Archive for the 'Elizabeth Jorgensen' Category

Give Your Writing A Dash—of Creativity

writing-675083_960_720By Elizabeth Jorgensen

Earlier today, a student raised his hand and said, “You commented on my paper that I should be using the dash, but I’m actually using a hyphen. But I don’t know how to make the dash.”

I said, “I know Google Docs is not set up to make it, so you will need to modify your settings so you can turn – into — .”

Although an en (word-space-hyphen-space-word) dash and em (word-hyphen-hyphen-word) dash are automatically created in Word, they’re not in Google Docs (where my students craft and submit drafts). At this point, I paused class and asked each student to set up the em dash on his or her Google Doc preferences.

A student Googled how to do this. He said, “Go to tools, then preferences, then add the two hyphens in the left column that says ‘replace’ and paste the em dash into the right side that says ‘with’.”



To paste the em dash, students went to “insert” and then “special characters” and typed “em dash” where it says “search.” This allowed them to copy and paste the em dash into the “with” column. I told students they could also paste the em dash from a different document or from a website that used the dash. I reminded students they needed to select “save” in order for the changes to update.

After updating Google Doc preferences, students went into a Google Doc, keyed in two hyphens and saw the dash automatically created. When some students couldn’t make the dash, others commented they needed to “hit the spacebar.”

One student with a Mac said she uses “shift-option-dash” to create the em dash in both Google and Word. I said, “Depending on your device, you might need a different keystroke.” I told my students to Google “How to make the em dash on [insert your device/program here]” if they still struggled to create the em or en dash on their device and/or document.

Then, I spent time reviewing the different dashes. I projected examples so the students could visually see the difference as well as the dashes and hyphen in context. I said, “The em (—) dash is the longest; en dash (–) is slightly shorter; even shorter is the hyphen (-). Remember, the dashes are different from a hyphen which connects compounded words like Wi-Fi or e-mail. And an en dash is used with numbers or dates (as in July–October 2010 or 1999–2002) while the em dash is what you’re frequently using in sentences.” Students then wrote sentences that used the em dash, en dash and the hyphen.

The em dash is what I primarily focus on in my classroom. At the beginning of each semester, my students read excerpts from On Writing Well by William Zinsser. In his “Bits & Pieces” chapter, he discusses the dash:

Somehow this invaluable tool is widely regarded as not quite proper—a bumpkin at the genteel dinner table of good English. But it has full membership and will get you out of many tight corners. The dash is used in two ways. One is to amplify or justify in the second part of the sentence a thought you stated in the first part. “We decided to keep going—it was only 100 miles more and we could get there in time for dinner.” By its very shape the dash pushes the sentence ahead and explains why they decided to keep going. The other use involves two dashes, which set apart a parenthetical thought within a longer sentence. “She told me to get in the car—she had been after me all summer to have a haircut—and we drive silently into town.” An explanatory detail that might otherwise have required a separate sentence is dispatched along the way.

My students and I discuss how and why a writer might use dashes instead of commas, parentheses, or colons. We discuss the value of varied punctuation and the effect each piece of punctuation can have on readers. And on this particular day, I reviewed the differences in the em and en dash as well as the hyphen. I am hoping this mini, impromptu lesson will inspire students to dash into drafting with a greater understanding of punctuation—and how to both make and use it correctly.


Autism Society of Wisconsin’s Annual Essay Competition

notebook_diary_pen_cover_page_focus_pens_style-1382680By Elizabeth Jorgensen 

For the past 13 years, the Autism Society of Wisconsin has hosted a student writing competition. According to their website, “The Annual Autism Essay Contest is a great way to facilitate a meaningful dialogue about how schools, teachers, and students can support those with autism in the classroom. The contest is designed to assist students in gaining a deeper understanding of autism and how their peers with autism experience the world.”

I encourage my students to write essays and enter this competition. This writers’ market provides students with an opportunity to research, express or reflect. Some students have written about siblings with autism; others have written about friends with autism.

Last year, one of my journalism students, Bella, interviewed an elementary school student with autism; her essay was chosen as the first place winner. This year, she did a similar interview and essay and again, her essay was selected as one of the winners.
In addition to Bella, a student with autism in my creative writing class wrote about his own experiences. Although his essay was not recognized as a winner, one of the judges said he “had a really wonderful essay about his own experiences and what friendship looks like to him…He did a wonderful job writing a thoughtful essay.”

What I learned about my student—and about what it means to have autism—continues to resonate with me. As you likely have students with autism in your class, I wanted to share excerpts from his entry in hopes it can inspire you to understand one student’s experience:

...When I was taking a composition class, we were asked to write an introductory memoir about ourselves. I took advantage of this assignment and talked about my autism and how I cope with my differences. After completing this assignment, we were asked to read our memoir in front of the class. I believe this was one of the first times I discussed my autism to a large group and not my family or close friends…

I have a difficult time coping with change and sometimes my frustration leads to yelling and pounding. When this happens, I really cannot control it, but regret doing it minutes later. This is a big deterrent to making friends. I want everyone to help each other out when they need it most and to make the world a better place for all men and women, no matter the color of their skin, no matter their race or the religion they support, and no matter what is unique about them. I want everyone to treat others with respect and kindness…

I had an abundance of friends, yet most of them changed when they came to Arrowhead High School. From what I remember, I do not think I changed. I was shocked to see the majority of my friends, whom I knew for so long, become (sorry!) more foolish and did not appreciate their education like I do. They still are my friends today, but it was surprising at times to see them behave this way. I, though, became a more serious and hardworking student when I got to high school. I truly was worried when I started high school that I was not going to do well at all.

This characteristic of being a serious student has also affected my friendships. Most fellow students cannot relate to my personality in class of always wanting to do the right thing, being responsible at all times, and following the same process…

My autism has been an important part of me, and what I want students to know is that my brain works differently, and it affects the person I am. To help me, they will have to treat me and other people with respect because it kills me to know that bullying still exists today, and it shines in this campus. To me, it should not. I also want other students to know the same goes with homework; ignoring it just will not do. Accomplish your homework and feel proud.

I want other students to know that I am like everyone else physically, but slightly mentally different. I am glad I found out about my autism, because otherwise, I would not be where I am today.

Although autism has changed my life, it is a journey I continue to learn from. Knowing about my autism has made my life better and it defines who I am. It is still important to me to this day and I am enjoying my life so far. I will continue to enjoy it, no matter what challenges face me!


One Space After a Period. That’s all. Period.

Full_stop.svgBy Elizabeth Jorgensen

Between sixth and seventh hour, a colleague, at least two decades my senior, sat in a student’s desk. “I was taught it is always two spaces.” She wolfed her peanut butter and jelly sandwich before her next class began.

“That was when people used typewriters and a monospaced font. Now, computers use proportional type, so one space after periods is the rule.”

“What? How do you know this?”

“Modern typographers—The AP Stylebook, The Chicago Manual of Style and the US Government Printing Office Style Manual—agree: only one space after a period.” Extra spaces add unnecessary geography for the eye, I told her. “You have an iPhone, right? In Messages, hit the spacebar two times in quick succession. The period and one space will automatically be added.” Even iPhone agrees: only one space.

Am I a grammar snob? Maybe. But isn’t it an English teacher’s job to obsess over grammar rules, over evolving style guidelines? Isn’t it my duty to not only know about, but also embrace modernity?

Hoping to find resources to pass along to my colleague, I researched space rules. I found a Business Insider article by Mignon Fogarty: “Why you should never add two spaces after a period.” Fogarty writes, “In HTML and many blogging platforms, no matter how many spaces you type, they get turned into one space. If you want multiple spaces, you have to hard code it in using the HTML code.” Modern writers, publishing on web platforms, follow the same rules as hardcopy publishers, essayists and journalists. HTML, style guides, newspapers agree: only one space.

Am I elitist? Do I care about something trite? As an author and writing teacher, I care about details. I encourage my students to care about details too: how the essay looks, how the words sound, how the language evokes emotion. I want to see a passion that shows in intentional language, action verbs, uniform tenses and varied punctuation and sentence structures. And consistent, single spaces.

I sent my colleague these articles:

Space Invaders: Why you should never, ever use two spaces after a period” by Farhad Manjoo

Nothing Says Over 40 Like Two Spaces after a Period!” by Jennifer Gonzalez

In Gonzalez’s article, I learned that “although APA guidelines at one time reduced the required spacing after a period from two down to one, they returned it to two in 2009 in the 6th Edition (see section 4, first bullet)…In the legal world, two spaces is still the norm.” Gonzalez suggested, “Although both of these exceptions are irritating, they don’t surprise me, as academia and law are not exactly areas where design reigns supreme. I’m almost positive that in both cases, the spacing is being held onto for the sake of tradition.” I know students (especially math and science brained students) find this difficult to grasp. How can the rule be right sometimes, but not always? I am reminded of the colleagues (I wrote about in a previous blog) who sighed at my attention to Oxford comma inconsistencies. The math and science teachers wanted one right answer. But in writing, like art, often there fails to be one. I remind my students that every choice communicates thoughtfulness, research and attention to detail (or a lack thereof).

Do I believe my generation is right and my colleague’s generation is wrong? No. I realize language evolves. I realize what was once commonplace is now an error; what was once a rule is now opposite. And I empathize when students struggle with English “rules that don’t make sense” or “rules that always change.” I also know when I say one space after a period, some students might not realize I also refer to spaces after exclamation points and question marks.

Just like my previous blog about the Oxford comma, one or two spaces after a period (or exclamation or question mark) can technically be right and wrong (depending on the style guide or purpose). But the key is design and ease. How a paper looks impacts how a reader feels. Think of the way a chef prepares a plate. Presentation either excites or horrifies us, meets or exceeds our expectation. Fogarty’s information about HTML alludes to style as well—it matters how text on websites looks, feels, sits.

After reading the articles I sent, my colleague said, “I will have to use find and replace to help me. Using only one space is a hard habit to break. It’s been imprinted in my brain—and fingers—for forty years.”

“Now, if we can only get everyone in our department to do the same…”


What Every Author Shares: Rejection

stamp-2114884_960_720By Elizabeth Jorgensen

YA author Erin Hahn (@writer_ep_hahn) tweeted, “Every author you respect was told no. Their email alert dinged and it was bad news. They entered their work into a contest and heard crickets. They cried buckets over a bad review. They felt inadequate. But they didn’t stop writing and you shouldn’t either.”

When my mom and I completed our manuscript, we submitted it to publishers, agents and editors. The rejections continue to flood my email and mailbox, forcing me to ask, Is our memoir good enough? Does it have a place in the market? Will anyone want to read it? Despite rejections, my answers remain yes, yes, yes.

In alternating voices, our memoir follows the story of my sister. It starts in 2010. Twenty-four-year old Gwen rebuffed USA Triathlon when they recruited her for a sport she never heard of. Eventually persuaded, Gwen dabbled in swim-bike-run and surprised herself with success. She quit her job as an accountant to train full time. As she pursued the Olympic dream, our family agonized over her bike crashes, her relocation abroad and her competitive losses. But, we celebrated her new skills, races won and finally Olympic gold. More than a sports tale, our memoir is an inspiring family story about one daughter’s/sister’s quest for the ultimate in sport and our family that supports her in that journey.

I envision mothers, book clubs and memoir fans delving into our family’s story. Gwen is followed by 42,000 fans on Twitter, 65,000 on Facebook and 138,000 on Instagram. Some of them must be interested in reading about the upbringing and support that led her to Olympic gold?

After seeing Hahn’s tweet, I googled “rejected manuscripts famous authors” and saw a list that included Kurt Vonnegut, Ernest Hemingway, Louisa May Alcott, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Stephen King, Sylvia Plath. Many were told their ideas would “not sell” and “I wonder if any publisher will buy it.” I am not comparing myself to Vonnegut, Hemingway or Alcott—or have ideas of grandeur for my own manuscript—but rejection connects all writers.

One rejection letter called our manuscript “delightful” before admonishing: the book won’t sell. Another editor said we submitted “a very worthwhile submission, particularly in memoirs” but reminded us that “because of the limited number of trade and regional titles” he would have to decline.

Each rejection challenges my mom and me to keep writing, keep believing, keep working. And to keep reflecting, perfecting, polishing. Is our memoir good enough? Does it have a place in the market? Will anyone want to read it?

Yes, there’s a place for my family’s story. Women want to read about other women, uplifting, supporting, cheering each other. They want a glimpse inside an Olympian and the family that brought her to the pinnacle of sport. They want to peer inside sponsorship, agents, media tours. They want to know what it’s like to experience the Olympics, your sister/daughter the gold medal favorite.

Yes, our story has a place on library shelves, on Kindles and in book clubs. Hahn reminds me it’s okay to feel inadequate, but I have to keep believing, keep writing and keep working until I find the perfect publishing house who believes in our memoir’s story as much as we do. And that’s the message I relay to my students when they doubt themselves and ask, Is my writing good enough? Does it have a place in the market? Will anyone want to read it?

Yes. You just need to find precisely the right publisher who will believe as much as you do.


Five Writers’ Markets For Your Students

fountain_pen_ink_pen_business_document_writing_office_signature-673659By Elizabeth Jorgensen

  1. The WSST Science Essay Contest. See this file for more information: science matters essay contest.docx
  2. The 2018 Autism Essay Contest through the Autism Society of Wisconsin. See this link for additional information.
  3. John Stossel’s price-gouging during natural disasters essay contest. See this link for more information.
  4. Canvas Teen Literary Journal is published quarterly in print, ebook, web video and audio formats. You can find out how students can submit here.
  5. Teen Ink is a national teen magazine featuring student writing, art and photos. Learn more here.



Who Cares About the Oxford Comma?

2000px-Virgola.svgBy Elizabeth Jorgensen

My high school administration, in the midst of crafting a new vision and mission, asked for teacher input during an in-service day. We sat at cafeteria tables, divided by birthday months. My table represented the music, math, science and English departments.

Before providing feedback, we read the proposed new vision, mission and enduring goals. But grammatical inconsistencies clouded my focus and I couldn’t analyze how the vision “embraced the opportunities of tomorrow” or “created paths for students.” The Oxford comma glared at me.

To our group-assigned recorder, I said, “Write down ‘grammatical inconsistencies.’”

“Which?” the math teacher asked.

“The Oxford comma. Here…” I pointed to the vision. “They’re using it sometimes but not others.”

“The what?”

“It’s the comma—the series comma—that separates the last two items in a list.”

“But is it right or is it wrong?” the math teacher asked.

Who says we should use the Oxford comma? APA, MLA, Chicago Style and AMA. Who says forget it? The New York Times, The Economist, The AP Stylebook and European writers.

Look at what you’re reading in magazines, newspapers, blogs and emails. You’re probably not seeing the Oxford comma. As a journalism major, my writing avoids it. I tell my students the Oxford comma has disappeared—just like two spaces after a period. (What? You didn’t know about that? More to come in a future blog.) I tell my students modern writing demands brevity and consistency.

To answer the math teacher, I said, “If your writing is clear without the Oxford comma, why use it? Why waste the space or time…yours or your reader’s? But if you’re writing for a publication that requires MLA or APA—or if your list would be unclear or have a different meaning without it—use it.”

The math teacher scrunched his forehead. “This is why I teach math. One plus one is always two.”

The science teacher, equally as confused, said, “Why would there be two ways to do one thing?”

“English is an art. There isn’t always one right or wrong way. And English is evolving. Take ginormous. It wasn’t a word a few years, but now it is in the Webster Dictionary. Writing is about clarity and about making purposeful choices.”

“So should I use the Oxford comma or not?”

“I would say it’s up to you. But whatever you decide, be consistent.”


Mail Call—an update to “Students Practice Gratitude”

pexels-photo-209641(an update toStudents Practice Gratitude”) By Elizabeth Jorgensen

My second semester students just finished writing letters for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Mail Call project. In this assignment, students thanked a veteran going on an upcoming Stars and Stripes Honor Flight.

In preparation for this project, students watched videos about the Honor Flight and shared stories about family in the military. To learn more about this assignment, you can check out my previous blog post titled “Students Practice Gratitude, Write Letters to Veterans.”

Once second semester letters were complete, I asked students to reflect on this project. Here is what they said:

“This project was a completely new perspective and a unique opportunity for me to write to a veteran on the Honor Flight. I love how it gave me the chance to thank a veteran for his/her service. I was able to learn a lot more (in addition to writing a meaningful letter) about the Honor Flight and what the Mail Call letters mean to the veterans. I appreciate writing a letter to a veteran because they are such an honorable person that risked their life to serve their country. It is so hard for me to express how amazing it is to have the chance to write to such a brave, experienced, and noble veteran!”

Mail Call“I liked that I truly got to thank a veteran. When I see a veteran in public, I say thank you for your service, but that’s all. When writing this letter, I was able to tell them more and let them know how truly thankful I am for them.”

“I appreciated the opportunity to make an impact in a veteran’s life. Personally, I don’t write letters of thankfulness often, and even less often to strangers, but I’m happy that I was able to write something for an important event like the Honor Flight.”

“I love that we are impacting other people’s lives. This project is so much more than just another writing piece, and I think this is a great project because veterans should know how much we appreciate their time served.”

“It was cool to get to watch the Honor Flight movie and to hear all these different stories and watch these videos on other people. It makes writing the letter that much more personal and it is fun to write the letters because I feel special making someone else feel special.”

“At first, I was honestly less than enthralled by the idea of writing letters since I’m not a huge fan of writing essays, structured articles, or letters. However, the more we proceeded with this project, and the more we were shown the impact of the letters, the happier I became with the idea of writing a letter to a veteran. Overall, I’m happy with how my own letter came out, and I’m even happier to know it’s going to make an impact on someone else.”

“I still talk to one of my old middle school teachers. He was my social studies teacher, so I figured it would be a good idea to let him know about this opportunity. He said he’s going to work with one of our middle school English teachers on having the kids write letters and submit to the program! He was very thankful I let him know about this and he can’t wait to have the kids start writing!”

Then, I heard from Karyn Roelke, Vice President of the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight. She said, “The Journal Sentinel Mail Call letters have just made their way to me, and naturally I dove right in, looking for the letters from your students. I have only read about 20 so far, but I am floored and overwhelmed by how wonderful they are. I did pick out one in particular, which I shared on the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight Facebook page. That student only shared his first name, Michael, but please tell him how perfectly he grasped EXACTLY what will mean the most to our Vietnam War veterans. His understanding of their situation and mindset really blew me away. Please encourage him (and your other students) to keep an eye on our Facebook page over the next few days. I suspect the comments that will be posted about his letter will be nothing short of fantastic. Please tell your students how much we appreciate the time, thoughtfulness and care that they used in crafting those letters. They are beautiful, and they will mean so much. Our veterans will read them over and over, and will treasure them…please assure your students that veterans DO read these letters and save them to re-read over and over. We have been told that some veterans have asked to be buried with their mail, it means so much. For our Vietnam veterans, letters like Michael’s can do so much to combat the PTSD and heartache that they have carried with them for 50+ years. The effect is real and profound. Thanks again for your hard work and compassion for our vets.”

I, like my students, encourage you and your students to participate in Mail Call.


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