Teach writing in 1 hour via military tactics

When I started teaching writing a half century ago, I could teach students all I knew about writing in an hour. When the hour was up, they knew as little about writing nonfiction as I did. Together we stumbled through figuring out how to write.

It took me three decades to figure out what actually worked for me (newspaper reporting taught me that).  But it was another decade before I learned how to explain to students how I wrote nonfiction.

I learned the explanation from a magazine article about military strategy.

I can almost hear you thinking, “Huh? Military strategy? What’s that got to do with writing?” It turns out, the two have a lot in common.

The article explained that military strategies must be phrased as a short series of  simple sentences presented in the order in which they must be accomplished if the goal is to be met. Each sentence specifies the outcome which its strategy will accomplish.

Strategies must use the simplest words and the shortest sentences that will convey the goal because every strategy has be understood by everyone from the private to the three-star general. Combat situations are like the College Board exams: there’s no one to consult if the strategy isn’t clear.

To understand strategies, think about films about World War II soldiers who have to accomplish some objective without the equipment they had been trained to use to accomplish that objective. The soldiers have to figure out what they need, how to make it or steal it, and how to keep their activities from being discovered. They are able to improvise because they were drilled to be able to know what they must make happen to achieve a specific outcome.

That military “do this to accomplish that” approach is what I found worked for teaching high school and college students how to write nonfiction texts. Here is my eight-step strategy:

Notice that the word write does not appear in the directions. That is not an oversight. I find students are much more comfortable making things and doing things than they are writing. They are much less stressed by producing a text than they are by having to write. (I suspect that military training doesn’t start by telling recruits, “today, we’re going to learn to kill people” for the same reason.)

A woman who had taught 40 high school English for 40 years before retiring and taking a job teaching college English, used my material in her 20th year of college teaching. At the end of the term (and of her 60-year teaching career),  she wrote me to say the strategies worked like magic. She presented the strategies and at the end of that period every student understood how to write nonfiction. They still had to practice to master the skill, but they understood how to write.

Once students understand how to write, you just need to have them practice every class period until they all can write. That’s not hard. You just walk around looking over shoulders, asking questions, and suggesting options. Do that enough times a week and you won’t need to go to the gym.

©2022 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Murder, mail, & math tables

3 literary nonfiction reading options

A murder case, the post office, and computer experts offer insights into history.

For the first quarter of 2022, I have chosen three literary nonfiction titles suitable for high school or first-year college students to read as part of an English class. Where a book might also be used for as reading for another subject, I’ve noted that.  

Conan Doyle for the Defense

The creator of Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle, once did some sleuthing to solve a murder. In Conan Doyle for the Defense, Margaret Fox tells what happened after an old lady nobody liked was murdered in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1909 and a man who ticked off all the top prejudices of his day was charged with her murder.

Conan Doyle once played Sherlock Homes.

Based on what he read in the newspapers, Doyle believed Oscar Slater was wrongly accused. Doyle did his own investigation—he believed the police had botched it—and published a book in 1912 alleging a miscarriage of justice. Slater languished in prison until after WWI, when journalists took up Slater’s cause. Slater was released—but not exonerated—in 1927 after 18 years in prison. Doyle subsequently sued Slater for reimbursement of his expenses. The case was settled out of court.

Fox’s book will have most appeal to students interested in criminal investigations, forensics, policing, and law. The story requires readers to do their own investigation to put facts in time-order and determine which information should be treated as clues.

Conan Doyle for the Defense: The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World’s Most Famous Detective Writer. Margaret Fox. ©2018. Random House. 220 p.

How the Post Office Created America

Winifred Gallagher says “the history of the Post Office is nothing less than the history of America.” She goes on to prove her thesis, starting before the Revolution when Benjamin Franklin was one of British Crown’s two postmaster generals in North America.

Horsepower delivered early America’s mail.

The postal service and publishing were closely linked from earliest days. Distributing newspapers was one of the services for which the postal service was established after the Revolutionary War. Shared information was seen as the way to create united states.

The postal service subsidized the transportation industry that spurred the development of roads and encouraged westward expansion. Until post WWI, mail delivery was viewed as a public service rather than as a business. Gallagher discusses how the postal service got into its current predicament and explored proposed options.

How the Post Office Created America lets readers learn about U.S. history by showing how the post office affected people’s actual lives. Sixteen pages of photos help make Gallagher’s text spring to life. The book would be a good English course accompaniment to a course in U.S. history.

How the Post Office Created America: A History. Winifred Gallagher.©2016. Penguin Press. 326 p.

The Rise of the Rocket Girls

As early as the 1700s, people called computers did complex mathematical calculations. In the early 20th century, computers worked for the government where, among other things, they developed the Mathematical Tables Project that would later be critical to the first steps into space.

Women behind the space program.

Just four months before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Jet Propulsion Laboratory made a propeller-less, rocket-powered airplane flight using calculations by a woman, Barby Canright. The U.S. quickly recruited more female computers who worked throughout World War II. Post-war, female computers were again in demand by U.S. military and they began to get more senior positions.

In the 1960s, when digital computers began to take over human computers’ jobs, the women learned to program computing machines to direct America’s space exploration; they became known as “the Rocket Girls.” Author Nathalia Holt takes readers up through 2001, noting the work done by women and their representation among the top brass of the space program.

The Rise of the Rocket Girls shouldn’t be chosen as all-class reading, but offered as an option for students interested science, math, and computers. Holt’s work is interesting but splintered. There are plenty of facts, but readers close the covers feeling they don’t really know any of these women. 

The Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us From Missiles to the Moon to Mars. Nathalia Holt. ©2016. Little, Brown.  337p.

A note about book sources

 I bought all these books from HamiltonBook.com. They offer 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 postage and handling fee of $4 for an order of up to 18 books.

© 2022 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Literary nonfiction for high school/college

Books about deaths that shouldn’t have happened

three book covers
These literary nonfiction works can be used by high school and college ELA classes.

Despite their grim topics, any of the three literary nonfiction works discussed here is suitable English course reading for teens and college students. The books’ subjects are different enough that most students will find one of them interesting at least in a gruesome way.

The Lost Eleven

The men who became the “lost eleven” are black men from Southern states who find themselves in January 1943 in Camp Gruber, Oklahoma, being taught to operate the 155mm howitzer. Their commanding officer is sure blacks can’t be taught, but their white battalion commander, Captain McLeod, is determined to show blacks can learn to perform as well as white soldiers. McLeod’s patience and willingness to try unorthodox teaching methods, such as letting the men sing “Roll, Jordan Roll” to help them synchronize their movements, prove the CO wrong.

The men perform well in training and on the battlefields of Europe. As the war draws to a close, however, the artillerymen have been left in France when Adolf Hitler launches his last attempt to defeat the allies on Dec. 16, 1944. A few of McLeod’s soldiers escape the Germans and trudge north through deep snow, still wearing their summer uniforms, until they reach the Belgian village of Wereth. There they find shelter with a local family for a few hours until the SS troops find them and brutally murder them.

If you can read The Lost Eleven without shedding a tear, you’re stronger than I am.

Artillerymen with their weapon
Black gunners operate the 155mm howitzer.

Short chapters with helpful date-place notes at their heads and a list of characters help readers keep their mental place. Large, well-leaded print makes the text accessible to individuals who find many nonfiction books’ text is too dense for comfortable reading. Photographs show military scenes and post-war scenes of Wereth.

For English teachers who collaborate with teachers in other disciplines, The Lost Eleven would be a wonderful accompaniment to student’s history class study of World War II. Students would come away with a far more detailed knowledge of both the foreign war and race relations in the U.S and Europe  than most would get from their history class texts. Students could also be led to discover how they can distinguish historical facts from plausible inventions. In that regard, it’s worth nothing that nearly all the authors’ sources are available online.

The Lost Eleven: The Forgotten Story of Black American Soldiers Brutally Murdered in World War II. By Denise George and Robert Child. © 2017. Caliber. 398 p.

The Education of a Coroner

Drawings of bodies
A coroners’ education includes math and medicine.

Despite its subtitle, The Education of a Coroner is not a textbook. Instead, John Bateson has written what might have been Marin County, California’s Coroner Ken Holmes’s memoirs had Holmes written them himself.

Holmes grew up in California with a keen interest in anatomy and in what happened to animals he shot while hunting. He was intensely interested in how bodies worked. As a teen, he considered medicine as a career, but decided to be a coroner or funeral director because those occupations required less college. They also required good people skills, which Holmes definitely had.

Marin County is both affluent and notorious. It’s home to San Quentin, has high rates of alcoholism and drug overdoses, and it’s Golden Gate Bridge is a magnet for people contemplating suicide. In his 36-year career, Holmes meets all sorts of people. He also acquires extensive information about firearms, medicine, crime scene investigation, drugs, and how to talk to a deceased person’s family with sensitivity and practicality. The book is neither salacious or gruesome.

Although The Education of a Coroner might not be every student’s idea of great reading, the book does suggest a great many topics that high school and first year college students could explore in a writing class, beginning with how to find a career that’s not obvious.

The Education of a Coroner: Lessons in Investigating Death. By John Bateson. © 2017 Scribner. 358 pages.

Ruthless Tide

front of Ruthless Tide
A 40 mph flood destroyed Johnstown, NY, in minutes.

The prologue to Ruthless Tide introduces  6-year-old Gertrude Quinn, who would be caught in and swept away by, the Johnstown Flood. Her father, James Quinn, was a prosperous store owner and a worrier. One of the things he worries about was the possibility that the dam 14 miles and 500 feet above Johnstown, PA, would give way. In the prologue, Al Roker sketches traces the causes of the May 31, 1899, flood back to rich captains of industry like Andrew Carnegie who couldn’t have cared less about the people downstream.

The damage from the Johnstown Flood was not just from water, but also from what it carried with it: flammable liquids which burned as the water carried them downstream. Instead of putting fire out, water amplifies it by pouring onto its base, causing it to leap up and away from the water.

Clara Barton arrived June 4, said the Red Cross would take charge, and it did, making the Red Cross a national institution. Johnstown rebuilt, but the industrialists who built the dam to create their private lake above the town, never accepted any responsibility for the damage they caused. The flood led to an “anti-monopoly, anti-big corporations” movement in America, but that didn’t repair the damage or prevent future catastrophes.

You might want to ask if any colleague in the history department is interested in pairing up with you to require Ruthless Tide for both your courses. It is compelling story written for general readers that would be great English class reading when students are studying 19th century American history. Chapters average about 18 pages.

Ruthless Tide: The Heroes and Villains of the Johnstown Flood, America’s Astonishing Gilded Age Disaster. By Al Roker. © 2018. William Morrow. 305 pages.

© 2022 Linda Gorton Aragoni

More student bloopers

To give everyone a break from bad news and bad weather, here are three more bloopers from college students’ papers.

I always thought that if someone killed and killed and had no couscous they should get the death penalty.

Anonymous student

One can’t help wondering what the appropriate penalty would be for killers who have couscous.

This next item is from an explanation of the organizational structure of the company for which the student worked.

Below the board of Dictators our company branches out into divisions where there is a President and one of more Vice Presidents. . . . Their goals are set each day with the satisfaction of knowing that they are satisfying their customers by demanding excellence in the process of making an intolerable product.

Another anonymous student

It doesn’t take much to satisfy some people.

The next quotation is self-explanatory.

In a place of business, writing effectively means coming to a clear and concise point in as few words as possible in order to prevent wordiness.

A third anonymous student

I hope those quotes brighten your day.

Linda Gorton Aragoni

Student bloopers for comic relief

Looking for something Thanksgiving weekend, I ran across a stack of bloopers from college students’ papers. Given all the things that are going wrong in the world, I’m going to post some of these each week before Christmas and pray that comic relief will be less needed in 2022.

My father has a hard time at becoming computer illiterate, and it sort of came easy to me.”

anonymous #1

Another student had plans for the future:

What I hope will be a long and pleasant journey is perusing my associate’s degree.

anonymous #2

A third student admitted to having difficulty starting a writing assignment:

It is hard for me to begin writing my assigned papers even after I have an idea. I guess you might call me a procreator.

anonymous #3

But students who work hard in their first year English classes, make progress, as this student explained:

I’m a treble speller. But after this class I am getting allot better. I have really enjoyed this class it’s been fun and existing.

anonymous #4

That’s all for today.

Linda Gorton Aragoni

Make four-letter words build literacy skills

Writing skill depends on word-awareness. One simple way I’ve found to build word awareness among students of any age or background is to require students each week to find one four-letter word that can be used as two or more parts of speech, thereby giving the word different meanings.

Presented in grammar-speak it sounds rather complicated, but it’s really simple enough for elementary students and English-language learners to understand. The key to making it work is to have students do the activity every week for at least a half year. Students need at least that much time to develop the habit of paying attention to words they run across outside of books as well as inside them.

This image represents a cart (noun) which is used to cart (verb) groceries.

Essentially what you do is:

  1. Show students one or two examples of common words that have different meanings when used as different parts of speech. (Someone might cart (verb) junk to the landfill in a cart (noun), or bump (verb) her head going over a bump (noun) in the road.)
  2. Require students to turn in each week an example of a four-letter word that has different meanings when used as a different part of speech, showing an example of each of the meanings in a sentence.
  3. Each week, show a few examples turned in that week, being careful to give all students equal opportunity to have their work presented as a good example. (If possible, use this activity to interject a bit of fun between more intellectually demanding activities.)

It’s not necessary for you to teach the grammatical terms for the different parts of speech before you show students what they are to do. You can slip in the terms and their definitions as you show the examples.

Here are some common English words that you might use to show students how a word can be used in different ways with different meanings:

  • cart
  • bump
  • hand
  • spin
  • bank
  • tree
  • make
  • mail

Done regularly, this simple activity can help students learn both vocabulary and basic grammar terms with a minimum of effort on your part.

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Spot the misspelling

Two informal writing prompts using found messages

Today I have two informal writing prompts to show you that use messages posted in public places. The errors are easy for students to spot, which is not only good for their morale, but also shows them the importance of carefully rereading their messages for errors.

Begin by displaying one of the photos and reading aloud the message captured in it. (It doesn’t matter which you use first.) Then tell students to write one sentence in which they identify one error they noticed in the message and tell how to correct that error. Give students a half minute to do that.

sign has the word touch misspelled
What’s wrong with the note on this plant pot?

Follow the same procedure with the second photo, displaying it and reading what’s written. Again have students identify and correct the error in a single sentence. A half minute should be time enough for students to do that.

grocery store bags make dumpster mess
Is this an effective message?

If you keep your eyes open and a cell phone with a camera handy, you can grab items like these regularly. They take very little class time, but they make students aware of the importance of re-reading their work to eliminate silly mistakes.

(Another day could make the “shute” message into an assignment aimed at getting students to write a message that accomplishes a single objective.)

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Pick simple feedback method for online teaching

If you are going to teach online, whether you teach online occasionally or regularly, you need to plan to spend far less time presenting material and far more time getting student feedback. In the online classroom, you need to deliberately solicit student feedback multiple times during each day’s class. Even if you have technology that lets you see every student, it’s not easy to scan 29 photos to see who didn’t understand a word you said. It’s much better to have some way to get feedback in writing from each student during each class.

Identify two or three ways of getting feedback during class so you can experiment to find which work best with your students and your subject. Look for the simplest technology, not the sexiest. You want something that students can have open at the same time they have your instructional program open.

You could have students use something as simple as a text file in which they can respond to questions you pose during class. If you give students a standard way of slugging those files (last name and class date might work), you can pull all submissions from one student into a folder. Then, without spending a lot of time or effort, you can respond to each student individually on a regular basis. One personal response a week to each student may be all you need to keep students engaged.

Explanation and apology

Readers of this blog and/or my GreatPenformances blog may have encountered posts that are obviously incomplete. Since both blogs are hosted at WordPress.com, I suspect the blog host is experiencing problems. Unfortunately, I don’t have copies of every text document and graphic image, so in some cases there’s no way for me to repair the posts. I’m sorry if you’ve looked for items and found they weren’t all there.

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Modifiers should cuddle up to nouns

English modifiers are supposed to cuddle close to the nouns they modify. When they stray, they almost always elicit a few snickers and sometimes totally mislead readers.

icon representing a submarine
Did debris cause this sub to sink?

The two-sentence example I have for you to use as an informal writing prompt for teens and adults is appropriate in both English and journalism classes, since it was a National Public Radio news item.

The news item

Display this news item to students and read it aloud to begin the informal writing activity. You may want to put the title in larger print or in boldface so students recognize the first line is a title rather than a complete sentence.

“Indonesian Navy confirms submarine carrying 53 sank after finding debris.”

“The Indonesian Navy on Saturday announced debris from a missing submarine has been found deep in the Bali Sea, ending hopes of finding any survivors among the 53-person crew.”

The informal writing prompt, part 1

Once you’ve read the displayed item aloud, ask students to identify in one sentence any part of the news item that is not immediately clear to someone skimming the item. Give them 30 seconds to write their full-sentence response.

Next, without asking for any oral responses, go to the second part of this informal prompt.

The informal writing prompt, part 2

Display and read this material for students: “Compare these two sentences:

  • The Navy confirms a submarine carrying 53 sank after finding debris.
  • The Navy confirms a submarine carrying 53 sank after hitting an iceberg.

Now, write no more than three sentences in which you:

  • Compare the differences in the two sentences,
  • Identify which of the sentences makes better sense, and
  • Say why that sentence makes better sense.

(You’ll probably need to repeat the directions at least once.) Give students two minutes to do that.

Take another two minutes to have students explain orally why the original headline wasn’t immediately clear.

For journalism class use

If you are using this item in a journalism class, you could ask students how to make the brief news item easier for readers to grasp quickly. Inexperienced reporters invariably want to use alternatives to said. They also typically put the most important information at the end of the sentence instead of its beginning.

Newspaper readers expect the most important information to be at the front of a sentence and they expects an attribution after a quote to end with the word said. By meeting those expectations, journalists allow readers to skip over some words and still get the gist of a news story.

© 2021 Linda G. Aragoni