Teach. Write. Spring/Summer 2020

The 2020 Spring/Summer edition of Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal is here! You can access the journal by clicking the Download button below:

The cover of this edition represents the theme of the one-room schoolhouse, which seems appropriate at this time when so many of us are teaching and learning from our own little rooms.

I hope reading this journal will provide you with a sense of unity and solidarity in the midst of our forced separation.

Until we meet again.

I will post the link when the print version of the journal is available.

Pet Peeves

woman holding her head

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Not earth-shattering. Not life-destroying. Not important at all in the grand scheme of things, or even in the niggling scheme of things, but here are some of my pet peeves. I freely admit that I peeve myself at times, and I’m sure, others as well. But here goes anyway–for kicks and grins.

  • Using st, th, and nd when writing dates–Example–January 1st, 2020. In American usage, the convention has been, and will continue in my teaching, to be–write January 1, 2020 and say January 1st, 2020. The problem is that the British often use the endings when writing the dates, leading to understandable confusion. I am an anglophile from way back, so I’m not dissing the Brits, but I am also an American English teacher, so I will teach American standards. Here’s more about it from Daily Writing Tips: January 1 Doesn’t Need an “st” 
  • Placing the end mark outside the quotation marks–Example. She said, “We are in America, so we should use American punctuation conventions”. Yes, we should, and in American English the punctuation almost always goes INSIDE the quotation marks. “We should use American punctuation conventions.” Here is more on the subject from Grammarly: Does Punctuation Go Inside Quotation Marks?
  • Leaving out the possessive apostrophe OR adding an apostrophe with a simple plural. We need apostrophes, yet we don’t need apostrophes. The rules are simple:
      • Use an apostrophe with contractions or to show possession.
      • Do NOT use an apostrophe with a simple plural.
      • If the word ends in s, then generally the apostrophe comes after the s, but there are significant exceptions, such as when using irregular plurals.
    • It seems insignificant, and maybe it is sometimes, but not using the apostrophe when appropriate and using it unnecessarily can both lead to misunderstanding and also drives Mrs. Winkler crazy!
    • An example–I cant attend the New Years party, but I dont want to go to Sherrys house again because I dont like her childrens’  loud toys’ that company’s seem to love selling at this time of year.
    • Now my spell checker caught dont, Sherrys, and childrens’, but not the cant , Years, toys’, and company’s because although the spellcheck programs are more and more sophisticated, they are not (yet) sentient and can’t replace a writer’s own careful editing and revision.
    • Here’s more on the subject of apostrophes from Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL), one of the first and still one of the best: Apostrophe Introduction
  • It’s and its, a problem that gets its own category. Its own category–no apostrophe because it’s a possessive pronoun. It’s a possessive pronoun--I used an apostrophe because I am using the contraction It’s to mean It is. I think people understand the rule for the most part, but its an easy mistake to make (I did that one on purpose. I swear). Here are the rules again (not trying desperately to be clever this time):
    • It’s is the contraction for It is–Example–It’s snowing on January 5, 2020. The little trick I give my students is, “Can you say, It is in place of It’s? If so, then you have correctly used the apostrophe.
    • Its is the possessive pronoun–Example–The horse chewed on its hay. I understand why people get confused here: Its is a possessive pronoun. We hear the word possessive, and we immediately think apostrophe, but I tell my students, think of it this way– we don’t write hi’s car or his’ car do we? Nouns that show possession use apostrophes; pronouns that show possession do not. Here is an exercise to practice distinguishing between the two from one of my favorite grammar sites–Grammar Bytes: Word Choice–Exercise 13
  • Capitalizing when one shouldn’t and not capitalizing when one should. Okay, I get it that people don’t want to capitalize. It is sooooooooo much trouble to hit the shift key and type a letter, especially when writing with a smart phone. But increasingly I am seeing words that should NOT be capitalized being capitalized, especially doctor, lawyer, mother, father, even brother and sister, as well as a myriad of other words that should not be capitalized in academic writing. I am not too peeved by occasional unnecessary capitalization, often the person is just trying to show respect, but often capitalization errors show a lack of concern for proper writing, even when the person is writing assignments for a composition class! Here is more about capitalization from Grammar Girl: When Should You Capitalize Words?
  • I definitely get peeved when a person does not capitalize the personal pronoun “I” when emailing an English instructor. Come on, guys! Get with the program!

How much can an English teacher take?

 

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I promise I won’t get peeved with you if you submit your best work for publication in my bi-annual literary magazine Teach. Write. Submissions are open for the 2020 spring/summer edition until March 1. See submission guidelines here. 

Still Here

alphabet class conceptual cube

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My last brief post from the National Council of Teachers of English conference was kind of a waste, but I wanted all my loyal fans (HA!) to know that I’m still alive and kicking. Perhaps I’m trying to convince myself that I am, but I AM HERE!!

YES, I AM!

Here’s some proof!

  • Grading, with comments, over 40 freshman composition research papers in four days, while grading numerous other work, and preparing for classes and uploading the final resources, assignments and exams for my online students, and (because I’m a glutton for punishment and take late work) assessing those inevitable Hail Mary assignments from students who kept saying to themselves, “I will do that essay later after I play just a few more hours of Call of Duty 4 and Mario Kart because, hey, it’s just English. It’s not like I’m going to need to read complex text or write professionally later in life.”
  • Attending the North Carolina Writers’ Network Fall Conference as a board member, held in Asheville this year (over ten events in three days as well as hanging out with my writing buddies that I only see a couple of times a year). I will write more about the fall conference in a future post.
  • Attending the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Conference in Baltimore with four of my esteemed colleagues (many, many events and conversations over four days), with plenty of soaking in new ideas, validating some tried and true methods, talking shop, strategizing, and just having fun together. Best professional development in a long time; I will write more about it in a future post.
  • Writing 51,027 words in 30 days as I participated (for the third time) in National Novel Writing Month (NANOWRIMO). I took every opportunity I could to write. For example, at both conferences, I deliberately picked workshop sessions that gave me opportunities to write so that I could work on the novel. No matter what the prompt, I found a way to write material to help with the novel, whether brainstorming, character and plot development, back story, or dialogue. I also wrote in the morning when I first woke up and in the evenings before going to bad–no matter how late or how tired.
  • Taking days off.  I gave myself some downtime when I didn’t do anything but watch movies, play computer games, talk to my family, and take naps. I took partial days off and whole days off–not many, but enough. Thanksgiving Day I took totally off, and I was grateful that I felt well enough to cook, which is one of the joys of my life.

Furthermore, I did these things WHILE I HAD A BAD COLD!!! It started almost two weeks ago on the morning we flew back from Baltimore, and it still lingers today on Pearl Harbor Day, but I will not let it defeat me. I’m going strong, and….

I’M STILL HERE!!!!

But I couldn’t have done it without the help of my college, my immediate supervisor at work, my colleagues and fellow writers, my closest friends, and most of all, my husband and daughter.

Just one example: I was feeling pretty low, being overwhelmed with grading and not feeling well at all, when my husband discovered an article by computer expert Leo Notenboom, who has a blog named Ask Leo.

John read part of the article to me, and it was a balm to my troubled soul because it was about how he, a prosperous former computer programmer now running a lucrative business as a blogger, author, and consultant, wished that he had worked harder in his English classes because, he says,

People judge you by the words you use. And how you use them.

It may not be fair, but it is real. You can object, you can insist that it shouldn’t matter, but it does.

If I had to do it all over again, ’d have taken more English classes.

Later, my husband read one of my favorite passages in the article:

Regardless of your profession, writing, especially in this internet-enabled age, is becoming more and more critical. The ability to express yourself, clearly and even entertainingly, is often the difference between being good at a job and being great at it, a blog post being shared or ignored, or an email being understood or discarded.

Sitting there listening to my husband read, I was reminded why it is still important for me to be here, to be present, to put my heart and soul into my work.

Because writing well matters. It makes a difference in people’s lives.

And, if I am present, truly present, by not only standing in the classroom and marking essays but also by growing as a professional writer and educator, then I can make a difference in this world.

A difference for good.

 

 

Three of Five: More “Easy” Ways for Students to Improve Their Writing

fashion legs notebook working

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The following is the third in a series of five assignments I give early in my freshman composition classes to help students find relatively easy ways to revise their papers. I find that it helps students, especially many community college students who may not have done a great deal of writing in high school. The “Five Easy Ways” offer students five almost grammar-free issues to look for in their papers. I have found that when students locate these issues and re-write the sentences containing them, then their writing improves, sometimes just a little, but enough for them to begin to better understand the process of revision and editing.

Here is the assignment as given to my online freshman composition students:

Five Easy Ways to Improve Your Writing–Part Three–Eliminating Unnecessary Words and Phrases–

Often people make the mistake of writing the way they speak, which often times causes unnecessary wordiness. Other times writers “throw in” extra words and phrases, perhaps because they think their sentences need to be longer to “sound” more academic when in reality, concise writing has been proved more effective time and time again.

To practice eliminating unnecessary wordiness, complete the following activity:

  • Write an illustration paragraph with the following topic sentence (filling in the blanks, of course): A good ______________ is _____________________, _______________________ and ________________________.
  • Example of an appropriate topic sentence: A good restaurant is clean, with a nice cozy ambiance, has a welcoming staff that treats all guests as special patrons, and of course, serves delicious food with a variety of healthy options, plus a few naughty choices just for fun.
  • Support the topic sentence with at least one specific example of each of the three characteristics (five to eight sentences).
  • Examples of the kind of specific detail that I’m looking for: Never Blue, one of my favorite restaurants in downtown Hendersonville, has a variety of healthy choices on its menu, including homemade hummus and house-cured salmon, but some naughty choices also, like the incredible “Devils on Horseback” (goat cheese-stuffed dates) and the sinful phyllo-wrapped chocolate confection simply called “The Brownie.”
  • Write a final supporting example or a concluding sentence for a paragraph that is 7 to 10 sentences long–no more, no less.
  • Revise the rough draft. Here’s a guide
      • Re-write any clauses that begin with “There” or “It”
      • Eliminate any use of first or second person pronouns (I, me, my, mine, we, us, our, ours, you, yours, etc)–Re-write, if needed

    Eliminate any use of the following words or phrases–Re-place these words and phrases or re-write, if needed.

      • very
      • really
      • a lot
      • lots
      • due to the fact that
      • extremely
      • that said
      • Well (as a filler word, okay to use it as an adverb)
      • as a matter of fact
      • totally
      • actually
      • See other deadwood words and phrases to avoid by clicking on this link: http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/plague.htm
  • Submit the rough draft and the revision ON THE SAME DOCUMENT and submit. Be sure to label the rough draft and the final draft, so I know which one to grade.
  • Remember, I want to see a great deal of descriptive, specific examples, not just generic supporting points.

 

I like giving these shorter paragraph assignments early on in first-semester freshman English because I can give extensive feedback more easily and students get some concrete ways to revise their papers early on.

If you have any suggestions for ways that students who are not used to writing academically can learn to revise and edit their papers more easily, please share!

 

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I also would love it if you would consider submitting to my literary journal designed for writing teachers, Teach. Write. My fourth edition is slated for publication on April 1, 2019. Deadline for submissions is March 1, 2019. See the submission guidelines for more information. Previous editions are free online.

 

 

The Second of Five “Easy Ways” for Students to Improve Their Writing

man using laptop on table against white background

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It’s been a busy time for me, and I haven’t had much time to work on the blog, but I had a good response from my first posting about five easy ways for students to improve their writing, so I didn’t want any more time to pass before the next installment.

The first of the five easy ways was to eliminate the use of first and second-person pronouns in academic writing. I can hear someone saying right now, “Just like an English teacher, not following her on rules,” but I tell my students that there is a time and place for using the first and second person; however, with so many bad writing habits around, eliminating them altogether for a time often helps people to control their use. The time, I tell them, lowering my reading glasses to peer at them, is in my classroom.

The same is true for the next of the five easy ways: Avoid beginning sentences or clauses with “There” and “It.” When community college students, many of whom are unfamiliar with the process of revision, are encouraged to find words and phrases that should be eliminated or avoided, what tends to happen is that they will often need, or even want, to change much more about the sentence than just the one word. Sometimes they make their overall sentence structure much stronger and clearer by recognizing one or two things that need to be avoided.

Therefore, I ask students to avoid beginning sentences with “There or “It” rather than eliminate them, but elimination is best. In the paragraph assignment described below, I ask students to eliminate the words “there” and “it.” But I begin with a curious request: I ask them to write a paragraph where every single sentence or clause begins with “there” and “it.”  What?

Take a look!

For the next paragraph assignment, I want each student to write a paragraph on one of the following subjects, but here is the trick–every sentence or major clause should begin with either “There” or “It”–that’s right–every sentence or major clause. Doing this should make sense when we do the next assignment

Begin with a topic sentence that contains the main idea, and write five to eight sentences that support that main idea and then write a concluding sentence.  Be sure to use specific sensory language to create a dominant impression as explained in the text and on the video.

In your paragraph describe one of the following

The lake at BRCC

The Patton Parking Lot

A classroom at BRCC or some other room

The Patton Building

The General Studies Building

Since you are online students, you may not be familiar with these places, so choose a room, building or other feature of any school that you attend, your home or the city or town you live in. It should be somewhere near Blue Ridge, though.

Example:

General Studies 115

     It is a plain room that, in the end, is quite remarkable. There are four white cement block walls. There is one blank wall, one wall with a bulletin board and two walls with white boards.  There is a bulletin board in the back that has been there for over five years, its blue background fading. It once had bright red trim, now pepto-bismol pink. It has old flyers from long ago events tacked here and there. There are tables and hard plastic chairs, a few broken ones. There is no sound except the hum of the ancient data projector and the rattle of the ceiling vents. It is a typical old classroom in one of the oldest buildings on campus. It is without life, until the first student, back pack slung over his shoulder, wanders in and takes his seat.

After the students have turned in that paragraph, I assign the following: 

You probably have guessed what I want you to do. I hope so, anyway.

I want you to take the paragraph you wrote for Assignment 2.2 and eliminate all uses of “there” and “it.” Might be harder than you think, but the exercise will hopefully make you more aware of how much we overuse these two words.

NOTE:  Don’t forget your first lesson–No first or second person pronouns either. 

Use my rewrite as an example (I begin with the original paragraph, so you can see the changes that I made). Notice that I took out words, added words and totally rewrote some sentences to better conform to good descriptive writing techniques. You should do the same.

Original Paragraph: 

General Studies 115

     It is a plain room that, in the end, is quite remarkable. There are four white cement block walls. There is one blank wall, one wall with a bulletin board and two walls with white boards.  There is a bulletin board in the back that has been there for over five years, its blue background fading. It once had bright red trim, now pepto-bismol pink. It has old flyers from long ago events tacked here and there. There are tables and hard plastic chairs, a few broken ones. There is no sound except the hum of the ancient data projector and the rattle of the ceiling vents. It is a typical old classroom in one of the oldest buildings on campus. It is without life, until the first student, back pack slung over his shoulder, wanders in and takes his seat.

Revised Paragraph

Student Name

Katie Winkler, Instructor

ENG 111.202

13 January 2018

The Old Classroom

     The plainest of rooms in one of the oldest buildings on campus is, in the end, quite remarkable. Standing in the front, listening to the ancient data projector and ceiling vents hum and rattle, the instructor, a 23-year veteran, faces a bulletin board, mostly blank, with just a few outdated event flyers tacked on its faded blue background, its once bright red trim now Pepto-Bismol pink. Brown tables and hard plastic chairs in conforming rows stand silent, or languish in the corner–broken and of little use. Then, the room, and all its occupants, like old, loyal soldiers, come to attention when the first student, backpack slung over his shoulder, wanders into the room.

Note: The two bold words (its) are being used as possessive pronouns in this paragraph and are therefore allowed. The contraction “It’s” would not be allowed. 

I have only used this assignment for the past two or three semesters, but I have had excellent results. Do students continue to have issues with overusing “There” and “It”? Of course, but, after this lesson, they have two easy things to look for when tackling the required revisions of rough drafts.

The third easy way will be coming your way soon!!!

NOTE: I neglected to mention in the last post that I am indebted to the classic little book on composition The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White for the development of my Five Easy Ways series of lessons. One of the greatest, and most accessible, books on writing, The Elements of Style, practices what it preaches–be concise and clear, my dear.

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Do you teach English composition or have you had a positive writing experience with a gifted composition instructor? If so, please consider submitting a short story, poem, or essay to Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal. Submissions are now being accepted for the Spring/Summer 2019 issue and will close on March 1, 2019. Click  here for submission guidelines.

 

 

A Classic Education Is Utilitarian

Fun Medical MGD© (2)

At our college’s tutoring center, a colleague and I struggled this past week to help a nursing student understand how to diagram sentences using traditional, Latin-based sentence diagramming methods. The student, a non-traditional-aged student coming back to work on a third degree, was frustrated on multiple levels because not only was she having difficulty with the concepts, especially having been away from anything close to grammar for several decades, she was also having difficulty understanding why she was being asked to diagram sentences in the first place as she sees no practical purpose for it. She’s not alone.

Even in my own composition classes, I have abandoned formal traditional diagramming of sentences in favor of a more informal approach, reminiscent of a structural linguistic method of diagramming, breaking a sentence up based on the functions of the words, phrases, and clauses with a minimum of grammatical terminology.

It is not, however, that I find traditional sentence diagramming a waste of time, and I support its use in the classroom for two main reasons:

  • Diagramming helps students understand the functions of words separate from the appearance of the word, such as verbals, which look like verbs but do not function as verbs.
  • Diagramming helps develop critical thinking skills, which is one of the primary functions of higher education

Kitty Burns Florey, author of Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences, eloquently explains the value of diagramming in her New York Times’ article from 2012, “Taming Sentences,” She writes that diagramming helps us think more clearly about what we are writing, and even if it doesn’t do a thing for our writing, it is at the very least, a puzzle that is good exercise for the brain, honing our critical thinking skills.

As a fascinating example, Florey diagrams a compound/complex sentence from Henry James’s The Golden Bowl:

draft-diagram1-tmagArticle-v2

Of course, I find all of this exciting and interesting, not so our struggling nursing student, who sees diagramming as wasted effort because she sees no application for it. I tried to explain that it was like doing drills for an athlete–the athlete may not do the drill during a race or game or match but, by exercising, will be developing the muscles he or she needs to be competitive. My colleague tried to equate the student’s love of reading to the exercise of diagramming–the student does not NEED to read. What she reads has no immediate application to nursing, but reading exercises the brain, which will help her be a better writer, and a better nurse.

Our student didn’t buy it. But because she is a good student and wants to do well, she listened to our explanations and, I believe, we did help her understand better. She even said that she wanted to come back to the tutoring center to get more help on another day.

We’ll be there.

***

Here are some more articles I hope to share with our student that discuss how important it is for nurses to critically think and write well:

 

 

 

First Edition of Teach. Write. Now Available

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The first edition of Teach. Write. is now available! I still think I am a little bit crazy to try to publish a literary journal, but the idea of celebrating the creative writing of composition teachers is close to my heart because I know how much struggling to be a professional writer has helped me understand my students’ struggles with writing.

Yes, it is risky. Yes, I feel so vulnerable. I know I made mistakes. I am afraid people will be unhappy for whatever reason, but I feel so strongly about the empowering effect of being a writer that I have been driven to complete this project. The quality of the writing submitted, wanting to do the work justice, has also pushed me forward despite the risks.

So here it is!

Click here to read the journal online for free: Fall 2017_Revision2

Click here to order a printed copy of the journal for $5.00: Teach. Write.

Please, let me know what you think (but please be gentle), and if you are interested in submitting to Teach. Write., I will be open for submissions again beginning October 1, for the Spring 2018 edition. Click here for submission guidelines.

Want Great Engineers? Invest in Reading and Writing

writing-skills

My frustration levels are again rising to a boiling point. To hear from education professionals that surveys show one of the top three skills desired by local business and industry is good writing and then, in the same meeting, hear nothing about plans to develop these skills is more than discouraging to me as a composition teacher.

How can I  not get disheartened when I hear plans to spend millions of dollars on buildings and technology for engineering, automotive and mechatronics programs when the computers in my classrooms are outdated and sometimes take 30 minutes to boot up, when our tutoring center, which has doubled the number of mainly English and math students it serves within two years, does not appear to be included in anyone’s expansion plans?

What do employees want according to the report I heard this week? They want students who can read and write complex texts, but now a student can get an AA or AS degree without taking a 200-level literature course–the very courses which require students to read, study and write about the most complex texts of all. What a world…

Just for funsies, here’s an article about how important the “soft skill” of writing is to the profession of engineering:

http://www.automationworld.com/automation-team/writing-essential-skill-engineers