A writing prompt: experience shapes expectations

I’m currently writing a set of books about how to visit in nursing homes. Each book covers very similar topics, but each is written for a different group of readers.

As I’ve started getting feedback from readers in my target groups, I’ve been particularly struck by the fact that, based on our prior experiences, each of us has a somewhat different picture of what we regard as normal nursing home procedures. Although I was not surprised to see differing perspectives, I was surprised to realize now readily I forget that every person’s unique experiences incline that individual to expect that certain behaviors are the norm in certain situations.

As I mulled that over, I decided that teen-age and adult students could profit from writing about how experience shapes not only present expectations but also inclines future behavior in certain directions.

Working thesis and writing skeleton™

I would give students this working thesis to explore: Prior experience shapes present behavior.

Novice writers could use a writing skeleton™ like this to plan an essay on that topic:

  1. I know that prior experience shapes present behavior because Person One’s prior experience with __A__ shapes Person One’s present behavior.
  2. I know that prior experience shapes present behavior because Person Two’s prior experience with __B__ shapes Person Two’s present behavior.
  3. I know that prior experience shapes present behavior because Person Three’s prior experience with __C__ shapes Person Three’s present behavior.

That skeleton probably won’t produce great writing, but it will enable fledgling writers to organize their thoughts and force them to look beyond their personal experiences.

More advanced students could modify the writing skeleton™ to discuss a particular individual, such as an historical figure, or to discuss some current events. 

Students could also use the writing skeleton™ to develop a personal essay.

© 2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Find the error: An informal writing task

I pluck sentences I find in written materials that individuals and businesses actually distributed and put those sentences into informal writing tasks that give students practice in finding and correcting writing mechanics errors. Informal writing tasks are more realistic than publisher-created exercises because, like real-world writing situations, they don’t tell students what types of errors to look for.

Here’s a script for a two-minute informal writing task for high school or adult students.

graphic representation of a coronavirus
Now-familiar imagery representing the Covid 19 virus.

I’m going to show you a sentence from a story by Vanessa Romo which appeared Nov. 19, 2020 in the NPR—National Public Radio’s—news feed. The sentence appeared under the headline “Tyson Managers Suspended After Allegedly Betting If Workers Would Contract Covid.” Here is the sentence:

[Display and read aloud] “The plaintiffs say managers also continued transferring employees between plants after some had tested positive for the coronavirus without requiring them to quarantine.”

In no more than two sentences, identify any errors you find in the sentence. You have one minute to write.

Now that you’ve identified the error, rewrite the sentence to eliminate the error. You’ll have 30 seconds to write.

You’ll notice I say to “display and read aloud” rather than merely give students the item. I do that to help weak readers and students for whom English is not their primary language.

Students should find that “without requiring them to quarantine” is misplaced. Being quarantined is not required before people can test positive for a coronavirus. Quarantining is required for:

  • People who have already tested positive for the coronavirus, and
  • People who have been exposed to other people who tested positive for the coronavirus.

The corrected sentence should read like this: The plaintiffs say managers also continued transferring employees between plants without requiring them to quarantine after some had tested positive for the coronavirus.

The corrected sentence indicates that anyone exposed to corona-infected people should be quarantined.

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Writing prose and cleaning toilets

A neighbor whom I know well enough to greet by first name—hers and mine are the same—said to me yesterday, “You must really enjoy writing.”

“I enjoy it about as much as I like cleaning the toilet,” I replied.

Toilet with plunger and brush beside it.
I’d as soon clean a toilet as write.

She recoiled. “That’s a horrible thing to say.”

Horrible, perhaps, but true.

Writing is my work. It’s not something I do eight hours a day for the fun of it.

I enjoy having written. When I finish something that accomplishes what it was supposed to do—introduce students PERT charting or drill sales people on the characteristics on an oncology drug—I feel good about my work. But the actual act of writing anything but a humor piece is work, and sometimes even being funny is a chore.

I can sympathize with students who moan about how hard writing is because writing is hard for me, too. But I refuse to allow students to dodge writing because it’s hard.

Writing is work.

Work is hard.

I don’t love writing.

Students don’t have to love writing either, but students must learn to do it and you and I must teach them how to do it.

We must teach students that not every piece of writing has to be art.

We must teach them to recognize when what they’ve written fulfills the assignment.

We must teach them that “good enough” is usually good enough.

We must teach them most writing they will be required to do in their lives will be a lot like cleaning toilets: something almost everybody can do, that almost nobody likes to do, and which they will often not be able to avoid doing.

Please excuse me now. I have to go write.

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Applaud stick-with-it writers

I don’t like writing.

I like having written; that is, I like being finished with a piece of writing, having the desk cleared, the early drafts in the shred basket, the pencil stubs in the trash.

But writing—putting one word after another in an order that’s that’s more or less sensible—is not my idea of fun.

I’ve been writing a book nearly all day every day for several weeks.

I’m heartily sick of the whole thing.

Worse, I’m now at a point where I know I’ll have to start going through the manuscript with an outsider’s perspective, seeing needs to be clarified, what is beyond repair and needs to the scuttled, what examples need to be swapped out for better ones, what lovely phrases don’t fit in their context, perhaps—as too often happens—seeing that the whole thing needs to be reorganized.

As writers go, I’m not very different from my students: They don’t like writing either.

It’s not fun for them.

They get sick of writing long before they finish.

They do their best writing and see that it’s not as good as they’d hoped it would be.

And bless their little pea-pickin’ hearts, they stick with it anyway. They inspire me to try to learn to write better, too.

Join me in giving a round of applause to our students who don’t give up on learning to write, no matter how tedious or how difficult it is for them.

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Words whose spelling-meaning links must be taught: SYDLS

Everyday English speech is cluttered with simple words whose appearance—that is to say, their spelling—must be drilled into students so they don’t mistake one familiar word for another similar-sounding word when they write.

I tell my students they must know, for example, when to use bare and when to use bear. The reason they must know the correct use of those simple words, I tell them, is “so you don’t look stupid.” I refer to such similar-sounding familiar word pairs or word trios as “SYDLS words.” 

This week, I’ve seen dozens of SYDLS mistakes in, of all places, a course developed by the Smithsonian in conjunction with The Great Courses entitled America’s Founding Fathers. The course embeds the professor’s lecture into the video as subtitles. It appears that someone transcribed the lecture from an audio recording, but no one checked the transcription for accuracy. The transcription includes such SYDLS as these:

  • “unregulated as to some,” in a discussion of finances, instead of unregulated as to sum
  • “enact bands on the importation of slaves” instead of enact bans
  • “The principle states” instead of the principal states.

(I also saw justice tenacity” instead of just as tenaciously, which is a mishearing, although not a SYDLS.)

I have a file box of over 300 SYDLS word sets. I teach the most common ones the way I take vitamins: one a day. I try to give students some mnemonic device to help them remember one half of a pair of confusable terms. Sometimes that’s a drawing, like this:

Simple mnemonic for when not to use the spelling alter.

See how the two As in altar are used as like sawhorses to create an altar?

Sometimes it’s just suggesting a link between a word and its spelling. For example, the word principle is used in settings where the idea of a rule could be substituted without destroying the meaning of the sentence entirely.

If you aren’t already dropping daily hints to your students about correct use of common words, I suggest you put that on your to-do list. It requires relatively little work on your part to make sure your students don’t often look stupid.

Postscript: Aside from the SYDLS, America’s Founding Fathers is a great course. I’d love to sit in Allen C. Guelzo’s classroom without benefit of subtitles. He really is a master teacher.

© 2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Two errors in two sentences: an informal writing prompt

Here’s a notice sent by a business to its customers that you could drop into a class session to give students grades 7 and up practice in spotting and correcting errors. Simply display the item, read the item aloud, and then assign students the task of finding any errors in it and telling in no more than two sentences how to correct them. They should be able to find the errors and write their response in no more than one minute.

Informal writing prompts such as this allow let you break up a class with activity that makes students focus on doing something other than listening. By using found materials rather than publisher-created materials, you can have an inexhaustible supply of activities with no financial outlay.

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Back to basics: A post-pandemic step forward

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, parents of public-school students were generally happy with the programs offered by their schools. When schools closed abruptly and parents were expected to monitor children’s work, some parents enthusiastically praised teachers for doing every day what the parents found difficult to do two days in a row.

Other parents who hadn’t opposed art, music, physical education, or foreign languages as long as they were taught by a teacher became vehemently opposed to those subjects when the task of teaching them fell to parents who were doing their regular jobs from home.

How taxpayers will feel about public education after the pandemic remains to be seen.

I suspect the amount of money available for the teaching/learning component of public education post-Covid will be far smaller than previous allocations. School boards, like many other government bodies, have a tendency to prepare for a repeat of the crisis just past, so upgrades to, for example, ventilation in school facilities, may be given priority over upgrades to curriculum.

I also suspect any retrenchment will mean a “back to basics” approach if that hasn’t already become the norm by then.

Some people in the education community (other than myself) are already thinking in terms of concentrating on basics.

Jay Matthews, education writer for The Washington Post, had a column two weeks ago about the need to return to teaching essentials when the pandemic is over, and as early at last summer, teachers began talking about how teaching had to change beginning with the 2020-21 school year.

Sarah Schwartz, outlined “5 Steps for Keeping Kids on Track This Fall” Aug. 5, 2020 at EdWeek.org. Her first two points were:

  • Focus on the most important work of the grade, trimming the curriculum to cover only the essential standards.
  • Figure out what students will need to know and be able to do in order to successfully complete grade-level work.

Schwartz implies, but doesn’t explicitly say, that to begin repairing the damage to students’ educations caused by the pandemic, teachers should teach only what students need to know and be able to do in order to successfully complete grade-level work.

That will probably mean creative writing with be scuttled in favor of mundane, required, expository nonfiction.

shelves of books
Nonfiction books aren’t just reference books, and they aren’t just boring reading.

Personally, I believe expository nonfiction is the writing schools should teach even without the impetus of a pandemic. Expository nonfiction is required writing. Everyone, including Markus Zusak and Amanda Gorman, must write expository nonfiction. Outside the walls of a classroom, nobody is required to write nonfiction or poetry. Consider:

  • The cover letter with your job application was (or should have been) expository nonfiction.
  • The lesson plans you’re required to file must be prepared as expository nonfiction.
  • Your master’s thesis about novelist Mary Cholmondeley will be expository nonfiction.
  • The school board’s justification for cutting the creative writing program will be expository nonfiction.
  • Your letter to the editor of the local paper saying it’s barbaric to deny students the privilege of learning to write fiction and poetry will be expository nonfiction.

If I’m right about changes ahead in K-12 programs in schools after the end of his pandemic, you would be wise to start preparing now by evaluating everything you do for the rest of the school year to determine the least you must teach and the best way to teach that minimum of essential content so that every student in your class masters it. Warning: It is far more challenging to teach every student until every student masters a predetermined set of information and skills than it is to present to all students information and skills you expect only a few of them to master.

As Schwartz implies, in addition to enabling students to learn when the Covid-19 virus is under control, you’ll also need to support students who have social-emotional problems caused or exacerbated when schools were closed during the pandemic. If you thought learning to present on Zoom was a challenge, wait until the kids who didn’t learn on Zoom come back to the classroom.

Then you’ll find out what a real challenge is.

Unless you’ve slashed all the unessential material from your curriculum and rebuilt the remaining material so that students can experience success at learning, you won’t have the time or the emotional energy to address your students’ social and emotional needs in the coming year or possibly for several coming years.

Photo credits: classroom scene by neonbrand-zFSo6bnZJTw-unsplash, nonfiction bookshelves by Linda Aragoni,

© 2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Histories of the famous and forgotten

Literary nonfiction with non-ELA appeal

photos of covers of 3 history texts
These three nonfiction books have very different approaches to historical story-telling.

I remember high school history texts as bland prose about dead people who didn’t seem to have led very interesting lives. The first quarter of this year, my literary nonfiction reading has been primarily histories that are anything but bland prose about people who didn’t lead interesting lives. What’s even better, the topics of the histories lend themselves to use in classes other than English. An English teacher and a teacher in another discipline could each assign the same book and perhaps even accept the same written assignments based on the books.

The Vagabonds by Jeff Guinn

An investigative journalist before he turned to writing nonfiction books, Jeff Guinn knows how to bring out the personalities of the men, warts and all, while sticking to facts, being respectful to his characters, and keeping the story rolling.

Cover of "The Vagabonds"
Ford and Edison ready to go on vacation.

Guinn’s use of the story of fiddler Jep Bisbee to open and close the book about the late lives of the three super-successful businessmen adds to the poignancy of the story.

The Vagabonds could be used by students of history, business, and technology as well as English. Students grades 10 and up should be able to read it easily.

The Vagabonds: The Story of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison’s Ten-Year Road Trip by Jeff Guinn. 2019, Simon & Schuster. 306 p.

Barnum by Robert Wilson

Barnum: An American Life is a biography of P. T. Barnum, the man who created “the greatest show on earth, the Barnum & Bailey Circus.”  Born in 1810 in a small town outside Bridgeport, Connecticut, Barnum grew up in a rural community in which people did whatever they had to do to keep body and soul together. Barnum quickly learned that the way to make money was to give the public what it wanted.

Male figure is entering a huge circus tent.

He tried his hand at various get-rich-quick schemes before discovering his real talents lay in selling what we’d today call infotainment. He became a master of the art of self-publicity and never missed a chance to get his name in the papers.

Barnum suffers the problem that all biographies suffer: the biographer has to start with the lead character’s birth and stick to the facts until he dies. Unfortunately, the most interesting parts of Barnum’s life ended long before his death.

To get English classes interested in Barnum, I think teachers would need to give students writing topics that would force them to draw comparisons between what Barnum did to promote his business ventures and what businessmen do today to attract free publicity and to keep the news media’s interest.

Barnum could be used by students of history, business, advertising, and marketing as well as English. Students grades 10 and up should be able to read Barnum, although it’s not fun to read the way The Vagabonds is.

Barnum: An American Life by Robert Wilson. 2019, Simon & Schuster. 341 p.

The First Founding Father by Harlow Giles Unger

Historian Harlow Giles Unger’s The First Founding Father is about a man most people have never heard of, Richard Henry Lee. He was one of the Virginia Lees, a family noted today for the Lee that fought against the United States, Robert E. Lee.

The First Founding Father by Harlow Giles Unger
A portrait of silver-haired Richard Henry Lee

The wealthy and scholarly Richard Henry Lee was born in America, educated in England. He was respected by both the colonies’ aristocratic leaders like John Adams and the working classes’ leaders like Patrick Henry. From the mid-1760s through the Revolutionary War his opinions carried great weight.

As the book’s liner notes say, he was “first to call for independence, first to call for union, and first to call for a bill of rights to protect Americans against government tyranny.”

Lee seems to have been a man who thought far in advance. Even when he was fighting for American independence from England, he saw that the country needed to get rid of slavery to ensure its national survival in decades ahead.

Unger details how a man of such importance and influence was marginalized and eventually written out of the history books.

Although Unger is a scholar, his writing is not difficult to read. (It’s easier, I think, than Barnum.) If you use the book, make sure you make students read beyond the summary in the introduction.

Obviously, The First Founding Father could be used by students in history classes as well as English, but Unger touches on events that might be used to explore business topics as well. The book’s first chapter, for example, talks about the Virginia colony being divided between the Tidewater aristocrats and the upland farmers and backwoodsmen. It might be interesting to have students explore whether s similar class division exists in the state in which they live today.

The First Founding Father: Richard Henry Lee and the Call to Independence by Harlow Giles Unger. 2017, DaCapo Press. 306 p.

©2021 Linda G. Aragoni

Informal writing prompt: trees coming down

Again today, I have an informal writing prompt built on a message actually sent by a business. That means this writing prompt is an authentic writing task, similar to those students are likely to encounter in nearly every type of work. The prompt is could be used in classes from grade 8 through first-year college.

Here’s your script:

I’m going to show you a four-sentence message that contains some errors and ask you to identify the errors by writing one sentence about each of the four sentences in the message.  This is the message:

memo about tree-cutting
This is the message that was actually sent.

Please identify the error or errors in the message sentence by sentence. As you make clear which sentence you’re discussing, you don’t need to write your sentences in the same order in which they appear in the message. You have two minutes to write.

[After the two minutes] Now I want you to rewrite the message to make it shorter and clearer. You have one minute to write.

Optional group activity

To get maximum value from this informal prompt, you could have students work in small groups for five minutes, to discuss what they changed and why they made those changes.

Students should notice grammar errors

Every student should notice that the second and fourth sentences are actually sentence fragments. Every student should also notice that the third sentence begins with the pronoun that cannot logically refer to the preceding noun: buildings don’t get loud; sounds do.

A few students may quibble over whether “multiple trees” is redundant and whether “will be taking down” should be “will take down,” since the activity appears to not be scheduled to start before tomorrow.

Students should identify the point

The point hidden of the message is: “Expect loud noise tomorrow morning when trees are cut on the front and back sides of the building.”

FYI: Next week I plan to take a break from posting informal writing prompts to recommend three fascinating literary nonfiction books. Two are about famous people and one is about a man who was tremendously influential but is barely remembered today. 

© 2020 Linda G. Aragoni 


Informal writing prompt: 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.

Then ask students to identify in no more than three sentences what errors, if any, they notice and how to correct the error or errors.

To turn this informal writing prompt into a miniature grammar lesson, add two or three minutes of teaching. 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. Compare:

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

Also compare:

I feel awfully today.
I feel awful today.

“Dedicated containers are differently” doesn’t make sense, but “dedicated containers are different” does make sense.

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).

© 2021 Linda G. Aragoni