December 27: Editorial Day

On this day in 1845, an editorial appeared in the New York Morning News by John L. O’Sullivan (1813 – 1895).  In the editorial, Sullivan, a newspaper editor and proponent of U.S. expansion, argued for the United States’ claim to the Oregon Country, a large region in the West for which England and the U.S. had rival claims.  To Sullivan, expansion of the U.S. across all of North America to the Pacific coast was more than just a hope for the young nation; instead, it was its duty and its fate:

Away, away with all these cobweb issues of rights of discovery, exploration, settlement, continuity, etc.… our claim to Oregon would still be best and strongest. And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us. (1)

Sullivan’s editorial popularized the motto: manifest destiny, giving proponents of expansion a rally cry.  By the end of 1846, Oregon became a U.S. Territory after negotiations with Britain established the border at the 49th parallel (See June 15: Parallelism Day). At the time of Sullivan’s editorial, the United States had just 27 states.  By the end of the 19th century that number would expand to 45.

Sullivan’s editorial and the motto that it popularized are just one of many examples of how newspaper editorials have influenced American history.  

Each day the editorial boards of American newspapers produce written pieces that reflect the opinions of their newspaper and its publisher.  By definition an editorial is a subjective expression of opinion, distinct from news articles which are objective.  Another term closely associated with editorials is “Op-Ed,” an abbreviation of “opposite the editorial page.”  Like editorials, Op-Ed’s are opinion pieces; however, unlike editorials, they are written by outside contributors or columnists.

The basic structure of editorials and op-eds is similar in that both present arguments supporting a central claim, and each has a fundamental three-part organization:

Introduction:  State what the issue is, along with its history. Explain who is affected by the issue and why it is relevant today.  Clearly state your claim regarding the issue and the reasoning behind your position.

Body:  Support your argument with reasoning, evidence, and counterarguments.  Use specific facts, statistics, examples, and quotations from authorities to support your position.  Provide clear explanations of your proof, along with your vision of what the final outcome related to the issue should be.

Conclusion:  Consider an appeal to pathos, revealing the emotions around the issue or showing your passionate concern for the issue.  End with a call to action or by restating your position.

Today’s Challenge:  Make Your Opinion Manifest

What is a current issue that is relevant today, an issue that you have an opinion about?  Write an editorial expressing and supporting your opinion on a specific relevant issue.  If you’re not sure what to write about, look at the news in today’s newspaper, and respond to what you see there.  Or read editorials or op-eds, and respond to those. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

1-O’Sullivan, John L. Editorial. New York Morning News 27 Dec. 1845. Public Domain.

December 26: Boxing Day

Today is the Feast of Saint Stephen, celebrated each year on the first day after Christmas because Stephen is recognized by the Christian church as its first martyr.

The New Testament Book of Acts provides an account of Stephen being brought before Jewish authorities and accused of blasphemy.  After giving an impassioned speech to the assembly of judges, in which he denounces his audience for its long history of persecuting the prophets, Stephen was dragged from the city and stoned to death.

Saint Stephen’s Day is a traditional day for giving food or money to the poor.  The lyrics of the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas” reflect this tradition:

Good King Wenceslas looked out

On the feast of Stephen

When the snow lay round about

Deep and crisp and even (1)

The carol tells the story of Wenceslas, the 10th century Duke of Bohemia.  Seeing a peasant gathering wood in the snow, the King is moved to help him and puts together a parcel of food, wine, and pine logs. Accompanied by his page, the King then trudges through the blinding snow and the dark night to deliver his gift to the peasant’s door.

Boxing Day, an English holiday celebrated on December 26th, reflects the example of giving we see in the Christmas carol. Traditionally on this day, household servants were given a box of presents to take home and share with their families, an early version of what we know today as the “Christmas bonus” (2).

Today’s Challenge:  Boxes Within Boxes

What is a subject or topic that you could divide or classify into 12 different parts?  Boxing Day is the perfect day for planning a calendar — after all isn’t a calendar made up of boxes within boxes?  As you prepare for the beginning of a new year, instead of buying a calendar, brainstorm ideas for making one of your own.  Below are twelve possible topics:

12 Labors of Hercules

12 Books that Everyone Should Read

12 Olympian Gods

12 Signs of the Zodiac

12 Precious Stones

12 Great Science Fiction Films

12 Greatest Rock Songs

12 Reasons that ‘12 Angry Men’ Is the Greatest Movie of All Time

12 Most Important Years in History

12 Holidays to Celebrate

12 Ways to Save Energy

12 Greatest Great Annual Events That Everyone Should Attend

Once you have selected the theme for your calendar, create an outline of the content of each month, including notes about what specific textual content you will include, what artwork you will include, and what other features you might include to make your calendar unique. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1- Neale, John Mason Neale. Good King Wenceslas 1853. Public Domain.

2-Rufus, Anneli.  The World Holiday Book.  New York:  HarperCollins, 1994.

December 25: Call to Action Day


On this day in 1776, George Washington crossed the Delaware, leading the soldiers of the Continental Army in a surprise attack on a Hessian outpost at Trenton, New Jersey.  

After suffering defeat in the Battle of Long Island and losing New York City to the British, the Patriot forces were in danger of losing the Revolutionary War.  Hoping to mount a comeback and surprise the Hessians who were celebrating Christmas, Washington planned a night crossing of the half-frozen waters of the Delaware River.

Washington had an unconventional attack planned, but another key element of his strategy was to employ some especially motivational words, words that would light a fire under an army that was freezing on the shores of the Delaware. On Christmas Eve, the day before the crossing, Washington ordered that Thomas Paine’s The American Crisis be read aloud to troops of the Continental Army.

In words that he had written just one day before, Paine frames the situation with stirring words that challenge the Patriots to move forward with courage and to seize this opportunity to transform the trials they face into a triumph:

THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to tax) but “to bind us in all cases whatsoever,” and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power can belong only to God. . . .

Let it be told to the future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet and to repulse it.

After successfully crossing the Delaware, Washington and his men arrived at Trenton the next day.  Catching the Hessians off guard and hung over from their Christmas Day celebrations, the Americans won an easy victory.  

Victory in the Revolutionary War would not come for five more years, but the success of the Colonial Army at Trenton revived the spirits of the American colonists, showing them that victory was possible.

Today’s Challenge:  Say It So You Can Make It So

What is something you feel so strongly about that you would advise everyone to do it?  As Paine’s writing demonstrates, words have the power to move people to action, the kind of action that can change the course of history.  Write a speech in which you argue for a specific call to action on the part of your audience.  As the title of your speech, finish the following:  Why everyone should . . .

The following are some examples of possible topics:

Why everyone should learn a second language.

Why everyone should meditate.

Why everyone should study abroad.

Why everyone should take a self-defense class.

Why everyone should sing in the shower.

Why everyone should read more fiction.

Why everyone should vote.

Why everyone should use the Oxford comma.

Provide clear reasons, evidence, and explanation.  In addition to logic, move your audience with emotion by showing how important your suggested activity is and how it will bring fulfillment to their lives.  (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

1- Paine, Thomas. The American Crisis. 23 Dec. 1776. Public Domain. http://www.ushistory.org/paine/crisis/c-01.htm.

December 24: Grammar Rules Day

On this day in 1414, the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg made a grammar error that went down in history. Speaking to the Council of Constance in Latin, the Emperor called for the gathered assembly to eradicate the Papal Schism, a division in the Catholic Church in which three separate men claimed to be the true pope.  Unfortunately for the emperor he mixed up the gender of the Latin word schisma using it as if it were feminine instead of the correct neuter form.  When the error was respectfully pointed out to him by a monk, Sigismund responded angrily say, “I am the Emperor of Rome! Even if the word is neuter, it will be feminine from now on.”  

In response to Sigismund’s decree, a monk stood and proclaimed, “Caesar non supra grammaticos” – or “The Emperor is not above the grammarians.”

Ever since Sigismund’s historic fail, the expression “Caesar non supra grammaticos” has been used to remind us that the rules of English grammar and spelling are not given to us as authoritative decrees from on high; instead, they are based on the conventions of writing that are followed by actual writers. They are also inherently democratic in that they apply to everyone, and no one individual has the power to arbitrarily change them.

Too often we see grammar as a study of the things we can’t do with language. Instead, we should view grammar for what we can do with it — it allows us to craft clear, quality sentences that equip us to share our best thinking with others.  If English is our first language, we have an unconscious understanding of how to put words together so that they make sense.  Written English, however, is different from spoken English.  Studying grammar gives us the specific language we need to diagnose errors and to reason-through how to correct them so that our sentences are clear.  Just as an auto mechanic knows the names of the different parts under the hood of a car, we should know the different parts of a sentence.  The mechanic’s job is to diagnose the problem and fix it so that the car will do its job, which is getting its owner efficiently from point A to point B. Grammar is simply the mechanics of the sentence, and knowing grammar will help you make sure that all the parts work efficiently so that your sentences do their job, which is to clearly and efficiently communicate your ideas to a reader.

Today’s Challenge:  Grammar, not the Emperor, Rules

What’s your grammar pet peeve?  What one grammar rule do you find the most useful in crafting clear writing?  Identify a single grammar rule, and write an explanation of the rule with examples that show both the rule and violations of the rule. Include the clearest possible explanation of the rule along with a rationale of why it is an important rule to know and how knowing the rule will help the writer.  The list of frequent errors below might help you zero in on a specific rule to write about:

Run-on sentences, Sentence fragments, Dangling participles, Ambiguous pronouns, Lack of subject/verb agreement, Lack of parallelism (Common Core Language 1 and 2 – Conventions of Standard English)

December 23: Parts of Speech Day

Today is the birthday of Leonard B. Stern (1923-2011), American screenwriter, producer, and director.  Stern will probably be best remembered, however, as the co-creator of the game Mad Libs, the classic game where players insert randomly generated words into a passage based on the words’ parts of speech.

Stern’s love of words began with a humiliating experience in seventh grade.  After misspelling the word “hyperbole” in his class spelling bee, he was embarrassed beyond words.  Immediately, he ran home and located his family dictionary.  On that day the young Stern began to study the dictionary, determined to learn the correct spelling and exact meaning of as many words as possible (See February 4: Embarrassing Misspelling Day).

The story of the creation of Mad Libs begins in 1953 with two simple words:  “clumsy” and “naked.”  At the time Stern was working on a television script for Jackie Gleason’s pioneering television show The Honeymooners. One day Stern was sitting at his typewriter, searching his mind for a precise adjective to describe the nose of one of his characters.  When Stern’s best friend and fellow word-lover Roger Price showed up, Stern asked him for help, saying he needed an adjective.  Without waiting for any context, Price responded with two: “Clumsy and naked.”  When Stern began laughing, Price asked what was so funny.  Stern responded by saying that he now had an image in his mind of a  his character with a “clumsy, naked nose.”  At that moment the two friends realized that they had stumbled into something interesting; this bizarre juxtaposition of random parts of speech might just turn into something profitable.

The name of the game and its publication didn’t happen until five years later.  Sitting in a New York restaurant one morning in 1958, Stern and Price overheard a conversation between an actor and his agent.  The actor said he wanted to “ad-lib” an interview; the agent responded, saying that he would be “mad” to do it.  Stern and Price now had a name, Mad Libs, but no publisher.  Unable to find anyone to print their game, they decided to do it themselves, paying to have fourteen thousand copies printed.  To publicize the game, the creators arranged for it to be used for introducing guests on Steve Allen’s Sunday night television show.  Within three days of the game’s appearance on television, stores were sold out.  Soon Stern and Price joined forces with their friend Larry Sloan to form a publishing company called Price Stern Sloan (or PSS!).  Before long Mad Libs became a bestseller, and PSS! became the largest publisher on the West Coast (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Oh What Fun It Is to Eat an Angry Open Bucket

What is your favorite Christmas song or holiday-related story or poem?  To celebrate the holidays and the creation of Mad Libs, select a familiar Christmas carol or holiday story or poem. Take the text of your selected passage, and cross out 15-20 words — adjectives, nouns, and verbs.  As you cross out the words, create a list in order of the part of speech of each word you crossed out.  If a noun is plural, make sure to note that on your list; likewise, note the tense of verbs.  Next, using your list of parts of speech, have a friend generate a random list of words to match the parts of speech on your list.  Finally, insert these words into the text of your original text and read it aloud. Be prepared to laugh.  (Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

1-Price, Roger and Leonard Stern.  The Best of Mad Libs:  50 Years of Mad Libs.  New York:  Price Stern Sloan, 2008.