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Guest Blogger: sara heaser  is a Lecturer of English at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse, where she specializes in basic/co-requisite and first-year writing curriculum, pedagogy, and program development. She is an alum of the Dartmouth Summer Seminar for Studies in Composition Research and is currently in the midst of a qualitative study to explore first-year writing as a space for retention. She can be reached at


I have a four-year-old son who understands the world in basic binaries: good vs evil, happy vs sad, big vs small, and such. So when he asks his big questionslots and lots of themabout really abstract things, I resort to the most simple, applicable analogy I can think of.


Here’s an example. We were reading a book about the human body and he asked about the “weird-looking lines” (veins) inside us. We live in the Midwest on the Mississippi River, so I said that those lines were like little rivers of blood, and that the blood rivers have barges on them, and the barges carry things he needs around his body to where his body needs them. There’s obviously not microscopic chunks of bananas and fruit snacks floating from his stomach to his toes via his veins, but it’s a close enough explanation to appease his curiosity and to reach a level of understanding that he gets, for now.


This is a hard part of parenting, negotiating mutual understanding of an unfamiliar concept. The same goes for teaching. As teachers, we collectively live in the same world as our students, sometimes quite literally in the same communities. But this doesn’t mean we share or value common experiences. This is especially true when it comes to writing.


The students in my FYW courses are well beyond understanding the world dualistically like my son does, but when it comes to writing, I see them rely on old tropes. I often find their understanding of writing and its processes is limited to playing it safethey rely on archaic rules that someone told them to follow somewhere along the way in their writing education. And as we know, FYW can sometimes be a student’s first foray into writing for purposes and audiences instead of writing to follow rules--a very unfamiliar concept, indeed.


Rules are inflexible; metaphors are interpretative. Introducing metaphors in FYW that imply writing is flexible, unsteady, confusing, messy, frustrating, and such might suggest not only a difference in kind but a difference in understanding of what writing is, as a verb. Some I rely on often:


  • A wacky genius effortlessly producing prose is a mythological trope seen in fictional films.
  • Writing is like cooking. Gather the ingredients as you prepare, adjust them as needed to your purpose and audience. (And this one reminds me of my own role: I’m not the one cooking. The students are. So back off.)
  • Engaging in research is like having a conversation. Sometimes you might not know what the conversation is about, and that’s ok. Just listen for a while.
  • Learning to write well is like learning a sport. It requires repetitive, deliberate practice. Just like you might stretch or lift weights to train for a big race, you might practice combining sentences to train for revising a big draft.


The five-paragraph essay, sad and useless, is a particularly fun target on which to apply metaphor. Even entire rhetorics for FYW invoke metaphor, like Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing, which uses “hosts” (the authors) that guide students through a journey of learning about writing.


I don’t have extensive data on student response to metaphor or the effectiveness of metaphorical language in composition pedagogy, but I have a teacherly sense that the use of metaphor in FYW plays a special role beyond just explaining what writing is and can be.


If shared language is a symbol of intimacy, metaphor is essentially the foundation on which we can build a sense of community. (A metaphor to explain a metaphor—I couldn’t resist.) When I overhear students drop our metaphors in conversations or read them in a reflective essay, I can literally see and hear metaphor functioning to humanize writing and to establish a relationship between writer and audience, between student and teacher, and between the most important relationship of them all, between the novice writer and writing itself.  


What metaphors do you use to talk about writing with your students?

Stephen Parks

Sueños y Pesadillas

Posted by Stephen Parks Expert Oct 31, 2018

Hearing the Voices of the Immigrant “Caravan”

Over the past several weeks, the Trump Administration has been attempting to create an atmosphere of fear around the “caravan” of refugees fleeing the violence of their home countries. Their political and personal suffering has been recast in terms of a “takeover” of our country by “violent and dangerous” individuals. There have even been calls to increase military security along the border. 


I want to use this space to simply remind us of the humanity of those attempting to reach safety. Last year, I had the opportunity to publish the memoir SUEÑOS Y PESADILLAS/Dreams and Nightmares by Liliana Velasquez, who left her home at 14 to come to the United States. I am providing an excerpt of her story as one small attempt to remind us of the courage of many of those in the “caravan” and the strength they are bringing to our nation. (Proceeds from Dreams and Nightmares are used to pay for Liliana Velasquez’s college education.) 




I Got Rid of My Fear

When I was fourteen, I decided to come to the United States alone. I told myself, I’m going to get rid of all of my fear, if I never strive, I won’t accomplish my dream. When I made that decision, I was ready for anything. What was going to happen to me wasn’t important, because many things had already happened there in Guatemala. I made that decision out of desperation, out of the anger I always had, from seeing my mother and father suffering, from seeing parents in my village who didn’t care for their children, from seeing the violence within families and between neighbors—from seeing my poor country. And, as I suffered some of that, I decided to go far away without fear. When I came here I did many things that I couldn’t imagine, without knowing anything. I didn’t have a plan, like where I was going, who I was going to meet up with or stay with, if I had anything to eat or a place to sleep, or where I was going to get money. I didn’t think about those things. I only told myself, I’m going! I didn’t know what I was doingit was insanity and bravery at the same time.


Fulfilling My Dreams

In Guatemala, I wanted to go to school and continue my studies, but I wasn’t able to. I wanted to be someone and overcome what had happened to me, and I decided to make a different life. I didn’t want to get married and have children, like the other young girls in Guatemala, and I had to escape the violence there. My dreams were to live with my brothers in North Carolina and work and help my mom and my sisters. 


When they captured me at the border, I felt like my dream had ended. I said to myself, If they deport me, I don’t know what will become of me—I will be destroyed if I return to Guatemala. When I was caught, destiny took me down another path beyond my imagination and changed my life. I came to the United States only to work and be with my brothers. I had no hopes of living with a foster family that would love me, I had no hopes of continuing with my studies and living like a regular girl, of having papers, of having more freedom and respect and opportunities, of not suffering from violence, or of finding so many people who would help me. 


Thinking about the future, I am going to keep on fighting and taking advantage of the opportunities that I have. Right now, I’m only focused on my present goals. Eventually, I want to go to a university and study nursing. I will be the first person in my family who has graduated from high school and gone on to the university—who has a career.


This hasn’t been easy, it has cost me a lot. In one sense, I’m achieving the American Dream, but a part of me—the part that I love the most—I left in Guatemala. I’m separated from my family there, from the place that I was born. I’ve had to get used to a completely different culture and to new people and have had to determine my own path. It’s been hard, but it’s worth it. 


Finally, I Have Told My Story

 Since I was a thirteen-year-old girl, I have wanted to tell my story. When I cried in my house in Guatemala, I imagined that the house was a witness to my suffering, and that someday it would testify about what had happened to me. I wanted to express everything that I felt—how I cried because of the separation of my parents, or the abuse and torment that I experienced, and my lack of education. I didn’t think about including my dreams in my story—I only thought about the ways I suffered.


I decided that I had to tell my story. It was very important to me, because there are many people who can’t express themselves, who don’t have the opportunity to tell their story, who have suffered like me. It is my story, but it’s also the story of all the others who have come to this country.


Also, I’m telling my story for the people here in the United States who don’t know anything about the life of immigrants—the poverty and violence and lack of opportunities in our countries, and the risks that we take to come to the United States in order to have a better life and help our families. They can’t imagine how we live here, how we suffer, how we try to get ahead and struggle by the sweat of our brow to get what we want. I hope that people who aren’t immigrants see the great difference between their life and the life of immigrants—that they reflect a bit and change their attitude. They haven’t suffered from hunger, they haven’t suffered rape or abuse, they have opportunities to get an education, they don’t live in fear of being arrested and deported. We immigrants came to fulfill our dreams—I want them to understand our dreams.



Photos courtesy of Stephen Parks.

Tanya RodrigueToday’s guest blogger is Tanya Rodrigue, an associate professor in English and coordinator of the Writing Intensive Curriculum Program at Salem State University in Massachusetts.


“Technology is rotting our brains!”


“The screen is destroying our ability to understand what we read!”


“Students are so distracted by technology that they can’t focus on anything let alone researching or reading digitally !”


We’ve all heard these alarmist declarations about technology, and to some extent, they are not overly exaggerated. Multiple studies have revealed that students’ reading abilities have declined over time, and technology likely has something to do with it. Cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf, reading scholar and author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of Reading and most recently, Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, argues that screen reading has transformed our brains, negatively impacting our ability to read in a way that invites strong comprehension. Distractions, stimuli, and digital reading practices such as skimming have all contributed to what Wolf calls a loss of “cognitive patience,” a mental state needed for deep, engaged reading. Based on this research, writing instructors must take note of the real possibility that students may not be comprehending digital texts that they read for homework assignments or for research-based writing assignments.


Yet, there are other reasons why students may have difficulty reading and engaging with texts in meaningful ways. Contrary to popular belief, 21st century students are not all “digital natives” or in other words, adept or fluent with technology. Thus instructors can’t assume students know how to effectively navigate digital texts. In fact, many current students have likely not been taught digital reading practices in elementary or secondary school. A recent qualitative research study I conducted on digital reading practices affirms such a hypothesis. In my study, I discovered that students utilized comprehension strategies, yet almost never engaged with reading strategies specific to digital texts like acknowledging or clicking hyperlinks, acknowledging or engaging with images and videos, and drawing connections between and among modes. The students in my study read digital texts like print texts.  


All of this means students need formal instruction in digital reading. Below I offer three pedagogical suggestions for how to teach effective digital reading practices.


#1. Teach Students that Digital Texts are Multimodal

Digital texts are comprised of multiple modes—alphabetic, aural, and visual. These modes are vehicles of communication and work to convey meaning and messages individually and collaboratively. Within these modes, there are specific features such as color, hyperlinks, charts, images, and maps. Teaching students how to interact and engage with modes and their features will make them stronger digital readers. 


#2. Teach Students that Digital Genres Call for Different Kinds of Engagement

PDFs look different from company websites which look and sound different from multimedia scholarly articles. Bring attention to these differences and point out that different genres call for different kinds of reading engagement.


Since writing conventions carry over from print to the web, so do reading practices. Thus one way to teach students how to engage with different digital genres is to ask them to draw on reading habits of print texts that are similar in nature to digital texts. For example, a student may draw on their antecedent reading practices of a print newspaper to engage with a digital newspaper. An instructor could then support them in adapting these strategies to engage with the unique features and rhetorical situation of that digital text.


#3. Teach Students How to Preview a Text and Construct a Reading Plan

Much like with a print text, previewing a digital text orients the reader and provides them with knowledge on how to approach reading that text. Ask students to activate their knowledge of digital text features, digital genres, and previous reading practices to preview the text and create a reading plan.


Julie Coiro, in “Making Sense of  Text,” offers one way students might preview a digital text:

(1) read the title of the page and site;

(2) scan menu choices without clicking on anything in effort to get a holistic sense of the text;

(3) make predictions about where each hyperlink may lead;

(4) explore interactive features, including pop-up menus and scroll bars;

(5) identify the creator and what this information might reveal about the digital text;

(6) acknowledge and practice using any electronic supports, such as an internal search engine;

(7) and make a decision about whether to explore the site further.


After previewing the text, students can compose a reading plan that clearly indicates how they will approach engaging with the text according to their purpose for reading it.

Tanya Rodrigue

Today’s guest blogger is Tanya Rodrigue, an associate professor in English and coordinator of the Writing Intensive Curriculum Program at Salem State University in Massachusetts.


Several years ago, I observed a writing class wherein the professor asked students to find a visual that represented their feelings about writing. One student brought in a picture of a young man standing at the top of a cliff. The young man looked terrified as he looked down, perhaps thinking he could tumble off the edge at any moment.
The message was clear: writing is scary.
Writing has historically been known to evoke feelings of fear and anxiety in many people, and our students are no exception. Many of them are scared to write for fear of “not sounding smart” or “not doing it right.” Many of them are scared to share their writing, especially with their peers, because they “stink at writing” or “don’t have any good ideas.”
Fear and anxiety yield all kinds of problems for writers. Some experience dread at the thought of writing; some experience severe writer’s block or paralysis; and/or some just try to avoid writing altogether.
So how can we help our students overcome their fears related to writing?
I orchestrated a brief, but surprisingly very effective activity to help students identify their fears about writing and support each other in facing these fears. The activity helped individual students gain confidence, but perhaps more importantly, it fostered a caring, supportive environment for a community of writers. In facilitating this activity immediately before peer review, students approached each other’s work with a kind of empathy and understanding that they had not previously had.

Step #1: Ask students to take out a piece of paper and respond to the following prompt. What is your biggest fear or challenge about writing?
Step #2: After students finish responding to the prompt, ask them to fold up the piece of paper and place it in a box. Then ask each student to randomly pick out a piece of paper from the box, making sure they do not pick their own.
Step #3: Ask students to write a response to their peers on the same piece of paper. Students may choose one of two options: write a suggestion to help your peer overcome the fear or challenge OR write an affirmation.
Step #4: One by one, ask each student to stand up and read their peer’s response and their response to their peer.  
Step #5: After the last person speaks, encourage students to give each other a round of applause.
In my courses, students provided excellent suggestions—ones that I never thought of myself. They also expressed solidarity and support with phrases like “I feel the same way” or “don’t worry, everyone feels like that” or “we’re in this together!” The activity energized the class and encouraged students to engage with each other’s work in a productive and caring manner. 


While this activity is useful to orchestrate prior to peer review or peer assessment, there are other instances wherein it would be effective. For example, students may benefit from facing their fears and feeling support from their classmates and professor on the first day of a writing course or at the start of any writing assignment, especially if students are composing in a foreign mode or genre. In slightly altering the prompt language, the activity could be used while students are engaged in the composing process or during the revision stage (What has been, or what do you think will be, a challenge in writing or revising this paper?) The prompt could also be altered to become a multimodal activity: students could draw or bring in a picture that represented their challenges or fears, and then their peers could respond to the visual.

Donna Winchell

News and Nationalism

Posted by Donna Winchell Expert Oct 26, 2018

The Global Opinions editor of the Washington Post, Karen Attiah, delayed publishing Jamal Khashoggi’s final column in hopes that they could edit it together, as had been their habit. It gradually became apparent that this was not to be, as reports of his disappearance after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul were replaced with reports of his torture and murder. Ironically, his final column was about freedom of the press—ironic because it was his history of outspoken criticism of the lack of freedom in his native Saudi Arabia that led to his death.


In the column he lamented the lack of freedom throughout the Arab world that left its citizens ignorant of or misinformed about the larger Arab world. He wrote, “They are unable to adequately address, much less publicly discuss, matters that affect the region and their day-to-day lives. A state-run narrative dominates the public psyche, and while many do not believe it, a large majority of the population falls victim to this false narrative.” Critics have been imprisoned; print journalism has been suppressed: “These actions no longer carry the consequence of a backlash from the international community. Instead, these actions may trigger condemnation quickly followed by silence. As a result, Arab governments have been given free rein to continue silencing the media at an increasing rate.” Jamal Khashoggi was silenced permanently on October 2, 2018.


As news of Kashoggi’s murder spread, the eyes of the world were on how America would respond. Then last week a single word he used in the final sentence of his final column was picked up by President Trump and immediately began ricocheting all over the media: nationalist. Definition often finds itself at the heart of political discourse, particularly leading up to critical midterm elections. Trump’s declaration that he is a nationalist certainly fits this bill, centering discourse on the connotations of nationalism.


So much depends on how nationalism is defined. In its denotation, it seems innocuous. Merriam Webster defines it thus: “loyalty and devotion to a nation, especially: a sense of national consciousness . . . exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.” That sounds pretty much like patriotism, which President Trump may have had in mind when he stated, “A globalist is a person that wants the globe to do well, frankly, not caring about our country so much. You know what I am? I’m a nationalist. Okay? A nationalist. Use that word.”


Yet, when Khashoggi used the term, it was in the context of “the influence of nationalist governments spreading hate through propaganda.” CNN reporter Jim Acosta was quick to pick up on one negative interpretation of the term. In the Oval Office the next day, he asked, “Mr. President, just to follow up on your comments about being a nationalist–there is a concern that you are sending coded language or a dog whistle to some Americans out there that what you really mean is that you’re a white nationalist?”  Trump’s response: “I’ve never even heard that, I can’t imagine that. I’ve never heard that theory about being a nationalist.” Unfortunately, many have.


Trump says the word nationalist and hears patriot. Others hear the “dog whistle” of white nationalism. Others hear Khashoggi’s “governments spreading hate through propaganda.” The term’s connotations have everything to do with context. In the context of Khashoggi’s death, its use seems ominous.




Image Source: 2018-10-22T103713Z_2_LYNXNPEE9K0IF-OCATP_RTROPTP_2_CNEWS-US-SAUDI-KHASHOGGI” by Bruce Detorres on Flickr 10/22/18 via Public Domain

This blog series is written by Julia Domenicucci, an editor at Macmillan Learning, in conjunction with Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl.


Three dogs dressed as ghosts with a jack-o-lantern.


Happy almost Halloween! This month, we’ll look at some Grammar Girl podcasts about idioms--including two that are quite “spooky.”


Podcasts have been around for a while, but their popularity seems to increase every day—and for good reason! They are engaging and creative, and they cover every topic imaginable. They are also great for the classroom: you can use them to maintain student engagement, accommodate different learning styles, and introduce multimodality.


LaunchPad products from Macmillan's English list include Grammar Girl podcasts, which you can assign to your students to support your lessons. If you’re teaching a lesson on idioms, assign one (or all!) of these suggested podcasts for students to listen to before class.


In your LaunchPad, see the unit “Grammar Girl Podcasts” for instructions on assigning podcasts. You can also find the same information  on the page “Assign Grammar Girl Podcasts.”


Podcasts about Idioms

  • "Dead" Idioms [6:16]
  • "Skeleton" Idioms [5:24]
  • Quirky English Idioms [5:10]
  • Idioms about Rain [5:35]
  • Wordiness and Idioms [4:27]


Students can do a lot more with podcasts than simply listen to them. Choose one or both of the following assignments for students to complete using the suggested Grammar Girl podcasts.


Assignment A: Have students listen to the podcasts listed above. Then, ask students to brainstorm ideas for their own podcast about idioms, either individually or in small groups. Students should consider the following questions:

  • What aspect of idioms do they want to focus on? (For example, one student may want to investigate idioms across cultures, another may want to look at idioms that share a word or theme, and a third may choose to highlight one idiom and research it in depth.)
  • How long do they want the podcast to be? (As with an essay, broader topics tend to result in longer podcasts. You may also want to set time limits.)
  • What do they already know about their chosen topic? What other questions do they still have about their topic? What will they need to research?


After brainstorming, have students draft a brief write-up of their podcast idea. Ask them to include a potential title, the planned duration, research questions, and potential sources of information.


Assignment B: Ask students, either individually or in small groups, to write a script for their own podcast about idioms. (If your class completed Assignment A above, they can use their write-up to guide the script.)  Students should consider what information they want to convey (or what question they want to answer), how long they want their podcast to be, and how they will structure the discussion. Will they research different sources and summarize what they’ve discovered? Will they interview an expert and include that recording as part of their podcast?


Do you have other suggestions for using podcasts in lessons? Let us know what they are in the comments!


Credit: Pixabay Image 2870607 by Fotoshautnah, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

My Life with Charles Billups and Martin Luther King: Trauma and the Civil Rights Movement. You will not know this book because it hasn’t been published yet. In fact, it might never have been published had it not been for the brilliant persistence and effort of Keith Miller, one of my heroes in our field. You do probably know Miller’s work—his books include Martin Luther King's Biblical Epic: His Great, Final Speech and Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Its Sources, and his essays on King, Malcolm X, Jackie Robinson, Frederick Douglass, C.L. Franklin, and Fannie Lou Hamer have appeared in our field’s best journals. And if you know Miller personally, then you’ll know that saying he is “persistent” is a vast understatement: an absolute ferret for information, Keith will follow a research thread to the ends of the earth—if it relates to social justice and freedom.


It’s this persistence (I’m guessing) that led him to Helene Rene Billups Baker, daughter of Charles Billups and author of the book noted above. Baker had never written about her father, a key figure in the Civil Rights Movement and a major leader in Birmingham whom King sought out for advice and counsel. She says she had never written about him—and had not talked much about him either—because of the trauma she lived through in her childhood and young adulthood, trauma that effectively silenced her. A near-death experience made her rethink that silence, however, and the result is this book, which Miller is publishing. A mesmerizing storyteller, Baker lets us see Billups as his daughter knew him, observe him as he takes on major leadership in Birmingham, fear for him as he organizes protests, watch with horror and admiration as he prays for those who beat, torture, and almost murder him, and tremble as he faces Bull Connor’s dogs and firehoses, telling them to “Turn on the hoses! Turn loose the dogs! We will stay here ’til we die!” As Baker tells it, her “daddy was shedding tears when he told Bull Connor that nobody was moving.” When the firefighters refused to turn on the hoses, telling Connor to “turn them on yourself,” it marked what some call the “spiritual climax” of the entire Birmingham campaign and illustrated the power of nonviolence.  It also left his daughter deeply traumatized and fearful, desperately determined to protect her father. 


When Keith sent me the manuscript of this book, I literally could not put it down: I read it straight through, and then read it again, time traveling back to Baker’s childhood and trying to see events through her young eyes. Baker is determined to tell her father’s story, to make sure that people remember him for the hero he was, and to honor that memory. And he comes to life in her pages; we get to know him through his daughter’s words.


I’ve been thinking a lot about writing assignments and have written recently about the University of Oklahoma’s program assignments, which ask students to (among other things) look closely at a group they belong to and reflect long and hard on how that group influences and informs their values and their thinking and their practices. I wonder how many students, in responding to such an assignment, which calls for meta-cognitive assessment and self-reflection, take a look at their family’s past, at their ancestors, as Baker does in writing about her father. I know, for example, that my great grandfather fought, in Tennessee, on the side of the North in the Civil War and that he and his wife had my grandmother when he was in his 50s; she used to tell me stories of sitting on their porch listening to him and other soldiers who had been through the war talking about those times. But that’s about all I know. What if I used the same persistence Miller has shown in pursuing research to learn as much as possible, not just about my great grandfather but about the regiment he fought with, the battles they were in, the Tennessee Smoky Mountain region he returned to, and its inhabitants at the time? What might I be able to learn that would help me think more deeply and critically about my own beliefs and values, about how they developed and where they came from? And how might that help me think about and try to understand the values held by other people and other groups? It’s a task I’d like to undertake!


I know that many teachers of writing encourage students to engage in this kind of self-reflective research that often includes ethnographic research as well as archival research and that such projects often result in the kind of writing that builds agency in students and helps them experience the power of writing to change them and to change the world. In these soul-destroying times, I can think of no better way to resist nihilism, not to mention deep depression, than to engage in such teaching and learning.


P.S. When Baker’s book becomes available, I will write another post on it; I think you’ll want to read it!


Image Credit: The Birmingham News via KKK savagely beat her father who then taught lesson in forgiveness (video) |



“Midterm anxiety” conjures up a medley of worries. I’m not talking about midterm elections (another topic, another blog), but midterm grades. For first-semester writers, in particular, the middle of the first semester is when, uh, “things” get real, with higher-stakes assignments piling up and the looming fear of final grades.


Now is when our students need us to champion their potential, and to remind them that the whole point of education is to challenge them into growth over time.


None of us want to be the nun in the film Ladybird, who dismisses the eponymous high school character’s hopes for the Math Olympiad with, “But math isn’t something you’re terribly strong at.” In that illustrative scene, the student schools the teacher, as Ladybird corrects the nun: “that we know of yet.”


It’s in the “that we know of yet” that we find the kernel of the “growth mindset,” a concept by psychologist Carol Dweck that has been widely popularized, and remains, in my classroom experience, a empowering concept for first-year writers. My co-author, Stuart Greene, and I, include Dweck in From Inquiry to Academic Writing precisely because writing students continue to find the concept a powerful tool for understanding the pain and potential of learning.


In brief, Dweck characterizes a “growth mindset” as the belief that intelligence can be developed. In contrast, a “fixed mindset” is the belief that intelligence is static, which can lead people to give up on difficult tasks, believing that we are either naturally good or bad at particular subjects, and that if we’re good at them, they should be easy. Critical reading and writing, as we all know, is challenging work. So, it’s often tempting to give into the “I’m just not good at writing” mindset.


This semester, I am providing in-class journaling time to give students a safe place for guided self-reflection, an experiment I described in this earlier post. I attach low-stakes points to this task: If students are present and write for the full ten minutes, they earn the five points per entry. As you can see in the photo [above], students have taken ownership of their journals, and the insides are as distinct as their cover designs.


I have learned a lot from reading them, already, including some harsh realities. For example, a few students were able to write in the journal what they would not say aloud — that they found all the readings boring. Ouch. But, channeling my own growth-mindset as an instructor, I needed to hear this in order to invite more personal connections to the material.


The results? My original prompt about a quotation by Marx on work became an invitation to write about their own employment experiences, and what makes work meaningful. Wow, did they have a lot to say — on the up and downsides of being bilingual, the daily and nuanced battles of sexism in restaurants, the psychology of meddling managers, and the crew dynamics that make work alienating or a place of camaraderie. In short, they wrote their way into a terrific classroom discussion about Marx. They also pegged Marx as a growth-mindset thinker — anachronistic, but on point!


Other journal reflections have affirmed my pedagogy, as when some students lamented that I did not tell them the key ideas in a text before they read it, and instead made them do this work before class discussion. (Guilty as charged, though the comments inspired me to explain again why I want them to do this critical thinking independently.)


A consistent refrain in their journals is the challenge of time-management, a struggle I share as I try to maintain a growth-mindset about making time for my own research. I’ve shared with my students that I’ve joined a writing group, and we’re currently reading and applying insights from How to Write a Lot. Not surprisingly, the amusing and unforgiving advice from author Paul J. Silvia — another psychologist! — resonates point by point with my own guidance for students. Write every day. Make a schedule and stick to it. Keep a journal to reflect on your progress. Be accountable to others.


As I remind my students, we’re all in this together.



Photo Credit: April Lidinsky

Barbara Wallraff

Call Me by My Name

Posted by Barbara Wallraff Expert Oct 24, 2018


Yes, of course writers and speakers should call people what they want to be called—all the way from honorifics (if you’re using them) to pronouns: Ms., Miss, Mx., Caitlyn Jenner, Chaz Bono, he, they …. The need for gender-neutral terms has made referring to individuals a bit more complicated. But referring to some groups the way they prefer—particularly groups that have been historically stigmatized or disadvantaged—has become a minefield.

Certain things, obviously, no one should ever call particular ethnic groups or their members. I’d like to think we all know what these terms are and avoid them. But even well-intentioned, up-to-date writers can give offense, because, after all, who’s to say what a group prefers?

Here, matters become very specific, so let’s specifically consider people with disorders or disabilities. These people are not rare: Data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicates that 19 percent of the U.S. population (or 54.4 million people) are living with a disability.

To be even more specific, let’s focus on the autism community, with which I’m familiar because I have long done freelance editing for Spectrum, a respected autism news website. Until earlier this year, Spectrum changed instances of “autistic people” to “people with autism,” because that was the term that professionals in the field used. The site’s staff consists mainly of science journalists and they had been trained in this convention, so upholding the rule was pretty simple. But sometimes people with autism and clinicians or therapists who work closely with them also write for the site, and some of them began pushing back, wanting to use the phrasing “autistic people.”

A few months ago, Spectrum announced a change to its policy:

When referring to people on the spectrum, Spectrum’s style has been to use person-first language (‘person with autism’). The rationale for this language is to put a person’s humanity first, before their condition…. But language evolves, and many people in the autism community now strongly prefer identity-first language (‘autistic person’). This terminology embraces autism as part of a person’s identity rather than a condition that is separate from them. Some professionals are also beginning to prefer this language. The style guide of the National Center on Disability and Journalism … recommends asking a person how they prefer to be identified.


The options, however, aren’t limited to “person with autism” versus “autistic person.” Some in the autism community dislike both terms, preferring “ASD [autism spectrum disorder] individuals” or “individuals with ASD.” Yet another respectable point of view treats “ASD” and “autism” as interchangeable, whereas others (such as Spectrum) would argue that ASD is autism, period, and should be called autism.

Similar issues come up for people with other disorders or disabilities. One thing that’s generally agreed about all such conditions is that one shouldn’t say things like “afflicted with,” “suffering from,” or “victim of.” On the opposite side of the coin, neither should one say “differently abled,” “challenged,” “handi-capable,” or “special.” “With” will do just fine.

If it seems to you that I’m not offering clear guidance about the terminology to be used for people with disorders or disabilities—or actually, people with virtually any characteristics whatsoever—you’re right. I’m a sympathetic outsider looking in, not a member of any stigmatized minority. (Okay, I’m a woman, but we’re a majority.) So I don’t believe it’s up to me to choose the terms I like best, unless I’ve studied up on what is up to date and gives offense to few.

The part about staying up to date, with respect to any group, is crucial. In his August 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King, Jr., used the word “Negro” 10 times, and “black” in reference to people just three times; that’s pretty good evidence that “Negro” was then the preferred term. The Black Panther Party was founded in 1966, the Black Power movement arose at about the same time, and “black” gradually displaced “Negro.” Then came “Afro-American,” and then “African-American,” and now “people of color”—though this last term does not refer specifically to black people but to anyone who is not white. However, “Latinx” (plural “Latinxs”) is gaining on “Latino” and “Latina” among Hispanics (a term that’s synonymous with “Latinos” in the Census Bureau’s usage, although not in everyone’s).

The idea of the “euphemism treadmill,” a term Steven Pinker coined in his 2003 book The Blank Slate, comes to mind. I wouldn’t call any of the terms I’ve been discussing a euphemism, though, any more than I’d call “Ms.,” used in preference to “Mrs.” or “Miss,” a euphemism. These things are just what some people prefer to be called.

So we’re back to that as a guideline for how to refer to anyone. Few if any Muslims insist on being called “Muslim people” or “people in the Islamic tradition”; in most contexts most writers who are women prefer to be called “writers” rather than “women writers”; and on and on. Encourage your students, when writing about individuals or groups of people, to be well intentioned, and help them be well informed, and they’ll get it right about as often as any of us can.

Do you have questions about language or grammar, or are there topics you would like me to address? If so, please email me at bwallraff


Image Credit: File:Hello my name is sticker.svg - Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

Guest blogger Ann Green is currently a professor of English at Saint Joseph’s University where she teaches in the Inside/Out Prison Exchange Program. She also teaches “Hospital Stories,” a service-learning course in narrative medicine and other immersion and service learning courses. She received the 2017 Outstanding Leader in Experimental Education Award from the National Society for Experiential Education. She has published in The Intima, CCC, The Huffington Post, and The LARB Blog, and she grew up on a working dairy farm in North-Eastern Pennsylvania.


I regularly teach in the The Inside-Out Center program, in which half of the students are incarcerated and half of the students are traditional college students. The class meets once a week in a local prison or jail, and our class, a team-taught philosophy and English course, is called “dimensions of freedom.” Inside/Out, as described by the founder, Lori Pompa, is a space where “the process of investigation and discovery is both communal and collaborative” (Prison Journal, 132). Started by Pompa at Temple University, Inside/Out classrooms are half “inside” or incarcerated students and half “outside,” or traditional university students. (I/O is now an international program with 800 trained teachers in 130+universities and 130+correctional facilities.)


The creation of classroom community and the importance of boundaries around people’s lives is particularly important in my experiences teaching in the Inside/Out Prison Exchange Program. In her essay “Macaroni and Cheese is Good Enough,” my colleague, Jenny Spinner, writes that not every classroom or every student needs to reveal intimate details of his/her/their life in class or in writing. Community building does not need to rely on over-sharing or false intimacy, but can draw from the significant details of our lives from which we can find common ground. In other words, community building paves the way for empathy.


When bringing inside and outside students together, building an intentional community is crucial as students from both groups harbor assumptions and stereotypes about the other. Classes typically meet once a week from two and a half to three hours and often begin, or end, with an exercise that gets students to engage with one another. These community-building exercises create space for students to decide when and what to disclose; in fact, since many of our “inside” classmates are waiting for trial, it is particularly important that icebreakers do not ask anyone to reveal details of their alleged crime. (Inside/Out students sign agreements not to have contact with one another beyond the classroom community.)  


Here are five exercises (and links to more details) that you can adapt to different moments in the semester as building blocks for community, to address a difficult class dynamic, or to use as a brainstorming activity for a writing assignment. With gratitude, all of these come from different experiential learning communities I have experienced (the Inside/Out community; Corrymeela, Ireland’s oldest Peace and Reconciliation Community; and the work of Sharon Browning on “JUST Listening – …for the common good.”)


  1. Name on the Board: Each student writes their name on the board and explains, in a sentence or two, where their name came from. It is also good as everyone hears how names are pronounced. (Thanks to Colin Craig, Corrymeela.)
  2. Wagon Wheel (orConcentric Circles”): Half of the class makes an inner circle facing out, the other half forms an outer circle facing a partner in the inner circle. A question is posed, each person has a minute or two to answer the question, and then the outside of the circle rotates to the next person. Questions can be adapted for brainstorming, to address a class dynamic, or to any need.
  3. Listening Circle: The set up is the same as the Wagon Wheel, but participants who are listening are instructed to “just listen,” not to nod, affirm, or ask a question while the partner speaks for one to two minutes. During the debrief, participants are asked to consider what it was like to “just listen” and to consider whether it was easier to talk or listen.
  4. First Sentence of Autobiography: Participants write down the first sentence of their imagined autobiography and then share with the group. The group listens for both what is included and what is left out. (Thank you to Pádraig Ó Tuama of Corrymeela for leading us in this exercise.)
  5. Six Word Memoir: Participants write the story of their life (or part of their life) in six words, then share. This is similar to the first sentence of the autobiography except for the conciseness of the words, but both are great if typed and shared with participants at a later class.


Classroom communities require ongoing attention and maintenance, and they are important for our students’ learning. If we are asking students to share writing with one another, both through formal peer review and informal activities, it is helpful if students “know” one another. I place “know” in quotation marks because our community building should also strive to create a space for the introverted and/or shy. While no space can be entirely “safe,” we can create classroom communities through sharing the details of our lives that Sonya Sotomayer suggests, “build bridges and not walls.”

When Neil Young wrote his edgy tribute to rock-and-roll "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)," the genre was hardly dead, nor really approaching it. A new generation of rockers—the punks—were trying to clear a space for themselves by claiming that rock was dead (Harold Bloom style, one might say), but in fact they were only revising it with a slightly different vibe. Johnnie Rotten, whether he liked it or not, was a descendant of Johnnie B. Good, and Young himself would go on to become an inspiration to the Grunge scene, which, for a rather brief shining moment, revitalized rock-and-roll and helped put an end to the mousse-inflected hair-band era.


But when, in the tumultuous wake of the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, I read that Taylor Swift was stepping up to help lead the resistance, I could see that here was a sign that things, finally, had changed, and that the moon was in a new phase indeed. Not that a popular music star leading a political charge for her generation is anything new: heck, that was what the '60s were all about. But Taylor Swift is no rocker, and it is not rock stars who are taking the generational lead these days.


The reasons for this are not hard to find, but they are worth a cultural-semiotic exploration. We can begin with the obvious observation that rock-and-roll is no longer the most popular genre of youth music: rap/hip-hop is, along with rhythm-and-blues and the sort of highly choreographed pop that Madonna pioneered, Britney Spears mainstreamed, and that various divas from Taylor Swift to Lady Gaga to Katy Perry now rule (straddling both pop and rhythm-and-blues, Beyoncé belongs in a category of her own). But to start here rather puts the cart before the horse, because it doesn't explain why rock-and-roll plays a second fiddle these days; it only shows that it does.


So where's, say, Neil Young, the composer of "Ohio" in the immediate aftermath of the Kent State massacre, in this hour of political need? Well, um, he's also the composer of "A Man Needs a Maid." So how about the Rolling Stones, those "street fighting men" of the '60s? I think that the titles "Brown Sugar" and "Under My Thumb" are enough to explain why no one is running to them for leadership right now. And Bob Dylan, the author of "Lay Lady Lay" and "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" (about the bitterest putdown of a woman in pop history)? 'Nuff said.


I think the pattern here is quite clear: rock-and-roll is rather hopelessly entangled in a male-centered history that is most charitably describable as patriarchal. It isn't the fact that all the performers that I've mentioned are now firmly entrenched in old age that puts them on the political sidelines today (after all, they are all still active and highly profitable touring acts); it's the rock-and-roll legacy itself. Even today's young rockers (and they do exist), can't escape it.


Which brings up a related point. Rock-and-roll is not only coded as "male"; it is also coded  "white." Yes, Chuck Berry (and a lot of other black musicians) took a leading role in creating it in the '50s, but rock was taken away from them in that era of official segregation and literally color-coded as "rhythm and blues"—a split that even Jimi Hendrix and the Chambers Brothers could not quite fully repair. And when rap began its meteoric rise in the '80s, it was Heavy Metal (one of rock's most popular incarnations in that decade) that became the de facto voice of white audiences (it is interesting to note in this regard how Ted Nugent and Dave Mustaine—two high profile metalists—are also outspoken conservatives today).


Add it all up and it is clear how changes in American demography and gender relations have affected popular music, and, thus, have determined just which performers will be received as voices for their generation. The signs are all there, ready to be read as part of a much larger historical shift. "Rock is dead," sang The Who, who then quickly added, "Long Live Rock," from that land where the passing of one monarch still means the ascendance of another. That was a long time ago, and Roger Daltrey has more recently opined that rock really is dead now and that rap has taken its place. But rock isn't really "dead," of course; it's just been sidelined.  And in the #MeToo era, rap—though still ascendantisn't alone at the top of the charts (political as well as musical) either.  Just ask Taylor Swift.




Image Source: “IMG_0614” by makaiyla willis on Flickr 2/4/17 via Creative Commons 2.0 License


I’m just back from a week in London, and what a week it was! Highlights included a massive exhibit on Oceania at the Royal Gallery; a tour of architect Sir John Soane’s amazing house/museum, with its hundreds of paintings and sculptures, including the entirety of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress; and FIVE plays in six days. I saw Andre Holland in Othello (with the inimitable Mark Rylance as Iago) at the Globe and a modern musical adaptation of Twelfth Night that I’ll never forget, along with Everybody’s Talking about Jamie (look it up!) and a fabulous production of Mrs. Dalloway at a small local theater, with five actors taking all the parts. Food for the mind and the soul.


All this theater got me thinking about my great good fortune in teaching at the Bread Loaf Graduate School of English at the Vermont campus, with its magnificent theatrical productions every summer. Led by Brian McEleney from Trinity Rep, the group includes Equity actors from Trinity as well as students and faculty at Bread Loaf, and together they mount an entire production from start to finish in five weeks: it is miraculous, and I’ve seen some of the best theater of my life there. Last summer, Brian adapted Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities as a play, and the result was galvanizing, as the production spoke directly to the political situation we find ourselves in today. It was, again, something I’ll never forget, and, again, it made me think of how important it is for students to see plays as more than words on a page, as something a playwright has made, crafted, shaped, and gifted us with.


My hostess and friend in London, Julia Rowntree, is famous for making things, and especially things in clay. She is passionate about the need for all of us to connect to the world through our hands and sees claymaking as one crucial way to do so. She’s been at this work for decades, and her Clayground Collective has been highly influential in Britain’s cultural landscape, bringing claymaking projects into schools all over the UK and sponsoring innumerable community projects. For example, in 2015 the Collective’s canal-based project, Clay Cargo, sponsored a weekend during which 3,000 people built A Monument to the City and its Anonymous Makers using 5 tons of clay and erected it beside the Regent’s Canal at Granary Square in King’s Cross. 3,000 people doing claymaking! (You can see a film about this project here, and you can find out much more about the Collective in a recently-published book of Julia’s, Clay in Common, available on Amazon.)


I share Julia’s enthusiasm for making and for the makers’ movement, which is associated in this country with the participatory culture that Henry Jenkins and others have documented so extensively. More to the point of this blog, however, I believe that writing is an important form of making. In fact, we used to write on clay—and artists, of course, still do. Whatever we write on, we are shaping, crafting, forming ideas, concepts, arguments, dreams: we are part of those anonymous makers Julia and her colleagues celebrate.


I don’t think our students often think of writing in this way, however, and to that end we have work to do. In our classes, in our tutoring, and in our mentoring we need to present and represent writing in this light: as something we make with our hands and our brains, and as something we set out in the world for others to engage with, respond to, and enjoy. Maybe it’s time to bring some clay tablets to our classrooms and see what happens!


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 690404 by Free-Photos, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

Today’s featured Bedford New Scholar is Rachel McCabe, a PhD Candidate in English at Indiana University Bloomington. She expects to finish in 2019. She teaches Analytical Reading, Writing, and Inquiry, and has taught multilingual and online versions of the course in the past. She also designed her own FYC theme-based course which focuses on the grotesque. She is an Assistant Director of IU’s FYC Program as well as their Professional Writing course. Her research interests include the relationship between reading and writing, affect theory and its impact on the reading and writing process (especially when using fictional and multimodal texts), and how shock and discomfort can be utilized as pedagogical tools.


In first-year writing courses, students often struggle to conceptualize the new ideas and perspectives they encounter through course readings. As Robert Scholes explains in his 2002 article, “The Transition to College Reading,” college students absorb reading material as though it reflects their world view. Rather than allowing the text to make its own argument, they force a connection between the way they see the world and what is written on the page. Scholes explains, “The problem emerges as one of difference, or otherness—a difficulty in moving from the words of the text to some set of intentions that are different from one’s own, some values or presuppositions different from one’s own and possibly opposed to them” (166). In breaking down this problem into contributing factors, Scholes concludes there are two central difficulties: “One is a failure to focus sharply on the language of the text. The other is a failure to imagine the otherness of the text’s author” (166).


Indiana University’s First-Year Composition (FYC) program has utilized a multitude of practices to help students separate themselves from the texts they read. We implement heuristics in the standard syllabus to get students to slow down when reading and notice small patterns and anomalies they might not otherwise pay attention to. We also use a collection of readings that specifically highlight a variety of perspectives, including Gloria Anzaldua’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility,” and Susan Wendell’s “The Social Construction of Disability.” We also practice “using a source as a lens,” a heuristic from David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephen. This heuristic helps students figure out how to extract the perspective demonstrated in an author’s work and then use this concept to reconceptualize other materials.


These practices were in place before I joined as Assistant Director of Composition, and I took note of the ways in which they helped students to separate their identities and ideas from the ones represented in the readings. However, in structuring my own version of FYC, I wanted students to be able to practice this objectivity from the start of the semester onward rather than learning to do so by the middle of the course sequence. This was critical to the development of student analytical skills in my course, which focused on defining the term “grotesque” as well as its use and appearance in American culture and art. Since this course asked students to begin by understanding a definition, their ability to apply the term to primary texts was critical to the assignment sequence. As a result, while my first of three units grew out of the standard syllabus at Indiana University for “W131: Reading, Writing, and Inquiry,” it implements “source as a lens” as one of the first heuristics of the semester.


For our first two course readings, students analyze an excerpt from Wolfgang Kayser’s The Grotesque in Art and Literature and Michael Steig’s “Defining the Grotesque: An Attempt at Synthesis.” These two texts not only provide introductory definitions of the term “grotesque,” but they also demonstrate how academic conversations develop, as Steig builds his definition from the work provided by Kayser. Students then craft a “lens” from one of these two texts. In our class, this means re-evaluating texts including William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” or Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee” through the perspectives provided by Kayser or Steig.


Students are encouraged to start their essays with their initial interpretations of the short story or poem, using textual analysis to determine why they initially viewed the short story or poem in a particular way. Then, their essays go on to explore how the student was able to re-see the primary text in a new light with the help of Kayser or Steig’s lens. This structure asks students to differentiate between their reading of the text and the reading that might be provided by either of these other authors. In order to adopt this lens, they first practice summarizing the texts and understand its main claims. They then use this knowledge to see the short story or poem from a perspective other than their own.


This heuristic ultimately serves as an approachable way for students to consider Kenneth Burke’s concept of the “terministic screen.” It alerts them to the ways in which their perspective is just one way to read any text or situation. As Burke explains in Language as Symbolic Action, people move through the world with their own unique perspective and interpretations. As a result, “many of the ‘observations’ are but implications of the particular terminology in terms of which the observations are made” (46). Moving between these screens constructed by our own terminology and experiences provides the flexibility of imagination to imagine another person’s perspective. By starting out with this exercise, students know that our writing course emphasis is not only on rhetorical analysis of texts, but also on broadening our points of view.


To view Rachel’s assignment, visit The Grotesque in American Culture: Essay 1, Applying a Definition. To learn more about the Bedford New Scholars advisory board, visit the Bedford New Scholars page on the Macmillan English Community.


Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. Language As Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. University of California Press, 1966.

Rosenwasser, David, and Jill Stephen. Writing Analytically. Thomson Wadsworth, 2009.

Scholes, Robert J. “The Transition to College Reading.” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture, vol. 2 no. 2, 2002, pp. 165-172.

Guest blogger Ann Amicucci directs the First-Year Rhetoric and Writing Program at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. She teaches courses in first-year writing, writing pedagogy, and the rhetoric of social media. Readers can connect with her on Twitter at Ann N. Amicucci (@AnnNAmicucci) | Twitter


All readers make snap judgments. To lay the groundwork for sustained, critical reading, I teach students to identify the thinking that occurs when readers encounter a new text. I describe three activities here that foster metacognition by leading students to understand why readers are drawn to some texts but not others. Following "Reflection in the Writing Classroom" by Kathleen Blake Yancey, I have students engage in reflective discussion and writing throughout the semester to develop their facility with the habit of mind of metacognition (see the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing).


Reading Reaction Chart

I assign a Reaction Chart in connection with my first-year writing course’s custom reader, which contains 43 non-fiction texts: a range of speeches, essays, and personal narratives. This activity can be adapted for any course reader or textbook. My directions are brief: “Read the title and first sentence of every text, and write a reaction note that tells us (briefly!) what your first impression of the text is.” I list titles on a spreadsheet in Microsoft’s OneDrive, then students type their name and reactions in a column on the spreadsheet.


The following is a sample of students’ reactions to the title and first sentence of Richard Rodriguez’s “Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood”:

  • Love hearing about someone’s struggles that they had to climb over.
  • I feel like I should know more about this, but this is not interesting.
  • I am not interested in this topic at all.
  • I think memoirs are really cool and get very personal so I admire this already.


Later, when I give students choices in what to read and write about, they refer to the Reaction Chart to recall which texts caught their interest and to browse others’ reactions for insight. By directing students to name initial reactions, this activity prepares the class for metacognitive practice to come.


Questions that Readers Ask

Next, students reflect on the thinking that occurs when we decide whether to read a text. I lead a discussion about what text types students choose to read and give students time to explore their favorite websites and study visual features that catch their attention. Students then work in small groups in response to the prompt, “What questions are we answering without even realizing it when we decide what to read?” and post questions to our class discussion board. \


Questions written by this semester’s students include:

  • Am I interested enough in the topic?
  • Will this article or topic be helpful in the future?
  • Is this is factual or written by a biased source?
  • Does this book benefit myself or those around me?
  • Would I be judged for reading it?


Brainstorming these questions fosters students’ metacognitive awareness of the choices we make in deciding what to read by slowing down the moment of initial reaction to a text and making thought processes explicit.


Annotating Visual Features of Texts

Finally, we investigate how readers react to texts’ visual features, in connection with students’ reading of Chapter 1 in The Academic Writer, which discusses how communication technologies and multi-modal text features impact reading and writing.


I select a range of web and magazine articles and bring printed copies of their first pages to class, and students work with these texts in small groups. They write brief “annotations” that identify visual features and corresponding reactions. As the photo shows, students attend to images, use of quotation marks, illuminated letters, and paragraph length, among other features. Students hang their annotated texts around the room and circulate to read each other’s notes, then I post photos of the annotations . As with the previous activities, this annotation process gives students metacognitive practice in noticing their thoughts when confronted with a new text, and their attention is now specifically tuned to their thinking about visual features.


What Comes Next?

All three activities have longer-term purposes. A writing course aims to teach sustained, critical reading and analysis that is a far cry from the snap judgments of the Reaction Chart. I lead students into the critical reading process by first acknowledging what those snap judgments are. When students return to read texts fully, they test their latter opinions against their initial reactions. They can see value in reading closely when their opinions become more nuanced from digging into a text. Similarly, the Question and Annotation activities serve as a starting place for analysis of how texts connect with readers. In deciding what text aspects to analyze for major essays, students get ideas by rereading their questions and annotations.


All three activities prompt students to identify their reactions as readers. Doing so allows students to understand the thinking processes behind readers’ snap judgments and to recognize that such judgments are just a first step toward analysis.

I've done assembly and teardown of inline-4 combustion engines in my life you think I can do this?#ikeaThe fourth assignment in the Incubator series of assignments that I have designed for my technical writing courses connects directly to the STEM-Based Technical Description Assignment I shared in my last post. In this project, students write a an instructional document related to their field, which will be part of a diversity initiative to interest local students in STEM careers (STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math).

The instructions project pairs with the Technical Description Assignment, which described an object, mechanism, or process common in the student writer’s career field. This assignment asks students to write an instructional document that relates to their technical description document. In the scenario for the paired assignments, the technical writing students discuss a task that local middle and high school students will complete as they shadow someone in the companies that students have created for the course. They will provide step-by-step details on how to complete a simple and appropriate task that will help local students learn more about what someone in their career does.

The assignment below has some minor changes to remove specific information that is relevant only to the students in my classes. References to “Markel & Selber” in the assignment refer to chapters in the class textbook Technical Communication by Mike Markel and Stuart Selber. Additionally, the scenario memo that sets up this week’s assignment is identical to that included in last week’s post. So that the assignment is complete, I have repeated it this week.

Technical Description Assignment


You will write a user document (instructions) related to your field. The instructions will be part of a diversity initiative to interest local students in STEM careers (STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). The user document will relate to a task that local middle and high school students will complete as they shadow someone in your company. You will provide step-by-step details on how to complete a simple and appropriate task that will help local students learn more about what someone in your career does.

Your user document that students will pair with the Technical Description Project that you worked on last week.

The Scenario

Note: We will use this scenario for two projects: Technical Descriptions (this week) and User Documents (next week).

Last week, you received the following memo, explaining your responsibilities for the Incubator’s annual Try-It-Out Day:

Ut Prosim Incubator logo Ut Prosim Incubator

   1872 Inventors Way, Blacksburg, Virginia 24060


   Interoffice Memo


To: All Incubator Companies

From: Traci Gardner, Ut Prosim Director

Subject: Preparing for Try-It-Out Day

Date: September 10, 2018

RDECOM Scientist and Engineers bring their special skills and enthusiasm  to STEM Night at Fallston Middle SchoolOn Try-It-Out Day, students from Montgomery, Giles, Pulaski, and Floyd Counties will spend most of the day working one-on-one with employees from every company in the Incubator to learn about what careers in STEM involve. We will match students with the company that fits their interests, and then you will determine the employees who will work with those students.

What Happens on Try-It-Out Day?

Try-It-Out Day will take place on Wednesday, September 26, from 8AM to 4PM.

Students will arrive at the Incubator at 8AM and spend the entire day with their assigned company, following this general schedule:

8:00 AMWelcome assembly for all students and company representatives
8:30 AMStudents tour their assigned company, learning about what the company does and how it works
9:00 AMStudents pair off with employees, who tell the students about their specific careers
10:00 AMRefreshments in the Incubator Atrium
10:30 AMStudents learn to complete an activity that their employee-hosts do in the normal course of work
12:30 PMLunch in the Incubator Cafeteria
1:30 PMSTEM Challenge (a competition, students and employees collaborate in teams based on the schools students attend)
3:30 PMRefreshments in the Incubator Atrium and Closing Comments
4:00 PMStudents board buses to return home

What Do You Need to Do to Prepare?

From 10:30 to 12:30, employees from your company will teach students about some activities that they do in the normal course of their work. To prepare for this portion of the day, please choose a specific activity that students can safely complete in 15–30 minutes. Ideally, choose an activity that students can complete more than once, such as examining and sorting specimens as shown in the image above.

Once you have chosen an activity, create two documents that students can take home and share when they return to their schools:

  • A technical description of an object, mechanism, or process that relates to the activity students will complete.
  • A user document that includes instructions the student can follow to complete the activity.

Any Questions?

If you need any help with this project, please let me know or contact my assistant, Leslie Crow <>. You can also talk with Incubator members who participated in the event last year.

Relevant Details

Note: These details apply to all of the projects you include in your portfolio.

Your company’s address is [Your Company Name], Ut Prosim Incubator, 1872 Inventors Way, Suite #[you choose a number], Blacksburg, Virginia 24060. Your company’s phone number is 540-555-5555. You may create a fictional Internet domain for your company, and use that domain for a web page address and your email addresses. If you’d like, you may create other information (including a logo) for your company as appropriate. Be sure that you use the information that you create consistently across all of your projects.

The Project Assignment

Step 1: Review your notes on the focus and audiences for your two projects.
You are using the same focus for your User Document that you choose for the Technical Description that you worked on last week. Review the audience analysis that you completed last week to remind yourself of the characteristics and needs of the middle and high school students who will be following the instructions in your user document. Be sure that you have chosen a workplace task that they could believably complete and that will not place them in a dangerous situation.

Step 2: Examine the information about instructions in Markel.
The textbook provides resources on how to write instructions. Follow the textbook as you work on your project. In particular, be sure that you do the following:

  • Work through the questions for “Designing a Set of Written Instructions” (on page 560 of Markel & Selber) to make final decisions about how to adapt your instructions to meet the needs of your readers.
  • Keep your readers safe by following the advice in the section on “Planning for Safety” (starting on page 562 of Markel & Selber).
  • Follow the “GUIDELINES: Drafting Introductions for Instructions” (starting on page 566 of Markel & Selber) to ensure you include the proper level of specific information.
  • Use the “GUIDELINES: Drafting Steps in Instructions” (starting on page 566 of Markel & Selber) to make the activity easy to understand and complete.
  • Explore the examples in the section “A Look at Several Sample Sets of Instructions” (starting on page 568 of Markel & Selber) to see some of the options for layout and formatting as well as the details to include.

Step 3: Write the user document for students to follow.
Compose your instructions, as requested in The Scenario above, with all the details you have gathered and created. Review the assessment guidelines below to ensure you have met all the requirements for the instructions. As you work, also keep the following points in mind:

  • Use plain language to make the ideas easy to find and read. Refer to the resources from Module 2 as needed.
  • Follow all relevant ethical guidelines as you work using the Writer’s Checklist at the end of Chapter 2 (on page 40 of Markel & Selber).
  • Follow the suggestions for emphasizing important information, using the Writer’s Checklist for Chapter 9 (on page 211 of Markel & Selber) to check your work.
  • Use the Writer’s Checklist for Chapter 11 (on page 288 of Markel & Selber) to ensure that your document takes advantage of design principles to make it reader-friendly.
  • Make a good impression with accuracy and correctness. Your document should be polished and professional.

Step 4: Check your draft against the Writer’s Checklist.
Be sure that you include the required features for instructions. Review your project, using the Writer's Checklist for Chapter 20 (on page 576 of Markel & Selber) and the Assessment Criteria below.

Step 5: Review your draft for design and basic writing errors.
Everything you write should use accurate/appropriate image editing, grammar, spelling, punctuation, mechanics, linking, and formatting. These are important basic writing skills that you should have developed in high school. Review your project, using the Writer’s Checklist at the end of Markel & Selber, Chapter 10 (on page 242 of Markel & Selber).

You can also consult the information on “Sentence-Level Issues” in Markel & Selber, “Appendix, Part D: Guidelines for Multilingual Writers (ESL)” (on page 683 of Markel & Selber). While the section is labeled for multilingual writers, it is useful for everyone. It includes explanations and examples for many common mistakes writers make.

Step 6: Submit your draft to your Writing Group in Canvas.
Post a rough draft of your technical description to your Writing Group in Canvas in the 09/20 Draft Feedback Discussion in Canvas. Additional instructions are in the Discussion. Post a draft of your technical description by September 20. If you are late submitting a draft, your group may not have time to provide feedback.

Step 7: Provide feedback to your Writing Group in Canvas.
Provide feedback to the members of your writing group in the 09/20 Draft Feedback Discussion in Canvas, by September 24 (end of the grace period). Use the information on the Writing Groups page to provide constructive feedback that will help your group members make concrete improvements to their drafts. 

Step 8: Revise your draft.
Use the feedback that you receive from your group members to revise and improve your document. You can share your draft again with your Writing Group, if you desire. As you revise, keep in mind the advice in the steps above, as well as the Assessment Criteria below.

Step 9: Include a polished version of your project in Project Portfolio 1, due October 1.
Have your Technical Description Project finished and ready for submission in your Project Portfolio 1, which is due Monday, October 1. The grace period for Project Portfolio 1 ends at 11:59PM on Thursday, October 4.

Assessment Criteria

For All Technical Writing Projects

All technical writing projects should meet the following general criteria:

  • Makes a good first impression as a polished and professional document.
  • Meets the needs of the intended audience.
  • Demonstrates how to emphasize important information.
  • Uses layout and formatting that makes information easy for readers to find and read, and that follows the standards you have set for your company.
  • Is written in plain language, which communicates the ideas clearly.
  • Follows all relevant ethical guidelines.
  • Uses accurate/appropriate grammar, spelling, punctuation, mechanics, linking, and formatting.

For Instructions

Your project should meet the following criteria for effective instructions, based on the checklist at the end of Chapter 20 of Markel & Selber:

  • Demonstrates a clear relationship between the graphics and the accompanying text.
  • Has a clear title that is specific to the instructions.
  • Opens with an introduction that
    • states the purpose of the task.
    • describes the safety measures or other concerns that readers should understand.
    • lists the necessary tools and materials.
  • Includes step-by-step instructions that are
    • numbered.
    • expressed in the imperative mood.
    • simple and direct.
    • accompanied by appropriate graphics.
  • Ends with a conclusion that includes
    • any necessary follow-up advice.
    • if appropriate, a troubleshooting guide.


Image Credit from Memo: RDECOM Scientist and Engineers bring their special skills and enthusiasm to STEM Night at Fallston Middle School by U.S. Army RDECOM on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license

I supplemented the assignment and the textbook information with some short videos and other materials that discussed how to decide between arranging instructions in a sequence and breaking instructions out in steps. Class discussion focused on students’ experience with following instructions. They offered many examples of instructions that didn’t give the end user enough details, primarily from instructions for building furniture.

Things have not been all smooth with this assignment, however. Some students were confused about the connections between the technical description and the instructions. I thought that breaking the activity into two separate pieces would help them focus on one genre at a time. Instead, I complicated the projects. I will likely use one assignment, combining the two projects, in the future.

Next week, I will share details from the portfolio submission assignment, including an infographic I created to help them understand the process. Students have completed half of the writing projects, so they will turn in their collected works. Until next week, let me know if you have any questions or suggestions by leaving me a comment below.





Photo credit: I’ve done assembly and teardown of inline-4 combustion engines in my life you think I can do this?#ikea by Joey Navera on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.