Book Review - Shape Learning, Reshape Teaching #writing


A few weeks ago, perhaps longer, Linda Aragoni was kind enough to share a free copy of her book, Shape Learning, Reshape Teaching: An English Teacher's Guide to Using Informal Writing with Teens and Adults. Since I've been in the midst of a transition from one job to the next, I saved the PDF in an ultra-secret location and then promptly forgot where.

After a few days of peering through my encrypted storage devices, I stumbled upon Linda's book and immediately copied it to my iPad for reading. Below, you will find my reflections on the book, recommendation for who should buy the book, and my notes (take-aways) from Linda's book on writing. 

Reflection and Recommendation
The idea of learning a structure that facilitates "writing to learn" in the classroom--or anywhere--has great potential, and for more than just English teachers. One of the key points in the author's foreword should have warned me that the content used to illustrate the structure might be less than engaging:
To foster deep learning and efficient teaching, all the writing students do in a class should be on topics that are authentic to the course. Just as students must to write about biology in papers for biology class, in English they should write about English topics. Far from being limiting, that requirement yields hundreds of topics that are timely, immediately relevant to students and often fun besides.
In the text, the author focuses on writing about English grammar in almost 100% of the examples. These examples are used to illustrate development of informal writing prompts that, page after page, focus on grammar instruction. As such, this narrows who might actually be interested in this book to English teachers.  Instead, Aragoni focuses on activities that are grammar-centered.

The book also ends abruptly, has several minor errors--such as omitting the word "to" in several locations--that suggest the book is still in unfinished format. Suggestions for improvement include re-editing the text, and crafting a narrative up front--an engaging story--of how to best approach informal writing prompt development in the classroom. I found myself hungry for more "story," or insights into how students were experiencing the use of informal writing prompts. Those may appear in a second edition after teachers have had a chance to use it in the field.

Those criticisms aside, Linda Aragoni offers some specific ideas of why crafting of informal writing prompts can be helpful to teachers and students when done well. She also clearly elaborates on the procedure for developing informal writing. To get a balanced perspective, I encourage you to read some of the comments other reviewers have provided for inclusion on the book's web site, not just mine.

Given the heavy grammatical focus of the text, this book would best be purchased by teachers of English or English as a second language. And, since that's the intended audience, the book may find a treasured spot on those teachers' bookshelves.

Most of these notes are quotes from the book. Anything in square brackets are my suggestions for inclusion in the text for readability or notes about the text.
  1. ...rather than give a list of informal writing prompts teachers could copy and paste into their lesson plans, I've tried [to] show teachers how [to] develop informal writing prompts to shape student learning and reshape their own teaching.
  2. Informal writing is a learning strategy, not a writing strategy.
  3. Write to learn prompts are specific subset of informal writing prompts whose primary use is to help students master some important and difficult topic.
  4. [The author defines the vocabulary she's going to use through the book...I'm not sure if other words could be used to describe the concepts she's introducing.]
  5. I have reservations about having students use cell phone text messages for informal writing. ALthough many informal responses will be short enough for a text message,texting doesn't lend itself to skills writing teachers should encourage, such as writing in complete sentences, avoiding texting shorthand, and proofreading work. I personally feel it is a poor use of time to require students to write without insisting on a basic level of writing performance; others may have a different perspective.
  6. [Write to learn acitivities focused on grammar...ugh. I'm starting to have flashbacks to old style textbooks where the focus was learning grammar, then matching writing to the grammar lesson...for example, today we learned about adjectives; now, write a sentence with adjectives].
  7. Procedure for developing informal writing:
    1. Determine appropriate topics
    2. Consider response technologies
    3. Set participation standards
    4. Establish a tracking mechanism
    5. Make prompt retrievable
    6. Test prompts by writing responses
    7. Prepare students to participate
    8. Use the prompts
    9. Give feedback to students
    10. Evaluate the prompts
  8. [no conclusion or ending chapter]
Obviously, there's a lot more to the book that's not included in my notes. You can order the book online and find out what's missing from my review!

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Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin's blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure


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