A modest proposal: Avoid satire

In A Modest Proposal, satirist Jonathan Swift proposed that poverty-stricken Irish peasants sell their children to be eaten by the rich. “A young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassée or a ragout,” he wrote. Satirically.

At a Maryland high school, students were assigned to write a Swiftian essay as part of a lesson on satire, reports Reason‘s Hit & Run blog. One diligent lad proposed solving U.S. racism by deporting blacks to the Sahara Desert.

I’d say that’s less offensive than urging the the buying, boiling and eating Irish children, but still offensive.

The district scheduled meetings “to allow students to express their opinions and say why they’re hurt, why they’re angered,” said Bob Mosier, Anne Arundel County Schools.

In a letter sent home to parents, North County High Principal Julie Cares wrote: “Just as one could argue that the content of [the original] piece was ill-advised and insensitive, such is the case with the content of the student’s piece.”

Betcha this is the last time a North County High teacher asks students to emulate Jonathan Swift.

Hip hop therapy

“Use your words” is old playground advice. In the latest wrinkle, urban schools are using “hip-hop therapy” — getting kids to write and rap about their feelings — as a counseling tool, reports the New York Times.

Ellis McBeth, a ninth-grade charter student in the Bronx, used to pick fights when he was upset. When his 12-year-old cousin died, he wrote a hip-hop song about his grief with his counselor’s help and recorded it with his older sister singing the chorus: “I want to say R.I.P. to you because I don’t believe it’s true, but I’ll still remember you.”

Tomas Alvarez III, a social worker in Oakland, Calif., said he started one of the first programs, called Beats Rhymes and Life, at Berkeley High School in 2004 to address the mental health needs of young black and Latino men, who tended to have higher rates of suspension and expulsion than other students.

“The same young men who refused to meet with me for traditional talk therapy — every single one of them — were writing rhymes at home on their own,” Mr. Alvarez said. “They were already using hip-hop to process their emotions.”

He helped found a nonprofit organization that has run programs at more than two dozen sites in California and New York. “Hip-hop gives young people a platform to talk about their hopes and dreams as well as their grief and loss,” said Alvarez.

Here’s an Atlantic story about using dance to teach empathy and other social-emotional skills.

Computer use widens writing gap

group elementary school students in computer class Writing essays on a computer, instead of using pencil and paper, helped high-performing fourth graders, but hurt average and low performers, concludes a new analysis of a 2012 federal study.  Computer use “may have widened the writing achievement gap,” warned researchers.

The Department of Education is pushing computerized tests, which are “more efficient and cheaper to grade,” writes Hechinger’s Jill Barshay. That could affect black, Latino and low-income students disproportionately.

In the study, high-performing students — the top 20 percent of the test takers — produced an average of 179 words per assignment on the computer, three times the number of words that the bottom 20 percent produced.  They also used spellcheck, backspace and other editing tools far more often. The researchers found that these high-performing students were more likely to have access to a computer and the Internet at home.

Teaching keyboarding and editing, giving students practice writing on a computer and buying child-sized keyboards could help, says Steve Graham, an Arizona State professor. While some fourth graders type at 25 word per minute, the average 12 words per minute and some are even slower.

Even handwriting advocates back teaching students to type, writes Barshay. University of Washington Professor Virginia Berninger thinks cursive writing instruction has “neurological benefits to the developing brain.” But she also supports teaching touch typing. “If we’re going to give them the annual test by computer, by golly, teach them how to use the computer. It’s not fair if we don’t.”

Why I won’t write your essay for you

Never say young millenials are timid or lacking initiative, writes Megan McArdle on Bloomberg View. They have the chutzpah to ask random strangers, such as columnists and academics, to write their essays on carbon taxes, global warming the Affordable Care Act, the Federal Reserve, etc.

“Some petitioners helpfully include the structure and word count they are looking for,” she writes.

In a three-paragraph essay, with topic sentence, explanation and conclusion, McArdle explains why she’s not doing their work for them.

“The first reason that I am not going to do your homework for you is that I have already graduated from high school,” she writes. “Now I have plain old work, which actually takes up quite a bit of my time.”

Homework assignments teach valuable lessons, such as “how to a) find information and figure out what it means and b) do things you don’t particularly enjoy,” she adds.

Finally, it wouldn’t do any good to turn in an essay written by a professional, McArdle advises. “Your teacher is apt to notice the sudden improvement in your prose and research skills.”

Don’t write vexatiously, she moaned

When I was in high school, Mr. G, the head of the English department, popped in to class one day to tell us not to use “interesting” in our writing. It’s too vague, he said. Use “specific” language to show the reader why something is interesting.

He also said to use “said” in quotations rather than distracting synonyms. Someone asked about variety. He said readers should pay attention to what’s said, not how it was said.

On my own, I read Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. “Avoid fancy words,” it advises. “Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.”

Now, in hopes of encouraging livelier writing, English teachers are banning words such as “good,” “bad,” “fun” and “said,” reports James Hagerty in the Wall Street Journal.

“We call them dead words,” said (or declared) Leilen Shelton, a middle school teacher in Costa Mesa, Calif. She and many others strive to purge pupils’ compositions of words deemed vague or dull.

. . . Her pupils know better than to use a boring word like “said.” As Ms. Shelton put it, ” ‘Said’ doesn’t have any emotion. You might use barked. Maybe howled. Demanded. Cackled. I have a list.”

The Powell River Board of Education in British Columbia lists 397 alternatives to “said” on its site, writes Hagerty. They include “emitted,” “beseeched,” “continued,” “sniveled,” and “spewed.”

One student, banned from using “big,” substituted “anti-microscopic,” reports the Journal.

Asked to edit famous authors, sixth-grader Josie Dougherty modified the famous closing words of James Joyce’s Ulysses: “….yes I said yes I will Yes.”

Josie suggested: “…yes I hollered yes I will Definitely.”

Josie and brother Josh, a ninth grader, tackled Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

Hemingway refers to cars “going very fast.”

Josie wrote “going at a superior speed,” while Josh chose “lightning speeds.”

The kids told the reporter they were miffed that writers get to violate the “dead words” rules, just because they’re dead themselves.

Are Some English Teachers Encouraging Bad Writing? asks Anthony Rebora on Ed Week‘s Teaching Now.


It’s easy to graduate college students — by cheating

Community college leaders want more students, more graduates and more money, a professor tells  Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews. More doesn’t always mean more learning, says “Nancy.”

While 85 percent of new students say they want a four-year college degree, only 15 percent will earn one in six years, writes Mathews. Colleges are trying to lower the dropout rate by creating special courses for first-year students.

At Nancy’s college, faculty chose “a textbook that would help students look at reasons why so many classmates skipped class and didn’t complete assignments. They also asked the students to write about their college experiences.”

A new supervisor told instructors to “eliminate the writing assignments and choose a different textbook,” Nancy said.

The seminar instructors were told: “Our current ninth-grade reading level textbook is too difficult for our incoming students. Make the course have a 100 percent pass rate, no matter what,” Nancy said. She said this last bit of advice eliminates the usefulness of the course as a tool for helping students adjust to college expectations and reduces it to social promotion.

The instructors were told to “make the course more tangible,” she said. “Students like practical advice, like how to register for classes. They don’t like introspection and they should not have to write.”

Some community colleges are placing fewer new students in remedial classes. Instead, unprepared students are allowed to take college-level courses with access to remedial help.

Colleges have a financial incentive to lower standards, Nancy said. They fear that colleges with very low graduation rates may lose eligibility for federal student aid.  “It is difficult to achieve a higher graduation rate honestly, and it is relatively easy to cheat, or at least to bend the rules.”

Grammar fail: College kids can’t write

Novelist Michael Laser was hired to teach university freshmen to write essays. But he discovered his students can’t write clear, grammatically correct sentences.

How to write a college essay

Teaching writing to first-year students “has become an academic specialty with its own dominant philosophy,” Laser writes. Teaching “critical thinking” is in. Teaching grammar is out.

He’s supposed to stress “developing an arguable thesis, presenting strong supporting arguments, using quotations as evidence.”

But his students write so badly it hurts.

  • Neglecting to recognize the horrors those people endure allow people to go to war more easily.
  • The money in the household shared between Nora and Torvald contrast the idea of a happy marriage.
  • The similarities among the speakers and their author are illustrated differently through their speaker’s separate tones.

While teaching essay writing, Laser “added lessons on revising awkward phrases and replacing fuzzy abstractions with more concrete specifics.” Students could recognize the difference between bad and better writing, but struggled to revise “terrible sentences.”  He saw little improvement in their writing.

In the future, he plans to use John Maguire’s manual, which “stresses concrete nouns, active verbs, and conciseness.” But he’s looking for more advice on how to help his students.

I used to advise students to read their work aloud. Does it sound clunky? It is. If you were explaining this idea to a friend, what would you say?

Poets’ kid takes an English exam

You’ve got a big English test coming up and two of the poets on the syllabus are your parents. Interviewed for a BBC program, Frieda Hughes, daughter of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, recalled telling her father that both parents’ works were in her O Level exam syllabus.

Ted and Frieda Hughes

Ted and Frieda Hughes

“I can tell you what I meant!” he said. He also offered to explain her late mother’s poetry.

Frieda feared the examiners would disagree with her father’s interpretation, even if she said, “I got it straight from the horse’s mouth. In fact I live with the horse.”

In the interview, she blasted “outsiders” for using her mother’s suicide to accuse her father of abusing women. (Six years after his wife’s death, Hughes’ mistress, Assia Wevill, killed herself and their child.)

It’s Punctuation Day!

Diana's Playpen
Chicago sign submitted by Joanne Archibald.

National Punctuation Day, Sept. 24, celebrates the importance of proper punctuation.

Kids write

PilotTwelve elementary students have been named national winners in the annual PBS Kids Writers Contest.

Jude Smith VanWinkle, a kindergartener in Albuquerque, New Mexico, won first prize for the story of Pilot, the family cat.

Escape From School

Sebastian Shields, a third grader in Maine, won for Escape from School.

Other first-place winners were Advik Rai of Maryland for How I Scared A Monster and Jasper E. Arellano of New Mexico for An Awkward Shade of Wonderful.