Writing Exercises: Synthesis

Before my students submit their first essay, I introduce them to the idea of synthesizing their research. I open the discussion with a description of how I usually see research used in student essays: a paragraph making a point with one source used for an example; another paragraph making another point with another source used for an example; and so on, which each paragraph referring to only one source and most sources only used once in on paragraph. This description often elicits nodding from students, agreeing that is how they use sources.

‘Using your sources that way works,’ I say, ‘But it isn’t very sophisticated and you aren’t getting much out of your sources this way. Today we are going to practice synthesizing your sources.’

Synthesis is joining the conversation.

Synthesis, I explain, is like having a conversation. Each of your sources is a person sitting a table in a café and they are talking about your topic. When you write your essay, you are pulling up a chair to their table and joining the conversation. Think about how you have conversations with a group of people: does each person speak in a monologue before passing the topic on to the next person at the table?

No. Instead, people talk over each other, interrupting each other, adding on to someone’s earlier point with an example of their own, or countering what someone said with an opinion. During a conversation, each person’s idea is woven in with the others’. That is what synthesis looks like when writing an essay.

Writing exercise:

I then organize the students into groups of four or five and give them this exercise:

Choose an issue on campus that all of you have an opinion about.* DO NOT DISCUSS YOUR OPINIONS YET. Once you have selected a topic, spend five minutes writing about it.

When everyone in your group is finished writing, choose one or two people to be the note-takers for your group. Then take turns reading your opinion aloud. The note-takers will pay attention to any repeated ideas, points of agreement, points of disagreement, and anything else that seems noteworthy – these are the “themes” of your conversation – and keep track of who said what. Review the notes as a group after everyone has finished reading.

Now organize the notes. You may find it helpful to use a chart:

Theme: Theme: Theme:

Now begin to think about how you would translate your chart into writing. For instance, you could write a paragraph about each person’s ideas summarizing their main points OR you could write a paragraph about each theme/idea and include all five points of view in each paragraph.

The first option is simply summarizing. The second option is SYNTHESIS.

Synthesis writing is more sophisticated and better demonstrates that you know what each source says about the subject and how the source relates to the other sources. Spend a few minutes writing a paragraph about each point in your group’s topic.

This exercise works well to introduce the meaning of synthesis and put it into practice. After discussing their results, I then provide them a Synthesis Matrix to use for their essay’s sources. The rest of the class period is spent filling out the synthesis matrix for their essays, and I wander around the room helping students to identify themes in their sources for their topics.

After introducing this exercise into my lesson plans, I have seen a dramatic improvement of how sources are used in my students’ essays.

* After a few times doing this exercise, I’ve banned the topic ‘parking on campus’ because inevitably every group chooses it. I’m tired of hearing people complain about parking and I’d rather them think of a more creative topic to discuss.


Opening line: ‘She sits in the breakfast nook and watches the rain.’

Eleanor - Jason GurleyEleanor — there are two Eleanors, herself and the grandmother she was named after — does her best to live a normal teenager’s life while also taking care of her alcoholic mother. Tragedy seems to run in her family: her grandmother’s disappearance, the car crash that killed her twin sister, her parents’ divorce, her mother’s bitter and angry retreat from reality through alcohol. The tragedy continues when Eleanor herself disappears, first for hours, then days, then years at a time, with no rational explanation for what is happening to her. What she does know, however, is that there is a reason she keeps being transported to these different dream worlds, if only she could figure out what it is…

The novel Eleanor isn’t quite sci-fi or fantasy, but rather magical realism. The narrative tells the story of this troubled family from multiple perspectives: the first Eleanor, her daughter Agnes as an adult, the younger Eleanor, as well as Agnes’s husband, Eleanor’s friend Jack, and a mysterious consciousness that is outside of human time but has the power to pluck Eleanor from her world and drop her into another. What first caught my attention was the descriptions of the sea off the Northwestern American coast, then by the author’s skillful portrayal of the characters as fully human and flawed. Eleanor does not figure out what is going on until the final quarter of the book, but even then I wasn’t sure what she was trying to do as she continued to travel the dream worlds to heal her family’s hurts. Thus intrigued, I kept reading, but in the end I felt my curiosity was unrewarded. The ending was too tidy while simultaneously leaving many unanswered questions. Somehow, with a form of time travel left unexplained, a fateful moment is changed with the assumption that all following events will also change for the better: no car crash, no divorce, no alcoholism. But what will be the consequences of that change? Not just for that family, but for everyone connected to them? Are the consequences ‘worth it’? Ultimately, I was disappointed that the novel failed to grasp the complexity of changing a person’s timeline and that doing so is not the simple cure for one family’s troubles.

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.

The One Ring: Never split the party

This past weekend, my monthly gaming group decided to pause our campaign in The One Ring, which, if you can’t guess from the name, is set in Middle Earth. The setting begins a few years after the end of the Battle of the Five Armies, though our campaign has progressed a further decade or so. This is actually our second campaign in this setting and I really like my current character — so much so that in our last session she turned down a job offer from her king (and lost standing as a result) to avoid retiring her early. As a result, I am a little annoyed that we are pausing our campaign because I might have played her differently if I had known, but I also agree with the reasons for our decision.

no admittance

There was cake, though it wasn’t anyone’s actual birthday.

Our party consisted of three humans, two dwarves, and an elf. Two of the characters had the ‘Warden’ calling, meaning that their motivation for adventuring is to strive against the growing shadow spreading across Middle Earth: these were the elf and the Dúnedan (Ranger). Two others had the calling ‘Treasure Hunters’: the dwarves. Because we played our characters, their callings and racial prejudices, our party was often at odds whenever we encountered a crossroads and made it difficult to maintain a narrative arc as we did in the last campaign.

TOR campaign 2

It was a challenge dressing the women in sensible clothing without putting them all in exactly the same outfits. Except for the dwarf, that is. (There also wasn’t a mattock among the weapon options. Sorry, Lili.)

So the session after our characters reunited after splitting the party (never split the party, especially in a setting where it is near impossible to send messages to anyone with any speed, and especially when no one is where they told the others they would be…if they told the others at all), our group ordered pizza and discussed over the next several hours what to do next.

Our fortnightly gaming group plays RPG campaigns in ‘seasons’ to avoid GM burnout. Our current campaign, as I mentioned in a previous post, is in the Pathfinder setting Golarion. We are a few sessions away from reaching the end of a ‘chapter’ in our story, so to speak, and will pick up our campaign in Savage Worlds: The Last Parsec, GM’d by someone else in our group. This way the GMs both get to play in turns, we avoid the risk of getting tired of our characters or setting, and we all get to experience a variety of settings and systems.

We decided to do the same with our monthly group. Another of our group will GM, which will be new for several of us, and we’ve chosen the D&D5e system and the Eberron setting. Per the new GM’s rules, we immediately began building our party. To avoid a similar discord as our last The One Ring campaign, we are being more deliberate in how our characters’ backstories brought them together. As one of our party said: ‘We all chose to work together and we all like each other.

Thus, instead of a profile on Myfanwy Linalwen, my character in The One Ring, you get some insight into how our group handles party dynamics and avoids both GM and setting fatigue.


St Gertrude’s Day

Happy St Gertrude’s Day! March 17th is also the feast day of St Gertrude of Nivelles, an abbess who lived in the seventh century in what is now Belgium.


Painting by Carolee Clark (2015).*

When I adopted Willow in mid-July 2015, the vet told me she was four months’ old, which means she was likely born in mid-March. By happy serendipity, Willow’s presumptive birthday falls near St Gertrude of Nivelles’s feast day, who is the patron saint of cats.

Granted, St Gertrude’s association with cats is a modern addition based on stories about how her cooking repelled mice and rats and of her friendliness to the abbey’s felines. As with most saints, she has several areas of expertise, including being the patron saint of gardeners, travelers, and those with mental illness. She shares a feast day with St Patrick because that is the day she died, having been told the day before that St Patrick would welcome her into heaven. (Her death was most likely the result of years of fasting and keeping vigils, essentially death by exhaustion and starvation. She was only 33 when she died. I find this terribly sad.)

And so Willow’s birthday is observed on St Gertrude’s Day. Today she is two! I was going to take her for an extra-long walk today but my injured foot interferes with that plan. Instead, I will give her lots of love and cuddles and playtime, and extra treats in her puzzle feeders.


* The best images of St Gertrude of Nivelles that I’ve found are paintings by Carolee Clark of ‘King of Mice’ studios: she painted St Gertrude in 2008, 20092012, 2013, 2014 (also a print on her Etsy store), and 2015. (Many of the results from a Google image search for St Gertrude are Clark’s work and it took me a bit of digging to find the images’ source. As a librarian-in-training, it frustrates me to see an artist’s work spread widely across the Internet without being attributed to them.)

on commercial healthcare

Yesterday I went to the ER (A&E for my British readers). I had been doing some DIY work on the patio/catio and the step-ladder I was standing on inexplicably folded out from underneath me. I immediately retrieved frozen vegetable bags from the freezer to put on my bruised and blindingly painful left foot, peeled off the sock, and saw that it was bleeding. I swallowed some painkillers and hobbled my way to the bathroom to wash my foot. The cut, once I could see it, was far deeper than I knew I could manage alone. Hastily, I bound it with tissues and medical tape, maintained pressure on the wound, and phoned a friend to ask about going to the ER.

surgical shoe 14-03-17

It looks more dramatic than it really is.

I had only been to the ER twice before, and only once in the U.S., more than a decade ago and only because I needed to see a doctor on the weekend. Since then, the number of independent urgent care centers have proliferated, in part encouraged by competition. Was there some trick to know which one to go to? Were some covered by my insurance and others not? My friend assured me that I could go to any of them, so we located one closest to me and I drove myself there. I was the only patient and was seen to immediately.

The commercial quality of healthcare in America was apparent by the sign announcing, ‘Highest rated on Yelp!’ on the entry door, and was highlighted again when I was checking out: not only was I asked to fill out a customer satisfaction survey, but I was also given a gift bag, the contents of which were all branded with that urgent care center’s logo. Today the center phoned to check in on how I was doing and to ask again for a customer survey.

The entire commercialization of healthcare part of the experience leaves me baffled and repulsed. That healthcare is to be so commercialized and run for profit is antithetical to my belief that access to basic healthcare is a human right, especially in a country that claims to be so far advanced and civilized as this one, and to my general distaste for excessive accumulation of wealth, particularly at the expense of others. In terms of customer satisfaction, what does it matter beyond competent and correct care and that everyone involved behaves professionally? I don’t need a gift bag or be pampered by the staff. I don’t understand the mindset that equates patient with customer.

(The cut was deep enough to need stitches, but its placement and clean edges meant that they could use a ‘super-glue’ for skin instead. It hardly hurts at all; in fact, my bruises and the tension headache that followed hurt worse once the foot was bound up. I’m lucky that it wasn’t worse, considering that I landed on concrete with various bricks and wooden planters around me with sharp edges.)

D&D 5e: Tess Winters

My gaming group’s current fortnightly RPG is Pathfinder: The Mummy’s Mask.

Nicola Annette Tessalyn Winters Camherst
Artificer Class (Gunsmith)

D&D Tess mini

Tess’s mini, painted by our GM, and her steampunk-themed dice.

Tess — as she calls herself when adventuring abroad — hails from the aging empire of Taldor, where her father is a senator and her mother part of the old, landed but minor aristocracy.

Doll-Divine-Creation-wide Tess 2

Here Tess is holding one of her signature ‘light marbles’. (The character generator did not have a gun as a weapon option.)

She was tutored alongside her older brother when the tutor and fencing master got tired of throwing her out when she would sneak into the room for their lessons. Her family tried to turn her tinkering into a ‘respectful’ hobby of jewelry making, and she did start a craze for intricate spinning lockets that could only be opened by the owner and her timepieces were highly-valued gifts. However, when the more adventurous of her peers would have spent their Grand Tour mostly in Absalom or the major cities of Osirion, Tess went to Alkenstar in the Mana Wastes, where she  learned to be a gunsmith and inventor of gadgets. Since then, she has travelled extensively through Nex and Osirion, experimenting with infusing her gadgets (and gun) with magic. Though she’s dropped her mouthful of a name and is used to an adventurer’s life, she still keeps her Taldan love for the finer things. Her traveller’s clothes are plain until you notice the brown-on-brown and gold embroidery along the hem, with matching embroidery on her tricorne hat and leather boots. Both her pistol and prototype gun are works of art and she always has a spare neckcloth for when she needs to look respectable.

D&D Tess gun 2

Black Powder Revolver (replica)

Tess is my favorite RPG character so far. Technically, I built the character for the steampunk RPG Savage Worlds: Sundered Skies, and our GM converted her character to work for the D&D setting we were going to play instead. At the time, there wasn’t an official Artificer class in D&D, so he used a homebrew class called ‘The Artificer of Alancia’. The Artificer class allows for a variety of proficiencies, including Gunsmith. The change of setting resulted in a different backstory for this character, so while she is somewhat-mechanically similar to the Nicola Winters in Sundered Skies, Tess Winters is a distinct character of her own.

I’m still relatively new to role-playing games, having only begun in 2015, but I find the dice mechanism in D&D 5e the easier one of the RPG systems we’ve played. The number of spells (or gadgets, in Tess’s case) to keep track of, however, do make this setting more complicated, nor am I as familiar with the ‘world’ we are playing in. I’m frequently checking the Pathfinder Wiki for information about countries, customs, and creatures that Tess would likely know but I don’t, and would be helpful for playing her character. I’m paranoid about stumbling across spoilers for our campaign, though, and so I read cautiously, just in case.

flowers in my window

My flat only has one window, but Willow loves to sit by it nonetheless and watch my neighbors come and go. She also loves birds and I’ve hung up a bird feeder outside for Willow’s entertainment. Except, the birds will only feed at the feeder when Willow isn’t sitting on the windowsill, somewhat defeating the purpose of putting it there.

img_20170304_150852_011Q: How could I make it so that she could see the birds without them seeing her?

A: Put plants in front of the window, enough to screen her somewhat from the birds but without completely blocking the view — and, it would add some color and charm to my flat’s exterior.

Buying a window box large enough for my window (4 ft.) was outside of my budget and building one outside my resources of time, energy, and tools (I don’t have a saw). But I do have a number of flower pots and a bit of ingenuity. My parents visited this week, and my dad put up a shelf under my window when I was having a bad RA day. My mom and I went to the plant nursery and selected part-shade or part-sun suitable flowers, since the window only gets some direct sunlight in the afternoons.

Because I live in a ground-floor flat in a complex, I took some precautions to deter thieves from walking off with my flower pots. All of the pots I used for the window display have drainage holes in the bottom, through which I looped a string of chain around a stick. The ends of the chains go through holes I drilled into the shelf and are then connected to the other chains. Each pot has its own piece of chain so that I can remove the pots as needed without having to break the chain, the shelf, or a pot. Sure, a determined thief can figure out how to undo the chains to take a pot, but the average thief wants an easy steal and isn’t likely to have the tools on hand or the time to take a pot that’s been chained down.

I’ve never had much luck at keeping flowers alive for any length of time. I hope this time is an exception!