Mini-lesson idea: Avoiding first-person point of view in academic essays

Photo by Christina Morillo from Pexels

For the most part, it’s an easy fix.

It’s nice when a common issue you know your students have with writing can be easily remedied. This is one of them: avoiding unintentional and unnecessary first-person point of view in academic writing.

For the most part, the first-person words can simply be removed with… wait for it… NO ADDITIONAL CHANGES.

Easy-peasy.

In the “before” photo below (from a literary analysis of The Old Man and the Sea), I’ve underlined the first-person verbiage that needs to be removed for three reasons: 1) it doesn’t accomplish anything, 2) it’s not intentional (meaning it’s not used for any desired effect), and 3) it has no purpose.

Project these examples in a mini-lesson to show a student-written mentor text:

In the “after” photo below, the student had to merely remove those first- person references to infuse his writing with more authority and credibility.

Here are those changes again, but now removed from their context:

  • “…and I think they are right;…”
  • “Instead, I believe the religious aspect doesn’t change…”
  • “We have one story in which…” changes to “There is one story in which…”

But to back up a bit… why is first-person point of view so objectionable in the first place?

I usually take the traditional view that using unintentional and inappropriate first-person point of view in academic writing lends an air of opinion to the writing… and therefore, some bias… and therefore, some weakness to the argument. When the first-person references are removed, the message is more direct and convincing.

At the same time, first-person point of view does have its place, even in academic writing. Above all, first-person point of view should be used with a sense of purpose, especially with regard to the intended audience of the piece.

And that’s the problem. With the example in the photos above, this student didn’t foresee the effect of using the first-person.

She just plopped those words into the text without thought or intention.

Purpose and intention are key. As this handout from Duke University advises:

Finally, academic writers should consider their audience and message when employing the first person and/or the personal voice.

What is an appropriate tone to take with regard to a certain topic? What is one’s own relationship to the subject at hand? For example, if one is writing about the Holocaust or a natural disaster, it may not be appropriate to cite personal material unless it is directly relevant and can be included in a respectful manner. On the other hand, when writing about topics such as race or gender, one’s own experience(s) of living in a racialized/gendered society may be not only appropriate but even necessary to include. Academic writers must decide whether, when, and where first-person references and the personal voice are appropriate to their message and their audience.

“The First Person in Academic Writing”; Thompson Writing Program at Duke University

In other words, writers must be intentional and weigh their options with point of view, try out different perspectives, revise, and make the needed changes… often only to go back to the original version after all.

Basically, choosing point of view in any written piece is a judgment call.

And that’s why teaching writing is so hard. It’s full of judgment calls,…

and it takes time to make them… more time than kids want to invest, unless they genuinely care about the assignment. (Learning how to create assignments that kids genuinely care about is another blog post entirely.)

Then and only then will students be willing to take the time to get the perspective intentionally and purposefully right.

Until that time, though, know that removing first person POV — when it’s unintentional and unnecessary — can be as easy as deleting a few words and leaving the rest as is.

Ahhhh. Like I said, easy-peasy.


Thanks for reading! Do you grapple with this common, hard-to-explain issue with your students? Tell me your approach by leaving a comment. While this post shows my best effort to help kids with this, I’m open to your suggestions, as always. Check out this recent post and become a follower for more.

Friday Eve Photo: Protocol Peer Review Groups for High School Students

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Students in my English III classes follow a structured peer review process called Protocol Peer Review Groups (PPRG). I learned about this procedure several years ago at a PD conference sponsored by Ozarks Writing Project. Follow my blog to catch an upcoming post (working on it now!) that will outline this process so you can use it in your classroom. PPRG was a mainstay of revision in my previous middle school classes and I was happy with how it was received recently by my high schoolers. I love how PPRG gets students talking about their work and offering suggestions using academic language. 


Thanks for reading! Have a great weekend and feel free to leave a comment about how your students peer review in your classroom or about your experience with this particular method, PPRG. Here’s a link to another recent post: My Article of the Week Rubric.

Sometimes poetry can teach better than I can

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Take word choice, for example

Last December, when I read a student’s second draft of their Treasured Object poem and saw that it contained the word “get” four times, I thought Really? Get? Four times? 

It surprised me because I thought I had taught not only sentence variety, but word variety as well. It’s good to vary our words. Yes, a writer can repeat certain words in order to:

However, many times using the same word repeatedly —- especially a vague one like “get” — is simply a sign of lazy writing.

Here’s the second draft that a student turned in during our fall writer’s workshop:

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“Get” is a weak, vague verb as it is. And then to have four in the same short poem! Arghghgh!

In our writer’s workshop process, I simply make a few suggestions for revisions and edits on a student’s second draft. I address the most glaring issue that will help the writer improve for his or her third (and usually final) draft. In this case, the most glaring issue was the overuse of  “get.”

I circled the four “gets” and in the margins, I wrote “Replace weak verbs.” When I returned it to the student, we talked briefly. I suggested his poem would be stronger with a variety of powerful verbs mainly because the reader wouldn’t be distracted and pulled out of the poem by all the “gets.”

Here’s the student’s third and final draft:

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The poem is much stronger, don’t you think?

Sometimes it just takes a little more time to think of a better word. 

I also wondered to myself how this poem was the student’s second draft. How did the student who gave him feedback on his first draft not catch this obvious issue? Lazy editing?

Probably, I thought, acknowledging that enabling students to provide effective feedback is still one area in my high school writer’s workshop process that needs improvement.

This poem allowed a quick fix for a common problem. And it caused the unnecessary repetition to be readily recognized and quickly and effectively repaired. This is yet another reason I like teaching poetry. It truly does teach some concepts more efficiently than I can.


Thanks for reading again this week! How is your poetry practice? Do you encourage and/or assign students to write poems? Do tell. And by the way, my next post will focus on the “Treasured Object” poem. I love this easy-to-write poem that allows students to get personal and write about a belonging they wouldn’t part with for the world. Follow my blog to catch my next post!

 

 

 

How to teach students what “be specific” means

It’s about naming things

Photo by Emiliano Vittoriosi on Unsplash

Be specific!

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written that on my students’ essays, poems, and narratives. They know the importance of adding relevant details and crystal clear descriptions to their writing. We talk about it all the time, after all. In fact, “add more detail” and “be more descriptive” are the top two comments I hear them saying to each other during peer review groups. However, for some reason, kids still often neglect to be specific.

Maybe they don’t recognize “vagueness” in their own writing. Maybe they’re in a rush and don’t see the value in taking the extra time that being specific takes.

Maybe it’s late the night before their essay is due and, as a result, they’ve lowered their standards.

The loosey-goosey thoughts that make it into their first drafts—however general and lackluster— are good enough to turn in at the last minute. Whatever.

Last fall, I came upon a chapter in Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories and discovered a helpful section on the merits of being specific in writing. By “being specific” Roorbach means putting a name to the objects, things and people in our writing.

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This is an awesome book that I’ve found helpful (like REALLY helpful) in my classroom.

For example, if one mentions a tree, Roorbach suggests being exact. Is it an oak? maple? pine? If possible, he suggests going further. Is it a chinquapin oak? silver-leaf maple? lodgepole pine? If one mentions Dad’s car, Roorbach suggests identifying the exact car: Dad’s brown 1995 Subaru Forester or his sleek, brand-new silver Prius.

Roorbach stresses that “naming is knowing.” Putting a clear and precise label to the objects in our writing lends credibility and a subtle authenticism to our writing. (He also discusses how determining the exact name of something—a particular flower, for example—may help writers discover unexpected revelations about their pasts. Seriously, check out this book!)

I notice that in my own writing I will often add the specific labels to things on the later drafts of a piece. I often do this work intentionally, taking care to notice generalities as I read and re-read, and re-read again.

It’s amazing how much richer and concrete and visible my writing is when I follow Roorbach’s advice and specifically name things in my own writing.

So with Roorbach’s book in hand, I created a mini-lesson for class. Maybe this time, I thought, with the help of Roorbach’s down-to-earth and eloquent text, students will understand what I mean when I write “Be specific” in the margins of their papers.

For the mini-lesson, I decided to read aloud from Roorbach’s “Naming is Knowing” exercise. Everyone agreed that the specific examples given in the text were effective revisions of the more general originals.

I asked the kids to keep this in mind as they wrote that day…

“Don’t just say that you put on your clothes; be specific. Name the clothes. Say you put on your bright white NASA hoodie and a faded pair of jeans. “

About two days later, a student named Jacob dropped a poem into my second drafts box during writer’s workshop. I read it, noticing that it was about a trip to Florida he took last summer with his family. The poem mentioned finding “a coin,” “finding “a food,” and visiting “the museum” and finding “something” there.

Here we go again, I thought. More vague writing.

I asked Jacob, “Remember when we talked a couple of days ago about how it makes sense to be as specific as possible and put a name to things when we write so readers can visualize our stories better?” He nodded. I inquired what kind of coin he found; he replied “a Spanish medallion.” I asked him what exactly he found at the museum; he said “a Honus Wagner baseball card.” I asked him about the food mentioned in the poem; he replied “chicken Alfredo.”

Try naming those things in your poem, I suggested.

He returned several minutes later with another draft, this one much more specific, much more visual, and much more effective.

“Yes! You did it!” I told him after reading his revision. “This is what we were talking about!”

I asked him if I could use his drafts in class the next day to show everyone how much more visual his second draft was. He agreed and printed copies of his poem’s “before and after” versions.

I placed them side by side on a sheet of paper and ran off copies for everyone. The following day we revisited our “naming” lesson and with Jacob’s poems in front of them, everyone readily was able to see the difference between vague writing and specific writing: it all has to do with naming things.

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The next day, I asked Jacob to read both poems aloud. After that, we all discussed how effective the changes were and the consensus was that the “after” version was definitely the draft we all preferred. Why? Because we could visualize the Spanish medallion (someone said it was probably all crusty and gross) much more clearly than we could visualize a coin. We could taste the chicken Alfredo. And of course, we all knew that a Lamborghini is the ultimate fancy car.

Of course, being seventh-graders, the added details spurred conversations about coins that kids had found or lost. Practically every kid in the room said they loved chicken Alfredo.

I guess all that conversation proves that specific writing resonates.

Being specific helps readers connect better with the writing and, in the end, that’s what it’s all about.

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I made this slide on my Smartboard using a quote from the exercise on “Naming is Knowing” in Bill Roorbach’s book, Writing Life Stories.

One student asked,  “What if the extra detail seems distracting?”

I acknowledged her smart observation and advised her to play around with being specific. Yes, it’s entirely possible to have misplaced detail, I told her. If that’s the case, she as the writer then has a decision to make. For example, if it seems distracting and irrelevant to know that you wore a bright white NASA hoodie, then leave it out and go general.

But try naming and being specific first, I told her because you never know until you try. Plus, you can always change it back later, I added.

I feel as if I’ve finally hit on something when it comes to teaching kids to write specifically: it’s about naming things.

Since teaching this “Naming is Knowing” mini-lesson—with the help of Roorbach and Jacob’s examples— my students better understand how to add relevant, visual details and names to the people and objects in their writing. It’s nice to know that they finally understand what “Be specific” really means.


Thanks for reading again this week! Click “like” if you learned something with this post and feel free to follow my blog for more posts like this one. How do you teach your students to be specific in their writing?