Introduction

A recent post focused on connecting the trait of Ideas with the Common Core. This time around, we’ll look at Organization: ordering ideas to make them both clear and interesting. We’ll define the trait, link it to the CCSS for writing, and suggest favorite books to use as mentor texts in teaching important elements of Organization—including leads, endings, and transitions. As always, we encourage you to explore the Common Core Standards for Writing on your own; check out www.commoncore.org

Defining ORGANIZATION

One of my favorite quotations about writing comes from Ernest Hemingway, who said, “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.” Indeed, writing needs internal structure to hold ideas together. Picture your living room. Imagine that “living room” is your big idea, and everything in it, fireplace to windows, beams to floors, rugs to lamps, is a detail. What you did with those details—how you arranged them, the overall impression you created, where you directed a visitor’s eye—that’s your organization. Organizational structure, whether for a room or a piece of writing, varies with purpose…

In narrative, good organization helps readers follow the story. That doesn’t necessarily mean things are told in the precise order in which they happened, however; good narrative often includes flashbacks or previews, or skips back and forth across time. The plot may bounce from one character’s perspective to that of another, as in Bull Run by Paul Fleischman. One way to assess effective organization in narrative is through our own sense of anticipation: Are we just dying to know what happens next? Matilda, in Roald Dahl’s book by the same name, grows very weary of having her parents tell her she is ignorant, when she is anything but—and vows revenge. The second chapter ends this way: “You must remember that she was still hardly five years old and it is not easy for somebody as small as that to score points against an all-powerful grown-up. Even so, she was determined to have a go. Her father, after what had happened in front of the telly that evening, was first on her list” (Roald Dahl, Matilda. 1988. Puffin Books, p. 29). Just what does Matilda have planned for her overbearing, judgmental father? We can’t wait to find out—and that lures us right into chapter 3.

In informational writing, organization is designed to maximize learning by effectively ordering the myriad of details that emerge from thorough research on a focused topic. Imagine you were going to write a report on cockroaches. What subtopics might you cover—and how would you arrange them? Visualize a pyramid: main topic at the apex, major subtopics midway down (clusters of chapters), smaller subtopics at the base (individual chapters). To see an example of this organizational design, check out the table of contents for The Compleat Cockroach by David George Gordon (1996 Ten Speed Press). You’ll find eleven subtopics (chapters) arranged under three major sections: Cockroach Basics (anatomy and history); Sex, Food, and Death (how they’re born, where they live, and what can kill them: cannibalism, wasps, millipedes—and the occasional lucky human); and When Humans and Cockroaches Meet (how cockroaches affect civilization, our efforts to control them—plus a fascinating chapter on cockroach pets). This informational pyramid makes it simple for us, as readers, to find what we’re looking for: e.g., How long can a beheaded cockroach survive? Good informational writers turn chaos (random piles of details) into purposeful design—and that takes skill. As Gordon explains, “This book contains the collected wisdom of several hundred individuals—entomologists, pest control specialists, psychologists, filmmakers, novelists, historians, fine and folk artists, and a few of my close friends” (vii). (Sidebar: Gordon’s book is also an exemplar of GREAT informational voice, and is jam packed with some of the best leads and conclusions you’ll find anywhere. One of my favorites (from “Gastronomy,” p. 97): “What do cockroaches eat? Well, what’ve you got?”)

Organization is vital to the success of an argument. Readers want to know straight off what the writer’s position is (so this often pops up right in the opening paragraph), and immediately after that, they want substantive evidence to back up the writer’s claim. At that point—and this is one important way in which argument differs from other forms of informational writing—they also want objections addressed. What does the opposition have to say, and what makes the writer’s argument stronger than theirs? Good arguments usually close with the very most compelling evidence the writer can muster, and/or recommendations for action, or revised thinking about the issue at hand. Consider these lines from the closing chapter of Our Planet (MySpace Community with Jeca Taudte, 2008, p. 141): “It sometimes gets lost in the talk about the number of wildlife facing extinction, trees being clear-cut, and ice caps melting, but there is a very real human face to global warming. We see it every time someone with asthma struggles to get a deep breath. We see it in those places where food or water is scarce and people are starving. We can even see it where people are fleeing from war.”

Following are the key elements of Organization:

  • A strong lead
  • An easy-to-follow flow of ideas
  • Clear transitions
  • Effective pacing
  • A satisfying ending

All five elements are embedded in the Common Core.

 

Organizational Words & Phrases within the Common Core

Certain words or phrases within the Common Core are directly connected to the trait of Organization. Look in particular for the following—

introduce a topic or text; organizational structure; ideas are logically grouped; logically ordered; supported; link ideas; related; concluding statement; group information logically; headings; concluding statement; clarify relationships; appropriate transitions; transition words, phrases, and clauses; cohesion; previewing; unfolds naturally and logically; sequence; pacing; orient the reader; smooth progression of events

Here are two specific examples from the Common Core (grade 5 and grades 11-12) that show this language in context. Please note that we are condensing and paraphrasing here; we ask that you refer to  www.commoncore.org for precise wording.

 

In grade 5, students are developing their organizational skills . . .

W.5.1 (argument) requires students to—

  • Introduce a topic clearly
  • Create an organizational structure in which ideas are logically grouped
  • Link opinion and reasons
  • Provide a concluding statement

W.5.2 (informational writing) requires students to—

  • Introduce a topic clearly
  • Group information logically
  • Link ideas using transition words, phrases, and clauses (e.g., in addition, despite all this, to illustrate)
  • Provide a concluding statement

W.5.3 (narrative) requires students to—

  • Orient the reader
  • Introduce the narrator or characters
  • Organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally
  • Manage the sequence of events through varied transitional words, phrases, and clauses
  • Provide a conclusion that follows logically from those events

By grades 11-12, those skills have become more sophisticated . . .

W.11-12.1 (argument) requires students to—

  • Introduce the claim or claims
  • Create an organization that logically sequences claims, counter claims, and evidence
  • Use transitions to link ideas as well as major sections of the text
  • Create cohesion
  • Provide a conclusion that supports the primary argument

W.11-12.2 (informational writing) requires students to—

  • Introduce a topic
  • Make sure each new element builds on what came before
  • Create a unified whole
  • Use appropriate transitions to link ideas and sections of the text
  • Create cohesion
  • Provide a conclusion that suggests the implications or significance of the topic

W.11-12.3 (narrative) requires students to—

  • Engage and orient the reader by setting up a problem or situation
  • Introduce the narrator or characters
  • Create a smooth flow of events, using strategies suchas pacing
  • Sequence events in a way that creates coherence
  • Sequence events so they build toward a particular outcome
  • Provide a conclusion that follows from the story and offers resolution

Check out parallel writing standards (1 through 3) for the specific grade you teach, referring to the italicized list of terms above to see how close the link to the trait of Organization really is.

Teaching to These Standards

Now for the instructional side! If you were going to put this complex trait in a nutshell, these are the things you’d want to teach—

  • Great leads that set up whatever follows (argument, discussion, story)
  • Strong transitions that tie ideas or sections of text together
  • Structure—ways of presenting information, whether that means comparison and contrast, main point and detail or support, step by step, chronological order, point and counterpoint, or something else
  • Pacing—spending time where it counts by lingering over parts that require attention, and gliding quickly through (or over) anything obvious or less relevant
  • Effective endings that wrap up a discussion or story, and leave a reader feeling satisfied

Following are some of our favorite books for teaching these important organizational elements.

 

GREAT BOOKS for Teaching Organization
as Presented in the Common Core

 

3 of Vicki’s Favorites . . .

1. Spiders and Their Web Sites by Margery Facklam. 2001. Little, Brown and Company. Informational. Elementary and up.

This book has traveled the country with me. I use it to teach detail, voice in informational writing, effective use of terminology, and exceptional formatting (the illustrations by Alan Male are excellent). It’s also a great book for opening discussions on organizing informational details because its structure is so easy to follow, even for young writers. Don’t hesitate to use it with middle or high school students, though; it’s entertaining enough for adult fans of spiders.

As the Common Core standards suggest, good informational writing begins by setting the stage for the discussion to follow. This means, usually, starting with a broad overview to introduce the topic, then zeroing in on specifics. You couldn’t have a better book for illustrating this approach. Notice the content of the first chapter: “A Dozen Spiders Plus One That’s Not.” It opens with one of my all-time favorite leads: “People who create computer Web sites to attract attention are borrowing an idea millions of years old. Even before there were dinosaurs, spiders were luring insects to their web sites” (p. 4).  Facklam goes on to tell us a little about spiders in general—“No matter where you are, there is a spider not far away” (p. 4)—and to share a number of intriguing details, including how many insects they eat, just how many spiders inhabit the world (you’ll be surprised), and the many ways they use their remarkable silk. What she does not do is tediously summarize details about the dozen spiders to which she’s about to introduce us. She meticulously avoids retracing steps—saving each detail for just the right spot. That’s good organization.

The second chapter (we’re still setting the stage here), “Spider Parts,” focuses on the anatomy of the spider, introducing us to technical terms, like Arthropoda, exoskeleton, cephalothorax, chelicerae, pedipalps, and spinnerets. Now we know enough about spiders as a whole to move in for close-ups of twelve species—plus the one that’s not (you may not guess what that is without reading the book). For beginning writers, that may be enough to share: introductory chapters followed by one detailed chapter for each species. Clean, straightforward organizational structure. With older writers, though, look deeper . . .

Notice that each species-specific chapter opens with one or more fascinating details about that particular spider—then goes on to share related knowledge about spiders in general. Chapters are short and content-rich, so the pacing is outstanding. For example, we learn in chapter 3, that the Garden Spider (pp. 6-7) attaches a ribbon to its web, presumably to ward off small birds that might otherwise become entangled. But we also learn how spiders build webs, why they don’t get stuck in them, and (most fascinating of all) how spiders in space become temporarily disoriented, and until they can re-orient themselves, spin webs that are a tangled mess. Who knew? (Teaching tip: When you share a multi-chapter book, check out leads and conclusions from each chapter, not just those that open and close the book as a whole. Notice how often you find the very best details within these opening and closing lines.)

2. Guys Write for Guys Read edited by Jon Scieszka. 2005. Viking. Memoirs by famous writers. Grades 5 through high school.

What a superb collection of mini (one- to two-page) life stories. This lively, sometimes zany, anthology offers a wondrous opportunity for students to get to know some favorite authors (Avi, Ted Arnold, Edward Bloor, Bruce Brooks, Chris Crutcher, Jack Gantos, Will Hobbs, Brian Jacques, Stephen King, Walter Dean Myers, Gary Paulsen, Richard Peck, Jerry Spinelli, Laurence Yep, and many others) a little better.

The book is filled with voice, and is great fun to read silently or aloud. Some essays are wildly comic, others more poignant. Their brevity and no-holds-barred content (many are clearly aimed dead center at a middle school audience) will pull in many a reluctant reader. Boys in particular love this book. One thing these essays have in common: great leads and endings.

You can use the book to illustrate the power of both because it’s easy to read six or seven leads—or endings—in just a few minutes. Here’s a tip you won’t find in the Common Core: When the ending echoes the lead, it’s an almost sure sign that what falls in the middle has coherence. Check out this example from the essay by Bruce Brooks called “E, A Minor, B7.” It opens this way: “There was only one thing you did in eighth grade, and I did it. I played in a band” (p. 42). I love that lead. It has focus but also a bit of comical anti-climax (Band? Seriously? That’s what you were leading up to??). Brooks hearkens back to this endearing, self-deprecating moment with the “now-we’re-more-worldly” tone of his ending: “We were right: at the start of school the next September, these guys were still together . . . But now they were losers. Bands were eighth grade. Nobody played in a band in ninth grade. Ninth grade, it turned out, was about girls” (p. 44). Well, that’s more like it. That’s also brilliant. A good ending does follow logically from what’s gone before, as the Common Core requires—but a brilliant ending points to the future, and makes you want to read on. (Teaching tip: Have students identify leads or conclusions from their own reading that they find especially effective. Which leads would encourage them to read on? Which endings are satisfying, like a good dessert—and which leave them unfulfilled? Create a class collection and talk about which leads/endings speak to you. By the way, my all-time favorite ending is from Charlotte’s Web; if you haven’t read it in a while, have a look.)

3. Years of Dust by Albert Marrin. 2009. Penguin. History/Informational Writing. Grades 6 and up. Appropriate for adults.

Award winning author Albert Marrin has a talent for making nonfiction ring with voice, and for sifting through oceans of meticulously researched details to identify what is most important. This book is also brilliantly organized—more on that in a moment.

Notice the formatting straightaway. This is the story of the Dust Bowl, told through text, mind bending photos, newspaper clippings, journal entries from those who lived it—even song lyrics from people like Woody Guthrie. After appreciating the sheer beauty and scope of the book (you will want a document projector to share the stunning, often shocking, photos), take time to talk about how this author took literally thousands of details and worked them into a coherent whole. Discuss the challenge involved, and strategies Marrin used.

In his riveting introduction, he gives us a hint about his master plan: “This book aims to tell the story of the Dust Bowl disaster. It is really two stories. The first focuses on ecology—the natural world of the Great Plains. The second story is about how people invited disaster by changing the ecology of the Great Plains: “assaulting” might be a better word” (p. 4). Two stories = two main parts to the writing. Therein lies a great lesson in how to deal with an overwhelming number of details: Step back and get the big picture first. Ask yourself how many subtopics or chapters your BIG topic spans. Begin there, remembering that you will need to leave some things out.

Study the Table of Contents and you’ll see a definite, purposeful progression. Marrin begins with a shocking look at just how severe the Dust Bowl was—total “Darkness at Noon.” This whole chapter is his “lead,” and it is gripping. He means to startle us, and he does. Then, he shifts back in time a bit, giving us a picture of life on the prairie before dust storms erased nearly everything in their path—through chapters titled “The Great Plains World” and “Conquering the Great Plains.” We learn more about the ecology of the plains—and just who those “conquerors” really were. (Authors’ note: We usually think of leads as an opening line or two, but a lead can run a whole paragraph, page—or chapter.)

At this point, the book switches directions: Early ranchers, cowboys, and unscrupulous buffalo hunters were followed by farmers (“The Coming of the Farmers”), a group with a strong work ethic and close family ties. Unfortunately, their farming practices—replacing the native grasses that had held the land together for centuries with cash crops like wheat and corn—aggravated the worst drought in our nation’s history, and created, in part, conditions that led to the Dust Bowl. The illustrations accompanying this section of the book will have you gasping for air yourself. The graphic, heart-wrenching tale of these farm families culminates with the chapter titled “Refugees in Their Own Land.” Marrin’s conclusion has two parts: “The New Deal,” a summary of how America dealt with this crisis; and “Future Dust Bowls,” chilling projections about the very great likelihood that similar catastrophes could occur, not only here but elsewhere in the world. It takes an extraordinary writer to put this much information into a design we can follow with ease. If I could award a prize just for organizational know-how, I’d give it to Albert Marrin.

I chose to include this book not only because of its masterful overall design, however, but also because it’s one of the best books ever for illustrating the power of transitions. Thoughts, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters are all beautifully connected. Here’s one short passage (from page 16) in which I’ve underlined the transitions to help you see what I mean (Read this passage aloud without the transitions to hear the difference):

Wherever a grasshopper cloud set down, it cleared the ground of plant life. All you could hear was the sound of countless jaws CHOMP, CHOMP, CHOMPING until nothing remained to eat. Young children, caught outdoors, screamed in terror as the insects’ claws caught in their hair and bodies wriggled into their clothing. On railroad slippery with crushed grasshoppers, trains could not start, or, worse, stop. Yet, since grasshopper jaws could not get at their roots, the native prairie grasses always grew back.     

 Years of Dust is among the best books of our time—an ingenious blend of genres, written from a strong research base and told with unforgettable voice. If you’re looking for that “just right” note for informational writing, here it is. (Teaching tip: Informational writing is designed to answer readers’ questions. We can use this bit of insight in planning. As students are preparing to write an informational piece, suggest that they list 3 to 5 questions a curious reader might have about their topic. Each question can become the focus of a paragraph, section, or chapter—depending on the length of the document. This is an easy but extremely effective way of getting large numbers of informational details in order.)

 

4 of Jeff’s Favorites . . . 

1. The Scrambled States of America by Laurie Keller. 2002. Henry Holt and Company. Informational. Grade 1 and up.

As Vicki said about one of her recommendations, this book, The Scrambled States of America, has traveled the country with me. I use it with younger students to teach detail, voice, and most importantly, organization. Yes, it’s a wonderful introduction to some basic United States geography, but at it’s core, the story being told is about finding the best, most logical way to fit each of the fifty states together into one whole country. Kansas is feeling a bit isolated and complains to his good friend Nebraska, “I just feel bored…We never DO anything, and we NEVER meet and NEW states!” They decide to throw a party and invite all the states to come. (Be sure to look closely at the detailed artwork, also by Lauire Keller to see what each state brings to the party, and to “hear” their chitchat—very funny.) Idaho and Virginia suggest that the states switch places so they could see a new part of the country, and this is when the scrambling begins. There’s great picture of the states all crammed into their new arrangement—Minnesota switching with Florida, North Dakota sliding into Texas’s spot, Arizona moving to the east coast, and so on. But of course, this organizational system doesn’t work—Minnesota didn’t bring sunscreen and Florida was freezing up north, and poor Kansas, who had switched with Hawaii, was now stuck by his lonesome in the middle of the Pacific without any neighbors at all. To solve all the problems, they decide to pack up and move back to where they belonged.

Logic, order, and chunking of like-information are the building block components of writing for our youngest writers. Books like this are a motivating way to teach students to think organizationally by helping them learn to ask themselves questions—What should I say first? Does this sentence connect to the one that comes before it? Does everything fit together, including my pictures? Young writers may begin to think of their writing like a jigsaw puzzle, where all the pieces—sentences, details, ideas—naturally, logically, and comfortably fit together.

(Note: The Scrambled States of America may also be purchased in a set with a matching jigsaw puzzle or as a board game, with more of an emphasis on each state’s geography. Very fun!)

2. The Vermeer Diaries: Conversations with Seven Works of Art by Bob Raczka. 2001. Millbrook Press. Informational/Historical Fiction. Elementary and up.

I’m just thrilled to have an opportunity to rave about any of Bob Raczka’s books. Though each of his books has a focus on art, they bring readers into the world of art he so obviously loves by very different paths. That’s right, his books are not all organized the same way. Here’s Looking at Me: How artists See Themselves, focuses on self-portraits and is a series of short essays about different artists. No One Saw: Ordinary things Through the Eyes of an Artist, uses rhyming text to emphasize how each of the featured artists viewed the world. And, Unlikely Pairs: Fun With Famous Works of Art, is a wordless book, juxtaposing two works of art on opposite pages to suggest a startling/humorous/revealing relationship between the pair. (These are just a few of his books.)

The Vermeer Diaries follows its own organizational design, as well. This book is a series of interviews/conversations, not with artist Jan Vermeer but with the subjects of seven of his paintings answering question from the author, Bob Raczka. In his introduction, the author tells readers, “Most of what we know about Vermeer, we have learned by studying his paintings…I wanted to know more about them. So I decided to interview a few of my favorites.” (p. 3) Here’s a little of the back and forth from Bob’s conversation with the milkmaid from Vermeer’s painting, The Milkmaid.

BOB: Do you have a favorite detail in this painting?

MAID: Well, since you ask, I do love the broken windowpane.

BOB: Wow. I’ve seen this painting dozens of times and never noticed that before.

MAID: That’s what I love about it—the fact that most people don’t see it. It’s one of those little things that makes me feel at home. (p. 7)

Each conversation begins with a large sized reproduction of the painting in question, and sprinkled around the pages are smaller photos of maps, tools, etc. pertinent to the conversation. This book, like each of his books, is a worthy example of a creatively designed structure, tailor made to the author’s purpose—he wanted to know more about the artist by getting the subjects to talk. A conversation, in the form of an interview is the perfect structure to deliver information to readers and allow the author to keep the pacing lively. Readers, imagining the subjects speaking with them, stay interested and focused on the secrets being spilled. Imagine your students choosing this structure to demonstrate learning, as an alternative to a traditional report format.

3. New Found Land by Allan Wolf. 2004. Candlewick. Historical Fiction. Grades 4 and up.

Think about the last time you finished reading a book you just loved and had to tell someone about it. “You’ve just got to read this book. It’s s-o-o-o ____________!” Of all the words you might have used to complete this glowing recommendation, organized is probably not one of them. You’ve just got to read this book. It’s s-o-o-o organized! Though it may be true, the comment has an odd ring to it. Does this mean that as readers we take strong organization for granted? Perhaps. Or maybe it just means that we understand that when a piece of writing is well organized (refer back to the bulleted list of key elements of Organization above), readers are able to focus on what is most important, the writer’s ideas. Organization’s role is to create structure yet stay behind the scenes and help make sure the spotlight stays shining brightly on the author’s story or information, the real star of the show. When a writer creates an organizational structure that is too clunky and obvious about being organized, the focus strays, leading readers away from the big ideas and details—

I am writing a report about Lewis and Clark. In my report I will tell you four things about Lewis and Clark. The first thing I will tell you about is some background information about Lewis and Clark. The second thing I will tell you about is who else went with them. The third thing I will tell you about is the kind of danger they faced. The fourth thing I will tell you about is what they discovered.

In my first paragraph, I will tell you some background information about Lewis and Clark. The first thing I will tell you about Lewis is that his first name was Meriwether. The first thing I will tell you about Clark is that his first name was William… 

As a reader, I call this “bumping into the beams.” The writer is so self-aware of the structure being built, that readers become hyper-aware and are forced to slam into the beams at every turn—Oh! I’m reading a reportLet me guess—right after your second thing…Yes! There it is! The third thing! Now, I’m going to go out on a ledge and go all-in that just around the corner is the fourth thing…Bingo! (We can even predict the ending—I hope you have enjoyed my report on Lewis and Clark…Bump! Slam! Ouch!) When this happens to readers, the spotlight is not on the writer’s big idea—the story and characters, or the thesis and support—but on the organizational structure. In a well-organized piece of writing, the structure goes undercover, guiding readers gently, not pulling them by their noses.

Allan Wolf’s book, New Found Land, is a great example of historical fiction brought to life through a thoughtful, purposeful organizational design that gently and creatively guides readers along the amazing journey of Lewis, Clark, and the Corps of Discovery. The guiding begins with the table of contents, which clearly lays out the book’s path—six parts broken down into a logical progression of chronology and westward geographical progress. Readers are also given a preview of the extensive Notes section (which includes significant background information, glossary, further reading suggestions, and historical references), an important (yet subtle) signal to the historical foundations of this fictional story. Like a play, the book begins with a cast list of all the key players whose voices we will hear—Sacagawea, Lewis, Clark, Thomas Jefferson, York, Oolum, the alter-ego of Lewis’s Newfoundland dog, etc. And then, like a good history, readers come across a map, one of several placed throughout the book to both locate and keep us on the trail of the story. And with the turn of the page, the real surprise is revealed, the writer’s design for telling his story. The author is going to let the characters tell their stories and reveal their perspectives in moments—poetic monologues, dialogues, letters, and reflections that are connected but not directly linked like a story told in sentences, paragraphs, and chapters would be. (Think Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, All the Broken Pieces by Ann E. Burg, Sold by Patricia McCormick, Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate, or Love That Dog by Sharon Creech.) Readers move down the trail of the big story—the overall expedition—transitioning between the moments of each character’s individual story as easily as turning your head to face the next speaker during a dinner table discussion with family members.

This book is filled with all the information of a research paper, yet its organizational design delivers it to us in a more personal, memorable way, and the spotlight remains fixed on the story, characters, and events—the stars of the show. Use this book in your classroom though, to give a standing ovation curtain call to the crew who put the show together—all the elements of Organization. You’ve just got to read this book. It’s s-o-o-o organized!

4. Animals in Motion: How Animals Swim, Jump, Slither, and Glide (and other titles in the Animal Behavior series: Animals Hibernating, Animal Senses, Animals and Their Young, Animals Eating, Animals and Their Mates, Animals at Work, Animal Talk, etc.) by Pamela Hickman or Etta Kaner. 2000 et al. Kids Can Press. Informational. Elementary and up.

Many of our younger students are information hounds, sniffing out books to feed their need to know more about their favorite animals, dinosaurs, cars, or periods in history. Whether they are reading every word or browsing, these students are soaking up the facts, statistics, diagrams and photos filling the pages. Now, as we ask students to do more and more informational writing, beginning in early grades, I’m always on the lookout for books to help students make the jump from consumers of information (readers) to producers of information (writers). Animals in Motion: How Animals swim, Jump, Slither and Glide (as one example of the great books in this series) is a perfect resource to help young writers do just that—become writers of informational text. Even the full title of the book serves as an example of how to break down and organize a broader topic into significant subtopics. Readers will see in the Table of Contents that the book is broken down into sections telling more about different types of animal locomotion: Swimmers and floaters, Fliers and gliders, Runners and walkers, Hoppers and jumpers, Slippers and sliders, and Climbers and swingers. In each section, readers are encouraged to find points of comparison between the ways various animals move and the ways they move through their world. The Swimmers and floaters chapter, for example, begins with a focus on beavers. Following an introduction, readers are asked to imagine themselves as a beaver:

If you were a beaver…

  • you would have webbed hind feet to help you swim.
  • your broad, flat tail would help you steer through the water.
  • you could close tiny flaps in your nose and ears when you dive so that water couldn’t get in.
  • you would have a set of see-through eyelids, like goggles, that close over your eyes to protect them while you are underwater.
  • you would spread special oil from your body over your fur to make it waterproof. (p. 7)

This serves as a great model for students to use in their own writing—helping readers make connections to the information you, as the writer, choose to include. It shows student writers the value (and option) of serving readers information in bulleted lists, which in this case, is also an effective format choice to engage them in your point of focus. Each chapter includes an introduction, a section like the one above, detailed drawings, and frequently, an experiment they could do at home (or in the classroom) for even greater understanding and insight. These also serve as great examples for students of another organizational structure, step-by-step/how-to/directions. Flipping through the pages of these books will remind both you and your students that engaging informational writing is not about following one, rigid structure, but is often accomplished by a blend of structures and format choices.

Authors’ Note: Remember that there are countless ways of organizing information (even though we usually limit ourselves to teaching just a few of them—chronological order, step by step, comparison-contrast, and so on). So in teaching this complex trait, share as many writing samples as you can, always asking your students, “How did the writer organize this? What strategies did he/she use to make this easy to follow?” And don’t be surprised to find several (or more) organizational designs all used within the same document!

Coming up on Gurus . . .

In an upcoming post, we’ll share ways to link the CCSS with the traits of VOICE and WORD CHOICE. We’ll be including favorite books for one or both traits. Also look for a preview of Vicki’s soon-to-be-released sixth edition of Creating Writers, which now features sections on the Common Core. Thanks again for making time to visit us. Come often—and bring friends. Remember, for the BEST workshops blending traits, common core, workshop, and writing process, call 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

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