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.

September 17:  Short Poem Day

William Carlos Williams passport photograph 1921.jpgToday 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

upon

a red wheel

barrow

glazed with rain

water

beside the white

chickens.

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

September 16:  Eponymous Law Day

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 lawsa principle or general rule that named for a person.  Below are some examples of other eponymous laws or principles:

Ockham’s Razor

Murphy’s Law

The Dilbert Principle

Hofstadter’s Law 

Parkinson’s Law

Amara’s Law

Stigler’s Law of Eponymy.

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)

Example:

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.

1 – American Heritage Dictionary. Peter Principle. 5th Edition 2018. https://www.ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?q=Peter+principle&submit.x=0&submit.y=0.

September 15:  Opposing Argument Day

On this day in 1982, USA Today, the American daily newspaper, was first published.  Besides the fact that it was launched to be the newspaper for the entire nation — not just one city — several other characteristics made it unique.  Its news stories were written to be short and easy-to-read.  Each section featured extensive use of color, including an eye-catching infographic in the lower left-hand corner called a “Snapshot.” Critics derided the paper, dubbing it “McPaper.” Today, however, USA Today is still published five days a week and has one of the widest circulations of any newspaper in the United States.

Another unique feature pioneered by USA Today is its “Our View”/”Opposing View” editorials.  In addition to presenting the USA Today Editorial Board’s position on an issue (“Our View”), the paper presents an additional editorial on the same issue that argues an alternative point of view, written by a guest writer and expert in the field.  One example of this is the issue of Testing for U.S. Citizenship.  The Our View editorial headline read, “Make Schoolkids Pass the Same Test As New Citizens,” while the “Opposing View” headline read, “Good Citizenship Transcends a Test.”

Today’s Challenge:  Seeing Both Sides

What are the opposing arguments on an issue that you care about?  One of the best ways to truly understand an issue is to look at it from the opposing point of view and consider the arguments made from the other side.  Doing this will help you see the issue from a broader perspective and will help you avoid narrow mindedness or groupthink.  Looking at contrary arguments will also help you solidify your own thinking, equipping you to anticipate objections, counter with strong rebuttals, and even concede certain arguments if necessary. This does not come naturally to most people, but if you practice, it will help you craft arguments that are more forceful, more cogent, and more credible.

Write an editorial that summaries the opposing argument on an issue you care about.  Begin by thinking about your actual position on the issue; then, anticipate the strongest objections to your argument that would be made by the opposing side. Make a real effort to climb into the shoes of your opposition and to argue the issue fairly and respectfully from that point of view. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

September 14: Anthem Day

On this day, “by the dawn’s light,” Francis Scott Key wrote the lyrics to the United States’ national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  The inspiration for Key’s great words was the British fleet’s shelling of Fort McHenry, which guarded the harbor of Baltimore, Maryland.  The year was 1814, and the war was the War of 1812.  Key watched the bombardment from an odd perspective.  An American lawyer, Key had boarded a British ship prior to the battle to negotiate the release of another American being held by the British.  Once on the ship, Key was detained by the British until the battle ended the next morning. Key’s vantage point was from the enemy’s side, where the British fleet aimed its guns at the flag flying over the American fort, a flag that at that time had 15 stars and 15 stripes.

A few days after Key wrote his poem, it was published in American newspapers.  Soon people began singing the poem’s words to the tune of an English drinking song, “To Anacreon in Heaven.”  The song did not become the national anthem immediately, however.  More than one hundred years later, in 1931, the U.S. Congress made it the official anthem (1).

Key’s words are so familiar that we seldom examine the remarkable picture he illuminates with his imagery.  Read them again, paying special attention to how he evokes both pictures and sounds:

O say can you see by the dawn’s early light,

What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,

Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,

O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?

And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,

Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;

O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave? (2)

Today’s Challenge:  An A+ Alternative Anthem

An anthem is a rousing, reverential song of devotion or loyalty to a group, a school, or a nation.  While the “Star-Spangled Banner” is certainly reverential, many have criticized it as a song that is too difficult to sing. What would you argue would be a good alternative national anthem?  Identify the specific song, its composer, and your specific reasoning for making this song the alternative national anthem. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

1-Bennet, William and John Cribb.  The American Patriot’s Almanac. New York:  Thomas Nelson, 2008: 350.

2- Key, Francis Scott, 1779-1843. “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Public Domain.