Literary nonfiction for high school/college

Books about deaths that shouldn’t have happened

three book covers
These literary nonfiction works can be used by high school and college ELA classes.

Despite their grim topics, any of the three literary nonfiction works discussed here is suitable English course reading for teens and college students. The books’ subjects are different enough that most students will find one of them interesting at least in a gruesome way.

The Lost Eleven

The men who became the “lost eleven” are black men from Southern states who find themselves in January 1943 in Camp Gruber, Oklahoma, being taught to operate the 155mm howitzer. Their commanding officer is sure blacks can’t be taught, but their white battalion commander, Captain McLeod, is determined to show blacks can learn to perform as well as white soldiers. McLeod’s patience and willingness to try unorthodox teaching methods, such as letting the men sing “Roll, Jordan Roll” to help them synchronize their movements, prove the CO wrong.

The men perform well in training and on the battlefields of Europe. As the war draws to a close, however, the artillerymen have been left in France when Adolf Hitler launches his last attempt to defeat the allies on Dec. 16, 1944. A few of McLeod’s soldiers escape the Germans and trudge north through deep snow, still wearing their summer uniforms, until they reach the Belgian village of Wereth. There they find shelter with a local family for a few hours until the SS troops find them and brutally murder them.

If you can read The Lost Eleven without shedding a tear, you’re stronger than I am.

Artillerymen with their weapon
Black gunners operate the 155mm howitzer.

Short chapters with helpful date-place notes at their heads and a list of characters help readers keep their mental place. Large, well-leaded print makes the text accessible to individuals who find many nonfiction books’ text is too dense for comfortable reading. Photographs show military scenes and post-war scenes of Wereth.

For English teachers who collaborate with teachers in other disciplines, The Lost Eleven would be a wonderful accompaniment to student’s history class study of World War II. Students would come away with a far more detailed knowledge of both the foreign war and race relations in the U.S and Europe  than most would get from their history class texts. Students could also be led to discover how they can distinguish historical facts from plausible inventions. In that regard, it’s worth nothing that nearly all the authors’ sources are available online.

The Lost Eleven: The Forgotten Story of Black American Soldiers Brutally Murdered in World War II. By Denise George and Robert Child. © 2017. Caliber. 398 p.

The Education of a Coroner

Drawings of bodies
A coroners’ education includes math and medicine.

Despite its subtitle, The Education of a Coroner is not a textbook. Instead, John Bateson has written what might have been Marin County, California’s Coroner Ken Holmes’s memoirs had Holmes written them himself.

Holmes grew up in California with a keen interest in anatomy and in what happened to animals he shot while hunting. He was intensely interested in how bodies worked. As a teen, he considered medicine as a career, but decided to be a coroner or funeral director because those occupations required less college. They also required good people skills, which Holmes definitely had.

Marin County is both affluent and notorious. It’s home to San Quentin, has high rates of alcoholism and drug overdoses, and it’s Golden Gate Bridge is a magnet for people contemplating suicide. In his 36-year career, Holmes meets all sorts of people. He also acquires extensive information about firearms, medicine, crime scene investigation, drugs, and how to talk to a deceased person’s family with sensitivity and practicality. The book is neither salacious or gruesome.

Although The Education of a Coroner might not be every student’s idea of great reading, the book does suggest a great many topics that high school and first year college students could explore in a writing class, beginning with how to find a career that’s not obvious.

The Education of a Coroner: Lessons in Investigating Death. By John Bateson. © 2017 Scribner. 358 pages.

Ruthless Tide

front of Ruthless Tide
A 40 mph flood destroyed Johnstown, NY, in minutes.

The prologue to Ruthless Tide introduces  6-year-old Gertrude Quinn, who would be caught in and swept away by, the Johnstown Flood. Her father, James Quinn, was a prosperous store owner and a worrier. One of the things he worries about was the possibility that the dam 14 miles and 500 feet above Johnstown, PA, would give way. In the prologue, Al Roker sketches traces the causes of the May 31, 1899, flood back to rich captains of industry like Andrew Carnegie who couldn’t have cared less about the people downstream.

The damage from the Johnstown Flood was not just from water, but also from what it carried with it: flammable liquids which burned as the water carried them downstream. Instead of putting fire out, water amplifies it by pouring onto its base, causing it to leap up and away from the water.

Clara Barton arrived June 4, said the Red Cross would take charge, and it did, making the Red Cross a national institution. Johnstown rebuilt, but the industrialists who built the dam to create their private lake above the town, never accepted any responsibility for the damage they caused. The flood led to an “anti-monopoly, anti-big corporations” movement in America, but that didn’t repair the damage or prevent future catastrophes.

You might want to ask if any colleague in the history department is interested in pairing up with you to require Ruthless Tide for both your courses. It is compelling story written for general readers that would be great English class reading when students are studying 19th century American history. Chapters average about 18 pages.

Ruthless Tide: The Heroes and Villains of the Johnstown Flood, America’s Astonishing Gilded Age Disaster. By Al Roker. © 2018. William Morrow. 305 pages.

© 2022 Linda Gorton Aragoni

7 aims of a sensible HS writing program

A sensible goal for a high school or post-secondary writing course should be that:


In today’s workplace, it doesn’t make any different how great a piece of writing a student can turn out in 18 drafts. It a student can’t turn out a first draft that’s competent, that student won’t last long in an 21st century office. You don’t get a second chance to write a first draft.

Define competence clearly

Competent writing should be defined like this: On a topic with which they are familiar, in one hour all students can write a clean, 500-word I/E nonfiction text which responds to the prompt.

To avoid nitpicking,  I say clean means free of the 20 serious errors in Connors and Lunsford’s 1988 list and free of topic-specific misspellings. That’s not a perfect solution, but it restricts the definition of errors to a manageable number.  If the topic is biology, biology terms must be spelled correctly. If the topic is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the student must spell novel correctly and get the characters’ names right.

To achieve the goal, take aim 7 times.

figure aims dart at target 1

Aim 1. All students must be able to write expository nonfiction texts of 1,000 or fewer words.

The 1,000 word figure is used here, rather than the 500 words specified in the goal, to allow teachers flexibility. Although multiple short papers are more effective than a few long ones in teaching students to write, sometimes 500 words just isn’t enough for students to do justice to the topic.

I don’t recommend more than one 1,000-word paper a semester with not-yet-competent writers. I do recommend having students write in class the drafts of each of the papers they  submit for a grade. Students should be able to draft half an 1,000-word paper in an hour.

figure aims dart at target 2

Aim 2. All students must write on demand in timed situations.

Students must not only know information, but must also have a process for writing that is second-nature to them. Without both, students cannot compete for jobs. Today’s workplace does not allow time for rewrites.


figure aims dart at target 3

Aim 3. All students must be able to follow a writing pattern.

Every workplace has certain types of texts that it requires routinely. Students must be able to identify the key features of those texts and reproduce the pattern in which the key features are organized. Teachers should never assume student can recognize a pattern in writing.

figure aims dart at target 4

4. All students must be able to summarize what they hear, see, read, or think.

Nobody takes time to read a lengthy document unless the document a good, single-sentence summary in a prominent place that gives someone reason to believe the whole document is worth reading.

figure aims dart at target 5

Aim 5. All students must be able to identify evidence to support their main point, using personal knowledge, personal contacts, and traditional print and digital information sources.

In the workplace, people are the most-consulted information sources. Students need to know how to get information from people, including people who are not interested in providing information. not just from traditional print and digital resources.

figure aims dart at target 6

Aim 6. All students must recognize situations that require a different writing pattern than they normally use.

Some employees work 10 years without having to use anything other than the basic, thesis-and-support pattern, but they need to know how to respond in the 11th year situation that requires a different pattern.

figure aims dart at target 7

Aim 7. All students must accurately assess their strengths and weaknesses as communicators.

While all students need to be able to write short I/E texts competently, they need to know whether whether their writing is their strength. You might have a student who is a whiz at editing other people’s writing, or one who has a knack for spotting what essential piece is missing from a text, or one that seems to know instinctively what visuals would communicate a message.  Encourage students to become at least competent writers and to develop other communications skills as well.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Add skill applications to high school courses

David Brooks writes in today’s New York Times about the two different economies in the United States. The manufacturing economy is prospering because it has learned to use technology to reduce people costs, boost productivity, and increase profits in the face of global competition. By contrast the economic sectors that don’t face global competition—notably government, healthcare, and education—are not prospering.

One of the down-stream effects of this economic rift is the rise of the entrepreneurial information worker who sells his/her skills on a job-by-job basis.  The education community at large has not come to grips with the significance of this economic trend.When educators talk about entrepreneurs, most of the time what they have in mind is a Steve Jobs-type figure creating a vast corporate empire. The reality is likely to be a single-owner business with at most a couple of employees.

If most students from the middle and lower class are going to have any chance of surviving without a college degree—which many of them won’t be able to afford—schools need to make “what you can do with this skill” a part of coursework across the curriculum so students graduate high school with entrepreneurial skills. That doesn’t require a special program.  It does require doing some digging to see what skills are needed in the local community that students could master within existing courses.

Picture TIFF file iconFor example, right now I could use someone with skills to prepare e-book covers. Designing book covers doesn’t require a college degree, or even a high school diploma. It requires computer skills, math skills, art skills, plus the ability to read and follow directions and to copy text accurately. There’s no reason the required skills couldn’t be taught in a high school art program. Eric Azcuy does it in his art classes at Urban Assembly school for Applied Math and Science even with sixth graders.

There are hundreds of e-book producers like me across the country, and they all need book covers.  Put “e-book cover design” into your search box and look at what designers charge. Even design services that use templates pull in several hundred dollars a cover.

JPG picture file iconExisting small businesses like mine are willing to pay someone to do something they could do but don’t have time to do without taking time from their main focus. Those small businesses are places where Josh and Caitlin, even at age 15, can get paid for doing something they enjoy. In the process, Josh and Caitlin might even decide they need to learn something else from their school classes.

We can always hope.

Photo credit: pic file icons, uploaded by ilco. Property releases  photo #980850, photo #999032 photo ##1063691

Class, race and school enjoyment

Class, race and school enjoymentDifferences in the way students from various demographic and socioeconomic groups feel about their school experiences are some of the more intriguing findings from a  five year study of American teenagers development of workplace skills and attitudes.

Mihaly Csikszentmihaly and Barbara Schneider report the study’s finding in Becoming Adult: How Teenagers Prepare for the World of Work, a 2000 book I discussed in an earlier post.

Researchers looked at students’ experience of  flow, which might be described as situations in which someone becomes totally engrossed in a challenging activity that is just barely within their skill level. Flow experiences are all-out efforts, not necessarily what others regard as fun.

The Research Findings

Gender differences in flow experiences at school

While it’s common knowledge girls like school better than boys, the study suggests one reason that may be true. Researchers found that female students experience higher levels of flow experiences in schools than males.

Racial differences in flow experiences at school

Race also had intriguing relationships to students’ experience of flow. Caucasian  students experienced flow at school significantly less than other radial groups. They also saw school activities less relevant to their future careers. Compared to other racial groups, they got less enjoyment and positive affect from school. White kids found tests and quizzes particularly unenjoyable.

African-American experienced more flow than other groups, and reported higher levels of enjoyment, especially when doing individual work.

Hispanics also reported greater enjoyment and positive affect, wished to do them more often, and regarded them as more important.

Reported flow levels were lowest among Asian students.  For them, watching TV or videos was a bummer; they derived most enjoyment from group work.

Socioeconomic differences in flow experiences at school

The higher students rank on the socioeconomic scale, the less likely they were to report high levels of flow at school or to want to be in school. The one exception was group activities; advantaged students reported higher flow scores on group activities than those in lower socioeconomic groups.

Flow experiences at school were reported more often by students at schools serving high proportions of economically disadvantaged students than those from other communities. In general, the poorer the kids, the better school looked to them.

Musings: What are implications for educational policy and practice?

Looking at the findings, I can’t help wondering how much present educational trends toward less individual work, more group work, fewer tests and quizzes is driven by white, upper-middle class values. If we move students from lower socioeconomic into classes centered around group work are we doing them a favor? Or are we further disadvantaging them by forcing them into situations that make school unpleasant?

Assuming kids from the lower socioeconomic group get jobs, are those jobs likely to require the kinds of group skills needed by middle class kids who go from college into entry-level management jobs?

What happens in schools?

Class, race and school enjoyment Becoming Adult: How Teenagers Prepare for the World of Work  provides a snapshot of what American teenagers want to be when they grow up and looks in detail at how their workplace skills and attitudes are developed.

Published in 2000, the book is based on a national longitudinal study of American adolescents from 1991 through 1997. Our 2011 economic and technological landscape is quite different from that 20 years ago; however, some of the data the researchers discovered may be worth looking at now in spite of or because of those changes.

In this post, I’ll focus on some of the findings about students’ experiences in and attitudes toward school. I’ll save findings about career aspirations for another day.

The authors

Mihaly Csikszentmihaly is best known for his studies on flow, the mental state in which people are totally engrossed in an activity that is highly challenging but not beyond their capabilities.

Barbara Schneider is currently at Michigan State University. Her research interests focus on how the social contexts of schools and families influence the academic and social well-being of adolescents as they move into adulthood.

The study design

Led by a multidisciplinary team, the study looked at adolescents in grades, 6, 8, 10 and 12. They followed more than 1,000 students in 13 school districts representing a cross section of American communities and schools.

Researchers used a variety of methods to get data, including:

  • A survey to collect data about what students know about the world of work and factors that may contribute to that knowledge,
  • Daily sampling to determine how students spent their time and how they felt about what they were experiencing
  • Interviews with teens, their parents, and school guidance counselors;
  • Analysis of publications of the schools the teens attended, such as mission statements, budgets, and curriculum descriptions.


1. How students’ school day is spent

Researchers found that only two-thirds of the students’ school day—four hours of a six-hour day—was spent in classes.

  • Students were in core academic classes (math, science, English, foreign language, history, social studies) just over half (55%) of the school day.
  • Students spent about 12% of their school day in classes outside the core subjects, such as art, physical education, and vocational training.
  • Students spent a third of their school day in unstructured time on school grounds outside of class—the halls, lunchroom, gym, library—or outside the building.

The authors point out that the amount of unstructured time is very high compared to many other countries. In Japan, for example, spent almost the entire school day in class, even eating at their desks.

2. How students’ class time is spent

Researchers also examined what students did during the four hours they spent in classes. Their findings are summarized on this pie chart, patterned after Figure 7.1 in Becoming Adult:

Here’s the actual breakdown of class activities by percentages:

23% of class time listening to the teacher lecture
23% of class time during individual work
14% of class time taking tests or quizzes
11% doing homework or studying
9% watching TV or video
6% listening or taking notes
5% in discussion
4% talking to friends or the teacher
3% in group work or lab
2% in other activity

3. How students feel about school activities

What is more interesting than the numbers is the way students felt about various activities. It should be no surprise that students said lectures are neither enjoyable or challenging. However, it may be surprising to learn they regarded classroom lectures and video content as unimportant to their career goals.

School activities that students said were engrossing, challenging, and important to their future goals were:

  • Taking tests and quizzes.
  • Doing individual  work.
  • Doing group work.

Group work came in well behind the other two activities, however.

The only parts of the school academic program that matched tests and quizzes in their ability to engage students were the non-core classes like art, music, and computer classes. Although kids said they really enjoyed those activities, they also said they were not important to their future goals.

Musings: If things haven’t changed much

If student attitudes haven’t changed since this study was done—and that’s a big if—we might need to rethink:

  • whether tests are really worthless,
  • whether homework is bad for kids,
  • whether the flipped classroom with video content at home is a cure for education’s ills,
  • whether group work increases learning that students perceive as valuable to their careers,
  • whether we can make students’ perception of the career value of non-core classes more positive.

School attendance has social value

A discussion swirling around Twitter today got me thinking about school attendance.

Several people said that school attendance was foundational for school achievement. I’m sure people cannot achieve in school unless they are there, just as I could not walk on the moon without being on the moon. However, you don’t have to look too hard to find people who have become educational achievers without ever being in school. There is no cause-effect relationship between seat time and scholarship.

School attendance does, however, have one societal value that educators sometimes overlook: Showing up for school is an indicator of whether a person is likely to show up for work after they leave school for a job.

Years ago I directed an online summer program for  students who had failed at least two eighth grade classes and were seen by their school counselors as likely high school dropouts.

Each morning when I connected the program sites, there was one student who was always at her site. I’ll call her Sue, though that was not her name. Sue was not outstanding in any way, except for her reliability.

Nearly every morning after I greeted the site teacher, I said hello to the girl, often accompanying my greeting with a comment like, “We can count on Sue’s being in class on time.”

At the end of the program, when students were asked what was the best part of the program, Sue said the best thing was being praised for being on time.

The story didn’t end with her feeling good.

Sue went on to graduate with her class.

I’m sure that we didn’t teach Sue any academic content that made the difference between a dropout and a graduate.  What made a difference was discovering there was something she could do well: she could show up.

Showing up is a small thing unless you happen to be an employer. In that case, an average Sue who shows up is superior to a genius who goofs off.