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Better proofreading through robots

Read your paper aloud, and you will catch more errors. Almost everyone of my high school English teachers recommended that strategy, and for the most part, it works wonders. It has its limitations though.

For starters, if spellchecker suggests “defiantly” after I misspell “definitely,” I still read out “definitely” because that’s what I meant to say. Additionally, I have a habit of reading out the word or phrase I meant to type rather than the word or phrase that is actually on the page. Finally, I can put my own inflection into my reading, which means that sentences sound fine to me even if other readers may have difficulty parsing out what I meant.


Photo credit – Flickr user Logan Ingalls

For those reasons, I think the better way of hearing errors is to bring in a robot, specifically the one that lives inside your computer’s text-to-speech program.

Text-to-speech programs read text from your screen aloud in a robotic-sounding voice with little inflection. They are great tools for proofreading because they solve all three of the shortcomings listed above. The computer reads what is on the screen no matter what you meant to type, and errors become a lot more apparent. Further, the relative monotone of the computer-generated voice also means that wordy or awkward sections sound wordy and awkward. Continue reading ‘Better proofreading through robots’


Writings on

I have had two guest blog posts go up recently on Check them out if you are interested:

Rethinking what it means to be smart talks about the attitude I think students can use to achieve the most success in their educational endeavours.

How to uses professor’s feedback talks about how to construct a comprehensive plan for improvement based on the comments you get on your papers.



Writing with A.D.D.

Writing and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) don’t get along very well. If you invited them both to a cocktail party, they’d stand on opposite sides of the room and the tension in the room would still be unbearable. However, plenty of writers, some very good, have ADD. For them, ADD can be a blessing and a curse. Because of the way it affects the brain, ADD can lead to more creative insights and perspectives, and it can help writers avoid cliché. At the same time, ADD can make it extraordinarily difficult to get those ideas down onto the page, which can lead to years of frustration, underachievement, and a belief that it is just not possible to write well with ADD.

From Flickr user dgarkauskas

From Flickr user dgarkauskas

Writing with ADD is difficult, but not impossible. I have ADD, and I’ve worked with many student writers who have it. By sharing what I’ve learned about ADD through my own experiences, I hope I can provide some sense of an understanding about what it is like to write with ADD and tips on how to mitigate some of the symptoms as they apply to writing.

ADD and the writer’s brain
To understand why writing with ADD is difficult, we need to know a little more about it on the neurological level. Writers need to use many different parts of their brains, constantly orchestrating the systems that control memory, language, and logic. The task puts a great burden on the executive functions in the brain, those systems that help control focus and concentration. ADD hinders these systems most acutely. To put it another way, if your brain were the island of Manhattan, your brain while writing would look like rush hour traffic. If you have ADD, your brain while writing looks like rush hour traffic with stoplights that don’t work like they are supposed to. The whole effect is that writing with ADD often feels like a 30-car pile up in a bad section of town.

Continue reading ‘Writing with A.D.D.’


Reading for writers: Breakdown of “Culturalism, Gladwell, and Airplane Crashes” from Ask A Korean!

The best writers I know also happen to be the best readers. Why that might be true is not hard to understand. The best readers understand how a text leads a reader through a set of ideas. They see the individual choices the author made and understand the strategy behind those choices. The best writers find ways to incorporate those strategies in their own writing.

Learning to read in this way takes some practice. You must read critically, compare the text to other similar texts, and think about how the text moved you. I occasionally try to speed up that process by taking a piece of writing that I find effective and annotating it for my students to show them how I see it working. That’s what I will be doing here.

The piece of text I’ve chosen popped up in my wife’s RSS feed following the Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco earlier this year. She sent it to me because she knows that I’ve read all of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, and she thought it was a great deconstruction of one of Gladwell’s greatest sins, taking the kernel of an idea or theory and extending it past its intended usefulness. It wasn’t a surprise to me that he does this. Gladwell is an expert journalist with an interest in psychology, sociology, and other sciences. Many experts in those fields feel that Gladwell oversimplifies topics. However, his writing demonstrates his eye for the interesting and counterintuitive, and when he finds that, he writes fantastic prose to introduce that concept to a non-expert audience. I’ve always equated reading Gladwell to watching reality television; you know you can’t really trust what you see to be entirely the truth of people’s lives, but the results can be entertaining and thought provoking nevertheless. With this opinion of Gladwell in mind, I had figured that the link my wife sent me would recycle the same criticisms that I’ve already read. The fact that it did not is part of the reason that I’ve chosen the text below: it forced me to think in ways that I hadn’t in the past. That’s a sign of good writing.

Photo from the flickr account of State Library of Victoria Collections

Photo from the flickr account of State Library of Victoria Collections

The text below comes from the blog, Ask a Korean! That name explains what the blog does. The main author, who goes by The Korean (hereafter, I’ll just use TK), takes queries via email and then writes up an explanation based on his perspective as someone who has experienced both Korean and American cultures. The blog’s record of success (over 3.4 million visitors, 6.5 million page views, and appearances in national media) speaks to the quality of the posts as well as the author’s prolificness.

I’ve asked for and was graciously granted permission by TK to reproduce the post in its entirety and to insert my own commentary. After this point, all of my words will appear in italics and will be indented.

Culturalism, Gladwell, and Airplane Crashes

A few weeks ago, I attended a PGA golf tournament. You might think watching golf is boring, but I beg to differ: professional golf tournaments offer a chance to witness firsthand one of the amazing athletic feats in the world.

If an ordinary weekend golfer made ten great shots in a row, that might be the best day of her golfing life. If I saw two ordinary weekend golfers making ten great shots in a row at the same time, I would start exclaiming out loud after each shot and buy a round of beer for both of them. Now, imagine watching a hundred fifty golfers playing, in a championship golf course that is designed to leave a very small margin of error. Imagine watching virtually every one of them knocking off ten great shots in a row. The good players may hit 20 or 30 great shots in a row; the best ones, 40, 50, 60 great shots. This is why a golf tournament is so exciting: it is a collective display of perfection, shown over and over and over again. Continue reading ‘Reading for writers: Breakdown of “Culturalism, Gladwell, and Airplane Crashes” from Ask A Korean!’


Compassion and teaching: Part 5 of Five years, five lessons in five words

Admit something:
Everyone you see, you say to them,
     “Love me.”
Of course you do not do this out loud,
Someone would call the cops.
Still though, think about this,
This great pull in us to connect.
Why not become the one
Who lives with a full moon in each eye
That is always saying
With that sweet moon
What every other eye in this world
Is dying to

-Hafez, “With That Moon Language”

Two summers ago, I had a creative writing class where only a few students wanted to share their work. The atmosphere in the classroom wasn’t helping out; although all of the students were in middle school, the more vocal students also happened to be the more sophisticated and socially-aware students, and their confidence intimidated the other students who hadn’t gotten there yet. Towards the end of the first week of our three week course, some students were starting to shut down, writing very little and stopping well short of what I’d consider a good effort from them. I was desperate to change the mood. After hearing the beginning of a powerful essay a student in another writing class wrote, I took the first line gave it to my students as the following writing prompt: “The thing you don’t get about me is ….” Nearly every student started in immediately, and most of them wrote for much longer than they had on any other previous assignment, well past the time when they would ordinarily go out for break.

This poem is from any of my students, but it fits nicely anyways. Photo credit: Flickr user Wonderlane

This poem is not from any of my students, but it fits nicely. Photo credit: Flickr user Wonderlane

When the time arrived that we’d normally share the posts, I was anxious of how it would go, especially having already seen the personal nature of some of the essays.  When I asked for volunteers, more of the class wanted to share than I anticipated. Some of them seemed even desperate to share. The essays they wrote talked about not feeling worthy of being in a camp for gifted students, about being teased for being the smartest kid in class, about the pressures they felt to succeed, about the confusing nature of friends who acted insensitively. Eventually, all of the students shared; most of the students wanted to read and needed little prompting. Those who were hesitant at the start received encouragement and support from their peers, and the more they heard stories of the struggles of their classmates, the more that they recognized this was a safe place where they could bring some of those things they felt embarrassed or confused about into the light. They saw the truth in Hafez’s command to “Admit something: everyone you see, you say to them, “Love me.” They felt exhilarated that his premonition that speaking from such a vulnerable place did not result in “someone call[ing] the cops.” The experience was its own reward. They loved the feeling of having these experiences exposed to the open air and the acceptance they felt when others did not judge them. The exercise changed the feel of the class. I was so proud, not only for the courage they showed, but also because they treated their classmates with empathy. More than that, they acted with compassion. Continue reading ‘Compassion and teaching: Part 5 of Five years, five lessons in five words’


Shame and the writer: Part four of Five Years, Five Lessons in five words

The great poets look into your own heart and the dark corners of your soul, shine a light on it, and name your feeling before you ever knew you felt it. For me, that’s Bruce Springsteen. In one of his most insightful moments, he sings, “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true? That’s a question from childhood, the last time when dreams feel like facts, but it’s that second part, the contemplation of what is worse than a lie, that rings prophetic. What is worse than a lie? Shame. The pain we feel when we hold up ourselves up to the image of who we thought we had to be and see every imperfection as a mark against us.4027703977_0e436effc2_b

In five years, I’ve seen many young writers experiencing shame at far above a healthy dose. I see it in their posture, hear it in their voice, and sense it in their defenses. It presents first as an apparent lack of confidence, and at the start of my teaching career, I thought that is what it was. Now, I see the need to call this shame what it is because nothing is more toxic to learning, creativity, and especially writing, where time spent alone in thought allows for shame to take root and spread until it is out of control. Continue reading ‘Shame and the writer: Part four of Five Years, Five Lessons in five words’


Five years, five lessons in five words: Word 3 – Connection

In my first year of teaching, a colleague suggested that I encourage my students to come to class by sharing the amount of money they were paying for each class they missed. I did the math and found it an appropriately shocking amount of money, so I presented it to the class. We all had a good laugh, and then they forgot it and came to class whenever they felt like it. I was teaching a required general education writing class that all students were required to take, which bred resentment among those who did not like to write. I frequently heard some version of the statement: “I’m going to be an

Photo credit: Flickr user xcode.

Photo credit: Flickr user xcode.

(engineer/mathematician/some other science or math profession); I won’t need this stuff.” I countered with the argument that knowing how to write would make them a double threat and ergo a richer scientist, etc. Of course, those who listened to me probably became a scientist who makes the same amount of money but gets stuck writing all of their teams’ reports.

When I started my job at Cornell College five years ago, I realized I needed a new way of understanding exactly what I offered as a writing teacher. In my position, I not only work predominately with first-year students, but I also teach lessons in other teachers’ classrooms and advertise the services that the Writing Studio and I can provide. That means I have to sell myself twice: once to the professors who run the class want to hear that I can offer a valuable lesson that dovetails with the rest of the class and once again to the students in the class, who need to hear why they should put the extra effort that it would take to come work with me and learn how to write.

That journey brings me up to the third word in this reflection series: connectionContinue reading ‘Five years, five lessons in five words: Word 3 – Connection’


Five years, five lessons in five words: Word 2, nudge

In 1999, Sugata Mitra placed a computer in a hole in a wall to confirm a hunch. Mitra felt that the young children of the village could learn to use the computer without any direct supervision or prior experience. Following the success of that experiment, Mitra put other computers in other villages and schools and pushed children to learn more difficult content, and each time the students learned what was asked of them at a rate similar to those who had more experiences and resources.

Photo credit to flickr user TroublePython

Photo credit to flickr user TroublePython

On the website describing Mitra’s work, this approach is called minimally invasive pedagogy, which is defined as “a pedagogic method that uses the learning environment to generate an adequate level of motivation to induce learning in groups of children, with minimal, or no, intervention by a teacher.” As an illustration of what minimally invasive intervention might look like, Mitra offers the “granny cloud,” a group of English grandmothers who Skype with children in India. The grandmothers dote on the children, asking the children to show them what they know how to do and then marveling at their demonstration. Continue reading ‘Five years, five lessons in five words: Word 2, nudge’


Five years, five lessons in five words: Word 1, persistence

Do or do not. There is no try... (Photo credit - Niallkennedy, Flickr)

Do or do not. There is no try… (Photo credit – Niallkennedy, Flickr)

This month marks the end of my fifth year as the Writing Consultant for First-year Students at Cornell College. In my position, I spend the bulk of my time working with students one-on-one, but I also teach in writing classes across the curriculum and consult with faculty who want to include more writing in their first-year classes. That work has pressed me to redesign my teaching style and ultimately made me a better teacher.

I came to Cornell College just out of graduate school. I’d taught and planned my own courses and considered myself a fair to good teacher. Now, when I look back at the mistakes I made during those years, I cringe. My most egregious sin was relying too much on my rapport with students and not enough on planning lessons designed to challenge students.

Now, the circumstances of my class sessions mean that I can’t rely on having a good relationship with the students to cover over shoddy teaching practices. In most courses, I only teach one or two lessons for an hour or two. Having no previous history with students to draw on, I walk in cold and must try to read the room to adjust the tone and level of my presentation on the fly. I consult with professors before hand to figure out what skills to emphasize, but I am generally not an expert in the content taught in the class. Those challenges impelled me to learn more about the habits of good teachers and to research educational psychology. These ventures resulted in making me a more creative, more organized, and more versatile teacher.

During the last half decade, I’ve learned a lot. Those lessons will be organized here into five posts, each centered around one of five words that have come to define my teaching and how I understand what matters in education in general. The first of those words, persistence, is discussed here.

persistence —  College admissions offices ask for proof of an applicant’s readiness to enter college in the form of measurements of a student’s intellect. Research confirms that high school GPA and standardized tests predict fairly accurately who will succeed at the college level.  Intellect is, however, only one part of the equation. Continue reading ‘Five years, five lessons in five words: Word 1, persistence’


Am I doing this right? The troubles with feedback and writing

In the past year, I read a lot about the idea of mindfulness meditation and the long term benefits the practice can have on focus, reduction of stress, and a general state of well being. Needing a bump in all three areas, I signed up for a free online course with guided meditations and exercises. During the first week, I read all the materials and enthusiastically sat on our bedroom floor with my eyes closed. I tried to listen as a guided meditation encouraged me to be present and focus on my breathing, but I kept thinking about my posture, my back pain, arm positions, etc. My internal monologue kept coming back to the same question, “Am I doing this right?”

That question dominates my thoughts whenever I am trying something out for the first time. In some cases, the answer is obvious. When I attempted to fix the pump on my iced tea maker and the water continued to sit placidly in the reservoir, I received immediate feedback, and I could try something else like buying a new iced tea maker. In other cases though, feedback is scarce, and the answer is murkier, sometimes a lot murkier, which causes stress and doubt. During the second week of the mindfulness course, I was less enthusiastic, and that’s partly because I felt more demands were being placed on my time, but I still could not tell if my efforts were being wasted.

Writing is among those activities where feedback is  the murkiest, and that’s a big problem. When I put words down on the page, I have to make an educated guess about whether they’ll have the effect I desire. Often, I’ll have no confirmation of that guess until the writing is out of my hands. Anyone who has a stake in what they are writing, be it a grant proposal, an application essay, term paper, or love letter to a prospective partner, faces the stress of trying to write creatively and accurately express who they are and what they know under a cloud of uncertainty. It’s pretty hard to put full effort and still not know whether or not you are on the right track. When a writer can’t tell, they’ll frequently produce a piece of writing that fall short of their best effort. Continue reading ‘Am I doing this right? The troubles with feedback and writing’

Good Writer, Bad Writer

Good writer, bad writer reflects the philosophy behind the first writing lesson I attempt to teach students. Too many of them come into college believing that their writing abilities are set in stone. The bad writers continue to struggle, and the good writers don't take enough risks in their writing, figuring that any misstep will throw them back into the "bad writer" category.

Good writer, bad writer is my attempt to break the power of that dichotomy. On here, I share the lessons and attitudes that I teach, but I also talk about the attitudes I have towards my own writing since many of those have informed my own teaching. Thanks for visiting.

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