December 3:  Words on Words Day

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Today is the birthday of the Polish writer Joseph Conrad.  Born in 1857, Conrad did not learn to speak and write English until he was in his twenties.  Despite the fact that English was his second language, Conrad is considered one of the greatest novelists in the English language.  A master prose stylist, Conrad influenced numerous writers, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and D.H. Lawrence.

In his autobiography, published in 1912, Conrad talked about the importance of diction in writing.  In the following words on words, he reminds us that words make their strongest impression on a reader when they are selected not only for their sense, but also for their sound:

He who wants to persuade should put his trust not in the right argument, but in the right word. The power of sound has always been greater than the power of sense. I don’t say this by way of disparagement. It is better for mankind to be impressionable than reflective. Nothing humanely great—great, I mean, as affecting a whole mass of lives—has come from reflection. On the other hand, you cannot fail to see the power of mere words; such words as Glory, for instance, or Pity. I won’t mention any more. They are not far to seek. Shouted with perseverance, with ardor, with conviction, these two by their sound alone have set whole nations in motion and upheaved the dry, hard ground on which rests our whole social fabric . . . . Give me the right word and the right accent and I will move the world (1).

Today’s Challenge:  A Day to Be Dazed by Words

What is the best thing that anyone ever said about words?  What is an insightful quotation about words and language that you can use to inspire your writing?  Your task is to write about your favorite quotation about words.  Select from the examples below, or research your own.  Write out your quotation; then, explain why you find the quotation so insightful and how it inspires you to be a better writer. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.

Rudyard Kipling

Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality. –Edgar Allan Poe

Words – so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them. –Nathaniel Hawthorne

1-Conrad, Joseph. A Familiar Preface 1921 Public Domain. Bartleby.com. http://www.bartleby.com/237/8.html.

December 2:  Two-Word Allusion Day

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Two speeches given by American presidents on this date in the 1800s launched key ideas that would influence the growth and influence of the United States.

The first speech, given on December 2, 1823 by President James Monroe, launched the Monroe Doctrine. In his State of the Union Address, Monroe announced that the United States would frown upon any further interference or colonization of the Americas by foreign powers.

The second speech, given on December 2, 1845, by President James Polk, launched the term Manifest Destiny. In his State of the Union Address, Polk made it clear that he was committed to the expansion of the United States through the annexation of Texas, the acquisition of the Oregon territory, and the purchase of California from Mexico. Although he did not use the term Manifest Destiny in his speech, the term, originally coined by journalist John L. O’Sullivan, became the operative term to describe the expansion of the young nation, which happened to be the primary subject of Polk’s speech.

Today’s Challenge: Two Words – American History

What are some examples of allusions from American History that you think everyone should know?  Manifest Destiny and Monroe Doctrine are just two examples of several two-word appellations for key events or ideas in American history. Below are several examples of two-word allusions from American history.  Each of these references represents a key story involving real people and real events that influenced the course of American history:

Boston Massacre, Burr-Hamilton Duel, Constitutional Convention, Dred Scott, Emancipation Proclamation, First Amendment, Great Society, Homestead Act, Mason-Dixon Line, Mayflower Compact, Mexican War, Missouri Compromise, New Deal, Northwest Passage, Oregon Trail, Plymouth Rock, Stamp Act, Teapot Dome, Underground Railroad, Whiskey Rebellion, Wounded Knee, Scopes Trial, XYZ Affair

Select one of the two-word allusions above, and research the story behind it.  Write a brief report explaining what happened, who was involved, and why these two words are an important part of the story of the Uniteds States. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

December 1: Most Influential Person Who Never Lived Day  

On this day in 1976, Leo Burnett (1891-1971) gave a speech to the gathered executives of his advertising agency, Leo Burnett Worldwide.  In his talk, which has become known as “The When to Take My Name Off the Door Speech,” Burnett challenged his employees to never forget that advertising is not just about making a buck; it’s about the creative process (1).

In his illustrious career, Burnett created some of the most influential characters in the history of advertising, including the Marlboro Man, Tony the Tiger, Charlie the Tuna, and the Maytag Repairman.

Burnett opened his ad agency in the middle of the Great Depression, and on the day it opened, he famously put a bowl of apples in the reception area.  His brash move of opening a business in the middle of the Depression caused some to say that it wouldn’t be long before he was selling those apples on the street.  Instead, the company thrived, and by the end of the 1950s, it was earning over 100 million dollars annually.

The book The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived ranks fictional characters from literature, fable, myth, and popular culture.  The writers, Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan, and Jeremy Salter, got the idea to write the book after reading Michael Hart’s book The 100:  A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History.

The fictional character ranked as the number one most influential is Leo Burnett’s creation, The Marlboro Man.  The burly cowboy was the symbol of Marlboro Cigarettes beginning in 1955.  By 1972, Marlboro was the top cigarette brand in the world, and by 2000 it owned a 35 percent market share of U.S. cigarette sales (2).

The following are other influential characters, each born in the imagination of a creative individual and brought to life on a page or a screen:

Hamlet, Oedipus, Dracula, Atticus Finch, Hester Prynne, Mickey Mouse, Barbie, Big Brother, Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, Prometheus, King Arthur, Sherlock Holmes, Uncle Sam, Ebenezer Scrooge

Today’s Challenge:  Unforgettable Favorite from Fiction

What fictional characters would make your list of the most influential?  What makes them so special?  Write a short speech making your case for the single character that you think should receive the award for most influential.  Make sure to provide enough detailed evidence to show what makes this character so important, not just to you, but to society at large. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

1-Daye, Derrick. Great Moments in Advertising:  Leo Burnett’s Speech. Brand Strategy Insider 28 Oct. 2007. http://www.brandingstrategyinsider.com/2007/10/great-moments-3-2.html#.V3xid-srLnB.

2-Lazar, Allan, Dan Karlan, and Jeremy Salter.  The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived: How Characters of Fiction, Myth, Legends, Television, and Movies Have Shaped Our Society, Changed Our Behavior, and Set the Course of History.  New York:  HarperCollins Publishers, 2006.

November 30:  Satire Day

On this day in two different centuries, two great writers and two great satirists were born.

The first was the Irish writer Jonathan Swift born in 1667. Swift wrote two of the greatest satires in the English language; the first is the classic political allegory Gulliver’s Travels, where he employs fantasy to expose human folly.  The second is his essay A Modest Proposal, where he takes on the voice of a pompous British politician who blithely proposes an outrageous solution to the problem of Irish poverty.

 

The second great writer born on November 30th was the American writer Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known to us by his pen name Mark Twain.  Born in 1835 and raised in Hannibal, Missouri, Twain’s masterpiece was his novel and satire The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in 1885. Twain’s innovation in this work was to write in the first person, not using his own voice, but instead making the narrator an uneducated, unwashed outcast named Huckleberry Finn.

As great satirists, both Swift and Twain used humor as a tool to expose and criticize their societies.  However, they both knew that the recipe for satire included one other essential ingredient:  irony.

Successful satire uses irony to say one thing while meaning the opposite.  So, for example, instead of directly criticizing an opponent’s argument, the satirist speaks as though he is agreeing with his opponent while at the same time pointing out the argument’s flaws and absurdities.  Satire, therefore, possess a challenge for the reader who must be able to detect the ironic voice and realize that the author actually means the opposite of what he or she is saying.

For example, to truly comprehend Twain’s bitter criticism of a society that would condone slaveholding, we have to see the irony of Huck’s predicament regarding his friend, the runaway slave Jim.  By helping Jim to escape, Huck truly believes he is committing an immoral act, an act that will condemn him to hell.

Similarly, when we read Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” it is important to realize that Swift is not truly arguing that Irish parents should sell their babies as food.  Instead, he is using irony to target the corrupt ways that the English have exploited the Irish.

As the following excerpt demonstrates, Swift takes on the persona (or mask) of a seemingly rational statesman who is using logical argumentation to reach an absurd conclusion:

I am assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London; that a young healthy child, well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food; whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled, and I make no doubt, that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or ragout. (1)

Today’s Challenge:  Seeing a Situation Satirically

What are some current societal issues for which you might make a modest proposal?  Before you attempt to write satire, read the complete text of Swift’s essay.  The complete title of the 1729 essay was A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of the Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to Their Public.  Today, the three words “A Modest Proposal” have become synonymous with a satirical approach to addressing an issue, where a writer uses humor and irony to target opposing arguments.  Brainstorm some real societal issues that people and politicians are currently trying to solve.  Select one, and determine what you think would be the best ways to solve the problem.  Then, put on your mask (persona) of satire, and try to capture the voice of someone who believes the exact opposite of what you do.  Use humor and hyperbole to reveal the weaknesses and absurdity of the proposal as well as to criticize the kinds of people who perpetuate the problem instead of solving it. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

1-Swift, Jonathan.  A Modest Proposal. 1729. Public Domain.  Project Gutenberg. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1080.

November 29:  Compulsory Education Day

On this day in 1870, the British government announced its plan to make education compulsory.  The Elementary Education Act of 1870 required that education be provided to children up to age 10.  The act was also commonly known as the Forster’s Education Act, named for William Edward Forster, a member of the House of Commons who crusaded for universal education and who drew up the act.

One nation that adopted compulsory education before Britain was Prussia.  A decree by Frederick the Great in 1763 provided an education for all girls and boys until age 13.  Under this plan, teachers were paid by the citizens of the municipalities in which they taught; however, the teachers — many of whom were former soldiers — were asked to supplement their income by cultivating silkworms.

In the United States, Mississippi became that last state to pass a compulsory education law in 1918.

In 2012, best-selling young adult fiction author John Green published a YouTube post on compulsory education entitled “An Open Letter to Students Returning to School.”  In his letter, Green challenged students to not take their education for granted and to see “compulsory” schooling as an opportunity to contribute something to society (2).

Today’s Challenge:  A Compulsion for Education

If you were the Secretary of Education, what class would you make mandatory for all students?  Why?  Imagine that you have been appointed to design a specific class that will be required by all students before they graduate high school.  What would you call your class, and what would be the make-up of the class’s curriculum?  In addition to describing the class, provide a rationale for why the content of the class is essential for students. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1-Elementary Education Act of 1870. https://archive.org/details/elementaryeducat00greauoft.

2-Green, John. An Open Letter to Students Returning to School. YouTube 7 Aug. 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x78PnPd-V-A.