Writing Like a Scientist

The first year, we just put a toe in the water: We addressed the use of the passive voice.

The next year, we took on pronouns.

This year, my colleague and I dove in head first: We tackled passive voice, pronoun usage, scientific description, conciseness, the particular vocabulary of science, and (of course) citations and internal documentation. The goal: improved Science Fair projects–and ones that read like science writing.

An instructional coach for secondary teachers, I was thrilled three years ago when Mrs. Amanda Cox approached me about her goal for the year: incorporating the Indiana Academic Standards for Literacy into her Honors biology classes. Mrs. Cox took the standards to heart.  “I want my students to write like scientists,” she told me, “but they don’t know how–and I’m not sure I know how to teach them. I’m not an English teacher.”

She’s not alone. The literacy standards–which apply across the curriculum–challenge many content area teachers.  Writing instruction begins in grade school, but the skills that are emphasized are the ones in the English teacher’s toolbox: introductions that capture the reader’s attention, strong action verbs, colorful vocabulary choices, rhetorical questions, apt quotations.

English teachers don’t focus on the language of science. We want variety in sentence length and structure to sustain interest in the content, and we aim for metaphor, simile, and other figures of speech for the same reason. The passive voice gives us the heebie-jeebies.

If you’re a content area teacher, it is easy enough to require writing, but requiring something means teaching it–or knowing for sure that it has been taught–and then grading it. Where is the professional development in reading and writing for content area teachers?  It came, delightfully and productively for my colleague and me, in the form of co-teaching.

We began with the passive voice, one of the most distinctive features of science writing–and a requirement for the Science Fair project.  In science, it’s the discovery that is important; the role of the specific scientist is downplayed. So, in a  traditional write-up of a scientific investigation, the scientist is missing from his or her report. Instead of saying “I discovered X,” a researcher would write, “X was discovered.” Mrs. Cox’s 9th grade students had never even heard of passive voice.

A grammar lesson was necessary, and I was happy to prepare and deliver it. An English teacher by training, I was in my element. Even more fun, I was in front of students again. I had a chance to refresh my classroom skills.

With practice, Mrs. Cox’s students learned to write sentences in the passive voice. Their lab reports began to sound a little more scientific. But a quantitative payoff wasn’t there. The average grade on the Science Fair projects that year was the same as the year before: 76%.

So the next year we tackled pronoun usage. Again, in science writing, pronouns are scarce. When one is used, its antecedent is unmistakable.  So another grammar lesson was in order: What’s a pronoun? What’s an antecedent? Why do they have to agree? And what’s agreement anyway?  

Every English teacher in the country knows how pesky pronouns can be and how tough it is for kids to master them. Drill and kill doesn’t much work as a strategy for learning. A teacher can spray red ink on a paper like Roundup on weeds and still the pronoun errors sprout again in the next paper.

Mrs. Cox and I decided on an old-fashioned revision method: We projected sentences onto the whiteboard that we had drawn from the students’ own lab reports and, working together as a class, corrected them. That process worked well.  In correcting the pronoun errors, of course, we uncovered other problems and eliminated those, too: problems of conciseness and specificity, problems of vocabulary and redundancy.

For example:

  • New information is important because it can change the way you view other information.

became New information changes the way other information is viewed.

  • We couldn’t figure it out but as we received new information and hints, we got closer and eventually we got it.

became Understanding developed gradually.

  • New information and scientific processes are important because they help further our understanding and develop our research.

became Scientific inquiry yields new understandings that, in turn, inform further research.

By the end of that second year, students were more sensitive to language and could quickly spot a sentence written in the active voice and change it into the passive.  But still, the overall scores on the Science Fair projects didn’t budge.  Seventy-six percent remained the average.

By the third year, we decided that we needed to take a much more robust co-teaching approach. Mrs. Cox selected a scientific paper for students to read and dissect and I prepared a lesson that engaged the students in teasing out the fundamental differences between writing for English class and writing like a scientist. Those differences included using the passive voice, and redefining description to mean facts and processes, not “colorful” language.  In English class, students reach for strong verbs, vivid adjectives, figurative language, and even auditory devices like assonance and onomatopoeia. None of that obtains in a journal article for science.

In addition, I taught the students how to document their sources using MLA format, 8th edition. (Yes, they could have used APA, but our teachers have made the decision to use MLA from middle school through early high school in order to be consistent.  Once students have the documentation process down, transferring to APA or any other system will be easy.)

I was in Mrs. Cox’s classroom often enough this year that I learned the students’ names. By October, I felt like a teacher, not a coach. I even helped with drafts and with grading the final projects—that surely made me feel like a teacher!

And the results: This year the average score jumped to 80.5%.  The students garnered top scores at the regional science fair. One young man, who won gold at the regional competition,  qualified for the state science fair and won the Stockholm Award–an honor that brings with it the chance to win a trip to Sweden and participate in a competition there.

Co-teaching the Science Fair project has been fulfilling for both of us—for me, this kind of coaching—where the emphasis is on student learning, in this case through co-teaching, provided sound and appropriate professional development for me, the instructional coach, and for my colleague, the 9th grade Honors Biology teacher.

We both learned new skills.

Mrs. Cox can teach these English lessons now herself (although we do have one more tweak we want to make next year), but the co-teaching idea has spread. Next year I’ll be working with an 8th grade science teacher and a 12th grade Anatomy and Physiology teacher with the very same goal in mind: improving the quality of science writing and thereby augmenting student learning.

And this time, those teachers and I will dive into the deep end right from the start.

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Writing Like a Scientist

The first year, we just put a toe in the water: We addressed the use of the passive voice.

The next year, we took on pronouns.

This year, my colleague and I dove in head first: We tackled passive voice, pronoun usage, scientific description, conciseness, the particular vocabulary of science, and (of course) citations and internal documentation. The goal: improved Science Fair projects–and ones that read like science writing.

An instructional coach for secondary teachers, I was thrilled three years ago when Mrs. Amanda Cox approached me about her goal for the year: incorporating the Indiana Academic Standards for Literacy into her Honors biology classes. Mrs. Cox took the standards to heart.  “I want my students to write like scientists,” she told me, “but they don’t know how–and I’m not sure I know how to teach them. I’m not an English teacher.”

She’s not alone. The literacy standards–which apply across the curriculum–challenge many content area teachers.  Writing instruction begins in grade school, but the skills that are emphasized are the ones in the English teacher’s toolbox: introductions that capture the reader’s attention, strong action verbs, colorful vocabulary choices, rhetorical questions, apt quotations.

English teachers don’t focus on the language of science. We want variety in sentence length and structure to sustain interest in the content, and we aim for metaphor, simile, and other figures of speech for the same reason. The passive voice gives us the heebie-jeebies.

If you’re a content area teacher, it is easy enough to require writing, but requiring something means teaching it–or knowing for sure that it has been taught–and then grading it. Where is the professional development in reading and writing for content area teachers?  It came, delightfully and productively for my colleague and me, in the form of co-teaching.

We began with the passive voice, one of the most distinctive features of science writing–and a requirement for the Science Fair project.  In science, it’s the discovery that is important; the role of the specific scientist is downplayed. So, in a  traditional write-up of a scientific investigation, the scientist is missing from his or her report. Instead of saying “I discovered X,” a researcher would write, “X was discovered.” Mrs. Cox’s 9th grade students had never even heard of passive voice.

A grammar lesson was necessary, and I was happy to prepare and deliver it. An English teacher by training, I was in my element. Even more fun, I was in front of students again. I had a chance to refresh my classroom skills.

With practice, Mrs. Cox’s students learned to write sentences in the passive voice. Their lab reports began to sound a little more scientific. But a quantitative payoff wasn’t there. The average grade on the Science Fair projects that year was the same as the year before: 76%.

So the next year we tackled pronoun usage. Again, in science writing, pronouns are scarce. When one is used, its antecedent is unmistakable.  So another grammar lesson was in order: What’s a pronoun? What’s an antecedent? Why do they have to agree? And what’s agreement anyway?

Every English teacher in the country knows how pesky pronouns can be and how tough it is for kids to master them. Drill and kill doesn’t much work as a strategy for learning. A teacher can spray red ink on a paper like Roundup on weeds and still the pronoun errors sprout again in the next paper.

Mrs. Cox and I decided on an old-fashioned revision method: We projected sentences onto the whiteboard that we had drawn from the students’ own lab reports and, working together as a class, corrected them. That process worked well.  In correcting the pronoun errors, of course, we uncovered other problems and eliminated those, too: problems of conciseness and specificity, problems of vocabulary and redundancy.

For example:

  • New information is important because it can change the way you view other information.

became  New information changes the way other information is viewed.

  • We couldn’t figure it out but as we received new information and hints, we got closer and eventually we got it.

became Understanding developed gradually.

  • New information and scientific processes are important because they help further our understanding and develop our research.

became Scientific inquiry yields new understandings that, in turn, inform further research.

By the end of that second year, students were more sensitive to language and could quickly spot a sentence written in the active voice and change it into the passive.  But still, the overall scores on the Science Fair projects didn’t budge.  Seventy-six percent remained the average.

By the third year, we decided that we needed to take a much more robust co-teaching approach. Mrs. Cox selected a scientific abstract for students to read and dissect, and I prepared a lesson that engaged the students in teasing out the fundamental differences between writing for English class and writing like a scientist. Those differences included using the passive voice, avoiding pronouns, and redefining description to mean facts and processes, not “colorful” language.  In English class, students reach for strong verbs, vivid adjectives, figurative language, and even auditory devices like assonance and onomatopoeia. None of that obtains in a journal article for science.

In addition, I taught the students how to document their sources using MLA format, 8th edition. (Yes, they could have used APA, but our teachers have made the decision to use MLA from middle school through early high school in order to be consistent.  Once students have the documentation process down, transferring to APA or any other system will be easy.)

I was in Mrs. Cox’s classroom often enough this year that I learned the students’ names. By October, I felt like a teacher, not a coach. I even helped with drafts and with grading the final projects—that surely made me feel like a teacher!

And the results: This year the average score jumped to 80.5%.  The students garnered top scores at the regional science fair. One young man, who won gold at the regional competition, qualified for the state science fair and won the Stockholm Award–an honor that brings with it the chance to win a trip to Sweden and participate in a competition there.

Co-teaching the Science Fair project has been fulfilling for both of us. This kind of coaching, where the emphasis is on student learning, in this case through co-teaching, provided sound and appropriate professional development for me, the instructional coach, and for my colleague, the 9th grade Honors Biology teacher.

We both learned new skills.

Mrs. Cox can teach these English lessons now herself (although we do have one more tweak we want to make next year), but the co-teaching idea has spread. Next year I’ll be working with an 8th grade science teacher and a 12th grade Anatomy and Physiology teacher with the very same goal in mind: improving the quality of science writing and thereby augmenting student learning.

And this time, those teachers and I will dive into the deep end right from the start.

The Unsung Heroes Project

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So many young people today are without real heroes. Their knowledge of individuals who have made a difference in the world usually extends only as far as celebrities and sports stars, perhaps to someone in politics. Worthy as some of these people may be, students are generally unaware of the range of actions that can be considered heroic and, even more importantly, of the people in their own community who have made a difference by standing up for, rescuing, or serving another person, cause, idea, or the community itself.

The last three years that I was in the classroom, my 9th grade Honors English students and I undertook a project that expanded their understanding of what it means to be a hero.  This was the Unsung Hero Project, inspired and supported by the Lowell Milken Center in Fort Scott, Kansas. I’ve blogged about this project before (Great Expectations: The Unsung Hero Project and Unsung Heroes, Reprise), but I’ve never outlined exactly what my students did. Recently I was asked to do that, so I’m sharing my description here along with some pictures of students at work on the project.

This classroom undertaking is an example of project-based learning. Through their work on this project, students developed skills in research, collaboration, writing, and the use of technology.  And, as important (if not more so) than anything else they learned, they were inspired by real live heroes in our own community.

Semester One

Students received intensive writing instruction the first semester, especially regarding formal writing conventions and organization of ideas. I spent time on sentence combining techniques (compound, complex, compound-complex sentences, introductory modifiers, appositives) before as well as during the time the students wrote their essays (February and March), and I hit topics such as pronoun antecedents pretty hard. Other grammatical topics I covered on an “as needed” basis. I also “unpacked” the skills required for a research paper, teaching basic bibliography skills, outlining, and internet search techniques in the first semester in preparation for the more complex research the students conducted during the second.

Collaboration is a vital component of this project, so I employed a variety of strategies for developing collaborative skills from the very beginning of the year. My goal was for students to be comfortable working together so that when they began the Unsung Heroes project in the second semester, they could work together efficiently, productively, and equitably.

The first step in the project itself was to define, through class discussion, what exactly we meant by the word “hero.”  Here’s what the students came up with one year: A hero is a person who, with no expectation or recognition or reward, has made a difference by standing up for, rescuing, or serving another person, cause, idea, or the community itself.  Definition Lessons 035

We had a few models, too: Atticus Finch served as the fictional model for a community hero (we read To Kill a Mockingbird in the fall) and the non-fiction model was Irena Sendler. The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler is available on DVD from Hallmark; the book Life in a Jar is available through Amazon. Other models were individuals profiled in the Christian Science Monitor’s series “People Making a Difference” (available online at the Monitor website). We read a number of these essays and practiced defining a hero by breaking down the stories and aligning them with the students’ definition.

Semester Two

Students formed groups of three, self-selecting their partners, and established an account on google.docs, an online tool for writing collaboratively, simultaneously, in real time (a new technology tool eight years ago when I first began this work!).

Then students selected a hero/heroine from a list I provided for them of people in our community who had been in some way heroic. Some of the individuals came to my/our attention because they had received a very small local award for their efforts. Some were suggested by friends in the community, the faculty at my school, and (by the second and third year) various individuals who had read the first volumes of the book. Once the students selected a cause/person, I contacted that individual, soliciting their involvement. No one ever turned us down, by the way, and I would have been surprised if they had.

The next step was the research paper, probably the most complex instructional piece. The students worked collaboratively to research the cause their hero had championed. Thus, when they met the hero and interviewed him/her, they were already “experts” on the topic. The hero didn’t have to start from scratch to educate the students. The research paper included an outline, an annotated bibliography, internal documentation, and a Works Cited page in MLA format.

Most students established email contact with their hero right away and were able to ask him/her for advice and recommendations for resources as they researched the topic. The heroes were usually glad to steer the students to appropriate resources and helped them narrow their topic appropriately.

Unsung Heroes II 024Once the research paper was underway, the students set up an interview with their hero. We tried to conduct all the interviews on the same day in the school library, but of course, not everyone was available on the day we selected, and in some cases, it was inconvenient for the hero to come to school at all. I sometimes drove groups of students to on-site locations and arranged for their parents to pick them up. To be honest, when the hero was associated with a facility—such as the Boys and Girls Club and a second-hand store for impoverished families—it is helpful for the students to see the facility.

Students set up the interview by phone or by email. Although I coached them in the art of interviewing, I stayed out of the interviews myself (aside from taking photographs). Afterward, the students typed up their notes in narrative form or in Question/Answer format—and then they started in on the essay. Their essays went through several revisions. Early versions were read by their peers and by me, and these revisions dealt with structure, the balance between narration and  quoted material, and the weaving of information from their research with what they had learned from their hero. Line editing came last, and both the students and I did this at various times.

P1010472One of my concerns as a teacher of writing was that “voice” would be lost in a collaborative project, and to a certain extent, it was. However, what usually happened is that one of the students emerged as the primary writer, so meshing styles and voices wasn’t as severe a problem as I had originally anticipated. They also each wrote a reflection. I was light-handed with these—I didn’t want to extinguish their individual voices—and by this time, the students were expert at line editing. People who have read the book who are not from this community and don’t know the heroes have told me that the reflections are the most interesting part of each book. That doesn’t surprise me—there students wrote from their hearts.

Students submitted their work to me as a Word document, and I did take over as the master technician on setting up the pages. Eventually, the document turned into a pdf file. The students selected the font and the layout, and they designed the front and back covers as well.

The books could have been published using an online company, but the submission deadlines for these companies did not work with the school calendar very well, so I elected to work with a local printing service. Frankly, I am glad I did. We were able to receive a galley, make final corrections, and still meet our publication deadline. Besides, the printer I worked with had a lot of good advice for us and accommodated our schedule well. He even attended our celebration at the end because he had had a hand in this production, too.

Unsung Heroes in Our Community was developed with the support of the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes (LMC) in Fort Scott, Kansas, whose mission is to “galvanize a movement to teach respect and understanding among all people regardless of race, religion or creed.” The spirit of the Center is embodied in the Hebrew expression, tikkun olam, which means “to repair the world.” The LMC accomplishes its mission of teaching respect and understanding by supporting education projects that feature Unsung Heroes—people who, like Irena Sendler, have acted to repair the world. The project was funded by grants from the Kiwanis Foundation and the Public Schools Foundation of Tippecanoe County.

Unsung Heroes in Our Community was an extensive project, and one that made me—still makes me—very proud. At the end of each year, we held a celebration to which all the heroes were invited as well as the principal and the school district administrators, the students’ parents, the press, and our donors. DSC_0002

At the celebration, the students introduced their heroes, a few students spoke to the audience about the process and what they had learned, and often the heroes made little speeches themselves. All this was followed by a mass book signing. The heroes were even more enthusiastic than the students about collecting signatures! DSC_0113

The book is now in our local public libraries, our local historical society, and in the collection at the Indiana State Historical Society in Indianapolis. Last year, two students were cited in the newspaper by our local historian for information they discovered about the Underground Railroad in our town. Volume I of Unsung Heroes in Our Community was enthusiastically reviewed on the radio last summer  and the book was also featured on local television. Some of our heroes, in fact, later became subjects for a local TV program, “Heroes Among Us.” DSC_0140

This project is well worth the time, energy, and effort it takes to orchestrate. Project-based learning is meaningful to students because it is “real” (as one of the students told me). At the same time, a project like this directly addresses state academic standards and district curriculum expectations. For the teacher, bringing a project such as this to fruition necessitates a thorough understanding of the standards and curriculum, of course, but beyond that, it is a matter of organization and planning and, above all, faith in the students. Their gain in research and composition skills, in comfort with technology, and in the ability to work collaboratively is extraordinary.

DSC_0010The book made an impact on the students beyond the skills they gained and the recognition they garnered. Their definition of a hero expanded from the vision of a super-powered individual in a cape and Spandex to someone who serves others. My students were inspired by the person whose life and work they researched. Someday, when they themselves confront an injustice, meet with a challenge, or perceive a community need (as they undoubtedly will), I am confident that they will recall the courage, selflessness, and determination of these local heroes to “repair the world.” I believe that from these individuals’ examples, my students will draw the strength to act heroically themselves.

Back to Basics–or, Why We Still Teach the Five Paragraph Theme

P1010159When I was still in elementary school, my mother signed me up for piano lessons. My teacher introduced me to the piano by pointing out middle C and then demonstrating scales—as piano students for generations have been introduced to the keyboard. I didn’t have a natural talent for music or a particular desire to play the piano, and I mostly remember epic battles with my mother about practicing. I didn’t want to.  She insisted. I resisted.  She won.

I learned the basics and played The Happy Farmer at my first recital. The struggle over practicing continued, but eventually, I learned enough to play Für Elise at another recital. My mother clapped for me, but I think the piano lessons stopped not long after that performance.

I was a fledgling piano student no different than the majority of students in my classes have been fledgling writers. They began telling stories and formulating their ideas as long ago as kindergarten where they learned that all stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Having been taught in the early grades to write one paragraph, they next learned to write three: an introductory paragraph, a body paragraph, and a concluding paragraph. By middle school, that 3-paragraph theme expanded analogously to the 5-paragraph theme.

Yes, you can have more than 5 paragraphs, we more than occasionally have to tell high school students. And you can have fewer. Eventually, sometime during high school (depending upon their readiness or level of achievement), students come to see that no matter how many body paragraphs there are (Look at a high school research paper—there might be as many as 30!), there’s always a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The 5-paragraph theme, thus, is a scaffold to help kids recognize the basic structure of a composition. And that’s the very reason why, over the years, some people have denigrated the 5-paragraph theme and its conventions: It’s a formula, akin to paint-by-number.

(Similarly, it isn’t until late in high school that students learn that the thesis statement isn’t always the last sentence in the first paragraph—it might be the first, or buried in the middle of the introduction, or not expressed until the very end of the piece, or even not expressed at all, just implied.)

I agree that the 5-paragraph theme is a formula—one that’s often too rigidly demanded.  But, most kids need something formulaic when they first begin to write. Think of any skill we teach.  We start with the time-honored way of doing whatever it is—swinging a golf club, pitching a ball, drawing a figure, or playing the piano: Time-honored because for most of the population, that method works. It works with writing, too. Most kids leave school able to write satisfactory—at least, serviceable—prose.

When we get the basics right, we can move on and branch out and take risks and, for some few, demonstrate artistry.  But no matter what, there’s still and always a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Actually, my mother’s applause at that recital was probably born of relief. I lost my way in the middle of Für Elise. I simply blanked on what came next.  But no way was I going to quit in front of all those people. I improvised (unaware that nearly everyone else in the room had played Für Elise at some point in their lives and knew immediately what I was doing). Finally, by running the measures I did remember up the scale (and adding a few little flourishes of my own along the way), I restarted my memory and played the piece out to a satisfactory end.

Like most of our students, who never become authors, I never became a pianist—but I do still understand how the piano is played.

 

Hunger Fighters

Get out of your comfort zone and try to understand people’s lives that are different than yours.   –Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, recipient of the 2015 World Food Prize

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Rachel researched water sanitation and access in the DRC; Marisa’s paper was about water sanitation in India.

The World Food Prize honors scientists and humanitarians around the world who have made a significant contribution to the fight against hunger. It was established by Norman Borlaug, who is sometimes called “The man who saved 1 billion lives” for his work in developing a drought-resistant variety of wheat that, over time, saved those estimated one billion lives. Scientists such as Purdue’s Dr. Gebisa Ejeta (2009) and Dr. Philip Nelson (2007) have been recognized for their work in fighting hunger as have humanitarian leaders of the caliber of this year’s winner, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, the visionary from Bangladesh who founded BRAC, the world’s largest NGO.

In 1970, Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1986, he conceived the idea of the World Food Prize to honor individuals who had made significant contributions to ending world hunger.  Later still, in 1994, he established the World Food Prize Global Youth Institute, a competition in which high school students study food security issues in countries around the world. After months of research and essay writing, students submit their essays and then present their work orally at regional competitions. The winners there attend the World Food Prize/Global Youth Institute in Des Moines, Iowa, where they interact with some of the most prestigious scientists in the world, learning more about solutions to world hunger and exchanging ideas with these leaders in the field.

Indiana students talk with WFP Laureate Gabisa Ejeta.
Indiana students talk with WFP Laureate Gebisa Ejeta.

I’ve just returned from the World Food Prize/Global Youth Institute proceedings in Des Moines. My colleague and I have three years of sponsoring students under our belts; we’ve sent students on to Iowa every year—and every year we’ve come away from this amazing conference recommitted to the cause. I’ve written about the World Food Prize essay contest before (See https://sarahpowley.wordpress.com/2013/05/03/winners-all/ and https://sarahpowley.wordpress.com/2013/11/08/changed-lives-the-world-food-prize/), but I can’t help writing again about the incredible opportunities this program extends to students and the profound impact it has upon their lives.

As a former English teacher, of course I value the writing and thinking skills that such a challenging paper demands. Gathering information and evaluating it for its recency, credibility, and specificity; sorting and organizing it all into a coherent problem/solution format; and then writing the paper in tight but fluid prose is no mean feat.

To be in the presence of great scientists—at the regional competition and again at the Institute—is awe-inspiring. Most students have no idea what a professional conference looks like, let alone even know that professionals in any field gather regularly to present papers, engage in dialogue, participate in panel discussions about timely topics, and hammer out approaches to common problems. Watching leading scientists, small holder farmers, representatives from NGOs, and agribusiness growers present information about (for example) aquaculture, conservation agriculture, and the nutritional impact of sweet potatoes in Africa is mind-expanding. Who would think such topics would captivate high school students whose background is not necessarily agriculture? But the students were not just snagged; they were hooked by the passion of the speakers and the complexity of the world of agriculture. They recognized the importance of something they’d always taken for granted—food—and the urgency of the challenge to feed 9 billion by 2050.

The culminating event for the high school students is a presentation at the end of the Institute to a panel of scientists and agriculture experts (even the laureates themselves, including this year’s winner) who read the students’ papers and interact with them.

One of our students, Rachel, in introducing herself prior to presenting her paper on water sanitation and access in the Democratic Republic of Congo, declared, her tone earnest and her demeanor sincere, “I didn’t think this experience would affect me the way it did. Food is the key to everything. I didn’t really realize that before I wrote my paper.”

rachel.jpeg
Rachel and two other students discussing their presentations.

I had watched Rachel intently throughout the conference. Because she has always been a little bit shy, I wondered if she would feel overwhelmed by the experience in Iowa. But the reverse happened. It was like watching a flower unfold in Disney’s Fantasia. She sat at lunch and dinner with students, teachers, and professionals from all over the world, gaining confidence every time she initiated a conversation or answered a question. Her public speaking skills soared: Her own presentation was animated, thoughtful, and nuanced by very natural vocal and facial expressions. One of the experts evaluating her performance told he was “touched” by her comments about the impact of the experience on her thinking.

But the benefits don’t end there, with students developing an English teacher’s skill set.

The impact on career choices, college majors, even the choice of a particular college is significant.  Rachel said she had come into the program certain she wanted to pursue criminology but was now considering a career in public relations or international relations.  Another student, one I don’t know personally said, “This program made me consider college majors I’d never thought of. It made me aware of issues I’d never heard of.”

Students who attend the Institute in Des Moines—the top essayists—become eligible to apply for 2-month summer internships to do real science themselves. Last year, 23 students were awarded Borlaug-Ruan Internships to pursue science in locations around the world. They worked with top scientists in all areas of agriculture, agronomy, and food science. Each of the students returned to Iowa this past week to give a poster presentation of their research.

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Students who attend the Institute in Des Moines are also eligible to apply for Carver-Wallace internships here in the United States.  So far, 110 students have been Carver-Wallace Fellows; among them, one of our own students. Caroline, who competed two years ago, interned at the USDA facility on the Purdue campus the summer after high school; her experience there morphed into a job with the USDA while she attended college at Purdue.

The mission of the Global Youth Institute is to inspire students to answer the call to fight hunger in the world—as scientists, humanitarian aid workers, journalists, business leaders, growers, teachers, and manufacturers (among other occupations).

“Even if you become, say, a banker,” Sir Fazle Husan Abed elaborated in his luncheon address, “you’ll be a better banker for that. Doing for others leads to a satisfying life. If that is not your occupation, make it your preoccupation.”

In the next 40 years, according to a senior officer from DuPont who spoke in Des Moines, we will need to provide more food than we have produced in the last 10,000 years. The world needs young people to make fighting hunger their life’s work. Reaching out to them—when they’re on the brink of life decisions—is what the World Food Prize/Global Youth Institute does well.

Some, of course, won’t go into agriculture or nutrition or science. But no matter their career path, they’ll never forget the message they’ve learned, the skills they’ve gained, or the opportunities afforded them because of their participation in the Global Youth Institute. They’ll never take food for granted again.

Taming the Beast: ELLS and the Five-Paragraph Theme

P1040079The question came from an English teacher at the conclusion of an after-school workshop I’d conducted at one of the high schools I serve: Why do my ELL students have trouble writing essays in English (besides having a limited vocabulary)?

One of our students from Mexico, who had just spoken to my colleagues about the ways in which teachers can help English Language Learners navigate the culture of an American high school, unlock the English language, and facilitate learning the content of their classes, attempted to describe the difference between writing an essay in school in Mexico and writing an essay in English class here in America. “Well,” she said, “we have more like summary.” Considering her current limitations in English, she did pretty well, but had she known the term “five-paragraph theme,” she might have been more precise.

The question rang a bell with me, though, and I remembered a session I’d attended in 2004 at the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) conference in San Francisco where the message from the speaker was this: The written discourse pattern in Mexican Spanish is different from English. We need to explicitly teach our ELLs the organizational pattern of written English.

A few days after my workshop was over, I went on an internet search to find the scholarly work behind that 2004 statement, and aided by our high school librarian, whose help was indispensable, uncovered the research that informed it. I’d tucked the information away 11 years ago because, unlike the states on the edges of our country, my district in rural Indiana had a tiny ELL population in 2004 and no program at all for these students. I myself had no ELL students at that time. I had attended the ELL  sessions at NCTE because I wanted to help my district establish such a program.

What I learned from reading the research was this: Patterns of language and the expectations for written discourse differ from country to country. That seems obvious, of course, and broadly speaking, we know it intuitively because of any cross-cultural experiences we may have had and academically because of the linguistics classes we took in college.

However, what I wanted to know were the practicalities: the precise differences between written discourse in English and written discourse as learned in school in Mexico—or, even deeper, in the pattern of social discourse generally in Mexico. The author of the article is explicit about those differences but cautions that the study is limited to Mexican Spanish and studies in secondary schools in Mexico. Puerto Rican Spanish, for example, shares some characteristics with Mexican Spanish language patterns but is not entirely the same. Furthermore, the characteristics of written Spanish demonstrated by Hispanic students born, raised, and schooled here in the States are not the same. The research article addresses the discourse patterns of secondary students in Mexico. But that’s entirely relevant to my colleagues: In my district, few of our ELL students are from anywhere else but Mexico, and many of them come to us as high-schoolers or middle schoolers. Thus, the findings reported by the researcher are pertinent to my district and my colleagues.

 So here’s what I learned. (If I spoke Spanish myself, perhaps I’d have known all this, but I don’t, so the specifics were revelatory.) In written Mexican Spanish, the vocabulary tends to be “fancy” and “flowery”; the tone, “formal.” Sentences are generally longer than English sentences, often characterized by what English teachers would mark as run-ons—that is, two sentences joined by a comma (i.e., comma splices). The long sentences these students produce in English may seem like a jumble of compound-complex constructions, the word order may seem unusual to an English teacher, and the ideas, repetitious. That’s because an acceptable sentence pattern in written Mexican Spanish is to state an idea, follow it with a comma, and then repeat the idea using synonyms. There may be frequent or lengthy deliberate digressions, following which, the writer brings the reader back to the main topic. English teachers would mark such a digression as “off-topic.” It doesn’t adhere to the organizational pattern we teach in most American schools—introduction, three supports, and a conclusion (in short, the five-paragraph theme), pictured here in my favorite, definitely irreverent, graphic by Boynton. I call it “The Beast.”

Boynton's Beast
Boynton’s Beast

Such an essay would be unusual in written Spanish in Mexico because the writer’s mission is more likely explanation than an evidence-based essay in which the writer enumerates his points. In essays in secondary schools in Mexico, according to the research, students rarely use enumeration (e.g., 1, 2, 3; first, second, third; at first, then, finally) as an organizational strategy. In short, what constitutes a logical essay is different in Mexican Spanish than it is in English.

On top of all that, English speakers tend to be blunt and to the point. We are linear in our presentation of information.  Spanish-speakers, not so much. In fact, following a straight-line way of organizing information can be interpreted by Spanish speakers as rude. So, a Spanish-speaking student writing in English could be struggling not to offend—especially difficult if you have a limited vocabulary and little understanding that the five-paragraph theme approach is the preferable style in English. Furthermore, the researcher pointed out, direct and unelaborated prose in Spanish can be dull; such a writer can even sound childish. Having internalized that, Spanish-speaking students from Mexico could be struggling not to be boring or sound juvenile. They might not realize that their English teachers would applaud brevity and welcome direct statements.

For English teachers, the message is straightforward: It is extremely important to explicitly teach the structure of English composition to our ELL students: i.e, the five-paragraph theme format–or, if they are younger, the five-sentence paragraph. Scaffolds for this format abound, and providing a simple worksheet for organizing information might be more powerful than one might think in terms of supporting ELL students.

Of course, English teachers have been offering graphic organizers and outlines for this kind of writing for as long as I’ve been in the classroom and probably for years before that. It’s nothing new. What we may not know, especially if we don’t speak Spanish, have never been to Mexico, or haven’t thought about it, is how important it is to be explicit. To compare and contrast the written discourse conventions of English and Mexican Spanish for our ELLs, to be clear about our expectations, and to analyze their written work, looking (if they are from Mexico) for these particular differences and pointing them out. Not because the five paragraph theme is better or that it is always the best way to express ideas, but because the ability of ELLs to communicate in the format that is widely taught and widely expected in this country is paramount for their success.

Our ELLs may not be from Mexico. We may not know the precise variations from English that their language conventions dictate. Nevertheless, just as we know that there are cultural differences from country to country, we need to recognize that differences exist in discourse patterns, too. We need to remember that it takes a long time to unlearn a pattern you’ve been taught from an early age. If a student doesn’t “get it,” even after several tries, the problem is not a deficiency. The problem is unlearning what’s been second nature. Writing reveals patterns of thought; those don’t change overnight.

So, no matter how you feel about the five-paragraph theme (and English teachers either love it or hate it–in both cases, for good reasons), it’s a scaffold for writing that will help non-native English speakers understand the way written discourse is structured in English. Like all scaffolds, it can gradually be removed, but for beginners and for ELLs with low English proficiency, it can be the support that enables success.

Help your students tame the “Beast.” Here are some links to useful graphics and outlines that you can use to scaffold the five-paragraph theme:

https://goo.gl/mNiYK3  (Many graphics)

https://goo.gl/2MQN47 (Many worksheets and outlines)

Read the original research:

Montano-Harmon, M. 1991. Discourse Features of Written Mexican Spanish: Current Research in Contrastive Rhetoric and Its Implications. Fullerton, CA: California State University.

http://www.cervantesvirtual.com/obra-visor/hispania–14/html/p0000013.htm

Becoming Hemingway–or at least Improving Your Prose

P1000007A new app for writers emerged last week: the Hemingway app.

Hemingway, of course, was famous for his spare writing style: straightforward language, short sentences, action verbs, and not so many adjectives. A simple style, some say.

I have to say, the app is fun, and running a few of my own paragraphs through the program verified that doing so is a quick way to detect overuse of adverbs, instances of passive voice, and any long, confusing sentences that would be better broken apart. These are writing problems that result in convoluted sentences.

Theoretically, if you eliminate those three problems in your writing, you’ll approach Hemingway’s plain, terse style. Although there’s more to being Hemingway than that, it would be instructive and possibly amusing for students studying The Old Man and the Sea or A Farewell or Arms or any of Papa’s short stories to put their own prose through the Hemingway app’s paces.

But if your students use Word—or if you do yourself—here’s a way to use Word’s grammar checker to challenge students to improve their prose—and address more issues than the three mentioned above.

When the grammar/spell check finishes, Word reports the writer’s “stats.” Many of these counts (e.g., number of words, number of words in a sentence, number of sentences in a paragraph, number of characters in a word) can be used instructionally. For instance, you can challenge students to write longer sentences—so that average sentence length increases–or to use words with more than one syllable so that the average number of characters in a word increases.

There’s also a way to use those stats to help a student lift the entire level of the paragraph or essay he has written. The next to the last score that Word reports is the Flesch-Kincaid Readability score, a measure of the reading level of the text. You do have to caution students about this score. The Flesch-Kincaid score is the reading level of their writing, so a Flesch-Kincaid score of 4.5 means that a fourth grader in the middle of the year could read and understand what has been written, not that the student is writing “like a 4th grader.” (You also have to caution them not to take the score too seriously.)

The Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease score is a variation on this theme. A slightly different score, the Reading Ease number indicates just how comfortably the text can be read. The higher the number, the easier the text supposedly is. Secondary students shouldn’t aim for 90, though, because then their writing would be suitable for small children. The easy reading range for 13-15-year-olds is 60-70, according to Flesch-Kincaid.

To begin, you’ll need to enable the readability statistics reporting function on Word’s grammar checker.
File > Options > Proofing
• Check the box that says “Show Readability Statistics.”
• Just below that box, a drop-down menu says ” Grammar.” Change that to “Grammar and Style.” (The grammar checker will be much more useful overall if “Grammar and Style” is the default.)
• Click “OK.”

If you have emphasized some specific writing strategies in your instruction—like sentence combining or the use of transition words—you can challenge your students to apply those strategies to their own writing. These instructional strategies are, in my experience, the most effective ones for elevating the reading level of a piece of writing using Word’s grammar checker:
• Combining sentences with coordinating conjunctions (i.e, creating compound sentences)
• Combining sentences using semi-colons
• Using colons correctly
• Combining sentences with subordinating conjunctions (i.e., creating complex sentences)
• Adding transition words and phrases
• Adding adjectives and otherwise elaborating
• Using words of more than one syllable

What follows is a series of paragraph revisions. The original paragraph was one I fabricated, but you could use a real student’s work to demonstrate this revision method for your students—or try this out with something you’ve written. The number at the end of each paragraph revision is the Flesch-Kincaid readability score for that rendition):

My name is Jose Carter. I am in 7th grade. I like to play football. I like to play basketball. I do not like baseball, though. It is too slow for me. I also like fast cars. I have three sisters. They can be real pains sometimes but sometimes they are a lot of fun. We have a good time during Christmas vacation. We live in a house on a big hill so we slide on the hill a lot. We also have a pond on our property. We go ice-skating whenever the pond is frozen. 2.1

My name is Jose Carter. I am in 7th grade. I like to play football and basketball, but I do not like baseball. It is too slow. As you can imagine, I also like fast cars. I have three sisters who can be real pains sometimes, but sometimes they are a lot of fun. For example, we have a good time during Christmas vacation. Since we live in a house on a big hill, we go sledding whenever there is enough snow. We also have a pond on our property, so we go ice-skating whenever the pond is frozen. 3.2

Hello! I am Jose Carter, a 7th grader at Any Middle School where I am on the football and basketball teams. I do not play baseball, though, because it is a slow sport, and I like speed. As you can imagine, I also like fast cars. Maybe that is why I enjoy sledding down the big hill on our property during Christmas vacation so much. When there is snow, my three sisters (who can be real pains sometimes) and I enjoy this activity very much. We also like ice-skating, which we also do whenever the pond on our property is frozen. 4.3

Let me introduce myself: I am Jose Carter, also known as “Speedy.” I am a 7th grader at Any Middle School and a proud member of the football and basketball teams. I have considered playing on the baseball team, too, but I really do not enjoy that sport because it is so slow-moving. You can probably tell from reading this that I like speed, and thus, as you can imagine, I also like fast cars. Maybe that is why I enjoy sledding down the big hill on our property during Christmas vacation so much. When there is enough snow, my three sisters and I, through repetitive runs down that hill, are able to create a thrillingly slick track. We also enjoy ice-skating on the pond on our property; once again, we carefully groom the ice so that it remains slick and we can travel fast across the frozen surface. 5.2

Using the grammar checker to improve writing can go beyond just checking for spelling errors, comma usage, capital letters, and subject-verb agreement problems. Some students will rise to the challenge of using it to revise their sentences, and they’ll make multiple revisions. But even reluctant revisionists will see improvement in their writing with just one or two attempts.

The grammar checker won’t cure everything—no more than the Hemingway app will turn our students into Hemingway—but such programs have the appeal of games, and a lot of kids like that.

Give it a shot yourself.