Posts Tagged ‘critical thinking


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’


Welcome to new readers and my greatest hits list

I feel incredibly fortunate to have had my blog mentioned on the internet king of all miscellanea, BoingBoing, last week when they published an email I wrote to one of the co-founders. That single mention has brought more readers on the blog, which is always a good thing in my book.

If you’re new or just finding this for the first time, here’s a greatest hits list of some of the most popular posts and among the posts that I am most proud of:

Since one of my jobs is helping students transition from the widely taught five-paragraph essay into a more fluid format, I also constructed a series of posts called “The Five-paragraph Fix.” Here are some of the better posts in that series:

I should also take this time to mention that I’m eager to talk to readers and to develop a community here where others have a voice. If you have specific topics you’d like to seen written about or you have topics that you want to write about, please comment or drop me a line.


The Five-paragraph Fix – How to write longer essays

So many student writers conceive of how close they are to finishing a paper in terms of how many words or pages they have to write to get the minimum threshhold. If a teacher hands out an assignment without a page length requirement, the first question will likely be, “How many pages does it need to be?” If that teacher wishes to amp up the students’ stress level to eleven, s/he need only respond, “As long as it needs to be.” Students in our Writing Studio routinely describe a paper that is “only two pages” as easy and a paper of ten or more pages as a monumental task.
For more experienced writers with a lot of expertise in their subject area, the reverse is true. Condensing a complex idea into two pages can be much more of a headache than it can be writing ten pages.
Why is writing longer papers so hard for student writers? How does someone get past that fear of the longer paper? Continue reading ‘The Five-paragraph Fix – How to write longer essays’

The Five-paragraph Fix: Critical thinking essentials

Learning to write analytical essays is one of the harder adjustments most students will have to make in college. A lot of composition teachers blame high school teachers and their commitment to the five-paragraph essay for  students’ struggles, yet that position is a bit reductive. Even after students know and readily acknowledge that they can no longer write the five-paragraph essay, they still have trouble producing essays that demonstrate critical thinking.

Understanding why writers have trouble with critical thinking starts with trying to understand critical thinking. We’ll do that here, and then look at how teachers and students can apply that knowledge. Continue reading ‘The Five-paragraph Fix: Critical thinking essentials’


The Five-paragraph Fix: A new template

The other day, I asked groups of first-year students to identify the five biggest differences between high school writing and college writing. When they finished, I asked how many of the groups said something about leaving the five-paragraph essay behind. Nearly all of them. I asked why. One said, “We can’t just fill in the blanks and end up with a good essay.”

Then, I asked, “How many of you just wrote down the first five differences that came into your head?” All of them raised their hands.

That’s a problem.

Student’s are quick to figure out the limitations of the five-paragraph essay, but that’s not a fix. They still need to break the habit of just filling in the blanks and learn to exercise their critical thinking skills.

Let’s start that process off by giving them better blanks to fill. Continue reading ‘The Five-paragraph Fix: A new template’


It’s All About Finding the Right Questions

Many students believe that going through school is about finding the right answers. The longer I’m in education, the more I believe that it’s all about finding the right questions.

What is the “right question” you ask? Consider this brilliant comic, called simply “Airfoil”, from XKCD:

When I read the first panel, I only skimmed the description of how an airfoil operates because in my mind I already possessed this knowledge. Moving to the second panel, I found myself as dumbstruck as the teacher in the third panel. I had no idea how an airplane can fly upside down. That one question caused me to reevaluate an explanation I’ve known for years but never questioned.

That one insightful question forced me to learn something new.  Continue reading ‘It’s All About Finding the Right Questions’


The Girl Who Was Bad At Semicolons

Lisbeth walked into my office claiming she wanted to get better at grammar. “We can help with that,” I said and ushered her over to a conference table. “What part of grammar would you like to work on first?”

“I’m not sure,” she said, casting her gaze downwards as if she might find the answer scrawled into the black surface of the table. I remained silent, knowing that she’d get more out of this if she set the agenda. When she finally figured out I wasn’t going to fill the silence, she began speaking “Well…I’m really bad at semicolons. Could we work on those?”

Her answer surprised me. I answered, “Certainly we can go over that.” But I was too curious to stop there. “But first, let me ask you a question. What makes you say you’re ‘bad at semicolons’?”

“I don’t know. I am just really bad at them. I’ve never got them.”

Her answer fascinated me for two reasons. First, understanding semicolons means understanding two rules, neither of which is very complicated. Second, Lisbeth was no stranger to using the Writing Studio. She’d been in on a handful of occasions. Yet, she never asked for anyone to teach her the rules for semicolons, nor did she bother to notice the spot on our wall where we display a brilliant comic, which provides the clearest and most creative explanations of semicolons I’ve ever read.

Lisbeth is a bright student. On top of that, she’s got enough courage to walk in and ask for help on a topic that’s challenged her sense of own intelligence. That’s admirable. However, it’s precisely these traits that make her situation so puzzling. That leads me to think that the most important question in education is this:

Why do bright, competent students make the same simple mistakes over and over again even when a teacher points out these mistakes and provides plenty of resources to help? Continue reading ‘The Girl Who Was Bad At Semicolons’

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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