Maybe you’ve read all this jazz about “flipped classrooms” and “blended learning” and “new education.” Perhaps you’re familiar with tutorial websites that seem to be saying, “So long, instructors: the New School is all online!”

Well, we don’t really buy that.

The Style Academy is a supplement for writing instructors for both advanced grade school students and college students. Each of the instructional videos teaches a principle, provides examples, and invites students to do exercises all under the assumption that you, dear teacher, will close the instructional loop by reviewing their exercises and providing additional instruction. While these videos will be useful for teaching important style principles, they cannot help students apply those principles in their own writing or assess how well they do so. In other words, we can’t do the most important work of teaching style. Only you can do that. But we hope that through these videos, students can learn new principles of style that they can bring into your classroom to wow you with their writing.

what are our pedagogical assumptions?

The Style Academy takes principles from three specific approaches to style instruction, all of which have emerged from writing studies research: generative rhetoric, imitation, and sentence combining.

  • Generative rhetoric is often associated with Francis Christensen’s article titled “A Generative Rhetoric of the Sentence.” The underlying assumption of his work is that writing works by addition—specifically, by the addition of modifiers to base clauses (or main ideas). These modifying additions have direction, as well: they precede the main idea as openers, interrupt subjects and verbs, and follow main ideas as sentence closers. For students to benefit from this approach, they need to know something about how phrases and clauses work as movable sentence parts. Christensen wrote that there can be no “useful transactions between teacher and students unless they have in common a language for talking about sentences.” We hope the Style Academy supports instructors seeking to set down this language with their students.
  • Mentor texts provide valuable insights into the craft of “real” writers engaged in “real” writing. We gain much from observing the way that master writers ply their craft, and you’ll see us make liberal use of excerpts from authors we admire. In pedagogical terms, we see this often referred to as the “notice-name-apply” method, where the teachers shows a model and asks students to notice what’s happening, then helps give a name to this technique, then encourages students to apply the technique in their own writing. This instructional flow is at the core of many of our tutorials.
  • Imitation is as old as rhetoric itself. Greek and Roman schoolboys were instructed to copy the rhetorical performances of established speakers and writers in order to learn what makes language effective. In an environment hyper-aware of plagiarism and originality, imitation might seem like the last thing any teacher would want to encourage. But imitation—copying the exact words of a mentor text or mimicking the style—helps students internalize the rhythm of language so they can become more effective writers of their own sentences. Back then and now, imitation is meant as an exercise to limber up a student’s composing skills. A recent meta-analysis of writing instruction demonstrated that the “study of models” has a modest, but clear, positive influence on the prose of young writers.
  • Sentence combining teaches students how to practice bringing together clauses in creative ways. Through sentence combining, students practice writing one sentence by combining two simple sentences.The 2007 Writing Next study, sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation and mentioned in the last bullet point, revealed that sentence combining exercises help students improve their own methods of coordinating, subordinating, compounding, and modifying.

We have also used principles from our own research and teaching over the years.

Each of the lessons follows a pattern of instruction associated with Constance Weaver and other writing teachers. We provide authentic examples of writing, show how that writing uses an important principle, give further examples of the principle in action, and then invite students to practice using that principle. We’ve heard this approach called the “notice, name, apply” approach.

We assume not every writing student will be interested in watching these videos. Your students may find some of the videos too fast, some too slow. We encourage you to review the materials on the Style Academy to determine which ones will work best for your students.

how can instructors use the Style Academy?

That’s up to you. We’ve designed our lessons to be short—around ten minutes each—so that you can assign a lesson for homework, with the anticipation that the next day you can take 5-10 minutes to review the principle and see how the students responded to the exercises. While there is no set curriculum here (as in first A, then B, then you’ll be ready for C), we do have a module titled “covering the basics” with lessons that we feel need to be learned first in the process. It is essential, however, that students who take these lessons have the opportunity to ask an expert like yourself questions about what they’ve learned and how it can be applied in your class and in the writing work you have them doing.

We want to emphasize, too, that these exercises have their limitations. These lessons are not meant to be a stand-alone curriculum, replacing genuine writing instruction. They’re also not complete; in no way does the Style Academy represent a complete compendium of all that style is or can be. In addition, we’d be the first to encourage caution for any exercise that takes time away from students producing their own work. These exercises, while useful, are de-contextualized. In other words, they take time away from the specific writing tasks you assign. However, we hope that through taking the lessons and doing the exercises, students will improve the sentence-level writing they do for you in those writing tasks.

Although there is no set flow for how you might incorporate a tutorial or module into your teaching, here’s a suggested sequence:

  • Examine the writing you’re asking students to do and/or their specific needs in terms of style or rhetoric. Choose an appropriate technique (e.g., passive vs. active voice, using the semicolon, balance in sentence craft) that would be appropriate given the needs of the genre or your students. In this case, note that less is probably more: Asking students to focus on only one technique will help them hone that technique; asking them to focus on several techniques is likely to frustrate them and yield poor results.
  • While students are drafting or when they’ve reached the point where they’re reading to revise their writing, assign them the appropriate Style Academy tutorial including any exercises. Expect to integrate the web site materials with your own instruction in the following class period. (See the video embedded below for a model of what this follow-up instruction might look like.) We suggest providing additional sentence work (combining, imitating, etc.) with the selected concept in class where you can monitor and provide feedback on students’ efforts to implement the technique. This could be followed by direct application to the writing they’re doing.
  • Hold students accountable for implementing the technique by requiring them to utilize it in the final draft of the writing piece they’re working on. We’ve had good success by also requiring students to annotate examples of the technique in their writing; in this annotation, students can comment on the intended effect of or rationale for using the technique.

Again, there are other ways of using the material on the site, and we encourage you to experiment and adapt to the needs of your students and your situation. The video below shows an example of what follow-up instruction (i.e., after students have viewed a Style Academy tutorial) might look like.

is there any way to “talk back to” the Style Academy?

Yes. This version of SA is, as you can tell, a work in progress, a beta, a first draft. We’d love to hear about how you are using it in class and how we could make it more effective. Please feel free to write comments to the following email address: <styleacademyvideosATgmailDOTcom>

Thanks for checking out the Style Academy!