978-793-1553 fitz@johnfitz.com
Teach Like a Shop Teacher

Teach Like a Shop Teacher

 Teaching Traditional & Modern Skills for Reading, Writing, Creating & Sharing in a Digital World

Create a Better Classroom

for You & Your Students

 

Teaching Traditional & Modern Skills

for Reading, Writing, Creating & Sharing in a Digital World

Teach Like a Woodshop Teacher

A Workshop Forum & Presentation

 

 

Tools & Tips for Building a Dynamic Classroom

 

Video Essays

Creating video essays out of traditionally constructed essays bring a whole new dynamic and range of possibilities for every student. A hard wrought and well-crafted essay is no longer a static piece of paper tucked away in a teacher’s desk or stashed in a crowded hallway locker. It is a multi-dimensional project that is shared with the world. Check out some of these that were created by my eighth and ninth grade classes.

It’s Over: A Final Reflection

~Paul, Eighth Grade

A Trip with Thoreau

~Charlie, 9th Grade

A New Way of Creating Rubrics

No longer will the term “rubric” create dread in your students. The Crafted Word Rubrics are not checklists; they are guides to help students respond to almost any assignment in a clear and confident way. 

Try them out!

    Few of us can do well if we don’t feel confident in what we are doing, but neither can that confidence be a misplaced confidence that is more succinctly called arrogance–a presumption of skill rather than an actual skill. Every time I create a teaching unit or plan a lesson–or even when I sit down to write something like this–I have to ask myself: “Do I really know what I am teaching, and am I teaching what I know in a way that all of my students are learning what I presume I am teaching?” I have to keep asking myself if I am the sage on the stage or the guide on the side; I have to keep asking if I am teaching essential skills and content or am I teaching what some reading workbook or English composition textbook says I should teach. Thankfully, at heart, I am still the shop teacher I have been for almost twenty years, but I am also the writer and teacher of writing I have been for more years than that. 

    Teaching shop is pretty cool because every kid comes into the shop with an untamed enthusiasm and eagerness to build something that is already in his or her head, and they are remarkably unfazed by their limited woodworking skills or by the scope of their dreams. I remember well an old student of mine who came into seventh-grade shop some years ago with detailed plans for building a one-man submersible submarine (as if you could build a non-submersible submarine:) and he begged me to give him a chance to try and build his design. Somehow he settled for something like a knapkin holder, but I heard the other day that he is now in Navy Seal training, so his ultimate dream never died; however, he learned that dreams can be realized and built out of a series of steps, an accumulation of skills forged out of the iron of real life and a dogged clinging to a vision of what he ultimately wanted to build.

    Young writers (all writers) need that dream and vision, too. They need to love the possibilities that writing offers to build something as awesome and real as a six-board chest or a sparrow whittled out of a piece white pine. They need to go to the empty page with the same sense of possibility as the kid walking into the woodshop, and they need to want to learn the skills that will get them to a place they want to be as craftsmen and craftswomen of words and sentences and paragraphs and stories. Most importantly, they need a place and a way to learn and practice those skills: a workshop of their own to walk into and dream and learn and create.

Thoughts...

Thoughts…

The Woodshop as a Metaphor
 
THOUGHT: The woodshop is a metaphor for what should be possible in the classroom
 
 
Points:

  1. “Ah, the shop!”  It smells good!

  2. They can move: 

  3. They get to use cool tools

  4. They learn to “cut the board all the way through.”

  5. They need help–hence collaboration is natural and reciprocal.

  6. Their hands work as much as their heads.

  7. They own what they are building–and it has a purpose and a destiny.

  8. They get the teachers undivided attention–at least some of the time.

  9. The teacher leaves them alone–most of the time.

  10. Mistakes are fixed, not criticized.

  11. They “never” worry about their shop grade.

  12. They are surrounded by the future possibilities of shop class.
     
  13. They can see that building their toolbox is just a first step towards something like a boat, a chair, a bed, a table, a sculpture, etc: [We can do this in the classroom by having publishing parties, sharing digital portfolios, blogging—anything that allows students to see where their education is going.]

  14. There is a completion of a cycle: Though my students usually have smaller whittling projects going on the side, there is always one “big” project that takes them the entire term to complete, and it is always a source of pride.

  15. What you build stays with you for your life, if you wish.
 
 
 
How Is Your Classroom Experienced?
Thought…
Your classroom should reflect your students needs, not your comfort zone–and definitely not a pedagogy which is not your own.
 
 
Points…

  1. A class is a physical place but also a metaphysical place:

  2. We can alter both the physical and the psychical to create a better classroom.

  3. What does your classroom look like?

  4. Is it yours? Or are you part of the shared classroom model?

  5. Does it reflect that part of you that you want to reflect.

  6. What does your classroom feel like?

  7. Where do you sit, stand, or move when teaching? (There really is not a right way if it keeps the students engaged, interested, and ready).

  8. Is there any cool factor? 

  9. Is your class any different than the classroom next door? Should it be? 

  10. What is the temperature of the emotional warmth?


 
Experiment #1…
 
At your next faculty meeting have the faculty sit in rows of desks.  Raise hands only if you know the answer.

  • Only 30% can respond
  • No talking allowed when leaving the room. 
  • The results of the problem are never published.


 
Experiment #2…
 
Have another faculty meeting where a common school problem or issue is presented and ask if small groups could possibly come up with some solutions. Have this group meet in a room with comfortable chairs or couches, and some refreshments. Let this group present their solutions to the rest of the faculty.

  • Hmmm. How would it go?
 
Respond To the Primal Needs of Your Students
Thought…
 
How do you respond to and prepare for the real and most primal and essential needs of your students?
 
 
Points:

  1. They need you to be genuine: if you can’t then you shouldn’t teach.

  2. Notice them. As much for the good as the bad. Class Dojo maybe?

  3. Say hello when they show up for class. Students need affirmation that they are welcome in your classroom.

  4. Give feedback–verbal, visual, & written. They need affirmation that their efforts on your behalf will never go unnoticed and unappreciated.

  5. Show students you care about more than how they are doing in your class. This is where the power of blogging is unparalleled. In the shop, the very nature of the mentoring makes kids feel connected because the shop teacher really is helping “them.” 

  6. Say goodbye when your students leave: make some sort of tradition surrounding the end of class. Your students last impression is a huge one, so make your goodbye a good and affirming ritual.

  7. Have special days, reward days, random acts of “let’s do something different days.
 
What Does an Engaged Student Look Like?
Thought…
 
What does an engaged student look, act and feel like?
 
 
Points:

  • What is Engagement and what does it took like?

  • How do we create an engaging classroom?

  • How do we nurture and sustain engaged students?

  • How do we assess engagement?

  • Create Rubrics, Folio’s, Videos, and blogging communities.

  • You know it when you see it.

  • An engaged student is willing and happy to figure it out.
  • An engaged student feels like he or she has accomplished something worthwhile.

  • An engaged student appreciates the value and or necessity of the content.

  • An engaged student is alert, involved, and curious.

  • An engaged student “can’t believe shop is over.”

  • An engaged student will actually talk about what they did in class while driving home–and they might even bring it up on their own.

  • An engaged feels like his or her time in your class is time well spent!
What Does a Disengaged Student Look Like?
Thought…
 
It seems like there are a few switches that engage students, but a lot more that turn them off and disengage and disaffect, so focus on what turns them on–and keeps them on!
 
 
Points…

    1. They can’t move.

    2. Everything is boring.

    3. The content and delivery is predictable.

    4. They can only use a pencil and paper.

    5. They work on their own—even when struggling with the basic concepts.

    6. Their heads are exhausted.

    7. Their bodies are exhausted.

    8. They’re hungry.

    9. They don’t know how to do what they are being asked to do.

    10. They only get help when they raise their hands.

    11. There is nothing palpable to show when class is done.

    12. They don’t know what they just learned?

    13. They don’t know how they did it?

    14. There is no endgame.

    15. The teacher hates them.
 
….And, yes, the list can go on as long as there is strength in the body.

 

Limits, Rules, Expectations & Values
Thought…
 
Kids spend a huge portion of their childhood in your classroom. What “family values” can and/or should carry over to your classroom?
 
 
POINTS…

  1. Set Rules, Limits, Expectations with the same passion and resolve as you would with your family.

  2. Let them in!

  3. Set rules, standards & expectations.

  4. Create traditions.

  5. Do fun things together.

  6. Laugh a lot and tell stories.

  7. Point out right and wrong. The moral compass!

  8. Forgive and Move on.

  9. Treat everyone equally. Get rid of tracking unless absolutely essential! It is a caste system by any other name.

  10. Treat each student uniquely: know your kids, accept them for who they are. This is quite different than being a “friend” to your students.
 
Create Possibility
I predict future happiness for Americans, if they can prevent the government 
from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them. 
~Thomas Jefferson
 
 
 
Thought…
 
We need to give our students projects and possibilities that they create, own, oversee, and present. We should not try to own what they create.
 
 
 
Points…

  1. There should always be a project going on.

  2. Projects should include collaborative and individual work.

  3. There should always be some sort of self-assessment.
  4. Students need to be able to claim genuine ownership, be free to pursue new directions and ideas, and exercise responsible and mature judgement when developing and creating that project.
  5. There needs to be an endgame of sorts–some way to showcase and curate that work for future generations to share.
The Power of Portfolios
Thought…
 
We need to create portfolios that capture and collate a history of every student’s journey through school.
 
 
Points…

  1. Collect. Collate. Curate: A new mantra for change!

  2. Our profession is only possible because of those who collected, collated and curated our bodies of literature, art, philosophy, history, and culture.

  3. Metacognition: It is important to remember, reflect and respond as a way of understanding who and how we are as learners (and teachers).

  4. Use journaling as a way to enable and practice metacognition.

  5. There are practical and affordable(as in free)  ways to start doing this today!  

  6. There is no downside. You are just being lazy if you don’t! (sorry)
 
The Perils, Pitfalls & Promises of Technology
Thought…
We need to start bridging the digital divides that are separating teachers and department and find fertile ground (not common ground) to allow our collective and individual digital fluency to evolve in a dynamic and energizing way.
 

 
Points…

  1. Are technology decisions being made for the right reasons?

  2. Are there a few people making the decisions for all of you?

  3. Do you want it that way?

  4. What is holding you back from using more–not less–technology?

  5. Does technology engage or simply distract?

  6. Does it simplify or complify (I need this word to exist)?

  7. Keep the focus on focus!

  8. Does technology make you grumpy?

  9. Do you, as a teacher, fully grasp the implications, limitations, and possibilities of technology?

  10. Is being engaged with and connected with a broader, diverse world important to a child’s education—to you?
 

 
What works…
 
  • Managing classes and curriculum: Using an LMS such as Schoology, Edmodo, Haiku, Canvas, Moodle, Lore, etc., allows for easy access and sharing of assignments, grades, student and parent communication and a relative transparency of process.

  • Allows parents to “see” children’s grades as they are posted: [See “What doesn’t work” ]

  • Extending the classroom: online discussions, portfolio sharing, flipped classrooms…

  • Increasing collaborative opportunities.

  • Leveling the playing field.

  • Rethinking pedagogy.

  • Teaches how to manage a digital footprint
 
 
What doesn’t work…
  • That which attracts, distracts–and vice versa–that which distracts, attracts…

  • Complicates the classroom experience: too many logons, computers don’t always work, not enough access at home, hard to find work.

  • Allows parents to “see” children’s grades as they are posted.

  • Introduces a world the kids may not be ready for emotionally

  • The learning is too distant from the classroom: kids don’t bond with each other in the same way.
How To Help Teachers

Thought…

How do you help teachers who are struggling to engage their students?  How do you help teachers let go and grow and love and cope and change?

 

Points…

  1. As a teacher, you are the root of the problem or the source of inspiration. [No one wants to admit that they are not able to do well what they’ve been hired to do, nor do schools, private schools in particular, like to air their dirty laundry, and so change is made behind closed doors; administrators give advice, make demands, and press the issue and the teachers being questioned are fearful of losing their jobs, bitter at being unfairly targeted, and often still unable to change.

  2. Metacognition: Encourage teachers to “self reflect.” Explore and possibly embrace initiatives such as The Folio Project. [It has to start with how can we best adapt, change, evolve–whatever–in ways that make us better, more engaging, more joyful, and more effective teachers.]

  3.  What can schools do to help teachers be more engaged and engaging?

  4. Set high, yet realistic, standards that encourage and enable teachers to feel empowered and energized by their career choice.

  5. Let teachers make the best use of their time.

  6. Get rid of content driven faculty meetings and focus on process driven meetings that invite participation, reflection, and renewal—stuff that might possibly energize, enlighten and transform—not simply educate and inform.

  7. Do all meetings have to be synchronous? 

  8. Do all meetings need to be mediated by the same few people with responses generated by the same few teachers?

  9. USE TECHNOLOGY WISELY: Use discussion threads and require teachers to respond within a given time frame.
  10. Post power points and/or presentations online with a comment thread instead of making teachers sit through them.

  11. Take steps to lessens the work and time that keeps teachers from the core expectations of their jobs. Many schools still operate under the assumption that our parents only hear from us once or twice a semester, and so schools place great value on formal communications: conferences; mid-term comments; end of semester letters, etc, all without any built in time to accomplish these tasks in the course of their school days.

  12. Meet less or meet more, but never meet just to touch base unless it is a truly mutual meeting. 

  13. Consider allocating days to parent meetings (a lot of schools already do this).

  14. Have a comment writing and proofreading professional day. If you give teachers the time—even if they do not use that time when it is given.

  15. Use an LMS/CMS that is open, interactive, and dynamic and which gives teachers room to evolve in their teaching practices and maintain communication with students, advisors, and parents.

 

Reflections

Reflections…

Are You Ready?

 

        Writing an essay for me is relatively simple. I choose what I want to write about, and I start writing. There is not a soul in the world who is expecting anything out of this essay—or even know it is being created, which will be great if it dies an early and ignominious death. I don’t have a teacher pushing me in any one direction–like I am pushing you. The writing prompt and the inspiration is already in me; but, though I try to write well, there are no real-life repercussions when I don’t write well.  My audience for this (which is you—my upper school English class) is remarkably small and polite, and as much as I’d like to think that you are captivated by my writing, I know that in reality you are a “captive” to my writing, because, as my students, you are a prisoner in my classroom. You are somewhat doomed to read what I write, but your actual freedom to write is hobbled by a teacher who is intent on extracting (by what must sometimes feel like any means possible) what you know and think about a narrow range of literature–in this case, the first chapter of Walden: the essay called “Economy.” Throw into the mix your other classes and what do you get: a few more books, an era or two of some history; some idea of why leaves turn red; a handy way discerning volume from the breadth and width of a fruit–a smattering of Spanish words or Latin roots: a bookshelf from shop and an abstract oil painting for your wall.  Don’t forget your soccer and football teams, the school play, band, and student life, and now your day is completely filled.
 
But is it full?
 
It is certainly filled with an exhausting range of activities designed and structured to educate, enlighten, inform, and inspire. Your teachers are a diverse mix of people who really do give a damn about you and who spend more time than you might ever imagine trying to create and perpetuate this living and breathing machine called school, but, as Thoreau writes, “we[teachers and students] labor under a mistake.” We fill the day, but we rarely fulfill the possibilities of each day, and we never will until we remove the blinders that keep us on the beaten path. Frightening as it sounds, the lunatics must run the asylum: students must be allowed to take the reins and become learners and explorers, while teachers and administrators must adapt or die.  “New ways for the new; old ways for the old.” (HDT) The world really is a different place now. The “noosphere” or “omega point” predicted by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin almost a hundred years ago is becoming a reality.  People can be–and are–connected in ways unimaginable to the visionaries and teachers who broke the backs of tradition to create the schools we have today. But times have changed. The desk is more a ball and chain of myopic restraint, while our opportunities for true learning–for all of us–have never been greater. 
 
Something has to give. Society and its schools have become as much slaves to assessment as we are creators of destiny. Measuring someone by “the content of their character” seldom makes it onto report cards. Instead, we measure your progress and achievements with a reptilian calculation of the merits and deficiencies of your responses to specific inquiries and lessons we are convinced we have taught well.  We critique what and how you write, but rarely consider why you write.  Though we seem compassionate and practice empathy, we still erect a barrier that only a few of you can get over unscathed–and those are the celebrated few:  the smart, hard-working, and diligent students who somehow manage to do it all. Everyone else plays catch me if you can, and so this paradigm is set in motion, and it becomes the foundation of almost every school and university in the world. The gifted student becomes a recognizable icon, sculpted, shaped, and polished by the whims of academia. As parents we stumble over each other trying to weave our child’s place on the honor roll or his or her SAT scores–or even the average score of the whole town in comparison to every other school in the district–into the most casual of conversations. On the flip side of this coin, these honors are hardly as respected by peers and classmates (perhaps because  they sense the inherent fraud and advantage to the system) and past prowess as a student soon makes for unsavory and indelicate talk even just mere hours after graduation.   
 
Maybe doing well in school is not such an impressive accomplishment. It is pretty cool that we have a black president raised by a single mom–and we use this as praise for what educational opportunities can do; but history is full of great individuals who rose from humble beginnings. It is a recurring theme of humanity itself. It is part and parcel of what Joseph Campbell has termed “The Heroic Cycle.”  Schools do not create greatness; our primal need to be great is what creates greatness. No one reading this is precluded from realizing his or her individual greatness. We don’t have to be Telemachus facing up to the rowdy suitors in his house, but all of us have challenges that are unmet and untested, and we must meet them and we must test them if we want to be a hero. There is courage and strength of each of us, but not as much motivation, perhaps because the tools we use in school are not the best motivators. We instill as much fear as desire, and there is a subtle paralysis that takes hold. Only if the doors open wider and the walls fall down will we see the expanse of our opportunities–and only if you give enough of a damn to reach for the dream at hand, and then only if you see the dream. Realizing your dream should be your accomplishment, and layering dream upon dream should be your life.
 
Life has a way of doling out hardship in unequal proportions, but school should not be one of them. There is certainly very little that is fair about who goes to what school, but that is the unspoken inequity. We praise the notion of an egalitarian educational system, but we shudder at the thought of implementation.  Few of my Concord friends would ship their sons and daughters to our schools in Maynard because…well, just because.  Ironically, few of my Maynard friends would feel comfortable with their sons and daughters trying to mingle in a Concord milieu.  And so we keep up a pleasant caste system that feeds off the tension between the rich and the poor. It’s like the old camp song: “Don’t chuck your muck in my backyard/my backyard’s full,” but because of the internet, our backyards have merged; the demarcation line is blurred, and there really is a chance for every kid to play on the same field–if we let them.  Caesar accidentally burned down the Royal Library at Alexandria; we shouldn’t do the same with our new library of knowledge. During the first solo circumnavigation of the world, the Afrikaners in South Africa scoffed at Joshua Slocum’s claims that the world was round, even as he was ninety percent of the way around the globe!  Wouldn’t it be ironic if our schools lost the race for knowledge because we dithered at the starting gate?  
 
I certainly did not start this narrative with any plans to take on our educational system.  Sharper minds than mine could tear this essay apart, but only because they have had so many generations to practice.  The hurricane yesterday gave me a rare gift of time today, so I was just hoping to give you a few words to help you get started on your Walden essay. Words have that effect on me.  Maybe my own rereading of Walden made me listen more closely to the drumbeat of my heart no matter how measured or far away; maybe in these political times of gloating,  bitching, and belittling I didn’t want to be one of the thousand hacking at the branches of evil; I wanted to be the one striking at the root. The beauty and bane of Thoreau’s words is how easily they can prove either side of an argument, and my mind is so scattered that I could never get around to organizing all the facts; instead, I’ve simply scattered some seeds among the compost of my experience. Hopefully, one or two will be like the mustard seeds in that parable of Jesus. If not, I’ll have to till again and plant more thoughtfully.

All I know is what I sense: change is coming, and if you have your wits about you, you will be riding the edge of that wave. 
 

Do You Really Want to Be a Teacher?
Let Kids Write
 
        There are plenty of smarter, more gifted, and more interesting writers out there than me or you–but there shouldn’t be a more passionate writer. For better or worse, your blog is you–as my blog is me, and until you want a better you and I want a better me, readers will find another place to go.

         Few things in life are more important than having a passion for something. It is an offshoot of “give damn.” To have a life without a focus on some something or somethings to do and explore and develop on your own is a pretty pitiful life. When I was your age, I had a rock collection that filled a bazillion egg crates with chippings and scrapings I hammered off ; I had snake and reptile aquariums that had specimens of most any cold-blooded creature in the White Pond area of Concord. I had a shortwave radio that I made with my father–and a huge antenna on the roof to help pick up conversations happening anywhere in the world. I had a collection of fishing poles and rods and reels and lures and baits to somehow tease trout, bass, horned pout, kibbers, pickerel and anything else out of the Concord River, Walden Pond, the Assabet, Nashoba Brook and Warner’s Pond. Best of all my family had a plywood sailfish sailboat my father built in our garage from plans he got in somehow to magazine, and in that 12 feet of arc, I got my first taste of sailing–a taste that is as strong today as it was back then. My bedroom was a mess of magazine both strewn and piled–but always read: Boy’s Life, Popular Mechanics, Popular ScienceField and StreamSears Roebuck, National Geographics and any other magazine, book, or journal that fed my passions. Most of those publications are still around to buy in some way today, but there is an even larger world of bloggers out there who cover everything those magazines covered–and a whole lot more. These blogs and websites are where people go to feed their passions and develop their own knowledge and skills. It is where you go and where I go, and the better the blog or the better the site, the more often we return, and the more we return–the more of a mark that writer has left on the world. And that mark says something about that person. You. Something good, I hope.

    In ancient Rome there was a saying: “De gustabus non disputantum,”otherwise known as “There is no accounting for taste,” which is a good thing because it keeps the world to this day interesting, diverse, and dynamic. We don’t have to like what other people like, nor are there any compelling reasons why we should–but we should like something; we should want to be knowledgeable about something, and be good at something, and to constantly be getting better at something. Think of your passions, and think of what you can do to live out that passion or passions and share it with the world. Think of what you are going to leave behind as your footprints in this life. You do not want to be like the drunk sailor Elpenor who fell off the roof and died a death that no one remembers or cares about. As Odysseus himself said: “No songs will be sung about him.” Your “digital footprint” is the song that is sung about you.

     When I first started blogging with my classes–now close to ten years ago–most people were paranoid about kids names being “on the internet,” and so we built firewall on firewall behind private servers to keep you safe and removed from the real internet. In most ways it has been great. It gives you guys a safe place to practice living and sharing in the digital world without the dangers of anyone knowing you are out there. But times have changed. Soon you are going to want your name be out there–and out there in a good and positive way. You are not going to want someone to google your name and come up with…nothing. I am really proud to have discovered that it is relatively hard to study haiku and not come across my website at some point in your studies. I like that if someone googles my name they get the best of me and not the worst of me. I want that for you, too.

     If you’ve got a passion, then keep learning and practicing and experimenting, and then share it with the world. If the seed dies with the flower, there is no beauty left behind.

2 + 8 =

The Paradox of Rubric-Based Writing

     What a boring title…rubric-based writing…I am sure this would be a big seller on Amazon: “Buy Now and Save on Fitz’s Narrative Paragraph Rubric!” Frustration guaranteed! Used by hundreds of angry students…

And I could on and and on because I have heard it all, seen it all, and lived it all because anytime I assign a writing piece to a class, it is almost like some law of Newtonian physics comes into play: there is an equal and opposite reaction to my intentions, and you–my young students–will find all sorts of ways to make the assignment seem like horrible, cruel, and useless punishment.
 
I mean—using a rubric to make our “writing voice” sound natural is like using paint to make an apple look ripe. Maybe I should be fired.
 
Or maybe you should just man up, read the entire assignment (otherwise known as directions, which I am sure you hope your dentist or surgeon follows) and find out if maybe—just maybe— this rubric thing will help you write a paragraph, essay, or story that really does sound like “you” speaking at your very best.
 
All writing is artificial. It may be sincere and honest and heartfelt, but it is still fake; you can’t peel the words off the screen and eat them. But— good writing makes a writer and the reader feel more real because the power of the words splayed upon the page helps us experience life in a deeper and more direct way, and therein lies the paradox of writing: if any of us wish to become a more real writer, we need to learn how to make readers feel more real by using the double secret techniques and tools of the writer’s trade. We need to learn how to slowly and deliberately craft our thoughts into words that look, feel and sound real.
 
Like an acorn or a cat…
 
I’ve created these rubrics and tweaked them over the years to help you–and me–figure out how to best express our thoughts and feelings in a way that feels alive and natural. There really are no rules in writing. It all boils down to your desired audience wanting to keep reading whatever you are writing–and when that reader is done to have them say, “Yes, that was time well-spent!”
 
Give them a try. Discard what you don’t like. Add in in what you want.
 
Every writer is essentially an explorer
Transitions

Transitions

 To Create Effective Transitions in Essay Writing

 The Power of a Natural and Logical Flow

 

       The crazy thing about transitions is that we are already masters of transitions. All of us have been practicing and perfecting a natural and logical flow for as long as we have been speaking. So whats the big deal when trying to employ effective transitions in our writing?

In all of my years of teaching and writing, no one has really defined what a paragraph is that has left me feeling like “Whoa, now I know!”  When I write, I create  new paragraph whenever it “feels” like a paragraph is needed. Where and how that “feeling” happens is the fodder for debate.

For the most part, my shifts are pretty much in line with accepted paragraph usage. I transition to a new paragraph when my thoughts shift in a new direction or there is a change—often even a very slight change—in mood and tone. Sometimes, I’ll even just hang a sentence out in space to give the reader a break or a pause for thought, but never as a break or pause for the writer, which would be like stopping in the middle of a conversation just because you want to rest. 

As humans we have a great intuitive sense for how to complete a thought, how to move to a new thought, and how to end a conversation with some degree of grade and normality. A good writer develops the confidence to trust that intuition; a bad teacher hyper-analyzes it.

The annoying thing is that most of us have been taught (usually by that hyper analyzing teacher) that transitions are some kind of visible and mechanical bridge, and without the bricks and mortar of that bridge an essay will fall to pieces and crumble into a disarray of babbled words and incoherency. 

Not true! An essay falls apart when the unifying theme of the essay becomes unglued or weighted down by too much extraneous stuff—stuff that does nothing to further your essay, stuff that makes a reader say, “I have no idea what you are trying to say!”

Simply put: know your topic and stick to it. Everything else will fall into place.

There is an Irish story of twin brothers, one who was very studious and the other not studious at all. Their assignment in English was to write an essay about a pet. After the papers were graded, the teacher called the less studious brother aside and said in a chiding way: “ Your essay about your pet dog was exactly the same as your brother’s essay.” To which the he responded, “What did you expect? It’s the same damn dog.”

The point of that story? If the reader knows what you are writing about, and you stay more or less focused on that topic (or topics) your reader will not be confused by how you structure your paragraphs or craft your transitions between paragraphs. If it reads like a conversation from your head and heart, no lasting damage has been done to the fabric of the universe.

But it still might be a lousy essay. And maybe it is lousy because of the way you transitioned (or more than likely did not transition) between paragraphs. Maybe your essay resembles more of a trip down a mountain ski slope in an old VW Beetle with your little brother punching you in the arm and yelling “Punch Buggy” the whole way down the hill.

The bottom line is that an essay needs—as in really needs—a natural and confident flow. A reader needs to feel that the writer is in control from start to finish, and anything that interrupts that flow is more annoying than it is engaging; otherwise, your essay is doomed to that anonymous dropbox in the cloud where most essays go when they die.

So make your essay live. Don’t just write—breathe! Make your essays as alive as you are. Be real and write about what you know, and if you don’t know, don’t fake it—learn what you need to know, and then start writing. And opposed to what many teachers teach, use the voice that is most alive in your head—even if it is the dreaded “I” voice. It is, after all, you who are writing. Be real. Avoid words you don’t already know and use. You don’t want to be one of those “phoneys” that Holden Caulfield singles out in Catcher in the Rye. Be real because you really are real and no one is better than you at being you.

So easy for a wordy English teacher to preach, and I am not the one writing the essay (Oh my god, he used the I voice in an essay!) and you are not the one who assigned the writing prompt, but like Odysseus sailing into the Straits of Skylla, the only way out is through, so write you must.

My long-winded preamble is over, and now I will give you a few tricks to help you create transitions in a traditional five-paragraph essay or any kind of formal essay that might be graded in a traditional and rigorous way by the mighty red pen of academia.

 

Technique #1:
Connecting Thoughts

 SOYET ANDOR NORFORBUT 

 

My little acronym is meant to sound like a Russian spaceship, but it is merely a disguise for the all of the hidden coordinating conjunctions—those cool little words that connect independent clauses to create longer compound sentences, and which tie together two or more “related” thoughts.

That’s the main point: “two or more related thoughts.”

Now here is my little trick: “If” you could (thought you won’t actually do it) add a conjunction to the end of one paragraph and lead into the opening line of the next paragraph you have created a logical transition—a bridge between paragraphs that a reader can cross to your new thought without falling into the roiling water of confusion.

For Example:

Huck Finn escapes society by escaping from his abusive father, but Jim seeks freedom from slavery for himself and his family.

The transition sentence at the end of the paragraph is:

Huck Finn escapes society by escaping from his abusive father.

The topic sentence or narrow theme of the next paragraph is:

Jim seeks freedom from slavery for himself and his family.

 

Technique #2:
Stealing and Thievery 

Technique number two uses the coordinating conjunction trick and takes it one step further.

Steal a theme, a topic, an idea—or even just a word—from one body paragraph and use it to start your next paragraph.

For Example:

The cunning deceits of Odysseus help him overcome the trials he faces while trapped in the Cyclop’s cave, [but] without bravery, Odysseus  could never pull off his cunning plans.

The transition sentence at the end of the paragraph is:

The cunning deceits of Odysseus help him overcome the trials he faces while trapped in the Cyclop’s cave.

The topic sentence or narrow theme of the next paragraph is:

Without bravery, Odysseus  could never pull off his cunning plans.

 

Technique #3:
The Conjunctive Adverb Trick

Like a coordinating conjunction, conjunctive adverbs connect two or more related independent clauses—but even better, conjunctive adverbs show the relationship between those independent clauses.

Conjunctive adverbs are words and/or phrases like:

     accordingly,    furthermore,    moreover,       similarly,

     also,           hence,          namely,         still,

     anyway,         however,        nevertheless,   then,

     besides,        incidentally,   next,           thereafter,

     certainly,      indeed,         nonetheless,    therefore,

     consequently,   instead,        now,            thus,

     finally,        likewise,       otherwise,      undoubtedly,

     further,        meanwhile, in spite of, on the other hand,

     in contrast, on the contrary, ETC…

In the same way as techniques one and two, “if” you could put a conjunctive adverb at the end of a body paragraph and lead into the first sentence of the next paragraph, you have an effective transition—as long as you are using the conjunctive adverb correctly.

For Example:

In Walden, Thoreau urges us to live more simply and thoughtfully; moreover, Thoreau gives an example of his own life and his own idea of simplicity and thoughtfulness through his experiment on Walden Pond.

The transition sentence at the end of one body paragraph is:

In “Walden,” Thoreau urges us to live more simply and thoughtfully.

The opening sentence of the next paragraph is:

Thoreau gives an example of his own life and his own idea of simplicity and thoughtfulness through his experiment on Walden Pond.

 

Technique #4:
The Dangling Paragraph

This technique can save an essay from itself. Oftentimes, we have a paragraph or thought that is hard to connect to the next paragraph. The dangling paragraph comes to the rescue.

A dangling paragraph is a paragraph that is very brief compared to the body paragraphs it is sandwiched between. It’s effect on the reader is meant to be clear, concise and compelling—and even startling. It can be a statement, a question, or just a philosophical pondering. 

For Example:

      Because I can imagine myself sailing in a twilight breeze across Pleasant Bay, I will put up with these days of gluing, screwing and painting, varnishing and rigging my old sailboat. Sometimes I wish I had the money to just buy a boat that doesn’t need so much of my time, but like anything else in life that steals my time, I must figure it’s worth it—and it is. I do other things with my time where I don’t have the same clarity of purpose.  It is a rare moment of quiet in my house; the kids are all off with Denise somewhere, and though the grass is absurdly high; the van desperately needs an oil change, and the gutter is hanging by a twisted coat hanger, I sit here and force a few words out of emptiness. A part of me wants to show the folks in my writing communities that I practice what I endlessly preach to them—face the empty page! But it’s not that simple; I’ve been doing the same thing for almost thirty years, seldom with any goal but the action of writing itself.  

      Is it worth it?      [This is the dangling paragraph!]

      Everything that I write returns to me obliquely. I’ve never written for a publication; I’ve never even tried to get anything published, save for a small book of poetry and a couple of CD’s. I’m a whiz when it comes to writing recommendations, and I can write a decent song or poem for any occasion, but I still can’t say that I write out of a labor of love or because I have some over-arching goal. I write because it gives purpose and meaning and clarity to my life. It stills me when I need to be still, and it roils me out of my ignorant slumber when I need to wake and see the light of day. Used wisely, writing humbles my arrogance and helps me open my arms and doors when I might otherwise retreat into a self satisfied shell of complacency. It is worth a long day on the water to be there when the wind and tide help beat the way to a new harbor.

My goal with my short dangling paragraph was to shift my topic and to get my readers to ask the question with me. It’s purpose is to get the reader to stop, read, rethink and shift gears—as in to redirect the topic of the next paragraph. It allows a writer to avoid an otherwise messy transition and move his or her essay in a new direction.

Make sense to you?

That last paragraph is an example of another dangling paragraph! Used with care and discretion, it is an effective technique.

Used as a habit, it will soon become a bad habit.

Openings & Closings…

Openings & Closings…

Both 8th grade and 9th grade are working on opening paragraphs, and I bet more than a few of you are a bit stumped on how to start. Some of you may even be working on a conclusion.

Wouldn’t that be nice.

My best advice is to use the latest version of my iBook “Fitz’s Literary Analysis Rubric.” The latest version is in the Materials section of your course on iTunes U. If you do not have the latest version, simply delete your version in iBooks and upload the new version.

You can also go to the Opening Paragraphs site on my Resources and Rubrics Page, which has essentially the same information as in my iBook.

Here is a good opening paragraph for The Odyssey already turned in by Ahbinav Tadikonda. It might give you an idea of what might work for you–in your own words and ideas!

Everyday is the same: Odysseus travels the vast seas with his crew in hope to return home only to be disappointed day after day. Enduring the pain of a thousand men Odysseus keeps moving on, being the hero he is. But what is a hero anyways? When most people think of a hero, they think of a tall, muscular, and handsome being that could do no wrong; however, Odysseus is not all that perfect. Odysseus, is often rude, disrespectful, and not always the most attractive male. However he is still a hero. He shows he is a hero by the way he handles difficult times. For Odysseus disaster as constant as the sun rising everyday. Even getting out of bed has become dangerous for him. From battling cyclops’s to being away from family for over 17 years, it really makes you ask: how is it that through all the terrible times Odysseus still shows his maturity, bravery and courage?

For you ninth graders, check out this opening written by Mike Demsher a couple of years ago:

Throughout human history, we have advanced. Whether it is electronically, medically or socially, we have moved forward to a better society; however, could we be moving in the wrong direction? We have advanced our lives to a point where we are constantly hurrying with everything we do. We have been moving into a world where there is no real thought. We are in a philosophical dark age. The only way to snap ourselves out of it is to slow down and think. We must live deliberately each day and remember who we are meant to be. In Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Thoreau urges us to live our lives purposefully and to not give up who we are. He wants us to live with our eyes open and not to fall into the blur that society is moving towards. Henry David Thoreau wants us to live deliberately.

 

Done with all that…?

If you are working on your conclusion, go to my “Essay Conclusions” website and see the rubric there, which is geared towards concluding a literary anlaysis essay.

Please steal my rubric from me!

For the ninth graders writing an essay on Walden, the example essay on my “How to Write Literary Essays” site uses a Walden essay ( and a fine one) as an example of how to put together an entire essay.

It’s a big project, and I am really only hoping that your write carefully and use the rubrics carefully. If you do, you will do well.

I hope this helps!

Me & Rocky…

Take your foot off the brakes, but keep your eyes on the road

~Fitz

Once, back in my days as a logger, I cut through a big white oak. I didn’t realize that the trunk was mostly rotten and hollow until my chain saw was most of the way through the monstrous tree. After the mad crush of the tree to the ground I noticed blood on my saw and on my legs. In cutting the tree down, I inadvertently massacred a whole raccoon family: a mom and seven incredibly small babies. I was pretty bummed about it all, but while moving the family out of the stump, I noticed the smallest ball of fur hobbling way on three legs.

One had survived.  I picked him up and named him Rocky (after the main character in The Beatles big hit “Rocky Raccoon.” He fit into my shirt pocket with plenty of room to spare.

When I got home, I put him on the table in a cake dish filled with straw. I wasn’t even sure how to feed it. Its eyes were still closed. I heated up some milk in a pan on the stove and sucked some warm milk into an eye-dropper, and as luck would have it, Rocky slurped it up.

For the first few weeks warm milk was all Rocky could eat, but as time went on he grew into a fun little terror who would eat almost anything. He even learned to open the refrigerator door himself. He laid on his back in the mornings when I was milking my goats begging for me to squeeze the teats milk all over his face.  He would steal the chickens’ eggs as if it were his birthright.

I felt like a young dad doing everything a dad needed to do. I wanted to raise a raccoon that could live in both worlds: the wild world and my world. After about six months Rocky was a pretty stout and healthy three-legged raccoon. I felt more and more confident that he could now live in both a feral and a wild world.

So I let Rocky outside on his own.

Later I saw a hawk circling overhead the hay field. I saw a coydog skulking in the tangle of brush beside the woods. I heard the awful cry of a fisher cat somewhere deep in the swamp.

Maybe I let Rocky go too soon. Maybe I should have given him a better rubric for life.

But that is no way to live…

Do you really need a rubric for this assignment?

The Heroic Cycle

heroic cycleThe hero cycle is not a rubric created for storytellers; it is the primal urge of all people—across ALL cultures—to experience within their own lives the transformation of being a hero.  Every ancient culture that has had its history recorded has some epic poem or story to guide its people. The heroic cycle represents the power of hope over despair; it gives us all the chance for redemption—even in the hardest of times. It is a recognition that without agnos (pain) there is no aristos (glory), and, in that sense, it validates even the most common and hard-bitten of lives by making the lives of every man, woman and child that has ever lived uncommon, unique, and worthwhile.  

     It is not an absurd idea to recognize the greatness and possibilities of our own lives. It is not absurd to think we have an epic tale worth telling, and it is certainly not absurd to examine every experience through a reflective lens and to start to appreciate the implications of transformation which heroic poetry represents.  As human beings, we are hard-wired to need this epic poetry. We can’t just read the epic as a story and move on. We have to know the story and build and incorporate the allegory into our own lives; otherwise, we will run from the battles of life; we will avoid the straits of Skylla and the lair of the Cyclops; we will shun the Gods who come disguised to us and coddle the children given to us; we won’t shed tears for common friends, and we will lock out every stranger and blame our mishaps and misdeeds on the gods. 

     In short, we will not be remembered, and no songs will be sung about us. The saddest part is that you may think this is all exaggeration and hyperbole. But, it is not! Our lives are full of stories that use and embody the heroic cycle. In fact, I have a hard time trying to think of any “great” movie, book, or story that in same way, shape or fashion

     Try to come up with a book or movie that you feel is a meaningful and powerful story that follows this heroic cycle. Fill in the blank boxes with a brief description of the scenes that best illustrate the use of the hero cycle in the story. 

The assignment will be posted on iTunes U. If you have any problems, you can use this rubric. Open it in Pages.

Download the rubric:

Heroic Cycle Rubric

Fitz-Style Journal Entry

Upload the Fitz Style Journal Entry Rubric

How To Create a Fitz Style Journal Entry

Set the Scene & State the Theme; Say what you mean, and finsih it clean

     When writing a blog post, is important to remember that a reader is also a viewer. He or she will first “see” what is on the screen, and that first impression will either attract their attention and interest—or it may work to lose their attention and interest; hence, a bit of “your attention” to the details will go a long way towards building and maintaining an audience for your work. Plus, it gives your blog a more refined and professional look and feel—and right now, even as a young teenager, you are no less a writer than any author out there.

So act like a writer. Give a damn about how you create and share your work and people will give a damn about what you create! It is a pretty simple formula.

The “Fitz Style” journal entry is one way to do it well!  I call it “Fitz Style” only because I realized that over time my journal posts began to take on a “form” that works for me. Try it and see if it works for you. You can certainly go above and beyond what this does and add video or a podcast to go along with it—and certainly more images if it is what your post needs. Ultimately, your blog is your portfolio that should reflect the best of who you are and what interests you at this point in your life presented in a way that is compelling, interesting, and worth sharing.

One of the hardest parts of writing is finding a way to make sense of what you want to say, explain, or convey to your readers–especially when facing an empty page with a half an hour to kill and an entry to write (or a timed essay or exam writing prompt). The Fitz Style Entry is a quick formula that might help you when you need to create a writing piece “on the fly.” At the very least, it should guide you as your write in your blog, and at the really very least, it will reinforce that any essay needs to be at least three paragraphs long! I’ve always told my students (who are probably tired of hearing me recite the same things over and over again): “If you know the rules, you can break them.” But you’d better be a pretty solid writer before you start creating your own rules. The bottom line is that nobody really cares about what you write; they care about how your writing affects and transforms them intellectually and emotionally as individuals. 

          If a reader does not sense early on that your writing piece is worth reading, they won’t read it, unless they have to (like your teachers), or they are willing to (because they are your friend). Do them all a favor and follow these guidelines and everyone will be happy and rewarded. Really!

Formatting

How something “looks” is important. Never publish something without “looking” to see the finished product in your portfolio or blog.

Interesting Title

After the initial look, the title is the first thing a reader will see. The title should capture the general theme of your journal entry in an interesting and compelling way.

Interesting Title

After the initial look, the title is the first thing a reader will see. The title should capture the general theme of your journal entry in an interesting and compelling way.

Eye-catching Image

An image embedded in your post is the final touch of the formatting. A picture really does paint a thousand words and this final touch prepares your readers and entices them to read the important stuff—the actual writing piece you create.

Opening Paragraph

The “Hook!”

A hook is just what it says it is—a way to hook your reader’s attention and make him or her eagerly anticipate the next sentence, and really, that is the only true hallmark of a great writer!

Set the Scene

Use your first paragraph to lead up to your theme. If the lead in to your essay is dull and uninspired, you will lose your readers before they get to the theme. If you simply state your theme right off the bat, you will only attract the readers who are “already” interested in your topic. Your theme is the main point, idea, thought, or experience you want your writing piece to convey to your audience. (Often it is called a “Thesis Statement.) 

State the Theme

I suggest making your theme be the last sentence of your opening paragraph because it makes sense to put it there, and so it will guide your reader in a clear and, hopefully, compelling way. In fact, constantly remind yourself to make your theme be clear, concise and memorable. Consciously or unconsciously, your readers constantly refer back to your theme as mnemonic guide for “why” you are writing your essay in the first place! Every writing piece is a journey of discovery, but do everything you possibly can to make the journey worthwhile from the start.

Body Paragraphs

Say What You Mean

Write about your theme. Use as many paragraphs as you “need.” A paragraph should be as short as it can be and as long as it has to be. Make the first sentence(s) “be” what the whole paragraph is going to be about.

Try and make those sentences be clear, concise and memorable (just like your theme) and make sure everything relates closely to the theme you so clearly expressed in your first paragraph. If your paragraph does not relate to your theme, it would be like opening up the directions for a fire extinguisher and finding directions for baking chocolate chip cookies instead!

And finally, do your best to balance the size of your body paragraphs. If they are out of proportion to each other, then an astute reader will make the assumption that some of your points are way better than your other points, and so the seed of cynicism will be sown before your reader even begins the journey

Conclusion

Finish It Clean

Conclusions should be as simple and refreshing as possible. In conversations only boring or self important people drag out the end of a conversation.

When you are finished saying what you wanted to say, exit confidently and cleanly. DON”T add any new information into the last paragraph; DON’T retell what you’ve already told, and DON’T preen before the mirror of your brilliance. Just “get out of Dodge” in an interesting and thoughtful (and quick) way.

Use three sentences or less. It shows your audience that you appreciate their intelligence and literacy by not repeating what you have already presented!

Now give it a try!!!