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NaNoWriMo: Noveling

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November is NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s an international event in which people of all kinds attempt to write 50,000 words’ worth of a novel. If that sparks all kinds of questions in your mind, check out What is NaNoWriMo? and How NaNoWriMo Works. The goal is not to turn out a perfectly formed, exactly 50,000-word short novel that is publishable and beautiful and perfect (although all of these folks managed to turn their NaNos into something that DID get published!). It’s just to get people writing and, even better, writing more than they probably ever thought they could. We all know how thrilled students are when they achieve something significant like their first letter, essay, speech, or phone call in English. Imagine writing your first novel…

I’ve tried it once before and didn’t get too far, but I met some really great people–one of the keys to the thing is that having other people around you at write-ins and so on really helps you push forward! I’m still friends with some of the people I met. Yesterday, I went to a pre-kickoff “meet’n'greet” event in San Jose. There were tons of people there, and it was pretty exciting.

“But wait,” you may be thinking, “I don’t even live in North America!” No problem–there are groups all over the place. Check out NaNo Near You for groups in Australia, Taiwan, South Korea, Ireland, Japan, Spain, etc. etc.–there are about 500 chapters around the world.

My crazy idea is actually to write something that’s for English learners. I really like some of the extensive readers on the market, but there aren’t enough out there (particularly original ones rather than re-writes). There’s also not enough that’s in American English. I think I’d like to take a stab at it. I’m pretty sure that even if I manage 50,000 words, many of them won’t be usable. However, that’s better than just continuing to do nothing but think about it. It’s the same principle as when we encourage students to stop thinking everything over and just speak. I don’t know if I can pull it off, but I’m planning to give it a good try!

Annie Rizzuto at Prestwick House also wrote about “the most wonderful time of the year” and how exciting it could be to work with students. NaNoWriMo has a Young Writers Program, in which students can set their own word count goal, and an educators’ guide including lesson plans, a forum, and more.

I wonder if anyone at the Office of Letters and Light (the people behind NaNoWriMo) is interested in hosting a similar, flexible-goal version of NaNoWriMo for language learners … L2NoWriMo sounds good to me.

Anyway, if you’re doing it too, let me know!

P. S. This is my 100th post! I wanted it to be on something more serious, but I’m serious about both ER and writing. So this will do! Oddly enough, it comes just after my 100th post over at Readable Blog.

Twelve Days of Christmas: The Internet TESL Journal

On the fourth day of Christmas, I’ll be introducing to you something I’ve mentioned a couple of times, but have never fully introduced. I hope that you won’t mind if I count this as a full entry, because if you don’t already know about it, or if you’ve forgotten about it, it’s worth discovering. If your binders full of lesson plans are letting you down–or if you haven’t yet built up binders full of lesson plans–and you’re interested in free activities and lesson plans, keep reading!

nicubunu_Box_with_folders from openclipart.org

The Internet TESL Journal (ITESLJ) is a free online journal that is different from other online journals because of its focus on short, practical, useful articles. I mentioned its existence very briefly when I posted a roundup of free online journals last year, and also when I noticed that you can download computer-generated mp3s of their articles. I never said why it was great, though, and the reason is that ITESLJ offers lesson ideas, games, and activities, as well as teaching techniques and reports on teachers’ own research projects, in an easy-to-access format that’s free to everyone.

As you know if you’ve tried to use a search engine to find lesson plans, the internet is cluttered with ESL and EFL sites that are only partially free, sites for which you need to register–only to find out they have almost no resources, sites for which you have to register–only to find out they’ve copied all of their materials from another site, and sites with low-quality materials that are unsuitable for your students.

ITESLJ has a good range of materials and ideas, and no registration is required. Many of the suggestions are aimed at EFL learning situations, although they can be adapted to various classrooms. If you don’t see something you like right away, just keep searching back: they’ve been around since 1995. There are specific lesson plans for every possible language skill, lessons focused on specific films, unusual lesson plans involving the use of cell phones, craft-based lesson plans, games with songs and physical movement, and lessons focusing on specific L1s. Here are some examples:

There are lots more, including ideas for working with children.

By the way, if the above is old hat to you, then may I encourage you to write something short and submit it to them? It looks like they need more submissions. Even a single activity that you’ve had work well would be an excellent thing to submit so your fellow teachers can benefit, and although I don’t think they qualify as a “peer-reviewed journal,” it’ll still look great on your CV.

Next? Well, I have no idea! Anybody out there? Let me know, especially if you like something!

Composition’s Dirty Little Secret

In my experience with developmental composition classes, most of the teachers and most of the students involved are pretty frustrated. Many of the problems stem from the fact that students were not well prepared for academic writing much earlier in their learning careers, either in underfunded and badly mismanaged American schools or in non-English learning environments (naturally enough). Beyond that, sometimes the lack of progress seems inexplicable. I suspect, though, that a great deal of it comes from a fundamental error in how composition is taught.

Here’s an interesting essay: “The Term Paper Artist,” by Nick Mamatas. Mamatas is a writer who worked for several years as a term-paper ghostwriter (he notes that it’s technically legal, but fails to mention that it’s undoubtedly cause for expulsion or a grade of F at almost any university). Go ahead and read it if you want–I’m about to spoil the punchline, which is what I consider to be the dirty little secret of American college composition courses. Mamatas writes:

I know why students don’t understand thesis statements, argumentative writing, or proper citations.

It’s because students have never read term papers.

Imagine trying to write a novel, for a grade, under a tight deadline, without ever having read a novel. Instead, you meet once or twice a week with someone who is an expert in describing what novels are like. Novels are long stories, you see … Moral instruction was once fairly common in novels, but is now considered gauche. Novels end when the protagonist has an epiphany, such as “I am not happy. Also, neither is anybody else.” … That’s a novel. What are you waiting for? Start writing! Underline your epiphany.

YES. This is one of the reasons I have very little interest in teaching developmental or standard composition/college English. Generally, instructors present students with writing models taken from either popular or classic essays, usually either literary or journalistic in nature. These essays are often well written and sometimes even appeal to students. These essays almost never resemble the college in-class essays, take-home essays, term papers, or research papers that students are expected to write. In some classes students don’t even see essays at all, only pieces of literature provided as “prompts.” What on earth are they supposed to do? Essays may have become second nature to teachers, but they’re really quite artificial constructions. Students can’t produce them out of whole cloth.

We know that students need lots of models in order to produce output that resembles the models. We know students need to read lots of well-written English in order to produce well-structured English. Why on earth do we give them literary/journalistic input and expect academic output? Students would be a lot better off reading exemplary student essays than reading Pulitzer Prize winners.

There seems to be massive resistance to changing this approach. To be fair, there are a handful of composition textbooks out there that include student essays, but they seem to be less popular, or if they’re used, the teachers don’t emphasize the student essays. I’m not sure why–I suspect a misguided belief in the inherently enlightening nature of Great Writing, which I think is nonsense, or perhaps the longings of literature teachers who would really rather not be teaching developmental courses at all. (I can’t blame them, but it just means we really need more full-time specialists and TESOL professionals.) Whatever the reason is, I think composition teachers need to take a good hard look at how many essay and full-length term paper models they are providing to their students. If the answer is “none” or even “less than half of the course readings,” it’s probably time to reconsider just what is being taught.

(Of course, if academic writing bears little resemblance to any writing found outside of academia, there’s another question to be asked–why invent a genre and enforce its rules and train people in it if it only exists during the short time period of college life? But let’s not open that can of worms right now.)