Three types of nonfiction

discarded books on the pavement
Not every nonfiction book is literary nonfiction. Some are trash.

English teachers have a problem with nonfiction: They think it’s boring. Frankly, a great deal of nonfiction is boring because it was never intended to be useful or interesting: It exists just to document forgettable facts.

An insurance policy and some of your school superintendent’s memos are boring because their entire purpose is to record information that you’d forget immediately if you just heard it. Such nonfiction accomplishes its goal if you receive the paper so you could look up the information later if you need it. It can be boring because nobody actually reads it.

All nonfiction for ELA classes should be useful

The nonfiction we have students read and write in English Language Arts classes ought to be an entirely different species of writing than the forgettable facts documents.

The nonfiction for class use needs to be useful, memorable, and factual.  Facts are the protoplasm of all nonfiction.

Nonfiction is presented by the writer as a factual record. Although a writer might not have had all the facts or may have inaccurately presented the facts, readers should assume that the writer is telling the truth as far as she knew it at the time she wrote it.

You must teach students that just because someone wrote a nonfiction text does not mean the author approves of or agrees with the beliefs or actions shown in that text. Some authors deliberately write about ideas with which they disagree. That’s those authors’ way of trying to understand how anyone could hold those ideas.

Practical nonfiction is useful information

Cover of "What Great Teachers Do Differently"
An informational nonfiction text.

One species of nonfiction our students need to be able to read  is what Sol Stein calls practical nonfiction. It’s purpose is to convey information so that readers can put it to use. Practical nonfiction is also the kind of writing you and I and our students are required to do, and thus it is the kind of writing you and I are required to teach.

A report on the success (or lack thereof) of the latest marketing campaign is an example of practical nonfiction. So is a book on how to clean your house in 15 minutes a day and an article in the Sunday newspaper about the potential uses the city council has identified for the old knitting mill property.

Each of those nonfiction pieces provides information which the recipient is expected to act upon in some way. The action might be to design a totally different marketing plan, or clean house in 15 minutes a day, or vote either to retain the current city council or throw the bums out.

Most of the nonfiction in newspapers, magazines, and books is practical nonfiction. Practical nonfiction is a several notches above useless nonfiction, but it’s still pretty prosaic stuff.

Literary nonfiction is alluring

3 literary nonfiction books
These literary nonfiction books are described in an April 5, 2019 blog post.

Literary nonfiction is totally different from the other two uses of nonfiction.
Literary nonfiction tells a true story. It presents unaltered facts about real people, real places and real events using the scene-creating and story-telling techniques of fiction to draw readers into being interested in a topic in which they had no previous interest.

Literary nonfiction is much more difficult to do well than fiction. Literary nonfiction is held simultaneously to two very different standards and must meet both of them.

First, it must be nonfiction and, as such, it is assessed by journalistic standards. That means, information in literary nonfiction must be documented facts that can be verified by independent sources. There can be no invented sources, no fabricated quotes. The literary nonfiction writer has to stick to facts. And one-source stories aren’t acceptable.

Although the literary nonfiction writer is denied the option of making things up, she’s required to set the story in scenes—at specific times in specific places—which are described well enough that readers understand how the time and place impacted the characters.

The literary nonfiction writer also has to use fictional techniques such as dialogue and carefully selected details to develop the story’s characters. That’s where the nonfiction writer must exercise creativity to bring alive revealing scenes without falsifying facts or inventing language.

Teach both practical and literary nonfiction

You and I need to teach students to write practical nonfiction. Every student will be required to write practical nonfiction.

We should teach our students to read literary nonfiction. Literary nonfiction has the ability to make people interested in topics that they would not have suspected would interest them.

Literary nonfiction can open the world to students.

And it can open students to the world.

Markus Clemens

Nobody minds. Or do they?

A formal writing prompt

As a writing prompt starter today, I have a quote from Jane Austen.  I was reminded of it while reading a John Grisham novel about a Klansman who bombed a Jewish lawyer’s office in 1967.

Sometimes the way my mind works is downright scary.

Introduction to the writing prompt

In her novel Mansfield Park, Jane Austen writes “Nobody minds having what is too good for them.” Think about that.

  • What does it mean to have “something that’s too good for you”?
  • What kinds of things might be said to be “too good for” another person?
  • What does the phrase “too good for you” imply about the relationship between the person speaking and the person being spoken to?

Identify situations in which person A had something that person B regarded as too good for person A. Choose three such situations including at least two of these three types:

  1. A situation in which you were personally involved
  2. A situation you saw in person or on a TV/movie screen
  3. A situation you read about in a piece of literature.

The writing prompt itself

In an informative/expository text, discuss whether Jane Austen is correct when she says, “Nobody minds having what is too good for them.”

Support your opinion by describing three situations chosen from the numbered list in the introduction in which the person who has “something too good for them” is either content or discontent with his/her situation. Be sure you include the correct titles of published works to which you refer.

Please limit your text to [number] words. Your assignment is due [date].

Suggestions for success

You have three options in responding to this prompt. You can:

  • Agree totally with Austen’s comment
  • Disagree totally with Austen’s comment
  • Say that circumstances determine whether she is right or wrong.

Be cautious if any of your examples that might be embarrassing to someone your readers are likely to know. Providing you tell your readers you changed the names, it’s OK to use fictitious names.

Suggestions for teachers

This prompt would tie in nicely with a discussion of figurative language.

Instead of hoping students read the complete prompt, you may want to give students the three questions in its introduction as informal writing prompts before you distribute the assignment. That way you can be sure the entire class read the introduction.

You may want to limit the students’ choices of situations to tie them more closely to your syllabus.

Teach metaphors using informal writing

Being able to unpack metaphors is essential to reading anything more complicated than Dick and Jane books. Bright students who are exposed to literature from an early age pick up that skill. Others, equally bright, who grow up in homes without reading material other than the backs of cereal boxes need to be taught.

That teaching is your job.

Instead of giving a reading assignment about metaphors or lecturing about metaphors, I suggest you use the sink-or-swim approach: Give students an example of a metaphor and have them write an analysis of it in class before you even mention the word metaphor.

Below are step-by-step directions to show you how to set up a short lesson using informal writing to keep students engaged.

Informal writing prompt 1

Here’s what you tell students:

Dolores is older than she looks.

I’m going to show you a quote from a novel by Stephen King. You may not know Stephen King’s name, but you probably have seen films based on King’s books, such as The Shawshank Redemption, It, Pet Sematary, and Misery.

The name of the novel the quote comes from is Dolores Claiborne. In the book, Dolores is under suspicion for the murder of her employer, an elderly woman who left her fortune to Dolores. The entire book is what Dolores tells investigators.  Here is something Dolores says near the end of the book:

“…most of what bein human’s about is makin choices and payin the bills when they come due.”

In no more than three sentences, explain what Dolores means. You have two minutes to write.

Class discussion of part 1

After students have written their explanations, they will be ready for class discussion about what they wrote. Ask/get students to say:

  • What bills does Dolores mean? (duck bills, dollar bills, advertising posters, drafts of proposed legislation, the Buffalo Bills…)
  • How did you decide which kind of bill Dolores meant?
  • What do choices have to do with bills?
  • What do bills and choices have to do with being human?

Allow up to 5 minutes for this discussion

Informal writing prompt 2

Here’s what you say:

Now that you’ve discussed Dolores’s comment, write one sentence that says in different words what she meant. You have 30 seconds to write.

Allow 1-2 minutes for oral sharing.

Informal writing prompt  3

Here’s what you say:

Why do you suppose Stephen King has Dolores phrase her comment in terms of making choices and paying bills? Please respond in no more than three sentences. You have one minute to write.

Segue to teach about metaphors

Here’s what you must cover:

  • Metaphors are comparisons that imply that this thing is like that thing.
  • Metaphors are different from similes.
  • Similes are comparisons that say clearly this is like that.
  • Metaphors depend on the connotation of words—their emotional and cultural connections—to convey their meaning.

After you’ve presented that information, have students go back to the Dolores Claiborne quote again and do a final informal writing.

Informal writing prompt 4

This final prompt requires students to pull information from the earlier writing and discussion.

Here’s what you say

(NOTE: If necessary, adjust the terms in the first sentence to correspond with the terms your students used in their oral comments.)

As you’ve discussed today, Dolores says being human means taking responsibility for your choices, but she uses metaphors for the terms responsibility and choice/choosing. As I explained, metaphors depend on their connotations—the emotions and cultural connections that those words set up.

In no more than four sentences, explain:

  • How do the connotations of the term make a choice differ from the connotation of the term take responsibility?
  • How do the connotations of the term pay the bill differ from the connotation of the term take responsibility?

You have two minutes to write.

What’s next?

You may want to spend some more class time discussing students’ responses to the question about connotations of the terms. Personally, I’d probably collect the informal writing so I could see each student’s work and move to a different activity for the rest of the period. Students require multiple exposures to the concept of metaphor before they can recognize a metaphor, let alone unravel it’s meaning. Multiple mini-lessons over weeks are more effective than one lesson, even if the lesson is splendid.

Miscellaneous suggestions

I recommend that you use whatever technology you have so that students can see the writing prompts. I highly recommend that you read the actual prompt aloud while you display it for students. That’s for the kid who has trouble with distance vision and the one who has trouble reading.

Time the writing. If possible, use a timer with an audible tick. You want to get students in the habit of working against the clock. The poorest writers are the slowest off the starting block and waste the most time. The audible tick helps to make them aware they are wasting time.

Collect informal writing at the end of the activity or class. Review it. It’s your feedback on how well you taught.

Trivia

Dolores Claiborne was the bestselling novel in America in 1992; it was made into a film three years later. My review of Dolores Claiborne is scheduled for March 14, 2020 at GreatPenformances. Spoiler alert: I give it an A.

Literary nonfiction about slavery, Africa and ethics

covers of 3 works of literary fiction
Recommended literary nonfiction reading for 2019 third quarter

Each quarter I post brief reviews of a few books of literary nonfiction that I think teachers could use in English Language Arts classes. Some of the works have logical tie-ins with required courses in other disciplines; others would pair nicely with fictional works that tackle some of the same issues.

Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston. Amistad: 2018. 171 p. (Note: Some copies have an alternate subtitle, “The story of the last ‘black cargo.'”
Photo of Cudjo Lewis on front coverver of Barraccoon
Barracoon
contains the first-person story of Cudjo Lewis, the last known surviving African from the last American slave ship to bring human cargo to America for sale. The slender volume tells his tale in the man’s own words, as recorded by author Zora Neale Hurston in 1927 and 1928, when Cudjo was 67 years old.

Hurston draws from Cudjo the story of his life in Africa, his enslavement, the Atlantic crossing, his experiences as a slave laborer. She uses spelling that recreates Cudjo’s pronunciation, which takes a little getting used to, but isn’t difficult to decipher.

Cudjo tells of his joy at Emancipation after he’d been enslaved five-and-half years and his grief to realize he couldn’t go back home. He talks about his life and his family in Alabama.

Besides Cudjo’s first-person account, which occupies about 100 pages, the book includes an introduction which provides information about the voyage of the Clotilda, which brought Cudjo to America, stories that Cudjo told Hurston, and a glossary.

Hurston’s first-person narrative could be paired with the author’s 1937 novel Their Eyes We Watching God, which is written from a former female slave’s point of view.  It might also be paired with Thomas Dixon Jr.’s historically significant novel The Clansman.

Blood River by Tim Butcher

Blood River: The Terrifying Journey Through the World’s Most Dangerous Country by Tim Butcher. Grove Press. 2008. 363 p.Man paddles canoe in photo superinposed on map of the Congo River

Blood River is a work of literary nonfiction that John le Carré described as “a masterpiece.”

It’s author, Tim Butcher, had just been appointed Africa Correspondent for Britain’s Daily Telegraph in 2000 when he read that the Telegraph had sent another reporter, Henry Morton Stanley of “Mr. Livingstone, I presume?” fame, to Africa more than a century earlier. That slim personal connection inspired Butcher to retrace Stanley’s more significant but now almost forgotten four-year achievement: mapping the nearly 3000-mile Congo River.

Though warned the journey is suicidal, Butcher persists. He’s arranged for a protector who turns out to be a pygmy, five feet tall and half Butcher’s weight. That’s just the first of many frightening surprises that awaited the author. By his own admission, Butcher is no macho strong guy. He is persistent, however, and quite willing to follow orders from people who know more than he does.

The Congo flows through country that in the year 2000 is far less modern than it was when Stanley was there in the 1870s. During his 44 days of travel, he visits places Stanley visited, compares what he sees to Stanley’s photographs of the same places, and tells what happened to cause the regression.

Butcher obviously did his homework before he went on the trip. There’s a wealth of information in Blood River. He writes knowledgeably about the Congo’s plant and animal life, relates stories about Joseph Conrad’s experience in the Congo, and points out places where events in The African Queen were filmed.

Blood River could be paired with Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness; both are set in the same location just about 100 years apart. Blood River explains that some historical detail that Conrad’s critics thought he made up when he wrote Heart of Darkness were actually true.

Ethical Wisdom by Mark Matousek

Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good by Mark Matousek. Doubleday. 2011. 251 p.
a two-faced angel-demon image at center of front cover
Two-faced, two-minded

At age eight, when his mother gave him a blue coat which he knew she stole, Mark Matousek began a life-long quest to discover the ultimate truth: How should we live?

In Ethical Wisdom, Matousek blends research from the fields of the hard sciences and social sciences, with ideas from writers and philosophers to explain why humans do what they do.

The title not withstanding, the volume is less about what people ought to do than it is about what they actually do. Much of what Matousek has to say is directly related to human communication.  For example, he explains that “Self-control depends on language,” but shows that emotions are caught rather than linguistically transmitted.

His focus on communications  is a primary reason to use Matousek’s volume in an ELA classroom. A second reason to use it is that Matousek writes well, with careful attention to words that convey both his literal and emotional meaning. But Matousek is definitely not a typical stuffy, textbookish author: Even his bibliography is set up to be readily accessible.

The first three sections of Matousek’s book have enough hard data to be used as reading for both humanities and social science courses, if, for example, you are in a setting where students are taking courses for dual enrollment credits. The sections four and five have little scientific unpinning. They are primarily Matousek’s personal beliefs, derived largely from Eastern religions traditions. I’d not require students to read those two sections.

Most chapters in the book are under 10 pages. Finding complementary long or short fiction for students to read on topics discussed in the first three sections of  Ethical Wisdom would not be difficult.

Nature and human nature: a writing prompt

In the last two weeks, Hurricane Dorian displayed the awesome power of Nature and triggered displays of human nature, some of which were less than awesome.

Thinking about what we’ve watched on the news suggests an English language arts writing prompt that is timely but won’t go out of date.

The formal writing prompt

Here’s the core of a formal writing prompt on natural and human-aided disasters:

John C. Mutter writes in his book The Disaster Profiteers, “It is human nature more than Nature that makes disasters so terrible.”

Thinking of a natural disaster that’s occurred in the last 24 months, use digital and print news sources to explore how human nature compounded the effects of the natural consequences.

Write an informative/explanatory text in which you support Mutter’s assertion that, “It is human nature more than Nature that makes disasters so terrible.”

Format your response for reading as a digital document. Please keep your text to under 650 words.

By way of additional help, I suggest you tell students they must:

    • include their definition of human nature.
    • use both print and digital sources
    • include live links to your sources
    • summarize information to which you refer except for brief quotation of strikingly effective language.

Appropriate uses for this formal writing prompt

This prompt would be appropriate for students reading Mutter’s book, a literary nonfiction work I’ve recommended here earlier. It would also be a good prompt for students studying research and source use.

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Educational objectives: A definition

Every teacher has heard of what’s commonly called “Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives.” I’ll bet you’ve never heard anyone say how the Taxonomy defines an educational objective.

Here’s what the text says on page 26:

By educational objectives, we mean explicit formulations of the ways in which students are expected to be changed by the educational process. That is, the ways in which they will change their thinking, their feelings, and their actions.

What are your educational objectives for your writing courses?

How do you expect your writing course to change your students’ thinking?

How do you expect your writing course to change your students’ feelings?

How do you expect your writing course to change your students’ actions?

Note: You will be tested over this material every day for the entire course.

Make certainty part of opening week

Getting students off to a good start in a writing class means helping them set realistic expectations for the course. A quotation I copied from Carol Graham’s book Happiness for All? tells one good reason why we need to tell our students what we expect of them and what they can expect of us:

While individuals seem to be able to adapt to unpleasant certainty…they are much less able to adapt to change and uncertainty, even that which is associated with progress.

Most of my students enter my writing classes dreading it. I rarely  (actually never) turn any of them into writing enthusiasts in the first session, but I do change their uncertainty about what the course will entail to certainty.

Just as Graham says, my students are able to adapt to “unpleasant certainty” reasonably well. And in doing that, they are able to make progress toward writing competently.

Set students’ sights on successful year

As signs in every store window remind you, it’s back to school time.

Educational psychologists tell us that if we want students to do well at some task, it’s helpful to get them to envision themselves succeeding at that task.

So, as you prepare for the new school year, use an opening week writing prompt to prepare your students to do well this year.

In his 1982 novel Space, novelist James A. Michener makes this observation:

People make themselves capable.

Turn those four words into a short,  formal writing prompt in which your students must describe how they plan in your class to make themselves capable of doing one particular academic task in the 2019-2020 school year. The task could be anything from no longer confusing its with it’s, or mastering MLA citation style, learning how to respond to essay test questions, or mastering touch typing.

Without too much effort, you can make the writing prompt work as both an attitude adjustment and an assessment of your students’ writing level, including identifying some of their habitual, serious errors.

Put a note on your calendar to have students write an assessment during the last month of the school year of how well they succeeded.

Here are a few bits of Michener’s biography that you might want to share with your students.

Michener was raised by foster parents. He didn’t know who his biological parents were. Even his birthdate is a guess.

After high school, Michener won a scholarship to Swathmore College where he graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and history and a Phi Beta Kappa Key. Then he went on to study art in Scotland, London and Italy.

During the Great Depression, Michener was an English teacher.

He volunteered for the U.S. Navy in 1942. After the World War II, he turned his navy experiences into Tales of the South Pacific, which won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and became a successful musical.

Michener went on to write more than 40 other books, notable for their meticulous research.

During his lifetime, Michener’s books sold more than 75 million copies. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. His money helped establish the The James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown PA. He was active in politics and published a book in 1969 about the electoral college system, which was reprinted in 2016.

Related: My best teaching idea: Starting each course by introducing myself as a writer and having each of my students introduce themselves as writers. Naturally, we do it all in writing.

A key question for writers: What’s missing?

jig saw puzzle with one item missing
Notice anything missing?

Writing teachers are supposed to teach students to  edit their own work. Sometimes we treat the task as nothing more than having students correcting misspellings and put commas in the right places. But the most important part of teaching editing is teaching students to ask what’s missing from their texts.

This week I was reminded of the necessity  of teaching writers to make sure they have not omitted any  information readers must have to understand their texts.

Tuesday  I picked up a copy of a free publication put out by a regional newspaper trying to drum up local readers. The banner story was about a business that is trying to get the local zoning law changed so it can be included in the commercial zone.

The most interesting part of the story was what wasn’t there: It didn’t say where the business is located.

In any zoning dispute, the location of the property is the central issue. Leaving it out of a news story is like reporting on the Kentucky Derby and not mentioning horses.

I know from experience with newly-hatched journalism graduates that they may need to report one or more stories a day for a year before they learn to automatically include the basic Five Ws and an H in each story: who, what, where, when, why, and how?

As a newspaper editor, I would never have described seeing a novice writer’s work every single day as a luxury, but it is. We writing teachers may see one document a week from our students. That’s nowhere near enough output for students to learn the necessity of editing their own work for errors of omission.

As a newspaper editor, I probably had more opportunities in one month to teach reporters to make sure they hadn’t left out any information that readers needed to understand the story than a writing teacher gets in a full semester.

If we value our reputations, we shouldn’t wait until students have mastered the writing process before we start teaching them how to edit for missing essential information.

We need to teach our students to:

  • plan their writing so it includes all the essential information
  • compare their draft texts to their plan
  • repair the draft so any missing information is included.

If we start early enough teaching students  to plan, check, and recheck their work so they omit no essential information, we at least stand a chance of turning out writers who can edit their own work and do so routinely.