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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
Here 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.)
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.
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 a2-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.
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.
Background 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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve been teaching online courses for more than 30 years. In that time, I’ve taken dozens of training programs about how to teach online. The one thing I can’t recall anyone ever talking about in one of those trainings is how much time giving feedback in an online classroom takes.
I’ve been fortunate (although I didn’t feel fortunate at the time) to teach 3-credit college writing classes in half the length of the same course in a physical classroom. I prepared with the knowledge that, in order to give students enough time to do a semester’s worth of writing, I had to eliminate more than half the material I typically presented in a semester.
As a general rule, you can’t see students in an online classroom, at least not well enough to tell whether they are getting what you’re presenting or not. I’ve been fortunate to teach primarily asynchronous classes in which instruction was delivered in writing, students learned at their convenience, and I delivered feedback in writing at my convenience. All that writing took time, but it didn’t feel pressured.
By contrast, a synchronous classroom requires you to “teach” less, dropping the presentation of non-essentials entirely, because unless you strip the curriculum to essentials you won’t have time to receive and give feedback as you deliver information orally. It is feedback that teaches, not presentations. Feedback makes learning personal. It also puts a lot of pressure on teachers.
Recently, I’ve participated in some training sessions for online teachers given by Russell Stannard of TeacherTrainingVideos.com. Russell is a marvelous teacher. He has great information, logically arranged, and well-presented. He also understands that presenting is really the smallest past of online teaching. During one training, Russell spent over an hour on material that participants probably have read in ten minutes if it had been written. He worked at getting feedback from participants and delivering feedback to them so that everyone finished the session able to do what Russell said he was going to teach us to do..
If you are going to have to teach online in the future—and you probably need to be prepared to do just that—you must develop mechanisms for getting feedback so you aren’t teaching blind. And you must prepare to devote a great amount of time to getting and giving feedback. Just because you’re live on screen doesn’t make you an entertainer. Feedback is what distinguishes teachers from performers.
Teaching online requires teachers to focus on the essentials: There isn’t enough time for “nice to know.” This quirky set of procedures gives you a basic set of procedures for preparing for online teaching.
Take any principle, rule, concept, definition, etc. in your curriculum that students absolutely, positively must know well enough to apply unassisted. Substitute that topic for the word zilliacky in these directions.
Define your job.
Your job is to:
Teach the essential skills and information so that students can do zilliacky,
Craft appropriate activities so that students without your help can actually learn to do zilliacky.
Verify that all students actually can do zilliacky.
NB: You must do all three to earn your paycheck.
Prepare to do your job.
1. Your fellow teachers all teach astocum before teaching zilliacky. Does a student have to know astocum in order to do zilliacky?
If the answer is no, then astrocum is not worth teaching. That doesn’t mean astocum isn’t worth learning. It simply means astrocum is not something you must teach before students can learn to do zilliacky. You might need to remind students of what they know about astrocum or direct them to information about astrocum, but those activities are different from teaching astrocum.
2 . Some teachers also teach domical and gergrundium before teaching zilliacky.
Does a student have to know domical in order to do zilliacky?
If the answer is no, then domical is not worth teaching.
Does a student have to know gergrundium in order to do zilliacky?
If the answer is no, then gergrundium is not worth teaching.
3. Based on the answers to questions 2 and 3, decide what essential skills and information you must teach before students can do zilliacky.
4. Based on the answers to questions 2 and 3, create activities that allow students to do zilliacky.
OK, teaching online may be just a tad more difficult than I’ve made it out to be, but the basic, must-do activities are just about this simple. You strip away all the non-essentials and then you teach what’s left.
The “curse of knowledge” is that once you know how to do something you can’t imagine not being able to do that action or activity. Teachers are particularly susceptible to the curse, and their students suffer as a result.
I’ve been experiencing the effects of the curse of knowledge as I began to learn to use the Affinity Publisher program developed by Serif, which was, quite by coincidence, as the Covid-19 epidemic roared into New York State. Serif has a variety of aids to available to learners, including written materials and videos in which graphic specialists show and tell what to do.
I do not learn well from videos: There are far too many distracting elements, I often can’t visually isolate what it is I’m supposed to see unless an audio track describes the appearance of what I’m to look for, and presenters often obscure or cover the vital element. After watching a video clip, I have to, for example, click on all the elements in the upper left corner of my screen to see if I can figure out which of them the presenter clicked.
To work around my video handicap, I began by using Affinity Publisher’s written instructional materials. For realistic practice, I’m using the manuscript of second edition of my Writing Teacher’s ABCs, which I have to have to the printer in June.
I was able to build page templates and use them to make pages into which to put my content, but the process wasn’t easy or intuitive. Tools had different names than I was accustomed to seeing in other page layout programs I’ve used. And there didn’t seem to be any logic to how tools were grouped: I kept finding the graphic equivalents of ladies’ hats in the underwear drawer.
I’d click a dozen times on the arrowhead icon to flow text from one block to another and nothing would happen except that I’d cause the program to hang up and have to close it, reopen it, and recover the text. I discovered quite by accident after I’d built more than 170 pages of my book that to flow text between blocks the cursor must be within the link “from” text block before you click the arrowhead icon.
The problems I’m having learning to use Publisher aren’t happening because the graphic specialists don’t know their jobs, but because they know them too well. They’re victims of the curse of knowledge. They no longer recall what they needed to know before they could do anything, let alone learn the fancy stuff.
Unless the pandemic magically disappears, we teachers are going to be doing a lot more online teaching where we have manifold opportunities for displaying the curse of knowledge. It’s vital that we make sure we aren’t assuming students (and/or their parents) know more than they actually know. You probably have relatively few opportunities to get feedback from your students or their parents now, so you really have to double-down on scrutinizing what you plan to present and ask yourself whether you are assuming students know some prerequisite information or skill that they may never have acquired.
It won’t be easy to get through the rest of this school year, but if all the pandemic does is teach you to avoid the curse of knowledge, it might just be the best learning experience you ever had.