Nonfiction about why people misread and misinterpret the world

Literary nonfiction books, aside from true crime and biographies, are rather hard to find and those I do find are rarely books I’d pick for use in writing classes. 

Today I’m going to introduce you to three nonfiction books that, unlike books such as Harry Truman’s Great Adventure or The Fever of 1721, are not literary nonfiction: They include narrative but are not themselves narratives.

covers of the 3 books to be discussed
Three books, different topics, same color scheme

My three choices deal in very different ways with how individuals or groups of people incorrectly perceive and misinterpret the world either because of their prior experiences or because of the way humans’ brains work. As the author of one of the three books says:

quote from Wilson's "Redirect"
Wilson’s Redirect, discussed below, is about changing behavior by story editing.

The End of White Christian America

Cover of "The End of White Christian America"
Symbolically, “White Christian America” is set against a black background.

The End of White Christian America is a history of white Protestant churches’ influence on America’s national policy and the country’s ideals with particular emphasis on the churches’ role throughout the twentieth century and into Barak Obama’s second term.

Author Robert P. Jones set out to discover why white Protestantism, hugely influential in the first 240 years of American history, faded. He found that during the 20th century, Protestant churches divided into two groups according to their theology, beliefs about race, and what Jones calls “accommodations to the modern world and science,” specifically their positions on evolution and racial issues. 

Jones says: “This is a story of theology and culture, but it is also a story of powerful demographic changes.” His findings may help students bewildered by what may seem to them to be hysterical behavior over what they may consider to be settled issues of science, race, and gender. 

The End of White Christian America. Robert P. Jones. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, © 2016. 322 p.  Available in hardcover, paperback, Kindle, and audiobook versions.

Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change

White Protestant America might be different today if its adherents had had psychologist Timothy D. Wilson’s Redirect.

"Redirect" had broken directional arrow. rWilson’s work builds on the long-known fact that how people interpret events has much more influence on their behavior than the events themselves. What’s more, human brains jump to make sense of what just happened to their owners, and they do it so quickly people don’t realize that what their brains report is an interpretation of what happened not an observation of what happened. From that foundation, Wilson built techniques he calls story editing, “which is a set of techniques designed to redirect people’s narratives about themselves and the social world in a way that leads to lasting changes in behavior.”

Redirect has multiple applications in a school setting. Several chapters deal with prevention issues:  pregnancy prevention, prevention of abuse of alcohol and drugs, violence prevention, discrimination prevention. There’s also a reading group guide.

Redirect is particularly useful for writing teachers because in the first chapter it gives a simple tool—perfectly suited to use in writing classes—for shaping students’ behavior in positive ways. To use the tool, you need to view students’ situation from their perspective and get them to redirect their narratives about that situation, which is pretty much what you need to do to teach students to write.

In a writing class for adult students who are parents or who supervise employees, Redirect could be used as nonfiction reading. While it’s not as engaging as narrative nonfiction, it’s well-written and should be well within the reading skills of adult learners.

Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change. Timothy D. Wilson. Back Bay Books; Little, Brown. © 2011. Paperback edition 2015. 297 p. Available in paperback, hardcover, Kindle, and in audio CD

A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives

Cover of "A Mind of Its Own"The cover of Cordelia Fine’s A Mind of Its Own shows a middle-aged, bald guy whose thought bubble reveals his brain tells him he’s a muscular, iron-pumping type. Inside, Fine describes in well-documented facts that human brains are so well built to put the best possible interpretation on any of its owner’s experiences that only a few people have anything like a realistic view of themselves.

Fine doesn’t delve deep into the brain’s anatomy and physiology. Her interest is on the observable human behaviors that brains trigger in their owners. Fine’s writing is witty and charming, but you can’t speed-read it. Just because her writing isn’t academic and dull, doesn’t mean it isn’t thorough and precise.  You need to pay attention.

Chapter 7, “The Weak-Willed Brain: The Prima Donna Within” holds ideas of particular relevance to teachers because we phrase many of the tasks we give students  in ways that disassociate will, determination, mind, imagination, behavior, conscious effort, think, and even make up your mind from the congregation of cells we call the brain. Fine deliberately connects those terms to the brain.

For example, she says, “The conscious is not every good at multitasking,” and “the will is feeble, drained by emotions; it is thin-skinned, and has woefully limited powers of concentration.”  Because of those limits, she says, when you need to change behavior (your own or those of a student), you should concentrate on one behavior at a time.

Fine’s book is relevant to older teens and adults and might be used in the second semester of a two-semester course as background reading for writing prompts. It’s certainly is a good book to have on your classroom shelves for students to browse.

A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives. Cordelia Fine. W. W. Norton. © 2006. First published as paperback 2008. 243 p.  Available in hardback, paperback, Kindle, and MP3 formats.

©2021 Linda G. Aragoni

 

 

I’m thankful I learned something

Since yesterday was Thanksgiving, I’ve been thinking about what teachers and students have to be thankful for in 2020, which has been a bummer by just about every standard you could think of. At the risk of sounding like a Pollyanna, I’m going to suggest that between now and Christmas, teachers ask students  to identify something they’re glad they learned this fall in their classes. What students learned may have little to do with the course content, but a great deal to do with students’ attitudes toward learning in general and academic learning in particular.

Let me tell you a story.

Although I was a psychology major as an undergraduate, the class in which I learned most about psychology wasn’t a course in psychology. It was a course in algebra. The professor had chosen a newly published program-instruction text in which we were to learn bit by bit how to do algebraic calculations.

I worked hard and got a C on the first test. Unsatisfied with a C, I  got tutoring from my roommate, a chemistry major, and from the math major down the hall.

I got a D on the second test.

I redoubled my effort. My roommate and the math major helped. The professor gave me additional help.

I failed the final exam.

Programmed instruction isn’t how I learn best. I’m someone who learns best when I start out knowing what I’m supposed to learn and why that knowledge is important. What I got in the algebra course was procedures without any context about what they were used for.

That algebra course was undoubtedly the most significant academic course I’ve ever taken. It taught me the importance of initially teaching students a subject using methods that fit the way they learn best. After college when I was hired to write instructional materials, I understood the importance of making sure that I provided both the big picture for learners like myself and step-by-step instruction for learners like the others in my algebra class who got the big picture by assembling the fragments.

What’s the story got to do with you?

This fall you may have some students in your classes who stumbled through distance learning the way I blundered through algebra. You can’t undo the unhappiness that students may have experienced because of the unfamiliar and, for some, unsuitable technology. You can, however, ask students to identify something they learned about themselves, and particularly about how they learn, that will be useful to them in the future.

I suggest you have students write about what they learned in 2020 about how they learn best. Ask them to reflect on how well their learning strengths and weaknesses fit the technologies they were required to use for classes. And, most importantly, ask them to identify one way they can turn what they learned—even if they hated every minute of their learning time—to their benefit in the future.

You, dear teacher, might benefit from doing the same writing assignment as your students.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Pattern recognition is a life skill

Three apartment floor plans identical except for colors
A single floor plan is used in three apartments, each of which has a different owner.

The ability to recognize patterns is an essential life skill. Whether a pattern is learned by association, the way a very young child learns to associate certain sounds with being fed, or at a sophisticated level using spreadsheets and graphs, the ability to see and derive meaning from patterns in data is vital to humans’ existence.

Not all students come to school able to recognize patterns. Absent direct instruction, some of them will remain unable to recognize patterns throughout their schooling. I’ve had students in their thirties who couldn’t recognize patterns. Most students can develop pattern recognition skill simply by having their attention called to patterns in the class content they need to learn. You need to deliberately, habitually, draw students’ attention to patterns in the class content they must learn.

Deliberately look for patterns.

If you’re going to teach successfully, you need to be sensitive to the presence of patterns in the material you teach. If you can see patterns in a large number of individual cases, you can—and should—condense that vast number of cases to a fraction of its original size. The condensed version—the pattern— can be more readily taught to students than the dumpster-sized loads of individual cases.

Patterns don’t produce replicas.

It’s very important to note that individual examples of a pattern are not replicas of the pattern. A paper pattern may be used to produce objects made from fabric, sheet metal, or cardboard boxes. In the hands of a skilled workman, a single pattern can produce objects with very different appearances and very different functions.

A visitor to the apartments of the Blacks, the Greens, and the Browns, shown at the top of this blog post, might not be consciously aware of the common floor plan even though all three were built by the same construction crew from the same blueprint. The owners put their individual stamps on their homes with different furnishings and distinctive decorations. Similarly, writers put their own individual stamp on writing they built following a pattern.

Patterns simplify.

Part of your teaching job is to impress upon students that being able to see patterns simplifies their lives.  Something as simple as putting your house key in the same place every day or putting your mask in the same place every day is a pattern that saves you from a frantic turn-the-house-upside-down search before you can make a 10-minute run to the grocery. Identifying a new place to put your keys/mask every day wouldn’t be efficient; it would be dumb.

In just that same way, having a pattern for planning a piece of nonfiction writing lets students concentrate on what they need to accomplish, instead of trying every day to invent a new way to organize their writing. If you can teach students that patterns automate routine procedures, they’ll have time and attention to devote to the task at hand. When there’s already a pattern available for organizing most nonfiction writing—thesis and support—it isn’t efficient to expect students to identify a new way to organize their writing every day; it’s dumb.

Identify course concepts.

For convenience—I’m a big fan of convenience—I suggest starting with one course for which you have what you think is a pretty good textbook. Use that text’s table of contents to help you identify the essential concepts within its subject matter. There are usually a lot of concepts, but far fewer of them than there are individual facts.

Identify concepts that are also patterns.

If possible, reduce the list of concepts by identifying those that are also patterns. For example, when the Common Core State Standards were compiled, they realized that all the different ways of organizing short, nonfiction writing—that long list of “types of essays” in English books—boiled down to just three patterns:  narrative, argument and informative/expository texts.That was a stroke of genius. They distilled what students needed to learn to about 20 percent of its prior size.

When you have a list of essential course patterns, you have all the information students will need to memorize before they can begin to work with individual data points.  (Actually, you’ll have more than just essential course patterns, and you’ll have to put the other stuff aside to concentrate on the patterns.)

Teach concepts via descriptions.

Most of the time, we can start teaching using descriptions to identify objects or concepts rather than taking time to teach course vocabulary. Were you required to learn the correct names of the parts of a shoelace before you learned to tie your shoes?  I’ll bet you weren’t. I’d also bet a small sum that you can’t tell me right now the name of the hard things on the ends of shoelaces. There are many objects and processes and other thingies you engage with daily that you can’t identify by their proper names. The world doesn’t come to a screeching halt if you don’t know an aglet from a piglet.

You can plunge into having students work with specific examples rather than presenting abstract and theoretical content and they will pick up the correct terminology as they work. Working with examples—even if the examples are written descriptions—is more like hands-on activity than listening to your lecture, stimulating as that may be. Even students who think they hate your subject would rather do something—anything—than listen to a teacher lecture.

Related post: Boys need help to see patterns.

© 2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Linda taught me how to learn

lecturer speaks to class
Teachers are people who devote their lives to working themselves out of a job.

Last week in this space, I told you that the one thing you must do when in online learning classes is to teach your students how to learn your subject. Today I’d like to tell you a story about how I came to that conclusion.

It was due to a student in a first year college writing class I taught a few years ago. The course was an eight-week, online, asynchronous course conducted entirely in writing. I was supposed to turn the students out with a semester’s worth of writing skill.

My typical writing classes were 75 to 80% male (women tended to drop out when they saw my first published book was about installing steam turbines) and usually every hour of the day some of the students were at their jobs. By some fluke, each of the students in this particular class was employed full-time, each worked days, and each was a woman.

Because the students were able to be online evenings, I made a point of being available in the “course room” evenings. The format became much like a seminar, with students interacting with one another and with me through written messages. Many evenings there would be a half dozen student and myself on line discussing their work.

One of the women, who I’ll call Alice (I’ve forgotten her name), was bright and hard-working, but she had a mediocre high school English program to overcome. All the other women liked Alice.  To encourage her, they sat for many hours when I’m sure they had other things they could have been doing while I explained to Alice what she didn’t get in high school.

Alice really struggled, but she earned the B she needed for her employer to pick up part of the tab for her course.

The last night of the class, the women were saying their farewells and talking about what courses they would be taking next. Alice posted a note saying that she wished she could the writing course over again. She hastily added, “I can’t believe I just wrote that. This course was so hard for me, and I had to work so hard, but when I started, I did not know how to learn. Linda taught me how to learn. Now that I know how to learn, I could really benefit from taking the course again.”

I consider that student one of my greatest success stories. She no longer needed me. Learning how to learn enabled her take charge of her education. She could learn what she wanted, when she wanted, whether she had a teacher or not.

The reason I teach is that I want students to be able to learn without me.

What’s your reason for teaching?

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

 

A wild goose chase: Seeking Little Black Sambo

Two weeks ago I ran across a news story about a Black History Month exhibit that included a copy of The Story of Little Black Sambo, published in 1899.

To refresh my memory of the story, I went to Project Gutenberg, where I found a copy of Little Black Sambo written by Helen Bannerman and illustrated by Florence White Williams.

I remember as a child hearing the expression “the grandest tiger in the jungle,” but nothing else in the story seemed familiar.

It’s clear from the text that the story is set in India, so how did the Southern Black stereotyped figures get into the book?

I found out that the author of the story, Helen Bannerman, was from Edinburgh, Scotland. She married a man who was a physician and officer in the Indian Medical Service. They moved to India, where they lived for 30 years. They raised four children in what is now known as Channai.

Little Black Sambo was first published by Grant Richards in 1899 in London. Bannerman is listed as both author and illustrator of that edition. I can’t think of any reason for Bannerman to use American racial stereotypes in the British empire, but I cannot find any images from that edition to show that she didn’t. There are references to Bannerman’s “cartoonish” style being the reason for publishers not using her art in later editions. 

In 1900, an edition of Little Black Sambo was printed in the US by the Frederick A. Stokes Company. It may have looked like this. White Williams was too young to have done the illustrations for that.

(White Williams’ birth year is variously listed as 1888, 1895, 1900 and both 1888 and 1900.  She would have been roughly the same age as the Bannerman children.)

I’ve found references to White Williams doing Sambo art for 1918 and 1919 editions of the book, but no images.

There were many knock-off copies of Sambo published up through 1923 when Stokes labeled that year’s product “The Only Authorized American Edition.” That was just about the time Florence White Williams was making a name for herself as an illustrator and artist, but I can’t find any source that says who did the illustrations for the “authorized edition.”

I’ve spent a whole day trying to figure out how Little Black Sambo was transformed from the story of a clever Indian boy to a story about race in the American south, and I’m no closer to knowing than when I began.

I guess this is what’s called lifelong learning.

Quotes from fiction to provoke discussion of current events

In doing reading for my blog of reviews of twentieth century bestselling novels, GreatPenformances, I often come across something relevant to some of my other interests.

Since we celebrated Independence Day in the US this week, I thought I’d share three quotes I copied down as I was reading 1970s novels. I pasted each quote against an American flag backdrop because each seems to me to raise some questions about the condition of America today.

The first quote is from Kurt Vonnegut’s 1976 bestselling novel Slapstick. The novel’s main character is a former US President, who makes this observation about history:

Surprises of history should prepare us to be surprised again.

Is this all history can do for future generations?

I’m saving the Vonnegut quote and a couple others I found in novels as openers for writing prompts about why people ought to care about history.

The next quote is from Gore Vidal’s historical novel 1876, which is an examination of America drawn largely from contemporary documents threaded together into a narrative by the addition of two fictional characters, Charlie Schuyler and his daughter.

The federal government was wracked by scandals, and corruption was rife. Charlie Schuyler sums up the situation this way; President Ulysses S. Grant could "sell the White House to a speculator, pocket the cash, and the people would still love him."

Quote from Gore Vidal's novel 1876.

Gore Vidal’s description of America on its first centennial.

I’ll take Vidal’s word for it that America in 1876 was a "vigorous, ugly, turbulent realm devoted to moneymaking by any means." But if I do that, I have to ask the question, "Has anything changed?"

What do you think? Has anything changed?

The third quote is from Saul Bellow’s bestselling novel Humboldt’s Gift.

A Saul Bellow character says education is American recompense.

Is education how we make amends in America today?

I’m not sure whether it’s true that "Education has become the great and universal American recompense," but I can see why people might think so.

When jobs disappear, the government sends people back to school.

When families can’t afford to have one parent home with young kids, the government provides preschool programs.

When college gets too expensive, public highs schools subsidize their best students through dual enrollment programs.

I hope one of those quotes is enough to make you do some critical thinking. We can’t let our brains get flabby over the summer.

Required knowledge for 2037

What can we be sure students will need to know 20 years from now?

I’ve been working at revamping content from my “you can teach writing” website begun in 2008 — a date that seems like an eternity ago — I’ve been taking a hard look at what from that bygone time is still valid.

Obviously anything that has passed its sell-buy date in 2017 has to be scrapped.

I’ve deleted the “current events” references and the rotted links: Information expires.

Now what?

How do I decide what to keep?

Skills are more durable than information, so I’m starting by looking at them.
What skills will students need 20 years from now?

I’ve started making a list of what I’m pretty sure students will need to be able to do on their own without the benefit of a teacher/supervisor 20 years from now:

That seems to me to be a reasonable method of determining what of my 2008 website content (which, truth to tell, was the accumulation of 40 years of experience as a writer, editor, and writing teacher) is durable.

In 2037 students will need to be able to:

Here’s in the order in which I thought of them are my ideas of what students will certainly be required to do in 2037.

I invite you to share your reactions in the comments section.

  • learn by reading
  • write to communicate
  • communicate by speaking
  • learn from listening
  • learn by observing
  • formulate useful questions
  • translate information from one communication medium into another
  • read and write a language other than their native tongue (language here can include computer code)
  • communicate via images
  • curate content
  • control machines
  • collaborate to achieve goals
  • get along with people unlike themselves
  • learn without a live teacher present
  • adjust their behavior in response to their learning
  • identify problems
  • formulate solutions to problems in ways that are testable
  • distinguish between causation and correlation
  • find people able and willing to share their expertise
  • distinguish between essential and non-essential activities
  • distinguish between what people need and what they want
  • manage their time well

Help me out.

What have I missed that everyone will need to do? Math skills for sure, but which?
What are essential skills in the social sciences? in the fine arts?
What’s on the list that is dubious?

Social media as a research tool

When I teach writing, one of the strategies I teach students is a procedure for identifying experts on a topic.

I call it ripple strategy. It is basically the process journalists use when they start to investigate a topic about which they have no real starting information.

Ripples spread out from a drop of water falling into a puddle.
Ripples on water help students visualize the process of finding experts.

I tell students to begin by seeing if they have personal expertise on the topic. They may not be an expert, but specifying what they know can help them in the search for expertise.

If they can’t think of anything they know from personal experience, they move a bit beyond themselves to people they know personally: family, friends, teachers, co-workers, the owner of the pizza place they patronize. Do any of those folks have expertise on the writing topic?

If no one comes to mind, they move to the next farthest ripple: People they don’t know personally but who are known by people they know personally. These are folks like Mom’s boss’s son or the mail carrier’s brother.

Finally, they come to the people they know about but to whom they don’t have any third party link.

Let’s say a student’s rippling has led him to think a good source on his topic would be someone who  manages a nursing home.

The student can ask people in his closest “ripples” if they know someone who manages a nursing home.

If they don’t have any luck, they can use social media as a research tool.

Each of the major social media networks has its own search functionality.

Written for business people seeking customers, this article from the Business 2 Community website, gives a pretty good introduction to using Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, YouTube, and Google+ to find people with interest or expertise in a given topic. Although the list doesn’t include LinkedIn, the six options it does discuss are probably more familiar to students grades 7 to 14.

The article isn’t a perfect answer to students’ find-an-expert questions, but it’s a good start.

Relationships and learning

Since I came across this image in a tweet, I’ve been trying to decide whether or not I agree with the quote, “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.”

I agree with the @teachergoals that relationships must be encouraged and maintained. I suspect the intent of the quote is to encourage teachers to interact with their students as people instead of as rectangles on a seating chart, which is a worthwhile aim.

What I’m not so sure about is the meaning of a “significant relationship” in the educational context.  (I’m sure, however, it’s not the meaning we occasionally hear about on TV newscasts, in which one of the parties wears a bright orange jumpsuit.)

Who are the parties to a significant relationship in which learning occurs?

In what way(s) must the relationship be significant to impact learning?

Do the learning and the relationship have to occur contemporaneously?

If all significant learning requires “a significant relationship,” is turning students into lifelong learners a pipe dream?

And, last but not least, I wonder if I the only person in the world whose most significant learning came from books?

Have a challenge? Need a challenge?

Challenge is a challenging word.

We in education most often use the singular noun to mean a task that demands special effort or dedication, but which is within the ability of the person who accepts the challenge.

We like kids who accept a challenge.

By contrast, we typically use the plural form, challenges, to mean things that require more ability than an individual has, as in “that kid has serious challenges.”

We prefer kids with challenges be in another teacher’s classroom.

I ran across two items today on Twitter that made me think about those two opposing usages.

Challenged workers

The first is a National Skills Coalition report showing roughly 20 million Americans employed in key service-sector industries lack basic skills in literacy, numeracy, or digital problem-solving.

These are people that we educators would probably say “have challenges.”

A large proportion of these people work in just three areas: retail, health care and social assistance, and in food services and accommodations. Surprisingly, 58 percent of them have been with their current employer at least three years, and 23 percent of them are supervisors.

Here’s the most astonishing fact about these workers:

More than one in three (39%) participated in a learning activity over the past 12 months, including 27% who are pursuing a formal degree or certificate.

Ignore for the moment the question of how all those people get into post-secondary education when they trouble with reading, writing, arithmetic, and problem solving: Think about how someone with challenges becomes someone who accepts a challenge.

Workers who take on challenges

There may be many factors the lead to someone accepting a challenge, but they certainly include:

  • Having a personal reason for accepting the challenge of learning.
  • Sensing that doing nothing will produce a bad outcome.
  • Believing the desired outcome is worth the effort it requires.

At some point, we educators have to start figuring out how to get those “kids with challenges” to accept the challenge of learning how to learn what they will need to know in their work and in their lives. It’s particularly important for us to do that for the students who aren’t natural, book-learning scholars: the hands-on, vocational, CTE students.

They crave a challenge, too, and they deserve it.

What else could we be doing to see that all students have opportunities to take on challenges?