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.

A formal prompt on word choices

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

Since today’s a non-school day and Black Friday, rather than give you a long post, I’m just going to refer you to a formal writing prompt I posted earlier this week at PenPrompts. The prompt is how word choices even in the definitions of terms can influence people’s thinking.

The word students are assigned to work with is globalization.

If you teach journalism or an ELA unit on media, you may want to take a look at the prompt. And you might be able to get a social studies teacher to accept the assignment for credit there, too. Click here to see the prompt.

Jp Valery

Nobody minds. Or do they?

A formal writing prompt

As a writing prompt starter today, I have a quote from Jane Austen.  I was reminded of it while reading a John Grisham novel about a Klansman who bombed a Jewish lawyer’s office in 1967.

Sometimes the way my mind works is downright scary.

Introduction to the writing prompt

In her novel Mansfield Park, Jane Austen writes “Nobody minds having what is too good for them.” Think about that.

  • What does it mean to have “something that’s too good for you”?
  • What kinds of things might be said to be “too good for” another person?
  • What does the phrase “too good for you” imply about the relationship between the person speaking and the person being spoken to?

Identify situations in which person A had something that person B regarded as too good for person A. Choose three such situations including at least two of these three types:

  1. A situation in which you were personally involved
  2. A situation you saw in person or on a TV/movie screen
  3. A situation you read about in a piece of literature.

The writing prompt itself

In an informative/expository text, discuss whether Jane Austen is correct when she says, “Nobody minds having what is too good for them.”

Support your opinion by describing three situations chosen from the numbered list in the introduction in which the person who has “something too good for them” is either content or discontent with his/her situation. Be sure you include the correct titles of published works to which you refer.

Please limit your text to [number] words. Your assignment is due [date].

Suggestions for success

You have three options in responding to this prompt. You can:

  • Agree totally with Austen’s comment
  • Disagree totally with Austen’s comment
  • Say that circumstances determine whether she is right or wrong.

Be cautious if any of your examples that might be embarrassing to someone your readers are likely to know. Providing you tell your readers you changed the names, it’s OK to use fictitious names.

Suggestions for teachers

This prompt would tie in nicely with a discussion of figurative language.

Instead of hoping students read the complete prompt, you may want to give students the three questions in its introduction as informal writing prompts before you distribute the assignment. That way you can be sure the entire class read the introduction.

You may want to limit the students’ choices of situations to tie them more closely to your syllabus.

Applied creative writing

Outside the English classroom, there is little demand for people to write imaginative fiction. There is, however, a great demand for people who are imaginative enough to present dull, factual material in creative ways.

Photo of tree with twisted trunk
Not everything creative is imaginary. Sometimes facts are given a creative twist.

Students planning to be engineers, money market managers, or high school English teachers will need to be creative; they probably won’t be required to invent fictional worlds. Surprisingly, many students who recoil from writing fiction relish writing assignments that allow them to be creative without asking that they be imaginative.

Today I’m going to give you a formal writing prompt that requires students to write a literary character analysis using a rather unusual approach suggested by sports writers at a newspaper for which I worked who nicknamed one of the reporters, “Miss Center of the Universe.”

Here’s the material students see:

Writing prompt on literary characterization

You’re probably familiar with the practice of people who have advanced academic degrees putting initials after their names to indicate how they want to be known: MD, PhD, DDS, FNP, CG, DMA, MIS. In this assignment, you’ll apply a similar process to a literary character.

    • Pick a fictional work you have read.
    • Identify the protagonist in that work.
    • Create a “credential” that summarizes how the protagonist wants to be regarded. The credential must be able to be initialized in 2-5 characters.

In an informative/expository text, discuss why you think that credential is an accurate representation of the protagonist’s self-concept. Consider:

    • What the character says of himself/herself that supports your analysis.
    • Incidents involving the character that support your analysis.
    • What other characters say about the protagonist that support your analysis.

Be sure you give readers a way to find the information to which you refer in the work you are discussing. Depending on the work you chose, that might be a chapter number, a page number in a particular edition of a book, etc.

Please keep your analysis to no more than 650 words.

Note to ELA teachers

You may want to modify the prompt to confine it to just literature read for your class, or to just novels, etc.

To help students get into this writing prompt, it may be helpful to have students pick characterizing phrases for how athletes or characters in movies or TV shows see themselves and build credentials from those phrases. For example, “World’s Best Dad” and “Just a Cop” would become WBD and JC.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Formal writing prompt: Cui bono?

Today, I’m going to give suggest a formal writing prompt that could be used in an English language arts course just about any time during the academic year, although February  and May are obvious choices.

You might want to collaborate with a social studies teacher in preparing students for this assignment, with you guiding students toward suitable literary fiction and your colleague handling the historical elements.

Cui bono injustice?

Americans traditionally celebrate their national political holidays— Presidents’ Day, Martin Luther King Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Veterans’ Day—as memorials of fights against injustice. While Americans bemoan the victims of injustice, as we should, we typically ignore the beneficiaries of injustice. If we want to prevent continued injustices, it is vital to identify the past beneficiaries of injustice and how those people were or are allowed to continue to benefit.

In an informative/expository text, identify and discuss three beneficiaries of injustice done to Americans. The targets of injustice may be individuals or groups; the beneficiaries also may be either individuals or groups.
Your discussion must include:

  • one example from history prior to your birth,
  • one example from literary fiction, and
  • one example from your personal experience or personal observation.

Be sure you define what constitutes injustice. Also identify why people who were not beneficiaries allowed the injustice to continue. Don’t rely on generalizations: Give specific information cited from reputable sources.

Please keep your text to under 750 well-chosen words.

Notes about this writing prompt

The title of this post uses a Latin legal phrase, cui bono, which means, “Who benefits?” The phrase is applied to a strategy for identifying crime suspects, since criminals usually commit crimes because they derive some benefit from those crimes. Students will come across the phrase in many different occupations, so teach it along with giving the writing prompt.

Before you use this prompt, I suggest you line up literary nonfiction that deals with injustices that you could have students read or that you could at least recommend. The most difficult part of this prompt for ELA teachers and students is making sure students present specific information about the benefits of injustice. To say, for example, that slaveholders got workers for a nominal investment is a generalization. Zora Neal Hurston’s Barracoon documents how much money was made by selling slaves from non-slavery states south to slave-holding states.

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.

When will your students use analogies?

Analogies are an extremely powerful device for explaining complex or foreign ideas.

People who work in STEM fields, social sciences, and business use them extensively.  Too often, however, analogies don’t get adequate attention in English class.

To help students discover the power of analogies, I suggest a formal writing prompt that asks students to predict how they might use analogies.

Start by having students view one of these short videos explaining how analogies work. Both sites are oriented toward law students, but the explanations are easy to understand:

FYI:  Only part of the video at study.com is available without signing up for an account, but the accessible portion is adequate for this assignment.

After students have viewed a video clip, give students five minutes in class to brainstorm situations in which they have either (1) had someone use an analogy to help them understand something, or (2) used analogies themselves to explain something. (Hint: Require brainstorming in full sentences; collect the responses to use as formative assessment.)

Give students this formal prompt either as homework or, better yet, have them respond to it at your next class meeting:

Think about the job you have or the one you’d like to have. Identify between two and five situations in which you might need to explain something—a product or a process, for example— to a customer who is unfamiliar with it.  (If in your job you deal with patients, students, or clients rather than customers, use the appropriate term for your situation.)

In an I/E text, discuss two or three such situations in which you could use an analogy to help the person understand your explanation. If you have actually used an analogy in such a situation, you may use the story as one of your examples.

Please keep your response to no more than 650 words.

Fables, myths, parables: a writing prompt

If you’re an experienced English teacher, you know there are times during the year when students are too stressed to deal with heavy reading assignments.

This writing prompt, which draws on very short fiction pieces—myths, fables, and parables—gives students a break from long, heavy reading and also gives them a chance to do a bit of creative writing within an expository writing assignment.

Besides its utility as an ELA assignment, the prompt also suggests to students how they can recast an old story to better connect with their audience. That’s a useful seed to plant in students’ consciousness.

Here’s the writing prompt. Use or adapt as you wish.

Ancient fables, parables, and myths draw their power from the way they reveal truths about the way people behave. 

Select one famous fable, parable, or myth. In an informative/explanatory text, discuss why the story’s moral is relevant today. Prove that the story applies in the 21st century by writing a contemporary version of the story set in this year.

Format your text as a print document. Please keep your text to under [650] words.

Easily found fables, parables, and myths

Some myths, fables, and parables are available multiple places on the Internet. These include: 

  • the Midas myth,
  • Pandora’s box.
  • Dog in the Manger
  • Ant and the Grasshopper
  • The Boy Who Cried, "Wolf"
  • The Good Samaritan
  • The Prodigal Son

Two sources for less familiar parables: