Make certainty part of opening week

Getting students off to a good start in a writing class means helping them set realistic expectations for the course. A quotation I copied from Carol Graham’s book Happiness for All? tells one good reason why we need to tell our students what we expect of them and what they can expect of us:

While individuals seem to be able to adapt to unpleasant certainty…they are much less able to adapt to change and uncertainty, even that which is associated with progress.

Most of my students enter my writing classes dreading it. I rarely  (actually never) turn any of them into writing enthusiasts in the first session, but I do change their uncertainty about what the course will entail to certainty.

Just as Graham says, my students are able to adapt to “unpleasant certainty” reasonably well. And in doing that, they are able to make progress toward writing competently.

Literary writing prompt: real characters

Here’s the core of a formal writing prompt that uses a quotation from Pearl S. Buck to get students thinking about literary characterization.

Author Pearl S. Buck, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, was regularly asked by readers whether characters in her novels “were real people.” Here’s how she responded:

Of course they are real people, created from the dust of memory and breathed upon by love. Yet not one of the lived outside my books exactly as they do within them.*

Here’s your writing assignment:

Explain how the way you define “real people” affects how you personally understand and appreciate a novel.

Here are some issues to consider:

1.  Think about what Buck means when she says her characters are real people. Do you think her definition of “real people” is the same as her readers’ definition?

2. Identify an example of a novel in which the characters are “real people” as Buck defined the term, but not “real people” as her readers defined the term.

3. Do you tend to define “real people” as Buck does or as her readers’ did?

It might be interesting to have students respond to this prompt once near the beginning of a year and again near the end, using different novels as their examples, to see if their study of literature changes the way they view works of literature.

*the quotation is from Buck’s autobiographical work My Several Worlds: A Personal Record., New York: John Day, 1954, p. 250.

Set students’ sights on successful year

As signs in every store window remind you, it’s back to school time.

Educational psychologists tell us that if we want students to do well at some task, it’s helpful to get them to envision themselves succeeding at that task.

So, as you prepare for the new school year, use an opening week writing prompt to prepare your students to do well this year.

In his 1982 novel Space, novelist James A. Michener makes this observation:

People make themselves capable.

Turn those four words into a short,  formal writing prompt in which your students must describe how they plan in your class to make themselves capable of doing one particular academic task in the 2019-2020 school year. The task could be anything from no longer confusing its with it’s, or mastering MLA citation style, learning how to respond to essay test questions, or mastering touch typing.

Without too much effort, you can make the writing prompt work as both an attitude adjustment and an assessment of your students’ writing level, including identifying some of their habitual, serious errors.

Put a note on your calendar to have students write an assessment during the last month of the school year of how well they succeeded.

Here are a few bits of Michener’s biography that you might want to share with your students.

Michener was raised by foster parents. He didn’t know who his biological parents were. Even his birthdate is a guess.

After high school, Michener won a scholarship to Swathmore College where he graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and history and a Phi Beta Kappa Key. Then he went on to study art in Scotland, London and Italy.

During the Great Depression, Michener was an English teacher.

He volunteered for the U.S. Navy in 1942. After the World War II, he turned his navy experiences into Tales of the South Pacific, which won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and became a successful musical.

Michener went on to write more than 40 other books, notable for their meticulous research.

During his lifetime, Michener’s books sold more than 75 million copies. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. His money helped establish the The James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown PA. He was active in politics and published a book in 1969 about the electoral college system, which was reprinted in 2016.

Related: My best teaching idea: Starting each course by introducing myself as a writer and having each of my students introduce themselves as writers. Naturally, we do it all in writing.

Writing prompt: Is higher education an insurance policy?

I’ve been thinking about insurance lately. (I have an annual premium coming due; it does concentrate the mind.)

Sometimes when I hear people talk about sending their kids to college so they can get a good job, I get the sense that they think of a college degree as a kind of insurance policy. Of course, nobody ever says that, but the implication seems to hover just overhead.

It might be worth asking high school juniors and seniors to explore what value they expect to receive in return for their tuition and fees. The diploma might look nice framed on a wall (assuming the graduate has enough money left after tuition and fees to pay for the framing) but what do they really expect to get out of college? Perhaps equally important is the question how and when will they know if they got what they needed?

I think if I were to give that prompt, I would require students to do some personal interviews with college graduates:

  • an interview with someone who completed a bachelor’s degree from one to three years earlier
  • an interview with someone who completed a bachelor’s degree from four to 10 years earlier
  • an interview with someone who completed a bachelor’s degree 20 or more years earlier

I’d have each student come up with a list of three to five questions to ask each interviewee to get their take on the value of their college degree.  And I’d stipulate that they couldn’t ask any teachers in their school/school district.

Over at the blog this week,  I posted another insurance-related prompt for folks in the social sciences, especially economics and political science. That one explores whether health insurers ought to give discounts to people who didn’t any claims in a prior year(s) the way car insurers do.

Informal writing prompt starters

I collect assorted short items for use in informal writing prompts on grammar and editing. Here are three recent acquisitions.

An advisory from Microsoft says this:

You may need to perform necessary actions to complete the installation.

A newsletter from WSKG public broadcasting, reported:

[NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo] still wants a permanent property tax cap, an end to cash bail and other criminal justice reforms, and a ban on plastic bags in the budget.

The Washington Post‘s subscriber newsletter contained this item on March 26, 2019:

Kamala Harris: Our teacher pay gap is a failure. Here’s how we can fix it.

If I were to use one of the items as an informal prompt, I’d ask students to do three things, presenting the tasks separately:

  1. Figure out what the writer intended to say.
  2. Rewrite the item to convey the intended message.
  3. Identify the type of error(s) in the original item.

Before you ask, there are two reasons why identifying the type of error is the last task. One reason is that for most students labeling the error is the most difficult of the three tasks. The other reason is that putting the correct label on an error is the least useful of the three tasks.

A key question for writers: What’s missing?

jig saw puzzle with one item missing
Notice anything missing?

Writing teachers are supposed to teach students to  edit their own work. Sometimes we treat the task as nothing more than having students correcting misspellings and put commas in the right places. But the most important part of teaching editing is teaching students to ask what’s missing from their texts.

This week I was reminded of the necessity  of teaching writers to make sure they have not omitted any  information readers must have to understand their texts.

Tuesday  I picked up a copy of a free publication put out by a regional newspaper trying to drum up local readers. The banner story was about a business that is trying to get the local zoning law changed so it can be included in the commercial zone.

The most interesting part of the story was what wasn’t there: It didn’t say where the business is located.

In any zoning dispute, the location of the property is the central issue. Leaving it out of a news story is like reporting on the Kentucky Derby and not mentioning horses.

I know from experience with newly-hatched journalism graduates that they may need to report one or more stories a day for a year before they learn to automatically include the basic Five Ws and an H in each story: who, what, where, when, why, and how?

As a newspaper editor, I would never have described seeing a novice writer’s work every single day as a luxury, but it is. We writing teachers may see one document a week from our students. That’s nowhere near enough output for students to learn the necessity of editing their own work for errors of omission.

As a newspaper editor, I probably had more opportunities in one month to teach reporters to make sure they hadn’t left out any information that readers needed to understand the story than a writing teacher gets in a full semester.

If we value our reputations, we shouldn’t wait until students have mastered the writing process before we start teaching them how to edit for missing essential information.

We need to teach our students to:

  • plan their writing so it includes all the essential information
  • compare their draft texts to their plan
  • repair the draft so any missing information is included.

If we start early enough teaching students  to plan, check, and recheck their work so they omit no essential information, we at least stand a chance of turning out writers who can edit their own work and do so routinely.

25% off on ELA writing prompts

Just in time for back to school, I’m offering 25% off my collections of writing prompts for teens or adults in English/composition classes.

These aren’t just writing topics. Each prompt is embedded within a self-contained writing lesson that provides everything students need to start their writing task without having to ask you for help.

Ready, Set, Write!  includes 20 writing prompts. Bullying Begins as Words contains 15 writing prompts.  Each prompt includes:

  • Context that tells students why the prompt is relevant.
  • Directions for pre-writing preparation.
  • The actual writing assignment.

All the prompts are ready-to-go. Just fill in the due date and the writing prompt is ready for students’ use.

Twenty of the 35 writing prompts are for not-yet-competent writers, who are referred to as noncoms. (Isn’t that a much nicer term than the labels sometimes given that group?)

As the marketers say, results may vary, but  in my experience, 21 weeks of responding to one formal prompt a week supplemented by daily informal writing  got three-quarters of noncoms writing competently.

Each collection includes resources for you in addition to the writing lessons for students. Here’s what you get in either collection:

  • An E-book that puts all the student and teacher materials in one place.
  • The PPC Handbook to answer your questions about using the materials.
  • All the prompts in the collection in both .pdf and .docx versions, each saying you have permission to use them with your students your entire teaching career.
  • A rubric for easy, helpful assessments.

If you already know you have to have these prompts, visit my e-junkie shop where you can get either or both collections at the 25% off discount.

The sale ends at midnight Friday, Aug. 16, 2019.

A miracle in teaching writing

In some respects, teaching writing is a lot like writing.

Sometimes when you write, you sit down in front of a blank piece of paper, or its digital equivalent, and the words just flow.

But mostly when you write, you sit down in front of a blank piece of paper and force yourself to do what needs to be done.

Then the next day, you sit down and force yourself to do what needs to be done.

And the day after that,

and the day after that,

and the day after that,

you sit down and force yourself to do what needs to be done.

And sometimes—not often, but sometimes—when you force yourself to do what needs to be done, a miracle happens: The words just flow.

Sunrise see at end of wooded road is metaphor for learning to write
After hours of darkness, the light dawns.

The same phenomenon occurs in teaching writing.

In teaching writing, you show up in front of blank students and force yourself to do what needs to be done.

You do that day after day after day and hope that a miracle will happen.

After weeks and weeks of showing up and doing what needs to be done, sometimes you’ll see someone who has struggled put all the elements of a piece of writing together in one spot, suddenly, without warning, put all the pieces together so they make sense.

The student has learned how to write.

Then the miracle happens.

The student who struggled so hard so long doesn’t jump up and down, yelling “Eureka!” and calling for somebody to break out the champagne.

The student just says, “Oh, yeah. Okay.”

The student can no longer imagine not being able to write.

That’s miraculous.

More literary nonfiction for students

dust jackets of 3 literary nonfiction novels read 2nd quarter 2019

It’s once again time to recommend some literary nonfiction that could be used with high school teens or adult students.  I look for books that:

  • Are well-written, but not stuffy
  • Have some images in them
  • Tie-in to academic work, current events, or students’ interests
  • Can often be found in libraries
  • Readily available discounted or secondhand

Here are my three recommendations from my second quarter nonfiction reading.

South: Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition

After being beat in his attempt to plant the British flag on the South Pole by a Norwegian, Sir Earnest Shackleton determined that the first expedition to cross Antarctica would be British.

South is Shackleton’s record of that heroic failure which played out in polar ice at the bottom of the world as other heroic British failures occurred in the trenches in France.

Shackleton’s record is riveting. Men suffered from cold and their own body heat, from malnutrition, injuries, and boredom.

The final third of the book, which Shackleton compiled from notes by members of separate party, lacks the impact of personal experience.

I wouldn’t recommend South as a book for all-class reading. (The paperback’s text is blurry like bad photocopies, and long paragraphs combine technical terms with British slang.)

South is, however, a book that a few students interested in science, history, geography, or psychology might dip into. The photos should interest just about anyone.

South: Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition, by Sir Ernest Shackleton, ©2016 Skyhorse Publishing. 380 p. [paper]

The Disaster Profiteers

John C. Mutter was a professor of earth and environmental sciences at the time Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.

That event led Mutter to study the social sciences to understand why natural disasters are disastrous in ways that have little to do with their physical consequences.

Mutter reached the conclusion,  “It is human nature more than Nature that makes disasters so terrible.”

Natural disasters do some good in, for example, destroying unsafe infrastructure. Even those “good” effects, Mutter saws, hurt the poor far more than they do the more affluent and their negative impacts affect the poor for far longer.

The Disaster Profiteers would be good literary nonfiction for older teens, particularly those in dual enrollment programs, and for adults in post-secondary training.

Mutter does a great job of making the science of natural disasters understandable. His presentation of how economists measure the scale of disasters is less readily grasped: A national economy isn’t as visual as a national disaster. But with help from some informal writing prompts, students could identify and master the big ideas.

The images in the book are primarily graphs, charts, and maps.

The Disaster Profiteers: How Natural Disasters Make the Rich Richer and the Poor Even Poorer by John C. Mutter. ©2015 St. Martin’s Press. 281 p.

Profiles in Folly

Unlike the other two literary nonfiction books discussed here, Alan Axelrod’s Profiles in Folly is a not a single story, but a collection of 35 magazine-length “cautionary tales” about bad decisions and the people who made them.

Some of the bad decisions were made by political leaders, others by businessmen, military leaders, and engineers.

The stories cover decisions from 1250 BC (the Trojan Horse) to 2005 (George W. Bush and Hurricane Katrina). Topics include smoking, the space shuttle, planned obsolescence, and the Pony Express.

Profiles in Folly would lend itself to a half-year or full-year high school project involving multiple faculty who assign students certain of the chapters to read, discuss, and write about in the context of a particular class.

There are no images in the book.

 Profiles in Folly: History’s Worst Decisions And Why They Went Wrong  by Alan Axelrod. ©2008. Sterling Publishing. 358 p. [paper]

I bought this quarter’s recommended books  at for less than $8 apiece.




Images’ value, an ELA writing prompt

couple in cafe having respectful argument
An argument is supposed to result in better understanding of a topic and the participants.

Since it’s officially summer, I’m sure all my blog readers are busy preparing new materials for fall term. (Cue uproarious laughter.)

Today I’m going to give you the nub of a writing prompt about communication that (a) you could use in an ELA course and (b) is relevant to a wide range of other subjects and in many careers.

If you are not busy preparing materials for fall, you can tuck it away for August.

Here’s the prompt:

Do people learn better from images?

If you can believe what you read on the Internet, people learn better from images, especially video, than from print.

Do some research: Is that assertion true? What evidence is there to support it? What does learning mean in this context? Does the assertion apply to all kinds of learning, or are there only certain things that people learn well from images? You need not limit yourself to information from published sources; you may do original research.

Write an argument in which discuss the value of images for teaching. You may limit your discussion to either video or to non-moving images if you wish.  In fact, your writing will probably be stronger and more interesting if you can include some of your personal observations.  You can include your personal experience as a portion, no more than a quarter, of your evidence.

Remember that you don’t need to disagree totally with someone else’s opinion. You can agree partially. You can argue that the other guy’s evidence isn’t strong enough to warrant his conclusion. You can show that the other guy misunderstood what he presented as evidence.

Remember, too, that in an argument you must accurately and respectfully present the opinion with which you disagree. An argument is supposed to be an exploration of a topic so all parties come away feeling they were understood and respected. If your argument reads like an attack by a thug in a dark alley, you’ve totally missed the point.