What’s the reason for political incivility?

2 angry stick figures in each other's face
More to the point, can it be toned down or prevented?

With the 2020 presidential election just four days away, English and social studies teachers probably have only one more chance to take advantage of the learning opportunities it affords before their students start thinking of it as history.

Today I’m going to give ELA and SS teachers a formal writing prompt to assign before the election to teens grades 11 and 12 and to adult students.

(If you missed last week’s blog post, it suggested having teens or adults in students in English classes and appropriate social studies classes attempt to outline each candidate’s position on one of the questions asked in the second 2020 presidential debate.)

Here’s how to prepare students

First, assign students to read or listen to comments by two prominent academics who are concerned about how of people’s ability to discuss politics civilly has almost disappeared in America. The two are Danielle Allen, an author and the director of the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, and Pete Peterson, dean of the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy, who writes and speaks about public engagement. They were interviewed on PBS NewsHour by Jeffrey Brown on Oct. 1, 2020.  The NewsHour provides both a transcript and an audio tape of the interview. Here are shortlinks you can give students:

Set up the writing prompt

Read or listen to these a short interview with two scholars about what they think are the reasons Americans can no longer discuss political issues without being rude or nasty to those with whom they disagree. As you read/listen keep alert to what the two commentators identify as the reasons for the breakdown of civil discourse. Here are links to the written transcript and the audio recording of the Oct. 1, 2020 interview.

Here is the writing prompt:

In an informative/expository text discuss what you think is the single most important cause of the breakdown in political civility. Please confine your analysis to no more than 750 words. Deadline for submission is [time, date].

Here are additional directions:

Write your analysis in the third person. Support each topic sentence with summaries or quotations from different sources. You may use your personal experience or observation only as one supporting point of one of your three body paragraphs.

Here’s a pattern students can use to plan their responses:

Thesis: X is the single most important factor in the breakdown of political civility.

  • X is the single most important factor in the breakdown of political civility because [reason 1].
  • X is the single most important factor in the breakdown of political civility because [reason 2].
  • X is the single most important factor in the breakdown of political civility because [reason 3].

A hint that might help uncover related ideas

Find out when whatever you think is the most important factor in the breakdown of civility began to be talked about in books and in the news media. If you can find the names of a couple people who wrote about that subject, you may be able to get related ideas from Wikipedia. Knowing the approximate time the factor you’ve identified became a topic for public discussion might also suggest people you know that you could interview about whether/how that factor affected them.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

 

 

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

Define globalization neutrally

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

This cross-curricular writing prompt is designed to make students consciously aware that even definitions can be slanted. The prompt could be used in social studies courses, media courses, or ELA courses.  At the high school level, teachers of two different courses might use the prompt, which reduces students’ workload while increasing students’ perception of the importance of the assignment.

A formal writing prompt for teens and adults

Globalization is a term we hear nearly every day. What is globalization? Consult at least a half dozen reputable sources for their definitions. Do the definitions provided by each source agree? If they don’t agree, are their definitions totally at odds or do they disagree over a few specific points? Does the wording of the various definitions suggest an inclination to regard globalization either positively or negatively?

Your assignment

Based on your analysis, craft what you believe to be a definition of globalization that is neutral; that is, a definition that is neither enthusiastic about globalization nor totally opposed to it.

Using the neutral definition you crafted, write an informative/explanatory text in which you explain how according to that definition globalization either is or is not good for America. Format your text for reading as a digital document, using hyperlinks to sources you cite. Please keep your text to under [650 words].

Suggestions for success

This assignment is as much about how carefully you read as it is about how well you write. Don’t assume that people whose position you agree with define globalization in the same way you do. Also, don’t assume that people with whom you disagree define globalization the same way you do. One reason political arguments can get heated is that, without realizing it, two people often use the same terms with different meanings.

You may work with a partner or group if you want to increase the number of sources you examine and have the benefit of more than one point of view. It is probably unwise to have more than a dozen sources or more than four people in your group. With too much material, you’ll never get through the assignment.

If you work with a partner or group, each person should write his or her own text. Having each person write certain paragraphs is rarely successful, and assigning one person to do the writing is unfair to everyone.

A note to PUSHwriting readers

If you use this prompt, you’ll need to be prepared to suggest reputable sources that students can consult. Dictionaries alone are unlikely to be adequate and most students’ nonfiction reading won’t include publications about world trade and international economics. They’ll need to be pointed toward sources that won’t overwhelm them, but will provide different perspectives. In preparing to prepare students for the prompt, you’ll probably need do more work than they will.

This prompt previously appeared on another of my websites which is no longer live. A post which linked to the prompt has been removed.

Photo by JP Valery at Unsplash.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

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.

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.