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

Pattern recognition is a life skill

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

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

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

Deliberately look for patterns.

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

Patterns don’t produce replicas.

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

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

Patterns simplify.

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

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

Identify course concepts.

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

Identify concepts that are also patterns.

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

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

Teach concepts via descriptions.

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

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

Related post: Boys need help to see patterns.

© 2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Literary nonfiction for teachers

covers of 3 featured works of literary nonfiction
Their covers reveal the tone if not the content of these literary nonfiction books.

The literary nonfiction I read during the second quarter of 2020 was disappointing in terms of finding books that could be read by teens and college students. All three books I chose turned out to be more appropriate for teachers of a certain age. (You know who you are.) The three are Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, and The Great War in America by Garrett Peck.

Gift from the Sea

by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Vintage Books, 1991, 138 p.

Photograph of a shell is on cover of book
The writing is as calm as the cover image.

First published in 1955, Gift from the Sea is a tranquil account of a brief vacation by the sea during which author Anne Morrow Lindbergh reflected on her life in particular and the lives of women in general. Just under 50 when she wrote the book, she had had a far from tranquil life, as Wikipedia will tell you. She was an aviation pioneer along with her husband, Charles. The couple’s first child was kidnapped in 1932 amid national hysteria.

In Gift from the Sea, Morrow Lindbergh writes as wife, mother, and writer, reflecting on her different roles and how best to deal with the conflicting demands on her time and attention. She finds solitude essential for her if she’s to be able to connect to others.

Gift from the Sea is a lovely, lyrical book, but it’s not a book for teens and twenty-somethings, nor a book for men. It’s for nurturing women, desperate for time to be nourished.

Outliers: The Story of Success

by Malcolm Gladwell, Little Brown, 2008, 309 p.

One marble is separated from a group of marbles
What makes one individual stand out?

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell tackles the question “Why do some people succeed far more than others?” After extensive—and fascinating—research Gladwell found that while intelligence, personality, and hard work play a part in success, many of the most important factors are that successful people were just lucky. They were born at the right time in the right place and those factors gave them unusual opportunities to do things for which they had the interest, training, and skills that permitted them to seize those opportunities.

Gladwell can make complicated material easy to read. Adult students and teens in dual-enrollment programs could read Outliers, but not all of them should. Folks who already think the world is against them could find Outliers depressing. Like Gift from the Sea, Outliers requires readers have enough maturity to be able to accept unpleasant realities without feeling victimized.

The Great War in America: World War I and Its Aftermath

by Garrett Peck, Pegasus Books, 2018. 414 p.

A dark photo of the celebration in New York City of WWI's end
Celebration is dimmed in the context of WWI’s impact on America.

Many historians have written about the impact of World War I on Europe, in particular about how the war’s end held the seeds of World War II. Garret Peck focuses his study on how America’s involvement in the war and more particularly Woodrow Wilson’s role in the peace negotiations afterward reverberated throughout the US. I’ve written in another post about Peck’s discussion of the 1918 flu pandemic.

Most general readers will need a map of Europe and lists of who was who in the European capitals  and the American government in 1918 to help them sort out what’s happening at the international level.

Peck writes well. Some of his scenes are almost cinematographic. They make me wish for TV series about Wilson’s life in the White House done in the BBC manner.

© 2020 Linda G. Aragoni


In accordance with my normal practice of posting about literary nonfiction books the first Friday of each quarter, I had intended to post this on July 3. I not only failed to post the material, but I deleted what I’d already written. I apologize to anyone who had been waiting with bated breath for the latest installment. I just recently realized my mistake.

Senior moments are lasting a lot longer these days than they used to.

Good writers must be good planners

To do competently the writing tasks ordinary people get stuck with, a person doesn’t need to be a really good writer, but the individual needs to become a really good planner.

Target with unusually large bull's eye
The writer’s goal should be important and unmistakable.

Planning separates the wannabe writers from real writers. The wannabe writer is wrapped up in himself. Real writers are focused on the one really important point they must make in the piece they are to write.

Real writers push themselves to identify their central point quickly. They realize that getting an early start is an insurance policy against unpredictable events close to deadline.

Real writers focus all their attention on the main point they’ve decided their work must convey. That point dictates what supporting evidence they’ll need.

Real writers understand that the quality of their sources will largely determine the quality of their information. So, they systematically look for people who have genuine expertise: a combination of personal experience plus study of the work of other individuals whose experience is even broader or at an even deeper level.

person at start of path to distant place
Having a clear goal lets the writer to take advantage of evidence sources on the way.

Having a systematic way to identify people with expertise gives real writers a fast start, which, in turn, gives them more time to dig into the evidence, to see where it leads, and to follow up if it leads to new evidence or new sources of evidence.

Planning, fortunately, is a skill whose foundations can be taught fairly quickly. Ripple strategy is a simple, easy to learn process for developing an initial list of sources to consult. In a very few minutes, writers can have an initial list of sources to contact.

Water droplet has set off ripples in a pond
Writers start from their knowledge and work outward to find evidence sources.

Moreover, ripple strategy alerts writers’ brains to watch for additional evidence sources even when the writers are seemingly immersed in other activities.

Having a familiar planning strategy gives a writer a significant edge over someone who treats each new writing project as totally new and totally unfamiliar. Time saved by reusing a strategy can be devoted to researching and writing.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Real writing is necessary writing

In 2020, real writing doesn’t mean an essayist at Walden Pond, or a poet in an attic, or a novelist in a retreat in the Berkshires.

https://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/walden-site-of-thoreaus-hut.jpg
1908 photo of the site of the cottage near Walden Pond in which Henry David Thoreau lived 1845-1847.

Real writing is necessary writing. It’s everyday, nonfiction writing. It’s not “lovely,” or “powerful,” or “gut-wrenching.” It’s ordinary, routine, mostly dull, and mostly unmemorable.

Real writing answers real people’s questions:

  • Why did your daughter miss school Wednesday?
  • Where can I buy 3 dozen rolls of toilet paper?
  • How many days will we need a dump truck when we gut the Jericho Inn?

Real writing is writing before it’s been scribbled out, worked over, and revised for a fourth time.

Real writing is what the customer service representative types in the chat window. Real writing is fast writing. It’s adequate, competent, good enough.

The aim of real writing is first drafts that say clearly everything that needs to be said in no more words than are absolutely necessary. And real writing aims at clean first drafts, free from mistakes that either force people to reread sentences twice to figure out their meaning or that make people laugh out loud.

Real writing is what is expected from writing teachers.

Real writing is what teachers are expected to teach their students to do.

Real writing is what every high school graduate should be able to do.

© 2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Commas save lives

Like most students of my generation, I “did” English homework work: I memorized vocabulary words from publisher-produced lists, responded to publisher-produced “questions for understanding” literature, and completed publisher-created exercises in correct placement of commas.  By the time I graduated high school, valedictorian of my class, I had come to believe commas were just decorations, about as vital to writing as cosmetics to chickens.

I persisted in this belief until my senior year of college when a chemistry professor did what no English teacher was able to do: He helped me learn why comma placement matters.

Commas save lives is more than just a T-shirt slogan.

My roommate had published poetry while in high school, but her ambition was to be an inorganic chemist. From the first day we met, Cheryl talked about wanting to isolate the amino acid lysine from human hair. For nearly three years, every time I got my hair cut, I’d ask for the clippings, which I gave to Cheryl to use for isolating lysine.

A psychology major, English minor, I worked as a “reader” for a visually handicapped sociology major with whom I shared several courses. When we were required to take a statistics course, I knew Sue wouldn’t be able to understand the text without seeing the graphs.  I decided to take Sue to a chemistry lab where I could draw the graphs on the blackboards that covered three walls, since I knew from Cheryl that the  labs were deserted in the late afternoons,

I discovered that I couldn’t just read the statistics book to Sue, even with the diagrams on the board. She had never seen a graph and didn’t know how to interpret one. I ended up having to learn the week’s statistics material and teach it to her.  As I was doing that, the chemistry prof, Dr. Dale Ritter, would often walk through on his way to the instrumentation room as I was explaining statistics to Sue.

One day Dr. Ritter told me Cheryl had to write for her analytical chemistry class in a format suitable for chemistry journal, but what she wrote was in a literary style. He said he didn’t know how to explain what she needed to do differently and asked if I could help. Cheryl was already a very fine writer. It took only a few minutes to point out the features of journal style that she needed to follow.

When Cheryl hadn’t done the lysine isolation by my final semester of college, I teased her about it by telling some students in the chem lab about the acute embarrassment I’d suffered for three years when asking for my hair clippings. Dr. Ritter overhead me and asked if I’d like to do the lysine isolation myself. He said the lab had everything that was necessary, and he’d be happy to help me set it up.

I’d never taken a chemistry course, but it sounded like it might be fun. I said I’d love to do it.

Dr. Ritter got out the equipment.

Cheryl got out the directions.

I got bewildered.

Many of the sentences of the directions contained words that could be used as different parts of speech depending on the context, but none of the sentences had any internal punctuation marks. That often meant it was impossible to be sure what part of speech a particular word had in a particular sentence. For example, if you chose to regard a word as a noun, which you would have done if it had a comma after it, you would do something quite different than you would do if you treated that word as an adjective modifying the following word.

I’d read the directions and figure out what I thought I ought to do.

Then Cheryl would come along and read the directions, pausing in different places, and she’d conclude I needed to do something quite different.

Sometimes someone else would wander by, read the directions, and, by pausing in other different places, reach an entirely different third conclusion.

I learned from the experience the chemistry fact that putting hair in hydrochloric acid produces the smell of vomit.  

I also learned from the experience the importance of commas. When you’re doing things with hydochloric acid, you realize quite forcefully that commas are not just decorations.

Commas are essential to clear communication.

Learn a lesson from my experience. When you teach comma use, be smart about it. Instead of funny examples, use examples from law and business that show how much damage a comma can cause.

A misplaced comma really could kill somebody.


Resources for comma use

Punctuation Matters: ‘Dear John’ Letter and a 2-Million-Dollar Comma. The second example shows the importance of careful comma use in business.        

Why Commas Matter: The Wire Act Story. Incorrect comma use changes how a law is interpreted.

The ruling in this Maine labor dispute hinged on the omission of an Oxford comma. A news story from The Washington Post about a business law case.

Get control of your commas.   Examples from Perspect Med Educ, a medical education journal, about the importance of comma placement when writing about medicine.

17 rules for using commas without looking like a fool  This guide from Business Insider shows each rule on a separate slide. Slides are supplemented by an explanation of the rule.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni