Friday, January 17, 2014

Henry Kissinger on Writing, Rewriting, and Rewriting Again

I just heard my new favorite story about writing, perseverance, and the importance of high standards.

The following was said by Ambassador Winston Lord, who was ambassador to China and assistant Secretary of State, about Henry Kissinger in an interview at George Washington University.

Well, basically it was, I went in with a draft, and it was actually of a presidential foreign policy report. This is slightly apocryphal and not directly on your subject here, but I would go in with a draft of the speech. [Dr. Kissinger] called me in the next day and said, "Is this the best you can do?" I said, "Henry, I thought so, but I'll try again." So I go back in a few days, another draft. He called me in the next day and he said, "Are you sure this is the best you can do?" I said, "Well, I really thought so. I'll try one more time." Anyway, this went on eight times, eight drafts; each time he said, "Is this the best you can do?" So I went in there with a ninth draft, and when he called me in the next day and asked me that same question, I really got exasperated and I said, "Henry, I've beaten my brains out - this is the ninth draft. I know it's the best I can do: I can't possibly improve one more word." He then looked at me and said, "In that case, now I'll read it."
Classrooms around the country contain young people who are good students but mediocre writers because they believe that finishing the last paragraph means they are finished with their essays. I can relate because I believed this too until my sophomore year of college. These students do not understand the old teachers' quote that "Good writing is good rewriting." Completing the last paragraph is just the start. Effective communicators go through their writing over and over: tightening up arguments, checking punctuation, strengthening vocabulary. After the first draft, there is always a more brief, more elegant, more convincing way to write each sentence.

All of this takes time, commitment, grit, and a tough teacher (or parent or boss). Most students are lazy with their writing at first; they need someone to hold them to a high standard who won't accept their half-hearted work. I certainly needed a professor in college who sent me back to perfect my papers.

This is closely related to my teaching philosophy, which is the same as my parenting philosophy: have high expectations but provide lots of support. That is how writers - and children - succeed. It is also the reason why Clickademics Essay Engine, our essay writing tutorial, does not just stop at the concluding paragraph. Students are shown how to go through three rounds of editing to make their writing even better.

Mercifully, we don't send students through nine rounds of editing like the demanding Henry Kissinger.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Essay Engine is Now Even Easier

Back in May, we made our basic Essay Engine program free for two reasons. First, we built it to help students write essays, and offering it for free makes it accessible to far more students. Secondly, we wanted more users so we could see how actual students use it on real essays.

Well, we have been happy to see so many writers using Essay Engine, but we noticed something: too
many of our users were not finishing their essays.  We asked a few about this, and the most common thing we heard was that the program was too long.  Writers began their essays using our program, but they did not know how much further they had to go. And let's face it, when students start an essay, the only thing they really care about is finishing.

So we listened to our users, and made some improvements. First, we shortened our essay writing program. Because it was already efficient, there was not much we could remove. We tightened up some the written directions, edited a few of our instructional videos, and took out some early steps that explain why essay writing is important. After all, students don't care why they are writing, just what they need to write.

We also added a progress bar. It shows the writer how far she has come and how far she has to go. More importantly, the writer can click on the bar to see a pop-up overview of an expository essay. She can see which pieces she has completed and which she still has to do. This is also a nice reminder of the steps the student takes each time she writes an expository essay. Our goal has always been that students practice writing with Essay Engine so that they learn how to write on their own. Every student needs to write essays in class without help, either on an essay exam or a standardized test.

Please check our our new, more streamlined Essay Engine at Clickademics.com. And don't forget to follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, July 29, 2013

How to Say Yes Without Being a Pushover

It happens in every family. The child asks for something big - bigger than a t-shirt but smaller than a car - and the parent wants to say yes but also wants the child to earn it, to make a sacrifice for it. After all, the parent is afraid of the slippery slope: saying yes today will make the kid expect a yes next time too.

Here is a perfect solution that I learned from my in-laws. When your son or daughter asks for something big, ask them write a five paragraph essay before you say yes.

Let's say your daughter wants to go to a concert. You would rather that she not go, but she seems desperate to join her friends and see the show. You want to make her happy, and you don't want to have an argument about it, but you also don't want her to expect immediate gratification every time she asks for something. So say yes, as long as she writes a persuasive essay with three strong reasons supported with facts. This will accomplish a few things:
  1. Your daughter has to earn this special privilege
  2. She must think about why she wants to go, teaching her to consider her decisions carefully
  3. You get a glimpse of how she feels about the decision
  4. She becomes a better writer through practice
  5. You get to say yes and be the good guy
If your daughter does not really want to go, she won't go to the trouble of writing the essay, and she will drop the subject without you having to crush her dream. If she really does want to attend the concert, she will write five compelling paragraphs to convince you to agree.

The best expository essays are persuasive essays, so if you ask your child to write first, you are asking him to support his argument with facts and logical reasons. This rarely happens with a verbal discussion which quickly descends into an emotional debate. Your child can convince you to agree in a cool, thoughtful way. In effect, you are making your child practice the art of convincing others to agree with him, a skill very useful in adult life. 

This works for children of all ages. When my kids were in kindergarten, we had them list three reasons, just a couple words, why we should take them to the movies or get a cat. More recently, we took away video games because they were neglecting their chores. When they asked if they could have video games back, we had them write five paragraph essays listing reasons why they should. They even considered why we might say no and included a counter argument. The vocabulary and grammar were elementary school level, but the form was just like what I taught in my classroom. I spent time walking my kids through the essay writing process, but you of course can save time by having your kids use Clickademics Essay Engine which walks the student through all of the steps of creating an organized essay.

If your child gives you an essay that is poorly written or based on weak arguments, send them back to the computer to improve it before you agree. You might even consider writing an essay of your own stating your concerns - the concert will be too loud, you will be out too late, there will be no supervision - and make your daughter find solutions to each of your worries.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

In Defense of College


There is a lot written about the higher education bubble and how something needs to be done before it bursts. What makes college a bubble is the fear that the money that a student pays into tuition won't be recouped in higher wages after graduation. If the student can't find a job for which she is trained, then the tuition was a bad investment. Why pay $100,000 for college if the graduate will not make $100,000 more than another worker with a high school degree? Add the finance charges of student loans, and the problem is that much worse.

But what if the this whole argument is based on the wrong premise? More on that in a moment.



The fact is, college is a very inefficient place to get trained for a job. Yes, a degree from a top school is mandatory for certain careers: medicine, academia, law, finance. If a student knows that he or she wants to go into one of these fields, then that student should go to the best school possible and focus on that career path. But for everyone else, their college education has little to do with their actual job. How many people do you know who have a job directly related to their major? Is four years of study worth more than four years of experience?

When people view college as their ticket to higher salaries, they are bound to to be disappointed while the economy and job market is still slow. There just aren't enough jobs for all of the people coming out of school, so there will be too many new graduates piecing together part time jobs or working jobs that don't require a college degree.  These young people, and their parents, are now wondering if college was even worth it.

If a student only wants to make a higher salary, college is a lousy bargain. Here's a suggestion, those students should learn to code. Take some classes in C++ and Ruby at the local community college, work through tutorials online, build experience on some freelance jobs building iPhone apps, and the chances of pulling down a six figure salary are significantly better than if that same person earned a degree in French literature from a private college. Or go to a trade school, be an apprentice, and join a union. A trained welder makes a lot more than an anthropology major who is still looking for work. Another idea I have read about - take the money your family has set aside for college and start a business. A entrepreneur can do a lot with $50,000 and an idea.

However, when students view their college education as more than a résumé builder, then the tuition makes a lot more sense. The tuition investment may not immediately help financially, but it will pay off intellectually, socially, and emotionally. College is about exploring ideas and discovering yourself. It is one of the few times in life when you can take a class about art, psychology, philosophy, or calculus. It is a chance to debate ideas late into the night, to join a robotics club, to meet people from different places, to learn how to think critically. That is why it is great to study French literature or pursue an anthropology major. Those students may not have a career that involves French literature or anthropology, but they will certainly have a career where they must think, write, and persuade others. And don't discount the value of networking with other alumni later in life.

Which brings me to a point that is not obvious to recent graduates, most of them will have several careers in their lifetime. In the 20th century, it was common for a young person to get a job in a GM plant or a school district and stay there for their whole career. Today's workers might have an average of seven careers according to some sources. It would prove short-sighted for a young person to skip college in favor of going into a service job when she may soon feel inspired to move to a professional career that requires a college degree. Choosing to skip a university education can limit a person's choices for the rest of their working life.

Though I have many successful friends who never went to college, I know that some of them regret it. I think of my one friend that feels embarrassed admitting that he never went to college, and I compare him to my other friend who is proud to share that she is the first person in her family to earn a degree. This idea is more important to everyone, but it should be part of the decision.

If at all possible, I believe students should always choose college, not because it will get them a better job, but because it will make them a more well-rounded person. It will open doors and give them confidence for the rest of their life. I don't, however, know if it is worth skipping a reasonably-priced state school in favor of a high-priced private college. That is a topic for a different article.

And when it comes time to write your application essays, don't forget to use Clickademics Essay Engine; it will help you organize your thoughts and write a catchy introduction.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Reading Textbooks: The Right Way, The Fast Way, The Wrong Way


For many classes, everything you need to know for the class is in the textbook. The problem is that you need to read the textbook.

If you want to do well in the class, and you are going to spend the time reading, you might as well do it right. Here are some ways to read textbooks:

The Right Way: When you really need to learn the material, here is the best way that I have found to read and retain information from a textbook. It is my practical, faster version of the SQ3R method. Follow these steps:

  • Skim everything that is not a paragraph. The great thing about textbooks is that they put all of the important items where they are easy to read - boldfaced titles, italics, diagrams, picture captions, end of the chapter summaries. Read these quickly.
  • Ask yourself what is important. You are more likely to find the answer if you know what the question is, so ask yourself what the textbook author wants you to know based on the material you skimmed in step one.
  • Read the paragraphs and take notes - quickly. Now is the time to read the chapter in order, but keep a fast pace so that you don't get bogged down. Every two or three paragraphs, write down a line of notes. Review last month's newsletter for tips on note taking.
  • Use two column notes. In the left margin next to each line of note, write a title - two or three words that describe the content of the notes.
  • Review. Skim over the chapter headings, illustration captions, and end of chapter material just like you did at the beginning. Did you learn about all of the important things that the textbook highlighted?
  • Study. Fold your page of notes over so that the titles in the margin are showing. Test youself. Do you know the information that goes with each title?


The best part about this method is that your brain is exposed to the content several times. Each time you skim, read, write down notes, look at your notes, or review, the information is cemented in your memory.

The Fast Way: But what if you are too busy to read the correct way? Do the best with the time you have. You know how you skimmed the boldfaced titles, chapter headings, italicized phrases, illustration captions, and end of the chapter stuff in the instruction above? Since that has most of the important information, this is where you should go when you are pressed for time. Ten minutes of skimming will give you a lot more than reading the first two pages of the chapter.

The Wrong Way: Do not read a textbook the way that you would read a novel. If you just sit down and start reading in order, it is not likely that you will remember as much. Furthermore, if you run out of time, you will stop reading where you are and get nothing out of the end of the chapter.

Strangely, reading a textbook should be a lot like surfing the web - lots of skimming and looking at pictures, with close reading only where you need it. This is especially true if you are reading an electronic textbook on an iPad or other device.

Speaking of devices, don't forget that our Essay Engine shows you how to write great essays and works wonderfully on all internet-connected devices.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Orange Tic Tacs: The Key to Better Exam Grades


An old student of mine that is now in college posted on Facebook that she had a big exam to study for. I gave her my favorite study advice. Eat Orange Tic Tacs. 

The trick is to eat the Tic Tacs while you study your notes and text book. It does not necessarily have to be Orange Tic Tacs; it just has to be a candy or breath mint that you rarely eat. It also must have a strong scent. Then, don't eat that candy any other time. Finally, eat the candy while you take your exam. You will be shocked how well you remember the content and how well you do on the test. 

Don't believe me? Think about this...What is your favorite smell? Take a moment and think about it. Now answer this - why is it your favorite smell? I have asked my students this question a few times, and none of them say that their favorite smell is the best because it is sweet or makes their nose feel good. They all tell stories of a happy time that is associated with the smell. The smell of the ocean that reminds the of a trip to the beach with their friends. The smell of their grandmother's chocolate cake that she makes on everyone's birthday. The smell of chalk that the student uses at gymnastic meets. 

Smells are linked more directly with memory than any other sense. How many times have you caught a faint whiff of a scent that reminds you of a person or place that you have not thought of for years? It's almost like your nose remembers better than you do.

Why not harness that olfactory-mnemonic power to help you on a test? The trick is give your nose a smell during the test that will remind you of the good ol' days when you had your notes and textbook in front of you. It will increase your recall and make your test easier. I haven't heard how my old student did on her ram, but I bet she's happy with the results. 

Of course, Tic Tacs won't help you if you have an essay instead of an exam. That's what our Essay Engine is for, it will make essay writing a breeze. 

Stay tuned for my next post on the Teachademics blog where I share with all of the teachers why the Tic Tac trick really works

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Make a New Year’s Resolution You Can Keep


At some point in the school year, every student promises his/herself (or parents) that he/she will do better in school.

If getting better grades is one of your New Year’s resolutions, here are some tips on how to make that happen.

Organize Your Notebook(s): A leading cause of lower grades is lost papers. Fortunately, this is one of the easiest ones to fix. This January, clean out you notebook. Put old, graded, papers in a file or box. Don’t throw anything away until the end of the school year, but you don’t need to care it around every day. Put all notes in one section of your notebook. Put all papers that your teacher has given to you in a different section – if your teacher has taken the time to xerox something, it probably is worth keeping. Put all of your work in progress in a third section. I always recommend a different notebook for each core subject.

Read! Keep your brain sharp. Keep it from turning to mush with too much time on social media or playing video games. Read a book for fun or even a few magazines – anything that is not on a screen. Reading book for half of an hour a day in a quite place will lengthen your attention span, improve your vocabulary, and increase your retention when you have to read boring school books when school resumes.

Use a Homework Calendar: An electronic organizer, a pocket spiral notepad, a My Little Pony wall calendar, it does not matter. When you start the new year, have a place where you write down every assignment, paper, and test. I even suggest that you cross out each item as you complete it.

Communicate with your Teacher: Answer questions in class (even if you are wrong). Ask your teacher questions after class when you need a hand (try email if there is no time). Share an article you have seen that is related to a class topic. Teachers love when students are engaged, and they love to help. If a project or lesson is unclear, ask a question right away - it is easier and more effective than complaining about a low grade later.


Try Clickademics Essay Engine: We built Essay Engine to help you write better, more organized essays in less time. In most classes, essays are a large grade, and nailing an essay will really boost your average.