Friday 7 November 2014

Free Persuasive Essay Topics

One of my continuously popular posts has been some suggested persuasive essay topics. However, these go back a few years and may be dated. So I think it's time to suggest a few new persuasive essay topics.

First, let's review what a good persuasive essay topic looks like. It should be a topic that has two sides. Rational people could disagree. I asked a grade 8 class to write a persuasive essay. After showing the way the essay should address two points of view and make a decision favoring one of them, one student wanted to write about "Smoking is bad." I felt that this topic was a little weak, so I suggested that a good persuasive essay topic calls for action. He decided to change his topic to "Smoking should be banned." This is a better topic because arguments can be made against banning smoking. For example, people have the right to choose. A good persuasive essay topic is good because it requires the writer and reader to evaluate points of view and beliefs into a hierarchy. Which is more important? Public health or freedom of choice?

Unfortunately, my student decided to change his topic to "Civet cats are awesome." Now, while I have no particular opinion on civet cats, I don't think their awesomeness is a particularly good persuasive essay. There is no call to action. There is no hierarchy of values. No one can argue that they are not awesome, because even if you think penguins are awesome, there's no reason why both animals can't be considered awesome. In fact, I don't even know what awesome means or why it is important to evaluate an animal as awesome.

Scouring the headlines for good persuasive essay topics today, the first that comes to mind for citizens of the United States is the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Many people are strongly opposed to this plan, but others support it. Let's suggest some persuasive essay topics on Obamacare.

Obamacare should be repealed, not expanded.
Obamacare should be expanded, not repealed.

Whether you are in favor or Obamacare or opposed to it, most people would agree that individuals need medical care from time to time. The difference in opinion is whether the state has the right to force people to buy medical insurance. The reason the Obamacare makes purchasing insurance mandatory is the young people, who are generally healthy, may prefer to save their money and take the small risk of needing significant medical intervention. Without these people buying insurance, the people who do buy insurance are all at high risk for needing to make claims. This makes the process impossible for the insurance companies who need to spread the risk across many people. In a place like Canada, where the state provides the insurance, everyone is in the same pool and the cost for each person is very low. One of the arguments against state provided health insurance is that people don't want a government bureaucrat making decisions about their health care services. (Why they prefer a private company employee who has an incentive to deny claims, I'll never figure out.) People are also opposed to government involvement in anything that the private sector could provide because they have a fundamental belief that the government should stay out of the free market economy. Whichever side of the debate you choose to write about in a persuasive essay, you should be able to find some informed people who have written on the topic. Make sure you cite the sources correctly in order to give your persuasive arguments some weight.

Global Warming is not as important as economic growth
Carbon dioxide emissions must be restricted to reduce global warming

Now, you might notice that I don't think the topic "Global warming is a hoax" is a good topic. That's because I don't believe any rational person could believe that a conspiracy of scientists is willing to undermine a century of economic progress just to keep their research grants flowing. In fact, any persuasive essay topic that relies on the assumption that a grand conspiracy is afoot is not a credible essay topic. A good persuasive essay topic about global warming would try to evaluate the risks of restricting carbon dioxide against the social justice importance of an industrial economy that people need in order to house themselves and feed their families today. Rational people who oppose restrictions on carbon might believe that a strong economy will be sufficient to be able to fund the mitigation that will be necessary to face a changing climate. They believe it is better to build levees, flood control, irrigation, and even move populations than it is to slow economic growth. Remember, a good persuasive essay isn't about persuading people to accept a lot of brand new facts, it's about persuading people to change the hierarchy of their values, or to recognize that their actions do not reflect the hierarchy of their values. I would argue, in a persuasive essay on global warming, that only industrialized countries have the luxury of debating economic growth against climate change. Poorer countries cannot afford climate change. Are rich countries willing to pay the cost to help other countries adapt? I doubt it. And low lying countries, such as the Maldives, can't adapt. They will be under water.

The most recent military adventure that both Canada and the US have joined in is also a good subject for a persuasive essay.

The West has an obligation to protect people from violent insurgent groups such as ISIS (ISIL)
Military action against insurgencies always has negative unintended consequences, so must be avoided.

If we trace back the conflict between extreme Islamists and the West, I think we will find that a key point in the history is Afghanistan 1980s. Of course, you can go back to the Crusades of the Middle Ages, but I wouldn't say those people were extreme Islamists. They were just people who wanted to live their lives when the Christian West decided they needed to "liberate" the "Holy Land." In Afghanistan in the 1980s, the West funded the rebellion against Soviet occupation. This set in motion the dominoes that culminated in the rise of the Taliban. And the only reason the West chose to fight against the Taliban is that they hosted the forces of Osama bin Laden as they trained for the 911 attacks. I'm not arguing about what the correct response to the 911 attacks should have been. What I'm arguing is that each time we fight against a foreign insurgency, we tend to create something worse. I think a different kind of solution needs to be found. Helping the military insurgency against the Soviets helped create the conditions for the Taliban. Overthrowing the government of Saddam Hussein led to a protracted war in Iraq; the war in Iraq led to a power vacuum which ISIS filled. But other factors led to the rise of ISIS. It partly arose in the chaos of the Syrian civil war, which, was not the West's fault. But undoubtedly the antipathy toward the West felt by many people of the Middle East is due to the West's continued interventions into the political affairs of the Middle East, and that dates back to the Crusades.

OK, but do we have an obligation to act to protect people? You could argue that we do. We are signatories to the UN Human Rights treaties. We believe in the rule of law and in the right of people to believe what they want and worship the way they want. At least some of the violence they perpetrate is wholly objectionable by any reasonable person. But I have to ask: if they were not beheading Western people and putting the videos on Youtube, would be be concerned. The Taliban were stoning women to death for several years before the West decided to topple them, and that was only because of the 911 attacks.

Sunday 2 November 2014

You can't buy a plagiarism-free essay

It's depressing both as an editor and as a teacher to see how many sites are catering to the overwhelming feeling students get as they approach the challenge of essay writing. Of course you feel stressed and it seems difficult. Your life is busy and writing is work. Hard work. But buying an essay isn't the answer. And it's plagiarism.

Don't be fooled by claims by sites that they will write a "plagiarism-free essay." One of the definitions of plagiarism is "passing off someone else's work as your own." If buying an essay isn't "passing off someone else's work as your own," then what is it? The essay could be custom written for you, but that doesn't make it your work.

In addition, these companies crank out thousands of essays. In high school and the early years of university, the topics don't change much. Loneliness in "Of Mice and Men", Compare and Contrast "The Yellow Wallpaper" with "A Well-Worn Path". The Great Gatsby. Shakespeare. Political Theory. History. The topics barely change. So the guy writing your "custom written" essay has probably written the same essay a dozen times. Do you think it's going to be "original"?

Plagiarism checking services like Turnitin use algorithms to check the writing of a paper against their database of millions of papers. (Each paper it checks gets added to the database.) It then cranks out a plagiarism score. Score too high and your essay gets flagged. Even if it's not a duplicate, you could get called down to discuss why your paper is eerily similar to another paper. And if you didn't write the paper, chances are you won't be able to discuss the details of the paper or the thought processes that went into drafting the paper. You'll have no notes and no outline. Schools don't have to live up to the same evidentiary standards as courts. Unless you dad bought them a new library or gym, you could be out on your ear with a transcript that reads "expelled for plagiarism."

An investigation by the Sydney Herald in Australia, revealed numerous incidents of students purchasing papers from a service called MyMaster. Aided by Turnitin, computer algorithms easily identified papers that were not original. Sydney University, one of a number of institutions named in the investigation, launched its own probe to determine the extent of the cheating. You can be sure that many people's academic careers will be permanently scarred by the fall out from this case.

So that's not the only reason to write your own paper. The best reason to write it yourself is to learn how to write. If you are in university or college for the purpose of getting a better job when you graduate, chances are that you are going to be expected to be able to do some research and writing when you graduate. Your idea of what the working world looks like might have been formed from watching TV or movies, but take it from someone who has been working for a living for 30 years, there is actually a lot more than hanging out at the water cooler. If your idea of work is "The Office" then you are in for a rude awakening.

What are you going to do when, as a young office worker, you are asked to write a summary of some business file? What if you get asked to write the office newsletter? What about a business letter to a client? You need to know how to write if you are going to have a degree.

Enough of the gloom and doom. If your essay is due tomorrow and you stumbled onto this blog post searching for a plagiarism-free essay to buy, don't  get too discouraged. Go ask for three days' extension. That's all you need. Here's the plan.

On day 1, do all the background reading you can for the essay. Yeah, that means reading the novel, if that's what you are writing about. Visit enotes, if you must, for an outline and a discussion of the important plot points and symbolism of most literary works. Read Wikipedia (but don't cite it as a source--find really reliable, academic sources). Ask me for free essay writing help, if you need to. TAKE NOTES. Note page numbers and place sticky notes on the pages where something important happens. By the end of the first day, you should have some general idea of what the topic is.

On day 2, start by making an outline of the argument you need to make. IN POINT FORM, jot down all the ideas you have. Try to have one or two ideas per required paragraph (2 paragraphs per page). For each idea, have one citation. Take that outline, and write out all the ideas and citations. One sentence at a time. One sentence after another. Don't stop until you've written it all out. Go back and write an introduction. Use one of these ideas for an introduction.

On day 3, send the essay to me for editing and polishing. Editing is not plagiarism. I can make the necessary grammatical revisions to your research and writing to ensure your essay gets you the grade you deserve. When I return the edited essay (within 24 or 12 hours depending on your choice) review the changes I've made so you can write better next time.

Friday 17 October 2014

Differences between APA and MLA citation styles

APA style and MLA style are both used to document references, but they are formatted slightly differently. Here's a handy chart to tell some of the differences.

Differences Between APA and MLA Citation Styles

Cover PageYes. Centred in the middle of the page, five double spaced lines with
Title of paper,
Name of Author
Course Name,
Course Teacher,
No. In upper left corner, in three double spaced lines:

Name of Author,
Name of Teacher,
Course Name,
Running HeadYes. A shortened version of paper title in upper and lower case in header of every page. On cover page only it is preceded by the words in upper case: RUNNING HEAD. Page number is flush right.Yes. Author's last name, then a space and the page number flush right.
MarginsOne inch all around.One inch all around.
In-text citations(Author_name, year). Comma comes after name and before page. If page number is known, add another comma and then p. + page number. Only use the author's initial if there is more than one author listed in the citation page with the same last name. If the same author has two publications cited in the same year, identify each with a lower case letter (Smith, 2013a) and (Smith, 2013b).(Author_name page). No comma between name and page. Only use author's initial if there are more than one author with the same name in the works cited section. If the author has more than one work in the works cited section use a superscript numeral to connect the in-text citation with the citation on the works cited page (Melville1 45) and (Melville2 678). Sorry, can't make the numbers superscript in html.
Citation FormatUse past tense to describe research findings: "Jones (2013) said widgets are dangerous when wet."Use present tense to describe statements made in cited works. "Eliot says April is the cruelest month."
Reference PageCenter the title "References"Center the title "Works Cited"
Reference FormatArranged alphabetically by last name, with only initials for first and middle names. Double spaced, hanging indent with no extra space between entries. The title of longer works is in italics.Arranged alphabetically by last name with first name written out and initials for middle names. Double spaced, hanging indent with no extra space between entries. The medium of publication must be included (web, print, video, etc.) The title of longer works is in italics.
Sample Reference Journal ArticleAuthor, A. A., Author, B. B., & Author, C. C. (Year). Title of article. Title of Periodical, volume number (issue number), pages. 

Include the Digital Object Identifier (DOI), if possible.
Author, Alan. A., Author, Bob. B., & Author, Cathy. C. "Title of article." Title of Periodical, Month, year, pages. Medium of publication

Note: MLA does not require the full URL to be included, but many instructors do. Check with your teacher. Include the date you accessed it, if the medium is "web".
Sample Reference Web Page Known AuthorFrancis, P.J. (2014). Differences between APA and MLA style. Essay Writing Tips. Retrieved from: 2014/10/differences-between-apa-and-mla.html.Francis, Peter J. "Differences between APA and MLA style." Essay Writing Tips, 2014. Web 17 Oct 2014.
Sample Reference Web Page Organization as AuthorCentres for Disease Control. (2014) Ebola. Retrieved from: for Disease Control. Ebola. Web 17 Oct 2014.

Bookmark this page to come back. For more detailed information, visit the OWL Writing Lab at Purdue University.
If you need help formatting your essay, hire me for full editing including formatting. See link above.

Tuesday 14 October 2014

APA sample essay

If you are new to essay writing, this post is for you. APA style is simply a description of how to set up an essay and how to cite the sources you use for information. An APA essay is set up with 1 inch margins all around and double spaced lines. Here's a sample page of an APA essay.

There are a couple of things to notice. First, each page has a header with a running head on it. The running head is a short version of the paper title in all caps. The reason that you use a shortened version is that some titles might stretch over more than one line, and all you need to do is identify the title for each page. Second, you have a page number in the upper right corner. If you don't know how to set up a running head in MS Word, then read this blog post: How to format headers in APA style.

Notice that in addition to double spacing the lines, there is no extra space between paragraphs and each paragraph starts with an indent of 1/2 inch.

An APA essay also includes a cover page. Here's how to format an APA cover page.

That's all there is to setting up the format of the APA essay. The rest of the details on APA style have to do with how to make citations. Notice that in APA style the references are in the form (Last Name, year, page). That means after you refer to any information from another source, you include a reference to that source. Put the last name of the author(s), the year of the publication and the page number that the information can be found on. If there is more than one author, list up to 5 names. If there are more than 5 authors, list four followed by et al. Notice that "al." is an abbreviation, so requires a period. After the period, put a comma like this: (Francis, Smith, Jones, Brown, et al., 2014, p. 14).

Here's the thing that stymies many students writing an essay in APA style: how to cite a web page. I've done a whole blog post on this, but here's a brief summary. See if you can find an author. If you can name a person who wrote the post (for example in a newspaper article found on-line) then cite the name of the author as you would normally do. If the article is posted by an organization, and the purpose of the organization is related to the topic, then cite the organization. That might be true for citing the Alzheimer's Society, or the Centers for Disease Control (CDC, 2014). But if it's an organization that is organized for the purpose of sharing widely disparate information, then cite the title of the article in quotation marks. This would be the case for example if you cite an article from wikipedia ("Africa", 2014). Notice the dates are included. Many webpages have a date somewhere on the page. If there is not date, put "n.d." Each citation needs to match a citation in your References page. The citations are arranged in alphabetical order according the the name of the author (or organization, or article title). In the citation on the reference page, you would include the full URL so any reader can locate the article. Remember, the purpose of a citation is to let a reader verify any information you provide, so you need to provide clear directions of how to find the original source. Generally this means four pieces of information: Author, Date, Publication, and Publishing source.

And that's APA citation in a nutshell! For more information on specifics of APA citations, I like to refer to the Writing Lab at Purdue University. Also, APA has a blog on which it posts helpful information and answers questions.

Saturday 11 October 2014

How to create a cover page in APA style

Creating an APA cover page is quite simple. It requires a minimum of information, but it shows your professor that you understand the basic details of APA style. An APA cover page has three basic features: a running head (with a shortened version of the essay's title), a page number, and a center section with the title of the essay, the name of the writer, the name of the course, the name of the professor, and the date, each on a separate line, double spaced.

Here's a simple graphic:

Notice that the running head begins with the words RUNNING HEAD in all caps. This is the only page on which the words RUNNING HEAD in all caps will appear. On all the rest of the pages only the actual running head (in normal upper and lower case) will appear. If you don't know how to insert a header, then read the blog post on how to create a header in APA style essays. Remember, you will format the header differently on all the other page, so you need to make sure that the document is formatted for different header on first page.

For the middle part of the cover page, simply enter the required information, set the paragraph setting to double space and the line format to centered.

After the date, place a page break. Use the page break function from the Insert menu. Don't just put a bunch of returns until the cursor moves down to the next page. That's sloppy and if you end up editing the cover page and there's a line added, then the extra line will move down and affect every page of your essay. If you don't know how to put in a page break, read my blog post 5 Essential MS Word Skills Every Student Should Know.

Wednesday 8 October 2014

How to Format Essays in MLA Style

MLA style is used for essays written for English and the humanities. The key difference between MLA style and APA style is that APA uses the author-date form of in-text citation (also generically known as Harvard style) and MLA uses the author-page style of in-text citation. But there are several other details in the the way you format essays in MLA style that are important to note.

For both styles of essay, use double-spaced lines with 1 inch margins. Indent each paragraph 1/2 inch and do not put an extra line between paragraphs. So notice that this blog is not written in either MLA or APA style.

MLA style papers do not have a title page. Instead, on the first page of the paper, in the upper left hand corner, put your name, the course name, the name of the teacher, and the date on individual lines. Double space these lines. On the next line put the paper title centred in bold.

Both styles of essay require a running head (instructions from your teacher may vary--always follow the teacher's instructions). If you don't know how to insert a running head, check out this blog post on how to create a running head in MS Word. However, in MLA style, you do not put the title of the essay in the running head. A running head in MLA style only includes your last name (as the author of the paper) and a page number. These are aligned to the right. Use automated page numbers! Don't manually insert page numbers. When you are formatting the header, type your name, then space, then use the insert menu to insert a page number. The numbers will format automatically on each page.

As I stated before, the in-text citations are the key difference in MLA essays. Remember, the in-text citation is only a signpost for the reader to get more information about something you've said in your essay. You've quoted, paraphrased or otherwise referred to someone other work. The in-text citation provides sufficient information for the reader to go to your works cited page to find the full citation, which will tell them how to find the original work. This is true for both styles of citation. So you only need enough information to specific which item in your works cited list is the right one. It's pretty simple if you have only one work by a specific author. Simply put the name of the author followed by the page number in the work with no comma or punctuation between (author year). Notice that the period follows the parenthetical citation (it's like the citation is a little note to the reader contained within the sentence).

MLA style is more forgiving than APA style for sources such as webpages that do not have page numbers. Remember, the key is giving the reader enough information to find the full citation in the works cited page. Simply tell the reader the source in the text. "According to" Then the reader can skip to the Works Cited page and find the citation for If there is more than one citation for, include some information about which article you are referring to.

If you don't know the author of a work you are citing, use a shortened version of the title. If the title is of a short work, place it in quotation marks; if the title is of a longer work, place it in italics.

Skipping down to the end of the paper, the reference section is titled "Works cited" in MLA essays. Center the title, put do not put it in bold. The entire works cited section should be double spaced with no additional spaces between entries. The paragraphs should be formatted as a hanging indent with 1/2 inch indent. If you don't know how to format a hanging indent, see this blog post on MS Word skills every student should know.

As of 2009, each entry needs to include the medium: book, print, web, film, etc.

Entries are listed alphabetically by author's last name and full first name (unlike APA style where entries only use the author's initials. The basic format is NAME, TITLE, PUBLISHING INFORMATION, DATE OF PUBLICATION, MEDIUM. In addition, if the medium is WEB, then the date of access follows the word WEB. (Note, I'm only using all caps to show which information is used; your paper would write these out using normal rules of capitalization).

My go-to source for formatting questions is the Writing Lab at Purdue University. Although I edit papers every day and I've come across most permutations at some point, I always go back there to verify what the correct format is.

Image courtesy of digitalart at

Saturday 20 September 2014

How to format headers in APA style essays

Many students find it difficult to format their APA essays with headers. Following these simple steps will solve this problem. In this post I will tell you how to insert running heads and page numbers in APA documents. These steps also work for heads in other style of essays, such as MLA, but the specific formatting may be slightly different.

Here's one of the most frustrating things about MicroSoft Word. The menu item used to insert a header is under the VIEW menu. Even after years of editing essays, I almost always look for it under the INSERT menu because I'm thinking to myself "I need to insert a running head." Ironically, after the header is created, you merely need to double click on it to edit it, so you don't need to go back to the VIEW menu to edit the header.

Notice that this is called "Header and Footer." The header and footer editing screens are always active at the same time, but you don't need to use footers in APA essays. They are used for other types of documents.

Once you have the header editing screen active, you need to type in the header info. Notice that APA requires the first page (the cover page) to have the header begin with the following phrase in capital letters: RUNNING HEAD. I don't know if they think anyone reading a university level essay might be stupid enough to not know why there is a title above every page of the essay, or if they just want to justify the use of the caps lock key every time someone writes an essay, but I think this looks ugly. I would dispense with this if it were up to me.

The other thing to notice is that the running head is not necessarily the same wording as the title. The running head should be short enough to fit on one line (leaving room for the page number) along with the words RUNNING HEAD. Let's say your essay title is "Sylvia Plath and the tortured genius: modern feminism and the struggle for autonomy in artistic creation." (Apologies to Sylvia Plath scholars, feminists, and artists.) That's way too long to fit on one line at the top of every page. So the running head would look like this: "RUNNING HEAD: Sylvia Plath and artistic creation."

Only the cover page needs the caps lock RUNNING HEAD. All the other pages in the essay will have the short version of the title (but now it's in ALL CAPS). So you are going to have to insert the header one more time, but before you do that, you need to make sure one thing is set in the document. The formatting of the document needs to be set to have a different first page (the cover page). To do this, access the DOCUMENT formatting window. It's pretty simple. Under the FORMAT menu, select DOCUMENT, and the DOCUMENT window will open. Click on LAYOUT and the the check box on "Different first page." Now the second page in the document will have no header, so you can go to the second page, use the VIEW menu to view the editing screen for the header and footer, and then type in the running head in all caps.

But now you need to also insert the page numbers. The headers are conveniently set up with pre-set tabs. As an aside, you should never move characters over by using a bunch of spaces. If you hit repeated spaces to move the page numbers to the right, then the location of the page numbers will be inconsistent depending on the computer of the person viewing the document. In some cases, the page numbers might even jump to a second line on the left. Always use the tab key (on the left side of the keyboard, just above the caps lock key) to move things. And take the time to learn how to set tabs. Depending on how long your running head is, when you hit the tab key, the cursor will jump to the middle of the page, or to the right hand side. If it goes to the middle, then do another tab to get the cursor to the right. Under the INSERT menu, choose PAGE NUMBERS to call up the page number dialogue box. Make sure you have alignment right and show on first page checked, and click OK. You can change the format to Roman numerals, etc, but probably the default is correct. If you have multiple sections on a thesis, then you need to use different formats and start the regular numbers on the first page of the actual content. Now, all you have to do is click the "Close" box on the little line under the header, and every page in your document will be properly formatted with APA headers.

Sunday 14 September 2014

One bizarre trick to improve your essay writing marks

OK, although I'm a teacher I'm going to share the number one way to improve your essay writing mark. I know not many students know this trick because I've marked and edited thousands of essays and I can tell from the content that students haven't done this one simple thing to improve their marks:
Now, I don't mean hurriedly rushing through a novel the day before you expect to write an essay. I mean taking your time to read and enjoy the book. After all, the novel wasn't written for the purpose of torturing you in your English class. It was written by someone who had something to say.
Take your time to read the novel and try to digest what the author was trying to tell you. You can do this in bed, on the beach, on public transit, or even in the library. Just do it!
If you've read this far, then you deserve something more in-depth to assist you. What if you are reading the book and having trouble figuring out what the hell it is all about anyway? That's when sources such as come in handy. Once you have some familiarity with the plot, you can read the notes for help as to what the main themes are, and explanations of how the plot is developing.
One of the main things I'm trying to teach my own students is to use evidence from the book. That means when you want to make a point, you should either quote from the book or cite a page number to show you know what you are talking about. Any time you tell the reader of your essay about a plot point in the novel, you need to make a direct reference from the book. There is nothing worse than an essay about a novel that is nothing more than a running plot summary.

Saturday 14 June 2014

Four ways wearable technology could affect education

For the last decade or more, plagiarism has been a growing problem in post-secondary education. Students are able to buy custom written papers from on-line sources; schools invest in software plagiarism detectors, which store digital copies of all papers in a vast database. Even if these papers are written from scratch, I imagine the writers, given the same topics over and over again, are consciously or unconsciously churning out the same tired prose on essay topics such as Eudora Welty's A Worn Path or The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Even worse are essays that are bought and sold. Frankly, I've looked at some of these essays and they are often crap sold by C- students to other C- students. In this highly competitive world, you have to aim higher than that. Fortunately, for cheating students, technological change could open up new vistas for unearned marks.

Wearable technology will make traditional evaluation of students even more challenging. Proctors in exams now require all cell phones to be out of sight in bags. Many schools require the bags to be stored at the front of the room, away from people writing exams. The oldest trick in the world is a few cheat notes written on your arm. But imagine wearing a smart watch that can be programmed to prompt you to include a variety of facts that you have trouble remembering. It could be linked to a friend outside the room who sends messages with key information. Now that the Apple Watch is a reality, will examiners check each person's watch before the exam. Or will the wearing of watches be banned during exams? With an Apple Watch, you can send subtle messages by vibration to another Apple Watch wearer. Could you make up a code to share answers? Time will tell.

This article talks about rings and earpieces that function as wearable technology. One ring allows you to use your finger to write in the air and convert the writing to text. You write the essay question and an associate provides you with key ideas or phrases to include in your written answers. You could have the earpiece in, which is so subtle that might not be noticed in an exam room where over 100 people are taking an exam.

As a teacher, I worry about these things. I want my evaluations to be fair and honest. As a result, I see a movement away from an emphasis on testing and toward project work. Now, as noted above, you could just pay someone to complete your project, but a well-planned combination of in-class and home-based project work should show who is the more capable learners in the class.

Wearable technology, for me as a teacher is also opening new possibilities. I have worked with students with severe behavior problems. Two issues arise. First, students misbehave and then deny their behavior when consequences are imposed. I imagine wearing Google Glass during class and recording behavior. Students could be held much more accountable. I used to work in a program where some students had been given a choice of school or jail. They believed walking into the building met their probation conditions. Would a judge agree that they deserved freedom if he were able to see their behavior in school? I'm not sure.

Rather than using Google glass for punishment, could we use it to help students see their behavior and then learn to behave better? As student teachers, we video recorded lessons and played them back from group analysis. Watching yourself teach a class was an eye-opening experience, since your weaknesses were magnified. I would hope that students could begin to see their behavior through the eyes of another and come to an understanding of how they could behave with less conflict.

I'm sure there are many more ways that wearable technology will be incorporated into our lives and will affect not only education, but many other aspects of life. As a wise man once said, the only constant is change.

How do you think new technology will affect education? Let me know in the comments.

Saturday 7 June 2014

5 Simple Steps to Writing About a Novel

If you are being to asked to write about a novel for the first time, and you haven't got a clue what to do, this is the blog posting for you. This is NOT for writing a review, or a summary of the novel; this is about writing an analysis for a topic. Typical topics could be:

  • Discuss the theme of loneliness in Of Mice and Men
  • How is point of view used as a metaphor in To Kill a Mockingbird?
  • Discuss the theme of belonging in Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
The steps below are the most basic. There are lots of ways to improve them. University literary essays should be much more developed and thoughtful than this. But if we can cut writing about a novel down to the simplest steps, then this is the recipe to follow.

Step 1 (Introduction)

Tell the reader the name of the book and author. You know and I know and your teacher knows you are talking about the book you read in class. But pretend that the person reading the book doesn't know which book you are writing about. Begin with a simple statement that includes the name of the book and the author.
  • In To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, a young girl struggles to come to terms with the racism of a small Southern town in the 1930s.
  • Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck, depicts a landscape of people separated from one another chasing illusory dreams of a place where they might belong.
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie, tells the story of a young Native American man torn between his home community and his desire to get a good education. 
In one or two sentences, describe the main idea or plot of the book. Tell the reader the main idea that you are going to talk about in the rest of the essay.

There are lots of ways to make the introduction more fancy or more interesting. See my tips of Essay Introductions.

Step 2

Give the first reason to support your position. Give evidence from the book, either in a quote (with page number) or a direct reference (with a page number). Give a second reason to support your position. Again, use evidence from book with page number.

Step 3

Give the first reason that is different from your position. Give evidence from the book, either in a quote (with page number) or a direct reference (with a page number). Give a second reason that is different from your position. Again, use evidence from book with page number.

Step 4

Repeat step 2 with new evidence. Supply a quote or statement from the book and identify the page. Discuss how this is important to the point you want to make.

Step 5

Discuss why your position makes more sense than the opposite position. Review the evidence that was presented previously (no page numbers needed unless you provide new evidence). State your conclusion.

What’s important:

IDENTIFY the book so the reader knows what you are talking about.
BE CLEAR about what you are arguing for.
USE EVIDENCE and cite page numbers where the evidence was found.
STAY ON TOPIC this is not a review or summary of the book. You are arguing to make a point.

Saturday 17 May 2014

One great logic tip to improve essay writing

One of the most common grammar errors I see in essays is a logic error. Logic is a key part of grammar because grammar is the set of rules for language that convey meaning, and in this case the meaning is impaired. Recently I was editing a PhD thesis in Educational Administration when I came across a sentence something like this: "As a principal, the school budget must be balanced." Clearly the writer was trying to connect her main theme, which was about being a principal, with the specific point of balancing the budget. Nonetheless, there is an error of logic here. If we begin the sentence with the phrase "as a principal," the subject of the sentence must be the principal.
Here are some good ways to fix that sentence:

  • As a principal, I must balance the budget.
  • As a principal, it is your role to balance the budget.
  • As a principal, you should give all your teachers big fat bonuses.
(OK, I just threw the last one in because I'm a teacher, but the logic is good, grammatically speaking.)

Phrases that begin with a preposition ("as") and end with a noun ("principal") that answer the question, who? or what? are called prepositional adjectival phrases. They begin with prepositions and act as adjectives. If you write "As a principal, the budget must be balanced," then the adjectival phrase appears to modify "budget" and clearly the budget is not the principal.

The error is easy to see in this example because I've written a very short sentence to demonstrate the problem. As an editor, I see much more complex sentences in which the logic error is more difficult to spot. (Did you notice that when I begin the sentence "As an editor," I need to follow it immediately with the subject "I"?) How about this one: "Juggling many demands including paperwork, medication schedules and meals, regular rounds are necessary for a busy nurse to ensure patient care is maintained."

Who is doing the juggling? In this case, the sentence seems to imply that the rounds are juggling many demands because the subject of the introductory phrase should be the same as the subject of the main sentence. I would fix this sentence by changing the subject of the main clause: Juggling many demands including paperwork, medication schedules and meals, a busy nurse needs to do regular rounds to ensure patient care is maintained."

Any time you introduce a sentence with an adjectival prepositional phrase, ensure the subject of the sentence is the noun you intend to modify with the introductory phrase.

Sunday 27 April 2014

A new dawn for education

A new dawn for education
I have a friend in his 70s. He's retired and spent a lifetime working with his hands. He can fix anything. But he can barely read. Today we would say he has dyslexia. We would assign a specialist teacher to help him, and he might have been more successful in school.

But not necessarily. I teach kids with dyslexia and other conditions that interfere with their learning. In many cases, they think of themselves as "dumb." They hate school, and they avoid academic work. Our system of education does not work very well for these students because we still have an emphasis on reading and writing.

But recent research shows that people with dyslexia do not really have a "learning disability"; they simply have a different way of perceiving things in their environment. As documented in this Time magazine article, people with dyslexia have better peripheral perception than us regular folk. There is plenty of evidence that dyslexia is not in itself a barrier to learning, even profound literacy.
One of my favorite authors, John Irving, has dyslexia. He is in fine company with W.B. Yeats, among others.

In evolutionary terms, it makes sense that humans should have lots of different skills for learning. In the kind of environment in which we evolved we needed people who noticed and reacted to every twig cracking in the forest (Attention Deficit Disorder) because it could mean being alert to danger. We needed people who focused obsessively on some minutia (autism) because they might develop a new skill, like making a new kind of stone tool. We needed people who were active and had good hand-eye coordination for hunting, and those with careful observational skills and memories to know what plants to use for what purpose.

I recently met a woman whose sister is a pediatric doctor. She runs from patient to patient in a busy hospital, diagnosing, prescribing, treating and saving lives. And she has ADHD. Distractibility is an asset for her because the tasks keep flying at her. I love to sit and concentrate, so I'm much better as an editor.

In today's world, these people may or may not become successful in life depending on what kind of help and support they get in school. Unfortunately, we still expect every student to perform the same tasks in the same way to get the same qualifications before they are allowed to go out into the world and start really using their skills and talents. It's a crying shame.

Some schools are starting to change, and with the Internet, more resources are becoming available. Teachers have access to video lessons and computer interfaces for student responses. Teachers must become highly skilled themselves with technology to create interactive classrooms in which students can work with their strengths.

As an editor, I help university students with their writing. I have some brilliant clients working at the Master's level who have difficulty writing basic sentences. But in their mangled prose, I can see that they have a deep understanding of the material they are discussing. It's a pleasure to help intelligent people express themselves, and I hope that in my own way I'm helping future pediatricians leap the hurdles of undergraduate writing so they can eventually find themselves in an environment where they can really shine.

Tuesday 8 April 2014

One Vital Skill Needed to Keep up with Technology Change

As I was perusing Google+ this morning, I came across a Wired post about three guys who created a "better" spreadsheet application.

What first caught my eye was that they were described as "three Stanford dropouts" and I was reminded of some of my less motivated high school students who, unable to do basic math or write a paragraph say "But look at Bill Gates...he dropped out" or Richard Branson who famously dropped out of high school himself. But the truth is that these people were already super achievers before they dropped out. Richard Branson dropped out because his record business was growing so fast he had to devote more time to it; Bill Gates must have been a brilliant hard worker just to get into Harvard. These Stanford "dropouts" could be no different. They have already proven themselves as among the brightest minds in the country.

As I read the article, I got new ideas about what is happening here. I'd like to call it "technological trickledown." These guys are producing a spreadsheet that doesn't require you to have detailed knowledge of mathematics to use it. My math skills are above average (managed to pass calculus in first year university with a B), but there are times when I can't input complex formulas into spreadsheets, such as to calculate future value of an investment. (Not that I have a lot of investments to worry about!)

One commentator stated that if people aren't smart enough to use spreadsheets as they are, then they have no business using spreadsheets. But what I realized is that the really smart people keep inventing tools that make it possible for the rest of us to do more. And anything that takes a specialized skill now will be possible using a cheap software tool in the future.

When computers first came out, you needed to program them using punch cards. With microcomputers, a keyboard interface was added and you had to know how to use DOS (thanks Bill). I spent hours in a Saturday afternoon class learning DOS commands because my boss said it was necessary. The next year Windows was introduced and no one has used DOS since.

A friend and I spent about six months developing an application to make flat shapes (including fonts) look like they were 3-D and cast shadows. A year later applications were doing this and now the function is incorporated into many drawing and graphic programs. I started using computers by learning desktop publishing, and was excited to be among the first graduates of a desktop publishing training program in my home of Vancouver. A graphic designer friend told me, "In a few years, you'll just be a page make up technician." The only sense in which he was wrong is that designing newsletters has been taken over by entry level secretarial staff. Of course real graphic designers with four-year college degrees, still produce all top-end material, but there isn't really a niche for people who are merely skilled with the design programs.

Even this blog is an example of technological trickledown. The blog environment is actually software that allows the fast and easy creation of a web page without any knowledge of HTML. I just click "New Post" and start writing. Before blogs, I created my first web page by learning HTML, writing code in MS word, and saving as a text file. I uploaded that file to the web. Today I could create a whole website without any coding whatsoever.

We can also see this in terms of how Google search works. Another article I read today, Top 10 SEO writing tips, talks about writing with users' search terms in mind. But as Google develops, it is working toward using more natural language. Before Google started blocking search terms from Analytics results, I would be astounded at what people type into the search engine. They would end up on my site through various random combinations of words that might have little or nothing to do with the content of my site. But Google is working on algorithms to determine what someone really is looking for when they search for "psychology experiment dog" and deliver them to a site with information on Pavlov's research. Everything is evolving to accommodate less savvy users.

So far, I have not seen software that can reproduce my key skill: editing. I've tried lots of software packages, both on-line and off line. In my experience they miss many errors and flag things inappropriately. When I edit, I try to understand what the writer is trying to say and help them say it better. Software is pretty good at flagging misspelled words; it can identify punctuation errors, but it can't identify wrongly used words very well. For example, the article on SEO used the phrase "long-trailed keywords" when the correct phrase is "long-tailed keywords." I edited an essay today where the writer used the word "world" instead of "word". They were both nouns, so the software had no problem with it. But software doesn't even know what to do when there are several wrongly used words with incorrect syntax and errors in verb tense and agreement. Only a human mind can sort that far.

I'm not saying technology won't replace editing some day. Just not yet. Meanwhile for the rest of us, we haven't even begun to glimpse the changes in store.

I keep telling my students that learning to learn is the most important skill that they can acquire in school. In this competitive world, being able to master the next task is going to mean the difference between continued skilled employment and being trapped in a low-wage, low skill ghetto, or even long-term unemployment. Everything you learn today will be obsolete, except your learning skill.
Updated April 13, 2014

Monday 7 April 2014

Poetry Month: Ode to the Adverb

In response to Grammar Girl's call for poems on the subject of grammar, I whipped up this little ditty on the adverb, and I won!

Ode to the Adverb

Some say that you are dying slowly
Your suffix spurned like something lowly;
My lover tells me to drive safe—
Her words, my grammar sense do chafe.
Whence went thee my lovely –ly?
I write so freely, but I feel free.
Slyly, wryly, skillfully Thou
Are used by knowledgeable writers now;
But woefully, awfully, even sadly
Your demise makes me feel bad (not badly).

Monday 24 March 2014

12 Simple Steps to Improve Writing Skills

  1. Writing is hard; you will make mistakes. Don’t be afraid to just let go and put down your ideas on the page. Don’t worry too much about grammar when you are writing. Just write! Let it flow. The purpose of grammar is not to confound you with meaningless rules, but to facilitate the sharing of ideas between people. Nonetheless, as you write, you will want to improve your grammar. The rules of grammar are simply descriptions of how people communicate ideas. People are generally smart enough to understand the ideas when there are only one or two errors in a sentence, but as they pile up, communication is impeded. The fewer errors in your writing, the better you communicate your ideas.
  2. Help is out there. Believe in yourself, but know it comes in small steps. There is no writer so great that he or she can’t improve, and no writer so bad that her or she can’t learn to communicate. Do not allow yourself to be bogged down by negative self-talk; just acknowledge that there are lots of resources to help you write better.
  3. Be willing to learn. Open yourself up to correction. Read grammar blogs. Don’t get caught up in trivial arguments about what is “correct,” but start recognizing what the common errors that drive readers crazy so you can avoid them.
  4. Make a list of goals for your writing.  You’ve already made a general commitment to improve by reading this; now be specific. For example, you may need to improve your use of references for academic writing. (Visit the Purdue University Open Writing Lab). You may want to improve your vocabulary. (Play the vocabulary game on Free Rice and help feed the world at the same time). You may need to simply learn the 8 parts of speech, so you can understand the conversations you are about to have. The thing about starting is just to start. You can always add to your list later as you accomplish some of these goals.
  5. Share your list with someone who writes better than you do. Listen to their advice. Everyone had to learn at some point. Once you begin to have conversations about writing, you will see that you can improve. Visit websites that discuss writing such as Grammar Girl.
  6. Become willing to improve. It’s important to have a positive attitude. Just make the decision to look at grammar in a new way. Think of it as just another learning curve. At first it’s difficult, then it gets easier. Willingness is the key.
  7. Make a commitment to improve. Don’t confuse willingness to commitment. Commitment means taking action.
  8. Make a list of errors that you commonly make. This is the first real step to becoming a better writer. Figure out what some of the mistakes you are currently making and learn how to fix them. The list doesn’t have to be exhaustive (and you can always add to it later), but if you can identify your worst faults, you have a chance of correcting them.
  9. For each of the items on the list, find the correction. This list will be important in your proofreading efforts because you will need to think about each of these as you proofread your own work.
  10. Proofread. Probably the biggest difference between a good writer and a poor one is proofreading. I have been writing professionally for over 30 years and I continue to make the most basic mistakes when the ideas are flowing out of my head. Sometimes it’s a typo because my fingers are not in touch with my brain; sometimes it’s an error that just slips in. But I always proofread carefully before printing, posting, or sending. I proofread several times. Learning to proofread is one of the most important skills after learning the rules of writing.
  11. Every day, read something about writing better. Once you have started to write better it’s easy to rest on your laurels. But as in any endeavor, constant improvement must be the goal. Subscribe to a daily writing tip. Follow a grammarian on Twitter. Just make sure you think about it every day.
  12. Now that you are a better writer, help others to improve. There is nothing that solidifies knowledge about a topic like having to explain it to others. If you really understand it, you can explain it. If not, you will find you need to go back and study it a little more. That’s why I offer free grammar help. The more I help people, the more I understand myself.

Some people may find these 12 steps familiar; certainly I acknowledge that similar steps have helped people improve in many areas of their lives. While improving your writing might not be as life changing as quitting drinking, for many people wanting to get a college education, or who want to move into a managerial position at work, gaining some writing skill can open up a new world of possibilities.
Updated April 2, 2014.

Wednesday 26 February 2014

Five Easy Steps to Write a Research Essay

One of the most intimidating experiences for recent college entrants is the first research essay. One reason is that either they have never seen a research essay and don't know the format, or they've seen a professionally published article at a post-doctoral level, which looks way more complex than they are capable of writing.

Don't fear! Writing your first research essay is a simple process. Always focus on the learning outcome you are trying to demonstrate to your teacher. Here are the key learning outcomes for your first research paper.
  • Use the library to locate relevant articles.
  • Summarize the findings in the articles.
  • Evaluate the arguments made in the articles.
  • Synthesize the arguments and make a conclusion.
  • Cite your sources accurately using APA (usually) and write a reference list.
Let's look at these steps one-by-one.

First, you need to use the library to find articles relevant to your topic. You will likely do this using a computer search. You can do this at home or in the actual library. The main advantage in using the library is that a librarian may be able to help you to find the articles. The key to this is to use the database to search for relevant terms.

Notice I said "database" not Google. You do not want to waste your time with Google, because Google will give you every general document using your search term. The library database will search the peer-reviewed journals that the library subscribes to, so you know that the results of the search are worthy of investigation.

Be specific in your search terms. For example, if you are writing a psychology paper on neuroplasticity, do not search for "psychology"; only search for "neuroplasticity." The broad search will give too many results. It's better to be too narrow than too broad, because as you widen your search, you will start to find papers relevant to your topic.

Each paper you find will contain an abstract. The abstract is a short statement of the content of the paper. It should be very helpful in determining if the paper might be helpful. Also it will give you some new search terms that could be relevant to your topic. Keep searching until you have at least six papers that might be helpful to writing. (Don't worry, you won't need to read all.) I've done searches and made lists of over 20 papers just to write an 8 page paper.

If the abstract seems relevant, read the introduction and conclusion of any relevant paper. This should help you in two ways. The introduction will provide you with a lot of general knowledge about the topic. The conclusion will help you to understand what the researchers have to say.

If the conclusion is relevant to your essay and you believe that the paper is important to cite, read the entire paper. Pay the most attention to the methodology, discussion, and conclusion. Unless you are in a statistical methods class (in which case, this shouldn't be your first research paper) don't worry much about the statistical discussions.

Even if the assignment says "cite at least one source," remember my mantra: Do the minimum; get the minimum. Use more sources than required to show off your research skills. Your mark may go up as a result.

Make some notes on what the different papers say. Remember, for key concepts, the papers will cite some of the original thinkers. For example a psychology paper on motivation might include references to Mazlow's hierarchy of needs. It's always good to include similar references to the original ideas that the specific topic is built upon. Scholarship is like a building that is built one storey at a time. Acknowledging the foundation is like building carefully.

Arrange your notes into the argument you wish to make. Your thesis does not have to be original, you can agree with or defend someone. There are often different points of view available. In a research paper, you can assess the arguments. Again, if this is your first paper, being right or wrong here is not important to your mark. You have already demonstrate key learning outcomes by finding the articles, reading them, and expressing your understanding.

Now you should be ready to write. Using point form, arrange the key facts you wish to show. Back up these with quotes or paraphrases from the papers you have read. Quote if the writer of the paper has said something in exactly the perfect way. Paraphrase if you simply want to include the information. Follow each use of someone's material with the appropriate citation. In APA style, you place the author's name(s) in brackets, followed by the year of the publication, followed by the page number. End the citation with a closing bracket, then the period for the sentence. If you are in doubt about how to do this, also read my post on How to Use APA Style.

This might seem complex, but really it comes down to this. To write a research essay, first do research, next figure out what the research means, and finally, write about it.

After you've written your paper, if you are still worried, hire an editor to polish the paper. When you get your edited copy back, review the edits to see how you can improve for your next effort. No one is perfect at anything their first try. Just don't give up!
Updated April 2, 2014.