This morning while reading Ben Sasse’s book The Vanishing American Adult, about which I’ll no doubt say more after I finish it, I stopped short when I read, “Seeing distinctions is a learned habit.”
All of us writing teachers know our students must learn to distinguish between, for example:
a complete sentence and a fragment of a sentence,
a word that must be capitalized and one that need not be capitalized,
words that must be put in quotation marks and words that need not be in quotation marks.
Until this morning, however, I’d never applied the term building habits to the teaching of writing, but that’s what teaching writing amounts to. I feel quite like Moliere’s Monsieur Jourdain who discovered he’d been speaking prose for 40 years. There is something freeing about thinking of teaching writing as a matter of guiding students to develop habits.
We not only need to teach right from wrong in matters of writing mechanics, but make sure students habitually choose the right punctuation, spelling, and capitalization by giving them daily or near-daily opportunities to make those choices.
We need not only to teach procedures that produce coherent documents but give students enough practice that producing coherent documents is a habit. That will require us to have students write full documents at least weekly.
We need not only to teach students to recognize a message that’s worth sharing but also to give them enough practice choosing writing topics that they habitually write about topics that matter. Some students may be mature enough to do that in sixth grade; others may not be mature enough to do it as college sophomores.
Middle and high school students are routinely required to write “compare and contrast” essays without being shown any reason they’d need to know that information. Because most jobs require skill at comparing and contrasting, I developed a writing prompt that makes students focus on the purpose of comparing and contrasting.
What I do is give students several sets images of two items and ask them what can be learned by comparing the two items. Or, to put it another way, why might someone need to compare the two? And who might need to compare the two items? (This work can be done by small groups that share their conclusions with the entire class after five to 10 minute’s discussion.)
With that background, give all students a writing assignment.
Here’s the writing prompt
In no more than 650 words, explain why the ability to compare and contrast is an essential skill in today’s workplace. To support your thesis statement, give two to five examples of essential business functions that require comparing and contrasting. Your examples must clearly depict information that can only be gleaned by doing both comparing and contrasting.
If you choose visuals that appeal to students with a variety of interests from art to zoology and including items associated with jobs that don’t require college degrees, you’ll find students will readily grasp the idea that compare/contrast writing is not “just some dumb English teacher thing.” It actually has some real life relevance.
The start of a new school year is just a flip of a calendar page away for many teachers whose duties include or consist of teaching writing. For many years, I was one such teacher.
One thing I learned over those years was to make sure students understood on the first day of class what they were expected to do in the class. Unfortunately, it took decades of trying various approaches before I found a find a way to accomplish that objective on opening day.
The method I use I discovered when teaching asynchronous online classes for University of Phoenix. The University’s teachers were encouraged to have student use a chat room to get acquainted. When I promoted use of the chat room, students spent almost a quarter of the class chatting about their out-of-school interests before I could get them focused on learning to write.
So, I decided to start off the class by introducing myself in the online classroom as a writer. I told students they could get acquainted in the chat room, but I required students to introduce themselves as writers in the classroom space. That adjustment reclaimed nearly two weeks of class and enabled me to get most students writing at the end of eight weeks at a level that students in face-to-face classes typically took a 15-week semester to achieve.
To learn more about how I used the “I’m a writer” assignment to get students off to a good start, see this post from seven years ago.
For most of the last 20 years, I’ve written primarily about teaching writing to teens and adults for an audience of teachers of teens and adults. For about the last 18 months, however, I’ve been writing about nursing home visiting for an audience of people who wanted or needed visit in a nursing home.
Although I had some experience in visiting in nursing homes to draw on, the project has become a challenge. The challenge hasn’t been coming up with things to write about. I had enough experiences in doing nursing home visiting to be able to identify the information I needed.
The problem is identifying how to reach my audience.
I know from research and observation that most friendly visitors are women, typically age 30 to 60. Other than that broad age range, there isn’t much that they have in common. They aren’t defined by any of the usual categories of race, religion, political affiliation, social class, education, hobbies, etc. (A snide smirk: friendly visitor is what nursing homes typically call someone who doesn’t come to visit family members, which always makes me wonder if people who come to visit family are unfriendly visitors. But I digress.)
Before I can sell books, I must (1) find what people who are likely to be interested in becoming a nursing home visitor have in common and (2) determine who do the majority of them rely on to guide their choice of free-time activities.
What does this have to do with teaching writing?
If you’ve gotten this far, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with teaching writing. If you’re teaching high schoolers who just want to scratch something down and get out to soccer practice, it has nothing to do with teaching writing.
On the other hand, if you teach college students heading into careers, audience identification is a big deal. Students who have a skill or product to sell—even if the product is themselves—must be able to find the audience that wants what they have to sell.
The student’s first task is to identify that audience. If a student is an artist who wants to sell his art work, he has to find people who buy original art. If the student wants to work as an accountant, he has to find people who hire accountants.
The second task of anyone with a skill or product to sell is to figure out where their audience congregates and to go there. Sellers can’t can show potential buyers why they need their products unless they are in the place where their audience hangs out. That place need not be a physical place; it can be a virtual space online. Your students may need to figure out what online platform employers in their field use and learn to use that platform well.
Coming back to my problem, my buyers will probably be found on Facebook. What I need to know is which people on Facebook women between the ages of 30 and 60 will rely on to guide their choice of what to do in their free time. I’m looking for people with enough Facebook followers that their recommendation can sell 101 to 500 books about how to visit in a nursing home.
The untold story of the Mount St. Helens eruption that Steve Olson tells is not about volcanology. Olson’s book is about the choices people made before, during, and after the May 1980 eruption, and, by extension, about the choices they are making today that will influence what happens—who dies—the next time Mount St. Helens erupts.
Olson grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and although he’d gone East before the mountain blew up, he always wondered if he might have been one of the 57 people killed the morning St. Helens erupted. In Eruption, he looks at the stories of those who died and why they died.
Olson sketches the development of the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest which gave the region its prosperity. Weyerhaeuser, America’s biggest lumber company, was determined to keep logging old-growth timber in the Mount St. Helens area despite the rumblings of the volcano or conservationists trying to get protected status for the old-growth timber.
When the volcano began to rumble, outsiders came in to watch: gawkers, volcanologists, pilots, radio operators, and news people. Some of them were among the 57 killed (including former President Harry S Truman) when the mountain erupted. The descriptions of how people died are necessarily horrific; most people fortunately didn’t live long enough to suffer.
Eruptionexplores topics in science and history classes and in current events.Volcanoes, conservation, disaster preparedness, and the health of America’s lumber industry are all timely topics. Mount Nyiragongo in Congo erupted in June and is still disrupting life there.The US is due to hear from Mount St. Helens again soon: Volcanic eruptions in the Cascade Range occur on average every 25 years, according to Olson..
Olson divides his book into seven parts (plus a prologue and epilogue). Each part is subdivided into topics which function as chapters, although some of them are under three pages long. The longest subdivisions are between 11 and 17 pages; most are much shorter.
Killing the Poormaster is history that reads like a novel, keeping readers engaged and rooting for the underdog hero to triumph. Holly Metz opens the book with a three-paragraph description of the death February 25, 1938 of Harry Barck, Hoboken, New Jersey’s poormaster. The poormaster job gave him power to determine who got financial help duing the Great Depression and how much they got.
That morning in Barck’s office Joe Scutellaro asked for money to feed his family. When Barck refused, there was a scuffle. Scutellaro said Barck fell forward onto a spike used for holding papers, which was on the desk. Police said Scutellaro picked up the spike and stabbed Barck with it.
Scutellaro’s trial for Barck’s murder threw a spotlight on Hoboken’s corrupt government and the nation’s inadequate response to the needs of the jobless. Scutellaro was defended by a celebrity attorney, who turned the trial into an indictment of the American system of public welfare.
Killing the Poormaster is a literary nonfiction text with relevance to courses in the social sciences: history, social psychology, and economics. It also has connections and/or analogies to current political events.
Metz divides her book into 14 chapters plus a brief prologue and chapter-length epilogue about what happened to the main characters after the trial. Three of the 14 chapters are between 20 and 30 pages, but they are broken into sections by dingbats, so they wouldn’t be hard for students to read in two or three sittings.
At a cost of about $180,000, every year the citizens of Halifax, Canada, send Boston, Mass., a 50-foot Christmas tree, John U. Bacon says in his opening chapter of The Great Halifax Explosion. The tree is Halifax’s way of thanking Bostonians for coming to the Canadians’ aid when a ship loaded with six million pounds of explosives—one-fifth of the force of the A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima—blew up in Halifax Harbor on Dec. 6, 1917.
In subsequent chapters, Bacon relates the often-frosty relations between the US and Canada before World War I. He tells about Halifax Harbor’s response when the Titanic sank April 15, 1912, and describes the effects the world war being fought in Europe was already having on the Halifax population.
Using local people as his lens, Bacon shows the series of misjudgments that led to the explosion and other misjudgments that resulted in needless tragedies afterward. He also relates tales of heroism and many more tales of dumb luck.
In telling his story, Bacon dips into topics such as diverse as forensic science, munitions, right-of-way rules for seaways, contingency planning, and experiential learning. Every student ought to find something interesting in Bacon’s text. What’s more, teachers should have no trouble coming up with a set of writing prompts based on the text.
Bacon “writes tight.” His chapters average eight pages. There are plenty of direct quotations. Readers can’t just skim the text, but it’s rare to find three consecutive paragraphs that require slowing down to understand some technical information.
A note about book sources
I bought all these books from HamiltonBook.com. You won’t get the latest bestsellers there, but you get deep discounts on books that have been in print a few years. All items are new, and all the books are hardbound unless marked otherwise. Hamilton Book has a flat shipping and handling fee of $4 for an order of up to 18 books.
If you teach high school English and you aren’t having students read some book-length literary nonfiction each year, you ought to start.
Nonfiction is the writing that each of your students will be required to read and to write outside your classroom. Most of it (such as your lesson plans) are deadly boring.
Literary nonfiction is nonfiction that isn’t boring because its writer smuggled techniques out of fiction and put them into nonfiction writing where nobody will be looking for them. Then, when unsuspecting readers come along ready to suffer through another boring recital of facts, Zap! the writer pulls a fiction trick. Before readers know that happened, they are caught up in reading the story they thought was going to be a colossal bore.
In an English class, literary nonfiction is an equalizer. It gives those students (mostly males) who gag on Jane Austen a chance to read something as challenging as Jane Austen but on topics that appeal to their interests.
It also gives the Jane Austen fan club crowd a chance to see that techniques of fiction can be used for more than just entertaining readers. Fiction’s techniques can be used in discussions of factual data to show people how and why some nonfiction topic is important to them.
Next week, I’ll post brief reviews of literary nonfiction I’ve read since April 1 that I can recommend for use in high school English classes.
Literary nonfiction books should meet five criteria
To get my recommendation as literary nonfiction suitable for assignment as reading for students in high school or college English classes, books need to meet five standards.
Books must be well-written. They can’t be stuffy, academic, or too technical for an ordinary reader. I prefer books set in in a large enough typeface to be comfortable reading, as I think students also do.
Books must tie in with students’ academic work. History, science, the arts, sports, and the backgrounds of current events are topics that often appear as literary nonfiction.
Books should have short chapters. Students are more likely to read chapters under 10 pages than to read longer chapters. Also, if books have short chapters, it’s possible for two students to share a book and both get assigned reading done without too much hassle. (This requirement is one I recently added after struggling through a book with three 150-page chapters.)
Books should be found in libraries. While not all students have access to public libraries, some will. And the presence of a book in a library is a sign that the book has staying power.
Books should be readily available at second-hand booksellers and book discounters. It’s cheaper to buy hardback books that last years than to pay a licensing fee to rent digital books.
Finding literary nonfiction that meets all five criteria takes some work. Probably half of the books I read won’t work as assigned reading for students for one reason or another. Often the book is good, but just not suited to high school students’ backgrounds.
The best thing about selecting literary nonfiction for your students to read is that you get to read books that will expand your horizons.
I’ve been giving you informal writing prompts for several weeks. Today, I have a formal writing prompt suitable for high school juniors and seniors and for first-year college students.
The prompt requires students to use information from outside the English curriculum to which all students should have exposed by the time they reach high school. If you’re an English teacher reluctant to have students write on a topic that sounds like it belongs in the science curriculum, you could partner with someone on the science faculty to assign a paper that can be turned in for credit in either or both courses.
Identify three questions in your major field for which the scientific method is entirely inappropriate. In your response, discuss at least two characteristics of the scientific method and explain precisely why each of those characteristics makes the scientific method an inappropriate way to investigate each of those three questions.
Please confine your response to no more than 650 words.
Notes on the prompt
Responding to this prompt is easy once students get over the shock of being asked to identify questions in their major field. They may never have thought of physical education or ceramics as fields that have questions. Writing the actual response should take no more than an hour once they identify some questions in their fields.
Here is a message sent by the property manager of an apartment building to its residents for you to display and read to your students:
Tuesday the 16th a building inspector will be coming to the property. He may need to access a certain amount of apartments. I will not know what apartments until the day of the inspection.
Tell students: In no more than two sentences, identify what errors, if any, you find in that message and how to correct them. You have one minute to write.
The error is that the word amount should be number because apartments are countable. Amount is used to signify the size of something whose components are not, for all practical purposes, individually countable.
We measure things that cannot be counted by the amount of space they occupy. The word that means “the amount of space something occupies” is volume. If we want to know how much water is in a bucket, we don’t count individual waters. An amount of water in a bucket could be measured in teaspoons, cups, liters, gallons, etc., not in the number of individual drops of water in the bucket.
Whether or not you choose to do the follow-up in class, college the written work so you can see both how students are doing at applying grammar knowledge and whether they are making any progress at expressing themselves quickly in writing.