January 26, 2015

Wordplay I: Verb! That’s What’s Happening!

Ok, this is adorable, and very useful.  Our generation and its younger cohorts may not be familiar with Schoolhouse Rock, but we all should be.  In the 70s-early 80s ABC ran a show called “Schoolhouse Rock” between cartoons on Saturday mornings.  These were cute animated shorts with really catchy music that demonstrated grammar, science, American history, and civics.  This one here is all about verbs, the action words of the English language.  I’ll put this first to refresh everyone on the usefulness of verbs, and a reminder to have fun:

OK, while you’re still singing “verb!  that’s what’s happening!”, I want to ask you a question you may not get that much.  How interesting is your resume to read?  I’m not talking about the fascinating jobs you’ve had, but instead the style.  Are you using powerful, direct language?
It’s true that your resume will be read very quickly.  You still have to carefully write and revise this document, but it may only have a few seconds under a recruiter’s eyes.  How can you sell yourself that fast, especially when the sum total of your experience and abilities are reduced to a resume and letter?
Verbs!  Use your action words!
However, as useful as these words are, there is no magic formula.  There is no one combination of really popular verbs that will guarantee you an interview.  This is something that requires constant practice and refining.  So please avoid cliches: we all know the jokes about synergizing your leveraging potential.  Don’t do that.  Use your verbs to connote action, but make sure you make sense!  Above all, be concrete, be objective, and be succinct.
  • Be concrete
Look at your last job.  Did you do anything?  Say it.  You developed lesson plans, you tested products with focus groups, you compiled reports, you coded software for XYZ.  The fact that you did things is important, but so is how you say it. Putting the action words first saves time, and gives the recruiter a better idea of your abilities.
Look at the job posting.  What verbs are they using?  Use those in your resume.  If they are looking for a lot of community outreach, choose verbs that highlight your people skills and communication.  Page 14 in this wonderful booklet from Rutgers University Career Services has a list of verbs in case you’re stuck.
  • Be succinct
No one, especially a busy hiring team or manager, wants to read what texts I assigned to my students in 2012, and why I chose those essays, and what writing behaviors I was trying to make them practice, and how the weather was, and what color sweater I was wearing and…and…and…
See what I mean?  You don’t even want to read that and you’re here on this blog by choice!  Wouldn’t you rather read that I:
Developed unique lesson plans for first year students, focusing on structure and grammar.
Boom.  Done.  The fictional manager gets the idea that I can be creative and practical, and work with a higher goal in mind (developing students).  I’ve bolded those words only for you here – don’t do that on your resume.
  • Be objective
You are fabulous, worthwhile, and an awesome person, and I’m sure you’ll make a great employee. You are knowledgeable, capable, dynamic, and generally helpful.  But there’s no room for that in your resume.  You have to trust that you experience and your skill set will speak for you.  That can be scary, but you have to do it.

Your new potential boss doesn’t need to read about how loved you were at your previous job, or how much you enjoyed it.  Tell them what you did, how you did it, and make sure they know how you can do it for them, too.  It’s all about what you can bring to the new position, not you personally.


Liz Reilly is a tutor and adjunct at Passaic County Community College.  She has over 5 years’ experience in blogging, writing, teaching, and tutoring a wide variety of people.

January 14, 2015

Rules for Writing

When people hear I write, they approach me as if I’m in possession of some mystical knowledge. How can I find the time to have a thought, write it down, and revise it?  Surely I am gaming the system somehow!  Surely I have a charmed life, with plenty of time to read hardcover books, look out the window, and attend parties full of well-heeled people quoting western canon classics.
Joke’s on them – I don’t like leaving my house!
The reality of this is that there is no magic spell for writing productivity.  It does not exist.  Stop looking for it.  The only way to learn to be a good (and productive) writer is to actually write.  Writing is work, it is messy, it is frustrating, and it only sometimes results in useful material.  It is less sorcery than it is mining: you dig and dig through piles of crap, make a big mess, and spend ages melting down raw material and chopping off slag before something remotely presentable emerges.
No one likes to hear that.  It’s not the romantic starving-in-a-garret image we still have of writing.  And it’s not the slick-millenial-with-a-mac image of writing we have now sold ourselves.
Nonetheless, most people turn to Google for advice.  I did it, too.  Turns out the internet is so full of tips for writing and productivity that a basic google search returned over 15 million hits!
writing productivity

There is no need to slog through list after list, dodging clickbait right and left.  I have a few basic rules about writing that I’ve picked up over the years. These actually work.  Hands down.  They work completely and totally until they don’t and you have to try some new ones, because writing as I said before is not a magic spell.  (Ed. note, that is a run-on for comedic effect, please don’t do that, my boss is reading this!)
Well you just can’t, Minerva.

  • Actually Write:  Oh yeah, about this one.  You have to produce to be productive.  You have to write to be considered a writer.  You can’t just think of it, or visualize it, or hide it away.  Nor do you have to win a Pulitzer.  Just produce writing.  This is why I recommend blogging for novice writers – at the very least, it gets writing out of the notebook and the desk drawer.  If you work it properly (reading and commenting on others’ blogs) you may even get feedback.  If nothing else, it’s a great way to maintain a corpus of work, and it’s very easy to go back and edit.  The nervous writer can see their words formatted and “looking pretty”, which does help build confidence.  This, however, is not enough, as you must also…
  • Give yourself the gift of the draft: No one is ever going to produce a perfect first draft, or second, or seventh.  This takes time.  Instead of imagining someone judging you, and being horrified if you’ve left a preposition dangling (which I surely have) – remember that every single piece of writing is a work in progress.  Get it out first, then polish it.  You will never spit out the Mona Lisa.  No one ever has.
  • Revise, edit, proofread – know the difference: This is something I wish we still had time to teach in elementary and high school.

Revision is looking at a finished draft, and asking radical questions about the ordering of points, the types of details used, etc.  When you revise you look to make large-scale changes to the work to better the work, not coddle to your image of what the work should have been in a perfect world, if you were just a perfect person.  At this point, the draft is still hot lava – it can take many forms, or destroy the landscape you thought you built for it – but it always leaves a new one behind.
Editing is when you dig into the paragraphs themselves, ensuring that you have as many words as you need to make your point (or striking unnecessary clutter).  If you have arguments in your pieces, you will edit them to ensure they are logically presented, and are in order.  This is what you do when you’ve revised to your satisfaction, but are not yet addressing minor errors.  The lava is starting to cool at this point, but you can’t quite inhabit this new land.
Proofreading is when you check for spelling, grammar, and formatting mistakes.  This is the part most people confuse with editing.  It’s an old fashioned term, from back when people would, when writing a book, print out a copy just to check the spelling with a blue pencil.  You were literally reading a “proof” of the work, catching any last minute minor issues.  The lava has long cooled at this point, and there is soil, plants, and animals on your new draft/landmass, and you are just sort of pruning your garden at this stage.

  • Read it aloud or backwards:  It is very important to divorce yourself emotionally from your work. If you want to be a writer, you have to be willing to eliminate things you thought you needed, details you may have treasured, or turn whole paragraphs inside out – you have to be willing to tear your work apart.  This is because writing is meant to be read by others.
Your artistic vision is ultimately in service to your readers, so you have to look at the work from their angle.  When we write something, a short essay for instance, we usually have a different image in our minds of what’s on the page.  The reader may not have you there to over over them and explain “what this really means is….” – your words have to stand for you. Reading aloud is the first step to making your writing an object separate from you.  It’s ok to love your writing, but you must be willing to give it what it needs.  Reading your work backwards, sentence by sentence, us another good way to do this – it’s also a handy way to proofread.
  • Make writing plans: If you want to actually be a writer, it helps to think of it like a small business.  When you grow a business, you set goals, or milestones for yourself.  You achieve one small thing after another, in service to a larger goal.  So what’s your goal?  What’s your endgame?  What do you want to do with this writing?  How are you going to get there?  Google calendar is a great way to set dates do do things by – and you can even connect it to your mobile to ring an alarm bell to remind you to write, revise, etc.
NB: When hen you make plans, make sure they are plans you can control.  “Being published” is a fine goal, but that itself you can’t necessarily make happen.  “Improving my grammar”, or “Blogging weekly”, or (my personal one) “responding to more blogs to build relationships with other writers” – these you can control!
So there we are!  These may or may not work for you, and you may need to use them in conjunction with other tips, but as long as you’re writing, you’re getting there!

Liz Reilly is a tutor and adjunct at Passaic County Community College.  She has over 5 years’ experience in blogging, writing, teaching, and tutoring a wide variety of people.

December 11, 2014

Talking Words vs. Writing Words

“Well, as we can see….”

“One thing leads to another and…..”

“Anyway, the point is…..”

“It’s like, you know….”

What’s a talking word?

In the course of my tutoring, I often find that I have to impress on students the importance of knowing how to write in an academic register.  This means words, phrases, and constructions that they use in their everyday language won’t work in an academic paper.  Many of the students I see will often use informal words and phrases in their papers (from the dreaded “like” to the grating “you know”).  These are “talking words” and I advise students to avoid them.

Why is this a problem in writing? What changes?  Why should we not encourage natural writing, a more conversational rhetoric?  If students are more comfortable writing, they may derive more pleasure from it and, oh, I don’t know, do itoutside of the last-minute rush a day before an assignment is due.

“It’s like, you know….”

“Talking words” are named such because we say them all the time in speech. There, in face to face conversations, we can overlook many “sins”.  We have the luxuries of intonation, gesture, and posture to convey our meaning.  This is where meaning started, for that matter.  We spoke before we wrote, and when we first spoke, we spoke to each other.  So there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the “talking” word or phrase, provided it stays in its proper environment.

The problem sets in when we change media.  In a paper, those coy or instinctual usages are left without valuable context.  They literally clog up the sentence.  A student has to know what they are saying and how to do that in the most efficient manner possible.   When a student writes a paper, they not only have page limits to observe, they also have to take into account the fact that there are multiple students and (usually) only one professor.  While a student has to concern themselves with a single audience, the professor must divide their attention between multiple students, each with developed essays.

This means multiple voices competing for attention.  Efficiency and formality are they students’ best bets to making sure their information comes across.  Having “clogged”, clumsy sentences means the professor or other instructor cannot “read” you.  We literally do not know what you are saying if you do not make your info a priority.

How to avoid this

The bare-bones method is simply telling a student.  When I see words and phrases that are informal and speech-like, I cross them out, and immediately explain to the student why this is unworkable styling.  But I am a professional, so I have the advantages of knowledge and experience.

For a student to learn to recognize these, I would suggest reading professional prose.  Take individual sentences and analyze them.  What is the point of the sample sentence?  What is the main idea?  Notice how fast this professional writer communicated what they needed to communicate.  See how many synonyms and alternate phrases are being used.  The only surefire way to learn style is to read widely and build up awareness of how language moves and operates in its written form.

This article originally appeared on Liz's blog.

Liz Reilly is a tutor and adjunct at Passaic County Community College.  She has over 5 years’ experience in blogging, writing, teaching, and tutoring a wide variety of people.

October 30, 2014

Why Fight the Phone? Using tech to compliment writing instruction

This is the soundtrack for our classrooms: *bzzzbzz* *bzzbzzz*.  The rhythms of instruction are now delineated by the tiny mechanisms in student pockets.  LED lights and miniature vibrating motors alert us to the passage of time, irrespective of the actual pace of learning.  We are all familiar with the irritation of competing with phones.  We all have policies governing their use, some more strict than others.  We are all aware that these machines aren’t going away, nor is their effect going to be lessened.  

 I am going to propose that we lay down our arms.  Stop fighting the cell phone.  Learn to convert cell phone use into a teachable moment.  By teachable moment I mean use psychology and outright trick your students.  I believe in this wholeheartedly.

Below are “Reilly’s Rules for phones in class”.  Perhaps some of these can be helpful to you in managing this new reality we all share.  We don’t have to like students’ habits, but we have to work with them in some fashion.

Tech policies: State, repeat, and follow through

First things first, you have to decide your plan of attack.  What can you see yourself putting up with on the daily?  Are you really as technophobic or technophilic as you think?  Whatever boundaries you pick, you are committed to for the rest of the semester.  How much can you put up with for 14 weeks?  The obvious exception to this are students using assistive technologies.

Once you decide on your boundaries for non-assistive tech, outline them in plain language on your syllabus.  Then revise again for clarity and small words.  Students tend to love technology, so you don’t want to end up splitting hairs with them.  Be clear, be direct, and make them meet your expectations.  

Make techies look up pertinent information.

If it’s going to be in the classroom, you pay as well use it.  My personal policy is to ask students with phones to look up info in-class and report.  If there’s a word, concept, or process that is not common knowledge, but can easily be found with a quick google or wiki check, make them do it.  

Use tech metaphors when possible, or the tech itself.

Meet them where they’re interested.  Know how various popular technologies and apps function.  And use that knowledge in your storehouse to make metaphors students will understand.  If students don’t quite understand the point of including outside resources in their essays, present the quote or paraphrase as a form of link.  The citation is there to support their main work, and present a “link” of sorts to a larger body of work.

Learn to use a variety of platforms and apps.  

This is not just professional development for you, but also builds your word-hoard to reach out to students.  But be careful, and consider privacy. If you’re going to, for instance, build a social media page or account for your class, be sure to model the behavior you want your students to have, and use it to illustrate information related to the lesson.  However, I will caution you against making social media essential to your curriculum, unless you are ready and willing to walk your students through making “professional” accounts.  Do not ever demand your students use their private profiles for your class.  

Why fight it?

My personal policy is “don’t fight them when you can make them work with you”.  Personally, I can live with technology, as long as it is employed usefully.  My policy is phones, laptops, and tablets are allowable, but I reserve the right to “get nosy” and check out what the students are doing.  I make it a bit of a joke, but I follow through.  

I move around a lot during class, around the room and up and down the aisles.  I frequently make students group or circle so there’s not much opportunity to hunker down behind a screen. This approach requires a delicate touch - I don’t want to appear aggressive or violate a student’s personal space.  But I find that after one or two check-ins, I don’t need to do this much.  Students will start to self-police, and the bulk of them will understand that they must engage.  

Build the lesson assuming that someone’s going to have a phone or computer in hand - don't give them the opportunity to hide.  They’ll have to look up from that screen eventually.  Emphasize that this is what they’ll be doing in their careers, working this simultaneous screen/face presence.  They may as well know how to do it smartly.  And you may as well have one less aggravation in your classroom!

Liz Reilly is a tutor and adjunct at Passaic County Community College.  She has over 5 years’ experience in blogging, writing, teaching, and tutoring a wide variety of people.

October 6, 2014

How to have ideas

How many times have you sat down for a session with a student, and had this exchange:

Student: “My professor said write about XYZ.”

You: “Ok, so what’s your thesis on XYZ?  What is your opinion?  What position will you take?”

Student: “I don’t know!”

Consider this from the student’s perspective: They have been asked to produce a substantial body of writing for which they will be graded but they may not know anything about the subject. 
You may not like it either but as a professional, you have the advantage of experience and practice.  You know how to think on your feet.  The students are not there yet.

Our task is to guide them to this point.  How can we get them to the place where they are able to generate ideas and positions on given topics?  How can we instill critical-thinking behaviors necessary for academic success?  How can we impart a cogent form for their ideas without dictating content? 

This is the advantage of our education and experience as professionals: we know how to quickly form an educated opinion on a topic and impart it with clarity.   But how do we do that?  It is important to know our process so we can break it down and model it for our students.

We know how to read and listen.  We know how to not only assimilate information but to sieve it for useful artifacts.  We know to discard unnecessary words, how to identify and analyze key concepts.  And we do this all at a speed mystifying to students.  This is why we view our assignments as simple - we can throw ideas out a mile a minute compared to students.

In order to show our students how to have ideas that they can later develop, we have to think ourselves back to their place.  We have to recall what it’s like to not be able to draw on our well-furnished minds and generate writing on just about anything.

This is the essence of teaching writing, and it is not easy.  We’re moving upstream against cultural differences, systemic disadvantages, and the natural shyness of many students when we ask them to expand on their ideas about a text in the requisite five paragraphs.

I’ve tried to boil this process down to a shortlist of habits that encourage idea generation. 

I have asked my own students to develop these habits and I also ask myself to do the same when I stall on writing. Perhaps some of this may be helpful to you as well, in your classrooms and beyond:

I often see students that are stuck on brainstorming, but do not know item one about their topic.  I have learned to quiz them (“what is the income tax?”  “what was the Underground Railroad?” “do you know what hashtags are?”)  Often students simply don’t know certain facts which means I must “pull over” and show them how to find reliable information to address that knowledge gap.

Sometimes, however, students are disinterested in the topic and want me to tell them what to write.  This is impossible and frustrates both of us.  This is the time to try to gain their interest, and help them learn some facts about the topic.  Without basis of facts to work from, no one can generate a cogent opinion and discuss it in a scholarly fashion.  I tell them that they don’t have to agree with the topic, but they have to understand it.

While you cannot force curiosity onto students, it is possible to encourage it:

     Demonstrate your own passion (real or staged!) about readings.  Find something compelling and show them why you find this element interesting. 

     Ask them pointed questions, and encourage them to do the same.  Few are the students that respond well to open ended questions about their thoughts.  And questions about their opinions may elicit a flood of words, but little thought.  Putting the text under a microscope, and having them examine specific characters and situations, and try to imagine themselves in them can be very helpful.  “What would you do it you were in Hamlet’s shoes?  Why?”

     Ask them to relate information to their own lives.  My example of the hashtag earlier was real - this student disliked hashtags, but was unclear on their use. They were confusing various arguments about digital communication and had formed a position they could not defend in an essay.  I explained hashtags, but also asked them to tell me how they saw hashtags used in daily life, and guess why.  The student still disliked hashtags, but they were now able to discuss this opposition intelligently and with a thesis.

Summing up

There are many, many different ways to pique student interest.  But the secret is to get them to start working with their initial rough ideas as if they are tools - which they are.  It takes the concerted effort of many people, but seeing that light bulb go off is incredibly rewarding to both student and instructor. 

Liz Reilly is a tutor and adjunct at Passaic County Community College.  She has over 5 years’ experience in blogging, writing, teaching, and tutoring a wide variety of people.

June 3, 2014

Shifting Boundaries between English as a Second Language (ESL)

Many scholars have written about the uncertain and shifting boundaries between English as a Second Language (ESL) programs and composition programs at colleges. When they first began to proliferate in the United States during the mid-twentieth Century, ESL programs and main-stream composition programs either viewed their missions of teaching language and teaching writing as respective, separate and apart, or at least perceived the necessity for a divided house in differences of methodology. Since then, perspectives on this relationship have evolved, but they have evolved in more than one direction. Most of the contention seems to pivot on the student’s transition from one program to another, the effects this transition has on the student, and the way that either ESL or college writing programs respond to those effects.

At one of end the spectrum is a camp inhabited by many practitioners, albeit few contemporary theorists, who view the mastering of academic writing for the English Language Learner (ELL) as a hierarchical process beginning with internalization of granular structures and terminating with native-like composition practices. This camp tends to hold a rather specific idea of what constitutes native-like usage, considers errors to be evidence of insufficient mastery, and equates errors of language use with errors in writing practice. Within this paradigm, it is the purpose of an ESL program to prepare ELLs to operate within composition programs in a fashion indistinguishable from Native English Speakers (NESs), and then, in turn, it is the mission of the composition program to instruct and assess ELLs and NESs without differentiation. Here, the transition from one program to the next is a gateway, one which closes once the student has traversed it.

Not very many of the people who hold to the view outlined above are bilingual. Or if they are bilingual, they have never faced the challenge of using their second language for rigorous academic or professional purposes. And their first language is almost invariably English. My first language is English, but I learned German in college, took classes at a University in Germany, and worked there for three years of my life. Germans complimented me all the time on how good my German was, which I noticed was pretty much what they said to anyone who was learning it as a second language. No one ever said I never made mistakes. No one ever expected me not to. No one ever corrected my grammar unless I said something evidently different from what I meant. I wrote papers for my college classes. I got Bs on them. My professors pointed out that the German in my papers was far from perfect, but their feedback made it clear that the Bs were for the content of the papers, which was fair, because the content could have been better. Perhaps I was fortunate in that case to be attending a university situated directly on the German-Polish border, where roughly half of the students were not German, possibly predisposing professors to be open-minded about language. But that hardly seems like an extreme case in a world where most people are bilingual.

It’s a simple fact. A majority of the world population is bilingual or multilingual, and research has shown that bilingual individuals are more prone to tolerate and accept differences in the ways that others use language. They look for meaning, not for errors. So maybe it’s just because I’m one of them, but my sympathies lie with the camp at an extreme opposite to the one described at the beginning of this post, whereby I contend that language instruction and writing instruction both need to change in ways that respect and leverage pluralistic attitudes towards language and communicative approaches towards writing, changes which will prepare not only ELLs but all students to live and write in the world which is actually coming to pass, and prepare them to make it better in the process. There lost of people who say it better than I could, but one of the strongest arguments comes from Jay Jordan. The way we look at it, the transition from ESL to college composition and beyond isn't a gateway, it’s a shift in orientation where the student begins accumulating new competencies for communication, and where the learning of language continues unabated.

I expect that the convictions of many who follow this blog fall somewhere in between the two perspectives outlined here. Whatever the case, it’s a conversation that ESL programs, composition programs and writing centers need to have, and which they need to have with each other, because the students who depend on us need us to be sure what it is that we are teaching them. Please comment.

Gunnar Jaeck is a writer and teacher. He is a tutor at the PCCC Writing Center, and has taught English and ESL in public high schools, universities, community programs and libraries. He holds masters degrees in TESOL and creative writing. His fiction has appeared recently in Used Gravitrons and Infinity's Kitchen.