What is last nonfiction book you read?

What’s the last nonfiction book you choose to read that wasn’t assigned reading?

shelves of nonfiction books
Some of my nonfiction shelved where it belongs instead of lying on the kitchen table.

Tell me about that book

Was that book:

  • literary nonfiction
  • on a topic related to the subject you teach?
  • a how-to book?
  • true crime?
  • a biography/autobiography of sports or entertainment figure?
  • a history book?
  • something you just thought sounded interesting?

Did you read anything I might be interested in?

What, if anything, from that book have you used in teaching?

What, if anything, from the book have you found yourself thinking about since you read it?

What, if anything, from that book have you shared with someone else?

Would you read another book on the same topic?

Would you look for another book by the same author?

Have you recommended the book to someone else?

Have you signed up for the author’s email list, if the author has one?

Your answers to each of those questions tells me whether you think the book was worth the time you invested in reading it.

Why your answers matter to you

The postmaster in a small community in which I lived told me he hated reading and he hated writing, but every time I’d get a shipment of books, he’d ask, “Did you get anything I might be interested in?” If I told him about a book that he though he’d be interested in, he’d make a note of the title.

Like my postmaster, a large number of your students and mine complete high school without ever reading a book that was interesting to them. The wider the range of nonfiction you read, the more likely it is you’ll be able to suggest books that your students might also find interesting reading.

Students don’t become good readers unless at least some of what they read is interesting to them. To be able to point students to well-written books that may interest them, you need to be knowledgeable about at least some nonfiction titles on topics that may not be your first choice of rainy-day reading.

Why your answer matters to me

As my long-time readers know, nearly all the writing I’ve done has been instructional materials that nobody reads unless they are paid to. Before I drop off my twig, I’d like to write a practical nonfiction book that is read by people who aren’t paid to read it.

You, for example.

For a long time, I’ve wanted to write a book about how to have mutually pleasant visits with people in nursing homes. A former nursing home activities director at one of the homes at which I volunteered is working with me. We have grand plans for a series of short, illustrated, square “gift books” that we refer to as our “Thanks for Dropping By” books. “Thanks for dropping by” is what nursing home residents always said when I left.

If we decide to go ahead with the how-too books, Ill ask you to join my email list.  I hope when/if you see the invitation, you’ll sign up, identifying yourself as a potential reader of my practical, nonfiction books for people who aren’t paid to read them.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

How to do the nearly impossible:

Give 100 hours of writing practice in 15 weeks

Learning enough about any skill to be able to profit from additional study of that skill requires 100 hours of practice, according to researchers. After 50 years of writing expository nonfiction and teaching teens and adults to write expository nonfiction, I’ve figured out how squish those required 100 hours’ writing practice in 15 weeks.

It’s not easy, but it can be done.
row of small hour glasses suggest many hours of practice

The general procedure

Maintain a single focus. To turn non-writers into competent expository writers in 15 weeks you and your students must do nothing in those 15 weeks except activities that are an essential part of the process of expository nonfiction writing. Don’t ask students to write narrative—even nonfiction narrative—or to write arguments or to read anything other than expository nonfiction.  Adding those elements doesn’t make the course interesting: they make the course difficult. Focus every class session on having students respond to that week’s writing prompt(s).

Ready 20 writing prompts. You will need to have 20 writing prompts prepared before the course starts. You won’t have time to prepare prompts during the course.  Each prompt should be on some aspect of communication, which is, after all, what English classes are supposed to teach. There are enough potential communications topics to give every student at least moderately interesting to write about a few times a semester.

Embed each writing prompt in a lesson. Each writing prompt should be delivered within  a self-contained writing lesson (see below).  Use the same format for each lesson to keep things as simple as possible. Each prompt should enable students to plan, research, draft, revise and edit their responses in a maximum of five hours. (Five hours work on each of 20 writing prompts yields the desired 100 hours.)

top section of a writing lesson showing its main parts
Top of a writing lesson from my Ready, Set, Write! collection. Note the prompt is within a lesson that includes suggestions to help students start the assignment.

Make class time writing time. Students can’t improve their writing until they first know what the process of writing looks and feels like. Except for those few early days of the course when you are presenting the writing process, have students spend most of their class time on task(s) to prepare them for that week’s writing prompt, such as:

  • figuring out what question the writing prompt is asking
  • phrasing a working thesis to responds to that question
  • developing a writing skeleton™
  • rippling to identify information sources for their responses to that week’s writing prompt

Teach while students prepare to write. Except during class periods when students are writing their texts, you should use class time for teaching.  Circulate through the room. Look at what students are doing. Read. React. Confer with individual students about their work. Ask students if they could have avoided a particular problem by doing something differently earlier in the writing process. Give help where it’s needed.

Push students to complete entire tasks in class. Don’t hesitate to require student to submit a copy of their work by the end of a class period if that’s what it takes to keep them working.

Require students to write under test conditions. Devote at least one class period a week to having students compose their responses to that week’s writing prompt under whatever test conditions (handwrite/keyboard) you’ve established for the course. You need to get students used to producing complete clean drafts under pressure. On a topic for which they have prepared, teens and adult students should be able to produce 600 handwritten words in longhand or on a keyboard in an hour.

row of small hour glasses

Do group instruction once.

Present the writing process 3 times. In the first three of the 15 weeks, lead students three times through the entire process of responding to an expository writing prompt. The first week, go through the process carefully using students’ first week writing prompt as the demonstration material. Repeat the procedure the next two weeks with those weeks’ writing prompts as demonstration material. Each time, before you give students the writing lesson which includes the following basic information for that particular writing prompt, talk students through how to

  • figure out what question they are being asked,
  • phrase a working thesis that responds to that question, and
  • develop a writing skeleton™ for that working thesis.

After that, the information in the writing prompt should provide enough guidance for most students. If a student has difficulty understanding the directions, you can deal individually with that student. You’ll find a discussion of eight essential strategies for student writers at my yctwriting.com site.

The writing lesson below shows how material that students need in to know to complete each assignment is included in the writing lesson. Here ripple strategy is explained in detail, providing students with a reference, should they require one.

a writing lesson developed by Linda Aragoni
A writing lesson from my Ready, Set, Write! collection for not-yet-competent writers.

row of small hour glasses suggest many hours of practice

Evaluate with a checklist

Use a simple checklist to tell students how they performed. Every item on the checklist should be (a) essential to the expository writing process, and (b) worded in such a way that the only possible responses are yes or no. Ideally, your checklist should be arranged in order of the importance of that item to the entire writing process. Thus, my six-item checklist starts with “The writer’s thesis is clearly stated in the opening paragraph” and ends with “The writer ‘does the evidence waltz’ in each body paragraph so the presence and significance of the evidence to the writer’s thesis is clear.”

During the 100 hours students are working to develop basic writing skill don’t even think about any of the finer points of writing. After everyone in your class has mastered the basics, then you can begin helping them learn ways to modify the basic expository pattern and to make their writing more powerful. Until you have all your students capable of responding to a writing prompt on a subject about which they are knowledgeable in a clear, coherent text don’t even think about having them write anything more interesting.

Is preparing those lessons too much work?

I have two collections of writing prompts that you can buy. Both collections are available from my E-junkie shop.

  • Ready, Set, Write! is contains 20 complete writing lessons for not-yet-competent teen and adult writers. They aren’t simplistic, but they simplify the writing process.
  • Bullying Begins as Words contains prompts five prompts for not-yet-competent writers plus five for competent writers and five for proficient writers.
QR code for Linda Aragoni's e-junkie shop
Scan the code to visit my shop.

When you buy either collection you get an e-book containing all the prompts and  teacher information for each prompt, plus a handbook you can use with any of my PenPrompts collections.  Within a few days after your purchase, you will receive information about where to download individual copies of your prompts authorizing you to reproduce the prompts for use with your students as long for the rest of your teaching career.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Mastering writing: The 100-hour rule

Everybody’s heard about the 10,000-hour rule. That’s the rule that says to become a top-notch practitioner of a skill, whether that skill is playing tennis or violin, making ceramics or taking x-rays, a person needs to put in 10,000 hours practicing that skill.

What everybody ignores is that those 10,000 hours of practice are done only after student of the skill has mastered the basics. Basic skill mastery has its own rule, the 100-hour rule.

Most skills require 100 hours of practice using the basic procedures and techniques of that skill to become adept enough to profit from additional study.

Learning a skill requires doing the skill

Nobody masters a skill just from reading about it, or just from hearing lectures about it, just from discussing it in a small group, or just from watching YouTube videos about it. Skill mastery requires the learner to do the entire activity repeatedly.

Practicing some critical, small part of the process in isolation may be necessary, but skill mastery comes only by practicing the skill for its intended purpose. That means the violist must practice playing entire pieces, the baker must practice baking entire pies, the writer must practice writing entire documents.

Sometimes a person masters a skill on their own, simply by trial and error. But all too often when errors exceed successes, people lose heart and quit trying to master the skill. Most people require assistance from others who have already mastered the skill.

Teaching a skill requires distillation

To give learners the 100 hours of appropriate practice they need to master the basics of a skill may not require someone who put in the 10,000 hours’ work to master the basics. People who are really good at a skill aren’t always good at teaching that skill to others: They know too much. They overwhelm the novices. They forget how long it too them just to get to the point that they didn’t have to think about what to do next.

Someone may have only 1,000 hours or only 300 hours beyond the basic 100, but if that person can distill into a few simple steps what the newbie needs to learn, that person can probably do as good or better a job teaching newbies than the expert, providing that person can distill what the newbie must learn into a few short, easy-to-understand sentences. As long as what must be learned as information is short and clear, the procedure it describes can be complicated and delicate. That’s why my program for teaching writing consists of only eight sentences totaling 33 words. The first sentence is here.

Skilled teachers help learners 10 ways

Whether the skill they need is bricklaying or baking, trigonometry or writing, skilled practitioners can help. To be helpful, a skilled person—a.k.a. the teacher—needs to be able to perform 10 tasks for the learner:

  1. Provide learners with physical tools and vocabulary required to learn the skill.
  2. Point out the sequence of actions the skill requires.
  3. Allow learners to watch them perform the skill at a very basic level.
  4. Identify the most crucial aspects of the skill.
  5. Make learners practice the skill under their supervision.
  6. Drill learners on the most crucial aspects of the skill.
  7. Correct learners’ technique during practice sessions.
  8. Make sure learners can go through the entire skill without outside assistance.
  9. Make sure learners actually use the skill without their supervision.
  10. Schedule regular practice sessions until each learner has spent 100 hours practicing the basics of the skill.

Every teacher who wants students to master a skill must be ready, willing, and able to perform each of those tasks—and then do them as learners require.


Next week, if things go as planned, I’ll show you how to provide required 100 hours’ writing practice to teens or adults in 15 weeks.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

 

Turn minds over to teach argument

A bookseller in a Christopher Morley novel says, “It’s a good thing to turn your mind upside down now and then, like an hour glass, to let the particles run the other way.”

hourglass with all sand in bottom
The sand has settled into inactivity.

Turning the mental hour glass upside down is a good activity to have your students engage in before you turn them loose to write arguments.

What argument means

An argument is—and has been since the days of Aristotle and Plato—a respectful debate. Before they voice any disagreement, each party must attempt to understand:

    • the opposition’s position, including how they define their terms,
    • the opposition’s evidence for its position,
    • the opposition’s logic from the opposition’s standpoint.

To get students to the place where they can argue, you first have to get them to thoroughly understand the position against which they are arguing. Students will only do that if forced to. Students are rather like normal people in that regard.

hourglass with sand in top half
This has the sand moving again.

Here’s how you can force students to turn their minds upside down.

Force a change of perspective

Make a list of a five to 10 controversial topics. Try to include topics ranging from hot-button issues in your school, your community, state and national politics, and international issues such as climate change, immigration, and disease control.

Have students each select one of the topics on which they have an opinion. Have them write a statement of what they believe about that topic and their evidence for their position. Five hundred words will be plenty for this.

After they’ve turned those paper in, give them a tough assignment. Have each student write a paper defending the opposing point of view, giving the best evidence they can find from the most reputable sources.

If you wish, you might follow the formal writing assignment with a two- or three-minute informal writing prompt—one whose responses you won’t grade—that asks students to reflect on what they learned from doing the assignment that they can use in other situations. If you or I did the assignments ourselves, we’d have to admit that we have very little knowledge of at least one topic on which we have strong opinions.

Having once had the experience of looking at a topic from another viewpoint gives students some appreciation of what they must do in writing genuine arguments.

© 2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Prepare students to fight today’s wars of words

Quote: When your remote has 50 buttons, you can't change the channel any more.Educators are like generals: They spend most of their time preparing their troops for the previous war.

No where is that tendency more obvious than in composition classes where even today writing teachers are preparing to fight to their last drop of red ink for the compound-complex sentence.

That war was lost years ago.

Compound-complex sentences drowned in mud-choked prose in the late 1980s. The 20-page essay with footnotes and annotated bibliography has been replaced by 1½-page hyperlinked texts supplemented by graphics and/or video. What-shall-I-write decision paralysis has been replaced by operational goals that drive writing.

Today’s writers fight a guerrilla war, strategically aiming precisely chosen words at clearly defined targets and making a quick exit. The 20-page essay with footnotes and annotated bibliography has been replaced by 1½-page hyperlinked texts supplemented by graphics and/or video.

Instead of polysyllabic words and strings of clauses, today’s student writers need a larger repertoire of smaller, more precise terms suited to shorter, more readable sentences.

Instead of memorizing a different strategy for each type of message they must deliver, student writers need to master one strategy for all the writing they must do. And they must have extensive practice using that strategy in different writing situations so that it isn’t rendered unusable by unpredictable circumstances or events.

Above all, student writers must be able to improvise to accomplish a writing task for which they haven’t been given reproducible forms and templates and checklists.

If you’re still fighting the war for writing complexity, it’s time to surrender your red pen, ditch your kit full of all types of essays, and take aim at simplicity.

The war for clear, concise writing is waiting to be won.

Practical nonfiction with a sense of humor

covers of 2 nonfiction books that beg to be picked upDespite their glowing reviews, the nonfiction books I read in the fourth quarter of 2019 turned out not to be literary nonfiction at all. Literary nonfiction is like novels: It must be read in chapter order.  The books I read are each practical nonfiction.

Despite my disappointment, I’m keeping two of them for my classroom library because of their potential to attract reluctant readers to nonfiction books. Rather than developing a theme, each of the books is a collection of anecdotes on a theme. You can read chapter 7, skip to chapter 13, and then read chapter 1 in either of these books.  That is part of their appeal: They need not be read from cover to cover; they can be picked up and sampled.

I Love It When You Talk Retro

comic-strip woman tells man "I love it when you talk retro"
This Sunday comics look is retro.

Ralph Keyes’s book I Love It When You Talk Retro explores terms and catchphrases that have remained part of the American vocabulary long after people have forgotten where the terms originated or to what they originally referred.

Necktie party, scuttlebutt, blow your wad, puppet state,  bandwagon effect, and Catch-22 are only a few of the terms that Keyes discusses in chapters devoted to words with common origins, such as terms from sports, terms from occupations that no longer exist, and terms from media of earlier centuries.

Keyes designed the book so it can be browsed, used as a reference book, or read cover to cover.

I wouldn’t recommend reading Talk Retro cover-to-cover, let alone asking students to read it cover-to-cover. It’s a book better read in multiple, short sessions.

You might have pairs or trios of students read a chapter and give brief slide presentation to the class about the origins of a few of the expressions that they discovered through their reading.

Talk Retro could certainly be useful in prompting a discussion of the importance of word choices in communicating with individuals outside one’s peer group.

I Love It When You Talk Retro: Hoochie Coochie, Double Whammy, Drop a Dime, and the Forgotten Origins of American Speech. Ralph Keyes. St. Martins. 2009. 310 p.

Quackery

Vintage type and decorations set the stage for this history
Elaborate ornamentation is retro.

By contrast to I Love It When You Talk Retro,  Quackery is co-written by writers from a younger generation. Their language is very much Netflix and Hulu, not retro. Lavishly illustrated and split into small chunks of reading,  Quackery is a book with a high “Ugh, gross!” factor that would appeal to a middle school readers.

Lydia Kang, M.D., and Nate Petersen, a freelance writer, put together a fact-packed, 344-page book, about the crazy things people have done to cure illnesses, increase their lifespan or their libido, get rid of excess weight, or solve dozens or other real or imaginary problems.

Some of the quack cures described were simply mistakes. A few of the “quacks” followed their own advice, often with fatal results. Most of the quack cures, however, were deliberate, money-making schemes.

The books is chock full of interesting, albeit not particularly useful, bits history. For example, the cereal company founder, John Harvey Kellogg, invented a light booth in which someone stood naked while he/she  tanned and sweated under harsh  lights. Kellogg said the treatment cured diabetes and scarlet fever and helped prevent constipation. King Edward VII had booths installed at Windsor and Buckingham castles in England.

 The chapters of Quackery are mercifully short: Many of the descriptions are enough to make you gag, and that internal response is heightened by the use of pond-scum green edging on all the pages.

I’d put Quackery on a classroom shelf to attract seventh grade boys to pick up a book. It’s chapters are extensively illustrated with ads, vintage photos, illustrations from old books and periodicals of instruments and animals used in the various treatments, all of which would delight most seventh graders. Also, the topics are sufficiently scatological to appeal to seventh grade boys, as would the authors’ humor.

Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything. Lydia Kang MD and Nate Pedersen. Workman Publishing. 2017. 344 p.

Punctuation matters: an informal writing prompt

row of question marksPunctuation is one of the least interesting parts of English language arts to teach or to learn. If we can’t make it interesting, we ought to at least make sure students understand why it matters.

Below is an informal writing prompt to get students thinking about why punctuation matters. I recommend you use whatever technology is available to you so that you can read the prompt aloud while students follow along.

The informal prompt

Look at these two sentences about a sports competition  and think about when someone might say each of them:

  1. May the best man win.
  2. May the best man win?

Consider: Under what circumstances would someone use sentence one? Under what circumstances would someone use sentence two?

In no more than four sentences, explain the differences between the meaning of the first sentence and the meaning of the second sentence. You have 1 minute to write your explanation.

Notes on this informal activity

Unlike an oral question, informal writing gets every member of a class to do something with the information that’s before them.

Because this informal writing activity activity is brief, uncomplicated, and deals with sports, it’s fairly easy to get students’ attention for the two minutes it takes to read the prompt and write a response. The activity may even hold the attention of students whose acquaintance with sports gives them a more extensive list of reasons why someone would wonder whether it is possible for the best competitor to win a contest.

Reading aloud while students follow along is recommended because, for a variety of reasons,  many American teenage and adults students need help reading. Anything you can do to help them associate word forms with word sounds—even if its just a two-minute activity—is worth doing.

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.