November 5:  Guy Fawkes Day

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Today is the anniversary of a foiled plot to blow up the British Parliament. On the night before the ceremonial opening of Parliament on November 5, 1605, 36 barrels of gunpowder were discovered in the basement of the House of Lords. The perpetrators of the plot, 13 Catholics who hoped to topple the Protestant King, James I, were arrested, prosecuted, and hanged.

A monochrome engraving of eight men, in 17th-century dress. All have beards, and appear to be engaged in discussionAlthough he was not the ringleader of the plot, Guy Fawkes became the “face” of the Gunpowder Plot.  This is probably because he was the one man caught red handed, with matches in his pocket, skulking in the basement of the House of Lords waiting to light the fuse.  Once capture, Fawkes was tortured and signed a confession.  He also implicated his fellow conspirators who were hanged with him on January 31, 1606.

Ever since that fateful night in 1605, November 5th has been a night of thanksgiving and revelry. Celebrants of the failed coup light bonfires, set off fireworks, and burn effigies, called “guys,” of the notorious rebel Guy Fawkes (1, 2).

On Guy Fawkes Night, or as it is also known “Bonfire Night,” British children collect wood for their fires or solicit money for their “guys” as they chant or sing:

   Remember, remember!

   The fifth of November,

   The Gunpowder treason and plot;

   I know of no reason

   Why the Gunpowder treason

   Should ever be forgot!

   Guy Fawkes and his companions

   Did the scheme contrive,

   To blow the King and Parliament

   All up alive.

   Threescore barrels, laid below,

   To prove old England’s overthrow.

   But, by God’s providence, him they catch,

   With a dark lantern, lighting a match! (3)

Frequently in English the famous and infamous become enshrined in the language when their last names become common, lower case nouns or verbs (called eponyms). In rare cases, however, a first name becomes a part of the lexicon.  Guy Fawkes not only became the subject of burned effigies, but also his first name became synonymous with anyone of odd appearance. Across the Atlantic, the name is used in American English to refer to any male, either bad or good. It is also a handy word used in its plural form to refer to any group of people (2).

Guy Fawkes, himself, has undergone a makeover, transforming from villain to rebel hero and freedom fighter.  This is due mainly to the graphic novel and movie V for Vendetta.  Set in a dystopian Britain, the book and film feature a hero who wears a Guy Fawkes mask and who battles the future fascist government of Britain.

Today’s Challenge:  Remember, Remember the Date

What hero or villain, who is not already honored with a day on the calendar, should be recognized with his or her own specific day? What makes this person influential or notorious enough to rate having a dedicated day on the calendar, and what kind of activities would you suggest to appropriately mark the day? Brainstorm a list of important figures and events from history. Select the one person you would honor, and write a proclamation which explains who the person is and what specific date will be set aside to recognize the person.  Include some background on what the person did and why the person is important.  Finally, include some details on the kinds of activities that will accompany the person’s special day. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1 – Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Night. Bonfirenight.net 2011. http://www.bonfirenight.net/gunpowder.php.

2 – Word History and Mysteries. (by the editors of the American Heritage Dictionaries). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.

3-The Fifth of November. English Folk Verse (c.1870).

October 27:  The Federalist Papers Day

On this day in 1787, Federalist Paper 1 was published in the Independent Journal of New York.

Today Americans take the Constitutional form of government for granted.  But in 1787, shortly after the young, ragtag nation had thrown off the British monarchy and won its independence, a constitution was not a given.  The questions at that time were — would there be a central federal government at all, and if there were, what would be its powers?  The original basis for the united thirteen states was the Articles of Confederation, but this gave the federal government little power:  no power to levy taxes, to regulate trade, or to enforce laws.  The Constitution, which offered a plan for a federal government based on checks and balances, was drafted in September of 1787, but it still needed to be ratified by at least nine states.

In October 1787, therefore, the federalists began their debate with the anti-federalists.  One of the chief proponents of the Constitution was Alexander Hamilton, the chief aide to George Washington during the Revolutionary War and an elected representative from New York state to the Congress of the Confederation.  Hamilton knew that New York would be a key swing state in the debate, so he hatched a plan to write essays that would be published in New York newspapers to promote and explain the new Constitution.  To help him, Hamilton enlisted James Madison, who had served in the Continental Congress, and John Jay, a lawyer and diplomat.

Between October 1787 and May 1788, the trio wrote a total of 85 essays, totaling more than 175,000 words.  Each essay was published anonymously under the pen name “Publius,” an allusion to Publius Valerius Publicola, a supporter of the Roman Republic.

The Federalist Papers served as a kind of user’s guide to the Constitution, explaining how the people, not a king, would govern and how a federal government was needed to increase efficiency and to prevent the risk of another monarchy.  The papers also explained the separation of powers between the branches of government, and how government should operate to maintain individual liberty without anarchy.

In the end, the federalists won.  All thirteen states ratified the U.S. Constitution.

Today we have all 85 Federalist Papers intact as testimony to the work of Hamilton, Madison, and Jay.  Reading them, however, is not easy. They are written in dense 18th century prose.  With careful focus and attention, however, they can be understood.

It is this kind of careful close reading that the College Board had in mind when it redesigned its Scholastic Aptitude Test, which took effect in 2016.  One specific area of emphasis in the redesign of the SAT reading test is U.S. founding documents, which includes the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Federalist Papers (2).

Today’s Challenge:  Federalist Paper in a Nutshell

What are the keys to writing a good summary?  Read Federalist Paper 1, or one of the other papers, and write a one-paragraph summary.  Read and re-read the passage until you understand its main ideas.  Before you write your summary, consider the following “Six Summary Secrets”:

  1. Open with a topic sentence that identifies the author and title of the work being summarized.
  2. Make sure your summary is clear to someone who has not read the original.
  3. Focus on the main points rather than the details.
  4. Paraphrase by using your own words without quoting words directly from the original passage.
  5. Be objective, by reporting the ideas in the passage without stating your own opinions or ideas regarding the passage or its author.
  6. Use concise, clear language.

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1- Beck, Glenn with Joshua Charles.  The Original Argument:  The Federalists’ Case for the Constitution, Adapted for the 21st Century.   New York:  Threshold Editions, 2011:  xxi-xxxi.

2- The College Board.  The Redesigned SAT  “Founding Documents and the Great Global Conversation.”

https://www.collegeboard.org/sites/default/files/founding_documents_and_the_great_global_conversation.pdf.

 

October 26:  Four Word Film Review Day

On this day in 1999, a web developer named Benj Clews had a brief but ingenious idea.  Clews wanted to create a website for movie reviews, but he wanted it to be different.  His idea was to limit the movie reviews to four words or fewer.  That same year he created the website Four Word Film Review, which in the internet tradition of crowdsourcing, invites readers to submit their reviews.  Most of the reviews at www.fwfr.com are not so much reviews as they are new titles, but the fun comes in the wonderful wordplay that results. Puns, alliteration, and adaptations of other film titles are all a part of the creative writing game of making every word count.

For example, here are seven examples of reviews for the film Jaws:

Gulp fiction

Shaw shark retention

Jurassic shark

Shooting barrel in fish

Gil against island

Diet: fish and ships

Amity’s vile horror (1)

Reading four-word movie reviews is fun in itself, but there is also something to be learned here. Shakespeare said that ‘Brevity is the soul of wit.’ In other words, the essence of good writing is economy. As you read four word reviews and begin to write your own, you’ll learn that wordplay can be hard work, but the rewards are satisfying for both you, the writer, and your readers. Also read newspaper headlines and notice how headline writers work with the same kind of wordplay to attract the reader’s attention. A good title is vital, so when you write an essay, take some time to write a short, but sweet, title of four words or fewer.

Today’s Challenge:  Four Word – Fantastic Flair

What are some classic movies or books that you could write four word reviews for?  Create your own four-word film reviews. But don’t stop with movies. Write a four-word review of your favorite book. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1-Clews, Benj and Michael Onesi.  Four Word Film Reviews.  Massachusetts:  Adams Media, 2010.

October 21:  Nobel Day

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On this day in 1833, Alfred Nobel was born in Stockholm, Sweden. When he was nine years old, he moved with his family to St. Petersburg, Russia, where his father worked as an engineer, manufacturing explosives.  In Russia, Nobel studied chemistry and became fluent in English, French, German, and Russian.  Later the family moved back to Sweden, and Alfred worked for his father in his factory experimenting with explosives.

Tragedy struck in 1864 when an explosion in the Nobel factory killed five people, including Alfred’s younger brother Emil. Resolved to invent a safer explosive, Nobel went to work and in 1867 he patented his invention which he called “Nobel’s Safety Powder.”  The new explosive was indeed safer, combining nitroglycerin and an absorbent sand, but it needed a catchier name.  To solve this problem, Nobel turned to a Greek root for “power” and coined the word dynamite. Dynamite did, in fact, make the work of miners safer; however, its use in warfare also made killing more efficient.

In 1888, a French newspaper mistakenly published an obituary of Alfred, stating, “The merchant of death is dead.” Although the reports of his death were greatly exaggerated, the obituary still caused Alfred to reflect on his legacy.  He immediately changed his will, setting aside his fortune to establish the Nobel Prizes, awarded each year in Sweden for outstanding achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and for contributions towards peace.  A prize for economics was added in 1968 (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Dynamite Inventions

What would you argue is the greatest single invention of all time? What do you know about its inventor and how it was invented? Brainstorm a list of inventions.  Then, select the one that you think is deserving of being recognized for its genius. Write an explanation of why you think the invention is so special.  Include some details from research on its inventor and where, when, and how the invention came to be. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1-Biography.com. Alfred Nobel Biography. http://www.biography.com/people/alfred-nobel-9424195#an-invention-and-a-legacy.

October 19:  Letter of Advice Day

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On this day in 1860, Abraham Lincoln, in the final day of his run for the U.S. presidency, wrote a letter to an 11-year-old girl from Westerfield, New York, named Grace Bedell.  Four days earlier, Grace had written to her favorite candidate with the following specific advice:

I am a little girl only eleven years old, but want you should be President of the United States very much so I hope you won’t think me very bold to write to such a great man as you are. Have you any little girls about as large as I am if so give them my love and tell her to write to me if you cannot answer this letter. I have got 4 brother’s and part of them will vote for you any way and if you will let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you   you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husband’s to vote for you and then you would be President.

Lincoln’s response to Grace’s letter was brief, yet its words showed that he had read her letter and was considering her advice regarding facial hair:

October 19, 1860

Springfield, Illinois

Miss. Grace Bedell

My dear little Miss.

Your very agreeable letter of the 15th is received.

I regret the necessity of saying I have no daughters. I have three sons — one seventeen, one nine, and one seven, years of age. They, with their mother, constitute my whole family.

As to the whiskers, having never worn any, do you not think people would call it a piece of silly affection if I were to begin it now? Your very sincere well-wisher

  1. Lincoln (1)

As reflected in Grace’s letter, Lincoln was, in fact, clean-shaven before he became president.  However, by the time he took the oath as the 16th president, Lincoln had grown the beard that he wore throughout his presidency.  In fact, prior to taking the oath on March 4, 1861, he made a stop in Westfield, meeting his young campaign advisor.

Today’s Challenge:  Take My Advice

If you were to write a letter of advice to a public figure, to whom would you write and what kind of advice would you give them? Brainstorm some possible public figures to whom you might write letters of advice:  politicians, celebrities, professional athletes, etc.  Select one and write an open letter of advice.  An open letter is a letter that is written to an individual but is intended to be published publically and to be read by a wide audience. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

1-Abraham Lincoln Online. Letter to Grace Bedell. 1860. Public Domain. http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/gracebedell.htm.

October 10:  Ten Out of Ten Day

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Today, the tenth day of the tenth month, is the perfect day to do some evaluations on a scale of one to ten, with ten out of ten being the top of the traditional scale, unless of course you’re prone to hyperbole.  In that case, you can go to eleven.

Before we begin, however, we should address the fact that October’s position on the calendar has not been a permanent fixture of history. The name of our tenth month retains vestiges from its Roman past. In Latin, octo means eight, as in octagon and octopus.  When the Romans inserted the months January and February into the calendar, they pushed October forward from the eighth to the tenth position.  They did not, however, change its name.  So today, the last four months of our calendar, the four months that were formerly months seven through ten (September, October, November, and December) are all numerical misnomers.

Today’s Challenge:  The Rating Game

We live in an age of evaluations, surveys, and ratings.  The internet has given us access to unlimited opportunities to read ratings written by others as well as provided us the opportunity to write ratings ourselves.  Whether it’s books, music, teachers, or dog food, somewhere, someone is writing a review.  What is a category of things you know enough about to evaluate?  How would you rate each of five things in your category on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being outstanding?  

Begin by selecting a general category. It can be anything as long as the category contains at least five members and as long as you know enough about each item to rate it.  Here are some examples of categories:

Letters of the Alphabet, Movie Sequels, Carbonated Beverages, Fairy Tales, Superheroes, Pixar Films, Aspects of Camping, Poetic Forms, Halloween Traditions, Animal Farm Characters, Hall of Fame First Basemen, Greek Gods, Parts of Speech, U.S. Cities

Next, list the members of the category, and rate each of the members on a scale of 1 to 10.  Beside the name of each member and its score, write a rationale for your rating, explaining why you scored it the way you did.  This may be subjective, but it should also be specific. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

October 6:  Xerox Day

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On this day in 1942, Chester F. Carlson (1906-1968) received a patent for his invention, electrophotography.  His discovery was a giant leap in the history of publishing.  For centuries making a copy of a single document was arduous and time-consuming.  Electrophotography, or xerography as it came to be called, is fast and easy.

Unlike previous wet copy processes, Carlson’s process was “dry.” First an electrostatic image of the original document was created on a rotating metal drum; then, with the help of toner – powdered ink – a copy was transferred to a piece of paper and the print was sealed in place by heat (1).

To differentiate the name of his invention – electrophotography –  from print photography, Carlson searched for a new term. He settled first on the word xerography from the Greek xeros (meaning “dry”) and graphein (meaning “writing”). Xerography later became xerox because of Carlson’s admiration for the name Kodak, the iconic American photography company. Carlson especially liked the fact that the name Kodak was nearly a palindrome (a word that is spelled the same frontwards and backwards).  Adding an “x” at the end of his invention’s name, Carlson reasoned, would give it the same memorable ring.  Thus, Xerox, the word that would become synonymous with duplication, was born (2).

Today’s Challenge:  Copywork, Not Copy Cat

Long before Xerox, copying by hand – or copywork – was a popular method of teaching writing in America.  As children, we learn to talk, at least in part, by imitating others, so the rationale behind copywork is that we can also learn to write by imitating others.

In their article on copywork’s historic roots, Brett and Kate McKay trace how great American writers like Robert Louis Stevenson, Benjamin Franklin, and Jack London used copywork to learn their craft (3).

By zeroing in and copying the words, phrases, and clauses of a single exemplary model, you discover elements of style you wouldn’t otherwise notice.  Like a cook who samples and dissects the dishes of a master chef, you become both inspired to produce your own recipes and equipped to combine the ingredients more artfully.  What is a short passage of published writing that you admire for its rhetorical craft, the kind of passage that might be held up as an exemplary model for writers?  Select a published passage of at least six sentences, and, following the principles of copywork, reproduce the writing verbatim — that’s Latin for “word for word.”  Make sure to write the author’s name and the title of the work at the top of your paper.  The purpose here is not to plagiarize; rather, it’s to use your pen to help you pay better attention as you read and write. (Common Core Reading 1)

1-Thompson, Clive. How the Photocopier Changed the Way We Worked — and Played. Smithsonian Magazine March 2015.

2- Owen, David. Copies in Seconds:  How a Lone Inventor and an Unknown Company Created the Biggest Communication Breakthrough Since Gutenberg.  New York:  Simon and Shuster, 2008:  146.

3-McKay, Brett and Kate. Want to Become a Better Writer? Copy the Work of Others! Art of Manliness.com. 26 Mar. 2014.

September 30:  Mnemonic Device Day

On this last day of September, we focus on not forgetting one of the more famous mnemonic rhymes in English:

Thirty days hath September,

April, June, and November.

All the rest have 31,

Except for February all alone,

It has 28 each year,

but 29 each leap year.

This verse is attributed to Mother Goose, but it’s only one of many versions of the poem.  One website, for example, lists an astonishing 90 variations of what has come to be called The Month Poem (1).

Mnemonic rhymes are just one type of mnemonic device. No, you can’t buy them in stores. A mnemonic device is a method of remembering something that is difficult to remember by remembering something that is easy to remember.

The word mnemonic is an eponym (See May 28 – Eponym Day), originating from the Greek goddess of memory and mother of the Muses, Mnemosyne.

To make things easy to remember, mnemonic devices employ different methods, such as rhyme, acrostics, or acronyms. Another method is the nonsense sentence made up from the initial letters of what it is you are trying to remember. Here’s an example of a sentence that is crafted to help us remember Roman numerals:

In Various Xmas Legends Christ Delivers Miracles.

Notice how the letters that begin each word correspond, in order, to Roman numerals:

I=1, V=5, X=10, L=50, C=100, D=500, M=1,000

You might also us an acronym. For example, CREED is a mnemonic device that helps us remember the essential elements of an argument:

C = Claim

R = Reasoning

E = Evidence

E = Explanation

D = Documentation

Another acronym ASK PEW is a mnemonic for remembering the essential elements of the rhetorical situation:

Audience, Subject, Kairos, Point/Purpose, Exigence, and Writer

Generations of school children have used the rhyme from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” (1861) to remember the start date of the American Revolution:

Listen my children and you shall hear

Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,

On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;

Hardly a man is now alive

Who remembers that famous day and year.

Today’s Challenge:  Remember, Remember the Mnemonics of September

What are some examples of important information that needs to be committed to memory?  Think of something you need to remember, or something that everyone should remember, and create your own original mnemonic device.  Use rhyme, acrostics, acronyms, and/or nonsense sentences to package your device in a handy, easy-to-remember format. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1 – Leap Year Day.com. Days of the Month Poem. 1904 Public Domain. http://leapyearday.com/content/days-month-poem.

 

August 31:  Short Letter Day

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Today is the anniversary of a short letter that became the opening salvo in a chain of events that changed television history. The letter, dated August 31, 1988, was sent to NBC President Brandon Tartikoff by George Shapiro, agent for comedian Jerry Seinfeld. This brief letter of recommendation led to a meeting between Seinfeld and NBC executives, and an eventual pilot called The Seinfeld Chronicles. That pilot then became one of television’s most successful sitcoms Seinfeld running from 1990 to 1998.

With the popularity and longevity of Seinfeld, you might think that success was assured for Jerry Seinfeld, but few people know that he was dropped from an earlier sitcom Benson in 1980 after appearing in three episodes (1).

Looking back at the text of Shapiro’s letter — only three sentences long — it’s hard to believe it was the spark that set off a powder keg of comedy that dominated American TV ratings from nearly ten years.

When Seinfeld ended in 1998, it was still at the top of the ratings, and Jerry Seinfeld made it into The Guinness Book of World Records under the category “Most Money Refused” when he turned down an offer of $5 million dollars per episode to continue the show. In addition to ratings success, the sitcom also made an impact on American vernacular with catchphrases such as “Yada, Yada, Yada.”

Seinfeld’s Agent George Shapiro, who later became one of the show’s executive producers, had the gift for writing a short but strong letter of recommendation for his client (2).

Unlike an email, a short letter is likely to get the attention of your audience. If you want something done or you want an answer to a question, a short letter is a great way to guarantee a response. However, unlike the sitcom Seinfeld you can’t write a letter about nothing; you need a specific subject and purpose for your letter.

Today’s Challenge:  Short, Simple, Strong, Sincere Snail Mail

What is something that you would recommend right now, something that is overlooked or underappreciated?  Just as George Shapiro wrote a letter of recommendation for Jerry Seinfeld, your job is to write a short letter of recommendation. Your letter, however, should not recommend a person, rather it should recommend an object or an experience.  This idea comes from a weekly feature of The New York Times Magazine called “Letter of Recommendation,” where various writers recommend an object or experience that has been overlooked or underappreciated.  Past topics featured have been:  egg shakers, summer Fridays, The Oxford English Dictionary, Skiing, Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, and alternative search engines.

Brainstorm a list of ideas.  Then, select the topic you feel most passionately about.  Your purpose is to share your passion with a general audience, telling and showing them why your object or experience is worth holding in higher esteem. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1– Jerry Seinfeld Biography.  Biography.com.

http://www.biography.com/people/jerry-seinfeld-9542107.

2 – Grunwald, Lisa and Stephan J. Adler (Editors). Letters of the Century: America 1900-1999. New York: The Dial Press, 1999.

August 30:  Top 10 Day

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Today is the anniversary of the debut of The Late Show with David Letterman, which premiered on CBS on August 30, 1993, and ended on May 20, 2015. Letterman had previously spent eleven years as the host of Late Night with David Letterman, but after he was passed over as the host of The Tonight Show when Johnny Carson retired, he signed a multi-million dollar deal to move to CBS. This put him in direct competition with Jay Leno, who took over for Johnny on The Tonight Show.

Many aspects of Letterman’s show followed the basic pattern of the late night talk show genre, established and perfected by Johnny Carson. Letterman added a few new wrinkles of his own that became staples of his show and focus points for his fans.

One of Letterman’s trademarks was “found comedy” — people, places, and things found on the streets of the city that became the subject of Letterman’s ironic wit. These consist of actual items found in the newspaper, viewer mail, “stupid pet and human tricks” performed on the show, esoteric videos, and person-on-the-street interviews (1).

Letterman’s best-known feature is one that is originally “found” in the Old Testament, a list of ten — sometimes called a “Decalogue.”  This list of ten is best known as The Ten Commandments.  The Book of Exodus records Moses bringing the commandments, which are carved on two stone tablets, down from Mount Sinai and delivering them to the people of Israel.

Of course, Letterman’s Top Ten lists are meant not to deliver the law but to deliver laughs. Based on a topic from current events, each list counts down ten hilariously warped responses.

Today’s Challenge: TOP TEN TOP TENS

What would be the topic of your Top Ten list? First, brainstorm some titles of lists, such as Top Ten Reasons . . . , Top Ten Things . . ., Top Ten Ways . . . Then, when you find a title you like, complete your 10 items.

Here are ten possible top ten list titles:

  1. Top Ten Alternative Uses for a Paperclip
  2. Top Ten Ways to Save Time on Your Homework
  3. Top Ten Reasons to Attend College
  4. Top Ten Rejected Prom Themes
  5. Top Ten Songs to Have With You on a Deserted Island
  6. Top Ten Reasons to Quit Social Media
  7. Top Ten Tenets of Effective Writing
  8. Top Ten Reasons to Read a Book Rather Than Watch TV
  9. Top Ten Habits of Successful Students
  10. Top Ten Topics for a Top Ten List

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1 – Late Night With David Letterman. The Museum of Broadcast Communications

http://www.museum.tv/eotv/latenightwi.htm.