Bringing Formal Back

One writing trend I’ve noticed in my class over the last few years is a decreased ability to use formal language in speech and written work. I’m really not sure why this pattern is emerging but I have a hunch that it is due to increased use of informal mediums of communication-like text messaging or tweeting.

Formal Style is Out of Style

I’ve also thought that the communication style of influential leaders like U.S. president Donald Trump has contributed to this gap. In his Washington Post article detailing Trump’s use of language, Bastien Inzaurralde says that the 45th president rarely uses prepared speeches to address large audiences and has become famous for informal communication style. For example, the president frequently answers questions with only two words. Two common short replies are, “Not good” and “Great people.” This kind of informal register is surprising given the president’s position and the formal, public context of most of his remarks. It also has an impact on the millions of listeners and watchers that are tuned in dayily.

Is Learning Formal Style Not Important?

While formal written and spoken registers may be in decline, it remains a really important practical skill that everyone uses at some point in their life. Resumes, letters (or emails) to civic, political or workplace leaders, all require a formal style of writing. Further, the academic and specialized vocabulary that is needed to write or speak in a formal setting is really helpful for any student who will be required to do more academic writing in the future.

Lavalin Letters to the Prime Minister

Through out the last few months, our class has been paying close attention to the SNC Lavalin affair as it has unfolded in our nation’s capital. One of the many reasons that my students find this issue engaging is because one the main players, former Justice Minister and Attorney General of Canada, Jody Wilson-Raybould is a local Member of Parliment in the Vancouver-Granville riding.

In an effort to help my students develop some formal writing skills, develop their own voice and participate in the democratic process, I asked them to write Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a letter giving him their advice regarding this situation. I also challenged them to consider sending the letter to the Prime Minister to make the task more authentic. Below, is an example of one of a letter written by one student.

Dear Prime Minister Justin Trudeau,

Our class have been learning about the SNC-Lavalin affair and I am writing to you regarding this case. We learned about SNC-Lavalin’s “checkered” history. We also discussed how you are worried about jobs being lost and we know how hard you are working to keep SNC-Lavalin a running company so Canadian’s won’t lose their jobs.  But I think Ms. Jody Wilson-Raybould was doing her job right which is keeping Canada fair.

 I admire how you stood up for Canadian’s jobs and I think you took a big risk and I respect that. But I think it was unnecessary how you moved Ms. Wilson-Raybould down from her position as a Justice Minister and Attorney General. Mr. Prime Minister, according to the “What in the World? – The SNC-Lavalin Affair” article issue 7, when you took office in 2015, you appointed Ms. Wilson Ray-Raybould yourself.  Wilson-Raybould clearly stated that the SNC-Lavalin company was going to court and Attorney Generals are supposed to make decisions independent of politics. She was following what you have assigned her to do.

 I value your leadership but in my opinion, I think Ms. Jody Wilson-Raybould did nothing wrong to be stepped down. I think her decisions and her strong opinion makes her a fair Justice Minister. I would want to see her back in her office and let her continue to do what she thinks is best for our country as a Justice Minister.

Sincerely and most respectfully,

7M Student

Another student was able to avoid using the first person pronouns and includes a few more formal vocabulary words. A sample of his letter is below.

Dear Mr. Trudeau,

On April 27, 2019, Jody Wilson-Raybould was expelled from the position of Justice Minister. She claimed that the government had pressured and harassed her with messages, emails, and calls in an attempt to get her to intervene in SNC Lavalin’s criminal case. She did not give in to the pressure, which is a just response, but you silenced her by transferring her to Veteran Affairs. SNC Lavalin did some illegal things, like bribing other countries with millions of dollars, then, instead of admitting to the crime, they tried to cover it up. Then you tried to help them avoid the crime.

If you had just admitted what they did wrong and what you did wrong, the punishments would have been dealt, and then everyone would be forgiven. Work with what you have now by apologizing to the people you hurt, like Andrew Wernick, Jane Philpotts or Jody Wilson-Raybould.

You fired Ms. Wilson-Raybould when she came forth with the messages and a call with Michael Wernick coercing her to comply. I do understand that you were looking out for all the people working at SNC Lavalin, but you tried to cover what you did, and then removed a very important person. That is very wrong. At a time like this, I suggest you apologize.


7M Student

I have really enjoyed reading these Prime Minister letters and would recommend it to other teachers as writing idea. The only missing part in this project, at this point, is a reply. I hope the students who did send their letter to the Prime Minister’s office will receive a reply from the in time to share it with the class before we break for summer.

If you have ideas or suggestions for teaching formal writing style to your students, I would be interested in hearing from you in the comments below.

Header photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash

The Power of Publishing

Over the past few years, our middle school has emphasized Project-Based Learning (PBL). PBL is a specific, inquiry-based model for teaching that has several distinct elements. One of the most powerful of Buck Institute’s Seven Essential PBL Elements is the final, “Public Product.” This pivotal, last stage of the project is where students share their work with the public by explaining, displaying or presenting it to audiences beyond the classroom.

Motivation to Learn

Sharing your work with a large audience can be scary for anyone but it’s also extremely motivating. Preparing a presentation or piece of writing for others creates a healthy pressure to produce your best work. This kind of pressure is distinctly different other classroom scenarios where the teacher may attempt to motivate the class by threatening to deduct marks or promising prizes for the best work. Under these conditions, the motivation of the students tends to centre on the teacher instead of their own learning. However, when students know that they will share their work with an audience beyond the classroom, they are more intrinsically motivated to make sure their best work is on display.

Supplying an authentic audience works to motivate students in a way that most of us are familiar with. Let’s say your boss asks you to make a big presentation at work. The task itself calls on you to put forward your best communication skills. You pour dozens of hours into your final product because you want to leave an impression on your audience. The classroom is no different. Who wants to write a story or make a book review just so their teacher can read it? What student wants to create a piece of writing that will be hidden in a digital folder or stashed in a pile of papers? The answer, of course, is that no one does. To make creative work meaningful, it needs to be shared with an authentic audience.

Storybird Student Publishing

Gathering an audience can be a tricky business but having the right tools is important. During the past few weeks, I learned about a publishing tool that gives students the ability to reach a larger audience with their writing. It’s a website called Storybird. Unlike many of the publishing platforms out there, Storybird is specifically focused on students.

How it Works

The website functions in a similar way to other educational websites. Teachers can create a class within the site and invite students to join. Before joining the class, the students need to create an account. If your school uses G Suit, it is really handy to have them create an account using their Google credentials. Once they have created an account and joined the teacher’s class, they can publish an Ebook or PDFs with beautiful illustrations for free. At first glance, it looks like students have to pay about $3.00 to publish these files, but once the students begin composing their story, they begin accumulating crowns that can be used to purchase a PDF or Epub file of their illustrated work. Students can also gather enough crowns to publish their work by having their parent sign up to receive communication from the website.

Publishing Formats

The Storybird website also has three different published products: Longform Books, Picture Books and Poetry. Due to the length of the stories that my class had already authored, I decided to have them create Longform Books. In the longform format, students can publish a written piece as one, long chapter or they can divide it into separate chapters. Although the Longform Books didn’t have as many illustrations as the Picture Books, there was an option to embed photos within the chapters. At the end of the composing and editing process, my students publish their stories as PDF file so that we could share them on the digital portfolio website we use called, Seesaw. Below, I’ve uploaded a few PDF versions of my student’s stories so that you can see what the final product looks like.

Although I was primarily interested in publishing a PDF file, because the affordability was appealing, there is also an option to order reasonably priced, printed copies on the website.

Storybird Publishing Considerations

  • It looks like the site is designed for students to pick a theme of pictures and write a story that conforms to those pictures rather than writing first and then finding pictures later. For example, the pictures are organized in themed packages and you cannot upload external pictures to add to your story. You also cannot pick illustrations from other packages. This is a limitation of the website that really matters–especially if you are creating Picture Books.
  • At the time of this post, there isn’t any clear way for writers to indent their body paragraphs. The first line of the first paragraph of each chapter can be indented, but I couldn’t find a way to indent the paragraphs that followed.
  • When composing Longform Books, students are required to publish their chapter before they create the next chapter. This was a bit confusing for my students because it looked like they were making multiple copies of their books. In the end, we discovered that publishing each chapter privately was just how the site worked to compile the chapters.
  • During the publishing process, it is a good idea to pre-buy download credits just in case someone has to publish their book twice–which happened to us a number of times. Buying the credits in bulk saves a lot of money. You pay $.20/download instead of $2.99!
  • I initially thought that my class would be able to share their stories with the other readers on the Storybird website, but as it turns out, student sharing is more limited than private accounts.
  • There are also writing lessons that you can assign your class on Storybird and I’m looking forward to trying one of the lessons with my class.

The Result

I wish I could bottle up the buzz in the air as my students composed their stories and send you a sample. The class was so proud to present their published products to each other and to their family and friends.

I’m still looking for ways to spread our stories to a larger audience through iBooks. If you have done something like this in the past, I would love to connect with you or read about your experience.