ELA writing prompt: Goal directed

This formal writing prompt is for use in an ELA course focused on teaching students to write. The prompt encourages students to draw upon their learning in their English courses and their other courses and upon their knowledge of current events.

Here’s the prompt

Many times in life, a short-term focus ignores long-term effects. Consider the implications of that statement by thinking about individuals who are (or were) goal-directed toward long-term payoffs.  In your analysis, include:

  • one literary character
  • one historical person
  • one living person.

In an informative-explanatory text, identify and describe the risks each person took in maintaining his/her long-term focus. What, if any negative consequences did each individual suffer as a result of adhering to a long-term goal? Identify via hyperlinks reliable information sources you consulted to support your assertions.

If you wish, in your final paragraph you may identify any relationship you see between the kinds of goals the individuals pursued and their success or failure at achieving their goals.

Please keep your text to under 650 words. Submit it as a digital text.

Extend the usefulness of this writing prompt

Writing a paragraph on a subject sometimes suggests to a student that there’s more to say on that subject. In that way, prompts that fall naturally into a three-point format, as this one does, are useful for getting students to identify a topic for a longer research paper. You might give students an informal writing prompt after they’ve done this assignment in which you ask them to:

  • identify the example they used which they think could be developed into a research paper, and
  • identify two or three subtopics that that paper might include.

Any time you can get students thinking about future uses of anything they are doing in your ELA class, milk the opportunity for all it’s worth.

Connotation, denotation: What’s the difference?

Before you begin teaching your ELA students the difference between denotation and connotation, I suggest you show them that they already know something about that difference even if they don’t know that they know it.

With this three-item set of informal writing prompts, you can lay the groundwork for teaching in under five minutes and give students some writing practice at the same time.

Guide to using informal prompts

When you use these or any other informal prompts, I recommend that you display the prompts so students can follow along as you read them aloud. Use a timer, preferably one with an audible tick, to provide a sense of urgency. Have students respond as soon as you’ve read them an individual prompt.

Collect and scan the students’ writing. It will give you valuable feedback about students’ mastery of content and writing skills.


Informal prompt #1

Think about the nouns dream and fantasy. In no more than three sentences explain:

  • how the ideas represented by the two words are similar
  • how the ideas represented by the two words are different
  • whether one of the terms is more positive than the other

You have 90 seconds to write.

Informal prompt #2

Think about the nouns explorer and adventurer. In no more than three sentences explain:

  • how the ideas represented by the two words are similar
  • how the ideas represented by the two words are different
  • whether one of the terms is more positive than the other

You have 90 seconds to write.

Informal prompt #3

Think about the nouns tinkerer and inventor. In no more than three sentences explain:

  • how the ideas represented by the two words are similar
  • how the ideas represented by the two words are different
  • whether one of the terms is more positive than the other

You have 90 seconds to write.


By the time students have finished responding to the three prompts, they will be primed to learn the terms connotation and denotation and to apply them to the comparisons they’ve analyzed.

After you’ve presented your material on connotation and denotation, you may wish to have students do a final 1-minute writing. Here’s the fourth informal prompt:

Optional: prompt #4

Look back over the responses you wrote to the three prompts at the start of class.  If one of your responses doesn’t look too good in light of what you learned today, write a new response to that prompt. You will have 1 minute to write.

Teach metaphors using informal writing

Being able to unpack metaphors is essential to reading anything more complicated than Dick and Jane books. Bright students who are exposed to literature from an early age pick up that skill. Others, equally bright, who grow up in homes without reading material other than the backs of cereal boxes need to be taught.

That teaching is your job.

Instead of giving a reading assignment about metaphors or lecturing about metaphors, I suggest you use the sink-or-swim approach: Give students an example of a metaphor and have them write an analysis of it in class before you even mention the word metaphor.

Below are step-by-step directions to show you how to set up a short lesson using informal writing to keep students engaged.

Informal writing prompt 1

Here’s what you tell students:

Dolores is older than she looks.

I’m going to show you a quote from a novel by Stephen King. You may not know Stephen King’s name, but you probably have seen films based on King’s books, such as The Shawshank Redemption, It, Pet Sematary, and Misery.

The name of the novel the quote comes from is Dolores Claiborne. In the book, Dolores is under suspicion for the murder of her employer, an elderly woman who left her fortune to Dolores. The entire book is what Dolores tells investigators.  Here is something Dolores says near the end of the book:

“…most of what bein human’s about is makin choices and payin the bills when they come due.”

In no more than three sentences, explain what Dolores means. You have two minutes to write.

Class discussion of part 1

After students have written their explanations, they will be ready for class discussion about what they wrote. Ask/get students to say:

  • What bills does Dolores mean? (duck bills, dollar bills, advertising posters, drafts of proposed legislation, the Buffalo Bills…)
  • How did you decide which kind of bill Dolores meant?
  • What do choices have to do with bills?
  • What do bills and choices have to do with being human?

Allow up to 5 minutes for this discussion

Informal writing prompt 2

Here’s what you say:

Now that you’ve discussed Dolores’s comment, write one sentence that says in different words what she meant. You have 30 seconds to write.

Allow 1-2 minutes for oral sharing.

Informal writing prompt  3

Here’s what you say:

Why do you suppose Stephen King has Dolores phrase her comment in terms of making choices and paying bills? Please respond in no more than three sentences. You have one minute to write.

Segue to teach about metaphors

Here’s what you must cover:

  • Metaphors are comparisons that imply that this thing is like that thing.
  • Metaphors are different from similes.
  • Similes are comparisons that say clearly this is like that.
  • Metaphors depend on the connotation of words—their emotional and cultural connections—to convey their meaning.

After you’ve presented that information, have students go back to the Dolores Claiborne quote again and do a final informal writing.

Informal writing prompt 4

This final prompt requires students to pull information from the earlier writing and discussion.

Here’s what you say

(NOTE: If necessary, adjust the terms in the first sentence to correspond with the terms your students used in their oral comments.)

As you’ve discussed today, Dolores says being human means taking responsibility for your choices, but she uses metaphors for the terms responsibility and choice/choosing. As I explained, metaphors depend on their connotations—the emotions and cultural connections that those words set up.

In no more than four sentences, explain:

  • How do the connotations of the term make a choice differ from the connotation of the term take responsibility?
  • How do the connotations of the term pay the bill differ from the connotation of the term take responsibility?

You have two minutes to write.

What’s next?

You may want to spend some more class time discussing students’ responses to the question about connotations of the terms. Personally, I’d probably collect the informal writing so I could see each student’s work and move to a different activity for the rest of the period. Students require multiple exposures to the concept of metaphor before they can recognize a metaphor, let alone unravel it’s meaning. Multiple mini-lessons over weeks are more effective than one lesson, even if the lesson is splendid.

Miscellaneous suggestions

I recommend that you use whatever technology you have so that students can see the writing prompts. I highly recommend that you read the actual prompt aloud while you display it for students. That’s for the kid who has trouble with distance vision and the one who has trouble reading.

Time the writing. If possible, use a timer with an audible tick. You want to get students in the habit of working against the clock. The poorest writers are the slowest off the starting block and waste the most time. The audible tick helps to make them aware they are wasting time.

Collect informal writing at the end of the activity or class. Review it. It’s your feedback on how well you taught.

Trivia

Dolores Claiborne was the bestselling novel in America in 1992; it was made into a film three years later. My review of Dolores Claiborne is scheduled for March 14, 2020 at GreatPenformances. Spoiler alert: I give it an A.

Formal writing prompt: Cui bono?

Today, I’m going to give suggest a formal writing prompt that could be used in an English language arts course just about any time during the academic year, although February  and May are obvious choices.

You might want to collaborate with a social studies teacher in preparing students for this assignment, with you guiding students toward suitable literary fiction and your colleague handling the historical elements.

Cui bono injustice?

Americans traditionally celebrate their national political holidays— Presidents’ Day, Martin Luther King Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Veterans’ Day—as memorials of fights against injustice. While Americans bemoan the victims of injustice, as we should, we typically ignore the beneficiaries of injustice. If we want to prevent continued injustices, it is vital to identify the past beneficiaries of injustice and how those people were or are allowed to continue to benefit.

In an informative/expository text, identify and discuss three beneficiaries of injustice done to Americans. The targets of injustice may be individuals or groups; the beneficiaries also may be either individuals or groups.
Your discussion must include:

  • one example from history prior to your birth,
  • one example from literary fiction, and
  • one example from your personal experience or personal observation.

Be sure you define what constitutes injustice. Also identify why people who were not beneficiaries allowed the injustice to continue. Don’t rely on generalizations: Give specific information cited from reputable sources.

Please keep your text to under 750 well-chosen words.

Notes about this writing prompt

The title of this post uses a Latin legal phrase, cui bono, which means, “Who benefits?” The phrase is applied to a strategy for identifying crime suspects, since criminals usually commit crimes because they derive some benefit from those crimes. Students will come across the phrase in many different occupations, so teach it along with giving the writing prompt.

Before you use this prompt, I suggest you line up literary nonfiction that deals with injustices that you could have students read or that you could at least recommend. The most difficult part of this prompt for ELA teachers and students is making sure students present specific information about the benefits of injustice. To say, for example, that slaveholders got workers for a nominal investment is a generalization. Zora Neal Hurston’s Barracoon documents how much money was made by selling slaves from non-slavery states south to slave-holding states.

Literary nonfiction about slavery, Africa and ethics

covers of 3 works of literary fiction
Recommended literary nonfiction reading for 2019 third quarter

Each quarter I post brief reviews of a few books of literary nonfiction that I think teachers could use in English Language Arts classes. Some of the works have logical tie-ins with required courses in other disciplines; others would pair nicely with fictional works that tackle some of the same issues.

Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston. Amistad: 2018. 171 p. (Note: Some copies have an alternate subtitle, “The story of the last ‘black cargo.'”
Photo of Cudjo Lewis on front coverver of Barraccoon
Barracoon
contains the first-person story of Cudjo Lewis, the last known surviving African from the last American slave ship to bring human cargo to America for sale. The slender volume tells his tale in the man’s own words, as recorded by author Zora Neale Hurston in 1927 and 1928, when Cudjo was 67 years old.

Hurston draws from Cudjo the story of his life in Africa, his enslavement, the Atlantic crossing, his experiences as a slave laborer. She uses spelling that recreates Cudjo’s pronunciation, which takes a little getting used to, but isn’t difficult to decipher.

Cudjo tells of his joy at Emancipation after he’d been enslaved five-and-half years and his grief to realize he couldn’t go back home. He talks about his life and his family in Alabama.

Besides Cudjo’s first-person account, which occupies about 100 pages, the book includes an introduction which provides information about the voyage of the Clotilda, which brought Cudjo to America, stories that Cudjo told Hurston, and a glossary.

Hurston’s first-person narrative could be paired with the author’s 1937 novel Their Eyes We Watching God, which is written from a former female slave’s point of view.  It might also be paired with Thomas Dixon Jr.’s historically significant novel The Clansman.

Blood River by Tim Butcher

Blood River: The Terrifying Journey Through the World’s Most Dangerous Country by Tim Butcher. Grove Press. 2008. 363 p.Man paddles canoe in photo superinposed on map of the Congo River

Blood River is a work of literary nonfiction that John le Carré described as “a masterpiece.”

It’s author, Tim Butcher, had just been appointed Africa Correspondent for Britain’s Daily Telegraph in 2000 when he read that the Telegraph had sent another reporter, Henry Morton Stanley of “Mr. Livingstone, I presume?” fame, to Africa more than a century earlier. That slim personal connection inspired Butcher to retrace Stanley’s more significant but now almost forgotten four-year achievement: mapping the nearly 3000-mile Congo River.

Though warned the journey is suicidal, Butcher persists. He’s arranged for a protector who turns out to be a pygmy, five feet tall and half Butcher’s weight. That’s just the first of many frightening surprises that awaited the author. By his own admission, Butcher is no macho strong guy. He is persistent, however, and quite willing to follow orders from people who know more than he does.

The Congo flows through country that in the year 2000 is far less modern than it was when Stanley was there in the 1870s. During his 44 days of travel, he visits places Stanley visited, compares what he sees to Stanley’s photographs of the same places, and tells what happened to cause the regression.

Butcher obviously did his homework before he went on the trip. There’s a wealth of information in Blood River. He writes knowledgeably about the Congo’s plant and animal life, relates stories about Joseph Conrad’s experience in the Congo, and points out places where events in The African Queen were filmed.

Blood River could be paired with Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness; both are set in the same location just about 100 years apart. Blood River explains that some historical detail that Conrad’s critics thought he made up when he wrote Heart of Darkness were actually true.

Ethical Wisdom by Mark Matousek

Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good by Mark Matousek. Doubleday. 2011. 251 p.
a two-faced angel-demon image at center of front cover
Two-faced, two-minded

At age eight, when his mother gave him a blue coat which he knew she stole, Mark Matousek began a life-long quest to discover the ultimate truth: How should we live?

In Ethical Wisdom, Matousek blends research from the fields of the hard sciences and social sciences, with ideas from writers and philosophers to explain why humans do what they do.

The title not withstanding, the volume is less about what people ought to do than it is about what they actually do. Much of what Matousek has to say is directly related to human communication.  For example, he explains that “Self-control depends on language,” but shows that emotions are caught rather than linguistically transmitted.

His focus on communications  is a primary reason to use Matousek’s volume in an ELA classroom. A second reason to use it is that Matousek writes well, with careful attention to words that convey both his literal and emotional meaning. But Matousek is definitely not a typical stuffy, textbookish author: Even his bibliography is set up to be readily accessible.

The first three sections of Matousek’s book have enough hard data to be used as reading for both humanities and social science courses, if, for example, you are in a setting where students are taking courses for dual enrollment credits. The sections four and five have little scientific unpinning. They are primarily Matousek’s personal beliefs, derived largely from Eastern religions traditions. I’d not require students to read those two sections.

Most chapters in the book are under 10 pages. Finding complementary long or short fiction for students to read on topics discussed in the first three sections of  Ethical Wisdom would not be difficult.

Why fiction has value: informal writing prompts

If you believe the 20th century novels, there was a time at least one student in each high school and college English class aspired to produce the great American novel.

Today we’re hard pressed to find one student in each high school and college English class who’s even interested in reading a great American novel.

rounded squares of varying sizes suggest need to analyze meaning of unfamilar content
A visual analogy: The shapes look familiar but what are they supposed to mean?

Introduce today’s students to fiction

When we “introduce a novel” or “introduce long fiction” to today’s students, we need to forsake the language of Literature with a capital L and speak to the students who speak the language of bits and bytes and augmented reality.

Unlike technical documents, good literary fiction is rarely obvious. In fact, part of the attraction of literary fiction is identifying and interpreting the clues to what the story means.

Many of today’s students are familiar with analyzing computer code to see how it delivers its message. We need to seduce them into learning to analyze linguistic codes to see how a work of fiction delivers its message. With luck, some with learn to enjoy the process.

Instead of lecturing, I like to give students verbal puzzles embedded in informal writing prompts to get their little grey cells moving.

Informal prompts about fiction

Here’s the sort of thing I’d use in introducing fiction reading to literature-phobic students. I begin with a quotation, which gives students a tiny bit of close reading. I chose a quote from Stephen King because he’s a living author—so much more relevant to students than old, dead guys—and because even students who hate to read are likely to know his name from the film versions of his books.

In “The Body,” one of the novellas in his book Different Seasons, Stephen King writes about why people write fiction. He says this:

The only reason anyone writes stories is so they can understand the past and get ready for some future mortality; that’s why all the verbs in stories have -ed endings…even the ones that sell millions of paper backs.

Informal writing prompt #1. What does Stephen King mean by “-ed endings”? In your answer, give two or three examples of the sort of verbs King means. Please keep your response to no more than three sentences. You have 1 minute to write.

This informal prompt can be answered just with grammar knowledge. Students don’t need to know anything about fiction to get it right.

Informal writing prompt #2. Why do you think King ignores the present when he talks about the purpose of writing fiction? Please keep your response to no more than three sentences. You have 1 minute to write.

Prompt #2 requires an understanding of different ways of defining the word present. Here, again, no knowledge of fiction is required.

Informal writing prompt #3. Why does King say “get ready for some future mortality” instead of just saying “get ready for the future?” Please keep your response to no more than three sentences. You have 1 minute to write.

Prompt #3 is the tricky one. King uses the term “future mortality” because there’s nothing certain in the future other than death. It’s the only event that’s likely to happen to everyone. Even the most irreligious typically want their deaths to be mourned by the people whose opinions they valued. By extension, then, the purpose of fiction is to give guidance in how to live.

I don’t expect students to figure this prompt #3 out in an hour, let alone a minute. I just want them to try to figure it out on their own before presenting them with fiction to read.

Other informal prompt options

You needn’t use my informal writing prompts. You could look up quotes on fiction at GoodReads.com or some similar site, or pull some out of your own reading to get students thinking about the value of fiction.

What’s important is that you include both prompts to which students can readily respond with a correct answer and some that present a puzzle with no obvious correct answer. Easily answered prompts encourage techie-type students to experience success in something to do with fiction. Puzzling prompts gives them a mental itch to find out the answer.

Make activities produce learning

an ordinary sized pumpkin
This pumpkin is under 400 pounds.

I read a newspaper article last week about an elementary school class in my area that had raised a 400-pound pumpkin, which will be displayed at the Hard Rock Cafe in Manhattan. It was a cute story, with a photo of cute kids with their pumpkin. I’m sure the kids enjoyed the experience or at least enjoyed having their photo in the newspaper.

The story got me thinking about projects English teachers do to help students engage with course content.

The “Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy” has this warning about using activities as teaching tools:

When the focus is placed on activities, students may be more interested in performing the activity than in learning from the activity.*

Classroom activities have a funny way of becoming an end in themselves. Unless teachers deliberately plan ways to make sure students learn from activities, they often don’t.  I remember some activities from high school that I thought were pointless busywork; the passage of time hasn’t changed my opinion.

Your time is too valuable to waste on activities that students remember as pointless busy work.

If you’re planning some activities for your classes this year, be sure you plan how to make sure students learn from the activity.  Begin by telling students what they’re supposed to learn. Is it information? A skill? A procedure? Some combination of those?

As much as it may grieve you to admit it, the only way to get some students to learn is to build learning assessments into the project itself. That doesn’t mean you have to give a test at the end of the activity.  Sometimes learning happens only when you force students to reflect on what they did, how they felt doing it, what results they achieved.

Giving students informal writing prompts at appropriate reflection points during the activity is one way to build in active learning.

Giving a formal writing prompt at the end of the activity can challenge students to analyze what they did, evaluate what they learned, and give you written documentation you can use both as a “final test” on what they learned from the activity and writing practice.


*The boldface is on page 233 of the original text of A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, L. W. Anderson and D.R. Krathwohl, et al, eds. (complete edition) 2001. Longman.

Image by Frauke Feind from Pixabay

Nature and human nature: a writing prompt

In the last two weeks, Hurricane Dorian displayed the awesome power of Nature and triggered displays of human nature, some of which were less than awesome.

Thinking about what we’ve watched on the news suggests an English language arts writing prompt that is timely but won’t go out of date.

The formal writing prompt

Here’s the core of a formal writing prompt on natural and human-aided disasters:

John C. Mutter writes in his book The Disaster Profiteers, “It is human nature more than Nature that makes disasters so terrible.”

Thinking of a natural disaster that’s occurred in the last 24 months, use digital and print news sources to explore how human nature compounded the effects of the natural consequences.

Write an informative/explanatory text in which you support Mutter’s assertion that, “It is human nature more than Nature that makes disasters so terrible.”

Format your response for reading as a digital document. Please keep your text to under 650 words.

By way of additional help, I suggest you tell students they must:

    • include their definition of human nature.
    • use both print and digital sources
    • include live links to your sources
    • summarize information to which you refer except for brief quotation of strikingly effective language.

Appropriate uses for this formal writing prompt

This prompt would be appropriate for students reading Mutter’s book, a literary nonfiction work I’ve recommended here earlier. It would also be a good prompt for students studying research and source use.

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Educational objectives: A definition

Every teacher has heard of what’s commonly called “Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives.” I’ll bet you’ve never heard anyone say how the Taxonomy defines an educational objective.

Here’s what the text says on page 26:

By educational objectives, we mean explicit formulations of the ways in which students are expected to be changed by the educational process. That is, the ways in which they will change their thinking, their feelings, and their actions.

What are your educational objectives for your writing courses?

How do you expect your writing course to change your students’ thinking?

How do you expect your writing course to change your students’ feelings?

How do you expect your writing course to change your students’ actions?

Note: You will be tested over this material every day for the entire course.