The challenge of challenging students: Have you met it?

I had a doctor’s appointment Tuesday. From the entry, I could see a woman, probably in her early twenties, wearing a Covid-protective mask and face shield, seated at a table in the hallway. The woman recorded my name, the purpose of my visit, took my temperature, and sent me on to the doctor’s receptionist. I couldn’t help thinking the woman’s job could be done by a reasonably intelligent fifth grader. She must be bored nearly to tears.

After my appointment, I noticed that the clerk who had signed me in had a tablet on her desk propped up at reading angle. As I zipped up my coat, I asked her what she liked to read, and she said fantasy fiction was what she most enjoyed. She’d just finished a fantasy novel and didn’t have anything else on her device to read.

Lady in Civil War era hat and dress
Paperback edition of the novel

I said I’m not a big fan of fantasy fiction, and that I’m currently rereading a 1980s novel that had fascinated me when I read it as part of my GreatPenformances survey of the twentieth century’s bestselling fiction: Helen Hooven Santmyer’s  “…And Ladies of the Club.”  It’s a novel about a dozen women in a small southern Ohio town between the Civil War and FDR’s election in 1932, their families, and about how America and Americans changed over those decades.

“…And Ladies of the Club” is over 1,000 pages of small print. It’s not difficult reading, I told the clerk, but it does require you to pay close attention. I’ve found I need to draw family tree diagrams to keep the characters straight. The book fascinates me not only because it’s about a rural community that wouldn’t have been very different from our village in the same period, but also because so much of the national politics of the period sound very much like the political news we get on TV every day.

When I finished my book pitch, the clerk surprised me by asking, “What’s that title again?”  She wrote down the title and the author’s name and said she thought she’d like to read that book.

I’d gotten lucky.

I hadn’t recommended a book the clerk would enjoy: I’d unwittingly offered her a challenge, a book that would require all the mental skills she didn’t need to use in her clerical job. She could accept the challenge or not as she chose.

For me, the most difficult part of teaching teens and adults is identifying challenges for each student that they accept as having personal relevance to them. I wish I knew a sure-fire, never-known-to-fail way to produce personally challenging writing activities for each of my students, but I don’t. For me, it’s always a lucky shot, hit-or-miss, never “results guaranteed.”

What about you? Have you mastered the challenge of providing appropriate challenges to teens and adult students? If so, would you share your insights?

©2021 Linda G. Aragoni

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

 

 

When is more practice all that’s needed?

Ball player and musician each practicing .
What’s the point at which practice will improve writing skill all by itself?

Underlying most educational programs is an assumption that beyond a certain point all that’s necessary for students to become better at that subject is more practice. Whether or not that assumption is true across the curriculum is debatable, but I find the premise useful in teaching writing.

Students don’t need to know a lot of stuff in order to learn to write nonfiction. Most of what they need to know is really about how to plan a piece of writing. Unlike something like grammar, where the rules are the same for every sentence, planning a piece of writing is tough because very writing assignment is different. That’s why learning to write seems like such a long slog for students and their teachers. But once students master the skill of identifying a single assertion to discuss and picking three reasons why that assertion is true, they’re two-thirds of the way to being able to pull together a document that focuses on that single assertion and mostly makes sense.

I know that even in a half year course that meets three full hours a week in person or online, I can’t get a group of adult students to all write comfortably. A couple students may have enough previous experience to write quite well, but the majority will still have to push themselves to complete each writing assignment. The best I can do—what I’ve decided must be my goal—is for each student to write three competent papers in a row.

When a student can write three consecutive papers that are competent work, that tells me that all that student needs get better at writing is more practice. They don’t need me any more. They can get that writing practice in other courses and in other subjects.

What for you is the point at which all your students need only more practice—without additional input from you—in order to become better writers? Define that point and you’ve defined your goal as a writing teacher.

When you reach that goal post, you’ll no longer have to drive students through the basics. Instead, you’ll be able to talk to each student as one writer to another. That’s when teaching writing becomes fun.

©2020  Linda G. Aragoni

Wandering modifiers, wondering readers

Head of person with superimposed question mark
What’s this supposed to say>

One of the few bright spots in the current political turbulence is the way misplaced modifier production has ramped up. I collect those that amuse me and often have students attempt to figure out what the writer intended to say, where the writer messed up, and, if possible, revise the sentence to fix the problem.

Here are three that other teachers might want to have their students attempt to untangle:

“Karl Rove gently explains that Joe Biden beat Trump in Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal.”

“After making landfall in Cuba early Sunday, Florida now faces storm surges of up to four feet.”

“While he said testing can help, former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb cautioned against holiday gatherings and encouraged the use of high quality masks during an interview on Face the Nation on Sunday.”

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Feedback is only half of teaching writing

Until students write competently, most teacher feedback is usually more of a hindrance than a help. That’s not because the advice is bad, but because the writers are already drowning in advice that they aren’t yet capable of following. What keeps a student from writing better isn’t lack of information; it’s lack of practice.

Like beginning basketball players or beginning clarinet players, beginning writers know basically what to do, but they don’t know how to get their eyes, ears, muscles, and brain working together to make it happen. Giving feedback is no substitute for giving students adequate time to practice writing.

Students need both.

Ball player and musician each practicing .
The best advice is worthless without practice in applying it.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Teaching writing online: Three practices that work

If you’ve been required to become an online writing teacher during the Covid pandemic, the difficulty of teaching students to write in an online class may have driven you to the point of despair.

I know that feeling all too well.

In recent years, I’ve typically been expected to provide an entire writing course online to employed adults in eight weeks. A writing course should provide a minimum of 100 hours of actual writing practice to get students to the point at which all that’s required for them to continue improving their writing skills is more practice. It is clearly impossible for me to give my students that amount of writing practice within an eight week period: They would need nearly two hours of free time a day to accomplish it.

In order to get anywhere near the minimum amount of practice, I’ve developed unorthodox procedures to eliminate any activities that are not absolutely necessary and give students as many hours of actual writing practice as I can possibly cram into eight weeks. The process is flexible, easy-to-learn, and it works for all kinds of expository nonfiction writing: It’s the process I’ve used for newspaper reporting, magazine articles, nonfiction books and what is politely called ephemera. (You may refer to ephemera as junk mail, but you won’t sound nearly as well-educated.)

You can reduce the stress of online teaching by adopting three of my practices. They’re equally applicable to teaching students grades seven through 12 as they are to teaching college students.

Here are three strategies that enable me to give students a maximum of writing experience in a minimum amount of time.

1. Don’t use traditional textbooks.

Icon represents textbooks
Teach writing without textbooks.

In lieu of a textbook, I have a list of eight writing strategies for expository writers. My list condenses what students must learn to do into eight imperative sentences, none longer than five words.

By learn, I mean not only that students memorize the 34-words list, but that they also are able to apply the concepts and skills inherent in those strategies to different expository writing situations. In some writing situations students encounter, they won’t be able to apply the strategies in their pure form, so they must understand the objectives of the strategies well enough to be able to accomplish them via some non-standard method.

If you’ve seen old films about World War II, you may recall situations in which the good guys in a risky situation have to devise a new way of achieving an objective. Soldiers might have needed to blow up a bridge, but they couldn’t accomplish that objective in the way they’d practiced, so they had to improvise to make use of resources at hand. A similar ability to improvise to achieve a writing objective when the actual writing situation is different from the “typical writing situation” is what I mean when I say students know the eight strategies.

2. Limit learners to prompts you assign.

one-way sign
Limit students to your choice of prompts.

I don’t allow a great deal of learner choice in the way you probably would define the term. All my writing assignments require expository nonfiction writing on communications-related topics. That’s how I give students authentic “English class” topics and still provide a way for them to bring in their out-of-class experiences. 

One of the writing prompts in my PenPrompts collection Ready, Set, Write for not-yet-competent writers is this:

“In an I/E text, discuss 2 to 5 words used to change public perception of some topic, issue, or product in each of three fields of human endeavor.”

Word choices are definitely an English class topic. My writing prompt allows students to draw on both their in-school and their out-of-school knowledge to identify fields in which the choice of terms affects public perception. This year, politics would probably be on most students’ lists. Other fields where word choices matter include such different fields as sales and marketing, education, science, law, economics, real estate, and teaching.

3. Provide everything writers need in one place.

a double-sided sheet of paper
Put all students need in one place.

All the formal writing prompts I assign to students I embed  in a self-contained writing lesson that’s rarely longer than both sides of a single sheet of paper. In lieu of having students look things up in textbooks, each lesson gives students all the information they need to get started on the assignment. For not-yet-competent writers that includes a working thesis that responds to the prompt and a writing skeleton™ so they can quickly “prime their brains” to notice information that may be relevant to their assignment. As they do each assignment, that writing prompt’s lesson drags them through a single  problem-solving process that is repeated in greater or lesser detail in each writing prompt’s lesson material.

A few final words.

I’ve been fortunate so far in being provided with learning management systems to use in teaching writing online rather being required to use a business presentation technology. My students and I have communicated entirely in writing, so every student-teacher interaction reinforced the need to communicate clearly in writing. If you are stuck with Zoom or some other program developed for oral presentations rather than for online teaching and learning, you will have much more difficulty teaching writing online and students will have much more difficulty learning to write in the online environment. I wish that were not the case, but that’s reality.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

What’s your evidence, Mr. Candidate?

I didn’t see last night’s debate between President Donald Trump and his challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, but when I scanned this morning’s headlines, I got an idea for a writing activity that might be useful in both English and/or social studies classes.

Whitered and blue rectangles representing Trump and Biden
Fill in the arguments each candidate made.

Here’s what I propose: Outline the arguments

Have teens and adult students analyze both candidates’ responses to one of the questions moderator Kristen Welker posted to the candidates and build a skeleton outline™ for each candidate’s response. The skeletons could follow this pattern:

Working thesis: I know Trump/Biden has a plan to protect Americans who could lose their health insurance if the Supreme Court overturns the Affordable Care Art.

1. I know Trump/Biden has a plan to protect Americans who could lose their health insurance if the Supreme Court overturns the Affordable Care Art because he said [ this] in the presidential debate 2020-10-22.

2. I know Trump/Biden has a plan to protect Americans who could lose their health insurance if the Supreme Court overturns the Affordable Care Art because he said [ this] in the presidential debate 2020-10-22.

3. I know Trump/Biden has a plan to protect Americans who could lose their health insurance if the Supreme Court overturns the Affordable Care Art because he said [ this] in the presidential debate 2020-10-22.

Here’s how to set up the activity

  1. Give teens and adult students one (or a choice of no more than three) sets of moderator Kristen Welker’s questions to the candidates in the October 23, 2020 debate.
  2. Have students look in the transcript for Welker’s questions and the candidates’ responses on one of the eight major topics. (Here’s a shortlink to the transcript: https://yctw.click/DTJBdebate)
  3. Tell students to copy (Ctrl C) the entire section of the transcript between the starting comment in that thread and the last one. (The last one will be the paragraph above the next topic.)
  4. Tell students to paste the material they copied into a Word document or other writing program file, so they can manipulate the text. Because they’re going to chop up the text, they might want to make two copies right away so that have a full copy in addition to the manipulated copy.
  5. Have students examine the candidates’ responses to the question (including to follow-up questions from the moderator and unsolicited comments offered by the candidates.) To make that task easier, tell students they can delete from the Word document they created anything a candidate says that doesn’t seem to respond to the question the moderator asked them.
  6. From their analysis of what’s left—the material that seems to respond to the question—have students write two skeleton outlines, each one summarizing one candidate’s position on that topic.

Debate topics and their transcript locations

In each of the debate topics below, I’ve enclosed a term within less than < and greater than > signs that can be used to search the transcript for the start of that topic.

Leadership in the Chronavirus epidemic (08:27)

Welker to Trump: (08:27) How would you lead the country during this next <stage of the coronavirus crisis>?

Welker to Biden: (11:06) How would you lead the country out of this [Coronavirus] crisis?

Healthcare (17:03)

Welker to Trump: (17:03) “If the Supreme Court does overturn [the Affordable Healthcare Act], there’s 20 million Americans could lose their health insurance almost overnight. So what would you do if those people have their <health insurance taken away>?”

Welker to Biden: (19:43) “Your healthcare plan calls for <building on Obamacare>. So my question is, what is your plan if the law is ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court?”

Minimum wage (30:10)

Welker to Biden: (30:10) “Mr. Vice President, we are talking a lot about <struggling small businesses> and business owners these days. Do you think this is the right time to ask them to raise the minimum wage? You of course support a $15 federal minimum wage.”

Welker to Trump: (31:39 and 31:46) “You said recently you would consider raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.” (implied question: Is this the right time to seek a raise in the federal minimum wage.)

Immigration (32:37)

Welker to Trump (32:37): “Mr. President, your administration <separated children> from their parents at the border, at least 4,000 kids. You’ve since reversed your zero tolerance policy, but the United States can’t locate the parents of more than 500 children. So how will these families ever be reunited?”

Welker to Biden: (35:05) “The Obama Administration did fail to deliver immigration reform, which had been a key promise during the administration. It also presided over record deportations, as well as, family detentions at the border before changing course. So why should voters trust you with an immigration overhaul now?”

Race in America (38:37)

Welker to Biden: (38:37) I want to talk about the way <Black and Brown Americans> experience race in this country. Part of that experience is something called the talk. It happens regardless of class and income, parents who feel they have no choice, but to prepare their children for the chance that they could be targeted, including by the police, for no reason other than the color of their skin. Mr. Vice President, in the next two minutes, I want you to speak directly to these families. Do you understand why these parents fear for their children?

Welker to Trump: I would like you to speak directly to these families, do you understand why these parents fear for their children?”

Election security (29:19)

Welker to Biden (29:19) “…<both Russia and Iran> are working to influence this election….What would you do to put an end to this threat?

Welker to Trump (31:45) “For two elections in a row now, there has been substantial interference from foreign adversaries. What would you do in your next term to put an end to this?

Climate change (12:41)

Welker to Trump: (12:41) For each of you, how would you <both combat climate change> and support job growth at the same time?

Welker to Biden (14:44) Vice President Biden, two minutes to you uninterrupted.

Inauguration Day message (24:30)

Welker to President Trump: Imagine <this is your inauguration> day. What will you say in your address, to Americans who did not vote for you? NOTE: The next three text blocks in the transcript (24:47, 25:01, and 25:28) are attributed to Joe Biden, but they are President Trump’s responses.

Welker to Biden: (25:49) “What will you say during your inaugural address to Americans who did not vote for you?”

Why this activity is worth doing

Like many of my ideas, this might not work, but I think it might be worth trying. In an English class, it would test students’ ability to distinguish between information that supports a thesis and that which is related but doesn’t actually support the thesis. In social studies, the completed English class assignment might prompt a discussion about political discourse: Does what politicians say make sense? Does it matter to voters if they don’t make sense?

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Outlines flourish in disguise

The past month, the topic teachers most often searched for at PushWriting.com has been outlining. I suspect the reason teachers are seeking help with outlining is that they secretly concur with their students’ far more public opinion that outlining is a weird English class thing totally unrelated to their real lives. Actually, stripped of the furbelows that decorate it like a Victorian ball gown, an outline is about as exotic as a grocery list scribbled in pencil on the back of an envelope.

Outlines are misunderstood

Every post-secondary student I’ve ever had has believed outlining is a post-composition activity. That preposterous idea may not actually be taught in American schools, but it certainly isn’t refuted there. My sister, who is enrolled in a master’s program for physician assistants, is taking a course that requires students to pick a research topic, prepare a PowerPoint presentation outlining the research they plan to do, and then write their research papers. She said her classmates each picked a topic, wrote their research papers, and then wrote detailed summaries of their work arranged in “outline format.”

Students’ misunderstanding of what an outline is may derive from the common use of outline to refer to the contours of an object. For example, when we read the phrase “the outline of a barn in the distance,” we assume that the barn already exists. Perhaps that’s why students who haven’t had good ELA teachers tend to think of an outline as a sketch of the contours of a completed piece of writing .

Writers’ outlines should be tentative steps toward accomplishing some communications goal, just as a grocery list is a shopper’s tentative step toward preparing meals. Unfortunately, students tend to think the outline is a list of what the shopper actually brought home after visiting three stores and deciding to order take-out Saturday evening instead of cooking.

An outline is just a plan.

You need to teach your students how to use an outline as a communication planner in the same way you use a grocery list as a shopping planner. When you notice you’re running low on coffee, you write coffee on your grocery list. Writing that may remind you of two or three other items you need to buy or it might remind you of something you need to do before going to the grocery, like get gas or deposit check. Even if you don’t immediately think of anything to do other than buy coffee, you’ve primed your brain to look for other things you need to get on your shopping trip.

For an outline to be worth doing, it needs to be prepared as soon as possible after a writer is assigned a writing task. Your students may not think immediately of all the points they are likely to need or want to make in their communication, but like your shopping list, the plan should remain open to additions and substitutions right up to the time the communication is delivered.

6 words summarize the blog post
Plans are organizers for the future. Outlines are usually just afterthoughts.

An outline by any other name gets more use.

If you want your students to plan their written work—which is a highly desirable goal—don’t use the words outline and outlining. Instead, use the word plan. The plans students make are usually geared toward something they want to do or achieve. Thus, by saying plan instead of outline, you make the skill you’re about to teach into a familiar activity that students’ typically associate plans with positive outcomes.

In keeping with that informal, you’re-already-familiar-with-this approach, avoid talking about writing a plan. Instead use terms that make outlining seem a very routine, informal, no-sweat activity that helps students accomplish something they want to do. Students associate verbs like make, do, scribble, jot, record, construct, build, and craft with activities that most of them find much more fun than writing. If you use one of those non-ELA terms instead of write, you make preparing a plan sound like something students might possibly find useful outside school. That is precisely the impression you want to give.

Teach and monitor students’ planning.

Planning is a skill that students will need throughout their lives and in every aspect of their lives. The ability to put a plan for communicating ideas and information on paper is particularly important in their “public” or outside-home roles. You don’t need to preach, “Someday you’ll need this.” What you do need to do is:

  1. Teach students how to prepare a simple, written plan for communicating information (which textbooks often call a “three-point outline” and which I call a “writing skeleton™“).
  2. And make sure students practice preparing a communication plan every time you give them a writing assignment.

Teaching how to make a writing skeleton™ is a quick and easy task. Making sure students practice planning isn’t hard, but it requires you to closely monitor every step of students work. That is tedious, time-consuming, boring, and absolutely necessary if students are going to learn to write well on demand, which is the writing that counts outside school.

A written communication plan has two parts.

In its most basic form, a communication plan has two main parts: a single-sentence assertion of what the planner says is true—which is the thesis the communicator hopes to prove—and a series of between three and five reasons for believing that assertion is true.

The writing skeleton™ format for a basic outline looks like this:

  • A thesis statement (A single sentence that makes an assertion about a topic.)
    • Thesis + because + reason one.
    • Thesis + because + reason two.
    • Thesis + because + reason three.

You can teach the writing skeleton™ format to students as young as middle school by using an example of something students of their age might want to convince someone about. Middle schoolers might want to convince their parents to let them have a dog; high school students might want to convince their school administration to let them hold a fund-raiser at the school for non-school organization.

Although I don’t normally recommend having students write about topics that are not course-specific, having students plan how to convince someone to do something for them can be a useful introduction to using a writing skeleton™. When students feel a personal stake in the success of the communication, it is relatively easy to make them realize that to be convincing, they must look at their proposal from the perspective of the person(s) they need to convince.

Craft topics that encourage planning.

For most students, the tricky part of writing is deciding on something to write about. By write about, I don’t mean just a topic, like peanuts or presidential debates. What students write about must be an idea that:

  • Is expressed in a full sentence.
  • Elicits differing viewpoints.
  • Has been discussed by knowledgeable people willing to share their insights publicly.
  • Is worth spending time discussing.

The best way to make sure students have good writing topics is to craft them yourself. That way you can be sure topics students write about are relevant to other required topics in your curriculum. Once you’ve taught the general plan, you should have no trouble thinking up a legitimate, class-related topic on which to have students develop a communication plan. However, if you’re still baffled by how to craft course-related writing topics, you may want to take a look at my books of ELA writing prompts, each prompt wrapped in a writing lesson:

  • Ready, Set, Write: 20 writing prompts on ELA topics for teens and adults who are not yet competent writers
  • Bullying Begins as Words: How verbal and nonverbal communication can promote or reduce hostility is explored in three sets of five prompts specifically for either not-yet-competent, competent, or proficient writers.

Ideally, the writing topics you assign should be interesting to a majority of students, but not to the same majority each assignment. If you have assigned three topics that each interested the same 75% of your students, you need to deliberately seek out topics that will interest the other 25% for at least a quarter of your remaining class writing assignments.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

 

Trashy antecedent shows who needs help

Many students commit gaffes in writing because their knowledge of grammar has not been honed to the level of precision required by writing. This mini-lesson assumes that:

  • Students recall the definitions of subject and direct object and can identify subjects and direct objects.
  • Students recall the definitions of noun and modifier and can identify nouns and their modifiers.
  • Students have been exposed to the idea that a pronoun refers to the last preceding noun.

In this activity, which should take at most 6-8 minutes, students write to learn more about manipulating nouns and direct objects in their writing.  Begin by showing students these two sentences and reading them aloud:

In the U.S., we generate five million tons of gift-wrap waste each year. Get creative and make your own.

Watch and listen for smiles and snickers. Those responses identify students who have an intuitive understanding of English grammar. The ones who aren’t amused must be taught normal English sentence patterns.

Say something like this:

Both sentences imply some information that isn’t written out in words but that most readers can figure out. In the first sentence, for example, the pronoun we doesn’t have a noun to which it refers. Even without the antecedent being written, I’m sure you know who the word we refers to. If you had to put a noun in place of we, what might you use? [Get responses.]

The second sentence also has some implied words. Write no more than four sentences in which you tell what unwritten words are implied and how you figured out what the writer meant.

Give students one to two minutes to write. Then ask students what they discovered about who is being addressed and what that person is supposed to do. If you are lucky, most of your students will probably have figured out that:

  1. We in the first sentence means U.S. consumers. The sentence pattern is subject-verb-direct object: We generate waste.
  2. In the second sentence, the writer is giving an order to one or more individual consumers. We know that because the writer says your.
  3. The writer is ordering the consumer to (1) “get creative” and (2) make the consumer’s own something.
  4. The writer doesn’t specify what that something is, but even though the sentence construction makes it sound as if the reader should make waste the only sensible conclusion is that the writer expects the reader to make gift-wrap.

Students who lack an intuitive feel for grammar won’t have realized that there is a disconnect between what the writer expects readers to do and what the sentence construction and rules of English grammar tell readers to do. You need to make that disconnect clear.

Present the grammar

1. A direct object is a noun or a pronoun.

2. When a pronoun is used as a direct object, the noun for which it substitutes is usually the last noun before it, as in these two sentences:

                        Clarice donated a fat check. It covered the cost of the roof repairs.

If the noun for which the pronoun substitutes isn’t the last noun before the pronoun, you may confuse your readers.

Provide reassuring context

Tell students that most of us have to work at following the rules that readers have learned to expect writers to follow. We’ll all mess up sometimes, and we all need to keep an eye out for mistakes we’ve made before, especially if they are mistakes that make people snicker.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

 

Making decisions that make sense: 3 nonfiction books

covers of featured literary nonfiction
Three very different works of literary nonfiction.

From my third quarter literary non-fiction reading, I have three paperbacks to recommend, which each use true historical accounts to illustrate each author’s thesis. None of the books is ponderous reading, but each is likely to present some challenge for teens or young adult readers, beginning with the fact that none of the three is about pleasant subjects. However, each of the books tackles an important topic and each could be used by teachers in several disciplines, either individually or as a team with each teacher contributing the perspective from their own discipline.

Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation

The Greatest Generation. Tom Brokaw. Delta, 1998. 412 pages. Paperback

Greatest generation book cover
He went overseas. She stayed behind.

The Greatest Generation is TV journalist Tom Brokaw’s tribute to the men and women who served in America’s armed forces during World War II. Brokaw presents a scrapbook-like collection of his interviews with military personnel and the families they left behind. Combat plays a minor part in their war years’ experiences.

I’d hoped to find The Greatest Generation useful for classroom use, but I’m not sure today’s high school and college students would see the characters in the same light Brokaw does.  His stories are snapshots of what would be today’s students’ great-great-grandparents. The names of most of the famous people Brokaw tells about would draw a blank stare from today’s students.

I’m not sure young people today would understand why Brokaw admires heroes who rejected the spotlight: American culture no longer values reticence. And in some ways, even to me, Brokaw’s adulation seems overly sentimental (as well as overly long).

Stories in the book that are most likely to gain traction with young people are those about people who were discriminated against during WWII: women, Blacks, and Japanese.  Because Brokaw’s work is relatively unemotional reportage, students might not find even these true stories understandable unless a savvy teacher pairs them with fictional accounts of similar situations.

Blunder by Zachery Shore

Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions. Zachary Shore. Bloomsbury, 2008. 260 p. Paperback

Cover of Shore's book "Blunder"Blunder is a book about how people think and why their thinking goes wrong, even if they are very smart people with very good intentions.  Zachary Shore approaches his topic as an historian, rather than as a cognitive psychologist, using famous (and some infamous) historical figures to show how and why leaders in fields such as government, the military, and business made bad decisions with widespread impact.

Shore devotes one chapter to each of eight different types of blunders. He gives the blunders memorable names like “Exposure Anxiety,” which he defines as the fear of being seen as weak, and “Static Cling,” the refusal to accept a changing world. Readers won’t have to look further than each week’s news to some authority figure somewhere in the world making the blunders today.

Shore draws heavily on his knowledge of 20th century events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam Conflict, and George W. Bush’s post 9/11 War on Terror.  I suspect today’s teens and young adults would have little familiarity with those events. They probably would more readily grasp stories of individuals dealing with issues of narrower impact, such as unhealthy eating or depression.

Shore devotes a final chapter to how individuals can mitigate the effects of their own blundering impulses.

Blunder would be a good book for use by classes in two or more different disciplines, such as history, psychology, and English. Such use would allow students to get direction from three perspectives about how to understand and use Shore’s insights.

Voices from the Holocaust, Jon E. Lewis, ed.

Voices from the Holocaust. Edited by Jon E. Lewis. Skyhorse, 2012. Paper. 305 pp.

Cover of Voices from the Holocaust
Concentration camp survivors freed by Allied forces.

Anti-Semitism had a long history in Germany; Hitler made it government policy.  Germans readily accepted it because they blamed Jews for their defeat in World War I. Anti-Semitism was Hitler’s way to make Germany great again.

Editor Jon E. Lewis arranges historical documents in chronological order, without comment other than to identify the writers, if known.  Beginning with the years 1933-38, the documents reveal how outsiders initially saw the SS as a sadistic type of criminal gang, only later realizing they were getting ready for a war against their enemies, including the Jews within their borders.

Part II (covering events from 1939 until Jan. 19, 1942) shows Germany setting up its extermination program. Documents in this section include Rudolf Hess’s description of the Zykon B gas trial at Auschwitz on Sept. 3, 1941, at which a sickened Himmler, who had never before seen dead people, had to be led away.

Part III is devoted to the Final Solution, 1942-1946. It includes diary accounts of deportations to concentrations camps and descriptions of conditions in the camps. When the British arrived at Bergen-Belsen, there were 35,000 unburied corpses and about 30,000 living inmates.

One of the most poignant stories in Voices is that told by Franciscek Zabecki about an incident he observed at the Treblinka Railway station in which an SS man’s dog found a baby in a thicket beside its dead mother. The dog whimpered and licked the baby, refusing to kill it. The SS beat the dog, killed the baby, and finally dominated the dog into obedience.

Voices ends with a list taken from the Nazi’s own records of the estimated number of Jews killed, listed by both country and by the percentage of the Jewish population annihilated.

It might be good to pair Anne Frank’s Diary with Voices from the Holocaust to show students that Anne Frank’s misery was a broken fingernail compared to what other Jews experienced.

what to look for in literary nonfiction
Literary nonfiction works that include illustrations are a plus.

©2020 Linda Aragoni