Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Authors: Lessons Learned from Young Writers – Part 1 of 4

This is an edited version of a post from one year ago.

In September of 2015, I started working with a group of middle and high school students on a project. The previous school year, I’d done a talk on Science Fiction writing. During the talk, the kids had a chance to write a bit from a prompt.

I got good feedback from the teacher, Debra Ray, about the presentation. Over the summer, one of the students drove over 40 miles to come to one of my books signings.

I had an idea.

Over the course of my teaching career, colleagues have heard the phrase, “I’ve been thinking,” hundreds of times. Some of them learned to excuse themselves from the conversation at that point. Others politely listened and performed the part of “bobble-head doll” with consummate excellence—nodding at appropriate times. But, some were willing, and a few were anxious, to hear my ideas.

I talked with Mrs. Ray about the possibility of meeting with a group, like a club. The club would be for students that were interested in writing short stories for inclusion in a self-published book.

She took the offer and expanded on it. She convinced the site administration to allow her to offer a “half-credit” elective class. When school started, enrollment was 11 students.

Mrs. Ray and I both thought we could have a manuscript ready for CreateSpace and Kindle by April of 2016. That didn’t happen.

We planned on publishing the book in September of 2016.

Here’s what I learned from the young writers that first year.

Lesson Learned
The kids were excited to share their ideas with one another.
Excitement should be an integral part of any writing process. If what you’re planning and writing don’t excite you, trash it and start over.
The kids were reluctant to make a commitment to a plot.
It’s important to set a course and start sailing. If you find yourself lost in the doldrums of the writing process, look to your plotline. If it’s lacking, fix it!
There was too much talking about the stories and not enough writing of stories early on.
Write. Put words down on paper or in an electronic document. Talking about and thinking about ideas, characters, actions, setting are all good things to do. But, set a deadline for yourself. Begin to write your story sooner rather than later.
Ending their stories proved problematic.
I’ll never forget reading a book by a famous author deep into his career. I'd enjoyed his earlier books. The storyline in my chosen book was good. 

Without foreshadowing of any kind, at what I’m convinced was his contracted word count minimum, “they all went into the basement and it blew up.” That was a terrible ending. I’ve not read another of his books since.

O’Henry’s “surprise endings” are surprising because of the outcome O'Henry chose to use. The surprise does not result from that ending leaping away from the storyline. The end of all well-written stories is based on what’s been written prior to that ending.
Editing is hard.
Nothing new learned here. What was reinforced was the need to understand what editing entails. Correcting spelling and grammar errors is essential. But, filling holes in plot lines, expanding the depth of characterizations, and transitioning between plot points instead of leaping from plot point to plot point must be addressed early in the editing process.
Editing takes time.
Most of our students had been successful in English classes. They were good at writing essays. But, they were used to editing to a final draft in under an hour. The difference in editing a 500-word essay and a 5000-word story is more than a ten-fold time commitment.

In spite of the steep learning curve for students and teachers, enthusiasm for this elective course is high. We thought that Mrs. Ray might have to limit the number of students enrolled.

That’s another expectation that wasn’t met.

Next Author’s Blog: 
Lessons Learned from Young Writers – Part 2

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My website is: www.crdowning.com

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Monday, May 15, 2017

Teacher's Almanac: Grading Over The Years – Homework #3

What happens when you teach an advanced course—AP or IB, for example? No matter what “level” your course is, if you include higher level thinking skills in assignments, how do you grade that in class?

There are times when the only appropriate way to grade an assignment is for the teacher—you—to grade the whole kit and caboodle. That doesn’t have to be very often.

I’ll present two examples of how you can use PowerPoint to make your life easier. I have used the first example, scientific graphing, in all my classes from 9th-12th grade.

The second example is from AP Biology. It will be part of the next blog on grading.

The good news is this: You don’t have to know much about science to appreciate the explanation of this grading technique. The model works in any content area where you have repeating assignment types—graphing, in example one—or complex assignments with high-level vocabulary—example two.

When you grade an assignment of a type that is frequently assigned, you should teach how to do that assignment early in the year. Teaching the process, allowing students to make a sample, and grading that sample is the best way to ensure consistent grading over time.

The images below are from the PowerPoint used to teach scientific graphing.

During instruction, the top slide in the next set of PowerPoint slides starts with a blank X-Y axis. Labels and other components appear at the proper locations, reinforcing the previous slides’ information.

Using an appropriate scale is emphasized. Pretty much the goal is to fill a piece of graph paper with the graph. Next producing the line that "is" the graph is described.

Most students think their graphs are "done" at this point. They are not!
The title on a scientific graph is very important. It is worth one-third of the points for the graph. For that reason, an explanation of how to name a graph and why is critical, especially since graphs are often graded in class.

I apologize for the overlap of print in some images. That's because various items "appear" with a mouse click at specific times in the presentation.

Look at the image titled “Now put a title on the graph” in the pair above. The first text box to appear after the explanation of what information a title contains is, “The title should explain what you have graphed.”

Students discuss ideas for titles in pairs.

“For example: This title would be…” appears.

Last the actual title “Electronegativity Values of Selected Elements” appears in the proper location and the two previously visible text boxes disappear. This leads to the final slide.
If a graph has multiple lines, a key is needed. 
Students then are given time to make a graph and share it with their partners. They "grade" their graphs as practice.

After the first lab activity, students grade their own graphs.

They use the “grading pens” I mentioned in a previous blog for this grading. No pens or pencils except the grading pens are allowed during the grading.

During the grading time, slides appear in left to right, top row to bottom row.

Grading begins with the title.

The gray box containing the title appears after students have compared what they had on their graphs.
Students ask clarifying questions during the time the left slide in the bottom row is visible.

The last slide comes into view.

  • Each “burst” appears in this sequence. Title. Y-axis. X-axis. Curve. Key. Yellow box.
  • Students put the points earned in the same place on their graph as the “burst” for that feature appears on the screen.
  • Questions are addressed. The teacher is the final arbitrator in any dispute.
  • Points are totaled and written under the student's name on the graph.
  • On “random” assignments, graphs are exchanged after grading. Scoring in authenticated by the new grader. Differences in scoring are resolved by the teacher before the papers are turned in. Not knowing when this will occur helps ensure honesty in the scoring.
  • I check a set of graphs periodically, too. Again, this encourages the students to be honest in their assessments of point values.

This method does “take class time.” However, students learn from their errors while the teacher saves grading time for more complex assignments.

In the next blog in this series, I’ll explain my method for grading assignments with specific details required or that are based on “advanced” material.

Next Almanac blog: Grading Over The Years – Homework #4

Follow me on Twitter: @CRDowningAuthor and Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CRDowningAuthor
My website is: www.crdowning.com

I'd appreciate your feedback as a comment on Blogger!

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Authors: Letter to a New Author

Letter to a New Author

I consider myself an accomplished author. I’m not a best-selling author . . . yet. I’ve learned a lot over the five years that I’ve been “writing as more than a hobby.”

I was asked by a friend to contact another of her friends. The other friend had finished writing a novel and was wondering what to do with the manuscript.

In recent weeks, I’ve read several blogs about this situation. A common theme is to find an agent. That is the mantra if you plan on submitting your manuscript to a mainstream publishing house. I do not have an agent. Perhaps I should. But, that’s for another blog.

Today, I offer the content of the letter I sent in response to my friend’s request for her other friend. It is a succinct presentation of the publishing world as I see it at this time.

Congrats on finishing your novel!

I've had several experiences in the world of publishing. I'm happy to share with you.

I'm going to direct you to my blog first. This link
leads to a post on publishing through Amazon. I'd start there. 

Questions for you to answer:
1.    Have you had any professional editing or proofreading done on the manuscript? If no, you need to rethink that position and pay to have at least a proofreader go over the manuscript. See this blog post: http://crdowning-author.blogspot.com/2016/02/editing-lessons-learned-hard-way.html
2.   How much control do you want over the book's look, advertising, and cost? Traditional publishers are decreasing in number and number of publications. Most won't accept manuscripts unless they come through an agent. Independent publishers are located along a continuum. Nearly all require money from you to publish your book. The return on your investment varies, but will most likely be less than you thought or hoped it would be. Self-publishing is the biggest now. It's fast. It can be free. It can be a great route to take. However, if you don't have a clean manuscript and an eye-catching cover, it can be your death as an author.
I've also published a booklet on story writing and another on self-publishing. Those are available through Amazon. https://goo.gl/q6bXs7

I recommend you have a website as opposed to just using Amazon's author page. I invite you to check out my website, www.crdowning.com, and other author websites. There are many options when it comes to building a website. WordPress - https://goo.gl/M2W5Ij - is the platform used by many authors. They have several levels of support/cost.

I use Adobe Muse and build, revise, and update my site myself. My website is hosted by a private group at no cost to me. There are many options for website hosting. A Google search will provide more than enough options. Many hosting sites offer website-building software a little or no cost as well.

If you're not on social media, start immediately. That's the quickest way to get the word out about your book(s), but it's time-consuming. I'm on Twitter, facebook, and LinkedIn every M-F. Most of it is through Hootsuite, but I also do "real time" posting and reacting each week.

If you have specific questions, let me know.
I can provide additional information about most of what I've presented above.

Next Author’s blog: Lessons Learned from Young Authors

At least that’s my plan!

Follow me on Twitter: @CRDowningAuthor and Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CRDowningAuthor
My website is: www.crdowning.com

I'd appreciate your feedback as a comment on Blogger!

Monday, May 1, 2017

Almanac for Teachers. Grading Over The Years – Homework #2, Focused Reading Questions

In the last Almanac, I described types of homework assignments as shown below.
Assignments are not created equal. In every discipline there are [should be!] assignments designed
for students to learn.
for students to know what they don’t know.
to assess student learning.

Reading assignments are the focus on this blog. They were going to be one part of the blog, but . . .
As I was writing, I made an executive decision. This blog is all about reading assignments.
Reading assignments are for students to learn. For that reason, that is the primary goal for focus questions on reading assignments.

Too many teachers offer this verbal direction for reading assignments, “Take notes.”

There are some fine strategies that provide direction in the note-taking process—Cornell Notes is one, Power Notes is another. However, when the direction is simply, “Take notes as you read,” students are put in the position of determining the value of individual pieces among a vast quantity of information bites. That direction does put the student in charge of her or his learning. It also assigns the role of expert to the student.

Putting a student in the position of an expert on content in your class is tempting disaster.
Some students are good at discriminating between essential, of some value, and non-essential—examples used to clarify.

However, most students write down far too much text material as “notes.” They’ve learned that if they write enough words they get a good grade on the assignment when they turn it in.

Too many words make it difficult to quickly locate important information in those notes. Not being experts on the content frequently results in key information isn’t even in their notes, Ultimately, many students decide that reading notes are unimportant even though their “homework” grade was good.

Focus questions direct students to specific information the teacher considers important.

Here’s a specific example. I used this with 9th-grade students at Monte Vista High in San Diego, California and Great Oak High in Temecula, California. The last Almanac blog discussed focus questions as homework. This was an in-class version of focus questions. The process is similar; the grading is the same. I am the author of the questions in both cases. In this example, I’m also the author of the content piece.

If you follow these directions, you’ll get a real feel for the process. I’m putting you on the honor system for following the directions. My initials are CRD.

Before you start reading, answer the following three Pre-Read Questions. Raise your hand when you have answered all three questions. After your teacher initials or stamps that your answers to P1, P2, and P3 are complete, you may continue. While it’s preferred that you give your best answer, you may use the answer “I don’t know” for one of the Pre-Read Questions.
Use SENBP for all your answers. Answer in complete sentences.
SENBP is an acronym for “Smooth-Edged NoteBook Paper. I refuse to accept papers torn from spiral-bound notebooks. They have paper “zits” that stick to other papers, making it impossible to stack papers in a tidy bundle. Apparently, I’m not the only teacher with an aversion to zit-edges. I found the following photo online. You can see where it’s been taped to the wall as a negative exemplar.

If a spiral-bound notebook is the only source for lined paper that students have, they can cut the zits off with scissors before turning the paper in.
They learn quickly to do the cutting over a trashcan so I don’t find zits on my floor!
Pre-Read Questions

Answer these before you do anything else. 
P1. What happens to an atom if you change the number of protons it contains?
P2. What happens to an atom if the number of electrons is not the same as the number of protons?
P3. What’s in the “cloud” around the nucleus of an atom? Why is it there?

1.    Read through the following questions.
2.    Read the content assigned.
3.    Do not stop to answer the questions, keep reading to the end of the assignment.
4.    After you’re finished reading
a.    Answer as many Focused Reading Questions as you can without looking back at the assigned reading.
b.    If you didn’t know all the answers, find the answers you need by referring back to the assigned reading.
5.    Check your answers with the answer key.
6.  Please follow this set of directions. It will give you a better feel for the concept than just reading "about it."

Focused Reading Questions
  1.         a) What happens to an atom if you change the number of protons it contains? [Sound like a familiar question?] b) In one sentence, compare this answer to your P1 answer.
  2.       How do you determine the atomic mass of an element?
  3.       What makes a neutron different from a proton?
  4.       What changes in atoms of the same element with different atomic masses?
  5.       Define isotope.
  6.       Copy this on your answer sheet: . What does each part of this represent?
  7.      What’s “special” about certain isotopes?
  8.      If someone told you that the Carbon-12 Method of dating artifacts showed that an ax handle was 50,000 years old, would you believe them? Why or why not?

Text material: Basic Chemical Concepts
Take a piece of an element and begin dividing it into smaller and smaller pieces. You will eventually get to the place where if you divide the amount of substance you have left, it will no longer be that element. The smallest piece of an element which cannot be divided is the atom.
Atoms are made up of three basic components:  protons, neutrons, and electrons. Protons  (P) are sub-atomic particles that have a positive electrical charge. They have an atomic weight of approximately 1 atomic mass unit (AMU). Protons are located in the nucleus of an atom. The atomic number of an element is equal to the number of protons it has in its nucleus.
Every element has its own atomic number. Every element also has its own atomic symbol. For the most part, the atomic symbol is the capitalized first letter of each element's name. For example, Carbon = C, Hydrogen = H, etc. Some elements use two letters from their name as their atomic symbol (e.g. Chlorine = Cl, Magnesium = Mg). However, unless you know your Latin, some atomic symbols make no sense because their symbols are taken from their Latin names (e.g. Sodium =  Na, Potassium = K). The important thing to remember about atomic numbers and atomic symbols is that if you change the number of protons in an atom, you change the element to a different element.
Neutrons (N) are sub-atomic particles which have no electrical charge—they are neutral. Their atomic mass is approximately equal to the proton (~ 1 AMU). Neutrons are located in the nucleus of the atom in which they are found. Neutrons provide mass without adding any electrical charge to an atom.
The total mass of an element is equal to the number of protons plus the number of neutrons. If you know the atomic mass of an element and the atomic number of the element, you can calculate the number of neutrons in that element.

You'll get the most out of this experience if you try to answer the FOCUS QUESTIONS before you check the answers.
Answers to Focus Questions
1.    a) you change the element   b) compare to P1
2.    P + N
3.    neutrons have no charge
4.    number of neutrons
5.    Two atoms of the same element with different atomic masses

6.   12 = mass, 6 = atomic number, C = atomic symbol
7.    radioactivity
8.    No. C-14 dating only good to 25,000 years

How’d you do?

Here are other ways to use focused reading questions.
Pair students. Have them read the assignment and work together on the answers. They must come to consensus on each answer. If there is a disagreement, the student who disagrees with the answer may put her/his answer and a note explaining why they disagree.

Assign Even-numbered Questions and Odd-numbered Questions to alternating students. Make this a form of Think-Pair-Share activity. Do not allow the students to copy each other’s answers. Make the sharing time one of discussion between the partners.

As a Quiz. After the questions have been answered, make the quiz a
  • “For Learning” experience. Ask the questions as an oral quiz. Students answer with whiteboards or quiz remotes, etc.
  • “Of Learning” experience by giving a traditional oral or written quiz using selected focused reading questions. You can use different questions each class period.
As "regular" reading questions. I never liked using the questions in textbooks or the ancillary materials. Too often, they are produced by professional question writers who are not trained in the content area of the book. Students learn early in their school career that if you look for the same words in the text that are in most question stems, you can copy that sentence and have the answer.
I am not opposed to "regular" reading questions if you make up your own questions.

Enough for today.

Next Week: Grading Over The Years – Homework #3

Follow me on Twitter: @CRDowningAuthor and Facebook: 
My website is: www.crdowning.com

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