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to one geographic area even if the governmental entity in charge at the time of the earlier epidemic may have been superseded by another government since them.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

Real Audiences Elixir: Effective or Just Addictive?

One of the remedies for writing ailments that circulates regularly through the online education community is having students write for real audiences instead of the teacher.

Like nostrums sold by itinerant pedlars on the American frontier, the Real Audiences Elixir may be more addictive than effective.

Take a look at the examples promoted by Edutopia with hashtags tying them to English and English Language Arts.

The task author Rebecca Albers provide  for ninth/tenth graders is to require them to select and research a local or state official, examine the official’s record in light of his/her campaign promises, and write the official “a letter of congratulations.. or a letter calling him to action.”

I wonder how meaningful that assignment is to ninth and tenth graders. I don’t know many 14-year-olds whose idea of fun is researching their state comptroller’s record, do you?

I also wonder real the real audience for that writing prompt is. In my experience, mail to an official is most likely to get a templated response based on keywords in the letter. Perhaps the templates are more real than the students’ teacher, but I doubt it.

A more significant problem, however,  is whether the prompt accomplishes anything other than simply giving students writing experience. To what Common Core standards for ELA grades 9-10 does the writing prompt clearly link?  Research, possibly.

Because Common Core wants students to develop deep understanding of essentials within and across disciplines, teachers cannot afford to spend time on activities that address only one of the standards. That means, among other things, teachers need to direct writing assignments to support learning of other essential class content in addition to developing students’ writing skills.

(The writing prompt I criticized for English classes might turn out to be a perfect fit for a government objective in social studies.   Those standards are not yet published, so we can’t be sure.)

I’m not knocking the value of writing for readers other than just the teacher; I am urging teachers not to think that having students write to someone other than themselves is going to achieve the standards set out in the Common Core.

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.

Homework: Folly or missed focus?

In a blog post today, David Brooks,  op-ed columnist at The  New York Times, gives a brief overview of a forthcoming study in the Economics of Education Review that seems to suggest more homework has no value for students in any subject but math.

The study entitled “Are we wasting our children’s time by giving them more homework?” is certain to be taken out of context, with the result that babies will be washed out with the bathwater like farms below the Morganza Spillway.

Economists Ozkan Eren and Daniel J. Henderson took a representative sample of US eight graders and correlated the amount of homework they were assigned in math, science, English, and social studies with their test scores in those subjects.  (Note that homework assigned does not mean homework done.)

The full study is worth reading. It is only 31 pages and a third is bibliography and appendices. If statistics make your eyes glaze over, you can skip the paragraphs with the Greek terms.

The researchers took great care to rule out all sorts of factors that might impact their results, including such things as:

  • Student characteristics, such as race, gender, and family’s socioeconomic status.
  • Teacher characteristics, such as race and gender as well as graduate degree and state certification status.
  • Class characteristics, including class size, number of limited English proficiency students, number of hours the class met weekly, the amount of time the teacher spent administering tests and quizzes.
  • Teacher evaluation of the overall class level, how much of the text the teacher covered, number of hours the teacher spent each week maintaining discipline.

The researchers apparently did not attempt to determine whether the homework activities and the test items covered the same ground.  I suspect that the reason the math homework had a positive correlation with test scores was that the math homework questions and the math test questions were very similar.

I doubt very much that homework in science, English, and social studies would correlate well with questions on the test used in the study. American education has standardized tests that are taken nationwide, but no standard curriculum that guides study nationwide. The lack of standard curriculum is less obvious in math than in science, history, and English. Without agreement on, for example, social studies topics that all eight graders should study, the likelihood of social studies homework boosting test scores strikes me as pretty remote.

Moreover, science, history, and English focus (or should focus) at least as much on the thinking processes used in those disciplines as on specific facts.  Those processes do not produce right answers in the same way that solving an algebraic equation produces right answers.

Homework in science, history, or English may be directed toward having students discover multiple options rather than toward one right answer. We tend to regard solving the math problem as mathematical thinking, but real mathematical thinking is as likely to result in several possible solutions as to find one “right” one.

Giving homework in which students develop a hypothesis to test empirically or having students write an essay about American history may be more important in the long run than giving homework on material that is more easily tested by blacken-the-bubble methods.

[11-27-2012 updated Eren-Henderson link]