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Introduction

The CCSS Writing Assessment is coming—likely in 2014 or 2015. While tests are still under development, we know that students will be asked to write—perhaps across multiple class periods (especially if research is involved). They may also be asked to revise existing text. We can probably anticipate some integration of reading and writing, too. For instance, students might be asked to read and analyze a text, such as the Declaration of Independence, or a passage from Shakespeare, and then construct an essay based on that analysis. Such writing could even incorporate the use of other media—e.g., students might be asked to analyze the meaning of Macbeth’s soliloquy, then listen to a performance of that soliloquy and discuss ways in which the actor uses inflection or body language to bring out his interpretation of the text. Clearly, such complex tasks will require more than 25 minutes of impromptu writing time. In contrast with typical writing assessments of the past, students are likely to need time for reading, reflection, research—and perhaps watching a performance or similar presentation. This is a whole new world of writing, one calling for synthesis of multiple skills. Complex assessment calls for complex instruction. Here are some suggestions to help you lay a foundation.

 

Preliminaries

First off, you’ll want to be thoroughly familiar with the CCSS for your grade level. Visit www.commoncore.org to review both writing and reading standards. Don’t overlook reading even if your primary focus is on writing because—as indicated above—some portions of the assessment are very likely to interweave the two. Ability to interpret and summarize text, to identify and paraphrase main points, and to intelligently discuss the specific strategies a writer uses (that’s right—the six traits in a nutshell) will all be critical.

As you likely know, there are numerous webinars available online for supporting your journey with CCSS instruction. (Just enter “CCSS webinars” on any search engine to uncover a host of them.) I recommend the following one for writing because I think it’s particularly clear, and also because it contains several helpful examples of what CCSS writing prompts might look like:

 www.ctb-e.com/emails/pdfs/Asst_Webinar_11_15_10_final.pdf

For general information, check out www.commoncore.org/resources/frequently-asked-questions

10 Tips—and 6 Things You’re Probably Doing Now

The Common Core standards cover a lot of literary territory. Even with the help of textbooks, workshops, and webinars, you may feel confused or overwhelmed about what to do first—and about how different your writing instruction should look in the months to come. Don’t panic. You are probably doing many supportive things already. So before making major modifications, take a step back and realize you are on the right track if your writing curriculum contains these six elements:

  1. Students write daily—or at least four times a week
  2. Students (fourth grade and up) often produce text of 1-2 pages or more
  3. Students sometimes produce text based on extensive personal research (e.g., reading, viewing of films, interviews, site visits, personal experience, Internet searches)
  4. Students read diversely—e.g., novels, short stories, poetry, editorials, reviews, informational pieces, newspaper articles, and more—and write across a wide range of genres as well.
  5. “Reading” sometimes includes interpretation and analysis of such things as diagrams or charts.
  6. Students frequently discuss writing as writing. In other words, they do not just think of the message in the work of great writers such as Sandra Cisneros, Walter Dean Myers, Nicola Davies, Sy Montgomery, Gary Paulsen, Nikki Giovanni, Esmé Raji Codell, and others, but they reflect on the how: How do these writers engage us? What sorts of details do they include? How do they begin and end a piece? How do they make a character come to life—or make a technical concept clear? What words do they use—and why did they choose those particular words? How do they craft sentences or lines of poetry? And above all, what do they do that we, as writers, could try?

So much for the big picture. Following are 10 specific things you can focus on to help students build the strong writing skills needed to do well on the upcoming assessments.

6 Specifics: Begin with Commonalities

If you’ve visited the CCSS site already, you know that the Standards divide writing into three umbrella genres: narrative, informational writing, and argument. As different as these genres may be, they do share some commonalities—such as strong beginnings. Take advantage of this in your instruction. It will save you time, and will also help students understand that even though we write for different purposes, some common elements cross all forms. Following are six of those commonalities:

  1.  Beginnings. No matter the genre, those first lines—or first words—count. One of my favorite leads comes from a book titled The Good, Good Pig by Sy Montgomery (2006, Random House): “Christopher Hogwood came home on my lap in a shoebox” (3). I was hooked at once. Good beginnings do many things. They engage us, to be sure. But they also preview what’s to come. They raise questions in our minds—questions we can only answer by continuing to read. Beginnings, or leads, set the stage. You can give students skill in writing good leads by modeling the writing of leads yourself (write two or three for a piece you’re working on and ask them to choose the favorite), by sharing outstanding leads from literature (remember Charlotte’s Web?), by asking students to collect favorite leads from the literature they love (focusing on informational pieces as well as narrative), and by asking students to write multiple leads for their own work, then choose the one that works best.
  2. Support/detail. Detail is critical in any form of writing—and it comes in many guises. Talk about this, and ask students to see how many different kinds of detail they can recognize. In Tell the Wolves I’m Home (2013, Random House), author Carol Rifka Brunt frequently uses sensory detail (How many different senses are at work here?) to put us right at the scene—as in this passage describing a medieval festival: “We were drinking hot mulled cider, and it was just the two of us, alone with the greasy smell of a pig roasting on a spit, and lute music and the whinny of a horse about to go into a fake joust and the jangling of a falconer’s bells” (12). Imagery is the name of the game in Craig Childs’ book The Animal Dialogues (2007, Little, Brown and Company). Notice how the right turn of phrase helps us picture precisely what a flying raven looks like: “It was a big bird, a sorcerer wearing sleek black robes, its two talons tucked against its body as if each grasped a marble” (127). In One Summer (2013, Random House) Bill Bryson makes factual information easy to digest in this explanation of why Babe Ruth, statistically the seventh best pitcher of all time, was pulled from the mound: “The problem was—and never before for any human had this been a problem—he was also a peerless hitter . . . In 1918, to take advantage of his bat, the Red Sox began playing Ruth at first base or in the outfield when he wasn’t pitching. The year 1918 proved to be the worst ever for home runs in major league baseball. The Senators as a team hit just 4 home runs that year. The Browns hit 5, the White Sox 8, and the Indians 9. Babe Ruth alone hit 11” (p. 113). [Actually 12, but as Bryson explains, Ruth’s 12th home run was recorded as a triple.] Details can be facts, anecdotes, images, statistics, proofs, events, examples, definitions—and more. Create a classroom collection to help students think expansively about detail. A good question to ask them is this: What form does detail usually take in each of the three umbrella genres—and why are these subtle differences important?
  3. Transitions. In a writing assessment, transitions can mean the difference between a high score and a mediocre one because writing without transitions can be annoyingly hard to follow. So, how to teach this? Those lists of “100 Effective Transitions” are, I think, helpful for introducing the concept. But they’re not an end in themselves. Words and phrases like Afterward, Meanwhile, However, and Therefore give us a feeling for what transitions are and how they work. But on their own, they’re not enough. Think of it this way. As you’re driving down the highway, you need to know where you’re headed in order to know which way to turn and when. Choosing from a list of options—right, left, north, south—won’t help you unless you know your destination. So what do transitions do? They link ideas, of course—but they do more than this. Transitions actually change the way we look at information, much the way furniture and art change how we see a room. Let’s say I’m writing about how an unexpected wind damaged crops in a farming community. I might write this: Winds slammed the town of Forest Grove, flattening fields of wheat. No houses were damaged. This makes sense in a basic, mechanical sort of way, but you would get far more out of the passage if I wrote this: Without warning, winds slammed the town of Forest Grove, flattening fields of wheat. Remarkably, no houses were damaged. You might share some samples like this with students. Find a passage with excellent transitions and rewrite it sans transitions. Have them revise it by adding a few transitions they think make sense (I recommend doing this orally as a class because you’ll be amazed at the discussion it generates). Important: Realize that students’ suggested revisions may or may not match the author’s original. This does not matter at all; what counts is creating a passage that makes sense. What else can you do? With students, collect and discuss passages in which transitions are used well, and talk about each writer’s technique. In the Prologue to One Summer, Bill Bryson stretches well beyond the old clichéd list we know by heart to come up with phrases like these: At thirty-eight stories, From a distance, By a curiously ironic twist, With his Gallic charm and chestful of medals, From almost nothing, Entirely coincidentally, For some moments, To make matters worse, and When preparations were complete (pp. 1-22). Bryson didn’t grab these from a list. They show his thinking in action. More than almost any other element of writing, transitions reveal a writer’s mind at work.
  4. Language. Language is all about vocabulary. Before you reach for a list—any list—however, consider how difficult it is to memorize word meanings out of context. My heartfelt recommendation is that you not waste your time with ineffective shortcuts. Memorization is difficult at best, yields minimal long-term gains, and results in affected text like this line from an eighth grader: We always get inured when we skate. Pardon? First, put all vocab words into sentences or short passages of 2-3 lines. Giving words a context will enable students to make inferences about meaning, and once they know a word, to understand the nuances of meaning that dictionary definitions alone seldom make clear. If possible, use passages from texts students are currently reading or studying. Don’t feel bound by the literature in your own class. Samples from math, physics, biology, history and other content areas are extremely helpful. Take your time. Just imagine if students really added 10 words a week to their vocabularies. That’s substantive progress. Only words students use both correctly and with confidence at just the right moment will make a serious difference in performance scores. Words used inaccurately or inappropriately not only create confusion or misinterpretation, but risk creating the impression that the writer doesn’t know what he/she is talking about. Inured is a great word, but you need to know when to haul it out, and when to simply say Skating every day helped us get used to the cold weather.
  5. Endings. Nothing creates a stronger impression in the reader’s mind than an ending—regardless of whether it’s good or bad. If you’re a fan of Breaking Bad, you know how important the ending to that series was. Had it not gone well, much of the writing and acting that had gone before would have been for naught. Viewers are unforgiving when it comes to bad endings. Readers are even more critical. If I hand you a book and say, “Boy, this is great right up until the end,” it’s unlikely you’ll ever open it. Endings, important as they may be, can be tricky to write. The old standbys, rehashing your three key points, or waking up to discover “it’s all a dream,” are potentially deadly. Readers want new content—or a new perspective. At the close of her informational text Birdology (2010, Simon and Schuster), author Sy Montgomery uses language so new and fresh we feel we’re hearing her primary message for the first time: “Birds are as ordinary as they are mysterious, as powerful as they are fragile, so like us and so beguilingly Other. Birds bring us the gifts of Thought and Memory, guided as they are both by intellect and instinct. These winged creatures, made of air, have outlived their kin, the dinosaurs. It is our duty and privilege to protect them” (242). An ending like that lingers in our minds, causing us to think differently about birds. A great way to teach endings is with a chapter book or anthology in which each chapter or section offers an effective ending. For an informational example, try Ben Hillman’s How Fast Is It? (2008, Scholastic). Here are some ear-catching conclusions from several one-page essays on speed: “That’s an ostrich: tall, fast, deadly—and so good-looking!” (5); [from an essay on high tech trains] “So forget about your Great Train Robbery. At these speeds, crime just doesn’t pay” (7); [from an essay on penguins and flying fish] “Sometimes it pays to break the rules” (29). Endings have a sound all their own—think of the final lines from Casablanca or Gone with the Wind. They also accomplish things no other portion of the text can do. Endings can wrap up loose ends, reveal a secret we’ve been wondering about, suggest what might happen in the future, answer (or raise) a question, surprise the pants off us, make us laugh aloud or cry, toss the ball into our court, suggest next steps—and much more. What they must never do is let us down, come to a screeching halt, leave us bewildered, repeat words and phrases we’ve already heard, anesthetize us with clichés, or bend credibility to the breaking point. Narrative endings need a touch of drama. Informational endings often contain a surprise fact or most important point yet to be revealed. Arguments often end with a powerful piece of evidence, recommendations about what the reader should think or do, or a prediction about the consequences of a bad choice. As you create your class collection of powerful endings, keep these differences in mind.
  6. Organizational structure. Like endings, the architecture of writing differs genre to genre. To figure out how, you simply have to analyze a few pieces. Don’t cheat, though. I’m appalled by textbooks or lessons that offer diagrams to make these various frameworks clear. First off, there is no one way to structure a story, essay, or argument, any more than there is one way to build a house. And second, diagrams, for the most part, are only helpful if you draw them yourself. So—do that. Have students work in small groups (2 or 3) to see if they can map writers’ thinking. Have one group (or two) work on narrative, one on informational, another on argument. With narrative, students should notice that a mere list of events does not make a story. Events need drama; they have to build up to something: an emotional explosion, the resolution of a problem, a discovery, the unveiling of a secret, a moment of change. Further, stories have a point—just as informational pieces do. If you’ve ever interrupted a story teller with the question “Why are you telling me this?” you know what I’m talking about. The secret to a good informational piece is focus. Writers who try to tell us about “U.S. History,” “The Planets” or “Life on Earth” are biting off bigger chunks than they—or we—can wrestle with. Smaller topics (“The Climate of Venus,” “Poisonous Spiders of the Amazon”) allow for organization like a wheel, with the main point at the hub, and every single detail relating in some way to that point. How the details are presented varies widely, though. Some writers start with the familiar and save details we could never have imagined for the end. Some begin with what’s easy to comprehend, laying a foundation for what’s tougher to grasp. There are no rights or wrongs—exactly. But the writer does need to continually ask, What will keep readers reading? And as Elmore Leonard famously said, leave out the parts people skip. With argument, it’s important to lay out the controversy early on—and to make the writer’s position clear. Details take the form of evidence, and each point must be clearly and thoroughly presented. As with informational writing, it is sometimes helpful to follow a dramatic design, building to the most compelling evidence at the close. Argument requires two organizational features that other forms do not: (1) The writer needs to present the opposition’s point of view, as well as reasons for discounting or minimizing that view; and (2) The ending must include some sort of call to action, recommendation, or predicted consequences of ignoring the evidence at hand. Picture the closing argument in a courtroom case, and you’ve got it.

 

4 More Specifics: Classroom Practice

Writing practice is nearly always valuable. But the following four kinds of targeted practice build specific skills likely to be especially helpful to writers in upcoming writing assessments:

  1. Quick-writes.  In addition to creating original text, students may be asked to revise pieces that are faulty in some way—or have something (e.g., lead or conclusion) missing. You can prepare students for this kind of revision with 10-minute practice sessions, during which they might do any of the following: add a lead to a piece that doesn’t have one, add an ending that flows right out of the text provided, create transitions where none exist, delete a sentence or sentences that seem to wander from the topic, tighten up a wordy passage by crossing out unneeded words or phrases, replace ill-chosen words with effective substitutes, and so on.
  2. Reading aloud. I’ve known several teachers who open every class with a poem. And although I love and applaud this practice, I also know how important it is for students to also hear the very different rhythms of journalism, technical writing, argument, and exposition. Think about ways you could increase the repertoire of what you share aloud. Also think about how you introduce what you read. Are you requiring students to be careful listeners, and to use what they hear to define genre in their own minds? When we open with words like “Here’s a story by . . .” or “Listen to this example of outstanding informational writing . . .” we give away the game. Instead, try simply providing the title and author. Ask students to make notes as they listen and to tell you what genre they hear. Most good writing is a blend of genres, so in many ways, the separation of writing into narrative, informational, and argument is artificial—and students will likely discover that (This in itself is a good topic for discussion). But they’re also likely to notice many subtle differences that define a writer’s purpose. Informational writing and argument tend to have more direct, forthright leads and endings, for instance. Technical writing and journalism, both “fact-heavy,” tend to have shorter sentences because the mind cannot process too much information in one swipe. The quality of detail (as noted earlier) also differs genre to genre. Narrative, in contrast with other genres, is far more dependent on special features like character development and dialogue. Awareness of these and similar differences helps prepare students not only to read with a better understanding of a given writer’s purpose, but also to write with more purpose themselves.
  3. Treasure hunting. You may be wondering where you will find time to dig up all these examples of striking leads or endings, significant details, well-crafted sentences or memorable phrases. The answer is, you don’t need to find all of them. Have students do some of this treasure hunting. You can dig up a few introductory examples to prime the well. Then turn students loose to explore the whole world of writing (not just books, but articles, the Internet, historical documents, newspapers and more), hunting for pieces that move them. Share them aloud as a class or in small groups, and discuss what makes each one special. What is so stirring about that opening to the Gettysburg Address? Why are we still reading and performing Shakespeare after hundreds of years? Reflecting on the how’s and why’s of good writing is vital in preparing for CCSS assessment.
  4. Editing. Good writers are not always good editors—and vice versa. So we can’t assume that just because students write daily (or at least frequently) their editing skills will miraculously develop. This is like assuming that if a person swims for enough hours, he or she will also learn to dive. The skills are related, but different. Editors have an eye for conventional detail that is similar to an artist’s eye for shape or light. Some editors have a talent for it, sure. But a great deal of this eye for detail comes with practice and patience. Editors look carefully at text. They read aloud—and they often read more than once. They don’t scan, as if admiring a landscape. Like a hawk hunting for prey, they zero in on specific things: e.g., misspelled words, missing or faulty punctuation, lack of subject-verb agreement, shifts in tense, missing capitals. Admittedly, beginning writers make some mistakes because they just don’t know the rules yet. Often, though, mistakes are the result of hasty writing or review that allows things to be missed. You can do two important things to reverse this. First, teach to the errors. Notice what students are struggling with most, and focus your direct instruction there instead of trying to cover everything. Make sure basic rules are understood. Second, provide daily editing practice—not a single sentence with many errors, but a whole paragraph with just a few errors. The occasional error camouflaged in extended text is trickier to spot, and demands more careful reading. Give students time to edit, then have them compare notes with a partner. Finally, edit the piece as a class, guiding your students line by line so they can compare their editing with yours, and ask questions. Do this as often as you can. Anyone who thinks conventions won’t count all that much in upcoming assessments hasn’t been paying attention. Every editorial problem your students know how to correct pushes them closer to a high score. What’s more, like a clean shirt and shiny shoes, good conventions create an impression, like it or not. Those of us who have been involved in large-scale assessment don’t like to admit this, but it’s true: Students who write conventionally clean text are often perceived as better thinkers than those whose text is riddled with errors—even when this is not the case. Moreover—if you’ve visited our site recently, you already know this—there is the very real looming possibility that some writing will be assessed, at least for conventions, using AI (artificial intelligence). Be ready.

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Lessons to Help Students Develop CCSS-Related Skills

If you are interested in ready-to-go lessons of the sort described in this post, we can put them right at your fingertips. Jeff and I have created a host of lessons designed to help students write across genres, create effective leads and endings, use transitions wisely and well, choose words and phrases that work, go from bland and general to clear and detailed, revise with purpose, and edit like pro’s. If you prefer to design your own lessons, you don’t need our help. But if you’d like to have that part done for you (lessons we promise your students will actually like), we invite you to check out our Write Traits Classroom Kits. All lessons are easy to teach, written with voice, and grade-specific (and yes, you can choose those you like best). For more information, please visit this site:

http://www.hmhco.com/shop/education-curriculum/literature-and-language-arts/language-arts/write-traits

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Happy Holidays to everyone out there. Thanks to our regular followers and to everyone who stopped by this week. Come often—and bring friends!

This will be our final post in December, but we will return early in 2014, when Jeff promises to review some of the best books he’s discovered recently. His reviews are always intriguing and dynamic—you won’t want to miss them.

Meanwhile, if your school or district is planning to sponsor professional development in writing for the coming school year, we’d love to design a seminar or series of classroom demo’s to meet your needs at the classroom, building, or district level. We can incorporate any combination of the following: Common Core Standards for writing, the 6 traits, effective approaches for writing in multiple genres, and the best in literature for young people (including strengthening the reading-writing connection). Contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.

 

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