Is big business dangerous? A writing prompt

In my recent reading, I came across two passages written almost a century apart about big business.  Together they offer mature high school students and adults an opportunity to do close analysis of a text.

books from which quotes comeThe passages for analysis

These two sentences are from English novelist John Galsworthy writing in his 1928 novel Swan Song, which is part of his famous Forsyte Saga.

One sees more and more…the really dangerous people are not the politicians, who want things with public passion—that is, mildly, slowly; but the big business men who want things with private passion strenuously, quickly. They know their own minds; and if we don’t look out they’ll wreck the country.

This sentence comes from historian Philipp Blom in his 2015 book Fracture: Life and Culture in the West 1918-1938:

Today, a real revolution would have to turn not against the seat of government but against the headquarters of the corporations whose political, social, and cultural influence has so vastly increased that presidents and prime minister seem to be little more than decorated puppets placed at center stage for cosmetic purposes.

Directions for students

Both these quotations warn that big business is dangerous.Examine the two author’s comments carefully. To help you analyze the comments, consider these questions:

  • Are their reasons for fearing big business the same?
  • Is the threat they perceive identical?
  • Do they each define big business the same way?
  • Is big business the only threat the writers see?
  • Do they suggest some fears that they don’t state?
  • If you hadn’t been given the date of each quote, is there internal evidence that would let you tell which is the earlier?

The formal writing prompt

Write an informative/expository text in which you discuss three reasons why, according to the writers, big business poses a potential danger to the their countries. Be sure you explain what the danger would look like if it became a reality. Would it, for example, ruin the economy or cause a revolt that would topple the government?

Please keep your text to no more than 550 words.

You can use bare bones writing skeleton™ like this to organize your thoughts:

  • Big business is dangerous because [reason 1]
  • Big business is dangerous because [reason 2]
  • Big business is dangerous because [reason 3]

Make sure your reasons don’t overlap.

Note to teachers

Students won’t have trouble preparing the writing skeleton™,  but they will have difficulty coming up with more than just the writing skeleton. They have to dig deeper to figure out the deeper significance of the phrasing the authors use. In work by good writers, the details matter.

© 2020 Linda G. Aragoni

 

Success in an unstable world

A writing prompt for students in 2020

I usually start an online writing class by having students introduce themselves as writers. I’m debating whether current events call for posing a different question this fall that recognizes students’ anxieties are about more than whether their bad grammar will make them fail first semester English.

Introduction to the proposed prompt

You are enrolled in an academic program at a time when much in our world seems unstable and unpredictable.

What tools have you developed thus in your academic program that will help you succeed in life? Are those the tools that are in demand in a stable world, or are they tools that will enable you to face an unstable, unpredictable world? If the world into which you’re entering is unstable and unpredictable, how can you prepare for it? How do you know what tools you’ll need?

The writing prompt itself

Write an informative/explanatory text of no more than 650 words in which you explain how well you personally are prepared to function as an independent adult in the world that’s before you. In your text:

  • Identify the information source(s) from which you deduced the tools that are needed in an unstable, unpredictable world.
  • Describe two, three, or four specific skills or knowledge you possess that either will or will not equip you to take up an adult role in this unstable, unpredictable world.
  • Tell readers either how you came by those skills and/or knowledge or why you didn’t acquire them already.

Comments? Suggestions?

I’ll have to give this some more thought. Many of my great ideas turn out to be duds. If you have any insights, please put them in the contact form.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Packed sentences to be unpacked as writing prompts

Good writers have an uncanny ability to pack a great deal of experience into a single sentence. Today I’m going to offer writing teachers three quotations from three very different sources from which mature teens and adult students can choose one to unpack and share how the truth of the quoted passage can be applied to some living person (or group) or to some situation in the world right now.

similarly shaped black blocks of varying sizesHere are the three items with a note about the source of each one.

A dad’s advice

In John Galswothy’s novel To Let, Jolyon Forsyte says this to his son, who is 20 and in love:

Wishes father thought but they don’t breed evidence.

A widow’s observation

Mrs. Cartwright, an elderly widow who has just lost her husband, says this to Barnaby Gaitlin, the central character of Anne Tyler’s novel A Patchwork Planet:

Isn’t it ridiculous how even in the face of death it still matters that the price of oranges has gone up, and an impolite produce boy can still hurt your feelings?

An historian’s question

Who can say how much a man believes when he has an actor’s temperament and a demagogue’s faith in numbers?

Literary historian Van Wyck Brooks asks this question in his  1936 book The Flowering of New England 1815-1865, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1937.  The man of whom he is speaking is  George Bancroft, whose multi-volume History of the United States began to appear in 1834.

What students must do

Each of the three sentences conveys more than its words literally mean. They convey something of the attitude of the speaker and his/her relationship to the person or persons alluded to in the quotation. Students need to take into account the context in which the words are spoken.

With an assignment like this, I often have students pair off and take 10 minutes of class time to discuss first impressions of each of the options. Hearing a different voice than their own sometimes sharpens a student’s perspective. 

I suggest giving students a limit of 300 words to explain the meaning of the quote they chose and the contemporary person or situation to which they think the quoted passage bears a kinship.

Value of this assignment

This assignment is a good segue from a writing course that’s been focused for a half year on nothing but nonfiction reading and writing to a course that pulls in both literary nonfiction and fiction as writing topics. Used in that manner, the assignment could be used as a benchmark to allow students to track their progress in understanding literary writing. (By benchmark, I mean that you record the grades to show entry-point skill. Course grades should be determined by end-of-course performance and should drop early score when students are figuring out what to do.)

©2020 Linda Aragoni

Writing prompt: Does health-care history repeat itself?

Today’s formal writing prompt is for use with teens and adults in social studies, history, political science, communications, and medical courses. It asks students to draw comparisons between the crisis Florence Nightingale confronted and the Covid-19 crisis in their own lives.

Photos of US Covid response plan and Florence NightingaleBackground for this writing prompt

In his 1918 book Eminent Victorians, the only woman author Lytton Strachey profiles is Florence Nightingale, whose 200th birthday was celebrated on May 12 this month. Nightingale won fame as a nurse during the Crimean War, 1853-56, which began as squabbling over the rights of Christian minorities in the Holy Land, then controlled by the Ottoman Empire. The war was fought in Ottoman Empire territory on the Crimean Peninsula, which is almost surrounded by the Black Sea. The United Kingdom, France and Sardinia joined the Ottomans against Russia, which was ostensibly fighting for the rights of Eastern Orthodox Christians in the Holy Land.

Here’s what Strachey says about the terrible conditions Nightingale encountered in the British military hospitals near the front:

What had occurred was, in brief, the complete break-down of our medical arrangements at the seat of war. The origins of this awful failure were complex and manifold; they stretched back through long years of peace and carelessness in England… In the inquiries which followed, it was clearly shown that the evil was in reality that worst of all evils—one which has been caused by nothing in particular and for which no one in particular is to blame. The whole organization of the war machine was incompetent.… Errors, follies, and vices on the part of individuals there doubtless were; but, in the general reckoning, they were of small account—insignificant symptoms of the deep disease of the body politic—the enormous calamity of administrative collapse.

Students’ writing prompt

In an informative/explanatory text, defend one of these two positions:

  • America’s unpreparedness for the pandemic shows the impossibility of preparing for unforeseeable events.
  • America’s unpreparedness for the pandemic shows political leaders’ failure to prepare for inevitable events.

Format your text as a digital document. Please keep your text to under 750 words. Your deadline for this assignment is [date].

Suggestions to students for getting started

To respond appropriately to this assignment, read Strachey’s entire section on Nightingale in the Crimea looking specifically for conditions she found in the Crimean hospitals that were known to have caused problems elsewhere. (You can read it free at Bartleby.com) This reading will help you identify conditions that might also be factors in the Covid-19 response.

But before you do any research into why the response to Covid-19 was feeble, prepare a writing skeleton™ like one of these with placeholders for points you need to make. This trick saves a lot of time. If you’re research shows your original position is not well-supported, all you need to is argue for the opposite position: You’ll already have evidence for it.

If your initial response is that America’s unpreparedness for the pandemic shows the impossibility of preparing for unforeseeable events, your writing skeleton would look something like this:

  1. America’s unpreparedness for the pandemic shows the impossibility of preparing for unforeseeable events because [first factor’s contributing to crisis] could not have been anticipated.
  2. America’s unpreparedness for the pandemic shows the impossibility of preparing for unforeseeable events because [second factor’s contributing to crisis] could not have been anticipated.
  3. America’s unpreparedness for the pandemic shows the impossibility of preparing for unforeseeable events because [third factor’s contributing to crisis] could not have been anticipated.

If your initial response is unpreparedness for the pandemic shows political leaders’ failure to prepare for inevitable events, your writing skeleton would look something like this:

  1. America’s unpreparedness for the pandemic shows political leaders’ failure to prepare for inevitable events because [first factor’s contribution to crisis] was predicted by experts.
  2. America’s unpreparedness for the pandemic shows political leaders’ failure to prepare for inevitable events because [second factor’s contribution to crisis] was predicted by experts.
  3. America’s unpreparedness for the pandemic shows political leaders’ failure to prepare for inevitable events because [third factor’s contribution to crisis] was predicted by experts.

Suggestions for success

Your evidence must come from reputable news sources.  If you don’t have access to a reliable national news outlet, try one of these national news organizations that are giving their resources at deep discounts to help people weather the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Chicago Tribune has a Memorial Day sale going on now. It is selling two months’ online access for $1 through Monday, June 1, but I discovered if you appear to be leaving without buying, they sweeten the deal to three months online for $1. After your come-on rate expires, the regular charge will go to $1.99/week billed every four  weeks, but you can cancel any time.

The Los Angeles Times is selling four weeks of online access for $1.

The Boston Globe is selling 4 weeks’ online delivery for 99 cents.

The New York Times is offering all its content online for $1 a week for a year. It bills subscribers $4 every 4 weeks, but you can cancel any time.

The Washington Post slashed the cost of a daily all-access digital subscription to $29 a year. (Premium Digital is $39 a year.)  Its Coronavirus Updates Newsletter is free.

If you prefer to listen to news, try the free National Public Radio news feed. (Transcripts of many of their items are available.)

Or watch PBS News Hour  (Transcripts of many of their items are available.)


Note to teachers

Teachers are welcome to use this prompt with their students providing they display the copyright notice. If you use this prompt, please drop me a note about how well it worked, or what went wrong. Thanks.

The final Friday of each month, I plan to post here at PUSHwriting, formal writing prompts for teachers of teens and adults in courses other than English language arts. Watch for them.

Graphic sources

U.S. Government COVID-19 Response Plan, March_13,_2020 Public domain

Florence Nightingale by Henry Hering (1814-1893) – National Portrait Gallery, London, Public Domain,

2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Informal writing prompts: English to algebra

Word problems are real problems for many students.  Introducing students to algebra by having them write math problems as English language sentences may help students learn to “read” algebra problems.

Sign: Informal Writing PromptsBy the time they reach seventh grade, students should have no difficulty with the math in this set of informal writing prompts, but they may be totally freaked out by being asked to write math problems in English sentences. As with other write-to-learn activities, your focus should be having students learn rather than having them get “a correct answer.”

I recommend that you display the informal prompts one at a time to students and read each one while students follow along. Since fewer than 40 percent of today’s students grades 8 through 12 can read at grade level, they need all the reading help you can give.

Informal prompt #1.

Here’s what to say: Use the numbers 2, 10 and 5. Write one sentence that tells someone what to do to the smallest number to produce the largest number. Begin your sentence with the word that describes the mathematical operation. You have 15 seconds to write.  (The answer is: Multiply 2 by 5.)

Oral follow up: Show me using addition what it means to multiply 2 by 5. (Answer: 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 = 10)

Informal prompt #2.

Use the numbers 2, 10 and 5, write one sentence that tells someone what to do to the largest number to produce the smallest number. Begin your sentence with the word that describes the mathematical operation. You have 15 seconds to write. (Answer: Divide 10 by 2.)

Oral follow up:  Show me using addition what it means to multiply 2 by 5. (Answer: 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 = 10)

Oral follow up: Show me using subtraction what it means to divide 10 by 5. (Answer: 10 – 5 then 5 – 5. There are two units of five in ten.)

Informal prompt #3.

Now for some detective work. Look at the sentences you already wrote. In a short sentence, tell me what word or words other than the numbers themselves appear in every sentences you wrote earlier. You have 15 seconds to write. (Answer: The word by is in both sentences.)

Informal prompt #4.

Looking again at the three sentences you have already written, how can you identify the number that is the multiplier or divisor in each of the sentences? Explain in one or two sentences. You have 30 seconds to write. (Answer: The word after by is the multiplier or divisor.)

Mini-lesson.

(Many students will guess that the word that comes after by is the multiplier or divisor but that doesn’t mean they are consciously aware that one of the meanings of the word by is “use the number that follows me as a multiplier or divisor depending on the sense of the sentence.” You need to help students recognize “the sense of the sentence.” Students have to use logic to figure out whether the sense of the sentence calls for multiplication of division. If they don’t grasp that idea through the written and oral discussion, they may get it using manipulatives.)

Ask students in which of their first two sentences is the word following the preposition by a multiplier. Ask how they know that word is a multiplier.

Ask students how they know the word they wrote after the preposition by in the second sentence is a divisor.

Next, have students do something hands-on, such as drawing a diagram or using manipulatives, to show:

  • multiplying 3 by 4
  • dividing 12 by 3
  • dividing 12 by 6

If you teach older teens or adult students, to let them save face tell them to show how they’d teach those mathematical computations to a neighbor’s kid or to their own child.

Finally, give students five or six equations and have them write them as English sentences, specifying the operation to be performed, like this:

25/5 = 5 (Answer: 25 divided by five equals five)
6 x 3 = 18 (Answer: Six multiplied by three equals 18.)

If this activity doesn’t result in a  light bulb moment for your students, wait two weeks and try it again with different numbers. Sometimes you need to present an essential concept multiple times before your presentation coincides with the students’  readiness to grasp that information. That’s one of the hard facts of life in the teaching profession.

©2020 Linda Aragoni

Set the right balance in formal writing prompts

See-saw shows weight of total challenge changes its acceptability
The total challenge posed by a writing prompt lets students respond well — or not.

When preparing formal writing prompts, whether you’re creating them to use as learning assessments or as content teaching tools, it’s important to strike the right balance between how challenging the course content in them is and how challenging the required writing is.

If you’ve taught for more than 27 minutes, you know some content in your courses is a lot harder for students to understand than other content. Similarly, some kinds of writing tasks are harder for students to do than others.

By writing tasks, I’m not talking about surface features such as grammar and punctuation, but about whether a particular topic can be both thought about and written about following basic thesis-and-support pattern, which you might  call by the misleading term “five paragraph essay”. A topic that can be both thought about and written about using the thesis-and-support pattern is the easiest type of writing. Writing that requires modifying that basic pattern in order to plan a response using one of the vastly more complex presentation formats, argument or narrative, is much more difficult.

Getting the balance right matters

When using writing as a teaching and/or learning assessment tool, you want to avoid overburdening students with writing challenges that require such concentrated thinking that there are few little gray cells left over for dealing with the challenges of your course content.

However, being cognizant that students must learn to write prose several notches above Fun with Dick and Jane, you want to encourage students to master at least the most common types of informative/explanatory texts, such as comparisons, cause and effect, and how-tos, so you’re not embarrassed to admit they are your students. (On YCTWriting.com, I plot informative/explanatory texts on a continuum between argument and narrative. You will find it on this expository essay page.)

Visual representations of balance in prompts

Try to imagine that all the difficulties a student could tolerate in one assignment—both writing difficulties and course content difficulties— should fit in a single container. In the graphic below, writing challenges are indicated by pink boxes, course content challenges by green ones.

boxes indicate sizes of writing and content difficulties
The bigger the box, the greater the challenge.

Acceptable proportions of writing and content challenge

There are three ways of packing those three different sizes of two types of challenges in a single container. You can have a moderately difficult writing challenge and a moderately difficult course content challenge, like this:

medium sized pink and green boxes together rate a thumbs up
Moderately difficult writing and content challenges are a good combination.

Students can usually cope with an assignment that combines an easy writing challenge and difficult course content, like this:

together a small pink box and large green box earn a thumbs up
An easy writing challenge can be combined with difficult course content challenge.

They can usually also cope with a difficult writing challenge if it’s accompanied by an easy course content challenge, like this:

Small green box atop large pink box earn a thumbs up for good balance
Easy course content plus difficult writing challenge is a good balance.

What does not work is a writing prompt that poses both difficult writing challenges and difficult course content challenges. That combination earns a thumbs down.

equal-sized pink and green boxes earn a thumbs up
Too-heavy boxes representing writing and content difficulties earn a thumbs down

Plan all your formal writing prompts so their writing difficulty to content difficulty ratio earns a thumbs up.

(A version of this post appeared previously on the PenPrompts.com blog; the web host ate the graphics, so I moved the content here.)

©2018 Linda G. Aragoni

Word choices influence perceptions

I frequently use quotes from fiction to trigger nonfiction writing prompts. Using quotes from fiction helps me reach both those  students who think they don’t need to learn anything outside English class if they’re going to be writers, and those others who think fiction is just made-up stuff that’s irrelevant to their lives.

Today I have a formal writing prompt for you that uses a quotation from a Tom Wolfe novel as its starting point. (FYI, my review of the novel will be posted on my blog GreatPenformances.wordpress.com on October 27, 2020.)

The prompt: Payroll situations or people?

Charlie peeps out from the O in TomIn Tom Wolfe’s novel A Man in Full, Charlie Crocker’s extensive commercial enterprise is in deep financial trouble. Charlie finally sees the need to reduce expenses.

Although “The Wiz,” Charlie’s numbers-cruncher, tells him, “The food division is the engine that drives the whole corporation,” Charlie demands the food division payroll be cut by 20%.

The Wiz protests, “That’s 2,000 people.”

Wolfe writes,” The word people, as opposed to words they had been using, payroll and employment situations, jarred Charlie for a moment.… ‘That is a lot.'”

Here’s your writing assignment:

Find other examples elsewhere in print (fiction and/or nonfiction) in which changing the noun used to refer to something changes how readers perceive it. The “something” could be a person, a group of people, an object, activity, or action. For each example you identify, determine why changing just one word changes people’s attitude at least momentarily.

In a nonfiction text, explain how word choices influence people’s perceptions. Use examples from your research to support your analysis.

Format your response as a digital document, providing hyperlinks to your examples. Please confine your responses to no more than [750] words. The deadline for this assignment is [date].

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Turn minds over to teach argument

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

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

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

What argument means

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

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

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

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

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

Force a change of perspective

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

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

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

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

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

© 2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Is virtual reality in your head?

cover of Crichton novel that suggested the writing promptWhile reading Michael Crichton’s novel 1994 Disclosure for my blog of reviews of the 20th century’s bestselling fiction, I ran across a sentence that I wrote in my notebook of things to think about.

Here’s  the sentence:

“We all live everyday in virtual environments, defined by our ideas.”

The term virtual reality was first used in 1982 in a science fiction novel, so Crichton’s use of the term just over a decade later to describe people’s thought processes was really very insightful.

4 icons each representing virtual reality
Each icon reveals a different aspect of Virtual Reality.

Our students probably have more experience with virtual reality than Crichton had in 1994 and have probably given the topic far less thought. I’m going to suggest a writing prompt that will force students to think about both the meaning of the term virtual reality and about human behavior.

Each icon at the left represents some aspect of the concept of virtual reality. Thinking about why the artist chose particular elements to draw may help students define virtual reality.

You may need to use informal writing to force students to examine each icon carefully enough to note the similarities and differences.

(Note: All four icons are available from thenounproject.com.)

Formal writing prompt about virtual reality

In his 1994 novel Disclosure,  which is set in a company that is building a virtual reality application, Michael Crichton says this: “We all live everyday in virtual environments, defined by our ideas.”

Here’s the writing assignment:

Explain how a person’s ideas function like a technology-generated virtual reality environment. Illustrate how that process works by referring to three or more individuals whose ideas lead/led them to behave in ways that are/were significantly different from the behavior of people around them. Include an example drawn from at least two of these three categories:

  • A living individual
  • An person born in the 20th century who is no longer living.
  • A character from a literary work.

Try to avoid having all your examples be of individuals whose behavior most people would probably consider “good” or having all your examples be of individuals whose behavior most people would probably consider “bad.” (Too many similar examples are boring.)

One last note for teachers

Many students don’t complete assignments because they take too long getting started. For that reason, you might want to prepare the way for this assignment by having students write informally on several different days before you give this assignment about people whose behavior was significantly different from those around them.

You could start by having students think about a living individual whose behavior diverges from that of people around him/her. News stories provide plenty, ranging from Nikolas Cruz to Greta Thunberg.

For historical figures, students might find it easiest to think about prominent people in various fields: Thomas Edison, Richard Nixon, Neil Armstrong, Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Punctuation matters: an informal writing prompt

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

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

The informal prompt

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

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

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

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

Notes on this informal activity

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

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

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