Tag Archives: Writing

Writing Lessons from a Shopping List

The following is excerpted from Jonathan Bush’s “Lessons on Writing from a Clueless Shopper” at Writers Who Care.

jonathanbushI’m a pretty good teacher of writing, but I am one of the worst grocery shoppers. I often have an interest in unique and useless items, and I’m apt to buy things close to what we need, rather than the exact item.

Luckily, I am married to one of America’s greatest shopping list writers. And, like a good writer does, she uses her writing to solve problems and create solutions. She has produced some of the most rhetorically savvy and smart pieces of writing the world has ever seen (and targeted at one of the worst audiences, too!).

Effective writing is, first and foremost, about audiences: how to interact, teach, and reach those audiences, no matter the situation or context.

How then does my wife effectively use rhetoric to write a shopping list that will help me come home with a can of chicken broth, rather than a whole chicken (they’re pretty much the same thing, right?)?

  1. Through effective organization. All items on the list are written exactly in the order that I will encounter them while I shop. This is genius. Not only does it keep me on track and focused on what we need, but it also provides navigational triangulation. Each item geographically follows the previous item. If I encounter an item two-down on my list and I see that there’s a missing item in between that and the last item I picked up, I know that it is somewhere between those two items. Thus, the hunt begins, with the quarry cornered into a small area of aisle ten – between bagels and hamburger buns.
  2. Through short and focused messaging. The use of words on her lists is minimal. Only one verb is needed – and it’s only implicit – “shop!” Every phrase or word is precious and meaningful and detailed.
  3. Through research and knowledge. There is little guesswork in these lists. She knows the layout of our local store in intimate detail. She knows what items are on sale and which ones have coupons attached (which she helpfully marks with an asterisk).

These shopping lists, then, exemplify some of the core concepts of rhetoric, along with the communication tasks they entail. In many of our classes, we talk about these rhetorical ideas as Genre, Audience, and Purpose, commonly shortened to “GAP.”

This concept of “GAP” can be used to analyze my wife’s shopping list, and why it has been effective with its intended audience. For example:

Genre (the type of writing). My wife understands the context in which the shopping list will be used (mainly balanced on a shopping cart after being rumpled in my jeans). The list must therefore be easy to interpret and read, and things like efficiency and concise language are important, as is organization. Likewise, it needs to be a list, not an essay.

Audience (who will be reading it). Using her knowledge of her audience, she crafts the list in a way that works for me.

Purpose (what the writer wants to accomplish). She has a goal: this list is meant to accomplish an identifiable task. The effectiveness of her list is easy to assess. If there is fresh food in the house, it worked. This is the measure by which all rhetorical writing can be judged – did it cause the action or response the writer was attempting to create? If so, it’s effective writing.

No matter how humble or common the task, good writers know their audiences and know that effective writing depends on the author’s understanding of the entire writing situation – the audience and purpose, and the most appropriate genre to be used. These are also the things teachers value in authentic writing classes, and they present the ideas that can be emphasized by parents or community members who mentor children when they look at any and all types of writing, asking questions such as:

  • Why do you think they wrote that?
  • Who do you think they are writing to?
  • Why did they write that way?

These all provide means for starting this conversation about the complicated and exciting nature of writing and communicating.

A Collaborative Effort

This post is written by NCTE member, Lauren Petri. 

LaurenPetriI have not spoken for almost ten entire minutes in my classroom, and it is both uncomfortable and humbling. They don’t need me today. My seventh hour is participating in their third Philosophical Chairs Debate, and buried underneath my anxiety is a well of pride bubbling over as my students create a deliberative discussion about the prosecution of child soldiers. While I certainly am not the facilitator of this conversation, I can see my thumbprints in their words. More specifically, I can hear the insight and language I gained in Teaching Deliberatively: Writing and Civic Literacy, a 2015 summer graduate class offered through the University of Northern Iowa and Iowa Writing Project, becoming part of my students’ academic and interpersonal interactions.

Many of my students are not tactful. They’re eighth graders and they’re nearly always ready to battle with their words. Their worlds revolve around hallway exchanges and social media sparring. When I started to delve into classroom discussions, I was abruptly met with an uphill battle. My students had plenty of disagreements, but few had the vocabulary to sort through their conflicts productively. So, I started small. I worked with one of my classes to create a list of “sentence starters” to use when in a discussion that involved conflict. We practiced, and practiced, and got better each week. A classroom initially fraught with haphazard comments slowly became one where words were chosen with care and purposeful thought. I began to trust them, and as their positive experiences in my classroom piled up, they began to trust me.

Following Teaching Deliberatively last summer, I was adamant that my classroom would nurture a climate of conversation. As I anxiously anticipated my first year of teaching, I envisioned lively discussions and intrinsically motivated students. However, that is not quite what reality placed in my lap. I was, and still am some days, frustrated with the lack of buy-in from my students. Developing those sentence starters with my class was a huge step toward creating a community of students who are willing to take risks. When my students became more willing to take academic risks, I started to see growth.

In the process of trying to create learners, I can easily forget that I am one as well. In the days following the Teaching Deliberatively course, I realized that I needed to be part of a community of learners if I ever hoped to create one. Follow-up sessions with other cohort members helped. The time I spent engaging in civic discourse with colleagues renewed my own sense of curiosity. So, instead of bulldozing through content, I always stop to ask my students what they think of a particular lesson or activity. Their input has become an essential component of my daily planning. They know that whether the lesson goes without a hitch or flops, we’ll discuss it together. I ask for honesty, and they are experts at being honest with me. We craft the kind of language we need to let us communicate in a way that propels us forward, and I am certain that I am a better teacher because of it.

Lauren Petri is a first year middle school Language Arts teacher in Des Moines, and is a graduate of the University of Northern Iowa.

Literacy and Culture: Are We Rising?

The words in this blog belong to NCTE member Jeff Wilhelm. Jeff Wilhelm

I spent today in Berlin and then took the train to Magdeburg where I had a dinner meeting and where I will be working with English teachers (teaching English to German students) for the next two days.

Some observations about literacy: the Leipzig Buchmesse (book fair) is taking place and every newspaper I saw from around Germany (Berlin, Frankfurt, Munich) had a front page story about it. Then a page two story about a reading or some such related literacy event in that city.

36% of Germans say they have picked up and read more than one book of literature in the last week. Compare that to 3% of Americans. What’s up with that and what could we do about it? Is this a failure of teaching? A lack of social imagination? Our emphasis on immediate functional work?

Check out the stone tablet! Now we have the Kindle! Where to next? Wilhelm stone tablet

I went to the famous Pergamon Museum on the World Heritage Museum-insel (museum island) in Berlin and the exhibits were filled with scribe statues (a very big deal in ancient Assyria and Babylonia since scribes allowed for record keeping and trade and legal documents and many other things that promotes power and culture), stone and clay tablets, and even a “golden hat”, a rare kind of 19-year calendar that could be used to do various calculations and placeheld astronomical knowledge.

The rise of culture always parallels the rise of literacy. What does that say about us?”

Jeff Wilhelm is Distinguished Professor of Boise State University, Director of the Boise State Writing Project, and an internationally-known teacher, author, and presenter, and author and co-author of many books including “You Gotta BE the Book”: Teaching Engaged and Reflective Reading with Adolescents for which he won the NCTE Promising Research Award in 1995,  and Teaching Literacy for Love and Wisdom: Being the Book and Being the Change  Right now Jeff is teaching in Germany as a Fulbright Scholar and you can follow his experiences on Facebook.

Methods, Non-methods?

This post is written by James Davis, NCTE’s P12 policy analyst from Iowa.

JamesDavis1At the 2015 NCTE Annual Convention in Minneapolis, immediately after a morning session on writing for the Conference on English Education’s Writers Who Care blog, I ran into a former student. Reminded that I had not worked with him in the Teaching Writing methods course (which I usually teach), I asked Brian about how our work in Creative Nonfiction contributed to his teacher preparation. I found his initial response intriguing: “It was a major source of mentor texts – my own writing – to use with my high school students.” We discussed instructor and peer responses to his drafts and subsequent revisions polishing those texts he now uses as “mentors”; these responses and workshop practices contributed to his current practices and allow him to share the processes behind mentor texts. Our use of nonfiction readings in the course, which deliberately expands students’ awareness of a less familiar genre, reinforced the potential of using reading to fuel writing, including in a writing workshop – timely for him, considering the recent emphasis on including nonfiction in secondary schools. Experiences in and products from this non-methods course enrich the apprenticeships into which Brian can and does invite his students.

Three weeks later I met with English teaching majors who had attended the NCTE Convention, in part to encourage them to write for the CEE blog, especially about the convention experience as part of their teacher preparation journey. I shared points from the chat with Brian. One student leader pointed to her Creative Nonfiction course portfolio as pivotal, coming as it did at a crucial decision point in her career and enabling her to process her choices through writing. Her writer’s notebook, started in Creative Nonfiction and continued daily for more than a year now, along with posts on the course eLearning site contributed greatly to her sense of self as a writer, a characteristic we should encourage in each of our English teaching candidates. Others among the five students in this course echoed the importance of the relationships they developed with writing itself, and with a writing group, as preparatory to becoming teachers, integrating a growth mindset into their sense of teacher-as-writer. They were also transitioning into an understanding of writing-as-teacher in field experiences, initially through reflections on practices observed and applied, but also through recognizing larger arenas of school practice and policy in need of teacher attention, even advocacy. Some students appreciated seeing “bumps” in our workshops and how I addressed them, such as peers not preparing for response sessions or responding in ways inconsistent with the spirit of the workshop – or not responding at all, including the reflective postings expected on eLearning. One referred to these frustrations as offering “advanced experience” with workshop pedagogy.JamesDavis2

Such discussions with fine future teachers provoke questions, especially since our secondary English teacher preparation occurs in an English department in a college of humanities, arts, and sciences in a medium-size regional university with a prominent state service mission. We often seem to interface awkwardly with the College of Education preparation our students report. We know future teachers critique, at least silently, the pedagogy they experience in their preparation program; they also scrutinize practices encountered in courses in their disciplines. That “teachers teach as they were taught, not as they were taught to teach” has long held some currency, so perhaps we should ask some questions more publicly. For example:

  • What fit might we expect—or fear—between college literature course pedagogy and the experiences that middle and high school students have with literature?
  • What kinds of student writing are called for by the practices of literature professors, and how does that writing subsequently affect the writing that secondary students are asked to do about literature?
  • What uses of electronic access to information infuse college students’ learning, and how do those uses translate into subsequent practices in secondary schools?
  • Can blog “threads” (for example, the recent online renewal of contention over grammar instruction, or definitions of argument and persuasion) engage methods students in current discussions of pedagogy and with issues they will encounter as new teachers?
  • Does their program as a whole position future English teachers as informed self-advocates rather than as compliant followers of scripted programs and users of status quo practices?
  • What if our pedagogy across all courses in our department reflected our conscious intent to transform teaching in the secondary schools from which we receive 90% of our students?
  • What if we engaged in a serious conversation about why and how to do so?

Jim Davis began teaching in southwest Missouri as an NCTE and affiliate member, attending his first annual convention in Milwaukee in 1968. Now in his 50th year in our profession, he teaches English education and directs the Iowa Writing Project at the University of Northern Iowa.

Why Journalism Matters #1 Getting to the Heart of the Matter: Thesis vs. Lede

This is the second in a weekly series by NCTE member Alana Rome. 

Alana RomeHow to teach essay writing: it’s one of the biggest struggles as an English teacher. Crafting a well-written thesis, organizing and prioritizing information, backing up claims with textual evidence and many more subtle skills students need to master before they leave our classrooms. . . .

Wouldn’t it be nice if those skills were reinforced in another class, as well?

Enter journalism classes.

Although any journalism teacher will tell you that article writing is vastly different from essay writing, both share many of the vital skills students need to effectively communicate through the written word.

Through this “Why Journalism Matters” mini-blog series, I will highlight several similarities between essay and article writing, and by extension, show how journalism programs can be utilized to help foster and reinforce strong writing and communication skills among English students.


The heart of the essay, the “so what?,” the author’s main argument or claim. Whatever you call it and however you define it for students, the basic premise is the same: students need to know how to frame their ideas clearly so their readers know what is being argued.

A lede (pronounced “lead”) serves the same purpose in article writing; it is a brief (often 35-40 word) introduction considered to be the most important part of the article. The lede presents the reader with the “5W and H”: who, what, where, when, why, and how. Although ledes have always been considered the most crucial part of a story, readers’ dwindling attention spans, thanks to bite-size news found in SnapChat and Twitter, have made grabbing their attention an even bigger challenge.

Teaching journalism students to write effective ledes helps reinforce effective theses in English classes. Ledes teach students how to present the most salient information first, helping to frame the rest of the text for the reader. Moreover, both effective ledes and theses must utilize active voice and help the writer clarify the angle, or purpose, of their writing.

For more information on writing ledes, see the following links:

How To Write a Great Lede for Your News Story (About.com) — Goes over what a lede is and breaks down several effective ledes into their parts.

A Lede Should . . . (College Journalism) — Lists and explains various types of story ledes.

How To Write a Lede (OWL Purdue) — A very comprehensive resource for different kinds of ledes, with examples and do’s and dont’s.

Alana Rome is an English teacher, newspaper adviser for Trailblazer, and soon-to-be journalism teacher at Pascack Hills High School in Montvale, NJ. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in English education, grades 7-12, both from Iona College. Alana is a contributor of English Leadership Quarterly and has provided professional development sessions at EdScape, Global Education Conference, and Columbia Scholastic Press Association on a variety of topics, including global awareness, authentic assessment, classroom technology integration and student goal-setting.