Matt is available for keynotes or workshops for teachers and/or administrators on the following topics:

Teaching in the Margins

It may seem hyperbolic to say, but ineffective and/or inefficient feedback to student writing is one of the biggest threats to building a robust, cohesive, and coherent writing curriculum. The reason for this is that even if teachers are as efficient as possible with providing feedback, it still takes a lot of time; when feedback is given inefficiently, the number of hours it generally takes limits teachers to assigning just a handful of papers the entire year, which is not enough to build a serious writing curriculum around. When it comes to ineffective feedback, not only are numerous teaching hours lost when students don’t learn from the comments in their margins, but the opportunity cost is massive. Comments on papers are often the main contact point students have with teachers and teachers are often the only audience many students get for their writing. That makes those comments the chief place where many relationships and writing identities are formed. Further, the one-on-one nature of feedback makes it the very definition of differentiation and the single most powerful place to teach lessons ranging from grammar to metacognition. 

This workshop begins with common inefficiencies, missteps, and areas where effectiveness is lost when teachers give feedback. To get a sense of this section, here is my Ignite Talkfrom this year’s NCTE conference, which is on similar topics. It then offers practical solutions on how to become more efficient and effective with one’s feedback and how to avoid wounding students with our criticism, as a few poorly phrased words can wound students deeply. It also discusses the importance of having lots of ungraded writing and writing that the teacher never assesses (here is a link to an Edutopia article I wrote discussing this) and explains how to use feedback as a place to build relationships, motivate students, and reinforce and teach key lessons.

Grammar in Context

Grammar matters. It can stand in the way of clarity and meaning, students will be judged harshly in the world according to their use of it, and it is heavily covered on standardized tests. Yet in recent years The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and The New York Times have all called into question how grammar is taught in this country. There is good reason for this too. Over the last half a century, an overwhelming majority of studies have found that the isolated, sporadic worksheet-based method of teaching grammar that is commonplace across the country is at best ineffective and at worst harmful to students’ development as writers.

This workshop first breaks down the research above and unpacks the reasons why out of context, isolated grammar worksheets don’t work. It then examines the question of how to teach grammar when the tried and not so true method of grammar worksheets regularly fails to lead to significant growth. The focus then shifts to the idea of teaching grammar in context. It explores what that actually means and provides clear steps and a wealth of practical resources for how to incorporate teaching grammar in context. Some examples of the types of classroom tested lessons and resources it provides are the following: 

  • A lesson where sentence combining and dissecting (what I call playing the accordion with sentences) is used as the vehicle to teach end punctuation, paragraphing, and those tricky commas.
  • A lesson where students look at how they express emotions and emphasize in their text messages and then learn how to use colons, commas, dashes, and semicolons to bring emotion and emphasis into their current essays.
  • A structured discussion about what grammar is, where it comes from, and why we learn it that ends with a discussion of what I call Marker Words, or words like their/there/they’re or I/me that mark someone as speaking or not speaking the right dialect for the moment. 

Beyond the Five Paragraph Essay

Argumentative writing, especially in the classic five paragraph form, gets the vast majority of attention in most writing classes. While argumentative writing is a crucial skill to master, it is only one of a number of important genres that our students must be able to proficiently write. Knowing how to tell one’s story is an essential skill, both the SAT and ACT are shifting away from argumentative writing and towards rhetorical analysis, research and informative writing skills are foundational for the next levels of education, and the ability to write creatively will become more and more valuable as our digital world gets louder and louder. Even the Common Core now lists argumentative as only one of three core writing genres, with informative and narrative being the other two. 

This workshop is a highly practical one that walks teachers through established best practices for teaching these various “other” genres. Included are teaching materials, student and professional mentor texts, and a wide range of resources like videos, publishing platforms, and online tools. Also included are suggested progressions, both for the lessons within each genre study and for the order in which the genres are best studied. Key genres that could be covered include narrative, rhetorical analysis, personal essays, presentations, creative fiction and non-fiction, poetry, and informative/research papers.

Teaching the Writing Process

Donald Murray once said that “Writing is Revising”, and I think few, if any, experienced writers would disagree with him. A robust series of revisions is often the gatekeeper standing between dull, disorganized writing and something that is interesting and clear. But this is not how most students understand writing. Most students I talk to see the writing process as writing one draft and then using spelling/grammar checking programs. For many of them, major changes are something only done if they mess up.

For years it seemed that no matter what I did–whether I begged, attached points, quoted famous authors extolling the importance of revision, or refused to grade until a piece of writing was properly revised–nothing worked to get my students to truly engage in a real writing process. The turning point for revision in my classroom came when I realized that I had to stop begging and bribing the students and instead teach them what a true writing process looks like and why it matters.  

This workshop looks at how to train students in a writing process that includes prewriting, multiple rounds of metacognitive drafting, and serious peer review. The focus is on how to sell the writing process to students to get them invested, train them in each step, and structure a classroom to facilitate a strong process.


If you are interested in having Matt come to your school/district/conference to speak on any of these things, please contact him for more information.