Real writing is necessary writing

In 2020, real writing doesn’t mean an essayist at Walden Pond, or a poet in an attic, or a novelist in a retreat in the Berkshires.

https://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/walden-site-of-thoreaus-hut.jpg
1908 photo of the site of the cottage near Walden Pond in which Henry David Thoreau lived 1845-1847.

Real writing is necessary writing. It’s everyday, nonfiction writing. It’s not “lovely,” or “powerful,” or “gut-wrenching.” It’s ordinary, routine, mostly dull, and mostly unmemorable.

Real writing answers real people’s questions:

  • Why did your daughter miss school Wednesday?
  • Where can I buy 3 dozen rolls of toilet paper?
  • How many days will we need a dump truck when we gut the Jericho Inn?

Real writing is writing before it’s been scribbled out, worked over, and revised for a fourth time.

Real writing is what the customer service representative types in the chat window. Real writing is fast writing. It’s adequate, competent, good enough.

The aim of real writing is first drafts that say clearly everything that needs to be said in no more words than are absolutely necessary. And real writing aims at clean first drafts, free from mistakes that either force people to reread sentences twice to figure out their meaning or that make people laugh out loud.

Real writing is what is expected from writing teachers.

Real writing is what teachers are expected to teach their students to do.

Real writing is what every high school graduate should be able to do.

© 2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Two young people’s true adventures

My 2020 first quarter literary nonfiction reading included two books that focus on the formative years of two very different people: twentieth century aviation pioneer Beryl Markham and eighteenth century wannabe author—and surelywas forger—William-Henry Ireland. Both books are readily available, new and used, from booksellers and in libraries.

West with the Night

Beryl Markham. West with the Night. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1983. (paperback) ISBN: 0-86547-118-5

Beryl Markham in aviator attireWest with the Night is an autobiography written by a pioneering woman quite different from the calico and wagon train pioneer typically encountered in American classrooms. Beryl Markham was born in England but,  from the time she was four, the motherless child was reared in Kenya where her teachers and playmates were the natives.

Markham’s story opens with her childhood adventures going hunting barefoot with her Murani friends, seeing “dik-dik and leopard, kongoni and warthog, buffalo, lion, and the ‘hare that jumps.'” She relates an incident which her friend Bishon Singh told her father Beryl had been “moderately eaten by the large lion.”

Markham’s father clawed a farm out of the land, in true pioneer fashion. It was beginning to be profitable when a drought killed it. Markham’s father moved to Peru to raise horses. Beryl, 17, decided to stay in Africa and try for a job training thoroughbreds. Her father advised she saddle up and move to Molo, a town where he knew a few stable owners would be willing to risk having a girl train horses. “After that, work and hope,” he said. “But never hope more than you work.”

Markham was becoming a successful trainer when a chance encounter with a pilot changed her trajectory for a few years. She took flying lessons and became a bush pilot.

In 1936 she decided to try to become the first person to fly solo from London to New York, which meant flying for more than 24 hours in the dark. In the cold atmosphere, the fuel tank vents iced over. Starved of fuel, her plane went down on Cape Breton Island. West became the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo from east to west, but hadn’t made it to New York as she’d hoped to do.

photo of Markham's downed plane
Markham’s crashed plane shares space with Hemingway’s praise.

Markham ends her autobiography with that Atlantic flight, but she went on to have further adventures. She went back to Africa and resumed her career as a trainer, becoming the most successful horse trainer in Kenya for a time.

When first published, West with the Night was included in the U.S.A.’s Armed Services Editions, and Ernest Hemingway praised the book, but it wasn’t a great commercial success. The autobiography was rediscovered and republished in 1983. It ranks eighth in National Geographic‘s list of best adventure books. It’s a beautifully written story that both teenage boys and girls can appreciate.

The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare

Doug Stewart. The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare: A Tale of Forgery and Folly. Cambridge, MA, Da Capo Press, 1910. ISBN: 978-0-360-81831-8

Shakespeare peeks from right hand side of old manuscriptIf students are inspired by Markham’s autobiography, let’s hope they won’t be inspired by William-Henry Ireland’s story as told by Doug Stewart.

Stewart, a freelance journalist, tells the true story of 19-year-old William-Henry Ireland who in 1795 began writing documents that he passed off as the works of Shakespeare.

His father, Samuel Ireland, who thought William-Henry a dolt, got him a job as an unpaid apprentice to a lawyer who was never in the office. Most of William-Henry’s work was sorting through old documents.

William-Henry’s father, an ambitious author and illustrator of a series of travel books, had a keen instinct for what appealed to the public taste and he was obsessed with everything Shakespearean. He collected memorabilia, particularly items associated with famous or notorious figures. Samuel was not adverse to fudging the truth when it was to his advantage to do so.

William-Henry was not stupid, but he had been a failure in school. He had seen no reason for learning Latin or math since he had no plans to use either. (Does this sound like anybody in your classes?) However,  he read voraciously, was fascinated by the theater, and loved to copy verse by his favorite authors in an elegant, Elizabethan script.

William-Henry penned his first forgery more or less as a joke. When his father and his father’s friends were taken in, William-Henry was both amused and angry: He was amused that experts didn’t recognize the deception and angry that his father didn’t think him smart enough to have concocted the forgery and its cover story.

Samuel saw fame and profits if William-Henry could get him more manuscripts. Samuel particularly wanted something by Shakespeare: no handwritten copies of his plays were knows to exist. Samuel pushed his son to produce the desired scripts, not realizing that William-Henry would literally produce them.

Stewart takes readers on a tour through late 18th century London using the psychologically damaged William-Henry and his crazy family as the tour guides. Stewart’s text includes 16 pages of intriguing images, and his descriptions of the English playhouses at the end of the 18th century will entertain anyone with even a passing interest in theater.

The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare will probably be heavier reading for high school students than Markham’s story, because Stewart’s book requires wider background knowledge. You might to have students for whom the book is too tough read Stewart’s article about William-Henry Ireland’s forgery career  “To Be…Or Not: The Greatest Shakespeare Forgery”  in Smithsonian magazine. On the other hand, the emotional and personality issues that the book raises may make it worth the extra effort for students who have what are politely called “issues at home.”

 

© 2020 Linda G. Aragoni

What is last nonfiction book you read?

What’s the last nonfiction book you choose to read that wasn’t assigned reading?

shelves of nonfiction books
Some of my nonfiction shelved where it belongs instead of lying on the kitchen table.

Tell me about that book

Was that book:

  • literary nonfiction
  • on a topic related to the subject you teach?
  • a how-to book?
  • true crime?
  • a biography/autobiography of sports or entertainment figure?
  • a history book?
  • something you just thought sounded interesting?

Did you read anything I might be interested in?

What, if anything, from that book have you used in teaching?

What, if anything, from the book have you found yourself thinking about since you read it?

What, if anything, from that book have you shared with someone else?

Would you read another book on the same topic?

Would you look for another book by the same author?

Have you recommended the book to someone else?

Have you signed up for the author’s email list, if the author has one?

Your answers to each of those questions tells me whether you think the book was worth the time you invested in reading it.

Why your answers matter to you

The postmaster in a small community in which I lived told me he hated reading and he hated writing, but every time I’d get a shipment of books, he’d ask, “Did you get anything I might be interested in?” If I told him about a book that he though he’d be interested in, he’d make a note of the title.

Like my postmaster, a large number of your students and mine complete high school without ever reading a book that was interesting to them. The wider the range of nonfiction you read, the more likely it is you’ll be able to suggest books that your students might also find interesting reading.

Students don’t become good readers unless at least some of what they read is interesting to them. To be able to point students to well-written books that may interest them, you need to be knowledgeable about at least some nonfiction titles on topics that may not be your first choice of rainy-day reading.

Why your answer matters to me

As my long-time readers know, nearly all the writing I’ve done has been instructional materials that nobody reads unless they are paid to. Before I drop off my twig, I’d like to write a practical nonfiction book that is read by people who aren’t paid to read it.

You, for example.

For a long time, I’ve wanted to write a book about how to have mutually pleasant visits with people in nursing homes. A former nursing home activities director at one of the homes at which I volunteered is working with me. We have grand plans for a series of short, illustrated, square “gift books” that we refer to as our “Thanks for Dropping By” books. “Thanks for dropping by” is what nursing home residents always said when I left.

If we decide to go ahead with the how-too books, Ill ask you to join my email list.  I hope when/if you see the invitation, you’ll sign up, identifying yourself as a potential reader of my practical, nonfiction books for people who aren’t paid to read them.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Teach the evidence waltz for nonfiction writing.

Couple dancing and question

The evidence waltz is a very simple, three-step way to teach students to present evidence in nonfiction texts.

1. Prepare readers for the evidence

The first step is to prepare readers to understand the evidence in the context of the writer’s thesis.

If the student is writing about why pregnant elephants shouldn’t wear tennis shoes, she might prepare readers for her first piece of evidence by saying:

“The hazards of allowing pregnant elephants to wear tennis shoes were first documented in 1957 by African observer John Clayton in a guest article in the Journal of Pachyderm Podiatry. “

2. Present the evidence

The second step is for writers to present their evidence, citing their source.

Our student writer might have this to say:

Clayton wrote, “The practice of allowing pregnant elephants to wear tennis shoes, no matter how well-intended, is simply wrong. Such footwear is no better than going barefoot.”

3. Explain its significance

The third step is for writers to explain the significance of the evidence in terms of the thesis they are trying to prove.

Here’s our student writer doing that:

Although Clayton is not certified in pachyderm podiatry, his credentials as an observer of elephants cannot be disputed by anyone who has read any of Edgar Rice Burroughs novels in which Clayton appears under his pseudonym “Tarzan.”

For more about teaching the evidence waltz, visit this YCTWriting page.

A writing teacher’s reading around ELA

Reading nonfiction is probably the best—and certainly the easiest and cheapest—means of lifelong learning.

Such reading is obligatory for writing teachers.

We have to prepare our students to write in whatever fields they enter, and it’s hard to do that if unless we know what kinds of writing and what kinds of topics are used in other disciplines.

Below are brief summaries of my nonfiction reading for the third quarter of this year.

Trespassing Across America by Ken Ilgunas

Trespassing Across America cover shows man with backpack balancing on a pipeline

Ken Ilgunas was working as a dishwasher in an oil camp in the Arctic Circle when he got the idea to walk the 1,700-mile length of the Keystone XL pipeline. He wanted to see the land that the pipeline was going through and test his personal limits.

He wasn’t athletic, hadn’t hiked before, and, although he considered himself environmentally conscious, had no political agenda.

This literate but easy reading narrative by a guy who sounds as ordinary as most of the guys in my English classes ought to appeal to those guys.

His stress on the importance of being polite to people ought to appeal to teachers.

Rust: The Longest War by J. Waldman

Rust's cover features photos of rust by Alyssha Eve Csük

Ilgunas had his book organized for him by the path of the Keystone XL pipeline. Jonathan Waldman had to devise a way to organize his examination of rust, “the great destroyer,” “the pervasive menace,” “the evil.” He chose to organize it in terms of stories about men and women whose life work is fighting rust on surfaces as diverse as The Statue of Liberty, bridges, and beer cans.

To balance his narratives about rust fighters, Waldman tags along with Alyssha Eve Csük as she climbs over a chain link fence into the closed Bethlehem Steel Works in Bethlehem PA to take photographs of rust. The granddaughter of a steelworker, Csük makes her living photographing rust, including the one on the book’s dust jacket.

Waldman can not only make technical material understandable, he makes it fascinating and often funny. Rust is a marvelous nonfiction book to make available to your students as an exemplar of expository narrative.

Jane Austen’s England by R. & L. Adkins

Cover of Jane Austen's England shows child-like drawings of ship, hanged man, a fire, a chimney sweep, a house, a horse-drawn carriage.

Roy and Lesley Adkins focus their panoramic history of Jane Austen’s England (she lived from 1775 to 1817) on domestic matters arranged by topic rather than chronology.

The topical approach makes the book convenient pick-up reading, which is fortunate because Jane Austen’s England won’t be many people’s choice for cover-to-cover reading.

However, chapter titles such as “Wedding Bells,” “Fashions and Filth,” and “Dark Deeds” might tempt a teenager to thumb its pages. Once inside, the content is quirky enough to get students to read a page or even a chapter.

The End of White Christian America

White on black, all-text cover of The End of White Christian America

In this unusually readable book of survey research, Robert P. Jones examines the impact of demographic and cultural changes since 1900 on current American religion and on American politics.

The first paperback version of The End of White Christian America (published  July, 2017) which I used, includes an afterward in which Jones discusses how the election of Donald Trump in 2016 fits into the pattern of changes he wrote about prior to the election.

In those changes, Jones finds an explanation for why America’s white protestants have passed over candidates whose values matched their own, supporting instead candidates whose values seem a direct contradiction of theirs. The explanation is fear. With their declining numbers, white protestants see the loss of political clout and of their vision of America.

Explaining survey data so it is understandable and meaningful is an art. Jones is a master of it.  Students could learn a lot from this book about how to explain technical material for people who aren’t particularly techie.

Failure: Why Science Is So Successful

Black cover with Failure and Stuart Firestein printed in green to indicate positive side to failure.

Failure is a book about how scientists do science, which author Stuart Firestein, himself a scientist, says isn’t the way the public thinks science happens.

Firestein’s thesis is that science is less rule-driven and methodical than the public supposes, and that “failures” advance science at least as much as successes.

Firestein is scholarly without being stuffy, but the topics he discusses are not for for folks whose science education ended with high school physics.

Failure is more a collection of essays than a book that must be read as sequential chapters, which makes it a good addition to a writing teacher’s classroom bookshelf for those few rare students (and perhaps some of the teacher’s colleagues) for whom this little book will be a pleasant challenge.

The Vanquished by Robert Gerwarth

Robert Gerwarth’s subtitle reveals his focus: Why the First World War Failed to End. 

Cover of the Vanquished is photo of soldier seated on ground,head on knees, hands on back of his neck, picture of misery.

While we think of WWI ending with the armistice on Nov. 11, 1918, the process of negotiating peace treaties went on for five years. During those years, European nations already weakened by war, famine, and disease fell victim to revolutions, pogroms, and mass expulsions.

The conditions of those five years gave rise to new states and extreme political movements. All that was needed for the cumulative after-effects to ignite another world war was the fuel provided by the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

While Gerwarth writes well, he’s not writing for an audience of high school and community college students. To appreciate his work requires more than a general knowledge of the WWI era and the ability to grasp sentences than can run 5-8 lines long.

I learned a great deal from his book, but I had to work at the learning.

My other reading

During the third quarter I also read at least two novels a week, most of them bestsellers of the 1970s. Reviews of those books will be posted at GreatPenformances.com before the year’s out, if they aren’t there already.

Summaries of my earlier nonfiction reading are posted on this blog. Here are links to the list for first quarter and the list for second quarter.

Reading around ELA, second quarter 2018

I started more nonfiction books than I finished this quarter. Two or three that I began turned out to be not what I was looking for or too much of what I was looking for. Those I set aside until I am less pressured.

The four I finished are an historical memoir, two books on education, and a book about self-directed learning in business settings. (If you’re interested in my fiction reading for the quarter, those reviews are posted at GreatPenformances.)

Armenian Golgotha: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1918

Armenian Golgotha was written by Grigoris Balakian, an Armenian Apostolic Church priest who was in university in Berlin on Aug. 1, 1914 when Germany declared war against Russia and, by extension, on Russia’s allies.

photo of Grigoris Balakian on Armenian Golgotha cover

Less than a year later, Balakian was arrested in Constantinople along with other leaders of the Armenian community, as the Ottoman Empire under the Young Turks began to systematically eliminate the Armenian people from Turkey’s borders.

Thousands of Armenians died or were slaughtered over the next four years. Balakian survived, promising that he would tell the world what happened to his people as civilized nations averted their eyes.

I couldn’t read much of Armenian Golgotha at one time. Even in translation the memoir is harrowing. Pushing on despite feeling revulsion, one risks becoming deadened to the horror.

Translator Peter Balakian, nephew to Grigoris and a noted author in his own right, and the late Aris Sevag, a prolific writer on Armenian history, provide time charts, maps, and photographs. The paperback volume from Vintage Books, 2010, is beautifully laid out and printed on high quality paper, a stark contrast to the events it relates.

I highly recommend this memoir. You won’t enjoy it, but the whole point is that you dislike it enough to protest when history repeats itself.

Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel T. Willingham

This is the third book I’ve read by Daniel T. Willingham, who writes about the implications of cognitive science for the classroom in a highly readable style not often associated with academics.

silhouette of child fleeing school desk is on cover of Why Don't Students Like School

Willingham starts out by saying, “People are naturally curious, but we are not naturally good thinkers; unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking.”

The rest of his book is devoted to exploring how classroom teachers can overcome their students’—and their own—disinclination to think. The content is not just thoughtful; it’s useful, too.

Unfortunately, nothing about the physical book makes for comfortable reading. It’s a good thing Willingham writes well, or I wouldn’t have gotten through the book. The typeface appears to have been chosen by someone whose hobby is engraving the Bible on the heads of pins, and the text is printed on cheap, thin paper that rapidly mellows to budget-apartment beige.

If your eyes are up to the challenge, you’ll find useful information in a refreshingly human delivery in Why Don’t Students Like School? (Jossey-Bass, 2009)

All Learning Is Self-Directed by Daniel R. Tobin

On front cover, figures run toward learning

Published by ASTD in 2000, this paperback by Daniel R. Tobin is geared toward leaders of large organizations who even then were shedding their training function and attempting to shift the those responsibilities to employees.

Although the book is geared toward businesses, Tobin’s main points apply to schools as well.

Tobin argues that although employees have to do their own learning—learning isn’t something someone else can do for you—the organization must take responsibility for

  • identifying its needs,
  • creating an environment that values learning,
  • encouraging diverse types of learning situations, and
  • facilitating employees’ ability to take engage in learning experiences.

Tobin’s text shows its age, but his general points are still valid and worth consideration in today’s public schools.

Someone Has to Fail by David F. Labaree

Someone Has to Fail (Harvard University Press, 2010) is a historical sketch of American education with David F. Larabee’s running commentary about the winners and losers in each successive reform from the early years of the republic to the present.

The book’s subtitle is The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling, which sums up Labaree’s assessment of the present state of education in America.

In group photo, one student's face is hidden by the word FAIL.

Larabee, a professor of education at Stamford University, asserts that American schools have historically done a lousy job of educating students, but they have been more successful at schooling students. Credentials mean only that students are trainable, Larabee says; credentials don’t imply that even those with advanced degrees have job skills.

He also says that America does not need—and has never needed—large numbers of people who have mastered the academic curriculum. What America needs, Larabee says, can be obtained by going to school quite apart from learning curriculum:

What school teaches that students need

School teaches [students] how to juggle priorities, how to interact effectively with both peers and superiors, and how to manipulate an institutional context in a way that serves their own individual ends. The best preparation for life, in short, may not come from getting an education but from doing school.

Larabee’s book is stuffy and highly repetitious. Moreover, his argument that schooling per se is valuable even if the schooled acquire neither knowledge or skills seems quaint. If businesses below Amazon-size ever really happy having to train highly credential employees for their first jobs, they aren’t any more. Even the rationale being given for combining the federal Departments of Education and Labor is that education should be focused on skill development for the workplace.

Nevertheless, I recommend taking a look at what Laramee has to say about America’s compulsion to treat every social problem by applying a poultice of education. I suspect that tendency won’t disappear regardless of changes  at the Cabinet level and it is an impulse that makes itself felt right down to the school janitor.

Real storytelling is telling stories about what people need to know

A few decades ago, after covering a city council meeting the evening before, when I reported to work on day two of my second reporting job, the managing editor asked me what news came out of the meeting.

I told him the important story was about a major waterline project being considered that would take years and cost millions, but the story readers would be interested in was that a traffic light was going to be installed at a certain busy intersection.

The ME raised arms his arms in the clenched fists victory salute and said, "At last! a reporter who knows the difference between what people want to know and what they need to know."

In today’s English classrooms, teachers have enthusiastically embraced the idea that in the twenty-first century students need to be good storytellers, without putting that idea in the context of what people need to know.

The world outside the English classroom rarely wants to hear a student’s personal story told in that student’s voice: Those might as well be cat videos for all the value they have in the marketplace.

What institutions and businesses want is people who can tell their stories which, as least as far as institutions and businesses are concerned — are the stories about what people need to know.

If you’re an English teacher who wants to prepare students for real-world storytelling, you need to prepare students to tell other people’s stories about dull topics to people who aren’t interested and interest those people enough to read to the end.

Gleanings from my summer nonfiction reading list

After last week’s post in I asked why writing teachers should read, a reader of this blog asked if I would post a list of the nonfiction I read over the summer.

I have a blog about 20th century bestselling fiction, but I don’t often get to talk about my nonfiction reading outside of education. I appreciate me this opportunity to share some of my enthusiasms.

Since this is my education blog, I’ve drawn out some of the elements of each book that have relevance to teaching writing or more broadly to education. I often find I learn more about how to teach from books totally unrelated to teaching than from education books simply because I encounter the ideas in a new context.

I’ll skip over  Hochman and Wexler’s August release The Writing Revolution; I wrote about it  here and here.

FYI, I purchased each of the nine books profiled below from my preferred online book source Alibris.com.

Happiness for All by Carol Graham

foreclosed home in poor condition
Residents lost house and hope.

The pursuit of happiness is an unalienable right according to the U.S. Constitution, but it happiness equally available to all today? Graham writes about America as a county divided not only in terms of income distribution and opportunities, but also in terms of hopes and dreams.

Carol Graham’s book isn’t easy reading—I’d had to take her statistical analyses on faith; they’re beyond my comprehension—but when she steps back from her data to look at the people, she writes engagingly about why her findings matter.

Many of the correlations she pulls out, such as the strong correlation for lower socioeconomic status kids between “soft skills”  and their success in life, raise questions that any teacher or administrator ought to consider.

This is a book I’ll dip into again to reread those sections with particular relevance for educators.

Carol Graham. 2017. Happiness for All.  Princeton University Press.

Glass House by Brian Alexander

Lancaster, Ohio, seen through shattered glass
A company’s demise is killing its town.

This book’s subtitle, The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town, sounds more formidable than Carol Graham’s book, but Glass House reads like fiction.

Brian Alexander went back home to Lancaster, Ohio,  a town celebrated in a 1947 Forbes article as the quintessential American town, a model of “the American free enterprise system” before the 2016 election brought southern Ohio to the national spotlight.

He weaves together the story of the town, once home to the headquarters of Anchor Hocking glass, with the stories of the town’s residents, whose good, no-higher-education-required jobs disappeared though mismanagement and private equity slight-of-hand, leaving in its wake a trail  of shattered hopes and heroin addicts. Anyone who reads a national newspaper will
recognize names of some of the culprits. (One of the firms that helped dig Anchor Hocking’s grave had a part in the bloodletting at one of the major employers in my area.)

Alexander is a superb writer. He cares deeply about his hometown and makes readers care.

This is a book I will read again because I got carried away by the people story and missed significant parts of the business story.I found myself turning pages hoping everything would turn out all right in the end, but, alas, Alexander has given cold, hard truth instead of heartwarming fiction.

Highly recommended reading.

Brian Alexander. 2017.Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town by St. Martins Press.

The Great and Holy War by Philip Jenkins

Soldier among crosses on WWI battlefield
Red, white and black: the colors of the war.

In this century, World War I is often described as the war that “marked the end of illusions, and of faith itself.” Philip Jenkins argues that “The First World War was a thoroughly religious event, in the sense that overwhelmingly Christian nations fought each other in what many viewed as a holy war, a spiritual conflict.” Without acknowledging the war’s religious dimensions, he says, we fail to see how it redrew the religious map and gave rise to the religious conflicts we see on every day’s newscasts.

The emotion and passion that marks Alexander’s book is missing from Jenkins’ text. Because he’s presenting an argument, he’s focused on presenting his case clearly without bringing emotion into it.

That doesn’t mean the text is dry.

Jenkins writes a scholarly text that’s easier to read than most daily newspapers.  He’s not writing down to readers: He’s writing simply enough that readers can come up to the level of his analysis.  For example, he often includes that chapter’s thesis in some form in each paragraph of the chapter’s introduction. It’s subtly done; unless you stop to analyze the text, you’d probably not spot it.

This is a book I will read again, probably more than once. I’ve already made a list of fiction Jenkins mentions that I want to read.

Philip Jenkins. 2014. The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade. Harper One.

Great War Britain by Lucinda Gosling

canteen waitress serves soldiers
Happy side of home front war

This book takes a look at World War I as it was experienced by the upper class, female readers of the popular magazines of the era.

When the war wasn’t over by Christmas, the magazines switched their focus from balls and Paris fashions to photo stories about duchesses’ fundraising efforts and dowagers turning their stately homes into convalescent hospitals.

Lucinda Gosling studied history and worked in the picture library industry. She backs up her text with illustrations—there are many—without which it would be rather dull. Gosling is not a great writer.

Also many of the people mentioned in the text, whose names  would be familiar even today in Britain, wouldn’t draw a yawn on this side of the pond.

Photos aside, for American readers, I think the novels of the WWI decade provide as much insight into WWI Britain as Gosling’s text.

I’m not likely to read this again, but I may look at the pictures again.

Lucinda Gosling. 2014. Great War Britain: The First World War at Home.The History Press.

Made to Stick by Chip Heath & Dan Heath

title printed over duct tape
Duct tape is sticky stuff

Made to Stick is a book about communication. Its premise is that if you can understand why some ideas persist—even fake, screwball, and totally repulsive ideas—then you can use your knowledge to make your own communications sticky.

The Heath brothers are each involved in a different aspect of education, and, although the book is far more widely applicable than education, they frequently use education related illustrations and applications. Their discussion about the need for relentless prioritizing struck a chord with me because I’ve been trying to figure out how to explain to teachers why they have to jettison vast stacks of lessons if they expect students to learn.

The Heaths write well, with a friendly tone and humor. Having discussed how the military makes plans as a way of thinking about situations rather than expecting the plans to work, the Heaths provide a education riff on the military truism no plan survives contact with the enemy: “No lesson plan survives contact with teenagers.”

Every teacher on the planet needs to read this book.

Most of us ought to read it every year.

Chip Heath and Dan Heath. 2008. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.  Random House.

The Laws of Simplicity by John Maeda

two ball shapes and metallic bar
Lots of detail in simple design.

John Maeda is a visual designer, graphic artist, and computer scientist working at MIT.  His book takes some of the same ideas of Made to Stick and applies them to visual communication, product design, and how we can have a better quality of life in a fast-paced, quickly changing world.

Maeda is a smart guy and his writing reveals that. He’s not pedantic, but he’s far from engaging. Also, perhaps because he set out to say all he wanted to say in 100 pages, some of the text that summarizes essential points ended up in go-get-the-magnifier size type.

If you read this book, take its chapters like multivitamins, one a day.

If you teach writing, you might read the Heaths’ book first and compare their six principles to Maeda’s 10 laws, not only in what they say but how they are presented.  It would be an instructive exercise.

The Laws of Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life. John Maeda. 2006. MIT Press.

Grouped by Paul Adams

Groups of eight figures loosely linked by small thread
Eight-member groups are loosely linked.

Paul Adams knows a thing or two about the social behavior on the web. He worked for Facebook as Global Brands Experience Manager and for Google where he worked on Gmail, YouTube and Mobile.

He also knows a thing or two about writing off the web. Adams writes well. His prose has the directness and simplicity that comes from years of disciplined writing.

Instead of having consecutive chapters (old fashioned!) Grouped is a series of sections: Pick and choose at will, just as if you were visiting a website. The sections include quick tips that zero in on some super-important point in the already brief chapters and a summary—think: short, shorter, shortest—and resources for further reading.

The diagrams in the book have a hand-drawn appearance that underscores the idea of the importance of small, informal groups.

Grouped is a book about social behavior and, although the main audiences is businesses with products to sell, is relevant to teachers with lessons to pitch and administrators with budgets to pass.

Highly recommended.

Paul Adams. 2012. Grouped: How Small Groups of Friends Are the Key to Influence on the Social Web. New Riders.

Hug Your Haters by Jay Baer

angry emojii within heart symbol
PR aid for schools?

Jay Baer is a marketing guy,  but not the sort who try to push products on customers. His approach a public relations approach. He responds to customers, particularly if the customers are complaining, in order to keep that person as a customer.

Baer shows why ignoring criticism is bad for  business (even if the business is a not-for-profit organization or government entity). He distinguishes between complainers who want a solution to their problem and those who were disappointed by how the business  treated them and are seeking an audience to share their indignation.  Baer shows how to deal with both groups.

Baer writes well, and includes a lot of material that’s funny. He won’t let you get bored.

There’s plenty in this book that is useful to teachers, administrators, and school board members. For example, Baer points out how today’s best businesses are shaping how parents and community members on whom the school depends expect to be treated by the school.  If your school experiences a problem and delivers an Equifax response, you can bet your bottom dollar, its community stock will have an abrupt drop.

Highly recommended.

Jay Baer. 2016. Hug Your Haters: How to Embrace Complaints and Keep Your Customers. Portfolio/Penguin.

Logotype by Michael Evamy

logotype in white on magenta background
It’s easy to spot the logotype book.

A logotype is a brand identifier made from type—letters, usually—and designed not to be read the way words are read, but to be read as a symbol.  For example, if you see a certain fat F shape, you identify that logotype as meaning Facebook.

This is an entire 336-page book  of such logotypes with short blurbs about the business or organization that owns it and a sentence or two about how the logotype reflects its owner.

This is a fascinating book for people fascinated by such things. If you happen not to be one of them, you won’t like this book at all.

Michael Evamy. 2016. Logotype. Lawrence King Publishing.

Just One Thing to Learn

the number one High school and college essays may have an arbitrary length (e.g. 2,500 words) or structure (e.g. abstract, introduction, literature review, discussion). However, the way writers go about writing nonfiction exposition is the same regardless of length or number of paragraphs. The expository writing process does not change. It always begins with finding a topic and goes on to:

  1. developing a working thesis on the topic
  2. finding support for and opposition to the working thesis
  3. organizing a response around the working thesis or some modification of it
  4. drafting the paper
  5. editing the paper

Hopelessly oversimplified?

Of course it is.

That’s its virtue.

Once students have gotten the hang of the process, which many can master in third or fourth grade, teachers can teach them how to approach more complicated topics and formats as modifications of what they already know.  When students aren’t focusing on their fear of something new, they can focus on their writing.

So tell students they have just one process to learn.

They will love you for it.

Serious academic writing in middle school social studies

A couple years ago, Glenn Wiebe shared on his History Tech blog information from a conference presentation that I tucked away to follow up sometime.

Leslie Duhaylongsod, who at the time was teaching at the Winsor School in Boston, shared at the 2008 National Council for the Social Studies how she uses what she called argument writing with middle school students in her history classes. I’m not sure her students incorporated the refutation element that marks argument, but they clearly used thesis-and-support.

Duhaylongsod had students develop nonfiction thesis statements, find evidence for them, and explain how their evidence supports their thesis. From a writing teachers standpoint, it is useful to look at some thesis statements she shared at the conference:

  • The geography of Greece was an advantage of Ancient Greece.
  • The geography of Greece negatively impacted the lives of the Ancient Greeks.
  • Geography led to development of democracy.
  • Geography of Greece helped the ancient Greeks become powerful.

Wiebe reported that Duhaylongsod said the most difficult part of the work for her students was developing patience to deal with the frustration of writing on intellectually challenging topics.

Those of us who teach writing rather than history can learn from Duhaylongsod’s efforts. She  required serious intellectual work from middle school students. Granted, she taughts at a private school and didn’t have the hodgepodge of students that populate public school classrooms. However, that doesn’t mean the public school teachers shouldn’t be pushing their students for learning adequate only for blackening bubbles on multiple choice tests.

Also, instead of letting them choose any topic that interested them, Duhaylongsod required students to choose topics within her discipline. That kind of authentic writing rarely happens in the English classroom at any level from middle school through associate degree except for writing assignments about literature.

I believe Duhaylongsod is now in an education doctoral program at Harvard University. She has been presenting at various conferences this spring (NARST, AERA) on a team lead by Harvard Associate Professor of Education Tina Grotzer. The researchers are investigating how how children reason about the nature of causality.

Wiebe is a member of the Curriculum Development Team of ESSDACK (the Educational Services and Staff Development Association of Central Kansas).

[Broken links removed 2/26/2014; updated link 2/03/2016]