I’m currently writing a set of books about how to visit in nursing homes. Each book covers very similar topics, but each is written for a different group of readers.
As I’ve started getting feedback from readers in my target groups, I’ve been particularly struck by the fact that, based on our prior experiences, each of us has a somewhat different picture of what we regard as normal nursing home procedures. Although I was not surprised to see differing perspectives, I was surprised to realize now readily I forget that every person’s unique experiences incline that individual to expect that certain behaviors are the norm in certain situations.
As I mulled that over, I decided that teen-age and adult students could profit from writing about how experience shapes not only present expectations but also inclines future behavior in certain directions.
Working thesis and writing skeleton™
I would give students this working thesis to explore: Prior experience shapes present behavior.
Novice writers could use a writing skeleton™ like this to plan an essay on that topic:
I know that prior experience shapes present behavior because Person One’s prior experience with __A__ shapes Person One’s present behavior.
I know that prior experience shapes present behavior because Person Two’s prior experience with __B__ shapes Person Two’s present behavior.
I know that prior experience shapes present behavior because Person Three’s prior experience with __C__ shapes Person Three’s present behavior.
That skeleton probably won’t produce great writing, but it will enable fledgling writers to organize their thoughts and force them to look beyond their personal experiences.
More advanced students could modify the writing skeleton™ to discuss a particular individual, such as an historical figure, or to discuss some current events.
Students could also use the writing skeleton™ to develop a personal essay.
I like having written; that is, I like being finished with a piece of writing, having the desk cleared, the early drafts in the shred basket, the pencil stubs in the trash.
But writing—putting one word after another in an order that’s that’s more or less sensible—is not my idea of fun.
I’ve been writing a book nearly all day every day for several weeks.
I’m heartily sick of the whole thing.
Worse, I’m now at a point where I know I’ll have to start going through the manuscript with an outsider’s perspective, seeing needs to be clarified, what is beyond repair and needs to the scuttled, what examples need to be swapped out for better ones, what lovely phrases don’t fit in their context, perhaps—as too often happens—seeing that the whole thing needs to be reorganized.
As writers go, I’m not very different from my students: They don’t like writing either.
It’s not fun for them.
They get sick of writing long before they finish.
They do their best writing and see that it’s not as good as they’d hoped it would be.
And bless their little pea-pickin’ hearts, they stick with it anyway. They inspire me to try to learn to write better, too.
Join me in giving a round of applause to our students who don’t give up on learning to write, no matter how tedious or how difficult it is for them.
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:
The End of White Christian America
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.
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.
Wilson’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.
A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
Blunderwould 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.
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.
Voicesends 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.