Teaching writing online: Three practices that work

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.

Icon represents textbooks
Teach writing without 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.

one-way sign
Limit students to your choice of prompts.

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.

a double-sided sheet of paper
Put all students 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.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

What’s the reason for political incivility?

2 angry stick figures in each other's face
More to the point, can it be toned down or prevented?

With the 2020 presidential election just four days away, English and social studies teachers probably have only one more chance to take advantage of the learning opportunities it affords before their students start thinking of it as history.

Today I’m going to give ELA and SS teachers a formal writing prompt to assign before the election to teens grades 11 and 12 and to adult students.

(If you missed last week’s blog post, it suggested having teens or adults in students in English classes and appropriate social studies classes attempt to outline each candidate’s position on one of the questions asked in the second 2020 presidential debate.)

Here’s how to prepare students

First, assign students to read or listen to comments by two prominent academics who are concerned about how of people’s ability to discuss politics civilly has almost disappeared in America. The two are Danielle Allen, an author and the director of the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, and Pete Peterson, dean of the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy, who writes and speaks about public engagement. They were interviewed on PBS NewsHour by Jeffrey Brown on Oct. 1, 2020.  The NewsHour provides both a transcript and an audio tape of the interview. Here are shortlinks you can give students:

Set up the writing prompt

Read or listen to these a short interview with two scholars about what they think are the reasons Americans can no longer discuss political issues without being rude or nasty to those with whom they disagree. As you read/listen keep alert to what the two commentators identify as the reasons for the breakdown of civil discourse. Here are links to the written transcript and the audio recording of the Oct. 1, 2020 interview.

Here is the writing prompt:

In an informative/expository text discuss what you think is the single most important cause of the breakdown in political civility. Please confine your analysis to no more than 750 words. Deadline for submission is [time, date].

Here are additional directions:

Write your analysis in the third person. Support each topic sentence with summaries or quotations from different sources. You may use your personal experience or observation only as one supporting point of one of your three body paragraphs.

Here’s a pattern students can use to plan their responses:

Thesis: X is the single most important factor in the breakdown of political civility.

  • X is the single most important factor in the breakdown of political civility because [reason 1].
  • X is the single most important factor in the breakdown of political civility because [reason 2].
  • X is the single most important factor in the breakdown of political civility because [reason 3].

A hint that might help uncover related ideas

Find out when whatever you think is the most important factor in the breakdown of civility began to be talked about in books and in the news media. If you can find the names of a couple people who wrote about that subject, you may be able to get related ideas from Wikipedia. Knowing the approximate time the factor you’ve identified became a topic for public discussion might also suggest people you know that you could interview about whether/how that factor affected them.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

 

 

A writing prompt on epidemics in history

Today’s writing prompt could be used in social studies, science, or English classes. It requires some rather superficial research to show students that pandemics are not some misery deliberately inflicted on them. Their research will undoubtedly show that people don’t change much: the way politicians responded to an epidemic a few centuries ago is basically how they responded this year.

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

Background for teachers

America’s earliest explorers brought diseases with them, which wiped out large numbers of native peoples. The smallpox epidemic of 1721, which came to Boston via infected seamen, played an important role in preparing the way for the American Revolution. And during the Revolution, North America’s first continental smallpox epidemic killed more than five times as many Americans as the war did. Casualties would have been even higher except that in 1777 George Washington ordered American soldiers to inoculated—a highly controversial move for the time.

Writing prompt background for students

As you’re well aware, we are in the midst of a pandemic. You may feel that what you’re going through is a totally unique experience. Actually, epidemics are not unusual. There have been epidemics throughout history.

Students’ assignment

Identify an earlier pandemic/epidemic to compare with the Covid 19 epidemic. Compare and/or contrast the response of government to that contagion to the response of government to the Covid 19 epidemic.
Based on your analysis, write an informative/explanatory text in which you explain how the earlier government’s response to its epidemic was better/as good/worse than America’s to Covid 19

Format your text for reading as a digital document, using hyperlinks to resources you cite. Please keep your text to under [650] words. Deadline for submission is [date, time].

Suggestions for success

It will probably be easiest to limit your analysis to one geographic area even if the governmental entity in charge at the time of the earlier epidemic may have been superseded by another government since them. Geography has a significant impact on the spread of contagions and geography doesn’t change quickly.

Depending on your interests, you might investigate similarities/differences with regard to such things as:

  • The initial reaction by government
  • Who/what did government initially blame
  • Whether the source identified by government was the actual source
  • Did the populace trust the government’s story
  • Actions taken by government to halt the contagion. Were they appropriate?effective? Why/why not?
  • Duration of the epidemic
  • Death figures, esp. as % of population

NOTE: You are not limited to choosing from those comparison points.

You could use this fill-in-the-blanks format to help you formulate a working thesis and writing skeleton™:

The government[s] of [Place] in [year] has done [better/as well/worse] at responding to the Covid 19 epidemic compared to how the government[s] of [Place] in [date] did at responding to the [type of epidemic] at [time].

  • I know that the government[s] of [Place] in [year] has done [better/as well/worse] at responding to the Covid 19 epidemic compared to how the government[s] of [Place] in [date] did at responding to the [type of epidemic] at [time] because [reason you know #1].
  • I know that the government[s] of [Place] in [year] has done [better/as well/worse] at responding to the Covid 19 epidemic compared to how the government[s] of [Place] in [date] did at responding to the [type of epidemic] at [time] because [reason you know #2].
  • I know that the government[s] of [Place] in [year] has done [better/as well/worse] at responding to the Covid 19 epidemic compared to how the government[s] of [Place] in [date] did at responding to the [type of epidemic] at [time] because [reason you know #3].

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Define globalization neutrally

A McDonald's in France
Service-au-volant. McCafé.  How do you say “Micky D’s” in French?

This cross-curricular writing prompt is designed to make students consciously aware that even definitions can be slanted. The prompt could be used in social studies courses, media courses, or ELA courses.  At the high school level, teachers of two different courses might use the prompt, which reduces students’ workload while increasing students’ perception of the importance of the assignment.

A formal writing prompt for teens and adults

Globalization is a term we hear nearly every day. What is globalization? Consult at least a half dozen reputable sources for their definitions. Do the definitions provided by each source agree? If they don’t agree, are their definitions totally at odds or do they disagree over a few specific points? Does the wording of the various definitions suggest an inclination to regard globalization either positively or negatively?

Your assignment

Based on your analysis, craft what you believe to be a definition of globalization that is neutral; that is, a definition that is neither enthusiastic about globalization nor totally opposed to it.

Using the neutral definition you crafted, write an informative/explanatory text in which you explain how according to that definition globalization either is or is not good for America. Format your text for reading as a digital document, using hyperlinks to sources you cite. Please keep your text to under [650 words].

Suggestions for success

This assignment is as much about how carefully you read as it is about how well you write. Don’t assume that people whose position you agree with define globalization in the same way you do. Also, don’t assume that people with whom you disagree define globalization the same way you do. One reason political arguments can get heated is that, without realizing it, two people often use the same terms with different meanings.

You may work with a partner or group if you want to increase the number of sources you examine and have the benefit of more than one point of view. It is probably unwise to have more than a dozen sources or more than four people in your group. With too much material, you’ll never get through the assignment.

If you work with a partner or group, each person should write his or her own text. Having each person write certain paragraphs is rarely successful, and assigning one person to do the writing is unfair to everyone.

A note to PUSHwriting readers

If you use this prompt, you’ll need to be prepared to suggest reputable sources that students can consult. Dictionaries alone are unlikely to be adequate and most students’ nonfiction reading won’t include publications about world trade and international economics. They’ll need to be pointed toward sources that won’t overwhelm them, but will provide different perspectives. In preparing to prepare students for the prompt, you’ll probably need do more work than they will.

This prompt previously appeared on another of my websites which is no longer live. A post which linked to the prompt has been removed.

Photo by JP Valery at Unsplash.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

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

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

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

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.