Teacher Workshops


All teacher workshops are customized for each group–please call to discuss topics and student needs.


Writing from the Core: Teaching Grammar in Context

The traditional approach of teaching grammar in the context of writing is effective but doesn’t achieve total success—especially among those students who lack an understanding of structure and cannot seem to grasp the difference between a fragment and a run-on.

As Dr. Ralph W. Tyler once said, “It isn’t what you are already doing that you need to do better. It’s what you’re not doing at all that you need to begin to do.”

Could it be that grammar has its own context and that part of the problem with learning grammar relates to taking principles out of context? Our method applies Tyler’s advice by offering a method that shifts the emphasis, giving grammar a more prominent place in the curriculum design until students understand core principles.

  • Students first learn to separate composing from editing.
  • Students then learn principles of grammar and punctuation in a logical sequence, starting with the sentence core.
  • Students compose freely and then apply principles as part of an editing strategy.
  • Students fill their learning gaps and build a solid foundation on which to develop their writing and editing skills

As a result, grammar becomes manageable to teach and even fun to learn. Complex principles such as parallel structure and active voice become accessible when students understand structure.

When students apply correct grammar and punctuation principles to their own writing as they edit, they achieve effective results.

The following white paper discusses strategies that you can use with your students.


Designing a Writing Program for the At-Risk Student: Five Steps That Can Make a Difference

Even good writers have trouble facing a blank page. To students who consider themselves non-writers, writing presents a constant stream of hurdles: writing feels like an infinite challenge with no tangible road to progress—good writing is a mystery, and confronting the unknown can wear down even the best of us.

For example, when at-risk students write a paper, feedback about even their most simple errors can reach beyond their understanding. Let’s take “Suzie” as an example. One Friday afternoon at the end of the first week of a writing skills class, Suzie came up to my desk; she was crying. My first thought was, “Oh my gosh, what did I say to hurt Suzie?” So I asked, “Suzie, what’s wrong?”

Suzie responded, “Ms. Young, all through high school I kept hearing about subjects and verbs, and I really never knew what my teachers were talking about until now. I feel so relieved that I finally understand and don’t have to pretend anymore.”

Though Suzie was a very bright student, writing had felt overwhelming for her; she didn’t know what to do or where to begin to improve. And clearly her teachers tried to help her, but even the most basic feedback about her mistakes went right over her head. While Suzie could write clear and complete sentences most of the time, she couldn’t write them all of the time; and when she didn’t write correctly, she couldn’t grasp what was wrong. Suzie didn’t understand what a sentence was; as a result, the words “run-on” and “fragment” were illusive to her.

Though Suzie’s sudden insight about her skills was unique, her confusion was not: other students feel equally as lost, and sometimes their teachers feel that way too. Suzie taught me a great deal that afternoon; in fact, whenever I listen to my students, they always teach me important lessons.

One way of listening to students is getting an accurate assessment of their skills and how they feel about learning, so let’s start by taking a look at some formal and informal methods of getting feedback.

1. Become an action researcher: use quantitative and qualitative measures in your design.

  • Qualitative feedback—a constant and steady stream of it—helps us connect with students’ learning needs and their perceptions about learning.

Technology has given us the perfect way to check in with our students regularly. Send your students an e-mail asking them how they are doing in class and requesting that they respond with a process memo. In a process memo, your students discuss what they are learning and how they are feeling about what they are learning.

You can also ask your students to attach a process memo to revisions: they describe their process, their corrections, and what they learned. By doing a process memo, they are discussing the changes that they made in their writing; verbalizing what they are learning makes them more conscious of their actions and brings them to a higher level.

A way to get qualitative feedback from the whole class is by doing a chalkboard evaluation. The simplest way is simply to say, “How are things going?” and then write their comments on the board. A more structured method would be to use the start / stop / continue format. Ask your students:

  • What is going well in class and that you want to continue?
  • What is something that you wish we would start doing?
  • What is something that you wish we would stop doing?

Once again, as students give their feedback, write it on the board. Asking students for their feedback makes them feel more connected and respected.

  • Quantitative measures give us an accurate idea of what our students know and, more importantly, what they don’t know.

If you don’t already give your students a pretest, consider using one. By giving a post-test at the end of the semester, your students can see their individual improvement and you can see their aggregate improvement. You can use this information to gain insights into your students’ skill profiles.

Once you have their pretest scores, use the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives to gain insight into what your students’ scores mean and how to design your curriculum to meet their needs.

2. Use the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives to identify learning gaps.

The Taxonomy of Educational Objectives breaks learning objectives into six hierarchical levels: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

By using the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives to interpret student skill profiles, we can understand why some students work so hard and make so little progress: when students do not comprehend the basics, higher-level objectives are out of reach, beyond their understanding.

In other words, Suzie could correct mistakes once a teacher pointed them out and coached her, but her pattern of errors continued because she had not learned the basic principle at the core of her mistakes. Suzie knew that she didn’t understand something basic, but she couldn’t verbalize what it was—that is, until she finally learned the core principle that gave her insight and enabled her to fill that specific learning gap. Filling the learning gap also meant that she could now correct a pattern of errors, not just isolated mistakes, which is much more rewarding.

How Suzie felt about writing was also an important element of the learning environment, so let’s take a look at how to address feelings and beliefs that hold students back.

3. Embrace the feelings and experiences behind the belief, “I can’t write.”

Students who can’t write know that they have challenges. They also believe they are unique; in other words, they do not understand that writing is difficult for everyone. As Suzie revealed, she tried to pretend that she understood, hiding it as much as she could from her teachers.

One activity that you can use to open up this dynamic is to have a popcorn discussion about the topic, “What is difficult about writing?” Simply write the question on the board, and then have students share the details about what they find difficult. As students randomly and spontaneously give their responses, write snip-its on the board. Here are some of the responses that you can expect:

getting started, having ideas evaporate before they hit the page, using grammar and punctuation correctly, spelling, writing an introduction, being too wordy, getting off topic, writing a conclusion, and the list goes on.

In addition to opening up the energy in the classroom, everything that your students share gives you insight into how to structure their learning.

As a follow-up, consider giving your students an assignment entitled, “My History as a Writer,” in which they give details about how they complete a writing assignment, the kinds of feedback they have received, and so on. Allow students to choose whatever title fits their story. One student asked me if he could use the title, “Why I Don’t Write.” Since that time, I have used that title as an example, encouraging students to be honest about their experiences with writing and their feelings about it. (As part of their 1 ½ to 2-page paper, also encourage them to write about what is good about writing after they gotten past the challenging aspects of writing.)

When your students return to class with their assignment, break them into pairs and have them read their papers out loud to each other. One of the lessons that they glean from this assignment is that they are not alone in their frustrations with writing—everyone has challenges and fears.

Writing at its best is messy, so let’s talk about the process.

4. Focus on the process.

Writing is a process, but most students do not understand the process because they are overly consumed with the product: getting the grade, meeting the expectations, being good enough, not looking stupid, and getting words down perfectly.

When I ask a group of students, “How many of you try to get the words right in your head before you put them on the page?,” generally more than half of them raise their hands. When I ask them if they think that is the right approach, once again the majority generally raise their hands. But in every class, a few students say they write whatever is on their minds, and that’s a good thing. Clearly, most students do not know the difference between composing and editing—one of the most critical dividing lines to apply on the road to building writing skills.

Though they have learned brainstorming techniques, they may have forgotten about them. After we do a mind-map together, students are excited that they have a tool that captures their ideas on the page before their ideas evaporate. Teaching students the difference between composing and editing is exciting; but after they know the difference, the follow-through to compose freely is up to them (with periodic coaching, of course).

However, editing is another issue altogether, and more of my students have editor’s block than writer’s block. Students who have editor’s block are the ones who finish a draft and don’t know what to correct: they hold their breath as they hand in their papers and then wait for their teacher’s feedback. For students who don’t know how to edit, “first and final draft” seems to be their only option. Let’s talk about editing next.

5. Teach students to fish: give them editing workshops.

For the sake of argument, let’s identify a traditional approach for teaching writing and then use it as a springboard for comparison. Loosely stated, traditional writing classes focus on writing and revising, not on editing.

When students write essays and papers, teachers give them feedback on their errors; in other words, teachers do the “fishing” for them. That could be because, for the most part, grammar and mechanics are not part of the curriculum—there’s no time, there’s no room, and there’s no fit. Instead, students focus on developing their critical writing skills, receiving individual feedback on errors and structure. If they have questions about grammar or mechanics, they rely on a handbook.

For some students, this approach works like magic, but not for all. And the at-risk student is the one who is likely to fall through the cracks. At-risk students’ papers are often so riddled with errors that individual feedback can feel isolating and defeating. Progress comes slowly—one correction at a time; this approach can also be time-consuming and tedious for the teacher.

However, we can untangle the mystery of writing and bring some fun back into the process by giving a series of workshops that cover basic core principles essential for all writers. By working with a set of principles that builds a common vocabulary about punctuation and other elements of editing, students become better editors. They learn that errors come in patterns, and learning core principles helps eliminate patterns of errors.

Once students can identify and correct their own errors, something shifts. They not only feel more empowered to write, they also mull over their writing more, which may help them gain additional insight into their topic. Some of the common editing elements to cover are the sentence core, conjunctions, punctuation, verbs, pronouns, active voice, and so on.

Thank you for taking the time to be concerned about my “Suzie” and yours. Working with at-risk students is a challenge as well as a reward. Good luck with your writing classes!