Reflecting on my EVO Course

My EVO session on Crafting the ePerfect eBook is done and I even have the certificate to prove it!

It’s been really interesting. I’m not sure what I had expected. I was looking to get some advice on writing and writing online and maybe some more experience. I came in with a few vague ideas that I have had for online textbooks but haven’t been sure are feasible. In the end, I went in a direction that was different from the majority–rather than an eBook for students, I ended up starting an eBook for teachers (based on some research I’ve done on cooperative or collaborative group work).

The best part of the workshop was probably all the moral support and all the examples. I got a lot out of looking at other people’s books. I also picked up a lot of Ebook Resources including publishing formats and articles and programs.

Most importantly, it was a chance to reflect on what an ebook is and what it can do. I recently posted here that for the main advantage of an eBook is its portability. I can read on my iPhone everywhere which I really enjoy. However, the idea of an interactive eTextbook never fully grabbed me. In fact, the last place I worked when they did eBooks, they very similarly basically scanned everything on to the Internet and added the listening files. I suppose my feeling as a teacher was that working with paper and working with technology are basically the same thing except working with technology often takes longer.

My eyes have really been opened. I see there are a lot of fun interactive toys on the Internet that can be used for education AND can be incorporated into an eBook. Another of my objections was that I like books to be, well, books–finite, concrete, holdable. There should be a thing there that is a book. Books don’t have to be linear but they shouldn’t be infinite or uncontained. So it was interesting to see how people embedded widgets or even links into PDFs and other ebook formats. That way you have a page that is self-contained but links out.

That’s probably the area I learned the most about: formatting. And the area that I would like to discover more about is design. I’d really like to find pages with concrete advice about fonts to use, how to space and align things and so on.

So overall I got a lot out of it and I plug away at my eBook from time to time. Maybe you’ll see it offered on this very site!

Snowball Texting

Dupont Circle snowball fight This is a really fun game that students love to play. It gets them writing and communicating, and while it does get out of hand pretty quickly, it gets energy up.

Out of great adversity often come the greatest inspiration. In this case the adversity was mine and the inspiration a colleague’s. But the students don’t have to know that. The other day I came running up to my friend at work almost in tears after a difficult class: “They’re so bored in class. They don’t understand what I want from them. Every time I try to explain, it ends up being so boring! Help!” After some more venting and some grappling with the problems individually, we came up with at least one solution: the need for a fun warm-up game at the beginning of class. This is a great writing warm up that has a lot of applications.

We devised this brilliant synthesis of Exquisite Corpse and the Snowball Fight Game that another teacher was using as a review. The students loved it and it produced some pretty good work. It definitely energized them. I have a few ideas for follow-ups but I’d love to hear more:

How To Play Snowball Texts

  1. Bring in enough blank pieces of paper as you have students–they should be identical.
  2. Before class put a model on the board, something like this
  3. Introduce the activity by asking students if they text or chat on Facebook. Elicit the kinds of things they talk about.
  4. Ask if they chat in English. Elicit or introduce the idea that if they are on social websites all the time, using English is a good and fun way to practice.
  5. Tell them that you are going to practice in the class, chatting with each other, but the fun part is that you won’t know who you are chatting with.
  6. Demonstrate with the top part of the model dialogue. Show that you want a literate conversation.
  7. Quickly review the bottom part of the dialogue. Elicit what is wrong with each response. (#1 is rude, #2 is random #3 responds to the question, instead of continuing the conversation and #4 isn’t writing).
  8. Now hand out the papers and tell everyone to write a question they would ask a friend over text or Facebook or Twitter. You can put up some model Qs like:
    • How was your day?
    • How much homework do you have?
    • Do you have any plans for the weekend?
    • Are you watching the Olympics?
  9. When everyone has written something (you can play too to guide it a bit), have them crinkle up their papers and on the count of three, throw them around the class. Ideally, they should be throwing them randomly to create random conversations, so watch out for students throwing at a specific student.
  10. Now everyone scrambles for a paper, opens it up, reads it and answers it.
  11. Once everyone has answered it, they crinkle it back up, and throws it.
  12. Then everyone scrambles for a paper, opens it and reads it and CONTINUES the conversation. This step requires a bit of attention to make sure they aren’t answering the original message or doing something else odd.
  13. Repeat ad nauseaum. For a warm-up 10 minutes is a good 8-10 line conversation.

Some teaching tips:

  • Watch out to make sure they are continuing the conversation and not just writing random things.
  • Make sure they are writing complete answers and not racing to get to the throwing and running around bit.
  • Keep an eye out for where snowballs go and make sure none get lost or that no one is hogging them.
  • Part of the fun is that they can write freely, without the teacher knowing, but depending on the age and level, you might keep an eye out for bad language, abusive messages, and slacking off.


  • I tried to turn this into an exercise on coherence and with some more input from BBBBAF, I’d do it like this: Ask what they have in their hands. Someone should say, “A conversation” and someone else should say, “A mess/nothing/a joke.” Ask what kinds of things make it a messy dialogue. Then put them in groups and say, “Fix it. Make it coherent. Rewrite sentences, add transitions, reorder, delete sentences. Do what you gotta do.”
  • You could turn it back into a snowball game by having students guess who wrote what parts of their conversation.


  • One obvious variation is to have them do it in partners, so it becomes more of a real conversation. I’d put them back to back, or even on opposite sides of the room so they can’t communicate any other way.
  • You could say that they have to end their message with a question, to keep the dialogue going. (a la The Question Game)
  • You might turn this into a structured writing activity, so person 1 writes a thesis statement. Person 2 gives an example. Person 3 elaborates on that example. OR Person 1 writes a description of a person. Person 2 writes an action sentence. Person 3 gives a background and thus they make a communal character study.

Other ideas? Suggestions? Variations? Similar activities?

Goal 16: A Failure Story

It’s funny because I just finished working on my Teaching the Argument Essay and Rebuttal Form Lesson Plan and was perusing the list of 30 goals when this one caught my eye: A Story about Failure. This lesson plan came from a huge failure.

I used to teach in an intensive English program with a very set curriculum. We had to teach what we had to teach and we had one month to teach it in. In level 109, which is the last level of advanced, students had to write an argument essay, including using rebuttals. (OK, technically, they didn’t have to use the rebuttal form, but it was an option and I like teaching formal argument styles). The first time I taught it, I was extremely excited. I had taught only lower levels before so I thought, “Here’s my chance to work with advanced students and I’m teaching the argument essay. Students love to give their opinions. This should be so easy!” I expected showing them how to use an opposing argument in an essay would be difficult, but I also knew I was empowering them as they would have a chance to explore ideas in a new way. In short, I was excited and I kind of forgot that not everyone gets as excited about writing as I do.

My plan for the first essay was:

  • Day One: Example essay. HW: Reverse Outline
  • Day Two: Review Reverse Outline. Review Opposing Argument and Rebuttal. Class Brainstorm. HW Outline for first essay
  • Day Three: Peer Edit of outlines. Types of Support. HW: Write one body paragraph
  • Day Four: First Draft begun in class, finished over the weekend.
  • Day Seven: Final Drafts due.

Yes, this is the pace at which we teach the essays. For some teachers, this is down right leisurely. Because as soon as we get them done with the first essay, we have to get them doing their second essay. So a delay of a day or two can throw the whole thing off.

So day one, I had them open their books to the example essay, which is a two page examination of why same sex schooling is ok for middle school aged students. They didn’t really get the essay. We discussed the meaning of argue and opposing argument and rebuttal. They got it in the abstract but not in context. We reverse outlined the example essay. They could barely identify the author’s opinion, let alone opposing arguments. We brainstormed opposing arguments and rebuttals in class using simple examples. They could only parrot back to me what I said.

The next day we went back and analyzed the sample essay in even more detail. I gave them a sample body paragraph exactly like the one I wanted them to write. We analyzed it to death. But in the end, all they could do was parrot examples I gave them back at me. They had no idea how to write an opposing argument or a rebuttal. They didn’t understand a word I said. At this point, I was stressed out because I had no idea how to fit in this essay AND the second essay and get them ready for their final exam (yet another essay!)

Day three, we labored over the same thing again. It was horrible for all of us. They were trying to talk me into canceling the essay, which was impossible. I don’t know how we muddled through that first essay because it literally got to the point of, “Just write the essay even though you will fail because we have no choice”.

Upon reflection, I realized a big problem was getting the students to buy into it. They had to realize why the rebuttal argument was important. They needed to know that an opposing argument makes their writing stronger. I ended up writing two paragraphs, one with opposing arguments and one without. We looked at both of them and discussed why they liked the one with opposing arguments more. Then I showed them some authentic examples—it happened to be campaign season and campaign ads use opposing arguments all the time: “My opponent thinks we should raise taxes. However if we raise taxes….” Once they saw that this form was useful and used outside of the classroom, they were much more excited about learning it. They were also able to use it better because they saw there was a goal-—to communicate their opinions more effectively.

Now I make sure to always tell my students why I am teaching them an essay form or reading skill or grammar point and exactly where they will use it in the real world.
Frankly I also learned about useless curricula and stupid paces. Now if I can’t find a place that they will use the skill or grammar in the real world, we skip it. And if it gets to the point that students are doing something just because the syllabus says so, regardless of what they have learned, I skip that too.

Argument Essay with Opposing Arguments and Rebuttals

Teachers at my school dread teaching the opposing argument and rebuttal because students struggle with it so much. The first time I taught this it literally took a week to get them able to make an outline. So I developed this set of worksheets, handouts and lesson plans to teach students to write rebuttals into an argument or opinion essay. It’s been a huge success! After this lesson, students will understand why we write opposing arguments, how to use them, and the relationship between the opposing argument and support. This lesson is for more advanced students and will take around 3 days.


To teach students to write better argument or opinion essays


  • Students will understand why the rebuttal form is effective
  • Students will learn to recognize opposing arguments and rebuttals in argument and opinion essays
  • Students will be able to brainstorm and outline opposing arguments and rebuttals


Warm Up

Make sure students know they are going to write an argument essay, which expresses their opinion on a topic. Usually this is on the syllabus and the book introduces it in some way or another. However, a fun way to set them up is to give them a controversial topic and let them debate for a while. Fun innocent controversial topics include:

  1. Who is the best football player ever?
  2. There should be no homework.
  3. English-only in the classroom is the best way to learn English.
  4. X class should be cancelled because it is useless where X stands for the least popular class in school.

Let them discuss a bit, summarize the main points, then tell them that they are going to learn how to write such awesome essays that everyone will agree with them!

Now, write on the board:


Thesis Statement

Topic Sentence

Supporting Argument

Opposing Argument


Ask students to brainstorm for 5 minutes what these terms mean and what the relationship between them is. Hopefully you will get something like:

Your thesis statement is your opinion. Topic sentences relate to the thesis statement. Topic sentences can be parts of the main opinion. Supporting arguments are reasons like examples or facts. 

And they won’t know what an opposing argument or a rebuttal is.

Why an Opposing Argument and Rebuttal?

Briefly explain that an opposing argument is the opposite of a supporting argument. It’s a reason someone might disagree with your point of view, or something your opponent might say. A rebuttal is a way to prove your opponent is wrong. Ask if they think it’s good or bad to include opposing arguments in their essays (but don’t get too bogged down with it yet and don’t feel too much like the AT&T interviewer guy). Then tell them you are going to present them with two paragraphs that are pretty controversial.

Hand out the Why the rebuttal form paragraphs. Have them read them in pairs and then answer the questions which basically guide them to seeing why opposing arguments make an essay stronger. As you go over the question answers, elicit that both essays have the same thesis statement and opinion–drugs should be legal.

Paragraph 1 gives three reasons: everyone has the right to do bad things to their body, alcohol is legal, and legalizing drugs can lead to tax money for the government.

Paragraph 2 gives one reason only: everyone has the right to do bad things to their body.

Paragraph 2 starts with an opposing argument, the opposite of what the author things and then proves why that argument is wrong with a rebuttal. Finally, it gives some supporting ideas.

Most students will find paragraph 2 more convincing. Ask them why and work around to the idea that even though it gives fewer reasons, the opposing argument is (probably) the students’ own opinion–Drugs are bad, m’kay? By including that, the reader feels the author is listening to him or her and not just pushing his or her opinion down their throat. The author understands you may not agree with him or her and thus is trying to convince you. Explain that they still may not agree (and that you may not agree either) but that paragraph two is more convincing.

Other examples of opposing arguments and rebuttals include: campaign ads and arguments about sports (Oh come on, Beckham is only good at penalty kicks. Messi has scored way more goals).

Find the Opposing Arguments

Hand out the Argument Essay OutlineGo over the sample outline asking, does this argument agree or disagree with the author’s opinon? How does it agree? How does it disagree? If it disagrees, how does he rebut it? What do you think of the rebuttal?

Hand out the Highlighting Activity essay. First, have students read it and do some comprehension work with it. Make sure they get it. Be sure to tell them that it’s a student written essay as that is highly motivating.

Once students understand the content, have them do the highlighting exercises in groups step by step. As a class go over every step to make sure that the students are on the right track. I used to have students highlight, but my school could never keep that many highlighters of different colors so I changed it around. Here’s the Highlighting activity answer key.

In-Class Outline of an Argument Essay

At this point students should have a good idea of what an opposing argument is and how they work. Now I like to do an in-class outlining using the Argument Essay OutlineI either put the blank outline up on the projector or make a mock one on the board. Students each have a copy and together we brainstorm an essay. For large classes, I have them do this in small groups.

As a class pick a topic that is easy for students to argue such as school uniforms or why writing essays is useless. Now have them brainstorm as a class different opposing arguments and rebuttals. Make sure when you pick an answer to put on the board, that you explain why.

For example, imagine you are writing about why school uniforms are good. You ask for an opposing argument and students call out: “Uniforms are ugly at my school”, “I hate uniforms”, “Uniforms are expensive because you have to buy them at a special store.” As you write the third sentence down, explain that it’s more universal and objective, more people will agree with it. Note that some people like uniforms and some uniforms are nice looking so those opposing arguments aren’t as strong.

Finally, I have students outline their own essays.


Obviously this lesson is part of a larger project on writing an argument or opposing essay. So the logical next step is to have students come up with a topic, brainstorm opposing arguments and rebuttals, and write an essay!


The Great Turkish Owl

Hand drawn Owl

I’m a big fan of OWLs. Not the birds but the Online Writing Labs. Purdue has one of the more authoritative ones but I just found this one from a Turkish University: BOGAZICI UNIVERSITY ONLINE WRITING LAB.

I really like the way it breaks down the different essay types into rather comprehensive but easy to understand models. And I like that it’s written by someone from a different academic tradition because some of the things that we miss (we being those who have gone to school in the West and have written a million 5 paragraph essays) are picked up here–like what makes a good introduction for a cause and effect essay.

I know it’s the latest buzz but I do think the genre-based approach is going to change how essays are taught and this OWL really hits that approach by breaking down what different kinds of essays are for, what information they include, how they are organized, and how to put one together. And a lot of that process is so obvious to a Western educated teacher that we don’t notice what we don’t notice. I think students will really benefit from this site.