September 27:  Capital Day

On this day in 1777, the city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, became the nation’s capital for a single day.  With the Revolutionary War still raging, George Washington’s Continental Army was outflanked at the Battle of Brandywine, causing them to retreat.  Victory by the British allowed them to capture Philadelphia, the capital of the young nation, with little resistance.

The arrival of the British caused the Second Continental Congress to pack up and move 60 miles west to new headquarters in the Lancaster County Courthouse.  Lancaster’s time as capital city was short-lived, however.  The next day the Continental Congress packed up and moved again, this time to a more strategic position on the west side of the Susquehanna River, 20 miles away in York, Pennsylvania.

Residents of Lancaster have not forgotten their moment in the sun.  In 2011 the Lancaster City Council officially designated each September 27 as Capital Day.

On a usage note, one of most common mistakes in English is confusing the words “capital” and “capitol.”  The only time you should use “capitol” with an “o” is when you are referring to buildings, such as “the capitol buildings” or “the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.  “Capital” with an “a” is used for all other meanings of the word, including capital letters, capital punishment, capital finances, and capital city, meaning the name of the city on the map, rather than a reference to its governmental buildings (2).  For example, “We visited the capitol building in Olympia, the capital of Washington state.”

Today’s Challenge:  Make It a Capital Day

What makes your hometown worthy of being designated “The Nation’s Capital for a Day”?  You’ve been appointed to argue the case for your hometown, and if successful, your town will be awarded the 24-hour honor plus five million dollars.  Promote your town or city for this honor by describing its virtues Chamber of Commerce-style, identifying what makes it a special, one-of-a-king place, worthy of being named capital for a day. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

1-Trex, Ethan. Glory Day: Lancaster’s Brief Stint as Our Nation’s Capital. Mental Floss.com 27 Sep. 2017. http://mentalfloss.com/article/31494/glory-day-lancasters-brief-stint-our-nations-capital.

2-Fogarty, Mignon.  The Grammar Devotional: Daily Tips for Successful Writing from Grammar Girl. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2009.

September 26:  Debate Day

On this day in 1960, the first-ever televised presidential debate was held in Chicago.  Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy and Republican candidate Richard M. Nixon squared off before an audience of more than 65 million viewers.

This debate revealed the power of television as a modern medium for politics.  Radio listeners awarded the debate to Nixon, but the much larger television audience gave the prize to Kennedy.  In contrast to Kennedy’s relaxed, confident appearance, Nixon looked glum and sweaty.  In addition to a more youthful, vigorous appearance, Kennedy also seemed more at ease with the new medium, looking at the TV camera to address the American viewers.  Nixon, however, instead of looking into the TV camera, turned to Kennedy, addressing his comments solely to his opponent.

It’s these small factors that probably gave Kennedy the edge, not only in the debates but also in the election.  He won the presidency in November 1960 by one of the smallest margins in U.S. presidential history (1).  Nixon ran for president again, winning the 1968 and 1972 elections for president.  In both of these winning campaigns, Nixon declined all invitations to debate his opponent.

Today’s Challenge:   Abecedarian Debate Topics

Abecedarian is an adjective meaning “of or related to the alphabet.”  On this 26th day of the month, it’s appropriate to turn to the alphabet, covering your subject from A to Z.  What are the best topics for a debate — timely or timeless topics that are controversial enough to spark a two-sided argument?  Your challenge is to generate at least 26 different possible debate topics, one topic for each of the 26 letters of the alphabet. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

1- Safire, William.  Lend Me Your Ears:  Great Speeches in History.  New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.

September 25:  Convocation Day

On this day 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.  First, he held up Socrates as an example, saying his primary method was to walk the streets and to stop people to ask them irritating questions.  His second example was Jesus, whose Sermon on the Mount was anything but a long, boring lecture (1).

Today’s Challenge:  School’s Cool! You’d Be a Fool to Miss a Single Day of 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 2 – Expository)

1- Safire, William.  Lend Me Your Ears:  Great Speeches in History.  New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.

September 24:  Vivid Verb Day

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 that confident writers know the importance of vivid verbs.  Hale believes so strongly in verbs, in fact, that she wrote an 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 (2).

Put Hale’s “Verb Check” to the test by examining the two sentences below.  Notice 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.

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)

1- Seven Tips From F. Scott Fitzgerald on How to Write Fiction. Open Culture.com. 26 Feb. 2013. .

2- Hale, Constance.  Vex, Hex, Smash, and Smooch:  Let Verbs Power Your Writing.  New York:  W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.

September 23:  Pathos Day

On this day, 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.

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-themed 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 were 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:

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 heartstrings.  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 – Argument)

1- Vest, George Graham. Tribute to a Dog. 1855. Public Domain. History Place.com. http://www.historyplace.com/speeches/vest.htm.

2- Nixon, Richard. Checkers Speech. Public Domain. History Place.com. http://www.historyplace.com/speeches/nixon-checkers.htm.

3 – Gallow, Carmine.  Talk Like TED:  The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds.  New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 2014.

September 22:  Proclamation Day

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 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.

Emancipation Proclamation WDL2714.jpgWhen 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 2 – Expository)

1- American Battlefield Trust. 10 Facts: The Emancipation Proclamation.

September 21:  Compose a Novel First Line Day

On this day 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.  Taking a small break from correcting student papers, he scribbled the following sentence on a blank sheet of paper:

‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ (1).

The opening line that Tolkien scribbled on a blank page that fateful day remained intact in the published final draft.

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)

1-Flood, Alison. JRR Tolkien Called Teaching ‘Exhausting and Depressing’ in Unseen Letter.

September 20: Recitation Day

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.  Hall looked back to a time before television and mass media when print was frequently read aloud and everyone learned something by reciting or listening to recitations (2).

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, school, or community, challenging people to share their poems or passages out loud. (Common Core Speaking and Listening 4 – Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas)

1 – Poets.org. Donald Hall. http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/264.

2 – Hall, Donald. “Bring Back the Out-Loud Culture.” Newsweek 15 April 1985: 12.

September 19:  Balloon Debate Day

On this day 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 traveled 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 traveling 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)

1- Sharp, Tim. The First Hot-Air Balloon. Space.com 16 Jul. 2012. http://m.space.com/16595-montgolfiers-first-balloon-flight.html.

September 18:  Lexicographer Day

Today is the birthday of 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.

JohnsonDictionary.pngIn Johnson’s Dictionary he defines 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. (1)

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)

1-British Library. 1755: Johnson’s Dictionary.  Public Domain.