Tag Archive: narrative writing


10 Essential Writing Lessons

10 Essential Writing Lessons by Megan S. Sloan. 2013. New York: Scholastic.
Reviewed by Vicki Spandel
Genre: Teacher resource
Grade levels: Primary focus is 3 to 5, but teachers at any grade level will find this book helpful
Length: 144 pages, including graphic organizers
Features: Printable graphic organizers, step-by-step lessons and detailed instructions, teacher and student writing samples, expansive list of recommended children’s books

Summary
This book packs a punch. It’s a sleek and concise guide to CCSS essentials for writing, but it’s so much more than this. Its modest 144 pages are filled to the brim with information, ideas, suggestions, and step-by-step guidance that could very well change the way you teach writing—forever. You can finish it over a weekend, but don’t sit down to read without a pencil in one hand and a pack of sticky notes in the other because you’ll be using both. Here’s a brief run-down of the content covered within these 10 Lessons (actual titles differ slightly):

• Learning to think like a writer
• Discovering personal writing topics—and writing a narrative
• Learning to narrow your topic
• Organizing information through multiple paragraphs
• Telling more—the art of using detail
• Writing poetry (exploring language)
• Writing a literary essay
• Writing an informational essay
• Writing an opinion piece
• Writing a research report

Each chapter is referred to as a “Lesson,” but this is a little misleading (in a good way) because every “Lesson” spans multiple days and incorporates numerous mini lessons—along with countless tips and strategies. It’s rare to find a book so short and readable with so much immediately usable content.

Connection to the Common Core is obvious throughout—especially in the second half of the book, which deals with writing across multiple genres. Those looking for a way to meet CCSS requirements will find much to love here because it definitely addresses those concerns but does so in a conversational, down-to-earth style that makes the book highly inviting. Here’s the best part: You can actually picture yourself DOING the very things Megan Sloan does with her students.

Thinking like a writer: The first step
The Common Core doesn’t try to be all things to all people. It really doesn’t. The writing standards are not designed to cover “Everything you ever wanted to know about writing.” And yet, we sometimes read them as if that were the intent—overlooking the fact that the Core focuses on measurable goals. That’s its purpose. But that’s not where good writing instruction begins.

Megan Sloan reminds us that long, long before we measure anything, we begin by helping students think like writers. Lesson 1 (think Chapter 1) lays a foundation for helping them do just that.

First, students are asked to keep a writer’s notebook, a place for jotting down writing ideas, observations, and personal thoughts. Megan asks students to build picture collages in their notebooks, capturing things important to them. This becomes one go-to place for writing ideas throughout the year.

Second, Lesson 1 looks at reasons we read. Students brainstorm the kinds of things they read—everything from texts and emails to books and newspapers—and think why someone wrote these things and who the intended audience might have been. This part of the Lesson echoes Donald Graves’ often quoted remark that writing is the making of reading. Understanding this changes how we see writing—and of course, how we write.

Third, students begin to explore the power of mentor texts—which are featured throughout the book. Early on, Megan shares Eve Bunting’s biography Once Upon a Time. In that book, Bunting explains how she became a writer, how writers work, and where they get their ideas. This prompts valuable discussion among students, who are sometimes surprised to discover how hard professional writers have to work at choosing topics, figuring out how to begin, and making sure their writing moves an audience. With this book, Megan begins creating a writing community that includes everyone, students and professionals alike.

And finally, Megan introduces her students to the concept of listing—an invaluable strategy for generating and organizing thoughts. It’s easier, faster, and more flexible than webbing or outlining, and can be used with any form of writing.

Modeling, modeling, modeling
As we discover in this opening Lesson, Megan models almost everything. She does it in such a natural, here-let-me-show-you sort of way, though, that it’s seamlessly integrated into her instruction—no fuss or fanfare. To kick things off, she brainstorms her own personal lists of Good Times and Bad Times—then picks one of the ideas she’s come up with and writes about it. Students coach her, helping her flesh out the details. Later, she shares the result so they can see and hear the contribution their coaching has made. Next, students work through these same steps, discovering how much easier writing can be when someone has shown you how it looks as it unfolds.

Narrative first
Though all three of the CCSS major genres are covered in the book, Megan begins with narrative. The first five Lessons focus on a blend of narrative/memoir and the foundational skills students need to both think as writers and to function effectively in a writing class—things like choosing and narrowing topics, brainstorming, conferring, working in small groups, learning from mentor texts, coaching peers, asking good questions, and handling feedback well.

Megan doesn’t rush to expose students to all genres as quickly as possible, but proceeds at a manageable pace, beginning with what most writers find familiar and comfortable: writing about themselves, their memories, their families, their experiences. She has confidence that strong beginnings will pay dividends as students move into the genres of informational writing and opinion—and indeed (as we see from writing samples later in the book) they do.

Scaffolding
Megan Sloan has transformed scaffolding into an art form. She has an incredibly keen sense of what students need to know and do in order to take the “next step”—whatever that might be.

Virtually every Lesson opens with an exploration of ideas designed to give students a context for what they’re about to learn: Why do we tell stories? Why do we write informational pieces? What’s an opinion? Armed with a basic understanding of the concept at hand, students are ready for examples.

Examples in Megan’s classroom come in several forms. First, students read or hear mentor texts, which they discuss as a class or in small groups or both. Then, Megan shares her own writing, sometimes writing in front of the class, sometimes reading a draft she’s already written. Next, students create an original example of their own by writing as a whole-class team. It works like this.

Before writing their own pieces, students do shared writing, meaning they compose a draft together under the guidance of the teacher, who records their words—sometimes prompting them with questions. For reluctant or challenged writers, this is extremely non-threatening and highly satisfying. They get all the gratification of composing without the stress that often comes with trying something new and complex.

Finally, students are ready to work individually. By this time, they’ve seen both product and process. They know what the end result should (or at least can) look like. They have seen multiple examples, so they also know that successful outcomes don’t all look the same. This isn’t about formula; it’s about possibilities. Students also know many strategies they can apply, from prewriting through publication. It’s a deceptively simple and overwhelmingly powerful approach to writing instruction.

Conferences
Megan likes to confer with her students as much as possible. However, she doesn’t make rules for herself that no one (at least no one human) can fulfill: e.g., Confer with every student on every piece of writing. Instead, she confers with as many students as time permits, roaming the room to see who’s stuck or has a question.

The key to a good conference, she tells us, is simple: Listen. The writer should do most of the talking: “It is important to leave a student’s writing on his or her lap so to speak” (p. 23). A conference, she says, is a time to provide encouragement—and to ask questions about something that isn’t clear or could use a little expansion.

The conference is always directed by the writer. Megan asks, “What kind of help can I provide?” Knowing they’ll be asked this question encourages students to consider ahead of time what they need most at that moment. Only the writer can know where the real roadblocks are. So Megan gives her students responsibility for helping identify those roadblocks; then they can work together on overcoming them.

Personal Topics = Voice
Underlying all of Megan’s teaching is the importance of choice. There are no topic-specific assignments, no directions to write about “an important family member” or “a time you’ll always remember” or “your most embarrassing or frightening moment.” Instead, she tells us, “It is important for students to discover their own writing topics” because that way “they will value the writing” and “It will be close to their hearts” (23). That’s magical. I’m often asked, “How do we teach voice?” What I’ve learned through the years is that we don’t, really. Instead, we get out of the way. Once we set students free to find the right topic and audience, the excitement that freedom generates spills over as voice.

Lesson 6: Writing Poetry
Without stealing Megan’s thunder by revealing too much detail, I want to draw your attention to two Lessons I particularly loved—one on poetry, one on opinion writing. Lesson 6 deals with poetry.

Students begin by recording favorite lines—in other words, by loving poetry. (If you think about it, isn’t that where poets and songwriters begin, too?)

Then they explore—What do we notice or love about poetry? One student says, “Poems can make us happy, sad, laugh, cry, or tug at our heart” and another says, “Poems are not to be read only once” (62).

They also set about discovering “found” poetry: lines that sound like (and ultimately are) poetry—even if that wasn’t the original intention. With the premiere of the new “Cosmos” (now hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, on FOX and National Geographic), I couldn’t help thinking of two immortal lines by the late Carl Sagan, host of the original “Cosmos”: We are all star stuff . . . and . . . The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be.

I also thought of the moving words Toni Morrison wrote at the end of her Introduction to Remember: The Journey to School IntegrationThe path was not entered, the gate was not opened, the road was not taken only for those brave enough to walk it. It was for you as well. In every way, this is your story.

Inspiration doesn’t come just from books and video, though. Images from a mentor text can also inspire first lines—and you won’t believe the lines these young writers come up with. They visit an on-campus garden for inspiration, too, noticing daffodils bending into each other—as if “whispering secrets,” one student observes. And so begins another poem.

Poetry continues throughout the year as students add photos to their journals and write about them. Each poem is an exploration of language and a chance to look more closely at the world.

Megan closes by encouraging teachers to experiment with many kinds of poetry: acrostic, haiku, and shape poems. But it’s interesting to me that the focus of this Lesson is on free verse, which as its name implies, frees the writer to concentrate on words and images, not rhymes—which can sound forced. In quiet and subtle ways, this Lesson—like all of them—is teaching students to think.

Lesson 9: Writing an Opinion Piece
Lesson 9 is particularly important because opinion or argument writing is a challenging form, the portion of the CCSS that many teachers find most difficult to dissect. Just turning students loose to state an opinion and “back it with evidence” does not necessarily result in strong writing. There’s simply too much to learn about this form—and often, students aren’t sure where to begin. This Lesson offers some sure footing for those finding the path a bit treacherous.

As usual, Sloan begins at the beginning, with the fundamental question: What is an opinion? Students spend one full period discussing this, charting facts and opinions and learning to understand the difference. The creation of charts is significant (not only for this Lesson, but throughout the book). Students have visual representation of their thinking before them all the time, to reflect on, to question, to expand. It’s a continual reinforcement of what they’re learning and a springboard to new ideas.

For mentor texts, Sloan uses both books and articles, searching carefully for topics that are both controversial and of interest to young readers: e.g., Should a highway be built in Tanzania if it will block the path of migrating animals? Should hawks in New York City be allowed to build a nest on an apartment building—even if it means creating quite an unsightly mess on residents’ balconies?

As students read these pieces, discuss them, and chart their views, they see that controversies have two sides. They’ve chosen a topic—the hawks’ nest—but which side of the controversy are they on? Rebuild the nest—or oppose rebuilding? Is one side stronger than the other? As they quickly discover, answering such questions sometimes requires digging for more information than a single article can offer. And just like that, research on hawks becomes their homework assignment.

By Day 4 of the Lesson, students are planning a piece of shared writing, working together. They’re not drafting yet—they’re making notes and shaping the skeleton of what will become their opinion piece. They begin by brainstorming possible leads, then sketch out a design that includes reasons and support, plus a conclusion. I appreciate how careful Megan is not to turn this plan into a formula. She reminds them that as writers, they may have one, two, or three (or even more) reasons for a given opinion. She is not pushing them toward a five-paragraph essay, but inviting them to construct a guided tour through an issue. By now they’ve chosen a side, and they’re growing increasingly passionate about their argument.

On Day 5, the class works on a draft together. Students do the thinking as Megan records their ideas, guiding them with probing questions that encourage them to think ever more deeply through their argument: Is it important for readers to picture the nest? How can we show that the other side is not as strong as ours? The result is a strong whole-class essay that will serve as a model for the personal writing to come.

Days 6, 7, and 8 are spent moving students toward independence. They generate possible topics of their own, carefully plan their own writing, and begin their drafts. Within days, they have gone from figuring out what an opinion actually is to designing and writing independent drafts on a self-selected topic.

Let’s get excited about research! (Say what?)
As an ardent fan of research, I was thrilled that Megan saved this topic for Lesson 10—the final Lesson of the book. If you remember research as tedious, you may be tempted to skip this Lesson altogether. Please don’t. It’s the frosting on the cake. In Megan’s class, research becomes an opportunity for adventure, an exciting quest for answers to a writer’s burning questions. Throughout Lesson 10, she shows how to actually teach research—not simply assign it. And believe it or not, everyone has a rousing good time.

For the shared writing portion of this Lesson, someone suggests writing about Helen Keller, though admittedly not many of the students have even heard of her. Ironically, that makes Keller the perfect topic because every new bit of information they uncover holds the promise of an artifact at an archaeological dig. By the end of the Lesson, students have discovered that Keller was blind, deaf—and “unruly.” They know about her famous friends, stunning accomplishments, and lifelong passions. At the close of their class paper they write, “Helen Keller inspires us with her determination and courage. She gives us hope and makes us believe we can overcome anything” (129). Such is the power of research—and of extraordinary instruction.

This remarkable Lesson is a fitting place to end the book not only because knowing how to uncover information is a vital part of any writer’s repertoire, but also because it reminds us that good research is not just for the infamous “research paper.” In reality, it’s essential to all genres, including narrative.

Highly Recommended
Megan Sloan shows us how to help students think as writers think, then shows us how to guide them through the fundamentals of three umbrella genres: narrative, informational writing, and opinion. The results are a striking match with the CCSS because the standards focus on the same foundational qualities of good writing that you’ll see emphasized throughout this book: clear central topic, good use of detail, sense of purpose and audience, precise wording, strong organizational flow and transitions, striking beginnings and endings. They also—and we often forget this part—highlight the value of research. The standards emphasize what we must do; Megan’s book shows us how.

I urge you to buy 10 Essential Writing Lessons. It will take you right inside the classroom of a master teacher who is herself a writer, and who finds great joy in the teaching of writing. You will love the journey.

Coming up on Gurus . . .
We’ve focused recently on opinion writing and argument. Next time, we’ll take a closer look at Common Core informational writing standards, with a few recommended mentor texts for both elementary and secondary students. Until then, thanks for visiting. Come often—and if you like our site, please tell your friends about us. The more, the merrier. Remember, for the BEST workshops and classroom demo’s blending traits, CCSS, and stellar literature, call us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

 

If you watched any of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, also known as the XXII Olympic Winter Games, you know how important numbers are to the athletes, officials, and spectators, both in terms of understanding the events and determining the outcomes. In fact, each sport has numbers or units peculiar to its type of competition. Here are a few examples from some popular events.

Figure Skating:

2 minutes and 50 seconds—length of the “Short Program”

4-4 ½ minutes—length of the “Long Program”

Hockey

200 ft. x 100 ft.– Rink dimensions (compared to 200 x 85 in the NHL)

Curling (one of my favorites)

16 stones are thrown in each of 10 ends

42-44 pounds—weight of curling stone

36 inches—maximum circumference of a curling stone

Speed Skating

10,000 meter event—25 laps around track

Biathlon

.22–caliber of rifle used

50 meters—distance to target

150 meters—length of penalty lap for each missed target

Two-man Boblsed

3:45.39—gold medal winning time (in minutes)

3:46.05—silver medal winning time

3:46.27—bronze medal winning time

0:00.88—time separating gold from bronze

(BTW–The Olympics (not a stunning revelation) is an amazingly rich resource for practical applications of math vocabulary and concepts found in CC math standards: problem solving, place value, decimals, fractions, a range of calculations/computations, terminology, telling time, conversions, Roman numerals, ordinal/cardinal numbers, etc. Wow!)

The book Lifetime: The Amazing Numbers in Animal Lives, by Lola Schaefer (one of my favorites from my holiday break reading), has nothing to do with the many different kinds of competition found in the Winter Olympics. But it has everything to do with important numbers in the ultimate competition in the lives of animals—survival!

 

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Lifetime: The Amazing Numbers in Animal Lives. 2013. Lola Schaefer. Illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Genre: Informational picture/counting book, mixing math and science

Grade Levels: K and up

Features: Back matter—extended information on each featured animal, including scientific name, average–defined/explained mathematically, practice with concept of averaging.

40 pages (including back matter)

Visit lolaschaefer.com to find out more about Lola M. Shaefer and her books.

Summary

Each page in Lifetime begins with the phrase “In one lifetime,” matter-of-factly introducing an animal to readers by name, then offering a numerical fact about a specific physical characteristic or behavior. Young readers will want to pay close attention to the mixed-media illustrations—they match the animal’s important number! On one page, for instance, the author informs us that, “In one lifetime, this caribou will grow and shed 10 sets of antlers.” Look carefully at the illustration and you will count ten antler sets. We learn that the alligator will lay 550 eggs in its lifetime—Yep! All 550 are there. And the male seahorse, we are informed, will lay 1,000 eggs—have fun counting them! (I didn’t, but I’m sure illustrator Neal did.) Flip to the back of the book and you will find  more detailed information about each of the eleven animals and their important numbers.

The book opens with an informative statement/disclaimer from the author to clarify how she came up with her numbers. She tells us that she based her calculations on the “average adult life span of each wild animal” and researched information on each animal’s behaviors and physical characteristics. I appreciated that author Shaefer let’s us know that even though each animal belonging to a species may be different, because of her in-depth research and her attention to the math, she feels very confident about the accuracy of her averages and approximations—her numbers. In a back section, she informs readers, “Math gives you answers you can’t find any other way. Without math, I wouldn’t have been able to write this book.” She speaks confidently to readers with the voice of an “expert,” and her confidence becomes a reader’s confidence in her as an authority.

 In the Classroom

1. Preparing for Reading. As always, take time to preview and read the book prior to sharing or involving students in independent reading. You will want to read the back matter, as well, so you are aware of the more detailed content of the informative passages about each of the animals. If you plan to use this as a complete read-aloud, the illustrations could be shown to students using a document camera. I believe students will call for a second reading, especially if they want to try and count the antlers, spots, flowers, roosting holes, rattles, babies, etc.

2. As You Read (Ideas/Word Choice). Because there are only one or two sentences on each page (and the first sentence always begins with the pattern “In one lifetime…”), the author has to make strong word choices to make sure her message comes through focused and clear. A limited amount of text puts extra pressure on each word choice—choosing the most specific noun, the right adjective (if necessary), and the most precise verb to make sure readers are seeing and feeling the author’s ideas. I suggest doing a second reading of the book to keep track on chart paper of the nouns, adjectives, and verbs the author has used on each page. It could be done like this:

Noun                                    Adjective/noun                                    Verb

Spider                                    papery egg sac                                    spin

Caribou, antlers                                                                        grow, shed

You could do this in so many ways depending on the age level of your students (and the specific CCSS you may be focusing on). This would give your students a platform for understanding parts of speech and for sentence building in their own writing. An immediate practice for younger students could be to imitate the book’s pattern—In one lifetime—changing  it to In one recess, or In one day, etc. The emphasis would be on communicating an idea in one or two sentences by choosing the most descriptive nouns, adjectives, and verbs. Convention Alert!!—this would be an opportunity to talk about commas and why there needs to be one in sentences following this pattern.

Example

In one recess, Cruz blasted the black and green soccer ball against the wall one hundred times.

3. Math One. This book is about animals and some of their important numbers—so let’s not forget about the math opportunities to be found. As you are reading the book, have your students help you keep a chart of the numbers. I suggest writing both the numerals and the number words spelled out. Ask your students to look for patterns, make predictions, etc. Conventions Alert!!—Discuss/practice/apply the conventions for spelling out numbers versus using numerals. (Notice how the author applied the conventions, staying consistent throughout.)

Numeral                                    Word

1                                    one

10                                    ten

20                                    twenty

etc.

4. Math Two. The author has included in the back matter a section called, “What is an average?” Here she defines/explains the word as she has used it—a way to describe a typical or usual amount, and her reasoning for choosing the mathematical average (an expression of central tendency) for the purpose of calculating each animal’s number. To help readers understand, she uses the example of finding the average number of times a person might brush his/her teeth in a week. Younger writers might be interested in writing about themselves and their important number, not focused on a lifetime but based on an hour, day, week, month, year or a particular year in school (e.g. 2nd grade). Their numbers might be about saying the Pledge of Allegiance, lining up, school lunches eaten, tying shoes, hanging up a coat, sharpening a pencil, etc.

In a section called, “I Love Math,” Shaefer explains the importance of applying math to her scientific curiosity to help express what she wanted to say about animals’ lives. For older students, I would ask them to choose a mathematical concept—something from a standard they had been focusing on—and explain it using both words and number examples. Their audience could be another student, a parent, etc. These two sections serve as great examples of a focused message, clear communication through word choice, and being an “expert” on your topic.

5. Math Three. Younger students could use her examples in the “I Love Math” section to write their own “story” or word problems. Student writers would need to be sure to include all the necessary information and word clues to guide readers to the appropriate operation(s) and an opportunity to correctly solve the problem. Convention Alert!!—Writers will need to know the difference between a telling sentence—ending with a period—and a question sentence—ending with a question mark.

 Example (Actual word problem written by a 2nd grader I happen to know.)

Martin has 24 chocolate chip cookies. His best friend Ahmed has 20 oatmeal raisin cookies. How many cookies do they have all together?

6. Average—Without the Math. Though the concept of average is steeped in its mathematical roots, we often use the word as a synonym for usual, typical, normal, regular, or as another way to say mediocre, plain, or unexciting. Choose one of these meanings to launch students into explanatory writing of a different kind. Instead of explaining a concept or procedure, students could take a more personal path and write about—the “average” 6th grader interests, their activities on an average weekend or day off from school, what it means to be an “average” student, the traits of an “average” soccer player compared to a “skilled” player, etc. The writing could even head down the path of persuasive/argument (See STG post from January 31, 2014)—why being called an “average kid” might be a good thing but being called an “average student” might not, for example.

7. Research and Voice. Take a moment to discuss with your students how they as readers know when writers are “experts” on their topics— how, as a reader, they can tell when writers know what they’re talking about. What happens to readers when they are in the hands of an expert? Are they able to tell when writers are faking it or stretching their limited knowledge too thin? What happens to readers when they don’t have confidence that the writer is an expert?

Lola Schaefer says, “I was curious about the lives of animals.” Her curiosity led to research—observation, reading, speaking with/listening to/digging into the work of known experts, etc. Following her lead, have your students select an animal they are curious about to begin “researching.” Depending on the grade level, the research could be done as a class, in small groups, or as individuals. It might involve some computer time, visits to the library, or a field trip to a zoo. As readers, we have confidence in Ms. Shaefer’s writing; her writer’s voice comes through because of her research efforts–she has become an “expert” and writes with that voice, just like your students will need to be for the sake of their readers. Their writing could follow the author’s pattern—finding the animal’s interesting/important number, with the outcome being a few sentences or stretching all the way to a few paragraphs or pages. The length might be connected to the purpose and audience of the writing—a class book written for a younger audience, a science fair-type display for adults, a full-blown research project aimed at convincing lawmakers to help protect a particular animal, etc.

8. Research—Narrative writing. The same research described above could be used to lead students into a piece of narrative/informational writing. In this writing, students would share what they have learned about their animal, including that animal’s significant number, by telling a “story,” fictional but factual story, based on research. The writer’s voice would be that of an expert but because of the created story, more personal, too.

9. Math Four. Since I’ve been so immersed in the Winter Olympics, I can’t help making one more math and writing connection between Lifetime and the Sochi Games. The unit of time in Lola Shaefer’s book is a lifetime—a unit of time varying in length depending on the type of animal and a myriad of other conditions. The events of the Olympics, Winter or Summer, deal with time broken down into units and sub-units so small they’re almost impossible to imagine—tenths, hundredths, thousandths of seconds. What could possibly happen in such a teeny amount of time? Older students might be interested in writing answers to this question (sentences, paragraphs, poetry) both in terms of Olympic outcomes—medals earned, dreams realized or shattered, etc., and in terms of human events, moments, and emotions.

10. Resources. Here are a few other highly recommended books—directly/indirectly relating to math, math writing, animals, or writing about animals—that you or your students might find useful.

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Math Talk: Mathematical Ideas in Poems for Two Voices. 1991. Theoni Pappas. San Carlos: Wide World Publishing/Tetras.

 

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How Fast is It? (How Strong is It?, How Big is It?). 2008. Ben Hillman. New York: Scholastic.

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Math Poetry: Linking Language and Math in a Fresh Way. 2006. Betsy Franco. Culver City: Good Year Books.

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Mathematicles. 2006. Betsy Franco. New York: Simon & Schuster.

 Coming up on Gurus . . . 

Vicki will be reviewing Holly Goldberg Sloan’s Counting by 7’s.  Don’t forget, we are here for you and your student writers! Are you are  thinking about professional development in writing during the remainder of this school year? Whether your focus is on complying with the Common Core writing standards or making students strong writers for life, we can help. Let us 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, writing strong narrative, exposition, or argument, and the best in literature for young people. Please contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. Thanks for stopping by. Come back—and bring friends. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.

 

 

 

 

Zebra Forest 2

 

Zebra Forest. 2013. Adina Rishe Gewirtz. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press. 200 pp.

Genre: Young adult novel

Ages: Grades 5 and up (The book features realistic characters and mature themes that will also appeal to older readers, including adults)

 

Summary

As Zebra Forest opens, eleven-year-old Annie Snow has just completed an essay on her three wishes for summer: going to the movies, swimming, visiting friends at camp. Only trouble is, she doesn’t care one whit about any of these things; they’re three invented wishes made up to pacify the teacher. Annie’s real wishes (which she shares with no one) are to grow tall, have an adventure, and meet her father. Unfortunately, none of these genuine wishes seems destined to come true—especially the third, since she and her nine-year-old brother Rew have grown up believing that their father is dead. But is he? Ready or not, we’re about to find out.

Out of nowhere, a menacing stranger claiming to be Andrew Snow appears at the family’s door, throwing their everyday life into turmoil. This disheveled man, so different from the heroic, swashbuckling figure the children had fantasized about for years (when they believed their real father dead), is not only very much alive but has just escaped from the nearby prison. Rew, angry and resentful, refuses to believe that this scruffy, ill-mannered character could possibly be his father, and wants him out of their house and their lives. But Annie isn’t so sure, and wants to learn everything she can about Andrew Snow’s past—and hers. Gran, presumably, could explain what’s going on here. But she retreats into her own private world, leaving the children to cope with a highly dangerous and adult situation as best they can.

Advancing with freight train force, Gewirtz’s deftly constructed story uncovers family secrets one by one, showing the wounds inflicted both by truth—and by concealment, however well-intended. The characters are real and stark, the plot compelling and believable. Zebra Forest reads (and feels) much like a stage play. It has the same intensity, occurring within a confined space from which there is no escape—for the characters or for us. Wisely, Gewirtz refuses to retreat behind easy answers, giving us a memorable and compelling book about a dysfunctional family desperately struggling to get a toehold on normalcy.

 

In the Classroom

1. Reading. Zebra Forest is an excellent candidate for reading aloud or for discussion in a small book group. It’s a fast read, so you can preview it within a couple of hours. The 200-page book is broken into 39 chapters, so read-alouds with your students can run anywhere from 10 minutes on up. As noted in the Summary, the novel reads like a play, and like any good play (or poem), it packs a lot of meaning into a few words. It’s also a novel that sparks controversy both because of its subject matter and because not all readers are likely to respond the same way to the characters—or their actions. Allow plenty of time for discussion and/or writing as you share the book with students.

2. Background. Zebra Forest deals with some difficult (some would say dark) issues, such as imprisonment, anger, manslaughter, abandonment, marital discord, and family secrets. Occasionally, critics will argue that such topics are not appropriate (or desirable) for young readers, and that books for students in upper elementary or middle school should be lighter in theme or tone. After reading several chapters, you may wish to discuss this openly with your students. Do they agree with these more cautious critics? Or do they feel that it is important for young adult literature to deal openly with such topics? Writing option: Should students of a certain age have the right to choose their own literature, or should they be guided by adults’ choices?

3. Central theme. Does Zebra Forest have a central theme or message?  If so, how would you express that theme? Does it have to do with deception, love, or both?

4. Argument writing. One of the books recurring themes of this book has to do with lying: the kinds of lies we tell, and the consequences of lying. You might begin a discussion on this topic by identifying some of the lies that are told in the story—or have been told even before the story begins. Who lies to whom? Which lies are most significant—or most damaging? Are any of them incidental, or even necessary? Consider two examples: Gran lies to Annie and Rew about the fact that their father is still alive—and in prison. Annie lies to her social worker about Gran’s mental and physical health so that she and Rew won’t be sent to a foster home. Are these lies different—or is a lie a lie no matter what? Using examples from the book (and/or from personal experience), have students craft an argument defending or contradicting this statement: Lying is sometimes justified.

5. Structure and setting. Think about where the story takes place. Even though it’s called Zebra Forest, do we spend time in the forest—or mostly see it out the window? Why would this be? If students were to produce this story in another medium, would they see it as a stage play—or a film? Writing option: Talk or write about why a producer might choose one over the other (play versus film). Also, who might students cast in the roles of Rew, Annie, and Andrew Snow? (Note:  Zebra Forest has a very defined setting: Gran’s house. The primary characters rarely leave this confined space. Also, the story depends more on dialogue than on action. These are characteristics of stage drama more than of cinema, which tends to depend more heavily on action, expansive sets, and numerous characters.)

6. Voice: Who’s telling the story? In any narrative, the author must decide who will tell the story—and that person’s voice and perspective tend to dominate, so the choice is important. Why did author Adina Rishe Gewirtz choose to tell this particular story in Annie’s voice—versus, say, Rew’s, Gran’s, or Andrew Snow’s? What sort of voice is it? (Consider rereading the first few paragraphs of Chapter 1 to recapture first impressions of Annie’s voice.) How might the story have been different if told by Gran, Rew, or Andrew Snow? Writing option: Have students choose one major event from the story (e.g., when Andrew Snow first appears or when Rew discovers Annie did not mail the letter requesting help) and write it in another character’s voice. What do students learn about plot and character development from this writing?

7. Voice: Overall tone. This book has been described by various critics and readers as a mystery or thriller. Would your students agree? Brainstorm some words that describe (as your students hear it) the overall tone of the book (moody, threatening, comical, mysterious, uplifting, etc.). Can you identify one or more passages to illustrate your description? Question: As readers, how does the author want us to feel when reading this book? Terrified? Curious? Hopeful? Entertained? Anxious? Or—something else? Explain your feelings.

8. Character. The Common Core Standards for narrative writing indicate that characters often change throughout a narrative, and it is this change that helps us define who they are. Talk about the primary characters within this narrative: Rew, Annie, Gran, and Andrew Snow. Do any of them change? Do all of them? Which of the four changes the most, and why? Writing option: Ask students to write a short character sketch based on any one of the four characters. They should define who the person is when we first encounter him or her (using quotations or specific references to support their characterization), then describe who that person becomes by the end of the book (again, using specific references as evidence).

9. Organizational structure. The CCSS remind us that good narrative structure calls for a turning point: a moment when the action takes a new course or one of the characters experiences a serious revelation or change of heart. Can you identify such a moment (or more than one) in Zebra Forest? What is the impact of a turning point on the reader? Why are turning points so important to narrative writing? What is the parallel to a turning point in informational writing or argument?

10. Organizational structure. Zebra Forest is a relatively short novel, yet it is divided into 39 chapters. That is quite a few. What triggers an author’s decision to begin a new chapter? Is it similar to beginning a new paragraph? See if you can identify one instance in which the ending of one chapter suggests it is time to begin something fresh. Quote from the book to support your choice. Question: How would this book—or any other—be a different experience for the reader OR the writer if it were written as one large piece instead of being broken into chapters?

11. Argument: some philosophical questions. Following are a few questions that might form the basis of a philosophical discussion or argument. Choose any—or have students pose a question of their own—to answer orally, through a podcast, or in writing:

  •  It’s apparent that Gran loves Rew and Annie. Yet the life they live with her is anything but traditional. In some ways, they care for her more than she for them. Their school attendance is less than regular. She tells them almost nothing about their parents or their childhood. Is this fair—or might they be better off in another home? Why?
  • When the prison break occurs, Andrew Snow has two decisions to make: whether to leave the prison at all, and where to go if he does leave. Does he make good decisions? Why do you think so?
  • The social worker Adele Parks knows that the children’s life with Gran is not exactly as Annie describes it—yet she allows it to continue. Is this an act of friendship—or does she just not want to be bothered digging for the truth? If you were in Adele Parks’ place, would you do the same? Think about long-term consequences in justifying your decision.
  • Who is the bravest character in this book and why do you think so? Quote from the book to support your opinion. Is courage an essential characteristic for a major character in this or any book?
  • Rew, desperate to be rescued, pleads with Annie to mail a letter to the police, but though she promises to do so, she changes her mind. Is it all right for Annie to break her promise to Rew—or should she have mailed that letter? What are the positives and negatives of either choice?
  • During much of the story, Annie identifies with political hostages. Is she a hostage? Why or why not?

12. Comparison: pirates, spies, and heroes. Have any of your students read the book Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson? If so, you may wish to discuss Rew and Annie’s obsession with this book. Why do they love it so much? What does it represent for them? As part of this discussion, reread the fantasy life the children concoct for their father before they know he is actually alive (pp. 21-26). Can we draw any comparisons between the main character in Treasure Island, Long John Silver, and this fantasy version of Andrew Snow? How does the real Andrew Snow compare to the invented hero Rew and Annie imagine early on?  

13. The beginning: An effective introduction? The Common Core Standards place great emphasis on beginnings that set up a story or discussion. Some critics have said that Zebra Forest begins slowly, so that it takes us a while to get into the story. Do your students agree—or does that first chapter serve an important function? Read Chapter 1 aloud again with this question in mind: Is this chapter vital—or could we skip right over it and begin with Chapter 2? Have students respond to this question, through discussion or writing, quoting from the book to support their position.

14. Presentation. Take a good look at the cover for the book. What do you see? What associations do you make? What does the cover design suggest about the book even before we begin reading?

15. The ending: A good resolution to the story? The Common Core Standards suggest that a good ending should flow naturally from events within the story. Read Chapter 39 again, asking just how effective it is. Does this chapter tie up the loose ends of the story effectively? Flow from the earlier elements of the story? Hold any surprises for readers? Would your students change anything if they could? Predictions: Andrew Snow, we’re told, will likely be out of prison within five years or so. What is likely to happen at that point? Will he come back to Gran’s house? Why? If he does, will Rew, Annie, and Gran want to see him? What makes you think so? Write about this.

16. Personal connection/expository essay. At the beginning of the book, Annie mentions three wishes that are important to her: growing taller, having an adventure (she most certainly manages that), and meeting her father (a wish she does not know is about to come true). If you could make three serious wishes right now, what would they be? Write an expository essay outlining your wishes and what makes them important to you.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Jeff will be reviewing a favorite book—and it’s a surprise. Please don’t forget, if you’re thinking about 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 to dealing with genre, and the best in literature for young people (including emphasis on reading to write). Please contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. Thanks for stopping by. Come back—and bring friends. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.

 

 

 

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The Matchbox Diary. 2013. Paul Fleischman. Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press. 40 pp.

Genre: Narrative fiction, picture book

Ages: Grades 2-6

Features: Magnificently detailed illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline, alternating between soft, rich color and sepia-toned moments, framed like old photos, as the story jumps from the present to the past.    

Summary

Award winning author Paul Fleischman has written so many of  my favorite books to share with students–Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices, Seedfolks, Whirligig, Bull Run, Weslandia, and many more. As I sit at my desk writing this, all I have to do is look around the room to understand why his latest book, The Matchbox Diary called to me the first time I saw it. On my shelves, I’ve got old cigar boxes (wood and cardboard), handmade wooden boxes with ornate metal latches, and sturdy stationery boxes. Each one of these boxes holds items other than their original contents—I’ve lifted the lid on a cardboard box with a magnetic lid closure to peek inside. The box once held cards, blank on the inside with photographs of rural Italy on the outside. Now, its contents rattle and clink—metal campaign buttons, foreign coins, keys on a souvenir keychain from Yellowstone Park. Simply touching the treasures sends my mind time traveling back to places and moments, and the stories each holds. This idea, that the things we hold on to are keepers of our life’s stories, is at the heart of this beautiful book, told solely through dialogue—the conversation of a young girl and her great-grandfather meeting for the first time.

The book begins with the girl and her great-grandfather in a warm, amber-toned room busy with bookshelves, tables, and display cases. And each one of these is filled with books, boxes of all sizes, clocks, and antiques. The opening line is an invitation to the girl (and to readers) to “Pick whatever you like the most,” and he will tell its story. The illustration begs readers to pour over the room and search for the item each likes best. I reached for a magnifying glass (used by my grandfather when he worked with his stamp collection) so I could get a closer view of what the room had to offer. Unlike the girl, I couldn’t make up my mind. She chooses wisely, a cigar box packed neatly with row upon row of matchboxes. The close-up drawing of the box filled with boxes is my favorite. Readers can’t help but linger, looking closely at the logos, designs, and brand names on the matchboxes. (As a younger person, I used to collect matchboxes or matchbooks from restaurants or store giving them away as promotional items.) When the girl asks about what’s in each of the little boxes, great-grandpa replies “My diary.”

As she selects boxes to open, great-grandfather tells her the story of his childhood through the smaller stories that are held by the items in each box. He explains to her that when he was a young boy about her age, he began keeping this diary of objects because he couldn’t read or write. The larger story that unfolds is that of an Italian immigrant family coming to America for a better life. The sepia toned illustrations accompanying the matchbox stories remind readers of looking through an old family photo album. One of the matchboxes holds a bottle cap, a common, everyday object to most readers. But, like the contents of every box, the cap has a story. It comes from Naples, where the storyteller’s family has to stay for three days waiting for their ship to America. So many “firsts” happen here: seeing his first car, discovering drinks that come in bottles, setting eyes on the ocean for the first time. The bottle cap is the gatekeeper to important personal and family memories, like each of the items in his matchbox diary.

 

In the Classroom

1. The Matchbox Diary, Part II—Coming Soon. Rather than our customary sharing of ways to use this book in your classroom, I’m going to do something different.  I’d like to encourage you to read this book yourself, either by purchasing it, borrowing, flipping through it in a bookstore.  My next post will take you through my experience—from beginning to end—of using this inspiring book with Mr. L’s classroom of real fifth grade students from an elementary school near where I live. I’ll take you through the process we used, and I’m hoping to be able to share some of their writing, as well. I’m heading back to Mr. L’s classroom today for my third visit this week. As a former full-time teacher, I can’t tell you how great it feels to be back in the saddle for even an hour a day as a guest teacher.

 

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Vicki will be reviewing Amy Krause Rosenthal’s exciting new book, Exclamation Mark, about how a familiar punctuation mark discovers his purpose. I will also be sharing the process and results from using The Matchbox Diary with a classroom of fifth grade students. (I have been having such an amazing time!!) Thanks for visiting. Come often—and bring friends. Remember, for the BEST workshops blending traits, common core, workshop, and writing process, call us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

 

 

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Bomb: The Race to Build-and Steal-the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon. 2012. Steve Sheinkin. New York: Roaring Book Press.

Genre: Informational chapter book

Grade Levels: 5 and up

Features: Historic information; vintage photos, letters; resource list for further research; source notes; quotation notes; index.

266 pages (including end matter)

Summary

Steve Sheinkin is a writer of many talents. He knows how to write award-winning books. Bomb: The Race to Build-and Steal-the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, and The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, & Treachery, have earned high praise and honors—National Book Award Finalist, Newberry Honor, to just begin the list.  And he also knows how to title his books to make them practically leap off the “shelf” into the hands of anxious readers. Whether you prefer to access books electronically or traditionally, you know, old school with bound paper pages, Mr. Sheinkin’s titles alone are enough to entice readers to grab or click and jump in. (More to come below on titles.) That’s no small skill for an author of non-fiction histories. This is especially true in light of the Common Core State Standards pushing teachers and students towards more informational reading and writing.

For many student readers, informational reading, especially in history, is a turn-off (I won’t use the word boring, a word that was banned from our house to keep our son from using it as a crutch). For many teachers and students, their experiences with informational texts and textbooks have been less than positive—dry, encyclopedic mounds of lifeless facts, dates, places, etc.  Author Sheinkin, in his bio on Bomb’s slip cover, after admitting to being a former textbook writer, states his intention to “dedicate his life to making up for previous crimes by crafting gripping narratives of American history.” Fortunately for teachers and students, he is doing just that. His recent book, Bomb, delivers on all fronts–an exciting title and a well crafted, informative, and engagingly “gripping narrative” history.

What Mr. Sheinkin understands is the importance of story. Cognitive scientist Mark Turner explains in his 1996 book The Literary Mind, “Narrative imagining—story—is the fundamental instrument of thought…It is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of planning, of explaining.” History is stories. Science is stories. Mathematics is stories. In A Whole New Mind (2005), Daniel Pink emphasizes it this way, “Stories are easier to remember—because in many ways, stories are how we remember.” I think educators have to be careful to avoid pitting narrative writing against informational writing, or reading works of fiction against non-fiction content. I don’t see them as being separate and discrete elements of literacy. Stories provide the context to determine the value of information, to sort, categorize, and remember. What do classroom teachers do then, to make sense of the CCSS emphasis on informational/expository reading and writing?  Strike a balance. Don’t abandon one to serve the other. Help students to access reading that is motivating to help them develop the desire and the tenacity to tackle content—narrative and informational—that may be more complex. Continue teaching, practicing, and building skill in narrative writing because of its connections to building skill in informational, expository, and persuasive writing. Adopting the CCSS does not mean scrapping common sense. (To learn more about the value of narrative writing, including some myth busting, be sure to check out Vicki’s post from June 25, 2012, Dissecting and Defending Narrative Writing via the Common Core.)

So how does Steve Sheinkin begin his thrilling history—from discovery to deployment—of the atomic bomb? With the story, of course! And what a story it is! Scientists (Robert Oppenheimer, Albert Einstein), spies, double agents, secret governmental agencies, super secret missions, world leaders (Joseph Stalin, Adolph Hitler), American presidents (Franklin Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman), plots and counter plots, and more! This book is a history lesson, well researched, complete with all the names, dates, events, and locations told with a storyteller’s eye and ear for detail and audience.

In the Classroom

1. Reading. As always, take time to preview and read the book prior to sharing or involving students in independent reading. You could select chapters or passages to share aloud to build excitement for independent reading or make connections to supplement a history text. If you plan to use this as a complete read-aloud or a book study where each student has a copy—and it would work well for either, I would recommend devoting a flip-chart page or part of a bulletin board to helping students keep track of all the important figures. There are a lot of “characters.” You could even keep three charts—one to follow the American development of the bomb, one for the Russian efforts to steal the bomb’s technology, and one for the people involved in sabotaging the German scientists attempting to build a bomb for their side. I would involve students in researching/finding images of each player to copy and post on the charts. This could be done as a hierarchical organizational chart to show the connections between each person, government, or agency. There are b/w photos of the key figures, included at the beginning of each of the book’s four sections. Each photo includes the subject’s name and brief identifying information—e.g. Harry Truman U.S. President 1945-1953. These could be shown to students using a document camera and serve as models for the students during their research.

2. Historic background. What do your students know about World War II—the leaders and countries involved, how the U.S. became involved, or how it ended? Is it an area of interest for any of them? Do any of them have relatives who fought or were involved in the war? The level of background information may, of course, depend on the age/grade of your students. They don’t need to know everything—this isn’t a complete history of the war—but a few key details will help students understand the urgency felt by the United States to direct and affect the war’s outcome. Science, especially physics and chemistry, is at the heart of this story. Are some of your students interested in a specific area of science? What do they know about the study of physics or chemistry? You don’t have to be a physicist or chemist, but you can be a guide to helping them find out what scientists in these fields do. This may help them begin to look for answers to the question—How does a college physics professor in Berkeley, California, end up working on a top secret project to develop the weapon that will be used to end World War II and change the world for all of us?

3. Images/Stereotypes. Popular culture, especially television and movies, has often guided our images of science and scientists and even the role of science in our world. The Nutty Professor, The Absent Minded Professor, Frankenstein, Gilligan’s Island, Bill Nye The Science Guy, and more recently, The Big Bang Theory, Ironman, CSI, Bones, and Breaking Bad. What are your students’ images of science/scientists? The nerdy or evil genius? The oddball crackpot? The suave jetsetter with the cool toys? The shy lab rat in the white coat? Have any of these stereotypes affected their interest in science? What are your students’ experiences with stereotypes each day at school?

4. Details/Purpose/Audience. One of the most striking things about Steve Sheinkin’s book is how much readers learn about physics and chemistry without being overwhelmed with theories, laws, processes, and terminology. I wouldn’t call it “Science Lite”—the author is not dumbing anything down for readers. He has chosen a level of detail that matches his purpose for writing, and his awareness of his audience. Discuss the concept of audience with your students. Why is it important, as a writer, to know and write for your audience? Who was the last audience they may have written for? How did that knowledge affect their writing (pre-writing, research, narrowing of topic, etc.)?

5. Becoming an “Expert.” Take a moment to discuss with your students how they as readers know when writers are experts on their topics. What happens to readers when they are in the hands of an expert? Are they able to tell when writers are faking it or stretching their limited knowledge too thin? What happens to readers when they discover the writer is posing as an expert? Spend some time with your students looking at the Source Notes, Quotation Notes, and Acknowledgments sections at the back of the book. What do these sections suggest to students about the expertise of Steve Sheinkin? This would also be a good time to talk about the differences between primary and secondary sources. Why is it important in a book like this to seek out so many primary sources?

6. Book Titles and Grabbing the Audience. I mentioned earlier that one of the author’s skills was the way his books are titled. How does a book’s title demonstrate the author’s audience awareness? Do titles make a difference in a book’s initial appeal? (What if Louis Sachar’s award winning book, Holes, had been titled Some Kids in the Desert With Shovels?) Are titles important to readers? How do they help our minds begin to ask questions, make predictions, or know what to focus on? Have your students identify what they see as the key words (words that grabbed their interest/attention) in the title, Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon. I recently asked a sixth grade student I’m working with to do just this before knowing anything else about the direction of the book.  She highlighted bomb, race, steal, and dangerous. She then made a prediction about the book focused on the words race and steal. This student thought that the race could be against time and/or against others. The word steal made her think that race was “…so important that someone would cheat in a very sneaky way to win.” This is a kind of concept formation practice—setting our thinking in motion prior to reading.

7. Organization. Ask your students to describe the overall organizational pattern of the book. Yes, it’s chronological, but there’s more to it than that. There’s a prologue, epilogue, and four main parts dividing the chapters. The author has chosen to begin his story at the end, with the arrest of Harry Gold, an American man the Soviets were using as a spy. How does this choice create interest for readers? What questions does it spark in the minds of curious readers? You could have your students begin a timeline with Harry Gold’s arrest in 1950, knowing they will have to jump back in time as the rest of the story begins to unfold in the first chapter. It is 1934 when readers meet young scientist Robert Oppenheimer in the book’s first chapter. The timeline and organizational chart suggested earlier could be added to as the story progresses. Students could not only keep track of the “characters” but how they are involved in the events of the story.

8. Voice. How would your students describe the voice of this book? Is it encyclopedic? The voice of a history professor lecturing to students? The voice of a scientist speaking to colleagues?  Passionate? Knowledgeable? Biased? Professional? Come up with your own list of words—and discuss the kind of voice you (and they) feel is appropriate or effective in an informational piece. Is there a connection between finding that appropriate/effective voice and being an expert on your topic?

9. Sentence Fluency/Dialogue/Voice. As a writer, if you are going to tell an exciting story filled with characters, from heroic to villainous, you need to have these characters interacting through dialogue. Readers will feel more involved with your story and connected with your characters. But what if your story is about a real historical event involving real people? How do we know what historical figures said to one another? Bomb is filled with dialogue between scientists, spies, generals, soldiers, and presidents. So what did Steve Sheinkin do to get his “characters” talking? Research! And lots of it! Check out the Quotation Notes section to help students understand, again, the importance of the writer as topic expert. Have students take roles and read sections aloud (try the Prologue) to see, hear, and feel how the dialogue helps readers identify, understand, and connect to each character. Is it appropriate to approximate, after extensive research, what historical figures might have said in various situations, if no actual record exists? What is the difference between historical writing and historical fiction?

10. Modern Devices/Secret Codes. A great deal of Bomb’s story is about communication—face to face, in letters, radio transmissions, coded notes, etc. Today’s students are used to communicating instantly with a variety of personal electronic devices and through various forms of social media (My old man is showing, but I’m uneasy with using the word social when a great deal of this type of interaction is not about meeting people face to face.) How many of your students have written/received actual letters? What is the difference, in their minds, between receiving a text and a letter? What is their preferred method of communicating with friends? Parents? How would the use of modern communication devices—computers, email, cell phones, etc.—have altered the events of Bomb? Are secrets harder to keep now? Are people, in general, less private? The spies in the book communicated through coded messages. Have any of your students ever developed or used their own secret code? (Some of your students might be interested in researching the Navajo code talkers used during World War II.)

11. Argument. Engage your students in discussion and writing about one or more of the topics below (or generate some of your own). Discussion is a great form of pre-writing and will help suggest the level of research needed to become “experts” as they begin writing.

  •        The role of science in our world today
  •        How the development and deployment of the atomic bomb changed the world
  •        Nuclear weapon technology is crucial to national security
  •        Other ideas _______________

 

12. Other Models. The more students are exposed to lively informational writing, grounded in story (narrative), the easier it will be for them to write in a similar fashion. Narrative writing is more than beginning, middle, and end. Informational writing is about more than a mountain of information. Besides books like Bomb, one of my favorite sources/resources for this blend of narrative informational writing is National Geographic magazine. Each issue is filled great with writing and, as a bonus, amazing photography. The April 2013 issue, for example, has a thought-provoking article about the scientific possibilities and environmental implications of de-extinction—reviving currently extinct species. The article is exciting science and history, and it’s a model of the kind of informational writing that begs to be read.

 

To find out more about Steve Sheinkin and his books, visit stevesheinkin.com

 

Coming up on Gurus . . . 
Vicki reviews Andrea Pinkney’s Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America. Drop by any time to see what’s new or mine our archive for some gold you may have missed. Thanks for visiting. Come often—and bring friends. Remember, for the BEST workshops blending traits, common core, workshop, and writing process, call us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

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.

 

Introduction

How close is the connection between the Common Core State Standards for Writing and the Six Traits of Writing? Somewhat close? Pretty close? Try VERY. In fact, virtually every standard references one trait or another. That’s because the traits are simply qualities that make writing work, and making writing work is the primary focus of both the traits and the CC writing standards.

Two traits, Ideas and Organization, stand out particularly strongly within the first three writing standards (those dealing with genre).However, Voice plays an important role in grades 6 through 12, under the guise of “formal style and objective tone” as well as writing effectively to connect with an audience. And Word Choice is repeatedly cited under “precise language” and “domain specific vocabulary.” As you might expect, Word Choice also receives much attention within the Language Standards—along with Conventions and Sentence Fluency.

Over the next several posts, we’ll help you understand these important connections, focusing on the first four traits (Ideas, Organization, Voice, and Word Choice), and sharing some of our favorite literature for teaching traits AND standards-based skills. Here’s something to feel confident about: If you teach the six traits, you ARE teaching standards-based skills, without doubt. (See for yourself by exploring the Common Core Standards for Writing on your own, at www.commoncore.org)

In this post, we’ll focus on the trait of IDEAS, and see just how closely this trait is embedded within the Common Core. Let’s start with a definition . . .

 

IDEAS: What’s this trait about?

Ideas are everything you think, imagine, remember, know inside and out, and share with readers. Think of the trait of ideas as your reason for writing.  In narrative writing, ideas take the form of a story. In informational writing, your information IS your idea. In argument, ideas comprise your position and all the evidence you can summon to support it—or refute the other guy’s claim. Following are the key elements of this trait:

  • Clarity
  • Accuracy or authenticity
  • Strong main idea, position, or storyline
  • Details, details, details
  • Expansion and development

Sound familiar? Of course. You’ll find this language everywhere throughout the Common Core.

 

QUICK PAUSE for . . . A Close-Up Look at Details

Before going further, let’s explore the concept of detail. Oh, that’s an easy concept, you’re thinking. Actually, for many students, it isn’t. In their writer’s brains, they see the complete picture of their story, information, or argument clearly. They struggle as writers because they don’t have the foggiest idea what we mean by the word “detail”—and consequently, they don’t understand what we mean when we ask them to explain, provide evidence, support their position, expand an idea, “be specific,” or “tell us more.” What on earth are we talking about?? What more could we want to know?? Well . . . we’re talking about details . . . which could take the form of—

  • Sensory details: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings
  • Quotations: what someone else had to say about a topic
  • Observations: firsthand information from the writer’s own experience
  • Facts: names, dates, measurements, data, findings, and other specifics
  • Images: clear descriptive pictures (of a person, a scene, an event) that help readers “see” what a writer is talking about
  • Definitions: explanations of difficult terms or concepts a reader might not know
  • Examples: specifics that support a generality—e.g., kinds of prey animals, people who hold world records, top 10 French foods, qualities of Olympic champions

Detail is the difference between this—

The fireman liked looking at fire.

—and this—

“It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor, playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history” (Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, 50th Anniversary edition, 1981, p. 3).

If you’re familiar with the CCSS, you already know that details of various kinds are emphasized across all genres. So teaching students ways of creating detail within their writing gives them an important leg up on (1) developing a topic (as the CCSS require), and (2) holding a reader’s interest—something essential to writing success in and beyond school.

Structure of the Traits—versus Structure of the Standards

Here’s an easy way to think about how traits and standards are linked . . .

The Six Trait Model is organized across writing concepts or qualities: ideas, organization, voice, and so on. The CCSS model is organized across three umbrella genres: narrative, informational writing, and argument. The traits are embedded within and are an integral part of each of these genres. Or, to put it another way: Traits are the qualities that make writing strong within any genre.

Words to Look For

Certain words or phrases within the Common Core link directly to the trait of Ideas. You’ll know you’re talking about this foundational trait when you come across any of the following:

argument, accuracy, topic, claim, evidence, opinion, information, events, details, information, reasons, focus, definitions, develop or development, descriptions, knowledge, concrete details, quotations, examples, sensory details, story, point, clarity, clarify, clear writing, coherent writing, summarize or paraphrase information, gather information from credible sources, demonstrate understanding, logical reasoning, valid reasoning

For example,

In kindergarten . . .

W.K.1 (argument) requires students to tell about a topic and state an opinion about that topic.

W.K.2 (informational writing) requires students to name a topic and share information about that topic, through drawing, writing, or dictation.

W.K.3 (narrative) requires students to narrate an event or series of events.

By grade 8 . . .

W.8.1 (argument) requires students to write an argument supported by clear reasoning and evidence, using accurate, credible sources—and to refute counter arguments.

W.8.2 (informational writing) requires students to not only introduce a topic but develop it through facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, examples, and other credible information.

W.8.3 (narrative) requires students to develop events and characters through various literary techniques, such as dialogue, pacing, and description.

Check out writing standards for the specific grade you teach, referring to the italicized list of terms above, and you will see how close the link to Ideas really is. Now, let’s think about the instructional side of things. Following are some of our favorite books for teaching this trait and all the Common Core skills related to it.

 

GREAT BOOKS for Teaching
Ideas and Related Common Core Skills

Remember that you don’t always have to share a whole book aloud. Often, you can make a terrific point about clarity or detail through one short, well-chosen passage. And if students choose to read the whole book on their own so much the better.

 

3 of Vicki’s Favorites . . .  

  1. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. 1952. HarperCollins. Fictional narrative. Intended for primary and elementary students, but enjoyable by all ages.

E.B. White’s beloved classic is a masterpiece of detail. Consider the opening to Chapter III, “Escape”: “The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows” (p. 13). This passage goes on to tease our senses with other aromas until we feel we’re right there in the barn with Wilbur and his companions. White teaches us that by focusing on one kind of sensory detail (smells), we can create a vivid sensory experience. It’s interesting to know also that White spent considerable time observing spiders in order to write with authenticity. Though this is by no means an informational text, it does—like any powerful narrative—depend on the author’s in-depth knowledge of his topic. Check out Chapter V, “Charlotte,” and see if your students learn anything new about spiders. Make a list of the informational details White weaves into his story. One last thing: Good stories have a message, a main idea. Just what is the message we’re meant to take from White’s unforgettable story?

2. How Fast Is It? by Ben Hillman. 2008. Scholastic. Nonfiction informational essays. Grades 4 through 8. Adults love this book, too—thanks to Hillman’s extraordinary collection of facts.

One of the most important concepts we can teach young writers is how vital it is to have a clear main idea—and to connect important details in some way to that main idea. You could hardly do better than this book for teaching that lesson. Every essay in the book (there are 22, and each runs only a short page) relates to one common theme: speed. We learn just from the table of contents how many things depend on speed to function well—from computers to cheetahs, race horses to light. But what’s particularly fascinating about the book is the research behind it. Hillman has taken time to dig for the right details (meaning they’re intriguing and new to many readers), so he can share information like this: “The cheetah also has extra-light bones to keep it nimble; oversize lungs, liver, and heart to enable sudden bursts of energy; large nasal passages for quickly inhaling large amounts of oxygen . . .” (p. 21). We learn something with almost every line. This book is an invaluable resource for illustrating how powerful detail can be in giving informational writing both believability and voice.

3. Our Planet: Change Is Possible by the MySpace Community with Jeca Taudte. 2008. HarperCollins. Nonfiction persuasive and informational essays. Grades 5 through high school.

Argument can be challenging to teach because it’s hard to get our hands on good examples. This terrific little book abounds with persuasive topics that discuss and promote ways of “going green” in our everyday life through thoughtful choices involving cosmetics, food, television, spare time, social life, health—and more. The arguments consistently promote a eco-conscious lifestyle, and do so in a no-punches-pulled manner that make it easy to see what the writer’s position is: “Avoid skin products made from petroleum. You wouldn’t go to the local gas station and douse yourself in gas, so why would you slather it on in your bathroom?” (p. 13) Arguments are readable, filled with voice, and backed by specific, well-researched data. The writers are also good at exploring alternate points of view and distinguishing myth from fact. The presentation makes this book highly inviting and also makes the information accessible even for younger readers. It’s a winner.

3 of Jeff’s Favorites . . .

1. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. 1994. St. Martin’s Griffin. Fictional narrative. Intended for primary and elementary students, but enjoyable by all ages.

I recently re-read this classic (originally published in 1908) and was blown away again by both the characters and world Kenneth Grahame imagined for readers. To create both the setting and inhabitants of his story, Grahame has to paint close-up, detailed pictures for the story to come to life for readers. Early in the story, Rat introduces Mole to the wonders of life on the river with a boat ride and picnic: “Leaving the main stream, they now passed into what seemed at first sight like a little land-locked lake. Green turf sloped down to either edge, brown shaky tree-roots gleamed below the surface of the quiet water, while ahead of them the silvery shoulder and foamy tumble of a weir, arm-in-arm with a restless dripping mill-wheel, that held up in its turn a grey-gabled mill-house that filled the air with soothing murmur of sound…It was so very beautiful that the Mole could only hold up both fore-paws and gasp, ‘ O my! O my! O my!’” Mole’s reaction is one shared by readers. We are also immersed in these precise details, stirring each of our senses. O my! is right! Grahame’s story is replete with detailed descriptions of not just the river and surrounding fields and underground burrows. Picnic basket contents are brought to life with figurative language: “…a yard of long French bread, a sausage out of which the garlic sang, some cheese which lay down and cried…” Even supporting characters, like the Water Rat, are drawn with the kind of precision that reveals both physical and personality traits: “…his paws were thin and long, his eyes much wrinkled at the corners, and he wore small gold earrings in his neatly-set, well-shaped ears.” It’s clear that Grahame, like E.B. White, knows a great deal about the water, land, and creatures he writes about. Your students will know that, of course, moles, rats, frogs, and badgers don’t actually speak, wear clothes, or drive cars, like the characters in the book. After meeting Mole in the first chapter, have your students do a little digging (pun intended) about real-life moles—what about the character of Mole is authentic or based on factual information? Students may even want to further to find out the story behind the story—where did the author’s original idea come from? As Vicki suggested with Charlotte’s Web, “Good stories have a message, a main idea.” That message is the author’s reason for writing in the first place. What message does Kenneth Grahame want your student readers to take away from his animal story?

2.Wild Delicate Seconds by Charles Finn. 2012. Oregon State University Press. Short, nonfiction informational essays. Intended for high school to adult audiences, but passages could be used across all grade levels and content areas.

Charles Finn describes the contents of his book as a collection of nonfiction micro-essays—one to two pages in length, “…each one a description of a chance encounter I had with a member (or members) of the fraternity of wildlife that call the Pacific Northwest home.” Each piece is an exemplar of the many forms details might take in writing: sensory details, quotations, observations, facts, images, definitions, and examples. The author gathered information through close, purposeful observations of each animal, and recorded his descriptions and experiences in journals to be crafted later into these focused essays. From Bumble Bees: “I sit watching the bees, their inner-tube bodies overinflated, their legs like kinked eyelashes hanging down. The white noise of their wings soothe me…” From Water Ouzel (also known as dippers, my favorite bird): “The tiny bird dips and dunks…It is tiring to watch: knee bend, knee bend, knee bend, tail twitch, dunking, tail twitch, kneebendkneebendkneebend…” And from Western Toad (offering a counterpoint to The Wind in the Willow’s automobile loving character, Toad of Toad Hall): “It has eyes cowled like headlights, Popeye forearms, and skin that sags. It could be a burp from a tuba.” Finn’s perspective is that of a scientist/poet/storyteller/teacher and clearly, a lover of wildlife. These micro-essays will have a macro impact on your young writers.

3.They Called Themselves the K.K.K. : The Birth of an American Terrorist Group  by Susan Campbell Bartoletti. 2010. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Nonfiction informational/argument/persuasive. Intended for middle and high school students.

If you think about it, from the perspective of the writer, all writing is persuasive. A writer’s job is to persuade readers, from their first sentences, to begin and then continue reading. And they do this, especially in the informational and argument genres, by beginning with a strong main idea and demonstrating immediately to readers that they are experts on their topics. Susan Campbell Bartoletti convinced me of her expertise from the get-go. Her idea for the book, she explains, came from seeing a statue commemorating Confederate general and the first K.K.K. Grand Wizard, Nathan Bedford Forrest: “’I asked myself: Where are the statues commemorating the victims of Klan violence?” In her A Note to the Reader, before her book actually begins, she tell readers: “You will read the stories of the Ku Klux Klansmen and their victims from a variety of sources, including congressional testimony, interviews, and historical journals, diaries, and newspapers.” She goes on to let readers know that we will see images, cartoons, drawings, and photos from newspapers and personal collections. The author even offers a warning that to be true to the topic and historical time period, readers may experience crude language and offensive/disturbing images that she has left uncensored. I believe the author’s underlying purpose is to inform readers, and because of her balanced, meticulous research, she absolutely leaves readers well informed, enriched, inspired, and thoroughly persuaded about both “…the difficulty of reform…” and the “…terrible things that happen as people stand up for an ideal and strike out against injustice.” This book is a tremendous resource on a difficult topic.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Very shortly, look for ways to link the CCSS with the trait of ORGANIZATION. And within the next few weeks, we’ll also link the writing standards to VOICE and WORD CHOICE, including reviews of favorite books each time. So—welcome to a new school year. Thanks so much for taking time in your busy schedule 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.

If you’re a teacher of writing, you may have begun to feel a little guilty about teaching narrative. Sure, you love reading it—but shouldn’t you really be spending your precious instructional time on informational writing, research, exposition, and argument?  Yes, yes, yes, and yes—but don’t ignore narrative, the soul of literature. This often underrated form of writing has much to teach, and is far more complex than is typically believed.

Narrative writing has been simplistically described as the genre with a beginning, middle, and end. Unfortunately, these terms, while widely used, are too general to be helpful to most writers. Almost everything, from dinner to dental checkups, has a beginning, middle, and end. Luckily for us, the Common Core State Standards (www.commoncore.org) use more explicit, descriptive language, breaking narrative down into

  • the setting up of a problem or situation (the beginning),
  • development of plot and character (what a middle truly is),
  • and conclusion or resolution (aka, the end).

Setup, development, resolution: Now we have a story—or at least the bones of a story.  But that’s only the beginning. Narrative comprises characters, motives, turning points, pacing, life questions . . . and more. Let’s look first at some common myths about this important genre—then consider specific expectations embedded in the Common Core.  

3 Myths about Narrative Writing

  • Myth 1: It’s the easiest form. So, Moby Dick is actually easier to write than a report on whales. Not really. The truth is, all forms can be challenging—but good narrative (contrary to common belief) is among the most difficult of all genres because it’s complicated in both design and content, and because readers’ expectations are generally high. Readers who will silently endure  prolonged tedium in a report will groan audibly when a novel proves to be anything short of a ripping page turner. Maybe you’ve heard yourself say, “I could have written a better ending than that”—?   
  • Myth 2: It doesn’t exist in the real world. While it’s true that much real-world writing is informational, narrative is everywhere. It’s behind every television comedy or drama, most films, and most stage productions. Pick up a newspaper—or listen to the news on TV (someone had to write what the anchor reads). Likely you keep a journal or know someone who does. Police, firefighters, attorneys, and others routinely file narrative reports. Author and university professor Tom Newkirk (in his brilliant book Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones, Heinemann, 2009) tells an amusing anecdote about his own experience filing a police report about an intruder (pp. 57-59). Newkirk remarks, “I tucked this away as evidence to use when my colleagues claim  that narrative is not useful in the ‘real world’” (p. 58).
  • Myth 3: To really learn how to write, you need to write informational or persuasive pieces. True. But many skills learned through narrative strengthen performance in other genres. For example, narrative writing teaches a sense of drama. Anyone who can master the complexities of plot (with its set-up, development and resolution) is far more prepared to order informational details in an engrossing way—or create a powerful argument by saving the best piece of evidence for last.  It also teaches vision—and the eye for detail that goes with it. A writer who creates motion pictures you can’t get out of your head (think of the final confrontation between Moby Dick and Ahab, the match race in Seabiscuit, the mosquito attack in Hatchet, the march of the Trunchbull in Matilda) is better equipped to notice the informational details that will bring the birth of the universe to life or help a reader decide whether video games strengthen or weaken one’s intellect.

Skills Learned from Narrative

Organizationi.e., plot. A good plot just may be the most challenging organizational structure of them all. It’s far more than a list of events (and needs to be taught as such). Good plots create opportunities for characters to reveal themselves. They highlight triumphs and disasters, but (unlike real life) skim right over what doesn’t matter. Good plots often play with time. A plot may begin at the end (for an outstanding example of this, see Steve Sheinkin’s engrossing biography, The Notorious Benedict Arnold, which opens with an execution), or close in a way that seems to open a whole new chapter (remember that chilling closing scene of the men and pigs eyeing each other in Animal Farm?).

Meaning. Informational writing has meaning built in. So does argument. But in narrative, meaning is mostly sub-text. That is, it has to be put together by the reader—based on clues provided by a skilled writer who doesn’t exactly prescribe our interpretation of the text, but surely guides it. We can feel saddened by the downward spiral of Lady Macbeth, but we’re not supposed to like her. We are supposed to ask questions, though: Why did this happen? How did things get so out of hand in old Scotland? Good narrative has a message, as in Macbeth: e.g., over-reaching ambition will be your undoing. By contrast, when we read a list posing as a story, we say to ourselves, “Why are you telling me this? What is your point?” That’s why we don’t want students writing lists and passing them off as narrative; they’re not.

Character development. What motivates people? What builds character—or creates its downfall? What is moral and right? What is wrong? These important life questions may be dealt with in a tangential way in argument (Why building a small grocery store near a pristine mountain lake is or is not a good idea), but they are the very heart and soul of narrative. Good narrative is instantly recognizable from one simple fact: you care what happens to the characters. When Gus McRae (in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove) dies, we miss him. (Indeed, some readers say the book ends for them at that moment.) When Amos and Boris (in William Steig’s Amos and Boris) part ways for the last time, our hearts ache, too. We identify with such characters, pay attention to the choices they make, and suffer the consequences of those choices as if they were our own.

Firsthand research. Using what you know, what you learn from experience. Wait a minute, though . . . Isn’t that just living life? It’s not like going to a library or browsing the Internet—or even interviewing experts. So it’s not REAL research, is it? Oh yes, it is. A good narrative writer needs to notice things—the color of light through the forest, the look on a face when someone is surprised or hurt, the way a dog responds to a stranger, how it feels to be in a crowd at a rock concert. True writers are, very literally, “writing” all the time, collecting bits and pieces they can use to make their own writing breathe. They may not be making notes on paper, but they are locking information (images, reactions, feelings, sensory details) into their minds all the same. A good example is a book reviewed recently here on Gurus—Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai. Lai uses her own experiences growing up in Vietnam and then fleeing Saigon just before the fall to create the vivid, authentic, believable experience of ten-year-old Hà. We love this book, and respond to it viscerally because its realness touches us. Lai creates a world we couldn’t (most of us, anyway) experience without her. This is precisely what the Common Core Standards mean when they call for narrative writers to use vivid details to bring settings, events, and characters to life (see below). Where are young writers supposed to get this kind of detail? From experience and observation: firsthand research.

How to touch an audience. Any writing can do this—not just narrative. The informational writing of people like Craig Childs, Bill Bryson, Nicola Davies, Sneed Collard, Sy Montgomery, and many others is filled with echoes of each writer’s curiosity and passion for his or her subject. Curiosity and passion are the keys to informational voice. But this very personal side to writing, the opportunity to touch a human heart, is experienced first with narrative. Our lives are built upon stories. They’re our very history, personal and cultural. Just mention the word story, and to all but the most stone-hearted, it conjures up images of campfires, cozy couches, window seats on rainy days, book club chats, coffee with a friend, family tales shared by grandparents, or that special book under the covers, read by flashlight. We crave stories because we want to know if others have experienced love, rejection, fear, humility, joy, despair, and triumph as we ourselves have. And because narrative is so often based on what we know best (our own experience), it allows us to write with a confidence we don’t always feel when stretching beyond familiar boundaries. In narrative, we find our voice—a voice that, if encouraged, will eventually emerge in all genres.

 In Summary: The Common Core Standards & Narrative

The expectations of the Common Core Standards (www.commoncore.org) with respect to narrative are most clearly stated (in my view) for upper grade levels, and I urge you to read these descriptions, even if you teach younger writers. For example, the standards for Grade 5 call for “an event sequence that unfolds naturally” –but it can be tricky to determine what, precisely, a word like “naturally” means.  Do events in Harry Potter, for instance, unfold naturally? It could mean logically—or in an understandable way. But at the Grade 12 level, the language is a little different, calling for “a smooth progression of experiences or events.” This makes terrific sense to me. It sounds as if the events unfold in a way that is easy to follow, even if filled with unexpected moments.

Here, based on the Grade 12 language, are a few of the key points of narrative (according to the Common Core Standards), all of which provide significant challenges to young writers (I am summarizing in my own words here, so please check www.commoncore.org under W.11-12.3 for the CCSS precise wording):

  • Set up a problem or situation that will form the core of the story. This is essentially the lead, but it also provides a starting point from which the plot will unfold. “Problem as plot” is an ingenious structure because it calls for decisions; it also propels the action toward solution of the problem—or compromise. Tip for young writers: Think of the problem or situation at the heart of your story first—even before you write. This will make it easier to know how and when to begin—and end.
  • Introduce the narrator and/or other characters. This is the beginning of character development, but also previews the writer’s voice. This is why, when we pick out a book at the bookstore (so different from browsing online!), we can read the first page—even the first paragraph—and tell whether the writing speaks to us. Tip for young writers: Use description, action, or speech to create a strong first impression—right in paragraph one. The sooner readers know your characters, the more quickly they become involved in your story.
  • Develop characters and plot through specific narrative techniques: e.g., dialogue, description, varied pacing (moving quickly or slowly through time), or the writer’s own reflection about events. This development is that elusive “middle” that is so hard for young writers to grasp. It’s really not that mysterious. As events unfold, we learn more and more about the situation and about the characters affected by that situation. In My Thirteenth Winter, her haunting autobiography (2003), author Samantha Abeel uses every one of the strategies mentioned above (dialogue, description, reflection, etc.) to show how she coped with dyscalculia, a learning disability that makes even the simplest mathematic exercises, like counting change or telling time, virtually impossible. At the beginning of the book, Samantha doesn’t know anything is wrong. She’s a young girl filled with hope and anticipation about school. Gradually, she realizes she is different. Through her blatantly honest reflections, she shares how it feels to be given two minutes to complete a math exercise and have no idea how long two minutes is, how to read the clock—or how to do any of the problems that look to her like gibberish. Her daily descent into the hell known as “school” continues until seventh grade—when her extraordinary poetic gifts are discovered. It’s this evolution from innocence to realization to despair and finally triumph that makes the book so fast-paced and allows us to know Samantha so intimately. Tips for young writers: Don’t have too many characters (be sure each one is essential to the plot), have them speak (we learn a lot through dialogue), and put them on the spot (i.e., place them in difficult circumstances and show them making hard choices).
  • Create a sequence of events that build on one another. That word “build” is critical. It implies that narrative has a sense of motion, of going somewhere. Every event, every turn in the road, every decision made by a character must push the flow toward a major turning point and ultimately, toward the end. Think of No More Dead Dogs by Gordon Korman. The hero, Wallace Wallace, gets into trouble for his honest book report on Old Shep, My Pal—then turns a bad situation into something wildly hilarious through his scene-by-scene revision of a play that needs a lot of help. The book explodes—literally and figuratively—in the conclusion with a version of Old Shep that no one could have envisioned on page one. Tip for young writers: Lay your plot out visually like a flow chart, with a circle for each major event. That way, you won’t wind up writing about a lot of things that don’t advance the action.
  • Create a particular tone—e.g., mystery, suspense, adventure.  Tone is essentially voice (or a component of voice), but it comes largely from language, detail and pacing—what the author shares, when, and how. To help students understand this, read just the first few pages of any narrative and ask how it makes your students feel. The Tale of Despereaux (by Kate DiCamillo) is part adventure, part love story, part comedy. Crickwing (Janell Cannon) is mostly going to make you laugh (and cheer for its unlikely cockroach hero), while Hachet (Gary Paulsen) is going to make you bite your nails and hope that rescue is only a page away. Edgar Allan Poe, a master of tone and voice, opens his story The Cask of Amontillado during carnival season, but creates an increasing sense of horror as the narrator Montresor lures poor Fortunato into the cellar, ostensibly to taste the wine. We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, but we know poor Fortunato is in for more than your typical wine tasting—and clue by clue, the truth comes to light: he’s about to be buried alive. This cannot be happening, we think—but we cannot stop reading. Details about the dampness of the cellar, the dark and cold, the unearthly quiet and (as we go deeper and deeper) bones and chains (!) all help to create the sense of horror that envelops us—but it’s also Poe’s superb pacing. He reveals what’s occurring just a little at a time, so we are ensnared slowly, like Fortunato. Tip for young writers: Learn by reading. Read Poe if you’re writing a thriller—see how he does it. If you’re writing comedy, read Gary Paulsen or Gordon Korman—or your favorite comic writer. Let the experts be your “coaches.”
  • Use transitional words or phrases to link ideas or story events together. Good transitions serve innumerable functions. They can link ideas so the writer’s thinking is easy to follow: “Because of this,” “For example,” “In addition.” They can also shift our thinking with expressions like “however” or “on the other hand.” Transitions can be enormously helpful in leapfrogging ahead when nothing relevant is happening: “Days later . . .” or “The next month . . .”  One of their most artful uses, though, is in mentally preparing the reader for the next “chunk” of information; notice how often the final line of a well-crafted paragraph leads us right into the next. Read the last few lines from any chapter of Pride and Prejudice to see how skillfully Jane Austen sets up the chapter to follow—and encourages us to read on. Stephen King does this particularly well—as does Edgar Award winning Norwegian novelist Jo Nesbø.  One of the best transitions ever occurs in Roald Dahl’s classic autobiography Boy. In an early chapter titled “The bicycle and the sweet shop,” Dahl (seven at the time of the story) tells how he and his friends are terrorized by Mrs. Pratchett, the surly and scruffy owner of the candy store.  They want revenge, but cannot think how to get it “ . . . until suddenly, one memorable afternoon, we found the dead mouse” (Penguin, 1984, p. 34). The dead mouse? Well . . . who can resist reading on? Tips for young writers: Don’t overdo transitions. They can be very annoying (like too much pepper). Leave your writing alone for a few days; then read it aloud to a friend, asking him or her to listen for missing links between ideas.
  • Make the writing vivid through precise wording, telling details and sensory language. Narrative feeds on imagery and sensory detail, as in this description of the “old sea dog” from Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson: “I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the indoor, his sea chest following behind him in a hand barrow; a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man; his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulders of his soiled blue coat; his hands ragged and scarred with black, broken nails; and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white” (Sterling edition, 2011, p. 10). We see the scar, we smell the filth, and we hear the thunk-thunk of the old sea chest dragging on the wooden floor. We know it’s no accident the old sea captain has shown up at the Admiral Benbow Inn, we know young Jim Hawkins is going to get involved with him—and we know from this description that they won’t be simply beachcombing. Tip for young writers: Don’t rely just on the visual. Include details that appeal to the senses of touch, hearing, smell, and taste. Your writing will have more impact.
  • A conclusion that follows from the events of the story—and may offer some reflection on those events. Writers get a feeling for what makes a good ending—like knowing when the pasta’s done. A good ending feels inevitable even when it contains some element of surprise. It just feels . . . right. It’s right that Charlotte (of Charlotte’s Web) dies in the end, sad though it makes us feel. It’s right that Gary Paulsen closes his masterpiece, Puppies, Dogs, and Blue Northers, by saying goodbye to his beloved Cookie, the best of all sled dogs. It’s right that Elizabeth Bennet finally marries Mr. Darcy (in Pride and Prejudice)—even though she has despised him for most of the book. Good endings keep us guessing as long as possible, but ultimately satisfy us, too—leaving us feeling that this is where things have been headed right from the start. Tip for young writers: Don’t try to end everything happily ever after or your writing will lose authenticity. Many things do turn out well, but an ending with a bite of reality nearly always packs more punch.

Embrace narrative. After all, you may have a Roald Dahl, Gordon Korman, Gary Paulsen, Janell Cannon, or Laura Hillenbrand in your classroom. Someone who’ll one day write an award winning picture book, or a novel that will keep people turning pages into the night. Or a screenplay for something like—oh, say, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (2012, screenplay by Ol Parker from the novel by Deborah Moggach). I can’t think when I’ve loved a film as much as this one. Ah, yes, but is it informational? Oh, trust me, it is. It teaches us about love, compassion, old age, death, forgiveness, adventure, trust, and risk. It’s also an argument for following your dream, trusting your inner voice, starting over regardless of your age, and above all, opening your heart to what’s new. Such is the power of story.

 As much as we value informational and persuasive writing, let’s not abandon the genre we’ve loved since childhood. My deepest thanks to Thomas Newkirk for his eloquent words in Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones (a highly recommended book, by the way): “ . . . one could argue that English departments are built upon narratives; they would not exist without narratives” (2009, 54). A lot of us couldn’t exist without them either.

Coming up on Gurus . . . Look for more thoughts on narrative writing, as well as reviews of some stellar literature, including Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Velchin, Temple Grandin by Sy Montgomery, and one for young readers, Perfect Square by Michael Hall. Please remember, for the very BEST in writing workshops combining standards, traits, process, workshop, and literature, phone 503-579-3034. hanks for stopping by, and please come again. If you enjoy our posts, recommend us to friends. Give every child a voice.

 

Inside Out and Back Again. 2011. Thanhha Lai. New York: HarperCollins. 260pp.

Genre: Free-verse novel done in the form of journal entries

Ages: Grade 4 and up. The reading level makes this text accessible for younger readers; however, the concepts are profound, making it equally appealing to older students or even adults.

Winner of the National Book Award

Summary

When is the last time you remember finishing a book and just hugging it for a moment? That was my response upon finishing Inside Out and Back Again, a deeply moving story of loss and recovery from poet extraordinaire Thanhha Lai. The book touched me in part, I think, because I recall so well that when I was ten, my parents decided to move to a bigger, newer house. I could not imagine what they could be thinking. This new “better” house was only ten miles from the tiny home I’d grown up in—but might as well have been a universe away. Leaving the old neighborhood, the horse farm, my room, and friends who couldn’t easily travel ten miles spelled nothing but heartache. That move, however, was an insignificant bump in the road compared to the experience of author Thanhha Lai and her protagonist Hà.

Ten-year-old Hà has grown up in Saigon, and in her head and heart live the sounds, sights, and smells that make that city home. Now the Vietnam War is encroaching, and Saigon is about to fall. Together with her mother and older brothers, Hà boards a ship that will take her away from danger—and immeasurably far from everything she knows and loves. Ultimately, the family is sponsored by the unforgettable “Cowboy” (so-called only because of his hat) in Alabama, and adjustments must be made all around. The Cowboy’s wife is less than proud of her new tenants, the children at school are insensitive and often cruel, the food is strange, and Hà’s father—and home—remain achingly out of reach. In an Author’s Note to the reader (p. 262), author Thanhha Lai, whose personal experience mirrors that of Hà, says, “I extend this idea to all: How much do we know about those around us?” That is the underlying question of the book.

Skillfully, gently, subtly, Lai reveals the face of prejudice. We see all too well, all too uncomfortably, how easy it is to judge others quickly, to overlook their less than obvious gifts, or to use humor as an excuse for bullying. You will cheer for Hà, who has so much to overcome: the loss of a home to which she may never return, the mystery surrounding her captured father, her struggles to learn a language (English) that seems to have no logic to it whatsoever (these entries provide welcome comic relief), and the merciless teasing from peers who seem both oblivious to her capabilities and contemptuous of her culture. Hà is a refreshingly quiet hero, yet one with an indomitable spirit. She doesn’t leap from buildings, face down fires and wild beasts, or best caricature villains with her immortal powers. Instead, she deals in her own brave way with the challenges and heartaches of life amidst a world of strangers.

Lai’s free verse poetry is seductively engaging. It begs to be read aloud. Her language is by turns mesmerizingly descriptive, heart-stoppingly blunt, and hilariously comic—in a slyly understated way. The characters, particularly Hà, her mother, and the wondrous Miss Washington (truly the fairy godmother of this book), are so vivid and well-drawn you feel you know them. Luckily, it’s a fast read because you’ll want to read it more than once. Buy two copies—that way, you can give one as a gift.

 In the Classroom

1. Reading. As always, you’ll want to preview the book prior to sharing. You’ll find the pages flying by, and may need to remind yourself to slow down so you don’t miss anything. If reading aloud is a regular part of your class routine, you can readily share the whole book, perhaps one part (there are four) at a time. Or—choose favorite sections for yourself. Do plan to share at least some of the book aloud to hear the rhythm of the beautiful free verse.

2. Background. Hà comes from Saigon, during the time of the Vietnam War. How many of your students know where Saigon is? You may wish to locate it on a map, together with the country of Vietnam. (How far did Hà travel to reach America?) Talk about how the country was once divided into North and South sections. You may also wish to discuss, briefly, details about the Vietnam War—particularly the fall of Saigon. Interested students may wish to do some research on the evacuation of South Vietnamese refugees, via Operation Frequent Wind or other means. (Some may be interested to discover the role played by Irving Berlin’s famous song “White Christmas” during this evacuation.)

3. Personal connection. Much of the book centers around the theme of moving to a new land, where customs, people, climate, clothing, language, food—everything, in short—is different. Spend a little time talking about the concept of “home.” What things connect us to the place we think of as home? (Consider something as small as Hà’s love for papayas, p. 21.) What does it mean to move—even a short distance? How many of your students have experienced some kind of move? What is exciting or wonderful about moving? What is difficult? Narrative writing: The story behind any move makes an outstanding narrative topic.

4. Topic. From the book’s dust jacket (inside back panel) we learn that Thanhha Lai herself, like her protagonist Hà, grew up in Vietnam, and later moved to Alabama, via ship, following the fall of Saigon. As you read through the book, occasionally reflect on which elements have the kind of authentic detail that suggests they were inspired by real life experience. How does the use of experience help to make virtually any writing stronger? (For more information on Lai or any favorite author, go to www.authortracker.com)

5. What’s in a name? Hà undergoes much teasing over her name (see “Sadder Laugh,” pp. 139ff.). Is this kind of teasing a form of bullying? (Take time to talk about the actual meaning of Hà’s name, pp. 5-7.) Have students write reflective pieces on their own names: origin and meaning, what they love, what they might change. Ask volunteers to share their writing aloud.

6. Persuasive writing/argument. Follow-up to point #5: As Americans, do we have an inclination to make fun of others for the sake of humor? Where do we see evidence of this? Argument: Is humor that comes at the expense of someone else’s feelings sometimes justified for the sake of a good joke—or even social commentary? Or is it misguided—even a form of verbal abuse? Ask students to respond to this issue, citing events in this or other books as well as examples from everyday life.

7. Character. Characters are defined, in part, by their motivations, or by the things they wish for. Read the chapter called “Birthday Wishes” (pp. 30-31) aloud. What do they tell about Hà? Are there things even her own family does not know about her? What makes this such a revealing chapter? Have students compose a “Birthday Wishes” free verse poem (or paragraph) of their own, sharing any personal wishes they feel comfortable revealing.

8. Setting/Sensory Detail. The Common Core Standards for Narrative emphasize that one of the best ways to create a sense of setting is through the use of sensory detail. Read the chapter titled “A Day Downtown” aloud (pp. 32-36). Either orally or in writing, list the sensory details that jump out: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings. How vivid is Hà’s portrait of her downtown area? Does the author make us feel as if we’re right there in the marketplace? Have students create a similar sketch of any environment that has a distinctive memory for them. Ask them to begin by making a sensory chart, listing all the sights, sounds, etc. that they associate with the place—and then write. Creating a “cache” of sensory impressions first makes writing easier, and helps ensure that vital details are not forgotten. (Note: You will find many recipes for bánh cuốn—“rolled cake”—online. Students may enjoy looking these up, and even trying to make this traditional Vietnamese dish at home.)

9. Revealing character through situations. As the Common Core Standards for Narrative remind us, we learn about characters by seeing them in a variety of situations and noting the choices they make in those situations.  Following are just a handful of (many possible) chapters to discuss from this perspective, each of them revealing something important about the book’s main character, Hà: “Choice,” p. 55; “Last Respects,” pp. 85-86; “Loud Outside,” pp. 145-146; “An Engineer, a Chef, a Vet, and Not a Lawyer,” pp. 255-256. Whenever students write their own narratives, encourage them to put the main character (who is sometimes the author) in a situation that tests that character or offers an important choice. This lets the reader in on who that character really is.

10. Second language. Do any of your students speak English as a second language? How many know a language (or languages) in addition to English? Do you? Discuss some of the challenges involved in learning another language. What is most difficult? What kinds of things help? Share the chapters titled “First Rule,” “Second Rule,” “Third Rule,” “Fourth Rule” and “Spelling Rules” aloud (pp. 118, 123, 128, 135, and 177 respectively). What do these chapters reveal about Hà? About English? Argument: Have students write a short argument about why it is (or is not) important for anyone to learn a second language. What might we learn in addition to new words?

11. Evidence. In keeping with the Common Core Standards, we know that any good literary analysis relies on evidence from the text to support a position. With that in mind, have students write on any one of the following topics (or one of their own choosing), using specific quotations from the text to support their position:

  • Which other character from the book ultimately has the most influence over Hà?
  • Does Hà change in the course of the book—and if so, how?
  • Who is the most moral character in this book?

12. Organization. The author uses several organizational structures in presenting this story. How many can your students identify? (Examples: chronological order via journal dates; dividing the book into four parts, based on major events and settings; dividing parts into chapters, based on smaller events)

13. Voice. Is the voice influenced by the fact that this novel is written in first person? If it were written in third person, would the voice be as strong? Why? Voice is sometimes described as the capability of text to touch readers. What does this book make your students feel? In responding to this question, you may wish to focus on a particularly emotional chapter, such as “Pancake Face,” pp. 196-197. Suggestion: Have students respond to this question in writing, citing specific chapters or events that touched them. If students have their own copies of the book, ask them to identify the quotation that moved them most. Close by asking volunteers to share their responses orally.

14. Irony. Even with war raging all around them, Hà’s family lives for a time (prior to fleeing Saigon) in a virtual Eden. What other examples of irony can your students identify in this book?

15. Fluency. This is a book that truly must be enjoyed aloud. Have students choose specific passages to “perform,” and use this experience to discuss the fluency of Lai’s powerful free verse. Is free verse a form your students like? Why?

16. Ending.  Strong narratives, according to the Common Core Standards, have endings that seem to follow logically from the sequence of events in the story. Is that the case here? Ask students to summarize what happens at the end of the story, and to comment on it. Is the ending satisfying and appropriate? Is it what they were expecting? What feels “right” about this ending? Would they change or add anything?

17. Predictions—and “voice collage.” Does Hà ever return to her home? What do your students think? Try this voice collage activity, a combination of role playing and writing. Imagine Hà’s world ten years from now. Have students, in small groups of 4 or 5, each assume one role from the book: Hà, her mother, Miss Washington, Vu Lee, the Cowboy, Pink Boy, etc. Ask each to write a journal entry from that character’s perspective about his or her life at that point. (This takes about ten minutes.) Divide the completed journal entries (at any point) into two parts: Part 1, Part 2. (Just put in a slash  to mark the division: /) Have groups read their entries aloud in readers’ theater fashion—all the Part 1s first, then around the circle again to hear all the Part 2s. The effects will be striking and dramatic. This is a painless form of literary analysis that asks students (almost without their realizing it) to look deep into character.

18. A word from the author. Follow author Thanhha Lai’s excellent advice from the Author’s Note at the end of this book: “I also hope after you finish this book that you sit close to someone you love and implore that person to tell and tell and tell their story” (p. 262). Have students do some personal research, interviewing anyone for whom moving was a traumatic or life changing experience, then writing up the results.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Very shortly, look for part 2 of our Down the Rabbit Hole series. Within the next few weeks, we’ll be reviewing Bill Bryson’s A Really Short History of Nearly Everything—sounds pretty comprehensive, so you don’t want to miss it. Thanks for visiting. Come often—and bring friends. Remember, for the BEST workshops blending traits, common core, workshop, and writing process, please call 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

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