Turn minds over to teach argument

A bookseller in a Christopher Morley novel says, “It’s a good thing to turn your mind upside down now and then, like an hour glass, to let the particles run the other way.”

hourglass with all sand in bottom
The sand has settled into inactivity.

Turning the mental hour glass upside down is a good activity to have your students engage in before you turn them loose to write arguments.

What argument means

An argument is—and has been since the days of Aristotle and Plato—a respectful debate. Before they voice any disagreement, each party must attempt to understand:

    • the opposition’s position, including how they define their terms,
    • the opposition’s evidence for its position,
    • the opposition’s logic from the opposition’s standpoint.

To get students to the place where they can argue, you first have to get them to thoroughly understand the position against which they are arguing. Students will only do that if forced to. Students are rather like normal people in that regard.

hourglass with sand in top half
This has the sand moving again.

Here’s how you can force students to turn their minds upside down.

Force a change of perspective

Make a list of a five to 10 controversial topics. Try to include topics ranging from hot-button issues in your school, your community, state and national politics, and international issues such as climate change, immigration, and disease control.

Have students each select one of the topics on which they have an opinion. Have them write a statement of what they believe about that topic and their evidence for their position. Five hundred words will be plenty for this.

After they’ve turned those paper in, give them a tough assignment. Have each student write a paper defending the opposing point of view, giving the best evidence they can find from the most reputable sources.

If you wish, you might follow the formal writing assignment with a two- or three-minute informal writing prompt—one whose responses you won’t grade—that asks students to reflect on what they learned from doing the assignment that they can use in other situations. If you or I did the assignments ourselves, we’d have to admit that we have very little knowledge of at least one topic on which we have strong opinions.

Having once had the experience of looking at a topic from another viewpoint gives students some appreciation of what they must do in writing genuine arguments.

© 2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Novel predictions for 2045

Novelists seem to have an uncanny knack for telling the future in the present tense. While reading bestselling novels of the 1990s, I’ve been struck by how often writers of that decade mention ideas and activities that are only now becoming strong enough to attract public attention.

Future foretold in the present tense.

Here are a few observations from the 1990s that I scribbled in my notebook.

front dust jacket of 1993 novel The Scorpio IllusionComparing the early 1990s with the Cold War years, in his 1993 novel The Scorpio Illusion Robert Ludlum writes, “We’re no longer dealing with people who think anything like the way we used to think. We’re dealing with hate, not power of geopolitical influence, but pure, raw hatred. The whipped of the world are turning, their age-old frustrations exploding, blind vengeance paramount.”

front dust jacket of DisclosureMichael Crichton in his 1994 novel Disclosure says, “We all live every day in virtual environments, defined by our ideas.”

donkey on Primary Colors dust jacket
In the political novel Primary Colors, the famous author Anonymous has a 1996 presidential candidate leveling with low-income voters about their futures: “Muscle jobs are gonna go where muscle labor is cheap—and that’s not here. So if you all want to compete and do better, you’re gonna have to exercises a different set of muscles, the ones between your ears.”

American flag is dust jacket background
In Executive Orders, another 1996 novel about the presidency, Tom Clancy reflects that “admitting error was more hateful to [Washington leaders] than any form of personal misconduct.”

A question for novel-reading English teachers

Here’s a question for your readers of this blog who are English teachers, your book clubs, and perhaps your students:

What themes in today’s fiction do you predict will be featured every news cycle 25 years from now?

Prepare students to fight today’s wars of words

Quote: When your remote has 50 buttons, you can't change the channel any more.Educators are like generals: They spend most of their time preparing their troops for the previous war.

No where is that tendency more obvious than in composition classes where even today writing teachers are preparing to fight to their last drop of red ink for the compound-complex sentence.

That war was lost years ago.

Compound-complex sentences drowned in mud-choked prose in the late 1980s. The 20-page essay with footnotes and annotated bibliography has been replaced by 1½-page hyperlinked texts supplemented by graphics and/or video. What-shall-I-write decision paralysis has been replaced by operational goals that drive writing.

Today’s writers fight a guerrilla war, strategically aiming precisely chosen words at clearly defined targets and making a quick exit. The 20-page essay with footnotes and annotated bibliography has been replaced by 1½-page hyperlinked texts supplemented by graphics and/or video.

Instead of polysyllabic words and strings of clauses, today’s student writers need a larger repertoire of smaller, more precise terms suited to shorter, more readable sentences.

Instead of memorizing a different strategy for each type of message they must deliver, student writers need to master one strategy for all the writing they must do. And they must have extensive practice using that strategy in different writing situations so that it isn’t rendered unusable by unpredictable circumstances or events.

Above all, student writers must be able to improvise to accomplish a writing task for which they haven’t been given reproducible forms and templates and checklists.

If you’re still fighting the war for writing complexity, it’s time to surrender your red pen, ditch your kit full of all types of essays, and take aim at simplicity.

The war for clear, concise writing is waiting to be won.

I look at 1919 bestsellers for Fine Books blog

For the fifth year in a row, Fine Books and Collections Contributing Writer Nate Pedersen picked my brains about 100-year-old best sellers for a January post  for the magazine’s blog.

screen shot of blog post

Nate is one of the co-authors of Quackery, a nonfiction books which I profiled here December 27, 2019. I met him through doing the retrospectives and that’s how I discovered his book.

Reading vintage fiction has been my hobby for years, but doing it systematically was a fairly recent decision. This year I’ll finish reading all the bestsellers of the 20th century and reviewing them for contemporary readers at my blog GreatPenformances. After that, I’m going to go back to being unsystematic again, starting, I think with Charles Dickens and some Elizabeth Berg novels I’ve missed.

Practical nonfiction with a sense of humor

covers of 2 nonfiction books that beg to be picked upDespite their glowing reviews, the nonfiction books I read in the fourth quarter of 2019 turned out not to be literary nonfiction at all. Literary nonfiction is like novels: It must be read in chapter order.  The books I read are each practical nonfiction.

Despite my disappointment, I’m keeping two of them for my classroom library because of their potential to attract reluctant readers to nonfiction books. Rather than developing a theme, each of the books is a collection of anecdotes on a theme. You can read chapter 7, skip to chapter 13, and then read chapter 1 in either of these books.  That is part of their appeal: They need not be read from cover to cover; they can be picked up and sampled.

I Love It When You Talk Retro

comic-strip woman tells man "I love it when you talk retro"
This Sunday comics look is retro.

Ralph Keyes’s book I Love It When You Talk Retro explores terms and catchphrases that have remained part of the American vocabulary long after people have forgotten where the terms originated or to what they originally referred.

Necktie party, scuttlebutt, blow your wad, puppet state,  bandwagon effect, and Catch-22 are only a few of the terms that Keyes discusses in chapters devoted to words with common origins, such as terms from sports, terms from occupations that no longer exist, and terms from media of earlier centuries.

Keyes designed the book so it can be browsed, used as a reference book, or read cover to cover.

I wouldn’t recommend reading Talk Retro cover-to-cover, let alone asking students to read it cover-to-cover. It’s a book better read in multiple, short sessions.

You might have pairs or trios of students read a chapter and give brief slide presentation to the class about the origins of a few of the expressions that they discovered through their reading.

Talk Retro could certainly be useful in prompting a discussion of the importance of word choices in communicating with individuals outside one’s peer group.

I Love It When You Talk Retro: Hoochie Coochie, Double Whammy, Drop a Dime, and the Forgotten Origins of American Speech. Ralph Keyes. St. Martins. 2009. 310 p.

Quackery

Vintage type and decorations set the stage for this history
Elaborate ornamentation is retro.

By contrast to I Love It When You Talk Retro,  Quackery is co-written by writers from a younger generation. Their language is very much Netflix and Hulu, not retro. Lavishly illustrated and split into small chunks of reading,  Quackery is a book with a high “Ugh, gross!” factor that would appeal to a middle school readers.

Lydia Kang, M.D., and Nate Petersen, a freelance writer, put together a fact-packed, 344-page book, about the crazy things people have done to cure illnesses, increase their lifespan or their libido, get rid of excess weight, or solve dozens or other real or imaginary problems.

Some of the quack cures described were simply mistakes. A few of the “quacks” followed their own advice, often with fatal results. Most of the quack cures, however, were deliberate, money-making schemes.

The books is chock full of interesting, albeit not particularly useful, bits history. For example, the cereal company founder, John Harvey Kellogg, invented a light booth in which someone stood naked while he/she  tanned and sweated under harsh  lights. Kellogg said the treatment cured diabetes and scarlet fever and helped prevent constipation. King Edward VII had booths installed at Windsor and Buckingham castles in England.

 The chapters of Quackery are mercifully short: Many of the descriptions are enough to make you gag, and that internal response is heightened by the use of pond-scum green edging on all the pages.

I’d put Quackery on a classroom shelf to attract seventh grade boys to pick up a book. It’s chapters are extensively illustrated with ads, vintage photos, illustrations from old books and periodicals of instruments and animals used in the various treatments, all of which would delight most seventh graders. Also, the topics are sufficiently scatological to appeal to seventh grade boys, as would the authors’ humor.

Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything. Lydia Kang MD and Nate Pedersen. Workman Publishing. 2017. 344 p.

Is virtual reality in your head?

cover of Crichton novel that suggested the writing promptWhile reading Michael Crichton’s novel 1994 Disclosure for my blog of reviews of the 20th century’s bestselling fiction, I ran across a sentence that I wrote in my notebook of things to think about.

Here’s  the sentence:

“We all live everyday in virtual environments, defined by our ideas.”

The term virtual reality was first used in 1982 in a science fiction novel, so Crichton’s use of the term just over a decade later to describe people’s thought processes was really very insightful.

4 icons each representing virtual reality
Each icon reveals a different aspect of Virtual Reality.

Our students probably have more experience with virtual reality than Crichton had in 1994 and have probably given the topic far less thought. I’m going to suggest a writing prompt that will force students to think about both the meaning of the term virtual reality and about human behavior.

Each icon at the left represents some aspect of the concept of virtual reality. Thinking about why the artist chose particular elements to draw may help students define virtual reality.

You may need to use informal writing to force students to examine each icon carefully enough to note the similarities and differences.

(Note: All four icons are available from thenounproject.com.)

Formal writing prompt about virtual reality

In his 1994 novel Disclosure,  which is set in a company that is building a virtual reality application, Michael Crichton says this: “We all live everyday in virtual environments, defined by our ideas.”

Here’s the writing assignment:

Explain how a person’s ideas function like a technology-generated virtual reality environment. Illustrate how that process works by referring to three or more individuals whose ideas lead/led them to behave in ways that are/were significantly different from the behavior of people around them. Include an example drawn from at least two of these three categories:

  • A living individual
  • An person born in the 20th century who is no longer living.
  • A character from a literary work.

Try to avoid having all your examples be of individuals whose behavior most people would probably consider “good” or having all your examples be of individuals whose behavior most people would probably consider “bad.” (Too many similar examples are boring.)

One last note for teachers

Many students don’t complete assignments because they take too long getting started. For that reason, you might want to prepare the way for this assignment by having students write informally on several different days before you give this assignment about people whose behavior was significantly different from those around them.

You could start by having students think about a living individual whose behavior diverges from that of people around him/her. News stories provide plenty, ranging from Nikolas Cruz to Greta Thunberg.

For historical figures, students might find it easiest to think about prominent people in various fields: Thomas Edison, Richard Nixon, Neil Armstrong, Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Punctuation matters: an informal writing prompt

row of question marksPunctuation is one of the least interesting parts of English language arts to teach or to learn. If we can’t make it interesting, we ought to at least make sure students understand why it matters.

Below is an informal writing prompt to get students thinking about why punctuation matters. I recommend you use whatever technology is available to you so that you can read the prompt aloud while students follow along.

The informal prompt

Look at these two sentences about a sports competition  and think about when someone might say each of them:

  1. May the best man win.
  2. May the best man win?

Consider: Under what circumstances would someone use sentence one? Under what circumstances would someone use sentence two?

In no more than four sentences, explain the differences between the meaning of the first sentence and the meaning of the second sentence. You have 1 minute to write your explanation.

Notes on this informal activity

Unlike an oral question, informal writing gets every member of a class to do something with the information that’s before them.

Because this informal writing activity activity is brief, uncomplicated, and deals with sports, it’s fairly easy to get students’ attention for the two minutes it takes to read the prompt and write a response. The activity may even hold the attention of students whose acquaintance with sports gives them a more extensive list of reasons why someone would wonder whether it is possible for the best competitor to win a contest.

Reading aloud while students follow along is recommended because, for a variety of reasons,  many American teenage and adults students need help reading. Anything you can do to help them associate word forms with word sounds—even if its just a two-minute activity—is worth doing.

Three types of nonfiction

discarded books on the pavement
Not every nonfiction book is literary nonfiction. Some are trash.

English teachers have a problem with nonfiction: They think it’s boring. Frankly, a great deal of nonfiction is boring because it was never intended to be useful or interesting: It exists just to document forgettable facts.

An insurance policy and some of your school superintendent’s memos are boring because their entire purpose is to record information that you’d forget immediately if you just heard it. Such nonfiction accomplishes its goal if you receive the paper so you could look up the information later if you need it. It can be boring because nobody actually reads it.

All nonfiction for ELA classes should be useful

The nonfiction we have students read and write in English Language Arts classes ought to be an entirely different species of writing than the forgettable facts documents.

The nonfiction for class use needs to be useful, memorable, and factual.  Facts are the protoplasm of all nonfiction.

Nonfiction is presented by the writer as a factual record. Although a writer might not have had all the facts or may have inaccurately presented the facts, readers should assume that the writer is telling the truth as far as she knew it at the time she wrote it.

You must teach students that just because someone wrote a nonfiction text does not mean the author approves of or agrees with the beliefs or actions shown in that text. Some authors deliberately write about ideas with which they disagree. That’s those authors’ way of trying to understand how anyone could hold those ideas.

Practical nonfiction is useful information

Cover of "What Great Teachers Do Differently"
An informational nonfiction text.

One species of nonfiction our students need to be able to read  is what Sol Stein calls practical nonfiction. It’s purpose is to convey information so that readers can put it to use. Practical nonfiction is also the kind of writing you and I and our students are required to do, and thus it is the kind of writing you and I are required to teach.

A report on the success (or lack thereof) of the latest marketing campaign is an example of practical nonfiction. So is a book on how to clean your house in 15 minutes a day and an article in the Sunday newspaper about the potential uses the city council has identified for the old knitting mill property.

Each of those nonfiction pieces provides information which the recipient is expected to act upon in some way. The action might be to design a totally different marketing plan, or clean house in 15 minutes a day, or vote either to retain the current city council or throw the bums out.

Most of the nonfiction in newspapers, magazines, and books is practical nonfiction. Practical nonfiction is a several notches above useless nonfiction, but it’s still pretty prosaic stuff.

Literary nonfiction is alluring

3 literary nonfiction books
These literary nonfiction books are described in an April 5, 2019 blog post.

Literary nonfiction is totally different from the other two uses of nonfiction.
Literary nonfiction tells a true story. It presents unaltered facts about real people, real places and real events using the scene-creating and story-telling techniques of fiction to draw readers into being interested in a topic in which they had no previous interest.

Literary nonfiction is much more difficult to do well than fiction. Literary nonfiction is held simultaneously to two very different standards and must meet both of them.

First, it must be nonfiction and, as such, it is assessed by journalistic standards. That means, information in literary nonfiction must be documented facts that can be verified by independent sources. There can be no invented sources, no fabricated quotes. The literary nonfiction writer has to stick to facts. And one-source stories aren’t acceptable.

Although the literary nonfiction writer is denied the option of making things up, she’s required to set the story in scenes—at specific times in specific places—which are described well enough that readers understand how the time and place impacted the characters.

The literary nonfiction writer also has to use fictional techniques such as dialogue and carefully selected details to develop the story’s characters. That’s where the nonfiction writer must exercise creativity to bring alive revealing scenes without falsifying facts or inventing language.

Teach both practical and literary nonfiction

You and I need to teach students to write practical nonfiction. Every student will be required to write practical nonfiction.

We should teach our students to read literary nonfiction. Literary nonfiction has the ability to make people interested in topics that they would not have suspected would interest them.

Literary nonfiction can open the world to students.

And it can open students to the world.

Markus Clemens

A formal prompt on word choices

A McDonald's in France
Service-au-volant. McCafé.  How do you say “Micky D’s” in French?

Since today’s a non-school day and Black Friday, rather than give you a long post, I’m just going to refer you to a formal writing prompt I posted earlier this week at PenPrompts. The prompt is how word choices even in the definitions of terms can influence people’s thinking.

The word students are assigned to work with is globalization.

If you teach journalism or an ELA unit on media, you may want to take a look at the prompt. And you might be able to get a social studies teacher to accept the assignment for credit there, too. Click here to see the prompt.

Jp Valery

Nobody minds. Or do they?

A formal writing prompt

As a writing prompt starter today, I have a quote from Jane Austen.  I was reminded of it while reading a John Grisham novel about a Klansman who bombed a Jewish lawyer’s office in 1967.

Sometimes the way my mind works is downright scary.

Introduction to the writing prompt

In her novel Mansfield Park, Jane Austen writes “Nobody minds having what is too good for them.” Think about that.

  • What does it mean to have “something that’s too good for you”?
  • What kinds of things might be said to be “too good for” another person?
  • What does the phrase “too good for you” imply about the relationship between the person speaking and the person being spoken to?

Identify situations in which person A had something that person B regarded as too good for person A. Choose three such situations including at least two of these three types:

  1. A situation in which you were personally involved
  2. A situation you saw in person or on a TV/movie screen
  3. A situation you read about in a piece of literature.

The writing prompt itself

In an informative/expository text, discuss whether Jane Austen is correct when she says, “Nobody minds having what is too good for them.”

Support your opinion by describing three situations chosen from the numbered list in the introduction in which the person who has “something too good for them” is either content or discontent with his/her situation. Be sure you include the correct titles of published works to which you refer.

Please limit your text to [number] words. Your assignment is due [date].

Suggestions for success

You have three options in responding to this prompt. You can:

  • Agree totally with Austen’s comment
  • Disagree totally with Austen’s comment
  • Say that circumstances determine whether she is right or wrong.

Be cautious if any of your examples that might be embarrassing to someone your readers are likely to know. Providing you tell your readers you changed the names, it’s OK to use fictitious names.

Suggestions for teachers

This prompt would tie in nicely with a discussion of figurative language.

Instead of hoping students read the complete prompt, you may want to give students the three questions in its introduction as informal writing prompts before you distribute the assignment. That way you can be sure the entire class read the introduction.

You may want to limit the students’ choices of situations to tie them more closely to your syllabus.