Farewell, dear readers

Many of you have subscribed to this blog for years. Some of you have given me valuable feedback and badly needed encouragement. Several of you have tagged after me from the time I began my first website, You-Can-Teach-Writing.com back in 1988.

I’m deeply indebted to all of you.

As Covid ceases to be a pandemic and, if the scientists are right, becomes endemic like seasonal flu, I suspect a good many of you will be leaving teaching. Some of you will leave because you’re reached retirement age and coping with Covid has left you mentally and emotionally exhausted. I suspect many more will leave because the mental and emotional exhaustion caused by Covid-caused has been compounded by disillusionment with public education. I hope each of you will find time to rest and recharge. Then I hope you’ll find a place to use your experience in settings that provide you with work that gives you pleasure.

I haven’t much hope to offer those of my readers who cannot afford to quit teaching now, except to say that Ukrainian teachers whose homes and schools were bombed to rubble are still teaching their students. As bad as your situation is, it can’t be that bad. What you must do, you can do.

With all best wishes,

Linda G. Aragoni

Copyright Basics for Teaching

If you do not have a clear understanding of the U.S. Copyright law, especially that which applies to Internet resources, you might inadvertently be teaching your students to steal without realizing it. Here are the most basic facts you and your students need to know to avoid copyright infringement.

Copyright basics: what can or can’t be copyrighted

Copyright is literally the right to copy information. In most cases, that right belongs to the person who created and “fixed” the work in its finished form. Original literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works can be copyrighted. That covers a wide range of material such as poetry, novels, photographs, cartoons, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture.

Material that is not original but copied from others cannot be given copyright protection.

Facts and ideas cannot be copyrighted, nor can operating procedures. However, the way facts, ideas, and procedures are expressed may be able to be copyrighted. That is why dozens of poems saying spring is the season of renewal can each be afforded copyright protection: each one expresses the basic idea differently.

Other items that cannot be copyrighted are discoveries and inventions, which can be given patent protection, and words, phrases, and symbols and designs used to identify the source of goods or services. Those can be given trademark protection.

Four mistaken ideas about copyright

Many people hear the term “public domain” and mistakenly believe that material that is on public display, such as material in blogs or websites, is OK to copy. That is not true. The term public domain has nothing to do with the accessibility of the material: it usually means any copyright on the material has expired.

Many people think that unless something bears a copyright notice they can duplicate and share the information freely. That is not true. Copyright legally exists as soon as a work is created and fixed in some tangible, perceptible form. It is not necessary for a work to be registered with the copyright office or even for the work to contain a copyright notice.

Some people mistakenly believe that they may copy material from the Internet as long as they don’t make any money from using the material. That is not true either.

Other people think as long as they share the material just with a few people, it is OK to copy it. That is definitely not true. Sharing copyrighted material with even one other person is an infringement of the copyright owner’s legal rights.

Fair use is limited to small portions

Under a provision of the copyright law called fair use, you or your students can legally reproduce a small portion of a copyrighted work in a review or a discussion of the work, such as a research paper. The law, however, does not define what a “small portion” is. Many scholars consider fair use to be less than 10 or 20 percent of the whole work, but copyright holders are not so generous.

It is safe to assume that anything which can be downloaded as a single item should not be copied and shared even with one other person without prior written permission of the copyright holder even if the name of the copyright holder is clearly displayed on the material. That means a single photograph, a single web page, a single PDF, a single cartoon or this single blog post should not be shared unless the user has secured the copyright holder’s permission in advance.

Hyperlink use is acceptable

It is acceptable to provide a hyperlink to copyrighted material without notifying the copyright holder in advance. That allows the copyright holder to retain control over the material, which is the purpose of copyright, while allowing others a way to incorporate the material in their work.

More information

The US copyright office website http://www.copyright.gov gives detailed information about the copyright law written in remarkably clear language. The site also has kid-friendly tutorial in comic-strip format, “Taking the Mystery out of Copyright.”

©2010 Linda G. Aragoni.

Short writing calms fears

My third semester as a graduate teaching assistant, one of the two sections of first year college writing I was assigned to teach was scheduled for 90 minutes starting at 4:15  p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.  

Nothing had prepared me for the problem I discovered the first session of that class.

The time slot attracted student athletes who needed Fridays for games and part-time local students who could adjust their work schedules to take the class. I anticipated this particular class might struggle more than most. The elimination of a third of the typical sessions would mean students would do 26 documents instead of the 39 I required from students who met three times a week. In addition, the twice-weekly students had more unavoidable demands on their time than were typical for first year students.

At the first class meeting, students, as always, filled the back seats first, with one exception: one male student took a seat at the front of the room beside the teacher’s desk. There was no one else within two seats of him. I thought he might have a vision or hearing problem.

I passed out the syllabus, gave my usual introduction about how in my writing courses everyone wrote every class period, and then asked everyone to take out a piece of paper and write for two minutes about what they hoped to get out of the class. When students bent to the task, the guy in the seat at the front broke out in a sweat and began to shake. He could barely hold on to his pen. He wasn’t acting. It was clear from his body language that he was terrified by the blank piece of paper.

I made an on-the-spot decision.

When the two minutes were up, I said, “Congratulations. You’ve just done your first timed writing.  From now on, you’ll be doing timed writing every class period so that you get used to forcing yourselves to write for short periods of time without stopping.”

Then I told students that probably none of them would go on to make their living as a writer, but that all of them would have to write. They wouldn’t have to write novels or poetry, but short, factual messages at work: a telephone message, a report about the failure of pump #2, or a request for vacation. I said I intended to prepare them for that kind of writing by requiring them to do at least one short piece of writing every class in anywhere from 30 seconds to five minutes by the clock.

I said that just as what they had to write at work was about something at work, what I’d required them to do in class every class period would be related to the work they had to accomplish in the class to get a passing grade. I said I expected them to write short, factual, useful messages in a couple minutes at least once, possibly several times, during class. “I don’t expect you to produce art. I expect you to produce accurate, concise, clear messages fast. If you can do that, you will not only do well in this class, but you’ll be able to write well in your work and in other classes you take.”

Then I picked up the trash can and said, “I’m going to pass around the trash can. Unless you want me to read what you wrote or unless to keep it as a memento of this happy occasion, throw your paper in the trash. Next class, we’ll start learning how to write fast, accurately, concisely, and clearly.”

I don’t remember anything else about the guy who was initially terrified of a blank piece of paper. By the end of the semester, he exhibited no more anxiety than anyone else, and he must have done OK because no one in the class earned less than a C.

©2022 LINDA GORTON ARAGONI

Nonfiction exemplar with wide appeal

Martin Doyle’s The Source

Photo of river is front cover of The Source.

After reading just the introduction to The Source, I wrote in my notebook that it “dramatically summarizes the role of rivers in language that’s very accessible and vivid. This guy writes incredibly well.”  

I’ve since read Martin Doyle’s entire book twice and my initial enthusiasm hasn’t diminished. I recommend you grab a copy to read and use in your writing courses.  Students interested in the environment, history, law, government, agriculture, and business would find value in The Source. If you’re so lucky as to have a budding journalist among your students, that person can also learn a great deal from The Source.

Why rivers matter to America

Doyle opens The Source with an explanation of why its rivers were so important to America in its first 50 years as a nation. He says “rivers are the defining feature of America” and  history played out on a landscape defined by rivers.” Doyle says although its rivers “shaped the very ideas of what America should be,” but “Americans changed their rivers.”

In the first section of The Source, Doyle shows how Federalism came to control such activities as river navigation and flood control. In the first chapter, Doyle points out the obvious fact (which I hope I’m not the only person never to have noticed) that there are no North-South rivers east of the Appalachians. Because of that, he says in the 18th and 19th centuries all east coast commerce was along rivers running West to East and thus was “conducted within single political ideologies.” Doyle also shows how the Erie Canal positioned New York to become the nation’s commercial hub and tied the northern states to the states West of the Appalachians instead of to Southern states.

From those river-bound facts, it was only a step to the War Between the States.

River-related decisions are controversial

In the first section of The Source, before they’ve read much more than 100 pages, readers have all the concepts they need to understand how its rivers were instrumental in shaping America’s history. They should certainly understand that having the federal government in charge of managing rivers—a decision that harks back to Thomas Jefferson’s basing the Army Corps of Engineers permanently at West Point to protect American commerce and to oversee “America’s river-related decisions”—means that sometimes flood control is managed or mismanaged by people who lack local knowledge of either threats or resources.

In the remaining four sections of The Source, Doyle looks at controversies that have arisen in the U.S. over use of its rivers and the different ways individuals, communities, and government bodies have chosen to use their rivers for everything from recreation to sewage disposal. What makes Doyle’s book unusual among the stacks of nonfiction books published each year is the way he brings his story down to the level at which ordinary readers—including your students—live.

Doyle puts technical topics into everyday language. He writes for interested non-experts, people who saw a story on TV or read a news article, but didn’t understand why a particular set of events happened. Even when Doyle is discussing technical topics, readers don’t need to stop on every page to look up some unfamiliar term that’s essential to understanding his message. Your students will appreciate that.

And Doyle clearly likes the people he writes about. He has a sense of humor that stops well short of ridiculing people whose opinions readers (and perhaps Doyle himself) might find a trifle wacky. Doyle directs the Water Policy Program at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy solutions and is a professor of river science and policy at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. The jacket notes for The Source don’t mention that Doyle also teaches writing, but you should mention it if you use The Source in a writing course or even if you just make it available for students to borrow.

The Source: How Rivers Made America and America Remade Its Rivers. Martin Doyle. W.W. Norton, 2018. 349 pp. including notes.  

I bought hardback copies of The Source from www.hamiltonbook.com for less than the cost of a Danielle Steele paperback. Copies were available 2022-03-17.

©2022 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Why did I laugh?

Some teachers I knew once taught in a school that required its secondary teachers to teach students about sexual harassment. To fulfill that obligation, one teacher gave students some reading to do at home and then gave them a short answer test. I was privileged to read some of the students’ responses to the test.

Asked to define sexual harassment, one student wrote, “sexual hairassment is unwanted sexual jesters or sex inurwindow.”

The teacher who showed me the test responses couldn’t understand why I laughed.

I hope you will understand and laugh, too.

©2022 Linda Gorton Aragoni

PUSH writing is coming to an end

My domain registration for pushwriting.com ends April 14, 2022. I’ve decided close up shop before then. Since this may be an unwise decision, it seems appropriate for me to schedule my last post for April Fool’s day.

I, along with many other teachers, have been growing increasingly dissatisfied with the American educational system. Many of us might have held on had it not been for the Covid-19 epidemic, which exposed more problems than we wanted to acknowledge and for which we didn’t want to take the blame.

As things “get back to normal,” I’ve a gnawing feeling normal will be worse than it ever was.

Sadly, teachers who are supposed to teach writing don’t really understand that writing is a skill, just as playing an instrument is a skill. From one week to the next, writing teachers may switch from having students write poems to having them write essays about historical figures. They don’t see that what they’re asking is like the PE coach expecting to field a winning football team when they have students practice hitting a golf ball one week and practice putting a basketball through a hoop the next.

Here and there a few teachers get it.

Unfortunately, all too often good writing teachers often leave teaching for some other line of work.

I’m tired of trying to tell teachers how to teach writing so that students learn to write because I don’t think most schools actually allow teachers to teach so students do learn to write. School boards see the importance of students having band practice and football practice day after day and week after week, but the idea that writing is a skill requiring regular practice over an extended period of time would never occur to them.

The next three Fridays, I’ll try to come up with an encouraging word or two for you writing teachers who stick with the work. Meanwhile, I’m going to look for something to do that will be, as one of my college students once said, “fun and exiting.” (I’ve already got the exiting part figured out.)

©2022 LINDA GORTON ARAGONI

Informal writing prompt: no euthanasia on Facebook

A story on National Public Radio this morning suggested a 1-minute informal writing prompt about the correct placement of modifiers.

THE NPR report was about a 500-pound black bear called Hank the Tank who had broken into more than two dozen homes around South Lake Tahoe, CA, and was responsible for 152 incidents of  what the California Department of Fish and Wildlife call “conflict behavior.” Conflict behavior is what the CDFW says happens when a “severely food-habituated bear” like Hank breaks into people’s homes.

The NPR story reported that “the Bear Legacy, a local nonprofit that aims to protect bears, expressed its relief of Hank not being euthanized on Facebook.”

Informal writing prompt

Here’s how to turn that sentence from the NPR news story into an informal writing prompt. First, display and read the sentence:

The Bear Legacy, a local nonprofit that aims to protect bears, expressed its relief of Hank not being euthanized on Facebook.

DNA evidence shows Hand the Tank didn’t work alone. By Jonathan Franklin, February 24, 2022, NRP News

Next ask students to identify any parts of the sentence that doesn’t sound right to them. Tell them to write their response in no more than two sentences. Depending on your students’ ages, give them between 30 and 60 seconds to respond.

Depending on their literacy skills, students may notice any, all, or none of these problems:

  • The prepositional phrase on Facebook is misplaced. Facebook was where the bear protection group expressed their relief.
  • It is unlikely that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife would have posted to Facebook a video of an animal being euthanized or even a photo of a euthanized bear.
  • Relief of Hank not being euthanized should be relief that Hank wasn’t euthanized.  

Wrap up the informal writing by giving students 30 seconds to write one thing they learned from examining the sentence.

©2022 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Link your stories to students’ lives

Through LinkedIn, I met a graduate student who coordinates the Gerontology Student Association meetings at the University of Southern California. She was intrigued that I am writing books about nursing home visiting and thought other students would also be interested in my experience and perspectives. She invited me to talk to the group via Zoom this past Tuesday.

I organized my presentation in terms of three historical periods—the Baby Boom era of 1945-1970, the Vietnam Era of 1970-1995, and what I call “the Angry Era,” 1995-2020—and the newly-launched Epidemic Era, which will last longer than I will.

The online session was a vivid reminder why I miss teaching college students. On Zoom, I could see them processing what I was saying: it was almost as if students’ skulls were transparent.

What made their eyes light up with an “oh, yeah, I see that” expression were stories about what people did in response to historical events.

As teachers, I fear we often forget that ever since there have been people, those people have learned through stories about their world, how it functions, and how other people in it are likely to behave. People forget facts; they rarely forget how facts affected them. The affect of facts become the stories of a person’s life.

I revisit my teaching in terms of stories.

As I think back on my teaching experiences, I remember stories.

I remember the little boy in the class of multiply handicapped children who banged his leg braces on the floor and yelled with glee, “See what Wuss dooze!” as his hyperactive buddy named Russell, whose birth defect that prevented him from speaking but didn’t keep him from exploring, investigated every aspect of the classroom.

I remember the college freshman who literally broke into a sweat and shook when he was faced with a blank piece of paper. And I remember the story I concocted to get him to write without letting any of the other students notice he had a problem. The class was at 4 p.m. and most students were coming from work so I had the entire class write at the beginning of each class about whatever was on their minds for one minute without stopping , starting with 3×5-inch pieces of paper.

Like me, you also probably remember stories about students you taught far better than your remember their names.

As you prepare to teach future classes, keep alert to opportunities to tell students stories that will fix some important aspect of your material in students’ minds so it can’t readily shake loose. Your students will remember stories you used as teaching tools far better than they will remember facts you tried to drill into their noggins.

I’m going to remember the story Yingxue, my USC gerontology student hostess, told me about how the Chinese traditionally make a peach-shaped, steamed cake with red bean paste for older adults as a birthday gift. For my birthday, which happened to fall on the day of my presentation, Yingxue, drew me this cartoon representation of the Chinese god of longevity, 寿星 (Shou Xing), who holds a peach.

That’s a story and a gift I’m not likely to forget soon.

©2022 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Hardback books promote reading

If you want to encourage reading among students age 10 and up, give them ready access to hardback books other than textbooks.

I was reminded of that this past week as I reread Mark Glickman’s Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books. Glickman introduces his story by telling how the UPS driver delivered to him a 1764 copy of the Hilkhot Alfasi, a title Glickman says “literally means ‘Jewish Laws of the Guy from Fez.’” Inside the front cover, he found a decal whose logo featured two concentric starts of David and the caption “Jewish Cultural Reconstruction.”

plundered books
Stacks of boxes of books plundered by Nazis.

A Google search told Glickman that the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction was an organization that sought Jewish and other culturally important works stolen by the Nazis and attempted to return them to their rightful owners. Intrigued, Glickman began digging to find out how his book and millions of other books survived the war.

In the final chapter before the Afterword, Glickman says, “It’s  an irony of modern technology: the more digitized our books become, the more drawn we are to the printed word.”

If his observation needed proof, Glickman provides it in the Afterword in which he tells of showing his copy of the Hilkhot Alfasi to descendants of European Jews attending a religious and educational summer camp in the Pacific Northwest. Glickman says touching the pages afforded those kids a way to connect with the generation of their forebears nearly wiped out during the Holocaust.

You probably can’t show your students rare books like the  Hilkhot Alfasi, but any hardcover, nonfiction you can put within their grasp encourages reading, especially by male students. Paperback books may get passed around, but hardback books get handed down. Guys see hardcover books as serious, useful, important, valuable. If you allow students to borrow your hardcover books, they’ll interpret that as a sign of your respect for them and their abilities—even if they don’t know yet what their abilities are.

One other thing: Don’t go all librarian on this, with borrower cards and due dates. Lend to students as to any of your friends. Turning students into readers is a good thing, even if you lose a book or two in the process.

©2022 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Nonfiction that’s not for everyone

Every quarter I recommend nonfiction books that a substantial number of high school and first-year college students would find intriguing enough to pick up and informative enough to read. In the process of selecting those books,  I end up with a stack of books I’ve bought  that aren’t a good fit for the majority students, but which are nonetheless good reading.

Here’s are three books I read this academic year that are not on-target for most students, but which some teachers and/or their students may find compelling reading.

3 literary nonfiction books

In My Hands

In My Hands: Compelling Stories from a Surgeon and His Patients Fighting Cancer by Stephen A. Curley, MD, FACS. Center Street, ©2018. 285 p.

In My Hands might be a good choice for student eying medical careers. Dr. Curley comes across as a personable, caring individual. He makes his patients real, too. Curley writes well but his subject matter involves many long and unfamiliar medical terms. Some chapters appear to have been edited to reduce the number of such terms; others bristle with them. Chapters  run about 10 pages.

Go Back Where You Came From

Go Back Where You Came From: The Backlash Against Immigration and the Fate of Western Democracy. Sasha Polakow-Suransky. Nation Books, ©2017. 358 p.

In Go Back Where You Came From, Sasha Polakow-Suransky traces how America, whose history is the history of immigrant groups, has become anti-immigrant. Polakow-Suransky is a very good writer, but his subject is both complicated and emotionally charged. This isn’t a book for people who get their news in sound-bites or Tweets. A few students—particularly those who are either immigrants or children of immigrants of the last quarter century—will find this book insightful.

Mill Town

Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains. Kerri Arsenault. St. Martin’s Press. ©2020. 354 p.

Mill Town is a book that should have sold better than Unsafe at Any Speed, but which few readers will even wade through. It’s a prime example of why reporters are trained to lead with their most significant information.

Author Kerri Arsenault grew up in Mexico, Maine, a town dominated by a paper mill that provided jobs for most people in the area for over a century. Arsenault discovers in chapter 16—long after readers have been bore by irrelevant information—that the Environmental Protection Agency shelved cancer risk reports that showed the dioxin produced by paper mills and washed downstream appears in meat, fish, butter, and milk at levels that so far exceed government standards “even one simple hamburger could do a person harm.”

I still have a stack of books that some teachers and students will find good reading. Those can wait for another day.

©2022 Linda Gorton Aragoni