Tag: English 12

Reading Difficult Material

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A few years ago I read a translation of Paul Ricoeur’s book, Oneself as Another.  This was some hard reading; I felt like I didn’t understand a word.  I needed to understand this book so I read and re-read it, word by word, paragraph by paragraph.  It worked.  I eventually used two of the chapters in a paper I wrote about zombies.  What follows are two entries I included in the annotated bibliography for this paper.

What is remarkable about these entries is that, reading them now, I have no idea what they mean, but at the time I understood them so well that I nuanced one of my professors reading of them.

Ricoeur, Paul. Trans. Kathleen Blamey. “Personal Identity and Narrative Identity.” Oneself as Another. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Narrative mediates between the descriptive viewpoint of action and the prescriptive viewpoint of ethics. Idem-identity or sameness is associated with the question, “What am I?”  It can be understood as numerical identity: different occurrences—events—of the same; qualitative identity is extreme resemblance; and the third component of sameness is uninterrupted continuity across change which becomes permanence in time. Ipse-identity is linked to the question, “Who am I?” It includes both character and “keeping one’s word” or (self-constancy), which also becomes permanence in time as opposed to permanence of the same. Character is essential to both, but in idem-identity it is descriptive (structural), and in ipse-identity it is emblematic. Narrative mediates between character, where idem and ipse-identity overlap, and the maintenance of self, where they can diverge. Ricoeur holds in opposition self-constancy (keeping one’s word) and character, and by doing so he highlights the ethical dimension of self-hood.


Ricoeur, Paul. Trans. Kathleen Blamey. “The Self and Narrative Identity.” Oneself as Another. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

The identity of character is constructed by emplotment. Between action and character we find a conflict: the demand for concordance and the admission of discordance. The act of configuration mediates between the two. Within character we see the same conflict: a “dialectic of discordant concordance.” Within narrative, narrative identity is challenged with the imaginative variations that narrative engenders. When a character is confronted with these variations we find an interplay between self-hood as sameness and the pure self-hood of self-constancy—narrative mediates between the two in that it connects these opposite poles in the narrative circle.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”Don’t give up on reading something, just because it’s hard.  You can understand difficult academic texts, and Shakespeare.  You can get to the point of enjoying the classic novels.  Like anything else worthwhile, it will take work. #Reading” quote=”Don’t give up on reading something, just because it’s hard.  You can understand difficult academic texts, and Shakespeare.  You can get to the point of enjoying the classic novels.  Like anything else worthwhile, it will take work.”]

For my students, let this be an encouragement to you.  Don’t give up on reading something, just because it’s hard.  You can understand difficult academic texts, and Shakespeare.  You can get to the point of enjoying the Brontes and their contemporaries.  Like anything else worthwhile, it will take work–grit.

Can I Please Have an Extension?

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This is a post for my students and their parents.  I’ve received emails from frustrated parents because I was hesitant to grant a request for an extension on a writing assignment.  Here I explain my refusal, not just to justify myself, but also to provide information so that parents and students can proactively avoid the circumstances that cause the frustration in the first place.

I have explained my two-draft system for teaching academic writing.  It’s a great system because student writing improves significantly, but it comes at a cost.  There is so much marking to do, and it’s the hardest kind of marking–the kind where I must give meaningful feedback.

When I started this two-draft system, my marking was inefficient.  Today a class set of papers takes me 16 hours, a few years ago is was closer to 24.  I was marking for two weeks solid, as the papers trickled in.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”Here’s the thing about marking–if you mark 10 papers in one session, it will take just less than 2 hours.  If you mark those same papers one at a time, It will take you over 3. #education #assessment #marking #teaching” quote=”Here’s the thing about marking–if you mark 10 papers in one session, it will take just less than 2 hours.  If you mark those same papers one at a time, It will take you over 3.”]

I didn’t want to abandon the whole system because student writing was improving, but I needed to streamline the process and get the marking under control.  Now, I’ve done it.  Not only is my marking down to 16 hours for a set of papers, but I am seeing even better writing from students as a result of these changes.

The changes place some more responsibility on students.

Managing the Marking

Right now I have nearly 60 English 12 students, and I’m marking most papers twice.

In order to make the marking more manageable, I have established a due date/time for the first draft.  This date is firm.  If the paper comes in on time, I mark it.  I stop when I finish the last one.  If a paper comes in after this, I won’t even see it.

The papers are always due on Saturday at 8 am.  Remember, there is no requirement to turn in the first draft, but if you want the feedback this is the one condition.  You have to turn it in for me to mark it.  And I mark on Saturday.

It takes 10-12 minutes to mark each paper. I usually get around 45-50 first draft papers.

This adds up to about 10 hours of marking.  In order to get the papers back to students as fast as possible, I mark them all that day.  I mark until I have no more papers.  I’m not going to check in on Sunday to pick up any stragglers.

I have a due date/time for the second and final copy of the paper.  This time is also firm.  If a first draft paper has been submitted, this second draft is optional.  If a student wants me to mark their re-write, they need to turn it in, on time of course.  If I don’t get a paper, I assume the student has chosen to take the mark they earned on the first draft.

Sharing the Cost

Student writing has improved so much, that I regularly have students return years later to thank me for preparing them so well for university writing.  Their success is due in part to this two draft system.  But this success comes at a cost. The cost is shared by the students and myself.  The price I pay is giving up specific Saturdays to provide thorough, valuable and immediate feedback on first drafts and then marking them all again.  The student’s cost is they must turn in their best work by the time I get to the last paper.

All this isn’t as harsh as it sounds.  High school papers are a long time in development.  We work on them for 3 to 4 weeks.  We’ve had discussions and done activities that help the student to understand the task.  I do all I can to get students started with a clear sense of direction.  Writing can start more than 2 weeks before the due date.  There is time enough to write the paper.

Not all students start early enough.  They are busy with other things, many of them worthwhile.  The week before the paper is due, those who haven’t started predictably begin to experience stress.  This motivates, but some students are involved in a lot of things and haven’t yet developed a system by which they can both be busy and get their school work finished.

Some of these will ask for an extension.


I will, of course, give an extension for significant illness or an unanticipated family crisis–these are unplanned an unavoidable.  I will also give students more time if they started their paper early and have been diligently working for weeks and still need more time.  I usually have a pretty good idea as to who these students are.

I am very reluctant to give extensions because of a lack of time management.  I totally understand why they want one.  I understand why the parents are frustrated with me for not giving one.  I get it–in the week before the due date, the student has three shifts at Tim Horton’s, the hay needs to be taken off before the rain, there’s grandpa’s 75th birthday party, volleyball practices, piano lessons, and a Taylor Swift concert.  There are tears and frustration–even yelling.  All could be well if only Mr. De Jong would give an extension.

This is when I get the email.

By making the paper a priority, and starting early, the busiest student can get a decent draft of a paper completed in two weeks.  Students take between 4 and 12 hours to write a large paper.  They know how long it takes them.  If they are busy and slow, they must start earlier, and take every 30 minutes where they can get it.  They have to say “No” to Starbuck’s and Hockey Night in Canada for two weeks.  This is the price they must pay if they want feedback.

Remember, there is an extension built into my system–there is no obligation to turn in the first draft–it’s completely optional.  They don’t even have to inform me.  They can decide to take an automatic 5-day extension.

All Decisions Come at a Price

Who should pay the price for a student’s involvement in the school play or the missions trip?  Or the hockey game or rock concert?  Almost all students accept the fact that they ought to pay the bulk of the costs for their decisions–for the good ones as well as the bad.  All decisions demand a price.  It’s a fact of life.  Deciding to go on a leadership trip to our nation’s capital is good, but it will cost you.  Many students pay this cost by organizing their schedule in such a way so as to submit the first draft before they leave–that’s five days early.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”Students ought to pay for their decisions–for the good ones as well as the bad.  All decisions demand a price.  It’s a fact of life. #education #teachingwriting” quote=”Students ought to pay for their decisions–for the good ones as well as the bad.  All decisions demand a price.  It’s a fact of life.”]

I usually deny a student’s request for an extension because they are, in effect, asking me to negate the natural consequences of the decisions they made.  Someone must pay the price, but they’d rather not be the one that pays it.

What lessons will they learn by a refusal of an extension?  What lessons will they learn by a granting of same?

“It’s only one paper.”

One exception will quickly turn into 10 and I’d be back where I stared–an additional eight hours of marking spread out over two weeks.  I’d go back to students turning in one paper and cut down on the comments.  I’d be doing things just like my high school teachers.  And most students wouldn’t become better writers.

“What about grace.”

I worry about the lessons that are learned if I give an extension.  I think the most gracious thing to do, long term, is to deny the extension.  The kids that are busy need to learn how to manage busyness–their life won’t get less busy when they get to post-secondary or move into their career.  I’d also hate to think what a child learns when they don’t pay the price for their decisions.

“It’s not fair.”

59 other students are paying the price of their own choices.  Is it fair that one does not?


An Effective Approach to Teaching Writing

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When I went to school, students would turn in their major papers by the due date, or lose 10% per day for 5 days and then they’d get a zero.  When the papers were returned 2 or 3 weeks later, we’d ignore the underlined spelling mistakes, the little circles where the commas should have been, and the few comments written in red ink.  We’d just look at the mark at the top and toss the paper in the trash.  Funny thing, I got exactly the same mark on all of my English papers — a B.  I was happy with that.

I went to university without a clue as to how to use a comma, let alone write a paper.  I took only one English class in university–it was the basic one for people who were unprepared for university writing.  I didn’t earn close to a B.  There were many sections of this course; apparently my case was not unique.

Somehow I ended up being an English teacher.

Perhaps a lot of the responsibility for my failings as a high school writer rest with me, but I vowed that I would do anything I could to make sure that what happened to me, didn’t happen to my students.  To fulfill this promis, I would have to take a different approach to teaching students how to write.

Improving Student Writing

The first thing I did was eliminate was the deduction of 10% per day for late assignments.  Marks measure competence, and if they are used as punishment they no longer measure competence.  For the same reason, I don’t give zeros for assignments that are not turned in.  Another reason for my No Zero Policy is that I don’t think students have the right to decide to not to do the work and still pass the class.

The major feature of my system for teaching academic writing is to have students submit an early draft of their paper on which they receive detailed feedback.  They then immediately revise and resubmit their paper.

Students can turn a first draft.  This is optional, but most students choose to do it because they get a lot of individual feedback.  They receive a mark out of six on six different categories: 1st Paragraph (thesis), Analysis, Format, Organization, Expression, Conventions (grammar, punctuation, etc.).  They also receive a lot of comments. I usually return the papers within 12 hours of the time it was due.

Based on this feedback, students can make revisions and resubmit the paper.

The students who did not turn in the first draft, for one reason or another, receive feedback as well.  I dedicate a good part of the next class to going over the general issues I noticed in the drafts that I marked.  This feedback helps all students improve in their paper writing.

There are those who don’t turn in either draft.  These cases are referred to a Vice-Principal who employs any number of strategies that helps students get their work done.

Benefits to the Student:

  1. Higher marks: The second drafts are better than the first so the marks are higher.  Although students like the higher marks, this is not the most important benefit.  They’ve actually earned the higher marks because the papers are so much better.
  2. Better Writers:  Students are actually working with my feedback–trying to understand and apply it to their writing.  I don’t begrudge my high school teachers for writing little of significance on my papers, because they knew I wasn’t going to read their comments anyway.  I love it that my comments are read, even scrutinized, and then applied to significant effect.
  3. Immediate feedback:  Within 12 hours of turning in the paper students know what they can do to improve the next draft.  By making improvements to a paper just written, student learning improves. This is so much more effective than having to remember the comments on a paper written a month before and apply them to the new one.

How to Flourish

There are a few things that students need to understand in order to get the most out of this approach, to take full advantage of the learning opportunities.

  1. Use class time efficiently.  Class discussions, group discussions, and assignments all help with understanding the material on which the papers are written.  Take careful notes on the discussions.  All of the points you will make in your paper, are discussed, explored and referenced in class.  This is especially important for busy people and those who struggle to understand more conceptual content.
  2.  Start work on your first draft early.  Make the paper a priority.  If you are having a hard time getting your head wrapped around the task talk to me.
  3. If you have a lot of other things happening in the weeks before the due date, establish a work plan for completing the paper and keeping up with your other commitments.
  4. Turn in the best first draft you can.  The feedback you receive will be far more impactful on your learning if you submit your best work.  For the same reason, turn in a complete paper, including citations and a Works Cited page.
  5. If you can’t turn in the whole paper, turn in what you have.  I can give you a lot of good feedback on the first two paragraphs and a Works Cited page.  Just turn in these.  Just a caution, though–you will have more work to write your second draft.
  6. Don’t ask for an extension: If you do the above, you will learn a lot more and an extension will be completely unnecessary.

Read, “But can I please have an extension?”

Synthesis essay

In British Columbia there is an exam in English 12.  It’s on the way out, and it will be replaced with a Literacy Assessment.  Both of these assessments have a major essay where students are expected to synthesize the contents of two or more pieces of writing while responding to a specific prompt.

Here are 8 tips to help you write your best essay.

1. Understand the texts

One of the things this assessment is trying to determine is the degree to which you understand what you read.  Misunderstanding one of the texts is not good, so here are a few suggestions to help you understand the texts.

  1. Thoughtfully answer the multiple choice questions.  One or more of these will often indicate the points at which a text might be misunderstood.  If you think these questions over carefully, you may be turned toward the correct interpretation.
  2. Read the texts more than once.  Slower readers might not be able to give both texts a second thorough reading, but give each a quick re-read to see if you come up with better insights the second time.  This is particularly important for the poem, as poetry is generally denser than prose.

2. Address the prompt

If you don’t address the prompt, you get a zero.  So, address it, and don’t be subtle about it either; be really clear you are doing what you are asked to do.

Most of the time, the prompt will ask you to compare and/or contrast some aspect of the two pieces: How are two things similar–themes, characters, etc.? Which shows more preparation, dedication, courage, etc.?  Sometimes you will be asked to discuss how a character or the author in one reading would respond to something in the other selection.

I strongly suggest you annotate the prompt–pause for a moment and highlight the key words in the prompt and make sure you clearly understand your task.

Do what the prompt asks.

Don’t do something else:

    • Don’t evaluate goals.
    • Don’t write about conflict.
    • Don’t write about need.
    • Don’t write about determination.
    • Don’t write about nature.
    • Don’t write about diction, literary devices, or imagery.
    • Don’t write about what you’d do.

Even though selections may nicely lend to one or more of the above, resist the temptation and limit your discussion to the prompt.

3. Introduction and Thesis

The introduction need not be long.  You want to set up your thesis statement and in doing so, name the selections and identify the authors.

Your thesis statement comes at the end of your introductory paragraph.  The thesis statement is key.  And it’s all about the prompt.  Your thesis statement is the answer to the question implied in the prompt.

Consider this prompt:

Discuss the qualities that Erik Weihenmayer in “Blindly He Goes…Up” and Uncle Jim in “Versabraille” share in facing their challenges.

The implied question is. What qualities do Erik Weihenmayer and Uncle Jim share in facing challenged?

Your thesis statement, then, will be something like this:

When facing challenges, both Erik Weihenmayer and Uncle Jim are courageous, resourceful, and motivated.

With a thesis statement like this, you have almost certainly avoided a zero, and are well on the way to achieving at least a  16/24 on this question.

A last note about your thesis statement: don’t over state your thesis.  If the prompt ask you to assess which selection shows more courage, don’t say that the one is courageous and one is a complete coward.  The thing to remember is that both sides are usually defensible.  Good readers and writers understand nuance.   You will most likely argue that while they both show a lot of courage, ______________ shows more because ______________ .

3. Body Paragraphs–BE SPECIFIC!

This essay must be multi-paragraph.  The instructions explain that this means “3 or more paragraphs.”  Although it all depends on your thesis, you should be thinking in terms of at least four paragraphs.

Your English teachers have probably talked about topic sentences for years.  Now is the time to use them.  The first sentence in each paragraph will deal with some aspect of your thesis statement.  Using the above example, your first body paragraph will be about how each, Erik Weihenmayer and Uncle Jim, exhibits courage; the second will be about the resourcefulness they share, and the third will explore the high degree of motivation we see in each.

Support for your assertions must be specific.  In what specific circumstances was Uncle Jim courageous?  How exactly do his actions indicate he is courageous?

If you know how to use “run-in” or integrated  quotations, do so.  If you don’t, pay attention to these lessons in class.

Your paragraphs need to be a balance between references to the text and an explanation as to how they support your analysis.  A lawyer will not just hold up an evidence bag containing a bloody knife with fingerprints.  She will also explain how this evidence points to the plaintiff’s guilt.  You too will need to provide evidence for your assertions, but you will also need to provide an explanation as to how this evidence supports your assertions.

4. Organization

There are two basic approaches to organizing your essay: block and point-by-point.



Paragraph discussing Erik W’s courage, resourcefulness, motivation

Paragraph discussing Uncle Jim’s courage, resourcefulness, motivation




Body paragraph discussing courage of Uncle Jim and Erik W.

Body paragraph discussing resourcefulness of Uncle Jim and Erik W.

Body paragraph discussing motivation of Uncle Jim and Erik W.


Sometimes the combination of the prompt and the literary selections lend themselves toward using block, other times toward point-by-point, but generally, average writers use the block and stronger writers use point-by-point.  Point-by-point can allow for a more sophisticated synthesis, but it should only be used by a writer that is capable of this level of synthesis.  After you read the prompt and the selections, make up your mind which you think would generate the best essay for you to write.

Make sure you use transitions between your paragraphs.

5. Synthesize!

The danger of the block organization is that you will write about both pieces, but fail to synthesize.  One solution to this issue is to have a good thesis statement–one that explicitly answers the prompt.  If you do this, at least one sentence in your essay is bringing the two passages into dialogue, so you’ve likely avoided the zero.

Synthesis in a point-by-point essay will happen automatically.

Most of the synthesis in the block approach occurs in the second body paragraph.  In your discussion of the second text, regularly refer back to your discussion of the first text in support your topic sentence/thesis statement.

6. Don’t do Summary

As you discuss each selection in the body of the essay, don’t spend too much time summarizing the plot, or retelling what the poem says, or rehashing the ideas in the article.  Your audience, the markers, know exactly what happens in each.

Your task is to answer the prompt/prove your thesis.  Use the text to complete this task.  By summarizing what occurs in the story, poem or article, you may accidentally also address the prompt, but this sort of incidental success will be far less effective than a focused discussion of your thesis.

7. Nuts and Bolts

  • The exam instructions give a 300-word minimum.   With a decent thesis statement and adequate explanation, your essay will be about 600 words.
  • For this exam, you will be reading a story, an article, and a poem.  Make sure you refer to them with the proper label.  Narrative, excerpt or informational text work as well when appropriately applied.  It is usually not appropriate to call any of these passages a novel.
  • Use the word, but use synonyms as well.  “The word” is the main word in the prompt.  Upper-level writers will use this term sparingly, replacing it with appropriate synonyms.
  • Know the difference between then and than – if you don’t know the difference, go with than.  Because this is usually a comparison essay, that will be the right one most of the time.

8. Don’t write like this

Control of language is a clear indicator of a good writer.  Here is a sample of student writing:

It is only through close examination that the revelation of qualities shared by the protagonists becomes apparent.  It is through examination of the two stories that the reader understands . . .

This writer has said nothing in these 30 words.

The best way to get a six is to be a good writer who has the ability to read between the lines for or above the lines of the text.  But regardless of how good a writer you are, these tips will help you earn the highest possible score on the English 12 provincial exam and the future literacy exam.

See also: How to Write a Great Composition


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