5 Approaches to Creating Writing Geniuses

If, as the last post suggested, willingness to work is the key to becoming a genius in a subject, what can I do to have that happen in my classes?

How might I bring into my composition classroom time for my students to think things through, to figure them out, which will make them learn better? How can I encourage the willingness to keep working on something which will help them succeed, even excel, at English?

I have tried, to greater and lesser success, several things.

One thing that is supported (nay, required) by the department here is scaffolding. Give the students a bit of the work to do. Have it due. Then have them do another bit. Having little bits at a time encourages them to work on it over time, which gives their brains time to think about it when they aren’t working on it.

That is not something they get if you only have the major projects due.

Most students will work on the major project in a single section of time, perhaps two.

This focused experience is true of strong students as well as the poorer ones. It is just that the strong students tend to spend that first section of time at the beginning of the project’s timeline and then the second section at the end, so that there is space in the middle for their brain to have thought through what they were working on, which enables them to see where they could have done something better and fix it.

Getting the Students to Sit Up and Listen

5. Create stunning slides.
Slides are optional, but if you’re going to use them, make them great. Even if you’re not a graphic designer, it’s relatively easy to stand out from the crowd of bullet points and PowerPoint templates, by licensing high-quality images from stock sites like istockphoto and Veer, or searching for Creative Commons-licensed photos from Flickr using Compfight (just make sure you read the licensing terms carefully, especially for commercial use!). And Garr Reynolds’ book Presentation Zen Design will introduce you to basic design principles for creating slides from the images.

And if you are a graphic designer, check out Nancy Duarte’s beautiful book Slide:ology, for a stimulating guide to the creative possibilities of slide design. Nancy and her team designed the slides for Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” presentation and feature film, so she knows a thing or two about creating slides with impact.

6. Keep it simple.
Simplicity – focusing on core themes and eliminating fluff – is the key to a lot of great design, great writing, great music, great dance, and great art of many kinds. It’s also one of the things that makes presentations powerful and memorable.

This is all you need for a truly great presentation:
One big idea
Three key points
One compelling story
One idea per slide (and no more than six words)
One clear call to action

from 99%’s How to Create a Captivating Presentation

Tip 58: Breaking Through the Fear of Public Speaking

Break through the fear of public speaking using a game.

Siobhan Curious asked a question: What games work in school?

And her commenters told her. One that sounded particularly useful, interesting, and easy to work with was from Sharon Sept-Isles.

Another game I use is “Panic” –a deck of cards with categories on them (“farm animals, soft things, outdoor sports, pastas, etc.” Students need to name five (or three, or seven –you decide) things in that category. It is amazing how difficult it is to think when you are the one on the spot (and how well you can think when it is not your turn!). I have used this in English to introduce the idea of extemporaneous speaking; it can be modified from the original game by having a student speak for 30 seconds on the given topic (My favourite pizza toppings are onions, ham, pineapple and sweet peppers. This combination is called a Hawaiian pizza, but not everyone in my family enjoys it as much as I do…until 30 seconds are up). I use it in Humanities to loosen students up for the challenge of speaking in front of each other. A game is much less intimidating than a presentation, so it is a helpful stepping stone.

Go forth and do likewise.

Tip 57: Engaging Lectures (Not an Oxymoron)

How can we engage students when we lecture?

Have you ever given a lecture to a class where everyone sat still the entire class period? One where the students did not jump and run as soon as (or even before) the bell rang? If you have, how often have you wondered exactly how you managed that? If you haven’t, do you dream of this or just give it up as an impossible dream?

According to Robert B. Cialdini, students can become engrossed in a lecture with a single, simple feature at the beginning. They will listen raptly, eagerly and not even shift when the bell rings, if we start our lecture with it. They will clamor to know the answer, even when they should be out the door on to their next class.

What is this single feature that we can add to the experience?
If you are intrigued, not just wanting to know the answer, but wondering when I will give it, then you won’t be surprised to hear that the key to engaging the audience is a mystery.

No, I don’t mean we don’t know. I mean it is a mystery, a puzzle, a tale that involves questions. It’s a mystery story.

What if I told you that in sixty minutes, I could increase your average college grades by a half a letter grade–for the next four years?

That’s the mystery I offered my students yesterday. Now the research has been done (though only using minority students) and I know the answer. I can increase their college averages by simply letting them know, making them believe, giving them sufficient examples to show that everyone is confused by college. Apparently many people are unaware that college students are often doubtful of their decisions, frustrated with their efforts, and confused about what to do next. Learning that is sufficient to increase their confidence and their grades.

Can I give you a more extended example?
That’s a short example and certainly not one that engages attention for a long time, at least not as I set it up here.

But is there a way to extend an example? Of course there is. Here is one from Cialdini’s 2005 Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology article.

One of the most successful book sections I registered was written by an astronomer. He began a 20–page section with a puzzle: How can we account for what is perhaps the most spectacular planetary fea- ture in our solar system, the Rings of Saturn? There’s nothing else like them. What are the Rings of Saturn made of. anyway?

Then, he deepened the mystery by asking how three internationally acclaimed groups of scientists could come to wholly different conclu- sions on the answer. One, at Cambridge University, proclaimed they were gas. Another group, at MIT, was convinced they were made up of dust particles. The third, at Cal Tech, insisted they were composed of ice crystals. How could this be? After all, each group was looking at the same thing, right? So, what was the answer?

I will not take you through the whole process of discovery and tell you how the differing backgrounds of the teams—astrophysicists here, as- tronomers there—led them to look at different aspects of the phenome- non and how a crucial measurement error led one team down the wrong path. Suffice it to say that the process of unraveling the mystery was not unlike the process of scientific investigation, wherein hypotheses are generated, implications are tested, nonproductive approaches are taken, errors of interpretation are made, and evidence is marshaled until a sat- isfactory resolution occurs. By the way, this is no small benefit of the use of mysteries in our lectures. The process of resolving mysteries is re- markably similar to the process of science. So, in the use of the mystery approach, we not only give students information about content, we also send them a sub–rosa message about process.
Let us get back to the main point. Which answer was revealed at the end of 20 pages? The beautiful, mysterious Rings of Saturn are mostly dust! Actually, they are ice–covered dust, which accounts for some of the confusion, but they are mostly dust nonetheless.

Now, I do not care about dust, and the composition of the Rings of Saturn is entirely irrelevant to my life. But, that scientist had me turning pages like a speed–reader. Here’s the telling thing: I am sure that I will never forget the answer to the mystery he constructed. Moreover, I am sure that I will never forget how three groups of scientists could have been so confident in their opposing answers to the question. This strikes me as an enormous advantage of mystery stories. They can get our stu- dents to become engrossed in and to remember important material that they otherwise would not care about because it does not seem relevant to their daily lives. Mystery stories do not need personal relevance—they bring their own. (24)

Cialdini doesn’t just offer the mystery story: a mystery, the players in the mystery, a discussion of possible alternatives for answers to the mystery, and finally the denouement as a way to improve lectures. He offers an additional tool as well.

There is another way to improve lectures.

Have you ever noticed that students are riveted by some material, not even noticing that the class period has gone by, while some material has them shifting (or Facebooking) through the entire class?

There’s a reason for this. It’s not really a secret.


When the students are wiggling and tuning us out, it is because they are bored.

Why are they bored?

Students are bored, not because we are boring, we are not inherently boring. All of us can remember an engaging discussion, a particularly well-told joke, or a story that we told to a breathless audience.

Nope. It is not that we are boring.

We are bored.

Yes, I said it. (Well, Cialdini said it first.) We are bored. We know the material isn’t that interesting, so we are bored. Our being bored makes our students bored.

How do WE become engaged in our own lectures?

We find something interesting, something engaging, something we think is fascinating and we add THAT to the lecture.

Just having an addition that is unique, interesting, and engaging TO US is enough to make the lecture more engaging to the student (28). We need to be excited in the classroom. If we are, they will become more excited.

Today’s lecture (in my class) is going to be about a proposing a solution paper. We are in the process of writing those in my fyc classes. But the beginning of the lecture, which is really a repeat of the reading we did yesterday, is a two-minute movie featuring Dr. Davis as Albert Einstein and starring Gandhi as my personal Socrates. There’s a really lame joke on the mispronunciation of precedent being understood as president, a discussion of the principle of fun as a guide for my solution, and a belch. (It is a college class, after all.)

I’m really looking forward to presenting this little two-minute movie, including Gandhi’s Homecoming Queen wave from the moon, in class.

Because I am excited about it, the students will be more excited about it as well.

Ever heard that proverb “like begets like?”

Here’s an example of it in teaching.

Tip 56: 2 Reasons for Everything

I tell my students on the first day of class that I have at least two reasons for everything I do in class.

Most of the time they don’t call me on this. It would be fine if they did, though tiring.

However, having told them this, when the “Why do we have to do this?” whine comes up, I begin by reminding them that I don’t waste class time on anything that isn’t useful in at least two different ways. Then I explain the two ways that whatever they were fussing about is important. Often the things they fuss about are the ones I actually have three or four reasons for instituting.

“Why do we have to read each other’s work?”
1. Because you can see if you are on track.
2. You can help your neighbor see if they are on track.
3. If the work you read is particularly good, it gives you a bar to reach.
4. If the work you read is particularly bad, it helps you re-examine your own work to make sure you don’t look that terrible.
5. It teaches you critical evaluation skills that you can apply to your own writing.
6. It gives the student feedback that they might be more accepting of than mine. Or that might dovetail with mine and let them know that I am not the only one seeing the problem.

If you use this, though, make sure you have thought enough about your teaching strategies to know why the things you have included are important pedagogically.

Teaching Tip 55: Explain Your Qualifications

Related to yesterday’s post, it may be that new teachers (especially) would find it advantageous to explain to their students the qualifications, experiences, and credentials they have acquired over their lifetime that gives them the right to be a college student’s instructor of English.

Tell the students you have a PhD in X-related field. Explain (in the elevator version) your dissertation if it is related to the course content. List how many classes of this course you have taught. Give them the names of the universities and colleges which you have graced with your presence (either as a student or as faculty).

I am Dr. Davis. I earned a PhD in rhetoric and composition from Purdue University, one of the premier institutions in rhetoric in the United States, and have taught Freshman Composition to over 1400 students.

My dissertation is all about writing and how that writing is perceived by the very specific audiences. I define both the community of X, of which many of you are members, and the genre of Y and then discuss how the two impact each other.

I have taught college English at two SLACs (small liberal arts colleges)- one inner city and one large town, one of the Big Ten, three community colleges of very different populations, and one small public university.

If you have other academic experience that is related, also tell them that.

I have published one book on L and have a contract for another book on M. I have published thirty articles, chapters, reviews, and creative pieces in the last three years.

Also in the last three years I have presented 35 different professional papers at a variety of venues, including 15 national and international conferences.

I am presently the N Conference chair on O-topic and serve on the Executive Council for the regional conference P.

If you have other, non-academic, experience that is related to the course you are teaching, let them know that as well.

I have edited three technical manuals for computer programs, forty graduate theses, an international magazine on Q, the brochures and announcements for R, and worked as a secretary overseas in my second language for two years.

I have also been the Director of Business Writing for the university.

I think it is okay to overwhelm them with information. Make sure they know they are speaking to an expert (to start with).

If you are new to the faculty, what do you say?

I earned a bachelor’s from X in Y and Z. I then received a master’s in A, with a concentration in B. I am finishing a PhD in C, with a second field of D. That means I have taken E# of courses in C and F# in D. It also means that professors who only teach graduate students have agreed that I am qualified to earn this degree.

My dissertation is on G and its impact on H population, and I am specifically analyzing how I and J work within the K.

I have been in three courses on pedagogy, how to teach, and have taught as the instructor of record for several semesters now. I was hired by this university from a pool of L# of PhDs and other professionals. (If you are tt say so and explain what that means in a way that makes sense to the students. Such as, I have been hired at the mid-level of instructors with the understanding that if I am successful I can work at this university for the next fifty years and teach your children!)

Why do this?

It is better to let the students understand that you are qualified and how than to have them think that you are just as bad as their worst high school teacher. (They will think that!) It also staves off a lot of “How do you know? You are just a beginning teacher?” comments.

Apparently, it is also useful in staving off the use of Ms or Mrs rather than the appropriate title of Dr for women academics.

Tip 53: Annual Goals

Every year in full-time positions, teachers are asked to fill out goals. These goals are subdivided into different categories. Usually these are: teaching, scholarship, and service. How should these be filled out?

First, you should already be aware of the norm at your college. If you are going to a new college and they ask for your annual goals, ask if you might see two or three of the faculties’ goals from last year. This will help you figure out what you need to do.

At my last college, each section only needed three points and the chair advised that we only put down small things and that we make sure that we could absolutely meet/finish them before the March review. So that is what I did since that was the norm at that college.

Second, you should not put anything on the goals you do not expect to accomplish. These goals are sometimes used for promotion, tenure, and pay raises. You do not want to have put yourself in a position where the goals you have given yourself cannot be met.

Think big and small
Third, while it is perfectly fine to think big, also think small. What small changes can you make in your classroom or what things can you implement that will make your teaching better? Don’t just think about the book manuscript, also consider the review for a high profile journal.

Example: Teaching
So, this year (and last) for teaching my goals included:
getting to know the textbook
creating a syllabi in line with the expectations of the college
learning the grading norms
using technology effectively within the classroom
creating assignments in which the students had to use technology

I had these for each of the classes I was going to teach. That’s a lot of goals if you know your annual schedule. It might be worth simply limiting it to a single class. But don’t limit your thinking to absolutely attainable goals; also you need to challenge yourself a bit.

Example: Scholarship
For scholarship, my goals went like this:
review X book for X journal
review Y book for Y journal
review Z book for Z journal
write A chapter for A book
revise my dissertation for publication
obtain readers
have a major person in the field write an introduction

Those might look like lofty goals, but they are less so than you might suppose. The chapter is due next week and is finished, except for a final edit. The X review is due in three weeks and I have started reading. The Y review is due in three months, but I have already read the book and taken notes. The Z review really should have been done by now, but my goal is to finish it by the first of next month.

I already have an introduction to my dissertation written by the leading light in my field. I have readers who have agreed to serve as readers. I have NOT begun the revision of my dissertation, but I will do that.

In fact, looking over this list, I see that I actually left off another scholarship goal which I will be meeting. I have a chapter requested for a major publisher which is mostly complete. They changed the parameters of the assignment and I need to add 1000 words and create an internet resource list; however, these are certainly doable.

Perhaps leaving this off my list is a good thing. Then, in March, when I have my review with the chair, I can say, “Oh yes. I also wrote a chapter for major publisher which has been accepted. This included an internet resource list, b, and c.” Then I will not only have reached my goals, I will have surpassed them.

Example: Service
For service my goals were far more circumspect. Although this is a major portion of my college’s expectations, I am not so sure how I will do these things. So I wrote:
find a place to be involved on campus
find a way to be involved with children’s education in the community (I have taught reading to inner city children, home schooled, and taught multiple extracurricular classes.)
organize and chair a panel for the regional conference (which I have done and am doing)
serve on the Executive Council for a regional conference (which I have done and am doing)

So my service, while wide-ranging and significant (which is required) is a bit more generalized. I don’t know how I will serve on campus or in the community. However, by putting these on my annual goals’ list, I have given notice that I know and understand that these are expectations which the college has.

Chair’s response
What was my chair’s reaction?

“These are ambitious goals.”

So, when they are met, this will be a significant positive in my new position.

Annual goals are worth thinking about. They are intended to make sure that we are progressing in our work, but if we are already focusing on that, they are not particularly onerous or overwhelming. These days if we are NOT progressing, we probably don’t have a job anyway.

Tip 52: Adult Students

An award-winning study of nine adult students who persisted at a Western community college finds that connecting with an instructor – not with campus activities — made the difference, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. Rosemary Capps followed older students who started in remedial reading, a high-risk group, for her 2010 University of Utah dissertation.

Now an academic developer at the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of California at Davis, Capps said colleges need to reach adult students ”in their classrooms.”

says Community College Spotlight’s “Why Adult Students Persist”

Capps said in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education:

if colleges want to reach adult students with their retention efforts, they’re going to need to reach them in their classrooms, and not through the traditional kinds of advising centers and activities.

One of the strong patterns in my data is that knowing students personally and validating them can make a huge difference. I also believe strongly in faculty advising. You see that at elite colleges, and you see that in graduate study, but I think it should happen more at community colleges. Sometimes adult students don’t have time to go to an advising center—they have to rush out of class to get to some other obligation. But they might take three minutes at the end of class to talk to a faculty member they trust. “Do you have any ideas about what classes I should take next?” So I think it’s important for faculty to get familiar with general-education requirements and the major requirements in their fields, because students who feel comfortable with them are going to come to them first with those questions.

Colleges could do more to highlight the stories of their successful adult students. They could set up mentoring programs in which persistent adult students could reach out to adult students who are just starting out. I think that could be very heartening for everyone involved.

I think this last would be great. I think that maybe we could get the students involved with this by touting their success and how this mentoring/encouragement role, even just in speaking to a class for ten minutes later on, can be helpful in getting a job. If students have experience mentoring those who are coming behind them, they are going to be more successful in training and management.

One thing I am trying to emphasize in my developmental classroom is how far the students in it have already come, how far they’ve already gotten ahead, just by making it into the college classroom. I am not sure how successful I am with that, but I hope that hearing it helps.

What ways do you validate your students?

And on a totally different, but completely related, topic:

My data suggest that developmental classes have benefits that go beyond their academic content. Making sure that students have experience in a small class with a caring teacher before they get into the harder content and higher expectations of credit courses—for the nine students in my study, that process seemed to make a difference. Their developmental-reading instructors were champions for them.


That’s what I am trying to do in my developmental classes and I think I need to concentrate on doing it earlier, too, even before I’ve managed to get down pat all 75 students’ names.

Tip 51: Finding and Taking Advantage of Passion

Finishing the post, I changed the title. Even now it is not as long as I wanted. I think this should be entitled “Finding Passion and Taking Advantage of It: Accessing Student Passion in the Classroom through Group Work.” But here are the thoughts that brought this blog post into being…

What are you passionate about? What do you talk about when the work is done and the relaxing has begun?

My husband will tell you I talk about school, about my students, about my assignments, about things that did and didn’t work. I also talk about papers I am writing, research I am doing, and conferences I am preparing for. And I read and talk about science fiction and fantasy. I suppose, based on those indicators, that these are what I am passionate about…

Finding Passion, by math professor Dr. Robert Talbert, is an interesting introduction to thinking about passion… in our lives and in our classroom.

He asked the question, or made the statement, that got me thinking about this post.

How can you tell what a person or small group of people are passionate about? It seems to me that there’s a two-step process:

Give those people a break and let them do whatever they want. Remove all the programming you have planned for them, just for a little bit. And then:
See what it is they talk about when there is no structure.
Whatever gets talked about, is what those people are passionate about — at least at the time. If they don’t talk about anything, they aren’t passionate about anything.

Then Talbert tied this to the classroom for instructors. Do we schedule the heck out of our students so that they don’t have time and energy to be passionate about anything?

In considering this question I made a discovery about how my own teaching has evolved that I think is a positive thing.

When I first began teaching, I avoided group work like the plague. I hated it for myself, because I always ended up doing the bulk of the work, and I hated it as an instructor, because I couldn’t tell who had done what.

However, in the interest of retention, I need to get my students involved with each other and in a community college, the only way that will happen is if I make it happen. So I began scheduling group work, in class, that requires a small bit of reading and writing.

In literature classes, I will give each group (or all the groups) a poem and ask them to read it and discuss it and write down their best analysis. You might be amazed at how good some of that can be, especially when students are bouncing ideas off each other and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, which often happens.

In writing classes, when we have a reading (which we do periodically), I have the students get into groups to answer questions about the reading. I read it to them here, since I think many in the community college do not have sufficient skills to read and reading it aloud allows me the opportunity to explain the vocabulary as we go. Then I have them read the questions, significantly shorter than the essay itself, and answer them in groups. One person writes, but they all talk. If I give them sufficient time, which I don’t always do, they spend time working on it and writing excellent responses. Then it’s an in-class grade and everyone gets full credit, unless the work didn’t get done.

In humanities, I have them split into groups to discuss pre-tests on the topic we are going to be studying. It gets them pulling out what they already know on the topic, which is very useful, and helps me see what level their knowledge is at before I start teaching. They enjoy it and it gives me a break and a chance to hear how they think as well, since they negotiate their answers, usually, since none of them are experts on the topic.

Perhaps I need to be even more purposeful in adding space for the students to talk and think about their projects. Today might be a good day to talk about the frustrations and triumphs of the controversial essay, for example. Since they have gotten back a graded research paper and are revising it for a final grade on Monday.

Tip 50: Take Time.

Dr. Lee Skallerup and I are often on the same page. Sometimes it seems we are going through things at the same time.

My students are working on a research paper, the overview of controversy essay. In this paper the students must look at both sides of a single issue and present those two sides in a fair and even-handed way. I tell them I don’t want to know which side they support when I read this paper.

One thing that is consistently an issue, of course, is the time the students spend working on the paper.

When we begin the writing process, I tell my students it is going to take us a lot of time to write a good paper. It is why I introduce it in pieces and we do part of the drafting far ahead of the due date for the paper. I tell them that part of the reason for that is it gives them time to think about their topic a lot before they actually have to write the paper to turn in.

I had a lot of failures for plagiarism on this round of drafts. Even though the student worked on the papers and we practiced paraphrasing, they still kept the author’s words, without the requisite quotation marks. When they came in for their one-on-one conferences with me (possible only because so many have dropped), most of us have spent the whole fifteen minutes revising a single plagiarism. I tell them it takes time and they have to prepare for that.

They know that, but they haven’t done it.

Dr. Skallerup found time to be an issue for both success and failure.

I also pointed out the one important factor in their success: time. They took the time to work on their essays. The time and effort paid off, but they needed to understand that if they wanted to continue being successful in their essay writing, they needed to give themselves the time.

Learn what is the most difficult part of the writing process and start early enough to get that part done without panicking or rushing. Look at your schedule for the semester, and rather than blocking out the weekend before the essay is due, block off the one two weeks before it is due. Even if you’re not actively writing, at least plan to start thinking/reading/free writing/outlining on the topic.

Perhaps if we discuss more, as Dr. Skallerup has in her classes, how much time our work takes, they might see that we too take time and, when we don’t, that our work suffers. Modeling, after all, is one of my preferred and most successful methods of educating.