Wednesday, November 13, 2013

John Green Gets Us

     Youtube is a platform for video content. What any channel choses to do with that platform is up to them. Content ranges from Make-Up tutorials, vlogging, how-to videos, and even educational videos. John and Hank Green started a channel in 2011 called Crashcourse dedicated to educational video-series in both the humanities and sciences.  In 2013, Crashcourse US History started tackling a breakdown of important US events. The style of these videos tends to be informal and upbeat but keeps an educational tone.  Enthralled with the idea of the use of plain language style education, I wanted to discuss how this can be an effective method of ‘edutainment’. By combining some aspects of academic tone with simple language, the writers communicate complex ideas in an easy to digest package.
            Having the benefit of being able to interact and understand their viewers, John and Hank have been able to tailor their content to match the viewer’s intellectual levels.   Going into the start-up of the channel, the Green brothers kept their established audience in mind. Their main channel, Vlogbrothers, started in 2007 and currently has 1.5 million subscribers, many of whom also watch Crashcourse.  A survey done of the Vlogbrothers’ viewers in 2013, where over 100,000 responses were tallied, showed that the majority of their viewers fell in the high school to college age range.  This age range is subsequently where the level of comprehension is held within the educational videos.

     With the use of a readability score calculator, the average grade level of the video was found to be 11.3, or about a high school junior.  If the viewer’s reading level ranges 9-16, keeping the readability near the low end is a good choice.  The writers, John Green and Raoul Meyer, keep the grade level high enough to not over simplify the challenging topics, but low enough so that even their outlier audience would be able to grasp what they are talking about.  The average American adult reads at a 7th grade level, shown in a 1993 the National Adult Literacy Study. This video falls above that, but not an unreachable amount. However, readability and grade level aside, the blended use of official and plain style is what makes this video an effective method of communication.

               "But certainly the most prominent effects of the slave-based economy were seen in the South. The profitability of slaved-based agriculture, especially King Cotton, meant that the South would remain largely agricultural and rural. Slave states were home to a few cities, like St. Louis and Baltimore, but with the exception of New Orleans, almost all southern urbanization took place in the upper South, further away from the large cotton plantations. 

And slave-based agriculture was so profitable that it siphoned money away from other economic endeavors. Like, there was very little industry in the South. It produced only 10% of the nation's manufactured goods. 

And, as most of the capital was being plowed into the purchase of slaves, there was very little room for technological innovation, like, for instance, railroads. This lack of industry and railroads would eventually make the South suck at the Civil War, thankfully."   -Crashcourse US History #13 Slavery 

     This quote from the video shows the variety of styles employed by the writers.  There are few multisyllabic words and even fewer that are only used once. This allows the viewer to hear any unfamiliar terms in a multitude of sentences and understand them based on the context provided. Most of the sentences are of medium length, but even the long ones refrain from using multiple prepositional phrases which can easily become confusing. Green keeps his audience engaged by not speaking above their level of understanding, but also by not underestimating what they can understand.
      The least formal writing is shown in the starting of the last two paragraphs. The writers started sentences with a conjunction, allowing for a more steam of consciousness approach to the information conveyed. In the very last sentence, a viewer would hear a typical jarring sentence. The thoughts move from a very educational topic, industrial revolution and trains into an opinion of John Green.  Even the word choice is informal “suck at the Civil War”.  The colloquialism “like” is strewn throughout the video.  This filler word, often found in teenage girl’s everyday lexicon could be a habit of Green’s or it could be an attempt to mirror his audience’s speaking patterns in order to communicate with them effectively.

R.R. Watson

When Plain is Best

When one wants to just get an idea across to an audience, the plain style will most likely be used. Short, sweet and to the point. This style, when properly used, can be informative without the fluff of the official or creative styles. The key features for categorizing a piece as plain style are active voice in simple sentences (subject, verb, object), clear subjects and low levels of abstraction. This news article, found on the Fond du Lac Reporter, has used the plain style to clarify changes in the educational system of the district. There have been more and more of these changes in the educational system recently: most important being the shift to more of a teaching approach for problem solving learning style. The changes are to help improve Wisconsin’s scores on standardized tests. The article is for everyone to know and be able to understand how the changes will impact each own’s life. Because the article is for everyone in the community, it is written in a very clear, simple voice successfully.
The author of this article, Terry Kaldhusal of the Fond du Lac Reporter, wants to give the facts and remain unbiased in the activity system. With the use of the plain style, Kaldhusal can be successful in accomplishing this writing for parents, students, teachers and others involved in education. These new changes could be interpreted to be either worthwhile or a waste of time; one never knows how news will be taken by the masses. Because of this fact, the article is written without taking a side on the matter. The elements of plain style that are used to do all of this are: active voice, simple sentences, quick sentence opening and informal voice.   
Kaldhusal takes responsibility of the entire Reporter community and says, “this is neither a political issue nor a union issue. Our view is based on our students’ needs.” By stating this it is vital to note that the only thing care for the reporter in printing the article is to take our children’s best interest and future into consideration. These two sentences are very simple and get straight to the point that wants to be made. There is no slow opening or trying to soften the facts to be said.
The simple sentences and active voice of the text seem to produce easy reading and understanding within an article with such a wide audience. The sentences are all very basic and do not hold any unneeded or extra information. The article is purely used to get the details about the updated curriculum out to the public; so that, they know what questions to bring up and what to expect their children to be learning. Kaldhusal does this when explaining the changes about the learning style, “it demands that our students be able to read a complex text and understand it. It demands that our students learn to understand a problem and then use the skills necessary to solve it.”  There is never a way to please everyone when it comes to the creating a standard of teaching in a district; arguments will always come up. With this in mind, Kaldhusal is very meek in the explanation of the change.

This text is very effective, because there is little to no room for confusing about what is now happening with the changes being put in place. The writer wants the parents and others impacted in Wisconsin to understand what the children they are raising will be learning from this point on in their educational career, and this is achieved. Kaldhusal never slows down to say if the changes are good or bad; states the facts and leaves it at that. The plain style is a simplistic way of getting an idea across while being able to remain unbiased on a matter.
~E. West

The Power of the Plain Style

On August 28, 1963, history changed forever. In Washington D.C., Martin Luther King Jr. inspired Americans with his “I Have a Dream” speech, given in front of the Lincoln Memorial. This year, on the anniversary of the event, President Barack Obama delivered his own speech on the same spot where King’s oratory touched the hearts of thousands fifty years prior. Also speaking at the Lincoln Memorial were two past presidents: Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. “Honoring King’s Dream,” an article written by Abby Abrams and Glenn Greenberg of Time for Kids magazine, focuses on the remembrance and celebration of King’s ideals through President Obama’s presentation.
            Abrams and Greenberg’s article is clearly written in the plain style, earning a Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease score of 68.2. With an average grade level of 7.5, this article falls right in the reading ability range of the average American citizen. As expected for an article written in the plain style, fewer words are employed per sentence. In fact, each sentence uses an average of only 12.8 words, indicating the presence of short, simplistic sentence structure. Jargon is essentially nonexistent in this piece, and if a word is unclear, the authors define it immediately.
            Distinctio, or the practice of clarifying word meanings, makes an important appearance in “Honoring King’s Dream.” In this sentence, “in the early 1960s, segregation, or the separation of people by race, was accepted in many parts of the U.S., particularly the South,” (Abrams, Greenberg 2013) a critical piece of history is defined. Segregation, which occurred before and throughout the Civil Rights Movement, is a term that may not need to be explicitly defined for most readers. However, the inclusion of its meaning provides increased clarity and focus for the article’s audience. Simplification of ideas and well-defined understanding form the basis of typical plain style writing.
            Recognizing the intended audience for this article will also illuminate the reason as to why plain style was used. “Honoring King’s Dream” appears in Time for Kids magazine, which is intended for young readers in the upper grades of elementary school. In sixth grade, I actually read Time for Kids weekly in class. The format of the magazine is unpretentious, with news, feature articles, and cartoons spaced evenly throughout its eight-page spread. As can be imagined, Time for Kids forms an offshoot of Time magazine, which provides news with a more adult-focused informative style. I did a little investigating about the specific contributors to the article, Abrams and Greenberg. Abrams, who does not work for TFK anymore, currently serves as deputy news editor for the Columbia Spectator, a student-run newspaper at Columbia University in New York. Abrams studies at Barnard University, which is a liberal arts college for women also located in New York City. Greenberg’s resume proves much more intriguing. He works as a freelance writer and senior editor for Time, Inc. currently, but has written for Scholastic, Inc., Simon and Schuster, and Marvel Entertainment.
            Although both authors are adults, they each have a strong connection to magazine journalism. Writing for children, however, requires a certain level of patience for the simplicity of the text. Abrams and Greenberg’s motive seems clear: detail a Presidential event commemorating Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech. They do not appear to have ulterior intentions or hopes to corrupt their audience. As is expected in all writing, several rules and divisions guide the presentation of the article. Abrams and Greenberg hold a position of authority over the reader, but do not give the impression that they wish to stifle or provoke exasperation. Their brief, informative language places the reader in a status similar to that of a teacher and a student. Abrams and Greenberg serve as the instructors, while the audience plays the role of the student. This give-and-take relationship is voluntary and non-obtrusive. Something important to consider is that Abrams and Greenberg are not the ultimate authorities on this subject, though they have established some level of authority. Neither specifies whether or not they attended the event, so the audience is left to decide for itself to trust the authors. Positive wording throughout the article guides the audience towards an optimistic perspective while reading the article, which could be viewed as a subtle form of coercion.
            Like a teacher would, Abrams and Greenberg apply a couple different strategies to clarify their instruction. Exemplum, giving examples, presents itself accurately. The following sentences demonstrate this strategy by showing examples of segregation: “Black people and white people could not attend the same schools, sit next to each other on buses, or even use the same water fountains. Businesses often refused to hire people based solely on the color of their skin” (Abrams, Greenberg 2013). By defining segregation with the use of distinctio and following up with exemplum, the authors provide the audience with a strong understanding of the concept presented.
            “Honoring King’s Dream” also utilizes similar sentence structuring to make ideas easier to follow. This approach is called parallelism, and manifests itself in the example excerpt below.

“Obama told a crowd of thousands, ‘We rightly and best remember Dr. King's soaring oratory that day, how he gave mighty voice to the quiet hopes of millions.’ The president also said, “What King was describing has been the dream of every American’” (Abrams, Greenberg 2013).

            By using the same sentence structure of following the subject with a verb right away, such as the phrase “Obama said,” the authors set up a pattern for the reader to comprehend. Several other quotes in the article also use the subject as the first word in the sentence, followed by the verb. Such simplistic structuring makes comprehension of the sentence much quicker and cleaner. Using parallelism also allows Abrams and Greenberg to reduce the inclusion of passive verbs in favor of active verbs. It would be an interesting to further analyze the influence of this article if passive verbs were more prevalent, and contemplate what lead the authors to select active verbs to keep the article moving. News articles are notorious for using the passive voice, most likely because it is easier for audiences to understand versus more complex language. The authors of this article know their audience, but still encourage active involvement while reading.

            Abrams and Greenberg have a relevant, inspiring story to convey, and choosing the plain style over a different style seems to work to their advantage throughout the article. The celebration of a timeless speech by Martin Luther King Jr. requires the right amount of significance and clarity to bring across a positive, appropriate message. Such presentations like King’s can be influential to vast groups of people, and it is crucial for the speaker to understand the scope of the speech. King’s eloquence ended up contributing to a massive civil rights movement, ultimately leading to the elimination of segregation and inequality for African-Americans. Abrams and Greenberg grasp the intensity and integrity behind King’s speech, realizing that their audience depends on them to deliver an accurate, strong story. By relying on literary elements that define and elucidate the theme of the story, the authors’ ability to connect with their audience increases exponentially. “Honoring King’s Dream,” like King’s oratory itself, is a compelling example of the power of words.

By Danielle C.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Here's my Classroom, Plain and Simple

In the educational field, the importance of a developed relationship between parents and teachers has been growing. For the best student results, it is believed that the channels of communication need to be open between these two groups. And while there are several parent-teacher conferences throughout each school year, this type of interaction is too infrequent to make a difference in the everyday life of a student. Therefore, it is important for teachers to immediately establish contact with parents, and set up several channels of communication, including email, telephone, and personal letters. Many teachers believe that sending a letter home with students on the first day of class, addressed to parents, is the best way to establish this immediate contact.
          If a teacher chooses to write a letter to the parents of their students, they have multiple considerations to make. Their goal should be to come across as both professional and approachable, while also writing in a readable, yet intelligent manner. Striking this balance in writing can be extremely difficult, and failing to meet these expectations, especially for new teachers, can start off a school year on the wrong foot. And it’s not only teachers who must consider this balance while approaching a writing task, in many writing situations, including fields such as business, personnel management, and health, you are dealing with readers of varied skill who are expecting your writing to come across in this manner. In these cases, certain measures must be taken to ensure that your writing is accessible and clear. Generally speaking, writing in what is known as the plain style is one way to create this writing persona. Despite running the risk of sounding simple, it often seems that using certain elements of the plain style correctly enables a writer to find this balance between accessibility and professionalism.
However, if a beginning teacher is struggling with these types of situations, they have resources that they can rely on to assist them. For example, the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) website includes a “sample letter to parents” that teachers can use as a template. There were several different versions of this letter on WEAC’s page, and each one uses similar techniques and writing styles, and could be adapted to multiple different classrooms. Focusing on one example, we see the way these sample letters utilize the plain style to maintain readability, while also maintaining a level of intelligence and professionalism, make them an effective tool for new teachers to draw from for their own use.
         Studying this letter shows where three different levels of community in the educational system are interacting. On one side, we have an interaction between veteran teachers and new teachers, and on the other is an interaction between parents and teachers. These are both highly important relationships in an educational context. WEAC’s website is the artifact that creates the interaction between teachers, as it is a resource designed by veteran teachers for the use of other teachers, and they are pooling resources that are shared across the community. The sample letter itself is where we see the interaction between teacher and parent, as now the artifact that has been created is being used for its intended purpose, communication across two separate communities.
When studying the interaction of the veteran and new teachers, we gain a sense of collaboration and shared purpose. The letter is posted on the new teacher resources page on WEAC’s website, which demonstrates the way veteran teachers are collaborating with new teachers; they are making their experience-proven tools available for use by others. On the WEAC website there is a large amount of resources that a new teacher can access, including ideas for sample lesson plans, classroom management, and classroom organization. When a new teacher chooses to use these resources, they are aligning their goals and purpose with those of the veteran teachers. The fact they would be approaching their role in education in the same manner, through using other teachers’ techniques, implies this mindset of shared goals.
          Turning from the context behind the letter, and focusing on the artifact itself, we see that the way that teachers and parents interact in an educational setting is tough to explain, because each parent and teacher interact differently based on multiple factors. It can be assumed that the socio-economic class of the family, the educational history of the parents, the past relationships with teachers, and the student’s performance can shape each interaction in a different way. Considering this, we can never predict the relationship between a teacher and parent prior to the first actual contact, and each relationship will be different. Despite the nature of a parent-teacher relationship, every single parent has the right to be as active in their child’s education as they wish to be. To allow for that, it is important that any communication between the teacher and parent is done in a clear, professional manner. As we can not assume the educational level of any parent, a complexly written, jargon-filled letter would be of no use, as it would be denying some parents access to a role in their child’s education. The way the “sample letter to parents” uses techniques of the plain style, like active voice, concise sentence structure, and parallel sentence structure demonstrates how to write a letter that would meet the needs of all parents and students, and is an example of writing that would be clear and effective.
          Looking at the “sample letter to parents,” the first thing that is noticeable is the constant use of the active voice throughout. For example, examine the style the second paragraph is written in:
Psychology is a very demanding course. We will cover 19 chapters in 18 weeks. There will be homework assignments almost daily. Each student will need a single subject notebook, a pocket folder, blue or black pens and pencils. These materials should be brought to class every day. We cover a lot of material in one class period so locker passes will not be issued.

Each sentence utilizes only active voice, keeping the verb of the sentence directly to the right of the subject. By keeping the subject near the action of the sentence, the reader is easily able to interpret what goal the sentence has. In other words, the reader will know who is doing what in each sentence, and there is no ambiguity in the interpretation of the sentences. The paragraph avoids using techniques like appositives, participial phrases, and absolute phrases, which are ways to delay a sentence start, and add complexity and ambiguity to writing. By keeping the sentence structure simple, and active, there is no chance of losing the meaning in the sentence. Considering the parents who may be reading this letter, it would be a wise choice for a teacher to write in such a manner, because this creates a better opportunity for those with lower literacy levels to interpret the intended message of the letter.
          A second important aspect of this paragraph is the clear, concise sentences that it employs. The writer of the letter sticks to one idea per sentence, and one verb per sentence. One of the easiest ways to confuse a reader is to include multiple ideas subordinated and embedded in a sentence, which only confuses the meaning and purpose of the sentence. A standard method of embedding these ideas is through the usage of multiple verbs, either all relating to the same subject, or relating to a newly introduced subject. While these techniques can be used effectively, in a letter like the “sample letter to parents,” it makes more sense to keep your sentences simple, so that each point being made is done so in a clear way. Writing these concise sentences also helps keep the letter moving as the reader goes, and doesn’t force a reader to pause while reading to decode meaning in a sentence. In doing this, the writer is ensuring that all levels of readers are able to access the text. In the various writing situations an educator may be faced with in their career, being able to communicate clearly to all readers is the most important consideration, and using techniques that keep their writing in a more plain style makes this possible.
The letter also demonstrates effective use of parallel structure, as these techniques of the plain style hold throughout the entire letter, and only one sentence deviates away from standard subject-verb-object construction. The beginning of one paragraph uses a sentential adverb, “hopefully,” to begin a sentence, however it immediately introduces the subject after the sentential adverb. While perhaps the letter may seem overly plain due to its repetitive sentence patterns, by maintaining a similar structure, the writer again could be comfortable assuming that the message carried in each sentence is being expressed clearly. And in this instance, a clear and concise message would be valued over stylistic flair, especially considering the varied reading levels of the parents reading the letter.
          However, while the writing style is in the plain style, the letter maintains a certain level of professionalism. The writer’s obvious grasp over what they hope to say, and the explicit, clear manner it is laid out provides the sense of an author who has an understanding of their task. Based on these qualities, this “sample letter to parents” is a tool that new teachers would be wise to take advantage of as a framework to build their own letter. While I wouldn’t suggest simply cutting and pasting the information for your class into this template, I would suggest utilizing similar prose strategies in writing a letter such as this. As a writer, I would consider the ways in which all writers can use styles of plain language to make their message more clear and accessible that are presented in this letter, and consider how to adopt those strategies for my own needs. In writing situations that ask you to establish a connection with an audience of varied reading levels, higher precedence should be given to the clarity of your message, rather than creating technical, stylistic writing. However, by simply replicating what is on this sample letter, a teacher may fail to develop a letter that appropriately captures their intentions and that presents their persona as an educator correctly. And yet, for a teacher, keeping a letter in a plain, concise style, as demonstrated by this letter, will ensure that all parents reading their correspondence will be able to access the information and use it as they see fit.

By: Brandon N.

Works Cited

"Section 6: Sample Letters to Parents." Wisconsin Education Association Council, n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2013. <