Nature and human nature: a writing prompt

In the last two weeks, Hurricane Dorian displayed the awesome power of Nature and triggered displays of human nature, some of which were less than awesome.

Thinking about what we’ve watched on the news suggests an English language arts writing prompt that is timely but won’t go out of date.

The formal writing prompt

Here’s the core of a formal writing prompt on natural and human-aided disasters:

John C. Mutter writes in his book The Disaster Profiteers, “It is human nature more than Nature that makes disasters so terrible.”

Thinking of a natural disaster that’s occurred in the last 24 months, use digital and print news sources to explore how human nature compounded the effects of the natural consequences.

Write an informative/explanatory text in which you support Mutter’s assertion that, “It is human nature more than Nature that makes disasters so terrible.”

Format your response for reading as a digital document. Please keep your text to under 650 words.

By way of additional help, I suggest you tell students they must:

    • include their definition of human nature.
    • use both print and digital sources
    • include live links to your sources
    • summarize information to which you refer except for brief quotation of strikingly effective language.

Appropriate uses for this formal writing prompt

This prompt would be appropriate for students reading Mutter’s book, a literary nonfiction work I’ve recommended here earlier. It would also be a good prompt for students studying research and source use.

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

A wild goose chase: Seeking Little Black Sambo

Two weeks ago I ran across a news story about a Black History Month exhibit that included a copy of The Story of Little Black Sambo, published in 1899.

To refresh my memory of the story, I went to Project Gutenberg, where I found a copy of Little Black Sambo written by Helen Bannerman and illustrated by Florence White Williams.

I remember as a child hearing the expression “the grandest tiger in the jungle,” but nothing else in the story seemed familiar.

It’s clear from the text that the story is set in India, so how did the Southern Black stereotyped figures get into the book?

I found out that the author of the story, Helen Bannerman, was from Edinburgh, Scotland. She married a man who was a physician and officer in the Indian Medical Service. They moved to India, where they lived for 30 years. They raised four children in what is now known as Channai.

Little Black Sambo was first published by Grant Richards in 1899 in London. Bannerman is listed as both author and illustrator of that edition. I can’t think of any reason for Bannerman to use American racial stereotypes in the British empire, but I cannot find any images from that edition to show that she didn’t. There are references to Bannerman’s “cartoonish” style being the reason for publishers not using her art in later editions. 

In 1900, an edition of Little Black Sambo was printed in the US by the Frederick A. Stokes Company. It may have looked like this. White Williams was too young to have done the illustrations for that.

(White Williams’ birth year is variously listed as 1888, 1895, 1900 and both 1888 and 1900.  She would have been roughly the same age as the Bannerman children.)

I’ve found references to White Williams doing Sambo art for 1918 and 1919 editions of the book, but no images.

There were many knock-off copies of Sambo published up through 1923 when Stokes labeled that year’s product “The Only Authorized American Edition.” That was just about the time Florence White Williams was making a name for herself as an illustrator and artist, but I can’t find any source that says who did the illustrations for the “authorized edition.”

I’ve spent a whole day trying to figure out how Little Black Sambo was transformed from the story of a clever Indian boy to a story about race in the American south, and I’m no closer to knowing than when I began.

I guess this is what’s called lifelong learning.

Flip the Bloomin’ straw man

When students write about a novel based on having seen the movie, teachers are dismayed.

AP exam topic work viewed, not read

What about when teachers review a scholarly work based solely on the abstract?

Is it acceptable to write for teachers to write critical analysis based on something they heard about a book?

Would it be legitimate for teachers to pan a work if their information about it were from an education course for which they paid tuition?

These are not hypothetical questions for me. I discovered last week a subcontractor was not reading the documents for which she was writing annotations. She said she didn’t have time to read the sources. I didn’t find that an acceptable excuse. I expect my students and my employees to read the works they critique.

Perhaps my expectations of acceptable educator standards are out of date.  I certainly feel out of step when I read education blogs.

One of the most popular education blog posts in the past couple weeks is Shelley Wright’s blog about flipping Bloom’s Taxonomy.

wrightsroom tweets her blog

Response to the post ranged from favorable to gushing.

post one of best ever

In her post, Wright has this to say:

The presentation of the Taxonomy (in boththe original and revised versions) as a pyramid suggests that one cannot effectively begin to address higher levels of thinking until those below them have been thoroughly addressed. Consequently (at least in the view of many teachers who learned the taxonomy as part of their college training) Blooms becomes a “step pyramid” that one must arduously try to climb with your learners. Only the most academically adept are likely to reach the pinnacle. That’s the way I was taught it. [emphasis added]

Shelley Wright is probably a superb teacher. Her lessons are interesting and engaging. However, what she flips is not the taxonomy, but a straw man.

Wright thinks the taxonomy is wrong because her experience doesn’t square with the way she was taught.  The step pyramid she describes doesn’t square with my experience either. However, I know the step pyramid that Wright flips does not appear anywhere in the taxonomy—not in the original 1956 handbook or the 2001 revision.

I own (and have read more than once) both the 1956 The Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: Handbook I Cognitive Domain, edited by Bloom, and the 2001 A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, edited by Anderson and Krathwohl.

To understand either taxonomy, one must understand how the authors define terms,  since a taxonomy is a device for defining characteristics so we can sort items.  The process Wright describes using in her classes does not begin with creativity as the revised taxonomy defines it.

In her example of the advertisement, the class begins roughly at the application level, rearranging given elements in the form of an advertisement. It’s a great lesson, but it’s not one that creates as the revised taxonomy defines that term.  In the revised taxonomy, to create involves producing something that includes more than the materials the student started with.

Run through Wright’s other examples.

None begins with having students create.

Where Wright messed up was in not using primary sources.  The link Wright provides in the segment quoted above, does not go to a primary source. Granted the primary sources are expensive, but David R. Krathwohl’s 2002 article  in Theory into Practice about the revised taxonomy is was free to download online.  Just reading it would have disabused Wright of the idea that the taxonomy is lays out an educational program that must be followed sequentially.

As educators, let’s do what we want our students to do: Read the primary documents.

[Krathwohl’s article, which was available for download when this post was written, is no longer available. Link deleted 04-02-2014]



Is the tech use infographic reliable?

An infographic on students’ use of technology is zooming around cyberspace this morning. Twitter users among the ed tech and digital-tools-in-the-classroom gurus are retweeting that “Twitter enabled classrooms produce better grades.”

Come on folks, let’s apply those 21st century information analysis skills you’re always saying students need to use.  I don’t expect tech-obsessed Matthew Panzarino over at The Next Web to read analytically for education information, but I do expect educators like Miguel Guhlin to pay attention to the nuances.

The source of the infographic is If you visited the site, you know it’s a directory of online educational programs that’s supported by those programs’ advertising. The About page gives no information about the site owners. Those two facts alone should set off alerts that the information may not be reliable.

Did you notice that the individual facts on the infographic are not cited? Does that suggest anything to you?

Did you check the references listed on the infographic? They are not hyperlinks, so you have to retype the URLs. If you do get to the sources, what do you find?

One source listed is EducatedNation. EducatedNation should not be confused with the NBC News site EducationNation. EducatedNation is a blog whose about page says it “consists of two writers,” whose names are not given.

The EducatedNation piece consists primarily of a news release from CourseSmart™, a company that sells digital textbooks and other digital course materials, about results of a study done for them by Wakefield Research. Most of the facts on the infographic are from this news release.

The next largest source of information for the infographic is the Pearson Foundation. You’ll remember Pearson as the greedy, publicly traded, for-profit educational publishing company that Web2.0 educators are always criticizing for taking money away from public education.

Got that?

The two main sources of the infographic are companies that sell the products the infographic describes.

I’m pretty sure educators would think there was something fishy about a study commissioned by a drug company that found the company’s new pill was the greatest discovery since aspirin.

It’s instructive to compare Wakefield’s summary of the study results, posted to its blog, with the CourseSmart™ spin on those results. CourseSmart™ focus is that digital devices are about to take over the world and educators shouldn’t be left behind. Wakefield says “hardcopies still reign supreme” while predicting “a shift toward more digital textbooks among college students can be expected in the future.”

The section of the infographic that Twitter fans are emoting over says:

Students in classes that use Twitter to increase engagement have been found to average 5 grade points higher than those in normal classes.

I spent over an hour finding the original source for that. I thought it might be Rey Junco blog listed in the sources, since Junco specializes in students of social media in higher education. However, it turned out that the URL cited on the infographic leads to  another infographic that is based on Rey Junco’s study comparing students in college classes using Twitter and those in regular college classes.

Once more, ed techies, ask yourselves whether as educators you’d let students get away with such sloppy work as wrongly attributing a source. If you do and your students end up in my first year English class, there will be hell to pay.

(If you are one of those cutting-edge, think-outside-the-box folks who says we should get rid of grades entirely, you should also ask yourself why the fact that a technology improves grades make the technology seem valuable to you. I know you won’t ask yourself that, but you should.)

Finally, what you’ve been waiting for, the place where I finally say finally.

The introduction to the infographic says:

While it’s no secret that college students are addicted to technology, the specifics of their gadget usage have never been scientifically studied — until now. While the extent of students’ dependence on tech might be a tad alarming, there’s good news too: much of their screen time is spent learning.

Notice, please, that infographic doesn’t say students are spending screen time learning course material. In fact, the material emphasizes that using digital technologies mean students spend less time studying.

Also notice that all the data on the infographic is about college students behavior.  No matter how many times you retweet the link to the infographic, you cannot make the data apply to a third grade class  in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

High cost of low teacher salaries—and low writer expectations

The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries,” an op-ed by Dave Eggers and Nínive Clements Calegari in today’s New York Times, is being hyped by social media outlets. As the title suggests, the article focuses on the importance of raising teacher salaries as “the first step is to make the teaching profession more attractive to college graduates” (paragraph 4).

As teachers, and most particularly as writing teachers, we need to pay attention not only to the point of a piece of writing but also to how the piece is put together. We are not going to be effective at teaching students how to write persuasively if we don’t test what we read by the standards we expect them to apply, are we? Read the op-ed with that in mind.

Defective analogy

Eggers and Calegari’s article opens with a clichéd analogy comparing education to the military. The authors argue that when the military doesn’t win its battles, nobody blames the soldiers, but when education doesn’t fulfill its objectives, everybody blames the teachers.

Besides being threadbare from years of overuse, the analogy is also defective. Teachers may work in combat zones under wrong-headed policies established by higher-ups, but their situation is really quite different from that of the military enlistee.

Soldiers have no voice in what they will do or how they will do it. They cannot join a union to lobby for better pay, reduced backpack loads when the temperatures are over 80 degrees Fahrenheit, or fewer IEDs. There are no promotions for soldiers who don’t perform to the satisfaction of their superiors. If they mess up so badly as to incur a dishonorable discharge, they are not entitled to military pension benefits. In addition, they may lose the right to vote receive any type of government assistance, including loans for a college education.

A better analogy for the teaching profession than the military might be the nursing profession. To get hired, nurses have to meet state standards that usually include post-secondary education at their own expense. Nurses work in a mix of private and public institutions doing work most people don’t want to do under conditions most people don’t want to be in. Often they work under administrators with no hands-on experience in health care, carrying out policies that sometimes have the opposite effects of those intended.  And when budgets are tight, it’s not health care administrators whose jobs suffer.

Source use issues

Besides the problem of the defective analogy, I noted issues related to source use that I’d question if the writing came from one of my students.

For example, in paragraph 6, Eggers and Caligari say, “sixty-two percent [of teachers] work outside the classroom,” but they give no source. Then they present an anecdote about Erik Benner, a history teacher in Texas, who is said to go directly from a job at he goes directly from Trinity Springs Middle School to drive a fork lift until 11 pm. Again, no source is given. I was able to verify that Benner’s name is on the faculty list, but not the anecdote.

While I do not expect citations in a newspaper, I would expect to find hyperlinks in the digital versions (by 10 am the piece was on 30 blogs verbatim), I would like to be able to check to see if, for example, how many of those jobs are full-time concurrent with teaching and how many are part-time and summer jobs. Again, my reason for questioning is to be sure we are comparing apples to apples.

Please note that I am not arguing that Eggers and Caligari are wrong in advocating better teacher pay. (I happen to think that is an important factor in improving  education.) I am saying only that their argument in favor of better pay contains serious weaknesses as a piece of writing.

Since Eggers and Caligari are the founders of the 826 National tutoring centers whose  “goal is to assist students . . .  with their writing, and to help teachers get their classes excited about writing,” I’m sure they would agree that the quality of written work matters.