Beyond English: Why Writing Belongs in Every Classroom

person holding blue ballpoint pen writing in notebook
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Given the benefits of writing on reading skills, comprehension, information retention, higher-order thinking, and quality of learning, it makes sense for all teachers to focus on increasing the time they dedicate to writing in their classrooms.

Dr. Catlin Tucker

Dr. Catlin Tucker emphasizes the importance of integrating writing across all subjects in education. Tucker argues that writing enhances learning, academic success, and helps students develop relationship skills and manage emotions.

She highlights how writing boosts reading skills, comprehension, and higher-order thinking. It underscores the necessity for educators to support students through the writing process, leveraging it for a deeper understanding of material and emotional well-being, regardless of the subject taught


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Scraft – An AI Writing Tutor for Language Learners

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In a recent study conducted by researchers at Columbia University, a prototype AI writing-support tool named Scraft has been developed. This tool is designed to aid writing education by using recursive feedback mechanisms to encourage critical thinking.

Scraft is not just a simple text-generating AI; it’s a sophisticated tool that asks Socratic questions to users and provides personalized feedback throughout the writing process. This approach is designed to stimulate critical thinking and improve writing skills by engaging the writer in a recursive process of reflection and revision.

The researchers conducted a preliminary study with 15 students to evaluate the effectiveness of Scraft. The results indicated that the recursive feedback provided by Scraft was helpful in improving the students’ writing skills. However, the participants also noted that the feedback was sometimes factually incorrect and lacked context. This highlights the challenges of developing AI tools that can provide accurate and contextually appropriate feedback.

The researchers argue that AI writing-support tools should focus on preserving the recursive and thought-provoking nature of writing. This means that the AI should not just correct grammar and spelling errors, but also engage the writer in a dialogue that encourages reflection and revision.

Scraft could be particularly beneficial for multilingual learners. It can provide immediate, personalized feedback, which can be especially helpful for those who are learning English as a second language and may not have access to a human tutor. The Socratic questioning approach used by Scraft can also help multilingual learners to think critically in English, which is an important skill for academic writing.

However, it’s important to note that Scraft is still a prototype and further research is needed to improve its accuracy and contextual understanding. Despite these challenges, the development of Scraft represents an exciting step forward in the use of AI in education.


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2023: A Quick Half-Year Review

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Heading into the second half of 2023, I thought I’d take a minute and review some of my accomplishments thus far. This is mostly for my own benefit as I continue to curate a digital commonplace book.

Also, it scratches my itch to curate all the things. So here we go…

Reading

  • Yearly Books Goal: 150 books
  • Pages Read Goal: 50K
  • Current book count: 59 books
  • Current page count: 22k

Writing

  • Blog posts this year: 94
  • Class papers: Who the hell knows, but it was a lot

Professional Development

  • Four full-day PD sessions
  • Two mini-sessions
  • Numerous one-on-one meetings with teachers

Music

I curate a Spotify playlist every year of great songs I find or rediscover over the course of the year. Here is the 2023 playlist, so far:


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Comparing and Testing AI for Education

AI robots becoming the new rulers, a grand throne room filled with robots in regal attire, adorned with glowing symbols and intricate metalwork, human ambassadors kneel in submission, the mood is one of awe and submissiveness, Artwork, a detailed Renaissance-style oil painting with the use of dramatic chiaroscuro to highlight the metallic sheen and grandeur of the robots

Professor and friend John Nash co-hosts a podcast on all things online learning. In a recent episode, he shared his work on coaching ChatGPT to write more “human” and the results are… interesting…

While generative AI tools are very cool right now, they are a long way from being truly disruptive and overtaking the world.

Here’s what’s interesting. Scaffolding the prompts, defining perplexity and burstiness, and then prompting an explicit increase of those measures made the text “human” to GPTZero. Still, it also made the text ridiculously flowery and inflated. Kind of like when a master’s student thinks they are supposed to “sound academic.” It was so bad that the ChatGPT output was immediately suspect to my human eyes, even though GPTZero said it was likely written entirely by a human.

– John Nash, PhD

How to Read and Take Notes Like a PhD Student

study hall
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As a graduate student or scholar, it is essential to master the skill of reading and taking notes effectively. However, this skill is not something that can be learned overnight, and it requires time and practice. Reading is not just about glancing over the words but processing their meaning, understanding the structure of arguments, and developing a strategy for retention and understanding. In this blog post, we will discuss how to read and take notes like a Ph.D. student.

Read for Class

When starting a new term, it is essential to read through the syllabi and determine which readings are most pertinent to your long-term goals in research. Professors do not expect students to read everything, so it is essential to read with a strategy in mind rather than wasting time on subjects that may not be useful in the future.

At the beginning of each week, go through the index of your books and readings to determine which chapters or sections you should pay attention to the most. For example, if you are a student interested in history, you may want to focus on chapters related to slavery and the law. Set up your class notes using an organization app like Notion to categorize your notes into major themes, scholarship, and questions.

Read for Retention

Reading for retention is all about long-term memory. It is essential to read thoroughly and take your time. When taking notes, consider which chapters or sections pique your interest and take notes based on the categories we discussed earlier. For long-term retention and research, take your time with the introduction, take notes in the margin, and check the footnotes and citations.

When taking notes for retention, consider the following categories: main argument, supporting arguments, subjects and sites, sources, methods, scholarly debate, terms and themes, and questions and notes. Note-taking software like Notion is useful for students to organize their notes.

Read for Research

Reading for research is all about finding information that is most pertinent to your project in a timely manner. Focus on the key takeaways of your project and use specific tactics when going into the text to find the information you need. Do not overlook the index of a book or the find feature on a PDF, as it can help you find information quickly and efficiently.

When reading for research, establish a set of key terms, look them up in the index, and see which pages and sections directly reference your subject matter. Reading for research requires a strategic approach to finding the information you need.

Reading and taking notes like a Ph.D. student requires a purposeful and strategic approach. Reading with a strategy in mind and taking notes based on the categories we’ve outlined can help you retain information in the long term. Use note-taking software like Notion to organize your notes and establish a long list of applicable terms to find what you need efficiently. By following these tips, you can read and take notes like a Ph.D. student, regardless of your reading speed or research stage.



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Enter the Zettelkasten: Note Taking, Making, and Organizing

This week, while I’m on a bit of a break between doctoral classes, I’m taking some time to better organize my personal knowledge management system. It’s what I and others refer to as a “second brain.”

Why do I need this second brain? There are several answers to that question, but let’s start with this one: the human brain was not designed to be a storage container. It was designed to make connections between concepts and draw conclusions. In other words, our brains were made to think, not to be an all-powerful, Trivial Pursuit winning, treasure trove of information.

To be sure, I play a mean game of Trivial Pursuit, but not because I’m trying to learn random facts. That happens to me with no focus. It’s a sickness I and many others have that, at the end of the day, isn’t useful for much. Although my wife refuses to play against me in any trivia game…

For me to get the most out of what I read, watch, or listen to, I need a way to make notes and organize them. But perhaps most importantly, I need a way to connect those notes and ideas to create something new.

As lifelong learners, we constantly search for ways to optimize our learning experiences and retain valuable information. In the world of personal knowledge management, there are numerous techniques designed to help us do just that. One such method is the Zettelkasten method, a unique and powerful approach that has gained considerable traction in recent years. My first encounter with the Zettelkasten method—albeit a revised version—was learning how Ryan Holiday writes his books using index cards. A commonplace book also works as a sort of Zettelkasten but with a severe lack of organization.

Let’s dive into the core principles and benefits of the Zettelkasten method, and explore how you can use it to unlock your full learning potential.

What is the Zettelkasten Method?

The Zettelkasten method is a personal knowledge management system that German sociologist Niklas Luhmann created with the intention of improving how we process, store, and connect information. Luhmann used this method to produce an astonishing 70 books and over 400 articles throughout his career. The word “Zettelkasten” translates to “slip box” or “note box,” which refers to the physical or digital space where notes are stored and organized.

Core Principles of the Zettelkasten Method

  1. Atomic Notes: Each note should focus on a single idea or concept, making it easier to digest and connect with other notes. This principle encourages clarity and brevity, preventing information overload.
  2. Unique Identifiers: Assign a unique identifier to each note, typically a combination of numbers or letters. This allows you to quickly locate specific notes and create meaningful connections between them.
  3. Linking Notes: Establish connections between related notes by linking them together using their unique identifiers. This forms a web of interconnected ideas, fostering creative thinking and deep understanding.
  4. Continual Expansion: Continuously add new notes and connections to your Zettelkasten, allowing it to grow and evolve over time. This ongoing process promotes active learning and reflection.

Benefits of the Zettelkasten Method

  1. Enhanced Knowledge Retention: By focusing on single ideas and forging connections between them, the Zettelkasten method encourages deeper understanding and long-term retention of information.
  2. Improved Creativity: The process of linking related notes stimulates creative thinking and helps you discover novel connections between seemingly unrelated concepts.
  3. Efficient Organization: The unique identifiers and linking system make it easy to navigate through your notes, reducing the time spent searching for information.
  4. Personalized Learning: The Zettelkasten method adapts to your individual needs and interests, allowing you to develop a customized knowledge base that reflects your unique learning journey.

How to Get Started with the Zettelkasten Method

  1. Choose a platform: Decide whether you prefer a physical or digital Zettelkasten. Physical options include index cards and notebooks, while digital platforms such as Evernote, Notion (my preferred platform, more to come on that topic soon), or specialized Zettelkasten software like Zettlr or Obsidian offers more advanced features.
  2. Create your first note: Write a brief, focused note on a topic of interest. Remember to assign it a unique identifier.
  3. Expand your Zettelkasten: As you continue to learn, add new notes to your collection, ensuring they follow the atomic note principle.
  4. Link all related notes: Use the unique identifiers to create connections between relevant notes, promoting a deeper understanding of the subject matter.

Conclusion

Of course, this isn’t a complete look at the Zettelkasten method. The more you learn and implement the system yourself, the more you’ll develop your own “style” that works for you. The beauty of the system is its simplicity and adaptability.

The Zettelkasten method offers a powerful approach to personal knowledge management, fostering creativity, deep understanding, and efficient organization. By implementing this method in your learning journey, you can unlock your full potential and become a more effective, lifelong learner.

Recommended Reading

Crafting a Digital Commonplace Book

commonplace book
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One of the most fulfilling tasks I do on a regular basis is updating my commonplace book. What’s a commonplace book? Simple: it’s a place to store all those quotes, lyrics, poems, passages, etc. that mean something to you.

It’s a way to store all the things you read, regardless of their format, in one place so that you can access it any time you want. The concept isn’t new by any means; people across history have kept some form of a commonplace book. Marcus Aurelius had one that would later be published. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, and Virginia Woolfe all had one.

Modern authors like Austin Kleon and Ryan Holiday keep one. The formats change based on the person but they all serve the same purpose: a way to keep track of things that mean something to you.

Ryan Holiday has famously used his note card system as the basis for writing his books, something he picked up while working for Robert Greene.

If you want to dive deeper into this system of note-taking, writing, and organizing, read up on the Zettelkasten Method.

Personally, I keep a daily journal and I’ve been using my own version of the notecard system for the past couple of years. However, as I’m heading into my doctoral work this fall as I write, I’m attempting to update my commonplace system.

While I agree there is tremendous benefit in writing things down on paper – I write in my journal by hand in cursive daily – the real power of keeping a record of all the things in your commonplace book is when you can make connections between different entries.

I’ve tried making those connections with my note cards, but it hasn’t worked for me. So I needed to come up with something better. Something digital.

I’ve come up with a two-pronged approach. One of those prongs is this blog you are reading now.

For too many years, I tried to take blogging far too seriously. Always trying to write something meaningful and important while sharing things that I found or learned with the world.

My anxiety (which turns out to be pretty crippling and only in the last year have I really begun to get a handle on it) wouldn’t let me craft those perfect blog posts.

But, I can create short posts that I can share quickly with the world and store on this blog while organizing it pretty quickly into different topics.

The inspiration for this shift comes from Cory Doctorow. He refers to it as “The Memex Method” and many writers use it to create a commonplace book that doubles as a public database.

memex method
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Enter the Memex

Vannevar Bush famously described the memex as “an enlarged intimate supplement to one’s memory.”

Cory’s link blog is here.

Longstanding tech columnist John Naughton has one here. And I’m sure there are many others out there you could look through.

This blog that has been in existence in one form or another for 16 years is now becoming my public memex, my online database of things I learn, like, and use regularly.

Using WordPress tags, I can quickly filter posts into multiple topics and save them for later reference. And so can any of my readers. Of course, building this will take time and input data on a daily basis.

The second prong of this memex is my personal database, powered by Evernote. I’ve had an Evernote account since March of 2008 while it was still in beta, I think. But I’ve never used it very well.

Now, I have one notebook in my Evernote account. But a bajillion tags. I’m still working through all my existing notes and adding tags which will take some time but I’m feeling good about that progress and excited for the results.

I’m also taking all my existing note cards and scanning them into Evernote for tagging. The tags will sort and connect the ideas from various notes, giving me lots of sources for new articles and possibly even books.

As Robert Greene has said, “Everything is material.”

I just had to find a way to keep my material organized. I’ll keep you updated here on my progress.

Why is this important for educators?

I don’t know. Maybe it isn’t. If you’re a researcher, I can’t help but think it would be useful to have a very organized and connected system for your research.

But for the classroom teacher or administrator, how helpful would it be to connect the threads of all your work over the years? Likely, very helpful. And think of what you could share with your colleagues or future students.