Literary nonfiction for teachers

covers of 3 featured works of literary nonfiction
Their covers reveal the tone if not the content of these literary nonfiction books.

The literary nonfiction I read during the second quarter of 2020 was disappointing in terms of finding books that could be read by teens and college students. All three books I chose turned out to be more appropriate for teachers of a certain age. (You know who you are.) The three are Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, and The Great War in America by Garrett Peck.

Gift from the Sea

by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Vintage Books, 1991, 138 p.

Photograph of a shell is on cover of book
The writing is as calm as the cover image.

First published in 1955, Gift from the Sea is a tranquil account of a brief vacation by the sea during which author Anne Morrow Lindbergh reflected on her life in particular and the lives of women in general. Just under 50 when she wrote the book, she had had a far from tranquil life, as Wikipedia will tell you. She was an aviation pioneer along with her husband, Charles. The couple’s first child was kidnapped in 1932 amid national hysteria.

In Gift from the Sea, Morrow Lindbergh writes as wife, mother, and writer, reflecting on her different roles and how best to deal with the conflicting demands on her time and attention. She finds solitude essential for her if she’s to be able to connect to others.

Gift from the Sea is a lovely, lyrical book, but it’s not a book for teens and twenty-somethings, nor a book for men. It’s for nurturing women, desperate for time to be nourished.

Outliers: The Story of Success

by Malcolm Gladwell, Little Brown, 2008, 309 p.

One marble is separated from a group of marbles
What makes one individual stand out?

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell tackles the question “Why do some people succeed far more than others?” After extensive—and fascinating—research Gladwell found that while intelligence, personality, and hard work play a part in success, many of the most important factors are that successful people were just lucky. They were born at the right time in the right place and those factors gave them unusual opportunities to do things for which they had the interest, training, and skills that permitted them to seize those opportunities.

Gladwell can make complicated material easy to read. Adult students and teens in dual-enrollment programs could read Outliers, but not all of them should. Folks who already think the world is against them could find Outliers depressing. Like Gift from the Sea, Outliers requires readers have enough maturity to be able to accept unpleasant realities without feeling victimized.

The Great War in America: World War I and Its Aftermath

by Garrett Peck, Pegasus Books, 2018. 414 p.

A dark photo of the celebration in New York City of WWI's end
Celebration is dimmed in the context of WWI’s impact on America.

Many historians have written about the impact of World War I on Europe, in particular about how the war’s end held the seeds of World War II. Garret Peck focuses his study on how America’s involvement in the war and more particularly Woodrow Wilson’s role in the peace negotiations afterward reverberated throughout the US. I’ve written in another post about Peck’s discussion of the 1918 flu pandemic.

Most general readers will need a map of Europe and lists of who was who in the European capitals  and the American government in 1918 to help them sort out what’s happening at the international level.

Peck writes well. Some of his scenes are almost cinematographic. They make me wish for TV series about Wilson’s life in the White House done in the BBC manner.

© 2020 Linda G. Aragoni


In accordance with my normal practice of posting about literary nonfiction books the first Friday of each quarter, I had intended to post this on July 3. I not only failed to post the material, but I deleted what I’d already written. I apologize to anyone who had been waiting with bated breath for the latest installment. I just recently realized my mistake.

Senior moments are lasting a lot longer these days than they used to.

Define globalization neutrally

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

This cross-curricular writing prompt is designed to make students consciously aware that even definitions can be slanted. The prompt could be used in social studies courses, media courses, or ELA courses.  At the high school level, teachers of two different courses might use the prompt, which reduces students’ workload while increasing students’ perception of the importance of the assignment.

A formal writing prompt for teens and adults

Globalization is a term we hear nearly every day. What is globalization? Consult at least a half dozen reputable sources for their definitions. Do the definitions provided by each source agree? If they don’t agree, are their definitions totally at odds or do they disagree over a few specific points? Does the wording of the various definitions suggest an inclination to regard globalization either positively or negatively?

Your assignment

Based on your analysis, craft what you believe to be a definition of globalization that is neutral; that is, a definition that is neither enthusiastic about globalization nor totally opposed to it.

Using the neutral definition you crafted, write an informative/explanatory text in which you explain how according to that definition globalization either is or is not good for America. Format your text for reading as a digital document, using hyperlinks to sources you cite. Please keep your text to under [650 words].

Suggestions for success

This assignment is as much about how carefully you read as it is about how well you write. Don’t assume that people whose position you agree with define globalization in the same way you do. Also, don’t assume that people with whom you disagree define globalization the same way you do. One reason political arguments can get heated is that, without realizing it, two people often use the same terms with different meanings.

You may work with a partner or group if you want to increase the number of sources you examine and have the benefit of more than one point of view. It is probably unwise to have more than a dozen sources or more than four people in your group. With too much material, you’ll never get through the assignment.

If you work with a partner or group, each person should write his or her own text. Having each person write certain paragraphs is rarely successful, and assigning one person to do the writing is unfair to everyone.

A note to PUSHwriting readers

If you use this prompt, you’ll need to be prepared to suggest reputable sources that students can consult. Dictionaries alone are unlikely to be adequate and most students’ nonfiction reading won’t include publications about world trade and international economics. They’ll need to be pointed toward sources that won’t overwhelm them, but will provide different perspectives. In preparing to prepare students for the prompt, you’ll probably need do more work than they will.

This prompt previously appeared on another of my websites which is no longer live. A post which linked to the prompt has been removed.

Photo by JP Valery at Unsplash.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Good writers must be good planners

To do competently the writing tasks ordinary people get stuck with, a person doesn’t need to be a really good writer, but the individual needs to become a really good planner.

Target with unusually large bull's eye
The writer’s goal should be important and unmistakable.

Planning separates the wannabe writers from real writers. The wannabe writer is wrapped up in himself. Real writers are focused on the one really important point they must make in the piece they are to write.

Real writers push themselves to identify their central point quickly. They realize that getting an early start is an insurance policy against unpredictable events close to deadline.

Real writers focus all their attention on the main point they’ve decided their work must convey. That point dictates what supporting evidence they’ll need.

Real writers understand that the quality of their sources will largely determine the quality of their information. So, they systematically look for people who have genuine expertise: a combination of personal experience plus study of the work of other individuals whose experience is even broader or at an even deeper level.

person at start of path to distant place
Having a clear goal lets the writer to take advantage of evidence sources on the way.

Having a systematic way to identify people with expertise gives real writers a fast start, which, in turn, gives them more time to dig into the evidence, to see where it leads, and to follow up if it leads to new evidence or new sources of evidence.

Planning, fortunately, is a skill whose foundations can be taught fairly quickly. Ripple strategy is a simple, easy to learn process for developing an initial list of sources to consult. In a very few minutes, writers can have an initial list of sources to contact.

Water droplet has set off ripples in a pond
Writers start from their knowledge and work outward to find evidence sources.

Moreover, ripple strategy alerts writers’ brains to watch for additional evidence sources even when the writers are seemingly immersed in other activities.

Having a familiar planning strategy gives a writer a significant edge over someone who treats each new writing project as totally new and totally unfamiliar. Time saved by reusing a strategy can be devoted to researching and writing.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Real writing is necessary writing

In 2020, real writing doesn’t mean an essayist at Walden Pond, or a poet in an attic, or a novelist in a retreat in the Berkshires.

https://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/walden-site-of-thoreaus-hut.jpg
1908 photo of the site of the cottage near Walden Pond in which Henry David Thoreau lived 1845-1847.

Real writing is necessary writing. It’s everyday, nonfiction writing. It’s not “lovely,” or “powerful,” or “gut-wrenching.” It’s ordinary, routine, mostly dull, and mostly unmemorable.

Real writing answers real people’s questions:

  • Why did your daughter miss school Wednesday?
  • Where can I buy 3 dozen rolls of toilet paper?
  • How many days will we need a dump truck when we gut the Jericho Inn?

Real writing is writing before it’s been scribbled out, worked over, and revised for a fourth time.

Real writing is what the customer service representative types in the chat window. Real writing is fast writing. It’s adequate, competent, good enough.

The aim of real writing is first drafts that say clearly everything that needs to be said in no more words than are absolutely necessary. And real writing aims at clean first drafts, free from mistakes that either force people to reread sentences twice to figure out their meaning or that make people laugh out loud.

Real writing is what is expected from writing teachers.

Real writing is what teachers are expected to teach their students to do.

Real writing is what every high school graduate should be able to do.

© 2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Is big business dangerous? A writing prompt

In my recent reading, I came across two passages written almost a century apart about big business.  Together they offer mature high school students and adults an opportunity to do close analysis of a text.

books from which quotes comeThe passages for analysis

These two sentences are from English novelist John Galsworthy writing in his 1928 novel Swan Song, which is part of his famous Forsyte Saga.

One sees more and more…the really dangerous people are not the politicians, who want things with public passion—that is, mildly, slowly; but the big business men who want things with private passion strenuously, quickly. They know their own minds; and if we don’t look out they’ll wreck the country.

This sentence comes from historian Philipp Blom in his 2015 book Fracture: Life and Culture in the West 1918-1938:

Today, a real revolution would have to turn not against the seat of government but against the headquarters of the corporations whose political, social, and cultural influence has so vastly increased that presidents and prime minister seem to be little more than decorated puppets placed at center stage for cosmetic purposes.

Directions for students

Both these quotations warn that big business is dangerous.Examine the two author’s comments carefully. To help you analyze the comments, consider these questions:

  • Are their reasons for fearing big business the same?
  • Is the threat they perceive identical?
  • Do they each define big business the same way?
  • Is big business the only threat the writers see?
  • Do they suggest some fears that they don’t state?
  • If you hadn’t been given the date of each quote, is there internal evidence that would let you tell which is the earlier?

The formal writing prompt

Write an informative/expository text in which you discuss three reasons why, according to the writers, big business poses a potential danger to the their countries. Be sure you explain what the danger would look like if it became a reality. Would it, for example, ruin the economy or cause a revolt that would topple the government?

Please keep your text to no more than 550 words.

You can use bare bones writing skeleton™ like this to organize your thoughts:

  • Big business is dangerous because [reason 1]
  • Big business is dangerous because [reason 2]
  • Big business is dangerous because [reason 3]

Make sure your reasons don’t overlap.

Note to teachers

Students won’t have trouble preparing the writing skeleton™,  but they will have difficulty coming up with more than just the writing skeleton. They have to dig deeper to figure out the deeper significance of the phrasing the authors use. In work by good writers, the details matter.

© 2020 Linda G. Aragoni

 

Success in an unstable world

A writing prompt for students in 2020

I usually start an online writing class by having students introduce themselves as writers. I’m debating whether current events call for posing a different question this fall that recognizes students’ anxieties are about more than whether their bad grammar will make them fail first semester English.

Introduction to the proposed prompt

You are enrolled in an academic program at a time when much in our world seems unstable and unpredictable.

What tools have you developed thus in your academic program that will help you succeed in life? Are those the tools that are in demand in a stable world, or are they tools that will enable you to face an unstable, unpredictable world? If the world into which you’re entering is unstable and unpredictable, how can you prepare for it? How do you know what tools you’ll need?

The writing prompt itself

Write an informative/explanatory text of no more than 650 words in which you explain how well you personally are prepared to function as an independent adult in the world that’s before you. In your text:

  • Identify the information source(s) from which you deduced the tools that are needed in an unstable, unpredictable world.
  • Describe two, three, or four specific skills or knowledge you possess that either will or will not equip you to take up an adult role in this unstable, unpredictable world.
  • Tell readers either how you came by those skills and/or knowledge or why you didn’t acquire them already.

Comments? Suggestions?

I’ll have to give this some more thought. Many of my great ideas turn out to be duds. If you have any insights, please put them in the contact form.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Packed sentences to be unpacked as writing prompts

Good writers have an uncanny ability to pack a great deal of experience into a single sentence. Today I’m going to offer writing teachers three quotations from three very different sources from which mature teens and adult students can choose one to unpack and share how the truth of the quoted passage can be applied to some living person (or group) or to some situation in the world right now.

similarly shaped black blocks of varying sizesHere are the three items with a note about the source of each one.

A dad’s advice

In John Galswothy’s novel To Let, Jolyon Forsyte says this to his son, who is 20 and in love:

Wishes father thought but they don’t breed evidence.

A widow’s observation

Mrs. Cartwright, an elderly widow who has just lost her husband, says this to Barnaby Gaitlin, the central character of Anne Tyler’s novel A Patchwork Planet:

Isn’t it ridiculous how even in the face of death it still matters that the price of oranges has gone up, and an impolite produce boy can still hurt your feelings?

An historian’s question

Who can say how much a man believes when he has an actor’s temperament and a demagogue’s faith in numbers?

Literary historian Van Wyck Brooks asks this question in his  1936 book The Flowering of New England 1815-1865, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1937.  The man of whom he is speaking is  George Bancroft, whose multi-volume History of the United States began to appear in 1834.

What students must do

Each of the three sentences conveys more than its words literally mean. They convey something of the attitude of the speaker and his/her relationship to the person or persons alluded to in the quotation. Students need to take into account the context in which the words are spoken.

With an assignment like this, I often have students pair off and take 10 minutes of class time to discuss first impressions of each of the options. Hearing a different voice than their own sometimes sharpens a student’s perspective. 

I suggest giving students a limit of 300 words to explain the meaning of the quote they chose and the contemporary person or situation to which they think the quoted passage bears a kinship.

Value of this assignment

This assignment is a good segue from a writing course that’s been focused for a half year on nothing but nonfiction reading and writing to a course that pulls in both literary nonfiction and fiction as writing topics. Used in that manner, the assignment could be used as a benchmark to allow students to track their progress in understanding literary writing. (By benchmark, I mean that you record the grades to show entry-point skill. Course grades should be determined by end-of-course performance and should drop early score when students are figuring out what to do.)

©2020 Linda Aragoni

Commas save lives

Like most students of my generation, I “did” English homework work: I memorized vocabulary words from publisher-produced lists, responded to publisher-produced “questions for understanding” literature, and completed publisher-created exercises in correct placement of commas.  By the time I graduated high school, valedictorian of my class, I had come to believe commas were just decorations, about as vital to writing as cosmetics to chickens.

I persisted in this belief until my senior year of college when a chemistry professor did what no English teacher was able to do: He helped me learn why comma placement matters.

Commas save lives is more than just a T-shirt slogan.

My roommate had published poetry while in high school, but her ambition was to be an inorganic chemist. From the first day we met, Cheryl talked about wanting to isolate the amino acid lysine from human hair. For nearly three years, every time I got my hair cut, I’d ask for the clippings, which I gave to Cheryl to use for isolating lysine.

A psychology major, English minor, I worked as a “reader” for a visually handicapped sociology major with whom I shared several courses. When we were required to take a statistics course, I knew Sue wouldn’t be able to understand the text without seeing the graphs.  I decided to take Sue to a chemistry lab where I could draw the graphs on the blackboards that covered three walls, since I knew from Cheryl that the  labs were deserted in the late afternoons,

I discovered that I couldn’t just read the statistics book to Sue, even with the diagrams on the board. She had never seen a graph and didn’t know how to interpret one. I ended up having to learn the week’s statistics material and teach it to her.  As I was doing that, the chemistry prof, Dr. Dale Ritter, would often walk through on his way to the instrumentation room as I was explaining statistics to Sue.

One day Dr. Ritter told me Cheryl had to write for her analytical chemistry class in a format suitable for chemistry journal, but what she wrote was in a literary style. He said he didn’t know how to explain what she needed to do differently and asked if I could help. Cheryl was already a very fine writer. It took only a few minutes to point out the features of journal style that she needed to follow.

When Cheryl hadn’t done the lysine isolation by my final semester of college, I teased her about it by telling some students in the chem lab about the acute embarrassment I’d suffered for three years when asking for my hair clippings. Dr. Ritter overhead me and asked if I’d like to do the lysine isolation myself. He said the lab had everything that was necessary, and he’d be happy to help me set it up.

I’d never taken a chemistry course, but it sounded like it might be fun. I said I’d love to do it.

Dr. Ritter got out the equipment.

Cheryl got out the directions.

I got bewildered.

Many of the sentences of the directions contained words that could be used as different parts of speech depending on the context, but none of the sentences had any internal punctuation marks. That often meant it was impossible to be sure what part of speech a particular word had in a particular sentence. For example, if you chose to regard a word as a noun, which you would have done if it had a comma after it, you would do something quite different than you would do if you treated that word as an adjective modifying the following word.

I’d read the directions and figure out what I thought I ought to do.

Then Cheryl would come along and read the directions, pausing in different places, and she’d conclude I needed to do something quite different.

Sometimes someone else would wander by, read the directions, and, by pausing in other different places, reach an entirely different third conclusion.

I learned from the experience the chemistry fact that putting hair in hydrochloric acid produces the smell of vomit.  

I also learned from the experience the importance of commas. When you’re doing things with hydochloric acid, you realize quite forcefully that commas are not just decorations.

Commas are essential to clear communication.

Learn a lesson from my experience. When you teach comma use, be smart about it. Instead of funny examples, use examples from law and business that show how much damage a comma can cause.

A misplaced comma really could kill somebody.


Resources for comma use

Punctuation Matters: ‘Dear John’ Letter and a 2-Million-Dollar Comma. The second example shows the importance of careful comma use in business.        

Why Commas Matter: The Wire Act Story. Incorrect comma use changes how a law is interpreted.

The ruling in this Maine labor dispute hinged on the omission of an Oxford comma. A news story from The Washington Post about a business law case.

Get control of your commas.   Examples from Perspect Med Educ, a medical education journal, about the importance of comma placement when writing about medicine.

17 rules for using commas without looking like a fool  This guide from Business Insider shows each rule on a separate slide. Slides are supplemented by an explanation of the rule.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Writing prompt: Does health-care history repeat itself?

Today’s formal writing prompt is for use with teens and adults in social studies, history, political science, communications, and medical courses. It asks students to draw comparisons between the crisis Florence Nightingale confronted and the Covid-19 crisis in their own lives.

Photos of US Covid response plan and Florence NightingaleBackground for this writing prompt

In his 1918 book Eminent Victorians, the only woman author Lytton Strachey profiles is Florence Nightingale, whose 200th birthday was celebrated on May 12 this month. Nightingale won fame as a nurse during the Crimean War, 1853-56, which began as squabbling over the rights of Christian minorities in the Holy Land, then controlled by the Ottoman Empire. The war was fought in Ottoman Empire territory on the Crimean Peninsula, which is almost surrounded by the Black Sea. The United Kingdom, France and Sardinia joined the Ottomans against Russia, which was ostensibly fighting for the rights of Eastern Orthodox Christians in the Holy Land.

Here’s what Strachey says about the terrible conditions Nightingale encountered in the British military hospitals near the front:

What had occurred was, in brief, the complete break-down of our medical arrangements at the seat of war. The origins of this awful failure were complex and manifold; they stretched back through long years of peace and carelessness in England… In the inquiries which followed, it was clearly shown that the evil was in reality that worst of all evils—one which has been caused by nothing in particular and for which no one in particular is to blame. The whole organization of the war machine was incompetent.… Errors, follies, and vices on the part of individuals there doubtless were; but, in the general reckoning, they were of small account—insignificant symptoms of the deep disease of the body politic—the enormous calamity of administrative collapse.

Students’ writing prompt

In an informative/explanatory text, defend one of these two positions:

  • America’s unpreparedness for the pandemic shows the impossibility of preparing for unforeseeable events.
  • America’s unpreparedness for the pandemic shows political leaders’ failure to prepare for inevitable events.

Format your text as a digital document. Please keep your text to under 750 words. Your deadline for this assignment is [date].

Suggestions to students for getting started

To respond appropriately to this assignment, read Strachey’s entire section on Nightingale in the Crimea looking specifically for conditions she found in the Crimean hospitals that were known to have caused problems elsewhere. (You can read it free at Bartleby.com) This reading will help you identify conditions that might also be factors in the Covid-19 response.

But before you do any research into why the response to Covid-19 was feeble, prepare a writing skeleton™ like one of these with placeholders for points you need to make. This trick saves a lot of time. If you’re research shows your original position is not well-supported, all you need to is argue for the opposite position: You’ll already have evidence for it.

If your initial response is that America’s unpreparedness for the pandemic shows the impossibility of preparing for unforeseeable events, your writing skeleton would look something like this:

  1. America’s unpreparedness for the pandemic shows the impossibility of preparing for unforeseeable events because [first factor’s contributing to crisis] could not have been anticipated.
  2. America’s unpreparedness for the pandemic shows the impossibility of preparing for unforeseeable events because [second factor’s contributing to crisis] could not have been anticipated.
  3. America’s unpreparedness for the pandemic shows the impossibility of preparing for unforeseeable events because [third factor’s contributing to crisis] could not have been anticipated.

If your initial response is unpreparedness for the pandemic shows political leaders’ failure to prepare for inevitable events, your writing skeleton would look something like this:

  1. America’s unpreparedness for the pandemic shows political leaders’ failure to prepare for inevitable events because [first factor’s contribution to crisis] was predicted by experts.
  2. America’s unpreparedness for the pandemic shows political leaders’ failure to prepare for inevitable events because [second factor’s contribution to crisis] was predicted by experts.
  3. America’s unpreparedness for the pandemic shows political leaders’ failure to prepare for inevitable events because [third factor’s contribution to crisis] was predicted by experts.

Suggestions for success

Your evidence must come from reputable news sources.  If you don’t have access to a reliable national news outlet, try one of these national news organizations that are giving their resources at deep discounts to help people weather the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Chicago Tribune has a Memorial Day sale going on now. It is selling two months’ online access for $1 through Monday, June 1, but I discovered if you appear to be leaving without buying, they sweeten the deal to three months online for $1. After your come-on rate expires, the regular charge will go to $1.99/week billed every four  weeks, but you can cancel any time.

The Los Angeles Times is selling four weeks of online access for $1.

The Boston Globe is selling 4 weeks’ online delivery for 99 cents.

The New York Times is offering all its content online for $1 a week for a year. It bills subscribers $4 every 4 weeks, but you can cancel any time.

The Washington Post slashed the cost of a daily all-access digital subscription to $29 a year. (Premium Digital is $39 a year.)  Its Coronavirus Updates Newsletter is free.

If you prefer to listen to news, try the free National Public Radio news feed. (Transcripts of many of their items are available.)

Or watch PBS News Hour  (Transcripts of many of their items are available.)


Note to teachers

Teachers are welcome to use this prompt with their students providing they display the copyright notice. If you use this prompt, please drop me a note about how well it worked, or what went wrong. Thanks.

The final Friday of each month, I plan to post here at PUSHwriting, formal writing prompts for teachers of teens and adults in courses other than English language arts. Watch for them.

Graphic sources

U.S. Government COVID-19 Response Plan, March_13,_2020 Public domain

Florence Nightingale by Henry Hering (1814-1893) – National Portrait Gallery, London, Public Domain,

2020 Linda G. Aragoni