Monday, February 22, 2010

The 10 Things Your Teacher Hates About Your Writing

You need to understand something, teachers are an old-fashioned bunch. They love working with young people, but they want to make them into responsible old people. Most of them liked school and did well, and they think fondly of the good ol' days.

Students, on the other hand, like progress. They communicate in a different, and some might argue more efficient, way using new technologies, but students need to have a different, old-fashioned voice when writing for class.

Be sure to avoid the following:

  1. Text Message Speak. Using abbreviations, single letters (U, R, B), and symbols are great when texting quickly, but they drive your teacher crazy. When you are writing for class, you are not in a hurry, so write out all of the words. These abbreviations, though, are great for note-taking.
  2. all lower case. Since the ubiquity of email, it has become common to write in all lower case letters. Your teacher still wants you to capitalize proper nouns and the first letter of each sentence. Using ALL CAPS? Don't even get me started.
  3. Run-On Sentences. Students who do much of their communicating by telephone often speak in one long stream-of-consciousness-fire-hose of words, but this makes reading very difficult. Keep it to one thought per sentence. If you join two complete sentences, do it with a semicolon (;), a comma and a conjunction (, and), or a subordinating conjunction (because, since, after).
  4. Incomplete Sentences. Students who do much of their communicating by text message often write in short fragments. Ya know. Like this. Quick as possible. A sentence must be an independent clause - a group of words that contain a subject, a verb, and can stand on its own. Make sure that each of your sentences can be said aloud by itself and still make sense.
  5. Homophones. A homophone is a word that sounds the same as another word but is spelled differently. Mixing up homophones shows that someone receives more language through the ears (chatting, telephone, TV) than through the eyes (reading). After spell check catches the true spelling errors, it is up to you to catch the homophone errors. Be careful with their/there/they're, you're/your, it's/its, affect/effect, a lot/allot.
  6. I vs. Me. For the first person singular, I is a subject while me is an object. I do things. Things are done to me while I sit there and let them happen. The most egregious error is, "Me and my friends went to practice." If you split the two subjects into two sentences, it would be obvious that me should be changed to I. However, any pronoun that comes after a linking verb (is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been) must be the subject pronoun. "It is I." "The winner is she." "If I could only be he for just one day." It may sound strange, but that is because this rule is broken so often in common conversation. Most teachers will appreciate it done correctly, though.
  7. Or Beginning Sentences With Conjunctions. Just like glue, conjunctions join things, but you need to put them between two things that must be joined. Beginning a sentence with a conjunction is like putting glue on one side of a single piece of paper. 
  8. Sloppy Use of He, She, They. In the bad old days, when one wanted to give an example using a hypothetical person, the writer used male pronouns. For example, "The student must bring his book to class." Most students today know that this is gender-biased language, but they use poor grammar when they use gender-neutral pronouns like, "The student must bring their book to class." The pronoun does not agree with the antecedent, the subject. The proper way is to make them both singular or both plural. "The students must bring their books to class." or "The student must bring his or her book to class."
  9. Could Of, Would Of, Should Of. Could have sounds like could of when it is spoken, but it does not make any sense.
  10. !   Perhaps it is just my peeve, but save the exclamations points for the notes you pass to your friends. ("I think he likes you!!!!!!!) If you want to show that a sentence is important, use emphatically expressive language.

All of these suggestions apply to emails to your teacher as well as essays.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Teaching Teenagers to Read

Yeah, yeah. I know you know how to read, but I'm not talking about the "Hooked on Phonics worked for me" kind of reading, I mean understanding what you read so that you don't have the "In one eye out the other" experience.

If you have ever spent an hour reading a novel only to realize that you don't remember anything that you just read, follow these helpful (though potentially boring) steps to better reading comprehension.

  1. Sit at a table with good light. Do not read in bed, the floor, a big comfy chair, bathtub; you will probably fall asleep.
  2. Read in a quiet environment. Turn off the music, tv, cell phone, and computer. Your brain can focus on 4-7 things at once, and reading takes up most of those. When you read, you need to focus your eyes on the words, decode the words, think of the meaning of the words you are reading right now, connect them with what you have already read, and (if you have brain power left over) predict what will come next. There is no room in your brain to also listen to music or listen for text messages.
  3. Put the book flat on the table. When you hold a book in your hands, it does not stay perfectly still. Often, the book moves slightly with respect to your eyes, and your eyes lose their place. That is why you sometimes read the same line twice, or you skip a line. This will make you confused, force you to find your place again, and get back in your rhythm, all of which ruins your reading comprehension.
  4. Use a ruler. To help keep your eyes on track even more, hold a ruler above the line you are reading. It prevent your eyes from straying as well as keeping your book flat. You should put the ruler above the line you are reading instead of below since it will push you down the page, preventing you from lagging behind. Besides, your peripheral vision is much better than you know, and your eyes are actually getting a preview of some of the important words coming up; you don't want to cover those words with the ruler.
  5. Take notes. Writing down notes boosts your retention because you have to read the words, think about what was most important, find a way to write that quickly, write it, and read the words you just wrote. Your brain has just interacted with the material five times instead of just once. If you own the book, write a few words summarizing the important events in the margins. If it is not your book, write a line of notes for every half a page.
  6. Read fast. Have you ever noticed that you can see a billboard out of the corner of your eye for a split second and know what it says? Your brain is so used to reading that it can soak up words a lot faster that you realize; that is why speed reading works. When you read slowly, your mind tends to drift, you have to hold information in your short-term memory longer, and you risk subvocalization (moving your lips when you read or sounding the words out in your head). Let yourself read faster than you think you can, and you will be surprised at how much you remember.
When I would share these insights with my students, they'd always complain. They said that it is so boring, that it is uncomfortable, and that it takes too long to write notes. My reply? Then don't read. If you are not going to retain what you just read, then you might as well keep the book closed and go have fun. Instead of spending an hour reading without remembering anything, spend an hour an a half reading and taking notes correctly with great comprehension. Then you can be done with your work and really enjoy your music, tv, computer, etc.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Unwritten Rules of School

School is a game, and the students who know it and play by the rules are the ones that do well.

When I was a teacher, I certainly had my share of smart A students. However, I also had many surprises - students with average intelligence that earned really high grades and really smart students who failed the class. In fact, about a third of the students that failed my class were very intelligent. They were bored with school and did not see the benefits to doing homework. They often wrote papers that were interesting to them but did not fit the assignment.

Conversely, I had students who earned very high grades because they knew how to play the school game. Here are some of the things that they knew but other students did not.

1. Turn in Every Assignment: Never, ever, skip anything ever. Forever. You need to understand the law of averages: if you earn a zero on an assignment and an A on the next two assignments, you still have a D in the class. Even if you had turned in a poor assignment that first time and earned a 50%, you would still have a C+ in the class. It will take a month of straight A's to recover from a zero, so turn in everything.

2. Make the teacher like you.
Some students might bristle at "kissing up to the teacher," but good students know that many grades are subjective, so they show the teacher that they enjoy the class and are trying hard. Be polite, sit near the front, answer when the teacher questions the class, and ask questions after class. All of this shows that you are interested in doing well, and the teacher will want to help.

3. Turn in neat work. If your homework and papers look professional, the teacher will think that you put in a lot of effort, even if you did not. He or she will look for the good parts (glass half full) instead of noticing the errors (glass half empty). If you earn a borderline grade on a subjective assignment, you might even get the higher grade. So type assignments when appropriate, handwrite neatly, rewrite the page if you have to, and put your name, title, and date on everything. It will only take a few extra minutes, but the results will add up.

4. Take tests the smart way. Obviously, you want to study for every test, but what do you do if you don't know the answer? First, don't panic - freaking out will only hurt you on the rest of the test. Second, on a multiple choice test, cross out the wrong answers to give your guess better odds. Third, come back to that question at the end because something later in the test could give you a clue to troublesome question.

On an essay or short answer test, if you don't know the answer, write about something you do know about. If you can't remember specifics (the Gettysburg Address), just write about something general (effects of the Civil War, Lincoln's leadership) or something similar (King's "I Have a Dream Speech"). Any answer is better than nothing, and you just might get a little partial credit.

5. Ask. Ask for help before the test, ask what you should study for the test, ask for a makeup assignment, ask for extra credit. If you approach your teacher in a respectful way, there may be ways to gain points that you did not know about. It can't hurt to ask, as long as you don't badger her too much.

Here is an offshoot of the "ask" strategy that is only helpful if you don't mind being annoying. After the first test of the year, make an appointment with your teacher to go over your test. Talk through every question you missed and ask him to explain the right answer. This can be helpful because 1) you might convince him to give you a couple of points here and there, 2) you will show him that you try hard and want to do well, and 3) it will take so much time that he will think twice about taking off points next time because he won't want to have another meeting. (taken from a book by Tim Ferris).

6. Don't Keep Doing What Doesn't Work: Unfortunately, there are some students that work super hard. The good news is that their perseverance and work ethic will really pay off in the working world after school. In the mean time, these students might be studying the wrong way for their brains. A book on study skills like Learning to Learn: Strengthening Study Skills and Brain Power might help. You could also try something like Get the Best Grades with the Least Amount of Effort which helps students learn faster or Secrets that Smart Students Know. Sometimes you just need to try a different way of studying.