Today I have two informal writing prompts to show you that use messages posted in public places. The errors are easy for students to spot, which is not only good for their morale, but also shows them the importance of carefully rereading their messages for errors.
Begin by displaying one of the photos and reading aloud the message captured in it. (It doesn’t matter which you use first.) Then tell students to write one sentence in which they identify one error they noticed in the message and tell how to correct that error. Give students a half minute to do that.
Follow the same procedure with the second photo, displaying it and reading what’s written. Again have students identify and correct the error in a single sentence. A half minute should be time enough for students to do that.
If you keep your eyes open and a cell phone with a camera handy, you can grab items like these regularly. They take very little class time, but they make students aware of the importance of re-reading their work to eliminate silly mistakes.
(Another day could make the “shute” message into an assignment aimed at getting students to write a message that accomplishes a single objective.)
One important and often-broken rule of grammar is that a pronoun should refer to the last preceding noun. By following that rule, writers help readers grasp the meaning of a sentence without rereading it. Following the rule also keeps readers from snickering over an absurd idea created when a writer ignores the rule.
Today’s writing prompt, which uses an historical fact prominently printed on the front of a rural chamber of commerce’s newsletter, would help your students learn why that rule is a rule.
Begin the mini-lesson with a statement of the rule. To make sure students pay attention, write the rule on the board or display just the rule using whatever technology you have for projecting information. To make sure students understand the rule, restate it at least once using some alternative to last preceding noun. You could say, “In other words, a pronoun should refer to the person, place or thing named at the left of the pronoun.” Or you could say. “A pronoun is a substitute for an already-identified person, place, or thing.”
Then say something like this:
“I’m going to show you what appears to be a three-sentence historical fact that was published in a small town chamber of commerce’s newsletter. Then I’m going asks you for some observations about the item.”
Ideally, you should show students the item in context, so that even if the picture is fuzzy, students get the idea that a photograph accompanying the written item shows a building with a windmill on its roof. Here’s the historical fact:
Mt. Pleasant Drive, showing part of the water system, circa 1890. This was the Roberts Waterworks. The huge windmills pumped water from two deep wells into a reservoir, which was then pumped into the village.
Watch students’ faces. You’ll be able to tell which ones see the grammatical (and engineering) problem of pumping a reservoir into the village.
Now say something like this: “Write one sentence in which you identify all the pronouns in that historical fact. You have 30 seconds to write.” Time students as they write. Then go on to a second, third, fourth, and final task.
“Next, I’d like you to write one sentence in which you tell me what the nearest preceding noun is for each of the pronouns you identified in your previous sentence. You have 30 seconds to write.”
“Now pretend you’re the writer of the item about the waterworks. Rewrite the sentence or sentences in which you found a pronoun that didn’t refer to the noun at its left, fixing the sentence or sentences so they won’t make anyone snicker. You have 60 seconds to write.”
“Finally, aside from any problems you found with pronouns that the writer dropped too far from their preceding nouns, is there anything else about this historical fact that you think sounds funny? Tell me in one or two sentences what other problem you find in that historical fact. You have 90 seconds to write.”
If you wish and have enough time, you may want to have students share their ideas about the other parts of the item that sounded funny to them. You’ll have some students who recognize that the first of the three sentences isn’t a sentence at all. I suspect it probably was the caption for the photo in the book Stones from the Walls of Jericho. Captions are not always full sentences.
Collect the informal writing to scan to see who struggled with the assignment. Informal writing prompts should prompt you to take precautionary measures to keep students who didn’t get material the first 14 times it was presented from missing it again in your classes.
Below are my reviews of three literary nonfiction books suited for high school English classes, with notes about other subjects with which the books correlate. Also included is information about the lengths of chapters, which is always a concern of the least fluent readers.
Geologist George Plafker arrived in Anchorage, Alaska, the day after the March 27, 1964, Good Friday earthquake devastated the southern half of the state, causing over 130 deaths, and unleashing massive tsunamis. Plafker had been in Alaska before, so he noted after a few hours flying that there was no disruption of the landscape to show the earth had moved. That bothered him. It suggested there was something different about the Good Friday earthquake.
Plafker would spend the rest of his life trying to figure out how and why, besides its huge strength—9.2 magnitude—the Good Friday earthquake was different. In the process, Plafker would confirm the then-controversial theory of plate tectonics.
Henry Fountain was a reporter and science writer for TheNew York Times. His journalistic training shows in the way he explains science for people with minimal background. For example, he describes a glacier “is like a giant milling machine moving across the landscape” and says at Valdez “the sediments the dock sat on turned to jelly and slumped during the quake.”
Fountain writes carefully and respectfully about the people who lost loved ones, their belongings, their livelihood in the quake and flooding it caused. For example, he reports on the difficulties small villages face in trying to rebuild: the costs of materials, the need to work quickly, and the emotional issues connected to the villages’ loss and fear.
The Great Quake would be a good complement to students’ studies in science and to students interested in emergency preparedness and crisis management.
The 15 chapters in The Great Quake average 17 pages long, but they are visually divided into sections by horizontal rules, so students’ reading could be conveniently split into smaller tasks.
The format of Bill O’Reilly’s The Day the World Went Nuclear might make students think the book is childish, but it’s not. It is an adult book designed to lay out facts in a readily understandable, straightforward way. O’Reilly leaves the speculation about would have happened if America had not chosen to use atomic bombs to other writers.
O’Reilly puts a multifaceted story in a very accessible format with short chapters, well-leaded type, and lots of pictures. The chapters are dated so it is easy for readers to keep the timeline of events in mind.
One interesting feature of the book is a list of key figures in the development and dropping of “Little Boy” on Hiroshima August 6, 1945, along with photographs of them.
A series of short articles after the text proper present related topics such as the decision to use the bomb, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and America’s incarceration of her Japanese citizens. The book also contains President Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech, Emperor Hirohito’s surrender speech, and chapter devoted to the later lives of individuals associated with the A-bomb drop.
The Day the World Went Nuclear is obviously appropriate in connection with students’ study of American history or world history. O’Reilly’s book fills in gaps that students’ history texts omit.
Reading O’Reilly’s text should not be challenging for students eighth grade and above. Chapters are typically only five or six pages long, probably under 1,000 words.
Let me tell you how good Nicholas J. C. Pistor’s Shooting Lincoln is: I stopped taking notes after the first 100 pages because I couldn’t wait to see how the story ended. I knew photographed story of the century wasn’t the assassination; there are no photos of that. So, what was the big story and who got it first?
The professional competition was between Matthew Brady, who considered himself an artist, and Alexander Gardner, who called himself a photographer.
Brady’s photographs of Lincoln are works of art. His photo of Lincoln standing, taken in New York City before the Republican Convention, may have been responsible for Lincoln’s nomination.
Gardner, an editor from Scotland, learned the basics of photography from Brady, doing grunt work while Brady got the fees and the acclaim. Gardner’s famous battlefield photos from Antietam, which Brady displayed in his studio, revolutionized battlefield photography.
Gardner became convinced that journalism’s future was tied to photography. He proved that in the summer of 1865 by taking the first live-news photograph of the story of the century. (Read the book to learn what that news event was.) Gardner also invented mug shots. They were first used to aid in the search for John Wilkes Booth and his accomplices.
Shooting Lincoln would complement study in American history, communications, journalism, and business.
Pistor’s book is 16 chapters averaging about 14 pages each, plus a prologue dated Feb. 5, 1865 that begins “The President looked like he was already dead” and an epilogue dated 1875, that’s about motion pictures.
A note about book sources
I bought all these books from HamiltonBook.com. You won’t get the latest bestsellers there, but you can get deep discounts on books that have been in print a few years. All items are new, and all the books are hardbound unless marked otherwise. Postage and handling for up to 18 books is just $4. https://www.hamiltonbook.com/books
When I took my MS at Syracuse University, I was awarded an assistantship at the Newhouse School of Public Communications. My first term, I was assigned to work for a faculty member in the Advertising Department.
A few weeks into the fall term, the Dean of the Newhouse School told me that the professor had protested being given an assistant with no advertising experience. The Dean said he told her there are usually a couple assistants who need to be reassigned and if she’d wait a couple weeks, he could arrange a swap. The professor had come back that week and told him I was the best assistant she’d ever had.
She said she had given me a stack of papers to grade and was astonished that I knew exactly what to look for and had graded the papers overnight. I had accomplished the task that so astonished the professor by grading students’ papers according to how well they did what the directions told them to do.
At the time, I couldn’t believe that no other graduate assistants had reached that startling conclusion. Now, that that I’m older and more disillusioned, I realize that being able to discover the goal of an assignment from the directions for an assignment is not a common skill.
That’s why I was pleasantly surprised this week by an email I received from a graduate of a area college expressing interest in doing illustrations for books I’m writing about how to visit in nursing homes. (If you’re interested in getting updates on what I’m doing, use this link: https://dropping-by-books.ck.page/signup)
The artist said was interested in the project because she had done some visiting in a nursing home and her grandmother was reaching a point at which it is likely that she will have to be in a nursing home. Those two facts from her personal experience tell me she understands the goal of my books.
As writing teachers, you and I need to regularly spend a few minutes forcing students to think about what the goals of specific writing prompts are. If students see writing prompts as just busy work, even if they respond well to the prompts, we’ve not done a good job of teaching writing.
For most of the last 20 years, I’ve written primarily about teaching writing to teens and adults for an audience of teachers of teens and adults. For about the last 18 months, however, I’ve been writing about nursing home visiting for an audience of people who wanted or needed visit in a nursing home.
Although I had some experience in visiting in nursing homes to draw on, the project has become a challenge. The challenge hasn’t been coming up with things to write about. I had enough experiences in doing nursing home visiting to be able to identify the information I needed.
The problem is identifying how to reach my audience.
I know from research and observation that most friendly visitors are women, typically age 30 to 60. Other than that broad age range, there isn’t much that they have in common. They aren’t defined by any of the usual categories of race, religion, political affiliation, social class, education, hobbies, etc. (A snide smirk: friendly visitor is what nursing homes typically call someone who doesn’t come to visit family members, which always makes me wonder if people who come to visit family are unfriendly visitors. But I digress.)
Before I can sell books, I must (1) find what people who are likely to be interested in becoming a nursing home visitor have in common and (2) determine who do the majority of them rely on to guide their choice of free-time activities.
What does this have to do with teaching writing?
If you’ve gotten this far, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with teaching writing. If you’re teaching high schoolers who just want to scratch something down and get out to soccer practice, it has nothing to do with teaching writing.
On the other hand, if you teach college students heading into careers, audience identification is a big deal. Students who have a skill or product to sell—even if the product is themselves—must be able to find the audience that wants what they have to sell.
The student’s first task is to identify that audience. If a student is an artist who wants to sell his art work, he has to find people who buy original art. If the student wants to work as an accountant, he has to find people who hire accountants.
The second task of anyone with a skill or product to sell is to figure out where their audience congregates and to go there. Sellers can’t can show potential buyers why they need their products unless they are in the place where their audience hangs out. That place need not be a physical place; it can be a virtual space online. Your students may need to figure out what online platform employers in their field use and learn to use that platform well.
Coming back to my problem, my buyers will probably be found on Facebook. What I need to know is which people on Facebook women between the ages of 30 and 60 will rely on to guide their choice of what to do in their free time. I’m looking for people with enough Facebook followers that their recommendation can sell 101 to 500 books about how to visit in a nursing home.
The untold story of the Mount St. Helens eruption that Steve Olson tells is not about volcanology. Olson’s book is about the choices people made before, during, and after the May 1980 eruption, and, by extension, about the choices they are making today that will influence what happens—who dies—the next time Mount St. Helens erupts.
Olson grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and although he’d gone East before the mountain blew up, he always wondered if he might have been one of the 57 people killed the morning St. Helens erupted. In Eruption, he looks at the stories of those who died and why they died.
Olson sketches the development of the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest which gave the region its prosperity. Weyerhaeuser, America’s biggest lumber company, was determined to keep logging old-growth timber in the Mount St. Helens area despite the rumblings of the volcano or conservationists trying to get protected status for the old-growth timber.
When the volcano began to rumble, outsiders came in to watch: gawkers, volcanologists, pilots, radio operators, and news people. Some of them were among the 57 killed (including former President Harry S Truman) when the mountain erupted. The descriptions of how people died are necessarily horrific; most people fortunately didn’t live long enough to suffer.
Eruptionexplores topics in science and history classes and in current events.Volcanoes, conservation, disaster preparedness, and the health of America’s lumber industry are all timely topics. Mount Nyiragongo in Congo erupted in June and is still disrupting life there.The US is due to hear from Mount St. Helens again soon: Volcanic eruptions in the Cascade Range occur on average every 25 years, according to Olson..
Olson divides his book into seven parts (plus a prologue and epilogue). Each part is subdivided into topics which function as chapters, although some of them are under three pages long. The longest subdivisions are between 11 and 17 pages; most are much shorter.
Killing the Poormaster is history that reads like a novel, keeping readers engaged and rooting for the underdog hero to triumph. Holly Metz opens the book with a three-paragraph description of the death February 25, 1938 of Harry Barck, Hoboken, New Jersey’s poormaster. The poormaster job gave him power to determine who got financial help duing the Great Depression and how much they got.
That morning in Barck’s office Joe Scutellaro asked for money to feed his family. When Barck refused, there was a scuffle. Scutellaro said Barck fell forward onto a spike used for holding papers, which was on the desk. Police said Scutellaro picked up the spike and stabbed Barck with it.
Scutellaro’s trial for Barck’s murder threw a spotlight on Hoboken’s corrupt government and the nation’s inadequate response to the needs of the jobless. Scutellaro was defended by a celebrity attorney, who turned the trial into an indictment of the American system of public welfare.
Killing the Poormaster is a literary nonfiction text with relevance to courses in the social sciences: history, social psychology, and economics. It also has connections and/or analogies to current political events.
Metz divides her book into 14 chapters plus a brief prologue and chapter-length epilogue about what happened to the main characters after the trial. Three of the 14 chapters are between 20 and 30 pages, but they are broken into sections by dingbats, so they wouldn’t be hard for students to read in two or three sittings.
At a cost of about $180,000, every year the citizens of Halifax, Canada, send Boston, Mass., a 50-foot Christmas tree, John U. Bacon says in his opening chapter of The Great Halifax Explosion. The tree is Halifax’s way of thanking Bostonians for coming to the Canadians’ aid when a ship loaded with six million pounds of explosives—one-fifth of the force of the A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima—blew up in Halifax Harbor on Dec. 6, 1917.
In subsequent chapters, Bacon relates the often-frosty relations between the US and Canada before World War I. He tells about Halifax Harbor’s response when the Titanic sank April 15, 1912, and describes the effects the world war being fought in Europe was already having on the Halifax population.
Using local people as his lens, Bacon shows the series of misjudgments that led to the explosion and other misjudgments that resulted in needless tragedies afterward. He also relates tales of heroism and many more tales of dumb luck.
In telling his story, Bacon dips into topics such as diverse as forensic science, munitions, right-of-way rules for seaways, contingency planning, and experiential learning. Every student ought to find something interesting in Bacon’s text. What’s more, teachers should have no trouble coming up with a set of writing prompts based on the text.
Bacon “writes tight.” His chapters average eight pages. There are plenty of direct quotations. Readers can’t just skim the text, but it’s rare to find three consecutive paragraphs that require slowing down to understand some technical information.
A note about book sources
I bought all these books from HamiltonBook.com. You won’t get the latest bestsellers there, but you get deep discounts on books that have been in print a few years. All items are new, and all the books are hardbound unless marked otherwise. Hamilton Book has a flat shipping and handling fee of $4 for an order of up to 18 books.
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.