Literary nonfiction belongs in English courses

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.  

photos of covers of three books
Three can”t-put-down literary nonfiction books to be reviewed here in July..

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.

5 books of literary nonfiction
These nonfiction books didn’t meet all five criteria for assigned student reading

The best thing about selecting literary nonfiction for your students to read is that you get to read books that will expand your horizons.

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Informal writing prompt: fix the message

This message from Microsoft appeared on my computer screen prior to a software update: “You may need to perform necessary actions to complete the installation.”

Since it took me four tries before I got the the download to install, I wondered what message Microsoft was trying to convey.

Like me, you would probably have been surprised if you had learned you needed to perform unnecessary actions to complete a software installation.

Let’s turn this bit of bewilderment into a two-part informal writing prompt about precise language that is suitable for use in English class or in a business/computer/technology class.

Part 1. Show students the sentence quoted above and have them explain in 1–3 sentences why they do or do not think the sentence is well-written.

Part 2. Direct students to write a more precise message to the computer user based on their knowledge of how computer updates work.

Factual accuracy is a writing requirement

An article in my local school district’s newsletter written by a fifth grade ELA class about a presentation by a retired teacher from the district contained this startling fact:

“Haiti is an island located in the Pacific Ocean, east of Florida.”

Haiti shown in Atlantic Ocean east of US

Haiti shares an Atlantic Ocean island with the Dominican Republic.

Whatever else a writing teacher does, he or she should not allow students to get away with such blatant factual errors. Accuracy in writing should extend to more than correct placement of commas.

 

 

Vague writing: a formal ELA writing prompt

Photo of novel The Hotel New Hampshire and quote from it.

Turn this quote into a writing prompt

 

While reading John Irving’s 1981 bestselling novel The Hotel New Hampshire for GreatPenformances, I ran a statement teens and adult students in English and composition classes should consider. Irving says, “When you write vaguely, you are always vulnerable.”

I think it’s safe to say that Irving isn’t talking just about a student writer getting a bad grade on an English class assignment.

Have your students consider Irving’s assertion, taking into consideration:

  • What does Irving mean when he says a writer is vulnerable?
  • To whom or to what is a writer vulnerable?
  • Does being vague always pose a problem for writers or is vagueness only a problem in certain situations?
  • If vagueness makes writers vulnerable, how does it accomplish that?

Have students write a formal document in which they either agree or disagree with what they understand Irving means.

Junk jargon that makes essentials exotic

English educators use highfalutin terms to describe routine activities. The terms may impress journal readers, but they scare off students. In large part, your success in teaching writing depends on making students see writing as part of ordinary, everyday life.  So use simple, common, everyday terms to describe activities in the writing process:

  • Use terms like draw a picture (or chart, graph or diagram) instead of graphic organizer.
  • Use plan instead of outline.
  • Use doodle instead of mind map.

If ELA jargon isn’t necessary—it rarely is necessary—junk it.


Junk jargon that makes essentials exotic

English educators use highfalutin terms to describe routine activities. The terms may impress journal readers, but they scare off students.

In large part, your success in teaching writing depends on making students see writing as part of ordinary, everyday life.  So use simple, common, everyday terms to describe activities in the writing process:

  • Use terms like draw a picture (or chart, graph or diagram) instead of graphic organizer.
  • Use plan instead of outline.
  • Use doodle instead of mind map.

If ELA jargon isn’t necessary—it rarely is necessary—junk it.


[An earlier version of this post appeared in the June 2008 issue of Writing Points ©2008 Linda G. Aragoni.]

Let’s Teach Some Students Some Writing

Several bloggers have posted pieces lately about the need stop teaching writing the way we’ve gotten into the habit of teaching it. In her take on the problem, “Let’s Stop Teaching Writing,” Paula Stacey sketches her 30-year journey through the trenches to a better way of teaching writing:

My proposal is modest, cheap, and deceptively simple: Ask students questions, read their answers, and ask more questions. Questions and answers. Nothing fancy. Much like home cooking, however, this kind of questioning takes time, it requires practice and honing, and the kitchen is a mess afterwards. But it is worth the trouble and the mess, for in this back and forth, this conference between teacher and student, real thinking and the work of real writing occur.

Stacey’s thoughtful and well-written piece got me thinking about why the education establishment seems to have such difficulty finding ways to teach writing. Ignoring the superficially easy reasons (testing, teacher education, etc.),  I think a big part of the reason is our own fault.

Writing teachers talk about the issues of teaching students to write as if “a student” and “writing”were clearly defined entities. When I hear the best way of  “teaching students to write,” I interpret that in terms of my students and my writing classes. And every other writing teacher does the same thing.

That personalization is our downfall.  When we’re offered a new idea to try, we need to know the situation in which it was discovered so we can decide whether or how we could apply it to our situations.

A third grader, a high school junior, and a budding novelist in a MFA program may all be students who need to develop writing skills. However, their cognitive development, educational needs, and intended out-of-school applications of writing are very different.

Stacey’s approach to teaching writing appears ideally suited to the elementary school student. It engages them in writing about what’s going on in their classroom, which is why they all have something to write about and why they were willing to write.

At the high school level, having students write about course content is still the best way to teach writing, as well as being a boon to the teaching of other course content. However,  I’m not sure that Stacey’s approach is manageable for the typical high school teacher with a huge class load and multiple preps. Also I think students need to master some pattern for nonfiction writing that they can adapt to college or workplace writing they need to do. 

Stacey’s question-and-answer approach would probably be great with writers in an MFA program. They are eager to reflect on their experience and to experiment with writing.

Educators  would do themselves (and students) a favor if they scrapped the broad terms “students” and “writing”  for descriptors that indicate at least age/grade level (as a proxy for cognitive development levels) and the writing genre.

The person with no experience in teaching writing might still assume the same strategies and techniques could be used to teach third graders to write poems and high school seniors to write research papers,  but at least educators wouldn’t be confusing each other. We know, even if the state education department doesn’t, that any teaching idea applied to every student in every situation is a bad teaching idea.

Set your objectives at C-level

Don’t set your writing course objectives equal to a grade of A. Set them equal to a C.

You want everyone to achieve writing competence, even the even the dullards, the unmotivated, and the lazy students. You have a fighting chance of getting the back-of-the-room, bottom-of-the-class group to try for a C.

Competent expository writing is:

  • Unified to make one clear point (its thesis).
  • Organized clearly in support of that thesis.
  • Developed with adequate detail to make readers think the thesis is plausible.
  • Presented clearly so readers never have to guess at the writer’s meaning. Correct grammar, punctuation, and usage contribute to the writer’s presentation.

When student are competent expository writers, I can stop teaching them about expository writing. They will improve just by practicing what they already know. If I change the genre or raise my standards, then I may have to do more teaching.

If C is the grade you award for competence, you should have a big group who earn A’s and B’s. (One year I taught five sections of English composition in which no student earned less than a B.)

In writing, as with many skills, the step from no skill  to competence is enormous, but the step from competence to proficiency is small. Once students get to C-level, they’ll get to B-level just by having more opportunities to practice.

ELA lessons from senior pranks

Teaching responsible use of social media is a hot topic that threatens to obscure some non-digital behavior issues. Two  stories in New York state newspapers this week illustrate the kind of behaviors I mean.

Custodians arrived at Clifton-Fine Central School June 1 to find a squawking rooster loose in the building. One reported to the superintendent that the school had been broken into; she called the state police.

Troopers found no school property was damaged, nothing was stolen and no one, including the rooster, was injured. Each of the five students was charged with third-degree criminal trespass, but the school didn’t suspend them or impose additional penalties.

Photo: mpcourier.com

At Massena High School, two seniors played more colorful prank.  Dressed head to toe in green Spandex costumes to which one added a pink tutu and the other added black running shorts,  they padded through the hallways and visited classes.

Administrators said they did not recognize the pair as students because their faces were covered: They could have been terrorists.

Massena High suspended each student for five days.

Incidents such as these offer a good opportunity to show students real-world examples of why English teachers harp about the importance of knowing the audience.  Apparently, it didn’t occur to students in either case that the school administration wouldn’t be spending as much time anticipating senior pranks as the students were. Breaking that self-absorption is an essential part of educating students.

It’s not too early for writing teachers to start thinking about ways draw connections next year between the history,  literature, and current events students study and student behavior.