Nonfiction is the new black
Chances are you are eagerly looking forward to the last day of school and nearly three months of free time.
Chances are also that you heard that this nice long summer vacation is somehow connected to the early years of the country when agriculture was the most important industry and kids had to help out on their farms during this time. If so, you heard wrong.
For starters, there wasn’t much to do on farms in the summer. The busy times were spring (planting) and fall (harvesting). As a result, most farm kids went to school during the summer and winter. At best they spent a total of six months learning the three Rs.
It was a very different situation in cities as the country became increasingly urbanized. Big-city kids might spend as much as 48 weeks in class, with a week off every 12 weeks. Since attendance wasn’t mandatory, though, they probably only attended school about as much as they do now.
But if so many kids were playing hooky, reformers said, why bother keeping schools open all year? Some doctors backed up the idea of closing for a period of time, saying that keeping kids cooped up for most of the year wasn’t good for their health.
So education officials decided to eliminate the summer quarter. The first reason was that schools were not air conditioned back then and almost unbearable during heat waves. Also, there was also a strong belief that summer was the time when epidemics of serious diseases such as polio got started. Many people thought having so many children packed so close to each other in classrooms helped spread the illnesses. Third, upper-class and middle-class families often took vacations during the hot months.
With increasing mechanization on farms and many farm families moving to the cities, helping with planting and harvesting wasn’t as important. Farm states added those spring and fall months to the school year and gave kids the summers off, just like big-city folk.
However, some research suggests that the “summer slide” causes students to lose an average of a month of learning. Students typically don’t do as well on tests in the fall—after the long summer break—than in the spring when they’ve been in school for several months. Most other developed countries spend more time in the classroom and generally do better on standardized testing. As a result of these factors, a few states are considering lengthening the school year from the current 180 days to 200.
What do you think?
Jim Whiting hopes all of you have a wonderful summer and that you can carve out some time to read! Your local library may have some of his books, as well as many by the other wonderful authors who have made the Nonfiction Minute such a great success. And be sure to check out Jim's updated website, www.jimwhiting.com
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "Why Do We Have a School Summer Vacation?" Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think
Tank, 15 June 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
All of the iNK authors will be working over the summer to create new Minutes for next year. We hope you will become a member of iNK Think Tank. On July 1, 2018, only iNK members will be able to have access to all the Nonfiction Minutes and our archives and the Transfer2Teaching. The public will still be able to see 10 FREE Minutes.
Become a Charger Member of iNK and let us know what else we can offer as our paid membership grows.
Nonfiction is the new black
In the early morning of April 15, 1912, the ocean liner Titanic sank on her maiden voyage after hitting an iceberg. The ship carried just over 2,200 people. More than 1,500 perished.
The main reason for the high death toll was that the ship had only 20 lifeboats. As they pulled away from the sinking ship, many were only half-full or even less. Even if all had been filled to capacity, only half the people would have been saved.
Why didn’t Titanic carry enough lifeboats for everyone on board?
There were several reasons.
Titanic’s original design called for 64 lifeboats. That number was later cut in half, then nearly halved again. The ship’s owners felt that too many lifeboats would clutter the deck and obscure the First Class passengers’ views.
The ship sailed under safety regulations that originated nearly 20 years earlier, when the largest passenger ships weighed 10,000 tons. Titanic was more than four times that amount. Yet officials maintained that ships had become much safer. Revising the regulations was therefore unnecessary. Under those regulations, Titanic actually had four more lifeboats than she was obligated to carry. Nearly every other vessel of that era was similarly deficient in the quantity of lifeboats.
The prevailing thinking at that time was that the ship itself would serve as a gigantic lifeboat. Nearly everyone believed that even a heavily damaged vessel would remain afloat for many hours before sinking. That would allow plenty of time for the lifeboats to go back and forth several times, ferrying passengers to nearby ships. This assumption was not unreasonable. When the smaller liner Republic was involved in a collision in 1909, she remained afloat for more than 24 hours. All 742 passengers and crew were ferried to safety.
The flaw with this assumption was that Titanic sank far more rapidly than anyone anticipated. The first rescue ship arrived more than two hours after Titanic had gone down.
In 2012 an explosive document emerged. It consisted of safety inspector Maurice Clarke’s handwritten notes, urging the addition of 10 more lifeboats five hours before the ship sailed. The ship’s owners wanted to leave on time. Clarke was threatened with being fired unless he kept his mouth shut. If the owners had followed his advice, almost 700 more people might have survived.
The disaster prompted a massive overhaul of regulations. All ships were required to carry enough lifeboats for everyone.
Frederick Douglass was a slave, but from an early age, he was determined to become a free man. He escaped to the North when he was about 20. A few years later, he discovered that he was an outstanding public speaker. For the rest of his life, Frederick would courageously speak out about the issues that affected his fellow blacks. Sometimes his actions placed him in great danger. During his lifetime no other African American did as much for blacks as Frederick Douglass. Even today his memory continues to inspire many people to work for civil rights and racial justice. For more information on Jim Whiting's book, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "Titanic - Not Enough Lifeboats." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think
Tank, 31 May 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Nonfiction is the new black
While Cinco de Mayo is not officially a holiday, many U.S. communities celebrate Mexican culture and heritage on May 5 with parades, mariachi music, street festivals, and much more. Most celebrants, though, would probably not be able to tell you what really happened on that date.
After thrusting off centuries of Spanish rule in 1821, Mexico endured several decades of economic and political instability. In 1861, Mexican president Benito Juárez suspended payment of his country’s debts to France, Spain, and Great Britain. The three countries immediately sent warships to Mexico. Juárez negotiated with Spain and Britain and their ships went home. But French emperor Napoleon III saw an opportunity to expand his country’s colonial empire and landed troops at Veracruz. They planned on capturing Mexico City, the capital. The French army at that time was generally regarded as the world’s finest and anticipated little difficulty in reaching its objective.
With the Civil War having just begun, the US government couldn’t divert resources to Mexico. The first target of the invaders was the small town of Puebla de Los Angeles. More than six thousand French troops, supported by cannons, assaulted a ragtag army of inexperienced, ill-equipped Mexican defenders about half that size on May 5, 1862. Somehow the Mexicans overcame their disadvantages and defeated the French.
The following year Napoleon dispatched more than 30,000 soldiers to Mexico. They seized control and installed Austrian archduke Ferdinand Maximilian as emperor of Mexico.
When the Civil War ended in 1865, the US leaned on France to leave Mexico. The final French troops departed two years later. Mexican forces seized Maximilian and executed him.
Today Cinco de Mayo barely causes a ripple in Mexico outside of the province of Puebla. It is not a national holiday so nearly everyone goes to work as usual.
It’s a much bigger deal in the United States, which may be fitting. Some historians believe that if the French had not been defeated at Puebla de Los Angeles and seized Mexico City, Napoleon would have made an alliance with the Confederate States. The Civil War was not going well for the Union at that time and French assistance could well have swung the conflict in the South’s favor. The result would have been two separate nations.
Jim Whiting has written a biography of the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortés. To some people, he was heroic. Even though he was greatly outnumbered, he was able to defeat the Aztec Emperor Montezuma and conquer the Aztec empire centered in modern-day Mexico. To others, including many Mexicans, he was a villain because he destroyed the Aztecs way of life. They believed he was a cruel man. He was also a symbol of Spanish domination. For more information, click here.
Whiting, Jim. "Cinco de Mayo." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 4 May 2018,
Who doesn’t like penguins? Their waddling gait is fun to watch. They have little fear of humans so it’s easy to get next to them. Penguin movies such as Happy Feet and The Penguins of Madagascar are box office hits.
World Penguin Day on April 25 focuses attention on these loveable flightless fowl. Some people dress up in black and white clothing. Many read books about penguins or watch penguin movies.
I was fortunate to get up close and personal to thousands of penguins during a trip to Antarctica. As our ship neared the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula—the closest point to the southern tip of South America which had been our departure point—we marveled at how effortlessly they skimmed through the water beside us. Soon we marveled at another characteristic. We were at least two or three miles offshore when the harsh odor of the poop generated by all those penguins wafted over the ship.
We relished the opportunity to go ashore and wander through their rookeries. There were lots of juveniles, covered with gray fuzz that would eventually fall off and be replaced by their characteristic black and white plumage. None of them seemed to mind our presence.
But we had several harsh reminders that we weren’t in a zoo. Several century-old stone huts provided shelter for explorers who slaughtered hundreds of penguins to eat during the long, harsh Antarctic winters. Skuas, nasty predatory birds, routinely feed on penguin chicks. We saw the discarded remains of several skua meals. Danger can also come from the depths. A couple of times we observed large seals relaxing on ice floes with bright red stains next to them.
The saddest sight came one afternoon when we took a Zodiac inflatable boat to shore. A penguin stood forlornly on top of a small ice floe, a leopard seal thrashing the water next to it. We asked our guide if we could rescue the doomed bird. He shook his head. “The water is too rough,” he said. “Too much chance of falling in if anyone tried to step out onto the floe. And you don’t want to be anywhere near an angry half-ton leopard seal that feels his dinner is being taken away from him.”
On our way back to the ship, there was no sign of the lone penguin. We had to accept that we couldn’t interfere in the natural course of things.
All images ©Jen Goode
Jim Whiting has written more than 100 titles and edited another 150 or so, with subjects ranging from authors to zoologists and including classical musicians and contemporary pop icons, saints and scientists, emperors and explorers. Many of his books have received glowing reviews.
He's also ventured into a number of classrooms and served as a presenter at writers' conferences, conveying the enthusiasm for writing and for a good story that still animates him. Check out his work here.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "World Penguin Day." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 25 Apr.
Nonfiction is the new black
During the Middle Ages, “going to the bathroom” or “relieving oneself” meant using a privy. A privy typically consisted of a raised board with one or more openings cut in the middle where the users would sit. Their fecal matter would plop into large holes called cesspits beneath them. Over time, the cesspits would fill up and start overflowing. When that happened, gong farmers had to empty them.
“Gong” came from a word that means “going.” And the farmers “harvested” the accumulation of months or even years of “going.” To make sure all the foul material was removed, the workers would hop down into the pits, where the feces came up their waists or even higher. Because of the relative ease of getting them in and out, small boys were often employed. The cesspool contents were dumped into carts and taken to larger dump sites on the edge of town, where more conventional farmers would use it as fertilizer.
People in the Middle Ages rarely bathed. So gong farmers stunk. Really. Stunk. Because of their horrible stench, they were often restricted in where they could live. They were allowed to work only at night to spare their fellow citizens from seeing and smelling them.
Besides the horrible smell and probable lack of friends, gong farmers encountered specific occupational hazards. Decaying fecal matter could produce poisonous gases. At least one gong farmer stumbled into a cesspool he was cleaning and drowned. Violators of the rules for collecting the refuse and disposing of it were submerged in barrels up to their necks and placed on public display for hours on end.
On the other hand, gong farmers were well paid, often earning in a day what other workers might make in a week. They had another potential source of income as well. Careless crappers occasionally dropped rings or coins into the cesspits. Enterprising gong farmers combed through the mess with their bare hands in search of those treasures.
The advent of better sanitary methods in the 19th century ended gong farmers in many countries. However, it is still practiced in some areas of the world.
You can learn more about Jim Whiting with a visit to his website. He is an interesting fellow with an interest in music and sports and has written lots of books in both fields.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "Gong Farmers: Their Crop Was ...Crap." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 15 Dec. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/Gong-Farmers.
Nonfiction is the New Black
Baseball fans were fascinated by an article in Sports Illustrated magazine just before the start of the 1985 major league baseball season. It profiled Hayden Siddhartha “Sidd” Finch, a rookie pitcher who was in spring training with the New York Mets. According to the article, he could throw a baseball at a top speed of nearly 170 miles per hour. That was twice as fast as many other pitchers. Photos accompanying the article showed Finch with his excited teammates. Teams that would be playing the Mets contacted the league office. They feared that their batters would be in danger when Finch was on the mound.
There was, however, a problem with the article. “Finch” in the photos was actually Joe Berton, an Illinois junior high school art teacher. The article’s subtitle provided a clue about its real purpose: “He’s a pitcher, part yogi and part recluse. Impressively liberated from our opulent life-style, Sidd’s deciding about yoga —and his future in baseball.” The first letters spell “Happy April Fool’s Day—ah Fib.”
The issue was dated April 1.
The Sidd Finch saga is one of the best-known hoaxes that occur every year on April Fool’s Day. It’s not clear when the custom of playing tricks on this day originated, or even why. The first clear reference seems to come in 1561, in a work by Belgian poet Eduard De Dene. A nobleman orders his servant to run silly errands on April 1. De Dene was almost certainly making a reference to a custom that was already well-established.
By the end of the following century, it had spread to England. In 1698, a London newspaper reported that “Yesterday being the first of April, several persons were sent to the Tower Ditch to see the Lions washed.” This was a prank that city dwellers played on bumpkins from rural areas. There were no lions, nor was there any washing.
In Scotland, April Fool’s Day actually became two days. The first day was “hunting the gowk” (a gowk was a cuckoo bird, a symbol of fools), sending people on ridiculous errands. Then came Tailie Day, which involved pinning tails or “kick me” signs on people’s butts.
It’s not clear when April Fool’s Day came to the United States. But today Americans love “celebrating” it. So if someone tells you a story that seems like a hoax or a joke, check the calendar. If it’s April 1, someone is probably fooling you.
Crack! It's going, going, it's gone! Professional players make it look easy to hit a home run. But without science, they’d be left in the batter’s box. In The Science of Hitting a Home Run, you can take a closer look at the science that makes a home run possible. Check this and Jim's many other titles out at his website.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "April Fool's Day." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 30 Mar.