Explosive literary nonfiction for English classes

photos of covers of three books
Three literary nonfiction books about events that changed communities.

Eruption

photo of the eruption of Mount St. Helens.
Red, white, and blue suggest the national effects of the Mount St. Helens volcano.

Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens.  Steve Olson. ©2016. Norton. 299 p.

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.

Eruption explores 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

Accused man in handcuffs

Killing the Poormaster: A Saga of Poverty, Corruption, and Murder in the Great Depression. Holly Metz. ©2012. Lawrence Hill Books. 308 p.

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.

The Great Halifax Explosion

Blood red sky and ocean

The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism. John U. Bacon. ©2017. William Morrow. 418 p.

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.  

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

A writing prompt: experience shapes expectations

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:

  1. I know that prior experience shapes present behavior because Person One’s prior experience with __A__ shapes Person One’s present behavior.
  2. I know that prior experience shapes present behavior because Person Two’s prior experience with __B__ shapes Person Two’s present behavior.
  3. 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.

© 2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Find the error: An informal writing task

I pluck sentences I find in written materials that individuals and businesses actually distributed and put those sentences into informal writing tasks that give students practice in finding and correcting writing mechanics errors. Informal writing tasks are more realistic than publisher-created exercises because, like real-world writing situations, they don’t tell students what types of errors to look for.

Here’s a script for a two-minute informal writing task for high school or adult students.

graphic representation of a coronavirus
Now-familiar imagery representing the Covid 19 virus.

I’m going to show you a sentence from a story by Vanessa Romo which appeared Nov. 19, 2020 in the NPR—National Public Radio’s—news feed. The sentence appeared under the headline “Tyson Managers Suspended After Allegedly Betting If Workers Would Contract Covid.” Here is the sentence:

[Display and read aloud] “The plaintiffs say managers also continued transferring employees between plants after some had tested positive for the coronavirus without requiring them to quarantine.”

In no more than two sentences, identify any errors you find in the sentence. You have one minute to write.

Now that you’ve identified the error, rewrite the sentence to eliminate the error. You’ll have 30 seconds to write.

You’ll notice I say to “display and read aloud” rather than merely give students the item. I do that to help weak readers and students for whom English is not their primary language.

Students should find that “without requiring them to quarantine” is misplaced. Being quarantined is not required before people can test positive for a coronavirus. Quarantining is required for:

  • People who have already tested positive for the coronavirus, and
  • People who have been exposed to other people who tested positive for the coronavirus.

The corrected sentence should read like this: The plaintiffs say managers also continued transferring employees between plants without requiring them to quarantine after some had tested positive for the coronavirus.

The corrected sentence indicates that anyone exposed to corona-infected people should be quarantined.

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Applaud stick-with-it writers

I don’t like writing.

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.

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Words whose spelling-meaning links must be taught: SYDLS

Everyday English speech is cluttered with simple words whose appearance—that is to say, their spelling—must be drilled into students so they don’t mistake one familiar word for another similar-sounding word when they write.

I tell my students they must know, for example, when to use bare and when to use bear. The reason they must know the correct use of those simple words, I tell them, is “so you don’t look stupid.” I refer to such similar-sounding familiar word pairs or word trios as “SYDLS words.” 

This week, I’ve seen dozens of SYDLS mistakes in, of all places, a course developed by the Smithsonian in conjunction with The Great Courses entitled America’s Founding Fathers. The course embeds the professor’s lecture into the video as subtitles. It appears that someone transcribed the lecture from an audio recording, but no one checked the transcription for accuracy. The transcription includes such SYDLS as these:

  • “unregulated as to some,” in a discussion of finances, instead of unregulated as to sum
  • “enact bands on the importation of slaves” instead of enact bans
  • “The principle states” instead of the principal states.

(I also saw justice tenacity” instead of just as tenaciously, which is a mishearing, although not a SYDLS.)

I have a file box of over 300 SYDLS word sets. I teach the most common ones the way I take vitamins: one a day. I try to give students some mnemonic device to help them remember one half of a pair of confusable terms. Sometimes that’s a drawing, like this:

Simple mnemonic for when not to use the spelling alter.

See how the two As in altar are used as like sawhorses to create an altar?

Sometimes it’s just suggesting a link between a word and its spelling. For example, the word principle is used in settings where the idea of a rule could be substituted without destroying the meaning of the sentence entirely.

If you aren’t already dropping daily hints to your students about correct use of common words, I suggest you put that on your to-do list. It requires relatively little work on your part to make sure your students don’t often look stupid.

Postscript: Aside from the SYDLS, America’s Founding Fathers is a great course. I’d love to sit in Allen C. Guelzo’s classroom without benefit of subtitles. He really is a master teacher.

© 2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Informal writing prompt: trees coming down

Again today, I have an informal writing prompt built on a message actually sent by a business. That means this writing prompt is an authentic writing task, similar to those students are likely to encounter in nearly every type of work. The prompt is could be used in classes from grade 8 through first-year college.

Here’s your script:

I’m going to show you a four-sentence message that contains some errors and ask you to identify the errors by writing one sentence about each of the four sentences in the message.  This is the message:

memo about tree-cutting
This is the message that was actually sent.

Please identify the error or errors in the message sentence by sentence. As you make clear which sentence you’re discussing, you don’t need to write your sentences in the same order in which they appear in the message. You have two minutes to write.

[After the two minutes] Now I want you to rewrite the message to make it shorter and clearer. You have one minute to write.

Optional group activity

To get maximum value from this informal prompt, you could have students work in small groups for five minutes, to discuss what they changed and why they made those changes.

Students should notice grammar errors

Every student should notice that the second and fourth sentences are actually sentence fragments. Every student should also notice that the third sentence begins with the pronoun that cannot logically refer to the preceding noun: buildings don’t get loud; sounds do.

A few students may quibble over whether “multiple trees” is redundant and whether “will be taking down” should be “will take down,” since the activity appears to not be scheduled to start before tomorrow.

Students should identify the point

The point hidden of the message is: “Expect loud noise tomorrow morning when trees are cut on the front and back sides of the building.”


FYI: Next week I plan to take a break from posting informal writing prompts to recommend three fascinating literary nonfiction books. Two are about famous people and one is about a man who was tremendously influential but is barely remembered today. 

© 2020 Linda G. Aragoni 

 

Informal writing prompt: wrong word after linking verb

Here’s another informal writing prompt to use with teens or adult students in English classes.

Show and read aloud to students this three-sentence section of a blog post for web designers:

The practice of sectioning off content with the use of design elements has become increasingly popular. It allows designers to create some visual separation and develop a rhythm. The idea is to place separate-but-related portions of text into dedicated containers that look differently.

Then ask students to identify in no more than three sentences what errors, if any, they notice and how to correct the error or errors.

To turn this informal writing prompt into a miniature grammar lesson, add two or three minutes of teaching. The only actual error in the item is the word differently. Differently is an adverb. The linking verb look needs to be followed by the adjective different. Compare:

Marlene looks fatly in that red dress.
to
Marlene looks fat in that red dress.

Also compare:

I feel awfully today.
to
I feel awful today.

“Dedicated containers are differently” doesn’t make sense, but “dedicated containers are different” does make sense.

Hint to share with students: You can usually tell if you used an adverb where you needed an adjective by replacing the verb in the sentence with is (or are if the subject is plural).

© 2021 Linda G. Aragoni

Teach students to correct at the end

Poorer writers spend more time worrying about writing mechanics as they compose than good writers do. In fact, the better the writer, the more likely she or he is to leave those corrections until after their draft of that day’s work is completed.

text block: nowhere near the endStudents writers’ thoughts typically wander far afield between sentences. Writing seems to them to take forever because most of their “writing time” is spent thinking about things other than the topic about which they’re supposedly writing. To get students to think like writers, you need to get them to think consecutive thoughts on a single subject quickly and put those thoughts on paper quickly without crossing out and rewriting.

 I use informal writing prompts on course-related topics to teach students how to speed draft, that is, how to put their ideas (typically two or three sentences) on paper quickly. Then after students have written their short responses, I typically have them check their work for just one particular type of error that I choose from the grammar and punctuation errors their class members make most often.

Sign: almost the endBy forcing students to write responses to informal prompts quickly and following the informal writing with a requirement to check that work for some error I specify, I accustom students to editing their work before they close their writing session.

© Linda G. Aragoni

Collect grammar errors to prompt writing

I collect grammar errors.

I turn those grammar errors (and other writing mistakes) into informal writing prompts that force students to quickly identify the error or errors in the item and recommend corrections.

Writing errors frequently appear in print because writers were in a hurry. Given a second look at what they wrote (or shown the same error in publisher-created exercises which tell students what type of error to look for) those writers probably would have spotted the error right away.

Here are some recent additions to my collection

I thought this item contained a grammar error, but in view of the furor over 2020 election postings to social media last year,  perhaps it just told the truth:

Please note, reviews will be moderated/scanned for any malicious activities, so these will take some time to appear.  (Source missing)

Here is a second item that definitely has a problem:

Karl Rove gently explains that Joe Biden beat Trump in Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal.  (Source missing)

A third item comes from the Bainbridge NY Free Library. It offers:

Book Bundles for kids with activity ideas. (Source:  Bainbridge Connects, Vol. 7 Issue 1, 2021)

A store sign at the Sidney NY Great American has a problem:

Do not attach leashes to poles on our sidewalks. Great American will not be held responsible for their actions.

Florida got in trouble by going to Cuba in this from National Public Radio:

After making landfall in Cuba early Sunday, Florida now faces storm surges of up to four feet.  (Source: Matthew S. Scwartz, NPR, 11-08-2020)

Nov. 8, 2020 was a bad day at NPR. Another NPR reporter said this:

While he said testing can help, former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb cautioned against holiday gatherings and encouraged the use of high quality masks during an interview on Face the Nation on Sunday. (Source: Wayne Davis, NPR, 11-0-8-2020)

Misplaced modifiers aren’t the only errors I find

Lest you think the only errors that appear in print are misplaced modifiers, the Bainbridge, NY, Free Library offered a list of the benefits of reading that began this way:

Research shows that reading an actual real paper books: [bulleted list followed] (Source: Bainbridge Connects, Vol. 7 Issue 1, 2021)

Here is a second item with problems other than a misplaced modifier:

From last March through the present, many students are not doing work when they are learning from home. (Source: The Blue and White: School News & Notes, Bainbridge-Guilford Central School District, December 2020 • Volume 40, No. 2, p.8.)

It would be a gross exaggeration to say my students enjoy responding to informal writing prompts on grammar problems, but they do get a kick out of seeing that people who know better make the same mistakes they do and often making them for the same reason: Not taking time to review what they wrote.

Informal writing prompts require you to do more prep work than you’d need for handing out a worksheet, but once you craft them you can use them for years. And they provide students with writing practice in addition to the value of the content on which they focus.

©2021 Linda G. Aragoni