Archive for the ‘On Teaching’ Category

Teachers (and writers)! Free Class Next Monday on How to Teach Narrative for the Common Core

Posted in News - updates on books, events, appearances, etc., On Teaching, On Writing  by John Brown on July 24th, 2013

If you feel a bit lost or anxious about how to teach narrative for the new core, especially stories, I think I can help.

I’m an educator in the private sector and an award-winning novelist and short story writer. I’ve been teaching authors in various venues how to write for the last five years. I’ve been on writing podcasts with thousands of listeners, taught at a number of writers conventions, and had a series of articles published by the national Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America organization, an organization for professional authors. I’ve also been helping Nellie, my wonderful wife, teach her 7th and 8th grade language arts students the unit on short stories during that same period. We’ve taught it to twenty different classes and picked up a number of important insights along the way.

This last year I couldn’t help but examine all the materials Nellie brought home during the district’s writing program adoption investigations. Some programs looked very promising; others not so much. Some got some things about writing flat out wrong. Most of the programs had gaps.

Furthermore, because I work with so many people wanting to write, I know that it’s difficult to teach if you really don’t understand what stories really are and how they work. For lots of people, the subject matter can seem impenetrable. And yet writing stories is such a wonderful way to teach writing, especially because so many kids love it. You won’t find a kid who will spend extra hours writing a business letter or poem analysis, but you will find quite a few who will go crazy writing stories. And the whole time they’re practicing their writing skills.

The question is how DO you write a story?

What is a story?

How can you tell if it’s good?

How do you come up with ideas?

Where do you start?

And what the heck is this chart? Do writers really use this? (Not many that I know.)

Story Diagram plot-mountain-pic

And does anyone think changing the diagram to look like Aspen, Colorado actually helps?

Story Diagram Aspen 

Hey, students—please make your story look like Aspen, Colorado!  (Yeah, that’s going to be effective.)

And yet it’s not as difficult as it appears. Nellie and I have seen a lot of kids really get into writing stories. We’ve seen kids WILLINGLY going way beyond the assignment to write stories that are eight, twelve, twenty-five plus pages. And as they’re writing, they’re practicing grammar, spelling, structure, vocabulary, etc. without knowing it and having a great time. I know that if you enable your students, many of them will write, write, write. Especially in grade school. But also in the higher grades.

Stories can be a blast. The assignments can connect to many students. And the results can be wonderful. I’ve laughed out loud at some of the stories coming out of Nellie’s class. Others have been enjoyable on other levels.

But for this to work in your class, you need to know some key things. You need to understand the core of story and the story development process. You need a lesson plan that details everything step-by-step so your students don’t flounder. And you need to know some fundamental tips (secrets?) about teaching this content.

So I’m going to hold this day-long class for you. A full eight hours. And share everything Nellie and I have learned. This class will be for teachers at ALL levels (I’ll show you some ways to scale the complexity of what you’re doing). There will be NO cost. The only thing you have to bring is a pencil, paper, whatever program materials you have, and a willingness to have a good time.

When we finish, you will know how to write a simple story like the ones your students will write because, ta-dum, you will write one! AND you’ll have a step-by-step lesson plan that builds on whatever materials you have—an official program or one of your own. AND you’ll understand story better than 99% of the population. AND you’ll have a bundle of techniques to help your students. AND you’ll solve both world peace and maybe the lost sock conundrum.

Truly, I think that instead of feeling stress, you’ll actually be looking forward to teaching and writing stories with your students. If not, you may bring tomatoes and huck them at me, but please be aware that I will not stand still; to find satisfaction, you will have to be able to hit a moving target.

If you’re interested, just click the Contact John link under my photo in the left sidebar and send me an email letting me know.

Hope to see you in class!


Topic: Teaching writing (narrative & the common core)

Who: Teachers (and writers at least 18 years old), seats are limited

When: Monday, July 29th, 8:15 AM – 5:00 PM

Where: Rich Middle School, 54 E 100 S  Laketown, UT 84038

Materials you need to bring:

  • Pencil
  • Paper
  • The writing program you’ll be using this year
  • Kooky socks, for those who cannot resist the urge
  • A lunch or a way to get one


8:15 AM Arrive

8:30 AM – 9:20 AM

  • Can you create a redneck crapper?
  • The 1st secret to teaching writing: Attributes & techniques
  • The 5 parts of story
  • Thieves prosper – using existing patterns
  • A car, a beggar, and an idiot — basic pattern 1

9:30 AM – 10:20 AM

  • The 2nd secret to teaching writing: Do it with them
  • Technique: Sketch then draft
  • Workshop 1: Zombies and kisses
  • Technique: Zing hunting
  • Workshop 2: Hunt zing

10:30 – 11:20

  • What makes a story big or small
  • Workshop 3: Select a right-sized THOM and character
  • Workshop 4: Select a Goal
  • Workshop 5: Make character sympathetic
  • Workshop 6: 3 tries
  • Workshop 7: Resolution


12:00 – 12:50

  • The 3rd secret to teaching writing: Cognitive modeling and the 6-step process
  • The 4th secret to teaching writing: Our tiny brains
  • Writing is telling: Narrative & description
  • Technique: Yes, SiR
  • Technique: Broad-brush + 1
  • Technique: The Pause

1:00 – 1:50

  • The 5th secret to teaching writing: Have fun
  • Workshop 8: Write your story

2:00  – 2:50

  • How the pros revise—concept, line, & copy
  • Workshop 9: Content edit
  • The 6th secret to teaching writing: Our brains are still tiny
  • Workshop 10: Line edit

3:00 – 3:50

  • The 7th secret to teaching writing: The 3 grunts (responding to a story and grading)
  • Share stories
  • What the heck did we just do?

4:00 – 4:50

  • How to adjust for grade level
  • Common core
  • Your program and lesson plan
  • Identify black holes
  • Wrap up & next steps

Florida education results – wow!

Posted in On Teaching  by John Brown on August 24th, 2010

Jeb Bush oversaw what appears to be an amazing transformation in education results in Florida from 1999 to 2007. He came to Utah to talk to legislators to share those results and what Florida did to achieve them. The Deseret News summarized some of it. However, anyone interested in education needs to learn more. Luckily, you don’t have to be among the special 300 who got to attend.

Bush started a non-profit as soon as he finished his time as governor. It’s called Foundation for Excellence in Education. On its website you can watch The Florida Formula Student Achievement which gives you the overview. Yeah, it’s 80 minutes long. So what? The education of our children is one of the most important things we can spend our time on. It’s worth two episodes of Seinfeld reruns or The Office. When you’re finished, you then might want to watch any number of the other videos out there or explore their material on excellence in teaching.

There is one key thing that has to be gotten right, however, for the whole thing to work. And that’s the test. All of this is based on performance on Florida’s FCAT. Right now I’m not too confident of Utah’s core tests. First, no teacher knows what’s on them. If you don’t know what you’re being measured on, it’s kind of hard to live up to the measurement. A lot of people go all Chicken Little about teaching to the test–“don’t teach toward the test! oh, no we’re teaching to the test!” But if the test is structured correctly, then that’s EXACTLY what we should be teaching to. The second issue is the very objectives we’re testing. I have not been impressed with Utah’s state objectives. Bad objectives and a bad test sink the whole operation. I’ve written more on these two issues here.

Still, I think Florida is on to something. Watch the video and then tell me what you think. I would be thrilled to have what I’ve seen so far implemented in Utah.

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Why we should treat schools like movie theaters

Posted in On Teaching  by John Brown on February 10th, 2010

Here is a slightly altered version of a letter I just sent to my state senator, state congressman, and local school board members. The Utah House is discussing HJR3: Joint Resolution on Teacher Performance Pay, which sounds wonderful but fails to address the heart of the issue. Furthermore, it appears to open the gates to counterproductive programs like the Midway Elementary pilot described here.

The short version is that I would find it very difficult to contract with any type of service provider if they either couldn’t or wouldn’t clearly communicate what they would deliver. Can you imagine contracting with a lawn care company, builder, tax accountant, lawyer, or doctor who charged you but wouldn’t tell you what they were going to do or had done for the money? Yet this is precisely the situation we find ourselves in with our public education. People call for testing and accountability, but how can we have any accountability when there’s nothing clear to account for?

I know many teachers and administrators and have full confidence in their intentions and smarts. However, it appears we’re dealing with a fundamental flaw in our education service. A service that could not survive with such a flaw in the private sector and only exists in the public sector because the state has a monopoly on education. I’m not arguing for school choice. However, I am asking that this flaw be fixed.

I hope the arguments I’ve made below will resonate with your experience and prove useful to you as you discuss this topic.

Psst, I’ve Got a Bridge

Is there anyone reading this article who regularly goes to the movie theatre, pays for a ticket, sits down, and then DOESN’T expect to see the movie? And if the theater fails to play the movie, is there anyone out there who wouldn’t demand the money back?

Anyone, anyone?

If you answered yes to both of those questions, please contact me using the link on the left—I’ve got a bridge I think you’ll be interested in.

The fact is that when we contract with someone to provide a good or service, the provider is obligated to provide that good or service to us. If they regularly fail to provide what they promised, then common sense dictates we find another provider (as well as use all legal means to recover our payment or enforce delivery). Nowhere is this basic principle more applicable than it is with the service of public education.

My wife and I both firmly believe schools and teachers must be held accountable. But it must be done in a way that recognizes the fundamental nature of the public education service.

We have seen both sides of this matter. A number of years ago when we lived in Ohio, my wife and I ran into issues with teachers who weren’t delivering quality education. After many attempts to work with the schools, we realized there was no way to ensure they would deliver. So we took our girls out of school and homeschooled them for a few years until we could get them into a school that could deliver. On the other hand, my wife is now teaching the 7th and 8th grade language arts program at Rich Middle School in Laketown and knows that despite her best efforts some kids still struggle. So we have strong feelings for arguments on both sides of this issue. As for myself, I have twenty years teaching experience in the private sector and have learned, sometimes the hard way, about what happens when you fail to recognize the nature of education and account properly for results.

Slackers and Shared Responsibility

While thinking about the movie theater example above we must keep in mind that any contract for a service requires both parties to meet certain conditions. For example, when I purchase a movie ticket, all parties understand that Stadium 8 Movies is responsible to show a film at the time and location specified. However, all parties also understand that I’m required to show up, and, if I’ve got the vision of Mr. Magoo, wear my glasses. We BOTH have responsibility.

This shared responsibility applies to all contracted services. Alas, many people seem to forget that when talking about public education. On the one side, you have people clamoring for school accountability, testing, and rolling heads if objectives aren’t met. And this is reasonable—not only have we paid good money for the service, but it’s for our most precious possessions! On the other side, you have teachers pointing out that they can’t force people to learn. An obvious, but seemingly often forgotten fact.

It’s true that some schools and teachers have used shared responsibility as an excuse and cover for inferior instruction. On the other hand, even the best teachers will deliver lackluster results in some situations because you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. It’s also true that some parents have used shared responsibility as a cover for their own unwillingness to accept responsibility for their children’s behavior. On the other hand, if a program is ineffective, it doesn’t matter how diligently students follow its steps—they still fail.

Both sides are right. Teachers have significant responsibility, but they don’t have full responsibility for student outcomes because a huge part of scholastic success depends on the child, his or her parents, and the home situation. The solution is to hold both parties responsible for the part they’re accountable for.

The Conditional Guarantee

So how do we do this?

We do it the same way we do it with piano teachers and personal trainers. The same way we do it with vacuums and washing machines. In all of these and hundreds of other situations, the provider is making a CONDITIONAL promise: “If you follow the steps I outline, you will get the promised result. If you don’t follow the steps, the guarantee is null and void.”

In education, teachers and schools should be held accountable for providing effective programs for getting from point A to point B. These programs should ensure that every student who completes the required steps will learn X, Y, and Z.

So if Billy completes the program, but doesn’t know his stuff, or if the teacher didn’t provide the promised service, then the teacher and school should be held accountable. However, when Billy fails to complete the work, then the responsibility for the failure falls squarely on the shoulders of Billy and his parents.

These same principles apply to students who work hard but are challenged in various ways—English as a second language, dyslexia, etc. Teachers should be held accountable for helping these students. But if such students only complete part of the program, parents and the State cannot hold the schools and teachers accountable for delivering the promised results of the full program.

Schools promise effective learning programs. The only time we should expect them to guarantee results is when their program is followed.

This means the way you hold teachers and schools accountable is NOT with a general performance test because some students might not have completed the required steps, i.e. they might not have shown up to the movie theatre. No, what you do is test based on completion. If students who have completed the steps don’t know their stuff, then the method is flawed, the service a sham, and we call in the cavalry–Get Gephardt on Channel 2 News! If the school or teacher doesn’t make the changes necessary to be able to deliver an effective program, they must be replaced with providers who can.

How HJR3 Opens the Door to Waste and Underachievement

Recently, our Utah legislative House Education Committee unanimously approved a resolution that would recommend that “the goal of any future efforts to develop performance pay or differentiated pay plans for public school teachers should be to ensure that there is a quality teacher in every classroom.” Such pay plans should also “promote student achievement and support quality instruction.”

All worthy goals. However, “Utah Legislature: Testing teachers — Educators could soon receive pay based on student test scores,” a February 8, 2010 article in the Deseret News article, reveals that having such goals without recognizing the conditional nature of teaching, can quickly lead parents and educators astray. For example, the article reports that Midway Elementary School is currently piloting a performance pay program that would determine a teacher’s pay in the following way: 40% based on how well students performed on annual tests, 40% on whether the teacher took teacher training courses during the year, and 20% based on parent satisfaction surveys. According to the article, “After the two-year pilot, state education officials aim to eventually create a statewide proposal.”

Such an incentive pay program demonstrates a serious misunderstanding of the conditional promise at the heart of the education service. Furthermore, it proposes measurements that will not only fail to reward results, but may end up undermining achievement.

First, as discussed above, tests for conditional services only have meaning when the student has completed the required steps. You cannot hold teachers accountable for results when students fail to follow the program. If you do, you will give teachers and schools incentives to find ways to ensure student test performance that have little to do with mastery of a subject. Furthermore, you will obfuscate the critical responsibility parents and students have. As students and parents begin to shift their responsibility onto the schools, achievement will decline. Finally, holding teachers accountable for more than delivering an effective service is likely to penalize teachers who are doing an incredible job, but are working with children who face many challenges that prevent them from moving through the program as quickly as others. Rewards based on one-size-fits-all annual tests will not improve results.

Second, teacher training may or may not translate into effective methods. Rewards should be given to those teachers who develop effective systems, regardless of how many classes they do or don’t take. Don’t reward teachers for taking classes, reward them for results. Strike two!

Finally, while customer satisfaction surveys can help a provider assess how well it is delivering its promised service, such surveys have severe limitations for public education. For example, to be a valid measurement, the survey has to gather responses from the people who received the service. The problem with parent surveys is that the parents aren’t the ones in the classroom—how do they know what kind of service the teacher has provided? Oh, that’s right, the kids will report it accurately. Yeah, do you remember that bridge I have?

Furthermore, the survey needs to focus on the elements promised in the service. However, parents usually don’t know what’s been promised (often from no fault of their own). Not knowing what’s expected, they will base their satisfaction on things that may or may not matter, things that may or may not be part of the bargain. There’s no provision to base the survey on the promises made by the schools. Strike three!

The Midway pilot should be rejected for something that actually focuses on the conditional nature of the public education service. I don’t know how resolutions guide education policy, but I’m against any that allow such a wasteful use of our scarce dollars.

A Better Way

There’s no doubt we need better accountability in schools. But it doesn’t start with tests and surveys.

It starts with defining the intended results in a more practical and simple way. How can you hold someone accountable when you don’t even know what it is they’re supposed to provide?!

The vast majority of parents have NO idea what they’ve contracted the school to do, only a vague “educate my children.” Press them, you’ll see. Even the ones that go to parent teacher conferences. They don’t know because we don’t make it easy for them to know.

My wife and I have both tried to understand the State objectives for our daughters. I have a master’s degree, she has a bachelor’s, and we both have a hard time understanding the documents. In fact, we had a devil of a time finding them in the first place.

But even more telling is the fact that most teachers don’t quite know what they’re supposed to teach. If you don’t believe me, ask any teacher to explain the key things tested on the Utah annual core tests or on the state list of objectives. Of course, some may not be able to answer because there are no objectives for their subject. We spend quite a bit of money on services where the schools make no promises at all (history, PE, current events, drama, music, etc.). No wonder many parents are frustrated!

These objectives need to be practical, which means they’ll be influenced by the input of professionals who actually work in the subject domain. For example, the State objectives for language arts should be informed by a wide variety of people who actually write at the highest levels, including professional authors, technical writers, journalists, and editors. State objectives for art or music, would be informed by graphic artists and professional musicians with an eye towards what’s relevant for the students and their goals.

Everything starts with reasonable and simple objectives.

Second, make it very easy for parents and students to see what they’re responsible for and what the teachers promise to deliver. One key component of this would be a very easy to understand checklist that would allow students and parents to quickly see the steps or milestones in the program for a certain topic. Another tool would be a short document that explains exactly what services the teacher promises to provide, e.g. learning environment, student access, prepared lessons, etc.

Next, spend time and money developing programs that are proven to actually deliver on the results when followed. But don’t mandate a one-size-fits-all approach. Let each school use whatever works. This way the schools have the flexibility to test new ideas and continuously improve their service.

Finally, create tests that measure the promised results and nothing else.

It’s true that some outcomes might resist quantitative measurement. But that doesn’t mean objectives can’t be set and measured qualitatively. Furthermore, some people worry about teachers teaching to a test because they fear teachers will forget to teach the real stuff. But teaching to a test only becomes a problem when tests are divorced from the desired outcomes.

For example, let’s say I want to learn how to shoot a gun with accuracy at fifty yards. How would you test to see if I’d learned that? Easy. You have me shoot a gun at fifty yards and check how many shots made it inside the prescribed area. And how would you teach that? You’d have me shooting a gun at fifty yards. In this situation there is no difference between the test, the teaching, and the promised learning. Yes, shooting with accuracy is a motor skill, but the principle applies to cognitive skills as well. When outcomes and tests are aligned, teaching to the test = teaching the right stuff.

What the state needs first is a resolution to get the fundamentals right. Once we have those down we can create resolutions that reward quality service because we’ll be able to measure that service appropriately. Until then, incentive reward systems are likely to do more harm than good.


To sum up, only a numskull would claim Stadium 8 Movies owed me a refund if I decided to dink around at the park instead of showing up at the contracted time and place and watching the movie they played. On the other hand, only swindlers would take money for a service and feel they shouldn’t be held accountable for providing what they promised to their customer.

For such a contract to work, both parties must understand what the other will do. When we provide clear expectations and appropriate tests, we can begin to leverage all the human capital we have in all the schools around the state. One elementary school in Price might develop techniques that prove, through rigorous testing and their own field study, to speed the learning of a certain subject. If they do, reward them. Other schools throughout the state can then try to replicate results, verifying or improving on the methods. If they improve their processes, even by copying someone else, reward them. This can happen over and over with hundreds of classrooms and teachers. In such a way, schools can continually improve their ability to deliver.

But none of that is possible when we don’t recognize the fundamental nature of public education. And especially when we develop incentive systems like those included in the Midway pilot that reward the wrong behaviors.

Schools provide a service that comes with a conditional promise. We need to find effective ways to hold schools and individual teachers accountable for developing and delivering effective programs. And we need to help parents and students clearly see the steps they must take to lay claim to the promises made by those programs. This is what we should be focusing on.

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Ack! It’s English class

Posted in On Teaching  by John Brown on September 2nd, 2009
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Lorrie McNeill gives her middle school students a wide choice of reading in Jonesboro, Ga.

Junior High and High School English = grammar, spelling, and reading Cliff Notes.


It all depends on the goal. The NY Times recently published an article about a whole other approach to language arts. Nellie is one of those who is trying this new approach with her 7th and 8th graders.

She’s had experienced similar fears, similar results, and similar comments from parents as the teacher featured in the article. Most importantly Nellie has kids reading more than they’ve ever read in their lives, writing more than they ever imagined they could. And it all derives from a change in the goal—make lifelong joyous readers and writers versus teaching the students to be able to recite facts about a given set of works.

Of course, the students still learn literary concepts and grammar, but only as it supports and relates to their writing for publication, whatever form that publication may take (family newsletter, review in local or school paper, letter to favorite author, pro, etc.)

She’s loving this program and has been amazed at some of the stuff these kids produce and the progress they make when natural motivation kicks in.

BOOKS | August 30, 2009
The Future of Reading: A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like
The experimental approach is part of a movement to revolutionize the way literature is taught in U.S. schools.

And for you who might think society might fall if we let them choose their books, consider this…

LIFE & STYLE, AUGUST 29, 2009, 5:04 A.M. ET
Good Books Don’t Have to Be Hard: A novelist on the pleasure of reading stories that don’t bore; rising up from the supermarket racks
By Lev Grossman

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Literary reading rates on the rise

Posted in On Teaching, On Writing  by John Brown on March 11th, 2009
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What great news!!!

Washington, D.C.For the first time in more than 25 years, American adults are reading more literature, according to a new study by the National Endowment for the Arts. Reading on the Rise documents a definitive increase in rates and numbers of American adults who read literature, with the biggest increases among young adults, ages 18-24. This new growth reverses two decades of downward trends cited previously in NEA reports such as Reading at Risk and To Read or Not To Read.

Adults up 3.5%, young adults (ages 18-24) up by 9%. Full article here. Full report here (with nifty graphs and tables).

They attribute it to reading programs. Perhaps. I’m sure JK Rowling phenomenon had something to do with it. Whatever the reason, it’s good to hear.

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Building Expertise by Ruth Colvin Clark

Posted in John's Reviews - books, movies, whatever, On Teaching, On Writing  by John Brown on January 29th, 2009
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When we find a great teacher, we prize them not only because what we learn improves our lives but also because good learning can be one of the most exhilirating things we experience. Unfortunately, a lot of teaching stinks. It’s boring, rambling, forgettable.

I’ve made a study of teaching. I’ve had to. For almost 20 years I’ve taught and designed courses in the private sector. And for many of those years my work has been in a revenue generating department. What that means is that if my classes are ineffective and dull, nobody signs up, revenue falls, and a lot of folks will stand around and wonder if it might not be better to just replace me with a potted plant. At least a plant would be something pleasant to look at, plus it would also clean the air.

Now not everything I do is stellar (I wish that were so). Sometimes in the quality, cost, speed triangle, quality is the thing that takes the hit. But the point is I have to be alert and try to miminize the schlock. But how do you do that? How do you develop and deliver effective and interesting education?

Luckily, the field of instructional technology (I’m not talking about computers, but principles of instruction) has come a long way in identifying what works and what doesn’t. This is important because teaching theories of the past (many of which are still used today) often relied on rules of thumb and anecdotal evidence. Their precriptions were often ineffective and sometimes counterproductive. What’s exciting is that in the last few decades researchers in this area have put techniques and principles to the test. We know better now than ever before how to structure learning that is effective and interesting. And I have yet to find a better explanation of the proven techniques and principles than Ruth Colvin Clark’s Building Expertise: Cognitive Methods for Training and Performance Improvement, 3rd Edition.  

Don’t let the “training” part fool you. We often associate “training” with learning procedures and simple tasks (which is what leads to the “we want to provide sex education, not sex training” obfuscation). But Clark isn’t using the term that way. Training here includes all types of learning.

What Clark does is not only share the techniques that build expertise, but also the psychological reasons and research-based evidence for those techniques. This isn’t nonsense based on personality or political correctness. It’s practical and proven.

Among other things, you’ll learn:

  • Why working memory is key to instruction and how to overcome its limits
  • How to motivate learners
  • How to structure learning
  • When to use lecture and when to put learners into action
  • What methods work best

You’ll learn when taking notes can actually be counterproductive and what you can do about it. Or how making your delivery more personable (and what that means) can actually improve attention. You’ll see why lots of practice isn’t always the best answer–sometimes your child will learn more if you do half of their homework questions for them.

You’ll find that there “Is no Yellow Brick road” in teaching. Instead, you’ll see that the effectiveness of any method depends on whether it’s suited to the specific situation. And Clark will explain what the key factors in any situation are so you know which methods to apply and the trade-offs you’ll make when you do.

If you’re a teacher in any setting–family, job, church, school, or recreation–or if you’re trying to teach yourself, this book (specifically the 3rd edition) will be a goldmine for you. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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