On this date in 1991, Professor Jacob Neusner, a historian of religion, delivered the convocation address to students at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. Unlike a commencement speech, which is presented at a graduation ceremony at the end of a school term, a convocation is a speech to incoming students at the beginning of a school term.
The purpose of a convocation, therefore, is to call a student body together and to spark the students’ quest for knowledge as they stand poised at the beginning of a new school year. Neusner clearly is qualified to speak about acquiring knowledge, having played a part in the publication of over 1,000 books, either as an author, editor, or translator. In his convocation, Neusner evoked examples of history’s great teachers, teachers who helped their students to discover truth for themselves:
Socrates was the greatest philosopher of all time, and all he did was walk around the streets and ask people irritating questions. Jesus was certainly the most influential teacher in history, and his longest “lecture” — for instance, the Sermon on the Mount — cannot have filled up an hour of classroom time or a page in a notebook.
Professor Neusner ended his speech by calling students to look not only to their teachers for learning, but also to look within themselves:
Your imagination is our richest national resource; an open and active mind, our most precious intangible treasure. That’s what we try to do at our universities and colleges in this country: teach people to teach themselves, which is what life is all about — during the coming year, and during all the years of your lives and mine.
Today’s Challenge: School’s Cool! You’d Be a Fool to Miss a Single Day at School What is the purpose of education? What would you say to welcome, motivate, and inspire students to make the most of their learning in the coming year? Write the text of your convocation speech giving your audience the best advice you can about how not to take their education for granted. (Common Core Writing 1 – Expository)
Quotation of the Day:Professors are there to guide, to help, to goad, to irritate, to stimulate. Students are there to explore, to inquire, to ask questions, to experiment, to negotiate knowledge. –Jacob Neusner
1- Safire, William. Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.
Today is the birthday of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), known for his novel The Great Gatsby as well as numerous other short stories and novels.
In a 1938 letter to his daughter, Fitzgerald presented his powerful case for what he felt was the English language’s most potent part of speech:
. . . all fine prose is based on the verbs carrying the sentences. They make sentences move. Probably the finest technical poem in English is Keats’ “Eve of Saint Agnes.” A line like “The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass,” is so alive that you race through it, scarcely noticing it, yet it has colored the whole poem with its movement–the limping, trembling and freezing is going on before your own eyes (1).
Verbs are the engines of every sentence. They create movement and action as well as images that your reader can see and hear. Because verbs are so important, you should learn to select your verbs with care and learn to differentiate between imprecise, passive verbs that suck the life out of your sentences and precise, action verbs that enliven your sentences.
Like Fitzgerald, writer Constance Hale argues confident writers know the importance of vivid verbs: “More than any other part of speech, it is the verb that determines whether the writer is a wimp or a wizard.“ Hale believes so strongly about verbs, in fact, that she wrote on entire book on them called, Vex, Hex, Smash, and Smooch.
In her book, Hale talks about a “cheat” she employed as a magazine editor to determine whether or not a writer was up to snuff. She would begin by circling every verb in the first two or three paragraphs of a submitted story. Then she would study each verb:
Did the writer rely on wimp verbs? Or did he craft sentences with dynamic verbs — ‘linger,’ maybe, or ‘melt,’ or ‘throttle’? If ‘is,’ ‘was,’ or ‘were’ filled most of the circles, the story idea was declined. If the writer relied on dynamic verbs, and in doing so made every sentence jump, he got a phone call (2).
Put Hale’s “Verb Check” to the test by examining the two sentences below. Notice how how a wimpy verb only tells, while a vivid verb shows, providing both sight and sound:
Sentence 1: Mary was angry.
Sentence 2: Mary slammed her fist on the desk, lowered her eyebrows into an indignant glare, and stomped out of the room (3).
Today’s Challenge: Parts of Speech on Parade What would you say is the most important single part of speech in the English language, and why should writers pay careful attention to how they use it? Make your case using sentences from great writers as examples. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)
Quotation of the Day: Verbs act. Verbs move. Verbs do. Verbs strike, soothe, grin, cry, exasperate, decline, fly, hurt, and heal. Verbs make writing go, and they matter more to our language than any other part of speech. -Donald Hall
On this date two emotionally charged speeches about dogs were given more than 50 years apart.
The first was a closing argument from a trial in 1870. Attorney George Graham Vest was representing a client whose hunting dog, Old Drum, had been killed by a neighboring sheep farmer. Instead of addressing the specific facts of the case, Vest took another approach, an emotional appeal to the faithful nature not just of Old Drum, but all dogs:
Gentlemen of the jury: A man’s dog stands by him in prosperity and in poverty, in health and in sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground, where the wintry winds blow and the snow drives fiercely, if only he may be near his master’s side. He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer, he will lick the wounds and sores that come in encounters with the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince. When all other friends desert, he remains. When riches take wings and reputation falls to pieces, he is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens.
Vest won the case and Old Drum’s owner was awarded $50. Today a statue of the dog and a plaque with Vest’s speech are located in front of the courthouse in Warrensburg, Missouri (1),
The second canine-theme talk was a nationally televised speech by vice-presidential candidate Richard Nixon in 1952. As the running mate for Dwight D. Eisenhower on the Republican ticket, Nixon faced a challenge when a story broke that he had taken money from a secret fund set up by a group of millionaires from his home state, California. Nixon’s reputation and his political future was on the line, so on September 23, 1952 he went on national TV, a relatively new medium at the time, to deny the accusations. One major tactic Nixon used in his speech was to appeal to his audience’s sympathies by talking about his humble background, his modest income, and most importantly, his family dog:
But Pat [Nixon’s wife] and I have the satisfaction that every dime that we have got is honestly ours.
I should say this, that Pat doesn’t have a mink coat. But she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat, and I always tell her she would look good in anything.
One other thing I probably should tell you, because if I don’t they will probably be saying this about me, too. We did get something, a gift, after the election.
A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention the fact that our two youngsters would like to have a dog, and, believe it or not, the day before we left on this campaign trip we got a message from Union Station in Baltimore, saying they had a package for us. We went down to get it. You know what it was?
It was a little cocker spaniel dog, in a crate that he had sent all the way from Texas, black and white, spotted, and our little girl Tricia, the six year old, named it Checkers.
And you know, the kids, like all kids, loved the dog, and I just want to say this, right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we are going to keep it. (2).
Nixon’s speech was a great success. Letters and telegrams of support poured in, and Eisenhower decided to keep him on the presidential ticket, a ticket that six weeks later won in a landslide. Today Nixon’s speech is known as “The Checkers Speech.”
Both of these speeches — coincidentally presented on September 23rd — exemplify the power of pathos in writing. The Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote about three key components of persuasive rhetoric: ethos, logos, and pathos. Ethos is the writer’s credibility, and logos is the writer’s reasoning. The third, and perhaps most important component, is pathos, the writer’s appeal to emotion. Both Nixon and Vest knew that to persuade their audience they needed more than just reasonable arguments and facts; in addition, they needed to move their audience’s emotions by tugging at their heart strings. By using their words to create moving and specific images, and to tell specific, personal anecdotes, Vest and Nixon crafted cogent and convincing cases.
Today’s Challenge: Pathos-Powered PSA What is something specific that can be done today by you or by anyone to make the world a better place? Write a Public Service Announcement (PSA) making your case. Craft it as a logical argument, but also pour on the pathos by thinking about not just your audience’s head, but also its heart. Use specific imagery, figurative language, anecdotes, and personal insight to make a connection and to move your audience to act. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)
Quotation of the Day: To his dog, every man is Napoleon; hence the constant popularity of dogs. -Aldous Huxley
On this day in 1862, Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which warned the Confederate states that if they did not rejoin the Union by January 1, 1863, all slaves in those states would be freed. The Civil War was still raging, but the Union had just claimed a victory at the Battle of Antietam on September 17th, the single bloodiest single-day battle in American history.
Prior to the Proclamation, Lincoln had not issued any anti-slavery proclamations, maintaining that the war was more about preserving the Union than about ending slavery. Issuing the Proclamation changed this. Now support for the Confederacy translated to support for the institution of slavery. This discouraged anti-slavery countries like England and France from intervening in support of the South.
When the Proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863, no slaves were actually freed because it applied only to the Confederate states that were still at war with the Union. It did, however, change the moral tone of the war, making it not just a struggle to save the Union, but also a battle to support human freedom. It also set the stage for the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1865, which put a permanent end to slavery in the United States (1).
Today’s Challenge: Whereas and Therefore A proclamation is a public or official announcement dealing with a matter of great importance. It can be written to commemorate a specific anniversary or event, to honor an individual or group, or, as in the case of the Emancipation Proclamation, to advocate a specific cause. If you were the president, what proclamation would you make? Support your proclamation with “Whereas” statements that provide evidence to support your case — in other words, details that show why your proclamation is important and timely. Then, end your proclamation with a “Therefore” statement that clearly states what you are confidently proclaiming. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)
Quotation of the Day:I always consider the settlement of America with reverence and wonder, as the opening of a grand scene and design in providence, for the illumination of the ignorant and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth. -John Adams
On this date in 1937, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit was published. Tolkien began the book in a rather unexpected way. As a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, Tolkien would augment his salary in the summers by marking School Certificate exams, a test taken by 16 year-olds in the United Kingdom. In a 1955 letter to the poet W.H. Auden, Tolkien recounted the moment that launched what was to become a classic in fantasy and children’s literature:
All I remember about the start of The Hobbit is sitting correcting School Certificate papers in the everlasting weariness of that annual task forced on impecunious academics with children. On the blank leaf I scrawled: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ I did not and do not know why.
The opening line that Tolkien scribbled on a blank page that fateful day remained intact in the published final draft, followed by a sentence that elaborated a bit on the hobbit habitat:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
While the book was still in manuscript form, publisher Stanley Unwin gave it to his 10-year-old son Rayner, who wrote the following review:
Bilbo Baggins was a Hobbit who lived in his Hobbit hole and never went for adventures, at last Gandalf the wizard and his Dwarves persuaded him to go. He had a very exiting (sic) time fighting goblins and wargs. At last they get to the lonely mountain; Smaug, the dragon who guards it is killed and after a terrific battle with the goblins he returned home — rich!
This book, with the help of maps, does not need any illustrations it is good and should appeal to all children between the ages of 5 and 9.
Rayner’s favorable comments were the final confirmation that Urwin needed to publish the book (2).
Today’s Challenge: From Blank Page to Page Turner What character and setting would you introduce in the first two sentences of a story? Grab your own blank piece of paper and draft at least two sentences that introduce a character and a setting for a story. Hold a contest to see whose novel first lines resonate the most with readers. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)
Quotation of the Day:Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on. -Louis L’Amour
Today is the birthday of Donald Hall, American poet and the 14th U.S. Poet Laureate. He was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1928, and when he was only sixteen, he attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. In his 50-year career as a writer, Hall has published poems, essays, letters, children’s books, and literary criticism (1).
In 1985 Hall wrote a short essay for Newsweek‘s “My Turn” column entitled “Bring Back the Out-Loud Culture” where he challenged readers to return to reading and reciting aloud:
Good readers hear what they read even though they read in silence: speed reading is barbaric. When we read well, in silence, we imagine how the words would sound if they were said aloud. Hearing print words in the inward ear, we understand their tone. If we see the sentence “Mr. Armstrong shook his head,” the inner voice needs to understand whether Mr. Armstrong disapproved or was outraged — before the inner voice knows how to speak the words.
If when we read silently we do not hear a text, we slide past words passively, without making decisions, without knowing or caring about Mr. Armstrong’s mood. We might as well be watching haircuts or “Conan the Barbarian.” In the old Out-Loud Culture, print was always potential speech; even silent readers, too shy to read aloud, inwardly heard the sound of words. Everyone’s ability to read was enhanced by recitation. Then we read aggressively; then we demanded sense (2).
Although written in 1985, Hall’s words are as true today as ever.
Today’s Challenge: Out-Loud Renaissance What is a passage of prose or a poem that you feel is worth reading out loud and is worth committing to memory? What makes it so exemplary and so worth remembering? Challenge yourself this week to commit a favorite poem or passage to memory. See if it helps you pay more attention to the written word. Sponsor a “Recitation Day” in your class or community, challenging people to share their poems or passages out loud.
Quotation of the Day: We must encourage our children to memorize and recite. As children speak poems and stories aloud, by the pitch and muscle of their voices they will discover drama, humor, passion, and intelligence in print. In order to become a nation of readers, we must again become a nation of reciters. — Donald Hall
On this date in 1783 the first hot air balloon was sent aloft in Annonay, France. The balloon was engineered by two brothers, Joseph-Michael and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier.
This first flight, however, was not a manned flight. Because of the unknown effects of high altitude on humans, the brothers decided to experiment with animals. The first passengers in the basket suspended below the balloon, therefore, were a sheep, a duck, and a rooster. The 8 minute flight travelled about two miles and was witnessed by a crowd of 130,000, which included King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette (1).
Today’s Challenge: More Than Just Hot Air Today is the perfect day to hold a balloon debate, a debate where at the end of each round, the audience votes on one or more speakers to eliminate. In this debate the audience is asked to imagine that the speakers are travelling in a hot air balloon. The balloon is sinking, so in order to save everyone, one or more of the speakers must be “thrown out.”
Who would you argue is the most important or influential person in history? You may hold a balloon debate on any topic, but traditionally a balloon debate revolves around each speaker arguing the case of a famous person from history. Each speaker, then, attempts to persuade the audience why his or her individual is the most important and, therefore, the least likely candidate for elimination. Precede the debate by holding a draft, where each participant selects an individual to research and to argue for. Their task then is to write a speech that answers the following question: Why is this person the most important and influential person in history? (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)
Quotation of the Day: Freedom is hammered out on the anvil of discussion, dissent, and debate. -Hubert H. Humphrey
Today is the birthday Samuel Johnson (1708-1784), the writer of the first scholarly researched English dictionary. His work A Dictionary of the English Language was published in two volumes on April 15, 1755. Johnson’s dictionary was not the first dictionary in English, but what made it special was its use of illustrative quotations by the best writers in English.
A lexicographer is a writer of dictionaries, and Johnson set the standard for the basic principle that lexicographers use even today, that is deducing the meaning of a word based on how it is used by accomplished, published writers. Instead of creating meanings of words, the lexicographer reads prodigiously, gathering examples of words used in context in published works. Only after gathering these examples does the lexicographer write a definition of a word. Thus, instead of prescribing the definitions of words, the work of a lexicographer is descriptive. Working objectively, like a scientist, a lexicographer observes (describes) the way words are actually used in the real world by real writers, rather than declaring by fiat (prescribing) what words mean (1).
In Johnson’s Dictionary he define his job as follows:
Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.
In his preface to his dictionary, Johnson stated his purpose: not to fix the language by defining its words in print, but to display its power by arranging it for easy alphabetical access:
When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another, from century to century, we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature, or clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation. (198-9)
Today’s Challenge: Lexicographer for a Day
What are the key elements of writing a definition? The act of writing the definitions of words allows you to see the many facets of language that often go unnoticed. Begin your definition with your word and its part of speech. Then, identify a general category or class that the word fits into. Finally, provide details that show what differentiates the word from the other words in its class — in other words, details that show how it is distinct from other words in its general category.
Here’s an example:
Pencil (Noun): a type of writing or drawing instrument that consists of a thin stick of graphite enclosed in a thin piece of wood or fixed in a case made of metal or plastic.
Open a dictionary to a random page and write down the first four words you find. Then, without looking at the definitions, write your own. Then, compare your definitions to the ones published in the dictionary. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)
Quotation of the Day: What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure. –Samuel Johnson
Today is the birthday of American poet William Carlos Williams (1883-1963). William was born and lived most of his life in Rutherford, New Jersey. He grew up in a bilingual home; his father was English and his mother was Puerto Rican. In addition to being an accomplished poet, Williams was also a practicing physician. His most famous poem is “The Red Wheelbarrow,” which was published in his book Spring and All published in 1923.
The Red Wheelbarrow
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
William’s poem typifies the imagism, an early 20th century movement in which poets strove to use common language and clear, precise imagery.
Today’s Challenge: Poetry 100
Find a short published poem (50 words or fewer) by William Carlos William or some other poet. Memorize and recite the poem, noticing how the poet uses economy of language to make meaning. Then, compose your own short poem of 50 words or less.
Today’s Quotation: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” –William Shakespeare
Today is the birthday of Laurence J. Peter (1919-1990), the author of the book The Peter Principle. Peter was an education professor at the University of Southern California and the University of British Columbia, but he became famous in the field of business when he published The Peter Principle in 1969. The book is full of case histories that illustrate why every organization seems to fall short of reaching maximum productivity and profit. His explanation relates to the corporate mentality that promotes productive workers upward until they achieve positions beyond their ability to perform competently.
Peter’s insights into the organizational structures of businesses were so well-received that The Peter Principle has gone well beyond just the title of a popular book; it has entered the language as an adage, immortalizing its creator. The American Heritage Dictionary records the following definition of the Peter Principle:
The theory that employees within an organization will advance to their highest level of competence and then be promoted to and remain at a level at which they are incompetent (1).
Laurence Peter is not alone in the world of eponymous laws – a principle or general rule that named for a person. Below are some examples of other eponymous laws or principles:
Ockham’s Razor: Explanations should never multiply causes without necessity. When two explanations are offered for a phenomenon, the simplest full explanation is preferable.
Murphy’s Law: If anything can go wrong, it will.
The Dilbert Principle: The most ineffective workers are systematically moved to the place where they can do the least damage: management.
Hofstadter’s Law: A task always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.
Parkinson’s Law: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
Amara’s Law: We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.
Stigler’s Law of Eponymy: No scientific discovery, not even Stigler’s law, is named after its original discoverer (2).
Today’s Challenge: Laying Down the Law What are some general rules or principles that you have noticed based on your experience of living in the real world? Attach your name to the one that you think is the most original and most insightful. Then, explain and define your law, and give examples of when and where the law comes into play and how it can assist people in living better lives. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)
Backman’s Law of Student Speeches: The likelihood of a sudden, unexpected and unexplainable attack of laryngitis increases the closer a student approaches the period or time when he or she is required to give a speech.
This law helps one anticipate the strange phenomenon which renders students incapable of giving their assigned speeches. Debilitated by the sudden onset of speechlessness, a student will hobble into class and approach the teacher. Pointing to his throat and frowning pathetically, the student will then bravely make an attempt to utter a single sentence. Risking further throat injury, the student will whisper, “I don’t think I’m going to be able -cough! cough! – to go today.” The student will then turn and limp to his seat. The bout of laryngitis usually ends at the tolling of the class’s final bell, miraculously disappearing just as suddenly as it appeared sixty minutes earlier. Multiple medical studies by reputable research centers have failed to determine a reasonable cause for this debilitating yet temporary affliction; however, a team of research scientists at John Hopkins is currently conducting a study that promises to produce some breakthrough findings.
Quotation of the Day: A pessimist is a man who looks both ways before crossing a one-way street. –Laurence J. Peter