Category Archives: Writing

Teaching and Learning in Writing-Intensive Courses

The fall of 2023, I will be walking into my year 40 as a teacher. I started my career journey as a high school English teacher in the high school where I graduated and even the same English classroom I had sat in as a student during my sophomore and junior years.

The somewhat early years teaching high school English at Woodruff High (Woodruff, SC).

Many of the teachers had been my teachers when I was a student, and I was then (seemingly suddenly) a colleague with veteran and well-loved members of the school and my small hometown.

One of those English teachers assigned their seniors only one essay, due at the end of the academic year and never returned or commented on by that teacher. Many of those seniors were destined for college and had essentially no writing instruction their entire senior year—filled instead with weekly vocabulary tests, grammar tests, and textbook tests on British literature.

Just down the hall, I was embarking on 18 years of responding to about 4000 essays per year by my students; I was committed to teaching students to write well by having them write often and in workshop experiences.

I just completed my spring 2023 semester, which had two writing-intensive courses. This spring followed my only sabbatical experience in the fall of 2022, although I had been in higher education for 20 years.

I returned to teaching with a renewed commitment to decreasing stress and high-stakes for my students while trying to foster greater engagement by those students.

For about three-quarters of my teaching career, lowering stress and high-stakes has included de-grading and de-testing my courses, although the de-grading applied to assignments since I still had/have to assign course grades (see here about delaying grades).

However, once again, a number of students offered feedback on student evaluations that deflate significantly my enthusiasm for many of my efforts to support autonomous students.

In courses with required conferencing, some students noted that conferences should be required; this disconnect is linked to students being responsible for requesting and scheduling those conferences.

In a semester where I responded to about 200 essays over three courses and 24 total students, some students complained that I did not provide enough feedback for their work and/or that my feedback was too negative or not specific enough (see here about negative feedback).

At the core of these tensions and disconnects, I feel, is the essential paradox of who is responsible for learning.

For over twenty years now, I am teaching adults, yes, young adults, but college students are adults. My career before higher education was high school, and again, I worked with teens and young adults.

Yet, most students have experiences in formal schooling that teaches them they are passive agents in the teaching/learning dynamic. My students, particularly those who struggle in my course, think the responsibility for their learning is me, the teacher.

My teaching is grounded in critical pedagogy, and I practice an awareness that the role of the teacher is to teach with the role of the student, to learn. More nuanced is Freire’s argument that the teacher is always a teacher/student and the student is always a student/teacher.

Critical pedagogy views teaching and learning as liberatory—to learn is to become fully human, which is a state that requires autonomy.

Broadly, my role as a teacher (and mentor) is to provide the ideal context for students to learn; however, I cannot make someone learn.

As painful as this is to admit, teaching does not guarantee learning, and ultimately, learning is the role of the student (acknowledging that far too many students are in life situations that inhibit that autonomy).

My students are mostly in ideal contexts to learn, yet they often struggle even as I create courses with low stakes (no grades, no tests, no lateness penalties, etc.) and encourage high engagement; that struggle is grounded in the stress that students feel by having the responsibility for learning shifted from me to them.

Traditional and enduring practices around assigning and teaching writing prove to be barriers for student autonomy—essay prompts, rubrics, comprehensive marking of student writing, etc.

Here is another story from my first years of teaching.

A very highly regarded teacher of English moved to the high school when my district reorganized around a middle school concept and shifted ninth grader from our junior high to the high school.

I often taught that teacher’s students, and they explained to me that they would submit their essays, and then the teacher would return the papers with comments before using the overhead to show the students how to rewrite the essays.

Students dutifully followed the essay that teacher rewrote for them and resubmitted essentially identical essays.

My students today often have one of those two experiences—the negligent writing teachers who assign almost no writing or provide no real feedback or the hyper-controlling teacher who uses scripted prompts and rubrics (the enduring five-paragraph essay included) while also commenting exhaustively on submitted essays.

For those students, my classes are disorienting and often difficult to navigate.

While I have worked for decades to reduce high-stakes environments in my courses to reduce stress, students are often stressed when the responsibility for learning is shifted toward them

As I ponder how to revise further my writing-intensive courses, I continue to look for ways to increase student engagement. Currently, here are the structures I use with varying degrees of effectiveness:

  • Reducing how much I copyedit and comment on student drafts and increasing face-to-face conferencing.
  • Providing students with resources that support their learning to revise and edit their own writing.
  • Grounding writing assignments in authentic forms of writing and inviting students to explore examples of published writing to support their own awareness about forms and purposes for writing.
  • Maintaining a culture of low-stakes that includes not grading student work while in process, establishing workshop environments for students as writers, and providing structure for students without using punitive or coercive procedures.
  • Establishing minimum requirements for student engagement that include required drafting of essays as well as options for additional drafts and conferences by choice and request.

A couple years ago, I created guidelines for students to better support their own drafting, revising, and editing—How to Revise Your Essay after Receiving Feedback—and guidelines for how students should navigate my use of highlighting when providing feedback on essays—Revising Drafts with Highlighting as Feedback.

Regretfully, I am not seeing these materials being as effective as I hoped because at the core of the problem is not my structure or guidance, but that students remain committed to seeing my role not as teaching but as making them learn.

For example, I often mark needed revisions on essays and add a comment to check for the issues throughout the essay, yet most students only revise what I have marked.

That is a habit they bring to my classes, and one I find nearly impossible to break.

What I am addressing as a writing teacher, then, is a subset of how to foster learning autonomy in students.

Traditional schooling and the pervasive consequences of the Covid era are working against students’ abilities to recognize and embrace that autonomy.

And having an outlier class like mine that centers student autonomy, despite my commitment to lowering stress and high-stakes, is ironically highly stressful for my students.

And thus, I have much to ponder before walking into my classrooms for year 40 this coming fall.


Beyond Reading Skills: Phonics, Vocabulary, and Knowledge

When I entered the classroom as an English teacher in 1984 at the high school where I had graduated just five years earlier, students lugged around two huge textbooks for their English courses, one of which was Warriner’s English grammar text.

Students were conveniently color coded by these texts since the publishers provided different ability and grade levels of the literature and grammar texts. And universally students hated these textbooks, the carrying and their use in the classrooms.

Since I taught different ability levels (we used and A, B, C level system for each grade) and grades, I had about 15 textbooks across my five courses because students in English also were assigned vocabulary books (the publisher we used proudly printed in bright letters that these vocabulary books prepared students for the SAT!).

At least the vocabulary books were small paperbacks.

Two important facts stand out about those first couple years teaching in the traditional expectations for English teachers at that school (mostly the same teachers who taught me as a student): first, Warriner’s regardless of grade or ability level had essentially the exact same chapters for teachers to systematically and comprehensively teach every year, and second, teachers expressed repeatedly that students never learned those grammar lessons, noting that student writing failed to improve in terms of grammar, mechanics, and usage.

Another big picture point to make here is that when I was a student, grammar texts included lessons on “shall” and “will”; that my students had to cover an entire chapter and be tested on “who” and “whom”; and both my students and I had to “learn” about pronoun/antecedent agreement (specifically the use of “they” as plural only).

Today, we must acknowledge that all of these rules and the consequences of students “not learning them” have evaporated since “shall” and “whom” have graciously disappeared and “they” has been (finally) acknowledged as a resourceful pronoun.

As a beginning teacher, I had entered education to teach writing, although, of course, I loved literature also. Yet, the grammar- and skills-centric approach to teaching English, I recognized, was failing students miserably—I mean literally because students were miserable, learning to hate English, writing, and literature.

Of course, my stories here speak to a disturbing reality in education: Lou LaBrant, writing in 1946, noted: “We have some hundreds of studies now which demonstrate that there is little correlation (whatever that may cover) between exercises in punctuation and sentence structure and the tendency to use the principles illustrated in independent writing” (p. 127). And then in 1947: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods” (p. 87).

Yet, English teachers throughout the decades kept beating their heads against the grammar and skills wall, lamenting “kids today” for not being good writers—regardless of decade, regardless of the grammar programs implemented.

This raises a current issue about “scientific” or “evidence” as the basis for how teachers teach, notably in the current reading war.

Here, I think, is an excellent overview by Jal Mehta (Harvard University) about why calling for “scientific” or “evidence” to mandate teaching literacy is just as misguided as the evidence-free practices I witnessed as a beginning teacher almost 40 years ago:

What may have started out about a decade ago as a sincere plea similar to LaBrant’s—the teaching of reading in practice often failed to be effectively evidence-based (“scientific”)—has turned into the exact sort of one-size-fits-all ideological movement that Jal warns about: scientific as a “weapon.”

The SOR movement has refueled the myth of the bad teacher, continued to perpetuate false narratives of crisis and miracle schools, profited the education marketplace, and driven deeply problematic reading legislation and policy, including inequitable grade retention.

The mistake being made is also perfectly identified by Jal: “In my experience, the best educators and leaders see lots of complexity, consider context, and artfully weave together different approaches to solve particular problems.”

Ironically, this is the exact approach grounding both whole language and balanced literacy as philosophies of teaching reading and writing; however, as we have witnessed, both WL and BL also became convenient labels for practices not following those philosophies or simply slurs ideologues use to criticize.

Instead, the SOR movement has become ideological and weaponized to create simplistic and unfounded crisis rhetoric for politicians and skills-driven reading policy and practice.

For example, no one argues that phonics, vocabulary, and knowledge are not key elements in reading. But the SOR movement demands a linear and sequential skills-first approach; teach phonics, vocabulary, and knowledge systematically before students read.

The skills-first approach is essentially authoritarian (what phonics, vocabulary, and knowledge students “need” is determined and outlined for students and teachers) and necessarily erases diversity of language and experiences by students.

The counter approach, the complex approach to reading, acknowledges the importance of elements such as phonics, vocabulary, and knowledge, but also honors that the relationship between so-called skills and reading is reciprocal, not linear or sequential.

In other words, yes, students need some direct and purposeful instruction in phonics, vocabulary, and knowledge building as they become beginning readers; however, most of a person’s acquisition of phonics, vocabulary, and knowledge comes from reading—not direct or systematic instruction.

The problem with systematic and comprehensive teaching of any literacy skills is that the goal and accountability around teaching and learning become the acquisition of the skills (phonics tests, vocabulary tests, knowledge tests) instead of the authentic goal of fostering eager, independent, and critical students who read.

Ultimately, if we genuinely want evidence-based reading instruction for children in the US, we must recognize that the most important sources of evidence are the children themselves and the most valuable person to understand what children need to read are their teachers.

However, beyond shifting to what evidence counts, we must also recognize that students and teachers cannot be successful unless we address learning and teaching conditions (the one move politicians refuse to make).

Regretfully, as Jal recognizes, students and teachers are again simply pawns in another fruitless war won by the SOR advocates “who are loudest about ‘evidence-based practices,’ [and] ironically tend to be more ideologues who have a few preferred solutions that they think can address every problem.”

Revisiting the Research Paper Problem for College Students as Writers

About 15 years ago, my university overhauled the curriculum and academic calendar, including dropping the traditional English 101/102 approach to composition for a first-year seminar structure.

That moved the responsibility for teaching composition out of the English Department solely and across the entire university (a problem of writing pedagogy that the university didn’t acknowledge until several years later). Initially students were required to take two first-year seminars, one writing intensive and another that allowed students and professors to explore their passions.

The non-writing seminar was popular, but ultimately not sustainable so when the curriculum was updated a few years ago, we dropped the non-writing FYS and added an upper-level writing and research course requirement to better support teaching writing at the college level.

I have been teaching writing formally for 39 years, 18 years as a high school ELA teacher and currently 21 years and counting at the college level. Therefore, I have a great deal of experience and knowledge about teaching writing as part of a transition from high school to college (see recommended posts below).

As a high school ELA teacher, I focused on teaching writing, and for my advanced students, I worked diligently to prepare them for college. I am proud that many students returned during college and confirmed that they were better prepared as writers than many of their peers.

Embedded in that, of course, is that many students then—and now— enter college not well prepared to write at the college level. In fact, much of my work in my first-year writing seminar is helping students unlearn beliefs and practices about writing that helped them be very successful in high school—but that were guaranteed to be far less effective in college.

A significant part of that needed transition is the misguided “research paper” approach to writing cited essay and an overemphasis of the singular importance of MLA as a style and citation guide.

Elements of the inauthentic “research paper” model of writing cited essays include the following:

  • Students following templates and prescribed steps to gathering sources and producing a paper in MLA format.
  • Students writing with a stilted style that focuses on their “research” and “sources” instead of incorporating sources as authoritative evidence in an original essay and purpose.
  • Students using a “one source at a time” organization and discussion pattern that focuses on covering the sources instead of writing an original essay.

I address these issues directly in my FYW, scaffolding the course from a first essay that is personal narrative, to an essay citing entirely with hyperlinks, and then to a formally cited scholarly essay in which they use APA style and citation.

That FYW experience in my course is transitional and foundational, and I would say moderately effective. But I also recognize that teaching composition at the college level is not a mere inoculation; one course over 3-4 months cannot a scholarly writer make.

So I am always eager to work with my upper-level writing/research course—where every class I am confronted with how powerful the “research paper” model of writing remains in students two or three years into college.

Just yesterday, my students in the upper-level writing/research course turned in their major cited essay grounded in their course project—analyzing and evaluating how media covers a key education topic.

The course is heavily structured and scaffolded to help students write a very advanced and difficult cited essay. Part of that structure is that I almost daily remind them that the focus of their work is media analysis, which I punctuate with “You are not writing a research paper on your education topic.”

As has become expected in this course, however, students mostly submitted research papers on their education topics and tended to write using the strategies I identified above that they learned in high school—mostly writing about their sources (even calling them “sources) and simply covering all their sources one at a time.

Many students almost entirely failed to even mention media, and they all continue to struggle with the complex expectations for writing an original analysis and evaluating media coverage—especially the stylistic differences they need to practice in different sections of the essay.

Here is the full assignment and guiding support for the assignment (which I revised and refine every time I teach the course):


Students will conduct a research project in which they critically analyze how the above chosen issue is presented in the mainstream media, and write in a workshop format (multiple drafts, conferencing) an 8-10 page essay using APA format (see link above and student resources provided) detailing how well or not the media has presented the research. See Sample APA 7e with comments. NOTE: This cited essays is primarily a critical analysis of media coverage, and not simply an essay on your chosen education topic. The essay should include the following major sections: opening, literature review, media coverage, relationship between research and media, and closing/conclusion.

For 8-10 pages, a proposed structure:

Opening – about 1 page (2-4 paragraphs); be sure to include essay focus on media

literature review – 2 pages; focus on *patterns* in the sources (write about your topics, not the sources); must be fully cited (prefer synthesis and avoid presenting one source at a time) and address all scholarly sources included in references

media analysis – 2 pages; focus on *patterns* in the media and include several examples; directly identify media outlets and journalists

media evaluation (relationship between research and media) – 2 pages; this is the most important goal of the essay so evaluate the media coverage by implementing your knowledge of the scholarship (do not refer to “research” or “sources”); must be fully cited

closing/conclusion – about 1 page (2-4 paragraphs); must emphasize essay focus, media analysis

You MUST follow APA guidelines; please refer to this SAMPLE.

And please review this CHECKLIST.

Assignment Submission Guidelines

Research project essay: Submit research project cited essay in both the initial and final submissions (all drafts should be complete and in proper format, even when submitting “rough” or initial drafts) as Word files and attach to email with “research project essay” in the subject line. See APA 7e guidelines here and Sample APA 7e with commentsSubmit essay as a Word file, and format in Times New Roman font, 12 pt., double space, with 1″ margins. Each file should be named “lastname essay.docx” (as you revise and resubmit, add RW, RW2, RW3, etc., to the file name to designate multiple drafts).

Peer conferencing cited essay in class; have a copy of your cited essay (hard copy or on your device) to peer review with classmates.

Checklist for peer-review:

[ ] Formatted with 2 page breaks (after title page and after last page, before references)

[ ] Opening: narrative and focus/thesis identifying media coverage of educational topic

[ ] Four level two subheads: lit review, media analysis, relationship of media and research (key section of the essay), and closing

[ ] Fully use *all* sources and fully cite throughout the essay

[ ] APA formatting

I am very clear and address directly that the assignment is challenging, in many ways preparing students for graduate school. But I also believe this is an important entry point to writing well as an undergradute.

Students spend the first half of the course exploring writing (we examine scholarly personal narrative) and study educational research; they also carefully research both scholarly evidence on their education topic while gathering recent examples of media coverage.

Their first major assignment is to produce an annotated bibliography of those sources, and I stress that this is a process scholars use to support writing their essays (noting that creating an annotated bibliography is for them as writer and scholars, not just an assignment to follow).

The sections—literature review, media analysis, media evaluation—force them to write with different styles within one essay.

Some students struggle with focusing rhetorically on the patterns found in their scholarly sources for the literature review; they tend still to write about the sources and walk through them one at a time.

The media analysis requires that they do close textual analysis (a much different style than the literature review). We ground that in critical discourse analysis [Theory and Practice in Critical Discourse Analysis (PowerPoint)], but they also tend here simply to summarize the media examples one at a time, not focusing on patterns or how media covers the topic.

Along with not being adept with analysis, they do not understand that using sources is a way to lend authority to their own evaluation. Some of this is rhetorical since they want to say “research shows” instead of allowing the parenthetical citation to support their wording.

As I have noted before, students would be much better served if high school set aside the reductive research paper method and instead established some concepts for students about how and why academic and scholarly writing incorporates sources into writing:

  • Explain to students that citation formats are a subset of style guidelines that are discipline specific. MLA, for example, is often required in high school English classes because it is the style guide favored in some of the humanities. I forefront for students the stylistic expectations of style guides in the context of disciplinary expectations (APA uses dates in parenthetical citations because when a study is conducted is important in the social sciences, for example) and stress that many of the formatting quirks of a style guide are tedious and thus not to be memorized. In short, students need to learn to use style guides as a reference, not “learn MLA,” etc.
  • Focus on centering academic and scholarly writing around questions that the essay will explore and answer instead of declarative thesis sentences. Students as young scholars benefit from a humble and nuanced pose versus asserting a level of certainty that they simply do not yet have.
  • Foster an understanding of a wide range of ways to offer evidence and support in academic writing. Since many students write cited essays as literary/textual analysis in their English classes, they “learn” that the only or most important evidence is quoting—yet quoting from social science sources is not recommended in APA or even relevant. In fact, writing expectations in many disciplines prefer students synthesizing multiple sources into they own words to show a body of evidence. Paraphrasing and citing multiple sources shows sophistication and understanding that simply summarizing one source at a time cannot.
  • Stress that citation in original writing is a tool, not the goal of writing. As writers they need to start with clear content purposes that then lead to searching for sources that help them gain the knowledge and authority to write a compelling essay. They should move away from “my sources say” to “I know this” and include citations to stand on the shoulder of giants.

My university’s shift from English Department-based composition to first-year seminars has had many stumbles and falls, but the core principle of moving writing instruction across all the disciplines is essentially far more authentic.

As my assignment above demonstrates, academic and scholarly writing often is a blend of modes and purposes that demand a great deal from a purposeful and effective writer.

This sort of writing is very challenging, and students would benefit from being introduced early to these concepts so that so much of college instruction need no longer be spent helping them unlearn the “research paper” method.


What Do College Professors Want from Incoming High School Graduates?

Transitioning from High School to College: (Re)considering Citation Edition

Making the Transition from Writing in High School to Writing in College

Fostering the Transition from Student to Writer

Fostering Purposefulness (and Not Correctness) in Students as Writers: The National Edition

A confluence of language has washed over me lately, completely an accident of living. I have been reading and finished Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger just as The National has begun releasing singles from their upcoming album, First Two Pages of Frankenstein.

Currently my favorite band, The National’s music is characterized by their lead singer’s (Matt Berninger) literary elements, augmented by co-writing with his wife, Carin Besser. The new album leans heavily into the literary with the odd title, grounded in Berninger’s struggles with writer’s block when starting to compose this album.

The first three releases—“Tropic Morning News,” “New Order T-Shirt,” and “Eucalyptus”—sound like they have 1960s and 1980s pop influences and offer what appears to be an evolution in Berninger as a lyricist.

These three songs seem grounded in “Not in Kansas” from I am Easy to Find, a rambling sort of song that achieves its lyrical/poetic elements in many rhetorical and syntactical ways while also depending on specific details (such as references to other musical groups).

Having been a serious writer since my first year of college, I am often drawn to words and language in my hobbies, and lyrics fascinate me in the same way that poetry does.

I spent almost two decades teaching poetry to high school students through the songs of R.E.M. And among the many things I miss about teaching high school English is that I don’t have the space as I did then to engage students with lyrics as models for writing with purpose (a much more foundational writing skill than correctness).

As a poet and a teacher, I am not arguing that all students should love poetry (although I suspect that student resistance to poetry is mostly instilled in them by formal schooling ruining poetry), but I do maintain that studying how poetry/lyrics are written is an excellent context for fostering purposeful students as writers.

Lyrics are poetry adjacent; lyrics absent the music are not necessarily poetry, but a form of composing that embraces an essential quality of poetry—economy of language.

Poetry as a form relies on a purposeful structure—lines and stanzas—and a heightened form of expression through language. Poems tends to be brief and most pop songs hover around 3 minutes so these forms of text share that urgency to make the most out of the fewest words possible.

Yes, there are prose poems and book-length poems, but even then, these poetic forms are formed in tension with expectations of lines/stanzas and brevity.

What has struck me with the first 3 songs off The National’s upcoming album is Berninger’s (and when co-writing with Besser) use of specific details as well as rhetorical and syntactical patterns that raise the lyrics to poetry beyond the expected use of rhyme.

I want to focus here on two of the songs, “New Order T-Shirt” and “Eucalyptus,” as models for fostering purposefulness in students as writers.

A writing challenge in poetry and lyrics is achieving a coherent text within a very short space while also attending to more than creating meaning; to that last point, poetry and lyrics often depend heavily on exact word choice and rhetorical/syntactical elements in a compressed and layered way that isn’t necessarily in prose (although my recent McCarthy reading drifts far closer to poetry than standard prose).

So how do the lyrics of these two songs demonstrate qualities students as writers should aspire to?

First, I want to highlight how rhetorical and syntactical elements of raise the language of two songs to “poetic” (in the same way we associate rhyme and meter with “poetic”).

Consider the following:

When you rescued me from the customs cops in Hawaii
When I shut down the place with my Japanese novelty bomb
And your dad came along
How you had me lay down for a temperature check
With the cool of your hand on the back of my neck
When I said, “I think I’m finally going crazy for real”

“New Order T-Shirt”

What about the glass dandelions?
What about the TV screen?
What about the undeveloped cameras?
Maybe we should bury these
What about the last of the good ones?
What about the ceiling fans?
What if we moved back to New York?
What about the moondrop light?


Both songs’ opening stanzas are compelling and coherent structurally, relying on rhetorical patterns—the “when” and “how” clauses drive “New Order T-Shirt” and the “what” questions anchor “Eucalyptus.”

In typical Berninger fashion, these two examples also highlight how the specific details give writing weight and richness; both songs are heavily concrete, including a dependence on proper nouns and details.

Focusing on how the songs open also contributes to helping students interrogate how meaning is built by the writer and for the reader. The writer must have a coherent plan and purpose, but also present a text in a way that allows the reader to construct meaning.

Although cliche and a bit simplistic, poetry and lyrics when done well capture the truism “show, don’t tell” since the meaning comes from the whole text as a result of its parts.

Like poetry, as well, lyrics depend heavily on sound and patterns.

We expect rhyme in lyrics and poetry, so the near rhyme of “screen” and “these” in “Eucalyptus” both draws in and disorients the listener, reinforcing the complex topic of the song dealing with what appears to be a break up.

In those lyrics also, Berninger plays with meaning in the chorus:

You should take it ’cause I’m not gonna take it
You should take it, I’m only gonna break it
You should take it ’cause I’m not gonna take it
You should take it, you should take it


The listener must navigate the tension in the layers of the chorus: “take it” as in physically possessing an object and then “take it” as in putting up with a situation.

Rhetoric, syntax, and diction are the tools of the poet/lyricist who has chosen to work within the limiting constraints of poetry or a pop song; that’s where the economy of language and the need to express merge, creating poetic language.

There are many more things students could be asked to do with these lyrics, but I wanted here to start and continue a consideration of how lyrics and poetry can serve as powerful models for being an effective writer through acknowledging purposefulness and control by the writer.

There are no temples, and simplistic rules for writing often fall flat (like “show, don’t tell”), but there are enduring concepts emerging writers need to examine and adopt.

Concrete and specific details, rhetorical patterns applied with purpose, and paying attention to the sounds and emotional impact of words and syntax—this is the stuff of writing well, and these are the elements found throughout the songs I have identified here.

Some aspects of becoming a writer are ignored or simply bulldozed over, yet are as essential as the things we have traditionally taught (five-paragraph essays, rubrics, correctness, etc.)—such as engaging the reader and balancing the content of writing with the aesthetics of language.

Lyrics and poetry are ideal for highlighting those ignored elements because they are brief, rich, and engaging.

For a while now, this has been playing over and over in my head:

How you had me lay down for a temperature check
With the cool of your hand on the back of my neck
When I said, “I think I’m finally going crazy for real”

“New Order T-Shirt”

As a fan, this clearly resonates with me, but as a writer/teacher I want students to investigate how these lines are compelling—the rhetorical patterns (“how,” “when”) throughout the song creating meaning and the details shaping a very brief but compelling narrative.

Unlike (for me) McCarthy’s The Passenger, the three new songs from The National are satisfying and fulfilling, even when I find some of them fragmentary, possibly incomplete.

They also warrant re-listening because that element of fulfilling grows over time with the text and complete song.

Our students are unlikely to be poets, lyricists, or even writers beyond formal schooling, but there is a great deal to be gained from exploring purposeful things in order to foster purposefulness in what we do and why.

The speaker in “New Order T-Shirt” admits a few times, “I carry them with me like drugs in a pocket,” and for me, this is the thing about poems and songs I love. That line reminding me:

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)

[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in], e.e. cummings

Finally, I think, we often get lost trying to teach writing, mired in the technical, the rules and such. But language is more often about how we feel and about our need to communicate through language.

Poetry and lyrics are an ideal medium for not getting lost in the technical when inviting students to explore becoming writers.

Recent Poem

closer (turn inside out before washing)

ChatGPT and a New Battle in the Citation Gauntlet for Students and Teachers

The responses to AI writing in the form of ChatGPT have run the gamut from thoughtful to frantic (see both in my own consideration), but the International Baccalaureate response has added a new battle in the citation gauntlet for students and teachers:

Schoolchildren are allowed to quote from content created by ChatGPT in their essays, the International Baccalaureate has said.

The IB, which offers an alternative qualification to A-levels and Highers, said students could use the chatbot but must be clear when they were quoting its responses.

ChatGPT has become a sensation since its public release in November, with its ability to produce plausible responses to text prompts, including requests to write essays.

While the prospect of ChatGPT-based cheating has alarmed teachers and the academic profession, Matt Glanville, the IB’s head of assessment principles and practice, said the chatbot should be embraced as “an extraordinary opportunity”.

ChatGPT allowed in International Baccalaureate essays

This hamfisted move by IB has prompted another layer to the debate:

IB’s “exactly wrong” response to ChatGPT and McCormick’s criticism come on the heels of my first-year writing students submitting their second essay of the semester, an assignment that introduces them to academic citation at the college level through using hyperlinks to support their claims and discussions.

This assignment is grounded in two concerns.

First, students often come to college having learned “to do MLA” and “to write research papers,” which inculcates in them writing like students instead of writing in authentic ways or as scholars/academics.

Second, first-year students are often buried under the weight of formatting citation and less engaged with why and how citation works in authentic texts.

Therefore, hyperlinking as citation and incorporating online sources into original writing allow students to navigate that why and how of citation and using sources while primarily focusing on original ideas and claims in the context of finding and using credible sources to establish their authority as writers.

The next essay assignment requires students to do scholarly citation using APA; therefore, essay 2 is a type of scaffolding to address student misconceptions learned before college.

My teaching style is grounded in workshop structures—students doing holistic behaviors and producing authentic artifacts of learning—as well as providing less upfront direct instruction, models of products being created by students, and then individualized instruction grounded in the artifacts students submit. Of course, much of the learning comes from, in writing-intensive courses, conferencing and revising.

One student, for example, who seems sincerely engaged in the course submitted their essay 2 with the first hyperlink being to Wikipedia.

I had given the class the standard Wikipedia talk I offer: Academia frowns on Wikipedia so you should never cite it, but Wikipedia may be a good place to start thinking and brainstorming, although it certainly isn’t a solid source to end your research.

I reminded them of that in my comment, and once again, reminded the class of this aspect of finding and using credible sources in academic writing.

Essay 2 is once again proving to be a valuable instructional tool about seeking out sources to understand topics and claims better, incorporating citation into writing to support claims and give writing (and the writer) authority, and the seemingly arbitrary standards for citation that vary among different fields (journalism has a much different standards for citation than academia, for example).

Now that IB has christened ChatGPT as citable, students and teachers have yet another layer of problems in the tensions between plagiarism and citation.

Despite IB’s stance, as McCormick rightfully notes, ChatGPT is not citable, not a credible source.

Part of the reason reminds me of the SAT writing debacle that also included computers—machine grading of the writing portion of the test.

As Thomas Newkirk mused in 2005, machine graded writing on the SAT allowed students to “invent evidence” because the computer rubric rewarded the appearance of evidence, not the credibility or even accuracy of evidence; simply putting words in quote marks and ascribing that to someone could fulfill the rubric for proof.

This, as some have noted, is what ChatGPT will do, along with other forms of fabrication.

Citation and incorporating sources in original writing are about the conversation of deep and critical thinking as well as about the ethics of attribution of ideas; in academia, we often call that standing on the shoulders of giants.

It doesn’t have to be that grand, but scholarship and thoughtful thinking and writing should acknowledge that knowing and knowledge are communal, not the product of the solitary mind.

I have come to recognize citation as an unnecessary gauntlet for students, something like academic hazing.

As I tell students, I hope someday we all simply hyperlink as citation to eradicate the mindless formatting nonsense from an otherwise noble behavior: Simply acknowledging that I am not alone in this thinking and many smart and careful people have wrestled with this also in diverse and engaging ways.

Until then, sigh, we teachers and our students are now confronted with another battle tossed in the heap of traps for the emerging students-as-writers.

Added to our lessons on choosing sources, warnings about Wikipedia, and fervent fist-waving about plagiarism, the Brave New World of ChatGPT—and the likelihood that students will arrive in higher ed not only trapped in “doing MLA” and “writing research papers,” but citing AI because their IB program told them it is ok.

See my many posts on citation.

Blog Review: 2022

After about a decade blogging on other open sites and dabbling in social media as part of my public work, I committed to blogging at WordPress in 2013, and to date, had my highest traffic year in 2014.

Between my Twitter presence and blog, I always expected to have a greater reach at Twitter, but by 2022, I have just short of 8000 followers on Twitter and over 10,000 at this blog.

As part of my current fall sabbatical, I revised and redesigned this blog to make it more appealing and (I hope) to better present the work as professional (blogs continue to be discounted and marginalized despite the vast majority of my posts being heavily cited).

I am on track for 2022 to be the third or second best year:

And here are my top 10 posts of 2022 (eight original to this year):

Access these posts as follows:

While the “science of reading” dominated my work, I am quite proud of my comic book posts throughout 2022, notably my series on Black Widow and my frequent posts on my collecting Daredevil.

I also want to highlight two of my scholarly projects:

Why do I blog?

Primarily, I am a writer and writing is who I am so blogging is a wonderful way to write and draft, a way to think through important issues while also contributing to the public discourse that drives not only what people think but actual policy.

Also, blogs are accessible (essentially free to anyone who have internet access), and I feel far more valuable and effective than traditional scholarship that sits behind paywalls.

I have been an educator for almost 40 years, shouting the entire time that we mostly do this thing called education badly because we are thinking wrong or simply stuck in a rut of doing things only one way (for education, that way is “Crisis!> reform > Crisis! > reform, etc.).

Yet, I think we can do better, and I know we should.

Thank you for reading because that is the thing we writers are mostly seeking—those genuinely and sincerely engaged in the ideas we are drawn to interrogate and explore.

Let us hope for a better, more kind and peaceful 2023.

It’s the End of Writing as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

Recently there has been a different type of crisis rhetoric around education. This “the sky is falling” event concerns “the OpenAI, ChatGPT interface [that] is now capable of producing convincing (though uninspired) college student quality writing to just about any prompt within seconds,” explains John Warner.

The freaking out has been a tad bit extreme: Daniel Herman announcing, for example, The End of High-School English.

Let me emphasize first that if you are concerned about AI-generated writing by students, please prefer Warner’s analyses and his two excellent books on writing (I use one with my first-year writing seminars): my review of The Writer’s Practice, my review of Why They Can’t Write, and my post about my FYW students’ response to The Writer’s Practice.

Now let’s focus on the hyperbole and the seemingly very real threat that AI-generated writing will erase writing assignments in K-16 education.

First, like Warner, I say: It’s the End of Writing as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).

I have been writing about writing and the teaching of writing for decades, and I have consistently challenged traditional approaches to writing instruction that is template and prompt driven. But I have also challenged the over-reliance on computer programs and technology to respond to, evaluate, and police student writing.

This new development around AI-generated writing is simply an extension of the problem.

Once again, technology is not threatening student writing or the teaching of writing in K-16 education. Technology is exposing the essential problems with student writing and writing instruction in K-16 education.

As I outline in my chapter, De-grading Writing Instruction: Closing the “Considerable Gap,” for De-Testing and De-Grading Schools, the history of writing instruction in K-16 education is primarily one of misguided instruction, assignments, and outcomes. Yet, I also note that with the rise of the National Writing Project (NWP) and a move toward process writing in workshop contexts, there was a brief period of hope in the 1970s when momentum shifted in writing instruction toward what many writers and educators recognize as authentic composition.

And then A Nation at Risk and the tidal wave of accountability driven by standards and high-stakes testing washed away that hope.

The accountability movement ushered in the rise of rubrics and set the stage for computer grading of the so-called basic skills needed by all students—reading, math, and writing.

The consequences of this shift to accountability, which essentially ended the era of authentic writing instruction, resulted in teachers who believed they understood more than ever how to teach writing, but were in teaching/learning situations that did not allow for much writing to be assigned or for students to produce substantial amounts of original writing (see Applebee and Langer).

For example, when I was a beginning high school English teacher, my home state of South Carolina was an early adopter of exit exams, including a writing section.

My high school quickly pivoted to teaching to the test (see Bracey about WYTIWYG: “What you test is what you get”) by training struggling students to write 3-5-3 essays—a 3-sentence introduction, a 5-sentence body, and a 3-sentence conclusion.

This template provided the minimum amount of writing to be scored proficient but also limited the space in which students could demonstrate “errors” (we learned that patterns in writing, not single instances, triggered low scores).

The result was the highest passing rates in the state and a generation of students who wrote incredibly vapid and brief “essays.”

Now, if AI-generated writing can produce passages or even entire essays that meet the expectations of assignments in K-16 education, we shouldn’t be flailing our arms and racing around in Apocalyptic panic because that is a signal that the type of writing students are assigned and the writing they are taught to produce weren’t very good to begin with.

None the less, there appears to be a technology antidote available to those prone to seeking out technology—How to Detect OpenAI’s ChatGPT Output, Sung Kim.

Just as I see no need for (and the research also refutes the values in the program; see the end of this post HERE), I believe the very real threat of AI-generated writing in K-16 education can be both a welcomed end to bad writing instruction, assignments, and essays by students as well as an opportunity to implement writing practices that greatly minimize students wanting or needing to cheat (similar to how we should be approaching traditional plagiarism).

Here, then, are my recommendations for addressing the Brave New World of AI-generated student writing:

  • A key problem at the core of student writing and teaching writing in K-16 formal education is that the assigning and teaching of writing has disproportionately been the responsibility of ELA teachers (disproportionately experts in literacy and literature) who have little to no experience as writers and woefully inadequate preparation to teach writing. So a first-step to addressing writing in formal schooling is to better prepare teachers as writers and writing teachers (again, we have a ready-made process for that in the now underfunded NWP model).
  • Next, a key way to encourage student engagement in writing and learning to write is to de-grade the writing process. See posts on de-grading and De-testing and de-grading schools: Authentic alternatives to accountability and standardization. Students who cheat are often driven by fear of failure or their inability to manage deadlines and workloads. Creating supportive and low-stakes environments for writing is foundational to both students learning to write and high-quality original student writing.
  • A subset of the above point, writing must be a process and conducted in workshop class sessions. Process writing means students must produce artifacts demonstrating brainstorming and pre-writing, drafting, research, and revision after peer and instructor feedback. Plagiarism and AI-generated writing thrive in one-shot writing assignments driven by prompts; process and workshop writing by students support original thinking and writing as well as artifacts of the type of writing students can produce.
  • Begin any course that includes writing assignments by having students produce in class a writing sample followed by having them submit a brief writing sample out of class. These samples can provide evidence for their writing styles and abilities.
  • Include direct instruction and conversations in class about and ChatGPT as well as why students engaging in authentic learning trumps trying to fulfill assignments or achieve specific grades.
  • Finally, re-evaluate all writing assignments for authenticity and value in the course. If students can succeed with AI-generated writing in an assignment, that is likely a signal the assignment is the problem.

The fatalistic response to AI-generated student writing does not upset me because I have been making the same arguments above decades before this occurred. As I have often explained, writing and teaching writing are journeys, not destinations.

The threat of AI-generated student writing is not the end of that journey but an opportunity to take the fork in the road that we have been ignoring for decades.

See Also

AI Isn’t The Threat to High School English. Censorship Is: Book Censorship News, December 16, 2022

Journey cover

Thomas, P.L. (2019). Teaching writing as journey, not destination: Essays exploring what “teaching writing” means. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Academic Writing: Process, Practice, and Humility

Recently, I accepted a scholarly writing assignment, a policy brief for a university-based think tank. As I approach submitting the initial draft for peer-review and then revision before publishing, the experience has helped me continue to think about ways in which teaching students to write present challenges for both teachers and students.

My writing assignment matches well the scholarly cited essay assignment in my upper-level writing/research course—a course where students tend to struggle with breaking free of reductive research paper approaches to writing.

In my first-year writing (FYW) seminar, I have very broad goals for students. I see FYW as transitional and foundational. The writing assignments are designed to help students confront and move beyond the assumptions and approaches they have acquired in K-12 coursework (transitional) and then begin to establish an awareness of writing that will serve them well in academic settings and beyond (foundational).

The FYW seminar allows me to practice my beliefs about writing and teaching writing—such as providing students with a great deal of choice in writing topics and form (we directly reject the five-paragraph essay and challenge template approaches to writing and the writing process).

But in the upper-level writing/research course, both the students and I must navigate the realities of scholarly writing, including the narrow parameters of academic citation and structured/prescriptive writing templates. I explain to my students that often academic writing follows templates that are rigid and even clunky, but scholarly journals and other publications allow very little deviation from those requirements.

The upper-level course also asks students to better understand that citation style sheets are guidelines for more than citation, such as tone, sentence and paragraph formation, and integrating sources (we specifically examine the stylistic difference between MLA, what they are often familiar with, and APA).

These are undergraduate students, and much of what I ask them to consider and produce is another type of transitional and foundational—transitioning from writing like a student to writing like an academic/scholar and foundational for scholarly writing in graduate school or the so-called real world.

I accepted the policy brief assignment near the end of my spring upper-level writing/research course so I was able to share with the students the assignment as a sort of justification for their cited essay assignment. The policy brief project includes the following elements that I include in the course:

  • The policy brief has a detailed content outline, six defined sections.
  • The executive summary and policy brief have strict word count requirements (including a direct warning that exceeding the word count would result in the manuscript being returned).
  • Guidelines address tone, word choice, and structure/organization.
  • The think tank uses a modified citation stylesheet (based on APA but using endnotes).

As an experienced writer and academic, the narrowness of the assignment and genre (policy brief) was stressful—likely in similar ways that are stressful for my students in the upper-level course—because it is writing unlike what I tend to do. Also, the requirement for using endnotes is a citation approach I have rarely used.

This last point, about using endnotes, is the primary lesson I now have for my students.

I completed a full draft well ahead of deadline, but that drafting had been plagued by my concern for the word count. I was well over both the executive summary and full policy brief requirements. So when I sent in my initial full draft, I had worked for days cutting and tightening—nearly to exhaustion because I was trying to fit a great deal into what appeared to be a nearly impossible word count.

When that draft was returned to me, I was immediately confused since the feedback noted I was way under word count—and thus, much of the feedback stressed a need for adding and explaining more fully. I also received very valuable feedback about organization (editorial feedback is incredibly useful for academic writing since that feedback typically has the context of the writing assignment more clearly than the author of the piece).

What happened?

Well, despite my constant warnings to my students about knowing the features of Word, I fell pray to ignorance since I wasn’t aware my Word default word count included the endnotes. Once I adjusted that, my draft was, yep, well under word count.

Although I don’t recommend making such mistakes as part of the writing process, this was part of the process for me, and while it was embarrassing and frustrating, my next round of drafting was much improved because I had feedback and a greater awareness of my writing purpose and the assignment template.

But another experience with the writing process also struck me as something important to bring to the classroom. Over a few days, I began revising my first full draft, greatly expanding my literature review. As a result, I reviewed that research again, finding more and better ways to integrate that evidence.

Part way through revising and expanding the literature review, I took a break to do a gravel ride. While cycling, I continued to work on the policy brief in my head, and had so many writing epiphanies that I paused during the ride, typed out those ideas in Notes, and emailed myself the brainstorming:

  • Teacher/teacher ed in lit review
  • Move MS to analysis
  • Cover UK research in BL section of lit review
  • Frame analysis with bullet list of SoR claims in intro

While cycling, I realized at least one important gap in the lit review and made some key decisions about organization.

While I had left the draft a bit drained, once I returned from the gravel ride, and showered, I was energized to quickly note the changes in my draft (I moved sections and added brief placeholders, all in red text, to guide my further revision).

Regardless of how often I explain this to students, I cannot emphasize enough that the writing process is quite messy, rambling and recursive. Students, I think, are very uncomfortable with that messiness and struggle to see all drafting as tentative (likely because writing in school is often graded).

While I have a new and “completed” full draft, I still do not see the project as finished. I will have editorial and peer-review feedback, and the final text will be copyedited and formatted.

I have done a tremendous amount of work, and the writing project is still in an early phase.

My writing process included making a mistake with word count, significantly rethinking the next draft while doing a gravel bicycle ride, using red text in my draft to guide revision, and emailing notes and drafts to myself.

Like my students, I struggled with writing within a template, navigating an unfamiliar stylesheet and endnote format, and fully understanding a type of writing I have little experience with. A significant amount of my time has been spent reviewing my sources, seeking out more sources, and copyediting the endnotes several times.

Academic writing is almost equally invigorating and mind-numbingly tedious.

A final point about how my real-world experience with academic writing can inform teaching students academic writing is the recognition that students are often trying to navigate both an unfamiliar writing assignment and coming to understand a complex topic and the research related to that topic.

I am working on a topic I have examined for years, and most of my evidence was already compiled and organized (and examined) in my blog and two editions of a book.

For students to be successful in an upper-level course requiring them to confront both new ways to write and cite as well as new content and evidence, we must provide the most supportive contexts possible.

I require and allow a great deal of drafting, provide class time for drafting and conferences, do not grade writing assignments, and repeatedly stress that the essay is a process (that all writing is tentative).

None the less, students have been trained to be finishers and to focus on a grade; both are not conducive to academic writing, or writing of any kind.

Once this project is completed, I have some excellent artifacts to bring to the classroom, but most of all, I have a heavy dose of humility that always serves teachers of writing well.

The Good Student Trap: Research Paper Edition

I teach good students.

I write that with no sarcasm, or cynicism.

For the past 20 years, I have been teaching at a selective liberal arts university, and the students are mostly high-achieving young adults who graduated high school as A or B students.

Like me, my students also have a tendency toward the often ignored consequences of being gifted or smart—anxiety, depression, imposter’s syndrome, perfectionism.

While “good student” is a compliment, I remain convinced that performing as a good student is also, as Adele Scheele argued, a trap. Scheele posed that students learn good student habits in high school that they then apply in college, but often find those behaviors no longer are successful—or even valued by professors:

We were learning the Formula.
• Find out what’s expected.
• Do it.
• Wait for a response.

And it worked.

The Good Student Trap (excerpt), Adele Scheele

But more powerful that acknowledging that good student behavior doesn’t translate into college, Scheele also confronts how the good student trap creates irrational fear:

So what’s the problem? The problem is the danger. The danger lies in thinking about life as a test that we’ll pass or fail, one or the other, tested and branded by an Authority. So, we slide into feeling afraid we’ll fail even before we do—if we do. Mostly we don’t even fail; we’re just mortally afraid that we’re going to. We get used to labeling ourselves failures even when we’re not failing. If we don’t do as well as we wish, we don’t get a second chance to improve ourselves, or raise our grades. If we do perform well, we think that we got away with something this time. But wait until next time, we think; then they’ll find out what frauds we are. We let this fear ruin our lives. And it does.

The Good Student Trap (excerpt), Adele Scheele

I often watch these dynamics with my first-year students, which I anticipate. But the most dramatic example of this tension is in my upper-level writing/research course, notably when students submit this assignment:


Students will conduct a research project in which they critically analyze how the above chosen issue is presented in the mainstream media, and write in a workshop format (multiple drafts, conferencing) an 8-10 page essay using APA format (see link above and student resources provided) detailing how well or not the media has presented the research. See Sample APA 7e with comments. NOTE: This cited essays is primarily a critical analysis of media coverage, and not simply an essay on your chosen education topic. The essay should include the following major sections: opening, literature review, media coverage, relationship between research and media, and closing/conclusion.

For 8-10 pages, a proposed structure:

Opening – about 1 page (2-4 paragraphs); be sure to include essay focus on media

literature review – 2 pages; focus on *patterns* in the sources (write about your topics, not the sources)

media coverage – 2 pages; focus on *patterns* in the media and include several examples

relationship between research and media – 2 pages; this is the most important goal of the essay so connect research and media examples

closing/conclusion – about 1 page (2-4 paragraphs); must emphasize essay focus, media analysis

Assignment for EDU 250, Paul Thomas, Furman University

Despite the highly structured details in the assignment, and despite students having several class sessions devoted to workshopping the assignment (and two scaffolded assignments—submitting a working references list and submitting annotated bibliographies for their sources), they struggle with completing the assignment as assigned, resulting in intense and negative responses to the feedback I provide on the first full submission.

The good student trap experienced by students here is that instead of conducting, writing, and submitting a media analysis project, students fall back to writing a high school research paper.

The reductive and inauthentic research paper students learn in high school is essentially behaving and writing like a student—collecting and writing an overview of “sources,” typically plowing through those sources one at a time and heavily quoting from each source.

The assignment I ask students to engage in requires that they move away from student behaviors and toward writing as scholars; that shift means that they gather and student scholarly sources in order to provide themselves a lens for writing an original essay (in this case, becoming expert on an educational topic in order to analyze the quality of media coverage of that topic).

For example, students tend to write “research papers” that explicitly state “my sources” and “my media articles” in order to detail “what I learned about X topic” instead of analyzing how media covers that topic.

My feedback includes nudging them (again) not to write like students, stressing that they are not doing the assignment (I refer them to the outline provided and the need to focus on “media analysis”), and warning them about citation concerns (including carelessness that rises to technical plagiarism).

With my feedback, the fear and negative response cycle kicks in. Students seem unable to trust a workshop environment in which draft submission, feedback, and revision are not only expected but required.

The good student trap has also trained students to see all feedback as evaluation, judgment, and to fear that not being immediately perfect is a signal that they have failed, or that they are going to fail.

Anticipating their fear and expecting they received my feedback negatively, I emailed them and assured them that revision was expected and that everyone was still capable of making an A in the course regardless of how well their initial submission had fulfilled the assignment.

In the first class after returning their essays with comments, however, they were mostly frantic; many of their comments were dramatic distortions of the feedback they received.

None the less, once they had their draft in front of them, they admitted seeing the gap between the assignment and what they submitted was much clearer to them.

So here is what my good students teach me over and over.

First, they confirm that prescriptions and templates are not nearly as effective as many people believe; I have always rejected prescriptions, templates, rubrics, and prompts for teaching writing—despite their all being common in traditional classrooms.

Students respond better to direct instruction once they have an artifact in front of them for context.

Next, they demonstrate for me the negative power of prior behavior that is successful, regardless of the credibility of that behavior. In this case, students struggle mightily to let go of the research paper.

And finally, they embody the paralysis of fear of not being good enough, not being perfect.

Unless traditional schooling changes—and I suspect it will not—I am faced with this reality continuing, and ultimately, I regret that the ones who suffer most in the good student trap are students themselves.