Copyright Basics for Teaching

If you do not have a clear understanding of the U.S. Copyright law, especially that which applies to Internet resources, you might inadvertently be teaching your students to steal without realizing it. Here are the most basic facts you and your students need to know to avoid copyright infringement.

Copyright basics: what can or can’t be copyrighted

Copyright is literally the right to copy information. In most cases, that right belongs to the person who created and “fixed” the work in its finished form. Original literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works can be copyrighted. That covers a wide range of material such as poetry, novels, photographs, cartoons, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture.

Material that is not original but copied from others cannot be given copyright protection.

Facts and ideas cannot be copyrighted, nor can operating procedures. However, the way facts, ideas, and procedures are expressed may be able to be copyrighted. That is why dozens of poems saying spring is the season of renewal can each be afforded copyright protection: each one expresses the basic idea differently.

Other items that cannot be copyrighted are discoveries and inventions, which can be given patent protection, and words, phrases, and symbols and designs used to identify the source of goods or services. Those can be given trademark protection.

Four mistaken ideas about copyright

Many people hear the term “public domain” and mistakenly believe that material that is on public display, such as material in blogs or websites, is OK to copy. That is not true. The term public domain has nothing to do with the accessibility of the material: it usually means any copyright on the material has expired.

Many people think that unless something bears a copyright notice they can duplicate and share the information freely. That is not true. Copyright legally exists as soon as a work is created and fixed in some tangible, perceptible form. It is not necessary for a work to be registered with the copyright office or even for the work to contain a copyright notice.

Some people mistakenly believe that they may copy material from the Internet as long as they don’t make any money from using the material. That is not true either.

Other people think as long as they share the material just with a few people, it is OK to copy it. That is definitely not true. Sharing copyrighted material with even one other person is an infringement of the copyright owner’s legal rights.

Fair use is limited to small portions

Under a provision of the copyright law called fair use, you or your students can legally reproduce a small portion of a copyrighted work in a review or a discussion of the work, such as a research paper. The law, however, does not define what a “small portion” is. Many scholars consider fair use to be less than 10 or 20 percent of the whole work, but copyright holders are not so generous.

It is safe to assume that anything which can be downloaded as a single item should not be copied and shared even with one other person without prior written permission of the copyright holder even if the name of the copyright holder is clearly displayed on the material. That means a single photograph, a single web page, a single PDF, a single cartoon or this single blog post should not be shared unless the user has secured the copyright holder’s permission in advance.

Hyperlink use is acceptable

It is acceptable to provide a hyperlink to copyrighted material without notifying the copyright holder in advance. That allows the copyright holder to retain control over the material, which is the purpose of copyright, while allowing others a way to incorporate the material in their work.

More information

The US copyright office website http://www.copyright.gov gives detailed information about the copyright law written in remarkably clear language. The site also has kid-friendly tutorial in comic-strip format, “Taking the Mystery out of Copyright.”

©2010 Linda G. Aragoni.

Short writing calms fears

My third semester as a graduate teaching assistant, one of the two sections of first year college writing I was assigned to teach was scheduled for 90 minutes starting at 4:15  p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.  

Nothing had prepared me for the problem I discovered the first session of that class.

The time slot attracted student athletes who needed Fridays for games and part-time local students who could adjust their work schedules to take the class. I anticipated this particular class might struggle more than most. The elimination of a third of the typical sessions would mean students would do 26 documents instead of the 39 I required from students who met three times a week. In addition, the twice-weekly students had more unavoidable demands on their time than were typical for first year students.

At the first class meeting, students, as always, filled the back seats first, with one exception: one male student took a seat at the front of the room beside the teacher’s desk. There was no one else within two seats of him. I thought he might have a vision or hearing problem.

I passed out the syllabus, gave my usual introduction about how in my writing courses everyone wrote every class period, and then asked everyone to take out a piece of paper and write for two minutes about what they hoped to get out of the class. When students bent to the task, the guy in the seat at the front broke out in a sweat and began to shake. He could barely hold on to his pen. He wasn’t acting. It was clear from his body language that he was terrified by the blank piece of paper.

I made an on-the-spot decision.

When the two minutes were up, I said, “Congratulations. You’ve just done your first timed writing.  From now on, you’ll be doing timed writing every class period so that you get used to forcing yourselves to write for short periods of time without stopping.”

Then I told students that probably none of them would go on to make their living as a writer, but that all of them would have to write. They wouldn’t have to write novels or poetry, but short, factual messages at work: a telephone message, a report about the failure of pump #2, or a request for vacation. I said I intended to prepare them for that kind of writing by requiring them to do at least one short piece of writing every class in anywhere from 30 seconds to five minutes by the clock.

I said that just as what they had to write at work was about something at work, what I’d required them to do in class every class period would be related to the work they had to accomplish in the class to get a passing grade. I said I expected them to write short, factual, useful messages in a couple minutes at least once, possibly several times, during class. “I don’t expect you to produce art. I expect you to produce accurate, concise, clear messages fast. If you can do that, you will not only do well in this class, but you’ll be able to write well in your work and in other classes you take.”

Then I picked up the trash can and said, “I’m going to pass around the trash can. Unless you want me to read what you wrote or unless to keep it as a memento of this happy occasion, throw your paper in the trash. Next class, we’ll start learning how to write fast, accurately, concisely, and clearly.”

I don’t remember anything else about the guy who was initially terrified of a blank piece of paper. By the end of the semester, he exhibited no more anxiety than anyone else, and he must have done OK because no one in the class earned less than a C.

©2022 LINDA GORTON ARAGONI

Nonfiction exemplar with wide appeal

Martin Doyle’s The Source

Photo of river is front cover of The Source.

After reading just the introduction to The Source, I wrote in my notebook that it “dramatically summarizes the role of rivers in language that’s very accessible and vivid. This guy writes incredibly well.”  

I’ve since read Martin Doyle’s entire book twice and my initial enthusiasm hasn’t diminished. I recommend you grab a copy to read and use in your writing courses.  Students interested in the environment, history, law, government, agriculture, and business would find value in The Source. If you’re so lucky as to have a budding journalist among your students, that person can also learn a great deal from The Source.

Why rivers matter to America

Doyle opens The Source with an explanation of why its rivers were so important to America in its first 50 years as a nation. He says “rivers are the defining feature of America” and  history played out on a landscape defined by rivers.” Doyle says although its rivers “shaped the very ideas of what America should be,” but “Americans changed their rivers.”

In the first section of The Source, Doyle shows how Federalism came to control such activities as river navigation and flood control. In the first chapter, Doyle points out the obvious fact (which I hope I’m not the only person never to have noticed) that there are no North-South rivers east of the Appalachians. Because of that, he says in the 18th and 19th centuries all east coast commerce was along rivers running West to East and thus was “conducted within single political ideologies.” Doyle also shows how the Erie Canal positioned New York to become the nation’s commercial hub and tied the northern states to the states West of the Appalachians instead of to Southern states.

From those river-bound facts, it was only a step to the War Between the States.

River-related decisions are controversial

In the first section of The Source, before they’ve read much more than 100 pages, readers have all the concepts they need to understand how its rivers were instrumental in shaping America’s history. They should certainly understand that having the federal government in charge of managing rivers—a decision that harks back to Thomas Jefferson’s basing the Army Corps of Engineers permanently at West Point to protect American commerce and to oversee “America’s river-related decisions”—means that sometimes flood control is managed or mismanaged by people who lack local knowledge of either threats or resources.

In the remaining four sections of The Source, Doyle looks at controversies that have arisen in the U.S. over use of its rivers and the different ways individuals, communities, and government bodies have chosen to use their rivers for everything from recreation to sewage disposal. What makes Doyle’s book unusual among the stacks of nonfiction books published each year is the way he brings his story down to the level at which ordinary readers—including your students—live.

Doyle puts technical topics into everyday language. He writes for interested non-experts, people who saw a story on TV or read a news article, but didn’t understand why a particular set of events happened. Even when Doyle is discussing technical topics, readers don’t need to stop on every page to look up some unfamiliar term that’s essential to understanding his message. Your students will appreciate that.

And Doyle clearly likes the people he writes about. He has a sense of humor that stops well short of ridiculing people whose opinions readers (and perhaps Doyle himself) might find a trifle wacky. Doyle directs the Water Policy Program at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy solutions and is a professor of river science and policy at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. The jacket notes for The Source don’t mention that Doyle also teaches writing, but you should mention it if you use The Source in a writing course or even if you just make it available for students to borrow.

The Source: How Rivers Made America and America Remade Its Rivers. Martin Doyle. W.W. Norton, 2018. 349 pp. including notes.  

I bought hardback copies of The Source from www.hamiltonbook.com for less than the cost of a Danielle Steele paperback. Copies were available 2022-03-17.

©2022 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Why did I laugh?

Some teachers I knew once taught in a school that required its secondary teachers to teach students about sexual harassment. To fulfill that obligation, one teacher gave students some reading to do at home and then gave them a short answer test. I was privileged to read some of the students’ responses to the test.

Asked to define sexual harassment, one student wrote, “sexual hairassment is unwanted sexual jesters or sex inurwindow.”

The teacher who showed me the test responses couldn’t understand why I laughed.

I hope you will understand and laugh, too.

©2022 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Informal writing prompt: no euthanasia on Facebook

A story on National Public Radio this morning suggested a 1-minute informal writing prompt about the correct placement of modifiers.

THE NPR report was about a 500-pound black bear called Hank the Tank who had broken into more than two dozen homes around South Lake Tahoe, CA, and was responsible for 152 incidents of  what the California Department of Fish and Wildlife call “conflict behavior.” Conflict behavior is what the CDFW says happens when a “severely food-habituated bear” like Hank breaks into people’s homes.

The NPR story reported that “the Bear Legacy, a local nonprofit that aims to protect bears, expressed its relief of Hank not being euthanized on Facebook.”

Informal writing prompt

Here’s how to turn that sentence from the NPR news story into an informal writing prompt. First, display and read the sentence:

The Bear Legacy, a local nonprofit that aims to protect bears, expressed its relief of Hank not being euthanized on Facebook.

DNA evidence shows Hand the Tank didn’t work alone. By Jonathan Franklin, February 24, 2022, NRP News

Next ask students to identify any parts of the sentence that doesn’t sound right to them. Tell them to write their response in no more than two sentences. Depending on your students’ ages, give them between 30 and 60 seconds to respond.

Depending on their literacy skills, students may notice any, all, or none of these problems:

  • The prepositional phrase on Facebook is misplaced. Facebook was where the bear protection group expressed their relief.
  • It is unlikely that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife would have posted to Facebook a video of an animal being euthanized or even a photo of a euthanized bear.
  • Relief of Hank not being euthanized should be relief that Hank wasn’t euthanized.  

Wrap up the informal writing by giving students 30 seconds to write one thing they learned from examining the sentence.

©2022 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Link your stories to students’ lives

Through LinkedIn, I met a graduate student who coordinates the Gerontology Student Association meetings at the University of Southern California. She was intrigued that I am writing books about nursing home visiting and thought other students would also be interested in my experience and perspectives. She invited me to talk to the group via Zoom this past Tuesday.

I organized my presentation in terms of three historical periods—the Baby Boom era of 1945-1970, the Vietnam Era of 1970-1995, and what I call “the Angry Era,” 1995-2020—and the newly-launched Epidemic Era, which will last longer than I will.

The online session was a vivid reminder why I miss teaching college students. On Zoom, I could see them processing what I was saying: it was almost as if students’ skulls were transparent.

What made their eyes light up with an “oh, yeah, I see that” expression were stories about what people did in response to historical events.

As teachers, I fear we often forget that ever since there have been people, those people have learned through stories about their world, how it functions, and how other people in it are likely to behave. People forget facts; they rarely forget how facts affected them. The affect of facts become the stories of a person’s life.

I revisit my teaching in terms of stories.

As I think back on my teaching experiences, I remember stories.

I remember the little boy in the class of multiply handicapped children who banged his leg braces on the floor and yelled with glee, “See what Wuss dooze!” as his hyperactive buddy named Russell, whose birth defect that prevented him from speaking but didn’t keep him from exploring, investigated every aspect of the classroom.

I remember the college freshman who literally broke into a sweat and shook when he was faced with a blank piece of paper. And I remember the story I concocted to get him to write without letting any of the other students notice he had a problem. The class was at 4 p.m. and most students were coming from work so I had the entire class write at the beginning of each class about whatever was on their minds for one minute without stopping , starting with 3×5-inch pieces of paper.

Like me, you also probably remember stories about students you taught far better than your remember their names.

As you prepare to teach future classes, keep alert to opportunities to tell students stories that will fix some important aspect of your material in students’ minds so it can’t readily shake loose. Your students will remember stories you used as teaching tools far better than they will remember facts you tried to drill into their noggins.

I’m going to remember the story Yingxue, my USC gerontology student hostess, told me about how the Chinese traditionally make a peach-shaped, steamed cake with red bean paste for older adults as a birthday gift. For my birthday, which happened to fall on the day of my presentation, Yingxue, drew me this cartoon representation of the Chinese god of longevity, 寿星 (Shou Xing), who holds a peach.

That’s a story and a gift I’m not likely to forget soon.

©2022 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Nonfiction that’s not for everyone

Every quarter I recommend nonfiction books that a substantial number of high school and first-year college students would find intriguing enough to pick up and informative enough to read. In the process of selecting those books,  I end up with a stack of books I’ve bought  that aren’t a good fit for the majority students, but which are nonetheless good reading.

Here’s are three books I read this academic year that are not on-target for most students, but which some teachers and/or their students may find compelling reading.

3 literary nonfiction books

In My Hands

In My Hands: Compelling Stories from a Surgeon and His Patients Fighting Cancer by Stephen A. Curley, MD, FACS. Center Street, ©2018. 285 p.

In My Hands might be a good choice for student eying medical careers. Dr. Curley comes across as a personable, caring individual. He makes his patients real, too. Curley writes well but his subject matter involves many long and unfamiliar medical terms. Some chapters appear to have been edited to reduce the number of such terms; others bristle with them. Chapters  run about 10 pages.

Go Back Where You Came From

Go Back Where You Came From: The Backlash Against Immigration and the Fate of Western Democracy. Sasha Polakow-Suransky. Nation Books, ©2017. 358 p.

In Go Back Where You Came From, Sasha Polakow-Suransky traces how America, whose history is the history of immigrant groups, has become anti-immigrant. Polakow-Suransky is a very good writer, but his subject is both complicated and emotionally charged. This isn’t a book for people who get their news in sound-bites or Tweets. A few students—particularly those who are either immigrants or children of immigrants of the last quarter century—will find this book insightful.

Mill Town

Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains. Kerri Arsenault. St. Martin’s Press. ©2020. 354 p.

Mill Town is a book that should have sold better than Unsafe at Any Speed, but which few readers will even wade through. It’s a prime example of why reporters are trained to lead with their most significant information.

Author Kerri Arsenault grew up in Mexico, Maine, a town dominated by a paper mill that provided jobs for most people in the area for over a century. Arsenault discovers in chapter 16—long after readers have been bore by irrelevant information—that the Environmental Protection Agency shelved cancer risk reports that showed the dioxin produced by paper mills and washed downstream appears in meat, fish, butter, and milk at levels that so far exceed government standards “even one simple hamburger could do a person harm.”

I still have a stack of books that some teachers and students will find good reading. Those can wait for another day.

©2022 Linda Gorton Aragoni        

Teach writing in 1 hour via military tactics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2022 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Murder, mail, & math tables

3 literary nonfiction reading options

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

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

Conan Doyle for the Defense

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

Conan Doyle once played Sherlock Homes.

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

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

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

How the Post Office Created America

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

Horsepower delivered early America’s mail.

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

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

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

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

The Rise of the Rocket Girls

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

Women behind the space program.

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

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

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

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

A note about book sources

 I bought all these books from HamiltonBook.com. They offer deep discounts on books that have been in print a few years. All items are new, and all the books are hardbound unless marked otherwise. Hamilton Book has a flat postage and handling fee of $4 for an order of up to 18 books.

© 2022 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Spot the misspelling

Two informal writing prompts using found messages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni