Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Finding Bias in Non-Fiction

Critical reading of any text is an important skill for secondary students, and recognizing bias is a fundamental part of the process. It's easy to teach students how to recognize bias in potential sources for research, but it's not as easy with book-length non-fiction.

When you consider the investment in reading a book-length work, and the artful way the information is often presented, it is not surprising that it is hard to identify bias. Another reason it is difficult is because any work will contain some bias, simply by the necessary choices of what to include, what to leave out, and what point of view to present, among other decisions. I know from my time as journalist that even a just-the-facts story can be presented in a way to promote a particular viewpoint from something as simple as the information presented in the first few sentences.

I teach units on the non-fiction books The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore and Zeitoun by Dave Eggers in my classes. Both of these books present stories that are compelling, descriptive, and read like novels. It is easy to lose yourself in the stories and forget to stop and consider the choices these masterful writers are making to present their stories. During discussions about bias with these two books, students have often bristled or become upset when I raise the possibility of bias. This is a good thing. It means they have engaged deeply with the reading, and if there is bias, it matters to them.

It helps to point out that it's impossible for any writer to present another person's story with complete accuracy, and that they did not set out to manipulate the truth. Both of these books, I argue, come from the authors wanting to tell the truthful stories of their characters, but they also want to promote a particular viewpoint. That necessarily involves crafting a narrative to do so, even while sticking to the facts. (Although in the wake of the hero in Eggers' novel being arrested multiple times for domestic violence after the story ends, many critics wonder if Eggers turned a blind eye to his less-than-saintly qualities.)

Whatever your approach, here are some questions that can open up a good discussion:

What information has the author chosen to focus on?
What information might the author have left out?
How does the point of view affect how the reader feels about the characters and story?
How much of the story is re-created by the author's imagination?
Is the author making an argument?
How does the story promote the author's argument?
Could there be an alternative telling of the story, and how might it be different?

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Should Schools Discipline Cyber Bullies?

By some accounts, every day, around 160,000 do not attend school because they are afraid of bullies. Those who are afraid and attend anyway are distracted and can't pay attention. Clearly, school administrators need to do everything possible to quell bullying and provide a safe environment for all students.

More and more, however, the type of bullying these students encounter is through social media or other cyber media rather than physical confrontations, making it impossible for victims to simply avoid the perpetrator via school intervention. School administrators are in a tough position. What if all the activity takes place outside of school hours? Where does school authority end? How can school administrators have the resources to monitor students' social media, and do so without invading privacy? By the time someone reports the abuse, the damage is often already done. It is easy to argue that schools monitoring what students do outside of school hours is an obvious overreach of power.

The only easy answer is that schools can offer educational programs and teach students smart social media use. This is, of course, only part of the equation, and students set on bullying other students often need a deterrent or discipline to quit the behavior.

I don't envy school administrators in sorting out this thorny problem. I suggest this topic for a discussion or debate in the classroom. When I used it with my class recently, the opinions and ideas were eye-opening. There was so much fodder for debate, the students couldn't wait to get writing!

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Out with the Comma? Joining Independent Clauses

It's seemingly one of the simple punctuation rules: When you join two independent clauses with a coordinating conjunction (aka FANBOYS), you need to separate them with a comma. Here is an example. The independent clauses are in blue. 

English has many grammar and punctuation rules, but there are many exceptions to those rules

This is what I've always taught in my classes, no exceptions. Now, however, I can't ignore the exception to this rule because it's becoming more common in publications, and my students notice. 

If the two independent clauses are short, closely related, and if the comma is omitted, there is no misunderstanding. For example: 

He completed the assignment but it was late.

It's not new; it's in the Chicago Manual of Style and the MLA Style Guide, among others, but it's been largely ignored and doesn't come up in most shorter official grammar guides.  

The trend is definitely toward minimal punctuation, so I'm getting on board teaching the exception, but only so my students will understand when they see it in print. I will, however,  require my students to continue to use the comma in their formal writing assignments so I'm sure they understand the rule, and it's not a purposeful omission. I explain that you can't go wrong with the comma. My students know my mantra: Learn the rules (and demonstrate your understanding) before you break them.