Being an effective writer is a foundational skill but teaching students how to write can be both challenging and overwhelming for educators. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen talks to author and educator, Dr. Jaclyn Fowler about her strategies for teaching writing. Learn how she uses writing workshops to teach writing through the eyes of a reader and a writer, and why it’s so important to teach students how to properly critique each other’s work. Also learn about the building-block and essay-map concept she teaches to help students outline their papers as well as tips for grading and assessing student writing effectively and efficiently.
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Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to The Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into The Online Teaching Lounge.
Welcome to The Online Teaching Lounge podcast. Today you’re in for a special treat. We have a guest with us, Dr. Jaclyn Fowler. She is the Department Chair over English and Literature at American Public University. Jackie, welcome to the podcast. For our listeners, would you mind telling us a little bit more about your background?
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Sure. Thank you, Bethanie. And thanks for having me on the podcast. I have spent the last three years at APUS and loving every minute, teaching and also being an administrator in the department. So, I’m the Chair of the English Department, as you said.
And before that I spent about four and a half years in the Middle East as a professor in Canadian University Dubai. And the way I like to say it, is I was an American woman of Irish descent living in Dubai and teaching at Canadian, pretty multicultural background right there. And I’m a writer. So, I write novels and I write memoirs and short stories, and I’m excited to be here.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Fantastic. Well, just to help you know a little bit about our audience here. We have online educators all over the world that listen to our podcast. So, they are in for a treat hearing from you. I’m just curious what one of your areas of focus might be in teaching writing online, specifically?
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Well, the funny thing is, Bethanie, I write, I teach writing, I coach writing. Truly, I need maybe to get another exciting habit or hobby, but it’s one of the things I really love. And I think one of the ways I like to teach writing is through the eyes of a reader and the eyes of a writer. And I think so often we don’t do that. We teach writing as teachers and we forget that there’s an audience and that there’s somebody who’s doing it. So, one of the things I like to bring to my classes is the idea of writing workshops.
Even in an online atmosphere, it’s really fun, I teach the students how to critique each other’s writings. And by that I don’t mean give criticism, but actually critique the structure of what’s being put on a page. And what do I mean by that? Well, I want to know how the thesis statement works, how it flows when you read it, how somebody’s turn of a phrase works. So, we give writers the opportunity to see their writing through the reader’s eyes. And that’s an unusual thing. Usually, we put our writing out there before we understand how the readers will view it, and so it’s a really nice addition to an online classroom.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: I love the way you said this critique was more about structure. And what I heard when you said that was artistry, it made me think about an art critique.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Exactly. What I say to students all the time is, “Look, they’re words on a paper, don’t get overly focused on them being your words on the paper. They’re just words. And so, if somebody has a critique for you, if somebody says, “I’m not sure what that word means, and I’m not sure it’s helping the sentence,” for instance, don’t be defensive about it. Have an open mind, look at it the way the reader is seeing it and say, “Well, maybe it doesn’t belong there. Maybe I need to do something that reshapes that area so that it does read more fluidly for a reader.”
And the idea is, you want to write for an audience. You want to make sure your writing is understood by an audience, so be open, be flexible. And then, in the end, remember, you’re the artist. So, as a writer, you’re painting with words. That’s what you’re doing.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Yeah. That’s beautiful.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: So, it’s your choice on what paint colors and the texture and everything you use, but as any good artist would, they would open up to the critique from those who are looking at or reading the art.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Speaking of the critique. So, many of our educators that are hearing this podcast are not writing teachers. And I’m curious, what advice would you give them to get better at helping students in that area?
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Well, we can’t expect students to just critique. They don’t know how to do it, so it’s part of teaching. So when I teach writing, I’m also teaching critique. And for those of you who think that’s a really hard job, it is. But in the end, you’re also teaching writing by teaching critique because we’re giving the writers the opportunity to learn how to critique themselves by critiquing others first.
So, our students come to the classroom knowing how to give criticism. So, something like, “I don’t like that. I don’t think it sounds good. It’s not really good.” Or the perennial favorite for students, “Yeah, it’s good.” And what does that say to the writer? Nothing. None of those criticisms say anything to the writer.
So, a critique is more focused. You learn the building blocks of writing: a thesis statement, a paragraph, how to write a topic sentence, how to be creative, how to join sentences together so it makes a variety, and it makes it interesting.
And then, you allow the reader to say, “I’m not sure if this paragraph is flowing the way it should? It sounds a little funny. Maybe you need some transitions. Let me give you an example of what I would say. I might put, for example, here.”
The difference is as a writer you know what you want to say, and you know what you have in your head, but we often time short circuit that we just put enough for us because we have it all in our head. As a reader, the reader is saying, “I get where you’re going, but I need a little bit more.”
And so, to teach critique to a student, to teach them how to critique, it requires the teacher to model it. So, in an online classroom, everything is written, and so one of the things I do is write out critiques for every student the first few weeks of my classes, for every student, for every building block.
And what I find is that students start to mimic what I’m doing in the classroom. They come up with their own ideas, but I use a lot of different colors. When I’m talking about a thesis statement, for instance, I say, “You need a topic, you need an argument, and you need a three-point essay map.” And I put them in different colors so that students can see the critique right away.
And what I find after a couple weeks is students begin to use colors in the same way too. Or they begin to look at, for instance, how punctuation works. I know it sounds like just punctuation, but semicolon makes a big difference sometimes, or a comma might make a difference, and so students begin to mimic the way I’m teaching them to critique. And they recognize early on, because I’m really clear about it, it’s not about the author, it’s not about the writer, it’s about the words on the page.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: I hear that. And you said something that I was going to ask a question about, I’m sure listeners probably wondering this too, you said something about building blocks and then I heard you say, “topic, argument, three-point essay map.” Could you explain a little bit what some of those things are?
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Sure. So, the thesis statement, which is the English teacher’s favorite, favorite thing to teach. In my life I’ve maybe taught it 110 million times, but it’s important for every new group of writers—and now we’re talking academic writing—for every new group of academic writers, they have to learn how to write a thesis map. It is a thesis statement. It is exactly what it says. It’s giving the topic.
So, in a thesis statement, the way I teach it is I say, “You need a topic, you need an argument, and you need a three-point essay map.” An essay map tells us how we’re going to argue the argument. And each of those points become the topic for the body paragraphs. So, once you write a good thesis statement, you have your whole essay mapped out, which is cool. I remember in college writing my first paragraph and thinking, getting through it after hours and saying, “Oh gosh, that was great. I’m done. Oh no, I have more paragraphs to write, what am I going to write next?”
Well, if you spend the time on one of the building blocks, which is a thesis statement, you know exactly where you’re going for the whole rest of your paper. So that’s why we talk about building blocks, one would be a thesis statement. Remember, the thesis statement has three parts, topic, argument, three point-essay map.
My next building block would be to take the three-point essay map and then to use that to build the three topic sentences for the three body paragraphs. And that’s how we teach it, one step at a time, one step at a time.
So, once you break up an essay into steps, students can start to see the critique. “Oh, this would work better if you did three points in your essay map instead of two, or this would work better if you used your essay map to write your topic sentences.”
So, once you take it from the big elephant in the room, the essay, down to its smaller components, students will find it easier to create them—essays—and also students will find it easier to critique them.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Fantastic. That sounds like a really easy flow to work from. And I was playing in my head as you’re explaining this to me and to our listeners, I was thinking, “Okay, maybe I could just throw out a thesis idea and you could tell me how I could make this better.”
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Sure.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Just because at the time of this recording it’s winter, and, of course, our listeners might listen to this at any time of year, but that just jogged the idea for me of snowmobiling, right?
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: So, I was thinking, well, let’s just say, for example, I’m going to write my essay on snowmobiling.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: So that’s your topic.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: And I’m thinking, everyone should ride a snowmobile to work in the winter because it’s exhilarating, it’s gas efficient, which is probably not true, but we’re going to pretend, and then because it will renew your zest for life.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Okay. They’re your three essay map points, right?
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Yeah.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: So now you have your topic, which is snowmobiling to work. So, you narrowed your topic a little bit, snowmobiling to work, and your argument is everybody should do it. So, you’re going to prove that everybody should do it. Now, one of the things I would say to a thesis writer is “Are you sure you want to say everyone? So, what about the guy in Fiji who doesn’t have snow?”
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Yeah, I think he’d wreck his snowmobile.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: So, we always talk about, in academic writing, narrow your audience, because if your audience is everybody, your audience is nobody. So, narrow your thesis statement. So those who live in winter climates, do you see how it narrows it down?
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Where there’s a snow floor, yeah.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Where there’s a snow floor. Now you have your argument, your topic and your three-point essay map is great, because what you’ve done is each of those become the topic of your body paragraphs. So, the first would be all about it being exhilarating. The first body paragraph would be all about it, it being exhilarating. I forget what the second one, oh, it’s gas efficient. The second paragraph would be all about being gas efficient. And it gives you a zest for life would be the third body paragraph. So, with one sentence you’ve outlined your whole essay.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: I like that. That’s nice. And then, I’m curious about how one would come to that thesis in a concluding paragraph without simply just saying it exactly the same way.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Oh, Bethanie, I think you might be a budding English teacher over there.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Thank you.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: So, what we always say is, you paraphrase yourself. In your concluding essay, you want to take your thesis statement and you want to restate it in a way that captures the topic and the argument. And if you want, the essay map, but you don’t have to, but you want to do it in a way that the reader doesn’t recognize the words.
English has 800,000 words to choose from, and you could put them together in so many different ways. You don’t have to use the same words that you used in your original thesis statement to say some of the same things. And so, the idea is to just turn the phrase, paraphrase yourself in a way that concludes your essay. Can you imagine if I say to a student, “If you write a good thesis statement, you have your concluding sentence for your whole essay.”
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: I love that. And that simplifies it, I think, for the student too, especially, who’s not feeling confident about the writing.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Yes.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: So, Jackie, we were talking about how to help a student learn to write an essay, how to lay it out. I’m wondering if there are any other tips about the writing part before we go on to maybe the evaluating, grading that many of our listeners are also wondering on about.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Sure. So, one of the things that I always say to students is “Variety is the spice of life.” If you’re an American, you know that saying, “Variety is the spice of life.” In other words, the more things change up, the more exciting they are. And it’s the same with writing. Variety is the spice of writing.
So, you can write a simple sentence, you can write a complex sentence, you can write a compound sentence, you can put sentences together and build one long sentence out of two or three or four shorter sentences, the idea is you work with all of those in one essay.
What that does, let me give you an example, one of the best novels I’ve ever worked with that showed this is Elie Wiesel’s “Night.” And what he does beautifully is he moves from short, choppy sentences where your heart is beating, to longer, more sonorous sentences where you feel relaxed.
And then he comes in again with the short, choppy sentences and you’re taken off guard and your heart starts to beat again. And so, that’s the kind of stuff you want to do in writing. Even in academic writing, you could write these long, beautifully, complex sentences, follow it up with something really short and to the point so it wakes up your reader. You want to have that kind of variety in your sentences.
And one of the ways I talk to primarily American students, because students who learn English from other languages don’t have the same problem, but grammar is such a beast for students in the United States. And one of the reasons is, because they just don’t understand that the words that we’ve chosen to name our grammar, nouns, and verbs, it’s all from Latin. And it used to be that we all learned Latin in university, but not anymore.
So, our students, they have a hard time with the words. And so, one of the things I do in any writing class is I start at the very beginning. So, I explain to them what each of the Latin words means so that they can finally get a grasp on grammar. And then I say to them, “Hey, let me tell you this, if you are writing, 85% of what your words say is the important part of an essay. 15% is the grammar. Now, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t worry about the grammar, but that shouldn’t be the only worry.”
And this is the way I like to tell my students, “If you were lucky enough to go by a beautiful Monet painting, you flew to France and you bought the Monet and you came home and you went to put it on your wall and you realized you didn’t have a frame for it, and you went down to Walmart and you bought a 99 cent frame to put your beautiful Monet painting in, the Monet will not have changed because of the frame, but it will detract from the Monet because of the frame.”
And that’s the same with grammar, you want to put your writing, your words, the painting with your words in a beautiful frame, which is grammar. And the frame allows the beautiful words, the painting with words to be enhanced rather than the frame taking away from the understanding of the words. Does that make sense?
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Absolutely. And it sounds like you have to craft with the grammar what supports it to flow well, or to show the beauty of what you’re saying.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Right. You want your words, the words that you’re painting into a beautiful picture to mean the same coming from your mind into the mind of the reader. And the way we do this is we have this shared structure, this shared format. And we use nouns, and we use verbs, and we use punctuation and they only account for 15% of the final overall painting, but it’s an important 15% because it puts us all on the same page. We all know, reader or writer, what you’re doing with a period, what you’re doing with a verb, what you’re doing with a noun. And so, that’s why it’s important.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Beautiful. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to just shift gears a little bit to the evaluating part, the grading. One of the complaints online faculty sometimes have is that grading writing takes so long, it’s so involved. And I want to just make a confession right here that when I was first teaching online, I would bleed all over the essay. I would be doing what I’m sure you’re going to say we should not do, and that it was editing. So, I’d be making a comment here, there, everywhere. Since then, I totally approach it differently, but I would prefer listeners hear from you about what they should do, what your suggestions might be.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: There’s a couple ways to go at this. What I say to my faculty members, “Remember, English we grade 500 to 600 pages of writing every single week. And so we need to teach. That’s why we do assessments, to teach through assessments, but we also have to be reasonable with our time so we can teach in the classroom.”
And so, I always say, “If you spend more time writing than the students spent writing, you’re doing it wrong. You’re not engaging a paper for a long-term affair. This is speed dating. You want to be thorough, but you don’t want to be in there all day long. So, you’re not making a commitment to the paper, you’re going through it.”
And here’s the first thing that we do wrong as academics, as teachers in general, we correct every single mistake. And that’s a mistake, because we’ve done the work and now we understand how, for instance, grammar works, but we’ve done all the work for the students and so therefore they haven’t learned anything.
So, you’re not an editor. You’re right, we often edit. What you want to do is you want to read through the paper. If you see that there’s issues, for instance, with grammar, you want to pinpoint about three big pieces of grammar, the things that you think, if they were cleared up, the paper would be more intelligible.
And then you clearly correct it and give a comment that says, let me give an example, “This sentence is a run-on sentence, that means you have two or more sentences smashed together without the correct punctuation. Let me show you how to fix it.” Fix it. Then you fix it. And then you say in a comment, in the end of your comment, “I want you to go through your paper and find all of the run-on sentences and correct them. Next time I grade your papers, I’m going to be looking for the fact that you corrected your run-on sentences.” Do you see what I mean? You tell them what it is, you define it, you show them how to fix it, you tell them that’s how they’re being evaluated in their next piece of writing.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: That sounds like a wonderful approach. It’s going to save us lots of time and energy. So, I’m hearing you say that we should ask for a second submission.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: So, a lot of times in writing we do a second submission in English papers, but I’m also comfortable if it’s a single paper and the next time they’re doing a paper on something else, I make it clear, “When you write your week five paper, I’m looking for this.” So, it doesn’t necessarily have to be another paper or resubmission. You hope that they take your feedback and rewrite all the run-on sentences, but they may not. I don’t think I did when I was in college, but you hope. But you make it clear that you’re looking for them in the next paper.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: That makes a lot of sense. And then if you’re just telling the student to just apply this, you don’t necessarily have to track each one, follow up, see that they did it, you’re just advising, basically.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Exactly. You’re not the police. You’re there to give support, to teach, to help. And you don’t want to forget the lesson that you taught in the first assignment. You want to make sure that that lesson was understood.
Because sometimes they don’t understand what you’ve said. You may think you put the most time into your comments on a paper and you find that nothing’s changed in the next paper. Well, maybe they didn’t understand. And so, you want to give another opportunity for them to succeed.
So, the idea in writing is you want people to succeed. So, you point it out, you define it, you correct it, you show them, you tell them what you want them to do for the next paper. And if they don’t do it, you do it again.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Gain confidence.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Gain confidence. You don’t let it die. You’re right, Bethanie, gaining confidence is important when you see it done well. The students in my class laugh because I teach the semicolon rule, an easy way to fix a run on sentence is to take the period, where you would put a period, for two sentences and put a semicolon in. It’s the easiest rule. And so, when I see it on papers, I make a big deal out of it, “Semicolon, this is great.”
And so, they get the idea that I’m looking to see what they do well, as well as what they don’t do well. And I think that’s important because all of us sometimes accidentally do something well. And so, if a teacher points out, “This was perfect, this was so well said, this was so well done,” if it was one of those moments when it was accidental, you’ve gelled, “Hey, I did this, right and I didn’t even know I did it right, but I’m going to do it like this forever now.” That’s the hope.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: I love that you’re pointing out a positive as well, because I think when you’re working online, oh, maybe you’re doing this eight hours a day, all week-long kind of thing, if it’s your full-time gig, you’re really spending a lot of time. And I know it’s easy to get fed up with the same problem you see, and have a difficult time being positive. Sometimes you see that same thing over and over, especially if you’re correcting it or stating the problem and explaining and it’s not getting fixed. So, bringing out the positive probably helps balance it for the student too and ensure that you’re not just getting stuck in that negative zone.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: No. And I don’t think corrections in writing should ever be a negative. I think it’s support. It’s a writing workshop where I’m saying, “Let me give you some advice on how to make this even better.” Years ago, I gave up using a red pen. Years ago. And it’s because people saw red pen and panicked. So even if I wrote something nice with a red pen, students weren’t seeing that.
And so now I just dialogue, I consider it a dialogue. So even when I say this is a run-on sentence, this is what it means, okay, a run-on sentence isn’t good, but I don’t make the student feel like, “She found a mistake, I did something wrong.” No, of course you’re going to make mistakes. You’re human. Welcome to the human race. And so, it’s okay. Make a mistake. I’m going to define it and teach you how to not make that mistake. If you want to learn how not to make that mistake, I’m going to give you that opportunity.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: So, I know we’re getting short on time for our session here or our episode, I’m wondering if we were to pull all this together for some key points that we really want listeners to take away, what would those be?
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Well, I would say the first thing is that writing is never a punishment. So, for anyone out there who thinks I’m going to make you write a theme for doing something wrong, please don’t do that. Writing is the articulation of your innermost heart and your innermost thoughts. And so, what a beautiful gift to give to our students, to teach them how to write in a way that the reader can understand, fully understand, the expression that’s coming from their heart and minds. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is if you think about teaching writing, instead of, one of the things I always say to students is how do you eat an elephant? It’s overwhelming. Think about eating an elephant. It’s about 26,000 Big Mac’s if you sit down to eat an elephant. How do you do it? And eventually someone will say one bite at a time, and that’s it.
So, if you think about the essay like the elephant, how do you do it? It’s one bite at a time. So, you teach the building blocks. Let’s start with a simple thesis statement, it’s one sentence. One. We can write that. And when they do it, well done, let’s go on the next building block until they get to the essay. It doesn’t take that long to do it that way.
And then, finally, as we’re looking over it and providing feedback, remember feedback is not a “gotcha.” It’s not a moment of “you made a mistake and I’m going to point it out.” That’s not what it’s for. A feedback is to help the student improve. I’m going to give you the key that if use it you can unlock a more fluid, more interesting, more understandable writing style. And as teachers of writing, you’re not editors. So, when you are grading it, your feedback is a dialogue between you and the student. You’re not an editor, save that for the publishing companies.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Nice. I think that’s going to help a lot of our listeners relax a little bit, realizing they don’t have to catch every little thing that’s wrong with someone’s writing.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Bethanie, some of the things that are wrong is what makes the writing good. So, we teach the rules all the time, but I always say to students, “When you’re really good at writing, when you learn all the rules, then you could break the rules, and that makes your writing special.”
So sometimes, when I write, I know what a fragment is, an incomplete sentence, but when I write creatively, I use a lot of fragments in my writing. And it’s not a mistake there. It’s intentional. And the reader knows that I know how to write a complete sentence. So, when I write a fragment, it’s for reason, it’s to pay attention here, I’m breaking the rules. And so, I think if we look at the idiosyncrasy that everybody brings to their own specific writing, I think, in the end that ends up being beautiful.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Yes, it does. Well, Dr. Fowler, I want to thank you for being with us today. It’s been a true pleasure to hear your thoughts about writing, but also your enthusiasm. You’re really inspiring to speak with because you have this energy about writing and it’s not this overwhelming thing, when you’re sharing all these points, it’s very encouraging. And I hope our listeners today will take that away and be able to apply that in their online work and their online teaching with students and just spread the wealth about how much fun this can be and how not overwhelming it can also be.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Bethanie, writing is always hard, even when you love to do it. The hardest part is starting. But once you start, you move.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Sounds so true. Thank you again for being here. And we’re going to say goodbye to our listeners and wish them all the best in their online teaching this coming week. This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for The Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.