s expense. All of her novels, with the exception of Pride and Prejudice, were published “on commission,” or at the author’s own financial risk. But paying for publication through so-called vanity presses isn’t necessary anymore, either. Nowadays, writers can take publication in their own hands. They can create books using services such as Lulu and Kindle Direct Publishing, and software such as Calibre. Writers can publish their own books in print or e-book format.

Self-publishing requires a shift in thinking, and I had to change the way I viewed it as well. Several years ago, I decided that I wouldn’t have time to keep sending my manuscript out to publishers, to find an agent, or to keep at it the way I knew I should if I wanted my book published. I have a demanding full-time job (if you read this blog, you know that because you probably have the same job—and I’m convinced that there are at least three Jim Burke clones). It’s not that I don’t want my book published by a large house—it’s just that the whole process is frustrating when I just want people to read my book. Enter the concept of the indie writer.

I wish I had made up the concept of the indie writer, but I did a Google search, and of course, there is nothing new under the sun. Thinking of myself as an indie writer shifted my perception of self-publishing. When I was in high school and college, my crowd included a lot of musicians. One thing musicians do is try to find gigs wherever they can and create their own CD’s (nowadays, I suppose they create mp3′s) and sell them at their gigs or on sites like CD Baby. No one looks down on them for that. It’s considered a great way to put your music in the hands of listeners. Of course, if a record company (is that term outdated now?) comes calling with a big contract, then you’ve made it. Some people actually prefer indie music because they love supporting local bands or musicians who are working to generate publicity for their art. But you know, we frown on writers for trying the same thing. What is wrong with publishing your own books, just to put them in readers’ hands? Writers can and have spent decades working to publish their work. John Kennedy Toole’s mother famously spent eleven years trying to attract publishers’ attention for her son’s classic A Confederacy of Dunces. Once it was published, it won the Pulitzer Prize. Publishers are notoriously leery of unpublished writers. Publishing a book is a huge risk for a company in an industry that is struggling. But just as indie bands can attract attention to their music through making their own CD’s and mp3′s, writers can also attract attention through self-publication. Brunonia Barry’s novel The Lace Reader was self-published and became a book club favorite. Eventually, it was picked up by HarperCollins.

Does it necessarily follow that an indie writer’s work will find a home at a large publishing house? No. Not all indie bands make it big, do they? But more people will read my work if I put it out there than will if it languishes on my laptop. To that end, if you want to support an indie writer, you can download my book A Question of Honor in the following formats:

It is the story of a young woman in medieval Wales who takes on her mother’s healing practice and finds herself in over her head the first time she delivers a child. When she is accused of a horrible crime, she runs to her father’s homeland in Scotland. She meets a ragtag group of minstrels on the way, and she wonders if she will ever see the young man she’s in love with again. Meanwhile, her grandfather in Scotland has definite plans for his granddaughter, and it turns out she has a sister she never knew about, too. She begins to wonder if she might be better off returning to Wales and facing the music, but she fears the consequences.

Look for another book soon. I need to do some editing. Also, I am trying to prepare an e-pub version of A Question of Honor, so look for that soon if you need e-pub. The print and PDF versions will give you the nicest layout. I am still learning how to lay out a book for Kindle, and while the book file is readable, it has a few quirks that I am working on fixing.

This post is cross-posted at my reading blog, Much Madness is Divinest Sense. If you want to continue to follow my creative writing efforts, you might want to check in at Much Madness is Divinest Sense.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Olivander

Related posts:

Addressing Plagiarism

If you’ve taught for any length of time, you’ll probably have to confront plagiarism. Even in the age before the Internet, students plagiarized, though it might be a little easier to do now than it was when you were in high school. A variety of tools can help you detect plagiarism, but what are you supposed to do about it?

First of all, consider the age of your students. I think if you have middle schoolers, they likely don’t know or haven’t learned how to attribute quotes. Students should be taught how to attribute information. Model it. Teach them to use just the part of the quote they need. I have a handout on integrating quotes that might be helpful.

Teach students what plagiarism is and how to avoid it. Barry Gilmore’s book Plagiarism: Why It Happens, How to Prevent It can help you. Melissa Vosen has a great article in the July 2008 issue of English Journal entitled “Using Bloom’s Taxonomy to Teach Students About Plagiarism.” I’ve used it for two years (and will use it again in January) and have found it to be an excellent mini-unit for helping students understand what plagiarism is and how to avoid it. Obviously preventing plagiarism is the best possible means of handling it, but when it happens, and it’s probably a question of when and not if, keep in mind:

  • It’s not about you. The student doesn’t necessarily plagiarize because he/she dislikes you or your class. It’s an act of either laziness or desperation that has nothing to do with the personal feelings the student has for you or your class. You shouldn’t make it personal when you handle it.
  • Consequences are important. Your school probably has a policy about plagiarism. Follow it. That means the student will need to be punished even if he/she is contrite and promises never to do it again.
  • Move on. After the consequences have been given, forgive the student. Go ahead and check their work more carefully in the future. That’s common sense. Don’t make the student feel as if they have irreparably damaged their relationship with you.
  • Make sure the parents know. It might be a good idea to address parents from the point of view of a parent—show your concern and assure the parent that though there will be consequences, you understand it was a mistake and will be moving on and putting it behind you. Assure the parent the student will have a second chance. Parents need to know because any consequences will likely impact the student’s grade.
  • Examine the assignment. Is there something about it that made it too difficult for the student to do? Or was the topic the kind of topic that invites plagiarism because it’s a really commonly assigned topic? Is there anything you can do to improve the assignment so that students won’t be tempted to plagiarize? One suggestion I have is to construct the assignment around an authentic audience and task. For example, instead of framing the topic like this: “Analyze Beowulf’s heroic characteristics using textual evidence,” try “You are King Hrothgar. Queen Huffgar the Wise has written you in desperation. She has a horrible problem with Acromantulas in her kingdom, and she has just learned that your own kingdom was recently rid of two terrible monsters. She wants to know if you can recommend the services of a hero who might be able to do the same for her kingdom. Write a letter of recommendation to Queen Huffgar for Beowulf’s services as a hero. Use examples of Beowulf’s heroic prowess from Beowulf.” Those two writing tasks are asking students to do the same thing. One seems like a lot more fun to write (my opinion, of course, given I wrote the task).

Do you have any tips for teachers with how to address plagiarism? Please share in the comments.

Related posts:

Digital Portfolios

Circled words, arrows, spiral notebookI am thinking of using digital portfolios this year. I have a wiki for my classes, and it would be easy for students to have a page on the wiki where they can collect their pieces and also pull in other items, like Glogs, images, videos, and audio. I really liked the idea of an interactive notebook, but I’m wondering if a digital portfolio wouldn’t be easier to grade.

Do you use digital portfolios? What tool do you use to create them? What suggestions would you have for implementation? Would it be better for students to create blogs? I don’t want to use too many different tools because I don’t want things to be confusing.

Creative Commons License photo credit: juliejordanscott

Related posts:

Image Grammar

I have been on the lookout for books, websites, and other materials to help me teach grammar. If you have some good ideas for resources, please leave them in the comments.

A couple of things I have been trying with my students seem to be working fairly well. I used the Sentence Opening Strategy activity shared by Carol Sanders on the EC Ning to teach sentence variety. My students were fairly reflective about their writing in this activity. I also pulled out my copy of Spelling and Grammar: The Daily Spark, along with Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Devotional and have been posting grammar and writing puzzles on the SMARTBoard as a sort of journaling/opening activity while I take attendance and do other housekeeping. The students really like the grammar puzzles, and I found it sort of flexes their brains for writing.

Still, teaching grammar, and what I mean by that is correctness and variety (because everyone seems to disagree about what grammar is), is just hard. I want my students to be more fluent and fluid writers, and I want them to communicate clearly. Based on this goal, it would seem Harry Noden’s Image Grammar is an excellent choice.

I’ve read one chapter, and I like the way Noden organizes different writing techniques, such as using participles, as “brush strokes.” The accompanying CD has some good material, but in my opinion, the CD should probably be updated. The material on the CD is organized into HTML files, and they look a little archaic (think Geocities or Angelfire), but the material is solid. Noden also references a website that is no longer working—ah the joys of the Internet—as a source of images for writing prompts, but the Web does not lack examples of image sites that can be used to spark writing.

What I like best about the book so far is that Noden shows how to teach grammatical structures in a way that students will see their relevance to their own writing. I have had students who knew a great deal about grammatical structures out of context but could not apply these structures to make their own writing better. I have had students tell me that I taught them how to write well, but it’s an area in which I would like to improve.

Related posts:

Editing Checklist

Let’s create an editing checklist. I think it’s helpful for students to have a guide for editing or peer editing. Suggest your idea for something that students should check for in the comments, and I will create the document and make it available here for free.

Here’s my contribution:

Mark every instance of the words “this,” “that,” “these,” and “those.” Make sure these words are being used as adjectives rather than pronouns. If they’re being used as pronouns, consider adding a noun, revising the sentence, or combining sentences to avoid vague pronouns.

I ran into that particular issue quite a few times while reading essays today.

I will be cross-posting this request at the EC Ning.

Related posts:

I Need a Rewrite: Week in Reflection, 1/26-1/30

Teaching composition is difficult.  I think I had to teach it for several years before I felt comfortable.  One strategy I frequently use is peer editing.  Interestingly enough, students are often more able to help each other edit and revise than they can edit and revise on their own.  I’m not precisely sure why this is, but I suspect it has to do with the idea that we know what we meant to say, and we don’t always realized we haven’t communicated what we meant to say.  It can be difficult to be objective about one’s own work.

I don’t have students peer edit every time they write, and I frequently don’t tell them in advance that they will have the opportunity to peer edit because I worry, perhaps falsely, that knowing they may not have a chance to edit will entice them to work harder on their drafts.

My students recently wrote short essays comparing and contrasting two versions of Act 2, Scene 2 (the Balcony Scene) in Romeo and Juliet.  Prior to viewing the scenes, we created a graphic organizer to take notes as we viewed.  We shared our notes.  Students noticed very interesting things about the scenes that I in fact had never noticed before.  For instance, did you know that Olivia Hussey’s Juliet is spelling out Romeo’s name on the wall with her finger when Romeo first spies her?  I never picked up on that small action before, but I found it to be an interesting choice on the part of the actress.  I sent them home to write their compositions, and I felt very good about everything they had learned.

Students turned in their essays after the weekend, and I noticed something interesting.  They had not shared all the interesting details in their writing that they had shared in class.  It may have been that my directions were not explicit, or it may have been a disconnect on the part of the students, but I knew that they could make their reader “see” the two films better with a revision and some more direction.  So I wrote my own paragraph, modeling for the students the types of details they had shared in class but not in writing and asked them to do a rewrite for me.  They did, and what improvement!  Interesting how with writing a little modeling goes farther than almost any other instructional strategy I’ve tried.  The students don’t know it yet, but they will revise one more time to correct some mechanical issues.  We learned all about commas, apostrophes, and quotation marks, and I want to be sure students can use them correctly in composition.

Lesson learned: Model or scaffold at the start. I could have walked students through the process of moving their notes to a composition, but I incorrectly assumed the discussion would be sufficient for them to make the connections.  It was for some, but not for all.  I should have generated some questions and asked students how they planned to proceed.

I know time is hard to come by, and many of us have a lot of students.  Teaching composition effectively in those conditions can be difficult, particularly if your students have difficulty with writing.  It’s essential work, however.  In fact, I have often thought that teaching writing is at the heart of teaching English — is the most important thing we do as English teachers.  Students have to learn the writing process, that drafting is critical, that there is a lot of work before a piece of writing is “finished” (or that it never is?).

I may be blessed with smaller classes in my private school setting, which enables me to grade students’ drafts more quickly and provide more quality feedback than I think I could if I had classes of 30 students.  The best thing we could do to help our students become better writers is limit English classes to 15 students.  Still, if we are willing to sacrifice some of our sacred cows in the name of helping our students to be good communicators, it might be possible for students even in larger clases to obtain more individualized writing instruction, including modeling, drafting, revising, editing, and quality feedback.  How could we do it?  What should a writing classroom look like?  What is your dream writing classroom?  Money is no object, and you can create whatever you wish.

Related posts:

Writing and Reflecting

After I viewed some pieces on the DVD that accompanies Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them, I thought about my improvement as a teacher over the last few years, and I have decided that a lucky confluence of two events contributed to making me a better teacher: I began teaching at Weber four years ago, and a year later I began writing this blog.

Working at my school with an administration that has supported my efforts to grow and try new things, like blogging and wikis and other ideas, has been so freeing, and if I had not found Weber, I wonder if I would be blogging now or trying some of the other things I’ve tried.  In fact, I wonder if I would be teaching.

Here I am, in the middle of July, and I’m blogging about education and reading education books and blogs.  Why?  I can take a vacation, right?  The thing is, I really want to be back in school and try it all over again.  I am lucky in that my school doesn’t mind that I blog.  This is huge in an era when blogs are routinely blocked at schools, never mind encouraged.  I have always been able to blog about my journey as an educator, here, under my real name, and not worry about it.

And the blogging is what really made me a better educator.  I really began thinking and reflecting about my practice in a way I hadn’t done before.  I read professional literature and wrote about it here.  I jumped in and took risks with projects, and even if they failed, I felt better for having tried.  I shared.  I asked questions.  I helped.  I got feedback.  The audience I have here has truly been helpful to me as I struggled to figure out who I was as an educator and what I wanted to do.

I am excited about the next school year already.  Each year is better than the last.  I am learning and growing all the time.  Blogging has energized me and made me excited about my career.  I have struggled with my career in the past and even quit teaching for a time.  Now I just can’t imagine doing anything else, and this reflection, this space to think and discuss ideas, has given that to me.

Related posts:

New Handouts

I began the process of adding more handouts and other content to this site. I removed some handouts I didn’t really think would be useful.

It made me wonder about content in general. What would be helpful? If I have it, I can put it up. I have some great research paper stuff that I need to scan, but I could put it up, too. Also, I have other handouts at school. Right now, most of my handouts are either writing or American literature, but I did add one handout for British literature. More should come as I gain more experience with the subject. I taught one section of it last year for a semester, but will teach two sections all year this coming year.

I’m not taking requests, mind. If I don’t already have it or don’t have a use for it myself, I don’t see the point in creating it, especially not for free. However, if I have it made up, and it’s just a matter of uploading it or even if I don’t have it but think I can use it myself, I can upload it.

Here’s a Power Point on the twenty most common writing errors:

Update: I know that the 20th slide isn’t rendering properly, but I can’t fix it because it’s SlideShare’s problem. If you download the file, it should be correct because the transcript is correct; however, if it’s not, you can easily change it.

Related posts:

A Writing Teacher’s Pet Peeves

In my ten years of composition instruction, I have developed a set of pet peeves associated with the body of student writing I have read.  Any of my students reading this should keep in mind that I do not direct this at any particular student — this list is a synthesis of common writing errors that I often find in student papers at every grade level 6-12 and every academic level, including Honors or AP.

  1. Referring to an author by his/her first name only in a literary analysis.  It sounds too much like they’re writing about their old pal Walt instead of the poet Walt Whitman.
  2. Not using proper format.  I require MLA format.  I provide samples.  I correct it. I don’t know how much plainer it gets.
  3. Punctuation of titles.  I admit that I am probably harsher on students than is warranted because punctuation of titles comes so easily to me, but I cannot figure out why students cannot remember that short works go inside quotation marks and longer works are italicized or underlined.
  4. Use of second person in formal composition.
  5. Apostrophes used to designate words as plural.  Why?  Think of the poor overworked little punctuation marks!  Don’t they already have enough to do with possessives and contractions, not to mention quotes within quotes?
  6. Run-ons, comma splices, and fragments.  Subject+verb+complete thought=sentence.  Commas cannot join independent clauses.  Independent clauses cannot simply be mashed together either.  Let me introduce you to the semicolon.  He is your friend.
  7. Strange format decisions.  It is my experience that many young writers do not feel comfortable turning in work unless their own title is somehow different from the essay — a different font, font size, bold font, etc.  Why can’t it just be plain size-12 Times New Roman?
  8. And while we’re discussing titles, how about this attention grabber: “Essay”; or if that doesn’t grab you, how about “Scarlet Letter Essay.”  The title of the novel, of course either in quotation marks or not punctuated at all.
  9. Not reading feedback.  I spend anywhere between 15-30 minutes reading every paper.  Students flip to the grade and ask why they earned that particular grade before reading the half-page to full-page of written or typed comments I attached to the piece.  When this happens, a part of me dies inside.  And I think God kills a kitten, too.
  10. Commonly confused words and nonstandard usage: “loose” for “lose,” “then” for “than”; the whole to/two/too and there/their/they’re.  “Alright.”  “Alot.”  “Can not.”  “Irregardless.”

Professional writers are not exempt.  I had to quit reading the work of a popular writer whose plots I enjoy because I couldn’t stand the fact that she, and apparently her editor, can’t identify a comma splice.

Please don’t think I take a red pen to comments and correspondence.  I don’t think twice about it.  Formal writing, especially published writing, has to meet a different standard.

Related posts: