Open the door, and let them in


July 2, 2017 in the neighborhood, for Canada Day


With my daughter Grace, a senior in high school, I’ve been coaching the writing of the college essay. Last night we finished the final proofreading. Grace said we don’t need a title. “Not required,” she said. “Optional?” I wondered.  “Yes,” she admitted. Okay, then, we’re writing one.

Titles are so important: they are the invitation, and the doorway into the book, movie, and college essay.

It was 10 o’clock on a Friday night, and Grace and I were spent.  Remembering a nifty list of exercises for generating title possibilities, I dug it up out of the Google dirt.  Here it is:  link.

We focused on the first three of the four functions of a title. (The fourth one seems more important for publications.)

First, it predicts content.

Second, it catches the reader’s interest.

Third, it reflects the tone or slant of the piece of writing.

Fourth, it contains keywords that will make it easy to access by a computer search.

And then, from the list of title prompts on page two of the guidelines, we used numbers 1, 6, 7, 13, and 14 and generated about 15 good and bad title ideas for Grace’s essay. It took only 10 minutes with two focused people working together.

What we learned: your first idea is NOT your best idea, and bits from your bad title ideas will provide you with a key word or two that together may be the foundation of a good title.

Also, people, tone is really important! If it’s a humorous essay, avoid an academicky, serious title.  If it’s a hopeful essay, give that title a lift (e.g., Grace’s title uses the word “spirit” instead of “motivation.”)

Titles are important! Always use them!  For essays, make them informative and inviting.

Consider the hummingbird: a reading and writing exercise

Today I met with Karma, an MIT employee and adult student whom I tutor in English once a week through a pilot program. We have a grammar workbook that we are going through rather doggedly, and we like to break up the formal exercise with reading, writing, and speaking activities.


Last week we read out loud together one of my favorite short essays, “Joyas Volardores,” by Brian Doyle (The American Scholar, Autumn 2004). Read the full text here: link. It is about the hummingbird, and more. The essay is full of beautiful facts and therefore new vocabulary, so it is suitable for an ESL student. There is also a curious passage about the blue whale and a meditation on the human heart. There is much to puzzle over.

Today, we did some free writing based on the nature of the essay (i.e., facts lead you to ideas and even strong emotion) and its first sentence:

Consider the hummingbird for a long moment.

I proposed to Karma that we generate more concrete nouns, in place of “hummingbird,” for things we had knowledge about that could be described.

Consider the __________ for a long moment.

microwave oven
maple tree
Bobcat (small truck)
… and so on

I suggested that we each take the first sentence, put in a concrete noun of our own choosing, and free write from there, trying to emulate some of Doyle’s declarative style and building paragraphs on sentences with the simple subject/verb structure, which is used lavishly in the essay.

We wrote for 15 minutes. We read aloud to each other the first and last sentences of what we had written, to see how far our ideas had come. The noun Karma had chosen was “computer,” and the one I had chosen was “kitchen.”

I wrote a lot in 15 minutes, yet felt unhurried the entire time. (See below the jump for the full text of my free write.) I really was following my thoughts. Karma wrote less than me yet seemed contented also. This is a good way to get writers to excavate what they know from experience and observation; this exercise could be followed up with a research assignment to start to develop material from the free write into an essay.

I noticed, when Karma read it aloud, that his last sentence has the word “unimaginable” in it. A word in my last sentence is “unconscious.” We seemed both to have traveled from concreteness to the cerebral. To get to an idea is the goal.

What will we do with what we wrote? As we parted, I told Karma there is no real homework, but that I hoped he would think about his last sentence, and I will think about mine. We will start there next week.

Keep reading for my free writing…

Continue reading

How to work a cocktail party like a tutor

Last night Jimmy and I went to what’s called a drinks party and, to our relief, enjoyed ourselves. I realized later, after several good conversations, that what makes me an effective tutor can help me get through challenging social situations. Or vice versa.

Why are cocktail parties challenging? I mean, I may not be attention-hungry, but I’m not shy.  Here’s the problem: so many people, no defined role for me, and no structure.

If those are the conditions — and they are for most parties, except for baby showers which are usually rather annoyingly structured around “games” (and those are intentional quotation marks) — then a person must have a strategy for dealing with the conditions. Otherwise, the impulse is to hide in a corner with the one person you know, clinging to that corner as though it were a berth and you a little boat afraid of being battered by the open sea.

And just as the secret to being a good tutor does not involve being drunk on the task, the seven secrets to party-going success that follow do not involve drinking half the bottle in the first 10 minutes. Continue reading

– Explicit teaching

In the first few moments of her three-day workshop, Supporting Reading Comprehension, Writing, and Study Skills at the Landmark College Institute, Linda Hecker prompted participants (I was one of five) to introduce ourselves and say why we came.

When it was my turn, I answered that I wanted to learn and develop more explicit teaching methods, to help not only my students with learning disabilities, but all students I work with. We were invited to tell the story of a student, and I talked about A., who, when I very clearly proposed to him an alternative structure for his paper, said to me: “I understand what you mean, but I don’t know how to do what you’re saying.” I’d like to know, I said to Linda and the group, how to teach better those students who don’t intuitively know all the little steps involved in tackling a big writing task. What’s involved, for example, in summarizing a passage or chapter? I know how to summarize — but do I know how to teach the same skill?


In the workshop, I did learn a strategy for teaching the summary, and picked up a few tools as well. Landmark emphasizes multimodal teaching, which engages a student aurally, visually, and kinesthetically in learning.  Even though their faculty have developed this kind of teaching to reach students with learning disabilities and AD/HD, this pedagogy is applicable to all learners.

Indeed, after three days at Landmark, I wanted to try out some of these exercises and tools not only on students, but on my own reading and writing practices. They’re more than effective — they seem motivating and, dare I say, fun.

What follows here is a select list of some of the ideas, remarks, readings, tools, and websites that seemed most immediately interesting to me. Certainly, there was more. It was a great experience, and, if you teach, I recommend that you go. Continue reading

– (Mis)reading

Glancing at the CNN headlines this morning, I saw one — “Clinton Crushes Obama” — and experienced this instant, non-processed thought: Oh, what a turn of events! Hillary is falling for Barack’s charm, too.

Perhaps I have been spending too much time in the company of teens and pre-teens, and reading their magazines and FB wall posts, a world in which everyone is crushing (on) someone. A couple of weeks ago, too, some tutor colleagues and I were talking about the phenomenon of the ephemeral tutoring crush, which seems to flare and die in an hour.

Well, at least my impulsive mind finds a sentimental, rather than a violent, meaning for the verb “crush.”

P.S. Go, Hillary!

– The long bones


A student in the college’s funeral service program brought into the Writing Center her paper on organ and tissue donation. Before I read it, I asked her about the assignment, and I also asked if there was anything in particular she’d like me to read for. The assignment, she told me, required her to cover all aspects of the subject — religious, legal, ethical, and technical — in about five pages. When I raised my eyebrows at this, she remarked, “Yeah, it’s a lot to cover in a short space.” And she asked me to read “to see if it’s all right.”

Her writing was all right: clear, grammatical, good paragraphing. As reader, though, I found myself most fascinated by the one or two page technical section, which described how enbalmers remove organs and tissues and then prepare bodies after that, and especially by a paragraph or two on the long bones: the ones in arms and legs (and later I found out, in fingers). Not only did I not have any previous knowledge that these could be donated and transplanted, I loved the sound of the phrase “the long bones.”

I thought of telling her how all the action in the paper was in my favorite section and presenting the possibility of revising around that section. I stopped myself. She didn’t ask me how to write an exciting paper; her feedback request was more practical. In the end, I gave her a compliment about how well she described the hands-on work of her intended profession, and I raised a few questions to get her to sharpen a couple of meandering paragraphs.

Later, on my own and with friend and colleague Jan Donley, I reflected on myself as a demanding reader. How does that affect the way I respond to student writing? To friends’ writing? I hope I have the self-restraint to allow their work to be about what it’s about for them. Do I only exhibit that, however, when the writer is a pretty good one? I fear that, with student writers I consider lesser, I step in and give stronger, more shaping (and possibly diverting) feedback.

As a hungry reader, I am foraging constantly for something good in everything I read, whether it be a bit or the whole thing. I can’t stop thinking of the long bones. The phrase has been ringing in my imaginative ears. I drive around from place to place, and look down at my legs, at the span of my arm from shoulder to wheel, at my fingers. The long bones, the long bones, the long bones.


Drawing by Nadav. Found on Flickr.

– Reciprocity

Sometimes a student enters the Writing Center in distress, having been told by a professor that his writing is so “unreadable” that the professor has not attempted, beyond the first paragraph, to read it.

These instances make me think again about the writer’s job, yet even more so about the reader’s. They each must try hard to reach the other. Writer, write hard. Reader, listen hard. Communication is a meeting in a middle place. Not a compromise, though. A meeting.

I like how Joseph M. Williams, the author of perhaps my favorite handbook on style, Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace 6e (Longman 2000), reflects on a writer’s role in this relationship:

We write and revise our earliest drafts to discover and express what we mean, but in the drafts thereafter, we write and revise to make it clear to our readers. At the heart of that process is a principle whose model you probably recall: Write for others as you would have others write for you. (220)

He says much more about the golden rule and a writer’s obligation, and I wholeheartedly recommend the chapter “Ethics of Prose.” In it, Williams also says this, about the golden rule and readers:

Some readers read less well than others, and some expect more from a writer than their meager investment of time and effort earns them. In fact, just as writers have an obligation to readers, so do we as readers have an obligation to writers: If we assume that writers work hard to say something important to us, we should read thoughtfully and generously, at least until we decide they have given us good reason to stop. (221-222)

Reading and listening — paying attention — to the words of another require generosity: a gift, a gesture. It takes effort to look beyond the lack of clarity in a student’s writing, but if we believe that they are making an attempt to say something important to us (it’s our assignment, after all!), then we should reciprocate. Williams calls such an exchange “fair” (222).

A penciled notation on the inside page reminds me that I paid $6.50 at Brookline Booksmith Annex for a used copy of Style. The latest edition, the 9th, is much more. Still, it’s worth it.

– Convergence

Last week we saw Ratatouille (Pixar 2007) for the first time. Remy is a French rat who loves fine food; his ambition to become a chef is stoked by imaginative visitations from the late Auguste Gusteau, a once-renowned restaurateur who wrote a book titled

Anyone Can Cook.

Yesterday I was sorting through a pile of non-urgent papers that I’ve been hiding, even from myself, in my top desk drawer at home. I came across a document, “NCTE Beliefs about the Teaching of Writing,” that a colleague asked me to read months ago. My eyes fell on the first belief, in bold type:

Everyone has the capacity to write.

These are beliefs. Like the jolly Gusteau, a person can choose to believe that each individual has the capacity to cook (not to become a great chef, but to cook). Like the Writing Study Group of the NCTE, a teacher can choose to believe that each student can write.

What if, however, a chef or a teacher held a similar belief, and yet also maintained an attitude inconsistent with that belief?

How many times have I heard someone grumble about students (especially incoming ones): “They can’t write”? I don’t think that a teacher, whose work is essentially optimistic, believes that college students do not have the capacity to write. What such a teacher is really saying is that her students’ writing does not meet her expectations, or college expectations, and she is daunted by that, and it brings her down. And yet, I wonder, what power does that attitude (“They can’t write”) have on one’s beliefs about one’s own students and, more so, one’s own teaching?

Once in a while I meet a new student in the Writing Center, and, as I read her writing for the first time, I see that it lacks so much in the way of clarity and sense that I do a quick, internal inventory for any teaching skills I might have to offer her as a writer and I come up almost empty. In such an instance, I do feel daunted — it’s like a stone in my chest — and I even set my sights low, not for the student but for the paper at hand. “Jane, just be an attentive audience. Give the student that.” So, I read and I get her to tell me about it. I don’t always understand her reply entirely, but I usually understand enough of it to have a conversation with her about her personal narrative, or reading of a novel, or thoughts about a historical event. I don’t correct or suggest. I listen, ask, nod, smile.

I have been tutoring S., who is such a writing-challenged student, for more than a year. She continues to make sentences that seem more spoken than written, and her grasp of American English idiom is based on what she hears, not what she reads. (For example, in a paper about a high school teacher, she described that person as being “inch arch” of a learning center. She and I figured out that the teacher was “in charge” of a learning center.) Encouragingly, I also see that her sentences are longer and more flowing and that her papers are more fully developed with detail and discussion. She sustains. And that’s a powerful sign of her growth as a writer, but it might be hard to recognize it if I were ticking off her many errors. And there are many; I do see them (and we are just beginning to work on some).

When another teacher, in genuine moments of fatigue or frustration, says to me, “My students can’t write,” I offer, gently, “They’ll get there.” I do not know what my tutee, S., will do in her writing, in school, and in her life beyond my time with her, but I do believe she will get there.

– Longer

Scene: Writing Center. Student and tutor looking together at a paper.

Student: Why did you circle this… and this?

Jane: In a few places you use long phrases, and I’ll bet you could find a way to say it more directly.

Student: Oh, I know. But I sometimes add more words on purpose, so it will make it longer. You know, so it seems like a paper.

Jane: Academic?

Student: Yeah. Teachers seem to like that.

Jane: Hmm.

– Tutor as tailor

My writing center colleague, Jane Hirschhorn, published her article, ESL and LD Students: Diverse Populations, Common Concerns,” in the fall issue of Praxis. Grounding her discussion in research and personal experience, Jane describes writing challenges shared by diverse students, and she offers tutoring strategies, with examples, that effectively serve them.

Her key metaphor, incidentally, is tutor as tailor, which reminds the reader that tutoring involves the art of seeing and serving each person uniquely.