According to the National Public Radio newsfeed yesterday, “The CDC says toss onions if you don’t know where they came from to avoid salmonella.”
You may be as astonished as I was to learn that onions not only are smart enough to recognize that salmonella infections are dangerous, but also that onions migrate to avoid being contaminated by those vile, rod-shaped bacteria.
Today’s informal writing prompt will let you and your students see if they can recognized a misplaced modifier when they see one, or whether they are dumber than onions.
Here’s the prompt:
“I’m going to show you a summary that appeared in a radio broadcast’s news feed. (Display and read item.)
” The CDC is, of course, the Centers for Disease Control. “Now write your reaction to that item in one or two sentences. You have 30 seconds to write.”
That’s all that necessary. A prompt as short as this is appropriate when (1) you have other informal prompts to use in the class period and (2) want to remind students of some rule they know and should use in their writing. You can take another two minutes to ask for oral responses if you choose, but if you’re rushed, just collect the day’s informal writing at the end of class to skim in a free period.
Leave it for philosophy classes to debate whether tossing is appropriate action to take against onions who, through no fault of their own, may have become infected by salmonella.
One important and often-broken rule of grammar is that a pronoun should refer to the last preceding noun. By following that rule, writers help readers grasp the meaning of a sentence without rereading it. Following the rule also keeps readers from snickering over an absurd idea created when a writer ignores the rule.
Today’s writing prompt, which uses an historical fact prominently printed on the front of a rural chamber of commerce’s newsletter, would help your students learn why that rule is a rule.
Begin the mini-lesson with a statement of the rule. To make sure students pay attention, write the rule on the board or display just the rule using whatever technology you have for projecting information. To make sure students understand the rule, restate it at least once using some alternative to last preceding noun. You could say, “In other words, a pronoun should refer to the person, place or thing named at the left of the pronoun.” Or you could say. “A pronoun is a substitute for an already-identified person, place, or thing.”
Then say something like this:
“I’m going to show you what appears to be a three-sentence historical fact that was published in a small town chamber of commerce’s newsletter. Then I’m going asks you for some observations about the item.”
Ideally, you should show students the item in context, so that even if the picture is fuzzy, students get the idea that a photograph accompanying the written item shows a building with a windmill on its roof. Here’s the historical fact:
Mt. Pleasant Drive, showing part of the water system, circa 1890. This was the Roberts Waterworks. The huge windmills pumped water from two deep wells into a reservoir, which was then pumped into the village.
Watch students’ faces. You’ll be able to tell which ones see the grammatical (and engineering) problem of pumping a reservoir into the village.
Now say something like this: “Write one sentence in which you identify all the pronouns in that historical fact. You have 30 seconds to write.” Time students as they write. Then go on to a second, third, fourth, and final task.
“Next, I’d like you to write one sentence in which you tell me what the nearest preceding noun is for each of the pronouns you identified in your previous sentence. You have 30 seconds to write.”
“Now pretend you’re the writer of the item about the waterworks. Rewrite the sentence or sentences in which you found a pronoun that didn’t refer to the noun at its left, fixing the sentence or sentences so they won’t make anyone snicker. You have 60 seconds to write.”
“Finally, aside from any problems you found with pronouns that the writer dropped too far from their preceding nouns, is there anything else about this historical fact that you think sounds funny? Tell me in one or two sentences what other problem you find in that historical fact. You have 90 seconds to write.”
If you wish and have enough time, you may want to have students share their ideas about the other parts of the item that sounded funny to them. You’ll have some students who recognize that the first of the three sentences isn’t a sentence at all. I suspect it probably was the caption for the photo in the book Stones from the Walls of Jericho. Captions are not always full sentences.
Collect the informal writing to scan to see who struggled with the assignment. Informal writing prompts should prompt you to take precautionary measures to keep students who didn’t get material the first 14 times it was presented from missing it again in your classes.
Many months ago, I received a notice about upcoming webinars for teachers. One of the webinars caught my eye and raised my blood pressure. It was titled “4 Sure-Fire Ways to Improve the K-12 Customer Experience.”
I don’t know whether the college students in my freshman English courses have had good customer experiences in high school or not, nor do I particularly care. It’s obvious most of my students didn’t learn a lick in K-12 about how to write on demand the kind of nonfiction prose everyone has to be able to write. I do care about that.
I’m a teacher, not a customer service representative.
It’s my job to take the students who didn’t learn how to write in grades K-12 and turn them into writers.
If students don’t like English 101, I don’t let them do basket weaving instead.
If students find writing evidence-based, logically presented documents is hard, I tell them, “Writing is hard for me, too. Just do it.”
If students don’t do their assignments, I don’t refund their tuition.
If your students show up in my freshman English class, they will learn what their K-12 customer service representatives failed to teach them or they will fail freshman English.
Like most other writing teachers, I’ve taught a lesson on the difference between a word’s denotation and its connotation. Quite honestly, the lesson bored me as much as it did students. Lessons, like chickens, have a habit of coming home to roost and I’ve found myself in the last six months wrestling with a denotation-connotation problem.
I’m writing a series of books about how to visit in a nursing home. The series’ title is “Thanks for Dropping By,” which is what residents always said to me when I left after visiting them.
I asked two clergymen for feedback on the book written for pastors. I was surprised that clergy felt dropping by was too informal a term to describe what they did. They said they went to visit residents, a process they refer to as visitation. Rather than use language that offends pastors for whom I’m writing, I decided to do some research to see if the terms visit and visitation more accurately reflected what clergy do in nursing homes than dropping by does. I began by asking female friends and relatives what associations the terms hold for them, since a majority of nursing home residents are female.
My women friends, particularly those 50 and older, typically remember being required as a child to go visit someone that one or both of their parents would have preferred never to see at all. That someone was usually either their father’s or mother’s parent. The girls would have to sit quietly while their parents and their grandparent took verbal potshots as one another. Girls’ misery was compounded if they had brothers. The boys were usually admonished to “stay clean” and sent out to play while the girls tried to ignore the bickering inside. As a result of those childhood experiences, my women friends recoil at the term visiting.
Since my clerical friends both prefer the King James version of the Bible to others, I did a little digging into the KJV’s use of the terms visit and visitation. Despite its age—or perhaps because of it—the KJV’s language is more influential than that of any other Bible translation. In it, I found visit and visited used to describe both situations that were pleasant and situations that were unpleasant, even punitive. The emotional experience of being visited depended entirely on the behavior of the person involved.
Visitation was a quite different matter.
Throughout the KJV Old Testament, visitation is almost always associated with punishment. I counted 13 out of 15 uses of the word visitation in reference to punishment. If Old Testament characters were smart, they were careful to avoid having a visitation.
Masochistic English teachers who have read this far may be wondering what all this has to do with teaching writing. Simply this: Writers, whether adults or students, need to be aware of their audience. They should choose words that most precisely convey the ideas they want readers to grasp and avoid language that is ambiguous or misleading.
In this case, I want my readers—pastors—not to describe what they do in nursing homes as visitation. Let them determine to drop by, both for their sake and the sake of residents.
A website for my nursing home book project is in the works. If anyone is afraid of missing out, drop me a note via the contact form on this site, and I’ll put you on my email list as soon as I get one.
Middle and high school students are routinely required to write “compare and contrast” essays without being shown any reason they’d need to know that information. Because most jobs require skill at comparing and contrasting, I developed a writing prompt that makes students focus on the purpose of comparing and contrasting.
What I do is give students several sets images of two items and ask them what can be learned by comparing the two items. Or, to put it another way, why might someone need to compare the two? And who might need to compare the two items? (This work can be done by small groups that share their conclusions with the entire class after five to 10 minute’s discussion.)
With that background, give all students a writing assignment.
Here’s the writing prompt
In no more than 650 words, explain why the ability to compare and contrast is an essential skill in today’s workplace. To support your thesis statement, give two to five examples of essential business functions that require comparing and contrasting. Your examples must clearly depict information that can only be gleaned by doing both comparing and contrasting.
If you choose visuals that appeal to students with a variety of interests from art to zoology and including items associated with jobs that don’t require college degrees, you’ll find students will readily grasp the idea that compare/contrast writing is not “just some dumb English teacher thing.” It actually has some real life relevance.
The start of a new school year is just a flip of a calendar page away for many teachers whose duties include or consist of teaching writing. For many years, I was one such teacher.
One thing I learned over those years was to make sure students understood on the first day of class what they were expected to do in the class. Unfortunately, it took decades of trying various approaches before I found a find a way to accomplish that objective on opening day.
The method I use I discovered when teaching asynchronous online classes for University of Phoenix. The University’s teachers were encouraged to have student use a chat room to get acquainted. When I promoted use of the chat room, students spent almost a quarter of the class chatting about their out-of-school interests before I could get them focused on learning to write.
So, I decided to start off the class by introducing myself in the online classroom as a writer. I told students they could get acquainted in the chat room, but I required students to introduce themselves as writers in the classroom space. That adjustment reclaimed nearly two weeks of class and enabled me to get most students writing at the end of eight weeks at a level that students in face-to-face classes typically took a 15-week semester to achieve.
To learn more about how I used the “I’m a writer” assignment to get students off to a good start, see this post from seven years ago.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The best thing about selecting literary nonfiction for your students to read is that you get to read books that will expand your horizons.
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.
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.