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TeachYourKidsToWrite 10 Jan 2006 - 13:37 CatherineJohnson

This sounds just great:

"If you write for a living," says Jefferson D. Bates in Writing with Precision, "this book is probably not for you." But if what you do for a living involves writing, then this book can help you do so "clearly, concisely, and PRECISELY." Bates is fond of italics, boldface, CAPS, exclamations!, quirky footnotes, and the word crotchet. He's over 80. He's been editorial director of the U.S. Air Force's Effective Writing Program and a chief speechwriter for NASA. The cornerstone of his campaign is the elimination of bureaucratese and jargon. Writing with Precision, originally published in 1978, is divided into four parts: writing (mainly letters, memos, instructions, regulations, and reports), editing (mostly copyediting), usage, and exercises. There is a definite personality behind this readable, conversational book. It's mostly updated, though a little checking by Bates could have prevented the reference to some books as being "probably out of print now."

Talk about a book that's withstood the test of time. 1978. Wow.

I may have to order a copy.

Especially since it has EXERCISES.

Writing with Precision: How to Write So that You Cannot Possibly Be Misunderstood
by Jefferson D. Bates

BestGrammarBook 15 May 2006 - 02:07 CatherineJohnson

I have appointed Susan grammar diva, because....she knows grammar! (And, more to the point, grammar books!)

Susan, what book should I order RIGHT THIS MINUTE?

Christopher got a 63 on his grammar test, because he 'mixed up subject and predicate.'

I can't take it.


And he doesn't know subject & predicate.

So.....which one of the books you told me about should I get NOW. I need something with MAXIMUM direct instruction, MAXIMUM coherence (if possible), and PRACTICE EXERCISES.


Another commenter once recommended the Shurley grammar series--how involved is this series?

(Does anyone know?)

Can I fit it in with everything else?

GrammarSchool 14 May 2006 - 15:09 CatherineJohnson

So, yes, I am now in the grammar instruction business, too.

Ed asked Christopher last night what the subject and predicate were in the sentence, I ate too much food, and Christopher didn't have a clue.

He flat out couldn't say what the subject was, and he thought the predicate was 'too much food.' Then, when Ed corrected him, he sobbed for 15 minutes.

Middle school stinks.

We're only....3 weeks in? Already I've got at least 4 crying children stories, 4 that I can remember, anyway; there may have been more. Today Christopher's close friend M. started crying when the math teacher docked him a point on his math test for telling his twin brother, 'It's easy, you can do it.'

M. protested that he had only been telling his brother he could do the test, and the teacher said that didn't matter, he could have been cheating.

So back to grammar, Christopher has no clue what a subject and a predicate are. He rejected outright Ed's claim that 'I' was the subject: How can 'I' be a subject??????' Then collapsed into sobs brought on by the sudden realization that the reason he 'put the line in the wrong place' was that he didn't know where the subject ended and the predicate began. A classic example of a child not knowing what he doesn't know, which Willingham has written about. (Why Students Think They Understand—When They Don’t and How To Help Students See When Their Knowledge is Superficial or Incomplete)

I'm guessing Christopher probably thinks 'subject' means 'topic,' as in the topic of an article or book; and, by extension, 'predicate' means the topic of the second half of the sentence. Which would pretty much rule out pronouns & verbs as subjects & predicates, respectively.

Christopher is 11.

His school has two hours of 'English language arts' a day, TWO. And in two hours a day this teacher--this tenured, health insuranced, pensioned individual--did not manage to teach Christopher what a subject and a predicate are.

Teaching math is hard. I'm not going to be wildly critical of a math teacher who is trying. (A math teacher who docks a twin a point because he might have been cheating is another story.)

But teaching subject and predicate to a bright child with a good attention faculty whose strength is English language arts.......

Rolling off a log.

And I'm the one who's going to be doing the rolling.

I'm not happy.


I just thank God I started teaching Christopher spelling when I did.

GrammarQuestion 14 May 2006 - 15:10 CatherineJohnson

What is the complete subject of this sentence?

While taking the dog for a walk, she stepped in poop.

Thank you in advance.

DescriptiveNormativeAndCritical 10 Jan 2006 - 13:40 CatherineJohnson

Now that it's become clear I'm going to have to teach Christopher how to write, I'm on the prowl for material and ideas.

I'm posting this cartoon because I'll be showing it to Christopher at some point, and I want it where I can find it.


NortonSampler 10 Jan 2006 - 13:41 CatherineJohnson

One of you (I have to find the Comment again—) left a link to the Johns Hopkins CTY Summer program, specifically to the page that lists all the courses.

All of the writing courses have posted syllabi, including the course called Crafting the Essay.

The readings for 'Crafting the Essay' seem far too weighted towards the personal essay—what is it with all this memoir writing?*—but, at the end of the syllabus, there's a list of 'Supplemental Texts' that includes this book:


Here's the jacket copy:

As a rhetorically arranged collection of short essays for composition, our Sampler echoes the cloth samplers once done in colonial America, presenting the basic patterns of writing for students to practice just as schoolchildren once practiced their stitches and ABCs on needlework samplers. This new edition shows students that description, narration, and the other patterns of exposition are not just abstract concepts used in composition classrooms but are in fact the way we think—and write. The Norton Sampler contains 63 carefully chosen readings—classics as well as more recent pieces, essays along with a few real-world texts—all demonstrating how writers use the modes of discourse for many varied purposes.


Depending what's actually in the book, this is exactly what I'm looking for—and I found it thanks to ktm commenters. Incredible. Thank you.

I've mentioned that I learned how to teach writing at the University of Iowa. At the time (and perhaps still today) Iowa had one of the best freshman writing programs in the country.

We used the The Norton Reader of Expository Prose. We lived by that book. Later on I used the short version, I believe, to teach the same course to gifted middle schoolers for Johns Hopkins CTY.

I looked at the Norton Reader again the other day, and had been planning to order it this weekend....but it isn't exactly what I want.

If I were teaching a full-fledged writing course at school, then sure. The Norton Reader would probably be the book.

But I'm going to be trying to hammer my massively resistant middle-schooler into adding afterschool writing to afterschool math, and the mere sight of a 1214-page NORTON READER is going to be trouble.

I haven't looked at The Norton Sampler yet, but I'm almost certainly going to be buying it tonight.

Susan explains the shift to early writing

Part of the problem is that, like New Math and Whole Language, there is a movement afoot to push what I consider middle school skills down into grade school, all with the assumption that grade school skills will just be learned by osmosis (or shoved onto the middle school teachers...again.) These are your two camps.

In the beginning this new way of teaching writing looks very impressive as little persuasive essays come home and state tests appear to improve. Like math, we didn't learn it that way and so what do we know? I believe this is what you would label teaching Whole to Parts.

The traditional way of learning writing (or math, for that matter) has always been Parts to Whole, starting with building blocks for younger children (handwriting, grammar, sentence structure, punctuation) and then moving to more complicated techniques requiring better critical thinking skills (notetaking, outlining, etc.)that actually match the child's growing opinions and ideas. This strikes me as common sense, but what do I know?

Whether this new way is really better in the long run is still unsure, from everything I've read, yet one can't help notice that something is wrong when college professors complain loudly about students' bad writing skills, and then even request a grammar section on the SATs.

That explains a lot.

I've never given it any thought, but offhand I would say that writing isn't 'foundational' or 'hierarchical' the way math is foundational or hierarchical.

Still, I think it's nuts to plunge right into paragraphs and short essays in grade school. Doesn't make sense to me.

Without knowing much about it, I'd say the focus in the early years is words and sentences; then paragraphs.

I don't know what to think about all the journal-writing tiny little children do these days. I like having a record of Christopher's 6-year old thoughts, but whether journaling helped him learn how to write, I don't know.

I was over at a friend's house the other day, looking at books on how to write. My friend was traumatized by a nasty writing teacher in high school and has only recently started to recover from that experience. She's read a number of books for people who want to write but are anxious or blocked, the writing equivalent of Math Anxiety.

All of these books, universally, promote journaling, freewriting, etc., etc......and they all seem utterly foreign to me.

I have no idea whether professional writers 'journal' or 'freewrite.' Maybe they do. If so, they don't talk about it much.

I do neither. I have zero interest in journaling or freewriting; I find the very word 'freewriting' slightly repellent. (Because it doesn't sound free?)

I have so little interest in journaling that I don't do it even though I wish I would. From time to time I remind myself that I'm letting my kids' childhoods pass by unrecorded & unremembered. Then I carry on not journaling.

I suspect that professional writers of nonfiction, which is what we're talking about, are motivated to 'communicate' more than to 'express.' I write every day, but I write to other people, not to myself. I used to write letters; now I write emails & blooki posts & comments on Kitchen Table Math.

I'm also motivated by curiosity, and nonfiction writing means Learning New Things virtually every day. That's another reason I write Kitchen Table Math. Once I write a post, people chime in with interesting comments and factoids I've never heard before. I love that, and it doesn't happen with Journaling or Freewriting.

Given that I've been a professional writer for quite awhile now, and given that I never, ever Journal or Freewrite, I'm not inclined to think that students should Journal or Freewrite as a means to learning to write themselves.

One other thing.

I never took a writing course.

I never even wrote a paper in high school. I arrived at Wellesley not knowing what a paper was.

I never took a writing course because I was terrified I would be told I was no good. I desperately wanted to be a writer, but didn't think I was good enough, and I figured if a teacher told me I wasn't good enough that would be the end of it.

So I didn't get near any teachers.

The funny thing is, when I finally got on track to write, just short of age 30, two different Authority Figures instantly popped out of the woodwork to tell me I wouldn't be able to do it. One said I didn't have the commitment or the drive; the other told me he'd never liked my writing. This person actually took the time to sit down and write me a letter saying, 'I've never liked your writing.'

People are bizarre.

In any case, they were too late. I'd made up my mind.

Getting back to how to teach children to write.....I think my own personal narrative tells me that writing isn't a hierarchical skill the way mathematics is, and I think it tells me that expository writing isn't a direct or natural outgrowth of Journaling or Freewriting, but may be a natural outgrowth of reading, thinking, and talking to other people about what you're reading and thinking.

I know that in order to write nonfiction you have to be reading nonfiction.

That's about as far as I can go tonight.

Johns Hopkins CTY course list (including math courses):
Crafting the Essay WRT3
Crafting the Essay 3B

KTM Commenter suggestions and recommendations:
First Language Lessons by Jesse Wise (recommended by Ken &, I think, Susan, looks good; apparently there are more books coming in the series)
Classical Writing series (Nick's Mama left the link for this series)

The two biggies amongst homeschoolers seem to be:
Writing Strands (the Well Trained Mind people use this series)
Excellence in Writing

KUMON reading

I'd bet money the KUMON reading program teaches writing as well as reading, if only incidentally. I've scanned in one set of KUMON reading worksheets and will get them posted to a separate KUMON page & linked here, so you can see what I'm talking about. KUMON Reading is as good a nonficiton, critical reading program as any I've ever seen.

Actually, KUMON Reading is the only nonfiction critical reading program I've ever seen. At our school, and apparently at many other schools, the kids read wall-to-wall fiction. No one teaches them how to read nonfiction.

KUMON does.

update: Norton Sampler TOC

This is fantastic:


Annie Dillard, The Death of a Moth
Annie Dillard, How I Wrote the Moth Essay—and Why
The Processes of Writing
The Modes of Writing
Mixing the Modes (great)

1 Description

2 Narrative

3 Example

4 Classification and Division

5 Process Analysis

6 Comparison and Contrast

7 Definition

8 Cause and Effect

9 Argumentation and Persuasion

10 Classic Essays for Further Reading

It doesn't look overloaded with partisan picks, and there are two student essays included, which could be a lot of fun. Ann Hodgman ('No Wonder They Call Me a Bitch') is the author of three of my favorite cookbooks: Beat This, Beat That!, and One Bite Won't Kill You.

This is the one.

1918 version of Elements of Style online


* My neighbor's son has now written so many personal narratives he says he's running out of memories.

SmartestTractorsAssessmentForm 19 May 2006 - 21:54 CatherineJohnson


"Attached is a page from our Guide to the Provincial Report Card. It is not required we use it in our classrooms, but I find it helpful in focusing some students. At worst, it is an alternative to the page you have been handed."

thank you

my contract to improve Christopher's grades
a Grade Contract that makes sense
the book
Grade Contract for married people
climb down
Smartest Tractor saves the day
KIPP Academy contract

EngelmannOnRulesForInstallingCurricula 19 May 2006 - 21:55 CatherineJohnson

Ken's done more of the typing!

Thank you!

Here's Engelmann on rules School Boards should insist the school district follow when installing a new curriculum:

1. Don't install any practice or reform unless you have substantial reason to believe that it will result in improvement of student performance.

Test on small scale before wider implementation. Research validation. Field tested.

2. Don't install any approach without making projections about student learning.

The benefits of the approach must be measurable. Tests are needed to determine success. The tests should be "do it" tests, one that requires actual reading, answering questions, working math problems, etc (not multiple choice).

3. Don't install any practice without monitoring it and comparing performance in the classroom with projections.

formative assessment. Installed programs should be limited to a reasonable period of time such as no more than an hour aday for reading. The monitoring should deal with what the teachers do and how it relates to what the students have learned. Is the projected material being presented on schedule? Do the teacherfs need help? Is the program being followed faithfully? Are the kids mastering the material in the projected time.

4. Don't install an approach without having a back-up plan.

5. Don't maintain practices that are obviously not working as planned.

6. Don't blame parents, kids, or other extraneous factors if the plan fails.

The only factor that affects the plan is whether the kids and teacher are in attendance on a regular basis."If the teaching failed, it was because the teaching failed, not beacause the parents didn't get involved."

on manipulatives
The same problem exists with manipulatives. Kids play with rods that represent different values--based on the length of the rod. Kids can use these rods to perform a variety of "act-outs" that are consistent with complicated math notions, such as the idea that 10x2 equals 5X4, but the kids doing the acting-out are typically not learning the relationship. They're simply making one group of rods the same length as the other group. The great meanings that they're deriving are not in their minds but in the imagination of the educational observer.

Direct work with symbols and notations of math is a far safer method of teaching relationships because symbols are consistent with far fewer misinterpretations than noisy and often time-consuming act-outs. The [NCTM] Standards do not favor pencil-and-paper work, however, because such work implies skills, and the Standards are very ambivalent about skills.

War Against the Schools' Academic Child Abuse, p. 115

on the shelf life of learned material
Typically about 60 school days pass before any topic is revisited. Stated differently, the spiral curriculum is exposure, not teaching. You don't "teach" something and put it back on the shelf for 60 days. It doesn't have a shelf-life of more than a few days. It would be outrageous enough to do that with one topic-- let alone all of them.

...Don't they know that if something is just taught, it will atrophy the fast way if it is not reinforced, kindled, and used? Don't they know that the suggested "revisiting of topics" requires putting stuff that has been recently taught on the shelf where it will shrivel up? Don't they know that the constant "reteaching" and "relearning" of topics that have gone stale from three months of disuse is so inefficient and impratical that it will lead not to "teaching" but to mere exposure? And don't they know that when the "teaching" becomes mere exposure, kids will understandably figure out that they are not expected to learn and that they'll develop adaptive attitudes like, "We're doing this ugly geometry again, but don't worry. It'll soon go away and we won't see it for a long time"?

The Underachieving Curriculum judged the problem with the spiral curriculum is that is lacks both intensity and focus. "Perhaps the greatest irony is that a curricular construct conceived to prevent the postponing of teaching many important subjects on the grounds that they are too difficult has resulted in a treatment of mathematics that has postponed, often indefinitely, the attainment of much substantive content at all."

War Against the Schools' Academic Child Abuse, pp. 108-9

what people know and don't know

I was saying in a Comment on the Smartest Tractor thread that there are many aspects of DI & formative assessment everyone already knows. They just don't know they know...they probably haven't realized that what they know about DI & formative assessment amounts to an entire alternative educational philosophy, or would if they filled in the gaps.

But this 60-day figure is a statistic people really do not possess.

I had a funny experience with this at a PTSA meeting once. I was running the after-school program (this would be the program in which I hired myself to teach Singapore Math, btw). All of the program chairs were meeting to be filled in about forms, money, procedures, etc.

When the question of kids who couldn't afford the fees for the after-school program arose, the president said that the PTSA picks up the tab. The president said the teachers knew about the policy and would steer these children to us (something like that).

One of the volunteers said the teachers didn't know about it. She'd worked with a teacher the year before who had no idea this option existed. The president looked annoyed, and said, 'We sent them an email at the beginning of the year.'

That was a striking moment, because here we were, highly educated ourselves, devoted to our kids' schooling, and everyone in the room appeared to believe that if you've told someone something once they've learned it.

I think this is a common perception; I often have it myself. I'll think, 'I told him/her/them that already.'

I should know better.

It's true that in job situations—in any situation where you're responsible for hearing what people tell you, writing it down, and remembering and acting on it—people can say something once and expect it to stick.

But that's not the norm, especially when you're talking about one email sent to teachers at the beginning of the school year when they're swamped.

This is a factoid that needs to get out there.

HelicopterParentsPart3 10 Jan 2006 - 13:43 CatherineJohnson


Staying Within the Lines on Homework help

I spent years reading about how women (or blacks) internalized the culture's view of them.

Ed reminded me yesterday that this is called false consciousness.

Parents have false consciousness.

Here's an article, written by a parent, all about the Bad Things Parents Do when their children go to school. The author lives here in Westchester; she's in one of the river towns. Hastings, Dobbs, or Ardsley, can't remember which. That makes her a neighbor.

LISA JACOBSON runs a tutoring business, Inspirica, in Manhattan, and she has seen parents at their worst, their most enmeshed, their pushiest. Parents who do their children's art projects for them, so the third-grade classroom looks, she said, "like a gallery at MoMA." Parents who tinker with science labs and correct math homework and edit English essays until the child does not recognize more than a comma in an opening sentence.

Gee. It's those Pushy Parents again. The ones I keep hearing about here in Irvington.

I wonder why all those Pushy Parents are spending hours of their lives doing their children's art projects.

Might it be because if they don't do their child's projects the child will be given a large, prominently displayed 'D' for all the world to see, called up to the teacher's desk, asked loudly, 'Are you even trying to do the work?' and sent off to the cafeteria to be taunted by the entire 6th grade class?

I wonder.

Back when my sons were younger, the rule was that they did the "content" and I would help out with the cutting and the coloring. It just didn't seem worth the extra hours they would spend wrestling with scissors and crayons. So after my older son drew his poster for social studies intricately mapping the route from the school to his house, I colored the roads black and the treetops green. And once he had completed his essay for French about the Arc de Triomphe, I took a razor and cobbled a three-dimensional model of that landmark from foam-backed board. (For the record, he lost points for neatness on the map poster I colored, and while his French essay earned an A, my foam representation got only a B.)

Does this passage offer a clue?

A parent-created art project earns a B.


What grade does a child-created art project earn?

As it happens, I have the answer, since I've just run that experiment.

Here's how it comes out. Other parents stay up all night doing their child's feature story/persuasive essay/major research product. (Seriously. One mother told me she had to pull an all-nighter to get it done. Good for her. She's as furious at Mrs. Roth as I am, btw, and has been hovering on the brink of Going To The Principal for some weeks now.)

Your child writes his own feature story.

Your child receives a bright red D, is berated in front of his classmates, is taunted at recess, spends a week crying at home every night.

Meanwhile you drop work on your Actual Job, the one you need to pay your monster property taxes to support the school, in order to steal time to launch a major offensive against the school you're working so hard to support.


What was the smart play here?

Stay up all night writing your child's paper and be done with it, or let your child write his own paper, after which all he** breaks loose and you get to spend the next 6 weeks dealing with it. And that's 6 weeks if you're lucky.

On the one hand, I am well positioned to help with their writing. Not to do it for them, but to read what they write and send them back to revise. On the other hand, is that helping or hurting? Can a teacher, however well intentioned, possibly give scores of children the same attention that I can give my own? Am I cheating my boys more by stepping in or standing back? Should the roles of parent and professional ever be mixed?

False consciousness!

The Core Question is not Should the roles of parent and professional ever be mixed?

The Core Question is What is my child learning at school, if anything?

My fifth grader's teacher has specifically asked us not to help," said Jacqueline Ghosen, who also has a fourth grader, and who is more than able to help with math because she teaches business classes at the University at Buffalo School of Management. "Her thought is that if the children are not getting the concept, she is not teaching it well," she said. "But if our child gets it wrong, regardless of whose fault it is, he still gets a lower homework grade. Also, if he is the only one who didn't get the concept, she is not going to reteach it."

That's a problem, alright.

Two words: formative assessment

So every night Ms. Ghosen and her husband spend at least three hours reviewing their sons' math, one equation at a time, telling them how many problems are wrong and sending the children back to find the mistakes themselves.

A big, fat, red 'A' to Ms. Ghosen and her husband for logical reasoning.

If the teacher isn't teaching to mastery, somebody has to.

Who's it going to be?

Other teachers have the opposite request: they want parents to take the reins. Ms. Jacobson recalls a recent parent-teacher conference where she was told "that the only way to keep kids achieving at the high level expected by the school district is to teach at school and then have the kids go home and be drilled and helped and tutored by the parents."

Another big, fat, red 'A' to Ms. Jacobson's teacher for logical reasoning.

This teacher would no doubt thrive in a DI system.

She is not teaching in a DI system.

So she's leveled with the parents. If the school isn't teaching to mastery somebody has to do it.

Unless you have a live-in tutor (that's another story) it's going to be you. Us. The parents.

The real story here, the story that should have been written, is the story of why the schools aren't teaching to mastery.

She's looking at the symptom of school failure.

Not the source.


I just spent a couple of seconds looking at that picture.

It's great, isn't it?

Totally undermines the article, something I've seen more than once.

Here we have an anxious child, bewildered by the indecipherable schoolwork he's supposed to complete at home, on his own, with neither competent instruction nor help. The teacher has written some stuff on the board, or the child and a couple of classmates have discovered some stuff in a small group, and now he's supposed to know it.

And here we have a mother glaring at the books her school has sent home—glaring from clear across the room. She's also looking semi-bewildered, but bewildered in a mad way, not a say way.

Wait! she's saying. Is it a 'feature story'? Is it a 'persuasive essay'? Is it a 'major research PRODUCT'?

Plus, she's so ticked off she has apparently acquired the ability to project herself across the room telepathically, double in size, and change colors; she's so ticked off she's turning into THE HULK.

I could send this out as a Christmas picture.

Of course the good news is that parents who possess supernatural powers terrify school administrators.

a personality change, too

Plus the mom was a happy, nice, non-hovering, non-helicopter parent before she got a look at the incomprehensible junk they sent home for her child to do.

I think the TIMES should forget about writing articles, and just have the artists draw the stories.

helicopter parents, part 1
helicopter parents, part 2
helicopter parents, part 3
helicopter parents at the AFT
news from nowhere, part 6 (AP students)
helicopter parents of the word, unite
helicopter parents of the world, unite part 2a (t-shirts)
MiddleWeb says hovering is good

KumonWriting 16 Dec 2005 - 22:07 CatherineJohnson

I've been forgetting to thank Carolyn for our new categories:

  • Teaching Writing

  • Homeschooling

Thank you!

This will be the first entry under writing.

learning to write with KUMON Reading

I've mentioned that Ben Franklin taught himself to write persuasive essays by reverse engineering other people's persuasive essays.

He'd cut apart the sentences (IIRC), then try to reassemble them in proper sequence.

I've tried this myself. It's much harder than it sounds.

KUMON Reading (which I think is a superb program) does something similar, which I suspect would help any child develop a mature expository writing style.

Here it is:

Rearrange the words to complete the sentences.

1) A rocket is a spacecraft __________________________________.
[ that / space / allows / to / reach/ humans / outer ]

2) __________________________________ ,
the probe is navigated from afar.
[ are / humans / as / aboard / there / no ]

3) The universe is __________________________________ .
[ exist / matter / space / and / all / where ]

4) __________________________________
the scientist boasted.
[ now / we / " / " / have / technology / the / , ]

KUMON Reading worksheet E1 77a (5th grade)


1) A rocket is a spacecraft that allows humans to reach outer space.

2) As there are no humans aboard, the probe is navigated from afar.

3) The universe is where all space and matter exist.

4) "We now have the technology," the scientist boasted.

This is sophisticated prose, and it's difficult to teach to children, or to students of any age. Left to his own devices, no 5th grader—these are 5th grade worksheets—is going to produce sentences like these.

Doing this exercise forces the child to focus on the 'smallest units' of writing, words and punctuation marks.

It also directs the child's attention to the 'Exactly Right Words,' to see that the difference between the best composition and the next-best is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug (wasn't that the Mark Twain analogy)?

Christopher, for instance, constructed sentence number 4 in this way:

"Now we have the technology," the scientist boasted.

That's perfectly fine. It's grammatically correct; it makes sense.

But it's not as elegant as 'We now have the technology,' and in fact it doesn't work as well with the verb 'boasted.' This is a subtle point. Offhand I can't think of a better way to make it (or of any way to make it at all, as a matter of fact).

The same principle holds with number 3. It would be grammatically correct to write, The universe is where all matter and space exist. But it wouldn't be as good

I would imagine that the only time in school students are taught to pay such close attention to language would be in reading and writing poetry. Not expository prose. (If anyone knows expository writing programs that do teach the subtleties of style, let us know.)

learning to read expository prose

I've often read educators saying that, in 4th grade, children must begin to read for content.

Unfortunately, they haven't been taught to do this. The reading programs of elementary schools are fiction, fiction, and more fiction, along with a personal narrative or two. Children aren't taught to read and interpret expository prose.

Another missing piece.

Andrew to KUMON

I'm starting Andrew in KUMON math today. Mr. Liu saw him in action last week, and told me to bring him at 4.

In preparation, I'm going to spend the rest of the afternoon chanting persistent and patient under my breath.

do narrative reading skills transfer to expository reading?

The Direct Instruction folks say no, which would be my guess:

Narrative reading skills do not readily transfer to expository reading.

Narrative and expository texts have been found to have differential effects upon readers, with narrative being easier to comprehend than expository (Zabrucky & Ratner, 1992.) The ability to comprehend and formulate expository prose is essential for achievement in school (Seidenberg, 1989).

articles, marketing material from EPS, College Board report

Seidenberg, P.L. (1989). Relating text processing research to reading and writing instruction for learning disabled students. Learning Disabilities Focus 5 (1), pp. 4-12.

Zabrucky, K. & Ratner, H.H. (1992). Effects of passage type on comprehension monitoring and recall in good and poor readers. Journal of Reading Behavior 24, pp. 373-391.

Writing Across the Curriculum Series by Patrice Cardiel, Ronda Cole, Mary Kay Hobbs, et. al. By Anna Cimochowski, Ph.D. research supporting the Writing Across the Curriculum Series published by EPS. You may have to Google to find it. This is marketing material, but often these papers are useful.

Report of The College Board National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges, pdf file to download at EPS.

AnimalsInTranslationInDiscoverMagazineBestBooks 10 Jan 2006 - 22:23 CatherineJohnson

Temple says Discover Magazine has chosen Animals in Translation as one of its Top Science Books of the Year (link to last year's list).


Plus the paperback came today.

I was going to take a picture of it with my dogs, but the camera battery is out of juice.

this is cool

I just went over to Barnes and Noble to pull a picture of the paperback, and found this:


Animals in Translation is a recommended holiday gift.


TrustInSchools 10 Jan 2006 - 14:23 CatherineJohnson

Via eduwonk, Schooling America: How the Public Schools Meet the Nation’s Changing Needs by Patricia Albjerg Graham

Publisher's Weekly

"Our elementary, secondary, and higher education sectors are getting better, just not as rapidly or as completely as we would like." This guardedly optimistic assessment of the last century of American education characterizes Graham's erudite consideration of our nation's public schools. As an educator whose 50-year career has taken her from teaching social studies in Dismal Swamp, Virginia, to the deanship of the Harvard faculty of education and the directorship of the National Institute of Education, Graham's ability to speak from direct experience, whether about the tension between theory and practice in curricular reform, the struggle to diversify schools, or the effects of research funding on higher education, makes for a consistently engaging read, even if the topics discussed, on the surface, sound dry. Although her opinions on how America's educational system can improve seep into the writing, these are less central to the book than her lively retelling of developments in the public school system since 1900. Whether or not one shares her commitment to diversity and vision of education's role in shaping society, the historical material here will be of great interest to professional educators, policymakers and parents of school-age children.

This is why I find the public school system opaque.

It strikes me as entirely possible that her thesis is true. I just don't know.

One data point: Ed told me, this morning, that there's no question college students' writing has gotten much better over the 20-odd years he's been reading it at UCLA and NYU.

Interestingly, students can't write an argument. The content of student writing isn't better, in his experience. But the form is dramatically improved. (We're talking an elite group of students, obviously. Still, those are the students I'm specifically concerned about as a mom, so I'm glad to hear it.)

The idea that students are better at writing but no better at thinking is slightly scandalous to me, since I tend to think of form and content as reasonably inseparable.

But if that's what Ed is seeing, I believe him. After all, the reality of good writing expressing bad thinking is what the word 'glib' was invented to express.

Graham's blog is here.


During the last century, what we Americans wanted and what we got from our schools shifted through four distinct periods, which I call Assimilation, Adjustment, Access and Achievement. Last week we looked at the period of Assimilation covering the early years of the 20th century. This week I look at the middle years of the twentieth century, including WWII and the post-war years, which I call the Adjustment era. In coming weeks, I will address Access, the period after Brown v. Board of Education until 1983 and, finally, Achievement, the years from 1983 to the present day. The following pictures help illustrate this tale of shifting assignments to America's schools and their reluctance, sometimes wisely, to complete the new assignments as fully and promptly as the public and, later, policy-makers, wished.

It's certainly true that we here at Kitchen Table Math are in the Unhappy Achievement phase of edu-history.

I know I am, anyway.


Last fall, I think it was, there three different books about the decline and fall of France on the French bestseller list. I remember one was called something like France qui tombe, France that Falls (roughly).

The French call this school of thought declinism.

MrsRothInstructionAndGrading 19 May 2006 - 16:05 CatherineJohnson

Sorry, I know this is repetitive.

I've decided to capture the 'Feature Story' instructions & feedback inside one post, so they show up together in the category thread, and so I can pull a few thoughts together about how to teach writing.

The kids were told they were to write a feature story.

Then they were given 2 handouts in class.

here's one:


here's the other:


And that was it. The kids went off, wrote a Feature Story/Persuasive Essay/Major Research Product, and turned it in. Then they were given a grade.

feedback and grade:


The papers were handed out so that all students saw each others' grades, and Christopher was called to Mrs. Roth's desk to be shamed. "Are you actually trying to do the work?" Mrs. Roth said, with all the class listening.

Notice there are two Ds here; he was first learning he'd flunked two writing assignments at that moment. He is the only child in any of Mrs. Roth's classes to receive a grade of D on both papers, or—I'll wager—on any paper.

Since that day Christopher has been teased and taunted at lunch and recess every day. At night he comes home and cries.

Two days ago one of his closest friends said to him, "Mrs. Roth is a good teacher, you're just stupid."

He's no longer sitting with his friends at lunch, and has joined the table of two students who are struggling academically. One of them is the sole black child in his English class, to whom Mrs. Roth said, recently, "Stop acting stupid." The other is a boy whose parents have had a bitter divorce, and who has been sent for Homework Help.

I like these boys; I'm happy for Christopher to be their friend.

I'm not happy that this new friendship has been caused by a public humiliation of my child. (If I were the parent of either of those boys—and I knew what was happening—I wouldn't be happy, either.)

One more thing.

For the record, Christopher says he turned in a 'work cited page.'

I have no idea what happened to the work cited page. If he says he did it, then he did. It could be buried in his folder, his locker, his notebook.....lord only knows where it is. For all I know, Mrs. Roth could have lost it herself.

If she were concerned with his learning, she'd find out.

how not to teach writing

  • what is the assignment? In class, the children were told to write a "Feature Story." At some point it became apparent to some of the children, though not to Christopher, that they were to write a "Persuasive Essay." Another mom told me that one girl raised her hand and asked, "Is the Feature Story the same thing as the Persuasive Essay?" She thought maybe they were two different assignments. Mrs. Roth said, "That's a stupid question."* Apparently "Major Research Product" was also part of the assignment, judging by the feedback Christopher received to justify his grade of D. This is an appalling assignment. If you can't clearly define a writing assignment—if you don't know that Feature Stories, Persuasive Essays, and Major Research Products are 3 different things—you've violated the fundamental tenet of good writing going in. Clear thinking and clear expression start at the top.

  • reliance on the parent to function as secretary and reserve teacher I failed miserably in my assigned role. Give me a D. No, give me an F. I failed to go through Christopher's stuffed-to-the-gills folder, pull out the assignment sheets, read them myself, then take out my calendar and pencil in an additional nightly battle over writing to accompany my previously scheduled nightly battle over math. Here's how the Feature Story battle would have gone. Christopher would have insisted the assignment was a Feature Story. Brandishing Mrs. Roth's 'tips,' I would have insisted the assignment was also a Persuasive Essay. Christopher would have had some comeback or other, then he would have started yelling, and I would have threatened to Email The Teacher and Find Out What The Assignment Really Is and so on and so on......I did none of this. I let him go off and do the assignment on his own; when he finished I read through & thought it was good. That wasn't my job. My job was to function as Reserve Teacher and Secretary, to manage, revise, and edit Christopher's work, to type it up with headings, subheadings, Word Art and illustrations, & to carry Mrs. Roth through the school year just as I am carrying Christopher's math teacher through the school year. I blew it. (See Susan on being your child's secretary.)

  • failure to grasp the nature of a 6th grade child Christopher is intensely focused on school. That's always been true, but now he's becoming independent, and he wants me to butt out. He thinks he knows what the teacher said; he doesn't want to hear what I think the teacher said. And he's horrifically anxious about his 9-POCKET SCHOOL FOLDER. He won't let us take any papers out of it because he might need them, so he has no idea what's in there or where it is. His school folder is exactly like George's wallet in the Seinfeld episode about overstuffed wallets, only bigger & he gets graded on doing assignments that are lost inside.

  • no apparent instruction According to Christopher, this is the only instruction they got. Two hand-outs, then a grade. I believe him, since other moms of other kids in the class say the same thing. However, even if Mrs. Roth spent every day of the past month teaching the kids how to write a Feature Story/Persuasive Essay/Major Research Product, Christopher didn't learn what she taught, or he wouldn't have gotten 2 Ds on 2 consecutive papers. A grade of D on a completed student paper is a grade of D on the teacher's teaching. Mrs. Roth has done no formative assessment to discover whether her students have taken in what she's been teaching. Nor has she done formative assessment to discover whether the students remember they were given two handouts, know where those handouts are and can locate them, or understand what the 'tips' on the handouts actually mean.

  • no teaching of process I have mixed feelings about teaching writing-as-process. This has been the dominant approach for decades now, and Ed says he's seen student writing improve dramatically over the past 20 years in form, but not content. I'm not sure why writing-as-process sets off my bad-curriculum sensors; I'll have to figure it out. However, in this case there should have been some kind of teaching-of-process somewhere. This is a pure product approach, with no instruction at all, and no intermediate stages or steps. If this teacher wanted a Major Research Product—an assignment beyond the capacities and knowledge of these 6th grade children—she needed to be taking them through the stages. She didn't.

  • starting at the top The persuasive essay is the calculus of writing. College kids can't do it; first-year Masters candidates can't do it. Moreover, most college kids and entry-level Masters candidates can't identify the argument implicit in nonfiction texts; most college kids and entry-level Masters candidates have no idea there is an argument implicit in nonfiction texts. This is why I'm interested in the Everything's An Argument text.


I'm thinking about how to teach writing, and remembering how I did teach writing at Iowa, Cal State Long Beach, UC Irvine (where I taught science writing), and Johns Hopkins CTY.

This isn't it.


* That's a stupid answer.

LogicalFallacyBingoPart2 15 Dec 2005 - 17:30 CatherineJohnson


logic sites

Doug also left links to 2 logic sites:

Nizkor project: logical fallacies

Atheism Web: Logic & Fallacies (ooo, that's Christmasy!)

I used Howard Kahane's Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric: The Use of Reason in Everyday Life to teach freshman rhetoric at Iowa.

The book seems to have expanded by a couple hundred pages since I used it, and the price has gone through the roof.

But I'll bet it's still a terrific book.

Logical Fallacy Bingo

SteveOnWriting 15 Dec 2005 - 20:09 CatherineJohnson

from the helicopter parents Comments thread:

Susan: Writing-wise, developmentally inappropriate to me is when they ask for middle school cognitive skills in grade school, like the ability to extract a main point from a paragraph, or the ability to develop a thesis through an essay before they even know what a sentence is.

Steve: I have noticed that writing skills greatly lag reading skills, as one would expect. When a book report is given, it is for a book at their reading level: 75-150 page chapter books (although he has read all of the Harry Potter books). He is given a two/three page form to follow for writing the report with maybe a page allowed for writing a description of the book.

Even I would have to work at reducing a description of the book down to one or two pages. The times I have worked with my son on these projects (he could never do them himself), it has been a struggle.

In class, they talk a lot about editing (they call it SCOPE) and correcting a rough draft, but not much time on the more difficult task of coming up with the first draft and have it close enough to even begin the SCOPE process. I tell him that it is like reducing a Harry Potter book down to movie length, since we have spent a long time talking about what is in the book versus what is in the movie. He can see that the more you have to reduce, the more difficult it becomes.

Re-reading this, I think Steve has put his finger on what's been bothering me about the Writing As Process juggernaut (which apparently got underway in San Francisco in the....1970s? Ed knows. It was something called the San Francisco Writing Project, or some such). It's been hugely influential.

At Iowa, we didn't teach writing as 'process.'

We used the Norton Anthology and Kahane's book on logic if we chose (I did choose) and the kids turned in one 500-word paper a week. Then we discussed as many of them in class as we could.

We read nonfiction essays in Norton and analyzed the argument, support, structure, and style.

We also had a coherent sequence of assignments, starting with the personal narrative, and working up to the persuasive essay.

This is a terrific way to organize a comp course, because the structure of a personal narrative is 'natural' to most people (though not all). It's organized along a timeline.

Moreoever, even the greenest students could instantly tell which personal narrative worked best, and invariably the best narrative was the narrative with the most detail. Everyone saw this.

Typically, what would happen is that most of the essays would be awful—boring as heck—but one kid would be a natural-born user-of-detail and everyone else would see this.

Because 'detail' is to a personal narrative what 'evidence' is to an expository essay, we had a natural jumping off point.

I'll add that we didn't purposely send them out to write boring personal narratives for the sake of making a point. Before they wrote a personal narrative they read examples of personal narratives in Norton, and we pointed out that the narratives worked, in large part, because of vivid detail.

But they were young, new writers, so just reading a couple of good personal narratives and being told that Detail was the Magic Ingredient wasn't enough.

The contrast between a boring personal narrative without detail and an interesting personal narrative with detail brought the point home.

I'm wondering now whether we should have had a writing-as-process 'strand' (golly I hate that word).....I'm also having trouble remembering whether, in fact, we did have such a strand!

I have a vague memory that a lot of the kids took a two-semester course in Freshman Rhetoric, and that the second course taught them to write & revise a research paper.

I guess I'm thinking, at the moment, that writing-as-process is, as Steve suggests, a later stage.

U.K. writing instruction

This passage bears repeating. I'm going to figure out how to create this exercise for Christopehr:

[Judith] Koren describes how two British women she knows became effective essayists and speakers. “Each week, they’d had homework exercises like this: While preserving every essential point, reduce a 100-word essay to 50 words, then to 20, then to 10. Reduce 500 words to 50, 1,000 words to 100. Week after week, year after year.

we need info on UK writing instruction

key words: San Francisco Bay Area writing project writing as process

BeckyOnHowNotToTeachWriting 10 Jan 2006 - 13:38 CatherineJohnson

Let me just say that my 4th grader had to write a five-paragraph "persuasive essay" this weekend on why students should be allowed to return to the classroom unescorted if they forget their lunchboxes. I didn't help him with that one, except to correct his spelling. In fact, I was bursting with pride that my son figured out 3 different ways to state his 1 reason, so that he could form an essay body of 3 short paragraphs... he deserves a gold star for recognizing and attempting to execute the convention of using 3 independent supports for his argument. Even though he didn't.

But in regards to developmentally inappropriate writing assignments for 3rd graders:

The Book Talk, that comes home with these instructions, in this order:

1. Give the name of the book and the author.

2. Tell your favorite part.

3. Tell what other books this book reminds you of.

4. Show your favorite illustration from the book.

5. Tell the first sentence of the book.

6. Would you recommend this book to others?

Seem reasonable? Except there is no instruction for:

How much or how little to describe the main and supporting characters that are featured in your favorite part, so that when you read a paragraph from your favorite part, it will make sense to your classmates.

How much or how little plot information to give so that your favorite part will make sense to your classmates.

How to pick a good favorite part that you can read to your classmates and have them grasp what is funny or scary or mysterious in one paragraph.

Whether your favorite part should match the favorite illustration you pick.

Whether the best order to answer questions 1 - 6 in your book talk is 1 - 6.

And don't forget the poster for your talk!

As Steve said, it's (finding,) organizing, reducing, and localizing the information with your child that is so incredibly hard. Important, yes; easy, no. It just still takes me by surprise when I'm called upon to teach my child how to write in these situations.

But for a science fair project? It's much more pleasant to teach my son how to write in that context. That is entirely parent-driven, and it's not a surprise: I know I'm on the hook for how clearly my child presents his information. Children have not developed the ability to step outside themselves and figure out what their audience needs to know, and when they need to know it.

Yes, yes, and yes.

I find writing books incredibly hard.

But the hard part isn't the writing & revising.

The hard part is the researching and thinking.

IndependentGeorgeOnWriting 19 May 2006 - 16:04 CatherineJohnson

responding to posts by Becky C and Steve:

This reminds me of two things: Mr. Jacobs' AP American History class in the 11th grade, and Paul Salley's Calculus class in college. Mr. Jacobs' was the first class I ever took where the ratio of red marks (his comments) to blue marks (my sentences) approached 1. He didn't grade the first few essays, but instead wrote short essays of his own telling us what we needed to change. It was the first time I'd ever seen comments like, "You have offered no evidence to support this", "You claimed the exact opposite in paragraph 2", or, my personal favorite: "Interesting point - where's the followup?". (That was generally with regard to provocative points in the opening paragraph, which I never backed up later on). It was blunt, but, after that initial shock (and hurt, to be quite honest), I soon came around to seeing that everything he said was dead on.

I could write beautifully, but I'd never learned to formulate, and sustain, a coherent argument. The thing is, though, that even by the end of that year, I was still having trouble composing my essays, and would revert to my old tricks when pressed. If I couldn't find a supporting argument in one of the documents, I would just make a declaration without citing evidence. If I had two unrelated points, I would link them together with a well-turned phrase which sounded great, but held together with only the most tenuous of logic. And no matter how many times Mr. Jacobs called me out on it, and no matter how much I knew he was right, I continued to have trouble. My re-writes always fixed the problem, but I could only do it after he had already pointed them out to me. I still aced the class (I got a 5 on the AP Exam), but nevertheless couldn't get over the hump intellectually.

I finally figured it out in college, in Mr. Salley's calculus class. Unusual for a freshman class, Mr. Salley had us working on proofs from day one (easy ones, but proofs nonetheless), and would always enjoin us to "prove it" when we stated ideas that just seemed so blindingly obvious. It was in that context - seeing logic and deduction stripped almost entirely of language - that I finally learned out how to put everything together. What I couldn't do with words, I could do with a bunch of weird squiggles on a page; all I had to do was translate. It was an epiphany.

I'm not sure how useful this anecdote is (I guess I needed to spend a little more time working on the thesis). But I think it does illustrate difficult it can be to teach good writing. Mr. Jacobs wasn't a good teacher - he was a great one. And not to put too fine a point on it, I was a great student. And yet, I still had trouble. I don't think I would have ever 'gotten it' on my own, without the explicit training Mr. Salley gave us. At the same time, I never would have been able to make the connection without Mr. Jacobs' instruction; until then, I never even realized that there was a problem with my writing. Without that help, I don't think I ever would have thought to apply the same brain which decoded algebra to encode good rhetoric.


formulate and sustain a coherent argument

Ed says his entry-level Masters candidates can't write an argument (and often can't identify the argument of a text).

He doesn't say this as a 'students are so dumb today' lament. These are smart, well-educated students who possess strong skills and domain knowledge.

Another thing. There is research showing, and it's so true as to be obvious in Ed's experience, that college students can talk an argument or an idea far better than they can write an argument or an idea.

That may sound obvious, but when you see it, it's startling. People who can be cogent, coherent, and intelligent in conversation or debate can produce very poor prose—prose in which the argument they are making unravels or disappears altogether.

Neither of us knows how early in a child's education he or she can learn to formulate and sustain a coherent argument in prose. What we do know is that it's very difficult, and it seems to come after a number of years of practice.

This may not have to be the case with proper teaching, which is one of the reasons I want to know how the British teach composition. I think the British may be doing it better than we, and perhaps earlier in a student's career (though, again, I don't know).

Nevertheless, here in America, at the moment, that's the way it is. It takes a long time for a student to learn how to formulate and sustain a coherent argument in prose.

This is why I'm going to spend a great deal of time simply having Christopher read quality nonfiction essays and identify the argument, supporting evidence, and logical structure.

I'm going to use the British exercise of having a student condense and re-condense a 500-word argument into ever-shorter statements.

And I'm going to experiment with Ben Franklin's practice of reverse-engineering of persuasive essays by cutting apart the sentences and trying to reassemble them himself, like a puzzle.

It worked for him.

terrific Comments thread

ExpressiveWriting 21 Dec 2005 - 18:06 CatherineJohnson


Ken tracked down this Direct Instruction writing curriculum from SRA. They have some interesting lessons posted online, and the Scope and Sequence categories are helpful.

He also rounded up two studies of the series:

Using the Expressive Writing Program to Improve the Writing Skills of High School Students with Learning Disabilities

Teaching Expressive Writing to Students with Learning Disabilities: A Research Synthesis

update: Smartest Tractor's pick


Step up to Writing from SOPRIS WEST. Here's the Program Overview (pdf file)

Glancing through the Program Overview, I found the stoplight graphic I've posted below.

I like it.

I'm a fan of visual teaching in general; visuals stay with us in some way words don't seem to.

By way of support, I'll re-tell my sister-in-law anecdote.

My sister-in-law is a federal prosecutor in Philadelphia. One day we were talking about 'learning styles,' which I don't particularly believe in, but since everyone else does I don't automatically launch into a cognitive science lecture every time the subject comes up.

So we were talking about learning styles, and I said something about visual learning styles, and my sister-in-law said, "Everyone has a visual learning style."

"That's the first thing they tell you about presenting evidence to juries. If you want the jury to remember what you've said, you have to give them a visual."

I believe that.

Step Up To Writing gives kids a visual for writing that looks like it can probably be applied both to paragraphs and to entire essays. That makes sense; a paragraph can be thought of as a mini-essay.

I also very much like the stoplight metaphor. Writing should have rhythm; some parts should be fast, some slow, some in-between. That's a subtle concept to teach, and regardless of whether you try to teach rhythm explicitly, the stoplight image will be making the point.

My only problem, just on this cursory inspection, it that I find the final greenlight confusing.

I'm not used to thinking of a green light as meaning go back, and since the green light seems to take the writer to the essay's conclusion, I find 'green' for 'conclude' confusing.

However, that doesn't seem like an insurmountable problem. The conclusion in an action film is typically faster-paced than the rest of the film, and this can be true of an essay.....I think a student can probably survive the semi-breakdown of the analogy at this point.

I'll be looking forward to hearing how this program works for Smartest Tractor whose students are, IIRC, in 8th grade.


compare and contrast


'Graphic organizers' are huge these days, as far as I can tell. Everyone's using them.

If I were teaching a class of middle school kids how to write, I'd go with stoplights.

ThereAreOrAreNotShortcutsChooseOne 10 Jan 2006 - 16:13 CatherineJohnson

This is funny.

I picked up a book called Shortcuts for the Student Writer at Barnes and Noble today. When I looked it up on Amazon to post a picture of the cover, Rafe Asquith's book about teaching Shakespeare to disadvantaged kids also popped up. (Asquith is the Jaime Escalante of ELA.)

Title: There Are No Shortcuts.



IfTheStudentHasntLearned 23 Dec 2005 - 22:16 CatherineJohnson



From Catherine:

Our new pretend-shirt specifically says "If the student hasn't learned, the school hasn't taught," not 'the teacher hasn't taught'.

No more thoughtless (and unintended) teacher-bashing.

Seriously. I'm the last person to want to make teachers feel blamed and bashed, seeing as how half my relatives have been or are currently teachers. I'm sure I'll be one again at some point, too.

The problem is that, when you talk about schools, it's the teachers who are visible. They're in the trenches, so they get the blame. (I realize I'm not telling teachers anything they don't know.) I know better than that, but I've been sounding like I don't.

Time for a course correction.

From Carolyn:

Hey, my entire family on my mother's side were also teachers, every man and woman Jack of them. I've been a teacher too; so has Catherine.

My observation is that policy flows downhill in a school, and the buck stops with the teachers. They get the responsibility, but not the authority; policy changes really have to start with upper management.

We're here to put the pressure on upper management, and support the teachers in doing what they know how to do.

DanOnWritingProcess 22 Dec 2005 - 20:39 CatherineJohnson

Most of my writing involved creating technical white papers, proposals to customers, or presentations of experimental research. You usually begin with an introduction and end with a conclusion/summary. Beyond that, there often wasn’t much of a template. I would generally begin writing by typing key ideas into the word processor with lots of white space in between. These were generally sentence fragments. Sometimes, though, an elegant phrase would occur to me, so I might type in a few whole sentences. Only in the roughest sense would this be considered an outline. Some of these fragments would become section headings; others would end up as list items in bullet lists. As I went along, I would just keep putting more meat on the bones. Also, as things took shape, I would continually re-arrange the order of things. Sometimes you lay out the plan first, then highlight the key nuggets therein. Other times, you lead with your value proposition, then lay out the plan that delivers it. You don’t necessarily know which will work better right off the bat.

I was never formally taught to do things this way. As I said, I make no claim that it is a particularly good way to write. It seems to work for me, though—most of the time. I think the exception is interesting. A few years back, I took a standardized certification test. One section was an essay. I had to write it with pencil and paper in a test booklet. I found this very difficult. I am very reliant on word processing software, and the flexibility it gives me to easily re-arrange, insert, and delete redundancy once I detect it. The standardized test essay forced me to write linearly, from beginning to end. This seems to me to be a very artificial constraint. It makes me skeptical of standardized tests of writing.

It never occurred to me that word processors might affect the way people write.

I became a writer before anyone had personal computers. I used to write longhand, in pencil, and I had an 'embedding scheme,' where I'd put a zillion different phrasing options inside one sentence, in brackets. That way, when I went back & re-read, I could cross out the ones I didn't like.

It looked like this, only in messy handwriting:

I [became / was / wanted to be] a [writer / start writing] before I had a [computer / word processor / before personal computers were invented] ....... etc.

On first read-through I'd do as much crossing out as I could, which was never enough; then I might change the crossings-out on the 3rd read-through, or I might add in some new options-in-brackets, and so it went. I could fill up an entire sheet of paper with just one sentence and its multiple choices.

As I was reading Dan's post, it struck me that I was trying to do word processing without a word processor.


I find the kind of writing that (I think) Dan is doing extremely difficult.

In fact, I find it agonizing, not to put too fine a point on it.

No, agonizing isn't the word. I don't have a word.*

It's the same kind of writing you have to do for a book proposal, where you have two purposes:

a) write well about your subject

b) sell your subject

I'm just, today, putting a reasonably close-to-final draft of Temple's & my new book proposal in the mail to her. The whole thing has been driving me crazy for months.

First of all, it took forever to figure out what our central idea is. I think it only came to me last month, finally. Up 'til then, the central idea was: Write a sequel to Animals in Translation.

Figuring out a central idea is hard enough, but when you're writing a book proposal, not a book, having a central idea is just the beginning.

You can't just have a central idea, you have to have what Hollywood types used to call a 'high concept.' (They may still call it that, I don't know.)

Turning a central idea into a high concept is he**.

* Yes, I do have a word. I have a whole phrase. Our friend Rachel used this phrase to describe her first encounter with, yes, a word processor, the original KayPro II.

She said, 'Well you know how it is trying to learn to word process. You spend a week in an agitated state."

That's book proposal writing, except it's not a week. It's months.


WritingQuirks 27 Dec 2005 - 17:03 CatherineJohnson

Announcing an unofficial poll of writing quirks.

Here's what we've got so far:


Here's Carolyn's version:


Carolyn used an open source thing called VYM (visualize your mind) for diagramming. I used Inspiration, which is the adult version of Kidspiration.

Rapid Problem Solving with Post-It Notes

I'm seriously considering dumping the fancy-schmancy graphical organizer and going to a bulletin board, index cards, and push-pins.

Or else Post-It Notes.


ReadingDiagnosticAtKumon 10 Jan 2006 - 14:47 CarolynJohnston

Ben and I visited Ginny at the Kumon Center tonight, so that Ben could take the diagnostic test for placement in the Kumon reading program.

Ginny and I had a great time talking while Ben ground away at the diagnostic test (just kidding about the grinding-away part -- I just wanted to leave you with the accurate picture of Ginny and Ilaughing and yakking while Ben swotted away on his exam). She was a Japan consultant for a long time, working with American executives to help them learn to deal with Japanese executives. She started a Kumon franchise about 8 years ago because she really believed (and believes) in what Kumon can do for students.

It looks as though Kumon might be able to do a lot for Ben. She gave him the primary 6 placement exam in reading, for 6th graders. When he sat down with it, he actually said, "Finally, some real language arts! With real grammar practice and writing! Not this stupid lit log stuff all the time."

I was surprised to hear him say that. I know he's treading water in his language arts class -- I know he is not learning much, and he's doing no real expository writing at all. It's a joke, actually. He went to a Core Knowledge school, and they did extensive research reports on topics in history every year after 2nd grade. That was intense; maybe even a little too intense. But when it gets to the point where BEN HIMSELF is complaining about the lack of teeth in his language arts class -- then I sit up and take notice.

I was delighted with his performance on the reading exam. She gave him the 6th grade diagnostic test and he went all the way through with one small error. It wasn't easy material, either. What really impressed me was one problem -- which he aced -- in which a short story had been broken up into 8 or 9 single sentences and rearranged; the testee was supposed to number them in their correct order. It wasn't a trivial task.

What's amazing about the fact that he aced this question is that sequencing -- correctly ordering things -- was one of Ben's weakest areas, cognitively, as a young child. We spent hours with the Playskool stacking rings and stacking cups, trying to help him put them in the correct order; later, we worked with sets of 3 or 4 simple cards that told a story if you put them in the right order. It is something that typical kids do pretty easily, and we had to work hard to catch up. Eventually we left them behind and moved on with his childhood, because you have to, but to find that he has somehow magically more than caught up in this area is an extremely pleasant extreme surprise.

He placed into a section in which he'll work on dependent clauses, mastering the main idea of a paragraph, and vocabulary. Extracting the main idea of a paragraph is one of the most difficult tasks for any autism spectrum kid -- as Catherine and Temple say, autism is a disorder of hyperspecificity. People with very high-functioning autism will seize on a million irrelevant details in a narrative, and completely miss its main point, something we typicals can extract almost without thinking. I am excited about Ben's starting Kumon reading; his success on the diagnostic test is a good omen.

And it also did me good to hear Ginny say, "he does well." Because I've known in my heart for years that he does really well, and is someone to be proud of, but I'm often out there waving the flag all by myself.

(Comments thread: notes on DOUBLE YOUR CHILD'S GRADES by Eugene Schwartz — teaching your child to read analytically & take notes)

SteveOnTeachingWritingPart2 10 Jan 2006 - 14:00 CatherineJohnson

I'm trying to pull together the Writing thread for my neighbor, and just re-discovered this Comment from Steve:

I just helped my son (4th grade) complete his report/map/craft project on Chirstmas in Greece. (All of the kids had a different country.) As with his other projects, the problem is that the school doesn't prepare them to do the job. They may talk a little bit about what to do, but they don't see what goes on at home. The kids just can't do the project by themselves. If I let him do the project all by himself, it would be horrible, take FOREVER, he would learn very little, and he would get a poor grade. I end up doing the teacher's job. I don't do it for him, but he needed major help in organization, reducing the information down to a reasonable size, and putting it all into his own words. No parent I know likes school projects like dioramas, research reports, and other thematic displays of educational pedagogy and feel-good-ness. Perhaps they expect and want parental involvement?!? I'm more than willing to do my part, but, I really don't want to do their job. Please don't ask me again to practice basic math with my son at home.

There are so many fantastic Comments on this site. I've got a list to pull 'up front,' and am going to carve out some time today to get started, at least. The archived entries on how to teach writing are here.

SusanOnPartsAndWholes 11 Jan 2006 - 16:04 CatherineJohnson

This way of looking at the edu-world has been terrifically helpful to me:

Part of the problem is that, like New Math and Whole Language, there is a movement afoot to push what I consider middle school skills down into grade school, all with the assumption that grade school skills will just be learned by osmosis (or shoved onto the middle school teachers...again.) These are your two camps.

In the beginning this new way of teaching writing [beginning in Kindergarten] looks very impressive as little persuasive essays come home and state tests appear to improve. Like math, we didn't learn it that way and so what do we know? I believe this is what you would label teaching Whole to Parts.

The traditional way of learning writing (or math, for that matter) has always been Parts to Whole, starting with building blocks for younger children (handwriting, grammar, sentence structure, punctuation) and then moving to more complicated techniques requiring better critical thinking skills (notetaking, outlining, etc.) that actually match the child's growing opinions and ideas. This strikes me as common sense, but what do I know?

Whether this new way is really better in the long run is still unsure, from everything I've read, yet one can't help notice that something is wrong when college professors complain loudly about students' bad writing skills, and then even request a grammar section on the SATs.

key words: parts to whole whole to parts two camps

SentenceCombining 18 Jan 2006 - 16:43 CatherineJohnson

....speaking of books coming in the mail, my copy of Don Killgallon's Sentence Composing for Middle School arrived today. (Killgallon's website)

I don't exactly know what sentence combining is, but I have a Bayesian conviction it's going to be the answer to my Writing-Instruction problems at the sentence level, thanks to this fellow:

Grammar teaching and writing skills: the research evidence

Richard Hudson (

Dept of Phonetics and Linguistics, UCL, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT

Does a training in 'formal grammar' improve a child's ability to write? At one time it was taken for granted that the answer was yes, so children were taught grammatical analysis as part of the effort to improve their writing. However when educational researchers sought evidence for the expected effects, the results were negative; for example, one of the classic experiments concluded: "It seems safe to infer that the study of English grammar had a negligible or even harmful effect upon the correctness of children's writing in the early part of the five secondary schools." (Harris 1962) A number of studies in the 60s and 70s have since been accepted as 'classic' support for the view that grammar teaching does nothing for children's writing. By the late 60s the dominant view in both the UK and the USA, and possibly throughout the English-speaking world, was that "most children cannot learn grammar and ... even to those who can it is of little value." (Thompson 1969) No doubt this view fitted the spirit of the times both in English teaching (where grammar was seen as a shackle on children's imagination) and in linguistics (where Chomsky was arguing that grammatical competence develops 'naturally' according to an innate programme, so teaching is simply irrelevant).

Since then much has changed in both the UK and the USA, and the pendulum seems to be on the return swing. It would be naive to think that the pendulum is driven by academic research - indeed, there has been very little research on grammar and writing since the flurry in the 60s and 70s; rather it reflects very general attitude changes in education and more generally throughout society. However the result is that there is now much more enthusiasm in some educational circles for the idea that conscious grammar (resulting from formal teaching) could have the useful benefit of improving writing.....

What, then, does the published research really say about the effects of grammar teaching?


Grammar teaching could be surreptitious, as it were, with a clear underlying theory of grammar but minimal use of grammatical terminology. This is in fact how a lot of grammar teaching has been done; and in particular there is a well-recognised activity called 'sentence combining' which seems to be widely used in the USA. There is some evidence, apparently good, that this kind of activity benefits children's writing (Abrahamson 1977; Barton 1997; Hillocks 1986; Mellon 1969; O'Hare 1973), and in some studies it turned out that this kind of grammar teaching produced better results than more traditional teaching of grammatical analysis. For example, " Hillocks surveys the many studies of the effects of sentence combining, and finds them overwhelmingly POSITIVE at all levels (grade 2 to adult). 60% show significant gains in syntactic maturity; 30% non-significant gains; 10% no gains." (Weaver 1996, reporting Hillocks (1986)).

Why should these exercises be so much more successful than traditional analysis? It seems reasonable to assume that it is at least in part because they are exercises in the production of language, and specifically in the production of written language, so they feed much more directly into the child's growing repertoire of productive skills than exercises in grammatical analysis do. In short, they are more closely integrated into the teaching of writing, so the skills acquired in isolation are more likely to transfer directly into a usable skill. However this conclusion does not necessarily rule out the possibility of transfer from grammatical analysis under the right conditions.

This makes sense to me, so I'm going with it.

5 reasons:

  • it makes sense

  • I'm a writer, so my intuition about what works in writing instruction is probably worth listening to

  • I used to teach writing, so my intuition that sentence combining makes sense is, again, probably worth listening to

  • KUMON Reading uses sentence combining

  • sentence combining seems somewhat analogous to the way Ben Franklin taught himself to write

We need a Bayesian Rating Scale

That way, we could assign numerical values to the question of, Just how strongly do I think I guessed right?

Here's a possibility:

On a scale of 1 to 7, 1 being 'no clue' and 7 being 'death and taxes, how certain do I feel that sentence-combining will make Christopher a better writer?




I'm not feeling a lot of doubt here.

I love this

back to Hudson:

In conclusion, the idea that grammar teaching improves children's writing skills is much better supported by the available research than is commonly supposed. However there is no denying the need for more research in this area, so we finish with quotations (from Walmsley 1984) by two of the twentieth century's most distinguished psychologists who have taken an interest in this question.

Robert Thouless (1969:211):
"If a small part of the research effort that has been put into demonstrating the uselessness of grammar ... had been distributed over a wider field, more might be known about how skill in the use of English can best be developed."

John Carroll (1958:324):
"I am reasonably sure that unless the student gets a feeling for sentence patterning ... his own sentence patterns will show many obvious defects. Research on the effectiveness of teaching English grammar in improving English composition has been mainly negative, but until this research has been repeated with improved methods of teaching English grammar, I will remain unconvinced that grammar is useless in this respect."

I went on a Sentence-Combining treasure hunt on Amazon, and came up with Don Kilgallon as the likeliest prospect. Just glancing through the middle school book, it seems like exactly what I want.

From the back of the book:

With the first edition of his book, Don Killgallon changed the way thousands of high school English teachers and their students look at language, literature, and writing by focusing on the sentence. In this revised edition, Killgallon presents the same proven methodology but offers all-new writing exercises designed specifically for the middle school student.

Unlike traditional grammar books that emphasize the parsing of sentences, this worktext asks students to imitate the sentence styles of professional writers, making the sentence composition process an enjoyable and challenging one. Killgallon teaches subliminally, nontechnically--the ways real writers compose their sentences, the ways students subsequently intuit within their own writing.

Designed to produce sentence maturity and variety, the worktext offers extensive practice in four sentence-manipulating techniques: sentence unscrambling, sentence imitating, sentence combining, and sentence expanding. All of the activities are based on model sentences written by widely respected authors. They are designed to teach students structures they should but seldom use. The rationale is that imitation and practice are as valuable in gaining competence and confidence in written language production as they are in oral language production.

Since the practices have proven successful for the great majority of students who have used them in all kinds of schools, it's demonstrably true that Sentence Composing can work anywhere--in any school, with any student.

I believe it.

Kilgallon has written books for all grade levels.





Bayesian statistics & false positives
Bayes & the human mind
Bayesian reasoning, intuition, & the cognitive unconscious
most bell curves have thick tails
ECONOMIST explanation Bayesian statistics
Bayesian certainty scale

sentence combining
Smartest Tractor on Killgallon & 5 ways to combine sentences


-- CatherineJohnson - 17 Jan 2006

TheGreatZucchini 31 Jan 2006 - 18:17 CatherineJohnson

The Peekaboo Paradox by Gene Weingarten, a WAPO Magazine story about The Great Zucchini, who is a children's entertainer in Washington D.C.

It's an incredible work. I've logged it under 'Teaching Writing' because this essay will be anthologized in every Composition Textbook on the market, or ought to be.

I cried at the end:

Maybe he's Peter Pan. He's even got some magic dust, until he loses it.

"If Eric ever grows up," Jane Knaus had told me, "his career might be over."

We are in the Great Falls home of Melanie and Denny Sisson, where eight children and their parents are gathering for a show. A few minutes earlier, Eric had asked me to pull my car up to the side of another one, so we were hidden from the house while he finished a cigarette.

The Sissons jokingly call their house a "bowling alley," because of the open space. It's more than 6,000 square feet of atria, solaria and balustrade, a beautiful home that is a testament to Denny's successful business as a landscape architect, which is itself a testament to the opulence of Great Falls real estate. It all dovetails nicely.

Things don't always work out so perfectly, though, even in Great Falls. The birthday girl is the Sissons' 5-year-old, Phoebe, and her guests are mostly kids from her special-needs class. Like Phoebe, these are children with developmental disabilities of varying degrees. They're a handful and a half.

A former elementary school teacher, Melanie chose Eric after seeing him perform elsewhere. She concluded he is "a true artist" who could entertain a roomful of kids equally well "in Great Falls or in the Sudan."

Eric didn't know these were going to be mostly kids with special needs, but it becomes apparent right away. They're beautiful children, and seem plenty smart, but they're all over the floor, with nanosecond attention spans. One mother with tired eyes and a wary bearing hovers at her son's elbow the whole time.

The show starts, and within seconds, Eric's got them. Instinctively, he's streamlining his act, making his gags last half as long as usual. He takes a drink of water, calling it, in a goofy, sonorous voice, "WA-WA." For some reason, this sends the kids into hysterics, so he repeats it. Hysterics, again. He does it a third time, and now they're doubled over, gasping for air. Eric looks out at the parents, shrugs, winks and says, "I'll just keep doin' this all afternoon, okay?" The parents laugh, maybe for the first time in a while.

For 35 minutes, Eric handles the crowd, improvising deftly as he goes. When one boy walks up excitedly and slugs him in the leg, he takes no notice. When another grabs a prop, Eric turns it into a joke. When he is done, he has actually worked up a sweat. Some parents applaud.

A little girl in pink walks right up to him -- she's not from the special-needs class, just an ordinary little girl with a special need of her own, right now -- and extends a forefinger, straight up in the air. It's puzzling. Eric meets her eyes. Something indefinable passes between them, something only they understand, and Eric reaches out, seizes that little finger in his big fist, and gives it a shake. The girl breaks into a grin. Then she hugs the most fabulous person she's ever known in her whole life, the Great Zucchini


WAPO reader responses

-- CatherineJohnson - 30 Jan 2006

NoGradeInflationInTheSuburbs 16 Sep 2006 - 21:07 CatherineJohnson

I say we get rid of middle schools altogether.

Ed just called.

On the train he had a chat with a distinguished academic, a Brit.

Her daughter is in middle school, and is doing badly. As the mom put it, 'my very bright daughter who is getting bad grades.'

The mom just wrote a paper, start to finish, for her daughter.

The grade?


Ed said, "Very few Brits who've become distinguished professors can't write."

update: Ed now says it was a C+, not a C-. He also talked to the professor again, and learned that the only reason she'd written the paper was that her daughter was completely overwhelmed with work that night. There was no way she could finish everything, so the mother wrote the paper and the daughter did everything else.

Ed gets a B-

So Christopher just handed in his first paper to his new English teacher.

Ed worked closely with him on it.

He didn't write it. He read Christopher's rough draft and made comments, as a teacher would do, and as this teacher does.*

Then Christopher revised.

Ed checked grammar, punctuation, paragraph structure, and topic sentences.

The paper came back yesterday with a grade of 80.

I better try my hand on the next one. See if we can get that baby up to 83 or 84.

[update: ok, bad idea ]

my Secret Plan

This reminds me of my Secret Plan.

Back when Christopher got his two Ds from she-who-shall-be-nameless and was asked, in front of the class, 'Are you trying to do the work at all?' I mentioned that Christopher would not be writing any more papers for this teacher.

What I didn't say was that, henceforth, I would be writing Christopher's papers for this teacher.

Ed and I agreed on that course of action the day he wrote his email to the principal.

My plan was to write all of Christopher's papers, start to finish, collect my Cs and Ds, and then, at the end of the school year, publish the whole lot of them on the internet - or, better yet, publish the whole lot of them on the internet and write an article about my experience.

Bestselling author flunks middle school English.


Make that Bestselling author with glowing reviews flunks middle school English.

That works.

I would have done it, too.

at Princeton

Ed told me a great story from his Princeton days.

He met his first wife there. In one of her history courses, she got stalled; just could not bring herself to write the paper that was due.

Finally a professor friend of theirs, also a historian, wrote it for her. I find that shocking, but there it is. This was a famous professor; I think he's well-known & respected to this day. (Come to think of it, he may have been a Brit, too.)

When Ed read the paper he told his girlfriend, "This is too good, you can't hand this in."

She handed it in anyway.

She got a B+.

grade inflation for children who are struggling, grade deflation for children who aren't

I'll write a serious post about this at some point, but that's for later. Suffice it to say that, from where I sit, the notion that there is massive 'grade inflation' in American schools has it exactly backwards. We're experiencing grade deflation. We have a child who does better work at a younger age than either of us ever did, and he's getting worse grades. Much worse.

Other parents have said the same.

I don't know why this should be. But I have to consider the possibility that Grading Hard is another form of false rigor.

You know the curriculum is rigorous because the kids are getting Bs, not As. Or Cs and Ds, not Bs.

As things stand, the system is filled to overflowing with bad incentives.

A behaviorist would tell you that 'incentives' operate mostly outside conscious awareness. That's certainly what I believe.

There are many, many incentives in our school system - perhaps especially in well-financed school districts like my own - to look like you're offering a rigorous, high-quality curriculum whether you are or not.

It would be a miracle if schools hadn't responded to these incentives - and it would be a miracle if they had any idea that they have responded to these incentives.

alternative hypothesis

OK, this makes more sense (from Ken & Steve) [update: this makes sense, but it isn't what's going on in Irvington]:


My theory is that in courses where there is subjective grading (most courses outside of math and science) a student's grades are mostly determined by his academic reputation.


I transferred schools often as a kid -- in 5th grade, in 7th, and in 10th. Every time I transferred, my grades would always dip a little (I'd get more Bs than A's) until the teachers got to know me. After a quarter or so, they'd always return back up to where they'd always been. I basically I had to re-prove I was an A student before the teachers handed out A's again.

Then there was the time in senior year of high school where I had to take a lower track class (religion I believe) because it was the only class that I could fit in my schedule and even then I had to go seven periods straight through without a lunch. For the first half of the year, the teacher knew who I was and knew I was in his class and graded me accordingly. But, he left after the first semester and a new teacher taught the course. He was new so he didn't know me. I was just another non-college bound kid to him and he didn't exactly have high expectations of the class. Needless to say, he gave me the lowest grade that semester. This wasn't a class of A students; these were mostly B students and they deserved Bs.

Then there was the time in college when I gave all my psych class papers to my friend who was taking the same class two years after I took it (different teacher though). I got all As in that class, don't know whether they were deserved or not. He got out with Cs using the same papers that got me As. Go figure.


This is the competitive ice skating grading philosophy. Some skaters can never win no matter how well they do. It's kind of like a running average grade.

wicked thought for the day

This is reminding me of that famous social psych experiment where perfectly normal people checked into mental hospitals as patients with psychiatric diagnoses, and then acted normal.

All of their normal behaviors, IIRC, were interpreted by staff as acting-out or psychotic. (NOT FACT-CHECKED)

Some writer-parent with time on his/her hands ought to write all his/her kid's papers some year as an experiment.


I'd love to see someone do it, though.

update: fact-checked

"On Being Sane in Insane Places"

I was right.

After the 'pseudo-patients' were admitted to the psychiatric hospital, all acted sane. None of the doctors picked up on it, but some of the patients did:

The pseudo-patient's sanity went undetected. They spent an average of 19 days (range of 7 to 52 days) on the ward, before being released. When released, they were diagnosed as being `schizophrenic in remission' not as being sane. Some visitors and patients detected the pseudo-patients' sanity (35 out of 118 patients).


* I must add this: Christopher's new English teacher is lovely, and is teaching a serious course. Christopher comes home nights and reads me the notes he's taken; he's shown me the grammar and spelling they're working on (excellent); I've read the writing instructions she's given them (also excellent). She's even working on his handwriting, which is almost enough in and of itself to put her in my pantheon. Her grading may be stricter than I think right (we'll see), but she is teaching and Christopher is learning. Perhaps even more importantly, he's motivated to learn. In her class, he wants to do his best. UPDATE 9-27-2006: She was a pretty harsh grader, but Christopher was able to improve his work over the course of a semester. The comments at rate my teacher are interesting.

no grade inflation in the suburbs
grade deflation in Irvington
grade deflation in the suburbs, part 2
is there a dangerous myth of grade inflation?


-- CatherineJohnson - 31 Jan 2006

AlphaSmartReducedPrice 23 Jul 2006 - 11:18 CatherineJohnson

I talked to the folks at AlphaSmart today & learned that the price has been reduced 30%. $199 (which is what I paid for mine years ago) down to $139.

The price is reduced because the company may discontinue AlphaSmarts; the woman on the phone wasn't sure.

This news prompted me to buy one for Andrew on the spot. (Impulse purchase alert.)

I hope they don't discontinue the AlphaSmart, but the possibility that they might is reason to buy one before they do, not reason to move on to the new, improved Neo or Dana (though the Neo probably is an improvement).

Ed bought a Dana as soon as it came out and has had problems. I can't remember now whether his problems — losing his research notes from a trip to France — were the machine's fault, or his, but I have a memory the problem was in the machine...

UPDATE 7-23-2006: The original AlphaSmart is no longer shown on the site. Now they're just selling the Neo for $249 and the Dana for $429. I should have bought another AlphaSmart while I had the chance.

When I turned on my AlphaSmart for the first time in at least 2 years last weekend, everything was still there where I left it.

I'd guess that whatever bugs the Dana had at first have been worked out, but I know the AlphaSmarts can live in a backpack.

I also got a new keypad for 25 bucks, AND — once you get going with a completely un-thought-through semi-major purchase, you may as well go for broke — I also purchased two 10-dollar cloth slip covers so as to avoid a repeat of the gummy keyboard mishap.

I'm thrilled Andrew will have his own machine. He can be liberated from doing his addition problems at school with stamps and inkpad. Talk about inefficient.


from the website:


Neo is a rugged and lightweight tool that can be used anywhere, with 700 hours or more of operation on 3 AA alkaline batteries or 200 hours on a charge. Instant on/off and autosave eliminate startup delays and accidental data loss.

Affordable and expandable.

Neo offers the lowest cost of ownership compared to other computing technology. Plus, with the extensible SmartApplet architecture, new functionality can easily be added so you can get more from your Neo investment.


Easily synchronize data with a home, classroom or office PC.

Built-in word processor.

Easily synchronize data with a home, classroom or office.

AlphaWord Plus, a full-featured word processor that provides:

  • Eight active file spaces for one-key file access
  • Named files for convenient file management
  • Spell-Checking and Thesaurus
  • User dictionary for adding additional words and terms
  • Linked files for rubrics, homework instructions, or reference materials
  • Find/replace and word count
  • Spanish-English word lookup
  • Built-in help system for quick access to command reference

The large screen and new font technology display up to twice as much text as the AlphaSmart 3000. Students can save hundreds of pages of text with room for SmartApplets “ software programs extending classroom versatility.


  • AlphaSmart $139
  • Neo by AlphaSmart $249
  • Neo Rechargeable $269
  • Dana by AlphaSmart $379 new price: $429
  • Dana Wireless $429

AlphaSmart reviews
AlphaSmart (& letter to LA Times)
AlphaSmart & Andrew & KUMON
AlphaSmarts reduced 30%
AlphaSmart to the rescue
the joys of primitive computing
the joys of primitive computing

-- CatherineJohnson - 10 Feb 2006

PrimitiveComputing 15 Feb 2006 - 01:44 CatherineJohnson

At least 2 ktm Contributors have ordered AlphaSmarts since I started obsessing about the things last week.

No question I missed my calling in life. I was supposed to be a Travelling Salesman.

This reminds me of the time my mom and I interviewed her Uncle George, who was the patriarch of the family, to the extent that we had a patriarch, which we didn't.

Uncle George was an engineer. He worked all over the world, in Saudi Arabia, South America — everywhere. He has incredible stories of his wife giving birth in the middle of South American revolutions.

Anyways, we were talking about his father, my Grandad McCammon, a Methodist minister who was president of the first Methodist college in Illinois.

Uncle George said (paraphrasing), 'Dad wasn't really a religious man. He was a salesman.'

I just about fell out of my chair.

I'd been wondering about that.

I like religion myself, and try to 'be religious,' but it doesn't come naturally. It's something I have to work at (and it tends to be something I put off working at.)

Tearing around the internet grabbing folks' arms and urging them to BUY THIS REDUCED-PRICE ALPHASMART NOW! is what comes naturally.

Blood will out.

In case you're wondering, the reason my Granddad McCammon became president of the first Methodist college in IL was that he'd raised enough money to build a Methodist Fellowship Center (I think that's what it's called) at the U. of Ill. Folks had been trying to raise the funds for awhile without much luck. When my Granddad took over, he got the money.

That's selling.

His reward was to be named president of the Methodist College.

On the Joys of Primitive Computing: The AlphaSmart Neo

While I was hopping from one AlphaSmart website to the next, I found this terrific essay on the joys of primitive computing by Kendall Clark.

I agree with every word that a) applies to me and b) I understand.

Part of being a savvy technologist includes staying on the perpetual hardware upgrade habitrail -- or so people too often assume.

Some of us, however, are done with hardware. I put myself through college, back in the day when Intel' 80386 CPU was a big deal, by building computers for aeronautical engineering students at the University of Texas, where I wasn't a student.

I am so over hardware, and I have been for more than a decade. I take pride in making my living from technology and doing so with very old, even decrepit hardware. My main server for five years has been an IBM Thinkpad I found in a dumpster. My only extravagance was to max out its RAM at 512 MB. My everyday system is a nice 15" Powerbook supplied by UMD. While OSX is nice, it's not exactly Linux on an Opteron.

I'm bored by hardware and a bit cheap about it, too.

All of which makes the fact that I've fallen in love with a new box (and a new kind of box) all the more curious. I'm talking about my new Neo by AlphaSmart, upon which I'm typing this weblog entry. Before saying more, thanks to Paul Ford for telling me about the Neo. Paul rocks.

Oddly enough, the Neo is basically a computer for school children. It's stunningly stupid and, well, primitive. I'm enjoying it so much, and being so productive with it, that it's got me thinking about what I'll call Primtive Computing and Power User Devolution.

The Neo is interesting not because of what it does or what features it has, but what it can't do and the features it's missing. It's all about one thing and one thing only: writing. [ed.: I wrote a huge part of the ANIMALS IN TRANSLATION proposal on my AlphaSmart, sitting at the picnic table outside the kitchen.] I'm most comfortable turning any task into a writing task (when all you have is a hammer...), which means I'm super comfortable with a primitive device that's really only good for writing.

Specs? I don't even know what kind of CPU this thing has, and I couldn't care less. The OS is some homegrown thing, apparently, I think the OS is some variant of PalmOS, but I don't really know. Or care -- cultivating ignorance about irrelevant details is part of the ethic here, I think. The word processor, the only app it has, is brain dead. Which means no distractions; it gets out of my way as well as venerable Word Perfect 5.1 for DOS used to -- a writerly experience I've only come close to replicating with Emacs.

The keyboard action is passable; not great, but no impediment. The screen is a measly six lines, and I'm finding it perfectly acceptable. Especially when it meaans that battery life -- powered by 3 AA batts -- is a remarkable 700 hours. Yes, 700 hours! The damn thing weighs all of 2 lbs, though it feels lighter. It's the ultimate road warrior's tool, at least if you think of a road warrior as a writer.

My joy at the sheer utlity of the Neo -- even at the rather inflated price of $250 [ed.: the original AlphaSmart is on sale for $139! Not $250!] -- leads me to wonder whether Primitive Computing is a trend of larger significance. Maybe the sign of a real power user is someone who's happy to get by with less, rather than ever insisting on more. Using the Neo is of a piece with the Hipster PDA and with Danny O'Brien's ethnographic observations about the ubiquity among the power set of text files as a first class organizational tool. [ed.: no idea what he's talking about]

The Neo is the closest I'm going to get to the kind of intentional simplicity that could lead to something like Walden on the job. (A chimerical goal, to be sure, since Walden was mostly about not working for The Man, rather than doing so sanely. Oh well!) ....


As the man used to say back in the day: Highly Recommended.

The best thing about the AlphaSmart & the AlphaSmart Neo?

You can't hook them up to the internet.


Kendall Hunt
Mind Swap - Maryland Information and Network Dynamics Lab Semantic Web Agents Project
(Kendall Hunt is part of this)

AlphaSmart reviews
AlphaSmart (& letter to LA Times)
AlphaSmart & Andrew & KUMON
AlphaSmarts reduced 30%
AlphaSmart to the rescue

-- CatherineJohnson - 14 Feb 2006

DowsLanePrincipalTalksAboutHandwriting 08 Oct 2006 - 22:18 CatherineJohnson

Just got a call from our old principal at Dows Lane (K-3), Joe Rodriguez.

Golly, we miss Dows Lane.

We miss Main Street School (4-5).


oops, out of time

Christopher's been sick for days, and is getting worse.....and our doctor is out of town.

So I'm off to Ossining to see the doctor who's filling in for her.

Back later -

Home again; Christopher will live.

Also, he will probably not end up in the emergency room suffering dehydration, as he did this time last year, when he had this same virus.


Anyway, back to Joe.

Long story short, I had asked our school board president what the proposed 'Math and Handwriting' books for Dows Lane were. Our board president had apparently forwarded my question to the assistant superintendent for curriculum, and the assistant superintendent had asked Joe to give me a call and fill me in. So he did.

Turns out they're not buying "Math and Handwriting" books, they're buying some math books and some handwriting books. They're two different things.

That's cool, because Joe said Andrea, the occupational therapist who works with Andrew, told him they must give the kids another year of practice with printing before starting them on cursive. They used to teach cursive in 2nd grade; now they'll teach it in 3rd grade.


I told him what a mess Christopher's printing is, and what a problem it is when it comes to math, and added that everyone over 70 has great handwriting because they were taught handwriting at school until they'd mastered it.

Joe disagreed. "My handwriting isn't any good," he said.

Joe is 50. 55, tops.

I said, "Joe, you're not 70."

Joe said he had 8 years of handwriting instruction and daily practice in Catholic school and it didn't work. That was depressing.

He said back when he was teaching, he had to concentrate to write legibly on the board. He'd start writing a sentence in the top lefthand corner writing a sentence, and end up down in the middle of the board. A lot of teachers, he said, can just blast their way across the board and it comes out looking great.

I told him I call that Teacher Handwriting.

Talking to Joe made me homesick. Back at Dows Lane we weren't having to fight constant skirmishes over bullying teachers and lousy computer-generated mid-term reports delivered to your mailbox on Christmas eve and 20-point deductions because the State Test made you do it.

At Dows Lane, and at Main Street School, you had conversations about things like How come Joe had 8 years of handwriting instruction from the nuns and he still can't write a straight line on the blackboard?

At Irvington Middle School, when you see Scott he tells you, "I'm very protective of my teachers."

Or, "I protect my staff."

One time he asked me, on the phone, if I thought he was protective of his teachers.

At the time I was in the full flush of gratitude that he'd rescued Christopher from Mrs. Roth's class, and I said, admiringly, Yes! I think you take good care of your teachers. Which is what he wanted to hear.

Of course that was a sign.

I was talking about that to Ed today.

He said, "If you listen, people always tell you who they are."

update: compare and contrast

Ed just ran into one of our closest friends from Dows Lane at the video store.

This mom is very on top of things, and has been extremely concerned about TRAILBLAZERS, to the point of enrolling her child in KUMON.

She told Ed she's resolved 'every' concern she had with the school. She's worked closely with her child's teacher, and the teacher has responded to every issue, and made changes where necessary.

Every one of her concerns has now been addressed and resolved.

Ed said, "Joe runs a tight ship."

a cordial email

Meanwhile, we are not working closely with our teacher.

We are not working with Ms. K at all.

Ms. K. has not responded to our emails.

Ed raised this issue with Scott Fried, who said something about cordial conversations. Our emails, he said, were not cordial.


So, on Wednesday evening, I wrote a cordial email to Ms. Kahl:

Ms. K — we haven’t heard back from you about Christopher’s grade on the blueprint project.

I’ve never complained about his grades in your class. Every time he’s gotten a bad grade—and he’s had many, many bad grades—we’ve worked harder.

And now this. This project was his one and only success in math this year. He spent four hours working on it. Ed had to supervise; he couldn’t do it alone. But he did all the work, and he figured out how to do all the work with guidance.

We’re working so hard to keep his motivation up. This is the age when boys check out. Some of his friends already are checked out (these are kids who moved from Phase 4 to Phase 3).

Before I started working with him he was completely turned off to math. I got him liking it again.

He’s very discouraged now.

We really need some help here.


Radio silence.

This doesn't happen at Dows Lane.

update 4-19-2006: 20 days and counting.....still no response...

-- CatherineJohnson - 31 Mar 2006

LucyCalkins 01 May 2006 - 14:38 CatherineJohnson


Developing Writers

stupid mayor trick
Thank you, whole language
guess and check reading
stupid mayor trick part 3: the good news

who is Lucy Calkins
having a Lucy Calkins day
Cargo Cult Lucy from Becky

National Reading Panel (official website)
The Partnership for Reading
(govt website: "bringing scientific evidence to learning")
National Reading Panel report full text (pdf file)

-- CatherineJohnson - 01 May 2006

WriteShop 03 May 2006 - 12:20 CatherineJohnson

Does anyone know anything about WriteShop?

-- CatherineJohnson - 01 May 2006

BreakingTheRules 05 May 2006 - 15:05 CatherineJohnson

Cruising grammar & writing books this morning, I've come across Breaking the Rules by Edgar H. Schuster. Edgar H. Schuster appears to be an eminence grise in the world of edu-writing:

Edgar H. Schuster has taught English in secondary schools and in colleges for more than forty years. He has spoken frequently at national conferences, held various positions with NCTE, and is a member of the Writing Assessment Advisory Committee for the state of Pennsylvania. Author of several textbooks and articles, he has been a Master Teacher at the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University and is a recipient of a Lindback Foundation Award for Distinguished Teaching.

So here is the first review posted on Amazon:

If you are looking for an untraditional and creative means of helping students become better writers then this book is for you. breaking the rules by Edgar Schuster is a idealistic book about grammar that goes beyond traditional instruction. This book is meant for anyone who is interested in a better instruction of grammar, which includes college students and reflective teachers.

In the book Schuster suggest that teachers look at the works of students, writers, and other professionals and then after reviewing the works, the teachers need to decide which language rules are practical and which ones on be broken, for example the case of Finlay McQuade during the late 1970's. McQuade took a good look at his Editorial Skills class and found out that teaching grammar in a traditionally way is a failure (p. xviii.) There is too many rules in traditional grammar that has no space in the realities of spoken or written language today.

The book is full of real life anecdotes that makes it easy to read. For example, Schuster used himself in an example about a student who was told that the definition of a pronoun was a word that replaces a noun. So the student used words such as writer for author and book for novel. There are detailed instructions on how grammar rules are used, and if possible, how the rule can be broken to enhance the writing. The book includes many topics from the definition of a noun to tips on revising and editing. There are also many activities in the book that make it easier for the reader to understand the concept.

This is a wonderful book to keep on hand for a reference for anyone who is going into the field of teaching or anyone else who is interested in improving his or her writing.

Was this review helpful to you?

Yes. This review was helpful to me.


Steve & Smartest Tractor weigh in

Yup. There is too many rules to learn. There is too many numbers in math too. There is just too many things to learn in education.

- Steve

So bring on the character education...

- Smartest Tractor


-- CatherineJohnson - 03 May 2006

NyEducatorOnWrittenLanguage 05 May 2006 - 21:13 CatherineJohnson

It's important that kids know the rules of writing are largely unforgiving, and breaking them, if you don't know what you're doing, is going to make life awfully difficult if you can't, for example, afford to pay someone competent to write your college papers.

I think that's nicely put.

I've been submerged in writing books & programs this week, and am about to spend my next book advance on teaching materials.

(BACK STORY: 8th graders are now being accepted & rejected by the high school honors courses. Of course none of us has the faintest idea how these decisions are made, but rumor has it the 'honors application essay' (my term) the kids write is a major factor. This means Christopher has to learn to write, and I have to teach him. I'm mainstream on this one. Both Scott Fried and Raina Kor have directly told parents - Ed and I were present - that the 7th and 8th grade writing program is poor. When you've got the principal telling you his writing program stinks, your task is clear.)

One book I saw compared style & tone to clothing, an analogy I think works pretty well. The author pointed out that you wouldn't wear your skater clothes to a job interview (something along those lines).

I always talk about tone & voice, and explain that you don't use the same language in church that you use with your friends. I think the visual analogy will shore up the direct-instruction in tone.


more from NYC Educator

I had a student in a college class whose sentences covered entire pages, and who did not believe in ending paragraphs, ever. He stated that Gabriel Garcia-Marquez did that. I was never able to convince him he didn't write like Garcia-Marquez. But he didn't.

The author of this cutesy little book should be given a prison cell right next to the folks who put Beethoven to a disco beat. The key should be lost, and its location should be reported to him in an utterly incomprehensible note written by my former student.


previews of coming attractions

Ed has fantastic news from his nationalism course!

I'll try to get a first report posted today.

-- CatherineJohnson - 05 May 2006

EdsWritingAssignment 13 May 2006 - 02:55 CatherineJohnson

Ed and I are now in a state of emergency vis a vis writing not unlike the one I was in vis a vis math at the end of 4th grade.

This year the 6th graders had two periods of ELA a day instead of one.

I'm not sure what this accomplished. If I managed to put my hands on a paper Christopher wrote last year, would I see any difference between it and the "book shares" and feature story/book report/major research products he's written this year? I'm guessing no.

If we keep doing what we're doing, i.e. leaving things up to Christopher's school, he won't be learning to write in grades 7 and 8, either. I know this because the principal and assistant principal both said so at our coffee with the principal. They said the 7th & 8th grade writing instruction is weak and needs work, while the 6th grade writing instruction has been improved. Something like that.

When your principal tells you the writing instruction in his school is poor, you're on your own.

Now I find out that at the end of 8th grade students are accepted or rejected by the high school Honors program apparently based on their ability to write.

I say "apparently" because in fact I have no idea how these decisions are made. It's possible there are parents who do know, but if so I haven't met them. How does the program work? What are the selection criteria?* What is the rate of acceptance?

We don't know! I didn't even know there was a competitive selection process until a couple of weeks ago when all of a sudden smart kids I know and like were getting rejection letters in the mail.

I'll probably force myself to Request Information on the Honors Program (I'll be SUPER cordial when I do), but I'd say my odds of actually getting information - real information as opposed to blah-blah - are slim to none. Some of you will remember that in my latest conversation with Christopher's English teacher I asked for writing samples of work she considers to be "A level."

She said she would provide me with samples after spring break.

This week she sent an email saying she is "not at liberty" to give me samples of A level work, but I can find sample essays in the book Write Source.

Good thing I happen to own a copy.

[update: She may have said Writer's Choice, not Write Source. Good thing I happen to own copies of both.]

could you grade it for me?

The Write Source samples won't do me much good at this point, because I don't know what grade they would receive from Irvington Middle School English teachers. So far this year, the paper Ed helped with has gotten a B- and the paper I helped with got a C. And let us not forget the Distinguished Historian who is earning C+s in her own child's middle school.

My point: I have no idea whether Irvington Middle School's concept of good writing is my concept of good writing; nor do I have any idea whether Irvington Middle School's concept of good writing is Write Source's idea of good writing. While I'm on the subject of things I don't know, I don't know what Irvington High School considers to be good writing, either.

We're in the dark.**

speaking of Write Source

Back when we were dealing with the Mrs. R situation, I pulled some online Write Source student writing samples to show the principal that Christopher's paper was not inordinately short.

Here is the opening sentence of a "student model" report on wolves:

"Can you imagine hearing the howl of a wolf during the night?"

Compare that to the opening sentence of Christopher's "feature story/book share/major research product" on violence in the schools:

"School should be a safe place, right?"

The principal specifically told us that he disliked Christopher's opening sentence.

Which tells me Write Source student writing models may not be the Key to the Kingdom.

writing to crammery

Two years from now, Christopher has to be able to write.

At 10 minutes a day 4 days a week, which is all the time I'm going to have, given the fact that 7th grade is rumored to be "even worse" than 6th grade, that's about....70 hours.

As to that, now that the principal is leaving, homeschooling for part of next school year is out unless I want to launch WWIII around here. I might launch WWIII - no one puts it past me - but my position is a lot weaker than it was one week ago before the Big News. Apparently, I have learned nothing from George Bush. I've spent the last several weeks telling Ed that I will not be able "to live through" another year like this one, and I certainly will not be able to write a book if I am forced "to live through" another year like this one, so if he wants me to write a book he better get behind homeschooling. That justification for homeschooling, not unlike the WMD justification for invading Iraq, is now moot. The only difference is that the WMD justification isn't nearly as moot as I-can't-live-through-another-year-like-this. [NOTE! This is not an anti-George Bush observation! Nor is it a pro-George Bush observation! It's a joke!]

I'll get my ducks in a row for homeschooling. I'll do the research, choose the curriculum, get set up legally to do it.

But I have to assume I'm going to be teaching my kid how to write as an afterschooler, not a homeschooler. I'm going to have 10 minutes a day to do it, because the school needs 6 hours a day to have the kids talk about things like whether they can achieve their life goals if they only have half a tongue.

end part 1 - more t/k

I'm hoping this book will help.

Also this one.

This, too.

Definitely getting Writing with Precision, which was recommended a year ago by a ktm commenter.

What to do with the 5 minutes a day I have left.






* UPDATE 11-7-2006: No one knows the rules. Furthermore, the "rules" are almost certainly arbitrary, based in "distinctions" no teacher, principal, "curriculum specialist," or educational psychologist is qualified to make. Kids with the exact same grades & state test scores are ending up on opposite sides of the Great Honors Divide, with no explanation offered by the powers that be. I stand by this statement until our school shows me I'm wrong - ultin our school shows me and everyone else in this district and exactly why I'm wrong. In other words: I stand by this statement until our school establishes a transparent selection process - or, better still, commits itself to providing enough Honors courses to take all comers, along with the academic support to make sure students succeed in these courses.

** For example, Christopher's English teacher says all of Christopher's paragraphs must end in a concluding sentence. I would call that bad writing, and so would Ed. If Ed got a paper from a student in which every paragraph ended in a concluding sentence, he would write "rep" in the margins a lot.

Or take topic sentences. Christopher got his B- on a paper which, according to Ed, included a topic sentence in each and every paragraph. The teacher said there weren't any topic sentences.


-- CatherineJohnson - 05 May 2006

VocabularyWorkshop 06 May 2006 - 20:49 CatherineJohnson

Jerome Shostak on: The Value of Direct and Systematic Instruction of Vocabulary (pdf file) (intended for Grades 6-12, but you could start in 5th grade or possibly even 4th - which I would do, given the fact that kids take the SAT at the beginning of 12th grade, not the end)

sample lesson Level E (average student 10th grade, or advanced student 9th grade) (pdf file)

Student website for the The Norton Sampler includes writing assignments - OK, but seem skewed towards girls (first assignment requires student to write about Martha Stewart's website)

SAT vocabulary at the Free Study Materials for SAT website.

online SAT vocabulary tests, w/VocabularyWorkshop words AP vocabulary, too - retests you automatically on any words you miss

cool SAT vocabulary quiz - timed


Christopher took the diagnostic test in Shostak's Vocabulary Workshop Level A a couple of minutes ago, and scored 36 out of 50 correct. I can't tell whether that's good or bad.

Does anyone know of a free, online norm-referenced vocabulary list I can consult?

I do think his English teacher has been getting vocabulary inside the kids' heads. While we were doing the spelling test for the next-to-last word list in Megawords 3 he told me a definition for the word "malignant" that he learned from her. So that's good.

Carolyn uses VOCABULARY WORKSHOP with Ben - haven't talked to her about it lately.

An overview of the program is here. (pdf file) Now that I've taken a look at it, I'd say Christopher is behind where he should be, given the amount of reading we do around here and the super-eliteexpensive Westchester public schools he's been attending. The program recommends Level A for "above average" 5th graders and "average" 6th graders. Christopher's at the end of 6th grade.

Have I mentioned the fact that Irvington has stopped giving any norm-referenced tests?

We're carrying on with the 8-book Megawords series, obviously; we're starting the zillion-book Vocabulary Workshop series from Sadlier-Oxford; and we'll begin Don Killgallon's Sentence Composing shortly.

Next I'm going to figure out a nonfiction reading program, possibly using The Norton Sampler Teacher's Edition.

Teaching writing as an afterschooler is going to be hard (I think) because of the Compliance Issue. Christopher doesn't like doing school work for me, and I'm having trouble seeing exactly how I'm going to prevent him from simply blowing me off on writing tasks. When I gave him his spelling test just now, it turned out he can spell lots of words he missed in the lessons. He says he missed the words in the lessons because he "didn't care." (He seems to be developing excellent metacognitive awareness when it comes to learning academic material from his mom.)

If he's blowing off spelling, he's definitely going to blow off writing.

So now I'm letting this issue percolate in my cognitive unconscious. I figure my CU has got to know something I don't. All my conscious mind has been able to come up with so far is the idea of issuing constant Threats To Homeschool If I Don't See Improvement In Subjects X, Y, & Z.

Which goes to show you how plug-dumb the conscious mind is (my conscious mind, that is). If you paid someone to come up with the single worst plan for inducing your child to learn to write at home, inviting him to call your bluff on a daily basis would be it.

While I'm mulling this over, I'm beginning to work on the component skills involved in writing. I can get enough cooperation from Christopher to teach spelling, vocabulary, sentence composing, and reading at home, so that's the first step.


words he knew:
adhere to
topple (the government)
sage (advice)
verging on (insanity)

words he didn't know:
foil (the plot)
acute (attack)




keywords: SATvocabularyquiz

VocabularyWorkshop websites & books for teaching vocabulary
Hake Grammar & Writing, VocabularyWorkshop, English from the Roots Up
SAT scores & VocabularyWorkshop

-- CatherineJohnson - 06 May 2006

SummaryStreet 11 May 2006 - 19:24 CatherineJohnson

I want this software, I think.


I've been on an intensive Google Quest for a Plan.

At the moment, it looks like I'm going to have to teach Christopher how to write and do math in the tiny fragments of time not eaten up by 6-hour school days, homework, and teaching to crammery. From what I gather, asking a child to write "retellings" (an Engelmann term, I believe) and summaries is probably the ticket. (I'm defining "retelling" as retelling a story or perhaps writing a how-to; I think of "summarizing" as applying to expository, analytical, and persuasive writing. Don't know whether this is the distinction Engelmann uses.)

Teaching a child to retell and summarize makes sense to me for a number of reasons I won't take the time to go into just now.

The good news is that I've stumbled across "converging lines of evidence." Different people coming at this issue from different directions have arrived at the same conclusion: retelling & summarizing are the keys to the kingdom — or, at least, retelling and summarizing are the Keys to the Kingdom of extremely efficient writing instruction.

The question guiding my Google Quest has been:

What would KUMON for writing look like?

I'm pretty sure it would be a program that has kids write retellings and summaries on a daily basis. *

More later.


Summary Street (press release - Pearson Knowledge Technologies)

WriteToLearn (Pearson)

WriteToLearn demonstration site (Pearson)

Intelligent Essay Assessor (Pearson)

WriteToLearn (press release)

Writing a Good Summary (Pearson)

Summary Street (Colorado Latent Semantic Analysis)

Latent Semantic Analysis (Colorado University Boulder)

dissertation on Summary Street (pdf file)

sample assessment screen Summary Street


* As a matter of fact, KUMON Reading does teach summarizing in later levels.


-- CatherineJohnson - 11 May 2006

HowToTeachLogic 09 Sep 2006 - 23:06 CatherineJohnson

My neighbor and I have been cruising logic texts. We figure we need to incorporate a HOW TO REASON "piece" in the afterschool writing program we're undertaking now that we have to teach our boys to write before they audition for high school Honors courses. (I'm going to count the number of times an Irvington administrator uses the word "piece" at the next school board meeting.)

This morning it came to me that an excellent way to teach logic would be to give the kids essays written by educators (that's educators as opposed to teachers) and have them Spot the Logical Fallacy.

Let's get started today, shall we?


Children's reading and writing abilities develop together.

Ten Proven Principles for Teaching Reading
April 2000
National Education Association

Both reading and writing are constructive processes (Pearson and Tierney 1984). A similar, if not the same, level of intellectual activity underlies both reading and writing: interactions between the reader/writer and text lead to new knowledge and interpretations of text (Langer 1986; Martin 1987). Just as thoughtful readers read for a specific purpose by activating prior knowledge about the topic at hand, writers activate prior knowledge that relates to the topic and have a purpose for writing-to impart meaning to a reader.

While reading, readers reread and modify meaning accordingly. While writing, writers think about the topic and the more they think, the better developed their writing becomes. They also think about what they have written, reread it, and make revisions to improve it. Lastly, readers finalize the meaning they have constructed so far. Writers do likewise: they settle on their final composition.

The process of reading and writing not only unfold in similar ways, but they also tend to be used together. This is natural because in everyday life reading and writing frequently occur together. For example, a person receives a letter-via the postal service or electronic mail-reads it, then answers it in writing, perhaps rereading portions of the letter while constructing the response. Moreover, learning about reading and writing takes place in a social context that contains written language and where people use and talk about written language.

When reading and writing are taught together the benefits are greater than when they are taught separately. Research (Tierney and Shannahan 1991) has begun to show that writing leads to improved reading achievement, reading leads to better writing performance, and combined instruction leads to improvements in both areas. Moreover, research (McGinley and Tierney 1989) has shown that engaging learners in the greater variety of experiences provided when reading and writing instruction are combined leads to a higher level of thinking than when either process is taught alone. Since thinking is a critical part of meaning construction, students will become better thinkers if they are taught in classrooms where meaning is actively constructed through reading and writing. Teachers can be most effective in helping students to become better readers, writers, and thinkers when they weave integrated reading and writing activities into their literacy instruction.

Here's my answer.

-- CatherineJohnson - 11 May 2006

AnnotatedStudentWritingModelsFromGlencoe 11 May 2006 - 18:59 CatherineJohnson

Never let it be said I am not a woman possessed.

Last week Ms. K told me she is "not at liberty" to supply me with models of student work she considers to be 'A'-level quality, and advised me to consult the student textbook, Glencoe's Writer's Choice.

I did. In the process, I uncovered a treasure trove of annotated student writing models at the Glencoe website.

Not only have I discovered a treasure trove of annotated student writing models, I have saved each and every one to disk. Eightteen essays per grade level x 7 grades = 126 annotated student writing models in all.

I'm sure that was time well spent.

don't forget Glencoe's Parent and Student Study Guides

Parent and Student Study Guide Pre-Algebra

Parent and Student Study Guide Algebra 1

Available free online. Fantastic.

keywords: atliberty

-- CatherineJohnson - 11 May 2006

TheSongOfTheAmazonBird 11 May 2006 - 22:32 CatherineJohnson

Still on my Quest, I've come across this reader review of Daybook of Critical Reading and Writing by Fran Claggett:

My Opinion..., April 14, 2002
Reviewer: A reader
The reason I gave this book two stars, is because we use this book in our class all of the time. Most of the stories and poems in here are hard to understand and complicated.

I know that you are supposed to use your mind, and there is no right or wrong answer, but you can not use your mind if you dont know what is going on. I keep getting zero's on my daybook assignments, because all I can put in the margins or the pages to write what you think, is that I can't write anything because it was hard to understand, so I get zero's for not understanding, and that to me isnt fair! So, I think that if to this book you tell your opinion, I think that if your opinion is that you didnt understand it, than that should still be counted as "no right or wrong answer".

But besides that, it is a good idea.

Was this review helpful to you? 


This review was helpful to me.

This review helped me to remember that actually teaching content and skills is the proper goal of schools.

the song of the Amazon bird
the song of the Amazon bird, part 2
the song of the Amazon bird, part 3

-- CatherineJohnson - 11 May 2006

OnlineGrammarResourcesAndSingaporeGrammar 15 May 2006 - 13:11 CatherineJohnson

Parent Pundit has a question:

I have concluded that the schools don't even attempt to teach grammar anymore so that it will be mastered for the long term. They describe grammar, they give out worksheets ABOUT grammar, but they don't give ANY worksheets so the students can actually practice grammar. In other words, let's figure out how to do grammar in a conceptual manner and, voila, every kid will be able to create sentences in the "correct" manner.


I found to fix the problems with math, but I'm looking for a program like this to help with grammar. I could get out my old Katharine Gibbs Handbook of Business English, but it doesn't come with any worksheets. Furthermore, the hierarchical model of aleks combined with the ability to have instant feedback just works! And if you get the concept by getting it correct five times, Aleks moves you onto the next concept so no one is doing mindless rote because it moves as quickly as the individual moves.

Anyone have any ideas?

I've just recently become frustrated over the same issue.

Christopher's English teacher has made headway teaching him how to identify the grammatical parts of sentences, which is great (and will be important when he finally takes a real Spanish class, as opposed to the ersatz course he's taking now).

But he's had precious little practice actually writing grammatical sentences.

I'm using Don Killgallon's book this summer (Killgallon's website), but I may also use the resources a Commenter left:


sentence combining worksheet

If any of you finds other sentence combining and/or sentence composing worksheets online, let me know. (Not sure whether edhelper has these — I'll check.)

online grammar resources and Singapore grammar book
successive sentence combining exercise
kid-friendly explanation of sentence combining & online exercises

keywords: sentencecombining grammarpractice

-- CatherineJohnson - 14 May 2006

SentenceCombiningForAutisticKids 14 May 2006 - 20:01 CatherineJohnson

Apparently sentence combining is a good thing for autistic kids, too.

I wonder if I could make some simple sentence combining exercises for Andrew?

I bet I could.


Sentence combining as a technique for increasing adjective use in writing by students with autism.
Res Dev Disabil. 1994 Jan-Feb;15(1):19-37.

-- CatherineJohnson - 14 May 2006

SuccessiveSentenceCombiningExercise 15 May 2006 - 10:43 CatherineJohnson



Sentence combining practice (DESCRIPTION)
Lawrie Hunter 2003

Here is a description map for the PS2.
Simple sentences have been written for the map.

Print this page and write combined sentences. First make 3 sentences.
Then reduce further to 2 sentences.....or can you make just one sentence????? Ha!
When you have finished writing, go to the answers page and compare.

Lawrie Hunter's site


I think this exercise is a perfect fit with this British method of instruction:

[Judith] Koren describes how two British women she knows became effective essayists and speakers. “Each week, they’d had homework exercises like this: While preserving every essential point, reduce a 100-word essay to 50 words, then to 20, then to 10. Reduce 500 words to 50, 1,000 words to 100. Week after week, year after year. A grind? Sure it’s a grind. Who said literacy is easy? It takes practice. Few kids want to put in that amount of work. The schools have to demand it.”



Applied English Grammar on the Web

This site seems to be an entire book of grammar exercises posted online.


Applied English Grammar at Amazon
Applied English Grammar at Tomson Heinle


I'm getting the feeling that there are probably superb grammatical exercise books out there, most or all of them written for the ESL market.

Since finding the one I want would mean another Consuming Google Quest, I'm going to table it for now, and use the several-hundred-dollars'-worth of books I ordered this week.

Will post those later.

online grammar resources and Singapore grammar book
successive sentence combining exercise
kid-friendly explanation of sentence combining & online exercises

keywords: sentencecombining grammarpractice

-- CatherineJohnson - 14 May 2006

EslSentenceCombiningSiteForKids 14 May 2006 - 21:09 CatherineJohnson

ESL is definitely where the action is.

online grammar resources and Singapore grammar book
successive sentence combining exercise
kid-friendly explanation of sentence combining & online exercises

keywords: sentencecombining grammarpractice

-- CatherineJohnson - 14 May 2006

UnderstandingAndUsingEnglishGrammarByBettyAzar 15 May 2006 - 10:46 CatherineJohnson

Just when I was thinking the ESL books are the way to go, NYC Educator left a fantastic recommendation:

If, however, you want a very thorough grammar bible, with abundant exercises, look at Understanding and Using English Grammar by Betty Azar. It's a blue book, designed for ESL students, but there's a lot in there native speakers may be unaware of, at least consciously.

I have to get the kids off to school; back later. In the meantime, the Amazon reviews are glowing. There are a couple of good explanations of her color-coding at that link, too.

I’m afraid I will be adding Betty Azar to the tab.



online grammar resources and Singapore Math’s grammar books
Understanding and Using English Grammar by Betty Azar

-- CatherineJohnson - 15 May 2006

HakeGrammar 15 May 2006 - 22:56 CatherineJohnson

This Comments thread has a number of recommendations for grammar texts, including a middle school grammar and writing textbook series published by Stephen Hake of Saxon Math fame, and co-authored by his wife Mary. A 5th grade book is scheduled for this summer.

The books have the same incremental lesson structure the Saxon Math books use. I'm incredibly tempted.


sample lesson




I just ordered the 6th grade books from Hake.

Also, the Ridgewood Grammar books, which Nick's Mama is using, look fantastic. EPS has posted 8 pages from one of the books online. (pdf file) (Megawords comes from EPS. In a couple of weeks we'll be finished with the 6th grade book.)


update update: vocabulary

Vocabulary Workshop is a hit. Christopher loves it. You don't need an Answer Key or teacher's guide to use it, and by the time a child is in 5th grade, which I think is when the series starts, he or she can use it on his own. There are 8 levels, books A - H, each approximately 180 pages. [update: Vocabulary Workshop begins in Grade 2 and goes through Grade 12+ (pdf file) and goes through Grade 12.]

Speaking of vocabulary, in the spirit of overkill, I also ordered a not-cheap copy of English from the Roots Up by Joegil K. Lundquist. I love the idea of learning English language roots, and had worked through the first couple of pages of EPS's offering in this category, Vocabulary from Classical Roots by Norma Fifer, Nancy Flowers, when Christian admired the book so much that I gave it to him.

So now I've gone and bought English from the Roots Up.

The Amazon reviews are so glowing, I had to do it.

Another reasonably priced Greek & Latin series: Vocabulary from Latin and Greek Roots, from Prestwick House. No reviews on Amazon, but the "Look Inside" pages seem good.



VocabularyWorkshop websites & books for teaching vocabulary
Hake Grammar & Writing, VocabularyWorkshop, English from the Roots Up
SAT scores & VocabularyWorkshop

-- CatherineJohnson - 15 May 2006

HowToWriteABusinessLetter 18 May 2006 - 15:27 CatherineJohnson

Trying to track down an estimate of the number of mammals living in the wild (no luck), I came across a nice little graphic explaining how to format a letter asking an expert to tell you how many mammals are living in the wild.


Environmental Literacy Council
what to say in your letter

Of course, this format isn't the format I was taught - and apparently isn't the correct format even for the 21st century.

I still like the graphic.

keywords: coverletter coverletters

-- CatherineJohnson - 17 May 2006

WhatIsAussie 18 May 2006 - 16:30 CatherineJohnson

Apparently our school district is adopting, or contemplating adopting, a writing program called "AUSSIE," all caps.

What is it?

Does anyone know?

-- CatherineJohnson - 17 May 2006

EmailToTheAssistantSuperintendent 19 May 2006 - 17:51 CatherineJohnson

May 11, 2006

Hi Ralph---

Have you looked into the Summary Street software?

We’re interested in this approach, but I have the sense that the Summary
Street software isn’t available to individual parents at this point. (Not
sure.) I suspect these researchers are correct that a software program could
assess summary-writing, which appears to be a core activity in good writing

Back in the day, I taught writing to gifted children in the Johns Hopkins
CTY program. (I was trained in college writing instruction at the University
of Iowa.) I’m now putting together an afterschool program to teach
Christopher how to write.

When you have a moment, I’d love to hear more about the program you’re
bringing in next year --- I remember the acronym as being “aussie” ---
something like that ----


Catherine J.


Hi Catherine,

Belated good wishes for a Happy Mother's Day! I hope that all is well with
you and your family. At this juncture, no decision has been made regarding
writing programs. However, we are looking closely at AUSSIE as well as several
others. I will be back in touch when we have come to a decision.




Hi Ralph---

Thanks for your email, but I’m afraid you haven’t answered my question,
which is: what is AUSSIE?

Where can I find information concerning AUSSIE?

Thanks very much.

Catherine Johnson

-- CatherineJohnson - 18 May 2006

SummarizingAssignmentFromKarenA 21 May 2006 - 05:47 CatherineJohnson

Meg's 6th grade Science teacher (this was last year) required the kids to choose an article related to science that was current within the last year. The kids then had to summarize the article using three logical sentences that were grammatically correct and also state why the article was important to the field of science.

The teacher's website included a list of websites with lots and lots of sources for kid-friendly news articles about science.

I thought it was a great assignment; it forced Megan to write three logical, concise and grammatically correct sentences and learn about science at the same time.

If you have any interest, I can provide the link for the teacher's website, which includes both the form and a list of websites.

I think that's a great idea. Science News for Kids has fantastic kid-versions of their articles posted online that would be perfect for this approach.

I especially like their articles on animals and behavior.

-- CatherineJohnson - 19 May 2006

NutsAndBoltsOfCollegeWriting 24 May 2006 - 22:20 CatherineJohnson

The results of my latest quest have been arriving daily, and I now have so many terrific books on writing, grammar, and logic heaped on chairs, tables & the floor that I don't know where to begin. There are major surprises - a brilliant little book called Increase Your Increase Your Score in 3 Minutes a Day: SAT Essay, for instance - that I would never have found without Amazon. Long live Jeff Bezos.

I'll get the list posted shortly, but I want to get today's find posted before Safari crashes and I forget the whole thing.

The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing

Nuts and Bolts is a website so good it's produced a book, and the Amazon reviews are glowing:

The Nuts and Bolts Website helped me turn a C minus literary criticism paper (I was devastated - I couldn't figure out what I had done wrong) into an A. My particular problem is structuring my ideas logically and building a solid argument. This site, along with an hour with a good tutor ("No, what you have here is NOT a thesis statement!"), and another hour with my eminently logical husband (he's an engineer who works a lot with lawyers) helped me finally understand that I had to, in effect, build a path with brick walls on either side of it, leading my reader along by the hand, rather than wandering all over the countryside to every distraction, expecting my reader to keep up with my desultory ramblings and then find his own way back to the road. And how to do it.

The site is, unlike me, clear, methodical, and understandable, which is very important when you just can't grasp something because it's in your Writer's Blindspot.

I'm buying the book in case the Website ever goes down.

I'm (probably) buying it, too.


keywords: collegewriting essaywriting

-- CatherineJohnson - 24 May 2006

HallOfFame 30 May 2006 - 18:08 CatherineJohnson

I finally subscribed to The New York Sun, mostly so I can read Andrew Wolf’s columns on education.

In today’s issue, appearing at the top of a column called "Fear Factor," I find this lead:

A few days ago, while standing in line at Chase Bank, a hefty water bug sauntered across the lobby.

The Fear Factor ($)


I’ve been reading The War Against Grammar by David Mulroy, a Verghis pick.

It’s incredible.

It's so incredible that I’ve decided to learn grammar, too.

More later.



update from Google Master

I think the rule is that, if the water bug saunters across the lobby, you can consider that it has stepped out of the line, so everyone behind it in line moves up one space.


misplaced and dangling modifiers

-- CatherineJohnson - 30 May 2006

SampleFiveParagraphEssay 08 Jun 2006 - 19:19 CatherineJohnson


Haven't read it yet, but it looks useful.

-- CatherineJohnson - 08 Jun 2006

YoungAdultLiterature 14 Jun 2006 - 18:03 CatherineJohnson

from Diane Ravitch's review of Welcome to the Lizard Motel by Barbara Feinberg:

The books that her son, Alex, and his friends are compelled to read are highly regarded by teachers and professors of education. Many come decorated with Newbery medals and endorsements by the American Library Association. They are books known in the field of children’s literature as Young Adult (YA) literature. All are highly realistic, written in a confessional tone, usually in the first-person voice of an angry or alienated teenager. The protagonist deals with traumatic experiences: murder, suicide, the death of a parent or friend, incest, sexual abuse, rape, drugs, abortion, kidnapping, abandonment. Friendly or protective adults are virtually nonexistent; the main character’s mother, writes Feinberg, is dead, missing, or nonfunctional. Children in these novels almost never play. Often they feel guilty for whatever catastrophe befalls them. The books are uniformly humorless, earnest, and depressing. Their message, to the extent that they have one: the world is a nasty and brutish place, and you can depend only on yourself.

What is missing from YA books, says Feinberg, is any recognition of the role that imagination and fantasy play in children’s ways of experiencing life. Instead, the books seem dedicated to shocking children, destroying their fantasies, and giving them a mean dose of reality. One of the children that Feinberg knows said of these books, “They give me a headache in my stomach.” It is as though the authors, the publishers, the teachers, and the professors of education share a bizarre consensus that ordinary children need to be shaken out of their complacency, stripped of their innocence, and frightened by the horrors that the world has in store for them at any moment.

Barbara Feinberg lives two towns over, in Hastings. My friend Lisa's daughter was in her story group; she said it was fantastic.

Here's part of the op-ed Barbara Feinberg published in the TIMES two years ago:

HASTINGS-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. — I don't remember exactly what books were on the summer reading list handed out on the last day of school back when I was 10 — more than 30 years ago — but I do recall that they were merely "suggested reading." I can remember scraps of stories: children making kooky inventions; a lonely girl making a Japanese doll house out of bright fabric; something about a fat little witch afraid of Halloween.

But mostly it's the easy feeling I remember when I picture reading that summer. I imagine myself sitting under a broad, shady tree, surrounded by distant hills, turning pages of a crinkly covered library book....

I can't imagine how I would have fared if I had been asked back then to read the hard-hitting books on current summer reading lists....Less common too is "suggested" reading. "In September," reads an addendum to a summer book list handed out to sixth-graders in a nearby school, "you will be given a computer-generated test on your summer reading. This will count as 20 percent of your grade, or two quiz scores."

The required books are often the "good books" — that is, the ones that garner the highest literary prizes, like the Newbery Medal. They tend not to be about children having adventures or fighting foes in slightly enchanted realms, as the young characters do in, say, "A Wrinkle in Time," the 1962 classic by Madeleine L'Engle. Instead, they depict children who must "come to terms," "cope with" and "work through" harsh realties. Where characters in my books lollygagged in meadows, as it were, the children in these books are trying to hack their way out of cellars.

Their suffering is generally caused by adults: a parent has died, or run off, or otherwise acted irresponsibly, drunkenly, selfishly, dissolutely. The children are left trying to put together the pieces. No magic swoops in to aid a resolution; no fantasy cushions the pain. As a group, these books are well written; they have some complex characters and subplots, and are rich in cultural description. But the angst and crash landings of the books is what sticks with you. A 10-year-old attending the creative arts program I run told me, "Those books give me a headache in my stomach."

I can see why. Here are some novels assigned this summer to American sixth-graders, all winners of the highest literary prizes: "Walk Two Moons," by Sharon Creech, chronicles a daughter's search for her missing mother, who fled, it turns out, because of a deep depression after a miscarriage and subsequent hysterectomy. At the end, the girl discovers that her mother was killed in a bus accident. In "Belle Prater's Boy," by Ruth White, a missing father is found to have died because he shot himself in the face; Belle Prater, the errant mother, is never found, although her son remembers her saying that she's in a straitjacket: "Squeezed to death. I can't move. I can't breathe. I have to get out of here." A far gentler book, "Because of Winn-Dixie," by Kate DiCamillo, is about a girl who finds a friendly dog who in turn helps her rebuild her life. But she must do that because her mother abandoned her; we are told also that the mother "loved to drink."

These kinds of books, often referred to as "realistic" or "problem novels," emerged as a genre in the 1960's, and have been in full swing ever since. In the last few decades, writes a children's literature historian, Anne Scott Macleod, "the path of American adolescent novels has been from outward to inward; from concern with the young adult's relation to the larger community to a nearly exclusive emphasis on the adolescent's inner feelings." Sheila Egoff, also an expert in the field, writes that such books "take the approach that maturity can be attained only through a severe testing of soul and self, featuring some kind of shocking `rite of passage.' "

The rationale for exposing 10-year-olds to such potentially upsetting books is that children who read about situations different from their own gain a larger frame of reference for understanding human behavior and cultural diversity. Some educators believe that life is harder than it used to be; books shouldn't shield children from this. The argument is, as the head of the English department in a school here in Westchester County told parents, that anxiety is useful to children.


The kind of realistic fiction that seems more "useful," according to my observation of my children and their friends, affords its young heroes and heroines a certain measure of emotional protection. These novels manage to relay rich material, but don't need to tell all, and instead are quirkily selective, in a way that feels consistent with how an authentic child might filter experience. "The Devil's Arithmetic," by Jane Yolen, about the Holocaust, and "The Watsons go to Birmingham — 1963" by Christopher Paul, about the racist South, are books my 16-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter loved when they were 10. While the circumstances of these stories are indeed harrowing, they are not experienced as emotionally shattering: the child characters are protected by adults throughout.

But what remains most loved, and most useful in helping children "face adversity," is the realm of fantasy, or the realm of the slightly less real world — like Louis Sachar's "Holes," for example. A universe where scary things are blunted — that is, by a blanket of fantasy — is easier to enter; it's helpful too for the main character to have access to a tiny bit of magical power. One need only to remember that Harry Potter, after all, has had to deal with the murder of his parents and an abusive foster family. His magic accompanies him; he is looked out for at every turn. Rather than confronting evil in the form of a violent realistic father, say, it is vastly less stressful for some children to contemplate evil in the form of "he who must not be named."


Strangely, it seems that in such stories the only people who get to break free are the missing parents: these characters seem to have found their lives too stressful and boxed-in, and have fled — right out of the books.


-- CatherineJohnson - 13 Jun 2006

SummerSchool2006 03 Jul 2006 - 19:43 CatherineJohnson

Still getting my act together on the summer program around here.

Andrew's set. He's doing KUMON Math and, as of today, KUMON Reading.

Amazing KUMON moment this week: I took a set of worksheets to school to show Andrew's teacher & aide how well he does with them.

Good thing I did, because they had no idea whether Andrew can or cannot do beginning addition. The answer is that he can, and they're the ones who taught him. They were blown away when they saw him whiz through a sheet of add-ones problems. The problems were sufficiently mixed that it was clear he understood the principle; x + 1 means the next number up from x.

The sheets I'd brought in had problems in the 30s, I think (30 + 1, 32 + 1, etc.). After he did a few of those I skipped ahead to the last sheet in the stack. The final problem was:

1000 + 1 =

Andrew frowned at this and hesitated.

Then he typed "1000" on the AlphaSmart.

I was mortified. I figured this was the moment where his teacher and aide would decide he was just learning by rote.

But I was wrong. They were both watching him intently. I said, "No, 1000 plus 1."

Andrew hadn't stopped frowning at the problem, which I think is part of what had his teachers so interested.

He reached out his hand, and deleted the final zero, then typed in '1.'


They couldn't believe it. The mistake was what convinced them he knew what he was doing. I don't know whether they've seen him self-correct before; they probably have.

But watching him self-correct while doing a brand-new problem no one's ever shown him was the magic.

As impressed as they were, they stilll wanted to know whether Andrew could add ones if you wrote them in a different way, on a different kind of paper. This is the "hyper-specificity" problem that's so frustrating with autistic kids, and that is the center of Animals in Translation. The reason they were so frustrated with his progress in class, apparently, is that his performance is inconsistent – and the inconsistency seems to be related to changing fonts or paper, etc.

I’d never checked to make sure Andrew could do the same problems in different fonts and on different size paper (which I should have).

They gave me a sheet of paper, and I hand-wrote a ones problem.

Andrew answered it instantly.

They were convinced.

They were so convinced that they said they wanted to use KUMON as Andrew’s math curriculum this summer.

We talked about what the problem might be for awhile, and none of us knows. I'm guessing the problem is that the school doesn’t have a math curriculum for Andrew, mainly because there isn’t one, although KUMON may serve.

Clarice ordered Engelmann’s DISTAR program back when she was hired, and she gave it to me to take home. I got to spend two days holding the Presentation Book in my hands (I wish Ken had been there!) It looked like everything it’s cracked up to be, but it didn’t look like something a teacher could do with Andrew. I suppose you could type the script and have Andrew read it....which might be a good idea. I had to return the program the next day, and didn’t have enough time to think it through.

What's happening in class is that Andrew will seem to have mastered an addition fact, but then later on will seem to have lost it.

For the time being, I'm assuming that because they don't have a curriculum any one or all of 3 things has happened:

  • they aren't teaching the math facts coherently

  • they haven't given him enough distributed practice

  • they haven't given him enough massed practice

As to the first, KUMON's worksheets are the ultimate coherent curriculum. The child does many, many worksheets on adding one to a number before moving on to add 2s to a number.

KUMON doesn't stop with the within-ten addition facts, either. Instead it takes the child all the way from 1 + 1 to 1000 + 1 before moving on to + 2. Clarice hasn't done that, I don't think. I think she had him learn all the various addition facts up to 10.

She said Andrew will seem to have mastered 6 + 4 = 10, but then when they ask him 6 + 4 a week later, he doesn't know.

I'm hoping the reason he forgets 6 + 4 is that 6 + 4 doesn't have the meaning it's going to have in KUMON.

I'm also wondering whether "massed practice" — aka drill and kill — may be especially important or even critical for developmentally disabled kids. Everyone in the U.S., constructivists & cognitive scientists alike, seems to have decided that distributed practice is the key to the kingdom. (TRAILBLAZERS & EVERYDAY MATH both claim to give children distributed practice.)

But I've always found I need to do a certain amount of massed practice in the beginning just to remember a concept well enough to be able to do distributed practice. Andrew is tough to deal with; I bet they haven't made him sit in a chair and do the same addition problems over and over again the way KUMON does. I wouldn't have.

In any case, we're moving on to +2 in a couple of days, so at that point I'll start occasionally asking him to do a +1 problem to see if he remembers.

We'll see.

As to KUMON reading, this morning Andrew was aghast at the discovery that in addition to the 5 KUMON math pages he has to do every day he now has 5 KUMON reading pages, too.


summer school for Christopher

First off, I've had my second abject failure in afterschooling books: Sentence Composing for Middle School: A Worktext on Sentence Variety and Maturity by Don Killgallon.

I love this book — I even bought the college level one for me — and it's worthless for Christopher. The first exercises ask you to divide a sentence up at its natural breaks. For instance:

The only way to / keep your health is to eat what / you don't want drink / what you don't like and do what you'd / rather not.
- Mark Twain

The student is supposed to rewrite the sentence putting the slashes where they belong.

Christopher can't do it. He's so far away from being able to do it that he doesn't even really get what he's supposed to be doing. The whole thing makes no sense to him at all.

I thought he'd start to get the hang of it after awhile, but he didn't. He doesn't have an "ear."

Some kids do. My friend Kris's little guy, Charlie, has an ear. I went over one day & he came running up to show me something he'd written. He was missing a comma, and when I pointed it out he stopped in his tracks and talked the sentence to himself under his breath, and he heard where the comma was supposed to go. "Oh yeah!" he said, looking happy.

My other afterschooling flop was Daily Paragraph Editing, which I was using in 5th grade. I pushed Christopher through pages & pages of that book without his performance improving a jot. Finally I talked to his teacher, the brilliant Ms. Duque, and she said forget it. The book wasn't teaching him anything.

I interpret these failures to be more grist for the direct instruction mill. Christopher needs to be directly taught punctuation and grammar. Period. Then he'll have an ear.

I think he will, too. We've finished Megawords Book 3, and his ELA teacher, the other Ms. K, has been giving spelling tests all winter and spring. Ms. Duque taught spelling, too. So he's had a lot of spelling.

Suddenly, Christopher is using spelling rules to spell words he doesn't know, and he's getting them right, too. Boy is that great.

His spelling is so much better, it's amazing. Back in 3rd grade his spelling was A SCANDAL. It was almost psychotically bad, like those jokes about Eastern European languages with no vowels. These days he's starting to have normal not great spelling. In one paragraph of prose he might have two misspelled words, and those words will be misspelled logically.

This is why I'm sure he'll develop an "ear." He's developed whatever the analogous form of implicit knowledge is for spelling; he'll do it for writing, too.

vocabulary, writing, math...

So we're putting Killgallon on the shelf for the time being. Christopher will do Vocabulary Workshop, a book I like more and more as we go along. He does one page a day, which takes 5 minutes max. VW teaches words in 5 exercises:

  • definitions — dictionary definition with sample sentences; student writes the word in the blank

  • complete the sentence

  • synonyms

  • antonyms

  • choosing the right word (student chooses which of two words on the vocabulary list "satisfactorily completes" a sentence)

  • vocabulary in context — prose passage

There are 15 units in the book, and you review every three units. 20 words per list; 185 pages in the book. Efficient & effective.

We're big on vocabulary these days. At dinner I make Christian and Christopher learn Greek and Latin roots from English from the Roots Up. So far we've learned photos, graph, tele, metron, tropos, philia, phobos (predictable hilarity with metron, which instantly suggests the neologism metronsexual, philia & phobos), syn, and thesis, although Christian is having a horrible time remembering tropos. For quite a while there he was saying "line" whenever he heard it (too long to explain), so "line" has now become a running gag.

I told Christian to come up with a mnemonic device for tropos, but unfortunately the one he came up with caused him to start thinking tropos means revolving, which come to think of it maybe it does. (Does it?)

If anyone has a suggestion for a mnemonic device that connects tropos to turning, let me know.

I've also got an ancient copy of Word Power Made Easy (a Google Master recommendation, IIRC) next to the dining room table, so we may get to it, too, one of these days.

Then last week Martine went out and bought a dictionary of New York slang, and we all learned the meaning of ace boon coon, a phrase Christian knew and had used. I'm having as much trouble remembering ace boon coon as he is remembering tropos (I can't remember the "ace" part), so we'll see who gets to the finish line first.

Christopher is supposed to take his ALEKS placement test today, so I've got to go figure that out. More later.




my boon companion

-- CatherineJohnson - 25 Jun 2006

DictionaryOfEnglishUsage 14 Aug 2006 - 00:26 CatherineJohnson

I've just noticed this comment from Doug:

My latest time sink:

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage

Nearly 1000 pages of excellent articles on usage debates.

BTW, from this book's article on "number":

1. All commentators agree that the plural verb in the first example that follows is correct, and so is the singular verb in the second:

"Current statistics already show that, of the unemployed, a large number are illiterate" [citation omitted]

"the number of foreign-language and second-language users together adds up to 300 to 400 million" [citation omitted]

(Which pretty much answers your usage question from a couple of weeks ago.)

So now I'm in trouble.

I had no idea such books even existed.

Obviously I'm going to be ordering one or two or three of them inside the next 10 minutes.

I really like the purple cover on the Cambridge book.



UPDATE 20:42 PM (4:42 pm here) - I'm getting the one Doug has. Merriam-Webster.

-- CatherineJohnson - 08 Aug 2006

TerrificElaAssignment 23 Oct 2006 - 20:44 CatherineJohnson

Christopher just told me about a wonderful assignment his ELA teacher gave the class.

It's a format for analyzing a work of fiction. You could probably call it a graphic organizer, since I gather she may have given the kids a chart with each category listed inside a box or window. (I haven't seen it; Christopher told me about it.)

Here it is:

somebody —

wanted —

but —

and so —

She has them create a plotline, too.

I think this assignment is brilliant. It's so brilliant I'm having trouble finding language to describe it.

These four lines perfectly distill and communicate what a work of fiction actually is. It's the ultimate example of Temple (Grandin's) "finding the basic principle," Aristotelian theory boiled down to just 5 words.

I've never seen children work with it, of course, but I'd be stunned if it didn't teach them a profound and lifelong lesson about narrative works of art.*

The fact that Christopher brought it up in the car and remembered the entire thing is evidence of its effectiveness, I think. (She gave them an acronym: "SWB and so.")

I have no idea whether his teacher, Ms. Coulson, created it herself. If she did, she's a genius. If she didn't, she's still a genius for choosing this assignment out of the thousands of assignments available to English teachers.

I didn't have time to write it short

That is a standard line amongst writers. Whenever you overwrite, you say, "I didn't have time to write it short."

Writing short is difficult, time-consuming, and downright perplexing. This core truth of the writing life, combined with what little I know of British writing instruction, makes me continue to think that in writing instruction a great deal of attention should be paid to the writing of summaries.

[Judith] Koren describes how two British women she knows became effective essayists and speakers. “Each week, they’d had homework exercises like this: While preserving every essential point, reduce a 100-word essay to 50 words, then to 20, then to 10. Reduce 500 words to 50, 1,000 words to 100. Week after week, year after year.

The American Enterprise

"Boiling it down" — "finding the basic principle" — is what creative nonfiction writing is about. It's what creative nonfiction thinking is about.

Whoever created SWB and so did a brilliant job of it for the teaching of narrative fiction to middle schoolers.

summarizing assignment from Karen A
annotated student writing models from Glencoe

* Since we have some new readers, I'll mention that I have a Ph.D. in "Film Studies." I spent years studying narrative fiction; this is a realm in which I have some genuine expertise, as opposed to the journalistic knowledge I normally draw upon writing ktm.

-- CatherineJohnson - 22 Oct 2006

JustCommas 07 Nov 2006 - 13:55 CatherineJohnson

email to Christopher's English teacher

Hi Tracy--

Christopher told us last night he likes to write!

We were thrilled. He’s really enjoying your class (he’s enjoying almost all of his classes – no negative comparison implied!)

We noticed two problems with his rough draft:

  • few transition words between sentences

  • not much sense of how to use commas

I thought I’d mention a book I found last year when I was researching writing instruction:

Just Commas: 9 Basic Rules to Master Comma Usage
by Diane Lutovich & Janis Fisher Chan

Lutovich and Chan teach business people how to write, so their books are direct and to the point. Just Commas is much simpler than any commercial textbook I’ve seen, with no “page splatter.”

(Page splatter: gratuitous color photographs of kids and their pets/friends/classmates/skateboards etc. scattered all over the pages, clashing font styles, “think and discuss” pull-outs, etc.)

Just Commas is only 85 pages long, with huge amounts of white space. It’s not quite as succinct as the SWB and then assignment, but it’s close.

Even though I’ve been a professional writer for years, I’m sometimes confused about where commas do and do not go. Just leafing through the book I learned something new. When I get to it, I’ll have Christopher read Just Commas and do all the examples.

So it might be a good book for your library or class --

Catherine J.

“The comma . . . Has not one but many tasks to do, which differ greatly in importance.”
(from Just Commas)

school textbooks: bad
self-teaching books for grown-ups: good

Some of you will remember that I spent a full week last school year scouring Amazon for decent writing textbooks.

My conclusion: there are no decent writing textbooks.

After a day or two I learned that the only books to consider are books written for adults who want to learn a new skill or improve a skill they learned poorly in school - or, possibly, books and websites written for ESL learners.

Commercial textbooks intended for public schools are page-splattered, edu-blah-blah extravaganzas. They cost and arm and a leg, and don't appear to teach anyone how to write. Or punctuate. Or put your participles some place where they don't dangle.

They're appalling.


      Lutovich's & Chan's grammar test for grownups

Write It Well Lutovich & Chan's website
Grammar for Grownups by Lutovich & Chan

Don't dangle your participles in public (Language Log)
Jack Lynch Guide to Grammarand Style
the participle
common faults in Sentence structure
plural nouns with singular subjects

Getting an A on an English Paper (under construction)

grammar book recommendations
NYC Educator

Rules for Writers (not)

-- CatherineJohnson - 07 Nov 2006