Startup of the Right Write. 5/1/17

Introduction

I have developed a small series of workshops, with accompanying reading material, for business environments within which a lack of writing skills or clear communication has been identified. I think the biggest roadblock to being positively received by employees who are selected as needing such training will be their defensive attitudes. And, truly, I can’t fault them for that. No one likes to be singled out as “lacking” at work, especially when one is plugging away and doing the job he or she was hired to accomplish. It isn’t these people’s fault that their employer did not include a writing prompt to measure their skills during the hiring process.

I plan to ask the business owner to pull as many past examples of problematic writing as he can locate. This would include items like past emails and copies of correspondence between his staff and outside clients. Going over this material will give me a rough idea of where we should begin.

So, the question becomes, how, with no teaching experience, do I walk into someone else’s job and give instruction that will be well-received?

So far, my answer to that is to approach the training as more of a team-building exercise than a traditional classroom experience. At the moment, I am posing Grammar, Business Writing, Editing/Proofreading, and Clarity as four possible training modules. I have been looking at websites of writing consultant businesses, http://writingconsultants.net/train/ in particular, to get ideas of different possible focus areas for training. I want to teach these people, but I want to make a game of it too, so that interest levels stay high. I have also ordered Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft and Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wicked Good Prose to help me develop ideas for the content of training sessions.

 

Chapter 1: In which We Seek Clarity

The week after I finished my new business’ website – I decided on The Right Write as the company name – I received a call from a very worried Mr. Ray Davenport, the owner of Greenleaf Enterprises. His company specializes in eco-friendly office equipment and he mentioned that a number of complaints about his Customer Representative unit have come to his attention. As these are the employees who have direct contact with company clients and who are also responsible for coherently conveying the customers’ needs to the manufacturing division of the company, Davenport seems quite motivated to fix the problem.

Below is a copy  of a hire letter that, luckily, Ray Davenport was able to intercept before Ms. Reagan had the opportunity to realize how unskilled his administrative associate can appear when she doesn’t proofread. We will, of course, be discussing the fact that spell check in Word cannot catch all mistakes

 

Dear Ms. Reagan,

I am pleased to offer you the position of Sales Force Supervisor within Greenleaf’s Customer Representative Division (position #673323). The offered position is full-time beginning May 1, 2017 at an annual salary of $53,250.00. You will be paid monthly.

The company’s Personal Policies and Procedures Manual can be found at:

http://www.greenleaf.org/Personnel Policies and Procedures Manual.pdf

Benefits information can be found at http://www.greenleaf.org/indexm ektid6283.aspx. Additional policies and procedures manuals are available for review through our Office of Human Resources.

Greenleaf is an at-will employer, and is required by federal law to verify the identity and work authorization of all new employees. Accordingly, this offer is contingent upon verification of identity and eligibility to be employed in the United States. Please consult with Leslie Rogers at 517-322-3253 for further information regarding this requirement.

You may indicate acceptance of this position verbally returning a signed copy of this letter to me at the address indicated on the letterhead. I would appreciate receiving a response to this offer by May 17, 2017. Please feel free to call me if you have any questions about the division, the company, or the terms of this offer. Welcome to Greenleaf Enterprises. We are delighted to have you join the company and I look forward to working with you hope to see you soon.

Sincerely,

 

Ray Davenport

CEO, Greenleaf Enterprises

I knowledge receipt of this letter and I accept the position as offered.

 

Signature­­­­­­­­­_____________________________________Date_____________

 

The second is an interoffice email in which an employee is reporting in on her sales group’s progress on their quarterly report. We will certainly be discussing the proper way to format an email, in addition to issues of sentence structure.

 

—–Original Message—–

Sent: Tuesday, November 29, 2016 7:21 PM

To: Rebecca Young <ryoung@greenleaf.org

Subject: Group project evaluation

I thought the group project from the circumstances worked very well. There were sometimes when we had time during meetings when we weren’t enough people there to work on it but then we Worked it out by textning and emailing each other.”

 

I do not want to use the collected writing samples as a teaching tool, even with the names of the authors blacked out, because this would likely come across as finger pointing and I am betting that, even with names redacted, these employees work closely enough that anonymity would not be guaranteed.  I am trying to help these people, not alienate them. My will be for us to do a series of tasks as a group, then ask team members to write a brief passage about what we did. Our first training session will be on the topic of Clarity and the fact that, in order to write with clarity, one must keep sustained focus on the task at hand.

Greenleaf’s Customer Representative Division is relatively small, just twelve people. I have divided them into three teams of four for these trainings. First, we go around the room and have everyone introduce themselves and tell the group how long they have been with the company and explain their position. This is more for my benefit, obviously, but it is still a step in the exercise. Next, teams talk among themselves about the most amusing thing that has happened during each person’s work week. After a few minutes, we go around the room again and someone from each group shares to the room as a whole the funniest anecdote from their team. Next, as the three groups help themselves to cheese, crackers, and veggies that my company has provided, we play three rounds of bingo as a group.

Afterward, as group members are laughing and talking together, I can tell a difference in the mood of the room. These employees were resistant to the idea of writing training initially; they arrived in the conference room in combative and defensive moods. But the purposefully relaxed mood of our first session has mollified them. Just as we are about to end this first day of training, I ask everyone to spend some time, either this afternoon or over the course of the next day, and write two pages worth of what they recall from this first session. I request that their accounts be written with attention paid to the order in which events occurred. They are also welcome to include their own feelings or thoughts about the tasks we completed. Their assignments should be emailed to me no later than Wednesday, so that I will have time to study how well and with what degree of clarity they reflect what we did together on Monday, this first day. When I return on Friday, we will discuss the results together.

Below are two of the emails that I got back from Greenleaf’s employees after Monday’s first training session. As you can see, clarity is a struggle for some. What I noticed about these two examples is that neither accounts for each of the activities that we did as a group. It certainly brings to mind the first step in the RBT that discusses how struggling writers often have trouble accessing stored memories. I also wondered if perhaps these two employees left out our first activity (individual introductions) because, of course, they already know each other. In my thinking, the introductions were still part of the activity.

 

—–Original Message—–

Sent: Wednesday, April 19, 2017 11:56 PM

To: Ashley Warren <awarren3@writestuff.com

Subject: Training

The writing lady showed up on Monday. We think she being here is a waist of time I can’t believe that she gave us homework. The team part was good, we just sat there and talked and make each other laugh. My team made me be the one to stand up and tell about what happened last week with that supply order of pens. I swear I ordered a gross of pens and they shipped me 144 pin backs! I don’t remember what Rhonda said next, but people laughed. Then the writing lady had food for us, but she must be crazy because who serves snacks without ranch???

Sent from my iPhone

 

—–Original Message—–

Homework

fancypantsforyou@yahoo.com

Sent: Wednesday, April 19, 2017 12:09PM

To: Ashley Warren <awarren3@therightwrite.com

Hi Ashley,

I hope I understand these directions. You just want us to talk about what happened, right? You remember my story about seeing Paul snort water in front of the cooler when Shantice told us about her weekend? That was pretty funny. Thanks for the snacks I didn’t get time for lunch on Monday, so they helped alot. I hadn’t played bingo since when I used to visit my Granny at the home in Mississippi. It was fun.

Sharon

 

Okay. The key here is for me to not be deterred by the fact that, out of 12 people, only two completed the assignment correctly. Instead I am focusing on the fact that, in addition to lack of recall from Monday’s activity, the majority of the emails I received also indicate that the business writing and proofreading sessions that I had considered are greatly needed.

On Friday morning, I return to Greenleaf’s conference room. One benefit from their facilities is that the room is equipped with cameras that are typically used to record meetings and conference calls, so that they can be reviewed later by customer representatives. As employees enter the room, they see that I have cued Monday’s training session and have the video displayed on the wall screen. After greeting everyone, I explain that we are going to briefly review the sequence of events, just to see if this causes anyone to reconsider his or her email to me. I start the video, letting it run as we watch the initial round of introductions and then as they break into teams. I fast forward through their group discussions, then let the video run again as we watch one person from each group share an amusing story. Finally, we watch as I lay out snack platters and hand out bingo cards.

I ask for a show of hands of those who, in retrospect, feel like their homework doesn’t quite match everything that went on Monday. Right now, we will not discuss the other issues I noticed in their submissions (issues like misspellings, run-on sentences, unprofessional tone, and the fact that a number of people emailed from personal email accounts). I look around and see eight hands raised. I ask the room, “What did you guys leave out?” Answers vary, but almost everyone realizes that they omitted the initial round of introductions. Most also realize that they left out two or more of the anecdotes from the team-based sharing activity.

Chapter 2: The Business of Business Writing

It’s the following Monday morning, and we are back at it. “Good morning, everyone. I have a question: have any of you ever gotten an email that made you angry or frustrated and, in the heat of the moment, you fired off a reply before you had time to calm down? Raise your hand if this has happened to you, please.” I see two hands in the air and, slowly, several more are rising. “See, this has happened to most of you. We’re going to talk about that today. Also, we’re going to talk about emails like this,” I say, as I open a file on the presentation screen.

 

—–Original Message—–

Sent: Wednesday, December 14, 2016 9:00 AM

To: Greenleaf Customer Representatives, Eastern Division

Subject: Amping Up

Hi Greenleaf Family!

You guys all know that Christmas is coming up! Let’s all work on awesomizing and galvanizing the end of what’s already been an killer year of sales! I know it seems like everyone is super busy this time of year, but I am sure, with a little more attention, we can all make a few more sales and happy customers before we go home for the holidays! Don’t forget, your holiday bonuses are tied to the sales numbers of the entire year!

Best!

Alex West,

Greenleaf Regional Sales Coordinator

 

There is a collective groan around the table. “See everyone, this type of business email is just as much of a cardinal sin as the ones that get sent off too quickly in moments of aggravation. Why did seeing this email from last year get everyone so irritated?”

Sharon, whom I have noticed is paying a lot more attention since our second group meeting, raises her hand. “Because Ms. West never tells us how to do anything! She just uses these fake-sounding words and everything has explanation points.”

“Exactly! Does everyone see how these two scenarios illustrate two aspects in which writing is failing to be professional? When you don’t have a proper cooling off period before responding to an angry or frustrated email, you’re doing the recipient a disservice and not behaving in a businesslike manner. Remember that tone is sometimes hard to interpret correctly through email; perhaps whomever you are corresponding with is not actually frustrated at all, or maybe he or she is having a hard day at work and the irritation has nothing to do with you. At the opposite end of the spectrum, let’s look at Alex West’s email again. See how, just like Rhonda said, it is peppered with these empty words. What exactly is ‘awesomizing,’ any ideas?”

Ray, who has spoken little over our three sessions, grumbles, “I lost most of my Christmas bonus because West didn’t give us any concrete advice. I didn’t know what to do to save that contract with Phelps.”

“Yes! These empty, exciting-sounding words are just as much of a failing as letting your emotions get in the way of clear communication. One email is overshadowed by frustration, the other is clogged up with words that have, at best, ambiguous meaning. Okay, for this week’s assignment, I would like you all to spend some time at your computers digging through your email. Find one occasion where you sent a client or a coworker a frustrated response. In light of what we discussed, please rewrite the email with a more professional tone. Send both to me by Wednesday. Also, let’s have a little fun with Ms. West. Why doesn’t everyone spend a little time jotting down what you think ‘awesomizing’ and ‘galvanizing’ mean, in terms of job-related tasks? We can send her our list of guesses, and perhaps this will encourage her to use more helpful language with you guys.”

 

Stay tuned (please).

Works Consulted

Hale, Constance. Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Good Prose. Three Rivers Press, 1999.

King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Scribner, 2000.

We don’t have to get off just because the Boat has Docked. 4/28/17

I don’t think that a group of pirates who have weathered our way through the sometimes shark-infested waters of Basic Writing has to necessarily disband just because the term is over. I have loved reading everyone’s blarrgs and learning so much about your different perspectives on instruction. Jane Bear and Sabrina, I am thankful for having had a third and second class with you guys. I am grateful to Jane Bear and Amy Evelyn Plunkett for the fact that you guys made me feel not-so-alone in the fact that I have no writing instruction experience. I also owe you both a big “thank you” for putting up with reading the weekly installments of what JB calls my “writing soap opera.” 🙂 It isn’t often that I take a class in which I have zero preexisting frame of reference for the material, and I have learned so much this term. Thank you all for that.

Another thing to emerge from my experience in this class: I do believe that I have switched my thesis topic! As those of you who have been following my blarrg have realized, my final project (the fake writing consultant business) has certainly taken on a life of its own. Somewhere along the way, it has started skittering in the direction of becoming a (mid-length?) work of fiction. Once I figure out where to chop it off for submission in this class, I want to keep going and see where it takes me. And, for this, I also owe Dr. Woodworth a debt of gratitude for allowing me to benefit from her free range teaching approach; without her help, I would not have undertaken such an endeavor.

Anyone who wishes to stay in touch via facebook (or specifically our group), sign me up! Also, everyone please come back here on Monday to read the full installment of my “writing soap opera.”

In which Edward Teach tries to Remind Himself that Plank Walking is not Appropriate in the Corporate Environment. 4/20/17

Here’s what happened in last week’s Reflection:

“Below are two of the emails that I got back from Greenleaf’s employees after Monday’s first training session. As you can see, ‘clarity’ is a struggle for some. What I noticed about these two examples is that neither accounts for each of the activities that we did as a group. It certainly brings to mind the first step in the RBT that discusses how struggling writers often have trouble accessing stored memories. I also wondered if perhaps these two employees left out our first activity (individual introductions) because, of course, they already know each other. In my thinking, the introductions were still part of the activity.

 

—–Original Message—–

Sent: Wednesday, April 19, 2017 11:56 PM

To: Ashley Warren <awarren3@writestuff.com

Subject: Training

The writing lady showed up on Monday. We think she being here is a waist of time I can’t believe that she gave us homework. The team part was good, we just sat there and talked and make each other laugh. My team made me be the one to stand up and tell about what happened last week with that supply order of pens. I swear I ordered a gross of pens and they shipped me 144 pin backs! I don’t remember what Rhonda said next, but people laughed. Then the writing lady had food for us, but she must be crazy because who serves snacks without ranch???

Sent from my iphone

 

—–Original Message—–

Homework

fancypantsforyou@yahoo.com

Sent: Wednesday, April 19, 2017 12:09PM

To: Ashley Warren <awarren3@writestuff.com

 

Hi Ashley,

 

I hope I understand these directions. You just want us to talk about what happened, right? You remember my story about seeing Paul snort water in front of the cooler when Shantice told us about her weekend? That was pretty funny. Thanks for the snacks I didn’t get time for lunch on Monday, so they helped alot. I hadn’t played bingo since when I used to visit my Granny at the home in Mississippi. It was fun.

 

Sharon”

 

Okay. The key here is for me to not be deterred by the fact that, out of 12 people, only two completed the assignment correctly. Instead I am focusing on the fact that, in addition to lack of recall from Monday’s activity, the majority of the emails I received also indicate that the business writing and proofreading sessions that I had considered are greatly needed.

On Friday morning, I return to Greenleaf’s conference room. One benefit from their facilities is that the room is equipped with cameras that are typically used to record meetings and conference calls, so that they can be reviewed later by customer representatives. As employees enter the room, they see that I have cued Monday’s training session and have the video displayed on the wall screen. After greeting everyone, I explain that we are going to briefly review the sequence of events, just to see if this causes anyone to reconsider his or her email to me. I start the video, letting it run as we watch the initial round of introductions and then as they break into teams. I fast forward through their group discussions, then let the video run again as we watch one person from each group share an amusing story. Finally, we watch as I lay out snack platters and hand out bingo cards.

I ask for a show of hands of those who, in retrospect, feel like their homework doesn’t quite match everything that went on Monday. Right now, we will not discuss the other issues I noticed in their submissions (issues like misspellings, run-on sentences, unprofessional tone, and the fact that a number of people emailed from personal email accounts). I look around and see eight hands raised. I ask the room, “What did you guys leave out?” Answers vary, but almost everyone realizes that they omitted the initial round of introductions. Most also realize that they left out two or more of the anecdotes from the team-based sharing activity.

Stay tuned. 🙂

Edward (begins to)Teach. 4/13/17

Here’s an excerpt from last week’s Reflection, just to catch you guys up:

“I have been working on composing a number of writing samples that will function as the material submitted by the owner of the company who contracts my writing consultant services. What follows are two examples of what I have so far.

Below is a copy  of a hire letter that, luckily, Ray Davenport was able to intercept before Ms. Reagan had the opportunity to realize how unskilled his administrative associate can appear when she doesn’t proofread. We will, of course be discussing the fact that spell check in Word cannot catch all mistakes

Dear Ms. Reagan,

I am pleased to offer you the position of Sales Force Supervisor within Greenleaf’s Customer Representative Division (position #673323). The offered position is full-time beginning May 1, 2017 at an annual salary of $53,250.00. You will be paid monthly.

The company’s Personal Policies and Procedures Manual can be found at:

http://www.greenleaf.org/Personnel Policies and Procedures Manual.pdf

Benefits information can be found at http://www.greenleaf.org/indexm ektid6283.aspx. Additional policies and procedures manuals are available for review through our Office of Human Resources.

Greenleaf is an at-will employer, and is required by federal law to verify the identity and work authorization of all new employees. Accordingly, this offer is contingent upon verification of identity and eligibility to be employed in the United States. Please consult with Leslie Rogers at 517-322-3253 for further information regarding this requirement.

You may indicate acceptance of this position verbally returning a signed copy of this letter to me at the address indicated on the letterhead. I would appreciate receiving a response to this offer by May 17, 2017. Please feel free to call me if you have any questions about the division, the company, or the terms of this offer. Welcome to Greenleaf Enterprises. We are delighted to have you join the company and I look forward to working with you hope to see you soon.

Sincerely,

 

Ray Davenport

CEO, Greenleaf Enterprises

 

I knowledge receipt of this letter and I accept the position as offered.

 

Signature­­­­­­­­­_____________________________________Date_____________

 

The second is an interoffice email in which an employee is reporting in on her sales group’s  progress on their quarterly report. We will certainly be discussing the proper way to format an email, in addition to issues of sentence structure.

—–Original Message—–

Sent: Tuesday, November 29, 2016 7:21 PM

To: Rebecca Young <ryoung@greenleaf.org

Subject: Group project evaluation

 

I thought the group project from the circumstances worked very well. There were sometimes when we had time during meetings when we weren’t enough people there to work on it but then we Worked it out by textning and emailing each other.”

 

So, this week, I have been continuing to work on these kinds of writing samples, and I have also been thinking about training exercises. I think, in addition to issues of sentence structure and lack of proofreading, the second writing example (the above email) speaks to a lack of clarity. As clarity has been determined to be one of the “rings,” we will spend a significant amount of time focusing on the topic.

 

I do not want to use the collected writing samples as a teaching tool, even with the names of the authors blacked out, because this would likely come across as finger pointing and I am betting that, even with names redacted, these employees work closely enough that anonymity would not be guaranteed.  I am trying to help these people, not alienate them. My current idea, and remember this is a draft, is for us to do a series of tasks as a group, then ask team members to write a brief passage about what we did.

Greenleaf’s Customer Representative Division is relatively small, just twelve people. I have divided them into three teams of four for these trainings. First, we go around the room and have everyone introduce themselves and tell the group how long they have been with the company and explain their position. This is more for my benefit, obviously, but it is still a step in the exercise. Next, teams talk among themselves about the most amusing thing that has happened during each person’s work week. After a few minutes, we go around the room again and someone from each group can share to the room as a whole the funniest anecdote from their team. Next, as the three groups help themselves to cheese, crackers, and veggies that my company has provided, we play three rounds of bingo as a group.

Afterward, as group members are laughing and talking together, I should be able to tell a difference in the mood of the room. These employees were resistant to the idea of writing training initially; they arrived in the conference room in combative and defensive moods. But the purposefully relaxed mood of our first session has mollified them. Just as we are about to end this first day of training, I ask everyone to spend some time, either this afternoon or over the course of the next day, and write two pages worth of what they recall from this first session. I request that their accounts be written with attention paid to the order in which events occurred. They are also welcome to include their own feelings or thoughts about the tasks we completed. Their assignments will be emailed to me no later than Wednesday, so that I will have time to study how well and with what degree of clarity they reflect what we did together on Monday, this first day. When I return on Friday, we will discuss the results together.

Stay tuned.

Edward Teach goes Corporate. 4/6/17

Since I haven’t previously mentioned my project idea on the blaarg or in our Facebook group, here is a brief excerpt from last week’s Reflection:

“I intend to develop a small series of workshops, with accompanying reading material, for business environments within which a lack of writing skills or clear communication has been identified. I think the biggest roadblock to being positively received by employees who are selected as needing such training would be their defensive attitudes. And, truly, I can’t fault them for that. No one likes to be singled out as “lacking” at work, especially when one is plugging away and doing the job he or she was hired to accomplish. It isn’t these people’s fault that their employer did not include a writing prompt to measure their skills during the hiring process.

I plan to have asked the business owner to pull as many past examples of problematic writing as he can locate. This would include items like past emails and copies of correspondence between his staff and outside clients. Going over this material will give me a rough idea of where we should begin.

So, the question becomes, how, with no teaching experience, do I walk into someone else’s job and give instruction that will be well-received?”

So far, my answer to that is to approach the training as more of a team-building exercise than a traditional classroom experience. Right now, and this could totally change, I am thinking of modeling it after the Olympics, in that the Olympic logo has five interlocking rings. The rings are meant to suggest the five participating continents. In this writing workshop, each ring will signify one area of our training. At the moment, I am posing Grammar, Business Writing, Editing/Proofreading, and Clarity as four possible “rings.” I have been looking at websites of writing consultant businesses, http://writingconsultants.net/train/ in particular, to get ideas of different possible focus areas for training. My hope is that, by patterning this after the Olympic rings, a symbol with which everyone is familiar, is that the idea of the training will immediately engender the same sense of competition among the employees that the event itself causes within its worldwide audience. I want to teach these people, but I want to make a game of it too, so that interest levels stay high. I have also ordered Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft and Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wicked Good Prose to help me develop ideas for the content of training sessions.

In terms of duration, I am thinking that each “ring” will be one week’s focus; if there are five rings, I intend to schedule the workshop to be six weeks long. I would like two meetings per week for each topic, with one introductory session and one “closing ceremonies.” I am envisioning the length of each session to be either 90 minutes or two hours.

I also intend to design a flyer advertising my new hypothetical business.

Roses are Red, Violets are Blue, Pirates Write Poetry, and so can You. 3/30/17

Last week’s assignment, devising three levels of writing classes and their accompanying assignments, was so much fun that I decided to spend some more time thinking along that vein.

The instructor asks students, whose desks are once again posed in a circle, to supply six nouns, six verbs, and six adverbs. As the exercise is relatively informal, students just call out suggestions as they occur to them. It is my hope that this engenders discussion and perhaps a small measure of competitiveness as they each attempt to think of a more creative answer than the one that has come before. The instructor writes the three columns of six words a piece on the whiteboard. Students are then given the remainder of the meeting to write a poem that uses as many of the words as possible. As the Basic Writing 2: Ascension class is in large part focused on familiarizing students with different genres, the exercise fits well with the curriculum. It is my guess that students will be unfamiliar with poetry writing and my hope is that this kind of flexible assignment proves to be make poetry feel accessible to them. There is no length requirement and rhyming is not required. During the next meeting, students take turns reading their work aloud and feedback is encouraged. The same prompt is given once a week over the next two weeks. At that point, the class is due to be introduced to more canonized poetry. Care will be taken to read and discuss both older and more modern work (for example Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee,” contrasted with the work of Billy Collins and Juan Felipe Herrera). The progression through the material will be slow, allowing student-driven discussion as the group considers what the author is trying to tell us in each piece of material and why he or she chose certain words or phrases. Students are encouraged to form opinions of whether or not they view each work as a success or failure and specify which aspects of the writing have lead them to their assessment. At the end of the unit, students will once again be asked to write a poem – this time with no assistance from a list on the board. The topic is of their choosing. By now, they have written enough and read enough of others’ poetry to feel comfortable with the assignment. In the future, this exercise can be given as a brief twenty-minute warm-up exercise right after class begins.

Students will be asked to consider how poetry differs from the material that has already been discussed. What sort of information that might be included in a short story might also show up in a poem? What kind of information wouldn’t work in a poem, but could be successful in a short story? The next assignment is to write a three page essay or autobiographical piece on any topic that they select, and then compose a poem that is no longer than a page on the same material. At the next meeting, students read their work aloud, and then discuss how the two different formats dictated the stylistic choices that they made.

Edward Teach steps into the Classroom. 3/23/17

So, I’m the new Developmental Program Director. I’m going to try and not let on to my coworkers how little experience I have. I am also going to try and keep my hook clean and always wear my best eye patch to class. Also, I am resolving that the students in my program are not going to be hit with some faddish version of teaching like those at the University of Washington Tacoma in which they are not penalized for grammar mistakes. They will be encouraged to use correct grammar, but I am not going to make them walk the plank as they make mistakes. One of the cornerstones of our program will be the undeniable connection between reading and writing.

Okay, my first task is to develop three levels of classes for our Basic Writing program. Immediately, the Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy comes to mind. As it consists of six stages (Remembering, Understanding, Applying, Analyzing, Evaluating, Creating), I think that dividing the RBT into three classes which cover two stages a piece sounds like a logical place to start.

I also propose that, for those students who are struggling to the extent that they begin the course sequence with Basic Writing 1, their progression through the three classes will be as a cohort. I think that will foster a sense of team-building as the same group of students learns together and collectively acquires new skill sets.

Basic Writing 1 : Base Camp

Kathleen Skomski explains that, in this entry level of the writing process, students typically have difficulty with reading retention and accessing other “stored” memories (91). As students arrive in the classroom, they find desks spread out in a circle, rather than all arranged in the traditional way in which everyone faces the instructor.

The first writing prompt is “describe the most exciting thing that has ever happened to you.” I have chosen this because remembering an exhilarating moment is, naturally, one of the easiest events to recall. Students are asked to work on the assignment during class time. The instructor will circulate, answering individual questions as they arise.

Skomski writes of RBT’s second level, Understanding, saying that students at this level struggle with “vocabulary” and “sentence structure,” but in time, can master these skills to “compose text that demonstrates appropriate understanding and syntax” (92).

After finishing the first writing prompt (which may take more than one class meeting), students are asked to take turns reading their work aloud. After each student finishes reading, the floor is opened for questions. It is my hope that the students themselves will catch discrepancies in each other’s work. They are instructed to frame questions in a way that primarily focuses on seeking clarification, not in such a manner that suggests they are zeroing in on another’s mistake. In “Putting Error in Its Place,” Halsted encourages instructors to “let students teach each other…by running class discussions, by being listeners and commentators, readers and evaluators of each other’s work” (84). Students are asked to revise their work based on peer feedback. Students are then asked to find a partner and “trade” experiences. Without looking at their partner’s actual writing, they are to ask to write a summary of their partner’s experience based on the reading aloud activity that occurred earlier.

Basic Writing 2: Ascension

Skomski mentions that students in the RBT’s Applying stage are grappling with the ability to apply their growing skills toward extracting meaning from various forms of writing and form opinions of what they have read (95).

The focus of the first activity traces back to the idea of “close listening” from the previous class. The instructor will read to the class excerpts of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. Discussion is student-driven, allowing them to supply their own ideas of the meaning of what they have just heard. Students are then given copies of the stories that have been discussed and are asked to write two pages that include both a brief summary and their opinions on the writing style.

RBT’s fourth stage, Analyzing, is focused on synthesizing meaning from different sources into a cohesive whole understanding and then using growing writing skills to discuss insights (97).

At the next meeting, the instructor will show scenes of Disney’s The Sword in the Stone to the class. There will be a group discussion of the similarities and differences between the two tellings of what is essentially the same story. Students are asked to write two more pages, this time discussing their opinions of which form of the story is more successful and providing evidence that supports their assertions. More exercises that follow this pattern of examining contrasting genres in which both center around the same idea/novel/issue will follow.

Basic Writing 3: Summit

Evaluating, the fifth RBT stage, focuses on giving students an insight into their own thinking and writing (99).

A writing prompt asks students to revisit their very first Base camp assignment. Just as climbers increase their stamina as they make increasingly longer forays up the mountain and away from their base camp, BWs should be able to look back at their time when they first arrived in camp and see how far they have progressed in their subsequent training. Students are asked to look back over their “most exciting moment” assignment and write about what they were thinking as they were composing; they are then asked to write a second page about how, now that their skills are more advanced, they would rework the initial submission. This should impart to them a sense of their own success in making strides in what they previously considered a near-impossible field. Students, once again in a circle, will read their first assignment aloud again to their peers, then they will read the revised version and ask for feedback.

Alas, the summit! The students have reached the last level – Creating.

Having had completed a succession of two page assignments, students will now be tasked with completing a five page essay. There will be a minimum requirement of three sources. In order to ensure that they are less daunted by the longer length and remain interested in the material, the topic of the essay is to be one of their choosing. Students are paired into sets of partners so that they may brainstorm with each other about possible topics. As their essays progress, partners will work together again for peer reviews.  Over the course of the assignment, students are given time to compose and have two peer reviews with adequate time for revisions. Partners are also encouraged to use each other as sounding boards when struggling with their own writing.

ARR-BT. 3/9/17

Yes, we have all pretty much reached a consensus about the necessity of reading as a component of a BW curriculum. That said, I am not quite sure that I agree with Nilson’s advice in chapter four that faculty should not lecture “on readings in class,” and should instead focus on “incentivizing” students to work with readings on their own by tasking them with “online responses, dialogue journals, quizzes, and the like” (73). Certainly I can see how this would be a feasible model, but not in a BW classroom. A BW classroom is populated with students who, by definition, need to discuss the readings during class times to ensure that comprehension has been achieved. Also the use of the word “incentivizing” in this section seems misleading, since the above advice is closer to being a stick than a carrot.

The Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy, mentioned in the fifth section, resonates with me. I have always thought if the reading/writing connection as being kind of a one-way street in that a healthy reading habit feeds one’s writing skills. That said, I am surprised by the evidence that, as they become more accustomed to writing exercises, BW students’ memories and analytical skills tend to strengthen, which then, in turn, makes them more effective readers (92). This makes sense to me; I had just failed to previously consider that writing can feed reading skills as much as reading can shape writing. I appreciate the way the RBT is broken down into stages. Just as Errors and Expectations functions as a life preserver for fledgling BW instructors, the RBT operates as a kind of concrete list of the steps required to rescue BWs themselves. I had never consciously distilled the act of reading into the simultaneous processes of “meaning-building from the text” and “building meaning for a text” (93). But it’s true! When reading, we are both working to comprehend the passages and reacting to them on a personal level, which could then prove to be the first step for an assignment like a position paper. How could anyone ever think that reading should be divorced from writing instruction? The symbiotic relationship seems undeniable. Certain aspects of the third RPT stage, “Applying,” remind me of the Halsted reading in which she suggests a curriculum that is more student-driven than instructor-centric. Allowing students, through group discussions, to talk about their own approaches to a passage and their impressions of the author’s “writing strategies” seems like an organic way lead them into increasingly more complex texts. The “Evaluating” stage teaches BWs to become aware of their own actions as they bridge the reading/writing connection (98). This, in turn, equips them to approach a wider variety of reading material and begin to vary their writing styles during the sixth level of RBT.  YES! Those of you who teach, do you use the Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy or some modified version of it? I strongly appreciate the way it breaks down the levels of student understanding and offers advice on how to teach to each tier of BWs. In fact, my pirate persona has declared that “ARR-BT” is her most favored approach to instruction found in the readings so far.

Reading and Writing Go Together like Pirates and Eye Patches. 3/2/17

Based on the overview, Reconnecting Reading and Writing sounds like exactly what those of us who have been bemoaning Shaughnessy’s omission of significant reading in BW classrooms have been seeking. Horning and Kraemer assert that “writing teachers can help students become better writers and better readers through reconnecting reading and writing” (7). Yes! Even the deepest corners of my heart are warmed by this sentiment.

What happened between 1998 and 2009 to cause high school seniors and college freshmen to have significantly less reading skills? I graduated high school in 1997; I hate to think that, if I were younger and a 2009 graduate, that somehow I would be a poorer reader. Horning and Kraemer trace the problem back to “lack of instruction and motivation,” along with the rising domination of the computer and other technologies (9). Does this mean that there is a national trend of teachers “just phoning it in,” in terms of instruction? In light of the above disparity, how can these younger students possibly have strong writing skills when they have such reading struggles?

I agree very much with Harl’s inclusion of Christianson’s quote about how expecting students to “describe their own analytical processes” without having first introduced them to reading material that discusses just that is akin to requesting that students “continually rediscover the wheel” (30). This seems as obvious as, say, gravity and the fact that days of the week end in Y. I firmly believe, except in cases of problems like dyslexia, that it is impossible to be a strong writer and a weak reader (or vice versa). How could students possibly know how to write a successful position paper/film review/short story without having first read a number of examples?

The material for this week sure seems to have me asking lots of questions.

This “New Criticism” thing seems to take too extreme of an approach by focusing almost entirely on the written material and neglecting the “role and intention of the writer” (31). Yet the “progressives [who] attacked “New Criticism” seem wrong too: why should students “value their own interpretations above those of experts?” (31). It seems that both concepts miss a key teaching opportunity in which students can compare their own impressions of a work’s intention and success with both those of the author and critics who have already discussed the material.

In the third section, Coon writes that a “sample review of research studies and policies suggests that, internationally, reading and writing tend to be treated and taught as separate skills” (55). (Please imagine the sound of me banging my head against my desk.) One aspect of the 2009 PISA study that she discusses, the fact that “reading a variety of materials…makes for intelligent readers, and online reading and searching makes for better prepared readers,” seems to directly contradict the study mentioned in the first section that blames the dip in literacy rates of 2009 high school seniors and freshmen (in the United States) in part, on the rise of technology (57). Did anyone else find this to be a contradiction? Reading the International Reports on Literacy Research study, I learned that, in “Italy, Hong Kong, Argentina, and Australia,” Mallozzi and Malloy noted a trend of disconnect between reading and writing instruction. On some level, it is an odd realization to discover that this problem is so endemic in places other than the United States. It makes me want to shake the globe until we all wake up and see how symbiotic reading and writing really are.

Rocking the Boat Gently. 2/23/17

Did it strike anyone else as a backhanded compliment that Stephen North refers to Shaughnessy as a “Practitioner” of “lore?” (79). One of Miriam-Webster’s definitions of “lore” is “knowledge gained through study or experience,” and the Miriam-Webster thesaurus asserts that “fable” and “folklore” are synonyms. He is simultaneously crediting her with laying the groundwork for the field (aka the “legend” – another synonym offered by Miriam-Webster) and discrediting her work by differentiating it from “research or scholarship” (79). This opinion, coming very near to the beginning of this week’s reading, immediately took me back to the ranty feeling that was inspired by last week’s “On the Academic Margins: Basic Writing Pedagogy,” by Mutnick.

On both “Plankwalkin” and “Pedagogy Pirates,” I noticed a reference to Otte and Mlynarczyk’s assertion that “Errors and Expectations gave hope, not solutions” (81). Both blog authors seem to tie this quote to their own less-than-stellar opinions of Shaughnessy’s text. Honestly, I am not sure if I agree. Having all read the text, many of us have bemoaned Shaughnessy’s failure to solidly offer the fact that simply finding reading material that engages BWs would be of great help to these struggling students. Yes, this is a problem. But I don’t take this one group observation to mean that the text offered no solutions. Conversely, I think it offers the biggest solution: that not all approaches will be successful and struggling writers are not a uniform population so instructors should not expect to treat them as such and succeed. Granted, it doesn’t offer many concrete solutions in terms of lesson plans, but the function of a life preserver is to save someone (newly minted BW instructors), not to also provide that person with a detailed map of where to find the shore.

As I continued reading, I admit that my initial rantiness began to fade. I find the tone of these chapters to be closer to Mutnick and Lamos’ “Basic Writing Pedagogy: Shifting Academic Margins in Hard Times” than to Mutnick’s 2001 article. I think Otte and Mlynarczyk manage to maintain a diplomatic atmosphere in Chapter 4, even as they discuss polarizing issues like whether or not requiring BWs to become proficient in standard English is beneficial for them or if, instead, it is suggestive of “white supremacy” (127). The passages on assessment in this chapter renewed my curiosity regarding exactly what the end-of-semester tests taken by AUM’s W.I. undergraduates look like.

Chapter 5 reads like a condensed history of the movement’s struggle for acceptance within university administration. It also details various incarnations of the BW model and the introduction of WAC and WID (177). I am curious if those in our class who are AUM instructors feel that WAC and WID eclipse the attention that is needed by our university’s own struggling writers.

 

A Who’s Who:

Mina Shaughnessy – Shaughnessy authored the pioneering work of the Basic Writing field: Errors and Expectations. It is through her work that the very foundation of BW was laid.

George Otte – Otte co-edited the JBW from 1996 until 2002. In the late 1990s, he was “Baruch College’s Executive Director of Enrichment Programs,” which entailed running “high school outreach and communication-across-the-curriculum programs” (https://commons.gc.cuny.edu/members/gotte/). He co-wrote Basic Writing (2010) with Mlynarczyk.

Rebecca Williams Mlynarczyk – Mlynarczyk is an English Professor Emerita for CUNY’s Kingsborough Community College. In addition to the book that she co-authored with Otte, she is also co-author of In Our Own Words: Student Writers at Work (2005) and author of Conversations of the Mind: The Uses of Journal Writing for Second-Language Learners (1998).

Deborah Mutnick – Mutnick completed her undergrad degree at the University of Michigan. She finished her MFA at the University of North Carolina, and her PhD was earned from New York University. Her text is called Writing in an Alien World: Basic Writing and the Struggle for Equality in Higher Education. (1996). She is an English professor at the “Brooklyn campus of Long Island University, and current Co-Director of LIU Brooklyn Learning Communities” (http://www.liu.edu/Brooklyn/Academics/Faculty/Faculty/M/Deborah-Mutnick). She is one of the editors of Science and Society and the JBW.

Steven Lamos – Lamos is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Colorado at Boulder and also their Associate Director of the Program for Writing and Rhetoric. He authored In the Interests of Opportunity: Race, Racism, and University Writing Instruction in the Post-Civil Rights Era (2011).