Reaching the audience can be tough

For most of the last 20 years, I’ve written primarily about teaching writing to teens and adults for an audience of teachers of teens and adults. For about the last 18 months, however, I’ve been writing about nursing home visiting for an audience of people who wanted or needed visit in a nursing home.

Although I had some experience in visiting in nursing homes to draw on, the project has become a challenge. The challenge hasn’t been coming up with things to write about. I had enough experiences in doing nursing home visiting to be able to identify the information I needed.

The problem is identifying how to reach my audience.

icon representing audience
These are just placeholders. They aren’t real people.

I know from research and observation that most friendly visitors are women, typically age 30 to 60. Other than that broad age range, there isn’t much that they have in common. They aren’t defined by any of the usual categories of race, religion, political affiliation, social class, education, hobbies, etc. (A snide smirk: friendly visitor is what nursing homes typically call someone who doesn’t come to visit family members, which always makes me wonder if people who come to visit family are unfriendly visitors. But I digress.)

Before I can sell books, I must (1) find what people who are likely to be interested in becoming a nursing home visitor have in common and (2) determine who do the majority of them rely on to guide their choice of free-time activities.

What does this have to do with teaching writing?

If you’ve gotten this far, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with teaching writing. If you’re teaching high schoolers who just want to scratch something down and get out to soccer practice, it has nothing to do with teaching writing.

On the other hand, if you teach college students heading into careers, audience identification is a big deal. Students who have a skill or product to sell—even if the product is themselves—must be able to find the audience that wants what they have to sell.

The student’s first task is to identify that audience. If a student is an artist who wants to sell his art work, he has to find people who buy original art. If the student wants to work as an accountant, he has to find people who hire accountants.

The second task of anyone with a skill or product to sell is to figure out where their audience congregates and to go there. Sellers can’t can show potential buyers why they need their products unless they are in the place where their audience hangs out. That place need not be a physical place; it can be a virtual space online. Your students may need to figure out what online platform employers in their field use and learn to use that platform well.

Coming back to my problem, my buyers will probably be found on Facebook. What I need to know is which people on Facebook women between the ages of 30 and 60 will rely on to guide their choice of what to do in their free time. I’m looking for people with enough Facebook followers that their recommendation can sell 101 to 500 books about how to visit in a nursing home.

I think I have more research to do.

© 2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The challenge answered

Last week I asked ELA teachers if they could do this:

Did you have trouble coming up with the answer? If you did, the reason is not that you didn’t know the answer. The problem was that “question” was stated in an unfamiliar way. Here’s the answer:

The sentence that describes every sentence ever written in every language and every sentence yet to be written in every language is the definition of a sentence. That makes perfect sense once you see the answer, but most of us have to scratch our heads for a while before we realize that we know the answer.

It’s important when teaching basic information, such as the definition of a sentence, that you occasionally vary your wording. If you don’t do that, students are likely to learn definitions by rote without actually understanding what the definition means.

© 2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Explosive literary nonfiction for English classes

photos of covers of three books
Three literary nonfiction books about events that changed communities.

Eruption

photo of the eruption of Mount St. Helens.
Red, white, and blue suggest the national effects of the Mount St. Helens volcano.

Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens.  Steve Olson. ©2016. Norton. 299 p.

The untold story of the Mount St. Helens eruption that Steve Olson tells is not about volcanology. Olson’s book is about the choices people made before, during, and after the May 1980 eruption, and, by extension, about the choices they are making today that will influence what happens—who dies—the next time Mount St. Helens erupts.

Olson grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and although he’d gone East before the mountain blew up, he always wondered if he might have been one of the 57 people killed the morning St. Helens erupted. In Eruption, he looks at the stories of those who died and why they died.

Olson sketches the development of the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest which gave the region its prosperity. Weyerhaeuser, America’s biggest lumber company, was determined to keep logging old-growth timber in the Mount St. Helens area despite the rumblings of the volcano or conservationists trying to get protected status for the old-growth timber.

When the volcano began to rumble, outsiders came in to watch: gawkers, volcanologists, pilots, radio operators, and news people. Some of them were among the 57 killed (including former President Harry S Truman) when the mountain erupted. The descriptions of how people died are necessarily horrific; most people fortunately didn’t live long enough to suffer.

Eruption explores topics in science and history classes and in current events.Volcanoes, conservation, disaster preparedness, and the health of America’s lumber industry are all timely topics. Mount Nyiragongo in Congo erupted in June and is still disrupting life there.The US is due to hear from Mount St. Helens again soon: Volcanic eruptions in the Cascade Range occur on average every 25 years, according to Olson..

Olson divides his book into seven parts (plus a prologue and epilogue). Each part is subdivided into topics which function as chapters, although some of them are under three pages long. The longest subdivisions are between 11 and 17 pages; most are much shorter.

Killing the Poormaster

Accused man in handcuffs

Killing the Poormaster: A Saga of Poverty, Corruption, and Murder in the Great Depression. Holly Metz. ©2012. Lawrence Hill Books. 308 p.

Killing the Poormaster is history that reads like a novel, keeping readers engaged and rooting for the underdog hero to triumph. Holly Metz opens the book with a three-paragraph description of the death February 25, 1938 of Harry Barck, Hoboken, New Jersey’s poormaster. The poormaster job gave him power to determine who got financial help duing the Great Depression and how much they got.

That morning in Barck’s office Joe Scutellaro asked for money to feed his family. When Barck refused, there was a scuffle. Scutellaro said Barck fell forward onto a spike used for holding papers, which was on the desk. Police said Scutellaro picked up the spike and stabbed Barck with it.

Scutellaro’s trial for Barck’s murder threw a spotlight on Hoboken’s corrupt government and the nation’s inadequate response to the needs of the jobless. Scutellaro was defended by a celebrity attorney, who turned the trial into an indictment of the American system of public welfare.

Killing the Poormaster is a literary nonfiction text with relevance to courses in the social sciences: history, social psychology, and economics. It also has connections and/or analogies to current political events.

Metz divides her book into 14 chapters plus a brief prologue and chapter-length epilogue about what happened to the main characters after the trial. Three of the 14 chapters are between 20 and 30 pages, but they are broken into sections by dingbats, so they wouldn’t be hard for students to read in two or three sittings.

The Great Halifax Explosion

Blood red sky and ocean

The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism. John U. Bacon. ©2017. William Morrow. 418 p.

At a cost of about $180,000, every year the citizens of Halifax, Canada, send Boston, Mass., a 50-foot Christmas tree, John U. Bacon says in his opening chapter of The Great Halifax Explosion. The tree is Halifax’s way of thanking Bostonians for coming to the Canadians’ aid when a ship loaded with six million pounds of explosives—one-fifth of the force of the A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima—blew up in Halifax Harbor on Dec. 6, 1917.

In subsequent chapters, Bacon relates the often-frosty relations between the US and Canada before World War I. He tells about Halifax Harbor’s response when the Titanic sank April 15, 1912, and describes the effects the world war being fought in Europe was already having on the Halifax population.

Using local people as his lens, Bacon shows the series of misjudgments that led to the explosion and other misjudgments that resulted in needless tragedies afterward. He also relates tales of heroism and many more tales of dumb luck.

In telling his story, Bacon dips into topics such as diverse as forensic science, munitions, right-of-way rules for seaways, contingency planning, and experiential learning.  Every student ought to find something interesting in Bacon’s text. What’s more, teachers should have no trouble coming up with a set of writing prompts based on the text. 

Bacon “writes tight.” His chapters average eight pages. There are plenty of direct quotations. Readers can’t just skim the text, but it’s rare to find three consecutive paragraphs that require slowing down to understand some technical information.

A note about book sources

I bought all these books from HamiltonBook.com. You won’t get the latest bestsellers there, but you get deep discounts on books that have been in print a few years. All items are new, and all the books are hardbound unless marked otherwise. Hamilton Book has a flat shipping and handling fee of $4 for an order of up to 18 books.  

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Literary nonfiction belongs in English courses

If you teach high school English and you aren’t having students read some book-length literary nonfiction each year, you ought to start.

Nonfiction is the writing that each of your students will be required to read and to write outside your classroom. Most of it (such as your lesson plans) are deadly boring.

Literary nonfiction is nonfiction that isn’t boring because its writer smuggled techniques out of fiction and put them into nonfiction writing where nobody will be looking for them. Then, when unsuspecting readers come along ready to suffer through another boring recital of facts, Zap! the writer pulls a fiction trick. Before readers know that happened, they are caught up in reading the story they thought was going to be a colossal bore.  

photos of covers of three books
Three can”t-put-down literary nonfiction books to be reviewed here in July..

In an English class, literary nonfiction is an equalizer. It gives those students (mostly males) who gag on Jane Austen a chance to read something as challenging as Jane Austen but on topics that appeal to their interests.

It also gives the Jane Austen fan club crowd a chance to see that techniques of fiction can be used for more than just entertaining readers. Fiction’s techniques can be used in discussions of factual data to show people how and why some nonfiction topic is important to them.

Next week, I’ll post brief reviews of literary nonfiction I’ve read since April 1 that I can recommend for use in high school English classes.

Literary nonfiction books should meet five criteria

To get my recommendation as literary nonfiction suitable for assignment as reading for students in high school or college English classes, books need to meet five standards.

Books must be well-written. They can’t be stuffy, academic, or too technical for an ordinary reader. I prefer books set in in a large enough typeface to be comfortable reading, as I think students also do.

Books must tie in with students’ academic work. History, science, the arts, sports, and the backgrounds of current events are topics that often appear as literary nonfiction.

Books should have short chapters. Students are more likely to read chapters under 10 pages than to read longer chapters. Also, if books have short chapters, it’s possible for two students to share a book and both get assigned reading done without too much hassle. (This requirement is one I recently added after struggling through a book with three 150-page chapters.)

Books should be found in libraries. While not all students have access to public libraries, some will. And the presence of a book in a library is a sign that the book has staying power.

Books should be readily available at second-hand booksellers and book discounters. It’s cheaper to buy hardback books that last years than to pay a licensing fee to rent digital books.

Finding literary nonfiction that meets all five criteria takes some work. Probably half of the books I read won’t work as assigned reading for students for one reason or another. Often the book is good, but just not suited to high school students’ backgrounds.

5 books of literary nonfiction
These nonfiction books didn’t meet all five criteria for assigned student reading

The best thing about selecting literary nonfiction for your students to read is that you get to read books that will expand your horizons.

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

When shouldn’t scientific method be used?

I’ve been giving you informal writing prompts for several weeks. Today, I have a formal writing prompt suitable for high school juniors and seniors and for first-year college students.

The prompt requires students to use information from outside the English curriculum to which all students should have exposed by the time they reach high school. If you’re an English teacher reluctant to have students write on a topic that sounds like it belongs in the science curriculum, you could partner with someone on the science faculty to assign a paper that can be turned in for credit in either or both courses.

The prompt

Identify three questions in your major field for which the scientific method is entirely inappropriate. In your response, discuss at least two characteristics of the scientific method and explain precisely why each of those characteristics makes the scientific method an inappropriate way to investigate each of those three questions.

Please confine your response to no more than 650 words.

Notes on the prompt

Responding to this prompt is easy once students get over the shock of being asked to identify questions in their major field. They may never have thought of physical education or ceramics as fields that have questions. Writing the actual response should take no more than an hour once they identify some questions in their fields.

© 2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Word choice: an informal writing prompt

Here is a message sent by the property manager of an apartment building to its residents for you to display and read to your students:

Tuesday the 16th a building inspector will be coming to the property. He may need to access a certain amount of apartments. I will not know what apartments until the day of the inspection.

Tell students: In no more than two sentences, identify what errors, if any, you find in that message and how to correct them. You have one minute to write.

Oral follow-up

The error is that the word amount should be number because apartments are countable. Amount is used to signify the size of something whose components are not, for all practical purposes, individually countable.

We measure things that cannot be counted by the amount of space they occupy. The word that means “the amount of space something occupies” is volume. If we want to know how much water is in a bucket, we don’t count individual waters. An amount of water in a bucket could be measured in teaspoons, cups, liters, gallons, etc., not in the number of individual drops of water in the bucket.

Whether or not you choose to do the follow-up in class, college the written work so you can see both how students are doing at applying grammar knowledge and whether they are making any progress at expressing themselves quickly in writing.

© 2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Students read too little nonfiction

I recently heard someone mention a high school senior with a 96% average and I wondered if the kid can read or write.

My pessimism was fueled by reading the 2021 edition of What Kids are Reading from Renaissance Learning Inc.

I examined Renaissance Learning’s 2021 report for students grade 9-12, since they will soon be in the college/adult learners group I teach.

what students read
Data from Renaissance Learning Inc. 2021 edition. http://www.renaissance.com/wkar

Then I compared those students’ Lexile scores on nonfiction reading material to the 50th percentile numbers on Lexile grade level charts. I used the Lexile scores established 30 years ago because they make it easy to compare how today’s students compare to yesterday’s students.

What scores mean
Students are reading in the bottom half of their peer of 30 years ago.

I looked at students’ nonfiction reading skill because that is a employability marker. Students who read at the 50th percentile for their grade are at the middle of the pack. Half the students in their cohort read less well, and half read better. The 50th percentile isn’t good enough to get a kid into Harvard, but it will get kids into trade school programs and then into decently paying jobs (minus student debt).

My analysis wasn’t sophisticated or deep, but it was depressing.

Typically, three-quarters of the titles on the fiction list were available in both English and Spanish, which could mean a significant proportion of students are not reading those books in English. That wouldn’t be a problem as long as students are getting plenty of practice reading English nonfiction.

On an annual basis, high school students read roughly as many books, both fiction and nonfiction, as the number of nonfiction books I read every two months. Such a small amount of reading may leave students unprepared to tackle the nonfiction reading needed in the working world.

Most distressing of all the information in the Renaissance report is the Lexile rankings of students. Not one of the cohorts of students grades nine through 12 is reading as well as the lowest half of students at their grade level as established in the Lexile scores used for comparing the reading skills of students over time.

What scores mean
Students are reading in the bottom half of their historical peer group.

Sources:

What Kids are Reading: 2021 edition from Renaissance Learning Inc. http://www.renaissance.com/wkar

https://hub.lexile.com/lexile-grade-level-charts

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Informal writing prompt: spelling bye Chirstine

Today I have another informal writing prompt for you to use with teens or adults. It uses a notice posted by a work-seeker.

Here’s an image of the posted notice (the phone number has been removed) which you should display and read aloud to students.

Here are the directions to give students.

First, in no more than two sentences, identify the error or errors you see in this notice and explain how you’d correct the error or errors. You have 1 minute to write.

Now, in one or two sentences, based just on what you’ve noticed, what do you think is the likelihood the writer will land a job, and why do you think that? You have 1 minute to write.

Here are the errors.

With a little luck, students will have found bye should have been by and Aid should have been Aide. Probably Chirstine should have been Christine. although I suppose it’s possible that someone is named Chirstine.

Why use informal prompts?

This is the sort of prompt that you can give at the beginning of a class to get everyone’s attention. Like all informal prompts, it requires students to respond immediately, so their responses will let you do a quick assessment of their spelling and editing skills. Moreover, you’ll be able to do quick assessments regularly.

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Wrong word after linking verb

Here’s another informal writing prompt to use with teens or adult students in English classes. Show and read aloud to students this three-sentence section of a blog post for web designers:

The practice of sectioning off content with the use of design elements has become increasingly popular. It allows designers to create some visual separation and develop a rhythm. The idea is to place separate-but-related portions of text into dedicated containers that look differently.

Now ask students to identify in no more than three sentences what errors, if any, they notice and how to correct the error or errors. Give them 60 seconds to write.

The only actual error in the item is the word differently. Differently is an adverb. The linking verb look needs to be followed by the adjective different.

If students don’t find the error—or if they identify something as an error that isn’t an error—you can give them a miniature lesson on words that follow linking verbs.

Compare these two sentences:

  • Marlene looks fatly in that red dress.
  • Marlene looks fat in that red dress.

Also compare:

  • I feel awfully today.
  • I feel awful today.

Here’s a hint to share with students: You can usually tell if you used an adverb where you needed an adjective by replacing the verb in the sentence with is (or are if the subject is plural). Here’s an example of how that works: “Dedicated containers are differently” doesn’t make sense, but “dedicated containers are different” does make sense.

Short informal writing prompts such as this go a long way toward helping students master grammar and punctuation problems. What’s more, because the writing is timed, informal prompts also help students learn to write more quickly.

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni