GRAMMAR for WRITERS

In thinking about what to do my final project on, I was extremely perplexed.  I knew I wanted to create an English WAC course for the two-year college where I teach.  But that’s about all.  I had no idea of how I wanted to structure the class.  I have learned so much from my WAC experience and I wanted to somehow incorporate all of those things into my classroom.  In reading the various WAC articles and doing my case study, I realized that much of what I do when I grade my student papers is copy editing.  I go through, find, and then correct every punctuation and grammar error I see.  I hope that my students will begin to see a pattern in their papers and pick up on the corrections I make.  Unfortunately, my hopes always get dashed because they never seem to really pay my notes or corrections any attention.  Which led to thinking about the importance of grammar in writing and how many students have yet to master proper grammar and sentence structure. 

Then I was talking to one of my Basic English classes about what they had to look forward to in English Composition 101 – essays and lots of them!  I heard the moans and saw the agony in their faces.  They did not want to have to write essays many of them did not want to have to write at all.  Some were even oblivious to the fact that they had to take at least two more English classes to satisfy their English requirement.  So, I began to explain them that writing was not just isolated to English.  Some math instructors require their students to do a report on a mathematician or a math related term/terminology.  As part of the assignment the students are required to go to the library on campus to do their research.  They even have to get a librarian to sign their assignment sheet as proof that they actually went to the library.  The purpose of this assignment, according to the instructors, is to ensure that all students get familiarized with the campus library.  That’s it, nothing more, so basically the assignment had nothing to do with writing at all.  Or at least this is what I gathered from talking with my students.  They didn’t consider that to be related to English at all – how could it be this is a math class for crying out loud.  Writing is also done in computer and psychology classes as well in the form of research papers or reports.  Now one would think that research papers and reports are synonymous with an English class.  However, as I listened to my students talk about those assignments and how they went about doing them I saw why they did not equate them with English.  For one, these assignments were not for and English class.  Secondly the students were not given specific instructions on the structure or formatting of the research papers/reports.  Thirdly, they never saw the grade that the finished product received because these things were due at the end of the semester.  The students simply turned them in and never received any feedback from the instructor about them.  Certainly this is not the case in English where teachers are always eager to hand back papers dripping in red ink and oozing with criticisms.

After listening to them talk about these assignments with smiles on their faces, I realized that I had to include these disciplines:  math, computer, and psychology into the WAC course that I developed.  The question now was how?  Here’s how:

 Grammar for Writers

Instructor: Kashundra R. Davis

Course Description: 

Ever wonder why your writing doesn’t seem to “flow?”  Have teachers told you that your sentences seem choppy, confusing, or too simple? English 218 is a new course for students who want to learn how to construct sophisticated, professional sentences. Using samples of student writing from across the disciplines (WID), we will learn to identify common errors, develop techniques for constructing a variety of sentence structures, and focus on improving cohesion and coherence in your writing. This course will teach you how to write polished, grammatically complex sentences, and most importantly, give you confidence in your ability to express your ideas correctly and with style.

Students enrolled in this course must also be enrolled in at least one of the following courses:

  • PSY 200 General Psychology
  • MTH 098 Elementary Algebra
  • CIS 130 Introduction to Information Systems
  • ART 100 Art Appreciation

Why did I choose to include these classes?  Well, because I know from talking with my students and from tutoring students that these classes require students that students do research papers or reports which deal specifically with their discipline.  Therefore, I assume that these instructors will be more receptive to my ideas about WAC and how we can work together to incorporate WAC into all of our classrooms.  Of course, participation in the WAC program would be a choice for the instructors and not mandatory.  I have learned from my case study of La Guardia that teachers tend to be more receptive to new ideas and change if these things are not forced upon them.  In the event that none of the instructors want to collaborate with me and get involved in WAC, I can still use their assignments within my Grammar for Writing WID/WAC course. 

GOALS /OBJECTIVES FOR WRITING

  • the ability to organize an essay around a main point
  •  to support that point with clear reasoning
  • to illustrate that point with suitable examples

 Writing Assignments

Students will be required to complete a number of formal and informal writing assignments.

  • Assignments are sequenced
  • Assignments are linked
  • Assignments define communicative situations

Major projects will be sequenced into smaller parts.  Students will build from rough drafts to final class presentations.  During the segmentation of a complex assignment I will assist students in building research skills while providing feedback, promoting collaborative learning, and integrating the writing assignments directly into the class through peer critique and oral presentations.

Students will receive in-class instruction for all major assignments.  In-class instruction will consist of but is not limited to:

  • Discussing the assignment in class
  • Discussing a model or sample student paper
  • Assigning informal ungraded writing assignments in class that are connected to the formal writing assignment
  • Assigning a journal with structured prompts
  • Reading drafts
  • Providing occasions for collaborative work
  • Discussing my own writing process with students 

INFORMAL LOW STAKES WRITING ASSIGNMENTS

Some informal low stakes writing is private and some is shared; some of the shared writing goes to me and some only to fellow students. Sometimes students will be invited and encouraged to discuss the information and thinking they have heard in each others’ low stakes writing – but will not give feedback on the quality of the writing.  Informal Writing Assignments will occur both inside and outside of the classroom.

 In class – I  may ask for five or ten minutes of low stakes writing at the start of class – to help students bring to mind the homework reading they did or to explore their thoughts about the topic for today. Or in the middle of class, to ponder a particular question – especially if discussion goes dead. Or at the end of class, to summarize and reflect on what was discussed.  The following are examples of prompts that may be used for in-class writing:

  • What have you learned from today’s class so far?
  • What, if anything, surprised you?
  • What questions do you have?
  • Without checking your notes, write down everything here that you remember that you learned?

Freewriting — I will occasionally ask for low stakes writing in the form of freewriting—students will be asked to write without stopping, putting down whatever comes to mind, even if it doesn’t make sense.  [I stole this little technique from Dr. W; we were required to do freewriting in her rhetoric class.  See I am still making connections!]  

Students will have more to say in discussion, and be less afraid to speak up, if I start with a few minutes of freewriting.  When used in the middle of class discussions, two minutes of quick freewriting after asking a question can make all the difference in the world.

 Out of class – For Computer Students Only.  Students enrolled in CIS 130 will be required to create a blog using wordpress.com.  Blogs will serve the same purpose as a journal.  Students will record their informal reflections of the reading, writing, and class.  The goal is to get students to process what they are studying and connect it with the rest of their experiences, thoughts, and feelings.   For instructions on how to create and set-up your own blog go to www.wordpress.com .  This is a FREE site.  Also feel free to visit my blog at www.wordsometimescapeme.wordpress.com .  If you have any questions about your blogs e-mail me and we will work through any problems that you may be having.                                                               

Why assign informal/low stakes writing assignments?

 The goal here is not so much to produce excellent pieces of writing as to increase how much students think about, understand, and learn what I am teaching.  This type of writing also increases fluency and confidence in writing and helps with creativity and risk taking. 

  • Informal low stakes writing helps students involve themselves actively in the ideas or subject matter of a course. More minds are usually at work on the course material during low stakes writing than during a lecture or discussion. Low stakes writing helps students find their own language for the issues of the course.
  • Frequent informal low stakes writing improves high stakes writing. Students will already be warmed up and fluent before they write something I have to respond to.
  • Informal low stakes writing will help me to understand how student minds are working: how they are understanding the course material, feeling about it, and reacting to my teaching.
  • Informal low stakes writing takes little of our time and expertise. We can require it but not grade it. We can read it but not comment on it. In many cases we don’t even need to read it. Yet we can get students to read each other’s informal pieces–and (if we want) discuss them.

 Informal low stakes assignments are a staple of WAC classrooms because they share these characteristics:

Frequency:  Though they may earn a grade, the percentage of the whole grade is small enough that students focus on the writing, rather than the grade.  I can give frequent feedback; students can practice skills.

Non-Evaluative:  Informal writing is assigned for purposes that are, generally, non-evaluative. Instead, they focus on how well students are learning content; getting students to practice a skill, such as summary writing; or giving students the opportunity to explore ideas for a bigger, high stakes project.

Warming up:  Informal writing can be used to warm up and relax students at the beginning of class.  In this way, students learn to distinguish between informal and formal writing and to avoid writers’ block.

HIGH STAKES FORMAL WRITING ASSIGNMENTS

Over the course of the semester, you will write three essays of 5-10 pages each. Each piece will be submitted initially as a first version and later (after workshop feedback from both members of the class and from me) in revised form. The process of revision – rethinking and then re-writing your essays – is essential to the course.

Mandatory Essay:  At least one of the three essays must be a research paper or report from students’ psychology, math, computer, or art class.  Below is a list of the general types of writing required for each of these classes.  However students will be required to bring the exact assignment and any other handouts or information related to the assignment to class.

Psychology:  Essay on a mental/sexual/behavior disorder; report on B.F. Skinner, Sigmund Freud, etc.

Math:  Essay on a mathematician

Computer:  Essay on how to build your own computer

Art:  Essay on your trip to Museum of Fine Arts

Requiring the students to complete at least one of their major assignments from computer, art, math, or psychology promotes WID on so many levels.  Through our peer reviews and presentations we are all being exposed to different disciplines and the kind of writing that goes on within those disciplines.  I will follow the basic format for the assignment; however, some modifications will certainly have to be made.  I hope to work together with the instructors and revise the assignments together. 

When grading the assignments I will focus only on those things outlined in our course objectives or goals.  Personally I despise math, and I am virtually computer illiterate, but I can certainly help the students formulate a topic or argument and make sure that they have included details to support that topic or argument and do so using grammatically correct sentences.  Who knows maybe I can learn something about math that changes my perception of it and learn something about the other courses as well.  I expect to learn as much if not more from this course and the students enrolled in the course than the students themselves. How WAC is that ?!

Students are required to include a brief evaluation with all formal assignments.  This can be a narrative of the process used to write the paper, a list of questions about the paper that you would like me to answer, or a paragraph explaining what you learned from doing the assignment and how the assignment could be improved.

Each student will also be required to give an oral presentation (15 minutes) about one or more of your essays.

 Fair and objective course grades cannot be given unless I get a valid sense of how much students have learned and understood. To do this, I need high stakes writing. The stakes are high because it needs to be good and it bears directly on the course grade. 

BRAINSTORMING

At beginning of each formal writing assignment, students will be allotted class time to brainstorm about their topic.  Students MUST go through the process of brainstorming before they can officially start working on their essay.  Think about aspects of your topic that you want to address. These can be “big,” organizing themes, or small details. They also may be questions you have that you want to answer or to address. Just get them out on the paper. Do NOT edit for spelling or punctuation or sentence structure unless you have extra time. Instead, focus on getting out as many ideas as you can for what you expect to talk about. My guess is your brainstorming will be informed by you already know about your topic. Your job is to get as much of what is “in your head” out onto the paper.

I feel that requiring the students to brainstorm before beginning any major assignment encourages critical thinking.  In talking with a classmate about my course she suggested that I read their brainstorming and make suggestions.  For example, they may have chosen a topic but after reading the things they have included in their brainstorming exercise, I may find that they are actually moving in a different direction.  I can point this out to the student and let him/her decide the course of action to take:  change their topic or re-think their thinking about that topic. 

WRITING WORKSHOP

The writing workshop is a communal conversation that occurs among the members of a writing class about a piece of writing-in-progress done by one of the writers in the group. Describing the workshop in this way highlights that all of us

  • participate actively in that conversation
  • read the text in question with an open mind; read it carefully and with our full attention
  • contribute our perceptions, insights, and visions of the piece, what we see as its strengths, where we think it is going or could go, and how we think the writer might engage further with it in order to make it more successful

All of this is done in a process of focused dialogue, or conversation, with the writer and other readers in the group.

The first step in preparing for the workshop is reading. When you read the writing of other members of our class community, your reading is aimed to assist or help the writer to shape, polish, and refine his/her writing.

In preparing for the workshop, you should read the text that is to be discussed once, and then read through it again very carefully.  You should try to locate the focus of the text. Then think about questions you have which the text does not answer – what do you still need or want to know? Finally, what suggestions would you give the writer for improving this piece? Write a brief note – a substantial paragraph– to the writer with your suggestions; you will give your written response to the writer after the workshop conversation on his/her essay.

I do not mean that you prepare what you have to say about the piece, and then say it in the workshop, and you’re done. Instead, I want you to actively engage in the communal conversation. The talk stimulates new ideas, altered ways of seeing or thinking about the piece, and opens up possibilities that perhaps none of us foresaw before we began the conversation. That is what makes the workshop lively and valuable for everyone involved.

When we begin our discussion of the text in question, the writer will open the workshop by asking questions of us and waiting for our responses. The writer’s most important role in the workshop is to listen.

The basic workshop format will be the writer asking these questions:

  1.  What strengths do you see in what I’ve written?
  2.  What seems to you to be my idea or point here?
  3.  What questions remain for you after reading?
  4.  What suggestions do you have for me in thinking about ways to make this better?

It is also appropriate, when time permits, for readers to ask at the end of the workshop for the writer’s assessment of how useful our comments have been and what the writer’s plans are for continuing to work on the piece.

The format I’ve outlined here is not fixed by any means, but will change as our focus of attention changes for particular pieces of writing. For instance, I might ask you during the workshop to think in a particular way about the text we are discussing, or to address particular questions about the text which I think could help every writer in the class or the group in thinking about her or his own work. Likewise, the writer whose work is being discussed might have specific questions about the piece and so might ask for our response to particular areas or issues regarding the work.

The process of the workshop, then – the specific ways we focus our attention on the texts at hand – will alter to meet our changing needs. Sometimes the whole class will focus on the work of one writer at a time; at other times you will work together in small groups and I will circulate to offer assistance and guidance. There are some things that must not change about the workshop, though:

  • The atmosphere must always be a safe and supportive one for writers whose work-in-progress is up for discussion
  • The workshop must be encouraging at the same time that we strive to develop a serious critique of the work under scrutiny (and remember that a critique does not imply just negative criticism, but is the result of reading with critical insight,  including recognizing what works well, how the writer has succeeded in realizing his or her intentions)
  • The communal conversation of the workshop should produce new insights and possibilities for the work under discussion and should provide the writer an incentive for further engagement with the text and some concrete ideas for how to begin revising
  • Everyone should have equal time and opportunity to express her or his responses

At the conclusion of a workshop on something you have written, you as a writer should be more conscious of how a reading audience responds to your work, should have renewed interest and energy for returning to the piece and engaging further with it, and should have some specific ideas about how to begin the process of revision to achieve your purposes and aspirations for what you are writing.

The workshop has something to offer you when you serve as a reader too: an opportunity to learn how other writers approach a task.  My hopes for our class workshops are that they will be focused, serious, energetic, and productive, and I will try to lead them in such a way as to ensure that they are a rich source of learning for everyone. I count on each of you to help me in that effort.

PEER SHARE

Students get excellent feedback by reading their drafts and final versions aloud to classmates. When students experience how each sentence fits in the mouth and sounds in the ear, they can usually tell which sentences work and which ones are a problem. And not just sentences:  reading an essay aloud gives students an almost instinctive feel for the organization and train of thinking – and then that train goes off the rails. Best of all, mere sharing – reading aloud – requires very little class time. Sharing is not just about the writing: when three students hear each others’ drafts (and lots of low stakes writing too), they are hearing different understandings of the course content. 

Peer response is not just to help with writing and learning course material, but also in building a community.

CLASS PARTICIPATION

A vital, ongoing intellectual conversation – about our writing – is at the heart of the course. To be an effective and successful student, you will need to complete reading and writing tasks by their due dates. Please arrive on time and bring assigned texts with you. Your responsibility in the class is to be not only a writer, but also a reader and responder for other members of the class community. It is essential, then, that you attend class faithfully and come to each class fully prepared to participate in discussions of assigned reading and in writing workshops. Lateness for class, if extreme or chronic, will be counted as an absence. Please notify me as soon as possible when a real and serious emergency keeps you from attending class. More than three unexcused absences will result in your course grade being lowered; more than five absences will result in your receiving a failing grade. Missing class on a day when your work is up for workshop discussion will count as two absences. So do not take casual cuts, and come to class faithfully and on time and prepared to participate fully in class activities.

The majority of our learning will take place in class through writing and sharing that writing with our community.  This cannot be done if students are not attending class and actively participating.  Participation also counts for a percentage of the students’ final grades.  I would like to believe that students will be intrigued by the class and look forward to coming to class eager to write and share in our learning process.  However, in the event they need a little motivation, they will know that attendance and class participation is included in their final grade for the class. 

PLAGIARISM

 I cannot catch all plagiarism—and if I try, I will turn myself from teacher into suspicious cop. It is hard to track down the sources in Internet cheating.  Using Internet search engines, DVD-based reference works, online journals, Web-based news sources, article databases, and other electronic courses, students can find information about nearly any topic and paste the data directly into their papers. Or students can take credit for documents they find or buy online, or that they get as email attachments from friends living down the hall or a thousand miles away. 

Therefore, it is far easier for me to try to prevent plagiarism than handle it after the fact.  In an attempt to prevent plagiarism in our class I will:

  • make essay assignments particular and individual so that students cannot find anything written by someone else that fits the assignment
  •  insist on drafts of essays and then revision on the basis of feedback to those drafts (along with a process note about how they revised)
  •  see lots of students’ low stakes, informal, in-class writing so I know your writing voice and you know I know it.

NEED EXTRA HELP

Student Support Services (SSS) can be enormously helpful with high stakes writing. Tutors there can help students at all stages of the writing process: understanding the assignment; brainstorming ideas; and giving feedback on either early or late drafts. SSS is not specifically a copy editing service, but tutors can help students learn to copy edit better.

GRADING

Attendance/Class Participation      15%

Class Presentation(s)                           20%

Class Portfolio                                         65%

Portfolio Guidelines 

Here is what your portfolio must contain, and in this order: 

  1. Brief Introduction to your portfoli0.
  2. Table of Contents.
  3. Your profile of yourself as a writer and reader assigned on the first day of class, with my responses.
  4. Your three essays, in the order that you wrote them: for each, first submitted version (with my responses), revision (with my responses), and subsequent revision(s), if any.
  • Computer Students Only:  Two to three samples of your blog postings.  You may include any blog posts in your portfolio; however they must be at least 240 characters in length.
  • All Other Students:  Two to three samples of informal low stakes writing.  You may include any low stakes assignment in your portfolio; however, they must be at least 240 characters in length.
  1. Your final writing assignment.

For your final writing assignment of the semester, I would like you to return to the profile of yourself as a writer and reader we began at the beginning of the semester and to write another profile of yourself now, after this semester of work, learning, and practice. What have you learned about yourself as a writer and reader?  How has your experience in this course and with writing help to improve your writing and reading skills?  To prepare for your self-scrutiny, re-read the course syllabus, and the writing workshop guidelines you were given at the start of the semester as well as all the writing you have done this semester, as assembled above. With the course goals and processes and the work you have done fresh in your mind, ask yourself the following questions and address them in your profile:

  • What sort of writer would you call yourself now?
  • What have you learned about writing and reading this semester?
  • What are you proud of as you look through your portfolio?
  • What remains for future efforts?
  • What aspects of writing do you think you still need to work on?
  • What do you foresee for yourself as a writer in the future?
  • What would you like to accomplish in your writing, and how do you intend to go about accomplishing your writing goals?
  • How do you expect to continue to draw on what you have learned in this course in the writing you will do in the future?
  1. Brief Conclusion to your portfolio

 Number the pages of the portfolio sequentially throughout (numbering in ink by hand is okay.  Please be sure that everything in the portfolio is labeled (Essay I, Revised, etc.).  Place your portfolio securely in something that will hold it together-not in a manila file folder.  Also be sure your name is clearly legible on the outside cover of the portfolio.

I feel that ending the class with a writing portfolio was the perfect way to assess the students growth and learning over the semester.  Not just for me but for them.  It is important that they see where they began and where they ended up.  A portfolio will allow them to see and reflect upon this growth. I feel that this class will create a WID community that will be beneficial to them in not only their academic careers but also their careers after graduation.

I used a combination of various types that I read about to come up with the guidelines that I would like my students to follow.  Some ideas also came from various classes Ihave taken with Dr. W.   She often requires us to do low stakes writing assignments that she collects, reads, comments on, and then return them to us.  We are to keep all the assignments and then turn them all in again at the end of the semester for one grade.  

 Below is my spill to other faculty members about why and how WAC can be implemented into their classes.  I expect for my Grammar for Writers class to be a huge success and used to persuade other faculty members to get WACY!  But if they are still reluctant to join me on my WACY journey I have ways of convincing them of the benefits. 

Why Incorporate WAC into Your Classroom:

(1) Teachers can enhance student learning if they use a combination of high stakes and low stakes writing.

(2) We need high stakes writing in order to test whether students have learned what we are teaching. If we use only short answer and multiple choice exams, we do not get a trustworthy picture of whether students have a genuine understanding of course concepts and how to apply them.

(3) Low stakes writing is for exploration and learning (writing to learn): there is no concern about quality or correctness. It helps students explore and figure out new ideas, connect personally with them using their own language, become more active learners, and become fluent and comfortable in writing before they have to write the high stakes essays that will be used in determining their course grade. (And low stakes writing takes little teacher time or skill.)

(4) Students learn and improve more if they are assigned two or three essays, not just one, and if they have to turn in a draft of each essay for feedback before revising it.

(5) Grading of writing assignments can be done by responding very quickly to final drafts using a multi-criterion grid and just checking boxes – rather than writing a comment. The multiple criteria make the final grade more valid and reliable.

Why Multiple Papers and Multiple Drafts?

There are two powerful ways to improve student writing and student learning.

Multiple papers – We can assign a number of shorter papers rather than just one large one (usually a term paper–a “terminal paper”). Students tend to delay writing term papers, they tend to pad them, and they seldom learn from our comments since the course is over before they pick up their papers–if they pick them up. On shorter papers we can give briefer responses.

Multiple drafts – We can require students to write drafts of high stakes papers, then get feedback, and then revise. If we devote most of our available time to feedback on a draft, we have a better chance of getting students to improve their writing and their understanding of course concepts. By responding to drafts, we are coaching improvement – instead of just wasting time dissecting a finished product that will never be improved. If we respond only to final drafts, students have a hard time using our feedback to improve future papers (especially if there are no other papers in the course). We can save time grading papers by reading through them once and grading them with a grid.  Here’s a simple generic grid:

Unsatisfactory             OK      Excellent

                                                                        Content, thinking, mastery of ideas

                                                                        Organization, structure, guidance

                                                                        Language:wording, voice

                                                                        Mechanics (spelling /punctuation) citation 

                                                                        Overall

The use of multiple criteria provides feedback about strengths and weaknesses – feedback notably lacking in conventional, one-dimensional grades. Because there are only three levels for each criterion, you do not have to stop and compute a grade for each criterion. You need only read the paper and then hold each criterion briefly in mind to see if the paper seems notably strong or notably weak in that dimension. If neither, then the verdict on that criterion is “OK.”  Grids give feedback about different strengths and weaknesses in the writing – whereas  conventional grades give nothing but a number on a yea/boo meter

A conventional grade like B- is an attempt to represent with just one dimension the quality of a multidimensional performance.  For final grades most of us are obliged to settle for a one dimensional grade, but we can still use a grid to communicate the meaning of our grade to students. Here the criteria will encompass a wider array of performances, and teachers can communicate whether they are counting for dimensions like effort, improvement, or attendance.

HOW TO WAC OUT YOUR COURSES

Create a WACY syllabi with detailed criteria for evaluation.

Require that students write every week. 

Implement low stakes writing assignments into your course curriculum.  Here are some suggestions for some low stakes assignments that can easily be implemented into any course:

Require students to complete two to three formal high stakes writing assignments per semester consisting of a 5-10 pages each.

Give opportunity to revise at least one formal assignment.

Count writing for at least 20% of students’ final grades.

Incorporate collaborative activities  into classroom instruction 

Many of these requirements came from my case study of LaGuardia Community College.

SUGGESTIONS FOR ASSIGNMENT MODIFICATIONS

Art:  take groups of students to the Museum of Fine Arts as part of a class field trip instead of requiring them to visit individually

Computer:  take groups of students to various electronic stores that sell computers as part of a class field trip.  This ensures that students are not singularly relying on the information they acquired from the Internet to complete their research

Psychology:  Provide specific guidelines/criteria for the assignment

Math:  Provide specific guidelines/criteria for the assignment

Criteria for evaluation

“Professor, what are you actually looking for in this paper?” Students can annoy us when they ask this question, but it is a valid one and deserves an answer – ideally on the handout stating the assignment. (Teachers often regret it when they do not put assignments on a handout.) We cannot fairly comment or grade if we are not conscious of criteria we are grading or judging. How much will we care about factors like these: correct understanding of course concepts; application of concepts to new instances; creative original insights; organization; clarity of sentences and good word choice; examples; spelling and grammar.  All of these things should be spelled out clearly in the assignment handout.


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