Ever notice that students seem to learn a particular rhetorical convention or grammar point, then go back to an earlier stage of writing. I've noticed that my learning seems to take one step forward, and then regress, too.

One Step Forward
A year ago. I had finally got around to fixing the trackback on my blog. It seemed strange: Although my page template had scripts for Haloscan but not for Yahoo maps api, the html code showed the latter but not the former. Apparently, around January while playing with the design, I changed which templates were being referenced to an older version in another folder. What led me to looking for the template location was something that Mark Bernstein, the designer of Tinderbox (the software I use to write this blog) had said on more than one occasion: Look at the HTML code.

Easy enough to change folders. After fixing it, however, I created another problem. After I added google analytics script to the page template, the sidebar dropped below the posts. It made no sense that the one would lead to the other, but I took the script out anyway. Sure enough, that didn't fix it. Comparing my template with another orginal one, I saw that somehow, while pasting in the script, I had somehow deleted six important characters after the post division: </div>.

One Step Forgotten
Apparently, despite the many times Mark has advised me to look at the HTML code and the few steps I've taken in doing so, I may still forget to look at the code. On Thursday, I downloaded Tinderbox 4.0. When I looked at the web version of a post I was working on, there was no formatting. It was as if the CSS had disappeared. For some reason, I didn't compare the before and after HTML codes. If I had, I would have seen that they were different. Anyway, I emailed Mark, who replied:

Also, there's a warning in the release notes about stylesheet export -- a new tag pair


need to be redefined as empty strings for notes that are exporting stylesheets or other code where paragraph markup is unwanted.

Sure enough. That was the problem. And another problem was that I hadn't seen the release notes. Usually they're included in the DMG image, but not this time. Now, common sense might've told me to look in the Help menu, but I didn't. After all, they hadn't been there before. It took another email from Mark to direct my attention to this possibility. It's hard to see something when you're looking in the wrong direction.

Like Student, Like Teacher
I'm much like my students. That is, although everything that Mark had told me was pretty much common sense, at least for someone who was overly familiar with Tinderbox, HTML, and CSS, it wasn't so for me. And although everything that I tell my students is common sense, at least for someone like me familiar with English, writing, and language elarning, it isn't so for my students. And like me looking at HTML code, my students often zigzag in their ability to remember grammar points like subject-verb agreement and rhetorical conventions, such as framing quotations. Why would that be?

Forgetting and Learning
Anderson and Schunn in their article "The implications of the ACT-R learning theory: No magic bullets" (pdf) state that there are three learning processes (at the subsymbolic level):

1. Power Law of Learning. As a particular skill is practiced there is a gradual and systematic improvement in performance which corresponds to a power law. ...

2. Power Law of Forgetting. As time passes performance degrades, also according to a power function. ...

3. Multiplicative Effect of Practice and Retention. Most important, the Base-Level Equation implies a relationship between the combined variables of amount of practice and duration over which the information must be maintained. ...

This implies performance continuously improves with practice ... and continuously degrades with retention interval .... Most significantly the two factors multiply which means that increasing practice is a way to preserve the knowledge from the ravages of time.

As these are power laws, learning is a logarithmic function:

Picture by Hay Kranen / PD

In other words, (1) with practice, learning increases quickly; (2) with a lack of practice, retention of learning drops off quickly; and (3) the effects of (1) and (2) interact in a way that multiplies each other rather than just adds up.

In my case, I seldom look at release notes, infrequently look at HTML and CSS, and so easily forget. In the case of students, although they may be using English every day and may be writing every few days, they are only reminded every few weeks about subject-verb agreement or rhetorical conventions, when after turning in a draft, they receive my feedback. Their time on grammar and rhetorical conventions is insufficient to stabilize it. So, sometimes they remember and sometimes they don't.

Understanding these power laws is crucial to helping students improve their writing. Most of the literature on grammar feedback and error correction with L1 students say that it doesn't work, and the L2 research has had contradictory results. However, it's unlikely that students in any of this research practiced specific grammar points frequently enough to stabilize them. Of course, it may not be feasible for most students to practice enough and for most teachers to give feedback frequently enough in order to take advantage of these power laws of learning and forgetting. I have no real answers at this time, but for some of my earlier thoughts on error correction, see my series of posts beginning at Error Feedback in L2 Writing.

Dave Munger reports on research testing the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis that language influences our thoughts. In an experiment on distinguishing aliens,

The students who saw the labels learned the difference between approachable and unapproachable aliens significantly faster than students who didn't see the labels -- even though the labels gave them no information that wasn't available in the unlabeled condition. During the testing session, 8 new aliens that hadn't been seen before (but were clearly members of one of the categories) were introduced. Once again, the students who had seen the labels performed significantly better (no labels were present during the testing session).

Many of the students in the unlabeled group actually reported that they invented their own names to keep track of the two kinds of aliens. A second experiment confirmed the effect using spoken words as labels instead of written words. Interestingly, a third method of labeling, on-screen location, did not produce results significantly different from unlabeled objects.

Here, it seems, we have a clear case of language influencing thoughts. When people have a label for a category of objects, they learn how to identify objects in that category quicker than if they don't have a label. They're also better at identifying new objects that they haven't seen before.

These findings have implications for learning to write. That is, by giving students labels to recognize different aspects of writing, such as warrants for example, they will be able to recognize them more effectively in others' writing, and hopefully in their own writing. I've seen that in my own students' writing. One student, some years ago, wrote the following two observations in his journal:

Well, practicing, that’s good. ... rhetoric theory, it’s good, because ... you have to have some organization and I knew what was definition argument, and evaluation argument, but I didn’t have words and conceptions for this. ... You have kind of structure ... for some things, but rhetoric gives you concepts, it’s more easy to deal with it. ... sometimes we read something and you recognize this ... you know what the guy’s doing

I’m reading a text written by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) in 1615 called “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina” (Drake, S. Discoveries and opinions of Galileo). I’m astonished with Galileo’s power of argumentation! He defends his scientific cause within the theological affairs and gives good reasons! I observed that he used in his text arguments of character such as quotations of St Augustine and other greats figures of the church….

As you can see, by learning labels, such as "arguments of character," or ethos, he now sees them in his readings and understands how Galileo is using them. Of course, we all use labels to give us an easy way to talk about something, such as the present perfect tense in grammar or thesis statement in organization. But now we have a better reason to use labels: they facilitate learning new concepts.


Culture affects your brain according to recent brain research at MIT (Live Science via Neuroanthropology).

Neuroscientists Trey Hedden and John Gabrieli of MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research asked Americans and East Asians to solve basic shape puzzles while in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. They found that both groups could successfully complete the tasks, but American brains had to work harder at relative judgments, while East Asian brains found absolute judgments more challenging.

It's possible that those preferences can change. From the article,

Gabrieli said he is interested in testing whether brain patterns change if a person immigrates.

"There's a hint that six months in a culture already changes you," he said, referring to psychological, rather than neurological, research. "It suggests that there's a lot of flexibility."

Although such findings could lead people to stereotype others, as Gabriele said,

I like to think the more you understand different cultures, the better you understand their perspectives."

Neuroanthropology gave the following information on the research:

 Trey Hedden, Sarah Ketay, Arthur Aron, Hazel Rose Markus, John D.E. Gabrieli (2008). Cultural Influences on Neural Substrates of Attentional Control.  Psychological Science 19 (1), 12–17. 

ABSTRACT—Behavioral research has shown that people from Western cultural contexts perform better on tasks emphasizing independent (absolute) dimensions than on tasks emphasizing interdependent (relative) dimensions, whereas the reverse is true for people from East Asian contexts. We assessed functional magnetic resonance imaging responses during performance of simple visuospatial tasks in which participants made absolute judgments (ignoring visual context) or relative judgments (taking visual context into account). In each group, activation in frontal and parietal brain regions known to be associated with attentional control was greater during culturally nonpreferred judgments than during culturally preferred judgments. Also, within each group, activation differences in these regions correlated strongly with scores on questionnaires measuring individual differences in culture-typical identity. Thus, the cultural background of an individual and the degree to which the individual endorses cultural values moderate activation in brain networks engaged during even simple visual and attentional tasks.

These findings may explain in part why what is so clear to me as a teacher is not so clear to my students.

Below are links to articles on using comic books in school and to online comic book applications.

Comic Books in the Classroom (NY Times) reports on the Comic Book Project at Teachers College, Columbia University, which helps students become more interested in art and writing.

Teachers are finding it easier to teach writing, grammar and punctuation with material that students are fully invested in. And it turns out that comic books have other built-in advantages. The pairing of visual and written plotlines that they rely on appear to be especially helpful to struggling readers. No one is suggesting that comic books should substitute for traditional books or for standard reading and composition lessons. Teachers who would once have dismissed comics out of hand are learning to exploit a genre that clearly has a powerful hold on young minds. They are using what works.

Thinking outside the box, inside the panel (Valerie Strauss, Washington Post) also reports on the Comic Book Project. The project's founder, Michael Bitz,

wanted to combine his research findings -- that learning through the arts can have academic and social value for children -- with a creative approach to get kids to combine skills such as reading, writing, brainstorming and conceptualizing ideas. Creating comic books, he said, would allow them to draw on their experiences and interests.

Interview with Michael Bitz of the Comic Book Project (Christian Hill, National Association of Comics Art Educators).

Teachers are getting graphic (Greg Toppo, USA Today) is a lengthy article on those using comic books in public schools with a section on those not in favor. Those in favor feel that getting students interested in reading comics will lead to their wanting to read more serious books.

Even French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre loved comic books, Gantos says. "This is a pretty heavy thinker, but he said in his autobiography that he started off reading comic books as a child and that if it wasn't for comic books, he never would have stuck with books.

Comic Book Project proves to be effective learning tool is a news release on The Maryland Comic Book Initiative.

Comics in the Classroom is a site devoted to using comics in school and has lesson plans, news, and reviews, all pertaining to using comic books.

Read-Write-Think is a site that has an online comic creator with accompanying lesson plans for using the tools.


Tales from the Public Domain: Bound by Law? is a comic book from the Duke School of Law for teaching about copyright:

“Bound by Law translates law into plain English and abstract ideas into ‘visual metaphors.’ So the comic's heroine, Akiko, brandishes a laser gun as she fends off a cyclopean 'Rights Monster' - all the while learning copyright law basics, including the line between fair use and copyright infringement.” -Brandt Goldstein, The Wall Street Journal online

Heroes in the Classroom: Comic Books in Art Education (Jay Berkowitz and Todd Packer) is a 7-page JSTOR article (published in Art Education) that gives "background, guidelines, and a lesson plan to help you use comics and cartoons in these artistic skills of students."

For those with access, Bitz has a journal article on the Comic Book Project (see excerpt below):
Bitz, M. (2004). The Comic Book Project: Forging alternative pathways to literacy. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 47.

In this arts-based literacy initiative in urban after-school environments, children brainstormed, outlined, sketched, wrote, and designed original comic books that represented their lives as urban youth.

Many deep-rooted problems in urban areas of the United States--including crime, poverty, and poor health--correlate with illiteracy. The statistics reported by organizations such as the National Alliance for Urban Literacy Coalitions are telling. Urban citizens who cannot read sufficiently are at a clear disadvantage in life. They are more likely to be poor (see Barton & Jenkins, 1995), to be incarcerated (see Haigler, Harlow, O'Connor, & Campbell, 1994), and to have health problems (see Baker et al., 2002). Meanwhile, another body of research shows a strong correlation between arts-rich environments and children's academic performance (Burton, Horowitz, & Abeles, 1999). Of course, the jury is still out on the conundrum between the chicken and the egg: Do the arts make kids smarter, or are smart kids involved in the arts?

While the debate continues in the academic community, the fact remains that most urban schools are not "rich" in arts or anything else. Most urban schools cannot make a connection between their arts and academic programs be cause there are simply too many other issues to worry about, particularly budgets and standardized test scores. Even in an arts-oriented program, urban youth face extraordinary challenges: family situations, safety concerns, lack of affordable or appropriate instructional opportunities, and peer resentment (Oreck, Baum, & McCartney, 1999). As urban schools continue to struggle, many now look to after-school programs as the future of education in the city. The need for and development of after-school programs are on the rise, and many...

Links to online tools for making comics:
Make Beliefs Comix
Comics Sketch
Strip Generator
Strip Creator