Archive for the ‘Advice from the pros’ Category

Guidelines for blogging outside material

Friday, August 3rd, 2012

This is a fantastic article about how to cite sources when you blog online. Share with your kids or use it for your own blogging experiences:

How Not To Steal Other People’s Content

Blogs are hotbeds of source attribution issues, probably just due to the sheer volume of content that’s posted there on a daily basis (you awesome inbound marketer, you). So let’s walk through a couple common scenarios bloggers come across when creating their content, and figure out how to address them!


Fabulous article on form vs. freedom at college level

Monday, April 6th, 2009

Listening to College Writers

What has stayed with me most strongly from the past two semesters has been students’ remarks that the most important thing they will take with them from English classes into the rest of their lives is the ability to bring out what is deepest in themselves with clarity, to take that terrible risk, and to be heard and understood by someone, whether a teacher, their classmates, or an even broader audience.

You have to read this article…

Monday, April 23rd, 2007

SAT/ACT writing tests… Do they promote good writing?

Jennifer posted this article link on the Scratch Pad this morning and asked if Brave Writer takes these kinds of issues into account when I teach the SAT/ACT timed writing class. As a matter of fact we do!

Read the article. Then read these comments:

Isn’t Ethan Campbell a fabulous writer? One of my favorite sub-textual messages taken from “Dispatches from the Front” is that getting a bad score on the GRE portion of the writing test says nothing about one’s ability to write. Ethan rocks! He’s got all the Brave Writer principles operating at once: personal anecdote/narrative, an opening hook, a strong writing voice, keenly observed details, the element of surprise, powerful verbs, a satisfying ending, the use of contemporary culture-currency to bump up the “I relate to you” factor, and more. (He does make one literary gaffe that I should point out. Macbeth did not speak the “All’s the world’s a stage” soliloquy, it comes from “As You Like it.”)

Yet he claims (and rightly) that the SAT/ACT testers don’t appreciate quality writing. They want predictable, orderly, lengthy writing (aka poor writing) that demonstrates to the graders that the writer knows how to follow the basic five paragraph format in a timed setting. And he’s right.

I took the SAT test through the Princeton Review online back when it first came out. I deliberately left out those obvious transition markers; the essay hangs together just fine without them. I wondered if they’d mark me down. Sure enough, I earned a 5 from both graders. The reason I didn’t get a 6? No transitional markers. :) I did, however, follow the five paragraph format.

Our SAT/ACT course not only teaches the format, but I also show kids how to prepare for the style of question they will encounter. They actually can prepare several topics in advance and have success using one of them without even knowing the question ahead of time. Timed essay writing is one of my strengths because as a history major back in college, I wrote them so frequently, I became expert.

Thanks Jennifer. Great article.

Thanks Ethan. You’re a terrific writer.

More about kids who need extra help

Tuesday, April 10th, 2007

I just dropped my 12 year old off at Rita’s house. Rita Cevasco is the Brave Writer instructor who is our reading and language specialist. She’s testing our fourth child, Liam, for issues similar to Noah’s. Because I now have a better idea of what the issues might look like in a home that accommodates their non-traditional learning styles, I felt it would be helpful for us to get a better picture of what we might be able to do for Liam so that he doesn’t have quite as bumpy a transition to a traditional schooling environment (whenever he chooses it for himself). He hopes to be a zoologist some day and we both know (he even more than me) how much science and math that requires. It’s quite possible that he’ll uncover a non-traditional route to his dream job, but in the meantime, the primary requirements of every zookeeping and zoological post we’ve discovered include at least two years of college heavily focused on science and math.

Liam happens to be gifted in both… but can’t handle learning them in anything resembling a traditional educational format. He learned his math facts literally through playing online games. He has never used a math text until this year… which is a chore for him, but given his maturity, he is more willing to keep at it in spite of frustrations and tedium. All his natural science knowledge has come through reading, observation, zoo classes and Discovery channel. He retains animal related data like a steel trap!

Rita and I chatted a bit about my recent blog entry and many of your questions. The truth is, Rita says that she rarely sees a parent who comes to her that has misread her child. Usually a mother does know when something isn’t quite right. Sometimes the disparity is that the child is so amazingly gifted or bright in one area and then is profoundly average in others, that that gap between the brilliance and the average performance gives rise to concerns. And those concerns are often warranted because for a talented, smart child, the frustration of being held back by lacking verbal skills or poor handwriting or the inability to write or sit or organize thoughts is more frustrating than it might be for a child whose skills were more balanced.

As I read through the questions and comments in last week’s post, I thought I’d address one at a time as I have time and the ability to post. (My Master’s thesis is in revision right now so I’m juggling that in the midst of everything else!) Clare asked about the articles I read related to brain development. Because it’s been ten years since I read them, I no longer have the specific articles in hand. But interestingly, through a quick google, I did find an article that stated something similar to what I remember reading. (Note the happy placement of the word jungle as his metaphor for how the brain functions!)

Recommended educational approaches, then, consist primarily of trying to maintain a relaxed, focused atmosphere that offers options for learning in individually satisfying ways. The old paradigm of students as empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge has given way to the constructivist belief that students continuously build understandings based on their prior experiences and new information. The idea of a fixed intelligence has given way to a more flexible perception of gradual intellectual development dependent on external stimulation.

Gerald Edelman, chairman of the Department of Neurobiology at Scripps Research Institute and 1972 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Physiology, offers a view of the brain that could influence the future classroom. Edelman’s vision of the brain as a jungle in which systems interact continuously in a chaotic fashion suggests that learners would thrive in an environment that provides many sensory, cultural, and problem layers. These ideas suggest that students have a natural inclination to learn, understand, and grow. Surround students with a variety of instructional opportunities and they will make the connections for learning. (

The primary breakthrough in brain research has been that real learning occurs through relationships between ideas, building on previous learning and engaged interest. For kids who struggle with verbal skills, sitting still to study, handwriting, sequencing and so on, this kind of brain research would indicate that perhaps you can cut a different path through the jungle. Capitalize on your child’s interests, hook up learning to areas of competence, and immerse your child in a subject area long enough for a child to form a relationship to that subject matter. Learn through channels that work rather than trying to beat a path through dense forest and obstacles.

When we first “deschooled” Noah based on the brain research I had read, the revolutionary new concept I incorporated into our lives was to focus on a single topic of interest at a time. We didn’t study math, spelling, writing, reading, history and science all in a day or even a week. Instead, when Noah showed interest in origami, we got books from the library, we bought the little colorful square papers from Michael’s, we looked up origami artists online and then, we made origami… for weeks. It’s not that origami was all we did for those weeks, it’s that we gave into it fully while the interest existed. I didn’t think to myself (as I had been likely to do previously), “When can we get done with origami so I can get him to do his mathbook?” Origami was sufficient for that season.

Origami naturally led to an interest in Japanese culture. I found and read the book Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes aloud to the kids. This book led us to World War II. My husband started checking out old WWII videos from the library and he watched them with Noah in the evenings. Noah became fascinated with old tanks both due to the movies and due to a computer game he liked to play with his dad called Bolo. So I checked out Dorling Kindersley books about WWII tanks from the library. The Internet was in its infancy at the time and Jon (my husband) was a big Internet dabbler. He set up a website for Noah and Noah built a website to feature tanks. It was never finished, but it did host photos and diagrams of the tanks and gave Noah his first taste of the power of html.

I could go on from here, the way his love of computer languages (and our family obsession with Shakespeare) has climaxed in his interest in linguistics in college. I see it now. I did not see it coming then.

Sometimes when I give this example of Noah’s, it looks too pristine, too obviously educational and wonderful. You must know that in the midst of this learning journey, he still had a hard time coming when called, remembering to brush his teeth (and other ordinary daily life kinds of expectations), and he became a target of bullying in our neighborhood. Learning became wonderful for a time (until I panicked again and imposed schoolish learning), but life was not without challenges.

Our fourth child, Liam, exhibits many of Noah’s traits, but his interests have been far more narrow and less obviously schoolish in disposition. His primary area of interest has been a couple of computer games he plays online. Having raised Noah and having watched the way pushing him to learn backfired so many times, I have been more hands off with Liam. His computer gaming led us to making a notebook (of about 20 pages which took a year to complete) that featured maps of an island chain he created out of his imagination. Because of his online gaming, he became deeply interested in maps, languages, flags, wars, topography. We used “Mapping the World by Heart” as a way to understand things like longitude and latitude, how to indicate mountain ranges and so on. Handwriting has consistently been a struggle for this left-hander so half of the text is in my handwriting as he narrated to me.

It was fascinating to see that his love of gaming led to this creative project. Immersion has been key to keeping his interest. It’s taken some creativity on my part to see how to capitalize on it.

Time’s up! I need to go pick him up from Rita’s right now. I’ll continue this entry tomorrow. Feel free to post more questions and thoughts.

How Not to Talk to Your Kids

Friday, February 16th, 2007

The Inverse Power of Praise

I praised Luke, but I attempted to praise his “process.” This was easier said than done. What are the processes that go on in a 5-year-old’s mind? In my impression, 80 percent of his brain processes lengthy scenarios for his action figures.

But every night he has math homework and is supposed to read a phonics book aloud. Each takes about five minutes if he concentrates, but he’s easily distracted. So I praised him for concentrating without asking to take a break. If he listened to instructions carefully, I praised him for that. After soccer games, I praised him for looking to pass, rather than just saying, “You played great.” And if he worked hard to get to the ball, I praised the effort he applied.

Just as the research promised, this focused praise helped him see strategies he could apply the next day. It was remarkable how noticeably effective this new form of praise was.

This article discusses the difference between unfocused praise for innate talents versus focused praise for specific efforts. I love the way it dovetails with Brave Writer philosophy which emphasizes offering support and affirmation for each writing effort a child makes, specifically praising successes in writing rather than general praise about a child’s abilities. Thought you’d enjoy it.

Short-term memory (Levine)

Wednesday, November 8th, 2006

Continuing my series on A Mind at a Time by Dr. Mel Levine

We’re looking at how the brain works related to language and writing. Dr. Levine divides brain memory function into three types: short-term, long-term and active working memory. Let’s take a closer look at short-term memory.

Dr. Levine says that short-term memory lasts no longer than two seconds. He uses the example that the command to “blow your nose” is one that requires immediate response. “You can remember it long enough to do it or decide it doesn’t need blowing” (94).

Some kids have short-term memory leaks and they actually do forget things they’ve just heard. Sometimes their brians are working on other information and they don’t have room to hear or add the new information even for a moment. (This happens to me with the kids when I’m busy typing or thinking, I often am not in the “short-term memory” mode and am actually unavailable mentally to hear them.)

Short-term memory can also relay information to the longer term memory storage. You can send the data to long term storage, use the data right away and then forget it or use it at a later date. You can even forget it right away, doing nothing with the information. These options are determined, as Levine says, “at breakneck speed.”

Short-term memory manages the bombardment of new data that comes at us at warp speed every second of the day. But as Levine says, short-term memory storage “has a serious space crunch” (95). According to Levine, short-term memory can only hold seven numbers at once!

What this means is that when we give a command or ask a question or explain an instruction to a child, we are downloading chunks of information (far in excess of seven digits!) and we are expecting our kids to remember the all that information. But how can any of them do it?

Most children use their short-term memory function to recode information they receive. “Recoding is a neurodevelopmental function that takes on the very crucial abbreviating or condensing role. Incoming data gets collapsed into a tighter format, so they can fit snugly with-in short term memory” (95).

In fact, recoding is the process of internal paraphrasing. The listener is taking in information that is coming at her in rapid fire and she then repackages it into smaller bits and bites of information in a manageable format that enables her to remember it longer than two seconds.

Just as some children are naturally gifted at calculating numbers and others seem able to draw realistically without instruction, some children naturally translate the input they receive into useful, memorable bites of information that then are easily retrieved later when they need it. Unfortunately, for other children, this process is not at all transparent or natural. They find it incomprehensible that they must recode the input as it comes and attempt to hold onto all of it and then find they have none of it.

Levine gives us an insight into the mechanisms that cause recoding to happen effectively. Some people whisper the information back to themselves as they receive it. Some visualize the information in their mind’s eye so they see it, not just hear it. Some take the words and turn them into pictures and thereby “see” the intended end result of the information rather than merely listening to instructions.

Recoding has another name: paraphrasing. Aha! Now we get the writing and linguistic connection. The kids who write well and naturally are often brilliant recoders and paraphrasers. They are able to take in information and reprocess it to make it memorable and their own. They are also able to reduce the size of the information to a reduced format that retains the essentials.

Let’s look at a set of instructions that a child might have to manage: “After dinner, you’ll need to get your water bottle filled, put on your cleats and shin guards, grab your soccer ball and bag, and bring the team snack to the car. We leave at 6:30.”

For a child struggling with short-term memory, the only part he may remember, may be the last thing you mentioned: the snack. Or perhaps he got the first and last but forgot the entire middle. Or what if he goes to get his cleats and they aren’t where they should be. What happens to the rest of the message while he hunts through the house?

One way to help this child is to help him understand how his short-term memory functions. Let him know that it is possible to hear what you say and then to recode it to help himself remember it. These are a few ideas:

  • Whisper the instructions to yourself
  • Picture each instruction as it is being stated (see it in your mind’s eye)
  • Stop the flow of information when you start to panic and complete just that much before getting more
  • Say back what the directions were before going to do the actions
  • Reduce the size of the instructions: water bottle, cleats, shin guards, ball, bag and snack

When we are dealing with summarizing or narrating stories, we can take smaller chunks and help our kids learn how to retain the essentials using a similar technique.

I also suggest making eye contact when issuing directions. Watch for the glazed over moment. When that comes, stop talking and ask for feedback to see if the child still has the information. Remember, this is not laziness but a lack of holding onto the information long enough to do something with it. Help her to see what she can do to strengthen the recoding process.

More on memory next week.

Memory muscles

Thursday, November 2nd, 2006

Continuing my series of Dr. Levine’s book: One Mind at a Time

For those of you who have the book, please feel free to read much more than I cover here in this blog series. I’m selecting specific bits that I feel relate well to writing, language production and reading. He’s a genius at helping parents and educators (of which you are both) become effective coaches of their children’s language development.

Todays topic: How memory functions

Dr. Levine tells us that we all rely on memory every day. Our kids are engaged in sophisticated acts of memory retrieval all day long yet few of us really knows how it works. When we see our kids fail in some kind of memory task (such as spelling, punctuation, comprehension of a story, summarizing an experience, forming the cursive ‘r’, copying a passage into a copybook, sounding out a new word), we mistakenly assume the child isn’t trying hard enough or is being lazy.

Just the other day I chatted with a mom who told me that her son didn’t have a spelling problem. He was just lazy. She knew he knew how to spell because he always did well on tests. However, when he writes, he spells any old which way just to be finished with the assignment.

I happen to know this child. He is not a lazy kind of kid. The truth is that he is relying on two different memory functions in his relationship to spelling. When he spells individual words from a prepared list, his brain literally uses a different memory technique to retrieve the spellings than when he is writing the words in a complex linguistic structure that requires not just spelling but the management of ideas, syntax and punctuation along with spelling individual words. He is not suffering from laziness after all. Rather, he is less skilled in one memory function than another. That’s all.

Let’s look at memory, then, and how it works.

“Memory is a complicated multidepartmental operation that does its work at many diverse brain sites, a lot of which have not been located by neuroscientists. Nothing is ever learned without tapping into some component of memory” (91).

Did you catch that? Some of how memory works is not yet even understood by neuroscientists. (And they’re smart puppies!)

What we do know is that memory has multiple “storage depots” according to Levine. He divides the memory system into three categories: short-term memory, active working memory and long-term memory. Did you know that short-term memory means very brief retention (like two seconds)? That’s sort of like the clipboard space on your computer where you copy something to the clipboard, then paste it somewhere else. The second you copy some other part of the message, the original bit is lost. Poof! Temporary storage.

Long-term memory is “your hard drive” says Dr. Levine. It’s the warehouse of permanent storage such as your child’s “name, address, and telephone number, to say nothing of common spelling words, math facts and the all-important state capitals” (93). He compares long-term memory to an intricate and elaborate filing system.

Active working memory is more like random access memory – the RAM function of your computer. It is the memory needed to carry out specific short-term tasks or goals. RAM is what helps your programs to run concurrently. Active working memory can operate for a few minutes or several hours. It’s the kind of memory kids need to use when a coach tells the child a play to make and he must think about the play all while fielding the ball.

For today, just think about the kinds of educational activities your kids do each day and see if you can observe which kind of memory is functioning. Think about how active working memory might get over-loaded (sort of like running too many programs at once on your computer without enough RAM). Pay attention to how your memory works (or doesn’t!). :)

We’ll look at each type of memory in future columns.

Peter Elbow

Sunday, May 7th, 2006

Time for another Peter Elbow infusion:

“Most students benefit when they feel that writing is a transaction between human beings rather than an “exercise in getting something right or wrong.” For this reason, I try to make my comments on student writing sound like they come from a human reader rather than from an impersonal machine or a magisterial, all-knowing God source. Thus:

    Instead of saying “The organization is unclear here,” I like to say “I got confused by your organization here.”

    Instead of “unconvincing,” “I’m unconvinced.”

    Instead of “Diction,” “Too slangy for me here.”

    Instead of “Awk” (for awkward), “I stumbled here.”

Elbow’s mantra in giving feed back is “at least do no harm.”


Charlotte Mason

Monday, December 5th, 2005

In my house, I have four bricks that bear the following eight words:

I am

I can

I ought

I will

This is our family motto. What’s yours?

High, Low and Middle Stakes Writing

Monday, November 21st, 2005

Meeting Peter Elbow was a thrill. He is as delightful in person as he comes across on the page. When introduced before he spoke, the emcee said, “A philosophy professor who will remain unnamed said that meeting Peter Elbow is like meeting Mick Jagger.” I laughed. I had just told my kids that meeting Peter Elbow was like meeting the Bono of writing.

I’ll share his ideas over the next several weeks and though we’d start with the language he uses to express the continuum of writing projects.

High Stakes Writing
High stakes writing is the kind that causes most of us to freeze, to become tense or nervous. High stakes writing is graded for both content and mechanics. It usually requires us to consider a more formal audience as well. In school, high stakes writing is the essay that must conform to the teacher’s guidelines and can count for 20% or more of your grade!

In the homeschool, high stakes writing is the elementary school report, the expository essay, the literary analysis in high school. There are not usually grades attached to homeschool writing in the same way as regular school. However, moms routinely turn writing into a high stakes game when they become anxious about perfection as the end result of a writing task.

Homeschooled kids aren’t usually nervous about getting poor grades. The high stakes for them is their mother’s approval and satisfaction. How risky is it for this child to write and submit it to her mother?

High stakes writing is an important part of developing as a writer. The finished products ought to be error-free, the thinking has come through a lengthy stage of development and the format of the writing conforms to the expectations of the particular writing genre.

High stakes writing, by nature then, will vary in its complexity based on age and stage of development. For a young child, it might mean writing a letter to a grandma that gets taken through the writing process and then polishing and sending it. For a high school student, high stakes writing is the essay or research paper.

Low Stakes Writing
Low stakes writing in the classroom is most often journal writing or freewriting. Low stakes implies that there are not a lot of conditions to meet. The purpose of the writing is expressive and personal. Usually the audience is perceived to be friendly or at least, dispassionate.

In the homeschool, we use freewriting to help kids break through writer’s block and to provide low stakes opportunities to write. We leave mechanics aside and allow for the child to explore on paper a train of thought or his imagination. Brave Writer offers lots of ways to engage in low stakes writing.

You know you’ve engaged in low stakes writing if the words come easily and there is little or no anxiety about writing. The writing need not be shared either.

Middle Stakes Writing
In between these two extremes is an idea we haven’t discussed as often on Brave Writer, but that we do in practice. Middle stakes writing is not quite as free as low stakes writing but it is also not so rigidly controlled as high stakes.

Middle stakes writing can be thought of this way: “think pieces.” The goal of middle stakes writing is to guide the writing process with a thought-provoking question that is specific enough that the child is encouraged to explore a train of thought in writing, but that does not require a specific writing format in order to express those thoughts. The results may still be less organized than you’d like for high stakes writing, but the results will also be more thoughtful and will follow a specific aspect of a topic rather than simply writing whatever comes to mind (as in low stakes).

For example, let’s say you just finished studying the American Revolution. A low stakes assignment might be to freewrite about the topic in anyway that your child wanted to. A high stakes assignment would be to write an essay or biography of one of the historical figures.

A middle stakes assignment would be to ask a specific question to explore in writing, such as, “Compare the founding fathers’ idea of equality to today’s ideas of equality,” or “Write a short story illustrating the crossing of the Potomac,” or “Explore two or three reasons for why the American colonies wanted to withdraw from British rule.”

You might even try an open-ended question: “What was interesting to you about this event in history?”

This kind of writing doesn’t need to be perfectly organized, however, you can clean it up so that it is easy for others to read. Think Pieces are more like a letter or email to an interested friend.

Mix it up!
Lots of low stakes writing, some middle and a few high on a rotating basis will ensure agility in writing skills. Remember: high stakes writing need only occur once per month, max. Low and middle can happen more frequently. Just pay attention to your young writers and their level of enthusiasm and energy.