Writing Reminders: Tools, Tips, and Techniques
reviewed by Diane L. Olson - 2004
Throughout three decades in the trenches of English language arts instruction, colleagues and I have compared and shared strategies and results on teaching writing. Discussions frequently end with, “If only one book had it all….”
Eureka. The title of this find—Writing Reminders: Tools,Tips, and Techniques by Jim Burke, Burlingame High School, California—is not a misnomer. Perhaps the fact Burke that possessed a developmental psychology degree when he began teacher education study at San Francisco State Universityexplains his acute awareness of the needs and desires of fellow writing instructors.
Writing Reminders is a basic nuts-and-bolts guide to writing instruction for seventh through twelfth grades in particular, but it is also applicable and adaptable for elementary and post-secondary educators. Paperbound and pliable, this readable volume is teacher-friendly with its generous, lined margins awaiting scribbled ideas.
Burke is exacting in how to use Writing Reminders: “I designed this book to give you useful ideas after only a two-minute read—between periods, while planning, even while teaching” (p. xix). As a recipient of the 2000 Exemplary English Leadership Award from the National Council of Teachers of English, he begins with the NCTE position statement on the teaching of writing (pp. xv-xvii). From solid principles stem the entirety of the book’s content, proving he can walk the walk as well as talk it. Of course, the real test is answering my own question: “Could I use it as the author intends?”
Burke has divided his work into two major sections. Within the first, “What Teachers Must Do,” he delineates three main tasks: creating a community of writers (pp. 1-52), teaching and supporting students (pp. 53-156), and evaluating the teacher’s own performance and that of students (pp. 157-207).
The second division marks a change in focus as Burke presents the satisfyingly complete section “What Students Must be Able to Do,” subtitled “Write in Many Genres” (pp. 209-377). Twenty-two genres cover a myriad of writing types, including research, speeches, resumes, fiction, journals, and poetry.
One caveat: Although the title Writing Reminders may imply to writing teacher practitioners that content was previously known and temporarily set aside or forgotten to be “reminded” of again here, new writing teachers should not feel excluded. Burke does not condescend as he covers the bases on a spectrum of effective practice. Each reminder is an isolated directive, a call for action, beginning with a present tense action verb: confer, develop, review, use, write, and so on. He defines concepts and explains them thoroughly enough that all teachers may adapt and use them for every student, taking into consideration writing goals as well as skill levels. A novice will feel comfortable reading his work.
The sixty-six reminders each begin with a “Rationale,” an explicit overview based on Burke’s experience and the latest research. In the genre sections, he instead uses “Description” as a subheading, providing examples and illustrating various genre uses.
Each reminder then lists “What to Do.” Questions for students or teacher, student work examples on varying levels, teaching strategies, activities to use—these bulleted entries are valuable. My personal favorites are those including strategies I can use within minutes of discovery, as in the reminder “Teach Students to Ask Useful Questions” (pp. 96-98), a microcosm of chronological, practical questions. Graphics fit content perfectly, as teacher Dan Diercks’s bookmarks exemplify (p. 152). Prompts and rubrics for specific purposes continue throughout the entire book.
Burke has not let the cyber age leave him in the dust. Along with the reminders on letters (p. 310) and reviews (p. 349), for example, one finds “Write an Infotext” (pp. 342-48) and “Prepare a Web Site” (pp. 374-77). He illustrates his own techno-struggles with a young woman who, several years ago, turned in only a URL on an index card as a final research project. When he skeptically queried her on the web address, the girl replied, “That’s my project.” Burke confesses to have been “taken by the novelty and her calm assurance to him that this would be okay. It was the harbinger of all that has come our way and all that awaits us in the future” (p. 377). No cyber-wizard, but he implies that we must embrace, adapt to, and adopt what we must, by whatever means, to propel our students toward effective writing.
Repetition from one reminder to another is not redundant in a new context. I, for one, appreciate the idea that students might, for instance, emulate historical figures in speeches they develop and deliver (p. 303). Burke is superb at going to the next level, sparking my own idea to enlist cooperation from a history department cohort, helping our students discern the meaning of famous speakers as they deliver noted speeches as that famous person. The students can add support on why they believe what they do (p. 303). Burke intends that the reminders not be read sequentially but episodically, sporadically, when needed. Similar activities will be rediscovered in other reminders when I reread them weeks, or even months, apart.
Following “What to Do” is the “Classroom Connection”; Burke often gives an actual lesson from his classroom. His own directions, rubrics, and actual student work model how to analyze results. Genre sections also include “At a Glance,” a capsule of the genre in a boxed sidebar. The journal “glance,” for example, provides guidelines, purposes, and format to use (p. 335). Prompts, evaluation rubrics, and a successful student response provide more help (pp. 334-41). Reminders end with “Recommended Resources”: professional sources written by himself and /or other authors, supplementary texts, literature, web sites.
Burke’s sometimes personal compendium of writing tips shows he teaches students first and writing second. His sensitivity glows in each thoughtful step of the process, helping students understand and find success during the journey, alleviating confusion, frustration, and insecurity for delicate writing egos. Quotes beginning the reminders often reflect a wry but warm sense of humor.
His sensitivity extends to the tools used for teaching struggling writers, English language learners, and special needs and Advanced Placement students, as well as “normal” writers. He enlists solid research along with state and national standards on which to base activities. We teachers are under the gun to prove our students can write, and Burke intends to arm us, in turn, for preparing students to succeed in state testing. Indeed, in light of No Child Left Behind, Burke does his readers a valuable service with a gamut of accommodations.
Notwithstanding the book’s stunning content, semantic quirks momentarily distracted me. One line in the “Distinguished” section of a rubric reads, “Each price is perfectly proofread” (p. 245). I backtracked, thinking, “piece” or “price,” examining the context. (Freudian slip on a typist’s part?)
In addition, a noun disagreeing with its pronoun referent waylaid my focus. Burke’s grammar is faultless until Reminder #2 (pp. 9-13). I read “…helping the apprentice master their craft” and “…talking to a student about their writing in the presence of others will embarrass or distract the student and then prevent them from learning from you “ (both. p. 9, italics mine). I mused that certainly Burke knows better than to use this structure that is creeping into the language everywhere, to the horror of hardcore English instructors. Again later: “…give the sheet to the student and ask them to attach it to their final paper” (p. 13, italics mine). As easy as it is to succumb to imitating language spoken around us, some of us bemoan the fact that, when some English teachers collapse into trendspeak and away from “bonehead English,” the rest may be knocking our heads on a wall of impending change. The recent and continuing evolution of spellings and grammar evident in, for instance, e-mail and advertisements, must be faced. However, students and adults alike deserve and need “appropriateness training” to fine-tune how and when to use newly evolved language forms and standard ones. It is not easy being a diehard language purist, but flexibility and tolerance maintain sanity. My bottom line: any aberration causing readers or listeners to lose focus on content is detrimental to the quality of the message and credibility of the messenger.
Even so, Jim Burke has created a professional classic that has it all. I CAN use Writing Reminders as the author intends. This book will sit on the corner of my desk for the remainder of my career.