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.

 

November 28:  Haiku Day

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On this day in 1694, Japanese Haiku master Basho died.  Born Matsuo Kinsaku in Kyoto, Japan, the poet began to write under the pseudonym Basho in 1680 after one of his students presented him with a gift of basho (banana) trees.  Clearly this was an appropriate gift for a writer known for his close observation of the natural world.

Basho adapted the haiku from a longer form called haikai no renga, which opened with a hokku, or “startling verse,” made up of three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and five syllables.

 

In the cicada’s cry

There’s no sign that can foretell

How soon it must die.

 

Temple bells die out.

The fragrant blossoms remain.

A perfect evening!

Today’s Challenge:  Seventeen Syllables of Insight

What are the key elements of writing a haiku?

-The focus of haiku is sensory imagery that describes your observation of nature

-You don’t have to name a specific season, but you should use a “season word” (In Japanese it’s called a kigo) that gives a clue to the season you are writing about.

-Also, since you are trying to capture a moment in time — the now — write in present tense and don’t worry about writing a title. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1-Poetry Foundation. Basho. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/basho.

November 27:  Sonnet Day

On this day in 1582, William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway. We know little about Shakespeare’s personal life, but based on marriage records, we do know that he was 18-years old when he married, and Anne was 26.  Six months after the wedding, Will and Anne’s first child, Susanna, was born. Two years later, Anne gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl named Hamnet and Judith.  Soon after the birth of the twins, Shakespeare left his family in Stratford upon Avon and traveled to London where he began his career as an actor and playwright.  When Shakespeare retired from the theater in 1610, he returned to Stratford, where he lived with Anne until his death in 1616.  Anne died seven years after her husband in 1623. The couple is buried next to each other in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford (1).

In Shakespeare’s plays there are many memorable marriages as well as memorable married couples.  In Romeo and Juliet, for example, we have one of the most memorable and hasty marriages in literary history.  The young lovers meet at the end of Act I and are married by the end of Act II.  And of course there are the many marriage ceremonies that bring closure to the plots of Shakespeare’s comedies.

But when it comes to the topics of love and marriage and Shakespeare, what probably comes first to mind are his sonnets.

Shakespeare did not invent the sonnet form, but he certainly perfected it.  Among his 154 sonnets we have not only the greatest examples of the form, we also have some of the greatest poetry in the English language.

Notice, for example, Sonnet 116.  It follows the usual form of the Shakespearean sonnet, fourteen lines consisting of three quatrains and a final couplet.  The rhyme scheme is ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. The basic structure and form of these immortal love notes may be the same, but like flowers, each features its own unique combination of images, argument, diction, and pathos:

Sonnet 116

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:

O no! it is an ever-fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wandering bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come:

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved. (2)

Today’s Challenge:  Not Just Another Thank You Note

Who are some people you care enough about to write a heartfelt note expressing your love, affection, and/or thanks?  In addition to commemorating Shakespeare’s marriage and verse on this day, we might also remember that it is the anniversary of the very first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which took place in New York City in 1924.

Write a prose sonnet, a 14-line heartfelt note, addressed to an individual you care about, expressing your love, affection, and/or thanks.  It does not need to be a romantic note, but it should provide specific details that show the addressee why he or she is special to you and why you are thankful for this person. Carefully craft each sentence to balance your reasons and your emotions.  If you’re feeling ambitious, you can try to write it as a Shakespearean sonnet.  If you write in prose, make sure you have 14 lines, but don’t go just for word count; instead, like Shakespeare did when he wrote in either prose or poetry, make each word count. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1-Pressley, J. M. Mrs. Shakespeare: Anne Hathaway.  Shakespeare Resource Center. http://www.bardweb.net/content/ac/hathaway.html.

2-Shakespeare, William (1564-1616). Sonnet 116. Public Domain.

November 26:  Abecedarian of Awesome Day

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On this day in 1789, Thanksgiving was celebrated for the first time under the new U.S. Constitution based on a proclamation signed by President George Washington.  However, it took over 150 years for Thanksgiving to be recognized as an official Federal holiday.  On December 26, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a Congressional resolution establishing the fourth Thursday in November as the Federal Thanksgiving Day holiday.

In June 2000, Neil Pasricha started a blog called 1000 Awesome Things as a reminder that although there is plenty of bad news every day, there are also a lot of things to be thankful for, things that Pasricha characterizes as “the free, easy little joys that make life sweet.”  At Pasricha’s blog each “Awesome Thing” is numbered. Below is a small sample of numbers 498 to 492:

#498 Long comfortable silences between really close friends

#497 The moment after the show ends and before the applause begins

#496 Seeing way worse weather on TV somewhere else

#495 When it suddenly just clicks

#494 Cutting your sandwich into triangles

#493 When that zit growing on your forehead suddenly just disappears

#492 The first text message between new friends

Each numbered item is linked to a detailed entry, describing in vivid detail what makes the thing truly awesome (1).

Today’s Challenge:  26 Awesome Things to Be Thankful For

What are 26 things you are thankful for?  Brainstorm a list of at least 26 awesome things to be thankful for, one for each letter of the alphabet, such as, Accordions, The Beatles, Canned Food, Donuts, etc.  Once you have your A to Z list, select one item on your list and write a detailed description that shows and tells why that one item is so awesome.

1-1000 Awesome Things. http://1000awesomethings.com/.

 

November 25:  Fable Day

On this day in 1998, the computer-animated film A Bug’s Life was released.  The film was produced by Pixar Animation Studios and distributed by Walt Disney Studios.  The film, which was directed by John Lasseter and co-directed by Andrew Stanton, featured the music of Randy Newman and the voices of Dave Foley, Kevin Spacey, and Julia Louis-Dryfus (1).

The plot of the film is based on a retelling of one of Aesop’s fables: The Ant and the Grasshopper:

One bright day in late autumn a family of Ants were bustling about in the warm sunshine, drying out the grain they had stored up during the summer, when a starving Grasshopper, his fiddle under his arm, came up and humbly begged for a bite to eat.

“What!” cried the Ants in surprise, “haven’t you stored anything away for the winter? What in the world were you doing all last summer?”

“I didn’t have time to store up any food,” whined the Grasshopper; “I was so busy making music that before I knew it the summer was gone.”

The Ants shrugged their shoulders in disgust.

“Making music, were you?” they cried. “Very well; now dance!” And they turned their backs on the Grasshopper and went on with their work.

There’s a time for work and a time for play. (2)

No one knows for certain if Aesop actually lived, but some ancient historians report that he was a slave who lived either in the 5th or 6th-century B.C.  Whether he actually lived or not, today we have over 300 fables, each with a plot the centers on animals and a moral that applies to the human reader (3).

Walt Disney made a cartoon-short of “The Ant and the Grasshopper” in the 1930s, but when Pixar got ahold of the story in the 1990s, they turned the short fable into a full-fledged film, featuring a full colony of ants and a rowdy gang of grasshoppers.

Today’s Challenge:  An Awesome Aesop Adaptation

Which of Aesop’s Fables is your favorite, and how would you adapt the story to create a feature animated film?  Write an explanation of which of Aesop’s Fables you would adapt and how you would transform it from a brief fable into a full length feature film.  If you want, you may use the Pixar Pitch template from November 22:  Pixar Pitch Day. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1-Pixar. A Bug’s Life. https://www.pixar.com/feature-films/a-bugs-life/#abl-main.

2-Aesop Fables. The Harvard Classics 1909-14. Bartleby.com.  Public Domain. https://www.bartleby.com/17/1/38.html.

3-University of Massachusetts Amherst. Aesop’s Fables. https://www.umass.edu/aesop/history.php.

November 24:  Five Ws and H Day

On this day in 1703, the winds of one of the fiercest storms in British history began to blow.  They would continue blowing for an entire week, resulting in 123 deaths on land and 8,000 drowned at sea. More than 800 houses were destroyed along with over 400 windmills.

Almost as notable as the storm itself was the publication of an account of the storm that was published by Daniel Defoe just a few months after the storm.  At the time, Defoe had not yet published his best known work, the novel Robinson Crusoe (See February 1: From News to Novel Day).  Defoe had just been released from prison after serving several months for seditious libel after publishing a satirical tract on the religious intolerance of the Church of English.  His sentence included being put in the pillory in the center of London for one hour on three successive days.

Desperate for money after his legal troubles, Defoe hatched the idea of writing about the great storm.  He didn’t just write his own account, however. Instead, he placed newspaper ads requesting individuals to send him their stories from the storm.  Although there were newspapers at the time, the type of objective news reporting we associate with journalism today was non-existent.  Defoe’s book The Storm is seen today as a pioneering work of journalism, containing approximately 60 separate first-hand accounts of England’s great tempest (1).

In the excerpt below, Defoe recounts a grim anecdote of a double suicide by a ship’s captain and his surgeon:

One unhappy Accident I cannot omit, and which is brought us from good Hands, and happen’d in a Ship homeward bound from the West-Indies. The Ship was in the utmost Danger of Foundring; and when the Master saw all, as he thought, lost, his Masts gone, the Ship leaky, and expecting her every moment to sink under him, fill’d with Despair, he calls to him the Surgeon of the Ship, and by a fatal Contract, as soon made as hastily executed, they resolv’d to prevent the Death they fear’d by one more certain; and going into the Cabbin, they both shot themselves with their Pistols. It pleas’d God the Ship recover’d the Distress, was driven safe into —— and the Captain just liv’d to see the desperate Course he took might have been spar’d; the Surgeon died immediately. (2)

Defoe’s legacy remains alive today in the form of six basic words that form the essential toolkit for journalism:  Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How.  Known commonly as the 5 Ws and H, these six words are excellent reminders of the basic questions we should use to investigate any topic, whether writing a news story or an investigative report:

Who was involved?

What happened?

When did it happen?

Where did it happen?

Why did it happen?

How did it happen?

Today’s Challenge:  Searching for Sense with Six Question

What are some examples of the most important events in world history?  Brainstorm a list of significant events from world history.  Then, select one specific event and begin researching the event by asking and answering the 5 Ws and H. Put together a brief report that includes answers to all six questions.  Write for an audience who knows little about the event.  (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1-Miller, John J. “Writing Up a Storm” Wall Street Journal 13 August 2011.

2-Defoe, Daniel. The Storm. Project Gutenberg. Public Domain. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/42234/42234-h/42234-h.htm.